Friday, March 11, 2011

Machiko (played by Machiko Ono) is a junior nurse working at a care home, but she herself is recovering from the death of her son and the burden of guilt her husband places on her, blaming her solely for their son's death. Under her care is Shigeki (played by débutante Shigeki Uda), an elderly man suffering from dementia and the death of his wife Mako some thirty years past. One day, while practising calligraphy, Shigeki notices that the characters of Machiko's name share characters with that of his dead wife's name and this sets him on a pilgrimage to her grave, unbeknown to Machiko, who is tricked into taking Shigeki on a drive for his birthday, where he escapes into the woods to find his wife's grave leaving Machiko to follow him.

'The Mourning Forest' is a somewhat perplexing film - it's often very subdued, sedentary and even jovial at the outset, but becomes thematically very heavy and much more melancholy as the film progresses, dealing with the grief both characters share and the redemption they seek. As they progress through the forest, their situations become reversed - Machiko, the care giver, has to rely on Shigeki, the cared for, and his insistence that he knows where he is going, but she becomes increasingly perturbed as the situation becomes more perilous and it falls to Shigeki to console her, offering cryptic advice that "running water will not return to it's source" which speaks not only of their immediate predicament, but of their individual personal losses.

I imagine some will have difficulty with this film. It doesn't offer much in way of explanation, many viewers even seem to miss the fact that Machiko is mourning a loss too, it requires a fair amount of patience for any sort of progression or pay-off and features a lot of symbolism and imagery that won't be apparent to non-Japanese viewers or those without an understanding of certain aspects of Japanese culture. For instance, the film's Japanese title translates to 'Mogari Forest', 'mogari' being a term to describe an ancient Japanese funerary ritual of temporary burial, while the number of years since Mako's death (thirty three) mark the time when Buddhists believe the soul of the departed travels to Buddha and the last chance for loved one's to say farewell.

Cinematically speaking, 'The Mourning Forest' features some wonderful cinematography and scenery, long, lingering shots of nature predominate much of the film when not directly following either character. However, when pointed at the characters the camera work often leaves something to be desired - shot in a shaky-cam documentary style, the camera moves far too much when centred on the characters and often switches between observing both characters, or presenting things from either of their perspectives. For a film that seems to seek to disengage itself from the need for exposition, this seems an unnecessary measure and the shaky-cam gives it an unwarranted amateur feel.

Overall I feel that 'The Mourning Forest' is at equal measures a beautiful and frustrating film. While I admire the director's decision to break from the need to explain every detail, this works both against and in the film's favour as at times it helps create a feel of intrigue and tension (especially towards the films latter stages) but it also makes the film somewhat impenetrable. However, for patient viewers who are happy to sit back and revel in the beautiful scenery and sedentary tone until the film gets around to explaining itself, 'The Mourning Forest' is quite a touching and sincere film with good performances from the lead actors and some arresting visuals.

The Killing Fields tells the real-life story of American journalist Sydney Schanberg (played by Sam Waterson) and his experiences as the last American journalist in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh as American forces flee in the face of Pol Pot's brutal Khmer Rouge regime seizing power. The first half of the film is an unhinged jumble of events as we follow Schanberg and his Cambodian assistant Dith Pran (played by Haing S. Ngor) in their attempts to report on the chaos that unfurls in Phnom Penh and show the outside world the real, unsanitised face of the war in Cambodia. However, as the Khmer Rouge party prepares to march on the capital American forces and civilians flee, but Schanberg is determined to stay despite the danger and convinces Pran to stay with him. As the situation further escalates Schanberg, Pran and the other journalists still in Phnom Penh find themselves isolated in the capital and at the mercy of the brutal Khmer Rouge. They hold up in the French embassy and although arrangements are made to evacuate the foreign journalists, the Khmer Rouge demand that all Cambodian citizens be handed over to them. Schanberg and his fellow journalists attempt to doctor a fake American passport to get Pran out of the country, but it's to no avail and Sydney is forced to abandon Pran to the hands of the brutal regime.

After the dizzying pace of the films first third, which is accompanied by a syth soundtrack that keeps the tension at a fever pitch at the best of times and veers too closely to awful-80's-syth territory at the worst of times, the second half of the film is a much more sombre affair as both men struggle to deal with their situations. Sydney, now back in the US, is convinced Pran is alive and sends letter after letter hoping to find some information as to his whereabouts, but is also struggling with the guilt he feels over abandoning Pran to his fate, while Pran himself is languishing under the savage rule of the Khmer Rouge. It's through his eyes and narration that we see the brutal crimes committed by Pol Pot's regime, as all traces of culture, learning and foreign influence are suppressed and eradicated, and it's through Pran's eyes which we see the titular Killing Fields that so shocked the world and where hundreds of thousands of innocent Cambodians met their deaths.

Despite the manner in which director Roland Joffé quite clearly often attempts to manipulate the viewer, tug at the heart strings, rationalise the Khmer Rouge's insanity and condemn American foreign policy in one fell swoop, the film never really feels too preachy or schmaltzy (except for the musical choice for the ending - Lennon's 'Imagine', really? Ugh) and that's largely thanks to wonderful performances from the lead actors. Waterson is brimming with indignant, righteous anger as the American journalist on a mission at the films outset, but paints a picture of a diminished, pained and guilt-ridden man by the second act. Haing S. Ngor on the other-hand provides a startling and powerful performance as Dith Pran that surely was accentuated by his own experiences in the Cambodian war where he lost his wife and child. Ngor won Best Supporting Actor for his role, and remains the only Asian man to have won the award to date. It was certainly well deserved as without Ngor's touching and emotive performance I seriously doubt that this film dealing ostensibly with the atrocities of the Cambodian war, but ultimately with themes of friendship and guilt would stand up to the test of time half as well.

