Sion Sono’s follow-up to the extraordinary Love Exposure (2009) is another long and convoluted tale, but without the scope and exuberance of the preceding film; rather, it seems to be a return to the dark spirit of Suicide Club (2001), with its provocative, inventive gore and an enigmatic, oblique approach to meaning. The opening scene is brilliantly incongruous and announces the strangeness and brutality to come: a banal domestic scene depicting an unhappy-looking housewife microwaving her family’s dinner is filmed like a violent action scene, the fast, jarring editing exuding phenomenal aggression. Rarely has a microwave seemed so menacing.
Cold Fish charts the descent of the meek Shamoto, owner of a small exotic-fish shop, into violence and madness after an unfortunate encounter with the brash and ruthless Murata, owner of a much bigger rival fish store. The mechanics of Murata’s manipulation and Shamoto’s gradual breakdown are superbly observed, the indication of the date and time of each unfolding event adding to the sense of an implacable mechanism at work. The direction is controlled and well-paced, although the film does feel overlong. The story is based on a real-life crime, known as the ‘Saitama serial murders of dog lovers’. Sono has transferred it to the world of tropical fish retailing, which adds to the surreal quality and visual beauty of the film, thanks in part to the multi-coloured exotic fish and immersive aquarium atmosphere of Murata’s enormous shop.
With not one sympathetic character, the film offers an extremely downbeat view of mankind. Women are submissive, devious, immoral, and seem to enjoy rough sex with unattractive men, which would be somewhat problematic if it wasn’t for the fact that men are depicted equally negatively: although Shamoto’s sensitive man is initially contrasted with Murata’s thug, both will turn out to be dangerous and violent, particularly to the women around them.
Although the film is awash with copious amounts of blood, dismembering and eye-popping, alarmingly inventive murder scenes, which may deter the more squeamish, Cold Fish is also blackly funny throughout. There are great moments of macabre humour and absurd violence, some involving a bizarre display of Catholic artefacts and a statue of the Virgin Mary (interestingly, Love Exposure was about Catholic guilt). Former comedian Denden contributes to the comic side of the film, giving a fantastic performance as the over-the-top, sinister and disturbingly funny Murata.
Just as with Suicide Club, the deliberate weirdness and detached tone of Cold Fish may initially leave audiences befuddled, but this a sign of its complexity. It is an uncompromising film, with no chance of the redemption glimpsed in Love Exposure, but it is a triumphantly unhinged achievement from an intelligent and profoundly individual filmmaker, who clearly delights in darkness.
Armadillo, the prize-winning Danish documentary on a group of soldiers during their first tour of Afghanistan, is essentially a ‘coming of age’ story, albeit one that aims to work on multiple levels. On one level, we have the story of soldiers changing as they are increasingly drawn into warfare during six months on the frontline, while on the other, a subtler story regarding the psychological effects of watching hostilities unfolds without a discernible moral standpoint. From the altruistic desire to help the locals to an instinctive urge to eliminate as many Taliban as possible, director Janus Metz explores the addictive nature of fighting and why so many of the soldiers opt to return to active duty despite injury and trauma.
Like so many other war narratives, Armadillo starts at the airport with the emotional departure of the soldiers, the hand-held camera and gritty footage an instant clue to a desired sense of authenticity. On site at Armadillo, the cameraman becomes one of the boys as we are hurtled through fields, shot at, and ultimately in the same ditch as the Taliban soldiers executed after a particularly brutal battle, rummaging around blown up bodies in order to retrieve whatever weapons can be found.
We are, then, in the same territory as in The Hurt Locker, a film that markedly aims to ‘explain’ the addictive nature of soldiering in psychological terms, the addictive nature, in other words, of murdering within the context of an institutionalised force. Our sense of the purpose of the documentary itself is shaped by its ability to relatively quickly establish this context, chiefly though the juxtaposition between those soldiers who embrace the necessity to kill with uncomfortable relish and those whose traumatised and glazed expressions post-battle indicate darker and less comprehensible forces are at hand.
