Quasi at the Quackadero: time travel and psychological self-study in a fun fair

Sally Cruikshank, “Quasi at the Quackadero” (1975)

Here’s a great little cartoon about a mismatched couple, Anita and Quasi, living in a science fantasy future and visiting the Quackadero fun fair with Anita’s pet robot Rollo. The style of animation used in this film superficially resembles work by Heinz Edelmann who was the art director for the 1968 film “Yellow Submarine”, based on songs by English 1960s pop band The Beatles; it’s very surreal and glories in lots of vibrant colour and weird associations and juxtapositions. No surprise that in the cultural context it was released in, “Quasi …” was quickly associated with hippie culture, with all the baggage implied. Diversions within the film take viewers on some wonderfully weird and weirdly wonderful mind trips: a man’s dream becomes the gateway to a matryoshka set of universes where one yields a hidden world which in turn yields another world and so on; and visitors line up to view sideshow attractions such as watching receding time bring down skyscrapers and restore paddocks and pastures, and looking at themselves and their friends as they were when they were babies and as they might appear in 50 or 100 years’ time.

Strip off the lively colours, take the weird little reptilian duck figures aside, kick out the jaunty and quaintly antique-sounding music soundtrack, and what’s left is an amusing and rather sadistic plot in which Anita contrives to get rid of Quasi with Rollo’s help. Quasi is a likeable character, rather lazy and thinking of his stomach and what next to eat: he’s very much your average teenage boy. Anita appears a snooty big-sister type but that may be due to her peculiar slow drawling voice. Rollo is merely Anita’s ready and willing servant.

The film does risk becoming repetitive as the trio visit the various fun fair attractions, each more deranged the one before and all involving some form of internal time travel which reveals something of Anita and Quasi’s natures and how unlike they are. What saves the film from repeating itself is that later sideshow spectacles become little subplots. A con artist and his troupe of actors pretend to re-enact Quasi’s previous life incarnations and Anita sees a way to boot Quasi (literally) out of her life by sending him back to the age of the dinosaurs.

The emphasis on time travel and apparent self-introspection might suggest a concern with the nature of time, memory and possible pasts and futures and how subjective and manipulable time and memory really are. Apart from this, the style of the cartoon, all hand-drawn and inked with vivid colours, and starring droll characters who treat the amazing wares on offer with insouciant coolness, is the most outstanding feature. The mix of past, present and future is the film’s major motif: rollicking dance-band music of the 1930s and the idea of the fun fair, itself a relic from the late 1800s and early 1900s, combine with interstellar travel and futuristic technology in a structured context that almost resembles a shopping mall, complete with rip-off merchants, that enable people to interact with their dreams and thoughts, and meet Roman galley slaves and prehistoric beasties first-hand at presumably affordable prices (in the mid-1970s anyway).

Das Rad: little film about rocks packs in history of human development and ecological themes

Chris Stenner, Arvid Uibel and Heidi Wittlinger, “Das Rad” / “The Wheel” aka “Rocks” (2003)

Made with a mix of stop-motion and computer-generated styles of animation plus puppets, this film presents a history of human development from the point of view of two piles of rocks. Big Pile fusses over the itches and cracks that lichen and moss growth is causing on his skin while his pal Little Pile amuses himself chucking pebbles at their neighbour across the rocky valley. All around them clouds whiz overhead, the colours of the sky speed from one shade of blue or grey to the next and vegetation zips up and down hill-sides and mountains faster than we can say “geologic time”. Little Pile starts playing with a vaguely circular-shaped rock and tries to figure out what it might be useful for. A human dressed in animal skins stops by to check out Little Pile’s pet rock and gets an inspiration from it. From then on the two stoners’ hill environment starts changing even faster: a dirt track appears next to Little Pile from which he acquires another plaything, a wheel. While he tries to explain to Big Pile how the humans have benefitted and progressed from having stone wheels to wooden wheels, buildings begin to sprout and spread from the valley below, a billboard appears before the duo and their very existence becomes threatened by the furiously upthrusting skyscrapers and concrete bridges charging towards them.

This is a very amusing and informative film about the transient nature of human existence and the effects human activity might have on the natural environment. The film might make more impact if it had been a bit longer and the characters of the rock piles a little more developed. Big Pile and Little Pile could have had a conversation about what the circular rock must have meant for the primitive human, that he was so enthused by its shape. They could have talked about the dirt track and wondered where it leads to and why humans use it so much. They could have lamented its passing and replacement by an asphalt road. Little Pile’s curiosity about his surroundings could have been contrasted more strongly with Big Pile’s concern with personal hygiene and lack of interest in what’s going on around him. Viewers might feel more concern and dread for them when roads, bridges and buildings start to encroach on the stoner dudes’ lives and they feel fear for the first time in their long lives.

The animation is well-done and seamless though Big Pile and Little Pile are barely distinguishable apart from general size and shape. Their landscape could have been made a bit simpler so that rapid changes that occur over it are more obvious and viewers would also get an idea of the impact humans make on their surroundings. Noise and air pollution barely registers and the odd traffic accident that might reshape Little Pile into something that makes Big Pile jealous (since the smaller rock pile is the one sitting closer to the asphalt road) would have been very appropriate. As it is, the film lacks a sub-plot that would involve our stony friends in some depth and make them less passive observers and more passive participants. The overall plot would not be greatly affected as Little Plot might in time forget about his cosmetic surgery and once humans and their structures are completely out of the picture, the un-dynamic duo can start fussing over their itches and scratches again; at the same time, the sub-plot would enhance the plot’s message that for all their stolidity, the two rock piles are indeed sensitive to human activity and can be very fragile. A paradoxical question arises: how impervious to human activity is the natural environment and how sensitve can it also be?

