Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
A Hardboiled Potboiler
Roy Collins and Gilbert Bowen are two friends on a fishing trip in Southern California. They've been having a swell time, and are looking forward to reaching San Felipe. Unbeknownst to them, a raving lunatic has been thumbing rides and killing drivers in the area. After they pick up a man named Emmett Myers, they learn all about it- for Myers is the killer. He forces Collins and Bowen on a journey into fear around the State, riding along with and psychologically tormenting the two men all the while. Though the police are on the case, they're running out of time. Will they track Myers down before he makes Collins and Bowen the next two names on his victims list?
Directed by Ida Lupino and written alongside her husband Collier Young, 'The Hitch-Hiker' is a hardboiled potboiler that is tense and thrilling. Though the story comes to a predictable conclusion, the trip there is full of suspense. Lupino and Collier's dialogue is deliciously pulpy, and the back and forth between Myers and his two hostages is a real treat to listen to. From the start to the finish, the film is entertaining, and is a cut above many of the hostage-based noir thrillers of the 50's- of which there were many. Full of thrills and chills, 'The Hitch-Hiker' will surely provide audiences immense viewing pleasure.
The film boasts arresting cinematography from Nicholas Musuraca that is heavily atmospheric. Primarily confined to the interior of Collins and Bowen's car, Musuraca makes excellent use of the limited space, juxtaposing it against the vast expanse of desert, giving the film a claustrophobic feeling that heightens the narrative's tension. The utilization of light and shadows is sinisterly effective at maintaining the film's tone, and Musuraca's composition of images is striking. Like Edgar G. Ulmer's 'Detour,' 'The Hitch-Hiker' is low budget, but features some incredible visuals that linger in the mind long after the credits have rolled.
As does Leith Stevens' atmospheric and jazzy score, which contributes to the mood of the piece, but never overshadows it. His evocative theme is particularly gripping and used to great effect in the film. Additionally, the minimal set decoration from Harley Miller and Darrell Silvera is impressive, with a roadside shop in a small Californian town being particularly memorable. One would be remiss not to mention Douglas Stuart's tight editing, which holds everything together wonderfully; establishing for the proceedings a steady pace.
'The Hitch-Hiker' stars Edmond O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy as Collins and Bowen and William Talman as Myers, giving the performance of his life. Talman is terrific as the cold-blooded psychopath, clearly reveling in the chance to play such a wild character. He is both menacing and unpredictable, a dangerous mixture of a man you can't keep your eyes off. This is not to say that O'Brien and Lovejoy don't do commendable work, because they do. Lovejoy is particularly good, but their roles aren't nearly as interesting or as colorful as Talman's, and there is less they can do with the parts. Talman dominates the movie, and you'll assuredly have a hard time forgetting his performance.
Deftly directed by Ida Lupino, 'The Hitch-Hiker' is a suspenseful noir thriller fans of the genre will love. Featuring stunning cinematography from Nicholas Musuraca and an emotive Leith Stevens score, the film impresses on every level. With a strong screenplay from Lupino and Collier Young full of great dialogue, and boasting three fine central performances from Edmond O'Brien, Frank Lovejoy and William Talman, 'The Hitch-Hiker' is frighteningly good.
The House That Dripped Blood (1971)
Vintage British Horror
In the English countryside there stands a house, a seemingly benign, ramshackle abode nestled amid the undergrowth and enveloped in mystery. Unfortunate incidents occur to those who stay at the place, as a detective finds out while investigating the disappearance of its' latest dweller. While on the case, he hears of four separate tales of woe that befell those who rented the house, each more macabre and chilling than the last, in Peter Duffell's marvelous horror-comedy 'The House That Dripped Blood.'
An anthology film consisting of four separate stories concerning the titular homestead, 'The House That Dripped Blood' is vintage British horror. Written by Robert Bloch (and an uncredited Russ Jones), the tales within the film are each and all entertaining, full of suspense and chills. The segments vary both in tone and in quality, with the Christopher Lee led "Sweets To The Sweet" impressing and frightening the most, and Jon Pertwee's camp parody "The Cloak" being the weakest offering of the bunch. The other two, "Method For Murder" and 'Waxworks" have their moments, but don't match the sinister atmosphere and psychological terror of Lee's segment and seem unfortunately rushed to market.
In anthology films, it's not uncommon for segments to vary in length, but the first two seem far shorter than the last ones, and this imbalance produces jarring effects. "Method For Murder" and 'Waxworks" breeze by- and while the lengthy, penultimate "Sweets To The Sweet" works brilliantly- the final episode, "The Cloak," feels like it's dragging on in comparison to what came before it. Its considerably lighter tone also means that it feels somewhat inconsequential and pointless. The three preceding stories are full of dark, seedy horror that sometimes drifts into humorous territory; while "The Cloak" fully embraces the comedic and comes across as rather silly and facile.
Though still entertaining, as the whole film is overall- not to mention being technically polished. Ray Parslow's cinematography is striking, and while this isn't exactly a Dario Argento film; it's got an assured visual style that's most impressive. Credit for the film's look must also go to Tony Curtis, whose work as art director has produced distinct results. Additionally, the score from Michael Dress is atmospheric and foreboding, and Peter Tanner's editing is swift and seamless. For a relatively low-budget affair, 'The House That Dripped Blood' has a lot to offer viewers.
Including some fine performances from a large cast of talented actors. Denholm Elliott and Joanna Dunham do good work in "Method For Murder," with Elliott's portrayal of a man descending into madness being especially notable. Peter Cushing is terrific as a lonely man inexplicably drawn to a waxwork figure in "Waxworks," and is on screen for far too short a time. Christopher Lee dominates the film as an austere father in "Sweets To The Sweet," giving a performance both restrained and intense that lingers in the mind long after the credits have rolled. From "The Cloak," Ingrid Pitt does memorable work, though is underutilized and overshadowed by her screen partner; the overacting Jon Pertwee (in a role, one might add, tailored for Vincent Price, who would have been perfect).
'The House That Dripped Blood' is a highly enjoyable anthology film that will thrill and chill in equal measure. Well written by Robert Bloch and featuring stylish visuals and an emotive Michael Dress score, the film readily impresses. Though the segments vary in quality, all are entertaining and one- "Sweets To The Sweet"- is nothing short of brilliant. Boasting a cast of stars performing strongly and deft direction from Peter Duffell, 'The House That Dripped Blood' is a fantastic voyage of fun and fear that is sure to frighten, please and amuse.
Tales of the Unexpected
There are many strange movies out there, that defy genre convention and beguile with bizarreness, unpredictability and originality. Were one to compile a list of the oddest movies of all time, chances are one would include many from Japan: 'Tetsuo: The Iron Man,' 'House,' 'Survive Style 5+,' 'Gozu'- it could go on ad infinitum. Somewhere on that list you'd certainly find 'Funky Forest: The First Contact,' a madcap movie that takes viewers on a comedic thrill ride into the absurd.
'Funky Forest: The First Contact' is written and directed by Katsuhito Ishii, Hajime Ishimine and Shunichirô Miki, and is especially in keeping with the films of Ishii, particularly his previous 'The Taste of Tea.' A loosely connected series of bizarre sketches, the film is surreal, unpredictable and oftentimes quite funny. Like most ensemble films, the segments vary in quality, though the majority are at least interesting, if not entertaining, and will frequently have you in stitches (with the Susumu Terajima led 'Home Room' segments being the strongest comedically).
It is a film that builds in absurdity as it goes on, with some of the latter half's scenarios being truly off the wall. There is a temptation to criticize the movie for the disparate nature of the sketches, as well as for its' lack of purpose as a whole. Some may also be put off by the grotesquery of a few of the skits, and impatient viewers might think the proceedings a little protracted. However, the individuality, peculiarity and good humor of many of the sketches from 'Funky Forest: The First Contact' generally makes up for any opprobrium one could throw its way.
As does the fine cinematography from Hiroshi Machida and Kosuke Matsushima, who capture the outlandishness of the film with restraint. Their naturalistic work juxtaposes strongly with the subject matter, providing 'Funky Forest' with additional idiosyncrasy of style. Set decorator Asako Ohta's efforts do not go unnoticed, with locations appearing detailed and lived-in, and Shiori Tomita and Ikuko Utsunomiya's costume design is striking. Additionally, Toru Midorikawa's electronic score is atmospheric and catchy, and one will find it hard to get a few of the tunes out of one's head.
'Funky Forest' features an ensemble cast of actors, all of whom perform well- and some of whom deserve to be singled out. Susumu Terajima features in the most sketches, and will have you laughing any time he's on screen, whether in the aforementioned 'Home Room' or in the water with 'The Babbling Health Spa Vixens.' Tadanobu Asano is a real delight in a recurring sketch called 'Guitar Brother,' where he demonstrates both his considerable comedic timing and skills on the guitar. Ryô Kase and Erika Nishikado also do laudable work, impressing much with their ease of performance.
Though its' segments vary, 'Funky Forest: The First Contact' is a funny, unpredictable picture that is incredibly bizarre and thoroughly entertaining from start to finish. Featuring strong performances from all in the cast and an appropriately funky score from Toru Midorikawa; it is memorable and unique. Katsuhito Ishii, Hajime Ishimine and Shunichirô Miki have done commendable work with 'Funky Forest: The First Contact': a fine film featuring tales of the unexpected that perplexes and delights in equal measure.
All Style & No Substance
In the early 1930's, one-eyed doctor Burt Berendsen and his friend, lawyer Harold Woodsman, are hired by the daughter of their commander from the Great War to investigate his strange death. After she is murdered, the perpetrator frames the duo for the act. As Berendsen and Woodsman try to prove their innocence, they encounter a variety of odd characters, including the beautiful, Bohemian Valerie; a friend from the War and Woodsman's old lover. Whether or not they solve the grisly mystery, and if they all get out alive, remains to be seen in David O. Russell's 'Amsterdam.'
A stylish film that's very light on substance, 'Amsterdam'- loosely inspired by real events- is a glitzy, glamourous flick that breaks no new ground or makes any significant waves. Relying on obvious twists to provide suspense- and full of over-written and expositional dialogue- the narrative is underwhelming, exceedingly aureate and predictable. It is a shallow affair, with no genuine heart. Russell centers his tale around the kinship Berendsen, Woodsman and Valerie experienced during the war, though the reasoning behind their bond is tenuously explained at best, and feels forced throughout.
Additionally, all of the characters are caricatures of little depth, with many of the secondary ones being rather irritating. While the quirky folk Russell populated films like 'I Heart Huckabees' and 'American Hustle' with felt like genuinely off-beat personalities one might find in reality, those in 'Amsterdam' are overblown, thoroughly artificial creations that would feel ham-fisted in your average soap opera, let alone a big-budget film from a cinematic auteur. By putting them inside his weak story, Russell has concocted a devastatingly mediocre narrative cocktail.
The picture is not a complete disaster, however, containing some praiseworthy elements. For one, Emmanuel Lubezki's rich cinematography is captivating, making excellent use of space and color, giving the film a distinct atmosphere and feel which- at its' best- successfully evokes film noir and the golden age of Hollywood. Judy Becker's production design is of an exceptionally high quality, and everything on screen looks both period accurate and highly detailed. The costume design from J. R. Hawbaker and Albert Wolsky is particularly striking, with their outfits for Valerie being especially striking.
One must also mention Jay Cassidy's editing, as he assuredly had a difficult job trying to make cohesive Russell's sprawling epic, and he nearly succeeds. While there are pacing issues and some scenes go on too long, Cassidy's efforts deserve credit, if not plaudits. Additionally, while Daniel Pemberton's score is quite melodramatic, it does lend the film additional suspense and atmosphere, which is most welcome and appreciated by the viewer.
Also welcome is the presence of Christian Bale, starring as Berendsen. Arguably one of the most versatile actors of our day, if not all time, Bale's performance as Berendsen is joyfully, wonderfully over-the-top and easily the strongest element of the movie. He is always convincing, charming his way into viewers' hearts immediately. Had Bale not been cast in the part, there would be very little reason to watch the film, as the work of his screen partners is considerably less laudable.
