Sunday, October 20, 2013

Not Everything is About Princesses and Pokémon

            Recently I had a sudden urge to stroke my own ego; so I began to look at my past articles, only to discover that the only foreign animated films I have recommended were Japanese. A travesty, I say! So to compensate for this oversight I've decide to recommend three animated films that are not Japanese or American. Please note these are very unconventional; not recommended for kids, but that is not the point.  Animation is a medium that has been pigeonholed by two different markets; neither of which have any interest in expanding beyond family films and/or geek oddities.  These films reveal an alternative to such monotony.

Chico & Rita (Spanish)
            There are boobs in the first twenty minutes; and now that I have your attention lets talk about mambo and jazz because that is the real story of Chico & Rita.  The plot of this film is a simple romantic melodrama between a jazz pianist and an aspiring singer, who are destined to be together even though their rise to fame, sinister temptations, and later the revolution seem to tear them apart.  The story is Hollywood flavored cheese; but the music is so sensual, groovy, cool, and spontaneous that its charm alone pushes the plot in a steamy rush. The fact that the main characters’ own musical progressions reveal their internal struggles and development makes for a deeply satisfying plot that is not cloying.
            The fairly realistic animation is deceptive at first, and it can make one wonder why it was not filmed with live action. It is the color; the solid, bright, Pop Art style color palette of Chico & Rita compliments the glamour and romance of the story in a way that nothing in the real world can offer.  Like Moulin Rouge and Singin’ in the Rain; Chico & Rita is a film that is not meant to be life changing, but life affirming, which is not bad for a scandalous little movie.
(Streaming on Netflix, available for rent on Amazon Instant Video, also available on DVD and Blu-ray)

Persepolis (French)
            If there was one year that Pixar should not have won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, it was in 2007 for Ratatouille.  It is not because Ratatouille was a bad film, in fact it is a great film, but Persepolis was one of the best films of the year. For one reason is that the story is impeccable. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, Persepolis is a coming of age story of Marjane Satrapi as she lives through the Iranian Revolution. Imagine going through the same issues kids have when they become adults: the existential crisis, and sexual identity issues. Now imagine the once normal world slowly, then suddenly becoming a religious fundamentalist tyranny.  This stark plot is complemented with an equally stark black-and-white color scheme and abstract, stylish and often surreal animation.  Persepolis will not provide people the immediate warm satisfaction of a Pixar film; but it does show a unique perspective, as well as a more intellectual stimulation on the Middle East than any American studio in the past ten years.
(Streaming on Amazon, also available on DVD and Blu-ray)

Mary and Max (Australian)
            A common criticism with animated features is that they value style over substance, which is when the film looks cool but never tackles with equally interesting themes, nor with any grace. Nightmare Before Christmas, while fun to watch, is a cartoon that values style over substance. Mary and Max; a story about an eight-year-old Aussie girl and a 44-year-old New Yorker who become pen pals, is a film that has a lot of substance and little style.  The few sets are minimal, the characters are crude and there are only three prominent voices in the film. Yet within the first twenty minutes Mary and Max sets up themes of alcoholism, unwanted children, neurosis, melancholy, and sexual frustration; great fodder for a dramatic comedy.  But what makes Mary and Max so great is how it portrays friendships as an anchor.  Even as the main characters suffer the trials of their lives, the one thing that keeps them balanced is the tales they trade and the film never cloying about this message.  Mary and Max may lack style, but with a screenplay this strong, it does not need to look cool.
(Streaming on Netflix and Amazon, also available on DVD and Blu-ray)


            The point of this is that there are animated perspectives that go beyond whimsy, goofiness, ninja action figures, et cetera. The biggest problem with the film industry right now is that nobody wants to explore, at all. The audience doesn't want to explore, so the filmmakers don't experiment, and the filmmakers don't experiment because the audience won't explore. The point is: Do not make my mistake, explore! Even if one or all of these prove to be too odd for one’s taste, they prove that animation is more than just a family market. Plus, this is the Internet, nothing is hard to find anymore.  If you can find this blog, then you can find good movies.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Great Dictator

            Charlie Chaplin joked about looking like Hitler before it was cool; not only that he satirized the Third Reich before it was even fashionable, so yeah, The Great Dictator is a milestone.  In Chaplin’s first talking picture, The Great Dictator revolves around two characters, both played by Chaplin. One is Hynkel, the Dictator of Tomainia, whose maniacal tirades become the comedic target of the film. The other is an unnamed Jewish barber who faces the brutality that comes from Hynkel’s tyranny. Through these two stories Chaplin expresses the statement to end the rule of warmongers, which was shocking at the time. The sheer display of audacity of the picture alone is enough to recommend The Great Dictator; yet it proves to be innovative for both filmmaking as well as political satire.
            Even if The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s first foray into traditional sound filmmaking he proves to be more experimental than ever. True, his films City Lights and Modern Times used sound effects for satirical purposes, but they were silent films at heart. Given that The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s first true sound picture the film proves to be very ambitious statement. The marriage between sound, music and Chaplin’s comic timing provide some of the most funny and even beautiful moments of the entire film.

            The Great Dictator proves to be a biting satire of Hitler that reveals a malevolent fool who somehow came into power. By contrasting this lunatic with the Barber, Charlie Chaplin shows the tragic consequences of a tyrant exploiting such power. The Great Dictator is a genuinely funny film that is not afraid to reveal the (then contemporary) problems of the world.  In short, The Great Dictator is one of the best examples of a pen being mightier than a sword, even if that pen was only used to write silly sketches.
(Available on DVD and Blu-ray on Amazon and Criterion.com)

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Stagecoach (1939)

            So an alcoholic, a whiskey runner, a banker, a gambler, a Southern Belle, a hooker, a Federal Marshal, and John Wayne step into a stagecoach; hilarity ensues. Teasing aside, Stagecoach is a fun action western that revolves around one’s expectation of the characters. The story subtly portrays each character through multiple perspectives to show that even the lowest of us can provide something great for this world.  For example the alcoholic is a brilliant doctor, the gambler is a gentleman, and et cetera. The use of multiple perspectives not only makes Stagecoach a unique western but also one of the first great character driven ensemble films.
            That being said there is something hypocritical about a diverse group of white people who are trying to set their prejudices aside so they can fight against the Native Americans. Yes, the way the Native Americans are portrayed as stereotypical, but they are nothing more than a Macguffin, a plot device whose sole purpose is to move the story forward. In fact, aside from the banker, who was a parody of Hoover politics, every antagonist in Stagecoach is a Macguffin. Personally, there is nothing inherently wrong with this plot device because that is all it is, but if the film point was not “ all people are not what you presume them to be” and was instead “all people are what you presume them to be” I would have thrown the DVD out the window.
            In short, the story of Stagecoach is still entertaining, and in certain aspects the story is great. This is not even taking into account John Wayne’s surprisingly great performance and the cinematography of Monument Valley. There are elements, like the American Indian stereotypes, that show the age of the film but they are innocuous enough to not ruin the film.  Stagecoach is both a contemplative and wild ride that can win over even the most skeptical viewer.

(Stagecoach is available on DVD, and Blu-ray through Criterion.com, as well as streaming through Amazon.com)

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Ten Great Films of the Sixties Part 2


            Hello Blog, it's been awhile. One problem with being a student is time management.  This last semester was much harder than I expected, and as the split of this top ten list shows, it became clear that my project has become too bloated to maintain..  So for the sake of my grades made the decision to go on hiatus.  Now the semester has ended and thus I found time to finish this segment. That being said, it will be best if I do less lists and try do smaller precise reviews. Anyway back to the Sixties.

5. Lawrence of Arabia
            Based on a true story, Lawrence of Arabia is about the British Army officer T.E Lawrence, and how he unites many Arabic tribes in order to liberate the country during World War I.  The story is a traditional war epic, but the plot is about a man’s internal struggle for an identity. While he is loyal to the British Army, Lawrence has a greater bond with his Arabic comrades than any of his commanders; and this is where the true conflict lies within this epic.  Peter O’Toole plays the titular Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean gloriously directs the picture, and it is about 217 minutes long…
            In theory, an epic like Lawrence of Arabia should be easy to praise, but it is such an imposing film.  The fact that the film is long enough to require an intermission is enough to scare the hell out of anyone, including other film geeks.  That being said, Lawrence of Arabia is too magnificent to ignore. The spectacle alone is enough of a reason to watch Lawrence of Arabia.  Only a director as bombastic as David Lean could make the Sahara Desert look this beautiful.  The musical score by Maurice Jarre is unforgettable, filled with gentle, sweeping, exotic string chords. It is amazing that the entire spectacle does not swallow up the performers.  But the most important thing to know about Lawrence of Arabia is that the plot is powerful enough to justify the four-hour running time.
(Lawrence of Arabia is available on DVD, Blu-ray and Amazon Instant Video)