Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Whale Rider

Once upon a time there was a little girl who had a dream: she wanted to be an actor. One day, some people came to her school and asked her funny questions, such as if she was a swimmer, if she could swim with her eyes open, and so on. The girl, Keisha Castle-Hughes, was cast and delivered a stunning performance as Paikea, the heroin of Whale Rider. Keisha's career as an actor was launched. It is a pity we don't see much of her in some of the films she has been in since then: Am I guilty of failing to notice her participation in other films since then?

Whale Rider, when I first saw in 2002, cast an spell on me. That spell is still with me, it did not only survive a second viewing of the film, but was reinforced by it (I picked up a DVD for only £3 at HMV Hull). I regard it as one of the great films of the past decade: tender and yet not sentimental, funny without being a comedy, casting an eye on Maori society without being a documentary, depicting a conflict between tradition and modernity without moralizing. Critics called it spellbinding when it was released in 2002, I agree with that comment.

The heroin of the film, 11 year old Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes), is the grand daughter of Koro, a Maori chief, the last descendant of a long line of chiefs which can be traced to the mythical Paikea - who came to New Zealand riding a whale. She, as being the first born, should have been destined to be the next leader of Koro's people. Yet, because she is a girl, Koro rejects her, in spite of his paternal love for her. The legend of the mythical Paikea cast an spell on her, and she is determined to repeat his legendary feast, against the odds of her grandfather rejection and herself being a girl. Yet, she succeeds after rescuing a stranded pod of beached whales by riding their leader, as her mythical ancestor once did. I was encouraging her to do so. It is that kind of film.

It is a poetical and beautifully shot film, I strongly recommend it if you haven't seen it yet. Keisha Castle-Hughes gave a formidable performance in this film, and I hope she has done well in her successive movies.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Funny Games

No, I had not watched Haneke's Funny Games before. And, yes, I think that it is not so much a feature film as a cinematic essay on feature films, audiences' complicity and the commodification of violence in contemporary cinema. As such, it works as a feature film, but also as a running meta-commentary on the feature film.

I am not going to write any more, as much has been said, and written, about this film

Friday, 23 April 2010

Melancholia, Andi Engel and Artificial Eye

Leafing last night through an old Sight & Sound magazine (Autumn 1989)I found throughout the series of improvement works done in my flat, I came across to a film that Andi Engel (a German expatriate, one of the founders of Artificial Eye) made in 1989, with support from the British Film Institute. It seems to have been a reflection on the ideology of the 60s and 70s, when violence was seen as a legitimate means of achieving political or moral ends. It charts the story of a German expatriate living in London, and the murder of a former Chilean torturer visiting England.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

City of War reviewed

Director/writer: Florian Gallenberger

France/China/Germany 129 mins 129 mins Cert 15

DVD release date: 3rd May 2010

Cast:  Ulrich Tukur, Daniel Brühl, Steve Buscemi, Anne Consigny.

Both Florian Gallenberger’s City of War, the Story of John Rabe, and Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death, deal with the rape of Nanking by the Japanese military during December 1937, when an estimated 300,000 people were systematically massacred by the Imperial Army after the remaining Chinese nationalist troops had fled, the city being the capital of China at that time. I understand that the extent of that atrocity has not been fully acknowledged by the Japanese government up to this day. Indeed, Florian Gallenberger had problems in casting Japanese actors for the film, as many rejected the offer outright as being ‘off limits’. Those who finally agreed to appear did on the grounds that it was an aspect of their national history they had to come to terms with.

City of War charts the story of John Rabe, a German industrialist based for over two decades as head of Siemens Nanking, a good Nazi and an admirer of the Führer, Adolf Hitler; who ended his life in complete obscurity in Germany as he was ostracized by the Nazi hierarchy for ‘having cooperated with the Chinese’. His crime? Having participated, and led, the International Protection Zone established in Nanking by Europeans and Americans, thanks to which an estimated 200,00-250,000 of its inhabitants survived the Japanese brutal and indiscriminate slaughter. Further more, the Allies refused to include him in their programme of de-Nazification after WW2, his diaries laying in obscurity for decades. Ulrich Tukur played the part of John Rabe with a mouth watering stunning brilliance, charting the complexities, humanity and nuances of the character facing deep personal and moral dilemmas in literally life and death situations.

