Format: Cinema

Release date: 30 January 2009

Venues:Prince Charles (London)

Distributor: Revolver

Director: Mabrouk El Mechri

Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Franí§ois Damiens, Karim Belkhadra, Saskia Flanders

Belgium/France 2008

93 mins

As an international movie star, Jean-Claude Van Damme is something of a contradiction: his name is synonymous with popular action cinema, yet his last major theatrical release was Universal Soldier: The Return in 1999. The distinction between fame and actual success lies at the heart of JCVD, an intermittently inventive cross between Being John Malkovich (1999) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975) in which Van Damme plays himself, a fading celebrity with money problems, who arrives home in Belgium after a humiliating custody hearing in Los Angeles, only to discover that bad events really do come in threes. Firstly, he learns that he has lost a role to Steven Seagal because his long-time rival has agreed to cut off his pony-tail. Secondly, his credit cards are rejected when he attempts to withdraw some cash. Thirdly, he wanders into a Brussels post office during a robbery and is taken hostage, with the villains forcing the jet-lagged Van Damme to pretend that he is actually committing the crime. The situation escalates into a stand-off between the robbers and armed police, with cheering fans clamouring for a glimpse of their hero.

Appropriately enough for a film named after its leading man, the greatest strength of JCVD is Jean-Claude Van Damme himself. Performing largely in his native tongue, Van Damme delivers a surprisingly naturalistic and often vulnerable performance, maintaining his affable public persona as he poses for photos with his fans, but projecting genuine frustration when realising that custody of his pre-teen daughter is slipping away, or when his agent offers him yet another direct-to-DVD project to be shot on the cheap in Bulgaria, crushing his hopes of a comeback in a studio film. The hilarious opening sequence finds the Mussels from Brussels on set, kicking and punching his way through an army of disposable extras, before telling the unsympathetic Hong Kong director: ‘It’s very difficult for me to do everything in one shot, I’m 47 years old!’ A later scene breaks the fourth wall, as Van Damme delivers a monologue directly to camera, admitting to his personal and professional failures, which include drug abuse and broken marriages.

The film falters whenever Van Damme is not centre stage, as his fellow hostages and the police officers are not fully developed characters and, of the robbers, only lookout man Arthur registers thanks to his childish enthusiasm for Jean-Claude’s oeuvre – a scene in which he coaxes his idol to perform one of his signature high kicks is a comedic highlight. Writer-director Mabrouk El Mechri adopts the ‘answers first, questions later’ structure favoured by the American independent filmmakers who tried to ape the success of Quentin Tarantino, attempting to build tension when he should be mining the satirical potential of his casting coup. However, his script plays knowingly with the conventions of the action genre, while his downbeat 70s-style soundtrack selections are just right for a movie about an ageing martial arts star exiled from the Hollywood mainstream in the digital effects era.

John Berra


Tokyo Sonata

Format: Cinema

Release date: 30 January 2008

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Writers: Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Max Mannix, Sachiko Tanaka

Cast: Teruyuki Kagawa, Kyôko Koizumi, Yû Koyanagi, Inowaki Kai, Kôji Yakusho

Japan 2008

119 mins

You can’t put Kiyoshi Kurosawa in a box. Never content to stay in the same genre for very long, his work as a whole is resistant to interpretation, but it is possible to perceive certain patterns in his films, such as a preoccupation with borders. In Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001), a serial killer movie and a ghost story respectively, it’s the border between the natural and the supernatural. In Tokyo Sonata, the story of a typical Japanese family, Kurosawa is concerned with the borders between people, both on a domestic and a national scale.

First among equals in a great cast is Teruyuki Kagawa as Ryuhei Sasaki, a director of administration who is fired as soon as he has successfully completed the outsourcing of most of his company’s labour to China. Unable to face the shame of telling his wife and children that he is unemployed, Ryuhei dons his business suit as usual and kills time during the day by hanging out at the library or joining the queue of an outdoor soup kitchen along with a surprisingly large number of similarly attired unemployed men. In this way, Kurosawa taps into the contemporary Japanese fear of neighbouring China’s economic boom.

