Monday, 19 December 2011

RespawningCouch Podcast: Episode 8- Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and Top 5 Films of 2011

This week: Jack, Beardy Nick and Chris Wharfe share their thoughts about Guy Ritchie's sequel to 2009's Sherlock Holmes. Then discuss their personal favourite films of 2011 in depth.

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Sunday, 11 December 2011

RespawningCouch Podcast: Episode 7- A Review of 2011

This week: Jack, Ben, James talk about Skyrim, The Thing and Western JRPGs in "What You've Been Playing and Watching?'. Then take a look back at 2011, in terms of Gaming and Films.
The Thing Review

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Sunday, 27 November 2011

RespawningCouch Podcast: Episode 6: 3D- Yay? or Nay?

This 'exhausting' week: Jack, James and Ben discuss Skyrim, Immortals and Starcraft II Tournaments in 'What You've Been Playing and Watching?'. Then discuss the impact of 3D in both gaming and film.

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Sunday, 13 November 2011

RespawningCouch Podcast: Episode 5- GTA V and James Bond ‘Skyfall’

This week: Jack and Ben discuss Minecraft, Bladerunner,  and Terrence Malik's Tree of Life in 'What You've Been Playing and Watching?'. Then discuss the new GTA V trailer, Battlefield 3 vs Modern Warfare 3 sales, and James Bond 'Skyfall'.

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Sunday, 6 November 2011

RespawningCouch Podcast: Episode 4- Gaming a 'Sport'?

This week: Jack, Ben and James discuss Tin Tin, Fallout: New Vegas, Attack The Block in 'What You've Been Playing and Watching?'. Then debate about whether 'Competitive Gaming' can be called a 'sport'.

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Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Japanese Animation, the Pacific War and the Atomic Bomb

Japanese Animation, the Pacific War and the Atomic Bomb 

The tagline of the 1988 cult film Akira, ‘Neo-Tokyo is about to E.X.P.L.O.D.E’, exemplifies the manner in which the memories of World War II remain embedded in Japanese animation and culture. It was during the Post-War era that anime and manga became established in Japan’s society. The 1960s saw a wave of popular manga artists and writers such as Osamu Tezuka begin to explore the events of the 1940s through their work, which has subsequently influenced generations of artistic talent. While Japanese cinema may have become the main channel for creating a national identity, many directors have tended to steer clear of the controversial nature of 1945. Nevertheless, while some films like Grave of the Fireflies directly recount the tragedy, the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have left a legacy that has inspired various manga and anime.
Adapted from Katsuhiro Otomo’s influential manga series, Akira deals with global conflict, social disintegration and anarchistic youth, all in a futuristic and apocalyptic setting. It’s a complex narrative that looks deeply at philosophical and psychological themes, but undoubtedly draws heavily from Japan’s experience during the 1940s and 50s, e.g. the opening shot of Tokyo being destroyed by an ‘atomic-like’ blast directly references the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Meanwhile, the representation of corruption within power and a government that fails to recognise modern methods harks back to similar issues during WWII. The film also conveys a constant atmosphere of fear that not only contaminates Neo-Tokyo but also the entire fictional world, mirroring the global reaction to America’s ‘atomic power’. Another franchise that draws similar influences is Neon Genesis Evangelion. Yet, while Akira concentrates on the ‘fall of humanity’ at humanity’s own hands, Evangelion conceals its portrayal of atomic destruction with the use of an extra-terrestrial invasion – with religious symbolism also present. However, it still follows a similar tapestry to Otomo’s creation with its depiction of a government in disarray and a society suffering from an over-zealous military. Evangelion’s main characters come in the form of 14-year-old children thrust into a world at war, without parents for guidance or protection. Both these films aim to replicate the consequences of war from young perspectives, often a key trait in anime.
In stark contrast, the Pacific War’s profound and horrifying effect on Japan has been portrayed more forthrightly, realistically and emotionally in family-orientated films. Rather than censoring events, animation studios such as Studio Ghibli have retold stories and experiences in their true light. Hayao Miyazaki introduces the themes of war and humanity’s destructive tendencies in his films Howl’s Moving Castle and Laputa: Castle in the Sky, showing the heavy handed tactics of the military. However, two films stand out as being highly instrumental examples of ‘post-war’ animated cinema: Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies and Mori Masaki’s Barefoot Gen.
Grave of the Fireflies takes a heartfelt approach to storytelling, set in a very ‘real’ world, with ‘real’ characters. Loosely based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s own experiences, director Isao Takahata shrugs off the child-friendly constraints of Studio Ghibli and really emphasises the devastating impact of war on the innocent and on the human condition. Following Setsuko and her older brother Seita, Grave of the Fireflies doesn’t shy away from scenes of horrifying violence and distressing events of abandonment and helplessness, all of which involve children. Moments of humanity and contentment are built from Ghibli’s beautiful portrayal of nature, culminating in the imagery of the fireflies. Though these are few and far between – the constant threat of bombers lingers throughout the film, representing the endless firebombing of Japanese cities and towns during the war.
An equally important and influential take on ‘victim history’ is Barefoot Gen, originally a manga series written by Keiji Nakazawa, a Hiroshima survivor. The 1983 animated film follows a young boy, Gen, as he deals with the tragic loss of his family during the bombing. In contrast to the tearful sympathy and the overriding sense of despair and powerlessness that Grave of the Fireflies creates,Barefoot Gen achieves an unconquerable sense of resilience and leadership, whilst directly tackling the horrendous bombing of Hiroshima. Its grotesque and apocalyptic portrayal of the disaster creates a haunting and disturbing vision of ‘Hell’, one that live-action films would fail to depict as powerfully. However, intertwined with its brutality are genuine moments of triumph and hope; friendships are forged in the barrenness of Hiroshima. But whilst both directors have crafted sharply different narratives, there are still visible morals that they both address; actively showing the pain, terror and reality of war, but also questioning the Japanese Government’s late surrender, rather then pointing the blame squarely at America.
Overall, Japanese anime has tended to focus on creating social and individual identities through ‘slice of life’ dramas and fantasy adventures. Yet historically, Japan’s twentieth century remains largely untouched in the world of animation, particularly when compared to its ‘samurai’ past.  Akira and Evangelion offer examples of how Japan’s heedful nature has used the cover of sci-fiction/fantasy to portray the events of WWII, whilst the emotive and elegiac manner of Grave of the Fireflies and Barefoot Gen has enabled these films to truly narrate the past. But it still remains clear that Japan’s experiences during the Pacific War have had a profound effect on its animated culture, as well as its national identity.
(Originally on Impact Magazine website: 2011)

