Cast: Ali Suliman, Elia Suleiman, Saleh Bakri, Amer Hlehel
Taking to the stage at the London Palestine Film Festival, Palestinian-Israeli director Elia Suleiman spoke of the problems he encountered making his latest feature, The Time That Remains. As he peppered the discussion with wisecracks, there was something of the charismatic showman about Suleiman. He wittily told tales of problems with funding, run-ins with the Palestinian Army (who, somewhat unsurprisingly, failed to lend him a tank to film) and his own difficulties in approaching the film’s subject matter. Clearly, any cinematic work that presents a narrative of Palestinian history will necessarily generate a certain amount of controversy but with this semi-autobiographical work, Suleiman also needed to wrestle with his own personal history.
Inspired by the private diaries and letters of his parents, the film follows the lives of Suleiman’s family, starting in 1948 when his father was acting as a resistance fighter. It was an immensely strong beginning with a rapid-fire pace, as characters raced through occupied streets, dodging bullets and finding themselves in absurdly comic situations. Furthermore, the first quarter of the film was infused with instances of sublime beauty. A shot where white pamphlets fluttered down over the hills to announce victory in the Arab-Israeli War possessed a particularly powerful stillness. A similarly graceful silence permeated perhaps the most vivid scene of the whole film. Arrested and tied up, Suleiman’s father was led to an olive grove as his captors prepared to shoot him. As he was left alone for a few moments, his blindfolded eyes faced out on to a beautiful valley. There was an intensified rustling among the branches and grass; the sun shone a mellow honey; he breathed in deeply and serenely. Here was a man facing death, unable to see the view, and yet the magnificence of the scenery overpowered his senses, even through the material of his blindfold. Suffocatingly still and hushed, yet light and beautiful, it was a subtly powerful moment. Suleiman is evidently a director capable of masterful cinema.
Unfortunately, for me at least, the rest of the film did not achieve this level of subtlety. After chronicling his father’s experiences in the 1940s, the narrative progressed to Suleiman’s childhood in 1970, his teenage years in 1980 and, finally, the present day. Suleiman himself appeared in the final quarter, resurrecting his semi-autobiographical persona of ES, seen in the two features - Chronicle of a Disappearance and Divine Intervention - that began this loose trilogy of films. As Suleiman comes closer to the material, the magic seems to diminish. The blackly comic elements played out so nicely in the first quarter, with its balletic violence and incongruous moments of beauty among conflict, become increasingly heavy-handed and broad. In particular, there is one scene where a tank tracks a man while he takes his rubbish to the dustbin outside his house; too wrapped up in a conversation on his mobile phone, he does not notice the tank’s movements, which become increasingly frantic as it tries to keep up with his back-and-forth pacing. This may have been a funny skit for a second or two but the scene lingers too long; it almost seems to be waiting for the audience’s laughter.
Suleiman evidently enjoys referencing historical cinema (one particular scene echoes the plane-dodging episode in North by Northwest) and much has been made of his stylistic similarity to the greats of silent comedy. Certainly, there is a comparable playful physicality in the early stages of The Time That Remains but towards the end of the film the endless visual gags begin to feel a little superficial and repetitive. The balance between physical comedy, dramatic tension and human interactions is difficult to achieve; the variation between these elements begins to disappear as the film progresses and the character of ES, as a silent witness to history and observer of those around him, seems a little too detached to demand our sympathy. While we are always rooting for the characters created by Buster Keaton, it is not easy to empathise with a protagonist who provides such little outward emotion. There are moments where we catch glimpses of ES’s inner feelings - when visiting his sick mother in hospital or looking at a pretty girl on the bus - but they are few and far between. As the amount of dialogue and interaction between the characters diminishes, the surrounding individuals are in danger of becoming basic caricatures or figures of fun.
In the Q&A after the screening of the film, Suleiman explained that he had to think harder about how to deal with the early material as he knew less about this period of his family’s history; he decided to approach it in what he described as a more formal style. For me, the leap between the straightforward narrative of the early stages and the later whimsical, episodic approach was ultimately too great. Having felt emotionally involved at the start of the film, it was disappointing to feel this attachment evaporating. There needed to be more balance and pacing in order to retain the film’s subtlety and maintain the audience’s involvement. Yet, although the latter part of The Time That Remains was dissatisfying, there were certainly elements to enjoy. By injecting incongruous comedy into a history of conflict, Suleiman emphasises the absurdity of much of human experience. This approach is a refreshing one and, at times, created some moments of thoughtful visual beauty.
The Time That Remains opened the Palestine Film Festival at the Barbican on April 30 with Elia Suleiman in attendance.
