Starfish Hotel

Format: DVD

Release date: 27 October 2008

Distributor: 4Digital Asia

Director: John Williams

Writer: John Williams

Cast: Koichi Sato, Tae Kimura, Kiki, Akira Emoto, Kazuyoshi Kushida

Japan 2006

98 mins

Originally from Wales, director John Williams has lived in Japan for 20 years. His 2006 film Starfish Hotel, which has just been released on DVD, was an East meets West atmospheric fairy tale that played with cultural borders as well as those between dream, fantasy and reality. In an email interview, he told Richard Badley about in-between-ness, unravelling stories, Haruki Murakami and being like a Minotaur.

Richard Badley: Western audiences are used to seeing Tokyo as all neon lights and futuristic skyscrapers but in Starfish Hotel it seems almost bland. Could you tell us about your approach to the city in the film and what you wanted to say, if anything, about its culture?

John Williams: I wanted to deliberately avoid all the clichéd shots of Tokyo, such as the blazing lights of Kabukicho from Lost in Translation and the Shibuya crossing from every commercial shoot. These two areas seem to dominate in Western images of the city, and they are the places a lot of people go to have fun, but Tokyo is a huge, sprawling city, and can be very grey and ugly. This was as much as anything about the psychology of the central character, who is trapped in a cold, geometrical maze. The present day in the film is all washed-out and cold and we chose locations to reflect his depressed state, whereas the past, represented more by Taisho period architecture, is warm and full of reds and woody browns. This was not political nostalgia, but the nostalgia of the character, but I also wanted to suggest that all the concrete, glass and sprawl represent a kind of death of the soul. This is a motif in much recent Japanese cinema too.

RB: What led you to make the film in Japan?

JW: I’ve lived and worked in Japan for 20 years and am now a Permanent Resident, though I still have a UK passport. The question always comes up, but the easy answer is ‘because it’s where I am’. A year before the shoot a UK producer tried to persuade me to reset the film in the UK. It could be done, and I did tinker with a script, but I always felt the story made more sense in Japan and the locations and the references felt very Japanese to me at least. (Strangely, many people in the audience outside Japan found the film very ‘Western’ and some people in Japan talked about the strange ‘in-between-ness’ of the film. They felt they were seeing a slightly wonked version of reality, which was the intention. In the end, the film is very personal and very much about my own first few years in Tokyo. I had lived in Nagoya for 12 years and moved to Tokyo after my first film (Firefly Dreams). Tokyo was a real shock, because Tokyo is not really representative of Japan in so many ways and I felt very isolated and alienated. The darkness of the city scared me. When you’ve got all that artificial light, you also have a lot of shadows too.

RB: After Firefly Dreams, what drew you to doing a much darker/noir story? American noir seems to be a central influence in Starfish Hotel so was it a risk doing such a film in Japan?

JW: It was a big risk to do this film. I didn’t know that at the time. A sensible choice would have been to do another Firefly Dreams with a slightly bigger budget. It was just that I had moved to Tokyo and this led to an obsession with noir and Japanese ghost stories. I really felt I wanted to blend the noirish elements in Kwaidan (traditional Japanese stories of the supernatural) with a detective fiction. Of course I was reading Murakami avidly and the strange limbo he describes seemed so accurate about my own experience and the city of Tokyo.

RB: The central plot about finding Chisato seems linear enough but it’s surrounded by many ambiguous elements. How difficult was it writing the script? Did you rearrange things in post-production?

JW: The plot is very simple. A man’s wife disappears. He goes to look for her, goes through the usual tropes of the detective quest and finds her, whilst thinking all the time about another woman. What I wanted to do though was open up big puzzling holes in the story, so that all the time you’re really wondering whether you’re putting the puzzle together or not. This ambiguity is where we live now and perhaps it’s really where we’ve always lived. We make up these stories to explain our world and our experience, and they constantly unravel. I like that unravelling. The edit is pretty close to the script. The film was supposed to have a dream logic rather than a linear plot logic, but this is hard to pull off.

RB: There are many themes at work in the film – escapism, authorship… What was it in particular that you wanted to explore?

JW: More than anything else I wanted to make a film about the importance of storytelling, both in people’s personal lives and in society at large. If stories die, then I think we are in big trouble. When commercialism takes over from art, you get a terrible sense of emptiness, hence the grey city of Tokyo described above. In this world we have to go inside to make things good again. (Sounds pretentious I know, but that is what I was trying to say.)

RB: The film’s central tension is between Arisu wanting to be a writer and Kuroda who is constantly watching him, controlling the story. Were these characters inspired by your own life as you became a filmmaker/storyteller? Or was it maybe a comment on the power of authors?

JW: When you write something you create a universe that you control, but very often, when the writing is going well and you let your unconscious work, then ‘something else’ takes over. This is both terrifying and exhilarating. I’ve had that feeling a couple of times and I know many writers who have it. This ‘something else’ can completely destroy the mask you wear everyday, so it’s not a great place to stay, but everybody wants to go there. Don’t they?

RB: You’ve cited Haruki Murakami as a major influence and the film demonstrates a similar concern about modern society. What do you respond to in his writing?

JW: I think what I respond to is his openness to his own unconscious. Murakami is a writer who lets the ‘something else’ speak through him and this is very disturbing. Perhaps this is why he is so disciplined about his writing and his running. He needs to control every other aspect of his life in order to let the big beast free at the back of his mind. I think he also thinks Japan has buried the beast too much and he’s letting it back out of the bag.

RB: Were you conscious about making the film as universal as possible by combining elements of Western and Eastern culture (Alice in Wonderland, the symbol of the Fox)? As a result have you had different reactions from Western/Eastern audiences?

JW: Yes, I always saw this film as being a kind of fox-marriage of East and West. I talked all the time with production designer Iwao Saitou about the concept of ‘Wayou-Sechu’ or a blending of East and West in art, design and story. Purists hate this and think somehow it is not ‘Japanese’ enough. Personally I don’t like purists. When cultures blend to create something new, such as in Japanese jazz or Western uses of Japanese art (Van Gogh) then you get something very exciting. I wanted the film to be like that, to take the best of both worlds. The difficulty of course is in the reception by audiences, because people who don’t know both worlds sometimes only see one side of the coin. I wasn’t trying to be clever, though. It just grew out of my own personal history, having lived half my life in the UK and then the other half in Japan. I ended up as a sort of Minotaur, and I’d like to remain that way. (PS – sounds funnier in Japanese.)