But Ryuhei is not the only family member who is lying. The youngest son, Kenji (Inowaki Kai), wants to learn to play the piano. However, Ryuhei, in light of his secret unemployment, refuses. Therefore Kenji uses his lunch money to pay for lessons, often skipping school to attend. Similarly, it is implied that the oldest son, Takashi (Yû Koyanagi), is not going to classes either – an implication that is supported by Takashi announcing suddenly that he is going to join the US army as an overseas volunteer. Ryuhei’s wife Megumi (Kyôko Koizumi) can only wish someone would lift her out of the domestic depression she finds herself in. That is, until she comes home one day and surprises an unemployed locksmith turned burglar, played by the great Kurosawa regular Kôji Yakusho, and decides to run away with him. In a meta-filmic move typical of Kurosawa, it seems that none of the Sasaki family are sticking to the roles he has cast them in. All of this is filmed in Kurosawa’s trademark voyeuristic style, through windows and doorways or from the vantage point of a bridge. These framing devices both create a sense of unease and suggest an additional border: the cinema screen itself.

However, the disparity between the cinematography and Ryuhei and Megumi’s comic behaviour is resolved pretty quickly, and after their respective escapades, both parents are back home in time to attend Kenji’s audition for music school. As a child prodigy, Kenji is something of a deus ex machina, the only character with the insight to see through the borders that people erect around themselves. His beautiful rendition of Claude Debussy’s Clair de lune suggests that Kurosawa perceives some sort of essential harmony in the universe and that these borders are illusory. However, Kurosawa cannot resist a last minute undermining of this interpretation as Takashi, the only character to have crossed any geographical borders, writes that although the Japanese volunteers have been sent home from the Middle East, he has decided to stay and fight alongside the locals. Kurosawa, enigmatic and therefore appealing as ever, declines to say which side Takashi is fighting for.

Alexander Pashby



Format: Cinema

Release date: 23 January 2009

Venues: Vue West End (London) and nationwide

Distributor: Universal

Director: Ron Howard

Writer: Peter Morgan

Cast: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen

USA/UK/France 2008

122 mins

Ron Howard’s latest film, an adaptation of Peter Morgan’s successful 2006 stage play Frost/Nixon, was an intelligent, entertaining and ultimately riveting choice to kick off this year’s London Film Festival. The screenplay, penned by Morgan, dramatises the events that led up to a series of notorious interviews held in 1977 between the celebrity talk show host David Frost and the disgraced president Nixon – interviews that garnered a record television audience and landed Frost on the cover of Time magazine.

Frank Langella, who won a Tony award for his part in the Broadway production, reprises the role of the president, delivering what is undoubtedly one of the performances of his career as the ousted, almost fanatical politician hell-bent on using the interviews to clear his name and stage a political comeback. Langella’s performance is so impressive that it tends to over-shadow that of his British co-star Michael Sheen, who, although he was also an original cast member in both the UK and American productions, doesn’t quite possess Langella’s stature.

Sheen’s David Frost is a likeable but lightweight entertainer (rather than a journalist), with a playboy reputation and a television career on the brink of imploding. Morgan imagines the interviews as a gloves-off contest between two men both desperate to come out on top, and in the process salvage their reputations and careers (as well as make a wad of cash). It’s one of Frost’s researchers, the author James Reston Jr, (Sam Rockwell), who passionately demands that Frost use the interviews to secure an admission of guilt over the disgraced president’s role in the Watergate scandal, rather than merely as a vehicle to restore his faltering fame.

