Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 27 June 2011

Distributor: Manga Entertainment

Director: Katsuhiro Otomo

Writers: Katsuhiro Otomo, Izô Hashimoto

Based on the manga by: Katsuhiro Otomo

Cast: Mitsuo Iwata, Nozomu Sasaki, Mami Koyama, Tarô Ishida, Mizuho Suzuki

Japan 1988

125 mins

In the mid-80s, the pop culture apocalypse was back in fashion. Previous decades had already seen sci-fi and fantasy reactions to the threat of nuclear war in both the East and the West - Japan favoured giant irradiated behemoths on screen such as Godzilla (1954-2004), America had incredible shrinking men and scientists with insect heads, and both countries had alien visitors warning us about the danger of ultimate war. By the 1960s comics got in on the act, with masterpieces of Japanese manga such as Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix: Future, predicting a machine-driven apocalypse in the 35th century, while Marvel Comics became a force to be reckoned with in Stan Lee’s indelible wave of irradiated teenagers with superpowers in the pages of Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, X-Men, The Hulk and many others.

However, these two aspects of post-(modern) apocalypse - the irradiated teenager and the irradiated environment - didn’t combine notably until the 1980s in comic books, and later in their cinematic adaptations. Again, Japanese and Western takes on this combination differ wildly. Japan has never taken to costumed heroes with the same enthusiasm as the West. In Japan, supernatural powers were more common than super-powers in late-80s print manga, most notably in Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell and Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, where telekinesis and telepathy are imagined as evolutionary reactions to a dehumanised machine-driven world.

Based on Otomo’s serialised comic, which ran for over 2,000 pages between 1982 and 1990, the film of Akira necessarily condenses the plot of the manga to fit it in a running time of just over two hours, and is mainly based on the first third of the comic books. Akira is set in 2019, 31 years after explosions have devastated 20th-century Tokyo for a second time, now renamed Neo Tokyo. Violent street gangs terrorise the city on motorbikes, with the police and the teenagers’ educators having little influence on their behaviour. In the middle of one three-way fight between two gangs and the police, a scientist and his young ward, apparently suffering from progeria, escape from a research facility into the melee before the former is killed and the latter fades before our eyes. Witness to this are two of the gang members, Kaneda and Tetsuo, and Kaneda’s interaction with the mysterious child awakens his psychic powers, leading to the creation of another potential weapon of mass destruction, while an apocalypse cult pray for the return of Lord Akira. In Akira, the apocalypse has a human face as first, lead character Tetsuo, and then the resurrected Akira himself, have the power of a nuclear explosion at their fingertips, something the military and government want to curtail. But it is only the interaction of the super-powered with ordinary, albeit anarchist, humans that stops the (complete) destruction of Tokyo for a third time.

Several enjoyable scenes struck me on re-watching the film: the corrupt rat-faced politician who seems to have wandered in from another movie, the attack of giant patchwork demonic toys with skin that’s bleeding milkshakes, a chase through the sewers that is a mixture of the climactic scene of The Third Man (1949) and the opening credits of Batman: The Movie (1966), Tetsuo’s Superman-inspired red cape (particularly in long shot, punching a space station) and the Warner Bros-style animated slapstick as Kaneda dodges falling boulders prior to the arrival of Akira from below. Akira the film, like Akira the character, is a form of rebirth, reconstituted from the elements of what went before; it’s not quite as cinematic as later animé - except a terrific close-up on Kaneda at the start of the film’s final battle - but the skill and dedication of the animators in bringing an unwieldy epic to the screen shines through. It’s a shame that in both subtitles and dubbing, even the more recent translation is still lacking, including such Pythonesque gems as: ‘He’s a false messiah! This isn’t the rapture!’ and ‘That’s Mr. Kaneda to you, punk’, a line that only Clint Eastwood or Sydney Poitier could get away with.

Akira is a smorgasbord of influences and references: Fritz Lang had his protagonists in Metropolis (1927) witness prophetic visions and have psychic links with their dopplegängers as did the subterranean mutants in Ted Post’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970); and Akira’s imagery of childhood toys battling with technology had first appeared in Windsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland in the first two decades of the 20th century. But Akira combines so many disparate elements from comic books and films that the resulting collage results in something startling and new. While the renowned English-language comic books of the time had to mainly resort to superheroes to narrate their tales (Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore’s Marvelman and Watchmen), Akira didn’t exist in isolation: in Europe, the absence of capes led to a similar mix of science fiction, satire, psychic powers, false messiahs and apocalypse in Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius’s comic book The Incal, which ran concurrently with Akira in the 1980s (Jodorowsky even supposedly advised Otomo on the ending of his manga).

