Thursday, 27 May 2010

Phantom Punch DVD reviewed

Director: Robert Townsend
Writer: Ryan Combs
Cast: Ving Rhames, Stacey Dash, Nicholas Turturro,  Bridgette Wilson, David Proval, Rick Roberts, Alan Van Sprang, Egidio Tari, Andrew Hinkson, Troy Amos-Ross .

Phantom Punch, a flawed but fascinating film about a flawed and controversial legend of boxing, Sonny Liston, a film that explores the underbelly of American heavy weight championships.

Phantom punch was the controversial punch inflicted in 1964 by Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali when he converted to Islam, on the former heavy weight boxing champion Sonny Liston attempt to regain the title, a man known for his “killer” fists. That punch, for those of you old enough to have watched the fight, most probably in a black and white television set, knocked Sonny Liston out of his chances to that crown on the first round. Judging from the release of this DVD, the controversy continue to rage on, 46 years later.

Phantom Punch is primarily aimed at a niche audience, although it is fascinating to follow the life and tribulations of Liston. It is a flawed film about a flawed man who rose to the top of his sport from the dungeon of an American penal institution. It is a tough look at a tough man. It is also a biased movie, as the depiction of his greatest rival, Cassius Clay, by Andrew Hinkson is a caricature of the man. However, its subject is not only about Sonny Liston or boxing, it is also about racism that permeated America in the 50s and 60s and, to a lesser extent, even nowadays. Yes, people such as Liston were respected, but only in the ring, only as money making machines; in daily life, the “n” or “b” words were still being regularly thrown at them, or they were routinely being abused by the police, authorities and the press. It tackles the involvement of the mafia in organized sport, particularly boxing, when many boxers were “own” by particular families, used as cash cows and dispensed with when they became surplus to requirement, or attempted to fly with their own colours. Liston’s involvement with organized crime is hinted at, although it does not go beyond that as it seems that there is no enough evidence to prove it either way. Phantom Punch touches the traps posed by sudden riches and fame for celebrities when the term had not even been coined in its current usage or, if it had, it was not widely used.

While the portrayal of the environment where these events unfolded all those years ago gives its flavour, some of the details (such as the type of microphone that the singer was using) were not of its time. I found the use of the change of the cinematography from black and white to colour between chapters very annoying and distracting, particularly when those chapters are rather short. A gimnmck which I did not appreciate at all, as well as the rather anaemic and farsical sex scenes which could very well a good contender for the worst portrayal of sex in cinema. The special features are quite poor: certainly, I would have liked to have seen the footage of the actual fight between Liston and Clay.

Ving Rhames measured but powerful performance is a very convincing Sonny Liston, while Nicolas Turturro is brilliant as his manager. David Proval’s depiction of the family boss is chilling in his business like approach to crime and Andrew Hinkson portrayal of Cassius Clay was, frankly, ridiculous.

The film was originally released in the USA in 2008.

DVD Release date: 24th May 2010
Running time: 100 minutes
DVD RRP: £15.99

Distributor: Metrodome Distribution

All images © Metrodome Distribution

Friday, 14 May 2010

Jane Eyre

I am re-reading Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, as Cary Fukunaga's take on it should be released sometime in 2011. Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Alice in Wonderland) as Jane, with some fantastic actors such as Jamie Bell, Judi Dench, Michael Fassbender, Sophie Ward, and many others. Is Mia too pretty to play the part of plain Jane? Some people would say, yes. I think that Mia has a kind of flexible beauty, she can still be beautiful and plain.

Re-reading the book, it is clear to me that, whilst  Charlotte Brontë defines Jane as "... you were no beauty as a child", that is not the same that saying she was ugly. The regime of the educational establishment were she grew up meant that her manner, appearance and clothing were worked out to be plain. However, I disagree with the common assumption that she was 'plain Jane', she was not. Canons of beauty change over time, indeed in the past few years they have moved here in Britain. The book was written in the first half of the 19th century, Jane's plainness was defined within the idea of beauty of that time. Would she be considered plain nowadays?

I originally read the book in a Spanish translation some forty years ago. I understand that filming has just finished, or nearly, in Yorkshire. I am looking forward to it. Fukunaga's Sin Nombre was a brilliant film.

