The Christmas festivities are over and the New Year is just a few days away. The following were the films I watched before and during Christmas. Ironically the films in pairs have striking similarities and things to compare to one another – excluding The Sun (2005), although even then comparisons can be made to it amongst the other films despite their obvious differences - which I only realise typing up these reviews.
19th December 2012: Kotoko (Shinya Tsukamoto, 2011)
The story of a single mother who suffers from double vision; caring for her baby is a nerve-wrecking task that eventually leads her to a nervous breakdown. She is suspected of being a child abuser when things get out of control and her baby is taken away. (IMDB)
It is a little disheartening in the first few scenes to see the director of Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) filming in a very low budget, shot-on-video film, but despite this hindrance, he transcends it and succeeds to make a great film. Not only does he take advantage of the technical flaws of the digital camera used to create abstract and nightmarish sequences, but it is wonderful to see the veteran auteur go full circle and show the beating human heart that has existed in his films since Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992). Behind the horrible violence in the film, based as much on its lead actress Cocco’s experiences with mental illness, are real emotions, the extremities in Tsukamoto’s films a cathartic representation of the internal conflicts that his characters, including ones played by himself, suffer from, shown on the beautiful face of Cocco fully in a great central role. Existing before Japanese cult cinema was about goofy prosthetics and ‘extreme’ content, Tsukamoto’s first film to be released in Britain in years shows that he is still a unique and talented director.
20th December 2012: Dans Ma Peau (Marina De Van, 2002)
A woman grows increasingly fascinated with her body after suffering a disfiguring accident. (IMDB)
It was probably not a good idea to watch this the day after Kotoko, both portraying very gruesome sequences and subject matter, but they are an intriguing pair of films to see one after the other, one a male director who channelled the observations and thoughts of its lead actress, who was a singer/musician beforehand, the other the debut of a French actress who placed herself within the lead role to channel the main concept of the feature without fear of what she would look like onscreen during certain scenes. Kotoko feels far more successful as it’s from a director who, despite an even lower budget, can pace his films more steadily, and made a move as much full of sad tenderness within it alongside the horror, with scenes of Kotoko with her family and the lead actress’ performance. Dans Ma Peau, viewed in the first time in many years, before my twenties, is colder, more vicious in tone and content, and eventually starts to lag before it reaches an implosive climax. It is still an admirable film, far more than merely sick content, but comparable legitimately to the body horror films of David Cronenberg in its distant but probing analysis of the main character’s alien syndrome, the real life obsession with self harm and distance from one’s body made into a psychological disorder as much as Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) made the erotic/violent side of injury and destroyed automobiles into a mental state for its characters. De Van has made at least two other feature films, and short works, a striking presence in the main role as well, which I want to see at some point as the talent she showed in this shines regardless of the flaws.
21st December 2012: The Sun (Alexander Sokurov, 2005)
Third part in Aleksandr Sokurov's tetrology, following Molokh and Telets, focuses on Japanese Emperor Hirohito and Japan's defeat in World War II when he is finally confronted by Gen. Douglas MacArthur who offers him to accept a diplomatic defeat for survival. (IMDB)
The Sun is an arthouse film in its fullest definition – minimalist yet dense in its mostly set based locations, slow paced and made of mostly static camera shots – but is also an exceptionally peculiar film. Already undercut by the real life history of Emperor Hirohito and how Japan was defeated in World War II, it becomes far more uncomfortable in its visual look – mostly artificial sets and images that, unless the version on the Artifical Eye DVD is a rare slip in quality for the company, are intentionally flawed and grainy in places – and a score that prickles with a frightening mood. It is a difficult film yet paradoxically it is a simple one: of an Emperor, chosen by divine blood rite before disavowing his godliness in surrendering for his country in the war, shown to be human in both his everyday, pedantic activities and a humanity that, bleeding into the film’s tone occasionally, allows for moments of light hearted humour as well as its serious ideas. Only the sequences with General Douglas MacArthur let the film down a bit, awkward in their introduction of more blatant analysis of the Pacific War, and that actor Robert Dawson looks like he has a ridiculously large, prophetic forehead, which a director as stringent in his work like Alexander Sokurov should have avoided from the start as such a silly concern is distracting from the importance of the material.
22nd December 2012: Dennis Potter’s Cold Lazarus (Renny Rye, 1996)
Dr. Emma Porlock and her colleagues, attempting to unlock the secrets of human memory for the Masdon drug empire, get a cryogenically stored 400-year-old human head to project its memories through virtual reality displays. But Porlock and her team are chronically under-funded, and she may have to go around Masdon to a media sleaze merchant to get the money she needs to maintain the project. But an even more complex world of secret police, RON (Reality-Or-Nothing) riots, and murder is going on outside the lab. And the deeper Porlock goes into the frozen memories of the writer Daniel Feeld, the more twisted the labyrinth of intrigue becomes. (IMDB)
I have only seen two of Dennis Potter’s television works, Karaoke (1996) and its quasi-sequel Cold Lazarus, but I can see the talent he had, a full depth in the dialogue characters speak and willingness as a writer to undermine and question reality and form, including his own life. Drawing on his rapidly approaching death, Karaoke is a fascinating meta mini-series. Cold Lazarus is such a drastic and unexpected shift for any viewer to encounter, especially when it continues with its lead character (Albert Finney) existing with an entirely different genre from the drama of before.
Made in the nineties, and made for British television, this science fiction work looks like something from its discordant time period, but its apparent datedness actually adds so much personality to a mini-series that, while certainly flawed, was a brave attempt for its script’s author to do, the last before his death that took the risk of exploring a new genre for himself while tackling his own failing mortality. If one gets past the ridiculously broad stereotypes of greedy, dumb American business tycoons, it still has some fascinating ideas on memory, in a way that can go from intelligent perceptions on it to ridiculously lewd and hilarious dialogue. It’s also an early role for Ciarán Hinds who, in a strong cast, stands out immensely.
23rd December 2012: Ghost In The Shell 2 – Innocence (Mamoru Oshii, 2004)
In the year 2032, Batô, a cyborg detective for the anti-terrorist unit Public Security Section 9, investigates the case of a female robot--one created solely for sexual pleasure--who slaughtered her owner. (IMDB)
From the films I’ve seen Mamoru Oshii, the original Ghost in the Shell (2005) is a culturally important landmark, and utterly incredible in its animation, but is a film with far too many mistakes to be more than a minor film in Oshii’s filmography, especially against works like Angel’s Egg (1985) and Patlabor 2 (1993), far too bogged down in its philosophical digressions, in how it is shown rather than the ideas themselves, and how it is put against its action scenes. Its sequel suffers as well but controversially I prefer it to the prequel after finally seeing it for the first time. Its presentation of really intelligent, thoughtful ideas on human existence is laboured, especially when characters start quoting the Bible and Confucius, without using its humour and characters’ eccentricities as fully as something like Cold Lazarus does, and the hand drawn animation of its prequel is the most striking of the two, but it’s a brave, utterly beautiful film, regardless of its CGI, and as an action sci-fi movie as well it is more fulfilling. It, at this moment, has the higher placement above its prequel for a sequence in a mansion later on, of realities within realities, that is out-of-the-blues, utterly bizarre and freakish at times, and incredible in how perfectly put together it is, from how it knocks the viewer out of their complacency and in how it shows the sequence’s philosophical ideas so clearly in its intentionally confusion, far more so than anything else within its story. Alongside the late Satoshi Kon’s work, it shows that Japanese anime is probably one of the best artforms to convey the plasticity of human beings’ perception of reality.
24th December 2012: The Valley of the Bees (Frantisek Vlacil, 1967)
Ondrej, a young boy who loves bees and bats, is introduced to his new mother, a woman much younger than his father. He brings her a basketful of flowers which she starts to throw in the air and then gives out a shriek, as she discovers several bats in the bottom of the bowl. In a rage, Ondrej's father picks the boy up and hurls him against the wall. As the boy lays on the ground paralyzed the father promises the Holy Virgin to dedicate the boy to her if she spares his life. Ondrej survives and is raised in a strict Knightly Order, where he is mentored by a devout monk, Armin. But one day, an extraordinary event makes him doubt the Order and remember where he came from. (IMDB)
It’s surprising how many more European films from the earlier decades feel far more rigorous in their look and visual design to many current arthouse films; it’s even more surprising, and sad, how many modern European films, and arthouse films from any country, look identical to each other and feel exceptionally inferior to films like Frantisek Vlacil’s The Valley of the Bees. More conventional in tone and structure to his monolith Marketa Lazarová (1967), Vlacil’s film is nonetheless a great analysis of religious ideology and morality filtered through a medieval world that is vivid in its narrative and the visual splendour Vlacil brought to the material.
25th December 2012: Black Death (Christopher Smith, 2010)
Set during the time of the first outbreak of bubonic plague in England, a young monk is given the task of learning the truth about reports of people being brought back to life in a small village. (IMDB)
In contrast to The Valley of the Bees, this is another medieval set film that fails to work. It is a genre film, of an entirely different tone and style to Vlacil’s, but it still fails in terms of what its director intended to do. It could have been good, but as well as being generic in its blood filled, period story, near the end it starts to question its supernatural tone, leaving its message muddled and hacking out its own legs from under it by becoming another modern genre film that ends on an unsatisfactory note.