Tatsumi (Hell)

Format: Cinema

Dates: 13 January 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Soda Pictures

Director: Eric Khoo

Based on the work of: Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Singapore 2011

94 mins

Manga veteran Yoshiro Tatsumi is probably best known, if he is known at all, to Western readers as the creator of The Push Man and Abandon the Old in Tokyo, two translated volumes of his 60s and 70s gekiga stories, and A Drifting Life, a fat and fascinating, if frustrating, graphic biography. Gekiga (‘dramatic pictures’) was a genre created by Tatsumi and others in the late 60s, as they began to write and draw darker, more adult tales about contemporary Japanese life, departing from the children’s fantasy adventures that dominated the medium. Tatsumi’s classic tales, created while Japan was going through a period of rapid economic growth, reveal a downside to the boom, usually concentrating on the alienated and ground-down, the anxious and desperate beset by warped sexual obsessions, degradation at the workplace and humiliation at home. Tatsumi gleaned story ideas from grim tabloid shock stories and turned them into sweaty, angsty little dramas of unwanted foetuses and unrequited desire in brushy, grubby black and white.

Singaporean director Eric Khoo’s animated feature takes five of these stories and brings them to life with admirable fidelity. ‘Hell’ tells of a photographer whose shot of a moment of familial tenderness amid the horrors of Hiroshima brings him fame and admiration, until the horrible truth catches up with him. ‘Beloved Monkey’ details the downward spiral of a factory worker. The gentler, wryer ‘Just a Man’ deals with an ageing company man on the verge of retirement trying to blow his money on women rather than let his lousy family get to it. ‘Occupied’ almost comes as light relief as a desperate manga artist brings about his own ruination through an obsession with bathroom graffiti. And the devastating ‘Goodbye’ tells the sordid tale of a prostitute and her deadbeat dad in the aftermath of the Second World War. All are computer-animated lifts from the original art, augmented with scratchy, grainy filters, a black blizzard of dot tones and shaken and shocked camera effects. They have claustrophobic soundtracks and vocal work (most Tatsumi tales are dominated by male monologues) from Tetsuya Bessho and Tatsumi himself.

The five tales are appropriately scuzzy in places, recalling the forceful, hard-boiled crudity of Phil Mulloy’s cartoons (this is a compliment!), and recreate the original manga’s atmosphere of downbeat delirium most effectively. They serve as a pretty fine introduction to the man’s work, which I love, but I have to say I’d understand anyone who felt after this that they’d seen all they want to see. Tatsumi’s work was originally consumed in periodical form, in magazines surrounded by other varied material. Read or watched en masse by itself, it can seem a little overwhelming, too many songs in the same doomy chords.

Perhaps this is why Khoo decided to break up the stories with material taken from the autobiography A Drifting Life, wherein our titular creator, feeling glum after the death of his lifelong inspiration Osamu Tezuka, reflects on his impoverished childhood and the struggles he had progressing as an artist in the rocky world of pulp publishing. This is mostly fascinating stuff (well, it is if you’re a cartoonist), but it feels inadequate to explain the singular nature of the tales it’s interwoven with. A Drifting Life was an 8oo-page monster, which has been filleted here for little scraps, fractured moments that are entertaining enough but feel like far less than the full story. Worse, all the linking stuff looks bloody horrible in washy, blobby colour; where the story sections made a virtue of their roughness, their monochrome limitations, the colour stuff just looks cheap and nasty.

There is also a growing, crunching mismatch between the wistful, sentimentalised autobio stuff and the transgressive confrontational tales. We see the young Tatsumi have an awkward, fairly innocent, erotic encounter with a girl as a callow youth in the big city, and later witness the twisted sexual minefield of ‘Goodbye’ and wonder what the hell happened. A gulf opens up between the extraordinary tales and the simple workaday life as depicted, a gulf Tatsumi and Khoo seem to have no interest in filling in either book or film. A scene near the end of Tatsumi has the ageing manga-ka walking past characters from his tales and waxing nostalgic about all the worlds he has created while a pretty melody rings out on the soundtrack. The scene seems to belong to a film about Disney, or Tolkien, or Tezuka, a creator of Narnia rather than a chronicler of incest and existentialism. He smiles as a familiar monkey climbs up onto his shoulder, maybe we’re supposed to smile too, but we’ve just seen what happens to that monkey, and it’s far from pleasant.

Highly recommended for the graphically inclined, worthwhile viewing for the curious, now check out the books.

