The Dark Knight

Format: Cinema

Release date: 24 July 2008

Distributor: Warner Bros

Venues:Odeon Leicester Square (London) and nationwide (35mm print)/ Bimingham, Glasgow, London, Manchester (IMAX version)

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writers: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan

Based on a story by: Christopher Nolan & David S Goyer

Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman

USA/UK 2008

152 mins

There’s a long-standing website called ‘Superhero Hype!’ which has covered the phenomenon of Hollywood’s growing interest in comic books over the last decade. This summer, more than ever, Superhero Hype seems the perfect catchphrase for the majority of the year’s blockbusters so far. Following Iron Man, The Hulk, Hancock, Wanted, Asterix at the Olympic Games, Speed Racer and inevitably the no-frills Superhero movie we have The Dark Knight, which opened in American cinemas on the 18th of July. There’s nothing wrong with the genre as a whole and obviously, within that list, there are good films and bad films – and I’m happy to report that The Dark Knight is a good film – but the level of hype and interest in this movie is phenomenally over the top. The film grossed $158,300,000 in its first weekend, breaking a record (unadjusted for inflation), and has made it to the #1 slot of the 250 best films ever made according to users of the internet movie database.

Something absurd is going on. At the risk of stating the obvious, TDK isn’t the best film ever made; it’s not even the best Batman film ever made, or the best film released in cinemas this month, being up against new films by Guy Maddin, Errol Morris and a re-release of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. And yet reviewers are comparing it to The Godfather II and it’s had 70,000 votes on the IMDb after only 4 days of release. Perhaps the story of a vigilante who fights both with and against the system in order to pursue justice has struck a chord with audiences made insecure by constant reports of crime and terrorism.

I certainly don’t want to begrudge the film’s success. We live in a world where the blockbuster is king, where audiences like to see things blowing up on screen every five minutes and this is something TDK does well. As a spectacle, the film is astonishing. In fact you’ve never seen such beautiful explosions (though strangely, nowhere to be seen is the burning Bat signal on the side of a skyscraper that features on the poster), particularly as several sections of the movie are shot in IMAX format. The movie combines 35mm ‘widescreen’ sequences with IMAX ‘full screen’ sequences, switching between the two formats fairly seamlessly. So for instance, the opening credits have black bars above and below the image while the first scene of the movie, shot in IMAX, fills the whole screen. This continues intermittently throughout the movie, the IMAX format being used mostly for establishing shots as well as some of the more spectacular action scenes. Occasionally, the director cuts back and forth between high-res full screen and lower-res widescreen 35mm within the same scene. I didn’t find this distracting but rather an intriguing technical device that adds to the filmmaker’s set of tricks. IMAX is the highest resolution film format currently available, so if you see the film at an IMAX cinema, you’ll see these shots on the largest screens with the crispest image you can get. For that privilege you’ll also pay some of the highest ticket prices – but since the film runs over two and a half hours you certainly get value for money.

Paradoxically, the long running time is also the film’s downfall. At 152 minutes, it feels unnecessarily long, with some sections verging on repetition. As is the modern way, following the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and The Matrix Reloaded, it feels more like an instalment than a film in its own right and lacks structure. Of course, this is also because it is based on the Batman ‘graphic novels’, which are themselves collections of a myriad of stories and do not sit in isolation but are part of a continuing narrative. So instead of a well-defined beginning, middle and end, the result is two and a half hours of relentless middle with lots of little climaxes but no real sense of an escalating structure, even though the script keeps on telling us that events are escalating.

Despite this, most of the film is entertaining. The cast is uniformly excellent and the resounding praise aimed at the late Heath Ledger is deserved, excellent as the Joker and even eclipsing Jack Nicholson’s turn in the role. Aaron Eckhart is terrifying (look away now if you somehow didn’t know this) as Two Face with make-up redolent of Freddy Kruger, and dispels all memories of Tommy Lee Jones mugging for the camera in Batman Forever. Christian Bale is still an engaging lead even if he’s occasionally more James Bond than Batman in this film – particularly in a bizarre sequence set in China, in which the character, taken out of context, becomes somewhat generic. That said, Gotham City in this movie is almost indistinguishable from Hong Kong, and this only serves to remind audiences of what was great about the Tim Burton films. The Anton Furst sets, supported by Danny Elfman’s scores have left an indelible cinematic take on the story that is hard to improve on. Tim Burton’s films may have erred on the side of fairy tale, but Batman is a new mythology for our times and it is perhaps perverse and ill-judged of writer / director Christopher Nolan to try and make the new Batman films ‘realistic’ – is that really possible when you’re telling the tale of a kung-fu billionaire who fights crime dressed as a bat?