Both films are also controversial not only in Japan, but also in China, as both depict Japanese officers having serious misgivings about the actions of the army, and their own actions, in the events depicted. I understand that Lu Chuan has received death threats within China, although that may not be the case of Florian Gallenberger as he is not Chinese.

For the Japanese hierarchy at the time, modernity was seen as a no-hold barred warfare, a need to win and exert their superiority on the Chinese at any cost. The attack on Nanking did not follow the usual military tactic of besieging a city until it falls, as one of the generals assumed, but took the form of a direct assault because the Emperor wanted a ‘modern warfare’. Modernity became a war crime.

John Rabe, the good Nazi, immensely proud of his work of 27 years for Siemens in Nanking, a paternalistic European who looks down on, and treat, his subordinates as children, ultimately goes out of his way to open the gates of the factory to his desperate workers seeking sanctuary when the Japanese began their aerial bombardment of the city, swiftly followed by their triumphant ground attack. We follow his actions during that December of 1937, as piles of corpses on top of piles of corpses line not only the streets of Nanking, but are also literally piled on the doorsteps of the Protection Zone, courtesy of the Japanese military. His humanity not only prevails over his ideology, but ultimately fractures it, although at no moment he does openly admit it.

Steve Buscemi goes through the motions of playing the part of Dr Robert Wilson, an American surgeon working at the time in Nanking, his performance being ’cartoonish’, reminiscent of Ghost World (his part was badly written in the script: stereotyped); while the French actress Anne Consigny is splendid as the head mistress of the girls school.

However, don’t be fooled in thinking that City of War is a moralistic dry and tedious film: it is not. It is an utterly gripping story narrated with vigour and panache, a story that holds its strength and rhythm throughout, entertaining until its last frame. It has nothing to envy to blockbusters and war epics in its special effects and action sequences. The film has been criticized for attempting to ape Hollywood movies, although I fail to follow the logic of such comments. However, I thought that the ‘feel good’ character of the last scene somehow spoils the overall feel of the film, although its cathartic effect will undoubtedly be welcomed by many viewers after its graphic depictions of so many atrocities. Grainy black and white documentary footage from that time is unconvingcingly woven into the fabric of the film, the integration feels overwrought and forced. The use of the musical score is very conventional and annoying.

City of War explores the frailties and complexities of an era, shades of grey involving matters of life and death, of survival, the moral dilemmas faced – and that includes those of some of the Japanese military, by people in a daily basis. It highlights the mould breaking humanity of one man, John Rabe; a figure of, to some extent, similar stature to that of Oskar Schindler. The film is not only an homage to people such as Rabe, who were able to carry out great humanist deeds because they had the power, however little it may have turned out to be under the sustained assault of the brutality of ideology, and the means to do; but also it should be seen as an homage to the many uncountable anonymous people who did as much as they could in their small ways to alleviate the impact of that insane brutality. However, I doubt that City of War will put John Rabe on the same level to that of Oskar Schindler in the international conscience, simply because Hollywoood got in there first with Spielberg’s Schindler List. Oskar Schindler was a swindler who used the Nazis for his own ends, his humanity prevailing, while Rabe was a man who believed in the Nazis.

The disc also contains an excellent documentary on the making of the film, with interviews to its director and writer, Florian Gallinberger (winner of an Oscar for Best Short film in 2001), to Ulrich Tukur, Anne Consigny, and other members of the cast and crew. The trabsfer of the film onot DVD is excellent.

Still Walking reviewed

Hirokazu Kore-eda Japan 2008

114 mins Cert U

Cast: Hiroshi Abe, Yui Natsukawa, You

Distributor: New Wave Films

Still Walking should have had a notice at the end along these lines:

“No feelings were hurt during the making of this film”.

Feelings, more precisely, family feelings and family ties are indeed the subject of Still Walking.

