Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Scorsese's HUGO reviewed

The much lauded Hugo arrived to British cinemas only after a couple of weeks, or so, after its release in the USA. Is all that praise deserved? Well, yes, or at least most of it is, in my opinion.

Hugo, based on a children story by Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the screenplay having been written by John Logan, a departure in Martin Scorsese's oeuvre, admirably captures the illusion of the grain of life in an enclosed environment such as a busy Parisian train station just after the Great War. As such, it is an old fashioned children story, like those we told to our children when putting them to bed, as once upon a time we had the time and energy to do so (if this was ever true I do not know, but it is nice to hold to the idea that it was), told using cutting edge 3D cinematic technology. Has Scorsese advanced the range of this technology for artistic use in contemporary cinema? The jury is out on this one, although I have my doubts. I do think that Hugo could well had been shot in a conventional 2D format without any detrimental effect on the quality of the story telling. Perhaps, it could had worked even better, as I felt that on occasions the technology got on the way of the story itself, almost as if Scorsese, like a kid playing with a new set of coloured pens, got so enthralled with 3D for its own sake that he overlooked the story. 

The film follows the story of a boy, the above mentioned Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield, whom we saw in The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas), who lives in the railway station after been taken in by his uncle after the death of his father in a fire at the museum where he worked. The uncle, a drunkard, also disappeared one day, and Hugo keeps with the task of keeping all the clocks of the station running on time, that was his uncle's job, as he fears he will be taken to an orphanage if he is discovered by the awful station master (a rather magnificent portrayal by Sacha Baron Cohen), a war veteran with a penchant for grabbing street urchins.

The key of the film, and I am playing with words here, is a key he needs to unlock the mechanism of an automaton in his possession, as he believes that it will write a message from his father, who left it to him after his death. The search for this key sets Hugo in a sharp collision with Georges Méliès (a rather cartoonish portrayal by Ben Kingsley, a bit of a rehash of his performance in Gandhi), an old gentleman who owns a toy booth in the station. After his father's sketchbook falls in the hands of Méliès, who suspects that Hugo has been nicking bits and bits from his stall, he manages to enlist the help of Méliès' granddaughter, young Isabelle (a fabulous and sensitive performance by Chloë Grace Moretz), to recover the book, as he needs it to bring the automaton back to life. Isabelle is also an orphan, being brought up by Grandpa George and his wife after her parents died in an accident, jumps in aid of Hugo, as she is screaming for adventure and danger, as most children at that age living a sheltered life do.

Hugo the film is also an ode to cinema itself, to the beginnings of cinema (Scorsese is also being known for funding the restoration of old and forgotten films, as my DVD copy of Wojciech Has' marvellous and intriguing The Saragossa Manuscript in my videoteque testifies), as we all find, including Isabelle, that Grandpa George is one of the forgotten pioneers of early cinema, having developed his career shortly after the Lumière brothers showed to the public the first movie performance, directing, producing and acting in hundreds of films, a career cut short by the war. Unable to restart it, he bought the toy booth for a living, and to raise Isabelle. 

Hugo is also one of those rare films which appeals to the young and the old, as it does work on several levels. I suspect that subsequent viewings will bring additional riches to the fore both on the story itself, its background, and the performances.

The performances of the kids is exceptional, Asa Butterfield conveys the intensity of the desire of a child to unlock not only the automation but also his own life, his own destiny, whilst Chloë Moretz' nuanced performance of Isabelle (I understand that she managed to fool Martin Scorsese in believing she is actually English during the audition) living in Paris, a girl eager for adventure, yet who is also a loving and sensitive grand daughter, gets at the heart of her role with an extraordinary breadth and depth of characterization.

Special mentions have to go to all those who constructed the sets and worked in the CGI effects, which created a picture of a Parisian railway station which is both credible and yet still firmly belonging to the realm of story telling). I have to say that I am not still convinced by the 3D technology which, in spite of Scorsese's efforts to tame it, felt too often as no more than gimmick, distracting me from the humanity of the story itself.

However, in spite of my persisting reservations about the technology itself, Hugo has gone into my long list for the 10 best films I have watched in 2011, being not only old fashioned story telling at its best, but also an ode to cinema itself, admirably realized and with an enthralling performances by Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz.

To see the making of Hugo, please click HERE.

Text revised on 15 December 2011.

Monday, 5 December 2011


We cannot be murderers and victims at the same time.

Villain, based on the Japanese best selling novel of the same name by Shuichi Yoshida, who co-wrote the screenplay for the film, casts an eye on the loneliness of existence in an ordered society, where everyone and everything has a place, where there is a place for everyone and every thing, the loneliness of dating sites, an escape for young people whose existence oscillates from monotonous life at work to monotonous life at home, every day becoming undistinguishable from the previous one, or from the one which is to come tomorrow.

Where their whole existence is encompassed by the high road of just another town in the middle of nowhere, primary school, secondary school, work, home, as Mitsuyo (Eri Fukatsu, whose powerful and nuanced performance won her the Best Actress Award at the 2010 Montreal International Film Festival), one of the protagonists muses to Yuichi (Satoshi Tsumabuki), whom she has met through a dating site, in a love hotel, its décor being as ubiquitous as those chain stores mushrooming in town after town, city after city, country after country, the ghost of Yoshino (Hikari Mitsushima, who seems to be getting out of her usual roles of a girl who cannot decide anything in her life, although she still plays, quite convincingly, the role of a victim here) lurking on Yuichi's head.

Dating websites become not only their way to get some excitement in their lives, as Yoshino tells a girlfriend when she was asked if she had slept with a man she just had met through the site: “That's why I met him”, but also gives them the possibility to find someone with whom to share their futures, or, find their deaths, as it is the case in Villain. For Yuichi, the man is question, his beloved powerful sports car is also what gives him the chance to escape from the dreary fishing village where he lives, and from his job as a demolition worker in his uncle's company; the haunting cinematography portraying those roads at night, the beams of the car lights drilling through the layers of realities which soon join the darkness surrounding him, the beams of that car mirroring in the beam of that lighthouse from his childhood, shining beyond the horizon, where he returns when he is in the run from the police, after having killed a young woman on a solitary dark road under those same beams. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the film, shot mostly in crowded interiors, in the car, close ups, where the wide exhilarating landscape is always seen through the framing of the car screen, or the mullions of windows, is suddenly smashed, and opened up, on that scene on the lighthouse, where the horizon suddenly fills not only the cinema screen, but also their eyes as they watch, mesmerized, the sun set – for once, the visual cliché being also broken.

