This is simply stunning, brief though it is, a timelapse of footage shot of our world rotating below the International Space Station (ISS), all shot in beautifully crisp HD, creating some wonderfully sharp, clear images of our planet from several dozens miles above the atmosphere. Best viewing experience is to select the fullscreen option and just glory in it for a few brief moments…
Directed Alfonso Cuarón
Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
I’ve been eager to see Gravity for some time – Alfonso Cuarón’s take on PD James novel The Children of Men was a remarkable and powerful movie. This, originally, was to be his ‘quick’ movie after that long slog, but ended up taking several years instead, not least because they had to invent whole new ways of shooting to create the remarkable visual effects. Creating the effect that a person or a ship is in space is not new, of course, it’s been done with varying degrees of success for decades on the big screen, from the realistic approach of 2001 to the scientifically silly but visually wonderful style of Star Wars. Gravity follows more in the realistic mode of 2001 – no deep bass rumbles of mighty ships in the void (where there isn’t any atmosphere to transmit sound) and no sudden and graceful movements of winged craft that fly like planes (even though that is not how you maneuver in space), instead the only sound is inside your helmet or radio, movement is in line with Newton’s laws and the way a body travels in a gravity free, airless environment.
What it does differently from 2001 and other films which tried to portray space exploration as it really is though, is the depiction of being in a zero-gee environment. Cuarón and his team had to really battle to come up with filming systems to allow them to make their actors look like they truly are in a gravity free environment, and ye celluloid gods but it paid off. In fact, and I say this as someone who has been fascinated by space exploration since he was a very small boy, studied it, read about, imagined it, this paid off so well that you could be forgiven for thinking it was actually shot on location in Earth orbit. Yes, it really is that realistic looking. And it is also utterly ravishing, visually, right from an opening shot of a glowing Earth below a team of astronauts from a Shuttle working on the Hubble Space Telescope. Bullock’s specialist, a scientist brought into NASA to work on this particular upgrade because of her technical skills but not really an astronaut (apart from basic training), while Clooney’s veteran astronaut on his final flight is happily trying out a new design of MMU (Maned Maneuvering Unit – a jetpack for space, effectively) and flitting around the team. The glowing Earth below them fills the cinema screen and is simply beautiful, awesome in the proper use of the word.
But while the visual aspect of Gravity is remarkable and stunning (even the 3D, something I generally dislike in live action films, is excellent and worth the usual eye strain and headache) this isn’t just an effect fest, there is a story here and it is one which is incredibly tense and indeed intense, seriously gripping the arms of your chair stuff, right the way through. When Mission Control calls a warning to the team that a satellite has been destroyed and the debris is sweeping around the orbit towards them events rapidly spiral out of control into a desperate, against the odds attempt at survival.
And survival in an environment no human – no creature on our planet at all – evolved to survive in. It’s a deadly environment that we’ve somehow pushed ourselves and our technology to allow us to live and work in over the last half decade (and it’s worth remembering that in thousands of years of human history it is only a few dozen people over the last sixty years who have gone into space). And it anything goes wrong it can be fatal so very, horribly quickly. Even tiny pieces of debris, even just a bolt, travelling at twenty thousand miles and hour will have such kinetic force it can tear through a ship or a space station like an anti-tank round. And all of a sudden an intricate ship or station, assembled from so many precise components and painstakingly engineered and constructed to be just right to support human life in this environment is turned into Swiss cheese…
I won’t ruin it for you by expanding any further on how it develops from this accident. Suffice to say it is edge of the seat stuff, beautifully depicted, while the interaction between Bullock’s damaged scientist and Clooney’s veteran of the space programme, even in desperate straits, is perfectly handled (Clooney projects that image most of us have of the calm, unflappable NASA old school astronaut who takes the most catastrophic failures in his stride). This may be vast scale, big-screen, effects-laden storytelling, but it does not neglect either story or character and I found it profoundly satisfying on the emotional level as well as the spectacle. There are some nice nods to other iconic moments from space films tucked away in among the tense moments – a scene where Bullock floats in an airlock, shimmying out of her space suit recalls Barbarella, Bullock in vest and shorts in the space station reminds me of Ripley in the shuttle at the end of Alien, Bullock again floating, exhausted, in an airlock, the sunrise from space glowing through the window port as he floats in zero gee, curling up almost foetal after surviving one part of her ordeal, the cords around her like an umbilical coil, making her seem at the same time both childlike, a newborn and at the same time recalls the ‘star child’ from 2001 and the transformational power of such experiences and travel. It’s gripping right to the very last and as I said the visuals are simply breath-taking – this is one you want to see on the big screen, not on DVD later on, watch it on a big cinema screen and let yourself be drawn into it until you feel you’re there, floating above the world. An utterly remarkable piece of film-making.
