Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Spotlight On: Satoshi Kon

(To view a preview for each film, click the title.)

Upon learning I'm a film student, often first question I'm asked is, "who's your favorite director?" Very often I don't have an answer-- I've never been one to have an absolute favorite anything-- however one name that does leap to mind with pretty solid consistency is Satoshi Kon. Even though he only has four films and one television show to his directing credit, they are all of such high quality and unusual content that every one of them would be worth discussing in detail. (I should note that I haven't seen the television series, Paranoia Agent yet, though I plan to soon.) While there are certain unifying themes in his works, they are all distinctly different in tone and genre, which only adds to Kon's skills as a director-- instead of staying with the genre that he first found success with, he tries something new each time, which adds a new dimension to the credibility of his range and vision.

It Really Is a Medium
Probably my favorite aspect of his body of work is that he uses animation as a medium instead of a genre. Many people automatically associate animation with a genre, such as children's films, or fantasy, and this is especially so in the US. To the best of my knowledge, this idea is not as firmly rooted in Europe, where many countries have their own rich animation legacies and France in particular produces films like The Triplets of Belleville and Persepolis to great worldwide acclaim. Recently the Israeli film Waltz With Bashir also used the medium to effectively tackle adult subject matter in a highly effective way, and there seems to be a dawning realization that animation is capable of much more than most people ever considered.

Asian countries, in particular Japan, have not traditionally been as wedded to the idea that animation is a medium strictly for children and have produced a staggering amount of television, video and DVD releases, and feature films with it. There are more variations on genre in these instances, though there is an emphasis on children and teenaged-audiences, and more of the popular titles tend to fall into the fantasy or science fiction categories, so it's not all that different in that respect. Even a legendary director like Hayao Miyazaki stays to these genres, though his mastery of the medium and talent for storytelling elevate his films above traditional "anime" in the minds of most.

So where does Satoshi Kon fit into all this? While Miyazaki produces epic fantasies for all ages, full of messages about self-esteem, environmentalism, war, work ethic, and devotion, Kon produces quiet, more introspective, psychologically ambiguous works that deal with the blurring of reality and fantasy, and the nature of the media in modern culture and its impact on the human mind. Both men craft films of staggering detail, emotion, and artistry, but where Miyazaki brings realistic detail to the fantastic, Kon very subtly weaves the fantastic into reality.
My first exposure to him was the film Perfect Blue, his directorial debut. I was fairly new to my appreciation of Japanese animation (I'd held it in universal disdain for quite a number of years until my very early twenties), and to say that this film disturbed me is something of an understatement. While very skillfully made, and scenes from it have haunted me in the years since, it's only recently that I've managed to bring myself to watch it again. The story revolves around a young pop idol from a dime-a-dozen pop music group try to branch out into a successful acting career. She finds that in order to gain the kind of exposure she needs to garner serious attention is to cast off her innocent, wholesome pop singer image and pose nude for photo shoots and partake in a graphic rape scene for a TV show. As this happens, she finds herself stalked by a fan from her pop idol days, and discovers an internet page claiming to be written by her with intimate details of her life on display. She begins to see hallucinations or possibly dreams of her pop-idol self chastising her for the choices she's made for the sake of her ambition, and eventually people around her start dying. Both Mima's and the audience's sense of what is reality disintegrates through the course of the film, and until the end, neither she nor we are entirely sure if those fantasies of her murdering the people exploiting her are really fantasies or not.

I'd heard about Millennium Actress, Kon's next film, probably a year or two after I saw Perfect Blue. I didn't wind up seeing it until two years ago, convinced it was another violent psychological thriller, and no matter how well-made it might be, I simply didn't feel up to coping with another one from him. This impression could not have been more wrong. Actress is the flipside of the situation in Blue, where the connection between a star and her biggest fan is touching and impacts their lives in positive ways. It's a sweet, heartfelt film that captures the essence of Japanese history and film from World War II through to the twenty-first century in the life and career of one legendary actress.

It's a love story between her and a mysterious figure she met only briefly in her early teens, but whom she spent her life chasing after, as well as that of a man so inspired by her image, he spent his career chasing it. Chiyoko begins her career as an excuse to chase after the man she helps rescue one snowy winter morning, traveling all the way to Manchuria to film a propaganda picture during WWII-- he left a key near her house as he fled the Japanese secret police and she vowed to bring it to him. Her movie career blossoms and her roles take her as far back as 1,000 years in Japanese history even as her own life keeps progressing forward through adulthood, middle-age, and even old age. Whether the roles she had eerily match the events from her life or her memories have become so intertwined with them that they're inseparable, it's never clear, but neither is it that important to figure out. The snippets she recalls from her films continue to drive forward the story of her own personal quest for the man she's compelled to find just as easily as a literal enactment would have been, and it creates a fascinating and entertaining vehicle to contemplate the depths to which films can become a part of our lives.

Tachibana, a longtime fan, seeks her out for a documentary of her career years after she retires in seclusion. He's worked in films and even managed to create his own production company ("Lotus", named for her favorite flower), spurred by his fascination and admiration of her. Though often played for comedy, he and his assistant further the blurring of reality, memory, and fantasy by becoming involved in her flashbacks, even able to directly affect them and bring back mementos when the scene shifts back to the present. To attempt to understand what's literally happening here is futile and misses the point: the film is demonstrating how involved the audience becomes with the films it views, how potent the fantasy is, and how much it becomes a part of the culture and collective memory of those who view it. It isn't science fiction or fantasy, it's a visual, stylistic method of conveying a complex idea while at the same time, driving forward the story without breaking our concentration.

There's even more to talk about with this film, but it's best left for debate amongst people who have seen it. Suffice to say, I was so surprised and moved by this film, it completely overshadowed my fear of and anxiety towards Kon's work and I rushed to watch his next film.

Tokyo Godfathers is yet another departure from his previous films. While Blue is a thriller and Actress is a love story, Godfathers is a slapstick comedy with a very unusual subject: the homeless. The three protagonists of the film are a sort of dysfunctional family of homeless people: Gin, the "father" figure, a former family man who's haunted by his past; Hana, the "mother" figure in the form of a homosexual transvestite who longs for family, and Miyuki, the "daughter", a sixteen year-old runaway hiding from her father. While dumpster diving for presents on Christmas Eve, they come across an abandoned baby and set out to find its mother. Of course, through the journey they each wind up confronting their pasts, usually through a series of miraculous coincidences, each one becoming more implausible than the last.