For such a little film starring two rocks, some mighty big issues are presented with gentle humour and a simple grace. A big plus is the choice of music with resonant acoustic percussion instruments used at the beginning and near the end of the film to suggest a simple, peaceful life for our rock friends, and orchestral flourishes for scenes featuring humans or frenetic human activity.

Night of the Hell Hamsters / Eel Girl: two efficient comedy horror film shorts

Paul Campion, “Night of the Hell Hamsters” (2005), “Eel Girl” (2008)

Film shorts are a flexible medium for telling particular kinds of stories or expressing ideas in ways not possible in full-length feature films, usually due to budget limitations or the idea not being substantial enough to sustain over 40 minutes of viewing time. The two shorts under review are respectively the first and second directorial features for British / New Zealand director Paul Campion who came to film-directing somewhat late in his life after a career of illustrating book covers and doing texture painting on films.

“Night of the Hell Hamsters” is an affectionate parody of and tribute to B-grade supernatural horror films that are usually aimed at a teenage audience. Julie (Stephanie Ratcliff) is babysitting for her neighbours on a dark and stormy night when her boyfriend Karl (Paul O’Neill) drops by with a Ouija board game. While playing with it at Julie’s insistence, the two accidentally summon up a demon from hell which for strange reasons of its own decides to inhabit the bodies of two pet hamsters. The zombie hamsters torment Julie and Karl with a wickedly twisted sense of humour that subjects the youngsters to laughably crude sexual jokes and, for Julie, misogynist taunting. The girl is forced to adopt vampire-slayer heroics to fight the rodents.

“Eel Girl” combines comedy, science fiction and horror in half the time Julie and the hamsters sort out their differences. A military officer drops in on two scientists at a naval science laboratory with an order to take one of them away for briefing. The man protests, saying that protocol requires at least two people to be working together in the same laboratory at any one time, but the guard subtly threatens him and the two leave together. The second scientist (Euan Dempsey) immediately switches his focus to a pet vanity project, perhaps secretly approved by his superiors, which is studying a female hybrid eel-human (Julia Rose). Behind a safety barrier, the creature signals interest in the scientist and the man, excited and nervous, throws caution aside to open the security door to touch and maybe kiss the girl.

The first film is straightforward story-telling with jokes, clichés and some errors in continuity and logic which may be either deliberate or accidental. There’s no indication that the hamsters attack the sleeping children being babysat. The two actors playing Julie and Karl carry the entire film capably which is as well as the tension dissipates quickly after the hamsters turn demonic and the only thing of interest to viewers is to see how Julie atones for her innocent mistake in summoning the demon. On the whole, the film is well-made as it should be but, by itself, it says little about the director’s talent and ambition.

“Eel Girl” is a more serious proposition, more elegant and efficient in style, that builds up and sustains the suspense right up to the moment when the hybrid performs her own version of oral sex. Dialogue is completely non-existent after the officer leads away one scientist and the remaining characters communicate their feelings through their body language alone. Close-ups of the second scientist’s face and his behaviour (licking his lips, fiddling with his clothes, clenching his fists) and the quick editing involved reveal his anxiety and maintain the growing tension. There may be some very interesting ideas hinted at in this short: defence scientists using taxpayer money to engage in ethically dubious activities winked at by senior brass;  men’s attempts to control nature and women for selfish purposes; and humanity’s presumption in manipulating and splicing DNA material from different species to achieve a certain result, only to get something completely unexpected that threatens to become a disaster. The very limited setting – a darkened, cramped room and a dirty grey-green chamber dominated by a tub filled to the brim with thick black gunk provide the scene – helps to give the film a sinister atmosphere that enhances the tension.

Rose’s make-up which covers her whole body (she appears nude) makes her look cold and alien, and the actor herself moves in a slow, steady and studied way as though to suggest her monster is studying the scientist as he studies her. The film’s make-up budget obviously didn’t extend to cutting all of Rose’s hair off so that she could look more eel-like and maybe even a bit obscene with a shiny bald head but that’s a cosmetic detail that probably wouldn’t have made much difference to the overall plot build-up. The special effects used in the film’s climax don’t look completely realistic – viewers can easily see computer enhancement has been used – and I would have liked to see the monster’s second set of jaws in her throat working themselves forward as she opens her mouth. (I’m assuming the eel that inspired the film short was a moray eel.) The climax would have looked a lot more natural and gruesome.

For a five-minute film, “Eel Girl” is a punchy effort that packs in good acting, sustained tension, black comedy and a dark atmosphere. For once the lack of a back-story to the monster and how the naval laboratory acquired her invites viewer speculation about what the film could be saying in the way of a theme. There may be no theme at all and viewers can read whatever they wish into the film. It’s a huge improvement on “Night of the Hell Hamsters” and if Campion can build on this achievement – at this time of writing, he was working on a full-length movie and had a few other movie projects on the boil – he’ll go a long way indeed: upward that is, not downward as that foolish second scientist did.

 

 

 

The Space Voyage: space adventure propaganda piece for kids is a little subversive

Vasily Zhuravlov, “The Space Voyage” / “Kosmicheskiy reys: Fantasticheskaya Novella” (1936)

In the 1930s, the youth branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, usually known by its abbreviation Komsomol, suggested that a film be made to encourage interest in space exploration among young people and this film, which  features as a main character a boy who is a Komsomol member, was the result. Director Zhuravlov had been itching to make this film since the mid-1920s anyway though possibly without the child character. Shot as a silent film with not very many title cards, the film is fairly easy to follow even though on Youtube.com it has no English-language subtitles. An aged scientist, Professor Sedykh (S Komarov), and his assistant Marina (K Moskalenko) decide to blast off into space in their rocket along with a teenage passenger, Andriusha (V Gaponenko) after Sedykh has been in trouble with fellow scientist and bureaucrat Professor Karin (V Kovrigin), the latter having been irate over finding a sleeping rabbit in a small rocket. The unlikely trio fly straight to the moon where they don spacesuits and happily leap about in close to zero-gravity conditions, taking in the sights and exploring the caves they find. Sedykh nearly gets crushed by a rock but apart from that mishap, the three have a good time and send a signal to Earth that they have landed on the moon. That basically is all there is in the way of a plot.