RB: You’ve been very successful in moving East, what are the challenges and benefits of working in Japan as opposed to somewhere like the UK?

JW: Of course the biggest challenge is the language. When you work in English everything is faster. On the other hand, you get this really exciting sense of always learning, which is easy to forget in the UK. I love UK cinema, but the UK film industry sometimes seems almost as inward-looking as the Japanese industry. If anything, I think the Japanese filmmakers I know are looking out more at the world these days, but their work is less known, because of the language barrier. There are more films made here every year (over 400 a year) and Japanese films have a bigger share of the domestic market (50%), but the budgets are lower, there is little soft money, and not much training. The majors dominate everything, but the indie sector is vibrant. I’d love to make a film in the UK one day, especially in Wales, where my home is.

Interview by Richard Badley




15-30 October 2008

The Electric Sheep team round up their favourite films of this year’s London Film Festival.


A gripping, powerful and hauntingly beautiful film, Hunger is artist Steve McQueen’s slow-paced dramatisation of the last months in the life of Irish Republican Bobby Sands, who starved himself to death in 1981 in protest against the British government’s refusal to treat convicted IRA members as political prisoners. Despite an arguably impressive display of physical violence, there are moments when stunning shots of artistic beauty lend the film a grim poetic atmosphere. The result is a mesmerising choreography that demands utter commitment from the actors (an extraordinary central performance from Michael Fassbender), and it is also an inventive bursting forth of McQueen the filmmaker. PAMELA JAHN

Waltz with Bashir

Ari Folman’s brilliant animated documentary about the 1982 Lebanon war was one of the best films at the LFF. This is a brave and powerful movie, both stylistically and in its treatment of Folman’s involvement in one of the most controversial episodes in Israel’s history, the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The animation beautifully conveys the depth and intensity of Folman’s story as he meets with fellow friends, soldiers and journalists in his attempt to counter the collective amnesia suffered by witnesses of the event. This is an astonishing, unmissable piece of filmmaking with one of the most harrowing and moving endings seen in years. SARAH CRONIN

United Red Army

Koji Wakamatsu’s latest film is by far the most complex, stunning and utterly demanding film I’ve seen in the course of this year’s festival circuit. In 190 visually and conceptually engrossing minutes, United Red Army traces the history of the Japanese militant left from its origins in 1960 to its escalation in the early 1970s. Basing his film on comprehensive research as well as his own memories and connections to some members of the Red Army faction when it was still active, Wakamatsu not merely reveals the gruelling events that took place at the time, he once again pushes the boundaries of filmmaking in almost every take, taking the story from docu-style drama to claustrophobic chamber piece into breathtaking action thriller in the final act. What remains is a profound and painful dissection of ideology itself, rendered with an impressive clarity that is rarely seen on the big screen. PAMELA JAHN


I found myself utterly stunned by Antonio Campos’s feature debut Afterschool. A class video project in an upscale American prep school accidentally captures a tragedy, and we follow the reactions of the school, its pupils, and particularly of the boy, Robert (Ezra Miller), who shot the incident, an alienated and unpopular student who becomes a source of anxiety for the institution. If, as is usually the case, high school/college movies are intended as portraits of America in microcosm, then this is the most bilious, vicious picture of that nation I’ve encountered in years. It’s a tough watch from the outset, with an unsettling montage of internet clips giving way to the face of Robert as he wanks away to some unpleasant porn, and never stops being unnerving thereafter. The dark nature of the story is emphasised by visually inventive, oddly framed photography throughout; imitating both the lopsided compositions of amateur cameramen and the disaffected gaze of a sociopath, it builds its own woozy unhealthy atmosphere, a world viewed through the wrong head. It’s creepy and smart and it may just screw with your head for days. MARK STAFFORD


A happily eccentric middle-class family live in the ideal, open surroundings of the French countryside, right on the edge of a long unused motorway. However, when the motorway is suddenly opened to swarms of traffic, their lives become intolerable as the noise, pollution and danger invades their lives. As the disruption to their normal routine eats away at their freedoms, they descend into semi-primordial behavioural patterns and bizarre somnambulant rituals. Beautifully filmed, with a superb, believable cast (Isabelle Huppert is outstanding), Home explores the deep ramifications of urbanisation and the impact of rampant capitalism upon the human psyche. On one level it’s a witty, modern-day environmental parable, and on another it’s a surreal descent into the subconscious fears and desires of the id. Birthed from the same otherworldly penumbra as classics like Weekend, Themroc and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Home is a unique and strange masterpiece where Kafka meets Ballard on the arid tarmac of the Motorway. JAMES DC

Hansel and Gretel

A South Korean grown-up reworking of the familiar children’s story, Yim Phil-sung’s Hansel and Gretel is a dark, surreal fairy tale weaving themes of lost innocence, dysfunctional families, revenge, trust and love. When a young man driving along a country road crashes his car, he is taken to a ravishing house in the middle of the forest by a strange, ethereal young girl. He is looked after by her family but when he tries to go back to his car the next day, and the following days too, he finds he cannot leave the forest. Forced to remain with the three children and faced with a series of bizarre occurrences, he gradually disentangles the web of mystery that surrounds the children to discover the truth about their identity. The enchanted house and forest are beautifully depicted, the children are suitably ambivalent and the film’s atmosphere is perfectly balanced between sinister and magical. A real treat. VIRGINIE Sí‰LAVY

Il Divo

Winner of the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Il Divo sees director Paolo Sorrentino apply his trademark formal beauty to the life of one of Italy’s most notorious politicians. Seven-time Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti was tried on several occasions for murder, corruption and Mafia involvement, but defended himself successfully each time. The characters accused along with Andreotti are many and difficult to distinguish – expect a re-edit before the theatrical release – but rather than try to establish the facts, Sorrentino chooses instead to focus on the aegis of ambiguity that Andreotti forges for himself. In this character study he could have no better co-conspirator than his The Consequences of Love star Tony Servillo, who is hypnotic as Andreotti. ALEXANDER PASHBY

