Reviews: Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World

Do Not Expect Too Much From The End Of The World,
Directed by Radu Jude,
Starring Ilinca Manolache, Nina Hoss, Uwe Boll, László Miske, Dorina Lazar

The Golden Bear award-winning Radu Jude returns with an incredibly ambitious – not to mention lengthy, at a hefty two hours and forty three minutes – piece, which happily pays homage and also subverts elements of Goddard and the French New Wave with very modern, of-the-moment elements (not least digital tech, online social media) and filters it all through the appalling, endless grind of trying to make ends meet in the gig economy, cross-cut frequently with vintage film from the early 1980s of a woman taxi driver (a rarity back then), who share both a name – Angela – with our protagonist (played by Ilinca Manolache, who carries so much of this film) and, despite the decades between them, also share many similarities in their life and work demands.

Modern-day Angela is filmed mostly in her car, constantly driving from one task to the next for her wealthy employers (who naturally expect her to work incredibly long hours for a pittance, while they make far more money themselves), and the camera work here lends an almost video-blogging aspect to the film, as if the many scenes of a tired, grumpy Angela endlessly driving from job to job start to look like they should be part of her social media. Meanwhile she uses digital filters to appear as a bald-headed, mono-browed joke of a man, the sort who worships misogynistic hate-mongers like Tate (who she references in this persona), which she intends as a sort of joke, but which obviously also allow the put-upon Angela to indulge in some much-needed angry venting, and perhaps also a way of purging some of that same bigotry she encounters herself in her daily grind. That she’s running from job to job to record interviews with workers for a multi-national company who were injured in the job (for a work safety film!), while she herself is so overworked she falls asleep at the wheel, just adds to a relentless sense of a treadmill and little changing for most people, always at the mercy of the whims of the rich and powerful employers.

Jude employs an incredible array of visual styles and flourishes – from a sharply contrasted, documentary black and white to the washed out colours of older film stock for the 1980s Angela, to the artificial filters of the social media segments, making great use of cuts and jumps, but also unafraid to sometimes lock the camera into one view for a very long scene (one of the injured workers telling his story, then again, then again, multiple takes so the company can then edit his words to suit themselves, not the truth), making it a visual smorgasbord of cinema and modern multimedia.

It’s often in your face, rude and crude in places, and the feeling that between the 1980s and modern-day Angela’s world very little has changed, that if anything life has just become grimmer and harder for many more can be overwhelming (especially given the very long running time), yet it is leavened with a lot of dark humour and satire. In some places it is examining the way a lot of people have to live and work now, holding up a mirror in a way many social-realist directors would recognise, but in other moments it is holding up a dark, twisted, Funhouse distorting mirror, as much satire as it is commentary. It’s clearly not a movie for everyone, but many cinephiles will find this highly unusual and fascinating work.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: seaside terror in Punch

Punch,
Directed by Andy Edwards,
Starring Kierston Wareing, Alina Alison, Daniel Fathers, Jamie Lomas, Faye Campbell, Macaulay Cooper, Sarah Alexander Marks

That’s the way to do it!

The slasher sub-genre, like the found-footage one, is one I rarely visit much these days – not because I don’t like them, but more because for the most part they feel pretty played out these days. Every now and then though, someone does something a bit different, and when I heard about Punch, it got my attention – British slasher, for a starter, and using the iconic Mr Punch character? Oh, and it went down well with the FrightFest crowd? Oh yes, I was totally having a look at that!

Andy Edwards and his cinematographer, Max Williams, deserve kudos straight off for making the most of their location here, shot around Hastings. And yes, of course while Punch and Judy shows have been performed everywhere, including markets and fairs in towns and cities, today most of us associate it with the British seaside, and probably, if honest, the fading British seaside, a generations-old act that somehow kept going into the fairly recent era, but was always fading away (even when I was a kid many years ago, it was already something you saw far less than you used to).

And that fits this film perfectly, because this is the British seaside town out of season, when it is quiet, many of the businesses literally boarded up until the next summer season and the return of the tourists and day-trippers (which seem even less each year as the once popular seaside holiday is swapped for affordable foreign trips). Edwards and Williams really make the most out of this feeling of semi-abandonment, taking in garish, colourful signs for amusements and food places, most of which are closed for the off-season, their bright signage now more like mockery of a small town that, outside the summer, has little left to offer, especially for the local younger folk.

And after dark it all seems worse, not just run-down, but creepy – if you’ve ever walked through a funfair as they are switching off all the lights at the end of the night, you will recognise that feeling, where something that was bright and cheerful becomes creepy and scary. Then add in to that the unsettling figure of Mr Punch, who, despite being sometimes being seen as children’s seaside entertainment, is (and always has been, really) also a downright creepy and potentially scary figure himself…

Frankie (Alina Allison) is reluctantly back home, forced to take time off from her university studies to take care of her mother (Kierston Wareing), a mother who seems less than grateful her daughter came back home to look after her, and downright hostile to the thought she will soon leave again – you can feel the resentment bubbling through. Frankie finds more of that around some of her old friends in the town as she and her best friend Holly (Faye Campbell), and later her ex, Darrell (Macaulay Cooper), reluctantly drawn into their social circle, head out for a good time. While some are happy to see her back, there’s an obvious air of resentment from others – she made it out, made it to somewhere else, somewhere better, away from this dead-end with no prospects.