The glory of the film is in its sets and some aspects of the script: Zhuravlov consulted the then-famous rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky on the script and other aspects of the film’s production. The scenes in the film in which Sedykh, Marina and Andriusha float and fly about in the spaceship were probably inspired by a suggestion that once a spaceship escapes the pull of Earth’s gravity, its occupants might experience weightlessness. The camera shows the threesome bouncing off walls and windows, and even adopts a first-person viewpoint of flying with quick edits of swaying and swinging aerial shots: hmm, those three need a fair bit of practice to stop crashing into sensitive levers and steering wheels. The scenes on the moon in which the astronauts jump from rock to rock are all animated (with stop-motion animation) to a high quality and look very realistic for the period in which the film was made. Spacesuits have oxygen tubes and tanks attached to them, indicating the level of research and care Zhuravlov took in making the film appear authentic.

The sets themselves will take viewers’ breath away: even the cameraman must have been in awe at the size and clean streamling of the spaceship, around which workers scurry and little trucks drive, and there’s an excellent “virtual tour” shot in which the camera pans slowly around the ship itself while in the hangar. The ship’s interiors look cramped and are filled with panels of levers, steering wheels and gauges. Moscow itself is portrayed as a futuristic planned city dominated by a few skyscrapers here and there and a long rollercoaster-like bridge that reaches for the sky itself. The lunar landscapes, all painted on background boards, almost have the appearance of abstract avantgarde oil paintings with huge white block-shaped boulders draped over by dark shadows, over which the Earth can be seen rising.

Interestingly during take-off, the astronauts are shown wearing special costumes and sitting in liquid-filled chambers. Presumably the liquid absorbs the changes in pressure and any shocks that occur while the ship escapes the Earth’s atmosphere so that, once in space, the astronauts suffer no ill effects. Tsiolkovsky and Zhuravlov sure did think of everything that could have gone wrong and how to solve any potential problems!

As a film aimed at children, “The Space Voyage” includes considerable humour: Karin is prevented by a group of Komsomol children from stopping Sedykh’s flight and has to pretend that he authorised the flight all along; and Sedykh’s wife, in helping her husband to pack his luggage for the trip, realises he has forgotten to take his warm boots so she hurries to the spaceflight centre with them. The prime humorous aspect is that the flight crew includes no young able-bodied adult males whom viewers would expect to perform the action-hero parts; when Sedykh gets into trouble, Marina and Andriusha are the ones who bail him out. A young military man who is Marina’s boyfriend would have gone on board but Marina throws him out after he throws his support behind Karin’s orders.

Though intended as a propaganda piece masquerading as a children’s space adventure, the film’s choice of main characters and the way the first part of its plot plays out are in their own way subversive of official Communist propaganda: Sedykh and Marina defy a bureaucrat’s orders and Andriusha sneaks away from home and boards the spaceship as a stowaway. Sedykh and Marina initially treat Andriusha as just a kid but after he declares that he and his friends stopped Karin from grounding the rocket, the two allow him to explore the moon’s caves with them. None of them is what NASA or its Soviet equivalent would call “qualified” to be space explorers. When they get back home, they find they are forgiven for their disobedience. Ah, if only real life had been as kind to the film as the fictional bureaucrats were to the trio … “The Space Voyage” was pulled from cinemas in 1936 as the animated scenes of jumping astronauts were judged by government censors to be frivolous and was neglected for a long time afterwards.

 

 

Living in Fear: unusual and eccentric black comedy about finding redemption in digging up landmines

Chuyen Bui Thac, “Living in Fear” / “Song trong so hai” (2005)

It’s mid-1975, the war has ended and the Americans have gone, and the North and South halves of Vietnam are reunited under Communist rule. Nguyen Tai (Tran Huu Phuc), a soldier who fought for the “old” regime (that is, the corrupt South Vietnamese government supported by the West), has been released from jail and education camp and is now adrift in a new society with no skills and little confidence in himself. He happens to be a bigamist in a society that now frowns on “promiscuity” and both his wives Thuan (Ngo Pham Hanh Thuy) and Ut (Mai Ngoc Phuong), living separately, have young children to feed and bring up. Thuan’s brother, a minor revolutionary official who despises Tai, harasses him by forcing him to report to his office regularly when there is no need. What is Tai to do?

A chance at a new life comes unexpectedly when Tai discovers an unexploded landmine in front of Ut’s home. This discovery leads Tai to learn all he can about finding and defusing landmines from a friend, Nam (Mai Van Thinh), in spite of the dangers and prohibitions involved. He gains new skills and knowledge which also help him relearn farming skills and his self-esteem improves. Though the government forbids trading in found landmines, Tai sells them anyway to earn money to feed his growing brood. His immediate community, initially suspicious of him, ends up rallying around him and grants him land for personal and family use if he can clear it of landmines.

This is a very straightforward and simply told story, based on fact, about a man, cast into an unfamiliar world that is wary of him and his past, who finds new purpose, gains personal redemption and eventually wins social approval and acceptance by doing work that forces him to confront his fears and to accept responsibility for past actions, both his own and those of others he once served. The conventional narrative style and matter-of-fact acting in a context where people practise emotional self-restraint don’t allow a layered story of flashbacks to past histories and conflicts and of complex character development to develop so Western viewers must accept the film’s implicit assumptions about post-1975 Vietnamese politics and society. The new society is idealised as beneficent and allows Tai to find his niche as long as he works hard and fulfills his family and personal responsibilities. The dangerous work he does atones for his having fought for an enemy that planted the landmines. A very minor subplot that involves Tai’s brother-in-law and the female leader of the cadre in the area where Ut and Tai live is worked into the film.