Venue: Curzon Soho, Empire Leicester Square (London) and nationwide
Distributor: Lionsgate UK
Director: Werner Herzog
Writers: William M Finkelstein + earlier film: Victor Argo, Paul Calderon, Abel Ferrara, Zoí« Lund
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer
How Werner Herzog ended up helming a kind of remake of Abel Ferarra’s 1992 film, starring Nicolas Cage, I don’t know, and don’t really want to. I prefer to think of it as a product from an alternate universe where Herzog does this kind of thing all the time. What you need to know: it’s a blast, and funny as hell, with Ferrrara’s gritty, tortured Catholicism tossed in favour of wilful absurdity and a plethora of lizards. Cage is terrific, with a lopsided gait and a crackpipe laugh, torturing grannies and shaking down football stars, screaming one quotable line after another. It’s every cop show cliché reflected in a hall of mirrors - wholly indecent fun.
Still mystified by what I’ve seen, I hook up with Vertigo online editor Robert Chilcott to talk about the film. Earlier plans to play the dialogue with Robert as Ferrara and me as Herzog are abandoned as Robert fears the substance abuse would kill him, and I fear that I can’t take a bullet with the required sang-froid. We open in a café in Victoria, surrounded by notes, both versions of Bad Lieutenant on the laptop.
Robert Chilcott: This shot (of the iguanas) is filmed by Herzog himself? It’s his point of view. He is the iguana.
Mark Stafford: When they had a press conference at Cannes last year, Herzog praised the iguanas as the best thing in the film. And you also have Englebert Humperdink singing ‘Please release me, let me go..’
RC: That’s Herzog, stepping outside of this detective genre, disdainful of the conventions of the script.
MS: I find myself hesitant to describe it as a great film. Before the press screening of MICMACS I went to, there was a circle of top rank film critics knocking back the freebie wine and quoting line after line from Bad Lieutenant with obvious delight. Contrast this with a friend of mine who just saw it on some kind of download and thought that Nicolas Cage, and the film in general, were awful. I think that tells you what the reception for it is going to be. Filmheads are gonna love it, but I don’t know if it works properly for anyone outside of the circle of celluloid junkies.
RC: Sure. There’s all this stuff in it that is fairly generic. There’s a crime, the cop solves it, all a bit too CSI. But Herzog takes it to a different level with his asides. And Cage’s performance, his little chuckle whenever he mentions ‘your boy G’. He knows there’s something ludicrous about the whole thing.
MS: The same laugh every time. He’s there from the word go, the profanity, the hunched back, the gun in the waist band. He’s just fun to watch.
RC: And Herzog is the reptile - hissing, pissing, laughing. The joke is on everyone else. Who’s this idiot cop and this straight-to-video storyline. He empathises with the alligators, the iguanas, the snake at the beginning. The fish in the tank at the end, they’re all cold-blooded. It’s a big prank.
MS: Herzog has said that he hadn’t seen Ferrara’s Lieutenant. Ferrara is a Catholic boy, albeit of a heavy-drinking, drug-taking persuasion. His film is all about sin and redemption in a very staunch, religious, Graham Greene way. Herzog, of course, happily believes in an entirely meaningless universe of hostility, cruelty, and death. He’s not gonna take the sin and redemption angle seriously. There’s warmth there, in the characters, the dad, his girlfriend, all lovely people, but essentially Herzog’s removed, it’s all absurd.
RC: The Ferrara is a more serious film, more serious in its aesthetic, slower paced. A shorter film, but with longer takes. Cage revels in the mania of his drug abuse. Harvey Keitel is a sluggish coke addict, he doesn’t look like he’s having a very good time on it. Then there’s the rape of the nun, which he can’t really deal with. But that’s absent here, Cage’s soul is not tied to the case. And it’s almost like he’s taking coke for medicinal reasons, for his back pain!
MS: There is the murder of an immigrant family, but you’re right. Apart from being a terrible degenerate, Cage is a good cop, he seems to have his eyes on the prize and his heart in the right place - whereas you genuinely fear for Harvey.
RC: Though there is a redemption scene in this new one. Chavez, the prisoner he rescues at the beginning, saves him at the end. There’s a full circle. There is reflection in the final scene.
MS: It’s just not played out in such Catholic terms. It is a lovely ending. Apparently it arose from an improvised Herzog line, though typically it takes place 15 minutes after most directors would have finished the film.
RC: Keitel’s cop meets a fairly squalid end, whereas Cage’s lieutenant triumphs in the most absurd extreme, where everything just seems to go ridiculously right for him.
