Monday, 30 August 2010

67th Venice International Film Festival

Tomorrow I set off for Venice to attend this year's Film Festival which runs from September 1st to 11th. On behalf of Obsessed With Film and the Picturehouse Blog, I am going to be reporting from the festival, writing reviews and hopefully interviewing people too. My Splendor Cinema podcast co-host, Jon Barrenechea, is also there on separate business, so we should also be recording a couple of new episodes whilst there. As a big Kurosawa fan, I can't wait to attend (for the first time) the festival which is so often credited with bringing him - and Japanese cinema in general - to wider Western attention, after they famously awarded 'Rashomon' the prestigious Golden Lion award in 1951. Last year's recipient was Sam Maoz for the superior Israeli war film 'Lebanon'.

Among the big films competing for this year's Golden Lion are Sophia Coppola's 'Somewhere' (pictured above), Takeshi Mike's '13 Assassins' (which screens the day I leave - on the 9th!), Tom Tykwer's 'Drei' (which plays after I have left) and Darren Aronofsky's 'Black Swan'. Though, after the little-fancied Thai film 'Uncle Boonmee' was picked as the surprise winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes earlier in the year, it is hard to say who the Quentin Tarantino led jury will plumb for. Possibly something similarly oblique will be crowned the winner - such as the Japanese drama 'Norwegian Wood' (pictured below), adapted from the best selling novel by Haruki Murakami. This is one of the reasons why I am going to try to see every 'in competition' film I am able to. I'm probably going to see four to five films a day as I try to avoid missing THE film.

I will try to see a few 'out of competition' movies as well though. 'I'm Still Here', Casey Affleck's much-anticipated documentary/mocumentary about the transition from actor to rapper of Joaquin Phoenix. It isn't really known how serious this film is as of yet (is it a joke? Is Phoenix serious?) and, I have to admit, I've been sucked into the hype on this one. Ever since the 'Gladiator' stars's bizarre interview on Letterman I've been curious. Elsewhere, Casey's older brother, Ben, is debuting crime thriller, 'The Town', which he directs and stars in alongside Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall and Jon Hamm. Whilst, the late Dennis Hopper is being honoured with a screening of his little seen follow-up to 'Easy Rider', 1971's ill-fated 'The Last Movie'. It is on at midnight so provided I can still get a boat back to the city after the screening, I would very much like to see that one too.

For whatever reason, some of the 'out of competition' films are showing the evening I arrive, before the festival officially kicks off. So I may see the Andrew Lau ('Young and Dangerous') directed 'Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen', starring Donnie Yen, tomorrow. If I get settled in ok and can find the cinema! I will probably miss the retrospective on Italian comedy, the celebratory screenings of the work of John Woo (who is being honoured this year) and the short films - but I will try to fit in anything I can. So check back here, and on those other sites I mentioned, to get the latest from the 67th Venice International Film Festival.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

'The Girl Who Played With Fire' review:

In my review of the first of the Swedish-made adaptations from Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo', I remarked that its original Swedish title ('Men Who Hate Women') was perhaps a better fit with the material. Certainly that film saw the hacker-punk heroine, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), repeatedly sexually assaulted, raped and otherwise kicked around – the violence depicted with unflinching grit and unsettling realism. True, the film also allowed Salander to enact extreme and brutal revenge on her rapist. But in the main, Salander is a women beaten and abused with uncustomary regularity – at least for a leading lady.

Well the sequel, 'The Girl Who Played With Fire', allows Salander to exact a little more pain on her (male) assailants. She knees them in the balls, tasers them (also in the balls), shoots them, threatens to hang them, and so on. And the men deserve it, such as they are here. Or at least that is what we are so clearly being telegraphed to think. One man - who has paid for sex with prostitutes and so is evil - is easily distracted as he talks to Salander's friend, ace investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), eying up a jogger and then a young mother as she pushes in baby along in a stroller. Men in this world are sleazy characters who deserve the roughest treatment, and often receive it to our vengeful satisfaction.

It is strangely reminiscent of Tarantino's 'Kill Bill' in some respects. Obvious plot parallels include the fact that Lisbeth has been sexually assaulted and takes the law into her own hands, as well as the fact that this film features a scene in which she is buried alive. But it is also reminiscent of Tarantino by way of its old testament bloodlust and in the way that it equates literal female strength with female empowerment. It is, much like 'Kill Bill', a film written and directed by men who (in my view erroneously) believe they are acting as equal opportunity crusaders. Instead they are simply perpetuating violence and playing up to the worst aspects of human nature: showing them on the screen and appealing to those instincts in the audience.

Perhaps one way in which this film is unique, is in its completely de-sexualized depiction of Rapace's character. She is tough, resilient, cold: seldom smiling and seemingly unable to take any joy from life. Even during sex scenes she is never presented to us as an object of desire. This is brave and certainly sets this film, and this character, apart from the likes of Uma Thurman's heroine in 'Kill Bill' - who more traditionally plays up to a male fantasy image. However, this does help to make Lisbeth fairly unappealing as a character. There is no beauty in the film, and no humour at all. There is no lightness here to counteract the shade, no relief from the constant onslaught of nasty, perverted men. This world is so ugly that it is hard to understand why anyone would want to survive in it to begin with. There is no humanity and the characters are less than two-dimensional. Sure, Lisbeth has a "back story" and with it a straightforward psychological justification for her actions. But nobody else, especially the antagonists, can make any claim to depth.

On the positive side, this sequel is marginally less dull than its predecessor, although it is still overlong and suffers from monumental pacing problems (it takes around 40 minutes before Lisbeth is falsely accused of murder: the central plot catalyst this time around). It is also less TV-like in its aesthetic, possibly aided by the change of director, with Daniel Alfredson (brother of 'Let the Right One In' helmer, Tomas Alfredson) stepping in. It is also less of a formulaic "whodunit", detective story. That element remains, of course, with Blomqvist frantically trying to prove that Lisbeth is not the killer. But this film is more full of action and incident. There are many more fights, there is a car chase and a genuinely tense and gripping finale (or I imagine it would have been had I cared about any of the characters at that point).

Whilst the first film felt like it could have been a one-off episode of a detective series - albeit with much more graphic sex and violence than you'd usually find watching Angela Lansbury - this film feels much more like part of a longer story. It leads neatly into the upcoming film ('The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest') with an 'Empire Strikes Back' style ending, and follows on from a few threads established during the first. But, for me, 'The Girl Who Played With Fire' is an ugly film about a deeply unsympathetic character who at times seems only a second away from becoming Jigsaw or 'Se7en's John Doe - she is certainly capable of being just as sadistic as the men she despises. For some that maybe the appeal. Lisbeth is certainly not a fragile victim and she gives as good as she gets. But, call me old fashioned, I'd sooner not get my kicks from seeing men or women taking theirs.

'The Girl Who Played With Fire' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is out on general release across the UK.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

'Scott Pilgrim vs. the World' review: A beautifully realised and imaginative love letter to youth...

"Ramooooonaaaa" sings Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) to the object of his exaggerated and overzealous affection, Ramona Flowers. It is the only word, repeated over and over, in a heartfelt ballad he plays her on guitar. Edgar Wright's third film 'Scott Pilgrim vs. the World' operates in much the same way as this song over its brisk 112 minute running time. It is a heartfelt paean to youth and to those fleeting and ultimately trivial, but nevertheless extreme, outbursts of emotion. To that anguish that felt so real at the time. To that bottomless heartache and empty despair. And equally, to that joyous and unselfconscious sense that everything is awesome. But the film does not trivialise these feelings and instead Wright transports us back to that time and place in all of our lives - in a stylish and hyperactive flurry of bright colours and loud sounds.

