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.)

Friday, August 14, 2009

"The One Who Will Revolutionize the World"

A quick note: Yeah, yeah, I suck. This was a hard series to write about and I'm still not entirely happy with what I have here, but I'm making myself post it anyway just so I can move on. Fairy Tale Week has been extended, since I've been bad about posting and I have a lot more stuff I'd like to cover. Also, when I post stuff about movies or shows from Japan, I'm almost always using the original Japanese voice track, not dubs. I'm not a fan of dubbing under the best of circumstances, but a lot that I've encountered are just absolutely atrocious, and Utena is among them. Avoid it if you watch it.

Note 2: All images are borrowed from Empty Movement, one of the best and most comprehensive websites devoted to the show.

It’s difficult for me to know where to start with this series. Just on its own it’s incredibly dense, complex, highly stylized and symbolic, bizarre, and downright hard to explain, but those reasons and more are why I find it so compelling. I’ve honestly never seen anything quite like it. For me, it was something I happened to see at exactly the right moment in my life to make a big impact, so it’s a personal thing for me to try and talk about. All this makes it difficult for me to know how to even try to explain why I like this so much, and a lot of people who see it probably won’t get the same thing out of it I did. It really isn’t a show for everyone; it requires a love of being completely confused by something that you know on some level has meaning but requires consideration, analysis, and a desire to do some research to understand. I am very much one of those people, but many people are not, and that’s okay, I just feel the need to explain in case someone decides to call me pretentious for liking it.

So the basic story is about a teenage girl named Utena Tenjou and her quest to get through junior high school, become a prince, and find her own prince. (“Prince” in this case is a term popular in Japan for girls to use to describe their dream guys. I didn’t realize how widespread the concept was until years later when I heard it cropping up in other shows. This show just took it and made it more literal.) It starts out very much like a magical-girl shoujo anime (“shoujo” being a genre of anime aimed at young and teenage girls which typically focus on things like romance and friendship—the magical girl sub-genre involves superhero-type adventure stories with the protagonist fighting against evil forces with magical powers; think Sailor Moon or even She-Ra) with some gender-bending elements added in (Utena dresses in a modified boy’s school uniform and does typically masculine things like play sports and refers to herself with the traditionally masculine “boku” instead of the gender-neutral “watashi”, presumably stemming from her desire to become a prince instead of a princess). However, there are some unusual elements mixed in that allude to how bizarre it will become later on, and believe me, when “normal” involves a giant castle rotating upside down over a dueling platform hundreds of feet in the air, and swords coming out of people’s chests, “bizarre” takes on a whole new meaning.

The fairy tale tropes in this are pretty obvious, since they’re pretty much all European fairy tales being referenced, like Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, but I can also see a lot of Buddhist, Daoist, and possibly Hindu ideas at work in more subtle ways, such as the nature of siblings (which is explored in several different relationships) and the nature of the school that all the characters attend. The main story is initially set up as a fairy tale as well, with the brave young prince figure—Utena—drawn into a world (both literally and figuratively) of fantastic occurrences, danger, conspiracies, lies, and betrayal for the sake of rescuing the princess figure—Anthy Himemiya—from a series of ritualistic duels carried out by the school’s student council. The winner of the duel “wins” Anthy along with the fantastic power she’s supposed to possess that can “revolutionize the world”. Each duelist has his or her own reasons for wanting to attain this goal, even though the exact meaning of the phrase is never clearly explained. Utena doesn’t want this power, she only wants to protect Anthy from the people who use her as an object in realizing their own ambitions, and as the current champion, must constantly fight duels to retain possession of Anthy. She is also searching for the mysterious prince who comforted her as a child after the death of her parents—this half-remembered person is the one who inspired her desire to become a prince herself and the idea of him has been intensely romanticized in her mind over the years. She can’t remember what he looked like, or even the exact events of their meeting apart from him comforting her by her parents’ coffins, but he gave her a ring as a means of finding him again. As it so happens, the same ring design is used by the duelists at the school she attends, which is another reason why she is drawn into the duels.