Momma’s Man

On paper, Momma’s Man doesn’t necessarily hold that much appeal: a thirty-something man visits his parents at their New York loft and finds himself incapable of returning home to his wife and baby in Los Angeles. But director Azazel Jacobs’ film is much more than a sum of its parts. Jacobs cast his own remarkable parents (influential experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs and artist Flo Jacobs) and shot the movie in the same Manhattan apartment where they’ve lived for the last 40 years. Matt Boren puts in a great performance as their son, who’s desperate to be a little kid again. The location itself is terrific, packed with the eccentric ephemera collected over a lifetime, and while the film’s laid-back pace demands some patience, this funny and poignant film has that indefinable something that marks out the most memorable films. SARAH CRONIN

Beautiful Losers

Pulled from this year’s EIFF line-up at the very last minute, Beautiful Losers was a welcome addition to the small number of worthwhile documentaries included in the LFF programme. In an unashamedly nostalgic but extremely likeable fashion, co-director Aaron Rose looks back in affection at his own achievement, New York’s Alleged Gallery, and the loose-knit group of American artists who became involved in the creative movement that grew around the small storefront space in the early 90s. It features artists such as Barry McGee, Chris Johanson, Ed and Deanna Templeton, Jo Jackson, Margaret Kilgallen, Mike Mills amongst others, with Harmony Korine being no doubt the most weirdly charming contributor. PAMELA JAHN

Not Quite Hollywood

Not Quite Hollywood is music promo director Mark Hartley’s affectionate no-holds-barred-pedal-to-the-metal salute to Ozploitation cinema, charting its rise in the late 60s, fall in the late 80s, and recent resurgence with the likes of Wolf Creek. It rounds up an impressive roll call of talking heads from the scene, who, in true Aussie style, are refreshingly blunt about their experiences and each other, and intercuts them with a generous helping of clips from the films. It’s great fun: Hartley seems to be terrified of boring his audience and packs out his 102 minutes with insane stunts, montages of naked Sheilas, automotive carnage and explosions, and countless outrageous stories, all edited to a zippy sprint. The archive footage of Dennis Hopper scrambling for his life from his burning stunt double would justify your time and money on its own. It’s divided into three sections, sex, horror and action, and the movies can also usefully be divided into three types: familiar late night /video library classics (The Long Weekend, Patrick, Turkey Shoot, Road Games, and of course Mad Max ); films that you can safely avoid (Oz sex comedies of the 70s look just as toe-curlingly Christ-awful as British sex comedies of the 70s, which is some kind of achievement); and, and here is where NQH really scores, the numerous neglected, lost and largely forgotten films which the film makes you desperately want to see. As well as having a high population density of insane stuntmen the country was also clearly never lacking in spectacular outback scenery or 70mm lenses to shoot it with, and from the clips included here alone, the likes of Fair Game and Dead End Drive-In all look glorious. If I must quibble, I’d say that the pacy style of the film excludes any real discussion of the social context, aesthetics or especially the grisly sexual politics of ozploitation cinema; which is sorely needed, especially when the inevitable Quentin Tarantino keeps popping up enthusing about one woman-bashing scene after another. Hartley’s default setting is breathless, shameless celebration over analysis, and NQH often seems to actively avoid deciding whether the films are actually any damn good or not (Though I think it’s a pretty safe bet that Howling 3: The Marsupials sucks koala cock). Apparently, the director has launched his own line of ozploitation DVDs so any viewers wishing to familiarise themselves with some authentic Australian sleaze will soon be able to judge for themselves. Happy hunting. MARK STAFFORD


Dolly Mixture

Screening at: Barbican (London)

Date: 4 November 2008

Part of the Pop Mavericks season

As part of Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne’s Pop Mavericks season at The Barbican, November 4 saw the premiere of two new documentary films by Paul Kelly – Take Three Girls: The Dolly Mixture Story and Lawrence of Belgravia, the latter about the eccentric Go-Kart Mozart, Denim and, most famously, Felt singer/songwriter Lawrence Hayward. Kelly himself is also a musician, playing in bands such as 80s Byrds botherers East Village with his brother Martin, and with his partner Dolly Mixture’s Debsey Wykes in Birdie. Both Kelly and Wykes have for many years been auxiliary members of Saint Etienne.

To say there is nepotism afoot here is understating the case, but the members of Saint Etienne have always been fans of music and popular culture, and Bob Stanley in particular has tirelessly championed indie and 60s pop as a writer for music magazines such as Mojo, as the curator of events at the Barbican and the Southbank, and via his own record labels, even re-issuing the sole Dolly Mixture album in 1995. For the past few years he has been curating a film series at the Barbican, scouring the vaults (or scraping the barrel) to find the weirdest (Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains with Ray Winstone as a punk-rock star) and most wonderful (erm…) examples of the British pop music film. At times, the screenings seem more like cultural studies lectures on 70s youth cults and are often taken from the BBC’s Play for Today series and the like. The films are never very good but somehow always fascinating. However, although appearing under the same banner, the Kelly films are something quite different.

Kelly is known for having made Finisterre in 2003 (co-directed with Kieran Evans and in collaboration with Saint Etienne) – a bizarrely narrated slide show consisting of an endless sequence of close-up shots of almost recognisable London landmarks. It features voice-over interviews with some of the capital’s favourite cult figures (ATV’s Mark Perry) and art stars (Julian Opie). It is a slow hypnotic film set to one of Saint Etienne’s most ambient albums.

Here, Kelly has been able to adapt his visual style to something more suited to the raucous post-punk pop of Dolly Mixture. Formed in the late 70s, Dolly Mixture somehow garnered some press and a few top support slots (The Undertones, The Jam) and were even signed to EMI off-shoot Chrysalis, who tried to capture the band’s punky/poppy girl-group style with a decent but uninspired cover of the Beatles/Shirelles classic ‘Baby It’s You’. Despite the failure of that and all subsequent releases the band found fame (with many memorable Top Of The Pops performances) as Captain Sensible’s backing band on such hits as the UK number one ‘Happy Talk’, ‘Glad It’s All Over’ and ‘Wot’! Their association with the Damned guitarist’s novelty pop may have harmed their career, although if truth be told there are many many reasons why good bands get ignored. The band self-released their sole album (a 27-track double disc) before breaking up in 1984. This story was told in a BBC documentary made at the time, which was screened as part of one of Bob Stanley’s previous Barbican film seasons.