Slow and patient, the film allows viewers to take in the beautiful rural landscapes, the farming lifestyle common in Vietnam in 1975 and absorb the little nuances of the actors’ minimalist style. Tai isn’t very emotional most of the time but camera close-ups show him perspiring heavily when he is defusing a landmine so the audience certainly knows he is anxious and fearful. There are comic touches: whenever the brother-in-law visits Thuan and Tai happens to be at her house, hubby has to hide in a huge pot or in the bath to avoid being seen; and both Thuan and Ut fall pregnant and end up in the same hospital giving birth at the same time so Tai has to dash back and forth between the two women in pain! Then of course there is the ultimate black comic punchline: Tai finds his landmine work less stressful than dealing with two wives, his children and an angry brother-in-law! The only problem with the plot that viewers may have is that near the end, the story-line suddenly jumps several years into the future and resumes its near-glacial pace; the only major change is that the brother-in-law and the cadre leader have found love and marriage and the brother-in-law is now at peace – probably thanks to Tai who saw they were made for each other!

Viewers hoping for Hollywood-style marital discord might be disappointed that Tai’s two wives already know of one another’s existence and accept each other without complaint. The only really significant character study is of Tai himself who relentlessly pursues his landmine work as if there’s no tomorrow and even includes a landmine on his makeshift Buddhist shrine; whenever a cow or someone important to him is killed by a landmine, he goes to his shrine to pray. At one point in the film, Tai finds a landmine and faints as if in ecstasy. Such strange details limn Tai as an oddball though likeable character, but some viewers might find his actions hard to stomach and understand. It would probably take a psychological paper to explain Tai’s behaviour fully but for the purpose of this review, the landmines represent many forms of freedom for Tai: they free him from his old work as a soldier, they give him a new personal and social identity, they help provide for his family and free him from family strife, and they give him new knowledge, new skills, new opportunities – in short, they give him a new chance of life. Their power to give life to Tai and take it away from others borders on whimsy and absurdity. Why wouldn’t he pray and thank them at his shrine?

Lovely and easy on the eye with lots of greenery and farming scenes, this film combines an important social and political issue – the presence of landmines in many impoverished countries and the dangers they pose to farmers and children – with an unusual and eccentric tale of redemption. It’s very much a film for the arthouse circuit with its leisurely pace and distinctive though underplayed comedy.

 

 

Dead Snow: a mishmash of previous zombie movie plot twist and character stereotypes

Tommy Wirkola, “Dead Snow” (2009)

For laughs, gore and stunning mountain scenery you can’t go past zombie comedy flick “Dead Snow” but there isn’t much else to sustain the movie. The plot revolves around a group of university students going to a remote mountain cabin in northern Norway for skiing, snowboarding and sexy-time fun during the Easter holiday break. The place is so remote they have to leave their cars at the bottom of the mountain and walk with their luggage to the cabin while one of their number, Vegard (Lasse Valdal), leads the way on a snowmobile. The cabin happens to belong to his girlfriend Sara (Ane Dahl Torp) who’s making her own way there via cross-country skiing. On their first night in the cabin the kids are visited by a local ranger (Bjørn Sundquist) who lectures them on the area’s recent history: during World War II, a paramilitary death squad of several hundred Nazi German soldiers stationed in the mountains to intercept Russian-British trade and communications treated locals so badly that the Norwegians rose up against the occupiers and massacred as many as they could; the remaining soldiers fled into remote parts and were never seen again. The ranger then goes on his way and the youngsters never see him again. After that night, strange things start happening: Sara never turns up so Vegard goes off to search for her and one of the students, Chris (Jenny Skavlan), disappears after using the out-house the following evening. Next thing you know, the students hear groaning and grunting noises outside the cabin, windows are smashed inwards and the youngsters realise they’re besieged by … undead Nazi German soldiers!

At least the mountain locations and forests are beautiful and the cinematography captures the sharp look of the bright blue skies and jaw-dropping cliffs and rocky outcrops where most of the action occurs in the second half of the film. The actors look the part of a stereotyped cast: blonde bubble-headed babe Liv (Evi Kasseth Røsten), brainy brunette Hanna (Charlotte Frogner) with her hair in dreadlocks, Erlend (Jeppe Laursen) the chubby film buff, nerdy Martin (Vegar Hoel) who wears glasses, the physically attractive and natural leader of the group Vegard and another fellow, Roy (Stig Frode Henriksen); they act like stereotypes as well so Liv plays damsel in distress and Hanna tries to get help for herself and the others. Vegard singlehandedly fights off several zombies with ingenuity and his snowmobile and he even does his own running repairs, Terminator-style, with sewing needle, thread and duct tape – just don’t ask which part of himself he stitches up. Martin and Roy form a comedy duo who accidentally burn down the cabin with Molotov cocktails but then redeem themselves with a chainsaw and hammer against an army of zombies. For their part the zombies act like typical zombies of their post-“28 Days Later” generation: they run fast, they bite hard, they don’t think deeply and they do as they’re ordered by head zombie and former Einsatzgruppen leader Herzog.

The plot falls to pieces even before the zombies gatecrash the kids’ party:  why or how the German soldiers became zombies in the first place and their reverence for the gold and silver treasures the students find hidden in their cabin that they’d chase the youngsters for them, are never explained in the film. You’d think the script-writers might draw on Norwegian lore about the treasures having some kind of evil Lord-of-the-Ring or Nibelungenlied radioactive influence on the soldiers, turning their human cells and metabolism into undead zombie cells and metabolism. There would then be a lesson, however crude it be, we mortals could learn about the dangers of greed and stealing occult jewels of non-human manufacture whose powers are dangerous and not to be underestimated. Perhaps there’d even be a backstory about how Hitler ordered the Nazis to come to this remote mountain territory precisely to find this forbidden treasure that could bestow unbelievable power on the German armed forces and enable them to conquer and control Europe. The power would be real enough but the consequences of messing with it for selfish material interest would be severe. Possibly with the release of the sequel “Dead Snow 2”, we’ll learn more about Standartenführer Herzog and his soldiers and how they were transformed into the undead.

