Tales of the Night (2011, Michel Ocelot)

Michel Ocelot presents these six inventive fairytales using silhouette animation and the latest 3-D technology.  Tales of the Night is a bewitching mixture of classical storytelling with a modern sensibility.  Ocelot is inspired by traditional folk tales from around the world, as well as real events; the human sacrifice rituals performed by the Aztecs for instance, but the resulting stories are witty and fresh.
The Werewolf’
Ocelot riffs on a familiar theme in fairytales, transformation.  A handsome horseman marries a woman because he mistakenly believes she was the one who sent him gifts while he was in prison.  So he reveals his terrible secret to her on their wedding day. 
‘Ti-Jean and Beauty Not-Known’
Young Ti Jean breezes into the Land of the Dead and finds himself faced with an impossible set of tasks by the King of the Underworld.  Can Ti Jean win the hand of the King’s daughter Beauty Not-Known?  Does the laid back young adventurer even care?
‘The Chosen One of the City of Gold’
A stranger is appalled to find the beautiful women of the City of Gold are all sad.  The reason for this soon becomes clear.  They are to be sacrificed to a mysterious creature which keeps the city intact.  The stranger resolves to end this barbaric practice once and for all but must face down both the monster and the people who follow it. 
‘Tom-Tom Boy’
Tom-Tom annoys the hell out of the villagers in his small African town by using makeshift objects as drums.  When an old man teaches him to use a magic drum he finds he has the power to make people dance. 
‘The Boy Who Never Lied’
A boy with a talking horse has a reputation for always being honest.  The King of Tibet place a bet with his cousin on that the boy will never tell a lie no matter what.  The cousin gets his daughter to play a cruel trick on the boy and tries to manipulate him into lying.
‘The Girl-Doe and the Architect’s Son’
A sorcerer turns a woman into a doe in front of her lover.  So he embarks on a quest to find The Caress Fairy who can turn his love back into a human again.
Though children will enjoy this animated film, there is a dark heart behind many of the stories.  Ocelot’s tales acknowledge death.  They show love can be cruel, people even more so, particularly in ‘The Boy Who Never Lied’ which ends with a grievous loss.  Tales of the Night should appeal to those who admire revisionist versions of fairytales such as Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984).

Hara Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011, Miike Takashi)

“Just waiting for Spring”

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai will no doubt disappoint those expecting another action-packed epic like 13 Assassins (2010), director Takashi Miike’s previous entry in this genre This is no crowdpleaser, but a slow-moving tragedy in which martial notions of honour are found wanting. A remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s haunting 1962 film Hara-Kiri it is remarkably faithful to the original but stands on its own as a work of art.

Miike is best known for the outrageous acts of violence he puts onscreen, much to the chagrin of longtime admirers who know from films like Rainy Dog (1997), Blues Harp (1998), and the wonderful Dead or Alive 2: Birds (2000), Miike can be a subtle and moving filmmaker when he wants to be. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai critiques the notions of honour the samurai hold so dear and has more in common with Yoji Yamada’s elegiac The Twilight Samurai (2002) than anything Miike has done before.

In 17th century Edopeaceful times have rendered many samurai impoverished and masterless. One such Ronin, Hanshiro (Ebizo Ichikawa), arrives at the respected House of Il and asks for permission to commit Hara-Kiri in their courtyard. Their leader Kugeyu, played by 13 Assassins leading man Koji Yakusho, tells a story about a young Samurai who made a similar request some months ago.

Motome (Eita) was trying to pull off a “suicide bluff,” an increasingly common practice at the time in which samurai would approach a house of some repute and threaten suicide only to accept charity instead. The House of Li decides enough is enough and demands Motome carry out Hara-Kiri using the makeshift bamboo sword he carries instead of a real blade. It is a gruesome sequence, yet one completely lacking in gore. Miike uses sound design in the most disturbing way so we hear every twist of wood in Motome’s stomach. Kugeyu is not put off by this horrible tale. He has his own story of woe and reveals just why he chose to come to the House of Li to end his life.

Produced by Jeremy Thomas (The Last Emperor) with an eye towards the arthouse market, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai sees Miike on his best behaviour and expertly using a classical style of filmmaking. The performances of the two leads are both excellent with Ichikawa combining sensitivity with an impressive physical grace. Yahusho’s casting recalls his work as the noble warrior in 13 Assassins and lets Miike play with audience expectations about how the enigmatic Kugeyu will behave.

The use of 3D is impressive and might even win over some of the technology’s naysayers. Miike frames most of the action in and around the homes of the Samurai, just living their lives as Hanshiro points out at a key moment. Something Miike values more than any notions of honour, especially those that can be subverted to suit the needs of those in authority.

A Dangerous Method – Review

A Dangerous Method may seem atypically serene for a David Cronenberg film but his restrained approach suits the material. Essentially this adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure and John Kerr’s book A Most Dangerous Method is a series of conversations between four of those involved in the start of the psychiatry movement. Yet all Cronenberg’s thematic concerns are present. They are verbalised rather than shown onscreen which may annoy those who wish Cronenberg would start making ‘body horror’ movies again.  A Dangerous Method is about the things people repress in order to function effectively within society and the emerging approaches to treating them when find they are unable to cope. This contrast between the very formal setting and people’s inner thoughts is more profound precisely because Cronenberg allows them to explain how they feel without recourse to dream sequences or such like.
The film begins in 1904 with Jung successfully treating a young woman named Sabine Spielrein (Keira Knightley) using Sigmund Freud’s ‘talking cure.’ Jung allows her to assist in his experiments and the two eventually become lovers fulfilling her need for sado-masochistic pleasure. A fractious relationship develops over the next decade between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Freud (Viggo Mortensen) with both men finding disappointment in the other. The first meeting between protege and mentor goes congenially enough but their differences are already apparent. Jung objects to Freud’s inflexibility and his refusal to deviate from his theory about sex being the root cause of human behaviour. Jung wants to improve people not see them as they are. “There are so many mysteries; we have so much further to go.” A wild card entry arrives in the form of rampaging poet Otto Gross (Vincent Cassell) who insists nothing should ever be repressed regardless of the consequences.Spielrein, stunningly played by Knightley in a performance many have derided but I found to be her best work yet, also embarks on a career as a psychiatrist and if nothing else A Dangerous Method should see a reassessment of her contributions to psychoanalytical theory. 
Cronenberg’s movies have always taken a clinical interest in the clash between the body and the self and the possibility of transformation. A Dangerous Method continues in this vein. Oddly enough it recalls not his previous incursion into period drama territory M Butterfly (1993) but his underrated William Burroughs adaptation Naked Lunch (1991) which is also about an emerging group of thinkers, the Beat Generation. Admittedly that film saw people act out their most inner desires, while conversing with giant talking insects, and taking mind-altering substances which transported them into a dream zone. Cronenberg is on subtler form here but this is a fascinating companion piece about the need to understand and articulate the human condition. 

X: Night of Vengeance – Review

Is it me or is there some kind of subtle agenda hidden in Australian films these days? A warning for anybody contemplating moving to Australia to think again. Maybe Australia’s cities are overpopulated and this is their way of keeping the numbers down. There has always been an underlying violence in Australian cinema but they are really going for it now with works like Underbelly (TV), Animal Kingdom (David Michôd), and Snowtown (Justin Kurzel). Bloody hell Snowtown, try getting Snowtown out of your head once you’ve seen it. Now here’s director Jon Hewitt with another film about how dangerous Australians are. X: Night of Vengeance is a stylish thriller in which a high-class prostitute spends her last night as a working girl trying to stay alive after she witnesses a corrupt cop killing a drug dealer.
Holly (Viva Bianca) dreams of escaping to Parisbut has one more night to pull tricks before leaving Sydney forever. Holly’s last gig is a threesome with drug dealer Willie (Hazem Shammas), but her colleague finds herself indisposed. So Holly quickly replaces her partner with 17-year old runaway Shay (Hannah Mangan-Lawrence). Shay has only recently arrived in Sydney and is hopelessly out of her depth. Their evening goes well enough until Bennett (Stephen Philips) arrives and shoots their client in the head three times. Holly and Shay escape but find themselves hunted by Bennett throughout the Cross, a neon-lit area filled with sex clubs viewers of Underbelly: The Golden Mile will recognise but for the uninitiated feels like Soho twinned with Hell.
Ignore the clumsy title, X: Night of Vengeances is a slick genre movie with a compelling performance from Spartacus beauty Viva Bianca. Now that’s a fabulous name, Viva Bianca. Do not mistake this for a serious film about the sex industry. This is an urban fairytale with Shay as the girl who wanders from the path into the forest where the monsters live. It is a place filled with broken dreams. Everybody Shay meets is looking for a way out, hustling for money, prostituting themselves, or using other people for their own gain. Even the kindly young taxi driver (Eamon Farren) who forms a bond with Shay, and is noticeable for being the only sympathetic male character in the film, is working the night shift so he can earn enough money to fulfill his own dreams of escape. 
Filmed on location in Sydneydirector of photography Mark Pugh makes great use of colour and there’s a tawdry cheap and nasty feel that recalls Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion (1984). The screenplay by Hewitt and Belinda McClory is occasionally portentous and relies too much on coincidence but Hewitt keeps the action moving and with a length of 85 minutes X: Night of Vengeance never outstays its welcome. 

Moneyball – Baseball Manager 2011

Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon Copyright 2011 Columbia Tristar

Don’t know much about baseball except Bull Durham (Ron Shelton 1988) is Kevin Costner’s finest hour, and the game’s romanticism, love of nostalgia and its working class history fulfil the same function in the American psyche as football does in Britain. Nowadays both sports are all about the money. The team with the most cash usually wins. The game is rigged to favour those who can afford it. Everybody else is making up the numbers. Moneyball is the first great movie about modern sport, unsentimental in its approach, often deconstructing the old-fashioned myths about baseball, yet still despite itself being in love with the game.

In 2002 Oakland Athletics manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) found a way to challenge the system by using statistics to find players who were highly effective but overlooked by the bigger teams. In the movie Beane teams up with Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a young economics graduate from Yale, the duo built an unfancied team of challengers to the super-rich New York Yankees. Brand is a composite character based on a number of people in the book ‘Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game’ by Michael Lewis. We see Beane having meetings with his team of scouts who blab on about physicality and even on one occasion why players with ugly girlfriends don’t have the confidence to play major league baseball.

 As with The Social Network (David Fincher 2010) Aaron Sorkin, here co-writing with Steven Zaillan, is more interested in showing how the differing factions involved in this story interact with each other. Beane’s new ideas naturally enough encounter resistance most notably from his team coach, played by an unrecognisable Philip Seymour Hoffman, who initially refuses to follow his manager’s lead. The on field action is almost a sideshow to the behind the scenes activity.

We only ever see excerpts on TV, or hear radio commentary. Beane doesn’t even watch the games himself, leaving just before the action starts. Half the time he is shown driving around in his car. Pitt is remarkable in his best ever performance combining movie star charisma with a melancholic edge. Hill too is good as the geeky numbers expert who is surprised when somebody actually listens to him. Bennett Miller’s direction is subtle recalling Steven Soderbergh but without any of his showiness. 

Baseball movies are about as popular in the UK as football is over there but Moneyball is riveting. Oddly enough it reminds me of Football Manager back in the days before the 3D match engine when friends would look at the screen and wonder why I was obsessed with a game which appeared to be made up of spreadsheets. If some bright spark could take Beane’s theory and apply it to Scottish football and smash the tiresome bullying influence of the Old Firm that would be very welcome.

Snowtown – The Most Memorable Film You’ll Want to Forget

There are only a couple of hundred residents in Snowtown and not much in the way of local amenities. The local bank shut down in the late 90’s and an outsider from Adelaide rented the premises. John Bunting stored barrels containing the dismembered bodies of eight people in the bank’s vault. They were filled with acid which presumably Bunting thought would dissolve the remains. Instead he was inadvertently preserving them by using the slower acting hydrochloric acid. The police were suspicious when Bunting’s associate Robert Joe Wagner was linked to three missing persons-reports and began investigating the duo. This led to them the bank where they found the barrels along with their killing tools. These crimes were nothing to do with the townsfolk of Snowtown, but now Bunting’s handiwork carries their name.
As does Justin Kurzel’s movie Snowtown which is one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen. It is an endurance test, particularly during a prolonged strangulation which is horrifying in its intimacy. Yet Snowtown is undoubtedly a moral work, never glamorising Bunting (Daniel Henshall), but instead showing how this amiable soft spoken outsider was able to manipulate a teenager into becoming his accomplice. We see everything through the eyes of Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) as he learns his matey new father figure is in fact a ruthless killer targeting homosexuals or those he suspects of being paedophiles. There are no characters offered to the audience to provide some kind of respite from this horror, no scenes of policemen putting together a case, or any sense of moral order . We’re trapped watching Jamie slide into the abyss.
Jamie might be 16 but he’s already worn down, a rape victim, easily led. Had somebody else gotten to him first they might have been able to point him in the right direction but he’s easy pickings for a manipulator like Bunting. The lives we are shown in this grim sunless suburb of Adelaide seem empty and hopeless. Save for a scene where there is a dance in a local pub and director Justin Kurzel uses slow motion for a moment making the scene strangely poignant. This is the only moment of compassion on show in Snowtown.
Maybe the film is more bearable for it. Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant imply these murders were emblematic of a disenfranchised underclass feeding on each other. They have no interest in making us care about these characters. The deaths of Clinton Trezise and Michael Gardiner don’t fit into this pattern. They are not in the movie either as both men were murdered before Bunting met Jamie. The details are heartbreaking though. Trezise had slight learning difficulties but was apparently happy and excited to be living on his own for the first time. Gardiner was only 19-years old, openly gay, and liked to dress flamboyantly. They were missed. Not by many it seems, but they were missed.