The opening scene, shot in a bus, introduces us directly into both this central theme and the subtleties of a family put under the microscope of the director and writer Hirokazu Kore-eda. The story line seems to be, at first, quite simple, and not entirely original: a long weekend family reunion, the parents being an elderly couple living in a crumbling house, a former clinic, located on a hill in the seaside. We are constantly reminded not only of the fact that Japan is an island, but also that families are island sin the sea of society, with shots of the sea ever present in the background. The father is a retired local doctor who uses his former treatment and consultation room as a den to retire from the waves of family life.

The apparent tranquillity of this family, epitomized in a lengthy kitchen take of mother and daughter peeling vegetables for the big family lunch, is soon disturbed by deep and stormy ripples coming from the ghost of the elder son who is not there, who cannot be there, as he died years earlier in an unspecified accident, its circumstances remaining unexplained. Usually hidden passions and resentments are awoken, tempers flare, the surface of this sea is no longer gently undulating.

However, calm returns, the calm that comes after the big waves, the last scene being of the old couple climbing back to their house, in a beautifully framed shot, after their farewell to their only surviving son – a gentle giant of a man in constant danger of banging his head in doorways - and his family.

The cinematography is impeccable, its tempo and rhythm reinforcing the nuances of the story telling. Still Walking is indeed a valuable contribution to that tradition in Japanese cinema of closely observed family and human relationships, beautifully shot and acted.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

What would have been the end of "Casablanca" if...

What would have been the end of Casablanca if the Lisbon plane had been grounded?

The freedom of the sky

How long will be until the first novel or film comes out based on the days (weeks, months?) that the skies of Europe were free of planes? When bird song could be heard in the South of London? What shape will they take? Romantic, disaster, utopian, dystopian, post-cataclysm, hopeful?

The Icelandic volcanic eruption clearly shows the fragility of our modern world. Gaia's warning?

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Gutter King reviewed

Gutter King is a movie for you, if you liked Fight Club (1999): be disappointed you will not. If not, stay clear of it. I nearly fell asleep half way through it.

This film deals with the exploitation of troubled and vulnerable teenagers by shady characters for commercial gain in illicit back street bare knuckle fights: the youngsters end up as money making beaten up meat, still with an uncertain future. It is told partly in a voice-over by its protagonist, Will, a troubled and homeless teenager, as he is picked up from a juvenile correctional centre and housed by an older man driving a flashy car.

Bob owns a gym and makes money from promoting no-hold-barred bare knuckle fights in derelict warehouses, back street car parks, and places like that. There is a constant jockeying for position between Will and a sulking Paul, another boy in the house, also involved in street fights. A neat triangle is formed with the girl next door, Bebe (which actually means baby in Spanish), whom Paul described out of malice as “white trash”.

The mistake of the director/writer is that he is trying to make some serious points about teen exploitation in what ultimately comes out as a fight movie. The background story with Bebe just feels too clumsy and not very credible – feel free to reach for the remote and fast forward to the next fight or fall asleep until the sweet words are over, no-one is going to blame you! The fight themselves are brilliantly shot, the adrenalin freely flowing in large quantities, a very agile camera following the fights at close rank, the editing taut. I guess that these scenes would be very scary in 3D, indeed!

Gutter King is an attempt to explore some of the nooks and crannies of American inner cities underbelly to limited success. The film feels to be far too long, although it is not. It has far too many unnecessary scenes. A tighter screenplay could have worked wonders for it. It would have been a much effective movie if it had focused on one of the stories rather than uneasily switching from one to the other, with the result that neither is properly developed. The liaison with Bebe is particularly weak. The sexual motivations of the older man, Bob, is hinted at, but then that thread is left hanging out in the air.

There are very few films these days that are technically awful, Gutther King is not one of those as it has been competently shot and put together, it is visually arresting, the sound track is quite lively and mood setting, the camerawork is playful and agile, the sense of place (Orlando, Florida) is acute,  and the editing is fast when the adrenalin needs to be pumped. The young actors are convincing.

