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.