Situated on the Helmand frontline, Camp Armadillo becomes, like so many cinematic outposts of soldiering, a curious mixture of infantilised male camaraderie - complete with computer games and the shared viewing of pornography - and rather hollow machismo, as the increasing awareness of the futility of war is repressed. Metz takes the time to show us how emotional attachments are played out on the micro-level of male bonding and in terms of a vaguely defined patriotism. One of the most notable aspects of Armadillo, and the Scandinavian psyche may be partly responsible for this, is the way in which rank seems rather perfunctory, the hierarchy in place based more on experience and age. It is all the more noticeable then that the parameters of the battle in ethical and even practical terms seem oddly makeshift, as though the people in charge were themselves slightly puzzled over what they are doing there. Excursions into enemy territory are explained as forays designed to signal that the coalition has the upper hand, and yet the sense of Armadillo being under siege becomes more palpable as we realise that the local population more or less uniformly wants them to leave.
Some of the more remarkable and telling footage therefore takes place away from the camp, where we get a breather from the official line as presented by the commanders and get to fix our gaze - albeit an uncomfortable one - on the local population. The fact that this gaze is uncomfortable is as it should be - the locals are given cash settlements to cover for the loss of crops, animals and even, one surmises, family members. We sense a certain embarrassment in this, even when the social liaison officer explains to the locals that they have to allow the ‘good’ soldiers to win so they can rebuild local schools and roads. In this respect, Armadillo‘s sense of narrative construction is paramount in establishing what effectively can only be seen as criticism of the war’s raison d’être, but it does so, wisely, in subtle ways. When the climactic moment towards the end of Armadillo reveals that one of the recruits has phoned home with information about the ways in which Taliban soldiers are executed rather than captured, we are left guessing which soldier has retained his sense of moral outlook.
Screened to both politicians and a shocked public upon its hastened release in Denmark, the film was used politically by both right- and left-wing forces to alternately prove the futility of the war or the heroism of the soldiers. Metz clearly wants the film to situate itself between both positions, a stance that many will see as lacking the male body parts that the soldiers reference in nearly every scene. Nevertheless, the aesthetics of the film’s construction, and in particular the haunting and evocative soundtrack by Uno Helmersson, one of the best I’ve ever heard in a documentary and eerily reminiscent of both Errol Morris and Werner Herzog’s best work, does a great deal to add a lyrical quality to the proceedings and thus paradoxically ensures that we feel both a sense of pathos and melodrama throughout. At one point, we see the soldiers in a moment of respite, playing with their motorcycles like boys let loose on a playing field; at another, a group of soldiers, their naked torsos marked by both scars and muscles, leap into the Helmand river, reminding us of the fact that these men are boys first and foremost.
If one wants Armadillo to clarify the moral ramifications of engagement both in terms of embedded journalism, a fact that Metz himself has drawn attention to in interviews, or in terms of whether Western troops should be there in the first place, then the film refuses to deliver. But as a remarkably exciting, and I would say insightful, reminder of what happens when nations send boys off to fight, this documentary tells a gripping, and sadly still topical, tale.
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga
In less than a year, three films have been released that have been profoundly influenced by the style and structure of (rather than adapted from) computer games. If anything, it is a cinematic trend that is overdue, in the wake of the likes of Tron and The Matrix in the 80s and 90s. Following last summer’s Inception and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which transferred the plotting and aesthetics of video games to the big screen, Source Code is reminiscent of the kind of game where you have to complete a mission; if you die, the level resets and you have to start all over again, trying to master the level based on your prior knowledge of the behaviour of the non-player characters. In the plot of this film, Jake Gyllenhaal’s character starts ‘the level’ believing that he is in a simulation where he has eight minutes to discover the identity of a bomber on a train. Between each attempt he wakes up in the cockpit of a crashed helicopter and tries to work out why he can’t escape this environment. As the film progresses, we discover the truth about the two worlds between which he moves and the nature of his interaction with military personnel, who are communicating with him via video screen.