Many reviewers have mentioned that John David Washington is underplaying the part of Woodsman, ostensibly in order to balance out the more theatrical performances from the rest of the cast. Perhaps that is giving him too much credit though, as he comes across as more wooden than anything else. Margot Robbie is a different story, who has been a little short-changed by Hollywood as of late, appearing in major films but getting very little to do. Tarantino wasted her talents in the egregiously overrated 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,' Jay Roach underutilized her in 'Bombshell' and now Russell has done the same. Though Robbie tries her darndest to make the free spirit Valerie interesting, Russell's paper-thin characterization nullifies her efforts.
The film features as the supporting cast a who's who of Hollywood, some of whom do very good work and most of whom are wasted. Anya Taylor-Joy and Rami Malek are the real stand outs, playing an eccentric couple reminiscent of Sandra Bernhard and Richard E. Grant from 'Hudson Hawk.' Like Bale, their delightful overacting injects some much-needed joy into the proceedings, and they work wonderfully together. Unfortunately, Russell squanders the talents of the rest (Robert De Niro, Michael Shannon and others) giving them nothing interesting to do but stand around and pad the cast list; truly a tragic waste of capable players.
'Amsterdam' is a muddled, missed opportunity featuring an underutilized cast and an uninspired narrative. Though visually rich and striking, the film has very little to offer the viewing audience- certainly nothing new. Fans of Christian Bale will enjoy the exuberance of his performance, but this is a lightweight movie that doesn't adequately take advantage of his- or any of the other cast members'- ability. To cut a long story short, 'Amsterdam' is a cheapskate hustle of a film that is destined to be forgotten, except as an example of movie-making folly; for which it will be eternally remembered.
Weird, Wild & Wonderful
After their car becomes stuck on a causeway, two gangsters named Dickey and Albie find themselves stranded on the remote island of Lindisfarne. There, they take refuge in a castle owned by an eccentric couple, the mentally unbalanced George and his promiscuous and beautiful wife Teresa. The hoods proceed to hold George and Teresa hostage, until their boss Katelbach can send them some transportation off the rock. However, matters become complicated by the arrival of a group of George's friends, one of whom Teresa has an affair with. So begins 'Cul-de-sac,' a tale of madness, sexual frustration and pitch-black comedy that could only have come from the mind of Roman Polanski.
Original, abstract and frequently funny, Polanski's 'Cul-de-sac' is a fascinating, captivating movie that will delight any fan of the dark and strange. Much like his earlier 'Repulsion,' the film launches the viewer into a weird world populated by odd folk struggling with their desires and how to interact with the people around them. The characters engage in a power struggle throughout the film, with manipulation and thuggery being the prime weapons at their disposal. While the hoodlums take George and Teresa hostage, it is also Teresa who makes George a hostage of her lust, and it is she who does the most damage to his psyche.
It is a film that will likely spark differing opinions as to what the meaning of it all is. Some cinema-goers enjoy the guesswork, though others find abstractions infuriating; and 'Cul-de-sac' is not for the impatient or the shunners of philosophy. It's an intriguing, dark thriller that also happens to be one of Polanski's funniest outings, as he injects the narrative with much off-beat humor and sharp, banterous dialogue. The film still features his trademark examinations of paranoia, isolation and social unease; though told in a slightly lighter fashion than one accustomed to Polanski would expect (which, for this viewer anyway, comes as a boon to the proceedings).
'Cul-de-sac' is a visually enthralling flick, featuring arresting cinematography from Gilbert Taylor, who lent his talents to the previous 'Repulsion,' and would go on to work with Polanski once more on 'MacBeth.' Their collaborations made for undeniably artistic and powerful visuals that intrigue and impress, both in creative and technical terms. 'Cul-de-sac' boasts some incredible cinematography, from intense tracking shots to the masterful manipulation of light and shadows; Taylor's distinct and evocative work under Polanski's firm direction is unforgettable.
Alastair McIntyre was a frequent collaborator of Polanski's, and his editing for 'Cul-de-sac' is swift and smart. Reportedly, the two men toiled very closely together in the editing suite, developing over the years an intuitive and fruitful working relationship build on mutual respect and admiration. Looking at the remarkably tight, streamlined final cut of 'Cul-de-sac;' it's easy to see why Polanski utilized McIntyre on six films- his work is nigh on flawless.
Also of note is the score from Krzysztof Komeda, which is jazzy and strangely haunting; like elevator music from Dante's second circle of hell. His melodies fit perfectly the images of the film, as odd and as unsettling as some of them may be. Additionally, Bridget Sellers' rich costume design and George Lack's detailed set decoration and art direction lends the film additional impact and depth to the locales and characters.
'Cul-de-sac' stars Donald Pleasence as George, Françoise Dorléac as Teresa and Lionel Stander as Dickey, with the three of them turning in strong performances that are highlights in each of their filmographies. Pleasence is terrific as the unhinged, deeply neurotic George, imbuing him with an almost childlike quality which makes the character all the more interesting and odd. Though sometimes in films Pleasence had a tendency to go a little over-the-top, here he remains grounded, despite the weirdness of the role; doing consummate work that is hard to forget.
Dorléac- who tragically died before making it as big internationally as her sister Catherine Deneuve- is nothing short of a sensation as Teresa, giving a performance of wit, intelligence and depth that is a real treat to watch. As wily and as seductive as a panther in the night, Dorléac is not afraid to make Teresa unlikable, though she remains charismatic throughout. From her all too short career in film, Dorléac's assured performance in 'Cul-de-sac' is her greatest and most compelling.
Finally, Lionel Stander is brilliant as Dickey, the humorous hoodlum who takes hostage and tries to manipulate George and Teresa. Stander was a talented actor whose screen presence- like Ernest Borgnine- was such that you'd warm to him no matter what he did, evil or nay. With his crooked grin and gravelly voice, he leaves an indelible impression on the viewer; making Dickey a character that is most memorable. The supporting cast all perform admirably too, with a young Jacqueline Bisset and Jack MacGowran impressing the most.
Roman Polanski's 'Cul-de-sac' is a powerful and off-beat thriller that has a lot to offer viewers. Featuring an atmospheric Krzysztof Komeda score, stunning visuals from Gilbert Taylor and a cast performing at the top of their games; there is very little not to praise about the movie. If you enjoy films of abstractions and you have not seen it before, it is advisable that you do so now; as 'Cul-de-sac' is a weird, wild and wonderful movie that is not to be missed.
Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson (1983)
The Lord & The Great One Make Memorable Bedfellows
Joe Halpern is an English, retired, working-class Jew whose wife passes away. At her funeral, he encounters a strange, wealthy American by the name of Ernest Johnson, who asks Halpern to meet him for drinks. Six weeks later, the two men have a rendezvous, and get to know one another. Incredibly, it transpires that Johnson and the late Mrs. Halpern had maintained a decades long acquaintanceship behind Joe's back- which eventually became a one-sided love affair on the behalf of Mr. Johnson. As revelations and accusations fly, Halpern and Johnson engage in a verbal sparring match over the lady who was the love of both their lives, in Alvin Rakoff's 'Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson.'
A made for T. V. movie from the pen of Lionel Goldstein, 'Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson' is a strongly written and powerfully acted two-hander exploring an intriguing central conceit in an understated way. Goldstein's simple tale smartly examines notions of grief and love, as well as the inherent drama of a man realizing his marriage and very existence wasn't what he thought it was. The last thirty years of Halpern's life has essentially been a sham- or so he initially thinks- and Goldstein's sympathetic screenplay lets the character vent his frustration in a way that is most subtle and grounded in reality.
His counterpart, Johnson, has spent the last three decades of his life waiting in vain for his love to be returned, knowing in his heart that it would never be. Goldstein imbues the character with a great dignity and decency, which makes his fruitless quest for requited affection all the more affecting. The film, based around a conversation between the two characters, paints a realistic portrait of men who couldn't be more different, linked only by a loss they both experience greatly. Though the situation may be rather sensitive, Goldstein's tactful writing makes it one that is most memorable, emotionally perspicacious and thoroughly believable.
Though all the credit cannot just be given to Goldstein, as 'Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson' features two powerful performances from Laurence Olivier and Jackie Gleason that are highlights in the filmographies of both men. Olivier, as Halpern, shows a remarkable restraint and subtlety of style, usually missing from his performances in cinema. Olivier's theatrical background meant that he often came across as a little over-the-top or mannered on screen, especially when compared to natural movie actors. Particularly during the first half of his career in pictures, he frequently appeared uncomfortable, often exaggerating his performances in a manner most unsuitable for film.
He masterfully underplays it in 'Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson,' as does his starring partner, one of the all-time Great Ones of screen acting: Jackie Gleason. A comedic force of nature, Gleason was a versatile and intelligent performer who could work within many different genres. Though primarily remembered for comedies and television shows, he was terrific in straight roles, giving brilliant performances in ventures like 'Requiem for a Heavyweight' and 'The Hustler' to name but two. Though he could ham it up with Burt Reynolds for the 'Smokey and the Bandit' pictures, Gleason instinctively knew that less meant more when acting for the silver screen; and in 'Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson' threatens to blow Olivier out of the water at times with his naturalness and ease of performance.
'Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson' is not a particularly good-looking picture, nor does it contain an especially atmospheric score, detailed set design or any high production values to speak of at all, really. What the made for T. V. movie does boast is a strong screenplay full of great dialogue and two mesmerising performances from Lord Olivier and The Great One. Though they may sound like strange bedfellows, they bring out the best in each other on screen; making this simple story one you'd be hard pressed to forget.
The Last of Sheila (1973)
A Creditable, Though Convoluted Caper
On the first anniversary of his wife's death, wealthy film producer Clinton Greene hosts a week-long get-together aboard his yacht, the Sheila; named in honour of his late love. His guests include actresses, directors and screenwriters- all of whom were present the year before when Sheila kicked the bucket. Greene, an avid parlour-gamesman, informs his guests that the week's entertainment will be the 'The Sheila Greene Memorial Gossip Game,' in which everyone is assigned a secret which they must keep from the others. Soon, it transpires that Greene's sinister competition is based more on fact than fiction, and there may be a murderer among his guests; facts which transform the proceedings into a crazed game of cat and mouse where the stakes are life or death.
Written by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim, Herbert Ross's 'The Last of Sheila' is a camp mystery comedy that holds entertainment value, though is really rather convoluted. Inspired by real life scavenger hunts Perkins and Sondheim would arrange for their friends in the late 60's, the film takes elaborate steps to concoct a narrative seeped in intrigue and suspense, but overwhelms with its attempts to mystify; coming across as needlessly Daedalian rather than satisfyingly cryptic. Unlike the best whodunnit mysteries, the film's twists and turns seem arbitrary when they're not predictable, and are frequently both.
Perkins and Sondheim's characters are also problematic, with most being unlikable and dimly illustrated caricatures of little to no depth (an issue only heightened by the performances from the cast, many of whom overact wildly). While the camp comedy works for the most part, a lot of it feels forced, and despite some clever lines of dialogue and a few suspenseful sequences; one is left rather disappointed by the time the credits roll. Had Perkins and Sondheim tightened up the core mystery and added dimension to some of the characters, they could have had a fine film on their hands; instead of the mildly amusing, slightly banal one 'The Last of Sheila' turned out to be.
Shot in Nice, the cinematography from Gerry Turpin is surprisingly mediocre, considering the beauty of the surrounding area. Turpin's approach is too straightforward, lacking flair and seeming flat and uninspired. 'The Last of Sheila' is the kind of film that requires stylish, unconventional cinematography in order to match the camp, mysterious and borderline over-the-top subject matter; Turpin's work is sadly lacking in this regard.
