Thursday, March 31, 2011

Five Films by... Ingmar Bergman

The Passion of Ingmar

Five Films by... is an irregular look at five defining features by a certain director.

If some dude with a firearm approached me and said he'd shoot me unless I told him who my favourite film director was, I'd do two things. First, I'd pinch myself and silently question the validity of the ludicrous situation I somehow found myself in. Secondly, I'd say "Ingmar Bergman".

The popular perception of Ingmar Bergman as a grim old bastard isn't entirely inaccurate  - indeed, a number of his best films are extremely depressing affairs. Yet there is a sort of uplifting optimism running beneath the surface (or, occasionally, on the surface) of his films. He's a director who sticks a giant spotlight on humanity, delving deeper into all parts of the human condition than any director who came before or after. He was an experimental film-maker even in his early films, and had a super talented cast and crew backing him up throughout his career. Picking five films out of his massive filmography is tricky, but the following five are ones that will give you a good solid start. Also, I've posted these films in chronological order, but I'd also recommend checking them out in that order as there is an overall career arc to Bergman's work which is well worth exploring.

The Seventh Seal (1957): The best known and iconic of Bergman's work, and with good cause. The image of Max von Sydow on a beach playing chess with death remains one of cinema's most remarkable sequences. The rest of the film enters typically depressing territory on occasion - it is set during the Black Death after all. Yet what is most memorable about the Seventh Seal is the complex, rewarding ending - which combines a depressing dance with death (literally) with an optimistic look at the inherent goodness of people. With the gorgeous Bibi Andersson and her on-screen husband Nils Poppe a representation of said optimism, there's something quietly triumphant about The Seventh Seal despite its pitch black tone.

Through a Glass Darkly (1961): If this list was longer, I'd include all three of Bergman's 'chamber plays' or informal 'Silence of God' trilogy. The three work together extraordinarily, but the first is a true revelation even on its own terms. With a cast of only four, it tells the story of the mental breakdown of Harriett Andersson's Karin (Bergman's mother's name and a frequent character name in his films) as her husband, father and brother look on. It's powerful stuff with four extraordinary performances. All the talk of spider gods, incest and other dark things make this one of Bergman's grimmest but most intense films, with a deep religious question at the centre. Minimalist but a thing of great beauty, even if the notoriously self-critical Bergman strongly rejected it in later years.

Persona (1966): Hence we come to my all time favourite film, an astonishing film that is unlike any others. The remarkable culmination of Bergman's career up to this point, he throws every thematic and psychological concern of his into the mix over eighty five hypnotic minutes. Barring minor exceptions, it's a two woman show - Bergman regular Bibi Andersson and newcomer (soon to be regular) Liv Ullman both baring their souls. Sven Nykvist's cinematography is typically stunning with a true mastery of framing and lighting. It's a film that can be dissected in great detail, but it's better just to watch it. From the opening surreal montage of themes, ideas and characters from Bergman's earlier works to the intense conclusion, it is very much a masterpiece by a cinematic genius. The description of Andersson's beach encounter stuns me everytime. Spectacular stuff.

Fanny & Alexander (1982): There are a number of Bergman films not listed here I'd potentially rank higher than F&A, but few of them sum up the man behind the camera so well. An extremely personal film, it probes Bergman's childhood memories in vivid detail. As with everything Bergmanesque, there's no shortage of shocking or disturbing moments, but what separates Fanny & Alexander is a warm sense of nostalgia that is a true once-off in Bergman's filmography. With stunning imagery, a brilliant ensemble cast and an extended running time, Fanny & Alexander is an oddity, but a special and deeply involved one.

Saraband (2003): I'm cheating a little here. It's unfair to skip (very effective but perhaps overlong when taken in anything but mini-series format) predecessor Scenes from a Marriage if you want to get the most out of it. But Bergman's last film is a triumph, even on a stand alone basis. Calling back two regulars Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson, it's a moving portrait of old age, marriage, death, nostalgia, regret and ultimately a celebration of life itself. Once again, there are troubling psychological probings - a subplot with incestuous undertones is par for the course - but this is one of the most astonishing full stops to a director's career. Bergman's last film as director before his death in 2007, this is every bit as effective as all that came before it, drawing on all his experience and preoccupations for one final and deeply moving swansong.

Avoid: The Serpent's Egg. Like many directors before and after, Bergman's one experiment in the Hollywood studio system was a high budget disaster. Distressingly grim, but with far less rewards than usual from the great man.

Five more: The Magician, Wild Strawberries, Winter's Light, The Silence, Cries and Whispers

Central collaborators: Sven Nykvist, Max von Sydow, Bibi Anderrson, Liv Ullman, Gunnar Bjornstadt, Gunnell Lindblom etc..

Themes and preoccupations: Religion / God, life & death, nostalgia, mental illness / depression, acting, psychology, the nature of art(ist) and the cinematic form etc...

Instant Swamp

Image courtesy of Third Window Films   
Infectious Fun

If there's one thing that quietly and moderately frustrates me about film is that so many movies refuse to be any fun without tacking on some sort of lazy genre narrative. It's a particular sore point with comedy a lot of the time - even the obscene Apatows or Farralleys will often tack on a bland rom-com subplot to keep stupid members of the audience "entertained". Surely the jokes are enough? Sometimes I wish films would just be fun without having an overblown and ill-fitting romantic conclusion.

Instant Swamp is not going to blow your fucking mind or anything like that, but it is fun, and is pleasantly structureless about it. Kumiko Asao plays Haname, a magazine editor in her late twenties / early thirties. She is experiencing a bad luck streak which she blames on her disposal of a cat statuette in a swamp during her childhood, while also vocally discrediting the supernatural suspicions of her friends, family and colleagues. After her mother is involved in accident, Haname discovers a letter suggesting that she may have been misinformed about her biological father. So she seeks out the man mentioned in the letter, an eccentric antique shop owner and prankster known as Light Bulb.

Plot, delightfully, is only a minor concern in Instant Swamp. Well, the whole thing does follow a rough and entertaining central narrative. That's not what makes the film so endearing though. Instead, it's the colourful characters and amusing, surreal interludes that make Instant Swamp a joy. The film is full of such tangents - from tracking down an electronic fortune telling machine to misplaced rabbits to racing out for a soft drink before a tap overflows (it makes sense in context I swear). They're light but entertaining vignettes, adding the film a sense of energy and humour. They all ultimately slot together to provide a coming-of-age story, albeit a basic one. It doesn't waste time with redundant formula - it's just a series of bizarre people and situations. That's great in my opinion, and something that should be embraced by others. My Neighbour the Yamadas had a similarly laissez faire attitude with equal success. Again, hardly game changing stuff, but it's very hard to begrudge Instant Swamp and its sometimes grounded, sometimes fantastical flights of fancy.

Shot with bold and bright colours, this is the first film I've seen from director Satoshi Miki and I'm certainly curious to delve into his previous works now. Throughout a distinctive style and playful tone go a long way into drawing you into the world. Asao is at the centre, in a performance that reminded me of Sally Hawkins in Happy Go Lucky: shrill at times, but overall an extremely likable sort. Her infectious cheeriness even in the face of extreme bad luck won me over. While there's no super happy conclusion, it all rounds up nicely and cheerfully. However, some audience members may question an unusual, surreal climactic sequence which is best not to ruin. It's more than a little curious how the instant swamp of the title fits in!

Personally, I found it delightful, like the rest of the film. There were bits and pieces where the comedy probably went to broad, looking for a cheap chuckle too many (such as a jump-suited 'recycler' hitting his head off a door frame two times too many). Whatever, though: it all ends with Hanamae and a big, wide smile on her face. That basically sums up the whole film: a lighthearted romp, content to just be what it is. Sparkling with detail ('Milo Sludge') and character, I found Instant Swamp to be a thoroughly entertaining two hours, which allows you to switch off your brain without pummeling you with a cheesy ending or sentimental streak. That, in the wide world of mainstream filmed entertainment, is all too rare.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

No More! Notes on downloading

Fool me once...

I'm a bit behind the times. I like to think I'm fairly on top of this whole technology thing, but increasingly it seems my morals are holding me back. You see, I'm one of those quaint weirdos who still pays for their films. There are a few reasons for this. Most importantly, in my eyes, is the appeal of the cinema screen. If I can see a film in a theatre, I will: simple as that. I don't buy the argument that some films don't need to be seen in cinemas, or indeed even with a healthy home entertainment setup it's basically the same thing as seeing it in a picture house (even if I do love the clarity of Blu-Ray). When Black Swan came out, people were telling me how I had to see it, and how they'd watched it on their laptop. Quite frankly, this was sacrilege in my view, and I waited until the delayed Irish cinema release to watch it, and was happy to have waited when I finally experienced the thing in 35mm glory. But this doesn't fully explain my paying for film. Indeed, I have occasionally paid to stream films on services such as Mubi, so I'm not against downloading. Hell, going to the cinema is always restricted by what's on, and hence we have to resort to home viewing for the vast majority of cinema. I want to be a film-maker, and I want to support independent cinema. Hollywood I couldn't care less about (although I still happily pay to watch the best mainstream cinema, and irregularly the worst), but I will do what I can to encourage foreign and independent cinema distribution. Finally, I - selfishly - enjoy having a good DVD collection. I like having my favourites on hand to watch when I want. Obviously downloads would allow that too without the cost or non-virtual space requirements, but I still find a quiet excitement in having a healthy collection.

Despite - in my bias eyes - having some sort of logical and moral groundings for not downloading, I'm frequently made to regret my stance. This isn't just by the downloaders criticising my dated outlook on film consumption. It's by the very people I'm giving money to.

This is an article about why it is becoming increasingly frustrating to be a paying supporter of cinema. As a bit of background, I'm from Ireland, which is part of the problem.  What follows are a number of reasons why my loyalty is continually being challenged.

1. America does it better: Netflix is an amazing resource. As is Hulu. We Europeans have nothing of the sort. We have 4oD - Channel 4's extremely forward thinking and successful streaming service - but that's very much an exception with a selection limited to what TV Channel 4 shows. Sky Player is there for subscribers, including an Xbox 360 version. We also get the RTE Player - Ireland's national broadcasters streaming site - on the PS3. Everything else is crippled by rights issues. The selection available on the Irish versions of Mubi and iTunes pales in comparison to international equivalents. While we have mail order DVD services, we have nothing like the cross media functionality of Netflix, or anything with the selection of NF either.  Everything is limited by rights issues, and doesn't show any sign of resolving itself. There are ways to resolve these things with a bit of tech-saviness, but these possibilities are beyond most average viewers, who'll just resort to the far easier illegal downloads.  How are we supposed to pay or watch something legally when the option isn't available to us, yet it is elsewhere? It's endlessly frustrating.

2. Making the customer feel like an idiot: Anti-piracy ads. Oh dear. Perhaps the greatest single incentive to pirate. Take a look at some examples:

When one buys or rents a DVD, they're forced to sit through this crap, often unskippable. Scare mongering of the most absurd kind (brilliantly satirised in an episode of the I.T. Crowd). Downloaded copies have no such issues with annoying anti-piracy warnings. They're embarrassing, simply put. Studios clearly don't get it. These exaggerated, ludicrous arguments against downloading are painful viewing, clearly trying to be 'cool' and 'with it' but making the poor consumer feel like a fucking idiot in the process. Stop. Please stop. Or at least follow the Japanese example and be awesome while you're at it:

3. Cost: If legal downloading is ever going to be viable, it has to be well priced. Subscription based services are clearly the way forward. Even minor amounts of advertising is a small price to pay for access to quality, legal streaming services (like 4oD, which gets the balance dead right). There is probably still a place for individual purchases, but iTunes doesn't help that suggestion. 13.99 Euro to buy a digital copy is hella expensive when I go onto Amazon and get the DVD or even Blu-Ray cheaper. We're not fools: we know that when physical copies are removed from the equation costs go way down and fewer parties need to receive payment. This needs to be reflected in the cost of buying a film online if it is to remain viable. Similarly, rentals should be cheaper than they're physical copy equivalents. iTunes has the odd good thing on sale, but the crippling digital rights issues and restrictions mean it is the least appealing way of buying a film.

4. Selection: If I want to watch a film, I should be able to get my hands on it. But distributors are increasingly unwilling to take risks, even online where the cost and risk factor is lower. There have been many independent films I have had to import because they've been unavailable in my region in any form. At the moment, I can't afford to pay the high import costs on films I want to see. Similarly, when it's almost impossible for me to get a film how am I meant to pay for it? I want to watch Lukas Moodysson's Fucking Amal or Show Me Love, but the only way to legally do it at the moment is to pay for a costly boxset of his films that contains a number of films I already own and don't want another copy of. Again, I just want the one film, but can't get it a reasonable price. Any surprise that many turn to downloading in such situations? And they need to get on sorting out territorial release date variations - why should one country have to wait months or sometimes years to get a film that has been out somewhere else for ages?

I love cinema, and am happy to support it. Yet the profound ignorance of studios, distributors and other parties is a frustration. Don't get me wrong, there are still tonnes of people doing great work in getting us great films - Artificial Eye particularly have really started knocking it out of the park with their theatrical and DVD releases in what is surely a difficult niche market. There are plenty of independents out there doing a great job. But others aren't doing enough. As long as rights issues, high costs and profound ignorance are damaging effective film distribution, people are going to understandably resort to the easiest, most preferable option even if it isn't legal.

Cinema is an art. It's a shame that sometimes that art is out of reach of the people who genuinely want to support it.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Hit or Shit? 24th March 2011

The say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. We didn't listen. Let us once again dissect the latest marketing from the world of cinema.

Captain America (The First Avenger, as the marketing push for next years Avengers informs us)

I must admit this isn't the worst trailer I've seen. The visual design looks excellent, and the retro setting seems like a refreshing change of pace from the usual superhero fare (I'm reminded of The Rocketeer). It also doesn't seem quite as CGIed as might be expected - still plenty of it, but looks a little bit more traditional. But then I found out it was directed by Joe Johnston, one of Hollywood's blandest directors, responsible for the ho-hum likes of Jurassic Park 3 and Van Helsing. Trailer suggests a HIT, but I fear potential SHIT. It has Toby Jones, Hayley Atwell, Hugo Weaving and Stanley Tucci though. That must count for something.

Sucker Punch

I obviously missed the memo where everyone decided Zack Snyder was a good - or as the Watchmen trailers incorrectly informs us, 'Visionary' - director. Despite the success of Dawn of the Dead, I have been thoroughly unimpressed by 300 and Watchmen because of Snyder's infuriatingly overwrought stylisation. Sucker Punch looks like the inevitable, OTT culmination of his work to date. Expect slo-mo punching, over-exaggerated action sequences and a lot of silly CGI. There's a market for this sort of thing, but it looks like more of the brainless crap he's peddled so far. Also, the trailer pretty much gives the entire film away. Going by the evidence, it looks like SHIT to me, although if you like Snyder's work thus far I'm fairly sure you'll dig this.

Your Highness

There are two or three actresses whose presence will often entice me to the cinema no matter what the quality of the film in question is based on adorability alone. Natalie Portman and Zooey Deschanel are two such actresses, and the dastardly David Gordon Green (a usually thoughtful independent director here somewhat slumming it again after Pineapple Express) has cast both of them here. Barring their presence, this trailer fills me with little confidence. Like a strange mix of Pineapple Express, Stardust and the Princess Bride, it seems tonally all over the place even in this brief trailer. It also isn't very funny - lowbrow 'stoner' comedy territory - which raises concerns. It looks like SHIT to me, but I'm going to end up seeing it anyway for the two reasons stated above. Maybe it will surprise me, but fuck it it has Portman and Deschanel. Quality doesn't really matter because they've got my money already.



As seemingly the only person unimpressed by the inconsistent Kick Ass (it's OK, but hardly the masterpiece some *coughEmpirecough* hailed it to be) I feel there's a gap in the market for a good superhero comedy. Well, another one after Mystery Men. This one is promising. Directed by James Gunn - responsible for the deliriously fun Slither - I have a feeling this will probe the darker depths Kick Ass thought it explored but didn't really. The cast is good, the director is good, and the trailer has plenty of nice touches like the Batman esque "POW!" bubbles. I also admire any trailer that calls the director a "lunatic" as opposed to "visionary".

But most importantly, it has Nathan Fillion. Automatic HIT.

The Roommate

TRAILER FROM HELL ALERT! I'm well aware this is already out in the States to the vocal ire of critics, but I had the pleasure of seeing this before a film the other day and had to call it out for crimes against cinema. I turned to my friend and we both predicted something was going to go wrong within the first five jaunty seconds of this trailer. It's just a matter of waiting for one of them to turn out to be evil or disturbed or Satan or whatever. In its defence, The Roommate trailer holds out a full fifty seconds before the inevitable reveal that the roommate in question is indeed not all there. It almost got to the point when I thought it was just a crappy college drama. But no, it's a crappy college horror instead, as predicted in what must be the most by the numbers trailer I've seen in some time. The scent of SHIT off this one is suffocating.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Ghibli Chronology, Part Two

Whispers, moving castles and cliffs by the sea.

Hello there, how are you? I'm great, thanks for asking! And welcome back to Film Ha Ha's Ghibli retrospective. Part one is over here, in case you're interested. Last time we covered everything from the early days of the studio up until 1994's Pom Poko. Yet one could say much of the best was yet to come. While the studio had enjoyed moderate success overseas with their early films - well, specifically My Neighbour Totoro - the Ghibli Revolution hadn't yet fully spread outside of Japan. But two Miyasaki films were soon to give the studio the attention it deserved abroad. They also found a welcome ally in Pixar's - very much the Western equivalent of Ghibli in quality and commercial terms anyway - John Lasseter, who would ultimately be responsible for bringing quality Ghibli localisations to the West (personal note: the Ghibli dubs tend to be of a high standard, but as with all foreign cinema for the love of all that is good stick with the subs if you can). The second half of the Studio Ghibli filmography is every bit as rich as the first.

Whisper of The Heart (1995, Yoshifumi Kondo): A warm, honest adolescent love story that is one of Ghibli's most adorable and oft-forgotten gems. The film was directed by Kondo who had acted as art director on Kiki's and Only Yesterday. Unfortunately, he died in 1998, possibly influenced by work-influenced stress. Prior to his death, he was expected to be the next 'big' Ghibli director. Going by the evidence here, you can see why. With a script by Miyazaki, it's a joyful film with fun fantastical interludes gelling nicely with the grounded main narrative. A simple but extremely engaging film about growing up. You'll have Country Road stuck in your head for weeks.

Princess Mononoke (1997, Hayao Miyazaki): The film that brought Ghibli to the West big time. The most grown-up of their filmography - there are a number of genuinely brutal bursts of violence - it's also distinctly the work of auteur Miyazaki. In many ways, it feels like a revisit of the themes established in Naussicca, specifically environmental issues, ideas of man vs. nature and spirituality. It has some of Ghibli's most haunting imagery and dynamic set pieces. Not much more to say: it's a truly glorious piece of work, ending in one of the most extraordinarily epic conclusions in cinema.

My Neighbour the Yamadas (1999, Isao Takahata): Well, you certainly can't accuse Ghibli of being predictable. Takahata's follow up the outlandish Pom Poko is another oddity in the catalogue - a surreal, light-hearted family comedy. Most notable is the distinctive, deceptively simple art style. It looks amazing, the whole thing based on a series of Japanese comic books. The narrative takes the form of a number of loosely connected vignettes, feeling more like a series of short films about a colourful Japanese family. It's a fascinating look at Japanese family life, and a thoroughly good time to boot.

Spirited Away (2001, Hayao Miyazaki): As important as Mononoke and Totoro were abroad, it was the adventures of Chihiro / Sen that made us foreigners cop the hell on and pay attention to Studio Ghibli. And with good cause - Spirited Away is a transcendent masterpiece. It's a breathtakingly vivid examination of Japanese culture and folklore, a surreal odyssey containing some of animation and cinema's most inspired imagery. Backed up by a gorgeous score from long-time Ghibli collaborator Joe Hisashi (with apologies for not mentioning him before - his soundtracks are an integral element of many Ghibli films) it's close to flawless. The train sequence remains - in my eyes - amongst the most beautiful sequence in cinema history, and the film proves Ghibli are in a whole different ballpark to other animators.

The Cat Returns (2002, Hiroyuki Morita): From one of my favourite Ghibli films to what is potentially my least favourite (oh, wait, we have Tales From Earthsea left to go). Anyway, the Cat Returns is a semi-sequel to Whisper of the Heart, but a very very loose one at that, mostly just down to the recurring feline character The Baron. The films follows the human schoolgirl Haru as she explores the land of cats after getting involved in a bizarre marriage arrangement with one of the royal cats. I don't know: there's just something very strange about this whole film, and it's hard to get what it's trying to do. Perhaps it doesn't try to do anything particular, but it just feels like a pretty throwaway entry in the Ghibli catalogue. I must revisit it at some point and re-evaluate, but can't say I'm all that enthusiastic about it.

Howl's Moving Castle (2004, Hayao Miyazaki): Miyazaki returned to Europe after his distinctly Japanese Spirited Away. For me, the results weren't as compelling as his previous two films, although I haven't seen this since its initial cinema release. Still a fine piece of work though, full of Miyazaki's trademark industrial wonders, magic and childlike innocence. The adaptation of a Diana Wynne Jones novel, it was the pacing and narrative of Howl's Moving Castle that made it seem a bit unwieldy to me. Perhaps I just don't find the English setting as compelling as the breathtaking bath house of Spirited Away. Still, the animation is gorgeous, and another one I will surely re-evaluate and I predict I'll be a bit more favourable this time around.

Tales from Earthsea (2006, Goro Miyazaki): Oh dear. Goro is the son of Hayao, and the two suffered a falling out over this film when elder Miyazaki didn't believe Goro was ready to helm a feature yet (the two later reconciled). Going by the evidence, Hayao was right. This is the only Ghibli film I'd consider a complete failure: a dull, generic fantasy that has none of the character of their best films. The animation is predictably top-rate, but they have nothing interesting to illustrate. The only Ghibli film I'd say this about, but: avoid.

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (2008, Hayao Miyazaki): The most recent film to get a release in the West, this was in my book a thoroughly successful return to form. Miyazaki returns to the childhood innocence that has defined many of his best films. It particularly recalls Totoro - the friendship of Sosuke and newly human fish girl Ponyo recalling the central relationships in the earlier film. It's a bizarre film on occasion - the whole underwater warlock / apocalypse plot is a bit messy - but it's also a unique and colourful film. The second half goes a direction I personally wasn't expecting, and the whole thing radiates a sense of fun and playfulness that had been missing from Ghibli films for a while. It also has a wonderful theme tune, savaged by a horrific Westernised cover for the English language release. Lucky, I still have my Japanese subtitled copy ;).

The short films and Ghibli Museum: You're best having a look on wikipedia or IMDB for a run-down of the Ghibli shorts. A lot of them are hard to come by. One of the most well known is Miyazaki's enjoyable music video for On Your Mark by Change & Aska about a group of angels. Of particular interest to me anyway are the shorts that play in Tokyo's (or more specifically the suburb Mitaka) Ghibli Museum on a rotating basis, the film changing every month or so. Distressingly you can't see these films anywhere else. I've had the pleasure to experience two out of the nine currently on rotation: the fun Whale Hunt (which features many of the ideas and themes Miyazaki would explore in greater depth in Ponyo) and the absolutely adorable Mr. Dough and the Princess Egg, the anthropomorphised egg of the title one of the studio's most obnoxiously cute creations! As for the museum itself, it's a joy for any fans: a glorious celebration of animation in all its forms in a beautiful building. It's like Disneyland without the roller coasters or sugar rush. Plus there's a giant Catbus for the kids to play in. They don't let adults on it. I've tried.

The future: The latest Ghibli film was released in Japan last summer: an adaptation of the classic Borrowers stories entitled The Borrower Arrietty. Goro Miyazaki is currently working on an adaptation of a manga series entitled Kokurikozaka Kara, due for release this summer in Nippon. Finally, Isao Takahata is working on an adaptation of an old Japanese story entitled The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. Expect that to be particularly prettily animated. As for old Hayao? Well, like he does after most of his recent films, he's announced his retirement. But given that he has been unable to live up to the promise before, I'd imagine we'll see him back, or at least we can hope so! He's scripted Goro's next film, so let's hope it isn't the failure Earthsea was!

Phew. Well there you have it. Not the most in-depth look you'll find, and we kind of skimmed the shorts (sorry!) but this has been one writer's opinions on the finest animation studio currently working today. From adolescent love stories to surreal flights of fancy, Studio Ghibli have one of the most inventive and interesting filmographies of any studio currently working in cinema. They're still going strong: the guiding lights of traditional animation in a CGI populated world (although they have been known to cheat with a CGI background or two). But there's no-one else quite like Studio Ghibli, and I personally doubt there ever will be.

Review: Hall Pass

Pass pass.

Fischer, Wilson, Sudeikis and Applegate

I didn't like Hall Pass. There are two things about it I did like:

  1. Stephen Merchant. Further proof that the early, 'good' Ricky Gervais sitcoms were probably largely influenced by Merchant as opposed to Gervais himself. Charmingly British, and stay after the credits for what is by some distance the funniest part of the film.
  2. Jenna Fischer. A likable, warm performance even if her character has one less dimension than the typical 2D computer game. Much more appealing than the cast of shallow, manufactured characters the film insists on telling us are ever so appealing and attractive. I'll make up my own mind, cheers.
Now, what I didn't like. In short: everything else.

  • The plot: a contrived beginning, a contrived middle, and a contrived end. Not a single surprise in the whole fricking thing. Read a one line plot synopsis - "two wives give their husbands a week off marriage, with hilarious results" - and you'll probably guess the entire plot. Hint and minor spoiler: happily ever after.
  • The comedy: it was about the time the film insisted on getting its characters high on pot brownies (the laziest excuse for a comedic set piece in the comic writers' handbook) and making a big hairy deal about it that I realised this film wasn't very funny. Every joke is explained or emphasised to within an inch of its life, just in case the audience is left behind and needs the punchline explained to them again, and occasionally again. There's the odd gross out moment that tries way too hard. Remember the zip bubble from There's Something About Mary? Far funnier than any of the poop and penis gags on display (very literally, unfortunately) here. 
  • The non Merchant / Fischer performances: what a waste of a talented cast. What in the name of hell is Richard Jenkins doing here? Someone call Thomas McCarthy ASAP! Owen Wilson plays Owen Wilson. Jason Sudeikis is useless in a dreadfully written role. Supporting cast underused or at worst barely present.
  • A slightly unsettling misogynistic undercurrent and distressingly simplistic concept of 'gender'. Males are obsessed with sex and nothing else (until love conquers all, naturally). Most women are moany or sex objects, sometimes both. Man are from mars, women from venus etc...: the stuff of comedy fail.
  • Snow Patrol. Oh dear. Nothing worse than Hollywood trying to be hip and failing spectacularly. Snow Patrol. ROFL.
  • The Farrelly Brothers: where did it all go wrong guys?
Hall Pass is worthless, puerile junk. Merchant provides the odd giggle, but hardly justifies the ticket cost. Download an old Gervais / Merchant / Pilkington podcast instead. It'll be cheaper, and less shit.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Review: Submarine

Welsh quirk.

Roberts and Paige in Submarine

Despite the fact that his name is nowhere to be found during the opening credits (although Ben Stiller acts as a producer, tellingly), there's little evidence in the opening few minutes of Submarine that this isn't a film by Wes Anderson. Except maybe some Welsh accents. Yet the American Empirical-esque titles, an introspective and highly neurotic young protagonist (who amusingly has a photo of Woody Allen beside his bed) and the playful cinematography certainly give off the vibe of an Anderson joint. It's a small niggle that persists at the quirkier moments of this movie, but luckily Richard Ayoade - well known in comedy circles as the bespectacled oddball in the IT Crowd and the hospital boss in the quite frankly sublime Garth Marenghi's Dark Place - in his feature debut crafts a film with an unusual and distinct identity too.

Based on the book by Joe Dunthorne, Craig Roberts plays Oliver Tate, our neurotic protagonist who shares with us his bizarre internal monologues and concern in voice-over form. The film follows his unusual romantic relationship with classmate Joanna Brewster (Yasmin Paige) which begins as a sort-of revenge on Joanna's ex, but soon quietly blossoms into something more. Meanwhile, Oliver is also worrying obsessed with the state of his parents' (the always reliable Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins) relationship and, more peculiarly, their sex life. His mother's ex, a slightly demented but energetic psychic played by the excellent Paddy Considine, moving in next door doesn't help. Dealing with his own problems as well intruding on other peoples', Oliver begins to come of age.

A film as quirky as Submarine will always come across as slightly cold and removed, and sometimes the characters and their actions are so bizarre that it's hard to entirely invest in their emotional turmoil. Oliver, for example, is the kind of fellow who thinks taking his girlfriend to his "favourite industrial estate" is a good date and opportunity to ask her to sleep with him. Joanna is a pyromaniac, though, so maybe it isn't so much of a stretch. It has that precarious, detached feeling an awful lot of indie films are criticised for, and if you're not a fan of Anderson-esque quirk, there are moments here that may have you cringing: perhaps as they namecheck old reliables like Serge Gainsbourg or J.D. Salinger. It's all done with tongue-in-cheek though, with Oliver purposefully acting pretentious to impress.

Luckily, there's something beneath the eccentric surface. The acting certainly helps, with the central cast almost universally excellent. Hawkins and Taylor portray middle-aged despondence perfectly, their performances full of heartache, frustration and silent regrets. Considine is always great, and while his character is perhaps played a bit too much for laughs on occasion (I dare you not to giggle at the blowjob scene though) there's also a weird loneliness there that is never expressed explicitly. Paige plays Joanna at first as a hyperactive teen that slowly becomes sadder as reality hits hard. And finally Craig Roberts is likable in a jittery central performance. Oliver is kind of like a less confident (except in his head) Max Fischer, although there are much stronger hints that Tate may in fact by slightly psychologically disturbed and obsessed. Eventually though - and commented on by Tate himself - he grows up, however slightly.

The story progresses from removed eccentricities to removed emotion over the course of the running time. With a protagonist as unusual as Oliver the emotional undercurrents that eventually come into play are never obnoxiously stated, Ayoade instead having the confidence to play scenes minus cliches and with moments of silence and humour. Unfortunately, a precariously indie soundtrack by Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys doesn't help - at least when the lyrics kick in it doesn't. There are also a number of lulls. Despite frequent appearances to the contrary, this pretty much follows the standard rom-com structure, and even with moments of emotional clarity in the final few scenes there are few major surprises.

It's not a flawless success, then, but it is a confident debut from Ayoade. Filmed inventively throughout by cinematographer Erik Wilson, it ultimately does distance itself from the Wes Anderson influence. It may share the same sort of quirky protagonist and bold typefaces of Rushmore, but certainly has a unique screen presence. It's witty as opposed to laugh-out-loud funny, and the payoffs demand a little bit of work from the audience. But it overcomes a cold, removed exterior to have moments of real warmth amongst the absurdities and exaggerations. Not quite a great film, but one that shows a lot of promise.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Ghibli Chronology, Part One

Tales from Nippon

Often referred to as the 'Japanese Disney', this description doesn't describe the variety and ambition of Studio Ghibli's output thus far. Of course, they're Japan's 'first' animation studio, enjoying the same sort of critical and commercial acclaim Disney (and recently Pixar) have enjoyed over the years. But from tales of Italian pigs through moving castles and adolescent romances, Ghibli - under the two central figures of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata - have produced a colourful and exciting filmography over the last three decades or so. The back catalogue can be slightly intimidating, although the vast majority are, in my opinion, excellent, or at least great. So for your reading pleasure here is a rundown of Ghibli's output so far, and short reviews of said filmography. This time I'll focus on early Ghibli, up until 1994's bizarre but brilliant Pom Poko.

Pre-Ghibli: Just a quick mention of some important films prior to the founding of Ghibli in 1985. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds and Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro are the two particularly worth noting: two of Hayao Miyazaki's much loved and acclaimed early films. The latter is a jaunty, energetic entry in the popular Lupin franchise, but the former feels like a Ghibli film before Ghibli was even a reality. The rich fantasy world and environmental themes are concepts that would be revisited in later Miyazaki films. Both films are well worth a watch. Panda! Go Panda! is another worth mentioning - directed by Takahata and written by Miyazaki, I personally haven't seen it but is available on DVD for those interested.

Laputa: Castle In the Sky (1986, Hayao Miyazaki): The first Ghibli release remains a joy. The story tells of the young Pazu helping a girl - Sheeta - who falls from the sky and lands in front of his farm one morning. They eventually join forces with a group of pirates to defeat the dastardly Muska and find the mythical city in the sky. Full of Miyazaki's trademark flying machines, it has a great energy throughout. It's an adventure film to rank with the best of 'em, with memorable settings and characters. Beautifully illustrated (naturally) it's an endearing and spirited romp, with Ghibli most certainly hitting the ground running.

My Neighbour Totoro (1988, Hayao Miyazaki): Timeless stuff here. Tied with Spirited Away for my personal favourite of the lot, this is quite simply one of the all time great animated / family films, and I'd go further in saying it's one of the greatest films ever made. The story of sisters Satsuki and Mei and their adventures with their 'imaginary' friend: the fluffy, giant Totoro of the title. From cat buses to dust mites, it's a glorious celebration of childhood innocence and imagination, and the way children deal with a sometimes harsh reality. Close to perfect.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988, Isao Takahata): Released as part of a double bill with Totoro, the two films have completely different approaches to similar themes. Set during WWII, Seita tries to look after his younger sister Setsuko after their home is destroyed and their mother is killed. It's dark stuff in contrast to Totoro for sure. It's still a look at childhood cruelly interrupted by a grim reality, but this goes much further in it's portrayal of innocence lost. It's a heartbreaking watch, and one of the best films about the very real effects of war on society and people. It has a humanity often missing in films about war, and looks at how Japan coped off the battlefield, all through the eyes of two children.

Kiki's Delivery Service (1989, Hayao Miyazaki): A strange but rather likable little film. 13 year-old witch Kiki leaves home to find a town of her own, as we're assured is what witches in training are supposed to do. The films charts her progress as she sets up a delivery service that utilises her one real skill - flying. It's a lighthearted, jaunty film with a very European vibe (a romanticised Europe is another obsession of Miyazaki). Not the best film Miyazaki has ever made, but taken as it is, it's a warm, good natured and very enjoyable diversion.

Only Yesterday (1991, Isao Takahata): Takahata's films tend to radically differ from each other, although in general tend to be more grounded than Miyazaki's flights of fancy. Only Yesterday is a film that in some regards doesn't necessarily need to be animated, but is all the more charming because it is (especially when playfully illustrating the wide-eyed excitement of a ten year old girl). A film of two halves, the first tells of 27 year old Maeko leaving the city to spend her holiday time in the Japanese countryside. The second - told in flashback form - recalls a number of interconnected but stand-alone incidents from her tenth year. Probably the best film a male has ever made about female childhood, it sparkles with a great sense of nostalgia and eye for everyday Japan. Both are extremely entertaining and thoughtful coming-of-age stories, and it's hard not to have a smile on your face when both time lines combine during the uplifting final credits.

Porco Rosso (1992, Hayao Miyazaki): Another European excursion from Miyazaki. This time the focus is on Porco, a WW1 fighter pilot who has been turned into a pig for reasons I don't immediately recall, in post WW1 Italy. Not my favourite Ghibli film, as I think the Europe set films tend to feel less 'genuine' than the distinctly Japanese ones. Still a very good film though, albeit it an odd one: a love story between a human woman and a male pig is always going to come across as somewhat unusual. There's a visual lushness and a number of excellent action scenes, though, which definitely make it worth a watch. Miyazaki's romanticised ode to old Europe and European cinema.

Ocean Waves (1993, Tomomi Mochizuki): The first non-Miyazaki / Takahata film from Ghibli, this was also the first film fully controlled by a younger generation of Ghibli animators. Similar in many regards to Only Yesterday and the later Whisper of the Heart, it's an adolescent love story between protagonist Taku and a girl named Rikako. Like Takahata's Only Yesterday, it's defined by a warm sense of nostalgia, this time about adolescence - the story is narrated by an older Taku who thinks he catches a glimpse of Rikako at a Tokyo train station. The hints of regret and quiet reflection are what really set this apart, feeling like a truly honest portrayal of young love. This sort of more realistic material could easily be viewed as lesser Ghibli, but this proves even lesser Ghibli is compelling viewing.

Pom Poko (1994, Isao Takahata): A true oddity, and all the better for it! Takahata's spellbinding and surreal examination of Japanese folklore follows a group of tankai (Japanese raccoons) trying to stop their forest home being destroyed. The animation style is unique - the mischievous tanaki are illustrated in exaggerated cartoon form when talking amongst themselves, but realistically when in the view of humans. The result is a very odd film (Western viewers, myself included, may be slightly bemused with the frequent presence of giant testicled tanaki) but a very good one at that. It's a film bristling with imagination - the parade sequence is a particularly surreal highlight, clearly an influence on that late Satoshi Kon's Paprika more recently. Pom Poko embraces Japanese culture, folklore, rural living and environmental concerns with an infectious passion. One of the oft-forgotten gems in Ghibli's filmography, it's probably my favourite of Takahata's output.

The first eight Ghibli films, as you can see, are a varied and distinct bunch. While some are slightly more successful than others, they all have their strengths and are all pretty much worth a viewing. Most importantly, it shows a studio not afraid to experiment while the directors still maintain a distinct voice. However, anyone familiar with their back catalogue knows that much of the best is yet to come. Next time I'll look at the second half of Ghibli's output - from Whisper of the Heart to Ponyo on the Cliff, with a brief look at their upcoming work as well as some of their short films and music videos. Hope you're enjoying this look through the filmography of Studio Ghibli thus far!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Hit or Shit? 19th March 2011

A semi-regular look at trailers for upcoming movies. The job of said trailers is to advertise the film and persuade us paying idiots to go and see the full thing. Do they succeed or not? Let us poke them with our judgment stick.

Super 8 (J.J. Abrams)


I'll confess I didn't get the whole way through this trailer, but only because it looks so frickin' fantastic. Trailers can give way too much away, so after I got a general idea of the starting plot I quickly flicked this off. Frankly, it looks like the best classic Spielberg (producer here) film Spielberg never made. From the Amblin logo onwards, the trailer gives the suggestion of a nostalgic, small town monster movie, albeit probably a bit darker than what has come before. And the idea of kids making their own movie against this backdrop is great - that distinct sense of adventure many fantastic family adventure films have had. Going by the teasers, trailer (what I've watched, anyway) and Abrams' filmography so far, looks like a HIT.

The Smurfs (Raja Gosnell)

Oh dear. Moving from good nostalgia to bad nostalgia here. The casting of NPH is an admirable attempt to be hip and 'with it' by the studio, but this looks dreadful. Memories of other childhood favourites given the Hollywood 'treatment' spring to mind. Like Alvin and the Chipmunks, superimposing The Smurfs into a real life environment looks like the stuff of car crash cinema. The Smurfs had an interesting world of their own, why ignore that? OK, this stuff is for kids, but kids deserve better than SHIT.

Toy Story Hawaiian Vacation (Gary Rydstrom)

DON'T PANIC. While Toy Story 3 was the best sequel in many years, we probably don't need another given the last was a perfect thematic send-off (would have said the same about TS2 too, though). And the awful above title filled me with fear when I saw it. But the teaser for the short to debut in front of Cars 2 looks like an amusing little diversion. After all, these are beloved characters, will be nice to get reacquainted. Looks like it could be a light-hearted HIT, although as far from the heavy hitting thematic sucker punch of Toy Story 3 as one could imagine. To be honest, I don't know if I could take that kind of emotional torture again anyway.

Cold Weather (Aaron Katz)

Mumblecore detective story? Yes please! Like Beeswax or Baghead, it's nice to see these indie directors doing something fresh while keeping true to their grounded stylings. This has a bit of a budget too, and the trailer suggests it will look very nice indeed. It's just debuted at SXSW, although fuck knows when we non-Americans will get to see it, considering Katz's last two films were never released in Europe (had to import the DVDs personally). HIT.

Transformers 3 (Michael Bay)

Trailer looks and sounds epic, but the presence of Bay and LeBeouf and the fact that it is the sequel to the two most deplorable blockbusters of recent times suggests SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT. Solid TV spot though, yet I hold little confidence that Bay will be able to totally tone down the slapstick humour, casual racism / sexism and general awfulness of the films that preceded it.

Bad Teacher (Jake Kasdan)

Are obscenities funny? Naturally, when handled correctly (see: The Big Lebowski). Bad Teacher, IMO, seems to be trying too hard. Basically Bad Santa with a teacher, the trailer doesn't suggest that the film will probe the really dark comedy that might make this a worthwhile watch. Instead - swear words, and lots of 'em. Obviously, trailers won't be able to capture the more radical humour of black comedy, but this fills me with little enthusiasm that this is going to probe the scathing satirical grounds it could have and will instead make the assumption the audience will find Cameron Diaz saying "Fuck my ass" deeply amusing. A few giggles from the trailer, but a cautious SHIT with the smallest chance of hit.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

How the Rom-Com Lost its Way

or: Death to Poster Lean!

Note the lean
I'm a cynical, heterosexual male in my early twenties. For those reasons, it's perhaps wrong that I am so constantly frustrated and flummoxed by the prevalence of generic Hollywood rom-coms. You know the type. They can usually be spotted by a poster in the foyer alone: usually featuring two characters of opposite genders leaning against each other or a wall.  Matthew McConaughey is a frequent offender to the infamous poster lean, and I've included some irrefutable evidence of this heinous crime throughout this post. The films themselves tend to feature unlikable and often 'kooky' protagonists finding unexpected love, usually with the person they hated fifteen minutes beforehand, and hated with an unrivaled passion. They're mindless escapism, and we're led to believe designed for unfussy female audiences. Now excuse me if I balk at that concept for a moment. Gender should be no basis for judging a good film, although unfortunately there are films clearly marketed towards males and females. We men, similarly, are "meant" to enjoy Michael Bay films, full of brutish humour, explosions and carefully composed ass shots. And there's nothing wrong with mindlessness when it's done well, I stress. But may I stand up for men and women and suggest we all deserve better?

It may be surprising to you that many of my favourite films are could often conceivably be categorised as members of the romance or rom-com genres. Lost in Translation is an all time favourite, the ending sucker punching me every time (and many times at this point). I've mentioned Quiet City on this blog already, another one I'm very fond of. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - a consistent presence in my personal and deeply irrelevant Top Three for many years - is a rom-com by all accounts, albeit one which fucks with the structure something fierce. We have Before Sunset / Sunrise, Jerry Maguire, Garden State, The Apartment, Manhattan (most vintage Woody Allen at that) and countless others. Romance, in short, is often the stuff of great cinema. Then why, pray tell, is so much crap churned out?

Economics, distressingly. Just Go With It - the latest in Jennifer 'Cinematic War Criminal' Aniston's filmography of increasingly bland, formulaic romances - earned 140 million dollars. Not that significant compared to the $80,000,000 budget, but still a chunk of change. I haven't seen Just Go With It, but having worked in a video shop up until late last year, I was subjected to a wide variety of this sort of horrid stuff in the course of the job: The Ugly Truth (ugly stuff indeed), PS I Love You, Valentine's Day, He's Just Not That Into You etc... I'm sure they all made a significant dent in the box office.

More damning evidence of poster lean
Let's take the last example, He's Just Not That Into You as a case study of why the rom-com tropes currently popular in Hollywood fail at many fundamental levels. Firstly, unlovable protagonists. All the examples of 'good' romance I mentioned above are defined by carefully crafted, likable (yet flawed) individuals. You want them to get together. In HJNTIY, that just isn't the case. Here we have an ensemble cast of idiots and shallow assholes. The closest to a 'lead' in the film is the horrific individual played by Gennifer Goodwin, a parody of a woman whose sole motivation in life is to find a man. This is a problem considering it's impossible to care for her: any man ending up with her is inevitably an unhappy ending. Much of the rest of the characters have similar problems: hard to feel for Bradley Cooper's plight when he is torn between Jennifer Connelly and Scarlett Johannson, ey? Drew Barrymore's sole role is to dispense trite and sometimes outright awful advice. Ben Affleck shows considerable strengths in his role as a man refusing to marry his shrill whiny girlfriend played by (guess who!) Jennifer Aniston, who keeps insisting they have to get married for no apparent reason or tangible benefit. I silently cheered Affleck for showing backbone. And then? In the interests of a happy ending he gets back together with Aniston, eventually giving into her arrogant, looney demands. Arghhh!

Don't think I need to comment on this
If the romance is bad, the comedy is the ugly. Fittingly, a better example of the "com" part of the equation failing spectacularly (the comedy in HJNTIY is so unfunny it's not worth mentioning) is The Ugly Truth. Aptly titled, the film tells the story of a misogynistic asshole - played by another deplorable rom-com mainstay Gerard Butler - 'comically' mismatched with the equally shallow Katherine Hiegl (who has committed numerous crimes against genre after an appearance in the genuinely fun Knocked Up). The jokes here are the stuff of jaw dropping inanity. Not only resorting to the old and tired (should be retired) "Men are from Mars, Women from Venus" level of gender differentiation, it also has the cheek to resort to distasteful and obscene "jokes" about orgasms and the like.

L. O. L.
It is woeful stuff, and faces a serious identity crisis: who the hell is this film aimed at? The humour is the kind of stuff only twelve year olds (and particularly immature twelve year olds at that) find amusing, or at least should be the only people who find it funny. The romance is non-existent - these characters hate each other with such vitriol their inevitable union is frankly ludicrous and depressing.

These two are far from alone. The list of bad rom-coms is far far longer than the list of good ones. The Jerry Maguires and - so I've heard, haven't seen it myself - Definitely Maybes of this world are rarities: traditional rom-coms that have mainstream appeal and are actually good to boot. Instead, audiences are subjected to increasingly dreadful stuff. Judd Apatow and co., questionable claims of misogyny aside, initially seemed to be putting things on the right track with the likes of 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, but even the Apatow stuff already seems somewhat stale.

Audiences, frankly, deserve better. This is coming from an audience member. People buy into this stuff, clearly. But - if you are one of those people - I assure you there is much, much better out there. There are genuinely warm and funny films out there where you root for the main characters to get together. Hollywood would like to tell you Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler belong together just because they're Aniston and Butler. It's the genre of wish fulfillment, the beautiful and rich living happily ever after. Asking questions of why they live happily ever after is strictly forbidden. It doesn't have to be that way, and it isn't always that way. There are so many great romances out there, one just needs to look beyond the posters of leaning McConaugheys.

Money speaks, sadly, and all this is unlikely to change anytime soon. But the fact that cinematic romance is far from dead despite the darndest efforts of the big studios is something to quietly cheer. You may get funny looks for yelling "Death to Poster Lean!" in cinema lobbys, but at least your intentions will be admirable.

Damn you, lean!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Review: Wasteland

Beauty in trash.

It can be a little distressing how the media and cinema treats the poor and lower classes sometimes. They try their darndest to make us feel sorry for the less-well-off that sometimes the people experiencing these conditions can get lost in the mixture. It's important for us to recognise what's going on beyond our comfortable existence, but sometimes cheesy music isn't the way to do it.

Waste Land is different. While these people aren't the poorest of the poor - earning a comparatively healthy salary of US$20-25 a day, according to one interviewee - working in Rio's largest landfill is a challenging existence. The workers live in favelas, many drug addicts or from broken homes. It's a tough life, but importantly it is a life, and that's what Waste Land never forgets.

Directed by Lucy Walker (with João Jardim and Karen Harley credited as co-directors) the documentary tells the story of Vik Muniz - Brazil's most successful artist internationally, he informs us (I should stress he's admirably modest throughout) - embarking a project to make portraits of the workers at Jardim Gramacho in Rio. He's determined to give something back to the community, considering he himself is of modest upbringing in the country. The documentary focuses on a number of the workers - from the leader of their trade union-like association to the woman who cooks the workers' meals daily amidst the trash. After giving us a bit of background on these people - all of whom have interesting, surprising back stories - we see their faces becoming works of art made out of the trash they pick through daily for recyclable material.

It's these colourful characters that add a real depth to the film. As they go through the process of becoming immortalised through art they all have very different reactions to the experience. Some embrace the process entirely, unable to return to their previous life of trash picking. Others are more determined than ever to succeed in their role in Gramacho. Most importantly, Muniz and the film-makers treat their subjects with a great respect. They live a tough life, no doubt - one tells of coming across a casually discarded baby's corpse in the dump. But there's no emotionally manipulative music here to toy with our feelings. They are who they are, their reality presented with clarity and honesty. They are likable people, often in difficult situations. They just get on with it, and it's very uplifting seeing some of them experience new and exciting opportunities as a result of their involvement with the project. However, some are ultimately happy to remain in Gramacho where they feel they belong.

Documentary film-making is a hard thing to do right, telling a story without manipulating the audience. Especially when you have three years worth of footage, editing something coherent and honest is a challenge. Walker and co. achieve something special here though. The promotional material calling it the "Slumdog Millionaire of Documentaries" is disingenuous, because this has none of the emotional manipulation of said (admittedly well directed) film. This is a more honest portrayal of poverty and a social class often ignored in cinema. It's uplifting, but quietly so, the characters and their outlook on life gradually winning you over as opposed to any tricks by the documentarians. It's a story of art and its potential to - very literally in this case - change lives. Sometimes lives don't need changing though, and in it's honest portrayal of an oft-ignored side of society Waste Lands excels.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Revisit: Star Trek

Set phasers to fun.

Pine and Quinto looking suitably dramatic
Rewatching Star Trek XI, one thing that struck me is how few big budget blockbusters I've enjoyed over the last few years. Obviously the Christopher Nolan films have brought a real sense of intelligence and innovation back to Hollywood, although he's very much an abnormality in the system. Similarly, Pixar films are amongst the few films deservedly breaking box office records. But for the most part, the massive budget releases have been disappointing in recent times. Avatar and Tron: Legacy certainly looked and sounded like a few hundred million dollars, but the actual storytelling left a lot to be desired. The latest releases in the big franchises have been underwhelming too, like the weak sequel to Iron Man. Thinking back, it's been a long time since I've been won over by a big action film, and looking at the current batch and both critical / audience feedback, it's unlikely they're going to change the pattern.

Note: some spoilers for Star Trek XI follow

Star Trek was the last time I was truly sucked into the spectacle of Hollywood. On a third viewing in as many years, it remains a blistering good time. After the unusually enjoyable Mission: Impossible III and success of (early series, anyway) Alias and Lost it had become pretty clear J.J. Abrams was a director worth watching. Minus the unavoidable pratfalls of serialised storytelling, though, M:I III and Star Trek showed a director able to tell one hell of an entertaining story.

Of course the danger with Star Trek XI was the fact that it was simply a Star Trek film. While there have been strong entries in the franchise, the weight of having to please rabid fan expectations and casual viewers not as familiar with the characters and story was a frequently tricky balancing act. The obvious solution to decades of backstory was simple yet worrying: a reboot. It's a horrible, dirty word and with good cause in many cases. However, after Batman proved a fresh start wasn't always unwelcome, it seemed apt to introduce a Star Trek for a new generation. However, tackling such iconic characters and replacing actors who had owned their roles for so long was a huge risk.

Abrams and his writers Orci and Kurtzman came up with an ingenious solution: have a narrative justification for why everything has suddenly been reset. Trekkies - a particularly hard to please bunch - would inevitably have rebelled had the backstories of characters or planets or whatever changed significantly in the transition; but using the old reliable time-travel and alternative universe cheat Star Trek XI elegantly establishes a new, fresh time line. The mid-plot integration of the Star Trek of old and the new crew is an immensely satisfying way of getting a - if you'll excuse the pun - new generation onto the enterprise. While few of the cast are as instantly memorable as Shatner and Nimoy (barring, of course, Nimoy himself), the youngsters do a fine job of portraying iconic, beloved characters. Quinto is engagingly logical as Spock, Pine a likable and smart-assed Kirk. All the other crew members delightfully get their own moment in the sun: Zulu, McCoy, Chekov and Uhura all have stuff to do here, most resolving a major crisis or setpiece. Scotty is a bit of a weak point, as it's kind of just Simon Pegg being Simon Pegg, but again he's a likable, colourful character so it's hard to resent his casting either. Also of note is an unrecognisable Eric Bana as the main enemy, the disgruntled Romulan Nero - proving that a credible, motivated bad guy can add a significant layer of believability to a genre story such as this.

The set-pieces come thick and fast. The melodramatic, exciting opening is one of the finest prologues I've had the pleasure to experience, sucking the audience in straight off the bat. It's also an introduction to Michael Giacchino's dynamic and vibrant score, which is a perfect example of a thoughtful, energetic soundtrack doing wonders and adding an extra layer of excitement to the action. The film then takes time to introduce us to the characters, particularly Spock and Kirk, which is a major benefit later on. When you know characters, it's much easier to care for their actions and problems as the film progresses. They're not exactly psychologically complex, but the reluctant friendship that inevitably blossoms between the two characters is endearingly intense and believable. The fact that there are so many laughs and breathless action sequences helps of course - the sequence where Kirk tries to persuade Captain Pike that a trap awaits is a breathless mixture of slapstick comedy and real intensity, with a fantastic action payoff. It's also an extremely playful film, most notably in an ending sequence in which the alternate dimension Spocks meet face-to-face, joyfully discarding the complex time-travel mumbo jumbo old Spock himself used to trick Kirk earlier on.

The only niggling problem I have with this film is that Kirk's assent up the ranks from academic probation to captain all seems a bit convenient. Of course, it's also the main thematic focus of the film, but it's not exactly believable. But here, why the hell am I complaining about believability in a film so absurd and over the top? It's not enough of an issue to get worked up about. This is a film just to relax and enjoy the hell out of. It's the one Hollywood film of the last few years which has a genuine sense of fun, the kind vintage Spielberg or even the first Pirate of the Caribbean film are famed for. Sometimes that's all you want, and it's something distressingly absent in action cinema a lot of the time, where even the dreadful Expendables is embarrassingly po-faced. Star Trek XI is enjoyable from explosive opening to epic conclusion, and shows a confident director at the top of his game. Bring on Super 8.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Review: Archipelago

Boredom is an island.

Hiddleston and Baker reflect on art & life in Archipelago
There's a very distinctive type of slow-burning film direction these days when the person behind the camera allows the scene to linger for a moment too long, giving the audience a moment to reflect on the image or the situation in question. In many cases, it's a sign of confident pacing, and can allow the viewer a quiet moment of reflection before the narrative moves on. Problems arise, though, when the situation isn't very interesting in the first place.

Enter Archipelago, director Joanna Hogg's second film and my personal introduction to her work. It's the story of an upper class twits family taking a brief vacation on an archipelago before the son Edward (Tom Hiddleston) departs on a volunteer gap year in Africa. Joining him are his mother Patricia (Kate Fahey) and bitter sister Cynthia (Lydia Leonard). The father of the family is notably absent, away on business we gather through one-sided phonecalls and conversational snippets. Also in the house is hired caterer Rose (Amy Lloyd) and frequent visitor and painting instructor Christopher (Christopher Baker). Over the course of a few days we're meant to experience the conflicts and dynamics of this family, where everything isn't as smooth as one might expect from a group of seemingly intelligent adults.

This is one slllloooowwww film, and that way by design. And the considered pacing is admirable - Hogg has considerable control over the flow of her film and narrative. It's filmed pleasantly, often from a distance, as if we're a silent observer on events. The significant flaw, though, is that it's difficult to care for these events or people. The family for the most part are arrogant, spoilt members of an upper class I found near impossible to relate to. Many of their concerns are trivial and uninteresting. Hogg attended the screening I was at, and noted how she left gaps in the story for the viewer to fill in themselves. Again, said gaps are dull and unimportant. Yeah, they're all angry their father / husband / girlfriend isn't here for a variety of slowly unveiled reasons, but why should I care? The concerns of this family and their few companions aren't original nor insightful enough to justify the long pauses between scenes. Cynthia is a particularly horrid character here - her childish arrogance and selfishness makes her an unlikable screen presence even when with the hints of why she is that way. Christopher - Baker being a non-actor and painter himself - is another unwelcome addition to the cast. The lack of acting ability (a lot of stumbled sentences) would be fine if he had anything of interest to say, but the trite advice and painting analogies he dispenses are obnoxious and a bit in-your-face for a film priding itself on subtlety of delivery. Likewise the occasional bit of lingering symbolism is rarely enlightening.

There are plenty of films where nothing happens interestingly and sometimes beautifully, but Archipelago is rarely one of those films. There are a handful of moments of cringe-worthy comedy - a restaurant excursion is hard to watch - that may elicit the odd chuckle, but for the most part we just get repetitive awkward silences and dinner table fights. Edward and Rose are the only characters I felt any empathy for. Edward admirably shows some moral backbone despite having to put up with the judgements and petty squabbles of his family members. Rose I only felt sympathy for because she has to work under and experience the actions of these ghastly people. I can see why the non-family members resort to awkward silences and shallow conversational topics.

Hogg does show a confidence of sorts behind the camera, and I appreciate her efforts. But even though I feel like I have a decent attention span for slow-burning drama, the lack of emotional payoffs or insight for spending two hours with these characters was a severe disappointment. It's like Autumn Sonata without the hypnotic Bergman intensity, or a mumblecore film featuring only wealthy, spoilt children. The non-actors in the cast bring little credibility to the table: while the non-professional Lloyd is likable as the caterer, it's only the professional Hiddleston whose emotional turmoil feels engaging and real. The funereal pacing here though is the biggest downfall - too many moments where the audience is forced to reflect on deeply uninteresting concerns. Like the characters throughout the film, this is one archipelago I was itching to leave.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Review: Norwegian Wood

Remember it forever?

This review is dedicated to the Japanese people who lost their life in yesterday's earthquake and tsunami.

Watanabe and Naoko
The claims that a particular novel are 'unfilmable' have proven incorrect so many times that the word has almost come to lose all meaning. Of course you can argue - and I could argue - how well the likes of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas or Watchmen - hell, even Ulysses - have been adapted, but there are films out there bearing the same name and at least somewhat resembling the authors' original visions. When it comes to Haruki Murakami novels, though, the old cliche rings truer. In the more surreal of his works - particularly his masterpieces Kafka on the Shore and The Wind Up Bird Chronicle - the content is so hypnotic and stylistic on the page that it would be almost impossible to put it on the screen with any sort of competence. They are books where it's almost impossible to explain to others what happens in the dream worlds they conjure up, let alone cinematically capture the image of a whiskey mascot feeding on the entrails of the cats he has just ripped open - makes sense in context, I swear. They, quite frankly, need to stay on the page, and any attempts to do justice to his unique, dreamlike vision could only meet in failure (until, of course, some super talented film-maker comes along and proves me wrong).

Not so with Norwegian Wood, easily the most 'traditional' of his novels. The question here isn't why it hadn't been adapted yet, but why not? After all, the book was a particularly rousing success story in Nippon, with Murakami himself particularly bemused at the book's popularity after it was released in 1987. The young Japanese fans would even dress in specific colours depending on whether they were Naoko or Midori fans, the two female love interests of the novel. Given the book's endless popularity in Japan, it's genuinely surprising the novel hadn't gotten the big screen treatment sooner. Personally, I only heard about the adaptation while visiting Japan late last year. I just missed the release date, but I wouldn't have understood it anyway. I very literally bought the t-shirt though. Luckily, I didn't have to wait too long for an English release.

Anyway: here we are, almost twenty five years after the book's release, and French / Vietnamese director Trần Anh Hùng has become the director to tackle the novel. At a basic level, Norwegian Wood is a coming-of-age / love triangle story (of sorts, a bit more complicated than that), the main strengths of the novel being a strong sense of honesty, nostalgia and regret: themes and feelings usually absent from trite tales of young adult romance. The protagonist is Toru Watanabe, a college 'freshman'. He's still a little dazed from the suicide of his best schoolfriend Kizuki. A chance meeting with Kizuki's ex Naoko leads to a complicated friendship between the two that soon begins to blossom into something more. However, all this is interrupted when Naoko's psychological damage finally takes its toll, and she moves to a treatment centre deep in the Japanese countryside. Struggling with the loss, Watanabe drifts aimlessly until he meets the colourful Midori. Complications inevitably ensue as Watanabe juggles the two very different and very complicated relationships.

The first problem I feel I should raise about this adaptation is the casting of Watanabe. There's nothing particularly wrong with Kenichi Matsuyama (of Death Note live action film fame) but Watanabe here - due either to poor writing, a mumbling performance by Matsuyama or, potentially, both - feels like a non-entity. In the book he was aimless, confused and drifting by design, but the film doesn't adequately capture that. It's hard to believe these two extremely pretty and interesting girls would fall for him, as he seems to be unable to answer questions with anything more than a mumbled "of course", notably commented on in the film itself. Luckily, Naoko and Midori are excellently cast. If I had to choose, I'd pick Midori in this case - Kiko Mizuhara is gorgeous and energetic, definitely capturing the essence of an instantly likable but silently insecure young woman. In a more difficult role, Rinko Kikuchi (who has infiltrated Hollywood with roles in Babel and The Brothers Bloom) is also impressive although almost inevitably less instantly appealing. However, her performance certainly captures the psychological complexities of Naoko and you can most certainly see what Watanabe sees in this troubled girl.

Kiko Mizuhara as Midori
Unfortunately, the rest of the characters are uneven, but that isn't entirely the cast's fault. Instead, subplots and minor characters are made far more incidental than they were in Murakami's book. This is unavoidable - after all, it's important to scale back and cut elements of the story when making an adaptation work on screen. This doesn't do the film many favours though. Nagasawa is a particular loss - an important friend and confidant to Toru in the novel, here he only appears in a handful of scenes to dispense some trite advice. Similarly, Reiko's role as Naoko's friend and spiritual companion has been cut back. This works a bit better though - although her pivotal, shocking third act confession is understandably absent here, her new found ambiguous history helps lend her character an air of mystery. Mostly, though, the lack of these subplots means the film lacks a bit of the character that defined the books. Even the back stories of Midori and Naoko are painted in broad strokes and throwaway dialogue.

I'm sounding negative - truth is I actually enjoyed the film. All adaptations need to cut corners to make a film that works, after all. What really impresses here is Hung's direction. The whole thing has a pleasantly ethereal vibe about it. The sense of nostalgia is captured well - to me, the film seemed almost dreamlike and hypnotic on occasion. The cinematography is beautiful - Midori and Naoko are framed particularly fondly, while the snow covered landscapes and cluttered dorm rooms are captured wonderfully. The student riots that are taking place in the background also lend the film a sense of authenticity, particularly in a great tracking shot near the beginning. Murakami's themes of regret and nostalgia are present and correct. I was a bit so-so about the much heralded Johnny Greenwood score though - while the discordant soundtrack is haunting and dreamlike at its best, there were a few moments where I thought it didn't work. One scene which should have been an emotional climax, for instance, feels more like a horror film; a particularly peculiar music cue in my opinion.

I had heard many reports that the film was 'slow', but I was never bored here during the extended two and a quarter hour running time, thinking it moved along agreeably. Almost too agreeably on occasion as it stripped the plot down to its bare bones - a frequent problem with literary adaptations. But for the most part it worked. I had plenty of problems with Norwegian Wood, particularly the almost absent protagonist. But somehow the film engaged me despite its numerous flaws. It was far from perfect, but as the titular Beatles song played over the end credits, I felt strangely pleased with this particular adaptation, and it lingered on the bus journey home. I can see how it could be viewed as somewhat cold and removed: it most certainly lacked the emotional punch and structural prowess of the book. Yet this Murakami adaptation was far less wooden than it could have been.

Just please don't let anyone near Kafka on the Shore.