It’s difficult to think of a current actor with more physical presence than Idris Elba, not least because he looks like a heavyweight boxer. Best known as the tragic gangster Stringer Bell in HBO’s The Wire (2002-2004), the east London-born Elba’s first substantial role was in Channel 4’s excellent, but 10 years too early, vampire drama Ultraviolet (1998), in which he played a brooding British soldier who had a unique form of Gulf War Syndrome in that he saw his entire squad wiped out by vampires. Elba’s physique lends itself to soldier roles and he’s played quite a few over his career as a character actor, including bit parts in Buffalo Soldiers (2001) and 28 Weeks Later (2007), as well as a lead role in the regrettable The Losers (2010).
However, more than just a physical presence, Elba is a great actor, and with the role of US Black Ops soldier Malcolm Gray in British independent film Legacy, Elba gets a long overdue fully developed and psychologically complex lead part in which he gives a tour de force performance.
When a mission in an undisclosed eastern European country goes wrong, Malcolm is captured and tortured. He escapes and returns to his native Brooklyn, where he holds up in an apartment and plans to expose his brother Darnell Gray Jr (Eamonn Walker), the Senator who sold him out to terrorists, while coming to terms with his own questionable actions during the mission. Here Malcolm is visited by a series of characters including his former team mates and his ex-lover Valentina (Monique Gabriela Curnen), now Darnell’s wife, and the audience begins to question Malcolm’s sanity while the film builds to a dramatic climax at the press conference where Darnell is going to announce that he is running for president.
Legacy is the second feature from the young British writer, director and, in this case, editor, Thomas Ikimi, and he’s definitely someone to watch at a time when even the big studios are looking for the lowest budget solutions for making features. By bringing Elba on board as executive producer, filming on location in Scotland and using a mostly British cast, having recognisable, but not A-list expensive actors such as Eamonn Walker from Oz and Monique Gabriela Curnen from The Dark Knight, as well as using the kind of economy of location seen in some of Alfred Hitchcock’s experimental films, Ikimi has created a tight psychological thriller that punches well above its low-budget weight.
Legacy had its London premiere at the Raindance Film Festival on October 1. The film is currently on general release in the USA.
The second serialised TV adaptation of the manga series Full Metal Alchemist starts in media res with cyborg brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric helping the military stop a super-villain with ice powers from terrorising a city. Almost immediately, the brothers find themselves fighting ‘Isaac the freezer’, a fight that reveals Edward’s metallic arm plus his power to create lighting and objects out of seemingly thin air. They subdue Isaac, but he escapes, and the brothers find themselves being debriefed at HQ before being invited back to the house of their commanding officer for quiche and a place to sleep as he’s a fan of their work. Meanwhile Isaac disguises himself as an officer to sneak into the Central Prison to give another rogue sorcerer the offer of work…
The above plot précis only covers the first nine minutes (including the long opening credits) of the first episode and makes it clear that this series is one aimed at fans of the franchise rather than newcomers to the experience. While the plot may be bewildering, there is an alluring cinematic style to the fight scenes, with the street lamp and moonlight penumbra of its city setting giving the animation an evocative feel that suits its ‘steam-punk’ aesthetic. However, while casual viewers who have enough experience of both Western and Eastern (super-hero) comics may take the script in their stride - expecting correctly that the back story and the thrust of the ongoing narrative will be revealed shortly enough - the odd schizophrenic animation style is much more off-putting: every engaging ‘camera’ angle and beautifully rendered scene that intrigues the viewer is offset by strange childlike drawings that accompany comedy moments and scenes where Edward reveals the more immature elements of his character.