Marco Bellocchio's 'Vincere' is a dark and powerful film that follows Benito Mussolini's rise to power through the eyes of his first wife, Ida Dalser, who was seduced and then betrayed by Mussolini as he abandoned her and their son on his way to becoming Italy's dictator, ultimately disavowing any knowledge of their existence. The film starts with a stylish and operatic punch as a young Mussolini (played by Filippo Timi) veers away from socialism to form the National Fascist Party, the narrative speeding through historical events at a steady pace for the first half hour, interposed with newsreel headlines and archive footage projected on screen in a manner reminiscent of Lars Von Trier's 'Europa'.

Abruptly the film shifts focus to Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) as she is forcibly separated first from Mussolini, then from her own son and finally from the outside world as Mussolini attempts to cover up any trace of their marriage and has Dalser committed to an insane asylum. Not only does this present a shift of perspective, but it's a stark shift in the film's tone too. Gone are the stylish and grandiose themes of revolution, seduction and upheaval, replaced by a tragic and startling performance from Mezzogiorno as her character descends further into mental illness.

Filippo Timi provides a frenzied and forceful portrayal of both 'Il Duce' and the adult version of the dictator's unrequited son, but it's Giovanna Mezzogiorno's career defining performance that steals the show, showing Dalser as strong, resilient and somewhat naive in outset, harrowed, resigned and on the very brink by the film's close. Mezzogiorno's role is somewhat allegorical of the film as a whole, as like Italian society Dalser too was seduced and subsequently betrayed by the charm of the fierce and intelligent Mussolini. Ultimately with 'Vincere' Bellocchio and his lead actors present a mature and thought provoking look at one of the most clouded stories of Fascist Italy's past with an uncanny sense of style and dramatic flair and punctuated by the film's wonderful classical score. Remarkable.

Red Desert (1964) by Michelangelo Antonioni

Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni's 1964 piece 'Red Desert' is, on the surface, a film that deals with the changing face of the world under rampant industrialisation, but far more than that it's a comment on alienation and human adaptability in such a society. Guiliana (played by Monica Vitti) is the wife of petroleum plant manager Ugo. She lives in a spacious, modern apartment with Ugo and their small son, but there's an undercurrent of instability in Guiliana's persona, a feeling of unease and angst that Monica Vitti exhibits in Guiliana's every action. Vitti's portrayl of Guiliana is one of a woman on the point of a nervous breakdown, always fidgiting, wringing her hands, looking at unease and full of angst and continually walking away from conversations, forcing others to follow her. The way her character hugs close to walls at every opportunity is allegorical of her need to be surrounded by friends, family and loved ones, claiming that she "is only ill when I'm alone". We find out that Guiliana had recently been in a car accident and had spent a month in hospital being treating for shock, but unbeknownst to Ugo, Guiliana isn't adjusting well after her accident, while her husband remains entirely oblivious. Into the frame comes Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris), an engineer friend of Ugo on his way to set up a new petrolium plant in Patagonia. Zeller is a quiet, reserved man who, like Guiliana, is visibly at unease with his surroundings, however his life and work afford him the luxury of moving from place to place, while Guiliana feels increasingly trapped in her existence. Inexorably, Zeller and Guiliana are drawn to each other, Zeller recognising a kindred spirit of sorts and Guiliana casting out a cry for help that only Zeller is capable of recognising. The fact that Zeller picks up on this and is continually drawn to Guiliana, despite her unstable, demanding behaviour, immediately points to his attraction to her, but it's only after acting on his attraction that Guiliana comes to accept her station and encounters her defining realisation; people aren't cured, they adapt.

But it's not just Guiliana's life she has to adapt to, it's her surroundings, beautifully brought to screen in what was, quite surprisingly, Antonioni's first foray into colour. With a telephoto lens to flatten the perspective, framing scenes purposefully out of focus and the use of disarming long-cut shots, Antonioni paints a bleached and chemical picture of post-war Italy, an Italy that expanded into an industrial super-power at an alarming rate. Antonioni was so adamant about how this world should be presented that he insisted on painting trees, barrels, walls and even whole fields to ensure the results he envisioned. An extreme measure, certainly, but a welcome one as the stark, sterile greys of this industrial Italy, juxtaposed here and there with flourishes of artificial, man-made colour, are often brought to the forefront of the viewer's mind when at times the pacing and ambiguity of the narrative create a lull in interest. Those man-made colours provide another allegorical point, alluding to how the society of this industrial community has adapted to the bleak repetitiveness of the environment by injecting splashes of primary colour into their surroundings. One criticism that's easy to level at 'Red Desert' is that it's an entirely singular film - Guiliana is undoubtedly the protagonist of this piece, but everyone else, even the ambiguous love interest Zeller, appears on screen barely defined. This might be a problem for anyone expecting a traditional narrative, but that's not what 'Red Desert' is about. There's no real progression of story here, only the progression of Guiliana's mental state, everything else is quite incidental and as such, is not admitted entry into Antonioni's vision. It's this bold vision that provides the films defining hallmarks; the remarkable cinematography that surrounds Monica Vitti's accomplished, if somewhat overwrought, performance.

Profound Desires of the Gods (1968) by Shôhei Imamura

Shôhei Imamura was already a well known name in Japanese cinema by 1968, having worked as an assistant to legendary film-maker Yasujirō Ozu and with a string of light-comedy, drama and documentary successes under his belt. 1968's Profound Desires of the Gods was to be his biggest undertaking yet, however the film's production was fraught with problems, running wildly over-budget and with the original shooting schedule of 6 months spiralling to 18 months by the films completion, a lot was riding on the success of the film, for both Imamura and production company Nikkatsu - unfortunately for both, the film was a huge failure at the box-office, too obscure and unconventional to gain the mainstream success it's production costs demanded. After it's failure Imamura retreated to documentary work for more than a decade, while Nikkatsu would not make such a lavish, high budget production again for many years. This huge failure probably goes some way to explain the film's lack of recognition on the international stage. For many years it was entirely unavailable to English speaking audiences, but thankfully that all changed last year with Eureka! entertainment's deluxe blu-ray release finally opening up Imamura's lost and misunderstood masterpiece to an international audience.

