Friday, April 29, 2011

Princess Mononoke Gets A Second Chance

Hayao Miyazaki-- The greatest animated film director who ever lived
Studio Ghibli-- Miyazaki's film studio, which besides Miyazaki films has also produced animated classics such as Grave of the Fireflies, Return of the Cat and Pom Poko.
Princess Mononoke-- Miyazaki's 6th film with Studio Ghibli of 1997 that made Miyazaki internationally famous. "Mononoke" means "monster" and the title is not officially used of any character in the movie.

Princess Mononoke is the most male-oriented of Miyazaki's films. It has a lot of action, and although there is a love story, it isn't a significant part of the plot. It is seen through the eyes of a young man, and it certainly is more gruesome than other Miyazaki.

Alongside of Spirited Away, this is Miyazaki's most visually stunning films. Every frame has so much to see and as ugly as some of the action sequences get, so many of the forest scenes are gorgeous. Every movement is perfect, every background communicates as much as the foreground focus. You could just turn the sound off with no subtitles and it is amazing to watch.

The setting is ancient Japan, just at the beginning of industrialization. Gods roam the countryside, and every healthy tree has a spirit living with it. The plot is focused around the wanderings of Prince Ashitaka, who is forced out of his idyllic home because he was cursed by a demonized boar-god. He gets involved in the ongoing battles of the up and coming industrial Iron Town and the gods of the nearby forest. Ashitaka tries to remain neutral, but finds it difficult after seeing the desires to thrive on both sides of the war, and he is torn by the hatred on both sides. And there are, of course, complications. For one, he has fallen in love with a human on the forest side, San, who grew up with the wolf god. And the Emperor, seeking the key to living forever, has sent a monk to retrieve the head of the forest spirit, which has the power of life.

For many of Miyazaki's movies, I think of them in pairs. The partner to this one is Nausicaa. They both deal with wars between communities and the connection between nature and humanity. The great evil of Nausicaa is fear, while in Mononoke it is hatred. At one point Ashitaka breaks up a fight between San and Lady Eboshi, saying, "You both have the same spirit," meaning hatred. It is hatred that causes a god to become a demon and hatred that causes a human to become a monster, even if their appearance does not change.

The point of the movie, as with Nausicaa, is that nature and humanity should be working together for the benefit of all, rather than battling each other for limited resources. Ashitaka yells out at one point, "Why can't humans and the forest live together?" Ashitaka is seen with distrust from all sides because he won't take a side. But in the end, at least Lady Eboshi considers rebuilding Iron Town in a way that would not harm the forest.

Although Nausicaa takes place long after Mononoke, I think it is better to see Nausicaa before Mononoke, because the potentially idyllic relationship between humanity and nature is more clearly seen there, and the tradgedy of Mononoke can be better seen in this light.

A question one might come from the film: "Why is it called Princess Mononoke? She seems more like a supporting character." I think the key is in the term. "Mononoke" is not a name, but a word that means "spirit" or, more tellingly, "monster". The title obviously applies to San, being as much wolf as human and siding with the spirits in the battle. But the term also applies to Lady Eboshi, who is a marvelous ruler of her town, but when she is ruled by hatred then she is monstrous, horrific. They are both a "princess mononoke" and it gets to the heart of the film. For the true monster is the one who is filled with hatred for either humanity or nature-- the one who is controlled by hatred and pours it out on one's enemy.

When I first saw Princess Mononoke almost ten years ago, I didn't find it that great. The themes were beyond me, I think, and I couldn't grasp whether the movie was ugly or beautiful. After seeing so many other Miyazaki, however, I can understand it better and appreciate it much more. It still has weaknesses: I think that the motivations of the characters, especially Ashitaka, are unclear, and I spend part of the film in confusion.

Nevertheless, I can now see that it belongs with the top Miyazaki films. It enriches Miyazaki themes, and displays the power of animation in ways that few films can.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

14 Reasons To Love Brazil (The Film)

I'm sure the country has many more reasons to love it, but I've never been there. However, I have seen the film Brazil a number of times and it is a true dystopian classic. Here's why:

1. It’s Kafkaesque.
I think Kafka was a master at getting to the cold heart of bureaucracy, and seeing it for the monster it is. Gilliam reproduces that brilliantly and with more heart than Kafka.