As is Edward Warschilka's editing, which is loose and haphazard, dooming the film to the realm of the unevenly paced. John Jarvis's set decoration isn't lacking, however, with his work being rich and highly detailed. The locations are brimming with intricate knick-knacks and props, seeming most authentic and intriguing. Joel Schumacher's costume design is also of note (and arguably more interesting than his directorial features later in life), while Billy Goldenberg's score is atmospheric and thrilling.
'The Last of Sheila' features an all-star ensemble cast of varying degrees of quality. While James Mason and Dyan Cannon each deliver measured, intelligent and believable performances, the rest tend towards overacting or- as is the case with Ian McShane- phone it in completely. James Coburn goes wildly over-the-top, and is actually very entertaining (and probably the most appealing part of the film). Joan Hackett, Raquel Welsh and Richard Benjamin seem uneasy to be involved with the proceedings and unsure of how to approach their roles; leaving little impression on the viewer whatsoever.
'The Last of Sheila' is a muddled movie that doesn't quite make it, an underwhelming though amusing mystery-comedy that doesn't make many waves or break any new ground. Featuring an all-star cast and a screenplay from Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim, the film should- and could- have been much more intriguing and humorous than it is. Though there are some bright spots in the screenplay and from the cast, it's mostly an underwhelming, convoluted caper that is easy to watch and easier to forget.
Kikujirô no natsu (1999)
A Bittersweet Symphony
It is summertime, and Masao is a lonely boy living with his grandmother in Tokyo. One day, he finds an address supposedly belonging to his long-lost mother, and decides to try and find her. His grandmother's friend insists that her husband, Kikujiro, accompany Masao, and the two set out together; despite not knowing each other well. On their long journey, Kikujiro and Masao engage in many adventures, meeting colourful characters along the way and forging a bond stronger than that between parent and child. Whether or not their friendship withstands the test of time- and if they find Masao's mother- remains to be seen in the dramatic powerhouse that is Takeshi Kitano's 'Kikujiro.'
Kitano's eighth feature film, 'Kikujiro' is a delightfully funny and poignant road movie sure to warm the cockles of any viewers' heart. A simple story about friendship and connection, the trip Masao and Kikujiro undertake contains subtle power and emotional depth, whilst also being frequently hilarious. The characters are all well-drawn and the escapades they engage in both wildly entertaining and affecting. The relationship that develops between Masao and Kikujiro is realistic and heart-warming, and the film's exploration of those considered 'outsiders' is one most intelligent and subdued. Much like Kitano's previous 'A Scene At The Sea,' the film's power is of the low-key and naturalistic variety; and 'Kikujiro' will surely linger in the mind long after the credits have rolled.
'Kikujiro' reunites Kitano with cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima, for their sixth out of sixteen collaborations. Yanagishima's muted work is undeniably powerful and beguiling, lending the film and its' story additional beauty and depth. His is not pretentious or needlessly hectic cinematography, it is steady and sure work that produces sagacious, artful and distinct results. That Kitano has utilised Yanagishima's immeasurable talents for every one of his movies bar 'Violent Cop' and 'Hana-Bi' proves just how effectively the two men work together; and the visuals borne of their partnership for 'Kikujiro' are unforgettable.
The same can be said of another frequent collaborator of Kitano's, composer Joe Hisaishi: his score for 'Kikujiro' is catchy and evocative. The fifth film of Kitano's Hisaishi has worked on, his melodies are haunting and delicate. The theme, 'Summer,' is particularly beautiful, and like an earwig worms it's way into one's subconscious, establishing itself as a tune one will find it most difficult to forget. Hisaishi frequently plays the 'Kikujiro' soundtrack while touring, and the enduring popularity of the music shows just how moving and ineffaceable it is.
'Kikujiro' also boasts highly detailed costume design from Fumio Iwasaki that lends additional dimension to characters, as well as echoing past works from Kitano's cinematic canon (most notably through the short sleeved Hawaiian shirts featured so prominently in 'Sonatine'). Also of note is Ryôji Kasumi and Michio Miyauchi's work in the makeup department and Tatsuo Ozeki's rich set decoration; which adds further believability to the proceedings.
'Kikujiro' stars Kitano in the titular role and Yusuke Sekiguchi as Masao, making his big screen debut. Sekiguchi is a fine actor who remains understated throughout, crafting in Masao a character both believable and compelling. It could be argued that he has the least to do in the cast- certainly he has relatively little dialogue or any large displays of emotion- and that many other young boys could have played the role as effectively. However, that is to do a serious discredit to the subtlety of his acting. Though he only has one other film role to date, Sekiguchi has left an indelible imprint on cinema through his brilliant performance as Masao.
Kitano is terrific as Kikujiro, making him a slightly unhinged comedic force of nature, as well as a profoundly complex man. His relationship with Masao forces him to examine his own life, which he finds wanting; and Kitano's performance is powerfully understated and wildly entertaining. It is assumed that Kikujiro is a facsimile of Kitano's own father, and the fondness and exuberance with which he approaches the role betrays a great respect, admiration and love for the man. Kitano's Kikujiro may be one of his finest performances from his storied career; and is certainly his warmest and most heartfelt.
The supporting cast is populated with talented actors like Kayoko Kishimoto and Akaji Maro, both of whom steal their too few scenes as Kikujiro's wife and a seedy fellow Masao encounters in a park, respectively. All the secondary performers do admirable work, with Nezumi Imamura, Gurêto Gidayû and Rakkyo Ide impressing and entertaining the most as a travelling writer and two bikers Masao and Kikujiro befriend along the way. From the smallest role to the titular one; everyone in the film is perfectly cast.
'Kikujiro' is a powerful, funny and genuinely moving film from Takeshi Kitano that impresses on every level. Strongly acted, well-written and featuring stunning cinematography from Katsumi Yanagishima; the movie is entertaining and memorable both. With an atmospheric Joe Hisaishi score and detailed costume and set design; there is little to fault with the film. In short, 'Kikujiro' is a bittersweet symphony of unaffected profundity and voluminous emotional depth that hits all the right notes.
Intriguing, Abstract & Unique
There are few directors whose films have sparked as much rumination and analysis as Ingmar Bergman. His cinematic creations, utterly unique in style and tone, have been and shall continue to be debated and critiqued for decades. Many consider him the master of minimalism, whose work subtly exposes the truth of the human condition, while others hail his films as unnecessarily abstruse and pretentious. Whatever one's feelings on Bergman, it must be said that his films are certainly intriguing; and perhaps none more so than 'Persona.'
'Persona' follows Alma, a nurse, who is put in charge of Elisabet, an actress who has been inexplicably rendered mute. It is determined that Elisabet may better recover in an environment other than the hospital, and she and Alma travel to a cottage on a remote island for respite. While there, a strange metamorphosis occurs, and the identities of Alma and Elisabet become blurred in relation to one another; as repressed memories are brought to light and motivations questioned.
'Persona' tells this story in a manner most abstract, relying heavily on Sven Nykvist's powerful cinematography and the expressionistic talents of Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson to forward the narrative as much as Bergman's screenplay and dialogue. It is a strange, sinister film seeped in a mysterious aura of despondency that challenges and offers the viewer no quarter. Through its' examinations of jealously, sex and identity, the film holds a mirror up to the human condition; the reflection of which is most affecting and raises many questions.
Just what is the film about? Is it some kind of Scandinavian Jekyll and Hyde story about doubling and the duality of man? Does it fit in with Jung's notion of persona, or could it be a psychological interrogation of female sexuality? Is it a critique of theatre and the notion of performance in itself? The film is open to interpretation, and many readings can be given as to its' meaning. Whether or not this appeals to the viewer is entirely subjective; though those who enjoy stories of abstraction will certainly find it an interesting, unique experience.
As mentioned above, much of the film's impact is due to Sven Nykvist's cinematography, which is spellbinding. The film begins with a bizarre montage of distorted images, ever-increasing in strangeness and emotional intensity from there. Under Bergman's direction, Nykvist captures what Herzog refers to as the drama of the landscape masterfully, as well as making excellent use of the close-up; adding immeasurable power to scenes. Nykvist's collaboration with Bergman was one of the most fruitful in cinematic history; as the striking images in 'Persona' prove yet again.
'Persona' stars Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, both delivering fascinatingly impassioned performances as Elisabet and Alma, respectively. Ullmann does the bulk of her acting silently, utilizing her impressive expressionistic talents to convey the emotion and feelings of her character, which she does in a manner most efficacious and affecting. Andersson displays remarkable versatility, intensity and emotional perspicuity, creating in Alma a remarkably multi-faceted character that one does not easily forget. The two of them work together wonderfully, showcasing a chemistry both electric and genuine.
Having said all that, it's easy to see why many viewers feel the film isn't worthy of its' reputation as a motion picture magnum opus. It is an intentionally difficult film, one which forces the viewer to think and doesn't offer much entertainment value in the traditional sense. The story and its themes are Delphic and the characters are hard to warm to, and- though undeniably powerful- the irregularity of the cinematography can be occasionally confounding. It is not unjust to say that some may feel the film underwhelming and incomprehensible; though many more may find its obscurities intoxicating.
Ingmar Bergman's 'Persona' is a captivating film, one which continues to perplex and puzzle. Strongly acted and beautifully shot by Sven Nykvist, the film is somewhat recherché, and its meaning and value will likely be hotly contested by film buffs for years to come. Intriguing, abstract and unique, it is not exactly a movie one will say they enjoyed; it is too calculated and cold a film for that. Rather, it is a film one experiences; and 'Persona' makes for a very memorable experience.
A Colorful & Commendable Crime Caper
Mikihiko Bandai is a disco owner whose business has been severely affected by the economic downturn. He is in massive debt to the Yakuza, and has no way to pay them back. After a scuffle in his disco, Bandai decides to rob the Yakuza, enlisting the help of an ex-cop, a gay hustler, an unhinged salaryman and a Thai pimp. The five pull off the robbery, but in a most frantic and unprofessional fashion, and the Yakuza subsequently hire a couple of deranged sadomasochistic hitmen to track down and take out the thieves. So begins a game of cat and mouse, where Bandai and his crew struggle to stay ahead of impending death, in Takashi Ishii's 'Gonin.'
A corker of a crime film, 'Gonin' is an unpredictable and entertaining trip across Tokyo in the company of wild and crazy fellows that one will find hard to forget. Written and directed by Ishii, his tale is full of unexpected moments and biting, pulpy dialogue, as well as featuring brilliantly realized, distinctive characters and a fantastic ending. The heist sequence is thrilling, while the ensuing hunt is one full of tension and suspense. The film also examines the nature of homosexual relationships with particular regard to power dynamics, and how these can be both healthy and unhealthy, while still containing genuine affection among those involved.
To expand upon this point further, there are two sets of homosexual couples in the film, one of which is based upon affection and respect, the other of which is based on sadomasochism and violence. While Ishii clearly makes the healthiness of these relationships distinct from one another, both are based on love and a deep need for connection. Though perhaps a somewhat cursory investigation, Ishii's exploration of homosexuality in all its' forms is most interesting, giving the film another dimension for viewers to ponder.
'Gonin' features arresting cinematography from Yasushi Sasakibara, who makes excellent use of light and shadows to reinforce the darkly mysterious tone of the film. His work under Ishii's direction is fitful and evocative of noir, exuding at times a dreamlike quality that makes the irregularity of the narrative all the more potent. Akimasa Kawashima's editing is intuitive and intelligent- no scenes go on too long, nor does the film's determined and frantic pace ever lose momentum. It is a supremely fine picture in visual terms, with much to laud over on the technical side of things.
Additionally, Goro Yasukawa's score is dramatic and stirring, giving to the proceedings a mournful quality that heightens the narrative impact. Alicia Hayes's costume design is also of note, especially her crocodile skin outfits for the gay hustler, which adds both to his characterization and to the depth of the picture's detail. On the whole, 'Gonin' is an achievement on practically every level; and a very memorable one at that.
