The Godfather (1972)

The Godfather

I ask for justice” pleads a man named Bonasera in the first scene of The Godfather, a film which has come to define the ‘gangster movie’ since its release in 1972. Sitting restlessly in a dark room, his nerves are undermined by the playfulness of a nearby pet kitten. He has come to beg Vito Corleone, the Don of a New York crime family, to murder the men who beat his daughter beyond recognition; men who, he claims, smiled at him in Court after they were let off scot-free by the American legal system. The audience feels this father’s pain, and cleverly – immediately – we are on the side of the mafia (helped considerably by the fact that the camera is the eyes of Vito, and we therefore feel ourselves in a position of power). ‘Punish these men’, we think, despite our better judgement. ‘Punish these men for inflicting such serious agony on an innocent woman’.

It is this instantaneous, unapologetic allegiance with the criminal underworld which secures The Godfather’s success. Drawn in to a closed-off, shady realm, unfamiliar to the majority, the audience is made privy to the glamorously covert goings on of the Sicilian mafia. Judgement is withheld, meticulously planned ‘hits’ and ‘acts of vengeance’ replace needless victims, and the ‘Business’, feared but venerable, is never questioned. In response to Bonasera’s opening story, Vito responds calmly, “Why did you go to the police? Why didn’t you come to me first?” This distrust of the system, of the ‘American way’, is proved right later on when we meet a Police Captain more crooked than the criminals he apprehends.

And so a murky, mahogany furnished stage is set for the dramas of the Corleones, who answer to no one, least of all their wives. In fact, women are mainly background noise throughout what is essentially a study in the morals and mayhems of men. Vito’s wife remains nameless, speaking only two-dimensionally at moments where a matriarch’s comment is necessary; and Connie, the daughter, does little but shriek and cry. This constant bypassing of the feminine is a callous but crucial plot device, which has a narrowing effect on the story as a whole. A concentrated world is made more oppressive through the noticeable lack of any woman’s touch, thus allowing the men of the film to be more easily consumed by their misplaced obsessions and bloated egos. The most important of these men is, unquestionably, Vito’s youngest son, Michael. Introduced to us at the beginning as an innocent bystander disgusted by his family’s criminality, it is his twisted descent towards darkness which acts as the driving force of the narrative.

A ‘war hero’, Michael is not interested in his father’s business at first. “That’s my family, Kay, it’s not me” he assures his American girlfriend right after we first meet them. The film very deliberately positions him outside the action, making his eventual entrance into the crime sphere all the more compelling to watch. There are several key moments which embody his transformation, and their strength is equal parts narrative and cinematic. For example, the scene where he is to ‘hit’ drug dealer Sollozzo and corrupt cop McCluskey at a local restaurant, is played out perfectly through a combination of sound design and cinematography. The screeching train noises, which at first creep, and then crescendo, stress the ever-present feeling of urgency for action which weighs heavily on our protagonist’s mind. Paired with close-up shots of his agitated eyes, bruised face, and gritted teeth, these sounds will Michael to jump, to move forward, to do anything but remain stationary. When he pulls out his gun, he seals a particular life for himself that we are now hesitant to believe he ever truly did not want.

The idea of inheritance, of passing one’s sins down through the generations, is a crucial theme. Vito, who follows a specific code of conduct and who cares more about being invited for coffee than any offer of money, is bizarrely admirable in his decorum. Of course, we like him because we are not made witness to any of the unethical things he must have done to secure his current position, and yet still, despite his lack of screen time, his admonitions and traditions hang over the heads of the other characters, lingering like thick smoke. Michael is lured into the underworld through love for his father, and in his search for relevance, is blinded by the preferential treatment he has received in life. He becomes a capricious and faithless Don, choosing to detach himself from loved ones through continued deceit, as made painfully obvious through the montage of killing which accompanies his nephew’s baptism. His lies are a poison which dismantles the infallibility of his father’s word, but which are entirely a product of his father’s world.

Vito and Michael are at once mirror images and polar opposites of each other. “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man” Vito straightforwardly imparts early on in the film, and he repeatedly stresses the value of family throughout. It seems as though Michael inherits this trait, at one point warning his brother Fredo to never take sides with anybody against ‘The Family’. On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that by ‘The Family’, Michael really means himself. Slight differences in meanings and motives make for entirely different philosophies, and by the end of the film we are left, like Kay, in astonishment at the changeover. The old Don is gone, and times are changing. But hey, it’s not personal, it’s just business.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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Birdman (2014)

Birdman

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film is a story steeped in theatre-land cliches. From the affair between actors behind the scenes resulting in a pregnancy scare, to the self-deprecation of an intimidated leading lady, Birdman delights in playing with the stereotypes of stage acting. Edward Norton plays a grandiose thespian who, despite his brooding over the great mysteries of life and acting, spends most of his time fooling around with attractive women in an attempt to distract himself from his sexual inadequacy. Lindsay Duncan is the stone-cold bitch critic, snobbish to the max and baying for blood. And at the center of it all stands Michael Keaton, the struggling actor past his prime, desperate to make some sort of impression on Broadway and thereby save himself and his career. “I’ve put everything into this!” he screams at his play’s producer repeatedly (played by a poker-faced Zack Galifianakis), although we never see him seriously struggle in any way, other than in the fight against his own subconscious.

Predictability pervades the film, as at one point, Mike Shiner (Norton) points out to Riggan Thomson (Keaton) that the red safety plug shoved down the barrel of a gun used in a scene towards the end of the film’s play (a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love) is distracting him from his acting. From here it’s easy to guess that some sort of drama will ensue involving an actual gun, and an actual shot. Sure enough, Thomson later attempts suicide on stage mid-scene.