And I have to add, on a personal note, those visuals played right into my life-long fascination with space travel; that screen-filling vista of the Earth revolving made my pulse race, just as it always has since I was a kid, at the thought of going into space. I had the same feeling watching In the Shadow of the Moon a few years ago; those Saturn V rockets lit up and my pulse went with them, the same excitement and longing I’ve had since I was five years old, in my little astronaut playsuit and helmet, sitting in an empty box for a spaceship, with an imagination as big as the universe. And even after watching a film like this showing the dangers I know that if I were offered the chance I would go in a heartbeat, that it’s the trip I have always wanted to make since I was that wee boy in his astronaut suit, playing and dreaming; I’m literally a child of the space age, born at the peak of the Apollo programme, and I’m forever disappointed that I’ll almost certainly never get to experience it first hand…
Big Bad Wolves,
Directed by Aharon Keshales, Navot Papushado
Starring: Guy Adler, Lior Ashkenazi, Dvir Benedek
Here’s a rather unusual and utterly compelling film from Israel which came my way courtesy of the folks behind the UK Jewish Film Festival (, which runs from 30th October to the 17th November, Big Bad Wolves screens there on November 14th): Big Bad Wolves. Directed by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado it has been doing the film festival circuit, where it has been picking up some good word of mouth, not least from a certain Quentin Tarantino. Partaking of black comedy, crime and horror and with a central premise that revolves around the murder of a child I really wasn’t sure what to expect from this film at all – as it turned out I sat glued to the screen throughout.
The film starts with an almost idyllic scene of childhood play, a group of kids having fun together, playing hide and seek in the woods, two young girls happily running around looking for a spot to conceal themselves while their friend counts down to his search. It should be a happy scene, but despite the playful children there is a shadow looming even in these opening few minutes, from the ominous music to other signifiers – the little girl in red skipping through the woods instantly hints at not just a fairy tale edge, but the darker version of the old fairy tales, the type which were much nastier, murkier and often bloodier, before they were cleaned up to become the tales we tell children today. This dark fairy tale vibe continues when the children think they have found their young friend’s hiding place, but all they find is a single red shoe – a disturbing play on the ruby red slipper – which belonged to her; the girl in the red dress is gone…
This opening credits sequence is the trigger for the later events, with a team of Israeli detectives trailing the only suspect. There is no proof and the only circumstantial evidence is one child who thinks they saw a man matching this suspect’s description near the area. But, as some detectives do, our cops have decided already, with no evidence, that this man – a local teacher, as it turns out – is guilty, and they are going to get a confession out of him, even if they have to beat it out of him. However, they are not aware a kid has seen them dragging the teacher into an abandoned building and is covertly filming this abuse, which finds its way onto the internet in short order. The detective, Miki, who decided on this course of action is busted, not just for his abuse of power, but because their heavy-handed actions mean that the suspect – their only suspect – has to be released and left alone. Shortly after this the girl’s body is found – minus her head – and Miki is, understandably, kicked off the force.
This does not stop Miki though – he is still convinced the quiet teacher is his man. Word gets out about the suspicions – still with no proof – and he is suspended from his school work, his reputation ruined through only hearsay. Miki begins to tail him on his own time, planning to kidnap his suspect, take him to a remote location and torture the confession he desires from him. What he doesn’t realise is that at the same time Tsvika is following them both – the father of the murdered girl, with an agenda of his own, and now he has both the teacher and Miki in his sights with a cold, implacable determination to do what he thinks he has the right to do…
I’m not going to blow any of this hugely compelling and incredibly tense film for you by risking any possible spoilers. Suffice to say what follows is bloody, painful and excruciating. With no actual proof, just a child’s possible description of someone who passed by the area, actions are set in motion, judgements are made based on anger and revenge rather than rational thought, let alone due process of law. And the viewer is almost complicit in this, the film-makers cleverly playing on competing and contrasting emotions on the part of the audience. On the one hand we’re utterly horrified at the thought of using torture on someone, especially when that person may well be innocent and have no confession to make. But at the same time if this man has committed the abuse then slow murder of a child there is a part of the audience that also wants to see him suffer and pay for his crimes. And since we don’t know for a long time which side of the innocent-guilty divide our little teacher stands on this creates an excruciating emotional tension which leave you totally immersed in the story.