In other hands, this could have been a dull ‘Channel 5’ action film, but with Gyllenhaal wringing the maximum amount of emotional potential out of his time-and-body-displaced hero, and with compelling direction by Duncan Jones, the team lift the material out of its familiar genre trappings into something more intriguing and moving than you might expect. Gyllenhaal has made a career of looking slightly perplexed in unusual situations - from playing the disturbed eschatological lead in Donnie Darko to a gay rancher in Brokeback Mountain - and his endearing performances help the audience to accept the outré scenarios he often finds himself cast in.
For Jones, this movie is the cinematic equivalent of ‘the difficult second album’. His debut Moon was an underrated cult hit with a nuanced performance from Sam Rockwell (a very watchable actor who can be his own worst enemy by playing unusual characters a little too broadly) in the role of a lonely astronaut with existential angst on the titular planetoid. Fans of this first film, and indeed the company that bankrolled Source Code, probably expect his new film to be similar to a certain extent, but with higher stakes and a bigger budget, and be slightly more accessible. Luckily, Source Code manages to achieve all these things with aplomb. The science fiction is both more accessible than in some of the film’s predecessors - many people have seen Quantum Leap and Groundhog Day, which are both referenced in the casting and dialogue respectively - and more obtuse, as I for one can’t quite get my head around the nature of the lead character’s time travel. Moon‘s theme of a character dealing with the nature of his own ‘less than human’ status and experience of his own death over and over again is repeated and successfully reimagined here, and the only faults I found with the film were the tacked-on romance, which is of the Sandra Bullock ‘relationships that start under intense circumstances’ style, and slightly annoying product placement.
Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, Gyllenhaal reacts to the time loop he’s trapped in with a similar range of responses: bewilderment, bemusement, hysteria, denial and eventually acquiescence, making the best out of a bad situation even if his final visit to the past might prove fatal. Both films ignore the immorality of the situation - Murray learning to ice-sculpt and play piano just to woo the woman he fancies and Gyllenhaal essentially stealing another man’s life - but they are both so enjoyable that you ignore the unspoken and concentrate on the excellent filmmaking.
Moon was helped in achieving cult status by an excellent ad campaign and word of mouth. Unfortunately, Source Code has had little of either - the disappointing posters being as generic as any dismal Philip K. Dick mis-adaptation - but this is the first great thriller and first great science fiction film of 2011, and it deserves to find as large an audience as possible.
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Bowie, rarely as effective again on screen, completely inhabits the role of the fallen angel, his otherworldly persona and physical frailty perfectly meshing with Newton’s own.
Following apprenticeships at various London film studios, Nicolas Roeg worked his way up to camera operator on, among others, Ken Hughes’s The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960) and Fred Zinnemann’s The Sundowners (1960) before gaining writing credits on Cliff Owen’s A Prize of Arms (1961) and Lawrence Huntington’s Death Drums along the River (1962). It was as a cinematographer that Roeg established his reputation as a distinctive cinematic visionary. Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964), Franí§ois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1965) and Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968) all in some way looked forward to Roeg’s own visually and thematically arresting work as director, where colour was used to symbolic effect to probe taboo subjects and linearity was eschewed in favour of complex time leaps and splintered narratives.
Beginning with Performance (1968, co-directed by Donald Cammell), a tale of identity crisis set amid London’s late 60s criminal underworld and taking in Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Roeg became the leading light of British film, establishing a run of films that remains unparalleled in contemporary cinema. Frequently focusing on characters cut adrift from their usual moral and physical surroundings, Roeg seemed unstoppable until first Bad Timing (1980) and then Eureka (1983) ran into problems with their uncomprehending distributors. The director found himself at odds with an industry increasingly resistant to his pioneering vision and tendency to shine a light on areas of the human psyche many would prefer left darkened.
