Sunday, 14 May 2017

"The Pigeon Tunnel" by John le Carre

Year of Publication:  2016
Number of Pages:  342 pages
Genre:  Non-fiction, autobiography

In a career that has lasted 55 years, ex-spy turned novelist David Cornwell (who writes under the pseudonym John le Carre) has become one of the greatest living authors.   Initially writing intelligent Cold War thrillers such as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), le Carre has come to use the structure of the espionage thriller to explore human psychology and explore the political and moral climate of modern geopolitics.  This book is not really an autobiography, but it is likely as close to one as we are ever likely to get.  It collects reminiscences and anecdotes of events and people in le Carre's life, that have helped shape his remarkable career.  We are presented with a cast of actors, spies, directors, politicians, journalists, crooks, prisoners and fellow authors.  Beautifully written, and full of interesting stories, by turns funny and dark, and sometime both, particularly in one of the book's best stories where le Carre writes about his complex relationship with his con-man father.  This is a book to treasure.

"I'm a liar... Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practiced in it as a novelist.  As an maker of fictions, I invent versions of myself, never the real thing, if it exists."
- John le Carre, The Pigeon Tunnel    

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Year of Release:  2017  
Director:  James Gunn
Screenplay:  James Gunn, based on the comic Guardians of the Galaxy created by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning
Starring:  Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klemetieff, Kurt Russell, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone
Running Time:  136 minutes
Genre:  Science-fiction, action, comedy

The Guardians of the Galaxy are: Peter Quill a.k.a "Starlord" (Pratt) from Earth; ex-assassin Gamora (Saldana); warrior Drax (Bautista); wise-cracking thief Rocket (Cooper)  a genetically modified raccoon; and Groot (Diesel), a plant-like humanoid who is still a sapling, after the events of the first film.  After being hired by the arrogant and easily insulted Sovereign race to defeat a huge inter-dimensional monster, the Guardians find themselves being hunted by them due to Rocket stealing some valuable batteries and insulting their leader, Ayesha (Debicki).  Ayesha hires intergalactic pirate Yondu (Rooker) to hunt them down.  Meanwhile, Quill discovers the truth behind his mysterious origins.

When it was originally released in 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy proved to be a huge surprise.  It was a risky film, even from the mighty Marvel Studios because it was so far removed from the rest of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe).  Instead of being a real superhero film, this was an out and out space opera, featuring a talking raccoon, and a walking tree, and the general feeling before release was that it might be too bizarre for general audiences.  However, people loved it.  It was exciting, playful and funny. Director James Gunn does not tamper too much with a winning system in this sequel.  There is all the humour, action, spectacle and '80s tunes that fans could want.  Familiarity may mean that this is not as fresh and surprising as the original, but with the character being more familiar there is more depth to their relationships.  If the first film was about getting the band together, here we see them grow and strengthen.  The performances are good, and there are several welcome additions to the team.  This is a hugely enjoyable film, the pace hardly ever flags despite running well over two hours and it provides solid entertainment.

The Guardians of the Galaxy left to right: Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Pom Klemnetieff, Dave Bautista

Thursday, 11 May 2017

"The Blade Artist" by Irvine Welsh

Year of Publication:  2016
Number of Pages:  273 pages
Genre:  Crime

The brutal, violent, alcoholic thug Frank Begbie has terrorized the streets of his native Edinburgh for decades.  However now it appears as if the unthinkable has happened:  Frank Begbie has straightened out and cleaned up.  Having seemingly renounced his violent past, Begbie is now a successful artist, living in California under the name of Jim Francis, with a beautiful wife and two young daughters.  Until he learns that his estranged son, Sean, who Begbie barely knew, has been savagely murdered.  Returning to Scotland for the funeral, Begbie sets out to find his son's killer.  As he finds himself among his old Edinburgh, surrounded by old friends and enemies, Begbie finds his past violently catching up with him.      

