Tuesday, June 28, 2011

E(very) P(esticide) A(pproved)

"Vanishing of the Bees" is a documentary about CCD - Colony Collapse Disorder. If you haven't been keeping informed, honeybee colonies have been basically disappearing in large numbers over the last few years.

Apparently it has come in conjunction with the uses of new systemic pesticides. These last a long time, but were only tested (by their manufacturer) in large doses in a one time application. The EPA approved their use. After honeybees are exposed, the pesticide gets into their food supply, into their offspring and about six months later, CCD. The bees abandon the hive, leaving only babies and the queen. The ramifications are widespread, for bees, our food supply and probably for humans and human children as well.

This film conveys a lot of important knowledge and I highly recommend seeing it. Two last thoughts: the French EPA (whatever they call it) supposedly runs on the basis that what you don't know can hurt you. Our EPA does not.

And perhaps the most obvious evidence from the film that we have a very screwed up relationship with the environment: the bee keeper that called his bees "equipment." That is an indication of a very serious problem indeed.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Resnais' "Night and Fog"

I made a decision recently to try and write a post on this blog about every film I watch in its entirety. Unfortunately, I just watched Alain Resnais' "Night and Fog." After watching his "Hirsohima Mon Amour" for a class paper, and feeling a pretty deep connection to it, I felt I needed to finally see this earlier film of Resnais.

It is about the Nazi death camps, a documentary of the shells of the places which held such horrors. It is a short film, just over half an hour, and should be seen by everyone. It is not a film I feel the need to write much about. However, right before watching it, I caught a promo on TCM for "Judgment at Nuremburg" in which Spencer Tracy, as a judge, speaks the following line:

"...this is what we stand for: justice, truth... and the value of a single human being!"

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Postscript on The Tree of Life

"Exactly, it's the mystery," says Nino Quincampoix. "You won't find it here!"      replies the sex shop proprietress.
Avoiding the inevitable, I found myself re-watching "Amelie" this morning, right after my last post on "The Tree of Life." The above quote describes "The Tree of Life" perfectly. 
This is the problem with Malick's film - there is no mystery. He presents the   world literally, expecting us to be awed by it.
"Amelie" presents a world of awe - mythically - and we ARE awed by it. Somehow, the theme of both films is the same. 
One is presented literally, one mythically. Just re-watch "Amelie."

And the 2012 Academy Award for Cinematography Goes To...

Emmanuel Lubezki, for "The Tree of Life." A very good cinematographer outdoes himself in collaboration with Terrence Malick. Every shot is excellent, camera movement amazing. I was compelled to watch simply because of the beauty of what was up on the screen.

Unfortunately, the cinematography was the only element compelling enough to keep me watching. When a couple stood and left just before the credits rolled, I realized I had wished to do just that many times over the last two and a half hours. Just how much did the jumbled concept and narrative contrast with the camera work? There are three young boys in the film. Sean Penn plays one of them as an adult. My friend and I, with a random third guy that heard us talking and sidled up, each thought Penn was playing a different child as an adult. I think I at least got that one right, but that says it all.

Just what was this film about? I am tempted to be swayed by my myth and depth psychology studies and say "the shadow." Some of the beautiful shots we see most often are of the shadows of children, and others, dancing and twisting along the earth, often on concrete. And the shadow side of a person, where all the unacknowledged, undeveloped yet still percolating traits sink to lie dormant, looking for ways to get expressed, easily explain the madness of every character here. Repression only lasts so long before the dam bursts.

But Malick's film tries so much more - I think - that this shadow play running through the film gets bombastically paralleled by what I can only guess is supposed to be the grandeur of the creator God. The film starts with a Bible quote from Job and proceeds to show the Big Bang and evolution, microbes and dinosaurs, planets and huge tidal waves. Set to some sort of religious choral music, it is the anti-"2001: A Space Odyssey." If these scenes of multiple and wildly messy upheavals as life and matter gets created in a billion random ways are supposed to suggest a human-like god planning every step of creation, I suggest it does the exact opposite.

So it then seems the film re-focuses on the smaller family story, on the choice humans have: to live in the state of nature, defined here as choosing pleasure for yourself or following a strict orderly life, or the state of grace, defined here as - what? The only explication I could find was that grace means living and loving. Truly loving, not just going through the motions as the father does.

