Whether referencing the famous samurai and/or dwarves, or even the less famous hoods, Kitano Takeshi’s Ryuzo And The Seven Henchmen, his recent exercise in over-written plot makes for a rather dull successor to a long tradition of a lucky number of anti-heroes motivating a storyline. Here we’ve got Ryuzo (Tatsuya Fuji – remember him from Ai no corrida?) gathering together a bunch of old geezer yakuza buddies to kick some righteous young criminal butt after an attempted telephone scam. The old guys are cute, in their bullying one-dimensional caricatures. Not. Takeshi, who once challenged us to like his brutish criminals, now just let’s them signify, rather than earn our respect. These guys are types without much behind them. By the time of the big confrontation, the most interesting guy is the dead guy. And the final chase, with the ojichan’s hijacking a bus, is not only ineptly filmed and edited, but a total head-scratcher. Kitano’s take on those twilight gangster years revels in its easy way out, its pallid stereotypes and assumptions and its poorly manipulative and poorly paced structure. What were you thinking, Takeshi-san?
Originally published in EL Magazine, May 2015
It takes a fair amount of gumption to take on Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, Blade Runner, but Ion de Sosa gives it a run for the money, with a new take that’s much closer to the source material – Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – and has considerable more to say about contemporary life. And the future that we’ve been building in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
A formal Benning-esque series of shots open de Sosa’s Sueñan los Androides – Androiden Träumen Film. Long shots of the unremarkable modernist towers that make up the distopic panoramas that populate the intro to the film come from the Spanish resort town of Benidorm – a place that developed through the late half of the 20th century into a perfect hell hole and representation of the mass tourism industry. The long shots give way to formal compositions of concrete ramps, unfinished interiors and exteriors, the usual unremarked upon and accepted demeaned fixtures of contemporary cityscapes. Soon we see still-life portraits of middle-class families, retirees and working stiffs posed in their apartment boxes. People working to make the best of (not very) and add a little humanity to the mean world that’s been built for them. Occasionally one of them gets gunned down. The violence is quick. The flash of a bullet. The daily terrorism tha haunts our waking hours comes home to roost in the most random of places, justified by a skinny, bald guy in a suit (Manolo Marín) just doing his job.
Unlike the conflicted and world-weary noir detective of Harrison Ford’s replicant hunter, the nameless blade runner in de Sosa’s version is basically a heartless killer.
Nor do we get Rutger Hauer destroying and chewing the scenery (brilliant,I may add). But de do get his analog, a paunchy bear, played by Coque Sánchez, the kind of guy who has no qualms about boasting of his sexual conquests with human guys and who gives no second though about grinding his hips in a cheesy sort of sexual provocation on the stage of a gay bar – that is until he meets his sudden dispatch.
We don’t get a cadre of uber mensch and damen replicants who populate Scott’s version, but a series of rather unassuming middle-class beings, working-class stiffs, bears and young couples with children in tow, who make up the universe of de Sosa’s blade runner’s quarry. Replicants is us.
De Sosa pulls one of the main themes of Dick’s original novel, mysteriously vanished from Scott’s film version – the empathy that humans can feel for other species. The empathy that (possibly) makes us human. The electric sheep part of the book. However, the way de Sosa addresses it, undercuts Dick completely. Empathy comes up not so much as feeling, but as habit. And by the final shot, merely a black joke.
The dystopia and the tenuous hold that we/them have on life turn de Sosa’s film make his vision of the future/now certainly much more terrifying than Scott’s version. Scott, with the weight of Hollywood behind him, created a complete universe through production design and movie stars at the tops of their game to create a cultural icon, no doubt. But he kinda cheated on some of the better and deeper things that Dick brought up. de Sosa digs deeper, finding essences in his version. With avant strategies, a low budget and smart camera work (de Sosa was cinematographer on Luis Lopez Carrasco’s El Futuro) in standard 16mm, de Sosa has pulled the best and most interesting from his source material that not only shows a compelling personal vision, but brings up some fundamental questions about place, landscape, time, history and what makes us human, grounding it in the contemporary realities of Spain and the larger picture of the world in this here early 21st century.