MS: It’s like a parody of your normal ‘well written’ Hollywood film, where the resolution is wholly brought about by the hero’s actions and his will is forced upon the world, but here…
RC: It’s luck, or fate. It all falls into his lap. Like when he tries to fix the football game, it doesn’t work, and yet the results of the game turn out right for him anyway.
MS: Well, he brings some of it about. The fate of Big Fate, the murderous gangster, is his doing. But the rest of it, it fits into Herzog’s world view. Blind chance has a much bigger role in life than Hollywood would allow.
RC: And what about this bizarre character that says ‘whoah’ all the time. Again, it’s Herzog taking the piss?
MS: I think that’s typical of the reason a lot of people expecting a grim thriller, or a similar film to the Ferrara, are going to be nonplussed, there’s all this odd broad comedy. There’s the bit with the old lady’s oxygen tube, and this ‘whoah’ guy who gives a ridiculous, mannered performance, but at the same time I could happily believe in him as a person, even though it’s completely mad. It’s like someone showed him and Cage tapes of the Herzog/Kinski films and said ‘look, this is how far you can go, this is what Werner’s happy with’.
RC: With Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo and the other films they made together, you kind of knew that Klaus Kinski was Herzog, there’s not much doubt that he’s an alter ego.
MS: In this scene and elsewhere, there’s B-movie dialogue and bits of business that would sit happily in Miami Vice. And then you’ve got bits like this guy, which would just not.
RC: Ferrara directed two episodes of Miami Vice.
MS: Herzog didn’t need to. He’s had this career, the amazing art-house hits of the 70s, then he disappears, for many people, into the documentaries in the 80s, and in the last 10 years or so he’s come back as this incredibly prolific great director who’s all over the shop. Ed Pressman offers him this and he says sure. Knocks it out on a 35-day shoot. You end up with the least Herzog Herzog film. But it’s still utterly his.
RC: The general critical consensus is that he’s made a lot of poor fictional features in the last 10 years, but that his documentaries are superior. Where does this fit in?
MC: I love it, but I’m a Herzog fan. I think three quarters of the viewing public are just going to think it’s a thriller made wrong, that somebody screwed up along the way, or that it’s a comedy that isn’t consistently funny enough. I think that unevenness of tone, the sense of play, is part of what makes it entertaining. But most people are going to think it’s a sloppy mess. Camera shadows in shot and all…
RC: There is a scene that could be out of The Wire where Big Fate is going to buy condos, get into real estate, and he wants Cage’s cop to be the frontman for it. There’s this whole political corruption angle which…
MS: …which doesn’t go anywhere. There’s no time for it. But again, Big Fate is delivering his spiel while at the same time his two henchmen are pulling an obvious wrapped body out of the back of the SUV and dumping it in the river, so the scene becomes absurd comedy. That’s the film all over. The post-Katrina setting adds a definite presence to the film, but the post-Katrina politics aren’t explored, and the tourist New Orleans is wholly absent, not a blues bar in sight. Only one cemetery scene. It says in the notes that they filmed there mainly because of the tax breaks. It was a good decision. Cage says that New Orleans was the town that turned him into a philosopher, which is why you should never read interviews with actors.
RC: One of his philosophical principles in the film is ‘it’s amazing how much you can get done when you’ve got a simple purpose guiding you through life’.
MS: It sounds like something Ferris Bueller could say. I don’t know if it’s great philosophy, it’s a good T-shirt. It’s something that could be said by a great violinist, or a paedophile (laughs).
RC: A Katherine Hamnett T-shirt from the 80s. Here’s another: ‘When we engage with another human being we remind ourselves we are not alone’. That’s probably a quote from somewhere else that they’ve re-attributed.
MS: ‘When we engage with water we remind ourselves we are not always damp’.
RC: This one works better, in larger font: ‘Shoot him again - his soul is still dancing!’
MS: I’d get that shirt. That’s going to get quoted. Together with I’ll shoot you ’til the break of dawn!’. And ‘You mean you don’t have a lucky crack pipe?’
RC: There’s a scene where Cage gets a couple coming out of a nightclub and basically shakes them down, then makes it with the girl, forcing her boyfriend to watch. With the earlier film, Keitel gets two girls to talk dirty to him while he jerks off.
MS: In the Herzog it’s funnier, it’s outrageous. In the Ferrara it’s a scene of seedy depravity, it’s much more unpleasant and uncomfortable to watch, you’re wondering where the hell it’s going to go.
RC: It’s good to wonder. It’s good to not know.
MS: Abel Ferrara’s film is probably of more worth as a piece of art. But comparisons are futile. It’s like rating a garage punk band versus the Brodsky quartet.
RC: What’s the last Abel Ferrara film you saw?
