Titirangi Storyteller

Telling tales from around the world

Posts Tagged ‘Film

Spirited Away

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spirited_away-coverI don’t often sit down to write a review intending to convince everyone that reads it to go see the movie in question.  You’ve got your blockbusters, and chick flicks, action movies and art house films and raunchy teen comedies and sci-fi and kiddie stuff and so on and so on… and most people seem to know what they like.  But Spirited Away is an extraordinary picture – for everyone.  Still, an astonishing number of perfectly sensible adults refuse to go to an animated feature unless it’s Disney and they have to have some wee ones in tow.  That is the dumbest of reasons to miss this.

Spirited Away is the latest work by Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese master who is a god to the Disney animators, which has been flawlessly dubbed into English by John Lasseter (Toy Story).  It was co-winner of this year’s Berlin Film Festival running against non-animated movies; it outsold Titanic to become the top-grossing film in Japanese history; and it is the first film ever to gross more than $200 million before opening in the US.

spiritedaway2Drawing heavily on Japanese mythology, Spirited Away is told through the eyes of Chihiro (voice by Daveigh Chase), a 10-year-old girl, travelling to a new town with her parents.  She is deeply unhappy about the shift and leaving her old friends and schoolmates.  As they drive through the woods, her father decides to take the family for a little exploration of a mysterious tunnel at the side of the country road. On the other side is what he believes is an abandoned theme park, but strangely the food stalls are overflowing with freshly prepared meals, but with no one to serve them.  As Chihiro’s parents help themselves to a free meal, she wanders away and comes upon a wonderland, a towering bathhouse.

spirited_away-oldwomanA boy named Haku appears as her guide, and warns her that the sorceress Yubaba, who runs the bathhouse, will try to steal her name and thus her identity. Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette) is an old crone with a huge face, reminiscent the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, who dotes on her grotesquely huge baby named Boh. Ominously, she renames Chihiro, who wanders through the structure, which is populated, like with little balls of dust that scurry and scamper underfoot.

In the innards of the bathhouse, Chihiro comes upon the boiler room, operated by a man named Kamaji (David Ogden Stiers) with eight arms, which perform a bewildering variety of functions. At first he seems as fearsome as the world he occupies, but he is no friend of Yubaba, and agrees to help Chihiro rescue her parents who have been turned into pigs.

spiritedaway4Chihiro is forced into drudgery, scrubbing and cleaning the numerous tubs for a menagerie of guests.  Trouble erupts when she accidentally allows Okutaresama, the spirit of the river, into the building.  His body has absorbed the debris, waste and sludge that has been thrown into it over the years, so he is filthy and reeks so that no one can bear to be anywhere near him.  She must prepare his bath, and as the detritus he has absorbed sloughs off, at one point actually yielding up a discarded bicycle, he is transformed from apparent victim to apparent predator.

spiritedaway-trainJapanese myths often incorporate shape-shifting motifs, in which bodies conceal a hidden reality – and animation is the perfect vehicle for shape-shifting.  Miyazaki does wondrous things with his characters: Okutaresama reveals his true nature, and Haku, Yubaba and even Boh are much more than they seem at first.

spiritedaway1Miyazaki’s drawing style is rooted in classical Japanese graphic art, with subtle use of colour, clear lines, and realistic portrayal that suggests the true nature of the characters.   Not fond of computers, he draws thousands of frames himself with painstaking attention to detail that brings the animation to life.  This is one of the year’s best pictures in any genre.  Bring a child if you must (though not a small one, as they would find much of Spirited Away quite distressing) – but don’t miss this exceptional film.

Written by Titirangi Storyteller

18/06/2010 at 8:51 pm

Recurring Hitchcock – where do I begin?

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Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock, director at work

He’s been dead nearly thirty years now, but the man who practically invented the psychological thriller, conceived and delivered our very idea of filmic suspense, and took horror from 50’s b-grade kitsch into the realm of true terror continues to haunt the psyches of young directors hoping to emulate the master. It seems everyone from Gus van Sant (Psycho) to Anthony Perkins who played the psycho in the original and later directed Psycho III has had a go. I found a great article on /film covering the Hitchcock remake oeuvre – worth checking out.

His career spanned more than five decades, beginning in the silent era. (I wrote a piece on a couple of them last year.)

