Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Notes on Les Princes

Tense, terse, heart wrenching, despair, injustice, racism, stereotyping, discrimination,ignorant journalists.

All these words, all these feelings, were crossing my mind and my heart as I was re-watching Tony Gatlif’s 1983 film “Les Princes”. I had forgotten how good it was, although not very popular, at least not in Britain.

A song to Romany life in France, it follows Nara (a tough and tense Gérard Darmon), his daughter Zorka (a very impressive performance by Céline Militon), his mother (Muse Dalbray) and his estranged wife Miralda (Concha Tavora) as they are evicted from their apartment by a very aggressive and openly racist police squad, armed with machine guns just to deal with this family of gypsies.

After their failed attempt of settling down and integrate within the gadje, after being casually dismissed from his job in a building site, Nara takes his family onto the road to an uncertain future. In a semi documentary style, the camera follow their wandering to the hypothetical salvation of their lawyers and a German journalist – who was only interested in delivering to her readership a reinforcement of their stereotypes and prejudices rather than a reportage of the actual reality of the life of an actual Gypsy family, after being shoved into so-called migrant campsites, no more than rubbish dumps, we finally see them joining an itinerant band of gypsies, any attempt to integrate with the gadje having been abandoned.

Les Princes was an exposé of the treatment of gypsies in France, the contradictions within Romany life, between them and the French society around them, forcing them to casual stealing to survive (something they intensely dislike), the constant discrimination, violence and stereotyping they are subjected to. Yet, the film is also a song to their dignity, their ancestral songs, their rites, their way of life, their desire to hold a normal life (Zorka gets a beautiful kitten from Nara, she takes the animal with her in their wanderings), their desire to learn (Zorka’s grandmother learns to write and read from the little girl).

Les Princes has the roughness of a road documentary, I perceived very little distance between myself and the story being told. I laughed, cried, sat in expectation, lifted my fists in anger, shouted, and ultimately travelled with them to their uncertain future.

There is no sentimentality at all, just the clinical yet warm gaze of the lens.

Director/writer: Tony Gatlif
Cast: Gérard Darmon, Muse Dalbray, Céline Militon
France, 1983

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Notes on Dream Home DVD

Well, I had to clean my face after all that blood and human entrails splattered onto it. Horror movies fans will love Dream Home, as there is plenty of gore in it. As Josie Ho said in the enlightening interview in the extra features of the DVD, they really had fun in piling atrocities on top of another.

“In a crazy city, you have to be even crazier to survive”.

In Hong Kong, a city which has built its economy on real state, dwellings have rocketed in price, making them unaffordable for a large part of its populations. Many people have two jobs just to be able to get along, unless you belong to that minority located at the top of the pile. If you would like to live in an apartment with a sea view, their prices have literally shot through the roof, the cliché being for once appropriate. After the take over by China in the late 80s, hyena developers bullied families who have been living in the sea side for decades to make room for the development of luxury apartments, forcing them out, in collusion with a corrupt city government.

What do you do to be able to afford your dream home, then?

Cheng Lai-Sheung (Hong Kong rock chick turned actress Josie Ho) found the solution. Director and writer Ho-Cheung Pang claims that he based the story on a news report he read in the the papers, simply enhancing it.

Cheng Lai-Sheung, a thirty something woman who works enslaved in the small cubicle of the call centre of a bank, dreams to buy an apartment with a sea view on Victoria Harbour, from where her dad, a former builder dying from a lung disease resulting from years of inhaling asbestos and dust, was expelled during the early 90s. She refuses to go with her work colleagues from the bank for a weekend of fun to Tokyo, as she would spend too quickly the money she has saved to buy her dream home. We follow her getting uncountable rejections as she tries to lure the bank’s customers to buy home loans to people who can hardly afford them – we watch as she and her colleagues discuss these loans during their breaks, knowing very well that most of those who buy them will default, or as she tries to sell expensive Italian luxury fashions in the expensive shop she works during the evenings.

Yet, the building society manager keeps telling her she is still short, that she cannot afford to meet the monthly repayment, in spite that the owners of her dream home are selling it at a reasonable price. After cashing on her father’s life insurance, watch this episode carefully as you could fall from the edge of your seat, she manages to get the money for the deposit, just to find out that the owners have raised the price.