The film leavens these dark moments with a black sense of humour which means that despite the violence and the heavy duty emotional subject matter there are lighter moments and scenes to offer some relief. There are also, like any good fairy tale, layers of metaphor layered through the story. On the simplest level there is the obvious dichotomy between straight out vengeance and the civil rule of law which all societies have to live by or else descend into the chaos of blood-grudges and lynchings. We may want the bad guy – assuming he is the bad guy – to pay, but we know it has to be by the book, no matter how much we may want to give in to the animal urge to simply hurt back (and what if we are wrong? That’s why we need courts, evidence, trials). Behind this you could also read some of these events for a commentary on the post-9/11 world, where even supposedly civil, law-abiding democracies have secretly reverted to the vile practice of torture to extract confessions, or even on the relationship between Israelis and Arabs and how easily those in power can abuse that power over others (always in the name of the greater good, of course, they still see themselves as the ‘good guys’). This is reinforced by Tsvika relocating to a remote home in a mostly Arab area, secluded, where he can plan to carry out his ‘interrogation’ without anyone nearby hearing the screams…
It’s a hugely satisfying and gripping film, twisting the audience emotionally so they find themselves supporting both sides at differing points in the film, a real morality morass with no clear totally good or bad characters or motivations (the murdered girl’s father Tsvika acts with such quiet restraint rather than anger and shouting that he comes across as more terrifying than the supposed murderer in many scenes). The murders themselves happen off-screen, instead we get a description of them during the attempts to force a confession, and somehow this is even more horrifying, getting under the viewer’s skin more than a straight visualistion of the deaths may have done. Big Bad Wolves is stylish, satisfying, utterly compelling and it puts the audience through the emotional wringer. Seriously recommended.
This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog
I caught The Fifth Estate film this afternoon; I had my reservations that this fictional (based on true facts, as they say) take on Assange and WikiLeaks would not match the excellent We Steal Secrets documentary I saw at the Edinburgh Film Festival earlier this year. Especially as the trailer tried to make it look like a thrilling espionage flick, although I thought wait till I see it, trailers, after all, are often misleading, edited by marketing bods, not the film-makers. Plus, y’know, this film also boasted Benedict Cumberbatch and his cheekbones. So off to the cinema I went.
Sadly I have to say despite an (as usual) excellent performance from Cumberbatch (playing Julian Assange and bringing out his mix of both prophet and svengali like user and narcissist), my fears were confirmed – this was a dreadful, utterly cliche-ridden film. Within the first half hour I was tired of it and the hackneyed, poorly thought out and executed attempts to ‘sex up the dossier’ – retrieving information, posting it online, hacking, they don’t make for very exciting visuals. And how many times since the 80s have we seen Hollywood coming up with all sorts of stupid-looking attempts to make them look fast-paced, exciting, thrilling even? From Hackers to Swordfish Hollywood has an abysmal record on how to portray this kind of work on a screen. Don’t get me wrong, I do sympathise a bit, the film-makers want to make it look a bit sexier for the viewers but if they depict it realistically it won’t look that way. This is the same reason why almost every car shot in the petrol tank or driven off the road into a crash in Hollywood movies then explodes. They don’t in real life, but boy it looks more fun on the screen. But I would submit the sort of people who are interested in the WikiLeaks story do not need it to be Hollywoodized and are capable of accepting a reasonable depiction of information gathering and dissemination, so why the urge to make it look like this? It’s not a popcorn movie, for goodness sake.
So within the first thirty minutes lots of rapid cuts back and forth to try and create tension, the old rotate around the hacker quickly as they type away, have screens that have multiple windows streaming gobbledegook that is just nonsense, the old screen reflected in the lens of someone’s glasses and more shots anyone who has seen more than a few movies will recognise. There’s very little in the editing and cinematography that is interesting or unusual here, instead it lazily lifts already stereotypical ideas of how to show IT and hacking and recycles it, albeit with many more quick cuts. Although that said, the use of a large, dark office space repeatedly to symbolise how the organisation works (or doesn’t!) was not half bad.
So that style had me wanting to walk out after half an hour, but I stuck to it to see how the narrative would go. Sadly this fared no better – again to be fair this is a complex series of events and issues over years that had to be condensed down into a couple of hours running time, no simple task. So I accept streamlining of events and characters to try and fit into a film narrative, but sadly this is just to simplified. There is some attempt to show the moral quagmire of some of the events – yay, the good guys get inside secrets from a whistleblower and put it out there for all to read! But oops, they also put out documents naming people and their personal addresses, families, numbers, information that in the wrong hands could easily lead to them being hurt or worse. But again this is handled so ineptly it is clear the makers didn’t really know quite how to handle this film and also failed to have confidence in their audience, that the sort of cinema-goers who want to see a film based on this tale would be a bit better read and informed and would not need the events glammed up to keep them excited – as I said, this is not a spy thriller, for goodness sake.
