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Recent reviews

A Fantastic Fear of Everything review

Posted : 11 years, 3 months ago on 5 January 2013 06:22 (A review of A Fantastic Fear of Everything)

This is a film that I find to be both charming and frustrating. It’s the story of a writer having a cataclysmic breakdown as he attempts to segue from children’s literature into more adult fare. Unfortunately his research on his desired topic, serial killers of Victoria Britain, has created in him an acute phobia of being murdered. The film starts with this writer, Jack (Simon Pegg), already in a state of turmoil and proceeds from there.

It’s got a claustrophobic, shambling, energy that almost immediately puts you into Jack’s head. If the film is successful at anything it’s in creating a truly fevered, and frenzied, state and maintaining that for the majority of its running time. There are occasional buoys of sanity, but for the most part we’re stuck in Jack’s headspace. As such the film is often not particularly pleasant, with the claustrophobia and atmosphere becoming so thick to become almost vicelike.

At these moments the film’s saving grace is its energy and direction. It feels at times like a bizarre mixture of THE MIGHTY BOOSH and Pegg’s collaborations with Edgar Wright. Although truth be told despite it’s at times maniac energy it veers closer to BOOSH than Wright’s movies (it doesn’t have the sheer control of focus of Wright’s movies for one). The film is populated with cutaway and moments of barely lucid surrealism and it is at times exhausting. Whilst Pegg is good in the main role he’s not a strong enough force to completely ground the whole endeavour and as it such it feels at several times like the film is massively going off the rails. It’s keeping with the tone of the film, but it also doesn’t feel particularly planned. As such it’s hard not to come away with the feeling that first time directors Crispian Mills and Chris Hopewell don’t have sure enough hands as directors. Which is a shame because there are moments of the film that are fantastic.

In fact one of the main frustrations of the film is that it’s jam packed with great, indelible, moments that are almost throttled by the cumbersome husk of the film as a whole. It’s a real curate’s egg and the effect after a while is to bring to mind a sketch show rather than a cohesive narrative. But when the film works, it WORKS, and that is where the frustration comes in. Because it’s a film that is wrong footed by its own ambition and own desire to try new things. When the film allows itself to go off on some narrative diversion it really comes to life and gains a sense of playfulness that is missing from the main narrative. Sure the moments where it tells a tale via the medium of stop motion animation are a refreshing change of pace, but they’re also memorable because they feel more fully formed and coherent than the main story.

In fact the main narrative really only kicks into gear within it's last ten or fifteen moments, where an outside force finally pierces the self inflicted misery of the first two acts. In fact the last act is perhaps the moment when the film really has any consistency and it's largely because it gives Pegg a chance to interact with other people and become a part of an ensemble.

At the end of the day it feels like a director’s workshop come to life and some of the results are absolutely fantastic, it’s just a shame that the film is hung around the hoary old cliché of a writer having a nervous breakdown. It feels completely played out and means the main narrative is particularly difficult to invest in.

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Moonrise Kingdom review

Posted : 11 years, 3 months ago on 3 January 2013 05:06 (A review of Moonrise Kingdom)

I’m an unabashed Anderson fan. Love everything he’s done from RUSHMORE to FANTASTIC MR. FOX. He’s a director who has never disappointed me and even the film I liked least by him (DARJEELING) easily found its way into my top ten for that year. However amongst my friends Anderson was a hack and as such I found myself very much alone in my appreciation of his work. As such when those same friends came back from MOONRISE KINGDOM with nothing but praise I was concerned. You see I liked the stuff that Anderson was criticised for. I loved his aesthetic, I loved how constructed his worlds were, I loved how Anderson framed things. I even, due to my own circumstances, found myself continually moved by Anderson’s continued exploration of father figures as a central theme of his work. But these were all things that my friends criticised and as such I was expecting to find a more compromised film from Anderson. As such I held off on watching the film for a long, long time.

