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Jonathan James Romley (Dublin, Ireland)

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The Visit [DVD]
The Visit [DVD]
Dvd ~ Deanna Dunagan
Price: £5.00

9 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pitch black comedy with self-reflexive sub-text, 30 Sept. 2015
This review is from: The Visit [DVD] (DVD)
Ever since the mammoth success of The Sixth Sense (1999), there's been a push to promote every subsequent M. Night Shyamalan movie as a horror film. From Unbreakable (2000) to The Happening (2008) every new movie was sold as a dark and twisty shocker; whether it was in fact a poetic romance with pointed political commentary (The Village, 2004) or an eccentric bedtime story disguising a self-reflexive observation on the writing process (Lady in the Water, 2006) the marketing always made the film appear vaguely supernatural. Evidentally, these were films by the director of The Sixth Sense and were to be promoted accordingly. Now his most recent film, The Visit, is the latest in a long line of Shyamalan movies to suffer a similar fate.

The Visit - sold up front as "a new thriller from M. Night Shyamalan" - is nonetheless drawing heat from certain factions of the online community who just wanted another straight horror movie, dagnabbit! You'd think after two decades of subverting genre expectations, whether through presenting a superhero origin story as if a gritty 70s style procedural, or approaching an alien invasion movie as a claustrophobic Bergman-esque parable on faith, the audience would know the terrain, but again, all people really want from this guy is The Sixth Sense Pt. II or GTFO!

What The Visit could actually be described as is a comedy, albeit a comedy with elements of psychological thriller, survival drama and an extended metaphor for familial dysfunction. Imagine Todd Solondz, David Lynch and the Farrelly brothers getting together to collaborate on a film that plays with the tropes of the found-footage sub-genre, but in a way that is frequently transgressive, if not actually perverse. Throughout, Shyamalan uses his set-up to mine moments of genuine hilarity, from the broad strokes of character comedy (the young Tyler and his terrible rapping becomes the film's go-to comic relief), to the subtle self-aware digs at the genre itself (Becca's film-school pretensions lead her to deconstruct the film, almost as it's in motion), to even moments of grotesque absurdity (including scatological elements that are closer to the works of John Waters than the filmmaker once dubbed, erroneously, "the next Spielberg").

If The Visit is a horror movie, then it is to the found-footage sub-genre what Blazing Saddles (1974) was to the Hollywood western. It's not a spoof, but something else; a film that recognises the conventions and characteristics of the genre, teases them, has a laugh at their expense, but also uses them to tell a story that behind the laughter carries some serious emotions and ideas. Shyamalan's main theme of emotionally damaged characters having to overcome a particular situation to regain a sense of self is once again made the focal point of the film's third act dilemma, but there are more interesting ideas relating to the subject of filmmaking, in which the writer-director once again uses elements of meta-fiction to explore his own relationship to his art.

In the film itself, the two children are using the week with their grandparents to create a documentary that they hope will heal the wounds of a long-held disagreement between the mother and her parents. Here Shyamalan splits his own filmmaking identity between the perspectives of the two children. Beccas is the sensitive, romantic one, who just wants to make beautiful cinema, while Tyler is the annoying brat that just wants to goof around and get a response out of people. When it becomes clear that the film we're seeing on-screen is essentially the film Tyler and Becca are making, this introduces notions of identity, fabrication, the subjectivity of the image, reflection, the passivity of the viewer and the conception of character as "actors" playing a role. It's all very clever, but unfortunately, as with the meta-fiction elements of the earlier Lady in the Water, it becomes something that most audiences couldn't care less about unless they're actively watching an "art-movie" and not some Hollywood genre film.

Like several (but not all) Shyamalan films, The Visit features a twist, but rather than using it to pull the rug out from under the audience during the last few minutes of the film, the twist occurs 30 minutes before the end and is used to generate tension and suspense. In this instance, it could be described as an example of Hitchcock's "bomb under the table" theory, in which the audience is placed in a more privileged position than the characters, where our comprehension of events in relation to the ignorance of the protagonists fuels an edge of the seat confrontation.

The film has several successful jump scares, but these are essentially self-aware and again playing to the conventions of the genre, and more surprisingly several scenes of genuine emotion; however, for the most part, the film is just funny and often incredibly strange. Again, I go back to that idea of the film being pitched somewhere between Todd Solondz (shocking black humour, misfit characters, an air of detachment) and David Lynch (suburban surrealism, bizarre imagery that seems dreamlike but rooted in reality), but with the familiar Shyamalan ingredients. The film is incredibly well acted and directed, beautifully photographed by award winning documentary cinematographer Maryse Alberti (who helps Shyamaln turn it what could be described as a found-footage fairy tale) and greatly entertaining.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 28, 2015 9:47 PM GMT

Ashes to Ashes: Complete BBC Series 1 [2008] [DVD]
Ashes to Ashes: Complete BBC Series 1 [2008] [DVD]
Dvd ~ Philip Glenister
Offered by YouWantIt-WeGotIt
Price: £24.98

