Review “Laputa – Castle in the sky”.

There is something about the work that comes out of Studio Ghibli that just makes me smile. There’s also a lot to be said for good old-fashioned feel good movies. In the animated films from Studio Ghibli, you can expect beautiful art, beautiful music, and classical fairy-tale type stories. “Laputa – Castle in the sky” is no exception.

Made in 1986, the story follows a young girl who possesses a magic crystal pendant, and a boy who befriends her. The crystal is the key to unlocking the secrets of the floating island of Laputa, and unscrupulous people want to gain control of its power (mainly its weapons) for their own ends.

The director, Hayao Miyazaki, is the co-founder of Studio Ghibli, and is the creative genius behind its best-loved work. His stories often have recurring themes, and “Laputa” illustrates the theme of living in harmony with nature. A minor character says that the power of Laputa must be used in harmony with the earth, and for good, otherwise it turns inward and becomes destructive. This is borne out by the subsequent actions of the antagonist, further illustrated by his disdain of the overgrowth of trees and plants into all the mechanisms he wants to access.

Flying scenes, and the beauty of flight, are a staple in Myazaki’s movies. Many of the films have at least some part that is to do with flying, and of course there are many scenes of “Laputa” that take place in the air. I like the scenes best where there is no engine sound – for example when the hero and heroine are attached to the kite and gliding. There’s a peace and tranquillity in this and similar scenes that I love. There’s something clean about it, being up in the air and removed from the dross of the world below. This is in keeping with the innocence of the protagonists, and their innocent love for each other (clearly shown without a single kiss required.)

The music for this film, composed by Joe Hisaishi, is perfect at every point. There’s a lot of piano, which suits the lyrical, fairy-tale quality of the film. The film is steampunk in its appearance and technology, another semi-regular aspect of Ghibli films. Steampunk is always fun, incorporating nineteenth century style dress and society with steam powered technology taken to its extreme (such as the flying ships in “Laputa”.)

There is some criticism that this film is more westernised than later ones Myazaki has made. It would be foolish to regard this as simple marketing, however, because Myazaki himself has spoken of how he visited Wales in the aftermath of the miners strike of the early 80s. He had a great admiration for the struggle of these people to protect their jobs and homes, and this is what he put into his film, hence the so-called westernization.

I would strongly recommend this film to adults and children alike. It will put a smile on your face.

(Clicking on the link below will take you to Fishpond, a website where you can buy this wonderful film on DVD).

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Studio Ghibli Collection

Review “Frenzy”

Made in 1972 and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, this was a very controversial film at the time, earning itself an R rating. This was due to graphic violence and nudity, depicting a rape and strangulation scene.

The story revolves around a series of murders, and a man who is unjustly accused of the crime. It’s a standard road for Hitchcock, though significantly more graphic than even “Psycho” in it’s violence. He does not leave the audience guessing about the murderer, who is introduced early on and is clearly identified as the killer in the controversial scene. Barry Foster plays the killer, and convincingly swings between suave and charming, and creepy and nasty. The protagonist is played by Jon Finch, and his character is no hero, an unemployed drunk who was divorced by his successful wife, and he likes to blame others for his problems. Finch is excellent in this role. They are ably supported by an excellent supporting cast.

Hitchcock is one of my favourite directors, and he does not disappoint in this film. He is very good at suggestion, and he is very aware that less is sometimes better. A great example of this is the second murder. The first murder is shown in graphic detail, from the murderer’s first approach to his victim, to his departure after killing her. In the second murder, we see the victim going in the door, followed by the murderer, who tells her she’s his kind of woman. The viewer knows this is a signal that he’s about to get violent, as he says the same thing to the first woman. At this point the door closes behind them, and the camera starts to move backwards, back down the hall they have walked, the stairs, out of the front door and back across the road. We half expect that we will hear something – a scream, thumping, but there is nothing. It is in fact, very quiet. The viewer fills in all the details needed, taken from the first murder. Nothing else is needed. It’s a classically Hitchcock moment.