Yoshihoko Dai’s debut feature, Present for You, is a curious confection, flipping randomly from live action to doll animation. And it’s in 3D. The largely incomprehensible plot revolves around Shigeru Kajiwara (Joe Odagiri), sporting a retro 70s look selling out to the owner (Isao Natsuyagi) of the Give Me Money company by being the guy who kills the boss’s enemies. They’re delivered to Shigeru’s decrepit office above a ramen shop in a mythical natsukashi Shimbashi. This Shimbashi is full of ostensibly colorful characters – prostitutes, waitresses, café owners, a salaryman who’s always seen at the edge of rooftop contemplating suicide. Shigeru gets his first victim, the “present” of the title, delivered – one Muneoka-san (Akira Emoto) – and then the plot veers into a whole lot of, well, plot – of some sort. The whole mess that makes up the mercifully short film seems mainly to be a calling card so Dai can show off his animation chops, though has no idea about how to structure a story, let alone how to direct real actors – or even puppets.
Originally published in EL Magazine, March 2015.
In October 2013 my audio recorder captured the following words during an interview to the first Ethiopian graduate in nuclear engineering – the elderly professor Seifu Yohannes – now emeritus physics professor in the University of Harar. “All your dreams of wealth and unlimited power, all your dreams of disproportionate ambition; the satisfaction of feeling analogous to the gods, all your sexual impulses which you deem infinite; all these pharaonic dreams will be reduced to a series of cheap plastic figurines floating in the stratosphere once everything has finally exploded. The American dream will soon enough end up devastating you. Then you will return to your village with your tail between your legs. And you will wish that your old boyfriend or girlfriend – whose breath always reeked of garlic – will once again cover you in kisses and eternally care for your welfare.”
When I finished transcribing these words, CRUMBS was born.
– Miguel Llansó (Madrid, 2015)
With those few words Miguel Llansó was inspired to create Crumbs, his post-apocalyptic surrealist Ethio-sci-fi send up of a Campbell-inspired hero’s journey. And who’d a thunk that a young Spanish director, who films movies in ahmaric featuring the most unlikely of leads – a dimiutive, bodily-mishapen and very talented actor, dare I say star, Daniel Tadesse – could or would jump to the forefront of world cinema with a very singular, frightening and funny vision.
Crumbs opens with Candy (Daniel Tadesse) foraging around a bleak, tortured and strangely beautiful landscape. He spies a mounted retro-futuristic vaguely Teutonic knight, sporting a Nazi arm band. Candy knows better than to tangle with this dude and takes flight to the abandoned bowling alley he inhabits with his lovely wife, Sayat (Selam Tesfaye). All well and good for a low budget intro to the strange world Candy inhabits. He quickly realizes that he has lost his amulet, a plastic teenage mutant ninja turtle, which will soon be seen orbiting earth in the same way as the famous fetus of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the meantime, a quick backstory develops. Outside floats a gigantic, dormant spaceship. It looks a bit like a spark plug with a humungous plastic glove on top in constant salute. Hail Earthmen! This UFO begins to show signs of powering up – so much so, the bowling lanes in Candy and Sayat’s abode begin to start working. A bowling ball bumbles up from the ball return like a planet falling back into orbit. Shades of Godard’s coffee cup! Not only that, but peering into the black chute of the ball return seems to create a conduit directly to Santa’s workshop. At this point, Candy, a bit mixed up in mind, but sure of direction, decides he has to get back to the spaceship – because he’s sure he’s not of this Earth and must return to whatever alien world (as if worlds could be more alien that the one he lives in) that is/was his home. Dutiful and loving Sayat sends him off with a plastic sword (still in its original wrapping). He sets off on his hero’s journey. The sword is quickly and hilariously dispatched – to become more detritus floating around the Earth. I couldn’t help flash on the virtual weapons, potions and talismans that video-gamers collect on their own sub-epic journeys in game-land. Those things of specious and fantasy value that occupy time and clutter their own little universes. He crosses fantastic landscapes, ghost towns and industrial ruins (kudos to cinematographer Israel Seoane for his great eye) until he finally reaches… the North Pole? Santa turns out to be a fairly mean-spirited asshole, protecting himself with protocol – insisting that Candy should have mailed his wish list in advance – instead of admitting to the fake that he is. Beaten and dejected, Candy returns to Sayat to reconfirm their love. The spaceship takes off without him. And they live happily ever after. Or will they?
Llansó’s vision takes a surrealist’s strategy of connecting unexpected images and ideas, but fulfills a deeper and more substantial surrealist tradition of subversion of those very images and ideas, critiquing just about everything one assumes about the state of the world. He’s got a bit of an obsession with Nazism, which he fleshed out brilliantly in an earlier short, Chigger Ale (2013), which featured Tadesse as mini Hitler wannabe, who’s mocked and ridiculed by the denizens of his local bar. And when he finally attempts his revenge, by gassing the place, he fails miserably and is called into account by a statuesque dominatrix and quickly dispatched into the detritus of outer space. Llansó’s complete disdain for the isms, cultural artifacts, memes, tropes and assumptions of the contemporary world are totally refreshing. And the fact that he does it with such joy and assurance puts him in a league with Buñuel. And as for Daniel Tadesse – check him out. He’s got the depth, the chops and the experience (he’s worked a lot in theatre and film in Addis Ababa) and an amazing screen presence. I hope to see more of him, not only in Llansó’s films, but with other directors. Spread the word.
Ryuichi Horoki’s pumping out films fast and furiously. There’s Kabukicho Love Hotel, an enjoyable, though slight, sitcom. And then there’s Otoko no Isshou, an adaptation from popular manga-maker Keiko Nishi’s comic of the same name. In this story, Tsugumi (Nana Eikura), decides to live in her late grandmother’s countryside place. The place is a perfect set piece, perfectly appointed washitsu, a natural dye workshop, natsukashi to perfection. She finds a taciturn oyaji philosophy professor with a ridiculous moustache, Jun (Etsushi Toyokawa), living there. He made a deal with ol’ grandma to have a poetry shack available to him. He’s a chain-smoking asshole, ostensibly with a heart of gold, just waiting for Tsugumi to unearth it. Problem is, after endless passive aggressive thrusts and parries, a sentimental and absurd sequence with an abandoned child… and some toe-sucking – plus a falsely heroic ending, the film follows a clichéd (and macho-minded) trajectory that only confirms what we always thought of Horoki. He’s never transcended his pinku porno past, was lucky with Vibrator and his films aren’t worth watching.
Originally published in EL Magazine, February 2015.
I usually add a Japanese film or two to my list, as that’s what I write about. However this year, I found nary a single Japanese film that was worth adding to the list. Not a one! The inclusion of 2013 films, Nebraska and Inside Llewyin Davis, is because they finally played Tokyo in 2014. The films below are submitted in order. El Futuro’s structuralist strategies and political savvy, coupled with one of the an amazing sound/visual design, shows Luis López Carrasco’s a complete original. Asaf Korman’s Next to Her also has one of the best sound designs of any film ever, plus amazing performances by his 3 leads, particularly Dana Ivgy, in a hugely moving story about the more destructive aspects of love. The Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas’s hommage to Juliette Binoch and the art of the actor was magical. The one oddball of the bunch is Survival is Not Virtue. It’s actually a music video of a song by Jordan O’Jordan done entirely with appropriated footage from Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Not only is it an amazing short film – you’ll never look at Josh Mostel’s Herod the same way again – but I’ve added it as a bit of a testament to the whole project known as Clyde Petersen, which includes film, music, installations and so much more. Francis Xavier Pasion’s Bwaya is part ethnographic study, part mythic storytelling and totally fascinating. Are the two Brits, who bring up the batch, at the forefront of a new trend of strangely distant and cold storytelling that end up with heartbreaking results?
El Futuro (Luis Luis López Carrasco, 2013)
Next to Her (Asaf Asaf Korman, 2014)
The Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014)
Survival is Not Virtue (Clyde Petersen, 2014)
Nebraska (Alexander Payne, 2013)
Les jours venus (The Days Come, Romain Goupil, 2014)
Inside Llewyn Davis (Ethan and Joel Coen, 2013)
Bwaya (Crocodile, Francis Xavier Pasion, 2014)
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
Exhibition (Joanna Hogg, 2013)
If there was ever a band that represents the epitome of punk, it must be Pertti Kurikka’s Name Day. The quartet consists of developmentally challenged musicians headed by their namesake Pertti, a garrulous and sensitive shouter who writes terse and brutally uncensored songs about his condition, obsessions and problems. An example goes, “I don’t want to live in a group home / I don’t want to live in an institution / I want to live in Kallio / In the privacy of a bomb shelter.” Directors Jukka Karkkainen and J-P Passi document the band with sensitivity, humor and no whitewashing in The Punk Syndrome, one of the best music docs of the year. Documenting the travails of Pertti and his collaborators, Kari Aalto, Sami Helle, Toni Valitalo and Kalle Pajamaa walks the fine edge of being exploitive of this unlikely punk phenomena, but ultimately comes across as a finely-honed and honest look a group of very creative individuals, connecting with their problems and difficulties in life and ultimately, celebrating their brave and wonderful response – a healthy “fuck you!”
Originally published in EL Magazine, January 2015