So how does Birdman manage to soar, when its flight path appears so formulaic? Perhaps the answer lies in its cinematography. Emmanuel Lubezki’s long tracking shots replicate the high stakes of theatre, where the actors have no choice but to be alert at every moment, waiting in rooms or on roofs for the arrival of the camera crew, aware that if they fluff their lines it’s right back to the beginning for everyone, not just them. The audience feels this tension, as lines are delivered with a dynamism that permeates the screen. Emma Stone as Thomson’s daughter Sam, in particular, possesses a brilliant nervous energy, and Michael Keaton’s outbursts of manic violence where he smashes everything in his dressing room, are captivatingly frenzied. Each scene buzzes with a turbulence that contradicts its careful set-up (actors would have surely had to be blocked perfectly to avoid collisions). Precision buts heads with chaos, and this is Iñárritu and Lubezki’s great achievement.

At the heart of Birdman is acting and all of its hypocrisies. Thomson gained his fame from playing the role of a superhero in a film franchise, and this success both enables him to continue acting, and haunts him as a reminder of his “selling out”. “You are not an actor, you are a celebrity” sneers critic Tabitha (Duncan) as she reviles Hollywood stars for their apparent thirst for fame. And yet Mike Shiner, the golden boy of theatre who purports to care only for the soul of whichever play he stars in, is visibly jealous of Thomson’s popularity. The winged figure of the title, ominous yet laughable, stalks Keaton’s character, willing him to return to the bombastic world of explosions and car-chases that characterised his blockbuster work. In the end, it is, strangely, Thomson’s moments of surrender to this fantasy world which lend Birdman a quizzical depth that it would lack otherwise.

This to-ing and fro-ing between somberness and silliness is nothing new, but the film does it so frenetically (helped massively by the offbeat, jazzy soundtrack by Antonio Sánchez) that you can’t help but admire its bravado. The irony of having Michael Keaton play the part of an actor abased by his past career choices is an obvious talking point, and endless references to real-world actors currently starring in Marvel movies are part of a running joke that you can either take at face value, or use as a starting point for discussions about entertainment and notoriety. In the end, echoing the poem that opens the film, Thomson finally feels himself beloved by all. After shooting his own nose off (which is replaced with a new one, suspiciously beaky), his play receives a stellar review from Tabitha. Wife and daughter forgive his endless narcissism, and the public send flowers to his hospital room adoringly. In a moment of apparent victory, the Birdman is told to shut up and is left defeated in the corner of a bathroom. But is this praise any different from the sort he received from his superhero films? Apparently not, as despite his critical acclaim, Thomson still feels a lack, still desires the thrill of the flight. The film ends with him jumping (or soaring) out of a window, perpetuating the yearn for fulfillment that is the lifeblood of the story. As Sam looks on in wonderment, the audience is left to ponder whether this actor, this man, will ever get what he wanted from his life, even so.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★

The Great Beauty (2013)

The Great Beauty

The Great Beauty opens with a canon firing from the Janiculum hill in Rome, signalling midday, fittingly the time when most of the film’s social butterflies would either be retiring to bed, or considering waking up. The camera glides over historical monuments and busts with a seemingly effortless ease, landing first on a man looking sorrowfully down at an inscription carved in stone which reads “Roma o Morte” (Rome or Death). Another woman rests against the marble head of a political or literary figure, looking anywhere but towards the statue, with a cigarette hanging from her lips. Finally, we reach the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, a fountain built for a Pope in the early 1600s, where a large man in a dirtied white vest top washes his underarms, and a chorus of women sing a modern re-arrangement of an old Yiddish folk song, written by David Lang, a current New York composer. In front of the fountain, a Japanese tourist separates from his group to take photos of the overwhelming view of the city, and dies from the shock of it all.

This occurs within the first two minutes or so, and is a good example of the film’s visual and contextual richness, but also of its playfulness – its willingness to accept, and be engulfed in, the contradictions and hypocrisies of the city it spends its time in. Remembrances of great people and conflicts are lent on by sleepy locals, sacred music that sounds ancient is in fact written after the millennium (and is no less beautiful because of this), and tourism and death take center stage. The divine and the vulgar meet, and are two sides of the same coin in Paolo Sorrentino’s ode to experiences of love, life and age.

Toni Servillo plays lead role Jep Gambardella, a socialite in his 60s who drinks through the night and sleeps through the day, and who appears to be loved by all. He surrounds himself with equally rich and important people, and prefers to talk “about nonsense, about trivial matters“, because doing so means he does not have to face anything more profound or questioning. Statues make nice backdrops at parties, great literature makes good chat-up lines, and nuns are decorations, setting the scene of Rome beautifully. That is, until Jep is visited by the husband of an old lover, whose news causes everything to be called into question, regardless of whether there are any answers.

The quintessential flâneur, or stroller, Jep dampens his pain and appeases his newly inquiring mind by walking through the streets at night, meeting old friends, making new ones, and generally musing on his past. Such masculine soul-searching could have so easily seemed trite or narcissistic, but through some combination of Servillo’s great comic timing and handling of his character, and Luca Bigazzi’s sweeping visual feasts, The Great Beauty remains the right side of indulgent. Decadence is simultaneously embraced with open arms, and mocked from a distance, reflective of Jep’s growing feeling of disconnect with the extravagant world that he is a part of, and which he helped create.