The film features an ensemble cast, though Koichi Sato is the ostensible star, playing Bandai. He delivers a performance of unwavering certainty and resolve; were this film 'Oceans 11' he would be Frank Sinatra: calm, cool and consistently collected. Masahiro Motoki co-stars as the gay hustler and seriously impresses with his range of emotions and mastery of understatement. The character becomes something of the emotional heart of the film, and Motoki will move any viewer with heart left enough to stir.
Also worth mentioning from the cast are Naoto Takenaka and Takeshi Kitano, playing the unbalanced salaryman and the leader of the hitmen, respectively. Takenaka showcases the madness of his role wonderfully, going rather over-the-top, but not in an offensive way; remaining sympathetic- though utterly insane. Kitano all but steals the show as the sadistic, gay hitman, a role echoing the one he played in his previous 'Boiling Point.' He is terrifying, sometimes a little humorous; and always captivating to watch. Though he has less screen time than Motoki, Sato or Takenaka, Kitano really makes his presence known, dominating the latter half of the movie completely.
A colorful, commendable crime caper, Takashi Ishii's 'Gonin' is a marvelous movie sure to entertain and thrill audiences everywhere. Featuring an original, wild story full of sharp dialogue and well-rounded characters, the film is an unpredictable as it is enjoyable. Boasting strong performances from an ensemble cast, an assured visual style and a fine score from Goro Yasukawa, there is very little not to commend about the picture. If you are a fan of crime fiction, watch 'Gonin;' it shouldn't disappoint.
Toys in the Attic (1963)
Julian Berniers is a raconteur and habitual schemer who travels home to New Orleans with his wife Lily to visit his elder sisters Carrie and Anna. Carrie and Anna dote on Julian, with Carrie being especially ecstatic over and obsessed with him. He hasn't been back for months, and the two sisters are confident he has squandered all his money, as he has done so many times before. However, this time, Julian arrives mysteriously in the black, flush with cash and bearing many gifts. This doesn't sit well with Carrie, and Lily has her own reasons to be suspicious of her husband. Though all seems to go well for a while, the ultimate ramifications of Julian's arrival prove to be unexpected and devastating, in George Roy Hill's 'Toys In The Attic.'
Based on the play of the same name by Lillian Hellman, 'Toys In The Attic' is a lightweight Tennessee Williams style melodrama that entertains, though doesn't break any particularly new ground. With a screenplay by James Poe, the narrative is sadly predictable and underwhelming, featuring many 'Southern' cliches and derivative scenarios. Some of the characters are very obviously and poorly written, with motivations so thin they make cigarette paper look hefty. Additionally, the dialogue rarely if ever rises above the level of a soap opera, and twists introduced throughout are ham-fisted and foreseeable.
All that said, there is a realistic relationship in the film featuring two interesting characters that impresses greatly; that of Julian and Anna. Their relationship is utterly believable and a fine example of good, understated screenwriting. One doesn't need- or get- extraneous information regarding their feelings for one another or their past experiences, which makes the characters' evident bond so natural and impressive. Contrasted with the character of Carrie- for whom Poe consistently over-writes- or that of Lily- for whom Poe underwrites- Julian and Anna stand out as impressively rounded cinematic creations who interact with one another in a credible fashion.
On the technical side of things, 'Toys In The Attic' has a few elements worth mentioning. Joseph F. Biroc's cinematography is subdued and mutedly artistic. There are some shots that will stick with you, such as Biroc's framing of a fight in a warehouse from the latter half of the picture, which brims with tension and compositional intrigue. Additionally, Victor A. Gangelin's evocative set decoration lends to locations an aura of authenticity, while Bill Thomas's costume design is striking and impressive work. George Duning's sweeping, melodic score is also of note, which brings additional drama to the proceedings.
'Toys In The Attic' boasts an all-star cast, headed up by Dean Martin as Julian, a role originated by Jason Robards on stage. Martin plays the character as a good natured, unlucky fellow who honestly tries to do the right thing. One of the warmest, most genuine figures ever in entertainment history, Martin's magnetic screen presence threatens at times to run away with the film; and is easily the strongest selling point 'Toys In The Attic' boasts. He delivers a towering performance of depth and emotional volubility, proving once again that he could handle dramatic roles with ease.
Co-starring as Carrie and Anna are Geraldine Page and Wendy Hiller, respectively. While Hiller masterfully underplays the role of Anna, Page goes rather over-the-top, over-doing the Southern accent and emotional volatility inherent to her character. Hiller, like Martin, steals the film with her natural approach, range and poise. Page minces around like Elizabeth Taylor from 'Hammersmith Is Out,' playing the role at such a heightened level that one wonders whether or not she thought the material was intended as parody. Yvette Mimieux also stars, as Lily; though leaves such a minute impression she may not have been there at all.
'Toys In The Attic' is a bit of a mixed bag at the end of the day, an obvious melodrama featuring elements both over-the-top and understated. Though Dean Martin and Wendy Hiller turn in powerful performances worth remembering, Geraldine Page and Yvette Mimieux unfortunately counterbalance their brilliance with their less than stellar efforts. Additionally, the dialogue is often ridiculously cliched and the narrative is essentially predictable and derivative. In short, 'Toys In The Attic' is a muddled drama featuring inconsistent playthings; some of which will provide you immense entertainment value, and some of which you wish never came out of the toybox.
De grønne slagtere (2003)
Marvelous Mystery Meats & Marinades
Svend and Bjarne are friends and butchers in a small village in Denmark. Eccentric characters both, they grow irritated with the tactics of their smarmy boss, Holger, deciding to establish their own meat emporium. On opening day, a freak accident involving an electrician leads to the birth of Svend's new delicacy, 'Chickie-Wickies.' The mysterious marinaded meat proves immensely popular, and the business thrives. However, the machinations of their former employer- as well as the arrival of Bjarne's twin brother Eigil- complicates matters, threatening to shutter the shop forevermore, in Anders Thomas Jensen's 'The Green Butchers.'
A raucous black comedy grounded in realism, 'The Green Butchers' is original, clever and wildly enjoyable. Jensen's second feature film, the story is unpredictable and darkly humorous, featuring much sharp dialogue and witty banter. Jensen's characters are majoritively finely drawn and believable, with Svend and Bjarne being especially well-rounded. Admittedly, some of the supporting ones dwell in the realm of caricature, most notably the cartoonishly fiendish Holger and Bjarne's brother Eigil. On the whole though, the narrative is bursting at the seams with originality and dark humor which will leave one amused; if not oft convulsed with laughter.
The film features cinematography from Sebastian Blenkov, whose work is striking and naturalistic. Blenkov and Jensen have worked together numerous times, and the results of their collaborations are always visually interesting. The utilization of lighting and color in 'The Green Butchers' is especially notable and effective, lending to the film an aura of unreality despite the grounded nature of Blenkov's approach. In conjunction with Mia Stensgaard's arresting production design and Jacob Wirth Carlsen's detailed set decoration, Blenkov's visuals have impact that will be felt long after the credits have rolled.
Another frequent collaborator of Jensen, editor Anders Villadsen's work on 'The Green Butchers' is consummate and swift. Running at a little over an hour and a half, the film has a steady pace that doesn't falter or drag, even in its' quieter moments- a testament to Villadsen's impressive efforts. Additionally, Jeppe Kaas's soundtrack is atmospheric, making productive use of pieces by Wagner and Kai Normann Andersen, among others. Kaas's original score is muted and melodic, giving the film supplementary power and tone. Also of note is Malin Birch-Jensen, Morten Jacobsen and Charlotte Laustsen's work involving makeup (and relative effects), which is of a particularly high quality.
'The Green Butchers' stars Mads Mikkelsen as Svend and Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Bjarne and his brother Eigil, respectively; and each turn in a strong performance. Both Mikkelsen and Lie Kass have appeared in every one of Jensen's feature length directorial efforts, and the three obviously have a great working relationship; as their collaborations always make for worthwhile viewing. Here, Lie Kaas shows off his range, both as a straight man- Bjarne- and as a comedic foil- Eigil- impressing with his composure and depth. In fact, one might have assumed that it was two actors playing the roles and not just Lie Kass; so different does he make the twins from one another.
One of the most versatile actors of his generation, Mikkelsen once again impresses here as the neurotic, slightly seedy and thoroughly strange Svend. He is an actor without pretension and of great sagacity and ability, one who transforms himself completely for roles, and always convinces. In 'The Green Butchers' he plays the arrogant but introverted character expertly, coming across as utterly believable, somewhat pitiful and oddly sympathetic. It is a role few could pull off as effortlessly as Mikkelsen; nor could many make it as affecting or as entertaining.
In short, Anders Thomas Jensen's 'The Green Butchers' is a fine, funny and dark comedy that has a lot to offer viewers. Boasting a sharp screenplay full of witty, amusing dialogue and offbeat sequences, the film rockets along at a steady pace, providing many laughs along the way. Featuring two terrific central performances from Mads Mikkelsen and Nikolaj Lie Kaas, strong visuals from Sebastian Blenkov and an emotive Jeppe Kaas score; 'The Green Butchers' is a marvelous movie about mystery meats, murders and marinades that will leave viewers hungry for more.
Architecture & Immorality
Ben is a charming, witty go-getter fond of architecture, poetry and murder. A brutal serial killer, Ben is followed by a film crew who document his vicious spree of violence and barbarity. Initially they just shoot the proceedings, though as time goes by, the crew begin to take a more active hand, helping Ben torture and maim. Before long, the lines between subject and documenter are irredeemably obscured, with the crew fully in Ben's thrall. Their story escalates to a fever pitch of black comedy and savagery that will leave you thunderstruck in the audacious, wild and original 'Man Bites Dog.'
Written, produced, directed by and starring Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux and André Bonzel, 'Man Bites Dog' is sleek, highly entertaining and not for the faint of heart. Shot on a shoestring budget, the film impresses on every level. The narrative is unpredictable, sinister and full of pitch-black humour and raucous dialogue. So funny the film is, it plays at times like a Christopher Guest led reimagining of 'Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,' and is just as strange, dark and comical as that sounds. It is a very clever, frantic and tongue-in-cheek mockumentary that contains some truly unforgettable, uncomfortable moments of violence.
'Man Bites Dog' opens with a frenzied, fiendish murder on a train and never lets up, containing some genuinely distressing sequences that will give one pause. The thesis the filmmakers are operating under seems to be that visual media- television and movies- corrupts and makes complicit its audience in whatever is occurring on screen. The crew following Ben succumb to his wiles and find themselves perverted by his depravity, as do we the viewing audience. We like Ben, despite his cruel and inhuman machinations, therefore are willing participants in his spree of turpitude. It's powerful cinema, with an interesting message at its core.
The bulk of the production was undertaken by Poelvoorde, Belvaux and Bonzel, and their efforts are impressive. A visually arresting watch, 'Man Bites Dog' is shot by Bonzel, and his cinematography is artful and of great clarity. Shot in black and white, the movie has a heady atmosphere that evokes film noir, and Bonzel's work with light and shadows produces some striking results. Not once do the budgetary constraints show through the visuals, and one will assuredly remember the images from 'Man Bites Dog' long after the credits have rolled.
The sound design is also impressive. For whatever reason, oftentimes student filmmakers do far more impactful and interesting work with sound than big studios and Hollywood heads. Think of 'Eraserhead' or 'Tetsuo: The Iron Man,' and how the cranking, wheezing worlds came alive through the sounds of the picture. 'Man Bites Dog' features similarly notable aural design and effects, which adds to the atmosphere and helps legitimize the world Ben traipses through on his intemperate journey. Additionally, the editing- done by Belvaux and Eric Dardill- is swift and intuitive, tying the whole film together nicely and establishing a steady pace, ever building in intensity towards the explosive finale.
