Category Archives: Features


La Antena

The Electric Sheep team look back at the heroes and villains of 2007.



Johnnie To’s most accomplished film to date combines punchy direction with a well-knit, pleasingly convoluted script while the unusual Macau setting, with its colonial buildings and desert landscapes, is utilised to magnificent effect. With Exiled, To is openly emulating Sergio Leone, and this is a great riff on the Italian master’s trademark mix of playfulness, melancholy and spectacular violence.

Ten Canoes
A wonderful folk tale set in an Aboriginal community, Ten Canoes is about the eternal story of mankind – a repetitive tale of love, lust, jealousy, conflict, food, farts, shit and death. Although it presents itself as a morality tale, the film is anything but, the ending being a joyfully inconclusive illustration of the messiness of human life. One of the most thoroughly enjoyable films of the year.

Inland Empire
There is an experimental, uncompromising feel to this three-hour dream tale as well as a structural and thematic ambition that make it one of David Lynch’s best films in a long time. Lynch uses the set-up of the film-within-the film not as an empty self-reflexive device but as a way of exploring the idea of different levels of reality. The film is very much concerned with time, a fluid, non-linear kind of time, with doors, windows and TV screens providing the gateways from one dimension to another. This is no virtuoso demonstration of temporal complexity, however, and the echoing fragments of time are all connected to an eternally repeating tragic love story.

Far North
With Michelle Yeoh magnificent in the central role, Asif Kapadia’s follow-up to his acclaimed debut feature The Warrior is another stunning epic fairy tale set amid breathtaking landscapes. Against the savage beauty of the Arctic Circle, in an environment where life is a constant, violent fight for survival, an increasingly tense triangle develops between two women and the escaped soldier they have rescued. At a time when there is so much angsty questioning about the state of British filmmaking, it is baffling that such a beautifully accomplished film should still be awaiting distribution.

A graceful, elegant film, both visually and thematically, Frozen is a slow-paced evocation of a rebellious young girl’s life with her father and brother in the remote Himalayan mountains. When one day the Army disrupts the desolate peace of their surroundings and erects a camp opposite their house in order to fight some vague terrorist enemy, it is the first sign that the family will be forced to change their way of life. Elliptical and subtly suggestive, infused with thoughtful spirituality, filled with memorable images, it is a deeply affecting, soulful film.

La Antena
In this magical fairy tale from Argentina a megalomaniac TV boss has stolen the voices of the city’s inhabitants. In a delightfully playful homage to silent film, blonde heroines and intrepid, if slightly bumbling heroes on bizarre flying implements bravely stand up to the fascistic villains. The wonders of early twentieth-century mechanical inventions are mixed with surreal touches to create a cautionary tale about brutally repressive power-hungry media moguls. Enchanting, quaintly charming but also very timely.


The Fountain
Peddling mystical rubbish of the most literal kind, The Fountain has nothing but tiresome special effects to guide us on the path to enlightenment. Sadly, this atrocious new-age mumbo-jumbo comes from the director who gave us the brilliantly inventive Pi in 1998.



This Is England
Shane Meadows cements his position as Britain’s finest living filmmaker with this savage, sympathetic, angry, nostalgic, hilarious and heartbreaking study of his own conflicted childhood, in which a poignant study of England’s past becomes a stark warning for our collective future.

I’m Not There
There’s no doubt that it helps to be a Dylanophile when viewing Todd Haynes’ magical, fractured take on the great man’s life and work, riddled as it is with in-jokes, references, and entire plots and sequences inspired not by real life but by Dylan’s lyrics, lies and exaggerations. But as an exploration of the relationship between creator and creations, between truth, fantasy and self-expression, I’m Not There is truly worthy of its subject.

The best journo-procedural since All The President’s Men, this is by far David Fincher’s best film since Se7en (not that there’s been much in the way of competition). Expansive, involving and gorgeously photographed while still managing to be genuinely disturbing, Zodiac is prestige filmmaking in the classic sense.

The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros
A giddy, gender-bending, bizarrely loveable take on City of God, replete with corrupt cops, shabby small-time crooks and wayward street punks, all in orbit around the titular cross-dressing twelve-year-old, a dayglo whirlwind in high heels and his dead mother’s dresses. Ghetto fabulous, in a very literal sense.

Knocked Up/ Superbad
In a year bereft of a decent studio blockbuster it was left to Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow to save our summer. And they succeeded admirably, with a pair of crass, juvenile, deliriously heart-warming indie-stoner comedies, reuniting the casts of Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared and marking a high point for American comedy unseen since Bill Murray was king.


Death Proof
In a bumper year for badness (300, Exodus and Pirates 3 were all strong contenders) one film effortlessly clawed its way to the top of the dung heap: Death Proof is boring, crass, pretentious, totally wastes Kurt Russell and offers yet another unwanted insight into Quentin’s bizarre, conflicted, adolescent view of women as either whores or heroes, preferably both.



4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
An edge-of-the-seat psychological thriller, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a riveting film about oppression in Communist-era Romania, told through the eyes of two young women entangled in a backstreet abortion. Excellent performances and brilliant cinematography help make this Palme d’Or-winning film one of the best of 2007.

The Counterfeiters
Stylishly shot and superbly acted, The Counterfeiters is a film set during the Holocaust that manages to be suspenseful, entertaining and provocative, perfectly capturing the agonising decisions that tormented the men in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, who were recruited by the Nazis for the largest-ever counterfeiting operation in history.


I Don’t Want to Live Alone
Tsai Ming-liang’s reputation is based on creating artistic works diametrically opposed to the bland, lowest-common-denominator junk churned out by Hollywood. Unfortunately, his latest film I Don’t Want to Live Alone is a dreary, unspeakably dull film that sinks under the weight of its own pretensions.



This Is England
Another stylish addition to the country’s canon of social realism. Meadows abandons his hardcore revenge fixation and replaces it with a tenderness delivered through a coming-of-age story. It soars from the highs of sexual awakening to the lows of a racist’s squalid flat and has an excellent ska-soaked soundtrack to boot.

While nothing can get close to explaining the last moments of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis’ troubled life, through its measured characterisation and telegraphic storytelling Control comes close. Corbijn evokes the aesthetics of the period through moody monochrome, but his characters are anything but black and white.

Eagle vs Shark
The last few years has seen a glut of pastel-hued kooky movies such as Little Miss Sunshine and Eagle vs Shark never pretends to be anything different. But the unrelenting geeky arrogance of its male lead juxtaposed with the sheepish sweetness of its female lead makes for a successfully offbeat rom-com with the perfect ratio of emotional moments to funny ones.

Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten
This documentary about the life and times of the Clash’s infamous lead singer feels more like an extended television programme than a movie but how else could Julien Temple fit in so many testaments to the musician’s wit and wisdom? Archive footage spliced with interviews with Strummer’s friends and associates cleverly asserts his sound musical and cultural legacy.

Opera Jawa
It is centuries-old and its musicians can play overnight concerts without a break but no one thought of using gamelan on a film soundtrack until Javan film director Nugroho earlier this year. The eerie sounds and patterns unfamiliar to a Western ear accompany this love story to its tragic end while the art installations, lively dance sequences and a good use of colour make this film the most visually spectacular of the year.


Although John Waters gave it its full blessing, this remake is a poor interpretation of the original. Its theme of racial integration and the idea of accepting oneself no matter one’s size are undeniably healthy for the younger audience, but the un-PC sleaze and flamboyant style and most importantly, the music of the original are shamefully missing.



A perfect animated version of the popular graphic novel, which mixes terrific caricature and subtle chiaroscuro shading. A touching coming-of-age story about an Iranian girl who never feels at home in her own country or studying abroad is the best animated film in years and one that’s attractive to older children and adults alike.

Drawing Restraint 9
Matthew Barney’s latest cinematic masterpiece is a memorable epic that confirms his talent not only as an artist but also as a filmmaker. Mixing his usual esoteric but beautiful imagery of sexuality and daily routine Barney brings the ritual and paraphernalia of whaling into sharp relief.

30 Days of Night
Continuing this year’s trend (300, Persepolis) of turning cult graphic novels into films that capture the aesthetic of their original format, 30 Days is the best vampire movie since the original Blade and the best horror film set in the frozen North since John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing.

David Fincher continues to bring the finest thrillers in a generation to cinema screens. Here, he has made an almost flawless melodrama that mixes Robert Downey Jr.’s finest performance to date with a perfect policier of the French tradition that has as many evocative temporal stylings and red herrings as you could possibly hope for.

