Here are the films I watched in May 2012.
This 1993 film from director Guillermo del Toro is a bit of a “vampire origin” story. An old man stumbles upon a “Cronos” device, an immortal-insect powered machine made by a 16th century alchemist. When someone uses the device by filtering his blood through it, he becomes immortal, and quite vampire-like (he wants to drink blood and stay out of sunlight, for example). It’s classified as a “horror” movie for its definite horror elements and visuals, but at its heart, like del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, it is really a fantastical drama; the horror elements are not there simply for their own sake. Fun movie, even while some of the visuals were definitely quite repulsive.
Blade Runner: The Final Cut
I had never seen this 1982 Ridley Scott sci-fi film all the way through before, and the pieces I’d seen on TV were from the theatrical “narrated” version which I couldn’t stand. The narration was poorly written, poorly performed, unneeded drivel. So I was happy they made a version without the narration. It’s certainly a visually stunning film, a very engaging world of night with smoke and rain and neon signs. The pre-CGI special effects are remarkable. Unfortunately the story itself was too loose for me; Deckard, as performed by Harrison Ford, needed more personality and drive for his replicant-murder quest. And the theme of wondering what it means to be human by pondering the nature of replicants is just not a very interesting philosophical question to me; I’ve already thought about it too much myself for such a film to engage me with such philosophical predicaments. But I can understand why the film seems so iconic.
The Human Condition – No Greater Love
This 1959 Japanese film is the first installment of an epic trilogy (based on Japanese novels) directed by Masaki Kobayashi. This first film tells the tale of Kaji who is sent to supervise a prison camp where prisoners are forced to work in mines. Kaji works to overturn the injustice he finds there, but meets very few who agree with his moral positions. The roller coaster of drama often makes the 3-hour film feel more like a TV miniseries than a self-contained story, but it is fantastic. A great story with great acting and constantly gripping conflict.
This 1962 tragic Soviet film from director Andrei Tarkovsky tells the story of a child named Ivan (who woulda thunk?) who is orphaned by the tragedies of World War 2 and can no longer stand to merely wait on the sidelines. So he joins Soviet army doing reconnaissance missions as they battle the Germans. The film features great cinematographic composition, great use of sound (when the sounds and visuals don’t match, but you can tell what the film is “saying”), and great acting. The story seemed rather sparse to me, which can sometimes be disconcerting for my American-ized tastes, but I think it was purposefully done in this case in the effort of making the film seem more like a bundle of distant childhood memories than a clear-cut this-then-that sequence of events, and from that point of view it is successful.
The Pirates: Band of Misfits
This 2012 animated feature from Aardman Animations provided some great light-hearted fare after watching those somewhat depressing black-and-white war films. A glimpse at some non-CGI animation was also quite refreshing, as characters do not move and arc through their motions in the quite the same way. I love the way stop-motion can feel so much more tangible than CGI, like toys come to life. While the story itself was a bit too light-hearted for me (The Pirate Captain wants to win the “Pirate of the Year” award – don’t mind me if I can’t quite relate to the gripping conflict that implies), I loved the wild ridiculous humor of it all, and the storytellers did form a well-structured cohesive story out of it. I had feared the humor would be too cheesy and childish for me. Some of it was, but some of it was hilarious, and I found myself laughing out loud. (Though the row of seven or eight children behind me did have some pre-show commentary, such as “The movie is starting!”, I became too engaged in the story of the Pirate Captain to notice whether or not they laughed at all.) (And I had to laugh at how they changed the “leper-boat” joke to a “plague-boat” (with obvious lepers) joke. Because you don’t want to offend lepers in a stop-motion film. Heaven forbid children grow up to be anti-leper, having been encouraged by their youthful watchings of an otherwise harmless animated pirate movie!) Overall, quite a fun movie.
The classic 1960 film from Stanley Kubrick of course tells the tale of the slave Spartacus as he leads an unsuccessfully slave rebellion in the days of ancient Rome. Despite some rather cheesy fight scenes, love scenes (characters might as well have just said: “You can tell how much I love you by the background music and the twinkle in my eye!”), and effects (bright red paint = blood), the story was great and I highly enjoyed it. One of the ending scenes very much reminded me of an ending scene in the book The Hunger Games, but seemed much more authentic in how the characters ultimately responded. Great film.