Kon's go-to animation studio Mad House retains its hyper-realistic style that they used for his previous two films, but couples it with more exaggeration and "cartoonish" facial expressions to heighten the goofy comedy. However, the film also doesn't shy away from the more realistic and serious hardships that come with living on the streets, as well as the characters' backstories, and there is very much a solid, emotionally resonant core beneath all the humor. The blurring of reality and fantasy inside the story isn't as pronounced as in Kon's other works, though it does crop up occasionally. Personally, I see it happening most often with the coincidences, almost like an accentuated version of the type of thing that happens in a lot of Hollywood films, where destiny drives the characters to their inevitable resolutions and happy endings.

It's no coincidence that the story takes place in the week between Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, the time of year when people are most likely to believe in miracles, and also when family connections feel culturally most important. The human connections in the film are what drive it, be they between the protagonists, their real families, or the people they meet along their journey-- every one of them is significant and unlikely, reminding us that no matter how high or low we may go on the social ladder, we are all still connected. Kon goes out of his way to shine a light on society's most forgotten and ignored, from the homeless to drag queens to Brazillian migrant workers, it's a side of Tokyo that doesn't get focused on much, and the fact that he does so in such an approachable and inalienating way is impressive. It's a feel-good movie, but one without as many empty calories as many of its brethren, and it's far more likely to get me in the holiday spirit than most.

Once again, Paprika is a departure from Kon's already eclectic body of work, this time delving into a more conventional arena for Japanese animation, science fiction. The character design also changes, Paprika being the only example that is recognizably Kon's style, with everyone else looking closer to the style used in Miyazaki's Spirited Away (coincidentally, also a style change for the director, and yes, I know the same character designer worked on both, but he also worked on Kon and Miyazaki's other works in their signature styles).

This is by far the most blatant example of the blurring of the line between reality and fantasy, and if Actress works to gently twine the two together until one doesn't notice the difference, then this film has them crash together violently in a noisy cacophony of images that go by almost too fast to catch. Also like his previous films, it dialogues with Hollywood film, in ways more blatant and also more subtle than before: one of the characters has a reoccurring dream with scenes from various Hollywood films like Roman Holiday, and at one point has a conversation with someone about different film techniques as the camera demonstrates each one as he explains it; the film itself takes the Hollywood idea of the "destined pair" and turns it on its ear, while underhandedly critiquing its perpetuation of male sexual entitlement at the same time. It deliberately defies audience expectation by playing on these very commonly used techniques, which a lot of people found dissatisfying but which was frankly my favorite part of the entire film.

Like with Perfect Blue, Kon incorporates the internet into the list of media being used, this time as its own immersive world with very fuzzy boundaries to reality. Like Tokyo Godfathers it focuses on the interconnectedness of humans, this time through the idea of collective dreams. These ties don't seem to be accidental, as in the final scene, a character goes to a movie theater displaying movie posters for all of them-- instead of keeping them in the background, the camera pans slowly over all of them in chronological order, stopping on the poster for Kon's upcoming film, The Dreaming Machine. In a lot of ways, this film is very consciously telling the audience that they're watching a movie (outside of the fact that it's rendered in animation), and now that some images from Dreaming Machine have been released, it's much easier to see the scores of visual references littered throughout Paprika. So not only does this film dialogue with Hollywood and its influences and conventions, but with Kon's own body of work, past and future alike.

"Why wasn't this live action?"
One of the more interesting questions asked about Kon's works, and one which has many relevant answers. Perfect Blue started out as a live action film but ran into budget problems and delays, so animation was turned to as the next best option. Kon and Mad House's skill at creating detailed, realistic-feeling worlds served this story well, since the medium allowed them to seamlessly bend the laws of physics to allow a hallucination to skip effortlessly down a row of lamp posts, or appear in the reflection of a pane of glass-- instead of special effects that on some level impress upon the audience that the frames they're watching were altered, it's simply a part of the narrative, as seamlessly interwoven into the frame as the characters themselves. Despite its glaringly obvious lack of reality, it's also able to create higher tension in the audience because there is no real-life actor on screen, and the physical punishments that happen in a sense "really" happen to the character; in other words, there's no effects person gluing prosthetic wounds on before the scene is shot, no rubber knives, no trick shots, no digital effects added in later-- an animated character gets stabbed, they're stabbed with as real a weapon and have as real a wound as they themselves are. Of course there is also the impact of taking a medium that is generally thought of as being for children and telling very adult stories with it, which for many people is a profound one. If the recent trend of adult-oriented animation continues, this will likely lessen as people become accustomed to the idea.

The fact that Kon chooses to animate stories that for the most part could just as easily be filmed in live action is significant because it demonstrates the range it's capable of as a medium and the different psychological effect it can have on an audience. He was the first director I know of to really stretch the boundaries of what had been done with it up until then, particularly by utilizing its particular strengths in such subtle ways and to the best of my knowledge he's the only one still using this particular method. He's experimental and full of ideas and things to say, which is always exciting for me as a viewer, and I hope he continues to gain more exposure. The Dreaming Machine, his next film, is yet another departure for him into a more conventional animation standard, the children's film. I can't wait to see what he does with it.

Friday, November 20, 2009

"New Moon" Weekend

Just a quick post right now about the giant juggernaut that is the Twilight franchise releasing its latest film this weekend. I probably won't see it, as I have little interest in the story on its own, but I just wanted to comment because it is huge, and it's striking to me that it's the first film in recent memory that is aimed specifically at women that is pretty much guaranteed to be a mega-hit at the box office.

I'm sort of ambivalent about this. On the one hand, it's about time that women and female-centric films were seriously considered as viable in Hollywood again, because they haven't been for a long time. There's this sense that women just don't go to the movies the same way men do (gee, I wonder if it might be because most big films released aren't aimed at women or even female-friendly most of the time), and it's about time that that idea got a serious rattling. On the other hand, I have some serious ideological problems with the stories in this series, and find them to be deeply problematic in some ways, so their continuing success and validation are troubling for me. The fact that it is so widely popular might mean that if Hollywood does decide to put more stock in projects aimed at women, they're going to be following this formula. So it's a bit of a double-edged blade.

That was really all I had to say on the subject. I'll have more posts this weekend, I hope, since I have tons of ideas right now.

Monday, November 2, 2009


I know, I'm really slacking off in here. I meant to post a lot of things, and still intend to, but personal life events are severely restricting my time right now. As soon as they ease off a little, expect a cavalcade of posting from me.


Sure, most people know what the word means now; "bad", "evil", "threatening", etc. But originally, waaaay back in the day, it actually referred to the left, or the left side of something. If a person was left-handed, they were "sinister". It's interesting to consider why the word has evolved into its current meaning, especially in light of what's happened to its opposite, "dexterous", meaning skillful, or clever (or right-handed). Its root, "dexter" has dropped out of usage, but it also meant "favorable" as well as 'on the right-hand side'. Interesting to see how we assign meaning in such ways, and how these two terms have become even more removed from each other. I don't know about anyone else, but on the association part of the SATs, I wouldn't have picked "night is to day, as evil is to skillful". Man, language is weird.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Inside Each One of Us Is...

First off, I want to say to anyone who plans on seeing this movie to toss out any expectations you might have before doing so. Going to watch this while having ideas about what to expect will not prove fulfilling, and this movie really deserves the chance to be experienced for what it is, not what people think it should be. I can guarantee you that it will probably not be what most people are expecting, but that doesn't mean it's bad. In fact, it's probably one of the best movies I've seen in a while, and certainly one of the most ambitious.

That makes it sound complicated, and on one hand it is, but mostly it's not. It's just made in a way that makes us think in ways we're not used to. This isn't a movie that champions the story, the important parts aren't what's said or what's done, it's what's felt. I really believe this is movie you have to experience emotionally, not intellectually, because it's ultimately about emotions that aren't fully comprehended but are nonetheless present. In some ways, it's difficult to experience because these emotions are present in just about everyone, but they're not always pleasant. It's a movie about childhood and what it's like to be a kid going through life transitions, and every kid has gone through them. Not in the same ways, but the feelings are probably pretty universal, and that's what makes it hard to watch at times.

It's not a feel-good movie the way we expect children's movies to be, it's more honest. I didn't find it depressing the way many people did, nor did I find it cathartic or uplifting. It's difficult to describe my response to it because I'm honestly not sure what I feel aside from respect for everyone involved in making it. It's a challenging movie, but it's not hard to understand when you stop trying to figure it out and just experience it.
The performances are fantastic. The kid playing Max, Max Records, never once seems like he's acting to me. This is a really challenging role for anyone, but particularly a kid because it's all internal. There are no Shakespearean soliloquies about what's going on with him, he doesn't try to explain it to anyone because he himself doesn't know what's going on inside him. But there are things going on, very specific things, that have to be projected for the audience to understand, and he does it phenomenally. The Things, too, are wonderful. The voice actors are all brilliant, especially James Gandolfini as Carol-- he's probably one of the most complex parts of the film aside from Max himself, and he just owns it.

But it's not even those performances, the actors inside the Thing suits never hit a wrong note with their body language, and the CGI expressions for their faces are some of the best animated acting I've seen done. There's so much subtlety in those faces, so many little things that hit emotional points with the audience in the brief flash they're onscreen. It's something you only notice in hindsight because I didn't notice it at all when I was watching it. That's how I know something is really done well. There was one part at the end with no words spoken, but to do so would have marred the emotional impact it had on me. It was probably the closest thing to an emotional climax the movie has, and it was beautiful because no one had to explain it.
I could try and talk about the film some more, but it's hard to do when you're trying to explain something like a feeling to a person who hasn't experienced it. (The film itself even does this a few times in the way that children explain things when they don't have the words.) So to the people interested in it, go see it, but leave your expectations and fuzzy childhood memories at the door. Leave all your baggage outside the theater, stop trying to make sense out of it, and just let the film be what it is. Doesn't mean you have to like it, and some people won't, even if they "get" it. But just try to take the film on its own terms and realize it's not the sort of film you're probably used to seeing-- it's trying something new. That alone makes it worth seeing in my book, regardless of how successful it is in the end.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

"Moonlighting" and the Defense of Domestic Violence

I've been watching a lot of the old Moonlighting show recently for a paper I'm writing for my History of Television class, and I've noticed a distinct change in tone from the writing in the third season. Previous seasons always tackled the idea of "the battle of the sexes" with the two leads, David (Bruce Willis) taking the role of the lowbrow, laid-back, street smart, sexist guy and Maddie (Cybill Shepard) taking the role of the uptight, uptown, aloof, cultured, feminist woman, butting heads over just about everything while clearly just wanting to rip each other's clothes off under it all. Season three was more of the same, but I can't help but notice a very discernible shift in loyalties on the part of the show itself. Instead of trying to present Maddie's side (and her character) as understandable and reasonably angry with her partner's grating and unprofessional behavior, it goes out of its way to construct her as an overly judgemental harpy who needs to be brought down a few pegs, preferably by her suddenly more reasonable and more often correct partner. Her character is harshly criticized and often shamed far more frequently than his is, and a much bigger deal is made about taming her 'shrewish' behavior than about confronting David's personality flaws-- in fact he's more frequently constructed as the sympathetic hero just looking out for her and trying to humanize her than before.

There are plenty of examples of this at work, like the Christmas episode which takes the Dickens approach to Maddie's humbug attitude: her staff is angry because she's keeping the office open until Christmas to work on a case they'd already accepted (I'd be angry, too), but she's been stressing about making ends meet since they have so few cases, even covering her employees' paychecks herself when there wasn't enough money in the company account, and on top of it all, her sick aunt, whom she'd been meaning to visit in the hospital but hadn't gotten to yet, died that morning. As sympathetically as the episode starts, it quickly goes on to show her how terrible she's been in wishing that she hadn't kept the business open by showing her how people's lives would have turned out without it-- Agnes the kindhearted receptionist wound up the cold, steely president of a greeting card company (supposed to be a reflection of Maddie herself), David wound up engaged to a supermodel and even bought Maddie's house because of "a very good year" which is never elaborated on, and Maddie herself wound up broke and alone, crashing her car into a wall. All this is to get her to repent her humbug ways and drop the case so everyone can have Christmas off. There is a token bit where the three people who had been particularly mean to her apologized when they found out about her aunt dying, but it's really Maddie who's shown to have the most to apologize for.

However, I feel the most blatant example of the shift in writing comes from the episode "The Man Who Cried Wife", only the second one of the season. Here, a man is shown coming home to his philandering wife, whom he strikes so hard, he kills her. He's so remorseful over this that he doesn't call the police or relatives, but instead drags her body to the woods, buries her, and doesn't say a word to anyone. Until he starts getting phone calls from her, that is. So he goes to hire some private detectives to figure out what's going on, but Maddie doesn't want a thing to do with a man who hit his wife, no matter how remorseful he may have felt about it afterwards. David disagrees and thus follows one of the most one-sided, flagrantly biased debates on the entire show.

Because we all know it's all right to hit someone as long as you feel really bad about it afterward and the person "had it coming". Come on. So after this, of course Maddie's so shamed by her irrational dislike of a man who killed his wife in a fit of passion and then buried her in the woods, that she apologizes and joins David on the case. David, as he so frequently is in these episodes, is coldly condescending and clearly supposed to represent the more "realistic" attitude about passion and spontaneity that excuses and forgives both the husband here and Maddie for their physical displays of anger. There's no point of contention that it was wrong for either of them because they were angry and provoked into behaving in such a way. (For my money, Maddie hit David way too much in the whole show, but I guess in the 80s it was still funny and acceptable for women to slap men because men were manly and could take it. Or something.) Once again, Maddie is shamed and brought down off her high horse while David gets to play the condescending educator who can sanctimoniously forgive her after the realizes the error of her ways.

I don't hate the whole show, really. But some of these episodes sit in a really icky place with me.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

But Does She Wear a Wonder Bra...?

I realized I hadn't made an animation-related post in a while, which must be something of a record for me, so time to fix that.

Okay, so I've never really been a Wonder Woman fan. No real reason behind it, I have nothing against the character, she just never really snagged my attention. I never saw the Linda Carter TV series, I never watched Super Friends, and the only WW comics I have, I actually bought for the Huntress mini-stories in the back. I've seen some Justice League cartoons, but she really never appealed to me in those-- she just seemed like a stodgy, stuck-up, humorless, statue with way too many superpowers (I had no idea she could fly, that seemed like overkill to me). She just seemed like they took Batman's personality (minus the genius-level intellect-- she's not stupid, just not a super-genius), and stuck it into a supermodel's body with Superman's powers and called it good. Others disagree and that's cool. I didn't have much investment in her before that and her portrayal there just put me off of her even more.

So when I heard about an animated WW movie coming to DVD, I wasn't really interested until I heard who the voice cast was. Kerri Russell does not conjure the image of a stony killjoy, and I'll watch pretty much anything with Nathan Fillion in it, since I think he's both dishy and fun. Add to that the fact that I happened to be watching someone on Deviantart (Lauren Montgomery) who turned out the be the director of this movie, and that was enough to spark some interest in me to see it.

It was a lot of fun. By far one of the better direct-to-DVD releases for superheroes I've seen so far, which was gratifying in its own right, but it also actually made me care about the character for the first time. I wish they'd make a TV series based around this, or at least a sequel, because I'd love to see more of this WW and the world she lives in. I really did have a blast watching it, and they did a good job of giving the characters some humanity and something for the viewer to identify with. You can understand why the Amazons would want to seclude themselves from the rest of the world, you can understand WW's frustration with the culture shock of a world run by men, as well as Steve's frustration at being criticized all the time.

When a girl kicks your butt, it means she likes you.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. For people who don't know how the story goes, basically there's an island secluded from the rest of the world where the Amazons live-- in this version it's because waaaay back in the day, they were enslaved and abused by Ares, the Greek god of war and this was how Hera was able to give them time to heal-- and men are not allowed to set foot upon on pain of death. Hippolyte, the ruler of the island, wanted a daughter and made one out of clay (or in this case, beach sand) and the child was given life by the gods, along with other virtues such as strength, speed, wisdom, and beauty. Diana (they liked to mix and match Greek and Roman names, I guess) is the one who would become Wonder Woman, when years and years later a U.S. fighter pilot named Steve Trevor would crash land on their island and need an escort back home. Diana proves to be the most qualified for the job of ambassador, and since she's the only one who hasn't seen the outside world herself, she's by far the most eager to go. And so begins Princess Diana's adventures in "Man's World".

It takes a confident woman to wear that in public.

In this movie, Diana has another reason to leave the island as well-- when the Amazons defeated Ares thousands of years ago, Zeus imprisoned him on their island, but soon after Steve arrives, he escapes. Diana's mission is to both return Steve to the U.S. and to find Ares and stop him from wreaking havoc on the modern world. So she's got her work cut out for her on her first trip away from home.

Steve realizes too late that Amazons remove their sense of humor when they hit puberty.

Now as much fun as the movie is, it's not perfect. The 'battle of the sexes' that Diana and Steve engage in through most of it feels somewhat dated because of some of the points of contention. I can't speak for anyone else, but I haven't heard the issue of men opening doors for women brought up in like twenty years, but maybe I'm out of touch. It just felt like it missed the point sometimes, or left out a few decades of progress in gender relations. Steve's such a pig it's almost ridiculous at times, and that comes off as somewhat flat (he seriously tries to get Diana drunk while he takes her "sightseeing" at some hole in the wall bar), and he has this really off-the-mark speech in a hospital later that is just... sort of... ugh. He's so much of a pig through the movie it's sometimes hard to understand what she sees in him, at least in terms of romantic compatibility-- this makes me want to see if they could flesh him out a bit better in a sequel, since it felt like they fumbled with him in this.

Comparing sizes is evidently universal.

It also commits the faux pas of mistaking masculinity for strength, and in fact seems to have trouble validating traditionally feminine or intellectual traits. It sort of makes a token effort, but then undermines it almost immediately by defaulting back to the 'masculine' stuff. Given that so much of the film revolves around these ideas, I think it's a fair gripe, but the rest of it is so much fun, I don't have much trouble forgiving it.

They did a really nice job with the animation, too. I wanted to take stills of some of my favorite scenes because there are some really gorgeous compositions, but I'm on a new computer and haven't figured out how to do any of that yet. But they did a pretty decent job of giving it an 'epic' feel without the budget for an epic movie, and some of the fight sequences have some nice pieces of animation. I like the designs for the most part, though Steve's rather plain-looking and blah, which might have more to do with his coloring than anything else. But I like that the Amazons have some musculature and broader shoulders, and that they gave Diana a more "Greek" nose than she's traditionally drawn with. And people change their clothes, too! I like it when cartoon characters have more than one outfit to wear. There was one design that came out of left field and I'm sort of ambivalent about it (you'll know which one I'm talking about if you see it), but they tried something new, anyway, which I tend to like, even if the end result isn't what I personally would have gone for.

They never explained where the invisible jet came from. I don't know if I like that or not. I sort of do and sort of don't. It's pretty inconsequential either way, I just remember wondering about that. There are some other plot holes, too, but they're sort of spoilery, so I won't get into them.

Wondy's workout tapes sell big with horror fans too.

I will say that the big climactic showdown had some neat elements in it, particularly the big nod to the old Harryhousen sword and sandals movies from back in the day. I thought that was pretty cool. And I can't speak for anyone else, but I really, really enjoyed seeing WW take some pretty serious smackdowns and then get right back up again and return the favor. I find that immensely gratifying after years of seeing women either take minimal damage in fights or taking no part in them at all. I wouldn't want to see it all the time because then it would get boring, but it is really nice to see a woman get to be tough and resilient.

Overall, I'd really recommend it to anyone who might be interested. It's got flaws, yeah, but I just have so much fun watching it, they don't mar the experience for me.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


Masala Chai

Or "chai tea" as it's commonly referred to in the US. What most people don't know is that moniker's an oxymoron: "chai" means "tea" in many countries, including India. (Trivia: the Japanese word for tea, "-cha", is likely derived from the same term.) What most people are really referring to is masala chai, a popular drink from South Asia. As I understand it, "masala" is a word that refers to a given mixture of spices (chicken tikka masala, a very popular dish in Indian restaurants, refers to a different mix of spices from masala chai, but they both refer to specific mixtures in their own right), so "masala chai" translates to something like "spiced tea".

