Saturday, May 3, 2008

Fitzcarraldo


May 3, 2008

Fitzcarraldo (1982) ****1/2

Directed by Werner Herzog

Fitzcarraldo is a visual masterpiece. There are scenes that astound not only the eyes, but also the mind. The sequence involving the transport of a steamboat over a mountain shows an effort in filmmaking that almost transcends even the highest standards. As usual with a Herzog film, nature becomes the driving force of the movie. During and after the second hour of the film, the dialogue becomes very sparse. Sometimes, more than ten minutes pass without any words spoken at all. I can almost guarantee that images from this movie are going to stay with me for the rest of my life.

This is the second film of Herzog’s that I have seen. The first was Aguirre, The Wrath of God, which is one of Roger Ebert’s favorite movies. Filmspotting had done a Herzog/Kinski marathon, so Fitzcarraldo is the second of what will ultimately be six movies showcasing the legendary collaboration between these two eccentrics. In Aguirre, Klaus Kinski completely dives head first into camp with a performance so big, it actually overshadows some of the amazing nature shots. When an actor can pull focus from natural beauty, that’s one heck of an actor.

I’m glad I saw Aguirre first, because now I appreciate Kinski’s performance in Fitzcarraldo in a way I couldn’t without seeing him act before. Kinski does have moments of complete abandon, uttering sometimes ridiculous dialogue with 150 percent commitment (I invented rubber! I will outrubber you!). Yet, for most of the film, he is a soft-spoken, non-threatening presence which completely makes sense since he is almost running headfirst into danger for a dream which is pretty much unfeasible.

Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, known as Fitzcarraldo, after recently going bankrupt because of a failed pipe dream that he could build an intercontinental railroad, decides to attempt to bring his love of opera to the jungle. He adores opera, and wants to build an opera house which would allow him to stay in South America and still enjoy the pleasures of a good opera. In order to finance his dream, he decides to buy a riverboat and travel to an unclaimed area off the Amazon. Rubber trees in the area could make Fitzcarraldo very rich, but the area is home to a supposedly brutal group of Indians that are known to murder and shrink the heads of anyone that crosses their path.

So he gathers an eccentric crew to journey with him. Most of his crew abandons him when they realize the danger of the mission. When the encounter with the savage Indians occurs, Fitzcarraldo is happy to find that they are not planning on murdering him immediately, so he uses them to help him heave the steamboat over the mountain.

We have much less death in Fitzcarraldo than in Aguirre. As a matter of fact, I think the body count of the film is one. Yet, the suspense accompanying the danger of nature itself which Herzog emphasizes still remains. The decisions Herzog makes regarding what to film really shows not only his genius, but also his awe and fear of nature itself. This guy has issues and paranoia, but it cannot be debated that he absolutely is at his best when he is filming nature at its fundamental (and Herzog would say cruel) existence.

I went along with this movie and loved it. Yet, I need more plot and less meandering nature imagery in the future Herzog/Kinski films or else I will get tired of the patience necessary to really appreciate these movies. Also, I loved the relatively sparse narrative-driven moviemaking in Fitzcarraldo when it actually occurred. The first hour of the film is a lot of fun as we get to know Kinski and his girlfriend, who owns and runs a brothel. The scenes involving Kinski networking with the wealthy landowners were wonderfully written and acted.

Finally, I simply need to give Herzog credit for his courage. It’s obvious why he chose opera as the gift Fitzcarraldo wants to give to the world. Opera represents the absolute highest aspect of culture. Just about no one can really sink their teeth into it. Personally, I’ve never seen a complete opera and I will never go out of my way to see one. It sounds painfully boring to me. The contrast of high culture with an area of the world almost devoid of any civilization at all points to the bizarreness of Fitzcarraldo’s mission. Herzog’s ambition and execution here is almost equally bizarre. This film is so outside of the mainstream and completely inaccessible to most. Obviously, Herzog felt the need to make this movie. I know that if I were a studio executive being presented the idea for Fitzcarraldo, I wouldn’t hesitate declining. Too bad, though, because I’d be turning down a special gem of a film absolutely radiating of Herzog’s personal investment into this subject matter and into the filmmaking process itself.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Casablanca

May 2, 2008

Casablanca (1942) *****

Directed by Michael Curtiz

Yep, I finally understand THE movie experience that is Casablanca. Almost uncontested as the most beloved film of all time, I wasn’t sure I was ever going to be impressed. I mean with hype like that, it seems that one could only be disappointed. Well, of course, there’s a reason for the praise which the film more than earns.