The film also skips by the entire sexual assault matter Assange still has hanging over him (it gets a brief line in post-film credits) and poor Bradley Manning’s series of leaks which gave WikiLeaks its greatest coup and brought it to true world prominence via an alliance with the Guardian, Der Spiegel and New York Times is simply a device to push plot forward here, Manning is barely mentioned, his reasons for doing what he did and the huge personal cost is also lightly skipped over, which is unforgivable, in my opinion, with many others involved in WikiLeaks similarly given short-shrift. And yes, I know, simplifying for a narrative film, but the documentary managed to cover these people and aspects of the WikiLeaks stories, so why could the screenwriters here not manage it better?
My advice – forget this misfire of a film and instead check out the excellent documentary We Steal Secrets film, which, with a fraction of the budget, conveys far more details and information on these important events in a sensible, non-glamorous, manner where the events and presentation make it engrossing and exciting, not silly cuts and cliched scenes,and we see much more of the people and what they did, why they did it and the effects those events have had on them.
A very cool montage of final scenes from the movies, themed around several segments from ‘awakening/creation’ through ‘natural world’, ‘youth’, ‘love’, ‘journey’, ‘triumph’, ‘celebration’, and ‘transcendence’. And no, even I haven’t see all the films these comes from!
Filmish: Food on Film
As regular readers will know, I’m a bit of a cinephile and as such it’s no surprise that I’ve really enjoyed the previous entries in Edward Ross’ Filmish series, examining the world of cinema and film theory through comics, essentially taking one modern, mass, primarily visual artform which came into prominence in the 20th century and looking at it through the medium of another. In many ways the media of cinema and comics have grown up together across the last century and a bit, and both have intercrossed with one another numerous times across the decades, from comic characters like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers inspiring cult, pulp serial films or celebrated early comics superstar Winsor McCay experimenting with film animation through to the modern era and massive film properties drawn (no pun intended) from comics, or a filmic visual sensibility influencing comic artists (as seen to such great effect in Dave Gibbons’ art for Watchmen, for instance), so it seems quite appropriate to me that Ed should use comics as a handy, very accessible portal into the world of film studies.
In previous editions Edward has looked more generally at film theory (issue #1, reviewed here), set designs and architecture (issue #2, reviewed here) and technology and technophobia (issue #3, reviewed here). Edward has been pretty busy since the third Filmish so there’s been a bit of a gap that one and this new fourth, in which the theme is “food on film”. It’s an interesting topic to explore and, despite the fact we can all probably conjure to mind several good examples of the use of food and dining in film, it’s one most of us, even those who spend too much time thinking about cinema, won’t generally spend a lot of time considering. But as Edward points out in the opening pages, food is one of the great universals of the human condition – we all have to eat, quite simply, or we cannot live. But food in human culture is often about far more than simple sustenance, food, the preparation for it, the type of food on offer, the location consumed, who is providing it, all come laden with cultural and social meaning, from the simple and wonderful delight of the family meal, cooked with love for those who will share the meal, the unspoken satisfaction of the familial bonding around the dinner table, the ritual pleasure of it, through to the hideously expensive restaurant where one has to book months in advance simply to enter and where dining is more about being seen in a particular setting by others than enjoying food.
Here Edward explores these and other food-related topics from decades of cinema. Unsurprisingly one of early cinema’s iconic scenes, the great Charlie Chaplin, starving, cooking and eating his own shoe during the Depression in The Gold Rush. As Ed shows, this is a comedy moment, Chaplin prepares his shoe like a gourmet meal and dines as if in a fine restaurant, despite the nature of his dish. But as he also shows this is about more than comedy, it’s Chaplin, never one to shy away from working in social commentary, making it clear that despite being wretchedly poor and hungry, his Little Tramp is still a civilised man, not a feral animal, still with some dignity, attempted to hold on to a little piece of civilised culture as he carves into his own boot by candlelight. It’s Chaplin declaring even the poorest in a time of hardship are still people, and in our current economic climate with growing reliance on charity food banks, it’s a memorable scene which still has social relevance to today, in addition to its comedic qualities.
Anyone with more than a passing interest will doubtless anticipate some of the films which will make an appearance here – quite understandably Greenaway’s The Coof, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover commands a section of the comic. Given how food, it’s consumption and its social setting is a large part of the film it’s a good choice, and Ed uses it to demonstrate how film can use the consumption of food – something we are all familiar with, of course – to symbolise other qualities, such as the way the gangster Albert uses his expensive restaurant to demonstrate his power and patronage, but also as a transgressive power, in the way those who displease him are forced to consume non-food item in front of others, both humiliating them while making clear his alpha-male status (this will, of course, be turned on him in a rather macabre yet darkly amusing and appropriate manner towards the end).
Horror, often a huge favourite with film studies academics, of course makes an appearance, from the use of a very everyday dining experience on a working ship in Ridley Scott’s Alien to give a sense of normality to the viewers, that even although this is the far future, in deep space, people are still people, sitting around the table, gossiping, bitching, laughing, eating, drinking. And then of course having established that normality a later dining experience is used to shatter that seeming normality in one of modern cinema’s most iconic scenes as the alien creature erupts through John Hurt’s stomach right on the dining table. It’s a sequence often discussed more in terms of gender (a form of male rape crossed with a violent, horrible inversion of birth as new life erupts from the man’s violated body), but here it is viewed again in terms of food and consumption – “a reversal of consumption” as one panel has it. The Alien films were a regular feature in film studies when I was at college, but as I said generally more about power and gender terms in the analysis, so although I was very familiar with both the film and academic theories on it I hadn’t really considered it from the food perspective before and it’s always interesting to be reading about something you know very well and suddenly finding a different angle on it to make you think about it again.
While I was very familiar with many of the films here Edward also brings in all sorts of other examples from various languages and film cultures, some of which I know only by reputation, such as Tampopo, “which paints a picture of a Japan obsessed with food”, or Bunuel’s Phantom of Liberty (in which bodily functions and social interaction are inversed – the ‘civilised’ classes eating in private but defecating in public, or Hungarian film Taxidermia which uses food and consumption to chart three stages of recent history for that country, from fascism through communism to capitalism. Obviously anyone reading this will think of some of their own film viewing and wish they too had been included, but that’s always the nature of these things and besides there needs to be a strict, disciplined control on the number and type of examples – after all Ed is using them to illustrate some points about the symbolism and nature of food, not as an illustrated A-Z of food scenes in film history! Just as you have to pick specific examples and back them up with references when writing an academic essay the same has to be done in this kind of comic work, and it is something Ed again proves he is very good at, in fact in many ways I think it’s fair to consider the Filmish series as film studies essays in comics form.
On stage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last month with Will Morris, Edward commented that he has mostly been learning how to create comics through the tried and tested method of making them. I think that shows when I glance back at my earlier copies of Filmish – which is not to say I thought there was anything wrong with the first ones, far from it, in fact I gave them good reviews and commended to them. But looking back to the first one (which I read in 2010 after picking it up in the Filmhouse in Edinburgh) and then to this new issue I can clearly see Ed’s artwork and layout becoming more proficient; the artwork is sharper and has a much clearer line to it, while I think he’s become much more experienced and confident in laying out the panels to convey the message he wants to get across, which is good to see, while he has retained elements which have worked well from the very earliest outings, such as dropping his own cartoon alter ego in from time to time as a guide and commentator. As with previous issues Edward includes both a filmography and a bibliography so that the curious reader can follow up any areas the find themselves wanting to explore further, and I imagine that many, like me, will find themselves with a desire after reading to go and find some of the films mentioned here again, some old friends to re-watch to consider again in a different light, some that we came across in this volume which are new to us and that we now have to find and watch, and that to me is always a mark of good reading, when it leaves you wanting to go and explore other artforms.
This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog
This is just a stunningly beautiful short film from The Avant Garde Diaries team, following freediver William Trubridge into the depths of the sea, no oxygen cylinders, no scuba gear. I’ve had a fascination for this sport since I first saw The Big Blue decades ago (it remains one of my favourite films) and like that film this features some gorgeous underwater cinematography, here presented in a wonderfully crisp, almost ethereal, otherworldly monochrome (more of their videos here):
Vie d’Enfer is a terrific short animated film, where a portly wee demon who clearly loves his work of tormenting the damned gets a bit carried away, overloads the torture machine and blows himself all the way to the opposing realm, where the soon runs amuck. The animation style is great, with a genuine sense of fun and dark humour that will appeal to folk like me who enjoy Edward Gorey and Tim Burton:
Another quick review of one of the genre movies I caught recently as part of my annual Edinburgh Film Festival week, this one by the great J-Horror director Hideo Nakata. This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog:
Director: Hideo Nakata
Starring: Atsuko Maeda, Hiroki Narimiya, Masanobu Katsumura, Naomi Nishida, Kanau Tanaka
Hideo Nakata is a name well known to fans of horror films, especially that rich seams of J-Horror, with very influential entries in the genre such as Dark Water and Ring. When I went to see The Complex I wasn’t sure quite what to expect – much as I love horror film and have enjoyed the works which Japan (and them more parts of Asian cinema) have been adding to the genre, I have to admit that there has been a bit too much in terms of generic tropes and repetitive imitations – too many close ups of rolling eyeballs over loud soundtrack noise and very long haired girls crawling in unnatural poses have diluted this part of the genre through inferior copying and imitation. Refreshingly with The Complex Nakata treads a different but highly effective path, here opting for more of a straight ghost story, proper hauntings with real reasons for the ghosts’ existence and mostly avoiding the jump-shock or gore approach for creepy atmosphere, something a well told ghost tale can do so well and to such phantasmagorical effect.
Asuka is a young student, moving into a slightly run down looking 60s style concrete apartment complex with her family, in order to be nearer to her college, where she is studying to work in healthcare. The opening scenes of unpacking in the new home seem very tranquil and domestic and fairly cheery, with her little brother and loving parents around her, but for those of us who have a lot of horror flicks under our belts there are signs even then that there are dark clouds in the horizon. A solitary, rather tatty box of possessions, oh, these are mum’s thinks Asuka as she unpacks in her room, and takes it through to her parent’s room. Somehow you just know that box is foreshadowing something later in the film. Other warning signs that not all is right with the apparent domestic bliss of a new family home come when over breakfast on different mornings her mother and father have exactly the same conversation… It Nakata’s world it isn’t just the dark, spooky places that can harbour something odd or frightening, as with Lynch so too can the cheerfully suburban dometic.
And then there are the neighbours – Asuka is sent with little homemade cakes to introduce the family to their new neighbours and starts with the apartment opposite them on their landing. She rings the bell and knocks the door; she thinks she hears someone inside, but no-one actually answers the door. And then in best creepy horror tradition the door opens itself, just a few inches, but with no-one visible. And then it closes again. Creepy things going on or just an elderly neighbour who doesn’t care for company? And why are there no kids in the playground, save for one single wee boy? As night falls on those first evenings in the new apartment the noises start, some awful, drawn out noise from the apartment right through from her bedroom…
I’m not going to expand any further into what the source of that noise is in the neighbouring apartment, or indeed why the apparent domesticity of the new family home feels so off despite the apparently happy surface, because that would take us into the realm of spoilers. Suffice to say Nakata takes his time in slowly building up the setting and introducing characters, the slow burn, ratchetting gradually up with the tension and creepiness that a good ghost tale requires. My only complaint about the Complex is that a couple of the twists I saw coming very early on in the film; perhaps Nakata telegraphed them a little less subtly than he should, but then again it is equally possible there’s no real fault in the narrative and it is simply having seen so many genre flicks the regular viewer picks up on some foreshadowing quicker than other viewers. It certainly didn’t spoil my viewing and Nakata being the master of horror that he is there were other revelations I didn’t see coming. Besides, J-Horror or horror from anywhere else, the key to a good ghost story is atmosphere, and that Nakata has in spades here. Good late night horror viewing.
Director: Richard Raaphorst
Starring: Karel Roden, Joshua Sasse, Robert Gwilym, Alexander Mercury, Luke Newberry, Hon Ping Tang
I’ve just enjoyed my annual week off going round an enjoyably diverse series of movies at the Edinburgh International Film Festival; of course some of those films I caught just happen to fall into the genres we cover on here, so I thought following last week’s review of the very unusual Iranian SF flick Taboor I’d share another interesting genre flick I saw, one I couldn’t resist, not with a title like this: Frankenstein’s Army.
World War Two rages, and a forward scout unit of weary, wary Russian soldiers is advancing cautiously, searching out German positions. Unusually this advance unit has had a film unit attached to them (so yes, you guessed it, we’re in ‘found footage’ territory, although don’t despair, this is actually pretty damned good fun), for recording and propaganda purposes allegedly (they may not be mad on the idea, but the grizzled combat veterans of the Soviet Army know better than to question orders from above in Stalin’s Russia). Their commander is growing concerned at their lack of radio contact with any other Soviet units in some days as they push forward. When they do finally receive a signal it is short, a desperate plea from another Soviet unit in dire trouble, and their coordinates, before the lose the radio signals again. They are wary – this doesn’t sound like a unit that should be as far forward as their scouting group, and why is it that again they cannot pick up any signals? None the less, comrades may be in trouble so they have to investigate, and soon come across a deserted village and semi ruined buildings – and fresh graves. Open fresh graves with emptied coffins…
Exploring the buildings they are surprised to find the interiors are less like any farm or village buildings and more reminiscent of factories. Still puzzling over where everyone went to and why these rural buildings seem to have been refitted as some sort of industrial units they are attacked and take their first casualties. Their vicious enemy attacks suddenly, the familiar Nazi swastika is visible, but these are no ordinary Wermacht troops. In fact they don’t even seem entirely human…
We soon discover our cameraman is not working for the propaganda unit, he is actually under top secret orders from the very top, and the unit must help him with it (and they are none too subtly reminded these orders come from Comrade Stalin himself and they know where all of the soldier’s families live… It’s not just the Nazis Russian soldiers have to worry about in this time, it’s also their own leaders). Soviet intelligence has become aware of an unusual advance weapons project the Nazis have, but this isn’t some engineering wonder like the V2 Rocket, this is all the work of one man, a certain Baron Frankenstein. And while he uses machinery just like Von Braun does for his ‘wonder weapons’, the Baron, of course, also uses human body parts. The reason for the desecrated, emptied graves nearby becomes clear, and soon the men are plunged into a hideous struggle with inhuman creatures, part human, party machine and the chances of them surviving, let alone capturing or killing the elusive Baron, seem to be diminishing rapidly in a series of nightmarish skirmishes.