The Human Condition – Road to Eternity
Kaji’s adventures (if they can be called such) continue in this second film from the aforementioned trilogy. In this film, Kaji is sent to join the army itself. If he thought things were bad in the prison camp, the army isn’t much better. This one reminded me a bit of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, in how superiors sometimes treat soldiers so inhumanly and slave-like, it is a wonder any war was able to be fought at all. I don’t know my history, so I don’t know how much these movies compare to their real-world counterparts, but in terms of questioning the moral obligations of a man in such situations in the context of a story, this film (not Kubrick’s film) does a great job. Great film.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Another animated film from Studio Ghibli and director Hayao Miyazaki, this one from 1984. This film tells the story of Nausicaa (which looks too much like the English word “nauseous” to me), who is the happy and well-loved princess of a happy community living in the “Valley of the Wind.” The princess and her happy people live in a world full of evil toxic chemicals that have made certain areas of the world toxic. Invaders invade the valley, seeking to grow a biological weapon (a “giant warrior”) in their valley which they hope will destroy the toxicity with fire most powerful, but what if it does more harm than good? Who will save the day? A pretty princess! Overall, this one left me scratching my head. I didn’t understand characters’ motivations, the overall plot seemed too all-over-the-place, and I tend to be annoyed with unauthentic depictions of young royalty being so naturally well-loved by royal subjects. The depiction of believable fantasy cultures, however, was quite fun.
Road to Perdition
This 2002 crime film from director Sam Mendes takes place in the 1930s. It tells the story of Mike Sullivan (an Italian – just kidding) who works for a mob boss. When his mobbish ways indirectly get his wife and son killed, he and his surviving son set out for justice/revenge. (Not sure the line between the two is very easy to distinguish when both parties have already denied certain moral standards.) A tragic but great film with a wonderful score by Thomas Newman and incredible cinematography by the late master Conrad Hall (who won an Oscar for it). I had heard someone describe the film by saying “every scene is like a painting” and it’s true. I especially love the scene in which Mike’s son (Mike Sullivan junior) is spying on his father through a hole near the floor and we watch the scene play out from his perspective. And the scene in which Jude Law’s character is walking towards the camera and the camera moves closer and zooms out creating the effect of the world warping around him (opposite of the camera moving away and zooming in, popularly used in Goodfellas). And the scene is which it’s dark and wet and rainy and we still see wonderfully defined silhouettes of mob men as they walk to a dark car before meeting their dark fates. Worth watching for the cinematography alone. Great film.
Once Upon a Time – Season 1
Not a movie, but I put TV seasons in here too. Once Upon a Time tells the story of Disney-fied fairy tale characters who are somehow “cursed” into the modern world in an act of revenge, and the only one who can break the spell is Miss Swan. (Not the MADtv character, which would’ve been more interesting.) I’m not really a fan of “fairy tales in the modern world!” concept, as I don’t think retelling a story in a different setting is at all creative, but fortunately Once Upon a Time doesn’t quite do that; it simply remakes the fairy tale characters into modern counterparts. I still found the writing to be a bit too simple, but it seems to be a much more family-oriented show than anything else on TV at that timeslot on a major network. Disney versions of fairy tales always seem to have something annoyingly unauthentic about them, and the romances in Once Upon a Time are no different. Still, I find it very interesting to see the storytellers playing with the fantastical elements they’d probably otherwise stay away from; like the cancelled fantasy show Legend of the Seeker, I find these shows inspiring from a storytelling point of view; for me, there are often little nuggets of ideas my story-plotting mind can play with, even if the stories I steal them from aren’t completely engaging. You know what I mean? So I’ll keep watching for Season 2.
Fringe – Season 4
This season of Fringe was not quite as strong as previous seasons have been, but I think it’s because the producers made the over-arching story too complicated and are now trying to answer questions before the series ends with Season 5. I appreciate that they’re trying to answer questions before it’s too late, but I wish they wouldn’t have made the over-arching story so complicated to begin with. Now they are paying the price. It’ll be interesting to see how the series ends, but I think Season 3 was the overall strongest so far (though that animated episode from Season 3 was absolutely awful).
House – Season 8
I will miss House. The last season managed to stay strong despite Cuddy disappearing. I didn’t much care for the final episode. It was nice to get the dead characters back, but in the end they raised the stakes so high that the final “joke” was just yawn-inducing. Overall, though, great season, great series.