7 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Certainly flawed, but overall quite interesting, and surprisingly post-modern, 3 April 2008
It is probably wrong to compare Ashes to Ashes to the previous Life on Mars, despite the fact that both programmes come from the same creative team and exist in the same thematic universe. Still, Life on Mars was such a benchmark and such a surprisingly rewarding piece of work that such comparisons are really hard to resist. With Life on Mars we had an intelligent piece of television that offered a great story, subtle character interaction and a genuine imagination; blending elements of science-fiction with psychological character analysis, as well as juxtaposing ideas of archaic, twentieth century police procedures with the more high-tech but sterile policing of today. Ashes to Ashes is somewhat similar in the respect that the idea of self-analysis and an attempt to correct the future by way of the past is central to the development of the main character, but somehow it lacks the dynamics or sense of overall purpose that really made Life on Mars such a valid and exciting piece of work.

At its most extreme, you could argue that the series here is nothing more than a shameless cash-in; with the producers and writers copying the format of Life on Mars completely and giving us more of Gene Hunt and his particular blend of politically-incorrect, heart-on-sleeve policing against an environment of warm nostalgia. However, even here, the use of the early 1980's as the principal timeframe already shows the character of Hunt to be something of a woeful anachronism; as out of time as the stranded heroine Alex Drake against a backdrop of feminism, class war, immigration, privatisation and a gradual acceptance of homosexuality. Also, the potentially interesting political climate, with the shadow of the Falkland's, tyranny of the Tories, confrontation between races, terrorist attacks and the royal wedding are all reduced to minor details intended to flesh out the creation of a world that is continually undermined by shoddy writing, haphazard direction an attempt to condense the more iconic aspects of 80's culture into a sort of microcosm that feels at odds with a decade supposedly in its infancy. Or is it?

The thematic concerns this time around are less about the clashing of cultures and backgrounds in a way that makes for satisfying drama, and more about the creation of a self-aware universe that not only comments on itself but on the notion of the "sequel". As with the audience, Alex Drake understands completely the world that she has entered into and is trying to control it to her advantage. She knows about the characters because she's experienced them through the writings of Sam Tyler in the same way that we the audience experienced them by actually watching Life on Mars. This does rob the programme of some tension, particularly in the first couple of episodes before the characters finally settle into their new roles and the broader aspects of the story become apparent, but it does open the story up to more intriguing ideas and interpretations regarding the role that Alex has in creating the world from her own memories and distorted idea of what the 80's really were.

Unlike Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes was less immediate and for me, and this was the programme's greatest flaw. Once it gets going its fantastic; the examination into Alex's parents and the factors that could possibly have led to their demise is rich with drama and emotion and really pays off in the final episode. However, for me, there were far too many lose ends leading up to this, and far too much of the writers having DCI Hunt do outlandish things in an attempt to appease the audience who buy into the whole "iconic" thing and want Gene Hunt catchphrases on their-mobiles. The emphasis on the drama should have remained with Drake consistently, because it is here where the story comes together; with more interplay between her and her parents and less of the Hunt sailing a speedboat under the arches of Tower Bridge and firming machine guns, like he's some colourful cartoon caricature. Or maybe that's the point?

Given the fact that the first three episodes were so weak that I almost gave up on this completely - there didn't seem to be any direction in regards to the plot in the same way that Life on Mars so skilfully blended the past, present and visions of Sam Tyler into a jaw-dropping drama - the only way I could interpret Ashes to Ashes was as a post-modern pastiche akin to Takashi Miike's Dead or Alive trilogy. And it makes sense; with the world of Ashes being a complete "construct"; a self-aware artifice create by the character for the character as she lays dying with a bullet in her head, attempting to make sense, not only of the historic chain of events that led to this tragedy, but also the world created by Sam Tyler that was never fully explained. Sure, there are flaws in this theory, but there are also flaws in the show; with far too much pandering to the whims of Hunt-aficionados and less of the tight, tense, labyrinthine blending of self-examination and the self-preservation of a dying brain.

It will be interesting to see where the writers take this in the second series. Hopefully we will have more of Alex and more of an insight into the creation of this world in the respect of tying up the loose ends of the second series of Life on Mars. At any rate, if you're looking for more iconic Gene Hunt action then Ashes to Ashes won't disappoint. It's louder, bolder and less subtle than Life on Mars ever was, and here he's pretty much the main character. If you want to involve yourself in the story of Alex Drake and her highly emotional plight then you might have to overcome some serious flaws in the first three or four episodes, but believe me, it's probably worth it.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 7, 2013 3:04 AM GMT

Gojoe [DVD]
Gojoe [DVD]
Dvd ~ Tadanobu Asano
Offered by best_value_entertainment
Price: £2.99

21 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Vibrant and violent samurai action film from the underrated Sogo Ishii, 3 April 2008
This review is from: Gojoe [DVD] (DVD)
Gojoe (2000) is a typically vibrant and vivid piece of film-making from Japanese firebrand Sogo Ishii, who remains perhaps one of the most radical and underrated Japanese filmmakers of the last twenty-five years. Ishii began his directing career in the late 1970's when he was still a student at the Nihon University, and his work of that particular period with films like Panic High School (1978), Crazy Thunder Road (1980) and Burst City (1982) reflected an interest in performance art and his involvement in the Tokyo punk scene. Though later films like Angel Dust (1994) and Labyrinth of Dreams (1997) saw a greater sense of maturity and more clearly defined emphasis on character and atmosphere, he remained a consistent and interesting talent with a truly original vision.