2. It’s truly funny.
Most Kafkaesque dystopias are simply dark and dreary (see Soderbergh’s Kafka of 1991), and Gilliam sometimes is simply silly, not funny (see Time Bandits). But Brazil hits the funny bone just right. I recently watched a film strongly reminiscent of Brazil, Songs From the Second Floor (Sweedish, 2000), but I felt so awful about the people that it was difficult to laugh. Certainly there are moments like this, such as the torturer taking a break to play with his daughter, but more often than not the humor is truly a break in the despair. Sam trying to hold up a sign saying, “Trust me” while Jill is trying to get him off her truck; DeNiro’s appearances as the heroic free-lance duct worker; the graffiti over the propaganda signs—Brazil is a complex film both in plot and emotionally.

3. The feel of Metropolis (the 1927 classic film).
The architecture, the idealized woman, the separation between the “heart” and the “head”, the strong class distinction—all of this invokes Fritz Lang’s masterpiece of the 20’s. It just adds to the wonder of this film.

4. The dream sequences.
They are so fantastic and symbolic and yet you feel you could touch Sam’s angel persona, and the buildings rising up from the ground seem so realistic (except for the fact that they are rising up from the ground).

5. Brazil's Influences
Brazil seems to evoke so many films. Sam climbing all over the truck seems to evoke the truck scene in Raiders (1981); Sam’s home with gadgets to help him get out of bed seems to evoke the first scene in Back to the Future (earlier in 1985); the dream sequence, especially with the buildings, seem to evoke Monty Python’s Meaning of Life’s section about corporate takeovers (1983—Gilliam stealing from himself?). Yet they all have a unique take and are completely incorporated in this world.

6. Sam (the hero) is not a hero.
Sure, he’s good on computers, but he doesn’t even use that skill for his love until it’s really too late and then only halfway. He is hapless and confused away from his computer, and when he finds his love he does all the wrong things. And while I might get irritated at him for his stupidity and pathetic nature, in the end, it makes him all the more loveable.

7. No dehumanization
Every character is treated like a human, even torturers, even the faceless bad guys (so similar to stormtroopers in Star Wars) who get killed. Thus the film is reversing what the dystopian society is trying to accomplish through paperwork and propaganda.

8. Fantasy doesn’t save the day.
I am a big fan of fantasy and dreams, but it is a clichĂ© that following one’s dream or living out one’s fantasy will just all work out in the end. That doesn’t happen for Sam. In fact, all his trouble really started when he stopped thinking and started following his heart.

9. The blame isn't on an individual
The reason Sam couldn’t follow his heart is because of the society. Sam’s ambition is perfectly reasonable—to try to woo the girl of his dreams and spend his life with her in a small house. But this dream is unacceptable because the society must control everything, even love. Sam would have had a chance in most worlds, but not in a world of oppression and bureaucracy.

10. The Reality
Much of Gilliam’s vision actually comes from real life experiences in the 20th century. People being taken from their homes—think Stalinist Russia. A load of paperwork to confirm terrible oppressive crimes of the government—Nazi Germany’s Holocaust. An “acid man” to do plastic surgery—based on a real event from Gilliam’s childhood. Even the shoe hat-- yes, there really was such a thing as a shoe hat. There are many more explained in Gilliam’s commentary on the film.

11. Gilliam’s art perfectly realized.
Gilliam often does artwork for each scene before it is made, so he just re-creates his artwork in real life. Sometimes in his films that artwork is too gaudy (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) or confusing (The Imaginarium of Doctor Pernasus), but here, the world is complex, but easily seen. Not a single shot is too complicated to take in.

12. It’s complexity.
It is hard to really get a full sense of the film in one viewing. I almost think the way I watched it this last week—once through and then a second time with Gilliam’s commentary—is the best way to watch it. We get a much fuller idea of the whole vision. It’s easier to remember that way as well.

