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Movie Reviews

The Third Murder

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Released: 23rd March 2018

Director: Hirokazu Koreeda

Starring: Masaharu Fukuyama, Kôji Yakusho, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Mikako Ichikawa, Izumi Matsuoka, Suzu Hirose, Yuki Saito

Reviewed By: Ren Zelen

Dealing with the problematic unearthing of truth and the fallible administration of legal justice, Kore-Eda’s new film The Third Murder is a departure from the humane family dramas (Nobody Knows, Still Walking, I Wish, Out Little Sister, After the Storm) he is best known for.

The Third Murder is a complex legal drama about a jaded lawyer’s struggle to discover the actual events that led to a homicide, and the slippery nature of people’s perceptions.

Veteran Japanese actor Koji Yakusho plays Misumi Takashi, who is shown at the beginning of the film in a deserted riverside spot at night, apparently bludgeoning a man to death, then setting fire to the victim’s body. Misumi has willingly confessed to this violent crime.

State defender Shigemori Tomoaki (Fukuyama Masaharu) is asked by one of his associates to join the team for Misumi’s defence. The case would seem to be cut and dried – one of murder and robbery. Misumi is, moreover, a previously convicted killer who has already spent 30 years in prison for a double murder. The lawyer Shigemori also happens to be the son of the now retired judge who considered Misumi’s case 30 years previously.

Misumi is now back in jail, having affirmed that he robbed, killed and burned the body of his former employer, a much-disliked manager of a food-canning factory. Despite grounds for clemency due to the fact that he has freely confessed to committing ‘the third murder’, because of his prior convictions, Misumi will almost certainly get the death sentence.

It is the task of the defence team to try and get the sentence reduced to life imprisonment. Shigemori realises there is no material evidence against his client other than this confession, and that if he can persuade Misumi to say something different, some extenuating circumstance might induce the court to reduce the sentence.

Shigemori is much more interested in manipulating the law and winning his case than in unveiling the truth, but once he begins to gather information to support his stance – after interviewing his client and the victim’s family and trying to piece together his case – he finds that the evidence becomes increasingly less trustworthy. Misumi’s story seems to change with each new revelation and Shigemori realises that creeping doubts are beginning to bother him regarding the authenticity of Misumi’s confession of guilt.

Shigemori and his legal team find, for example, that Misumi has given an interview to a tabloid newspaper, claiming that the victim’s wife persuaded him to kill her husband in return for a share in the life insurance. An incriminating email and a mysterious deposit into Misumi’s bank account might support that story, but likewise may also indicate that Misumi was blackmailing the victim over the illegal mislabelling of cans of food produced in his factory.

Then, the victim’s 14 year-old daughter (Hirose Suzu of Our Little Sister) comes to them with crucial evidence which offers mitigating circumstances regarding Misumi’s motives for killing her father. However, as with all the information the team gather, it is never entirely clear how accurate this may be.

Witnesses prove to be unreliable or self-motivated – in the absence of tangible proof, the evidence for what happened resides solely in the testimony that people give. In the end, it boils down to believing what they say…or not believing it. Misumi’s own answers are vague and non-committal, his motive unclear, and we are left to wonder why the seemingly gentle Misumi would withhold the truth from his own lawyers.

As the facts refuse to reveal themselves and the various stories supersede each other, against his own impulses of detachment, Shigemori becomes driven to unveil the truth. The conflict between him and Misumi, who remains elusive about what happened, becomes more surreal.

The tension of the interview-room face-offs between Shigemori and Misumi reveal the experience and deft hand of a sophisticated director. The striking cinematography achieves imagery which reinforce the themes of the film. Sometimes there are telling close-ups of the faces of the antagonists, or Kore-eda’s camera will linger on just one, while the reflection of the other is superimposed over his in the security glass, indicating how these two have begun to interact and influence each other’s perceptions.

It would be unlike Kore-eda’s to give definitive answers to questions — a certain degree of moral ambiguity is fundamental to his work – he deals with the complexity of human nature.

When asked in an interview about being compared to Yasujiro Ozu. Kore-eda answered – “I of course take it as a compliment…I try to say thank you. But I think that my work is more like Mikio Naruse (a Japanese director of working-class dramas) and Ken Loach.”

Capital punishment is still on the statute books in Japan, amid growing calls for its removal. The Third Murder may be read partly as a critique of the death sentence and of a legal system which prefers to safeguard its own interests rather than administer actual justice. The film however, is more ambiguous than that – it veers from the certainty with which it starts and leads both the audience and Shigemori toward a (literal) crossroads of ambivalence.

Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2018 All rights reserved.

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Movie Reviews

The Little Stranger ★★★★

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to.

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Released: 21st September 2018

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill

Reviewed By: Sinead Beverland

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to. At the helm is Room Director Lenny Abrahamson, with an impressive cast including Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson and Charlotte Rampling.

Set shortly after the second world war, Doctor Faraday (Gleeson) introduces us to the faded grandeur of Hundreds Hall, a place he envied feverishly as a child. Having belonged to the Ayres family for several generations, the house is now inhabited by just Mrs Ayres (Rampling) and her two adult children, Roderick (Will Poulter) and Caroline (Wilson). When Faraday is called to the house to visit the unwell young housemaid Betty, he recollects his childhood adulation of the place. Remembering the presence of a young girl, he is told that this was Mrs Ayres first daughter, Susan, who had died as a child. It seems the spectre of Susan (affectionately known as Suki) still lays heavily over the house, as housemaid Betty tells Faraday she fears something ‘isn’t right’. As he becomes more entwined with the family and their home, strange events begin to raise concerns and individually threaten members of the family.

From the very outset, the film breeds an unsettling feeling, the house is imposing with long shots conveying the sense that the characters are being observed. The audience follows Faraday in to this fading world of status and money, sensing his childhood desire and starched formality. The family are equally intriguing and unnerving. Roderick, badly injured during the war, is now an invalid struggling to cope and disturbed by the sense that something in the house does not want him there. Matriarch Mrs Ayres seems to be doing her best to keep the past alive and daughter Caroline (the best of the bunch as attested to by a fellow doctor) seems strong yet vulnerable. When Faraday begins an intriguing friendship with Caroline, their relationship evolves to hinge the entire ethereal story together. With fantastic performances all round, the characters all emerge fully formed, conveying depth without the need for swathes of expository back story.

The terror of the film gradually reveals itself, impacting in set scenes that are truly disturbing and realistic. Director Abrahamson has a subtle touch (as seen in the Oscar Nominated Room) and these climactic scenes engulf you, whilst revealing the fate of certain characters. Abrahamson knows how to accentuate the fear for the audience and uses restraint to devastating effect. As the house leaks secrets and the memory of the deceased Susan comes to the forefront, the story is told with an intensity that uses strikingly rich music and extreme close ups to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. However, to reveal too much of the story here, would spoil the experience of discovering for yourself what is happening at Hundreds Hall.

The Little Stranger is a mature and nuanced film, layered in such a way that it address status and class alongside desire and emotion. The period setting is detailed and worn, bridging the gap between transitioning eras in Britain.  This is no straightforward horror or ghost story and the film certainly feels to have done justice to its excellent source material. Rich in theme, characters and style, I would gladly take The Little Stranger home.

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Movie Reviews

Dogman ★★★

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Released: 19th October 2018

Directed By: Matteo Garrone

Starring: Marcello Fonte

Reviewed By: Rhys Handley

Dogman is the anti-Paddington. Antithetical to the marmalade-loving bear’s enduring mantra – “if we are kind and polite, the world will be right” – dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) carves out a life in the dilapidated outskirts of Rome modestly tending to his estate’s canine residents and enjoying the respect of his neighbours.

But Marcello’s submissive, accommodating kindness is pushed closer and closer to its limit by the hulking Simone (a terrifying Edoardo Pesce, surely masked in near-mutant prosthetic), a brutish ex-boxer who stalks the estate terrorising the residents. Unable to say no to a friend, Marcello facilitates Simone’s egregious coke habit to little recompense.

When Simone’s scheme to rob a nearby jeweller’s implicates Marcello and he is apprehended by the police, the Dogman takes the fall himself and goes inside for a year for the sake of the bully who pretends to be his friend. When he comes out, something has changed.

Marcello, diminutive and always sporting a toothy grin, strikes an unimpressive, but likeable figure. He is perfectly happy with his lot as the film opens – a divorced father who takes pride in his work and loves trips to the beach with his daughter. While director Matteo Garrone makes a meal of the grim, filthy aesthetic of the film’s setting, he peppers in moments of levity and blissful tranquility to reinforce the humble satisfaction of Marcello’s daily life.

To see him repeatedly indulge the cruel, selfish whims of Simone quickly becomes a source of frustration, as the brute encourages vices in Marcello that seems entirely at odds with his persona. Marcello is swept away on break-ins and hedonistic strip club nights in jarring scenes more in keeping with Garrone’s work in the gangster canon such as 2008’s Gomorrah.

In these scenes, the toxicity fuelling Marcello reveals itself. Fonte delicately skews the kindly facade when Marcello enters Simone’s world. Behind his courteous smile is a sickening glimmer of delight – Marcello loves the thrill and decadence of life of crime. His latent desires mix with his better nature, to create something more insidious than Simone’s overt depravity.

Dogman stumbles in its closing chapter as Marcello is released from prison, returning to a community who despises him for violating their trust and chasing Simone’s false offers of brotherhood and fortune. Marcello reemerges not exactly changed, but more honest to himself about what he is. Garrone and his co-writers steer this portion of the story with a steady hand, but it is hard to shake comparisons to other established squares-gone-rogue like Walter White.

Marcello’s resolve and vengefulness is convincing thanks to Fonte, but its emergence is sudden and teeters dangerously close to cliche. His push and pull with Simone is rote, which makes its languid pace a little irritating – this has suddenly become a very different film, and it can’t carry the slower moments of contemplation as well as it could before Marcello was locked up.

An inevitable confrontation takes place, bursting with brutality and gore. But rather than a release of tension, it feels like a betrayal of the thoughtful, measured character piece Garrone set up. The violence overreaches for shock value where Garrone had before been satisfied with something more pensive and empathetic.

Luckily, he pulls back in the final moments of the film and dovetails elegantly by concluding what is essentially his thesis on ‘little guy’ psychology. He frames Marcello not as a good man pushed too far, but as someone whose better and worse natures are intrinsically tangled to create a monster very different to the bully who ultimately leads him to snap.

No matter how kind and polite the Dogman might try to be, he cannot deny the malice that festers in his heart – and Garrone artfully distills Marcello’s melancholic final moment of self-realisation in a resonant closing shot that gracefully irons out the kinks in this curious, inconsistent little film.

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Movie Reviews

Superfly ★★

Director X’s flashy remake of the Blaxploitation classic is a thunderingly dull experience

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Director: Director X
Stars:  Trevor Jackson, Jason Mitchell, Michael K. Williams
Released: 14th September 2018 (UK)

Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, BlackKklansman – it’s proving an impressive year for top-tier studio-driven black cinema. The perfect year, as it happens, to release a remake of seventies Blaxploitation classic Super Fly. Or, at least, it would be, if the determining creative mantra behind this update weren’t presumably anything more than to make an episode of Power with all the stylistic glimmer of a P. Diddy video.

Superfly (neatly bringing the title right up to autocorrect standard by repositioning itself as a single word) sees Grown-ish star Trevor Jackson take on the iconic role of the hustling dealer trying to earn his way out of the game – albeit in a newly millennial take that supplants the character’s own drug use for what appear to be Sherlock-level powers of information gathering on anyone he might need to manipulate, charm, or blindside. He also sports the most incredible head of hair this side of Josh Brolin.

Alex Tse’s screenplay sees no gain in revisiting any of the subversive terrain that made Super Fly the enduring classic it became, his ambitions outright stopping at the point his writing could passably sell a made-for-cable urban crime series (such as – to pick a name out of a hat – Power?). Beyond that it falls to director Director X (of the Toronto Xs) and star Jackson to bring the proverbial funk, and – though X really knows how to sell a music video with all the tonal swagger of John Singleton’s Shaft remake (though, noticeably, none of its darkness or consideration) – Jackson simply isn’t a strong enough presence to sell the supposed gravitas of his lead. It’s a weakness no amount of style or gunfire can distract from, and it sinks Superfly dead.

There’s a top-shelf supporting cast in there, with the likes of Jason Mitchell, Michael K. Williams, and Rick Ross turning up for their two cents and subsequently failing in tandem to elevate this dross to become anything close to worthy of standing in its own brand’s shadow. Expectedly enough, it sports a kickass hip-hop soundtrack – with rapper (and the film’s producer) Future offering up a bevy of atmospherically charging beats to ensure you’re at least bored to music, though there is something faintly amusing (outside of context) about hearing an entire cast prattle on about wanting to wipe out “the Snow Patrol”, like they’re working for the NME in 2005.

Twenty years from now, film historians will likely regard Superfly in the same manner as we currently regard Gus van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho or Stallone’s 2000 remake of Get Carter – that it’s a pointless creation that completely missed the cultural point of its own iconic original – and they’ll be right to do so. Provided they remember that Superfly even existed in the first place – which they, and you, would be decidedly better off not.

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