Yet, that car, and those dating websites, are paradoxically no longer liberating, but have become part of that suffocating entrapment of their lives, from which they desperately try to escape, as we see a shot of Mitsuyo back to her monotonous job in a clothes store at the end of the film, just as we saw her at the beginning, or the roadside shrine to Yoshino, where her zest for life ended: The ultimate entrapment of all? Or, the ultimate liberation? It is for you to decide, and to ruminate on the truly shocking end of Villain.

Lee Sang-il and Shuichi Yoshida have used the format of a crime thriller, and a road movie, to explore this enclosed world, where there is a place for everyone and everything, succinctly portrayed in a scene in which the police drags from a minuscule capsule hotel a young man on the run, as he felt he would be blamed for Yoshino's murder, his room being not much larger than a bed, the headroom making impossible to stand up; or on Mitsuyo's conversation with the taxi driver as she also went to Yoshino's shrine to leave flowers: “If he killed someone, then he must be a bad man”. The powerful and gripping character study, we really delve under their skins, and the haunting cinematography, have sliced open the underbelly of this world, and exposed to our eyes the frustrations and despair lurking under apparently ordered and well mannered lives in an apparently trouble free society.

Villain opens with a bunch of young women having a night out, the giggles and banter soon being replaced with the darkness of the night as one of them, Yoshino, goes to meet with her date for the evening, Yuichi, yet she ends up getting into another car. This is the last we see of her. A couple of days later Yuichi, a very introvert character, drives into Nagasaki to meet Mitsuyo, whom he has also met through the online dating service. Their desire for human companionship soon overtake their initial reluctance, and the pair fell in love. However, they are soon on the run from the police, as he is suspected of murdering Yoshino.

The DVD contains an excellent and enlightening feature on the making of the film, plus a clip on a conversation between the director, Lee Sang-il, and his star, Satoshi Tsumabuki, theatrical trailer, and the usual set up controls.

Trailer and images © The Producers and Third Window Films

DVD UK release Date: December 5th, 2011

DVD Specifications: 5.1 Surround Sound, Anamorphic Widescreen with Removable English Subtitles
DVD Bonus Features: 1 Hour Long 'Making Of', Interview with Satoshi Tsumabuki and Lee Sang-Il, Theatrical Trailer

DVD released by

Villain can be bought from your local store, or from Amazon HERE.

Original Title: Akunin
Country: Japan
Year of Production: 2010
Rating: 15
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 140 mins
Original Language: Japanese
Dir: Lee Sang-il
Writer: Shuichi Yoshida, Lee Sang-il
Cast: Satoshi Tsumabuki, Eri Fukatsu, Masaki Okada, Hikari Mitsushima, Kirin Kiki


Yuichi (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is a construction worker who has lived his entire life in a dreary fishing village. With no girlfriend or friends, he spends his days working and looking after his grandparents, with no enjoyment in life other than his car. Meanwhile, Mitsuyo (Eri Fukatsu) also lives a monotonous life pacing between the men’s clothing store where she works and the apartment where she lives with her sister. When the two lonely souls meet using an online dating site, they immediately fall in love with each other. But there’s a secret Yuichi had been keeping from Mitsuyo: Yuichi is the one suspected of killing the woman whose body was found at Mitsue Pass only a few days before...

As Yuichi and his new lover try to elude the police, the events that led up to the murder and its aftermath are revealed. We learn the stories of the victim, the murderer, and their families - stories of loneliness, love hotels, violence and desperation, exposing the inner lives of men and woman who are not everything they appear to be.

Who is the true “villain” here?

Monday, 21 November 2011


Shinji Imaoka's comedy Underwater Love (Onna no kappa) is described as a Pink musical, Pink being a genre of low budget independent productions in Japanese cinema, mostly with an erotic content. Being unconstrained and free-minded, their films are unusually creative and experimental, having gained a following worldwide, although they seem to be in the wane in Japan for some years now. Being erotic productions (ie, with a near guaranteed audience), the film makers are given ample creative freedom, the resulting films quite often using the “erotic” façade to cast a critical eye on the world surrounding them.

They are, in a way, the absolute opposite of the Hollywood blockbuster.

Underwater Love was shot in 5½ days, one take only, Christopher Doyle's cinematography depicting quite elegantly the love triangle at the core of the film, and its environment, which features quite prominently, almost as another character. It is a Japanese (Kokuei Company ) and German (Rapid Eye Movies) co-production, featuring a score by the German band Stereo Total, a CD of it being included in the first 2,000 presses. In this sense, it is an attempt to rescue the genre from its decline in Japan and propel it to a world wide audience.

Love triangle? I hear you asking. Well, yes, it is, between Asuka (Sawa Masaki), a woman in her 30s who works in a fish factory and who is about to marry her boss, Taki (Mutsuo Yoshioka ), a rather stuck up man. One day, Asuka finds a fish still alive in the factory, and, after the celebratory dance with her fellow workers, she releases into into the sea, to encounter there, much to her surprise, her first kappa, a mythical water sprite, a figure in Japanese folklore, creatures which, while being benign, are still quite eerie, as they often may bring bad news.

She quickly learns that this particular kappa is no more than Aoki (Yoshiro Umezawa), a school sweet heart who drowned 17 years previously. And, indeed, he has returned in the shape of this wonderful creature to save her from her destiny. However, Underwater Love is a double love triangle, as Aoki is seduced by one of his co-workers at the fish factory, where he had managed to gain employment to be near Asuka. The love scene between Aoki and his co-worker, Reiko (Ai Narita), turns from ridiculous to hilarious, one cinematic blow job to hit the annals of cinema. Yet, this liaison results in Aoki squaring up to Asuka, as a love letter he wrote to her when he was still alive as a teenager, but never delivered, comes to light.

