by Craig Thomas
Director Kim Ji-woon has established himself as something of a genre-hopper, so it is always interesting to see what he comes up with next. From black comedy (The Quiet Family), to horror (A Tale of Two Sisters), to gangsters (A Bittersweet Life), to Korea-based westerns (The Good, The Bad and The Weird), to serial killers (I Saw The Devil), he has tried his hand at all of them and succeeded masterfully. His ability to blend action, comedy and horrendous violence has of course, made him an attractive proposition to Hollywood and 2013 will see the release of his first English-speaking film, The Last Stand. This will see him tackle a story about an aging sheriff, starring none other than the former governor of California (still can’t get over that) Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In some ways, Doomsday Book can be seen as taking care of some unfinished business before leaving town. A bit of research shows that this is in fact not a new film at all and indeed dates back to 2006. It is made up of three short films, each of which was originally intended to be directed by a different director, but funding fell through after the first two segments were filmed and the project was shelved. In 2010 production resumed and a third segment was filmed to complete the piece. The first segment is directed by Yim Pil-sing, whilst the second is by Kim Ji-woon and the final piece is a collaboration between the two of them. So whilst is it is somewhat unfair to focus the introduction on Kim, he is by far the more successful director and (to me at least) this is an introduction to Yim. And boy, this is one hell of an introduction.
The three segments are linked by the common theme of the self-destruction of humanity through technological innovation. We get the sense that neither director is particularly enamored with modernity nor with the general direction of society, though it does not come across as preaching due to the plentiful helpings of comedy, satire and absurdity through which the stories are told.
The first segment, entitled Brave New World, is a love story set in the middle of a zombie apocalypse which spreads through the food chain and causes society to break down. It looks very good and there are some similarity in terms of camerawork and presentation of scenes that remind me of David Fincher’s turn-of-the-millennium work. It mixes the gruesomeness and the humour well and it is blackly comic. I can say with confidence that it is certainly the best zombie horror/comedy crossover I’ve seen since Shaun of the Dead (apologies to the makers of Cockneys Vs Zombies, but it’s true). From this, I can say with certainty that I will be looking at more of his work in the not-too-distant-future.
Another point of note is that this contains a cameo from Bong Joon-ho, who is one of South Korea’s most successful directors (probably best known for directing The Host, of which there was talk of an English-language remake).
The second segment, Heavenly Creature, changes the mood completely. Kim tells the story of a robot in a Buddhist temple which attains enlightenment and therefore whose very existence brings all sorts of existential uncertainties.
From this point Kim takes the opportunity to ponder some of the greatest questions about life and spirituality, about the effect of technology on human existence and the place of humanity in the world. As would be expected, it’s a far more meditative piece, though it certainly doesn’t skimp on the humour. Once again, it looks beautiful.
As does the third segment, Happy Birthday. This takes the crisis of humanity away from the spiritual and back to the materialistic as a meteor heads for earth and people try to prepare for the end of the world. This is certainly the most absurd, or at least the most symbolic, of the three. Again, it is high on laughs and the satire of the media and of TV Shopping networks is very entertaining.
This trilogy is very reminiscent of the excellent UK TV series, Black Mirror, which presents a series of not-too-distant-future scenarios where technology has had serious adverse effects on human life. It is unrelentingly bleak and brilliant and if you liked this movie, then you should certainly watch it.
These are three excellent pieces and they hang together well as a movie, but as with all such projects I find it difficult to relax and watch as I’m constantly aware that it is going to reset quite quickly. Still, this is an excellent piece of work and though it is very ambitious, it does succeed. I cannot recommend this highly enough.
Doomsday Book is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Craig Thomas
Indonesian films do not usually get much coverage in the UK. So it was with some surprise that I noticed The Raid: Redemption seemed to feature prominently on a variety of shows. Not only was it reviewed by the film critics, but it also appeared in features on general interest TV and even the news. The level of coverage for a non-English speaking film was somewhat perplexing. As a nation, we are not great consumers of the subtitled. So what was all the fuss about? Well, there was a lot of praise both for the film and it’s writer/director, the distinctly un-Indonesian Gareth Evans. The coverage was not so much about the film, but rather the story of a boy from Wales (For those who might not know, it’s a country next to England. Birthplace of Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Anthony Hopkins and technically, Christian Bale) who grew up, studied Scriptwriting in university, moved to Indonesia and made a successful movie full of non-stop action and horrendous violence. A proper kid done good story. And if there’s one thing we Brits like more than revelling in the failures of others, it’s undeservedly basking in their glory.
So what of the film? Well, it’s non-stop action in the truest sense. There’s two minutes of back-story for one of the characters, then five minutes of exposition in the form of a mission-briefing to a truckload of heavily-armed police officers, which can be summarized thusly; a very bad man owns a building and rents out the rooms to other very bad men. The police are going in to get the very bad man, but to do so have to go through all the other very bad men.
The next 90 minutes is a full-on assault of violence that would make Tarantino blush. People are shot, stabbed, garrotted, exploded, hacked, and subjected to non-stop barrages of the Indonesian martial art, pencak silat. That is pretty much the whole film, except it’s not. There’s a number of sub-plots that keep the momentum going and turn it into something a bit more interesting than people just beating each other up. I won’t go into these as it doesn’t add anything to the review and might detract from the film, but there are numerous twists and turns to give the violence some context.
It is always difficult to judge the quality of dialogue in a subtitled film, but it seemed well-written. Each line served a purpose, but also seemed natural, not just an attempt to shoe-horn in a plot point. There were also more than a couple of moments of black humour. It is very much a post-Reservoir Dogs action film, in that the juxtaposition of comedy and violence derives from the predicaments the characters find themselves in and is used to lighten the mood momentarily before plunging you back into the horror of the situation. This contrasts strongly with the action movies of the 1980s, which are seemingly (some might say unfortunately) making a comeback now, where throw-away quips are used to detract from, and almost legitimize, the extreme violence on display.
The script, like the film in general, is very lean. There is nothing here that is unnecessary or causes it to feel bloated. The editing is very quick and the camera movement means that the fight scenes do no blur into one another, and that the longer ones do not become a chore. This brings me to the most obvious thing about this film, namely the choreography. In a word, it is excellent. Making up the bulk of the movie, these scenes are expertly crafted and never feel stale nor repetitive and part of that is down to the good writing. There is a great deal of variety, without it drifting into the totally preposterous. As the tension increases, the weapons decrease (from machine guns, to hand guns, to knives, to whatever’s at hand, to bare hands) and the action becomes more elaborate, but somehow avoids becoming a farce. I can’t imagine the physical strain performing all those routines must have had on the actors, all of whom were perfectly cast and who make the characters compelling, even though there is virtually no back-story presented to the audience.
This is a very enjoyable film and manages to sustain the high-octane pace for the duration without outstaying its welcome. Visually, it is very impressive and the fight scenes are immense. Yet there are also a number of themes bubbling under the surface it which prevent it from becoming one-dimensional. This is a great action film with some brilliant fight scenes. That it was made by a fellow Welshman makes it doubly sweet.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, I can confirm there will be both an English remake and an Indonesian sequel.
The Raid: Redemption is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Craig Thomas
Chan-wook Park is one of South Korea’s most prominent directors and one of the best working directors in the world today. Among his most vocal supporters is Quentin Tarantino, who pushed to award Oldboy the 2006 Palme d’Or (it instead went to Michael Moore for Fahrenheit 9/11, one would assume for political, rather than cinematic reasons). Whilst it would be easy to tag him as part of the “Extreme Asia” movement of extremely violent films, this would detract from his ability as a filmmaker. Yes, his films are often hard-hitting and violent, but they are also fantastic, beautifully shot and directed.
I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK is somewhat of a departure for Park, being a romantic comedy, though the theme of revenge runs throughout the film (in some ways making in the unofficial fourth part of his excellent “revenge trilogy” of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance) and there are one or two scenes not for the squeamish. Set in a mental institution, it tells the tale of Cha Young-goon, (played by Su-jeong Lim) a new patient who thinks she is a machine rather than a human being. Inside, she meets a host of quirky patients with problems of their own.
This is not a social-realist film dealing with mental illness. It is a highly stylized, colourful work that often makes being insane look quite fun. What it is, is a film about denial. Struggling to overcome the loss of her grandmother, she denies she is a human being. Cha Young-goon’s mother denies both her mother and daughter have serious mental health issues, the former who is left until her problems become too great to ignore whilst the latter is told to hide her problems, until they manifest in what is mistakenly thought to be a suicide attempt.