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman star in Notorious

Yet it wasn’t until the mid 1930’s that his career kicked off with “The Man Who Knew too Much” starring Peter Lorre, but his move to Hollywood in 1939 and the gothic melodrama Rebecca that saw him begin a 25-year reign, where virtually every one of his films was a critical and popular success. He is still voted #1 director of all time in most movie polls.

If you’re curious, but don’t know which of Hitchcock’s 60+ films to begin with, here’s a good start. All of them are easily available on DVD, most with exquisite restorations. Dig in!

  1. Hitchcock made a cameo appearance in almost all of his films. Here he rides the bus beside Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief

    Notorious (1946)

  2. Suspicion (1941)
  3. Dial M for Murder (1954)
  4. To Catch a Thief (1955)
  5. Rear Window (1954)
  6. North by Northwest (1959)
  7. Vertigo (1958)
  8. The Birds (1963)
  9. Psycho (1960)
  10. Rope (1948)

Tippi Hedren leads her young charges to safety in The Birds

Written by Titirangi Storyteller

12/06/2010 at 12:03 am

Once Upon a Time in Mexico – revisited

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I have a secret love for action flicks – and there are those in my collection I can watch over and over and never ever get bored.

It hit me about half an hour into Once Upon a Time in Mexico that this might be the perfect date flick – as long as you’ve got the stomach for heaps of cartoon violence. For chicks, you’ve got Antonio Banderas, Johnny Depp, Enrique Iglesias, Ruben Blades and bad boys Mickey Rourke and Willem Dafoe. For the blokes there’s non-stop action, shootouts, hi-jinks and some very memorable cameos from the incomparable Salma Hayek. And, there’s also one hell of story.

This, the third film in his Mariachi trilogy, is clearly director Robert Rodriguez’ baby. The first, El Mariachi, came in 1992, made on a budget of US$7,000. The second, Desperado, followed three years later, also written, produced, directed, scored, and ‘chopped’ by the director of the Spy Kids series. Though it is the third of the trilogy, the film stands on its own: fans may want to go back and uncover the earlier story, it’s not necessary to understanding this film. Come to think of it, Hayak’s character dies in Desperado but she’s back and hotter than ever here. So seeing the first two is strictly optional. They are out on DVD as a 2-disc set – should you go looking.

Sands contemplating the perfect puerco pibil

A Hollywood outsider by choice, Rodriguez works from an elaborate home studio in Austin, Texas, putting his films together with more can-do creativity than professional glitz. He shot Once Upon a Time in Mexico himself, in Mexico with a high-definition video camera.

A meltingly handsome Antonio Banderas plays El Mariachi, a gunslinger-guitar hero: a living legend – part man, part spirit. Then there’s Johnny Depp as Sands, a casually corrupt CIA agent with a penchant for disguise and chef-murdering, who recruits El Mariachi to foil a coup planned by the fascist General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil) with the help of drug lord Barillo (Willem Dafoe at his most sinister.) Where Banderas is all smouldering passion, Depp is indifferent. It’s a shame we don’t get more of Salma Hayek, but what we do get is unforgettable – the hottest woman on the planet.

Antonio Banderas as El Mariachi

Rodriguez takes full advantage of the small video camera, diving into the middle of the action. Careening at a dizzying pace; he becomes the camera, looking everywhere at once. And when he gets his footage to the chopping block he ups the ante, so the film is a Tasmanian Devil of a dervish, and you have the distinct sense that anything can happen. Yes, it is violent, but odd as it may seem, there is a joyful playfulness to it – blood that looks like raspberry sauce and the odd sense that Yosemite Sam might turn up any second, six-guns blasting. There is so much humour and plain silliness in the script and in Depp’s character (who actually asks a recruit, “Are you a Mexi-can or a Mexi-can’t?”), Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a tasty piece of eye candy. Highly recommended.

Written by Titirangi Storyteller

18/05/2010 at 10:06 pm

Pan’s Labyrinth

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untitledIt’s 1944, five years after the end of  Spanish Civil. The close of WWII in Europe is at hand.

Ten year old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her heavily pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) travel to a remote fascist outpost in the Spanish forest, where they will join her new husband, Capitán Vidal (Sergi López). A ruthless man, he is charged with dispensing the last of the rebels. Despite the risks to her health, he has insisted she give birth to his son where he is.