So, what does she do? Simply, to reduce the value of the property, she has to devalue the area where it is located. For that to happen, something really terrible has to taint it. So, Cheng Lai-Sheung makes excellent use of her later father’s tools to strangle the condominium janitor to gain access to the apartments, then proceeding to commit one murder on top of another – a woman who answer the door ends up with a chisel driven through her head until the tip comes out of her eye socket. Atrocity piles onto another and another, each one being more ingenious than the previous one, a kind of grotesque dance ensuing as she slips on the splattered blood.

Keep a bowl nearby, in case you vomit.

We finally see her dreamily looking at the harbour through the window of her dream home, the orgy of blood etched on her battered face, her features slowly changing as the newscaster’s voice on the background radio goes through the litany of the credit crunch woes.

The mise in scène and camerawork adds to Cheng Lai-Sheung’s obsessive intensity and desire, whilst panning over the city’s crowded and claustrophobic streets; the score intelligently raising the pulse on the critical scenes.

Dream Home is more than an intense horror movie which kept my nerves on edge all the time, both Ho-Cheung Pang and Josie Ho had obvious fun on working out a well timed and rhythmic orgy of spilt entrails and pierced brains splattering throughout it, a story made even more frightening because of its proximity to our desire to own a dream home, it also casts a sharp eye over the absurdity and corruption of not only Hong Kong property market, but also over a society in awe of it.

Director: Edmond Pang
Cast: Josie Ho, Michelle Ye, Eason Chan

Dream Home is out for sale in the UK now.

To see the trailer, please click here.

Dream Home (18) is a Network Releasing title
Running Time: 96 minutes
No.of Discs: 1
Screen Ratio: 16:9
Catalogue no: 7953492
RRP: £19.99.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Notes on Norwegian Wood

Haruki Murakami’s 1987 novel Norwegian Wood left a deep impression of loss and a kind of pervading sadness in me when I read it. The day after having watched the film, I am reliving in my mind the scenes of this beautiful cinematic poem on the nature of death and rebirth.

A story of love lost and love reclaimed from loss, a story that follows four young characters in the Japan of the late 60s, when rebellious students were taking over the streets and university campuses all over (and, yes, I did the same in 1969), a time of social instability and clashing orders, a time of hope and, ultimately, a time of betrayal as the force of reality drowned the dreams.

The story is narrated with the wisdom born out of years gone by. Watanabe’s (Kenichi Matsuyama) love for Naoko (an excellent Rinko Kikuchi, whom we saw in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel) is doomed by the suicide of her chilhood sweetheart and Watanabe’s friend, Kizuki (Kengo Kôra), several years earlier. Naoko never fully recovered from the shock of his death, preferring to keep all the pain inside her, as if she were pretending that episode in her life did not exist, until she meets Watanabe again in Tokyo seven years, an encounter that brings the earlier trauma to the fore in her troubled mind. Not able to cope with social interaction, she withdraws to a recovering clinic, refusing to see him. Watanabe starts a relationship with a fellow student, Midori (Kiko Mizuhara) , a very live loving and outgoing girl who has also been damaged by failed relationships, her personality being quite the opposite of Naoko’s.

Sometimes I wonder if Murakami’s novel reflects to some extent a trait deeply embedded in Japanese culture, a feeling of constant loss and rebirth, certainly present in ancient Shinto rites, and which we have seen in the recent tragic earthquake and tsunami that affected the North-east of the country.

Tran Anh Hung’s adaptation of Murakami’s novel coveys brilliantly that sense of loss, sadness and rebirth pervading the story, whilst Ping Bin Lee’s washed out cinematography and his sense of both natural and human landscape so evident in his camerawork, gives the film an aura of a story lost in a bygone era. The Beatles song, both in its original version, and that sung by Reika Kirishima (Reiko in the film), adds to this sense of nostalgia.

I can just say that I loved Norwegian Wood the film, as I did Murakami’s novel.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Animal Kingdom reviewed


A claustrophobic and intense Australian thriller, tightly shot .

