Format: DVD

Screening date: 3 October 2011

Distributor: Manga Entertainment

Director: Shinsuke Satô

Writer: Yûsuke Watanabe

Based on the manga by: Hiroya Oku

Cast: Kazunari Ninomiya, Ken’ichi Matsuyama, Yuriko Yoshitaka

Japan 2010

130 mins

After the success of the Death Note series, an inevitable wave of similar films followed, most of them epic-scale, multi-part adaptations of acclaimed - and equally lengthy - manga or animé series. Many of these films centre on competition and gameplay, frequently involving two or more opposing groups, a series of complex rules and a great deal of strategy.

In Death Note the contest is between the intellects of suave psychopath Light and the misfit genius L, each restricted by the rules of the notebooks and relying upon increasingly brilliant strategies and moves to defeat the other. In Tôya Satô’s Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler (2009) 30-something gambling addict Tatsuya Fujiwara - the star of Battle Royale (2000) and Death Note - is pitted against several other no-hopers in a series of unpleasant challenges, observed by rich gamblers who make bets on their lives. Fujiwara returns in Hideo Nakata’s reality TV-influenced The Incite Mill (2010), in which 10 lucky contestants are locked in an underground complex for 10 days and told to kill each other while TV audiences watch. Less deadly but more popular is Liar Game (2007), a series that started on television and moved to the big screen with Hiroaki Matsuyama’s Liar Game: The Final Stage (2010), in which the players constantly try to outwit each other for large sums of cash. At the cheaper, nastier end of the spectrum we have Tokyo Gore School (2009) and the two Death Tube films, all of them directed by Chanbara Beauty director Yôhei Fukuda. As well as Death Note, this concept of individuals or teams pitted against each other for sport, punishment, personal gain or the entertainment of others is immediately reminiscent of Battle Royale - and, to a lesser extent, the Saw franchise - although few of them feature similar levels of brutality and violence.

Among the most interesting of the post-Death Note films are Shinsuke Satô’s Gantz (2010) and Gantz: Perfect Answer (2011), the two-part adaptation of Hiroya Oku’s hit manga and the subsequent animé series. In Gantz players are transported at the moment of their demise to an empty apartment, occupied by a large black globe. The globe - known somewhat mysteriously as ‘Gantz’ - provides the nonplussed players with futuristic weapons and equipment, and outlines their new ‘mission’: killing aliens. The aliens themselves are a strange bunch, some appearing to be entirely human, with others looking like enormous Buddhist statues or life-size toy robots. For each kill the players are awarded points, and accumulating more than 100 points allows the player to either come back from the dead and continue their life - with a convenient dose of amnesia, of course - or to resurrect another player and bring them back into the game. One-time school friends Kei (Kazunari Ninomiya) and Katô (Kenichi Matsuyama, who played L in the Death Note films) find themselves drafted when they are accidentally killed by a passing train. Their new weapons and equipment give them great strength and protect them from major injuries, but they’re not born fighters or violent by nature, and it isn’t until several of the other players have been killed or injured that Kei and Katô come to terms with what is expected of them.

Predictably enough, Gantz gives both its players and the audience precious little in the way of explanations and background information. If these creatures are aliens, where are they from and why are they here? Why do they need to be killed? Aside from accusing the players of murdering their friends, the aliens aren’t much help either. And what exactly is Gantz? An early scene in the first film shows us that the black globe contains what seems to be a comatose man on life-support machines, but no further information is provided. Trapped in their Kafka-esque nightmare, the players can only continue to fight, with no real sense of who they’re fighting for or why.

However, Gantz gives them little time to ponder their fate by pitting them against a quick succession of increasingly powerful enemies. It is these well-choreographed and bloody fight sequences that form the core of the first film, introducing the main characters and the central concepts. The sequel, Gantz: Perfect Answer, brings in several plot twists and devices that push the tension up a few notches, as well as providing the requisite number of jaw-dropping fights. Not content with simply recruiting from the recently dead, Gantz now seems to be employing an assistant to ensure that certain people are selected - by killing them. It’s not entirely clear why Gantz needs those individuals or what his long-term goals are, but things take a turn for the decidedly sinister when the name of one of Kei’s closest friends appears on their target list, even though she is obviously not an alien.

