Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Skeleton Key (2005)

The Skeleton Key

THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN MASSIVE SPOILERS!

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It’s very close to Halloween, and so it’s fitting that I review a horror movie. Last night I sat down to watch Iain Softley’s The Skeleton Key with Kate Hudson. I’ve seen this film before, but it was a long long time ago when I was quite young, and I could barely remember any details. Interestingly, my friend told me that the film has received negative criticism for its racist undertones, and so I was intrigued to see how I’d react to it.

The story follows Caroline Ellis (Hudson) as she arrives at a plantation house in a bayou of southern Louisiana to care for stroke victim Benjamin Devereaux (John Hurt), whose movement and speech is severely restricted. The house is run by Violet Devereaux, played by the brilliant Gena Rowlands, who is immediately hostile towards Caroline. Suspicions rise as Benjamin seems to be calling out for help from his new carer through pleading looks in his eyes and sudden wrist grabbings etc. This continues until Caroline decides to check out the attic (as all blonde female leads do in creepy horror movies). She finds a blocked off and locked door that her “skeleton key” won’t open, (another device used frequently in ghost stories). Inside this room is the key (excuse the pun) to all the mysteries behind Ben’s illness. This is a pretty decent movie that offers some jumps and a solid twist at the end.

What’s wrong with it then? And why do so many people hate it?

I think the answer lies in the ignorant and damning portrayal of Southern life. The black servants who have inhabited the bodies of Violet and smarmy estate lawyer Luke Marshall are portrayed as intensely vain and self absorbed characters whose bitterness has transformed them into monsters. Their initial “crime” in the 1920s that saw them hung by the white rich aristocrats is never explained, and the flashbacks of them teaching children Hoodoo, where their eyes are rolled back and their bodies shake, only further enhances their monstrosity and creepiness. They are robbed of all personality and depth, and reduced to a savage couple with no heart. The Hoodoo way of life is similarly two dimensional in its presentation, the intricacies of its practices represented flimsily by a couple of faded pages and some dirty water. Jill’s explanation of it outside the laundrette sounds like it was lifted straight from Wikipedia. Caroline, the white blonde bombshell carer with a kind heart, has come into the situation to save the day and to rescue the crippled old white man from the crazed servant spirits, and when viewed this way you can see how the film leaves a bitter taste for most. The characters of Mama Cecile and Papa Justify are given no voice in the flashbacks, and we see nothing of their relationship with the children outside of their Hoodoo ritual. Their opinions only come through the mouths of the white bodies they have possessed, and so their identities are lost and displaced. This is where the film falls short. Its plot (and plot twist) relies completely upon the history and pain of characters that it fails to develop satisfactorily.

Despite this, I have to say that the film isn’t as bad as some critics make out. It doesn’t deserve the 1 or 2 stars that I’ve seen it be given. It’s cinematography is decent, with the soggy Louisiana setting coming across beautifully on screen. And the acting, despite the weak script, is superb. Gena Rowlands, Jon Hurt and Peter Sarsgaard are all amazing. I wish that they’d have been given more opportunity to show their talents.

FINAL VERDICT: ★★★

A Taste for Animation

Being a student whose course requires me to spend the majority of my time at home, watching films can be a nice way to keep sane. My life of endless reading is nicely offset by a good movie, or a bad movie… any movie really, as long as I don’t have to read. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the Japanese animations of Studio Ghibli. The films have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I probably watched some of them too young. Nausicaa especially has a lot of dark undertones that can unsettle adults, let alone young children. But in my opinion that’s why they’re so brilliant. They offer levels of enjoyment that go beyond recent Disney projects, challenging and scaring as well as offering endless enjoyment. The depth of character and narrative power of the films is what makes them classics for all ages. And yet there are a couple of Ghibli films that I haven’t seen, and thinking of those, in turn, made me think of other animated movies that I know about but have yet to see. Watching animated movies is a different experience to watching live action. There is obviously an element of fantasy in animation, regardless of the subject matter. Even when the story is mundane, the fact that the images come to life through artificial line and hyper-real colour give the films a dream-like feel. Animation is escapism, and as the Winter months are drawing near, and work gets harder, escapism is exactly what I need.