For a  just released still from the film please follow the link:

See also USA TODAY for more information:

Post updated on May 16th, 2010.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Japanese film Fish Story reviewed

“The Beatles had broken up and The Velvet Underground had gone weird...”

Director: Yoshihiro Nakamura
Writer: Tamio Hayashi
Japan 2009 112 mins Cert TBC
Cast: Atsushi Ito, Kengo Kora, Mikako Tabe, Gaku Hamada, Mirai Moriyama

Fish Story is a witty concoction of disparate aleatoric stories and a bewildering set of characters, mostly briskly paced, carefully knitted together by the mainly solid acting and the alchemy shown by the director in the treatment of the story both in its direction and editing, the scenes ending in cliff hangers which are not resolved until the very end. In less capable hands, it is likely that the film would have ended as an almighty mess. It requires intense concentration as the details and elliptic twists of the plot and the actual resolution of the characters by the performance of the cast are essential for its comprehension. If no attention is taken when watching it, it will end up as an incongruent collection of scenes with no threads to glue them together, as the complexity of its structure has qualities which come straight out of quantum mechanics.

Fish Story shifts its tone from being a disaster movie – the initial scene of a deserted Tokyo street with rubbish strewn everywhere and traffic lights still working for no-one is a brilliantly economic depiction of the impending catastrophe to befall on the planet, to being a romance (a key ingredient in the mix, although not obvious at first), a comedy, a tragedy, and a punk musical, with ironic takes on the music industry, on Far East martial arts films and on the cult of the superhero, so popular in some recent blockbusters. There are also oblique references to the economic uncertainties of post war Japanese history woven somewhat hesitantly into the story. It kept me most of the time at the edge of my seat with a half drunk cup of tea in my hand hanging in mid air.

The film is set in Tokyo in 2012, a disabled man (we learn he is suffering from terminal stomach cancer) in a motorized buggy negotiates his way through the litter strewn in the deserted and silent streets, until he is attracted by the sound of music coming from a record shop, the only sign of life we see or hear. There we learn that a comet (a characters on its own right in the background, although with no name) is heading towards Earth, only five hours away. Its impact will generate a tidal wave taller than Mount Fuji, the mother of all tsunamis, that will drown not only Japan but the whole of the world as well. It does not matter if it crashes in Argentina, its devastating effect will still be the same. The population had already fled into higher grounds, where they will probably be killed by volcanic eruptions or the apocalyptic eternal winter that will ensue. There is no escape, the end is nigh.

There we also learn of a 1970s record which did not sell as the shop owner and a solitary customer have decided to spend their last hours of their lives listening to music. The song being played, Fish Story, was the swansong recorded by Gekirin (the Wrath), a Japanese punk band performing before punk existed, before the Sex Pistols formed, a band that failed to make a career in the music industry, a band whose music was too far ahead of its time. There is a hilariously riotous scene of the band playing in a night club, ending in a most undignified melee that would have made any hard punk proud of.

Will the world be saved? Who will save it? How will it be saved? Flashbacks are introduced as the characters in the record shop argue about their possibilities of survival, flashbacks which gradually build up the story that leads to the completely surprising resolution of the film. We also learn that the fate of the world hinges not on a song, but on a mistranslation.

Some of the special effects are unreal, such as the depiction of the comet remaining the same size and position in the sky throughout the film, although by the end of it the moment of impact was very close. I am not going into further details as to do so will be to spoil the plot.

The cinematography adds to the sense of impending disaster not only for the fate of Earth, but also for the fate of the characters, being particularly poignant in its rendition of the last performance by the band recording the Fish Story song. There is a Manga feel that particularly suits the film. The performance of the cast is, overall, solid, although in some points is all over the place.

The sad thing in this era of blockbuster domination of cinema is that if this striking although at times somewhat rambling film were to be made by one of the Hollywood studios, with all their marketing and distribution power and weight at their disposal, it would probably be a box office hit. A very intelligent, witty and and entertaining film that demands the viewer's full concentration to be enjoyed.

Fish story will be released at the ICA Cinema, London, on May 28th, 2010.