The tagline of the film and catchphrase of the Joker in the movie is ‘Why so serious?’ and ironically this is a question that should be asked of the production as a whole. Like Batman Begins and indeed Superman Returns (so, perhaps it’s endemic in current DC Comics adaptations) this is a dour movie with few moments of levity or normal human interaction to lighten the tone. The darkness is so relentless – although this film has ironically the most daylight in it of any Batman film since 1966 – that there is a point where the audience starts to feel browbeaten. When the funniest scene in the movie is when a serial killer in drag with pancake make-up on blows up a hospital, it begins to make you wonder if the audience is starting to feel as traumatised as some of the characters.

So my vote for best superhero movie of the summer so far goes to Iron Man (although I have high hopes for Hellboy II) because it mixed the adventures of another billionaire vigilante with stunts, explosions and daring-do, while striking a better balance between humour and pathos. I left Iron Man wishing the film had gone on for another half hour and didn’t leave the cinema numb from sitting or emotional and visual battering. Top marks to The Dark Knight for filmmaking acumen then, but not for its effect as a whole.

Alex Fitch


Standard Operating Procedure

Format: Cinema

Release date: 18 July 2008

Venue: Curzon Soho (London) and key cities

Distributor: Sony Pictures

Director: Errol Morris

USA 2008

116 minutes

While his last film, The Fog of War, revolved around interviews with Robert S. McNamara, the much reviled Secretary of Defence during the Vietnam War, Errol Morris’s latest documentary is a study of soldiers at the bottom of the pyramid, themselves often victims of the botched war in Iraq. Taking as its starting point the photos of torture and humiliation shot at Abu Ghraib in 2003, and seen by millions worldwide, Standard Operating Procedure pieces together a fascinating, almost forensic study of the events depicted in the shocking images.

In an on-stage interview at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Morris admitted that there is often a discrepancy between ‘audience expectations about what your movie should be’ and what it really is. So while audiences may have hoped to see George Bush or Donald Rumsfeld excoriated, Standard Operating Procedure doesn’t hold them to account for the horrific abuses that occurred at the Iraqi prison. The film’s not even an outraged attack on the war itself. Morris, who was a private investigator before he became a filmmaker, explained that he was more interested in understanding his subjects, in the ‘idea of people grappling with themselves’, rather than in eliciting the confessions his audience might crave.

Disturbing interviews with the notorious Lynndie England, as well as her fellow soldiers including Sabrina Harman, other investigators and interrogators, reveal a time-line of events that put the 270 photos of abuse into grim context. England’s best known for appearing in photos holding a prisoner on a leash, or grinning at detainees being forced to masturbate. Harman is seen in photographs smiling over the gruesome dead body of a tortured Iraqi. England talks about being a woman in a man’s world, fighting to be an equal. Harman wrote letters home to her partner describing the events in the photographs, many of which she took, in order to prove to people back home ‘the shit’ that happened at Abu Ghraib, things Americans would never believe if they couldn’t see it for themselves.

The humiliation in these photographs had little to do with the interrogations of the prisoners themselves. Soldiers like England and Harman, and other guards at Cell Block 1A, where the most notorious offences took place, were meant to soften up their subjects. They were supposed to ‘Gitmoize the operation’ and ‘treat the prisoners like dogs’. These low-ranking soldiers might have known that something wasn’t right, but they were either too ignorant or too powerless to defy the orders that came from above in a situation ‘where right and wrong was hopelessly blurred’. Military culture doesn’t tolerate dissent; these soldiers were screwed either way. They were forced by their superior officers, by the CIA and FBI, to become complicit in the crimes that were committed in the name of winning the war – something still unachieved five years later.

