Wednesday, 30 April 2014

150W: Alice

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Alice (Dir. Woody Allen/1990)

Beginning with a flirtatious fantasy, Alice is Woody Allen indulging his upper-class thoughts again. Released in 1990, it’s clear that this was a low point as Alice is tired and hollow. Alice, an upper-class housewife, turns to herbal remedies from an acupuncturist to solve her woes. Her privileged life is an excuse for boredom and frustration as she is attracted to the tall and handsome Joe (Mantegna). Akin to the desperately creative characters we’ve seen before, Alice wants to be a writer, but lacks the desire and motivation to become one. Magical powers and extreme wealth is simply not enough though, as she continues to blame circumstance. The finale tries to offset her blissfully ignorant perspective, but it fails to elevate the majority of Alice, whereby her apathy and “tortured” sense of self grates and frustrates. A returning ghost is a highlight, but Woody can do much better than this.

Rating: 4/10

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Kiki's Delivery Service (Hayao Miyazaki, 1989)

A broom, a black cat and black gown; all that’s missing for Kiki is a pointy hat. Miyazaki’s fifth film (and third for Studio Ghibli) adapts a novel of the same name by Eiko Kadono, but still fits neatly into the Ghibli canon. A young-female protagonist, an anthropomorphic animal and lots of flying means that Kiki’s Delivery Service is Miyazaki in very comfortable territory.

Kiki has made a decision – today is the day she progresses into witch-hood. An important day to witch families, Kiki has to leave home and, on board a broom, fly to another village to start her own, independent life. Settling down in a Paris-sounding and San-Francisco-looking Japanese, beach-front town, Kiki makes her home. With the help of pregnant-baker Osono, artist Ursula and Where’s-Wally-lookalike Tombo, Kiki sets up her business despite the personal challenges she has growing up as a witch. Throughout, Kiki has her faithful sidekick and droll cat Jiji to keep her company.

Miyazaki’s pervious film, My Neighbour Totoro, hints at the idea that children should be shielded from the brutal reality of adulthood. In contrast, Kiki’s Delivery Service is about growth, as Kiki becomes self-aware and independent. Kiki is thirteen and, considering her cat speaks to her, this could’ve become an episodic narrative, jumping from one story to another. Miyazaki ensures this doesn’t happen. Despite her delivery service, flying across the town, the amount of characters is limited, and purposeful. The bakery couple who provide Kiki with a home; two old ladies that show Kiki the importance of tradition; a free-spirit who lives in the woods and paints in the style of Chagall; the small group of teenagers who are nameless but provide a counter-point to Kiki and Tombo’s honest and respectful attitude. Considering how busy the town is, this is concise and measured, proving how considered Miyazaki is when adapting this story.

The artistry, like all of Miyazaki’s films, is incredibly impressive. As Kiki flies in the air, her dress billows and her hair flutters through the wind. A sense of speed and a cool breeze are amplified by the striking colours of the sky and ocean. In fact, the finale consisting of a dirigible (a large blimp) breaking free from its constraints and crashing into the clock tower that welcomed Kiki to the town, is a neat use of the recurring theme of flight.

But, the unforgettable, stand-out character is the cat, Jiji. He could be considered a mere supporting role, akin to the type of quirky characters we see too often in Disney films (Olaf in Frozen, Pascal in Tangled), but he’s so much more. He is the cynic to Kiki’s innocent optimism. Her relationship to him, and their funny dialogue, shows a connection to her witchcraft and childhood. When she loses the power to speak to him, we feel how mighty the loss is. Has she forgotten how to be childish and playful? Has she forgotten her past? Indeed, Mushu in Mulan or Abu in Aladdin, seem to be exaggerated comedic characters for the sake of holding the attention of a young child. Jiji has a thematic and integral link, showing his own growth as he falls for the cat next door. The graceful and smooth animation of Jiji is what draws you in while snarky remarks are intelligent and perfectly pitched.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is uniquely Studio Ghibli, and an important example of animation rooted in a different set of standards. Miyazaki’s films often pit modern technology against age-old traditions, and in Kiki’s Delivery Service, it is no different. These grand tales of change are cinematic and challenging for kids, as much as they are for grown-ups. The western style of entertaining the entire family often falls into a context everyone can relate to (toys in Toy Story and fairy tales in Shrek) with characters that speak to all members of the family alike. In 1989, Studio Ghibli already had a cultural story and characters, like Jiji, to balance what could be considered twee. The higher-quality, and crucial difference, is how Kiki’s Delivery Service hints at bolder, bigger statements – something that would be bolder still in Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away, only a few years in the future…

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth on 21st April 2014

Friday, 18 April 2014

Tate Modern - Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs
Tate Modern (17th April 2014 – 7th September 2014)

Cut-outs can easily be considered a less-complex manner to create art. Indeed, creating collage by cutting and arranging images or patterns is something often attributed to childhood. But, like all art forms, developing a skill requires patience, experimentation and a passion that borders on obsession. Though cut-and-paste projects at primary school can be an afternoon’s pleasure or an integral part of a group puzzle, Henri Matisse devoted himself to cut-outs when restricted to a wheelchair in 1941. Gouache-painted sheets of paper, subtlety coloured in specific tones, accentuating the diverse range of colours were Matisse’s medium of choice in his final years.

The Tate Modern has showcased, and organised, an exhibition that charts Matisse’s final years. His initial experiments with collage (arranging and re-arranging simplistic bowls and fruit for a painted final piece) through to his obsession with patterns, colour and natural forms. Akin to a majestic performance, the exhibition saves his greatest act till last as, following his blue nudes, are his enormous cut-outs and window-designs that dominate walls, filling the final rooms.

Exiting through gift shop, the blue nudes are clearly the saleable and popular art pieces on show. The various experiments consisting of an elongated leg held by a crouching woman, composed of merely cobalt blue figures on a white surface is simply perfect. In this exhibition, we see the evolution of a version consisting of multiple papers, tweaked and layered to create the nude, and then the same nude composed of only one, perfectly cut, single sheet. The smooth, sharp slice of metallic scissors to cut out the arch of her back and the length of her thigh is surely as satisfying as hearing the long, smooth sound of a saxophone. Indeed, the playful, improvised and vibrant arrangements became a book, titled ‘Jazz’. He illustrated, supported by notes, and though unrelated to the music style, it remained an appropriate title.

Due to his sickness, his work becomes more abstract and spiritually dominant as you work your way through. Though the shapes are clearly integral to the images, he becomes more obsessed with colour in his later pieces opposed to the figures, shells and leaves seen originally. There is poetry to his contrast between curved and expressive shapes against the sharper edges of squared frames and defined edges. The larger the scale, the patterns become clearer and symmetry becomes an important way to balance the composition - but colour is larger and over-powering. With this in mind, it seems natural and purposeful that his work became more spiritual. The final room, demonstrate how natural his cut-outs are when converted into stained-glass. Christmas Lights (1952) showcases a true combination of considered tones and arresting shapes. Your eye looks up to the glorious light, demanding your attention in the centre of an abstract arrangement of form and colour. There is no Christ in a manger, or God touching the hand of Adam. It is proof that simplicity, such as the innocence in a child’s art piece, hides the greatest beauty.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

My Neighbour Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)

Totoro is the symbol of Studio Ghibli. The smiley, grey beast began life as part of a double-bill with Grave of the Fireflies because financiers didn’t believe My Neighbour Totoro alone would make money. By screening the cute and cuddly My Neighbour Totoro with the harrowing, deeply moving Grave of the Fireflies, the assumption was it was bound to succeed (despite the jarring tone of each tale). Following the release, the films were initially only mildly successful – critically acclaimed maybe, but not enough to financially secure the studio. What ensured the longevity and creative freedom of the studio was exceptionally successful merchandising from the characters created in My Neighbour Totoro (and, over time, the steadily-growing audience of each film).

The story itself is relatively simple. A father and his two daughters move to rural Japan, to be closer to their mother, who remains in hospital (possibly based on Miyazaki’s own experiences as his own mother was in hospital during his childhood). In the new house, the two children Satsuki and Mei find dust-creatures named susuwatari. This begins a fascination with forest creatures and the spirituality of nature. One afternoon, as Satsuki is at school, Mei explores the forest and chases after a small, vanishing creature. Akin to Alice chasing the White Rabbit, Mei chases the creature through the forest and, falling down the rabbit hole, finds the magical and majestic forest spirit Totoro. He sleeps and snores. He doesn’t speak her language, but there is a connection. Satsuki convinces her sister and, with father in tow, tries to find Totoro. Their father explains how Totoro revealing himself to them shows a mutual respect and is a great honour. In an unforgettable sequence, we see a nekobasu – a cat-bus – collect Totoro after Mei’s first encounter with him at a rainy bus-stop. We witness the girls as they see Totoro play his Ocarina on a branch and prove his ties to the environment, forging a tender relationship.

Nature, spirituality and the wonder of childhood are prominent features in the Studio Ghibli canon. Whether it is the way humans interact with nature in Princess Mononoke or the destruction of nature by man in Grave of the Fireflies; a ghost spirit of No-face in Spirited Away or the child at the centre of Ponyo; My Neighbour Totoro includes these thematic elements throughout. The final act of My Neighbour Totoro even includes a wonderful flying-sequence as the nekobasu flies the two girls to see their mother, as the wind rushes through the fur of the cat, we join them in the sky. As we fly in so many of his films, this is a joyful reminder of the incredible imagination of Miyazaki and how he captures the lush, green fields and blue skies in animation.