This is the second time I have seen Casablanca. The first time was about five years ago. One night, I saw the tape sitting on the shelf and popped it in. This was well before I had gone crazy with my movie watching obsession, so my skill as a judge of film was not at its best then. I remember thinking the movie was very good, but it was complicated and sometimes just plain boring (too much talking).

On the one hand, it’s easy to forget that there’s a whole lot of talking in the movie. Going into the film this time, I was ready for this. Further, closer attention and effort was given attempting to keep up with the unfolding storyline. This time, I followed it just fine.

The plot, which I’m sure everyone knows, centers around a “gin joint” in Casablanca called Rick’s, named after owner Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). Shocked, shocked to learn there’s gambling going on at this establishment, the joint is a hub for much underground resistance action. World War II is in full force and the Germans are winning. Rick pretty much stays out of the politics. That is, until Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his beautiful wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) show up. Laszlo is known the world over for escaping from a concentration camp and then outrunning the Nazis that want to arrest him.

Since Casablanca is French-occupied, the Nazis turn to French Captain Renault (Claude Rains) for assistance in finding and capturing Laszlo. Sam the piano player (Dooley Wilson) knows Ilsa and she requests that Sam play, “As Time Goes By.” He does and out comes Rick to scold Sam. Instead he is face to face with his former Paris lover who broke his heart by not showing up at the train station from which they were going to get away together.

The love story and the political story continue and both are immensely satisfying. For me personally, the political story actually worked better than the love story. Maybe it’s because I was familiar with the often quoted romantic angle of the film. I was pleasantly surprised at how fascinating and entertaining the political scenes play out. One of the very best scenes in the film involves the Germans’ patriotic song completely drowned out by the entire crowd that screams the French anthem. This scene took my breath away.

While I was bothered by the verboseness (yes this is a word) a few years ago, this time I totally dug the brilliant dialogue. This is maybe the best written dialogue I’ve ever heard in film (right up there with Sunset Blvd.). No doubt, this is the most quoted movie in history. Some of the lines are hilarious (Do I really have brown eyes?). Some have provocative overtones (If I were a woman and he was a man… I’d fall madly in love with him). One line sums up the entire genius of the movie. “It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

As beautiful as the love story is (and it doesn’t get more beautiful than this), what really works best in the film is the fact that they do have to let each other go because it’s about more than their little love relationship. Casablanca is now one of my all-time favorites. I love how complicated it is, and boy I love that dialogue!!!

Secrets and Lies


May 2, 2008

Secrets and Lies (1996) ****1/2

Directed by Mike Leigh

Secrets and Lies is one huge step below deserving to be called a masterpiece. Yet, Secrets and Lies is ten steps better than it should have been. We’ve seen this concept before a million times—individuals that seem at first not to have anything to do with each other and seem to live such different lives that you can’t imagine how they could in any way be connected. The film continues and the pieces fit together. The final act of the film involves them all coming together—drama ensues.

This tired film cliché almost never works. My problem is that with divergent storylines, I often come to like one plot better than another and one character better than another. Consistency seems almost impossible. Of course it can be done successfully (the greatest example by far being Nashville and a more recent example being Babel). Secrets and Lies does not fall into the traps of inconsistency, not because the characters are fully realized throughout the film, but actually because they are fully realized at the very end of the film. Actually, this places Secrets and Lies in a league of its own since films like Nashville and Babel succeed all the way through and not just at the end.

