Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988)

A Studio Ghibli season at the BFI has highlighted the very best of Japanese animation. We can define the cuddly Totoro or fantastical world of Princess Mononoke as what Studio Ghibli stands for – but Grave of the Fireflies proves otherwise. In fact, Isao Takahata’s 1988 film(released alongside My Neighbour Totoro) is a sobering, heart-breaking tale of those final years in Japan at the end of World War II, told through the eyes of two children, Seita and Setsuko. Grave of the Fireflies may be one of the most impressive, and surely ground-breaking, animations from the studio and challenges Disney – and western animators - to make such mature, intelligent and brutal films for a young audience.

Based on a novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, it is semi-autobiographical as he himself survived the fire-bombings of Japan while his sister died of malnutrition. This truth is loud and clear as the story is open and frank about the horrors of war. Indeed, aimed at children, this will surely establish a sense of pacifism in the youngest of minds. “September 21, 1945... that was the night I died.” is the first line. Seita is dead. We hear this narration from beyond the grave, and merely seeing his starved corpse in the centre of Sannomiya Station is a shock unto itself. Does author Nosaka believe this should’ve been his fate? But his soul is reawakened and we flashback to the countless moments of injustice that he, and his sister Setsuko, are forced to bear to stay alive. Something, known from the outset, they fail to do.

The spectacular backdrop of nature and blue skies, and the neon glow of the fireflies, contrasts against the war time horrors. Bandaged bodies and ashen corpses litter the streets. Setsuko herself – a baby-faced four-year-old - has red-rash skin, diseased by malnutrition, whereby her rib-cage, even in animated form, evokes such sadness. We know Setsuko was not the only young child affected.

But Grave of the Fireflies rests on the shoulders of 14-year-old Seita. His downward spiral of sorrow begins as he desperately runs from the fire-bombs hitting his home-town, as Setsuko clings to his back. His only goal is to find his Father and look after his sister. Irrespective of the burnt towns and desperation on their faces, Seita and Setsuko try and laugh. They play on the beach and carry gem-like fruit-sweets in a tin. Setsuko’s laugh highlights her happiness and her innocence, but we know it won’t end well. Seita steals to stay alive and a cruel aunt abuses the limited rice they gain (accumulated by selling their deceased mothers kimono). These are desperate times and, too young (and rightfully scared) to support the nation, but too old to be pitied and helped by others. Seita is trapped in the grey area whereby adults can’t comfortably ignore his troubles.

Compared with films that tackle the destruction and decimation of war in the context of childhood, such as War Horse, it doesn’t do the film justice. Grave of the Fireflies stands tall alongside Schindler’s List considering the emotional honesty revealed in the death of two children; the lead roles. Roger Ebert notes the influence of Hiroshige and Hergé in the animation, detailing how it the narrative “mediates on the consequences” of action rather than exploiting it. Indeed, the patience and calmness is overpowering as we see the humanity in the story. Ebert goes so far as to state that Grave of the Fireflies “belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made”, and I’d be inclined to agree. As part of the Studio Ghibli season, it is amongst the very best.

This post was written for Flickering Myth on April 16th 2014

Thursday, 10 April 2014

150W: Another Woman

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Another Woman (Dir. Woody Allen/1988)

Marion Post (Gena Rowlands) didn’t realise she was hated. An upper middle-class intellectual (like many of Woody Allen’s characters), she’s a professor of Philosophy who overhears a neighbour (Mia Farrow) revealing her private life to a psychiatrist. Self-disciplined and successful, Marion should be considered an inspiration – but alas, she lacks passion. Her husband (Ian Holm) mocks the idea of sex on the floorboards and the potential lover (Gene Hackman) that got away was rebuffed despite a mutual attraction. Bearing similarities to his latest film, Blue Jasmine, our female, central-character goes through a crisis - yet Another Woman resolutely builds her up as a strong, dominant woman. The tragedy is how, despite such bold characteristics, she is flawed by her well-planned, ordered goals. Her narration is matter-of-fact and purposefully specific and therein lays the rub. As enlightening as the story may be – Marion is a tad boring dragging the film behind.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014


On April 18th, Spider-Man will be web-slinging his way through New York City again. The Amazing Spider-Man was a reboot of the popular comic-book hero and, now they have placed the foundations of our awkward teenager into place, they can build upon the story. Repeating the beats on Raimi’s Spider-Man, the 2011 blockbuster showed us again how the arachnid bit the boy; the Uncle killed and a love-interest was turned down after a whirlwind romance. Thank God, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 can now go in whatever direction it wants, and indeed, after watching the first film I’m glad we are finally here.

Witnessing a thirty-minute show-reel screening, I can honestly say that I am excited about the next instalment. Marc Webb introduced the video by telling us how The Amazing Spider-Man 2 portrays Spider-Man at the “top of his game” while Peter Parker is trying to be a “regular kid”. The missing back-story of Peter Parker’s father, alluded to in the previous film, is expanded upon in the opening moments of the upcoming film with a rough and messy hand-to-hand fight set within a jet recalling the type of directing Paul Greengrass has shown us in The Bourne Supremacy. This flashback soon cuts to Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) saving the Big Apple as Rhino (Paul Giametti) ploughs through downtown, smashing cop cars and yellow cabs to the side of the road. Andrew Garfield is cheeky and cheerful, while retaining a certain amount of smug arrogance that immediately gains our attention. We like him, and for me, we like him more than Tobey Maguire’s slightly-too-awkward portrayal in the 2000-2008 series.

Lead-villain Electro is played by Jamie Foxx and, though showcasing some incredible special effects and strong, effective use of 3D, his one-liners (“It’s my birthday – it’s time to light my candles!” BOOM!) and blue make-up seems to recall our favourite Batman villain - Mr Freeze (from the critically-panned Batman and Robin). But this is Spider-Man! He’s our favourite guy! He is fun and games; a geek we can relate to; an optimistic lad who can’t quite believe how crazy-cool his supernatural powers are! The Avengers are building a universe that is epic in scale – reaching from earth to Asgard. Man of Steel seems to be so serious while X-Men: Days of Future Past is so political. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 looks like it will be fun – and pronounce f-u-u-u-un, with a huge grin on your face. Over the top villains, snarky heroes and gorgeous romantic interests (with perfectly-balanced chemistry between Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield) is what we want to see. While he may be limited to the Manhattan skyline, that’s not a bad thing. It means it looks like the comic book we know and feels like the gloss and shine of New York blockbusters. This doesn’t look like throw-away fun but maybe the fun you’ll revisit time and time again. April 18th will answer out questions…

This post was originally written for TQS on March 25th 2014

Monday, 24 March 2014

The Insider (Michael Mann, 1999)

Working together on Heat (only four years prior to The Insider) meant that Al Pacino and Michael Mann clearly had chemistry worth exploring. Replacing the action-sequences with political intrigue and tense paranoia meant this could hardly be billed as a follow-up. The Insider tackles the big business of tobacco and the ongoing contradiction of American capitalism – whereby the almighty dollar trumps justice. Except in this case, investigative journalism alongside the justice system mounted a campaign that resulted in a $368 billion settlement between the four largest tobacco companies in America. Suffice to say, Brown and Williamson – the ‘villainous’ company at the centre of The Insider – merged with Reynolds American in 2004 and is still the second-largest tobacco company in the states.

Written by Eric Roth and Michael Mann, The Insider dramatizes the events leading to the aforementioned campaign. Whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) revealed on CBS expose 60 Minutes that, in a court of law, Brown and Williamson lied and covered up their increase in addictive supplements to their cigarettes. This could be merely the small man tackling the big corporation with the support of a kindly lawyer – a la Erin Brokovich. Instead, the core of the story is in the hands of 60 Minutes producer, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino). Through Bergman, we see the conflicted ethics of those who work in journalism – a far call from the phone-tapping and criminal activities of those involved in the Leveson inquiry. Bergman convinces Wigand to tell his story – and to tell the whole truth for the sake of us; the public. Roger Ebert, rating the film 3.5 out of 4, rightfully compares the film to All The President’s Men, but crucially notes the very personal nature of this story: “The Insider had a greater impact on me than All the President's Men, because you know what? Watergate didn't kill my parents. Cigarettes did.”

It is easy to forget how connected an enormous corporation, sitting atop a towering skyscraper connects to the working man – but increasing the addictive supplements in cigarettes is a pretty clear link. Michael Mann tackles the story in long-form, running to nearly three hours. Introducing Bergman as he attempts to snag an interview with a known terrorist in the opening sequence, on one level jars with the context and tone of the film, but also highlights how enemies – as dangerous and sinister as religious extremists are also within the western world. Indeed, Crowe as the fidgety, possibly-unhinged Jeffrey Wigand plays with our own assumptions as we question more than merely the corporation. Pacino plays Lowell Bergman as the conflicted man a journalist must become – while his own stand against CBS’s decision to screen a cut version of the interview places him on a forced vacation, when he contacts Wigand – holed up inside a hotel after his family has left him – we see the contrast between the beach house Bergman is in and near suicidal Wigand. Bergman may have played an important role in illuminating the issue, but we need more Wigand’s.

The Insider does explore avenues of character that prolong the events. Wigand’s failed marriage is clearly set-up and broken down, while Bergman’s relationship with host Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) is constantly a source for comparison. The prestige and legacy Wallace wants to leave behind is set against the purpose – and cost - of the job itself. Indeed, Bergman is fighting for what he believes. These sub-plots, though something Mann often explores, detract from the core of the story and can stagger the story. But what a story it is. Often the media and court system can be perceived as merely a villain and frustration to the greater cause, so it is refreshing to see how they can support the just and the good. And Al Pacino is remarkable.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth on March 20th 2014

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Looking for Richard (Al Pacino, 1996)

The Al Pacino season at the BFI has showcased his best work, but it can be difficult to get a sense of what Pacino is like when viewed through the fictional lens of characters like Michael Corleone and Frank Serpico. Looking for Richard is Pacino’s directorial debut, digging deeper into American attitudes towards Shakespeare – specifically the influential historical drama Richard III. This is an insight into Pacino’s acting and his love for the stage. Informative, insightful and playful, Looking for Richard is a theatrical treat for film fans.

Led primarily by Pacino himself and his co-writer Frederic Kimball, they banter and argue about the text and purpose of the documentary. While Pacino is building and amassing footage to create a film to educate and illuminate a centuries old text, Fred is keen to prove how actors understand Shakespeare, while directors and academics don’t hold a candle to the perspective of the actor - who lives and breathes the roles.

Looking for Richard also showcases some of the finest American acting talent. Signing up Kevin Spacey and Alec Baldwin after working on Glengarry Glen Ross, we see their portrayals of their respective roles effortlessly played. Baldwin particularly clearly has a finesse and style that perfectly suits the betrayed brother of the king (How else can I see Baldwin play Shakespeare?). Winona Ryder appears briefly as the widow, and future wife, of King Richard. Her grace and conflicted young woman is challenged and manipulated so well, it only highlights how strong an actress Ryder can be. It also breaks my heart to see Pacino and Ryder acting alongside each other. Francis Ford Coppola cast Winona Ryder as Michael Corleone’s daughter in The Godfather Part III, but she was taken ill shortly before production and replaced by Sofia Coppola.  Suffice to say, if she can convincingly act Shakespeare, Mary Corleone would be a walk in the park – and what a film it would’ve been.

Pacino cuts between the actors discussing the roles and their motivations to actors and academics who have built their careers on Shakespeare. Vanessa Redgrave tells us of the Iambic Pentameter providing a direct connection to the soul; John Gielgud reveals his belief that Americans are simply not cultured enough to truly understand Shakespeare while James Earl Jones equates Shakespeare with the word of God.

It’s hard to argue with Pacino. The relevance of Shakespeare, and crucially Richard III, is all around us. From the debt House of Cards owes to Richard III, to the politics at play in Game of Thrones, the influence is all around us. In fact, considering the story so far in House of Cards, watching the third act of Richard III may give the plot away for the third season of House of Cards next year.

Though difficult to break down, iconic and unforgettable lines hark back to this specific text. “Now is the winter of our discontent” through to “… a horse, a horse, my Kingdom for a horse”. Looking for Richard deconstructs and reveals the poetry, though an acquired taste, of the language. While shooting some of his most memorable roles (his beard from Carlito’s Way, the use of crew in the final act - borrowed from Michael Mann’s Heat), this is Al Pacino discussing his love for Shakespeare, the stage and acting itself. But now I recall others. Where is ‘Looking for Hamlet’ starring Jude Law or David Tennant? Or Ian McKellan enlightening us with the words of King Lear? This is a fascinating documentary and, if you’ve ever been switched off by the Bard, this is your entrance into his work.

This was originally written for Flickering Myth on 17th March 2014