It’s claimed that despite their lack of success the Dolly Mixture were influential – I am not sure this is true. If Dolly Mixture had any lasting influence then surely music today would sound better than it does. It does seem as if Saint Etienne are making and promoting films about themselves and their friends – it might be approaching self-mythologising but, hell, someone has to do it. The sad truth is that Dolly Mixture should have been influential, should have been more successful and should be remembered (and still listened to). Dolly Mixture were a great band; Debsey Wykes’s voice was smooth as Cadbury’s caramel (Tracey Thorn take note); they had more great tunes than The Go-Go’s; and certainly had more star quality than Bananarama. They could have been bigger than The Bangles.

Paul Huckerby



Colombiage 08

16-19 october 2008

Riverside Studios, London

Colombiage website

With a whole weekend of talks, music, food and literature to take in, cinema was just one part of this Colombian cultural festival based at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. The event began in 2007 and aims to display the richness of contemporary Colombian arts.

The film programme reflected the growing strength of Colombian film production. Directed by Felipe Martí­nez and a massive success in its home country, Bluff was a confident comedy/thriller with an inventive plot and some neat twists. There may be a Hollywood genre at the bottom of this but the film drew life from local nuances and a colloquial flavour and in that respect recalled Nine Queens from Argentina. In Bluff we got a nice line in insouciant cruelty from the soap opera diva Alexandra (Catalina Aristizábal), plus a great performance from Luis Eduardo Arango as the petulant and impulsive detective Walter Montes.

Felipe Guerrero’s documentary, Paraí­so, demonstrated a different kind of confidence. Presenting images of Colombia stripped of context and commentary, it relied on the strength of the imagery and its abstracted soundtrack. This dislocated and poetic approach evoked overpowering aromas of pain, memory and humour, especially in its wry spoken conclusion.

Other films shown at the event included the highly recommended Wandering Shadows (La Sombra del caminante), the 2004 debut of director of Ciro Guerra, and Satanas, an exploration of morality and human behaviour based on the novel by Mario Mendez.

Certainly Columbiage was a triumph in terms of presenting film from this often-neglected, or at least misrepresented, country. It was also the perfect appetiser for the Discovering Latin America film festival which kicks off in London on November 27.

Nick Dutfield

The Discovering Latin America film festival runs from November 27 to December 11 in London. For more details, visit the DLA website.


City Paradise

Format: DVD

Release date: 22 September 2008

Distributor: Future Shorts

Approx 120 mins

Future Shorts website

The first Future Shorts DVD is a compilation of the most interesting and entertaining 16 short films, animation and music videos screened by Future Shorts Festival over the past five years. Our resident scientist-cum-comic book artist Oli Smith methodically analyses its contents.

What’s a Girl to Do

A dark music video with a catchy tune. The film is just short enough for the symbolism to avoid pretentiousness. Plus the symbolism involves BMXers in animal masks.

City Paradise

Well, I’ve seen THIS a million times before. The animation is lovely but pretty standard for indie CG mixed with live action and the storyline is so insubstantial it might as well just be called a line. But the song over the ending credits is beautiful.

7:35 de la mañana

Very good. A man in a French bar holds the clientele hostage, forcing them to take part in an amateur musical number to serenade a fellow customer whom he fancies. A very original twist on the genre and the rough clumsiness of the participants who don’t quite know what they are doing is well realised.

La Barbichette

A terrible film to follow up 7:35. Three French brothers slap each other for five minutes? Sound like fun? It isn’t.

La Vie d’un chien

Humanity is set free by a scientist who invents a drug that turns people into dogs. Reminded me of a short story I read in a trashy SF anthology from the 50s once, but progressing into a quiet poignancy toward the end. An elegant parable.

I Want More

I don’t know what a Faithless pop video is doing on a disc of amateur filmmakers, no matter how cool it is. So I will pretend it doesn’t exist.


Ask a random person on the street to imagine what a black and white Russian short film about a prostitute with a young son would look like and they’d probably say this. It is so clichéd it’s untrue and about eight minutes too long. I was half expecting the words ‘reassuringly expensive’ to appear at any moment.


Cute is the word really, and that’s about it. In 10 minutes’ time I’ll probably forget I ever saw this.

Revolution of the Crabs

I laughed out loud at this near perfect animated short about a species of crab that can only walk in a straight line. Although the ending is a little muddled, the black and white line work sets the story off perfectly without detracting from the physical comedy.


‘Based on and old joke’. And a good one it is. But if the joke isn’t his then the artist has added very little of himself.

Park Football

Or Pongball as I like to call it. This is a stunning piece of visual comedy, which is even more remarkable considering all the characters are rectangles. The birds molesting the kid will have you rolling in the aisles.

I Just Want to Kiss You

A young Martin Freeman seems to be auditioning for Trainspotting. I just find it depressing that in 1989 he was already pulling the same funny faces he’s been doing in lieu of actual acting his entire career. I still love him in The Office though.

She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not

A lovely plot device about a man looking back on his past relationship a petal a scene. Unfortunately, the writer was so busy high-fiving after that he seemed to have forgotten that the idea is no good if the relationship isn’t remotely convincing.

On s’embrasse

And there was me thinking that the reason I hadn’t enjoyed the serious shorts so far was because five minutes wasn’t time enough to develop a sufficient emotional attachment. Turns out it’s not the time that’s been lacking, it’s the talent. This is heartbreaking stuff with a twist that will kill you.

Never like the first time

I have always been a proponent of the idea that the secret to autobiography is to get personal and you can’t get more intimate or universal than talking about losing your virginity. Beautifully animated and in turn heart-warming and frightening, this is creature comforts with soul.