Though this is a low-budget slapstick horror film that milks previous zombie horror films for character and plot twist stereotypes, there are some artistic moments here, the major highlight being a scene in which the zombies are eviscerating one of the students through a blocked and blurred camera lens that takes the victim’s point of view. The special effects look well done and though the body count is high the killing and hacking aren’t exaggerated. The zombies look menacing and horrific with grey corpse faces.

Shame then that such a good-looking film with an interesting premise and stunning mountain landscape backgrounds doesn’t exploit its source material to make the plot more credible and the monsters more fearsome. Local Norwegian legends about dwarves making and hiding hoards of gold and precious jewels in the mountains combined with Nazi Germany’s obsession with the occult and mastering its secrets to obtain power and territory could have provided much creative stimulation for a story in which zombified Nazi soldiers become a strikeforce for unknown malevolent forces to threaten the world. Of course a small budget can cramp the creative ambitions and scope of the script but in the case of “Dead Snow”, all that’s needed is a more credible explanation for how the soldiers came to be what they are. The movie could have broken with the usual horror movie conventions about what zombies can and can’t do and allowed them to speak and remember their history. The significance of the treasure the students find in their cabin becomes an important part of the plot. Now that would be a lecture worth listening to.

Man Bites Dog: strong satire on Western cultures’ obsession with sadistic violence

Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde, “C’est arrive près de chez vous” (“It could happen in your neighbourhood”)  aka “Man Bites Dog” (1992)

Made by four Belgian film students, this mock documentary on the daily routines of a professional killer remains a powerful criticism of Western cultures’ obsession with sadistic violence. Although it often looks aimless and appears to be a series of skits, it’s actually well constructed with a definite narrative and an overall mood that’s at first light-hearted, jokey and comic with Spinal Tap moments but becomes darker and sinister towards the end. Shot on grainy black-and-white, the film has the air of a fly-on-the-wall independent documentary as a film crew zealously follows Ben (BenoÎt Poelvoorde) as he goes about his daily or monthly routine of robbing and/or killing postmen, pensioners, security guards, taxi drivers and various others he meets.

Chatty and friendly, Ben introduces the film-makers and viewers to his family (Poelvoorde’s real-life relatives), girlfriend Valérie and his boxing trainer throughout the film. He expounds or rants at length on a variety of topics. Among other things, viewers learn from Ben that there is an art to weighting dead people with ballast so when they are dropped into rivers they don’t float and that people’s lives can be improved or blighted by the decisions governments make on urban renewal and aesthetic details of architecture and interior design. He fancies himself a gourmet and treats the film crew to a sumptuous lunch of mussels and wine. Viewers see him playing a musical duet on the piano with Valerie on flute and sparring with his trainer at the grotty sports club. He is interested in art, literature and film culture and spouts poetry (self-composed and crappy) about pigeons and the change of seasons. Altogether a thoroughly cultured and intellectual if pretentious being is our Ben; but how does he finance his activities? – on the first day of every month, he kills postmen to steal pension cheques and visits the homes of the people they’re addressed to, kills them and looks under the beds and cupboards for more money. To keep limber as it were, he robs and kills other people in hilarious sequences that reveal his ignorance and prejudices towards others as well as his education and culture.

As the film carries on, the film-makers – and with them, the audience – become deeply involved and implicated in Ben’s crimes as witnesses and participants. The change is subtle and gradual: Ben begins to finance the making of the documentary and directs parts of it himself; the film-makers help him chase a boy and participate in a gang rape / murder of a woman. Ben orders them also to re-bury bodies in a quarry he uses to dump his victims when the water dries up. Viewers, initially charmed by Ben’s warmth and generosity, now see his arrogant and more psychopathic side, lacking in true empathy and compassion for others. Sure enough his pride and smugness get the better of him, he makes some slip-ups and he ends up being chased by a never-seen criminal gang and the police who jail him. On his release, Ben discovers the criminal gang has killed his family and girlfriend, and his life and those of the film-makers are in grave danger.

Viewers stand as much indicted as the film crew itself as observers and accomplices, however passive, in Ben’s trail of mayhem and chaos. The handheld camera style and use of frequent close-ups create intimacy and draw viewers in as voyeurs. When Ben and his crew meet another film crew following a criminal in an abandoned building he uses as his hide-out, we find ourselves rooting for Ben as the film crews prepare for a stand-off. Uncomfortable questions about the sensationalisation / trivialisation of violence by mass media in our society, the ways in which reality TV shows encourage people to behave in extreme ways, celebrity worship and the numbing effect continuous exposure to violence and trauma must have on viewers’ mental states arise. The relationship between a film crew and the subject that is the focus of its film is also questioned – how objective can a documentary be when its subject and the film crew are friends? – and the Spinal Tap sequence of two sound-men dying one after the other, each leaving behind a pregnant girlfriend called Marie-Paule, while funny, also makes for uncomfortable viewing. At what point does a film or any other venture become so important that people’s lives become secondary to it? The project takes on a life of its own and Ben exploits the film-makers’ friendship and hero-worship of him into making the film a never-ending diary celebrating his banal exploits to feed his ego. For all his supposed sophistication as an aesthete, Ben lacks the self-reflective insight, the depth of feeling and emotion, and empathy needed to be a true aesthete and a talented poet.

The film does become repetitive and the meeting of the film crews in the hide-out surely alerts viewers that ideas are starting to run out. After this point, the film seems to lose direction although in fact unseen criminals associated with the other crook followed by his own film crew are now trailing Ben and his crew. At the same time Ben’s crimes become more serious and brutal and viewers should consider the possibility that if he didn’t have a film crew following him around, Ben would confine himself to cutting queues for nursing homes and denying thousands of dogs in Belgium the pleasure of chasing posties. Ben mugs for the camera and some scenes where he is drunk could have been edited or cut altogether. On the technical side the film-makers do a good job of knitting all the various skits into a seamless, smoothly flowing whole and the skits have the appearance of naturally following on from one another even if they actually didn’t. How much of the film was improvised, how much was scripted and how much just happened to be there at the time of filming – especially the hospital scene with Ben being in the same room as an elderly patient engaging a nurse in verbal jousting over his toilet habits – is hard to tell.

At once compelling yet repellent, looking unfocussed as it progresses but with a definite goal in mind, this film still has a lot of power to shock and intrigue audiences. The nature of violence in Western societies, our fascination with it and how that fascination is pushed and manipulated for profit by media organisations and others, how that affects our psyches and might determine our attitudes and behaviour in situations where diplomacy rather than violence is called for, and the attitude that people are only worthwhile when they have cash or can be exploited (Ben only kills people if they have money) – these issues continue to make “Man Bites Dog” more relevant than it was when first released. Education and culture prove not be civilising influences on a mind lacking in self-examination and compassion for other people and the central character of Ben turns out to be as hollow and cold as the society being satirised.

Symbol (dir. Hatoshi Matsumoto): polished and slick slapstick comedy on nature of the universe

Hatoshi Matsumoto, “Symbol” (2009)

A slapstick comedy about interrelationships and the impact one person can have on events around the world, “Symbol” is the second full-length feature by Hatoshi Matsumoto who is best known in Japan as one-half of a long-running comedy act. The plot splits into two parallel stories that occur on opposite sides of the world, Japan and Mexico. In a small rural part of Mexico, a middle-aged man resignedly prepares for a tag-team wrestling match where he stars as Escargotman; his aged father and small son worry about his physical condition (chubby and pot-bellied) and his attitude in his pre-match routines (no hyping himself up or doing warm-up and limbering exercises). At the same time an unnamed man (Matsumoto himself – let’s call him M) wakes up in a large white-walled room with no furniture or windows in an unknown location in Japan. Images of cherubic male angels appear briefly and fade away, leaving behind only their genitalia on the walls and floor.

Throughout the film the action jumps back and forth between these two scenarios: the man in the room, pressing on the tiny penises, discovers that with each press a hole in a wall (not necessarily the same wall where the pressed penis is located) opens up and spits out an object he can use. Eventually the man works out that he can plan his escape from the room but the plan demands considerable lateral thinking as to how to open a hole up in a wall that leads to a locked door, get the key to that door and the right numbers to unlock the combination lock on the same door. Escargotman meanwhile prays at the family shrine, has his sister (a nun) drive him to the match venue, puts on his costume and mask and goes out to the ring. He waits on the side ropes while his partner gets beaten almost to a pulp by two more pumped-up wrestlers and then goes into the ring himself. In the audience Escargotman’s father and son anxiously sit and wonder if their hero will also get thrashed.

On their own each story isn’t remarkable in itself and viewers mightn’t feel much sympathy for Escargotman and the very real probability that Tequila Joe and his partner will humiliate him absolutely in front of his home crowd. As Escargotman hardly talks and shows little emotion, and on top of that his story shares screen-time with Matsumoto’s protagonist, there’s little tension building up to the wrestling match. M is essentially a comic-strip character in kidult pyjamas and kooky mop-top hairstyle who occasionally has something interesting to say but spends most of his time wordlessly trying out strategies that, comic strip-style, spring up in his head; the strategies work but only after much trial and error and temper tantrums for comic effect. It’s only when M finally escapes from the white room littered with objects and enters a second room where adult angels come and go and leave behind their genitals for our hero to press that the action becomes more interesting; every time he presses a penis, Escargotman lands a punch on his opponents. At this point the two stories become one and viewers start to realise that M isn’t just any ordinary man and the rooms he enters aren’t just any ordinary rooms on our particular plane of existence; each room represents a higher or deeper level of being and in each our man acquires more influence and power over the affairs of Earth. The tale of Escargotman becomes one of many on Earth that M can change. Naturally he insists on continuing to the next room beyond which the punchline awaits him.

The plot falls flat partly because Escargotman and his family are presented as flat though eccentric individuals and the wrestling match could be one of many in several parts of Mexico. For a quirky comedy the Mexican scenes have few quirks to them and become just stereotyped foreign exotic locations with stereotyped characters: Dad trying to make a living, Mum doing housework and nagging people all the time, Grandpa and Junior bonding together and anxious for Dad to prove himself a hero all over again and Aunty utters endless strings of expletive at her rundown truck. Although M helps Escargotman in his match, the influence is one-way only and this insinuates that Escargotman is a mere puppet. The implication behind that, though meant to be comic, is sad. Do Escargotman and his family exist merely for cheap laughs? (I guess so – don’t Third World nations and people exist to be pushed around?) This kind of philosophical black comedy has probably been done to death before and “Symbol” has nothing new to say on the matter.

In spite of the film’s polished presentation which includes a sharp, bright style of filming, computer animation and special effects that look real, and a steady pace driven by M’s desire for escape and meaning, “Symbol” ends up delivering a message that’s clever and slick but not profound. The movie’s worth is mainly in how it manipulates viewer expectations about the plot, its main character, the nature of his prison and how the Escargotman sub-plot ties into the main plot. You laugh at yourself for thinking that because you’re watching a movie, everything there has to make sense or connect with everything else in some way for a clear plot; but expected connections never materialise and unexpected ones do. As M goes from one maze to the next, viewers quickly realise he’s undertaking the metaphorical equivalent of human spiritual and intellectual evolution but whether he realises the importance of the journey himself – it looks as though enlightenment comes to him only during his swimming journey in which, sperm-like, he advances to “the light at the end of the tunnel” – is another matter entirely. Any thoughts he has about his journey, what he learns from it, and what awaits him at the end – and what he plans to do – are never revealed. The punchline could be more effective if M had broken the “fourth wall”, having done so a few times through the film already; he could just raise his finger and look quizzically at the audience before the camera cuts abruptly to the end credits.