Like Park’s previous work, it is also about the futile, destructive nature of revenge. She spends the film plotting with all manner of electronic devices (wall lights, vending machines, etc) in order to kill the “men in white” who took away her beloved, insane grandmother, whilst licking batteries to charge enough power (because cyborgs don’t eat) to kill them all.
Like all of his films, it is visually stunning. Every shot, without exception, is beautiful and credit must be given to the long-time collaborator, cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung. This is one of the greatest strengths of Park’s films. They are clean and precise, without ever being sterile or bland and can make even the most brutal and disturbing scenes of violence (of which in the film, there is only one) beautiful, yet hard-hitting.
Some might be concerned that the comedy would not survive the subtitles, but they needn’t be. The script is laugh-out-loud funny and there are also a lot of visual gags and despite the somewhat unusual setting there are also tender and heart-warming moments throughout with the blossoming romance between her and the “soul-stealing” Park Il-sun (played by Rain) offering a somewhat optimistic tone about the redemptive nature of love.
That said, it is not perfect and the one scene of violence does seem to jar somewhat with the rest of the film. Nevertheless, it is a rewarding watch and an interesting take on an often (rightly) derided genre. It’s also a great way to experience the beauty of a Park film if you are not fond of extreme violence.
I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
If you find yourself being the type of person that can’t force yourself to sit down and watch a foreign art house film, you should really make an effort to start with and see Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo (The Bodyguard). Yes, there are subtitles in the film, so you will have to do a small bit of reading, but Yojimbo, which was the film that influenced Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone’s groundbreaking spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars, is such an entertaining film that you will find yourself forgetting that there are subtitles on the screen. Devoid of any off-putting pretension, Kurosawa puts more emphasis on limb-severing action and hearty comedy that will appeal to both average movie viewers and the art house crowd. A highly influential film, Yojimbo has been widely considered to be a true classic that finds its own influence in western cinema, creating a slightly surreal Japanese western that is ripe with dazzling black and white cinematography, packed camera shots, and some truly breathtaking showdowns that will leave you gasping.
Yojimbo follows a wandering, masterless samurai (Played by Toshiro Mifune) who happens upon a 19th century town that is caught in the middle of a war between two rival gangs. After dropping in to the local tavern, the elderly owner, Gonji (Played by Eijiro Tono), gives the samurai all the information about the rival crime bosses, Seibei (Played by Seizaburo Kawazu) and Ushitora (Played by Kyu Sazanka). Gonji warns the samurai that he should leave the town before one of the gangs confront and kill him but seeing an opportunity to make a hefty chunk of change and a way to clean up the town, the samurai decides to stick around and devise a way to trick the gangs in to destroying each other. After infiltrating one of the gangs by displaying how skilled he is with a samurai sword, he sets his plan in motion but certain members of both gangs begin to suspect that he is not simply interested in aligning himself with one specific gang.
For the individuals out there who are fond of cinematography, the resplendent whites and the charcoal blacks from cinematographers Kazuo Miyagawa and Takao Saito are an absolute must-see and perhaps my favorite aspect of Yojimbo. The film, which was made in 1961, has such a sharp, luminous picture that I absolutely couldn’t believe my eyes. For any film fan, the picture here will certainly have you dying to go out and pick up the Bu-ray for maximum picture quality. Complimenting this masterful cinematography is hack-and-slash action that sends a severed arm flying here and buckets of flowing blood there. The best “ewww” moment comes when a mangy dog trots through the streets up to the samurai carrying a severed hand in his dingy mouth. It comes as such a shock to the viewer that it becomes a combination of funny and appalling. The fight scenes in Yojimbo suddenly explode across the screen—a technique that catches the viewer off guard at first and then is suddenly over just as quickly as it began. This is a method that Leone would apply in his slow building gunfights that would begin and end in a loud crack in each and every one of his sweaty westerns.