Jojo in the Stars

Rayman Raving Rabbits meets Tim Burton in this predictable fairy tale that is saved by its visuals, which seems to be the excuse for most animated tales on this disc. A shame.

Oli Smith



Influenced by ‘alcohol, gravity and 20,000 years of culture’, Shrag’s arty indie pop balances the sweetness of girl vocals with appealingly bitter lyrics. So far they have released 10 songs over five 7” singles released by Where It’s At Is Where You Are, soon to be collected on an album, and they provided the most rock’n’roll moment of Indietracks 08 when they took to the stage to cheekily perform as the no-show Comet Gain. They play Ladyfest Manchester on November 8, the Buffalo Bar (London) on November 28 and La Flí¨che d’or (Paris) on January 2. For more info visit their MySpace or the Where It’s At Is Where You Are website. Below, guitarist/vocalist Bob gives us the low-down on his favourite films. And in case you wondered, ‘shrag’ means ‘to lob twigs off branches’.

1- North by Northwest (1959)
So cinematic it virtually defines cinema. It’s funny, thrilling and downright sexy, peppered with so many memorable set-pieces (modern Hollywood films would covet just one of them). Ernest Lehman’s witty, inventive screenplay. Robert Burk’s iconic photography. Bernard Herrmann’s pounding score. Eva Marie Saint. Cary Grant. James Mason. Hitchcock’s exemplary direction. It’s almost too perfect. You can see why many cineastes favour the darker, more psychologically complex material of films like Vertigo, Psycho et al (which were made immediately before and after this film), but call me a perfectionist because NxNW(as the noughties remake would surely be called) wins hands down for me. And that scene with Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant in the diner car is so filthy I blush every time I see it!

2- Blue Velvet (1986)
David Lynch peels back the veneer of small-town America to reveal a grotesque underbelly. Disturbing, seductive and almost unbearably tense, it’s David Lynch’s most fully realised work and it’s fucking genius. Why are there people like Frank? Because they make the greatest screen characters of all time.

3- Orphée (1950)
Sometimes art in cinema falls flat on its self-satisfied face but Jean Cocteau’s dreamlike poetic masterpiece transcends any one single medium and manages to satisfy as a work of visual art, a work of poetry and above all a work of cinema. Bastard.

4- That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)
I’ll give its English title to stop sounding like a pretentious twat. Don’t be put off by the Frenchness (from a Spaniard), the artiness (from another proper ‘artist’) or the oldness of the director (he was a sprightly 77 when he made this). Buñuel also was a painfully astute satirist and this is such a fucking hilarious send-up of middle-class mores that emasculates to the extent that most men will be guarding their crotch throughout.

5- Trust (1990)
How can such humanity and warmth emanate from a studiously arch and stylised film as this? It’s quite a coup, and it made me want to be friends with Hal Hartley. He never returned my letters.

6- The Third Man (1949)
Here’s a challenge. Pop the VHS cassette in your video player. Fast forward this film with your eyes shut. Play, then pause. Keep them shut mind!… Now open them. Isn’t that fucking amazing! Every frame of this film (I haven’t counted how many) is such a stunning composition you could hang it in an Athena frame and gaze at its wonder for many years. Don’t worry: the film’s good too. Orson Welles is in it. He also made a few good films.

7- The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
More cold war machinations. Eerie. Weird. And so fucking cool. It’s got ol’ blue eyes Frank Sinatra in it. It’s so political and cryptic you’ll be scratching your noodle ’til your fingers bleed but don’t worry – there’s always the Hollyoaks omnibus.

8- Chinatown (1974)
Polanski genre-hopped like no other. His comedies were largely woeful. His horror films more rewarding. But his one stab at film noir is a direct hit. How can a 1974 film by a complete outsider usurp such genre classics as Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, Kiss Me Deadly? I don’t rightly know. It’s gripping and brilliant and evokes mood and time without a hint of pastiche.

9- City of God (2002)
Another film by a latecomer that transcends (and possibly surpasses) its obvious lineage. I’m a huge fan of Scorcese but this film blew me away even more than Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas did on first viewing. And that’s no mean feat. Unlike Scorcese’s stoic representation of gangster life, City of God has a poignant humanity that makes you gasp, shriek, weep and punch the air at various moments. It’s that good!

10- Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
My favourite Woody Allen film. Included mainly to wind up my Allen-loving colleague who doesn’t even rate it in her top 20. It’s a brilliant film with one of the best narrative framing devices. How can you say it’s ‘SHIT’!. You are wrong! You are so fucking WRONG!!


Fear(s) of the Dark (Burns)

Format: Cinema

Release date: 3 October 2008

Venues: Odeon Panton St, Ritzy (London) and selected key cities

Distributor: Metrodome

Directors: Charles Burns, Blutch, Marie Caillou, Richard McGuire, Pierre di Sciullo, Lorenzo Mattoti

Writers: Charles Burns, Blutch, Pierre di Sciullo, Jerry kramski, Richard McGuire, Michel Pirus, Romain Slocombe

Original title: Peur(s) du noir

France 2007

85 mins

Charles Burns is famous for his superb graphic novel Black Hole, which follows a group of teenagers affected by a sexually transmitted disease that causes weird physical mutations. With Fear(s) of the Dark he makes his first foray into film. A collection of black and white animated short films by six illustrators, the film explores deep-rooted anxieties, from attacks by savage beasts to possession and haunting to darkness itself. Done in his characteristic high contrast style, Burns’s contribution tells the disturbing story of a shy young man with an interest in insects whose first relationship with a girl turns into a nightmare. Virginie Sélavy met him in Edinburgh, where the film received its UK premiere.

Virginie Sélavy: How did you get involved with the project?

Charles Burns: I was contacted by a French production company, Prima Linea. It was an ideal situation for me. I had the opportunity to work with a group of people and to have control over every aspect of the story. It also came at a point when I had finished working on Black Hole. After this long story, I really wanted to do something that was a collaborative piece, work with other people, get out of my tiny little studio.

VS: How did the collaborative process work?

CB: They wanted the artist to be totally in charge of the film, but by the nature of the medium someone has to animate it, so you can’t control everything. With comics I control every single aspect of it, even down to the paper stock that it’s printed on. So I did find out that there is a reason why I do comics, I really do like having that complete control. But I was perfectly happy with the results and it was a great experience.