The film’s reality is fluid, with set-pieces continually entering a dream-like state where nothing is certain. Death is glossed over, and becomes the closed eyes of a troubled boy, or the glamorous sleep of a stripper. Funerals are strict performances alive with contradictions, and religion is redundant but is an entirely necessary component in Jep’s final moment of understanding. This ambivalence is perhaps the true ‘Great Beauty’, as a man in search of inspiration and meaning, staring at the remembered face of a young lover, settles on the fact that all there is death, and life, and “blah blah blah“. And yet this ambiguity is itself a passionate conclusion, and inspires Jep to begin a new chapter of his life and his book. After all, we’re all tourists in this world, so we may as well soak in the sights and make the most of it.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Spirit Worlds of Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Spirited Away (2001)

Characters and Spirits

The great appeal of Studio Ghibli’s filmography arguably lies in its encompassing of such a wide variety of stories and ideas. From humble tales of Italian fighter pilots and teenage witches, to grand narratives on spirits and nature, Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and more recently Hiromasa Yonebayashi, have brought to our screens some of the most richly diverse animations of all time.

And yet, despite their ranging settings, characters, styles, and ambitions, there are certain films within Studio Ghibli’s catalogue which compliment one another in their treatments of particular themes and motifs. Two such films, I believe, are 1988’s My Neighbor Totoro, and 2001’s Spirited Away, both of which involve youngsters coming into contact with the spirit world subsequent to experiencing a great shift in their environment and comprehension of family life. Don’t get me wrong, the number of areas in which these films differ is many, but when considered alongside each other, there are more than a few interesting observations to be made.
 
Follow the White Rabbit: Entering the Spirit Domain
 
Passages to Spirit Worlds

Both films center on young girls, who, at the very beginning of their respective stories, are in the process of moving house. Chihiro of Spirited Away, a moody 10 year old, is miserable at the thought of having to construct a new life for herself in an unknown town away from her friends. Sulking in the back of her parents’ car, absorbed by a wilting bouquet of flowers she has received as a leaving gift, she seems reluctant to embrace the beauty of her new surroundings, much preferring to lament that which she has left behind. We are given a skewed view of trees and hills through her car window as she lays down on the back seats, outside greenery distorted by telephone wires and road signs. Contrastingly, Mei (3) and Satsuki (10, note: the same age of Chihiro) of My Neighbor Totoro, are elated at the prospect of starting a new life in the country, and are eager to soak in the luscious landscape around them. They delight in the beauty of their setting as they drive through fields with their father.

A side-by-side comparison of the films’ introductions of their natural landscapes offers an interesting picture of how the characters’ perspectives differ (some of My Neighbor Totoro‘s first frames on the left; Spirited Away on the right):

Beginnings

Whereas Mei and Satsuki’s panoramas are wide open, sun-kissed spaces, where the sky and clouds have room to breathe, Chihiro’s vistas are obscured and interrupted by modern life. The glass of the car windows casts glossy veils over the landscape, and the speed of the vehicle itself distorts the views on offer, blurring lines and colour. ‘What has this got to do with spirits?‘ I hear you ask. Well, from the very opening of the film, Spirited Away places Chihiro in a limbo-like space of pre-teen disinterest and apathy, where the lights of nature and tradition have faded, and boredom and indifference have begun to take hold. This is precisely why her eventual interaction with the spirit world ends up being so much more flamboyant and electric (for want of a better word) than Mei and Satsuki’s, who are themselves capable of finding magic in fresh air and acorns. The first things these sisters talk about when they arrive at their new home are the fish in the nearby river, and the enchanting tunnel of trees that acts as a walk-way up to their house. They are absorbed in nature, unlike Chihiro, who feels a disconnect with everything around her. When her parents stop to inspect the strange, crumbling building they come across on a country lane, Chihiro would rather return to the back seats of their car than enter inside.

This difference in attitude and perspective is the key to understanding the characters’ encounters with the spirit worlds. Whereas Mei comes across the small white spirit in the garden accidentally, and in a moment of pure curiosity and elation, follows it happily into the center of the camphor tree, Chihiro is reluctantly following her parents, who are themselves led by greed, when she finds herself trapped in a magical domain against her will. Mei’s spirit world is a place of sanctuary, a retreat that she has been invited into as a direct result of her inquisitiveness. To her, it is no different from the garden in which she has just been playing, for her youthful imagination grants her everyday life a spiritual depth. For Chihiro, however, the spirit world she finds herself in is initially a cold and alien thing, a place where human comfort has little meaning.

First Spirit Encounter

Having landed in Yubaba’s Bathhouse unplanned, and unprepared for what lies ahead, Chihiro’s spirit world is a more mature environment. A theatrical place of work and movement, it is a highly populated locale where characters of all shapes and sizes bicker, trick, cheat and steal. In this respect, it foreshadows some of what Chihiro can expect from adult life. She is, after all, standing on the precipice of young adulthood, and will be soon coming into contact with a much wider and scarier world than the one she is used to. With the help and guidance of Haku and Lin, she learns early on that the way to survive is to keep busy and please her peers. And yet, this day-to-day experience of work for reward does not come at the sacrifice of child-like magic. Far from it. Every ‘lesson’ that Chihiro learns, she does so through a careful combination of innocent concern and adult wisdom. And some of the very first spirits that she is formally introduced to are the soot sprites (susuwatari) that Kamaji the boiler man enchants to help him with his duties. These creatures are playful and friendly, and are a welcome dose of innocence in the midst of commotion. It is interesting to note that these sprites also appear in My Neighbor Totoro, where they are said to inhabit old, empty houses. When Mei and Satsuki excitedly inspect their new home, they discover these black puffs of soot hiding in the attic.

