Naomi Kawase has moved out of her tired and trite new-ageism into a more nuanced and substantial phase of her career with last year’s moving coming-of-age story, Still the Water, and now with An. The story’s pretty simple. Sentarou (Masatoshi Nagase – finally given a decent role in a worthwhile film to show his talent) is a beaten-down middle-aged ex-con, going through the motions of maintaining a tiny dorayaki shop. The place is frequented by a small coterie of high school girls, including Wakana (Kyara Uchida), in search of a father figure. Dingy old lady Tokue (the inimitable Kirin Kiki) arrives to save the day. She makes the best sweet red bean paste in Nihon. The initially reluctant Sentarou hires her and the business takes off. There are ups… and downs – and eventually Tokue ends up in nursing home. Kawase’s gentle take on this intergenerational trio travels a bit in a clichéd fetishism of Japanese food and exhibits some heavy-handed symbolism, but the great acting and smart direction give the story tons of emotional heft.
Originally published in EL Magazine, June 2015.
Hirokazu Koreeda has always claimed that Naruse has been a larger influence on him than Ozu. Umimachi Diary belies that. Granted, the story’s about a set of sisters (the focus on women being more Naruse-like), but being set largely in Kamakura (Ozu’s town) and the gentle low-dramatic flow puts the film in Ozu-land. And the inspired casting of Lily Franky, in a small but important role, as a Chishu Ryu analogue, is an obvious homage to the master. The story follows a trio of sisters, 29-year-old Sachi (Haruka Ayase), 22-year-old Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) and 19-year-old Chika (Kaho), who upon the death of their estranged father, finally connect with their young teen-aged half-sister Suzu (Suzu Hirose). They invite Suzu to come live with them and the film unfolds, showing their changing dynamics and relationships. The characters are a bit cliché – Sachi being a nurse/caregiver and the “strong” one, Yoshino being the mixed-up one and Chika being the happy-go-lucky Bohemian. But all the actors give their best, showing the subtle, yet rich, details of a family’s journey.
Originally published in EL Magazine, June 2015.
Shion Sono’s filmmaking career has gone from the audience-abusing nihilism of the two final films of his “Hate Trilogy” to the soul-searching of his post 3.11 films and the more recent fuck-it-all fun of his last two efforts. He’s now hit a new nadir with a completely phoned-in sellout, Shinjuku Swan. The story follows the adventures of Tatsuhiko Shiratori (Gou Ayano), a young hustler, new to the dirty ol’ city, who finds his inner pimp and becomes a Kabukicho tout, accosting girls on the street in order to lure them into the slavery of Tokyo’s sex biz. As he rises in the underworld (he really doesn’t get too far) he gets beat up A LOT. And always comes back bouncing for more – glutton for punishment that he is. There’s the usual gang intrigue that leads to internecine warfare, the unbelievable love interest, endlessly clichéd underworld characters and plenny o’ violence. Shinjuku Swan is an ugly duck that celebrates the usual vapidity, misogyny and lack of original ideas the plague contemporary Japanese film.
Originally published in EL Magazine, June 2015
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.