13. It's Everytime/Everyplace
Many of the ideas and motifs come from different places and times in the 20th century. Some fashion is drawn from the 40's, yet Jill is dressed in an early 80's New Wave style. The building and room designs come from all over-- Egypt, Germany, Los Angeles-- from different eras. Thus, this isn't a satire on the UK or the US or any specific place. It's a critique of any culture that goes too far into its own system without really caring about people's needs.

14. The end. (Spoilers here, in case you couldn't tell)
The “Love Conquers All” version is too pat. Gilliam points out that most people think Sam is dead, when it is clear that he is moving at the end of the film. Instead, Sam is in his dream, permanently with Jill, in their little house, having beaten the world. Never mind that Sam will be transferred to a nursing facility and eventually euthanized. For the rest of his life he is happy. This is certainly a bittersweet ending, at best. But it’s complexity fits the movie perfectly. Both Sam and the System won. It is both realistic and fantastic.

If you haven't seen it, see it. If you have seen it, see it again.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Real Gospel of The Passion of the Christ

My latest article at The Reelists is on Mel Gibson's famous (or among some, infamous) The Passion of the Christ:

Much of the American church has lauded The Passion of the Christ for its stark and gory depiction of the death of Jesus for being “realistic”. However, having done historical studies on the subject, I can say that Mr. Gibson went far astray of historical reality. First of all, his sixty-plus lashing of Jesus would not be allowed. Even Jesus Christ Superstar only had the “forty minus one” legal limit of a public lashing. Also, although it was an occasional practice for the Romans to weave bone into their whips, it was not a perpetual or necessarily a frequent use. We have no proof that every whip on Jesus’ back ripped his flesh to shreds. And, frankly, an adult body can lose about 2.2 liters of blood before death. And long before the Jesus of the Passion carried his cross, he had lost that amount of blood.

Read the rest at The Reelists

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Duo of Brothers: Bloom and Blues

The Blues Brothers

Jake and Elwood. A couple of simple men, with simple desires. They love good music, good friends, fast cars and to stay away from their exes. But there is a crisis: the severe nun who raised them is about to lose her orphanage. So they embark upon their mission from God: they are going to get their rockin’ blues band back together and do one more big benefit show to keep the orphanage going. In the midst of this, they find that they must have a number of car chases, including one through a mall, insult some rednecks and run from a mysterious woman who wants to kill them. Just another adventure for God.

Technical 3/5—The acting is basic, sometimes it is basically bad. But that is all to remind us that most of these supporting characters aren’t actors, they are musicians. The cinematography is also pretty basic—nothing fancy or pretty. It’s your basic entertainment from the 80s.

Interest—4/5—What a fun film. The music is great, having some of the classics rock and soul songs from some great artists. And it is such a blast. The car chase through the mall is still classic, and the Brothers’ choices are amazingly stupid. For a skit brought to screen, it is really entertaining.

Tension—3/5—In a sense, it doesn’t really matter what happens. The important thing is that the movie goes from song to violence to song to violence. What happens to the characters aren’t so important. The only tension is really found when the Brothers’ are VERY late for the show. But Cab Calloway saves the day—how fantastic!

Emotional—3/5—If LOL is an emotion, then I was there.

Characters—3/5—Frankly, I like the fact that Belushi and Ackroyd played the Brothers deadpan. It offered a wonderful contrast to their stage presence and the insanity around them. It just added to the humor, even if it means no character development for them. Carrie Fisher, however, is perfect as the Ex. She steals every scene she’s in and is way better than all of Scott Pilgrim’s Exes combined.

Theme—2/5—Abusive nuns shouldn’t ever ask the kids she’s raised to help her. In anything more than painting walls.

Ethics—2/5—Ethically, the film is interesting. We are asked to withhold judgment on the various criminal activities of Jake and Ellwood because they are doing it to help out an orphanage and they are socially clueless as to what would be appropriate. In other words, since their moral imagination is low and their motivation is good, then we should wink at the damage they have done to relationships, buildings, families, as well as the countless laws they have broken. Besides, their band rocks.