RespawningCouch Podcast: Episode 3: Horror Films

This week: Jack, James and special guest 'Beardy Nick', talk about 'What You've Been Playing and Watching?'. Then go into a shortish discussion about the state of the 'Horror' genre and favourite horror films in response to Halloween........spooky. 
Listen Here 

Random Drawings: Porco Rosso

Random Drawings: Ponyo

Random Drawings: Yotsuba

Random Drawings: Kiki's Delivery Service

Random Drawings: My Neighbour Totoro

Random Drawings: Laputa: Castle in the Sky

Random Drawings: Spirited Away

Random Drawings: Nausicaa

Random Drawings: Princess Mononoke

Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Ides of March Review

The Ides of March  
George Clooney’s forth time directing a feature film comes in the form of The Ides of March. Named after Julius Caesar’s death in the hands of Longinus and Brutus in 44 B.C, this American political drama delves into the shady and ruthless nature of politics. After his somewhat average Leatherheads back in 2008, Clooney comes back in full force with a superb cast, smart script and slick production values. 
The plot follows Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), a campaign advisor for Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) during the race for the Democratic nominations. Over confidence and ‘inexperience’ begins to show cracks within Meyer’s semblance. His sexual relationship with Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), an intern, suddenly brings his life crashing down to an extent that sees him question his loyalty to Morris and his personal ideals. The Ides of March’s story isn’t a complex one, but neither is it a simple one. While personally not interested in the subject of American Politics, the film never feels too out of reach or inaccessible. Inevitably some of the terminology and political systems isn’t necessarily understandable to a relative novice, but that never became the focus of the narrative. Instead, Clooney concentrates on the behind-the-scenes drama and sly dealings between politicians, campaign advisors and interns. And he does it brilliantly. Twists and turns, paranoia and betrayal all provide a story that constantly engages. There are some minor issues such as the introduction of the romance between Molly and Stephen that, while is pivotal to the plot line, never becomes as effective as intended. As well as Marisa Tomei’s journalist story-thread that fails to materialise during the course of the film. Neither compromise the drama and aren’t related to the acting, but rather the faults in the generally smart script and structure. 
In relation to performances, The Ides of March is full of perfectly cast personalities and memorable individuals. Ryan Gosling grows in experience with each film he’s in, and he really puts in strong show here. Arguable too ‘cool’ to be believably involved in a political campaign, his character is constantly conflicted between his job and his personal ambitions and convictions. There’s a ‘two-faced’ nature to him that never becomes over-the-top or too subtle. It’s a well-balanced performance that is delivered with confidence and charm. Philip Seymour Hoffman who plays Paul Zara, Senior Advisor to Morris, does a terrific job too. His calm and collected exterior breaks down in a split second after revelations from Stephen. It’s a powerful ‘transformation’, clearly indicating the stakes and complexities which Gosling’s and his character are engage in. Meanwhile, Paul Giamatti is simply outstanding as a rival campaign advisor. His devious and somewhat uncomfortable grin, really encompass the treacherous nature of the political race with his last scene being the film’s best. George Clooney himself is cleverly not the main character of the film. The likeable and confident image in front of the media, turns to a dark, weathered and almost fragile presence when betrayal and secrets emerge. The weakest individual is Evan Rachel Wood’s. Her character is slightly distorted and this transpires into her performance. She’s underwhelming and seems far too forced to gain the emotional attachment Clooney’s story requires.
Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography is visually pleasing and really encapsulates the moody and sinister events of the film’s narrative. Shadows, while used predictably, add extra atmosphere to tense confrontations, creating a sense of insecurity and covertness. The camera work is great with the prominent use of close-up shots focusing on characters eyes and the framing of faces. There’s a stylistic choice that uses an idea of a ‘pokerface’, as each character’s smooth exterior is symbolised with their stern/ serious countenance, meanwhile glimpses of verity are shown through eye movements, smirks and leers. However the generic styling of modern political dramas becomes all to evident and obvious. There’s a distinct lack of colour, with an almost monochrone look. The persistence use of red, white and blue of the American flag, while realistic in a political campaign, is far to overdone and becomes slightly crude and tiresome, losing it’s justification. 
Overall, Clooney’s The Ides of March is engrossing, dramatic and tense. While certain plot elements don’t have the strength and capability to fully establish themselves, the film is still slick and well-written. The generic nature of political dramas still lingers but is over-shadowed by terrific performances and high production values. Expect a few Oscar nominations. 

