Film review – レッドタートル ある島の物語 / The Red Turtle (Michael Dudok de Wit, 2017)

The Red Turtle may find it hard to be discovered by a dedicated mainstream market. This is almost inevitable for a feature-length traditionally-animated film that involves no spoken words at all, with a simple but thought-provoking story line. Its limited release reflects a genuine assessment of the expected appeal to the wider market. 

This is a shame because the film is a genuine triumph.

The film opens with a man being thrown around helplessly in an unnamed ocean. Struggling to fight the waves, he falls unconscious, later waking up on an uninhabited island. 

The nameless man never speaks, aside from the occasional “Hey!”, whilst his heritage is also somewhat ambiguous. Shipwrecked on an island and left to fend for himself, he busies himself with building a raft to escape and reunite himself with the outside world. However, a large red turtle prevents him from escaping, attacking the raft every time he attempts to leave. When it unexpectedly washes up on shore, he faces a conundrum – free it or exact revenge. 

If you have any fears about The Red Turtle maintaining your attention, you needn’t. It’s one of the most engrossing films I’ve seen this year.

The beauty of the film comes in its simplicity. With no character back stories, no names, no requirement to set the scene beyond the initial opening gambit, we’re left to ponder its surprisingly inspirational content.

Around halfway through the film, the man’s decision to flip the turtle on its back is doubtlessly divisive. Left without much else to focus on, my mind inevitably ended up wondering what I would do in the same situation. The turtle dies, which the man immediately regrets and feels great sorrow for. I felt equally guilty for feeling like he wasn’t completely in the wrong. A senseless murder of an innocent animal, but one that felt partly justified as revenge.

It’s a simple act that drives the more fantastical second half of the film. The lifeless body of the turtle disappears and is replaced with a young, beautiful woman, whom the man subsequently falls in love with.

Clearly, this is a film that is steeped in the metaphorical, encouraging the viewer to think about the deeper meaning of what they are seeing – and giving them the space to do so.
The turtle is a visual representation of man’s relationship to nature. Even as the stranded man fights against the tides and tries to leave the island, the turtle forces him back onto the island, on which he has everything he could possibly need to simply continue to survive. The turtle evenrtually provides him with companionship and, later, a child, this providing him with a fulfilling life too. 

It is a tale in part about man’s short-sightedness towards a nature that gives him everything, highlighting the knee jerk reaction to things he doesn’t understand. It is about the cycle of human life, about the destructive nature of humanity and about the forgiving nature of the surrounding environment – a nature that is forced to adapt to humanity’s shortcomings and still provide a platform for all life – human or otherwise – to continue.

For anyone with a passing interest in the future of the planet, beautiful animation or engrossing stories, this is a must-see.

Film review – Drunken Master (Yuen Woo-ping, 1978)

Two decades before Jackie Chan broke into Hollywood with box office smash Rush Hour, he was making another significant breakthrough in his career. Snake in the Eagles Shadow and Drunken Master were both released in 1978 by Seasonal Film Corporation. They marked Chan’s first mainstream success as a lead actor and showed him to be a realistic option to fill the gap in the market left by Bruce Lee following his unexpected death in 1973.

Chan had worked as a stuntman on two of Lee’s biggest films: Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon. But it took the two action comedy films in 1978 for him to rise to prominence and make the world pay attention to just how entertaining he is on screen.

Drunken Master, which has recently been remastered and issued in HD on Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label, tells the story of Wong Fei-hung (Chan), a young martial arts trainee with more confidence than ability. A couple of incidents in his local town lead him to be disowned by his father – a martial arts master – and he is forced to train with the great but harsh Beggar So (Yuen Siu-tien). Beggar So is a master of the secret martial arts techniques of the Eight Drunken Immortals, and Wong must train with him to master the techniques to defeat the notorious killer Yim Tit-sam (Hwang Jang Lee).

Once Chan appears on screen for the first time, his charisma and charm are there in plain sight. He commands the screen and plays everything for laughs. It feels entirely effortless and he inevitably carries the entire film.

