Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 28 März 2016

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Nicolas Roeg

Writer: Paul Mayersberg

Based on the book Who Killed Sir Harry Oakes? by: Marshall Houts

Cast: Gene Hackman, Theresa Russell, Rutger Hauer

UK, USA 1983

130 mins

Nicolas Roeg’s overlooked saga about the spectacular rise and fall of a gold prospector is a rich and audacious masterwork.

English literature sprang from two works of the 17th century, the plays of William Shakespeare and the King James Bible. One tradition is opulent, chaotic, luxurious and indulgent; the other is disciplined, austere, skinny and sharp. One is a meadow; the other’s a lawn. And so it is with British cinema. We have the lawn cinema of David Lean, Merchant Ivory and The King’s Speech, and we have the wild flowers and nettle stings of Lindsay Anderson, Ken Russell and Ben Wheatley. The outstanding artist of the latter tradition is Nicolas Roeg, who from his collaboration on Performance in 1970 went on to direct a string of bizarre, crotchety, uncomfortable and fiercely odd masterpieces. Following the acknowledged brilliance of Walkabout, Don’t Look Now and The Man who Fell to Earth, Bad Timing saw Roeg entering the 80s with a fractured sexual relationship and a typically daring play on chronology. The obstinate insistence on originality was not well received in a decade that would prize muscles and franchises.

His follow-up Eureka in 1983 likewise sailed against the prevailing winds of capitalist triumphalism and nascent yuppiedom. Gene Hackman plays Jack McCann, a prospector in the frozen Yukon, battling against the elements and whose cussed stubbornness is finally rewarded with a gold strike. If things spill and smash in the dirty Venice of Don’t Look Now, here in Eureka everything bursts. It might be the back of a suicidal man’s head as the bullet smashes through it, or it could be the wall of a cave as it collapses and almost drowns Jack in a gold-laden torrent. The irreversible suddenness of the now is caught by the title – an instantaneous revelation of how the universe operates – and Roeg’s interests are a deep consideration on the hidden cogs and wires that pull at life and fate and the violence that can at any moment flare up.

With the gold found and riches won, Roeg and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg overleap Jack’s success and land once more in failure decades later. Now Jack is the richest man in the world, living on a Caribbean island surrounded by natives he holds in racist contempt, a wife he largely ignores and a sycophantic and untrustworthy friend Charles (Ed Lauter), who is conspiring against him. His one consolation might be his daughter Tracy (Theresa Russell) with whom he shares a close friendship, but her elopement and marriage to playboy Claude (Rutger Hauer) suggest that Jack is being destroyed by the gold that has made him rich. Mickey Rourke and Joe Pesci are two mobbed up accountants seeking, with the sneaky aid of Charles, to open a casino on the island and slowly realizing that Jack is an immoveable object with too much ‘fuck you’ money to be bought.

‘Once I had it all. Now I just have everything,’ Jack says. His self-mythologizing as the ultimate self-made man – ‘I never lived off the sweat of another man’s brow’ – and his Croesus-like wealth don’t however make him invulnerable and there is a weary acceptance to his fate as he, like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (Roeg would later make a TV movie adaptation of Heart of Darkness), welcomes his murderers into his lair either as a blessed relief or a longed-for challenge. But when it comes Jack’s murder is no soft euthanasia but one of the most brutal and violent slaughters ever put on screen. With the rain pouring outside and a blow torch brought into play, it is almost as if Jack is an ancient God who needs not simply to be killed, but to be cleansed, defaced and utterly destroyed. His murder is preceded by a black magic orgy that Claude participates in. Sex bursts through Eureka as a violent compulsion, an appetite to be assuaged, but also a link to life and death moments. Jack will be guided to the gold by a brothel-keeper/soothsayer and Claude’s orgy is an attempt to establish an alibi and also cleanse the would-be assassin.