'Man Bites Dog' stars Poelvoorde as Ben, serial killer and cultural commentator extraordinaire. His performance is fascinating, commanding and frighteningly hilarious. An arrogant, callous character, Ben is a startlingly realistic cinematic creation: a droll, murdering sociopath who loves the limelight, the sound of his own voice and dominating those around him. Poelvoorde's intense performance is incredible, he makes the character somehow likable and deplorable at the same time, whether waxing lyrical about architecture or discussing how best to drown a dwarf. The film justly kickstarted his career as an actor; as his is a supremely rare and versatile talent put on show to great effect in 'Man Bites Dog.' Though his supporting cast all perform admirably- Belvaux in particular- Poelvoorde towers above them; rendering further comment supererogatory.
'Man Bites Dog' is a brilliant, highly entertaining mockumentary that is original and affecting both. Featuring an unpredictable story, assured and noteworthy visuals and a spellbinding lead performance from Benoît Poelvoorde, the film is anything but ordinary. It is a highly charged, violent film that may not be for everyone, but for those who appreciate the dark and the abstract it's a must watch. OMD once released an album called 'Architecture & Morality'; with 'Man Bites Dog' Poelvoorde, Belvaux and Bonzel have created a fantastic film of architecture and immorality.
A Curious, Crazy Cocaine-Comedy
It's interesting how risqué and bawdy some Hollywood, silent-era comedies made before the invention and adoption of the Hays Code were. Topics like sex and drug use were free for parody on the silver screen, which the strict so-called morality guidelines imposed by the Code made impossible to explore. What was filmed in 1920 could get one fined or fired for shooting in 1930. 'The Mystery of the Leaping Fish' is one such film, a Rabelaisian comedy from 1916 that would have never made it past the censors only fourteen years after its' release.
Directed by John Emerson and written by Tod Browning, 'The Mystery of the Leaping Fish' follows narcotic enthusiast Coke Ennyday, a scientific investigator à la Sherlock Holmes. Drugs are Ennyday's wheelhouse and driving passion; he does so much cocaine he makes Scarface look like Little Orphan Annie. The stuff makes him the astute criminal catcher he is, and the police chief asks Ennyday to investigate a suspicious wealthy gentleman recently arrived in town. This takes the detective to the seaside, where he engages in madcap, stimulant fuelled antics as he tries to solve the mystery, get the girl and save the day- as well as the dope.
The film is raucous, wild and a little rough around the edges. Browning's meandering, absurd tale features bizarre scenarios and crazy moments that often border on the facile or immature; though generally provide laughter nevertheless. The film parodies the Holmes and C. Auguste Dupin style of detective softly- this is not biting satire by any means, merely some good-natured ribbing. The capers Ennyday gets involved with are of a predictable variety, though feel somewhat fresh due to the cocaine angle.
Though running at less than half an hour, the film loses steam at the midway point, with the result being that the latter half drags somewhat, feeling underwhelming in comparison to what came before it. However, on the whole, it is enjoyable; even if the narrative is slightly inconsequential and anticlimactic. Full of sight gags, drug jokes and physical humour, 'The Mystery of the Leaping Fish' plays like a Jacques Tati farce by way of a hop head's fever dream. It is not particularly inventive or impressive comedy, but will surely still entertain.
Shot by John W. Leezer, the film has a clarity of composition that is most striking. There are many intriguing optical effects at play throughout 'The Mystery of the Leaping Fish' - such as the reversal of footage- which are still impactful even today. Additionally, the set decoration is of a particularly high quality. The film's locations are packed to the gills with detail, with Ennyday's office being especially intricate and filled with amusing features and props. The costume design is also of note, with Ennyday's bandolier of needles being most memorable.
Douglas Fairbanks heads up the cast as Coke Ennyday, and the role is an unusual and welcome change of pace for the star. Though he appeared in a variety of comedies, Fairbanks never played a character quite as broad or as over-the-top as Ennyday. His performance is a charmingly excessive, expressive one, making the detective a drug-addled delight of ostentatious proportions. Fairbanks would later disown the film and his contribution to it; but he performs strongly and will surely make you laugh.
'The Mystery of the Leaping Fish' is a bizarre silent movie that is easy to enjoy. It is not a particularly well-written or daring comedy, no; but it is an amusing one featuring a wacky central character that is certainly enjoyable, if not unforgettable. Boasting a wild and crazy performance from Douglas Fairbanks, an assured visual style and detailed set design, the film has plenty of impressive aspects. It may not be the finest film ever made, but it is worth seeing; as 'The Mystery of the Leaping Fish' is a curious, crazy cocaine-comedy the likes of which they could never make today.
A Masterpiece of Minimalism
Murakawa is a mid-level Yakuza enforcer weary of the gangster lifestyle, toiling away his days in Tokyo. His superior orders him to Okinawa, ostensibly to settle a dispute with a rival gang in the area. Murakawa thinks the assignment is merely an attempt to have him taken out, though still makes the trip alongside his motley crew of ruffians. After their headquarters in Okinawa is bombed, Murakawa takes his men to the seaside, where they engage in childish games (with sinister undertones) in order to pass the time. All the while, Murakawa feels the cold hands of fate tightening around his neck, and just what that cruel mistress has in store for him remains to be seen in Takeshi Kitano's 'Sonatine.'
A masterpiece of minimalism, 'Sonatine,' is a powerful, quiet film that speaks volumes without the need for words. Written and directed by Kitano, the film parodies the conventions of gangster films whilst playing into them, showing how facile and vacuous the majority of them are. The film strikes the perfect balance between introspection and sudden, whirlwind action, containing no unnecessary moments, stylizations or lines of dialogue. It is an economic, intelligently constructed movie that simmers steadily over its' runtime up to a terrific boil of violence, nihilism and existentialist depth.
'Sonatine' is oft compared to the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, in particular 'Le Samouraï.' Indeed, both films adopt a nihilistic attitude towards violence and feature long sequences containing limited dialogue. This allows the audience to experience the film's atmosphere and take themselves into the mind of the characters in a manner unfettered by extraneous noise. However, 'Sonatine' is less emotionally frigid than the work of Melville, and contains much humor; something nowhere to be found in Melville's movies. It is- on the whole- a far more entertaining cinematic experience; not to mention being a more rewarding intellectual one.
The film is shot by Katsumi Yanagishima, who worked on Kitano's previous efforts 'Boiling Point' and 'A Scene at the Sea.' Under Kitano's firm guidance, his cinematography is understated and naturalistic, producing haunting visuals that linger in the mind long after the credits have rolled. Kitano's films rarely if ever feature orthodox composition or framing of images, and the fresh, organic and off-beat approach to visuals in his movies is continuously striking and distinct. Yanagishima would go on to work on Kitano's next thirteen directorial features; though their collaboration on 'Sonatine' may still be their crowning achievement.
'Sonatine' features the work of another frequent collaborator of Kitano's: composer Joe Hisaishi. His score is beautiful, mournful and melodic; drifting through the film like a euphonious wind. There are few partnerships 'twixt composer and director as fruitful in cinema, perhaps only that of David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti comes close. Hisaishi's work is muted and evocative, adding unquestionable power and depth to the proceedings. Hisaishi worked on seven of Kitano's films, and never once was his score anything other than mellifluous, pure and unobtrusive; as it is in 'Sonatine.'
Additionally, the film boasts a commanding central performance from Kitano as Murakawa. Few have a presence on screen as towering, magnetic and quietly confident as Kitano. He performs with an unabashed ease and an unmatched stillness; seeming like a silent Cheshire cat without the grin, noting the proceedings around him with prescience and irony. His Murakawa is a composed man capable of extreme brutality, one tired of his existence and all too used to the grind and violence of life. Kitano fully becomes this character in so subtle a manner some might think he isn't doing anything at all; the highest compliment any actor can be paid.
His supporting cast features many talented performers working at the top of their games, most notably the great Susumu Terajima and the late Ren Ôsugi; both frequent collaborators of Kitano. Here, Terajima stars as Ken, one of Murakawa's underlings, delivering an assured performance of depth and wit. Ôsugi is equally outstanding, playing a smaller role as an associate of Murakawa's named Katagiri; though still impressing with his range and naturalness.
Takeshi Kitano's 'Sonatine' is a brilliant crime film of the ascetic variety that is unforgettable and unique. On every level, the movie impresses, from the excellent performances by the cast to Katsumi Yanagishima's striking visuals and the stirring score from Joe Hisaishi. It is- for lack of a better term- the thinking man's crime film, as it contains moments of profundity and silence that would no doubt put many off or leave them clamoring for more action. In short, 'Sonatine' is a memorable, mature masterpiece of minimalism from an original, incomparable auteur. If you haven't seen it before, watch it now; 'Sonatine' is not to be missed.
Incident at Loch Ness (2004)
Conquistador de la Mockumentary
Visionary director Werner Herzog has explored innumerable landscapes throughout his career, from the wilds of Africa to the jungles of South America and the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. His latest project 'Enigma Of Loch Ness' takes him to the Scottish Highlands, where he plans to examine the myth of the Loch Ness Monster. Alongside him, a documentary crew- led by intrepid producer Zak Penn- film the proceedings as 'Enigma' goes into production. Though Herzog steadfastly disbelieves in the legend of Nessie, it seems that under the waters of the Loch something is stirring; something which may doom both productions to the cinematic shallows.
'Incident at Loch Ness' is a funny mockumentary that satirizes the documentary format, as well as the public persona of the great Werner Herzog. Zak Penn's directorial debut, the film humorously portrays the notion of cinéma vérité as a Sisyphean ideal, also showing how the sensationalist machinations of producers and moneymen can hamper the filmmaking process. Though occasionally the jokes feel a tad on the nose and the narrative loses some impetus in the latter half; the comedy comes fast and frequent, and will assuredly have you laughing throughout.
As will the caricature the film offers of Werner Herzog. Playing into and sending up his reputation as a profound, determined, borderline obsessive eccentric, the film's version of the director is not an over-the-top creation; more of a slyly, wryly heightened one (obviously written by someone with great admiration and affection for the man). Herzog's performance as himself is a masterclass in understated comedy. He exaggerates his mannerisms and style of speech subtly, never once verging into the overblown. The antics the film's Herzog engage in are madcap at times, but always played completely straight and in keeping with his established character, and his dialogue is consistently comical. It is a delight to see Herzog play such an amusing version of himself, and you'll surely remember his performance fondly.
Less impressive are the supporting characters, both in terms of writing and performance. While the central figure of Herzog is amusing, the ostensible co-star of 'Incident at Loch Ness' Zak Penn is considerably less so. His caricature as a desperate producer insistent on cliches and sensationalist tactics is a one-note, irritating creation, and Penn's performance as same is mediocre at best. The other characters are underwritten, so that talents like Russell Williams II and Gabriel Beristain are left with relatively little to do.
On the technical side, the film easily impresses. Like the best mockumentaries, such as 'This Is Spinal Tap' or 'Bob Roberts,' 'Incident at Loch Ness' doesn't overdo the technical conventions of documentary features, such as adding unnecessarily shaky cameras or grainy footage in an attempt to give the film a look grounded in realism. Instead, John Bailey's cinematography is reserved, professional and muted; in keeping with the actual style and look of documentaries. Abby Schwarzwalder and Howard E. Smith's editing must also be mentioned, as their consummate work adds to the effectiveness of the film's masquerade as truth.
Though it is not in the same league as 'This Is Spinal Tap,' 'Incident at Loch Ness' is a funny mockumentary centered around a cinematic giant that is easy to watch and enjoy. Featuring a great self-parodying performance from Werner Herzog and an assured visual style, the film has plenty to boast about; though it also has its' detractions. The supporting cast aren't particularly impressive and the narrative and its' characters are unevenly written. However, it's got plenty of moments that'll have you laughing, and for any fan of Herzog, it's a must watch. In short, 'Incident at Loch Ness' is something of a mixed bag; but one with treasures a-plenty for the discerning viewer.
Love & Pop (1998)
The Outskirts of Dignity
Hiromi is your everyday Japanese schoolgirl nearing the end of her time in high school. Her three best friends all have a direction in their lives and know what they're going to do next. Hiromi isn't so sure. In fact, all she's sure of is that she wants a ring; an expensive, bejeweled one. Alongside her pals, she engages in enjo-kosai, or compensated dating, in order to pay for it. For a while, things go smoothly, and she begins gathering the required cash. However, as Hiromi starts going on dates alone, she is exposed to the seedier, more perverted reality of life; from which she may never be able to escape.
Based on Ryu Murakami's story 'Topaz,' Hideaki Anno's 'Love & Pop' is an interesting, affecting movie that shines a spotlight on an uncomfortable aspect of Japanese society: the predilection among many for underage girls. For whatever reason, the mini-skirted, pig-tailed schoolgirl is an immensely popular image in Japan, on grounds both innocent and sordid. Much like Masato Harada did with his 'Bounce Ko Gals' one year before, 'Love & Pop' offers a disquisition on those attracted to the underaged, as well as criticizing the system of enjo-kosai as a dangerous one indifferent to the wellbeing of the girls involved. Additionally, the film could be seen as a critique of the rise of consumerism in Japan, and how anything and everything- even schoolgirls- are products that can be bought for the right price.
Anno's tale- written with Akio Satsukawa- is also a character study about a young person unsure of their future, which many will surely identify with. Hiromi does not have a particularly caring family; they aren't overtly aggressive, merely indifferent. She has no one to get advice from, bar her three school chums, and no real adult influence. Her descent into the world of enjo-kosai is a distressing one, but one that seems realistic and inevitable after seeing the lack of guidance Hiromi has in her life.
'Love & Pop' is shot by Takahide Shibanushi, and his cinematography is striking and unorthodox. Using handheld cameras, fish-eye lenses and shifting aspect ratios, his work gives the film a strange, otherworldly feeling- almost like it's some kind of bizarre documentary, or a dream. It also effectively highlights the eerie, sinister nature of the world of the enjo-kosai, and how Hiromi doesn't belong there. The stylizations may be overblown and gimmicky on occasion- such as the repeated use of a toy train as a dolly- but mostly feels fresh, original and most fitting for the story.
The film also features a fine, emotive score from Shinkichi Mitsumune. A composer who deals primarily with animated features, Mitsumune's work for 'Love & Pop' is reserved and mournful, whilst also being pleasing to the ear. Less impressive is Hiroshi Okuda's editing, which feels rather lacking and slapdash. Though the film has a good, steady pace, some scenes go on just that little bit too long, becoming awkward and losing impact. The film's tone is also hard to pin down, as the proceedings sometimes feel farcical (particularly in the first half), sometimes dramatic and then downright frightening near the end. It's a difficult one to define, but not abhorrently so.
'Love & Pop' stars Asumi Miwa as Hiromi, who plays the part very capably. Introverted, naïve and slightly self-centered, she is a profoundly realistic cinematic creation. Miwa is not afraid to make her ever so slightly boring, which makes her all the more real; and her unaffected, naturalistic performance is impressive. Of the supporting cast, Toru Tezuka and the great Tadanobu Asano stand out most memorably. Tezuka plays Uehara, a seemingly harmless creep who takes Hiromi to a video store, and Asano plays the mysterious Captain E, an eccentric who may not be as benevolent as he initially appears. Both men give intense, unsettling performances that linger in the mind long after the credits have rolled.
Hideaki Anno's 'Love & Pop' is a strange, sad film about loneliness, perversion and a young girl in trouble. Featuring a fine screenplay from Anno and Akio Satsukawa, the film is as unpredictable as it is affecting (even though the editing could be tightened up a tad). With strong performances from the cast and stylish visuals from Takahide Shibanushi, 'Love & Pop' is an insightful trip to the outskirts of dignity that is unpretentious, unnerving and unforgettable.
A Morose, Meanspirited Melodrama
A lyric written by the great Bryan Ferry repeatedly came to mind whilst watching 'Blonde' and thinking of director Andrew Dominik: "why in the world are you so cruel?" Based on the novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates, Dominik's 'Blonde' purports to tell the story of Marilyn Monroe, warts and all; but really just exploits her and her legacy in a tawdry, pretentious and unnecessarily meanspirited fashion. The film is one note, melodramatic and uncomfortable to watch; a long, winding, needless "biopic" that insults the icon at its' centre- as well as the viewing audience.
Everybody knows Marilyn Monroe; she is an icon whose image still pervades popular culture. She gave brilliant performances in some terrific films, 'Some Like It Hot', 'The Misfits' and 'The Seven Year Itch' to name but three. She was a pin-up girl and a sex symbol, a curvaceous, buxom blonde men wanted to be with and women wanted to be. She was beloved, the biggest star of her time; though the spotlight can be a terrible place to find oneself. Watched from all angles and at all times by leering fans and media men, she assuredly had a tough life lacking in privacy or dignity; and was almost certainly taken advantage of. To say she had mental health issues is probably not out of hand. All in all, she's a character whose life and image is ripe for adaptation.
Dominik's version of her story, though, is pitifully, painfully inaccurate, indecent and repetitive. His Marilyn is a naïve, wide-eyed bundle of insecurities and mental illnesses, who not only can't stand up for herself; but also doesn't seem particularly talented. Dominik's story reduces Monroe to little more than a walking sex-conduit, dwelling not on her artistic achievements or abilities, but on the fictional abuse the director makes the character suffer again and again throughout the film. Dominik subjects the audience to scene after scene of assault, with no relief until the end credits; so that the viewer leaves the film weary, depressed and lacking faith in humanity.
Why did Dominik decide to make Monroe's life so unremittingly miserable? Why does he drag through the muck the likes of John F. Kennedy and Charlie Chaplin Jr, portraying them as brutish cads? Why couldn't there have been a few scenes of Monroe enjoying her fame, or having a nice, quiet time with Arthur Miller, without the continued hammering home of the point of abuse and cruelty? Dominik clearly thinks that the film has immense power, and is commenting on the male gaze in an intelligent manner. It really isn't though; it's pop-psychology that a five-year-old could elucidate upon more eloquently. Additionally, the dialogue never rises above the quality of a soap opera, and is so overblown, pretentious and stilted that it'll actually make you snigger with disbelief.
Chayse Irvin's cinematography is also problematic. He has no natural style or approach, producing haphazard, tiring and excessively stylized visuals. One moment, the film is in black and white, then it's in colour; while the aspect ratio seems to shift from second to second. Irvin also throws in random point of view shots that add absolutely nothing to the film. Additionally, Adam Robinson's editing is loose, which makes the narrative muddled and fragmentary. Time in 'Blonde' means nothing, so that one minute Monroe is married to Joe DiMaggio, making 'Some Like It Hot' the next, then carrying Arthur Miller's baby. It is confusing- unnecessarily so- and Robinson must take some of the blame for his work is mediocre.
'Blonde' has a score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, two fine musicians who seem to have forgotten the phrase 'less is more.' Their synthesised soundtrack distractingly dominates scenes, occasionally obscuring lines of dialogue. The sound mixers may be more at fault than Cave and Ellis, but even if their score was played at the right volume; it wouldn't impress. The songs sound like B-sides from the last Bad Seeds album that Cave couldn't come up with lyrics to. There is one particular piece by the name of 'Nembutal' that stands out from the rest- and not for a good reason. Any fan of 'Twin Peaks' and Angelo Badalamenti will immediately recognise it as sounding uncannily like 'Laura Palmer's Theme,' making one wonder how impactful the soundtrack could have been had Badalamenti gotten the gig.
Which brings us around to Ana de Armas, the star of 'Blonde.' It was never going to be easy to cast Marilyn Monroe (though 'Twin Peaks' Sherilyn Fenn would have been terrific back in the 90's) and de Armas is not the obvious choice. She is an actress some rave about, though this reviewer doesn't think she's been particularly impressive in anything yet; and certainly not in 'Blonde.' She plays Monroe as a one-note naïf with constant doe eyes, on the verge of exploding into tears at any and every moment. Her accent is also a problem. Many say she sounds just like Monroe, and those people need to get their hearing checked. Monroe had a breathy voice; de Armas sounds out of breath. Also- and don't even bother trying to deny this- de Armas's Cuban accent is strong, distracting and thoroughly un-Monroe.
All in all, de Armas's performance comes across like a half-hearted impression done by some vaguely disinterested waitress at the Jack Rabbit Slims from 'Pulp Fiction.' She isn't abysmal, but it's not a piece of acting to be lauded; nor is it an accurate portrayal of Monroe (who, one might add, is notoriously easy to impersonate). There are a few bright lights from the supporting cast, but they're tragically underused- Adrian Brody and Bobby Cannavale most notably. The rest tend towards overacting; with Xavier Samuel's smug performance as Charlie Chaplin Jr being particularly offensive and monotonous.
Andrew Dominik's 'Blonde' is an odious, distressing melodrama that is over-long and over-blown; a smutty, pretentious cesspit attempting to rewrite the story of a cinematic legend. If you are a fan of Marilyn Monroe, please don't watch the film; it'll just infuriate you. The screenplay is full of trite dialogue, bland characters and unnecessarily brutal sequences that make Eli Roth's 'Hostel' look positively life-affirming. Based on a work of fiction but calling itself a biopic, 'Blonde' is an extremely long and incredibly cruel film powered by pop-psychology of an Oedipal variety that would make Freud shudder. It is- in short- a morose, meanspirited melodrama that will surely make you miserable.
Hard To Watch & Impossible To Ignore
It is the late 70's and the borstal system is in full effect in England. To one such institution a young man by the name of Carlin is sent. Though ostensibly there for reform and education, the brutality of the place and its inhabitants (wardens and inmates alike) is more conducive of violence than rehabilitation. Facing daily beatings and constant subjugation, Carlin soon realises that he must rise up the pecking order if he wants any kind of respect or security, and that the best way to do that is through thuggery. Whether or not Carlin will conquer the borstal, or be destroyed by the place, remains to be seen in Alan Clarke's uncompromising, unforgettable 'Scum.'
'Scum' is a cutting treatise against borstals and those who ran them, which must have shocked audiences when it was released. It was not until the passing of The Criminal Justice Act of 1982 that borstals were officially shuttered across the UK, so the film was a most contemporary excoriation in 1979. Clarke had actually filmed 'Scum' two years earlier, for the BBC'S Play For Today series. It was deemed too unremitting for television, so it was rewritten, the same cast (largely) were assembled- as well as a new crew- and 'Scum' was reshot and released as the full-length feature discussed here now.
'Scum' is a tough film, one that is immensely affecting and unpredictable. The tale is bleak and harrowing, full of uncomfortable moments of persecution and ferocity. Written by Roy Minton, the story portrays the system of borstal to be a deeply flawed one that does more harm than good, led by brutes and disinterested stooges who believe that mercilessness is a positive attribute. The children have no hope of amelioration when trapped in that vicious, defunct system. The savagery they engage in is a barbaric but understandable, inevitable cry of frustration against the detachment and callousness with which they are treated.
The film is shot by cinematographer Phil Meheux, who has worked on movies ranging in quality and subject matter from 'The Long Good Friday' to 'Beverly Hills Chihuahua.' His work for 'Scum' is strikingly natural and gritty. He captures the starkness of the institution and its grounds with his documentary-style camera work masterfully, reinforcing the aura of cold nastiness which surrounds and envelops the inmates. Mike Porter's unembellished production design must also be mentioned, as it is understated work that is most notable, making the locations look lived-in and true-to-life. Additionally, Michael Bradsell's tight editing keeps the film running smoothly at a fast, even pace; ever building in intensity towards an explosive finale.
The great Ray Winstone stars as Carlin, delivering an intense, towering performance that is captivating and frightening both. One of his first acting roles, he performs with an ease and power unmatched by the rest of the cast, dominating the movie completely. Never once do you feel that Winstone is acting on screen, he inhabits the character of Carlin as if by birth-right. Playing him like a young Richard III and Reggie Kray combined, Winstone showcases seemingly boundless depth, energy and ability; leaving an indelible impression on the viewer.
Winstone's supporting cast don't let him down, each and all delivering strong performances, with a few particularly of note. Mick Ford plays a fellow inmate named Archer, who believes in pacifism, and Julian Firth stars as another, the introverted, ill-fated Davis. Both impress with their emotional range and perspicuity. John Judd and Philip Jackson star as two of the wardens, both playing sadistic egocentrics with real verve and panache. Judd is especially sinister, and his seedy grin will no doubt linger in the mind long after the credits have rolled on 'Scum.'
Uncompromising and unforgettable, Alan Clarke's 'Scum' is a powerful piece of cinema that holds a mirror up to society; reflecting back a cruel, cold and very real vision of life in the borstal system. Featuring strong performances all round- including a commanding central one from Ray Winstone- as well as striking visuals, the film impresses on nearly every level. It is shockingly violent and sadly realistic, making it hard to watch; but also thoroughly impossible to ignore.
The Late Shift (1996)
Carnage & Conflict In The Cutthroat Business of Show
It is 1991 and rumors abound that Johnny Carson will soon retire from hosting The Tonight Show. It is clear to the NBC executives and decision makers that there are only two men in the running to replace him: David Letterman and Jay Leno. Both men want the job, and have their winning qualities: Letterman is Carson's personal favorite, considered a more adventurous comic talent and something of the heir apparent. Leno, on the other hand, skews to a wider audience and is easier for the executives to manipulate. A bitter business battle erupts over who will take over the show, full of seedy behind the scenes machinations and corporate backstabbing; presented for your viewing pleasure in Betty Thomas' 'The Late Shift.'
Based on Bill Carter's non-fiction book of the same name, 'The Late Shift' is a fascinating, informative and entertaining peek behind the show-business curtain at a very turbulent time in television history. The narrative is tense and thrilling, exposing the cutthroat world of T. V in a satirical way which recalls Sidney Lumet's 'Network,' while still adhering to the facts. The film also features well-rounded versions of many real-world figures, from Letterman and Leno to Warren Littlefield and Michael Ovitz.
The film's versions of Letterman and Leno are particularly interesting and multi-faceted. The screenplay takes a stab at explaining their reasons behind wanting The Tonight Show, and tries to show us the 'real people' behind the entertainers. Ed McMahon used to joke that whenever he was approached by fans, the first question he was asked was always "what's Johnny Carson really like?" While the film can't and doesn't show us what Letterman and Leno are really like- or Carson, for that matter- their cinematic caricatures as written seem to be close enough to the real thing as to be memorable and impressive.
On the other hand, the dialogue often drifts into the expository, and some moments feel melodramatic; particularly those of a confrontational nature. Mac Ahlberg's cinematography is nothing to write home about either, appearing flat and dull. While it is a T. V movie- and therefore one's expectations should be lowered when it comes to visuals- there's no excusing generic work. On this point, the prosthetic make-up used for Leno is distractingly amateur in appearance, making the character look quite ridiculous and cartoonish.
Daniel Roebuck's performance as Leno is less ridiculous, but still rather cartoonish. Setting aside the awful make-up, Roebuck hasn't got Leno's voice right, and sounds like a bad impressionist on the Howard Stern show. He says his lines with conviction but without Leno's speech patterns or timing. Additionally, he plays the man as if he were a little slow; which seems a bit of a strange choice. As time goes by, you settle into the performance somewhat, and Roebuck isn't terrible; he just doesn't deliver a notable or accurate interpretation of Leno.
With John Michael Higgins, it's a different story. He is pitch-perfect as Letterman; he's got the voice, the look and the mannerisms down flawlessly. It is arguably one of the finest, most accurate portrayals of a real person ever in film. He plays Letterman as a work-obsessed, slightly neurotic hypochondriac- but one with charm and wit a-plenty. The film may be slightly biased towards Letterman, and chances are you will be too after watching it; due in large part to Higgins' commanding performance.
Of the supporting cast, Kathy Bates and Treat Williams must be mentioned. Bates plays Leno's manager, Helen Kushnick, a manipulative, vicious businesswoman with no morals and a mouth like a sailor. She is terrific, giving a wild performance that justly won her a Golden Globe that year for Best Supporting Actress. Williams plays Michael Ovitz- a sleek agent who takes Letterman on as his client- and is brilliant; smooth and calculated like a coiled, corporate cobra ready to strike. Of note to some may be Rich Little, who does a cameo as Johnny Carson, which is thankfully brief, as it is embarrassingly, jarringly inaccurate.
'The Late Shift' is an interesting, informative made-for-T. V-movie concisely recounting the infamous Late-Night Wars of the early 90's. Featuring fine performances from the likes of John Michael Higgins and Kathy Bates, the film rockets along at a brisk pace, providing entertainment all the way. While Daniel Roebuck's performance as Leno and the cinematography leaves a bit to be desired, the film is still wildly entertaining; showing us the dog-eat-dog world of showbusiness in a clever, frank way. In short, 'The Late Shift' is a made for T. V gift.
Dare mo shiranai (2004)
Unaffected, Unwavering & Unique
A woman by the name of Keiko moves into an apartment with her son, Akira, smuggling in her other three, younger children so the landlord doesn't know of their existence. Some weeks go by, and the mother meets a man. She goes off with him and doesn't return for many months, leaving twelve-year-old Akira in charge of the household. He struggles to care for his family, barely scraping by with what little money his mother left. Somehow, he manages to do it with no serious ramifications. Keiko eventually returns, but it's not for long, and young Akira is forced once again to take up the mantle and look after his siblings; though this time it will be a much more difficult and lengthy process, with far more devastating results.
Hirokazu Koreeda's 'Nobody Knows' is a powerful, poignant drama based on the infamous Sugamo child abandonment case of 1988. The film is quietly affecting, telling the simple story of how Akira is forced to act like an adult to his siblings, trying to keep them safe and sound while being but a child himself: a Sisyphean task if ever there was one. Koreeda's screenplay is free of unnecessary sentiment or pretention; it is direct and unflinching, exploring many themes, the importance of parenthood being but one.
Koreeda's story is honest and emotionally charged, with minimal dialogue and layered characterization that is full of vivid believability and depth. The audience cares deeply for Akira and his siblings, as well as understanding- if not liking- Keiko and how she could leave her family for so long. It is masterful, understated screenwriting that will really hit home. Koreeda's best films explore humanity and connection, how everybody needs somebody sometime (to paraphrase the Dean Martin song). 'Nobody Knows' does too; to great effect.
It is worth mentioning that- in addition to writing and directing- Koreeda also acts as his own editor, so the tone and pacing is consistent from page to screen. The film moves at its' own pace, which is reserved but steady; ever-forging onwards towards the dramatic conclusion like a soldier in the snow. Also of note is Yutaka Yamazaki's restrained and naturalistic cinematography. His work is subtle and assured, resulting in images captured both with clarity and an artistic sense of space and composition. Yamazaki and Koreeda have worked together numerous times, with their collaborations usually resulting in striking, visually inventive films that one remembers long after seeing them. 'Nobody Knows' is another notch on their proverbial shared belt.
An old showbusiness adage goes "you should never work with children or animals," which is proven to be complete poppycock when one witnesses the efforts of the remarkable cast in 'Nobody Knows.' Yûya Yagira stars as Akira, delivering a captivating, masterful performance of integrity, profundity and subtle emotional perspicuity. Yagira is a brilliant performer, who can transmit emotions and say much- near incomparable in intensity and eloquence- with his physicality and through his silence. He was only thirteen when the film was shot and Yagira shows more intelligence and depth than most actors four times his age. He is a remarkably intuitive and natural actor who is fascinating to watch; and the power of his performance will have you frequently in tears while watching 'Nobody Knows.'
His siblings are played wonderfully by Ayu Kitaura, Hiei Kimura and Momoko Shimizu, with Shimizu particularly impressing as the youngest child Yuki. Yukiko Ehara- better known as You- plays the mother, Keiko, and is perfect for the character. You doesn't play her as totally selfish, more as a young woman whose life raising children alone isn't what she wanted, and is desperate for things to change. She brings to the character much depth and charm; despite being slightly incorrigible. Rounding out the main cast is Hanae Kan, who plays a school-girl Akira befriends. She makes for a welcome addition to the film, and delivers a strong performance to boot.
Hirokazu Koreeda's 'Nobody Knows' is a sad, quiet film about abandonment that will move any with heart strings left to tug. Featuring powerful performances from the cast- especially the young Yûya Yagira- and striking cinematography from Yutaka Yamazaki; the film is not easily forgotten. Poignant, profound and powerful, 'Nobody Knows' is unaffected, uncompromising and unforgettable cinema.
The Ruling Class (1972)
A Fabulous, Frenzied Farce
After the 13th Earl of Gurney succumbs to a fatal autoerotic asphyxiation incident, his mentally unbalanced son Jack inherits his position in the aristocracy. Jack, believing himself to be Jesus Christ incarnate, pledges to use his family's wealth and influence for the good of mankind. His philanthropic ideals displease his relatives, who plot to oust Jack from the estate so they can continue to enjoy the quality of life to which they'd grown accustomed. For everyone involved, however, things will get increasingly complex, as Jack's unhinged psyche is near breaking point; and his family's machinations may just push him over the edge.
Based on Peter Barnes' play of the same name, 'The Ruling Class' is a wildly amusing, madcap movie. Directed by Peter Medak- and with a screenplay from Barnes himself- the film shows us a comedic portrait of a man fully enveloped by madness, while skewering the British class system in a sharp, entertaining way.
Combining broad comedy with barbed, witty dialogue- as well as a dose of gallows humor- the film is sure to make you laugh. In the latter half, there is a tonal shift, and 'The Ruling Class' gets considerably darker; but is no less enjoyable. While the continued treatise on the aristocracy does seem a little one-note at times, and some of the jokes fall rather flat; the story is mostly inventive, bizarre and fiendishly humorous.
On the technical side of things, 'The Ruling Class' is a mixed bag. Ken Hodges' cinematography isn't awful per se, it's just uninspired; a little drab. There are some fantastic images in the film, but Hodges doesn't capture them with any sense of fun or style. Hodges and Medak worked together on Medak's debut feature 'Negatives,' and their collaboration on that project yielded infinitely more interesting and affecting results. Additionally, Ray Lovejoy's editing feels loose and inconsistent, with some scenes going on far too long and others feeling positively brisk in comparison; leaving the pacing erratic and irregular.
Also of issue is John Cameron's overblown score, which is exhaustingly energetic. While there are a couple of effective pieces, his arrangements are the antithesis of subtle work, and they actually rob a few scenes of power and impact. On a more positive note, Ruth Meyers' costume design is striking, with her outfits for Jack being especially notable and grand. Tim Hampton's production design is superb all round, and the locations consistently look marvelous on screen.
'The Ruling Class' boasts a cast that any fan of English movies will go cock-a-hoop over, featuring the likes of Graham Crowden, William Mervyn and Kay Walsh; all performing at the top of their games. Alastair Sim and Arthur Lowe both have small but meaty roles as an eccentric bishop and a butler, and Harry Andrews makes the most of his all too brief scene as the 13th Earl; delighting with his outrageousness. Coral Browne also impresses with her turn as Jack's aunt, a comically duplicitous wench if ever there was one.
Peter O'Toole dominates the movie, though, giving a performance of alarming intensity and boundless comedic skill. As Jack, he is insanity personified, a lunatic of monumental proportions. O'Toole brings the over-the-top role to life so naturally and effortlessly you forget he's acting, and that the man himself hasn't snapped. He carries the film, and it is hard to imagine anyone else playing the part- or, indeed, the film working had he not been cast. It is a towering performance of immense strength and depth that is genuinely unforgettable (and quite frightening, from time to time).
