Sunday, December 14, 2014

Symbolism: The Seventh Seal

"Who will take care of that child? Is it the angels or God or Satan or just emptiness?" Jöns

During the mid-fourteenth century, knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) have finished their crusade in the Holy Land and return to their homeland of Sweden to find it devastated by the bubonic plague. Block challenges Death (Bengt Ekerot) to a game of chess, hoping to buy some time before he himself is taken. The man desires knowledge of the afterlife (a wee bit like good ol' Doc Faustus), believing that his life has been pointless and that God is, if not uncaring, then unfairly silent. As they journey to Block's castle, the duo run into a troupe of performers, a procession of flagellants, and masses of terrified of villagers—some of whom join Block's entourage as he makes his way home and tries to escape the reach of the black death and an impending apocalypse.

This 1957 film by Ingmar Bergman (based on his own play entitled Wood Painting), is widely known for being philosophical and contains such themes as the silence of a 'Divine Being', the indifference of death, the meaning of human existence, et cetera. Because of its use of motifs, I thought it pertinent to do a post on symbolism present in The Seventh Seal. If you are unaware, a symbol is a thing that stands for something else—especially a material object that represents something abstract.

Not Rated. I would say at least PG for portrayals of death and implications of rape.
Amazing poster by artist Jim Perez, taken from here.

The number seven: The title of the film refers to a passage from the Book of Revelation in Christian eschatology. It is used both at the beginning and near the end of the story, each time emphasizing the number seven. That seems to be a popular digit in the Bible (used no less than seven hundred thirty-five times throughout—fifty-four in Revelations alone). In the context of the film, it is introduced thusly:

And when the Lamb broke the seventh seal,
there was silence in heaven for about the space of half an hour.
And I saw the seven angels which stood before God;
and to them were given seven trumpets.

According to BibleStudy.org, "seven is the number of completeness and perfection (both physical and spiritual). It derives much of its meaning from being tied directly to God’s creation of all things." I found this interesting, as the film's focus seems to be more on destruction. A genius parallel made by Bergman? Both Block and Jöns speak of mirroring themselves, and creation v. destruction is a perfect duality reflected in all aspects of life. Anyhow, the 'breaking' of the seven seals is meant to bring on the apocalypse, and the only one deemed worthy of opening the book/scroll that is held shut by the seals is a "Lamb having seven horns and seven eyes." To the characters in this story—and to those who lived during that time in history—surely the arrival of such a plague would have made it seem as though the end was nigh and punishment from their God was imminent.

Crows: This symbol stretches well outside the confines of the film and into both folk tradition and pop culture. Most obviously, perhaps, crows represent death as they are scavengers that feed off of the freshly fallen. Their black colour paints them as harbingers of evil and allies of the occult. Throughout history, people have looked upon crows as masqued holders of both great secrets and memories of ancient ways. The very first shot in The Seventh Seal is of a cloudy sky, a crow streaking across the heavens.

The sea: Block and Jöns arrive in their native land on a beach. This is also where the former first encounters the personification of Death and where the travelling acrobats take refuge at the end of the film. The ocean symbolizes travela journey—as well as earth's primality. As I recently learned in an Asian studies/humanities course, water is also a form of purification...though I am not sure if the same understanding is held in Western European countries where, in the middle ages, many pious individuals refused to bathe as they believed it to invite sinfulness andironicallydisease. At any rate, Block washes his face with sea water and prays next to the waves, so he must have felt something divine at such a locale. (For those interested, these scenes were shot at Hovs Hallar in north-western Scania.)

One of the flagellants grasping a human skull. Kudos to the props dept...I've seen worse.

Black & White: Colours should also be taken into consideration when analyzing symbols. These two are especially important not only because The Seventh Seal is filmed sans colour so as to better highlight the striking contrast, but also because of the game of chess between Block and Death. The board and the pieces are clearly defined, illustrating the difference between what some perceive as good v. evil. When first choosing their sides Block remarks, "You have black," to which Death responds, "It's most appropriate, isn't it?" It is also worth noting that whilst Death is clad in a pure black cloak his visage is stark white like a skull. I choose to interpret this particular symbolism as follows: we all die, our flesh fading to cartilage, our consciousness turning to nothingness. Deep, eh?

Travel: Life is transitory. The characters in this film move from one place to the next only to reach their final destination in death.

Religion: 'Protection' from death. Priests act as fearmongers, going so far as to commission a painting of the dance of death to "remind people they will die," and hiring the troupe of performers to put on a play during an All Saints Festival in Elsinore that will drive more people to repent for their sins. Even Block makes a confession to someone whom he thinks is a holy man, only later finding out that it is Death in disguise. The reaper infiltrates all aspects of life—religion is naught but a construct to fend off our innate fears.

Omens of the Last Day: Medieval villagers tend to be a little superstitious. To be fair, I would be too if "a woman gave birth to a calf" or if people had "cleaned themselves by fire and died." That's some dark juju. One of my favourite aspects of learning history has to do with understanding the mentality of a society, something which is often tied to belief systems and the intersection of faith with daily life. While this film is more allegorical rather than historically accurate (esp. given that the last Swedish Crusade took place in the late 1200s and the plague didn't hit until half a century later, or that large scale witch hunts didn't begin until the 1400s), each character's reaction to his or her circumstance was believable enough to be appreciated.

Names: "Antonius" is Swedish in origin and means "priceless," much like life, as he discovers. Mia (Bibi Andersson), the female travelling performer whom Block becomes somewhat protective of, also goes by the name of Mary (as in the Virgin mother). To get back into colour symbolism for a moment, Mia wears white: something that is internationally recognized as purity. Her husband, Jof (Nils Poppe), is sometimes referred to as "Joseph." Biblical references abound. Spoiler: They and their infant son Mikael (AKA "Gift from God") are the only ones to survive. [Oh, by the way, that seven-horned, seven-eyed lamb from earlier? "Rachel" is Hebrew for "ewe." Just sayin'. o_o]

"I am unknowing." —Death

For further information:

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Animation, Music, and Title Sequences: A Cat in Paris

"In Paris, a cat who lives a secret life as a cat burglar's aide must come to the rescue of Zoe, the little girl he lives with, after she falls into a gangster's clutches."
—IMDB's description of A Cat in Paris (AKA Une vie de chat)

Rated PG for mild violence and action, plus some thematic material.

The creative team who put this film together did an excellent job combining animation (the style a mix of Cubism and Art Deco) with a jazzy, noir-esque OST. A snippet of this can be seen/heard in the title sequence in the below video. I just spent the last half hour trying to figure out specific HTML coding hijinks required by Blogger which would allow me to set the start and end time for this video, but my tech skills are apparently lacking. Skip to 2:13 and watch until 3:09 to see the title sequence.

The use of colour also helps set the tone.

This film has greatly increased my appreciation for animation as a serious form of storytelling. From the end of the nineties up until now, I have found that most forms of drawn or computer generated animationat least in the Western Hemispheretend to be light-hearted (The Triplets of Belleville and The Iron Giant are both obvious exceptions to the rule). Cartoons out of the '30s thru to the '60s were oftentimes quite creepy or incredibly violent (I'm looking at you, Disney and Warner Bros.). The '80s saw a regression into that same sort of darkness with films like The Brave Little Toaster and The Land Before Time...both of which I am sure will let loose some repressed nightmares tonight as I sleep. Such strolls through the uncanny valley aren't exactly my cup of tea.

I prefer animated films not for their superficiality but for being fantastical with a touch of realism. A Cat in Paris pulls this off by including a few of those 'darker' facets of life and portraying them in a not-so-fearsome light. Child abduction? Sure. Graphic child abuse? Hell no. Pets that protect their human companions? Sounds great. Animals that maul people? Not so much. The above may be construed as hypocritical as I adamantly believe in free speech/free art, but while I do not think any animated films should cease to exist simply because I do not agree with their storytelling techniques on a personal level, that does not mean I have to enjoy watching them...or, indeed, even watch them at all.

For more information:

Monday, October 20, 2014

Comparison: The Devil's Backbone & Pan's Labyrinth

Halloween, my favourite holiday, is just around the bend. In honour of the age old end-of-harvest festival, I decided to watch a horror movie—for you, dear readers, for you. I, er...I don't like that particular film genre. At all. Bit of a wuss, when it comes right down to it. Being that the film in question was Guillermo del Toro’s The Devils's Backbone, though, I was more than willing to make an exception.

[Tangent: The same was true for Don't Be Afraid of the Dark when it first came out in cinemas back in 2010, and that turned out to be a big steaming pile of...well, it wasn't very good. The whole thing with the teeth supplied a week's worth of nightmare fuel. Still, it might be worth writing about the sheer fairy tale-esqueness present in a lot of del Toro's works. For instance, remember my "Ofelia & Little Red Riding Hood" post? Couldn't help but notice Sally fulfills the same role, as does Carlos from TDB. Another blog for another time, perhaps.]

During my viewing of The Devil's Backbone (2001), I noticed how many similarities it shares with Pan's Labyrinth (2006), so onto the comparison! Spoilers ahoy. Also, see my original post on PL here.

Both rated R for violence, language, and (in TDB) some sexuality.

Plot Overview

The Devil's Backbone: The story revolves around a young orphaned boy named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) whose father was recently killed during the ongoing Spanish Civil War. Forced to stay at a destitute orphanage, Carlos comes across "The One Who Sighs," AKA the ghost of the drowned Santi (Junio Valverde) who warns that "many of you will die." Uncovering Santi's murderer and a plot to steal Republican gold, Carlos bands together with his teachers and fellow orphans to rid the place of evil.

Pan's Labyrinth: Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) travels to the Spanish countryside with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) where they will stay with her new stepfather, the cruel Captain Vidal (Sergi López). Once there, she encounters a fantastical world and her true identity as Princess Moanna. She must undergo trials both real and figmental in order to make her way back to the Underworld Kingdom.

Notable similarities: Both plots have to do with children thrown into worlds with which they are unfamiliar and unhappy. Carlos and Ofelia's fathers are dead, each child exists in a world with supernatural tendencies, and both are made to do 'adult' things on their own. Each film carries a not-so-subtle dose of political and religious conflict, as well.

Setting

The Devil's Backbone: An orphanage in the middle of what looks like a desert in Spain during the civil war. The place is run down and spectacularly eerie, especially in the Pit where Santi hangs out, or even the courtyard with the big ol' defunct missile planted nose-first in the dirt. Everything has an amber tone, calling back the title sequence where Santi's blood fills the clay-rich water deposit and makes it look as though he is either frozen in amber or floating in amniotic fluid (like Dr. Casares' 'limbo water'). Gross, del Toro, gross.

Pan's Labyrinth: This one takes place just after the war. Ofelia is taken to an old mill house situated in a lush forest that is also home to an ancient labyrinth and, via a chalk-drawn door, the Pale Man's lair. One word: disturbing. Most every scene is tinted with green which helps get across a feeling of almost sacred nature. You should have left that part of the world untouched, Vidal.

Notable similarities: Carlos and Ofelia are driven to their respective new homes; you know, in a car. With the former there is a sense of entering into utter isolation while the latter gives audiences the impression that there are plenty of creatures hiding just out of sight.

Jacinto & Vidal looking a bit the worse for wear.

Characters

The Devil's Backbone: Apart from Carlos and Santi, there are a slew of other parentless boys including opponent-turned-friend Jaime (Íñigo Garcés). Other important characters include the amputee mistress of the orphanage, Carmen (Marisa Paredes), the incredibly loyal and poetic Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi), ever-dedicated Conchita (Irena Visedo), and the dubious Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega). ♪ Guess which one's the baaaadie... ♫

Pan's Labyrinth: The guerrillas who fight against the Captain and his men are themselves like orphans, in a way. As for main characters, who can forget Mercedes (Maribel Verdú)? Once Ofelia's mother dies, this strong woman steps in and shows her true colours as a rebel loyalist. Then there are the preternatural beings of the film, including the faun and the Pale Man (both portrayed by Doug Jones). Ofelia's baby brother also plays a pivotal role.

Notable similarities: There is not one character lacking complexity. Oddly, the matriarchal figures in both stories are named Carmen, each film contains a kindhearted doctor, and the villainous arseholes are off the scale when it comes to acts of evil.

Style

Notable similarities: The set design is accurate for each respective time period and does its job in supplying shivers. The same goes for costuming and the incredible makeup. Santi is a truly terrifying little kid given his zombie-like appearance, cracked skull, and, er...blood plume. Don't even get me started on why the Pale Man is one of the scariest movie monsters of all time. As for SFX, Pan's Labyrinth has a bit of a leg up given that it came out five years after TDB, but del Toro was smart and did not overdo anything so as to make it look campy. The musical score ups the creep factor in every way imaginable.

Jesus H Christ.

Symbolism

Notable similarities: Containing not so much iconic imagery as meaningful actions, both films feature a 'descent' by the protagonist into the unknown. Audiences' hearts race with the characters as there are two distinct 'My sole salvation lies just...out of...reach!' scenes, seemingly miles of dark, horrifying hallways, and main baddies who are brought down by their own egos and greed.

Conclusion

The Devil's Backbone: Happy/sad, highlighting the happy. The villain gets his and, while Santi's death toll predictions were correct, the remaining survivors leave the orphanage. Waving goodbye is the ghost of an old ally... "Europe is sick with fear, and fear sickens the soul." Dr. Casares

Pan's Labyrinth: Happy/sad, highlighting the sad. Vidal meets his end, but so does Ofelia. While she makes it to her Underground Kingdom and is surrounded by those she loves, the audience is left wondering if it was all just in her head.

Tearjerker Moments

The Devil's Backbone:
"Stay by my side as my light grows dim / as my blood slows down and my nerves shatter with stabbing pain / as my heart grows weak / and the wheels of my being turn slowly / Stay by my side / as my fragile body is racked by pain / which verges on truth / and manic time / continues scattering dust / and furious life bursts out in flames / Stay by my side / as I fade / so you can point to the end of my struggle / and the twilight of eternal days / at the low, dark edge of life..."
Pan's Labyrinth: When the Doctor (Álex Angulo) euthanizes the stutterer El Tarta (Ivan Massagué).

For further information:

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Lighting: Cracks

Context? Nah. I present a post in pictures.


Eva Green as the enigmatic Miss G.
Backlit by a grey, clouded sky that emphasizes her solitude.
Miss G again on her own, this time at the gates of the boarding school.
Little to no lighting gives strength to the atmospherically rainy weather.
Click-clacking her heels between the pews,
not caring that she is late to the morning's prayer session.
Her placement draws attention and lets viewers know just how little this character gives a fuck.
A little backlighting from the stained glass windows

