TV: How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)

grinch_5director: Chuck Jones & Ben Washam
language: English
length: 26 minutes
watched on: 31 December 2013

We don’t get shown this regularly on British television, so my friend was quite surprised when I said I’d never watched it. I’ve actually seen the Jim Carrey version, probably when it came out, so I’m passingly familiar with the storyline, but similarly, I don’t think I’ve read a Dr Seuss book. Or maybe I have. I think they only take about ten minutes back to back, so it’s quite possible that I read one and forgot about it.

In this story the Grinch hates Christmas and wants to destroy it, so he takes away all the Christmas decorations in the nearby town of Whoville, but when he sees the Whos coming together in winter spirit anyway, he has a change of heart and returns all the presents to them. It’s very much a “true meaning of Christmas” story, if it didn’t indeed start that genre itself.

I think it’s a shame that I’ve been introduced to this so late, at the age of 26, because it would have been the perfect thing to watch when I was a child. Now I find the whole “true meaning of Christmas” genre a bit silly, to be honest, and the rhyming verse is fun but a bit grating. At least it’s short, in that respect.

The special does have a slapstick sensibility about it that I enjoyed, though, and it’s certainly got a distinctive style to it. I don’t think I’d watch it again, at least not outside the Christmas season, but having not grown up with it, even if it’s enjoyable it doesn’t hold the same magic for me.

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Film #108: Timecrimes (2007)

timecrimes-2aka: Los Cronocrímines
director: Nacho Vigalondo
language: Spanish
length: 92 minutes
watched on: 31 December 2013

It’s been a while since I’ve watched any weird European films, so watching this was almost like a nostalgia trip. It’s a fairly simple film about time travel, which sticks to the point and poses a few dilemmas on the way.

It starts with the main character idly looking through binoculars at the countryside near his house – when he sees a young woman undressing in the woods he decides to go investigate, whereupon he’s chased off by a scary man wearing a pink bandage round his head. Then he ends up in a scientific facility and is essentially lured into what turns out to be a time machine.

After that is where his actions become difficult to justify, because after a small car crash he ends up bandaging his head, which makes him realize that he was himself the man in the pink bandage, and he has to all but commit heinous acts of sexual violence on a confused girl who comes over to try and help, in order to recreate the situation that he’d seen earlier. There’s a hint that this is because the man in the facility had warned him not to change the past, or something, but if I was in that situation I’d have tried to just run like hell.

Despite his stupidity, I thought the film was good, and that its main merit is its relative simplicity. There are only four characters in the film, and not nearly as many timelines to keep track of as something like Primer. It’s also fairly consistent in how the rules of time travel are governed in the film. I was half-expecting it to get more and more complicated as it went on, so this was a pleasant outcome.

On the converse side, I felt that there weren’t quite enough twists, or that the ones that did happen were very predictable, so while the film’s simplicity was a good thing overall, sometimes they could have adjusted it for a slightly more complex or compelling plot. Generally it was good, and I’d recommend it.

Film #107: Rise of the Guardians (2012)

rise-of-the-guardians-2director: Peter Ramsey
language: English
length: 97 minutes
watched on: 30 December 2013

I feel like Dreamworks’ animation quality is slipping with this movie. They’ve always been a bit hit-and-miss in terms of the quality of their movies, but the first thing that struck me when I watched this movie was how much worse the quality is than Disney and Pixar. In particular, since the last two movies I watched were Tangled and Brave, both of which attach great importance to the hair of the protagonist, the hair and fur in this movie seems flat and unrealistic by comparison.

The story isn’t much better, though. It’s a Christmas movie, although it’s actually set around Easter. In the story, there are four “guardians” of childhood: Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Sandman (I’m still not 100% sure what the Sandman is, though), who are threatened by a boogieman called Pitch Black. They enlist the help of outcast Jack Frost. There’s something about the true meaning of childhood thrown in. Jack has an identity crisis along the way, which was a bit trite, but perhaps necessary for the story to progress.

A lot of the characters have odd visual choices about them. Some were clearly intended as jokes, but others seem hard to justify. Jack Frost isn’t so weird, as he’s modelled after a fairly typical teenage boy with silver hair. Santa is Russian, for some reason, complete with accent, and has yetis in his North Pole lair to make toys for children. His accent reminded me of Gru in Despicable Me a little too much, and later when he started mispronouncing Pitch as Bitch, I wondered if this wasn’t an attempt to get something past the censors.