He is also an excellent editor. The scene in the potato truck is a great example of this. The murderer climbing into the truck, being stuck there when the truck starts moving, and his efforts to remove the incriminating evidence from the corpse he has previously dumped there, is a great sequence, and the editing of the different shots makes this work.

He lightens the mood with humorous moments. One of my favourite scenes is of the investigating officer’s wife, who calmly tells him he’s got the wrong man when they arrest the protagonist, which he ignores. He is somewhat disgruntled when he realizes she is absolutely correct.

There are some areas where this film has not aged well. A particularly cringe-worthy moment occurs early on, where some extras are discussing the murders. After a woman says ‘I hear they were raped first’, the two men in the conversation leer at each other and one says ‘well there’s got to be some good in it’. As a modern viewer I am forced to remind myself that in 1972 this kind of attitude was not uncommon, however wrong. Another aspect of this is the incorrect science (and the old wive’s tale) of a murdered person clutching something in their hand. While I am not an expert and there may be exceptions to this rule, in general when you die your muscles go limp, and there is no way something can be held in a dead person’s grip. Rigor Mortis, which does stiffen the muscles, does not occur till some hours after death. (four to six, according to Wikipedia.) So the entire sequence I have previously mentioned, in the potato truck, would never have occurred because the murdered woman could not be holding the incriminating tie pin. (It is great cinema, though.)

“Frenzy” was Hitchcock’s second to last film, and certainly among his great ones, in my opinion. He took a risk with the level of violence, but in doing so he created a very enjoyable thriller. If you haven’t seen it, it’s certainly worth a look.

(Click on the link below if you are interested in buying this film.)

Alfred Hitchcock Frenzy

Review “Yojimbo”

“Yojimbo” is a classic film from the acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurasawa. It was made in 1961, and it is based on the novel ‘Red Harvest’ by Dashiel Hammett. It is the first of three films that have adapted this story. (“A Fistful of Dollars” and “Last Man Standing” can be regarded as remakes of “Yojimbo” rather than the novel.)

I am a huge fan of Kurasawa’s films, and I think there is so much in this to be appreciated. It has strangely comedic elements that are missing from the subsequent films, with minor characters behaving in a way that seems foolish, ridiculous even. It lightens what is otherwise quite a dark story.

The plot is fairly simple. Two rival factions in a town have gone to war for control of trade. Their feud has become violent, leaving the rest of the town in fear and unable to go about their business safely. The hero is a wandering samurai without current employment, who observes this situation and believes he can turn it to his own benefit. No one has the moral high ground in this story. It is a good example that a good story does not have to be a complex one, though the machinations of the hero start to get more complex as the story progresses.

The film stars an actor used extensively by Kurosawa (in sixteen films), who is really quite marvellous in my opinion, Toshiro Mifune. He made nearly 170 films during his career and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His character in Yojimbo was a forerunner to the ‘man with no name’ character made famous by Clint Eastwood. He is quite wonderful to watch in this movie, and there are many scenes in which he is saying nothing at all and just watching others where he is great fun to watch due to his reactions to their words or actions. This film would simply not be the same film without him in the role. The supporting cast are equally fun. Ejiro Tono, who plays the innkeeper, spends nearly the entire film in a state of extreme annoyance, complaining to anyone who will listen about the disgusting state of affairs in the town. He is extremely entertaining.

Kurosawa’s technique in filming scenes is great to watch. He often has a way of shooting something that is a little different than you might expect. He makes less use of close up head shots than is customary, shooting scenes wide so all the actors can be seen at once. Some of these scenes become more effective as more can be seen. For example there is a scene where the two opposing gangs are facing off in a street. The view is from above, mimicking the main character’s position where he has climbed up a structure to watch what is going on. The wide scene enables the viewer to enjoy the comic element of the not-so-keen gang members advancing and retreating, and on one side the wife of the leader standing guard at the rear with a big stick, which she uses on anyone who tries to sneak away. It’s a small detail of the overall scene but it adds to the humour.

