Saturday, 31 May 2014

A Farewell to Arms (Frank Borzage, 1932)

Based on the Ernest Hemingway semi-autobiographical A Farewell to Arms, Frank Borzage’s 1932 film is considered one of the best adaptations of his novels. An important film that tackles the war pessimistically, it celebrates the unique and romantic love forged between a Lieutenant and nurse and the tragic outcome. A Farewell to Arms boldly stated how commonplace pre-marital sex was during the Great War, while also tackling the fracturing relationship and conflict soldiers had towards the cause itself. Something frowned upon by the Hays Code who deemed that “lustful kissing” and the scenes of childbirth needed to be excised from the film. Thank God David O. Selznick had an original nitrate copy after garnering the rights for his remake in 1955, for Lobster Films to restore.

Bombs explode during the opening credits. A Farewell to Arms charts Lt. Frederic Henry’s (Gary Cooper) career as an American, working for the ambulances on the Italian Front. Arriving at a local hospital, Major Rinaldi (Adolph Menjou) recommends the nurses - and specifically Ms. Catherine Barclay (Helen Hayes). Frederic and Catherine meet, by chance, when bombs hit the town and he drunkenly plays with her foot, mistaking her for someone else. Their romance blossoms, something the nurses are displeased with. Officers, including Rinaldi, become worried Frederic will “lose his head over some woman”. Fate brings them together in Milan, whereby Frederic is injured and Catherine by his bedside. Their love distracts them from the war, but it isn’t long before Lt. Henry is called back to the front. Reluctantly they part ways, though Frederic is unaware of her pregnancy...

One would expect the Lieutenant to fight, return to his girlfriend with child, to live their life together. Slight alterations from the book are expected, but a positive end is not Hemingway. The Lieutenant doesn’t see what he is fighting for and, against regulation, runs away from the front. Arrested, he flees to Switzerland, only to hold his lover as she dies in his arms.

The opening alone hints at such a dark commentary on military action, as we pan over a hill to reveal a dead soldier with a missing leg. A throwaway attitude to women is also callous and flippant. “What sort of town is it? Any girls?”/”…a house full of them”. The Hays Production Code in 1934 cut these “sordid” moments, and even inserted a shot of a wedding ring being placed on Catherine’s hand (despite talk of a wedding later in the film!) to try and create a more “decent” picture.

But this is what makes A Farewell to Arms so powerful. The re-release of Rome, Open City revealed the pressures and losses during World War II and All Quiet on the Western Front told us about the horrors. we can look back on war with a certain nostalgia, or sense of pride. A Farewell to Arms tells us how awful it can be – while in the foreground is a loving relationship that we should all be so lucky to have.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth on 30th May 2014

Thursday, 29 May 2014

150W: You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger

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

You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger (Dir. Woody Allen/2010)

Squeezed between Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris are two less-known features. Whatever Works harks back to earlier scripts while You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is a mish-mash of actors and threads of stories that are, ultimately, forgettable. Alfie (Hopkins) divorces his wife, Helena (Jones), while daughter Sally (Watts) struggles with her own husband, Roy (Brolin). Roy falls for younger-model Dia (Pinto)as Sally herself fantasizes about her boss Greg (Banderas). Allen explains how what weaves the stories together is delusion - faith in the future, belief in reincarnation. Esteemed actors, such as Anthony Hopkins, meant I had faith they’d be more engaging than standard affairs fare and upper-class woe. London fails to add a sense of purpose (as locations do in Manhattan and Midnight in Paris) while the Stacey-Solomon-like charm of the prostitute seems cliché and insulting. Woody Allen can be more nuanced and engaging than this!

Rating: 4/10

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

150W: The Wolverine

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

The Wolverine (Dir. James Mangold/2013)

The Wolverine, with flaws (and claws) does manage to separate itself from the usual X-Men fare, to create a James-Bond-type adventure for Logan. Travelling to Japan, and mourning the loss of Jean-Grey, he meets a man he saved from Nagasaki. Now an old man, technology-magnate Yashida, is on his death bed and desires Wolverine’s healing abilities. A film supported by young-mutants Yukio (who can see the future) and sultry Viper (more Poison Ivy from Batman and Robin), it is a new take on our clawed hero as, early on, his healing powers are weakened and we see him struggle from one fight to the next – something rare in every other adventure. Picture-postcard Japan, multiple women and an arrogant, robotic villain makes Wolverine more 007, but it works. Despite the weak snake-woman and a CGI-heavy climax, The Wolverine is likeable and tailor-made for X-Men fans who want something a little different.