What do you do when you are 17 year old, or there about, and have to live with your uncle who is a brutal robber and a murderer? When the nice grandmother who welcomed you with open arms plots your death with corrupt lawyers and bent coppers when you become a liability to a family of hardened criminals?

From the opening scene, where Joshua Cody (James Frecheville) waits for the paramedics to take care of her dead mother, until the “below the belt” closing scene between Joshua and his uncle Pope Cody (Ben Mendelsohn), a brutal armed robber who was in the run from a gang of renegade detectives, and the tight hand held close camera work, Animal Kingdom kept me on my toes all the way through.

There are no sympathetic characters at all, with the possible exception of detective Nathan Leckie (an excellent Guy Pearce, who also excelled in The King’s Speech as Edward VIII), who tries to lure Joshua into the law and guide him through a labyrinth of witness protection, bent cops and a vengeful family fighting for survival, Pope’s partner, Barry (Joel Edgerton), who is convinced that the money is no longer in merciless armed robbery, but in manipulating the stock markets, whilst Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), a younger brother, is up to his neck in drug trafficking, where the risks are not as great and the pickings much higher, and the youngest of them, Darren (Luke Ford), trying to live in the middle of this paranoid and merciless world.

Allegiances can change every day, a world where everyone around Joshua is fighting for his own interest, or hers, as does their mother (Joshua’s grandmother), Smurf (Jacqui Weaver). She has no regrets in plotting to “deal with” her grandson Joshua when he becomes unreliable and a liability after becoming aware of the involvement of his uncles in the murder of two young police officers, assassinated as revenge by the earlier brutal murder of Pope’s partner, Barry, by bent cops.

This is the animal kingdom where Joshua soon comes to realize that, if he is going to survive he has to sharpen his game. He knows that his girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright) was murdered with an overdose of heroin, her body dumped into a back alley, for merely having been on the wrong place at the wrong time. He manages to finally wrong footing the police, the bent cops, and his family.

The extremely tight camera work and a close knit script do indeed heighten the sense of intense and unsettling claustrophobic paranoia that permeates the film.

Written & Directed by David Michôd
Running Time: 113 mins / Certificate: 15

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Let Me In DVD & Blu-ray reviewed


“Matt Reeves’ Let Me In, what a disappointment!” This is what I wrote on my original review of the film a few months back. Now that the DVD and Blu-ray have been released in Britain, I have to say that it is a pretty decent remake of Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In, which was a masterpiece of horror cinema in my opinion (and many others too). While I do regard Let Me In as a good film on its own regard, possibly, one of the best American vampire movies I would have appreciated it much more if the original did not exist. Masterpiece is not, in spite of the powerful performances of the leads actor, Chloë Grace Moretz as Abby (Eli) and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Owen (Oskar), with the satrong support of Richard Jenkins as the "father". Both young actors should had received at least a nomination for the Oscars 2001.

Reeves, in his quest to make a version of John Advide Lindqvist story that American audiences would be able to make their own, had to eliminate too much of the subtlety, social background and poetry of the original, whilst upping the tension of the vampire sequences, transforming a low pacing story of love and, to some extent, redemption, into a fast pacing action movie. The original film is so beautiful that it is very difficult to compete with it. Whilst Reeves does not really fail to do so, I really missed all what was left out, particularly the entwining of several stories that gave Let the Right One In not only a much deeper understanding of the central relationship between Abby and Owen, but enriched it. In other words, Matt Reeves, by aiming at a more mainstream audience, sacrificed the “grain” that defined the original.

Where the Alfredson’s version begins with a poetic scene of snow falling, a very soft sound on the background, and Oskar ruminating his anger in his bedroom in a social housing estate, Reeves begins with a convoy of police cars escorting an ambulance, all sirens and lights blazing, setting straightaway the overcooked and overbearing tone and pacing of Let Me In.