On its release in 1988 (Japan) / 1991 (UK), Akira proved to be a ground-breaking film as it presented concepts and imagery rarely seen on the big screen in animation, and even then there were only a few live-action films that captured a similar neon-lit world, including Blade Runner (1982) half a decade earlier. Animé broadcast in the UK had previously been restricted to TV series that were international co-productions with France (Ulysses 31 / The Mysterious Cities of Gold), Spain (Around the World with Willy Fog) or America (Transformers / Thundercats). In the 80s and early 90s, little of Hayao Miyazaki’s charming fantasy animation was available in translation other than the odd episode of Sherlock Hound and his unremarkable debut film The Castle of Cagliostro (1979). Against this backdrop, it’s unsurprising that the arrival of Akira seemed like the birth of an entirely new art form, and it was unfortunate that post-Akira, distributors didn’t look for the finest examples of the medium they could bring to the West - i.e. Miyazaki’s films - but rather brought other movies similar in tone, which led to a deluge of violent, undemanding animated manga that gave the word a bad name. Akira does contain many of the clichés of bad manga - ultra-violence, techno organic tentacles and bucolic flashbacks - but it was one of the first to include these elements. It started a sub-genre that includes the work of Mamoru Oshii - particularly his Patlabor (1988-1993) and Ghost in the Shell (1995-2008) animé franchises - and Satoshi Kon - Paprika (2006) - who worked as an assistant to both Otomo and Oshii.

Otomo has the distinction of being involved in two of the finest Japanese animated films of the last quarter-century, Akira and Metoroporisu (Metropolis, 2001), which both share a brilliantly rendered futuristic city, which is a terrific example of the retro-(fitted) futurism as seen in Blade Runner. Both films also use the entire palette of the animator’s (digital) paint supply, with lurid reds on clothes and motorbikes contrasting with the pallid green/grey skin of the aged psychic children. As with Blade Runner‘s iconic Vangelis score, this retro-futuristic (apparently, 1980s sweatbands and Hawaiian prints are still big in 2019) city is also accompanied by a terrific soundtrack: Tsutomu Ôhashi’s mixture of Gamelan percussion and woodwind instruments, added to an eclectic voice work that includes a male choir whispering the names of the characters and Noh-style chanting. Otomo only wrote the screenplay of Metropolis (which is a loose adaptation of both Lang’s film and a 1949 manga of the same name) but did not direct it, and his other two feature-length animated films - Roujin Z (1991) and Steamboy (2004) - while fun, don’t live up to his urban cyberpunk classic.

While some aspects of Akira have dated and the rushed ending - a soupí§on of Kubrickian post-human light show plus shafts of divine light in a ruined landscape - strives too hard to be sublime, this is a classic animated Japanese film that is well worth adding to any Blu-ray collection, in a HD transfer that finally does justice to the film’s colour palette and intricate line art.

Alex Fitch

You Are Here

You Are Here

Format: Sci-Fi London screening

Date: 1 May 2011

Venue: BFI Southbank

Director: Daniel Cockburn

Writer: Daniel Cockburn

Cast: Tracy Wright, R.D. Reid, Anand Rajaram, Nadia Litz

Canada 2010

78 mins

10th Sci-Fi London Festival

23 April – 2 May 2011

Various venues, London

Sci-Fi London website

The unquestionable stand-out of this year’s Sci-Fi London was Daniel Cockburn’s You Are Here, an original, inventive and engagingly cryptic film that is left wide open to interpretation. Billed as a ‘meta-detective story’, it is a non-narrative, abstract meditation on the processes of the mind that is intellectually stimulating, as well as charming and playful.

It starts with a lecture in which the speaker tells the audience ‘You are here’, before explaining that the self exists in time and in solitude. Next, a voice-over narration explains that the crowd of people we see on the screen is called ‘Alan’. ‘Alan’ picks up a red ball and almost gets hit by a taxi. Although ‘Alan’ avoids being killed, he feels that ‘something has already gone wrong’. ‘Alan’, represented by a multitude of characters of both genders and various ethnic backgrounds, goes through his day and performs his daily tasks, but cannot log into his computer at work because he’s forgotten his password. He sees a door high up on a building, which does not lead anywhere, and wonders what its purpose is.

Another sequence of the puzzle shows people in an office controlling agents out on the streets, charting their movements in a bizarrely pointless activity that they all take very seriously. Elsewhere, a man invents a prosthetic eye that allows blind people to see, but it turns out that he has a sinister agenda. In another strand, a woman has built an archive of documents - tapes, videos, photos, etc. - that she has found by accident. One of these is a videotape that shows a man in a room in some sort of institutional facility; we later learn that he is a scientist performing an experiment. Locked up in a room, he has to translate and respond to sheets of Chinese characters that appear under the door, without knowing a word of Chinese, and with only the help of a multi-volume reference book. We are told that the experiment is meant to represent the way the brain works.

In the end, the various situations set up during the film unravel: ‘Alan’ falls out of the door that opens on nothing; the woman’s archive starts re-ordering itself and she decides to give it up; two street agents find themselves in the same place, which is not supposed to happen. Neatly concluding the situations set up at the beginning, the film culminates in death and disorder.

As noted by Chris Chang in Film Comment, the reference to John Searle at the end of the film gives some indication of the ideas behind it. An American philosopher interested in the workings of language and the mind, Searle devised an experiment called the ‘Chinese room’. The point of the experiment was to show that a computer can use language without actually understanding it. Literally representing that experiment and placing it at the heart of the film, Cockburn investigates the way in which the human brain perceives, pictures and orders the world around it, including its own self. The various surreal and seemingly absurd activities performed by the characters may be representations of the way the brain works, including processing information, mapping out one’s surroundings, and remembering things and events. Alternatively, the characters could represent computer processes - albeit those of an archaic and inefficient machine. All the situations construct systems of information storage that gradually become overloaded, leading to their destruction, which may be a comment on our world made in an oblique and deliberately low-tech form (see the enormous mobile phones used by the street agents). There is certainly a subdued sense of disquiet running through the film, which comes from the collapse of the systems, but also from the creepiness and paranoid feel of some of the stories, including the street agents, the eye inventor and the brain experimenter.

The film has many layers and their relationships are complex, with characters from one strand appearing in other stories: the scientist in the Chinese room experiment appears in the archivist’s story; she herself appears in the street agents’ story; and while the lecturer who opens the film seems to have a framing role, he later returns ‘inside’ the film, with a trio of kids turning the camera on him while he films the very images of the ocean that we have seen him use in his initial lecture. As we watch the film, our own brain is perceptibly working to organise and understand what it is seeing, so that You Are Here also leads us to dive into our own consciousness and become aware of its processes. It is a tremendously rich experience, invigorating and joyous as well as unsettling and thought-provoking, and, when the consciousness we have seen at work throughout the film dies out at the end, a surprisingly moving one too.

For more information on You Are Here, please go to the film’s official website.

Virginie Sélavy

The New York Ripper

The New York Ripper

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 27 June 2011

Distributor: Shameless Entertainment

Director: Lucio Fulci

Writers: Lucio Fulci, Gianfranco Clerici, Vincenzo Mannino, Dardano Sacchetti

Original title: Lo squartatore di New York

Cast: Jack Hedley, Almanta Keller, Howard Ross

Italy 1982

91 mins

‘To paraphrase Verlaine, in subtlety lies the essence of things.’
(Dialogue from The New York Ripper)

With the media frenzy around the banning of The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence (2011), it’s more illuminating than usual to watch Lucio Fulci’s notorious The New York Ripper (1982), a film that was not only banned in the UK, but had its review print escorted back to the airport by police, lest it infect the populace.

As hysterical as then chief censor James Ferman’s reaction might seem, there is plenty in the movie to provoke offence, even with a few seconds of nipple-razoring still redacted from Shameless Screen Entertainment’s new Blu-ray. Even so, disliking the film as much as I did (a response the film seems to welcome), I’m still glad Fulci became a filmmaker rather than pursuing the career in medicine he studied for: his keen interest in human suffering and mutilation and his apparent disdain for humanity would seem ill-suited for healthcare.

The movie itself is a basic giallo, divided between some hurried, permit-free location filming in the Big Apple and more careful studio interiors, allowing Fulci to take his time with the murder set-pieces that are the film’s raison d’ê. These feature a few striking uses of colour and framing, and Fulci pans, zooms and tracks, sometimes at the same time, to create a giddy momentum and instability. He also pulls off one the weirdest and ghastliest shots in the whole genre: since Fulci’s killer, like the real-life Yorkshire Ripper, who had only just been imprisoned when the film was released, mutilates his victim’s genitals, Fulci films a broken bottle thrusting into the camera lens, from the point of view of the victim’s vagina. As bad-taste extremes go, this easily trumps the shot in Jaws 3 where we see a shark eating its human prey, filmed from inside the shark’s mouth, in 3D.

The problem isn’t that the film includes numerous scenes of women being violently abused: the media attest that such cases do occur, and are therefore suitable for artistic treatment. The issue is the film’s gleeful cynicism in serving up such scenes as entertainment, and the slapdash and heartless way it goes about this.

Right at the start, after a dog retrieves a human hand from a bush, echoing Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, and a girl is knifed to death in a car on the Staten Island Ferry (the owner of the car disappears, never to claim his vehicle, but he never becomes a suspect), the unlikely NYC detective played by Brit thesp Jack Hedley (looking world-weary, as well he might) chats with the pathologist who suggests that the two crimes are related. Hedley wanders to the front of the station house, where he meets his director, Fulci himself, playing a police chief, who berates him for telling the press there’s a serial killer on the prowl. Let me stress: this is a continuous sequence. Hedley has just been told about the crimes being related, and has had no time to talk to anybody. If that isn’t a good enough example of the film’s reckless construction, how about the fact that the medical examiner tells him, from a blood sample, that the killer is a young man who’s lived in New York all his life.

Remember, Fulci studied medicine.

Still, in an impassioned and intelligent essay culled from his book Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci and included with the disc, Stephen Thrower makes a convincing case for the film as a brutal vision of hell and a nihilistic assault upon its audience, while in the video extras, the director’s daughter explains that her father was a very nice man if you knew him, both of which statements I accept. It’s not so easy to guess what the director was driving at by giving his antagonist the hysterical quacking voice of Donald Duck, other than attempting to drag even the most seemingly innocuous aspects of Western civilisation into the sewer.

What doesn’t convince about the film, for me, is its equation of sexual decadence with homicidal murder. The hilarious production of a cock-shaped pipe as evidence of a minor character’s depravity is the purest example of this silliness: why should we be appalled that he likes to puff his tobacco fumes through a ceramic Johnson? By showing the forensic profiler covertly buying a gay wank mag, Fulci thinks he’s making a point about general hypocrisy and creeping perversion, but Thrower is stretching things too far when he asks ‘if a psychoanalyst is ashamed of his sexuality, what sort of help can he offer to anyone else?’ Firstly, the guy is a lecturer rather than a therapist, and secondly, his personal problems, if we even see them as such, needn’t invalidate his insights.

That’s where the film seems ultimately rather silly, in its vile way: fair enough if Fulci wants to lambast the decline of modern civilisation, but he can’t make his points stick if he doesn’t himself possess enough perspective to see the very real difference between cock-pipes and jazz-mags on the one hand, and a razor to the eyeball and a broken bottle to the crotch on the other. No slippery slope exists from one to the other.

David Cairns

Cutter’s Way

Cutter's Way

Format: Cinema

Release date: 24 June 2011

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Park Circus

Director: Ivan Passer

Writer: Jeffrey Alan Fiskin

Based on the novel by: Newton Thornburg

Cast: Jeff Bridges, John Heard, Lisa Eichhorn, Ann Dusenberry, Nina Van Pallandt

USA 1981

105 mins

Cutter’s Way emerged at the wrong time, a 70s film in 1981, after Heaven’s Gate, during the death rattle of the ‘Hollywood brats’ era. We were now in Reagan’s America, where odd, ambiguous little films that suggested dark truths about the US of A would become increasingly unwelcome. Its titular character was the wrong kind of Vietnam veteran, a painful reminder of the actual war, alcoholic and bitter and missing a couple of limbs, just before Stallone told us that Vietnam was a brutal wonderland where men went to gain magic powers. In the year before Raiders of the Lost Ark, here was a film suggesting that heroism is a murky business where ordinary people end up paying the highest price. Like I said, the wrong time.

Cutter’s Way is a kind of sunset noir, a dark tale bathed in a golden West Coast glow. Santa Barbara is a weathered, frazzled, beautiful town of marinas, polo matches and shabby tourist tat. Cutter, Bone and Mo are clearly at the shabbier end of the social scale, but are able to mingle with the smart set and play with their toys through business and family connections. Jeff Bridges plays ‘golden boy’ Bone, a half-arsed gigolo and yacht salesman hired to look good on deck. John Heard is his friend, the caustic, broken Cutter. Lisa Eichhorn plays Mo, Cutter’s long-suffering lady, fending off Bone’s attentions while Cutter’s out causing trouble.

One rainy night during fiesta Bone sees, and interrupts, what turns out to be the dumping of a body, but does not realise it at the time. He tells the police what he’s witnessed when his car puts him at the scene, after a 17-year-old girl has been found in the trash, and her sister Valerie (Anne Dusenberry) has turned up seeking justice. Typically, Bone just wants to walk away, but Cutter won’t let him, especially after Bone fingers tycoon and Time magazine cover star JJ Cord as the man responsible. Cutter sees personified in Cord all the rich bastards who start the wars poor men fight, whose ‘ass is never on the line’, the kind that lost him an arm, a leg and an eye, and he seizes upon the chance to finally make one of them pay like a man possessed, and with Valerie and the reluctant Bone alongside, a plan is put into action… A plan that just a few notes of Jack Nitzsche’s plaintive, wobbling score will suggest is not going to go well…

Cutter, Bone and Mo are three people who have been together too long and know each other too well. Heard, Bridges and Eichhorn work beautifully together creating an instantly credible chemistry, a three-way relationship that’s tender and complex and disastrous, delivered through Jeffrey Allen Fiskin’s cutting dialogue, dripping with irony and bar room wit. ‘I remember food, people had to eat it during Prohibition,’ Cutter says when Mo brings home groceries instead of booze in another doomed attempt to turn their life around. Heard gets the flashy part, and the lion’s share of great lines, in a dream role, an erudite, charming and abrasive man in a wreck of a body, who still somehow, under all the crap, believes in bravery and heroism and, possibly, America. Quoting Shakespeare and Melville, self-righteously castigating the morality of those around him, but not above leching after Valerie, or using his war wounds to escape arrest after drunkenly trashing a neighbour’s car. Bridges has harder work as a man uncomfortably aware of his many moral failings, but incapable of making the tough decisions that might destroy his easy world. And Lisa Eichhorn as Mo delivers an absolute heartbreaker of a performance as a smart woman who clearly deserves better than this, but is wedded to a train wreck and just can’t go.

Passer’s film makes the personal political. What kind of world is this where the pursuit of justice is left to a sodden mess like Cutter? What kind of goddamn white knight is this? Everything is blurred, we are never sure what exactly Bone saw that night. We are not sure Cutter’s campaign is righteous, whether Cord is a monster, or that the cost will be worth it. For much of the running time we find ourselves nervously siding with Bone: isn’t it better to drop all this hero crap, pretend it’s none of our business and walk away? Cutter’s Way is not perfect: the ending feels abrupt and too blunt, Valerie’s problematic character simply disappears from the narrative before the last reel. But I don’t care. Watching it for the nth time in a screening room, I found myself laughing and crying all over again. Nittzsche’s music (a cousin to his Cuckoo’s Nest score) is wonderful, a woozy commentary on sadness. The photography is suntanned and hazy. But I mainly love the film because I know and love these people, and don’t want bad things to happen to them though I know it must.

It’s 2011 now, 30 years on. Eichhorn moved into quality TV for both the US and UK, Bridges is, in all senses, the Dude, and John Heard is probably best known as the dad in the Home Alone films. Czech émigré Passer continued his wayward career without ever producing anything quite like Cutter again. It’s a one-off, a largely overlooked shining gem. Do yourself a favour.

Mark Stafford

Viva Riva!

Viva Riva!

Format: Cinema

Release date: 24 June 2011

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Djo Tunda wa Munga

Writer: Djo Tunda wa Munga

Cast: Patsha Mukuna Bay, Manie Malone, Hoji Fortuna, Diplome Amekindra

Democratic Republic of Congo/France/Belgium 2010

98 mins

Ambitious Riva (Patsha Mukuna Bay) returns to Kinshasa with a truck full of stolen gasoline in the middle of a drastic fuel shortage, intent on making money and becoming a player in his old home town. On his first night out, he starts to hit on Nora (Manie Malone) and makes an enemy of her boyfriend, local kingpin Azor (Diplome Amekindra). Meanwhile, nasty piece of work Cesar (Hoji Fortuna), the Angolan gangster whom Riva ripped off, has arrived in town with two heavies, intent on tracking him down. The stage is set for a series of confrontations in which Riva’s reckless pursuit of cash, status and pleasure puts him and everybody around him in the firing line.

Djo Tunda wa Munga’s Viva Riva! plays, for the most part, like a standard 70s blaxploitation gangster flick. The tough guys, molls, streetwise kids, the brothel keepers, priests and whores all seem to come from some discontinued stock character casting company. The dialogue is all on the nose. The theme, ‘money is like poison, in the end it always kills you’, isn’t soft-sold. And the story is one we’ve seen many times before. The fact that it’s Congolese is what makes Riva interesting; the familiar tale happens against unfamiliar politics, situations and settings. The cops, and any figures of authority, are largely absent, except as bribe-seeking irritants. The priest wants in on the stolen gas. Gangster Azor’s henchmen are washing a fleet of cars that can’t go anywhere, and he’s just as susceptible to sudden power cuts as the rest of his countrymen. The trappings that money gets you here are decidedly unspectacular; rising to the top doesn’t get you very far in Kinshasa, it seems. The casually murderous Cesar, with his loping stride and increasingly shabby white suit, provides a running commentary on what he thinks of the Congo: ‘What a country of niggers’; ‘What a cow pie of a country’; ‘You were better off colonised’.

There is pretty raunchy stuff, with stylised brothel scenes, whores wearing tribal mudmen masks, and an outrageous cunnilingus-through-a-barred-window moment. Everybody seems a few minutes and a couple of drinks away from shagging everybody else. And the sexual politics are intriguing. The female commandante (Marlene Longange), who is enlisted by Cesar to track Riva down, is revealed to be a lesbian with a no-nonsense hooker/informant girlfriend, and is one of the film’s most sympathetic and rounded characters. The mercurial Nora also shows herself to have more going on than your standard moll, fully aware she is making the most of a bad situation, and that the men around her are greedy, violent and short-sighted bastards, one and all.

The film has rough edges and dodgy performances, but also moments of cinematic flair and creative editing. The bits of old-school cheese (Cesar has a sinister musical motif that plays whenever he appears, for God’s sake) have to be weighed against little moments of insight and invention. It’s kind of refreshing, also, to see a film whose cast (Nora aside) probably wouldn’t make it as catwalk models: these are all real people on real streets. Viva Riva! has energy and pace, it’s a pretty creditable attempt at a Congolese The Harder They Come, a blaxploitation Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It’s fun.

Mark Stafford

Mad Max

Mad Max

Format: DVD

Release date: 1 June 2006

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Director:George Miller

Writers: Byron Kennedy, James McCausland, George Miller

Cast: Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Steve Bisley

Australia 1979

89 mins


Cinematic visions of society on the brink of collapse have rarely been as frightening - yet thrillingly visceral - as Mad Max, the pre-apocalyptic Australian action classic that marked the directorial debut of George Miller and demonstrated how cash-strapped genre movies could make a virtue out of threadbare production values. Working in accordance with ‘Ozploitation’ production practices, which stated that actors and stuntmen were cheap but celluloid was expensive, Miller wastes no time in establishing that the Australia of ‘a few years from now’ will not be a safe place; Mad Max opens with motorcycle gang member Nightrider escaping from police custody and attempting to outrun pursuing officers in a stolen patrol car. Miller gives the audience a glimpse of how far he is willing to go to show a society that is rapidly going off the rails by placing a child in the middle of the highway, with the infant almost being run over by the speeding vehicles. With the officers in pursuit being outmanoeuvred by Nightrider, the responsibility of stopping this psychopath rests with Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), a more capable lawman who uses his considerable skills behind the wheel to end the criminal’s vehicular rampage by causing an explosive crash. Max steps out of his patrol car to survey the burning wreckage, which is both a sign of a mission accomplished and a prophetic warning of what is to come: the Nightrider’s comrades in chaos, led by the villainous Toecutter, are on their way to town, and terrorising innocent bystanders is just their way of warming up for a war against the local law enforcement. However, they may have met their match in Mad Max.

Even though Max deals with such speed freaks in a calmly decisive manner, his psyche is being ripped apart; at home, he is a loving family man, but when patrolling the road, he is as merciless as the maniacs he takes down. Confiding in his wife, Max admits, ‘I’m scared. It’s that rat circus out there. I’m beginning to enjoy it. Any longer out on that road and I’m one of them, a terminal psychotic, except that I’ve got this bronze badge that says that I’m one of the good guys’. Although civilisation is collapsing, Max manages to keep his cool and it is instead his partner Goose who is first to snap; the infuriated Goose beats up gang member and rapist Johnny ‘The Boy’ Boyle when the perpetrator is released without charge as all witnesses are too scared to testify. Max restrains Goose and stands by a justice system that is insufficient in a world gone wrong, but realises that his personal and professional responsibilities are out of balance when his partner is burnt to death in a revenge attack. Taking an extended family vacation at a remote farm, Max is followed by Toecutter’s gang, who run down his wife and son; Max pulls his uniform back on and takes to the road in a super-charged pursuit vehicle to settle the score. This quest for vengeance effectively represents the end of any social order, and the method that Max uses to kill Johnny - handcuffing him to a wrecked vehicle and setting a fuse - suggests that he is now almost as unhinged as Toecutter. The hero has succumbed to the sadism of the ‘rat circus’.

Produced for just AUD$400,000, Mad Max exhibits a crude efficiency that holds up remarkably well in the age of CGI-enhancement. Mad Max 2 (1981) is often cited as a rare example of a sequel that is superior to the original, and Miller’s follow-up is certainly a fine exercise in narrative economy. However, the post-apocalyptic landscape presented by the second film is now overly familiar from countless straight-to-video imitations that pass off cheap desert locations as post-nuclear wastelands. Because of its budgetary shortcomings, Mad Max remains frighteningly credible, with its sparsely populated small towns, desolate highways and an almost abandoned Hall of Justice where law enforcers half-heartedly listen to the police radio and fail to prosecute the guilty. The film was inspired by the 1973 oil crisis, which had Australian motorists committing acts of violence in order to fill their petrol tanks, with screenwriters Miller, Byron Kennedy and James McCausland speculating on what society would be like several years down the line if the fuel situation were to continue; they envisioned a world where only savages and scavengers survive, a point made in a not-so-subtle manner when Miller pans up to a buzzard overlooking the activities of Toecutter’s gang. The raw intensity of the attack sequences - a couple being chased, Max’s wife running for her life with her son in her arms - makes Mad Max the action genre equivalent of Tobe Hooper’s relentless shocker The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), with distressing sounds (screaming, smashing metal, the revving of engines) being used to keep the audience on edge in-between the rough-and-ready bursts of road rage. Brilliantly realised with limited resources, Mad Max remains an unrivalled example of future shock.

John Berra

Stake Land

Stake Land

Format: Cinema

Release date: 17 June 2011

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Jim Mickle

Writers:Nick Damici and Jim Mickle

Cast: Nick Damici, Connor Paolo, Kelly McGillis

USA 2010

98 mins

Jim Mickle’s Stake Land (2011) is a pretty good watch, with rousing action scenes where locals turned vampires tear up rural America, although this is hindered by some unneeded frills. The film is set in apocalyptic America (what has caused this is unexplained). Towns and cities are dysfunctional and many are deserted. Various groups jostle for position: an extremist Christian cult, disenfranchised ‘simple folk’ searching for a new frontier and a pack of blood-guzzling vampires, each aiming for supremacy.

The story follows the travels of vampire stalker Mister (Nick Damici, Mulberry Street, World Trade Center) and orphaned Martin (Connor Paolo, Gossip Girl), picked up by Mister as an apprentice/vampire killer pal (I hope named after George Romero’s awkward be-fanged teenager). They are trying to find the promised land, a mysterious place called New Eden.

Stake Land is part buddy movie, part road movie, part sci-fi, part social commentary, part Western. Watching the film is like flicking through cable channels: Mad Max follows Karate Kid follows The Champ, all with teeth. There is a lot going on and it’s impressive that the filmmakers manage to cover so much film territory. But it feels a bit like an attempt to cover their bases and have something for everyone: slowed-down glamorous sections where the leading actors look cool, set to a melancholic soundtrack, are next to gripping and noisy action scenes of blood lust and staking (the best part of the film for me), and sensitive bonding scenes between the characters as they travel through a stunning landscape. All this set to music that is so unnecessary it feels like being smothered with a pillow of emotional impact.

The subtext of the film seems to suggest that in a new era of sluggish economies and ecological disaster only the fittest will survive, and those commonly portrayed as a drain on resources and not ‘pulling their weight’ are cast out. Indeed, many sequences are reminiscent of media-fetishised disasters. Vampire-struck towns with deserted houses, shops and people scavenging for food reminded me of images of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or images of terrorist attacks. The vampire format has been used before to flesh out a particular time’s anxieties (disease, addiction, etc), and here it’s a fear of terrorism. With Stake Land, we’re made more aware than ever of a ‘watch your back’ generation of Americans desperately in need of a bit of meditation and some Ritalin.

Some of these references to contemporary society work well. One of the film’s strengths is the way familiar American suburban tropes are adjusted to fit this apocalyptic vamp landscape. The scenes where these mythical beings are seen as roadkill for ‘Nam-styled Mister, or where an infected Santa Claus awaits his impending doom in a cul-de-sac, dripping with tar-like blood, are high points. On the other hand, the relationships between the characters are not allowed to fully develop, so that the audience can neither genuinely root for them, nor really despise them. Damici’s character has some great moments and his cool lines give the film some laughs, but part of the narrative draw is dropped too early. Four of the people that Mister and Martin befriend are promptly killed off, notably an old woman and a black man, and rather predictably, it’s the young white couple who survive long enough to try and reach the promised land in the end.

Nicola Woodham

L’&#226ge d’or

L'âge d'or

Format: Dual Format: Blu-ray + DVD

Release date: 30 May 2011

Distributor: BFI

Director:Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí

Writers: Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí

Original title: Lásky jedné plavovlásky

Cast: Gaston Modot, Lya Lys, Caridad de Laberdesque

France/Spain 1930

63 mins

The BFI’s new Blu-ray release of Luis Buñuel’s L’âge d’or (1930) provides a comprehensive introduction to surrealist cinema. In addition to the 50-minute movie, the DVD includes Luis Buñuel’s shorter début film, Un chien andalou (1929), another collaboration with Salvador Dalí. These two titles are the most famous surrealist films ever made, but L’âge d’or was the only one that completely satisfied surrealist leader André Breton.

The DVD contains three other special features: a Spanish-produced documentary on Buñuel, a voice-over commentary on selected clips from L’âge d’or by Robert Short, and an introduction to surrealist cinema, also by Short, in the form of a talking-head lecture. The Spanish documentary gives a chronological survey of Buñuel’s life and career, and is enlivened by the variety of its contributors: it is composed entirely of anecdotes from the director’s friends, family and collaborators, with a few clips and quotations from the great man himself. While entertaining, the stories are also useful, as they shed light on the themes that dominate Buñuel’s entire oeuvre. Although many of the interviewees are recognisable from Buñuel’s films (Michel Piccoli and Angela Molina, for example), the documentary strangely fails to identify the contributors with the usual on-screen titles. The material from Robert Short suffers by comparison with this engaging documentary. Short’s contribution is informative, certainly: he assumes zero knowledge about surrealist cinema on the part of the audience, and provides all of the necessary material for a basic understanding of its history. He also offers relevant background details to the two films as well as some helpful interpretations. Still, Short’s style of expression is ill-suited to reading aloud and would have been far more enjoyable as liner notes.

L’âge d’or still holds an astonishing capacity to shock. The film’s male lead, Gaston Modot, kicks a puppy, slaps his prospective mother-in-law and knocks over a blind man. Co-star Lya Lys is introduced rolling in the mud with Modot, screeching with erotic pleasure; subsequently, she appears sitting on the toilet, sucking suggestively on the toe of a statue and reclining on a couch in post-masturbatory bliss. The film implies that society’s repressive attitude towards sex results in productive drives being sublimated into cruel and violent acts. The film also criticises the bourgeois for their selfishness: they are outraged by relatively minor affronts to people of their own class, but indifferent to true tragedies that befall their servants. While Un chien andalou, with its infamous eyeball-slicing sequence, is arguably the better-known of the two films, L’âge d’or succeeds where the surrealists felt that Un chien andalou failed. While the first movie was received with enthusiasm by the public, who didn’t bother trying to understand its dream-like images and missed its intended ‘call to murder’, L’âge d’or was banned for provoking far-right riots. The film’s attack on Dieu, famille, patrie had not been missed, and the surrealists basked in the ensuing scandal.

Alison Frank

Cr&#237a Cuervos

Cria Cuervos

Format: Cinema

Release date: 10 June 2011

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: BFI

Director: Carlos Saura

Writer: Carlos Saura

Cast: Ana Torrent, Geraldine Chaplin, Mónica Randall, Florinda Chico

Spain 1975

110 mins

One of the great Spanish directors, Carlos Saura has not had the attention he deserves in the UK, perhaps because his recent output is not on a par with his 70s work. It is all the more welcome then that as part of their season on Spanish cinema after Franco, the BFI are screening Saura’s 1975 masterpiece, Cría Cuervos, a haunting reflection on memory, loss, history and transmission.

Shot in the summer of 1975 as General Franco lay dying, Cría Cuervos perfectly captures a moment of transition: that of a child into an adult, of life into death, and of a dictatorship into an unknown future. Focusing on eight-year-old Ana over the course of a summer after the death of her father, a high-ranking officer, the film is an achingly personal examination of the past that is also obliquely, but no less powerfully, political.

Cría Cuervos is released in the UK as a BFI Dual Format (DVD/Blu-ray) edition on 27 May 2013.

The film starts as Ana, awake at night, listens to whispers of lovemaking in her father’s room before seeing his married mistress leave hurriedly, dishevelled and half-dressed. Ana walks into the bedroom to find her father dead. She strokes his hair and takes the empty glass by his bedside away to wash it in the kitchen, a gesture we will only later understand. In that first scene, sex and death are inextricably linked, one a secret, the other a mystery, and it is this dark matter at the heart of her parents’ lives that Ana will probe throughout the film.

A few scenes later, the cold, rigid Aunt Paulina, now looking after Ana and her sisters, instructs them to kiss their father’s corpse in front of both his military colleagues and the mistress, who is there with her husband. But Ana refuses to perform the expected ritual; it’s her first act of resistance against her aunt’s determination to keep up appearances and maintain established social rules. Ana’s gesture, in this room lined by officers in uniform, is of course highly resonant.

Ana, the observer of adult life, unblinkingly lays her intensely serious eyes on all around her, her limpid, dark gaze in itself almost a reproach for the compromises and betrayals of adulthood. She sees more than she should, but as a child is impotent to alter the course of events - although she thinks she can, having been led by her mother’s innocuous lie to believe that she is in possession of the deadliest poison in the world. Unlike her sisters, the older Irene and the younger Maite, she is in between the adult and the child worlds, maybe because of the strength of the connection between her and her beloved mother.

Her mother appears early on, walking in as Ana washes her father’s glass in the kitchen, later brushing her daughter’s hair before the funeral. It is only later that we realise she is dead, and her playful, tender presence in those scenes makes her actual absence and Ana’s longing for her even more poignant. The film fluidly moves between reality and fantasy, past and present, never delineating them clearly, suggesting they all have the same texture in Ana’s mind and are part of the same continuum.

Adding to the narrative complexity, the adult Ana comments on her past in direct addresses to the camera. We don’t know what her adult life is like, but she talks in a confessional way, trying to piece together the events of her childhood. She is played by Geraldine Chaplin, who also plays her mother, a double role that emphasises the echo between past and present, and the film’s disquieting intimation that history will repeat itself, that the children will reiterate what their parents have passed on to them. This is evoked in the title of the film, a reference to a Spanish proverb meaning ‘raise ravens and they’ll pluck out your eyes’. Tellingly, Ana’s Francoist father bequeaths her his gun.

The large, gloomy house in which they live, and that is the setting for most of the film, is like a last vestige of the past in the middle of encroaching modern life, busy Madrid traffic, advertising billboards and loud city life, an enclave that is both a claustrophobic and repressive space of sadness and death, but also a protected bubble for the childhood imagination. Saura is exceptionally good at conveying the feel of the self-contained world of childhood through his depiction of Ana and her games with her sisters, which are often ambiguously funny, as when they dress up as their parents and re-enact an argument, or when Ana makes her sisters play dead. Particularly affecting is the scene in which they dance to Jeanette’s pop hit of the time, ‘Porque te vas?’, whose melancholy lament for a lost lover colours this bittersweet moment.

Saura could not have painted such a vividly authentic portrait of childhood without the phenomenal eight-year-old actress Ana Torrent, whose uncanny seriousness is mesmerising, and small, expressive face deeply moving. How she managed to come across as so artless and sincere, to so profoundly inhabit her character, is unfathomable. Two years earlier, Torrent had played a similar role in Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive, another film that is as richly evocative of the world of childhood and as indirectly political as Cría Cuervos.

Despite the gloom, there is a real warmth to the film, in the character of the kindly, earthly maid Rosa, and in the scenes of Ana with her sisters or her grandmother. And even though Ana’s childhood is dominated by sorrow, there is a certain feeling of nostalgia. When the film ends with the three girls leaving the house, passing the advertising billboards to start a new school year, there is the sense that this is the end of an era, and the nostalgic feeling comes not from the fact that it was a happy period, but simply from the fact that that time, the time of childhood, has ended and will never come back.

Virginie Sélavy