I’ll tell you right now, the series does not end the way you’re probably thinking it does. I had absolutely no idea what I was in store for when I started watching it the first time. The director/co-writer of the series, Kunihiko Ikuhara, really did set it up like a typical shoujo series at the beginning; it’s light, fluffy, bizarre (there’s an episode where Anthy’s terrible exploding curry switches her personality with Utena’s, and surfing elephants are eventually involved), silly, and sometimes sappy. The casual viewer will think they have the ending pegged within the first few episodes, and might continue watching if they feel like seeing it play out, especially if they watch some of the later duels in the first story arc. There are two episodes in that first early collection that really kept me watching, since shoujo isn’t typically a genre I’m drawn to, but I’m intrigued by things that surprise me, and there are some surprises in there. But the really interesting stuff for first-time viewers is what starts to happen after the first thirteen episodes, when the series gets deeper down the rabbit hole. It’s really difficult to get into specifics without either having to explain a lot, giving away too many secrets, or both, but there is a definite tone shift during the Black Rose storyline that continues through the end of the series. Which isn’t to say that the first story arc is pointless to re-watch, but there are a lot of great things in there for people who’ve already seen the end, especially if they’re looking to understand Anthy more. There’s a lot of revealing detail about her in those early episodes, it’s just very cleverly hidden. (Incidentally, I've heard it said that Ikuhara is a fan of David Lynch, and I can really see how that could be plausible; there's a definite Lynch-vibe to his stuff.)

Another strange aspect I would be remiss to not mention are the duel choruses. There’s a new one in nearly every episode, one for each duel fought in the entire series, and they’re usually a bit off-putting for most people just getting into the series. I hated them at first, but they’re actually one of my favorite things about the series now—I even bought a CD of songs written for, but not used in the series. As much as I’ve been able to find out, the songwriter in question, J. A. Seazer, was something of a cult student favorite in Japan in the 1960s, including of Ikuhara’s. As the story goes, when Ikuhara approached him about doing some music for the series, Seazer was intrigued by the ‘revolutionary’ theme and agreed. The lyrics to his songs alone often garner much scrutiny and analysis from fans because they’re so densely populated with scientific, philosophical, religious, and mythological terms that they can be difficult to understand.

I’m trying to think of a way to succinctly sum up why I’m so fond of this series and why it affected me as much as it did. I contribute a large portion of my interest in film analysis to it because not only is this a series that demands to be analyzed, it’s one of the first times I remember being deeply moved by something that I could not articulate or even understand myself. It is a challenging series in a lot of ways and seems to become more so the deeper into it you get. It’s about more than just fairy tales, it’s very much about the confusion and pain of adolescence, of finding one’s self-identity, the fluidity and inexplicableness of human dynamics, relationships, and sexuality, and the necessity of letting go of the things that keep one mired in the past and unable to move forward. It’s about gender relationships and societal expectations and stigmas, and I think most especially for me, it’s about waking up out of our preconceived notions of what all of this means and trying to see the world for what it really is instead of what I might think it’s supposed to be. In attempting to understand what this series was saying, I had to come to terms with a lot of my own preconceptions and ideas, some of which I wasn’t aware I had. It challenged me to change the way I viewed the potential of media, the way I viewed the world, and the way I viewed myself and some viewpoints I wasn’t aware I held. I don’t think the series itself changed my life, but viewing it at the point I was at was like a slap in the face about some things. Not everyone is going to have that same experience, but I’ve met other people since then who have had similar experiences with it, so I think there’s something to it. Regardless, I really think the series is worth looking at because it does so well at setting up and then subverting expectations, and really trying to say something. Whether it succeeds at it is of course up to personal interpretation, but I think it is a challenging show that asks questions of its viewers that many shows don’t.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Sorry for the interruption, I haven't been feeling very well the past couple of days and the next fairy tale on my list is complicated for me to write about. I'll have it up tonight, and then I'll try and double up on the last ones so I make the Friday deadline.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

"Needs More Spice. How About Some Paprika!"

If you were to ask me for a list of my favorite directors, Satoshi Kon (Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers) is going to be somewhere near the top. Paprika isn’t my favorite of his films, but that is by no means saying that it is not well worth watching. He is on the very short list of people who really seem to view animation as its own medium instead of a genre of film, and he uses the medium in ways I haven’t seen anyone else use it. The stories he chooses to tell with it are unusual to see in animation, and Paprika is by far the most conventional of them in that sense, but it is a film that really would not work as well in live-action because it really requires a seamless blending of reality and dream. Even with CGI effects getting as impressive as they are, there would always be a slight disconnect there that to achieve in animation is simpler because the entire thing is already animated. Your mind doesn’t register that there’s been any change because there hasn’t been one, whereas with CGI, it’s always a shift between live action and animation, and often times the spectacle itself can be distracting from the rest of the action.