MS:(long pause) I don’t remember. He came out of the arty end of the Times Square grindhouse cinema, with Driller Killer and Ms 45. He’s like a cousin of the cinema of transgression, like Nick Zedd and Richard Kern, but his work was just disciplined and shaped enough to play ‘proper’ theatres. His Lieutenant is pretty lean and mean, Herzog’s is baggy, oddly shaped.
RC: In the Ferrara film there’s a lot of indulgent scenes of Keitel following the Mets games coverage. He’s driving around listening to the game, the Mets lose and he shoots the radio. Everyone looks at him, so he just puts the police siren on and drives away. Now that could be a Cage/Herzog moment.
MS: There’s no scene in the Herzog as screamingly raw as that one of Harvey Keitel, out of his mind, naked and crying like a baby. His body looked like concrete covered in rubber.
RC: Ferrara said that finding out the film was being remade was a horrible feeling ‘like being robbed’. And that ‘They should all die in hell’, and wondered how Cage ‘had the nerve to play Harvey Keitel’, and called (screenwriter) Finkelstein ‘an idiot, man’.
MS: ‘He then vomited and fell off the sofa’. I guess that the difference between the two Lieutenants is that, in true punk spirit Ferrara ‘means it, maaan’, and Herzog’s playing games.
RC: The two films are separated at birth. Two babies throwing their toys out of the pram.
Cast: Gareth David-Lloyd, Joe Absolom, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Matt Butcher, Simon Guerrier
6 x 5 min episodes / 30 min compilation
Before watching Girl Number 9, the only online serialised moving images I’d watched were TV spin-offs such as Battlestar Galactica, where additional short episodes of the series were made available over the internet while the parent show was on hiatus between seasons. This is both a strange and familiar experience; it feels like you’re watching an episode of your favourite show, albeit in five-minute chunks a day or a week apart, with actors playing their usual characters. However, these ‘webisodes’ rarely have much of an impact on the ‘canon’ of the show itself, which is particularly frustrating when they often, ironically, give some characters greater depth than when they appear in the series ‘proper’.
The writer of Girl Number 9, James Moran, is obviously aware of this new format. Moran has written film scripts - Severance and the forthcoming Curfew - as well as TV shows - Torchwood and Doctor Who - and the latter has also had webisodes made available over the internet. Rather than penning a spin-off for a franchise though, Moran is tapping into his existing fanbase - I discovered the serial by following him on Twitter, which, appropriately, is a vaguely voyeuristic internet site - and he’s cast actors from Torchwood and Doctor Who while returning to the horror/slasher genre with which he first made his name.
Girl Number 9 doesn’t tread particularly unfamiliar ground: it concerns a killer who leaves victims in death traps viewable on monitors with clues designed to help free them in a way that also endangers the person trying to help - so far so Saw - and it also features this footage being broadcast over the internet, something tackled in such moribund fare as Halloween: Resurrection and FeardotCom. However, Moran turns our familiarity with the subject matter to his advantage - a small cast and tiny instalments mean the audience can fill in the gaps, while the taut script gives the actors a chance to tackle meaty exchanges that bring to mind films such as Swimming with Sharks and Tape, where a claustrophobic room and verbal duelling overcome the budgetary limitations. In addition, while a few risible horror films have dealt with death traps and ‘snuff’ movie footage broadcast over the internet, this is a project that involves the viewer in a similar way to the characters in the plot: you have to visit a website - www.canyousaveher.com - to watch the voyeuristic footage and you only get a small amount to take in before your access is removed.
Although America also has a great tradition of short genre TV entertainment in such series as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, many of these one-off dramas were very reliant on alien encounters and an SF twist. In the UK we have the well-remembered legacy of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected and the occasional Ghost Story at Christmas by MR James and others. These shows relied more on psychological terrors than special effects and even though Girl Number 9 may toy with the iconography of Saw, Moran is very much continuing the tradition of Dahl and James, particularly when the serial is watched as a whole 30-minute episode rather than the six daily instalments. The two actors, Gareth David-Lloyd and Tracy-Ann Oberman, familiar from BBC Wales’ space-faring series - are pretty good as the two cops dealing with the serial killer who has murdered, you guessed it, eight girls before the final instalment. But while less wooden than when confronted with Cyberman on TV, they don’t quite have the necessary gravitas or range when dealing with a more human killer on an even smaller screen. Joe Absolom, on the other hand, is a revelation and the creepiest British serial killer I’ve seen on any screen since the first two Hannibal Lecter films. Having recently caught him in an episode of Ashes to Ashes also playing a disturbed nutter, I fully intend to track down more of his back catalogue.