The Tooth Fairy was funny overall, as she throws in extra jokes for the adults when she examines people’s teeth and comments on their incisors. I don’t have a view of the Sandman, so couldn’t comment. The Easter Bunny was a 6 foot tall kangaroo-shaped rabbit with an Australian accent, which was the weirdest of all. He was one of the particular places I noticed the lower quality animation most, as his fur didn’t stand up to scrutiny.

But Pitch Black was perhaps the most annoying character in the movie. He sprouts some kind of pseudo-philosophy to try and justify his actions, but it’s kind of half-hearted of the movie to do so, as he’s clearly just meant to be pure evil. His appearance is modelled on Voldemort, in my opinion, showing how much Harry Potter has penetrated the modern zeitgeist, and his accent is British, showing just how much Hollywood doesn’t like to change how villains are perceived.

Other examples of this America-centric attitude happen occasionally, although not always. One jarring moment came when they start delivering Easter eggs to China (portrayed as a city full of pagodas and temples and nothing else) – in case you hadn’t noticed, they don’t even celebrate Easter there – but in another moment, they travel to France and bump into a tooth mouse who the Tooth Fairy calls her European partner, showing a basic awareness of one culture but not another.

Altogether, it seems like a committee came together somewhere in Hollywood to try and throw together all the different aspects that they thought would make a good kids’ movie, and the end result is an incoherent mess, unfortunately. There are, as with most movies, some great moments within it, and it did feel at least like a whole world had been planned out around it (I think it was based on a novel). I liked the portrayal of Santa’s lair, particularly the yetis and the extra touches like Santa calling all the guardians with the aurora borealis. There’s a hint of criticizing the commercialism of the various portrayed holidays, as Jack admonishes the other guardians for not paying any attention to the children they’re supposed to be making happy – the sentiment is there, but not fully explored. But that doesn’t make it worth watching.

Films #105 & 106: Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2

kill_bill2 KillBillVol2
Kill Bill: Vol 1
Released: 2003
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Language: English, Japanese, French
Length: 105 minutes
Kill Bill: Vol 2
Released: 2004
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Language: English, Chinese
Length: 136 minutes
Watched on: 29 December 2013

Excuse the odd layout – it was the best way I could think of to have the pictures align up correctly. It’s taken me a long time to get around to watching this two-part story by Quentin Tarantino. It was very popular when I was in high school, and yet for some reason I never watched it then. I remember some of my friends singing or whistling some of the famous tunes from it, which I then recognized when I watched the movie.

The movies are quite high-energy martial arts-themed. If I remember rightly, Tarantino considers them one movie that he had to break into two because the running time was almost four hours, but there is a tone shift at the start of Volume 2 which makes the two movies much more distinct than something that was split out of necessity. They are certainly enjoyable to watch, but there are numerous problems with them.

Kill Bill follows the path of Uma Thurman, known as The Bride in the first movie and given the name Beatrix in the second – a confusing turn of events since her name is jarringly bleeped out in the opening scene of the first movie. She has just woken up from a coma, realizes that she’s miscarried and resolves to kill Bill, the man who tried to kill her. The title isn’t particularly imaginative. She also has to track down the team of assassins that did most of Bill’s legwork.

In the first movie, she kills the first two of the four assassins: one is disposed of in the opening scene, following which she goes all the way to Okinawa to get a legendary swordsman to craft a katana for her, and then on to Tokyo to hunt down Lucy Liu, who plays a yakuza crimelord (the fact that she’s actually Chinese, jarring at first, is addressed quite satisfactorially in the movie). In this movie, Bill remains an unseen face, a mysterious man who we don’t really know anything about. There is a big fight scene near the end in a traditional Japanese restaurant, with frankly excellent setpieces.

In the second movie, she’s back to America, and we start to find out about the relationship between her and Bill. She fights against the last two assassins, and there’s what I think must be an iconic scene against a woman with an eyepatch – at least, I always thought Uma Thurman was the one with the eyepatch until I saw that scene playing on repeat to provide atmosphere in a bar somewhere. There’s also a flashback scene shoehorned in at an inappropriate moment describing Thurman’s training with a Chinese kung fu master. For some reason, my copy of the movie had no subtitles, so this just turned into the two of them barking nonsense at each other (Just in case, I found a subtitled copy on Youtube to compare… and as I expected, that’s exactly what it is anyway). It wasn’t especially clear how this scene fit into the greater picture.