Gojoe returns somewhat to the style of Ishii's earlier, bold and energetic work; combing grand spectacle with clearly defined storytelling with roots in actual Japanese folklore. However, the way in which the narrative unfolds is really quite interesting, with the story beginning with a scene of murder and the notion that the killing could have been supernatural as opposed to political; with Ishii's subtle use of cinematography, editing and sound design creating a staggering sense of tension from the very first frame. Added to this, there are definitely shades of Masaki Kobayashi's classic anthology-film Kwaidan (1964) and Kaneto Shindō's masterpiece Onibaba (1964) being developed here, with that great atmosphere of supernatural intrigue, murder, violence and dread being continually juxtaposed against an expressionistic period setting, which seems somewhat nightmarish and vaguely ethereal. The violence of Gojoe is occasionally fairly explicit and definitely over-the-top, but there is a distinct balletic grace to the way in which Ishii captures the action; creating something that falls halfway between the over-the-top fountains of gore seen in the majority of Japanese Anime (or the more extreme films of Takashi Miike), with something that is perhaps closer to the heavily choreographed kabuki theatre or interpretive dance.

As the story progresses the supernatural elements give way to political intrigue and elements of actual historical fact, but the whole arc of this notion seems designed to add some sense to the story of warring rivals, as opposed to giving us a full-blown history lesson. Dialog is sparse and character development tends to emerge slowly from the quiet scenes of silent brooding and the more sombre moments that stress a philosophical aspect to the boundless scenes of violence and swordplay. Though ultimately the plot is slight and simplified to the point of near abstraction, the film manages to keep us motivated through the continual combination of Ishii's imaginative direction and the fine performances of lead actors Daisuke Ryu who portrays the warrior monk Benkei, and the always surprising Tadanobu Asano as the mysterious and deadly Shanao.

As an actor, Ryu is probably most familiar from Akira Kurosawa's historical masterpieces Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985), as well as Takashi Miike's more recent remake of Graveyard of Honour (2002), while Asano has worked with a number of highly esteemed Japanese filmmakers, including Shinya Tsukamoto on Gemini (1999) and Vital (2004), Nagisa Oshima on Taboo (1998), Takeshi Kitano on Zatoichi (2003), the aforementioned Miike on Ichi the Killer (2001) and Sogo Ishii again on subsequent films Electric Dragon 80, 000 V (2001) and Dead End Run (2004). Though essentially playing antagonists, the two actors complement each other exceedingly well, creating bold characters that manage to instil a sense of purpose and authority from a film that tends to rely heavily on action and excess. In terms of martial arts, swordplay and a greatly choreographed sense of movement, the film has certain similarities to director Zhang Yimou's trilogy of historical set martial arts films, Hero (2002), The House of Flying Daggers (2004) and The Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), with Gojoe's reliance on historical content, culture and subtle shades of politics probably stressing a similarity with Hero in particular.

Certainly, I wouldn't go as far as to call Gojoe a masterpiece. It has its flaws, most of which are in the plotting, the heavy reliance on historical context, the awareness of the Japanese folklore that inspired it, and the over abundance of lengthy fight sequences, but still; this something that is definitely worth checking out. Ishii's direction is filled with an eerie sense of atmosphere, energy and imagination, masking the limitation of the budget until a few sadly fake looking FX shots towards the end, and offering us some of the most vibrant and violent scenes of action and combat you're ever likely to see.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 9, 2009 2:53 PM BST

The Crimson Rivers [DVD] [2001]
The Crimson Rivers [DVD] [2001]
Dvd ~ Jean Reno
Offered by best_value_entertainment
Price: £4.98

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A great first half gives way to laziness and predictability in the final, 3 April 2008
The best detective stories allow their central arc of enigmatic mystery to unravel slowly, leaving behind a trail of clues for the audience to follow. Therefore, it is important when adapting the story to a medium such as film that the clues aren't signalled too early, giving the audience the chance to search in the dark with only a few subtle elements of light to work with. It is also important that the film and its various strands of character, theme and narrative all eventually lead to the same place, confounding but also confirming what the viewer had expected all along.

The Crimson Rivers (2000) by La Haine (1995) director Mathieu Kassovitz sticks to this method fairly closely for the most part; giving us the usual archetypes familiar from this kind of heavily investigatory detective fiction alongside the usual contemporary preoccupations with dark, gloomy, atmospheric visuals and intriguing, idiosyncratic characters. It is also refreshing to see a director intelligent enough to allow the film's location to become the centre of their story; framing his scenes so that the ominous presence of the towering French Alps casts a foreboding and omnipotent shadow across these characters and the story itself to perfectly set up a certain sense of the foreshadowing of later, thematic events. As the Alps hold a serious significance over the direction the narrative will take, Kassovitz understandably exploits the set up perfectly; using forced perspectives to give the impression of the characters gradually being surrounded, even asphyxiated by the landscape, to create a more potent feeling of suffocating claustrophobia.

