Film Journalism

REVIEW: DVD Release: Takeshis’


Film: Takeshis’
Release date: 8th March 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 108 mins
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Starring: Beat Takeshi, Kotomi Kyono, Kayoko Kishimoto
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Studio: Artificial Eye
Format: DVD
Country: Japan

“500% Kitano - nothing to add” was the simple message that promoted Takeshis’ at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival: never could a description be truer. Not only did he write, direct, produce and edit the film, he also acted in it. Twice. So is this more than a little piece of self-indulgence for one of Japan’s most loved exports?

Takeshis’ kicks off with an overstated introduction to the Beat Takeshi that many hold dear. “Overstated” is the key word here; cheesy or even vulgar may be more accurate. Dialogue is sparse and gunfire plentiful as Kitano coolly takes on the room of enemies that surround him, naturally defeating the lot within seconds. Much to the viewer’s relief, this is not Beat Takeshi’s film: it is Mr Kitano’s latest effort.

Mr Kitano is a film star with a penchant for playing mah jong. Full of confidence and ego, which is only multiplied by the gang of yes-men and women who surround him, he has developed a typical superstar attitude. This seems to be put on hold when he meets his timid look-alike.

Also named Takeshi, this retiring stranger is struggling to break into Mr Kitano’s world of show business. The aspiring actor is first seen painted up as a clown, but there is nothing funny about the banality of his life. When he’s not acting the fool, he is trapped in a job serving ungrateful customers in a grocery shop, where his ambitions to become another Mr Kitano are stalled in reality, but fuelled in mentality. After their meeting, the film star speculates on the life that such a humble individual must lead, delving the viewer into Takeshi’s meek existence…

The first and last lines spoken in the film are “now what?” During the interviews included on the DVD, Takeshi Kitano refers to Takeshis’ as a film to consolidate all his work to date, and implies that he is now looking to end that era and begin a new one. This sense of ambiguity is conveyed by the entire film, from plot to character identity. Mr Kitano discovers working class Takeshi and wonders about his life, whilst Takeshi dreams of becoming his hero and has embarked on a journey to fulfil that. But, now what?

As the film progresses, identities interweave and merge as if being watched through bleary eyes, but somehow the distinction between the two main characters loses importance. Fantastic and bizarre scenes grow more prominent, further moving emphasis away from plot. There are even moments when Takeshis’ teeters on the edge of becoming a musical. The sporadic explorations of dance and movement that are scattered throughout the film come to a head about two thirds of the way through, to provide viewers with a spectacular tap number from dance troupe The Stripes, whom he also used in Zatoichi. However, it’s when Beat manages to transform this into a tap dancing caterpillar that the film truly plunges into the surreal.

The film has an air of reflection about it, as a commentary on Beat Takeshi’s mindset and a commentary on the industry that he works in. The director-come-actor displays undeniable self-awareness in his portrayal of Mr Kitano, and happily pokes fun at himself and at celebrity. The sight of Beat sombrely staring at himself from behind a mask of clown make-up is unlikely not to stir some kind of reaction from the viewer, be it a chuckle or sympathy for the reticent character onscreen.

“Acting isn’t easy,” Mr Kitano says early in the film, and Takeshis’ appears to be a chance for Beat to demonstrate that, but to also show he can do it - and he can do it well. Although he had an authoritative hand in most processes of making this film, attention seems to lie primarily with acting. Playing multiple characters in film is, of course, nothing new, but Beat really does prove himself capable and willing to experiment. The two Takeshis initially are two completely separate characters. Their appearance distinguishes them from each other, but that’s not just down to the hair dye. Beat delivers each personality to such effect that they even look different. Takeshi’s whole demeanour sets him apart from Mr Kitano: he looks lean and his face almost gaunt, whilst his eyes are darker and deeper set than his idol‘s. As the characters fuse, the distance between them is lessened both in appearance and personality in a true testament to Beat’s acting dexterity.