This was 1988, four years after the world wide success of E.T. and six years after The Snowman. In both cases, a mythical creature enriches the life of children, carrying them over the wonders of nature. This may be a surrealist fantasy, but it’s about friendship and the connection we have with these spiritual forces (and what spirituality teaches us too). Considering the backstory of the Mother’s sickness in My Neighbour Totoro (And, in the double-bill, the history in Grave of the Fireflies), there is a sense that nature and the innocence of childhood, in the face of adversity, should be treasured above all. The fun and friendship of Totoro and his companions keeps these particular children happy. Their mother and father are going through a horrific period (is it life-threatening? Will these poor girls lose their mother?). Is this when children should be taught of the fragility of life? When Satsuki finds out about her mother, she puts her own life in danger as she walks the long and lonesome road to the hospital. Perhaps, the innocent child has to slowly and gently learn about the world.

A distinctive charm is what maintains My Neighbour Totoro’s ever-lasting power. Such sincerity and a terrific sense of wonder means that we can, for a moment, be a child again ourselves. Through the looking glass of cinema, we can see Totoro and the creatures too – and what a memorable sight it is.

This was originally written for Flickering Myth on 18th April 2014

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988)

A Studio Ghibli season at the BFI has highlighted the very best of Japanese animation. We can define the cuddly Totoro or fantastical world of Princess Mononoke as what Studio Ghibli stands for – but Grave of the Fireflies proves otherwise. In fact, Isao Takahata’s 1988 film(released alongside My Neighbour Totoro) is a sobering, heart-breaking tale of those final years in Japan at the end of World War II, told through the eyes of two children, Seita and Setsuko. Grave of the Fireflies may be one of the most impressive, and surely ground-breaking, animations from the studio and challenges Disney – and western animators - to make such mature, intelligent and brutal films for a young audience.

Based on a novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, it is semi-autobiographical as he himself survived the fire-bombings of Japan while his sister died of malnutrition. This truth is loud and clear as the story is open and frank about the horrors of war. Indeed, aimed at children, this will surely establish a sense of pacifism in the youngest of minds. “September 21, 1945... that was the night I died.” is the first line. Seita is dead. We hear this narration from beyond the grave, and merely seeing his starved corpse in the centre of Sannomiya Station is a shock unto itself. Does author Nosaka believe this should’ve been his fate? But his soul is reawakened and we flashback to the countless moments of injustice that he, and his sister Setsuko, are forced to bear to stay alive. Something, known from the outset, they fail to do.

The spectacular backdrop of nature and blue skies, and the neon glow of the fireflies, contrasts against the war time horrors. Bandaged bodies and ashen corpses litter the streets. Setsuko herself – a baby-faced four-year-old - has red-rash skin, diseased by malnutrition, whereby her rib-cage, even in animated form, evokes such sadness. We know Setsuko was not the only young child affected.

But Grave of the Fireflies rests on the shoulders of 14-year-old Seita. His downward spiral of sorrow begins as he desperately runs from the fire-bombs hitting his home-town, as Setsuko clings to his back. His only goal is to find his Father and look after his sister. Irrespective of the burnt towns and desperation on their faces, Seita and Setsuko try and laugh. They play on the beach and carry gem-like fruit-sweets in a tin. Setsuko’s laugh highlights her happiness and her innocence, but we know it won’t end well. Seita steals to stay alive and a cruel aunt abuses the limited rice they gain (accumulated by selling their deceased mothers kimono). These are desperate times and, too young (and rightfully scared) to support the nation, but too old to be pitied and helped by others. Seita is trapped in the grey area whereby adults can’t comfortably ignore his troubles.

Compared with films that tackle the destruction and decimation of war in the context of childhood, such as War Horse, it doesn’t do the film justice. Grave of the Fireflies stands tall alongside Schindler’s List considering the emotional honesty revealed in the death of two children; the lead roles. Roger Ebert notes the influence of Hiroshige and Hergé in the animation, detailing how it the narrative “mediates on the consequences” of action rather than exploiting it. Indeed, the patience and calmness is overpowering as we see the humanity in the story. Ebert goes so far as to state that Grave of the Fireflies “belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made”, and I’d be inclined to agree. As part of the Studio Ghibli season, it is amongst the very best.

This post was written for Flickering Myth on April 16th 2014

Thursday, 10 April 2014

150W: Another Woman

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Another Woman (Dir. Woody Allen/1988)

Marion Post (Gena Rowlands) didn’t realise she was hated. An upper middle-class intellectual (like many of Woody Allen’s characters), she’s a professor of Philosophy who overhears a neighbour (Mia Farrow) revealing her private life to a psychiatrist. Self-disciplined and successful, Marion should be considered an inspiration – but alas, she lacks passion. Her husband (Ian Holm) mocks the idea of sex on the floorboards and the potential lover (Gene Hackman) that got away was rebuffed despite a mutual attraction. Bearing similarities to his latest film, Blue Jasmine, our female, central-character goes through a crisis - yet Another Woman resolutely builds her up as a strong, dominant woman. The tragedy is how, despite such bold characteristics, she is flawed by her well-planned, ordered goals. Her narration is matter-of-fact and purposefully specific and therein lays the rub. As enlightening as the story may be – Marion is a tad boring dragging the film behind.