The Fountain

[Screenshot]It is tempting to compare The Fountain to Pan’s Labyrinth; they both have, at their core, a character leading at least two lives, one of which may not be real. But while Pan’s Labyrinth is fantasy, The Fountain is sci-fi, and in addition to the attendant change in style, it pursues a completely different thematic approach. This film does not deal in the explicit at all, and will leave a lot of questions openended, but at the same time manages to engage movingly in overarching thematic elements of love, faith, and centrally death and rebirth. It’s not overbearing, though, since the actual presentation leaves the viewer in an ambiguous enough state to reach his own conclusions. So the storycraft’s quite effective, and Hugh Jackman does an admirable job making it work as, essentially, thre different characters sharing only surface traits. His versatility makes it work, to a large degree.

It’s hard to say much more about the plot or themes, really. They’re like a soap bubble: beautiful from a distance, but you can’t really touch them without losing them. So I’ll move on to cinematography. Put simply, The Fountain is a beautiful film, and not particularly ashamed of it. It lingers lovingly on moments of pure beauty: some of them special effects, but a lot of them just making the best of simple compositions of characters and scenes. It may have some of the most stunning visuals I’ve seen in a film for some time, and apparently did so on a limited budget.

In summing up, it’s lovely, and rich, but might bewilder a lot of people. It does so in a way rather different than Aronofsky’s previous films, however, so being turned off by Pi, for instance, says nothing about how you’d react to this one. I think it may be his best, though, just because it’s so damn pretty.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

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La tigre e la neve

[Screenshot]Benigni can’t win them all, I guess. I rented this mostly on a shared recommendation with La vita é bella, but ended up getting a lot less out of it. Some of it may have been the surrealism: Benigni’s dreams with a kangaroo and Tom Waits don’t do much to make the real scenes seem real. Some may have been the setting shift: at this point in time, anything set in Iraq seems all-too-suffused with the political. And some may have just been the changes in characters: a clownish hero trying to preserve a child’s innocence is a just plain more meaty dynamic than a clowing hero assuring an adult woman in a coma that everything’s going to be alright. Not that The Tiger and the Snow is a bad movie, but, y’know, it wasn’t up to the level of dazzling brilliance I expected.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

へっぽこ実験アニメーション エクセル・サーガ /Quack Experimental Anime Excel Saga episodes 1–5

[Screenshot]And now for soemthing completely different. Completely different in each episode, even. Excel Saga is a big splattery ball of weirdshit, thrown together to inexplicably actually have a plot. It has less internal consistency than FLCL, which is raising the bar a fair bit, and takes itself even less seriously.

It’s a spoof of everything at once, really, and about 50% of the jokes go over my head; the rate would probably be higher for people who aren’t into Japanese media. There’s a pop-up feature to give background, but, honestly, if you need a joke explained, you’re already on the outside. As for overarching construction rahter than one-off jokes, it’s a bit hit-or-miss depending what they’re sending up that day. The dating-sim/romantic comedy spoof I loved, since I’m into romantic anime and view the dating sim as a kind of inherantly absurd game, but, for instance, the daytime political exposé drama spoof I didn’t get into because I’ve never really been exposed to that sort of Japanese television. So indvidual episodes work to a varying degree, but the overarching storyline is a surprising bonus keeping me hooked in even the dull episodes. Yes, the sketch spoof anime has a plot, or perhaps several plots, ranging from the central device of Excel and Hyatt serving Ilpalazzo to peculiar, goofy subplots like Pedro’s constantly heightened sufferings and Nabeshin’s… uh, OK, I actually have no idea what Nabeshin’s subplot is, just that he’s always doing something. Nabeshin brings us to Excel Saga‘s other significant feature: self-awareness and self-insertion, since both the animator and the mangaka appear prominently in the series. The insertion of the author’s generally a sign of weakness in a work, but they’re utilized in such unexpected and unfathomable ways that, really, it’s hard to fault it.

Technically, Excel Saga is good. THere’s manic action and it’s done fluidly and effectively; styles change seamlessly as dictated by the action and the style beign sent up. There’s a lot of artistic in-jokery going on—some references appear for just a single frame—and the overall style and effects match the feel of the manic, spoofery-laden storyline. Props to the voice-actors in both the English and Japanese dubs too, who do a wonderful job of makign a completely intolerable audio track: Excel is screechingly painful to listen to, but that’s by intent. Fortunately, English-speakers have the option of turning over to the subs and trying to ignore the yowling Japanese woman.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, AniDB.

Hotel Rwanda

[Screenshot]I have to appreciate film. Without it, I might never know a damn thing about history.

My knowledge of the Rwandan genocide was pretty fragmentary: I knew there were a lot of people getting killed out there, but I didn’t know why or by whom. This is pretty typical American complacency, I’m afraid. Hotel Rwanda managed to be educational, and interesting, without deviating too far from truth. It’s great when cinema can do that. The acting and cinematography were all superb, but what really made this one was the story, and some themes brought to the fore.

Two themes I found particularly involving were international inifference and the pointlessness of the genocide. This film doesn’t pull any punches in condemning the lackluster and cowardly overall international response, while praising those who do stand by their responsibilities (e.g. Sabena, the UNAMIR commaders). It’s refreshing to see our selfishness and blindness (yes, even my own) treated with the contempt it deserves, and contrasted with authentic decency. And it worked for me. The other theme I found somewhat mystifying but no less significant: it’s established early on that there’s not actually a racial distinction per se, or at least not one anyone can actually work out with any confidence (in a movie which wasn’t tied to reality, it would sure turn out that both Georges Rutaganda and General Bizimungu were actually Tutsis; real life, alas, does not always give us educational situational ironies). The genocide seemed, in a few key scenes, to be not so much about getting rid of the Tutsis for racial purity as killing them and then stealing their stuff. And that’s important. Nobody goes out and butchers their neighbors without a reason. Maybe the Interahamwe included authentic anti-utsi zealots, but an awful lot of the grief and death isn’t zealotry so much as good old-fashioned avarice.

There’s an inversion of the entire situation to be seen in the final scenes of the film as well, althoguh the inversion isn’t strictly symmetrical. The convoy driving against the tide of humanity? All those people going the other way are Hutu refugees, fleeing from a Tutsi army. Granted, the RPF didn’t commit atrocities even close to those prepetrated under the Interahamwe, but there’s a distressing symmetry between the eventual effects of the “bad guys'” regime and the “good guys'” liberation.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

バブルガムクライシス/Bubblegum Crisis OAV, episodes 1–2

[Screenshot]Like so many series, I’ve heard this one gets good and explores interesting issues once it gets moving. But from the first two episodes, I’m mostly getting a feeling of critical missing world-building and mindless action. Which is not to say I can’t dig mindless action, but the frustratingly incomplete worldbuilding tantalizes me with distractions. Genom’s name comes out of nowhere, and they’re painted as nefarious behind-the-schemes shadowy schemers. But at the same time they’re responsible for the creation of the “Boomers”, whose very existence is flagrantly illegal. It seems weird to try to have it both ways, and the general relationship between Genom, the Knight Sabers, the government, and whoever controls the Orbital Death Rays is left kind of obscure, since every one of those groups seems to have reasons to despise the others.

Artistically, it’s less fluid and sharp than modern anime, which I’d blame on both stylistic shifts and the movement towards computer-assisted animation, and of course it’s not fair to pass judgment on that front: for late-80s animation it’s excellent stylistically. The characters are OK in their ways but rather broadly-drawn clichés (Pris as antiauthoritarian is a particularly egregious example of this). The English dub is competent but the Japanese dub is enough better that I was more comfortable with it; also, different music tracks for each, and the music redone with English lyrics is actually kind of distracting (points for effort, though; only other anime I know to do this was Fruits Basket, which has considerably less vocal music).

All in all, it’s thus far excellent but mindless fluff action with a backstory suggestive of a movement towards a more interesting story. I kind of wish these things would work to hook you right off, instead of having a few episodes of conventional action-adventure before it gets down to business.

Also, this doesn’t fit anywhere else, but must be said: the Knight Sabers wear battle armor. With high heels. Absurd!

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, AniDB.

El laberinto del fauno

[Screenshot]This was a big deal in theatres,a nd I’m glad to have finally seen it, because it is one intense, stunningly crafted film. Starting with technical issues: the cinematography is spot-on for both fantastic and realistic elements. The lighting is effective, the grotesqueries of both the fantasy and mundane world are evocatively produced, and the CG is well-integrated and not unnatural (er, not more unnatural than it’s intended to be). It’s what MirrorMask would have been if Dave McKean hadn’t pelasured himself with the script.

Moving on to the story, Pan’s Labyrinth has layers on layers, and a delightful ambiguity as to what constitutes reality (cf. the simplistic reality/fantasy dichotomy in MirrorMask). The most obvious example of it is a horrific spoiler, but basically, without reveling too much, let’s say the plot boils down to a completely different story depending on how you interpret the presence of the spirit world. The reality-grounded story is engrossing too: while the fascist captain’s brutality seems entirely too over-the-top, this is actually pretty well within the realm of believable characterization in fascist Spain.

In conclusion, what we have here is a technically adept story blending a rich fantasy with a dark historical drama drawn from a time and place which hasn’t been too tapped for film. It comes together beautifully and effectively. It’s hard to think of what could really be done better.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.