The idea of claustrophobia is mirrored by the interior production design, which dwarfs our protagonists against low ceilings cracked with damp, drab, monochromatic tones and deeper shades of autumn, and stark, naturalistic lighting with plenty of shadows. These visuals complement the narrative beautifully, going beyond the obvious and somewhat lazy comparisons to David Fincher's classic detective thriller Se7en (1996) to create a style and atmosphere that seems just right for this kind of twisted, slow-building set up. The story is admittedly fairly well worn, with two seemingly mismatched cops thrown together in the pursuit of a vicious serial killer and slowly developing a strong bond as their lives and rank are thrown into jeopardy and confusion. So essentially we're dealing with the typical buddy-cop clichés, though with more believability and less reliance on comic relief, with any real attempt at humour usually undercut by the explicitness of the violence and that fantastic air of dark, disturbing dread.

The central performances from Jean Reno and Vincent Cassel are both very good, with Reno portraying the older, wiser, more intuitive detective paired off with Cassel's headstrong loose cannon. Combined with that fantastic build up of slow burning tension, the intricacies of the plot and the thick air of pure atmospheric dread, we should be looking at a standout, A+, modern-day crime thriller. Unfortunately, the last ten minutes of the film suffer from a serious drop off, creating a dénouement worthy of the worst kind of late night B-movie or TV thriller. It's a real shame too, with the first hour of the film creating such a searing and enigmatic sense of mystery that really draws us, in before the pieces of the puzzle are blown away by a bizarre climax that stretches plausibility beyond breaking point. As a result, the ending seems like an anachronism within the film's post-modern framework; offering us all the answers presented at once in a manner that seems incredibly lazy and unfair given the great sense of mystery that was previously unfolding.

In this respect, I would draw comparisons to two of the most recent films by Italian horror/thriller director Dario Argento, in particular Sleepless (2000) and The Card Player (2004). Both of these films feature a great first half rife with mystery and suspense, but loose it in the final act with a complete disregard for logic, character or the thrill of expectation. In similar fashion, the first hour of The Crimson Rivers is excellent; great style, great characters and a story that pulls us in. Unfortunately, the pace cannot be maintained and the end of the film will no doubt leave many viewers angry, confused and severely disappointed.

Akira - The Ultimate Collection [1991] [DVD]
Akira - The Ultimate Collection [1991] [DVD]
Dvd ~ Nozomu Sasaki
Price: £14.98

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Up there with the greats of science-fiction cinema, 3 April 2008
Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira (1988) is a bold and vivid cyber-punk saga; wherein the story is a simple tale of good versus evil blown up to multi-layered proportions, further developed through the sublime, visually-transcendent animation and intricate character details, which both combine to create one of alternative cinema's greatest ever achievements. Everything you could hope to find in a science-fiction film is brought into play here, with warring street-punks, shadowy government conspiracies, psychological manipulation, body horror and nuclear holocaust all figuring heavily within the writhing and labyrinthine plot. It shows a continuation of the themes established in earlier classic of the sci-fi genre, most notably Fitz Lang's Metropolis (1927), Ishirō Honda's Godzilla (1954), LQ Jones' A Boy and His Dog (1975), Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979), George Miller's The Road Warrior (1981) and Ridley Scott's iconic Blade Runner (1982), with the post apocalyptic theme and the further depiction of a technologically advanced, noir-like metropolis spiralling out of control.

Alongside this we have the ghosts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki referenced in the opening sequences, and the parallels of those atrocities revisited here as the trigger of World War Three. However, despite these more elaborate historical juxtapositions and themes of science fiction, the story's main focus is that of friendship; in this instance the friendship of two characters being pushed and strengthened throughout the film, finally reaching a climax with the final fight between Kaneda and the bizarre mutation of Tetsuo. This theme is central throughout Akira, posing serious questions of loyalty, contempt and ambition, as well as ending with the ambiguous idea that further battles must be fought before any of the characters (and by extension, the audience as well) know the truth about Tetsuo and the tree, mystical little children so central to the plot.

If you're already a fan of Manga and Anima, then Akira should be an absolute must see, that is, if you haven't experienced it already. However, please don't let a lack of interest in animation, or more appropriately, Japanese animation deter you from experiencing this film, as really, it is one of the most interesting, intelligent and accessible works of sci-fi cinema produced in the last twenty-five years. It is also incredibly influential, with its influence apparent in a number of subsequent great works of science fiction, including Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1988), and sequel Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992), Rintaro's Metropolis (2001), Spielberg's A.I, (2001) and Minority Report (2002), Takashi Miike's Dead or Alive: Final (2002), Michael Winterbottom's Code 46 (2003) and Wong Kar-Wai's misunderstood masterpiece 2046 (2004). Already twenty-years on from its original release, Akira remains a bold, interesting and unforgettable work of vibrant, visceral, intelligent science fiction cinema that deserves to be experienced.