“Symbol” is on a par with films like “Inception” and “eXisteNZ” which position the universe as similar to a videogame with various levels that require more skill and expertise in playing the game. The structure of the film into three parts “Education” where M teaches himself the strategies to leave the room, “Implementation” and “Future” suggests as much. Viewed this way, there’s no need for “Symbol” to say anything profound other than that a search for meaning in life is meaningless in itself and the universe may be one big cosmic joke. Films of this nature often seem superficial perhaps because if the universe is seen as a cosmic videogame, then there’s the inference that players enter the “game” on the understanding that they can’t change the “rules” of the game and free will only extends as far as the rules and parameters of the game permit. You as the player are no different than hamsters running on wheels in their cages, no matter how elaborate the wheels are or how far they go.

Frostbiten: comedy/horror vampire story lacking in teeth

Anders Banke, “Frostbiten” (2006)

‘Tis a Swedish vampire movie that begins with a shot of the night sky against which light snow is seen falling softly but all other resemblance to that other Swedish vampire movie about two children in a dreary Stockholm apartment block ends there. Action switches instead to an abandoned farmhouse in Ukraine, 1944, where four Swedish soldiers, fighting as members in a unit in the Wehrmacht, take refuge after narrowly surviving a shoot-out. What they find there in the farmhouse proves far more deadly than several divisions of the Red Army and just one man, Gerhard Beckert (Per Löfberg) barely escapes – or does he really?

Cut to 60 years later and Beckert (now Carl-Åke Eriksson) is a geneticist in a hospital in a city in northern Sweden; he is working on a vaccine for a mysterious virus and his guinea pig is a young woman who has been comatose for a year. Into this environment arrives Dr Annika Wallén (Petra Nielsen) who’s been keen to work with Beckert for a long time. Her daughter Saga (Grete Havneskold) tries to adjust to her new high school and social set which is dominated by Goth girl Vega (Emma T Aberg). Vega invites Saga to attend a party which will include among its guests various medical students taught by Beckert among others; students like Sebastian (Jonas Karlstrom) who, seeing the red pills Beckert feeds the comatose patient, swipes them for the party. Those viewers well-versed in vampire film lore will know straightaway what those little red balls will do to Sebastian and the other party-goers (save Saga) and during the evening when the party is in full swing with people getting drunk and high on all kinds of recreational designer drugs, behold, kids start clawing and necking one another, mayhem and trashing of furniture and the party venue follow, and the neighbours frantically phone the police to complain about the kids’ monkey antics. While the police have their hands full dealing with real-live teenage / young adult ghouls and party-pooper Saga tries to fend off Vega’s sudden interest in her (or in necking her rather), mum Annika discovers Beckert’s secret and the real aims of his experiment and tries valiantly to stop him from going further with it.

Intended as a spoof and homage to schlocky comedy /horror vampire movies of the past (demonstrated in the way one part of the plot “scrolls” to another plot strand), the movie is basically about a stock mad-scientist character trying to keep his life-work of perfecting vampires as Ubermensch replacements for real humans under wraps, continually refining his experiment until he believes it ready to be unleashed in its full glory, only for other people to thwart his personal ambitions and unwittingly release the vampire plague into the outside world. Along the way, characters and situations are milked for laughs as well as suspense, and an ingenious use for garden gnomes is discovered, and once Beckert is out of the way and the police find themselves outnumbered by kids who can resist capsicum spray and tasers, the comedy /horror story has run out of steam and the movie has the good grace to get off the screen pronto.

The special effects used are very good and the sub-polar background with the long dark winter night and need for people to gather in groups provides the right environment for a vampire plague to take place. Pity that a Christmas theme is not used here for extra laughs and horror! The acting is just enough to maintain some credibility and there’s not too much over-acting though the camera lingers a little too long over howling Sebastian and blood-lusting Vega once they are fully undead. The best scenes for suspense, mood and substance are the early wartime scenes in which the soldiers first encounter the dormant vampire enemy. Unfortunately after the special effects and cinematography, there mustn’t have been much money left over to hire a decent script-writer as the story lacks a climax and stops in mid-flight. Viewers are left wondering what will happen to Annika and Saga and whether they will ever see each other again after the end credits start rolling. The sub-polar environment and its night that lasts months are nothing more than a background over which the plot chugs along until it loses blood and bite.

Noi the Albino: film about a teenager needing a purpose and anchor in life … like a proper film

Dagur Kari, “Noi the Albino” (2003)

This is a curious film where  little happens and then all of a sudden, something happens and bang … THE END. “Noi the Albino” is a study of teenage frustration and isolation: main character Noi (Tomas Lemarquis) is a 17 year old youth who lives in a tiny village at the foot of a snow-covered cliff overlooking a bay in a remote part of Iceland. Born into a poor family that’s always been down on its luck – he lives with his grandmother Lina (Anna Fridriksdottir) and his taxi-driver father Kiddi (Throstur Leo Gunnarsson) who drifts in and out of his son’s life – Noi has the misfortune to be highly intelligent and non-conformist in a place that’s too small or narrow-minded to make use of his abilities and quirks. His folks can’t provide him with the financial and moral support he needs to advance farther in life so, unmotivated and lacking in direction and guidance, he wags school frequently – frequently enough to end up getting expelled – and spends his time hanging out at a local bookshop, drinking ginger beer at the local petrol station cafe, wandering around the bay shooting at icicles on the hill or frittering time away in his secret room in the cellar under Lina’s house.

A couple of things happen that brighten Noi’s life: the bookshop owner’s daughter Iris (Elin Hansdottir) comes into town to work at the cafe and Lina gives Noi a View-Master gadget which has images of scenes from tropical countries. Iris’s father Oskar (Hjalti Rognvaldsson) warns Noi to stay away from Iris but Noi seeks her out when he can and they end up falling in love. When he’s not with Iris, Noi spends his spare time looking at photographs of the beach and the American man in Aztec regalia on his View-Master, among other photos. On one occasion Noi and Iris break into the local natural museum and hide in a storage place; they see a map of the world and Noi discovers Iceland’s true significance – or rather, insignificance – to the rest of the planet. Iris encourages him to press a button, which he does so, and the Hawaiian islands light up on the map. This sets Noi off, dreaming about leaving his home village with Iris and heading off for sunnier, tropical climes, and trying to achieve that dream, however clumsy and stupid his methods are.

In the meantime, Lina and Kiddi try to find work for Noi – Kiddi gets him a grave-digging job at the local cemetery and Lina consults Gylfi (Kjartan Bjargmundsson), a mechanic and fortune-teller, to tell Noi’s fortune. Noi visits Gylfi who foretells death which Noi finds nonsensical. A series of other incidents follow in which Noi gets in trouble with the police and has to be bailed out by his dad. Retreating into his underground cellar room, Noi discovers his room is shaking, dirt comes pouring out of the ceiling and all the lights go out …

With no plot to speak of, “Noi the Albino” is an impressionistic view of how one teenager, an outsider in his village by an unlucky combination of personality quirks, looks (he has alopecia so he looks like an alien) and family circumstances, tries to cope with the isolation and boredom of his monotonous life with the limited resources he has. There are other local kids like Dabbi about but they are too different from him or their parents don’t want them hanging out with him. The movie gives no indication of the period it’s set in but the lack of computers in the school (the principal has no PC on his desk in one scene) or in the bank (there’s no ATM on the outside) suggest the 1970’s or 1980’s and in those days, without the Internet and the information sources and social networks it offers, loners like Noi really were loners, adrift through no fault of their own in a world cut off from everywhere else and where everyone knows you and has certain (non)expectations of you. As Noi, Lemarquis does well in portraying a youngster brought up to be stoic and unemotional yet troubled and at sea morally, needing help but refusing it when offered by people he happens to dislike. He’s clearly the type who’ll work for something that’s worth achieving but won’t do so just for the sake of being a hard worker and being disciplined: in his own way he diligently pursues Iris though whether he ends up loving her for herself or because he sees her as a life-line is another thing. Some of his problems with others arise because he figures out how to work smarter or takes the initiative to do something creative and different that would actually benefit everyone but upsets more conventional types. To take an example, the maths teacher at school complains about Noi’s use of a cassette-recorder to record his lessons in his absence, even though the arrangement would benefit him as well as Noi as he wouldn’t have to put up with Noi’s insolent behaviour. Noi is the kind of personality difficult to like on a purely social level but spend enough time with him as Iris does and you may find he’s not really a bad guy, he just needs a purpose and anchor in life, a bit more humility and something or someone to show him the way or throw him the opportunity.

The world Noi lives in is portrayed beautifully in a matter-of-fact way: repeated shots of the village, hugging the shoreline of the bay beneath a huge and brooding hill with an almost sheer cliff-face, suggests the awesome and unpredictable power of nature which drastically turns Noi’s life upside-down and fulfills Gylfi’s alarming prediction. The event might appear to some viewers as a theatrical deus ex machina device to get the film really going and finished with a climax that would justify everything that’s gone before but it didn’t seem that way to me, perhaps because I’ve heard a fair amount of Scandinavian and other northern European popular and alternative music and read about their creators, seen a few movies from that part of the world, and read a bit about its history and culture, to know that Icelanders have a perverse sense of humour which they probably developed to cope with their harsh and unpredictable environment, isolation and poverty over the centuries, and they would find an avalanche slamming into Noi’s small world and giving him what he needs blackly ironic. There’s a hint that Noi himself precipitates the event in a small way when he shoots down icicles hanging off the cliff earlier in the film so the climax isn’t entirely an after-thought. Nature affects Noi in other ways too, particularly in his dreary job as grave-digger where he must brave cold winds and dig in unforgiving permafrost. The conclusion which brings the beach photo in the View-Master to life is enigmatic, suggesting on one level that Noi finally loses contact with the real world and drifts off permanently into a fantasy world, and on another level, confirming to him that his life purpose is to escape Iceland and hinting at the possibility of a sequel in which Noi finally makes his way to Hawaii.

The film won’t suit all tastes and in spite of Lemarquis’s acting and the cinematography I did find the film uninteresting overall and it runs out of puff quickly. Elin Hansdottir as Iris is blank and it’s difficult to see what Noi might see in her, which suggests his contact with women has been very limited or maybe he does see her as his life-line out of Iceland. The relationship which should have been the film’s spine barely gets off the ground. Grandmother Lina and dad Kiddi provide humorous moments (Kiddi smashing a piano with an axe is the most exciting thing to see in the whole film, and the sausage-making scene where Lina and Kiddi are accidentally splashed with sheep’s blood is the second most exciting thing) as do some minor characters such as the French teacher who demonstrates how to make mayonnaise in class and ends up with a ruined result. Lacking a plot and with a support cast of mostly sketchy characters existing for Noi to bounce off, the film has an uphill struggle appealing to viewers emotionally. I’m not against films with no obvious narrative or plot, some of my favourite films have no plot; it’s just that a film must have something else strong to compensate for the lack. Perhaps the film could have been condensed into something much shorter, say, around 80 minutes with a cryptic message at the end along the lines of “To be continued … maybe …”, that might encourage viewers to see “Noi the Albino” as a prequel to a main event that would justify its existence and Noi’s. Yes I think Noi’s life purpose includes a proper film vehicle to make use of his talents and quirkiness.