Saturday, 30 August 2008

Venice: review round up

Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Kitano won the Golden Lion in 1997 for Hana-bi but, these days, you never know what Kitano you’re going to get going in -- will it be a crime picture, a comedy, or, in the case of Zatochi, a madcap samurai musical. Kitano’s latest, competition entry Achilles And The Tortoise, varies so much in tone throughout its generous running time, that you’re left with the feeling he’s given you a little of everything: black humour, sentimentality, suicide, art. The plot centres on Machisu, the only son of a rich art collector whose dream of becoming a painter takes hold early on and never leaves him, despite his perceived lack of talent and inability to sell any of his work. Played first as a young boy by Reo Yoshioka, then as an art student by Yurei Yanagi, before, finally, as a middle age man by Kitano himself, Machisu is driven solely by a passion for painting, his life, wife and child all sacrificed by his artistic drive. The film works best with Machisu as a child, orphaned after his father’s suicide, sent to live with a cruel uncle but continuing to paint. The middle section turns increasingly comic as Machisu and his art school chums concoct various wild and hair-brained schemes to push their art before tragedy inevitably spoils the party. While the final section is the most melancholic and repetitive, as Machisu, a painter more a suited to mimicry than original expression, goes back to the artistic well one too many times, egged on by an art dealer’s small words of encouragement. The blend of hilarity and death the film aims for isn’t easy to pull off and Kitano (author of much of the artwork on display) doesn’t quite nail it.

Christian (Yella) Petzold’s Jerichow is a German Postman Always Rings Twice with Benno Furmann as taciturn tough guy Thomas, an ex-soldier who accepts a job driving for Turkish take away businessman Ali (Himli Sozer) and finds himself falling for his German wife Laura (Nina Foss). Things are further complicated by Thomas’ growing affection for his boss, a brutish but ultimately decent man. As the illicit lovers, Furmann and Hoss generate a fair amount of onscreen heat, while Sozer gives Ali genuine depth and sympathy. Lean in narrative, spare in execution, Petzold’s love triangle has plausibility and tension even if the ending gets away from him.

Less successful was Barbet Schroeder’s Inju, The Beast In The Shadow, a tonally uneven and risible literary thriller set in Tokyo where best-selling French crime author Alex Fayard (Benoit Magimel) is visiting to promote his latest work. While there, Alex hopes to meet his literary hero, Shundei Oe, a reclusive Japanese author infamous for his disturbingly violent output but instead becomes infatuated by Tamao (Lika Minamoto), a beautiful young geisha who dances for him at an exclusive tea room. When it turns out that one of Tamao’s previous boyfriends might very well be Shundei, Alex is intrigued and finds himself drawn into a deadly game that plays out like the plot of a terrible mystery novel. Set in a Tokyo where everyone speaks (or at least understands French), Magimel’s obsessed stranger in a strange land is simply too much of a jerk to root for while Schroeder’s attempts to spice up his preposterous and unbelievable plot include the odd bit of S&M sex.

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