When I actually watched the film I was delighted to find it was just as much in Anderson’s wheelhouse as his other movie. I think maybe having the film be specifically a period piece and be specifically about children allowed people to accept Anderson’s usual style. I will admit the focusing on two kids, both embarking on their first ever romance, makes Anderson’s picturebook style feel a lot more natural than it normally would. It could also be that after the relative break that FANTASTIC MR. FOX presented they were just ready to accept Anderson’s style.

It also helps that Suzy and Sam are probably some of the most likeable lead characters that Anderson has ever had. Still the outsiders, still hopelessly self absorbed, but their age and the performances really help to get away the inherent unpleasantness that lurks within most of Anderson’s characters. They’re damaged, but salvageable. In many ways Suzy and Sam is like looking at the beginnings of some of Anderson’s older characters, watching the pivotal moment that would shift them into people like the grown up Tenenbaums, Zissou, or the brothers on the Darjeeling Limited. Whilst there’s an ambiguity to the end of the film, it seems to represent a path that leads to earlier happiness than most Anderson characters get.

This is probably my second favourite Anderson film, just behind THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, and whilst that will probably change once immediacy has worn off I was overjoyed watching it. It’s such an amazingly put together movie, with a rhythm and energy that Anderson hadn’t had since THE LIFE AQUATIC and an extended cast that could go toe to toe with the extended Tenebaum family. There are so many great little roles and characters in the film that it’s really hard to single some out, although it is nice seeing Ed Norton being playful with a role. He’s so great with lighter stuff, but so focused on more serious work, that I always forget how great a comedic touch he has. It’s also nice seeing Bruce Willis properly engaged by a material, even if he does play a little broadly and thus remind me uncomfortably of BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS. But the heart of the film is the two kids and they benefit from a focus that, for Anderson at least, is almost razor sharp. It’s such a perfect essaying of young love and of the period that I’d assume it was drawn from their own experiences if it wasn’t for the fact the 1965 setting dates it about half a decade before either Anderson or his co-writer Roman Coppolla were born.

There's such a great attention to detail to such odd little touches, like the overly elaborate Noah's Ark production, that it feels way more lived in than a fictional setting should. But that's the heart of Anderson I feel, his tics and offbeat choices actually granting a sense of verisimilitude to events that are inherently ridiculous.

So yeah, loved this. And I even loved the odd narrator guy, particularly his breathlessly dramatic which introduces the storm that rocks the third act of the film. It’s an offbeat choice but I really, really, loved it.

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Killing Them Softly review

Posted : 11 years, 6 months ago on 26 September 2012 05:56 (A review of Killing Them Softly)

I adore Andrew Dominik, CHOPPER is just stupendous and THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES is my favourite film of the 00s. As such I was very much excited for KILLING HIM SOFTLY. As such I’m kind of conflicted about the film, because I think from any other director I’d view it as an absolute slamdunk, but as a follow up to THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES it feels at times kind of perfunctory.

That isn’t actually fair, for it’s first hour the film is amazing, it just deflates in its last half hour and ends on a resolution which I’m not sure about. The ultimate resolution feels earned and is perfectly keeping within the tone of the film, but it happens so switftly and mercilessly that I was left wondering what the overall point of the film was. Set just before the 2008 election, and littered with news excerpts dealing with the economic downturn, the film seems to be largely about individualism vs. groupwork and how that synchs up with the modern America. It’s a point that is kind of hammered home through discussions between the characters and through a fairly lengthy monologue towards the end of the film. As such whilst there’s an obvious theme that the film is going for, the plot sort of exists to facilitate that theme. This is something that Dominik did with both his previous films (CHOPPER was more a character study than anything else, whilst THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES used plot as one of many tools) but in KILLING THEM SOFTLY it feels jarring. This is largely because the Elmore Leonard style setup and sheer volume of dialogue throughout the film grounds it in a way that the more ethereal ASSASSINATION wasn’t. As such you’re left wanting a satisfying resolution to the plot, rather than theme.

