An odd, upsetting 71 minutes from Latvia, in which an unnamed man, dressed in the utilitarian high-visibility vest of the title, separates from the crowds of similarly attired workers, leaves a plant and makes his way to the house of the industrialist who has just put him and 211 others out of work. There, he uses his toolkit to exact bloody revenge, and maybe steal a little of the luxury lifestyle he feels he is owed. However, something isn’t right; the mansion makes strange noises, the cupboards are bare. Rich food, when he eats it, doesn’t agree with him, cigars make him choke. He’s plagued by nightmares, just-glimpsed figures and the feeling that he’s being stalked. Possibly by a man in an orange jacket…
Partly a twist on home-invasion horror, part old-fashioned ghost story, part politically conscious fable, The Man in the Orange Jacket is complex and unsettling. Bringing to mind The Shining and Jan Švankmajer in some places, The Woman in Black in others, it is not averse to getting properly nasty now and then. Divided into four acts, and largely dialogue free, it eludes simple explanation. Has the act of murder and greed in act one turned the man into his own enemy in the class war? Is he simply a horrible psychopath being tortured by the unquiet shades of his victims? How much of any of this is only happening within his head? Undoubtedly there is an emphasis on the emptiness of bourgeois desire, and on the corruptions of capital, especially in scenes where he treats two (apparently twin) prostitutes he has hired as a ‘rich man’ appallingly, showing his own capacity for exploitation.
Frankly, I’d be lying if I said I had a handle on exactly what was going on at every given moment. What I can say without much fear of contradiction is that the sound design is brilliant and that writer-director Aik Karapetian is a dab hand at evoking nameless menace and delivering brutal shocks. Approach with caution.
Cast: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Rhys Darby, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer
New Zealand 2014
New Zealand directors and comedians Jemaine Clement (best known for Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi’s vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows has wowed festivals and midnight screenings around the world since it premiered at Sundance earlier this year – and rightly so. Among the tide of low-fi productions based around an amusing (or scary) concept and a couple of improvising actors, this smart, canny and often hilarious comedy truly stands out. Expanding on Clement and Waititi’s 2005 short film, their debut feature observes the lives of a bunch of bloodsucking flatmates who are trying to connect and keep up with the modern world with joyful lunacy and great sympathy for both the living and the undead.
Aged between 183 and 8,000 years, über-dapper Viago (Waititi), medieval ladykiller Vladislav (Clement) and Deacon (Jonny Brugh), a rogue rebel and big fan of the Nazis, are forced to face the fact that, despite continuing worries about sunlight, crucifixes and garlic, the actual crux of the vampire matter nowadays lies primarily with the mundane. As they try to deal with paying the rent, going out clubbing and annoying arguments about the bloody dishes or cleaning the carpet after a messy dinner, things become increasingly complicated. For one, recently turned bloodsucker Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) hasn’t got anything better to do than spreading the news about his transformation around downtown Wellington, which draws unnecessary attention to the residence. And then there’s Petyr (Ben Fransham), the eldest of the biting brood and everybody’s darling, who occupies a coffin in the basement and seems to be entirely free from following the rules and rotas of the (relatively) organised household.
Beneath its insanity and immortal issues, the film has an unashamedly soft core that largely revolves around Viago, who is also the narrator of the story. Bravely dedicated to defusing the tensions in the house, he is not only the good soul of the film, but deeply haunted by a love from the past that once brought him from Europe to New Zealand. And Waititi captures his character brilliantly, walking the fine line between human and brutish consciousness and pitching his admission at just the right level to inspire both empathy and horror.
Boasting believable performances throughout, which ensure that no one is cast as either purely evil or innocent, What We Do in the Shadows manages to make the oldest genre clichés and stalest jokes funny again. At the same time, it is original and inventive enough to generate an irresistibly entertaining vampire romp of sorts, even if things get occasionally monotonous in the mid-section. Nonetheless, poignant comic timing, themes of skewed tolerance and commitment, and the smart blend of farce and sympathy lift this alleged doc-comedy way above the mockumentary pack.
Gareth Edwards’ 2010 Monsters was a little gem, extracting maximum effect from very minimal resources to deliver an offbeat genre film that was at once a fragile love story and an ambiguous monster movie with much to say about First World/Third World dynamics. A lot of people like it. Tom Green’s sequel pisses that goodwill up the wall with a meat-headed Iraqistan allegory compiled from the Big Book of War Movie Clichés.
Our heroes, who I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to actually like, are a bunch of blue-collar would-be workers from burnt-out Detroit who have little option in life but to join the army, and thus find themselves somewhere in the Middle East, which has become an Infected Zone, just as Mexico was in the first film. This means that massive herds of wandering squid-like beasties are rampaging across the deserts and through the cities. Trouble is, the US army’s attempts to keep the areas quarantined and stop the aliens spreading has resulted in a hell of a lot of collateral damage, an angry population and thus an army of local insurgents intent on repelling the human invaders from their soil. Amidst this mess, our Detroit crew, now christened ‘Team Tiger Shark’, is assigned to veteran Sergeant Noah (Johnny Harris) to rescue a lost platoon.
What follows is a series of scrapes with both the beasties and the locals, wherein Team Tiger Shark get severely whittled down, Noah begins to lose his mind and the remaining grunt (Sam Keeley) goes a little native and realises that maybe bombing the living crap out of people is wrong, that the monsters are occasionally quite pretty, and that Arabs, like, have children too. To be fair, there is a fair amount of visual spectacle, the action sequences are quite well mounted, and the last act is admittedly more interesting than what has preceded it, but honestly, by that time I was past caring.
There are two main problems. One is that, from the moment we meet them, Team Tiger Shark are such a bunch of ‘bro’s before ho’s’, ‘I’ve got your back out there, man’ coke n’ hooker-using macho dick-swinging arseholes that, frankly, couldn’t die fast enough. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t Green’s intention, at least if all the music that kicked in any time one of the pricks got injured is anything to go by.
Problem two is that the monsters of the title have an oddly underwritten, undefined and minimal role to play in their own film. Sure, we see a lot more of them, and beautifully realised they are too. It’s just that, well, you could remove them entirely from the story with very little effect on things. Their part in the narrative could be replaced by sandstorms or unexploded bombs. Surplus to requirements, they are reduced to decoration, as the unremarkable sub-Platoon dynamics take centre stage.
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Eva Gree, Christopher Meloni
So here’s Gregg Araki, blissfully mired in the late 8os again, soundtrack by Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd (of course). Cast full of photogenic shag-happy youths (of course!). Would-be traumatic events viewed through a veil of blank adolescent disaffection (…but of course!). That same nightclub that seems to feature in every one of his films pops up again, chock-full of Depeche Mode T-shirt-wearing teenagers shuffling through the frame. One wonders whether Mr Araki will ever outgrow his doomy, sun-fried obsessions, and one kind of hopes he never will.
This time it’s an adaptation of a novel (by Laura Kasischke), in which a middle-class suburban mother (Eva Green) mysteriously disappears one day, leaving her daughter Kat (Shailene Woodley) to live on with a hole in her life, troubled by dreams, endlessly wondering what happened. She moves on, trying to relate to stiff daddy (Christopher Meloni), attending therapy (with Angela Bassett), going to college, ditching ‘C average’ boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) and seducing, with little effort, the detective in charge of her mother’s case (Thomas Jane). But eventually the pieces will fall into place, and the truth will be revealed.
White Bird in a Blizzard is a handsome beast, with bright widescreen compositions that emphasise the distance between its characters, and a thoroughly thought-through sense of design. Araki here tends to deliberately avoid establishing shots, leaving us in a world of interiors and backyards that he can fill with his wasted teens and dysfunctional adults, where the mundane and transgressive are never far apart. The prevailing mood is a kind of woozy numbness, only occasionally pierced by moments of shock, or by Eva Green’s unsettling performance as the missing mother, wine glass ever in hand, poisonous to her husband, all over her daughter’s boyfriend, throbbing with unmet desire. The film becomes a lot more compelling while she’s on screen, and frankly she wipes the floor with the younger cast, who, while fun to watch, with their profane (and occasionally anachronistic) banter, just don’t have the dimensions of mommie dearest.
The determined air of dreamy unreality that hangs over the film works against full emotional engagement, and, perversely, makes it quite a breezy watch, despite the dark and complicated possibilities of the subject matter. It’s closer to John Waters than David Lynch in the ‘sick heart of suburbia’ stakes. And while it’s more like Mysterious Skin than the flashier ‘teen apocalypse’ works in Araki’s back catalogue, it doesn’t quite bite as deep as that film. ‘You scratch the surface and there’s just… more surface’, Kat intones at one point. Well, quite. But it’s an enjoyable surface to scratch.
Cast: Liliana Ackerman, Luis Manuel Altamirano García, Alejandro Angelini
Original title:Relatos salvajes
Argentina, Spain 2014
An aeroplane flight takes a plunge into the unexpected when the passengers realise they all have something in common. The waitress at a roadside café realises she is serving a man who deserves to die. A small road rage incident between two motorists in the mountains turns with alarming speed into a Duel-like battle for survival. A demolitions expert gets his life destroyed by a parking enforcement company and takes the appropriate measures. A millionaire tries to buy a way out of his son’s complicity in a hit and run, but finds himself quibbling about the financial details. A wedding party goes south in spectacular fashion when the bride realises some ugly truths about her groom.
Wild Tales, a glossy Spanish/Argentine co-production, is a portmanteau affair from writer/director Damián Szifrón, produced by a brace of Almodóvars. It eschews any linking devices or modish title cards and just gets on with delivering its six, well, wild tales, of darkly comical societal breakdown. In all of the stories there is a delicious turning point from a recognisable world where reason holds sway to one of delirious abandonment where its mostly middle-class protagonists utterly lose themselves to the petty delights of revenge and score settling. We end up in a world of murder and mayhem and, in the fourth tale, a heart-warming act of terrorism, entirely able to understand how we got here, but a bit dizzy about how it all escalated so fast.
This is fantastically entertaining stuff, from the knockout , big-budget Buñuelian punch of the opening story onwards, with beautiful photography by Javier Julia, fine music by Gustavo Santaolalla, and not a foot put wrong in editing or performances. There’s a gleeful perversity at work here, as if Szifrón is simultaneously despairing at all this appalling behaviour and finding it hard to hide his delight at the path things have taken. The stories display a welcome versatility of mood and texture: the second is a rain-soaked gloomy Gothic, the third a dusty, savage urbanoia horror in glaring daylight, the fourth an elegantly mounted slow builder. For my money, the fifth tale takes the foot off the gas a little too much, and while it’s cutting, it just doesn’t have the snap of the others. The last episode, ‘Till death do us part’, however, was one of the most exhilarating pieces of celluloid I’ve seen in a long while, a concentrated bomb of depravity and self-abasement captured brilliantly with agile camerawork that had me watching through my fingers (and wondering how close every drunken reception gets to this…). Like an act of revenge, Wild Tales probably isn’t healthy or edifying, but damn, it feels good. Highly recommended.
Like Tetsuya Nakashima’s Confessions (2010) and Yoshihiro Nakamura’s The Snow White Murder Case (2014), Penance is based on a novel by bestselling crime writer Kanae Minato. Unlike those works, it was originally shown as a TV miniseries before being released to film festivals as a five-hour feature film, and now on Region 1 DVD and Blu-ray. Many of Minato’s works recount the circumstances around a murder, as experienced by the perpetrators, the victims, the witnesses, and those around them. Although the various adaptations of her novels have that much in common, they take very different approaches to the material.
As the film opens we are introduced to Emili Adachi, a new girl at a country school in Ueda. She makes friends with a group of girls impressed by her lovely home and her glamorous mother Asako (Kyôko Koizumi). The five girls are playing after school when they are approached by a man, who asks one of them to help him with his work. While the others wait nervously, Emili is taken into the school gym and murdered. They find her body on the gym floor and alert the police, but are too traumatized or scared to provide any helpful information. Angered by their silence, Asako tells the four girls that they must pay a penance for their part in Emili’s death and their failure to help catch the killer, but only she can release them from that penance.
From there we move to 15 years later, with each of the girls grown up but manifesting their trauma in different ways. Sae (Yū Aoi) has become intensely scared of men and adult sexuality, shutting down her body’s transition into maturity. Now a teacher, Maki (Eiko Koike, 2LDK) is a strict disciplinarian spurred on by well-concealed rage. Akiko (Sakura Ando) has escaped into a world of childish make-believe, supported by her patronizing and enabling family. The last of the four is Yuka (Chizuru Ikewaki), the only one who rejected Asako’s conditions, saying that she would do as she pleased. She believes that her sexual manipulation and callous brutality are indicators of strength and independence, but in reality she’s as psychically and spiritually broken as her friends. Each of the four girls is given their own episode, with the fifth and final hour dedicated to Asako’s pursuit of the killer.
At first glance it might seem that Kiyoshi Kurosawa is not the most likely candidate to handle a miniseries adaptation of a bestselling crime novel, but there are precedents in his output. Over the years Kurosawa has produced work for television on a number of occasions, most notably with Séance (Kōrei, 2000), his reworking of Bryan Forbes’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964). Several of his films demonstrate a familiarity with the formal mechanics of thrillers and crime dramas, including his international breakthrough Cure (1997) and the twin revenge movies Serpent’s Path (Hebi no michi) and Eyes of the Spider (Kumo no hitomi), both released in 1998.
By the end of the first hour, it has become apparent that Kurosawa’s gloomy, minimalist style suits the material perfectly. The same sense of impending dread that helped to make Pulse (Kairo, 2001) one of the most effective Japanese horror films of its time follows the five women in Penance and makes it impossible to look away until each arc reaches its conclusion. This is no vague, metaphysical dread, but a real, tangible one that reflects the inescapable fates of the characters as all of the girls’ lives descend into violence and horror.
There may be no real ghosts in Penance, but throughout the stories Asako lingers on the edges of the girls’ lives, saying little but watching until the end, her black clothes and high heels as distinctive as the kimonos and traditional hairstyles worn by the yūrei (vengeful spirits) of the traditional Japanese kaidan (ghost stories). She’s not there to exact vengeance, but serves as a constant reminder of the way in which the girls’ fates are bound up with Emili’s, and the karmic retribution that awaits them.
In the final hour Asako changes from ever-present phantom to victim, detective and guilty party, as her role in the events of the past is explored. It’s not much of a criticism to say that this final episode doesn’t match the standards of the earlier chapters, as the necessity of providing solutions to the central mystery takes over and Penance becomes a more traditional crime story. In an era when a two-hour running time can seem increasingly indulgent, Kurosawa has created a five-hour film that doesn’t drag for a second, maintaining its momentum throughout. It can also be viewed as a five-part miniseries, but it’s to the director’s credit that Penance remains perfectly accessible in its full-length format.
A Danish teenage lycanthropic affair, When Animals Dream concerns the pubescent awakening of Marie (Sonia Suhl), a girl growing up in a tiny coastal village, where everybody is in each other’s pocket and the single onshore industry involves the gutting of fish. On top of the usual libidinal stirrings and physical developments Marie has more singular problems to deal with: there’s the growing realisation that her domestic situation is far from normal. Why is the local doctor suddenly scheduling monthly appointments? Exactly what is the condition that has left her mother heavily sedated and wheelchair-bound? Clearly there is something her father (Lars Mikkelsen) isn’t telling her, and it seems to have the locals spooked.
Whilst swimming the same waters as the likes of Ginger Snaps or Teeth, this is a much more Scandinavian affair. It’s a slow burner with sparse dialogue and a distinctive gloomy look, all lowering skies and creamy yellowing light. Performances are subdued and naturalistic, and there’s none of the flip snarkiness that’s become de rigueur with US productions. Instead we have something a bit more generous, humanistic and affecting. The adolescent agony is conveyed effectively, and there’s a very real sense of small town oppression, with a terrific scene where a traditional first day at work humiliation ritual bubbles with understated hostility. And whilst the messy transformative business isn’t exactly box fresh, the film hangs on an interesting question: what do you do with a problem like Marie? Whilst the film is largely seen from her point of view, and Suhl’s delicate, defiant performance ensures that we are on her side, Rasmus Birch’s screenplay does not sideline or downplay the villagers’ understandable concerns. The tale could be a metaphor for every outsider status from homosexuality to mental illness, but this metaphor means that there’s a heavy price to pay when, if you’ll forgive me, things get hairy every month. No wonder her dad looks so tortured, he’s paralysed by love and fear.