Fighting Delinquents [1960] [DVD]
Fighting Delinquents [1960] [DVD]
Dvd ~ Kōji Wada
Price: £3.99

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable Suzuki teen-picture with added cultural depth, 3 April 2008
Fighting Delinquents (1960) - also known as Go to Hell, Roughnecks! - is an odd film from director Seijun Suzuki, one that exists almost entirely within the context of the time in which it was created, with none of the audacious visual experiments or notions of narrative transcendence found in later films, like Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967). Instead, the filmmaker offers up a largely straight melodrama with obvious emphasis on the teenage demographic, with the film juxtaposing traditional Japanese values such as honour, family and nobility, against the more contemporary, late 60's ideas of pop art, rock music, young love and defiance. There's also a criminal aspect, with the central character taking on a devious Yakuza syndicate who plan to take over the quaint, island community owned by his family, with the eventual confrontation presented by this set up delivered in a very spirited but sanitised series of fight scenes, with none of the gunplay or stylised violence found in the two better films aforementioned.

However, despite the lack of that typically Suzuki sense of stylistic overload, the film remains a great deal of fun; brimming with youthful energy, strong performances and a plot that is immediately comprehensible. It also benefits from a touching, if overly melodramatic final that seems to underline the film's wild spirit and freewheeling sense of joie de vivre. It might be notable to some viewers, already familiar with Suzuki's later work, for a number of early signifiers to the style that would ultimately follow. Firstly, the theme song is very much an early version of the catchy tune eventually heard in Tokyo Drifter, only here it is given a different arrangement and performance by the film's likeable lead actor, Koji Wada. It also has some of the director's earlier experiments with colour, most notably in the incredibly camp nightclub that features as the central location in a several scenes, where middle-aged Japanese salary men rub shoulders with the mob amidst an onslaught of very 60's style surf guitar music and a barrage of hip-shaking, belly dancing bikini girls. The influence on Tarantino here is clearly not lost.

There's also Suzuki's great use of cinemascope photography, unique use of wipes and dissolves, and bold juxtapositions between the traditional and the very much radical aspects of iconography. In keeping with many of the filmmaker's earlier works, Fighting Delinquents is obviously a B-picture, and as the previous reviewers suggest, it certainly isn't any kind of masterpiece. However, the film is incredibly agreeable and does hold up to repeated viewings. The reason for this is mostly down to the enjoyable plot, which is something that rewards with interesting characters and believable emotional depth, but at the same time, can be enjoyed at a relaxed pace without all the jarring editing structures that Suzuki would eventually develop. On one level its camp and kitsch - the kind of thing that can be enjoyed with tongue firmly in cheek - but at the same time, offers such a bold and striking evocation of the period in which the traditional values of Japan were confronted by the radical ideas and ideologies of progressive, western world to render it a completely worthwhile experience.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 18, 2012 10:56 PM BST

Crime and Punishment [DVD]
Crime and Punishment [DVD]
Dvd ~ Markku Toikka
Offered by DaaVeeDee-uk
Price: £29.69

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An impressive first feature from an incredibly talented filmmaker, 29 Mar. 2008
This review is from: Crime and Punishment [DVD] (DVD)
This was the first film from idiosyncratic filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki, and already some of his more recognisable themes and preoccupations are being developed in preparation for the more iconic films still to come. I wouldn't go so far as to call this particular adaptation of Dostoevsky's landmark work a classic - as there are obviously a few rough edges and an overall feel of the generic European sensibilities familiar from television drama occasionally getting in the way of Kaurismäki's typically broad, deadpan approach to moments of drama and emotion - but I'd still recommend it as a worthy experience, especially to anyone familiar with Kaurismäki later work, as a chance to see how his unique and entirely personal style has developed and evolved.

In a particularly impressive stroke of direction, the film opens with a close-up shot of fly crawling across a blood-splattered plinth in some anonymous Helsinki slaughter house. A cleaver comes down and cuts the fly in two. Immediately, ominous music begins to play and we are subjected to an onslaught of emotionless, repetitive slaughter; as drab, impassive young men in overalls clean meat from bone, saw through sinew and hose down the pools of blood collected under a procession of strung-up pig carcasses. With this kind of introduction we see Kaurismäki setting up the images of cold-hearted murder and stark, unglamorous brutality that will follow on into the subsequent scene. It also works as a skilful introduction to our central character Rahikainen; a former lawyer turned butcher, still haunted by the loss of his fiancé some several years before. There's also a stark sense of humour being developed here too; with the juxtaposition of over-emotive, melodramatic music with the completely disengaging, repetitive use of action and design - and the robotic, soulless way in which it is carried out - all setting up the broader ironies of murder so central to Dostoevsky's original tome.

