Sion Sono has had a rather interesting career. The former member of a religious cult turned leader of the performance art collective Tokyo Gagaga, and later director of gay pornographic films as well as “pink films,” reached a wide international audience and established himself as a cult director in 2001 with Suicide Club. Ever since the avant-garde poet has been on a role, releasing hit after hit including cult favorites Hair Extensions, Love Exposure, Cold Fish, Why Don’t You Play In Hell and Strange Circus (to name just a few). He’s a director usually linked to extreme-cinema with some citing him as a replacement for Takashi Miike who now sits comfortably in the mainstream. And like Miike, Sion Sono is one of the busiest filmmakers in the world, averaging about two movies a year. We’re only halfway through 2015 and he has an impressive three features (Shinjuku Swan) (Love & Peace) (Tag) out in cinemas, with three more set for release before 2016 rolls out. With Love & Peace, the director comes out of his comfort zone to deliver a startlingly touching and accessible film that the whole family can enjoy. Based on a screenplay he wrote two decades ago, Sion Sono gives the rock movie a makeover by fusing together slapstick – romance – politics – classic Hollywood Christmas movies – Tokusatsu films, puppetry, and stop-motion animation. A bizarre thing, this crazy movie is every movie you loved as a kid crammed into 117 minutes of cinematic lunacy.
The film is set in the summer of 2015 in Tokyo, Japan. The man at the center of the story is Ryoichi, a cowardly awkward introvert who once dreamed of becoming a punk rocker but landed a lousy job as a timid desk clerk instead. He’s hated by his colleagues, has no friends, and can barely do anything right. He has feelings for Yuko, a shy co-worker who like Ryoichi also has a love for rock-n-roll. But as hard as he tries to get close to her, someone or something gets in his way.
One day, he crosses paths with a turtle on the rooftop of a department store who he decides to adopt. His passion for music and living his dream, coupled with his unconditional love for his new pet is all that brings him happiness. Ryoichi finds solace at home, where he lets loose on his musical instruments, watches a lot of television and plays games with the turtle who he names Pikadon (a word that has been integrated into the Japanese vocabulary as a result of the atomic bombs). With his new companion, Ryoichi begins to come alive, but the day he brings Pikadon to work, his colleagues torment the baby turtle and in order to keep him safe, Ryoichi flushes him down the toilet. This is when things get weird.
The first act feels like a Japanese version of Punch Drunk Love, wielding abrasive characters in hostile working conditions. It’s a workplace comedy about a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The sound design is a study in discomfort and the score doesn’t behave according to any of the rules audiences normally come to expect. I won’t lie, the first 30 minutes or so, feels like a chore. It’s hard to sympathize for Ryoichi and many of the scenes are played at an almost unbearable high volume, with the supporting cast shouting their dialogue. Ryoichi cowards away from society; he cries, he moans, he cries some more – and although actor Hiroki Hasegawa is a master of slapstick, the script gives Ryoichi very little depth in that first act. In fact, the only character you’ll come to like is the actual turtle. But those who stick around to the very end are in for a real treat.
The turtle makes its way down the toilet bowl through the underground sewers of Tokyo eventually reaching an underground cave where he meets some unexpected guests. Borrowing a concept from The Christmas Toy, Ryoichi’s tiny friend finds its way to an orphanage of sorts – a home for lost pets and discarded toys, overlooked by a drunk caretaker. In addition to taking care of the pets and junkyard playthings, he’s salvaged over the years, the mysterious old man also provides each new resident with a magic potion giving it the ability to speak. Yes, this is a Sion Sono film in which toys come to life and dogs and cats can talk, but as absurd as the premise might seem, Love & Peace works for one simple reason: it never takes its tongue out of its cheek. Although its stop-motion animation and puppetry aren’t convincing, Sion Sono doesn’t care; in fact, he goes out of his way at times to show the actual strings pulling the puppets. When Pikadon arrives, the man mistakenly gives the turtle the wrong magic potion. Instead of acquiring the ability to speak, Pikadon is awarded the ability to make Ryoichi’s dreams come true, and slowly Ryoichi goes from being a nobody to a worldwide celebrity. Only there’s a side effect: With each wish granted, Pikadon grows dramatically in size, an apt metaphor for Ryoichi’s ego which grows equally bigger as his career advances. As Ryoichi’s rags to riches story above ground begins to merge with the magical world of the underground, the film begins to truly come together.