Friday, 28 October 2011

Whisper of the Heart (耳をすませば)

Whisper of the Heart (耳をすませば) 1995
Released back in 1995, Whisper of the Heart was the late Yoshifumi Kondō ’s directorial debut and only film he directed. He unfortunately passed away in 1998. A key animator before entering Studio Ghibli, Kondō worked on numerous productions; Lupin III, Panda! Go, Panda! and Future Boy Conan. It was working with the likes of Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, that he became established within Studio Ghibli, and was predicted to succeed them. 
His film follows a middle schoolgirl named Shizuka whose life revolves around her love of stories and writing. She discovers that all the library books she has checked out have been previously taken out by the same individual. Shinzuka soon meets a schoolboy whom she exceedingly dislikes. However she soon discovers that he, Seiji, is the fellow avid reader. The two start to form a relationship, in which Seiji aspirations of being a violin maker, inspire Shizuka to expand her horizons, and write her novel about Baron, Seiji’s grandfather’s cat statutette. Whisper of the Heart is a somewhat ‘muted’ family drama that takes place in a realistic Japanese setting, whilst also focusing on a growing teenager’s dreams and romance. It’s a relatively simple plot to follow that steers clear of a cliché and formulaic narrative of generic anime. While there’s nothing dramatically unique in the story, it still remains interesting and magical.
In terms of the characters, Studio Ghibli has been very successful in creating engaging and memorable individuals. However Whisper of the Heart doesn’t hold the same magic. Shizuka is the typical teenager girl lead, meanwhile Seiji isn’t special in anyway either. The two are voiced well, but neither have a personality that is truly interesting. By far the most memorable character is ‘The Baron’. As previously talked about in my review of The Cat Returns, the ‘Baron’ became a Japanese “Boba Fett” after little screen time. There’s a creativity to his design, and he brings a charming personality to a cast of averageness. Maybe this was intended to symbolises the drabness of reality and urban life, contrasting with the expansive, and creative element of a teenager’s imagination. 
For the most part Whisper of the Heart looks like your typical Ghibli production. Characters have the distinctly simplistic yet charming styling. Meanwhile from the realistic and colourful backgrounds, to the intricate detailing on the ornamental grandfather clock, there’s an essence of magic to the film. Yet where this film’s animation really stands out, is the visualisation of Shizuka’s novel. In fact, the sheer popularity surrounding these scenes inspired the studio to work on The Cat Returns. Floating Islands, reminiscent of Nausicaa contrast perfectly to the straightforward look of reality, its a very imaginative design. 
Overall, Whisper of the Heart is a very enjoyable film but not as memorable as other Studio Ghibli works. It has some hiccups but nothing that damages the film’s narrative or general viewing experience. Yoshifumi Kondō’s debut is an engaging and entertaining one which showed a lot of potential and talent, making his death even more tragic and heart-breaking.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Recent Reviews and Articles for Impact Magazine


I have written some reviews for recent releases in Nottingham University's Impact Magazine: 

I also did a feature article about Japanese Animation and the Atomic Bomb:

Have a read and cheers for visiting my blog (Much more to come) 