Two things disturb me about this moral reasoning. First, that good motivation always produces moral actions. Clearly, in the Blues Brothers, this is not the case. And it is not the case in real life. The fact is, moral action not only needs positive motivation (“I want to help this person”), but it also requires wisdom to understand the best options. Which J and E clearly lacked.

Second, and what really bugs me, is J and E represent a certain kind of religious reasoning that damages the world. We can laugh at their idiocy, but others see their kind of religious experience without thought to be a fair assessment of proper religious action. They can be seen as a mockery of religion (which I don’t think the Blues Brothers is) or they can be used as a defense for a kind of religious action. Really, I’ve seen it. I know a number of Jake and Ellwoods. I know of people who pray for protection before they break into a store to steal thousands of dollars of goods, and believe that God has heard their prayers. This is horrible. Again, it’s not the fault of the movie. Perhaps the film is just laughing at this kind of reasoning. Unfortunately, knowing that the reasoning is actually out there, takes away some of the absurdity for me.

If God is in The Blues Brothers, He's the one who caused the orphanage to close down in the first place.

Personal—2/5—Nothing personal, it’s just an entertaining film.

The Blues Brothers is along the lines of The Emperor’s New Groove or the original Pirates of the Caribbean film. It is simply entertainment, nothing more. And it isn’t as great entertainment as those other films, so it won’t make my top 100. But it is worth rewatching about every decade.

The Brothers Bloom

Rian Johnson is a director whose name should be widely known. Honestly, he's young and he's only directed two films. But these two films are so filled with the knowledge of their particular genre, and both goes just that extra step that Johnson should be someone to really keep an eye on. His first film was Brick, a noir film that takes place in a high school. It is tense, smart, and just a pleasure to watch.

But even better is his follow up, The Brothers Bloom. I watched this for the second time with a dumb smile on my face the whole time. This is a con movie, but the real issue is not what the con is, but how the artists con themselves. How, in reality, we all invent ourselves and re-invent ourselves. That who we are is not accurate memory, but rather that our identity is found in the narrative we have placed ourselves.

The first time, Bang Bang enchanted me. This time, I fell in love with the whole cast. I understood what was going on, which made me lose some of the mystery, but it was just as good. The storytelling motif is not just interesting, but important. Oh yeah, this is a keeper.

Technical-- 5/5-- Johnson is an amazing filmmaker. Every frame is planned, and every moment carefully placed. And it is all a wonder to look at. Some of the sequences are so complex that you think you are watching one of those Rube Goldberg machines that take up a room in order to crack an egg. Perhaps it is unnecessary, but the entertainment is in going through the complexity.

Interest-- 5/5-- There isn't a frame without something amazing taking place. Unbelievably entertaining. Funny, touching, occasionally deep, and most of all, fun.

Tension-- 3/5-- The tension was certainly less the second time around. But the final scene was still intense.

Emotional 2/5-- This film doesn't really stir my emotions, which is why it won't make my very top films. The most I can say is "touching" at times.

Characters 4/5-- Not only was I entertained by these characters, I almost believed in all of them. Bang Bang, probably one of my favorite supporting characters of all time, is part Chaplain, part Harpo and part Basher Tarr. Oh, and she's Asian. But all of the characters are a lot of fun. The point was not to see the characters as "real" so much as to feel what they feel. All the characters, not just Bang Bang, felt, to a degree that they came from a much older day of cinema, which made them a bit more shallow, but still likable and you still wish you could spend more time with them.

Theme 5/5-- The idea of life as story and the power of writing one's own story is excellent.

Ethics 4/5-- Well, conning is bad. That's criminal. And lying. But making sure that everyone gets a benefit from the arrangement is good. Perhaps it is self-deception on Stephan's part, but interesting to think about. The interesting thing about this film and most con films is the idea of lying as a potentially positive thing. Deception is bad, not because people shouldn't be deceived, but because deception is almost only exclusively used for one's own personal benefit. But if one could lie in a self-sacrificial way, to benefit another, is it actually wrong?

Personal 2/5-- Didn't really connect personally, but you can't have everything.

It's a film of entertainment, with a little to think about, but it succeeds admirably for that. I was firmly entertained and I thought a little. I would place it above The Blues Brothers and I declare Rian Johnson as someone I will watch just because his name is attached to the project. Oh yeah and I think The Brothers Bloom will make my top 100 list.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Simply Bleak: Songs From The Second Floor

I wouldn't call Songs just a black comedy but rather desperately bleak. The context is a nation where the economic situation is desperate, and no one has any idea what to do. Stockbrokers whip themselves in the street, economists gaze in a crystal ball, entrepreneurs come up with any crazy business plan, all to no avail. The economic situation is just getting worse.

And in that context we are told the story of Kalle, who has torched his business in the hopes that he would obtain the insurance money. His son is mentally ill and won't speak. But this movie is not so much a story as an observation. Kalle and others are in scene after scene, each displaying a single of desperation, of failure, of loss, but there is no progress or really regress. It is just bleak.

I wonder about the unreality of it, frankly. Sure, there are ghosts, but are they really ghosts or the selfish causes of the economic situation? Is it a reality or an unreality, or simply a perspective, and interpretation of our times? Both the style and themes are reminiscent of Brazil, but the running theme through Brazil is hope-- and there is no hope found in this film.

I can't say whether I liked the film or not. It took a while to get used to, and the ideas are interesting. But could I say I enjoyed it? Well, no. But is it good? Certainly. It is a unique perspective, a combination of Gilliam and Linklater with a dollop of Scandinavian humor. I recommend the experience.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Groundhog Day, Philosopher Style!

I am here to ruin your experience of a richly entertaining film.

Groundhog Day never won an Oscar, but it gained recognition in a number of other ways. It is on AFI’s 100 Funniest Films list, (number 34) and it won a Britsh comedy award. And it has been acclaimed by the U.S. National Film Registry as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Whatever that means.

What it deserves to win, should there be such an award, is Best Philosophical Movie.

Perhaps you consider the Bill Murray fest to simply be his best performance, and it might be that. Perhaps you think of it as a quiet comedy. Perhaps you are one of the few who consider it to be one of the more entertaining films ever made. But I am here to tell you that it is an intellectual feast, made for the common folk.

The rest of this review can be found at The Reelists:
The Gospel According to Groundhog Day

Friday, April 8, 2011

Lake Of Fire: A Lesson On Rhetoric

Two words that in this day and age are an oxymoron when placed in conjunction: "abortion" and "objective."

It is almost impossible to discuss abortion while remaining balanced and unemotional, at least in the United States. It is difficult to speak about those who hold to an opposing view of abortion than oneself in a fair and unbiased manner. Words like "bigot" and "sexist" and "unAmerican" and "Nazi" tend to creep out. The whole context is one of high emotion and distrust. And, as is often the case in the politics of the United States, there are two sides, and ne'er shall they meet. Either you are on the one side or the other, and they cannot work together.
Take, for instance, the film Lake of Fire, a documentary on the abortion debate by Tony Kaye. Tony Kaye, a British filmmaker, claims that he does not know what stand he takes on abortion. However, everyone he interviews makes it clear that they know and they will tell the camera exactly what they think is true, in no uncertain words.

First up are the religious fundamentalists who are the focus of the first half of the film. They are the ones who say that the Bible teaches that abortion is murder and that America should be a Christian country. In a Christian country, they say, people would face the death penalty for killing innocent human lives. And yet they find some of their members being killed by society for killing doctors who kill fetuses.

The second half of the film focuses on the arguments of the pro-choicers. Although some of the arguments are the rights of women, most of them are about the need to recognize that sometimes killing must happen for a greater need. Most of them consider abortion, as one of the pro-life speakers said, "the lesser of two evils". At the end of the film, the pro-choicers are more articulate and more willing to recognize that we live in a secular society and we need secular reasoning to pass laws.

But despite all the talking heads, the most powerful segments of the film are the introduction and conclusion, each of which depict an actual abortion. The first is grizzly, with a chopped up tiny infant being displayed for the camera, a severed foot with clear toes measured at a half inch. The capstone of the film focuses on a woman, struggling with relationships, making a tortured decision with kind people leading her through the steps. Her scenes end with her weeping and saying, "It's hard... but I made the right choice." These abortions depict the two sides far better than the multiple talking heads. One focuses on the terrible death of an infant. The latter focuses on the life of a woman. In making a decision about abortion, both must be considered.

Lake of Fire is often considered an objective perspective on abortion. And it certainly has all the trappings of objectivity. It allows both sides to speak with equal air time. It shows, through the two abortions, the key features that stirs all the rhetoric. However, it is not a fair representation.

From the pro-choice side, I have read that there is a concern about not allowing enough women speak on the issue. I will say that although women do speak in the film, they are not the most articulate voices in the film. For the pro-life side, Norma McCorvey (AKA Jane Roe of the famous case, Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal) was very articulate in telling her journey from being pro-choice to becoming pro-life. But for the most part, the "stars" of the film were men.

Now I'm going to come out of the closet and freely proclaim my lack of objectivity myself. I am pro-life and have been for a long time. And, although I am religious, I did not come to this position as a religious belief. Frankly, I don't think the Bible speaks to the issue at all, and the verses that relate to the unborn are vague at best when dealing with the issue of abortion. Nor do I have a church tradition that tells me what to believe. I came to my point of view from a philosophical perspective. And from that perspective I want to say why I felt that Lake of Fire is not objective.

The viewing of this film cut a hole in my heart. I felt like a knife was being driven into my chest again and again. At first because of the abortion that was depicted right at the beginning of the film. It is frankly the most graphic visual depiction of an abortion I have ever seen. If the film had been in color instead of black and white, I would have vomited.

But frankly, worse than that was the rhetoric used by the "pro-lifers". The religious fundamentalists who don't care about differing points of view or seeing things from another persons' perspective. They don't care that our country is secular and so public policy decisions must be discussed in a non-religious way. And the depiction of these religious fundamentalists are interspersed with stories and interviews with murderers of doctors who perform abortions. The point of view of these murderers is clearly articulated: "Mass murderers should be killed, and if my country won't do it, I will." Frankly, the rhetoric is offensive and the inclusion of murderers as representatives of the "pro life" movement is unbiased at best or a deliberate attempt to undermine the position at worst.

A number of the pro-choicers make the excellent position that if the pro-lifers were against war and were for saving all children, not just the ones in the womb, then perhaps they could be listened to. Another articulate (woman) on the pro-choice side said that if the pro-lifers were helping pregnant women with their pregnancies, giving them homes and helping their babies get adopted, then the pro-choice side might pay attention to them.

What the film doesn't represent is the more reasonable, articulate, and compassionate side of the pro-life movement. First of all, there is a strong side of the pro-life movement called "consistent pro-life." It is a side that is articulated by both conservatives and liberals, both religious and non-religious. It says that all human life is to be protected and that the life of an abortion doctor, a mother with AIDS, a child in Africa and a fetus all have the right to be protected from death. We say that abortion isn't the only issue that needs to be changed, but also war-- where innocents die almost daily by American bombs-- and the death penalty should be stopped, for they are all crimes against humanity.

The film doesn't depict the kind care and service of women that happen everyday in thousands of communities in the United States by pro-lifers. That there are Crisis Pregnancy Centers, adoption agencies, homes for unwed mothers, all set up to make it easier for women to carry out their pregnancies and to give the baby up for adoption.

I would love to have all pro-lifers watch the film Lake of Fire, to show how the pro-life movement is being displayed. No matter how reasonable some of these leaders seem, they all look like religious fanatics and they seem to be associated with murderers. We need more reasonable, articulate spokespersons for the pro-life cause. People of peace as well as people of learning. They are out there-- Ron Sider, Peter Kreeft, Ron Paul. It is sad that they are not given a part of the limelight to give a balanced perspective.