And while I haven't had the officially official stuff they make in India, I have had some from a couple of Indian restaurants where they didn't use a box mix. Seriously, it's so much better than the stuff you get at Starbucks. I've taken to making it myself at home, and it's really not hard. The worst part was trying to track down cardamom pods where I live, but now that I've done that, I can make as much delicious, creamy, cinnamony, gingery, peppery goodness as I can handle.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

DARK SHADOWS: The Arrival of Good Ratings

Up to this point, the show had a fairly normal soap with a few minor exceptions, such as the ghost of Josette Collins and David's mother being a "Phoenix" as a climax. The dying ratings meant the show had to do something to really be noticed. And episode 211, they bring in a VAMPIRE. Yes, won't go out in the day, must suck blood with fangs, allergic to garlic, sleeps in a coffin, middle aged 1960s teen idol....WHAT? Only in the 60s.

My father has a copy of this game, and I remember having great fun playing it.

Barnabas was so popular with the kids, he spawned toy models, bubblegum cards, board games, Halloween costumes...the list goes on. Interest in him even sparked paperback novels and comic books. How many kids nowadays come home from school to watch a daytime soap?

In simple words, the plot reads like this: Barnabas loves his family. Barnabas has been in a coffin for 170 years. Barnabas has lost a few of his marbles.Willie doesn't want to play Renfield. Barnabas doesn't give him a choice. Easy to follow, right? Classic elements ala Dracula.

Willie doesn't like being Barnabas's Whipping Boy.

Bring in the girl!

Maggie has been Vicky's friend since episode 1.

Maggie Evans. Maggie looks eerily like Josette. (Or so they say. That Josette portrait is pretty fuzzy) Could she be her reincarnation? No...because the ghost of Josette is still in the old house, watching over the family. Does Barnabas care? Not after being locked in a tomb for so long, he doesn't. Apparently, he has some unfinished business.

The Collins family takes Barnabas's claim at being a cousin from England at face value, and he soon moves into the old house, much to David's disdain. (that's where his ghost friend Josette lives) But who cares what the kid thinks? He still insists he's talking to ghosts!

"You mean...You're not a ghost?"



I grew up loving vampire lore. My favorite childhood vampire would have to be Barnabas Collins. That said, I recently began re watching the series Dark Shadows. As a child, I rarely saw much of the TV series. I don't think it was on TV at the time and I rarely saw a VHS copy, but whenever I could, I loved it. The only personal copy I had was of the movie House of Dark Shadows. Now I'm in the era of DVD glory! DVDs are inexpensive and easy to buy through the modern marvel of the Internet. I can now watch as much as I want as it comes in through Netflix! Although I'm already breaking down and buying DVD sets from Amazon.My love from the show is reconnected! True, it's badly preserved 1960s footage, often only kinoscope footage surviving, making it look decades older than reality, but there is a charm which prevails. Something romantic and slightly horrific about the clash of innocence and terror that forever curses the house of Collins.

I shall be adding arc summaries and my own personal observation and opinions of the famous dark soap from here on. I'll start with a quick overview of the boring things before the show took off. :)

Vicky looks forward to a bright new life at Collinwood

At the beginning of Dark Shadows, a young woman arrives to Collinwood to take on a job as a governess for the prestigious Collins family. The boy she was charged to care for, David Collins, is extremely disturbed and even tries to kill his father. David believes he talks with ghosts and loves to play in the abandoned house, known as "the Old House" which used to house the collin's ancestors.

The bright future is often gloomy and filled with psychos.
Many generic soap opera things happen. Blackmail, murder, kidnapping, unintelligent romance, etc...David's mother is revealed as Laura Collins. She wants to burn him alive to make him a PHOENIX like herself. Cuckoo? A bit. Of course, she doesn't succeed and dies a horrible death. The beginning was only interesting to me as a precursor for things to come.
Tragic Phoenix is Tragic.



In the past few years, I've seen a resurgence of American pulp reprints. This is exciting for me, since the stories in these pulps influenced so much of the super hero and detective stories we know today.What is a pulp? A cheaply printed fiction book, very popular in the 1920s, 1930 , 1940s and on to the 1950s to a lesser extent due to hieghtened censorship.

What sort of things did they print? Everything from disturbingly morbid sci fi-horror to stories for the bored housewife about steamy romances. The covers were often beautifully painted teasers, half naked attractive young people being tormented by wild deformed cannibals on a space ship? Sounds pretty normal.

One of my favorite parts of the original pulps are the aforementioned covers. Many of the subsequent reprints are of the text only, and lacking in the marvelous full cover paintings that madeup each issued book, or the beautiful black and white pen drawings, often very detailed, that were scattered throughout the actual books. Occasionally I see a reprint that contains these aspects, and those are the ones I find myself drawn to buy.

I've read quite a bit of the Weird Tales reprints, although the variety tends to lack, since H.P. Lovecraft tends to dominate as much as possible. Cthulhu sells apparently. To be honest, I'd rather read a good ghost story or a unique take on an folklore. No offence to the Cthulhu Mythos, but you just don't make it to my nightmares. That said, H.P. Lovecraft was a genius at the pulp genre, but as a 'junk fiction' writer, he never did see his fanbase peak.

The pulps created a new outlet for crime writers. Endless detective stories, adventure, romance, and horrors could be released every month and easily bought by the average person. A pulp book averaged about 10-25 cents - a far cry from the $15 average of today. (Just one of those 10 cent books of yesteryear now will put you back a good $80-$300) Every month, and sometimes twice a month, a reader could pick up their favorite crime titles cheaply at even grocery stores, or so I'm told by those generations who witnessed it.

In an era without television, and with limited radio channels, reading was one of the few ways to find stories that were guaranteed to peak your interest.
Me? I buy every reprint of The Shadow I can find! The dialog might be dated, the titles mellow dramatic, and the subjects politically incorrect, but I enjoy a good detective story sluthed by an invisible spy with an endless repertoire of tricks! Who Knows...What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men? Nothing like a good maniacal laugh.

Speaking of racist, if a character wasn't white, you can bet they'd carry most of the dark stereotypes that aren't allowed in fiction today. Fu Manchu was probably the most infamous evil asian, fullfilling the role of the mad scientist and classic antihero of his own books. His popularity spun dozens of evil asian titles. The racism doesn't stop there, it often portrays savage indians (both Native American and East Indians alike), and uneducated manservent blacks are fairly normal. While reading anything from another time, it's important to remember that values and ideals have changed a lot over the past 50 years.