'The Ruling Class' is a terrific movie that combines pointed satire, broad humor and witty dialogue, with results that are sure to please. The film boasts a large cast of talented actors giving it their all, as well as a powerful central performance from Peter O'Toole that is mesmerizing, macabre and memorable. Though 'The Ruling Class' may get a little frantic in places, and the cinematography is nothing to write home about, it is always entertaining and utterly unique: a fabulous, frenzied farce.
White Star (1983)
Full of Sound & Fury, Signifying Nothing
It is the early 1980's, and Ken Barlow is a has-been music producer eking out a living in Berlin. Barlow was once somebody, aeons ago he managed The Rolling Stones (or so he says). Now, he has few prospects, throwing his lot in with an up-and-coming New Waver by the name of Moody Mudinsky. Barlow believes Mudinsky is the future- or says he does, anyway- and the weathered producer is determined that the kid make it big- at any cost. In order to gain publicity, Barlow goes down a dangerous road, staging riots and other violent stunts that leave him ever-circling the rim of career-ending oblivion, as well as threatening to derail Mudinsky's career before it even takes off.
Roland Klick's 'White Star' is a muddled, hectic joyride of a movie. Klick's screenplay- written with Thilo von Arnim and Karen Jaehne-Lathan- lacks interesting characters, natural dialogue or any memorable scenes to speak of. On top of that, the writers don't seem to have spent any time in the music industry, as their work is hollow and based on caricature, reflecting a lack of knowledge- or a lack of interest- about the subject matter. It is an underwhelming melodrama masquerading as a gritty slice of life, full of overblown sequences that are so inept and camp one may think the film is a parody, like some kind of 'Spinal Tap' for the Punk Rockers. It isn't though, and the narrative's mediocrity is frankly close to unbearable at times.
On the plus side, Jürgen Jürges' cinematography is striking. He captures the decrepitude of the Berlin streets with real panache and style, highlighting the seedy underbelly of the town masterfully. His naturalistic work was similarly effective in films like 'Christiane F' and 'The Last Days Of Childhood' at showcasing the cold reality of the German landscape of that time. It is unostentatious work that lingers long in the mind after the credits have rolled- in fact, it surpasses the film itself in terms of quality and memorability.
The same can be said about star Dennis Hopper's performance as Barlow. As is well-documented, for a time, Hopper was essentially living in a world of his own. Fuelled by copious amounts of drugs and alcohol, he spent decades in a narcotic stupor; making films and acting to varying degrees of quality and levels of coherence. For every great film like Wim Wender's 'The American Friend', that benefitted from his drug-addled improvisations, there were lesser films that didn't, the impact of which he hampered by overacting and going off script. Then, there were the truly uninspired movies that had very little to offer in the first place but another wild Hopper performance; 'White Star' falls into this third category.
As Barlow, Hopper is like a simmering pot of water on a rickety stove: you feel at any moment all hell could break loose. As in 'Apocalypse Now' or the aforementioned Wender's flick, much of Hopper's dialogue was improvised, which in this case helps the film immensely. His wacky, train-of thought monologues make the film entertaining, while his crazed appearance and over-the-top demeanour make his character worth spending time with. Barlow the character is dull as written, but Barlow as played by Dennis Hopper is a madcap, marvellous cinematic creation.
The performances from the supporting cast are less laudable. Terrance Robay plays Moody Mudinsky, and gives a performance so wooden you'd swear he was carved out of balsa. That he never acted in another film is a testament to his abilities on screen; which are nil. David Hess has a small role he tries to make the most of, though the character is severely underwritten; and in the end of the day there's little he can do with it. The rest of the cast aren't worth speaking about, as they leave no impression whatsoever- good or bad; which is almost worse.
'White Star' is not a successful film by any means: the script is awful, the direction is lazy and the soundtrack is so boring as to be unmentionable. For all the narrative's noise, riots and violence; it's simply rather dull. However, it's also not a travesty, due practically entirely to star Dennis Hopper's performance, which is wildly entertaining and captivating in its' intensity. Even with the joys of Hopper though, the film is mediocre and ultimately apt for a line from Shakespeare: 'White Star' is "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
Koi no tsumi (2011)
The Decline & Fall Of A Japanese Housewife
A barbaric murder occurs in a love hotel district of Tokyo, and Kazuko Yoshida leads the investigative team, her story interweaving with that of Izumi, the wife of a renowned writer. Izumi leads a banal existence of no excitement, constantly at the behest of her exacting husband. Trying to break the monotony, she gets a job, where a modelling agent spies her beauty and naivety. Izumi is then lured into the world of pornographic modelling, and soon is deep inside the underground sex industry, surrounded by degenerates and curs. A woman named Mitsuko takes Izumi under her wing, but whether or not Mitsuko's plans for Izumi are honorable- and how their story links in with Kazuko's- remains to be seen in Sion Sono's 'Guilty of Romance.'
Inspired by the infamous Yasuko Watanabe case, 'Guilty of Romance' is a hard-hitting, sinister drama that is quite depressing and absolutely riveting. Sono's tale paints a portrait of a profoundly sad, lonely woman trying to find a sense of agency in her life, and how she is ultimately corrupted and exploited by a society built on self-interest and full of vacuous cads. It is gritty and devastating, though it must be said that the latter part of the film gets rather muddled and contrived.
The simple poignancy of Izumi's tale is slightly obscured by all the sound and fury of the second half, full of twists and turns that feel unnecessary and trite. That said, the film as a whole is still powerful, and at close to two and a half hours; it's not surprising that 'Guilty of Romance' lags in places.
Cinematographer Sôhei Tanikawa and Sono have worked together numerous times, their collaborations usually resulting in striking visuals that one remembers long after seeing them. Such is the case with 'Guilty of Romance;' it is a neon-soaked feast for the eyes. The use of colour in the film is particularly effective and artistic, as well as Tanikawa's work with light and shadow and the composition and framing of images on screen. Tanikawa's efforts add unquestionable power to scenes, and is very memorable.
Jun'ichi Itô's editing is restrained but alert work, he allows scenes play in their own time, but doesn't let things drag out. The film also benefits from Chiyoe Hakamada's costume design, which is understated and evocative. The clothing she designed for Mitsuko is particularly strong, with the outfits adding depth to the character and suiting the dual sides of her personality perfectly. Also of note is Yasuhiro Morinaga's muted score, which is dramatic and atmospheric, lending to the proceedings a tragic air most in keeping with the subject matter.
'Guilty of Romance' has a cast all performing at the top of their games. Megumi Kagurazaka stars as Izumi, giving a multi-faceted, subtle performance both alluring and affecting. She portrays the character as she undergoes a remarkable change from naïve housewife to grande horizontale masterfully, remaining sympathetic throughout. It is a brave performance many others couldn't pull off, and Kagurazaka does it with an enviable, enrapturing ease and grace.
Makoto Togashi co-stars as Mitsuko, an incredibly complicated and dangerous woman, delivering a performance of great intensity and strength. She is frankly terrifying at times, and is clearly enjoying playing such an unhinged character. She imbues Mitsuko with much depth, however, making her a believable creation, as well as a frightening one. Not in the film until roughly the halfway mark, as soon as Togashi is on-screen she draws your attention and keeps it held.
Miki Mizuno also stars, as the policewoman Kazuko, and though her story is less interesting, Mizuno performs well, leaving an indelible impression on the viewer. From the supporting cast, Kanji Tsuda and Ryûju Kobayashi stand out, giving two strong performances as Izumi's husband- who has his own secrets- and a seedy pimp with a fondness for pink paint, respectively.
'Guilty of Romance' is a dark drama that is difficult to watch in places, but always captivating. Though the story loses steam in the last act, the power of the narrative is not overly hampered. Strongly acted and featuring striking visuals from Sôhei Tanikawa, it is an experience not easily forgotten. The film may be guilty of having a weak last act and a bad title, but on all other charges it is innocent; apart from the charge of being powerful, absorbing cinema. Of that, it is guilty on all counts.
The Brood (1979)
The Cronenberg Guide to a Healthy & Happy Family
Nola Carveth is a patient at the Somafree Institute under the care of Dr. Hal Raglan, a leader in an experimental form of therapy known as 'psychoplasmics.' Frank is Nola's estranged husband, who is battling for custody of their child Candice. Nola gets angry and her mental illness makes her unstable around the child. Meanwhile, a strange series of gruesome murders begins, with the victims all knowing the Carveths well. Deciding to learn more about Dr. Raglan and psychoplasmics himself, Frank begins to investigate, finding himself at the center of a mystery that will change his life irrevocably, in David Cronenberg's 'The Brood.'
'The Brood' is full of the blood, body horror and disturbing images that one would expect of a Cronenberg venture. It is tense and brimming with macabre thrills, chills and unsettling scenes. That is not to say the film is without dramatic or intellectual power, because 'The Brood' has more to offer than your average wild and weird horror. A comment about the effects of child-abuse and mental illness in conjunction with parenting and guardianship is being made through Cronenberg's partially autobiographical screenplay, one that is slightly obscured by the violence around it.
Although the murders add another dimension to the story, they take away from the atmosphere of quiet intrigue surrounding Raglan, the Carveths and the Institute; as well as diminish the power of the aforementioned subtle commentary about mental health and abuse. While they serve a purpose and are important to the plot, something a little less sensationalist would have been more in keeping with the eerie tone established early on in the film. In short, the psychological horror elements are fantastic, while the elements of physical horror seem lacking- or even rudimentary- in comparison.
Less rudimentary is Mark Irwin's cinematography, which is striking and stylish work. The pairing of Cronenberg and Irwin is like that of David Lynch and Frederick Elmes: a fruitful partnership with artistic leanings that has resulted in some visually stunning movies. 'The Brood' is a cold and beautiful looking film, with Irwin's use of space and his chosen composition being especially significant. He and Cronenberg made six films together; each one is texturally rich, undeniably impressive and memorable in terms of visuals.
As in most Cronenberg flicks, special effects and make-up is of tremendous importance to 'The Brood,' and Allan Cotter's work does not disappoint. He creates such disturbing, pulsating creatures and attachments that one with a weak stomach may want to forgo the film entirely. His work is on show primarily in the latter half of the film and will leave an indelible impression on the viewer- for better and for worse.
Composer Howard Shore has worked on sixteen Cronenberg films, with 'The Brood' being his first and 2022's 'Crimes of the Future' being the most recent. Shore's work in 'The Brood' is eerie and evocative, though often mournful and mysterious. It is music that helps inform scenes of tone, but never in an overly grandiose manner. For the film, Shore has created subtle, melodically pleasing compositions that linger in the mind long after the credits have gone up and the cinema is empty.
The performances from the cast are also memorable and strong, with Oliver Reed particularly impressing as Dr. Raglan. Reed had a screen presence like no other, with his remarkable calm and brooding intensity, he instantly draws the eye and keeps its' attention. Due to his reputation as a hellraiser, he received relatively few interesting roles or films from the mid-70's onward, and the ones he chose to do generally wasted his immense talents. Cronenberg doesn't let Reed's skills go to waste, and the actor turns in a powerful, reserved performance that will be remembered fondly by any who see the film.
Art Hindle and Samantha Eggar star as Frank and Nola, facsimiles of Cronenberg and his first wife Margaret Hindson. Both deliver strong performances, though Hindle fades into the background somewhat; one gets the feeling that many other actors could have played that part. Not so with Eggar, she is intensely assured and captivating, making Nola the epitome of the unhinged housewife. She is like a black panther on a moonless night, alluring, understated and unquestionably deadly. It is a fine performance of no vanity that'll be remembered and appreciated for as long as cinema lasts.
'The Brood' is a strange, intense horror that contains delicacies of an intellectual and of a visceral kind. Featuring gory scenes and body horror a-plenty, it also explores the topics of mental health and abuse in an informed and measured way. Cronenberg's direction and screenwriting is impressive, while he makes the most of talented actors like Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar; extracting from them fine, subdued and deeply affecting performances. While it is not perfect, 'The Brood' is an interesting, entertaining film that offers a lot more than your average slasher. If you like your movies on the dark side; it's one you're going to love.