But then there are those dinosaurs. One is shown lame, laying in a river bed. Another, different dinosaur comes running up to it, presumably for an easy meal. After stepping on the lame one's head, it looks down and then leaves. Without eating it. Is Malick suggesting the dinosaur chose grace - to love the fallen brethren - rather than nature - to eat it? While a really wonderful idea, it's rather silly.

There are other plot points from the narrative with the family that make little sense, mostly concerning when and how the youngest brother dies exactly. As a little tale of being raised in a 1950's family of conformity with bitter anger running through them behind the walls of their home, this works pretty well. Combine it with the scenes of god-creation and some incredibly ridiculous ending of dead people reuniting with the living, and you have a massive debacle.

But what an amazing debacle to watch. Perhaps the ad they are featuring, composed of multiple shots from the film, tells all. Come for the cinematography. Leave when it's done.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Voice Casting by Aardman Animations

I was given an old videotape of shorts from Aardman Animations. I suppose they are best known for Nick Park's work - Wallace and Gromit. It is kind of amazing to me what they did on other films though. From a documentary on the end of the tape: Aardman took recorded conversations of real people and used the tapes for their soundtracks. They basically animated around these conversations.

"War Story," above, appears to have been a commissioned interview for use in this way. It is with a British WWII vet. Other films appear to have just taken some random conversations - notably a discussion by some folks at a Salvation Army location and one of a door-to-door salesman with an older couple he is trying to get to buy something. The clip of the older gentleman giving the salesman a bit of the business is classic:

Not for everyone's taste, I guess, but I'm really fascinated at how they were able to use these voices in service of some real - and interesting - movement.

BTW - I'm not quite sure of the legality of these being on YouTube or on this blog, but I'll certainly take them down if need be. If not, they are here because they are fascinating - and really great. They deserve a wider renown!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Tales From Earthsea - Voice Casting at Disney













There is something very odd about Disney's choice to cast Willem Dafoe as the voice of the villainous female Lord Cob in Ghibli's "Tales From Earthsea." Dafoe is great, creating a very disturbing villain with a very incongruous voice. Lord Cob - as you question the "why" of the character's sexuality - is a truly creepy villain.

But then you watch the film in Japanese and find she really is a woman. You also discover it makes the parts of the movie fit together just a little better when it is obvious. I can't get over the controversy about this film, but in its original language, it is even more a "real" Ghibli film than even I thought a few days ago. Dafoe is seriously unnerving, and I really wonder why Disney made the decision to go this way. It makes Lord Cob a more intense villain, but does not make the overall film better. Interesting choice to have made.

I have also wandered the internet looking for reasons people don't like this film, and I honestly can say I don't understand any of them. I had previously written that there was a confusing moment in the film, and many have written that much of it is confusing. On second watch, I thought it was seamless and wasn't sure where my confusion had come from. I can only guess that many viewers want everything laid out in front of them, but I think you have to be able to linger in a little doubt or non-clarity to really appreciate any film. By the end, you should be able to think about it. If it's still totally unclear, perhaps you have watched a film that is not so good.

But I'll say it again - "Tales From Earthsea" is a fine addition to Studio Ghibli's impressive roster. Not as good as "Totoro," but nothing is. I look forward to Goro's next one.

Anime and Manga BLOGGERS FOR JAPAN

Anime and Manga BLOGGERS FOR JAPAN are VERY close to their goals now - about $95 away from their Doctors Without Borders goal, near the same for Shelterbox.

Since I don't exclusively write about anime and manga, I wasn't sure I had anything to continue, but I think I'll keep trying till they get those last few donations. Below is an amazing animation short that - although absolutely nothing like what Hayao Miyazaki produces - has the same value at its core as one of my favorite films of all time, My Neighbor Totoro. Please donate a few dollars.

The Incident at Tower 37


This fine short film really caught me off-guard, being a great example of what animation can do best: show "the other" as either being more like us than we usually think, or showing "the other" as being not like us but still completely, utterly valid. So many works do the former; showing others in a non-human way is much more rare. This film from Christ Perry at Bit Films is a beautiful example of that validity.