The witty, insightful script is handled deftly by an impressive ensemble cast that also features Kevin Bacon as Nixon’s Chief-of-Staff and the always engaging Oliver Platt as the journalist Bob Zelnick. While some theatre-goers may see little point in watching the adaptation on the big screen, the medium offers Langella the perfect opportunity to really capture up close the physical weaknesses (a sweaty upper lip, for example) that so famously made Nixon unsuited for television – a victim, in Reston’s words, of the ‘reductive power of the close-up’. It’s only a shame that more time isn’t devoted to the blistering interviews; instead, a little too much attention is paid to Frost’s vanity and personal life, including a distracting, seemingly unnecessary love interest (typical of Hollywood).

Ultimately, it’s the film’s parallels with the current Republican administration that make it such a powerful political work. Nixon’s attacks on the ‘liberal’ media – in a great scene he refers to them as the ‘sons of whores’ – were being repeated across America in the run-up to the 2008 election. And Nixon’s abuse of executive privilege (‘if the president does it, it’s not illegal’) has been more than matched by the secretive Bush/Cheney team. While the film is undoubtedly a slick, commercial feature, it’s encouraging to see successful directors like Howard use their influence to take aim at the White House in a smart, captivating way.

Sarah Cronin


Better Things

Format: Cinema

Release date: 23 January 2009

Venue: ICA Cinema, Renoir (London) and key cities

Distributor: Soda Pictures

Director: Duane Hopkins

Writer: Duane Hopkins

Cast: Tara Ballard, Betty Bench, Frank Bench, Emma Cooper, Liam McIlfatrick

UK 2008

93 mins

Emotional depth comes wrapped in bleakness in Better Things, a visually striking and thoughtful feature debut by the British writer-director Duane Hopkins. Just as in his award-winning short films (Fields, Love Me or Leave Me Alone), the former artist and photographer devotes most of his filmmaking energy to unfolding a fragmented narrative through a lucid and almost nightmarish pace, with the aim of creating a film that ‘truly evokes rural England’. However, although Better Things reaches for the sort of complexity demonstrated in the director’s shorts, it doesn’t quite manage to convey the same poignant intensity.

Somewhat prudently, the film has been billed in its journey around the international film festival circuit as a painterly view of rural existence rather than as a drama about substance addiction, yet at its heart lies the shattering impact of a young woman’s death from a heroin overdose. Much of the story follows her boyfriend Rob, a junkie himself, who, like most of his friends, uses drugs to escape the unbearably grim monotony of everyday life while his little brother experiences the equally devastating very few highs and many lows of first love. The multi-layered narrative also encompasses the parallel stories of an elderly couple unable to forgive each other for a stale betrayal, and of a girl named Gail who struggles to overcome her agoraphobia and her addiction to the romance novels that keep her safe from the harsh world outside.

Switching between several plot strands set during the same miserable days and nights in the rural boredom of the Cotswolds, Better Things follows innocuous and utterly repressed characters pushed to extremes of emotional despair, tracing their personal journeys through very little dialogue and a lot of moody posturing. Rob’s existential crisis, for example, is hinted at but never properly explored, which makes his character increasingly irritating, especially as he is – more or less – the leading role in the ensemble. The result is a series of character snapshots enhanced by Hopkins’s ability to capture the essence of unhappiness in this particular setting with impressive exactitude. But the film’s style, located somewhere between a poetically shot documentary and the observational approach of Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, isn’t backed up by enough substance. There is a strong suggestion that fertile associations connect scenes together but key details that would help tighten the links and elucidate the mystery at the heart of the film are withheld, preventing the film from ever developing into something more than the sum of its parts.

From an aesthetic point of view, Better Things is intoxicating and haunting in equal measures for the austere, self-enclosed world Hopkins creates with a palette reduced almost to monochrome. There is an aching, yearning quality mixed with pent-up frustration and anger, much of it communicated through an impressive sound design and the world of stillness and near-silence, of forbidding yet alluring landscapes.