What keeps it from greatness? The answer—the screenplay. The dialogue is written exceptionally well, so I’m not faulting that. The final act is much more contrived than the rest of the movie. The film could have brought something new and original and sadly, it ends a little too neatly and familiarly. By no means did the ending kill the movie. It just brought it down from the stratosphere.

What makes it better than you’d expect? The answer—the performances. Three actors give performances that are of the highest quality. Timothy Spall’s performance was nothing special at first, but when you see what this character has had to go through by the end, you really see the intelligence of the acting choices Spall makes.

An actress that I wish had a better career especially since she was radiant in this very film is Marianne Jean-Baptiste. You can catch her on Without a Trace on television. Even on that show, she stands out. Interestingly, I’m sure many think her performance on Without a Trace is the worst part of the show. On the contrary, I believe she is amazing on it. Believe it or not, I didn’t think she was all that good until I just saw her here. Jean-Baptiste is completely in control of the character she created on television. How do I know? Because I’ve seen her play a completely different character. Hortense is fascinating, and Jean-Baptiste has presence dripping out of her pores.

And then there’s Brenda Blethyn. Simply watch her when she is on the phone for the first time with Hortense. That scene contains some of the very best acting I’ve ever seen. This is a huge character and Blethyn not only met the challenge, but catapulted the performance to astronomical heights. The character on paper is most likely nowhere near as interesting as it is realized through Blethyn’s amazing performance.

I am not going to get into the plot because I went into the film knowing absolutely nothing about it. Because of this, the journey into the lives of these characters really became fun to go along with. All I will say is that these people need each other. The film executes this idea in an extremely touching and entertaining way!

The Top Ten Movies of April 2008 (and the five worst)

May 2, 2008

The Top Ten Movies of April 2008 (and the five worst)

Each month, I will rank the ten best films I’ve seen that month and give a sentence or two explaining how the film has “sunken in.” For this month only, I will discuss the films beginning when I started the blog on April 8th. (Impressively, I’ve reviewed 30 films on this blog in the month of April! Good job, me!)

Note: My list may not follow the logic of the star ratings. I may have a film with four and a half stars higher than a film with five stars. I am doing this based on my sentiment right now and not based on a rigid system that takes all of the fun out of the list!

10. The 400 Blows- The tone and the mood of the film really stick with me more than the plot. I think this is the point of neo-realism—so good job!

9. Belle de Jour- Not one of my top ten favorites, but definitely one of the best. I am still impressed by what the movie says about sex.

8. The Color Purple- Cannot get Whoppi’s smiling face out of my head. I hope it stays fresh in my mind forever.

7. Il Postino- What a lovely little movie. I still feel the simple joys this film gave to me.

6. Bride of Frankenstein- I called this one of the best horror films ever made. Unfortunately, I am starting to lose hold of why exactly. All I know was that I was pretty damn impressed. The image of the roof opening and the table actually ascending into the sky is an appropriate allegory for Bride of Frankenstein’s improvement upon Frankenstein significant achievement.

5. The Shawshank Redemption- Visually stunning. Absolutely stunning. I still remember a prison yard as a surprising setting for such pure magic.

4. Spirited Away- Maybe it’s that I’ve just seen this movie a few days ago, but I love this movie more and more every time I think about it. I can’t wait to see this again. Hell, I can’t wait to own it!

3. Dances with Wolves- Had to watch this one in pieces but it was so deeply pleasurable to watch. Easily the most gorgeous film I’ve seen this month. I’ve also got to say—this film made me a lifelong Kevin Costner fan.

2. Grave of the Fireflies- Wow. I mean really wow. This is my favorite movie of the month. I didn’t bawl, yet I am impressed that this film has touched people in an even more profound way than it touched me. Just wow.

1. The Seventh Seal- I placed this as the tenth best film I’ve ever seen. It’s so deeply profound and so attractively challenging. I wouldn’t be surprised if I watch this movie thirty or forty more times in my lifetime. No other film on this list merits that many views in order to appreciate it. This is the one that I believe I could love more as I continue to see and study it. Bergman’s awesome!