Standard Operating Procedure is as taut and compelling as any thriller, fuelled by Danny Elfman’s terrific score. Morris has mastered an interview technique that gives the appearance that his subjects are speaking directly to the audience, creating the illusion that we’re involved in a conversation as crucial as any we’ve ever had. Morris refuses to simply vilify soldiers like England and Harman, offering them a degree of sympathy instead. Ultimately, Morris leaves little doubt that the people responsible for the rampant, policy-driven abuse were never brought to justice: as he made clear during the interview, the photographs ‘deflected blame from the administration and gave people these visible culprits… these people took the stain of this entire war’.

Sarah Cronin

For more Edinburgh Festival coverage see: EIFF 08: Under the Radar, EIFF 08: Best of the Fest and Interview with Olly Blackburn, Jay Taylor and Rob Boulter (Donkey Punch).


Savage Grace

Format: Cinema

Release date: 11 July 2008

Venue: Curzon Soho (London) and key cities

Distributor: Revolver Entertainment

Director: Tom Kalin

Writer: Howard A. Rodman

Based on: the novel by Natalie Robins and Steven ML Aronson

Cast: Julianne Moore, Stephen Dillane, Eddie Redmayne

Spain/USA/France 2007

97 mins

It is giving nothing away to reveal the eventual murder of the mother at the hands of her son in Tom Kalin’s excellent and utterly unsettling second feature Savage Grace since the film is based on a sensational real-life incident that shocked American society in 1972. A spellbinding tale of luxury, incest, madness and matricide, the film recounts the glittering rise and tragic fall of the aspiring American socialite Barbara Daly (a wonderfully versatile Julianne Moore), who married into the incredibly wealthy Baekeland family, and her unhinged relationship with her son Tony (Eddy Redmayne).

Adapted from the non-fiction book by Natalie Robins and Steven ML Aronson, and converted for the cinema by writer Howard A. Rodman and Kalin’s deft directorial hand, Savage Grace truly hits you like a stab in the heart. It’s a magnificent, superbly designed and consistently perplexing riddle, and a triumph for Moore and Redmayne, who bring deep reserves of feeling and grit to the film’s fabulously lush visuals.

Told in six episodes spread between 1946 and 1972, the film follows the decadent, but emotionally frail life of the Baekelands as they move from New York to Paris, and on to Spain in the 60s, where Brooks (Stephen Dillane) decides to put an end to his unhappy alliance to Barbara and leaves her for a much younger Spanish woman. After a glorious scene in which she treats her decamping husband to a ferocious blaze of fury, Barbara desperately struggles with selfish frustrations while her affection for Tony becomes increasingly suffocating. By the time mother and son move on to London, where the horrific climax takes place, Tony seems helpless to control his deeply damaged personality.

Savage Grace is wonderfully sly, intelligent and classily executed, but it undoubtedly makes for uneasy viewing. Deliberately sketchy and un-melodramatic, the episodic storytelling is linked through Tony’s insightful narration of the events. The tone shifts arbitrarily from scene to scene, making the script feel oddly unreal, though never less affecting. Kalin’s decision to strip the story back to key moments and emotions is a sound one, and it enables him to create and maintain a mood of intense, simmering tension and temperamental unpredictability, which ultimately erupts into the devastatingly powerful showdown.

Perhaps the film suffers from its provocative style and slick visuals, which leave the audience with a subliminal demand for some sort of emotional key in order to be able to cope with such extraordinary, inscrutable characters. That said, it is essentially up to Moore in the challenging role of Barbara to carry the film. While she never ages on screen throughout the 26 years covered – which makes the film feel even more like a romanticised memory in Tony’s disturbed mind – the colour and style of Barbara’s outfits are carefully chosen to reveal her inner moods: the lilac dress in the 60s, or the red Chanel suit at the end. Even so, Moore still finds unexpected shades in Barbara’s palette, not least an accumulating sense of emotional and physical exhaustion that remains with the audience after the credits roll.

Pamela Jahn

Read our interview with director Tom Kalin in the summer print issue of Electric Sheep. Also in that issue, a jazz and cinema specially-themed section to coincide with the re-release of Charles Burnett’s heart-rending gem Killer of Sheep, with articles on Shirley Clarke, John Cassavetes, Jim Jarmusch and Beat cinema among others. For more information on where to buy the magazine and how to subscribe, please contact amanda [at]


Origin: Spirits of the Past

Format: Cinema

Release date: 12 July 2008

Venue: ICA (London)

Distributor: Manga Entertainment

Director: Keiichi Sugiyama

Writers: Naoko Kakimoto & Nana Shiina

Original title: Gin-iro no kami no Agito

Cast: Ryo Katsuji, Aoi Miyazaki, Kenichi Endo

Japan 2006

95 mins

Recent animé seems to have become hyper-aware of the last couple of decades of genre filmmaking. Perhaps this is inevitable as animé creators struggle to find new cinema audiences in the West and seek to tap into tried and tested themes. Origin: Spirits of the Past shares with other recent releases Vexille and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time a jackdaw approach to the sci-fi and fantasy genres that the three films belong to. But while Vexille seems over-familiar to anyone who’s seen 1980s live action sci-fi such as Dune and Blade Runner, the recycling of ideas is not only forgivable but indeed works tremendously well in both Origin and The girl, perhaps because both contain aspects of time travel.

Origin is set in a post-apocalyptic future where the moon still orbits the Earth but has been blown up by an accident, the pieces drifting away into a ring of rocky fragments similar to Saturn’s. On Earth, humanity has managed to keep hold of some technology but has split into three factions, the druidic plant-worshippers who ‘protect’ a carnivorous forest, the low-tech inhabitants of the ruined city nearby who rely on the druids for their water supply, and the industrial warmongers who live in a settlement out in the arid zone. Into this strange new world, a girl from the past awakens (from cryogenic suspension), triggering a war between the three parties.

The style of the film combines slightly generic looking-characters (albeit with terrifically designed clothes), remindful of early Hayao Miyazaki, with beautifully rendered landscapes that look like moving oil paintings. This combination of stunning backgrounds with more traditionally ‘cartoony’ characters is a winning and aesthetically pleasing idea and Origin joins the likes of Metropolis / Metoroporisu (2001) and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time as a great example of the technique.

However, the brilliant animation work and intriguing narrative are somewhat let down by the clunky translation – if it is to follow in the footsteps of Princess Mononoke it could have done with a rewrite by Neil Gaiman or a writer of his calibre – and an inferior generic score. This film has so much going for it that it would be a shame if it doesn’t get the final polish that might ensure it reaches a wider fan base in the West. Considering the film has taken two years to cross nine time zones and comes from one of the artists of the most revered animé series of all time (Neon Genesis Evangelion), it would be unfortunate if it still doesn’t get the audience it deserves. An English dub or new translation and a reworked soundtrack would be enough to turn a film that is something of a curate’s egg into a classic of the genre.

Alex Fitch


Memories of Underdevelopment

Format: Cinema

Release date: 11 July 2008

Venue: Barbican (London) and selected key cities (from August 15)

Distributor Contemporary Films

Director: Tomí¡s Gutiérrez Alea

Writer: Tomí¡s Gutiérrez Alea and Edmundo Desnoes

Based on: Edmundo Desnoes’s novel Memí­Â³rias Inconsolables

Original title: Memorias del subdesarrollo

Cast: Sergio Corrieri, Daisy Granados, Eslinda Níºí±ez, Omar Valdés

Cuba 1968

97 minutes

Part of the Cine Cuba season at the Barbican

July 10-17

For more information on the programme, go to the Barbican website.

Sergio is a bourgeois dilettante who prefers to stay on in Cuba when his wife and family decide to leave the country for the United States in the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution in 1959. A man of leisure, he spends his days pondering his decision and his life; ruminating on the socio-politics of the country’s new leaders, and chasing – and finally seducing – a young woman, Elena. Like the classic flí­Â¢neur he wanders aimlessly about the streets of Havana, meditating on the true meaning behind the agitprop facade which continuously plays out on his TV. Was the human death toll worth it, and why are the philosophers and intellectuals rarely out there on the barricades, taking a bullet for the revolution like the proletariat?

These questions arise from Sergio’s sense of alienation – an existentialist self-examination and enquiry into not just Communist philosophy, but life’s meaning and its inherent ethical quagmire of politics, psychology, sociology, economics, gender and even evolutionary Darwinism, all in the best tradition of a Socialist symposium – an example of which he witnesses in a nonchalant, aloof manner.

Memories has no plot as such; the events play out like a semi-improvisatory fugue and the whiplash cutting, abstrusely edited soundtrack and neo-realist ambience remind one – perhaps too easily – of 60s Godard. Add to this the film’s overt political conceit and this sensibility could be construed as somewhat plagiaristic. Is Alea paying homage to Godard or is it just a case of him being responsive to the zeitgeist of the time and independently creating a Cuban corollary to the European New Wave? In retrospect it is hard to determine, and perhaps the film’s fragmented style is, after all, well suited to the first-person internal musings of the protagonist.

Sergio is at a crossroads in his life – he’s been unfaithful to his wife, doesn’t believe in the redemptive power of politics and finds life generally absurd – a bona fide mid-life identity crisis corresponding to the Cuban missile crisis which unsettlingly rumbles along in the background. He is disengaged from life (epitomised by the tape recordings he surreptitiously makes of his estranged wife), analysing the world around him, abstractedly, from a distance; but when he is wrongly accused of exploiting and raping Elena, the world suddenly closes in on him and he becomes re-sensitised to reality and his raw emotions. He feels incomprehension and fear when questioned in court and the chasm between class-driven, state-sanctioned blind ‘justice’ and a higher moral law is thrown into sharp relief. Sergio’s subversive and questioning attitude leads to a grim and unwarranted personal ordeal which ultimately reflects the wider social crisis and fundamental inhumanity contained within any dogmatic, autocratic political system like Communism.

Towards the end of the film Alea succinctly delineates the rising tension of the missile crisis by having Sergio continually play with his Zippo lighter – in a sequence interspersed with dramatic newsreel footage from the TV news – its rhythmic clicking sound acting as the countdown to a very possible apocalypse. Thankfully, reason prevailed in those surreal, knife-edge moments, and Memories is a lasting legacy of that transformative, chaotic and sharply focused era.

James DC

From July 10-17 Barbican Film presents Cine Cuba, a season that explores the heart of Cuban Cinema, with gems from the Havana archives plus new works and films which celebrate Cuba’s musical heritage. More information on the Barbican website.



Format: Cinema

Release date: 18 July 2008

Venue: Empire Leicester Square (London) and selected key cities

Preview: July 11, Rich Mix (London)

Distributor: Yume Pictures

Director: Nicolas Roeg

Writer: Dan Weldon

Based on: the novel by Fay Weldon

Cast: Kelly Reilly, Miranda Richardson, Rita Tushingham

UK/Ireland 2007

120 mins

Messy is probably the best word to describe Nicolas Roeg’s Puffball, his first theatrically released feature in twelve years, and by far the most questionable and simplistic film in the director’s canon so far. A lacklustre mishmash of voodoo humbug, pregnancy and domestic frustrations, set in a grey, desolate community in the Irish countryside, Puffball is carelessly plotted, haphazardly stringing together obscure scenes and all-too-obvious hints. At its best, the film is painted in appealingly vivid strokes, and on occasion, generates a passably sinister air, but the overall work is terminally dull and creaks under the weight of its own pretensions. Buried under the surface, traces of Roeg’s famously strong and original visual sense are still identifiable, but the presence of Donald Sutherland in the film only serves to remind the audience of the director’s past achievements, emphasising the abyss that separates Puffball from a masterwork such as Don’t Look Now.

Adapted from a novel by Fay Weldon, the narrative centres around Liffey (Kelly Reilly), an ambitious young architect who decides to leave her job and – modern – life behind, setting out on a mission to restore an old ruined cottage in the countryside for herself and her partner Richard (Oscar Pearce). Soon upon arrival in the valley she meets her neighbour Mabs Tucker (Miranda Richardson), who lives on the farm nearby together with her husband, three daughters and her brilliantly eerie-looking mother Molly (Rita Tushingham), and from that point things rapidly start to get out of hand. Liffey learns that she is pregnant, but instead of telling Richard, who had to return to New York for work, she gives vent to her fears and confusion in a brief encounter with Mabs’s husband. Once the adultery is revealed, Molly is convinced that Liffey is somehow carrying the ‘little baby boy’ that Mabs is so desperate to have and takes matters into her own witchy hands.