As with the book, Kaurismäki's interpretation of Crime and Punishment looks at the attempt made by the central character to "kill a principle", as well as the conflicting notions of righteousness and guilt. In this respect, the film calls to mind director Krzysztof Kieaelowski's A Short Film About Killing (1988), which not only shares the same thematic preoccupations of the desire for murder and the psychological and spiritual complications that it can conjure up, but also a certain cold, peculiar approach to the direction, structure and actual mise-en-scene. This is obvious right from the start, with the scene in the slaughterhouse setting up the continual atmosphere and broader elements of interpretation found throughout. This means that by the time we finally see Rahikainen go to the office of a seemingly random, middle-aged business man and shoot him dead, the lack of emotion and cold robotic calculation present in his body language and personality is like an echo of the scene in which he killed the fly or carefully broke the ribcage from a slab of raw beef.

While Rahikainen sits in silent contemplation - thinking about his actions as his victim lies dead on the floor - a young woman enters the room and triggers a chain of events that will force the character to think more carefully about why he chose to commit such a crime, as well as casting elements of doubt on his notion of murder as being - once again - about the killing of a principal rather than a man. Obviously, there are much deeper shades of drama presented here, with the subtle notions of loss, loneliness, listless desperation, the desire to escape (not only from your circumstances but also from yourself) and the central, titular ruminations on crime and punishment and what they mean to the individual. These ideas are given further weight by the truly grand performances, with Markku Toikka creating a completely believable character whose true beliefs, feelings and intent remain vague and enigmatic, while Aino Seppo as the girl presents the more hopeful, tender aspect of the drab, grey and claustrophobic world that the character inhabits. There is also fine support from Kaurismäki regulars Esko Nikkari, Olli Tuominen and Matti Pellonpää, who here plays an early incarnation of a character he would develop further in the subsequent Shadows in Paradise (1986).

Though the cool irony and wry humour of Kaurismäki's later films is perhaps less formed than it would eventually become, there are still traces of it beginning to take shape. Regardless, this is still a fascinating insight into Kaurismäki's creative mind, his vision, and his sense of sardonic ambition in even attempting such an adaptation for his first feature film. It is perhaps worth watching first, before you see any of his subsequent films, and then returning to once again after having seen the extraordinary developments he made through films like Calamari Union (1985), Shadows in Paradise, Hamlet Goes Business (1987), Ariel (1988) and Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989). Regardless, this is an impressive first film from an incredibly talented filmmaker.

Calamari Union [DVD]
Calamari Union [DVD]
Dvd ~ Timo Eränkö

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Kaurismäki's hilariously absurd, surrealist romp, 29 Mar. 2008
This review is from: Calamari Union [DVD] (DVD)
Calamari Union (1985) was the second feature-length film from Finish auteur Aki Kaurismäki following on from his somewhat dour, contemporary-set adaptation of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (1983). Right away, Kaurismäki is showing his extraordinary range as a filmmaker; moving away from the low key, minimalist realism of Crime and Punishment to the surreal, improvisational, black and white playfulness of the film in question. This sense of imagination and ability to move from one stylistic reference point to the next - all the while retaining his deadpan style and coolly ironic use of character and dialog - would be further reinforced over subsequent films, such as Shadows in Paradise (1986), Hamlet Goes Business (1987) and Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989). Though Calamari Union lacks the more refined and iconic Kaurismäki style of those particular films, it does show his early interest in surrealism, broad, absurdist humour, and an ensemble setting.

Like many of his films, such as the aforementioned Leningrad Cowboys and his underrated masterpiece Ariel (1988), the plot of Calamari Union is episodic and picaresque; following the misadventures of fifteen men, fourteen of them named Frank Merciless, and an idiot man-child named Pekka, who one day decide to leave behind the hopeless working class world of Eira and quest to the near-mythical borough of Kallio. As you can possibly deduce from the description, Calamari Union is not necessarily a film to be taken entirely seriously, with Kaurismäki taking the silliest plot and the most bizarre of caricatures and creating this wandering tale filled with strange scenes, disconnected vignettes, slapstick humour and even, a rock n' roll performance piece! In the past, Kaurismäki has claimed that this is the only film he's ever directed whilst being either drunk or hung-over, which does makes sense. Then again, knowing Kaurismäki's fondness for exaggeration and self-deprecation, it would be best not to read too much into this. Although the film is obviously not intended to be taken on a completely serious level, that's not to say that it isn't open to deeper, more analytical interpretations.

For me, there's a definite air of Luis Buñuel here - both in terms of the plot and, I suppose, some of the more sub-textual ideologies - not to mention the clear influence of Bertrand Blier's fantastic film Buffet froid (1979), which follows a similarly episodic tale of strange men having strange adventures. Calamari Union perhaps isn't as great as that particular film, though it does show Kaurismäki and his crew to be on top creative form; filming in luminous black and white as a nod to the French New Wave and creating a great atmosphere on an obviously limited budget. In fact, it feels more like a first film than Crime and Punishment, with the highly original, idiosyncratic story, small cast of central characters, inventive use of sound, location and cinematography and low budget production all adding to the rough and unpolished charm. It's still unknown what Kaurismäki's actual intentions were with this film, whether he simply wanted to produce something quite silly and outlandish as a bit of fun with his friends, or whether there is some hidden depth to the film just waiting to be discovered and re-interpreted.

