Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Tale of Despereaux (2008)

The Tale of Despereaux is a film that desperately wants to be magical. Packed full of imagination and promise, it falls short with some shoddy plot lines and under-developed characters. I wasn’t as offended by the animation as some reviewers have tended to be. The fold-out story book style of some parts I actually found to be inspired. However, it suffers from trying to fit too many worlds and characters into too short a space of time.

Roscuro and Despereaux, Andre the cook, Princess Pea, and Miggery “Mig” Sow offer personality enough, let alone Gregory the jailer, the King, the residents of mouse world (Despereaux’s mother, father, brother, friends, the mayor, teachers etc), Botticelli (the leader of rat world), and Boldo the soup genie. With a run time of only an hour and a half, the film takes only a select few of these characters anywhere interesting. Many are barely revisited after they’re introduced, or if they are, are only mentioned in passing in a rushed, montage “let’s tie up the strings” ending.

Dustin Hoffman is brilliant as Roscuro, and it’s only a shame that he wasn’t given more opportunity to shine. Matthew Broderick’s voice was completely unsuited to the role of a young, cute looking mouse. And Emma Watson I found utterly irritating as the voice of the princess.

Some poor decision making in terms of plot and casting means that this animated tale fails to deliver the enchantment it promises.



The Secret World of Arrietty (2012)

Studio Ghibli’s The Secret World of Arrietty animates Mary Norton’s children’s story The Borrowers, a tale centred on a family of ‘little people’ secretly living in the floorboards of a house, who ‘borrow’ essentials from the ‘big people’ upstairs. In the film, Arrietty, a 14 year old borrower, is naturally curious and eager to explore a world which she has only heard about from her parents. Through her travels, she encounters a young boy named Sho who has recently moved into the house upstairs to relax ahead of an operation on his heart, and the instance of her being seen sets into motion a series of events involving anxieties as to her family’s safety. Gorgeously animated, the borrowers’ tiny dwelling made up of pins, screws, tape and threads is brought to life with breath-taking attention to detail. One of the first scenes where Arrietty gathers herbs and takes them to her room, decorated with a vibrant array of foliage, is rich in colour and visually stunning. The family cat, as always in Ghibli films, is animated with bewitching personality, communicating more meaning in a stare than is to be found in hours of dialogue. How the animators manage to lend emotion to the drawn lines of a cat’s eye is beyond me, but they are successful in their attempt. I cannot fault the form of the film, but unfortunately, I feel as though thematically it lacked a certain danger and darkness that is present in some of my favourite Studio Ghibli films.

This softness is perhaps down to the film’s loyalty to the original text. The book is, after all, a story for children, and so you could argue that the lightness of tone is an example of the Studio’s devotion to their base material. There is an undeniable sweetness and charm present, the relationship between Arrietty and Sho is pure and simple, and Haru’s wrong-doings are the result of over excitement rather than wickedness. Any suggestions of serious menace are nodded to and then forgotten, such as the rats with red eyes that scuttle around in the darkness. Safe and wholesome, this is a film that any parents would be happy to leave their child with, without having to worry about any obscurer undertones. At times I found myself willing the film to take me deeper into the risk-filled world of borrowing, deeper into the challenging nights and wild outdoors, but I think for it to do that it would have had to forfeit its focus on the growing friendship between two lonely children. Interestingly, one of my favourite Studio Ghibli films is My Neighbour Totoro, which I feel is similarly childish in tone, but is cleverer in its surrealism and possesses a more magical charm.

I really wanted to love this film, but I have to say that I left it feeling ever so slightly underwhelmed. However, an average Studio Ghibli film is still brilliant when compared to most of the rubbish that circulates nowadays. Three and a half stars is less of an attack on the film itself, and more of a comparison of it to other classics such as Spirited Away, Nausicaa, Laputa, Princess Mononoke, and Porco Rosso. When set alongside these gems, I feel that it doesn’t quite hold up, but is still an incredibly enjoyable and thoughtful animation nonetheless.


Rango (2011)

Recent animation has suffered from relentless 3D, not to mention a tendency towards diluted story lines, under-developed characters, and overly safe humour. Too much of the wrong thing, and too little originality, has meant that it’s been a long time since I’ve sat through an animated blockbuster and not eagerly anticipated the end. Just as I was about to give up hope on Hollywood, along comes Rango with his identity issues, his metaphysical self-awareness, and his little beady eyes, shaking up a genre that was dying a slow death.

