Thursday, 11 February 2010

Film Review: The Fantastic Mr Fox

Adapted from the story by Roald Dahl, the beautifully vibrant Fantastic Mr Fox is director Wes Anderson’s first animated film – but you wouldn’t know it.

The first stop-motion animation from 20th Century Fox, and the first animated film from director Wes Anderson, The Fantastic Mr Fox combines beautiful, energetic animation and no little humour with a story lifted from well-loved children’s author Roald Dahl, resulting in is a wonderfully thoughtful, whimsical and unusual film.
Characterisation has never been director Wes Anderson’s problem, and his films have always been attractive to look at, but are often accused of lacking something in, well, plot. Luckily, with Dahl taking care of the story, Anderson can concentrate entirely on embellishing this marvelously atypical animation.

The Fantastic Mr Fox tells us the weird and wonderful story of the eponymous Mr Fox, who gives up the Robin Hood-lifestyle of chicken bandit at the request of his newly pregnant wife. He buys a new home and starts writing a column for a newspaper. His wife cooks, his son complains. He becomes bored.

Then, from the window of his new home, he spies three huge farms – a temptation which proves impossible to resist for the ex-chicken bandit - and he soon returns to his old ways. However, the slimy Farmer Bean (played with cockney revel by Michael Gambon) and the other two evil farmers into retaliation, and they flood out Mr Fox’s home, forcing his family and the rest of the animal community underground. Mrs Fox is furious, and Mr Fox’s nephew is kidnapped by the farmers. So begins the family reconciliation, and the rescue.

This is a film made for an October release. The country landscapes are filled with autumnal colour; auburn fields and rolling hills. The animation is stunning, and while not quite as smooth as the excellent Coraline, there is something wonderfully vintage about the jerky style, almost like a sepia film. The first fifteen minutes will leave you open mouthed, and the animators inject a previously unseen sense of life and vibrancy into stop motion animals so fabulously detailed that the hair shimmers on the foxes’ faces. It’s not the Clangers.

Anderson’s films often feature dysfunctional families, and the clash of personalities between the brash and confident and the shy and weak. Mr Fox, who fancies the sound of his own voice, is played with vigour and bravado by George Clooney. Like in Anderson’s 2006 film The Royal Tenenbaums, the relationship between Clooney’s confident father and the introspective, less vigorous offspring – Fox’s talentless son, Ash – is explored. There is some morality in the tale – of finding yourself, or your family. But it somewhat masked by the sense of fun, and it’s not the reason you’ll go to see this film. The humour is offbeat and peculiar at times – you’ll laugh, but you won’t know why – but there’s enough slapstick, dashing foxes and cutesy camerawork to appeal to all.

The film will delight Dahl fans and animation fans, whilst admittedly not staying entirely true to the original story (the three evil, ugly farmers are voiced by English actors, naturally, while the elegant foxes and the rest of the animals are, inexplicably, American). Sometimes the Anderson in-jokes and mumbled punchlines are a little too kooky but the story easily outweighs the director’s idiosyncrasies. But the tone of the film is very much Anderson’s, and as the most mainstream of his offerings will no doubt inspire some fans to watch his excellent early films.
The film, like the Fox, isn’t as fantastic as it thinks it is. But it’s not far off.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Film Review: Avatar

It takes a special kind of film to make a $250 million budget look like pocket money compared to box office receipts, but Avatar is just that.

It crashed onto our (specially commissioned 3D) cinema screens on a wave of hype not seen since the likes of The Dark Knight. The new film from the director of Aliens, Terminator and, to a lesser extent, Titanic? In production for 14 years? Groundbreaking new technology? Avatar is so much the sum of James Cameron’s endeavours, so much the fruit of his talent, sweat and obvious passion for the technology and his story that it’s almost as if everything he made up to this point has simply been a rehearsal. He wrote the original script in 1994, developed an entire language and culture for the Na’Vi that inhabit it, and has been waiting for technology to play-catch up ever since.