They’re reminded of an old local story about a killer in a Punch mask who is said to attack wayward youths (in the finest Slasher tradition, our killer especially hates youthful character who are having fun like drink, dancing, and sex). They all pretty much dismiss it as an obvious scare story told by parents to put teens and twentysomethings off of misbehaving at night, but we get glimpses of fading “missing” posters on the closed pier and seafront businesses (a nice nod to the missing posters in Lost Boys), and naturally there is a raving lunatic character around the town who delights in telling the kids how the killer will hunt them down. It’s all a silly, old story… Until the killings start…

As the Punch character appears, starting by picking off side character before slowly moving towards out core group of characters, the tension and creepy levels mount, and again the use of the location and season work well (an extended chase on a now empty pier at night, all the noisy lights of the amusement arcade playing to nobody except the victims and the killer make for an eerie setting). I should probably amend “slasher” to “basher” here, though, as the choice of weapon is a baseball bat! And to be fair, Mr Punch is known for walloping people, so that makes sense!

The mask and that creepy Punch voice add to the unease, and the film even drops in scenes which help explain how the killer (relentless but always slower than the running victims) manages to always catch up to them and find them (which was a nice wee touch, some movies don’t bother with that), and then, on top of the actual slasher (or basher) serial killing, the film also starts to infuse a touch of British Folk Horror into the proceedings – yes, this is a relentless man-in-a-mask killer, stalking youthful victims, but there’s more going on here, drawing on both the mythos of the Punch act and old traditions to add that frisson of folk element to the proceedings, which for me really added to the film.

It’s fun to see someone take the old slasher genre and give it a fresh twist, and for me especially fun to have it be a British location for a change (I know slashers can be set anywhere, but most of the really big ones that spring to mind are mostly US-set), and adding in the possible tradition/folkloric element of this unusual and unique (and often as creepy as he is entertaining) character like Mr Punch just gives more depth to the film, while the good use of those closed-up, out of season seafront locations imparts a distinct style and atmosphere to the whole film. I really wouldn’t be surprised to see another Punch follow this one.

Punch is released by Miracle Media via On Demand services from January 22nd.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

French film festival: Anatomy of a Fall

French Film Festival 2023: Anatomy of a Fall / Anatomie d’une chute,
Directed by Justine Triet.
Starring Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado-Graner, Antoine Reinartz, Samuel Theis, Jehnny Beth

The first movie I caught at this year’s annual French Film Festival (taking place in multiple cities around the UK this month) was Anatomy of a Fall, which bagged director and co-writer Justine Triet the coveted Palme D’or at Cannes (making her only the third female director to win the award, which is not a good look for Cannes, but that’s another story). At first glance you may assume this to be a fairly standard courtroom thriller / whodunnit: a husband in a rocky marriage dies in mysterious circumstances, his wife was the only other person in their mountainside chalet near Grenoble. Was is accidental, a fall while repairing the house? A deliberate suicide? Or a rage-fuelled murder? The suspicions of the authorities fairly inevitably settle on the author wife, Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller), and a courtroom battle looms…

Except this does not go the way I thought it might, instead leading us into a far murkier emotional mess of a relationship, of accusations and regrets and arguments. The couple’s world had been upset when her husband, Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis), busy with other projects (teaching, repairing the house they intended to rent out for more income, trying to get his own writing career going), neglects to pick up their son from school, asking a babysitter to do it at the last minute. Arriving late, the babysitter and their son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner) are involved in a bad accident, the effects of which leaves the young boy only partially sighted, which leaves simmering resentments and guilt over blame.

Sandra turns to an old friend, Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud), who is now a lawyer, for help, as it is clear the police investigating the death do not believe it is an accident. With a prosecution looming, he starts interrogating her himself, trying to establish what could have happened, the state of the couple’s relationship, and bringing in his own forensics experts to counter those of the prosecution. Along the way this slowly drags every murky element of Sandra and Samuel’s life out into the unforgiving glare of the courtroom and public reporting, revealing aspects which do not paint her in the best light, giving ammunition to the prosecutor, who, lacking a smoking gun (so to speak), has to rely on these more circumstantial matters to convince the court of her guilt.

The courtroom drama, which in other hands may have been heavy-handed, or overly dramatic and over-played, here is handled deftly – despite what is going on, you feel sympathy for these characters, as every formerly private piece of their lives is pulled out and aired in public, being used by the prosecution or defence to pillory or defend them. It’s not hard to empathise at these points – even if we had done nothing, had nothing really bad to hide, which of us would want our most private moments with a partner or family or friends open to the scrutiny of total strangers, who will judge you on it? How easily could a heated argument between two people be taken by others later and used as “evidence” against them for other possible actions? How do you defend against that when it means having to tell of less than savoury moments by the other (now deceased) partner, does that make her look better or even worse?

Add in their young boy being dragged into this (he refuses the judge’s request not to be in the courtroom), having to hear all of these details of his parents and their unravelling life prior to his father’s death, and you have a very heady, emotional trip. And then there’s the matter of the audio recording Samuel made secretly when arguing with his wife…

Anatomy eschews the more usual flashback scenes you often get in these kind of films (save for one main scene, quite effectively handled, fading in as we hear the audio recording, then back out to the courtroom at a critical moment, leaving us only hearing the event with the jury, not seeing it, a powerful moment). Triet and Hüller make the brave decision to craft events and two lead characters who are simultaneously vulnerable, evoking sympathy, but at the same time also often quite unlikeable, clearly selfish, driven more by their own motivations and goals than being a couple or family, and this is sustained throughout. I think both deserve kudos for this – it’s no mean feat to give us characters like that, yet still make us emotionally invested in them, and it makes them dramatically more satisfying than a simpler good partner / bad partner dynamic.