Jack Singleton 

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Only Yesterday ( おもひでぽろぽろ) Review

Only Yesterday ( おもひでぽろぽろ)

Continuing with my impressions of Studio Ghibli’s ‘non-Miyazaki’ productions, Only Yesterday by Isao Takahata is another overlooked film. Released back in 1991, it was a surprising box office success and was popular among both adults as well as children. With My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service having been released in 1988 and 1989, it was a slight departure from Ghibli’s narrative style. Yet Takahata had already established himself in the studio with his most compelling film: Grave of the Fireflies back in 1988. 
Set in the 1980s, the film follows bored office worker Taeko as she heads to the countryside in an attempt to escape the busy, urban landscapes. Meeting with family, friends and working on the farm, she reminisces about her childhood, parents, dreams, puberty and romances through flashbacks. Only Yesterday’s plot doesn’t distinguish itself from the waves of ‘slice of life’ animated dramas, primarily because at first glance it’s pretty simple. The film doesn’t have talking animals or mystical monsters, but focuses on very ‘human’ experiences and that’s what Isao Takahata does best. 
The ‘downhearted worker’ retelling stories or revisiting their childhood, has become a cliché in Japanese culture and is a characteristic of Japanese society. Whilst I am a manga reader, it is clear that audiences and the ‘otaku’ culture has occurred from individuals wanting to relive or reminisce about frivolous stories and ‘adventures’ through these types of media. Teenage dramas such as Azumanga Daioh and Haruhi Suzumiya have cemented themselves globally, and have attracted mature audiences primarily because of clever, realistic and relatable stories and characters. Only Yesterday follows the same setup yet in a more restraint manner and through a realistic approach. No over-exaggerated expressions, cringe-worthy dialogue or events, just simple story-telling and realistic and interesting personalities. As always Takahata employs various cultural references from Japanese television and music during the 1960s which indicate the reality of the story. While Western audiences won’t gain the same nostalgia, recollection of past childhoods or memories from these sources, it’s still interesting to gain a sense of popular culture in Japan during the period. 
With the premise remaining distinctly ‘human’, the characters mirror the atmosphere and the narrative. 20 something-year-old Taeko isn’t as enjoyable to watch as her younger self, but in someways that’s everyone’s personal experience of growing up. Generally our childhood or school-life years are the best times of our life. You make friends, you have little responsibility and are cared for by close family. In comparison, as soon as you start working, conversations boil down to ‘School......those were the days’. And this is what Only Yesterday portrays perfectly. While an ill-favoured criticism would be that mature Taeko’s dialogue primarily consists with her reminiscing back to her childhood. But that is the point of the film. While she meets her family and friends, and forms a relationship with Toshio during her time on the farm, we gain a true understanding of her personality and character through her flashbacks. 
Her younger self is a much more relatable and an interesting individual. We explore the relationship between family members, and the conservative father. We explore Taeko entrance into puberty and the problems/ hardship that comes with that, and subsequently her understanding of ‘love’. Its cleverly directed, with an almost reversed sense of life’s pace and hectic portrayal. There’s a sense of calm and tranquility in her mature self, whilst her younger image frantically experiences everything. It’s full of clever metaphors and morals that leaves a lasting impression and intrigue to Takahata’s personal understanding of ‘growing up’.
Animation-wise, Only Yesterday sticks to the realistic and human approach by retaining Studio Ghibli tried and tested formula of art style. Character models are simple but manage to express more subtle emotion than your average ‘anime’ series. The contrast between urban settings and countryside is beautifully mapped with a colourful visual look. Linked to this, is the clear contrast in art direction between Taeko’s past and present. While backgrounds are detailed and lush in the 1980s, the art team seems to have opted for simple cream backgrounds, almost like ‘thought bubbles’. It’s an interesting choice.My only criticism would be the design of the older Taeko. Her defined wrinkles and cheek dimples make her look like she’s in her late 30s/ early 40s, rather than late 20s. But this isn’t a major problem. 
Overall, Only Yesterday has a simple premise, yet deals with it perfectly, charmingly and smartly. While it hasn’t the cutesy imagery, or magical essence of Hayao Miyazaki’s work, it’s realistic and very ‘human’. There’s a sense of nostalgia, an empathy towards the characters and their experience as we personally remember our childhoods in an attempt to escape the hectic pace of employment or maturity. Highly Recommended.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Drive Review

