A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

TrollHunter

December 3, 2011

TrollHunter

We decided a couple weeks ago to watch this movie tonight specifically. Today Amanda and I attended the annual Yuletide Festival presented by the Boston branch of the Swedish Women’s Educational Association. It’s a traditional family outing with her parents and some of our closest friends that we look forward to each year, and it marks the start of the Christmas season for us. It also puts us in a Scandinavian mood, what with all the Swedish culture and traditions. We get meatballs with lingenberries. I have Glögg and Julmust. This year Amanda’s mother bought a big book full of gorgeous pictures of the Swedish countryside. This year we get to follow that up with a movie with a uniquely Scandinavian flare – this strange faux documentary about Norway’s only licensed troll hunter.

In many ways this movie is clearly inspired by The Blair Witch Project in that it is presented as found footage of an ill fated expedition, but this movie has a great tongue in cheek humor to it that makes it a different sort of beast. It follows a trio of college students who are trying to get an interview with a mysterious man who they suspect is a notorious bear poacher. It is explained through news on the radio and interviews with local authorised bear hunters that although there have been killings and mauling of farm animals attributed to bears in the wilds of Norway only these few professionals licensed by the government are allowed to actually kill bears, and the hunters are upset because lately they suspect this individual in a beat up white range rover of killing bears without a license.

The three youths – journalism students and film makers from a local college – track down the poacher at a RV camp where his trailer is abandoned each night as he drives off to do whatever is that he does each night. He doesn’t want anything to do with the kids, but they doggedly follow him into the woods one night where they are attacked by some creature in the darkness that bites one of the trio, at which point the grizzled poacher reluctantly agrees to let them tag along with him and explains just what exactly it is that he does. He hunts trolls.

At first of course the students are skeptical, but very soon they have an encounter with their first giant nocturnal monster and they come to realize that everything the hunter, Hans, has told them is true. He warns them that trolls can smell the blood of a christian, so none of them had best believe in God or Jesus. He gives them troll musk to coat themselves in so as not to frighten their quarry. Trolls can be killed, it turns out, by using UV light because they either ossify, turning to stone, in sunlight or explode. The reason that nobody knows any of this, aside from what they’ve heard in fairy tales as children, is that the Norwegian government covers up all information about trolls. Hans is dogged by an official stuffed shirt who makes sure that nobody ever discovers what it is that he does for a living, planting dead bears at the scenes of troll-related carnage and creating flimsy cover stories. Hans is fed up with the ignominy of his job, the awful hours and the lack of recognition, so he has decided that he might as well let these students collect their footage and make their film to let the world know the truth.

It’s when the trolls start to actually show up that the movie really starts to be fun. It’s not just that the special effects are cool and the design for the trolls themselves are a great combination of big-nosed classic illustrations and gritty realism (though they are.) What really makes this movie special I think is the sense of Norwegian civic pride to it. When the students have their first big encounter with a troll they’re not just terrified and exhilarated by the danger and thrill of their adventure – they’re exuberant to discover that trolls really are real – all their childhood stories had a basis in truth!

There’s a sense that the trolls are not just dangerous wild predators that eat anything they can get their hands on (though they are partial to rocks apparently) but that they are also precious national treasures. They’re mysterious and majestic in their own odd way. Over the course of the movie we get to see a number of different types of troll, and we learn all about them. They can grow to be as much as 1200 years old. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some travel in packs, some wander alone. There are rivalries between the woodland trolls and the mountain ones.

I understand that there is an American re-make of this movie in production now. I have to admit that I don’t think that there’s any way a re-make can capture what it is about this movie that makes it work as well as it does. This movie thrives on the gorgeous Norwegian landscapes, the lore and traditions, the sense that trolls are part of Norwegian culture and national pride. I can’t imagine that the movie would work at all in any other country, much less without the original Norwegian and subtitles. I’m so glad we have this version and that we watched it tonight. Happy yule everyone!

December 3, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Movie 599 – Persepolis

Persepolis – October 20th, 2011

This is one of those movies I’m sure I would have been somewhat curious about but never curious enough about to actually watch had we not been doing this project. The subject matter combined with the format led to it getting a lot of attention and it looked interesting, but I often shy away from heavier movies and every description I read of this one made me think it would definitely be on the heavy end of things. And it was. It was also well worth watching and I will, at some point, have to get the book(s) and read them. It’s also a great example for when I encounter people who stubbornly insist that animation is, by default, for children. Yes, they are still out there.

Much like there are people who insist that animation is for kids, there are people who refuse to recognize the graphic novel as a potentially deep medium. I find it hard to wrap my own head around at times, considering that memoir like Maus has been around since at least the 1980s and fiction like Sandman has been around since at least the early 1990s. And even before then, the medium was hardly brand spanking new. Perhaps it comes from people who still see anything in the format as a “comic book” and I don’t want to get all pretentious here, but that’s why I use the term “graphic novel” for some things. Even just the “comic” part of “comic book” implies humor, even if people don’t think that through every time they hear it. So this isn’t a comic book movie. It’s an animated movie using the same artwork as the graphics in the graphic novel. And while it has its comedic moments, it isn’t really comical.

I haven’t really done any research into this movie beyond the basics, but I did see some mentions of it being somewhat controversial in terms of how it portrays the country of Iran and its history and culture. The thing is, this is a memoir. It is the story of a personal and familial experience. Not being a part of the culture she’s writing and speaking about, I can’t really make any judgement on that. But I will take it as a given that what she’s presenting is authentic for her. And so long as she’s not fabricating events entirely, that’s really all that matters to me.