Brand upon the Brain!
Cynics might accuse Guy Maddin of being a one-trick pony – producing obscure silent movies full of deviant sexuality and exaggerated performances – but no one else does it so well! In his latest, a lurid tale of orphans, mad (naked) scientists and a haunted lighthouse combine to produce another memorable phantasmagoria that could make Lemony Snicket jealous!


Running Stumbled
John Maringouin’s self-indulgent and exploitative verité movie is a mixture of real life and staged performance that brings to the screen a depressing tale of drug addicts in pre-Katrina New Orleans. There’s enough material here for a diverting short film, but at feature length, the director’s stunt seems to be mainly concerned with trying the audience’s patience…



The Lives of Others
The film deservedly scored a foreign language Oscar: It’s 1984 in Communist East Germany, and Big Brother is watching its citizens. More precisely, Stasi top dog Weisler oversees the surveillance of George Dreyman, under suspicion for being the only non-subversive playwright in the land. A bleak tale of how state and secret police control the masses, and of how little has changed.

Two Days in Paris
This DIY affair from Oscar-nominee Delpy (who wrote, produced, directed and starred) is the ultimate antidote to saccharine love stories. Razor-sharp dialogue, oddball characters, twisted humour and political undertones make for a spicy anarchic soufflé.

Joe Strummer – The Future Is Unwritten
Julien Temple is no amateur when it comes to making music documentaries. Combining archive footage with rare interviews and other snippets, the film celebrates the late Clash frontman as a legend whose punk ideology is here to stay. With contributions from the likes of Johnny Depp and Martin Scorsese, this is as cool as it gets!

The Bow
A poetic tale of love and betrayal on the high seas – and not a pirate in sight. An old fisherman and a young girl live on a boat – isolated from the mainland. He boosts his income by acting as a clairvoyant – using the girl and a magic bow as his tools. Magic is pushed off the plank, however, with the arrival of a young stranger…

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Forget the gun-wielding, bank-robbing James gang… for this is more American Gothic than Wild West. In fact, it’s a Shakespearean tragedy that de-mystifies the legend of Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and portrays his killer (Casey Affleck) as a psychological wreck. Superb!


Rabbit Fever
Hailed as the most hilarious Brit comedy of the year, Rabbit Fever tells of sexually frustrated females who find nirvana via the aid of, ahem, the Rabbit vibrator! The humour is as low as an exhausted Duracell battery bunny, and cameos by an all-star cast do nothing to stimulate the G-Spot!



I For India
A truly impressive and emotionally complex film memoir about life for a family of Indian migrants settling in Britain in the 60s and trying both to maintain contact with their faraway relatives – with increasing desperation – and to understand a Britain in the age of Enoch and Maggie, of mass poverty, unemployment and racism. Director Sandhya Suri displays creative intelligence in her use of a Super-8 diary sent back and forth between her doctor father and his family in India in combination with archive TV footage, bringing to the fore a multiplicity of voices that speak of the contradictions inherent in the immigrant condition.

Inland Empire
David Lynch undoubtedly remains the modern master of suspense and horror. While many directors are content with setting us up in a believable world and terrifying us with the monsters that lurk beneath, Lynch is really only ever interested in ripping reality apart to tear into the psyche and the world of cinema itself. Terrific stuff!

Funny Ha Ha
First-time actress Kate Dollenmayer is captivating as Marnie, suffering through the doldrums of post-university loneliness; unemployed, single and floating through pointless parties and dull temporary jobs. Director Andrew Bujalski is clearly indebted to Cassavetes’ emphasis on improvised interactions between actors, but nevertheless offers up a smart and funny script that hones in on a time of life close to his heart with a documentarist’s eye for detail.



Format: DVD

Release date: 22 October 2007

Distributor: Eureka

Director: René Laloux

Titles: The Masters of Time (Les Maîtres du temps, 1982), Gandahar (1988)


A whole generation of French children were brought up on René Laloux’s magical films, bussed to the local art-house cinema by their teachers to feast on the other-worldly sights of La Planí¨te sauvage (Fantastic Planet): buzzing plants and strange fruits, blue creatures shape-shifting to music and headless statues dancing together in space. Light years away from the bland slickness and smug cleverness of Shrek and co., Laloux’s films have fallen into obscurity, rarely screened despite the success they enjoyed on their release. Thankfully, Eureka have now made the films available in the UK, with last year’s DVD of Fantastic Planet joined by Gandahar and The Masters of Time (Les Maîtres du temps) last month, providing a welcome opportunity to revisit this master animator’s wondrous world..

In a career spanning three decades Laloux only completed three features and five shorts, his work always constrained by budgetary limitations. It was while he was working at the progressive La Borde Psychiatric Clinic at the end of the 50s that he made his first foray into filmmaking. The success of a short animated film made in collaboration with the patients led to a meeting with Roland Topor (creator of the Panic Movement with Alejandro Jodorowksy and Fernando Arrabal). This marked the start of Laloux’s string of partnerships with respected illustrators: after making Fantastic Planet as well as two shorts with Topor, Laloux worked with Philippe Caza and Moebius on his following films.

Although Laloux’s collaborators changed from film to film, there is a remarkable unity of vision in his work, which emerges not only through recurring narrative themes, but also through the intensely poetic visual world that is created. It is a world alive with movement and sound: in Fantastic Planet, vegetal tentacles sway to electronic warblings, while crystals fall like rain, covering everything with a hard, shiny surface that shatters when a small boy whistles. The enchanted forest of The Masters of Time hums and pulses with life, and the paradisiacal world of Gandahar is a lush land of plenty, in which bizarre farm animals plough the land and humanoid women pick bright red fruit from blue trees. Eerie sounds underline the strangeness of this world and, synched to the movements of the extra-terrestrial flora and fauna, make it come alive. These alien landscapes and the creatures inhabiting them are reminiscent of a dreamy and more benign Hieronymus Bosch. Never sentimental, it is a world that is poetic and cruel in equal measure: in one startling scene from Fantastic Planet a bird of prey attacks a humanoid Om tribe, devouring some of them before the rest of the tribe manage to kill it. The scene ends with the Oms drinking the bird’s blood.

There is certainly nothing childish in Laloux’s animation, and the director explores some very serious themes. One recurrent concern is the sinister side of human civilisation. Both Fantastic Planet and Gandahar depict very advanced, refined civilisations that have a monstrous, inhuman side to them. In the former, a race of towering blue giants called the Traags, whose preferred activity is meditation, have enslaved the man-like Oms, treating them at best as pets and at worst as vermin to be exterminated. By reversing our own world order and placing humans at the lower end of the scale, the film strikingly underlines our own casual cruelty to all other living beings (the opening scene in which Traag children nonchalantly kill a female Om trying to run away with her baby is chilling). Most importantly, it highlights the danger inherent in establishing any kind of hierarchy between species or races, and in this warning one can see the trauma left by Nazism on Laloux’s generation. In a significant reversal of the traditional savage/civilised opposition, the ‘savage planet’ of the title becomes a place of hope for the group of rebellious Oms trying to escape the persecution of the supposedly civilised Traags.

Gandahar explores a different, but just as dark, side of civilisation, and it is a variation on another Nazi nightmare, that of genetic selection. The people of Gandahar first appear to live in a utopian society where everybody is beautiful, food is plentiful, nature is luxuriant, and humans live in harmony with their environment. Having forsaken technology in favour of natural means, the people of Gandahar use mirror birds for surveillance and sprouting seeds for weapons. Emphasizing their perfect integration within the natural world that surrounds them, their main city Jasper is a human shape carved into the rocks of a mountain. However, when Gandahar comes under attack from mysterious steel men, the price that had to be paid to create this idyllic world is revealed: past genetic experiments have led to the creation of monstrous creatures, such as the mutant Transformés, or Métamorphe, a freakish giant brain that was left on a platform in the middle of the ocean when Gandahar’s scientists abandoned the experiment. Just like Métamorphe, the Transformés are not permitted access to the city of Jasper and are forced to live hidden away in underground caves. Kept out of sight of the beautiful Gandahar people for a long time, these past horrors are coming back to haunt them: it is quickly revealed that the steel men come from Métamorphe. It is therefore Gandahar’s own dark side that is now threatening its idyllic world: the attempt to engineer a perfect civilisation has resulted in the creation of brutal armies.

The spectre of totalitarian oppression is also present in the opposition between individual and collective identity that runs through Laloux’s work. Métamorphe is a pink blob that absorbs individuals before turning them into empty metallic shells. The steel men all breathe as one, the loud, creepily regular Darth Vader-style breathing uniting them into one big collective entity that leaves no place for difference or individuality. The Masters of Time also features a big blob that reviles difference and promotes unity above all else, turning all those who approach him into blank-faced angels. More ambiguous than the sinister steel men, the angels point to the dangerous allure of the totalitarian discourse that promises harmony and happiness in return for relinquishing all individual will.

These reflections on human civilisation are inscribed in wider philosophical considerations about the surrounding universe, a universe that is governed by a process of constant transformation. The steel men turn the Gandaharians to stone using petrifying ray guns before placing them into egg-shaped prisons. When these eggs go through the door of time, the Gandaharians are turned into more steel men. The eggs, the empty shells of the steel men and the petrified Gandaharians all point to the unstable nature of being: in this universe, identity is not a fixed given but is constantly fluctuating so that the Gandaharians are threatened by their own transformed selves. There are no simple oppositions between light and dark, between beautiful and monstrous, or between organic matter and steel; rather, they are one and the same thing at different stages of evolution.

The Transformés most clearly represent this process of constant metamorphosis: their misshapen bodies are not stable forms but keep mutating. As a result, they shun the present tense and instead use a strange mix of future and past tenses. The living embodiment of the continuous flux of time, the Transformés exist in a zone that hovers between past and future. This interest in a non-linear, non-fixed time leads Laloux to explore temporal paradoxes in both Gandahar and The Masters of Time (although in the latter film the temporal paradox feels somewhat like an underdeveloped afterthought). In Gandahar, the beautiful people of the present civilisation coexist with their mutated selves who have come back from the future to destroy them. But it is less the temporal paradox in itself that interests Laloux rather than the investigation of time as a parameter of a universe in a permanent state of mutation.

Some of the ideas in Laloux’s films were part of the zeitgeist of the 60s and 70s – the abhorrence of a dehumanising, collective identity, eugenics, ecology or out-of-body experiences – but, integrated into a magical world that weaves visual poetry and philosophical musings, they never feel dated. As Moebius remarked, Laloux is ‘an artist outside of time’, and having developed his style far from any fads or easy categories, he’s remained a unique voice in animation. Thirty years later, his films have lost none of their ability to make children and adults alike dream with their eyes open.

Virginie Sélavy


Two-Lane Blacktop

Title: Two-Lane Blacktop

Format: DVD

Release date: 18 June 2007

Distributor: Universal

Cast: James Taylor, Warren Oates, Harry Dean Stanton

US 1971
103 mins

Title: The Shooting

Format: DVD

Release date: 2 July 2007

Distributor: Cinema Club

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Warren Oates

US 1966
78 mins

Title: Ride in the Whirlwind

Format: DVD

Release date: 2 July 2007

Distributor: 2 Entertain Video

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Harry Dean Stanton

US 1966
79 mins

Having seen Monte Hellman’s 1975 feature Cockfighter at the National Film Theatre in the mid-90s, every week for years thereafter a friend and I would check the TV listings to see whether Channel 4 or BBC2 were screening anything else by this singular director. His road movie Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) was top of our wish list. Unsurprisingly it soon became a rite performed more in jest than any serious anticipation of fulfilment and sadly my friend died only months before the NFT screened it in 2005. This year it has surfaced on DVD but only to highlight the sorry state of affairs with the rest of the Hellman back-catalogue. Of his ten features to date only three others are currently available on DVD in the UK. Two early Westerns, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind (both 1966), were reissued on DVD in July. Both films have been available for a while, along with Flight to Fury (1965), on a five-DVD box-set showcasing the early work of Jack Nicholson though the quality of transfers is variable and Hellman’s name is just about visible in the small print, eclipsed by his mentor Roger Corman whose involvement was minimal. Some of the remaining output, like Cockfighter (1974), China 9 Liberty 37 (1978) and Iguana (1989), are available in the US, though copies of the first of these retail on the internet at upwards of $70. It’s unlikely to see a release over here as it has been deemed to condone bloodsports. The NFT got round this back in the 90s by screening it as a private function.

It’s a curious state of affairs that whilst 2007 saw the DVD release of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s entire output, the oeuvre of another so-called ‘cult’ figure like Hellman should remain in relative disarray. Watching Jodorowsky’s output back to back was one of this year’s highlights as one could trace his very particular technical, stylistic and thematic developments. The recent release of three DVDs is the occasion to do the same with Hellman in spite of the rather limited material at my disposal.

Nicholson’s continuing superstar status was undoubtedly a key reason for the reissue of both The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind and whilst his trademark grin sure enough finds its way into the former, it’s the lesser known Warren Oates who carries the film as he also does Two-Lane Blacktop. As Hellman reveals in the DVD commentary, he received the script of Two-Lane Blacktop only to insist it be completely rewritten by novelist Rudy Wurlitzer. One of the major changes was the inclusion of the Oates character who was absent from the original write. Probably best known for his lead performance in Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Oates was, until his death in 1987, a wonderfully versatile character actor who could play both straight and comedic roles and move fluidly between macho aggression and tender vulnerability (indeed in Cockfighter he manages this though barely speaking). If Nicholson’s grin is pure malevolence it is more than matched by Oates’ wonderfully disarming beam. In Two-Lane Blacktop he plays ‘G.T.O’, the driver of a yellow ’32 Pard Roadster’ who challenges James Taylor (‘The Driver’) and Dennis Wilson (‘The Mechanic’) in their grey 55 Chevvy to a race across the US from Los Angeles to Washington DC. As the only trained actor, Oates is the perfect foil for the laconicism of the other leads and without him the whole film might have been as grey and serious as the car they drive. Oates’ car, by contrast, is a mixture of schoolboy dream and camp excess and his character is all bluster and pompousness. Along the way they are joined by Laurie Bird (‘The Girl’) and they embark on a trip which, because it is from West to East, deconstructs the impetus towards American myth. Indeed, it’s tempting to see the Chevvy as a demythicised version of Melville’s great white whale, its dull matt grey signifying the end of days rather than the promise of glorious beginnings; it’s a road trip in which ‘nothing’ happens, with the race itself soon becoming something of a red herring.

Two-Lane Blacktop also plays out a very American tension between myth and pragmatism whereby the overarching idea of the race is broken down into the constituent pragmatics of the journey, and ultimately it’s these that become more pressing – the need to eat, sleep, fuck, and fill up with gas. It’s the incidentals, watching the characters stroll through a town, inhabit a diner or move around a filling station, that give the film its particular texture. On the commentary Hellman himself talks about how filming on location made such a difference to the feel of Two-Lane Blacktop and he uses one filling-station scene as an example. Its parerphanalia, he says, is as significant as the ‘action’ to the extent that it becomes ‘characterful’. As The Driver leans nonchalantly on a gas pump, the sign ‘regular’ written across it describes more than just the fuel going into the cars. But it’s not just words that live this double life. Objects, like the gas pump itself, are imbued with a significance they might not ordinarily possess. On one level this is what any art is all about but it’s also part of another peculiarly American tradition in which the factual and the everyday, what the nineteenth-century American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson called ‘the heavy, prosaic and desert’, possess an epiphanic quality. A lot of American painting is filled with this quality as is a lot of American film. Perhaps I need to revise what I said about the anti-mythic nature of Two-Lane Blacktop: myth in it resides elsewhere.

Bearing all this in mind, it seems even more remarkable that a major studio like Universal stumped up the cash for what Hellman and producer Michael Laughlin proposed: a road movie in which all the characters have generic names, in which the cars also share the billing as ‘characters’, and in which the proposed competition fizzles out almost as soon as it starts with the competitors effectively helping each other out along the way. Indeed the move from Darwinistic struggle and the survival of the fittest to a programme of cooperation might seem a little belated in 1971. Easy Rider had already dealt with the end of the Summer of Love though with US troops still very much in Vietnam the call for mutual aid was still vital in many minds.

Hellman’s earlier films, however, offer an altogether bleaker version of humanity. The Shooting similarly uses the journey motif with Millie Perkins’ unnamed woman leading Willett Gashade (Warren Oates) and his foolish and garrulous sidekick Coley (played by Will Hutchins in an earlier incarnation of Oates’ character in Two-Lane Blacktop) through a dusty Utah landscape on a trail whose end is unknown until the final frames of the film. Joined late in the day by Nicholson’s sadistic hired gun Billy Spear, who insists on leaving Coley to fry when one of the horses is lamed, the party winds its way further and further into the desert, and before the inevitable shoot-out, Nicholson and Oates grapple with each other in the sand in a nod to the famous scene at the end of Eric von Stroheim’s Greed. In Flight to Fury, smuggled diamonds are the pretext for multiple double-crossings, self-interest infecting all the characters who survive a plane crash in the jungle of the Philippines only to kill each other off one by one as the diamonds change hands. In the end, Dewey Martin’s Joe Gaines pursues Jack Nicholson’s Jay Wickham through a labyrinth of rocks. The final shot is of Nicholson’s dead legs sticking horizontally into the frame, a gruesome parody of the hanged bodies that swing vertically from the trees in Ride in the Whirlwind which, in an economics lesson from Corman, Hellman shot back to back with The Shooting. In it a trio find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time when they hole up in a shack with a bunch of outlaws who are smoked out by a vigilante mob and picked off one by one, the survivors strung up from the nearest branch. Only Nicholson survives and the film ends with him riding off not into the sunset but into an uncertain future, the clip-clop of his horse’s hooves a stark soundtrack to his bleak predicament.

Hellman has often been called an existentialist – indeed it’s an adjective he seems happy enough to accept on the commentary to Two-Lane Blacktop – though this blanket term perhaps obscures some of the other themes that emerge from his films. One of these is the relentless probing of masculinity. Hellman uses the genre of the Western, traditionally a proving-ground for extreme masculine behaviour, to question our assumptions about the way men behave. One of the ways he achieves this is by reconfiguring the female figure. In The Shooting, Mollie Perkins hires ex-gunfighter Gashade and Coley out of retirement to lead her to her quarry. Not only is she the film’s prime mover but her refusal to reveal her name gives her the air of mystery usually accorded heroic male figures in Westerns, most notably Clint Estwood’s ‘man-with-no-name’ in Sergio Leone’s famous trilogy. With her black hat and leather gloves, she dresses like the classic male gunfighter. When Nicholson’s Billy Spear joins the group in the same get-up he is made to look like a version of her. Indeed at one point Gashade comments to Coley, ‘See how she look like him’, but it’s as much the other way around as Coley’s rejoinder implies: ‘Real strong and a pretty ain’t he, the way he got himself up?’ Billy Spear’s masculinity is further questioned in the course of events. Before leaving Coley to the mercy of the Utah sun he asks him, ‘You wanna ride with me boy?’ then threatens ‘to blow [his] face off’. Later Perkins looks at his leather gloves commenting, ‘You never take those off do you, not even when you’re with a woman?’ Spear and Gashade’s fight in the dust culminates with Gashade picking up a rock and stoving in not Spear’s head as we might expect but his right hand. Sometimes a cigar isn’t just a cigar.

Because the car is a technologised version of the horse, the leather gloves of The Shooting are passed on to Oates’ character in Two-Lane Blacktop as part of his driving ‘get-up’ and he wears them along with an ever-changing array of woollen sweaters not unlike the jester’s traditional particoloured ‘motley’ – Hellman is nothing if not ludic. Masculine behaviour is under scrutiny here too as Hellman presents us with a cast of characters whose sexuality is fluid rather than fixed. When Oates rebuffs a gay hitcher (played by Harry Dean Stanton) who tries to seduce him at the very beginning of the race it’s because he ‘doesn’t have time for that sort of thing’ in the context of the competition, not necessarily in his life. The Driver and The Mechanic are curiously a-sexual and when The Girl arrives on the scene it does little to disrupt their partnership. Although she sleeps with The Mechanic she’s soon taking a driving lesson from The Driver but his inability to teach her how to get the car in gear can be read as a failure to get it on. He’s happier when his own hand is changing gear, one of the other things in America, as well as drawing a gun, your right hand is for.

As Chris Petit has suggested, Hellman’s films are all ‘terminal in their implications’ though many of them simply stop rather than end. Endings offer little or no resolution but are merely vectors for further uncertainty. However, both The Shooting and Two-Lane Blacktop offer particularly radical takes on endings. In The Shooting, after multiple gunshots ring out it’s unclear exactly who’s left dead or alive except for Nicholson who hobbles distantly across the screen, which then whites out as the camera aperture is opened to its fullest extent. It’s as absolute an indication possible that Hellman can take things no further, except possibly with the conclusion of Two-Lane Blacktop where the race ends not with a victory by either party but with the destruction of the very film stock Hellman is shooting, which burns up before our eyes. This is so much more profound than Barry Newman driving into a gas tanker at the end of Richard Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (also 1971), a film to which it’s often compared. Vanishing Point wears its so-called existentialism far too obviously on its sleeve whilst that of Two-Lane Blacktop resides much more covertly, lurking somewhere in the knit-and-purl of one of Warren Oates’ V-necks.

Jeff Hilson



London Film Festival

17 Oct – 1 Nov 2007


Arriving at the end of the season, the London Film Festival attempts to summarise a year’s worth of cinema, cherry-picking the choicest titles from around the world. Largely eschewing awards galas and celeb-spotting, the festival aims itself squarely at those who love film in all its diversity, offering everything from major works by big-name directors to micro-budget experimental shorts and features.

Notable among the former is Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, a mischievous portrait of Bob Dylan in which the artist is played by seven different actors, from African-American pre-teen Marcus Carl Franklin to a laconic, unnervingly precise impersonation by Cate Blanchett. Other name directors returning to the festival include Ang Lee with Lust, Caution, a lush and explicit tale of wartime romance and espionage, and Harmony Korine with Mr. Lonely, which stars Diego Luna as a tragic Michael Jackson lookalike wandering the streets of Paris. Michael Haneke directs the American remake of his own Funny Games, a subversive and increasingly relevant account of torture and sadism.

Moving out into the wider world and further down the economic scale we find a series of films dealing with human survival, and characters living on the fringes of the civilised world. Asif Kapadia’s Far North is a bleak tragedy played out among the endless wastes of the Arctic tundra, while the gorgeously monochrome Frozen details the life of a girl nearing adolescence in a remote Himalayan village. Two films deal with figures marooned in the rainforest: The Mourning Forest is an immersive study of an elderly man and his caregiver adrift in the Japanese jungle, while Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn tells the true story of US fighter pilot Dieter Dengler and his experiences in a Laotian prison camp during the Vietnam War.

Two more drama-documentaries bring the subject of warfare right up to date: both Nick Broomfield’s Battle for Haditha and Brian De Palma’s Redacted combine reality and fiction to investigate American atrocities in Iraq: the latter utilises video diaries and YouTube postings to explore the truth behind the apparent rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl by American soldiers. Other documentaries explore less controversial topics: Black, White & Gray is a tender portrait of the relationship between art collector Sam Wagstaff and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, while the playful, experimental We Want Roses, Too tells the story of the sexual revolution through interviews, drama and animation.

In fact, animated films are one of this festival’s strong points. Vexille is a dazzling futuristic fantasy rendered in eye-popping CGI, while Persepolis utilises more traditional techniques to tell the story of a girl growing up through the Iranian Islamic Revolution. For younger viewers, Bee Movie marks the long anticipated return of the great Jerry Seinfeld, while Yobi, the Five-Tailed Fox is a giddy tale of magic and adolescence, a South Korean take on Miyazaki. And an intriguing live-action film for children arrives in the form of Island of Lost Souls, a dark, supernatural adventure story steeped in Scandinavian folklore.

In addition to the all the fresh work on offer, the BFI have dug into the archives to present new prints of a number of classic films: from diametrically opposing ends of the cinematic spectrum come the restored Blind Husbands, Erich von Stroheim’s riveting silent tale of forbidden lust and mountaineering, and Charles Burnett’s Killer Of Sheep, a glorious, heartbreaking work of black American neo-realism.

Tom Huddleston


The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters

Raindance Film Festival

25 Sept-07 Oct 2007

Festival programme

Celebrating its fifteenth birthday this year, the UK’s biggest independent film festival runs in London from September 26 to October 7, with a packed programme that comprises eighty features as well as numerous shorts and documentaries from all over the world. In the last decade or so, independent cinema has grown to encompass anything from modest, no-budget works to bigger crowd-pullers and this is reflected in the selection, which includes Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park as well as obscure gems such as gritty Icelandic social drama Children, camp sci-fi comedy Turks in Space or quirky Argentine oddity La Antena.

Since its inception in 1993, Raindance has played a vital part in bringing eccentric, challenging and unusual films to these shores, films that would not stand a chance of getting a general UK release. Originally set up as a platform to promote independent film, it has remained true to its objectives. Says Senior Programmer Suzanne Ballantyne: ‘We aim to promote first-time directors, discover new talents, open up new worlds to cinema-goers and show audiences that there is life outside the multiplexes.’ The criterion for selecting the films is simple: ‘At least two or three people in the office have to like the film.’

Raindance has always had an interest in music, and inviting punk icons to sit on the jury is becoming something of a habit: last year Marky Ramone was playing film critic, and this year it’s the turn of Iggy Pop and Mick Jones. ‘A lot of people who work at Raindance are into punk’, explains Ballantyne, ‘and I think it’s very good to have a musician judging films. It’s an interesting mix, and Raindance has always featured music documentaries in its programme.’ Sadly, there are fewer music-related films this year, simply because there were fewer submissions than in previous years.

But this year’s selection promises plentiful cinematic delights, including Ballantyne’s personal favourites Phantom Love, ‘a very special, visually breathtaking film about a woman’s subconscious by true indie auteur Nina Menkes’, and Waz, ‘a flashy British thriller that has been compared to Se7en‘. Below we take a closer look at five films showing at the festival.


This bizarro-comic fantasy from Mamoru Oshii (author of the brilliantly ambitious animé Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence) is the kind of film that makes Raindance so special. Catch it at the festival for it is doubtful that any UK distributor will take their chances with such a baffling, beautiful and plain bonkers UFO of a film.

The Amazing Lives presents itself as an erudite study of the con artists who began to swindle free noodles out of food merchants in post-war Japan. We hear about mythical characters such as Moongaze Ginji, the charismatic white-haired old man who started it all, the gorgeous Foxy Croquette O’Gin who vamped her way around the noodle houses in the 50s, and many more. As this is Oshii, this is not simply about food but each grifter’s own particular approach to life, revealed by their individual scamming style.

Through the tale of the grifters’ exploits Oshii also charts the history of Japan in the second half of the twentieth century. In the background of each story there are references to political and social events of the time, from WWII to student protests and a Red Army plane highjack. The grifters are outsiders who, through their attitude to food, represent individual resistance to political power and business interests. Nowhere is this as clear as in the story of Hamburger Tetsu: as he brings down a thriving fast food chain by ordering hundreds of burgers his tactics are compared to that of the guerrilla fighters in the Vietnam War.

Oshii creates here another wondrous visual world, experimenting further with animation techniques, mixing fuzzy footage of devastated post-war Japan and the occasional animé image with computer-generated visuals. At a time when CGI animation is all about the excitement of 3D, the director decidedly goes the other way and makes it all as flat as he can. Not only does he succeed in creating a singularly weird, atmospheric world but such resolute individuality is truly inspiring.

Virginie Sélavy


Indie comedy The GoodTimesKid is the second feature from director Azazel Jacobs, son of avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs. Taking a more mainstream tack than his noted ancestor, the interestingly named Azazel constructs a gentle, good-hearted if slightly inconsequential tale of romantic estrangement around three disillusioned thirtysomethings crossing paths over 24 hours in LA.

Shot in fourteen days with a crew of six, on film stock lifted from a major Hollywood studio, the film is low-budget and proud of it. Taking its cues from early Jarmusch, Hal Hartley and classic Chaplin, the film develops almost wordlessly. The minimal narrative centres around two men, both called Rodolfo Cano, and their helpless attraction to an unnamed girl, charmingly played by the director’s girlfriend Sara Diaz. Indeed, the entire film could be seen as something of a love letter to Diaz, as the two Rodolfos find themselves in orbit around this unpredictable creature.

There are scenes of real beauty in The GoodTimesKid: a central sequence of tentative romance on a houseboat unfolds almost flawlessly, opening up these taciturn characters, drawing us into their world. The camera is used to magical effect, intimate close-ups capturing every flicker across the actors’ effortlessly expressive faces. There are a few indie clichés on display here: hints of artful dispassion; helpless, existentially traumatised men; a free-spirited woman who expresses her independence by dancing to old jazz records. But the film is perfectly constructed, strikingly photographed and never less than involving. The enduring impression is of a sweet, transitory experience, as slight as a backward glance but just as intriguing.

Tom Huddleston


M is a bleak and often perplexing psychological drama which journeys into the seedy underbelly of Japanese society, exposing a thriving industry of pornography, prostitution and violence. Satoko (Miwon) is a seemingly ordinary, contented housewife and mother who secretly works as a prostitute for a dangerous and violent yakuza gang. Minoru (Kengo Kora) is an intense young man who delivers newspapers and hangs out at hedonistic parties thrown by bored bourgeois teenagers. One day their paths cross: they share a lingering gaze and Minoru becomes intrigued by Satoko. After seeing her photo on a porn site, an image strangely bereft of any eroticism, he attempts to warn her away from the dangers of the yakuza, but the pair develop a perverse and destructive bond which leads to brutality and murder.

The way Satoko (and other women) is treated in the film suggests that male fantasies revolve around sexual violence against women: sadomasochism, humiliation and exploitation are explored in a frank and unflinching manner, and static, clinical camera angles coupled with Satoko’s cool detachment exclude any trace of sensuality. But baffling plot twists and flashbacks hint that Satoko isn’t simply a passive object of desire, nor is Minoru simply her knight in shining armour. Although it is never clearly spelt out, childhood secrets may well be the source of their dark desires. Does Satoko perceive the abuse as punishment she deserves? Does Minoru see his mother in Satoko? Such ambiguities in the narrative suggest that nothing should be taken at face value; fantasy, reality and illusion frequently blur and collide.

Director Ryuichi Hiroki learnt his trade working in the Japanese ‘pink film’ (soft-core porno) industry, before going on to have international success with his 2003 road movie Vibrator. His formative experience has visibly influenced M, but he is clearly commenting on the industry from the outside, making it an unusual and uncompromisingly dark film.

Lindsay Tudor


In this Yorkshire-set British thriller, the whole film itself is ‘exhibit A’, a tape recovered at a murder scene by the police. Filmed by fourteen-year-old Judith on her brand new camera, it starts as a home-movie of ordinary family life before turning into the chronicle of her father’s descent into an increasingly psychotic state.

Shot in an ultra-naturalistic way, the film replicates the style of an amateur filmmaker down to the flat TV image, shaky camera and funny angles. This uncompromising realistic approach is applied unwaveringly throughout the film so that some events occur off the screen, with sounds and voices the only clues as to what is happening. Although the constant jerks of the camera can be a tad tiresome, they succeed in creating the impression that what we’re watching is strictly impromptu filmmaking. In this way the film makes us privy to the inside reality of a sensational news story and implicates us as voyeurs.

In a Hidden-like way, Exhibit A plays on the ambiguity of different kinds of images. The film we’re watching is really a piece of evidence in a murder enquiry. Within it there are more incriminating images, including revealing photos and embarrassing mobile phone footage. Images are double-edged, and both Judith and her father’s disturbingly stalker-like behaviour is also bizarrely well-meaning: by exposing everything, they believe they will be able to put things right. They are, of course, sorely misguided and as more and more uncomfortable truths emerge, the unity of the family is dangerously threatened. Too much truth is toxic, the film seems to be saying, and the omnipresent recording devices of modern life place us all under a scrutiny so intense that no relationship can survive it. One question remains at the end: Would any of this have happened if Judith hadn’t been filming?

Virginie Sélavy


On the surface, Being Michael Madsen is a slightly dubious premise for a movie. A self-consciously self-reflexive work of self-mythology, a pseudo-documentary about a pseudo-documentary, this is cinematic meta-fiction taken to a new and dizzying level. It doesn’t help that, in the early stages, the celebrity ‘interviews’ are quite obviously scripted, the actors’ efforts to appear casual and off-the-cuff somewhat unconvincing.

But the central sections, as the crew pursue the hapless Dant through the streets of LA, have a gripping, manic energy. And there’s a genuine desire to explore the complex relationship between celebrities and their hack stalkers, a situation which seems to serve everyone’s needs while simultaneously making them all angry and miserable. Gratifyingly, the film offers no easy answers, blurring the lines between celebrities, journalists and the ‘ordinary’ people in between, taking well-aimed potshots at each.

Being Michael Madsen is listed as unfinished, and it could perhaps benefit from a little fine tuning. Nevertheless, this is a witty, intelligent examination of stardom, its pitfalls and its pratfalls, with a wry sense of humour and an agreeably non-judgemental outlook.

Tom Huddleston


This year’s festival opener is a witty, laugh-out-loud stoner comedy from Canada in which two dopeheads desperate to get their hands on some dosh to pay back an angry drug dealer have to contend with a Satanic cult, Medieval midgets and an undead girlfriend.

Manufacturing Dissent: Uncovering Michael Moore
Journalist or polemicist, genius or manipulator, influential filmmaker or paranoid megalomaniac, ‘St Mike of the working man’ or ‘Showman Mike’? A team of filmmakers turn the tables on Michael Moore and use his own methods to illuminate his true nature.

The Devil Dared Me To
Bad taste comedy from New Zealand about an incompetent stuntman – involves lots of disastrous stunts, outrageous deaths, maimings and gross bodily fluid jokes.

Offbeat, bittersweet Belgian comedy about a bumbling inventor who goes to Canada in search of his birth family, built around an intricate series of meticulously orchestrated coincidences.

John Waters: This Filthy World
John Waters shares pearls of wisdom and insights into his influences in this filmed one-man-show. Highlights include a hilarious account of filming a spoof of the Kennedy assassination with Divine as Jackie K crawling out of the back of a car in a pink Chanel suit to the shocked bewilderment of neighbours – only two years after the event. We are also treated to Waters’ fond recollections of watching underground movies as a young man: ‘You got arrested when you went to the movies. You’d go see Flaming Creatures and the cops would raid it and the whole audience would be taken away in police vans. It really perks up the movie-going experience.’


Tokyo Drifter

Format: DVD

Distributor: Yume Pictures

Director: Seijun Suzuki

Titles: Tokyo Drifter, Branded to Kill, Fighting Elegy, Pistol Opera, Princess Raccoon, Fighting Delinquents, The Flowers and the Angry Waves

Japan 1960-2005

Despite having influenced a whole generation of major directors, from Takashi Miike and John Woo to Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch, Seijun Suzuki has remained a relatively unknown name in the West. While some of his followers have overused and even formulised the stylised violence, mischievous humour and fetishistic attention to detail that he introduced, Suzuki’s own films still look as alien and fresh as they did at the time they were made.

Hired by Nikkatsu Studios in the mid-fifties to make low-budget genre flicks, Suzuki soon began to develop a flamboyant, original style unpopular with his employers. Although his personal touch was already evident in such early output, Suzuki really upped the ante in 1963 with Youth of the Beast, a film which combined his trademark explosion of colours, hatchet editing style and unexpected leaps into the surreal – the club as fish tank scene remains one of the director’s most memorable moments. Three years later Suzuki was at the top of his game, firing a staggering three-shot salvo with Tokyo Drifter, Fighting Elegy and Branded to Kill. Ironically, it was over Branded to Kill, a film that many consider his best, that Suzuki was fired by incensed Nikkatsu executives who thought the film ‘incomprehensible’.

The exuberant energy of Suzuki’s films as well as his audacious stylistic subversions sharply contrasted with the stifling subtlety of the previous generation’s filmmakers, affiliating him to the Japanese new wave. Just like the work of contemporary directors such as Nagisa Oshima and Yasuzo Masumura, Suzuki’s cinema is one of exacerbated emotion. However, rather than exploring human feelings and desires, it is with a purely aesthetic emotion that Suzuki concerns himself: the formulaic genre narratives he was forced to work with are simply excuses for increasingly daring visual feasts. In Tokyo Drifter, his pop art masterpiece, Suzuki gleefully dynamites the rules of the yakuza movie, paying scant attention to the stripped down plot and concentrating instead on creating saturated vignettes of bubblegum noir. The Tokyo Drifter of the title is a moody gangster decked in a powder blue skinny suit and spotless white shoes, condemned to lonely (if exquisitely elegant) wandering, forever fleeing the goons of a rival gang. From the villain to the girlfriend, from the gang’s back room to the teen club and the girlfriend’s bar, everything and everybody is colour-coded. In this perfect pop bubble a heightened, intensified kind of life is played out, its delirious beauty an antidote to the repressive kill-joy reality of contemporary Japan. Whether or not Suzuki knew about Alfred Hitchcock’s famous quip, it is clear that for him, too, a film is ‘a piece of cake’ rather than a ‘slice of life’.

As integral to Suzuki’s oeuvre as his ultra-pop aesthetic is his offbeat sense of humour. While there are many light-hearted moments, it is a humour that is more often than not absurd and sometimes even tinged with darkness. The comedy in the director’s work is never simply about entertaining his audience, but constitutes a vital part of his world view. Suzuki was drafted into the Japanese Army as a young man and this experience gave him a particular outlook on life: witnessing grimly comic rescue attempts and farcical corpse disposals in the war made him realise the incongruous, pathetic drollery of death. His is a Dadaist kind of humour, steeped in a keen awareness of the madness of men and the transience of life, laughing in the face of it all with a joyfully anarchic energy.

This spirit clearly shines through in Fighting Elegy. An irreverent anti-militaristic comedy that ends on a sombre note, it draws on Suzuki’s profound dislike of the warmongering Japan of his youth. The film paints a caustic picture of a Japanese society in which traditional views of masculinity force Kikuro, a sympathetic if naive youngster, to repress his emotions and constantly fight other youth gang members in order to prove that he’s a man. The film is played out as a comedy, and the fights, although extremely graphic, are also highly entertaining. Kikuro’s uncontrollable erections, which occur every time he thinks of the young piano-playing girl he has a crush on, are the occasion for a number of outrageous jokes. In one scene, Kikuro, aroused after fantasising about his sweetheart’s delicate hands, relieves himself by playing her piano in a rather unorthodox manner. However, the farcical nature of the film is undercut by the sharply downbeat ending, which shows Kikuro and the local gang members called up to go to war. That abrupt conclusion was added by Suzuki himself (it was not part of the novel the film was based on), making Fighting Elegy one of the most personally revealing films in the director’s oeuvre.

Suzuki’s sixties output culminated with Branded to Kill, in which he abandoned his lush colour palette to plunge deeper into oddball existential noir. The plot is even more condensed than in Tokyo Drifter, reduced here to a succession of duels between professional assassins competing to be the best. The chipmunk-faced Number 3 has to fend off a number of attacks until he finally faces Number 1 in a battle for the supreme title. Our hero, constantly fighting for survival, is tempted by the voluptuous appeal of death and annihilation in the form of a dangerously alluring female assassin who lives among dead insects. With a hero who kills an optician by firing a bullet through the sink’s plughole, gets off on the smell of boiling rice and has a breath-taking multi-position, multi-location romp with his treacherous wife, Branded to Kill is as wildly inventive in death as it is in sex.

This astonishing tour de force, however, not only earned Suzuki a dismissal from Nikkatsu but also ensured that no other studios would hire him. The eccentric director only returned to filmmaking in 2001 at the age of 78 with Pistol Opera. A sequel of sorts to Branded to Kill, it pitches a female Number 3 against a mysterious Number 1 in another deadly fight for the Guild’s top spot. Even more theatrical than Tokyo Drifter and with gorgeous colour compositions to rival it, focusing on an existential fight to the death as in Branded to Kill while sharing its disregard for narrative logic, Pistol Opera feels like a summation of Suzuki’s concerns. The dialogue itself, far more expansive and explicit than in the earlier films, is somewhat self-conscious: one of the assassins says she wants to die on stage like an actress; elsewhere the hero of Branded to Kill reappears (played by another actor) as the washed-out former Number 1, claiming that they, the killers, ‘make the impossible possible and make it into art’, something that could just as well apply to Suzuki’s own work. In the absurd theatre of life dying is no more than play acting and all that matters is that it should be beautifully choreographed. While Pistol Opera‘s explicit self-consciousness makes it a much less compelling experience than its predecessors, the over the top stage-set showdown provides the perfect finale to Suzuki’s ultra-aestheticized cinema (a much more appropriate end note than Suzuki’s last work to date, the rather indulgent musical Princess Raccoon).

Suzuki’s cinema encompasses a whole attitude to life: unlike some of the filmmakers that he has influenced, his work is not simply a case of style over substance. Instead, he strives for an intense aesthetic experience, in which achingly stylish elegance combined with playful humour is the only stance possible in the face of the absurd randomness of death.

Virginie Sélavy

John Waters: Hairhopping to Hollywood


Format: Cinema

Release date:


Director: John Waters

Cast: Divine, Ricki Lake, Deborah Harry

USA 1987

88 minutes

The Hairspray remake is released on 20 July 2007.

Distributor Entertainment

Director: Adam Shankman

Cast: John Travolta, Michele Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah

USA 2007

He is known as the Pope of Trash, peddling movies which have shocked audiences and angered the censors since the 70s. But nothing John Waters ever committed to celluloid is as shocking as his decision to allow Cheaper by the Dozen 2 director Adam Shankman, to remake his cheerful hit Hairspray.

Waters made his name with films such as Mondo Trash, Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, which ooze trashiness in both style and content. The sacred 180° rule of filming is often broken, heads are cut out of the picture, and shots of anal flexing, bestiality and diseased, violating penises are held for that little bit too long. Those films were made with a total dearth of means, Waters borrowing money from his father and roping in his friends and friends’ friends to act, paint sets and primp hair.

By the time the cameras were rolling for Hairspray, however, Waters’ bank balance had grown in inverse correlation with his taste for the disgusting. Boasting a healthy budget and a Hollywood studio, Waters’ 1988 film is a far cry from his early movies. The film is about Tracey Turnblad – an overweight teen from Baltimore who dances her way onto The Corney Collins Show, managing to break down redneck segregation policies of 1960s America as she goes. With a cracking soundtrack, a polished script and the newly discovered charming teenage star Ricki Lake, Waters had himself his first mainstream hit.

Two decades later, the film has been remade with a new soundtrack, an altered script, a new undiscovered leading actress and, playing her mother, a cross-dressing John Travolta in a fat suit. Does anyone find fat suits funny? Certainly Terry Jones’ Mr Creosote character raised a few laughs in The Meaning of Life in 1983, but since then? Eddie Murphy thumped about as an overweight woman in Norbit, seeing the film belly-flop at the box office. It seems that one too many Friends re-runs has extinguished our appetite for prosthetic chins and spare tyres.

Unlike Travolta, Divine, who played Tracey’s mother Edna in Waters’ Hairspray, had no need for fake weight. A naturally hefty man, Divine only needed a stuffed bra to cut a matronesque figure. Indeed, it is his size that defined him as an iconic cinema star. Divine’s ample girth was matched by his skyscraping hair, his killer heels and his raised eyebrows – pencilled so high he had to shave back his hairline to make space. He turns a number of heads when strutting down a busy Baltimore road in Waters’ seminal work Pink Flamingos. These onlookers, as Waters revealed, were no stage-groomed extras, but genuine shoppers walking past the camera, startled to see a 20-stone transvestite made up like Elizabeth Taylor on acid. Divine looked like this on and off set. Having originally set out to subvert the transvestite scene – where Judy Garland impersonators featured heavily – Divine was nurtured by Waters into a fully-fledged actor equally as able to play a caring mother (Hairspray, Polyester) as a dog-shit-eating trashbag (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble).

But casting aside, it is Hairspray‘s newly re-styled soundtrack that commits the biggest crime. Waters’ soundtracks have always evoked the spirit of his films. Divine struts his filthy self to the tune of Little Richard’s ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ in Pink Flamingos, while Female Trouble opens to a lounge tune of the same title. Written by Waters and sung by Divine, it strikes the tragicomic chord that characterises the film. In Hairspray the soundtrack transcends this scene-setting importance. Hairspray being a film about dancing, the music comes from within the story in most scenes – from the dancehall’s stereo or straight from the bands employed to play on The Corney Collins Show. The music perfectly demonstrates the clash between black and white cultures. Well-groomed white teens shake a tail feather to black classics by The Five Du Tones and Barbara Lynn, while their black counterparts do the same thing but hidden away from both the media spotlight and the white neighbourhood. In one scene, a pushy white mother, played by Deborah Harry, urges her teenage daughter to listen to white artists such as Shelley Fabares and Connie Francis rather than the ‘coloured music’ she likes to listen to.

So if anything, it is for its great soundtrack that Hairspray is remembered. The belting numbers twist and shout throughout the film, and have been immortalised by new generations who know and love the film. So why oh why does the Hairspray remake dispose of these tunes? Instead of the original music we have a tailor-made soundtrack that is as anachronistic as it is tuneless. In its jangly Broadway harmonies it emits a rather unsubtle whiff of Disney. In fact, the new songs are so bland they make you want to eat dog shit just to reawaken your senses.

It poses the question which Waters himself asked about movie remakes. Speaking about a proposed US version of Pedro Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown, he said: ‘Why would you remake a great movie? You should remake the bad ones.’

You said it, John.

Lisa Williams


Catch Us If You Can

Format: DVD

Release date: 4 June 2007

Distributor: Optimum

Title Catch Us If You Can

Director: John Boorman

Cast: Dave Clark, Barbara Ferris, Lenny Davidson, Mike Smith

UK 1965

91 mins

Title Gonks Go Beat

Director: Robert Hartford-Davis

Cast: Kenneth Connor, Frank Thornton, Pamela Brown

UK 1965

90 mins

Title Pop Gear

Director: Frederic Goode

Cast: Jimmy Savile, Peter Asher, Eric Burdon, Spencer Davis

UK 1965

68 mins

The sixties are often considered the heyday of British pop music and British filmmaking but rarely both at the same time. In fact the pop music film in any country (or at any time) has a pretty low reputation. But with young people making up a large percentage of cinema audiences producers have always looked to tap this rich vein. Elvis’ endless stream of rock-a-hula beach parties were at least financially successful if not critically. The British Elvis, Cliff Richard made similarly successful films – replacing dragsters and surfboards with double-decker buses – while within a year of their breakthrough The Beatles were being signed up to star in their own vehicles. This was an era when the entertainment industry was coming to terms with a’changing times. Three films from 1964-65, Catch Us If You Can – The Dave Clark Five’s answer to A Hard Day’s Night -, Pop Gear – Jimmy Savile introducing some of the best bands of 64/65 – and Gonks Go Beat – a truly awful film with some great bands and great songs – illustrate this moment perfectly.

As Matt Monroe sings in Pop Gear, ‘the Beatles started it all’. Although perhaps not as musically innovative as is often thought it was the huge success of The Beatles that sent every A&R man looking for the next best thing and prompted every skiffle band to trade in their banjos and washboards for electric guitars and drums. Similarly the success of A Hard Day’s Night set many producers thinking how to turn the beat boom into successful movies, especially after the Beatles and The Dave Clark Five (followed by the rest of ‘the British Invasion’) made it big in America.

Pop Gear was a cinema release from before the days of pop videos or YouTube. It features a collection of mid-sixties greats and also-rans miming to their hits (in Techniscope and Technicolor). It holds together surprisingly well as a film with the exception of the tacked-on low quality footage of the Fab Four at the beginning and the end, which looks like it must have been acquired through some copyright loophole. The rest of the film is directed by Frederic Goode who avoids the fast cutting style that became de rigueur for pop videos and concentrates on finding imaginative ways to frame the bands. The performers are all dressed in matching suits purchased by managers like Brian Epstein (although The Animals somehow still look grubby). The performances vary from Billy J Kramer’s trademark awkward stiffness to Tommy Quickly’s irritating chirpiness (playing a rhythm and blues version of Humpty Dumpty) to The Four Pennies going round and round a fountain almost in a daze. The minimal sets are often a bit too literal – balloons and alphabet blocks for BJK’s ‘Little Children’ and eyes for The Honeycombs’ ‘Eyes’. There is also some cross-over into light entertainment with a couple of unnecessary interludes – silly dance routines straight from Sunday Night at the Palladium – and three songs from the old crooner Matt Monroe. It is not quite the swinging scene of Austin Powers but we at least get the glasses and the ‘English teeth’ (Peter and Gordon, Herman’s Hermits).

As Jimmy Savile says, it was a big year for rhythm and blues. Thus The Nashville Teens (from Surrey) sing about living in a shack on Tobacco Road or catching fish in the Mississippi, The Animals (from Newcastle) sing of brothels in New Orleans. But despite this emphasis on the blues all of the performers are white. It is notable that the only black face in all three films is a black and white minstrel costume in Catch Us If You Can. Supposedly one of the reasons that the British invasion was so big in the US was that white Americans were more likely to buy black American music if it was performed by white British singers like Billie Davies.

Catch Us If You Can features those great exponents of the Tottenham sound and the Fab Four’s first major rivals, The Dave Clark Five. The ‘Tottenham sound’ being Merseybeat with a saxophone (and also seems to be played solely by the DC5). It is also noteworthy as director John Boorman’s first film and the only film of the three where the direction is as ‘up to date’ as the music.

The plot seems to have been written to match the title of one The DC5’s hit records – although in America it was named after another equally suitable song from the soundtrack – Having a Wild Weekend. Basically, an actress (Barbara Ferris) and a stuntman (Dave Clark) abscond with the boss’ Jaguar whilst shooting a TV commercial for meat. Dave Clark was a former stuntman and drama student as well as being the band’s manager, producer, co-songwriter and drummer. The rest of the band play fellow stuntmen and flatmates who all live together in an old church – complete with a pipe organ alarm clock. Unlike The Beatles the DC5 don’t just play themselves – although only Dave Clark’s character has a different name – Steve. Dave Clark is a bit wooden in the lead role and, as with the band, lead singer Mike Smith steals every scene he’s in. There are a few poor attempts at Beatlesque quirky dialogue and a few zany antics – bouncing on trampolines etc. but it soon moves away from A Hard Day’s Night imitation.

The episodic structure takes them on a variety of adventures from a masqued ball in Bath to wild-west horseback riding in Devon whilst the evil world of advertising tracks them down. We meet some early hippies (who deny being ‘beats’) who try to get the super straight Dave Clark to try drugs. He later turns down offers of cigarettes and sherry claiming, ‘tried it once didn’t fancy it’. This is perhaps why the DC5 failed to make the transfer to the late sixties. Right there in a shed on a military exercise base somewhere in the West Country the future of rock’n’roll is made. If only he’d taken the spliff the DC5 could have made that great psychedelic concept album (imagine an upbeat stompin’ Sergeant Pepper) but instead they were playing Merseybeat (with sax) on the cabaret circuit by 1968.

Gonks Go Beat exploits that curious sixties fad for shoddy handicraft (remember Humpty from Playschool), although the gonks themselves make only a very brief appearance. I wonder if kids took their gonks to see it – although the fad was probably over by the time the film came out. It is a film so poor that even its star, Carry On‘s Kenneth Connor, an actor whose single talent is his unrivalled ability to say ‘phwoar’ to saucy nurses, seems embarrassed by the proceedings. The special effects are sub-Dr Who (in his 60s incarnation) and the story – a war between country of up-tempo music Beatland and its rival Balladisle, whilst two star-crossed lovers search for a happy compromise – is just daft. Even Jimmy Savile seems a better option, even Cliff and ‘the young ones’ putting on a show to save the youth club would have been better. It also features the worst battle scene in the history of cinema – a dance with guitars for guns and drumstick hand grenades. The only highlights are a few great songs by the much undervalued producer/songwriter Mike Leander (the man who gave the world Gary Glitter) performed by likes of The Graham Bond Organisation and Lulu.

Not many people realise it but 1965 was the greatest year in pop music history; even the Eurovision winner was a truly brilliant song. Experimentation was rampant, albeit confined to three-minute pop songs, and yet that year is often dismissed as the transitional period from rock’n’roll to rock. The recent BBC2 series Seven Ages of Rock typically starts with Hendrix and completely ignores this important era. I recently got an email encouraging me to sign a petition to get The Monkees enrolled in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. I think I’ll sign that one and start one for the Dave Clark Five (unless they’re already in). Critical reputation still seems based on a band’s ability to make ‘great albums’ (the DC5 were a singles band) although maybe this will change with the increase of the pick’n’mix i-tunes selections. The Dave Clark Five and some of the great one-hit-wonders from Pop Gear deserve better than to be languishing on compilation albums with names like ‘Now that’s what I call the swinging sixties’ given away free with The News of the World. And Catch Us If You Can is a good film (a great pop film) although in cinema as in music The Dave Clark Five were never quite as good as The Beatles.

Paul Huckerby


The Devil's Backbone

Format: DVD

Release date: 12 March 2007

Distributor: Optimum

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Title: Guillermo del Toro’s Collection

Includes: Cronos (1993), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

310 mins

Praised to death by critics and fans alike Pan’s Labyrinth has become the If You’re Feeling Sinister of the movie world. Both of these may be great works, but the febrile twee hysteria that has greeted them is enough to put anybody off. At least in the case of Belle and Sebastian, that album is truly their most accomplished. Not so in the case of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.

Over the last fourteen years the Mexican writer/director has alternated Hollywood money-spinners such as Blade II and Hellboy with more personal works – Cronos (1993), The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and last year’s Pan’s Labyrinth. With these three films del Toro has created a world of poetic horror that has revitalised conventional genres – the vampire myth in Cronos, the ghost story in The Devil’s Backbone, the fairy tale in Pan’s Labyrinth. What makes the films so compelling is not simply their inventiveness, but the fact that, just like Asian film-makers Ji-woon Kim (A Tale of Two Sisters) and Oxide and Danny Pang (The Eye), del Toro is not interested in cheap thrills or mindless gore but in the creaky doors that a horror tale can open onto the darkest corners of human life.

While Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth each take on different figures of the horror canon, there is a striking unity in the worlds they create. All three are Gothic-tinged fairy tales, with a child’s painful initiation to death at their core. In Cronos Aurora silently witnesses her undead grand-father’s decay. In The Devil’s Backbone Carlos has to face his fear of a young boy’s ghost. And in Pan’s Labyrinth Ofelia has to perform a series of magic tasks to be re-united with her father, the king of the underworld. All three films unfold in the nebulous zone between life and death. All three convey the acute sense of loss felt not just by the living but also by the dead, by the orphan but also by the vengeful ghost, by all those who find themselves brutally thrown on either side of the impassable divide. ‘What is a ghost?’ someone asks in The Devil’s Backbone. ‘A tragedy condemned to repeat itself again and again.’ It is that tragedy that del Toro’s films narrate, again and again.

In all three films del Toro creates an in-between world that straddles fantasy and reality. Cronos’ vampire story irrupts into the daily life of an ordinary Mexican family, The Devil’s Backbone‘s ghost story is set in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War while Pan’s Labyrinth returns to that historical period, alternating between the Franquist/Republican conflict and the Faun’s fairy tale world. Poised between magic and rationality, del Toro’s world has an exquisite ambiguity, brilliantly illustrated in a scene from The Devil’s Backbone. Its young hero Carlos, looking for reassurance after a night of frightful ghostly manifestations, enters the office of the orphanage’s doctor, the kindly Dr Casares. Lined with shelves filled with jars of deformed foetuses, this is not exactly the most comforting of places. Nor is Dr Casares’ response reassuring, as he warns Carlos against superstition. Pointing at the gruesome jars, he gently pokes fun at the locals who buy the liquid in which the foetuses are kept in the belief that it will cure everything. ‘If you believe in ghosts, you must drink some of this’, he tells Carlos. Understandably spooked, Carlos runs away. Once alone, Dr. Casares drinks the liquid from the jar he’s holding. Humorously deflating scientific certainties, del Toro depicts a rational world that is just as dark and disturbing as Carlos’ nightly encounters with the supernatural, the preserved foetuses belonging to the same unsettling realm as the ghost.

Each time the realistic background chosen by del Toro features a political confrontation – Mexico’s fraught relationship with the United States in Cronos and the Spanish Civil War in The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Yet, del Toro has clearly very little interest in politics. While much has been made of Cronos as an allegory for the United States’ vampiric relationship to Mexico, the plot itself doesn’t really support this. And in the two Civil War films the fantasy world, being only loosely connected to its historical setting, offers no insights into the conflict. But Del Toro’s choice of setting is far from gratuitous: these dramatically charged situations set the stage for the urgent life and death choices that face the characters. Beyond that, what draws del Toro to these conflicts is that they are moments when reality in all its darkest excesses comes closest to nightmare: the monsters of fascism are as unlikely, as sinister, and as real as the terrifying creatures of childhood imagination.

This idea is also at the heart of Víctor Erice’s masterful Spirit of the Beehive (1973) and it is impossible not to think of this film in relation to del Toro’s work. Set in 1940 rural Spain, it subtly evokes the dreamy world of a child faced with death and the unseen horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Confined by censorship, it uses the occasion of a screening of James Whale’s Frankenstein in the village to elliptically explore the anxiety and trauma caused by the war. Acknowledged by del Toro as an influence, it is a film whose quiet suggestiveness and nuanced poetry touch places that del Toro’s baroque opulence can never reach. This is not to detract from del Toro’s achievements for he has built a magnificent world. But the comparison with The Spirit of the Beehive reveals his weaknesses, which are most visible in Pan’s Labyrinth. In that film, unfettered by financial constraints, del Toro’s exuberant enthusiasm is allowed to run free, recreating his visions in their most literal, florid details. As a result, there are so many fanciful creatures, fabulous caves and extravagant monsters that there is no room left for the audience’s own reverie.

This is why Pan’s Labyrinth, the most lavishly produced of del Toro’s personal films, is also the least affecting of the three, both emotionally and intellectually. And if it is the one that has been hailed as a masterpiece, it may be because there is some confusion in the world of movie fandom as to what imagination truly is. Magicking up a multitude of bizarre creatures through high-tech special effects or impressive make-up tricks is definitely not what it’s about. And for proof you only need to look at the dismal Lord of the Rings trilogy: it has many weird creatures, all of them rubbish, and the flaccid, pointless world it creates has as much chance of making you dream as a tax return form. I certainly do not mean to place Pan’s Labyrinth on the same appalling level of worthlessness as the J.R. Tolkien/Peter Jackson franchise for del Toro has more magic in his chubby little finger than both of them put together plus the preposterous trilogy piled up on top. But when it comes to imagination, less is definitely more, hence the superiority of Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone over Pan’s overwrought Labyrinth.

Virginie Sélavy