Though this is Marie’s film, and is built around her path from awkward confusion to outright rebellion, I can’t help noticing that the last act, like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Spring, centres around a would-be boyfriend’s acceptance that his lover is prone to ripping the occasional throat out. There seems to be something in the air, and whilst it might not mean much (other than Let the Right One In casting a long shadow), in this case it takes Marie’s story away from her and gives it to someone else. In all three films you know which way the finale is going to go, and wonder how the toothier direction might have played. Although it could have benefited from a rise in heat towards the end and it is probably a little too understated for some genre fans, it is nevertheless classy, smart stuff, and a promising debut from director Jonas Alexander Arnby.
A Jap hip hop gangsta musical, Sion Sono’s latest is set in an alternative Tokyo where the rival gangs that rule the city’s outer districts have been maintaining an uneasy truce for years, until, over the course of one night, a murky conspiracy is set in motion to set clan against clan and bring war to the streets. Can the various antagonistic pimps, hustlers, strippers, dealers and loved up teens overcome their differences, beat the bad guys and restore peace?
Of course they bloody can. This isn’t a film of murky moral complexity, this is an exhilarating, garish manga-based phantasmagoria, much more concerned with giving us a wild ride than with such fripperies as plot or storytelling or making a whole lot of sense. Filmed largely in fluid roaming steadicam takes that must have taken an age to set up and choreograph, Tokyo Tribe is a feast of outrageous action against over-the-top set design. The screen is full of scantily clad gyrating girls and splattery ultra-violence, when it’s not full of eccentrically dressed MC’s telling you what’s up. Rather than giving us anything authentically human, most of the actors are channelling hip hop archetypes, exemplified by Riki Tekeuchi’s utterly grotesque turn as chief bad guy Lord Buppa, a leering, groping cannibal king in a gold Elvis suit, eyeballs rolling so far back in his head it suggests he’s permanently overdosing on elephant tranquilisers.
If all this sounds like a blast, well, it is, up to a point, but after the first 20 minutes or so a certain repetitiveness creeps in. Once again, there’s the feeling with Sion Sono that he’s not really in control of his material. He’s having too much fun to be concerned with consistency of tone, or getting over characters and story. The result is a whole lot of cool stuff that doesn’t really slow down or speed up or build. Whilst it’s never boring, irritations creep in. The various ‘tribes’ are introduced to us over and over again, whilst the evil plot at the centre of the tale is left largely unexplained. A military tank is introduced with much fanfare only to be utterly forgotten about. A dick size joke that should, at best, have been a throwaway gag is allowed to take over the final moments of the film. Elements don’t gel; at times it plays like a Rooney/Garland ‘let’s put on a show right here’ flick, at others like Tinto Brass’s Caligula. The ‘one love’ vibe that ends the movie doesn’t fit with the fetishised weaponry and wall-to-wall arse- kicking. The colourful cartoon fun stylings don’t sit well with the rape and torture scenes.
Sure, some of these glaring contradictions may be part of the hip hop culture Sono is representing. But like a rapper yelling ‘Peace! Out!’ after a set filled with Glock-wielding revenge fantasies and badass bragging… well, you find yourself wishing for a little more self-awareness and self-control. The sexual politics especially are pretty horrible, from the opening scene where a naïve female cop is stripped to the waist to be used as a map of Tokyo by knife-wielding bad boy Mera (Ryôhei Suzuki, who, frankly, did not die enough) practically all the film’s female characters are used as squealing eye candy, when they aren’t being used as kung fu kicking eye candy: it’s a rare shot of female lead Nana Seino that doesn’t feature the gusset of her white panties.
Still, the music by B.C.D.M.G throbs and pulses effectively, and it has energy to burn. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. But I’m still waiting for Sono to give us the undeniably great, mad film that he clearly has the chops to deliver. Tokyo Tribe: big fun on screen, bad taste in mouth. Peace. Out.
Hayao Miyazaki’s very last film, a charming celebration of aeronautical designer Jiro Horikoshi’s big dreams and inventiveness, is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Studiocanal. The Wind Rises is also available as part of The Hayao Miyazaki Collection, released on 8 December 2014 by Studiocanal. This special Blu-ray box set brings together all 11 of his directed feature films and includes a bonus disc with the full 90 minute press conference in which Miyazaki announced his retirement, and a specially commissioned booklet with analysis, essays and commentary as well as contributions from Miyazaki himself.