And the bottom five

  1. The Omega Man
  1. Bad Education
  1. Ghost in the Shell
  1. Braveheart
1. Watership Down

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Bicycle Thief


May 1, 2008

The Bicycle Thief (1948) *****

Directed by Vittorio De Sica

I was so proud of myself as I really was beginning to get into The Bicycle Thief. I had noticed early on that the father never held his young son’s hand. The kid, Bruno, can’t be more than seven or eight. In a world where someone would cruelly steal a bicycle, you’d think a boy of seven or eight needs to be physically protected by his father. Many times, the boy doesn’t realize that his father has walked away and has to run to keep up with him. Sometimes there are physical barriers that separate the boy and his father, Antonio, such as a locked door or a streetcar. Most of the times Antonio walks away from his son in a single minded search for his stolen bicycle, he doesn’t seem to notice or care if his son is following.

So, when the ending of the film shows that the lack of hand holding between father and son was deliberate, my belief that I was a brilliant filmgoer was crushed once again. That’s okay, though, because I was elated after The Bicycle Thief since I was basking in the fact that I just watched one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. This is a quiet movie, but it is exceptionally layered and insightful.

This may be the second blog, after Bad Education, where I may need to add something to it after the fact. It is clear that the film is making a statement about Italian society during the depression of the late forties after the end of World War II. I think the film argues against communism.

The first scene of the movie takes place on an outdoor staircase where a government worker is handing a job offer to Antonio. The crowd at the bottom of the steps is pleading for a job as well but the man says that he only has two that day. When I use the term pleading, I don’t mean that they were crying and ravenous and dirty street beggars. It seems that the depression has just begun. After all, everyone asking for a job is wearing blazers and their clothes and faces are clean. The worst of it is yet to come.

Antonio is so excited to finally be providing for his family. Unfortunately, the job requires a bicycle. Antonio and his wife Maria pawn their bed sheets for enough money to buy a bicycle. Antonio leaves the bike alone a number of times before it gets stolen. Why would he do something as stupid as this? Well, probably because before the depression, it would be safe to leave a bike outside alone. Since the societal situation really hasn’t festered yet, Antonio fails to realize that he needs to keep his eye on his stuff or else desperate people may be forced to steal.

He takes his young son on the journey to find his bike. He elicits the helps of some thief friends of his to find out where something like a bike would be taken once it is stolen. He goes to a market and confronts a man who is painting a bike frame. Unfortunately he leaves his son alone. While alone, a creepy older man seems disturbingly interested in the boy. Similar scenes of confronting individuals occur in a Christian mission (which tries to offer hope, but it is false hope) and on a street block. During all these situations, Bruno follows his father from a distance. It reminded me of some of those old video games where you could have another character follow you for a while. When you turned, it would follow you. When you walked towards it, you simply walked past it. It would then turn around and keep following you. That’s pretty much Bruno’s task in the film.

The film breaks this pattern brilliantly during a scene at a restaurant. Antonio seems about to give up, so he buys his son and himself some food and wine. He explains the stakes to his son. This is his only chance. The son seems to think that maybe, just maybe, they will be okay even if he doesn’t find the bicycle.

So, what’s anti-communist in The Bicycle Thief? Well, the government simply can’t provide for its citizens. The whole Marxist philosophy relies on the idea that people will be satisfied simply by doing their jobs well. The goal is not making money. The goal is putting in an honest day’s work. Well, how can this philosophy be anything but ridiculous unless there are enough jobs to go around?

In a climate like this, was the first bicycle thief really all that much of a criminal? One thing’s for sure. He’s definitely less culpable than a bicycle thief in modern day America. Was the second bicycle thief in the movie really all that much of a criminal? Well, yes…not because he tries to steal a bike, but because he ignores the one aspect of his life that the government does not have the power to give to him and take from him—his family. Since he is not as culpable for his sins in this environment, the realization that he comes to at the end of the film is enough to vindicate Antonio. He’s not a villain. He is a man crumbling under the injustice of his situation.

(Interestingly, the film, written by Cesare Zavattini, an Italian communist, seems to instead be a Marxist fable. Okay, but I’d think when there’s no wealth to distribute, things can’t get much better. Though, I suppose the poverty would be “fairer.” Hmmm…)

The Iron Giant


May 1, 2008

The Iron Giant (1999) ***

Directed by Brad Bird

If The Iron Giant were going to vote in the 2008 presidential elections, it would no doubt vote for the Democrat—I’d even put money it would vote for Obama over Hillary. Possibly, it might even pull the lever next to Ralph Nadar’s name. This film does not hide the fact that it is attacking the NRA and promoting non-proliferation. These explicit liberal themes which of course may interest adult viewers probably has had much to do with the iconic cult status of the great Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) and his animated movie. Further, here we see the first time a computer generated character exists in a traditionally animated film. I enjoyed The Iron Giant, and I recommend it. Unfortunately, the film does not live up to its hype.

There are simply too many things holding this film back. First of all, the movie is way too short. At 86 minutes, we really do not become invested in any of the characters except Hogarth Hughes, the young protagonist of the movie. Characters such as Annie Hughes (Jennifer Aniston), Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick Jr.) and Kent Masley (Christopher MacDonald) are not memorable or fully realized characters. The film runs head first into an over-the-top ending (even for an animated film). If you think Gaston from Beauty and the Beast is bad, Kent Masley tricks the US Army into shooting a nuclear bomb at the Iron Giant. Well, okay, that could have been really interesting, but the scene is way to short and staccato and therefore, the extremeness of the situation feels tacked on and inconsistent. The film does not adequately set up an ending that involves a nuclear bomb. Also, maybe it’s just because we’re at war now and I am writing this after September 11th, but the US Army is pretty much mocked and shown to be abetting the villain. So, we see soldiers fired upon and even presumably blown up. This made me uncomfortable—as if its left-wing politics (which I hold to myself) took things a little too far.

So those are my big problems with the movie. I also have little ones as well—laxative jokes, the way Eli Marienthal as Hogarth says certain lines with a nauseating sadness, the creepiness of situations involving grown men and a young boy alone. Yet, the big thing I loved about the movie was the Iron Giant’s face. This creaky, bulky giant becomes one of the most loveable characters in animated film history. I’d love to get a print of the very last shot of the movie and put it on my wall. I bet you it’s available for purchase too! The characterization of the giant and his mysterious existence are written and executed brilliantly. We don’t ultimately know where this giant comes from or why he is so angered at guns, and I’m glad that the filmmakers believed in the viewing audience enough not to condescend. We are trusted to accept this character as is. And accept him I did! I loved the character of the Iron Giant much more than I loved the film The Iron Giant.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Spirited Away

April 29, 2008

Spirited Away (2001) *****

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

The little girl Chihiro/Sen (I will call her Sen from this point on) is the most noble and honorable fictional character in the history of the movies. While this statement may seem to be bold and inviting disagreement, I think it’s true and I stand by it completely. Sen makes mistakes. At one point, she can’t hold her breath to the end of the bridge. Also, you may notice that Sen does look back when told not to. Perfection is different than honor, and Sen is not perfect. She is perfectly honorable though.

The plot is very complex but can be explained simply by saying that this little 10 year old girl is trapped in a spirit world. To make it out of the world, and to save her parents who have turned into pigs, she must pass a series of tests, all with the same purpose—to test the girl’s character. The episodic situations don’t always make complete sense and the cohesion of the adventures doesn’t always feel right, but I’d argue that the film is all about this girl rather than about the plot. The adventures, the characters and the visuals all serve the purpose of allowing the viewer to see Sen as she truly is in the most extreme and even ridiculous of situations.

Out of the six movies in the Filmspotting animation marathon, Spirited Away is far and away the most visually impressive. This isn’t surprising since it is also the most recent of the six—being released in Japan in 2001 and in the United States in 2002. The imagination that went into this spirit world and the bathhouse itself is truly magical. Some characters, especially the twin characters of Yubaba and Zeniba are comically exaggerated. Some characters are almost realistic (well as realistic as animated humans are anyway). The mix and match of the style of these characters really works very well and kept me almost off balance while watching, which is the best way to watch this film. If you try to comprehend this film literally, you won’t succeed. It’s way too out there.

All those around Sen have character flaws, though what’s absolutely refreshing is that none of these characters are condemned as bad. Even a character that eats three other characters is eventually redeemed. When Sen is seen against the selfishness and greed of the spirits (and her parents as well), we are treated to goodness personified in this ten year old girl. Spirited Away could easily have fallen into the trap of being heavy-handed and preachy, but it avoids this beautifully. Sen isn’t there to make us feel guilty about our flaws. Instead, Sen simply remains true to herself and doesn’t judge others while doing so. She didn’t refuse the gold because she had some enlightened view of the evils of materialism. No, she refused the gold because at that point, she didn’t need gold. She needed to help her friend.

I absolutely adored this movie! It was so entertaining and uplifting. Also, it was absolutely hilarious! Miyazaki really hit a homerun here. Out of all the films I’ve reviewed on this blog, this is really the one that I most want to own and revisit over and over again on DVD!

Ghost in the Shell


April 29, 2008

Ghost in the Shell (1995) **1/2

Directed by Mamoru Oshii

At 74 minutes, Ghost in the Shell is probably the shortest film I’ve seen in a long time. Some films make a short running time work. Ghost in the Shell did not. At one point, we see a montage that lasts close to four minutes of the city at night with melodramatic Japanese music warbling in the background. I think the point of the scene was to show how much people have relied up the progress of technology. Well, if that is the point, it’s not explicit enough, and at four minutes, you’d think they’d get their point across pretty well. The scene was obviously included to fatten up the running time.

The majority of the other scenes also run at a painfully slow pace. There’s got to be at least 20 minutes of non-dialogue in the film, often to laboriously set up a scene of violence. Another 30 minutes of Ghost in the Shell consists of command orders (Sector B: aim to subsection 27 alpha on my go). I’d say another 10 minutes of the film involves the two main characters discussing the philosophy of the self in this reality where progress has actually allowed the ghosts to continue on for multiple lifetimes without retaining memories of their past lives and with the addition of false pasts. I enjoyed the philosophical dialogue quite a bit, since it really did make sense. Do I really exist if I may have been killed previously and if I’m a puppet of technological advances?

The violence in the film is extreme, and yet, there’s not all that much of it. The body count I’d say has to be less than ten. Of course, within this body count, we see heads blown completely off more than once, a chest exploding and a leg bone snapping. Many of the scenes involving violence can’t really be described accurately as action scenes since almost from out of nowhere, the deaths occur. Afterwards, the assailant escapes immediately, was never seen in the first place, or has no other enemies to fight after the kill.

The visuals of the Ghost in the Shell are partly impressive and partly disappointing. The non-surveillance shots are choppy and much less intricate and fluid than Akira. On the other hand, the green infrared computer based monitoring scenes were very impressive. Unfortunately, I believe that technology has really evolved quite a bit since this film. If Ghost in the Shell were made today, those scenes would look even more beautiful and probably with much less effort from the part of the animators.

I do not recommend the film. Not only is the content less than adequate, but there wasn’t enough content to make a movie. If I had to pay ten dollars to see this in the theater, I’d feel cheated.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Akira


April 28, 2008

Akira (1988) ***1/2

Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo

I’m so glad I found the Filmspotting podcast when I did! Had it not been for the animation marathon, first of all, I probably never would have watched Akira and second of all, had I even began to watch it, I probably wouldn’t have stayed with it until the end. The thing that kept me going while watching Akira was knowing that I could articulate my opinion of the movie and compare it with Adam and Sam’s opinions. Akira is the perfect movie to dialogue about. Without a chance to let it sink in and without a chance to hear someone else’s view of the film, Akira would most likely be completely lost in my mind. It’s an odd, complicated, deconstructed, violent, beautiful and profound piece of manga anime.