First appearing in Irvine Welsh's 1993 debut novel Trainspotting, and memorably played by Robert Carlyle in the 1996 film adaptation and it's sequel T2: Trainspotting, Frank Begbie is one of Welsh's most popular characters, appearing in several other books.  However, this is the first time that he has been the lead character in a novel, and there is the problem of having a hugely popular supporting character becoming the lead, and it does dilute the character's impact.  It's entertaining enough, but there are no real surprises, the central murder mystery is not particularly engaging.  It's funny though and moves along at a good pace.    

Sunday, 7 May 2017

"The Star Diaries" by Stanislaw Lem

Year of Publication:  1971
Number of Pages:  338
Genre:  Science-fiction, satire

This is a collection of linked short stories detailing the adventures of accident-prone astronaut Ijon Tichy as he explores time and space, dealing with time paradoxes, clones, aliens, hostile robots, malfunctioning matter-transmitters, attempts to "fix" human history, and killer potatoes.

Polish author Stanislaw Lem is possibly best known for his 1962 novel Solaris which was filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972, and by Steven Soderbergh in 2002.  Lem wrote the Ijon Tichy short stories over a period of twenty years, and only some of them are published in The Star Diaries.  Reading them you can see how Lem moved from playful, humorous science-fiction, to deeper, philosophical fiction.  The stories are inventive, absurd, philosophical, heavily satirical and sometimes very funny.  It deals with some serious themes such as the nature of existence.  Some people may be put off by the long philosophical and theological discussions in the book, but there is enough hilarious invention to make it worth while.  

Saturday, 15 April 2017

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Year of Release:  2014
Director:  Ana Lily Amirpour
Screenplay:  Ana Lily Amirpour
Starring:  Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Mozhan Marno, Marshall Manesh, Dominic Rains
Running Time:  101 minutes
Genre:  Horror, drama

In a bleak Iranian city, Arash (Marandi) works hard to take care of his heroin-addicted father (Manesh), and trying to survive the daily grind of crime and misery that surrounds him.  However, the local drug dealers and pimps are being stalked by a mysterious woman (Vand), who is, in fact, a vampire.

The vampire film genre often seems to have been played out, however there are occasional films such as this one that show there is still life in it yet.  A kind of neo-noir, vampire Western, this is an Iranian language film, that is set in Iran, although it is an American film and was shot in California.  It looks gorgeous, filmed in crisp monochrome.  Writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour described the film as "the lovechild of Sergio Leone and David Lynch, babysat by Nosferatu", and it certainly has a very Lynchian flavour to it.  The film hasn't much of a plot, it's more about atmosphere, and it does have a strange dreamlike quality, which makes it more haunting than frightening.   It's one of those films where whatever time of the day you watch it, it feels like three in the morning.  Swathed in a black chador, Sheila Vand is great as the unnamed, enigmatic vampire, both terrifying and alluring at the same time, she has a real otherworldly quality.  There is a strong feminist theme, the vampire usually preying upon men she witnesses abusing or disrespecting women.    The events take place against the backdrop of a gritty backdrop of drugs and crime, where vampires are probably far from the worst thing out there.

 Sheila Vand in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

"Cat's Cradle" by Kurt Vonnegut

Year of Publication:  1963
Length:  206 pages
Genre:  Satire

An American journalist, John, is working on a book about what prominent Americans were doing on the day that the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.  He is particularly keen to find out about the late Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the "fathers" of the atomic bomb, and finds himself fascinated by Hoenikker's three eccentric children.  His investigations lead him to the Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, where the strange new religion of Bokononism is covertly practiced.  John becomes involved in the political machinations of the island, and learns of Dr. Hoenikker's last legacy to humanity, a substance called "ice-nine" which can freeze the entire planet within a few days.

One of prolific American novelist Kurt Vonnegut's best known works, Vonnegut rated this and Slaughterhouse 5 as his personal favourites among his own works, this is a clever, funny and frightening little book.  Almost every page is packed with jokes and quotable lines.  It is also a frighteningly believable look at how the world could end.  The book takes swipes at religion, politics, patriotism, science and the foibles of human nature.  However the tone is ultimately compassionate and warm, rather than unrelentingly despairing.  It's the voice of a disappointed father who loves his children despite their many, many flaws.  Read it and you'll find yourself laughing even as your blood chills faster than a glassful of ice-nine.


