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The Hidden Blade

Yoji Yamada. Japan. 2004

The Hidden Blade may look like another Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero, but itís not. First off, there is no tree ballet. Secondly, The Hidden Blade focuses on a small community in 19th century feudal Japan who donít set out to save the empire, or save the planet, but to make the right decisions.

Morality plays a huge part in this film, and the realities of warfare, caste systems and loneliness are the obstacles that must be overcome. Munezo Katagiri lives in a small village with his sister, his friends Samon and Yaichiro and his familyís maid, Kie, whom he likes but cannot marry due to social proprieties. The film begins with the group saying goodbye to Yaichiro as he leaves for Tokyo.

As the Samurai way of life begins its movement towards becoming simply a tradition, military leaders in the capital send a specialist to the village to train warriors in the new military ways. The sword is becoming replaced by the gun and all that is natural is becoming the past. Munezo becomes caught up between defending tradition, loving Kie and facing a person now revealed to be the new enemy: Yaichiro.

The Hidden Blade is a beautifully constructed film, which deftly communicates the themes that lie deep at the heart of Japanese heritage. Feudal Japan looks authentic Ė not the cardboard cut-outs of the more Hollywoodised samurai epics. The colours are muted and dreamy and the harsh realities of Munezoís life are depicted with clarity and dexterity through precise camerawork.

Despite being a film of technical and emotional prowess, The Hidden Blade lacks a spark which might have set audiences alight. Perhaps the Japanese epics have been overdone, or perhaps with the choice of so much wuxia-pian (the flying swordsman genre), a down-to-earth Samurai tale of morality is too ephemeral to be snapped up. Or perhaps the swashbuckling excitement of Munezoís story is overpowered by the meditative cinematography and music.

The Hidden Blade may be too slow for the story it tells, but the visuals will keep you watching. Meandering along, but never stalling, the movie contains much of what is so lacking in Japanese cinema at the moment: morals.



Top Spot
Tracey Emin. UK. 2004

Tracey Emin is not exactly known for her subtlety. Her unmade bed and Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 display her dirty laundry (literally) for all to see. Top Spot is her first film, and at just 63 minutes, Iím unsure whether it can be considered feature length. The film focuses on a few months in the lives of six teenage girls in Margate. Taking the form of a series of interviews with Emin herself, the girls talk about their experiences of growing up. Mainly sexual, the girls paint a diverse picture of teenage feelings, passions, insecurities and pain.

Sometimes frightfully opaque Ė particularly when the DV or Super 8 footage lets in too much background noise for the dialogue to be heard Ė and sometimes disturbingly frank, Eminís intrusive film tells stories that are so horrific and so naively narrated that they seem perfectly and awfully real.

Like her artwork, Eminís film is a patchwork of many elements. The Ďinterviewsí and footage are laced up with Roxy Music and Donna Summer tracks. The overall effect is slightly irritating; the effort to keep hold of whatís happening to whom and to catch what each girl says sometimes threatens to outweigh the information gained.

The film is shocking and controversial, but we expected nothing less. Emin is said to have been furious at the classification of the film as an 18 certificate. Although this seems just considering the difficult subject matter of rape, abuse and suicide, it is perhaps a shame that the film's audience will be kept from seeing a pertinent and eye-opening film. Hopefully I have not made the film out to be more exciting than it is. It tells distressing stories but as a film, it is not one to be judged on entertainment value.

This is a film for teenage girls, a warning and a portrayal of the raw feelings which everyone experiences growing up. The autobiographical element, in all its obviousness, is not crucial to the film. Eminís departure from Margate in the finale almost damages the entire venture by collapsing the film so that it is all about a single person, when the truth of the narrative can be applied as a message to everyone.



Ozu: Volume Three

Yasujiro Ozu. Japan. 1957

Yasujiro Ozuís films are often considered repetitive, sparse and slow-moving. His refusal to film in anything other than 4:3 Academy Ratio and his move to colour only in 1958 have made many regard him as conservative and rigid. However, this collection of three of his films marks his move from black and white to colour photography and it proves that Ozuís success as a director and vision as a filmmaker are not dependent on whether the film contains colours or not.

The first film in this collection is Tokyo Twilight. Ozuís last black and white film powerfully addresses the changes from traditional to modern Japan. Two sisters living with their father confront several secrets, including the whereabouts of their long-lost mother and an illegitimate pregnancy. Attention to detail is noticeable in all of Ozuís films, but perhaps mostly in Tokyo Twilight, where the placement of props and swift backward glances highlight the subtlety of family life as it moves into the modern era.

Following the twilight years between darkness and colour, Ozuís first colour film, Equinox Flower confronts the relationship between father and daughter as they negotiate the unchartered waters of un-arranged marriage. Once again, the pull of tradition of strong and seems to occupy the characters physically, as if exerting its own gravitational force. Equinox Flower contrasts the father-daughter relationship with many other blossoming relationships that serve as a foil for the leading pair.

The third film in the collection is Good Morning. This is one of the lesser known Ozu films and takes the form of a muted comedy which uses irony and humour to consider social values. Two young boys in a close-knit suburban community request a TV, the purchase of which would signify a big change towards the ever more Westernised Japan, and would become public knowledge in their neighbourhood before the cables could be plugged in. Confronted with a resounding Ďnoí the boys resort to silence, commenting on the emptiness of adult conversation and propelling the community towards a consideration of the impacts of consumerism, whether for better or worse.

These three films represent a turning point in Japanese history, as well as one in Ozuís career. Each film comments on separate aspects of Japanese society in its twilight years and communicates the issues through families and communities. Moving from darkness and despair through to toilet humour and sumo wrestling, Ozuís stark films are as bold in colour as they are in black and white and as thought-provoking as the unflinching eye of his camera.



A Bittersweet Life

Kim Ji-Woon. South Korea. 2005 

So, ready for your next dose of noir-meets-manga in Korea? Well here it is. Kim Ji-Woon, the bloke who brought us A Tale of Two Sisters and Three, is back with a vengeance. In A Bittersweet Life, Sun-woo is the tough gangster who pays a price for a moment of what most would call compassion, but what his boss unfortunately calls weakness.

Stylistically, Bittersweet is flawless. The colours, sounds and cinematography cannot be faulted. Bittersweet launches you from one scene to the next, twisting you with its characters from extreme violence (and I mean extreme) to stark, chiaroscuro, noir tension.

Sun-woo pays a bloody price for his emotions, and so does the audience. Any pity we feel, any seeds of identification that Bittersweet waters, get shot straight down in rivulets of blood and gore. And hey, I'm not complaining, I like a nice gory movie. But if Bittersweet wants to move away from the ultra-violence which, let's face it, has been SO done before, it had the perfect opportunity with which to expand into an even more moody piece. Sadly it didn't quite make it.

So, although emotions take a backseat and hands getting mashed by wrenches seems to move to the fore, at least the trickle of feeling is somewhere in there, in a place that can be seen and not heard, and for a noirlike bit of the old ultra-violence, that's not half bad.



Revolver
Guy Ritchie. France. 2005

Revolver is Guy Ritchieís third movie (weíll discount Swept Away, because a) itís not a movie, and b) if anything, itís Madonnaís). It tells the much convoluted, but visually astounding, story of Jake Green (Jason Statham). Released from jail, Jake is in some sort of epic criminal showdown with the curiously named Dorothy Macha (Ray Liotta). Itís a whole Ďhonourí thing, and frankly, we donít really care very much about the whys and hows. Weíve been waiting for Ritchieís comeback to form after Lock Stock and Snatch.

Well, a comeback to form, we get. Revolver is quite something to look at. It literally revolves around and around, using aphorisms about war and cons as axes upon which the movie almost physically rotates. Itís not often that youíll find camerawork so mesmerizing that youíll believe the whole cinema screen is twisting. Revolver does all this and more. Additional punning on the obviously carefully selected title also refers to the Julius Caesar quote about the enemy being in the last place youíd expect to look. Be prepared for lots of reversals, shocks and twists as the narrative continuously revolves back on itself. There are also a lot of guns in the film too.

The problem is, that with such a beautiful film, with so much philosophy and brain-twizzling, Ritchie obviously got a bit side-tracked and forgot to actually make sense of the plot. Or to be more precise, he forgot to come up with a plot. Instead of mesmerizing you into a state of clever realisation, a sort of visually induced nirvana of cinema appreciation and narrative revelation, Revolver makes you actually want to pull one on yourself. First impressions of the filmís ending are basically along the lines of Ďeh? Has the projector just cut out?í But once youíve established that no, itís finished, you just feel completely stupid for not having a clue about what you just gained from the last two hours of your life. And thatís a sad thing.

Cinema is meant to be place where ideas can be tackled, preconceptions challenged and ideologies attacked. If only Revolver had taken off a leeetle bit of pretension and added a teeeeny bit of sensible normalcy, it might have accomplished something truly great. I donít believe that Ritchie is trying to show everyone how much thicker than him we are, I think he just thought, Ďwhy do films have to mean anything when they can just look cool?í

Cool as it is, without meaning, Revolver canít be considered a good film. However, I am not giving up on the hope that maybe if I watch it about four hundred more times, I may be able to glean some meaning, some understanding. If I try hard enough, Iím confident that it would be possible to discern some message, some sense, that even Ritchie did not realise was there. And that is the true beauty of cinema.



Lucky Number Slevin

Paul McGuigan. USA. 2006

When a film starts throwing up all kinds of word-play and going on about the multiplicity of meaning, you know thereís a plot twist coming. Itís gotten to the stage now, where films have to try and match the sophistication of their audience. If it overreaches it risks evoking the Revolver-effect and will inevitably be reduced to a quivering heap of pretentiousness. If, on the other hand, it chooses to ensure that no audience member gets lost along the way, it promises to move into Final Destination territory. Itís so hard to strike that balance.

Josh Hartnett is the curiously-named Slevin, who turns up in New York, gets his ID nicked straight away, and is then mistaken for the guy whose flat heís staying in Ė a notably absent Nick Fisher. Nick, it seems, owes a lot of money to the two rival gang-lords Ė the Boss (Morgan Freeman) and the Rabbi (Sir Ben Kingsley), who are, respectively, a boss and a rabbi.

Slevin, who cannot prove he isnít Nick Fisher, ends up in a corner where heís forced to take on the assassination of the Rabbiís son, and also pay the Rabbi $30,000. Not good. Meanwhile, Bruce Willis makes an appearance as a shifty sort of guy who seems to be playing all three sides. Back at Nickís flat, Slevin is hotting it up with neighbour and, usefully enough, local coroner, Lucy Liu.

Lucky Number Slevin is one of those films that keeps you guessing enough so that the twist is a cheeky little number, but, if youíre one of the elite who catches on during the movie, it will make you feel clever, not patronised. The film is brilliantly constructed through stylish action sequences and well-placed flashbacks. It moves at a fast pace, employs just enough humour to keep the dialogue sharp and not tedious and is as far from Revolver as Guy Ritchie should be kept from a chess game.



Munich

Steven Spielberg. USA. 2005

Steven Spielberg is without a doubt a master storyteller. But he really knows how to pick his material... The brutal murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the hands of terrorist group Black September is no E.T. But, as Spielberg proved with Schindler's List, he is more than capable of producing very moving meditations on difficult topics.

Munich is the story of what happened next; the quest of the Mossad agents sent to kill the terrorists behind the massacre. With such virulent subject matter, particularly amid current Middle-Eastern tensions, Munich reviews have been rife with controversy. Is it anti-Semitic? Anti Palestinian? Shallow? Accepting of terrorism? Spielberg begs these questions through Mossad team-leader Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana Ė in sulky, not hulky mode) who comes to discover the moral ambiguities of his task.

Not the master of subtlety, Spielberg does not shy away from dramatics. What he does however, is ensure that the characters themselves are not too black and white. Each political and/or religious viewpoint film is treated with a degree of validity that allows us to decide for ourselves. And whilst the action is top-notch fallen-off-the-edge-of-my-seat, the message is there to be worked out on your own.



Match Point

Woody Allen. UK. 2005 

Tennis, the British upper-class, art galleries, the opera. What do you associate with all these things? Woody Allen? Thought so. In his new movie Match Point, Allen goes for the unexpected:
1) heís filmed it entirely in London.
2) that bloke from Bend it Like Beckham plays the lead.
3) Itís got absolutely nothing to do with all those sneaky trailers weíve been watching.
So, whatís Mr Manhattan playing at? Iíll tell you: Heís deciding whether to aim for a film thatís lucky or good. Fortunately, heís just about managed to do both.

Chris (Bend it Like Beckham dude, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) is a random young tennis coach who suddenly befriends a toff called Tom (Matthew Goode). He gets all pally with the family, starts dating Tomís sister (Emily Mortimer) and gets a job in one of ĎPapaísí businesses. But, if this sounds too perfect for a Woody Allen film, (or any film for that matter,) and youíre wondering where Scarlett Johansson figures in all of this, donít worry. The currents start to go awry when Chris meets Nola (Johansson), a sexy American. Amusingly, itís only after a bit of outrageous flirting that he discovers sheís Tomís fiancée. Sneaky!

Well, I canít say more without ruining it, but itís always nice to be surprised by a film especially when most simply show a montage of all the best bits in the trailers. What I will say is that although Match Point starts off a bit choppy Ė the characters appear to act without much thought or depth Ė and there are a couple of cheesy bits that pretend to be metaphorical and meaningful (like the whole tennis thing), Match Point is a semi-thrilling little meditation on greed, ambition and lust as Chris decides between Nola and his more-than-comfortable life. Allenís talent is that by the end heíll have you identifying with characters youíve detested all along. Match Point is good because it pushes you further than most films and doesnít shy away from its point. Allen got lucky though, by having such a great cast who managed to carry off the simplistic characters and witless screenplay.



Final Destination 3
James Wong. USA. 2006 

Final Destination has become somewhat of a franchise - a bit like the Scream films, just slightly less clever and much more idiotic.

Starting off at a fairground, where the preppily named Wendy has a premonition that the rollercoaster she and her friends are about to board is going to go off the rails. She freaks out and half the rollercoaster-ers get off. Her vision comes true and several irritating teenagers perish. (sob.)

In a cutesie but ultimately stupid bit of intertextuality, Wendy's not-much-of-a-friend tells her about this air-crash that happened a few years ago when the same vision scenario saved some schoolkids' life (Final Destination 1 - oooh, clever!) and the survivors died in the order they would have on the plane. Wendy of course doesn't believe him...until it starts happening.

So what's left but for a range of inventive deaths to overtake the characters? CAN you escape fate? Who knows, but I know there's a way to escape the silliness, crap gags about 'whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger' (geddit? 'kill you'?) and appalling acting of this film: Don't see it.



12 Monkeys

Terry Gilliam. USA. 1995 

Sadly I watched this having already seen Primer, and although I appreciated 12 Monkeys, I couldn't help but compare it to Primer and how the latter seemed a tad more effective, if unquestionably less comprehensible.

12 Monkeys begins in a post-apocalyptic world, where 99 f the population have been wiped out by a virus and the rest are forced to live underground. 'Volunteers' are commandeered from prison, and one of them, Cole (Bruce Willis), is offered a choice: either he gets savagely beaten up or worse, or he volunteers to undertake a time-travel mission back to the year in which the virus first took hold - 1996 - and gather some intelligence about the 'pure strain' of the virus. Being Bruce Willis, his choice is obvious.

Somewhat unluckily, Willis is sent back to 1990, chucked in a nut-house and befriended by the most hilarious Brad Pitt you'll ever see. He meets psychiatrist Kathryn (Madelaine Stowe) who thinks he's a bit crazy for coconuts since he's talking about being from the future and the world being destroyed and all that malarkey. Snap-Flick and he's back in the present (2035 according to the DVD sleeve but not mentioned during the movie).

Next he travels to 1996 (after a pit stop in 1914 or thenabouts) and again meets Kathryn and Jeffrey (Pitt). This time, Kathryn begins doubting her initial impressions of Cole, but he is starting to doubt his sanity. Jeffrey is still mental.

Throughout the film, there is an overriding sense of doom, possibly from the dark scenes of morose decadence, the gritty images of urban decay and the winding camerawork, or could it be from the fact that Cole insists the holocaust cannot be averted or prevented and that the past cannot be changed no matter what?

Either way, 12 Monkeys gives an eerie warning about complacency and capitalism, but more than that, it draws you in and makes you believe that the impossible is the only solution. The ending is far more terrifying than a viral holocaust, (ok maybe not quite, but) it is a nightmare of inevitability which will chill you to your bones whilst you applaud the daringness of the film.



City of God

Fernando Meirelles. Brazil. 2002 

Ok, so I know I'm like a hundred years behind everyone who raved about City of God. I just never got round to seeing this 'masterpiece.' What has been hailed as the modern world's 'Lord of the Flies' (not to be confused with Lord of the Rings) is in fact, actually, quite good. It may have been hyped, but City of God is good enough so as not to be overhyped.

It started off looking a bit tacky and amateurish, but then suddenly the camera started swishing and tumbling, and before I knew it, I was in a backstreet slum in Brazil, watching a sweaty game of football and being totally captured by the straightforward narration and slick visuals.

City of God follows the story of Rocket as he grows up surrounded by drugs, murder, sleaze and crimelords. He talks us through the relevant stories of his fellow residents of City of God as the film builds up a complex picture of the town over fifteen years or so, and I'll tell you this: it ain't Neighbours.

Gang wars, ickle kiddies with big, big guns and plenty of teenage rivalry, romance and savagery. It's not quite a coming-of-age story, but you will feel like you've grown up an awful lot once you've seen it. City of God manages to wow and capture you so that you can't look away, even though you really, really want to.