Pulps have brought us many famous heros we associate with other media, such as Tarzan, Flash Gordon , or lessor known cult stars such as Buck Rogers and John Carter of Mars. Famous heros such as Batman were admited by their creators to be inspired by The Shadow. Film Noir took many of it's formulas and cliches from the detective pulps of the 1930s. Where would we be without our cheap fiction?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

IDNTTWMWYTIM: "Postmodernism"

Okay, so it's been brought to my attention that I've used the term "postmodern" without explaining what it means, and have thus exposed myself to be the pretentious film student that I am. As though this whole blog didn't do that anyway. So instead of finding out what the deal with "chai tea" is, like I'd originally planned, you get this. Be sure to thank Stacy, everyone. ;)


Well, before you can define postmodernism, you have to define modernism. Which I don't want to do because this will take all night, and I freely admit that my understanding of this is not completely solid because I got a crash course in it for about a half hour one day, but here we go anyway. Modernism arose out of a huge social change around the end of the nineteenth century, with people like Freud and Einstein and Darwin running around, blowing huge holes in the established "common sense" of the day. The entire foundation on which people had based a lot of their beliefs about the world and even themselves and how they functioned were being soundly rocked and this created a lot of anxiety and uncertainty.

Modernism was the reaction to this, and to be quite honest, I'm pretty fuzzy on what exactly it entails. From what I understand, it shares many qualities with postmodernism, but modernism is always striving for underlying meaning, and a solid take on what is really "true". Postmodernism then takes the stance that meaning is subjective and "truth" and "reality" are shaped by an individual's perspective, not by any inherent qualities these ideas posses themselves. It also delves more into ambiguity, allowing for much more uncertainty and ambivalence than the more logical modernism does.

David Lynch is a quintessential example of a postmodern filmmaker because his works are very ambiguous in terms of meaning, and "truth" and "reality" are all very subjective. His stuff is also typically surreal, confusing, and in parts upsetting, so I wouldn't recommend running out to rent Lost Highway to see what I'm talking about unless you like that sort of thing. I tend to see Quentin Tarantino as postmodern, or at least partaking in postmodern elements, and there are loads of other filmmakers, artists, writers, etc. that do the same.

That's probably the best I can do to try and explain it, but it's a very significant movement in modern culture, so if you're still confused, there are probably some very helpful resources out there.

Also, next time you hear a word you don't know, write it down and look it up when you get a chance. Good way to learn stuff and you don't have to pay tuition rates.

Next time: What's up with this "chai tea" stuff, anyway?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Need to start saving my pennies for popcorn

After browsing through Moviebox (it's been a while, I'm really behind on my trailers), and seeing some things I didn't know were coming out (Percy Jackson? could be fun, I love mythology, especially Greek, but Chris Columbus hasn't wowed me in a while, so we'll see), there are a few in particular that I will definitely be parking my butt in a theater for.

The Men Who Stare at Goats, starring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, and Kevin Spacey. Those are four of my favorite actors working today, there is no way I'm not going to a movie with all of them in it, especially if the movie is a comedy about psychic military experiments that is evidently based on a real story.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, written and directed by Terry Gilliam, starring Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell, Christopher Plummer (and I think I saw Tom Waits, too, score!). This is one of those movies that I'd see no matter who was in it because it just looks incredible visually. But beyond really great visual effects, it looks... well, imaginative. I love imagination in my awesome-looking special effects.

The Lovely Bones, directed by Peter Jackson, starring Susan Sarandon and Stanley Tucci, and a bunch of other people I'm too lazy to look up. This is one of Stacy's favorite books, so I was curious when I saw the trailer (at Julie and Julia, of all things) at how faithful this looked to the original story. She said it seemed pretty close, and I must admit that I'm very intregued this got green-lit and that it seems to have a decent budget to boot. I will be seeing it.

Whip It, written and directed by Drew Barrymore, starring Ellen Page, Drew Barrymore, Zoe Bell, Juliette Lewis, and Jimmy Fallon. This just looks fun as hell, and I am in full support of Zoe Bell getting more facetime in movies.

Friday, September 25, 2009

I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

A new thing that will reoccur whenever I think a word has been misrepresented, misunderstood, or even not understood at all for long enough and feel like getting on my semantic soapbox. Also because I love that quote and the movie it's from.


Feminism is not:

-about hating/bashing/mocking/oppressing men
-outdated, unneeded, or irrelevant in today's society
-touted by bitter women who are too ugly to "get a man"/lesbians who hate men
-touted only by women
-anti-femininity/stay at home moms/family/marriage/love/makeup/sexuality/beauty

Feminism is:
-about promoting equality and respect between all genders
-an increasingly complex topic in today's society
-touted by people of all shapes, sizes, ages, genders, sexual preferences, nationalities, ethnicities, religions, and levels of the popular ideal of physical attractiveness
-about people of any gender having the ability to choose their lifestyle, profession, education, style of dress, sense of aesthetics (as much as anyone choses that), hairstyle, romantic/sexual partners, and opinions-- and most especially then not restricting the rights of anyone else to do the same
-still incredibly relevant and important on a global scale (yes, developed Western countries too) because sexism does, in fact, still exist
-often debated amongst even self-proclaimed feminists because cultural ideals and personal experiences differ from region to region and person to person, and sexism is not always blatantly obvious or free from controversy or ambivalence-- this is why discussion, debate, questions, and expression are so fundamentally important to any subject or movement

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Just hope they use their powers for good

So who else has seen a movie and felt completely mislead by the trailer you'd seen for it beforehand? I'm sometimes amazed, even now, of just how important movie trailers are to get right, and easy they are to manipulate. Seriously, it's so easy to make a mediocre movie look fun or a good movie look boring, to say nothing of how easy it is to even switch the genre. In cooking, it's said 'the first bite is with the eye', meaning the appearance of the food can set up a person's expectation for the taste, and for me, the trailer is that same idea for the film. It takes a lot of skill to make a good trailer that offers enough to inform the viewer of what the plot is without giving away too much of the good stuff, and keeping it all under three minutes.

I was just reminded of this in part because of the trailers I'd been seeing for Jennifer's Body and then reading about what the writer and director have been saying about it, along with other people either anticipating it or who have seen it. And I was reminded again today about it because of browsing through my Youtube favorites and seeing how many fake movie trailers I had in there. There are some really well-made ones there, and probably still more I don't know about. I figured I'd share some of my favorites, since all my other blog posts are half-finished and I'm still moving. (Sorry for the links instead of imbedded videos, I just got a laptop and for some reason can't figure out how to copy the entire imbed code.)

The Shining as a romantic comedy.
Mary Poppins as a horror movie.
A Goofy Movie if it had been directed by David Lynch.
Titanic 2, featuring footage and dialogue from possibly every movie ever made.

Friday, September 18, 2009

"Jennifer's Body"-- not a review

I'm taking a very short break from my attempts at moving today to make a really lazy post. With autumn looming large and Halloween decorations already springing up, my thoughts are beginning to turn to the spooky. Now I'm not an avid horror hound the way Stacy and Cindy are, to be sure, but I've always been a little macabre and am a big fan of creative and effective stories in any medium and genre. Having said that, I really wasn't interested in the movie Jennifer's Body that opens today, based on the ads I'd seen, and figured it was just another mindless horror/slasher film with lots of T&A and gratuitous violence. Fine if you like that sort of thing, but it doesn't really interest me-- I tend to get bored and start imagining what the families of the victims must go through when they find out what's happened to their sons and daughters, or wonder if they would have outgrown their teenage assholishness and gone on to have a good life if some axe-wielding psychopath hadn't decided they deserved to die for having sex outside of marriage or doing drugs. I'm really not the target audience for these movies, I just don't get the entertainment value in watching people die.

So my interest in this movie was approximately nil, but then I started seeing posts about it in some of the blogs I follow like Feministing and Women & Hollywood, and I found out that the film was written by Juno scribe and outspoken feminist Diablo Cody and directed by Girlfight creator Karyn Kusama. My interest was now piqued. Could this film be more than the ads made it out to be? It sure wouldn't be the first time, especially since the ads I'd been seeing were airing during Adult Swim, which shamelessly caters to the teenage and twenty-something male crowd, so they'd pick the ads with the most gratuitous shots of Megan Fox's cleveage possible. Maybe I hadn't given the movie a fair chance and it could be really interesting. Unfortunately, I can't give an opinion because I haven't seen it, nor will I anytime soon-- I have too many other movies on my list to see first, like Inglourious Basterds and 9. But I thought since it'll probably be a little bit before I get to it, I'd link to some articles about it that gave me things to mull over. (I'm also secretly hoping that one of my co-bloggers might take up the helm and post some related thoughts on this or other movies they've seen. Hint hint.)

Sister Hacked by Alexandra Gutierrez at The American Prospect.
Jennifer's Body by Melissa Silverstein at Women & Hollywood.
Diablo Cody IS a Feminist by Melissa Silvertein at Women & Hollywood.
"Jennifer's Body": Why Hollywood Apparently Can't Make a Feminist Slasher Movie by Sarah Ball at Newsweek.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Terror of Lois Lane

Iconic AND sexy. Don't get me wrong, the bad boys like Batman turn my crank, too, but I still maintain that there's something sexy about an over-sized boy scout like Superman.

I recently saw Superman: The Movie (1978).

It was really, really WEIRD.

I had seen it before of course; seems like it was on in a constant loop during my childhood. We even had it on disc before we had it on vhs. But I doubt I'd sat and watched it all the way through in probably twenty-five years; I was in single digits and low ones at that when last Mr. Reeves and I met.

Two of my nephews wanted to watch it on Netflix's instant watch thing a few days ago, so I got it running, and soon got sucked into it myself. The opening is great: the shots of young Clark Kent, loved by his adoptive parents but ostracized by his peers was alternately sweet and heart breaking. This was for me an almost perfect metaphor for high school regardless of your planet of origin. In high school I knew I was full of amazing skills that none of my classmates could see; I was too shy, they were too busy, we were all too busy obsessing over ourselves to actually BE ourselves. Granted, I can't fly (yet. YET.), I certainly can't outrun a speeding train (though I CAN have an asthma attack and fall down faster than a speeding bullet), and crap knees keep my bounding to a minimum, unlike Clark, but I think everyone feels like they have wonderful secrets inside themselves.

He finally manages to get something of a one-up on his rude high school compatriots, and then his dad keels over dead. I think that was probably a Pretty Bad Day for the Kent clan. He then sets off to the warmest looking arctic set I've ever seen to find out how to unlock his own secrets (seriously, no visible breath and he's not even wearing a scarf for crying out loud!) . During this time span in the good ol' Fortress of Solitude, he becomes Superman, and learns to harness his own amazing powers for good; he then heads for Metropolis to become a reporter for the Daily Planet. There he meets Lois Lane, the future Missus Superman, and also Lex Luthor, who is played SO over the top by Gene Hackman that I firmly believe he had altitude-related nose bleeds all over the place then and probably still to this day. It's your basic good beats really fucking manic evil story.

But I'm not here to talk about that. I'm here to talk about Lois Lane, as portrayed by Margot Kidder. I'm here to talk about how she occasionally scared the SHIT out of me in this film. I know that she's had issues with manic depression during her life, so I have no idea if this is bleed over from that, but when Lois was called to be excitable or frantic, she was TERRIFYING. When it came to the minutiae of the role, the fine details of Lois' emotional responses, particularly to Superman, she was superb, and came across as almost heart-breakingly vulnerable.

Here she's gorgeous..

However, when she was worked up she looked like ghoul that had acquired a taste for human flesh. Part of the problem was the lipstick she was wearing (or maybe the hue on the television that I watched this on); it was a strange shade of pink that made her teeth look kinda yellow, so when she'd freak out she looked like she had a mouth full of coyote teeth. In a few scenes I was legitimately concerned for Superman's well-being; no male can survive a hardcore man eater, not even the man of steel himself!

I don't think any of this terror was Ms. Kidder;s fault, I got the impression from other performances in the role that the actors had been instructed to play their roles "big"; manic Lois was in keeping with hyper Lex and spastic Clark. But it was still occasionally pants-wetting for me.

...and here she's terrifying!

I also wanted to talk a little about Christopher Reeves, namely that he was awesome in this role. He was appropriately flustered and bumbling as Clark, and MAN could he fill out a set of red underoos as Superman! More than that, though, seeing this movie with more adult eyes I saw that the man was a legitimately gifted actor. I think he got this part not only because he looked the part, but because he was also a very talented. He gave Clark an impish quality that was nice; you could tell he kinda enjoyed giving Lois shit, whether she knew he was doing it or not.

This is an image that even now, at 32 years of age, instills me with comfort. Having never been saved by Superman, I have no idea why this is.

He also seemed a bit shy, which is an interesting idea for Superman. Batman and Superman to me have it almost switched around: Bruce Wayne is the disguise, Batman in the reality. But Superman is really Clark Kent, even if it's not entirely the Clark Kent that the world sees. Clark is more confident as Superman, but who wouldn't be? It's like trolls on the internet: it's easy to be assured and confident when no one knows who you really are. Clark just wants to be near Lois, and he'll do it as Superman if he has to.

Seriously, look at that. LOOK AT THAT!

Overall it was intersting to rewatch; now I wanna see the sequels again, mostly so I can see Clark and Lois gedditOWN. Some parts of it are genius: Superman's scream of denial when he rescues Lois too late, Lois in quieter moments, Jimmy Olsen as a huge dork, etc. Some parts are hilariously silly, like the "rock slide" that was clearly pebbles (in slow motion, no less) being poured into a puddle. The dangling helicopter scene was wonderful while Lois freaking out was the stuff of nightmares.

He really rocks that look, even with that stupid spit curl.

I will close this with one thing of note: NO ONE with glasses adjusts them that way. No one. REMEMBER THAT, HOLLYWOOD!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"Brendan and the Secret of Kells"

Just wanted to do a quick promotion of this movie that I just saw today. It's not released in the U.S. yet, but there are a few places to find it online. The design in some respects really reminded me of Richard Williams's The Thief and the Cobbler, and it's just a gorgeous movie in its own right.

Monday, August 24, 2009

"Freedom, Beauty, Truth, and Love"

(I’m beginning to realize how few non-post-modern things are on my list. Wow, never noticed that before.)

Okay, well I realize that this movie tends to polarize viewers—most either love it or hate it with a fiery passion with not many feeling indifferent—and it tends to get compared to Titanic a fair amount, so this might get interesting. I myself fall into the ‘love it’ category and have never seen Titanic, so obviously this is going to be very biased. Wait, I never saw Titanic but I love a big, sappy musical that oozes romanticism in a turn-of-the-twentieth-century setting with doomed lovers? How can that be? Well I’ll tell you.
Firstly, I am a fan of director Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet). I don’t tend to get hugely emotionally invested in a lot of movies, especially ones that revolve so heavily around romance and melodrama, but Luhrmann has this uncanny ability to suck me in, no holds barred, and make me invest every atom of my being into what he’s doing onscreen. Maybe because he not only doesn’t pretend that he’s doing anything but blatantly manipulating his viewers, nor that he’s making anything but melodrama—in fact he makes it hyper-dramatic to an almost surreal extent. You’re not under any delusions whatsoever that what you’re watching is real, nor are you supposed to. That was the point of his self-proclaimed “Red Curtain Trilogy”, to express heightened emotions through methods that constantly keep the audience aware that they are watching a film: dance, Shakespearian dialogue, and singing. Of course they’re overwrought visual extravaganzas, that’s the point of them. I go right along for the ride, delighted to get out of my head for a bit and experience something more visceral.
So naturally, I love the spectacle, too. Catherine Martin’s amazing costume designs really shine in this film, since there’s very little restraint she has to exercise in terms of historical accuracy. This is a fantasy world this is taking place in, after all, the Moulin Rouge that existed in the mind of everyone who never saw it firsthand. Every sort of excess is available to those with the money to afford it, and it’s a combination of bordello, dance hall, Vegas show, and Hollywood fantasy all rolled into one big surreal jelly roll and topped off with a dollop of Indian orientalism and some sparklers for good measure. It was largely touted as being the first American Bollywood picture at the time, not only for its opulent Indian-themed play-within-a-film climax, but because it ran the gamut of emotion from screwball comedy to operatic tragedy and just about everything in between. I’d never seen anything quite like it at the time, since Indian cinema was still pretty foreign to me, and I was dazzled by the spectacle and engaged emotionally with the screen in a way I rarely am with most films. It’s one of very few films where I exited the theater wanting to turn around and immediately buy another ticket to watch it again, and one of very few films I’ve attended where a portion of the audience left before it was over.
I think some people didn’t like the directing style, citing it as too ‘manic’. Other people don’t like that they used pre-existing songs for the musical, feeling that it was either lazy or disrespectful to the original artists. I thought it was a very smart move from both a problem-solving angle as well as a filmmaking angle: Christian (Ewan McGregor) is supposed to be a brilliant poet the likes of which no one has seen before, but unless the filmmakers happened to know such a brilliant poet (one that would not alienate audiences and who would make the other characters’ reactions of awe and amazement understandable to a modern audience), the songs were going to be very difficult if not impossible to get right. The solution to use pre-existing modern songs conveys the idea that Christian is brilliant and ahead of his time, and also elicits an immediate emotional response from the audience because most people are already familiar with the song in question. Since the songs in a musical are designed to progress the audience from one emotional plateau to another, this is a particularly innovative and, to me effective, idea.

Another reason I love this movie is its multi-layered subtext. Luhrmann loves referencing old stories, like with Strictly Ballroom drawing from both David and Goliath and the ugly duckling, and Romeo + Juliet referencing… okay, Romeo and Juliet. The stories referenced for Moulin Rouge! are the opera La Boheme and the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. I am an absolute sucker for Greek mythology, particularly the ones involving journeys to the Underworld, and Orpheus and Eurydice has one of the most classic representations of the tragic ending, with it stemming from the protagonists’ own actions and good intentions. Because the bulk of the movie is actually the memories of Christian and the present shots of him writing the account are dull and bereft of the vibrancy, color, and fantasy of his tale, it could be seen as his life in reality or the present which he is slowly coming to accept. I believe there is a note of his coming to terms with the past at the end, which is more of a positive note than both the Orpheus myth and the La Boheme opera are prone to give because it does give glimpses of the surviving hero’s coming to terms with events and forces beyond his control. The romantic ideal of love overcoming all obstacles that was repeated throughout the film was unrealistic—the audience knows his lover is dying, and even if the other conflicts resolve in their favor, there is nothing anyone can do to heal her—and his acceptance of this is the final pin in his journey through the Underworld into adulthood.
However much I love the more sensible underlying message, Moulin Rouge! is, at its heart, a celebration of art and passion and the problems that come with both. The artists of this world are colorful and creative, but poor and unable to finance the proper presentation of their vision, so they must turn to the uncreative Duke and convince him to invest in their vision. This ultimately gives him control over the content of their production and if he doesn’t approve of an aspect, they must either change it or manipulate him into being content with their ideas. (I have a very hard time believing that this is in no way analogous to trying to make a big studio film in Hollywood, by the way.) But of course the Bohemian poets defy the orders of the Duke and perform their original ending in a huge emotional climax, complete with pyrotechnic explosions, and are met with thunderous applause from their audience in response. Because artistic vision is what’s most important in artistic endeavors, and artists being censored by their financial backers is ridiculous to me. I believe in free speech and free expression, and ultimately, that’s what this movie is, both in-text and in its being, and I applaud Luhrmann for making films that stick to his vision, regardless of audience or critical response.

(And no, I haven’t seen Australia yet, but I will get to it.)