Friday, 14 April 2017

Rogue One

Year of Release:  2016
Director:  Gareth Edwards
Screenplay:  Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, from a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, based on characters created by George Lucas
Starring:  Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker,
Running Time:  134 minutes
Genre:  Science-fiction, action, adventure

Jyn Erso (Jones) is a young convict, who is rescued by the Rebel Alliance.  Jyn's father, Galen (Mikkelsen), is a scientist who has been recruited by the evil Galactic Empire to work on a devastating new weapon known as the Death Star, which has the power to destroy an entire planet.  Jyn is partnered with Cassian Andor (Luna) on a mission to find and rescue her father, so that the Alliance can learn more about the Death Star.  However, unbeknownst to her, Andor's orders are to kill Galen.

If you remember the opening text to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) about the Rebel spies stealing the plans for the Death Star, well this is their story, expanding a scant few words into a two hour plus film.  The Star Wars series made a triumphant return to screens in 2015 with The Force Awakens, and the current thinking is that there will be a new Star Wars film every year for the foreseeable future with a new entry in the ongoing storyline every two years, and in the interim a standalone film set in the Star Wars universe but not part of the ongoing saga.  Rogue One is the first of these standalone films, although it is intrinsically linked to the Star Wars storyline.  This does not open with the Star Wars title, or have the traditional opening text crawl.  It's also darker and grittier, more of a war movie in space.  Set just before the first Star Wars film, it manages the difficult task of combining cutting edge digital special effects, with technology that would not look out of place in that first film back in 1977, for example the Death Star plans are contained in what looks like an old Betamax cassette, which gives it a nice, chunky physical appeal.  It's a film full of adventure, excitement, and entertainment for Star Wars fans old and new, combined with some stunning visuals and real emotional heft at times.   Cutting edge digital effects allow for moving cameos from some favorite characters.  With appealing characters, well-played by the cast, the conclusion of the film has some real weight to it.

Felicity Jones in Rogue One

Sunday, 9 April 2017


Year of Release:  2016
Director:  Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Screenplay: Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Chihiro Ikeda, based on the novel by Yutaka Maekawa
Starring:  Hidetoshi Nishijima, Yuko Takeuchi, Teruyuki Kagawa, Haruna Kawaguchi, Masahiro Higashide, Ryoko Fujino
Running Time:  130 minutes
Genre:  Psychological thriller, horror,

A year after being stabbed by a suspected serial killer, police profiler Koichi Takakura (Nishijima) has resigned from the force and is now lecturing about serial killers at a university.  He and his wife Yasuko (Takeuchi) move out to a quiet neighbourhood to make a new start.  Yasuko soon becomes suspicious of their weird neighbour Nishino (Kagawa) who apparently lives with a wife who never leaves the house, and their teenage daughter Mio (Fujino), who exhibits disturbing behavior.  Meanwhile, Takakura becomes drawn into an ex-colleague's investigation of the mysterious disappearance of three members of a one family six years ago, which left only one traumatised witness (Kawaguchi).

Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa came to recognition with horror films, such as Pulse (2001).  Despite the title, Creepy isn't really a horror film, it's more of a psychological crime drama, although it does have horror elements, particularly in the second half.  It's handsomely made, and well performed (with Teruyuki Kagawa particularly memorable as the sinister neighbour).  The problem is the pace is so sedate it just never grips.  It also feels to meticulous to really be atmospheric.  For most of the film, it's like a mystery drama that feels more like an intellectual puzzle, which probably most viewers will have solved more or less for themselves.  There is a detached feel to most of it.  My attention drifted several times during the film, but it was still interesting enough to stick with it until the end.  Based on a novel, I can see that the story would probably work better as a book than a film.  It's main problem is the length and the pacing, and even at it's two hour plus running time, some plot elements just seem to be abandoned.