 
Where the Truth Lies

Atom Egoyan. Canada. 2005

Not exactly known for his straightforward method of storytelling, Where the Truth Lies may be Atom Egoyan's most accessible movie. A whodunnit on acid, this movie bares the teeth of the murder mystery conventions and then snaps you to attention with the sumptuous visuals.

Cheesy double-act Colin Firth and Kevin Bacon split up for unknown reasons (although not especially shocking considering..) after a girl was found dead in their hotel suite. The duos' airtight alibis kept them out of jail and now, years later, Alison Lohman is a young perky journalist who steps up to crack the case.

Although the storyline wasn't bad, the twists kept me guessing and the film took some interesting (and several kinky) turns, what really captured me was the photography. Unlike most films set in the seventies, Where the Truth Lies actually used COLOURFUL colour. No drab oranges and browns that always seem to consume the world of the seventies, there was plenty of lush green and vibrant red which gave the movie a deep and exotic feel.

Additionally, the camera was placed at unusual angles, which were chosen to disorient the viewer and worked to create an unreal depiction of a totally Hollywoodised world. Whether it was the mentally extravagant hotel suite or the unbelievably retro-modern (if that's possible) architecture of Colin Firth's flat, the whole atmosphere became one that caught me off guard and was at once coldly distant and oddly engrossing.

Egoyan's use of subjective camerawork, great music and strangely captivating narrative, the seedy underside of childhood heroes is unveiled, the ugly side of Hollywood and fame is exposed, revealing a truth that is much more tragic than awful. 



Saw

James Wan. USA. 2004 

Dared I see Saw? I did. Scared was I? Indeed. But more than that, I was enraptured, thrilled, gripped. Saw is one of those movies that doesnít even need great acting (luckily). The plot is so marvellously twisted, the ideas so chillingly disturbed that you wonít give a crap about Cary Elwesí half-assed scared expression. Youíll be too busy thinking ĎOh my God, oh my GOD!í

There are these two guys stuck in a really old and, shall we say, grotty bathroom. Theyíre each chained to a pipe and have been issued with a mysterious tape-recording that commands one guy to kill the other by a certain time or he dies.

Freaky? That ainít the half of it. Saw plays on the stuff that childhood nightmares are made of, exposing deep-rooted fears and tenting them to the quick. Danny Glover plays the role of possibly the worst cop ever, on the trail of the serial killer whoís set up the current fiasco, also responsible for several similar-mannered crimes in which the victims have been forced to kill themselves in various sadistic and terrifying ways.

Watch out for Gloverís attempts to apprehend a criminal; waiting until the very last moment before being threatened with a weapon, and still being the crappest shot in the history of the world. On top of this, Gloverís character is all but superfluous as he neither helps nor hinders the real action. All he does is link up a few things, even though plenty is left unsaid at the end.

Oh the end. Possibly the best ending ever. Or am I hyping it up too much? Itís alright. Itís only extremely clever, totally unpredictable, and a complete, mind-blowing, gut-churning, throw-your-hands-in-the-air-and-give-up-trying-to-guess-the-endings-for-ever-more shocker. Not bad. Anyway, if you donít mind the goriness, all I can say is see Saw. 



Saw II

Darren Lynn Bousman. USA. 2005 

Horror film? Psychological thriller? A play on childhood neuroses? Whatever Saw is, Saw II is the same, although in a slightly diluted, not-so-shockingly-original, Battle Royale meets The Crystal Maze kind of way. But donít get me wrong, itís plenty slick and sadistic, and, ĎOh yes,í as the threateningly oxygen-masked super-villain warns us, Ďthere will be bloodÖí

Consider waking up in a grossly decrepit house, surrounded by people who also have no idea whatís going on, and being rudely informed that if you donít do the completely mental tasks youíre ordered to, youíll die anyway because, did I forget to mention(?), youíve been breathing in noxious gas for a while. Blimey! Would you climb into an oven?

But letís leave reality at the door shall we? We didnít dare to see Saw just to nitpick the whys and hows (although thereís always the annoying someone behind you who hasÖ) We came to be grossed out and to see which of our mates flinches/screams/pukes first. Well be prepared to puke, people. Forget the bile-raising deathtraps engineered for the hapless victims; the zippy-nightmare camerawork and suffocating score build the tension until it actually weighs down on you as heavily Ė and as worryingly Ė as an inverted bear-trap stuck onto your head.

Saw II cannot match the greatness of Saw I, but considering weíre looking out for the Ďbig twistí along the way, it still comes as a delicious shocker and raises Saw II above the plotless wonders of the horror world weíve gone to see Saw to avoid.

Shari Last
 
 
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