'Scott Pilgrim' is a somewhat impressionistic vision of youth, viewed through the prism of the protagonists interests. These happen to be video games and rock music and so we see his world through this lens. It is a world with explodes with geekish detail and where even the smallest movements are rendered dynamic and exciting. The film is adapted from a six-volume comic book series by Bryan Lee O'Malley and Edgar Wright does well to capture this spirit. Think of the film as a sunnier, funnier cousin of Robert Rodriquez's 'Sin City', as Wright has seemingly also used the comic book itself as a direct reference point for storyboards, with some shots matching their corresponding panel exactly.

For those that don't know by now, 'Scott Pilgrim' is the story of a Canadian twenty-something in a garage band who falls for the new girl in town. However, this romance is complicated by the fact that this girl has "seven evil exes" who Pilgrim must defeat if he is to survive and (more importantly) win his girl's heart. These fights involve mystical powers (such as vegan telepathy) and video game-style power-ups (such as a large pixelated hammer) and see Pilgrim face-off against a terrific supporting cast which includes the one-time Superman, Brandan Routh, and the current Captain America, Chris Evans (no, not that one), as well as Jason Schwartzman.

On top of this, Pilgrim must break-up with his "fake high school girlfriend", Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). Much like Wright's previous films 'Shaun of the Dead' and 'Hot Fuzz' (not to mention the TV series 'Spaced'), 'Scott Pilgrim' is filled with in-jokes and references to other films. Wright has already demonstrated his love for parody of genre conventions in all of the above and continues to do so here. But there is a new source of reference material Wright is free to mine here: video games.

From the brilliance of the 8-bit rendition of the Universal Pictures logo that opens the film, to the Super Mario reference in Scott's band's name (Sex Bob-Omb), to the Legend of Zelda music which accompanies one poignant emotional scene, Wright does mine this rich seam fully. In some ways it is probably the best video game adaptation ever, in that the spirit of games is really recreated here. The fights themselves each take the form of a different video game genre too: the Katayanagi twins are fought in a Pokemon-style brawl; one fight is a Guitar Hero inspired "Bass Battle"; another takes the form of a skateboarding game; and the opening bout is more in line with something like Street Fighter or Tekken.

And Wright doesn't stick to well-known games either, as the final fight sequence seems to be directly inspired by the cult Wii title No More Heroes, with Pilgrim brandishing a lightsabre-style sword as he shatters his besuited foes into showers of sparkling coins. That game like 'Scott Pilgrim', perhaps coincidentally, also involves the checking of enemies off a numbered list. It's a geeks paradise and I'm sure a more avid gamer than myself would find some reference or other in every single frame. But it is the sort of film where it doesn't matter particularly if you don't get every joke. It is pretty rapid fire and if you miss a few you'll doubtless get the next one ten seconds later.

The standout aspect of the film is doubtlessly the visuals, which are detailed, almost beyond precedence, certainly for a live-action film. Ramona's roller-skates melt the snow instantly on contact (just as she melts poor Scott's heart). The promotional posters for the various fictional bands are authentic looking and do well to create a tangible world, albeit one larger than life and steeped in fantasy. Chris Evans' character is a Hollywood action hero and we see not only a great number of blink-and-you-miss-them mock film posters, but also a short segment from one of his films ("the first click you hear is me hanging up. The second one is me pulling the trigger"). During one fight, in an empty nightclub, a villain's psychic energy forces the discarded plastic beer tumblers out of his radius. It has the feel of a film which will reward repeat viewing for the eagle-eyed obsessive.

I'm sure 'Scott Pilgrim' is destined to become some people's favourite film. Their is certainly a very specific niche of people who will totally "get it", although cross-over appeal seems limited. The opening grosses in the US have been fairly disappointing and it remains to be seen whether UK audiences will flock to it in greater numbers. Personally, I only laughed a couple of times, and more in recognition of a joke than because it split my sides. But I was never bored and I feel like I can appreciate what this film is trying to do. It is more imaginative, more colourful and more beautifully realised than most films. The only thing I would go so far as to say I disliked was the ending, which felt tampered with and like the result of too much testing. The film gears up to end one way, only to then lose courage and retreat into a more familiar comfort zone. But this aside, 'Scott Pilgrim vs. the World' (whilst not quite a perfect "K.O") is a quite unique and broadly stylised celebratory tribute to youth and love and video games... and being awesome.

'Scott Pilgrim vs. the World' is rated '12A' by the BBFC and is on general release across the UK from Friday the 27th of August.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Satoshi Kon (1963-2010): Anime director loses battle with cancer at 46

The world of animation has been rocked by news of the sudden death of the pioneering Japanese director Satoshi Kon, who died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 46 yesterday.

Kon was the anime equivalent of Charlie Kaufman, his four finished films were multi-layered and their concerns were generally introspective and psychological, with questions of identity usually in the foreground. In no film was this more apparent than in his most recent finished film: 2006's 'Paprika'. Four years before Nolan's 'Inception', 'Paprika' involved a device that allowed people to enter other people's dreams and the film blurred the lines between the dreamworld and reality.

But the anime film-maker had played with similar themes since his 1997 debut as a director, 'Perfect Blue', which amidst the now familiar questions of identity also explored celebrity and the (then) new dangers presented by Internet chat rooms. A Hitchcockian thriller, 'Perfect Blue' follows a young J-Pop star as she decides to change her image and try to make a living as a serious actress. A fact which angers some of her fans.

Then came perhaps his seminal work: 'Millennium Actress', released in 2001, was the story of an old actress looking back at her life through the parts she played, with reality and fiction becoming blurred. The actress, who has not been interviewed in years and has completely retired from public life, was loosely based on Setsuko Hara - the actress most famous for her starring role in Ozu's so-called Noriko trilogy of the 40s and 50s. The film plays with genre as a number of different epoch's of Japanese cinema are lovingly recreated, from Ishiro Honda-style monster movies to 'Throne of Blood' era Kurosawa pictures.

2003 saw a slight departure, with the release of 'Tokyo Godfathers', the story of three homeless people who come across an abandoned baby one Christmas and resolve to find her parents. There is one brief dream sequence and one of the homeless could be said to be in conflict with their own identity (the homosexual male Hana wishing to be the child's mother), but otherwise 'Tokyo Godfathers' is slightly more grounded in a solid reality compared to his other work - at least until the buildings start dancing over the end credits. Instead, much in the same way that 'Perfect Blue' and 'Millennium Actress' looked at issues of fame and celebrity, 'Godfathers' subtly questions Japanese society and its attitudes towards those who slip through the net. This isn't done via any grand soliloquy, but rather it is demonstrated by some of the obstacles that come between the trio and their goal. As Hana recites a number of Haiku, which enter the frame in elegant calligraphy, perhaps Kon was also satirising the Japanese traditions of formal beauty which exist in contrast to the reality of these people's lives.

Sandwiched between this oddity and the more conventionally Kon-esque 'Paprika' was the dynamic and experimental television series 'Paranoia Agent', a story of a mysterious, possibly imagined, juvenile thug told over thirteen episodes and from the perspective of as many characters. Kon saw the show as a way to make something which could utilise a number of his ideas which he felt did not fit into any of his features, and as such the show is richly filled with imaginative and memorable scenes.

Kon was known to be working on a fifth feature film, known as 'The Dream Machine', up until his death. It remains unclear whether this project will surface and in what form. Hopefully the late animator had finished the project, which he described thusly:
On the surface, it's going to be a fantasy-adventure targeted at younger audiences. However, it will also be a film that people who have seen our films up to this point will be able to enjoy. So it will be an adventure that even older audiences can appreciate. There will be no human characters in the film; only robots. It'll be like a "road movie" for robots

But whatever comes of 'The Dream Machine', Kon's legacy is not only the great imagination and psychological depth of his four existing films, but also the tone. Kon's work is an antidote to anyone who thinks anime is about cute, fetishistic school girls dancing around with giant robots, or whatever. Kon's films took a serious, gritty, non-exploitative tone and dealt with subjects usually found in live-action, but which could not have been realised in live-action (at least not without a huge budget). He used animation to the fullest and exploited all its possibilities in a way seldom seen inside of Japan or out.

