Sunday 21 January 2018

Tyranny in a hothouse of horrors




Cert 18

IT'S A reasonably certain bet that no animals were harmed in the making of Dogtooth -- but there's a startling scene involving a cat and a garden shears that would make you think twice. This bona fide creepathon also has a shocking scene involving a video recorder and an actor's head that would give similar pause for thought. Picking up on the wacky vibe yet?

Cinema as you've never seen it before is a prediction that can be safely made about this left-of-left-field offering from Greek director Christos Stergioglou. Picture Big Brother: The Movie as inspired by the imagination of Charles Manson and you're on the way to knowing what to expect from this surreal spectacle.

Proceedings revolve around a family unit consisting of two parents and three adult children. Home is a reasonably salubrious homestead where the children have been hot-housed since birth. The two girls, Older Daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia) and Younger Daughter ( Mary Tsoni), could double as a Cheeky Girl tribute act, while Son (Hristos Passalis) is weirdness personified.

Homeschooling from Mother ( Michelle Valley) and control-freak Father (Christos Stergioglou) has left these psychotic siblings believing, among other things, that the outside world is a terrifying place, zombies are yellow flowers and that Frank Sinatra is their grandfather. Father alone is permitted to exit this carefully constructed bubble and his only concession to the outside world is Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), the security guard he pays to sate Son's sexual desires. This stultifying status quo is eventually disrupted when Christina becomes a conduit for corrupting outside influences.

Winner of Un Certain Regard at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, Dogtooth has interesting things to say about the by-products of tyranny and is authentically provocative. Tread warily, however, if you don't like having your revulsion threshold tested.


Dogtooth opens on Friday

The Joneses

Cert 15A

These particular Joneses are specifically designed to be kept up with. As the family drives towards a perfect new home in a perfect new car, Steve Jones (David Duchovny) announces, "We're going to do some serious damage here." It's clear from the early on that Steve, Kate (Demi Moore) and their teenage kids (Amber Heard and Ben Hollingsworth) are too good to be true, and the exact nature of the damage they're going to do unfolds in the first half hour as it becomes clear that this is no ordinary family.

Looking great and exuding perfection, they are in fact a team of salespeople, headed up by Kate, who sport an image and array of goods designed to inspire envy and shopping in the friends they cultivate, causing what's known in marketing circles as the ripple effect. Initial sales figures are poor for Steve who must up his game or be replaced. His interest however is in Kate, but the way to get to her is through successful sales. As she focuses on career goals it is Steve and, to a lesser extent, son Mick who offer a moral compass. Neighbours Summer and Larry (Glenne Headley and Gary Cole) are keenest to keep up, but the Joneses' ripple effect is wide- reaching and they start to wonder at what human cost.

First-time writer/director Derek Borte used to direct ads so knows something of the images being sold to the world. The film certainly captures the zeitgeist with the whys of needs and wants. It's an original idea, simply told and although the pacing is a little uneven at times and the ending a bit weak, it is very watchable. The actors who play the kids look too old, Duchovny looks good, but he looks his age, and Moore's line-free face is fascinating. However they all give good performances and The Joneses, although not perfect, is very enjoyable.


The Joneses opens on Friday

City of Life and Death

Cert 15A

In 1937, the Japanese Imperial Army invaded China's then-capital Nanking. There, they executed POWs on a vast scale -- some put the body count as high as 300,000 -- and raped hundreds of women. This grim saga became known as the Nanking Massacre, and a lack of consensus on the facts and figures of the carnage is a thorn in relations between the countries. Director Lu Chuan gives his interpretation with City Of Life And Death, the fourth time the events have been revised on screen.

We see the massacre through the eyes of a handful of real and fictional characters, including a teacher (Gao Yuanyuan) and a Japanese soldier (Hideo Nakaisumi).

The set -- an inferno of ruined buildings, black smoke and corpses -- becomes a monstrous omnipresence, made all the more severe by Lu's black and white grain.

The Nazis didn't have a monopoly on systematic barbarity during the Second World War and in this sense the character of Dr Rabe, a non-fictional German aid worker in the international safety zone, is fascinating. He wears a swastika but, in this context, it represents safety and humanity. When he's recalled to the Reich, we fully understand the implications it will have to those in his care.

It's all very thought-provoking, but where does the "life" part come into it? A vaguely redemptive lilt in the final scene does little to warm the spirit after harrowing scenes of mass execution and rape. Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan -- other hard-hitting Second World War sagas -- had moments when the fog lifted, but City Of Life And Death is suffocatingly bleak for long stretches. Lu's craftsmanship is never at issue, but for all his gritty action sequences and sweeping compositions, this is more a film to be endured than enjoyed.


City Of Life And Death is now showing

Sunday Independent

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