Judgment at Nuremberg
This 1961 film directed by Stanley Kramer tells the story of judge Dan Haywood (played by Spencer Tracy) who travels to Germany after the fall of the Nazi regime to act as a judge in the Nuremberg trials, meant to judge the German judges for crimes against humanity during the Nazi regime. The film does not try to show how and why racism and the Holocaust were evil (we all know that). Rather, the film lets us question the role of these German judges. We know they weren’t saints, but they didn’t directly even know about the Holocaust themselves, so were they that bad? How bad were they? For a moment, I was half-afraid the judge was going to make the wrong decision. Great film. I especially loved the last lines. Ernst Janning was one of the judges on trial. He begs Haywood, the judge, to believe him when he says he didn’t realize so many millions of people would be killed:
Ernst Janning: Judge Haywood… the reason I asked you to come: Those people, those millions of people… I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it, you must believe it!
Judge Dan Haywood: Herr Janning, it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.
The French Connection
I’m tempted to say the real “French connection” was the influence of that handheld camera look that was popular with French filmmakers near that time, but it was based on a book, so probably not. Anyway, this 1971 crime film tells the true (but fictionalized) story of two police men who uncover and stop a large drug smuggling. Fun movie, especially with its famous car chase scene (the end of which is completely given away in the film’s iconic poster).
This 2012 film starring Mark Wahlberg tells the story of a ex-drug-smuggler who’s forced back into the world of smuggling to get his family out of danger (which his brother-in-law’s crimes have put them in). Fun movie.
This 2011 film tells the story of an ex-killer who’s also a government agent investigating himself. When a younger agent comes close to discovering his secret, he must return to his killing ways and try to find a way out of his deadly predicament. Another fun movie.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
The premise of this 2008 film was interesting. During the Holocaust, a young boy, son of a Nazi official, befriends another boy in “striped pajamas” (or “pyjamas” for foreigners who favour spelling things wrong) – a prisoner in a prison camp who we know is doomed to die. Some critics have complained that the film’s premise is simply too farfetched. I can forgive the film that. But I have three complaints. Firstly, I don’t think the film explored nearly as many possibilities as it could have. The film seems to draw (or try to draw) most of its emotional power from us, the audience, already understanding in retrospect how tragic the Holocaust and Nazi racism was. “Remember how bad the Holocaust was? Yeah. Feel that.” The movie did little to try to create that emotion itself in terms of character relationships; instead we, the audience, must provide it by reminding ourselves how evil those Nazis were. The film could’ve done so much more with the character relationships. A wife who doesn’t like what she sees, but turns the other way. A sister who convinces herself that because her father is a Nazi, Nazis must be a force of good. A kid in a prison camp who doesn’t understand why he’s being considered an enemy. The film hardly touched on any of these inner-character conflicts. Secondly, I’m not sure I agree with this currently popular notion that children are never racists themselves, but are taught to be racists through parental or societal indoctrination. If that were true, when was racism invented? I think racism is an unfortunate byproduct of the ways in which humans naturally think (by categorizing things, and labeling things as dangerous, however prejudiced that may be). In some ways, it is a survival technique (if someone has these traits, don’t trust them) that has become farfetched, irrational, and immoral. But it can develop in children just as easily as adults; it does not need to be taught. Lastly, the film just seemed too inauthentic. Perhaps this relates to my first critique. Because so many character elements were left unexplored, the characters were left displaying the simplest and most cliché emotions they were capable of, as if the line between good and evil during something like the Holocaust should be as transparent as a battle between a princess and an evil stepmother in a Disney cartoon. And it’s a very strange combo when you try to mix the weight of tragedy of the Holocaust with the simple and clear morality of Snow White. Judgment at Nuremberg did a much better job in this regard. We already know Nazis were evil and the Holocaust was tragic; give us something deeper! One last critique (with a SPOILER alert): at the end of the film, Bruno sneaks into the prison camp to help his prison friend Schmuel look for his missing father. How the heck does Bruno think he can help? How does he know what Schmuel’s father looks like? It’s such a forced way to get Bruno into the camp that what ends up happening to Bruno completely loses any dramatic power it may have had. Ultimately this film failed to live up to its potential.
“They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me. Then they will have my dead body. Not my obedience.” This 1982 film from director Richard Attenborough truly spared no expense. (I had to.) It obviously tells the story of Gandhi. While one film, even a three hour one, can only scratch the surface of Gandhi’s work, the film does a superb job of portraying “Gandhi’s best moments” while stringing together a coherent and engaging life-encompassing story. While I thought Ben Kingsley looked rather odd in his Indian make-up throughout the film, his acting was (as it always is) pretty much perfect. The cinematography, the writing, the music – everything came together wonderfully for this film. While I don’t agree with all of the Gandhi’s philosophies (at least as they are portrayed in the film, or maybe I just misunderstand some of them), this was certainly a fantastic film (and it looks great on blu-ray).
Explorations in cinema shall continue, I hope.