Underwater Love may seem to be a silly musical comedy at first glance, the plot being, at places, no more than a skeleton to hang the musical routines to the tuneful score of Stereo Total, the what I call the fish-dance, when Asuka rescues the fish she found still alive at the factory, and led her to find the kappa, being a case which springs to my mind. 

Yet, behind this light hearted comedy there is a certain nostalgic look at the endurance, and legacy, of our first love in our teenager years.

The sex? It is very tame indeed, purposely hilarious on places, certainly not on the same intense and obsessive level of Nagisa Ôshima's The Realm of the Senses (Ai no korîda), to say something. To some extent, Underwater Love also works as a parody of porn films.

The film is really a low budget one, so if you expect to encounter expensively made special effects, CGI, and masks here, you will be disappointed. Most of it was shot on location, Christopher Doyle's cinematography capturing the lush environment. I quickly forgot the obvious makeshift nature of Aoki's mask as a kappa, in fact, this “shanty town” quality to the whole production grew strongly in me as I delved into the story. In the very unlikely scenario that a Hollywood studio would decide to remake Underwater Love, I do not think it would work at all if those studio-like production values were to be applied to it.

In short, Underwater Love is an apparently silly musical comedy, a parody of porn movies, with tuneful score, well choreographed dance scenes, and a nostalgic look to the endurance of first love. Shinji Imaoka made a virtue of the “shanty town” look resulting from a low budget. The actors managed admirably well in their “one take only” filming.

Cinematography by Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for Love, Hero, Limits of Control)
Original Music by STEREO TOTAL

Japan/Germany/2011 / 87 Mins / In Japanese with English subtitles / Colour / 35mm


  • Anamorphic widescreen transfer with optional English subtitles
  • 3 Interviews with Christopher Doyle
  • Interview with director Shinji Imaoka
  • Pink Porcupines’ – Christopher Doyle’s behind the scenes shots
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Special Limited Edition – First 2,000 pressed include Stereo Total soundtrack CD

The DVD is brought to you by 

DVD RELEASE DATE: 21 November 2011

Friday, 4 November 2011

Lars Von Trier's MELANCHOLIA: notes

Appropriately for the last offering from maverick Von Trier, a film about the end of the world, I felt that the end of my own world was nigh went I went to see it a couple of days ago, as I fell violently ill in the cinema, although I somehow managed to watch it until the end. No, I am not blaming Von Trier for my tribulations, although I would like to add my voice to those who have accused him of all the sins under the sun. No, I blame something I ate just before the screening, which disagreed with my body. So, I'll try to recount as much as possible as I remember. 

Melancholia is a huge planet which is going to collide with Earth, and no one can do a thing about it. 

Not least the two sisters who are the central characters of the film. Justine (a magnificent and award winning performance by Kirsten Dunst), a manic depressive young woman who actually works as a copy writer for an advertising agency (are all copy writers mentally ill, I wonder), and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, a performance not much different from the one she gave in Antichrist), her strong headed sister who married money, in the shape of Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), react in unexpected ways when this planet of ours finally gets pulverized by the stray Melancholia. 

In the actual beginning of the film we see the newly married Justine trying to get into the manorial home of her sister in a stretch limousine for her wedding reception and party, and failing to do so, setting the tone of Melancholia. The actual party is rather conventional in its depiction, as we see the usual family members falling into pieces, Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt being quite magnificent in their depiction of the (fallen) parents of the bride). Festen did it much better. The relationship between the two sisters have been quite strained for some time, the party acting as a kind of amplifier for it. 

The second part of the film is seen with the eyes of Claire, as she receives a severely depressed Justine in their home, the big bad blue planet up there in the sky bearing closer and closer. The sensible couple, Claire and Michael, refuse to believe in the imminent demise of Earth, although Claire starts to get doubts about Michael's assurances that science has shown that Melancholia will pass close to our planet, but not collide with it. Yet the animal world starts to behave rather oddly, their horses becoming uncontrollable while snakes, frogs, and all kind of creatures, run frenetically around the place. They know, yet humans still attempt to cling to their hope. With the exception of Justine, the weaker of the sisters, the manic depressive of the two, who coldly accepts her destiny, whilst Claire falls to pieces as the end approaches. 

I read Melancholia as a homage to our times, where the rogue planet doubles as the rogue global economic crisis, threatening to end our world as we know it. It is also an study on our reactions to impending catastrophe, the shift of roles from the strong to the apparently weaker between us, where solidity is often based on social conventions rather than in an inner strength of character. 

I intensely disliked the very beginning of the film, a kind of pseudo National Geographic channel introduction to the forthcoming cosmic crash, a pillage of archive footing plus some (well done) CGI. For the record, I also disliked the same pretentious drivel in Malick's The Tree of Life. The roving camera work did not help with my poor condition, although the cinematography is quite haunting.

Thursday, 20 October 2011


In an area just outside Texas City 60 bodies were dumped since 1971. This desolate landscape was nicknamed the Texas killing fields by the locals. Ami Canaan Mann's Texas Killing Fields, based on these true events, follows the path of hard local homicide cops (Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain), teaming with a New York transplanted detective (Jeffrey Dean Morgan ), as they unravel the murders, and save young Anne (Chloë Grace Moretz), a child of a “problem” family, from the clutches of the murderer in a dramatic finale. 

 This gritty yet haunting film is more about the intense and complex personal relationships which have developed in small town Texas and an environment which has as much shaped the people living in the area, as it has been shaped by them, those lingering night shots of the front decaying façades and the eerie landscape of the murder scenes staying with me long after I watched it, and a perception of life on the edge of society, rather than the murders themselves, as we suspect from early on who committed them. 

The murderer changes his game as the cops' net starts to bite, taunting them by leaving clues in the crime scene. New Yorker cop Heigh's obsession with solving the crimes, in spite of the area being outside his jurisdiction, gets heightened when troublesome Anne disappears, suspecting that she has been, or was going to be, murdered. 

