The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing
The Act of Killing

Format: Cinema

Release date: 28 June 2013

Distributor: Dogwoof

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

Co-directors: Christine Cynn and Anonymous

Denmark, Norway, UK 2012

116 mins

‘We only raped the pretty ones.’

It says something about Joshua Oppenheimer’s exceptional, gruelling documentary that by the time an ex-member of a death squad cheerfully volunteers this information, about two-thirds of the way through, I was wondering whether I should note it down. The torrent of appalling attitudes and admissions vouched so far had already filled several pages of my notebook, and I began to feel an irrational notion that ink and paper, no matter how much I had, would run out before the horrors would.

In Medan, Indonesia, in the 1960s, Anwar Congo and his pals were gangsters scalping cinema tickets, the biggest sellers being American films, which the communists were attempting to boycott. In 1965, the government is overthrown by the military. Congo and pals are promoted to paramilitary death squad leaders and take revenge for the red interference in their cash flow by slaughtering, and assisting the army to slaughter, over a million alleged communists, fellow travellers and Chinese people.

Today Anwar Congo is a snappy dresser, an ageing dandy with a few dance moves left, and Oppenheimer, stymied by the powers-that-be to make a film about the victims of the massacre, decides in a move of perverse genius to turn his cameras on him and the other perpetrators. Appealing to their vanity, he offers to make a film about the glory days of 65, in which Anwar and various now pot-bellied racketeers will star as themselves, re-enacting the events in whatever genre or mode they see fit. The feature as they imagine it will never be made, but it gives Oppenheimer a way, amidst the dance routines and dream sequences, to get them to rake over and discuss what they have done, and to get them to state it on camera, for the record. Which they do, at length, blithely and with little sense of remorse or self-preservation, happy to recreate scenes of torture and execution and the destruction of whole villages with one eye on the international box office. They chat about the difficulty of beating hundreds to death, and their relief when a less strenuous, though still very hands-on method of strangulation is devised, involving chicken wire and a wooden handle. They rope in family and friends, quiet down their grandchildren, who cry when the action upsets them, and never seem to realise that it should.

This openness is one of the most fascinating and strange aspects of The Act of Killing. It takes a while to realise that we, the filmmakers and Anwar himself are in a bubble, an echo chamber of self-justification. The media and government are on Anwar’s side, as his side won, and decades down the line they are still in power, still shaking down the population for protection money, their version of history officially endorsed over the years. We hear the line ‘gangster means free man’ over and over again from different sources, reinforcing the idea that the military, and paramilitary (The Pancasila Youth), were the country’s saviours. It would never occur to them to be cagey about admitting to rape and murder, because they have come to believe their own bullshit. The viewer, however, becomes alert for hints of the counter-story, the body language of unease, the true emotion bursting through the artifice. We watch the squirming of an ‘actor’ around the ex-death squad in a movie studio as he raises the subject of his stepdad’s abduction and murder, and then jumps through hoops to avoid implying that the death was anything other than justified. We see the TV engineers in the back room discussing Anwar: ‘He must have killed a thousand people… How does he sleep at night?’

Badly, it turns out, for Anwar suffers nightmares, and it’s a large part of the film’s power that he does so. He may voice the self-serving bluster like the rest of the boys most of the time, but something in his body is rebelling, sending him into dry heaves on the rooftop where he killed in 65, sending him into some kind of nervous attack when he tries to re-enact another torture scene. Over the length of the film we follow his halting progress towards the idea that, in murdering countless people on little or no evidence of wrongdoing, he might have done a bad thing. He agonises over this idea, so simple for us to understand. At first, he watches the rushes of yesterday’s barbarism only to criticise his choice of pants, and to realise that he needs to dye his hair, calling in his kids to watch, but later he looks distinctly queasy. In his moments of realisation The Act of Killing reaches its moments of transcendence.

Also under the spotlight, uncomfortably, I would guess, for many critics, is the complicity of cinema in all this horror. The film within a film that Oppenheimer is making is a garish, ugly thing, a parade of grotesque make-up effects, uncomfortable dancing girls, panto costumes and haphazard production values, but we are reminded that the gangsters were inspired by the movies. They state that they wanted to be as sadistic as the characters they saw on screen. Congo’s favourite stars are Brando, Pacino and John Wayne. Fantasy violence fed into real life atrocity, black market cinema tickets gave the death squads a motive for murder, and the lure of a film camera brings them out to go through it all again. Hooray for Hollywood.

It’s another strand in a singular documentary that asks much of us. One hundred and sixteen minutes is a long time to feel this uncomfortable, yet I’m damned if I know what I would cut out in a film that leaves you gasping right up to the end titles, where a sea of ‘anonymous’ credits for the Indonesian crew remind you that there may be a price to pay for all this candour. It’s not an ‘authored’ film, you are not led by the hand through its moral maze. It’s not tightly shaped, and it is, at times, wilfully strange – there’s a version of Born Free you won’t forget in a hurry. The questions it raises about power and truth and complicity and the lies we tell ourselves will windmill through your mind for long after viewing. Werner Herzog and Errol Morris produced the film, and it’s up there with the best of their work. If I see a more extraordinary film this year I’ll be very surprised. Go. Watch it. Please.

You may need a stiff drink and a lie down afterwards.

Mark Stafford

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Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 24 June 2013

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Kaneto Shind&#333

Writer: Kaneto Shind&#333

Based on the Japanese folktale: The Cat’s Return

Cast: Nobuko Otowa, Kiwako Taichi, Kichiemon Nakamura

Original title: Yabu no naka no kuroneko

Japan 1968

95 mins

Along with 1964’s Onibaba, Kuroneko (1968) is one of two horror films directed by Kaneto Shind&#333 in the mid-1960s. Although they were the prolific director’s only forays into horror, both are now considered to be genre classics. Like its predecessor, Kuroneko recounts the tale of women struggling to survive by themselves during a period of chaos and civil war. Since her husband was dragged off to join a samurai band three years earlier (at this point in Japanese history the samurai were essentially mercenaries, rather than the powerful hereditary caste they would later become), a wife and her mother-in-law have been left to fend for themselves. Unfortunately, the women are found by another gang of samurai who rape them, steal their food and leave them for dead. When we next see them, the women have become vengeful spirits, luring stray samurai into their house with offers of alcohol, comfort and sex, only to tear out their victims’ throats and drink their blood. After a number of similar deaths, a local samurai leader sends one of his bravest men to track down the killers. Unbeknown to the women, the samurai sent is the same husband and son taken away from them three years before.

Kuroneko is probably the most famous example of the bakeneko (also known as a kaiby&#333) or ‘ghost cat’ story), one of the more popular variations on the standard kaidan, or ghost story. According to folklore, a cat who drinks human blood can gain magical powers, including the ability to talk, to fly and to assume human form. In horror stories the bakeneko is often a pet whose master is murdered; when the cat drinks its master’s blood, it also inherits their memories, including the identity of the murderer. As a bakeneko, the cat exacts revenge on the guilty party, usually by infiltrating their home and killing off – and consuming – the entire household. In Kuroneko the spirits of the murdered woman and her mother-in-law have become bakeneko, allowing them to continue taking revenge on the samurai they blame for their deaths. Although less well-known in the West, ghost-cat films were very popular in Japan in the 1950s and ’60s, attracting a number of key directors, including Nobuo Nakagawa, Kenji Misumi, Tokuz&#333 Tanaka and Teruo Ishii.

Unlike in the majority of bakeneko films, in Kuroneko Shind&#333 is less interested in plotting out the creatures’ revenge than in following the samurai’s relationship to his dead wife and mother, and underlining the political and social changes taking place, in particular the rise of the samurai class. With the exception of the hero, the samurai in Kuroneko are nothing more than thugs whose primary interests lie in money, women and alcohol. The men that the women lure back to their house are finely dressed and dignified, but after a few bowls of sake, they become little different to the ragged crowd who raped and murdered the women. The samurai’s leader describes his men as the nation’s heroes – a claim that might well have resonated with post-war Japanese audiences – but the majority of them seem to be peasants who found a way out of the punishing life of a farmer, mainly at the expense of their less fortunate neighbours.

The returning husband and father is different, however. For one thing, he’s quite willing to acknowledge that his deeds were motivated by nothing more than a survival instinct, while he’s far from the picture of nobility and battlefield glory that the other samurai believe themselves to be. In reality, he simply wants to find his wife and mother, and when he does find them his urge to spend time with the women overrides any sense of duty he might be feeling from his new-found samurai status. These scenes are reminiscent of similar moments in the various versions of another traditional Japanese ghost story, the kaidan botan d&#333r&#333, ‘the ghost story of peony lanterns’, in which a man continues to visit a ghostly woman he has fallen in love with, even though he knows she will eventually kill him. It also prefigures Nobuhiko Obayashi’s award-winning 1988 version of the story, Ijintachi to no Natsu (The Discarnates), with a businessman electing to spend time with his deceased mother and father, despite the risk to his own life.

Beyond the political concerns, Kuroneko works exceptionally well as a ghost story, not least because of the sense of the tragic and bittersweet that colours many similar Japanese tales. For much of its running time the film is an exercise in restraint, creating a tangible atmosphere of dread and unease without resorting to unnecessary shock tactics. Shindé has a fine eye for the grotesque and eye-catching, with one of Kuroneko’s key images – a close-up shot of one of the ghosts with its own severed paw between its teeth – gracing the cover of almost every home video release of the film. The rapid transformation of the hero from half-naked, filthy creature (bearing a severed head!) to dignified, clean-shaven and impeccably dressed aristocrat is another memorable sequence. Like most Japanese horror films of the period, Kuroneko unfolds at a stately pace, but it’s rewarding viewing, and one that will stay with the audience long after it reaches its inevitable climax.

Jim Harper

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Foxy Brown

Foxy Brown
Foxy Brown

Format: Blu-ray + SteelBook

Release date: 24 June 2013

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Jack Hill

Writer: Jack Hill

Cast: Pam Grier, Antonio Fargas, Peter Brown, Terry Carter

USA 1974

92 mins

In 1985, American cartoonist Alison Bechdel proposed a test that most films would still fail. ‘I have this rule see,’ says an unnamed character in Bechdel’s strip Dykes to Watch Out For, ‘I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements. One, it has to have at least two women in it who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man.’ In her 2009 book One-Dimensional Woman, Nina Power quotes science fiction writer Charles Stross’s provocative suggestion that even more films would be struck out if the third requirement was extended to include marriage and babies. ‘What is so frightening about women talking to each other,’ asks Power, ‘without the mediation of their supposed interest in men/marriage/babies?’

Jack Hill’s Foxy Brown (1974) is, today, a film more spoken of than seen – largely due to the patronage of professional film geeks like Quentin Tarantino. But despite the obvious star power of its lead Pam Grier, whose charisma is apparent in every scene she so effortlessly steals, Foxy Brown deserves far more respect than its reputation as a female Shaft. This is a film with tense pre-fight stand-offs worthy of a Sergio Leone western and a sense of criminal conspiracy implicating the highest echelons comparable to the contemporaneous paranoid thrillers of Alan Pakula and Sidney Pollack. It is likewise notable for a depiction of racism and racial exploitation that is at all times explicitly institutionally grounded and historically situated. Apart from anything else, few films – and even fewer films made at that time by male directors – pass the Bechdel Test with such flair.

The beau of Foxy herself is disposed of in the first act. From then on, male characters are always at best pathetic losers and at worst psychopathic sadists, the only exceptions being the Black Panther-worshipping neighbourhood watch committee, who ride in like the cavalry in the final act. Fortunately, the women in this film are more than capable of taking care of everything – from business to justice – by themselves. Even when Foxy Brown is (literally) castrating one of the bad guys, it is only in order to send a message to another woman. In a reversal of the normal cinematic situation in which a female body is reduced to an object of symbolic exchange between men; here it is the phallus which becomes pure sign value in an exchange between women.

But if sex becomes a medium of exchange – whether as in the previously mentioned member in a bottle or the way prostitution is here presented as a crucial link between the drug trade and political power – what of work itself? Foxy Brown famously has no job, a consequence of the fact that the film was originally written as a sequel to Coffy (in which Pam Grier’s character is a nurse) only for the producers to change their mind too late for extensive rewrites. Yet, the film has a surprising amount to say about the question of labour.

There is Foxy’s brother, Link Brown (Antonio Fargas) complaining about the lack of employment options for a black man in America (a speech inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time). Even more telling, however, is a line that serves no narrative purpose whatsoever, spoken by a nameless character, and which seems at first to bear little relation to any of the rest of the action. “Working in a factory’s no life,’ says one woman to another in a bar, ‘It turns you into a fucking machine. I’m a god damn lady. I don’t need to be a fucking machine.’ It’s a normal rule of thumb in script editing that any line that doesn’t need to be there be cut. Yet again, this line serves no plot function, nor does it develop character. It very superfluity points paradoxically to something essential.

On the one hand, this could be director Jack Hill himself, complaining about the industrial grind of working for Corman’s American International Pictures (the DVD commentary is pretty much entirely taken up by Hill’s complaints about his lack of control over the picture and disrespectful treatment at the hands of the studio). But even more, Foxy Brown is a film about how prostitution instrumentalises and industrialises sex – and how capitalism makes prostitution the paradigm of all labour, such that we all find ourselves turning into fucking machines.

Robert Barry

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The East

The East_1
The East

Format: Cinema

Release date: 28 June 2013

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Director: Zal Batmanglij

Writers: Zal Batmanglij, Brit Marling

Cast: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Julia Ormond, Patricia Clarkson

USA, UK 2013

115 mins

A terrific follow-up to the 2011 sleeper hit The Sound of Voice, The East is a stellar, subversive effort from director Zal Batmanglij, within a well-worn framework. Sarah (exquisitely played by Britt Marling, who also co-wrote the script) is an operative for a private intelligence firm who is chosen by her boss Sharon (Patricia Clarkson on top form) to infiltrate an eco-terrorist group known as ‘The East’. After a number of false starts, Sarah finds herself as the newest member of the faction run by the charismatic Benji (Alexander Skarsgård). However, the longer she stays with them, the more Sarah begins to question her own motives and the entire purpose of her operation. Although structured like a classic thriller, The East subverts the genre by shifting the attention onto Sarah – the plot is peppered with familiar set-pieces, but it is her journey which proves to be both unusual and captivating.

At the beginning of the film, Sarah’s devotion seems straightforward. However, as she is exposed to the ideological rhetoric served by ‘The East’, she becomes strangely seduced by it. While the rhetoric itself might not be anything special, it is Sarah’s nature that is under dissection here: an aimless soul looking for a sense of belonging. Perhaps her closest relationship is with Sharon and, in a key scene, the two women, who are both equally strong-headed with impressive minds, have a quiet confrontation full of unexpected emotional responses from each other.

The heavy symbolism that explains Sarah’s plight can grate at times, but it’s hard not to be impressed with the way the script is re-inventing clichés with aplomb. While the audience will be expecting some of the narrative cornerstones, it’s the key character development that takes The East beyond usual mainstream fare. Coupled with Batmanglij’s uneasy and yet serene cinematic language, the film becomes yet another off-kilter journey into the heart of human nature.

Although all performances are top-notch, Ellen Page seems an unnecessary choice for her part – she seems to be the least likely member of ‘The East’, though rectifies it during her confrontation with one of the CEOs of the companies the group targets. Julia Ormond also pops up in a small cameo, and her performance is as terrific as ever.

The music is prophetically eerie, with quiet, low notes clashing against the uneasy action on screen. Those expecting an eco-thriller with a serious message will be disappointed, as The East does not really care about its surface subject matter. However, everyone willing to invest in peeling off the layers of the film will be delighted by the unusual take on the logistics of ideological seduction.

The finale is equally exciting: Batmanglij delivers a coda which might seem frustratingly banal, yet his full stop only expands on Sarah’s journey for those willing to look. On the whole, The East is another impressive mark on both Batmanglij and Marling’s filmography, who are fast establishing themselves as two of the key members of the American indie scene.

Evrim Ersoy

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Mirage Men

Mirage Men

Format: Cinema

Screening date: 13 June 2013 (world premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest)

Director: John Lundberg, Roland Denning, Kypros Kyprianou

Writer: Mark Pilkington

UK 2013

85 mins

Mirage Men Website

Full disclosure before diving into this story of bluffs and double bluffs: Mark Pilkington is a friend of, and contributor to, Electric Sheep, as well as the publisher of our book. However, I don’t believe that friendship impairs critical faculties and this is as fair a review as any.

Think you know the truth about UFOs? Or the difference between truth and myth? Well, think again. In Mirage Men, the truth is not so much out there as a question of ‘perception management’, as one of the former special agents interviewed in this fascinating documentary puts it.

Directed by John Lundberg, Roland Denning and Kypros Kyprianou as a companion piece to Mark Pilkington’s book of the same title (who also co-produced the film), Mirage Men upends the usual conspiracy theories to show that, far from covering up the truth about the existence of extra-terrestrial UFOs, the American government has in fact actively manipulated beliefs about them to create a myth that would serve its counterintelligence objectives.

Talking to a colourful gallery of characters that includes two shady former special agents, UFO obsessives, a passionate investigative journalist, a CIA analyst, an aviation historian and a parapsychologist among others, the filmmakers allow them to air conflicting views, letting the audience make up their own mind about what to believe. Indeed, Mirage Men is less interested in resolving the UFOs question than in exploring ‘how we know what we know’, a much more complex and fundamental issue.

The tangled web of deception and self-deception that the film uncovers is dizzying. At its centre is former special agent Richard Doty, an unassuming man who looks more like an accountant than a spy, and yet has functioned as a ruthlessly efficient manipulator for years. With disarming apparent openness, he explains how he planted the seeds of the UFO myth in the mind of the tragic pilot Paul Bennewitz and other ‘useful idiots’, and yet declares later that he was shown classified documents that proved the existence of alien UFOs. As the former special agent puts it after a similar disclosure, ‘Now could this be part of disinformation? Absolutely.’ With such vertiginous manipulation of the facts, the American government has managed to muddy the waters irreversibly, and in so doing, forever sink in its dark currents potentially embarrassing revelations about exactly what caused unexplained phenomena such as the cattle mutilations, as the film shows.

A very cinematic documentary, Mirage Men unravels these myths and machinations through stunning images of the New Mexico desert juxtaposed with old film clips and infinite institutional corridors that evoke the endless ramifications of the story, or the neural paths of the brain that distinguish between fact and fiction. The subtle, haunting, eerie score by Cyclobe and Urthona evocatively supports the never-sensational, well-paced, soberly presented story. An intelligent and captivating exploration of how truth is created, Mirage Men is undoubtedly one of the must-see documentaries of the year.

Virginie Sélavy

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Stories We Tell

Stories We Tell_2
Stories We Tell

Format: Cinema

Release date: 28 June 2013

Distributor: Curzon Film World

Directors: Sarah Polley

Writer: Sarah Polley

Cast: Pixie Bigelow, John Buchan, Deirdre Bowen, Joanna Polley, Mark Polley

Canada 2012

108 mins

Nature, nurture and the manner in which their influence upon our lives inspires common threads in the telling of tales that are in turn relayed, processed and synthesized by what we think we see and what we want to see are the ingredients that make up Sarah Polley’s latest work as a director.

Her Oscar-nominated Away from Her was a well-crafted dramatic plunge into the effect of Alzheimer’s upon a married couple. Take this Waltz blasted a few light years forward, delivering a film that’s on one hand a wonky-plonky romantic comedy and on the other, a sad, devastating portrait of love gone awry, and all the while being perhaps one of the most progressive films about female passion and sexuality made in a modern, contemporary North American (though specifically Canadian) context.

Stories We Tell is something altogether different and, in fact, roots Polley ever so firmly in contemporary cinema history as someone who has generated a bona fide masterpiece. It is first and foremost a story of family – not just a family, or for that matter any family, but rather a mad, warm, brilliant, passionate family who expose their lives in the kind of raw no-guts-no-glory manner that only film can allow. Most importantly, the lives exposed are as individual as they are universal and ultimately it’s a film about all of us. It is a documentary with a compelling narrative arc, yet one that is as mysterious and provocative and profoundly moving as you’re likely to see.

Love permeates the entire film – the kind of consuming love that we’ve all felt at one point or another. We experience love within the context of relationships most of us are familiar with: a husband and wife, a mother and child, brothers and sisters (half and full), family and friends, and yes, ‘illicit love’ (at least within a specific context in a much different time and place). Mostly though, Stories We Tell expresses a love that goes even beyond our recognisable experiences of love and runs a gamut of emotions.

Stories We Tell has its UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 21 June 2013 and is screening again on 22 June 2013. For more information and tickets visit the EIFF website.

The film is often funny, to be sure. It is, after all, a film by Sarah Polley and is infused with her near-trademark sense of perverse, skewed, borderline darkly comedic, but ultimately amiable sense of humour. The great American author of Armenian heritage William Saroyan titled his episodic novel (and Oscar-nominated screen story) The Human Comedy, something that coursed through his entire canon and indeed is the best way to describe Polley’s approach to telling stories on film. She exposes truth and emotion, and all the while is not willing to abandon dollops of sentimental touches – the sort we can find ourselves relating to in life itself.

There is a unique sense of warmth that permeates Stories We Tell, and by so employing it, Polley doesn’t merely tug at our emotions: she slices them open, exposing raw nerve endings that would be far too painful if they were not tempered with an overall aura of unconditional love, not unlike that described by those who have survived a near-death experience. The emotions and deep feelings of love in Polley’s documentary are so enveloping, I personally have to admit to being reduced to a quivering, blubbering bowl of jelly each time I saw the film.

Four screenings later and her movie continues to move me unconditionally – on an aesthetic level, to be sure (her astonishing blend of interviews, archival footage and dramatic recreations so real that they all blend together seamlessly), but mostly on a deeply personal and emotional level.

At the heart of the film is a courageous, vibrant woman no longer with us. Polley guides us through this woman’s influence upon all those she touched. Throughout much of the film, one is reminded of Clarence Oddbody’s great line in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life: ‘Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?’ I try to imagine the lives of everyone Polley introduces us to and how if, like in the Capra film, this vibrant, almost saint-like woman had not been born. Most of those we meet in the film wouldn’t have been born either and the rest would have lived lives with a considerable loss of riches.

And I also think deeply on the fact that this woman was born and how we see her effect upon all those whose lives she touched. Then, most importantly, I think about Clarence Oddbody’s line with respect to the child that might not have been born to this glorious woman – a child who might have been aborted. I think about how this child has touched all the lives of those in the documentary. The possibility that this child might have never been born is, within the context of the story relayed, so utterly palpable that I can’t imagine audiences not breaking down.

I can’t imagine the loss to all those people whose lives this child touched. And the world? The world would genuinely be a less rich place without this child.

THEN, it gets really personal. I think about all those in MY life who could have NOT been born – people who are very close, people (two in particular) who have indelibly made a mark on my life – people whose non-existence would have rendered my life in ways I try to repress.

And I weep. Kind of like Brando says as Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now: ‘I … I … I cried. I wept like some grandmother.’

Most of all, my tears are reserved for the film’s aura of unconditional love, its incredible restorative power. Sarah Polley is often referred to in Canada as a ‘national treasure’. She’s far more than that.

She’s a treasure to the world – period.

And so, finally, is her film.

Greg Klymkiw

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Zero Dark Thirty

A gripping, tense follow-up to The Hurt Locker (2009), Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012) dramatises the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Based on the taut but strikingly detailed script by her long-term research collaborator and former war reporter Mark Boal, the film generated significant buzz on all fronts around it’s theatrical release earlier this year – and some controversy along with it. Joe Decie revisits the unsettling thriller, released in the UK on DVD/Blu-ray + UV Copy on 10 June 2013.

Comic Strip Review by Joe Decie
More information on Joe Decie can be found here.

The Long Riders

The Long Riders
The Long Riders

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 3 June 2013

Distributor: Second Sight Films

Director: Walter Hill

Writers: Bill Bryden, Steven Phillip Smith, Stacy Keach, James Keach n

Cast: James Keach, Stacy Keach, David Carradine, Robert Carradine, Keith Carradine, Dennis Quaid, Randy Quaid, Christopher Guest, Nicholas Guest

USA 1980

100 mins

The Long Riders, Walter Hill’s take on the exploits of the Jesse James and Cole Younger gang, is an entertaining, highly watchable Western with some charismatic performances, if not quite a classic of the genre. The film’s ace in the hole, casting real-life brothers to play the ones in the gang, may sound like a bit of a gimmick, but it’s actually a strategy that pays off beautifully (despite the fact I can’t help but think that the roles of the Quaid brothers should have been reversed). Although James Keach produced the film, he and his brother Stacey, as Jesse and Frank James, respectively, take something of a back seat to the Younger brothers, terrifically played by David and Keith Carradine. It’s Keith in particular, whose character, Jim, seems to spend half the film romancing a whore, in some of the film’s lighter moments, who delivers one of the film’s strongest and most appealing performances.

Hill and his screenwriters are generous with their sympathy for the notorious bandits: the film opens with a bank robbery that goes wrong when one of them shoots a civilian, causing the trigger-happy criminal to be exiled from the gang. The James-Younger gang don’t kill the innocent; but rather it’s the undiscriminating Pinkertons, hot on their tails, who are the true criminals, unleashing their fire on anything or anyone that stands in their way.

Episodic in nature, the film isn’t built around any one narrative arc, but rather follows the already-notorious gang through their – at times – even mundane existence, as they go from bank robbery to hiding out, chasing women, attending funerals and dances, and, of course, attempting to dodge the law. And it all ends with the notorious betrayal of Jesse James – the subject of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, one of the best Westerns in recent years. The feel is almost languorous throughout, demanding a little patience from the audience, before rewarding them with a terrific climactic shoot-out, with plenty of slow-motion shots of spurting blood and reeling, writhing men.

Carefully composed and beautifully shot, with a soundtrack by the legendary Ry Cooder, there are more than enough elements packed in this Western to recommend it. But what makes it a special treat is the chance to rediscover some fine acting from a bunch of Hollywood legends who seem to have lost their way in recent years.

Sarah Cronin

For Love’s Sake

For Loves Sake
For Love's Sake

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 10 June 2013

Distributor: Third Window Films

Director: Takashi Miike

Writers: Ikki Kajiwara (original Manga), Takayuki Takuma

Cast: Satoshi Tsumabuki, Emi Takei

Japan 2012

134 mins

Takashi Miike returns with the adaptation of a manga by Ikki Kajiwara and Takumi Nagayasu – filmed many times before – about a rich young girl’s impossible love for a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. The original title Ai to makoto means ‘Love and Sincerity’, which is also the name of the two main characters. Ai (Emi Takei) is a sweet young girl from a well-to-do family, who was rescued by Makoto (Satoshi Tsumabuki) while skiing as a child. When Makoto returns to Tokyo for revenge and immediately gets into a fight, Ai does all she can to save him from his delinquent life. An insanely colourful, at times kitsch teen melodrama, For Love’s Sake mixes the badass attitude and energy of Crows Zero with the demented chirpiness of The Happiness of the Katakuris. It may not be Miike at his most ground-breaking or daring, but the film is wildly entertaining. The director once more demonstrates his boundless inventiveness and impressive visual sense with a variety of animated sequences and (cheesy) musical numbers, as well as great decors, gorgeous colours and brilliantly choreographed fights, all pulsating with his customary high-voltage energy.

Virginie Sélavy

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Behind the Candelabra

Behind the Candelabra_2
Behind the Candelabra

Format: Cinema

Release date: 7 June 2013

Distributor: E1 Entertainment

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Writer: Richard LaGravenese (screenplay)

Based on the book Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace by: Scott Thorson and Alex Thorleifson

Cast: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Dan Aykroyd, Rob Lowe, Scott Bakula

USA 2013

118 mins

From the moment Behind the Candelabra opens with a blow-out of disco-genius and camp, one can’t help but embrace two thoughts: first, that Matt Damon and Michael Douglas don’t actually make a bad pair of lovers; and second, that Side Effects, thankfully, doesn’t go down in cinema history as the last Steven Soderbergh film ever made. Instead, at the age of 50, the bustling director has once again crafted a fine-tuned drama that manages the balancing act of being exuberant and lavish without being patronising, and that is outrageously witty, feisty, slick looking and well-acted, without feeling conceited or narcissistic. What’s more, although doomed as ‘too gay’ by Hollywood’s studio bosses, and hence produced by HBO with no theatrical distribution deal in sight in the US, Behind the Candelabra shrewdly dissembles the various obstacles Soderbergh ran into when trying make what is now said to be his directorial swansong.

Part of the magic in Soderbergh’s thoroughly entertaining biopic on the life of flamboyant piano virtuoso Liberace comes from the way it strives to be as free-spirited, wily and simply irresistible as its subject. Based on Scott Thorson’s memoir about his troubled five-year relationship with the alluring entertainer, the film begins as the young, bisexual Thorson (Matt Damon) is introduced to the aging, publicly heterosexual megastar (Michael Douglas). As you would expect, Thorson soon can’t resist the palatial kitsch and subtle arts of seduction thrown at him by Liberace (who comes across as a lascivious, eccentric and oddly jealous father-figure). Soderbergh spends a reasonable amount of time plotting a credible romance between the two men in an unashamedly hilarious setting of late 1970s extravaganza, before delving into melodrama and tragedy as Liberace averts his gaze from his younger love interest and, ultimately, succumbs to AIDS at a time when many people still believed it was a pestilence sent by God to extinguish the bad seeds in his creation. At the same time, the film showcases some of the best acting seen to date by both Douglas and Damon. While Douglas banks on cocky charm and sympathy, the younger Damon delivers a more understated yet weighty performance, which comes across in unassuming looks and gestures compared to the obvious seduction, delusion and ultimate rejection engineered upon his character by Liberace.

In other words: Behind the Candelabra is more than just an epilogue to a career that embraces a wealth of inspired, original, if occasionally flawed, pieces of filmmaking, ever since Soderbergh first emerged on the big screen with Sex, Lies and Videotape in 1989. And suddenly it all makes sense, at least to the craftsman himself, as he reflected on his departure from the director’s chair after the world premiere of his film at Cannes: ‘I am absolutely taking a break, I don’t know how extended it is going to be. But I can’t say that – if this was the last movie I made – I would be unhappy. And there is a connection to my first film, because by the end of the day, it’s really about two people in a room. At the same time, stylistically, it’s a progression. If you’d flashed me forward and showed me this film, I would have been able to recognise that there was a lot of experience that resulted in kind of a simplicity and directness in the filmmaking, that I think would have made me very happy. It’s been a nice run.’

Pamela Jahn

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