These fights are more than just visual treats, however, allowing the audience to fully understand the rules surrounding the ‘game’. They also underline the relationships and emotional connections between the various characters. Kei might spend a great deal of time trying to attract the attention of the pretty Kishimoto (played by actress-model Natsuna), but when he gets the chance to resurrect another player, he doesn’t choose her. Even though Kei pretended not to recognise his former schoolmate Katô when they saw each other at the station and later in the apartment, it’s immediately apparent that he’s going to bring him back. Eventually it’s another player - cult veteran Tomorowo Taguchi, star of the first two Tetsuo films - who resurrects Katô, but later on Kei still picks someone other than Kishimoto. Unlike many similar films, Gantz makes an effort to build and define its central characters, something that gives the physical combat an extra level of impact; they’re not just pins to be knocked down in their droves, and their deaths in the Gantz ‘arena’ have very real effects.

Although the Gantz movies have earned critical acclaim and performed well at the box office, they are less likely to be greeted favourably by fans of the original manga and the animé adaptation. For a start, the material has been toned down, with the nudity and sexual content removed. Certain characters have been altered too - most obviously Kei, who is considerably more arrogant and less friendly in his earlier incarnations. However, both films capture the adrenaline-fuelled thrills of the original manga, and they’re also two of the best sci-fi/action movies you’re likely to see in the near future, from anywhere.

Jim Harper

The Wicker Tree

The Wicker Tree

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Screening date: 30 April 2012

Distributor: Anchor Bay Films

Director: Robin Hardy

Writer: Robin Hardy

Cast: Christopher Lee, Graham McTavish, Britannia Nicol, Henry Garrett, Honeysuckle Weeks

UK 2010

96 mins

Some belated sequels, which no one particularly expected or wanted to see, are actually well worth a look. These include films that see actors returning from the original, for example Paul Newman in The Color of Money (1986), or ones that revisit the title and the source material, for example Return to Oz (1985). Others, while they retain one of the original creators, for example Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010 (1984), seem ill-conceived from the start, as few directors, if any, could top Kubrick at his best.

Unfortunately, and somewhat inevitably, The Wicker Tree (2011) is an example of the latter. The original film, The Wicker Man (1973), was in many respects an example of lightning caught in a bottle - a dependable British cast at the top of their game, an unusual story and a witty script that flirts with different genres but is hard to pin down. As the original film depended on many disparate elements fitting together in a production that was beset by problems, a sequel would have to be brilliant to match its reputation. A script of ‘The Wicker Man II’ by original writer Anthony Shaffer did the rounds for decades, but this was stymied both by his death in 2001 and Edward Woodward’s in 2009. The actor, almost unbelievably, was prepared to return to the role of Sergeant Howie, following in the footsteps of Donald Pleasance in Halloween 4 (1988) as another apparently fireproof hero. With Shaffer and Woodward gone, director Robin Hardy has come up with his own thematic sequel, which takes the audience to another Scottish pagan community who enjoy orgiastic celebrations and sacrificing Christians.

Christopher Lee returns in a brief cameo as a former patriarch of the community (possibly Lord Summerisle, depending on the vagaries of copyright law), but the cast of TV actors he’s surrounded with rarely lift the material above the standard of an episode of Midsomer Murders, which in tone, atmosphere and set dressing the film seems particular keen to recreate. As in the original, there are some great uses of music, some well-judged moments of tension and some good depictions of decadent Brits taking their desires to their logical conclusion. However, the comedy moments are often forced and occasionally embarrassing to watch while the horror is never extreme enough to be particularly shocking, with more disturbing and memorable cannibalistic orgies served up in recent years by Perfume (2006) and episodes of True Blood in 2009.

The Wicker Tree isn’t unwatchable, unlike parts of the misguided American remake of The Wicker Man (2006), but adds nothing to the original. A worthy sequel to the 1973 cult movie is perhaps one best left to our imaginations.

This review was first published in our coverage of FrightFest 2011.

Alex Fitch



Format: DVD + 3D Blu-ray

Release date: 5 September 2011

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Director: Scott Stewart

Writer: Cory Goodman

Based on the graphic novels by: Min-Woo Hyung

Cast: Paul Bettany, Karl Urban, Maggie Q, Brad Dourif, Stephen Moyer, Christopher Plummer

USA 2011

87 mins

I’ve always been a fan of the weird West genre, which is to say Westerns that have an element of horror or science fiction added to them, such as The Valley of Gwangi (1969) or Back to the Future part III (1990). The most common element added to Westerns to tip them into the fantasy genre is vampire mythology, as seen in Curse of the Undead (1959), Billy the Kid vs Dracula (1966), Near Dark (1987), Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1991), the From Dusk till Dawn trilogy (1996-2000) and others. However, I never thought I’d be able to describe a film as ‘a post-apocalyptic, cyberpunk, vampire Western’ until I saw Priest.