Visually brilliant, Texas Killing Fields has a haunting atmosphere which is in the best tradition of American film-noir, slightly spoilt by an unnecessary, and obligatory these days, car chase, accompanied by an eerie sound track and strong acting, although it is about time that Chloë Grace Moretz starts widening her acting repertoire. 
 Distributor: Entertainment Film Distributors

Monday, 17 October 2011

STAKELAND reviewed

Stakeland, another post apocalypse journey through was remains of the United States, brings very little to either genre. To a post apocalyptic world, its only contribution to some semblance of originality is that the disaster has been caused by an epidemic of vampires sweeping not only through the States, but also through the world. We learn, from an army deserter, although that epithet is no longer valid as the army has broken down, that the Middle East is gone to the vampires. The President is dead, although I wonder if the vampires would elect a president from their own ranks, and create a new nation, the United Vampires of America (UVA). Anyway, I digress here, as a vampire film, apart from their takeover of the world, no other original material has been added to the genre. Their depiction is just plain formulaic, at times so grotesque that laughter is the only possible response, and I am not talking of the giggles uttered to mask fear, but those to hide the ridiculous portrayal of our blood thirsty alter egos. The journey itself is just a succession of cinematic and storytelling clichés. 

Stakeland follows Martin, a teenager, from the moment his family get slain by the vampiric shadows lurking and jumping at the first opportunity onto the surviving humans, as his father attempts to repair a getaway car, his little baby brother being eaten alive by one of the monsters, this scene being quite ridiculous, mainly because it was badly done, the “baby” could be spotted to be no more than a mannequin with little semblance to a real one miles away. 

He teams up to an older man, Mister, a ruthless vampire hunter, in their journey towards a safe land, New Eden, in the North of Canada. Other people joins in their escape, including the above mentioned marine, and a pregnant teenager, who also meets a rather disagreeable end. They find the usual ruined landscape of this kind of cinema, abandoned cars, burned out houses, corpses everywhere, religious cults led by murderous fanatics, cannibals, and other kinds of antisocial individuals, apart from the mushrooming vampires. 

In short, one for the horror films fans, Stakeland being a total vampire movie in this respect, I am sure they will enjoy it and scream their heads off. Otherwise, nothing new here. Connor Paolo puts a good performance as Martin, while Kellis McKillis is one of the bright spots of the film as the former nun trying to make some sense of this new world around her, not so brave, and introduce into it some humanity, some compassion into it. Danielle Harris gives a credible portrayal of the pregnant teen.

STAKELAND is out in Britain on DVD and Blu-ray formats from Monday 17 October 2011.


Following on from its acclaimed theatrical release, STAKE LAND comes to DVD and Blu Ray in October. Connor Paolo (Gossip Girl) plays, Martin, a normal teenager swept across an abandoned, not-so United States of America in the aftermath of a ferocious vampire epidemic. It’s up to Mister (Nick Damici, Mulberry Street, World Trade Center), a death dealing vampire hunter, to get Martin to safety. Armed with a trunk full of wooden stakes and a desperate will to stay alive, the pair make their way through locked down towns, recruiting fellow travellers along the way. Among them, a devout nun (Kelly McGillis, Top Gun) and a pregnant teen (Danielle Harris, Halloween)… As with his DVD hit, MULBERRY STREET, Director Jim Mickle creates a dark and terrifying world on the brink of collapse, this time bursting with the most vicious vampires in recent film history. Winner of the 2010 Toronto Film Festival Midnight Madness Audience Award and Audience Award For Best Feature At The Dead By Dawn Festival, STAKE LAND is a gritty, post-apocalyptic road movie with teeth!

Monday, 3 October 2011


Sawako Decides  DVD, Yuya Ishii's award winning comedy, is out for sale in Britain from 24th October 2011.
Third Window Films are in serious financial trouble here since the Sony Warehouse Fire and these continuing problems with Sony messing up, so we really need your support with making these titles successful! Please order it on Amazon HERE

Sawako Decides
The Harpies turn into Angels.

Reviewed by Pablo Luis González

Sawako Decides is structured like a Greek classical play, a counterpoint between the actions of the main characters and a chorus (the women in the clam packing factory, the harpies), some scenes being choreographed almost as a kind of ballet, or tragicomedy set ups (others may argue it is structured like a pop video; however, it can be argued that the lineage of such videos can be traced to Greek classical plays). 

It begins with a rather unconventional opening scene, with Sawako, a young woman (Hikari Mitsushima, we saw her in Kakera, an actress who seems to be making a career out of performing dumb characters), lying on her side while “things” are made to her body – she hopes that all the ills of her young life will disappear as well with the minor operation, her disappointment is palpable when the nurse  disproves her. Sawako not only lays  on that medical operating table, she also lays in life, like another inert body, a young woman to whom “things” happen onto her, the boss of the toy factory where she works frankly abusing and insulting her, boyfriends dumping her, little girls running away from her. Not surprisingly, she has developed  a drink problem, recyclers must be making a fortune out of the empty cans of beer she dumps.

The title sequence is quite brilliant in establishing Sawako's mental state, her constant lethargic inertia; sitting there uttering no words, no apparent thoughts crossing her head, while her latest boyfriend talks and knits, a man who has not dumped her, not yet. Yet, as the film progresses, we learn that she is a psychologically damaged young woman, who eloped to Tokyo at the age of 18 with the captain of the tennis club (and got dumped by him soon after), fleeing from an apparently unloving father. 

After five fruitless years in Tokyo, after five different dead-end jobs and, basically, five dead-end relationships, Sawako returns home to take over the clam packing factory her gravely ill father owns and runs. Yet this decision to return was not totally her own, as she was pushed to take it by Kenichi (Masashi Endô), her latest (and fifth) boyfriend, as he sees an opportunity to escape the dead-end hopelessness of life in Tokyo, with an economy in free-fall, and to develop his idealistic interest in eco-living. For him, to go to her home village is akin to return to nature; for Sawako, to return results in digging out the corpses of past ill-feelings and past actions she had pushed to the back of her memory, and confronting the gossips of the villagers whispered on her back. Worst of all, for her to return is to confront the women, the harpies, who work in the clam packing factory: Sawako eloped, Sawako will sink the company, Sawako is incompetent. 

