Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro) (1988) - dir. Hayao Miyazaki

I'll start off this review by simply stating that My Neighbour Totoro is one of the most delightful viewing experiences I've ever had the pleasure of having (if not the most delightful!). From the very start, viewers are introduced by a delightful introduction: an amber-colored title screen, with sprightly animated flowers, rocks, and woodland creatures along the edges. This is accompanied by a peppy background song, with Japanese lyrics that translate roughly to "Let's go for a walk! I love to walk! I have so many friends! I'm so happy!" It is from this point forward that I recognized that the film I was about to watch is atypical of any Disney film I was ever brought up with. I was about to watch a film of a more boundless, childlike aura.

The setting of the film is in a traditional village community in Japan, assumedly during the mid-20th century. Two young girls - Satsuki and her younger sister Mei - have moved in here with their father, in order to remain closer to their mother, who is at a hospital being treated for an unnamed illness. They soon discover that their house is "haunted"by tiny black creatures called "Dust Soots". Soon, Mei encounters two small rabbit-like creatures, who, when she follows them, lead her through the woods, into a large tree. There, she meets a much larger version of these creatures, who she calls "Totoro". The two sisters soon come to the conclusion that this large Totoro is the "keeper of the forest", and the rest of the film revolves their encounters with these whimsical spirits.

Anyone who had ever previously seen a film distributed by Studio Ghibli can expect at least one thing from their films; that being the beautiful animation that all of their films tend to embody. Luckily, My Neighbour Totoro accomplishes this wonderfully. From the birds-eye shots of the trees and clouds of the village, to the intricate detail placed in animating the creatures' faces and movements, the visuals are all-around completely breathtaking. It's no lie that Miyazaki's imagination is seemingly boundless; this could be seen in Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle, but I believe that its pinnacle truly lies with My Neighbour Totoro. Another thing to note is the simplistic mood and tone that this film so successfully carries. Unlike most Western children's films, this film does not attempt to spoon-feed some kind of moral message through overbearing tragedy or musical numbers. Although there are so many elements of fantasy, the characters of Satsuki and Mei seem so grounded into reality, that when drama does appear in the story, our feelings toward these characters are completely genuine.

If I had one word to describe this film, and one word alone, that word would be "magical". I don't believe I've ever seen another film that portrays the complete essence of childlike imagination as this one has. This film is, beyond all else, a tribute and homage to the limitlessness of child's imagination. At a certain point of the movie, it becomes apparent that these creatures can only really be seen by these two young girls. To me, this is perfect, because I think that such an imagination could only be exclusive to the innocence and naivety of a child. More importantly, this film is a recognition of how delights of imagination provide a sort of escape from the dismal and dreary. Satsuki and Mei use this new imaginative world of theirs to compensate for the ailing condition of their mother. Near the end of the film, when all hope seems lost, both of the girls turn to their new friends to help them look at the world in a new light, and suddenly, everything doesn't seem so bad.

Since its release in 1988, this film has become a classic among both young children and adults, and for very good reason. The film remains whimsical and charming enough to appeal to children, but with a dignified message and level of pathos that adults can appreciate at all. Moreover, the film is very beautiful to watch. Characters like Totoro and the Dust Soots truly capture what the essence of childhood and imagination is really all about - an escape from hardcore logic and an entrance into a magical world all your own. Because truthfully, the world of a child may be the most magical of them all.

My rating: 5/5

Sunday, August 5, 2012

TCM's Marilyn Monroe Movie Marathon

For as long as I've been seriously watching films, Marilyn Monroe has always been one of my all-time favorite stars of American cinema. Ever since I first watched her in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes about four years ago, I've been completely enthralled with her magnetism, sex appeal, and overall stage presence. After reading much upon her personality and personal life, I soon came to the realization that, not only was she beautiful and talented, but she was also kind, warm-hearted, and so very intelligent. Unfortunately, not very many of the roles she was given allowed this side of her to completely shine through, but to just know that an independent woman as herself has gotten the respect she deserves is a huge blessing in itself.

When I found out that Turner Classic Movies was holding a marathon of her films today (in memory of the 50th anniversary of her death), I knew there was no way I'd be missing out. Regrettably, although this marathon extended until far past midnight, evening plans forced me to only be able to watch three of these films, which I shall briefly go over for the remainder of this post.