Capitán despises stepdaughter Ofelia, not least for her love of fairy tales. But deep in the woods, Ofelia has met a wondrous faun, who has given her three tasks to complete to prove her character. If she passes, she will be returned as a princess to her true home deep in the earth. Can she do it? Or will Capitán and the horrors of the real world devour her first?

pans_labyrinth_xl_04-film-aThis is one of those rare movies that pulls you into its heart so you share the suffering of each the characters. It is savagely brutal in the way classic fairy tales usually are, though this is balanced by the beauty of the otherworld.  (Note – this flick is much too violent for young viewers to handle! Don’t be misled by the little girl on the cover.)

pans-labyrinth-picsGuillermo Del Toro is a master of fantasy. In Blade II (2002) and Hellboy (2004) he brought comic book characters to life. Here he draws on his passionate love of classic fairy tales to create his own fantasy world, so delicately crafted the CGI special effects blend seamlessly and you are simply dazzled by all that unfolds.

pans-labyrinth-1The two-disc set is loaded with special features, including making of featurettes on set and costume design, cast and crew interviews, commentaries, storyboards and more. One of my favourite movies of all time.

Written by Titirangi Storyteller

14/04/2010 at 8:12 am

I Served the King of England

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i_served_the_king_of_englandThis dazzler from the Czech Republic coyly weaves a subtle dash of magic realism into the life of an ordinary little man, a Prague waiter who dreams of becoming a millionaire. We meet Jan Díte (Ivan Barnev and Oldrich Kaiser) as he exits a Czech prison sometime in the 60s, grateful for the amnesty that has given him three months off his fifteen-year sentence. Relinquished to a collapsing old pub deep in the forest, he commences the DIY project of a lifetime and takes stock of his life.

His first job was selling sausages at the Prague train station, a lucrative enterprise, where he discovered that no matter how wealthy and distinguishedi-served-the-king-england-5 people are, they’re always willing to get down on their hands and knees to pick up coins – a running gag, where he amuses himself by watching his betters crawl. From there it’s a pub and then a restaurant where he rises to headwaiter, deferring to the maitre d’ who has ‘served the king of England.’

When the 30’s bring the Nazis, Jan is torn between his love for the tiny German soldier, Líza (Julia Jentsch) and his country’s hatred for everything German.istkoe-marry After having his sperm approved, he marries her and moves on to a posh hotel, which the Nazis have converted to a motherhood clinic, where Aryan blondes romp naked, waiting to be impregnated by German soldiers and he continues to serve.

Jan and Liza have a plan for after the war – stamps she has pilfered from the homes of deported Jews, which will make them rich.i-served-the-king-of-england-6 (When he asks where they were deported to, she merely shrugs, an alarmingly simple gesture of indifference that speaks volumes.) But his good luck always has an underside and things never turn out as expected.

There is a surreal sensibility that occasionally surfaces when Europe examines its recent history, a sense of helplessness and disbelief at the reality of what has happened, recently seen in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Oscar winning director Jirí Menzel (Closely Watched Trains, 1966) lures us into a slapstick comedy with profoundly deeper implications, you’ll be thinking about it for weeks.

Written by Titirangi Storyteller

12/04/2010 at 8:04 am

Posted in dreams, Writing

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High-brow Finnish horror washes all your sins away
Director: Antti-Jussi Annila

At first glance, this may seem like a standard horror flick, other than its setting – 16th century Finland. The Swedes and Russians have just ended 25 years of war and each have sent a party to define the new borders. We meet brothers Eerik and Knut, represent the Swedes, en route to the official rendezvous.

Whilst they are glad for peace, the endless years of war, away from their family has taken its toll and Eerik has become increasingly violent. He declares he has killed 73 people, including a farmer we meet as the film opens, who he claimed wielded an axe. Knut fears for the farmer’s adolescent daughter and locks her in the fruit cellar to keep her safe. As they set out for their destination, he asks Eerik to let her out.

Eerik & KnutThey are a day’s journey away when Eerik confesses he never let the girl out. Knut begins to see a young woman in the swamp who whispers for him to ‘come back!”

They meet up with the Russians and together they come upon a sauna, built in the middle of the swamp. Nearby is a village not on any of their maps. The people are accommodating, but rather strange – and extraordinarily clean, forever washing themselves and their clothing. There are 73 people in the village, but only one child. And the girl in the swamp is calling more desperately.

This film is a mere 85 minutes long – but the script is so complex and multi-layered and the suspense so thick, it was a relief when it ended. Afterwards, watching the making-of documentary was almost cathartic – seeing how it was made took some of the chill away. A director’s commentary helps answer some of the questions left dangling at the movie’s end, but still – it’s one you will ponder for a while. One of my top choices for 2009.

Eerik & Knut

Written by Titirangi Storyteller

20/12/2009 at 10:47 pm

Three from Luis Buñuel

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Un Chien Andalou put both Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel on the map with its opening scene of a young woman passively submitting as her eyeball is sliced open with a razor. An eye-opener even today, in 1929 it was positively shocking – resulting in the movie running in theatres for nearly a year.

One can only imagine what audiences made of the ‘story’ that follows, a surrealistic dreamscape of murder, mishap, severed limbs and ants. Buñuel appears as the eyeball slicer and Dali as a priest dragged across the floor ahead of two pianos weighted with rotting, dead donkeys. Considering its popularity, one can only assume audiences were far more sophisticated than they are today. We demand logical story arcs that rise and fall, resulting in a satisfactory ending. This little flick makes me want to pick up a camera and make a film of my own and is a must-see for anyone with those aspirations.

Look for the two-disc DVD release. Also included on disc one – a 1986 British doco on the life and work of Salvador Dali, which serves as a fine introduction for those unfamiliar with the surrealist master – whose life mirrored his art – right until the end. We could however, have lived without the Alka Seltzer ads.

The second disc features Buñuel’s only documentary, Las Hurdes (1933) the story of a remote Spanish village where he first examines the corruption of the Catholic Church, a theme he continued to explore throughout his career.  Also included is a doco from 2000 spanning his tumultuous career.

Between his early years as a surrealist filmmaker and his triumphant late-life career that began with Viridiana in 1961, Luis Buñuel made a dozen or so small-budget movies that were largely ignored by critics and audiences alike. Some were dreadful – a 1953 version of Wuthering Heights, where the producer insisted he use a cast comprised mostly of stock car drivers who had been prepped for a comedy. However, The Young One is the best of the lot and might be considered an overlooked masterpiece. Released in 1960, the year before Viridiana, it sits on the cusp of greatness – but you have to get your head around Buñuel working with an American cast in the deep South.

Bernie Hamilton plays Traver, a northern Black man on the run after a white woman accused him of rape. He escapes on a small boat and ends up on a game preserve island, managed by Mr Miller (Zachary Scott). Miller is dealing with the death of his handyman – and wondering what to do with the deceased’s granddaughter, Evvie (Key Meersman.) At first he considers packing her off to the mainland – but suddenly notices she is not the child he had thought. Indeed, with her pouty lips, long legs and casually swaying hips she is very appealing.

Hugo Butler’s brilliant and subtle script slowly intertwines Miller and Traver’s paths – shifting the balance of power as it is revealed that Traver is in fact innocent of rape and Miller, despite soothing his conscience trying to convince himself the illiterate Evvie is little more than a savage – guilty. It would sit well alongside the brilliant Tennessee Williams movies of the 50s and 60s. No special features on the disc, but the package comes with a sixteen page booklet containing a brilliant analysis of the film.

As good as The Young One was, it gave no indication of what was to follow. Viridiana took the  Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1961 and was promptly banned by both the Spanish government (who had financed the film) and the Vatican for its devious exploration of evil and, well, more evil.

Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) is a beautiful young nun who hasn’t taken her final vows who visits her uncle and benefactor, the wealthy Don Jaime (Francisco Rabal). Struck by Viridiana’s resemblance to her late aunt, who died before consummating their marriage, Jaime becomes obsessed and ultimately drugs and rapes her.

Viridiana decides she can never return to the convent and opts to stay in the house with Jaime and save the world on her own, starting with the local beggars and homeless. She soon discovers that she cannot change what these people really are and is livid when they ultimately turn on her. Buñuel’s genius is in the exposition of Viridiana – she is not the pious young woman she at first appears, but an arrogant sycophant who ultimately has earned her downfall.

Bunuel in Un Chien Andelou

Luis Bunuel in Un Chien Andelou

Buñuel followed this with seven masterpieces, including That Obscure Object of Desire and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgiousie. I’m waiting for them to arrive as a box set sometime soon…

Written by Titirangi Storyteller

29/11/2009 at 9:36 pm

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