Profound Desires of the Gods is an engaging, provocative and bizarre piece that ostensibly explores on a number of different levels the duality of Japan's relationship with it's own culture and tradition versus the tide of modernisation and influence from the outside world. The story takes place on the fictional, but obviously Okinawa-inspired, southern Japanese island of Kurage and centres on the lives of the Futori family, who hold the claim to the oldest blood-line on the island. It is quickly made apparent that the Futori's are heavily inter-bred and are shunned and ostracised by the island's community, who refer to them as 'beastly' and believe that their incest is responsible for the islands misfortune. The family's patriarch, old and possibly-senile Yamamori, is both Father and Grandfather to Toriko, a dumb-witted girl whose childlike manner belies her almost feral desire for sex, while Toriko's Mother and Yamamori's Granddaughter Uma is a noroor seer, who lives away from the family at the local shrine (the last remaining fresh water source on the island). Meanwhile, Uma's Son Kametaro is the most normal of the group and struggles to come to terms with his incestuous feelings for his sister Toriko and the islanders distaste for his family, while his Father and Yamamori's son Nekichi is imprisoned by his Father at the bottom of a flooded pit for his crimes against the community (dynamite fishing, and attempting an illicit incestuous relationship with their seer, his sister Uma) and given the near-impossible task of dislodging a huge boulder that has blocked the flow of water to the island's rice fields.

The rice fields point to a recurring parallel in the film, representing Japan's traditional agricultural past versus the modern uptake of sugar farming that the islanders turn to after the rice fields become untenable. Yamamori's desire to see the rice fields restored represents his families struggle to retain their ways in the face of the islanders scorn, while the incestuous relationship his family is born from and the parallel it poses to the islands' creation myth (where two sibling deities are married) represents the uneasy relationship some have with their superstitious past and their desire to see it forgotten from the islands culture. This is the central theme of the film, which in itself is a product of the mindset of Japan as a whole at the time the film was made, a Japan almost embarrassed by it's past and wanting to be perceived as modern thinking on the world stage. Although the Futori's incest marks them as outcasts and the negative results of such relationships are on display for all to see, Imamura effectively paints the family as sympathetic characters, symbolising traditions and religious and superstitious beliefs that fall in the face of modernisation, while casting a disapproving eye on the effects Western influence ultimately has on the island.

Profound Desires of the Gods is a complex and often bewildering film that moves at a disjointed, almost leisurely pace. Imamura has us firmly positioned entirely as voyeurs for much of the film, always watching events unfold at a distance, his characters enveloped by wide-angle shots of the beautiful Okinawan scenery that provides us with a cinematic feast for the eyes. His themes of east versus west and tradition versus progress are always present, yet never hammered home until the films climax, leaving the viewer to piece together the entangled web of the Futori's relationships and admire the films cinematography and the natural beauty of Okinawa. And in that regard, the film is a huge success, making up for what it lacks in pacing and narrative with sheer visual beauty and a deeper subtext that ultimately paints Kurage island and it's inhabitants as an allegory for what Imamura perceived as an increasing abandonment of Japanese culture and tradition to serve modern and Western needs. Surreal and thoughtful throughout, accompanied by beautiful and expertly shot visuals and with a message that's as pertinent today as it was then, Profound Desires of the Gods most certainly isn't a film for everyone, but it is in equal turns an epic and singular piece that surely must rank among Imamura's best.

The Last Battle aka Le Dernier Combat (1983) by Luc Besson

Shot entirely in black and white and set in a barely inhabited post-apocalyptic world where the atmosphere has rendered humanity mute, Luc Besson's feature length début was nothing short of ambitious. The plot ostensibly follows The Man as he scavenges for parts to keep his light aircraft in repair - venturing out into the wasteland he stumbles across a hospital where he meets The Doctor, a man living in fear of The Brute (played by Jean Reno) who is attempting to gain entry to the hospital and kill the Doctor. Through non-verbal communication, The Man and The Doctor come to help each other in an attempt to survive and keep The Brute at bay. Despite the innovative premise and stark, stylish beauty of Besson's direction, the film moves at an odd pace whereby it's more confusion and intrigue that keeps the viewer watching, rather than for any substance of character or story. The daring decision to have next to no intelligible dialogue throughout doesn't help matters, as the viewer is left to piece together the characters motives without explanation, but it's the score (the epitome of awful 80's synth soundtracks) more than anything else that dates the film and hindered this viewers enjoyment. While still worth checking out for any fans of Besson, the post-apocalyptic genre and cinema in general, it's not the easiest of films to watch, but one that rewards the viewer in spades through Besson's fantastic direction.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Walkabout (1971) by Nicolas Roeg

Nicolas Roeg's 1971 film 'Walkabout' tells the story of an English brother and sister stranded in the Outback after their father inexplicably snaps, shooting at them before setting his car on fire and killing himself. The pair of siblings are left to fend for themselves, but it isn't long before they're out of food and water, so they have to rely on the help of an Aborigine boy they meet who is living in the wilderness as part of a ritual Walkabout to mark his transition into manhood. The children initially have no way of communicating with the Aborigine, but the younger brother is able to get their needs across via pantomime, while the older sister (Jenny Agutter) is less adaptable, never fully understanding their guide and always longing to return to civilisation. The differences between the two vastly opposed cultures is the central theme of Roeg's film, but his work is also a comment on the tide of industry versus nature, the innocence of the Aborigine and the English boy that allows them to communicate on the same level versus the civilised bearing of Agutter's character that she's incapable of shedding, and the subtext of sexual tension between the Aborigine and the girl. But ultimately, from the Agutter character's perspective, it's a film about regret and a missed opportunity, a longing for the simpler existence met in the Outback, as once returned to civilisation she reflects fondly on her time with the Aborigine, imagining a version of the bathing scene where she was able to let her guard down and allow the Aborigine to join her.

