26 January 2014

New Blog: Bump n Level Grind

I've begun blogging over at a new site, Bump n Level Grind.

Also, you can read this post to see why I decided to start a new blog instead of continuing this one.

See you over there!


06 July 2011

Eleanor's Secret

Eleanor's Secret (2009, Kérity, la maison des contes) is a rather charmingly-animated French film about books and the stories they contain.

The story begins with the young boy Natanaël (Nathaniel), his sister Angelica, and their parents driving to the town Kérity, where the home of their recently deceased grandmother, Éléonore (voiced by Jeanne Moreau), is located. As they approach the road sign for Kérity, Nat asks how much further, and Angélica mocks him that, if he could read, he would know that they're almost there.

At the house, Nat and Angélica's parents read them a letter from Éléonore in which she leaves Angelica a doll and Nat the key to her secret room. When Nat opens it, he is dismayed to find that it a simple study with a library attached containing all the books she used to read to him.

That night, a storm damages the roof of the home, and the family decides that, since they don't have the money to fix it, they'll have to sell. Feeling more attachment to the house than the library of books, Nat offers to let the family sell the books to a local pawn shop dealer so that they can raise the money for repairs. His father tells him to at least go and pick out one book to remember Éléonore by, and Nat again enters the library. This time, small people begin to peer out of the books from various books and fairytales like Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and even Alice and the White Rabbit from Nat's favourite story, Through the Looking Glass. It is revealed that Nat is the new keeper of their stories, and must read a magic phrase in order to keep them alive for future generations. However, when it comes to light that Nat cannot read, the Wicked Fairy calls him an imposter and, using her magic, shrinks Nat down to their size.

The antiques dealer arrives and scams the family, claiming that the collection of first editions are "too old to be worth anything" but that he'll let them know if he manages to sell any of them. Nat is too small to stop it, and ends up riding with the other characters and their books to the dealer's shop. There, Nat decides that Éléonore must have entrusted the books to him for a reason, and sets out on a journey to return home and read the magic spell to save the day. He is joined by Alice, the White Rabbit, and the man-eating Ogre.

Animation and Characters
This film was directed by veteran Disney animator Dominique Monfery, and I'm not surprised. The animation is good, but nothing revolutionary. There is an interesting use of text to shows Nat's anxiety of not being able to read, but it was already done (and perhaps even more inventively) five years earlier in an episode of Paranoia Agent. So it you're really big on cutting edge animation, this isn't going to wow you, but everything is done skillfully and I applaud it for that.

Perhaps more interesting are the character designs, as they showcase an interesting illustration style. Perhaps the best character design is the weasel of an antiques dealer, whose moustache is wonderfully expressive. In some ways, the art style reminded me a little bit of The Secret of Kells, but both certainly have their own divergent feels.

Still, The Secret of Kells seems like an interesting film to pair with this one. Both are children's movies with strong literary references. However, I feel like Kells was a bit more subtle and nuanced, while Eleanor's Secret was a bit more heavy-handed in its pro-literacy message.

Could have gone deeper
All-in-all, I liked the film, but I felt like it stopped a little short and didn't fully take advantage of what it had going on plot-wise. In the beginning, Eleanor's Secret seemed to be exploring ideas of grief through the death of Éléonore and Nat's subsequent shame at still being unable to read. Some of those early, more interestingly animated scenes definitely captured the stress and emotional turmoil Nat was feeling by using his fear of his own illiteracy as the jumping point.

However, once the tiny fairytale figures appeared, his grief seemed to all but disappear, and the adventure story took over too much. The end felt too neat and convenient. By saving the stories, everything else magically fell in to place. They even find money elsewhere to fix the house. I guess I just wanted it to keep a bit more of the darker tinge that the film started with. It could've been a great film about dealing with death and grief, but it seemed to take the easier path.

At any rate, it was still a fun movie, and I think an excellent choice for anyone looking for a film to show their kinds that will help instill in them a love of books.

09 June 2011

Chonmage purin

I recently had the opportunity to watch a charming Japanese film called Chonmage purin (2010). The film does not seem to have an actual film distribution agreement with any English-speaking companies, so there is no official translation of the name yet. The subtitles that my wife and I saw gave the title A Boy and his Samurai, but the original Japanese title actually just means "Chonmage pudding." Chonmage is a hairstyle commonly worn by samurai during the Edo period and worn today (though without the top of the head shaved) only by sumo wrestlers.

The film is a romantic comedy with the emphasis on comedy. The crux of the plot is this: Yasube, a samurai from the Edo period, is "spirited away" to the present, where he ends up finding shelter with a divorced mother Hiroko and her 5 year old son Tomoya. The film is pretty light and humorous, focusing a lot on the classic premise the immense culture shock experienced by a time traveller from the past.

However, the film does have it's share of dramatic moments as well. Afterall, what romantic comedy would be complete without it? This largely revolves around Hiroko's desire to be working woman. In fact, her previous marriage ended upon her request when her ex-husband continually expected her to take on all the household duties. Of course, the old-fashioned Yasube should be most misogynistic of all, and indeed is incredulous that she wants to work, wanted the divorce, and so forth. However, Hiroko explains that this is Tokyo now, not Edo, and that things work differently here. As such, Yasube decides to repay her for her hospitality by tending to the household duties so that she can devote herself entirely to her job. It's through this that Yasube discovers his passion and skill in making desserts such as puddings and cakes.

Eventually, Yasube enters a Father-Son Cake Baking Contest with the under-prepared Tomoya, which they win through determination and ingenuity. In fact, Yasube performs so well that he receives a job offer from a famous baker to come work in his kitchen. Yasube is, at first, hesitant, as he feels bound by his duties to the household, but Hiroko and Tomoya tell him to go for it. However, they are unprepared for how much he devotes himself to his new career and, ultimately, reverts back to his old patriarchal mindset. Although Hiroko had begun to fall for Yasube, she now feels like she's back with her old husband and asks Yasube to leave and find his own apartment now that he is able. The two proceed to avoid each other until Tomoya goes missing while they are both at work. They take off and join forces to try to find him again.

A brief history of the samurai
It should be obvious from the above synopsis that this film seems to be concerned with the idea of gender roles in modern Japan. The time-travelling samurai from Edo period (1603-1868) obviously has symbolic references to the patriarchal traditions that Japan was built upon for many, many centuries.

At this time, I will point out that the Edo period was sort of the last stand of the samurai, during which they experienced a great amount of power, freedom, and status. Towards the end of the Edo period,  In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan to open itself to Western trade, which quickly led to the modernization of the samurai and Japan as a whole. The last major conflict that prominently featured samurai was in 1877. The following year was the Meiji Restoration and the beginning of the Meiji era. Under the new government, the samurai class was dissolved. As such, Yasube's historical origins not only suggest an older, patriarchal way of thinking, but also one that is nearing its decline. There is a certain fatality to Yasube in that we know the fate of the samurai. Likewise, his decision to take on the duties of the household suggest the dissolution of the samurai class.

Gender issues
All in all, there are a lot of subtleties in the historical references that, at the very least, were not lost on me. Of course, this all looks like this film must, therefore, be a very rousing, intellectual, and insightful exploration of gender issues in Japan. Let me therefore assure you that it is, still, a comedy first-and-foremost. So while I think this film could find a welcome home in a class on, say, feminism in cinema, I think someone looking for a truly great commentary on these issues will be sorely disappointed. It deals with these issues in the same way that Juno deals with teenage pregnancy. That is, it's used more for the plot's conflict than for in depth analysis and discussion. And maybe that's for the best. After all, it's a romantic comedy. It's main function is to entertain, and it does that quite well.

Still, the film does still have something interesting to say when all is said and done. The message was not one that I would call particularly feminist or anti-feminist in the strongest sense of those words. Rather, the point seems to be that we need to find a balance in our lives between work and family. The film fully acknowledges that work can be a great creative outlet and that everyone should be able to experience of doing something with their time and energy that they can be proud of. However, it also addresses both the joys and responsibilities of family, and that we need to decide what is really most precious and important to us. The film seems to say that we (both men and women) should put family over career, and I think this is a fine message, especially for a country as notoriously workaholic as Japan.

I laughed
But enough with all the analytical stuff. Really, that's not what this film is about. It's supposed to entertain, and that it most certainly did. And honestly, I think it was an excellent film for my wife and me to watch together. There was all the pastry chef stuff for her, and the samurai stuff for me.

And trust me, if you are interested in samurai and chanbara, you will find plenty to enjoy in Chonmage purin. Just seeing the proper mannerisms so characteristic of chanbara completely displaced in the modern setting was already quite amusing to see.

At any rate, I would certainly recommend this to anyone should they ever get a chance to actually see it. Who knows, maybe it will get a distribution agreement here, although I certainly wouldn't hold my breath.

05 May 2011

Njom Njom Kitchen: Stove-top popcorn

All you movie-lovers might want to check out my post on how to make popcorn on the stove over at Njom Njom Kitchen, the foodie blog I share with my wife.

If you're still throwing a bag in the microwave before you sit down to watch your DVDs, you may want to consider changing your snacking habits, because that microwave stuff just doesn't hold a candle to stove-top popcorn.

15 April 2011

Wisconsin Film Festival 2011: Sunday

My last day of the film festival featured quite a diverse selection, and in that way it may be the best single day to show what kind of things the Wisconsin Film Festival has to offer. Of course, one of things I totally missed was some of the locally-produced films shown at the festival, despite the fact that the organizers strongly encouraged people to go. I certainly would be interested in seeing some Wisconsin-made films, but I guess I got caught up in the excitement of seeing a lot of new foreign films on a big screen. I also made a concerted effort to see as many Nordic films as possible, as that is my primary topic of study. Still, I missed out of Red Chapel (Det røde kapel, Denmark 2006) as well as a Finnish short at the very least. But alas, I guess you can't see them all, right?

At any rate, the three films I saw on Sunday were Le quattro volte, The Light Thief, and Everything Will Be Fine. As before, there may be some spoilers ahead, although I do keep the ultimately twist of Everything Will Be Fine a secret.
Director: Michelangelo Frammartino
Country: Italy
Languages: Italian

This film is probably best classified as "experimental," or at the very least, "non-conventional." I put up there that the language was Italian, which is true to a point, but at its core, Le quattro volte was primarily a quiet, wordless film. All speech was incidental and was left untranslated—the film had no subtitles. Even the title seems to have avoided the touch of a translator, though for those curious, it means "The four stages" or "The four times."

The film begins with an elderly goat farmer who appears to be ailing from some kind of respiratory illness. That night, he mixes a strange black powder into a glass of water and drinks it. The next day, he awakes and milks the goats, then takes the milk around for delivery. When he delivers to the cathedral in his village, the woman there gives him a packet of holy dust, freshly swept from the floor. It is this dust that he drinks at night as medicine.

However, that day, while he is in the field tending his goats, the packet slips from his pocket, unbeknownst to him. That night, he searches frantically for the packet of dust, until he finally goes out into the rainy night and begins banging on the doors to the church. However, it is to know avail, as we cut away to his funeral. Just as they close up the catacomb in which his body rests, the film cuts again suddenly to the birth of a baby goat. The cut seems to imply a connection, as if his death and the goat's birth are directly related. Perhaps it is reincarnation?

We now see the goat begin his new life. Soon, he is old enough to go out with the rest of the herd to graze in the pastures. However, he becomes separated from the rest and wanders, lost and aimless, until finally he gives up in the shade of a large tree, presumably to die. The body must decompose and feed the tree, though. Later, the tree is cut down by the villagers for a festival, and then it is sent to be turned in to charcoal. The charcoal is taken and eventually delivered to the cathedral, when it is burned and turns into dust and ashes.

An experience
I'm very glad I went to see this movie, but it was probably my least favourite at the festival. I think that's how experimental films will often go. They push the boundries of what a normal film is and can be, and while the outcomes are often very surprising and interesting, they are often a little awkward too. Thankfully, Le quattro volte was still quite watchable despite its length, most likely because it played with narrative structure rather than pushing the visuals or audio into unusual territory.

The story was certainly unique, and I think its presentation of the cycle of life was pretty interesting. However, some of the links were stronger than others. In particular, the link between the man's death and the goat's birth is rather forced. I think I would've found it a bit more compelling if all the connections were more obvious in the scene of life. I mean, I think the overriding theme and message of the film is the interconnectedness of all life on earth, but that message is weakened when the connections themselves are weak. However, I guess they do help this a little bit by having the old man be a goat farmer, and thus he at least helps to raise and foster the lives of goats, much like the young goat that is the focal point of the film's second "stage."

Director: Aktan Abdykalykov
Country: Kyrgyzstan
Languages: Kyrgyz

Mr. Light ("Svet-Ake" in Kyrgiz) is an electrical engineer in a rural Kyrgyz village. He is building his own windmill to try to generate some electricity. He also has a habit of setting the electrical meters to run backwards for villagers who can no longer afford to pay for electricity. The authorities discover what he is doing and originally prohibit him from working, but he eventually gets his job back when it comes to light that one of Mr. Light's good friends is connected to a rich entrepreneur who wants to buy the village.

While drunk with his friend, Mr. Light bemoans his inability to have a son, as all four of his children so far are girls. His friend tells him that he must get a shock to expel all the feminine energy from his body, and so Mr. Light immediately scales a light pole and electrocutes himself. His friend and some of the villagers quickly bury him up to his neck to ground him and he comes to again, and notices an attractive young girl with whom he becomes infatuated.

Soon, the rich entrepreneur hears of Mr. Light's skills and tries to befriend him. Mr. Light tells the entrepreneur his dream of filling a nearby valley with windmills to generate electricity for the entire village, and the entrepreneur says that if Mr. Light can aid him in buying the town, he will help Mr. Light achieve his goal. The entrepreneur brings in Chinese investors and has Mr. Light set up the lighting in a yurt and sit in on their meeting. The entrepreneur lavishes the investors in good food and drink, and then announces he will put on an erotic show for their pleasure. When the entertainment in question happens to be Mr. Light's new infatuation, he snaps and attacks the investors and entrepreneur before fleeing. He short-circuits the entire village's electricity, plunging the village into darkness, and then continues to flee. They catch up to him and (presumably) kill him (the scene is a bit ambiguous). At that moment, a strong gust blows through the village, causing the windmill to break loose. As it spins, the solitary lightbulb connected to it begins to shine weakly.

Culturally dense
I liked the feel of this film, and I thought the characters where beautiful and very human. Mr. Light felt very genuine and although a little odd and misguided, felt like he had a good heart. However, I feel like I only really got part of the story. There were numerous moments where I felt culturally unable to completely understand what was going on. In particular, there were two scenes in the film where the electricity in the town goes out and everything is plunged into darkness. Both times, it was accompanied by slow-motion shots of donkeys going crazy. I feel like there had to be some cultural significance to this. It felt too out of place otherwise.

Cultural differences aside, I thought it was a very beautiful film, and I think it had a lot to say about life in Kyrgyzstan. I just wish I had a better idea of how to contextualize it. I want to understand it better. Perhaps with a bit of time, I'll be able to find some reviews where people can do so far me, as I hope I am able to do with those films where I am able to help explain context for my readers.

Director: Christoffer Boe
Country: Denmark, Sweden
Languages: Danish

Everything Will Be Fine focuses on a scriptwriter named Jacob Falk who is working on a script for a new film about war. However, he is stuck in writer's block, and decides to go for a late night drive to clear his head, but ends up accidentally running over a young man. The man was a soldier in the war who pleads with Jacob to take his bag and hide it. Jacob drives off and calls in the accident from a pay phone, without identifying himself. Later, as he looks through the bag, he finds photos of gruesome acts of torture committed by Danish soldiers fighting in the Middle East.

What follows from here is a thriller about Jacob's attempts to get information about the photographs and find a way to make them public. While he is worried about the photos, his wife continually nags him to get their adoption request forms and check over them, but he continues to promise that he'll do it the next day.

Unfortunately, the photos are stolen from his car, and he becomes increasingly paranoid and violent as the authorities continue to deny everything and seem to be arranging things against him.

Everything Will Be Fine was definitely the most exciting of the films I saw. It was fast-paced and left you on the edge of your seat. The film also had some very impressive cinematography with a strong feeling for lighting effects, and the film frequently features lens flare as a defining element of its style. There are also some clever compositions. For example, when Jacob calls in about the accident, he notices a security camera at the gas station. Back at his hotel, the mural painted on the wall above the bed is of a security camera that happens to point directly at his head. This is just one instance where the film creates a mise-en-scène that reinforces Jacob's paranoid mindset.

The film also uses tilt-shift photography extensively, especially for establishing shots. For those unfamiliar with tilt-shift, it's a photography technique in which the focus area can be squashed in wide angle shots (shots from very far away). That kind of focus area is usually only possible with very close-up images, like if you take a close-up photograph of a small toy soldier or a fly on the wall. When you take tilt-shift shots of cities, you often get the illusion that it is a model town. You can check out some examples of it here.

In films, an establishing shot is a shot of the setting that places the following scene within some context. Think of an American TV show where they show the building where the action is going to take place for a split second before cutting to the actual action. It's a fairly common technique that helps us place scenes into some sort of geographical scene of space. If you're not completely aware of these shots, that's okay; they are such a common part of the filmic language that we tend to automatically read right through them the same way most people don't really pay attention to every time there is a cut in a film.

Anyway, by filming the establishing shots with tilt-shift, Eveything Will Be Fine begins to create an uneasy feeling. For one, these shots become more visible to the viewer and disrupt the ease with which we can "read" the film. Also, the film draws a connection between the real spaces in which the drama occurs and the model diaramas that Jacob uses while writing his scripts to help plot out action. The feeling is unsettling, as if the characters in the film are pieces in someone's chess game, being controlled from afar by some omniscient power. Again, the touches of paranoia and conspiracy are obvious. This was, perhaps, the film's strongest point, as it was able to gently play with all the elements to fully develop and materialize the mental landscape of Jacob's mind into the visual space of the film itself.

The film also features some major twists, as any good thriller should, with the biggest one coming, of course, at the end. The ending is satisfyingly mind-bending. Think something like The Sixth Sense or Fight Club where everything finally clicks and you want to go back and rewatch it to find all the clues you missed along the way. Everything Will Be Fine would be my second favourite film at the festival, I think, after Medal of Honor. I would certainly recommend it, especially to anyone looking for a good thriller.