Soot Sprites

Whereas Chihiro ‘falls’ (or is perhaps ‘pushed’) into her spirit world, Mei and Satsuki are ‘invited’, or ‘led’. The scene where Totoro appears at the bus stop as the sisters are waiting for their father to return from the city, is a good example of one of the key differences in the two films’ treatment of human/spirit relationships. In My Neighbor Totoro, the spirits appear to the children experiencing emotional or physical turmoil. They are a kind of crutch, in the way that the imagination is a form of blissful escape. There is the suggestion that the spirit world is forever present, and has its core in nature and kindness, if only the right person would want to look. Spirited Away, on the other hand, paints its spirits as mostly disinterested in humanity (similarly to how Chihiro herself seems disinterested in nature at the beginning), and at times even horrified or hurt by it. The Bathhouse is a place for them to retreat to and relax, cut off from ‘reality’ (ironically reflecting Mei, worried for her ailing mother and feeling the absence of her older sister, retreating to the camphor tree and taking a nap on Totoro’s belly). Chihiro is the ‘foreign presence’ in her story, which allows her to engage in a whirlwind journey of emotional and spiritual growth. In My Neighbor Totoro, the spirits are foreign in that they are of another world, but are never treated with suspicion or disdain, and seem more in tune with their surroundings than the humans they reveal themselves to.
 
SIDE NOTE: Transport
 
Transport Comparison 2

Both the grandiose barge at the beginning of Spirited Away, and the Cat Bus in My Neighbor Totoro are completely suited to their respective environments. They are each sensational and striking modes of transport made specifically for their spirit worlds, that excite the senses and awaken the imagination. Mei and Satsuki delight at their journeys in the bus, with it becoming for them a kind of ‘Cheshire Cat’ that appears and disappears at will, and grins exaggeratedly. It is an embodiment and intense magnification of that which is comforting to them, being a place of fun and warmth. Sadly, Chihiro does not experience the same warmth when she encounters the boat carrying the Bathhouse’s clients. Despite its vividness, it leaves her feeling uneasy and threatened. This is to do with the fact that Chihiro’s spirit world is not altered or morphed to suit her perspective. Her view is one of the outsider, who has stumbled across the goings-on of an ‘alien’ space. She is not eased carefully into contact with spirits as Mei and Satsuki are, but thrown head-first into their domain.

Chihiro becomes most at ease with her surroundings whilst on her journey on the one-way train to Zeniba’s house. She has already experienced a lot within the Bathhouse, and is making her way to Yubaba’s sister in order to bargain for Haku’s life. This journey is perhaps one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking sequences in the film, as we witness shadows and silhouettes of passengers travelling and waiting at platforms, seemingly lost or abandoned. And yet, despite this melancholy overtone, it is whilst on this train that Chihiro really begins to understand the love and determination that comes with friendship. On her travels she has no cartoonish character to whisk her away to safety, only a ticket for an everyday carriage of a train where she is able to be lost in silence, like those around her, alone with her own thoughts for a while. Transport and movement offer her these occasions of deep contemplation.

Transport Comparison
 
Unbreakable Bonds: Totoro and Haku
 
Characters with Spirits

Totoro and Haku are the spirits central to their respective stories, and, despite their ethereality, each play a vital role in the emotional stability and growth of their human counterparts. In My Neighbor Totoro, the sisters’ excursions with their forest friends are more than just whimsical escapades, they are necessary relief from some of the darker aspects of their family life. Despite appearing sprightly and playful throughout the film, Mei and Satsuki’s happiness masks a deep concern over their mother’s well-being as she lies seriously ill in a local hospital (a broken promise of her recovery and return is what causes Mei to run away from home). Totoro, a simple creature, spends most of his time either yawning, smiling, or sleeping, and is therefore the perfect companion to youngsters distressed by adult problems. Similarly, Haku, in Spirited Away, helps Chihiro to retain focus on that which is important whilst all around her seems chaotic and displaced. He is her beacon of light in the dark, as Totoro is a reassuring laugh. Both spirits act as guardians of sorts, helping these children through difficult times, whilst simultaneously strengthening and enriching their life and relationships.

If Totoro is like an imaginary friend, or a rapturous ‘troll’ from a picture book come to life (Mei seems to associate him with the troll under the bridge in ‘Three Billy Goats Gruff‘, hence why she names him ‘Totoro’ – a mispronunciation of ‘tororu [troll]’) then Haku and his relationship with Chihiro may represent the link to forgotten memories from childhood. When the two first meet in Spirited Away, Haku seems sure he has met this young girl before, but doesn’t know where or when, and it is not until the end of the film that Chihiro remembers that he is in fact the spirit of the built-over Kohaku River, into which she fell as a youngster and nearly drowned. This flashback sets both of them ‘free’, and grants them a better understanding of their own identities.

Wonderment

Chihiro spends most of the film facing head-on various challenges which result in her growing as a person (her encounter with the ‘stink’/river spirit can be seen a lesson in not judging a book by its cover, and No Face is a warning against greed and consumption). She enters the spirit world as a sulky pre-teen, and leaves it wiser and more at ease with herself and those around her. Interestingly, it is a remembrance of her younger self which lends her the most perspective on her life currently, and which awards her a certain vigor that she lacked before. Transported back to years of wonderment where a sublime river’s power was enough to excite the imagination, she learns once again to embrace the magic of nature. The glittering hairband that she retains at the end is testament to the child-like vision which she has regained, and which will, ironically, aid her in her coming years of maturity.