Better Things is a problematic film, in its structure and narrative approach, but it carries a great deal of the directorial strength and emphasis of Hopkins’s earlier work, most notably, a devotion to form over narrative. Although the film is flawed and may be too stark to convey Hopkins’s poetic-realist style in a convincing way, it offers a powerful evocation of the desperate, tongue-tied helplessness that sets its various characters in motion, and which, in the film’s riveting moments, echoes uneasily in the mind.

Pamela Jahn


Hansel and Gretel

Format: Cinema

Release date: 16 January 2009

Venues: ICA (London) and key cities

Distributor: Terracotta Distribution

Director: Yim Pil-Sung

Writers: Yim Pil-Sung, Kim Min-sook

Original title: Hansel gua Gretel

Cast: Cheon Jeong-myeong, Sim Eun-kyung, Jang Yeong-Nam, Kim Kyeong-ik, Park Hee-soon, Eun Won-jae

South Korea 2007

117 mins

Sensible kids know that some of the scariest stories come in the form of fairy tales. In the original Brothers Grimm story, Hansel and Gretel are abandoned by their starving parents in the woods where they encounter a cannibalistic witch who fattens them up with cakes and sweets. This South Korean adaptation recasts the children as the villains of the story, making them the cake suppliers who dispose of unwary strangers unlucky enough to chance upon their home in the forest. Cannibalism only gets a slight (visual) mention in this modern retelling, in the form of a dubious, bloody joint of meat in the over-stocked fridge, but the other memorable elements of the story – the house full of cakes, the abandoned children and the impenetrable woods you cannot escape – survive intact.

Creepy children are a safe bet for horror movies, as are crash victims who foolishly wander away from their wrecked cars instead of waiting for emergency services. These two horror staples have been over-used, and combined with such a well-known fairy tale, could have made for a film too familiar to be engaging. But Hansel and Gretel comes in a decade that has seen a renaissance in Korean fantasy cinema, and these elements have been remixed and given new vitality by a modern Asian sensibility. Appropriately, director Yim Pil-Sung starred in The Host (2006), a sort of Korean retelling of St George and the Dragon that mixed fairy tale tropes with modern concerns about pollution and eco-terrorism. Here, alongside the expected elements of witchcraft and hauntings we have child abuse and a paedophiliac priest.

At 117 minutes, the film is overlong and the script could have been sharper, but the atmosphere, the direction and most of the performances keep the audience engaged even during the longueurs. The paedophilia subtext is not entirely successful; the dodgy priest is the least convincing character in the film and sticks out like a sore thumb. However, Deacon Byun and the extended running time are the only weak aspects of Hansel and Gretel, and throughout the film there are enough remarkable images – the bucolic cottage surrounded by snow, an attic that extends further than the eye can see (reminiscent of JG Ballard’s short story ‘The Enormous Space’) and a toy angel that comes to life and flies away – to make this a memorable, unsettling film that will disturb adults who only vaguely remember the creepy fairy tales that scared them as children.

Alex Fitch

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

Format: Cinema

Release date: 10-15 January 2009

Venues: BFI Southbank (London) and key cities

Distributor: Park Circus Films

Part of the Sam Peckinpah season at the BFI Southbank, 10-31 January. More info here.

Director: Sam Peckinpah

Writers: Frank Kowalski, Sam Peckinpah, Gordon T Dawson

Cast: Warren Oates, Gig Young, Isela Vega, Kris Kristofferson

USA 1974

112 mins

Lionised by a particular kind of (mostly male) film fan, Sam Peckinpah’s accomplishments as a director are often overshadowed by his legendarily disordered personal life. And much like the man himself ‘Bloody Sam”s 1974 film Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is loved and loathed in equal measure.

Critically savaged on release (Harry Medved included it alongside clunkers like Santa Claus Conquers The Martians in his book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time), its reputation has nevertheless lived on in some curiously varied places: David Lynch is a fan, while it’s almost certainly the only movie to be both an influence on Quentin Tarantino and the punchline to a running joke on Radio 4 panel show ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’. Famously one of the few Peckinpah films not to be subject to studio intervention, this peculiarly lurid B-movie is also his most personal. It’s for this reason that Peckinpah himself loved it more than The Wild Bunch, Junior Bonner, The Getaway or any of his more commercially successful or accomplished movies. ‘I did Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and I did it exactly the way I wanted to’, he said in 1975. ‘Good or bad, like it or not, that was my film’.

An odd and at times uncomfortable mix of Western, noir, horror, black humour and genuinely tender love story, it follows Warren Oates’s loser bartender Bennie as he travels through rural Mexico searching for the Garcia of the title. Bennie isn’t alone, though: a million-dollar bounty has been put on Garcia by an aggrieved patrí­Â³n whose daughter he has impregnated, so various professional bounty hunters are also seeking to find Garcia and return with very physical proof of his death.

What follows is a customarily bloody and unusually funny Peckinpah curio, redeemed almost totally by Oates’s performance. Peckinpah scholars claim Bennie is a thinly-veiled self-portrait of the director – right down to the constant drinking and permanent sunglasses – and Oates’s depiction of flawed, desperate masculinity is built on equal amounts of sadness, rage and frustration. The essentially pointless chase for Garcia’s severed head is Bennie’s last chance at achieving some kind of redemption. Ultimately, Bennie manages a kind of nobility amongst the moral squalor of his surroundings, but only after his girlfriend and scores of others are killed and he has contended with the practicalities of transporting a rapidly decomposing human head through the Mexican heat.

The BFI’s Sam Peckinpah season offers the chance to see the film in a much better print than the notoriously poor one shown very occasionally on TV – which means that the dialogue will be audible for a start – but although the picture quality may be good, it can’t stop this from being a pretty grimy film. Indeed, your appreciation of it will largely depend on whether you trust Peckinpah enough to spend two hours with him jettisoning the Big Themes of his best work for a kaleidoscopic mix of gay hitmen, shallow graves, Kris Kristofferson as a bashful would-be rapist and Warren Oates having a one-way conversation with a dead man’s head in a calico sack. Because, like Peckinpah himself, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a mixture of the very very good and the very very bad. In this respect, it’s probably the director’s ultimate movie.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is released with a brand new 4K restoration on Limited Edition Blu-ray by Arrow Video on 23 January 2017.

Pat Long


The Broken

Format: Cinema

Release date: 30 January 2009

Venues: London and key cities

Distributor: The Works

Director: Sean Ellis

Writer: Sean Ellis

Cast: Lena Headey, Richard Jenkins, Asier Newman

UK/France 2008

85 mins

The British-born writer and director Sean Ellis made a name for himself with his 2006 debut feature Cashback, which he adapted from his funny, original and slightly disturbing 2004 Academy Award-nominated short of the same title about an art student working in a Sainsbury’s who can stop time. His second feature, The Brí¸ken, is a stylish psychological thriller set in a chilly, grey London that wears its debt to Edgar Allan Poe on its sleeve.

Lena Headey (who proves that she can excel at serious, thoughtful roles after her B-movie turns as the matriarch in 300 and Sarah in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) stars as Gina McVey, a composed, elegant woman working as a radiologist at an anonymous London hospital. At an intimate birthday party for her father, an American diplomat played by Richard Jenkins, a mirror suddenly crashes to the floor, with the promise of bad luck setting off a frightening chain of events. The next day, Gina sees a woman who looks like her drive by in a car identical to hers. She follows her doppelgänger to a flat where she is shocked to find a photo of the mysterious woman with her father. The film cuts to a horrific car crash, with Gina waking up in hospital, lucky to be alive, but unable to remember any of the events leading up to the accident.

As Gina tries to piece together fragments of the events, and as mirrors continue to shatter all around her and her family, she realises that reality – and the people closest to her – may not be what they seem. Ellis keeps the audience wondering whether Gina is mentally damaged or possibly the victim of some kind of sinister conspiracy, with her enigmatic father and boyfriend (played with icy stillness by the French actor Melvil Poupaud) somehow privy to the dark secret that she’s trying to unravel.

