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Film Criticism by David O'Connell

From its opening toothpaste commercial and maddeningly catchy jingle, Sion Sono’s most recent masterpiece again reveals his unique ability to engross, entertain and supply audiences with an electric charge of out-there, crazy humour. In Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2014) we’re soon introduced to a series of characters whose lives will intersect with that of the commercial’s young star Mitsuko. Foremost amongst them is a trio of wannabe filmmakers who call themselves The F**k Bombers - Hirata, their director; Miki, “the king of dolly shots”, and Tanisawa, “the queen of hand-held shots”. Together they trawl the streets in search of action to turn into high art. When they encounter a young gang leader, Sasaki, about to take part in a rumble with a rival gang, Hirata is convinced they’ve found a potential action star, perhaps the next Bruce Lee. They also cross paths with a bloodied gang leader, Ikegami (Shin’ichi Tsutsumi), fleeing the aftermath of a massacre in which Mitsuko’s mother took vengeance against members from a Yakuza in competition with that of her husband Muto (Jun Kunimura). Ikegami subsequently takes over the Kitagawa Yakuza and plots revenge against Muto and his men.

Fast forward a decade and little has changed: the two Yakuza groups are still in opposition but headed for an ultimate showdown, whilst the F**k Bomber quartet has remained static, with the resolutely cheerful Hirata (Hiroki Hasagawa), their erstwhile leader, still supremely optimistic that the all powerful, overseeing Movie God will, sooner or later, bequeath him that fateful opportunity to make his one masterpiece, and “a hell of a movie” at that. Sasaki (Tak Sakaguchi) is the brooder of the group, retreating into bitterness at their stasis, waiting stupidly for a moment and time he's assumed will now never arrive. It’s not long after he blows his top and bails out, that the fateful moment arrives when the helpless sap, Koji (Gen Hoshino), abducted by Mitsuko (Fumi Nikaido) after she abandons her latest film mid-shoot, comes upon the group's plea to the Movie God, and calls for their assistance. Having an irate Muto - who has now captured the pair and only spares Koji's life because he's fooled into thinking he's a director - breathing down his neck, puts him in a precarious state. Thus, the moment of truth for F**k Bombers has arrived.

Sono’s film proceeds at a kinetic speed, with regular bursts of stylised violence, use of different film stock, rapid-fire editing and off-kilter angles. The film is uproariously funny, with a very Japanese take on of getting up close and personal in a verbal slanging match just one of countless hilariously interwoven elements of Sono’s blazingly nutty screenplay that tickles my funny bone again and again. Wildly uneven? Certainly, but that's part of Sono's MO, reaching for extremes whilst blowing narrative borderlines to smithereens. Unpredictable, unconventional and gleefully offensive are qualities rarely indicative of genius but they most certainly are when applied to this most idiosyncratic of modern Japanese filmmakers. Like compatriot Takashi Miike, Sono is absurdly prolific, latching on to 2 or 3 projects a year, but he’s well on the way to surpassing Miike in terms of quality. He’s come a long way in 15 years from his porn-film beginnings! His actors here are all astonishing, attacking the material with a reckless abandon, throwing themselves into the fray like a troop of dive-bombing kamikaze pilots.

What bleeds through – quite literally - beyond Sono’s blissfully twisted, playful sense of humour, is a love for cinema as a blessed, revered, subjective art form. Though he plays with genres like ingredients to be wilfully tossed into a blender, it’s this underlying passion that immerses us in his blown out worlds, with visceral assaults and gut-wrenching excess so audaciously conceived that they send a shiver of giddy excitement down your spine. The film’s full-throttle climax is a marvellous case-in-point, a set-piece that has to be seen to be believed. To give too much away would just be cruel. But What Sono’s film boils down to is a crimson-soaked, skewed poetical ode to cinema, to the outrageous passion of filmmakers so determined to achieve the nirvana of a perfect shot that they would die for their art and with a stupid grin etched on their faces as they did so. Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is delicious, deliriously good fun, in its own twisted way a very unique kind of masterpiece. In fact, it's even better than that: goddamnit, this is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

You must own Why Don't You Play in Hell?, out now on DVD from Madman Entertainment.


In Order of Disappearance (Moland, 2014)

February 24th 2015 04:55

Director Hans Petter Moland’s latest, a snowbound, bitter black comedy carries with it a scent of the very familiar: the son of an ordinary working man, Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgard), gets inadvertently mixed up with criminals after doing a good deed for a friend, and is murdered. The drugs in his system point to a habituation kept secret from his parents. Nils refuses to believe the obvious however, and when the son’s battered friend, who narrowly avoided the same fate, turns up with an alternate tale to the one the police would have him believe, Nils decides to do some investigating of his own. There’s no great procedural aspect to Nils’ detective work; one thug leads to the next one up the rung of the ladder as he beats a name out of them before a brutal revenge-fuelled dismissal.

The wonderful rich vein of black comedy that runs through Kim Fupz Aakeson’s screenplay gives In Order of Disappearance (2014) its depth, as do Moland's occasional clever touches, like the acknowledgement of each passing with a cross and name on an otherwise black screen - the first few after each body's been dispatched, wrapped in chicken wire, down a giant waterfall. The familiar ring to the synopsis can’t begin to do Aakeson’s writing justice, with wonderful little secondary scenes with peripheral characters providing humour and perspective to what might normally be extraneous in lesser crime films. Then there are the performances of the two lead characters headed for the ultimate showdown - Skarsgard as the stoic, wrathful Nils and the dazzling Pal Sverre Hagen as Greven, the vegan crime lord at the top of the food chain. With a hilarious mix of petulance and ruthlessness, he runs around like a pissed-off teenager as his life over-complicates and news of each disappearance filters through. Yet, like any mentally unglued bad guy, he still savours the prospect of coming face to face with his nemesis.

Add to the mix Greven’s bitter running battle with his Danish ex-wife over custody of their son, and a third set of criminals closing in - a Serbian gang led by the gently imposing Papa (Bruno Ganz, who may have appeared in films in more countries than any actor in history) - and you have a winning formula kept fresh by everyone involved with this underrated gem. It takes real skill to find the delicate balance that turns potentially unsavoury, uncomfortable subject matter into a guiltily enjoyable, crowd-pleasing affair. But Moland has pulled it off brilliantly on this occasion with a film that only improves upon second viewing.

In Order of Disappearance is now out on DVD through Madman Entertainment.


Wise Blood (Huston, 1979)

February 17th 2015 03:24

With its intense, wild-eyed Brad Dourif performance – you might categorise it as dynamism tinged with mania – as a war hero returning to his barren homeland, John Huston’s adaption of Flannery O’Connor takes us to a place devoid of anything but false hope and peopled by con artists. In the opening scene, Dourif’s Hazel Motes finds the family home in tatters; the memories laid bare may be harsh ones for they've lost any ability to compel him to stay and rebuild a life in this place. So he heads out for the city; the hat he wears marks him as a preacher – the first of many presumptions that irk him.

When he encounters a blind man, Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton) and his daughter Sabbath Lily (the astonishing Amy Wright), spruiking their religious convictions in the street in exchange for small change, he’s deeply conflicted. He’s certainly fascinated enough with their double act to dig deeper and with little useful help from an annoying young man, Enoch (Dan Shor) - who takes a shine to Motes’s obvious outsider status - hunts down the pair. Before long he takes up residence in their building whilst determining to establish his own Church Without Christ. He has no idea about means of spreading the word, using makeshift speeches to ambling passer-by’s in some instances. But Hazel is easily side-tracked and enraged, and before long is forced to back away when refusing to see the glowing dollar signs in the offer of another would-be preacher (Ned Beatty).

The strange contradiction which exists in Motes of being both repelled and compelled by Asa and Lily is at the heart of Wise Blood, especially as Hazel becomes entangled in the motivations of the pair. Lily’s primal attraction to Hazel is symptomatic of an unnerving, unhinged devotion, disguised by religious mania, that finally dooms him. The film’s tone tends to waver occasionally, forgoing structure and lucidity as it does. This unevenness, more than anything else, identifies a fundamental failure to wholly mesh the more bizarre elements of O’Connor’s 'Southern grotesques' with a filmic translation. The swerve from deadly seriousness commentary to silly comedic asides often makes for harsh juxtapositions.

Thematically, Huston, who was in the final decade of his magnificent career, serves up a familiar caustic brew, using pious phoniness as a metaphor for religion’s utilisation as a means of procuring small pickings from gullible souls – the kind of small-town folk indoctrinated to the sound of a reverent expostulation of ideals. Religion as a damaging moral code dogged by hypocrisy is far from an original metaphor, but here it’s given unusual shadings, even if some of the colours are inevitably mismatched.

As fine as Dourif’s performance is, it may have harmed his later career prospects, for the electrifying fervour he injected into Motes seemed to strike a chord with many a future horror director in search of an off-kilter, over the top psychopath, which Dourif often played with great credibility even whilst slumming it in obvious B-movies. Wise Blood (1979) stands as one of his finest performances, and he’s matched by the equally unnerving Wright as Lily. As Motes loses his way, he makes an irrevocable decision that sees him wallowing in martyrdom – it’s either an ultimate act of emphatic religious devotion or one emblematic of a deeper, inarticulate madness.


The Infinite Man (Sullivan, 2014)

January 14th 2015 03:50

Life of Crime (Schecter, 2014)

January 7th 2015 02:11


Wetlands (Wnendt, 2013)

December 2nd 2014 04:50

L'argent (Bresson, 1983)

November 17th 2014 04:08

A Place in the Sun (Stevens, 1951)

September 24th 2014 02:24

Vernon, Florida (Morris, 1981)

August 20th 2014 08:34

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