Newly restored in 4K, The Man Who Fell to Earth will return to UK cinemas for a 40th anniversary reissue on 9 September 2016. For venue details check the Park Circus website.
In more recent years, The Man Who Fell to Earth has arguably emerged as perhaps the director’s most characteristic and richly rewarding work. Adapted from the Walter Tevis novel by Paul Mayersberg (who would also script Eureka), it’s a film that takes pleasure in resisting categorisation, retaining the science fiction origins of its source material while heavily accentuating Tevis’s less overt allusions to capitalism, corporate power (the film remains the closest Roeg has come to any kind of political statement) and the alienating effects of contemporary American society. The first non-children’s film that I can ever actually remember seeing, it is a work that seemingly contains all the infinite possibilities of cinema (often in a single frame), and I return to it periodically for inspiration and stimulation. It is not and never has been universally loved. It was cautiously received at the time by critics, as so many of Roeg’s films were: Nigel Andrews, writing in The Financial Times, accused it of having ‘enough ideas for six different films; and far too many, in my opinion, for one’.
Initially favouring Peter O’Toole for the central role of Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who comes to a fertile earth in order to save the inhabitants of his own dying planet, only to become marooned as a potent cocktail of sex (courtesy of Candy Clark), gin and television slowly take control, Roeg instead dipped once more into a pop star pool that had proved so effective with Mick Jagger and Performance. Roeg became convinced that David Bowie, the recent subject of a BBC Alan Yentob documentary charting a tour of America of equally irresistible and infinite temptation, was in fact his Newton. The financiers (the film was among the first ever British-financed movies to be made in the United States) failed to share the conviction, expressing their scepticism as to whether the singer could actually act. Roeg remained undaunted, exclaiming, ‘what do you think he’s doing when he gets up in front of 60,000 people to perform?’ Bowie, rarely as effective again on screen, completely inhabits the role of the fallen angel, his otherworldly persona and physical frailty perfectly meshing with Newton’s own.
Beginning with stock NASA footage of a space rocket leaving earth before cutting to a vessel - assumingly jettisoned from the rocket - crash-landing back to earth in a New Mexico lake, Roeg and Mayersberg frequently undercut the genre elements of their material (in fact they don’t seem especially interested in the novel at all) in favour of thematic juxtapositions and kaleidoscopic cross-cultural allusion. In one of the more overt, a randy college professor later seconded into Newton’s expanding business empire (the alien arrives on earth with a small stock of gold rings that he swaps for cash and with a number of futuristic product patents that will allow him to amass a fortune), Bryce (Rip Torn), is seen lingering over an image of Brueghel’s Icarus. The Man Who Fell to Earth also incorporates W.H. Auden’s contemplation of the Greek myth (‘the expensive, delicate ship that must have seen something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on’), emphasising Roeg’s interest in the notion of watching and being watched.
When Newton takes his first tentative steps on earth he is observed by an unknown spectator, who will again later appear at the alien’s bedside once he has undergone a series of painful and incapacitating medical examinations. Newton himself turns voyeur. Initially using television to learn about his new planet and humankind through the medium’s multiple images and signals, he fashions a wall of television screens to which he ultimately becomes addicted. Television helps fuel Newton’s increasing paranoia, with Roeg and Mayersberg suggesting that the modern technological age of observation and endless consumerism is corrosive. There are elements of this also perhaps in the film’s incredibly prescient presentation of an increasingly global America nostalgic for its past (the music of Louis Armstrong, Artie Shaw and the flashbacks to sequences involving early pioneers, glimpsed by a weary Newton from his limousine), yet enthralled to the point of obsession by the notion of its future. The Man Who Fell to Earth concludes with a shot of the crown of Newton’s head, an image similar to that of Turner in Performance just before Chas puts a bullet through it, revealing a man utterly broken and adrift, who has undergone the process of becoming human only to discover, to his cost and that of his homeland, what a wilfully destructive race we are.
This review was first published in April 2011 for the UK DVD release of the film by Optimum.
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