Friday One Sheet: Valley of Shadows

The Toronto International Film Festival has gotten underway as of yesterday, and I would be remiss if I didn’t offer one of my favourite posters, for one of my favourite films playing the festival. Valley of Shadows is a gorgeous modern version of a classic fairy tale. The story is basically simple: A boy goes into the deep dark woods to look for his lost dog, but discovers unexpected things in his journey. But the construction is impressively formal in how it conveys its images and tone.

The poster emphasizes what much of the film-making language tries tries to impart. Namely, is the lead character dreaming or is this wandering quest a reality? The large moon, and the long winding river both converge on the sleeping form of the lead character, Aslak. The boy, the dog and a boat offer the beginning of the journey at the bottom of the poster. The colours and texture is all gloomy fog, and imposing wilderness. But what is the most eye-catching is how of a piece, the sleeping body of the boy integrates with the horizon. It’s evocative, and original, like the film.

The trailer for the film is tucked under the fold.

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VIFF 2014 Review: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

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Over the years I’ve come to appreciate the work of Isao Takahata but he was never a director whose work I make a priority. Yes, Grave of the Fireflies is spectacular but I can only handle so much heartbreak in any given year and in any given festival and the day before The Tale of the Princess Kaguya was supposed to screen, I seriously considered leaving it off my schedule. By some miracle, I went ahead with the screening only to come out the other end completely wowed.

Like many of Takahata’s previous works, Princess Kaguya is a cautionary tale, on the surface a beautiful sort of fairy tale with a message. The story opens in a remote village where a bamboo farmer, living a quiet life with his wife, is blessed for his hard work with a miniature bamboo princess. He takes the creature home to his wife and suddenly the princess disappears and is replaced by a baby girl who begins to grow faster than average children. Much further down the line, the bamboo farmer, now blessed with piles of money he believes he should be using to transform his daughter into a beautiful princess, moves the family to a newly constructed palace in the city where the young girl is slowly transformed, against her will, into a respectable young lady ripe for marriage to any prince.

Takahata’s film isn’t only memorable for the beautiful animation which is unlike anything I’ve seen of late but for the message of its story. Here we have a free spirited young woman who is forced to change who she is to fit society’s version of the ideal woman only to discover that in doing so, she wasted away a large portion of her life. Not satisfied with only one angle, Takahata also explores themes of true love and the often complicated relationships we have with our parents.

The movie lags a little in the middle when the princess sends her potential suitors in search of priceless (and in some cases non-existent) artefacts as a way to prove their love but the scenes also allow for some wonderfully charming moments. Princess Kaguya made me laugh and it made me cry. It also reminded me that animated features can be more than what Disney has to offer and left me wondering why we don’t see more sophisticated animated stories like this one.

It doesn’t end badly but the final scenes of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya might require a little explanation for the little ones more used to Disney’s fairy tale endings. A really wonderful film.

The of the Princess Kaguya opens in limited release on October 17th.

Hansel and Gretel: Kickers of Ass

Way back in 2009, director Tommy Wirkola released his Nazi Zomibes film, Dead Snow (Død snø), and it was a far better film than it had any right to be. Alas not a lot of people got to see the fun because it wasn’t widely released. Plus it wasn’t in English so most of the public wouldn’t bother anyway. But Wirkola is back… in a big way.

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters will be his English language debut and continues with the latest “trend” of bringing back well-known historical figures or legends and amping up the fantastical (see Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter or Snow White and the Huntsman).

In this rendition, Hansel and Gretel are not just two helpless youngsters following a trail of bread crumbs. They’re two mean motor scooters out for blood; witch’s blood. So creepy creatures, big explosions, martial arts and bullet time are all employed as we watch Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton have their way with the supernatural.

The movie, much like Dead Snow (review), actually looks like a lot more fun than it probably should be. Rounding out the cast are Famke Janssen, Peter Stormare, Zoe Bell and Thomas Mann. A trailer with Spanish subtitles hit the tubes of You this morning and is probably worth taking a look at…

Review: Snow White & The Huntsman

 

First, let me state for the record that I have no built-in fondness for the fantasy genre: of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy I can only stomach the first; Legend and Willow, two 80’s fantasy films that cinephiles of my generation are want to praise, likewise leave me cold. I do however have a fondness for escapist cinema, and occasionally these two aspects overlap, but with fantasy there is a nerdy tendency to preoccupy with the minutiae of the ciphers to the detriment of any kind of forward motion and attention to fundamentals of storytelling. Escapist cinema appreciates that the world created is in service of something more lofty than Easter eggs and curiosities of names, that the goal is to create something immersive, allow the viewer to daydream in the peripheries but not get lost there without a tether, that tether is story, a story that unfolds without being barnacled by commentary and self-importance. It ought to be fun in a visceral sense, anything cerebral to be mere ornament towards that end.

With the juggernaut success of The Avengers it has become patently clear that bright, flashy and optimistic is the new black. Even closer to the point to be made, Mirror Mirror (which I have not seen) is the boldly ironic incantation of the Snow White story, which I am guessing is likewise, bright, flashy and optimistic. Snow White & the Huntsman, say what you will, is offering up something considerably unfashionable in this sardonic culture of winks and nods: a sober, grimy, Grimm fairytale with women no less as the pitted adversaries. Add the much reviled Kristen Stewart into the mix and you have a powder keg to y-chromosome film geek sensibilities (we mustn’t upset the status-quo of what constitutes ‘fun’). The tendencies are there to hate the movie, I knew early on this was going to be divisive, and irrespective of what legitimate claims people may have to disliking or hating this film, you got to admit, the deck is stacked against it and the tendency is to go Hulk Smash on it because, because it would rather tell a story then make a commentary on one, it would rather create a fully realized world that is committed to its story with a genuine sense of wonder then be beholden to a consensus view with reductive brand positioning in the guise of characters, plotting forward to sell merchandise. It would rather take a recognizable Disney property of everything sweet and magical and dunk it in the mud and put a woman in the lead that is unforgivably dour, and you know what, she fits. This is not an Amy Adams wonderland, this is a universe of dark happenings of actual stakes, pitted in a kingdom run by a hormonally crazy psychopath that eats bird hearts and sucks souls through people’s mouths.

You got a problem with that? Then go back to your Marvel-generic, canned fun, and be all optimistic and shit, I like my blockbusters dark and muddy, like my heart.
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New “Red Riding” Trailer [Disappointed]

As I mentioned in the comments section when the first trailer for this film was released a couple of months ago, the visuals are very handsome. I still basically agree with those sentiments, but this trailer is so full of terrible it kind of overshadows any of those interesting ideas. Even the potential for an interesting twist isn’t really enough for me to shrug off the fact that basically this looks like Twilight all over again with the way the brooding Pattinson look-a-likes wander the village (“If you love her… you’ll let her go” **eyes roll**). For some that sounds like an amazing concept. For me, it sounds like a way to completely destroy what would otherwise be an interesting and update take on the classic fairy tale. And what is with that music(?)… ugh!

With Amanda Seyfried in the lead, the film also stars Gary Oldman, Lukas Haas, Virginia Madsen, Billy Burke, Shiloh Fernandez, and Julie Christie. You can see them all on March 11th.

 
 

Tarsem’s Snow White

 

Everyone ready or excited for a whole lot of ‘fairy tale’ films after the monster success of Disney/Burton’s Alice in Wonderland? Catherine Breillat’s Sleeping Beauty (Marina’s Review) has been touring the festival circuit this year, and there are Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretal pictures in development, currently.

Now, Tarsem Singh can split audiences, one has only to listen to our lengthy Movie Club Podcast on The Fall to get the idea, but the man has a knack for visual flair, and that is just what your big budget fairy tale movie needs to market to the masses, and I’m sure that is what Universal is aiming for. Singh is currently working on the post-production of Montreal-shot big special effects extravaganza, Immortals, which is set for release in 2011.

Are you ready for a lot more Tarsem? Are you interested to see the man tackle the Brothers Grimm with Snow White?

Toronto After Dark: Heartless Review

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“Beauty is the beginning of terror.” From that line of poetry/exposition, there is a bit of a promise (and a warning) of things to come in Philip Ridley‘s dark fairy tale, Heartless. Starting out as a grim London East Side drama about the inward shyness of a young man (Across The Universe’s Jim Sturgess) with heart-shaped purple splotch (a birth defect of sorts) on the side of his face. His life seems to be on hold in comparison to his family-man older brother and his screwed up gangster little brother. His mother and father are both played by Mike Leigh regulars (Ruth Sheen and Timothy Spall), so you get the grim realism and graffiti strewn environments of down the class-ladder neighborhoods often featured in that particular brand of British cinema. Then there is a roving gang of hoodie hoodlums who (Mimic style) seem to be some sort of bipedal demonic insects killing folks in the neighborhood. By the time Eddie Marsan saunters into the apartment as a larger-than-life bureaucrat/weaponsman toting a laptop, a set of ‘legal conditions’ precipitated from a pact with possibly the devil and a few weapons recommendations, the film has enough tonal-plates tossed into the air that the whole enterprise should come down in a large clatter. But, miraculously it does not. Outside of South Korean cinema (or perhaps the Coen Brothers), this sort of thing is so rarely successful and here it is a bit of a revelation.

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VIFF 09 Review: Bluebeard

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Catherine Breillat is the bad girl of filmmaking and one I’ve often compared to film’s counterpart of musicians L7. Her films are brash, unapologetic and sometimes difficult to watch and though I may not always agree with her feminist politics, it’s impossible to turn away from a woman who is unafraid to put women front and centre.

When it was announced that her new film was based on the story of Bluebeard, I was expecting a film packed with debauchery and 80 minutes crammed full of sexual charge but Breillat’s Bluebeard is surprisingly tame though not at the loss of making a point. The film tackles the story of Bluebeard from two sides: two young sisters reading the story aloud and the sisters featured in the story of Bluebeard, a rich aristocrat with a taste for women whom he weds and who then disappear never to be seen again. The story that he murders his wives after a year of wedded bliss scare away many but not Marie-Catherine who finds the bearded man kind and giving that is, until she fails to follow his instructions.

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Hansel & Gretel DVD Contest – Updated with Winners

Hansel & Gretel DVD CoverThe good folks at Evokative Films have offered up 3 copies of the creepy, fun fairy tale Hansel & Gretel.

This one is definitely worth checking out as it is just released in Canada and the US yesterday.

When Eun-soo crashes his car on a country road, he meets a young girl who leads him to her beautiful house in the middle of the forest, where he is welcomed by her parents and two young siblings, who appear to be the picture of the perfect family. The morning after, when he tries to get back to his car, the forest seems never-ending and inevitably leads back to the house. Soon Eun-soo realizes he’s trapped in the kids’ gloomy fairy-tale alternate reality, a world no other adult has managed to escape alive before him.

In order to win one of the three DVDs you first need to be in Canada (or at least have a Canadian mailing address) and you need to tell me one of the two shorts directed by YIM Phil-sung prior to Hansel & Gretel. I’m not going to tell you the answer but you might be able to find it on the Evokative Films site somewhere.

Update: Thanks go to everyone who entered and thanks go to Evokative Films for providing copies for Mark, Bryce and Jeremy. I’m sure you will love this great creepy fairy tale.

The last day for entry is Monday June 15th.

Extended Thoughts: Slumdog Millionaire

A lot has been said on Slumdog Millionaire in these parts and elsewhere. It looks to be a major awards contender in a year that has been neither strong nor weak. I sure took my sweet time getting to this film, managing to skip not one, but two free screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival where it went on to win the People’s Choice award (TIFF’s only big prize). Even from the festival catalogue description, I was a bit apprehensive on the Forrest Gump vibe the film’s concept gave off and then there is Danny Boyle‘s tendency to muck things up spectacularly in the final act. Look what he did with the last 20 minutes of the otherwise fabulous Sunshine. Slumdog Millionaire finally landed in wide release this weekend and I made my way to the multiplex in a mixed state of hype and dread.

**SPOILERS AHOY** You have been warned from this point onward.

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VIFF Review: Hansel and Gretel

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Whereas American cinema is in the habit of looking East to Asia (and a lesser extent Europe) for inspiration for its horror films, Phil-Sung Yim’s film takes some of its inspiration from classic European fairy tales. But Hansel and Gretel isn’t a modern take on the Brother’s Grimm tale instead, it uses the basics of the story (children in the forest), turns it slightly on it’s ear and produces a dark fantasy that is more nightmare than fairy tale.

Hansel and Gretel Movie Still Eun-Soo is driving along chatting on his cellphone, having a rather uncomfortable conversation with his pregnant girlfriend, when he veers off the road to avoid an animal. He wakes up a short time later disoriented and lost. Wandering around the dense forest in search for the road, he comes across a little girl who seems more of a dream than reality. She takes him home to spend the night only once there, it’s immediately apparent that things are not as perfect as they appear to be and Eun-Soo spends the next six days trying to escape the forest and “House of Happy Children” which seems to have drawn him out of reality.

Though it features a few legitimately frightening jumps, Yim’s film is more of a thriller than a horror film. It features very little blood, brutality or physical violence though the mental exercises it puts the viewer through are enough to keep you on your toes. One of the film’s greatest assets is its production design. Nothing, and I mean nothing, in this film was left to chance. From the moment Eun-Soon lays eyes on the so-called House of Happy Children, it’s as though one is transported into some strange daydream. Inside, it’s a marvel for the eyes with candy coloured walls, intricate carpets and wallpaper, trinkets, toys and shinny objects at every turn. You could see this film a hundred times over and not pick-up all of the minute details which were so meticulously planned. The result is a dream scape too perfect to be wholly good and Yim takes full advantage of the perfection, using it to build the film’s creep factor.

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