There are a few false notes in the film; writing dialogue is not Ellis’s strong point and the movie is at its best when he lets the visuals do the talking. Much of the film’s strength lies in its measured pacing and perfectly composed shots, and Ellis uses Gina’s job at the hospital as a source for the sterile atmosphere and clinical colour palette of steely greys and flickering green hues. The film is given a retro feel by its impeccably stylish use of mansion blocks as locations, and by details like old rotary phones that suggest a 50s, Hitchcockian sensibility (a tribute made all the more obvious by a seriously disturbing take on the shower scene). Scenes shot in an impossibly empty London help reinforce Gina’s feelings of terror and isolation, while the score crucially creates a palpable sense of tension, with shrill strings and white noise often reaching an ominous crescendo.

Ellis has successfully crafted a grown-up, sleek thriller that explores the sinister side of split personalities, using suspense rather than gore to frighten his audience. Refreshingly ambiguous, the film doesn’t provide any neat answers to its supernatural questions.

Sarah Cronin


Memories of Matsuko

Format: DVD

Release date: 26 January 2009

Distributor: Third Window Films

Director: Tetsuya Nakashima

Writer: Tetsuya Nakashima

Based on the novel by: Muneki Yamada

Original title: Kiraware Matsuko no isshô

Cast: Miki Nakatani, Eita, Yusuke Iseya, Teruyuki Kagawa, Mikako Ichikawa

Japan 2006

130 mins

On paper, a quick scramble through the most memorable moments in the life of Matsuko would make for an unredeemably bleak read. Matsuko is unfairly sacked from her job as teacher, shacks up with a series of abusive lovers, ends up a massage parlour girl, completes an eight-year stint in prison for murder and descends into lonely madness, before her untimely end as a murder victim, at the age of 53.

It sounds dark and then some. But director Tetsuya Nakashima (of Kamikaze Girls fame) has a neon-bright vision, and his love of super-saturated colour, moody lighting and musicals gives this self-aware melodramatic weepy a slick, inventive cartoon dreaminess that is luminously arresting.

The film opens with 20-year-old Sho, played with slacker aplomb by Eita, being dumped by his girlfriend with the brutal announcement: ‘Life with you is a terrible bore.’ Direction-less Sho with mordant nihilism mumbles that ‘at any rate the future’s hopeless’ and heads for a fast-paced video life of clubbing, beer and porn.

His dad, who he hasn’t seen for two years, turns up at his place with a casket of ashes and the surprising news that his estranged and strange elder sister (Sho’s aunt) has been found dead. And Sho has been assigned the job of heading to her apartment to clear up the detritus of her ‘meaningless life’. Discovering a photo of his young aunt, dressed in a kimono, and pulling an absurd face, Sho gradually begins to unravel the mysteries of Matsuko’s life – the tragi-comic tale of a woman who went looking for love in all the wrong places.

Miki Nakatani is given the hard task of playing out the masochistic Matsuko, who seems to have adopted The Crystals’ song, ‘He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)’, as her romantic mantra. Chameleon-like in appearance – changing from a trimly besuited teacher with a prim hat to a bobbed-haired barber’s girlfriend to a cloudy-haired yakuza’s moll, Nakatani is surprisingly convincing, despite the outré-ness of the plot. She seems full of an uncontrollable needy passion, crying out, ‘with him I’d gladly go to hell or anywhere. That’s my happiness’, as she’s punched, yet again, in the eye by her latest (fucked up) beloved.