Obviously, I have my own ideas. To me, the film can be seen as a representation of the cycle of life; with the characters emerging from the womb-like warmth of their local pub and beginning their bizarre journey into life, before breaking away, meeting new people, forming relationships, making decisions and finally dropping dead. You could also see the film as a treatise on the notion of individuality; with the earlier scenes showing the group to be very much of a singular "union" - both anonymous to themselves and to the audience - and all with the same goals and desires. Eventually, as they continue their journey they discover individual interests and passageways through life until they finally come to form their own unique personality. Failing that, it really could be just a simple work of surrealist fun, with no greater meaning or interpretation hidden beneath the madness and often hilarious scenes of ridiculous frivolity.

Regardless of this, Calamari Union is still something of a great film; perhaps not as good as later films by Kaurismäki, such as Hamlet Goes Business, Ariel, I Hired a Contract Killer (1990) and The Man without a Past (2002), but nonetheless, a good place to start for those new to his particular blend of bold, unique and always eccentric world cinema.

Ab-Normal Beauty [DVD] [2004]
Ab-Normal Beauty [DVD] [2004]
Dvd ~ Ekin Cheng
Offered by Springwood Media
Price: £5.49

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Twisted cinema; not a masterpiece, but certainly not something you're likely forget, 20 Mar. 2008
As the previous reviews might suggest, Ab-normal Beauty (2004) is something of a difficult film to pin down; both in terms of its abstract visual style and the actual presentation of the plot. In terms of appearance, the film is a visual labyrinth of warped neon colours, moody lighting and the occasional splash of cold, stark monochrome, all added to further reflect the inner world of the central character; in this instance, a young, misfit photographer becoming obsessed with the notions of sex and death. Further complications are created by the interesting use of narrative; with the film starting out as a kind of sinister art drama with a serious psychological subtext, before eventually changing gears in the second half and becoming an altogether more unusual experience. In this respect, I would draw a natural comparison to two very recent Japanese films, Takashi Miike's Audition (1999) and Takashi Shimizu's Marebito (2004); two films that use the conventions and, to some extent, more recognisable iconography of the horror genre, without ever really becoming horror films in the traditional sense. Also, like those two particular examples, Ab-normal Beauty tends to surprise - and perhaps even infuriate? - its viewers with the bold switches in narrative texture and the occasional disregard of logic.

The first half of the film is slow, subdued, beautifully shot with sporadic moments of surreal violence presented in a distant, dreamlike manner that stresses the characters' disconnection from society. The scenes in which she sets up and photographs various monstrous, decaying objects is masterful; creating a warped sense of beauty that seems as far removed from the horror genre as you could possibly get. As the character continues to stock-pile these images of death and decay - including that first fleeting moment wherein she snaps the aftermath of a car accident, or a tense and thrilling scene in which she documents the suicide of a man from the top of a tall building, one devastating frame at a time - we get hints of something else beginning to take shape that won't truly become apparent until right at the very end. Until then we must wonder where the film is going; with the first half of the story seeming at times to be more like a biographical drama about a tortured artist losing their grip on reality and the world around them and, as a result, creating their own world in which murder and sex become dangerously inter-twined and beauty can be found within the piles of decapitated chickens and the damp, soaked carcass of a rotting dead bird.

Describing in more detail the switch in tone and texture that occurs somewhere towards the end of the film might be considered too much of a spoiler, especially given the ideas, mood and atmosphere so skilfully established during these first forty minutes. That said, I don't think the eventual unravelling of the narrative is quite as random as many of the other reviewers seem to suggest, with a number of scenes, particularly those between Jiney and her sort-of boyfriend Anson foreshadowing many of the elements of power, humiliation, sex and violence that will reoccur during the eventual twist in the tale. It's fascinating stuff, but again, as with Audition and Marebito, could prove to be somewhat disappointing to anyone expecting a conventional horror film; with the lingering mood of ambient dread and voyeuristic terror conveyed in the more psychological first half recalling some of the more tense moments of Oxide Pang's earlier co-directed hit, The Eye (2002) - and similar Asian horror films that arrived in the wake of Ju On: The Grudge (2000) and Ringu (19998) - being completely replaced with something much darker, grittier, physical and explicit; tapping into the territory of Eli Roth perhaps, although it's worth noting that this particular film was released a good year before Roth's near iconic Hostel (2005).

Whether or not the ending really works is a question for the individual, though I suppose it would be easy to view it as an extended fantasy sequence in keeping with the character's dark descent into the depths of her own tortured imagination. Regardless, this for me is still a great film; one that creates a mood and an atmosphere perfectly pitched between elements of fantasy and reality, and riddled with images that are bold, striking and completely unforgettable. It is the style of the film and the strange wavering atmosphere in which every character seems to be a potential victim or victor that really pulls us in; enticing us with a story of fear, regret, terror and paranoia, leading us down numerous narrative blind alleyways, convincing us that all is well and that we've emerged from the psychological wilderness and then BAM! - they hit us with the hard stuff. Understandably it won't appeal to everyone; it begins slowly and takes time to pick up the pace and never make a conscious effort to appease conventions of genre or narrative expectations. However, anyone with a fondness for interesting, challenging and edgy world cinema should enjoy the fantastic atmosphere and lingering traces of horror presented to us by this fine piece of work.

Seventh Continent [DVD] [1989] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Seventh Continent [DVD] [1989] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A bleak and clinical examination of a family in despair, 20 Mar. 2008
The seventh continent at the centre of this bleak tale of suburban dysfunction is as vague and enigmatic as the film itself. Are we supposed to believe that the geographical state noted in the title is the rugged, ethereal landscape glimpsed fleetingly throughout key moments of the film, or is it in fact a much higher state of being that can only truly be achieved by purging yourself of the trappings of twentieth century life? The need for transcendence is central throughout The Seventh Continent (1989), the first feature film from Austrian provocateur Michael Haneke, who has subsequently gone on to re-examine this very same theme in his following films - 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), The Piano Teacher (2001) and Hidden (2005) - by continually probing the very boundaries of human nature and the personal and/or social factors that can drive an individual to the point of complete, psychological transcendence. If you are at all familiar with Haneke's work you will be partially aware of what to expect from the film in question, with The Seventh Continent presenting us with a deep, hypnotic and highly clinical examination of the break-down in communication between members of a middle-class Austrian family, and the desire they have to transcend the drab, soulless grind of their everyday existence and arrive at that mythical place so central to the title.

Even here, with his first film for cinema, Haneke's iconic style and attention to detail is fully-formed, with the same stylistic flourishes found in his recent film, the highly acclaimed Hidden, already presented in the stark, antiseptic presentation of the world created here. The direction of the film is intended to present to us the emptiness and tedium central to the lives of its characters, by giving us scenes that play out in long, unbroken takes lasting anywhere between five to ten minutes, with the camera often locked off and immobile in order to further emphasise the idea of clinical examination. In this respect, the film is less about telling a story and presenting emotions in a manner that we might expect from cinema, but instead feeling more like a science experiment, with Haneke as the biology professor inviting us to take a look through the lens of the microscope. In keeping with this idea, the way in which the drama unfolds and is presented is again drawing heavily on the director's desire to create a mood for the audience that in some way mirrors that of the characters depicted on screen. So, the slow pace, deliberately minimal use of editing and the constant repetition of scenes, actions and events all help to create that same sense of tedium and lifeless banality in order to create a reaction or even a sense of empathy from those of us watching this very ordinary family spiral so terribly out of control.

These themes are further reinforced with the film's near iconic opening shot; a locked off, low-angle perspective of a family saloon moving slowly through a service station car wash. The shot, presented in real-time, lasts somewhere between five or six minutes, but on our first exposure to the film, feels much, much longer. Although it will undoubtedly infuriate some, it establishes the style and pace of the film perfectly; whilst also creating something of an atmosphere of empty, soulless routine. Why wash the car when it will only get dirty again? Later in the film the shot will be repeated within context to further illustrate this point. From here we cut to a montage of cold, clinically arranged images of domestic cleansing; toilets, showerheads, sinks, plug-holes, toothbrushes, etc. It's almost ten minutes before we even see a character's face or find any kind of meaningful exchange of dialog, with Haneke instead presenting the ideas of routine, conformity, cleansing and facade. The notion of cleansing, both literally in this instance, and spiritually as the film progresses, is an important theme, with the family effectively cleansing themselves from society; stripping away every layer of the superficial and eventually taking the final leap of faith into the unknown.

Even here, as the family take their house apart piece by piece and destroy their belongings in order to free themselves from the shackles of routine and social responsibility, we have the action presented as a series of hypnotic, gruelling and repetitive montages that stress the weight of effort required to even escape the horrors of the mundane. Admittedly, I could be reading this the wrong way, but to me the implication is clear; that the family - for one reason or another - have simply ceased to exist. Even before the film begins they have been consumed by life and are now numbed to its pleasures, no matter how few and far between. As a result, many will find these characters hard to like and even harder to empathise with, particularly in the selfishness regarding their child. In one of the most moving scenes, Haneke drops his guard, and for the first time allows his polemic to be overtaken by emotion; as the family sit motionless on the couch, the television set flickering in the dark, with Jennifer Rush singing her anthemic hit The Power of Love as their house lies in ruins, the little girl drinks her milk and softly proclaims "its bitter!". The Seventh Continent is not as easy film to watch; nor to appreciate on any immediate, emotional level. Like much of Haneke's work it requires an enormous amount of thought and effort on the part of the audience to really think about and deconstruct what it is that he is attempting to convey, and only then are we able to truly understand and appreciate what the film is really about.
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