I think this is part of what Hayao Miyazaki does so very well. Totoro, the Ohmu, his landscapes in general really, are all alive in their own way, all definitely non-human. Maintaining that non-human quality while still allowing us to relate is animation's secret weapon.

Imagining just another human piece of the puzzle is how we maintain our dominant outlooks and attitudes. Imagining a fish out of water can tell us so much more.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Anime and Manga BLOGGERS FOR JAPAN

As part of supporting the Anime and Manga BLOGGERS FOR JAPAN, below please find my review, a first for me, for the anime series "Naoki Urasawa's Monster." Earlier posts for the cause are on "Tales From Earthsea" and "A Town Called Panic" - both found by scrolling down.

Bloggers for Japan are really very close to hitting their goals in support of Doctors Without Borders and Shelterbox. I think I am safe in saying my 97-year old Japanese Aunty living near Hiroshima would be really pleased to know someone reading this blog was able to help her country in some small way. Huge thanks to you for your support, and huge thanks to Bloggers4Japan.com.

Naoki Urasawa's Monster - A Different Kind of Anime

"Monster" is an anime series from 2004; the link above is to the Wikipedia page for the manga version. There is a section on the anime if you scroll down.

I had not planned on ever writing about "Monster" because there are seventy-four episodes, which I watched maybe two at a time on Funimation OnDemand. It took about a year to watch the whole series, and with so many characters, it is easy to get a little confused. Without being able to go back and re-watch, it's hard to write about the exact scenes in the right context. Those scenes are very powerful at times. There are DVD's of the first thirty episodes available, but I do believe you can watch them all on Hulu. Whatever that is. My viewing habits are pretty old school, and watching anime is pretty difficult if you want to keep up. I was glad I found this OnDemand, purely by accident. That said...

"Monster" is a really fine series, incredibly emotional and powerful. The main theme basically deals with how children are raised, and what it means to be a true, honest and loving person. The title Monster is a young boy who has grown up under rather poor guidance. He is either part of a fascist conspiracy, or perhaps he is really on his own, causing particularly violent and senseless chaos. There is no real reason to like him, other than a suspicion that he was mistreated as a young boy, so he makes a really fine villain.

Or the Monster is the one pictured above, who has lived inside the boy all through these years he has grown up.

Monster deals with adults and children as they relate to each other. It depicts the truly horrendous consequences of adults knowingly attempting to mold children in exceptionally unhealthy ways. The adult villains are truly reprehensible, which brings more emotion to the screen than even most films have. Over seventy-five episodes, there is an element of hit-or-miss, but in general, this is powerful storytelling. The plot is driven mostly by a fugitive, Dr. Tenma, so there are numerous vignette episodes in which humanity and inhumanity are explored through various situations and relationships.

There is also a revenge factor, a theme which is handled here by actually showing two sides - the reasonable and humane, against the chaotic and the despicable. It works well as it runs through the entire series.

The animation is pretty standard for anime, I think, which is not very exciting. However, this is not an action series - it is about emotion, and empathy, which is allowed to develop slowly for maximum effect. At times, there are some amazing scenes which elevate the animation and the content to a pretty high level. If you have time, and are maybe not usually thrilled by anime, this might be worth checking out. It seems to have a limited audience, but I found it thought-provokingly brilliant.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Anime and Manga BLOGGERS FOR JAPAN

As part of supporting the Anime and Manga BLOGGERS FOR JAPAN, below please find my review, by request, for "A Town Called Panic." Please note: This film has nothing to do with Japan. My defense of "Tales From Earthsea" can be found below.

Bloggers for Japan are getting very near their goals of supporting Doctors Without Borders and Shelterbox to give direct support to those in need from the recent disaster. If you like the review below, can you make a small donation? If you don't like the review below, can you make a small donation?

A Town Called Panic

"A Town Called Panic" is a very silly movie. I like the animals. I like the animation. I like the backgrounds a lot.

The end made me really happy and brought a smile to my face (because of the fireworks, not because it was the end). I like the farmer.

I wish the plot was more than just one thing leading to another, because it could have been sheer genius. But since it was just silly, I guess that's ok.

I like donkey.

Available on Netflix streaming. :-)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Bloggers for Japan

Below is my review of Studio Ghibli's new US DVD release of "Tales from Earthsea." It is part of Anime and Manga BLOGGERS FOR JAPAN. The folks who have had their lives destroyed will need support to get back on track, so if you can donate on the Bloggers for Japan site, I thank you. The world will only truly become one by sharing culture and kindness.

Does Studio Ghibli's "Tales from Earthsea" Deserve the Bad Rap It Seems to Have?

When I first heard Studio Ghibli was making "Tales from Earthsea," I was excited. I fondly remembered reading Ursula K. Le Guin's series of books. Ghibli, of course, makes perhaps the most wonderful animated films ever. Hmm, not perhaps. Yes, as a whole, Ghibli is the best. Though mostly due to the singular genius of Hayao Miyazaki, the Ghibli films by other directors that I have seen (Grave of the Fireflies, Whisper of the Heart and The Cat Returns) are all amazing in their own way. So as much as I believe Miyazaki to be a genius (so much so that my dissertation may be focused on him), the Ghibli magic may be that the production company he founded has a singular vision that works.

Unfortunately, reviews of "Tales from Earthsea" were troubling. It is directed by Goro Miyazaki, Hayao's son, and apaprently this caused problems - between son and father, but also with how the film was received by the core Ghibli fans. LeGuin herself - who had originally agreed to allow the making of the film as long as Hayao was at the helm - also found faults with the film. I will admit to not having read the details of any spat between father and son. I do believe Goro was a landscaper before being given this opportunity, though, so I assumed criticisms of the film were going to be valid. I trust LeGuin and have loved almost every word she has written that I have read.

However, I also know that film is a different animal. Faithful adaptations of books that make good films are not the easiest of projects to complete.

While recently re-watching as many Ghibli films as I could in order to ponder whether I could devote a dissertation to them (without ruining my appreciation), I was pleased to see "Tales from Earthsea" was being released. Only on Disney DVD though, which is just wrong. I recently read Miyazaki's "Starting Point," wherein it seems that early in his career Hayao was not too thrilled with Disney. I have been looking for information about how he felt when Ghibli and Disney formed a partnership - did his feelings change? I haven't yet found any comments, but I might guess he has simply stopped mentioning Disney when he doesn't have to. Maybe because Disney did not see fit to release this film to any theaters, where these films really need to be seen.

But that decision may have been based on fan's early and bad reviews. It's a shame, because this is another glorious Ghibli film that would have been that much more wonderful on the big screen.

First, is a bit darker than previous films. As the major theme is about the shadow side in all of us, this is to be expected. It includes a scene of graphic violence that I cannot recall seeing in previous Ghibli films, as well as some adult to child violence. These instances were shocking only because it is not what one expects from Ghibli. In the context of the narrative, however, they were utterly appropriate. The villain in the film - again, a true villain not often seen in Ghibli works - was for me one of the most disturbing villains I have seen anywhere in a while. The age for this film is rather higher than it was for "Ponyo."

I have also noticed criticism in some parts that the animation in "Earthsea" is not up to Ghibli standards. Specifically, some of the spectacular backgrounds we expect to see aren't present. I can't say I agree. Not only does the film look great, some of the animation is really outstanding. Toward the end, when the roof of some of the stonework is collapsing, and individual bricks are quaking and falling apart, I'd say is some of the best animation I've seen.

Some are criticizing the story, suggesting it is routine fantasy genre, or else that it's unclear and hard to follow. I found it to be a powerful story - truly mythic undertones spiking up through the disguise of placid narrative. I actually thought at one point that it reminded me of Carl Dreyer's films, which are paced notoriously slowly, languidly, but in service of powerful emotion.

Scenes in which Arren gets engulfed in what looks like black, oily water - also calling to mind the flooding water in "Ponyo" - hit a little too close to the heart, considering the ongoing crisis in Japan. This only adds to the tense drama that slowly unfolds in "Earthsea."

The calm demeanor of the character Sparrowhawk is matched here only by his genuine humility. When he apologizes to the boy Arren for an incorrect decision, choosing to leave him alone when there was every reason to believe the boy might need help, it is a moment rarely seen in any film - an adult apologizing for wrongheaded inaction. The powerful role Sparrowhawk owns makes it an even more touching scene - a leader with actual humility.

There was one moment when I was confused near the end. That confusion passed quickly, though, as I brought my own imagination to bear on what I thought had just happened. Too often everything in a film is telegraphed - we know what happened, or we are told how to feel. My ability to bring my own metaphor into this moment of confusion was a crowning achievement for a magnificent and powerfully emotional film.

I can understand Ursula LeGuin's criticisms. From what I recall of her wonderful words, this was not her story. But the Ghibli fan's outcry I don't understand at all. All in all, I'd say the son of the genius made a rather impressive debut.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Wolfman


There is a small segment of society that would deem the Universal monster films of the thirties and forties as classics. I am part of that group. I love these films for the same reason I prefer such special effects as stop-motion animation: the imaginal is meant to be just that - imaginal. If our monsters look too real, they become literal and lose the power we allow them to have in our imagination. They become slashers, and we know what it's like to linger on the blood. I prefer atmosphere to gore because what I can imagine in my thoughts is that much scarier than simply the disgust of violent death. The Universal monsters allowed death to be tragic. They were one step, sometimes more, removed from what was real. In that gap, between what we know is real and what we are able to imagine, is the full range of what is possible.

"The Wolfman" remake is a better film than I think it has been given credit for. More so than other Universal remakes, it honors the spirit of the original by taking its subject seriously. Yes, there is a fair amount of blood, but it is shown quickly, not lingered upon. Wonderfully balancing this is the atmosphere in every scene. Though I would not say I was ever scared, the feeling of dread was with me in every sequence. Dread in a film is more powerful than the shock every time.

As a fan of the original Universal film, there are many nice touches in this one. Benicio Del Toro comes across as the perfect actor to play the Lon Chaney Jr. role. Neither is exactly a pleasure to behold, and Del Toro does what Chaney Jr. could not - make Lawrence Talbot a likable guy. In the original, you feel for Talbot simply because he is forcibly turned into a wolf. Del Toro - playing the script perfectly - is the only male character with heart. I liked him, and it is truly unfair that he is the one to succumb to lycanthropy. My favorite nod to the original is the use of the telescope - which also delineates the characters of the two Larry Talbot's - Lon Chaney Jr. uses the telescope to spy on a girl; the remake uses it as intended - to view the moon, in a nice scene between Del Toro and his creepy father, Anthony Hopkins.

The original film is one of my favorites, and the remake is the kind of horror film rarely made anymore - gothic atmosphere, mysterious and imaginal. Not the kind of film a lot of people want to see any more. However, the psychological dimensions of the man who changes into a wolf are also rather interesting in this film.

This film truly reflects on the imaginal - who is able to imagine, what to do with life when what you imagine turns out to be possible. Perhaps the best scene is one in which Del Toro is imprisoned in an asylum. Strapped down in a chair, he is wheeled into a medical auditorium filled with the medical profession, leering and waiting for a show. His "doctor" is providing just that - forcing his "patient" to have to endure looking at a full moon, in order to embarrass him and prove that he will not turn into a wolf because of it.

The doctor is utterly incapable of imagining that something is possible, and this leads to the hubris of creating a spectacle in order to dismiss it. When the full moon does make its appearance, it is hard to feel bad for these spectators. When the "doctor" is taken by the Wolfman, the lesson may be that we should give a little credence to even something we cannot believe. Imagine it, and take precaution - don't be completely dismissive immediately.

The other interesting character is Hopkins, playing the Wolfman's father. He is also a lycanthrope. His full embrace of his alternate lifestyle led me to consider his character from the Jungian perspective. Jung suggests we cannot become whole unless we examine our shadow side and enable it to emerge in our lives at times. By allowing this, we are able to siphon off some of the power, disperse it while also engaging with it. In Hopkins' character, I found a man who fully embraced his shadow side. He created a powerful ego, one able to to stand up for his own individualism. He took that ego too far though - no one and nothing was important to him any more, except for himself. It's one thing to become a strong person. It's quite another to be so strong that others don't matter any more. This isn't Hopkins best role ever, but it's effective. He's a true creep here.

This is not a film for everyone. If you like your imaginal to be made utterly real, you can skip this. But if you like to suspend reality and slip into a world that is one step removed, dim the lights and enjoy.