Nakashima continually ramps up the emotion, and then slyly twists it with a canny visual joke, or a quirky musical interlude. There’s a hip-hop prison song, where the inmates sing the jailhouse blues, or the absurdly perky ‘Happy Wednesday’, a whimsical skip of a song that infects everyone in the scene with a viral chirpiness, as Matsuko plays house for her married lover. The film is full of these kinds of visual delights – Lynchian swathes of hyper-real flowers, glittery Disney-ish birds, the black rubbish bags that turn into a murder of crows, wings beating frantically in Matsuko’s gloomy riverside apartment as her madness takes hold.

The film has its flaws: it’s overly long (130 minutes) and occasionally self-indulgent with its Hollywood ‘weepy’ references – there’s a truly cringe-worthy scene with a Bing Crosby-style priest – and the acting sometimes veers from the dramatic into teeth-clenching hysteria. But overall, Memories of Matsuko is funny and sad, and hugely inventive. It is bonkers, but mostly in a good way.

Eithne Farry


Dead Man

Format: DVD

Release date: 5 January 2009

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Writer: Jim Jarmusch

Cast: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Crispin Glover

USA/Germany/Japan 1995

121 mins
Part of the Jim Jarmusch Collection Vol 2

Titles: Mystery Train, Night on Earth, Dead Man

As its title implies, Jim Jarmusch’s existential Western is preoccupied with death, an event which a Native-American character describes as ‘passing through the mirror’. Although it is the director’s most ambitious film to date in terms of its period recreation, Dead Man is, like Stranger than Paradise (1982) and Down by Law (1986), another film about social outsiders, their travels, and the people that they encounter before arriving at their destination. Beautifully shot in black and white by the great Robby Mí¼ller, and accompanied by a jangling guitar score by Neil Young, this is perhaps the film that most perfectly encapsulates Jarmusch’s directorial persona, aligning his credentials as the New York ‘hipster’ who put American independent cinema on the map in the early 1980s with his personal fascinations with foreign cultures and the erosion of the American dream.

William Blake (Johnny Depp) is a recently orphaned accountant from Cleveland, who travels West by rail to take a position at a metal works in a town called Machine, a nightmarish melting pot of environmental pollution and moral corruption, which is appropriately located at ‘the end of the line’. Upon arrival, he is informed by the proprietor of the works, Dickerson (Robert Mitchum), that the position has been filled, and that his services are not required. Finding solace in a bottle of whisky, Blake encounters former prostitute Thiel (Mili Avital) when she stumbles out of a saloon, and ends up in bed with her, only to be interrupted by her lover Charlie (Gabriel Byrne), who also happens to be Dickerson’s son. Charlie murders Thiel, and wounds Blake, but the accountant fires back with Thiel’s pistol and kills Charlie with a shot to the neck.

After making an amusingly inept getaway by falling out of the window and riding away on Charlie’s horse, Blake awakens in the woods to find Nobody (Gary Farmer), a Native-American outcast, trying to remove the bullet that is lodged close to his heart. Nobody points out that, because the bullet cannot be removed, Blake is already a ‘dead man’, as the wound will eventually prove to be fatal. The two men become riding companions, and Blake accepts his situation whilst wandering through the wilderness, while Dickerson dispatches three bounty hunters to bring his son’s killer to ‘justice’.

Jarmusch adopts the genre of the Western to comment on the state of contemporary America, and it’s often intertwined obsessions of violence, fame and money. ‘Why do you have this?’ Blake asks Thiel after discovering that she has a gun beside her bed. ‘Cause this is America’, is her reply. Most of the white characters are opportunistic hired killers, or want to attach themselves to the ‘celebrity’ of the outlaw that Blake unwittingly becomes, while Dickerson demands revenge for the murder of his son, but is more concerned about the return of his horse. Deadpan humour abounds, from a running joke about tobacco, to Mitchum delivering a speech to a stuffed bear, and Jarmusch achieves a haunting coda in which narrative trajectory meets spiritual transcendence. Buried by Miramax on its theatrical release in 1995 when Jarmusch refused to succumb to the editorial demands of Harvey Weinstein, Dead Man is a sublime experience that rewards repeat viewings.