Distributor: Third Window Films
Film website:

All images  © Third Window Films.

Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop reviewed

Once upon a time a video camera fell into the hands of a Frenchman living in Los Angeles. The result of that otherwise entirely forgettable  incident is Exit Through the Gift Shop, or stopping Mr Thierry Guetta stupidly playing with that camera and do something useful instead, as playing at being Mr Brainwash the showman and con the art connoisseurs both in Los Angeles and New York out of their pocket money. Or is it the whole thing a big con? If it is, who is conning whom in here? Are we, the viewers of this film, being conned about the very existence of Mr Brainwash? We know that Thierry Guetta does exist, unless Banksy has also being able to convince the Los Angeles Times and the BBC that a construct has a real existence. We also know that Mr Brainwash mounted those exhibitions in Los Angeles and New York. However, who is Mr Brainwash really? Banksy? Thierry Guetta?

What makes Exit Through the Gift Shop so unforgettable, apart of being a superb documentary on the street art scene of the past decade, depicting the works not only by the still secretive Banksy – we see his shadowy figure and hear his electronically distorted voice, but also by many other famous and infamous graffiti artists, a film that does justice to the guerrilla filming approach, both Guetta and Banksy seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time escaping the clutches of police officers and security personnel. This is an irreverent look into the art world, into the shallowness of the art market. It also documents very closely what entailed for Banksy and other street artists to produce their works, as the camera follow their preparations and raids in the middle of the night into some of the most unlikely locations, high up on walls above the roofs of adjacent buildings, the camera pointing anywhere and everywhere as Thierry climbs behind them, crossing fences to get into restricted access areas in Disneyland, or filming Banksy as he surreptitiously hangs some of his own paintings in the National Gallery, where it remained undetected for several hours. The camera even follows him in his incursion onto the most notorious and infamous wall of our contemporary world, the wall separating Israel from the Palestinian territories.

Banksy finally managed to shake Guetta off his back by challenging him to produce the goods, the resulting 90 minutes long film would have been much more intelligible if it had been edited by a toddler. So, Mr Brainwash the artist was born, storming Los Angeles in a big way with Life is Beautiful, and another show following in New York shortly afterwards. However, at this point, none of the questions raised at the beginning of this review have been answered, and probably they will remain as such.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is an irreverent and humorous film which documents Banksy and the street art scene commendably well, a very anarchic affair in a British way. I intensely enjoyed it. My only regret is that I would have liked to see more of Banksy’s works, as they are very witty, inquisitive, anarchic and subversive.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Au Hasard Balthazar

Director/writer: Robert Bresson France/Sweden 1966 95 mins

Cast: Anne Wiazemsky, Walter Green, François Lafarge, Jean-Claude Guilbert, Philippe Asselin, Pierre Klossowski, Nathalie Jogaut.

If there is one sentence that could define Robert Bresson’s approach to cinema making, I think that would be on the lines of: The complexity of simplicity.

Au Hasard Balthazar falls clearly under this category. At first glance, it sounds simple, too simple for sophisticated tastes, awaking attitudes such as Oh no, I’ll fall asleep with this film. This is not the case at all. As with other Bresson’s works, it held my undiminished attention from the first frame of a stone wall until the last shot. It is the life story of a donkey, since he was a foal until his death as an abused old animal, downtrodden with smuggled goods and shot after his handlers abandoned him. The foal was formally baptized Balthazar, with a proper Catholic ritual, by and surrounded by adorable and loving children. However, this picture was not to be. It is also a story of betrayal and redemption, a story of fate. One of those children, Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) loved him dearly since she was a little girl, but also betrays him as she grew up and got mixed with a gang of youths in the village, shadowy young people inhabiting in that land located between society and complete amorality.

The film follows the parallel lives of Marie and Balthazar with stark camera work, black and white photography streamlined down to the minimum, the language being sparse like biblical sentences. However, while the donkey accepts mostly with grace and humility the cruelties and brutalities inflicted upon him as he was passed from owner to owner like a yo-yo, with flashes of rebellion here and there, but always with s flourish of his long ears; Marie betrays him and goes on in doing so not only him, but also her childhood sweet heart, Jacques. Balthazar’s life tragically ends, in a twist of fate, just when he had a chance to live his last few years in peace, after having worked all his life as, well, a donkey. His reward being kick after kick. He accepts his death with saintly tranquillity and dignity, his eyes open until the last moment taking in the world around him, Marie having disappeared in despair.

Au Hasard Balthazar has been interpreted as a Christian parable, an exemplary life led by the donkey, taking everything that came onto him, the kicks and the kisses, with humility and grace until his death. Marie, to some extent, leads a similar life, in sharp contrast with the lives of most of the surrounding humans around them, following a complete different path, a path of cruelty, selfishness and brutality.

Bresson’s eye is always sharp as steel in its dissection of human frailties; however, it is never unkind. Au Hasard Balthazar is no different in this respect as we despair watching Marie’s attitude when she sees Balthazar being beaten by her lover, but we learn the conflict in her hearth when she failed to intervene; we vent our anger to Gerard and his gang, but we also learn to see the world through their eyes.

Au Hasard Balthazar, a classic of cinema by one of its masters.

A search through the IMDb website revealed a few interesting facts. Anne Wiazemsky, the lead actress, the daughter of a Russian count and granddaughter of the French writer François Mauriac, did pursue, unusually for Bresson’s actors, a career in cinema and TV until 1988, having worked under Jean-Luc Godard – to whom she married, and Pier-Paolo Pasolini, and others. She is also a writer, having collaborated in L’Irreguliere, on which the film Coco Before Chanel was based. Pierre Klossowski, the miller in the film, was the painter Balthus older brother, himself being an artist and writer. He also appeared in Raoul Ruiz' films.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Instant Swamp reviewed

Instant Swamp is a roller coaster hilarious comedy, riotously acted, which kept me laughing almost non stop all the way through. Kumiko Aso, bringing a gloriously feisty performance as Haname, the protagonist, and Morio Kazama as a rogue trader, glue the film together. It was a pleasure to watch this marvellous pair of actors. The “sunny” feel of the cinematography adds to the festive atmosphere of Instant Swamp.

Before I continue with this review, I have a confession to make: I shared, as a kid, a common liking with Haname for Milo sludge. Luckily, you cannot see me now as I am embarrassed.

The film is a parody on the beliefs in the supernatural, it lingers on the amulets and superstitions that sustain the underbelly of our daily lives, at times subconsciously, with fantastical overtones, which could have benefited from a tighter screenplay as, after a while, the gags become repetitive throughout its nearly two hours length.

Instant Swamp, or the curse of the black cat talisman that Haname Jinchoge, the protagonist, buried in anger when she was a little girl in a swamp near her home when her father left, as he could not cope with the oddities, eccentricities and beliefs in the supernatural that his wife had. The film is told from Haname’s point of view, it begins as a video diary with grainy footage that turns into the action in a seamless transition (I nearly did not notice that her voice over was no longer there), as she is in almost every frame. Indeed, Kumiko Aso carries the film onto her slender shoulders.

Haname’s key characteristic is that she absolutely does not believe in superstitions, ghosts, curses, fairies or water sprites, which puts her at odds with not only her colleagues in the no longer ‘fashionable’ fashion magazine where she works, but also with her mother. Yet, she is still convinced that her life is going downhill because of the black cat talisman buried in that now dry swamp. She soon loses her job as, finally, the magazine collapses under the weight of the tons of unsold copies, burying in the process her dreams of founding a fashion magazine in her dreamland of Italy with her idol, a trendy photographer much in demand.

When her mother is rescued by the police after she fell into a pond, chasing water sprites, an old post box was also found. A letter which was posted by her mother, but never delivered, to a charming man with dubious morals nicknamed Light Bulb Co. reveals her that he is her real father, a drifter who has settled down with a fake antiques shop. She meets and befriends him, gradually growing close to him, although doubtful at the beginning of their relationship and his personality. There she meets some odd characters, including a punk rocker called Gas, although he actually is an electrician.

Finally, due to the miraculous transformation of the contents of a warehouse that her father, Light Bulb Co. (she never told him that she was his daughter), sold the key to her for a million yen, the curse of the black cat talisman was finally lifted.

Objects, as symbols of beliefs in the supernatural and superstitions, talismans which usually bring bad luck when they are supposed to do just the opposite, not only anchor the narrative continuity of the film, but become characters in their own right together with Haname, Light Bulb Co., Gas, and the others.

The apparently worthless content of that warehouse (leading to some more hilarious scenes), ultimately may have not contained the gold or riches she was led to believe, but it contained something even better than those: it lifted the curse that afflicted her life (cursing her father’s life instead), defeating the gradual slow grinding down built into our lives (which reminded me of Peter Greenaway’s recent comment that there are only two certain facts in life: sex and death). If there is a moral to the film, here is where to find it.

The image quality of the DVD is excellent in its sharpness and colour, the transfer maintaining its original aspect ratio.

Instant Swamp (Insutanto Numa)

Director/writer: Miki Satoshi Japan 2009 120 mins Cert TBC
Cast:Kumiko Aso, Ryo Kase, Morio Kazama, Eri Fuse, Kankuro Kudo

Production Company: Kadokawa 

DVD UK release date: 24th May, 2010

Third Window Films Website:

The Limits of Control reviewed

Director: Jim Jarmusch USA 2009 116 mins Cert 15

Cast: Descas, Bill Murray, Gael García Bernal, Isaach de Bankolé, John Hurt, Paz de la Huerta, Tilda Swinton

Some critics seem to be recurring to the parameters set by the big Hollywood studios as their criteria to review, and judge, movies. So, when a film such as Jim Jarmusch’ The Limits of Control appears in the horizon, they get shot down very quickly from the cinematic sky by these critics, as their structure and treatment do not fit with the conventionality of studio made films. What sets Avatar apart is the technical wizardry that allowed for the digital construction of its world. In terms of its structure and plot treatment, it is no different from Aliens, an earlier Cameron’s blockbuster.

The counter argument to this line of thought is that, while The Limits of Control is different, if not original and certainly beautifully crafted, from your average studio production in the cinematic treatment of its subject matter; it does not need any critics to be shot down.  It does it all on its own. The following question has to be asked: What is its subject matter? Or, to use different words: What was the point of making it?

The very beginning sets the cinematic treatment for the rest of the film: a scene, filmed in what seems to be a changing cubicle, carefully constructed in such a manner that pushes the viewer out of balance. From that point on clues are constantly being thrown at us to be taken away a minute or so afterwards in a series of ritualistic shots that, after a while, stop in getting my subconscious mind to lay a smile across my lips because of their repetitiveness. Every scene has been beautifully composed and photographed – the film is set in Spain, with a painterly quality in their treatment, acting as a continuous visual bass to the incongruous figure of the stranger (Isaach de Bankolé), The Man With No Name who denies to be an American gangster when asked by some children following him in a street in Seville, in spite of looking and acting as one (his manner of walking, his gaze, his suit, being reminiscent of Lee Marvin in Point Blank). If he was or not a gangster you will have to make up your mind after the last scene – or, should I say, black out? Others could interpret it as an homage to such films. Jarmusch delights in superimposing such dissonant images on his carefully constructed scenes.

The premise on which The Limits of Control is based upon is a riddle, as the nameless Man in a kind of ritual journey through Spain with hardly a smile posed on his lips solving one riddle after the other, many set in such presumptuous language that made my hair stand up in horror. This character also reminded me of the contract killer played by a young Alain Delon in that classic 1967 French film noir, Le Samouraï, by Jean-Pierre Melville, but without the canary. However, for riddles to work they need to be short, sharp and with underlying humour. None of these characteristics are present in The Limits of Control (apart of some brief humorous flashes): it just goes on and on, becoming more and more intellectually presumptuous and vacuous with every frame projected on the screen, ending in a frankly disappointingly prosaic and well trodden formula.

If it did try to be a thriller, it fails to work as such as it is too repetitive and no dramatic tension is built. If it did try to be a film asking existential questions about how our world actually works, it fails because it is too hermetic in its plot and cinematic treatment. If it did try to be a big joke at the expenses of art house audiences, it fails as it is too obscure. I found it to be a very infuriating film as I still enjoyed it, in spite of feeling that I was cheated at the end. It is beautifully photographed, staged and acted, but it felt like attempting to see the whole of the contents of the Louvre or the National Gallery in just one visit: its very beauty becomes unbearable, the eyes and the mind drift away.

On the positive side, it has a good cast of actors, Isaach de Bankolé giving the right tone to the character of The Man, while Tilda Swinton and John Hurt have brief but brilliant appearances. Gael García Bernal just plays himself, as usual I am afraid to say – I really would like to see him actually acting, for a change. The film is also visually stunning, with the caveats already mentioned, and we got to travel through Spain in its excellent rail network (I know, I have used it).

Monday, 3 May 2010

Spring Symphony

Director/writer: Peter Schamoni
West Germany 1983 103 mins
Cast: Nastassja Kinski, Rolf Hoppe, Herbert Grönemeyer, Anja-Christine Preussler.

Peter Schamoni’s 1983 film Spring Symphony (Frühlingssinfonie) should clearly fall into the category of Masters and Classics of Cinema, although I believe that it passed largely unnoticed in Britain. A young Nastassja Kinski plays the part of teenager Clara Wieck, brilliantly conveying the childishness and coquetry of a 15 year old girl, whilst expressing the strength of character and resolution of a young woman aware of her talent and sure of her path; while Anja-Christine Preussler  is excellent as the bossy child that Clara (it drew a laugh from me) must have been, yet still demanding to be told a bedtime story as any other little girl would have done.

The film charts the story of the talented young pianist Clara Wieck, nurtured from a very early age by her stern father Friedrich Wieck - impeccably played by Rolf Hoppe, a piano dealer and teacher, to storm the stages of Europe at practically any cost during the early part of the 19th century, following the revolution in music brought by Beethoven, Schubert, and many other musicians. Regrettably for him, the Romantic composer Robert Schumann (a plausible Herbert Grönemeyer) enters into the picture, dislocating the inexorable path he had traced for Clara to follow, and breaking the very close relationship between daughter and father had – some people would argue to have been too close for comfort, although no sexual abuse is hinted at.

Spring Symphony explores the tormented romance between the brilliant Robert Schumann and the equally brilliant Clara, a relationship that finally led to the rupture of the filial bonds between her and her father, a disappointed and stubborn man who refused to give ground to the love between the two young people, a man who had spent most of his financial and emotional resources on furthering her career. On this respect, whatever his motives were, it could be said that he actually financially and emotionally exploited her.

The film also hints at the clash which was to come between two talented and strong willed musicians, particularly in the last scene when Schumann’s gorgeous Spring Symphony was premiered under the conduction of Felix Mendelssohn.

The Leipzig of the early 19th century has been convincingly portrayed, while the camera work stunningly conveys not only the beauty of Nastassja Kinski, but also her very European sensuality.

Spring Symphony is a must to be seen by all lovers of classical music. It certainly reconnected me with Schumann’s works, a composed who I have, somewhat, neglected. Paganini is another composer that was brought back into the forefront of my mind.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Notes on the Mitchell-McKeown house, London, 2010

I am writing this on the understanding that I have not seen the actual house, as reported in The Guardian on May 1st, 2010, but only the piece in the Weekend magazine. I am also fulfilling the second part of the name of this blog.

Frankly, the current trend in domestic architecture for a clean lines modernist approach, as it is being repeated ad nauseam, is becoming sterile and boring. What Patrick Mitchell and Claire McKeown, two young London based architects, have done in converting the shell of a semi-derelict terraced house into a contemporary home is very interesting indeed, the rescuing of back end spaces from its long standing servant role into part of the living area of the house is admirable. That window seat at the back is gorgeous.

However, it is those clean sheets of glass, stainless steel everywhere and recessed lights that I am starting to look at them with a slightly bored expression on my face. I cannot depict any of my cats climbing onto that roof and exposing their bottoms and all to anybody below. The interiors in the photographs look stunning... I would like to see them in about a year time. What I object most of all is the clean sheet of glass in the roof. Ghastly.

To see photographs of the house click the link below: