Opera Jawa

Format: Cinema

Release date: 7 September 2007

Distributor Yume Pictures

Director: Garin Nugroho

Based on:‘The Abduction of Sinta’ (from the Ramayana)

Cast: Artika Sari Devi, Eko Supriyanto, Martinus Miroto

Java 2006

120 minutes

You could call it long conception, short birth. Garin Nugroho imagined Opera Jawa five years ago, but shot it in just two weeks. Production companies weren’t interested in the idea of a modern day opera based on Hindu holy text the Ramayana and set to the sound of gamelan music. But then Peter Sellars – the man behind the staging of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in the Trump Tower – decided to commission the film for the New Crowned Hope Festival. The festival, funded by the city of Vienna and curated by Sellars, commemorates the 250th Birthday of Mozart, who himself struggled to get his revolutionary work commissioned.

The intricate planning that Nugroho invested in his idea over those five years is clear in the final product, which is packed with layer upon layer of art installations, folk-inspired dance and constant movement. A series of musical vignettes tell the story of the destructive love triangle between married couple Setio and Siti, and the town bully Ludiro. The couple meet playing the leads in popular Hindu tale ‘The Abduction of Sinta’, but the artistic glamour of their single lives turns into conjugal drudgery after the wedding.

When their pottery business falls to pieces, in steps Ludiro, a long-haired Lothario who woos Siti with his proud masculinity and material wealth. It is a tough decision for Siti; the contrast between the Spartan marital home and Ludiro’s string of sumptuous lairs is clear to see. As Siti entertains the idea of being with him she becomes the focus of some of the most haunting sequences in the film.

But the personal becomes political when Setio’s patience snaps and he instigates a community offensive on Ludiro, whose tyrannical rule over neighbouring businesses – orchestrated by a mob of crab-like Mafiosi – has wreaked havoc on the hearts, minds and purses of the town.

Nugroho broadens the political scope even further by describing the film as a requiem for those who have died through natural and man-made disasters, suggesting that the love triangle of the film symbolises real-life power struggles over land for reasons of religion, natural disaster and greed. The point is made well: like the land itself, Siti rarely crafts her own destiny but allows herself to be the vessel of other men’s desires.

Both she and Setio dance stylised set pieces where their eerie movements convey their deepest feelings. But power-hungry Ludiro – played by one of Madonna’s former dancers – actively teases and taunts in his dance scenes. When first introduced, he appears from behind an animal carcass in his butcher shop to turn his all-encompassing megalomania into a violent, swiping dance routine. He later steps out a strutting flamenco-style dance atop the bar of a smoke-filled jazz joint, which reveals his dangerous allure and the depth of his desire.

In this way, Nugroho proves that a dance, like a picture, can tell a thousand words. In fact, words are where the film fails. For viewers not fluent in the Javan tongue – even those with a steely acceptance of subtitles – the impact of reading the opera lyrics pales in comparison with the sheer joy of seeing the saturated colours of Ludiro’s candle-lit oasis or the graceful coordination of the Javan classical dancers.

The idea of a feature-length gamelan opera is a hard one to accept, especially when it is politically charged and crammed with art installations. But the stunning beauty of the film means Nugroho gets away with it.

Lisa Williams


Death Proof

Format: Cinema

Release date: 21 September 2007

Distributor Momentum Pictures

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Ferlito, Zoí­Â« Bell

US 2007

113 minutes

Now released in an expanded stand-alone version after the US flop of the ‘Grindhouse’ double bill (which also comprised Robert Rodriguez’ forthcoming Planet Terror), Death Proof is Quentin Tarantino’s latest tongue-in-cheek homage to genre cinema. After heist movies, blaxploitation and martial arts actioners, now it’s the turn of the 70s exploitation flick to get the Tarantino treatment.

While the Asian-inspired Kill Bill was let down by misplaced ambition and a dismally dull second part, with Death Proof Tarantino is comfortably back on home ground. A cross between a car chase B-movie and a slasher shocker, the film stars the great Kurt Russell (in even more rugged form than in his Snake Plissken incarnation) as the psychopathic Stuntman Mike, who drives around in his sinister car of death in search of female victims. Cue feisty girl gangs, wiseass one-liners, wiggling hot pants, screeching hot rods and mucho unwholesome violence.

With his customary fetishistic attention to detail, Tarantino lovingly reproduces the rough-around-the-edges feel and general shoddiness of low-budget exploitation fare, down to the scratches, jump cuts and incompetent editing. The wonderfully grainy, sleazy texture of seventies cinema is perfectly recreated, making Death Proof a visual treat in this era of bland technologically-enhanced perfection. Even the women’s skin appears authentically 70s, with that look of real flesh that seems so provocatively sensual in contrast with the plastic feel of airbrushed bodies. While the film looks great, the plot, split into two repetitive parts, is surprisingly clunky and on the thin side. Of course, Tarantino could claim he was simply emulating his 70s models but this is one aspect of the film that actually feels unintentionally sloppy.

As usual, Tarantino’s fetishism means that he reduces the films he draws on to a collection of shiny pop culture artefacts entirely emptied of their original meaning. Death Proof feels like a best-of the genre, meticulously compiled by a geeky film buff stuck in eternal teenagedom. So while Vanishing Point is Death Proof‘s major reference point, all that Tarantino takes from that film is the car – the 1970 white Dodge Challenger, which two hard-ass stunt girls obsess over so much that it becomes a central part of the plot – leaving out the moody desperation and lonely landscapes that made the original something more than just another car chase movie.

However, Tarantino’s revisionist take on the crude sexual politics of the Grindhouse nicely brings the genre into the twenty-first century and makes it fun for the girls too. After the predictable maiming and murdering of some scantily-clad hot chicks, Russell’s unreconstructed macho psycho gets his come-uppance big time when he picks the wrong gals to mess with. The kind of girl who straps herself to the hood of a speeding Dodge for kicks, gutsy Zoí­Â« (played by real-life stuntwoman Zoí­Â« Bell, who was Uma Thurman’s body double in Kill Bill) is more than a match for Stuntman Mike and the film climaxes on an exhilarating, triumphantly old-school (no cheating with CGI here) high-speed car chase. While the sassy girl talk is no more than a collection of sub-Sex and the City clichés, the girl-power action is a blast.

Death Proof is yet another variation on Tarantino’s trademark pop cannibalism. His delirious enthusiasm for cult cinema is infectious – and almost endearing – and while the films he references so lavishly will always be superior to his own, Death Proof is a fun ride through cinema’s louche past.

Virginie Sélavy

Unlike Virginie Sélavy, Ben Cobb found absolutely nothing to enjoy in Death Proof. Read his review here and take sides!



Format: Cinema

Release date: 21 September 2007

Distributor Artificial Eye

Director: Christian Petzold

Cast: Nina Hoss, Hinnerk Schí¶nemann, Devid Striesow

Germany 2007

89 minutes

Written and directed by the German filmmaker Christian Petzold, Yella is an intriguing, suspenseful mystery with a singular clarity of vision. It is constructed like a jigsaw puzzle and each scene cleverly fits together to reveal a film that is much more than the sum of its parts. Winner of the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 2007 Berlinale, Nina Hoss delivers an excellent performance as the title character – a disillusioned woman desperate to free herself from an oppressive, unsuccessful marriage. Hoss imbues her character with a sombre, haunted quality, perfectly attuned to the subtleties of Petzold’s screenplay.

Yella attempts to flee her threatening husband, Ben (Hinnerk Schí¶nemann), and their failed business venture in East Germany for a new career and a new life in the West German city of Hanover. After a nightmare journey across the Elbe, a promised job turns out to be non-existent, the company that hired her now bankrupt. Through self-interest or sympathy, Philipp (Devid Striesow), a charismatic, ambitious businessman staying in the same hotel, offers Yella a position as his assistant. She soon becomes entangled in the cut-throat world of venture capital, negotiating deals to extend financing to start-up business ventures. But although capitalism forms the backdrop of the film, Petzold isn’t interested in making judgements about the world of finance and big business. These negotiations are really sly, duplicitous games that mirror the very nature and complexity of human relationships.

There is much more to Yella than its plot, and both colour and sound contribute subtle clues to the film’s intricacies. Petzold weaves these aesthetic elements into the fabric of the film, compelling the audience, as well as Yella, to play detective. The palette is composed of luminous, iridescent tones of green and red, with a crisp quality to the colour that evokes a heightened sense of reality. Breaking glass, the sound of rushing water, the rustling wind, bird song: all remind Yella of what she has endured, nudging her ever closer to the truth. She finds herself returning time and again to the river that divides East and West, her old life from her new.

Yella, struggling to escape from her past, is haunted every step of the way by Ben. He follows her to Hanover, stalking her, emerging from the shadows to torment her. She is rescued once again by Philipp, who appears to be everything that Yella wanted from her husband: successful, confident, yet also gentle and considerate. He uncannily guesses that she left Ben because he was a failure, that she could no longer love someone who was ruined financially. Philipp holds a mirror up to Yella, forcing her to confront her desire for a big suburban home, a green Jaguar, a perfect child. She wants what she could never have on the other side of the river, what her husband could never have given her. Ben, like impoverished East Germany, is a ghost-like figure, left behind by those desperate for a better life in the West.

Yella is an almost metaphysical exploration that, frame by frame, spins out an intriguing narrative about the human condition. Petzold meticulously probes beneath the surface of Yella’s life, revealing universal truths about love, desire, greed and regret. It’s an intelligent, well-crafted and superbly acted film that lingers in the imagination long after the final credits have rolled.

Sarah Cronin



Format: Cinema

Release date: 14 September 2007

Distributor: Revolver

Director: Temur Babluani and Géla Babluani

Original title: L’Héritage

Cast: Sylvie Testud, Pascal Bongard, George Babluani, Augustin Legrand

France/Georgia 2006

83 minutes

Before embarking on his Hollywood career with a forthcoming remake of his debut film 13 (Tzameti), Géla Babluani has taken the time to collaborate with his father, noted Georgian filmmaker Temur, on a film set in their home country. The film echoes many of the themes of Babluani’s debut, albeit filtered through a lyrical, far less violent and arguably more mature aesthetic: the father reigning in the son’s excesses, at least until the tense climactic sequence.

The set-up is simple but intriguing: we know the tourists’ intervention is going to lead to trouble, but in what form it is impossible to say. The story unfolds at a deliberate pace, but never becomes boring – the unfamiliar landscape is beautifully photographed and there is a continuous, well-timed ebb and flow of incident and revelation, proceeding inexorably towards a terrible event which nobody even attempts to avert. A sense of tension is skilfully maintained, and as viewers we find ourselves in the same position as the three ambiguous leads: horrified by the inevitability of events, but eager to see how everything will pan out.

The political critique here is inherent and rather obvious. Western tourists fail to understand the cultures in which they find themselves, they are self-absorbed and ignorant, and ignore the struggles and realities of ordinary people in their pursuit of selfish ends. Filmmakers and news gatherers are equally guilty: they exploit such suffering for financial gain. This technique of allying the audience with likeable but morally reprehensible lead characters is also nothing new; there’s nothing here to rival, say, Michael Haneke’s expert viewer manipulation.

The characters remain frustratingly underdeveloped. As the tight-lipped young escort George Babluani essays much the same character as in Tzameti: an enigmatic holy innocent confronted with forces far beyond his control. The three students are amusing but empty, simple caricatures necessary for the plot. The only actors who manage to bring their creations to life are both familiar from Babluani’s earlier film – Pascal Bongard’s Nikolai is pleasingly uncertain, a sad-eyed working man buffeted by circumstance. And Augustin Legrand somehow manages to be simultaneously creepy and loveable as a travelling mute, the only character who ever seems to know what’s going on.

Much like Tzameti, Legacy is an entertaining drama hinging on a brilliant but frustratingly underdeveloped central idea. Both films lack character, and each builds tension expertly before dissipating it in a weak, disappointing final act. More interesting as travelogue than cinema, Legacy is never less than entertaining but never more than adequate.

Tom Huddleston


A Throw of Dice

Format: Cinema

Release date: 31 August 2007

Special preview: 30 August 2007, Trafalgar Square, London, 9pm

Distributor: BFI

Director: Franz Osten

Original title: Prapancha Pash

Cast: Seeta Devi, Himansu Rai, Charu Roy

UK/India/Germany 1929

77 minutes

This silent romantic melodrama from 1929 is reissued by the BFI in a nice print, sharp but with considerable depth and subtlety of shade, including some pleasing murkiness. It is an extravagantly beautiful realisation of royal splendour in Rajasthan, inspired by the ancient Mahabharata but looking like what was then the fairly recent past. Anyone expecting an Indian Cecil B DeMille had better look elsewhere. The filmmakers (German director Franz Osten and Indian actor/producer Himansu Rai) deliver an elegant, pleasing, well-organised piece, admirably serious about its subjectmatter (love, desire, power, and especially gambling) but never pretentious or boring. Not a second is wasted nor a false note struck. Even the love scenes, even the children’s roles are acted with a restraint that one scarcely associates with cinematic epic.

I was rather dreading the new soundtrack by Nitin Sawhney, not being a fan, but I am pleased to report that it is mostly excellent. This is Sawhney in full orchestral mode: he proves to be a dab hand at sub-Rimsky orientalist doodling, very much the kind of thing that would have been popular at the time the film was made, and appropriately evocative of the never-neverish world in which the story is placed. The music is episodic but coherent, rich in melody and tone colour: it invigorates the action without ever going too far in dictating the mood – at least until the last fifteen minutes, when Sawhney gives in to the temptation to include some vocal numbers, which outstay their fit as action develops and mood changes.

Peter Momtchiloff


Andy Warhol

Format: Cinema

Release date: September 2007

Venue: BFI Southbank

Director: Andy Warhol

US 1964-66

Between 1964 and 1966, anyone who visited the Factory would be made to sit for a three-minute silent film portrait. Andy Warhol made nearly 500 of these Screen Tests and as part of their current retrospective of his work, the BFI Southbank are showing a staggering 279 of them.

The Screen Tests feature all degrees of celebrities rubbing shoulders on the celluloid: real stars (Dennis Hopper, Bob Dylan), Warhol’s ‘superstars’ (Edie Sedgwick, Ondine), underground personalities (Jack Smith, Taylor Mead), artists and cultural figures (James Rosenquist, Henry Geldzahler), and at the bottom of the celebrity scale, Factory wannabes. Under instruction to sit still for three minutes, some of the subjects calmly comply, some fidget uncomfortably while others defiantly disobey (Geldzahler undoes his tie, Rosenquist swivels on his chair).

It has to be said, sitting in a dark room watching more or less famous people stare at the screen for three minutes does not constitute the most exciting cinematic experience. In fact, like much of Warhol’s work, the Screen Tests are facile and hollow, and yet it is impossible to deny their perverse appeal. And although they are not as notorious as Sleep, Blow Job or Chelsea Girls, the Screen Tests do offer a striking insight into the slippery, ambiguous nature of Warhol’s art.

As the portraits succeed one another on the screen, watching them feels just like turning the pages of an autograph book. But while there is something of the star-struck fan collecting pictures of his idols here, these film portraits also show Warhol the star-maker at work, fabricating icons by removing what makes them human. By making his subjects sit completely still and remain quiet, Warhol freezes them in a state where they are reduced to pure image. Voiceless, motionless and expressionless, they are the perfect flat surface on which viewers can project their desires.

But through this star-making process Warhol is also constructing his own myth, engaged in a mutually dependent, self-serving relationship with his models: he gives them edgy, artistically-endorsed fame; they make him the ultimate pop guru. The Screen Tests show Warhol creating a world in which he reigns all powerful, the master who can make or break a star, the high priest of cool who decides who’s in and who’s out. Did anyone ever refuse to pose, I wonder? Did anyone, famous or not, risk being left out of Warholian history?

It is a measure of Warhol’s talent as a salesman, as a charlatan even, that no one could ignore him, not even the serious film critics and theorists. Even though he was one of the least inventive filmmakers of the period, his work has been much pondered over. Warhol shot the Screen Tests at 24 frames per second but had them projected at 16 FPS, elongating the viewing time to 4 킽 minutes. Just as in the eight-hour-long Empire, there isn’t much of an idea there. Yet, what would have been slated as shallow and slight in anyone else’s work was interpreted as a radically minimalist statement on duration in Warhol’s films.

A much better adman than he was an artist, Warhol somehow managed to sell his literal reproductions of celebrities as an ironic comment on our culture. Yet his very success, if not his work, exposes that culture for what it is. It is these contradictions that shine through in the Screen Tests. But that’s not reason enough to sit through 279 of them.

Virginie Sélavy


Jean Painleve

Format: DVD

Release date: 11 June 2007

Distributor: BFI

Director: Jean Painlevé

Idiosyncratic French filmmaker Jean Painlevé was a poet in celluloid and a pseudo-scientist in brine. With friends such as Jean Vigo, Luí­Â­s Buí±uel (indeed Painlevé was chief ant handler in Dali/Buí±uel’s Un Chien Andalou), Eistenstein, Edgar Varese, George Franju (Painlevé co-wrote Le Sang Des Bí­Âªtes) and Alexander Calder to name but a few, Painlevé has come to be regarded as an avant-garde filmmaker.

