Friday, 1 October 2010

NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind


I've been meaning to make a Studio Ghibli related blog entry for a while but wasn't really sure how to go about it. I've been a fan of the studio for a while, particularly the movies overseen by Hayao Miyazaki and it seemed somewhat disrespectful to try and sum them up in a no doubt clumsy fashion. In the end I decided to compromise by discussing a favourite of mine which also happened to be quintessentially 'Ghibli'. This movie was also the first feature film made by the studio, so it carries a certain amount of significance. It was made in 1984 and with it's success the Ghibli dynasty had begun.

The setting is a post-apocalyptic earth which has been changed dramatically following the "Seven Days of Fire"- a great war in which terrifying creatures known as "Giant Warriors" were unleashed leaving a burning planet in their wake. The earth which resulted is one covered in toxic jungles containing giant insects (including the armoured 'Ohmu') and which also emit a pollen poisonous to humans. Nausicaa is the Princess of the Valley of the Wind, a free spirit who has an affinity for the natural world which has come to resent mankind (a very natural reaction in most cases). The Valley of the Wind is the last bastion of the peaceful human world and Nausicaa constantly performs botanical experiments hoping to find the key to detoxifying the jungles. Unfortunately most of mankind haven't learnt from past experience and the Valley of the Wind is caught between the tensions of the Pejite and Tolmekian empires, both intent on obtaining an immature "Giant Warrior". With the help of the swordsman Lord Yupa, a Pejite pilot named Asbel and her trusted glider, Nausicaa must calm the flames of war which are
threatening the existence of the natural world.

As mentioned earlier, this movie happens to embody many of the themes which run throughout the Studio Ghibli repertoire. One theme is the juxtaposition of mankind/technology and nature along with the tensions which result. I think that's an important element; it carries the fears and concerns of many relating to our influence on the planet (deforestation, pollution, dwindling resources, endangered species, nuclear weapons and many similarly worrying issues). But it's worth mentioning that all of the movies which feature this theme avoid becoming preachy or overpowering; it generally blends seamlessly with more centric plot lines.

Another recurring feature is the presence of a heroine lead character in almost all Ghibli movies; a refreshing change to generally male dominated western cinema. In this case the heroine is Nausicaa; a bold and refreshingly intrepid female character who doesn't conform to the vulnerable "damsel in distress" stereotype which Disney (who some would call the western counterpart) generally pander to. Similar characters of the same Ghibli vein include Princess Mononoke, Kiki, Chihiro (Sen), Haru and many others - all of them bold as brass and ready to give any male characters a run for their money.

The last theme I will focus on is flying and Hayao Miyazaki's obsession with aircrafts. In World War II Miyazaki's father helped manufacture fighter planes and Miyazaki couldn't help but draw the majestic machines. Ever since he has looked to the sky for inspiration in all of his artistic endeavours. Indeed this is to the extent that it is hard to find a movie directed by him that doesn't feature a sequence in the air. In this specific movie the main method of transportation for Nausicaa is a glider and there are also some stunning scenes involving fighter planes from the great warring nations. There are plenty of other points to mention about thematic constants, plot structure, western influence in Ghibli anime and the repercussions of Hiroshima throughout but that's an essay in itself; the movies are after all very complex.

Hayoa Miyazaki's time at the helm is coming to an end unfortunately but luckily a new generation of talented animator/directors are emerging. Miyazaki's son, Goro Miyazaki, has shown great potential with 'Tales from Earthsea', exhibiting a different style that is sure to take Studio Ghibli in a fascinating direction. Many (including myself) would compare his style to that of Isao Takahata, another prolific director at the studio who famously directed the harrowing and powerful 'Grave of the Fireflies'. It's also worth mentioning that the next Ghibli release will be an adaptation of The Borrowers by Mary Norton and that this will be directed by another new young director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi.

'Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind' is an example of Ghibli at it's epic best; unfortunately in the US an awful edit called 'Warriors of the Wind' was originally released which completely missed the point of the movie; portraying nature as evil and humans as purely positive. Thankfully western audiences now appreciate "grey area" themes in animation and have really taken to Studio Ghibli and anime in general (it's important to note that there are plenty of examples of wonderful feature length anime outside of Ghibli). After years of child-centric, generally musical western animation, it was hard for a majority of western movie-goers to take more adult aimed animation seriously. Much like graphic novels, they have finally been accepted by the general public. Much to my relief, new talent have shown Studio Ghibli is likely to continue to be important exponents of this art form for many years to come; constantly pushing the envelope and exhibiting originality.


Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Gattaca

Sometimes in cinema a movie takes current developments and follows a line of thought through to an as yet unseen end. These movies are usually of the science fiction genre due to the intrinsic and unique ability of sci-fi to depict a future that has not yet come to pass; acting as a vehicle for intangible ideas and principles. Sci-fi is unfortunately often met with a rebuff of grunting snobbery, but the important thing to grasp is that it isn't about laser beams, robots or space opera dramatics but simply asking the question - what if? The greatest developments made by humans evolve from this question; literature and cinema are no exception. What if totalitarianism took hold on a massive scale? (George Orwell's 1984). What if we could travel through the "fourth dimension"? (H.G. Wells' 'The Time Machine'). What if humans could bestow the spark of life? (Mary Shelly's 'Frankenstein'). Gattaca is of this breed of movie.

So what if our DNA carried greater social implications? Gattaca is set in a not too distant future in which an individual’s class in society is predetermined by their genetic makeup, whether they like it or not. Gattaca centres around Vincent (Ethan Hawke), an invalid (human of natural birth) who dreams of travelling the stars but is confined to a life of manual labour. His only hope of changing his fate is to impersonate Jerome (Jude Law), a valid (engineered human) who has not lived up to his genetic potential. When you consider that you can’t enter a building without your thumb being pricked or your hair sample being taken, you realise how much of an ordeal awaits Vincent. A mysterious death weeks before a shuttle launch only amplifies this and jeopardizes his plans.

“I belonged to a new underclass, no longer determined by social status or the colour of your skin. No, we now have discrimination down to a science”.

Gattaca displays another common feature of science fiction movies; it carries a deeper emotional connotation at its core which reverberates through every scene. Gattaca, on its most fundamental level, is about ambition and rising above limitations which have been placed upon you by the surrounding world. Titan (a moon of Saturn which Vincent dreams of travelling to) represents a better life, a future which he has determined for himself. (And why not dream, after all “there is no gene for fate”).

An impressive supporting cast of Uma Thurman (as an unwitting love interest of “better” lineage) and the immensely talented Alan Arkin (a detective who is hot on Vincent’s trail) maintain the quality of performance exhibited by Hawke and Law. It is important to also note that style is not sacrificed for substance and there really are some beautiful visual sequences in the movie including my personal favourite; a romantic sequence where Hawke and Thurman walk in a field of mirror solar panels.

In short this is a hugely entertaining and profoundly thoughtful movie. I recently read an ethical discussion on whether insurance companies should have access to the DNA of customers in order to proofread for “risk regions” and determine costs on that basis. Wow, Perceptive too.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Quadrophenia

I saw this film really late on TV the other night for the first time in several years and was reminded how much of a classic it is. For me, the movie is one of the most important 'teenage angst' movies ever made and truly sums up the tensions of working class Britain in the 60s.


The 60s began a social revolution in Britain. No longer were teens all prim and proper, with bowl cut hair and not a button misplaced. No longer did they listen to friendly, middle of the road camp fire songs. The 60s brought the Mods and the Rockers. On the surface these two gangs couldn't be more different. Mods in their Ben Sherman suits, with their pristine hair, listening to The Kinks and The Who. Rockers with their leather jackets, hair greased back, listening to Chuck Berry and Elvis. But underneath they are the same as every teenager - frustrated with a need to belong, to feel like you're part of something. The 60s had brought about a subculture dichotomy which would both become a scar and an iconic piece of British history.