Rating: 6/10

150W: X-Men: First Class

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

X-Men: First Class (Dir. Matthew Vaughan/2011)

After the dismal X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the lacklustre X-trilogy finale in X-Men: The Last Stand, this instalment is considerably stronger. Charles “Prof. X.” Xavier (with full head of hair) in McAvoy and Erik “Magneto” Lenscherr in Fassbender demand our attention in X-Men: First Class. Indeed, their bromance lifts this film to heights that are stronger than many of the previous instalments. Jennifer Lawrence is Raven (Or young-Mystique), this time a friend of Prof. X. The standard “mutants with or against the world” dynamic is repeated through the villainous Sebastian Shaw (Bacon). Rival to both Erik and Charles, he uses the 1960’s cold-war to pit Russia and America against each other - with mutants picking up the pieces. X-Men: First Class is so much fun. With creaky-CGI, it rises to the challenge of reinvigorating the series through a playful plot. It's is exciting to see where the X-Men will go next…

Rating: 7/10

Saturday, 24 May 2014

150W: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

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

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Dir. Gavin Hood/2009)

We know this story. Indeed, considering X2 resolved Wolverine’s history (throwing his dog-tags away), you’d think another re-tread is unnecessary. But we know nothing of his brother, Sabretooth, nor his alleyway fight with metal-tipped, pack-of-cards-throwing, Gambit. Fighting in both world wars and the American civil war, clawed-beast Wolverine has tried to set up a home, but his animalistic past drags him back to fighting. Unfortunately, this single film has left the series in tatters. Relying on mutant teams working together (akin to all previous X-Men films), it feels tired and repetitive – indeed, even the villain remains the same as X2 in William Stryker. Climaxing with a chaotic finale, as Sabretooth and Wolverine temporarily put aside their differences. They fight a super-mutant, Deadpool, who harnesses all the powers – surely he can re-grow body parts? Excessive CGI and flat characterisation makes the origin of Wolverine the dullest affair yet – a real shame.

Rating: 3/10

Friday, 23 May 2014

150W: X-Men: The Last Stand

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

X-Men: The Last Stand (Dir. Brett Ratner/2006)

Opening X-Men: The Last Stand with a Terminator-style simulation, with clear nods to the previous films, (young Jean-Grey reveals ‘Level 5’ mutant ability) gives the impression we are in safe hands. But any hope is lost as favourite mutants are casually disposed of and new mutants (the hulking, dullard of a man in Juggernaut) are introduced. Rather than a fight between mutants or a fight against the mutants – a moral lesson regarding a ‘cure’ for the mutants is front and centre. Theoretically, a world-wide issue, it is limited to California. The spectacular backdrop of San Francisco becomes merely an opportunity to move CGI bridges and the climactic battle not only excludes key characters, but also erases the powers of others. Compared to X-Men the world is unrecognisable, and a return of Jean-Grey raises more questions than it answers. An awkward chapter in the series, with or without the future instalments. 

Rating: 4/10

150W: X2

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

X2 (Dir. Bryan Singer/2003)

The whole team are back, and the unknown history of Wolverine remains at the forefront of X2 as he seeks out his history – and who is responsible. Supported by parallel confrontations between Prof X. and an ex-student who has equally-powerful telekinetic powers, a pattern of Father and Son stories (Or Dr. Frankenstein and his monster?) are established - Wolverine and new-baddie Stryker; Bobby and his family; Magneto/Pyro and so forth. To up-the-stakes, the threat this time is a massacre of all mutants. An incredible opening, as newcomer Nightcrawler darts around The White House is terrific, but this scene is not matched during the 2hr+ running-time that follows. Storm and Cyclops returns while Jean-Grey struggles to control her power. All three fail to justify their headlining importance. It builds on the previous story admirably, but becomes tiresome as X2 indulges in too many stories (and backstories) in too little time.