highlights her intruding presence even more so.
Miss G stands amongst her favoured students.
Her placement within the shot separates her from the rest of the group,
as they are bathed in light (innocence) while she alone stands in shadow (hidden agenda).
As in the previous shot, the students appear to have a heavenly glow about them.
The rest of Miss G's room—untouched by the sun's rays—seems to entrap the girls.
Even their uniform frocks 
subtly blend with the surroundings.
The elite 'circle' of friends caught in one of the rare periods
in which they are content with one another.
Everything is naturally lit, making the scene a peaceful one as the girls soak up the sun.
Dressed up for their St. Agnes Eve feast.
The girls blend their 1930s fashion with flowers reminiscent of Keats' romanticism.
This feeling is also aided by the warm, lightly-honeyed lighting.
Renegades skinny-dipping by the light of the moon.
The underwater shots in this scene give everything a magical look,
especially in contrast with the rest of the film.
A foreigner to England, Fiamma (here played by María Valverde) reads alone in the stables.
The light source is opposite, covering her but also creating a shadow along the wall.
The symbolism of the barred stalls speaks volumes, too.
Poppy (Imogen Poots) looking through a crack. What she sees is terrible...
as viewers are encouraged to think given the dim lighting and the pinpoint reflection in her eye.

If I were forced to describe the film in one sentence or less, I would say that it is a pristine example of that iffy place between being a child and an adult.

For more information:

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Title Sequence: Populaire

Written/directed by Régis Roinsard with a script by Daniel Presely and Romain CompingtPopulaire is an aesthetically pleasing French rom-com about an incredible typist cum inept secretary (Déborah François) and her determined-to-succeed boss (Romain Duris), the king of mixed signals. Together they enter into a speed typing competition, which were all the rage in the 1950s, apparently. This is a genre that I tend to avoid as it is way overdone in the industry—and therefore has a profusion of reviews out there on the web already—and also because I have a personal dislike for Ye Olde shifty-montage-sex-scene rubbish used in conjunction with boring direction and blatant stereotypes in both the plot and dialogue. That being said...I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. It was adorable, and fluffy stuff in controlled doses can be quite nice. Plus, seeing the charismatic Bérénice Bejo again (whom some of you may remember from my post on The Artist) was a real treat.

Anyhow, I have been meaning to pay homage to inventive title sequences for a while now, and Populaire has given me the perfect opportunity. While I do not know the actual name/s of the creator/s who put it together, the opening for the film is a thing of beauty. It drops little hints as to who the characters are and what events will transpire throughout the narrative. Unfortunately, there is no sign of it on YouTube or other video sharing sites, so I cannot post it here. In my desperation I've had to settle for screencaps—sorry. The movie streams through Netflix, though, if you have an account and wish to take a look. (You'll probably want to after I tell you that Clive Richardson's "Girl On The Calendar" plays throughout the entire sequence. So uplifting!)

Our leading actors, one of whom portrays a cigarette smoker, the other a secretary in a small office.

The colourful hands are a recurring theme throughout the sequence;
a reference to the colour-coated practice keys of a typewriter used within the film.

Dancing, filing, and typing.
This particular font aids in the establishment of the story's overall light-hearted feel.

The first and the third screencap in this set have cleverly used vintage magazine
cover clippings in keeping with the pastel colours in the middle image.
In the actual title sequence, #2 pulls out quickly into #3, placing the viewer
into one of the car seats before switching the perspective to that of a pedestrian.

Typeface is an important theme, given that the plot centers around a typewriting competition.

A necklace of typebars: très cool. Note again how the colour of the font is matched with
others in the image. There is continuity in the background, as well.

That illustration-to-reality match cut, tho. <3
Gif by me.

So, if you are in the mood for a charming love story with some surprisingly touching scenes and witty discourse reminiscent of the classic silver screen romantics, then Populaire will certainly not disappoint. The chemistry between the leading characters is fresh and, more importantly, one does not really have to care about having to suspend belief in order to enjoy the quirky scenarios as the cinematography, set decoration, costume design et al. makes that act enjoyable rather than a chore.

Gif taken from The Weinstein Company.

For further information:

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Camera Technique: Submarine

"Sometimes I wish there was a film crew following my every move. I imagine the camera craning up as I walk away. But, unless things improve, the biopic of my life will only have the budget for a zoom out.*" —Oliver Tate

Thought I would make a return to the blog's original format by doing a post on camera techniques. Submarine was directed by one of my favourite humans on the planet, Richard Ayoade. It was his debut feature-length film, and I must say that the guy knows his stuff. It is always important for directors to avoid lazy filming styles, and Ayoade goes far beyond achieving that goal. Through visuals alone, he quite flawlessly created the feel of every teenager's fear of obscurity and the struggle to create the individual self whilst having to deal with real life situational and relational struggles.

Looking both dapper and professional. Photo cred: The Film Stage

Firstly, I would like to draw attention to Ayoade's use of framing. In this film, at least, he has a tendency toward shooting behind the characters, generally with a medium shot or medium long shot, to create an OTS or third-person shot. This is pretty normal fare but, once the viewer sees it often enough, an intriguing pattern begins to emerge. When the camera stays furtively in the background, the audience effectively occupies the personal space of the characters in shot. Rather than feeling forced or invasive, however, the story simply becomes more intimate. Onlookers experience the scene with the characters by seeing the same things in the distance but are also allowed to exist separately by examining them from the foreground. Colours and lighting are also given special consideration to enhance the execution of this type of scene.

Picspam created par moi.