In a way, I could say that Reeves made two films in one, a typical American style horror film, and a story of love and longing of two twelve year old misfits, Owen (Oskar), a bullied boy with dreams of revenge, traits of a psychopath killer already growing in him, and Abby (Eli), a girl who may be not be a girl after all, who is also twelve, the difference being that she has been twelve year old for a very long time. Through her friendship with the bullied Owen, Abby is able to reclaim back her own childhood as a 12 year old, not this kind of limbo like childhood where she is both a child and a very old woman who has seen and done acts that repulsed her intensely just to survive, where she has been 12 year old “for a very long time”, since her own was so cruelly stolen from her all those centuries before by a bullying and rapist landlord. This is the central theme of the story. Alfredson is able to play a counterpoint between Eli (Abby) and Oskar (Owen) story with the strong camaraderie enriching the social milieu where Eli/Abby is preying upon.

There is one scene, which I thought it was crucial, in Let The Right One In, missing in Let Me In: when Eli confronts Oskar after she went into his apartment in spite that she was not invited in (and, therefore, putting herself in mortal danger), remonstrating the first words she heard him saying when he was stabbing at a tree pretending it was the boy bullying him, and expressing that she does what she does because either she does it or she dies, while Oskar has options, yet he is already developing as a potential psychopathic killer.

That world weariness is intensely conveyed by both Chloë Grace Moretz and Lina Leandersson. However, Lina expressed that sadness, the sadness of a vampire who does not want to be one, a killer who does not want to kill, so intensely that I could feel it throughout my being, particularly in that scene in Let The Right One In when Eli is doing the Rubik cube. It was just unbearable to watch. On that scene, Lina’s performance was superior than Chloë’s, although I have no doubt that she would have been able to reach that sense of deep and intense inner despair if Matt Reeves had allowed that scene to breathe more. He cut it too soon, therefore not leaving Chloë room to “let it go”.

Alfredson captures this central theme of longing, longing for a childhood to be as that of everybody else: for Oskar to be able to go out to school and around without being bullied, and for Eli to be, for once, a twelve year old human being she actually was once upon a time who can establish a close relationship with a boy of her own age as if she were a child, without seeing that boy simply as a source of blood. Both Chloë Grace Moretz and Lina Leandersson were able to powerfully express that inner conflict tearing Abby ‘s (Eli’s) inner self apart.

Reeves, while he is also able to capture that sense of longing, his overblown treatment of the violent and gory scenes manage to disrupt that central story to properly unfold, the pacing just completely blows it apart. Even so, in one scene where Abby (Eli) disposes of the “father” (Richard Jenkins) in hospital, after he has been captured, Alfredson manages to shoot it in a much more effective manner; even the make-up on the face of the actor was more realistic than in the American version (which looks too much like any other horror film monster rather than the face of a common guy disfigured by acid). However, in almost every other scene, Reeves’ overcooked treatment fundamentally disturbs the pacing of the film and looses the nuances of the original: Virginia catching fire ends up with the top floor of the hospital in fire, the shots of Abby jumping onto his victims are so ridiculous, I could have seen that it was a mannequin on top of the unfortunate victims even if I were a mile away, the blood splattering everywhere, or the old Abby appearing under the sweet and pretty face of the twelve year old Abby is grotesque and it goes on for too long (when she jumps and licks the blood on the floor after Owen tries to make a pact with her by mixing their blood); in the Alfredson version, there is just a hint of Eli’s old self appearing on her face, and much more realistic, at that.

Matt Reeves claims in a Twitter Q & A session that he was inspired by Dial M for Murder, I dare to suggest that he rather should had been inspired by Psycho instead, particularly by the shower scene. A key problem with this film was expressed in an overheard comment made by someone when I was leaving the cinema: “I am desensitized.” When we reach the final scene in the school swimming pool, I just did not care, not any more, because of the lack of subtlety not only of its treatment, but also of all the previous gory scenes. In the original Swedish film, the restraint of its treatment injected even a bit of humour into this macabre scene, something which is mostly absent in Reeves’ version.

There is a darkness and world weariness in Let Me In which is missing from most contemporary American vampire movies.The cinematograpgy is just superb.

If you have seen Let The Right One In, it is worth to see Let Me In, although it is quite a different film. It is not entirely a remake, as Reeves wrote the script mostly from Lindqvist’s book, incorporating elements from the Swedish film. Chloë G Moretz claims that she did not see the original film before shooting Let Me In (although she revealed that she has seen it since then in a recent interview to The Telegraph), however, the fact that some scenes are a frame by frame mirror of Alfredson’s film suggests that she was closely directed by Reeves.