Girl Number 9 is a brave experiment and one I hope has reaped rewards for everyone involved. While I’m sure writer/co-director Moran will continue to do well on TV and in cinema, I hope this is a format he returns to. Other filmmakers, such as Sally Potter with Rage, and TV creators - Joss Whedon with Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog - have produced innovative entertainment designed for internet dissemination and mobile consumption, and there need to be more practitioners with a good track record in the format.
Cast: Pihla Viitala, Nae, Terence Anderson, Miranda Hennessy
Director Júliús Kemp and screenwriter Sjón Sigurdsson’s attempt to bring a breath of fresh air into the survival horror genre concerns a group of whale-watchers whose vessel breaks down after their captain dies during an unfortunate accident. They are picked up by a shady-looking man who promises to rescue them but instead takes them to his family of inbred whale-hunters who now spend their time tormenting a different kind of prey.
On a technical level the film looks promising: the dull, moody greys of the Icelandic sky are matched by the crumbling whaler, which makes a suitable equivalent to the house in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – the obvious point of reference here. The gore effects are reasonably well done, but there’s nothing here we haven’t seen a million times before – although, having said that, special mention must go to a unique rendition of a Bjí¶rk song.
Despite its technical qualities, most of the film is flat and boring, and the intended ironic humour never quite comes across. The lack of a central character tosses the plot hither and thither, causing the audience to quickly lose interest. The performances are mostly average, with only Nae standing out as Endo, a put-upon translator for a Japanese businessman and his wife. Trying for a broader comedy-horror feel seems to have encouraged most of the actors to ham it up like there’s no tomorrow.
Although the director and the screenwriter should be applauded for trying to imbue a classic plot with an Icelandic sensibility, they might have done much better if they had focused on a more original script. The film was billed as Iceland’s first horror film and it’s hard to shake off the feeling that the country deserved something a little more unique for that special occasion.
The owner of a ramshackle junk shop called Zoomer’s Treasures, located by the side of a rarely used highway in Kansas, Mary DeBoutez Zellmer-Fenoglio (aka ‘Zoomer’) is an eccentric, larger-than-life character and the living embodiment of a decades-old struggle with rural poverty in America. The director Sam Huntley first met her while on a cross-country road trip across America and returned 18 months later to shoot his first feature-length film chronicling her unusual day-to-day life.
The first words we hear from Zoomer – ‘When I was born, my grandmother delivered me. I searched for that silver spoon that I was hoping would be in my mouth, but all I could find was a pile of shit’ – express her frustration at never quite being able to raise herself out of the poverty she was born into. Looked down on as white trash during a lifetime spent in the shadow of an overbearing, abusive father, Zoomer alternates between infectious good humour and bitter sadness. Scenes filmed in the early hours of the morning, before she’s teased her blonde hair or painted her toenails green, poignantly reveal a battle with debilitating pain and manic depression.
The documentary offers an interesting insight into American backwater culture, and it is humorous, although a little irritating. The main problem is that its focus is too narrow and almost too intense: Huntley devotes almost every frame to Zoomer, who speaks either to her cats or directly to the camera in monologues that begin to blur into endless digressions. It’s a shame – her life story is both fascinating and tragic, but as a director Huntley never really gives the audience a chance to breathe.
The one-line pitch for this claustrophobic little war movie runs ‘Das Boot in a tank’, and for once that’s pretty damn accurate. Based on writer-director Samuel Maoz’s experiences, it’s set during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, (as seen in Waltz with Bashir) and we the audience are trapped with an ill-prepared and uneasy crew of four inside an armoured mobile box. We only know what they know, which is precious little, only see what they can see through their sights, which isn’t much, and apart from the opening and closing shots of the film, we are very much inside the tank for the tight 92-minute running time. The crew start the film barely functional, but as tension mounts and tempers fray the chain of command dissolves completely. The captain loses his marbles, the gunner won’t shoot, and the driver doesn’t want the tank to drive anywhere but home. The mission goes badly off course, victims mount, unwelcome guests are received and everything falls apart…
As with the ‘war is hell’ sub-genre in general, the focus is on the experience of combat rather than a cohesive view of the rights and wrongs of the conflict itself. As in Waltz with Bashir, the blame for the true evil, the atrocities, is shifted onto the shifty, brutal Christian Falangists, with the Israeli forces mostly represented as misled and misguided, a bunch of poor bastards in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m sure many Lebanese will find much to disagree with in this, but to its credit Lebanon does show the Israelis firing upon the guilty and the innocent, and the film does not flinch from the traumas inflicted upon the population. At least, Maoz isn’t peddling some horseshit that the greatest casualty of war is innocence. How many American Vietnam war movies even considered the point of view of the Vietnamese?