If you haven’t seen any extract of Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood, the best way of describing this is as if the animation was suddenly handed over to a 10-year-old who was asked to do a more cartoony rendering of what’s going on in the scene, before the animation process was handed back to the professionals, a couple of hundred frames later. This is a style of drawing called ‘Q-version’, which isn’t unknown in dark fantasy animé, but is usually reserved for extras on DVD collections and not inserted into the main animation except where the entire endeavour is meant as a post-modern parody of the genre, such as Production IG’s mini-series FLCL. Production IG’s animation in general seems to have been the model for this series: the dark Gothic flavour of the art plus the enigmatic opening credits, which suggest various layers of reality and include a cameo by a hound, are all reminiscent of IG’s various Mamoru Oshii productions (Brotherhood narrator Iemasa Kayumi was also the voice of ‘The Puppetmaster’ in Ghost in the Shell). But unlike the animation produced by IG, this series takes more of a scattershot approach, including as many references and heightened emotions as it can to produce an overall effect that is neither one recognisable genre nor another.
I haven’t read the Full Metal Alchemist manga, but I did watch the first two episodes of the 2003 animated series to compare the new adaptation with, and found the previous version a lot more watchable than the new series. The animation of the 2003 series suffers in comparison by being a little less Gothic and cinematic, but while it shares the notion of having more comedic expressions integrated into the characters for moments of heightened emotion, these are shorter in length and limited to their faces - more akin to an actor pulling a comedic expression than the actor being replaced by a cardboard cut-out for a scene. The original Alchemist also begins with the tragic accident that turned Edward into a cyborg and Alphonse into a talking suit of armour, before jumping ahead to the present, and this is a more intriguing opening than the fan (only) friendly start of the new series. So, while the animation and score of the original series are more generic than that of the remake, the storytelling is more confident and endearing, and made this casual viewer want to watch more.
Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood treads an odd path: it could easily be a continuation of the first series, as it includes the same characters and narrative, and the same actors voicing those characters, but by remaking some of the same plots, it’s likely to put off fans who saw the 2003 version, when ironically they are the audience who will appreciate it most. The justification of this new series is down to both the lucrative nature of the franchise and presenting a more faithful adaptation of the manga, as the comic only finished recently so the previous animated series had to continue with new plots that diverted from creator Hiromu Arakawa’s strip when they ran out of instalments to adapt. That being the case, since Brotherhood drops viewers into the middle of the story, before revealing the characters’ origins in flashbacks, the animators could have started with the first issue of the comic not adapted the first time around.
Although the disruptive ‘Q-version’ interludes calm down by episode five of Brotherhood, other negative elements of this series still outweigh the positive: long, self-indulgent ’emo’ scenes, while possibly suitable for the story of an orphaned teenager with great power and responsibilities, bring the plot to a halt, and the over-dramatic score, though more memorable than the first series’, often distracts rather than supports the storytelling. At the risk of suffering Full Metal fatigue, I watched the first two episodes of the original version in-between the first two discs of the second series, and another element that wasn’t (yet) present in the original Alchemist but which blights the remake was the character of Alex Louis Armstrong, a caricature of a circus strong man who likes to strip off his shirt and profess his affection for Edward. This might be an example of Japanese humour that doesn’t translate well, but it adds a weird homoerotic element between a grown man and a young teenage boy.
The various elements of Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood that I found distracting from the ongoing narrative may be due to the series’ greater adherence to the manga than its predecessor; if so then this shows the problems in translating one medium too accurately into another. These elements may be unique to Brotherhood alone, but either way this seems to be a serial that exists mainly to satisfy an existing fan base. Newcomers to the range who may be intrigued by the early 20th-century setting and the mix of magic and technology on screen would be well advised to give the 2003 series a watch and only return to this if they’re then desperate for more.
