Author Archives: John McKnight

The Players (Les infidèles) | review

Before Jean Dujardin came to worldwide attention by winning the Oscar for best actor in The Artist, he was already a star in his native country. He came to prominence as one half of ‘Un Gars, une Fille‘, a comedy TV sketch show revolving around a competitive-to-the-point-of-cruel couple. Dujardin has had success with dramatic roles since but The Players sees Dujardin return to this archetype as modern France’s everyman in love (so to speak). UK distributor Momentum is banking on that Oscars success to draw British audiences to what is a very French affair.

The Players is a series of scenarios and sketches riffing on the act of infidelity. Or more precisely, men cheating on their wives and trying not to get caught. Dujardin teams up with the aptly surnamed Gilles Lellouche (they were both in last year’s Little White Lies) as partners in philandering.

The separate scenarios plough through the archetypes of Parisian male adulterers: a pair of hard partying buddies, out until 5am every morning fucking any willing pretty woman and covering each other’s backs in the face of spousal inquisition; the lusty, but stymied businessman pathetically jealous of his colleague’s seemingly effortless ability to sleep with every female employee at the company; the mid-life crisis with a girlfriend’s half his age.

It’s an unfamiliar cinematic structure, a TV format, with a bizarre car-crash of characters.  One might ponder on how successfully this Gallic trope might translate, but the relentless absurdity of it is universally funny. The little minute long sketches in particular are crude and tasteless, but equally ludicrous and farcical: an unfathomable fusing of bodies during sex; S&M and an exposing garage door; a dog and a used condom, to give but a flavour of their components. There’s a particularly funny sketch bringing together many of the characters that appear (Dujardin & Lellouche are joined by other ‘infidèles’ including Guillaume Canet, married to Marion Cotillard) in an Adulterers Anonymous group run by a beautiful therapist.

One scenario sees Lellouche’s character openly discussing his infidelity at the dinner table whilst his wife potters in the background, out of earshot. On the way home, the married dinner guest-couple (Dujardin and Alexandra Lamy, the other half in ‘Un Gars, Une Fille’, and the woman Dujardin married after divorcing his first wife with whom he has two children), besides exclaiming their friend’s impertinent flagrance, inevitably end up discussing their own fidelity. Not a date movie, then.

Or perhaps it is. It doesn’t bother with the aftermath of infidelity. There’s the men for whom extra-marital sex has become the ‘normal status’; the man who wants to cheat but can’t (not for want of trying) and sees this as fidelity; and the sad man who can’t hack the complexities of his 19 year old girlfriend’s social life. Women are passing sexual objects or frustrated bystanders. It’s all a bit laissez-faire with a comic-moral line that men are stupid and ridiculous and adultery is their natural state. It’s innate.

The finale sees our pair of partying buddies from the first sketch heading to Las Vagas to give it ‘everything’ and the whole thing descends into bacchanalian lunacy of epic proportions. For heterosexual Parisian relationships at least, c’est la vie.

The Players (Les infidèles) is in cinemas now, courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

Tatsumi

Tatsumi is based on Japanese manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s autobiographical graphic novel A Drifting Life, and was something of a passion project for its director, Eric Khoo. A long-time fan of Tatsumi’s work, after reading A Drifting Life, Khoo was inspired to create a tribute to the artist’s life, celebrating his work and bringing it to the attention of a wider audience.

The film deftly condenses the key moments and sentiments from the original 840 page graphic novel and includes five of Tatsumi’s own fictional short stories. Tatsumi harboured a passion for comics from an early age, working furiously on creating his own, submitting them to manga competitions against a background of post-war struggle and the trials of family life. With a prodigious output Tatsumi’s work began to be recognised, and he became able to support his family, move to the city to further his career, and work with likeminded artists. In this new environment Tatsumi spearheaded the birth of ‘gekiga,’ realist, adult themed manga.

The film loyally retains Tatsumi’s style, virtually animating the original panels in a simple and modest manner, adding only a cinematic scope to the hand drawn, direct, cartoon-realist drawings. The autobiographical element of the film is rendered in full colour, while the five of Tatsumi’s early stories (fitted into the film at relative chronological points), are presented in muted tones, serving to clearly demarcate these fictional interludes, while simultaneously intensifying their dramatic nature. A voiceover narrative fills in the details, while other dialogue is sparse or left to subtitles, successfully occupying a space somewhere between the original static panels and their captions and the demands of movement and scale of cinema.

Tatsumi’s is an interesting and touching life made arresting by the open and frank style of recollection, but it is not a particularly dramatic one. Khoo’s decision to interpose a selection of Tatsumi’s fictional short works between the biographical sequences adds real depth and enriches the film. The stories illustrate an otherwise hidden emotional and sociological level; specifically the mindset and life of their author and the historical context of post-war Japan and its rebirth. These short self-contained parables of isolated, anguished lives in crowded but lonely cities resonate as much with today’s urban alienation as they did when originally created. ‘Beloved Monkey,’ the story of a lonely factory worker, who after an accident can no longer work and so must give up his pet monkey is a perfect example of Tatsumi’s humanist tales, and one with a particularly tragic and harrowing turn of events. Such dark, realist and at times disturbing subject matter clearly highlight the break in style and subject Tatsumi makes from the traditional, child-aimed manga, marking explicitly Tatsumi’s most important contribution as an artist and story teller.

To take Khoo’s aims as stated above as a framework of critical review for Tatsumi, the film leaves any audience member who, like myself, had previously known nothing of Yoshihiro Tatsumi wanting to discover more (Canadian publisher Drawn and Quarterly have published a three volume ‘Best of’ anthology of Tatsumi’s short stories, as well as his first full length work, Black Blizzard ). In juxtaposing the artist’s biography with a selection of his fictional works Khoo has created a broad overview of a life and the art it has produced. For those more familiar with Tatsumi, while the film might not offer anything insightful, it will offer a new perspective within a carefully and beautifully crafted, respectful and thoroughly engaging tribute.

Tatsumi is in cinemas from Fri 13 Jan, released by Soda Pictures.


Tyrannosaur

Peter Mullan as Joseph

Paddy Considine’s 2007 Dog Altogether was one of the shorts of the season, winning the Venice Silver Lion, a BAFTA and a BIFA for the Best Short Film. Tyrannosaur is its feature length offspring; a film about inherent violence and its rebounded effects. Considine said of Dog Altogether that his intention was to get the audience to sympathise with a monster, and Tyrannosaur expands on that premise, fleshing out the story of the original two protagonists.

Taken at face value, it’s as bleak as can be; Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth immediately springs to mind. Joseph (Peter Mullan), a widower, is a slave to his anger. Blindly seeking sanctuary from his world of rage, he stumbles into the life of Hannah (Olivia Colman) – a woman seemingly held together by her Christian faith – through the door of the charity shop where she works. She is kind to Joseph, makes him a cup of tea and shows concern, and says she’ll pray for Joseph. In return he has nothing but contempt and spite for her generosity. The repulsion is all Joseph’s but he is drawn to the unconditional kindness and gradually begins to open up to Hannah, she helping him through the death of a friend. As Hannah’s friendship guides Joseph to a better personal understanding of himself, Hannah’s life begins to fall apart, and Joseph finds himself confronted with feelings of responsibility.

Joseph’s role is tailor made for Mullan (think of Swanney in Trainspotting or Joe in My Name is Joe), a man eaten away by his own anger to almost nothing but snarling viciousness. Colman’s performance is remarkable, and the stand out of the two, though not simply because she is best known as Sophie in the Channel 4 comedy, Peep Show. Over the course of the film Hannah’s visage of calm compassion weathers away like chalk, the shit her abusive husband gives her gradually chipping away at her charity-shop volunteer façade. As her story comes to a conclusion, there is a climactic scene in which her world finally collapses into a distraught, devastated release of a paradoxical freedom. It’s a fantastically powerful, painful moment and worthy of recognition.

Olivia Colman as Hannah

Considine succeeds in presenting a beautiful monster, and it’s the little flashes of humanity and compassion, in small gestures, that balance the bleak reality of the characters’ lives. As the film progresses, the love buried under years of anger is delicately teased from Joseph’s character through Mullan’s acting and Considine’s direction. Coming home or leaving, Joseph invariably passes Sam (played by Samuel Bottomley), a neighbour’s little boy seemingly permanently evicted from his own home to ‘play outside,’ whilst his mum’s cruel boyfriend visits with his snarling Staffordshire bull terrier. The concern and respect they show one another despite the staccato form their contact exists in is built slowly for the spectator, deepening with every meeting, conveyed subtly in a simple, “What you up to?” or a silent moment of eye contact. The humanity glows in each scene they share.

Where Tyrannosaur begins to feel false is in the forced attempts to show the humanity of the characters. After the funeral of Joseph’s close friend, for example, the wake scene bears the heavy handed prescription of a set piece. The tense relationship Joseph evidently had with the dead man’s daughter slowly subsides under alcohol and merriment. Songs are sung, things said in honour of the newly departed and a kind of dreamy montage stretches to timelessness, a snapshot of working class authenticity; but it’s a cliché. The common joy that builds as the mourners celebrate life through death is simply too predictable. The soundtrack must take responsibility for this too. At times it is overbearing, too leading in its lack of subtlety and clumsy lyrics. The original music is by Dan Baker and Chris Baldwin, both guitarists in Riding the Low, a band fronted by Considine.

The opening sequence is enough on its own for one to get excited about the future of Considine as a director, though. The film opens with Joseph, can of Red Stripe in hand, shouting abuse through the doorway of a pub he is leaving, drunk and livid, his dog tied up outside. A parallel montage sequence begins between this scene and another in which he sits on the edge of a bed thumping his own head with the handle of a shovel like a slow metronome, the actions of the past (née present) echoing with the actions of the present (née future) and vice versa; the sound, image and edit marry in a rhythm that bridges the presented temporal dichotomy of the action/consequence of kicking your own dog to death. Considine is capable of capturing the minutiae of introspective human emotion to reveal a tragic beauty.

Tyrannosaur is in cinemas from Friday 7 October.

Troll Hunter

Don't feed the troll

The troll is a much maligned mythical beast, evicted from its under-bridge home and goat-eating ways, and nominally condemned to fluorescent nostalgia as the mid-90s’ (or 60s, 70s, & 80s) fad for little plastic dolls with bright, frizzy hair. Now, however, these generational ephemera are making a fearsome comeback on the big screen courtesy of production behemoth Dreamworks. Thankfully, Norwegian director André Øvredal’s fun début monster movie rescues the troll myth, returning it to its beastly origins. As Troll Hunter’s eponymous protagonist reassures us, these aren’t the cute trolls from the fairytales of our childhood.

Set in present-day Norway, Troll Hunter follows three college students who set out to document a mysterious, nocturnal poacher named Hans for the purposes of a school film. After pursuing Hans against his wishes, he eventually acquiesces to their persistence and decides it’s about time he reveals all about his clandestine career as – you guessed it – a troll hunter.

The opening title cards set the premise of anonymously received footage reassembled in the vein of other horror smash-hits like The Blair Witch Project or CloverfieldThankfully, Troll Hunter does not take itself as seriously as these other titles and the pretence is immediately dropped. Though director of photography Hallvard Bræin uses handheld camerawork to augment a documentary-realist style, the cinematography and general finish of the image, in contrast to what one might expect from a bunch of college students, is crisp and glossy and the night scenes are well lit, with the Norwegian wilderness appearing lush and green. The choice to reject the realism associated with grainy footage is a wise one as it would have jarred with the respectfully tongue-in-cheek updating of a traditional Norwegian myth and the deadpan performances of the cast that further contribute to Troll Hunter‘s immense charm.

The film was improvised with a script merely to guide the action, and the older cast of Otto Jesperson (Hans) and Hans Morten Hansen (Hans’s amusingly bureaucratic boss), drawn from Norwegian TV comedy, anchor the droll tone of the film. Of the younger cast, Johanna Morck is particularly strong as laid back student sound-recordist, Johanna.

Troll Hunter: "Crisp, glossy and well lit"

Much of the comedy springs from the ludicrous idiosyncrasies of conspiracy. Besides protecting the public from trolls that stray from their territory, Hans is also keeping the Norwegian populace ignorant of their very existence. A national grid engineer hasn’t given a thought to why there is an immense ring of electricity pylons that leads nowhere other than in a loop (an ingenious oversized electric fence for the gigantic trolls) and there is an hilarious sketch involving a group of Polish painters, a bureaucrat and an immigrant bear.

Faithful to the classic tenets of the troll legends, Øvredal uses these particularly anachronistic peculiarities to great, teasingly comic effect; when, for example, Hans relents to the student’s prying camera lens, the first thing the troll hunter asks as a condition of them joining his hunt, is if any of them are Christians? Christians smell (to Trolls that is). Hans, however, is not too sure about Muslims.

In terms of visual appearance, the trolls are convincingly repellent, and despite the low budget (the film came in at $3.5 million) the CGI stands up well, with a little help from the mockumentary-style shaky camera and the trolls’ nocturnal lifestyle. The switching between ‘natural’ and ‘night-vision’ in the night scenes adds an extra dimension to the hunter/hunted scenario, playing intelligently on notions of seeing and believing. The scares are relatively low-key but fun, and the trolls are akin to Jurassic Park’s Raptors and T-Rex, only uglier and possessed of considerably worse hygiene.

There is only one rather clumsily worked scene, where Hans recalls a career low. He explains that he was once called upon to clear an area of its trolls for a road development, slaughtering all of the creatures in doing so. The scene breaks the rhythm of the narrative and is unnecessary as Jesperson’s well-judged performance excellently conveys the sadness that stems from the paradox of his job without the need for further exposition: in order to protect all trolls, he has to kill some. One can’t help but think of the current plight of Britain’s own badgers and modern governments’ oxymoronic policy of ‘wildlife management.’

Troll Hunter is released in UK cinemas on Friday 9 September via Momentum pictures, and is highly recommended.

Contributor John McKnight can be followed on Twitter @johntydon.