The first of these films is 1953's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, directed by Howard Hawks. Many would say that this was the film that made Marilyn into a star, and for good reason. Her performance in this film as the gold-digging Lorelei Lee is absolutely hilarious, and she plays her part absolutely perfectly. This performance is complemented by Jane Russell, who tends to get the short end of the praise for this film, even though she is also just so great and unfairly under-appreciated. Her "Ain't There Anyone Here For Love" number in itself is just full of spunk and unbridled femininity. The most memorable scene of the whole film, however, comes with the "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" number, led by none other than Monroe herself. It is a truly iconic scene that has been homaged and parodied a countless number of times. It is well-known that Monroe had rehearsed the scene again and again, nonstop, until she got it perfect - and it is apparent here that the hard work was well worth it.

The second of the films is Billy Wilder's classic, The Seven Year Itch (1955). Tom Ewell gives an excellent performance as Richard Sherman, an average joe who sends his wife and son away on vacation, while he attempts to have an affair with his attractive neighbor. However, I do strongly believe that it is Marilyn herself who really steals the show with this one. I had only seen this film once before and, truthfully, didn't think much of it as first. Monroe plays another stereotypical "dumb blonde" character, but with this second viewing, I was able to appreciate it more. Her script comes with the most delightful one-liners, which she plays off with great comedic timing. My most favorite part of the movie comes when she schools Ewell's character on what a woman really desires:
"Your imagination! You think every girl's a dope. You think a girl goes to a party and there's some guy in a fancy striped vest strutting around giving you that I'm-so-handsome-you-can't-resist-me look. From this she's supposed to fall flat on her face. Well, she doesn't fall on her face. But there's another guy in the room, over in the corner. Maybe he's nervous and shy and perspiring a little. First, you look past him. But then you sense that he's gentle and kind and worried. That he'll be tender with you, nice and sweet. That's what's really exciting."
It is at this moment when Monroe's true character - not her cinematic character - begins to shine through; it's as if Marilyn herself is speaking these words from her heart. From what I believe is just an average film, this may be one of the most satisfying moments in any film I've seen from her.

The third and final film is also my personal favorite of the bunch: Some Like It Hot (1959), also written and directed by Billy Wilder. This film was quite controversial in its time, as the two male leads - Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon - resort to posing as women for an all-female road band in order to escape from some gangsters. Time has softened the blow of its content, but the humor itself remains fresh and satisfying. Moreover, Jack Lemmon is one of my all-time favorite actors, and this film is my second favorite Wilder comedy (with The Apartment leading the way only slightly!). I do believe that Marilyn herself is the most radient in this film than she has ever been in her life. Although this was the point of her life where her personal life was in turmoil, it had never once been apparent in the final product. Her performance as Sugar Kane is one that is both absolutely adorable and great at showcasing the independent woman that Monroe herself had strived to become. This is also one of the finest examples of musical talent that she possessed - just watch her lovely performances of "I Wanna Be Loved By You" and (my personal favorite) "I'm Through With Love". These performances - especially the latter - really reveal a more vulnerable side of Monroe that had either been torn apart by the media, or completely disregarded altogether. It's moments like these when viewers remember that she is, in fact, a human being, one that has been hurt, but continues to build herself up and prevail.

Unfortunately, TCM never played my personal favorite Monroe performance - The Misfits - but I'll save that for another day. Although it has been fifty years since Marilyn's death, her legacy continues to live on, almost as if she were still alive in this day and age. I've heard many call Monroe's image and popularity "overrated" and similar terms, which I would have to completely disagree with. Much of what I've read about Monroe indicates that she was a strong woman, up until her death, and I think that any and all such praise of that alone is not useless and, especially in her case, most definitely deserved.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Poetry (2010) - dir. Chang-dong Lee


The narrative of Poetry is told through the eyes of a 66-year-old Korean woman named Mija (Jeong-hie Yun). Her one general role in life is that of a caretaker, both for her grandson, and for an elderly disabled man who pays her to bathe him and do his errands. She decides to enter herself into a poetry class, with a goal of writing one poem by the end of the month. The real conflict of the film arises when it is revealed that her grandson was one of six individuals who had consistently abused a girl sexually for months, before she committed suicide. Though there is no concrete evidence of this, the girl had revealed the events in her diary, and a police investigation could only be avoided if a financial settlement is agreed upon with the family.

A recurring theme of the film is one of a conscious sensibility, a heightened awareness of the surrounding outside world. The instructor of the writing class informs the students that in order for poetry to be created, one must go out of their way to "see" the world around them. With this new perspective, Mija tends to find beauty in the natural living things, despite the tragedy that is going on around her. While the boys' fathers are focused on the prevention of consequences of their sons' actions, Mija sympathizes for the soul of the deceased. She begins to feel a certain "oneness" with the girl; the poem she ends up completing by the end is even written as if it is essentially through the girl's own voice.

Likewise, the narrative of the film is created so the audience itself forms a oneness with the character of Mija. Much like one reads a poem through an assumed voice, the assumed "voice" here is Mija's presence, and viewers follow her perspective for nearly every scene of the film. The actress who plays Mija does a great job in conveying the most important aspects of her motherly nature, as well as the anguish and frustration she feels for the world's tragedies. The caring side of her is in conflict, because she wishes to protect her grandson so badly, but is also rather empathetic for the victim. In the end, she forces her grandson to live up to his actions. Yet her actions were not simply done to satisfy society's notions of right and wrong, but rather to satisfy the humanistic needs within herself; to put this soul to rest and allow the beauty of life to flourish.

Poetry in itself is conceived much like a poem. Mija herself is the narrative voice. Various motifs are scattered throughout (family, flowers, the color red). The film starts at a river, and ends at the same river. It has its various ebbs and flows throughout its entirety. More importantly, it's absolutely lovely, with a natural style that dwells just below minimalism. It's a film that will definitely take some time to fully process, but continues to be a wonderful journey throughout.

My rating: 4/5

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Mickey Mouse "Toonography": Introduction & 1928-1929

Despite being twenty years of age and technically a legal "adult", I am a really huge fan of cartoons. I especially love the classic cartoons that were made in the 1920's and 1930's, from the likes of Max Fleischer and Walt Disney. I feel that, since these animated features weren't necessarily made to appeal to children, there was a lot more freedom accessible to these animators, in terms of characterization and overall content. One such character I have recently fallen in love with is one that is undoubtedly familiar to those who were at all exposed to American pop culture as a child; his name is Mickey Mouse.

Before Mickey's conception, Walt Disney had been making the rounds with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a character used for many animated films Disney made for distribution by Universal, who he worked for at the time. Oswald was a huge success in 1927, but by 1928, due to economic issues, the character was basically stolen by Charles Mintz. From here, Disney started his own studio and made a new character: an anthropomorphic mouse. He was originally named "Mortimer Mouse, but Disney's wife suggested "Mickey" would be a better fit.

Disney had the following to say about his new creation:
"We felt that the public, and especially the children, like animals that are cute and little. I think we are rather indebted to Charlie Chaplin for the idea. We wanted something appealing, and we thought of a tiny bit of a mouse that would have something of the wistfulness of Chaplin — a little fellow trying to do the best he could. When people laugh at Mickey Mouse, it's because he's so human; and that is the secret of his popularity. I only hope that we don't lose sight of one thing — that it was all started by a mouse." [source]
Mickey is most notable for his mischievous personality (which, regrettably, has dwindled throughout the years), as well as his famous circular ears. He shares his popularity with girlfriend Minnie Mouse, and, in his early films, plays a role that is more like a suitor to Minnie than a hero. Here, I present a list of the films I have seen so far (thanks to Youtube!), plus a mini-synopsis and my rating for each.
  • Plane Crazy (1928): Although Steamboat Willie is usually mistaken for being Mickey's first appearance, Disney did make two cartoons before it; Steamboat Willie was just the first to successfully retrieve a distributor. His true first appearance is actually in Plane Crazy. The highlights of this cartoon are Mickey's attempts at both flying a plane (รก la Charles Lindbergh), and trying to retrieve a mid-air kiss from Minnie (who also makes her first appearance here). 3.5/5
  • The Gallopin' Gaucho (1928): The second Mickey Mouse film produced (but not released). This cartoon starts with Mickey riding an ostrich to a restaurant, where he proceeds to drink and smoke. Conflict strikes when Black Pete attempts to kidnap Minnie, who is a barmaid. Pete and Mickey proceed to engage in a sword duel. The latter wins, and the two lovers ride off on the ostrich. 3/5
  • Steamboat Willie (1928): The first Mickey Mouse film to be released, and also one of the first ever cartoons produced with synchronized sound, this cartoon is a parody of the Buster Keaton film Steamboat Bill Jr.. It is essentially plotless, and consists of pretty much Mickey the sailor and Minnie using various farm animals in humorous ways to create music. In my opinion, this is one of the first prime examples of Mickey's personality truly shining through. 4/5
  • The Barn Dance (1929): Mickey and Pete unexpectedly meet in front of Minnie's house to pick her up for the dance. Due to car troubles, Minnie chooses to go with Mickey. At the dance, problems arise when it is apparent that Mickey can't dance and keeps stepping on Minnie's feet. He solves this by stuffing his shorts with balloons (making him "light on his feet"). The cartoon ends with Pete pointing this out to Minnie, who rejects Mickey and settles for Pete. Though this cartoon is rather humorous, it also plays down Mickey's personality, and the ending has him coming across as emotional and vulnerable. 3.5/5
  • The Opry House (1929): Mickey owns a small theater and performs a one-man vaudeville show, with impressions and a piano performance. During the latter, he plays pieces such as "Yankee Doodle", Rachmaninov's "Prelude in C#minor", and Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody #2". There is essentially no dialogue, but Mickey's clash with the piano makes this a fun cartoon. 4/5
  • When the Cat's Away (1929): A character by the name of Tom Cat leaves his house for the day, and Mickey proceeds to use his house to invite his mouse friends over to play music and dance. Some very innovative animation and characterization used here. 3.5/5

  • The Plow Boy (1929): Mickey is a farmer plowing a field with his horse. Minnie and her cow comes onto the scene, with Minnie playing music. She asks Mickey to milk her cow. He does so, and then tries to kiss her to no avail. His horse is stung by a bee, who starts galloping and breaks the plow. In the final scene, Mickey proceeds to use a pig for a plow. Pretty funny and whimsical. 3.5/5
  • The Karnival Kid (1929): This cartoon is divided up into two segments. In the first segment, Mickey is a hot dog vendor at a carnival, attempting to make sales. This segment is highly reliant on sight gags, and feature Mickey's first spoken words (voiced by Disney): "Hot dogs!"In the second half, which occurs later that night, Mickey joins in on a couple of stray cats in singing "Sweet Adeline" for Minnie. This is met by disapproval from another character nearby, trying to sleep. With scenes such as hot dogs behaving like actual dogs, this one was rather adorable. 3.5/5
  • Mickey's Follies (1929): This cartoons presents a barnyard vaudeville-esque show, presented by the ducks, the chickens, a singing pig, and Mickey himself. Here, Mickey plays the piano, sings, and tap dances, though this performance isn't nearly as satisfying as in The Opry House. 3/5

  • Mickey's Choo-Choo (1929): This short centers mostly around Mickey and his train, who has a face and even a unique personality, acting like a character of its own. After lunchtime and a musical interlude, Mickey takes Minnie along on a train ride. Unfortunately, the train finds difficulty in passing over a steep hill. Mickey tries to push it up, but the two end up breaking off the train and go tumbling down through several tunnels. They eventually end up on a handcar and ride away. Cute cartoon, but nothing very special. 3/5
  • The Barnyard Battle (1929): This cartoon conveys a combat battle between the barnyard mice and an invading army of cats. At the beginning, Mickey is shown going through a physical examination, during which he is subject to humiliation. Mickey endures the battle with humor, and when the war ends, he is praised as a hero. This is also one of the more weaker cartoons I've seen thus far. 3/5
  • The Jazz Fool (1929): Mickey, at the beginning, is shown playing the organ on a cart labeled "Mickey's Big Road Show". This first part centers around the farm animals dancing around to his music. Later, the cart becomes a stage, and Mickey continues to play music (this time on a piano), which stretches out to the end. Though the beginning is a bit dull, the piano-playing is more interesting and much more surreal than his more previous films. 3.5/5
  • Jungle Rhythm (1929): In many of Mickey's previous films, there are scenes where Mickey essentially makes music with the animals he finds around him - by pulling a cat's tail or using their heads as drums, for example. This is pretty much what Jungle Rhythm is all about: Mickey is on a hunting expedition, and just when the animals are about to attack him, he orchestrates an entire song-and-dance. Nothing new or interesting here, except for the great example of Mickey's show of character. 3/5
  • The Haunted House (1929): Mickey is lost and trapped in a ferocious storm, so he takes refuge in an abandoned old house. He soon finds out that it is haunted by ghosts and skeletons, who force him to play the organ as they dance. Those who have seen the Silly Symphonies cartoon The Skeleton Dance will recognize much of the reused animation used here. Still a fun short. 3.5/5

That's all for now! I'll be making posts every now and then for the next new batch of Mickey Mouse cartoons (1930-1931). I hope that I have compelled those who read these to check out some of these wonderful classic Disney cartoons!

[Note: all of the above facts that wasn't already known by myself have been retrieved from Wikipedia!]