That isn’t to say the film isn’t good, it’s borderline brilliant at times, playing with mood and tone with an amazingly deft touch and showing some directorial flourishes which should be hokey but which are executed which such command that they actually become kind of jaw dropping. The first hour of the film is great, and it largely benefits from a razor like focus on a small selection of characters.The first half of the film largely deals with a trio of small time criminals and their plans to rob a card game. The continued focus on these characters, and in particular the focus on the two actual robbers Frankie and Russell, buoys the first act even when the film is dumping information. It helps that Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn have great chemistry. Mendelsohn in particular (who was so great in ANIMAL KINGDOM and so ridiculously wasted in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES) manages to make what should be a sketch of a character actually work. He really brings a sense of history and persona to a character who is largely a cipher and his camaraderie with McNairy is fantastic. It’s when the film moves away from these two to focus on an ensemble cast that the film sort of loses its way, Brad Pitt sort of flits in and out of the picture at will and whilst he is great it’s hard not to shake the feeling that this is something of a vanity project for him. Pitt’s character, Cogan, has very little to do other than wax lyrical and be exceptionally proficient at what he does. He’s like some streetwise sage, who happens to be murderously efficient.

Pitt isn’t the problem, but having the film be framed as so in awe of his character sort of robs the film of an actual protagonist as the Frankie and Russell sort of disappear into the background during the second act. The introduction, late on, of Gandolfini doesn’t help either as his scenes are essentially monologues in all but name and need some kind of pay off that never comes. Essentially by the time the third act roles around we’ve become so disconnected from Frankie and Russell that it doesn’t really matter what happens to them.

Which is a shame because the film is Great, it just feels like it’s missing something to make all the elements work together. When the film is working it feels like a stablemate of JACKIE BROWN, when it’s not it feels closer to THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU’RE DEAD.

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Harakiri review

Posted : 11 years, 7 months ago on 25 September 2012 09:02 (A review of Harakiri)

It’s getting quite irritating now with these Samurai Films, as I keep seeing new films which trump my last ‘best Samurai Film I’ve ever seen’ recommendation. While I still hold to the virtues of Sword of Doom and Samurai Rebellion, Harikiri is better on just about every level.

Essentially telling the story of how a conman Ronin was forced to commit Seppuku in the most horrific way possible (with suitably nasty demonstration of how to disembowel oneself with a bamboo sword), Harikiri is a full forced attack on the notion of Samurai honour.

The story, largely told in flashback, is delivered by a half starved and haggard ronin named Hanshiro Tsugamoto (played with a wonderful melachonly by Tatsuya Nakadai). Originally appearing as if he just wants to commit suicide on the ground of the Iyi Clan it soon becomes apparent that he has a vested interest in the forced suicide. What emerges is a battle between humanism and the samurai code as Tsugamoto attempts to explain what drove the young ronin to sell his swords and attempt to con the clan.

Beautifully filmed and staged Harikiri is chock full of graceful moments which really cement Kobayashi as one of Japan’s best directors. The few action scenes, while not spectacular in a traditional sense, have a wonderful sense of realism and vitality to them.

Just a wonderful movie.

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Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai review

Posted : 11 years, 7 months ago on 25 September 2012 09:00 (A review of Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai)

"I was merely living my life.....waiting for spring"

A ronin appears on the estate of a powerful lord and asks for the honour of committing ritual suicide on the estate to regain some of his lost honour. The lord hears him out, and casually explains how conmen have used such demands in the past to coerce money from landowners and lords. He then explains how a ronin had tried this con previously, and how they had brutally enforced the young ronin's suicide.

Spoilers for both movies abound;

Takashi Miike's remake of the 1962 samurai classic Harikiri is an odd sort of duck. I absolutely adore the original film and as such I was kind of fascinated by how one of my favourite working directors would approach the material. Kobayashi's original is a seminal piece of work, emotionally devastating, layered with social commentary and bouyed by a central performance from Tatsuya Nakadai which is almost unmatchable. Miike's film hits all the story beats of the original, but in taking the story from a slightly different perspective creates a different tone. The films are, mechanically, far more similar than I first assumed they would be (my initial assumption upon hearing that Miike was remaking the film was that it would have a far more exploitative, punchy, sort of tone). The basic plot of Harakiri is about a man fighting against an overwhelming institution, an organisation far more powerful than any one person, with an outcome that is depressingly obvious. Kobayashi was a master of these sort of movies in the 1960s (indeed many of the great samurai movies of the 1950s and 1960 deal with the inherent corruption of the Samurai system and the doomed efforts of individuals to survive within those confines, in fact this tone was so rampant that it sort of became something of a default setting for more modern samurai fare), whilst Miike had dealt with very similar tonality in some of his gangster movies (at least the ones that didn't include dwarf executions, tempura torture, and bullheaded god visitations).

