Category Archives: Reviews

On Netflix: Million Yen Women

One of the most interesting things about streaming recommendations is the rabbit holes the algorithms can send you down. I watched something in Japanese once so here are a dozen other Japanese language programmes. Flick, flick, oh this looks interesting … and so we have Million Yen Women.

Put on Netflix globally towards the end of 2017 following a run on mainstream Japanese television, Million Yen Women is adapted from a 2016 manga written by Shunjo Aono. The set-up is that five women have received invitations to live with unsuccessful novelist Shin Michima. He did not send the invitations but is quite happy to follow the rules: he waits on them, they all eat together, he can’t ask them any questions and he can’t go in their room. The million yen each woman must pay him (it’s about £7,000) no doubt eases the blow, as does the fact that none of the women are in any way unattractive.

Shin has a certain charisma. He’s being played by RADWIMPS lead singer Yojiro Noda so that’s bound to happen. But mostly he’s a bumbling type whose perpetual cloud is explained by the fact that his dad is a recent multiple murderer now on Death Row. The women, who range in age from 17-30 and who do (contrary to my initial Bechdel Test related fears) have very distinct personalities, motivations and story arcs, tease out his personality whilst also growing in their own way – all whilst a growing intrigue about who sent the invitations, why are things getting quite fatal, and why is that other novelist such a bell-end, play out.

It’s hard to categorise what Million Yen Women is. There are twelve 25 minute episodes so a binge won’t last long. It has melodrama, pathos, genuine shocks, gore, kinkiness, innocence and comedy rubbing shoulders, often in the same scene. And it is very compelling once you get into it. The false note for me was less about the context for the story than for how quickly books get published and promoted – but that shouldn’t be a deal killer for anyone. It also seems to have been well-translated in that the words and phrases we see gel nicely with the tone and action before us – not always the case with these streaming translations.

So, if you’re looking for a hole to fill, Million Yen Women is a pretty decent bet. And then you can look forward to the algorithm noticing you’ve watched something foreign so maybe you’ll like all these other things that are nothing like it … Oh well, a small price to pay.

Film Review: The Bar (El Bar)

How do you like your eggs in the morning? If you like yours with a sideshow of gunfire and biological terror then the bar in The Bar is a good place to start your day. Although the customers trapped inside may disagree as things don’t necessarily turn out so well for them. Variety called it the worst movie to show at that year’s Berlin film festival. Dullards.

Written, directed and produced by Álex de la Iglesia, whose first film is the now-quarter-century-old Accion MutanteEl Bar impressively combines observational humour at contemporary mores, flashes of grim horror, and neat character interplay. The story also rattles along nicely even if, at no point, is it remotely believable.

Variety had particular scorn for the fact that, yes, the attractive lead does wind up in her underwear. That’s Blanca Suarez as Elena, the outsider who was only in the bar because her phone charge was gone. She, and the rest of the cast, have to go through far more than just an underwear display. Carrying corpses, plunging into and out of sewers, grimly being doused in oil to fit through tiny manholes and so on. The action is grim and disturbing, the cinematography and look mostly could come straight out of a daytime soap. It’s a deliberate and amusing juxtaposition.

Residing only on Netflix, El Bar is clearly never going to find a massive audience in the UK now. Shame. It’s dark, disturbing, fun and funny. Not Citizen Kane but an enjoyable ride.

At the Ashmolean: America’s Cool Modernists

That’s cool as in icy and detached. Not just fashionable and filled with style. This is work, precisionist is the term used, that imposes an order and removes the people from the swirling chaos of early to mid twentieth century American cities. Through photography, painting and film, these artist focused on the shapes, structures and patterns of buildings and technology but, in the work on display here at least, had no need to show the people whose lives these new constructions controlled. Only Hopper, revealed at the end of this show, sees fit to include people: lone figures without motivation or connection ill at ease in a world not made for their comfort.

The earliest street photograph is filled with detail but lacking people. The long exposure means the buildings are incredibly detailed but nobody, save for one shoe polisher, is in the same place long enough to be captured. That clarity can be seen as a direct forerunner of this period. Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham are here as representatives of the f/64 group. Cunningham’s 1934 photograph Faegol Ventilators shows the move from studies of nature to putting that same, unmoderated, deep eye on industry. The chimneys stand proud in rows. Their simplicity echoed later by Ralston Crawford’s Buffalo Grain Elevators from 1937. The flattening vision of the painter has the same love of shape as that shown by the photographer.

The subtitle of the show is O’Keeffe to Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe even in three works is impressive in the diversity on display: Black Abstraction, Ranchos Church and East River from the Shelton Hotel. The former is notable for its precise use of form, shape and shadow; the latter is a remarkable compressed panorama in which New York’s industry is remodelled as squares and other geometric shapes from which puffs of smoke emerge. At first, I didn’t think Ranchos Church quite belonged in this exhibition but just because its different to most everything else doesn’t make it misplaced. What we have is a New Mexico desert church reduced to crooked blocks that rise up from, and are one with, the sand and the dust.

There are several other striking images. Gordon Coster’s dark grey photograph of a train curving into Pittsburgh, its steam mixing with the haze caused by the industry as stark pylons and chimneys mark its route is noteworthy. As are the paintings of George Ault, a new name to me. Utterly unpeopled they use light and shape to create a sense of an alien, unknown world: New York Night with its empty street and lights lost in the fog being the prime example. The work of Charles Sheeler covering drawing, painting and photography, perhaps draws the themes of the exhibition together more clearly than any other artist.

These things are never cheap. A gift aid ticket for America’s Cool Modernism will set you back £13.50 and the catalogue, which is very good, is £25. Plus whatever it costs to get you to Oxford. Let me just say that if you are able to cover all that then you definitely should. This is an exhibition that links thoughts, ideas, works and artists together in informed and informative ways and which does so through quality selections. It is, palpably, cool.

Film review: Ingrid Goes West

An alienated and mentally unstable young woman moves to Los Angeles on the back of an inheritance in order to become part of the life of an instagram star. Thus we have Ingrid Goes West. A film so knowing that it even has the characters reference Single White Female so you don’t have to. But also a film about as on the button with regards to the prevailing trends in social media and its impact on real life as it’s possible to be.

There are problems. Anyone wanting a fair assessment of mental health should look away now. This is a female environment – the main friendships are between women and the Instagram world is that sold and bought by women – but the writers, director and producers are men. If you end up with issues about the end product that may be where you wind up looking.

But, for me, those issues are outweighed by what is a compact, direct and brutal film. Aubrey Plaza is everything as Ingrid. Riding the rollercoaster from tender friend to stalker to lonely victim via so many points in between she is, ultimately, why Ingrid Goes West works. Elizabeth Olsen is Taylor Sloane, the object of the obsession. An instagram diva whose shallow enthusiasm for her seemingly perfect world is what captivates Ingrid. Needless to say the world is not perfect and it is not only Ingrid who is effectively held captive by it.  There are a few easy targets – the struggling artist who isn’t actually much good, for example – but there is also a strong mix of decent observations, wry laughs and moments of gasp. The script by director Matt Spicer and David Branson Smith is razor sharp.

At just over ninety minutes, Ingrid Goes West gets it all done pretty quickly without feeling rushed. More depth in parts and it would have been a different film, not necessarily a better one.

Film review: The Silent Child

It’s not a spoiler to say that The Silent Child keeps its most profound message until the end. The story has concluded and, on screen, come the words. If this were a documentary it would tell us how things panned out for the person we just saw walk off. The Silent Child isn’t a documentary but it delivers brutal, unflinching facts. Right now, millions of deaf children who could communicate through signing are growing up unsupported and without the voice the language enables them to have.  We should be angry; this has to change.

The Silent Child now comes with some extra baggage as being the Oscar winner for Best Short Film. It’s a straightforward story told simply. That’s not to damn it with any kind of faint praise. It works and it works bloody well. That statue was well deserved.

Rachel Shenton, who wrote the piece, is social worker Joanne who has been brought in by four year old Libby’s family to do something about the child’s moods and make her ready for school.  Libby, played beautifully by Maisie Sly, is clever, sharp, witty and caring. But no one knows that because she can’t communicate. The family casually assume she can lip read and have never even bothered to sign.