If Chloë Grace Moretz continues to perform as she has done here, she could well be one of the great American actors of the 21st Century.

Let Me In DVD and Blu-ray are out for sale in Britain now.

There is an audio commentary from director Matt Reeves, a featurette in the making of the film and interviews to the actors (watch Chloë Grace Moretz performs for the TV cameras and her warmth to her fans) and director, deleted scenes and other extra features.

Trailer and stills

To read my original review of Let Me In  please click here.

Saturday, 12 March 2011


A few words

So, I went to see this little intelligent and enchanting animation film, Verbinski’s Rango.

A kind of spoof of western movies, it follows the adventures and tribulations of an ordinary chameleon who, after telling stories about his invented exploits in the local bar to get street cred, ends up being made the sheriff in the lawless town of Dirt by its corrupt mayor. Water, or rather its scarcity, is what defines the prospects and the lives of the town inhabitants. Rango, after his stories were exposed as what they were, just stories, is forced to flee Dirt in disgrace, leaving behind his disappointed beloved.

Yet, the moral dilemma he faces drives him back to the town, a chameleon has to do what a chameleon has to do, and all ends well – with a huge city built many years later in the same spot.

Whilst being a film for kids – raising environmental concerns and issues relates to corruption of those in power, probably only adults can really get the best of Rango, as it is packed with cinematic references , such as to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, High Noon, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, For a Fistful of Dollars, Once Upon a Time in the West, Apocalypse Now (complete with Richard Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyrie as the background score of a spoof helicopter charge), and many others.

I truly enjoyed it... perhaps I am still a kid at heart.

Director: Gore Verbinski
Voice over: Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Timothy Olyphant.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Notes on Age of the Dragons

This one is for the fantasy cinema lovers.

I am aware that, when watching a movie, we have to suspend our beliefs to some extent, but Age of the Dragons has taken this to the absurd. As a recreation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, this film introduces an element of redemption from Ahab, as when he faced the big white dragon (instead of the white whale) as a child to save his little sister, he ran away instead of helping her. Not that his fleeing really saved him, as he got burned by the dragon, anyway, although he survived. He spends the rest of his life trying to redeem his own childhood cowardice, to the point of harpooning on the back any one who refused to face the beast.

To succinctly describe Age of the Dragons, Ishmael (Corey Sevier) and Queequeg (John Kapa Kruse) joins the crew of the Pequod (a kind of the illegitimate cross between a sailing ship and an armoured personnel carrier, propelled by an unknown power source – dragon power?) in The Dragon tavern with Ahab’s adopted daughter (Sofia Pernas – another departure from the novel, I suppose to add a romantic interest to the story), while Stubbs (Vinnie Jones) and Starbuck (David Morgan) retell their stories. The vitriol found in the dragons is worth a fortune, one single expedition could make the whole crew rich for life. But Ahab (a magnificent Danny Glover) is obsessed to redeem himself, even if doing so means the death of the whole of the crew. Here we witness Ahab giving a speech of Shakespearean dimensions to his crew, Danny Glover excelling himself as an actor, yet I could not stop laughing due to the utter incongruity of the situation.

Yet the photography is stunning, rendering the mountains of Utah Valley in all their magnificence, while the special effects are also superb, the acting being solid throughout. Sofia Pernas gives a nuanced performance as Ahab’s adopted daughter.

However, I just could not suspend my beliefs this far. Any credibility I could have on the story was completely broken.

Revision 9 march 2011: And the token woman does not only takes her top off (thanks to The Guardian for this remark), but also can kick ass like a mule!

My guess is that the younger audience may well like this film, as it is ingenious and well crafted.

Myself? I am still laughing...

Director: Ryan Little
Writers: Anne K. Black (story), McKay Daines
Cast: Danny Glover, Vinnie Jones, Corey Sevier, Sofia Pernas
Distributor: Metrodome Distribution

DVD & Blue Ray UK release date: 21 March 2011
Currently in selected cinemas in the UK.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Ien Chi's Tick Toc

A short film by Ien Chi.

A student short film for 2011 Emory Campus MovieFest

With thanks to Peta Pixel.