Marjane Satrapi grew up in Iran during a time of revolution and war and changing regimes with changing ideals and rules. The movie follows her through her young childhood and into her teenage years and then out of Iran and into Switzerland where she went to University, then back to Iran to see her family before deciding to leave for good. There’s narration over the entire movie, from Marjane’s point of view, looking back on her own actions and opinions. Marjane’s family is portrayed as involved in the revolution from the outset. Relatives end up in jail or worse. Marjane herself seems to shift loyalties based on what she hears and from whom, changing her mind as she learns and grows. I think this is really a key point for memoir – an unflinching look at one’s own past.

It’s a brutal story, with friends and relatives hurt, people confused and upset. Marjane visits her uncle, Anoosh, in prison just before he’s executed. Relatives of her friends report being tortured while imprisoned. Marjane herself rebels against the restrictions the government places on the people, listening to bootleg heavy metal cassettes and speaking out against what seem to her to be ridiculous rules about what women can and can’t wear and can and can’t do. And eventually she leaves for Europe, where things seem better but where she is ashamed to be Iranian and denies it when she meets new people. Some of her friends romanticize her background, seeing her as something of a poster child for revolution, but others see her as being from a backwards society. And this is key for me when trying to understand this movie. Marjane doesn’t hate Iran or being Iranian. She doesn’t hate the culture she was raised in. But the movie makes it very clear that she doesn’t equate what she grew up in with what she left. That isn’t a criticism of the culture. That’s a criticism of the government.

I can’t make any claims to expertise in drawing style or artistic technique, but I do think that the art of this movie, both in the style of the original illustrations from the graphic novels and the animation, is excellent. It’s deceptively simple, what with the vast majority of it being black and white with little to no shading or color, but there’s a lot of detail and care put into the visuals. It suits the story and I’m incredibly glad that it was made animated instead of live action. The only way I think this movie could have worked with live action would have been if it had gone a very Sin City type of direction, with the live action mimicking the artistic style. But even that wouldn’t have done the story the sort of justice it deserves. There’s a reason why Satrapi used the format and medium she used for the original story and to take it too far from that would have turned it into something entirely other.

Despite how good this is, I know I won’t be putting this back in unless I’m showing it to someone else who hasn’t seen it yet. It’s not a casual movie and it’s not one I could pause on while flipping channels. But it is an excellent movie and a fascinating story. I’m glad I’ve seen it once, even if I never see it again.

October 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 579 – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – September 30th, 2011

I admit, I have fallen way way behind with my reviews. I’m writing this almost three weeks after seeing it. It’s not easy writing a substantial review every day even when the movie really deserves one. It’s almost harder when the movie deserves something good. If I’m tired or not terribly sharp or just cranky, then whatever I write is going to be crap. And that feels so unfortunate to me. But then I get hung up on whatever review I stopped at, and if it’s something I’m having trouble writing about, I don’t go on and write others. Not easily. I sit there and stare and wonder just how to say what it is I want to say. Fortunately, I made some notes here, so I can remember a few of the points I wanted to make. And this isn’t the review I got hung up on, so hopefully I’ll get back on track soon.

I remember when this came out I was working at the video store in Pennsylvania. It was a huge big deal, this gorgeous wire-fu movie with a romance and action and a sweeping story of struggle and yearning. And the cast! Michelle Yeoh and Yun-Fat Chow got the most attention when I heard the movie spoken of, but Ziyi Zhang gained steam quickly because she’s fucking awesome. And it came very very close to being overhyped to me. It was like The Matrix, where every person who came into the store would ask if I’d seen it and if I said yes, they wanted to have deep and insightful discussions and if I said no I got a long diatribe on how much I needed to see it and how it would change my life. So, I avoided it. For a little while. I don’t remember what made me break down and watch it, but I did. And I was so glad I did, because it is indeed a beautiful and beautifully made movie.

The thing is, I don’t really want to have deep and insightful discussions about this movie. I just want to appreciate it. The fact of the matter is that I do not know nearly enough about the culture(s) portrayed here or the time period they’re portrayed in to feel comfortable viewing this movie from anything but a modern and decidedly white US perspective. But then again, I think that might well not be a bad thing. I’m curious just how much of the movie’s content is modern commentary on women’s lives in an earlier time period. I don’t doubt that women did at times stand out and go against the grain, but I don’t know just how prevalent that was in this time and place. If much of the point of the movie is that the women in it have been outsiders (and that is key to the plot), then of course there will be women in it who try to break in.

The story follows four or five main characters as their lives converge around a legendary sword. Li Mu Bai (Yun-Fat Chow), a martial arts master who hopes to retire from a life of combat brings his sword, the Green Destiny, to the supposed safe-keeping of a friend. He entrusts it to another friend, Yu Shu Lien, for the journey. Yu Shu Lien is also a skilled martial artist but was not trained like Li Mu Bai because she is a woman. The two have long been interested in each other romantically but due to social and cultural traditions, they’ve never spoken of their feelings. While Yu Shu Lien is visiting the friend the sword is being given to, the sword is stolen by a masked thief who displays amazing martial arts skills. Eventually it’s revealed that a young woman, Jen Yu, is the culprit, but she’s a noblewoman due to be married soon. Her teacher is her nurse, a woman made bitter by rejection from the best martial arts school because of her gender. And so the movie goes, with Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien (along with a few others) facing off against Jen Yu and her teacher, Jade Fox.

Ostensibly, the impetus for it all is the sword, which is pretty awesome I will admit. But really the impetus for it all is society and the restrictions it places on the women in the movie. Jade Fox took on Jen Yu because she wanted an apprentice to help her get revenge for being excluded. Jen Yu wants a life of adventure that she could never have under the societal restrictions she’d be held to as a married noblewoman. She’s had a taste of that life before, living in the desert when her family moved for a time. She ran off after a group of bandits and ended up falling in love with their leader, Lo. But she had to go back eventually and found herself trapped. And then there’s Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien, who seem at first to be the focus of the movie but end up a tragic side note to Jen Yu’s story.