Not every deaf child will have a house as big as Libby’s or a social worker as dedicated as Joanne but we are left in doubt this is a normal situation. The Silent Child  is twenty minutes that will stay with you.

At St Mary in the Castle: Hastings Philharmonic – Mozart & O’Meara

The Hastings Philharmonic conducted by Marcio Silva

By the time you are any age in life you can go ‘And what had Mozart achieved by this time?’ and realise that you’re running second best. Until you hit 36 and then you can crow, League of Gentleman style, that at least you’ve won the living contest. Two of Mozart’s later works – meaning he wrote them when was about 32 – were paired with a new piece by Philip O’Meara by the Hastings Philharmonic for their latest concert at St Mary in the Castle. It made for an excellent evening.

Let’s get the negatives out of the way. There weren’t many people here. The weather definitely would have kept a proportion relying on their car away in fear that the forecast snow was right but even allowing for that the grand building was disappointingly showing a lot of empty seats. And those seats weren’t cheap, not for a regular classical concert. Once the booking fee was added mine, the cheapest in the room, was just shy of £20. I get that there are expenses to cover and life isn’t fair but that seems just a little too steep to tempt the casual punter. A tenner in the gods and fifteen for the stalls would seem a better fit.

But I’ll stop grumbling now.

After an introduction from Polly Gifford about the genuinely amazing array of music that can be experienced in Hastings we got on down to K.364, Sinfonia Concertante. Ayşen Ulucan and Cristian Ladislau-Andris handled the violin and voila (respectively) leads well and the moves between reflective intensity and sprightly jig were delivered with panache by the players. Following the interval we had Philip O’Meara’s latest premiere, Flacubal 95, which is a response to Mozart’s 40th Symphony. So the odd situation where the reaction was before the question but no matter. This was an enjoyable piece. The influences were there and were clear but it also felt fresh and contemporary. I’d like to hear it again. Finally, that 40th Symphony, which, to be honest, we’ve all heard a lot. It wasn’t exactly given fresh life here, I think that would basically be impossible, but it was certainly enjoyably delivered and given as thorough workout as possible.

Next up for the Hastings Philharmonic is Elgar’s Cello Concerto on April 14th. That should sound cause hearts to break with the acoustic and visuals of St Mary in the Castle to support it.

Film review: Annhilation

Annhilation arrives on Netflix apparently having been deemed too cerebral for a global cinema release following less than spectacular business in the US. Something’s gone wrong somewhere. A film so feminist it hardly feels the need to mention it has five tough, scientific women as lead characters, yet one that is also dramatic, intelligent, beautiful and affecting … and nobody can work out how to sell tickets for it. I guess we get the multiplexes we deserve.

Natalie Portman is Lena, now a biologist and once a soldier. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), returns from a year away with the military but something’s gone wrong somewhere. Following that trail puts Lena in a team heading inside ‘the shimmer’, a space in southern Florida that appears to harbour some malevolence as all who enter do not return (Kane, apparently, excepted). Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) leads the party and three other women follow with varying degrees of trepidation.

Inside the shimmer the environment is both recognisable and otherworldly. Nothing has really changed at first glance, but on closer inspection …

Alex Garland follows up Ex Machina with a piece here that is spellbinding. Adapting Jeff VanderMeer’s novel (I haven’t read it but may now be tempted) the script, world creation and direction are nothing short of remarkable. In a good way. The almost wordless finale, more a piece of contemporary movement by this point, should be used as the dictionary definition of ‘show don’t tell’ from now on. The drip drip of revelation, combined with some genuinely shocking scenes, creates a tension and unease that the film never remotely feels like releasing.

I don’t see anything like as much cinema as I’d like to these days but have been lucky enough to catch Midnight SpecialArrival and now Annhilation. They’d make a good triptych. Science fiction that’s prepared to do everything that good sci-fi does but without any urge to labour the point or force answers on anyone.

Annhilation is unsettling in all the right ways. Hopefully, now on Netflix, and wherever else it ends up, it will find an audience.