Monthly Archives: April, 2010

Two Very Different Animations

It is clear that animation has undergone a great shift over the past 10-20 years. Before this animation was synonymous with one word – Disney. Now I would say it is synonymous with two words – Anime and Pixar. I decided to check out two films which represent these two periods.

Disney’s The Jungle Book (1967) is loosely based on the Rudyard Kipling novel of the same name. For a film which takes as its source a work by such a renowned novelist, it is quite slight on plot. Not a lot really happens in this movie. It is more a collection of set pieces with the slight linkage being the attempts to make the young boy Mowgli see sense and return to the man-village. As good as some of these set pieces are (and some of them are very good, the chase sequence between King Louee and Baloo & Bagheera springs to mind) the linking is so slight there is very little impetus to the story and at times it does stumble along a little without fully absorbing the viewer (or at least this viewer).

What it lacks in story, The Jungle Book compensates for in other areas. It features a succession of memorable characters including Mowgli’s guardian angel panther Bagheera, a troupe of military like elephants, the hypnotic snake Kaa and a ‘fab four’ of vultures. But the scene-stealer is Mowgli’s bear friend Baloo. Reminiscent of Timon and Pumbaa from the much later Disney feature The Lion King (1994) Baloo teaches Mowgli not to take life too seriously, after all you only need the “Bear Necessities” (as he outlines in the film’s standout song). Not just there for light relief, Baloo is also the compassionate heart of the film. For some reason the film’s villain Shere-Khan only appears with around 30 minutes left. He is so oft talked about by the film’s other characters that he is somewhat of a legendary character. And when he finally appears he does not disappoint. The tiger is not a stereotypical over the top violent and stupid villain. He is a cerebral, scheming figure who wants to kill Mowgli as he represents “man’s gun and man’s fire” which are the only things that our villain fears. As for the animation, The Jungle Book is somewhat of a mixed bag. Backgrounds are beautifully realised with lush jungles and ancient ruins a constant source of wonderment. On the other hand I found the characters to be a bit blandly animated. They were very plain and overshadowed visually by the landscapes they were placed in. The one exception to this for me was the villainous tiger Shere-Khan whose depiction really enhances the impact of the character.

This film does have things to say if you want to look for it. When Baloo hears that Mowgli is to be taken to the man-village he expresses his fear that “they’ll ruin him, they’ll make a man out of him.” Thematically there is a lot of compassion in this film. Baloo’s repeated attempts to enable Mowgli to stay in the jungle are touching, as is his dedication to the man-cub he has only just met. The stubborn Bagheera is also never able to leave Mowgli to his own devices as he threatens to on many occasions. And the final act of self-sacrifice by Baloo in single handedly taking on the vicious Shere-Khan shows that even this light relief character is prepared to do anything to save his young friend. There is also the question of where Mowgli belongs. This can be adapted universally to a range of real-world conundrums. He does not belong in the jungle – not with the bears, the monkeys or the vultures. But surely he will struggle to fit in at the man-village having grown up in the jungle. I also found his snap decision to go to the village, after resisting pretty much the entire movie unconvincing. I don’t think that a boy of 8 (approximately) would really be that easily swayed by the vision of a pretty young girl.

The positives and negatives of this film in the end pretty much even each other out. The average story is elevated by a number of great characters. Similarly some excellent songs (“Bear Necessities”) are cancelled out by some bad ones (Kaa’s creepy “Trust in Me”). This is not a bad film, but it is a much too short one that is maybe a little dated now.

Verdict: Stubby of Reschs

I have not seen a whole lot of anime, but after watching Akira (1988) I will be searching out a whole lot more. Obviously this film operates on a whole other plane to that of The Jungle Book which I looked at above. The film is set in a dystopic Neo Tokyo 31 years after WWIII in which Tokyo was destroyed. Initially a number of wonderful tracking shots take us through the spectacularly rendered cityscapes, depicting an urban jungle equal in beauty to the jungle brought to life in The Jungle Book. There is a noirish feel at street level enhanced by the flickering of the many broken streetlights, the dark alleyways that abound, graffiti and numerous broken down, burning cars. By the time this early setting had been established I was pretty much hooked, excited and unsure what the film was going to do with this world.