Director/writer Keith Alan Morris USA 2010 96 mins Cert 15

Cast: Zeb Crown, Casey Clark, Erica Ramirez, Blake Logan.

DVD Release date: 26th April 2010
DVD RRP: £12.99

Distributor: Metrodome Distribution Ltd.


Image copyright the Metrodome Group

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The Bridge reviewed

A war drama depicting the use of school boys as cannon fodder by the already defeated German army, and the disintegration of Nazi Germany, by the end of the Second World War which kept me on the edge of my seat throughout, my adrenalin flowing at full speed.  The Bridge is a good remake of a 1959 German film of the same name (Die Brücke), based on a novel by Manfred Gregor.

A sleepy German village during the last stages of World War II abruptly awakes to the harsh and brutal realities of the conflict when the front moves onto their doorsteps, leading the local Nazi party boss, a SS colonel, to enlist into the army all boys from the local school over the age of 16, including those recently resettled after having been displaced from bombed out cities. The Werhmacht is, by this time, reduced to recruit young boys – mostly from the Hitler Youth Movement, and old men to keep the war effort going, as the convincingly pitiful state of the men retreating from the advancing Americans shows in convoy after convoy passing through the village, and the bridge that the school boys have been ordered to defend at all cost.

The boys are openly and cynically used as dead meat to allow for the remains of the German army, its generals and the party bosses to escape, hiding behind by then empty slogans about duty, the defence of the Führer and the fatherland. The trouble is that the youngsters, having been indoctrinated from an early age, still believed in all that, and paid dearly for it, whilst the adults cynically abandoned them so that they could flee, desperately trying to burn all traces of their crimes, their allegiance to Hitler having already been thrown away. The disintegration of a society is ugly, there is no doubt about it, and this film shows it in all its bestiality.

Extra tension is introduced into the battle scenes as doubts surfaces in some of the young defenders, mirroring those of the adults, and rifts appear between them which conspire against their chances of survival. Emotional interest is intertwined in the form of a romance between Albert, the protagonist, and Elfie (a very convincing Franka Potente), the daughter of the family where he was resettled, providing a sense of relief after all the despair of war.

The resistance in the bridge, for all its bravery and blood letting, the special effects of the battle scenes being convincing without being overbearing, ultimately was no more than a mosquito bite onto the flanks of the powerful American army - and the generals who sent the boys to their deaths knew that, as it is seen by the end of the film when, after an apparent withdrawal from their positions after having suffered heavy casualties during the battle, the Americans return in huge numbers and overpowering military hardware.

Attention has been taken to period details such as the clothing, hair styles, attitudes, and military hardware depicted in the film, although I have doubts about the uniform of the so-called SS colonel, Walter’s father, who greeted the party of displaced city people at the beginning of the movie: that uniform was not that of a SS officer, but rather that of a brown shirt, a different branch of Nazi Germany military and paramilitary units.

The acting of the main characters, particularly the young actors, is self-assured and restrained, passions being awaken when the story required it. However, I found the secondary characters to be stereotyped and cartoon-like and, consequently, not very believable; particularly the part of Walter’s father, one of the boy, a man who is the local party boss and universally detested in the village who shows his real self and moral cowardice when the Americans overran the village.The musical score was competently done, and what it was to be expected from most films. However, it is the kind of score that I find particularly unhelpful precisely because it is trying to be helpful as it hints on how the action will develop, distracting from the actors’ abilities to do so.

This breathless and dramatically gripping story shows that those who had most to gain during the Nazi years were, obviously, the first to flee, using kids as cannon fodder to cover for their escape, and it is convincingly filmed to its bitter end.

Dir: Wolfgang Panzer Germany 2008 100 mins Cert 15

Cast: François Goeske, Franka Potente, Lars Steinhöfel, Robert Höller, Florian Heppert, Daniel Axt, Toni Deutsch, Alexander Becht, Paula Schramm, Michael Lott.

DVD Release date: 5th April 2010

DVD RRP: £15.99

Metrodome Group website:

Image copyright The Metrodome Group.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Peppermint Candy DVD reviewed

A powerful South Korean drama which reminded me of TS Eliot’s poetry (the Quartet) as it deals with the beginning and the end of a man’s life; where the beginning is also the end, and the end is the beginning. With most films I want to see the end of it, with Peppermint Candy I was dying to see how it begins, yet, when I reached that scene I found out that the the end was foretold. Very intriguing, indeed.

It is an intensely gripping story which begins with the end of Kim’s life, the protagonist, under the wheels of a passing train after falling foul of a riverside picnic near his home town, where he has returned, lonely and in disgrace, after having run out of prospects for his life; and it ends with a picnic on the same spot on the riverbank with the same people, 20 years earlier, when they all were much younger and their future was open and bright, with the same railway tracks on the background. What makes Peppermint Candy so powerful is that the last scene of the film, depicting the beginning of Kim's journey, becomes very moving as he foretells his own ending on that same spot 20 years later, of what was to come. Hence the associations I made with the poetry of TS Eliot. This is a story of a man who goes back to the place where his adult life began, just to find out that the beginning had slipped away from between his fingers. In this respect, the film parts away from TS Eliot.

Trains are a powerful presence, even a protagonist, throughout the length of the film – it begins indeed with a shot taken from what at first seems to the driver’s cab, but it turns out to having been filmed from the last carriage of the train, the footage being rolled backwards. The same device is used to separate the chapters as we progressively learn about Kim’s life story as the narrative rolls backwards. In every episode either we hear or see trains or railway tracks, a strong reminder of the linear structure of the film.

His story is a pitiful one, a tale of a man’s degradation not out of malice or evil, but out of moral and emotional weakness. We learn about the failure of his business ventures; about his betrayal to his wife, child and, even, to his dog; about his life as a brutal plain clothes cop (all trying to outdo each other in their cruelty); about his betrayal of Yumin, the woman he loved as a young man; about the photographic camera returned to him by her as a reminder of their past liaison; about his life as an army conscript, a wimp who kills a young woman, an university student, out of panic; we learn about the peppermint candy which links his past and his present as he reminisces by Yumin’s death bed the bitter sweet candy she used to send him when he was in the army, to his considerable embarrassment; and finally we learn about that initial riverside picnic, about a flower, about a tear.

The train leitmotif powerfully and inexorably drives the narrative forwards, and backwards. Peppermint Candy is ultimately a film about fate and atonement. When a lived life is gone, is gone.

An intensely engaging drama, impeccably photographed, which asks questions to which I have no answers. An extraordinary film, undoubtedly one of the great films of the past decade.

1st May 2010:  I was so impressed by this film that I neglected adding some notes on the DVD itself. Overall image quality, keeping the original aspect ratio, is good. There is also an enlightening  documentary on the making of the film, with interviews to Chang-dong Lee and the actors. A trailer completes the package. As expected, the DVD can be played either on 5.1 or 2.0 sound setting.

Director/writer: Chang-dong Lee South Korea 2000 130 mins Cert TBC

Cast:Yeo-jin Kim, Kyung-gu Sol, So-ri Moon

DVD Release Date: April 26th, 2010

DVD Specifications:5.1 Surround Sound, Anamorphic Widescreen transfer, Removable Subtitles, NTSC Release

DVD Bonus Features:47 Minute 'Making of', Theatrical Trailer, Trailers of other Third Window releases

Third Window Films website:


All images copyright the producers and Third Window Films.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Kakera – A Piece of Our Life reviewed

Kakera - A Piece of Our Life

is literally and figuratively a cry in the darkness of  contemporary life in our ever growing metropolitan conurbations.

The film begins with a slow carefully composed pan on a sleeping young couple in what seems to be a working class flat in a modern housing block. The camera lovingly focuses on the feet of the young people, holes in her socks highlighted, to slowly travel up to the face of Haru, a young university student engaged in a fruitless relationship with a young man working in a thesis at the university as well, who is only interested in sex and who is indifferent to her emotional needs, as this initial scene conveys when he turns his back to her. The emotional and cinematic tone of the whole film is set here.

