Russian spy film Hero follows the exploits of Andrey (Alexander Petrov) and Masha (Svetlana Khodchenkova); two Russian ex-pats trained as spies (known as ‘Youth’) during their teenage years. Now, fifteen years later, the resurgence of a mysterious figure from their past throws the two into a world of espionage, deceit and passionate romance inside of a hot air balloon.
Hero is not bound by the same pressures of Western films to up the action ante. Cars don’t fall from the sky, giant creatures don’t run amok, and neither Ryan Reynolds nor Kevin Hart make a cameo. Hero is rightfully unhinged from the conventions of American storytelling. This freedom allows Hero to have a grounded approach to action with the exception of an utterly bonkers, yet unique, finale that not even the writers of the Mission: Impossible series could imagine.
A build-up of dialogue causes Hero to slow down in the later parts of the film. What begins as a sprint, overloaded with fast-moving action and a James Bond-inspired score to match, descends into a middling jog around the halfway mark. Hero becomes unnecessarily complicated as a result of this dialogue, with director Karen Oganesyan deploying far too many bizarre double-crosses for a film so unserious.
Told with the brazen confidence of a ‘90s action flick, Hero offers a good-time to all willing to overlook its low-budget production values.
Receiving its world premiere at the 32nd Tokyo International Film Festival, Motel Acacia is a truly global production. Financed by The Philippines, Slovenia, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand, the film even features two Australian actors, Will Jaymes and Talia Zucker.
With its philanthropic undertones and convincing performance from Polish cinema royalty Krystyna Janda, Jacek Borcuch’s arthouse film finds purpose in the form of disobedience and a reliance on Orientalist thought – no matter how inflated it may be.
For what it’s worth, Borcuch (a filmmaker who is no stranger to movies about subtle rebellion and social turmoil) paints a perplexing picture of libertarianism-gone-rogue. Maria (Krystyna Janda) is a Polish-born poet who seemingly has it all: a villa in Tuscany, people who admire her, a well-nourished family, and a Nobel prize for her work in literature. Her life is ideal, yet Borcuch uses her and her prestigious, well-off status to tear down the fabricated and idealistic frameworks by which we live.
The news of a suicide bomber detonating in a crowd of tourists in Rome is what helps drive the film into more sensitive terrain as Maria – upon accepting an award from the town mayor – seemingly labels the terrorist act as a form of art. Her almost ambiguous speech is met with disconcerted reactions and an immediate tainting of her reputation.
It’s hard not to view the speech as radically didactic jargon, but then again, that’s exactly what it is – a form of expression that doesn’t make sense to others and leads Maria to be chastised.
Maria sits in a world of her own, no matter how well integrated she is, and that is the focal point of the film – to highlight the often frail paradigm by which we judge character. Sure, her moral standpoint is controversial and questionable, but the absurdity of it is what allows Borcuch to evaluate Western attitudes towards outsiders.
Following this moment, Borcuch subtly, but eloquently turns his film into a neo-Orientalist text that strives to bridge the gap between the ‘Other’ and the ‘Occident’. Maria, though in a prime position of wealth and status, still sits as an outsider in the vast and open land of Tuscany. She is married to an Italian, Antonio (Antonio Catania), but finds solace in the handsome and intelligent Egyptian emigrant Nazeer (Lorenzo de Moor). She sacrifices safety and security for recklessness and ‘otherness’. She feels that Nazeer sees her like no one else does, which ties in issues of identity and the false pretences by which we live our lives; there is an appeal in being something other than what you are or what others believe you to be.
To an extent, her growing desire for freedom – in expression, in mobility – echoes past protagonists in French experimental films with the likes of Mona from Agnès Varda’s Vagabond coming to mind. Though it would be unfair to compare this protagonist to that of one from an influential feminist text, Maria is far from the perfect protagonist – much like Mona – which makes her all the more ideal.
It would also be unfair to disregard the picturesque visual quality of the film, as it is instrumental in understanding just how alienated Maria feels in the vastness of the world. Michal Dymek allows the camera to act like this invisible observer in motion as he captures the openness of the green landscape, but also employs a much tighter frame around Maria. Much like Maria’s belief that her old body is like a dress she wears, Dymek’s cinematography adds another layer of restriction to her – ultimately foreshadowing the less than emphatic closing sequence.
For people of the Pan-European diaspora, Dolce Fine Giornata may accentuate the angst that comes with navigating a foreign setting, while for others, it may serve as a lacklustre attempt at quasi-political commentary. Regardless, Maria’s outspokenness leaves her with the knowledge that there is no point in pretending to be something you’re not, which isn’t to say there is no harm in trying.
In 1996, director Richard Stanley appeared to be on the edge of much-deserved mainstream success. After attaining a niche audience of fans with Hardware (1990) and Dust Devil (1992), Stanley booked his dream job: directing a big budget version of The Island of Dr. Moreau. What occurred during that shoot is far too complex to get into in any detail – and in fact forms the basis of the fascinating documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014) – but the short version is: Stanley got royally screwed by a number of factors and eventually fired from the production. After that bracing experience, Stanley stayed away from Hollywood in a kind of self-imposed artistic exile. However, 23 years after Moreau, Richard Stanley returns with an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s TheColor Out of Space, and the result is a solid addition to Lovecraftian cinema.
Color Out of Space focuses on the Gardner family, comprising dad Nathan (Nicolas Cage), mum Theresa (Joely Richardson), stoner son Benny (Brendan Meyer), witchy goth daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) and youngest Jack (Julian Hilliard). The family are pleasant, if slightly dysfunctional, but after a meteorite crashes in their backyard things begin to change in strange and alarming ways…
The Color Out of Space is a wonderful short story by Lovecraft, and possibly the tale of his most easily achieved on-screen thanks to its relative simplicity when compared to the likes of The Call of Cthulhu or At the Mountains of Madness. Stanley clearly understands he’s working with a limited budget here and shoots the gloopy horrors in the dark, or edits around them so we only get glimpses of the pink hued chaos, which is smart. The cast also acquit themselves well, with Madeleine Arthur and Brendan Meyer doing great work here, although some may find Nicolas Cage… a bit much.
Cage is a fascinating screen presence – and probably a big selling point for this flick, after all “Cage meets Lovecraft” is a fantastic elevator pitch – but his wild mood swings and inconsistent characterisation tends to be a distraction during the mood-building sections of the film. Don’t get us wrong, Nic Cage bellowing about alpacas or punching a car is objectively awesome, but it sometimes feels like an odd fit.
Happily, Richard Stanley hasn’t lost his touch, and Color Out of Space is filled with nice little touches and hallucinatory flourishes, with a couple of sequences being genuinely disturbing and trippy in the extreme. The pace is slow, but builds to an exciting climax, and while Cage’s wild-eyed bull fuckery can be a little trying at first, he’s completely at home in the third act.
Color Out of Space is a well-made, mostly effective slice of cosmic horror cinema, not to mention the welcome return of a director with a fascinating eye, and is well worth a look for genre fans in the mood for something a little different.
Marking the long-awaited return to the screen of Alicia Vikander, the 1980s Japan-set Netflix film Earthquake Bird, directed by Wash Westmoreland, found a welcome home at the Tokyo International Film Festival.