The only problem I had with Akira lies in the last half hour. The first hour and a half continue to surprise and delight with its introduction of characters, its nightmarish images and its consistently funny dark humor. Further, we are given foggy insights into the plot. Unfortunately, by the hour and a half mark, we are in for non-stop action scenes of loud noises and things either being blown up, destroyed or sucked into bloated, expanding innards (you’ve got to see it to know what I mean by innards). By the hour and forty-five minute mark, I was ready for the movie to end. It became almost dizzyingly monotonous. The novelty of the film really wore off at that point.

The great news about Akira is that the first hour and a half is constant novelty! I’ve really never seen another movie like it. The closest thing I’ve seen were the Aeon Flux cartoons on MTV. Those stories had the same strangeness and violence, but there was no dialogue. You always had to grasp at understanding the plot of an episode of Aeon Flux. What made that show amazing was that you could really appreciate the visuals without understanding the storyline at all. In Akira, the storyline is reachable, but you’ve got to follow along closely. Personally, I think the film is designed so that viewers will return to it again and again. Watching Akira repeatedly is most likely the only way to really understand it.

And for me, that’s totally okay. Though I may not have always understood what was going on, I completely absorbed myself into this exceptionally smart cartoon for adults. Animation is such a cinematic treasure of a genre. Thank God for anime and the Japanese understanding that animated films can be made for an adult audience. In America, we rely on CGI and special effects. These can be used wonderfully, but imagine Akira made live action with special effects. I couldn’t imagine the end product being nearly as gorgeous and brutal as the animated version I just watched.

The plot, which is all over the place, basically centers around Tetsuo, a member of a biker gang who escapes after a fight with a rival biker gang and crashes into a little boy with the face of an old man. Instead of killing the boy, his motorcycle explodes and the boy disappears. Tetsuo is taken in for tests which allow him to get in touch with the power that exists in the energy in all of us. Unfortunately, his power evolves way too fast and Tetsuo, not being a very good person to begin with, abuses this power with unbelievably destructive results. Oh yeah, World War III also had resulted in the destruction of Tokyo and the reconstruction of Neo Tokyo, a city of crime and degeneration. Oh yeah, also, there’s this scientist and soldier who take care of the old man boy and two other old people children and monitor Tetsuo. Oh yeah, I can’t forget the other members of the biker gang who try to find where Tetsuo is hiding. Oh yeah, there’s also two female characters—one is Tetsuo’s girlfriend and the other is well… I’m not really sure, but she’s important none the less.

And what is Akira? Well, Akira is a naked little boy who has been frozen since before the World War who is umm… at the center of all the power in the universe and is able to bring about the birth of another universe… maybe… I think. Hmmmm… well anyway, the film is AWESOME to look at!!!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street


April 27, 2008

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) ****

Directed by Tim Burton

One of the last images of Sweeney Todd involves blood dripping on a woman’s face. This image is so beautifully macabre that I wouldn’t be surprised to see it alongside works of art dedicated to the Grand Guinoil. The beauty of the scene stands alongside countless other images of breathtaking art direction and color schemes. Sweeney Todd presents an atmosphere typical of Tim Burton and yet, there’s something extra special about it here.

Last year, I saw Sweeney Todd on Broadway starring Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett. The Mrs. Lovett role was made iconic by Angela Lansbury in the original Broadway show. Being familiar with the show, I was extremely disappointed with one song in the film version.

