Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Wild (Williams, 2006)

The direction for Disney’s latest venture into computer animation, The Wild, has been placed into the hands of a grown man named ‘Spaz’. This should be our first clue that what is contained within is not exactly going to be something that is going to strive to enlighten our youngsters with wisdom or moral insights. The second clue we have is early on in the film when a squirrel refers to his ‘bling’. You see, I could explain to you that the squirrel had just acquired the trinket in question in order to offer it to the unlikely object of his affection – a giraffe perhaps a hundred times his size – but then I would start to sound like a crazy person. Best also not to report that in this G-rated film, the possibility of future intimate ‘relations’ between these creatures is definitely implied. This is what passes for humor in this dud of a film in which we know that jokes are intended because of the actors’ inflections, but no laughs arrive because they are firing with blanks. I’m not sure what is more surprising – that it took four writers to compose this disaster or that four writers were willing to take credit for the finished product. Don’t blame the animators though. The animal creations are mostly fantastic to behold and there are a couple of sequences that truly deserve to belong to a different film. However, what good is the best animation if it is in the service of sustained idiocy and lazy sentimentalism? Mr. Spaz has a talented group of voice actors to work with and yet pretty much everyone sounds like they’re auditioning for the next wise-ass supporting role on Friends. It is unfortunate that so many family films can only think to find humor in characters crashing into things and sarcastically undercutting each other with the most pedestrian of put-downs. Ethnic stereotypes stand in for characterization (the Canadian geese talk like hosers, eh?) and, not surprisingly, the film leads to a conclusion involving a violent struggle and a resolution being achieved through physical force and intimidation. Not only is it probably not the best viewing experience for children, it is entirely boring and predictable for adults. You know a film is bad when it makes you long for the comic hijinks and sensitivity of Ice Age.


Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Clean, Shaven (Kerrigan, 1994)

Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven may be a very good movie, but I must report that it was not a film that I particularly wanted to see. There is definite skill to the way in which Kerrigan introduces us to Peter, his mentally disturbed central character, largely without the use of dialogue. Without conventional exposition, we learn pretty much everything we need to know about the characters in question through observation. I very much liked Kerrigan’s recurrent use of a radio not quite tuned in properly to serve as a metaphor for a brain in crisis. In the beginning, it leads us to wonder why Peter is having difficulty ‘tuning in’. In the end, we are left to wonder whether it was those on the outside who were having trouble tuning into Peter. On the down side, I was bothered by certain challenges the film issues, as if we will come to some greater understanding of schizophrenia by enduring enough unpleasantness. Are these gross-out moments artistically justifiable? Perhaps. All I can say is that I don’t feel particularly more enlightened for having experienced them. While Peter tries to meet up with the daughter that was taken from him and placed with an adoptive mother, he is tracked down by a detective who feels that he may have committed some serious crimes. This leads to a conclusion that is either revelatory or confusing depended on how much thought I am willing to give it at any given moment. Strangely, it seems that more thought makes the ending more perplexing. My best guess is that this is the kind of feeling Kerrigan hopes we will have about Peter ultimately – that we will not feel confident in judging his actions because we know that we cannot fully comprehend his mind.


Sunday, April 23, 2006

Mrs. Henderson Presents (Frears, 2005)

The subject matter for Mrs. Henderson Presents is very much like the film itself – unfocused inanity peppered with musical numbers and beautiful naked women. Though it is often rather likable -- due solely to the charm of cast members like Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins and Christopher Guest -- Mrs. Henderson is also woefully frivolous, with gags that barely register and a storyline that leaves no imprint. Despite its efforts to paint a picture of one woman’s unusual contribution to the war effort, it is doubtful that this film will linger with viewers much more than a day or so after they leave the cinema. The film is either about a widow’s attempt to carry on with life after her husband’s death, or about the place of nudity in art, or about an unusual partnership between two headstrong people who nonetheless find business success, or about the role of light entertainment in times of war, or about a mother’s attempt to live vicariously through others in order to compensate for the loss of her soldier son … or, perhaps, the film is about all of these things, but not about any one of them deeply enough to be wholly satisfying. Ultimately, the film is content to stand up for the concept of ‘joy’ – not exactly a controversial notion, but then this is not a film intended for anything more than knocking down the flimsiest of targets. The Nazis were bad. Check. War is hell. Check. Boobies are great. Check. Perhaps the primary reason that Mrs. Henderson doesn’t work is that we now live in an age where both war and light entertainment are unending. Distractions like the sort Mrs. Henderson offers serve to keep the citizenry uninterested in world affairs, and train them to allow their emotions to be swept up by cheap sentiment. Perhaps this troubling contradiction could have found a place in a more sophisticated film that wasn’t so willing to dismiss the theatre as a tool for frivolous distraction.


Monday, April 17, 2006

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (Kurosawa, 1945)

Kurosawa's early one-acter The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail has a plot -- perhaps plot is not the right word to describe it as it is hardly more than an extended situation -- that is reminiscent of his later work The Hidden Fortress. As in that film, a member of the upper class eludes capture by slumming it with the lower classes, this time as a porter in the service of a group of men disguised as travelling monks. Since word has got out to be on the lookout for a party of seven, the group recruits another man, a true porter, to make their number eight. Unfortunately, the new man has what just might be the worst poker face in the history of the world. The film centers upon a scene in which the men encounter the border officers and must convince them that "these are not the druids you're looking for." There are aspects of the film that are rather enjoyable, such as the unseen chorus that supplements the action by singing their reactions or providing background information. Kurosawa also does a good job of building tension and orchestrating his actors (especially a fantastic scene where one large group of people moves forwards and another moves backwards). Still, the film never feels another more than lightweight with its hammy comic relief and a lesson in class distinction that does not seem particularly illuminating or resonant. Far from essential, but certainly not embarrasssing, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail is really a film only for those who want a complete picture of the career of a great director.


Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Kuroneko (Shindo, 1968)

In Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko (as in his more famous film, Onibaba), a young woman and an older woman left to live on their own in war-ravaged Japan prey upon unsuspecting male combatants that are unfortunate enough to wander into their vicinity. However, this time, the circumstances are very different. The women are undead, brutally raped and beaten by samurai during their lifetime and pledged to walk the earth as phantoms, seducing young men to their deaths and feasting on samurai blood in order to exact revenge. The premise is reminiscent of not only Onibaba, but also includes elements of Ugetsu and The Grudge. Though the film may sound like a straight-up horror movie, it finds its emotional center in the fact that the man who is sent to vanquish the phantoms is, of course, the husband and son of the two women, newly returned from the war and, because of his brave deeds, promoted to – you guessed it – samurai. The film retains many elements that made Onibaba so memorable including the pulsing drum-based soundtrack, the grim world-view (understandable for a director born in Hiroshima) and the strong dose of sexuality (though not nearly as much nudity). There are pleasing effects in the forest as the mother phantom floats around in an eerie slow-motion effect and also enjoyable over-the-top moments as when she is pursued, carrying a severed arm in her teeth. My main beef with the film is that the man’s relationship with his wife (or at least his spirit wife) is resolved much, much earlier than his relationship with his mother and thus throws off the film’s structure. Although the film is not very long, we linger longer than it feels like we should, the film having reached its emotional peak and moving on before we truly register that it has even happened. Still, the rare opportunity to see a Kaneto Shindo film is a treat and one that is well worth seizing given the opportunity.