As movies, the first one is far better than the second. The atmosphere is more sinister, and the movie builds to a proper climax and executes that climax as one would expect for a martial arts movie: that is, with a great big fight scene that goes on for about twenty minutes. The second introduces Bill’s face right at the start, instantly taking away any mystique that he’d had, and making the atmosphere less sinister. There is no climax to speak of: a previously hinted-at twist comes into play in the last half-hour of the film, and Bill and Uma Thurman mostly reconcile their differences by talking, with but a brief fight between them which was incredibly dissatisfactory.

The things I want to complain about are perhaps expected with anything that Tarantino does, but I would like to address them anyway. I found the depiction of Asian cultures very fetishistic and exploitative – I mean, yeah, Tarantino makes nothing but exploitation movies, but it came across really strongly in both movies – the martial arts master in the second was basically a racist stereotype of Chinese people in many senses of the word, and as for the Japanese… well it’s at least better than The Wolverine. On numerous occasions, Japanese was used as the language to deliver pithy bullshit dressed up as something profound, and this was the thing that annoyed me the most about it, because having lived in Japan, you come to realize that nobody ever talks about honour. The whole katana thing and the focus on swordfighting is unrealistic (real yakuzas just use guns!), but it’s an excuse to put martial arts in the film, so I will let it slide.

The other thing that really annoyed me about both movies, but especially the second, were the endless monologues. I’ve already alluded to it, but it got really unbearable by the end of the second movie. As I mentioned, what with all the B-movie splendour that the film relishes in, the plot is not complicated, and the dialogue should be secondary to the action, but I think Tarantino got carried away. I have literally no idea what they were saying half the time because I got so bored of it I stopped paying attention. I’m definitely of the opinion that if I’m getting bored of what characters are saying, or can’t tease apart the meaning of the monologues, there is two much dialogue, and it should be cut down. The film could easily have lost at least half of the words exchanged between Uma Thurman and Bill in the last thirty minutes, and would have been better off for it.

I think if I’m giving recommendations of Tarantino’s movies, Pulp Fiction was much better than Kill Bill. I think the main reason to watch Kill Bill is not as much for merit in the film itself as it is to understand all the other media that refer to it. Whether or not you like them, and I guess I liked the first movie but not the second, the movies have a distinct visual style, which reminded me of the 70s or 80s, with things like the occasional intertitles or garish special effects, and even since watching them I’ve already seen one not-so-subtle reference to them in How I Met Your Mother, of all things, and I suspect that I’ve seen quite a few more references to them in other media already without realizing it. In that case, I would recommend it, but I would simply caution against the self-indulgence and exploitation.

Film #104: Brave (2012)

brave480Directors: Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
Language: English
Length: 93 minutes
Watched on: 26 December 2013

I kind of bypassed Brave a little bit when it came out, perhaps because I assumed there would be no subtitled version in the cinemas here. It took me a long time to realize that it was set in Scotland, actually – the information didn’t sink in straight away. Since I’ve been on a quest to catch up on Disney and other animated movies recently, I decided to watch it.

It’s perhaps a good thing that the information hadn’t really sunk in (even despite the fact that I did know it was set in Scotland) – I didn’t really know what the plot was or how it was going to play out. Like other Pixar movies, it’s an original story, so I was pleasantly surprised when I finally found out what the story was. I even feel like the big twist about halfway through was well-enough hidden from me (like, I haven’t even seen any spoilerish gifs on tumblr) that I shouldn’t reveal it now.

The main character in this is a sassy young princess called Merida. Her father, the boisterous king of a small clan in the highlands, is played by Billy Connolly. Her mother is the uptight queen, apparently played by Emma Thompson, concerned at all times with enforcing gender roles and bringing up Merida to be ladylike – she makes her daughter do humiliating things and there is a competition between the firstborns of all the neighbouring clans with Merida’s hand in marriage as the unwilling prize. Merida won’t go along with it, and runs off. She then finds a witch, and, um, antics ensue.

The story is simple and easy to follow, which has always been one of Pixar’s strengths, and there are plenty of comedic sections and serious sections mixed around. A major theme of the movie is gender equality, and the relationship between Merida and her mother is by far the most important (her father is a warrior type with a lot of physicality and an obsession with hunting a bear that attacked him during Merida’s childhood, and mostly lets her be, whereas her mother wants her to do ladylike things and is always meddling in her life). This is refreshing when you compare it to most Hollywood movies, overwhelmingly about father-son relationships, to the point where I’ve seen so many movies where the mother is completely absent. Perhaps a criticism could be that the focus on a princess fits the mold for straight-up Disney movies much better than Pixar movies (leading some to speculate that Disney and Pixar swapped scripts for Brave and Wreck-It Ralph in 2012), but if I remember correctly, there was an unaddressed gender imbalance in other Pixar movies, so it’s nice to see steps made in that area.

In terms of historical accuracy, Brave is not much better than something like Braveheart (in fact, the titles are even similar!), although to compare it to that would be heartless, as it’s a funny and well-made film. This is mainly because it mixes stone castles with warring dark age kingdoms and tartan… other than that it’s not too bad really. The accents are all mostly genuine, Emma Thompson being the main exception, and as a joke, one of the characters uses a strong Doric accent which no-one else can understand. Perhaps one of Brave’s strengths is that it makes me a little homesick and brings out the latent patriotism inside me, although a lot of that is because the arguments between Merida and her mother remind me of my childhood (either having those arguments or listening to them from my siblings), so not necessarily a good thing.

It would be imprudent of me to write this review and not mention Merida’s hair. I get the strong impression that this film was made in order to showcase the animators’ skill at showing such complex hair, just as Finding Nemo was presumably made to showcase water and Sully in Monsters, Inc. was made to showcase fur. This kind of sudden advance in animation technology happens with astonishing regularity with Pixar, so if anything I just wonder what the next advance will be. It happens so frequently that it literally makes other animation studios look terrible and out-of-date by comparison. Here’s to the next movie.

Updated review: Weekend (2011)

Weekend_Film_Current_originalOriginal post here.
Watched again on: 11 December 2013

Halfway through watching this movie again, I realized that I was watching it two years to the day after the first time, completely by chance. I’d been meaning to rewatch this film for a while, because I think I felt like watching something gay, and this was the best such movie I remember from the past few years.

I guess with this post I want to update my opinion of the movie. There were a few things I noticed this time which I may have done the first time around, but perhaps had forgotten by the time I wrote the review (in late February 2012). And this time, I noticed some things I hadn’t the first time.

Last time when I watched it, I felt very young compared to those characters, and I was in the midst of a long dry spell, meaning that it became difficult for me to imagine having sex with someone I met in a club or indeed, at all. Now, to be fair, that’s not something I do now either, but having had a few relationships and flings, especially in the first half of 2012, it’s become more easily relatable. The intervening two years have taught me a lot about myself, and to some extent have caused me to revise my self-image and what I find attractive in others. I assumed that the two main characters are in their early 30s, mainly based on their appearance, but perhaps they’re in their late 20s. In fact, considering that Glen, the shorter of the two characters, is an art student leaving to study in America, perhaps he’s even in his early 20s but just rocking a beard. Perhaps because my appearance is now more similar to theirs (in particular, short hair and unshaven), I don’t feel so far apart from them anymore.

That said, the thing that struck me the most this time around was the gratuitous drug use. Now, marijuana I can tolerate watching, although I find it a little weird, but I don’t have much respect for cocaine users at all, and one major scene of the movie involves the two characters taking coke and getting into a heated argument about various things including gay rights and their individual attitudes to relationships. I can’t relate to that experience. I don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like and I only have a vague idea of what it does to people. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve been in Japan, where such things are outlawed much more strictly than the UK, so seeing them so frankly depicted throws me a little.

From a filmic perspective, there were certain other things I noticed. For instance, Russell, the taller character, looks out of his window wistfully a lot, and I noticed that he’s always looking over at a more affluent neighbourhood, presumably longing to be an accepted part of that world.

I also noticed how the film explores the characters’ insecurities – we see from the start that Glen likes to interview his sexual encounters, and later on, it turns out Russell has a diary that he writes about his own sexual encounters. As an orphan, he tends to focus on others’ coming out stories, as he never had one of his own. This leads to a sweet scene in which he “comes out” to Glen, playing the role of his father.

I still recommend it whole-heartedly, despite the drug use. I have about ten more reviews to do to catch up, though: I watched quite a lot of movies over the holidays!

Happy new year everyone!