To compound it all, she is afraid of establishing an emotional rapport with Kenichi's little daughter, Kayoko (Kira Aihara). The girl knows that, and, in turn, is afraid of Sawako, there is a key scene when she asks: “Are you going to kill me?” Yet, when Kenichi in turn elopes back to Tokyo, leaving Kayoko behind, Sawako, now facing not only the prospect of yet another boyfriend dumping her, and confronting the fast deteriorating health of her father, decides to take charge of her live. She triumphs by gaining over Kayoko; by gaining over the women working in the clam factory, the harpies becoming her angels, the many mothers replacing the one she lost when she was a little girl; and, most importantly, gaining over her inner self, confronting her own ghosts, and defeating them.

Sawako Decides is more than a comedy, it can also be read as a parody of contemporary Japanese society, of male behaviour and drinking culture, key being the scene in the clam factory when they all sing to the promised bright future, just waiting round the corner, when orders are becoming smaller and smaller every month that passes, when the whole economy is in free fall, when the company's future is in jeopardy.

Hikari Mitsushima's performance is quite good as Sawako, the young woman who takes control of her own life, becoming someone who does “things” rather than them happening onto her.

Sawako Decides is not a flawless film, specially for a Western audience used to Hollywood products. It rambles in parts for too long (it could have gained by a tighter editing), some scenes do not ring true, some of the references are too obvious, and the acting is at points overdone, particularly from the point of view of a British sensibility. 

Yet, I laughed,  enjoyed, cried, cheered, got bored in parts, and got exasperated at moments (when I wanted to get up and kick the protagonist's arse), with Sawako Decides. Somewhat slow to get into it, however, after a while, I could not get the eyes off the screen.


About the film

Sawako has lived in Tokyo for five years, is working her fifth office job, and is dating her fifth boyfriend, who is also her boss at the office. Her life with Kenichi, her boyfriend, and his daughter from a previous marriage, Kayoko, feels like a "compromise," and she endures each day feeling distressed about her career and love life.

One day, she receives word that her father, Tadao, who runs a freshwater clam processing business in her hometown, has fallen ill. There is a reason why Sawako would rather not go back home so easily, but she reluctantly decides to return at Kenichi's insistence. But Kenichi, who had actually quit his job shortly before Sawako, uses this opportunity to come along with Sawako to her hometown with his daughter in tow.

Thus Sawako's ordeals continue. Still, she takes over her father's clam processing company and begins to work there, though she slowly starts to take charge of the situation and form a new life for herself


Hikari Mitsushima, currently one of the most noteworthy new actresses in Japan, gives an enthusiastic performance as the heroine of this story.

Masashi Endo, who breathes life into various characters in both films and TV dramas, plays Kenichi, a loser you can't help but like.

Kotaro Shiga, a fine actor who has become popular among the younger generation as "Parfait Oyaji (middle-aged man)" in the DVD series The Sanmeisama (the threesome), plays Sawako's father Tadao, who has been at odds with his daughter. Sawako's uncle Nobuo is played by Ryo Iwamatsu, who is a stage director as well as an actor who receives numerous offers from filmmakers of various generations. Furthermore, familiar faces from director Yuya Ishii's previous works give solid performances in supporting roles.

Characters of various generations and positions live selfishly and egotistically but to the best of their abilities in a town where freshwater clams are still abundant. All of these characters are depicted in a comical yet loveable way, creating a stirring drama filled with human warmth.

Yuya Ishii has continued to shine the spotlight on people who are not discouraged by adversity, while reflecting the social problems and conditions of the times. This film can be said to be a compilation of his works so far.

Director/Screenplay:Yuya Ishii
Producer:Mayumi Amano
Cinematographer:Yukihiro Okimura
Lighting:Masao Torigoe
Sound Recording:Hirokazu Kato / Mika Ochi
Production Design:Tatsuo Ozeki
Music:Samon Imamura / Chiaki Nomura
Editor:Koichi Takahashi
Scripter:Yoko Nishioka
Assistant Director:Yuki Kondo
Assistant Producer:Toshiyuki Wake

Hikari Mitsushima as Sawako
Masashi Endo as Kenichi
Kira Aihara as Kayoko
Kotaro Shiga as Sawako's father Tadao
Ryo Iwamatsu as Nobuo

Distributor: Third Window Films

Friday, 16 September 2011

Fukunaga's JANE EYRE reviewed

Cary Joji Fukunaga's Jane Eyre, with Mia Wasikowska as Jane and Michael Fassbender as Rochester, does follow Charlotte Brontë's book quite faithfully, although not in the same chronological order. While the novel has a lineal narrative, the film relies on flashbacks, seamlessly woven into the timeline. 

 What Fukunaga and Moira Buffini, the screen writer, did, very intelligently, was to introduce us at that moment of the story when Jane runs away from Rochester's house, after having been deceived, after suffering the humiliation of a promised marriage which could not be, in despair after learning, and having seen, his imprisoned wife. We see her running, running, it is raining, raining, she is falling, her face hitting the muddy ground, crying, crying, until she finds refuge in the Rivers' home (Jamie Bell as St. John, Holliday Grainger as Diana, and Tamzin Merchant as Mary) . This scene is followed by the first flashback to her childhood, when the child Jane (Amelia Clarkson) reacts angrily to the abuse suffered under the hands of her cousin, John Reed (Craig Roberts). 

 By introducing us to these two key dramatic moments, the story develops in a circular fashion, returning to this point by the end of the film, allowing us to reflect in Jane's journey. More importantly, they highlight one of the core themes of the story, that of the betrayal of Jane, first as a little girl by her aunt, Mrs Reed, and her family, and then, as a young woman inexperienced of the ways of the world, by Rochester (a splendid Michael Fassbender, sensitive under a mask of strength, yet psychologically playing games with her, powerfully conveying the attitudes and rights of the lord of the manor), lured into a path that could not be. This theme of betrayal is repeated later on, when her benefactor, St. John Rivers, whom she has accepted as a brother, tries to force her to marry him and be a missionary's wife in China.

  This lack of experience of the ways of society is, in my opinion, one of the reasons why she was defined as “plain”. Mia Wasikowska conveys marvellously well that sense of a young woman, inexperienced but possessing an inner conviction of her worth, of her place, which is more powerful, at the end, than the graces of a society lady. 

 Wasikowska's Jane is no longer, it can no longer be, an icon of feminism. Fukunaga's and Buffini's interpretation of the Brontë novel have lifted that heavy baggage, forced onto it by a 20th century sensibility. On this sense, the film is, perhaps, closer to the spirit of the book than previous versions. When Jane Eyre was published, in 1847, it was not possible for the author to articulate a contemporary feminist discourse. This Jane does not pretend to advance the cause of womanhood, this Jane is doing no more than carving for herself a place in the world, a place she righteously believes she deserves, not necessarily as a woman, but as a human being. She does not pretend to subvert patriarchy, or a social order, it is significant that Charlotte Brontë gave her the fortune of a long lost uncle, therefore devolving her a position in society from which she had fallen. This Jane is not a revolutionary, or feminist icon. She is a 19th century heroine, not a 20th century one. 

 The world view that the author articulates is from the point of view of a girl, first, then of a young woman, within a patriarchal society. That sense is clear, both in the book and the film, when Mrs Fairfax (splendidly played by Judy Dench), dispels Jane of any notion that she was the lady of the manor, she being no more than the house keeper, although related to Rochester, when Jane arrives at Thornfield Hall to be young Adelè's (a gracious Eglantine Rembauville-Nicolle) governess. By writing this is not my intention to demean such feminist discourses, far from it, what I am saying is that it is not appropriate to read the past through the prism of contemporary cultural, political, social, economic and artistic concerns. 

Some people have objected to the casting of MIa Wasikowska as Jane, on the grounds that she is too beautiful, that she is not plain enough. I thought that, particularly at the time when the first teaser trailer was released, that all these objections were wrong. Is Mia too pretty to play the part of plain Jane? Some people would say, yes. I think that she has a kind of flexible beauty, that she can be both 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 manners, appearance and clothing were worked out to be plain, they may have been plain by the expectations of the upper class society at the time, the description of the character was done with a 19th century sensibility. Jane may have not possessed the conventional beauty expected, or associated, with the landed gentry, she may have not dressed like the ladies of such society, or coiffured herself as such, her features have been described as being “irregular”. What does that mean? 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 think that Mia Wasikowska has managed to pull a very believable and strong Jane Eyre, she has managed to portray herself as a plain woman, in spite of her natural beauty, although I have read reviews of Alice in Wonderland describing her as an “insipid blonde”, whatever that does mean. Mia has a complexion which I can only describe as being flexible, like casting plaster she can mould, that she can sculpt, in any way she chooses to. There is a resilience, a strength, under this apparently “insipid blonde” exterior, as a critic defines her when she played Alice in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. 

 Fukunaga and his cinematographer, Adriano Goldman, have managed to recreate the ambience, the atmosphere, the desolation of a Yorkshire of the 1850s, an extremely believable image of that world. I was shivering when watching those dark night winter shots, when Jane, as the mistress of St. John Rivers' school, spent her nights in that solitary snow bound schoolhouse, or feeling the rain on my face when she was running away from Rochester's house; or the sun caressing her and Rochester on those happy moments in the midst of a Yorkshire summer, when, for a brief moment, the impossible seemed reachable. 

 Cary Joji Fukunaga's Jane Eyre is currently being screened on British cinemas.

Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga 
Screen writer: Moira Buffini 
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench.


 Trailer and stills © Focus Features.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

THE PEDDLER, or the art of DIY feature film making

The Peddler (El Ambulante) is Daniel Burmeister, a very down to earth man in his sixties who has dedicated his late life in making home crafted full length feature films, travelling from dusty town to dusty town in Northern Argentina with a video camera, minimal equipment, and a tremendous skill to improvise. He shoots his films involving the locals as actors, based on a staple of four or five screenplays. This is community based film making on a shoe string at its best. 

 This beautiful documentary was made in Benjamín Gould, in the province of Córdoba, by Argentinian film makers Lucas Marcheggiano, Eduardo de la Serna (who also acted as the judge for the competition based on it) and Adriana Yurcovich.. The film opens with a long lens take of a dusty reddish road in the middle of nowhere, a small dark object in the distance slowly becomes a rusty wreck that Daniel calls a car. The car enters the lonely streets of the town, stopping in front of the municipality. Not only Leone's Once a Time in the West sprang to my mind, but also a short journey I took in 1971, into a slow town in the province of Misiones, in the North, after crossing the River Paraguay by boat. The dust, the loneliness of the place, the punishing sun... All captured in here.

 We see the same scene in reverse by the end of the film, as the peddler rides out of Benjamín Gould, his mission accomplished, a scene reminiscent of Westerns, with the hero riding into the sunset, a trail of dust behind him, accompanied in here by the music of the legendary Argentinian singer Atahualpa Yupanqui. This song is not only beautiful, but also captures the mood and atmosphere of the film, the loneliness of the vast agricultural plains, the slowness of a way of life, so well. 

Have no mistake, the peddler is a solitary man with a mission, to make cinema from the grass roots, although he does not articulate it in this fashion. Daniel Burmeister had already built a reputation before arriving to the town, he only asks for free accommodation and groceries from the local shops, as his income comes from the proceeds of the sale of tickets once the finished film is shown. Once the local council, the municipality, approves his terms, he charms the locals, including the children, to participate in auditions. These sessions are a kind of improvised home made method acting workshops, before deciding in the cast. He has, as the mayor of the town says, the knack to sort out every problem that conspires against the completion of the film, including sorting the broken radiator of his old car. In one scene, involving a wedding, the actor playing the part of the priest walks away, so the help of a bystander is enlisted and, presto!, the filming continues. In another crucial scene, one of his main characters has to go away to sort out an industrial accident, yet Daniel manages to get him to play his part before leaving, rearranging the shooting schedule, and the screenplay, thinking on his feet. 