The film is wonderfully shot, with some truly stunning views of the Outback and it's denizens, but at times Roeg is certainly guilty of over-using various techniques to get his message across. Often the film will make sharp cuts back and forth, hammering home Roeg's theme of cultural juxtaposition with shots of a natural cliff face versus a brick wall, or the Aborigine boy dismembering a carcass versus a butcher performing the same act in an abattoir. While this may have been unconventional at the time, it isn't entirely effective and is ultimately a detriment to the film, as are the scenes involving a research team in the Outback that serves little purpose beyond explaining the presence of a weather balloon that provides yet another nod to society in the wilderness. Regardless, this is a stunning film with wonderful performances from a young Jenny Agutter and Aborigine actor David Gulpilil, and while the delivery may not be entirely consistent, the message presented by Nicolas Roeg is no less poignant nearly forty years on.

Umbracle (1970) by Pere Portabella

Christopher Lee stars in this bizarre avant garde film commenting on censorship in Franco-era Spain that presents documentary footage along with surreal, overexposed scenes in which Christopher Lee walks around Barcelona, witnesses a kidnapping, visits a museum and has silent encounters with a woman. The documentary footage comes in the form of Spanish film-makers talking frankly about censorship in their country and is interspersed with footage from a pro-Franco film glorifying the actions of the army, but it's the surreal scenes starring Lee that are the highlight here. Shot in high-contrast black and white that gives a bold, yet dreamlike quality to the footage, many of the scenes are also exquisitely framed, yet there's no dialogue, no narrative. Any audio we do hear in these scenes is asynchronous from the action on screen - for instance, a conversation occurs, but we aren't able to hear anything but a phone ringing incessantly. While these images are often beautiful and certainly striking, there seems little in the way of meaning. Things get even more confusing when half way through the film breaks to Christopher Lee on stage. He announces that the director asked him to improvise, so he sings some opera and then reads a portion of The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe. Right. Whatever. I've been told that this film is 'a masterpiece of unconscious narrative', but to me it seems little more than some artsy, yet undeniably beautiful footage, used soullessly to bookend fifteen minutes of directors venting about censorship, with a dose of weird for the sake of weird surrealism thrown in for good measure. While probably not worth your, or anyone's time, it is beautifully shot and Christopher Lee looks very suave and dapper while doing not very much at all.

You can watch Christopher Lee's weird intermission on youtube; here

I Sell The Dead (2008)

Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan) is awaiting execution for murder, among other things, including his principal trade as a grave robber, and as he relates his tale to a kindly priest (Ron Perlman in a very un-Perlman-like role) we see his origins as a young grave robber apprenticed to Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden) through to the events which resulted in the pair's incarceration. It's a twisting tale of deceit, disreputable characters and the undead, and while it's not the best relayed story, the camp Hammer Horror feel of the film, some nice comedic moments and good performances from all the main cast are enough for it to stand out against it's, much higher budgeted, comedy horror peers. At times it suffers from being a bit too dark and could definitely be paced a whole lot better as it meanders towards the finale, but overall it's an enjoyable comedic horror caper that is well worth your time.

Europa (1991) by Lars von Trier

"You will now listen to my voice. My voice will help you, and guide you still deeper into Europa. Every time you hear my voice, with every word and every number, you will enter a still deeper layer, open, relaxed and receptive. I shall now count from one to ten. On the count of ten, you will be in Europa. I say; One, and as you focus your attention entirely on my voice you will slowly begin to relax. Two, your hands and your fingers are getting warmer and heavier. Three, the warmth is spreading through your arms, to your shoulders and your neck. Four, your feet and your legs feel heavier. Five, the warmth is spreading to the whole of your body. On six I want you to go deeper. I say; Six, and the whole of your relaxed body is beginning to sink. Seven, you go deeper and deeper and deeper. Eight, on every breath you take, you go deeper. Nine, you are floating. On the mental count of ten, you will be in Europa. Be there at ten. I say; Ten."

And on the narrators command we are transported into Europa; Lars von Trier's dark and brooding film noir masterpiece that deals with themes of guilt and manipulation in post-war Germany. The protagonist is Leopold Kessler, an idealistic American of German descent who has come to Germany to work with his uncle as a first-class sleeping-car conductor. There he meets and is seduced by a strikingly beautiful young woman named Katharina, whose father owns the rail company Leopold now works for. As he is drawn into Katharina's world he encounters the problems Germany is trying to face; a sense of national guilt over their countries actions during the war, a dark depression settling on Germany's national psyche and the realities of living in an occupied and defeated country. The occupiers, meanwhile, concern themselves with administering tests to determine German citizens culpability in Nazi actions during the war, and dealing with the insurgence threat of the 'Werwolf' (a group of commandos and Nazi sympathisers set on sabotaging Allied interests). But as Germany faces it's past, so must Katharina, admitting to the now smitten Leopold that she used to be a member of the dreaded Werwolf group.