It’s as a sensual experience that Lebanon is at its strongest. As the film progresses, the men’s sweat begins to drip and pool on the tank’s floor, thick with muck, dog-ends and soup croutons (don’t ask). The air fills with smoke, and oil and mystery crud accumulates on the faces of the cast. You can almost feel the heat, and definitely feel glad you can’t smell the action. Be glad it isn’t in 3D at your local IMAX, the full sensurround experience would require cinemas to lay on shower facilities. This all adds greatly to the mounting unease, as the reluctant crew becomes drawn into literally and morally murkier and murkier territory, and their culpability in the torture, slaughter and destruction surrounding them becomes clear. Lebanon is not earth-shatteringly original, it’s heavy-handed in places, and a little clichéd, but it feels authentic: grimy, stinky, delirious and chaotic. It works.
Happenstance, predestination, mishaps, mistakes, premonitions, paranormal record collectors, an earthbound comet and a fateful proto-punk record are just a few elements of Yoshihiro Nakamura’s utterly charming Fish Story. Made up of a series of seemingly disparate, but ultimately interconnected stories, the film explains how music can save the world in the most unexpected of ways.
It opens on a scene of seemingly apocalyptic desolation - empty carrier bags nestle in abandoned doorways, the streets are empty; and, framed by crisscrossing power lines, a mysterious comet hovers menacingly in the sky. A man on a mobility scooter enters this eerie picture, cancer riddling his bones and cynical vitriol in his heart. After carefully toppling over a row of stationary bicycles he enters Coconut Records, open for business despite the imminent arrival of the life-destroying comet, and sets about making the two men in the shop as miserable as he can. Unfazed by this hostility, the chilled-out owner puts a rattling rock tune on the turntable and declares: ‘This song will save the day’. The song is ‘Fish Story’, and it becomes the soundtrack for Nakamura’s series of beautifully shot short stories.
First up is the tale of a timorous college student, played with a beguiling timidity by Gaku Hamada, who learns to overcome his fear after a student with sixth sense and an 80s pleated skirt counsels him to stand up for himself. Bullied by his belligerent friend and terrified by cursed mixtapes and the odd one-minute silence in the recording of ‘Fish Story’, he nonetheless attempts to muster some courage when it matters.
The film jumps forward to 1999, to a doomsday cult awaiting the end of the world in accordance with Nostradamus’s prophecies, as a cult leader and two acolytes promise to save the chosen few. Things don’t quite go according to plan, and the story moves on to the bit of the puzzle that takes place in 2009, on a ferry that is about to be hijacked. We are introduced to Asami (Mikako Tabe), a gifted schoolgirl who’s missed her stop and is stuck on the boat, and goofily affable waiter Mirai Moriyama, a self-described ‘Champion of Justice’ who has spent his whole life training for a moment of truth. Zen meditation, press-ups, and a cheeky send-up of the Karate Kid’s induction into martial arts allow Moriyama to shine when men with guns take over the boat in a beautifully choreographed fight scene. There are hints, clues and red herrings as to what might happen next, but Nakamura changes the scene again and heads back in time to the 1970s where punk band Gekirin (Wrath), described by their record company as ‘talentless losers’, record ‘Fish Story’, the song that is, somehow, destined to save the world, despite its inauspicious beginnings.
It’s a brilliantly crafted piece of storytelling, and each chapter could survive independently, but Nakamura revels in the idea that seemingly random events are intertwined, resonating down the years, until they culminate in a moment freighted with meaning. Funny, melancholy, hopefully, helplessly optimistic, deliciously absurd, Fish Story is a quirky gem of a movie.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than 15 years since comedian and satirist Bill Hicks died of pancreatic cancer. An icon of the stand-up circuit and a favourite of students, left-wing politicos and, well, anyone with a healthy interest in life and a good sense of humour, Hicks has left an enduring legacy and is regarded as one of the very best, despite never really being recognised in the US during his lifetime. He was certainly held in higher regard here than in his native America - a recent Channel 4 poll (April 2010) of the top 100 comedians of all time placed him fourth, two places higher than the last time the broadcaster ran this poll in 2007.
Perhaps that’s why the best and most comprehensive documentary film about Hicks’s life and works had to be made by a couple of Brits, Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, both BBC factual programming alumni. Unlike many other biographical docs, their documentary, American: The Bill Hicks Story, eschews the standard approach of interviewing all and sundry, instead focusing on the thoughts and memories of those who knew him best, his family and closest friends. Such talking heads as his mother, brother and childhood best friend offer an illuminating snapshot of what Hicks was like off stage and how his comedy developed, often sharing intimate memories of what it meant to really know this ‘outlaw comic’.