Although attempts to add psychological weight by inserting fragments of weird flashbacks are largely unsuccessful, Roeg does manage to capture the ennui of provincial life, and the sense that passion, mystery and violence lurk not far beneath the surface. But this is not enough to rescue the film and as the plot veers towards melodramatic hocus-pocus territory and symbols are wielded in staggeringly heavy-handed fashion, it becomes an increasingly frustrating experience. In the circumstances, the actors acquit themselves reasonably well, though stripped of much of their back story and psychological shading, the characters they play fail to engage our sympathies. In any case, there is not much they could do to salvage the over-familiar script, which has echoes of Rosemary’s Baby thrown into a sinister locals versus townies who don’t belong there type plot. Accompanied by an interfering score, the overall style is essentially prime-time television mystery-drama and it is sad to see a director of Roeg’s quality churning out such uninspired material, which strikes a duff note in his otherwise awe-inspiring body of work.

Pamela Jahn


The Case

Format: Cinema

Screened at Tiger Festival 2008

Director: Wang Fen

Writer: Cheng Zhang

Original title: Xiang zi

Cast: Wu Gang, Wu Yujuan, Wang Sifei, Wang Hongwei

China 2007

87 mins

Dank, dark spaces and untamed tropical nature encroach upon a remote Yunnanese inn, where the appearance of a mysterious, floating case signals the return of dormant, irrational desires for the mild-mannered protagonist He Dashang (Wu Gang). Wang Fen’s The Case is a playful black comedy, with more than just a nod to Freudian-Surrealist symbolism, accompanied by a suitably absurdist, theatrical sensibility. The film is an enjoyable satire on marriage and relationships as social institutions, exploring private notions of libido, desire, happiness and trust.

He Dashang is trapped in a stifling marriage and runs a quiet Lijiang guesthouse under the constant scrutiny of his brutally distrustful wife (Wu Yujuan). The crushing tedium of his life is disrupted when he fishes out the eponymous case from a stream. After impulsively hiding it from his wife he soon discovers its unspeakable contents; an obscenity that he scrabbles to conceal – or should it be repress? – from his wife’s knowledge.

Simmering tensions soon escalate when a strikingly coquettish Lily (Wang Sifei as a noir-ish femme fatale) checks into the guesthouse with her near-wordless husband (Wang Hongwei). Unable to restrain himself, Dashang embarks on a furtive relationship with Lily that involves equal measures of counselling and spying. Are the new lodgers connected with the mysterious case? Why does Dashang’s wife seem to know what he has done, unnervingly, even before he realises? While these questions hang in the air, events spiral out of control before the film reaches its cathartic, and utterly divisive, conclusion.

Wang Fen’s debut achieves thrilling levels of suspense with admirable efficacy, which owes much to the uniformly strong performances, particularly from Wu Gang and Wu Yujuan as the spouses. Wu Gang is convincingly downtrodden and guilt-racked as Dashang, and it is difficult to believe Wang Sifei is anything other than the feisty, phobic Lily that she plays with such relish. Even the location itself, China’s most south-westerly province Yunnan, plays a crucial supporting role, its vegetation infusing the film with a palpable sense of organic life, reminding the viewers of the lawlessness of nature and its accompanying urges.

The Case is the best known of the first ten films (all by women directors) produced by the state-funded Yunnan New Film Project. Initiated in 2001, the project was established to mark both the centenary of Chinese cinema and to stimulate a new crop of indigenous filmmakers. The film’s overt eroticism and daring immorality indicate perhaps that China’s relaxing grip on censorship is softening further, and allegorically that the nation itself is succumbing to its own irrational desires.

Edwin Mak


Violence at High Noon

Format: DVD

Release date: 28 July 2008

Distributor: Yume Pictures

Director: Nagisa Oshima

Writer: Tamura Tsutomu

Based on: novel by Taijun Takeda

Original title: Hakuchu no torima

Cast: Kei Sato, Fumio Watanabe, Saeda Kawagushi, Akiko Koyama

Japan 1966

99 mins

Based on the true story of the rapist and serial murderer Eisuke, Violence at High Noon is a detached and disturbing portrait of post-war Japan that owes much to the films of Alain Resnais and Robert Bresson in terms of its non-linear structure and its fascination with the amoral activity of the social outsider. Now firmly established as a key contributor to the Japanese New Wave, director Nagisa Oshima attended film school in France, and his fragmented approach to narrative and scathing critiques of his native society in the age of Westernisation singled his work out as the antithesis of the humanist cinema of Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa. Viewing the film more than forty years after its initial release, the shocking subject matter and elliptical aesthetic sensibility of Violence at High Noon suggest that Oshima’s work has had significant influence on such later cinematic provocateurs as Nicolas Roeg, Donald Cammell and Olivier Assayas.

Eisuke (Kei Sato) is introduced as a moody drifter who commits a murder at a private residence, but spares the life of the maid, Shino (Saeda Kawagushi), after causing her to collapse with fear through physical threat. It transpires that Eisuke and Shino are actually former co-workers from a failed provincial farm, and she goes through the motions of assisting the police with his capture, but withholds crucial information as she feels an unspoken bond with her attacker and desires to understand the reasons behind his violent urges. Whilst shadowing the detective assigned to the case (Fumio Watanabe), she writes letters to Eisuke’s schoolteacher wife Matsuko (Akiko Koyama), urging her to expose her husband for the socially dangerous and sexually deviant criminal that he is.

Oshima utilises jarring jump-cuts and high-contrast cinematography to enhance both the narrative tension and the closely guarded psychological nature of the intrinsically bonded protagonists. The opening sequence, in which Eisuke’s mood shifts from conversational, to brooding, to aggressive is unflinching in its depiction of male violence, while flashbacks to the fateful events at the communal farm comment on the failed idealism of the period. Oshima adopts an aesthetic approach that achieves a sustained sense of claustrophobia, particularly in the later scenes between Shino and Matsuko wherein cutting and framing become increasingly tight as emotions heighten and revelations are made. ‘Sometimes cruelty is unavoidable’, is Matsuko’s grimly accepting summary of her life with Eisuke. Oshima’s film also suggests that such cruelty is unexplainable, as a concluding confession by Eisuke insists that, even if the earlier events had not occurred, he would still have carried out his crimes. Although at times frustrating in that its constant cross-cutting between time frames and multiple perspectives makes it difficult to follow narrative and thematic threads, Violence at High Noon nonetheless achieves a level of formal experimentation that is uncommon in such sobering accounts of moral decay.

John Berra

See also The Sun’s Burial, Night and Fog in Japan and Naked Youth by the same director.



Format: DVD

Release date: 9 June 2008

Distributor: Momentum Pictures

Director: Julien Leclercq

Writers: Julien Leclercq, Nicolas Peufaillit, Franck Philippon

Cast: Albert Dupontel, Marie Guillard, Marthe Keller, Alain Figlarz

France 2007

94 mins

Imagine a time in the near future when memories could be transplanted to another human brain, or removed entirely. That simple premise is the key idea behind Chrysalis, the directorial debut from Julien Leclercq. Taking obvious elements from Blade Runner, the recent Bourne films and A Clockwork Orange, Chrysalis tries to fashion them into something new. While it comes close in some rare moments, overall it simply rehashes some of the most memorable scenes from much more memorable films. Flirting with cyberpunk and film noir elements but refusing to commit, Chrysalis is an initially interesting prospect that ultimately just goes through the motions.

Visually very slick, it is also particularly well acted, and the performances of the talented cast go some way towards covering up some of the weaknesses of the script. Albert Dupontel compellingly smoulders throughout. Alain Figlarz makes for a physically monstrous villain. Marthe Keller completes the line-up with possibly the most difficult role of the film as the grieving and morally twisted Professor Brugen. Dupontel and Figlarz are particularly good in the action scenes, both actors impressively performing all their stunts. The two extended fights scenes between their characters are real highlights, recalling the Bourne films (Figlarz worked on some of the stunts for The Bourne Identity). But unfortunately for the cast, the script is entirely underwhelming and an ill-judged plot ‘twist’ midway through the film reveals Chrysalis to be nothing more than an under-developed soap opera.

Director Leclercq makes the most of his sparse sets and skilfully uses CGI effects to create washed-out, stripped-down sets, with only his reliance on interiors hinting at the film’s low budget. Leclercq obviously has a strong eye for visuals, but sadly with Chrysalis he fails to mesh them with a human story. First-time directors often try to throw everything into their first film, but it feels like Leclercq is holding back here. There are moments that hint at a stronger director, and the opening fifteen minutes in particular have a real energy to them; but very soon the plot descends into cliché. With no less than four different writers working on the script, there really is no excuse for such a thin plot, but then again it is possible that this is precisely the reason for the lack of a coherent direction.

At the outset it looks like Chrysalis will be exploring the processes of the memory – what it is and how people are defined by it. Unfortunately, any complex ideas are dropped in favour of keeping the ‘memory’ aspects as a simple plot point. Chrysalis is never a dull film, but it lacks the imaginative spark that would push it above the mass of half-baked sci-fi thrillers. The strong cast and slick visuals keep the audience interested for the duration of the film, but ultimately – and ironically – it’s unforgivably forgettable.

Martin Cleary



Format: DVD

Distributor: ICA

Release date 28 April 2008

Director: Astra Taylor

USA/Canada 2005

71 mins

Among Slavoj í…½ií…¾ek’s many occupations, celebrity academic should, as this documentary makes clear, be ranked first. In perfect post-modern fashion, he has been criss-crossing the globe for twenty-odd years, delivering his offbeat but witty thoughts and provocative theories on ideology, global politics and late-capitalist economics to a growing fan club.

Astra Taylor’s debut film í…½ií…¾ek!, which is now released on DVD, makes a bold attempt to explore the phenomenon that is í…½ií…¾ek by trying to document both his public and private life. That the film fails to reveal much about the latter says more about the personality of its protagonist than any of the scenes that show him proudly displaying his son’s toys or shopping for DVDs in New York.

In Sophie Fiennes’s too rarely seen three-part TV documentary, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, í…½ií…¾ek embarked on a highly energetic Lacanian ride through cinema, which included some wonderfully ruthless low-budget re-enactments of famous scenes played by the bustling philosopher himself. By contrast, Taylor here opts for a rather modest, if straightforward, approach to her interviews with í…½ií…¾ek. With her presence limited to a few minor walk-ons, í…½ií…¾ek is given the time to chase his racing thoughts wherever they go, which seems to leave the young filmmaker at a loss for what to do with her exuberant subject. Whether lecturing, analysing Lacan’s body language on TV, showing us around his house or philosophising naked in a hotel bed, there is undoubtedly something compulsive and calculating in the way he appears before the discreet camera.

However, í…½ií…¾ek appears mindful of his role at all times, and the strongest idea to emerge from the film is his own sense that the intellectual must stand precisely apart, seeking neither endorsement nor personal peace. His big worry, he admits, ‘is not to be ignored, but accepted’. Although he is always deadly serious about his subject matter, he clearly loves to baffle his audience as much as to challenge them. Nothing is sacred for í…½ií…¾ek and absolutely everything is potential fodder for the high-energy stream of thought that runs through his mind, spawning one digression after another until the philosopher seems as unclear as the viewer about the point he was trying to make.

To her credit, Taylor recognises the irony in trying to capture the true spirit and soul behind the exposed persona. The documentary footage therefore is interspersed with animated anecdotes by Molly Schwartz, thrown in to help the viewer enter the í…½ií…¾ekian universe. But with its tight editing and brief running time (71 frantic minutes), the film feels almost too short, and occasionally í…½ií…¾ek seems to have been cut off mid-thought. Which is a shame since – despite his blustering demeanour – his typically drawn-out digressions reveal a very sceptical sadness in his criticism of modern society. Nevertheless, Astra Taylor’s spot-on profile shows the extent to which í…½ií…¾ek is both intimidated by the responsibility his celebrity brings and irked by the impact it has on his intellectual standing. Watching this fresh, brief and enjoyable documentary on DVD is brilliantly stimulating and prompts one to think further about í…½ií…¾ek’s original, politically incorrect and ultimately vital analysis of society.

Pamela Jahn