Mark Stafford

Margin Call

Margin Call

Format: Cinema

Dates: 13 January 2012

Venues: UK wide

Distributor: Stealth Media

Director: J.C. Chandor

Writers: J.C. Chandor

Cast: Zachary Quinto, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, Jeremy Irons

USA 2011

107 mins

Based loosely on the sudden demise of Lehman Brothers and set over a 24-hour period, the writer and director J. C. Chandor’s Margin Call is a nuanced, intriguing look at the actions and events that led to the bank’s implosion and to the wider, global financial crisis. In 2008, the collapse of the sub-prime market had roiled Wall Street, forcing banks to cull employees in mass layoffs. Arriving at work as usual, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a senior executive in the risk management department, is led into a fish bowel of a meeting room, where he is unceremoniously offered his redundancy package before being escorted from the building. But just as the elevator doors close, he sees one of his junior employees, Peter Sullivan (played by Zachary Quinto, also one of the film’s producers); Dale hands him a memory stick with a request to look at his unfinished work, and a more ominous warning to be careful.

The research contained on the memory stick proves to be lethal to the bank’s fortunes. By the time that the junior analyst has convinced his superiors that the data is correct, leading to a series of emergency midnight-hour meetings, the over-leveraged, under-capitalised bank is already on its knees - it’s only a question of when the rest of the world finds out. Gliding through the neon-lit Manhattan streets in the back of a limo with another analyst, Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), Sullivan (originally a scientist and easily smarter than his superiors) marvels at the blissfully oblivious crowds.

Audiences looking for an anti-capitalist polemic will be disappointed. While the arrogance of the men at the very top is breathtaking, the director tries hard to portray his characters as realistically as possible (mostly avoiding the slick glamour that usually stands in for Wall Street), and sometimes even sympathetically - something that will no doubt draw criticism from some of the banker-bashing public. The first-time director has pulled together an impressive ensemble cast, who serve as a microcosm for the breadth of personalities that populate the financial world. Penn Badgley captures the cockiness of the junior analyst who’s only in it for the money, constantly speculating about what the senior staff are paid; he later ends up crying painfully in a toilet stall when he realises that his career is already over, his ambitions shattered. Demi Moore is surprisingly well cast as the very serious, stern and professional lone woman, who is sacrificed to protect the men higher up the food chain. Jeremy Irons is pitch-perfect as the assured, aloof CEO John Tuld, whose misplaced self-belief has blinded him to his own imminent end, as he brings down his bank by insisting that they flood the markets with their toxic assets.

Chandor has done an excellent job keeping the film accessible without dumbing down, offering insights into the culture that caused the collapse while putting a human face on some of the players (there is no shortage of reviews on the internet criticising the film for exactly this). The often repeated description of the film as a ‘financial thriller’ is pretty close to the mark - it’s a smart, entertaining film, and an impressive debut from the director.

Sarah Cronin

Double Take: Shame


Format: Cinema

Dates: 13 January 2012

Venues: UK wide

Distributor: Momentum Pictures

Director: Steve McQueen

Writers: Abi Morgan, Steve McQueen

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale

UK 2011

101 mins

Two of our writers share their views on Shame in a double take review of one of the most anticipated films of the year.


Steve McQueen’s second film, after his astonishing debut Hunger, surely places him at the forefront of British cinema. Despite McQueen’s day job as a renowned video artist, there is no tricksy-ness to his film, no radical inventiveness. Rather, his images reveal his artistic validity by dint of patience. Shots are held. We don’t watch this film, we stare at it. The tale itself could easily be a soap opera melodrama: Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a successful urbanite living an almost antiseptically perfect life in Manhattan, which is put at risk by his compulsive sex addiction and by a visit from his messy (but altogether more conventionally promiscuous) sister, Sissy, played with thrift store charm by the ubiquitous Carey Mulligan. So far, so sensationalist, as we see the would-be Michael Douglas being serviced by high-end prostitutes, prowling the streets and bars, and masturbating with painful frequency. His inability to look at a woman without immediate sexual desire makes his sister’s visit uncomfortable, if not dangerously complicated. This is not only sex without love, it is sex that is mutually exclusive to love, the opposite of intimacy. And yet, at the same time, as Hunger eschewed straightforward political argument, so Shame, despite its title, avoids a merrily reductive morality. Fassbender’s performance is at once comic and tragic, ferocious and sensitive, strange but remarkably common, the brutal buffoonery of the male face in orgasm. John Bleasdale


One of the most talked about films on last year’s festival circuit, Steve McQueen’s Shame could have been a great movie. While Fassbender puts in a terrifically compelling performance, Mulligan is given much less to work with - her character is the ditsy, manic-depressive blonde, needy and demanding, desperate for attention, leaving endless messages for men that she’s slept with, not understanding that all they wanted from her was sex. While she has a few great scenes - and one in particular, already notorious - her character is a cliché that’s been seen and done before. Predictability is the problem with the film as a whole. The nearly wordless opening and closing scenes that bookend the film are incredibly powerful, but there are times when the dialogue is frustratingly flat, and the depiction of corporate New York and its club scene are too reminiscent of the early 90s and American Psycho. There is real tension in the tormented relationship between Brandon and Sissy, while his uncontrollable, violent outbursts are a shock, but the screenplay just isn’t quite strong enough to make the whole a truly remarkable film - what’s frustrating is that it comes so close. Sarah Cronin

Cross of Love

Cross of Love

Format: Cinema

Dates: 17-22 December 2011

Venues: ICA

Director: Teuvo Tulio

Writer: Nisse Hirn

Based on a short story by: Alexander Pushkin

Original title: Rakkauden risti

Cast: Regina Linnanheimo, Oscar Tengströ, Ville Salminen

Finland 1946

99 mins

An iris closes in on a face and bursts back outwards. A landscape shot is split open. Figures bend as the screen is folded as if it were a page in a book. When Teuvo Tulio cuts a scene, he does so with grand gestures of assertion that verge on the absurd. Brazenly melodramatic, his edits are emblematic of his film language, where shifts in the narrative are signalled and character motivations marked with gaudy metaphors. His contemporaries criticised his exaggeration, reiteration and obsession with prurience; nevertheless, for admirers since, who range from fellow Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki to cult mavericks Guy Maddin and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, satisfaction has been derived from embracing Tulio’s kitsch brushstrokes, which are delivered with conviction.

A montage of tempestuous winds and angry waves: within seconds of the opening of Cross of Love (1945), Tulio makes sure we know discord will ensue. In this adaptation of Pushkin’s ‘The Stationmaster’, Riita, the daughter of a lighthouse owner, dreams of escape until a shipwrecked playboy lures her out of her father’s grasp and, like the waves, takes her away into the city. An all too recognisable set-up, the city is of course infested with putrid greed, corrupted codes and dangerous deeds that evoke von Sternberg (Underworld, 1927) and von Stroheim (Greed, 1924). Abandoned and lost, the innocent Riita turns amoral and amorous as she caves into a life of prostitution, a fallen woman í  la G.W. Pabst’s Lulu. Cross of Love follows the patterns of Finland’s post-war ‘problem films’, which warned their viewers of social horrors (at least Riita escapes syphilis, a common fate for the genre’s characters) and incorporates betrayal and hoodwinking antagonists, themes that were censored in wartime cinema. The moral decay of the city positioned against the idyllic glow of countryside fields was also typical of Tulio’s 1940s scenarios (The Way You Wanted Me, 1944), and only a slight departure from his pre-war ‘haystack dramas’, pastoral scandals rooted and trapped within their settings (The Song of the Scarlet Flower, 1938, and In the Field of Dreams, 1940).

Nevertheless, Cross of Love remains a standout and Tulio’s most impressive achievement. Riita’s plight is portrayed with a riveting sexual frankness that was remarkable for its time, and Tulio never shies away from full-frontal nudity or candid metaphors that barely conceal the lust that sinks Riita into the mud of the city streets. Just as Riita begins to lose control, she meets a young artist who asks her to model for a painting, which gives the film its title; depicting her almost nude and with her arms spread against a cross, Riita’s portrait more than evokes original sin and freezes her fall into a startling image: ‘we’re trying to capture the suffering…’ Deliciously delirious, the actress Regina Linnanheimo, whose unapologetic madness somehow elicits compassion, summons sincerity in Riita’s descent from luminescence to darkness. Occasionally, the music is so overpowering that Tulio abandons dialogue completely, instead allowing close-ups of Linnanheimo’s face to dance with Bach. At times uncomfortably florid, Tulio’s Cross of Love is melodrama at its most wildly excessive.

Julian Ross

I’m Still Here

I'm Still Here

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 10 January 2011

Distributor: Optimum Home Entertainment

Director: Casey Affleck

Writers: Casey Affleck, Joaquin Phoenix

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Antony Langdon, Sean Combs

USA 2010

108 mins

Few mockumentaries have received as much media attention as I’m Still Here, although this is largely due to the manner in which the press was coerced into participating in the project: in late 2008, movie star Joaquin Phoenix announced that he was retiring from acting to pursue a music career, a statement that was swiftly reported by entertainment news programmes and the celebrity-obsessed blogosphere. Phoenix received Academy Award nominations for his performances as a Roman emperor in Gladiator (2000) and as country singer Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (2005), while maintaining independent credentials through his frequent collaborations with writer-director James Gray. If he had yet to achieve megastar status - an increasingly unrealistic expectation for any actor in a movie-making era dominated by special effects-heavy franchises - Phoenix was certainly well-known enough for his ‘retirement’ to fuel the rumour mill: was this a very public breakdown, or a hoax, or a genuine desire to try a different form of self-expression? The media further speculated on the actor’s professional shift when Phoenix performed his latest rap material at a Las Vegas club in early 2009, with his friend and brother-in-law Casey Affleck filming his set for a documentary project that would be titled I’m Still Here. Writing for the Chicago Sun Times in September 2010, Robert Ebert described the film as ‘a sad and painful documentary’, dealing with a ‘gifted actor who apparently by his own decision has brought desolation upon his head’. Ebert also noted ‘subtle signs’ that I’m Still Here may be ‘part of an elaborate hoax’.

The suspicions of Ebert and other critics were proved correct when Affleck explained the intentions of his collaboration with Phoenix in a number of interviews that followed the theatrical release of I’m Still Here; they wanted to explore the nature of celebrity, commenting on the relationship that both audiences and journalists have with stars in the era of new media and reality television. What their mockumentary actually observes is a breakdown in such relations, as Phoenix becomes increasingly isolated due to intense media attention. He begins the film by claiming to feel trapped in ‘a self-imposed prison of characterisation’ due to the mass perception that he is ’emotional, intense and complicated’, an identity that he concedes to creating through his choice of roles but one that he feels has been exaggerated through media pigeonholing. As he no longer wants to ‘play the character of Joaquin’, Phoenix abandons his acting career to record rap music, with Sean Combs producing his debut album and live performances scheduled in Las Vegas. Industry commentators do not wait to listen to any material before passing judgment, labelling this choice as career suicide, while ridiculing the ‘former’ actor’s increasingly unkempt appearance as Phoenix goes from svelte leading man to bearded rapper with noticeable weight gain. He becomes a laughing stock in Hollywood, alienates his ‘general assistant’ Antony (Spacehog guitarist Antony Langdon) and gets into a fight while performing to an audience that is more interested in capturing a falling star with their camera phones than in listening to his lyrics.

In retrospect, it is easy to see that I’m Still Here is a ruse, albeit a well-conceived one: scenes of Phoenix ordering hookers and snorting drugs are calculated self-destruction staples that are designed to shock, and interactions with other performers often feel contrived. Ben Stiller visits Phoenix at his Los Angeles home to pitch Greenberg (2010), suggesting that the ‘retired’ actor should play the supporting role eventually undertaken by Rhys Ifans, only to be accused of ‘doing Ben Stiller’ by Phoenix, who no longer cares for Hollywood pleasantries. With comedy star Stiller cast in his familiar straight man role to Phoenix’s imploding artist and dialogue that references Stiller’s earlier success There’s Something about Mary (1998), their meeting plays more like a scene from Curb Your Enthusiasm than a genuine conversation. The centrepiece of I’m Still Here is not Phoenix’s rap performance - we hear some of his material, but never a full track - but his now legendary appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman to promote his ‘final’ film Two Lovers (2008). It’s an exercise in awkward humour as Phoenix seems to be more interested in the gum in his mouth than discussing his work, only becoming slightly engaged when Letterman brings up the subject of his rap music. ‘I’d like to come on the show and perform,’ offers Phoenix, only for Letterman to deliver the put-down, ‘That seems unlikely’. Phoenix manages a few chuckles at the expense of the host, but Letterman gets the last laugh - ‘I’ll come to your house and chew gum.’

Phoenix disappears into ‘character’ as he becomes distanced from those around him due to media ridicule. Although he turns to music to escape the artifice of acting, Phoenix finds the rap world to be similar to Hollywood: Sean Combs states that both movies and music revolve around the circus of production, while the audience that Phoenix is trying to reach may change, but reactions to his celebrity status do not. He eventually retreats from public view, travelling to Panama to spend time with his father and, in the parting shot, disappears underwater while swimming. The three-word title of I’m Still Here recalls not only D.A. Pennebaker‘s classic Bob Dylan documentary Dont Look Back (1967) but also Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There (2007), a fictionalised deconstruction of Dylan’s ever-changing persona, with media reaction to Phoenix as rap star exemplifying a celebrity culture that now forbids such multi-faceted behaviour. In this respect, the process of making I’m Still Here had more impact than the completed film as it received a brief theatrical run that grossed a mere $568,963 worldwide, suggesting that the cultural and economic value of artists or celebrities as ‘public commodities’ is greater than that of their actual work. A clean-shaven, slimmed-down Phoenix would return to the Letterman show to discuss the film, thereby re-establishing his movie star identity through the promotional process. I’m Still Here is technically a mockumentary, but the manner in which its subject unravels due to media scrutiny makes it a painfully real portrait of a creative spirit in crisis.

John Berra