Unsurprisingly, the clips of Hicks doing what he did best, performing in front of an audience, raising hell about the likes of the hypocrisies of mannered societies and the corruption of the human condition, particularly in the US, are the most engrossing, and gut-bustingly funny too. Even the most dedicated fan will not have seen all of these clips (some video, some audio), but all of them will, hopefully, bring the requisite smile to their face. Clearly, Hicks fans will garner the most from the rarer clips, but even the most jaded comedy fan should find at least a few classic anecdotes to tickle their funny bone.
Harlock and Thomas have certainly put a lot of thought into the film and it works on almost all levels. However, while the interviews with his family and friends and the unique stand-up footage engage throughout, the documentary’s presentation does not quite nail the punch line. By manipulating thousands of private photographs, including those taken by Hicks himself, the directors have created animated links that, while initially stimulating, ultimately become wearing. Some will revel in this innovative approach, but others may start to wish for a little more variety. Equally, while there’s plenty of footage of Hicks performing, there’s always the frustrating feeling that they could have shown a little more, or perhaps slightly longer clips, such is Hicks’s ability to elicit laughs.
It’s a sad fact that, at the age of 32, Bill Hicks went before his time, thus denying us his distinctive insight (or perhaps that should be incite) into such topics as the election of George W Bush, Guantanamo Bay, the war on terror and the economic collapse. However, at least with films such as American: The Bill Hicks Story, his spirit can be kept alive and perhaps even inspire the next generation to challenge authority, speak their mind and tell a few damn good jokes.
And by the way, if anyone reading this is in advertising or marketing - kill yourself!
Writers: Sergei Paradjanov, Ivan Chendej, Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky
Original title:Tini zabutykh predkiv
Cast: Ivan Mikolajchuk, Larisa Kadochnikova, Tatyana Bestayeva, Spartak Bagashvili
Soviet Union 1964
In wake of the BFI Southbank’s recent Sergei Paradjanov retrospective, Artificial Eye is releasing the DVD of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964), the film that marked a seismic shift in Paradjanov’s filmmaking style and also inadvertently landed the controversial Georgian director in a Soviet jail.
Both aesthetically and thematically the film departs dramatically from cinematic social realism, the style of choice for Soviet communist governments. An adaptation of the novel by Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors traces the life of Ivan, a Ukrainian peasant, who falls in love with Marichka, the daughter of the man who killed his father. Because of the feuds between the two families, their love is forbidden and doomed. As Ivan battles with grief, the vivid colours of the traditional costumes and landscape fade to a bleak, desolate monochrome. This story of an ordinary peasant hero may have been welcomed by the Soviet authorities; but in this case, the peasant in question belongs to an ethno-cultural group of Ukrainians, known as the Hutsuls, and Paradjanov uses the film to explore and emphasise their traditions. This championing of the Hutsuls’ history and culture did not sit well with the Soviet government’s policy of Russification, but Paradjanov was adamant that the dialogue should be spoken in the Hutsul language and not dubbed into Russian. Consequently, Paradjanov was blacklisted and imprisoned (this sentence was the first of three throughout his lifetime).
This is our DVD of the month! You can win a copy of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (courtesy of Artificial Eye) on our competition page.
Paradjanov viewed the governmental control of the film industry as catastrophic. In an interview conducted a few years before his death in 1990, in characteristically dramatic fashion, he remarked: ‘Eisenstein died with only one iota of his potential fulfilled… that’s a terrible tragedy’. After seeing Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Ivan’s Childhood (1962), Paradjanov saw an alternative to the restrictive filmmaking style of his youth. The resultant aesthetic of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is a mix of swooping, swirling camera angles and wide tableaux of breathtaking landscapes. In the potent opening sequence, the camera tracks a young Ivan, muffled up in a bright red coat and fur hat, trekking through snowy woodland. His arm outstretched with a loaf of bread, he calls up to an undisclosed figure on the hillside. The face of a waving, desperate man appears in urgent close-up. Suddenly the camera is up high in the treetops, a loud creak sounds, and the shot falls down past black, elongated trunks to the snow below. The figure of the little boy is pushed out of the tree’s path and the camera appears to land on the terrified face of the older man. Paradjanov cuts to his body trapped under the fallen tree, the little boy tugging at his arms through the broken branches. A horn sounds and we see the child running and tripping down the bright, white hillside, before cutting to a scene of a crucifix being erected in the bleak, wintry landscape.