VS: Your piece is done in the high contrast black and white that is characteristic of your comics. How essential to your work is that style?

CB: I like working in colour, I’m working on a colour comic right now. But 99.9% of my comics have been in black and white. My style of drawing has this kind of very rich brush line from the 40s and 50s and the American comics that I liked and tried to imitate when I was younger. The look of my film pretty much emulates the look of my comics. The producers searched for the perfect match for each artist’s style. For me the studio did 3D animation and they had this very strange process that would render these 3D characters in a kind of shading like my drawings.

VS: Just as in Black Hole, your film explores a certain anxiety and ambivalence about sex.

CB: It’s an incredibly strong part of a person’s life. Black Hole examines adolescents, people coming to terms with their sexual identity and moving from childhood to adulthood, and the turmoil that takes place. Fear(s) of the Dark is based on a very early comic that I did and that I don’t want to show anybody now, because it wasn’t very successful. However, there were ideas in it that I wanted to go back to. A lot of the themes that I come back to again and again concern identity and sometimes stereotypes. Black Hole was much more about the characters than about the plot. In Fear(s) of the Dark, the characters are much more generalised and two-dimensional. You’ve got the typical wimpy, shy guy and the vivacious sexy blonde. But I like playing with those ideas, the fact that her role gets reversed, she’s turned into this aggressive, masculine character who basically impregnates this guy.

VS: The reversal of roles in both Fear(s) of the Dark and Black Hole seems to be represented visually by the deep wound that appears on the male characters.

CB: Sometimes the symbolism is very heavy-handed but it’s fun for me to push those things in there. So of course there’s all kinds of wounds, vaginal orifices, all those things.

VS: But it also reveals the weirdness of sex, and the fact that sexual identities are maybe not as clear-cut as people would like to think.

CB: Exactly. It’s like, this girl has a tail, why am I attracted to this girl with a tail, what is that? (laughs) And Keith in Black Hole doesn’t know how to process that idea. Obviously I could have told a similar story without that physical deformity or this disease. But for me the disease makes it even stronger, pushes it to this very extreme situation.

VS: You use these external elements to bring that out. In Black Hole, it’s the disease, in Fear(s) of the Dark it’s the insect. Why the insect?

CB: I don’t know. (laughs) I’m trying to think, why the insect? I don’t have an answer for you.

VS: I thought that the insect was very striking because there was a certain humanoid element about it. Was that a conscious thing?

CB: Oh yeah, of course. You have someone that is recognisable in the movement, and the scale even. To be honest… Now I’m talking about this… That’s the question, how much do I want to reveal? (laughs) The story is based on the fact that when I was a little kid I slept on a bed that had creaking little sounds inside and I imagined that it was insects. And you think about that bed that actually does have something inside… There you go. (laughs) Right? What are you afraid of? It’s something that’s inside your bed, that’s moving around.

VS: And then it’s inside your body…

CB: Yeah, then you wake up and there’s a wound on your arm, and there’s something in there… (laughs)

VS: The cowboy bed is another interesting detail in the film.

CB: It’s very childish, it’s a symbol of childhood and she’s teasing him because he took this bed with him. There’s also the idea that the story starts out with this very isolated kid. You never see his mother, but you hear her horrible voice downstairs; and you can tell that he’s scared of her to a degree and he’s hiding things from her, he’s hiding this insect from her. And then this thing is transferred into his bed and carried on to his life.

VS: The other thing that’s interesting is this amateur lab that he has as a child. You seem to suggest this almost casual cruelty of the scientist with the insects in jars or pinned to the wall.

CB: It’s also the idea that he’s looking at other people, and other women especially as almost, not specimens, but the species that he doesn’t understand. He’s in this window looking down and you see the women almost insect-sized walking around; and lo and behold there’s this woman who actually likes him and treats him like a normal human being, and then things go wrong…

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

Read this interview and much more in our autumn print issue. The theme is cruel games, from sadistic power play in Funny Games to fascist games in German hit The Wave and Stanley Kubrick’s career-long fascination with game-playing. Don’t miss our fantastic London Film Festival comic strip, which surely is worth the price of the issue alone!


Hansel and Gretel

52nd London Film Festival

15-30 October 2008

Various venues, London


The last major event on the festival circuit, the BFI London Film Festival showcases some of the best films of the year, celebrating diversity rather than big budgets and red-carpet stars, unrestrained by the high-profile awards ceremonies that dominate coverage from festivals like Cannes and Venice.

Under the umbrella of ‘history, memory and politics’, the 52nd edition of the festival kicks off with the world premiere of Ron Howard’s latest film, Frost/Nixon, an adaptation of Peter Morgan’s successful play revolving around the legendary interview granted by the disgraced Nixon to a young, ambitious David Frost. While the parallels with Bush’s own ignominious eight years in office are plainly clear, Oliver Stone’s latest tragicomedy W. hits the nail more squarely on the head. Starring Josh Brolin as George W Bush, the film charts his rather inglorious career from drunken college kid to president of the United States.

Shifting the spotlight to the Middle East, one of the festival’s undoubted highlights is the powerful, brilliant Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman’s animated documentary about the nightmare futility of Israel’s 1982 war with Lebanon. This film should not be missed. The exploration of history, memory and politics continues with two highly anticipated films that delve into the radical terror groups that sprang out of Germany and Japan in the 1970s: veteran TV director Uli Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex, and Koji Wakamatsu’s United Red Army, a hit at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.

The themes of retribution and redemption appear in Austrian director Gí¶tz Spielmann’s Revanche, about an ex-con seeking revenge for the death of his girlfriend in a bungled robbery. Matteo Rovere directs an Italian film noir in A Game for Girls, centered on a teenage femme fatale, while Denmark’s The Candidate is a taut and suspenseful thriller about a desperate man hunting down his blackmailers. Moving away from Europe, Hansel and Gretel is an eerie fairy tale-based thriller directed by South Korea’s Yim Phil-sung. More politically charged, Indonesia’s The Secret is a metaphysical thriller set on the mean streets of a brutal police state as two men hunt down a phantom killer.

Several noteworthy UK films are making an appearance at this year’s festival. Gerald McMorrow explores an intriguing (and stylish) alternate reality in his sci-fi film Franklyn, starring Ryan Phillippe and Eva Green. Two other British debuts are devoted to pop music culture: Nick Moran’s Telstar charts the rise and tragic fall of the influential music producer Joe Meek, while 1 2 3 4, directed by Giles Borg, is another pop-enthused film about an aspiring indie band that promises a great soundtrack.

The indie aesthetic is also at the heart of the documentary Beautiful Losers, which celebrates a loose collective of DIY artists who did their own thing on the fringes of the New York art scene in the early 90s. Another highly anticipated documentary is American Teen, something of a real-life Breakfast Club directed by Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture), while Not Quite Hollywood by Australian director Mark Hartley delves into the ‘ozploitation’ films of the 1970s.

The Experimenta section of the festival offers a rare opportunity to see two 35mm films by the Situationist leader Guy Debord, one a 1959 anti-documentary on the Situationists and the other Debord’s final film, an attack on both society and cinema made in 1978. For a lighter treat after such revolutionary fare there is The Good, the Bad and the Weird, a homage to Sergio Leone set in 1930s Japanese-occupied Manchuria from director Kim Ji-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters, A Bittersweet Life); and screening in the French Revolutions section is Louise-Michel, the follow-up to the outrageously funny, bad-taste road movie Aaltra.

There are countless other films with intriguing storylines screening at the festival and the only challenge will be finding a way to see them all. The festival starts on October 15 and public booking is now open.

Sarah Cronin



Format: DVD

Release date: 13 October 2008

Distributor Icon Home Entertainment

Director: Franco Rosso

Writers: Franco Rosso, Martin Stellman

Cast: Brinsley Forde, Karl Howman, Trevor Laird

UK/Italy 1980

95 mins

As the 1970s, a decade of immense upheaval in Britain, came to a close, three films exploring and, to a certain degree, defining the various and often contradictory aspects of what it meant (means) to be black and British astutely chronicled the changing face of youth politics and incipient popular culture, the impact of which has only truly been acknowledged through more recent and closer examination.

Horace Ové’s Pressure (1975, UK), the first feature film made by a black director in Britain, Menelik Shabazz’s Burning an Illusion (1981, UK) and most poignantly Franco Rosso’s Babylon (1980, UK/Italy) all contribute a telling insight into the changing face of Britain from a minority perspective, at a time when the traditional notions of class and politics were being fiercely debated and challenged. The films marked a paradigm shift in what it meant to be British, in the broadest sense, and how that affected notions of race and class identity. The films, in retrospect, would form a trilogy; highlighting some of the smouldering issues that were to become the major battlegrounds of the early Thatcher years.

With racial tensions finally erupting across Britain’s inner cities, in places like Toxteth, St Paul’s, Hansworth and the Notting Hill Carnival, Margaret Thatcher’s axiom ‘there’s no such thing as society’ seemed to ring particularly true for a whole generation of black British youth. It is this brooding undercurrent that informs Rosso’s film and makes it stand above so many of the overly romantic, retrospective portrayals of British youth culture such as Frank Rodman’s Quadrophenia (1979, UK), Isaac Julien’s Young Soul Rebels (1991, UK) or Nick Love’s The Football Factory (2004, UK).

The generational and cultural conflict between the optimistic, often middle-class, immigrant sensibilities of the Windrush generation, and the predominantly pessimistic, working-class notion of black Britishness, is steadily unfolded in Pressure and Burning an Illusion, yet it is Babylon, recounting the travels and travails of a small South London sound system, Ital Lion, and their struggle to make a name for themselves, that crucially identifies the formation of a unique and stridently militant identity amongst the first generation to fully have come of age under the banner of black Britain.

Central to the success of the movie is its intelligent and realistic depiction of reggae music and the cultural milieu provided by the sound system as the social building block of a new, disenfranchised generation of black youth caught in the no man’s land of a Diaspora culture, born in a country that many felt they could not claim as their own, yet separated from the ancestral homelands of their parents. The film is also one of the first to not only identify but, more importantly, fully embrace vernacular language, music and fashion. This was the springboard from which black British popular culture would become the driving force behind British youth culture as a whole, before the brand-laden and all-pervasive aspects of American hip-hop (itself beholden to the influence of the reggae sound system) became a global, commercial omnipresence.

Unlike a plethora of revisionist depictions of youth culture, Babylon captures the zeitgeist of the era, avoiding the grip of nostalgia, instead providing a harrowing yet ultimately uplifting account of a cultural and spiritual triumph over the adversities of poverty and overt racism (institutional and physical) that were still so ingrained in Thatcher’s England. Without resorting to the cliché of a Hollywood happy ending, with everyone learning the error of their ways, the film’s climax relies upon its lead characters looking inward to find an inner strength from which to build an identity.

Joel Karamath

Toronto International Film Festival 2008


Toronto International Film Festival

4-13 September 2008


Films followed by * are showing at the London Film Festival, 15-30 October 2008.

‘Returning to Toronto was like finding a Jaguar parked in front of a vicarage and the padre inside with a pitcher of vodka martinis reading Lolita.’ This quotation is from an article in Maclean’s magazine in 1959, and 49 years on, the vicarage is now a film festival, the padre a media publicist (some things never change), the martinis still flowing and Lolita has become flesh and hangs out at festival parties.

The 33rd Toronto International Film Festival held last month was a hectic, well-run film bonanza which was rather low on sparkling Hollywood fare – the lacklustre Appaloosa (dir. Ed Harris) was a sub-Fordian western that added nothing new to the genre and starred a miscast Renée Zellweger as ‘the widder’ woman’ and Jeremy Irons as a more camp than crook ‘baddie’; his American accent put me in mind of the one-octave-lower school of Yankee voice exemplified by Hugh Laurie in House. There was Spike Lee’s worthy, sometimes touching, but ultimately under-edited and slightly unfocused film, The Miracle of St Anna* along with the the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading and Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married.

More promising (and rewarding) though, was to push beyond the galas and premieres and dip into the plentiful screen space given over to other cultural players. Several programming strands – and a very well appointed and excellent army of press and publicists – provided plenty of scope for off-mainstream viewing like the Discovery programme, which highlighted ‘provocative feature films by new and emerging directors’. It offered two strong films, one a notable and clever first film from South Korean director Noh Young-seok with the irresistible title Daytime Drinking, the other a flawed but nonetheless very interesting film set in the days of Pinochet’s Chile, Tony Manero*, which was a second film by Pablo Larrain.

The Vanguard programme of ‘innovative filmmakers and bold films that challenge our social and cultural assumptions’ revealed its strongest works in Thomas Woschitz’s broad portmanteau Universalove, which had a significant soundtrack provided by Austrian indie band Naked Lunch, and the Filipino/French co-production Serbis (dir. Brillante Mendoza), an excellent story of a matriarchal family who own a run-down soft-core porno cinema ironically named ‘Family’, which is swarming with various misfits and characters on the societal fringe – a real discovery, this film. The Visions (‘Filmmakers who challenge our notions of mainstream cinema’), Contemporary World Cinema, Real to Reel, and Midnight Madness programmes were likewise repositories of promising and challenging films. I especially enjoyed the poetic and atmospheric black and white meditation, El Cant dels Ocells (Birdsong)* a second film from the Spanish director Albert Serra which had echoes of Tarkovsky’s work, the Cassavetes-like film of Mika Kaurismäki, Kolme viisasta miesta (Three Wise Men), and finally what was for me probably the most rewarding film of the festival, the small and wonderfully formed Goodbye Solo* (dir. Ramin Bahrani), a film set largely in a taxi cab and in which we are immersed in the character’s lives from the very outset. The film boasts a brilliant script, which the actors make seem improvised, and two fantastic performances by the leads, Red West (formerly of Elvis Presley’s Memphis Mafia) and Souleymane Sy Savane. Savane has a terrifically charismatic screen presence and easily embodies the goodness of his character Solo, in striking contrast to the darker demons and disillusionment internalised by West’s character, William. It offers an honest and accurate portrayal of the character’s stories and avoids the slick resolution that a Hollywood treatment would have required. The Real to Reel documentary programme likewise held many pleasant surprises; one notable film, which also caught my attention at the Brit Doc Festival earlier this year, was the Richard Parry film Blood Trail, which comes with the tagline ’13 Years, 3 Wars, 1 Photographer’ and follows the fortunes (and misfortunes) of war photographer Robert King. It is to these alternative strands that, I suspect, most readers of Electric Sheep would have found their cinematic radars pointed, and if there is any cultural justice in this world these festival gems will be picked up and given distribution and exhibition.

The festival was dominated by two themes this year: the much bandied about perception of a ‘New Realism’ in recent cinema (sounding very much, I recognise, like a themed issue of Granta magazine), and the triumph of screen veterans who we didn’t know we cared about in the first place, namely, Mickey Rourke and Jean-Claude Van Damme in The Wrestler and JCVD respectively. Electric Sheep bills itself as ‘a deviant view of cinema’; well, here’s one: Mickey Rourke is one of the greatest screen actors of his generation. OK, I admit to more than a bit of hyperbole there, but his performance in Aronofsky’s fine film (don’t look for the over-wrought significations that characterise the rest of the director’s work) is exquisite: it is well-paced, well-judged, well-balanced, incredibly nuanced, thoughtful, deeply committed – and I can hardly believe that I’m stating all this in print. But I am.

Of course, Rourke looks like hell – a combination of who knows what boxing blows, steroids, botox and surgery that makes him look like a walking, talking plasticination artwork by Prof Gunther von Hagens. But it’s one hell of a bravura performance that he creates and it could fit comfortably in a list of best-ever sporting performances, just narrowly eclipsed by Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. A bet: Oscar nomination forthcoming. Any takers? His performance notwithstanding though, the film does have flaws, with a storyline that entails the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold, the estranged daughter who all too quickly reconnects with the father figure and the near-obligatory contemporary text of masculinity in crisis.

Jean-Claude Van Damme in the Belgian/French/Luxembourgian film JCVD is also a bit of a revelation. Directed by Mabrouk El Mechri, the film is an action-comedy examination of the nature of fame – particularly Van Damme’s own – in a very surprising and highly intertextual film reminiscent of Being John Malkovich. In fact, intertextual and self-reflexive narratives as well as elliptical story lines were found in many of the films shown in the festival.

It would be remiss not to mention the many films – short, documentary and feature length – that were made in the host country and are screened annually at the festival. Canadian cinema has had a bumpy history: sometimes shining, more often good rather than great, and full of sub-Hollywood, sub-European cinematic compromises. Too often worthy and aspirant, it has produced few genuine masterpieces – among which I would cite Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine, Denys Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire and, for historical reasons, Don Shebib’s Goin’s Down the Road. The best directors, like Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg, have often sought funding and facilities outside the country. The two ‘Great White North’ hopes this year were Passchendale (dir. Paul Gross – he of Due South television fame), a First World War epic, and Toronto Stories (dir. Sook-Yin Lee, Sudz Sutherland, David Weaver and Aaron Woodley), which is very reminiscent in structure of the multi-directed New York Stories (1989). Both films share some of the previously mentioned national qualities: worthy, aspirant and just short of truly major Canadian/international statements. Hold out for Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg.

There remains only one highlight of the Toronto Festival to note: the return to filmmaking after a self-imposed sabbatical of 17 years in which he developed his painterly skills, of the great Polish director, Jerzy Skolimowski, the maker of several significant international films including Deep End (1970), The Shout (1978) Moonlighting (1982) and the rarely seen Ferdydurke (1991). His new film, Four Nights with Anna, is an intense portrait of a romantic loner who becomes increasingly bold in his obsessive spying on a local nurse who he had seen raped years before. He eventually penetrates her personal space by entering her apartment, unseen and unheard, while she sleeps. The slowly unfolding, carefully framed and atmospheric filming tells a slightly sinister, deeply psychological story. Excerpts from an interview with the director will appear in a later ES issue.

James B Evans