This Week We’ve Been Watching…

Sam Says: Sorry for the lateness of this week’s post, I’ve been under the weather.

CONFESSIONS [Main Picture]
DIR: Tetsuya Nakashima

Confessions is one of the most over-directed films I’ve ever seen, and considering its overly-complex narrative structure (it’s adapted from a novel), which demands the utmost attention, I really wish I hadn’t been forced to admire it from afar by a glossy aesthetic which acts like a forcefield around the emotions of the characters. It’s quite a stylish film (although not that stylish, really just quite bright and polished), but its design is wholly impenetrable, and too often I found myself applauding the set designers; this may seem like a compliment, but when you’re noticing the set design it really means that the film isn’t working. The story is quite an interesting one, and distinctly Japanese in its themes – violence birthed out of classrooms goes all the way back to Battle Royale (2000), also based on a novel – but I never really cared about it, because Nakashima never allowed me to. He’s so concerned with style that he forgets to emotionally engage the viewer, and after the 100th fade edit (these get tiresome very quickly) you begin to wonder what you’re watching – an exercise in technique, or an actual story motivated by character. I didn’t care about a single person in Confessions, and the time-twisting narrative (back-and-forth it goes, flitting between past and present) doesn’t make as much sense as it would like to think. There are contrivances piled on top of contrivances, and the silly finale – while visually astonishing, and quite breathtaking – only confirmed my suspicion that Nakashima wasn’t taking the material seriously. Confessions is fine from a style perspective, but that’s simply not enough. Disappointing.

DIR: Jerzy Skolimowski

Although filmed largely in Munich, Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End is actually one of the most fascinating screen depictions of 70’s London; especially in its portrait of Soho’s sex district, packed with strip clubs and XXX theaters. Cinema had previously looked at London’s sex industry through the form of documentary, with features like Primitive London (1967) and London In The Raw (1965), both now on Blu-Ray through the BFI’s Flipside label, which also released Deep End in the UK a few weeks ago. It’s a startling and dreamlike film, featuring a soundtrack by Cat Stevens and The Can, which perfectly complements its heightened tone; Stevens’ acoustic lullabies could lend any film an atmosphere, but Skolimowski – as bold an auteur as any from the 70’s – builds an atmosphere all of his own, and the music never overpowers the story. Jane Asher – forever miscast and sadly now forgotten – is absolutely stunning here, both physically and in her performance. It’s vital that we buy into Mike’s (John Moulder Brown) obsession with her, but equally important that she remain the believable working class gal; with striking orange hair, the gorgeous actress embodies both requirements with substantial aplomb, and there’s true depth to her turn. Moulder Brown is also excellent, but some of his fumbling can get annoying. The final third of the film isn’t quite as strong as what’s come before, and some contrived plot mechanics grind the film to a halt before its ill-judged finale, but Deep End is still a stunning piece of work, and well worth checking out. The use of colour is also absolutely extraordinary, so if you are going to pick this one up, make sure it’s on Blu.

    Sam’s Been Watching…

DIR: Hiromasa Yonebyashi

I grew up on Roald Dahl, and never quite got around to Mary Norton’s Borrowers series, and my recall of the BBC TV series of the 90’s is dim at best, so I went into Studio Ghibli’s adaptation something of a blank slate, and was surprised to find myself rather taken with the sweet but exciting story of Pod, Homily and their young daughter Arrietty; tiny people living beneath the floorboards of a house where young Sho is staying with his aunt before he has a very serious heart operation.

I’ve always recognised the exceptional visual quality of Ghibli’s films, but Hayao Miyazaki’s work has often left me cold, despite its beauty. Here Miyazaki takes only a production and co-screenwriting role, handing the reins to Ghibli animator Hiromasa Yonebyashi. Arrietty benefits from characters who are well drawn in more than a purely artistic sense; it’s a film of emotional depth and interesting characters. The relationship between Sho (Ryûnosuke Kamiki, last heard in the lead role in Summer Wars) and Arrietty (Mirai Shida) takes a while to come to the fore, but the film builds a connection between them even before they meet, and despite the fact that they share only a few scenes there is a real impact to the film’s ending.

There is a great warmth to the film, both in the performances and in Yonebyashi’s visuals (which don’t depart much from Ghibli’s signature style) and this, along with some engaging and beautifully animated action (Pod and Arrietty’s first joint borrowing is thrilling) and skilful vocal performances make Arrietty a rather unexpected (at least for this previously underwhelmed Ghibli watcher) treat.