Ayoade does quite a few unique things with this film, some of which I have never seen before. In the interest of keeping this post from being too lengthy, I have screencapped a number of the more striking visual elements and identified them to the best of my ability. Enjoy!

lens flare and a medium close-up on the profile of Craig Roberts as Oliver Tate

overhead/boom tilt shot at odds with sharp angels within the scene (AKA Dutch angle)

iris in leading to a flashback narrative montage

nostalgia lens with deep focus

in-frame lens with red distortion

point of view shot/reverse angle and kaleidoscope lens

mise en scène perfection

a wonderfully set up left-to-right tracking shot via dolly

purposefully over the top chroma keying

MCU from a parallel side angle, i.e., gorgeous framing

slight overhead shot with carefully laid-out set design

close-up of a letter

varying degrees of rack focus

a tribute to Truffaut's The 400 Blows

high key lighting (?) and zoom on Yasmin Paige as Jordana Bevan

super 8 reel montage


The entire film is rife with compelling cinematic approaches including:
  • a well-placed freeze frame
  • instances of shaky cam
  • the two shot
  • a rotating camera
  • subjective camera
  • a cheeky pull back shot*
  • multiple cuts between two characters in quick succession
  • filming via reflection in mirrors + through windows and a fish tank
  • back-lit bokeh lighting
  • insertion of title cards
  • cuts & fades to blue and red
  • the incorporation of old television footage
  • the use of silence in contrast with diegetic sound emphasis
  • non-diegetic narration
  • and a crap ton of others
If Ayode employs the same amount of attention to detail in his second film The Double, then I will be very excited when it comes out on DVD this August. If you want to see Submarine for yourself—and I recommend that you do—it is available on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video. (It is also based off a book of the same name written by Joe Dunthorne.)

dramatic perspective focus on Jesse Eisenberg as Simon/James in The Double

P.S.- Ayoade has a book coming out this October, if you're into reading and comedy and other...stuff. Ayoade on Ayoade: A Cinematic Odyssey

Edit 10/10/14: Just saw The Double via Netflix, and it did not disappoint. Aoyade is clearly at the top of his game.

For further information:

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Mmmm...Chocolat

The 2000 film Chocolat, directed by Lasse Hallström, features plenty of myths: the story even begins with 'Once upon a time...'. There's the myth of tranquillité held by the townspeople of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, holding them back from true happiness. Then there is the myth of Anouk's imaginary, war-injured kangaroo Pantoufle, helping the little girl to cope with moving from place to place alongside her mother as well as with the other children who bully her for living differently. More importantly, I think, is the myth of Vianne's seemingly magical chocolaterie and her Mayan mother, Chitza.

Vianne, as played by Julitte Binoche.

The narrator tells the story of Anouk's heritage:

"George was honest, prosperous and trusted by his customers. But George was not content. He felt there should be more to life than dispensing liver oil. In the spring of 1927, the Societe Pharmeceutique formed an expedition to Central America to study the medicinal properties of certain natural compounds. George was the expedition's most eager volunteer, but his adventure took a turn he did not expect. One night, he was invited to drink unrefined cacao with a pinch of chilli—the very same drink the ancient Maya used in their sacred ceremonies. The Maya believed cacao held the power to unlock hidden yearnings and reveal destinies. And so it was that George first saw Chitza. Now, George had been raised a good Catholic, but in his romance with Chitza he was willing to slightly bend the rules of Christian courtship. The tribal elders tried to warn George about her: she was one of the wanderers. Her people moved with the North Wind from village to village, dispensing ancient remedies, never settling down. Not a good choice for a bride. George did not heed their warning and, for a while, it seemed that he and Chitza might lead a happy life together in France. Alas, the clever North Wind had other plans. One morning, George awoke to discover that Chitza and the little girl Vianne had gone away. Mother and daughter were fated to wander from village to village, dispensing ancient cacao remedies, travelling with the wind...just as Chitza's people had done for generations." —Screenplay by Robert Nelson Jacobs

Interior of La Chocolaterie Maya, decorated with Central American artifacts.

When the North Wind first takes long-time travellers Vianne and Anouk Rocher to the little French town "where everyone knows their place" in the winter of 1959, they are approached with caution and sometimes—in the case of the conservative Comte Reynaud—open hostility. Opening a sweets shop just in time for Lent does not go unnoticed by the Catholic villagers, but Vianne begins to win them over one by one. She and her chocolate help mend relationships, inspire self-confidence, and teach strength to those in need, giving more credence to acceptance, kindness, and happiness than the Comte's harsh sermons ever allowed for. The thought of something exotic is alluring even as Vianne's atheism and Anouk's illegitimacy are brought out into the open by the Comte and the other overly-penitent members of the community. They condemn Vianne as a devilish temptress just as they ostracize a group of river gypsies who dock near the town. Vianne befriends these outcasts, including their Irish captain, Roux (Johnny Depp).

Useless trivia: this is the first & so-far only film in which Depp plays the guitar on-screen.

Thankfully, the chocolate and its 'healing powers' are too strong for some of the townsfolk, allowing the chocolaterie to stay in business. Still, Vianne becomes thoroughly shaken after the death of a friend and an unfortunate incident caused by the town drunk that forces the gypsies to leave and allows the village's traditions to strengthen. She once again begins to feel the pull of the North Wind. Before she can leave, though, her faith in the town is reestablished as her friends flock to her side. Eventually, the Comte himself refuses further self-denial and comes to terms with his own shortcomings. There's a Pagan Easter festival, Vianne decides to stay for good, Roux returns in the summer, and Anouk can let go of Pantoufle. Fin.

This happy ending would not have been possible if it were not for Vianne keeping up the tradition of chocolate-making. The possibility of something new in a town where change is frowned upon turns out to be the catalyst for contentment; not the fabled ideal of tranquillité, but real peace of mind that can only be obtained through self-actualization. Vianne says that she possesses a natural gift for guessing her customer's favourite confections, but what she really sees is the core of a person. This she uses to help them decide what they need in life. The myth of the Mayan wanderers has little to do with magic and all to do with human compassion.

"What do you see?"

As for the film itself, I find it absolutely charming. A lovely movie with winsome characters, touches of magical realism, plenty of romance and, of course, chocolate.

For further information:

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Hayao Miyazaki Masterpost

In preparation for a humanities course next semester (Japan: Studies in Civilization and Culture), I have spent the last couple of weeks watching some major Studio Ghibli films, namely ones written and/or directed by Hayao Miyazaki. I have not had much experience with anime, though as a child I did see such works as Castle in the Sky, Kiki's Delivery Service, the ever-bizarre Spirited Away, and the mightily depressing Grave of the Fireflies. The only anime television shows in my personal viewing history include a handful of the original Pokémon episodes, Books 1-3 of Avatar: the Last Airbender, and Books 1-2 of The Legend of Korra—all of which are pretty Americanized. My manga bookshelves are also sparse, counting just Tokyopop's Bizenghast and The Tarot Café (the latter of which is actually a Korean manhwa). So yes, you could say that I am fairly new to the genre. After seeing twelve of Miyazaki's pictures, though, I am definitely open to seeing and reading more.

Often called "The Disney of the East," Studio Ghibli has put out no less than twenty feature films since '84, with some stories based off of popular mangas. Those that I chose to view were all written and directed by Miyazaki himself with the exceptions of Whisper of the Heart, The Secret World of Arrietty and From Up on Poppy Hill, all three of which he produced rather than directed. Please note that I saw only the English-dubbed versions of these films. Normally I would do subtitles, but I thought it would be interesting to hear the voice acting talents of celebrities I am already somewhat familiar with. Also, for the sake of my sanity, I have not included Japanese titles. If you are interested, they are available on each film's IMDB page.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
It has been one hundred years since the collapse of industrialized civilization. Much of the world is covered by a toxic jungle full of deadly pollen that happens to look a lot like nuclear fallout, as well as giant trilobite-like creatures called the Ohmu. The last of the human race faces extinction.

What I liked most about this film was—go figure—the strong female lead. Nausicaä is the princess of the Valley of the Wind and shares a special connection with her people, nature, and even the Ohmu. She is often the one who tries to dissuade others from acts of violence and eventually fulfills the prophecy of 'the man in blue who walks through golden fields' who will restore tranquility to the world: basically Jesus. She acts to remind others of the importance of every human's connection to the earth. She is also crazy-skilled at riding air gliders and has a cute little fox-squirrel named Teto. D'aw. Hearing Patrick Stewart voice Lord Yupa was also a treat.

A girl jumps from an airship to evade both her captors and air-pirates. She is prevented from falling to her death by a magical levitating amulet that hangs from around her neck. Turns out that she is Princess Sheeta (voiced by a very young Anna Paquin), a descendant of the royal line of Laputa—a fabled castle in the sky that once ruled over the world with highly-advanced technology and 'Aetherium' crystals (like the amulet). She pairs up with a young boy named Pazu as they try to outrun dodgy men in bowler hats, the army, and pirate captain Dola.

The opening credits for this film are gorgeous, as is the detailed Steampunk-esque machinery in the form of automobiles, trains, airships and various other flying machines. At first everything is a bit reminiscent of The Goonies, what with a group of laughable baddies chasing some kids through underground tunnels, but eventually the audience sees that Dola and her crew are a bunch of softies who end up helping Sheeta and Pazu. There are lots of 'splosions, robots, a Hitler-esque villain, the popular scenario of science v. nature, and the ever-present sky. I will say that, when the first robot falls, there were tears. Poor fella. As I have found with all but one Ghibli film, though, there is a happy ending. Fox-squirrels make a brief cameo, too. Damn, those things are cute.

Roooboooot nooooooooo...! :(

Two young girls (voiced by the Fanning sisters) and their father move to the country so that they can be nearer a hospital that houses their ill mother. They soon make friends with the forest spirits surrounding their now domicile. This includes Totoro, who helps the girls through difficult times.

This one has gotten pretty popular in recent years, though I myself do not know why it has made such a large comeback. In addition to Totoro and his two chibis, there is also the caterpillar-legged Catbus and a bunch of soot sprites. I remembered these little 'dust gremlins' from my first viewing of Spirited Away, so in addition to the fox-squirrels it was cool to see some universal continuity. This is shown, too, through the use of air travel. While there was no mechanical transportation to this end, the girls do go on a nighttime flying adventure with Totoro. I couldn't help but think of Mary Poppins when he brought out his umbrella and began twirling through the air. Catbus also contributed by appearing as the wind in the eyes of adults; almost all Ghibli films incorporate some form of flying.

When a witch turns fifteen, it is tradition for her to leave home for one year to make her way in a new city. Kiki (Kirsten Dunst) and her black cat familiar Jiji (the late Phil Hartman) go straight to the coast, meeting a kind baker who agrees to take the broomstick-flying girl on as an assistant and deliverer. She befriends and eventually saves Tombo, a boy who loves all things aviation.

This was one of my favourite movies growing up. Unlike some other Ghibli films, it takes magic to be real—normal, even—from the very start. We get some more 'lighter than air travel', including a very unsafe dirigible, but the heart of this film focuses on creative blocks. When doing what you love becomes your job, it is easy to lose your passion for it. Everyone experiences this, even myself—writer's block, anyone? I have a feeling that this will always remain one of my favourite animated productions. I particularly like the end-credits montage. Similar to the one featured in Nausicaä, being able to see a collection of short scenes featuring a follow-up to the events that took place in the film felt like a more complete ending.

Porco Rosso (1992)
In Italy, there exists a WWI fighter-pilot veteran cursed to look like a pig after he abandoned his friends during a bout of aerial combat. A known womanizer and pirate bounty hunter, Porco Rosso (Michael Keaton) teams up with a plucky young mechanic named Fio against the Italian airforce, secret service, pirate gangsters, and Curtis (Cary Elwes)—the American pilot vying for Gina and, latterly, Fio's love.

Odd as it sounds, this quickly became another one of my favourites. The story is more lighthearted than many of the others, and it did a good job emphasizing the more somber bits. The pig curse is seen by other characters as totally normal, and I think that dose of magic in a world otherwise seemingly untouched by it is a cool concept, drama-wise. Given the rest of the films, one can see that Miyazaki really likes the idea of pirates and planes. We also get another glimpse of his anti-war sentiments...something for which he is currently under fire in Japan after the release of his latest film, The Wind Rises. Anywho, Porco Rosso also does a good job portraying women from that time period, and Fio's strong personality makes up for Gina's sometimes silly romantic longings.

Women working together to build a plane.

Fourteen-year-old Shizuku attends junior high, writes song lyrics, and reads a lot of fiction. She discovers that all of the books she chooses from her school's library have all been checked out by the same boy, Seiji, whom she happens to find infuriating. Eventually they grow closer and he reveals his dream of becoming a violin maker. Shizuku herself feels aimless in life, but by deciding to write her own novel she earns a bit of purpose and self-respect.

While I did not enjoy this film nearly as much as the others, I could appreciate its view on proving oneself. The fact that Shizuku spends so much time in the library was a strong point of personal connection but, when her friends and family scold her for reading so often, I was a bit taken aback. The girls' studies do suffer when she begins work on her own book, but I hardly think reading is something you should encourage a person not to do. Then the whole idea of two fourteen-year-olds wanting to get married by the end of the film is just...ugh. The entire story feels a tad directionless, but the subplots of the wandering cat Muta, Seiji's grandfather's antique shop, and the statuette of The Baron (again voiced by Cary Elwes) was enough to keep me going. I believe The Baron has a more prominent role in 2002's The Cat Returns, and I plan on viewing it sometime in the near future. Elwes = <3

Princess Mononoke (1997)
After being afflicted by a demon curse, prince Ashitaka of the Emishi tribe tries to stop a war between the forest gods and a mining colony made up of reformed prostitutes now led by Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver). They fight against San—an orphaned princess raised by her wolf mother Moro (Gillian Anderson) to hate all humans—in order to try and behead the Spirit of the Forest/Nightwalker. That doesn't go too well for anyone involved. The creature itself lives in a sacred marsh inside the forest: a hallowed, peaceful retreat eerily similar to the place beneath the quicksand in Nausicaä.

In addition to his ill feelings toward war, Miyazaki also cares about the earth—a number of Ghibli films have an ecological side. Mononoke features nature spirits like the Kodama alongside 'talking' animal gods. They are contrasted with the advancement of technology and a population of humans who do not see coexistence as an answer. The film also analyzes matriarchal society and challenges gender roles, the treatment of lepers, et cetera. Of all Ghibli productions, I would have to say that this one is pretty dark (especially the gory deaths), which just goes to show that anime's key demographic is not limited to just children or those in their early teens. [Unrelated fact: Billy Bob Thornton voices Jigo. Once you know the actor behind the voice, you can never unhear them. It's terribly distracting.]

Spirited Away (2001)
Chihiro stumbles into the spirit world, knowing nothing about how they operate or what it will take to escape. The ten-year-old is aided by the oddly familiar Haku (voice-actor extraordinaire Jason Marsden) as she finds work in Yubaba's bathhouse and overcomes her fear of the unknown.

First off, Chihiro's mum and dad possess the worst parenting skills. 'Oh, what's this? A darkened road probably nobody ever goes down? Let's take it! Oh, look, an apparently abandoned festival ground that can only be reached by passing through a long, scary tunnel? Let's have a picnic there despite the fact that our daughter is pleading with us to go back! Oh my word, free food? Let us partake and get turned into pigs!' -_- Anyway...there is in fact a reason this is one of Miyazaki's most-loved creations: it is flat-out brilliant. There are both literal and symbolic transformations, a fresh coming-of-age story, corruptions and cleansings, and so much more. When I first saw the movie, I was younger, much less experienced with all things anime, and I thought that it was one of the weirdest things I had ever seen. Upon a second encounter, it's not so weird as it is fascinating. Actually, No-Face remains one of my favourite mascots in the entire Ghibli-verse.

Howl's Moving Castle (2004)
Sophie works as a humble milliner before running across a witch who turns her into an old woman. 'Grandma' Sophie (the late Jean Simmons) inadvertently seeks out help from a spoiled young wizard named Howl (Christian Bale?!) and the captive fire demon Calcifer (Billy Crystal) who keeps the castle running. Sophie and Howl fall in love, of course. There's even some time travel involved.

To answer the question burning you up inside, yes, Bale does use his infamous throat-cancer Batman voice at one point during this film. :P War and patriotism are two themes lingering on from Miyazaki's previous writings, with the added concept of standing up to fight for the things you hold dear. Elderly life features prominently in the storyline, too. Turnip-head now takes up a special place in my heart, as does the ever-exquisite animation and continued use of steam-power and airships.

Always ready to lend a hand, loyal ol' Turnip-head.

Ponyo (2008)
Loosely based on the fable of The Little Mermaid, a five-year-old boy named Sôsuke becomes friends with goldfish princess Ponyo. She longs to become human so that she can, er...eat ham? It's not really clear. Anyway, her sea-dwelling father Fujimoto (Liam Neeson) and mother—the Goddess of Mercy (Cate Blanchett)—work to keep nature in balance with the rest of the world when shit starts to get cray-cray due to their daughter's antics. Betty WhiteMatt Damon and Tina Fey also lend their voices to various characters.

My least favourite of the bunch, one has to admit that Ponyo's narrative is weak. The animation is fantastic as ever, don't get me wrong, but being annoyed with the lead's voice does no favors. For the majority of the film Ponyo acts like a Pokémon in that she simply repeats her name over and over again in an irritatingly shrill voice. Most everything goes unexplained, though it is easy enough to identify the theme of anti water pollution. However, I found that even when the story did make sense, it dragged. Can't win them all.

The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)
Arrietty lives with her father Pod (Mark Strong) and mother Homily (Olivia Coleman) beneath the floorboards of an English cottage. The rest of their kind has been almost entirely wiped out. When human Shô turns up to rest his weak heart before surgery, things start to fall apart for the adventurous girl and her four-inch family. Think The Borrowers, only much less horrible because it is animated rather than live-action.

I cannot think of much to say about this film other than I liked it enough to recommend it to others. The story is sweet, if a little dull at times, but I feel that it made up for this by the amazing colouring job and study on perspective. This was also the film during which I took note of all the wayward/orphaned children featured in Ghibli films. It is always nice to be reminded of childhood by viewing things through their eyes, and having nearly all the protagonists be children because their parents are gone is a means to that end. [Whoops: Turns out I watched the 2011 UK version rather than the 2012 American release. Why have two adaptations in the same language?]

From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)
With her father lost at sea during the Korean War and her mother abroad in America with her studies, teenager Umi ends up running the family's boarding house. She gets involved in saving her school's clubhouse from destruction and falls in love with a boy who turns out might be her long lost brother buuut then actually isn't. Phew.

Miyazaki commentates on war yet again in one of his most recent works. This film is a lot more Japanese-flavored than some of the previous, i.e., the types of daily chores performed and food consumed, general architecture, county history. [Sidenote: I had previously noticed that Ghibli makes their buildings either very tribal or, toward the other end of the spectrum, European. Interesting, right? Possible exceptions are the family home in My Neighbor Totoro and the bathhouse in Spirited Away, both of which appear traditionally Asian.] This is kind of funny when you hear the French-jazz soundtrack playing in the background and see that the clubhouse is named the Quartier Latin. It's the '60s, though, and things are changing in Japan. The students hide political debates from teachers, print somewhat radical newspapers, and openly mock the 1964 Olympics—a source of national pride for some. Bicycles and umbrellas are seen nearly everywhere, as is true for quite a few of the films listed above. I wonder at the significance those symbols hold for Miyazaki.

War and loss.

Well, this has been one long masterpost, eh? I look forward to expanding my viewing history in this genre and plan on seeing The Wind Rises when it comes out with an English dub...not to mention older works I skipped like Only Yesterday, Pom Poko, Tales from Earthsea, Ocean Waves, and others. Do you have a favourite Studio Ghibli film, anime movie, television show, or manga? A preferred mascot? Let me know in the comments below.

Update 12/3/14: Ended up doing a few projects on the works of HM in class, including this collaborative presentation on Princess Mononoke.