It’s a two and a half hour film, but I never felt the length, it never felt like it was dragging, it remained compelling all the way through. A compelling and engrossing French film, deserving the attention it has rightly been receiving.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Mercy Falls

Mercy Falls,
Directed by Ryan Hendrick,
Starring Lauren Lyle, Nicolette McKeown, James Watterson, Layla Kirk, Joe Rising, Eoin Sweeney, Gilly Gilchrist

Rhona (Lauren Lyle) still deals with flashbacks to a childhood trauma in the Highlands, involving an injured horse and her father. Following his passing, she recruits several of her friends for a road trip north to the Scottish Highlands, with a plan to hike across the moors and glens until they find the old, family cabin, which her estranged father left to her. On the rural roads they pass a solitary female walker, Carla (Nicolette McKeown), trying to hitch a lift, who joins up with them where they have to leave the cars behind and set off on foot for a long hike to the cabin’s remote location.

The early, almost holiday-like feeling at the start of the hike soon starts to dissipate, as the group begin bickering, then some outright feuding with one another, with romantic and sexual tensions in particular rearing their ugly head, not helped by the interloper in their midst, Carla, who appears to be suffering from PTSD from the Afghanistan war. When these increasing tensions lead beyond arguing to a fight, an accident ensues, which becomes the pivot for the rest of the film, which descends into hunt, and a fight for survival.

I have to confess I had some problems with this film. On the positive side, I was pleased to see it didn’t go down the more predictable town folk get hunted by feral locals route, and instead took its own path, which I appreciated (nothing against the revenge of locals type story, but we have had plenty of those). And the cinematography is superb, with John Rhodes using the camera work to bring out the Scottish Highlands location for the best, with some amazing landscape and drone shots.

On the other hand the character’s infighting felt too forced, that it suddenly comes to a head when they are miles from the nearest town, in the middle of the isolated countryside, and it also suffers from that affliction of many such films, namely The Stupid Decisions Horror Characters Make. There are a couple here in particular, including an absolutely pivotal one, where I simply found it hard to believe that all of the characters would agree with a single other person (one they don’t even know well) that they should do something they all know is wrong, and go along with it so easily. It felt very much like they do something purely because the film-makers decided this was how to move to the next phase of the story, and not because it made any sense in terms of characters or logical narrative structure, and it really irked me.

That said, the hunt and evade segment of the story that it leads to is handled very well, even if you can predict how some of the inevitable deaths will come (again that Stupid Decisions Horror Characters Make, which usually leads to me shouting at the screen). Despite those niggles, this main part of the film proved to be good, ratcheting up the tension, and again making the most of the landscape and terrain to stage some significant moments, and I also liked the fact that much of the film is carried by two female leads (Lyle and McKeown). So a bit of a mixed bag, for me at least, but still a decent bit to interest the viewer, and worth a look.

Mercy Falls is out now on digital from Bingo Films

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Animated Shorts Review

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Animated Shorts

The Edinburgh International Film Festival was much shorter than usual this year – given last autumn we thought we had lost it along with the Edinburgh Filmhouse when the charity running both went into administration (see our report here) though, I was just grateful the world’s longest, continually running film festival was still going. We didn’t have the annual McLaren Animation Awards this year, but I was relieved to see that the EIFF programmers still made space for the animated short films, with a mix of familiar faces and new talent, with a dozen films, taking in a diverse array of subjects and styles, from hand-drawn to using found objects, stop-motion, even fragments of vinyl album sleeves to create their worlds.

I will hold my hand up here and admit my bias – as readers of our previous years of EIFF coverage will have gathered, the short animation strand is pretty much my favourite art of the film festival. In one screening it encapsulates – at least for me – what these festival should do: expose the viewer to a mixture of established and emerging talent, give them that important showcase, and take in a variety of styles and subjects. Isn’t that part of what we want at a film festival? That chance to explore works we might not otherwise see?

Jenny Jokela’s Sweet Like Lemons, a play on the old “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade” phrase, used a colourful, hand-drawn style to explore issues of toxic relationships, and trying to extricate yourself from them. We see hands trying to write an email, constantly starting the message, then deleting it, starting again, and again, because she’s trying to find the determination to break free from a cycle of behaviour and find herself. The artwork veers from colourful and beautiful to the suddenly threatening, mirroring such controlling relationships, and felt very from the heart.

Sweet Like Lemons (2023) – Trailer from Jenny Jokela on Vimeo.

Some of the other works were also clearly drawing (sometimes literally) on personal experiences, using the animation medium to explore their own emotional history and experiences, articulate them, perhaps learn and grow beyond them, or at least have some closure and ownership over those issues, instead of letting those issues own them (not to mention sharing with others, some of whom may have experienced similar, and may gain recognition and strength from the sharing, never a bad thing).

On that score, I thought Holly Summerson’s Living With It, and The Perpetrators by Richard Squires both used animation as a way to explore their own lives and struggles. In Living With It, another traditionally, hand-drawn animated work, Summerson takes the reality TV show idea of the home makeover, except in her case her home and world are run down and in need of an uplift because she lives with a chronic illness, manifested as the character Bug. It’s a brief but emotionally effective glimpse into a life too many have to cope with.

