Tuesday 22 February 2011

I Know Not What I Do...Therefore I Tweet

I've long told friends that I hadn't set up a Twitter account yet because who would follow me? I'm simply not that interesting. That's not just a little playful self-deprecation - I'm really not that exciting. Don't worry, I have a strong sense of self-esteem and everything, but I never felt anyone would really give a crap about my instantaneous musings or thoughts.

So why the change of heart? Why does that Twitter widget sit on the right side destined to be untended with the rest of my neglected site? Well, it was really my experience at TIFF (the Toronto Film Festival) this past year that did it. Over the last few years, I've been meeting more and more Toronto area bloggers and film writers (we take up half the basement of a local pub during our boisterous monthly get-togethers). It was great to bump into many of them during the fest, share screenings with them and compare notes, but as I talked to more and more of them, I realized that Twitter was an important communication vehicle that I was missing - spreading news of available tickets, noting locations in lineups for Midnight Madness, giving scoops of possible interviews and sharing recent postings. It suddenly made some sense to me...

And now that I've actually got a decent phone (OK, all I've used it for so far is music and playing "Angry Birds", but just you wait...), maybe I can jump into the fray. Especially with the Hot Docs filmfest coming up in a short couple of months. I've got a lot of catching up to do, though, since I don't know a hash tag from a tinyurl.

This may prove fruitless, but it's worth a shot. If my pearls of wisdom go unheeded, so be it. If it helps me connect with real live people, then it'll have been a roaring success. Kind of like this blog...My Wikio rating keeps dropping, but I keep meeting more people (virtual and in the flesh). That, to me, is successful and it's all I need to keep going. That and of course the occasional mention in The Daily at MUBI.

Oh, I went with TheLogicalMind as my Twitter name. We'll see if that still makes any sense in a few months...

Monday 14 February 2011


"Kuroneko" is currently in the middle of a week long run at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto and is touring North America.

Whenever you finally track down a film you've been dying to see for years, there's always a risk that you've set it up for failure. It can't possibly live up to your expectations, can it? It's more than likely to leave you wanting more and even if you can't really fault it, you'll probably still walk away a little bit disappointed. Sometimes though...Sometimes it's everything you wanted.

Kaneto Shindo's 1968 ghost story "Kuroneko" ended up completely satiating my long simmering curiosity. As one of the main inspirations for latter day J-Horror films (along with the director's own previous "Onibaba", Masaki Kobayashi's "Kwaidan" and Nobuo Nakagawa's "Ghost Story Of Yotsuya" and "Jigoku"), "Kuroneko" is not really in the same style as those latter films it helped to inspire. It deals with horrific occurrences and choices, but is really a simple ghost story that also happens to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing black and white films I’ve seen. The sharp contrasts (e.g. the brightness of the ghosts white dresses versus the darkness of the forest around them, etc.) and the very theatrical lighting used in several sequences helps to highlight the fantastical nature of the story and tends to burn images into your mind like it's an old television set. Shindo creates a somewhat surreal environment for these two female ghosts to exist - a house with changing shafts of light at the edge of a bamboo forest and near the Gates of Rajomon. The contrasts feel deeper here than in the real world where the rest of Japan is struggling through the Warring States period and samurai have all the power.

The story begins with a wandering band of these samurai as they exit the woods and approach the hut of a mother and her daughter-in-law. These men have survived their recent battles, but seem to have lost their humanity - they raid the hut for food, rape both the women and burn the hut to the ground. In the smouldering remains, a black cat wanders over the two charred bodies and licks their wounds. Given the title of the film (Kuroneko means Black Cat) and the screen-filling closeups of the cat's face and eyes, you know this is no ordinary feline. The two women return as spirits and have a simple task - to seek vengeance upon all samurai. Each and every samurai who wanders through the gates near the bamboo forest is met by the young woman. Each one appears honourable at first as they unfailingly help her back to her house through the darkness of the bamboo forest, but once they enter the house and have been served numerous drinks of sake, they feel they can help themselves to the young woman. This, of course, is part of the spirits' plan. Once vulnerable, the young woman attacks them in a vicious animalistic way while the mother does a dance of death.

The bodies are left to be found in the forest and word of these multiple samurai deaths soon reaches one of the local lords. He has recently been impressed by a samurai who was the sole survivor of a long battle, so he commands him to find and dispatch the killers (not realizing that there is a supernatural element to the deaths). The man who now has this unenviable task also happens to be the missing son/husband of these two women. He was once just a farmer living with them in the now burned out hut, but was forcibly removed three years earlier to become a soldier. Unfortunately, in their current incarnation the women's pact with the evil spirits still holds that they must kill all samurai. The young woman is faced with the choice of spending 7 days with her husband and being banished forever to Hell or to hold up the pact and kill him like the others.

This portion of the story adds in melodramatic scenes from both husband and wife, but it fits within the context of the film. The horrors of the unnecessary wars (that benefit the samurai, but leave farmers and villagers in squalor), the terrible choices left to families and the no-way-out scenarios presented to them all provide the impetus for these high levels of emotion. Meanwhile Shindo continues his filmmaking tricks to remind the audience of the abilities of these two spirits - via reversing film, repeating short segments and using subtle changes in makeup and facial features, both spirits acquire feline characteristics as they stalk and attack their victims. As opposed to anything that will scare you outright, the film is gorgeously haunting - a feeling that I suspect will stay with me much longer than it took to see the film in the first place.

Saturday 12 February 2011

Sequences Of A Titular Nature #7

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010 - Edgar Wright) - A pretty obvious choice I suppose (Art Of The Title recently chose it too), but it works exceedingly well merged with Sex-Bob-omb's opening blast of a song. The shaky images (which actually align nicely with the characters of the actors' names) and random colours seem to be little bursts of energy that scratch themselves right into the filmstrip and by the end of the titles, you're pretty much primed for the rest of the bright, fast moving story.

Monsoon Wedding (2001 - Mira Nair) - Though very simple and using only 4 or 5 solid colours, I like how these titles not only prepare you for the colourful setting of the upper class Indian family, but also for the even more colourful and ornamental wedding that follows. The shapes and designs are simple, but always flowing from one to the other and reminds me a bit of the great Saul Bass' title work.

Youth In Revolt (2010 - Miguel Arteta) - The claymation characters in these titles are strangely appropriate since Nick Twisp is soon to encounter his alter-ego Francois Dillinger and begin co-existing between his imagination and real life. The movie was a great deal more enjoyable than I expected and was even surprising in its smaller details (like these titles for example).

The Other Guys (2010 - Adam McKay) - Will Ferrell's most recent venture with partner in crime Adam McKay (director of both "Anchorman" and "Talledega Nights" - two comedies that make me laugh out loud) did very little for me. It wasn't really that bad and even contained a few funny moments, but it just never took off into flights of inspired silliness like the other two did. Its end titles were totally unexpected though - animated sequences stepping us through the recent financial crisis with stats showing criminal activity and corporate greed. I liked the info graphics and felt they did a great job in representing certain pieces of data, but it's not exactly a good fit for the movie.

Sunday 6 February 2011

Tales From Earthsea

Also published at Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow.

Though Goro Miyazaki's first foray into the director's chair was a huge success at the box office in Japan - viewed by more sets of eyes than any other Japanese film in 2006 - his take on Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books did not meet the standards of one particular set of eyes: his own father's. Goro is, of course, the son of master animator and co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki. Famous for his gorgeous fantastical flights in the art of hand drawn films, Miyazaki senior was NOT happy with his son's decision to rework the story into a modern anime style movie and away from the warmer manga-inspired works that Ghibli has produced over the last two decades. Father and son had not been particularly close beforehand, but the production of the film caused an even deeper rift between the two men. I find it's always wise to stay out of any family feud, but in this particular case I'll make an exception - the elder Miyazaki is right.

It's not so much that Goro moved away from the style that made Ghibli what it is today (though Le Guin herself was very disappointed with his decision) or that he didn't stay true to his father's initial vision for the film (Hayao wrote a treatment from Le Guin's books entitled "Shuna's Journey"). It's that he did something unforgivable. He made a boring movie. Not just dull, but a plodding, poorly-paced, jumbled affair that, aside from several small moments and images, would never bring to mind Studio Ghibli's great history. Apparently based mostly on the third and fourth books of Le Guin's six novel series (she had several short stories outside the books based in the Earthsea domain as well), it begins with the cautionary message that people are acting strange these days and that dragons (who many years ago left the land of the humans) have been spotted in several places. A young Prince named Arren kills his father the King for what appears to be no good reason and, after he flees, receives guidance and assistance from Sparrowhawk the archmage who is known as one of the strongest of the wizards. To avoid capture by the castle guards and the slave traders, Sparrowhawk hides him out in the country with Tenar and Therru (a young girl that Tenar has taken under her wing). The evil Cob, a wizard who seeks eternal life, also wants revenge against Sparrowhawk and uses Arren's darker side to pull the archmage into a trap.

At the root of this interpretation is the message that life is to be cherished and that you must always be true to yourself - not exactly the most original set of morales ever constructed, but the initial premise of the film married with this concept could have proved quite interesting. When humans and dragons went their separate ways many years ago, it was a difference of opinion that led to it. Humans wanted wealth and possessions while dragons wanted simple freedom. When the dragons begin to show up in the human's world again, there seems to be a shift in "the balance" which might explain the weird behaviours and events. This could have proved interesting, but so little gets done with the concept. The story can't even stay true to itself as it wanders from the four people hiding out to the slave traders to Cob's fixation on Sparrowhawk and pulls in new bits of information when it deems it necessary to move a plot element forward. Worst of all, during some of the more confusing sections of the film, I never felt any confidence that I'd be guided through to any understanding of what's really going on nor could I work up the energy to really care.

The film is almost totally without humour or subtlety and its characters have nothing endearing or even memorable about them. There's a sword, bits of magic and a lot of talking about life and death, but never do we get any feeling for what Earthsea is like - the story could have been set anywhere. For all the initial concern about the world going crazy and dragons returning, we never again see any signs of the former and the latter only return in the last 20 minutes or so of the film. The reason for the return is one of the stronger points of the entire story, but it's far too little and far too late. Even some beautiful background painting simply can't forgive an utter lack of imagination in taking the story anywhere of note. One hopes that father and son repair the relationship - Miyazaki junior needs to remember where he came from and be true to his name.

Saturday 5 February 2011

The Illusionist

Recently, my ten-year old son has moved away from calling me “Daddy” and started in with the shorter and more to the point “Dad”. I’ve been having mixed feelings about this – while it’s great to see him mature and push his boundaries a bit towards his upcoming teenage years, it’s also kind of sad to see a few more of the remaining traces of my little boy evaporate in front of my eyes. Oh sure, the occasional “Daddy” still slips out every so often, but he’s made the turn. It’s just one of many changes that any child goes through as they mature and yet another point where the parents can reflect on what’s slipped away while also being excited about what’s ahead. It’s pretty much a perfect example of the word bittersweet.

Change that evolves (as opposed to change that is designed) is like that. You can see the reasons for it occurring, but sometimes that doesn’t ease the pain of losing what was there. Take, for example, the circumstances facing an old time magician caught in a fast changing modern world as shown in The Illusionist. Sylvain Chomet’s most recent exercise in beautifully hand-drawn animation, depicts the wonderful subtlety and gentle wonder of the old art form of a travelling stage magician. He performs sleight of hand tricks, pulls small props out of nowhere and, yes, even a rabbit out of a hat (one particularly grumpy rabbit), but he does this to small apathetic crowds. It’s getting tougher and tougher for him to eke out a living so when he gets offered a job in the Northern region of Scotland he takes it. The simple rural existence of the pub patrons allows for an appreciation of his craft and there’s no cynical pointing to what’s up his sleeve or seen-it-all-before attitude anywhere in his new audience. In particular, a young girl working at the pub is enthralled with his act and ends up following him back to the big city. She literally believes he can do magic.

Chomet’s film is based on an old, never-filmed story by master French filmmaker Jacques Tati and you’d be hard pressed to find a better match. Chomet’s previous full length animated film The Triplets Of Belleville was filled with small sight gags, strange contraptions and nary a word of dialogue. If you’ve seen any of Tati’s most famous films (Mr. Hulot’s Vacation, Mon Oncle, Playtime – all starring himself as the tall and gangly Mr. Hulot), you’ll note that there’s a kindred spirit between them. The Illusionist tells its tale without a single crucial spoken word. There are plenty of utterances and background chatter from the assembled characters, but the entire story in all its fine detail is told via character actions and voices are relegated to being part of the sound field (a field that is filled with clanking mechanical sounds – especially once they are in an urban setting). As the young girl slowly becomes a young lady and begins to experience the big city – its attitudes, its temptations and its huge spectrum of choices – she begins to lose that childlike wonderment in his magic. There is a deep sadness to the film at times – not just because of the loss of youth and innocence of this country girl, but due to the way it acts as a eulogy of sorts to the “good old days” of simple entertainment. It’s more like straight up bitterness at times as it laments a time when audiences could gain entertainment and appreciation from watching skilled performers dedicated to their craft and not someone who panders or who is all flash and dazzle. A fine example of the latter is the lead singer of Billy Boy & The Britoons – a band of floppy haired musicians with screaming fans and an abundance of cool. Billy is the new style of entertainment and is the big draw to one of the early theatres the magician plays. Once Billy and the band are done though, the crowd disappears leaving a lone old woman and her grandson to watch the magic show.

Despite all this, the film is filled to the brim with humour and wonderful moments. The secondary characters like Billy, the drunken Scot who brings the magician to his pub, the three acrobats who seem to move only in tumbling and somersault motions and even the cranky rabbit all bring a great deal to their scenes – even if they’re only in the background. There’s a wealth of small gestures and repeated little gags that begin to work on you so that the laughs come more and more easily as the film goes along (Chomet also throws in some tributes including an old Buster Keaton gag and a visit to a movie theatre that’s playing Mon Oncle). It also doesn’t hurt that the 2D animation is glorious. Whether it’s a car rolling through the streets of Edinburgh or a cluster of clouds rolling over the Scottish countryside, the warmth and detail of every frame wraps around you and tucks you in. Even in some of the more poignant moments of the film, I couldn’t help but smile broadly. Towards the story’s end, the sweetness of so much that has happened has garnered a very bitter taste – the blossoming young girl begins her city life, but the magician begins to lose his faith in his own ability to create wonder for new eyes.

Not to worry though, as long as we have movies like The Illusionist, we’ll always have a little bit of magic around. A beautiful, touching film.