But whereas Kobayashi's film railed against the Samurai system in general, his movie deeply politicised and his emotional gut punches largely institutional rather than personal, Miike's film is about the destruction of a tight knit family. A lot of the political stuff is moved to the background, and the film becomes less about the abuse of institutions in general and more about one specific family that has been wronged. As such the movies operate on different emotional spectrums. Kobayashi's movie bristles with a sense of injustice whilst Miike's film is about a man who has been wronged. One of it's key final lines, which I started this post with, perfectly surmises the tone of Miike's film. It's a deeply personal tragedy, felt acutely due to the time Miike spends with his characters. Kobayashi's film takes place in a large and grand world, where the events play out on a much grander scale, Miike's film almost macro focuses on his core characters and in doing so turns the story into a family tragedy rather than political spiel.

These changes in tone come from differences in structure and presentation. Kobayashi's film presents it's narrative as a back and forth conversation between the samurai and the lord, the events of the past relayed stacatto in numerous flashbacks. Miike's film breaks the film into two distinct flashbacks, with the present day events serving more as bookends than as a continued narrative. This change alone is important as Kobayashi's film uses this odd pacing to general build a sense of loathing and claustrophobia, the rites and rituals of the clan laid out over almost an hour of screen time. Miike's film gets to the business of its major catalyst within the first half hour, and the horror of the younger ronin's suicide reverberates through the rest of the film. From that point on Miike's film plays as arch tragedy, whilst Koyabashi's film builds into a righteous fury. The denouement of both films feeds off these two styles. In Kobayashi's film his central character engages the lords men viciously, wounding several and killing four, before finally being killed attempting seppuku. Miike's finale plays out similarly, but his lead character adopts a defensive posture. Wounding only one man, and killing none, before lowering his guard and allowing himself to be cut down. The tonality of the endings are therefore massively different, with the lord in Kobayashi's film quickly acting to cover up the event, whilst the lord in Miike's film looks to be visibly shaken by what has transpired.

With absolutely glorious cinematography (the snow drenched finale is spectacular) and a beautiful score by Ryuichi Sakamoto Miike's Harakiri is a surprisingly reflective, empathic movie, the perfect stablemate to the original.

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Black Hawk Down review

Posted : 12 years, 2 months ago on 1 February 2012 08:12 (A review of Black Hawk Down)


Whilst I don't think that's the central thesis that Ridley Scott wants you to take from BLACK HAWK DOWN it's kind of hard to take any other view from it. Sure it has the occasional moment where it tries to portray the Somalians as actual human beings, but 99.8% of the film casts the native residents of Mogadishu as essentially Urak-Hai. A ravening, almost unseen, horde of violence and destruction which rushes in on the American forces like a tidal wave of hatred.

Whilst it's easy to find this approach to be a little unsettling when dealing with real life events that happened not two decades ago there is a purity of vision to the film that is almost commendable. It's not attempting to tell a balanced account of what happened on that day, it's trying to get into the heads of the soldiers involve and really explore the idea of brotherhood under fire.

It's essentially TOP GUN for a modern audience and I'd be surprised if the film didn't convince a whole bunch of people to join up with the military after seeing it. Whilst the film attempts to portray the horror and carnage of warface, Ridley Scott is almost unable to completely commit to it and as such the savagery of combat becomes almost operatic in his film. Bullet casings fall to the ground in slow motion, explosions glower with malevolence, military equipment sheens like it was forged by the gods themselves whilst Hans Zimmers pounding score fills the air with chugging guitars.