For viewers who are apt to sit watching a film, picking at the story, insistent on solution, Takeshis’ will be frustrating. However, as director himself has said, the intention is to leave audiences in the depth of confusion and the unknown, and he certainly achieves this. RS
Rating: 3/5


REVIEW: DVD Release: Lizard In A Woman’s Skin

Lizard in a Woman's Skin

Film: Lizard In A Woman’s Skin
Release date: 7th June 2010
Certificate: 18
Running time: 100 mins
Director: Lucio Fulci
Starring: Stanley Baker, Georges Rigaud, Penny Brown, Florinda Bolkan, Silvia Monti
Genre: Thriller/Mystery
Studio: Optimum
Format: DVD
Country: Italy

Hung over from the psychedelic ‘60s, Lizard In A Woman’s Skin winds itself around the feet of deceit and distrust in a shroud of sex, drugs and murder.

Fulci could never be accused of not letting the audience know where they stand with the film’s opening. Perhaps not as shocking as his other efforts, the film still manages to kick off with brunette beauty Carol Hammond (Florinda Bolkan) amidst an orgy. She pushes her way through the naked, writhing bodies, apparently distressed and uninterested - that is, until she reaches the gold at end of the corridor (her blonde bombshell next door neighbour, Julia). Cue fantasy lesbian sex scene. But even for Carol, it is just that: a fantastical dream.

Carol lives a typical upper middle-class life in which she seems to have a healthy relationship with her supportive father, whilst successfully maintaining her own family of a husband and his daughter. But all is not quite so idyllic: her husband is unfaithful, and she has turned to frequent sessions with a psychotherapist, who is intently interested in her vivid nocturnal adventures. Her dreams have recently revisited that opening scene with increasing frequency, and it is Dr Kerr’s job to unravel the meaning behind her infatuation.

The implication of these dreams is suddenly blasted to new heights when the object of Carol’s passion is stabbed to death. She is in fact murdered exactly as Carol dreams, her body is left exactly as Carol saw her, and she is killed with Carol’s letter opener. The aspiring psychic’s fragile mental state is sent spiralling even further into doubt when she begins to suspect herself of murder. As her family members dismiss her frets, she sinks further into uncertainty, and drags the viewer with her until her true role in the crime is finally revealed…

Hedonism and self-indulgence prevail in Fulci’s take on the murder mystery, which only adds to an already challenging plot. Whilst the film begins simply enough, it soon twists and turns down the intricate path of detection, whilst its surreal scenes of the macabre and grotesque convolute it even more. Fulci followers will realise that compared to the likes of Zombi 2, this production races miles ahead where storyline is concerned, but that is not always a good thing. Thankfully, these spectacular dream scenes offer a little respite from the marathon plot and they will remain with the viewer for much longer than the details of who did what, when and why. True to Fulci’s usual form, one particularly grisly scene of vivisection sent him and his crew to court under suspicion of cruelty to animals. It may seem unlikely to anyone watching now, but the props department had to produce models to prove their innocence. Although the effects used in the dream sequences are inevitably rather dated by today’s standards, they are nevertheless impressive feats for the time.

Fulci does not shy away from clichés amongst his cast of characters. The reckless bohemians who party all night next door are nothing original, and come 1971 had already been committed to film, most notably Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance, released a year earlier. The lack of a cockney accent is all that distinguishes Inspector Corvin, with his air of unorthodox efficiency, from a cop in a ‘70s’ British police drama series, and his elder, wiser superior only reinforces this. The only character who dodges clichés is Carol, whose somewhat dual-nature does not always work.

Bolkan’s dark allure sets her apart from the rest of the cast, who faithfully represent the languid rich. The hint of otherworldliness appointed to her early on in the film is therefore well suited, and Carol becomes a personality that the viewer wants to know more about. Such is her mystery, it comes as quite a surprise to learn that Frank is betraying her and not the other way around, and perhaps this is why audiences may successfully come to care about Bolkan’s character. However, her charming enigma is quite often compromised by moments of hackneyed femininity; for such a strong woman, she faints an awful lot, and finds reassurance in her adulterous husband far too much. Viewers may be left feeling a little frustrated at her slippery persona, and realise that they are not so concerned for her after all. Instead, their fascination may lie with Jenny, the hippie, or revert back to the free-spirited Julia; characters who may be much flatter than Carol, but who are also easier to grasp and understand.

For anyone looking to broaden their film horizons, don’t be afraid to give this one a go, but casual film fans may want to give it a miss. RS


REVIEW: DVD Release: Dancer in the Dark

Dancer in the Dark

Release date: 17th September 2007
Certificate: 15
Running time: 134 minutes
Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Bjork, Vladica Kostic, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare
Genre: Musical
Studio: 4dvd
Format: DVD
Country: Denmark/ Germany/ Netherlands/ Italy/ USA/ UK/ France/ Sweden/ Finland/ Iceland/ Norway

“Emotional pornography”: that’s how Bjork labelled von Trier and his methods after collaborating with him to make Dancer in the Dark. The film may not be as intrepid as his more recent Antichrist or as controversial as The Idiots but those emotionally pornographic moments won von Trier the Palme d’or at 2000’s Cannes and earned Bjork her own award in recognition of the poignant performance von Trier drew from her. Even so, was it worth the director’s flirtation with bankruptcy?

The Icelandic singer plays a Czech mother settled in Washington State with her twelve year-old son. Selma is hard-working but destitute and the two of them live in a caravan at the bottom of their landlord’s garden. Selma pays her way by working in a dreary factory by day, and eventually by night as well. Whilst things are far from rosy for the single parent family, there is nothing particularly remarkable about them either. Selma is shy and inoffensive and faces the same challenges any mother does. Gene’s birthday is coming up, for instance, and it’s no surprise that he asks for a bicycle. Already an outcast amongst his classmates, he simply wants to fit in with his peers like any school boy. Selma desperately tries to make him understand that she simply cannot afford it, but when her policeman landlord treats Gene to his dream birthday present, she naturally expresses an awkwardness that we may well empathise with. Aside from the unwanted interest of Jeff, Selma has very little to break the monotony of life and this is why she turns to the fantastical musical numbers that are scattered throughout the film.

The motivation for Selma’s relocation is revealed a little later in the film and it immediately pulls at the heart strings. The true meaning behind Selma’s work ethic lies with her son, who is destined to lose his sight, just as Selma herself does over the course of the film. Only in America can an operation be performed to prevent the illness from progressing in the blissfully ignorant Gene, who has been protected from the truth by Selma. The money that she has worked so hard to earn is stashed away for the operation, but her fading vision means that she unknowingly betrays it and her son faces the same fate as her.

Determined to save her son at any cost, Selma is intent on finding her money. When she discovers the perpetrator, a familiar acquaintance who should know better, she stops at nothing to get her funds back. Her actions lead to a clash with the law and she eventually faces the ultimate dilemma: her life or her son’s health.

Not the most obvious choice of story for a musical, Dancer in the Dark manages to mix heartbreak with song and dance. Whilst the majority of the film is shot in von Trier’s typical grainy, handheld style with extended use of close-ups and lengthy dialogue, the musical numbers are an effort to break from the director’s usual aesthetic and experiment with Hollywood. The very reason the film works as a musical is the sentimental sense of escapism offered to Selma through these vibrant numbers. Accusations of von Trier’s anti-American bias may be valid in other parts of the film, but these musical moments are a conscious acknowledgement to Hollywood’s Golden Age. Von Trier also draws from operas of the past and in interviews, such as that included in this DVD release, he has referred to the profound impact they used to have on audiences. This is what he wanted to recreate with Dancer in the Dark and this is what he accomplished. When the story plods past the introductory phase and picks up in the latter half, emotions heighten and an almost unbearably tense climax is reached.

Although Bjork has cleared up any rumours that she is yet another singer-turned-actress wannabe, her award was well-deserved. She presents us with a character so honest and endearing that the viewer cannot help but root for her throughout the entire film, even in those very human moments where her sheer stubbornness prevails. After all, that stubbornness is not for nothing: it is a symptom of her determination and devotion to her son. Supported by a cast of naturalistic actors who are clearly comfortable delivering performances about real life using improvised dialogue, Bjork gives a fantastic representation of a struggling, but single-minded woman.

