VALERIAN: CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (2017) dir: Luc Besson

20 Aug

“Star Wars meets the Care Bears” was my dad’s perspective of Valerian. He took me to the local cinema in Cumbria, which cost only six quid and had very comfortable seats. It’s not to everyone’s taste but I enjoyed Valerian. It was one of the most imaginative movies I’d seen in ages – if not ever, as I don’t usually watch fantasy movies. However, while I was in the cinema, I was considering putting it on pause and going out to buy an ice-cream. I don’t think the vibe was coming from the movie itself, but instead from the bored unimaginative adults in the audience.

The plot to the movie was somewhat tangled. In the opening sequence we were introduced to the vast leaps mankind will make in centuries to come. Alpha, a space station cast out from Earth’s gravity into deep space, the culmination of space sophistication. Next we arrived at a beautiful island paradise where the bald people sparkled and had long, slender, blue limbs. They were really into their pearls and had these little dragons which ate and shat pearls out in multitudes. Suddenly the utopia was disturbed by objects crashing through the atmosphere. A giant manmade-looking structure careered through the sky and sent a fireball that destroyed all living creatures. As she died, the Emperor’s daughter sent out a wave of energy from her body.

Valerian is lounging on a virtual beach simulation when he is struck by the energy from the pearl girl. She is appearing in his mind. In his reality, he has Cara Delevigne – playing Laureline, with an acquired American accent – and a computer simulated voice telling him it’s time to quit the beach simulation. I think the credibility of the reality Luc Besson presents to us dissolves with the beach. As Valerian and Laureline wrestle, they appear to barely know each other, plus not a drop is spilled from the cup they’re holding and passing back and forth. It’s Laureline’s birthday, Valerian has forgotten, and frankly nobody seems to care. If that cup of orange liquid had ended up all over one of the cardboard cut-out characters, we may have had a different movie.

Valerian and Laureline must fly their spacecraft to a planet and retrieve a converter. Before they set off from their sand vehicle, Valerian proposes marriage to Laureline. If some bloke in a bar has ever proposed marriage (it happens to me regularly), you’ll grasp the level of awkwardness. On the planet is a vast open space that contains ‘Big Market’. It exists on another dimension so not visible to the naked eye. With virtual reality glasses a million shops and stalls become apparent. With special gloves a human can pick things up and transport them back to this dimension via a box. The special effects are beautiful. All the strangest urban environments on Earth are converged into an imaginative fantasy world. They get the converter. It turns out to be one of the baby dragon creatures Valerian saw in his dream with the pearl girl. Valerian also secretly steals a pearl. They make it back to their vehicle but a variation of Jabba the Hut has sent his hench dinosaur to this dimension for a potential sequel. It chases the vehicle. The inhabitants of the vehicle all die just as Valerian and Laureline escape to their spacecraft. Can we return to this moment toward the end of the review, please?

Fast forward to Alpha: city of a thousand planets. Home to some interesting alien species. The beautiful special effects were incredible. The city is a series of habitats for the various fantastical creatures. At the centre of Alpha is a mysterious radioactive zone that will wipe out the entire space station within a year if not resolved. Nobody has returned from there alive.

Laureline gets to keep the converter for safe-keeping though everyone thinks the Commander has it. The sparkly long-limbed, bald, blue creatures from Valerian’s dream put everyone to sleep and take the Commander, so presumably they thought the Commander had the converter too. Valerian has discovered that the pearl came from Mül planet, which was destroyed thirty years earlier. Valerian and Laureline have also discovered that nobody knows anything about Mül. It’s classified information. Valerian sets off in search of the Commander. He runs into trouble as well as walls (but, as my father pointed out, he groans at the hard seat as he sits down). Laureline then shows an ounce of passion and jets off after him. Unfortunately, not long after their ‘stay with me’ moment of revival where she saves him, she grabs a butterfly bait and is reeled up to another level by these gross-looking monsters. Valerian has to follow to save her. My dad noticed that he shoots the monster whose fishing line he is dangling from above a deep precipice! Doh!

By the time he can do anything, Laureline is being dressed for dinner in the zone on the other side of the door, so he follows the instructions of the computer voice and goes to a neighbouring nightclub. Here he meets Rihanna who is a shape-shifting exotic dancer called Bubble. Bubble engulfs him and turns them together into one of the monsters. Undercover, they covertly enter the zone where Laureline is being held, and stand in a ritual of holding food to be offered to the ruler. When it gets to Laureline’s turn to offer food, the lemon she is holding on her tray turns out to be seasoning for her brains, about to be clipped out of her skull. Fortunately the monster is stupid and puts the lemon on her hair  – showing in the centre of a giant white hat – instead of her brains, therefore Bubble and Valerian can rescue her. They all escape but Bubble dies.

Next they meet the long-limbed graceful blue creatures who tell them that Valerian’s body is the home to their deceased daughter’s soul. They explain what happened with the planet Mül. They’re obviously very peaceful beings. Nobody likes the Commander much when he wants to kill them all. Valerian is reluctant to give them the converter because he’s a stickler for rules. He’s not supposed to give them government property (he wasn’t supposed to steal the pearl though, hey?). In the end, they give the creatures from Mül both the converter and the pearl. The converter then eats the pearl and shits out thousands of pearl replications, which can generate enough power to re-establish Mül. Happy ending? Not yet. There’s a bit of a war between K-tron robots and everyone else. With many people killed, Valerian and Laureline share a cringe-worthy kiss. Happy ending.

As much as I loved the wonderful Mül existence and will daydream about Alpha and the entire multi-dimensional scenario for several weeks, the movie fell short because the characters were far from multi-dimensional. They’ll survive in a two-dimensional universe but not three or more. They were flat outlines who’d eaten their script and shat out versions of it until Besson called it a wrap. The dialogue was forced like there was foreboding about it. I’m not sure the acting was terrible exactly but rapport was lacking like hot, damp, smelly breath on the eyelids. At the end there was a weird sense of time distortion. Gee, had it been Laureline’s birthday the whole day? Should we care? When the people in the vehicle were all killed, Laureline was excited by her swell converter pet. The psycho! However, when the bald blue beings were threatened with extermination, outrage, how terrible! They weren’t easy characters to make believable. The jarred script didn’t create the kind of hero that Valerian the man (Dane Dehaan) had potential to be. The movie could’ve been an incredible Goonies-style adventure. If only that orange liquid had drenched one of them as they wrestled in their initial scene together, we may have loved them. And our love might have grown for them more than their feigned love for one another.

 valerian-and-laureline-in-valerian-and-the-city-of-a-thousand-planets-2017-4k-is-640x960

MINDHORN (2016) dir. Sean Foley

26 Jun

Back in the 1980s, a television programme called Bergerac staring John Nettles and set on Jersey island, was a household staple in the UK. The hero was a private detective solving the mysteries of Jersey. Closer to France than England, Jersey has brilliant blue skies, beautiful hedgerows, and is a kind of English, exotic, offshore tax haven paradise in the Channel.

There were numerous references to John Nettles in Mindhorn the movie. Set on the Isle of Man in the bleak Irish sea, Mindhorn was a popular television programme in the 1980s, apparently, when actor Richard Thorncroft played Detective Mindhorn, whose eye the Russians had replaced with a cybernetic one. In 2016 Richard Thorncroft advertises support socks and girdles for men. He lives in a flat in Walthamstow. He’s lost that ‘profile’ he needs to find himself cast in anything significant. He often mentions John Nettles.

His ex-costar and ex-girlfriend, Pat Deville, is now a reporter and living with his former stunt double in a big Manx house. His other co-stars are also still on the island and vengeful that he quit the show for Hollywood and thereby ended their careers. Thorncroft (played by Julian Barratt) decides to help out with a real-life murder case with the expectation he’ll be able to salvage something of his former glory.

Thorncroft will play Mindhorn once again in order to lure the suspect in. The Kestrel (the murder suspect pretends to be a kestrel) believes Mindhorn is real, you see.

About half way through the movie, Thorncroft is told he is ‘not only unemployed but unemployable’ by his agent, having epic failed with The Kestrel. The ferry comes to take him back to the mainland and then the action begins. Farcical undoubtedly, laugh-out-loud funny in places, Julian Barratt plays another variation of the boring geography teacher persona he’s well known for as Howard Moon in The Mighty Boosh. 

The surprises are no surprise and the plot twists are no surprise, but Mindhorn is basic British humour in its element. Cheap like the Chuckle Brothers and absurd like Faulty Towers, complete with a traditional village fete, the corporate base and offshore tax haven that is the Isle of Man hasn’t seen such publicity since Joey Dunlop won yet another TT race.

THE FIRST MONDAY IN MAY (2016) dir. Andrew Rossi

20 May

I would’ve loved the director to have taken a hammer to the mirror of society we were privy to. If English-speaking aliens were to come to Earth tomorrow, they could deduce many things about the way we live and contemporary attitudes from this documentary. Perhaps they could ascertain something of the psychology of the masses, the state of being human, the racial impression we’re dressed by every day and with every lasting breath. The First Monday in May is also known as The Met Ball movie, a behind-the-scenes documentary of the Costume Institute’s annual fundraising party, the number one event in modern fashion society’s calendar.

How many of the glitzy celebrities attending the party live in squalor-like conditions with dirty dishes in their sinks or coffee rings on their bedside tables? It wouldn’t hurt to obliterate the self-perpetuating machine of celebrity culture. Instead this documentary reinforces the great separation people insist upon because they exist on another plane, they exist in images, their words are immortalised in interviews, their music now—in the spinning of the world around the sun—is playing at a rate of a thousand laps a moment. Famous people, like gods, are immortalised. What they do supposedly reaches everyone and retains a legacy. Anna Wintour (editor of Vogue, creative director of Conde Nast, household name), will be Anna Wintour for all the scrutiny and eternity and awesomeness there is and was and ever will be. The party is at her command. The party opens an exhibition. This time round the theme was China.

Why am I taking the tack of celebrity culture? Well, you see, there’s this sub-text running through the narrative from the opening first five minutes. Is fashion art? Are clothes art forms? The answers are presented in a subtile way. Dame Wintour thinks the Alexander McQueen exhibition in 2010 changed public perceptions of fashion as art. Baz Lurman, who acted as creative consultant along with Kar-wai Wong, makes some comment about art appearing in galleries and fashion not belonging in a museum context. Not necessarily his own views, I should add. Karl Lagerfeld skirts around his own opinion by talking about dress maker and clothes designer Coco Chanel.

Some people don’t perceive photography as art. I mean it’s a recent development to appreciate certain art forms as art and not mere arts. Applied arts, I think, was the term used to describe the living and breathing art forms residing a shelf higher than the craft category.

When I worked in an art gallery between 2002 and 2005, somehow it was apparent that in their art and in their everyday existence there were many people like myself who were blurring the lines between being alive and being an artist. When MySpace came about, it was fascinating to have found so many other people in the same ideological realm. MySpace was instrumental in the evolution of society in this way. Art became something people were living. People did more than one thing, too. It was possible to be many things all at once. There was no need to apply one label upon oneself and adhere to the label. In fact, why fix any label? MySpace challenged and changed like art itself does. Art is the fluctuating background we create in order to design ourselves new fluctuating camouflage. Art is evolution actively at work.

Passing MySpace it seems strange to question whether certain art forms are art or not. Plus the ideal of celebrity has altered—possibly due to MySpace’s influence on culture. The distance between the Other and ordinary people closed in a little. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram: they’re ways to be closer to your out-of-reach idols. Nevertheless, why do we think celebrities are special people and why do we query whether an art form is an art form is an art form? MySpace delivered.

My number one celebrity moment in the movie was Chloe Sevigny’s disappointed face when she found her table: tucked away in a remote corner. Anna and an assistant had been heard talking about the very same table. “There aren’t any celebrities on here, are there?” asked Anna. No worries, Chloe. I wonder if she felt relegated. There are some superb shots of other celebs dancing and being pally. Dresses that looked great on the red carpet seemed stripped of their glamour once inside. I guess the ordinary person doesn’t get their photograph taken on the red carpet so even jeans and an old t-shirt could look amazing on a famous body there. But under the disco ball you can’t help but wonder what you would make of it if you walked into a local gig and found your friends as overly dressed. Even if it was the Met Ball, the famous faces seemed too familiar, too dressed.

Kar-wai Wong dealt the most Chinese moment. “To see too much is to see nothing,” he said. I was thinking about it for a little while to follow.  They wanted to put pictures of Chairman Mao in a room full of Buddhas, which seems vile from this angle. Imagine Elizabeth II pictures in a room given over to Jesus? Too weird, yeah.

Dragons came into it in a couple of ways. I actually laughed out loud. Information on actress Anna May Wong, then the Chinese Dragon Woman stereotype, then cut to a shot of Anna Wintour in the backseat of her ride. The director next confronted Anna’s public image, which is one of firebreath and terror, though I can imagine her enjoying a cup of proper builder’s tea or a pint of Worthingtons. Dragons later gave another burst of amusement when Lurman gave his consultancy. “How Chinesey… how Chinois-y… do you want it to be?” he says. “Are these dragons?” He quickly passes over the picture of the entrance adorned with two huge lurid green monsters. “Yes,” says Anna confidently. He gives his approval for the less gaudy interior before returning to the dragons, which were then tactfully scrapped.

Making changes to celebrity fees was another matter on the agenda. Rihanna, who wore the most gigantic yellow gown and looked more Hollywood than the sign in the hills, sung to the crowd in another outfit. Rihanna raised the audience’s eyebrows when an assistant e-mailed Anna with, Re: Rihanna’s budget. “It has to come from someone higher up,” says the assistant. “It has to come from you.”

“I feel so much better,” says Rihanna at the rehearsal. Did they or didn’t they pay for her village-sized entourage? Ten thousand people in China could have survived for a hundred years on what we -bleep- we heard she had asked for. Personally, I didn’t think the figure sounded that high. I mean, Rihanna is a famous person. She doesn’t run out of toilet paper or eat baked beans on toast.

We saw the pre-event staff brief taking place but who were the staff? I spotted a glass collector on the dance floor, wedged between some people whose names I don’t remember, kitted out to look like a guest. Discretion is everything. Throughout the documentary there is a sense of it being a last minute affair, which events usually are. What could have been even more insightful for the audience is more focus on the less significant contributors and staff. When the man with the 20 foot perspex rod bamboo garden says that he thinks the light might carry all the way up the rod, what someone with an event background hears is that there is a strong possibility that the light won’t carry all the way to the top of the rods alongside the planned outcome. Once he says this and gives a demonstration on a length of rod, I wished we could watch him suffer as he lies awake at night crossing his fingers and toes that there would be enough rods to fill the space and that his mastermind genius event design idea would come to fruition and work. There’s a lot of risk involved with events.

How could I have written all these words without mentioning Andrew Bolton? He wins the audience’s affections immediately by explaining that when he was asked what he wanted to do in life -as a Lancashire lad aged 17- he had replied with Curator at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan museum. If you please! Remember the universe will help you to achieve your goal and the more extreme or specific the better. Go for it! Andrew Bolton is pure inspiration.

It seemed as though Bolton had decided upon the costumes and done a lot of research before the event was brought on schedule. It seemed pretty early on that he flew to Paris to examine the Saint Laurent vaults. There were just enough of the clothes involved in the exhibition caught on camera. There could have been more exploration of the micro-politics of fashion and the psychology of orientalism. However, we can grasp the sensitivity and questions of taste well from the movie. Without having seen China: Through the Looking Glass I can’t say how much more was in the exhibition.

KIMI NO NA WA (Your Name) – (2016) Makoto Shinkai

5 Nov

My life is perfect. I know it. I don’t need other people to know it. I don’t even tell my friends how perfect my life is in order to protect it. They don’t need to know. Yet improvements continually occur. In Shinjuku tonight a leap was made. I took the Yamanote line—with the green trains—to the biggest and busiest station in the whole world. I came out the most convenient exit, then stomped across the road to a sushi restaurant. The seats with the view I sought were taken. The staff sat me round the counter with my back to the window from which a view of Kabukicho and its neon lit streets can be seen.

Outside the sushi restaurant, looking towards Kabukicho, lies one of my favourite urban scenes. Trains snake through buildings above the road, framed by electric signs and bright flashing lights, in linear chaos. I made my way to the movie theatre. Your Name is one of the most popular Japanese anime movies within Japan. I decided to add to the billions of yen in revenue it’s made. 16 billion yen to date. My theatre ticket was ¥1800. Does that mean 9 million tickets have been sold since it was released in August? That’s difficult to imagine.

The leap I took tonight was going to watch a movie entirely in Japanese. It’s an accomplishment. Obviously I might have not understood it all. I might not have understood any of it. In the end the gist was clear throughout the entire thing though the detail was lost in places. There were quite a few jokes I caught onto. A Japanese spirit entered my body and gathered the meaning without my having to translate.

Spirituality is rife in Japan. Shinto is Japanese organised nature worship. It comes from ancient tribal practices and consists of ritual spells and honouring spirits. It was outlawed outside officiated shrines. Shinto is widespread yet nobody owns it. Superstition surrounding a belief in spirits makes it prone to being laughed at. They don’t explain it so that the outside world can’t ridicule it. At its heart is purity. Everything involved in its rituals is kept special and sacred: pure.

Mitsuha and her younger sister are miko. They’re young girls, with pure souls, who channel the work of spirits. Somehow, after performing a ritual, Mitsuha and a boy called Taki find themselves in each other’s body. Taki feels himself up in Mitsuha’s body. Mitsuha as Taki emerges looking flushed from a bathroom experience. What would you do if you were a high school student in the body of the opposite sex?

Mitsuha lives in a traditional area in the countryside. Taki lives in Shinanomachi in Shinjuku. We can tell it’s Shinanomachi because we recognise the surroundings. We’re familiar with the Tokyo we see in this movie. Shinanomachi is one stop along from Sendagaya, where the Olympics are taking place, in fact when the new stadium is built it will probably be accessible from Shinanomachi too.

There is a place in the movie where a character is stood right by my work looking at the same view I have from the window. If they were to turn their head, they would be looking directly at me. This kind of appeal about the animation (anime) is widespread. It touches the heart of everyone in Tokyo. We’re acquainted with Roppongi and the National Art Museum. The parallel orange Chuo and yellow Sobu, the green Yamanote lines, the most idiosyncratic non-bullet trains in Japan. They’re like the Victoria and the Circle lines. Likewise the skyline of Shinjuku is loved by many people. Yes, there really are trees everywhere, and abandoned rowing boats. The shadows of skyscrapers pass over them and us.

Switching spirits is explored in the animation by creating shadows around birds flying above the lake. Birds are a universal symbol of spirit. Drawing attention to their shadows draws attention to the impression the birds make. Almost more important to body swapping is the impression the teenagers leave for one another. The pictures Mitsuha draws when she’s Taki. The writing Taki leaves on Mitsuha’s hand. Impressions are reinforced by a fleeting observation of a leaf falling to float on the water’s surface. Something bigger casts off our bodies and they come to rest in perfect unison together. Coincidence. Getting a glimpse of a loved one through train doors which align in perfect synchronicity.

Outside of Japan this movie will find appeal because it documents everyday life: breakfast time, leaving the apartment, wandering round Shinjuku. The images are utterly gorgeous. That’s what the interior of a typical classroom is like. That’s what the views from the mountains are like. That’s what a cafe in Roppongi is like. That’s the magic of Japan. Old Japan, countryside Japan, the new Japan found in a cosmopolitan city. Our lives, seen through our eyes, from the perspective of another person who is looking afresh at the way we live.

Within Japan I guess part of the appeal of the movie is how reassuring it is to see one’s own lifestyle turned into a beautiful animation. Japanese people strive so hard to make every little detail about their lives perfect. To see the way we live turned into fantasy is wonderful. Taki prevents Mitsuha from being obliterated by the comet. Life is fragile. Life is designed by some unseen force. We cannot take even being ourselves in our own bodies for granted. We can strive for perfection – though unforeseen change can strike at any moment.

ISLAND IN THE SUN (1957) dir. Robert Rossen

21 Oct

“Oh my island in the sun” the song goes. It pops into my head on occasions when homesickness swells in my veins. As soon as the island way of perceiving the environment was adopted, the song reminded of the falsity of calling it an island, no matter how island-like a place might be. ‘The island’ – as it was known by locals – is a place that calls out to my instincts. Even though in a busier environment, in Harajuku, in the middle of a vast city like Tokyo where there are many things to do, many activities to enjoy, if I’m honest – as much as I love it in the city – I do miss certain things about the island lifestyle.
A lifestyle where winter evenings were spent cosy next to a hearth with roaring embers, while sipping gin. And summers were filled with swimming, working hard, lounging on terraces enjoying great food. It was idyllic. I miss the bonds with nature. I miss the emphasis on the sea. I miss the importance of the weather. I miss the pressures of community spirit. I miss the obtund gossip. I miss the gorgeous environment – subtropical – where it could’ve been a Caribbean island with palms and azure waters if it wasn’t for the murky fish that swam beneath the waves.
Island in the Sun was a good movie choice for a Sunday afternoon with this lusty mindset. It stars Joan Collins (swoon). Colours and sets are opulent in technicolour. Costumes are exquisite. The island location and historical period make race relations the main topic of the movie. A few white men govern a 90% majority of black people. It was a movie of two halves. At more or less exactly half way through, a crime was committed. The crime didn’t add a lot to the plot, though it changed the pace. What brought more drama to the fictitious island was the following sentence printed in a newspaper article:

image
The article went on to reveal the true parentage of Mr. Fleury. The shame! The main family in the story – a prestigious white family – had a secret black ancestor. Joan Collins is 1/32 black! Her brother, running in an election, could persuade the black natives with ‘I’m one of you now!’ to charm their vote from them. It was that ridiculous.
Of course, it was ridiculous and so David Boyeur, an ‘upstart’ (haven’t heard that said about anyone since the village days, in fact haven’t heard a lot said since village days, things that are still influential in my thought patterns, perhaps what is causing this spate of longing), stood up for his people – the island people – by telling Joan Collins’ brother, in a public meeting, that he was delusional. David Boyeur: a man rumored to have powers. We had a glimpse of these when he stopped the crowd’s merry-making just by telling them to be quiet. He’s in an inter-racial relationship with a white woman. He’s a well-respected member of the community, someone who commands the trust of others, no matter what background or race.
At the end of the movie, Joan Collins is a black woman, in an ‘inter-racial’ relationship and starting a new life in England (though the dramatic irony, which kicks in during the second half of the movie, gives the viewer an advantage that the islanders don’t have). Plus the beautiful black checkout assistant (Dorothy Dandridge) from the pharmacy is moving to England to start a new life with the island governor’s white assistant, who was forced to resign due to his inter-racial relationship with her.
In the final scene, David Boyeur’s white girlfriend asked him if they can get married and start a new life together. He then went on a bit of a rant about the importance of the island and the importance of him being on the island – where he is powerful and black – not miles away talking about the island in a place where he is still black but not powerful. And that’s how it ended: David Boyeur ranting to a beautiful blonde against a backdrop of pristine coastline and tempestuous, ravaging seas.
This movie ticked several boxes in my missing rural-coastal isolation checklist:
1. The wonderful scenery and property sets.
2. The great colours and costumes of the 1957 movie world.
3. Watching people living under the silent pressure of community entertain themselves. These kicks aren’t to be found by visiting neighborhood cafes. Even the people I see everyday in the neighborhood – their struggles are imperceivable. The transparency of characters in this movie added something to my day!
As a movie known for its opening song, there’s little singing. It’s not South Sea Pacific and it doesn’t star Elvis. It’s been strange having to draw attention to character’s skin tone when writing this, in life it’s not something that I notice much, not centering around human skin. Overall the sleepy first half followed by the melodramatic conclusion – in a historical window – was just my cup of tea on a quiet, non-eventful Sunday in suburban Harajuku, with its tranquil evening yet to come.

UNDER THE SKIN (2014) dir. Jonathan Glazer

21 Oct


Movies in Japan are a few months behind the latest release. At the moment Under the Skin is playing. Last night I was lying in bed pretty sure that the day was over when I decided to take Joe and Jonny up on an invitation to go on a midnight venture to the movie theatre. It’s been almost half a year since I saw them last. Many days. For posterity I should like to mention that for the first hour, while we waited for Joe, Jonny spent most of the time projectile vomiting in MacDonalds or a 7 Eleven. It was more fun than walking to the 24 hour post office in Shinjuku to find that passbook cash withdrawals are unavailable after 9pm, which was the other thing we did before meeting Joe at Shinjuku station East exit. When Jonny was in the toilet, I read Snow by Orhan Pamuk. It worked out well.

Joe had to lend me the ¥1800 it cost to go to the theatre. Don’t ask why it’s not possible to withdraw on Sunday nights after 9pm. I once made the mistake of researching it and it’s something mindbogglingly dull like there’s nobody to man the desk at the ATM headquarters. Walking through ni-chome to the movie theater, Joe enlightened us about the true nature of closing Yoyogi park. The government and the media have made a big fuss about dengue fever. The gates to Yoyogi are still currently shut. But this means that there’s no platform readily available to the nuclear protesters. Yoyogi is a great space for a large number of people to meet easily to demonstrate. Without it, there isn’t really anywhere for demonstrators to meet and be taken seriously. If they got together outside a station, they would be sneered at for inconveniencing commuters. Joe’s theory makes sense: it is weird that the park continues to remain fenced off now the mozzies are hibernating.

We chose three seats together in the middle of the almost empty auditorium. Jonny had sent a link to the trailer that I didn’t watch. All I knew is that when I asked if it was a period drama, they laughed and said, “no, it’s a sci-fi, kind of”. The opening sequence caught my attention. It seemed to be taking place in space. Something was emerging or focusing. Then the image became an eye – light brown amber eye – with the pupil retracted. A river flowed: a dark channel in a snow covered backdrop. A man on a motorbike collects the body of a woman from the undergrowth and places her in a van. Scarlett Johansson strips the woman and wears the clothes. Even the underwear. From there the story begins.

Scarlett’s character steps out of a building, goes to a shopping mall, selects a fur coat and pink sweater to wear, which seemed to make wearing the dead woman’s attire pointless. Wasn’t she supposed to be pretending to be her? The shopping mall wasn’t one of those fancy spacious American ones. This was clearly the U.K.. It felt crowded. The inhabitants were over-weight. Everything was under loved. Cheap grey or black fabric wrapped around almost every body. Shops displayed their tacky glamour with an inward sense of pride. Their garish products were just there to be bought. The manner in which they were loved was unfathomable to Johansson. It made me a little homesick.

Next Johansson began to drive around the city of Glasgow, talking to young men, asking for directions, taking some in the van. Her utterly heartless behaviour can be seen when she murders a swimmer who has failed to rescue a drowning couple. Their toddler child is alone on the beach crying while she drags the body to the van. Later, to great effect, the man on the motorbike returns to the scene to destroy evidence of the swimmer’s existence. The child still weeps, alone on the shore in the dark. The man walks away unflinchingly.

We learn that Johansson takes the men to empty buildings. She undresses in a room with a black mirrored floor. The men undress and follow her across the room. She continues to walk backwards on the floor as they begin to submerge into it. Very strange indeed. At one point, we’re underneath the floor with one of the victims. Something weird is happening to him. His body creaks. Is he suspended in a fluid? He appears to be able to breathe. Something is going on with his forehead. He spots another man and reaches out to touch him. The other man explodes. A lifeless skin flaps about in the fluid as though a burst balloon. We see a red fluid conveyed through a vent.

At the end of the movie I still didn’t understand this scene at all. Jonny said, “It’s simple. She was murdering the men for their skin for the man on the bike to wear. When they got taken to that place under the floor, their insides were being removed. She began to become too human and experience sympathy so she ran away. The man was looking for her.” She is, of course, an alien. We can be sure of this at the end. The certainty alone made me want to watch this movie again. As we spoke about what we’d each noticed, the conclusion drawn was that there was so much silent detail in this movie it can only end up being a cult classic. Initially though, I’m not sure that I liked it. It felt mysterious in the same way as an amateur short does. Hashed together.

One day later, I feel that I love it. There’s so much to see another time round. Things that made little sense will be clearer with the knowledge she’s not of Earth. She can’t eat human food. She’s worried that her skin has torn after she has sex. Is the man on the motorbike wearing the skin of the previous men she seduced? Do they need the skins for more aliens to wear? Are more coming? The black and white colour scheme was pretty revealing. What more can be seen through that? Did I know one of the extras talking on her phone in a doorway? Gemma from Chester, was that you? Were there scenes near the end filmed ten minutes from where my parents live? (Update – Yes, there were). The questions have kept coming all day, today, another rotation of the Earth.

Later, when were drinking on the street in the vice-laden area of Kabukicho, the thought of comparing this movie to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey made more sense than it did before we’d left the cinema. Today, after reading many reviews that say a wide range of things, I’m impressed. My favorite review is this one from The Guardian newspaper. How is it possible for every critic to say something entirely different? There’s almost no dialogue. Imagery is paramount. There’s so much always-already there. Not to leave out Micachu, who has done a splendid job of producing a soundtrack that instantly transports to other points in time.

We often feel like we’re living on a different planet by being in Japan. It was a fun evening out watching the grotesque show of humanity, people watching at first on screen, watching an alien try to comprehend Glasgow. Then in the street surrounded by strange liquids that splashed up my bare legs, vomit, urine and endless bright caricatures lit by neon signs, chatting, staring, possessing what they see with their eyes.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988) dir. Isao Takahata

28 Sep

image

Somewhere, a little while back, I read that Grave of the Fireflies was voted number one anime in a poll. When I watched it, the horror of it came as a surprise. It’s not a cuddly animation full of magic and mystery like many. Other Studio Ghibli movies have left the sugariest candy-coated memories in my mind. Their pastel colours and innocent protagonists make me smile at the idea of living in a chalet/barn conversion surrounded by flowers, (which was where I lived when the Studio Ghibli phase happened). It’s worth watching, to be fair, if anime is your kind of entertainment. You might see other anime movies that you prefer though.

Grave of the Fireflies is set during the Second World War. We see Seita slumped against a pillar, relieved to finally be dead, on 21st September 1945. Then a cleaner throws away a candy box he finds in Seita’s pocket. Suddenly we’re enchanted by on-screen glowing fireflies, much romanticised, a sublime encounter with forces of nature. When they go, we’re back in happier times – well, still it’s wartime. An air raid siren has sounded. Seita quickly buries the valuables in the garden, an act that both saves his life and contains some irony, as he resorts to theft of valuables during later air raids to stay alive. That the mother dashes off to the air raid shelter, leaving her two kids behind to follow, could be implausible. But frankly, it’s Japan. The children weave their way through the fire-bombing of Kobe only to survive.

Possibly the mother should’ve stayed with her offspring. She was less fortunate and got caught in the bombings. Badly wounded, she passes away. Seita keeps the news of her death a secret from his little sister, Setsuko. They go to an aunt’s house. She offers them a room. But they quickly outstay their welcome by not being useful enough. Setsuko keeps crying and Seita isn’t at an age where he’s capable of taking command of the social situation. He could try to look like he wants to keep the aunt happy. He could apologise and do as she asks. But he doesn’t. His stubborn ways infuriate the aunt and her family more and more. She takes the mother’s kimono to exchange for rice. Rations are applicable. Food is in shortage. She tells Seita to feed himself. She doesn’t give him any rice.

After finding a means to acquire his own rice, Seita and Setsuko find a shelter next to a lake to create a makeshift house. At night they capture fireflies, the glow from which they use to see by. The following morning, Setsuko buries the tiny firefly bodies in a grave. They feed themselves at first by trading their stuff with a farmer. Next, when rations are stricter, they resort to theft, waiting until the raids to operate unnoticed. Setsuko grows increasingly sick; Seita takes her to a doctor. He confirms what we already know: she needs a decent meal. Seita leaves her temporarily to go and find money to buy food. While he’s away he discovers that Japan has surrendered. It’s also mentioned that none of the Japanese navy remains, which means his father – his beacon of hope – has died too. When he returns to Setsuko, she dies. He cremates her body and puts her ashes in a candy box. The End.

You can do quite a lot in an animation (by the way, anime is a shortened form of the word) that would be too saddening or disturbing if produced in the supposed real world using photography. Body parts, maggots on corpses, a child with malnutrition impacts with less shock when drawn. Scenes like the smoldering city. Depressing imagery, isn’t it? What purpose does it serve? I can’t help but think that the movie must be an allegory. It’s certainly left that taste. After giving it some consideration, let’s see how World War II itself fits.

The key issue is that Seita refuses to live on his aunt’s terms and apologise. He and Setsuko have invaded her house. They’ve also lost their mother. Japan before WWII began to lose its traditions. Japan invaded China and Vietnam, the Dutch East Indies. Japan refused to do what the rest of the world wanted it to in the quest for imperialism and domination. Yes, there’s definitely something allegoric.

So, if we explore, what’s the exchanging the kimono for rice about? Well, if the kimono symbolises traditions or beliefs and rice: power, the Japanese were impressing their beliefs on the rest of Asia in exchange for power juxtaposed by the West. But the rest of Asia became empowered by the West. Not Japan. And the starvation and death of Setsuko? Traditions like wearing a kimono began to lose hold. Some traditions were unsustained and have died out. Eventually Japan itself – as it was before the war – has died out through a lack of sustaining tradition and also through the extensive rebuilding and modernisation that occurred as a consequence of the firebombing.The fireflies are like the Japanese people during wartime, taken against their will and serving a purpose by shedding light, working together to enlighten the nation. Also fireflies burn bright until they dispose of life. Their lives mean as much as that.

Here is a link to the whole movie.

ENTER THE VOID (2009) Gaspar Noe

2 Mar

This movie has found me. Last weekend a man in a nightclub mentioned it, then a striking image included in a digital magazine drew my eye: a still from the same movie. The neon triggered a memory of seeing the trailer and wanting to watch it. I like life in neon.
The guy in the club didn’t say too much about Enter the Void. The movie ends with the words ‘The Void’ as we’re somehow flung into the underlying plot: the self-analysis of our own lives. Some things are best left unsaid. Dazed and Confused gave a synopsis when including it in their article about mind-fucking films. Once I’d read it, I couldn’t wait to see it.

It’s about an American bloke, Oscar, who lives in Tokyo. He smokes DMT, hallucinates and gets a call to go and meet Victor. He walks to the meeting place – The Void – with his mate Alex. On the way there they talk about The Tibetan Book of the Dead and, ironically, what happens to the soul when a person dies. Almost as soon as Oscar walks into The Void club cops descend upon the place. He runs into the bathroom and tries to stall them. They shoot him. He dies.
The rest of the movie is a transcendental vision from the in-between that recounts childhood moments with his sister Linda, the traumatic death of their parents, the events that led to Victor setting him up to get busted. These flashbacks are interspersed with ariel shots taken from above the city. Through these we follow his sister and how she’s coping with life in the world without him.
It ends with a scene where the omnipresent witness has shifted into his friend Alex’s consciousness, while he is making love to Linda; the camera follows sperm moving towards an egg. Then Linda and the protagonist’s mother merge into one while giving birth. It might be a new incarnation. It might be that life is a loop, one long Vine, playing over and over.
The two most outstanding things about this film are psycho-geographic visuals and the experiential gain of having seen it. If you enjoy hallucinating or enticing epilepsy with bright flashing colours, then this will be your kind of movie, even if the pace is a little slow. If you want to know what union with nirvana is about, then you might prefer to look elsewhere. The greatest failing of the movie is that once Oscar is dead an emotional state less concentrated transfers to the viewer.

The night before I watched Enter the Void, I was wandering around Sanchome in Shinjuku, lost, in awe at the neon signs, appreciating the static and thinking about what an animated, trippy environment it is. It’s the only place in Tokyo where I’ve felt surrounded by that criminality associated with cities in Europe. Even the ghettos are fairly smart. The muggings, pickpockets, prostitution, homelessness and all the other joys of urban life are closer to the surface in this area of Tokyo. Yet this is a part of the city that is very different visually to a European city.
Buildings in Japan have a lot happening on all floors, not just the ground floor, like in London. (There is an elevator law that insists upon installing one if the building is seven floors or above. The result is that a lot of buildings have six floors). It’s not unusual to find a nightclub on the 4th floor surrounded by offices, restaurants, boutiques, apartments and beauticians above and below.
To draw our attention to what is going on higher than street level, there are signs that run all the way up and down the building, indicating what is on each floor. In Shinjuku, in Nichome and Sanchome, these signs – along with shop fronts – are very brightly lit and spaced closely to each other, causing a sensation of stepping inside a fruit machine. Being immersed in so much light, coming from so many different angles, is an experience.
I rented the DVD (downloading is illegal in Japan) from the giant Tsutaya shop on Shibuya Scramble, the busiest road crossing in the world. I asked an assistant to help me look. We searched on the computer and it didn’t come up so I said, “Shinjuku”.
“Ah-ah!” she exclaimed, before darting up the aisle and returning with a copy. Obviously.

The headachey static of Shinjuku is more present in the trailer than it is in the film. Not to worry though, it is very psychedelic, disconnected and ambivalent if you like that sort of thing. Today I have an electric sensation of the film as a memory. Maybe the whole thing is an incarnation recollecting an incarnation? Plus from time to time I’ve thought ‘well at least I’m alive unlike that bloke in that film,’ which was slightly shocking to think of as a lot of the movie doesn’t include him at all. Unless the back of his head – on a journey into nowhere – counts.
If you’re interested in the spiritual side of it, psychoanalytical literature often employs allegory to explore ideas of identity. Unconsciousness: it’s worth getting your fangs into. Enter the Void is a psychoanalytical lucid dream. Possibly, even absurdly, a dream untrue.

The Lady Vanishes (1938) Hitchcock

28 Oct

Aaah this is still a draft

Historicism is something to salivate over. Most modern cinema is too recent for its historical content to be worth scrutiny, passed onto digital formats for the supposedly anti-decaying properties, which personally I think is erroneous. I’ve seen faint beams of light, in more than one online image, become crystalline. Ultimately time alone will tell how presence occupies digital reserves. Film corrodes and alters in time. Who knows what will occur with other mediums? How could we possibly tell? The Lady Vanishes for free on YouTube.com was a real eye opener, mainly because it’s set in 1938, when tensions between European nations were a paramount media topic. The historical content, both direct and indirect, a thing of beauty for the viewer or a cinema historian.

The opening titles are played over what resembles a black and white interpretation of an alpine oil painting. Then cue the action and the camera pans round from a height: this is real not some painting. There is slight movement juxtaposed against the still backdrop. The camera moves out impossibly off the edge of the precipice. We’re above a train lying half buried in snow, growing closer, zooming closer, until we’re almost level with a moving car. Then we reach the first location of the movie: a hotel.

Inside the hotel we’re introduced to the main characters: a bickering couple; some young assured ladies; a couple of Englishmen; a middle-aged governess; and a folk-dance historian. We’re also introduced to some English idiosyncrasies that are to become themes throughout the movie. Marriage is a theme: one of the young ladies is to return to London to be wed because ‘what else is left?’ for her, the couple (who are married to other people we learn) consist of a dissatisfied, disempowered woman and her decisive partner. Carelessness and disregard are also a theme with the peculiar Englishness of giving the appearance of caring and expecting this to be reciprocated.

The Englishmen muse upon the importance of showing respect for another’s culture by standing for the Romanian national anthem and then humorously reveal that they were the only people standing. They certainly show no regard or respect for the hotel yet demand a level of hospitality that is beyond the proprietor’s power; they’re given the maid’s room, sulking ironically rather than with gratitude, when she needs to use it momentarily. The folk-dance historian goes beyond rude to become ‘the most disagreeable person I’ve ever met in all my life’ according to the young lady who is to be married.

Then the mystery begins with a shadowy pair of hands wrapping round the throat of a musician outside, still unnoticed as the inhabitants of the hotel board the train the following morning, when another creepy pair of hands pushes a wooden plant container off a windowsill directly above the governess but unfortunately striking the young lady upon the head instead.

The setting changes to the train. The governess accompanies the lady for tea, where the Englishmen are debating cricket, writing her name casually in the steamy window: Froy. She hands over her own herbal concoction popular in Mexico to be prepared by the steward. The lady takes a turn for the worse and the two women enter a compartment with several Victorian looking Europeans. She falls asleep. When she awakens, not only is Miss Froy nowhere to be found, but nobody on the train has seen her at all.

The Europeans deny she was ever in the compartment; the steward shows the lady a bill to prove that she took tea for one, regular tea, not herbal; the married couple, whom Miss Froy stumbled upon, have no knowledge; the Englishmen, not wanting to be delayed for the test match, say they have no recollection…

THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA (1990) dir. Jud Taylor

17 Oct

Do you have any fleeting memories of films that you saw and enjoyed as a child? There are two that stand out for me: in one, people are on an island crossing rope bridges over a steady lava flow, while in another a man has caught a fish that grows and grows, pulling him out to sea. It was in search of the latter that I stumbled upon The Old Man and the Sea, a television movie made in 1990, starring Anthony Quinn.

Without checking the 1958 version, I can’t be sure that this is the film from that afternoon at my grandparents house, although the man wrestling with a giant marlin out at sea was a familiar shot. The movie is based upon the Ernest Hemingway story of 1952 and had previously been dramatized starring Spencer Tracey. At this moment, I’ve neither read the story nor watched the other movie, so can’t draw any comparisons or analyze too much the symbolism that the director was trying to give the viewer a sniff of.

The plot is that an Cuban old man, Santiago, has gone 84 days without a catch on his line. The other fisherman are saying he is unlucky and to stay away from him. A boy, Manolo, remains loyal. His daughter is trying to persuade him to give up fishing and move to Havana to live with her. Meanwhile, a American couple – a writer and his wife – are in the village, asking questions about the old man.

The old man goes fishing alone. He is gone for three days. The giant marlin that he eventually reels in – tied to the side of the boat – gets eaten by sharks. He returns with the skeletal remains attached to the boat. There is the strong impression that it all means something more than what is presented on the surface. It has the quality of a parable.

The deeper symbolism is hinted at by the director during a cheesy retrospective of the man’s life as he drifts out at sea. As a young man, he sneaks off with his newly wed wife: “This morning, at our wedding, I gave you my heart and now I give you…”. Cut back to the old man talking to himself about fish, dedicating himself to fish, giving his life to fish. What’s a fish about, huh?

Like all great made-for-TV movies, there is the cheese-factor, you know, lines that are way too rehearsed, acting that isn’t really acting rather ego jutting out here and there from behind a casual newspaper, wobbly walls and feigned surprise. My favorite of these cringe-worthy moments is the boy talking about Mr and Mrs Marlin to the American tourists. It’s so bad it’s brilliant. The way the woman pulls her face away from the camera when she asks how long the male fish stayed by the boat with the female fish on it and the boy replies “until she was butchered”. It’s a cinematic classic!