Friday, June 30, 2006

Robin Hood (Reitherman, 1973)

There’s a moral question inherent in the telling of the Robin Hood myth. When is doing the wrong thing actually the right thing to do? After all, one of the absolutes that parents pass down to children is that it is not right to steal. However, if a wicked prince acting on borrowed authority takes from the citizenry that which they should rightfully possess, is it stealing at all? Must the wealth be redistributed in equal proportion according to need or according to who lost what? And if the people live in a monarchy where the right to rule is bequeathed by God, isn’t a complaint against unfair taxes truthfully a complaint against God? This all gets very confusing for an adult; however, it is likely significantly less so for a child watching Disney’s animated version of Robin Hood. Though the film for the most part skirts the issues I have raised above (rightfully perhaps), it is effective at communicating a very basic message of fairness that gives parents a starting point for deeper discussion. Watching the film for a second time, my four-year-old did not want to watch the part where the Sheriff of Nottingham grabbed a youngster’s birthday present right out of his hands. I see this as a good sign. It offended his sense of right and wrong.

I have no idea why the Sheriff and other characters speak in an American Southern accent when the film is set in 13th century England, but I enjoyed the way in which different animal species were matched up with suitable characters. Casting a fox in the title role is a no-brainer, but the film makes clever use of rhinos, elephants and turtles too. There is plenty of satisfying adventure in the heists that bookend the front and back of the picture, as well as the archery contest at the film’s center, although a sequence where a chicken thumps several guards on the noggin struck me as lacking imagination. The film’s look is appealing, if not terribly inventive, and I enjoyed the presence of Roger Miller (including the song which would later gain infamy as the soundtrack to Hampsterdance). There’s also something very effective about the portrayal of the thumb-sucking villian, Prince John. Perhaps it is the crown that barely fits on a head that is too small to bear it. Perhaps it is the way that he overestimates his own power. At any rate, I think that he is a well-created example of the bully mentality that can eventually be overcome with strategic resistance.

Robin Hood is not a film that inspires the kind of thrills, laughs or tears to rank it among Disney’s best; however, it is endearing enough to make for an enjoyable family experience with a little bit of adventure for the little ones and perhaps a little nostalgia for the parents.


Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Double Suicide (Shinoda, 1969)

Masahiro Shinoda’s Double Suicide is, as the title might suggest, a film of high melodrama and fatalism. It is based upon a play written for the Japanese theatrical form known as bunraku. Bunraku is a highly sophisticated form of puppet theatre in which the marionettes are much larger and more lifelike than those we might expect to see in the West. While I cannot claim to be an expert of its intricacies, I do know that it shares much in common with kabuki, a theatrical form perhaps wider known to Westerners. An emphasis is placed on a highly presentational performance style and the use of stock character types. The popularity of both kabuki and bunraku may explain why the performances of Japanese actors of the 50’s and 60’s often seems exaggerated when compared to American actors of the same era who come from a theatrical tradition based in realism.

Personally, I am fond of overtly presentational performances and I liked how Shinoda attempted to settle upon a consistent style slightly separated from realism, even though he is using flesh-and-blood actors. The use of people wearing the traditional hooded garment typically worn by bunraku puppeteers is also a nice touch. They do not literally move the actors as they would puppets; however, they do manipulate various props and with their presence create a feeling that the main performers are not entirely acting according to their will. They can be seen as a kind of chorus, always observing and serving as a reminder of societal expectations. Each of the principal characters can easily be defined by a single noun: the merchant, the courtesan, the wife, the mother, the father, etc. The suggestion is that the issues presented within the play are woven into the fabric of society. We see that men are susceptible to falling for available sex, thinking that they can redeem a loose woman, rather than accepting their role as husband and father. We see that money can lead to increased power and influence, even though it is not a trustworthy indicator of morality and fairness. We see how individuals attempting to operate outside of tradition run the risk of being consumed and destroyed.

In the beginning of the film, we hear two off-screen voices discussing how the ‘double suicide’ of the title is to be staged within the context of the film. It must not be presented beautifully as in the kabuki tradition we are told. And yet, when we arrive at the critical scenes, I’m not sure that the filmmakers have lived up to their promise. It is violent, to be sure, but carefully choreographed and elegantly shot. Is the film meant to expose the absurdity of the concept of suicide for the sake of honor? Or does the film hope that we will be emotionally drawn into the tragedy of the two main characters that spend a great deal of time weeping and bemoaning their misfortune? In the end, I was unsure and thus found myself at the conclusion with a feeling of neutrality.

There is much about the overt theatricality of Double Suicide that makes it worth watching. The film contains passionate performances and creative non-realistic staging. However, I am not convinced that these elements are married to a tale that is necessarily worth retelling without a clearer deconstruction of its fatalistic mindset. It may be my inability to fully comprehend another culture, but unlike most great tragedies I have seen, I’m not entirely sure why these characters had to die.


Sunday, June 25, 2006

United 93 (Greengrass, 2006)

For his latest film, United 93, director Paul Greengrass gave himself a task so ridiculously difficult that it seemed destined for failure. His goal: to recreate the events occurring aboard the doomed flight based on incomplete information without alienating an intensely sensitive public and without being lumped in with numerous other filmmakers with a political ax to grind. He needed to avoid exploitation and sensationalism while staying true to the grisly truth. He needed to make a film that was purposeful without seeming to drag the audience to his point of view. Much to my surprise, he has largely succeeded.

The first thing to be said about United 93 is that it is utterly compelling. Much of the information we receive in the film is not new. The timeline for the morning in question is painfully familiar in most of our minds. However, it turns out that there is indeed a value to putting these pieces together and watching the reenactment unfold. With skillful pacing, Greengrass takes us through a morning that begins as ordinary, soon becomes disorienting and ends in sickening chaos. I am not normally a huge fan of naturalism, but it is appropriate in this case. To take us where he wants to take us, Greengrass needs no extraneous poetry, high concept or unusual style. It is enough to take us behind the scenes of air traffic control and allow us to be privy to decisions being made by people with little idea of just how big a threat they are up against. On more than one occasion, we see or hear just how many planes are in the sky. I recall that one of the most ominous things about 9/11 was not knowing when it would end. What new nightmare lay around the corner, waiting to be discovered?

For just about anyone, it was nearly impossible to work that day. Greengrass shows us those who absolutely had to continue working because it was their job to respond. Every person we see on screen is ordinary, from the stewardesses to the passengers to the military to the air traffic controllers to the terrorists themselves. Greengrass does his best not to paint heroes and villains. He does not make the mistake of making this a story about individuals. We only learn as much about each person as could be reasonably gleaned from eavesdropping on them across the aisle, or observing their response to an impossible situation.

Does this make Greengrass impartial? Of course not. From watching the film, it seems apparent that he is concerned about the intrusion of irrationality into secular society. The film begins and ends with prayer. And without any deep explanation of the terrorists’ motives, their religious faith is left as primary motivator that allows them to commit despicable acts of cruelty and violence. One critical character appears to harbor doubts, only to later find the will to complete his task through an appeal to his deity. Since there is no way for Greengrass to have known this character’s mindset on the day in question, we must look at it as a thematic addition, placed to draw attention to a battle that has not received enough attention in the press and which seems all the more clear to me now. Beyond the destruction, I believe that 9/11 was intended as a worldwide demonstration of true faith in action. These hijackers and those who funded them counted on the fact that their side would meet death with open arms, while the other side would be caught screaming in terror, clinging to life. The underlying question is this: if those of us in this Christian nation truly believe what most of us say we believe, then why does the prospect of death fill us with so much fear? Never mind that this nation is filled with not only Christians, but Jews, Buddhists, atheists and, yes, Muslims. This day was seen by the planners as a battle of faith for two warring religions. By making an ambush attack on unsuspecting civilians, they hoped to flaunt our doubts versus their unshakable confidence. Of course, America soon sought out to prove its worth through a resurgence in a different shade of irrationality, but I digress.

The main thing that I want to point out is that Greengrass foregrounds this theme subtly but intentionally. He also employs the numerous ordinary people on the ground scrambling to save lives not only as a device to provide context, but as a means to make us aware of the countless people who work each day so that we may have an efficient, safe society. There is no need to call them heroes. It is enough that they are decent. United 93 does not paint America as either perfection or corruption incarnate. The portrait is somewhat closer to life: imperfect government, susceptible to the superficial, and yet, possessing a bed rock of good ideas that have served it well. Naturally, United 93 is not a definitive account of 9/11, nor does it aspire to be. It takes one aspect of the day and tells a trustworthy version of the story. Some have called this film cathartic. I don’t think so. If anything, it provides a jumping off point for more discussion, analysis and consternation. Time will tell if United 93 proves to be an ‘important’ film, but I think that there is no question that it is a valuable one.


Saturday, June 24, 2006

Babe: Pig in the City (Miller, 1998)

There are intelligent people who feel that Babe: Pig in the City, the follow-up to the Oscar-nominated children’s film, is an underappreciated gem. Not the least of these was the late Gene Siskel who famously called it the year’s best film. Though I was no big fan of the original film, I approached the sequel with a great deal of optimism - partly because of director, George Miller, who helmed the Mad Max trilogy and partly because of the promise of a film of dark strangeness and a willingness to confront the topic of death. Though it is uncomfortable for us to admit as much, death and dying is a subject of great interest to a child. The questions they ask are serious, even if they understandably have little grasp as to what it really means. Children’s films can be extraordinarily moving in this regard when the filmmakers have the courage to trust and challenge their young audience. The Brave Little Toaster and Kirikou and the Sorceress are noteworthy examples of exemplary children’s entertainment that is both enjoyable and meaningful.

Unfortunately, Babe: Pig in the City falls well short of this standard. Despite impressive visual effects, art direction and animal wrangling, I cannot get on board with the theory that this is anything more than a well-executed gimmick film. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to put something like Babe: Pig in the City together. The cast is made up almost entirely of various livestock, as well as some monkeys and a few of the more well-behaved domestic animals like dogs and cats. With the help of some realistic-looking puppets, the animals interact with one another and walk in groups and perform basic tasks. It is surely an amazing feat of choreography, patience and editing. However, it is unfortunately not a technique that I find conducive to making compelling drama. My complaints are similar to those I had about Babe. These creatures that we are supposed to accept as characters are clearly indifferent to the drama they enact. Despite our attempts to capture them on camera in moments that strike us as anthropomorphic, their eyes speak only of obedience, impatience or boredom. With animation, any manner of creature can be given a human spark because it is humans who are adapting them to their needs. However, there is just no way to make a simple pig care.

While these complaints may seem trivial to some, I firmly believe that it places a cap on what a film like this can achieve. I don’t see the film others see. I don’t see drama. I see the film for what is really is - a series of animal tricks strung together. I see a pale shadow of drama that has been robbed of the core humanity that is essential to make it work. Strangely, I was reminded of Werner Herzog’s Heart of Glass which was performed by a hypnotized cast. The effect is similar. Zombified players being coaxed through the motions of a formula that is supposed to result somehow in meaning or understanding. Am I taking the film too seriously? I don’t think so. If the film wanted to simply be a light comedy, I would review it on those terms. Unfortunately, the film has aspirations it cannot achieve

In the end, I was left unmoved and largely unentertained by the experience, as was my son who gave up forty minutes in. I had little idea of what Babe’s journey was supposed to amount to, nor what lessons viewers were supposed to take away. I was impressed by individual moments and found it difficult to bear the film much ill will; however, it is my opinion that the film is exactly what is looks like: a talking pig movie. No more. No less.


Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Man Who Planted Trees (Back, 1987)

Frédéric Back’s The Man Who Planted Trees lives up to its billing as a great environmentalist picture. The animation is very much like an artist’s sketchbook come to life. And I mean that as a compliment. With images that make suggestions at an idea, yet never seem set in stone, Back provides a look to his film that supports the underlying message that he is trying to convey. The film is a response to the notion that progress marches on and there is nothing that can be done to keep the earth beautiful and hospitable. Back’s visions are in a constant state of motion, begging to be nudged in another direction. There always seemed to me to be a portion of the image unfinished, as if continually reminding us about a future yet to be shaped. The story is of one modest man whose determination brings about an enormous change for people who are not even aware of their benefactor. The man asks for no award or recognition. It is enough for him simply to give life. Christopher Plummer’s narration does seem to lack variety after a while, but this is a minor complaint considering it is in the service of a film that seems entirely capable of opening up your world to new hopes and possibilities. The relative obscurity of this short film is a shame, as it is a work that really should be seen by everyone.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Forgotten Faces (Watkins, 1961)

Billed as an amateur production from early in the career of maverick filmmaker Peter Watkins, The Forgotten Faces is anything but amateurish. Telling the story of a Hungarian student revolt against the Communist government imposed by the Soviets in the 50’s, this short film shows many of Watkins’ trademarks already in place. It is shot in faux documentary style with a narrator (not Watkins this time) providing context and background information about each of the key players. The street scenes in which revolutionaries clash with police reminded me of Eisenstein as the violence is swift and shocking and much of what we experience is conveyed through a series of faces – hopeful, determined, pained, despairing. Watkins’ interpretation of warfare is unusual in that he does not go into too much detail about the circumstances leading up to the violence from a nationalistic perspective. Rather, it is the individual that takes center stage. Each brief history told is an acknowledgment of that person’s existence and the contribution they have made to the whole, no matter how small. As Watkins returns late in the film to each character and briefly summarizes their fate, we see why he is not only one of cinema’s great historians, but also one of its great humanists.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Drawing Restraint 9 (Barney, 2005)

Drawing Restraint 9 picks right up where Drawing Restraint 8 left off, bringing back all the zany characters that you’ve come to know and love.

OK, that’s not true.

Matthew Barney’s latest excursion into film is indeed a sequel of sorts, but not to any other film. Rather, it is a continuation of a series of art installations made earlier in Barney’s career. How many people have actually followed the series up to this point is not known to me, but no matter. Barney’s film, at the very least, works as a stand-alone experience. I can’t imagine that the keys to unlocking this film’s mysteries are somewhere lurking in a pivotal moment of Drawing Restraint 3 for example.

Two people, a man and a woman, visit a Japanese whaling boat, participate in a ritual that seems to draw equally from Eastern religion and - oh I don’t know – Mars, and then consummate their relationship in a rather unorthodox manner that I will not reveal. And that’s about it. What I have just described takes places over the course of 135 minutes, with Barney’s pacing fluctuating between ‘slothful’ and ‘tortoise-like’. To be sure, this insistence on an exaggeratedly slow pace creates a feeling that is distinctly Barney. There is no mistaking his hand at work. I gather that he is shooting for an experience that is meditative and which allows us to consider and digest the imagery that he has to offer us. This is all well and good, except for the fact that Barney doesn’t hold up his end of the bargain by giving us enough to chew on. I do not think I would have minded the pacing if Barney’s visuals were considerably more evocative.

In reviews that I have read, critics have declared that they did not much care to try to decipher Barney’s symbols. Having now seen the film, I find this strange as almost all of them are fairly straightforward abstractions of sexual intercourse. I mean, jeez, how hard do you have to work to interpret long, protruding objects entering holes, canals or otherwise penetrating? Barney repeats the pattern using different objects and occasionally throwing in various fluids for good measure. The problem is not that Barney’s symbols are impenetrable. It is that they are too transparent.

Fortunately, there is the occasional Bjork song to perk things up once in a while and a bathing scene that adds a welcome dose of genuine eroticism. In between, unfortunately, is a lot of stuff that would be a stretch to describe as meditative. Instead, let’s be honest and call it what it is. Filler. I admire Barney. I honestly do. I root for his films because I hope they will open up a path for a cinema that is highly symbolic and which de-emphasizes the textual. Would it really be such a compromise to cut a half hour or so out of the film in order to make it merely ‘ponderous’? I don’t think it makes me a philistine to suggest as much. Together, Barney and Bjork could be quite a team, with her serving both as his Giulietta Masina, but also his Michael Nyman. However, to do so, he will have to repay his patrons’ patience with much more substance than he offers here.