Now, I did a little poking around when we watched this and came across some scholarly opinions. But I reject the interpretation that claims that Jen commits suicide in the end and that it’s a sign of her hopelessness in regard to freedom in a patriarchal society. That interpretation seems to completely miss the more fantastical bits of the movie and the direct reference to a legend told by Lo earlier in the movie. The way the legend is told, anyone who reaches the top of one particular mountain can make a wish and dive off. The young man in the story made his wish, dove off and flew away, knowing his wish had come true. So when Jen tells Lo to make a wish and then dives off, there is some ambiguity there, but I don’t see it as helplessness. The ambiguity is more as to whose wish will be fulfilled. Lo is the one with the faithful heart mentioned in reference to the legend, so perhaps it will be his wish. But Jen is the one who dove, so perhaps it will be hers. And perhaps they’re one and the same. That’s the unknown, and as she flies away, Jen is clearly at peace with whatever the outcome will be. She spent the whole movie railing against authority and fighting for the right to make her own choices. She made a choice in the end. What it was isn’t important.

The story is a sad and beautiful one, with a lot of little stories woven together to make a whole. But I realize I haven’t even touched on the visuals. Obviously the acting is superb or the story wouldn’t hold up as well as it does, but the visuals truly complete the movie. And I don’t just mean the backgrounds and settings, though those are amazing and lush and real in a way many movies fail to make one feel from the other side of the screen. I also mean the fight scenes, which are plentiful and impressive. In a movie where part of the story hinges upon the physical skills of the main characters, this also has to be spot on in order for the story to work, and it does. It is a gorgeous movie from top to bottom, inside and out.

September 30, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 568 – The Taste of Tea

The Taste of Tea – September 19th, 2011

Several months back when we hosted a member of Loading Ready Run before PAX East, we got to talking about movies with her. Now, this is not unusual for us. Even before this project we enjoyed talking about movies. We like movies. That’s why we own over 600. We explained the project to her and she gave us a couple of suggestions to add to the list. This was one. And I forget her precise description of it, but I know she said it was bizarre and slow. And that’s pretty spot on. Bizarre and slow. But also sweet and thoughtful at the same time. Long, too. So we decided to put it in for a night when we had time, but not a whole lot of energy. We were up to reading subtitles but not up to following a complex plot. This seemed perfect.

And oh, it was perfect indeed. I need to remember to thank Kathleen if she attends next PAX East. It’s a very dreamy movie, taking place over the course of several weeks in the life of a family living in the countryside in Japan. There’s no huge overarching plot that sweeps up the entire family. No real action or massive drama. Instead there are a number of smaller dramas, little stories in the lives of the family members in the time span of the movie. And for the most part their stories don’t really connect directly with each other. They touch on each other, but it’s more that it’s the story of a family living together and interacting. So when young Sachiko becomes convinced she has to complete a back flip over a bar in a playground, her grandfather sees and it impacts his own actions. But the back flip isn’t his story. When Sachiko’s father, Nobuo, plays Go with his son it’s not because he’s trying to help his son find something in common with the girl he likes, it’s just that father and son play Go together. And that’s how the movie goes, with each story involving the other, but not intentionally.

There are six members in the family, five of whom are living together in the house in the country when the movie begins. There’s Sachiko; her parents, father Nobuo and mother Yoshiko; her older brother, Hajime; her grandfather, Akira; and finally her uncle, Ayano. Uncle Ayano is only visiting, there to take a break after some undisclosed difficult times in Tokyo. And off in the city is another uncle, Ikki, who draws manga and produces what is likely the oddest thing in the movie: The Mountain Song. But we’ll come back to that. I promise. Uncle Ikki is very much a side note to the rest of the family. His story involves Uncle Ayano and Grandfather Akira, but none of it takes place at the family home and once his music video is done he’s not really touched on again. The focus is definitely on the family home and the people who live there or have lived there.

We begin with Hajime watching the girl he had a crush on leave by train. Right from the outset the movie makes it clear that it’s veering towards the magical realism side of things by showing the train exit from Hajime’s forehead. Now, I’m fully willing to accept that many of the magical realism type things that are shown on the screen here are the visual representations of the imaginations and thought processes of the characters. I think that’s probably a good way to interpret them. But the fact remains that there’s little division between imagination and reality in this movie. We don’t see every single bit of thought in the characters’ heads and we don’t even see any from some characters. But there are things we do see, such as the train and the giant version of Sachiko that appears (but only to her) from time to time. It’s not fantasy, but it’s not all reality either.

Hajime’s trouble with girls is his story. He finds it hard to talk to girls and is scared of relationships. But his Go playing ends up being they key, getting the attention of a couple of older students at school who invite him to join the Go club, which a new girl whom he’s been interested in but too intimidated to talk to has also joined. They play together, they talk, he gives her his umbrella and things seem to be looking up. On the other side of things, Sachiko has decided that to get rid of the giant phantom Sachiko who’s following her around she needs to complete a backflip over a horizontal bar. This is because of a story Uncle Ayano told her about how when he was a boy a phantom Yakuza followed him around until he did a backflip. Meanwhile, Yoshiko is busily working on a hand-drawn animation project with the aid of Grandfather Akira and Nobuo is spending his time going back and forth between his hypnotherapist job in the city and his private life at home. Elsewhere in the countryside a group of what seem to be gangsters are running around and a couple of cosplaying anime fans are working on a photo shoot. And yes, it all does work together. It’s all woven in with little scenes between the various characters. Hajime and Nobuo see the guys in costume doing a photo shook on the train home, then Sachiko asks for their help when she finds one of the gangsters buried in the mud near where she’s practicing her backflip. And Uncle Ayano hits one of the gangsters in the head with a rock – totally by accident.