And catch-up it did. The human brain has long accepted that the CGI it sees on screen - the fog at distance, the almost imperceptible cracks and lack of definition that make up the virtual masking tape and tissue paper of modern day graphics - is not real. Not anymore. Your eyes will give up looking for cracks 3 minutes in. Watching Avatar in 3D is like viewing a film in high-resolution after years of peering at them on a mobile phone.

The hyper-real jungle landscape of Pandora is lush and vibrant, while the non-human species, the Na’Vi, look as if they truly exist, which is the highest praise one can lavish on CGI. Action scenes are impossibly fluid, and it’s not just the big set-pieces that are wonderfully rendered. Everything is. At one point, faint in the background of a particularly dramatic scene, we see – through a window - a hat knocked from a flinching marine’s head by the jet wash from a CGI fighter plane.

The technology isn’t there simply to make Cameron look good. It serves the story too; one that we’ve seen before, but which is no less entertaining for that: Jake Sulley (played by Sam Worthington, who looks unnervingly like a hybrid of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) plays a paraplegic marine sent to the planet Pandora in the year 2154 to take part in the Avatar programme. He’s a genetic substitute for his PhD twin brother, who spent years preparing for the job but died before he could start. The planet Pandora is a vast, beautiful jungle world inhabited by a lithe, blue-skinned race of 10-foot giants called the Na’Vi. In a concept not entirely dissimilar to that of the Matrix, humans can take control of specially bred Na’Vi bodies – or avatars - via their mind, while their human bodies lie prone in the lab. Na’Vi are better, faster and stronger than humans, and taking control of one looks like a lot of fun, especially for a paraplegic. The Na’Vi eventually take to Jake because he has a good heart, but he is tasked by the evil Company to convince them to leave their sacred tree, which is rooted on top of a particularly valuable mineral resource.

Jake, marine and no PhD, is caught between learning about the Na’Vi culture (especially one female in particular, played by Zoë Saldaña), and persuading them to abandon their homeland on behalf of the muscle-brained and aggressive Col. Miles Quaritch. Quaritch sets a deadline for this, and when it passes, he unleashes a visually-arresting firestorm that sparks the intense, gripping final third of the film. Avatar is over two-and-a-half hours long, but doesn’t drag once. You get the impression Cameron could have kept up the excitement as long as he wanted.

A strong environmental message runs throughout Avatar; humanity is mining Pandora because its minerals can be used for energy back on an Earth which has finally used up its own resources. Avatar borrows much of this message, and its imagery, from the environmentally-friendly Studio Ghibli film, Princess Mononoke. Avatar was released just as the Copenhagen Conference was foremost in most people’s minds, but the extraordinary fantasy world planted right between the Green message and the audience means it’s not forced upon us. And often judged for contemporary relevance, morality, politics, or a thousand other criteria, it is frequently forgotten that the reason people see films is primarily for entertainment. Audiences want to be thrilled and exhilarated, and if they forgot this, Avatar reminds them. It takes the plodding malaise borne from years of sub-standard sci-fi and fantasy films and fires a CGI rocket up it.

Avatar is the best picture of 2009 (which may not be the same as the best film – time will tell how the graphics translate to DVD), and it is both technically-groundbreaking and emotionally-engaging. You should see this film, because, for better or worse, it’s how all films will look in 10 years. Watch it in the cinema while you can.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Film Review: The Apartment

Split almost entirely between two buildings in New York, each home to a different type of male-affronted skullduggery, The Apartment, written, directed and produced by the great Billy Wilder, symbolized the dominant belief of the great man; that all a great film requires is a great script. However, if your leads are the fantastic Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine, it sure helps.

Lemmon is at his wry, self-effacing best as C.C.Baxter, a lonely insurance-firm desk-jockey, who divides his time between admiring from afar Maclaine's sweet and winsome lift-attendant, Miss. Kubelik, and lending the key to his apartment to colleagues who require his convenient Upper West Side apartment to spend some quality time with their mistresses. Baxter keeps stum, predicting correctly that by greasing the palms of his superiors with free use of his apartment he will shoot up the corporate ladder. When Sheldrake, the smarmy boss with all the charm of a used-car salesman and all the empathy of a snake, becomes aware of this arrangement, he immediately solicits use of the apartment to romance Miss. Kubelik.

Lemmon is quite excellent at portraying the terribly lonely C.C Baxter, adeptly masking his unrequited love for Miss. Kubelik underneath a cheery disposition and quirky manner. At times, this film is heartbreaking; in one such scene Baxter waits like a master-less puppy outside a theatre for a prearranged date with Miss. Kubelik, horribly unaware that she is mid-cocktail with Sheldrake. Bill Wilder once said, 'If you're going to tell people the truth, be funny...,' and that the Apartment adroitly straddles the tightrope of irony and tragedy sustains the film for its 2-hour-plus runtime.

The Apartment is emotionally rewarding because the audience is drawn into a relationship with Baxter. Because of Miss Kubelik's seeming reluctance to choose the right man – Kiss him Shirley, Kiss him! - and because Kubelik seems to be oblivious to Baxter's loneliness or obvious attraction towards her means that the film is empathy-inducing but never manipulative.

Produced in that era when successful films were successful because they were written well, and before directors could rely on special effects – or even colorization, which Wilder famously despised - to tide over any dramatic lulls, The Apartment is a classic of cinema. Though thematically gutsy for a romantic comedy, with recurring motifs including corporate ethics, adultery, infidelity and suicide, it is one such motif which will lead Baxter to eventual happiness, forcing him to reconsider the use of his apartment as a no-go area for morals and ethics, and choose between his career or the love of his life. With one of these options represented by the slimy, adultering Mr. Sheldrake, and one by Miss. Kubelik, I think he makes the right decision. And the devil-may-care immorality that dominates the personalities of all but the two main players in this romance is washed away with an innocent, childlike game of gin rummy on New Year's Eve.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Photography: Shizuka Yokomizo

I visited Nottingham Castle at the weekend, a beautiful building set in lovely grounds, and whose interior seems to serve as a storage space for pictures, photographs, silver, pottery and any other assorted obets d'art that have somehow found themselves in Nottingham. As is so often the case when visiting a museum, the item that caught my eye was something I didn't expect to find.

The above photograph, Stranger (8) is part of a somewhat eerie study on the space that exists between strangers by Japanese artist Shizuka Yokomizo. She sent letters to random addresses in suburban Japan inviting the inhabitants of said addresses to stand by a specific street-facing window at a specific time, promising that she would be there to take a photo. The photograher and photgraphee never spoke, and their contact was limited entirely to this fleeting moment that spanned a camera flash. If the subject of the photo attempted to make contact with Yokomizo, she discarded the photograph. Because while post-photo contact wouldn't affect the photograph itself, it shatters one of the barriers between these two strangers.

There is something admirable in the trust in which the inhabitants place in Yokomizo, trust that her intentions are pure, and acceptance that their likeness will be used for whatever ends she chooses. Women's hands are clasped nervously; young boys stand chests out; we know nothing of the subjects but what the photos tell us. We can peer behind them into the interiors of their houses, flats, lives, but the reality is we know as little as Yokomizo herself. 

Of course, for all the lonely isolated figures that are portrayed in the photographs, it is important to remember that  Yokomizo herself is on the other side of the window. The only difference is that she wields a camera. In a way the window that separates the two individuals is like nothing more than a mirror, reflecting our own isolation back at us.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Trailer: Watchmen:Tales of the Black Freighter

Tales of the Black Freighter was my favourite part of the excellent Watchmen graphic novel, so I'm understandably delighted that a) it's been made b) will be released as a standalone DVD and c) has a trailer.


Photography: An American Index of the Hidden or Unfamiliar - Taryn Simon

Taryn Simon's photographs are obtrusive. Actually, that's not strictly true; her photography is obtrusive. Her photographs are simple, and let the subject speak with little elaboration, flamboyance or context. Indeed, without the detailed descriptions that accompany her records in An American Index of the Hidden or Unknown, you might not believe that what you were seeing was even real - or might not want to.

But the act of her photography is obtrusive. She visits spaces unknown, unaccessible or restricted to the American public and photographs them. They are spaces from the world of medicine, law, politics, government, entertainment, nature and security. You get the impression that Simon shouldn't actually be in some of these places - a woodland filled with corpses used for decay-rate analysis; a vast underground greenhouse used for growing cannabis for governmental study purposes. It seems like an overbearing security guard or government agent is actually standing over her shoulder in some cases - and they probably were. By all accounts, Simon gets turned away from as many of these secret spaces as she photographs.

One of these was the home of magic itself - Disney. Simon wanted to photograph the underground belly beneath Disneyland Florida - where Mickey Mouse gets changed or smokes a cigarette; where the rowdy or drunk get stored in a special holding cell. Somewhat understandably, Disney rejected her, citing a need to protect 'the magical spell cast on guests...' (Excerpted from a faxed response from Disney Publishing Worldwide, July 7, 2005).

Some of her photographs display systems that are functional, necessary, or downright crucial to human existence, yet which rarely cross the mind of the general public - like the Transatlantic Submarine Cables Reaching Land. VSNL International, Avon, NJ. These are cables that are capable of carrying 60 million simultaneous voice communications from Saunton Sands in the UK to New Jersey in the US.

Transatlantic Submarine Cables Reaching Land. VSNL International, Avon, NJ

Cryopreservation Unit, Cryonics Institute, Clinton Township, Michigan

This icy vault holds the bodies of Rhea and Elaine Ettinger, mother and wife of the cryogenics pioneer Robert Ettinger. Their bodies are frozen, safe from decay, hopefully to be reanimated when medical advances allow such phenomenon.

Research Marijuana Crop Grow Room, National Center for Natural Products Research, Oxford, Mississippi 

Nuclear Waste Encapsulation and Storage Facility Cherenkov Radiation, Hanford Site, U.S. Department of Energy, Southeastern Washington State

Submerged in a pool of water at Hanford Site are 1,936 stainless-steel nuclear-waste capsules containing cesium and strontium. The pool of water serves as a shield against radiation; a human standing one foot from an unshielded capsule would receive a lethal dose of radiation in less than 10 seconds. Hanford is among the most contaminated sites in the United States.

All photographs and descriptions © Taryn Simon.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Review: King of New York

King of New York, released in 1990 is a real era-film, and one that has not aged terribly well at that. Its stylistic flourishes are similar to 1994's The Crow, and like that film, tries gainfully to create a menacing atmosphere with a dark palette broken by splashes of lurid colour. It only partially succeeds. Part of this success is thanks to Christopher Walken, who bestrides the film with menace and power as Frank White, the King of the title.

White is a latter-day Robin Hood, who has his fingers in various cocaine pies across New York. He wants to use his ill-gotten proceeds to save a hospital that is threatened with closure due to lack of funds, as he sees it as a crucial part of the neighbourhood - little matter that his spurious dealings supply half of the patients.

The film paints a powerful picture of Frank, a man who occupies a residence at the Plaza Hotel, who mixes with the hoodlums, but also the politicians. There are some ideas worthy of exploration here - the man at ease in both politics and gang culture, trying to haul New York forward. The police don't agree with his methods, but seem helpless to stop him. There are echoes of modern day cop shows, highlighting the difficulty police have in taking down lawless drug kingpins while slaloming between waves of red-tape and due process.

The young, swashbuckling cops ignore the tape, and get killed. But the wise old Chief Bishop seems to have accepted his fate at the hands of gangsters like Frank from the first scene. He pops pills incessantly, staving off nature; his trudging gate and furrowed brow seem to betray a helplessness at the white tide overcoming his city. He leaves his fellow cop's wedding early, seemingly to philosophise on the hopelessness of it all in the corner of a dark room somewhere. Though a wreck, he is determined not to let Frank win. The shambling, bedraggled cop versus the elegant, sophisticated criminal is an oft-repeated motif (see Columbo, The French Connection), but it provides dramatic impetus here in a pit of unlikeable characters.

The film is disjointed, however. Ruthless cuts were made in order to lower the certificate for theatrical release. As a result, the film is oddly proportioned; Frank's love interest, a city councillor seems to disappear half way through. And after the Collateral-like finale on a Subway train, the film seems, like Frank, to ramble aimlessly before its silent end.

Worth watching, but not worth buying. If only for Laurence Fishburne's super-fly homeboy.