The story follows a pet chameleon (Johnny Depp) who is stranded in the desert after being knocked out of the back of a moving car. Used to life within the confines of a glass tank, this lizard has trouble adapting to the idea of existence within wider society. You only have to look at the front cover to determine that this character has issues. Clutching a plastic fish from his artificial home, “Rango” (as he names himself later on) is a reptile puzzled by universal questions. “Who am I?” he repeats, staring blankly into the distance. Accustomed to acting out scenes rather than living them, we see Rango construct an identity for himself in a town called Dirt, where he claims to have journeyed from “the West”. Claiming that he killed seven brothers with one bullet, he is given the position of town Sheriff. He soon involves himself in the investigation of some dodgy dealings to do with the town’s water going missing, and finds himself attracted to an iguana named Beans (Isla Fisher). What follows is a trippy, hyper-real, and existential Western packed full of jokes and entertainment.

The animation is beautiful and achieves a believable three-dimensionality without being 3D. The opening crash scene where the tank hits the road is stunning, with beads of water and smashed glass flying through the air in delicious slow motion, and the action scenes (usually where I switch off in animations) are arresting and inventive. This is all helped by the brilliant score by Hans Zimmer, which compliments the comedy as well as the action; Tex-Mex Western inspired themes wind in and out of scenes with satisfying buoyancy.

The film makes endless references to an array of classic films, actors, and film-makers, including Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good the Bad and the Ugly. Apocalypse Now’s Helicopter scene also makes an appearance, with moles and other furry creatures riding bats to the sound of Ride of the Valkyries being played on banjos (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d say). At the beginning, our chameleon even demonstrates his ability to adapt to various acting roles, each being a suggestion of a character that Johnny Depp has played. This association of the actor with the chameleon is simple but clever, and is in keeping with the careful development of characters in the film. My personal favourite is Spoons, an ageing prospector mouse voiced by Alex Manugian, whose dialogue made me laugh the most.

I can’t really do this film justice with just a few paragraphs; it’s full of a magnetism and vibrancy that should be experienced first-hand. One of the best mainstream animations for a long while, it offers entertainment for children at the same time as keeping adults engaged with its incredibly intelligent humour. Rango’s success lies in its blissful surrealism. Not your average Disney outing, it refuses to soften its rough edges, and its humour retains a sharpness that is not always present in animation aimed at children.


The Sixth Sense (1999)

I recently posted about colour in The Sixth Sense, but this is my actual review of the film. Enjoy 🙂

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Lots of people hate on M. Night Shyamalan. Points of attack include: “what has he done since Signs that’s good?”, “he uses too many plot twists”, “his bad outweighs the good”. All these criticisms are fair, everyone is entitled to their opinion. I feel, sometimes, like I’m the only person who thought The Village was good, and who enjoyed The Happening on the grounds that it is hilarious. To be fair, I haven’t seen The Last Airbender, and I don’t think I’m ever going to (I trust people on that one). It’s a shame, though, that his commercial failures have overshadowed his moments of genius. The Sixth Sense being one of them. Shyamalan has been caricatured as a self absorbed failure, and this image taints his work. Please, let’s forget for a moment that Shyamalan is annoying, and focus on the brilliance that is this film.

From beginning to end, The Sixth Sense is beautiful to watch. Chilling, mysterious, and emotive; visually, it ticks all the boxes of a ghost story, and is successfully affecting. Interestingly, Tak Fujimoto was the director of photography, who also did the cinematography for Silence of the Lambs, one of my favourite thrillers. Shots right from the beginning, such as Anna being seen through the slats of the wine rack in the cellar, suggest that Malcolm will struggle to reach her both physically and emotionally. Shadows play a large part, as well as shots through windows and doors. Ghostly reflections blur and distort characters’ views, adding to the uncertainty and confusion that characterises both Malcolm and Cole, and subtly suggesting the intrusion of another world, running parallel to the world we think we see and know.

The script is careful and intelligent. Anna’s line to Malcolm of “I never told you, but you sound a little like Dr. Seuss when you’re drunk” is a nod towards the nature of Malcolm’s job (working with children), but is also suggestive of riddle and word play, which reflects the need for Malcolm to work differently to how he usually would, and to see the world in a less adult way. He needs to think outside the box, and engage with his imagination (he is the one who suggests that Cole helps the spirits he sees).

Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment are amazing, my mind is constantly blown by the young Osment’s uncanny ability to convey such a troubled nature so easily. And Toni Collette is brilliant as a mother who wants so desperately to help but doesn’t know how to connect to her own child. I also feel that Donnie Wahlberg deserves a mention. I’m always surprised to see him as Vincent Grey towards the beginning, and the emotion that he conveys is harrowing to say the least.

The film is rich in symbolism, and colour plays a large part in signifying spirits invading the real world. This is what makes The Sixth Sense so captivating. Watching the film for the first time, you don’t expect the ending, and so the shock of it tends to overshadow the subtlety of the beginning. It is only once you have re-watched the film, that you begin to notice little suggestions of what is to come. A success from start to end, this is at once an exercise in potent suspense, and a carefully crafted tale of child psychology.


The Descendants (2011)

The Descendants (2011)

I’m in two minds as to whether The Descendants deserves more than three and a half stars. Half of me wants to raise it to four, and the other half is telling me to not be such a coward. At the time of its release, so many critics sang its praises, claiming that this was the performance of George Clooney’s career. I’m not disputing that. What I am disputing is that this film “will go down in history” as a masterpiece. Don’t get me wrong, it is good, but it is not outstanding. It is affecting and successful as a family drama, in that it is funny and moving, but it left me somewhat underwhelmed considering the hype. Perhaps that’s the problem, that I shouldn’t have considered the hype, but it was hard not to when the fact that it won an Academy Award and two Golden Globes was plastered all over advertisements.

The story follows Matt King (George Clooney), a lawyer based in Honolulu, whose wife has been put into a coma after a boating accident. King has some important decisions to make regarding a new development on some land for which he is trustee, the outcome of which will not only affect his family, but also the landscape of Hawaii. Tensions rise as secrets are revealed, and there is the expected family bonding through times of strife, as seen in so many dramas concerning the emotional distance between fathers and their children.

A lot of the point of the movie was to show that life in a place that others consider tropical or exotic, can be just as “messed up” as life anywhere else. For me, this message is stressed somewhat too transparently by the opening lines, leaving little room for development. “My friends on the mainland think just because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise” is followed shortly by “Hell, I haven’t been on a surfboard in 15 years” and “Paradise? Paradise can go f–k itself.” Some people may see this as refreshing – appreciating or feeling thrilled by the straightforwardness. I was, instead, disappointed that the film’s manifesto was announced in black and white terms so quickly. Matt King is aware of the contradiction of being depressed on an island so beautiful – perhaps too aware – meaning that his proceeding moodiness is at times wearing.

I would say that the comedy is what marks this film out as better than average. George Clooney is amazing because he is allowed to be himself; he is given freedom to be comical. Yes, this probably is the performance of his career, because in The Descendants he shows that he can be at once troubled, angry, and distressed, and at the same time retain a lightness and a witticism. This witticism comes naturally to him; at times I feel that he lends the film more interludes of humour than were intended in the script, but perhaps that’s just my naivety in forgetting that all the actors would have been directed off camera. Shailene Woodley is good, she delivers a convincing performance, and her emotion never seems forced. My only criticism is that she is slightly irritating. Is she meant to be? Maybe. But I still found her too perfect for a girl suffering from serious issues. Judy Greer’s performance is as expected; her character is sweet, but played with a nervous energy that suggests neurosis (her scene with Elizabeth is a good example of this). Matthew Lillard is satisfactorily slimy as Brian Speer, and it is good to see him in a decent role after so long a hiatus, but his performance is still not necessarily challenging. The acting all round is solid, but never too phenomenal, except for maybe in Clooney’s case.

The majority of the script handles the family dynamic well, and as I’ve not read the book, I’m not sure how well it translates the original story, but considering that it won Best Adapted Screenplay the least I can do is assume it was successful in that respect. I did choke up at the end when Matt kisses his wife goodbye with the line “Goodbye, Elizabeth. Goodbye, my love, my friend, my pain, my joy. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye” which sounds soppy here, but once you’ve sat through two hours of a husband deliberating over whether to love or hate his comatose wife, this final farewell hits you like a ton of bricks. There are other gems, such as “His name is Brian Speer. Two e’s.” in reference to the man whose infidelity is the cause of much of the agony of the film. The play on the word ‘spear’ is clever, with the name suggesting the infliction of pain. The spelling difference then distances the person from this idea of weaponry and harm, as Brian is himself distanced from the chaos he is connected with.

I’m sure that there is so much that could be said about geology and ecology within this film, but on first watch it’s hard to make an analysis. Mountains are everywhere, from birds eye views of the Hawaiian landscape, to pictures mounted on the hospital walls. This imagery of nature in both its most raw form, and within public spaces, reflects the dual concerns of the film.

The Descendants deals with both comedy and tragedy, and this is what makes it interesting. My criticism comes from my high expectations mostly, but I do not wish to take away from the fact that the film is still good. The music is brilliant, the soundtrack made up entirely of Hawaiian music, showcasing a range of talent that many people will not have heard before. Visually and sonically the film is a success, and all in all it is a highly enjoyable viewing experience.


Colour Symbolism: Red in The Sixth Sense

I watched The Sixth Sense with my mum the other night, and I’m glad I did because, despite having seen it a few times before, I’d forgotten just how good it really is. M. Night Shyamalan has gathered a bad rep since The Village, as made clear by articles on the interweb such as this one, and to be honest, there’s been enough written on how dire a director he is. I’m personally a bit tired of it all. I think I’m one of the only people who actually liked The Village, and who thought The Happening was hilarious and therefore incredibly enjoyable (who can deny the comic genius of the plastic plant scene?) But this isn’t going to be a defence of Shyamalan. That would probably take too long. I’d have to engage in existing arguments, and watch The Last Airbender – something I’m not going to do.

Instead, I’m going to be a cowardly English student and talk about colour. I’m planning to write my dissertation on the colour red in Decadent literature of the late 19th Century, and so naturally I’ve been on the look out for anything red in my critical reading at Uni. It seems as though a sensitivity to the colour has passed into my everyday life, as I couldn’t help but notice red appearing symbolically in The Sixth Sense. The colour palette of the film is actually quite muted, except for these instances of bright red that stick out like a sore thumb. Having done a little research (google searching “red in The Sixth Sense”), it’s become obvious that the colour symbolises “anything in the real world that has been tainted by the other world” and is used “to connote really explosively emotional moments and situations” (quotes from Shyamalan himself). It’s discussed by a lot of people, but I thought I’d recap the obvious before moving on to the less discussed ideas of sanctuary and religion:

1. Cole’s red jumper at the kid’s party, and the red balloon, both pre-empt the ghost sobbing in the wall. It has also been said that the image of the balloon rising up towards the light through the centre of the spiral staircase is representative of a spirit rising up towards God, with the staircase representing life’s journey. The fact that Cole wears red here could be symbolic of his situation at this point: he is naive and uncertain, but is drawn to the voices nonetheless. Red is the colour of the spirit world, and so by wearing it he is inadvertently drawing spirits towards him. His duller colours towards the end of the film are a conscious choice. He has accepted his gift but does not wish to draw unnecessary attention, showing that he can control his situation better.

2. Anna constantly wears red after the passing of her husband Malcolm. The various shades of it relate to her psychological state, and how strongly she feels the presence of (or remembers) Malcolm. When she gives the gift of a book to her new potential lover, the red is dull and almost brown, suggesting that she is letting go of her memories and moving on. Her red is rarely aggressive, because Malcolm wishes her no harm, the only exceptions being when she wears bright red at her anniversary dinner, and the red of her antidepressants (unfortunately I can’t find decent pictures of them). In the dinner scene, Malcolm talks directly to her while she is awake, something he doesn’t usually do, but is argumentative and stressed. He interprets her demeanour as bitter and dismissive, and so he reacts to this with negativity. The pills are bright red because they embody all of the sadness left over from his death. Anna is also wrapped in a red shawl whenever Malcolm sits with her as she sleeps, but again this red is not startling, but a softer hue.

3. Kyra’s get well soon cards are mostly on red card, a colour that would have foreshadowed her fate. At her funeral her mother wears a striking red suit with red lipstick, there are red roses, and the box with the tape inside is wrapped in a red velvet ribbon. I immediately spotted the red woman, and was therefore suspicious of her. Her haunting is different to Anna’s. The part she played in her daughter’s death means that her relationship to the “other world”  is more acute, represented by the brightness of her red.

4. There are other obvious instances of red, such as the red door knob to the cellar, the red pen that Cole uses to scribble the voices of ghosts, the red dress of the hanging woman, and the red helmet of the dead woman towards the end. These are all rather straightforward nods toward the spirit world and its influence on the real world.

All of these points prove the theory that red is the colour of the spirit world – of ghosts trapped in limbo – their anger and frustration culminating in a fiery flash of bright colour that signifies their desperation to be heard and understood. Their voices are red with bitterness, and when they wear red themselves, their desire to be seen is taken to another level, thus revealing their inherent selfishness.

But is there any red that upsets this understanding of the colour as anger and bitterness? For me, there is, especially in relation to sanctuary and religion. The statue of Jesus that Cole steals is draped in a red cloak, his tent of refuge is red, the stone of the sword that he raises in the play towards the end is a bright ruby colour, and his mother wears red at one of their closest moments. Interestingly, she rarely wears the colour so obviously, except maybe on her nails. This set me to thinking about Cole’s relationship with his mother, and his desperation for sanctuary.

Cole retreats to two spaces of safety in reaction to the spirits that chase him. The church, and his tent. As seen at the start of the film, the church doors are a bright red, and so is his tent:

So, contradictorily, red is both a colour of danger and ghosts, and of safety and refuge. I think the key to understanding this contradiction is in religion and all its contradictions and promises. Cole’s understanding of religion is a simple one. He sees the church as a place to escape the spirits’ voices that are haunting him, and yet he enters possibly one of the most spiritual places he can find. Similarly, his tent is his home-made sanctuary, and yet is a colour that would most definitely attract spirits. He wants to hide behind the positivity of Christianity, and ignore the darker side, thereby ignoring the problem that he faces in his life. It is not until he accepts his situation, and learns to deal with it (to help the ghosts pass on, instead of denying their existence) that he becomes less drawn to these spaces of harsh red. The last scene of him in a church sees him stood in front of a bright stained glass window, with colours such as yellow and pink on offer, but no red. He has learnt a life of balance, and therefore the extremes of the colour palette do not need to make as much of an appearance. This is not to say that red is a purely childish and negative colour. Red can still represent something positive in Cole’s life, but in excess, and uncontrolled, it is dangerous to his mental health.

In the play of “The Sword in the Stone” that Cole performs in at the end of the movie, he is given the part of Arthur. When he pulls the sword from the stone, it has a deep red ruby set in to it. The act of releasing the sword, and the colour of the gem, are representative of Cole’s new ability to harness his power. Red (representative of the spirit world and faith) will still play a large part in his life, but he will be able to control it and harness it (even wield it as a power), just as Arthur is the only one able to lift the weapon. The concentrated nature of the red in the form of a small gem (you almost miss it if you’re not on the look out for it) and its deep colour (it is not brash or acrid), are a turning point for the colour in the film. It is no longer running wild, hurting Cole and distressing him, or causing him religious confusion, but becomes part of his nature.

One option for Cole in his time of distress would be to turn to his mother. However, she does not understand or want to believe his predicament, and her ignorance to his troubles is represented by her lack of red. Her embraces do not help Cole, even though they may be offered with good intentions. She must listen to Cole’s story in order to truly be a space of safety and happiness for him. Therefore, when she finally hears his secret in the car at the end, she wears her most obvious red. Instead of being a figure drained of bright colour, leaving Cole to run to the church and his tent, she now possesses a warmth that she should have possessed as a mother all along, and is his new refuge, as represented by their final hug.

Red is an undeniable tool in The Sixth Sense. Shyamalan has admitted this himself, and it has been discussed endlessly with reference to the spirits and strong emotion. I hope I’ve been able to add my own little twist on the colour’s meaning in pointing out the importance of the sword scene, and of Cole’s relationship to the Church.

Sorry for such a long post! Peace out.