When I get the opportunity, I will be watching and reviewing some animated movies that I have either not seen, or not seen in a while. I’m looking forward to a couple in particular, simply because I have known about them for so many years, and have just never got around to watching them. I thought I should also say before I start that there are a lot that will not be on the list, simply because I have seen them already quite a few times. These include: The Triplets of Belleville, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away, some Disney classics such as The Lion King (1 & 2), Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pixar classics Toy Story (1, 2 & 3), Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., Up etc.

This list will not necessarily correspond to the order I watch the films in.

1. Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis (2001)

This is a film that I have constantly come across on my internet travels, but have never actually sat down to watch. It’s pretty much guaranteed that any list of top animated movies will have this on it somewhere, usually towards the top. I actually know very little about the plot of this film, other than that it was inspired by the 1927 silent film of the same name. I don’t really know what to expect, but my expectations in general are high, only because I read people singing its praises so often. This is definitely one of the ones that I’m excited about.

2. Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant (1999)

This is one of the many films on this list that I have actually seen before, but it was so long ago in my childhood, that I couldn’t possibly remember enough of it to write a review. My memory of it is fragmented to say the least, but I know that I enjoyed it, and it crops up a lot when people talk about classic animations.

3. Phil Lord’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009)

This is a more recent animation that, at the time of its release, I had very little interest in. Since then, I have heard it talked about positively by a few critics, who all express surprise at enjoying it, saying it “succeeded their expectations”… hm… maybe it will succeed mine?

4. Vincent Paronnaud’s film adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2007)

I am hesitant to watch this film before reading the graphic novels. I am a massive nerd when it comes to comics and graphic novels, and so I feel like I would be doing the story a disservice by watching the adaptation before reading the original. But hey, I don’t have time to read any more than what my course gives me at the moment, and so I guess it’s gonna have to be movie before book (shock horror!)

5. Tomm Moore’s The Secret of Kells (2009)

I don’t really know what to expect from this film, whether it will bore me, or whether the animation will jar me. I have heard positive things about it, and have had chances to watch it, but there has always been something holding me back. Perhaps it is because it appears too childish to me, and I’m worried it won’t sit well with an older audience. But after someone recommended it to me the other day, I am suddenly a lot more intrigued…

6. Lots of Satoshi Kon…

I absolutely love Paprika and Tokyo Godfathers, two brilliant animations from Japanese director Satoshi Kon. Tokyo Godfathers I’ve seen a few times now, whereas Paprika I’ve only seen once. As for Millenium Actress and Perfect Blue, they are films that I know a lot about but have never had the guts to watch the whole way through. I would love to re-watch Paprika as well as watch the other two, but I’m not sure I’d have time. But here they are anyway, and we’ll see which ones I get round to seeing…

Paprika (2003)

An absolutely insane dream/nightmare narrative that will honestly blow your mind. I cannot wait to re-watch it.

Millenium Actress (2001)

I don’t know much about this film other than it follows the memories and characters of actress Chiyoko Fujiwara. Not sure about the tone either, whether it will be light or dark, although I am veering more towards dark, as I know that Kon’s films can be pretty disturbing.

Perfect Blue (1997)

I’ve seen clips of Perfect Blue, and I can definitely say that it is disturbing. Its based on a novel by Yoshikazu Takeuchi and follows Mima Kirigoe, a member of a girl group who leaves to become an actress but acquires a nasty stalker. I am aware that this one is pretty dark…

7. Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

This is one of a couple of Studio Ghibli films that I’ve never seen. I have heard that it’s harrowing, and that’s maybe why I’ve stayed away from it. I’m drawn to the Ghibli films that offer me fantasy, and all I know about this one is that it’s about World War II Japan… I’m hoping I’ll find it beautiful nonetheless.

8. Rene Laloux’s Gandahar (1988)

I honestly do not know what this film is about or what the viewing experience is going to be like (except that its French and is Science Fiction), but I keep seeing it everywhere! It’s meant to be a classic, and interestingly was made in the same year as Grave of the Fireflies, making this and the Studio Ghibli film two of the oldest films on the list. It’ll be interesting to see how similar or different they are in tone and style.

9. Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist (2010)

I love Belleville Rendezvous (or The Triplets of Belleville – whichever title you prefer), and so I was incredibly excited when this film was announced. I never got round to seeing it in the cinema, but was definitely going to rent it out and watch it. A combination of never getting round to it, and also being told by people that it was slow and boring, made me hold back. I’m finally going to bite the bullet and decide for myself whether it’s a success or not.

10. Paul Fierlinger’s My Dog Tulip (2009)

All I know about My Dog Tulip is that is deals with the relationship between J. R. Ackerley and his German Shepherd Queenie. I’m looking forward to seeing how the film deals with the relationship, and whether it over-sentimentalises it, or keeps it real.

11. Tono Errando’s Chico and Rita (2010)

I’m excited about this one, simply because its story is pretty much a mystery to me. I know it engages with music a lot, and that’s about it really! The animation style is different to what I go for usually, and reminds me a lot of Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, although it’s not rotoscoped like those films.

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Can’t wait to sit down and watch a couple of these soon. Let’s hope I actually end up having enough time to… Might be a good while before all are reviewed!

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

A film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s cherished picture-book was always going to be a challenge. The original material is beautiful but minimal, and to watch the film expecting an experience akin to that of reading (or being read) the book is unrealistic. To truly enjoy Spike Jonze’s adaptation, the viewer must embrace the changes made and approach it as less of a children’s story, and more as a story both for and about children.

Jonze’s treatment of Max’s world is fantasy turned psychological realism, with original scenes such as the bedroom turning into a jungle, and the sea monster, being omitted in place of quiet conversations, domestic in tone. Making a conscious turn away from escapism toward a more down to earth study of childhood, the film becomes painfully relevant to anyone who has experienced awkwardness or confusion in their young lives. Max Records plays Max with an honestly that feels entirely natural. I cannot remember the last time that I believed a performance from a child actor so whole-heartedly. All emotions and feelings are on display, and in their most raw form: irrational anger, melancholy and sadness, wild excitement, fear and apprehension, loneliness, satisfaction, embarrassment, regret. The entire sphere of childhood is encapsulated. The sweet thrill of playing with friends is succeeded by the mortification of hurting someone and not meaning to, and the destruction that comes with senseless rage is met with a poignant guilt.

The Wild Things themselves are beautiful to look at. The costume design and CGI work wonderfully well together, and the re-animation of human features on to the faces of the creatures never feels obvious or jarring. Voice acted by some amazing talent, Carol, KW, Judith, Ira, Alexander, Douglas, and The Bull, all come to life with a startling authenticity. Their mundane names suit their familial dynamic, with each one inhabiting certain characteristics or anxieties that reflect Max’s own troubles at home. Carol is unbridled fury, seeking the destruction of that which he loves in reaction to the inscrutableness of the woman in his life (KW). KW in turn is Max’s mother and sister, a comforting female presence whose depression is perplexing to a young boy who has not experienced adult life. Judith is the voice of authority where it is not wanted, a grounding presence, reflecting the scolding that Max receives from his mother. Ira is creativity, Alexander insecurity, and Douglas is representative of a more ‘adult’ reason and logic. The scene towards the end of the film where Douglas finally confronts Carol, admitting that he’s known all along that Max isn’t King but just “went along with it anyway”, is an example of this ‘adult reason’ growing in strength within Max. I could go on for pages about the symbolism behind the Wild Things; every piece of dialogue and characterisation is rich in meaning, and yet the meaning never feels forced.

Visually stunning, the forest and desert locations bleed into each other in a dream-like manner; areas dense with greenery and trees lead out into barren yellow rock, darkness and snow follows hot summer sun. This is a world made out of extremes and opposites. Sometimes they complement each other, and other times they lead to disaster. And yet this is all part of the learning experience for Max. He must survive the ups and downs, the extremes of emotion, in order to return home wiser and more settled.

I can understand the negative criticism of the film. Most of it stems from the film’s realism in comparison to the book. If the story was a part of your childhood, I urge you to approach the film with an open mind. It is not trying to be the book; it’s taking an incredibly inspiring base material, and creating out of it something equally beautiful, but perhaps for different reasons. It is possible to love both. An effecting and emotional portrayal of youth, Where the Wild Things Are is a quiet but powerful tale that offers something new with every watch.

FINAL VERDICT: ★★★★ 1/2

Kill List (2011)

This review was originally posted by me on letterboxd on the 20th October 2012. Enjoy!

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I can’t say that I enjoy watching this film. It unnerves me more than any horror or thriller that I’ve ever watched, and I watch a lot. The viewing experience is uncomfortable to say the least; when I first saw it in the cinema, I left physically shaking. And yet I agreed to watch it again the other night in the comfort of my own living room. Why? Because despite this film leaving me in a state of distress when I see it, I am inexplicably drawn to it. Its images stay with me for days after the final credits roll, and this is what makes Kill List an amazing film, not it’s entertainment value, but it’s potency and power.

I recommend to anyone who has seen this film only once, that they watch it again, because the film offers so many parallels and symbols that only become clear (or clearer) on a second view. The macabre beauty of the picture lies in its early suggestion of what is to come; the sword fight in the garden, the rabbit mangled on the lawn, the “thank you”s, the play fights, the fire, and the Christians in the restaurant, all foreshadow the action of the later half. The slow pace and quietness of the first 30 minutes or so builds an agonising tension, with Jim Williams’ score setting your teeth on edge to scenes of mundane domesticity. Whistled, child-like refrains hover eerily over scenes in Jay and Shel’s house, only to return more aggressively at one of the most genuinely disturbing moments of the whole film.

Metaphors abound, and many theories have arisen as to what such-and-such signifies. It is a metaphor for Britain, a dream narrative, a comment on the after effects of war, a study in extremist religion, and a twisted horror film, depending on who you ask. All I know is that it scared the living daylights out of me, but not in the usual American, slasher-horror way. Desperately search for meaning, or sit back and feel your mind messed with, it’s up to you. Either way, I recommend it to anyone who is tiring of more typical gore-fests and ghost stories.

FINAL VERDICT: ★★★★

The Craft (1996)

This is a review posted originally by me on letterboxd. Written on the 30th September 2012. Enjoy!

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The Craft is hated on by many, deemed one in a long list of failed Hollywood attempts at the “teen witch” genre. At the time of its release, it was slated for the ponderous morals of its latter half, and it is true that after the film’s close, its messages “be careful what you wish for” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” leave a bitter taste.

However, in retrospect it has been easier for viewers to set aside the clichéd ending, and to appreciate the earlier moments of witticism. These gems of dark humour (the scene in which racist bully Laura’s hair falls out being a good example) draw similarities with the 1989 high school classic “Heathers”.

The film very cleverly and engagingly deals with the politics of teenage friendship. Its scenes where the girls group together to talk “wicca” are surprisingly captivating, and time is taken to develop each character’s insecurities. Neve Campbell is brilliant as Bonnie, a girl suffering from intense self consciousness and all consuming vanity, and Fairuza Balk’s Nancy is deliciously terrifying, yet never straightforwardly evil. Her crime against Chris is not an unfeeling act, but a mixture of jealousy, and anger in the face of shallow and destructive male sexuality.

It is for these reasons that The Craft’s legacy has lasted. For such a poorly rated film, it is incredibly watchable, and with a kick ass soundtrack, it resists unfair criticism and remains a 90s classic.

FINAL VERDICT: ★★★ 1/2

The City of Lost Children (1995)

This is a review posted originally by me on letterboxd. Written on the 4th October 2012. Enjoy!

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The City of Lost Children’s surrealism is both charming and disturbing. A steampunk fairytale from directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, the film is a plethora of peculiar characters and settings. On an oil rig in the middle of an ocean reside an assortment of failed “experiments” belonging to a missing genius. These include a diminutive woman named Miss Bismuth, a brain in a tank nicknamed Uncle Irvin, six clones (played by the brilliant Dominique Pinon), an assemblage of cyclopses with acute hearing, and finally the humanoid Krank, whose despair at not being able to dream is the catalyst for much of the action.

Add to this the former Russian sailor One (whose little brother is kidnapped by Krank), and his companion, sparky street kid Miette, and there are already enough personalities to fill hours of plot. This is the film’s main criticism – that it is overly crowded with plot lines that don’t always connect. With so many ways to view the film, and with such rich symbolism, it is easy to come away from the experience feeling overwhelmed and irritated.

Disjointed it may be, yet at the same time it offers some surprisingly uncomplicated allegories. Its story of an ageing man desiring escape from reality in the form of dreams is a universal narrative; and for such a densely populated film, the friendship between One and Miette is refreshingly simple. The City Of Lost Children is definitely not for everyone, but if you are willing to open your mind to it, then it can offer endless entertainment.

FINAL VERDICT: ★★★★

Hola

This is a new blog where I will be collecting and posting my film reviews. I’ve started it up to be a place where I can collect my thoughts and store my opinions. I enjoy writing about film almost as much as I enjoy watching it, and hopefully this will give me an opportunity to develop my writing skills whilst also musing over themes and genres. Who knows where it will take me…!