Venues: Curzon Mayfair, Picturehouse Greenwich (London) and nationwide
Director: Olivier Assayas
Writers: Dan Franck, Olivier Assayas
Cast: Edgar Ramírez, Alexander Scheer, Alejandro Arroyo, Ahmad Kaabour, Talal El-Jordi, Juana Acosta
It seems appropriate that Edgar Ramírez, who plays Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, known to the world as Carlos the Jackal, could easily be a regional finalist in a Val Kilmer lookalike competition, because Carlos often brings to mind the shape and feel of a rock biopic. We follow Sánchez from the early, punkier terrorism, as he kills cops with amazing sang-froid, through the increasingly hubristic world stage farrago of the OPEC kidnappings, to his decline into boozy, bloated obscurity. Anybody who caught Mesrine and The Baader-Meinhof Complex will find much of the setting, style and themes of Carlos familiar. We’re in a 70s radical chic world, a jet-setting, chain-smoking brown leather and knitwear milieu where radical politics are discussed in hotel bars, and Kalashnikovs are sexier than Fender Stratocasters. ‘Weapons are meant to be touched,’ says Sanchez, during a bit of alarming hand grenade-based foreplay with a London girlfriend, ‘weapons are an extension of my body’. Somehow I can’t picture Bin Laden saying that, mass murderers just aren’t fun anymore…
Olivier Assayas’s Carlos, or the cinema release version I saw, has been cut down to three hours from a 334-minute three-part French TV production, and feels like it. We skip through the edited highlights of a complicated life, starting from when Sánchez first allies himself with the Palestinian cause, and then move from country to country, through knots of casual acquaintances and key accomplices, with few recurring characters. It’s a wild ride, but you can’t help but feel that a lot of detail and nuance has been lost along the way. What we are left with is a series of scenes from an alien world, where Sánchez can get a good review from Saddam Hussein and attend a meeting where the KGB puts out a hit for tender. The OPEC kidnappings are a highlight, dealt with at length and moving from tense thriller dynamics to absurd farce as the powers-that-be in Algeria, Baghdad and Tripoli refuse to play ball with the terrorists, leaving the plan, and the plane they are in, stranded. This echoes the scenes later in the film when the fugitive Sánchez becomes persona non grata in state after state as world politics reshape the globe and he is moved on from Tripoli to Damascus, Iran to Sudan, yesterday’s man, a paunchy teacher reading TE Lawrence to a bored class. The OPEC scenes also introduce revolutionary pin up Nada/Gabrielle Kröcher Tiedmann (Julia Hummer), played here as a spitting cobra, one of the few supporting characters to really leave an impression, and given a fabulous exit, facing down machine guns to ‘Sonic Reducer’ by The Dead Boys.
Director Olivier Assayas, who also made Irma Vep and Demonlover, will be conducting a masterclass on Sunday 24 October as part of the London Film Festival. More information on the LFF website.
Sánchez himself remains essentially unknowable throughout, we see nothing of his life before he joins the PFLP, and any family connections are absent. What we do have is a portrait of an inconsistent and contradictory man. He is ruthless enough to kill two Paris policemen and an informant without mercy, but cannot bring himself to execute the OPEC players who were the point of the mission. He is full of high revolutionary rhetoric but prone to alcoholism and womanising. The film draws a link between his terrorist missions and his libido: any time away from the frontline makes the Jackal fat and listless, put a gun in his hand and he regains his mojo. How much he is actually devoted to the Palestinian cause becomes a matter of conjecture, he cannot follow orders, and the demands of his ego and his vanity often seem to take precedence over military or political concerns. He rejects wholly the idea of a suicide mission with the typically self-serving, ‘I am a soldier, not a martyr’. It’s a great, charismatic performance from Edgar Ramírez, who really goes the distance, gaining and losing weight, delivering dialogue in a variety of tongues, depicting a Jackal who is both dark icon and arsehole at the same time.
He is a fascinating character, and it’s a fascinating world in which he operates. The film moves at a fair clip, in an unfussy hand-held style, and it contains enough weirdness and intrigue to remain diverting, but the TV origins and a stretched budget betray themselves here and there, and following the events of the man’s life means that it feels baggy and shapeless in places, choppy and rushed in others. Maybe that’s just the cut I saw, but if Carlos sounds like your bag, I’d try to catch the full-length monster.
The 334-minute version of Carlos will preview at the London Film Festival on Saturday 16 October. More information on the LFF website.
Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 silent comedy drama sees The Tramp fall in love with a beautiful, poor, blind flower girl. It is released on Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray) on November 15 by Park Circus. The Circus and The Chaplin Revue, a collection of his short films, are released on the same day.
I’m not the first critic to compare A Town Called Panic to the Toy Story franchise and I dare say I won’t be the last, but in a year that has seen the third instalment of Pixar’s saga released, the (probably unintentional) similarities between the two films are fascinating.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the Toy Story films are about the secret lives that toys lead when no one’s watching: when held by kids, their movements are unrealistic and jerky, but when alone, they move with all the convincing perambulation of live beings (with the exception of the vacuform toy soldiers, with their immovable feet). The lead characters of A Town Called Panic, Cowboy, Indian and Horse, move unrealistically like toys controlled by invisible children, but unlike the characters in Toy Story, they are not self-aware toys, simply living creatures in the Panic universe.
A Town Called Panic therefore is a film that could have been made by the human characters in Toy Story moving their toys about on stop-motion camera and dubbing on silly voices in post-production. The byzantine plot, with its non-sequitur twists and turns, shows a charming childlike approach to the storytelling, which reinforces the impression that the film was made by invisible children - by contrast, the Toy Story films feel written by nostalgic adults pining for their lost childhoods.
The film starts like any charming but simplistic children’s TV show: three characters share a house and have inoffensive misadventures. In this case, it’s Horse’s birthday so Cowboy and Indian, wanting to buy him a birthday present, choose a brick barbeque online, but press the wrong button on the keyboard and accidentally buy a million bricks, which eventually swamp the town, with hilarious consequences. However, after this initial half-hour of plot plays out, the film becomes gradually more fantastical with the arrival of underwater mermen (whose vast subterranean world exists beneath the town, accessible through ponds and puddles), mad scientists, a trip to the North Pole and a giant robotic Penguin… With these increasingly outrageous developments, the film turns into a surrealistic fantasy with roots in the Victorian silent era - recalling Mélií¨s’s adaptations of Jules Verne - as well as Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit series.
The world and characters of A Town Called Panic first appeared in a series of 5-minute short films of the same title from Belgium, which have since been dubbed into English by Aardman animation (who produced the Wallace and Gromit series), screened on Nickelodeon and have been further disseminated on YouTube and other internet sites. The movie has been taken on by music video creators Hammer and Tongs and just like with Aardman for the shorts, this seems like a perfect fit as director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith were responsible for a Disney film, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Although it had CGI as advanced as Toy Story‘s, some scenes used simple effects such as the lead characters turning into knitted toys after a reality shift, or one planet’s defence system involving cinema’s oldest joke, a rake that hits characters in the face as they stand on it. Hammer and Tongs’ second film, Son of Rambow, took this interest in simple filmmaking one stage further, dramatising the attempts of a boy to remake Sylvester Stallone’s First Blood on video camera with schoolyard special effects.
Jennings and Goldsmith weren’t involved in the production of A Town Called Panic and, unlike Aardman, have decided to keep the original soundtrack, subtitled, for the UK movie release, and the film has already demonstrated its viral appeal on the internet. This is low-fi, fantastical story telling for the ADHD generation, who want to change genres and situations with the speed of the TV remote control. The unpredictability of the plot, which remains engaging as it lurches from one unlikely scenario to another, makes it perfect viewing for young children as well as adults who have ever thought of making movies with their children’s toys. In some respects, this makes A Town Called Panic more honest than the Pixar franchise as it uses tools available to kids and tells its story in a way that makes it feel collaborative with the target audience. This feels like a new kind of storytelling (which has also turned up recently in the field of comics with the web comic Axe Cop and in viral YouTube videos made with Lego), which as well as being fun to watch for all ages, has the tactile aesthetic that might inspire a new generation of filmmakers, particularly those who are savvy with internet marketing.
A Town Called Panic may be cheap and somewhat disposable in its storytelling and production, but it has enough unexpected qualities and joie de vivre to turn into as much of a cult hit as the shorts that preceded it, and hopefully it will be successful enough to warrant another cinematic adventure for everyone involved.
In his native Japan, Takeshi Kitano has always been revered. As a comedian, TV personality, actor, director, even a game show host, he’s not a man in need of more exposure. Back in 2000, he featured in the cult horror Battle Royale, a film that helped put Japanese cinema on the radar of hip young geeks in the West. In the same year, Kitano also directed and starred in Brother, his first and only (to date) film shot outside Japan and an intriguing attempt at transporting his hard-boiled yakuza persona into an American setting.
Producers expecting Kitano to land in Los Angeles and make a slick gangster movie must have been very disappointed. It’s obvious from Brother that Kitano was never really bothered about breaking into Hollywood; he barely speaks any English in the film and rarely reaches for the tenderness of his previous masterpieces like Sonatine and Hana-Bi. Instead he comes off as nonchalant and uncompromising, trying to wrestle with an unfamiliar language that refuses to fit his style, and the result is sometimes stilted and disengaging. But Kitano’s recurring themes are still apparent and Brother has plenty to say about the fraternity of the gang world, and the hollowness at its centre.
Brother‘s strength is that it refuses to conform to the Hollywood portrayal of gangsters as glamorous icons who lead a life of danger and excitement. Kitano plays a yakuza, Yamamoto, forced to leave Japan and head to LA to see his half-brother Ken (Claude Maki), who is a low-level drug dealer with his buddy Denny (Omar Epps). Yamamoto is soon killing off the competition and taking Ken and his gang of posers and wannabes to the top of the food chain. A director like Scorsese would have had a field day but for Kitano, being a gangsta is a mundane job with little benefits and a short life expectancy - the view from the top isn’t much different as the view from the bottom, you’re just more likely to get killed.
Kitano’s main target is the empty morals of American society, with LA just a hunk of land to be fought over by those with enough greed, ambition and firepower to be the last man standing. Kitano is keen to highlight the mundanity of it all with the boys left to sit around in their absurdly grand office playing basketball while Yamamoto starts to feel an affinity with Denny as they play stupid betting games with each other. Their relationship is supposed to be at the heart of the story but rarely is there any depth, leaving the final scene largely redundant.
The film is violent, but not in a chic Tarantino way. Kitano’s style is matter-of-fact, long takes punctuated with something extreme - a finger being chopped off, chopsticks blasted up some poor guy’s nose - while shoot-outs are kept off-screen. This isn’t a film about how cool it is to be a gangster, it’s about going through the motions until, inevitably, someone bigger and better - in this case the Mafia - comes along to dump you in a shallow grave in the desert. Kitano’s done this sort of thing better of course; you’ll just have to put up with subtitles to get the full Kitano experience.
Saturday night, back in 1980, I was informed of the remarkable story of a US pilot, who had been propelled, by accident, 500 years into the future. His name was Buck Rogers, and after waking up slightly bewildered by his experience, he soon overcame his misgivings and went on to have weekly adventures in his TV show.
There are still many things that are alien about the future Buck Rogers found himself in. We do not do much travelling around space; we do not find it necessary to adopt a blanket policy on white jumpsuits regardless of shape, size and gender; we have so far resisted the allure of intergalactic warfare and, most disappointingly, the vision of the well-trained, domestic robot remains as distant now as it did in 1980. (Side note: Twiki, Rogers’s electric sidekick occupies a unique position in the unthreatening android Venn diagram, being precisely 50% Camp, í la C3PO, and 50% Childlike, like C3PO’s cute little pal.)
In one respect though, Buck Rogers’s future is here right now. His Snozzopod (future speak for bedroom) was notably uncluttered compared with the rooms of his viewers. There were no shelves of dusty vinyl, no artfully strewn magazines, no piles of VHS cassettes. When he wanted to listen to music, he pushed a button, when he wanted to check out an old episode of The Clangers he pushed another button (or maybe the same button twice, you have YouTube, you can check) and when he wanted the latest weather, headlines or traffic reports he did the same. He was, in short, just like us.
Or, just like you, I should say, because I cling to DVD, to CD, to paper and even to VHS. I even get Time Out delivered once a week. Despite these fusty ties to the tradional consumption of culture, I am now to begin my own odyssey into the future, I am going to start watching films on the internet.
Unlike Buck Rogers, I have control over the launch of my epic adventure. I opt for something small. Trust me, nobody will be putting my exploits up against Doctor Who on a Saturday night. I begin by searching for The Alder Woodwasp and Its Insect Enemies, a nature film from 1960, known principally for its ground-breaking camera techniques, including a novel way to avoid the combustion of delicate cast members under lights. Unfortunately, only part of the film is available to view online so I’m afraid that just one of the trumpeted insect enemies appears. This leaves a lot of billing for one parasitic wasp, however gruesome its habits, to bear. Audacious Striatus is remarkable, but not exactly Godzilla; even in comparison with other parasites it is a bit dull. What a shame that the internet has no room for footage of the famously ‘gregarious’ Xiphydriophaga.
So my first steps end in slight disappointment. Oh well, I will not let this setback dishearten me. Buck Rogers is my model, and I don’t recall him getting disheartened. If only I had a small, camp, childllike robot to give me a few tips.
What if the British army was stranded at Dunkirk and we lost the Battle of Britain? What if the Nazis thought of the Channel Tunnel 50 years before we did? What if Hadrian’s Wall was still intact and no one had heard from the Scots in 100 years? This is the alternative Second World War England of Jackboots on Whitehall, the epic stop-motion animation debut from brothers Edward and Rory McHenry. When Nazis invade London it’s up to farm boy Chris (Ewan McGregor) and vicar’s daughter Daisy (Rosamund Pike) to rescue Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall) and lead him to the safety of Hadrian’s Wall, marshalling an army of villagers along the way.
Jackboots is a film for anyone who played with Action Man, Barbie, Airfix kits or Hornby model railways as a child. The animation is excellent, with large-scale battles, plenty of plastic gore and only the bare minimum of computer manipulation to help with the lip-syncing and facial expressions on the dolls. Similarly, the sets are incredibly detailed and anyone familiar with London will appreciate the effort that’s gone into creating the model versions of real landmarks.
The brothers McHenry have done a great job attracting a cast of big British names (even American volunteer Billy Fiske is voiced by great British export Dominic West), but this cannot have been based on the strength of the script, which is sadly lacking. Because there are just not that many mainstream stop-motion films, Jackboots invites comparison with films like Team America: World Police. Indeed, it shares the same simplistic dialogue and immature sense of humour. But whereas in Team America the childish jokes provided an ironic counterpoint to the serious subject matter, Jackboots doesn’t have that excuse.
There’s something in our received culture, be it from our grandparents’ war stories, or the war films we’ve all seen, that means we’re still happy to watch the Nazis being drubbed even in an alternate version of history. In this way Jackboots can be said be to be British both in terms of production and spirit, and it’s wholly appropriate that it was chosen as the opening film for this year’s Raindance Film Festival. This British spirit should carry Jackboots a long way, and in spite of its flaws it is an impressive debut feature. However, it will be interesting to see how its subject matter and technical achievement fare against the similar, child’s toy based Belgian stop-motion animation A Town Called Panic, which is released the same day, and while less technically accomplished, is more original, surreal and has a superior sense of comic timing.
Jackboots on Whitehall opened the Raindance Film Festival on September 29. Raindance runs until October 10, for more information go to the Raindance website.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Film, DVD & Book Reviews