In a way, the story is almost incidental in the face of the spectacle of Europa. The plot is a standard thriller affair wrapped in allegory, with characters, music and cinematography so deeply recalling film noir that you have to wonder whether von Trier is offering up a pastiche or a homage, but it's through his wonderful cinematic technique that Europa becomes something truly unique. Using all sorts of visual trickery such as double exposure, superimposition, aft and foreground projection, highly-choreographed, Hitchcock-esque camera movements and splashes of unexpected colour in the deep and oppressive high-contrast black and white world of Europa (a technique Spielberg would later ape to widespread acclaim in Schindler's List), von Trier presents a composite image that shows the films larger themes. Through the hypnotic presence of Max von Sydow's narrator who commands Leopold on his journey, the clever use of colour and interleaved images, the familiar plot and noir sensibilities, the way the occupying US forces manipulate the situation for their own gain and the way Katharina manipulates Leopold, the viewer is in turn expertly manipulated and taken along for the ride. The plot offers no surprises, everything is foreshadowed and hinted at via one method or another, but through von Trier's manipulation the scenes remarkably lose none of their impact. Undoubtedly Europa is a cinematic masterpiece, but more for von Trier's technique and than anything else.

L'Année Dernière à Marienbad (1961) by Alain Resnais

I think half the fun of Alain Resnais 'Last year in Marienbad' is trying to decide what the hell the whole thing was about afterwards. It ostensibly tells the tale of a man who is convinced that a woman staying at the same hotel as him is his lover from a year past, yet she does not recall ever meeting him. The film is wonderfully shot, employing an ethereal, dream-like quality throughout, while the inhabitants of the hotel at Marienbad drift by, almost as if in a trance. The viewer enters and leaves the film knowing only that a man believes he had an affair with a woman, and that she denies it. Nothing more. Filled with sparse and ambivalent dialogue that confounds the characters and viewers in equal measure, L'Année Dernière à Marienbad is a beautiful and entirely ambiguous film. Intentionally bizarre, expertly shot, brilliantly edited, wonderfully arty, oh-so-very French and perfect on every cinematic level. Not for everyone, for sure, but undoubtedly and undeniably a classic.

Orbis Pictus (1997)

From Slovakian director Martin Sulík, Orbis Pictus is a strange film that follows a teenage girl, Tereza, on a fanciful journey as she's sent home from boarding school with a letter for her mother. As she travels in a childish and innocent manner through the Slovakian countryside, she has numerous strange encounters with a variety of people, such as a well-to-do mobster, a man marrying his brother's much older widow, a famous singer (whose fame Tereza is entirely ignorant of), an old woman buried up to her waist in the ground and a man employed seemingly to burn brand new clothes. All these people have stories to empart upon Tereza, and as the encounters become more and more surreal it becomes apparant that, as we see the film from a child's perspective, here a child's fantasy and imagination are melded with reality.

On the surface Orbis Pictus presents itself as a quirky and serene film about a young girl journeying in ignorance of the world around her. Yet there's an underlying sense of menace here, as through the various encounters Tereza's innocence is tested against a darker side of reality that, while only hinted at, is a disturbing presence all the same and sets up perfectly for the film's last revelations as we learn the contents of the letter and as Tereza finally comes face to face with her mother. Much like the bulk of the film, it's an entirely ambigious ending, but one that carries perfectly the film's theme of reality versus imagination and innocence.

The Noah (1975)

What a strange little movie. Robert Strauss plays The Noah, an ageing soldier and the last survivor of a nuclear holocaust that has claimed the earth. The film begins with Noah's dingy washing ashore on a deserted Pacific island, where he quickly goes about the task of exploring and making the island and it's deserted buildings his own. But soon isolation and boredom kick in, and something in Noah cracks. He creates an imaginary friend for himself, conversing in his head with this man he's invented named Friday, and then he creates a woman too, named Friday-Anne - inevitably Friday and Anne couple, and Noah in a fit of rage banishes them from his house (and his mind). Stinging with betrayal, he then creates a child, something innocent and pure that can't hurt him the way his imagined adults did, and eventually a whole school class that he can mould in his image. He holds classes and eventually a graduation, where he sends his children out to re-populate the earth. For a while, things seem great as Noah lauds himself as the venerable leader of the community that has sprung up and taken over the island - but the children recreate human society on the island all to perfectly, complete with all it's squabbles and ugliness, which leads Noah to lay down commandments, Moses style, in an effort to force his subjects to behave. When this doesn't work, he turns away from his society back to the rigid command structure of the military, envisioning his own soldiers to look after and keep in line - but when the voices of war (Stalin, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Churchill, etc.) supersede his authority, he retreats into himself and succumbs to the bitterness that so tainted his community, his soldiers turning against him as he argues with the government about his pension pay. Noah fights his soldiers, running about with his rifle in the rain, and when he wakes in the morning he finds that the radioactive warning tag attached to his uniform has turned black; the rain was radioactive, and all that's left is for Noah to await death. Despite having the means, he chooses not to take his life, instead deciding to stoically await his fate and keep watch for the rescue he knows will never arrive.

As I said, The Noah is a very strange film, chock full of allegory and biblical references, the whole thing played out by one man and a series of voices and archive recordings (presumably dredged from Noah's subconsciousness) - but it's ultimately a commentary on humanity, about a man trying to create a new world in his own image, but finding that he's just as flawed as any other human being and that his society and it's flaws all too closely mirror our own. All Noah gets from his efforts is disappointment and death, and one has to conclude that the message of the film is that you can't change nature, and that the only change you can affect comes from within.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Exiled - Review

Title; Exiled
Director; Johnnie To
Year; 2006
Starring; Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Nick Cheung, Simon Yam, Suet Lam, Roy Cheung

Set on the island of Macau in 1998 'Exiled' tells the story of five friends who grew up together in the gangs of Hong Kong. One of these five, Wo (Nick Cheung), has been in exile for many years after attempting to assassinate the crime boss of Hong Kong, Boss Fay (Simon Yam), but now Wo has a family and is tired of running, so he moves to Macau to make a new life for himself. Unfourtunatly, Boss Fay has not forgotten Wo's transgressions and sends another of the five friends, Blaze (Anthony Wong), to see Wo dead. However, while Blaze and his partner Fat (Suet Lam) must follow orders and kill their friend Wo, the remaining two friends Tai (Francis Ng) & Cat (Roy Cheung) are intent on protecting him, even if it means going against Boss Fay and becoming exiles themselves. This predicament and the decisions than the five friends must make provide the films intrinsic themes; brotherhood, honour, loyalty and friendship, themes not at all uncommon in the HK action genre.

Likewise, there's a great sense of familiarity across the board here. Actors such as Anthony Wong, Simon Yam and Francis Ng are all veterens of HK action films, and Johnnie To's direction itself recalls the hey-day of HK action with numerous nods to Tsui Hark and John Woo. But despite this film evoking a sense of deja-vu at almost every turn, it's a fantastically paced movie that's all the more better when regarding the sum of it's parts. Anthony Wong & Francis Ng provide stalwart performances as the films two leads and they are supported by a fantastic cast; Suet Lam and Roy Cheung as their stoic partners in crime, Simon Yam as the crazed, bat-shit insane mob boss, Richie Ren as a sharpshooting police sergeant and Eddie Cheung as bizarre deal-broker and pimp. Meanwhile, the setting, cinematography and soundtrack all conspire to create a wonderful backdrop for the convoluted plot. Also, Macau is presented as an idlyic sort of place, always in the shadow of Hong Kong, and the cinematography and setting only help further this idea with many outdoor shots and vibrant yellows and oranges and greens employed throughout. Macau was a Portugese colony for much of it's history, which I believe To alludes to through the films soundtrack which at times sounds almost like a spaghetti western and serves to immediately set 'Exiled' apart from To's previous films and those of his peers, many of which star the same actors.

Overall Johnnie To's 'Exiled' is a film at odds with itself. On one hand it's a stylish, over the top Hong Kong gangster film, on the other it's a melancholy movie about friendship and the past, but for the most part these two sections perfectly compliment each other. Some may find the plot somewhat confusing, but it's brilliantly presented with a veteran cast, some amazing action set-pieces and a few moments of inspired direction. Also, 'Exiled' left me with a good number of things to consider afterwards (for instance; what appeared to be a continuity error actually ended up providing another facet to one of the characters that I had not previousley considered) which is more than I can say for most action films.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Mad Detective - Review

Title; Mad Detective
Director; Johnnie To & Wai Ka-Fai
Year; 2007
Staring; Lau Ching-Wan, Andy On, Ka Tung Lam & Kelly Li
Format; BluRay

Johnnie To & Wai Ka-Fai's Mad Detective is a film that turns the Hong Kong crime genre upon it's head. Based around the simple concept of a man that can see everyone's hidden personas, Mad Detective is anything but formulaic and right from the very start disuades any notion that this is just another flashy HK crime flick. Lau Ching-Wan stars as the eponymous Mad Detective, Inspector Chan Kwai-Bun, a brilliant detective forced into retirement when his methods and actions become a little too bizarre. Alongside him Andy On plays young Inspector Ho who tries to enlist the aid of retired Inspector Bun to solve a complex murder case involving a missing police officer and a suspect with multiple personalities.

What follows is a highly ingenious, highly inventive and above all, highly entertaining piece of cinema. Paced perfectly, this viewer sat on the edge of his seat, intrigued and enthralled in equal measure and delighting and the simple, unrestrained freshness of this film and it's premise. Lau Ching-Wan plays his part exceptionally well as the oddball Inspector Bun, throwing all semblence of logic out of the window as he investigates the case, but it's a straight faced performance; there's no comedy here as the plot and it's characters take themselves very seriousley. However, despite this it's hard not to find humour in some of the scenes involving multiple personalities, and whether this was the directors intent or not, it does provide a handful of light hearted moments that help to break up this complex and down-right weird film into more palatable pieces.

Overall, if you're looking for a crime film that's as inventive and intriguing as it is enjoyable, you can't go wrong with Mad Detective. See it now before Hollywood does a shitty remake with Leonardo Di Caprio.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Valhalla Rising - Review

Title: Valhalla Rising
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Year: 2009
Staring: Mads Mikkelson, Maarten Stevenson
Format: Blu-Ray

This seems to be quite a divisive movie - on the one hand, it's a breathtaking work of cinematography and the director creates a wonderfully dense and opressive atmosphere through the stark enviroment that plays backdrop to the films chaotic events, the sparse and suspensful dialogue and the droning martial industrial soundtrack. On the other hand, this is an experimental film marketed as an action movie - on more than one occasion I saw it mentioned in the same breath as 2007's Beowulf or the recent remake of Clash of the Titans. I can only assume that anyone viewing the film under a pretence of similarity with those aforementioned movies would be greatly disapointed, and even though I largely enjoyed the movie at home I have to question whether i'd feel the same after viewing it in the cinema.

You see, nothing much happens in Valhalla rising. The film ostensibly tells the story of One-Eye, a savage mute living a life of captivity among the pagan tribes of Scotland and forced to fight in brutal deathmatches. He eventually wins his freedom and joins with a group of Christian mercenaries intent on reclaiming the holy land, but once their voyage begins things take a turn for the weird and they find themselves stranded in a strange land seemingly untouched by civilisation. Although the plot is fairly straight forward, the manner in which it's handled is decidedly experimental and vague and leads one to believe that there's a deeper subtext to be found.

The film is broken into a number of sections, each labelled in a religious tone as much of the movie seems to be a comment on the differences between the pagan religion of old and the invading Christian beliefs - the protagonist himself recalls Odin, with his solitary eye and cryptic visions of the future, and while the Christian characters stumble blindly towards their fate, pleading and begging for mercy, One-Eye heads unflinchingly into the fate laid out for him, just like the pagan chieftans at the beginning, knowing their days were numbered in the face of the relentless tide of Christianity.

Overall i'd reccomend Valhalla Rising - it's certainly not a movie for everyone, not a movie i'd ever watch with company and certainly not a movie i'd try and sell as an action blockbuster, but Nicolas Winding Refn has succeeded here in creating a deep and intriguing world with this film and on a relatively meagre budget. There are some fantastic performances from the cast, a handful of vicious and bloody fight scenes and beautiful, arresting imagery throughout. It's a film that has left me contemplating it's meaning long after I had finished watching, and while it's not an experience that may appeal to many, ultimately it's films like this that inspire and intiruge that are the one's worth watching.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Sword of the Stranger - Review

Title: Sword of the Stranger
Director: Masahiro Andō
Production: Bones
Year: 2007
Staring: Tomoya Nagase, Yuri Chinen, Kōichi Yamadera
Format: Blu-Ray

Set during Japan's feudal period 'Sword of the Stranger' tells the story of a young orphan boy named Kotaro who finds himself pursued by ruthless group of soldiers in the employ of China's Ming Emperor. With no idea as to why he is being chased Kotaro desperately enlists the help of a mysterious ronin named Nanashi (literally meaning Nameless or No Name) who has the curious habit of fighting with his sword sheathed, although this doesn't appear to make his skills any less lethal. As the reasons behind the Ming's pursuit become apparent Nanashi finds himself having to relive and face up to the past that has for many years haunted him if he is to have any chance of saving Kotaro from his would-be captors.

Directed by first-timer Masahiro Andō and produced by Bones 'Sword of the Stranger' is a real visual treat. The high-octane fight scenes are lavishly animated and expertly choreographed with a visceral sense of speed, but that's not to say the scenes without action aren't just as beautifully presented. The artwork and animation remain consistently excellent throughout and while some may find the colour palette subdued, the scenes of wanton bloodshed provide a stark contrast against the almost ethereal depiction of the landscape.

In terms of the story 'Sword of the Stranger' does nothing you won't have seen before, but has the definite virtue of not trying to do too much. The film is expertly paced, never once dragging or out-staying it's welcome - a pleasant suprise considering this is Masahiro's directorial debut. The characters will seem pretty standard to most, Kotaro is initially standoffish and reluctant to show his vulnerability while Nanashi attempts to hide his wounded past through humour and an anti-hero attitude straight out of a Clint Eastwood western. Ultimately events force both Kotaro and Nanashi to open up and trust each other, but the point is never forced home and feels like a natural progression for the characters.

Overall 'Sword of the Stranger' is a spectacular achievement and not just for the superlative animation. The characters are believable and more importantly likeable, the story is entirely engaging without ever feeling bloated, the music is suitably epic and the visuals are thoroughly intoxicating, the end result is a highly enjoyable anime feature that remains entertaining from start to finish.


Monday, September 10, 2007

Knytt Stories

Knytt Stories is the in-direct sequel to freeware game Knytt developed by Niflas. The Knytt series (and to an extent Niflas' other games like Within a Deep Forest) feature beatiful 2d landscapes, atmospheric music and sound effects, and addictive gameplay thats part adventure, part platforming, and 100% awesome. While the original Knytt had a story, it wasn't integral to the gameplay, and the games only downside was the relatively short ammount of time needed to complete it - Knytt Stories fixes this by adding a level editor, enabling players to design and create their very own levels set within the Knytt Universe. I'd highly reccomend this game to anyone with a PC, it's free, it's addictive and theres multiple types of gameplay on offer - whether you like to explore in a scenic and ambient enviroment, solve logic puzzles on your way to success, or negotiate challenging platforming obstacles, Knytt Stories provides this in spades, and the level editor should ensure that you're playing and sharing yours and others creations for a good while to come.

Niflas Games

Here's my first full level made with the editor entitled 'House Hunting';


To install just load up Knytt Stories, go to Intall Level and then drag the .knytt.bin file into the Knytt Stories window and the game will automatically install the level for you.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Muteki Kanban Musume

Synopsis: Miki Onimaru is a poster girl that works at her mother's Chinese ramen restaurant. She appears to be a normal girl, but she can become very violent if provoked. She picks a fight with her mother and accquaintances as a result on an almost daily basis, causing a series of troubling mishaps in their otherwise normal lives.


Episode 1: Part 1
Episode 1: Part 1

Episode 2: Part 1
Episode 2: Part 2

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth - Review

Title: Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth
Developer: tri-Ace
Publisher: SquareEnix
Year: 2006
Format: PSP

When Valkyrie Profile launched near the end of the PS1's life-cycle not many people took notice, they were too busy playing Dreamcast or waiting for a PS2, but if they had paid attention they might have not missed one of the most underated JRPGs to appear on Sony's debut system. Now with the franchise resurected on PS2 Square-Enix have released the original Valkyrie Profile here on the PSP, but does it stand up to the test of time? Is this a faithful port, or have Square ruined a classic? Of course not - this games awesome, here's why...

In Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth you play 'Lenneth' a Valkyrie (collector of souls of the dead) who is charged by Lord Odin the All-Father (God of the Gods) to leave Valhalla (Heaven) and return to Midgard (Earth) in order to recruit Einherjar (brave warriors who have died in battle) for the great final-battle Ragnarok (aka the End of the World). You start the game on the map screen, flying high above Midgard. From here you can innitiate spiritual concentration that heightens Lenneth's senses and enables her to locate nearby pain and suffering - thats a smart way of saying you press the start button and it adds new locations on to your map. There are two types of locations you can visit; Towns, and Dungeons - these take place from a 2d side scrolling view. Dungeons are where you level up your characters while Towns are where you'll progress the storylines of certain characters, and eventually recruit new characters.

The game is divided into eight chapters - each chapter is comprised of 24 turns, when you visit a town or a dungeon you use up one turn. One chapter represents an entire generation on Midgard so once you progress to the next chapter time will have moved on - this means that you may not be able to recruit a character you wanted because you wasted too much time visiting unimportant places but it also means that new characters and locations will become available. At the end of each chapter you are evaluated on how many Einherjar you have recruited, their levels and skills, their personality and any special items you have returned to Odin - Valhalla will then give you advice on what they require of you for the next chapter and won't hesitate to inform you if your warriors aren't up to scratch.

Innevitably as a characters storyline progresses they will die and Lenneth will recruit them to become Einherjar - you can have a maximum party of 4, so you must level up your 3 Einherjar and transfer them to Valhalla before the end of the chapter - it is your job to train these Einherjar and make them worthy of fighting at Ragnarok. But here's where it gets complicated - not only do you have to train the Einherjar in terms of their level and their fighting stats, or what spells they learned; you have to train their personalities too. Many of the characters you meet will have gaping flaws in their psyche, some will be arrogant, suicidal, or vain etc - it's your job to eliminate these traits from their personality and replace them with positive traits such as courage, heroism, fearlessness etc - you train personality traits by using CP (Capacity) which you obtain as you go up in level, to level you find dungeons on the world map and combat enemies for XP.

On top off all that you have EXP (Event XP) which you are awarded for completing specific events, this goes into an EXP orb which lets you distribute EXP to specific characters. Sound complicated? Well it get's worse - your characters must also be adaquatly armed before you send them to Valhalla or they'll be slaughtered at Ragnarok. To properly equip your characters you'll need to make them some weapons and armor - this is where the Divination system comes into play. As the game progresses Lenneth will gain MP (Materialize Points) and these will allow her to Divine weapons, armor and items for your characters however doing so uses up MP but luckily you can convert old items and equipables into MP.

Also, items can be transmuted into other items but this too consumes MP. Not every item has to be created, you'll still find items in chests or from fallen enemies in dungeons. Some items you find will be considered Atrifacts and you have a choice to either transfer the item to Valhalla for EXP or to keep the item but suffer a rating loss at the end of the chapter, you can however release the item to Valhalla before the end of the chapter but using it will decrease the ammount of EXP you are awarded for it - the game also introduces a nice platforming & puzzling element with Lenneths Ice Crystal abillity - by pressing the sqaure button you can fire Ice Crystals at solid objects to make platforms, if you fire at the same ice crystal you can increase the size of that crystal but the crystals will collapse after time. The ice crystals have other properties too - exploding them will cause the crystal to shatter into dust that Lenneth can float on for a period of time, also you can fire the crystals at enemies to freeze them and then move them to use as platforms and finally crystals can reflect beams of light which is used in one instance where you have to place 4 crystals at different points in the room to refract the beam of light into the specific place to unlock a door.

The combat is a bizzare mix of Turn-Based and Real-Time combat, and works suprisingly well. As in most turn-based RPGs you'll wait your turn to give out your orders, but unlike most turn-based RPGs you then control the timing and order of how your characters attack as each character is assigned to a different face button. The advantage of this is that it lets you pull of different combinations between your characters and different attacks will have different effects. For instance, you could be facing an ememy that has incredible defence when guarding - 3 of your 4 characters attack with melee weapons but none of their weapons are of a high enough level to perform a guard break, so you use your 4th character who is a magician and cast a explosion spell which knocks the enemy off their feet - wait for them to hit the floor and then attack with your 3 melee characters before the enemy can get up. However, you must be aware of TP (turn points) which are expended when a character performs an action - when you've used all the turn points your turn is over.

If you perform a continuous attack using all of your party members you will build up your special attack guage which allows you to select one of your character to perform their special abillity - however, each character can only perform one special attack per battle and this has an even bigger effect on magical characters as using special attacks will add to your CT (Charge Turn) which governs how many magical attacks that character can use per battle. So effectivly by using a magical characters special attack you are limiting the ammount of normal magical attacks they can perform for the rest of the battle.


Story - I really like the Norse influences in the game and it's a totally unconventional storyline made up of multiple stories of multiple characters.

Gameplay - Most JRPGs are quite linear so the freedom offered in this game was a shock to me, and it can be hard at first to get a hang of what you are doing while under the constraints of the time limit, but ultimatly it's really challenging. The combat is great too and is a good twist on the usual turn-based style battles. Also the platforming and puzzling elements were really welcome and offered a break from levelling up.

Presentation - The presentation of this game is a big factor, with beatiful landscapes and character designs - plus theres animations for practically every action which shows the time and effort put into the game. Battle animations are really where this game shines with some exceptionally crazy spells and skills at later points in the game that deal mass damage - also the only major change between this version and the PSX original; beatiful CG cut-scenes that are integrated really well into the original and add a lot to the dramatic effect of the story.

Sound - The sound is pretty good, while never being really exceptional or memorable it's not annoying either which is more than I can say for some RPG music.

Replayability - Valkyrie Profile is pretty huge, but also it's pretty intimidating too. You may feel lost at first, but if you percivere you may just become adicted - and if you do, you'll probally want to play through it again...which is handy as by increasing the difficulty level you open up new weapons, new characters, new storylines and new endings.

Overall - Get this if you're looking for a huge RPG that will last you ages. It's quite a complicated game and not for the feinthearted (and certainly not for anyone whose never played a JRPG before) but it's a hugely rewarding game that advocates discipline and tough choices. If you're a JRPG fan, you should feel right at home and before you know it you'll be 50 hours in and about ready to restart on a harder difficulty level