 What the peddler does is to make people realize their own true value, their own potential, that you do not need to be famous to be able to act. In this sense, what he does goes against the grain of contemporary culture, with its incessant pursue of fame for the sake of it, in many cases. His conversations with the taxi driver are enlightening, to convince him to play a part in the film, his reluctance to do so, “he couldn't do that, he is not an actor”, left behind, a wig left by a passenger becoming useful for his character. Cinema on the hoof, and its works. 

He has no interest in making commercial cinema, and the initial notions from the locals that he had to be a really bad director to ride into town are quickly dispelled. By adapting one of his staple of scripts (he used to write a script for each town where he made a film, at the beginning of his career as a film maker) to the circumstances and the abilities and characteristics of the cast he has been able to gather, the inhabitants are able not only to realize their own potential, their own creativity, but also a sense of community is reinforced, as people who only greeted each other with a “Good morning”, or “What a nice day!”, or whatever, start to actually talk to each other, to know the others who surround them. 

 When he leaves in his old car, rust and bits falling from it, he leaves behind not only a testimony of the creative potential of that community, but also a sense of worth which goes well beyond the geographic boundaries of the town, as tapes get sent to relatives leaving on all corners of the world. The sense of pride emanating from the function in the town hall when he shows the finished film to the locals is palpable, you should have seen the smile on my face when I was watching it. 

 The disc also contains three short films, the winner and runner ups of a competition held when The Peddler was released on British cinemas a few months back. I confess that I was slightly disappointed with those shorts, not so much, but because of their nature, with, perhaps, the exception of Kyle. The sleekness of their production betrayed the ethos behind The Peddler, the ethos of a community based and crafted film making. 

 The Peddler DVD goes on sale in Britain on 26th September, 2011, RPP £12.99

 Interview to Daniel Burmeister (not provided by Network Releasing). Regretabbly, it is in Spanish. 

 Stills and trailer © Network Releasing, unless otherwise indicated.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

CIRCO, a compelling and beautiful account of a way of life...

The first shots of Aaron Schock's jewel of a documentary, Circo, show a row of electric bulbs hanging between the two masts holding a circus tent , followed by the mundane view of clothes on a drying line, although the backdrop of the circus tent is not so mundane. We see then the profile of a young girl, her hair ruffled by the wind as she travels on the back of a pick up truck, her face welcoming not only the breeze, but also their next stop, their next performance, her upcoming life...

Beautifully photographed, the camera warmly caresses the Ponce family  as they go on their daily routines of running a small travelling circus moving from town to town, from village to village, throughout the dusty landscapes of Northern Mexico. Circo Mexico is part of a century long tradition for the Ponces, the old patriarch with four sons, each one running their own circus, Circo Mexico being one of them, surviving  in an increasingly difficult economic environment, facing stiff competitions from other operators, struggling to get the money to pay for the monthly instalments for their motors, as one of the little girls muses that Tino, her dad, had already missed two payments for one of the big trucks.

Circo follows the adventures of the travelling circus through the eyes of Tino Ponce, whom we see in one of the opening scenes recording the announcement to be broadcasted to the small town by a van driven by his father, the actual owner of the circus, distributing tickets to the children for the evening function, we are also privileged to see their mesmerised faces as they watch the antics of Cascaritas, one of Tino's children, gyrating and gyrating in the air...

Tino is between two generations, that of his elderly father, the tradition, and that of his children, who all perform in the arena, a new generation which will have to find ways to continue with the tradition. His wife, Yvonne, is tired of the endless travelling, of the energies that the circus demands from all of them, the children formal schooling is almost non existent, one of her daughters can hardly write a few words and her own name, whilst her young sister is proud to have been accepted into the local kindergarten as she wants to learn to read, to write, and all about numbers.

Amidst the chores of finding water when they get into a new location, in a poetic scene we see one of the young girls, Alexa,  drinking water from a pipe whilst her elders fill the tanks on the back of their pick up truck, just to be replaced by another scene of her mother washing the dishes, and then the youngsters training for their evening performances, when not playing as most children do. In a poignant scene, as they drive through the town, Cascaritas observes that the children there just goes to school and play afterwards, nothing else, none of the work they have to do to get ready for the function, to set up the tent and performances.

Tino's life is crucial to understand the crossroads he is facing, between his family and his life in the circus; between the pressure of keeping a travellers way of life and that of the environment around him, pulling, pulling his performers as his children get attracted by life in the city, as their audience slowly dwindles away...

Aaron Schock's single camera has delivered a compelling and poetic account of a way of life which is slowly and inexorably disappearing, the joys and the individuality of a circus life as entertainment being replaced by anaesthetized and amorphous mass media. Indie band Calexico 's score rounds up this beautiful documentary.

I laughed, I cried, when I saw the Ponce family assist to the premiere of Circo at the Morelia International Film Festival, to a Q&A session, their zest for life is so inspiring.

CIRCO is an intimate, sympathetic portrait of a Mexican family struggling to stay together despite mounting debt, dwindling audiences, and a simmering conflict that threatens a once-vibrant family tradition. 

This critically acclaimed documentary featuring music from Alt American country group Calexico, is available to own on DVD on 12th September 2011, RRP £12.99.

Driven by a dream to lead his parents’ circus to success, ringmaster Tino Ponce focuses the energy of his entire family, including his four children, towards this singular goal. But his wife Yvonne is determined to make a change: exhausted and feeling exploited by her in-laws, she longs to save her children from a childhood lost to labouring in the circus that has been part of Tino’s family for seven generations.

Filmed in rural Mexico, award-winning film-maker Aaron Schock’s debut feature is both documentary and cinematic road movie, inviting the viewer into the luminous world of a travelling circus while examining the universal themes of family bonds, filial responsibility, and the weight of cultural inheritance. Through an intricately woven story of a marriage in trouble and a family tradition that hangs in the balance, Circo asks: to whom, and to what, should we ultimately owe our allegiances?

Special Features:

  • Director Aaron Schock on the making of CIRCO
  • Calexico and the making of the CIRCO score
  • Update on the Ponce family.

Trailer and images © The Distributors.