Without sounding like some sort of therapist, Haku and Totoro are both pillars of emotional development, and are evidence of the importance of creativity in the face of an increasingly technological world. It is easy to label Chihiro as listless in comparison to the vibrant Satsuki, but once you realise the difference in setting (My Neighbor Totoro is said to take place in the 50s, and Spirited Away is at its earliest set somewhere around the late 90s) you realise that Chihiro’s attitude is a product of her environment. She sees trees obstructed by telephone wires because they are there in front of her, not because she wills them. This is why her journey through the spirit world with Haku is such a relevant and meaningful tale. There is no way she can stay in the traditional Japanese world of spirits and shrines forever, but she can learn from her time there and take something valuable away from it. Hayao Miyazaki cleverly constructs these majestic creatures of great significance and makes them a human’s best friend, in an attempt to connect youngsters with ideas which are not so easily attainable and consumable, but which can be accessed via keen observation and imagination.
 
SIDE NOTE: Flight
 
Flying Comparison

Hayao Miyazaki almost always uses flight/flying machines in his films, channeling feelings of joy and fear whilst simultaneously reflecting upon the limitations and achievements of mankind. In My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, the flight sequences are more natural, and are used to convey the freedom felt by the characters as they are both metaphorically and literally uplifted through their contact with the spirit world. Totoro, and The Cat Bus which Mei and Satsuki ride in, are linked to the wind, and so flying with these characters is to experience a true bond with nature. The sisters must put their complete faith in the spirits they fly with, thus signifying their uncomplicated connection to the world around them.

The development of Spirited Away‘s end flying sequence tells us a lot about Chihiro’s development, as she relies on Haku to fly, only to have him transform from his regal dragon form back to a boy as he remembers his name. The two end up free-falling as tears fly from their eyes, their hands clasped together. Neither one relies on the other. There is no fear, only relief as they realise they have freed themselves. Chihiro’s movement through the sky here is a spiritual moment of elation at having found peace within herself.

Flying Comparison 2
 
We’re All Mad Here: Finding Families in Spirit Worlds
 
Spirits Comparison 2

Both films offer an array of incidental characters aside from their central spirits. In the former, the soot sprites, and the two miniature Totoros (Chuu/medium-Totoro, and Chibi/small-Totoro) are welcome additions to the spirit world surrounding Mei and Satsuki. Admittedly a far louder environment, Spirited Away also boasts numerous side characters, who each offer something different to the story. Lin, Kamaji, Boh, No Face, Yubaba and Zeniba are important and colourful personalities who help Chihiro along in her spiritual odyssey.

As touched on earlier, No Face (Kaonashi) is initially nothing more than a blank slate, a dry sponge waiting to soak up aspects of its environment. Once invited into the Bathhouse, however, it quickly and dangerously begins to absorb the personalities and traits of those around it (literally, by ‘eating’ the staff), and becomes selfish and greedy in its search for meaning. To Chihiro, this episode may act as a symbolic warning of the trials she may face in later life; coming into contact with those who have only a negative influence. A caution against over-consumption that is suited to the modern world she lives in, Chihiro learns an ultimately simplistic lesson from this spirit, which is that fresh air and open spaces can sometimes heal a panicked mind. Boh, Yubaba’s giant baby, is a personification of that tendency to revert to babyish behavior in order to get what one wants (a tendency that is not exclusive to the youthful). Once reduced down in size along with Yubaba’s bird, Boh embraces an inner calm, and is a rudimentary reflection of Chihiro’s own development. Yubaba and Zeniba themselves can be seen as representations of different styles or sides to parenthood, with one stifling, and the other encouraging. These dysfunctional spirits make up Chihiro’s adoptive family whilst she is separated from her parents, in a similar way to how, in the absence of their mother, Mei and Satsuki seek basic comfort in Totoro.

Small Spirits

Lessons are also learnt in My Neighbor Totoro, albeit basic ones, as the sisters are able to come to a greater understanding of plants and growth through their midnight ceremonial dance with the spirits. The acorns that they find and rejoice over at the beginning of the film are like a strange reversal of the gold coveted (and offered by No Face) in Spirited Away, as the girls admirably value spiritual over materialistic wealth. Their partnership with the totoros (I’m grouping the three of them here) is a constructive and productive relationship built on a shared love of nature.

Each film provides for its central character/s an assemblage of lively and intriguing creatures, who exist at once separately from, and entirely for, their human friends. In My Neighbor Totoro, the spirits seem called to the girls; completely suited to their obsessions and traits, they become their personal forest guardians. In Spirited Away, Chihiro’s companions are less straightforward and less amenable than Totoro and his accomplices, but this does not mean that they are any less personal to her, and in the end they become necessary stepping stones towards a better understanding of childhood and memory.

Spirit Worlds

I hope you all found this post interesting and not too long! I find that analysing Studio Ghibli can sometimes feel like falling into a whirlpool of colour and texture, which makes it hard to remain intelligible. What is so amazing about these films is that they can appeal to so many people in so many ways. You don’t have to see any ‘metaphors’ or ‘symbols’ or ‘themes’ if you don’t want to. The stories have a charm all of their own, without having to layer any deeper meaning on top of them. But still, it’s fun to write about what you love and it’s nice to be able to share such writing with people who care about film.

Below are a few extra side-by-side comparisons which I compiled (but which sadly didn’t find their way into the piece). Hopefully they reveal some further interesting parallels between the two films. Enjoy! 😀

Frog and Toad
 
Shrines Comparison
 
Monsters
 
Silhouettes Comparison
 
Stone Spirits Comparison
 
Travelling
 
Spirits with Leaves

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Ponyo (2008)

Ponyo

Ponyo is without a doubt the most operatic of all of Studio Ghibli’s works. It is, after all, partly inspired by Wagner’s opera Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), and parts of Joe Hisaishi’s score for the film reflect this. With very little dialogue (even by Ghibli’s standards), the story progresses most often through wordless spectacles of vivid colour, where lines dance and curve to music. Perhaps this is why so many people find it the least involving of the studio’s animations. When I first watched it around three years ago, I found it a little alienating.

On a second watch, however, I felt it possessed much more of a charm. I don’t know whether it was the setting (I was much more comfortable watching it this time round), or simply the fact that I wasn’t expecting as much, but it won me over somehow. Whereas before the film’s visual and sonic palettes had seemed elementary and borrowed, like an unplanned explosion of a child’s poster paint collection, they now boasted a brave boldness that I admired.

The titular character is a goldfish named Brunhilde, who is lent the name ‘Ponyo’ by a young boy, Sōsuke, whom she befriends after being accidentally separated from her Sea Wizard father. Ponyo takes a strong liking to Sōsuke, and makes it her aim to find her way back to him after being returned to her ocean home. In terms of plot, there are shadows of The Little Mermaid (there is a ‘test of love’ towards the end, which if Sōsuke fails, will cause Ponyo to turn to sea-foam), but things never stray too far from a simple tale of companionship. Unlike in Miyazaki’s other works, there is little narrative darkness to be found here, meaning the film runs of the risk of seeming shallow in comparison to its predecessors.

However, what the film triumphs in is its absolute unabashed preoccupation with pattern, texture and movement. Water not only flows and runs in its natural form, but bubbles, oozes and churns once enchanted, ripples and waves transforming into the heads of great fish and leech-like monsters which seem composed of honey. Crystal clear liquid turns sky-blue, indigo, and cobalt within minutes. Whereas other Studio Ghibli films may be extraordinary for their great attention to detail, filling every inch of the screen with elements unexpected in animation, Ponyo is extraordinary for its interest in the senses, dazzling its viewer with lights and colours which have enough life in them to be characters of their own.

Like a stained glass tableau, each frame of the film buzzes with child-like brightness. The moment Ponyo breaks free from her bubble prison and cuts holes in her father’s submarine is a visual highlight, with great shoots of water, thick as rope, bursting through the walls and winding their way across the screen. Ponyo is thrown this way and that, submerged by the ocean but ecstatic at escape.

This may not be the most profound of Miyazaki’s works, but it is by far the most exuberant. For those who prefer the quieter side of Ghibli, it might not be an instant favourite, but its audacious beauty cannot be denied. At times schmaltzy, this tale of a little red goldfish is bolstered by its innocence and iridescence.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★

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Spirited Away (2001)

Spirited Away

Watching this film for the first time when I was 11 years old (fittingly only one year off the age of the main protagonist), I was enchanted and terrified by the spirit world it brought to life. Imagining myself lost in the bath houses of old Japan, surrounded by strange creatures of all shapes and sizes, I was transported into a world entirely foreign to my own, but one in which I felt strangely at home.

Chihiro is like most 10 year old girls in the modern world; spoiled, moody, confused, and caught adrift in that strange space between childhood and young adulthood, in which one’s outlook on life shifts, and morphs into something deeper and darker than before. Hayao Miyazaki chooses the perfect character to carry his story of transformation and memory, as we watch a young girl at a pivotal stage in her life, swap naivety for wisdom. Ironically, it is through being ‘spirited away’ to a place of antiquity and fancy, that Chihiro experiences such maturity.

There are mounds of metaphors at work throughout the film, not least the loss of childhood innocence experienced through various encounters with Gods and spirits. The ‘stink spirit’, for example, who turns out to be a river god, is a classic lesson in not judging a book by its cover; and ‘No Face’ is a warning to young Chihiro of the trappings of adult greed and consumption. The witches Yubaba and Zeniba represent conflicting faces of parenthood, with one smothering and restricting whilst the other warms and comforts. And Haku is the rollercoaster-like encounter of first love, made obvious by the fact that Chihiro, in a moment of great danger, is engulfed by the river Kohaku, only to be ultimately carried by it/him to a greater understanding of life and memory.

And yet all of these ‘messages’ can be taken or left as they appear, each one adding to the story despite not being vital to its core strength and magic. The beauty of Studio Ghibli is in its innate ability to give meaning to moments of child-like reverie, where fantastical images packed full of minute and exquisite detail consume the viewer in a way that few other animations do. The colours, the shadow, the lights, the framing; each aspect of Miyazaki’s visual worlds is brought to life with such awesome power and elegance that it is hard to focus on metaphor and meaning, and easier to simply get lost in the intoxicating artistry of it all.