Rating: 6/10

Thursday, 22 May 2014

150W: X-Men

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

X-Men (Dir. Bryan Singer/2000)

Patrick Stewart narrates “Mutation: it is the key to our evolution”, in a role he was born to play as telepathic teacher, Professor X. His ominous voice-over, beginning X-Men, reveals mature and relevant themes, raising the film from action-shlock to an exploration of discrimination. Boldly using extermination camps of Nazi Germany (where McKellan’s ‘Magneto’ learns of his powers) to ground the film in “reality”, X-Men has no problem taking itself seriously – and indeed it should. This particular tale follows Wolverine (Jackman) and Rogue (Paquin) as they realise they’re not alone in their skillsets of adamantium-claws and power-borrowing. Singer directs this epic-story, complete with Statue of Liberty finale, with tact, homing in on personal relationships between the ensemble cast, including Storm (Berry), Cyclops (Marsden) and Jean-Grey (Janssen). Other than one politician, humans are outsiders; powerless to the mutant war. For an action-movie, these are audacious, ground-breaking themes making X-Men a must-watch.

Rating: 8/10

Monday, 19 May 2014

My Neighbours the Yamadas (Isao Takahata, 1999)

Rather than the bold and bright animation of Pom Poko, Isao Takahata’s My Neighbours the Yamadas is a collection of short stories celebrating family. Indeed, the anime style of Studio Ghibli is considered a defining element of the studio itself. The watercolour, pastel-coloured animation of My Neighbours the Yamadas combined with the flippant, YouTube-like length of each episode, separates this film from the others.

We observe the trials and tribulations of the small Yamada family. Mum, Dad, teenage son, a (roughly 5 years old?) young daughter and Grandma. Stories range from family-engagements as they return from shopping realising they’ve lost the daughter to duo-plays between Father and Son, or Mother and Grandmother. There is no narrative that runs throughout the entire film and, between the larger-scale bookends of the film (a toboggan race to represent married-life and a final flying-on-umbrellas musical number), it is merely comedic vignette’s shrewdly observing the highs and lows of this family life.

Isao Takahata, director of Grave of the Fireflies (heart-breaking wartime animation, told from the perspective of deceased children) and Pom Poko (a retelling of the magical tanuki who can morph into humans and use their testicles as parachutes) manages to reinvent his approach to storytelling – and changes the definition of what animation should be. His films couldn’t be more different and shows how he himself can morph between artistic styles for the sake of story. In comparison, Hayao Miyazaki clearly showcases a more consistent and definitive style.

But it is Takahata’s sense of detail that is so engrossing. The family dog, whose apathetic eyes seems to capture his I’ve-seen-it-all-before mood. The father, Takashi, shifting gears as he speeds back to collect his daughter. The briefest of brush strokes and minimal lines that manage to capture the humour, tone and attitude of this clearly loving family. Each character is shown to have many more sides to read too. Takashi’s laziness is offset by his keenness to bond with his Son, Noboru. The put-upon Mother Matsuko, who endlessly prepares food but has to contend with her own forgetful Mother, Shige, throughout the day.

Clearly, My Neighbours the Yamadas will never be considered a masterpiece, as Spirited Away and Grave of the Fireflies is, but it is unique. The wry jokes that capture the atmosphere and truth in every family, shows a sharp script. The animation may provide a limited visual palette for our attention, and after an hour of mini-movies, this can get tiresome. But like many Studio Ghibli films, My Neighbours the Yamadas offers a different meaning to feature-length filmmaking. Cartoons are not necessarily for children, and they can be a moment to laugh and relate to the trials and tribulations of all families. The father slowly considering his sanity when forgetting an umbrella; a son who realises family-inheritance will surely, inevitably, involve him; the family-member whose timing of a family-photo is at the most inopportune time. My Neighbours the Yamadas speaks to the heart – something many blockbuster, computer-cartoon behemoths of Hollywood often miss.

This was originally written for Flickering Myth on 19th May 2014

Friday, 16 May 2014

An Autumn Afternoon (Yasujirō Ozu, 1962)

Capturing the calm and thoughtful manner of a father, reflecting on his duty to his daughter, is a moment rarely seen on film. Director Yasujiro Ozu though, is a filmmaker who has effortlessly caught this type of moment throughout his career. From the generational divide seen in the family in Tokyo Story (widely considered one of the Greatest Films of All-Time) to the widowed men in An Autumn Afternoon, it is clear that reflecting on your life in your twilight years is a rite of passage. An Autumn Afternoon was Ozu’s final film - and his sixth in colour. Considering he remained single his entire life, living with his mother during her final years, it is perhaps surprising that he manages to capture the sense of family so well.

An Autumn Afternoon tells the story of Hirayama (Chishu Ryu), an older man, who has three children. His eldest son, Koichi, is married and lives away from home, while his daughter Michiko and college-son Kazuo remain at home. He works within a factory and meets with his friends Kawai and Horie over sake and . The three friends spend a night with a former teacher, referred to as ‘The Gourd’, who lives alone with his daughter. ‘The Gourd’ works in a noodle shop, his daughter is older now and will clearly not marry as she has dedicated her life to look after her father. Kawai tells Hirayama that this could be him and his daughter. This becomes the drive of the story as Hirayama has to release his daughter from the boundaries of home, and marry into another family – as Hirayama will have to learn how to look after himself.

Ozu’s unique direction is apparent within An Autumn Afternoon, as it would be within the majority of his films. Indoor locations, low-framing and static shots are part and parcel of his oeuvre. The style of filmmaking makes you analyse and hone in on the characters emotion. A final shot of Hirayama sipping tea switches our thoughts – we wonder what he is thinking. Indeed, a calm and slow structure forces a viewer to work harder at considering the purpose of each sequence. This isn’t a flaw in any respect, merely an observation from a viewer who is fed on the fast-paced, urgency of modern filmmaking.

Ozu ranks amongst the very best filmmakers of all-time, alongside Welles and Hitchcock. His inspiration reaches to Jim Jarmusch, Claire Denis and Wim Wenders. An Autumn Afternoon balances the personal story of Hirayama against the larger context of the change in tradition within Japan. While the arrangement of marriage is an important role for parents – something Hirayama holds dear, it is clear that the traditional role of husband and wife is vastly different within the younger marriage between Koichi and his wife, Mariko. He helps with the chores and food-preparation, literally wearing the apron, while Mariko is happy and content to dictate where the finances will, and will not, go. This larger context provides a fascinating angle to the story – and something that a small, domestic story rarely demonstrates.

Ozu, for many years, was considered “too Japanese” for Western audiences. The year his films were screened at the Venice Film Festival, was followed the following year by his death. International films, and especially Ozu, are a great example of watching a film that in every respect is rooted in Japanese culture and tradition. But what is clear about An Autumn Afternoon, is how themes still resonate with Western audiences. Caring for parents may not be as traditionally expected as it is in Japan – especially in 1960’s, but our duty to our family against our own ambitions and aspirations, for a family or otherwise, can often be a conflict. This tender story, though distant, is recognisable and will remain relevant for as long as family exists.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth on 15th May 2014

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Pom Poko (Isao Takahata, 1994)

"Testicles play an important role in tanuki mythology” writes Colin Odell and Michelle Le Blanc when discussing Pom Poko. Directed by Isao Takahata, this is a far call from the deeply serious war story of Grave of the Fireflies. Rather than humans, Pom Poko tackles morphing racoons. These creatures, along with foxes and cats, have a long history in Japan whereby they’re playful, mischievous transformations is merely one trick, alongside their ability to expand their balls into enormous parachutes or rugs to sit upon. Studio Ghibli always manages to inform us of the fascinating stories embedded in Japanese culture – but, until a tanuki (the accurate name for these magical racoons) reveals that his entire tanuki-class is sitting on an outstretched scrotum, you never realise how culturally different it truly is.

That’s not to say that this is a problem as Pom Poko is a joyous celebration of nature and life. Introducing two tribes of racoon’s as they fight each other for territory, the tanuki realise their true enemy is man as Tokyo’s outskirts are expanding the city limits, decimating the area known as Tama Hills. The racoon’s feverishly try tactics to scare off the construction workers – from creating ghost-like apparitions and parades through to perfecting their morphing technique to become human. Despite these efforts, the expansion continues and esteemed Masters, and non-morphing tanuki, die in the attempt at holding them back. The final moments are undercut as they change their way of life – tanuki scavenge for food in waste bins while others, who transform into humans, desperately reminisce of the time that once existed whereby forest, lakes and green, green grass was all that dominated the Tama Hills.

Pom Poko manages to tell its ecological tale in no uncertain terms. Humans are destroying the landscape irreversibly. Released in 1994, it seems to tell a similar tale to BBC’s Animals of Farthing Wood, a TV-series running briefly between 1993 and 1995. The dangers of busy roads, in both animations, is a tale often told. As I recall, the Farthing Wood creatures were escaping the industrial deconstruction of their natural habitat – and this is the same conflict that forces tanuki to fight humans. But Pom Poko has a mysterious, yet plucky tone that seems to make light of the earnest tale it tells. The multiple characterisations of the tanuki is deftly edited and effortlessly realised. Considering the characters change between five different forms, each tanuki has specific characteristics that are clearly realised. When we meet a sneaky, money-driven human it becomes apparent that he too is kitsune (a transforming fox) and this is clear from his animated human features from the outset.

This charming tale has only heightened my appreciation of Studio Ghibli. In the final moments of Pom Poko we see what the tanuki want to create – and it’s not a world without humans. It is furosato (meaning ‘homeland’) whereby humans live alongside the tanuki. Small, but comfortable houses and clearly marked water pockets surrounded by lush, overgrown forest and plants. It is beautiful, and it’s not the first time that Studio Ghibli has made me wonder what a world would be like with more time aside for wildlife. The two girls running free to find a spirit in My Neighbour Totoro. The two children on the beach, even for a moment, in Grave of the Fireflies to take their mind of the horrors of war.

Spinning his tail, *poof*, Mario would transform into tanuki in Super Mario Bros 3 – and this was my first introduction to the term. Now, Pom Poko has told me how tanuki represent so much more.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth on 14th May 2014

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Revealing the Truth behind Star Wars

In 2011, for website Man, I Love Films, I wrote a short essay on each Star Wars film. Connecting the dots between the contemporary influences that impacted on the prequels and noting the influence of Tintin in the original trilogy, small nuggets of information that, prior to writing, I was unaware of was brought to the forefront of my mind. Not only did I appreciate the prequels more, but the original trilogy held a deeper, and more profound meaning. I have brought all the articles together, with sample quotes, and if you wanted to explore a little more of the writing -as I thoroughly enjoyed writing them - you can easily click on the appropriate links.

"On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have Qui-Gon Jin. The Japanese influences stem right back to A New Hope as C3PO and R2D2 clearly represent the two characters than feature in Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress. But this is established further as Qui-Gon Jin maintains a buddhist-belief system."

Read the full review here:

"Attack of the Clones features a stunning sequence through Coruscant - the Blade Runner urban-planet - that, through the yellow-spaceship and chase-sequence, seems to vividly recall Besson's The Fifth Element."

Read the full article here:

"In The Phantom Menace we discussed the 'duality' of life, whilst in Attack of the Clones we are presented with confusion and corruption.Revenge of the Sithcategorically fights the definition of good and bad. Despite all the corruption in the senate, the ignorance of a the majority is what gives Palpatine strength. As Padme stated: "So this is how liberty dies - to thunderous applause""

Read the full article here:

"Lucas feeds into this world droids which hark back toMetropolis - which, as a silent film of 1927, it managed to communicate it's message to the world: language was no barrier. C3P0 is a droid who is "fluent in over six million forms of communication"... much like the film itself was. Luke, Obi-wan, C3P0 and R2D2 set forth to fight the Empire on the basis that Luke's family are murdered - much like in The Searchers, whereby the film opens with the murder of the entire household of Ethan's (John Wayne) brother Aaron - this set Ethan, amongst others, to search for the two missing children."

Read the full article here:

"But the galaxies themselves remain intact and ensure that the established worlds all represent different meanings. The release of The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn in Europe coincides nicely with this analysis as I believe the story Tintin in Tibet, may have influenced The Empire Strikes Back."
Read the full article here:

"To close these essays, it is worth highlighting how the final film reveals a recurring theme of incompletion. The Death Star itself is incomplete, both Vader and Luke are physically incomplete as they both have missing hands whilst Luke is expected to only "complete" his training as a Jedi by defeating Darth Vader.This could relate to a number of interpretations - the idea that everyone has a spiritual and emotional need that requires 'filling'."

Read the full article here: