Monday, 12 August 2013

'From Up On Poppy Hill', 'Only God Forgives' and 'Blackfish': review round-up

Not seen a lot of movies of late, but here's a round-up of some recent cinema trips. I won't review 'Red 2' (above) - because I only saw the first half - but thought I'd mention the fact that it was (from what I saw) so empty, lifeless and insipid that it was the catalyst for my second ever walk-out. Everyone, most especially Bruce Willis, was just going through the motions. Mary Louise Parker was watchable enough, but the constant misogynistic comments about her from Willis ("you don't give the girl a gun!" and "you don't bring the girl along on a mission!"), whose character talks about her to others constantly whilst she's standing right there, were grating to say the least. I'm sure Willis' character learns some valuable lesson about trust and/or sharing by the film's end, but I couldn't face another 45 minutes waiting for a grown-up to learn that women are people too. Anyway, it just wasn't funny, it was really slow, the action was deathly boring and at one point there was a lingering close-up of a tube of Pringles. There are obviously worse films, but very few are this lacklustre.

The first film I ever walked out of? Since you asked, I couldn't stomach Richard Curtis' interminable 'The Boat That Rocked' - even though I had been allowed to watch it whilst on the clock at a cinema. I was having such a bad time with that one that I left to go and Brasso some door handles instead. One major reason for this was that I'd just encountered a comic scene in which a man committed statutory rape - sneaking into bed with a woman in the dark, pretending to be her partner (which I felt was less "cheeky" than it was "creepy" and "sexual assaulty"). But the main reason was that I checked my watch, expecting to be halfway through this 135 minute epic, to find I'd been sat there for only half an hour. Just over an hour and a half left to go! No thanks, Curtis. No thanks.

'From Up On Poppy Hill' - Dir. Goro Miyazaki (U)

A colleague of mine aptly described this one as "minor Ghibli", and it certainly is one of the less significant entries in the Japanese animation house's filmography, but that's not to say it isn't entirely pleasant from start to finish. It's gentle, charming and life-affirming without being overly cheesy. It's also a damn sight better than director Goro Miyazaki's (son of Hayao) first attempt following his move from landscaping to filmmaking: the uncharacteristically dull and unpolished 'Tales From Earthsea' - sections of which felt like limited TV animation and a far cry from the finesse of 'Spirited Away' or 'My Neighbour Totoro'. The animation here is much better, though still not up there with the work Miyazaki senior or Isao Takahata, Ghibli's other master - responsible for the studio's most mature (less magical) works 'Only Yesterday' and 'Grave of the Fireflies'.

'Poppy Hill' - adapted from a 1980 manga by Tetsurō Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi - is a wistful and nostalgic 60s-set story about two school kids who fall in love only to find that they are likely brother and sister: both having the same sea-faring father, who perished during the Korean War. This small-scale character-driven plot runs against the backdrop of more typically active movie fare, as the kids try to organise the student body to persuade the authorities not to demolish the old clubhouse and replace it with a newer building, in a rapidly developing Japan looking to eradicate reminders of its recent history. The clubhouse - home to a myriad of wacky extra-curricular activities, all taken extremely seriously by the student body - is reminiscent of something out of Wes Anderson's 'Rushmore' and is as fun a place to be as that suggests.

Perhaps the story reaches an all-to-sudden and convenient conclusion in the last few minutes, but it's genuine and heartfelt and difficult to be too cynical about. Filler until the next big Miyazaki masterpiece, maybe, but there are less winsome ways to spend an hour and a half.

'Only God Forgives' - Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn (18)

Hmmmmmmmm. And there I was thinking the last collaboration between Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling was all style and no substance. Well, say what you will about the hipster-baiting self-styled "instant cult classic" 'Drive', but compared to 'Only God Forgives' it's a nuanced character study and a hi-octane crime thriller of the highest order. This one sees Gosling play an American living in Bangkok, who runs a boxing club and whose nose is put very slightly out of joint when a cop allows a victim's father to kill his murderous rapist brother. The main thing you need to know about this character is that he looks pretty good in a suit - choosing to fight whilst dressed like a particularly trendy barista.