Friday, 9 September 2011

I KILLED MY MOTHER and HEARTBEATS: the ambiguities of love

While I Killed my Mother and Heartbeats are different films, in both Xavier Dolan (who also acts in them) explores the complexities and ambiguities of love, sexuality, the constantly shifting boundaries between love and friendship, and the fragility of the perception we gather from the signs that people around us, our dearest or those to whom we are most attracted to, are constantly sending. 

Love, friendship, sexuality and the many facets of seduction are systematically dissected from, most importantly, a young person's viewpoint. Dolan was only 19 year old when he broke into the cinematic scene with I Killed my Mother, a tender yet sharp eye cast on the never ending seduction, and its sister, conflict, between a single mother, Chantale (Anne Dorval), and her son Hubert (Xavier Dolan). 

Heartbeats (Les amours imaginaires) followed it, portraying a couple of young close friends, Francis (Xavier Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri), who are unwittingly seduced by the recent addition to their social circle, Nicolas (Niels Schneider, who also plays the part of Éric, Hubert's boarding school friend in I Killed my Mother), a rich boy who had recently moved into Montréal from the country. Shades of the love triangle of Truffaut's Jules et Jim flash in here, although seen through the ambiguities of the prism of a 21st Century urbanite. A tale of seduction, of signs wrongly read – coloured by their fantasies, of the clash of conflicting moralities, of a fraying friendship. A tale of the emotional fragility moulding the sarcastic and bitchy masks worn by “pretty urbanite young things”, people who could be easily dismissed as frivolous. 

I am reviewing both films together, as I see them as a continuum in the themes explored, in their aesthetic, and the cinematic devices used to convey the stories. The frontal video interview, with harsh lighting (on occasions in black and white) is one of such devices, interviews at times confessional, as the protagonists and their friends spell their controversial, sometimes, views and inner thoughts on their friends, their lovers, their colleagues, their family, their bosses. 

However, I found the rendering of such interviews to be at times slightly annoying, particularly in Heartbeats, as the camera jumps back and forward in the close-ups, as if its operator could not take a decision on how to frame the actor. Subsequently it became clear that this was a stylistic device which I found irritating, distracting me from what the actor was conveying. 

The use of these interviews interwoven into the fabric of the films doubles as a metaphor for the social networks (and YouTube), where people, particularly the young, express their innermost thoughts, desires, hopes, sarcasm, snapshots of their minds, to, in many cases, complete strangers. It is not the case that privacy has disappeared, or it is disappearing, as Mark Zuckerberg seemed to have recently implied, but rather that its boundaries have significantly shifted as our social networks, in their scope and nature, have expanded considerably beyond geographic or geo-social vicinity. There is a scene in one of these confessional moments, which could be considered as key in Heartbeats, where a young man goes into a long exposé of the classification of masculine sexuality as defined in the Kinsey Report, to end asking:”What are you, tits or cock man?” (or thereabouts). The ambiguity of sexuality is starkly exposed here, and accepted, an act which would have been unthinkable forty or fifty years ago, at least publicly. 

I only can speculate if Dolan conceived both films as a sequence from the very beginning, or, perhaps, Heartbeats came after the positive reception that I Killed my Mother received, as he realized that the theme of love in a contemporary urbanite society called for further rendering. Perhaps a third one is in the making? 

Both films are stylistic and thematically brilliantly executed, I understand that I Killed my Mother got an 8 minutes standing ovation in Cannes in 2009. Surely, a considerably part of that success is due to the low key and brilliantly nuanced performances, such as the rainbow of emotions crossing the face of Hubert's mother in I Killed my Mother after one of the never ending disputes with her son. Dolan, an excellent actor himself, choreographed an intensely powerful yet low key emotionally charged moment.

Is Heartbeats for 2011 what Truffaut's Jules et Jim was for 1962, and Bertolucci's The Dreamers for 2003?

Heartbeats DVD contains an enlightening interview with Monia Chokri. 

I Killed my Mother and Heartbeats DVDs are released in the UK on Monday 12th September 2011.

We love our mothers almost unknowingly, unconsciously, and we fully realise how deep-rooted that love is when we come to the last separation." Guy de Maupassant Hubert Minel doesn’t love his mother. 

The seventeen-year-old regards her with haughty contempt, and sees only her dated sweaters, kitsch decorations and the breadcrumbs that get stuck on the corner of her lips when she munches. In addition to these irritating surface details, there are also the cherished family mechanisms of manipulation and guilt. Confused by a love/hate relationship which obsesses him more and more each day, and desperate to escape the suffocating atmosphere of his mother’s working-class, suburban home, Hubert drifts through the mysteries of an adolescence both marginal and typical: artistic discoveries, illicit experiences, the opening-up to friendship, sex, and ostracism. The directing debut of young French-Canadian actor Xavier Dolan is a cathartic, fiercely compelling evocation of turbulent late adolescence. 

Visually stunning, with exquisite performances from Dolan himself – as the volatile, verbally savage Hubert – and a highly acclaimed cast including Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clément, 'I Killed My Mother' was the winner of 22 international film awards in 2009, including three categories at Cannes.

The follow-up to his directorial debut I Killed My Mother explores the complex relationship between three young people which will draw favourable comparisons with Bertloucci’s The Dreamers, Truffaut’s Jules et Jim and Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. HEARTEATS had previously been screened as part of the Certain Regard strand of the Cannes Marche du Film and The London Film Festival in 2010.   Francis (Xavier Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri) are close friends. 

The tight bond that they take comfortably for granted is severely tested when during lunch one day, they meet Nicolas (Niels Schneider), a new arrival in town from the country. As a beautiful young man, Nicolas becomes the object of desire for both Francis and Marie. As they slide further into their obsessive fantasies, the trusted friendship between Francis and Marie begins to crack under the pressure of competing for the affection of the new kid on the block. The film follows each stage of the progress of a love story- a most intriguing and compelling ménage. 

In turns crazy, passionate, hopeful, sorrowful, comical, sad, the film offers up an insightful look at the paths of falling in love and giving into obsession and what the consequence could be for both the pursued and the pursuers.  

To read further about Heartbeats please click HERE  

Post edited on 10 September 2011.

Trailers and images © Network Releasing.