I’m not going to say anything more of the story here for fear of spoiling it, but it is a very satisfying slice of sci-fi/horror, going from the open fields of war (open but eternally dangerous) to the closed, claustrophobic underground chambers of the Baron’s lair, enclosed and full of danger and grotesque horrors. The dark corridors and first person perspective of the cameraman’s footage (he keeps recording even after his real mission is revealed) combine to give an almost video game, first person shooter kind of feel to some scenes as the soldiers are pursued by the Baron’s monstrous creations through the decaying, dark, underground halls and corridors. The creatures themselves are a marvelous addition to the history of imaginative creatures in the genre, literally stitched together from pieces of Nazi corpses and then united with pieces of machinery, which gives a sort of steampunk/dieselpunk feel to them and which also reminded me (in the good way) of running around the remarkable sets and encountering the bizarre part human, part machine beings in Bioshock.
The Film Festival had the good sense to schedule this UK premiere of Frankenstein’s Army as a late night movie and that suits it perfectly – it is an ideal slice of late night genre movie, best viewed after a couple of drinks, by turns scary and horrific (some scenes in the Baron’s house of horrors are like an explosion in a charnel house) and yet also delightfully over the top in places, knowingly so, tipping a nod and a wink to the hardcore fans in a way that makes it clear the makers are fans of the genre themselves. It really is an ideal late night genre flick, the combination of action, horror and dark comedy, and the inventive creature designs seem destined to become cult faves. Sadly in the UK you’ll need to keep an eye out for screenings at film festivals as there’s no word on a UK general release yet, although the makers tell me that they are concentrating on an American release for now, with screenings in select cities and also video on demand at the end of July in the US market. Hopefully it won’t be too long before it gets a proper UK release too. Meantime keep up with the film’s release progress via Twitter and Facebook.
Blast from the past with this short Rank film – Swinging London and oh, those sixties fashions! (via BoingBoing)
It’s that time of year when I take a few much needed days off to relax and spend even more time than usual concealed away in dark cinema auditoriums for the Edinburgh Film Festival. I’ve not had a proper holiday in far too long – this time last year, on the very first day off for the film festival I got a call to say dad had been rushed into hospital, so I spent a good chunk of that week off going back and forth to hospital in Glasgow, most of the remaining holiday days I had for the rest of the year were saved to use up later as I knew when dad finally went for his surgery and in his recovery afterwards I’d need days off. So to say a whole week off just to relax and enjoy a variety of world cinema is a welcome relief is an understatement. This afternoon was my first FF screening.
Directed by Vahid Vakilifar
Starring Mohammad Rabbanipour
Taboor is one of those movies that make me go to film festival screenings – I don’t know anything about it apart from the single paragraph description in the festival programme (unusual for most flicks I see as I keep up with film reviews, interviews etc, so rarely see something I don’t know anything about), and what I find is odd, unusual, different – delightfully so. Vakilifar’s Iranian film defies labeling (which is often a good thing) – ostensibly it is a simple tale, following the nocturnal work of a solitary, middle-aged, silver haired and bearded (rather dignified looking) man as he goes around the quiet, night-time streets of Tehran on his motorbike and sidecar, carrying out his work as an exterminator. But to tell you that, while accurate, really doesn’t tell you much, because this is less a film about narrative, or indeed even about character interaction and more about an experience, one of those films you are simply taken into and feel rather than follow. It makes for an engrossing film-watching experience, but it does make it damned difficult to convey in a review just why you enjoyed it so much!