John Berra



Format: DVD

Release date: 24 November 2008

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Marcel L’Herbier

Writers: Arthur Bernède and Marcel L’Herbier

Based on the novel by: Émile Zola

Cast: Pierre Alcover, Marie Glory, Henry Victor

France 1928

168 mins

One of the ways Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Argent blazed a trail for cinema was in its unashamed updating of literary source material. It is commonplace now for a novel or play to be mined for its plot while leaving the inconvenience of the period setting behind, but L’Herbier’s 1928 treatment of Émile Zola’s 1891 novel outraged members of the French dramatic establishment. Certainly the modernisation is opportunistic, with Guyana substituted for the Middle East as the secondary location, in order that the character of Jacques Hamelin can be not only a pioneering engineer but also a daring transatlantic aviator. But the central subject is, of course, not adventure but money, not Guyana but Paris, and a contemporary setting surely helped L’Herbier to give his story bite.

Dramatically, it remains a distinctively 19th-century story, of a pure-hearted young woman at the mercy of greed and lust, her dashing husband led astray by his ambition. It is hard now to see the Jacques character as heroic or glamorous, perhaps because the appeal of Henry Victor’s style of manly suffering has faded. Line Hamelin is played with sass by Marie Glory (now at 103 one of the last surviving silent stars), but the real fun comes when the bad guys are on screen. Pierre Alcover and Alfred Abel are highly entertaining as the rival financiers Saccard and Gunderman, contrasting personifications of greed, violent and icy respectively. But even they are outdone by supporting actors. Brigitte Helm (of Metropolis fame) is the slinkily depraved Baronin Sandorf, writhing in satin and feathers, who will do what it takes to support her gambling habit, even to the extent of allowing the grotesque Saccard to free up her assets on the zebra-skin rug. Best of all, in an eye-catching minor role, is the pioneering lunatic and junkie Antonin Artaud, inventor of the Theatre of Cruelty.

The film is made with more vigour than precision. To a large extent, it seems to have been filmed on the hoof, though prepared with great care and planning. The settings (often spectacular) are arranged and lit, the actors go for it, and the cameras do their best to capture it as it happens, often sacrificing clarity for excitement. I am inclined to take the view that cinematographer Jules Kruger did a valiant job just getting this big mess of action on film. The approximate focus, bumpy camera movements, and inconsistency of lighting and texture make L’Argent incoherent as a visual work of art, but this is perhaps a small price to pay for the energy, scale and vividness of the scenes captured. Visually, L’Argent is a splendid study of the temples of power, animated with considerable narrative energy. For spectacular set-pieces L’Herbier took over the Bourse, Le Bourget airport, and the Place de l’Opéra, without stinting on the extras. The swift succession of lively and varied scenes and tableaux (often just a few seconds, and the more effective for their brevity) are edited together with considerable fluency and zest into an enjoyable yarn.

Ultimately, I don’t think that L’Argent works in the way L’Herbier intended it to. The film doesn’t present a very deep or enlightening critique: it is as unsubtle as L’Herbier’s description of it as ‘a fierce denunciation of money’ suggests. But it does vividly evoke how the wide world of commerce depends on the relatively small world of the financial entrepreneurs, how deceit and guile alike underlie financial stability. Further insight from the past into our current woes? Well, there are some interesting suggestions early on about the relations between propriety, public opinion, and financial success. But in the end, I think L’Argent is too successful as entertainment to work as a didactic piece. The moral is presumably supposed to be that love of money is wicked, but Alcover plays the villain with such straightforward brio that it is hard to despise his greed as we are meant to. Baronin Sandorf is supposed to be another case-study in the depraving effects of love of money, but she seems to enjoy her vice so much that it comes to look rather enviable. What the film actually seems to end up showing us is that cool pursuit of money triumphs over vulgar love of money, but that vulgar love of money might be more fun.

Peter Momtchiloff

This review is based on the 2008 DVD release by Eureka Entertainment.