Living With It – Trailer [CC] from Holly Summerson on Vimeo.

Perpetrators mixed live action footage with animation, exploring how it was to grow up as a gay man in the hostile environment of the 1980s. The framing device is using changing medical and psychological definitions of homosexuality (still on the books as a mental illness until just a few decades ago). The pain and shame of having to be hidden, not to be able to declare who you are to friends or even close family, is palpable, the institutional nature of the bigotry shameful to modern eyes (consider how similar tropes are deployed today in the debate around trans rights). But Squires also deploys a lot of humour here, using tropes from the much-loved Scooby Doo cartoons to inform his animation. I suspect that streak of humour was, for him, as for many of us, part of how he coped (what would we do without that sense of humour? How much darker would our lives be?).

Tanya J Scott’s The Wolf of Custer was a beautiful piece, exploring the power of folklore and myth, as a hunter, reminiscent of Quint in Jaws, listens to the people of a small town tell tales of a giant wolf that can devour entire bisons (the smoke and flame of a fire and the shadows in the room all morph into flowing, dream-like images of the magical wolf as they tell their tales). Arrogantly he declares where would we be if we believed such native folklore nonsense, and that he will set out to kill their wolf. As you may imagine, as his journey through the vast wilderness progresses, and he catches glimpses of the wolf, then images of it carved and painted into the rocks of the very land, he slowly comes to realise and respect why we have such creatures in our stories, why they are important to us.

Jordan Antonowicz-Behnan’s A Taste For Music dealt with living with a seriously ill loved one, in this case his father. It captures that frustration at seeing them being weakened and unable to do things they want, and is also quite honest about the anger and resentment that comes along with this as it grinds on (many of us will have been there, with the best will in the world there’s a moment where you just become so angry at the situation, the disease, even the person). Through it though is a shared love of music, drawing – quite literally here, the animator drew on record sleeves – on his father’s extensive vinyl collection as a way of connecting, something the illness could still allow him to do, while the use of record sleeves gives the visuals a distinctive flair.

A Taste For Music (Trailer) from Jordan Antonowicz-Behnan on Vimeo.

I was also delighted to see BAFTA-winning Ainslie Henderson return. I’ve seen Henderson several times at the McLaren Animation strand at the EIFF over the years – his film A Cat Named Dom won last year’s McLaren gong at the festival (see our report from the 2022 EIFF here on LFF), and am always looking forward to any new work. Shackle is a stop-motion piece (I love all animation, but have an especially soft spot for stop-motion work), with a couple of small woodland creatures, taking everyday forest objects such as apples and pine cones, then making art and music with them, while a more frightening version of these endearing creatures lurks in the dark version of the forest, looking on greedily and coveting what they have.

I don’t really have time to dive into every film screened during the Animated Shorts, but these are some of the ones that especially caught my eye. Again I am grateful the animators get a chance to show these in a cinema setting, with an audience, and talk about their works – we used to have the excellent Four Mations on Channel 4, and BBC2 used to do late night animation strands, years ago, something that seems to have vanished from media schedules these days, despite the phttps://www.liveforfilm.com/roliferation of more channels and the fact we’re still seeing new and established talents creating new, interesting works, but the main broadcasters seem to ignore them, which, I think, makes the film festivals all the more important as a chance to wave the flag for this time-consuming and inventive form of film-making.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Art College 1994

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2023 – Art School 1994
Directed by Liu Jian,
Starring the voices of Jia Zhangke, Zheng Dasheng, Xu Lei, Wang Hongwei, Peng Lei, Ren Ke, Xu Zhiyuan, Shen Lihui

This animated film from China took around five years to complete, so one of the film festival programmers told us before the screening, drawn in the more traditional 2D animation style, which is, of course, very labour-intensive, yet often worth it for the distinctive aesthetic and feel it can give. In the case of this Chinese, animated slacker film (there’s a phrase I have never used before!), it also suits the tone of the film and the characters very well.

Set, as you may infer from the title, in the mid-90s, the film follows the lives of a group of students at a small, but well-regarded art college in China,  Zang Xiojun (Dong Zijian) and Rabbit (Chizi) are the main focus of the film, Zang with his floppy hair and the permanently attached earphones for his music (a cassette Walkman) is more the unfocused dreamer of the group, listening to bootleg Nirvana cassettes, stifled by the insistence of his tutors that he adhere to classical styles instead of exploring new ideas (which you’d expect to be encouraged in an art college, but not here, in China of 1994, where modern Western art movements are especially reviled).

Rabbit is more pragmatic – at least when not pondering out loud on second hand philosophy he’s picked up from bits of books and hasn’t actually thought out. A bit lazier, when he does focus he is more likely to be thinking about how his degree will get him a decent paying job, how he’d like to be famous (because then “he wouldn’t have to actually paint much”, thinking about a girlfriend. It’s not that Zang doesn’t consider these things, he even joins the odd philosophic musing over beer and cigarettes, but he is far more into considering what is art, and how he can do something that is new and interesting to him in a world where it feels like so many earlier artists have done all the innovation already (at one point he even burns a pile of his art, which a more pretentious artist takes as an actual artistic piece in itself).

The film moves at a gentle pace, and the remaining cast of friends and classmates, each dealing with their studies, their hopes for the future, dreams of what they could be and want to be, versus what the world of the time will likely actually let them be, is one many of us will find very familiar. Small-town Chinese art college in the 90s, perhaps, but there is so much that is just universal there that, despite the language, it feels very familiar, and had me thinking back to my own college days and blushing to think there would be nights in our student gaffe where I or my friends would be those characters, drinking cheap booze, holding forth on what we thought were well-considered, mature, informed Great Insights, which in retrospect were hopelessly naive, because, despite thinking we were mature, we really hadn’t experienced much life yet, not really, and understood even less of it, but we were still filled with that longing for an imagined future we thought we’d make where others failed.

The 2D animation was worth those years of effort and labour; this just wouldn’t feel the same in CG animation (although there is a small use of CG for some backgrounds). Aside from the longing to shape some perfect life that will fulfil us after graduation, the film also muses on art and the nature of what art actually is, and who decides it is art or not, with one character declaring anything can be art. Jian seems to incorporate this into the animation itself, with frequent small asides that focus on something away from the characters, be it shimmering water below a bridge, a beetle trying to climb a wall, the way paint slowly peels from the wall.

This is a film that, despite being another country and culture, fits in perfectly with the likes of some Western slacker films (such as Linklater), because the youthful fears and dreams are pretty universal to most people, in any country, in any time.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Tokyo Pop

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2023 – Tokyo Pop,
Directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui,
Starring Carrie Hamilton, Diamond Yukai (aka Yutaka Tadokoro), Hiroshi Kobayashi, Hiroshi Sugita, Satoshi Kanai, Rome Kanda

The Edinburgh film fest usually includes some retrospectives of older films, as well as showcasing new work, and even with the very slimmed down festival we’re having this August (after us almost losing the festival last autumn, as we covered, I’m just grateful we have it at all, frankly) there was still room for some older gems, including this 1980s piece, which somehow I had never come across before.

Tokyo Pop, created in 1988, was the first directing gig for Fran Rubel Kuzui, who I am sure many of you will know for her association with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and Fran was at the festival, talking with the audience after the screening, explaining at one point how damned hard it was for a woman to become a Hollywood director back in the 80s, even on a small budget, Indy film (the gender ratio is still bad today, but back then, even worse).

It’s a deceptively simple story – an American woman, Wendy Reed (the late Carrie Hamilton) is fed up with being relegated to backing singer duties by useless rock and roll boyfriends in 80s New York. When a postcard from Japan arrives from her friend who is staying there, saying “wish you were here”, and adding that the Japanese youth love American rock culture, she decides to take her friend at her word and go there, with no plan, no skill in Japanese, not even a map of Tokyo, just a vague plan of becoming a music star there.

The cultural fish out of water scenario is compounded when she arrives to find her friend has already moved on and is now in Bangkok, leaving her trying desperately to find somewhere to stay and to get a job so she can get some money. Her “exotic” gaijin (foreigner) looks help her get a job in a hostess bar – it helps pay the bills, but it’s not exactly the rock and roll fame she was seeking. Meanwhile Hiro (actor and rock star Diamond Yukai) and his band is struggling to get noticed by the local big producer or land paying gigs.

Their first encounter with Wendy goes badly when Hiro’s less than expert grasp at English leads him to misunderstand the situation when she tells him she needs a hotel for the night, and he thinks she means one of the city’s many “love hotels”. Such comic misunderstandings are part and parcel of this kind of tale, and we all know that sooner or later they are going to become close, and that she will be the thing that makes their band stand out, especially in an 80s Japan that was always hungry for new fads.

 

In some ways Tokyo Pop is of its time – this was the 1980s, and this would fit nicely into an evening of 80s viewing with some John Hughes flicks, and of course the styles and music mark the era. And yet at the same time it feels very fresh – it’s that cultural misunderstanding Schick which is still funny (and goes both way, not just her ignorance of Japan, but the Japanese characters attempting Western rock without really understanding it). It’s a bit drama, it’s a bit romantic-comedy, it’s a bit musical, but mostly it is just a charming delight of a film, the two main leads radiating that youthful, naïve confidence, lighting the screen up with huge smiles and a tremendous sense of fun and pure charm. A total delight, now restored into 4k.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh International Film Festival - Fran Rubel Kuzui 03
(Co-writer and director Fran Rubel Kuzui talking to the Edinburgh film fest audience – pic from my Flickr)

Film remembered

Nice, short video from TCM, remembering many of the film people we lost in 2022 (so sad that I have to add my beloved Filmhouse and Edinburgh International Film Festival to that list – see here):

Review: Onoda – 10, 000 Nights in the Jungle

Onoda: 10, 000 Nights in the Jungle / 10 000 Nuits dans la Jungle

Directed by Arthur Harari,

Starring Yuya Endo, Kanji Tsuda, Yuya Matsuura, Tetsuya Chiba, Shinsuke Kato, Kai Inowaki, Issey Ogata, Taiga Nakano

I forget none of you.

There were several famous cases of Japanese soldiers who did not obey – or in some cases had simply not received – the surrender order in 1945, and carried on a lonely war for many years after the end of World War Two, in isolated regions. Hiroo Onoda, a second lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese forces, became one of the most famous after writing (or, it seems, more accurately, collaborating with a ghost writer) on his memoirs after he finally accepted the surrender order and was returned to Japan in 1974, after almost thirty years on the island of Lubang in the Philippines.