It's a film completely lacking in subtlety, evidenced by its entire second and third act being devoted to one sprawling firefight, but it's endearingly unsubtle. Completely unconcerned with tact and diplomacy and more interested in deifying the men on the ground. It's Triumph of the Will with less Triumph and a lot more ohh-rahh.

But amidst the ooh-rahhiffic nature of the film are surprisingly well drawn characters, who you're engaged by, played by a relative who's who of upcoming talent. Watching it in 2012 almost makes the film more star studded than its initial release and there's something giddily satisfying about watching a film where Tom Sizemore is the veteran lynchpin actor. With its focus split between dozens of different characters its hard to pin down any real stand stars of the film, but Sizemore, Eric Bana and William Fichtner pretty much demand your attention whenever they're on screen. Bana in particular delivers the kind of performance that makes you rue and lament his eventual settling into the supporting character role as the guy is legitimately amazing whenever he's on screen.

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy review

Posted : 12 years, 7 months ago on 16 September 2011 07:03 (A review of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)

This is the sort of film that thaws over time, which takes a while to find any kind of emotional or humane core. That’s not a disparagement against the film, it is just something you have to accept about the film and it’s plotting.

It is actually a function of the narrative; the film’s main protagonist is largely dispassionate about the plot himself largely due to the circumstances he finds himself. George Smiley is a man who has been removed from his position and is just settling into forced retirement when he is called upon to lead an investigation into his former colleagues in the British Intelligence Agency. Smiley is a frosty kind of character, analytical and shutdown, and the plotting largely follows this characterisation with the first act told in very precise, very detailed, and emotionally fleeting terms.

It’s the sort of opening that makes you pore over the entire frame and every bit of dialogue because every scene is loaded with information. Even divorced from the central mystery the narrative of Smiley dredging up the past and coming to terms with a new vanguard of colleagues he can’t connect with is really well done and Oldman sells it completely and effortlessly. It’s kind of amazing how old and tired Oldman comes across in this film, especially considering the youth and vigour in both his Commissioner Gordon and Sirius Black. But whilst Oldman plays Smiley as old he definitely doesn’t play Smiley as infirm, in fact there’s a quiet energy and intensity to Smiley which is kind of amazing the few times that Oldman reveals it. The supporting cast are all absolute aces as well despite their limited screen time. In fact out of a cast that includes Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Gary Oldman, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Ciaran Hinds it’s the three younger actors (Hardy, Strong and Cumberbatch) who flesh out their characters the most.

Hardy is great as a mercenary intelligence agent who has been on the run for an almost a year after a botched operation, bringing a world weary edge and agitated intensity to the film. Strong has limited screen time but quickly constructs a great, forlorn, presence. Benedict Cumberbatch however is the real standout. Whilst he isn’t a protagonist he gets a lion’s share of screen time and some of the real honestly emotional moments of the film. He’s also something of an audience identification figure as Smiley is a little too removed and opaque for us to really get into his mind and Cumberbatch makes his few suspense scenes work brilliantly. What makes Cumberbatch work is that he’s a very human figure in the film surrounded by characters who trade in icy indifference, because of this his concern for his own well-being becomes an almost character trait.

Tomas Alfredson, aside from a scene involving a gull which reminded me a little of the CGI cats from his earlier effort LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, directs the film with an amazing sense of aplomb. Whilst there’s nothing particularly flashy about his direction his longer cuts, sense of rhythm, and dispassionate depiction of the fleeting moments of violence, really pulls the whole thing together. At times the frame almost feels a little claustrophobically tight, but his use of composition and just the general pacing of his editing and periods between cuts really helps to give a studious feel to the film. It’s the sort of film where its denouement feels oddly muted largely because Alfredson is more interested in the construction of a trap than the springing of a trap and it just feels to maintain the adult, intelligent, feel of the whole enterprise. It also means that the moments of genuine emotional revelation actually feel earned and actually feel powerful for it, because the film is so frosty and intellectual for the majority of its running time the moments when it breaks to examine the actual impact it is having on its characters are kind of astounding.