All of Kon’s other works involve this theme of blurring the line between reality and fantasy, and in his other works it’s done with a very subtle touch that keeps the story moving along. Paprika is by far the most blatant use of this idea, but the narrative requires it. The story is about Atsuko Chiba, a research psychotherapist working on an experimental project with technology that allows one person to enter another person’s dreams for the sake of psychotherapy. Call it a more “hands on” approach to psychoanalysis. Chiba has a sort of dream or ‘online’ alter ego (in fact, the line between dreams and the internet is one of the more subtle ones blurred in the film) named Paprika, a spritely, red-haired girl who’s mischievous, flirty, and carefree in a way that serious, stoic, responsible Chiba doesn’t allow herself to be. Paprika goes where Chiba cannot, and in the opening scene we see her attempting to help a police detective, Konakawa, with a reoccurring dream he feels is impeding his ability to solve a murder case by becoming active parts of the dream and keeping his consciousness focused while the dream plays out. When Chiba goes to work the next day, she discovers that the technology that allows this, the DC-Mini, has been stolen and one of her colleagues has mysteriously gone missing. The problem is compounded when one of her other colleagues suddenly begins dreaming while awake; the thief has hijacked his consciousness in an act of psycho-terrorism, and it soon becomes clear that this is not an isolated incident. As Chiba and her colleagues race to find the thief and recover their stolen property before more damage is done and their project shut down, she must also contend with the blending of the real world and the dreaming world as her mind is invaded.
So while it probably doesn’t seem much like a fairy tale, I consider it to be for a number of reasons which are difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t seen the film. It very much utilizes Joseph Campbell’s basic outline of the hero’s journey, where a hero is set up for their quest, they journey to the field of adventure, endure trials along the way, and then achieve the ‘freedom to live’ ending by mastering both their external and internal struggles. The world which Chiba enters as Paprika is certainly fantastic and dangerous, and requires cunning, intellect, and creativity to maneuver in. She must also reconcile the two parts of herself she has chosen to express separately as Chiba and as Paprika, and only then is the major conflict allowed to resolve.
There is another element to this film that I love, which is unusual for me as it is typically one of my least favorite part of other films: the romantic sub-plot. Both Chiba and Paprika have a list of male admirers in the film, some more realistic than others, and it’s barely mentioned through most of the story because it isn’t necessary. But it wound up being one of my favorite parts of the entire film; I honestly thought it was wonderful largely because it was hardly mentioned and it was incredibly subtle, but on subsequent viewings, it was most certainly present. I love how Kon chose to handle it, and how he used the cinematic shorthand for the romantic triangle (or in this case, hexagon) to communicate the identity of the destined pair to the audience in unconventional ways. I particularly like what this film underhandedly says about the culture of male sexual entitlement, since not a lot of films really touch on that. (I should also say that this film is rated R for a reason, and there is a scene in particular that is incredibly uncomfortable to watch, which ties directly to the idea I just mentioned. It’s creative and disturbing and thankfully short.)
This brings me to another of my favorite points, the use of cinema in the movie itself as a means of communicating an idea to the audience. As a film, it obviously does this simply by being a film, but the characters within the film also use cinematic images and dialogue to create meaning while communicating with each other. It’s a little thing, but it made my inner film student smile when I saw it, so I wanted to mention it. Also, I love it when a director subtly breaks the fourth wall to remind the audience that they’re watching a movie (hi there, David Lynch!), and there’s a short scene where Paprika and Konakawa have a conversation that does precisely that.
There are a lot more ideas I could get into, and it’s a film that really does welcome repeat viewings because there are a lot of ideas embedded in the subtext that deserve to be talked about. Ideas like collectivism vs. individualism, the ethics of using technology, the nature of mass media and how it relates to dreams and the subconscious, the female identity crisis, duality, etc., etc. There’s a lot going on in the film, especially if you start to look at it as a product of Japanese society. It’s complex and compelling, but still able to be viewed as a simple psychological thriller on the surface, so it’s not just a film for film students. There’s another line Satoshi Kon is fond of blurring, and which I love watching him do.

"So Sharp, You Won't Feel a Thing..."

As an inveterate Neil Gaiman (Sandman, American Gods, Stardust) fan, as well as an animation nerd who’s consistently impressed with Henry Selick’s (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach) work, this one was pretty much a shoe-in for me. Based on Gaiman’s book of the same title, Selick’s stop-motion animated movie adaptation was even more enjoyable than I was expecting it to be, in no small part due to the fact that it had what so few movies aimed at kids have anymore: spookiness. Gaiman’s good at spooky, he’s made his career on it, and I was so grateful and impressed that Selick put so much effort into preserving that aspect of it, because it really made the story work. One would think, given that the basic plot revolves around a girl finding another house just like hers filled with people just like the ones she knows only with buttons for eyes, who want to put buttons in her eyes and keep her there, that spookiness would be a given, but I learned a while ago to stop trusting Hollywood adaptations, especially ones aimed at children. But Selick kept the spooky and even somewhat scary elements intact, and the result was this delicious cocktail of creative, atmospheric visuals and quirky, engaging story. It reminds me far more of the old-fashioned fairy tales from my childhood like Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave, where there were rules to magic, the peril to children was real, and they had to be clever and trick the being that was menacing them.

I also like that Coraline isn’t your typical young leading lady—she’s got some snark to her, and deliberately comes off as being abrasive at times. To me, it’s understandable, since she’s new in town, just moved, and her parents are both too busy to spend much time with her. I loved the small moment where she gets to say hello to the two friends she left behind, since it really demonstrated that she wasn’t always so acidic, she was just a grumpy pre-teen in a stressful situation. I can remember being just like that, so I’m maybe more sympathetic to her than someone else might be. But I do appreciate a female heroine who has faults and isn’t all sweetness and light and is allowed to be slightly grating at times. And her parents are allowed to be flawed as well, particularly her mother. The design of them both demonstrates how similar these two are, physically and in terms of personality. Her father is less sarcastic and frustrated, but he is just as overworked, and a bit less effective at parenting. But I never got the impression that they were bad parents, per se, nor that they didn’t care about her. They were simply under pressure and didn’t have time to entertain their daughter as much as she would have liked.

While all this is understandable to a third party viewing from the outside, it’s really no wonder why Coraline is so dazzled by the world her ‘other’ mother has created for her. Her other parents not only have time for her, but they’re more pleasant to be around in general, and everything they do is designed to delight her in some way. Her eccentric neighbors are talented and entertaining in spectacular ways, and the entire world was tailor made specifically for Coraline. Like home, only better. Of course, like all magical gifts, it’s too good to be true, and the price for living in this place is a pair of shiny buttons where her eyes should be. Coraline’s a sensible girl, and there’s no question about what her answer to that is, but the Other Mother’s no pushover either, and she doesn’t like being told no.

I feel I should say here how impressed I am with Terri Hatcher’s performance as Coraline’s mother and other mother. She basically plays three roles in the film, and she does it very, very well. They’re all distinct, but not so different that it’s jarring—they are sort of the same person, in a sense. Coraline’s real mother is tired, frustrated, and harried, but doing the best she can, while the other mother at first is sweet, doting, and warm while still being a little distant. Once her real nature comes out, she is cold, aloof, and unsettling. It’s a fantastic performance, and I love that instead of getting loud and shrill when Other Mother gets angry, she gets calm and quiet. It’s so effective that way.

Another aspect I liked that I believe Roger Ebert pointed out in his review of the film, is that all the women in the film seem to have some witch-like qualities. There is something about all of them that is just slightly uncanny, often in subtle ways, but it’s still there. Mr. B, Coraline’s upstairs neighbor also has some uncanny traits, since he seems to have information about Coraline’s adventure that he shouldn’t know, which he seems to have gotten from his imaginary jumping mice. But Coraline, her mother, and the two downstairs neighbors, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, and of course the Other Mother all have moments of varying witchiness. It’s just another layer of detail that made this movie so delightful and engrossing.

As with any adaptation, there were changes made from Gaiman’s original book, but when switching mediums, it’s necessary, and the changes made to this didn’t hamper the story in any real way for me. They’re slightly different beasts, but both very much worth spending time with. They’re imaginative, charming, spooky, clever, and the products of two very talented people, and I was delighted for hours after I was done with both of them.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Fairy Tale Week!

Yeah, I decided to give myself a challenge to force myself to write. I've had an urge to write about fairy tale-type movies I love for a bit now, and since I'm fantastically excited for Hayao Miyazaki's new film Ponyo opening on the 14th, I've decided to count down to it by talking about one of those movies every day until then.

Unfortunately, I'm a bit too tired to start it tonight, like I wanted to, so I'll kick things off tomorrow. But I wanted to get this up to make it official. In the meantime, check out the trailer for Ponyo, along with the little sneek peaks of some things I might be be talking about over the week, and get ready to feel the magic, 'cause it's on tomorrow!