November 2007

Midnight Eagle

Burned out war photographer, Yuji Nishizaki (Takao Osawa) is camping out in the mountains when he sees – and photographs – a plane crash. And then things get interesting

As the film gets going, we are also introduced to Yujis sister in law, Keiko (Yuko Takeuchi) and Ochiai (Hiroshi Tamaki), both of whom happen to be journalists. Both of them sense a story brewing and Yuji quickly finds himself drawn into their investigations – especially in the case of Ochiai.

The story, as it emerges, is quite a major one, to say the lease. It turns out that some euphemistically referred to “Northern agents” have broken into a nearby Air Force base and sabotaged one of the American B52 bombers flying out of there. This is the plane that Yuji saw crash and it is carrying something that the Japanese government are both desperate to recover and very keen to keep from the public.

While Keiko finds herself investigating the incident at the US base, Ochiai manages to talk Yuji into going into the mountains with him to try and locate the crashed plane. And its in the mountains that the action gets going.

As well as the journalist and photographer, there are also two units from Japans self-defence force also trying to converge on the plane. And, to make matters difficult, the mountains are also heavily infiltrated with the aforementioned “Northern agents.”

The main problem that I had with Midnight Eagle is that the film seems to be quite uncertain as to whether its an action film or a conspiracy thriller. We do have a conspiracy, centring on what was on the crashed plane and why the Japanese government are so desperate not only to recover the plane, but also to keep the whole affair under wraps. But its not much of a conspiracy and figuring out what is going on is far from difficult which makes the reveal a bit of a let-down.

So on to the action and here the film suffers by being quite slow. The action sequences are competently done, but there is a limit to the number of ways that you can film a couple of men trudging through snowy mountains while avoiding various white-clad villains hiding in the snow. Consequently, we have a very high dialogue to action ratio.

Perversely, though, its in the dialogue that the film scores most strongly. There is a great deal of discussion in the film about Japans military and foreign policies and, while some of this probably does assume a greater understanding of the countrys politics than the average Westerner has, none of it is so intricate as to lose you and the broad themes are understandable to all.

There is also much said about the nature of journalistic integrity, the value of truth and – although not explored as fully as Id have liked – the question of what happens when reporters uncover explosive secrets.

All of this comes together in a very powerful and genuinely moving climactic scene which very effectively pulls together the films themes of sacrifice and loyalty and which – on its own – makes Midnight Eagle a film well worth seeing.

The Three Trials

Writer/director Randy Greif certainly has a very unique vision, as is amply demonstrated in The Three Trials, the story of Catherine (Molinee Green), a nun with a unique form of narcolepsy.

Catherines troubles start when she stumbles across the priest of her church (Michael Q. Schmidt) indulging in fetish sex with the convents dominatrix Mother Superior (Sirena Scott). Aroused and in trouble, her troubles start when she is sent to the wonderfully grimy basement of a nearby cathedral to face the first of her trials.

The film starts very firmly in nunsploitation territory, but quickly takes a very surreal turn and becomes much, much more as Catherine is forced to confront and accept her sexuality.

Moving beyond the religious life, by way of a montage that reflects both the reality of her secular life and the submissive fantasies that are now – and maybe always were – a part of her being, Catherine finds herself living in Blackhearts Castle.

In terms of narrative, this is the most explicitly dream-like part of the film. No attempt is made to explain how she arrived here, or even where here is – and, as such, it works more as a fantasy, and a deliberately adolescent one at that. Catherine the nymph, like Catherine the nun, has a deep desire for devotion but this time around the desire is more romantic than religious.

Although the narrative here is the most dream-like, the imagery in this part of the film is the least. And Greif does manage to come up with some very striking imagery that does manage to very effectively convey the eroticism of Catherines personality. The imagery is also often quite erotic in its own right.

It also has to be noted that, regardless of the description of the synopsis so far, the film does not follow a linear narrative. It is divided into three broad sections, each of which deals with a different aspect of Catherines submissive sexuality. But, as with both personality and sexuality, these aspects do impinge on each other and – consequently – the events in the three sections do refer, backwards and forwards, to each other.

The end of the second section of the film sees Catherine being rescued by Beast (Maximilien Herholz), a sasquatch-like creature who, by the beginning of the final section, has become a man. And, as this man is more than happy to accommodate Catherines desires, we see her relationship with him becoming increasingly extreme and masochistic.

More than anything, this part of the film made me think of The Story of O and really does capture the same sense of utter submission that is portrayed in the novel. And, as with O, Catherines journey is one that follows an unrelenting logic of its own and one that is engaging, erotic and more than a little disturbing.

Where The Three Trials is unique, however, is in Greifs use of a surreal and genuinely dream-like approach to narrative, along with some deliberately absurdist elements, to obscure the boundaries between reality and fantasy. And, although the imagery does become a little self-indulgent at times, it does come together to generate a very striking, and very memorable, visual experience.

This is a film that doesnt sit comfortably in any genre but one that very effectively pulls together elements from a variety of influences to create something that both unique and very powerful indeed.

Dreamscape

A thrill-seeking businessman (Daniel J. Fox) hears about Dreamscape Inc, a company that provides electronic dreams – custom fantasies that are delivered directly to your brain as you sleep – and becomes very interested. After listening to the sales pitch, he signs up to have a little widget attached to the back of his skull and, still feeling groggy, is returned home where he collapses on his bed.

