A cult hit that blows your mind
The Japanese cult classic Funky Forest is as fresh and entertaining today as when it came out in 2006. Created by director Katsuhito Ishii in collaboration with filmmakers Shinichiro Miki and Hajime Ishimine, it is a colorfoul mix of scenes, some very short and others longer with a loose storlyline, that hang together intuitively rather than structurally.
Most feature three unpopular brothers, one constantly strumming his guitar (and played by the terminally cool Tadanobu Asano), one who thinks his dance moves will impress women and a plump youngster, inexplicably Caucasian, who eats constantly. Among the quirkier character are a well-known Japanese comic duo whose humour is pure slapstick and who spend a lot of time slapping each other. Three office workers at a hot springs telling ever stranger stories as they get tipsier and a school girl shoots lasers form her head to defeat a slimy space blob that fires back spinning discs. Add to the mix dance numbers, animation and an ass-television and you have one of the most unusual films you'll ever see.
In some ways it's a splintered comedy sketch from truly whimsical minds. Some critics read social commentary and cirticism into the film, but what you take from it, is probably up to you. Perhaps most memorable is a scene near the end which is so lyrical and romantic that it takes your breath away. It shows mythical creatures making music in the woods with their instruments and controls plugged into tree trunks and roots. From this I took the screen shots I used for my wallpaper, shown here. You can click on it to download a widescreen version.
A film like Funky Forest is liberating because it throws all story-telling conventions and film traditions out the window, doing its own thing and challenging you to let go of all conventional ideas of what film-making should be. It is also a lenghthy, crazy lot of fun - and that might be the point.
A story that soars and uplifts
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
The best-told stories soar like great birds, effortlessly, smoothly through the air. They lift your spirits above the weighty realities of everyday life - not denying them, but giving a new perspective, a bird's eye view of the world.
A film that does that, is a magical thing. It almost defies description and the more you try to explain what makes it great, the more you can get tangled up in words that never quite capture what the movie offers.
Such a film, one of the finest I've seen in a while, is Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. The inspiration for the script is an urban legend which spread after a Japanese woman was found dead in Minnesota in 2001. It was rumoured she believed the story of the movie Fargo was true and the money buried in the snow by one character was still there, so she went looking for it.
In the film an oppressed and frustrated office worker, Kumiko, fancies herself an explorer and believes a great discovery will change her life. She finds a buried VHS copy of Fargo in a beach cave and is fooled by the film's opening claim that the story is true. While trying to deal with a disdainful boss and a disapproving mother, she makes a treasure map based on clues in the movie. An unexpected turn gives her a gap to escape and she's off to America.
Rinko Kikuchi, who got an Oscar nomination for Babel, is excellent again. With subtle touches like an awkward walk, wide-eyed stares and a timid, but determined voice, she turns Kimiko into an instantly believable character. She might be driven by a tragic illusion, but her struggle to find purpose and happiness will resonate with any viewer.
The film hurries along slowly. Especially striking are almost static shots of Kimiko battling, enduring, the banalities of her life - watching the office kettle boil, standing in a crowded train, struggling with an enormous bag of rabbit food. Later, in America, she is constantly walking or running on icy roads, in biting wind, over snow-covered fields. The trip becomes a quest in a strange world full of quirky characters behind barriers of language and culture, some reaching out and trying to help.
Blending with all the other elements is an award-winning soundtrack by electronic group The Octopus Project. It understands and complements the action perfectly and is well worth hearing on its own as well.
In the end, the makers of Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter manage to deliver an ending that is both sad and uplifting. It is a fine piece of story-telling that stays with you.
A film with no ending
The flightless Birdman
At the end of Lost in Translation, ageing actor Bob Harris is on his way home after a stay in Tokyo. Passing a street market, he spots the lonely young woman he's been spending time with. He gets out, walks to her and whispers something in her ear that leaves her smiling. We don't hear what it is, but see Bob returning to his taxi looking content and even happy
This is not an open ending. Both characters have taken a tentative step on a new path and we're fairly sure what they will do next. The film has also made its points already - they are not hidden in that inaudible whisper, a blank space you can fill with your own words for your own amusement.
Not that there's anything wrong with an open ending. Usually we don't tolerate them in a romantic comedy, where we want the lovers to get together - end of story. We don't like them in thrillers of any kind either, where we want the bad guys to get it and the heroes to save whoever needs saving.
That's closure. An open ending can bring closure if it has purpose and makes a meaningful statement. It has to leave you with possibilities that fit the story. Whatever ending you imagine, should follow clearly from either the plot or the film's statement.
The ending of Birdman isn't open. It's incomplete. The script has unfinished business. This is not a film that sets out to be just a splendid yarn, as The Grand Budapest Hotel does. It makes the viewer work hard with highly strung conversations, unpleasant characters and a claustrophobic atmosphere. It gets on your nerves like the incessant banging of a drummer outside the theatre where most of the action is set. It aspires to be more and therefore should deliver more.
But it doesn't. An open ending would leave you making an informed choice. Birdman leaves you wondering what it was trying to say.
That is the film's weakness. Four people wrote a narrative that didn't propel itself to an inevitable ending, as good stories do. If the writers were undecided about the ending and can't explain the one that was used, something went wrong.
To me, Birdman is an interesting, but flawed film with an intriguing premise and good acting, as well as striking visual tricks and effects. Pity it doesn't have an ending.
What's wrong with liking Luc Besson?
I loved Lucy...
It hasn't been cool to like Luc Besson for a long time now - at least not among film critics. Hard to believe that some decades ago art house acolytes were swooning about The Big Blue and were, a little later, enjoying the thrills of La Femme Nikita or the rush of Transporter.
With his sci-fi fantasy Lucy all the typical qualifiers popped up: undeniably silly, wildly uneven, ridiculous, light-weight. And that's from critics who enjoyed the film. “Probably his best since Léon (which isn't saying much)” is one haughty comment.
Half the reviews have to mention science has disproved the popular belief that humans only use a tenth of their brain. Just so we'll know they know. Yes, we know, too. And so, most likely, does Luc Besson. So why does he use this old sci-fi favourite? Because he has a pertinent point to make.
The story is trademark Besson. A clueless student is forced to become a drug mule. When a bag of a super drug bursts open in her abdomen, she starts the trip to end all trips. Her brain rapidly expands to full capacity and it's clear that she won't survive this - not in human form, anyway.
What she can do with her new powers and knowledge in the time she has left, ties in with the film's opening question: “Life was given to us a billion years ago. What have we done with it?” The answer emerges amid all the wild action, crazy violence and sly humour. Then it's all wrapped up with a memorable punch line.
Just take Luc Besson for a wonderful story-teller with remarkable imagination who can come up with plots so tasty that they demand sequels or can even, as in the case of Nikita, be remade three times (once by Hollywood and twice for TV) without losing any charm. Most of the time he's just out to entertain, but he can also throw in a striking thought.
Tell yourself Lucy is fun purely because of Scarlett Johannson (is she that special?), the stylish action or the cracking pace. Just don't say anything too good about Luc Besson. Not in certain circles, anyway.
Why do we want it?
Speculative fiction is an intriguing tag for a bundle of genres. It seems to cover sci-fi, fantasy, horror, superhero tales, both dystopian and utopian futurism, magical realism and perhaps the oddest of the bunch, alternate history. Any story based on a “what if” premise can join the club, apparently, though someone suggests “WTF” stories qualify as well. A few want to make getting in a bit harder: Margaret Atwood, for one, has said the genre is sci-fi “about things that could really happen”.
The definitions can be confusing: for some, Kafka's story Metamorphosis and the movie Jaws are both speculative fiction. The speculative mode is at least as old as (who else) ancient Greek writers who meddled with their myths as Shakespeare juggled around history. Most say the modern version of the phrase was coined in the 1940s by sci-fi legend Robert A. Heinlein.
Good speculative fiction will make you think, provide new insight into human nature or even give you a new outlook on life, writes Lida E. Quillen of Twilight Times, a “digital journal of speculative fiction”.
This thing for speculative fiction could be writers who don't want to be boxed by the conceits of sci-fi. There is also a bigger supply now thanks to a greater demand. So let's speculate: maybe these stories fulfill a need in the psyche of people run down by the seemingly endless recession with all the hardship, confusion, uncertainty and lies that it entails. That could explain why most of this genre's new TV is quite bleak and closer to current reality. At the same time there is an endless stream of new films set in a dystopian near future
We'll never have a perfect world. But if we stop dreaming about it, even through fiction, we might lose our desire to change things for the better. We might even lose hope - and we can't afford that.
The Fantastic Mr Lang
of Metropolis fame
The best story about Fritz Lang might not true in every detail, but he told it well. Two days after his film The Testament of Dr Mabuse was banned in Germany, he was summoned to the Nazi ministry of propaganda to meet Josef Goebbels, who explained the film was undesirable because Nazi slogans were put in the mouth of a villain. He then offered Lang the job of production supervisor at the UFA studios. His first film would be about Wilhelm Tell.
Lang thought it was a trap and answered: “My mother had Jewish parents.” He says Goebbels replied: “We’ll decide who's Jewish!” All Lang wanted to do at that moment was get out of there, get to the bank and flee with all his money. Soon after he sold his wife's jewellery and took a train to Paris. Thea von Harbou, who was also his script-writing partner, stayed behind and divorced him that same year.
Lang was born in Vienna in 1890 and studied art before becoming a director. His early films are thrillers, as intense and frenetic as silent movies get. He liked big budgets, epic stories and the latest in camera tricks and special effects. He always wanted to reach a big audience with a strong message. To make it even even more digestible, he invented the omnibus format – short films shown together as one feature – which became a genre that still pops up regularly nowadays.
The futuristic horror story Metropolis (1927) didn't survive in one piece, but that didn't bother audiences who flocked to see a coloured version with a rock soundtrack by Queen in the eighties. Now everyone knows Lang's famous robot again, but critics still can't decide which of his other movies deserve classic status. There are the intricate and sophisticated silent films such as the Dr Mabuse trilogy. The film M is considered as good a portrait of a serial killer as you'll ever see. But his work in America, where he went in 1934, divides the critics even further.
Even on public domain sites it's hard to find Lang movies, but I like every one I've seen so far. Scarlet Street is almost unbearably sad, Moonfleet is a lovely suspense film with great acting by Stewart Granger and the kid who's the main character, Clash by Night is a bit of melodramatic noir with Barbara Stanwyck at her best and Fury is an explosive drama about a man taking revenge on those who convicted him wrongly of murder.
More evidence of how the critics struggle with Lang: he got only two honorary awards and a Walk of Fame star in his lifetime. This might be because he was supposedly tough on actors and hard to work with, which won't win votes from Academy members. Funny, then, that he sounds rather modest and humourous in a 1962 interview.
What's so great about Lang might be the way he makes the most of every element in his films: camera, lighting, soundtrack, dialogue and actors. Nothing is a minor detail, few words are wasted and you're not left wondering what he was trying to achieve. All that is enough to keep me interested – and to help me remember a director's name.