This film has comedy, drama, and action. It is a great offering from a great director. I would highly recommend this, and, if you like it, check out Kurosawa’s other films.

 

 

Review “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

I started this expecting a mindless action flick. I was pleasantly surprised.

This is a sequel, and at the time of writing this review I have not seen the first movie. It stands alone comfortably – at no time did I find myself wondering what was happening. The preliminary rundown of the events leading up to the collapse of human civilization was brief, but informative enough that the viewer does not have to have watched the first movie.

The effects were completely believable. The ape characters were very realistic and it was simple to be immersed into the reality of the film and believe you were watching apes with this level of intelligence. I liked it that they mostly spoke in sign language (taught by human scientists, I assume) and I liked the lack of sub-titles, which were not necessary. While the viewer may not know exactly what is being said, context and body language gives enough information.

What I liked the most, however, was the fact that there are no black and white characters. When you have this kind of culture clash, them versus us, story, characters are often depicted in extremes. The good guys are often saintly, entirely reasonable and never prejudiced. The bad guys are just bad, unreasonable, and reject any compromise or discussion. I was very happy to see that this movie resisted that kind of unrealistic depiction.

There are four main characters here, a human and an ape protagonist, and a human and ape antagonist. Starting with the ‘good’ guys, the human Malcolm is not devoid of prejudice or fear. He is quite comfortable pointing a gun at the apes they first encounter. When his fellow humans insist they need access to the dam and start preparing to take it by force, he volunteers to go up there and try to talk to them first, but at no time does he try to talk the human leader out of his more violent plans. He is as fixated as the rest of the human group on the need for electric power and the need to return to how things used to be. He, like the rest of his group, does not attempt to look forward and find a new way of doing things. His understanding grows as he interacts more with the apes, until he does make a stand against a violent solution, and he can see beyond the ‘alien’ faces to the people underneath.

The ape protagonist is Caesar. Caesar is not very fond of humans, and he has good reason. His initial response on seeing the small group that has come into his territory is to tell them to go away. As many of his followers look quite happy to kill them he is showing some leniency even then. He also, quite wisely as it turns out, sends a small group to track the humans back to where they came from and find out what is going on. He is extremely suspicious of their motives, but he tries to give them the benefit of the doubt. Importantly, he believes that apes are better than humans. His interactions with the humans, particularly Malcolm, help him to understand that some humans can rise above their fear and prejudices. In the end he is something of a tragic figure, realizing that what he had been striving to avoid, war, was going to happen whether he wanted it to or not, and all he could do now was make sure his people survived.

The human antagonist, Dreyfus, is the leader of the humans, and he does not see the apes as having rights. He is quite happy to gather weapons to take the dam by force, having no compunctions about ape lives in the face of human ‘necessity’. Like Malcolm, he wants to return things to the way they were, and he does not consider finding other alternatives. Unlike Malcolm, he does not alter in this view. In the face of the ape attack, he confidently tells his followers that the apes aren’t men, so can’t possibly win. This is soon revealed to be sheer ignorance on his part. But Dreyfus is not a bad guy. The human survivors have seen the loss from sickness or violence family members and friends. The sickness was called the ‘simian’ flu, and while it was created in a lab and is squarely the fault of human beings many humans equate it with the apes. Dreyfus has stepped up to lead in this instance and is a very strong and brave figure. He is misguided because he believes that human rights prevail, but he unshakeably believes his actions to be correct. “I am saving the human race” he says at the end, sacrificing his own life.  He is a sympathetic figure in spite of his misconceptions. I can believe that many people would act in this way under similar circumstances.

The ape antagonist, Koba, has many reasons to hate humans. He is heavily scarred, and he points to each scar saying ‘human work’ over and over. Consequently he does not like Caesar’s actions in letting humans have access to the dam. He believes that destroying humans is the way to keep apes safe. I think Koba starts the movie as a quite unstable personality. His attempts to challenge Caesar which both end in his domination by Caesar, don’t improve things. Koba’s hate of humans turns into a hatred of Caesar himself and the rules he has tried to encourage in his people. Koba becomes in essence what he hates – it is ironic that he despises humans but his use of assassination to gain power is a very human thing to do. His successful grab for power seems to tip him right over the edge, as he imprisons apes who don’t agree with him and murders his subjects to cow the rest into obedience. He is a classic dictator. However, while his aggressive behaviour is a real threat to the other characters, he is understandable. He is a victim of violence who responds with violence.

This film is truly excellent, and leaves you with much to ponder. See it if you can.

 

Review “The curse of Sleeping Beauty”

have a soft spot for fractured fairy tales. This film on the face of it really fits that bill. While much of this film was very enjoyable, ultimately I think it fell short.

A modern day protagonist is troubled by dreams of a sleeping princess, weird-looking creatures and a sinister building. He is surprised when he receives communication that he has inherited a house from an uncle he didn’t know existed, and is given a strange letter telling him that he is under a curse and not to go into the cellar. The house is (naturally) the strange house of his dreams. He is joined by a wise older mentor type and a young female sidekick. The ‘princess’ was suitably beautiful, ethereal and mysterious (and wore interesting make-up and costumes.) So I wasn’t really enthused about the characters – they are not particularly original. I don’t fault the acting, but they did not have a lot to work with.

I did like the protagonist – I think the actor did a very good job with a role that should have been more developed.

The atmosphere, however, is awesome. This house is genuinely creepy, and the attack of the spooky mannequins was nicely frightening. (As an aside, as an old Doctor Who fan I particularly enjoyed the mannequins – they were a fun mix of Autons and Weeping Angels, and I loved it!)

The plot was good up to a point. The problem with the plot is the creators seemed to imagine they were creating a big twist, and I’m sorry but that so-called twist could be seen coming a mile away. The extra character who is translating a mysterious book while our heroes go haring back to the house with insufficient information, only to realise what is really going on when it is too late to tell anyone, is a scene that has been a staple of multiple stories of this type. The moment the obligatory ancient manuscript and then the expert who was going to translate it were introduced I knew what was coming next.

I won’t give away the ending with spoilers, but I will say this. Ending? What ending? There was no ending. The movie just went to a point and stopped. I can only assume the creators were blissfully hoping they’d get a sequel out of it. We can only hope that if they are so lucky, the producer in question will make them write a better script.

“The Curse of Sleeping Beauty” is a film that really should have been good, and while enjoyable up to a point, fell far short of its potential, and ultimately fell in a screaming heap. Mindless entertainment at best.

 

Review “Jurassic World”

By the time I had finished wading through this mess, ‘dear god what did I just watch’ was my conclusion.

Fans of the original “Jurassic Park” will be forgiven for a feeling of déjà vu when watching this, and I don’t mean this in a good way. The plot is virtually identical to the original, except with more monsters, more extras to run away screaming, and more gore to line up with current audience expectations. There are two children, an adult who doesn’t much like children, the obligatory baddy who wants to exploit the dinosaurs and ended up being munched on by one, and the stupid rich guy with more money than brains.

The allegedly military bad guy was painfully cliché, and Vincent D’Onofrio, the actor who portrayed him, is worthy of much better material than he was provided with here. The colossal and obvious short-sightedness of the character is something of a standard in action movies, and while I haven’t met any military types myself I would question whether they are really this dumb, as surely such foolishness would get you killed quickly in a war zone. The rich owner of the park is equally cliché, demanding bigger and better dinosaurs to increase his audience and then scratching his head about why it all goes wrong.