While Yojimbo is impressive with its camerawork and white-knuckle action, Kurosawa doesn’t ever forget to keep you laughing and rallying behind our masterless samurai, who consistently toys with each gang. Yojimbo is a highly comical film, especially when the two gangs decide to go head to head in the deserted streets. Each gang has members who brag about how fearless they are and how feared they should be. When our hero approaches one gang, three young gang members approach him and boast how dangerous they are. Our hero chuckles in their faces and calls them cute, enraging them enough to have them draw their swords and lunge at the cool, calm, and collected hero. In a flurry of gore, the dangerous criminals are reduced to blubbering babies crying for their mothers. Yojimbo plays with this constantly, offering the audience hot-headed tough guys who are quickly revealed to be cowards who run off to their stern and commanding mothers (I think the women in Yojimbo are scarier than the men are!). It is a gag that constantly grabs a few belly laughs, especially the scene where the two gangs charge each other in the streets and then retreat back to their lines only to charge again and then flee. While all the charging and fleeing is going on, Mifune represents the audience, sitting back and howling at all the cowardice that has been revealed.
Mifune is an actor who is in complete control of each and every scene, playing the levelheaded hero who never seems to break a sweat, almost like all of this is second nature to him. Mifune’s samurai, who tells one gang leader that his name is Sanjuro Kuwabatake, is clearly the inspiration for Clint Eastwood’s cigar chomping Man with No Name. Hell, at times, Sanjuro is seen chewing on what appears to be a cigar, further highlighting the impact. Another standout is Daisuke Kato as the vile Inokichi, Ushitora’s dim, overweight brother who adds a few more laughs to all the action scurrying about the town and speaking through bucked teeth. Tono’s Gonji is another lovable character as the elderly tavern owner who doesn’t want trouble and reluctantly aids Sanjuro in his quest to clean up the streets. Isuzu Yamada is a nasty piece of work as Orin, Seibei’s wife who hovers over her husband’s brothel and takes control when Seibei is too afraid to. Tatsuya Nakadai shows up as Unosuke, Ushitora’s youngest sibling who carries a pistol and nabs the film’s coolest battle with Sanjuro, who attacks the gunfighter with nothing but a sword and dagger.
While Yojimbo’s plot gets a little too thin at times, there is never a tedious moment to be found in Kurosawa’s western. There is something for everyone in Yojimbo, from the people who are looking for a love-reunited story all the way to those who just want to see a fearless hero cut his way through countless bad guys. Yojimbo has been caught in the shadow of Leone’s equally entertaining spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars but I think both films are equal in their eminence. As far as I’m concerned, both films are classics in their own right and their impact on cinema is quite clear. Overall, Yojimbo is a flawless action film that will keep the audience on its toes from beginning to end and one hell of a significant action hero. A must-see foreign classic with incredibly wide reach and appeal. How can you deny a film that contains the line “I’m not dying yet! There’s a bunch of guys I have to kill first!”
Yojimbo is available of Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
When you first hear about Japanese auteur Takashi Miike’s samurai/spaghetti western mash-up Sukiyaki Western Django, you can’t help but be intrigued if you are a fan of either genre. Any unlikely genre mash-up is going to grab the interest of cinema fanatics and when you say the unpredictable Miike is behind the camera, it becomes a must-see film. But, like most genre mash-ups/hybrids, Sukiyaki Western Django is immensely disappointing. Way back in 1964, Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo and he loosely based his first spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars off of Kurosawa’s film and ended up reinventing the genre. The east was the inspiration for the new vision of the west that was emerging out of Italy. With Sukiyaki Western Django, Miike pays tribute to the two classics and fuses the spaghetti western to the samurai film then attempts to conceal the line where he connected them. The result is a surreal and often times cartoonish vision that also attempts to weave in some traces of Japanese history. Unfortunately, Sukiyaki Western Django, which is named after a popular Japanese one-pot beef dish and Italian filmmaker Sergio Corbucci’s legendary spaghetti western Django, has a flavor that is tasty on the first bite but quickly begins droning on the viewer until Miike dumps a whole bucket of salt and pepper on the feisty gunfight at the climax.
Sukiyaki Western Django picks up in the small town of Yuta, Nevata, where two warring gangs, the Heikes (reds) and the Genjis (whites), are waging a battle for control of the town. One day, an unnamed gunman (Played by Hideaki Ito) wanders into Yuta and offers up his service to whichever gang will pay more. After demonstrating his skills, both make generous offers to this mysterious gunman but he isn’t entirely interested in their offers. The gangs are after gold that is buried somewhere near the town and one gang is importing a weapon that can give them the upper hand in their battle. The gunman begins playing to two gangs against each other in an attempt to wipe both of them out and make off with the gold for himself. As the war grows more and more violent and the body count racks up, the gunman finds an ally in a legendary gunslinger that has been hiding in plain sight of the gangs. Her name is the Bloody Benton (Played by Kaori Momoi) and she happens to be an independent one-woman killing machine.
Sukiyaki Western Django opens with a nifty sequence that involves a lone gunslinger named Piringo (Played by Quentin Tarantino) who finds himself confronted by three cowboys who wish to kill him. Miike doesn’t make any attempt to hide the fact that his actors are on a soundstage with a painted backdrop behind them and a very visible string holding up the giant sun. The sequence is suggestive of films like The Searchers, Once Upon a Time in the West, and A Fistful of Dollars all in one breath. It is the most inspired sequence in Sukiyaki Western Django, Tarantino getting his dream role of emulating Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. If Miike had run with this technique throughout the entire runtime, Sukiyaki Western Django would have no doubt been a much better and cooler film. When the film travels to Yuta, he switches over to real landscapes, intense color pallets, and lots of special effects which all get worn out before they even get going. Miike finally gets things back on track during the final shoot out where he slips in references to The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, Django, and The Great Silence. This is a sequence that will have fans of the genre erupting in applause. It is a sequence that also single handedly saves Sukiyaki Western Django from crumbling like one of the ramshackle buildings that dot the town of Yuta.
One choice that Miike makes that is very questionable is having his Japanese actors abandon their mother tongue and speak broken English. On one hand, it is understandable why he would make this choice, approaching the western genre that finds its roots in America, but it is clear that some of his actors are having a difficult time with the English language and that they would have been more comfortable speaking their own language. In my opinion, if he would have stuck to the Japanese language, Sukiyaki Western Django would have been a much more coherent film and much easier for the viewer to follow. At times, I found myself getting lost and finally switching on the subtitles so I could understand some of the actors and keep up with the plotline. Once I did this, Sukiyaki Western Django clicked together ever so slightly. Miike also makes the mistake of not fleshing his characters out enough, turning them into silly caricatures that look like they leapt off the pages of a comic book and left their back stories in the mind of their creator. You can’t particularly care about any of them and they all just fill the screen to become moving targets for shotgun blasts. The actors seem to be having fun with their characters but no one actually inhabits their character and brings them to life.
Sukiyaki Western Django exists simply to be an in-joke to the hip cinema crowd and I must admit that I enjoyed a few of those in-jokes. I found the references to Yojimbo and the spaghetti western classics to be comical but I wish that Miike’s film had created its own world rather than just cobbling together borrowed blood-dipped chunks of other director’s cinematic worlds. The film will also appeal to those who have a strong interest in world history, as the film makes a fistful of references to historical events including England’s Wars of the Roses and Japan’s Genpei War. To me, Sukiyaki Western Django turned out to be a middling film that left me dissatisfied because I thought it was capable of so much more but it wasn’t interested in aiming higher. I tend to enjoy Miike’s depraved work even though it makes me want to loose my lunch after it ends but this particular film never comes together when it needs to, especially when it is giving clunky, vague and longwinded explanations of its plotline that are ultimately forgettable. Miike does add a bit of kick with the awesome opening sequence, the very cool Bloody Benton character (the only one given an intriguing backstory), and the outrageous climatic showdown. If you find yourself to be the fanatic of Japanese cinema and history, a guru of westerns, spaghetti westerns, Yojimbo, Quentin Tarantino, Miike, and his entire body of work, you will eat up Sukiyaki Western Django. If you are only some of those things or none of those things, you’re going to find this film to be an incredibly uneven experience and a chore to endure.
Sukiyaki Western Django is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
After its sweep at the Golden Globes, the silent French film The Artist finally received a wide theatrical release. With all the hoopla and chatter about how wonderful this film is, I braved a snowstorm with two of my buddies who were intrigued by a silent film but were conflicted on the idea of seeing one. So is it worth the hype? Yes, The Artist is a testament to our imagination and is a vivacious spectacle without explosions. It’s comical, touching, smooth, and cute with two leads who have classic Hollywood movie star stamped all over them. To be fair, it is a intrepid move on the part of the filmmaker and the studio to take a risk on this film, mostly because American audiences wouldn’t give it the time of day. Yes, it is silent and yes, you have to pay attention to the screen or else you will get lost. That means you have to slide your phone back into your pocket, pause the Angry Birds, and ignore that text for an hour and forty minutes.
The Artist picks up in 1927 with amiable silent film star George Valentin (Played by Jean Dujardin), who proudly wears a pencil-thin mustache, greased back hair, and bops around with his dog costar, at the height of cinematic fame. As he departs the premier of his new film, A Russian Affair, photographers swarm Valentin and in the hysterics, he bumps into a strikingly beautiful woman named Peppy Miller (Played by Bérénice Bejo). She plants a big kiss on Valentin’s cheek, igniting a swarm of speculation in the papers: “Who’s That Girl?” Peppy uses her tabloid fame to get a job as a back-up dancer for a movie studio where she slowly climbs the ladder of celebrity. While in production on another film, studio boss Al Zimmer (Played by John Goodman) approaches Valentin and tells him he has something to show him. Zimmer introduces Valentin to a new kind of film—the talkie! Valentin waves the talkie off as just a fad that will never catch on, but as the years pass, Valentin watches as audiences embrace the new approach to this medium. As a result, Valentin’s fame and fortune slowly fades away, leaving him a broken man. Peppy, on the other hand, finds herself rapidly rising as the new “It” girl in Hollywood.
The film tells a timeless tale, one we are all accustomed with—a story of swallowing one’s pride, adjusting to the new times, and reluctance to accept change. Yet director Michel Hazanavicius tells it with a fresh visual approach, making us forget we have heard this story before. I would say that The Artist turns itself into an event film, yes, like Avatar or Grindhouse, because it dares to show us something we do not go to the movies and see every week. Sure, it doesn’t feature blue aliens or go-go dancers with machine guns for legs, but it does transport us to the early years of cinema, much like Grindhouse took us back to the rundown movie palaces of the 1970’s and Avatar felt ripped from the distant future. It is not satisfied with simply evoking, much like the other nostalgic films of 2011 were. It is a blockbuster of romanticized imagery. I found myself wishing that I would have worn a three piece suit and the theater would have been filled with cigarette smoke.
The Artist features some dazzling physical performances from both Dujardin and Bejo, both sweeping us up with the batting of an eyebrow and a smile. Dujardin is so damn magnetic that I can’t wait to see what he does after this film. While he flashes pearly smiles and looks cool strutting in a tux, he is capable of dramatic emotional lows. We feel for him as his marriage and career unravels even if we are saying, ‘Told ya so” in the back of our minds. Dujardin really sparkles when he breaks into a tap dance or performs slapstick with his four-legged companion. Bejo blazes up the screen with her bouncy sexuality and old Hollywood glamour. She is classy even when she is haughty, an imagine she embraces even if she is aware that it isn’t her true character. When the two share a scene, they have unlimited chemistry that Hazanavicius is fully aware of. A tap dance sequence at the end of the film left me wishing for a musical sequel that would feature George and Peppy together again. Goodman as the studio boss is right on the money. It was strange not hearing his gruff voice but even silent and chomping on a cigar, he is just as scene stealing.
Don’t worry if you feel like a fish out of water when The Artist first rolls onto the screen. It will take you a minute to adjust to it but when you do, you will forget that it is silent. Ludovic Bource’s old-fashioned score is a standout, as the music was the punctuation to the stories being told in silent films. The real beauty of The Artist comes from the message it sends to the audience. Film doesn’t need sound or flashy set pieces to send a profound statement and sometimes minimalism can stir up the strongest emotions in any given individual. The most important aspect of any work of art is the love, care, and attention the artist gives to their work and their willingness to stand by it. The Artist is bursting with Hazanavicius’ love, care, and attention in every single frame, which is why this film wins us over. It speaks a universal language without saying anything at all.
by Steve Habrat
If you are one of the individuals out there who suffers from coulrophobia, a crippling fear of clowns, you should stay far away from Álex de la Iglesia’s hectic foreign art house flick The Last Circus, a bloody allegory that is a visual fiesta and resembles something from the minds of Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez. For all its visual gifts, The Last Circus falls apart slowly and by the end, is a giant lumbering mess of a film. The load grows heavy with too many characters serving no purpose but to fill up a frame and populate the circus that is the main setting. The Last Circus does succeed as a bizarre genre mash-up, at one moment it’s a horror film, the next second it’s a dark comedy, the next moment it’s a romance film, and the next it’s a perverse action film. Experiments like this don’t always work (Take a look at the western/science fiction action dud Cowboys & Aliens for obvious proof) but The Last Circus balances it quite nicely. Good thing since this film is already walking a swaying tightrope.
The Last Circus packs as much content as it can into its hour and fifty minute runtime. It saddened me to find that there are quite a few slow spots in what promised early on to be a nonstop rush. Beginning in 1937 and using the Spanish Civil War as the backdrop, a guttural militia group drops in to a local theater where a sad clown and happy clown are performing for a cheering group of children. Just outside, bombs fall and shake dust from the ceiling onto the clowns. The militia leader is looking for any help they can find and they need every able bodied man to join their ranks. The happy clown is forced into service, handed a machete, let loose on the National soldiers, and in a frenzied attack, the happy clown lays waste to an entire platoon. He is soon captured and placed in a military jail, forced into labor and waiting out a death sentence. His young son vows to free his father and almost succeeds. The film then fast-forwards to 1973, where the son, Javier (Played by Carlos Areces) has now grown up and gotten a job working as a sad clown for a local circus. He is paired up with the happy clown Sergio (Played by Antonio de la Torre), who is married to the striking and beguiling acrobat Natalia (Played by Carolina Bang, who wears multiple wigs throughout the runtime). Javier falls in love with Natalia, who appears to share the same feelings. Sergio is abusive and unwilling to let Natalia out of his site, as he suspects she is cheating on him with another man. Javier and Sergio soon clash with each other for her affection, a clash that escalates into a violent stand-off between the two men. Murder, savage beatings, self-mutilation, graphic sex, and sinister figures from the past all emerge as the two fight to the death for Natalia.
While the only way to describe The Last Circus is a truly bizarre work of art, the film seems unsure what to do with everything crammed into it. Characters get lost in the shuffle or are unrecognizable due to ever changing physical appearances, the ending is too CGI heavy, and the constant grotesqueries mar what could be a thought-provoking event. I’m sure the film is more rewarding for the Spanish audiences, who are the ones who will be able to piece this allegory together. The film also has some cool use of stock footage that was incorporated smoothly throughout the journey. Yet I found glaring problems with the storyline, mostly in the sudden mental collapse that Javier undergoes. Why has he suddenly just snapped? Was he that close to the breaking point? The film never gives a clear-cut answer to this question. The only hint we get is the constant harassment from Sergio. Even this explanation I do not buy, mostly because Sergio isn’t that terrible to Javier in the first place.
The performances in The Last Circus are all quite good; the best is easily de la Torre’s Sergio, who looks like Heath Ledger’s alcoholic stunt double from The Dark Knight. He endures a beating so brutal, it’s amazing he isn’t dead. He looms in the shadows watching Natalia, all of these scenes resembling images out of a comic book. Areces does a fine job when he’s completely lost his marbles but he is astonishingly uninteresting as the sane Javier. When he is randomly firing his machine guns in a small diner, you’ll find yourself developing coulrophobia with each bullet fired. Bang’s Natalia is all deceitful smiles and suggestive lip licking, cleaning blood from her oozing nose. She’s masochistic and does more flip-flops than I ever thought possible. At one second she is shrieking at Sergio’s mutilated mug and the next second she can’t get enough of him. I am still trying to figure out if she was sincere in her interactions with Javier.
I would recommend The Last Circus for it’s Baroque settings and macabre make-up effects. Someone get this crew to the set of J. Edgar and fast! The action is disorienting in the first ten minutes of the movie and then it maneuvers into tedium by the final fistfight. A figure from the past is wasted and would have been a far more lasting villain than Sergio. But for all the smarts this film has, and trust me, it is very clever, it consistently looses site of what it is trying to achieve. At times it felt rather preoccupied and more concerned with its visual stimulants. Sure, I like a film to look pretty and have some nifty sets, boast a crisp picture, and have an aura of impulsiveness, but The Last Circus left me unaffected, the furthest thing from traumatized, dismayed, or charged up politically. I turned it off thinking about how pretty it looked in HD and how disturbing clowns really are.
The Last Circus is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.