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The Long Goodbye review

Posted : 12 years, 7 months ago on 15 September 2011 05:56 (A review of The Long Goodbye)

I decided today to get into Robert Altman after realising I’d only seen McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Popeye by him. So I looked to see which films I had access to and this was the oldest film I could find by him.

Probably a bad start as I absolutely adored this movie, like loved it beyond all reasonable measure. I’m familiar with Marlowe as a character but only as played by Bogart and I never really got a feel for the character largely due to Bogart’s own personality sort of absorbing the role. Whilst Elliot Gould isn’t a direct match for the print Marlowe he feels a lot more authentic within the confines of this movie. He feels both a man completely out of time, he’s far more amiable and moral than any of the other characters, and also completely of his time, and how snarky and amiably disruptive he is. He’s essentially got the morality of a man from the 40s with the mischievous spirit of a counter-culture hero and it works perfectly.

I kind of love how brow-beaten Gould plays Marlowe, like life is just sort of collapsing in in him and it gives a nice through line to the various set-pieces and encounters which have a multitude of tones from the comic to the suddenly violent. Having Marlowe as essentially a straight man to the more offbeat and oddball supporting cast is just inspired because it anchors the film and sort of reinforces the notion of Marlowe as a permanent outsider.

I’m not a fan of John Williams but I love what he does with the score in this, just using the singular refrain and re-appropriating it throughout the film from radio-songs, to shopping muzak, to hippie chanting, to a mariachi band. It gives the film a sense of balance and stability and it allows the different off-kilter set-pieces to retain a sense of thematic cohesion. The film is full of so many great moments, but I kind of love the opening ten minutes as Marlowe sort of talks to his cat and goes out to get food. It’s a perfect microcosm of the film, presenting our amiable hero, the shifting style of the film, and introducing one of the major players and plot points.

It’s kind of amazing seeing Altman just completely control the tone of the film, balancing the general kooky field of the majority of Marlowe’s encounters with punctuated violence which reminds you that this really isn’t Marlowe’s world anymore and it all leads up to the final confrontation which is just shocking, largely because it’s the first time we really see Marlowe being proactive rather than reacting to a situation.

This is definitely going to become a personal favourite and it’s making me want to go back and start watching some of the more traditional film noir.

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Long Weekend review

Posted : 12 years, 7 months ago on 14 September 2011 07:45 (A review of Long Weekend)

This is just fantastic, just an absolutely brilliant, minimalist horror movie. I actually wound up hunting down the film because of NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD and despite knowing a little about the plot and style from that documentary I was still taken aback by how effective the movie is.

Essentially the movie is about a couple, Peter and Marcia, on a camping trip out in the middle of nowhere in Australia. The couple’s relationship is pretty much in ruins now, just the frayed remains of a miserable existence, and the trip seems to be drawing out all the resentment between them. Whilst Peter and Marcia desperately try to reconnect the landscape around them seems to broil with some unseen rage. In a lot of ways Lars Von Trier’s ANTICHRIST seems to be influenced by this film, but the chief difference between the two is that LONG WEEKEND seems to have a genuine cause and effect between the actions of the couple and the overall hostility.

We are constantly reminded of how destructive a force these two are by how they treat their surroundings. Running over a kangaroo in the first ten minutes, chopping down a tree just for the hell of it, destroying eggs. There’s a real sense of nature in a sense of revulsion about these two’s presence and it’s all represented quite unsubtly by a dead Manatee on the beach, which just rots and festers ominously whilst it’s young call out in the night like lost children.

There’s a real sense of unease to the film and it’s not just because of the mounting external tension, Marcia and Peter are at each other’s throats for the majority of the film and it makes scenes between them absolutely fraught. In terms of depicting how people actually are this is almost like a Ken Loach film in its unabashed realism, but that realism also means that it’s generally unpleasant watching these two slowly rip each other to shreds.

In fact I’d say this was a massively effective horror movie if not for the last twenty minutes which leaves Peter on his own and sort of overplays the mounting dread. This isn’t a particular subtle film but once Peter is literally running away from enraged woodland critters it is hard to keep engaged with the film, which is a shame because it is so fantastic until then.