The remaining court scenes are an extended coda as the legal formalities of blame and aftermath insufficiently wrap up the violent eruption while the money men sit at the back. It is now Tracy who shows that her father’s obstinate will has lived on in her, but now graced by her own continued zest for life and capacity to love.

Eureka is a bold uncompromising work by a filmmaker at the height of his powers who seems intent on throwing it all away. Its influence can be seen throughout Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece There Will Be Blood. Today more than ever it seems a prescient critique of a philosophy that places so much value on a rare but practically unaccomplished metal.

John Bleasdale

Always (crashing)

Always crashing
Always (crashing)

Format: Cinema + VOD

Screens exclusively at HOME (Manchester) or Curzon Home Cinema

Release date: 25 March 2016

Directors: Simon Barker, Jason Wood

UK 2015

15 mins

A post-Ballardian reverie on cars and modernity.

Specially commissioned by Manchester’s new cultural centre HOME to accompany the release of Ben Wheatley’s Ballard adaptation High Rise, Jason Wood and Simon Barker’s short film Always (crashing) is an abstract contemplation of the modern artefacts that fascinated the writer, infused with a dose of Chris Petit alienation. A car endlessly, obsessively circles around a car park to an inhumanly soothing ambient track, intercut with extracts from Ballard’s short story ‘Report on an unidentified space station’. In a way, this metal and concrete reverie is more post-Ballardian than Ballardian: the film eschews the collision between man and modern machine favoured by the writer; instead it loops around a world strangely devoid of people, the driver of the car a mere silhouette glimpsed through the window, framed by the lines and pillars of the car park, as if modernity had finally eliminated the human.

Virginie Sélavy

Always (crashing) screens with selected showings of High-Rise between 25 – 31 March 2016 only.

The Third Part of the Night

The Third Part of the Night
The Third Part of the Night

Format: Cinema

Screening date: 18 March 2016

Venue: Close-Up Cinema

Director: Andrzej Żuławski

Writer: Andrzej Żuławski, Miroslaw Żuławski

Cast: Malgorzata Braunek, Leszek Teleszynski, Jan Nowicki, Jerzy Golinski, Anna Milewska

Original title: Trzecia czesc nocy

Poland 1971

105 mins

Andrzej Żuławski’s striking directorial debut is a fascinating journey into a shadowy world where the nightmare of history blends with personal nightmares.

Set during the German occupation of Poland in World War II, Andrzej Żuławski’s striking directorial debut opens as Michal, recovering from an illness in the countryside, witnesses the murder of his wife Helena and son Lukasz by soldiers on horseback. Back in the city, he joins the resistance and is wounded when a secret meeting is ambushed by the Gestapo. He is saved when his pursuers mistake a man wearing a similar trench coat and hat for him, shooting him before taking him away. In the captured man’s apartment, Michal finds his distraught, heavily pregnant wife Marta. She suddenly goes into labour, and Michal has no choice but to assist her. Struck by her resemblance to his deceased wife, and seeing this as a second chance, he supports her and the baby by returning to his former employment as a lice feeder at a medical institute working to produce a typhus vaccine. But he is riddled by guilt and attempts to mount a rescue operation to save Marta’s husband from the Gestapo.

The film was inspired by the wartime experiences of Żuławski’s father Miroslaw, who co-wrote the script after collaborating with his son on two literary adaptations for Polish television. Central to the story is Rudolf Weigl’s Institute in Lvov (where Żuławski was born), which fabricated a typhus vaccine for the Wehrmacht. Like many Polish intellectuals, Miroslaw was employed there during the war, and involved in a project whereby cages of lice would be attached to the legs to feed on a person’s blood. The insects would then be infected with typhus and their intestines dissected to prepare the vaccine. Many intellectuals and underground resistance fighters worked at this institution on this particular form of research and development because lice feeders were given identity papers, and fear of infection kept the occupying Germans away.