The third act is best described as a cross between Fish Story and Godzilla. There are some truly outrageous moments in Love & Peace – This is a one-of-a-kind experience all the way through, and the ballad of destruction in the final act reveals itself as one of the most exciting, amusing and touching of them all. The juxtaposing between the giant reptile rampaging through Tokyo and his earlier scenes playing board games with Ryoichi is ingenious. Sono may not have created the most convincing-looking monster in cinema history, but he managed to give his movie monster a social relevance. There are clearly strong messages to found here, and a critical, but loving eye towards contemporary Japanese society – but overall, Love & Peace is a magical fairytale set above and below the streets of Edo. It takes a lot of imagination and talent as a filmmaker to follow this premise through until to the end. By mixing genres and eclectic styles with a lively tone and an intricately plotted multi-strand story, Love & Peace holds our attention blending humour, drama, romance and a truly awesome soundtrack (written and composed by Sono himself). But more importantly, Pikadon might just be the most charming monster ever to star on the big screen. When the Godzilla-like beast makes his way to the Tokyo Dome to reunite with his owner (a David Bowiesque Ryoichi, decked out in Ziggy Stardust attire), you’ll understand why Love & Peace is one of the most original movies in years.
Sono put his heart and soul into this film, and it shows. Just when you think the story can’t possibly get any weirder, it does. When the old man’s secrets and motives behind his tinkering become clear in the film’s final reel, you’ll find yourself smiling. Love & Peace is hugely ambitious and oddly good-natured. Children will enjoy this new take on the irresistible idea of toys coming to life; adults will appreciate the witty script and everyone will marvel at the sights and sounds of Pikadon. As off-putting and quirky as it sounds, it’s held together with great confidence and a ton of energy. Sion Sono takes the risk of getting lost in his style of exercise but pulls it off. The result is a wonderfully entertaining and affecting patchwork of ideas, incidents, influences and genres. A must see!
– Ricky D
Sam Mendes Creates a Rare Cinematic Experience with ‘1917’
War movies have been a constant trend in cinema since the beginning of film. From black and white propaganda pieces during World War I and II to grand, ultra-realistic, modern dramas like Saving Private Ryan, war films have intrigued filmmakers and audiences alike for over 100 years. There’s a long list of films that have succeeded in recreating the horrors of fighting on the frontlines while telling a captivating story of heroism. Telling an emotionally gripping tale combined with some visually stunning filmmaking, 1917 can now be added to that list, and is nothing short of an incredible achievement.
Directed and co-written by Sam Mendes, and starring Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, 1917 tells the story of two British soldiers during World War I that are given orders to personally deliver a message to a battalion off in the far distance. The message: to call off an attack that will result in the death of thousands, including one of the soldier’s brothers, should they fail to make it in time. Early on the two soldiers walk swiftly through crowded trenches; one of them, dragging behind yells, “Shouldn’t we think about this?” The other doesn’t reply. There’s no time to think about it. He carries on forward without looking back. The two had just been given orders, and time is now their worst enemy.
It’s this sense of urgency and persistence that drives 1917. Every minute is critical, and every moment feels dire. The two soldiers constantly push forward despite the overwhelming odds, as the life of thousands are in the lone hands of these two young men. The threat of failure is real, and 1917 never allows the audience to forget that.
Chapman and MacKay give wonderfully human performances as the main protagonists, Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield. The audience gets to know the two men through little bits of conversation amid all the tension of getting closer to enemy lines. Their deepest and darkest secrets are never revealed, yet their actions provide reasons to care about them. The two men have their differences, but it’s clear that they want to help each other see the mission to its end. Their loyalty to one another and to the mission relentlessly drives them forward, and ultimately makes it easy for the audience to hope these characters succeed.