A harrowing film about the lengths a mother will go to for the sake of her son, Dancer in the Dark is an experience that no one is likely to forget in a hurry. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but with its benefits, it is safe to say that it certainly was worth risking Zentropa studios to make this masterpiece. Don’t expect to come away dry eyed.

Rating: 4/5.


REVIEW: Cinema Release: Dogtooth

Film: Dogtooth
Release date: 23rd April 2010
Certificate: 18
Running time: 96 mins
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Christos Stergioglou, Michelle Valley, Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni
Genre: Thriller/Drama
Studio: Verve
Format: Cinema
Country: Greece

We’ve all heard arguments that children these days are wrapped up in cotton wool by overprotective parents. Director Giorgos Lanthimos takes this critique and runs wild with it, demonstrating the cost of maintaining a perfect family in a film of obsession and isolation.

Dogtooth offers us a glimpse into the life of a Greek family, structured around a foundation of discipline and order, regimented by a compulsive father (Stregioglou). His determination to shield them from the outside world extends beyond the anxiety of a dutiful father, and his vision of an ideal family is embedded so deeply in his mindset that his grown-up son and two daughters (Passalis, Tsoni and Papoulina) have never been allowed to venture further than the bottom of the drive. Using the ignorance installed in the childish minds of his children, and ultimately manipulating their fear both of him and the unknown, he rules in his own familial prison.

Naïve and younger than their years, the children have been brainwashed with a false reality painted by their parents and reinforced by their seclusion. Brought up to believe in an elusive brother who defiantly left to live on the other side of “the wall”, they await the loss of their dogteeth to signify their authorised readiness to follow suit and leave the confines of their house.

Christina (Kalaitzidou) is a security officer employed by the father to come into the home and satisfy his son’s sexual needs; she is the only snatch of the outside world permitted into the household, under the watchful eye of the father.

Viewers follow the family as they encounter persistent threats of truth, which increasingly plague the head of the house and drive him to neurosis as he struggles to fend them off. His children on the other hand, develop a taste for Christina’s alien ways, and jeopardise the world that their father has worked so hard to secure…

Plot proves rather stark in this slow-paced drama, but this only makes it a stronger film. Its emphasis on characters and relationships between people is intensified by lengthy shots that linger not on carefully composed frames of stars’ faces, but on the family’s environment - their reality. Quirky but naturalistic dialogue weaves in and out of these scenes, which come together in a fragmented portrayal of a distorted lifestyle. Whilst a sense of distance detaches the viewer from the family, the very strangeness of the situation is engrossing and prompts further viewing, simply to find out what new peculiarity is about to happen.

Although rather dark in its theme, graphic in its sex scenes, and brutal in its occasional moments of violence, there are more than a few laughs along the way. Dog-barking lessons are just one of the bizarre customs adopted by the family: after all, what better way to deter those man-eating domestic cats? The absurd behaviour engrained in the children offer comic relief in circumstances that are in fact quite tragic.

The performances of those playing the children are intimately well-observed. They interact with each other in a way we expect to see in wildlife documentaries, playing and teasing each other like a litter of wolf cubs. They are competitive and quarrelsome, yet completely reliant on each other to keep boredom and loneliness at bay. Their father encourages their behaviour by inventing contests for them to participate in, so that they constantly strive to better each other and fulfil their father’s expectations. Whilst viewers may find it difficult to identify with any one of the children, the father is undoubtedly the villain of the piece, played with cool hostility by Stergioglou. His endless efforts to maintain power over his family range from cutting off labels from water bottles to creating a dialect unique to his house. As he carries out such exertions with admirable diligence, his complete lack of compassion and emotion move the viewer to resent him.

Comedy and repulsion successfully meet in Dogtooth to explore what really goes on behind closed doors. No one regards their family as normal, but few can claim to have suffered the upbringing presented in Lanthimos’s latest.