The film is mostly wordless – it is a good half hour before we hear a single human voice, and even then it is a voice-over, for just a few moments (indeed the few other moments of speaking will also be as voice overs, not as dialogue, we never actually see two characters speaking to one another, which adds to the unreal atmosphere pervading this film). That small voice over is one of the very few bits of exposition in the film, as the man is visiting a hospital for a full body scan. Following the scan a doctor takes him (again with no dialogue between them) to an old lift and down to a shabby basement kitchen, where, for no apparent reason, he throws a piece of meat from the fridge onto a skillet. As the cinema stares at the animal flesh shrinking in the heat, curling, smoking, spitting fat, the voice over remarks that he had tried to warn the man that his condition is getting worse, that this is what is happening to him, to his internal organs, which for some never specified reason are being cooked from within by microwave radiation which he seems unusually sensitive too, and the condition is accelerating, despite his elaborate precautions.
Precautions? Well right at the start we spend several minutes watching the man wake in a single room in a converted trailer; the room is entirely lined in aluminium foil, walls, floor, ceiling, no windows visible. Rising from his bed in the almost monk-cell like silvery chamber the man dons overalls also made of shiny foil, before donning trousers, a large jacket with hood, buttoned right up and then a motorbike helmet with extra material coming off it over his neck and shoulders, reminiscent of some firefighter’s helmets. Obviously thoughts of paranoid obsessives worried about secret CIA projects trying to read or control their mind leap to mind and it is only half an hour later we get this tiny fragment of information to explain why he lives and dresses as he does.
But the reason behind it really isn’t terribly important, this is more an odd night-trip through a largely empty city, the urban world at night, streets, houses, road and rail tunnels, all lit up so we can see clearly but that feeling anyone who lives in a city gets, that the light is somehow false, that those artificial lights let us see our way around our cities after night but that those lights make everything, from buildings to roads to trees to people, look different than the natural light of day does. Vakilifar clearly has a love of perspective – many shots are static, fairly long sequences – the point of view of our man looking down a city highway and tunnel at night, the lines and curves running away into the background, a long hospital corridor, an underground railway tunnel, even the opening shot of his solitary room in his trailer. No cuts and dissolves here from long shot to medium to close up, the bulk of the shots are very static and usually lined up on some interesting perspective (a particularly effective sequence sees the camera stay filming the same shot as our man is lead to a door, the double doors open, he walks through a hall to identical double doors which open to lead to another set, all without the camera’s perspective changing. It creates a kind of detachment, as does the lack of close ups or personal interaction or dialogue, leaving us as observers, also sometimes reminding us of the voyeuristic nature of cinema (an inexplicable scene with the man, naked save for underwear and a metal bin over his head, standing at the end of a long corridor being shot at by a pellet gun underlines this voyeuristic feeling, while the man’s near naked, head covered post is reminiscent of those horrible shots disgraced US troops took of abused prisoners in Abu Ghraib).
The film is full of odd scenes and imagery, with the work of David Lynch, that inference of the odd and weird just hidden below the surface of seemingly normal, everyday places and people, a very strong influence (right down to another unexplained scene which sees our man calling on a client not to exterminate bugs but to stand in a richly decorated room regarding an expensively dressed dwarf in the other corner). The empty, night-time urban cityscapes also hint at influences such as Michael Mann (like Mann some beautifully shot nocturnal cityscapes, occasionally accompanied by very atmospheric, ambient music, which is used sparingly) and also Ridley Scott (in what I presume is an in-joke as the man and doctor silently share an elevator the muzak in the lift is a version of Blade Runner Blues from Vangelis’ soundtrack for that film). It’s a very odd piece of film-making from Iran, hints of Lynch, Mann, Jim Jarmusch and more. The lack of dialogue is replaced with a hyper-realised soundtrack, where the silence is filled with noises from the rustling of the man’s foil suit to footsteps, echoes, clunks and clicks of doors – like Berberian Sound Studio (an offering at last year’s film festival) even when it appears little is happening the soundscape creates a hugely atmospheric feeling, while the lack of explanation and dialogue and the distance the camera keeps from the man (he is never named), rather than alienating the viewer instead draw us in, inviting us to imagine narrative, be a part of the film, while the odd scenes, the static long shots and the mostly empty night time scenes the man travels through create a very dream-like feeling.
I suspect some will find it tedious or dull, it’s certainly not for everyone, but personally I found it compelling, drawing me into this odd, solitary, isolated night-time, mostly unexplained life and man. This isn’t really the sort of film that you can explain easily to someone why you like it, it just touches some viewers and draws them in. Certainly did for me, one of the sort of films I love to find at film festivals, odd, unusual, compelling and the sort of thing I’d probably never get to see screened outside of a festival setting.