The plot and delivery border on the ridiculous. There are comedic sound effects added to every single move in every fight, which may take some getting used to for newcomers to the genre, although why they would start here is beyond me.

The martial arts on display is exemplary, with Chan clearly an expert in his art to the point of making his character look completely believable as a poor student. Also notable are Hwang Jang Lee’s Taekwondo displays, which are utilised to great effect.

Inevitably, if you’re seeking out this film you’re probably doing so to see the origins of Jackie Chan’s career. On that level, you won’t be disappointed as it shows a young actor having fun finding his feet in a lead role. An underrated gem.

Drunken Master can be purchased on Blu-ray now. It is also available on U.K. Netflix.

The Levelling (Hope Dickson Leach, 2017)

Ellie Kendrick may be familiar to most as Meera Reed in Game of Thrones, but she has been extremely busy outside of Westeros with a series of challenging roles on stage and off. Her latest appearance, this time as the star of drama feature The Levelling, sees her take on the complex character of Clover, a British girl who returns to her farmhouse home after the unexpected death of her brother Harry (Joe Blakemore).

The tone of the film is inevitably dark and the setting is as grim as it is claustrophobic. The whole film plays out entirely within the confines of the farm, as Clover is forced to come to terms with what has happened whilst also dealing with a tattered relationship with her father Aubrey (David Troughton), a man who is either unable or unwilling to open up emotionally and would rather just carry on as if nothing has happened.

You may be forgiven for a reluctance in diving head-first into this film. When the main star is also a bit character in one of the biggest television series of all time, there is a nagging thought that she may have been cast solely to appeal to fans of Game of Thrones. Certainly the cynic in me can’t get past the fact that the timing of the release has been chosen to cash in on it; it is a matter of weeks before it enters its seventh season.

To presume this would be wholly wrong. Kendrick delivers an absolutely phenomenal performance, swaying between headstong frustration to childlike confusion. It’s a great showcase of her talents and a great piece of evidence that there will be life in her career beyond the final season of Game of Thrones next year.

Writer / director Hope Dickson Leach does well with the location of the film to let the audience know that this is a place that is almost uninhabitable. There’s no respite from the damp, grimness of the untended farmhouse and its surrounding land. The fact that she has achieved so much in her debut feature should be enough for the industry to take note. There’s a lot of talent here.

The subject matter may not appeal to some and may be too challenging for others, but this is definitely an emotional journey worth going on.

Film review – Letters from Baghdad (Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum, 2017)

Synopsis (taken from the official website)

Letters from Baghdad tells the extraordinary and dramatic story of Gertrude Bell, the most powerful woman in the British Empire in her day. She shaped the modern Middle East after World War I in ways that still reverberate today. More influential than her friend and colleague Lawrence of Arabia, Bell helped draw the borders of Iraq and established the Iraq Museum. Why has she been written out of history?


Review

First-time directors Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum have chosen an interesting topic for their debut feature. Gertrude Bell may not be a household name to most, but based on the evidence here she should be. Mixing archive video footage and voice-overs from Tilda Swinton and a host of other character actors, the film brings to life her letters from an important time during Iraq’s formative years.

Bell lived from 1868 to 1926 and was a truly independent woman, defining her life with a series of firsts. She was the first woman to receive a First Class Honours degree from Oxford University in Modern History, the first woman to journey solo into the Arabian desert (1500 miles on a camel across Central Arabia), was the only female diplomat at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and the only woman at the Cairo Conference in 1921.

This film concentrates more on her time in Baghdad, critical to the formation of what we now know as Iraq. Her involvement came in the final for years of her life, but in that time she managed to define the borders out of the then-named Mesopotamia, before helping in the formative administration of the country and the controversial installation of their first monarch ruler: King Faisal bin Hussein. She was a good choice to spearhead the tasks due to her knowledge of the area after her extensive travels and relationships and understanding of local knowledge.

To appreciate the film fully it’s probably worth knowing what to expect. It is very much a narrative in the form of a book. It may have taken a considerable amount of time to research and compile the video footage from stock libraries around the world, but the visual result is only minimally engaging. There are many photographs from Bell’s personal collection but no video footage of her directly. This is neither good nor bad, just a matter of fact.

The letters and statements from other people associated to her – relatives, friends and colleagues – aren’t simply narrated. Instead, they are delivered in a talking head style to the camera. It may sound unusual, but it does work and there’s no better way to achieve an entertaining result.

This is a great resource for anyone who wants a penetrable route into the life and achievements of one of the greatest women of her time. It may have its flaws but as a ninety minute film it should reach a wider audience than if they published her letters in book form.

A solid documentary.

Film review – Wings (William A. Wellman, 1927)

For all its technological achievements and successes as a great tale, William A. Wellman’s 1927 cinematic epic is remembered for one thing – it’s the first film to win the Best Picture Academy Award.

The ceremony was far removed from what we know today. The winners were announced three months before the ceremony and it was a much smaller affair than the modern interpretation, with the awarding of prizes taking around fifteen minutes to complete. Wings actually won a prize called “Outstanding Picture”, later renamed to Best Film, making it famous at the expense of F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise. The latter won the similarly-named “Unique and Artistic Picture” on the same night, though on the night it is unlikely this was treated as a runner-up prize.

Wings concerns two love rivals – Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) – who are fighting for the attention and affection of Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston). Jack’s persistence is so committed that he fails to notice his tomboyish next-door neighbour Mary Preston (Clara Bow), despite her continuous effort to get him to notice her. They enlist in the Air Service as trainee fighter pilots. It covers their time in World War I as they complete training, launch into their first battles and become close friends.

It is perhaps a simple plot by today’s standards, but it’s often not the premise that makes a film great but the delivery. This is close to perfection.

Films like this may have been wonders when they were released, but few stand the test of time and allow enjoyment and excitement for the viewers today. Indeed, we are now 90 years further on in cinematic technological advancements and there isn’t a single person involved with the film that is alive today.

The world of cinema should be eternally grateful that Paramount decided to invest £900,000 in restoring this picture. The results are worth considering so you know exactly what you’re seeing and hearing.

On the positive, the picture is absolutely crystal clear. Many segments of the film were unseen for years by the general public, and whenever Wings did surface it was in a severely compromised form. A duplicate negative was found in Paramount’s archives, though this too suffered from significant damage baked into the print. However, digitising the original negatives and painstakingly restoring the film has done wonders for the visual experience. Credit must be given to Executive Director of Restoration Tom Burton and the team at Technicolor Creative Services for such a wonderful result, utilising tinting techniques of the era for added authenticity.

This has been matched up with a new recording of J. S. Zamecnik’s original score by Dominik Häuser and Michael Aarvold. The score was for a 14 reel version of the film that was edited down to 13 reels for the theatrical and roadshow release. Therefore there was a portion of freedom given to the scoring pair, but it is clear the right decisions have been made at each step, as evidenced by the moving results contained on the restored masterpiece. 

Controversially, the sound features sound effects that match to the visual image. Will McKinley has written a fantastic article about the positives and negatives of this, arguing both sides of the toss in a far more eloquent way than I could manage. It’s well worth a read. For me, these additional sounds are 100% in the score and I can see the restoration team’s predicament. If they omitted them it would sound more “authentic”, but only in as much as it’s what a modern audience expects from a 1920s sound film. This score was steeped in innovation and, like the technological risks taken in shooting the visuals, was way ahead of its time. I’m happy the music sticks to the original score, and if you don’t like it you can try an alternative option on the disc (provided by Gaylord Carter), or even mute the whole thing!

Utilising the trainee pilot angle, director Wellman was able to draw on his experience as a First World War pilot to create some absolutely astonishing sequences. They were all filmed on brilliantly blue but cloudy days, which gives the planes some scale and improves the dynamic nature of the dogfights. 