In Quadrophenia we see the world through the eyes of Jimmy (Phil Daniels), a Mod who is frustrated by a dead end job and violent, scrutinising parents. He is a time bomb, just like all of his friends and it's only a matter of time before rockers light the fuse and give them an excuse to blow. Brighton is no longer a quaint, slightly disappointing beach town - it's a battle field for embittered youths. Never has gang violence been so effortlessly cool...and harrowingly brutal. The more Jimmy strives to be an individual, the more he ironically fades in the flurry of violence.

"I don't wanna be the same as everybody else. That's why I'm a Mod, see? I mean, you gotta be somebody, ain't ya, or you might as well jump in the sea and drown."


This movie contains the frank grittiness that British cinema used to embody but now all too rarely features. It shares something with masterpieces such as 'Scum' (with Ray Winstone) and 'The Firm' (with Gary Oldman). There are very few Directors today who can bring that sort of blue collar realism to the screen and who have the vision to see the poetic nature of factories and warehouses and people aspiring to be more than a cog. One who comes to mind is Shane Meadows, who obviously takes a lot from movies like this.


Phil Daniels acts wonderfully throughout the film and portrays the confusions, frustrations and folly of youth beautifully. His world begins to unravel and rebelling against the establishment becomes intoxicating. Soon everyone around him becomes the enemy - even those closest to him. Watch how he isolates himself from everyone around him, even when he is at fault and they are just trying to help him.


With an amazing soundtrack (composed entirely by The Who) and a wonderful array of unpolished performances culminating in a breathtaking final scene, this bleak 70s gem comes highly recommended. (And the more awful films like 'Green Street' and basically any Danny Dyer movie try and emulate it, the more it shines).


Saturday, 17 July 2010

Inception

I saw this movie at the IMAX yesterday, the night of it's release. A lot of hype surrounded it, mainly because of the huge success of Nolan's last release, The Dark Knight. Being a fan of Nolan's, I also had high expectations. I couldn't be more pleased to say I was not disappointed.

The general rule in cinema is that, the bigger a movie gets (in terms of scale, budget and special effects) the more it will sacrifice in terms of intelligence and originality. I would say this is a fairly reliable general rule of thumb (for example Avatar is one of the most expensive film ever made, created with the most cutting edge effects on offer today - but it's plot is basically Pocahontas. Not to say I didn't enjoy Avatar, but it wasn't the most challenging of movies.)

But you know what they say, rules are made to be broken. Inception did it in style! And I don't just mean it had a decent plot, that would be a massive understatement. I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that Inception is the most cerebral and mind bending film I have seen since The Matrix. Basically, don't take your eye off the ball because it doesn't keep to the conventions of normal linear cinema.

I wont give away any spoilers because I would hate to ruin this film for anybody, so I'll just lay out the general idea behind the movie. A technology has been developed which allows people to enter a person's mind and either steal an idea (extraction) or plant one (inception.) Enter Dom Cobb (DiCaprio), a man troubled by his past (which literally haunts him) who is the best in the business and is offered the mother of all mind jobs. In order to pull off the mission he will need the help of a specialist team, each with a specialist ability - an architect (Page), a point man (Gordon-Levitt), a forger (Hardy) and a chemist (Rao).

The best way to describe this movie is a Russian doll - dreams within dreams and worlds within worlds. The mind is a paradoxical maze - Nolan creates these worlds perfectly and they are a truly beautiful and breathtaking stage for events to unfold upon. This includes a stunning fight sequence in a corridor with shifting gravity, impossible staircases and entire cityscapes which are completely malleable.

Another special thing about this movie is the ensemble cast which supports DiCaprio - who by the way has really hit his stride as a lead man after Shutter Island. Some of the brightest stars of "future Hollywood" feature in this movie. Ellen Page (Juno, Hard Candy), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (500 Days of Summer, Brick) and Tom Hardy (Bronson, Stuart: A Life Backwards) all provide great performances. I especially enjoyed the banter between Gordon-Levitt and Hardy, it really added a streak of humour to this movie. Nolan regulars Cillian Murphy, Michael Cane and Ken Watanabe also put in solid performances.


Please make the first time you see this movie be at the cinema - the dynamic visuals and Hans Zimmer's epic soundtrack deserve that much. Inception has so much to offer - action sequences, love interests and one of the most original plots you're likely to see for a while. When the credits rolled people actually clapped and we all left the IMAX with massive smiles on our faces - it really was a movie buffs dream (excuse the pun.)

In a word - slick.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

There Will Be Blood

This movie is a rarity - it's a 'modern classic'. By modern classic I mean that almost immediately after being made, it had gained the gravitas that the average classic takes years to develop. This is mainly for two reasons - the master class of acting on show by Daniel Day-Lewis (with support from Paul Dano) and the potency of the plot.

The movie centres around Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis), a mineral prospector turned "oil man". He begins drilling in a small town called Little Boston - a town where nothing grows but the piousness of it's residents. Eli Sunday (Dano) is the Yin to Plainview's Yang and they clash in a hugely dramatic way. The movie is loosely based on the novel 'Oil!' by Upson Sinclair.

The hugely attractive prospect of this movie is the fact that it centres around mankind's two strongest addictions - God and Oil. Sunday and Plainview are microcosms of these addictions respectively and their constant one-upmanship makes for some thrilling confrontations. The following clip is a prime example of this, watch as they say more with their eyes than with their mouths.


With this sort of calibre of acting it's no surprise that there are such powerful performances. Daniel Day-Lewis puts in his best performance since 'My Left Foot' (he received an oscar for both). Dano is a rising star that, after many low budget indie movies, came into the public eye with his wonderful role in 'Little Miss Sunshine'. Day-Lewis is already one of the greatest actors of all time (and I don't say that lightly) and Dano holds limitless potential.


In conclusion, this is one that everybody should have in their collection. It would be easy to just focus on the acting but everything is pitch-perfect - the cinematography is great, Johnny Greenwood's soundtrack is oscar worthy and the screenplay is wonderfully audacious (there isn't any dialogue in the film for the first 20 minutes, which requires a lot of confidence.) Give it a watch and you'll be hooked right up to the legendary "milkshake" finale.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Wendy and Lucy

This is just a quick entry to show that I wont just be going into detail on classic movies. I'll also be giving quick reviews on movies that I happen to catch on TV or at the cinema that leave a strong impression on me. So stay tuned because I'm going to be seeing Inception at the imax on friday (I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's probably going to be really good because Nolan hasn't disappointed yet.)

Wendy and Lucy is an indie movie that I caught on Film4 last night and I was very impressed by how brave and original it was. But by brave I don't mean it's controversial because it isn't. The reason Wendy and Lucy is brave is because it is a minimalist movie - by which I mean there is no soundtrack, little dialogue and a very simplistic plot. Sometimes being brave is to say "I'm not going to add any more, I'll leave it alone and let it speak for itself." As a result this film almost entirely relies on the stunningly understated and subtle performance of Michelle Williams as Wendy. The filming and editing of the movie is great as well - the only movement of the shot is when one clip is edited into another. This creates a stillness which only complements the purgatory of the Pacific Northwest .


The movie centres around Wendy and her dog Lucy travelling north to Alaska to find work. Money is short and with only a bust up car for shelter and Lucy for company, Wendy is on the brink of complete homelessness. Williams really portrays a woman down on her luck so well, sometimes you can even hear a slight quivering in her voice when she speaks, as if she's about to break down.


Check it out, a truely remarkable movie.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Blade Runner

Welcome! This is my first ever blog so I thought it would be best to start with a classic and a favourite of mine (and also arguably the greatest science fiction movie ever made.)

Blade Runner was directed by Ridley Scott in 1982 and starred Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer. The film is based (fairly loosely may I add) on a science fiction novel called "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" by the brilliant Phillip K Dick. Dick was a visionary author who has inspired many on screen adaptations over the years, such as Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, Total Recall and Screamers (but the less said about the last one the better).

The story (set in the November of 2019) centres around Rick Deckard (Ford), who's occupation is a Blade Runner. A 'Blade Runner' is basically a bounty hunter for androids (or as they are referred to in the movie "replicants" or even more informally "skin jobs.") There are four replicants on earth who have escaped from an off-world colony and have returned for certain reasons, unbeknownst to Deckard. Finding them is no simple task as, at this point in the future, manufacturers can painstakingly make replicants "more human than human."So begins Deckard's journey to find four slightly different needles in a stack of needles...only these needles are intelligent and scared replicants. They are led by the most enigmatic and intelligent amongst them, Roy Batty (Hauer.)

Blade Runner carries some interesting and thought provoking themes such as what it is to be human (are we just the sum of our parts or more than the flesh and bone from which we are made) and also coming to terms with ones own end ("the candle that burns twice as bright, burns half as long.") The whole story is wrought with uncertainty - even Deckard's own humanity is questioned at several points (HINT - look at the eyes of the replicants and Deckard in the final cut.)

The book is also definitely worth reading, as it not only covers the themes of the movie but also touches upon issues of social status and religion (the main religion in the novel is a Sisyphean religion called 'Mercerism', in which people all share consciousness with a man perpetually walking up a hill whilst being hit with rocks. They do this via contraptions called empathy boxes - which I guess can only be described as a virtual link to one's own deity.) People can also "order" an emotion using a gadget on their wrist which secretes various drugs and neurotransmitteres into the wearers blood stream. Such concepts are typical of Phillip K Dick's novels, which tend to put a bleak cyberpunk twist on contemporary issues.

There have been three main cuts to this movie - the original cut (complete with awful, unnecessary and quite patronising narration), the director's cut (a rough diamond) and the final cut which was recently released. The final cut is really a masterpiece, it realises the full potential of the movie and brings it to the forefront with remastered picture and sound quality along with certain extended and added scenes. The added scenes are in no way integral to the plot of the movie, being mainly of the tarnished, polluted cityscape or panning shots of it's patchwork, melting pot society. But I do believe the added footage assists the flow of the movie and adds to it's brooding atmosphere. Basically, if you're going to buy it then this should be the version you choose - it really is a treat for the eyes.

The thing that I personally love about this film is it's combination of styles. What I mean by this is that Blade Runner is essentially a detective, film noir piece - smokey, dimly lit bars, ambient background jazz music, Deckard even has one of those stereotypical, brown, 1930s detective trench coats! Yet this is seamlessly juxtaposed with a dystopian, futuristic, polluted and drab earth. Perhaps it is the brown and teal tones of this drab world which allows other, rather old fashioned elements, to merge so well with it. Either way I have never seen it done as well in any other movie. Visually the dystopia described by Dick and brought to the screen by Scott is beautifully complex and imperfect, without a doubt being hugely influential on movies ever since (Battle Royale, Children of Men, Brazil and Akira to name a few). I would also say that more realistic, or even pessimistic, views of the future are far more rich and interesting than polished, chrome plated ones.

In fact, Blade Runner's future earth of socioeconomic turmoil was created so well that it is often thought of as the origin of bleak, futuristic styles in cinema (although it most definitely wasn't - movies such as Soylent Green, Escape from New York and Fahrenheit 451 come to mind.)

So in summary Blade Runner was revolutionary in it's own unique way, utilising styles and themes well established in previous films. Harrison Ford manages to bring that humerous yet slightly bitter, world weary edge to Deckard, which is exactly what he is famed for and good at (although I would say that Deckard is more of the latter than either Han Solo or Indiana Jones). The dialogue in the movie is effortlessly cool and alluring, certain quotes really stand out - e.g. "replicants are like any other machine - they're either a benefit of a hazard. If they're a benefit it's not my problem", "if only you could see what I've seen with your eyes" and Roy Batty's "tears in rain" monologue near the end.

This film has managed to avoid becoming dated even though it is almost thirty years old and, although I have seen this film more times than I can remember, it has never lost it's mystique and charisma. There are literally whole books on the movie's visual style and philosophical connotations, so it would be impossible for me to really do it justice in a blog. But needless to say it comes highly recommended, especially to fans of thought provoking science fiction.


Thanks for reading my first ever blog! Any thoughts or comments would be most appreciated. Also, any ideas for further movie blogs will be taken on board.

See you soon
Sam.