Every scene and moment of Spirited Away is lent a tangibility that contradicts its hand-drawn nature. From the glorious representations of food, to the very water that surrounds the setting of the main action of the film, each element of the cinematic landscape is a portal through which the viewer is transported into an otherworldly realm. By the story’s end, Chihiro has experienced some of the transition into adult life through transportation to her own enchanted realm. Surrounded by the unknown, she has been made ‘Sen’, a serious worker and a loyal friend, journeying and facing great peril for those she loves. We journey with her, and when she returns to her human life and becomes Chihiro again, we feel the great nostalgia for what she left behind, but also great wonderment and apprehension for what lies ahead. This is what makes Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli so great, that ability to encapsulate the indefinable ache of growing up. How perfectly it is epitomized here, where a child is lost in a maze of dazzling wonderment, only to come out the other side more serious, but with a flicker of light and magic still intact.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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Zombies on Film: Romero’s Homegrown Ghouls

This article is part of a series on the history of the zombie movie. Read the first part here: Zombies on Film: The Early Days of the Undead

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Following in the footsteps of modern horror, which was experiencing a shift from an obsession with the Gothic to an interest in the depravity of the contemporary, by 1960 the zombie genre had altered drastically. It had begun to cut its ties with the Caribbean, encouraged by the cynicism of 1943’s I Walked with a Zombie, and the apocalyptic science fiction of the 50s. Spurred on by fears over Communist brainwashing, a new “unknown” had begun to tighten its grip over Western consciousness, and its name was Science.

Aliens, new technology, nuclear power; suddenly (and thankfully), Western fears over Voodoo were left behind and replaced with narratives that focused on the horrors within the home. No longer was the zombie an exotic curiosity, something to be observed from a suitable distance whilst safe in the knowledge that Western science would protect and conquer. The zombie was now you, and I, and our families, and our neighbours. It was the prospect of losing one’s own personality and history in the face of that technological advancement, the roots of which had protected us for so long.

In 1966, writer Peter Bryan and director John Gilling brought to British screens their hammer horror title The Plague of the Zombies. Still holding on by that last thread to the monster’s association with Voodoo, the story follows Sir James Forbes (Andre Morrell) and his attempts to foil the evil plans of a village squire who is surreptitiously killing and re-animating his villagers, only to have them work as slaves in his tin mine. Moody Squire Hamilton (John Carson) performs villainous Voodoo ceremonies in order to seize control over his chosen corpses, and it would seem on first glance that the film plays into the very same pattern of mysticism belonging to zombie tales of previous decades. However, what is original about this little remembered title is its complete eschewing of exotic locations and characters. Set in sleepy Cornwall, the story is entirely focused on the disintegration of the peaceful British village unit, with Hamilton, respected by his peasantry, abusing his position of authority. The “family” of the village is destroyed and violated, and the destruction takes place from within, not from without. There is no Darby Jones or Bela Lugosi to act as that central, racial Otherness; the “Other” is someone familiar, someone close.

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Above: John Carson as the evil Squire Hamilton; and Jacqueline Pearce as Alice, awaking as a zombie (both Plague of the Zombies [1966])

Many other films from this period also focused on the horror of confronting the transformation of family and friends. The Last Man on Earth (1964) directed by Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow, stars Vincent Price as the last survivor of an apocalyptic plague that has wiped out humanity and transformed everyone into bloodthirsty vampires. At certain points in the film, Robert Morgan (Price) must encounter familiar faces from his past (his old work colleague, his wife), people he once knew who are now mutated. In order to survive, he must separate who these people were from who they are now. Flashbacks are interspersed into the narrative to strengthen this feeling of displacement as loved ones become nothing more than obstacles to be disposed of. It’s true that the monsters of the story are not zombies in the truest sense of the word, but they resemble more closely the ghouls from Dawn of the Dead than they do Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the influence of the original book (written by Richard Matheson) on George A. Romero’s debut is well documented.

It’s safe to say that by 1968 the preoccupations of horror were far removed from those of the 30s and 40s. The door was opening for hard-hitting narratives that disturbed traditions and blurred the lines between Us and Them, between dark fantasy and grim reality, and it was into this cinematic landscape that stepped one of the most significant zombie movies of all time. Night of the Living Dead is often cited as the Godfather of the modern zombie, and it’s no surprise considering that it is responsible for establishing, what is now, one of the most integral aspects of the zombie on film: an insatiable desire for human flesh. In Romero’s foray into black and white B-movie horror, he inadvertently laid the foundations for an entire genre of film, which up until now was lacking in any distinct history. His “ghouls” as he called them, were flesh-hungry and unrelenting, and, although slow, threatened annihilation in numbers. They chewed on entrails, bit the heads off bugs, and dined on scorched corpses, ushering in a new body horror that infamously (or perhaps famously?) had audiences throwing up and fainting. However, the key to Night of the Living Dead’s success is arguably in its scathing depiction of his humans, rather than its zombies. Set in a farmhouse in Pennsylvania, the story surrounds a misfit group of characters, all hiding out in the hopes of evading an-ever growing zombie force outside. No one quite knows what’s going on. The TV news is watched with baited breath as reports emerge of assassins, of cults, and of cannibalism. Everyone is scared, and no one gets along.

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Above: A zombie shields its face; Harry Cooper (Producer of the film Karl Hardman) argues as Barbra (Judith O’Dea) sits in a daze (both Night of the Living Dead [1968])

It’s this last point which is most important, as it is the incessant bickering between the survivors which ultimately leads to everyone’s downfall. Ben (Duane Jones) and Harry Cooper (played by Producer Karl Hardman) are at each other’s throats throughout, arguing over the strength of the fortifications, the safety of the basement, the weapons, the food, and the women. Whilst the ghouls lingering in the darkness shuffle ever closer to the boarded windows of the house, inside the men argue over the strength of said boards, instead of working together to get everyone to safety. Eventually, the instability of their sanctuary proves fatal, and their makeshift family unit disintegrates, allowing the threat to enter and devour all. The living provide a lot of the horror here (there are physical fights, beatings, insults, moments of extreme selfishness and cowardice), and this motif would be expanded upon in Romero’s follow up film Dawn of the Dead (1978).

Through television footage and radio broadcasts, Romero cleverly undermines the strength of the American authority figure, proving the uselessness of news presenters as they go between various “plans of action”, ordering the public first to “stay indoors”, and then to leave and find the nearest medical centre for refuge. Rather than holding the people together at this time of crisis, these reports confuse and further aggravate the situation, and one questions whether reaching one of the so-called refuges would have solved anything, had anyone made it that far. Harking back, in a sense, to the knowledge/confusion binary of films such as I Walked with a Zombie (1943), where the unknowable and the unexplainable are grappled with up until the last moment, Night of the Living Dead plays on its government’s ineffectiveness. At the end of the film, everyone is dead.

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Above: Ben (Duane Jones) and Tom (Keith Wayne) watch the TV news report; a gruesome zombie (both Night of the Living Dead [1968])

Romero would go on to complete a series of six zombie movies, with his original trilogy being by far the best of the bunch. Whether he knew it at the time or not, he had created with Night of the Living Dead a new breed of zombie, a living-dead “ghoul” that was severed from Voodoo entirely. This monster turned its face away from colonial anxiety and the exotic, and slogged slowly but surely into the forefront of Western consciousness. It represented many things to many people; it was an expression of fear in the face of subjugation, of the Otherness inside all of us, of that strange appetite and greed for something which is forever out of reach. Technology, capitalism, and modernity became words synonymous with paranoia and fear, and the zombie profited from this. It was the perfect companion to a world falling under the spell of consumerism; a gruesome, nihilistic lump of animated meat, forever marching on, which could not be explained away, and which could not be stopped.

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Keep checking Screenmuse for the next installments of Zombies on Film.

I’ll be back soon

Sorry for being absent these past two weeks. I’ve been on holiday, and tomorrow I’m off on my second! So that means I won’t be posting for another couple of weeks unfortunately. But when I get back I am seriously buckling down and getting loads of reviews out, as well as continuing my zombie project.

See ya! (:

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

Transformers Age of Extinction

Mark Wahlberg breathes new life into a dying franchise, as he and his on-screen daughter (Nicola Peltz) fight to defend the autobots that are being wrongly hounded by the American government (again). The Transformers series has a patchy history, meaning that it doesn’t take much for this film to impress in areas where the previous ones failed to make an impression.

The action of the film begins when Optimus Prime is inadvertently revived by a wacky (but perfectly toned and tanned) inventor (Wahlberg). The leader of the autobots has been in hiding, disguised as a shabby truck since the events of the last film, and he soon sets out on a mission to locate his comrades and take revenge on those who are hunting them down. Aided by his new human friends (who act as stand-ins for Shia LaBeouf and whichever woman the producers choose to place by his side), Optimus goes to extreme lengths, and experiences quite a lot of emotional turmoil, in order to secure his existence on planet Earth.

As is usually the case with Transformers, the female lead is demoted to a role which identifies her solely through her relation to the male hero. Before, Megan Fox and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley played ‘the girlfriends’; here Nicola Peltz is very much ‘the daughter’, relying on her bickering father and boyfriend to protect and lead her. To be fair, most blockbuster films are guilty of this character stereotyping, but not all pair it with such unabashed shots of said daughter’s ass cheeks in small denim shorts.

Aside from this, Age of Extinction does boast some sort of coherent story, which means it is a far more pleasurable watch than 2009’s Revenge of the Fallen. Scenes follow on from one another with surprising ease, and the action set-pieces can actually be appreciated thanks to their ever so slightly slower pace. Stanley Tucci is a brilliant replacement for John Turturro, who seemed to get five decibels louder and five times more annoying with each film he appeared in. And let’s not forget to mention the spectacular dinobots who are probably the most impressive pieces of CGI in the entire Transformers series.

Overall, the film never quite finds its footing, and continually wavers between being an acceptable summer blockbuster, and a sad example of wasted potential. Mark Wahlberg is excellent in these sort of roles, and is without doubt the highlight of the whole 165 minute affair, but unfortunately not even he can carry the franchise to the heights it so desperately wants to reach.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★

Devil’s Knot (2013)

Devil's Knot

Perhaps the only way to enjoy Devil’s Knot is to go in to it not knowing anything about the real-life murder case it’s based on. The general consensus among those who already know the story, and who have already seen the documentary films examining the West Memphis Three, seems to be that Atom Egoyan’s dramatization is not only a waste of time, but also an insult to those who have worked tirelessly to uncover the truth.

As a straightforward crime-drama, the film suitably grips its audience, with lingering night shots and sounds being used to good effect. Reese Witherspoon handles the material well, doing her up-most to flesh out a slightly two dimensional depiction of Pamela Hobbs, mother of one of the young boys killed in the West Memphis murders of 1993. Her grief is undoubtedly the heart of the story, and this means that the turmoil of the teenagers haphazardly accused of the crime is arguably not handled with the intensity it deserves. Colin Firth is a bizarre choice for Ron Pax, the private detective hired by the defense to find holes in the case against Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., and yet he too is watchable.

It seems the main criticisms of the film stem from what little it does to differentiate itself from what has already been achieved in terms of exposing the contradictory facts and injustices surrounding the now infamous murders. It is true that the film’s narrative profundity leaves something to be desired, but in this way the story plays out as a kind of respectable re-enactment. It’s just a shame that every base that the Devil’s Knot most certainly hits, is one that has already been covered long before now.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ 1/2