Surprisingly, the film manages to juggle all these disparate elements well and even fits in an animated sequence that tells the history of the Priest world before the events of the film. The cyberpunk cityscape that bookends the narrative is beautifully rendered, an even more dehumanising and desolate neon-lit conurbation than Blade Runner‘s, with the addition of a religious totalitarian regime that requires the inhabitants to visit street corner confessionals every day to admit their sins to a CGI confessor. This is the result of a thousand-year war between a religious warrior caste - the Priests - and the vampires, who have been present in every major conflict in human history from the Crusades to the World Wars and the inevitable nuclear conflagration that has scorched the Earth before the start of the narrative.

Vampires here are shown to be subhuman mindless beasts with brainwashed familiars that guard their crypts during the day. The only traditional vampire in the film - i.e. a superhuman with fangs - is played by Karl Urban in sou’wester and, as often is the case in modern horror, the villain is more charismatic than the taciturn lead played by Paul Bettany.

Adapted from a Korean manhwa that ran in 16 volumes from 1998 to 2007, the film adds the futuristic setting to the existing vampire Western genre of the comic. The result most closely resembles the American comic book Grendel by Matt Wagner, which also combined cyberpunk, vampires and a religious warrior caste in its latter instalments between 1988 and 1993. The casting of Urban also announces his forthcoming role as the lead in the new (Judge) Dredd movie, which also has Western, post-apocalyptic and cyberpunk elements based on British comics with those themes.

Moving at a brisk pace, the narrative follows Bettany’s excommunicated warrior as he travels into the desert to kill the vampires who have attacked his brother’s family, shunned by the church for defying their belief that the creatures have all been defeated. This is a traditional Western trope - exchange vampires for Sioux in other examples - but the first of many narrative inconsistencies that undermine the film’s achievements in the areas of special effects and world-building. Surely it would make more sense for the church to exaggerate the vampire problem outside the walled cities, to keep the populace afraid and faithful, rather than deny their continued existence.

Bettany travels on in his quest and encounters a varied cast of familiar actors, some reassuring in their presence - Brad Dourif, for example, a horror and Western regular - others who have been cast to give some gravitas to the proceedings, such as Christopher Plummer as a church elder. Stephen Moyer, lead vampire in True Blood, has a cameo as Bettany’s human brother (if this film had been set in the 19th century like the comic, it could almost be his TV character’s origin story) and Maggie Q reprises her reoccurring kung fu role from American techno-thrillers such as Mission Impossible III (2006) and Die Hard 4.0 (2007).

Although it is exciting, innovative and visually stunning - enough elements to recommend it - Priest is flawed in several other areas: absurd fight sequences defy the laws of gravity, even allowing for the priests’ superhuman abilities; the script, based on several issues of the comic, is overly episodic; and the open ending announces a sequel that presumably will never come, based on the film’s bad reviews and meagre profit at the box office. Overall, it is well worth a watch for fans of science fiction, vampires and weird Westerns, but it will frustrate fans and critics used to more mainstream fare.

Alex Fitch

The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome

Double Exposure (1969)

Format: DVD

Release date: 26 March 2012

Distributor: BFI

Director: Peter de Rome

USA 1969-72

90 mins

‘Hi, I’m Peter de Rome, and I spent the last 50 years making gay porn movies.’

With The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome, the BFI continues its thankless task of rewriting the universe of alternative British filmmakers, otherwise lost, forgotten, or never discovered in the first place. De Rome, now almost 90, was born in 1924 in Juan-les-Pins, and spent his formative years in a Lancashire mill, followed by a stint in Birmingham Rep, though in the documentary that accompanies the DVD extras he more fondly recalls his times living in a beach hut in Ramsgate, jerking off to matinee idol pin-ups.

A veteran of D-Day, De Rome had been a publicist for Rank, Korda and David O. Selznick, who took him to Hollywood with the promise of work on an adaptation of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, though De Rome soon quit the movie business mainstream in favour of a sales job at Tiffany’s (he reminisces about encounters in the basement store room). A cinephile in the 60s, with an admiration for Antonioni and Bertolucci, he took to porn very gradually. To get around the processing restrictions, he would begin each roll with an innocuous piece, duping the labs at Kodak into thinking this was a generic home movie. Made just for fun, as a way of picking up boys, his films act as Proustian visual diaries of ex-lovers and one-night stands, his long zoom lens stalking its prey, mirroring his own scopophilic desires.

After one of his films, Hot Pants, won the top award at Amsterdam’s Wet Dream Film Festival in 1971, attracting a review in the Financial Times and a letter of endorsement from William Burroughs, he was approached by producer Jack Deveau, who blew up a selection of his shorts from standard 8 to 16mm for wider distribution. The six-minute film shows a young black crotch in tight jeans and string vest dancing to James Brown, the pants mysteriously falling down, revealing full frontal and bare ass, as the cock gyrates up and down, twirling around, getting harder, then spurting.

Despite the obvious limitations of the boy-fucks-boy genre, De Rome shows endless possibilities in the variation of these simple narratives. In Second Coming, a group of cruisers from London and Paris make a pilgrimage to the white village of Casares in Malaga, where they witness a crucified Adonis, twitching his member to attention, and coming all over himself in his moment before death. In Green Thoughts, a man wanders through a park land, with various stems of trees and plants offering phallic prompts as we cut to him in bed fondling the budge in his Y-fronts. John Gielgud was a fan - while doing Pinter on Broadway, De Rome took him to the Anvil club and Gielgud suggested a plotline for another film idea, though it never materialised.

Though certainly not camera-shy of full-on oral and anal, explicit 69-ing and montage of golden showers, De Rome was clearly interested more in titillation and the aesthetics of arousal, in filmic terms more exciting than the money shot of the act itself. Intentionally or otherwise, the vibrant cine colours, vérité compositions and lack of dialogue lend his work an artistry perhaps not evident in the execution. The ambient muzak scores preserve each scenario as some sort of forbidden Pathé newsreel that we were never meant to see, and the collection now serves as a wistful, nostalgic and almost innocent travelogue of gay life in the 60s and 70s.

The quintessential Englishman in New York, though with a strong resemblance to Edgar Allan Poe, this grandfather of gay porn quit filmmaking in the 80s, after the clean-up of adult theatres and the onslaught of AIDS. Never before commercially available in the UK, his work suggests a parallel reality to the sophomore Sapphics of Hammer or the castrated innuendo of the Carry On films. One waits in eager anticipation for the Blu-ray restorations of the works of George Harrison Marks, John Lindsay and Ben Dover.

Robert Chilcott

The Gospel according to Matthew

The Gospel according to Matthew

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 26 March 2012

Distributor: Eureka (Masters of Cinema)

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini

Writer: Pier Paolo Pasolini

Original title: Il vangelo secondo Matteo

Cast: Enrique Irazoqui, Marcello Morante, Settimio di Porto, Otello Sestili

Italy 1964

137 mins

I would recommend watching Pasolini’s The Gospel according to Matthew only if you really fancy seeing the story of Christ played out in Italian (I did): the rewards otherwise are thin, even for Pasolini fans. The material looks good on paper: Matthew’s gospel is one of the great poetic and dramatic texts of human literature, and a wellspring of Western thought and expression. But its drama is more of action than words: most of the speech is monologue. There are flashes of genuine dialogue in the film, as when Christ debates with the Pharisees, or when Peter denies his master. The scenes with Judas and John the Baptist are good value: we see people vying with each other, rather than just being witnesses. But the great Pilate scene is thrown away, played as a ceremonial in long shot. And most of the rest of the talk is Jesus (or John, or occasionally an angel) holding forth, while others look on in awe or consternation. The visions of the holy land (Apulia) and its inhabitants are memorable, but the cinematography is more effective in portrait mode than landscape, which tends to the murky.

Enrique Irazoqui was a Spanish economics student, discovered by Pasolini at a political meeting and cast as Jesus for his first acting role at the age of 20. No pressure! He is strong on luminous intensity: he stands out convincingly from the typically rough-hewn (and unmistakably Italian-looking) cast assembled by Pasolini. His vocal power is impressive too (unless you read the small print and see that he was overdubbed by another actor). But this Jesus does have the air of a brilliant student who knows it and patronizes his classmates and teachers, with a trace of a smug smile on his lips. There’s something dispiriting in hearing the beautiful words of the Sermon on the Mount on the lips of a prig. Some viewers have managed to see the film as a Marxist document, and certainly there is something of the humourless zeal of the ideologue about this Jesus, but there’s no particular political insight or edge here, none at least that isn’t already in the Gospel.

Despite the fact that Pasolini was an atheist, I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that his art is here reined in by reverence. Or perhaps respect: after all, his mother was watching - he roped her in to play the mother of God! Anyway, the enfant terrible is on his Sunday best behaviour. One might perhaps take as a warning the lengthy lists of Catholic awards with which the film comes fore-garlanded. I dread to think what other cinematic fare the berobed papal prize committee sat through: I doubt that it was a close finish with Goldfinger. Pasolini’s adherence to the Gospel text is unwavering. No sex: Mary Magdalene is anonymous (25 years to wait for Barbara Hershey). Salome’s dance consists in wafting around what looks like something you might grow on a trellis. The expression on Herod’s face at the end suggests ‘Is that it?’ The only character likely to stir any loins in this drama is the angel, who looks like someone Caravaggio would have taken an interest in.

Peter Momtchiloff



Format: Cinema

Screening date: 13 April 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Chelsea Films

Director: Mateo Gil

Writer: Miguel Barros

Cast: Sam Shepard, Eduardo Noriega, Stephen Rea

Spain/USA/Boliva/France 2011

102 mins

Blackthorn is the assumed name of Butch Cassidy, outlaw of the old West, who in this film survived his famous shoot-out with the Bolivian army in 1908 and is hiding out, waiting to finally make his return to the United States to see his child. When a misunderstanding leads to Cassidy losing his horse and life savings, he is drawn into one last adventure that puts his long-standing moral code to the test.

This film is steeped in the ‘ageing outlaw makes one last stab at glory’ trope. Although conscious of the weight of the myths it deploys, the film does so straightforwardly, without any self-reflexive winks or nods, and this is to the film’s credit. It’s interesting to recall Richard Lester, who, despite being fond of self-conscious japes himself, helmed a Butch and Sundance ‘prequel’ and a beautiful, melancholic epitaph for Robin Hood that, in some ways, this film resembles.

Blackthorn begins in 1927, the year of the first transatlantic telephone call and of the first talking picture. But down in rural Bolivia, there’s not the faintest hint that the jazz age is in full swing. Cassidy assigns the ending of his era to the coming of the railways and big corporations. The frontier was of course declared closed in 1890, so Cassidy is by now well and truly an outlaw out of time.

Cassidy meets the handsome and charismatic Spaniard Eduardo Apodaca and agrees to help him, at first largely for pragmatic reasons. But soon the two become friends and, in the course of their attempts to recover money Eduardo has stolen and to dodge the assassins on his trail, Cassidy re-discovers his lust for adventure.

The flashbacks to the Butch and Sundance days that are interspersed throughout the main narrative were perhaps a misstep: they naturally invite comparison with George Roy Hill’s legendary 1969 film. But they do highlight the strength and subtlety of Stephen Rea’s performance as Mackinley, who, with the passing of the years, transforms from dogged detective of the Pinkerton agency to a near-nihilistic derelict, swilling chicha straight from the bottle.

The Western has usually been the preserve of self-sufficient male characters. The women typically stay back at the ranch, threatening to tie the men to the spot with their apron strings. It seems as though Blackthorn will go this way: Cassidy outlines his view that there’s no greater riches to aspire to than being ‘your own man’ and the depiction of Yana, Cassidy’s much younger, seemingly subservient Bolivian mistress may irk some. But in one of the film’s later scenes, when Cassidy feels forced to justify his outlaw past, he explains that he’s never killed anyone in cold blood. In contrast, in one of the flashbacks, Etta Place, Sundance’s lover and the mother of Cassidy’s child, efficiently dispatches three of their adversaries, whom Cassidy has wounded during a gunfight. Furthermore, Cassidy’s adversaries on his last adventure are ruthless female assassins. These femmes fatales seem less an expression of the Western’s traditional misogyny than an admission that the grasping, avaricious threadbare conditions can all too easily cheapen life, turning one into a hardened cynic, whose wealth can only be prised from their cold dead hands.

Films with a ‘buddy’ narrative have often prompted academic interpretations of the homoerotic aspects lurking beneath the manly surface. In a film where Cassidy, in an attempt to allay Eduardo’s saddle sores, spits into his hand and rubs his saliva into the cleavage of his friends buttocks, telling him ‘your ass is softer ‘n a book-keeper’s’, one hardly needs to reach for Jacques Lacan to elucidate the subtext. Cassidy constantly looks back to his friendship with Sundance, and in his memories, Etta is depicted right from the start as a beautiful disruption to this manly camaraderie.

The Bolivian landscape is breathtakingly beautiful: we see verdant green hills, a dusty desert and abandoned mine, vast rock outcrops, and there’s a memorably suspenseful sequence set among the Uyuni salt flats - exactly the sort of landscape that is rarely portrayed on film, and that, in its desolate, dreamlike urgency recalls certain moments from Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala. There’s also some curious use of the zoom throughout the film that perhaps reflects the influence of the Spaghetti Western, although Gil’s measured, economical style is a far cry from the operatic style of A Fistful of Dollars or the grime-spattered histrionics of Django Kill!. The score, though effective, at times verges on something that Mark Knopfler might have composed, but there’s also a fantastic scene where Cassidy and Eduardo set out on a lengthy trek during which Cassidy plays a gloriously out of tune version of the folk standard ‘Sam Hall’ on a ukulele.

Director Mateo Gil is better known as a scriptwriter (he worked on both the Spanish and American versions of Vanilla Sky), and in many respects Blackthorn is very much a script-based film. The film has been well cast and features fantastic performances throughout. Indeed, Gil’s often matter-of-fact, character-driven approach is perfect for the material. We never feel that the film is puffed up with a sense of its own importance, or even that it’s trumpeting how beautiful the on-screen landscapes are. There’s a plot twist towards the end of the film that doesn’t just add intrigue, it’s the payoff to Gil’s belief that the Western is ‘a truly moral genre’. But it’s a morally complex genre; Cassidy hasn’t always practised what he preaches, especially where romantic passions are concerned. There are no clear-cut heroes and villains here, although some are far more villainous than others.

The decision to set almost all of the film in Bolivia, and to depict impoverished miners and the native Quechua population without exoticism, means that this is very much a Western from an outsider’s perspective. It also means that it is free of the visual clichés associated with the genre. A Western in possession of a social conscience, but without lapsing into preaching or patronising, this is an unassuming film in some ways, but ultimately it’s self-assured, elegiac and sometimes strikingly beautiful.

John A. Riley



Format: Cinema – UK premiere

Screening date: 15 April 2012

Venue: Prince Charles

Distributor: Third Window Films

Part of the Terracotta Far East Film Festival

Director: Sion Sono

Writer: Sion Sono

Based on the manga by: Minoru Furuya

Cast: Shôta Sometani, Fumi Nikaidô, Tetsu Watanabe

Japan 2011

129 mins

Directed by Sion Sono, who brought us Suicide Club (2001), and more recently Cold Fish (2010), Himizu is an urgent and topical film. Located in the midst of the devastation in the aftermath of the tsunami of 2011, the film shows a society that is not only physically destroyed but also socially falling to pieces. Fifteen-year-old Yuichi Sumida (Shôta Sometani) lives with his neglectful mother in a boat hire shop. His drunken father only lurches into view when he needs cash and curses Sumida, wishing him dead and reminding him about the time he saved Sumida from drowning, an act he bitterly regrets on account of the insurance he could have claimed. Sumida is also the object of a school girl crush on the part of the hyper Keiko (Fumi Nikaidô) - ‘Am I a stalker? Yes, I am’ - to whom he is (at best) indifferent. The boat house is also a gathering place for a disparate bunch of refugees who serve as a Greek chorus and attempt to help Sumida in his troubles even as he hopelessly pursues his wish to lead an ordinary, normal and boring life.

Tragedy overtakes him, however, and with his chances of normality gone forever, he teeters on the edge of madness, haunted by recurring dreams of apocalypse. Threatened also by the yakuza, who are pursuing his father’s gambling debts, Sumida considers suicide but wants to do something genuinely good that will redeem him before he dies.

Sono’s film is a deeply unsettling view of modern day Japan. It is a society in which the adults have an antagonistic, if not downright hostile, relationship to their offspring. Sumida’s parents are blandly negligent on one side and furiously hateful on the other, but this isn’t simply an isolated case. Keiko interrupts her mother and father, who are in the process of building her a gallows. ‘You’ll use it when we’ve finished,’ they tell her. School is an irrelevance that spouts new age platitudes about hope and individuality while having no real impact on the lives of the pupils. The only sympathetic adults in the piece are the refugees, but they themselves have had their lives reduced to vagabondage that in its precarious vulnerability is not that far from childhood.

Although originally based on a manga by Minoru Furuya, the script was changed at the last minute by Sono to incorporate the tsunami and the subsequent nuclear drama that was played out. Sono took his crew to one of the most devastated areas for some of the scenes. The film was premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2011, a mere six months after the tsunami had hit Japan. It treats the aftermath in a tangential manner, alluding rather than depicting. But the whole film is imbued with an out-of-joint surreality, a topsy-turvy universe in which the generations are pitched against each other. There is no sign of authority and every now and then an ominous growling roar is heard as if there is another earthquake on its way, waiting to happen on the margins of the frame. This is a much more serious film than the dark comedy of Cold Fish. Despite the freakishness of the plot, there is a mournful tone that the use of Mozart and Samuel Barber reinforces. This is a satirical and in some ways despairingly angry film. In its privileging of the point of view of the young, Himizu is reminiscent of The Tin Drum (Volker Schlöndorff, 1979). Hope, if it is to come at all, will be brought out by the young kids who play out their relationship in the worst possible conditions and yet have an independence and resilience that will allow them in some way to survive.

The Terracotta Far East Film Festival runs from April 13 to 15 at the Prince Charles, London.

John Bleasdale

Crows Zero

Takashi Miike’s 2007 high school actioner is released on DVD on 9 April 2012 by MVM. Another typically ultra-stylised and violent offering from the director of Ichi the Killer and 13 Assassins, Crows Zero charts the battle between two delinquent boys and their factions fighting for supremacy in the lawless Suzuran high school. Based on the bestselling manga by Hiroshi Takahashi (screenwriter of the original Ring movies), Crows Zero is one of Miike’s most commercially successful movies.

Comic strip review by Joe Morgan.

This Must Be the Place

This Must Be the Place

Format: Cinema

Release date: 6 April 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Trinity

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

Writers: Umberto Contarello, Paolo Sorrentino

Cast: Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, Judd Hirsch, Harry Dean Stanton

Italy/France/Ireland 2011

118 mins

Proof that you can have too much of a good thing comes in the form of this Paolo Sorrentino work. After the assured, note-perfect Consequences of Love and Il Divo comes this bloated English-language co-production. Cheyenne (Sean Penn) is a Goth rock star living in Ireland, whose music has made him money enough that he doesn’t need to work again. He drifts through his mansion and through his life, a vision in bird’s nest hair and lipstick, until a phone call informs him that his estranged Jewish father is on his deathbed. After the funeral, back in the US he finds himself energised, to a point, by a mission to track down the concentration camp guard his dad had spent much of his life unsuccessfully seeking. Driving a pick-up through Utah and New Mexico he encounters a series of characters on the way towards a final confrontation, and perhaps some kind of reconciliation with his demons.

This bare-bones synopsis will give you no idea how rich, funny, beautiful, wayward, twee and overloaded This Must Be the Place is. It’s like three or more films in one. There’s the True Stories-style wallow in scorched Americana road movie, the Burtonesque Goth detective movie, the sweet, sad character comedy of the first half hour. There’s Frances McDormand as Cheyenne’s wife doing Tai Chi, there’s Harry Dean Stanton talking about wheeled luggage, there’s a teenage romance subplot, there’s the business with the loaned 4í—4, the business with the local Irish band, there’s Judd Hirsch’s Nazi hunter. It’s the kind of film where every conversation with a stranger at a bar or café will yield a little philosophical nugget. Every shot is a precise, louma-craned marvel of widescreen photography. A lot of it is terrific stuff, but there’s just too much here to be digestible, too much to be resolved satisfactorily.

Penn is wonderful as Cheyenne, and he is given great things to do and say. The soundtrack is by David Byrne (with lyrics by Will Oldham) and Byrne cameos in a magnificent one-shot live rendering of the old Talking Heads number that gives the film its title, a sequence that’s a reason to see the film in itself. I doubt any other single moment of cinema will give me as much pleasure this year. But it’s another cherry in an overcooked cake.

This review was first published as part of our coverage of the London Film Festival 2011.

Mark Stafford

Le Havre

Le Havre

Format: Cinema

Dates: 6 April 2012

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Aki Kaurismäki

Writer: Aki Kaurismäki

Cast: André Wilms, Kati Outinen, Blondin Miguel, Jean-Pierre Darroussin

Finland/France 2011

93 mins

Le Havre is Aki Kaurismäki’s first film since 2006, which begs the question: is the previously prolific Finnish director slowing down with age, or is he having difficulty finding financing? Directed with a lighter touch than usual, and coming complete with a real feel-good element, this charming fable could (if not provide the box-office smash he deserves) certainly win him some new fans.

Although Kaurismäki’s films have always had a social element, his recent work has tackled such issues more directly. Thus we had unemployment in Drifting Clouds (1996) and homelessness in The Man without a Past (2002), and now in Le Havre we have immigration. The simple plot involves a young African boy (Blondin Miguel), who arrives at the French port in a shipping container and is helped by locals to hide from the authorities.

Filmed with the same apparent simplicity that marked his debut Crime and Punishment (1983) and all 16 subsequent films, Le Havre is unmistakably a Kaurismäki film. This ‘simplicity’ - still cameras, close-ups of objects and faces, head-on camera angles - somehow seems quirkier and more unusual now than ever before. In a world where filmmakers seem so eager to show off their talents and innovations, a Kaurismäki shot of a pair of shoes seems to be from a different place and time (or perhaps just from Finland).

Le Havre is Kaurismäki’s second film in French (after La vie de bohí¨me, 1992), and despite being shot on location in the Normandy port, with its docks and run-down housing (reminiscent of depictions of Helsinki in earlier films), what we are given is a France of the imagination, and more particularly, of Kaurismäki’s cinematic imagination. From the opening shots of suspicious-looking men in trenchcoats with upturned collars, to accordion music playing in cafés, to the friendly grocer’s and baker’s shops (not a hypermarket in sight), we are reminded of the 30s working-class poetic realism of Le Jour se Leve (1939) and Quai des Brumes (1938), or even the 50s crime films of Jean-Pierre Melville and Jacques Becker. The character’s names more clearly reference French cinema history - thus we have Doctor Becker and even an Arletty (after the star of Le Jour se Leve). Other characters are given famous French names - Flaubert and Manet - while the lead character, and protector of the downtrodden, is interestingly named Marcel Marx.

Of course Kaurismäki films, whether filmed in England, France or Finland, are all really set in what has been called ‘Akiland’. It’s a strange, bleak but beautiful world of overcast skies and odd-looking people, where all the cars were built before 1980; guitars are played with extra twang; and electronic music, computers, mobile phones and supermarkets have not been and never will be invented. In Le Havre, taciturn French replace close-mouthed Finns, and the old cars are Citro&#235ns, but this is still clearly Akiland. He even finds an equivalent to his Finnish rockabilly bands with the appearance of the legendary (in Normandy, at least) Roberto Piazza of 70s French pub-rockers Little Bob Story. André Wilms, as the world-weary shoeshine Marcel Marx, gives a typically Akiland performance, and Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen (whose face Kaurismäki’s camera can’t help but linger on) plays his wife. The guitar track is provided by The Renegades, whose Finnish hit ‘Matelot’ seems so perfect I can’t help but wonder if the film was made to fit the song.

Although Kaurismäki defends this stylised world as merely his personal preference (he finds modern cars ugly and likes twangy guitars, apparently), this skewed reality is perfect for fables and fairy tales such as this. Such a heart-warming tale in any other hands could so easily become schmaltzy (a Spielberg remake would be awful), but the deadpan delivery and endless idiosyncrasies counterbalance this tendency.

As in all of Kaurismäki’s films, there is a strong anti-authoritarian streak in Le Havre. His film has the feeling of an Ealing comedy - such as Whiskey Galore! (1949) - with plucky underdogs and a downtrodden community standing up to some faceless authority. But it is there in his style too: in those close-ups that linger just a little bit longer than is necessary, in his genuine love of the unconventional, and his ability to find it in the seemingly mundane. It is this that makes Kaurismäki so special, and why this film should be another step on his move from being a Finnish national treasure to a truly global one.

Paul Huckerby