In this city, which is on edge due to the government’s attempt at tax reform, we are introduced to a teenage bike gang led by alpha male Kaneda. A series of wonderful bike chases ensue between our protagonists and the villainous clown gang. These scenes have a fantastic sense of speed and tension; and are topped with some brutal violence. I wanted to watch them over and over to re-experience the excitement. It is at the conclusion of one of these chases that the film changes completely. Tetsuo, a member of Kaneda’s gang crashes his motorbike into an apparition that appears to be an elderly man trapped in a perpetual childhood. The apparition is unharmed, but Tetsuo is and is taken away by the military. Here we see numerous experiments being performed on Tetsuo. It is clear that he has fantastic mental capabilities and these experiments unleash the power of his mind. The first moment when Tetsuo learns to harness his power is a shocking one, leaving a pile of guards quickly dead in his wake. Soon, Tetsuo escapes from the facility where the military is holding him but is haunted by visions featuring Akira, who is also spoken about by other characters. An air of mystery surrounds who or what Akira is. But Tetsuo wants to confront and challenge Akira because he feels no one is as strong as him and by taking down Akira he will prove it. This is the nuts and bolts of what is a fantastically complex (but generally easy to follow) plot.

Tetsuo is a wonderfully contradictory character. For much of the film it is unclear whether he is fundamentally good or evil and whether or not we should be sympathising with him. He does some horrible things such as his slaying of the bartender, but how much of this is him and how much of it is the experiments that were performed on him. It is clear that the angst he felt especially toward Kaneda for his occasionally being patronising has been multiplied. It is unnerving to see Tetsuo attack Kaneda, who just wants to help his friend. But the attempts of Kaneda to help Tetsuo just enrage him more. He feels the need to graphically illustrate that no longer is Kaneda the alpha-male and that he is now the strong one. It is during the scenes of him lashing out at those around him that I felt the least sympathy with Tetsuo. But as someone who has never had the power to fight back it is perhaps unsurprising that he channels this newfound superiority in such a manner. But this core relationship of the film is redeemed in its conclusion. When Tetsuo thinks he has been responsible for the death of Kaneda he is inconsolable, realising what he has done and that he has (he thinks) killed his greatest protector. Likewise when it comes to the crunch Kaneda realises he cannot kill Tetsuo, who he has essentially raised and protected since they were both very young. You know that what happened to Tetsuo will haunt Kaneda for the rest of his like (due to the emotional impact, not just cause its freaky as shit). There are very few films which have made me feel so much about a central pairing, let alone an animated one.

I thought that there was a chance that Akira would expand what I thought animation was possible of achieving. And in many ways it did. But the real shocker for me is that it actually expanded what I thought a soundtrack was possible of. I think it is probably the greatest soundtrack I have ever come across. The way it adds intensity to the early chase sequences or the silence as Akira ascends into space toward the films conclusion. But its greatest addition is the way it emphasises Tetsuo’s mental prowess. In these most shocking of moments throughout the film when Tetsuo unleashes his power, all of the impact comes from the soundtrack. If I were to watch these scenes on mute I seriously think they would be lucky to have 10% of the impact they do. I was really surprised that the soundtrack to an 80’s animation could astound me the way it did.

There is so much here to enjoy and explore in this film and I could bore you with thousands of more words on different aspects of it. It is hard for me to recommend this film enough. It succeeds as a spectacle, as a piece of sci-fi, as an exploration of a dystopia, as a relationship drama, as a love story. For me, this is simply the first truly unmissable film I have written about on this blog and an experience that has stayed with me since I saw it and that I think will continue to stay with me. Go watch it.

Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter

Progress: 3/1001

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Vertigo

vertigo_ver2For no real reason other than the fact it was lying in the huge pile of library DVDs besides my TV, the first film I have decided to check out is Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Hitchcock is probably the most iconic director in cinema history but my personal experience with Hitchcock only extends to two films. I watched the first, Psycho (1960) for a high school English class quite a few years ago now. Whilst I haven’t seen it since then I remember being shocked (in my school boy innocence) that I could like an old film so much. I was also struck by the technical skill of Hitchcock and the manner in which each shot had something to say. Not to mention one of the most famous twists in all of cinema history. I saw my second Hitchcock film a month or two ago as part of a first year uni course. It was Rear Window (1954) and whilst again I was astounded by Hitchcock technical proficiency, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the film overall. For some reason the story just did not grab me and whilst the set was incredibly constructed, I felt the film at times constrained by its setting. It will be interesting to see if these sentiments hold up with a second viewing of these films (Hitchcock has a massive 18 films including these 2 on the 1001 list).

So now, after that rather longwinded intro, on to Vertigo. My film studies lecturer described this film as probably Hitchcock’s best and most well realised film. My knowledge of the director’s work is not sufficient to make any such claims but it is certainly an exceptional work. It opens with a long and beguiling credit sequence featuring extreme close ups of a face and whirling graphics. It really is a treat to watch in an age where credit sequences generally consist of a bunch of names over some average graphics that someone has slapped together at the last moment (Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009) is one recent film which bucks this trend). From here the film jumps straight into a chase scene across rooftops, accompanied by unrelenting music. The tension is high and we see a police officer plunge to his death whilst attempting to save the life of his colleague.

jimmyFinally the audience is able to draw breath. We are introduced to the police officer that watched the other one plunge to his death. His name is John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson and we learn that as a result of the incident he now suffers from extreme vertigo and has retired from the force. He has been told that only another shock to the system like the initial one he suffered will overturn the condition. My ears pricked on hearing this. I was certain at some stage we would see this second shock to his system. In this sequence Ferguson is chatting to his lifelong friend Midge. The relationship between the two is lovingly portrayed throughout the film. They have a believable rapport and inject some humour into the film. Personally my enjoyment of the film was at its greatest when these two characters were on screen together.

The major plotline of the film kicks off when Ferguson receives a call from an old college acquaintance who asks him to follow his wife. In the opinion of this college friend his wife has been possessed by a dead women. Scottie initially scoffs at this suggestion but reluctantly agrees to trail the wife. After saving the wife Madeline’s life when she jumps into San Francisco Bay, Scottie and her fall in love. It is an affair that seemed somewhat uncomfortable to me as a viewer. Not just cause she was a married woman but also because she was clearly mentally unstable and Scottie seems to have no qualms taking advantage of this. I was not sure why Scottie falls for Madeline, why he initially chooses to make a move on her. This initial plotline ends with Scottie’s vertigo coming back to haunt him as he watches his love plunge to her death from the roof of a church.

It is here that the film takes an unexpected tonal shift. Prior to this it has been a reasonably conventional (but brilliantly shot) thriller. The audience is subjected to a scary nightmare sequence into which Hitchcock inserts pieces of animation. This is a bold sequence which could easily have backfired and come off looking twee, or just downright laughable. But it works exceptionally well and it is on this sequence that the whole film turns. From here it is Scottie’s sanity that it in question. He tracks down and seduces a woman who he thinks looks somewhat like Madeline. He forces this woman Judy to buy clothes that match those Madeline wore and colour her hair the same striking blonde colour. These scenes, with Scottie forcing the increasingly uncomfortable Judy to do his bidding are exceptionally unsettling even to the modern viewer and really complicate ones feelings toward Scottie. These scenes reminded me a lot of a similarly unsettling scene late in James Ellroy’s classic crime novel The Black Dahlia which I have no doubt were heavily inspired by Vertigo. The film concludes with Scottie uncovering the film’s big twist, that he has been played and with Judy accidentally plunging to her death. The end of the film left me unsure as to how I was meant to view Scottie. His actions toward Judy in forcing her to dress like Madeline were clearly those of someone not of sane mind and this unnerving chronicle of his obsession really coloured my opinion of the film’s supposed ‘hero’.