What really sets 1917 apart from other war epics is the masterful directing by Sam Mendes. The film creates the illusion throughout that the audience is watching a single continuous shot. From the first shot until the last, the focus never strays from its protagonists, allowing the audience to experience every step as it’s taken. Aside from the characters moving into a dark trench or behind a tall structure, it can be really tough to tell just how long each take is; where the director says “action” and “cut” is blurred to a point of fascination here, and though audiences have seen prolonged shots of war in past films, this is on another level. Combined with some brilliant pacing and jaw-dropping action sequences, 1917 never loses grip of its audience, as everything is seen without pause.
It’s also worth noting that every shot is elevated by a phenomenal score by Thomas Newman (who has worked with Mendes before on Skyfall). It seems that the goal here was not only to increase the intensity and drama of each scene, but also to allow the audience to feel exactly what the characters are feeling at all times. Whether the soldiers are walking through crowded trenches, cautiously cornering buildings, or taking a brief moment to catch their breath, every bit of what they’re feeling and just how their fast their hearts are pumping is translated. The music always feels natural, even in its most dramatic moments, and it deserves high praise for complimenting Mendes’ story so well.
1917 is one of the most unique movie-going experiences in recent memory. It takes the war movie genre and does something no one has ever seen before, which is extremely difficult with so many memorable war films in cinematic history. With 1917 Sam Mendes has created an unforgettable experience that needs to be seen on the biggest screen, and it deserves to be ranked among the greatest war films of all time.
With ‘Road to Perdition,’ Sam Mendes showed another side of Tom Hanks
In his long, distinguished career, one thing Tom Hanks hasn’t done a lot of on screen is dispassionately shoot people. Sure, in Bonfire of the Vanities he hit a kid with his car, and in Cloud Atlas he threw someone off the roof of the building. And yes, he played a soldier in both Saving Private Ryan and the Vietnam part of Forrest Gump, and there was a third-act gunfight in his 1989 cop/dog comedy Turner & Hooch. But the one and only time Hanks has played a full-on murderer was in Road to Perdition, director Sam Mendes’ 2002 meditation on fathers, sons, crime, and the legacies of violence.
Naturally, Hanks being Hanks, Mendes’ film positions his Michael Sullivan not as an irredeemable monster, but rather a humanized character who may not be beyond redemption (the film’s poster tagline was “Pray for Michael Sullivan.”)
Set in the 1930s and adapted from a first-rate screenplay by David Self, Road to Perdition tells the story of Sullivan, a mob enforcer in Rock Island, Ill., who works for local crime boss Rooney (Paul Newman), the man who raised him. Frequently dispatched to bump off Rooney’s rivals, Michael is committed to not allow his young son, Michael Jr. (future Arrowverse actor Tyler Hoechlin), to go down the same path in life he did.
When the young Michael witnesses his father committing a murder, it leads to a chain of tragic events that has the two Michaels on the road to Chicago to make a deal with Al Capone’s crew (in the person of his henchman, played in one scene by Stanley Tucci), and eventually on the run from a rival hitman (Jude Law.) Meanwhile, Rooney’s jealous son, Connor (a pre-Bond Daniel Craig), schemes against him.
Road to Perdition attaches a violent crime plot to considerations of sin and specific references to Catholicism, which is something that directors from Martin Scorsese to Abel Ferrera have done for decades. But Mendes’ film finds a new way to tell that particular story by focusing it on the gangster’s young son.
Road to Perdition, which came out in the summer of 2003, was Mendes’ second film, and his first after 1999’s Best Picture-winning American Beauty. It’s the better film, thanks to a strong script and the work of a great cast, but more than that, it’s absolutely visually stunning in a counter-intuitive 1:33 to 1 aspect ratio. The film’s final sequences, of both the rain-drenched gunfight and the denouement on the beach, are among the most beautiful cinema of the 2000s.
The film won the Best Cinematography Oscar for Conrad L. Hall, the third of his career, although sadly Hall passed away before the Oscar was awarded; it was accepted on his behalf by his son, Conrad W. Hall. Hall’s Oscar was the only one the film won after it was nominated for six, although not including Best Picture or Best Actor.
Road to Perdition came at the front end of Hanks’ nearly 20-year Oscar nomination drought, between Cast Away and this year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor. But Road to Perdition is an underrated Hanks performance. Even beyond all the murder, it’s very understated, and much more strong/silent than is typical of Hanks’ work. He also wears a hat most of the time, which Hanks doesn’t often do.
Paul Newman was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for what would be his final on-screen role, although his voice continued to be used in Pixar’s Cars movies, even after his death. As for Daniel Craig as Connor, he’s playing a character who in today’s parlance would be called a “failson,” and it’s a role that he undoubtedly has been too big a star for just a few years later.
Sam Mendes has had something of an uneven career. His first film, American Beauty, won Best Picture, but its reputation has somewhat suffered over time for reasons fair and unfair. He’s directed great James Bond movies (Skyfall), and not-so-great ones (Spectre.) He’s made small films that were decent (Away We Go) and big ones that were disastrous (Revolutionary Road). But while he’s getting some of his best attention for 1917, which has emerged as an Oscar frontrunner, Road to Perdition stands as his most complete and satisfying work.
‘Color Out of Space’ is Pure Cosmic Horror
Festival de Nouveau Cinema 2019
Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work.
Even before a meteor streaks out of the sky, Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space firmly establishes an atmosphere of alien, otherworldly dread. Opening on a fog-shrouded forest dripping with foreboding atmosphere, Stanley evokes the spirit of the controversial author in a way few filmmakers have, and the use of direct quotes from the short story further cements this as a love-letter to Lovecraft and his work. But Color isn’t just a slavish ode to the influential writer and his cosmic horror creations; the South African director also injects just enough of himself into the film to create something that builds upon the core of Lovecraft’s story, maintaining that kernel of pulp horror while introducing elements that feel wholly personal to the filmmaker. For this and many other reasons, Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work, and one of the most engrossing genre movies this year.
The film by and large maintains the narrative core of the original, recombining elements to suit the change in medium, but staying quite faithful otherwise. Nic Cage stars as Nathan Gardner, who has moved his wife and two children to a secluded country home to get away from urban life. The Gardner family’s pastoral bliss is interrupted by a meteor that strikes their farm in the dead of night, and both their home and their very bodies begin to change soon after.
Unsurprisingly for a film with the hands of Lovecraft, Stanley, and Cage on the wheel, Color is often quite a strange experience, rife with disparate influences and odd touches. Nathan’s daughter, Lavinia, is a practicing witch, which is a story element that could only have come from Stanley, a magician himself. The Gardner family are also trying their hand at Alpaca farming — a bewildering plot element that feels like it could have been one of Cage’s notoriously eccentric fancies, right down to the brief lesson in Alpaca milking. Of course, Lovecraft’s passion for unknowable cosmic terrors is draped over all of this. There’s a wonderful atmosphere of dread and the unknown, about as pure an expression of Lovecraft as one could hope for in a contemporary setting. You’d think it would all make for a disjointed mishmash, but it all gels quite nicely, with the quirky family coming off as endearing more often than not.
Color Out of Space is one of the most engrossing genre movies this year.
There are a few distracting, odd moments, like Lavinia’s turn to self-scarring in a desperate ritual to avert disaster. It largely isn’t commented on, and her sudden appearance with arcane runes carved into her flesh doesn’t end up feeling like the important story or character beat it probably should have. Likewise, Cage’s performance is on the eccentric side, with odd mannerisms and a truly strange accent taking over as the Gardner patriarch begins to go off the deep end. But then, that’s half the fun when it’s Cage we’re talking about.
Like so much of Lovecraft’s work, Color Out of Space deals with the intrusion of the unknowable and alien into the mundane waking world. While other works have had this manifest in the form of eldritch space gods or croaking fish-people, Color instead uses an alien environment as the intruder. While Stanley clearly isn’t working with a massive budget, this idea is still used to create some stunning environments as the Gardner farm’s transformation progresses, with the climax offering some of the most engaging visuals in recent memory. There’s also some truly unsettling body horror, more gruesome and explicit than anything from the story, but an organic fit for the material. Color Out of Space is Stanley’s first feature-length fiction film in around fifteen years, and by all indications, he hasn’t lost his edge. For both fans of Lovecraft and the director’s own works, there’s much to see and love here. The visuals are breathtaking, the atmosphere sumptuous, and it’s Lovecraft to the core with just enough original madness thrown in.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on October 14, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Festival du Nouveau Cinema.
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