And yet Kon is almost always overlooked when naming the great contemporary animators. When the definitive book is written on the last twenty years of animation, and sections are being given to Hayao Miyazaki, Sylvain Chomet, Brad Bird, Michel Ocelot, John Lasseter, Jan Švankmajer, Richard Linklater and Nick Park - let us hope space is reserved for Satoshi Kon. A true visionary and a master animator and a life cut tragically short. Tonight I will raise a glass to Kon-san.

Monday, 23 August 2010

'The Illusionist' review: a slight and melancholy animation from a modern master...

Fans of Sylvain Chomet's surreal 2003 animated feature 'Belleville Rendez-vous' will not be surprised to find his follow-up, 'The Illusionist', is a melancholic, mostly silent tale with an old-fashioned sensibility and a penchant for physical comedy. What this latest feature does, however, is take Chomet's obvious Jacques Tati influence to a new extreme. Whereas 'Belleville Rendez-vous' was full of playful allusions to the celebrated comedy film-maker (such as a poster for 'Les Vacances de M. Hulot' - a gag he repeats here), 'The Illusionist' goes one step further with the titular character bearing Tati's real surname (Tatischeff), and aping his mannerisms and appearance. It is also, most importantly, based on a long-forgotten and previously un-filmed screenplay written by Tati himself. And so 'The Illusionist' is, in its quirky, surreal way, a slightly more grounded film than his first as it functions as a sort of loose biography of Tati's bittersweet relationship with his own daughter (the late Sophie Tatischeff - to whom the film is fittingly dedicated).

If you have ever left a movie derisively declaring that "nothing happened", then it is safe to say that 'The Illusionist' is not going to be your idea of a fun time. The "plot" is slight: set in the 1950's an aging magician finds his act no longer appeals to people in an age of rock n' roll and television. But when he plays a remote Scottish island he finds a new fan in the form of a young girl who comes to believe he is genuinely magical. Perhaps beguiled by the young girl's sincerity and good nature, or possibly just because he has found an appreciative audience, the magician takes the girl under his wing and, like Chaplin in 'City Lights', has to work menial jobs in secret in order to maintain his increasingly expensive illusions - lest the girl learn the truth. This is essentially it. But this is enough. It is a serene film which takes you across the Scottish countryside and into a beautifully realised picture of 1950's Edinburgh (the city where Chomet's Django Studios is actually based).

It is a film which you can relax and enjoy as it washes over you. It is calming and purely joyful - that is, at least until its poignant and sombre conclusion, which is pitched perfectly. Whilst it never caused me to well up in the way something like 'Up' did, it still provided much to think about. Perhaps it is a film that asks you to be more reflective than reactive. It certainly isn't shamelessly manipulative like 'Toy Story 3'. I wouldn't like to spoil the ending, but I'll just say that there is a bit of business involving a pencil at the film's climax which is on the level of genius. It is also nice to see another traditionally animated film in 2010.

I have nothing against computer-generated animated films. However, in the last decade they had come to supersede all other forms of animation. But now that Disney have returned to hand-drawn and good stop-frame films like 'Coraline' and 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' are being made, Chomet's film is another reason to be cheerful for fans of the art form. There is some distracting CGI in 'The Illusionist' that seems to harken back in early 90s Disney, notably the cars, trains and one ill-conceived aerial shot of Edinburgh, but generally it is one of the nicest looking animated films you will ever see. To say it is charming is to revert to a wet cliché, but it is exactly that. Especially in its loving detail, which includes an accurate reproduction of the inside of Edinburgh's own Cameo Picturehouse, among other things.

It is true that the characters are broad caricatures (much like they would have been in one of Tati's own films), with a be-kilted, drunken Scotsman, a fat opera-singer and a number of unflattering depictions of the teeth of British aristocratic stock, but there is no malice here. In fact there is great humanity in the film, which also depicts a number of other vaudevillian entertainers now tragically down on their luck, such as a suicidal clown and a homeless ventriloquist forced to pawn his dummy.

'The Illusionist' is not just light entertainment, but it is a poignant and mournful love letter to a long-dead world of light entertainment (reminiscent of another Chaplin feature: 'Limelight'). In recent years Pixar have lead the way in addressing the fears of aging, of loss and of growing obsolete, in films as diverse as 'The Incredibles', 'Finding Nemo' and, of course, 'Up'. But what is brave about Chomet's film is that he is prepared to end on that particular note of melancholia. Though with animation this beautiful, Chomet is certainly keeping the wonder and the magic of Jacques Tati alive.

'The Illusionist' is rated 'PG' by the BBFC and is currently playing across Picturehouse cinemas, including Brighton's Duke of York's.

Friday, 20 August 2010

'Ajami' review: Israel's answer to 'City of God'...

If you had to take a wild guess at what feature triumphed in the best film category at last year's at Israel's national film awards - the Ophirs - you'd most likely go for Sam Maoz's 'Lebanon', the Golden Lion winning film entirely set within the claustrophobic confines of a tank during the 1982 war with that country. But you'd be wrong. Triumphing instead was Israel's own answer to Brail's 'City of God' and Italy's 'Gomorra', a harrowing and realist portrayal of life in a poor Jaffa neighborhood called 'Ajami'.

Split between five interconnecting chapters, which each show a different aspect of life in the city from a different character's point of view, the film has an ambition and a broadness of scope which make it feel almost like the opposite extreme to the tightly wound 'Lebanon', with its restricted viewpoint. But in actuality the two films aren't miles apart. Both are visceral, gritty and feel authentic and both portray the conflict in the region from a humanistic standpoint, whilst neither is overtly political. And as Maoz based his film on personal experiences as a young conscript soldier, 'Ajami' is also deeply personal to its directors.

Co-directed by a Palestinian (born in Ajami) and an Israeli Jew, in the form of Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, 'Ajami' seems accurate in its portrayal a cross-cultural melting pot that sees Jews living alongside Muslims and Christians and where a grasp of both Arabic and Hebrew is essential to survive. So too is crime, as almost all the protagonists must break the law in order to make ends meet. One family is forced into thievery and drug dealing in order to pay off a debt to a powerful clan of gangsters. Another reluctantly turns to crime in order to pay for an operation for his terminally ill mother (admittedly, a somewhat hackneyed subplot). The Jewish police have to combat the Arab residents distrust and accusations of incompetence from wealthier citizens. In many ways it is like watching the Middle Eastern equivalent of an episode of 'The Wire'.

'Ajami' is an accomplished feature film debut from Copti and Shani. It is a polished film with a solid cast (including many non-actors) and its subject matter is certainly worthy of cinema. However, it is so much like those other films about criminality in poor and undeveloped, urban areas that it is questionable how trailblazing it is. Perhaps this similarity is part of a broader, more vital moral: that people are the same around the world and that poverty is the route of crime and intolerance. But in of itself 'Ajami' is indistinct in terms of its aesthetic or its take on the sub-genre. For that reason my vote would certainly have gone to 'Lebanon': a more original film. Though 'Ajami' is certainly no less compelling viewing.

'Ajami' is on very limited release in the UK and is rated '15' by the BBFC.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Book review: 'Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men' by Peter H. Brothers

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a fan of Japanese cinema. Whether I'm banging on about the work of Kurosawa, looking forward to the next Kitano film or getting evangelical over the latest Miyazaki animation, I have written a fair bit about film-makers from that part of East Asia. So when I heard that there was an English language book on one of the most popular and influential - yet curiously most overlooked - Japanese directors, I was genuinely excited to read it.

That director is Ishirō Honda (1911-1993), the man most closely associated with the monster movies of the 50s and 60s: most notably 'Mothra' (1961) and the original 'Godzilla' (1954). Despite being one of the most commercially viable Japanese directors of his day (most of his monster movies made it into American theatres - albeit with changes) serious analysis of his work is hard to come by in the West. Stepping bravely into that void is Peter H. Brothers, with his comprehensive, film-by-film volume Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda.

Although, as Brothers himself points out, Honda was not exclusively a maker of fantasy movies (at least not early in his career) this book focuses on those films for which he was best known. Mushroom Clouds covers no less than 25 of his films in detail, looking at their production as well as providing decent analysis of their content and often their political context. These passages are, happily, bookended by chapters on his life before, during and after the monster movies. These chapters are written in the form of a narrative in chronological order and help to provide a decent context in which to put the films, as well as proving perhaps the most compelling read as they look at Honda the man.

Almost equal attention is paid to several of Honda's most frequent collaborators: his producer at Toho, Tomoyuki Tanaka (1910-1997), his longstanding composer, Akira Ifukube (1914-2006) and, most significantly, the man behind the visual effects, Eiji Tsuburaya (1901-1970). Ifukube's scores are deconstructed in some detail by Brothers, whilst Tsuburaya is afforded a lot of praise for his work and influence - heralded as the Japanese equivalent of Ray Harryhausen and Honda's "true mentor". As a result, the book is just as informative about Japanese cinema of the period and the studio system as it is about Honda himself.

Brothers clearly has a great knowledge of these movies and seems to know the supporting actors and crew members from this era of Japanese film as well as anybody. However, his appreciation of Honda's movies can at times make the book seem fannish, rather than academic. This is not necessarily a criticism, as sometimes it is nice to read something so celebratory, but the level of enthusiastic praise reserved for even the campiest of these films at times left me incredulous. Instead I rather enjoyed the book as a narrative history told by an enthusiastic guide. There is certainly an element of melancholy in the story of Honda's life as a director which is never really addressed by the author.

Honda was, like many Japanese people of his generation, a very loyal company man. He never worked for anyone but Toho all his life and seemed to feel very restricted by the monster movies he was contracted to make - ironically the very films Brothers book celebrates as it is equally guilty of marginalising his other work. He also found his career interrupted by military service and when he returned found that many of his subordinates had been promoted above him. As a result it took him far longer to become a director than some of his contemporaries, including his friend Kurosawa, for whom he worked as an assistant (at both ends of his directorial career). There is an unspoken feeling, reading between the lines, that Honda was never allowed to become the film-maker he could have been. Although Brothers chooses to celebrate the care he put into his fantasy work and finds lot of examples of how his monster movies are far more humanistic and character driven than they were really required to be.

Some interesting themes are left unexplored, such as the sexpoitation aspect of the 1957 film 'The Defense Force of the Earth', the plot of which involves aliens capturing Earth women for cross-breading, and the significance of the US title change of the 1956 'Radon, the Monster From the Sky' to the less overtly metaphorical 'Rodon! The Flying Monster'. And whilst Tsuburaya's work was evidently amongst the best effects work of the day - and the most influential (prior to Tsuburaya, Japanese studios didn't even have dedicated visual effects departments) - his work has not aged well compared to that of his American contemporary Harryhausen. For instance, comparing the model work from 1953's 'The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms' with the laughable man-in-a-suit work seen in 'Godzilla' a year later does not favour Tsuburaya.

That is not to demean Tsuburaya, but just to say that the level of praise reserved for his work in the book is difficult to take seriously, especially the claims made to its realism, with audience members apparently asking Honda where he got all the military equipment from after one film. As upbeat and sanguine as Honda seems to have been, one can't help but wonder whether he really saw himself as the director of film's like 'MechaGodzilla's Counterattack' (1975) or whether he privately yearned for more.

But then I think that is the point of Brothers' book. Rather than apologise for these campy movies, he has chosen to find the good in them. He has looked at them and is trying to bring to our attention the things of value that Honda was able to bring about within these fantasy pictures. And he does so with palpable love of his subject and real verve, which as a result prevents the book from ever being dull or too dry (at least for anyone pre-disposed to read about Japanese movies). Brothers manages to locate some genuine humanity and even some poignant moments in all of these increasingly absurd films, which is laudable in itself. Perhaps in doing so he is a brave defender of all the easily dismissed fantasy films of the 50s and 60s.

Perhaps a definitive, more sober look at the cinema of Ishirō Honda is still yet to be written. However, Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men is a long overdue celebration of a much-maligned film-maker with an equal claim to fame and influence as his better known contemporaries. Perhaps, given more opportunities and with more good fortune, Honda would have emulated Kurosawa and made more than one great film ('Godzilla'). After all, he directed entire segments of some of Kurosawa's later films, most notably two whole segments of 'Dreams' in 1990. The director once told a colleague: "Unless your film is caught in the critic's net, it will be washed away into history." If nothing else, Brothers' book is the first necessary step in ensuring that does not happen to the films of Ishirō Honda.

Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda by Peter H. Brothers is available now here.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

'Skeletons' review: An amiable and gently amusing British comedy...

Last week I hosted a Q&A with Nick Whitfield, the writer and director of the low budget British black comedy 'Skeletons'. The film won the Michael Powell Award for Best New British Feature Film at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival and stars two relative unknowns, Andrew Buckley and Ed Gaughan. The duo play a pair of professionals whose job is to investigate the skeletons in their clients (literal) closet. But the pair have their own difficulties with the work, as Buckley's Bennett gets too empathetic towards his clients (whose vices range from secretive Latin dance lessons to use of prostitutes), whilst Gaughan's Davis is "on the glow" (addicted to using the procedure to revisit his own past) - a fact the duo must disguise from their boss, the Colonel, played by Jason Isaacs, in a spirited and memorable turn as a gruff Yorkshireman.

The first feature film from Whitfield, 'Skeletons' is a beneficiary of UK Film Council funding, without which the film would never have been made, according to the director. Shot on location across the Midlands, the film is primarily set in the countryside as the besuited protagonists walk from job to job. The film's best moments occur during this walking, as Davis talks about such topics as the lack of moral ambiguity surrounding Rasputin. The interplay between the two leads is funny and Gaughan in particular is really watchable. Written with the two actors in mind, the dialogue and characters are perfectly suited to these actors. The film feels something like a cross between 'Ghostbusters' and 'Alan Partridge' - mixing the spiritual and paranormal with the mundane and the regional.

There are instances where the comedy misfires slightly, with a tired, sub-Chuckle Brothers exchange of "you're unprofessional", "no you're unprofessional", "no you're being unprofessional" being among the less successful moments. But generally the film is gently amusing throughout, even if never side-splittingly hilarious. That may sound like faint praise for a comedy film, but 'Skeletons' gets along fine with these gentle laughs of approval, with its pleasant and amiable tone. It is also uncommonly ambitious and fantastical for a low budget British feature. There is no gritty, kitchen sink realism here as we plunge into territory not too dissimilar from that recently mined in Christopher Nolan's (much bigger budgeted) 'Inception': not only in its premise, but in its fascination with the nature of reality and with Davis' character mirroring DiCaprio's Dom Cobb as he finds himself haunted by the past.

It is refreshing to encounter a film of this modest means which isn't frightened to tackle the imagination and isn't afraid to get quite abstract and surreal (it is a film where an accident can turn you Bulgarian and a man can live in a rusty old landlocked boat next to a power station). With 'Skeletons' Whitfield also shows that he is not shy about combining this humour and inventiveness with genuine emotion - the film ultimately being about loss and acceptance. 'Skeletons' is not perfect, but it is a pleasing and intriguing debut film from a writer and director with a unique voice in British cinema, and perhaps it forecasts something wonderful for the future. If he can get the funding. Let us hope that the demise of the UK Film Council does not put a premature end to this emerging talent.

'Skeletons' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is still touring the country accompanied by its director, Nick Whitfield, who is doing Q&As at selected Picturehouse cinemas. A full write up on the Q&A will appear on this blog during the week.

Monday, 16 August 2010

'Separado!' review: a cultural oddity in an experimental style...

Gruff Rhys, the man behind the Super Furry Animals, has co-directed, written and starred in a documentary so small that, at the time of writing, it is still "awaiting 5 votes" on the IMDB. That film is 'Separado!', a quirky little movie, less than an hour and a half long, which charts Rhys' journey from Wales to Patagonia (South Argentina) in search of his distant relatives who joined many hundreds of Welsh in emigrating to that part of the world in the late 19th century. On his journey, through Brazil as well as Argentina, Rhys traces the legacy of his Welsh ancestors and looks at the interesting musical hybrid between Latin and traditional Welsh music which can still be heard in parts of South America today.

It all started when Rhys saw an Argentinian gaucho singer named René Griffiths singing in Welsh on BBC Wales as a child. After finding that they were in fact related, the musician became interested in tracking down the man himself. On his journey to find René Griffiths, Rhys meets many other distant relatives and encounters a whole range of other musical performers, including a Brazilian musician who has invented his own instrument - a cross between a guitar and a drum machine. He also puts on several low-key concerts and looks a little bit at the cultural, historical and economic causes and effects of this strange chapter in Welsh history (which apparently played a key role in Argentinian history too - allowing the government to successfully claim the disputed South from neighbouring Chile).

On this trip we see that many Patagonian places have Welsh names and that many still speak the language. Rhys even manages to meet an old man who is closely and directly descended from the original Welsh settlers (who is also proudly in possession of the first organ brought to Argentina by these pioneers). Impressively, he does all of this speaking three languages over the course of the film, speaking Welsh, English and having a decent command of conversational Spanish to boot.

All of this is shown in a really surreal and unconventional way too, with Rhys teleporting himself between locations after donning a huge Power Ranger helmet, and with many bizarre and trippy musical interludes. In fact the film is as much about making music as it is about anything else. There is really nothing to criticise here. The film is barely long enough to get boring. The history is fascinating in itself and seeing the modern Welsh communities of Patagonia (and hearing their music) is an intriguing cultural oddity. Rhys comes across very well too, and spending time in his company is hardly a chore, even for someone who isn't a fan of his music, such as I (not because it's bad, but because I am not familiar with it).

Perhaps the movie could put many off with its unconventional and experimental form, but even then the chance to see this South American road trip is too good to miss. It also has a serious point, underneath all the quirky-ness, about how important it is to hold onto cultural identity - a fact which is perhaps more pressing today for Welsh-speakers than it was in the 1860s. There is also the brutal irony (not lost on the filmmakers), that in escaping persecution from the British, like many other colonials, the Welsh played a part in the persecution of another native people (in this case the Tehuelche, who were removed by the Argentine government now in control of the region). If you can find it playing and have even a minimal interest in any of the above, then there is probably something for you in 'Separado!'.

'Separado!' is so small it hasn't even been rated by the BBFC. But it can be found playing one-off shows at various cinemas, including many Picturehouses.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

'Le Concert' review: If Jim Davidson could play violin...

'Le Concert', directed by the Jewish Romanian-born director Radu Mihaileanu, is a big cultural melting pot of a movie. On the surface (and from most posters) a French production boasting 'Inglourious Basterds' star Melanie Laurent, though many of the actors and much of the dialogue is Russian. Fitting then that the story concerns a once-great Orchestra conductor, Andreï Filipov (Aleksei Guskov), thrown out of the Bolshoi for standing up against racial intolerance towards Jews under Brezhnev. But, 30 years after the this injustice, Filipov intercepts an invitation to play in Paris, intended for the Bolshoi and resolves to take a rag-tag group of Russians, from all walks of life (including a wealthy oligarch), to France disguised as the professionals.

Yet, for a film which makes a feature of the fight against racially motivated intolerance, 'Le Concert' is pretty happy to indulge in stereotype. Uncomfortably so: the orthodox Jewish musicians miss practice because they are hawking their wares across Paris from out of a suitcase; the unskilled workers immediately leave the hotel and become illegal immigrants working menial jobs; the gypsies make their living from stealing and forging documents and an Arab restaurateur threatens one patron by saying "they call me Muhammad Al-Qaeda". Some may see this as a good-natured celebration of difference, but I couldn't help but squirm uncomfortably in my chair as racial caricature after racial caricature was exploited for humour in this movie which very quickly descends into farce.

'Le Concert' certainly thinks it is a comedy and it isn't afraid to go pretty broad with it. An oligarch's daughter's wedding is marred by an all-out gangland shootout, for example (which feels as misjudged and out of place as it sounds), whilst the gypsies fake 80-odd passports very publicly at an airport. Maybe this is a very broad cartoonish way of commenting on corruption and criminality in contemporary Russia, but it strains credibility. Especially as the film plays it relatively straight at other points. It is also a film which is terrifically critical of the old Soviet Union and communism, with plenty of jokes about the old regime, so adding that to the cynicism about the modern era, you get a film which is pretty nihilistic.

Melanie Laurent is the film's saving grace, as she has an intensity about her which is always stirring. She is one of those actors who can communicate so much with a subtle change of expression. Aleksei Guskov is also pretty good, always portraying his character with a touching sweetness as well as a dangerous obsession. But mostly everyone in 'Le Concert' shouts their lines at one another in a way which is very unappealing and engaging. It is a film which seems to hate Russian people. For example, when the 80-odd strong Orchestra arrives at their hotel they are all continuously shouting all at once, bursting through the doorway en masse and surrounding the hotelier, waving their arms in the air frantically. These people are idiots, their characters thinly drawn and unsympathetic and, as a result, their plight is uninteresting.

The film scooped several César awards earlier in the year, for Best Sound Design and Best Music, and these were probably deserved. The Tchaikovsky music performed at the titular concert is mesmerising and intense. The fact that the final scene is more or less a long unbroken musical performance is the film's strongest suit - and in that respect it ends of a high note (no pun intended). But for much of the film's running time, it is nothing more than a misfiring comedy of racial difference that feeds off the very intolerance it claims to be in opposition to. A woeful film.

'Le Concert' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is still on a limited release in the UK.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

'Skeletons' Screening + Q&A with Director Nick Whitfield

Update: The Q+A went really well and Jon actually recorded the audio for a potential future podcast. I will write something up about the film and the event sometime in the week. My original "that night" time frame was optimistic! Come back later for the full lowdown.

Original post: I am delighted (and a little nervous) to be hosting an on-stage Q&A with writer/director Nick Whitfield after a screening of his film 'Skeletons' at Brighton's Duke of York's Picturehouse this Friday (tomorrow) at 6.30pm. This means I need to spend the rest of today watching the screener DVD very kindly sent to me by Soda Pictures, making notes and forming interesting questions. Please come along and check out the film. You will also have a chance to ask Nick your own questions after the show.

'Skeletons' won the Michael Powell Award for Best New British Feature Film at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival. Expect a review of the film and a write-up on the whole affair tomorrow night.

'Skeletons' is rated '15' by the BBFC. Tickets can be purchased online via the Picturehouse website.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' review + My slot on Radio Reverb

Yesterday I posted a review of Disney's latest blockbuster, 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice', over at Obsessed with Film - so check that out! It is rather less inflammatory than my last bit of writing for the site, so hopefully I can leave the witness protection program now.

'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' is rated 'PG' by the BBFC and released this Friday (13th) in the UK.

I have also neglected to mention that I have, for the last two weeks, been acting as a regular film reviewer for a breakfast show on Brighton's Radio Reverb, hosted by a lovely lady named Ridder. The show is from 8-10 on Friday mornings and my regular guest slot is around 9.10. So listen in online or on 97.2 FM if you're a local person.

Don't forget to tune in!

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

'Knight and Day' review: Light-hearted summer fun...

'Knight and Day', starring Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz and directed by James Mangold ('Walk the Line'), is the latest movie in what has almost become a sub-genre of action romantic-comedies. Films like this year's Jennifer Aniston vehicle 'The Bounty Hunter' and 'Date Night' starring Steve Carell and Tina Fey, have found varying degrees of success by blending gentle humour with low-key action. But it is probably Doug Liman's 2005 film 'Mr. & Mrs. Smith' that 'Knight and Day' resembles most closely: the leads of both having genuine star power and sex appeal, whilst the action is rather more violent, high-octane and central to proceedings.

There is something old fashioned about 'Knight and Day'. Mangold avoids the fast-cutting, music video style of direction which now the norm in action films. Instead we are allowed to see clearly what is going on at all times, making the actions scenes (especially the car chases) more exciting then they otherwise would be. The sound design is equally good with the dialogue always clearly audible. When Tom Cruise's rogue spy, Roy Miller, talks to the terrified fish-out-of-water June Havens (Cameron Diaz) whilst hanging onto the bonnet of her car, he is improbably easy to hear through the car windshield and over the gunfire and the traffic. This is stark opposition to the hyper-realist sound mixes used in films like 'Miami Vice' - and I for one welcome it.

It is also old fashioned in its use of stunt work and location shooting, with Tom Cruise clearly doing a lot of the motorcycle and sports car driving himself, over the streets of Austria, Spain and the US. There is undoubtedly a lot of CGI going on (clearly in the case of the plane crash and probably in the case of the Pamplona bull running sequence), but that doesn't detract from the immerse nature of many of the action set-pieces. Many of them are only a few notches more realistic than those in the recent 'A-Team' movie and they are a lot of fun. Mangold is also pretty brave in that he allows many bits of action business to occur off-camera (for instance when Diaz is unconscious). It is almost as if the director is admitting that it is immaterial how our heroes escape certain situations: we know that they will emerge victorious and it is as if we are simply being told to enjoy the ride.

There is also a good deal of chemistry between the two stars, re-united here after playing opposite one another in Cameron Crowe's 'Vanilla Sky' back in 2001. Cruise is good value, knowingly playing up to his current off-screen persona as slightly mentally imbalanced in a film that, for at least some of its running time, requires you to question whether he is a who he says he is, or, in fact, a dangerous fantasist. Diaz is fidgety, hyper-active and irritating, as ever, but she is not without a certain charm and seems to shine especially bright opposite Cruise. It is to the duo's credit that the film manages to survive some very cringe-worthy and cliché dialogue (notably when talking about their aspirations) down to the goodwill the pair engender.

There are also some decent supporting actors here, such as Peter Sarsgaard (last seen seducing Carey Mulligan in 'An Education'), who plays the agent assigned to apprehend the duo by any means necessary, and Paul Dano ('There Will be Blood', 'Little Miss Sunshine'), whose nervous, young scientist is probably the comic highlight (though that is mainly due to his ridiculous facial hair).

However, it isn't a perfect film by any stretch. John Powell's score is terrible, seemingly shouting "hey! It's a comedy!" during the fight scenes and announcing "hey! We're in Spain!" during the Pamplona action. A good score supports the on-screen action, whereas this one often works directly against it. There is also a nasty, generic Spanish-speaking villain, as has become recent Hollywood custom (notably in this summer's 'A-Team' and 'The Expendables'). It is also not a very humanistic movie, with Cruise murdering FBI agents everywhere he goes (which is apparently OK).

Much of the comedy falls flat, but in the end it is pretty good-natured, light-hearted action-adventure that wins the day. 'Knight and Day' is similar to 'A-Team', in that it is a loony action movie which doesn't take itself at all seriously. But 'Knight and Day' is much better made than that, has better visual effects and the action is directed far more coherently. It also has less plot exposition than any film this summer, which is also quite refreshing. It is no masterpiece and it isn't advancing the art of film making in any way - quite the reverse, 'Knight and Day' seems to look backwards to (dare I say it) a simpler time. But that is perhaps its single greatest feature. Perhaps because of this, it is also the best of the recent action rom-coms by some distance.

'Knight and Day' is rated '12A' by the BBFC and is out now across the UK.

Monday, 9 August 2010

'Gainsbourg' review: Fun, imaginative, but insubstantial...

Most comic book adaptations are pretty far removed from their source material. There are a few notable exceptions to this. Frank Miller was credited as a co-director, along with Robert Rodriquez, for the almost shot-for-shot 2005 adaptation of his comic book 'Sin City'. Similarly, Daniel Clowes worked closely with director Terry Zwigoff in 2001, co-writing the adaptation of his own 'Ghost World'. But otherwise comic book movies (as diverse as 'X-Men', 'The Road to Perdition' and 'V for Vendetta') are a separate animal, sometimes even disowned by the comics original creator (see any Alan Moore adaptation). Usually, the rights to make the comic are purchased by a studio and somebody unconnected to the material is hired to make a movie. Sometimes, as with most superhero movies, only the characters - and possibly their origins - are retained, the plot lines often differing wildly from anything in the comics' own continuity.

But in France, the home of auteur theory, a couple of quirky, creator-led adaptations have come to cinemas in recent years. In 2007 Marjane Satrapi co-wrote and directed the quite brilliant animated version of her graphic novel 'Persepolis'. And now Joann Sfar has written and directed a biopic of the legendary French singer-songwriter, Serge Gainsbourg, based on his own comic book. And, just like Satrapi's film, 'Gainsbourg' is highly stylised, playful and experimental whilst never straying too far away from reality. So when Guillermo del Toro regular Doug Jones turns up in a bizarre costume representing both Gainsbourg's self-image and on-stage persona, it doesn't seem out of place. Nor does it seem in opposition to the performances from many of the quirky and eccentric supporting players such as Yolande Moreau (who has a small role as the singer and actress Fréhel).

For fans of post-war French popular music, I am sure 'Gainsbourg' is a must-see film, featuring lots of musical performances and with actors playing various singers the 50s up to the 80s including France Gall, Boris Vian, Juliette Gréco, Les Frères Jacques and, of course, Jane Birkin and Brigitte Bardot. However, as I personally know very little about Serge Gainsbourg or the wider French music scene, 'Gainsbourg' proved a fairly frustrating film. It is episodic, taking us from Serge's childhood up to near the end of his life, hardly stopping for breath along the way. Everything is painted in broad brushstrokes, scenes are brief sketches and icons are played as icons rather than real people. It is a film about myths which simply serves to repeat them. There is certainly fun to be had here, but there is no insight to be gained. Those in the know might appreciate the lightness of touch on show here, but I for one needed more of a context for each (seemingly unconnected) event.

"How popular is he at this point?" and "How did he go from writing songs for cabaret acts to sleeping with Brigitte Bardot?" were among the questions I was asking which went unanswered. When a record producer tells Gainsbourg and Birkin (played ably by the British Lucy Gordon who tragically committed suicide soon after the production finished shooting) that their new single "Je t'aime... moi non plus" will spark mass controversy, we are never shown the results. Refreshing brevity for those in the know, perhaps, but I needed a bit more information. It is a film made for fans - and that's fine - but don't expect to find out anything you couldn't glean from the man's wikipedia entry.

The film does make a connection between the central figure's adoption of his stage persona and his growing up Jewish in Nazi occupied France, suggesting that a degree of self-loathing manifested itself as bombast sophistication and self-conscious elegance. This is conveyed via Doug Jones' absurdist caricature costume representations of Gainsbourg, which interact with the real, more introverted version of the man (played an uncanny doppelganger in Eric Elmosnino) as well as with the other characters in each scene, crossing a line between fantasy and reality. The childhood scenes, in which young then Lucien Ginsburg (Kacey Mottet Klein) is followed around by a huge, Nazi propaganda-inspired caricature Jewish head, are a real highlight.

But in the end it is very much the breezy and whimsical comic book movie version of this icon's life. Not without some arresting visuals, imaginative touches and stirring renditions of classic pieces of kitsch pop (the enthusiastic, up tempo recital of 'Baby Pop' is a highlight). Sfar's film is willfully enigmatic, like the man himself - and I am sure that was the intention - but ultimately it made me hungry for a more in-depth look at Serge Gainsbourg's life and career. Maybe this renewed interest is the film's real achievement.

'Gainsbourg' is still playing in the UK and is rated '15' by the BBFC. It is doing fairly well in the UK too, and is still hanging on in the top ten.

Thursday, 5 August 2010


About fourteen hours ago my scathing one-star review of Sylvester Stallone's 'The Expendables' was posted at Obsessed with Film. Within hours I was labelled "a joke", a "professional cancer" and "a nobody writer who will stay a nobody writer". My personal favourite? I was also called the "all-time reigning jackass writer" - a quote I will cherish forever, once the crying stops.

The reason for this? Well, in the review I made the regrettable and admittedly foolish statement that not only was the film pretty dumb, but that it would only appeal to extremely dumb people ("hardened dunces" and the illiterate, to name two offended groups). Intended as a frivolous and jokey closing remark, the comment actually ended up inspiring a wave of hate directed at this reviewer and the site at large. Some of it just and reasonable ("isn’t insulting ‘some’ of your reader base considered bad practice?"). I unreservedly apologise to anyone who was genuinely offended by that remark. Believe it or not, that was not my intention and I didn't expect people to take it a) personally ("I for one plan on seeing this film, not because I’m a illiterate meat head like you imply") or b) literally ("Stallone has written Oscar winning films and you’re implying viewers can’t read if they enjoy the film?"). I stand by all of the comments I made about the film itself and feel my review is valid, but insulting an imagined audience (something I thought would be taken in jest) was unfair and perhaps even uncalled for.

Let me get one thing straight: I obviously do not genuinely believe that only the illiterate would wish to see this film. (As every bigot says) some of my best friends have been looking forward to this movie for a long time. I don't believe they are in any way dumb for doing so. I do understand that a lot of the people who want to see this film are simply being nostalgic. Indeed, I felt that I had acknowledged the film's appeal to people other than myself when I wrote that:
I must confess that I am not a particularly big fan of the 80’s action movie and I am fairly sure that everything I hated about this movie is the reason why so many others will love it. There are moments of bone-crunching violence, well choreographed scenes of martial arts, huge explosions and loads of silly one-liners.

What I was really attacking in my review (I hoped, with humour) was the fact that this movie's raw, ideal audience member is a gung-ho moron. Let me explain. Imagine you have never seen 'Commando' or 'Predator' or 'Rocky IV' for a second: would you be leaping to the defence of this movie so passionately? I suspect not. I recognise that a lot of people simply want to see Rocky Balboa alongside Ivan Drago again and long to watch the "Governator" back on the big screen, and this is fair enough. On that score, I am with you. I may not be a huge fan of the 80's action movie, but I am a fan of movies in general and can appreciate a little intertextuality as much as the next man. But if you allow yourself to get sucked into this stunt casting gimmick of a movie, then you encouraging the making of bad movies by giving your money to something of zero substance.

I don't mean "substance" in a poncy, intellectual way either. 'Die Hard' has substance - it was an original and remains a peak example of its genre. 'The Expendables' regurgitates worn out ideas, using worn out icons and serves most as a celebration of human ugliness and Regan-era politics. In-jokes aside, it has nothing to offer.

Another reason for my comment, as pointed out in my editor's generous defence of my review, is that I was trying to redress the balance after female viewers of 'Sex & the City 2' were dismissed as dumb following that film's huge success earlier in the year. To my mind 'The Expendables' is the male equivalent of this and we shouldn't let ourselves off just because we fetishise violence rather than shoes. Arguably the shoe thing is healthier anyway.

I have also been accused of being "biased" and of not being "balanced". I strongly refute this. I go into any movie with an open mind, even if I have a judgement based on the trailer or the poster or the history of the director, I try to watch the movie as if those thoughts didn't exist and judge it on its own merits. This is what I feel I have done in this case. I wouldn't have slagged the film off if it had made me laugh or excited me. I don't have an agenda. And in relation to the question of "balance", this review is only supposed to reflect my opinion. I will not write something which says "on one hand this and on the other hand that" because that would be boring to read. Whatever you thought of my review, I don't get the impression it was a boring read.

A final point: anyone who read my reviews of films like 'South of the Border', 'Capitalism: A Love Story' and even 'Kick-Ass' will know I am an outspoken leftist and often bring that into my analysis of film, whether looking at politics of gender or race or economics. Therefore, a film as vehemently right-wing as 'The Expendables' is always going to grate on me, with it's blatant anti-Chavez message ("everything that comes out of the ground belongs to me" says an evil South American dictator). Perhaps that helps explain why I reacted so negatively towards it, perhaps not.

Anyway, even if you still hate that review or feel you dislike me as a reviewer, I hope you understand my position better now and accept my sincere apology if I upset you with the heavy-handed way I chose to express my opinion in this instance.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

'South of the Border' review: Chavez seems like a nice bloke...

Following on from his 2003 documentaries on Fidel Castro ('Comandante') and Yasser Arafat ('Persona Non Grata'), Oliver Stone journeyed into South America, meeting leaders from six countries, for his latest film 'South of the Border'. Focusing primarily on Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, the documentary looks at the negative and biased portrayal of these leaders in the American media. In this film, through interviews and use of archive news footage, Stone seeks to counteract a number of the claims made by media outlets, presenting these leaders in a more positive light.

Perhaps this might not seem like a admirable cause to many, with Stone seemingly replacing one one-sided viewpoint with another, but when you are told (via Stone's narration) that much of the media within Venezuela is partisan and anti-Chavez - controlled by oil companies and special interests - then this documentary seems not only justified, but necessary.

Disappointingly, the "interviews" themselves (with Chavez as well as six other leaders including Raul Castro) are really little more than friendly chats between Stone and the subject. During these meetings he invites Bolivian leader Evo Morales to play soccer with him and asks the Argentine President Cristina Kirchner how many pairs of shoes she owns, whilst he encourages Chavez to ride around on a small bicycle. These moments are intended to humanise people so often demonised, but they just made me feel as though Stone were wasting these people's time. I don't mean to say I wanted to see Stone take an adversarial tone at odds with the point of his film, but just that I would have preferred to hear more of the political arguments (but maybe that's just me). I also worry that this approach limits the appeal of the film, perhaps making it preach to the converted. Somebody less sympathetic to the subjects than I might feel that this approach robs the film of credibility. Which is ashame, because there is good stuff here.

The strongest aspect of the film comes in the narration written by Tariq Ali and Mark Weisbrot, which is generally supported by really interesting news material, ranging from familiar bad source Fox News to The New York Times. These clips are faintly disturbing, demonstrating the factually inaccurate reporting and (in one clear case) manipulation of video editing prevalent in media reporting of Chavez in particular. There is also a lot of unsettling evidence that points to (surprise, surprise) CIA involvement in a number of fairly recent attempted coup d'état (as recently as 2002), as well as a lot of evidence which points to the role of the IMF as a body for controlling foreign economies in the interests of American capitalism.

The thing is that when Stone isn't asking his subjects to behave like buffoons, in the name of being media friendly, they actually all come across really well. All are eloquent and reasonable and all seem genuine and engaged with their people - particularly the poor. Chavez drives himself around and talks happily to citizens who approach his modest jeep. The scenes in which we see the leaders interact with each other are probably the best and it is these which represent the biggest coup for Stone. The Cuban veteran, Raul Castro, rebukes Stone for suggesting he is perhaps a loftier figure than the likes of Ecuador's relatively young Rafael Correa, saying that they are all equals and that all has their own ideas to bring to the table.

'South of the Border' is not a flawless piece of documentary film making. It is, however, a necessary opposing viewpoint to the one which we are usually offered - in regard to Chavez in particular. Probably my favourite aspect of the film is that, like the equally polemical work of Michael Moore, it contains a lot of information which could be depressing and yet manages to end on a note of optimism. In this case it is the hope that these South American leaders can bring the South American Continent together in a way which could see it forever independent from American political interference.

Furthermore, Tariq Ali goes as far as to suggest that this new left-leaning South American influence might eventually find its way into North America. To me that sounds like a fantasy. But it is one I was happy enough to indulge in. Perhaps the most heartening message was that given by Brazil's centre-left Lula da Silva who said that he has no interest in fighting with the United States but simply wishes to see his country treated as an equal. If nothing else, Stone's documentary is a good equaliser, launching a fierce counter-attack on the right-wing media. In my view, a laudable goal achieved with modest success.

'South of the Border' is out on limited release in the UK and is rated '15' by the BBFC. Brighton's Duke of York's Picturehouse is showing it on the weekend of the 7th and 8th of August.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

'Mother' review: The best thriller film since Jackson's...

Later this month comes the UK release of 'Mother', a South Korean thriller directed by Joon-ho Bong, who made his name with the excellent 'The Host' and 'Memories of Murder'. The story of an unnamed women (Kim Hye-ja) whose only son, the mentally handicapped Do-joon (Won Bin), is accused of murder. The protective mother then takes it upon herself to prove her son's innocence by mounting her own criminal investigation. The film is suspenseful and tense, but also darkly funny throughout.

Joon-ho is supremely skilled at mixing genuine tension with humour in this way. Maybe Sam Raimi and the Coen Brothers strike the same delicate balance when working at the peak of their powers, with these filmmakers able to inject absurdist black comedy into horrific events without detracting from their impact. Like those American directors, Joon-ho is able to make his scenes of graphic violence extremely visceral without verging anywhere near the "torture porn" end of the spectrum. As Jon said on the last Splendor Podcast, there is also something of an obsession with bodily fluids in his work, with urine, saliva, blood, vomit and sweat, which contribute to this feeling of tangibility.

But for all the grimy detail, 'Mother' is certainly not an ugly film. In fact it is quite the opposite, with Hong Kyeong-pyo ('Brotherhood') lighting the film beautifully. It is also not a realist film, being highly stylised whilst retaining credibility at all times, even when a lawyer begins a bizarre karaoke as a way of talking to his client or when a couple of youngsters start a fight with a bunch of old businessmen on a golf course.

Kim Hye-ja is really outstanding as the titular mother, playing her with a touching fragility, but also bringing across her obsession and resilience superbly. The film is at its very best when exploring the disturbing, almost incestuous relationship between the mother and Do-joon, played by the model-turned-actor, Won Bin. He is pretty effective too, carefully avoiding pastiche in his portrayal of mental disability. Jin Goo is also really good as Jin-tae, a local ne'er-do-well and friend of Do-joon. He seems born to play a charismatic troublemaker.

It is difficult to say too much more about 'Mother' - at least in terms of plot developments - without spoiling the film. I will say only that its conclusion is surprising and highly satisfying. I recently compiled a list of the best films of 2010 so far. I hadn't seen 'Mother' at that point, but if I had have it would certainly place high up on that list. How high? I am not sure. I think that question warrants some perspective. But expect to hear about it again in my end-of-year review.

'Mother' is, without qualification, the best thriller film I have seen in several years. If 'The Host' and 'Memories of Murder' suggested Joon-ho Bong was one to watch, then 'Mother' confirms his status as a major talent.

'Mother' has been rated '15' by the BBFC and is released across the UK on the 20th of August. Come and see it at Brighton's Duke of York's! Jon and I talked about in the latest Splendor Podcast.

Monday, 2 August 2010

'A-Team' review: Big, loud, oh-so-silly fun...

I'll say right off: I've never seen an episode of the 'A-Team', the cult 1980's action series, so it not for me to say whether Joe Carnahan's new franchise re-boot movie is faithful to the spirit of the TV show. What I can say is that this new film, starring Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Sharlto Copley and Quinton Jackson as the titular group of vigilantes, was surprisingly enjoyable. In fact, whether I was laughing at the film or with it, I spent most of its running time with a silly grin on my face.

This is not to say that 'The A-Team' is an especially good movie. To start with, the politics of the thing are slightly dubious to say the very least, from the cartoon Mexicans at the beginning to the sleezy sexism of Cooper's character 'Face'. And the "moral" lesson learnt by B.A Baracus (Jackson) - that, as Walter Sobchak would say, "pacifism is nothing to hide behind" - is faintly disturbing. It is also true that Carnahan's direction is incoherent during the action scenes, with fast editing and a dizzying number of close-ups, and he treats the audience with very little respect offering a flashback every few minutes to help re-explain plot points and even who characters are. Oh, and the CGI is pretty ropey throughout (but especially at the end).

But despite these many flaws, 'The A-Team' is actually fairly good fun. The main reason for this is the central performers. Liam Neeson is great, chewing the scenery as Hannibal and lending the role gravitas, and 'District 9' star Sharlto Copley is excellent as Murdock, the ace pilot busted out of an insane asylum. Cooper is reliably charismatic. Quinton Jackson, a former UFC fighting champion, is the least absorbing of the four main actors, but at least he doesn't stray into an impression of Mr. T. Elsewhere in the cast, Patrick Wilson is entertaining as a duplicitous CIA operative and Brian Bloom does a decent job as a nasty mercenary solider. Jessica Biel is a forgettable, spare part as Cooper's love interest - but she is almost blameless: let's face it, 'The A-Team' isn't going to be packed with great female characters.

Another reason the film is watchable is that everything that happens is so darned over the top ("overkill is underrated"). When Hannibal explains one very, very silly plan to the team, one of his men responds "this is bat shit crazy!", to which the old man replies "it gets better!" These men relish the impossible. It is like that scene in 'The Fantastic Mr. Fox' where Mr. Fox suggests a daring and convoluted route through a farm, oblivious that there is a completely clear path nearby which goes safely around all the obstacles. The difficulty (or impossibility) is the fun part and soon you are watching a tank fall out of an exploding aeroplane and hearing someone in a control room is exclaim "they're trying to fly the tank!" Ridiculous, but quite brilliant all the same, and certainly never less than entertaining.

In terms of raw "dumbness" there is really little to separate this movie - and everything that happens in it - from one directed by Michael Bay. However, there is less genuine bravado on show here. Whether it is intentional or just a happy accident, 'The A-Team' feels more like a parody of bravado. Everyone is clearly insane, nothing that takes place makes sense and everything explodes - especially when it logically shouldn't. It is a colourful and exaggerated cartoon version of reality. Nothing that takes place is milked for cool. In fact, cool is more or less absent here. And as someone who detests cool, I mean that in a really good way.

'The A-Team' isn't going to win any awards. It isn't going to get a five star review from The Guardian or be christened Film of the Month by Sight and Sound. And nor should it. There is much to dislike and criticise about it. But in a world where I have to sit through the "worthy" likes of 'Leaving' on a weekly basis, I am pleased and refreshed to be able to see something so self-consciously stupid. I'll watch a fun cheesy film over a dull film any day of the week.

Is 'The A-Team' a work of art? Probably not. But I'm not going to sit here stroking my chin denying that I smiled from beginning to end. If you've seen 'Inception' and 'Toy Story 3' (both far superior films) already and want to sample some light, blockbustery fun: then maybe you can call... 'The A-Team'. Cue music.

'The A-Team' is rated '12A' by the BBFC and is playing across the UK. You can hear Jon and I arguing about 'The A-Team' in our latest podcast.