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The use of music by Hitchcock dominates much of this film in much the same way that the setting dominates Rear Window in my opinion. And the film is majestically shot and composed, with many scenes of the film being artworks in themselves. The high camera angle shot of Madeline’s body being discovered whilst Scottie flees the church springs to mind as a picture that would look pretty cool hanging on my wall. Like any film, this is an imperfect one. But to examine the films flaws – such as the character’s occasionally underdeveloped motives and the unsatisfactory tying up of the initial thriller plotline – in any great detail is really to quibble unnecessarily. It is a brilliantly made and at times exceptionally unsettling film.

Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny

Progress: 1/1001

Ratings System

I agonised for quite some time over whether I should use a ratings system for each film that I view. I didn’t feel particularly qualified to denote the ‘star’ value of films, but in the end decided it was important to grade them in some way. So in the end I came up with my own, more personal five-tiered system:

  • Melbourne Bitter Longneck – The King of Beers. A title reserved for what are in my opinion the kings of movies. In a nutshell, this is a movie I think everyone should go out and watch straight away, no excuses (accompanied by a MB longneck of course)
  • Pint of Kilkenny – There is very little better than one of these by the fire in a pub on a freezing Canberra evening. And there is very little better than these films. Denotes an excellent film which comes highly recommended and should be seen by everyone.
  • Stubby of Reschs – A very good film. An enjoyable film which maybe didn’t entirely grab me. Reschs never fails to grab me and merely names this rating cause it’s a beer I enjoy a little less than a Pint of Kilkenny.
  • Schooner of Carlton Draught – An average beer but one you will drink if there is nothing else going. Films earning this rating are ones that I am surprised were deemed worthy to be on this list, because in reality they do not stand out in any good way and more importantly are not particularly enjoyable.
  • Schooner of Tooheys New – This movie, like this beer may induce vomiting on impact and should be avoided at all costs. I’m not really sure if any movies will ‘earn’ this rating, but if they do then you wouldn’t wish for your worst enemy to sit through it.

I would expect, seeing as these are supposedly all great or excellent films that I would tend to dish out more high ratings then generally seen. However time will tell.

Not Now, I’m Drinking a Beer and Watching A Movie

I am aware that this is in no way an original idea for a blog. Its purpose is to chronicle my attempts to track down and watch the 1001 films I should apparently see before I kick the bucket. * I’m sure others have undertaken and chronicled similar quests. I also make no claim of being a film critic. Rather I will use this forum to share my views on what I liked and did not like in individual films. I will not be making any claims regarding the ‘greatness’ of films; rather I will be making comments on what amongst them are my ‘favourites.’ Two very distinct things. At the time of beginning this blog I have already seen somewhere around 70 – 80 of the films on this list. I will re-view them for the purposes of commenting on them here as I go along.

I was motivated to take the time to start commenting on these films for a few different reasons. Already in tracking down and viewing some of these films I have been exposed to filmmakers whose work I would never have seen otherwise. Orson Welles and Werner Herzog are two who spring to mind. Maybe by writing about these filmmakers others will be inspired to search out the films of directors such as these. Secondly is that hopefully by maintaining this blog I will be more motivated to keep up at watching these films and keep tracking down some of the more obscure works on the list. And lastly is that I, like many people I am sure have quite a poor memory. So hopefully by recording my feelings about these films I will have something to look back on when my memory of them fades somewhat.

Sourcing the films on this list, especially the earlier ones is not always easy. The main place that I source them from is the local library system here in Canberra which operates an excellent service. Other places I find them are in my own personal DVD collection, local video shop, university and through mates. I am sure that as I make my way through this list I will come across a number of films which elude me. So I will occasionally share with you my attempts to track down these hard to find films.

I would love to hear your comments and opinions on my posts. Let me know if you agree or (politely) disagree with my sentiments. But please also bear in mind that these are my personal opinions and personal opinions can never be wrong (unless you like Nickelback or Dan Brown books, in which case they are).

Thats it for now. Time that I started watching a movie rather than continued sitting in front of my computer writing about it. Stay well.

* My list is sourced from the widely available book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die edited by Steven Jay Schneider and published in Australia by Harper Collins.