Director and co-writer Harari made clear in interviews that he is not working from those memoirs, and that the film is not a biopic, rather more a film inspired by real events and persons, but with him treating it as largely fictional. Given there is still controversy over the real Onoda’s accounts in his memoirs (reportedly he avoids mentioning killing several innocent locals during his three decade guerilla war), that seems like a fairly sensible approach, and it also allows the director and actors much more leeway in telling the story. As is spans almost three decades, some of the principle roles, such as that of Onoda himself, requires two actors, one to play the younger version, another for the much older, middle-aged version, with Yuya Endo and Kanji Tsuda respectively portraying the younger and older Onoda.

When we meet the young Onoda, the war is already moving into its final phases, with the Allied “island hopping” strategy taking them across the Pacific, winkling out the occupying Imperial Japanese forces in often grinding and bloody battles, then on to the next. The Onoda we meet here is already feeling shame at failing to become a pilot, and having been given a second chance as an officer with special training in secret warfare – he was schooled in holding out after an expected invasion, schooled not to commit suicide or die in a “banzai” charge (as most Japanese at the time would have been instructed to do), rather to melt into the jungle with a small group, establish safe bases and supply caches, then raid enemy forces and continue guerilla-style warfare until the main Japanese forces returned to relieve them.

This drives Onoda, he clearly feels he has something to prove – on top of the fact that, like most other Japanese soldiers of that era, he has had unquestioning discipline and loyalty to the Emperor drilled into him – and when the few men he has with him start to falter, he reveals his secret training and orders, which bolsters them into continuing the fight. However, soon the Allied forces have moved on, and the only fights they have are with unfortunate, and totally innocent civilians, local villagers and farmers, often when raiding for supplies. They have become bogie men, figures of fear on the island, and on hearing shouts that the war is over, they refuse to believe, assuming it is a trick.

As the months become years, however, it wears on the men, living rough in makeshift shelters in the jungles and hills, in rotting uniforms darned with numerous patches. Their numbers slowly reduce as some leave, while others are injured or killed, until we end up with Onoda and Kinshichi Kozuka (played by Yuya Matsuura as the younger soldier, Tetsuya Chiba as the older) for a substantial part of the running time. We see the pair reinforce one another’s delusional ideas as they come up with varying interpretations and reasons why articles in magazines and newspapers they’ve stolen are all fabricated (the “fake news” of their day, they think), even convincing each other that the broadcasts they hear on a purloined transistor radio are all designed to trick them into surrendering, and if the Allies are going to such lengths then it means their island is more strategically important than they realised, therefore they must carry on.

In a modern era where we see whole swathes of society willingly embrace fake facts (even when they have access to multiple sources to dispute misleading claims), it’s not hard to see how isolated characters, cut off from all they knew, their only information sources sporadic and not trusted, would build an elaborate fantasy around them to explain and justify their continuing the war for so long, to validate their narrow world view. Delusional? Quite possibly, however Harari doesn’t depict him too strongly in this light, we also see the compulsion and drive to duty and orders which makes Onoda continue, year after year, even rejecting pleas from his own father and brother brought to Lubang to call for him on loudspeakers to come out.

The lengthy running time (barely shy of the three hour mark), lets this run as a slow-burn tale, with flashbacks to his training, to his farewell to his father (his parting words and gift not an “I love you”, or “take care” but a ceremonial dagger for suicide and instructions not to be taken alive), and this also works in allowing us to feel a slight taste of the long, long years Onoda fought on as we get more time to get to know him, what shaped him to be this person who would hold on for twenty-nine years after the war’s end. We get to know the small – and ever-shrinking – group, and while the film does not (unlike the real Onoda’s biography) skirt around the fact they attacked and killed local people, we also feel for the men as we get to know them. Some later scenes are particularly emotional, as a much older Onoda, now all alone, visits the graves of his fallen comrades, the graves almost invisible now, hidden by jungle growth. He names each one and where the fell, and how he will not forget them and their shared comradeship, the only one who knows what happened to them, where their bones now lie.

It’s an interesting film – the length and slow-burn approach may put some off, but I found it worth the investment of viewing time, and particularly liked that Harari didn’t portray Onoda as either just a heroic – if deluded – figure, nor as a lunatic, victim of his own delusions and self-invented conspiracies, but allows a more nuanced interpretation where, like much in life, it’s a mixture of things. If you are looking for a fast-paced, war-action flick, this is not it, but if you are looking for something more cerebral, that examines motivations, male bonding under stress (some elements there made me think of Peckinpah, where the stoic, masculine heroes can only emotionally bond in certain dangerous situations); it would make a good book-end to Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima.

Onoda won the 2022 César Award for Best Original Screenplay, and will be released to on-demand services by Dark Star Pictures from December 13th.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews : comedy horror fun with Final Cut

Final Cut (Coupez!),
Directed by Michel Hazanavicius,
Starring Romain Duris, Bérénice Bejo,Grégory Gadebois, Finnegan Oldfield, Matilda Lutz, Sébastien Chassagne

I’m not normally a big fan of remaking an existing film in another language, but this French take on the cult hit, low-budget Japanese flick One Cut of the Dead intrigued me, not least because it was being helmed by Hazanavicius, the Oscar-winning director of The Artist, and starred some well-known French talent on-screen, including Bérénice Bejo (who he worked with in The Artist), and Romain Duris, so I agreed to have a look. I’m glad I did – I remember thinking the original was a good bit of fun, and also liked it because it was more than it first appeared, and that’s the case with the Francophone version too. It’s as much comedy as it is horror, and it’s also something of a loving homage to those who have toiled through trying to make a B movie on a tiny budget, with few resources.

We’re dropped into the middle of the film shoot at the start, which deliberately confuses the viewer somewhat as to what is real and what is part of the film the crew are shooting. We see the actors preparing for their scene, one in zombie make-up, we see the scene of the attack, then the director, Remi (Romain Duris), screaming at the actors (even slapping one) for ruining his film. As they take a break after this, the make-up artist, Nadia (Bérénice Bejo), tells the actors that the deserted building they are using as a location has an evil history, having been used by a secret branch of the Japanese military during World War Two for human experimentation. This seems odd in a French-language film, as does the fact the cast and crew all have Japanese names, but this starts to become clearer in the next segment of the film.

The ill-tempered director we had seen shouting the actors reveals he knew of this history, and has used the “blood star” ritual to activate the evil still within this site, bringing forth real zombies, which he demands the cast and crew act around to improve the film. As we’re wondering what’s going on – are there real zombies intruding into a B movie zombie film shoot? – the second section of the film takes us back a few months, to Remi being offered the chance to direct the film by a Japanese lady, but part of the deal is it must use the same plot, no deviations from the original language version, and that includes the names (hence whey French actors all have Japanese names in the film shoot). And it must be shot in one, continual take. Not easy, but Remi, who mostly makes small productions for TV and music and corporate videos can’t turn down the chance of a feature film, even a B movie one, and agrees.

We see the preparation over the weeks preceding the scenes in the opening third of the movie, as the cast meet, and they plot out their lines, work out how they can create everything so it can be filmed in a single, unbroken take – effectively having to do everything “live”. And it is quite clear from the outset that this is not the most well-oiled production machine that will be required to pull off such a demanding technical feat as a single-take film. The main camera operator has a dodgy back, his assistant is keen to help but has a totally different idea of how she wants to film everything, the actors are bickering with one another, one of them turns out to be an alcoholic, and the man doing the music and sound effects (also to be done live during the continual shoot) has trouble communicating with Remi.

All in all, it’s not painting a hopeful picture for the actual film shoot, and as we catch up in the chronology, we see again some of the scenes being filmed that we saw in the opening section, except now from different angles, and with much more context, and this time we follow through right to the end as body parts and undead start to mount up. How much is real, how much is invention for the film they are meant to be making, has the demented director really invoked a slumbering evil just so he can make a low-budget horror film more effectively?

This was an enormous amount of fun, especially the second and third reels, where we see the build up to the film-shoot we see at the start, and then what happens during and after it from different perspectives. We have the horror elements, but we also have the manic chaos of this tiny, underfunded crew attempting to pull off a technically challenging, single-take film shoot that they really are not up to, and the continual problems that surface, from drunken cast members to sudden illness, actors who didn’t show up, necessitating Remi, the director, to step in and also play the role of the director in the film, and his wife Nadia to play a role – she at least, is an experienced actor, but one who had to stop because she took her roles so seriously she started to believe in her characters, leading to disaster, but there’s nobody else who knows the lines, so…

This frantic dealing with endless problems – poor Remi is constantly running around their location trying to put out the forest fires while screaming into his radio to the producer’s booth not to cut, to keep going – lends a frenzied energy to proceedings and fuels so much of the humour, as they lurch from one disaster to the next. Then there is the question of those real zombies on the location set… It’s a loving homage to those who somehow manage to make many of the micro-budget horror flicks that so many of us love, to the constant trying to outpace gathering problems that bedevil any film shoot, and it feels as if they had fun making it. Originally titled Z in France, it was changed to Coupez because of the Russian forces using the Z symbol for their illegal invasion of Ukraine, while the international title is Final Cut.

A perfect Friday night, get some pizza and beer in, horror-comedy viewing that left me delighted and smiling.

Final Cut is available from Signature Entertainment, via online platforms from November 7th 2022

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Wonderful, old-school delights in The Spine of Night

The Spine of Night,
Directed by Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King
Starring (voices of) Lucy Lawless, Richard E Grant, Patton Oswalt, Betty Gabriel, Joe Manganiello

Look to the stars, Ghal-Sur. Tremble before the immensity of the night!

Oh, boy, was this a fabulous, old-school treat! I’ll say right off the bat that this is a film with a specific appeal to a certain fandom, and not for everyone, but those of us who love – and indeed miss – that kind of thing, will rejoice in this. Epic, animated, cosmic fantasy with buckets of blood and body parts flying, casual nudity and trippy visuals, all delivered in that arresting mix of rotoscoped animation over live footage, with hand-drawn and CG inserted backgrounds. Yes, this is indeed old-school, and totally rocking that 1970s and 80s vibe from the like of Bakshi’s animated Lord of the Rings or the wonderfully demented Heavy Metal. Not a style we see much of these days, and I suspect some new to it may not take to it, but those of us who grew up on the aforementioned flicks (often watched on dodgy VHS bootlegs!) will be in animation heaven.

Rather than one single, grand quest epic, or a struggle against one tyrant, Spine of Night, while one film, feels almost like several smaller tales linked together (perhaps reflecting the lone period it took to make it, or Gelatt’s background in the excellent Love, Death and Robots anthology series), taking us across centuries of conflict and struggle between different people on the same world, linked by a sacred blue plant, which, with the correct knowledge, has remarkable abilities and powers, powers some serve but others covet and desire to use for their own ends.

We see Tzod (voiced by Xena herself, the fabulous Lucy Lawless), the bare-breasted priestess of a simple tribe of swamp dwellers, who can work magic with the use of the plant and her incantations. Her people are slaughtered by the forces of Lord Pyrantin (voiced by Patton Oswalt), lead by Mongrel (Joe Manganiello), who want her alive for the information – and power. This is the start of a series of struggles that takes place across centuries – the plant has astonishing abilities, but it is so often wanted by the wrong people, for the wrong purposes, bringing death and misery instead of spiritual enlightenment and wonder, with Tzod setting forth on a long journey to a remote, frozen mountain, source of the plant and its Guardian (Richard E Grant, clearly enjoying himself!), on a quest to try to break this centuries-long cycle of misuse and destruction.

Visually, Spine is a total feast, and the obvious love for that now largely bygone era of Rotoscoped adult animated films is very clear. Also very clear on the making-of documentary included among the extras (plus a couple of shorts as well) is that Gelatt is One Of Us. In fact it’s probably fair to say most of those involved in creating this film are also One Of Us – they’re fans, they love those same influences we do, and this really is a labour of love (some seven years to create), and wanted to share in that love one more time, and Spine really does let us wallow in that guilty pleasure!

As I said, this may not be for everyone, but those of us who loved Heavy Metal, or Laloux’s Fantastic Planet, this is just a total gift, bringing back a style of both story and rotoscoped animation that has largely vanished from film-making today, while the extras, especially the making of segments, show just how much of a labour of love this was to make, and that shows in the finished film.

The Spine of Night will bereleased on DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital from October 24th by Acorn Media

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: wartime horror in Burial

Burial,
Directed by Ben Parker
Starring Harriet Walker, David Alexander, Charlotte Vega, Tom Felton, Barry Ward, Kristjan Üksküla

Fresh from the 2022 FrightFest comes this wartime horror with an intriguing premise: a special Soviet team is tasked with recovering the body of Adolf Hitler in the ruins of Berlin in 1945, verifying they are indeed the remains of the Fuhrer, then to covertly transport the corpse across war-ravaged Europe, back to Mother Russia, where Stalin wants to look his opponent in the eye. Naturally, things go wrong, and as a secret mission, they can’t just call on reinforcements to help, because nobody know what they’re doing or where they are going.

Burial is framed at the start and end by segments set just as Gorbachev announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union; an older woman, Anna Marshall (Harriet Walker) in a house in Britain is the target of what looks like a burglary and/or attempted assault one evening. Except the break-in is not what it seems, and indeed, neither is she. The intruder, a skin-headed man (David Alexander), turns out to be a Neo-Nazi, seeking something from her; she, in turn, is revealed to be more than capable of defending herself, despite her age.

Having overpowered and secured her would-be attacker, she begins to tell him a tale, to reveal to him the truth he thinks he wanted to hear. This quiet, older lady was once a combat officer for Soviet intelligence, and she was on that mission to spirit away the body of Adolf Hitler, part of a wider plan by the Russians to sow confusion among their wartime allies about whether Hitler was indeed truly dead by his own hand, or had perhaps secretly escaped, perhaps to South America as many other Nazis did (yes, even in 1945 Russia enjoyed spreading fake stories to confuse other nations, even friendly ones, some things, it seems change little!).

The bulk of the running time is taken with the journey of the small Soviet force (Charlotte Vega playing Brana Vasilyeva, a younger version of Anna, now living under an adopted identity) with the body, becoming stalled in rural Poland, attacked by the notorious “Werewolf” units, who have somehow learned what they are transporting. Here these real-life historical Nazi die-hards who vowed to fight on after the surrender in 1945 may not be actual lycanthropes, but through the use of wolf skins (shades of Nordic Berserkers) and a hallucinogenic smoke employed before ambushes, they create a phantasmagorical vision to their prey, distorting their sense of reality, heightening their fear, and, of course, making them easier targets.

I found this to be a fascinating film – it almost, but doesn’t quite carry off this interesting premise all the way (I felt it lagged a bit in the later sections into more of a straight combat between Nazis and Soviets), but some of that I think is likely due to budget and resource restrictions (as with any Indy film, you can only do so much, and for the most part they do it rather well). The film also picks up on repeating themes – the collapse of regimes, the rise of new ones, collapse and rise again decades on, the brutality of both sides in war (the Polish civilians are as terrified of their Soviet “liberators” as they were their Nazi conquerors), and the role of propaganda and lies to further a cause and whip up hatred and fear.

The actual truth of what happened in those final days in the Bunker and of the ultimate fate of Hitler has fascinated many for decades. I first came across it as a history student reading Hugh Trevor-Roper’s classic Last Days of Hitler many years ago (he was a British intelligence officer tasked with finding the truth of those events despite much Soviet obfuscation), and it struck me right away as a terrific premise to use for a horror movie. In a modern era where the political ideologues still proclaim blatant lies to their faithful, with awful consequences for many, the story also has a contemporary relevance. While far from perfect, Burial is still an intriguing and unusual wartime horror.

Available on digital from 26th September

This review was originally penned for Live For Films