After reading various reviews, many have been quick to praise Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, especially professional ‘film critics’. However among the bloggers and part-timer writers, many have been less awestruck. But after following the project for a while and watching the trailers, Drive had gained my attention. Based on James Sallis’ 2005 novel, Nicolas Winding Refn takes the relatively simple premise and injects it with adrenaline and style. My personal experience with Refn’s career stems from Bronson and the Pusher Trilogy. His stylist approach to film is reminiscent of work by Stanley Kubrick, and there’s a focus on the primal nature of man; aggression and violence. However, how would this transcend in, arguably, his most mainstream work?
The plot follows a Hollywood stunt performer who is simply known as ‘Driver’ (Ryan Gosling). He starts to form a relationship with his female neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and her son Benicio. However, after meeting Irene’s newly paroled husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), he soon becomes entangled in dangerous territory. He takes a job as the getaway driver for a simple ‘Pawn Shop’ robbery job. But when everything goes wrong, a brutal thrill-ride begins as he tries to protect Irene and tie up loose ends. Drive’s story is relatively straightforward with no plot twists and nothing really ground-breaking or unique. What’s surprising about Drive is its dramatic change from a dragging ‘romantic’ endeavour into a barrage of violence and brutality. Its 18 rating becomes justified through the course of the film as bones break and heads get caved-in, whilst the development of tension really adds a refreshing note to the ‘tired’ narrative. However Drive’s story suffers from slightly flawed pacing and character development. After a dramatic heist scene that masterfully opens the film, its first act turns into a sluggish exchange of smiles and small talk between Gosling and Carey’s characters. Drawn-out shots of staring and ‘silence’ become a tedious and awkward affair. Alongside the first act’s slow speed, is a somewhat instantaneous relationship between Gosling and Carey that never is explained or fully developed. The abruptness of the ‘romantic’ plot element means that we don’t build any attachment to the characters, and it feels rather empty and shallow. These problems weaken the first act but are cancelled out by pulsating, and thrilling second and third acts. 
In terms of the acting, Drive is good but far from perfect. Ryan Gosling has to be the most busiest actor this year with the likes of The Ides of March and Crazy, Stupid Love. Here his performance is somewhat disjointed. While his character’s persona is split between calm and quiet, and then intense and sinister, Gosling fails to pull off both.  When he’s interacting with Mulligan, it’s too lifeless and uninspired. In contrast he plays his latter personality perfectly, managing to be genuinely threatening and savage. He’s good but lacks balance and refinement. Bryan Cranston puts in a great performance as Shannon, whilst Albert Brooks is perfect as crime boss Bernie Rose. However, the female side of the cast is underwhelming. Carey Mulligan is average at best, but she doesn’t really have enough dialogue to display her acting skills. Meanwhile, Christina Hendricks is listed as a main character but never really fulfils her ‘title’. 
The cinematography is where Nicolas Winding Refn really nails it. The ‘cockpit’ camera angles are evocative of those in 1968’s Bullitt, and really immerse the audience in the action. The simple camera framing of Gosling’s reflection in the rear-view mirror, his leather-clad hands clutching the wheel and the oscillating speed-o-meter really add a dynamic and depth to the simple act of driving. Outside the car, low and tilted angles, as well as changes in camera focus, make characters seem more imposing and menacing. Lighting is also used smartly. From the neon-lit landscapes of Los Angeles, to the revolving beams from a lighthouse, there’s a illustrative richness and added ambience to the blank interiors and exteriors. 
The sound design is also brilliant, especially during the driving sequence. Engines rev, exhausts pop, its a very loud and exhilarating experience. In contrast, the visual brutality is assisted through uncomfortable snaps and splats. However what’s more interesting is Refn’s use of silence. Silence becomes an indicator when Gosling goes into overdrive, but adds a sense of unpredictability, tension and allows the film’s visual character to fully convey. On the other hand, the soundtrack is a mixed affair. Cliff Martinez’s score is fabulously atmospheric, with a strong mix of electronic pulses and eloquent, panoramic tones. Reminiscent of work by Brian Eno, it certainly integrates well with Refn’s use of silence and slow-motion sequences. In terms of the other contributors, its a little varied. College’s ‘A Real Hero’ lyrics is foreshadowing at its most obvious, whilst the annoying electronic voice of ‘Nightcall’ by Kavinsky & Lovefoxxx fails to match the song’s soothing, synthesised notes. The real stand out is The Chromatics‘ ‘Tick of the Clock‘ (in the trailers) which, though repetitive and minimal, manages to merge well with the visual styling and creates added tension to the opening heist scene. 
Overall, Drive is a ‘bloody’ good watch but is spoilt by a slow first act and a lack of character development. While the story is relatively simple and the performances aren’t award-winning, Refn focuses his attention on the film’s cinematography and audio construction, resulting in a very stylish, thrilling and intense film that leaves a lasting impression. 

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Review

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy  

Strangely for a British-based, potentially award-winning film, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy had a rather lack-lustre build up. While it picked up near its release, few trailers and little media attention had resulted in the film slipping under the ‘radar’. However when reviews began to emerge, ‘amazing’ ‘brilliant’ and ‘spectacular’ were terms plastered onto every poster, TV spot and film article. The ‘prediction’ of a BAFTA winner became apparent, thus an intrigue was inevitable. Originally a novel by John le Carré, it was adapted into a BBC television series in 1979 starring Alec Guinness. Having not read the book or watched the series, it was interesting to see Tomas Alfredson condense a seven-part show into 2 hours. Known for his direction of 2008’s Let the Right One In, Alfredson has had a relatively sparse filmography and has tended to stick to Swedish film-making. Therefore with a star-studded British cast, and a very British story, how would he manage?

The plot follows a number of officials from the British Intelligence Service as rumour spreads of a ‘mole’ leaking information to the Soviets. George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is taken out of ‘retirement’ and is tasked with finding the double agent among four primary candidates; Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik). On first glance, the film’s plot seems simple, however after witnessing a botched operation in Budapest and a ‘setup’ in Turkey, its an engrossing and quite complex narrative. Many will find the story a bit hard to follow as it skips back and forth between time slots, but nothing that really impedes the film. However the film’s pacing is a bit all over the place. A long-winded intro sequence/ montage of Gary Oldman being silent in different locations gets tiresome. And when he finally speaks, it fails to match the build up. The overuse of long, drawn out shots of people sitting and ‘first-person’ perspectives from files, slow the film’s pace and become tedious. Thankfully by the end of the film Alfredson nails everything, creating tense and dramatic sequences and a very fine and satisfying last note.
Acting-wise, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has a fantastic cast that definitely showcases British performances from established actors and up-and-coming ones. Benedict Cumberbatch puts in a superb performance as Peter Guillam. His amazing voice and energetic screen presence create a sophisticated and memorable character. Tom Hardy also puts in a stellar performance as Ricky Tarr, whilst Mark Strong is brilliant as usual. However Gary Oldman’s performance is the one that has grabbed the media’s attention. His portrayal of Mr Smiley’s lonely, muted personality is nothing special. But during the course of the film, through dramatic and fierce dialogue confrontations, his character comes into his own. However with such a big cast, the likes of Stephen Graham and Ciarán Hinds seem underplayed. While I recognise that condensing a seven-part series inevitably results in the omission of scenes and a immediacy to events and characters, why cast lead actors? Hinds doesn’t say anything in the entire film, while Graham has a few scenes but little dialogue, neither really showing their talents. It’s disappointing but understandable. 
The film’s look and feel is fantastic in its recreation of the 1970s. From the cars, fashion and general aesthetic, its an immersive experience that feels very stylish and slick. On the other hand, the soundtrack is somewhat confusing from Alberto Iglesias. Jazzy and classical notes scream the era and match the somber yet chilling visuals. However Mediterranean guitars don’t correspond to the rainy, grey vistas of London. The choice of Julio Inglesias’s cover of Charles Trénet's “La Mer” is a bizarre one that doesn’t suit the film’s captivating ending. 
Overall Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is very good film, however is slightly disappointing when compared to the critical ‘hype’ the film has gained. Great performances, stunning production values, and a gripping story result in an enjoyable experience. While it isn’t the “powerhouse“ or “masterpiece” that many have stated, it’s a fine effort by Tomas Alfredson and is one that’s up there as one of 2011’s best. Definitely Recommended after a “Summer of Blockbuster Shlock”.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

The Cat Returns (猫の恩返し) Review

The Cat Returns (猫の恩返し) 2002 
Directed by animator Hiroyuki Morita, The Cat Returns was released back in 2002 and remains one of my personal favourite ‘non-Miyazaki’ productions. Originally planned as a 20-minute short back in 1999, it was then turned into a manga by Aoi Hiiragi. After deliberations between Hayao Miyazaki and various other staff members, Morita became responsible for translating Hiiragi’s work into a film. Not only recognised at Studio Ghibli, he has worked on projects such as Akira and Afro Samurai showing an abundance of experience in Japanese animated cinema. However The Cat Returns is Morita’s first genuine debut as a director, and its a great one from another future prospect. 
The story follows Haru, a shy and modest high school student who has the ability to talk to cats. After saving a well-spoken feline from a road accident, who turns out to be Luna ‘Prince of Cat Kingdom’, she is showered in gifts (catnip and mice) by the King and is offered the Prince’s hand in marriage. Troubled by her unwanted glorification, she finds help from ‘The Baron’ (character from Whisper of the Heart), Muta, a pot-bellied white cat and Toto, a living crow statue. However when she is forcefully taken to the ‘Cat Kingdom’, the Baron launches a rescue mission to save Haru from being trapped and transforming into a cat. 
The story is simple yet engrossing. While it may not hold the usual messages of environmentalism or militarism, or the concealed complexities of Studio Ghibli’s usual creations, its a well-told and well-constructed affair. This isn’t to suggest that The Cat Returns is a perfect story. There are problems but none that cripple the film. A slightly drawn-out second act is a bit feeble when compared to the rest of the film. Meanwhile, the portrayal of ‘The Cat Kingdom’ is disappointingly tame. After Studio Ghibli’s vivid and imaginative fantasy scenes in Whisper of the Heart, which prompted The Cat Returns creation, the depiction of the kingdom is underwhelming and slightly mundane. Apart from these niggles, the film runs smoothly and remains engaging.
In terms of the characters, The Cat Return’s ‘roster’ is small but appropriately developed. Primarily focusing on our three main protagonists and a main antagonist, the film duly constructs unique and compelling personalities. Haru comes across as a typical high school girl. Her constant clumsiness and simplemindedness does get tiresome, however there’s a charm to her character, an affection that continues throughout the film. The Baron remains an interesting character after his ‘debut’ in Whisper of the Heart. An intellectual, ‘Sherlock Holmesy’, well-groomed and dressed cat offers something different and imaginative to the usual young boy protagonist. However Muta steals the shows as the comedic relief. His tendency to lead with his stomach, a disregard for Haru and a somewhat obscure background, create a character that’s obnoxious but funny. This is all helped by superb Japanese voicework that does justice to the animation and truly represents the characters, rather than the English dub. 
Animation-wise, The Cat Returns keeps the detailed and colourful backgrounds of Ghibli ,but changes the character design. It’s not a dramatic change, but one that is visible to regular Ghibli watchers. A good use of colours create a clear distinction between the ‘fantasy‘ elements and the ‘realistic‘ setting. And the sight of a cat standing on two legs remains playfully weird, even slightly unnerving. The soundtrack is great from Yuuji Nomi and Ayano Tsuji’s theme song is probably one of the best in Ghibli’s backlog.

Overall The Cat Returns is short at 75 minutes, but is sweet. Colourful characters, simple story and well-constructed animation, ensure an easy to watch and engrossing experience. It may not be crammed full of symbolism or philosophy, but that’s simply because it’s not intended to spur great intellectual thought. Its a great debut from Hiroyuki Morita, and another fine addition to Studio Ghibli’s filmography. Recommended. 

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Pom Poko (平成狸合戦ぽんぽこ) Review

Pom Poko (平成狸合戦ぽんぽこ) (1994)
Pom Poko, released in 1994, is Isao Takahata’s 8th animated project which he has written and directed with Studio Ghibli. Taking a different approach to his usual ‘human’ and realistic style, Pom Poko became a success in the Japanese box office, and was eventually submitted as Japan’s selection for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Stepping back from ‘human subjects’, Takahata focuses on the traditional Japanese folklore of tanuki (Japanese Raccoon Dogs). Essentially, our main characters are a group of mischievous, gluttonous and cheerful raccoons that have the ability to shape-shift in order to trick humans.............and have shapeshifting testicles.  
The story follows a band of racoons who are under attack by MAN!!!! Initially set in the 1960s, a gigantic suburban development is beginning to be constructed on their land. Trees, grassland and forests are being cut down, causing a dramatic effect on the tanuki population. A resistance forms including Gonta, an aggressive chief, Tsurugame, an old guru, and Oroku, the wise-woman, in order to battle the human efforts to build houses, offices and roads on their habitat. Told in a ‘diary log’ style of narrative Pom Poko’s story structure is pretty simple to understand, but does dawdle during the second act. 
Firstly, this is a very ‘Japanese’ film, but one that remains relatively accessible to a wider audience. The focus on Japanese folklore and mythology is quite daunting but is very interesting. Many viewers unfamiliar with the likes of yokai (a class of Japanese supernatural creatures) or oni (demons, devils....), will enjoy a ‘child friendly’ visual introduction to Japan’s unique and strange supernatural identity. The ‘ghost parade’ scene in particular, barrages the audience with Japanese myths and legends, with some cameos from other Ghibli films. Demons, giant babies, three headed females all appear in an effort to scare the locals. It definitely is a hilarious and surreal WTF moment. 
Inevitably, environmentalism and the general impact of humans is prominent in Pom Poko, more so than in any other work by Studio Ghibli. And to some extent this hinders the film’s general impression. This being a major plotline for the film, the message is somewhat preached continuously rather than allowed to be expressed naturally. What the slightly over-rated Princess Mononoke did to successfully convey its message of ‘environmentalism’, was to employ it though a smartly told narrative and well-developed selection of characters, which are lacking in Pom Poko. 

Studio Ghibli, and especially Isao Takahata, have a very creative and masterful understanding of the concept of characters. From the likes of Calcifer from Howls Moving Castle to Kiki in Kiki’s Delivery Service, there’s a special connection that viewers build with them. Their unique, or relatable features/ traits help, or even solely create the film. However Pom Poko falls short even with top notch Japanese voice acting. This isn’t due to the dialogue, but lies with the story and the sheer scale with which we are introduced to all these characters. All too often, characters “disappear” then reappear causing confusion and a disregard for them. 
In terms of the animation, Pom Poko is great with its vivid colour palette and energetic flow and spirit. There is also a good blend of animation styles to depict the characters. The contrast of the ‘red-eyed’, typical looking raccoons from the humans’ perspective, to the ‘humanized versions of the tanuki, and to the cartoony figures of Shigeru Sugiura’s manga, is an enjoyable and interesting arrangement of various visual styles. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is a mix of traditional Japanese folk, kabuki and children’s music that’s matches the playful and joyful nature of the film and its characters. 
Overall Pom Poko is a great film, yet dawdles too much on its message rather than crafting a flowing narrative and memorable, individual characters. The script is great, the story is simple, and its a very funny film. 

Saturday, 27 August 2011

The Guard Review

The Guard 
After watching the trailer of The Guard, apart from the ‘spaghetti western’ vibe, there was a sense of In Bruges to the ‘black comedy’ and ‘crime drama’, plus Brendan Gleeson’s presence. However, all too often modern film trailers have become to eager to entice crowds by showing everything. And after a bunch of funny jokes and clever dialogue, The Guard fails to truly replicate the humour and promise from the trailer. This being John Michael McDonagh’s debut as a feature director, and his second attempt at screenwriting, his inexperience shows with a generic story, poor ending and faulty cinematography and sound design. Yet, there is some entertainment to be grasped from some terrific performances, the amazing Brendan Gleeson putting in a fantastic one, and some witty dialogue. But The Guard feels shallow and a missed opportunity. 
The plot follows Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Gleeson) , a member of the Irish police service, as he goes about his usual business; hookers, booze . Yet after bodies start emerging and FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Cheadle) becomes involved, a complex web of corruption, drugs and murders follows. Its up to Boyle and Everett to team up and take down the gang of drug dealers, bringing an end to the wave of criminal activity. The story is very much a homage to the ‘buddy cop’ genre such as Lethal Weapon and Beverley Hill Cop ,yet in a distinctly Irish manner. Racist comedy weaves into the typical structure: Two mismatched police officers argue and bicker, but eventually build a partnership that sees them overcome the bad guys, and succeed. There are also strong comparisons to the ‘spaghetti westerns’ genres; A rural village setting being corrupted by evil ‘gunslingers’, forcing a hero to rise with the help of a mismatched sidekick......... This becomes distinctly evident with tracks from the soundtrack beng obviously influenced by the likes of Ennio Morricone. The disappointing ending also has the ‘mysterious ranger’ slant to it, as it attempts to be cryptic or enigmatic. However rather than leaving on a satisfied note, it simply feels lacklustre and ill-advised.
Yet whilst the story may be ‘generic’, the cast is fantastic with some big names. However the focus of the film is between Brendan Gleeson and his unlikely alliance with Don Cheadle. Gleeson is a brilliant lead, creating a strong personality that leaves a lasting and humorous impression. Meanwhile Cheadle is solid and brings seriousness amongst the joking Irish. But when both are on screen, the two never really truly connect. While they share some fantastic squabbles, their dialogue becomes too formulaic and predictable, as Gleeson constantly spurs out racist remarks and smug facial expressions. Its funny to watch, but there’s no depth or emotional chemistry which leaves the two feeling rather shallow. Mark Strong and Liam Cunningham perform well as the ruthless, yet witty drug dealers. But there’s a distinct lack of development to some of the main characters. For example, Katarina Cas’s character is quickly introduced and has a significant amount of screen time, but nothing really becomes of her. She’s merely a plot device, rather than a solid personality, and this is the same for many of the others. 
The cinematography and editing is another area that is disappointing with McDonagh’s directing debut. The recent cliché of 360 panning shots, really feels out of place and poorly undertaken, and so too are the opening aerial ones. There is also a disjointedness to the film's construct and editing. Not to spoil anything, but one scene sees us exploring a character, then the next minutes she has passed away. It seems all too sudden, rushed and undeveloped. 

Overall, The Guard is an enjoyable film but feels shallow. John Michael McDonagh’s script and directing suffers from his inexperience, with some sketchy screenwriting, character development and cinematography. While great individual performances from Gleeson and Cheadle help to create an amusing atmosphere, their partnership never completely works. However, some genuine laughs and solid acting create an relatively entertaining film, but unfortunately nothing more.