Monthly Archives: November 2007

Leeds International Film Festival review – No Country For Old Men

No Country For Old Men (2007)

Dirs. Joel and Ethan Coen

122mins

Screened: Thursday 15th November, 2007

Warning: SPOILERS for both book and film 

While reading Cormac McCarthy’s 2004 novel (reviewed here) this summer, I was struck by how cinematic the prose was – consisting mostly of flat descriptions of characters’ actions, I imagined it in my head as a series of still and tracking shots, without incidental music or ostentatious camera tricks. It says a lot for both McCarthy’s skill as a writer and the Coen brothers’ skill as filmmakers that the screen adaptation look a lot like I imagined it. Opening with several shots of the Texas countryside, as Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Bell talks in voiceover about a job where several of his predecessors didn’t even carry weapons, we are quickly thrust into a world of random violence as the enigmatic Anton Chigurh brutally murders two people while escaping from custody.

We then follow savvy local Llewellyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin) as while out hunting in the desert he discovers a load of bodies, heroin and a briefcase containing $2 million. He grabs the cash and returns home, but after a fatal miscalculation he’s forced to go on the run, pursued by Chigurh and various other interested parties.

The heart of this film is the trio of male leads that cross each other’s paths, pursuing different objectives. Javier Bardem does an excellent job playing Chigurh – as impassive as an Easter Island statue, he’s less a hitman than an Old Testament vision of death made flesh. Brolin plays Moss well as an unsympathetic “hero”, who we only identify with because of the terrifying nature of his antagonists. It’s Jones, however, who represents the book and film’s moral heart as Bell, the decent, principled servant of the law who comes to realise its meaninglessness in a country he no longer recognises.

The film is slow-paced, but never sacrifices tension to the feel of the story. In fact, the two complement each other very well. Watching Chigurh stalk his prey or Moss try to outsmart his pursuers is all the more engrossing for the time the Coens take. There are two terrific scenes which had me gripping the armrests in fear – the first a shakily-filmed chase sequence where Moss attempts to outrun some drug dealers across a bleak desert, and the second a shootout between Moss and Chigurh outside a bordertown motel – where the action is expertly handled and realistically portrayed. McCarthy’s dialogue, which due to his lack of quotation marks often lies flat on the page, comes to life here and embellishes the typically Coen-esque mood of black humour, without seeming deliberately played for laughs. 

What few criticisms I have come from not seeing enough of Bell in the film. The book shows him jounreying slowly from crime scene to crime scene, doggedly following the man he describes as “a ghost”. Much of this is sacrificed in the film to save running time, but it helps you identify with his quest. Two scenes in particular I would have loved to see: Bell’s war story, which fleshes out the character and explains his self-doubt, and the scene where Chigurh meets the man in charge and presents him with the money. The latter has a knowing, pessemistic quality, like the end of Season 2 of The Wire, which seems to say that the drug trade and attendant violence will never end because it is just too profitable.

In the end, the Coens have done both themselves and McCarthy proud in translating this unsettling, violent examination of America’s troubled history and dark urges to the big screen. With no neat ending and little justice on offer, this is not a typical thriller, but demands to be seen.

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Leeds International Film Festival review – The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On

 The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (Yuki Yukite Shingun) (1987)

Dir. Kazuo Hara

122 minutes

Screened: Saturday 10th November, 2007

My series of reviews of the films I saw at this year’s Leeds Film Festival continues. The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On was screened as part of a retrospective on Japanese documentarist Kazuo Hara. I hadn’t heard of him before, but the film gets mentioned in Ian Buruma’s The Wages of Guilt, and I was intrigued by the controversial subject matter, dealing with the legacy of the Second World War and the difficulty of leaving the past behind. The film follows Kenzo Okuzaki, an Imperial Japanese Army veteran of the Pacific War, who served in New Guinea. Two soldiers from his unit were executed at the end of the war in mysterious circumstances, and Okuzaki is obsessed with finding out what happened to them.

We travel around the country with him, as he talks to surviving members of his unit to uncover the truth about the two soldiers’ deaths. To call Okuzaki eccentric would be an understatement. He believed the Emperor was to blame for the war and the millions of lives lost – a taboo opinion in Japan even today – and his car was festooned with placards and slogans demanding the Emperor accept responsibility. Okuzaki had spent time in prison for shooting pachinko balls at the Emperor, and for killing a real-estate broker, although we never hear a reason for the latter crime.

His old comrades give confusing and contradictory accounts of the execution. All of them stress the importance of moving on and letting the past go. But Okuzaki is unable to do this. He is enraged at the evasiveness and hypocrisy he perceives. On several occasions, he attacks and beats up old veterans who refuse to tell the truth. The police are never far away, and on one occasion Okuzaki calls them himself after a scuffle with one ex-officer.

Moving up the chain of command, from fellow privates to officers in the execution party to the commander who ordered the execution, the whole story finally begins to emerge. The two soldiers were not shot for desertion, but so they could be eaten. In the closing days of the war in New Guinea, food was scarce and the soldiers were starving. Native people and enemy soldiers were preferred for cannibalisation, but when these were not available, unpopular soldiers were used.

This is not an easy film to watch, and not just because of the disturbing events at its heart. Hara’s camera simply tracks Okuzaki through bizarre, chaotic and violent situations, seemingly without comment or judgement. But is it really that simple? Would Okuzaki have started so many fights if the camera were not on him? The constant lies and evasion he encounters seem replicated in our view of him, which stays on the surface. In the end, Okuzaki tries to shoot the old platoon commander, but wounds his son instead. He is sentenced to life in prison.

The screening was introduced by Hara himself, who said that while watching the film he can still feel Okuzaki watching over his shoulder. As I watched, I could understand his sentiment; the obviously disturbed crusader uncomfortably reminds us of how hard it is to be honest. As unfinished business from the war drives him mad, we are forced to look at ourselves and wonder at our own capacity for complacency and self-delusion. The Emperor’s Naked Army… leaves you with no easy answers, only questions about the nature of truth, and whether we can face up to it.

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Leeds International Film Festival review – Persepolis

Persepolis (2007)

Dirs. Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi

95 minutes

Screened: Saturday 10th November, 2007

This adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s comic books about growing up in Iran at the time of the Islamic Revolution is a truly original coming-of-age story. Staying true to Satrapi’s visual style, the film follows her through childhood, an awkward period in Europe and a return to Iran that forces her to reassess her identity.

The young Marjane is an instantly recognisable character – a precocious tomboy with a vivid imagination, aspiring to be Bruce Lee. In between playing with her friends and making grandiose plans for her future, she learns from her middle-class, politically active family about the Shah’s autocratic regime. The revolution and subsequent coming to power of the Islamic government further shape her childhood; even as she evades the the strictures of the authorities herself, her friends and relatives are threatened, and the Iran-Iraq war hangs like a constant shadow over the proceedings.

Her parents, fearing for Marjane’s safety, send her to study in Austria. I found this section of the narrative to be the weakest -none of the characters are fleshed out and the tone jumps from light-hearted to tragic too quickly. On her return to Iran, she attempts to settle down and live under the regime, facing its extreme constraints on thought and behaviour. However, her relationship with her free-spirited, vivacious grandmother convinces her to ask for more out of life, and she leaves once again, feeling deeply Iranian but knowing she cannot stay there.

The visual style is arresting, and kept me riveted to the screen, fascinated. All the characters are simply drawn but distinctive, and the action often segues into inventive fantasy sequences, with the Shah’s rise to power and the slaughter of the Iran-Iraq war conveyed (through a child’s imagination) as stylised puppet shows. Persepolis doesn’t back away from showing the cost of the Revolution – although there is no explicit violence, executions, exile and imprisonment are all shown. The characters aren’t amazingly detailed, and with the exception of Marjane herself and her grandmother, none of them really stand out. However, as a depiction of one person’s path into adulthood, the film is perceptive, poignant and beautiful.

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Leeds International Film Festival review – Planet Terror

Planet Terror (2007)

Dir. Robert Rodriguez

105 minutes

Screened: Wednesday 7th November, 2007

Originally the latter half of Grindhouse, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s tribute to the B-movies of their youth, Planet Terror opened the Fanomenon section of the Leeds International Film Festival on Wednesday. (This reviewer got a day’s advantage over the national press, but then lost it by not bothering to write his review until today. Oh well.) Rodriguez’s take-off of the low-budget zombie film gets a separate release without the re-editing and extended scenes given to Tarantino’s Death Proof, and comes across as a great film in its own right.

Sleazy, violent and throughly disreputable, Planet Terror is exhilarating in its schlocky aesthetic and sheer exuberance. With its splattery violence, wisecracking heroes and authentically scratched film stock, it works as both a send-up and celebration of ridiculous action films that appeal to the sugar-addled teenage boy in everyone.

Importantly, it’s also very funny with it. Every cast member plays it straight, which only adds to the humour. Consider Lost’s Naveen Andrews, playing a corrupt scientist with the unfortunate habit of stealing the testicles of any man who crosses him. Or Jeff Fahey’s diner owner J.T., convinced that his own blood makes the perfect ingredient in barbecue sauce. The fact that these performances are delivered so well makes the bizarre and twisted humour the icing on the cake.

Rose McGowan gives a storming performance as Cherry Darling, the femme fatale who loses a leg in the zombie attack, but with the infamous machine-gun prosthetic comes into her own and helps save the survivors. Paired with her is Freddy Rodriguez as El Wray, the leather-jacketed, chain-smoking action hero of film cliche (he has a hilarious sequence with a motorbike which had the audience in stitches at this screening). The only false note in casting is Quentin Tarantino playing a disgusting character who meets an equally disgusting end. QT is really not such a good actor, and his penchant for playing psycho rapists (see also: From Dusk Till Dawn) is something that should really be sorted out in therapy. That aside, Planet Terror zips along in true Rodriquez style, gory and tasteless but very good fun while it lasts.

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