If I had to pick one storyline in here as my favorite, it would be Ayano’s. I don’t recall it ever being explained exactly what happened in Tokyo that led to him needing to take some time off in the country. It just happened. He hangs out with his niece and nephew and wanders around town, watching people, talking to an old girlfriend, then befriending a dancer who’s practicing at a camp site near the river. He observes a lot, and tells stories. And eventually he goes back to work as a sound engineer for his brother-in-law Ikki’s “birthday song.” His reaction is pretty much precisely what I think everyone’s reaction is: “Listen to it long enough and your brain will melt.” Don’t believe me? Take a look: Oh, My Mountain. Let me make it clear, I love that song and the video. The guy with the gray hair is the grandfather, and he is a marvelous part of the movie. Easily my second favorite character after Ayano. He also observes everything, but injects bizarre comments into his observations. Things like asking why his granddaughter is a triangle. Apparently most of his lines come from things the director said while drunk. Of course.

It all sounds like such a busy movie, with music videos being made and anime showings and the Yakuza fighting in town and Hajime’s girl troubles and Sachiko’s phantom troubles and everything else, but it comes across as a slow and peaceful, meandering through the stories as they naturally flow into each other. Even the ending, which is sad in its way, feels like a natural part of where the movie is going. I suppose the movie could be shorter, but shortening any of the scenes in it feels like it would force the movie to sacrifice much of its tone and mood. And that would really be a pity, because the tone and mood are much of why it works as well as it does. It’s certainly on my short list of favorites now and I don’t think I’d change a thing about it.

September 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 559 – Gojira

Gojira – September 10th, 2011

When we decided to undertake this whole big project Andy and I had to first create a list of everything we owned. That on its own was a huge task. We had to ferret out all our DVDs, and since we have a small apartment with limited shelf space we’d stashed them wherever there was space. That took a while. Then we went through and made a spreadsheet for it all. Title, running time, whether each of us had seen it or not, where it lived in the apartment, date of review, etc. For the most part we took the running times off the DVD cases. A couple of them didn’t specify a running time so for those we looked online. And most of the time? It worked out a-ok. The trouble is that there seems to be no real regulation for how these things are listed. And so this movie was noted in our spreadsheet as having a 176 minute running time. That’s actually the combined running time for both this and the edited for the US Godzilla, King of the Monsters! included in the same set. Oops.

For that reason, we’d been putting this off a bit. Andy wanted to do the original Japanese version back to back with the US edit and that running time was a bit of an obstacle. Finally we buckled down and put it in. And it was good! Really dark and really interesting and really well done. But as the movie went on I started to wonder about the pacing. I mean, I’ve watched a lot of movies. I’d watched a lot well before we started this project but I think now I can definitely state I’ve seen a lot of movies. And the pacing just didn’t feel right. Here were the two male leads putting on diving suits, preparing to unleash a deadly weapon on the monster after several failed attempts to kill it. There’d been mass destruction and death and a fight between the male leads and a tearful revelation by the female lead and it all pointed to the movie ending relatively soon. And yet we were at just under an hour and a half. So I looked it up. 98 minutes. It’s more than a little disorienting to realize a movie is over an hour shorter than you expected. But it does mean that there’s nothing wrong with the pacing!

My background with Godzilla isn’t remotely the same as Andy’s. He grew up watching monster movies. I grew up watching stuff like Solarbabies. I think he got the better end of the deal, much as I love Solarbabies and will love it forever. But I think it’s important for me to note that my family wasn’t a movie-going family and we also weren’t too much of a movie-watching family outside of a few particular favorites. I really started getting into movies in high school and I admit, monster movies weren’t something I sought out. I saw quite a few through MST3K and I didn’t try to go any further. I was quite aware that Godzilla had been edited for western audiences and that while the newer movies in the franchise were, sometimes, on the silly side, the original was far more serious. I just hadn’t ever made the time to watch it.

Silly, really, because this is a classic and well deserving of its status as one. This is a far cry from the cheese of something like Godzilla vs. Megalon. The story is the introduction of the titular monster, but also more a parable of destructive force causing tragedy and the morality of using greater destructive force against it. As an allegory for nuclear war it’s pretty obvious. At least to me at this point in history. But that doesn’t mean it’s poorly done. Just the opposite, in fact. Because it’s a good story and a good monster movie, regardless of the allegorical implications.

The story begins with a series of mysterious attacks on boats. There are no survivors found until one washes ashore on the beach of a nearby island and only lives long enough to give a few vague details. As the monster continues its periodic destruction the people of Japan begin to realize just how bad it can get. The locals on the island that’s first affected have some inkling of what’s going on, having had legends of a monster from the sea. Everyone else has to learn the hard way: By seeing the monster destroy their homes and families. Once it’s clear that there’s a real threat here the folks in charge start to talk about just how they’re going to deal with it. Many want the monster killed, but a few, such as paleontologist Professor Yamane, believe the monster should be studied as well. The professor’s daughter’s suitor, however, believes the monster must be killed. So that right there puts them at odds. And then there’s Dr. Serizawa, who has created a weapon that could destroy the monster, but could then be co-opted by others for less necessary purposes. This all creates a good deal of character tension in the midst of the horrific disasters and that makes for a more solid story.

If there wasn’t much in the way of character interaction then the whole allegory would just fall apart. The allegory is rooted in the interactions. Because it’s clear in the movie that there is no good answer. That either the monster will continue wreaking havoc or a terrible weapon will have to be unleashed to stop it. There’s no right answer there. There’s no good answer there. Of course the destruction has to stop, but the cost of stopping it is so great. This movie doesn’t pull its punches. It lets you know just how bad it got, from scenes of devastated cities to children crying over their dead parents. And the effects and cinematography are still fantastic, even now. The music too, adds to the whole mood of the movie. It’s somber and grave. This isn’t a monster movie you watch for fun. It’s a thoughtful commentary on arms escalation and morality, but told with explosions and a huge monster and all the trappings of monster action flicks.

September 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gojira

September 10, 2011

Gojira

I have a long history with the Godzilla films. I’ve been a fan since I first saw the big rubber galoot during the Channel 56 Creature Double Feature. The movies had everything a thirteen year old boy could want in a movie. Aliens. Robots. Giant rubber monsters. Hilarious dubbing. I always wanted, however, to see the movies in a more pure form, un-dubbed and un-cut. I figured when DVD came around that Toho would eventually come out with special editions of the movies with sub-titles for American audiences so we could see the films the way they were meant to be seen. Since the movies are generally considered light-weight pop sci-fi this hasn’t really come to pass unfortunately, but this, the first Godzilla movie is an exception.

This film is not a popcorn sci-fi film for kids – it’s a serious disaster movie and obvious allegory about the dangers of nuclear proliferation. In addition, as the progenitor of the entire Godzilla line, and indeed the beginning of the Japanese giant rubber monster genre, this film has special historical significance. So it was that for the fiftieth anniversary Toho released this deluxe edition DVD set that includes the original Japanese Gojira movie. At last I got to see at least one of the Godzilla movies in its original form.

It’s a good thing, too, because if ever there was a movie that needed to be seen in Japanese with English subtitles to be properly appreciated it is this one. This movie is so quintessentially Japanese. Before the infamous monster ever appears on the screen we spend an awful lot of time being introduced to the little fishing village where he starts his reign of terror. As with many a monstery disaster movie the film starts out as more of a mystery. What has caused a small fleet of fishing boats and the boats sent to rescue them to disappear? There are only a couple survivors and they say that it was a monster that destroyed their boats. A supremely grizzled old man declares that it must be the same monster that used to terrorise the village known as Gojira.

At the heart of this movie are four human characters. There’s the scientifically minded paleontologist Dr Yamane who is the first to piece together just what the monster is. There’s his lovely daughter Emiko. There’s her fiance Ogata, and her childhood friend the one-eyed mad scientist Serizawa. Then of course there’s the two million year old living fossil with radioactive breath from hydrogen bomb tests – Godzilla himself.

Dr. Yamane doesn’t actually want the beast destroyed. He’d rather study the monster to understand it and how its species remained alive on the ocean bottom long after such dinosaurs were thought extinct. This causes some friction with Ogata, who takes a while to gather the nerve to ask the doctor if he can have his daughter’s hand in marriage, but insists that Godzilla is a threat that must be eliminated at all costs. Serizawa, meanwhile, has developed an ultimate weapon called an Oxygen Destructor that could probably destroy the monster, but he doesn’t want it to fall into the hands of politicians who could corrupt it and start a new arms race. He tells only Emiko of his discovery and swears her to secrecy.

A couple things struck me as I watched this again tonight. The first was just how bleak parts of this movie are. After Gojira’s attack on Tokyo there are several scenes in infirmaries and hospitals that drive home that this attack has not just destroyed a bunch of detailed models and set fire to sets – it has had a brutal impact on the people of Japan. There are irradiated children. There is a dead woman and her inconsolable daughter. There are hundreds of bodies on stretchers. It is a powerful scene of emotional devastation which must have been even more intense when the film first came out, less than ten years after Japan became the only nation on the planet ever to be attacked with nuclear weapons.

The other thing that struck me this time was the caliber of the talent brought on board for this movie. Of course the monster itself and the destruction it wreaks are fantastic to watch. The special effects work as well today as they ever did. I also love the actors they have on board. In particular I was amused when I thought I recognised the actor playing Dr. Yamane and checked IMDB to find that he is the ubiquitous Takashi Shimura (who we will also be seeing in The Seven Samurai when we review that for our collection.) Glancing at his resume leads me to believe that he probably starred in every Japanese movie made in the twentieth century. Or close to it.

I still heartily wish that there were a comprehensive Godzilla special edition collection that gave the same kind of attention to even the cheesiest and stupidest of Godzilla movies as is lovingly provided to the original on this DVD, but at least for now I can take comfort in the fact that we have this one movie in our collection. I’ve proposed the idea to Amanda that we should watch the dubbed American version tomorrow as a separate film, since so much was altered to make it more palatable for American audiences. We’ll see how we feel about that tomorrow.

September 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 556 – The Host

The Host – September 7th, 2011

I have probably asked Andy what this is every time I’ve looked at our movie list. It wasn’t something I recognized and his description of it wouldn’t stick in my head. Probably because I’m pretty sure his description was usually something very short, like “It’s a Korean monster movie” or “It’s a Korean horror movie.” And to be honest, that just doesn’t grab me. Nothing about that tells me what the movie’s story is or how it’s done. Really, that’s a very generic description, and as I’m not a horror fan and he didn’t give me much in the way of details about the monster, it had very little to set it apart in my mind. I thrive on details. Telling me something is “a period drama” or “a musical” isn’t going to get me excited either. There had to be a reason why this Korean monster movie and not another, right? But without details, how am I supposed to know that reason?

Turns out the reason is that it’s a very well done monster movie with a sense of humor I’m beginning to consider a staple in Korean movies. It’s not a comedy. Far from it. But it has comedic aspects to it that would feel bizarrely out of place in most other serious monster movies. And make no mistake, this is also a serious movie. It has Things To Say about the government and pollution and the United States military. And the monster kills people. This isn’t some goofy monster that just causes panic or something. It doesn’t destroy buildings but leave the people unharmed. No. It kills people and eats them and saves some to savor later. It belches out the bones of its prey after digestion, leaving no doubt that it’s a killer. It is a malicious force and the movie sets that out right at the beginning. There is no question.

Still, there is humor here. Mostly from the main cast and their interactions. The Park family runs a snack cart near the river, serving up fried squid, instant ramen and beer to people relaxing on the riverbank. The family consists of the owner of the cart, Park Hee-bong, his three adult children (unemployed college grad Nam-il, archery champion Nam-joo and lazy eldest son Gang-du) and his eldest son’s pre-teen daughter, Hyun-seo. The whole family loves Hyun-seo, but derides Gang-du for always being asleep and for not even attempting to do anything with his life. Really though, the whole family has problems. There’s Gang-du, obviously, who spends all his time working at his father’s cart and sleeping. Nam-il finished college (paid for by his father’s tireless work at the snack cart) but all he’s done since is drink. And Nam-joo has the makings of a gold medalist, but hesitates every time and always lands lower than she should. Hyun-seo obviously loves her family, but is exasperated by her father and uncle and saddened by her aunt’s failure to live up to her potential. And the movie takes the time to introduce all these characters to the audience and make them at least a little sympathetic as individuals and more sympathetic as a family. And then it has the monster kidnap Hyun-seo.

The monster is created early in the movie, well before we meet the Park family. An American military doctor tells a Korean assistant that the formaldehyde bottles in the morgue are too dusty and to dump all of it. The assistant argues that dust on the bottles doesn’t mean they have to dump it all and that the chemicals are dangerous and shouldn’t just be dumped. But the doctor insists and so the formaldehyde is dumped down the drain and into the Han river in Seoul. I suspect it’s meant to be more than just formaldehyde. I have a vivid recollection from high school of being told to be careful mixing formaldehyde with other chemicals. And given the results, it seems like it would make sense for it to be a combination of noxious chemical liquids that produces the giant fish monster that is the basis for the movie. Formaldehyde alone just doesn’t work for me, so even though it’s the only chemical mentioned by name in the English subtitles, I’m going to run with “formaldehyde et. al.” to describe what gets dumped. Formaldehyde alone would be boring.

So this big fish monster with legs comes up out of the river one day and attacks a ton of people hanging out on the shore. Gang-du runs, tries to fight it along with a American dude, sees it kill people by the dozen, then tries to grab his daughter to keep her out of harm’s way and finds that he’s grabbed a similarly dressed stranger by accident. The monster has Hyun-seo. Everyone who was present for the attack gets quarantined, especially Gang-du, who was in direct contact with the creature. And in the middle of all of this somewhat serious monster movie drama the entire Park family engages in over-the-top hysterics and slapstick fighting while grieving for Hyun-seo. It is one of the stranger things I’ve seen in a movie recently because it just seems so unlike what I expect from the tone of the rest of the movie. And it’s not the first or last time there’s a bit of slapstick comedy tossed into an otherwise serious plot. I’ll just have to make a point of watching more Korean movies to see if it’s a cultural thing I’m just not personally familiar with. I like it! I’m just a little bemused by it.

Anyhow, it turns out that Hyun-seo isn’t dead. She’s been stashed in a sewer for the monster to snack on later. So the family breaks out of the hospital and cashes in everything they have to pay for weapons and a map of the sewer system so they can go find her. Things escalate and one member of the family gets killed. The government bans people from the whole river area and news comes out of the US that the monster transmitted a deadly virus to the American guy Gang-du fought the monster with. It all turns out to be a smokescreen for the Americans to save face after being the cause of the monster’s existence in the first place and the movie’s pretty clear on that. There’s a whole lot going on in this movie, and I’m not just talking about the monster and the action and the family drama. Reading over some analysis done by people native to Korea, it makes me wish I knew more about the culture and country. There’s some very obvious messages, such as the dumping of the formaldehyde (et. al.) in the river and the US lies about the creature. But then there’s some subtle stuff I didn’t pick up on at all. It was an interesting movie, and a well made movie. It also wasn’t at all what I was expecting, which is a good thing, because I was expecting something generic and forgettable and that’s not what I got.

September 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Host

September 7, 2011

The Host

Many times in the last year and a half that we’ve been doing this movie-a-day project Amanda has looked at our list of movies to review and asked “What’s The Host?” A couple of times I’ve had to stop and think for a moment. What is The Host? Oh, yeah. It’s that weird Korean monster movie. Now Amanda doesn’t have quite the same fondness for monster movies that I have from my youth, so this hasn’t been high on her list of must-see films. Indeed, as we started watching tonight she wondered aloud just what possessed me to buy this in the first place. The short and easy answer is that I was intrigued by the glowing reviews I read in Entertainment Weekly which hailed this as a new Godzilla. here’s more to it than that though. I’m always on the look out for well regarded foreign films because I like to see viewpoints I’m not familiar with represented in my collection. And let’s face it, I’m a sucker for a cool creepy beast that eats people. This movie delivers well on both those fronts.

This movie is decidedly not American. Indeed the primary villains (aside from the monster I mean) are all Americans. They’re responsible (through their irresponsible pollution) for the creation of the beast. Then they’re the ones who start the entire virus scare that pretty much drives the plot. In point of fact the Americans in this movie are rock stupid and obstinate. Then there’s the strangely comedic elements of the film which seem out of place in a tense horror film. There’s a distinctive sort of tongue in cheek sense of humor that Amanda and I have noticed in all of our Korean action films.

The protagonist of this movie is a bit of a loser. he’s a dim, mouth-breathing, semi narcoleptic screw up named Park Gang-Du. Gang-Du is an embarrassment to his father Hie-bong, who allows him to work in the family refreshment kiosk and to his seventh-grade daughter Hyun-seo. His brother Nam-il is a wastrel and a drunkard. His sister Nam-Joo seems to be the most successful of the whole family as a championship archer, though she has a strange emotional detachment to her.

The other star of the movie is of course the monster itself. It is a kind of giant lumbering fish thing that rises up out of the river near the Park family stand and starts killing people. It moves quite quickly considering its ungainly bulk, dragging itself around on its misshapen fore-limbs and swinging from its prehensile tail. Director Bong Joon-ho does a great job of keeping the creature enigmatic. It’s so malformed and bizarre that even when it has considerable screen time it is difficult to figure out its anatomy. It has a fish like mouth with no teeth but prominant gums like a parrot fish, but with multiple mandible like jaws and fangs surrounding its gullet. It has sort of toe-like protuberances on its flippers and multiple twisted limbs projecting from its sides and back.

When the creature first emerges from the river and starts menacing people it ends its rampage by grabbing Gang-Du’s daughter and carrying her off. At first he and his family think she is dead, and they mourn her rather over dramatically. Then the government starts to quarantine survivors, claiming that the monster is host to a deadly virus. While in quarantine Gang-Du receives a phone call from his daughter who, it turns out, has survived and is being kept by the monster, presumably as a midnight snack. Nobody will listen to or believe his tale though, so he and his misfit family must break out of the hospital to search for her on their own.

This movie has so many familiar elements. The plucky normal people forced to take matters into their own hands when their government lets them down. The strange government cover up and attempts to use the event to dominate people and drop poisonous “agent yellow” on the river banks. The lone survivor of a devastating attack trying to stay alive and escape. All of it has a distinctly foreign air to it though. It just feels slightly off kilter, and I think that’s what I like about it most.

This movie reminds me most of District 9 out of the films in our collection. It has the corrupt powers that be attempting to perform sick experiments on their own people. It has that air of an independent film made with cutting edge special effects which defies Hollywood convention. It’s simultaneously slick and well made and strange and unfamiliar. Some of it is the cultural divide between myself and the probable intended audience, but some of it is that this movie just isn’t trying to be the same as the films I’m used to. It’s a huge blockbuster hit, but it wasn’t made to sell popcorn and carbonated sugar water to bloated Americans. It was made for an altogether different demographic, and that was just the kind of movie I was looking for when I added it to my collection.

September 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 533 – Pan’s Labyrinth

Pan’s Labyrinth – August 15th, 2011

Unlike the movie from last night, this is a movie I’d been meaning to see for a long time. It was sort of a victim of overhype, but in the sense that I’d heard such good things about it and I was petrified that it wouldn’t live up to what I was expecting. I wanted it to be magical and unreal and everything that The Brothers Grimm failed at. I wanted a new fairytale I’d never read or seen before and I wanted it to feel right. And I was so worried that something about it would ring false to me. That something other people were able to accept or overlook would jump out at me and ruin it all and I didn’t want that. So I didn’t watch it.

Thankfully, this movie was everything I wanted it to be, including incredibly dark and cruel. Which fits. Have you read any of the original Grimm stories? Take a look at The Juniper Tree for a good example. These were stories meant as lessons and cautionary tales. They weren’t padded at the corners with comic relief and lessened consequences like the Disney versions. People do horrible things to other people in the old stories. Parents hurt their children and people die hideous deaths. Gruesome things happen. And I should have known that Guillermo del Toro would get the tone right. He’s clearly well versed in the feel and mood of folklore like this.

The story has all the hallmarks of a classic fairytale: A young girl off in an unfamiliar place, a sick parent and a cruel step-parent, the promise of a better life and a quest to obtain it. But it’s all set in a very real time and place, a few years after the Spanish Civil War, in the woods where rebels are still fighting and the military has set up a presence at an old mill to try and weed them out. Ofelia and her mother arrive to stay with Ofelia’s new step-father, the sadistic Captain Vidal. Her mother is heavily pregnant and the pregnancy is going poorly. Ofelia worries about her mother, refuses to accept Vidal as her new father and yearns for something more. And she is rewarded for her imagination with the appearance of a fairy who leads her to a labyrinth in the woods. A labyrinth with a strange creature inside who tells her of another world where she is a princess, lost long ago. She’s given a quest to complete three tasks to reopen the other world and of course she accepts the challenge.

Now, in older fairytales, it’s simply accepted that there’s magic in the world and that it can be dangerous but also helpful if used right. That seems to be par for the course. In this story, however, the people around Ofelia have plenty to worry about without magic and believe that she simply has an active imagination and lets it get the better of her at times. She ruins a new party dress by climbing into a hole in a treestump and getting all muddy. She disappears when she should be somewhere important. She uses folk remedies to try and help her mother. And almost all of the adults around Ofelia are dismissive at best and downright cruel at worst. Ofelia has legitimate fears of losing her mother, of what her step-father is capable of, of her new baby brother dying. And not only are the majority of the adults around her dismissive of what they claim is her imagination, but they dismiss her fears. They dismiss her.

Now, it would be incredibly easy to write off the fantasy aspect of the movie as being all in Ofelia’s head. It’s a fairly easy leap to make from fantasy to coping mechanism. And that’s all well and good. It works on that level just fine and I wouldn’t argue with anyone who wanted to view the movie in that light. Personally, however, I prefer to believe that it’s a melding of the two. That when Ofelia most needed some magic in her life to cope with the horrible events unfolding around her, the magic in the world responded. It could be argued either way, and I can see how one might lean towards the fantasy being imaginary, given that it doesn’t end up saving Ofelia’s mother and it doesn’t fix everything right from the start, but that’s just not how these stories work. There are always tasks to be undertaken and prices to be paid and monsters to defeat. If you don’t take the time to prove your worth, then you haven’t earned the help you’re being offered.

Likewise, I choose to take the ending as it’s presented to me. In a fairytale, with a magical land under the ground, there’s no reason why Ofelia couldn’t be transported there. She’s repaid for the work she did and the people left behind in the regular world don’t need to know what’s happened. It suits a story of war for there to have been such a loss. As painful as the situation must be for Ofelia’s one stalwart supporter, the amazing Mercedes, she’s not one to shy away from painful situations. The combination of magic and non-magic worlds hinged on Ofelia’s presence, so her departure leaves Mercedes to deal with the real world problems she needs to focus on. I like that there’s a separation there. That the worlds converge for the space of the story and then separate again.

And let me take a moment to praise the character of Mercedes, who is one of the strongest women I’ve seen in a movie in a while. She is fantastic and powerful and sympathetic and amazingly well presented. I loved everything about her. She is, as an adult, dealing with difficult situations that Ofelia, as a child, is not ready to handle. The two of them together are fantastically well written characters and I loved seeing them in the same movie, reflecting powerful female characters at two stages of life.

The other thing I’d like to praise, which makes the movie complete, is the visual style. It is distinctly Guillermo del Toro’s style, and that is gorgeously perfect for a story like this. I’m sure if I could spend more time on this and more time on the movie itself that I would see more and more and more details that connect back to the story itself and its meanings. It’s a rich world in both aspects, with the real world no less deep than the fantasy world, just with a different look. If the visuals didn’t work the movie would still be a wonderfully told story with fantastic characters and acting, but it would feel as if it had been cheated of much of its depth had it not looked like it does. Fortunately, the movie has everything I could have asked for and everything I hoped it would and I was very much not disappointed.

August 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pan’s Labyrinth

August 15, 2011

Pan’s Labyrinth

More than a year ago, when Amanda and I first embarked on this movie a day project, we randomly chose a movie from our stacks and that movie was Hellboy 2. (Because we wanted to watch movies in order we instead watched Hellboy first of course.) It was through those two beautiful movies that I first discovered the work of Guillarmo Del Toro, and from the first time I saw Hellboy in the theater I was a dedicated fan of his vision. (I had seen Mimic and Blade II, but I didn’t really begin to pay attention to his name until I saw Hellboy.) This movie is probably the most purely Del Toro one we own – it shows just what kind of film he can create if allowed to do something completely original and completely in his own way. The result is absolutely one of the most beautiful movies we own.

This movie has been pitched as a fairy tale for adults. I have to admit that I’m somewhat resentful that such a film should be so very rare. Yes, it is a beautiful fairy tale with fantasy creatures, a fairy princess who has been re-born as a human, magic and fairy tale tasks. Yes, it also contains scenes of violence, blood, torture and oppression which are wholly inappropriate for children. In my mind however there is no rule which states that a fantasy film has to be appropriate for a young audience. Adults need fantasy too, perhaps even more so than children.

What Del Toro has done here is wrap a young girl’s fantasy adventure up inside a stark tale of war in Spain during World War Two. Young Ofelia has come to the Spanish countryside with her pregnant mother to live with her wicked stepfather. He is a captain in the army tasked with quelling a local communist underground and he is petty, bureaucratic, violent, egotistical and thoroughly evil. Near the mill he is using for a base of operations there is an ancient labyrinth, and one day Ofelia is led by a fairy deep into the maze where she meets a decrepit old faun who greets her as the long lost daughter of the king of the underworld.

The faun tells her that she can re-gain her immortality and join her father in the underworld if she can complete three tasks before the next full moon. These are fairy tale tasks like retrieving a key from the belly of a toad which has polluted the roots of an ancient fig tree or recovering a dagger from the lair of a child-eating pale monster which is simultaneously emaciated and bloated. She also wants to find a way to help her mother, whose pregnancy is not going well and naturally she loathes her wicked step-father.

Meanwhile Captain Vidal has been clamping down on the local populace in an attempt to root out the rebels. There’s a vivid scene where he brutally murders an elderly hunter and his son because he thinks they might be in cahoots. He is becoming paranoid and desperate. Things are made worse by the fact that several of his trusted staff members are working against him, such as the kindly house-keeper who cares for Ofelia while her mother is ill and the local doctor. Vidal is absolutely the worst kind of petty tyrant and his only real concern is that Ofelia’s mother bear him a healthy son to carry on his line. Del Toro has him obsessed with his dead father’s cracked pocket watch and living in the mill surrounded by gears and cogs – he’s very much a man of the mechanical future.

That’s the kind of gorgeous, detailed visual feast that this movie is. Guillermo Del Toro has used the familiar tropes of fairy tales and given them vivid life. It’s like taking a trip into his dreams, or maybe into his nightmares. As with most authentic fairy tales there’s a darkness here. There’s blood and danger, and monsters. You can see Del Toro’s hand in everything here – it’s like his sketchbooks made real and it’s fantastic to behold.

Also fantastic to behold is Doug Jones both as the faun at the heart of the labyrinth and the sinister “pale man.” He’s such an expressive actor, able to communicate so much with an intricate wave of his hands. Even delivering his lines in unfamiliar Spanish he has a fantastic flair, it’s always a delight to see him at work.

After saying all that, however, I have to admit that I am slightly disappointed in this movie. It’s visually stunning, and it does a wonderful job of giving life to fairy tales, but I’m not sure I like the way that the fantasy fits into the real world around it. Only Ofelia ever sees anything fantastic in this movie. Everybody else is trapped in a nightmare world of violence and death. The conclusion of the movie is left very much open for interpretation but I can’t help feeling that the fantasy in the movie is more of an escape for Ofelia and not something that really makes a difference in her life or changes her circumstances. Does she learn anything or gain any strength from her adventures? I like to believe that fantasy and magic are there to improve our lives and act to make us better people, not just to offer a refuge.

That is a small quibble and a mater of interpretation more than anything else, though. This is a powerful, beautiful, magical movie, and an absolute masterpiece. It makes me sad that Guillermo seems to have concentrated more of his energies on producing of late and hasn’t directed a movie since Hellboy II. I love visiting his sad, dark, fantastic worlds and long for another chance to do so.

August 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment