cold-in-july-quad-posterBased on Joe R Lansdale’s novel of the same name, Cold in July is an homage to classic ’80s neon tinged noir with a noticeable digression into Southern Gothic, revenge thrillers and B-movie heroics. Small town Texas picture framer Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) is woken by his wife one night after she begins hearing strange noises from downstairs. Fearfully arming himself with his father’s old pistol hidden in a shoebox in his wardrobe, Richard tiptoes downstairs only to find a masked and hooded figure standing in his living room. In a halted moment Richard confronts the intruder with the gun and, hands shaking, uncertain what to do next locks eyes with the would-be burglar now held motionless as if in a tractor beam. As Richard holds his course, the mantlepiece clock begins to strike and whether accidentally or in panicked terror the gun goes off sending its explosive charge into the scenic landscape hanging on the wall by way of the burglar’s right-eye. The police arrive to find a traumatised Richard near catatonic in disbelief but oddly seem fairly congratulatory – “it must have been difficult, for a man like you” his Sheriff friend tells him, with heavy implications. Assured that it’s legally self defence and nothing further is likely to come of the matter Richard tries to return to his previous small town, family man life but the incident has left him jittery and with a noticeable ambivalence toward firearms. However, despite what the police may say it’s not quite over yet – the burglar had a father, and a psychotic one at that. An eye for an eye as they say, or a son for a for son – only, that’s not quite it either and before he knows it, Richard finds himself involved in a complex circle of crime and conspiracy.

Cold in July lines itself up with those late ’80s slightly sleazy, hyper violent crime thrillers in which one ordinary man must face off against some kind of larger danger which threatens the very foundations of his world. The period detail is exact with the book’s 1989 setting recreated faithfully down to every last detail from the bizarre red neck haircuts, giant portable telephones and floral furniture craze to VCRs and vintage 80s Apple Macs. The look has an appreciably 80s vibe with heavy grain despite having been filmed on digital RED cameras and the Carpenter-esque synth score give it the air of something that could have been made thirty years ago. Like all the best 80s small town crime stories there’s the melancholy and oppressive feeling of something not quite right, that there are no safe places and even in these cosy little towns there’s a great festering wound that’s rapidly turning rotten.

Like its ’80s settings, these are some old fashioned ‘heroes’ who display an unabashed adherence to ‘traditional’ ideas of masculinity. Richard is a mild mannered picture framer – work that requires skill and artistry rather than physical strength. After Richard shoots the man who threatened his home, the town’s reaction is less fear or sadness but almost joyful respect. “We didn’t think you had it in you” seems to be the general consensus from everyone from the local postman to the glowing write-up in the local paper. Before he was an emasculated husband and father, but now – having killed, he’s a man. Real men shoot first and don’t bother with questions at all. Despite Richard’s discomfort with his actions, with the reaction to his actions and even his own lingering feeling of inferiority he can’t escape the fact that something that he sees as weakness is being held up as heroism.

These old fashioned macho ideas are clearly something that continues to be passed from father to son – something that Richard begins to worry about when his own son playfully points a toy gun at him. The two older men – Don Johnson’s Jim-Bob the private-eye-cum-pig farmer and would be vengeful father Russell (Sam Shepard) are veterans of the Korean War and come from a generation steeped in conflict in which men are judged by their physical strength and survival techniques. Richard appears to have had some kind of strained relationship with his own (presumably deceased) father as though he keeps his gun in a shoebox at home, he seems pained every time the subject comes up. Russell hasn’t seen his own boy since he was a child and feels he’s failed as a father and perhaps as a man (in so far as a man is duty bound bring his son up right). What Richard learns from them is a lesson in old school masculinity – you carry the gun, you put things right. There’s an archetypal idea of chivalry there, that you stand up and protect your own and that the sins of the son are also visited on the father who must atone for failing to prevent such transgressive behaviour. There is something noble in it, but it is also dangerous – can a man who’s taken care of business, even in the name of his community, really return and live amongst other men?

Genre-busting as it is, the Cold in July mostly keeps itself together even as the action threatens to descend into the ridiculous. A thin stream of black humour helps to paint over its excesses as does its sheer joy in the larger than life elements such as the improbable Jim-Bob’s gaudy red cadillac, stetson hat and penchant for cool one-liners. There are undoubtedly a host of plot holes to the extent that it might be better to just avoid thinking about the sequence of events as a whole – the most obvious being a glaringly obvious loose end that everyone seems to have forgotten about. To be fair, no one leaves The Big Sleep shouting “yes, but who killed the chauffeur?”, a few potholes here and there don’t necessarily ruin the road and Cold in July is not a film about its plot. As an exercise in style, Cold in July excels but it also manages to pack in enough social commentary and primal melancholy to give its old fashioned morality tale some weight. Its politics maybe unpalatable and its outlook distinctly 1950s but Cold in July is among the best of recent retro exploitation B-movie throwbacks and walks its own path with considerable assuredness.

Wings_of_the_Kirin-002Based on the novel by Keigo Higashino (The Devotion of Suspect X), Wings of the Kirin is the latest big screen outing for Higashino’s famous detective Kaga. Previously played on TV by Hiroshi Abe who reprises his role as the much loved sleuth here, this latest instalment sees Kaga’s particular expertise put to use in the case of a salary man who appears to have staggered some distance from the subway tunnel where he was stabbed only to die right under the famous Kirin statue on Nihonbashi Bridge. Around the same time, a younger man calls his girlfriend to tell her he’s in ‘big trouble’ before being chased out into the road by police, whereupon he’s suddenly mown down by an oncoming truck. As this man had the salaryman’s briefcase the case seems open and shut – a mugging gone tragically wrong leading to the death of both perpetrator and victim. Kaga though feels differently and as always, the case is not quite as straightforward as the authorities would like to believe.

As with many of Higashino’s stories, the mystery itself is almost a macguffin as Higashino is more interested in investigating human behaviour and psychology with half an eye on traditional morality. Wings of the Kirin is no different in this respect as it has a heavy interest in the relationship between fathers and sons and the importance of taking personal responsibility for your own transgressions. However, that isn’t to downplay the mystery element as Higashino once again proves himself a master at wrong footing the audience. Many viewers may feel they have a pretty solid idea of who did it and why fairly early on the film only for it takes off in an entirely different direction in the final third. That said, although it is heavily pushing your intuition in one direction, there are perhaps an over abundance of subplots including illegal work practices and unfeeling employers, the difficulties faced by young people coming out of the foster system, complicated teenage friendships and misunderstandings brought about by people’s own sense of guilt. Consequently the film does run quite long as it manages to pack in just about as many wrong turns and red herrings as possible, however it largely earns its right to run as each of the characters and sub-plots manages to be compelling in its own right.

Though Wings of the Kirin is technically the big screen spin off of the Detective Kaga TV drama, no previous knowledge of Kaga and co is strictly necessary though familiarity with some of the peripheral characters may help. Hiroshi Abe excels once again as the slightly distant if all seeing detective who alone is capable to putting all the pieces together in the right order. Perhaps due to its TV roots, the film has a rather strange and quirky soundtrack which is frequently at odds with the serious nature of the drama yet it never quite tips over into being distracting enough to derail the film. Occasionally it does feel like more like a big budget TV special than a major feature but again perhaps that’s in keeping with the previous instalments in the series. Like all good mysteries, the solution involves a great deal of improbable coincidences yet watching Kaga shuffling them all into place to reveal the overall solution is quite masterful.

However, Higashino’s moralising does take over at times and there was at least one instance where it seemed Kaga had gone too far, or at least the actions of one character did seem reasonable. After all, if you can ‘save’ one person when there’s nothing to be done for another, is it really so wrong to try and help the people who are left behind? The actions in that case did seem altruistic, not born of any desire to ‘cover-up’ wrong doing but only to try and prevent more lives being ruined. Yes, Kaga’s assertion that you’ve effectively taught someone that it’s OK not to admit you’ve done wrong or that it’s OK to let others take the blame for your own mistakes is obviously true, but the consequences here are perhaps too extreme and dramatically neat to bear it out. Occasionally the film does feel preachy and its message is anything but subtle, however, thankfully it never manages to disrupt the pleasure of its finely constructed mystery. A little bit long and necessarily meandering, The Wings of the Kirin is another impressive crime thriller from the pen of Higashino that manages to entertain with a finely crafted central narrative but is also unexpectedly moving in its curiously small scale climax.

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Based on a series of light novels by Hiro Arikawa, Library Wars is another adaptation of a popular multimedia franchise from the director of the live action Gantz movies. Like Gantz, it’s another bug budget, tentpole style block buster with a subtle (though not insubstantial) desire to inject a bit of social commentary into what can be an entirely trivial genre. The manipulative forces at play here, however, are far less mysterious and unfortunately much more plausible than the mysterious black orbs of Gantz as they come in the form of crypto fascist censorship enthusiasts known as The Media Betterment Force. Having achieved the kind of success Mary Whitehouse could only dream of, The Media Betterment Force managed to pass the Media Betterment Act in the alternate Japan of 1989 which required all books containing ‘objectionable’ material to be destroyed. All is not lost though as the last bastion of intellectual freedom, the library, takes up arms and defends its right to disseminate whatsoever information anyone might desire with a government mandated assurance that library property can be safeguarded – with military force if necessary. Thirty years later in the near future of 2019, a young girl joins the LDF (Library Defence Force) full of idealistic zeal for protecting literature and a not so altruistic mission of finding the LDF officer who once saved her favourite book for her during in a MBF raid on a bookshop. Politics, romance, action! It’s all here for your edification and enjoyment.

If this all sounds a bit silly, well it is – but only in the best possible way. This is not a film about the evils of censorship, or how intellectual discourse and freedom of information are essential parts of any fully functioning society, though those themes are there if only in passing, so much as a big glossy blockbuster with just about every genre you can think of vying for the spotlight. The creeping totalitarianism is more backdrop than anything else but perhaps the absurdity of anyone picking up arms to defend access to information speaks to our unwillingness to prevent a gradual slide into a world of book burning and (not really) well meaning nannyism. First and foremost, Library Wars is science fiction action film modelled on the familiar boot camp genre following an underdog rookie recruit’s path to frontline glory. Yes we have training montages galore complete with the strained friendships and ‘you’re off the team!’ moments that appear in every film of this kind but the absurd premise and the film’s successful adoption of a warm comic tone help smooth over over any genre clichés and thankfully the film also manages to impress with several large scale battle scenes.

The romantic comedy element is arguably the least successful as it lacks the traditional climax many fans of the genre maybe hoping for (though one suspects a sequel may well put that right). That said the central relationship definitely falls into the ‘cute’ category and cleverly avoids the melodramatic nature of most blockbuster romances. Yes, the audience knows right away who the much sought after prince is but that only makes it more fun even if the post-idealistic bitterness of the man in question is another genre cliché. Supporting characters are also nicely fleshed out and each enjoys a decent amount of time in the spotlight creating a nice ensemble feel which is often rare in a blockbuster. As in Gantz the acting style remains fairly grounded rather the bigger, TV inflected performances which have been creeping into mainstream cinema and the strong performances from a fairly high profile cast help to lift Library Wars above some of its cinematic brethren.

Viewers expecting another Fahrenheit 451 or 1984 will obviously be disappointed in Library Wars’ fairly superficial examination of its themes but those hoping for a rip roaring, if slightly ridiculous, adventure are in line for a treat. Though the subject matter is itself absurd, such care has gone into the world building that it all makes a curious kind of sense assuming you’re willing to let yourself go with it. Most importantly, it’s remarkably self assured in terms of its tone – it knows exactly what it is and isn’t afraid to embrace its own nature. With much more heart than your average blockbuster, Library Wars is a warm and funny action comedy that also manages to be genuinely romantic. Now if they can only hurry up with Library Wars 2 so we can all enjoy the romantic resolution we’ve been waiting for!

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Lucius ambulat in Tokyo? Review of improbable time travel comedy Thermae Romae up at UK-anime.net.

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Review of HK wuxia movie The Guillotines up at UK-anime.net

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If you’re Wim Wenders and you’re bored at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, you could amuse yourself by getting a bunch of your director friends to answer a series of pre-set questions about the future of cinema whilst sitting alone (aside from the ever present TV) in front of a static rolling camera in a fairly anonymous hotel room. Luckily, you have a lot of director friends making all sorts of films from all over the world who apparently won’t get that weirded out by sitting alone in an empty room pontificating about the death of cinema as an art form.

This is 1982, the year I was born (though I was born in the winter and Cannes is in the spring so I’m probably on my way somewhere but haven’t quite arrived yet), and this ‘future of cinema’ they’re envisioning is the present in which we now live. It’s depressing how many of the arguments the class of 1982 come up with are the exact same arguments we’re having now – that cinema as an art form has migrated to television and the cinematic output has been reduced to a vague amalgam of the the things Hollywood (in particular) wants it to be. More than one American director, when questioned about his own cinematic habits, admits he rarely watches films himself – he prefers television. In a telling and prophetic fashion, he videotapes films off the TV but then never bothers to watch them. Another recounts the story of friend who’s terrified of this ‘brave new world’ where you’ll be able to buy things through a video camera or, heaven forbid, order a meal from a computer screen! Some are more positive like Werner Herzog who believes the cinema has its own aesthetic which will save it or Antonioni who looks forward to a new age of HD video which is only now coming to pass.

However, aside from the futuristic visions of thirty years ago, it’s almost even more interesting to note how each director chooses to behave inside this strange “diary room”, left all alone except for the silently glaring camera. Jean-Luc Godard is first up – sitting directly facing the camera, smoking in a relaxed fashion and lamenting that his position isn’t the best for seeing the tennis on the TV just beside him. He gets the longest unbroken lecture in which he talks at length about various quite unrelated things until he gets bored and leaves in true Godard fashion – we wouldn’t have him any other way but it’s difficult to tell how seriously he’s taking this. Some directors sit nervously on the edge of the seat, thinking hard about their answers where as others bluster through as though they were at a Hollywood pool party a la Spielberg who laments the weak dollar and the rising cost of filmmaking which he fears will lead to a decline in artistry (which seems kind of ironic). Werner Herzog wins all the prizes for his entrance in which he makes a point of removing his shoes as ‘these aren’t the sort of questions that should be answered with your shoes on’ and being the only director to realise he can turn off the TV behind him! Antonioni gets up and roams around the room as if giving a lecture whereas Rainer Werner Fassbinder (in a late career appearance – he would sadly pass away of a drugs overdose only a few weeks later) gives his answer concisely and leaves almost straight away.

So there we have it, cinema apparently died sometime prior to 1982 and has been subsisting in some kind of bloated zombie state ever since. Art forms are always dying, books died a century ago and yet new ones keep being born which we take to our hearts and minds, nurturing them even though we keep being told there is no hope. The theatre is dead, pop music is dead, classical music and opera? fossilised, perhaps? The presence of the TV set in background is the most ironic use of a TV screen in any movie, just as the directors talk about the threat of television the viewer is constantly distracted by whatever happens to be playing (which includes some kind of Battle of the Planets type thing and Planet of the Apes!) and good old Werner is the only one who thinks to turn it off so we can focus all of our attention on what he has to say. Perhaps the most pressing segment is the one where the director isn’t even present as he’s the subject of an extradition order by the Turkish government but has been able to tape record his contribution prompting Director Wim Wenders to step in front of the camera to explain. This segment highlights how the cinematic art form is still held as a threat and that the true artistic spirit it can exhibit is often suppressed or oppressed by bodies governmental or otherwise. Sadly, this is a problem that has not gone away, nor is it likely to (and unfortunately applies to all art forms equally not just cinema which necessitates higher visibility). Where is the cinema in 2014 then, still trapped like Shrodinger’s cat inside an opaque box where we can’t be certain if it lives or dies? Maybe, it’s making noises every now and then though perhaps it doesn’t sound quite like it used to. The real question though is who wants to save it, and why? Are there people willing to stand up and fight for their art and what exactly is the ‘cinema’ that they want to save?

Watched on Mubi 12th June 2014 (its expiry date). Also available from Anchor Bay in the UK or legal streaming from The Paris Review (among other places).

 

 

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Be My Baby review up at Uk-anime.net

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Review of Judge! on UK-anime.net

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Review of Bleak Night published on UK-anime.net

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Review of Pluto published on UK-anime.net.