This powerfully constructed opening exemplifies what is to unfold over the next hour and a half: the tragic subject matter - how innocence is lost through the experience of death - and the way in which Paradjanov approaches narrative. It is telling that at one point we see the action from the tree’s point of view and, after the moment of death and grief, the camera surveys the mountainside as the child makes his way back to his village. Rather than the focus of the shot, the little boy is merely a figure within the landscape. Nature is a major protagonist in the film. Indeed, extreme panoramic shots of characters racing up and down hills and across plains recur throughout the story. In Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Paradjanov is not concerned with in-depth characterisation or character development; instead, he portrays the doomed Romeo and Juliet love affair as a universal, mythical folk story. The camera acts as an omnipotent narrator, rather than as a means of projecting the character’s innermost feelings.
Ivan and Marichka’s story is a tragic tale; but not one that is specific to the characters involved. While the Hutsul culture pervades the film, it is never fully clear in what historical period the action takes place, further adding to the universality of the narrative. Paradjanov used largely unknown actors and non-actors (whose acting style is theatrical and at times melodramatic) to convey a story that could be experienced by anyone, anywhere and in any time. This attempt to universalise the tale may alienate some viewers hoping for a great deal of specific personal emotion. But it is not a film devoid of passion or sentiment; it is just that the emotion is of the uncomplicated, folk-tale kind.
When Paradjanov made Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, he was experimenting with a new approach to filmmaking for the first time and the aesthetic achievement is spectacular. Although much has been made of the majestically beautiful visuals of the film the use of sound is also remarkable - idiosyncratic, bizarre and wonderful; spoken dialogue is largely replaced by a cacophony of horns, pipes, Jew’s harps and chanting to a dizzying effect. In his later films, notably The Colour of Pomegranates (1967), Paradjanov managed to create a subtler and perhaps more coherent emotional pull on his audience but the startling aesthetic and thematic seeds were sown with Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. It is commendable that Artificial Eye is providing an opportunity for audiences to see Paradjanov’s first attempt at an utterly extraordinary style of filmmaking.
Writers: Vincenzo Natali, André Bijelic, Graeme Mason
Cast: Maurice Dean Wint, David Hewlett, Nicole de Boer, Nicky Guadagni, Andrew Miller
Robert Heinlein, author of Starship Troopers, once wrote: ‘Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear shoes, bathe, and not make messes in the house’. The writing team behind Cube would probably agree. A gripping tale of survival horror, it’s one that gives the maths geeks the best chance to come out alive and shows the barbarism of men with no respect for geometry.
For more information on illustrator and writer Oli Smith go to theolismith.com.
Maths and horror are strangely comfortable bedfellows, as shown by the Omen films’ fixation on the number 666 (inspired by the Book of Revelation) or the many-angled devils found in the work of HP Lovecraft and Clive Barker. On TV, maths and sci-fi combined in two seminal game shows, The Adventure Game and The Crystal Maze, which have cult followings to this day. Indeed, one of the most thought-provoking documentaries of recent years - The Trap - showed the links between numerology and the tenets of modern society.
The numbers behind Cube‘s horror are as follows: it cost C$365,000 (Canadian), it features 6 actors and has 2 (inferior) sequels. It was shot in 1 room, 14 feet cubed, with 5 different gels on the walls so that it could be reused to represent the multitude of similar rooms that make up the cube. Which results in the following equation: 0 means + 1 good idea + 10 talented people = 1 good film.
The film opens in spectacular manner with the cubist vivisection of an unnamed character, following which we meet five other people wandering through the claustrophobic maze, none of whom know how they got there and all of whom are strangely named after prisons. Like animals in a science experiment, they begin to be affected in different ways by the conditions of their confinement. As they go from identical room to identical room, each hiding a more perverse and deadly trap than the previous one, a taciturn loner becomes a hero while the alpha male turns into a murderer. These are themes that director Vincenzo Natali would return to six years later in his film Nothing, which reunited him with two of the stars of Cube – David Hewlett and Andrew Miller. In Nothing, it’s being marooned in a white void that slowly drives the characters mad (or their madness that maroons them in a white void); but where in that film, their boundless situation is played for laughs, in Cube their world is as bleak as it is constricting. Inside the cube, the lack of information, the strange Jack Kirbyesque details on the walls and the absence of any outside world makes the environment of the film timeless and suitably, subtly existential. These are characters defined purely by their actions within the maze.
In the end, one person escapes - although into what is unclear - and the identity of the survivor is entirely in keeping with a game in which the only pure form of communication is maths. Watching the prisoners solve that puzzle makes the preceding 89 minutes an excellent form of escapism for the audience as well.
This article was first published in the autumn 08 issue of Electric Sheep Magazine.
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