Haru is a dispirited young woman, in despair of the emptiness of her liaison with her boyfriend: she observes him eating noodles voraciously, while she just stares, hardly eating at all, with a look on her face saying: “How on earth I got involved with him?” She behaves and she walks like someone for whom every step taken is a step too many, her whole body language conveys that impression of emotional emptiness in a show of subtle acting.

Riko boldly approaches and engages her in conversationr in a café, her attitude being physical from the very beginning of their relationship as she cleans Haru’s upper lip from traces of a chocolate drink. She likes the softness and the smell of girls, she likes to touch and be touched. Haru accepts her atteentions, however reluctantly at first, being unsure about Riko’s intentions – who claims that she is not recruiting for a religious cult or the sex trade.

Haru’s so-called boyfriend keeps shunning her for another woman, in spite that he keeps swearing his love for her. She spies on him, she knows what he is doing to her. This drives her towards Riko, who seems to offer her in a very self-confident manner the real love and emotional fulfilment she is craving for.

Riko is apparently a bold young woman, very sure of herself, working as an artist/craftswoman making prosthetic parts. However, as the relationship between them develops, her mask of apparent strength starts to breakdown, as her love for Haru is intermittently accepted and rejected.

The balance of power between the two girls subtly changes as Haru slowly drifts towards her fellow university classmates, a world from which Riko feels excluded. The girls slowly drift apart. Riko develops a relationship with one of her customers, an older woman for whom she has been making a synthetic breast, after she meets her after work in a sex bar for lonely hearts. The older woman clearly holds the reigns, Haru’s ghost haunts Riko, and she escapes. Now she is the one sleepwalking, her confidence all gone.

This is a tale of the need for love and human contact in the loneliness of our ever growing cities; a perceptive study of the complexities of human relationships taking place in the midst of the shapelessness of an urban environment constantly buzzing around them, and the changes in the balance of power built in those relationships.

The cinematography clearly conveys the changing moods and liaisons between the characters, whilst giving a sense of place and time in carefully composed and photographed shots, although some of the flashbacks at the beginning of the film seem to me to be unnecessary and, frankly, quite annoying. I found the scene were a water bottle thrown high in the air becomes an owl that flows away to be dangerously close to be a cliché (which highlights the problem of how to convey hope in modern cinema without falling back onto the flying birds or horses galloping into the wilderness). The music score beautifully suggests mood rather than highlighting the plot.

A perceptive tale of love, rejection and growing up in contemporary Japan beautifully shot, if somewhat rambling, continuing a fine tradition in Japanese cinema of closely observed human relationships.

Dir: Momoko Andô Japan 2009 - Erika Sakurazawa (manga)

Cast: Riko (Eriko Nakamura), Haru (Hikari Mitsushima), Ken Mitsuishi


UK RELEASE DATE:  2 April 2010
Opening at ICA
& selected regional sites

DVD UK release Date: 21st June 2010

Distributed in the UK by Third Window Films:

All images copyright Zero Pictures and Third Window Films.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

The Headless Woman reviewed

The entwining of a foreground story with a background one is an interesting idea. The problem with The Headless Woman is that the foreground narrative lacks any hint of dramatic tension or interest, it is extremely confusing with a multitude of characters who are almost surplus to the film; and the background story, a critique of the corrupt power of Argentinian elites exercised behind phones calls and the like, is underdeveloped and weak. The last scene raises the tension to some degree, but by then is far too late, and still quite anaemic.

The cinematic treatment is openly self-indulgent, with lingering shots which go too long with the only purpose of, well, being lingering shots.  The main character, a female dentist in the northern Argentinian city of Salta, is simply not credible.

The film jusr goes on and on, perhaps it could have been a good short. Lucrecia Martel, who writes the scripts of her own films, could have benefited from doing what Michael Haneke did for The White Ribbon: to bring in a good professional script writer to sharpen it up.

In short, an interesting idea spoilt by an anaemic and self-indulgent cinematic treatment. The film offered so much, and yet, delivered so little. It does prove that fancy cinematography cannot make up for a lousy screenplay.