This leads to the (unintentionally) funniest moment in the movie. Why, demands rich guy of (equally cliché) scientist, did you make such an unstoppable monster? I didn’t authorise this!

Yes, you did, responds the scientist. You wanted something larger, scarier, more teeth, to bring in the public.

Either this movie was being surprisingly self-referential or (more probably) unintentionally ironic. Because that statement is this movie in a nutshell. Even if it was deliberate, alluding to your own repetitiveness with a wink at your audience does not save your movie. It just leaves the audience rolling its collective eyes going ‘yes, we know!’

The greatest tragedy of this movie is the subplot, because the subplot of the velociraptors’ relationship with their human trainer should have been the main plot. This was interesting. This I wanted to see.  Instead it was given little attention and was left in the shadow of the big nasty (dull)  mega-monster. Velociraptor language and society was hinted at but not explored. This was the movie we should have been watching, and instead we saw a mere shadow of what might have been.

I would have to give this a big thumbs down. A lot of flash and special effects, but not much substance.

 

 

 

 

 

Review “Split”

Two words – James McAvoy. Words cannot describe this amazing performance.

This is a truly scary thriller, and a fantastic comeback for the director M Night Shyamalan, who has helmed some rather lack-lustre films in recent years.  Young girls being held prisoner by a deranged mad man does not seem like a particularly original idea. It becomes much more interesting than the standard plot in two ways – the madman has multiple personalities, and there is a fantasy element concerning the nature of multiple personalities eg that the individual truly becomes each person, physically as much as psychologically.

The cast is great. As well as McAvoy himself, Anya Taylor-Joy as the protagonist of this film, as well as the supporting cast including Betty Buckley, and Haley Richardson were great to watch. The younger cast worked well together and were very believable in their roles. Taylor-Joy particularly, as the protagonist, was excellent and very believable.

The direction was very good. The majority of the film takes place in an underground complex of tunnels, and the claustrophobic nature of the environment adds to the overall atmospheric tension. The low lighting and grimy surroundings enhance this still further.

I have a small gripe about the fantastical concept of the multiple personalities manifesting physically. This makes for a very gripping climax, but, if this is really the case, then why doesn’t the antagonist grow breasts when he is in a female persona, de-age when he is a child and so on. In other words, it’s not entirely consistent in the framework of the story. However, in the face of a very entertaining film, it’s a small hole.

I would like to go back to James McAvoy again. Male performers playing female roles are so very often cliché and over the top. His women characters are neither – his movements and physicality are very real. His child character becomes a little cliché in my opinion, but not so much as to detract from his overall performance. He is scary in this film, and he carries it off to perfection.

I can recommend this film highly. Look for an unexpected but rather interesting cameo at the end (no spoilers!)

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4972582/

 

Film Review “Snow White – a tale of terror”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0119227/

 

This is not your regular Snow White. There is no Queen, no Prince, and no dwarves (well, technically there is one dwarf.) Also, thankfully, Snow White is not called Snow White (a silly name), and instead has the much more believable name of Lilliana Hoffman. But there is a very wicked (and extremely crazy) stepmother, plenty of magic, and a good dose of mayhem.

I enjoy this film.

Sigourney Weaver is wonderful as the stepmother, and makes for a very disturbed witch indeed. Sam Neill is solid as the heroine’s father.  Monica Keena, the heroine, does a good job with what she is given. Another fun aspect of this story is that we have two love interests – the ‘Prince Charming’ character (not a prince), played by David Conrad, and one of the miners (who are not dwarves), played by Gil Bellows. All the cast put in a solid performance.

I think the take on this plot was one of the main selling points of this film. It was just so unique, while keeping to the story arc with which we all familiar. The script was very well written, with the psychology of the stepmother particularly well realized. She is not wicked so much as she is a real person with real problems which have driven her quite mad, and I found her to be very believable. The heroine, too, is no angel. She is extremely jealous of her stepmother and is not shy about making it known. Their antipathy is not one-sided.

The director, Michael Cohn, did a fine job creating a very gothic atmosphere, especially toward the end. There are some truly chilling moments, and the stepmother is a very scary character indeed (I have not found the character to be much more than a caricature in other versions.)

This is probably my personal favourite film version of the Snow White story, and I would recommend it to any fans of fairy tale film who would like something a little more adult. I think the Grimm brothers would approve.

 

 

Film Review “Chronicle” (2012)

(http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1706593/)

Three teenage boys come across an alien artefact and gain mysterious powers. Sounds like a million superhero movies we’ve seen, right? Not this time.

“Chronicle” is a clever look at what might actually happen if something like that occurred. Do our heroes turn into heroes? Do they turn into villains? Well, initially at least, they go from being silly teenagers to silly teenagers with some cool powers. It takes maturity to do something with what you’ve got, and they’re children. They’re not mature, so they don’t turn into the Power Rangers, they do dumb, childish things.

What happens to the protagonists can be predicted by what kind of people they are. We have the popular boy, well-adjusted with a happy home and school life. We have the boy who likes to read philosophy. He has a vague grasp of the concept that with great power comes great responsibility, though he is not really sure how to implement this. Then we have the victim of abuse and bullying. The outcome of all this is like a train wreck waiting to happen.

I think this film is not about super powers as much as it is about young people and how things affect them. I found it tragic, and very real. The three main actors were convincing in their roles, and the low budget did not detract from the story. It could technically be considered a found footage film, however there is little of the distracting shaky camera work, and a meaningful reason for the use of the camera. The main character is asked about the camera putting a barrier between him and others. This is exactly what he wants, to take this step back from a world that does nothing but hurt him. My only gripe about the movie is that there were aspects of the climax that became cliché.

I found “Chronicle” to be compelling viewing. I would highly recommend it.

 

 

 

Review ‘Scrooge’ 1951

More information at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0044008/

Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ is one of the most adapted stories ever. According to Wikipedia, it has been adapted for stage over fifty times, and has around twenty each film and television versions. It’s a morality tale and a ghost story, and works brilliantly on both counts. I think that is what makes this story so popular and so lasting.

I had the pleasure of watching “Scrooge” (1951) recently, and it would definitely be considered among the best adaptations of this story.

The star, Alistair Sim, made a fantastic Scrooge. He is as equally believable as a miserable old miser, a quivering and fearful victim, and finally, a man reborn, full of the joy that comes through thinking of others. It is a sheer pleasure to watch him, and he really commands this film. After his change towards the end of the movie, his constant breaking out into giggles because he is having such fun being nice is hilarious.

That being said, other actors in this film are equally fun to watch. It is interesting to see Michael Hordern in the role of Marley, a young George Cole as young Scrooge, and even a young Patrick Macnee (better known as Steed in the old Avengers series.) I always find it fun to watch familiar actors when they were much younger.

The special effects used are of course dated, but perfectly adequate for the time and place (ie early fifties Britain.) The script does add scenes to the story that do not appear in the book, but I didn’t think there was anything out of place – I am not a purist about such things. The rest of the supporting cast, were also wonderful.

Now, this is less about this particular adaptation than about the story itself. If there is a flaw in this plot, it is that the main character’s conversion to a nice person is perhaps too abrupt. Even given the extreme circumstances under which this occurs, he could be forgiven for the occasional backsliding along the way. We are given to believe that his conversion is immediate and complete. That being said, while this would certainly be unusual, I don’t find it completely beyond belief. I think from what we see of young Ebenezer, he starts his life as a nice person who is soured by certain influences, and if we look at it like that, then his conversion is more a reversion to what he should always have been, rather than something utterly unlike himself.

Anuway, I highly recommend ‘Scrooge’. It’s a great Christmas choice, and thoroughly enjoyable at any time of the year.