                 Yuko Takeuchi and Teryuki Kagawa in Creepy

Saturday, 8 April 2017

The Keep

Year of Release:  1983
Director:  Michael Mann
Screenplay:  Michael Mann, based on the novel The Keep by F. Paul Wilson
Starring:  Scott Glenn, Alberta Watson, Jurgen Prochnow, Robert Prosky, Gabriel Byrne, Ian McKellen
Running Time:  96 minutes
Genre:  Horror, war, fantasy

The Carpathian Mountains, Romania, 1941, a German Army detachment led by Captain Klaus Woerrmann (Prochnow) take over a remote citadel (or "keep").  Two looting soldiers accidentally unleash a powerful demonic force which starts picking off the soldiers one by one.  A group of SS soldiers, under the command of the sadistic Eric Kaempffer (Byrne) arrive at the keep as reinforcements.  When strange messages appear written on the walls, the Germans force a Jewish historian Professor Theodore Cuza (McKellen) to decipher the messages and find out what is killing them off.

This odd curio from a director best known for glossy crime thrillers (such as Manhunter (1986) and Heat (1995))  is a good movie hidden inside a bad one.  The original director's cut ran three and a half hours, but director Michael Mann was contracted to deliver a movie no longer than two hours.  However the studio, Paramount, were unhappy with Mann's two hour cut and took the film out of his hands, cutting it still further to 96 minutes.  This accounts for the many continuity errors and plot holes.  For a film set in 1941, this is a very '80s movie filled with billowing dry ice and a synth-heavy score from Tangerine Dream.  The production design is impressive and there are visually striking moments, however some of the visuals just don't work.  The film's creature is never particularly convincing or impressive.  It never particularly works as a horror film, because it isn't very scary and too confused, but it does have an eerie, dream-like atmosphere in places.  It does have some interesting ideas, and the central story is novel and interesting, and the central theme equating the real-life horror of Nazism with fantasy horror, is interesting if in kind of bad taste.  It's frustrating that so much of the film is never really explained, and the climax is practically incomprehensible.
On it's original release the film was very badly received (including by F. Paul Wilson, the author of the original novel who strongly disliked the film), and flopped commercially, but it has since become something of a cult film.  It's worth seeing because the good bits are good and it deserves points for originality.

         Ian McKellan explores The Keep

Monday, 3 April 2017

Wild Strawberries

Year of Release:  1957
Director:  Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay:  Ingmar Bergman
Starring:  Victor Sjostrom, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Bjornstrand
Running Time:  91 minutes 
Genre:  Drama

Professor Isak Borg (Sjostrom) is 78 years old and generally disliked by those closest to him, due to his grouchy, stubborn, arrogant nature.  He sets out on a long car journey from his home in Stockholm to his old university in Lund, where he is due to receive an honorary doctorate in recognition of his distinguished fifty year career in medicine.  He is accompanied on his journey by his daughter in law, Marianne (Thulin), who has a troubled relationship with her husband, Evald (Bjornstrand), who is very similar in temperament to his father.  During the course of the long journey (today it would take about six hours to drive between Stockholm and Lund, and it would probably have taken even longer back in 1957), they make various stops and encounter various other travelers.  Through his nostalgic reminiscences of his childhood summers, the encounters with others and strange dreams and nightmares, Borg starts to look at himself and his life.

This is possibly Ingmar Bergman's finest achievement.  It's a portrait of one man's life, and a look at ageing, regret, nostalgia and possibility.  Over the course of a single day, Isak Borg sees where he came from, what shaped him, who he now is and where he is going.  The dreams of his childhood are suffused with the silver glow of nostalgia, even while they deal with the loss of first love, contrasting with the more realistic scenes of the drive, during which he and Marianne encounter three young friends, an argumentative middle-aged married couple, and Borg's aged mother.  There are also surreal dream sequences where Borg is haunted by old age, the fact that his life is running out, and what his legacy will be.  People who see Bergman as the king of existential gloom might be surprised by the lightness of this film.  It doesn't ignore Bergman's predominant theme of the search for meaning in life, and it is very dark in many places, but it is also about the fact that change is possible and that it is never too late.              

Bibi Andersson and Victor Sjostrom in Wild Strawberries

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Ghost in the Shell

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Rupert Sanders
Screenplay:  Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger, based on the manga The Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow
Starring:  Scarlett Johansson, Takeshi Kitano, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbaek, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche
Running Time:  106 minutes
Genre:  Science-fiction, action, cyberpunk

In the future, cybernetic enhancements to humans are commonplace.  Major Mira Killian (Johansson) is the first of a new breed, a human brain placed in a synthetic body.  She works for the elite anti-terrorist bureau Section Nine, on the trail of a new type of cyber-criminal who uses people's implants to hack into their minds and souls (or "ghosts") to control them.  As she pursues this mysterious figure, the Major begins to uncover disturbing secrets about her past.

The 1989 manga series The Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow, has already inspired several animated movies and TV shows in it's native Japan, most notably the groundbreaking 1995 anime classic.  All remakes tend to provoke controversy among fans of the originals, and this was especially true for this film, an American remake of a distinctly Japanese story, and the casting of Scarlett Johansson provoked furore, with accusations of whitewashing.  I am not going to go into the argument here, because I am not best placed to discuss it.
The film is an exciting science-fiction action, that has the feel of a very 1980s or 90s cyberpunk thriller.  The action is exciting and the visual effects are stunning, creating an eye-popping city of the future.  It's the visuals that really impresses here, and it needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible, if you can, try and see it in IMAX.  For all the criticism, Scarlett Johansson gives a fine performance, as the Major.  Her distinctive statuesque beauty is perfect for a robot.  Fans of the original should be warned that a lot of the plot details are altered, much of the philosophical and spiritual elements have been excised, and a new conspiracy mystery has been added.          
Fans of futuristic action-adventures will probably find plenty to enjoy here, but aside from all the visual wonder, it just feels kind of ordinary, without the depth and richness of the original.

   Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell

Saturday, 1 April 2017

The Burning

Year of Release:  1981
Director:  Tony Maylam
Screenplay:  Bob Weinstein and Peter Lawrence, story by Brad Grey, Tony Maylam and Harvey Weinstein
Starring:  Brian Matthews, Lou David, Leah Ayres, Brian Backer, Larry Joshua
Running Time:  91 minutes
Genre:  Horror

A bunch of teens at a summer camp play a mean trick on hated caretaker Cropsy (David).  However the prank goes badly wrong and Cropsy almost burns to death.  Five years later, another group of fun-loving teens are at another summer camp, and the hideously scarred Cropsy is lurking in the woods around the camp with large garden shears, and he is not planning on pruning the hedges.

You know the story.  Even if you've never seen The Burning, if you have ever seen any slasher films, than you've pretty much seen it.  It's regarded as a carbon copy of Friday the 13th (1980), although Harvey Weinsten apparently came up with the idea before Friday the 13th was released.  However it is a pretty basic slasher, with maybe a tad more nudity and gore than usual.  Today it is is possibly most important for what the cast and crew would do later on: Jason Alexander (George in Seinfeld) and Fisher Stevens appear in minor roles, and Holly Hunter also has a very small part in the film.  Also writers and producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the moguls behind Miramax Films and later The Weinstein Company, would become two of the most important figures in American independent  film.  The Weinstein's commercial instincts are certainly on display here.  They know their audience, they know what that audience wants and they deliver it.  The gory special effects, from Tom Savini, would earn the film some notoriety, particularly in Britain where it was banned as a so-called "video nasty", although it is hard to see why.  It's a film that is not particularly good or particularly bad, it just trundles along delivers the requisite amount of gore and naked breasts, and it works as an undemanding late-night guilty pleasure, but if you want to see a slasher film, than there are better out there.  It has dated though, and probably won't deliver the goods to satisfy modern horror audiences.

Shelley Bruce, George Parry, Kevi Kendall, Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter and Ame Segull in The Burning      


Year of Release:  1949
Director:  Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay:  Ingmar Bergman
Starring:  Doris Svedlund, Birger Malmsten, Eva Henning
Running Time:  76 minutes
Genre:  Drama

A film director (Hasse Ekman) is visited on set by his old Math teacher (Anders Henrikson) who wants him to make a film about the world under the control of the Devil.  The director tells the story to his journalist friend, Tomas (Malmsten), whose marriage to Sofi (Henning) is strained to begin with, and becomes even more so due to his interest in troubled teenage sex worker Birgitta (Svedlund), who is trapped by her violent, pimp boyfriend (Stig Olin) and her ruthless sister Linnea (Irma Christenson).

This was Bergman's sixth film as director, and it still feels as if he was trying to find his voice.  His early films are not generally considered among his best, but it seems like here he was coming into his own.  Prison is an underrated film, although far from Bergman's best, it is a fascinating, experimental work.  There are ideas and story elements that seem underdeveloped, for example the whole thing with the teacher and the director barely connects with the body of the story.  Shot on a micro budget using sets left over from another film, this still has impressive visuals, and Bergman shows his eye for the interplay of light and shadow.  There is a striking, surreal dream sequence, which almost makes a virtue of it's stark, empty set dressed with a few trees and billowing smoke.  The cast is impressive, in particular Doris Svedlund's haunting performance.  Here we see Bergman his theme of the difficulty of faith and the silence of God, which would pretty much define his career.  It's not exactly a happy, fun film but it's an impressive one and worth seeing, especially for Bergman fans.

Doris Svedlund and Birger Malmsten in Prison

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Aguirre, the Wrath of God

Year of Release:  1972
Director:  Werner Herzog
Screenplay:  Werner Herzog
Starring:  Klaus Kinski, Helena Rojo, Ruy Guerra, Del Negro
Running Time:  94 minutes
Genre:  Historical adventure

In the year 1560 a large number of Spanish conquistadors, lead by Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repulles), and their captives, descend from the Andes into the Amazon jungle in search of the fabled El Dorado, the City of Gold.  Finding their way blocked by a fast-flowing river, Pizarro sends a scouting party downstream to find supplies.  Struggling through the harsh jungle conditions, flooding, hostile natives and a lack of food and supplies, their morale and sanity break down, as the group's second-in-command Don Lope de Aguirre (Kinski) becomes increasingly paranoid and plots a violent rebellion.

This is a mesmerizing film, full of memorable images from the opening shots of the procession in single file descending the mist-shrouded Andes, to the hallucinatory closing frames.  Shot entirely on location with a low budget, the production was beset by problems, not least of which were Herzogs frequent clashes with the famously mercurial Kinski, reports of which have entered cinema lore.  This is an intensely physical film, the muggy, humid atmosphere almost seems to radiate out of the screen.  This is a story of a mad dreamer with an all-consuming obsession (a favourite theme of Herzog's).  At times it takes on the qualities of a fable, even though it sometimes feels almost like a documentary.  Above it all there is the star turn of Klaus Kinski, who appears at the start of the film as a man already close to the edge, with his bulging icy blue eyes and twisted stance, seemingly forever buffeted by winds no-one else can sense, he owns the film, alternately ranting and raging at his men, or tender towards his daughter (Cecilia Rivera), who accompanies the party.  The film is very loosely based on a historical character, although most of the characters and plot details are fictional.            
Everything about the film has a hauntingly strange quality, which sometimes becomes almost surreal, partly due to the film's eerie, dreamlike score from the band Popol Vue.

 Klaus Kinski is Aguirre, the Wrath of God

Friday, 24 March 2017


Year of Release:  1997
Director:  Takeshi Kitano
Screenplay:  Takeshi Kitano
Starring:  Takeshi Kitano, Kayoko Kishimoto, Ren Osugi, Susumu Terajima
Running Time:  103 minutes
Genre: Crime drama

Nishi (Kitano) is an ex police officer whose daughter is dead and his wife (Kishimoto) is terminally ill.  He is also heavily in debt to the yakuza.  With options running out, Nishi takes desperate action to get the necessary money to take his wife on one final journey.

Hana-bi (the title translates as Fireworks) is, at first glance, a crime thriller, but in it's approach it is completely different to the conventional cop movie.  Takeshi Kitano is a hugely famous comedian and TV show host, before becoming a one of the most internationally acclaimed Japanese film-makers of his generation.  He not only wrote, directed and starred in this film, but edited it and painted the artwork that features prominently throughout.  Juxtaposing quiet, meditative passages of genuine heart and lyrical beauty with jarring, graphic violence and brutality, this is a film of emotion above all else.  The first part of the film uses a complex, fragmented structure, jumping around in time, before settling down to a more conventional linear structure.  The main character, Nishi, is calm and seemingly placid for the most part, an enigma who moves slowly and deliberately and who rarely speaks, but is capable of lashing out with sudden and extreme violence at any provocation.  However he is also capable of great kindness and affection.  Despite the amount of stabbings, shootings and chopsticks being thrust in eyes, this film is full of beautiful images of nature, and a feel for the transitory nature of existence, and the joy and warmth of family and the power of art (a key subplot in the film involves Nishi's disabled, suicidal ex-colleague taking up painting).  The scenes with Nishi and his wife touring through Japan are both funny and tender and could probably be enough for a movie on it's own.  The film is shot with a largely static camera practically every frame seeming meticulously composed.

This is the first Kitano film that I have seen, although I knew of him of course, and I had seen him in Battle Royale (2000), and I am certainly going to check out more of his work.

    Takeshi Kitano and Kayoko Kishimoto in Hana-bi

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The Merchant of Four Seasons

Year of Release:  1971
Director:  Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Screenplay:  Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Starring:  Hans Hirschmuller, Irm Hermann, Hanna Schygulla, Klaus Lowitsch
Running Time:  89 minutes
Genre:  Drama

All Hans Epp (Hirschmuller) wanted was to become a mechanic and marry the love of his life (Ingrid Caven).  However, as a stint in the police and the Foreign Legion, Hans is working as a fruit peddler, selling his wares in the courtyards and streets of Munich.  He is unhappily married to Irmgard (Hermann), and they have a young daughter, Renate (Andrea Schober).  Disliked and regarded with contempt by his family (particularly his own mother (Gusti Kreissl) who seems to hate him), Hans drinks heavily to drown his sorrows, and, after beating his wife in a drunken rage, suffers a near fatal stroke.  After he recovers, Hans reconciles with Irmgard and his business goes from strength to strength, but his inner demons are never far away, and he soon finds himself drifting towards self-destruction.

In a professional career lasting just fifteen years, German film-maker Rainer Werner Fassbinder made over forty films, several of which are acknowledged classics of World Cinema, before his untimely death at the age of 37.  The Merchant of Four Seasons is widely regarded as one of Fassbinder's best works, and it certainly is one of his most accessible.  This was his breakthrough film both domestically and internationally, and the first of a string of melodramas inspired by the works of Hollywood director Douglas Sirk.  Every shot in the film is carefully composed and constructed, and the performances are deliberately artificial and non-naturalistic, a style he developed during his time as a theater director.  For a melodrama that deals very much with emotion, this has a curious distancing effect, but it is powerful.  The long scene where Hans attacks his wife, filmed from a static camera at some distance, despite not being graphic is difficult to watch, intensified by the camera's dispassionate gaze.  It's a sometimes painful attack on marriage, family and middle-class life, which will certainly not be too everyone's taste.  It is a very good film, that held my attention throughout, and I am glad that I saw it, however I did not enjoy it.  I would say that if you are interested in Fassbinder, this is a good place to start with his work.

        Hans Hirschmuller and Irm Hermann in The Merchant of Four Seasons

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Get Out

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Jordan Peele
Screenplay:  Jordan Peele 
Starring:  Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephen Root, LaKeith Stanfield, Lil Rey Howry, 
Running Time:  103 minutes
Genre:  Horror, thriller

This is possibly one of the most important horror films of the last thirty years.  Chris (Kaluuya) is a photographer who has a good relationship with his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Williams).  However, Chris is about to head up to the suburbs to meet Rose's parents for the first time, and is worried that she hasn't told them that he is black.  Rose's parents, Dean (Whitford) and Missy (Keener), seem pleasant enough, if a little too eager to prove that they are open-minded liberals, but Chris can't help but detect undercurrents of hostility.  To make things even more uncomfortable, the only people of colour around are the family's servants, Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel).  Are the Armitages clueless and insensitive, but essentially well-meaning?  Are they closet racists?  Are is there something stranger and even more sinister going on?

The film sets up a situation that is awkward enough, and all too relateable to many of us, that of meeting our significant other's parents and family for the first time.  To make matters more complex they are a mixed race couple.  Chris puts up with a lot of low-level awkwardness right form the start, which may just be well-meaning white liberals who don't really mean any harm, or could be much worse.  with every interaction you can see him having to decode the hidden subtexts.  However this is a horror film, and writer/director Jordan Peele (one half of comedy duo Key and Peele) obviously knows his horror onions, and the horror/thriller elements work well, particularly in the final third, where the horror elements really kick off, even if the satirical elements don't always gel as well. Horror films have always taken on the preoccupations and fears of the time and place that they were made, but racial issues have been noticeable by their absence.  This is a film of it's time and is important viewing.

Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out

Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Year of Release:  1965
Director:  Martin Ritt
Screenplay:  Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper, based on the novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre
Starring:  Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner
Running Time:  112 minutes
Genre:   Spy thriller

Shortly after the death of one of his operatives, Alec Leamas (Burton), a British spy working in West Berlin, is recalled to London and drummed out of the Service (in spy parlance "coming in from the cold").  Short of money and spiraling into alcoholism, Leamas accepts a job in a library, where he catches the eye of fellow librarian, Nan (Bloom).  However there is more going on than it appears.  Far from coming in from the cold, Leamas is embarking on the most dangerous mission of his career, and soon it is not only his own life that is in danger, but Nan's too.

John le Carre's 1963 novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, became famous for it's gritty and realistic depiction of the world of international espionage and was a best-seller worldwide.  The novel and the film can be seen as a riposte to Ian Fleming's hugely successful "James Bond" series.  Shot in crisp black-and-white, the film evokes a seedy, miserable, dangerous world, and the spies are, to quote Leamas in a famous speech, "...a bunch of seedy squalid bastards like me..."  Burton portrays Leamas as a cauldron of hatred and anger, mostly directed at himself, mercurial and dangerous.  Claire Bloom provides the film's moral centre as the idealistic young Communist librarian who Leamas loves.  Full of superb performances and still timely after all these years, this stuill may not be too all tastes (the unrelenting bleakness - although alleviated by a touch of mordant humour, the at times complex storyline and slow pace may put some people off).   It certainly is not an action-packed thriller, but it demands to be seen.  The closing images will stay with you for a long time.

              Richard Burton and Claire Bloom in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Saturday, 21 January 2017

The Doom Generation

Year of Release:  1995
Director:  Gregg Araki
Screenplay:  Gregg Araki
Starring:  Rose McGowan, James Duval, Johnathon Schaech
Running Time:  83 minutes
Genre:   dark comedy, drama, crime

Amy Blue (McGowan) is nihilistic, angry and bored with herself, with her friends, with her world.  Her main interests are drugs, music and sex (not necessarily in that order), and she maintains an affectionate relationship, withe her sweet, good-natured boyfriend Jordan (Duval).  One night handsome, violent drifter Xavier, nicknamed "X", (Schaech), literally falls onto their car and, after a convenience store clerk is accidentally killed during an impromptu robbery, the three find themselves on the run in a surreal, violent, hallucinatory USA.

A principal figure in the "New Queer Cinema" movement of the late 1980s to early '90s, this was billed as "a heterosexual movie"  by Araki.  In reality it is and it isn't, while the more obvious object of desire is the seductive Amy, it's plain to see that the real love story is between guys Jordan and Xavier.  It feeds quite neatly into the "lovers-on-the-run" road movie genre that was popular in the 1990s (such as Wild at Heart (1990), True Romance (1993) and Natural Born Killers (1994)), but this is funnier than most and stylish.  Full of inventive production design and a superb central performance from McGowan, this is a dark, violent and bleak film.  The film, is full of scenes of characters eating, but rarely has food been filmed as unappetizing as what is proved to be the source, with all the artifificial elements accentuated and fearful.  Everything about the film screams late 1990s and yet it is still relevant today.

     James Duval, Jonathon Schaech and Rose McGowan are the Doom Generation.