Sometimes we watch stuff that we want to talk just a little bit about, not a full review worth. These are those films. If any of the films reviewed are available on Netflix Instant Watch (US or Canada) or HuluPlus (US only), we’ll note that by putting a direct link below the capsule.
The Iron Giant
1999 US. Director: Brad Bird. Starring: Eli Marienthal, Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Aniston.
It seems as if many view The Iron Giant as a precursor, of sorts, to the (allegedly) greater things to come from Brad Bird and Pixar as a whole. There is a grain of truth embedded in there, as Pixar has yet to have a true ‘miss’ (though I have not yet seen Cars 2) and two-dimensional animation has sadly become a relic, of sorts. Rest easy, as this is not going to become some half-assed or preachy bit of nostalgia … at least no more so than it already is. Rather, I feel that The Iron Giant has unfortunately been lumped with the somewhat underwhelming middle ground between ‘classic animation’ and the Pixar juggernaut … and yet The Iron Giant is, in my mind, the very best that the animated medium has yet to offer. The animation is crisp and beautiful, the characters are fleshed-out, believable, and lovable, and Michael Kamen’s score is simply stunning. Moreover, I am not sure that any recent film has crafted a greater portrait of 1950s sensibilities, particularly insofar as the Cold War is concerned. Would it be blasphemy to suggest, if not outright state, that this is a better version of E.T.? Perhaps … but it’s true.
1979 USA. Director: Ridley Scott. Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt.
A masterpiece of genre splicing in sci-fi and horror… for the art house. What makes Alien stand the test of time is it’s unwillingness to try and look futuristic and cool; rather it spends it time worrying about how the film looks, not what it should look like based on the time setting. It also works like a good Hitchcock thriller in its tension building. And dammit, did this thing win any awards for its sound design? Because it damn well should have walked home with a win for every nomination it received in this respect. Watching the Blu-ray of the theatrical cut really does seem like watching the movie anew. For the first time, my eyes were finally open to the gorgeous, artfulness of every conceivable detail.
1986 USA. Director: James Cameron. Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Paul Reiser, Michael Biehn, Carrie Henn.
I don’t know if it’s because of the Blu-ray first watch or if it’s because I’m older or if it’s because I watched Alien the night before or what. But this is the first time I’ve realized that this movie actually isn’t all that great. It’s far goofier than I remember and a lot of it really doesn’t look very good. What Scott’s version had going for it was that it wasn’t trying to go for “cool”, it was just trying to be artful. Cameron’s version is going for an 80s version of awesome and it shows the scars that time has left on it. It certainly has its great moments but a lot of the movie actually comes dangerously close to getting boring. The characters are total caricatures and that’s fine, but when watched back to back with the brilliance of Alien, it just seems kind of stupid. There’s also nothing really new here. The story is exactly the same but the big “twist” is that the robot is good this time. Even the final scene is exactly the same. Yeah the loader battle is kind of neat, but the dispatching of the alien is the same. Kind of anti-climactic. Not horrible by any means (it’s still leagues ahead of part 3), but this movie just isn’t as good as I thought it was.
2006 Finland/Netherlands/China/Estonia. Director: Antti-Jussi Annila. Starring: Tommi Eronen, Markku Peltola and Jingchu Zhang.
Really disappointing. It looked stunning – it’s the slickest film I’ve ever seen to come out of Finland. The ideas were interesting too, mixing Finnish and Chinese folklore into a martial arts film (it’s certainly original). Unfortunately, its lacklustre script and overly solemn tone mean it’s insufferably boring. It’s only 100 minutes, but felt like three hours. There just isn’t enough going on, and I’m not just talking about the action (which is sparse). The film follows two parallel story lines, but neither really engage the viewer or contain any drama. Too much time is spent talking about the folklore and not enough visual storytelling or character development. I’d be ok with this if they opted for a more action-packed approach to keep things exciting, but there are only a few fights, none of which are particularly breathtaking. A wasted opportunity.
Howl’s Moving Castle
2004 Japan. Director: Hayao Miyazaki. Starring: Chieko Baisho, Takuya Kimura, Akihiro Miwa .
While I was not 100% on board with this film back in 2004, mainly due to an under-developed lead character, having seen Howl’s Moving Castle now 4 times theatrically, I think it is nearly a perfect film that generously reveals its depths and worth with multiple viewings. As young Sophie encounters, only through chance, the wizard Howl, in an alley way in her Victorian-era city, she is cursed with Old Age by a Witch merely for that brief association. She travels to the Wastelands beyond her home to figure out what to do and ends up finding redemption for both Howl and the Witch. The film is emotionally rich (one could read a Christ parable, with the laying on of hands, and the loving thine enemy, honest and humble work, etc. etc.) as well as one helluva act of world building in a mere 120 minutes that never lags in pace or lacks of wonder. The ending may be a tad abrupt, but the final image of a well-functioning-household and a united surrogate family out of loyalty, friendship and care is a worthy faerie tale.
Four Nights of a Dreamer
1971 France. Director: Robert Bresson. Starring: Isabelle Weingarten, Guillaume des Forêts, Maurice Monnoyer.
Caught two Robert Bresson films at the TIFF retrospective, the only two I have ever seen of his work, and both were fucking amazing, five star experiences. Four Nights is Bresson tackling Dostoevsky’s novella, White Nights, the same source material for Luchino Visconti’s masterpiece Le Notti Bianche. Both go in completely different directions, Bresson luxuriates in the sights and sounds of the Latin Quarter of Paris which at times seems to dominate the forefront drama, and the film, while ninety minutes, feels unstuck from time, succumbing to the rhythm of revelry (not unlike the titular character) and floating along with a mesmerizing charm to it. The performances are roughed in by what I assume are non-actors who despite their limitations seem to emanate in raw visuals all that is needed to convey these characters. The film has several musical interludes and a surprisingly witty sense of humor, which together with the aura of the actors and the verite Parisian environment create an enveloping experience that makes for a lovely daydream. Bresson seems to do away with the thickness of Dostoevsky’s emotion-driven prose and just sets the stage for our imagination to waft about. A reminder of how great cinema-going can be.
For Heaven’s Sake
1926 USA. Director: Sam Taylor. Starring: Harold Lloyd, Jobyna Ralston, Noah Young.
Thoughtless millionaire Lloyd accidentally funds an inner-city mission, but his apathy turns to extreme interest when he meets the preacher’s lovely daughter. I really enjoyed this film, which has two fantastic extended chase/action sequences – one with Lloyd provoking all the street thugs he can find into chasing him right into the mission (where he wins their loyalty by nonchalantly passing the collection plate to rid them of stolen jewelry before a police search), the other with Lloyd trying to corral a group of five drunk friends and get back to the mission for his wedding. Both are filled with physical gags and insane stunts, all done with a charm and physicality that belies Lloyd’s milquetoast first impression.
2011 Australia. Director: Julia Leigh. Starring: Emily Browning, Rachael Blake, Ewen Leslie.
I’d heard extremely mixed things on this one. Finally saw it and I am definitely on the negative side of the fence. A great central performance by Emily Browning and some interesting technical filmmaking going on (which is why I’m giving it the 2 stars) but this is exploitative, sleazy stuff. I don’t mind films that are tough to watch, in fact I welcome that, but this was on the wrong side of that coin.
1977 US. Director: George Lucas. Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness.
There is little to say about Star Wars that has not been said. I would go so far as to say that there is no other film with such a charming, magnetic, and genuine cast of characters as the initial entry into the series – or, at the very least, if such a film exists I have yet to see it. Much can certainly be said about the film being a paint-by-numbers effort, as Lucas himself has admitted (or at least insinuated), but I think it would be disingenuous to suggest that the film itself – that is, what we experience as viewers – was generic in any way. Star Wars is, to me, the ideal blend of action, humor, drama, suspense, and simple entertainment that precious few films have achieved … and I don’t think that any of the other films in the series meet the lofty standard set here. After watching the original theatrical version on DVD, I shall now continue to consider the possibility of thinking about buying the blu-ray set, which is a fairly difficult decision given my love of the gravitas of those wondrous cuts. I’d normall end there, but I do have a question that has nagged at me for far too long – why is one of the more well-known rallying cries of aficionados ‘Han shot first?’ Shouldn’t it be ‘Han shot only?’
1998 USA. Director: Barry Levinson. Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Coyote, Liev Schreiber, Queen Latifah.
Probably the most faithful adaptation of a Michael Crichton novel, Sphere resists the temptation to dumb down and become just a thrill ride riding on the concept of Alien underwater, and pleasures in the SCI-fi, with Samuel Jackson taking on the Ian Malcolm role this time around. The film even goes so far to feel like a book by employing chapter title cards throughout. The alien aspect of this story is unique enough and poses thought-provoking ideas about how contact may go down, suitably open-ended and mysterious, denying the easy and familiar anthromorphizing of the other. Dustin Hoffmann, Sharon Stone, Samuel Jackson are all great in this, a reminder of how effective they were in the prime of their careers. Director Barry Levinson also seems to be having a lot of fun playing outside of his comfort zone, at times creating some impressive visuals to compete with Ridley Scott’s Alien. The only weakness is an occassional default to be thrilling that sometimes undermines the headier aspects of the story to satisfy genre expectations. Still an enjoyable watch all around that holds up surprisingly well.
Into the Abyss
2011 USA. Director: Werner Herzog.
A gut punch tale of murder and the men behind it. Herzog has an uncanny ability of getting individuals to reveal their innermost feelings and they come through, sometimes cold and calculating, sometimes painfully emotional and in the case of Michael Perry horrifyingly good naturedly and personable despite his crime. I didn’t think the documentary was particularly effective as a look at the death penalty but it speaks volumes about violence feeding violence and the psychology of criminals.