By the 1920s science and film were already bedfellows. There had been antecedents – Marey, Commandon, Doyen – and by the time Painlevé started shooting equipment was already quite sophisticated; yet often science films were didactic, seldom were they poetic. Being the anarchist that he was, Painlevé took the rigid, musty nature of scientific filmmaking as a cue to do the exact opposite and deliver material that really engaged people with the subject. A true auteur, he worked semi-autonomously in his own lab, replete with customised equipment. Although his films are often structurally quite formal and relatively straightforward, they seemed so strange in the context of orthodox science film that their reputation as ‘avant-garde’ was sealed.

Science is Fiction collects eleven short films made by Painlevé between 1927 and 1979, with subjects ranging from liquid crystals to the mating rituals of various marine animals and, in collage form, the life of a vampire bat (the only airborne creature recorded here). Every single one of these films is a delight and I salute the BFI and the team that put it together.

The son of a mathematician/politician, indeed Prime Minister, Painlevé emerged from a haut-bourgeois background. As a youth he was a keen photographer with an interest in surrealist and dadaist art. By his early twenties he had flirted with film, working as an actor and producer on minor self-financed short films. He was also partly responsible for the publication of Surréalisme, a magazine dedicated to… you guessed it. It folded after one issue. Simultaneously, Painlevé was busy disobeying father, flunking out of mathematics and opting for marine biology, spending his days wading in the coastline of Brittany. During this period he met his wife and collaborative partner Genevií­Â¨ve Hamon. It wasn’t until 1927, when Painlevé was in his mid-twenties, that he started to take the camera out wading with him. Over the course of three years he made six short documentary films all dealing with molluscs or crustaceans. By the time of his death in 1989 he’d authored in excess of 200 films.

Despite his association with Breton’s movement, Painlevé was not a surrealist filmmaker by any means. He did, however, share the surrealists’ interest in the weirdness of procreation and psycho-sexual stimulation. Out of the eleven films collected here, four depict submarine mating rituals and birth. These are the most captivating of the selection, and not only do they reveal Painlevé’s preoccupation with animal reproduction but they also demonstrate a propensity for eroticism in their technical realisation.

In the opening shots of Love Life of an Octopus (1965), an octopus crawls across mud flats at low tide, its large humanoid eye blinking with a furtive, criminal shyness… it squeezes itself under a rock and nests there until the tide has risen. ‘Créature horrifique’, says the voiceover in mock disdain. Painlevé then presents us with a kaleidoscopic peep-show of octopi coitus, pregnancy, birth and foetal development. The lighting is soft-focus, the location intimate.

The molluscs are subjected to pornographic macroscopic close-up photography exposing labial, clitoral fronds, protusions and sensuous pink umbilicae; Wharton jelly smears; the curlicues and whorls of tentacular mating rituals; the synaesthetic mood pulsing of octopi, a special arm inserted into an orifice… It is reminiscent of an orgasmatron moment in Barbarella or an expanded cinema light show; with jerkier movement and fast editing it could even be Brakhage-esque forensic footage….

It is strange indeed, the love life of an octopus, but it is no stranger than our own sexual corporeality, sexual rituals, reproduction processes and the mysteries of our internal organs. We see other creatures copulate too in other Painlevé films but this scene in this two-years-in-the-making, forty-two-year-old sublime tour de force is particularly devastating and to me exemplifies Painlevé’s erotic poetic quality.

There is something undoubtedly sensuous about submersion in fluid. In an essay from 1935, ‘Feet In The Water’, Painlevé discusses wading, its instinctive, sensual pleasure and thwarted desire: ‘Wading around in water up to your ankles or navel, day and night, in all kinds of weather, even in areas where one is sure to find nothing, digging about everywhere for algae or octopus, getting hypnotised by a sinister pond where everything seems to promise marvels although nothing lives there. This is the ecstasy of any addict….’ It is possible, then, if you have a filthy mind like me, to see direct parallels with filmic eroticism in Painlevé’s films; if nothing else he gets very intimate with the molluscs.

Painlevé’s films are noted for their soundtracks and Love Life of an Octopus derives an essential part of its propulsion from the squelching macabre that is Pierre Henri’s gorgeous composition. Like a foetus in amniotic fluid, that other homme-grenouille Jacques Cousteau liked to listen to the mysterious, muffled, globular vibrations of hydrophonic recordings… Painlevé wasn’t averse to these sounds but generally chose music to accompany his films. It is largely this juxtaposition that gives his work its unique texture. Jazz, chamber music, musique concrí­Â¨te and other harmless noises provide ironic counterpoint to imagery that’s often as arcane.

Painlevé’s Parisian studio, a landlocked Nautilus… Sat amongst his aquaria in the heart of Paris, tinkering with exotic life-forms, Painlevé was, like many of the singular breed of people who keep subaquatic pets, a sado-masochist who enjoyed the tragic non-reciprocity of the relationship. A relationship wrapped in morbidity, since to have a more tactile rapport with the creature one would have to compromise its life. They cannot be in our world without life support: tanks with thermostatic regulators, water-treatment chemicals and filters. As we are constantly reminded of the fragility of their existence there is something inherently melancholy about these kinds of pets. Painlevé understood this since he experienced the agony in reverse, only able to exist in their world with life support too. To me this mutual empathy is quite evident, contrary to the critics who claim that Painlevé depicted the miscellaneous animals as exotic, outlandish aliens.

I look at the slip-case cover of the DVD – Painlevé kitted out as an aquanaut, ready to descend, respirators on his back, fat tube attached to a face-mask with shatter-proof glass, a huge underwater camera like a Jules Verne relic from the previous century strapped to his chest, all set for filming amoebic bodies and their undulations in brine, and it is Painlevé who looks far more like an alien species than any of the creatures I gawped at in his films of the marvellous.

Philip Winter

Science is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé features an alternative soundtrack by Yo La Tengo. The band will perform their soundtrack live to a selection of the films at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday 9 September at 7.30pm.



Format: DVD

Release date: 3 September 2007

Distributor Optimum

Director: Shane Meadows

Titles: TwentyFourSeven, A Room for Romeo Brass, Dead Man’s Shoes, This Is England

On the council estates of this our glorious nation the remnants of Britain’s working class, beaten down by Thatcher’s economic ‘miracle’ of the 80s, live unglamorous lives. The vast majority of them are decent people: mothers struggling to bring up their kids in the right way, fathers battling to hold down a decent job, and the kids, doing what kids do, being bright and sparky, running around in gangs, experimenting with drugs and sex before the harsh realities of adult life intervene. Then there is the damage: relationships stretched beyond breaking point, the boredom of everyday existence on the breadline, dreams broken through lack of opportunity, violence engineered from frustration. In the 1960s the British New Wave made films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and A Taste of Honey which told us of the lives of the people who lived in what were then pit-towns and centres of industry. Later, directors such as Ken Loach and Mike Leigh documented the corrosive effect of Thatcherism on those communities. Now the mantle has passed to Shane Meadows.

This four-DVD box set includes all of Meadows’ major works to date bar the poorly received Once Upon A Time in the Midlands, the one occasion where he departed from his habit of using little-known actors in favour of an all-star cast that included Robert Carlyle, Rhys Ifans, Kathy Burke, Shirley Henderson and Ricky Tomlinson. The first of Meadows’ feature-length films TwentyFourSeven (1997) did, however, star Bob Hoskins as Darcy, a washed-up football coach who opens a boxing club in an attempt to wean the local delinquent youth off their self-destructive lifestyle of drink, drugs and casual violence. Shot in black and white, the film eloquently expresses the frustrations and low self-esteem of the town’s young men, eager to cling to the opportunity offered to them against a backdrop of unemployment and empty days. Hoskins puts in a bravura performance as the dreamer who has to earn the respect of the boys and, if the characters of the would-be-pugilists themselves aren’t as well developed, the relationship of one with his scornful, violent father is the real emotional heart of the movie. Clearly shot on a budget of no money whatsoever, the sheer story-telling talent of Meadows carries the film home.

Meadows’ next film was the rites-of-passage tale A Room for Romeo Brass (1999), the story of two school kids, Romeo and Gavin, who befriend a peculiar young man called Morell (Paddy Considine) after he saves them from bullies. The seemingly simple Morell develops an infatuation with Romeo’s sister Ladine (Vicky McClure) and for a while the film seems like a light-hearted comedy as he clumsily attempts to woo her. Abruptly though, we discover a darker, psychotic side to Morell’s character and the relationship between this grown-up child and the youngsters takes on a disturbing edge that is emphasised when Ladine narrowly escapes a sexual assault at his hands. Meadows is again strongest on issues of fatherhood – Romeo’s father is absent and Morell fulfils the role of surrogate in much the same way as Hoskins does to his boxing charges in TwentyFourSeven, while Morell’s damaged psychology is partly explained by a violent relationship with his own father. Like all of Meadows’ films A Room for Romeo Brass manages to be funny, sad and disturbing by turns. Just like real life in fact.

Considine turns up again in Dead Man’s Shoes (2005), for which he also shares a co-writing credit. Here he plays a paratrooper returning to a small Midlands town with his simpleton brother Anthony to take a terrible revenge on a gang of small-time villains. By re-styling his usual social realism as revenge movie Meadows plays with the conventions of the genre. The gang are shown more as bored slackers escaping the mundanity of small-town life through drugs and crime, while we never see the actions of Considine’s psychotic paratrooper, just the devastating results. Considine gives an excellent performance in what could have been a one-dimensional role in other hands, and the shocking revelation that hits us towards the end of the movie provides a brilliant twist that throws the entire film into a more ghostly, poignant light. Production values are low, perhaps deliberately so, but once again Meadows demonstrates that inventiveness and ingenuity are the important ingredients in what is probably his best movie to date.

The release of This Is England (2007) came earlier this year to much acclaim. Set in 1983, it tells the story of an 11-year old kid, Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), whose father has died in the Falklands War. His search for belonging leads him into the arms of the local skinhead fraternity, a benign, multi-racial bunch led by Woody (Joseph Gilgun) and his girlfriend Lol (Vicky McClure again) who help dress Shaun in the regulation uniform of Ben Sherman, braces and boots. The idyll is shattered by the return from jail of Combo (Stephen Graham), a former member of the gang who now espouses the manifesto of the National Front. Shaun is susceptible to Combo’s arguments and, seeking a father-figure, joins up with him. Much as in A Room for Romeo Brass the film deals with the relationship of a vulnerable young person taken under the wing of a damaged older man, and again Meadows attempts to define the cause behind that damage, rather than simply portraying the character as a monster. It’s intelligent, complex and brave directing. The film fizzes with energy and, as with all of Meadows’ films, the use of music is exemplary, a potent mixture of reggae, ska, punk and 80s pop.

A decade on from TwentyFourSeven Shane Meadows has established himself as one of Britain’s brightest talents with a series of films that address the reality of life for the working classes in the UK. It’s further proof of his skill that these films are also brilliantly entertaining. While he is by no means a complete filmmaker (his female characters, although often stronger and more stable than their male counterparts, come across as under-developed) his films have a rare naturalness and an emotional truth that guards his work against dourness. As far from condescending stereotypes and facile miserabilism as can be, this box set is an electrifying blast of real life.

Sean Price


Ghost in the Shell - Solid State Society

Format: DVD

Release date: 20 August 2007

Distributor: Manga + Bandai Entertainment

Director: Kenji Kamiyama

Original title: Kôkaku kidôtai: Stand Alone Complex Solid State Society

Japan 2006

108 mins

Although it’s being marketed as the third Ghost in the Shell film, the acronym friendly GitS: S.A.C. – SSS is the most recent (feature-length) episode of the TV series Stand Alone Complex. Based on the same manga by Masamune Shirow that inspired Mamoru Oshii’s two movies, Solid State Society is confusingly being presented as a sequel, although for the casual viewer there are enough connections with the originals both in terms of theme and returning characters to justify this.

SSS is ostensibly a police procedural thriller concerning the special police department Section 9, which investigates cyber terrorism. They are looking into a string of suicides caused by a mysterious character called The Puppeteer who hacks into people’s cybernetic implants in order to control their actions. As such the film seems quite prescient in its interests – as Bluetooth phone attachments get ever smaller and people walk down city streets apparently talking to themselves it taps into some primal fears the more Luddite members of society might have about being controlled by their machines.

Renowned for combining mind-expanding philosophy and jaw-dropping visuals Oshii’s two Ghost movies can be seen as part of the trend of hallucinogenic science fiction running from 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Fountain. Being a more faithful adaptation of Shirow’s manga, the TV series has had considerably more time to discuss in depth the various technophobic and technophilic interests of its author. However, while SSS taps into some of the same themes of existential identity crisis as the original Ghost movies, it gets bogged down by plot and technobabble of the kind that makes more narrow-minded audiences flee from sci-fi. What’s more, there’s a streak of misogyny evident in certain scenes where a cyborg girl with shrink-wrapped breasts fights a phallic robot drilling machine and another where a bedridden old man is cared for by nurses in S&M costumes. This is the opposite of Oshii’s movies, which debated the objectifying of women in society as ‘dolls’. While Oshii looked to cyberpunk literature for inspiration, this seems to be influenced by the lurid films of Paul Verhoeven with the drilling machine reminiscent of one from Total Recall and the clunky anthropomorphic battle robots looking like relatives of ED-209 from Robocop. Verhoeven can get away with turning Philip K Dick into camp body horror, but Oshii’s cool aesthetic is what gave Ghost in the Shell its transcendent nature, and it is very much missing here.

While the original films (particularily GitS 2: Innocence) can be confusing because they deal with complex ideas, SSS is confusing because of bad writing. When characters discuss the identity of The Puppeteer or the true nature of the Solid State Society, they just come across as that occasionally annoying person you watch a film with who hasn’t being paying attention to the plot. There is none of Oshii’s philosophical thoughtfulness here and half of the dialogue is simply filler padding out the running time of a shorter TV episode to feature length.

The music is catchy enough to encourage nascent fans of J-pop to go out and buy the album as it is the kind of jazz, trip-hop, funk fusion typical of composer Yoko Kanno who composed the sublime music for the animé series Cowboy Bebop.

Fans of sequels who can put up with the law of diminishing returns may enjoy this film and welcome a return visit to the Ghost in the Shell universe, but if you’re new to the series stick with the much superior original movies instead.

Alex Fitch


The Last Winter

Format: DVD

Release date: 6 August 2007

Distributor: Revolver

Director: Larry Fessenden

Cast: Ron Perlman, James LeGros, Connie Britton, Zach Gilford

US 2006

107 minutes

The Last Winter follows an oil research team based in the untouched Alaskan Arctic planes. Tough and tenacious leader Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman) is eager to drill into the rich oil resources that lie below the surface, but he is challenged by environmental expert James Hoffman (James LeGros), who believes the project will wreak havoc on the already fragile terrain. A sense of unease builds within the team after the mysterious disappearance and death of one of its members, and the camp is slowly engulfed in disorientation and paranoia as a ghostly threat starts to take hold of their lives. After a devastating plane crash at the base Pollack and Hoffman are forced to brave the winter wilderness in search of help, but against perilous conditions and supernatural forces their hopes for survival begin to fade away.

The film’s cinematography captures the expansive, inhospitable landscape of the arctic tundra perfectly, and the sense of hopelessness and isolation that grips the characters is palpable. The men are barely distinguishable in wide shots of barren, snowy planes, and the spooky howling wind is ever present, reinforcing the sense of loneliness. The remote environment is also a psychological landscape, evoking the fear of the unknown and a feeling of helplessness. The camera peers into windows through a flurry of snow, as if a voyeur, which further suggests that the team aren’t alone in the wilderness. The behaviour of the characters becomes more and more erratic as events unfold, and it is difficult to determine whether they are in the grip of their own unravelling sanity or dark forces of nature.

The film’s central conflict is between oil hungry Pollack and sober realist Hoffman and through their antagonism director Larry Fassenden highlights the struggle between the US government’s unwavering capitalist ideology and ever-increasing environmental concerns. In fact, Pollack could be seen as Bush to Hoffman’s Gore, and it’s no surprise that Pollack tries to remove Hoffman when his research findings threaten the project. The chilling ending clearly suggests that if American policy doesn’t change the consequences will be devastating.

This topical issue is pursued through the supernatural horror genre, which could have been an interesting approach if it had been done in a less conventional way. The general set-up echoes The Thing, the foreboding presence of crows circling the sky above is reminiscent of The Omen, and the pecking of eyes and flesh recalls The Birds. The atmosphere of paranoia and solitude creates some genuinely creepy moments, and the dread is most compelling when the threat remains unknown and imagined. But the overall pace of the film is too slow to successfully build anticipation, and the ghostly forces that overwhelm the team have a distinctly underwhelming effect once they are exposed.

Fessenden is known for his ‘intelligent and socially conscious horror films’, and there is no doubting his commitment to the issue of global warming. In The Last Winter, he sternly warns of the dangers of the American government’s reluctance to make changes. But while he creates a convincing atmosphere of tension and uses the bleak landscape to great effect, The Last Winter is burdened by the weight of the issues, and the explicit significance of the message makes the film that much less enjoyable.

Lindsay Tudor