There is also a cinematic first in the film, with the first onscreen man-to-man kiss. It comes in one of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever seen in a film. David has become stranded behind enemy lines and steals a plane to return home. Jack, already believing his friend has died, is on a suicide mission to take down as many enemy pilots as possible to help the war efforts, in careless abandonment of his own safety. Miraculously he survives his plan, shooting down innumerable enemy aircrafts. On returning, he spots one last pilot heading towards the Allied base. He goes in for the kill, without knowing that it is in fact his best friend David. When he lands and seeks the enemy to seal his victory, he realises what he has done. As David dies in Jack’s arms, the complex emotions get the better of them and there on screen is the first same-sex kiss, albeit perhaps accidental. It simply couldn’t have been cut or reshot – it’s integral to the plot and seals their respective positions in their friends’ lives.

The Masters of Cinema team are the perfect choice to take control of such a historic release. There are three bonus features on the Blu-ray disc: one covering the restoration, one that puts the flight aspects of the film into context and one that covers the legacy of the film. The accompanying booklet is full of additional information and essays on the film and director. It just fits the gravitas deserved of the film.

That we can now sit in our front rooms and see a film of this importance in such high quality is a wonderful feeling. The history of cinema is too important to simply let go. It’s fantastic that an entire new generation have the opportunity to see where cinema started and Wings certainly represents a significant piece of the puzzle.

Film review – 아가씨 / The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, 2017)

Park Chan-wook’s latest release is a twisting psychological thriller steeped in eroticism and oozing class that works its audience brilliantly. The only drawback was that I didn’t have time to see it a second time.

Set in Japan-occupied South Korea, the film tells the story of an elaborate plot to rip-off a rich Japanese heiress named Lady Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee), who is living in an extravagant and luxurious mansion under the authoritarian Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). The plot is being masterminded by a conman calling himself Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), and involves him marrying Lady Hideko and subsequently committing her to an asylum to steal her inheritance. To do this, he brings in Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), who is a professional pick-pocket, to work as Lady Hideko’s handmaiden in order to get close to her and influence her feelings towards the Count.

This fantastic plot is based on English novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters. It is brought to life with perfect execution by director Chan-wook. As is typical of his films, The Handmaiden inhabits a uniquely-realised world that features traditional elements mixed in with gothic undertones. It’s a stunning visual achievement and one that is completely absorbing. 

Central to the plot is Uncle Kouzumi’s outlandish book collection, mainly erotic in nature and all extremely rare. He is producing forgeries of the books but is involving Lady Hideko in highly-exclusive book readings of the most sought-after novels, usually for an all-male audience who each will bid on the books in auctions after the readings. Whilst the forgeries provide an additional reason to hate Kouzumi – other than his generally disgusting appearance and the contents of his mysterious basement – it is the contents of the book that also serve to further the sexual drive of the story.

The scenes where Lady Hideko reads excerpts from the books whilst the audience listens intently are some of the best moments of the film, creating suspense with nothing more than an authoritative delivery from Min-hee and some attentive camerawork.

Indeed, the sly glances and subtle reactions are what makes the acting performances so believable. This is a game of tension, both mentally and sexually. The two central female characters are falling in love with each other, but they are also engulfing their desires in a sexual lust that makes Soo-kee’s original plan increasingly difficult to carry out. It is surprising as an English viewer that this traditional period drama setting doesn’t portray this desire with mere suggestion and topped-and-tailed sexual encounters. There is literally no holding back, which I’m sure many will find crass, but I found it essential to the plot and executed with enough artistic integrity to not be considered as superfluous.

This is simply one of the best films I’ve seen all year and one I can’t wait to see again once the extended cut is released on home media later this year. I can’t recommend it enough.

Film review – Ghost in the Shell (Rupert Sanders, 2017)

When the live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell was announced, the online rhetoric centred around the fact that the remake was in itself completely unnecessary, whilst also questioning why lead Japanese character Major Kusanagi was being portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. The studios’ responses at the time were that they wanted a bankable star and that was the main reason she was cast, but that word was out there. Whitewashing. Once it’s there, it’s hard to shake.

A similar issue befell the 2011 film Under The Skin, also starring Scarlett Johansson. True, there was no need accusations of racism, but Johansson was cast for similar reasons. It later emerged in an interview with Gemma Arterton that the British actress had been first choice by the director Jonathan Glazer. However, Johansson was eventually cast in order to secure the funding to complete the film to the director’s vision.

In both cases, it is a sad reflection on the current state of cinema and its attitudes towards so-called non-bankable stars. Clearly the studios involved were nervous about a film being able to sell based on a high quality script, good direction and a solid marketing campaign. Instead they brought in Johansson, and presumably part of their reasoning was that they didn’t have faith in the audience to see past the lead character. Perhaps this is correct.

However, in neither case was the film damaged as a result of the casting. Both plots lend themselves to having an otherworldly-essence to the lead female. 

Crucially, Johansson isn’t just a bankable star. She’s a truly phenomenal actress at the top of her game.

In Under The Skin, the fact that Scarlett Johansson was driving around the streets of Glasgow and getting real reactions from the general public whilst speaking in an emotionless English accent played into her role. She was, ambiguously, an alien preying on men, so her not being British gave a mysterious element to her performance that justified her casting.

Equally in Ghost in the Shell, the fact she isn’t of Asian origin doesn’t necessarily play against the script. She is a cybernetic being, with the brain of a human inside a robotic body. This is a future where cybernetic modifications are a part of normal life. The brain inside her body is that of a Japanese girl, but her body is Scarlett Johansson. 

I don’t agree with the feeling that her casting is whitewashing of the original story. The studio saw a way to make the plot more appealing to American audiences in a way that didn’t compromise the story – the wider lead cast covers a wide variety of races, primarily either American or Asian. They would have been foolish not to go down that route.

Clearly, the Japanese market doesn’t seem overly bothered by her casting. Nor do the South Korean and Chinese markets. In China, for example, they currently have a total box office taking of $23.39m (as of 09/04/2017), approximately a quarter of the global takings. This is a total which pushed a disappointing US box office performance into a profitable outcome.

Ironically, one of the primary reasons offered by the studio for its domestic failure was that Scarlett Johansson doesn’t have an online presence. 

The humour of this entire situation shouldn’t be lost and I can’t help but feel that the backlash against this is looking for an argument where there isn’t one. At the very worst, the filmmakers can be accused of bringing in a superstar to sell the film and this deviates it from the original vision from 1996. The faithfulness to the original story is so strong though that this change shouldn’t be held against it. Certainly no complaints can be levelled at Johansson, who puts in a stellar performance in her starring role.


The environment the characters inhabit is rich and believable, with a mix of CGI and real shots used to create a new universe. It is visually stunning, a full 3D remodelling of the vision created in 2D by Mamoru Oshii and the original animation team from 1995. 

The city is modelled on Hong Kong, but it feels like it lives in the same universe as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, with spawling cityscapes and futuristic advertisement boards threatening to submerge the life within it.

Indeed, the musical cues that Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe provide are clearly influenced by Vangelis. This I see as an indication of how much of an influence Vangelis has had on futuristic science fiction cinema, rather than a lazy bit of theft from the musical pairing. Mansell is very much carrying the Vangelis baton as evidenced by his excellent scores for the likes of High-Rise, Black Swan and Stoker.

If the action sequences seem a little dated, it is because Sanders has been put in a near-impossible situation by the Wachowskis. There are rumours that the only reason The Matrix was made was because they wanted to make a live-action Ghost in the Shell but couldn’t get the rights. Whilst there are similar themes in both films, it is the action sequences that were so iconic that The Matrix is remembered for. These were lifted straight from Oshii’s masterpiece. So, heaping this remake with too much of them would make casual audiences feel like they were utilising a technique that debuted two decades ago and has been parodied ever since. If anything, Sanders has probably underused it, but it is nonetheless a visual spectacle.

Taking on a film that is seen as a defining point of the genre is always going to be tough. The original really wasn’t a box office success in its original release, making just $2.28m globally. It did eventually become a cult classic. This 2017 remake has already made its money back ($130m and counting), but will doubtless also be considered a box office flop by its detractors. 

This is not a masterpiece of a film, but it is extremely impressive and engrossing. Arguably, the plot is much clearer than the original too. It’s a shame that it looks unlikely to be given a chance by most a large portion of the potential market.

Note: the version watched was 3D IMAX.