At my weary, bored-to-tears best estimate, around 80% of 'Only God Forgives' consists of Gosling sitting in the semi-darkness, staring into the middle distance, somewhere off camera (a friend suggested somebody on-set was waving something colourful) emoting nothing at all. Ignoring the bit where he shouts at a prostitute in a slightly weedly and accidentally comic way, his acting range in this film goes between expressions of acute indifference all the way up to moderate contemplation. There's a method writers employ to assess whether their characters are fully formed which requires them to be able to describe any given character without mentioning the way they dress or what they do for a living. Try doing that here, with any of the characters, and get back to me if you manage it. And "has penis-envy of his brother and wants to fuck his mum" doesn't count, because the film just outright, explicitly tells us that (several times) via Kristen Scott-Thomas in her ground-breaking against-type role as middle-aged-women-who-says-cunt.

Vithaya Pansringarm plays a brutal cop that many are calling the highlight of the movie, but this is another non-character. Or at least it's a movie stock character: a walking cliché - the violent killer with a code, whose capacity for ultra-violence sits in contrast to a peculiar affectation and/or hobby (in this instance karaoke). This character has been in every Quentin Tarantino film ever made, for instance. Where the film appears to think it has something to say is in relation to the Oedipus complex: it's all tracking shots down red hallways, Gosling's disgustingly literal urge to return to the womb, his apparent lust for his mother and the detail that he apparently murdered his father. But what the film is saying about all this is beyond me. In 'The Man Who Wasn't There' ace lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider tries to bamboozle a jury by claiming they should not look at the facts but the meaning behind the facts, and that the facts have no meaning. He might as well have been reviewing 'Only God Forgives'.

As a visual/sensory exercise though, it's obviously a piece of world-class work - the stuff of a real virtuoso. As with 'Drive' and 'Bronson' (the one Refn film I uncomplicatedly like) before it, 'Only God Forgives' shows Refn as a supremely visual storyteller and a real stylist. I eagerly await the next time these qualities once again combine with the urge to tell an actual story of some substance.

'Blackfish' - Dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite (15)

I write this every time I review a documentary, but it's difficult to separate what you think of the film's point of view from the quality of the film itself. Especially when said film is such a polemic, highlighting facts and cherry-picking interview subjects to arrive at a previously determined conclusion (however valid said conclusion might be). In this case, I overwhelmingly agree with the basic premise of and majority of the arguments in 'Blackfish': for what it's worth, I think the process of gathering cetaceans for commercial use is cruel and the evidence seems to suggest that life in captivity is detrimental to the animals' well-being.

That said, I don't think 'Blackfish' says anything that 2009's 'The Cove' didn't say far better and in a more slick and cinematic way that better delivers that point to an audience. 'The Cove' also looks at the subject in a much broader way - considering international whaling lobbyists, the anti-whaling movement and other things - whereas 'Blackfish' looks at SeaWorld very specifically. Aside from specific accounts of incidents at SeaWorld parks, involving the injury and death of employees working with orcas, I didn't find it particularly illuminating. It also takes a lot of things for granted and doesn't hold its subjects, mostly former SeaWorld employees, up to any amount of scrutiny. For instance, non-scientists make statements such as "scientists are reluctant to say whales have language but it's clear they have language" which go wholly unsubstantiated in the film and, at one point, one of the most vocal collaborators confesses "I know nothing about whales".

For those in the dark about the issues raised here, it may be a far better and more effective piece of filmmaking than I found it to be. It's a laudable and worthy film, for sure - and I hope a lot of people see it, as it could do some tangible good in the world (apparently it's already caused Pixar to re-write the end of their 'Finding Nemo' sequel) - it doesn't tell you anything you couldn't glean from skim-reading a couple of Wikipedia articles. However, it should perhaps be required viewing for those thinking of visiting a SeaWorld water park.

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