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Kwaidan (1964) review

Posted : 12 years, 7 months ago on 13 September 2011 02:30 (A review of Kwaidan (1964))

This is my review from chud.com in 2007 you can find the original formatting here; [Link removed - login to see]

Kwaidan is an anthology based upon four short stories culled from the work of Lafcadio Hearn. The stories are from selected works, but two of the tales and the name come from his book Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things a collection of westernized versions of Japanese folk tales first published in the early 1900s.

The first story Black Hair follows a young Samurai as he deserts his old life and his wife in Kyoto and marries into a powerful family. Plagued by guilt and remorse he finds himself heading back to his old home in an attempt to make amends.

The second story The Woman of the Snow is about a young woodcutter who finds himself having to deal with a frost ghost after he seeks shelter during a particularly violent storm.

The third story Hoichi the Earless is about a blind singer who is coerced into performing to a rapt audience of ghostly warriors.

The final story In A Cup Of Tea concerns a guard who manages to anger a spirit inhabiting his drinking cup.

Expressionistic isn’t really a term that fits well with Japanese cinema, particularly the Japanese cinema of the 1960s. Whilst allegory and metaphor are rife in the chambara of the time, they are largely realist productions. Seething with rage, but maintaining a focused calm. This stoicism would become central to the tools of Japanese cinema itself, with an emphasis on factual constructions, divergence been relegated to anachronistic scores or unusual use of light and shadow. Certainly you wouldn’t’ expect the filmmaker responsible for two of the cornerstones of 60s Samurai Cinema (Samurai Rebellion and Hara-kiri) to evolve in such an unexpected way, especially when dealing with stories which are decidedly traditional.

In fact Masaki Kobayashi directing Kwaidan is almost as odd as his creative choices when making the film. Kobayashi (alongside Okamoto and Shindô) is an incredible director whom never got the western attention he deserved, perhaps due to the incredible output of contemporaries like Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and Ozu. His best work can be held alongside the work of Kurosawa as pieces of truly great Japanese cinema. It could be said that Hara-kiri and Samurai Rebellion are perhaps the greatest Samurai films to have ever been produced. Both are bitter and angry attacks on the establishment Samurai Rebellion and in particular Hara-kiri transposed Kobayashi’s earlier social commentary work onto the bones of a Samurai film. In doing so Kobayashi created two scathing indictments on the politics of both the Meiji era the film represented and the political climate he saw around himself. Taking a man with this much anger and allowing him to direct an anthology of moralistic and traditional Japanese Folk tales was a move that seems exceptionally impractical and yet produced incredible results.

The effect depends on Kobayashi’s technique, which is largely based around very rigid and very composed camera set ups. His languorous shots combined with Tôru Takemitsu’s unique and experimental sound production creating genuinely unsettling results and would lay the foundations for the slew of J-Horror films which emerged in the late nineties and early noughties. In particular the first story Black Hair is a ‘how to’ manual on making creepy Japanese ghost stories, seemingly the only noticeable additions to the formula between it and the likes of Ringu are liberal amounts of water and psychic explanations. Black Hair is interesting in that only the last few minutes could conceivably be called a ghost story. While the other three tales are undercut with the paranormal but Black Hair works like a psychological drama in which the supernatural gives the final twist.

Dispensing with narrative fat and dialogue Black Hair is incredibly lean. There are maybe a dozen lines of dialogue in the film, a narrator providing key information instead. The film concentrates on maintaining visual fidelity. Like everything in Kwaidan it is beautifully staged. Kobayashi’s eye for framing allows the sumptuous design and brilliant pastel colour scheme to engage the viewer so that only the basic narrative is needed. When the film switches to a traditional ghost story he uses sound to create a feeling on innate wrongness, his camera maintaining its usual disciplined style as musical cues are used to put viewers on edge. But ultimately the sparse framework of the film prevents a real connection from being created, it is easy to appreciate Black Hair on an aesthetic level, on an emotional level it is hard to care about the central character or his plight, largely because the production goes a long way to distance the viewer, artifice severing any attempts at humanity which the film makes.

The second film The Woman of the Snow adds more meat to the stylization, although once again it is rather slight. What Woman of the Snow gets right though is the visual style. Whilst Black Hair is beautiful to look at its very factual and formal in its staging, Woman of the Snow creates the expressionistic precedent which runs through the rest of the film. Using a bold and bright palette with lots of painted backdrops in lieu of exterior shots Woman of the Snow feels like a fairytale brought to life, a living breathing fantasy painting. It is chock full of moments of visual loveliness like eyes and lips painted into the backdrop and the use of dark hues to completely change the tone of a scene. It is also bolstered by the ever reliable Tatsuya Nakadai who brings a great deal of warmth to a character whom is essentially a cipher. The entire point of the film rests on his portrayal and despite not having much to work with (dialogue is still minimal in this segment) he manages to generate a great deal of empathy for his character and seems to have genuine charisma with his co-star Keiko Kihsi.

The Woman of the Snow is a kind of odd construction. The plot hinges on a conceit which would be more at home in Aesop’s Fables than anywhere else. Comparing the film to the short story reveals it to be a resoundingly accurate adaptation. Everything which happens in the short story happens in the screen narrative and the only additional scenes are just extrapolations from the main text (it is a testament to the films fidelity to the source that it is exceptionally easy to see where supplemental material has been added, in this case an additional scene with three peasants giving an overview of the film is so glaringly divorced from the rest of the film it is a wonder it got past the editing room). The morality of the film is easy to see, but the underlying message of the film seems peculiar. Without wishing to spoil things to much it is very odd to see a film where the message seems to be if you’ve been abused in the past you best keep quiet or you’ll suffer an even worse fate.

Avoidance or denial of an issue seems to be a central theme in the next film Hoichi the Earless. This sees a blind Biwa player lured away every night to recount the story of the last major confrontation between two samurai clans. Hoichi the Earless is without doubt the most arresting of the films, its running time and staging making it seem almost as if the earlier films are merely preludes. At a little over an hour long Hoichi has the longest run time of all of the films in the anthology and the level of care given to it suggest that is the core element of the film.

Everything about the production is incredibly grand, maintaining the fairytale quality of the earlier entries but expanding upon them to create an epic and fulfilling narrative. The first set piece is almost as thrilling as the two films which came before, a massive sea battle between two samurai clans. Keeping the same artificial style as the rest of the film the battle plays out against backdrops painted with a bloody sky, as dozens of boats drift toward each other, flagships clashing, and samurai jumping from vessel to vessel.

It is a genuinely awe inspiring scene and it perfectly captures the tone of the film, mixing traditionalism (which comes from the content and context of the scene) with the films anachronistic production. It is also the one scene in the film which really shows you where the art design influence has come from. The jump cut from the battle scene to the actual picture commemorating the moment is a visual link between Kwaidan and the Japanese art which inspired it.

Hoichi the Earless is both the most developed and the simplest tale in Kwaidan. The grand scope of the film allows for a far more traditional narrative and the kind of characterization which the earlier segments lacked. In terms of concept there’s nothing particularly new. It is just pure spectacle and style mixed with interpretations of traditional Japanese iconography and it proves to be a deeply satisfying concoction. It however segues into an end story which threatens to unravel the previous good work.

In A Cup Of Tea is introduced as one of many unfinished stories found by the author, and is without a doubt the most purposefully slight of all the tales in Kwaidan. Offering no ending, In A Cup Of Tea offers a beginning and an incomplete middle before it inexplicably cuts to the denouement of Kwaidan itself. The twenty five minute film is more of a showcase of ideas than anything else, chief amongst them being an expertly choreographed fight scene between the main protagonist and the shadows of his assailants. It has an odd ethereal quality to it, that is an obvious highlight in a film that has very little to say for itself.

Kwaidan succeeds as an artistic endeavor more than a movie; there are moments of true theatrical greatness, but as a piece of cinema it is far too reliant on spectacle to be truly affecting. However that spectacle is so beautifully conceived that it almost allows the film to coast on its visual richness alone.

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