My favorite song from the show is “A Little Priest.” This song, at the end of Act One in the stage version, sets up the unimaginably disturbing plotline that a new kind of Soylent Greenesque meat will be in Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies. The song is supposed to be hilarious and Todd and Lovett are supposed to be having a good time—laughing and delighting in the horrific suggestion. They play around and pretend to eat imaginary pies describing from where they originate. Unfortunately, Burton decided to stage the song in a similar serious and stoic tone similar to the rest of the film. As they name the pie flavor possibilities, Depp and Bonham Carter are looking out the window at people. One line is so stupidly executed. Todd says, “Is that squire by the fire?” So the film did this one by showing a man standing by a fire outside. Come on! The line is meant to have us imagine that there are pies cooking over a fire.

Connected to the problem I had with that scene is the problem I had with the characterization of Mrs. Lovett. She seems equally cynical, grim and tired of life as Sweeney Todd. The character simply works better when she is played with almost a giddiness which makes her ultimate evil such a stark comparison. Mrs. Lovett in the film is simply dark and creepy. As I’ve thought about this, I do not think this is in any way Helena Bonham Carter’s fault. She was most likely asked to act this way or was never corrected. As her particular Mrs. Lovett, she commits to it beautifully. The problem is I didn’t like this Mrs. Lovett.

The one scene that seemed to get the black humor of the original show perfectly is during a song called, “By the Sea.” Here, Lovett imagines a future, and we see them transported to these beautiful, bright locations. The costumes and Depp’s face during these scenes are absolutely hilarious. At one point, Depp puts his hand on her knee and slowly removes it without breaking his gloomy disposition.

Johnny Depp is fantastic as usual. No one I can think of could have done this better. Also, unlike others in the film, his singing voice is quite adequate. Bonham Carter’s is passable. The three unknown actors portraying the supporting characters of Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), Johanna (Jayne Wisener) and the young Toby (Edward Sangers) obviously have copious voice training. The three all sound excellent and do great jobs—I was especially impressed with Sangers.

The violence in the film is absolutely wonderful. It’s gross and over the top and lovely! It takes almost an hour for the first kill, but then, it’s pretty much non-stop. Steven Sondheim’s music is breathtaking. The lyrical genius as well within these songs is rarely matched in musicals. With the exception of the Lovett character which does significantly hurt the movie itself, Sweeney Todd is one of the best musicals I’ve ever seen. For sure, it’s the sickest musical I’ve ever seen!

Watership Down


April 27, 2008

Watership Down (1978) *1/2

Directed by Martin Rosen

I’m sorry to say that Watership Down is a pretty stupid little film. I can understand the cult status I suppose since the cartoon is extremely bleak and violent. The same kind of people that enjoy movies like Last House on the Left and I Spit On Your Grave probably get off on the simple unpleasantness and gore involved in the fighting and death of these bunnies.

Going into this film, I knew that for many, this movie is the stuff of nightmares. On the other hand, the movie was rated PG and none of the quotes on the box called the movie extremely disturbing. Throughout the movie, I wasn’t really all that disturbed. The violence and the redness of the blood was kind of gross, but nothing to write home about. Sure, little kids who at the time were used to wholesome cartoon programming may be pretty screwed up by the bloodshed and the bunnies in danger throughout. For an adult, being afraid of this movie equates with being afraid of clowns—it’s an irrational fear.

Plot: Some bunnies leave their home in search of a new home and encounter enemies along their way. The opening of the film (and by far the best part) tells us of a bunny legend about a god who punishes bunnies for their insubordination by making every other creature on earth their enemy. So other bunnies, rats, a cat, a dog and man all play parts in making the lives of these bunnies hell on earth.

The animation is awful. It reminded me of one of those old Charlie Brown movies like It’s the National Spelling Bee Charlie Brown! The animation is disappointingly crude and we are “treated” to random psychedelic scenes throughout. Here, Art Garfunkel sings Bright Eyes with lava lamp like images of bunnies floating around the screen. To me, this simply seemed like a complete waste of film. Yet, scenes like that could account for the appeal of Watership Down. There are definitely worse films to watch when you’re high. Unfortunately, being sober and watching Watership Down was truly a vacuous experience.