From the opening of The Third Part of the Night, a reading from the Book of Revelations heard over shots of desolate rural landscapes, it is clear that this is not a straightforward war film. The Polish underground is evoked through a few elliptical snapshots, but no significant actions: the gunning down of a man, a pursuit by the Gestapo, and the existential musings of the movement’s blind leader. The dominant dark blue colours bathe the film in an oppressive, eerie glow, and the hand-held camera limits the field of vision and heightens the impression of ominous dread and disorientation. The lice-feeding is both a symbol for the apocalyptic times and an astonishing historical reality, signalling that the world has descended into a surreal nightmare in which people are physically and figuratively drained – one character, for example, is said to have collapsed mentally after being fed on in this manner, as though his very identity had been taken away along with his blood.

The swarming insects represent not just the bewildering horrors of wartime, but also its ambiguities. Lice-feeding is ‘loathsome’ in Michal’s words, yet it also offers protection from the Germans. It is a powerful image for a world where everything has become ambivalent, where certainties, moral but also perceptual, are denied. The idea that the old world has collapsed is expressed by Michal’s father, and it is paralleled by the dissolving of Michal’s grasp on reality, as he is alone in seeing a resemblance between Helena and Marta. And where Helena appeared ruthless and cruel, Marta seems gentle and vulnerable, as if the double incarnation of his lover expressed Michal’s ambivalence towards her, as well as the unreliability of his perceptions.

This loss of moral and perceptual certainty is triggered both by the collective trauma of the German occupation and by Michal’s personal struggle to adjust to fatherhood. His sense of shock is made evident by the scene of Marta’s labour: Żuławski cut footage of a real childbirth into the film, splicing reality and fiction, which, as with the lice-feeding, highlights the unsettling strangeness of life, the weirdness of the real. And while this duplication of the family is seen by Michal as a chance to be a better father, the motif of the double has a fatal circularity. Michal and Marta repeat Michal and Helena’s actions, and in the final sequence Michal faces himself in a dead end prefigured in the earlier escape scene. Michal’s flight from the Gestapo up the spiral staircase in Marta’s building in fact offered no issue – except maybe a passage to another dimension of reality, or death.

Żuławski would replicate this scene 10 years later in the notorious Possession, a film that strongly echoes his debut, similarly charting the disintegration of a couple against a historically charged background – in this case, a divided Berlin – using a central doppelganger motif. In Possession, Żuławski fully embraced his tendency to excess, literally materialising the monstrous, grotesque side of reality more obliquely evoked in The Third Part of the Night, but both films offer a fascinating journey into a shadowy world where the nightmare of history blends with personal nightmares.

Andrzej Żuławski will be the focus of a retrospective at the Kinoteka festival, which runs from 7 to 28 April 2016. Read more about Żuławski’s work in our theme section.

Virginie Sélavy


High Rise 4

Format: Cinema

Release date: 18 March 2016

VOD release date: 11 July 2016

BR/DVD release date: 18 July 2016

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Ben Wheatley

Writer: Amy Jump

Based on the novel by: J.G. Ballard

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans

UK 2015

119 mins

Ben Wheatley’s Ballard adaptation deliriously embraces social breakdown in a dystopian past future.

We open on a doctor, Laing (Tom Hiddleston), clothes torn and paint-spattered, as he cooks a pedigree dog on an improvised barbecue on his balcony, after declining neighbour Steele (Reece Shearsmith)’s offer to have a tipple with a clearly dead man. Back: the doctor has moved into a flat nearer the top than the bottom of an ultramodern building that towers over its undeveloped commuter belt surroundings, the work of architect Mr Royal (Jeremy Irons), who lives at the penthouse/garden estate at its peak. It looks spectacular, but the cracks soon show. There are power outages. Rules are ignored. The technology isn’t working as it should. And there’s a growing sense of friction between floors. The toffs at the top are appalled at the likes of Laing showing up for a costumed ball with the wrong clothes and an inappropriately priced bottle of vino. And lower down the ladder, chippy cameraman Wilder (Luke Evans) bristles with revolutionary ire when he finds his kids are excluded from the swimming pool during an upper crust social. When Laing’s upstairs neighbour, the liberated, and resented Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) throws a party, it simmers with boozy anger and frustration. Things get out of hand. There’s a beating. A suicide. Rival parties are planned in retaliation. A collective madness starts to take hold. The residents venture out of the building less and less, and then not at all. Resources, food and wine are running out and are to be battled over. Pets become food. Society within the tower tears itself apart, and re-organises.

J.G. Ballard’s High Rise has long seemed the novel in his oeuvre begging most for cinematic adaptation (well, either High Rise or Concrete Island) – at least, after Cronenberg’s Crash made it viable to imagine any being filmed at all. It has neither the mega-budget requirements of his early SF, nor the gnomic intractability of The Atrocity Exhibition, but manages to fit his themes into a single location with a limited cast of characters. That said, it was always going to be odd. I’m amazed that what has finally emerged is this successful in capturing the flavour of the book, or at least a warped and woozy hybrid of Ballard and director Ben Wheatley/writer Amy Jump’s sensibilities.*

Initially the urban setting might seem to signal a departure from the folk horror beats that were building through Wheatley’s Kill List, Sightseers and especially A Field In England, but a recurring theme in that movement is the malign and strange affect of landscape on personality, which is an obsession Ballard shared. High Rise takes us away from the ancient outdoors to more modern interiors, but the creeping unease is the same. It isn’t some viral contagion or chemical that is causing the madness (or even the porno-parasites of David Cronenberg’s Shivers, which riffs on similar ideas). It’s the architecture. Royal wants his building to be ‘a crucible for change’, which it most definitely is, though clearly not the change he expects or desires. He can fret all he likes over whether he has ‘left out some vital element’ but it’s too late, the tower exerts its own logic, and there’s no stopping evolution. As the upper classes’ thuggish enforcer Simmons (Dan Renton Skinner) tells him, ‘I don’t work for you, I work for the building.’

The methodology of this madness is evoked through a million cuts. Wheatley sets up tightly edited rhythms within the film showing the rituals of the block dwellers as they go to and from work, shop, swim, ride the lifts and live their lives, and then quietly introduces disruptions, unsettling images that increase in frequency, the pattern of things changes, visual and verbal cues build from a subliminal wrongness into full blown lunacy. A telling tracking shot at the halfway mark takes from one end of a supermarket display to the other, going from fresh fruit to rotting mush. Before that, the party scene at Charlotte’s place is a marvel of drunken momentum and shifting tones, evoking Brit sex farce and brutal Alan Clark aggro along the way, and then suddenly changing gear for an alarming slow mo sequence of the coked up Wilder dancing, suddenly isolated in a strange tribal testosterone display, a bit of business that recurs in the penthouse apartment later in the story. In Jump’s excellent screenplay, the dialogue is initially dominated by the party chit chat and small talk, the flirty one-liners and bitter put-downs whereby the residents subtly and not so subtly jockey for status, but here it always seems to be freighted with double meaning, to the point where even a banal exchange in the tower’s supermarket, (‘keep the change’ – ‘there isn’t any’) feels loaded with portent.

In the novel, if I remember rightly, language breaks down to caveman grunting as the devolution takes hold. But here, deliciously, the barbarity goes hand in hand with a weirdly civilised eloquence. Thus the top floor is full of men discussing their insane and brutal plans for the suppression of the lower floors in language befitting a golf club or yachting marina, a rugger club bumptiousness that wholly fails to recognise the home counties Mad Max stylings of their current situation. There’s something hilariously inappropriate about somebody raising the sudden prevalence of rape, violence and factional warfare with ’I’d watch out if I were you, there’s some very unhappy bunnies bouncing about’.

It’s intoxicating…. with the emphasis on the toxic, it’s a bit of a phantasmagoria, cleverly weighted to keep you off balance and back footed. Most filmmakers making a tale this open to allegorical readings would surely decide to go for a vague and unspecified mise en scène. Instead, Wheatley very specifically anchors his High-Rise in the Britain of the mid to late 70s, with an exacting eye for detail, and cultural signifiers to the fore: there’s a swinging Alan Whicker lookalike, a copy of Action Comic (with the ‘Kids Rule OK’ cover), pound notes, indoor smoking, and not one but two cover versions of ABBA’s ‘S.O.S’. This seems appropriate, and not just because the novel dates from 1975. The film consciously evokes the 70s cinema of Lindsay Anderson, Buñuel, Roeg and Cammel, and works in that heady vein, being an artful treatment of difficult ideas rather than the usual elaborate treatment of banal ideas that dominates your modern multiplex. It’s dense and delirious, both in words and images, in a way that defies simple readings. The sexual politics alone would take a thesis to unpick, moving from swingin’ Carry On innuendo, through nasty assault and into a kind of maternal utopianism.

I’ve seen the film twice now, and think at the first viewing I was simply too dazzled for critical thinking. I just loved this combination of things, these performances, this dialogue, that music.** The second time, I still loved it, and I’d see it again in a heartbeat, but then I’ve been quite taken with everything Wheatley has put out, whilst being quite aware that not everybody feels the same; a press screening of Sightseers had me grinning from ear to ear, surrounded by people who made their loathing quite audible. Balls to them. You’re either on Wheatley’s wavelength… or you’re wrong. And I’ll fight anyone who says different. But maybe that’s the architecture talking.

Mark Stafford

*Jump has clearly worked her socks off trying to give the characters the motivations and story arcs required by modern cinema. Ballard was happier to work in a distinctly chillier, more oblique register. Horses for courses.

** Clint Mansell, playing a blinder, and some very well chosen tunes, The Portishead ‘SOS’ moment is particularly effective.

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Rocco and His Brothers

Rocco and His Brothers

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 14 March 2016

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Luchino Visconti

Writers: Luchino Visconti, Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Vasco Pratollini, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Massimo Franciosa, Enrico Medioli

Inspired by the novel: Il ponte della Ghisolfa by Giovanni Testori

Cast: Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori, Annie Girardot, Claudia Cardinale

Original title: Rocco e I suoi fratelli

Italy, France 1960

177 mins

Visconti’s savage 1960 epic about five impoverished brothers trying to make it in Milan and the woman who comes between them in its fully restored brutal beauty.

Visconti is one of those filmmakers you discover backwards, nowadays, usually starting with Death in Venice and The Leopard. Probably you know, going in, that the maker of these great decadent dramas of luxury and indulgence began as an associate of the neo-realists, dealing with working-class lives. Many find La Terra Trema, his first real effort at social documentation within drama, a touch unconvincing, as if the count from Lombardy was not really too familiar with the world of the poor.

But such doubts disappear in the masterpiece that is Rocco and His Brothers (1960), which brings the epic sweep and microscopic detail of The Leopard to a tale of a family migrating from the impoverished countryside to Milan, seeking their fortunes, and finding, variously, heartbreak, dissolution, enmity, and maybe in some cases, a chance of some kind of compromised happiness. Broken into chapters, each dedicated to one brother in particular, the film takes its time (newly restored, the runtime now reaches three hours) setting up the people and situations who will inexorably fall into the patterns of a tragedy. Chief characters are Simone (Renato Salvatori), the up-and-coming boxer who at first seems the family’s best hope of social mobility, the soft-spoken Rocco Alain Delon), and Nadia (Annie Girardot), their lover at different times. Major stars such as Claudia Cardinale and Paolo Stoppa are placed in relatively minor roles as these three drive events to a shocking conclusion.

This is a fiery male melodrama, in which Nadia, it seems to me, is the most sympathetic character. But as outsider to the close-knit masculine group, she represents in a way the threat of the city, of sophistication and decadent Italian civilisation, and the feminine other. The movie can be read as a warning against the corrupting influence of womanhood, sexual womanhood as opposed to the brothers’ rather stereotypical puritan mama (Katina Paxinou, kind of annoying). But Simone, as far as I can see, corrupts himself, and it’s the access to money and acclamation as well as sex that does it. He’s almost immediately revealed as an arrogant and dishonest character, somehow able to maintain a colossal lie in his head against all evidence: that he is the wronged party in every encounter.

Rocco, by contrast, is a saint, as everyone says. Unusual casting for Delon, who hasn’t flinched from playing some colossal shits in his long career (figures he may identify with to an uncomfortable degree, given his off-screen views and activities). But what good is saintliness, the film asks. Rocco’s attempts to right the wrongs he feels, incorrectly, he has done, result in some of the stupidest noble sacrifices the screen has ever depicted, and his plans take no account of the actual personalities involved. Result: tragedy.

Trapped between the vile Simone and the unworldly Rocco, poor Nadia stands no chance. In one of the film’s most stunning angles, Visconti serves up a Hitchcockian God-shot from the highest pinnacle of Milan Cathedral as Nadia flees her all-forgiving bastard of a boyfriend, running across the rooftop, a tiny speck, like Cary Grant fleeing the United Nations in North By Northwest.

So: if you follow the logic that the truly sympathetic figure is Nadia and it’s really her story, told through the viewpoint of the various brothers, certain scenes may come across as just padding, but you need feel no PC discomfort at the masculine viewpoint, only overwhelming horror and pity. Yes, the film is long, but when it ends, you may wish to start again from Chapter One to see the unspoiled characters once more as they were at the beginning.

The restoration by Gucci and the Film Foundation brings Giuseppe Rotunno’s cinematography to vibrant life and almost exhausting detail, with the itchy whorls of domestic wallpaper vying for attention with the busy throngs of moving characters. The artful use of light and shade creates b&w images of almost unbearable richness, and the more distressing the story becomes, the more beautiful the imagery. Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series has done the movie proud, with an array of extras gathered from multiple rare sources, including documentary material on Visconti and interviews with his collaborators. My only complaint is the image on the menu, for reasons that will become clear when you watch the film.

Rocco and His Brothers is also available on DVD, released by Eureka Entertainment in 2008.

David Cairns

The Ones Below

The Ones Below
The Ones Below

Format: Cinema

Release date: 11 March 2016

DVD release date: 4 July 2016

Distributor: Icon Film Distribution

Director: David Farr

Writer: David Farr

Cast: Clémence Poésy, David Morrissey, Stephen Campbell Moore, Laura Birn, Deborah Findlay

UK 2015

87 mins

Despite a sense of déjàvu and an unconvincing ending, David Farr’s London-set pregnancy chiller conjures up a claustrophobic atmosphere.

With more than a passing nod to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, this contemporary chilling thriller riffs well enough off its contained, two-up, two-down set-up, even if it struggles to convince with its grand reveal.

Kate (Clémence Poésy) lives upstairs with husband Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore) and is expecting their first child, albeit with some reticence. Brightening her day is her new ground-floor neighbour, Theresa (Laura Birn), a vivacious blonde whose older husband, Jon (David Morrissey), has a brusque manner and an even worse temper. They have been trying for years (seven, to be precise) to conceive. When they are invited for dinner, Jon can barely mask his contempt for a couple that can successfully procreate at the drop of a hat.

Inevitably, the new arrivals prove to be awkward guests, made worse after a tragic accident, which sends them scurrying downstairs back to their renovated flat. Almost immediately, the promise of like-minded neighbours vanishes. Or so it would seem.

Director David Farr, here making the leap from stage to screen, does well handling Kate’s mental deterioration, which convinces as the line separating fantasy from reality becomes increasingly and alarmingly blurred. Poésy’s pale and increasingly drawn complexion, captured effectively by the lensing of Ed Rutherford, makes for unsettling viewing. Moore’s typically solid turn as the hapless husband, seemingly powerless to stop the dramatic denouement of the piece, is also well timed.

Given their positioning in the narrative – and the mysterious goings-on that play out on screen – it’s trickier to take Morrissey and Birn’s characters quite so seriously. Yet the pair both respond to their material in a suitably colourful way, allowing for brief moments of dark humour to waft through proceedings, before matters begin to turn ugly.

And ugly they most certainly are. While Polanski needn’t fret about this young, London-based pretender, The Ones Below succeeds in crafting a tense and claustrophobic environment within which this motley crew of characters can do their worst. That its finale seems almost laughably absurd is soon alleviated upon reflection of what’s just unfolded. Farr’s film, which showed at Toronto as part of the festival’s City to City programme, isn’t likely to rattle any cages, but it might just upset a few light sleepers. Provided you don’t mind a plot hole or two.

Ed Gibbs

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Format: Blu-ray + Dual Format Steelbook

Release date: 29 February 2016

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Takashi Miike

Writer: Daisuke Tengan

Based on the novel by: Ryû Murakami

Cast: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Tetsu Sawaki

Original title: Ôdishon

Japan 1999

115 mins

Takashi Miike’s tale of a businessman’s quest for the perfect bride retains its horrifying power.

Along with Hideo Nakata’s Ring and Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale, Takashi Miike’s Audition was one of the main films that introduced audiences in the UK (and subsequently the world) to the ‘delights’ of what would become known as ‘extreme Asian cinema’, thanks to Tartan Films, who released all three as part of their ‘Asia Extreme’ line. Prior to Audition, Miike was best known as a director of low-budget yakuza thrillers that were frequently violent and occasionally bizarre, making him an unusual choice to handle a deliberately paced and cinematically restrained film, but he showed himself to be fully equal to the task. Audition is based on the novel of the same name by Ryɼ Murakami, and was scripted by Daisuke Tengan, the son of Shōhei Imamura, one of Japan’s most respected directors. Prior to his own career, Takashi Miike had spent several years working under Imamura as assistant director.

Ever since the death of his wife seven years earlier, middle-aged businessman Aoyama (Ryé Ishibashii) has divided his time between caring for their son and work. At the prompting of his now-teenage son, he decides to marry again, but has little patience with (or experience of) the protracted dating and mating rituals of today’s youth. Instead, Aoyama and his colleague Yoshikawa in the media industry (Jun Kinimura) decide on a different method of meeting a woman that meets his modest standards (intelligent, artistic, refined, demure etc). They put out a casting call on the radio, asking for new would-be actresses, ostensibly to star in a forthcoming TV drama. Aoyama will read through the applications and pick the ones he’s interested in, while Yoshikawa looks for potential stars. Their selections will be invited to an audition. If all goes according to plan, Yoshikawa will find himself a new star while Aoyama can get a step closer to finding an ideal wife.

At this point first-time viewers will no doubt be wondering how Audition came to be categorized as ‘extreme’, and how Miike earned a reputation as a controversial, transgressive director. Certainly the comic audition montage (complete with the jaunty pop accompaniment) gives you the impression you’re watching yet another romantic comedy about a man going to ridiculous lengths to find love. There’s even a stock character from such films: Aoyama’s secretary, who clearly has feelings for her boss. True to type, he is completely unaware of this, immersed in his absurd quest for the perfect woman. There is no doubt therefore that Miike and Tengan intended us to feel that we are indeed watching a light-hearted romantic drama, for the first third of the film at least.

Once the character of Asami Yamasaki (Eihi Shiina) is introduced, things begin to change. On the surface Asami is everything Aoyama is looking for, but we are slowly given glimpses and snippets of information that suggest something may be very wrong with this young woman. The man she gave as a reference on her application form disappeared mysteriously, while a previous employer was brutally murdered. None of this fazes Aoyama at all, since he’s already decided she is the woman he wants to marry. Against the advice of his friends, Aoyama continues his courtship of the beautiful, strange Asami.

In its final third Audition takes a turn into horror territory, with scenes that retain their power to shock even in our desensitized era. How much of what we see is actually real is not entirely clear, since certain scenes do appear to take place in Aoyama’s head. It has been suggested that it’s all a hallucination, brought on by guilt over his disloyalty to his dead wife. This is not supported by the rest of the film, however; the final scenes are clearly real. Audition has also been interpreted as a criticism of Japanese male chauvinism, as represented by Aoyama’s rigidly old-fashioned and objectifying view of women. Unfortunately, any serious points Miike and Tengan might have been making about Japanese masculinity and patriarchy are heavily undermined by the fact that in no way, shape or form does Aoyama deserve his fate. He’s certainly guilty of deceit and manipulation, but his comeuppance firmly outweighs his crimes. It doesn’t help that Asami is a two-dimensional character. Her difficult past and Aoyama’s schemes would certainly leave her with a right to be deeply hurt and angry. But the real source of Asami’s anger is an utterly unreasonable demand that makes it impossible to sympathise with her, unlike the used-and-discarded women of Fatal Attraction and Play Misty for Me. Having carefully manipulated the audience throughout, Miike provides an extremely memorable crescendo calculated to shock and horrify, something that few films manage to do quite as well as Audition. It might not be a noble ambition, but on its own terms Audition can only be considered a great success, as well as an essential Japanese horror film.

Jim Harper

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Sheba Baby

Sheba Baby
Sheba Baby

Format: Blu-ray + DVD

Release date: 8 February 2016

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: William Girdler

Writers: William Girdler, David Sheldon

Cast: Pam Grier, Austin Stoker, D’Urville Martin

USA 1975

90 mins

Pam Grier’s third outing as a tough 70s Blaxploitation action lady is fun although not as exhilarating as Coffy and Foxy Brown.

After the breakout success of Coffy and Foxy Brown, Pam Grier had become hot property in mid-1970s Hollywood, with studios keen to snap up the head-turning Blaxploitation star. She was, after all, the first African-American woman to become a bona fide leading lady – and she kicked serious butt.

Sensing they might lose her, American Independent Pictures (AIP) ensured she retained lead billing status, with this third round of low-budget action pandering to some extent to her request for less sleaze and more story. As a result, it lacks the gritty charm of those previous outings, although Grier still holds her own with ease.

The story, such as it is, pitches Grier as a private investigator out to beat a local crime pin (D’Urville Martin) who is plotting to do in her dad. The action is set in the director’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Helped by her father’s business partner (Austin Stoker), who has a soft eye for her, Sheba’s pursuit of justice ensures car smashes and explosions galore, with some neat gun play between the sexes along the way. It is as one would expect: fast, frothy and funky (Monk Higgins’s score works well).

Although it received mixed reviews upon its original release in 1975, Sheba, Baby marked the peak of Grier’s screen career, prior to her return in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown more than 20 years later. Blaxploitation became increasingly divisive among the black community with its stereotypes and motifs, before being hijacked by the studios in the years that followed, with stories perpetuating sexual violence and slavery (Mandingo and Drum) signaling the death knell for the genre.

Grier, who began her career as a receptionist at AIP, has endured as the popular face of Blaxploitation over the years. Even this relatively lightweight vehicle shows the star in her element, delivering a series of no-nonsense responses to thugs that dare cross her path. It’s a shame that no one has managed to match her on screen in the decades that followed. Even more than that, it’s depressing and familiar to consider that her starring roles all but dried up after her brief flurry of hits – and that her leading lady status never quite materialised as it should have.

Still, as a companion piece to Coffy and Foxy Brown, it’s worth a spin. Grier is always great value and, as Tarantino knows only too well, a hugely underrated talent. This anniversary set comes with a high definition print of the film, plus a commentary and interview with screenwriter-producer David Sheldon, and featurettes on Grier and the film from critics and enthusiasts.

Ed Gibbs

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