Then were into the main part of the film, a spy thriller fantasy that sees the businessman in the role of a courier, tasked with delivering a mcguffin to a contact. As The Courier (in keeping with the films noirish aspirations, no-one has a name), he takes on countless secret service agents, gets the girl (Magda Rodriguez) and attempts to stay ahead of The Investigator (Mark Ellingham) long enough to complete his mission.

This is all good solid stuff and works well as an action oriented spy thriller. Its also beautifully shot and really does show what can be achieved now with some intelligent use of digital effects.

The sets and the scenery really do come together superbly to give the film a very effective near-future noir feel. I dont think Ive seen a digital landscape this well realised since, well, since Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. As with Sky Captain – and unlike many subsequent films – writer/director, Daniel J. Fox is confident enough that he doesnt feel the need to constantly ask you to marvel at his CGI ingenuity. Instead, the sets and the design do what these things are supposed to do – deliver a well-realised and believable world that fits the story perfectly.

The film does have some weaknesses, however, most notably the slightly clunky dialogue and an air of predictability to the plot – the predictability being my major gripe.

The back of the DVD case promises that: “illusion quickly turns into nightmare as reality and fantasy blur.” Unfortunately, reality and fantasy dont blur nearly enough. What I was hoping for was something like eXistenZ in which both the characters and the audience are deliberately confused as to what is real and what isnt.

Although the businessman believes he is in a dream, the truth is quite apparent to the rest of us. And this makes for a rather disappointing reveal at the end.

A longer version of this Dreamscape is currently in progress. If this version makes more of the dream/reality divide or extends the final act, then Daniel J. Fox could have a truly unique film on his hands.

Tendres Cousines

Tendres Cousines starts with a monologue – a very long monologue – in which Julien (Thierry Tevini) introduces us to still images of the characters that we will meet over the course of the film. A lot of characters – some of them very minor – are introduced at this point, and too much information is dumped on the audience for anyone to take it all in. All you really need to know at this point is that everyone in this French country house fancies someone they shouldnt.

And then were off.

This film is a bit of an oddity in that it tries to straddle several, not entirely complementary, genres. Its essentially a sexploitation tinged coming of age story in which Julien and his cousin, Julia (Anja Schüte) discover their sexuality and their feelings for each other – as well as the rest of the household – against the background of a very pronounced class divide. While the middle class members of the two families are repressed, refined, frustrated and often predatory, the servants of the household are both raunchy and open and a lot more straightforward.

Of course, when hormonal teenagers find themselves in an environment packed with upfront shagging the opportunities for broad – very broad – humour, and the film does include some farcical scenes of the type that wouldnt be out of place in a typical Carry On film. Apart from the explicit nudity, of course.

And, if this was all that the film had aspired to – a sexploitation comedy - I would have probably enjoyed it for what it was. However, watching this left me with the rather unfortunate impression that director, David Hamilton would like us to take the film more seriously than it deserves.

The film is set in 1939, just before the outbreak of war, and we do have a few references to events going on in the wider world. But if this was a stab at injecting some drama into the film, its a rather half-hearted one and one that undermines both the comedy and sexploitation elements that make up the rest of the film.

The result is a film which, while being pretty to look at doesnt really work as a film. Its mildly titillating rather than erotic, silly rather than funny and pedestrian rather than dramatic.

David Hamilton is quite well regarded as a photographer and I dont doubt that his soft-focus style works perfectly well on the page. Unfortunately, being a competent photographer doesnt necessarily translate into an affinity for either character or narrative, as this film amply demonstrates.

MirrorMask

Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman are two of the most original people working in graphic fiction (or comics, if you weren’t around in the 1980s) and their first cinematic collaboration certainly displays a huge amount of visual inventiveness. Unfortunately, neither the narrative nor the characters are quite large enough to fill the world that has been created.

The film centres on Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), a 15 year old performer in a family of circus entertainers who – inevitably - she could run off and join the real world. As the film starts, Helena is picking a fight with her mother (Gina McKee) over her future plans and shortly afterwards her mother collapses, leaving Helena feeling inevitably guilty.

Surgery is required and, on the eve of her mother’s operation, Helena dreams that she is in a strange world, divided between light and dark, in which everyone is a performer. All is not well in this world, however. A charm has been stolen from the Queen of Light (Gina McKee again), sending her into a coma and allowing the Queen of Shadows (Gina McKee) to extend her influence, putting the world out of balance.

Helena takes on the role of heroine and, with the aid of Valentine (Jason Barry), sets out to recover the charm. But, as she travels through this world, she begins to wonder whether she really is in a dream, or whether something far more sinister is happening.

With the Jim Henson company providing a menagerie of strange and fantastic perfectly matching Dave McKeans hauntingly surreal visual sense, MirrorMask is certainly gorgeous to look at. Unfortunately, its also a remarkably unengaging film largely, I think, because of the main character.

We are supposed to buy into Helena as someone frustrated by the fact that she doesnt live a normal life but, from what we see, her life is really rather normal. She has a stable family, a home to go to and essentially good people around her, all of which makes it very difficult to sympathise with her.

MirrorMask Is stunning to look at but ultimately suffers from not being sure what sort of film it wants to be. The result is a piece of cinema that has neither the subtlety to appeal to adults nor the excitement to appeal to teenagers.

Next