Film #157: Paddington (2014)

PaddingtonDirector: Paul King
Language: English plus some Chinese
Length: 95 minutes
Watched on: 14 July 2015 (4 of 4 on my flight back to Japan)

This was the final film that I watched on the way back to Japan, at which point I hadn’t slept much and we were on the final leg of our trip over here. I picked it as it had been well-acclaimed on its release, and because I used to be a fan of Paddington as a toddler – that said, I can’t recall any details about it from my childhood except that he’s a bear, and various phrases like “from deepest darkest Peru” come floating out of the ether on cue if I hear them again.

The movie starts with Paddington leaving Peru for London in search of the bright lights and big city. He’s instantly disappointed because nobody has time for him, but is taken in by a kindly mother, played by Sally Hawkins, and named Paddington after the station. Her husband doesn’t like this, but the two children welcome him in with wide arms. Antics ensue throughout.

As an adaptation of a cartoon, the film has a cartoonish sensibility about it: colours are bold, character motivations are simple, and the performances are very physical and slapstick. At the same time, it manages to narrowly avoid being pigeonholed as a children’s film, as it’s often laugh-out-loud funny, and was by far the most enjoyable of the four films I watched on that flight. For that I commend it highly. And while the characters generally fit into a small number of archetypes, they weren’t boring, and there was ample room for development.

The animation of Paddington and other bear characters was also realistic – or as realistic as you can be for a talking bear – which also helps a lot. I’m happy to say the movie lived up to expectations, and I feel like I’ve discovered a lost part of my childhood with it.

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Film #156: A Stitch of Life (2015)

stitchaka: 繕い裁つ人 (Tsukuroi tatsu hito)
Director: Yukiko Mishima
Language: Japanese
Length: 104 minutes
Watched on: 14 July 2015 (3 of 4 on my flight back to Japan)

My flight dragged on, and I sat back down to doggedly watch the third movie in my selection. Having loyally consumed some French cinema and having had mixed results, I thought a Japanese movie for balance might be a good idea. I’d never heard of this movie, but it was the only Japanese movie on offer, and it’s a good opportunity for me to watch movies with subtitles (I have been to the cinema without them before, but I have to psych myself up for it a lot and usually don’t bother).

Probably the reason that I hadn’t heard of it was the boring subject matter: it’s about a dressmaker and the importance of perfect dressmaking… or something. It’s kind of told from the eyes of an awkward mid-20s reporter, whose acting is so wooden I forgot that I wasn’t watching a tree. For some reason he’s obsessed with finding out the secret to the perefct dressmaking technique, that the woman swore on her mother’s deathbed never to reveal – or something. The details escape me, frankly, as the movie only just managed to hold my attention.

What I remember of the movie is a strong adherence to protocol – bowing and greeting guests with the correct keigo at all times. It’s not really true to life here in my experience, although I know that’s not the point. Seeing that stuff committed to film bores me.

It’s sad that I come away from this movie and am tempted to tar all Japanese movies with the same brush – the movie just reminds me of the scant snippets of bad drama that I’ve occasionally accidentally caught on TV here. I was surprised to read later that it’s based on a manga (although I don’t know why, given the breadth of that genre here), presumably meaning that the unnatural stiltedness of all the characters is in-built from the beginning.

Basically, if you do happen to come across it, I don’t think it’s worth it. By the way, that director has a bit of an unfortunate name!

Film #155: Breathe (2014)

respireaka: Respire
Director: Mélanie Laurent
Language: French plus some English, Spanish, Italian
Length: 91 minutes
Watched on: 14 July 2015 (2 of 4 on my flight back to Japan)

Having just had my fill of classic French cinema with The 400 Blows, I turned next to something a bit more modern. I picked Respire, or “Breathe”, based on the description that screamed “lesbian” to me – it’s been an unfortunately long time since I’ve delved into the world of Sapphic love onscreen.

The film’s synopsis is that a girl meets a new girl at school – she’s obviously instantly enraptured by her, and the two spend all their time together. The film takes a bit of a turn for the worse when the new girl bores of her.

Unfortunately, the film didn’t capture my attention for much of it. A few months later (I really need to start setting myself deadlines for these reviews!), and most of the finer details escape me. I’m pretty sure the lesbian aspects of it were relegated to heavily implied subtext, or were completely one-sided infatuation on the main character’s part. I liked the acting, though. I reckon there’s something worthwhile in this film, but perhaps if it could have a faster pace that would be better for me.

It also reminded me of another lesbian movie with a disturbing or fucked-up ending that I saw a few years ago – that one’s title escapes me, but the ending of this one was certainly much more disturbing or shocking. It doesn’t bode well for lesbian cinema when two of the examples I can come up with having seen are those two, basically. Does anyone have any better suggestions?

Film #154: The 400 Blows (1959)

400aka: Les quatres cents coups
Director: François Truffaut
Language: French and a little English
Length: 99 minutes
Watched on: 14 July 2015 (1 of 4 on my flight back to Japan)

After my trip to the UK, I actually went to Amsterdam for a couple of days before heading back to Japan. Convolutedly, this ended up with me getting a flight back via Paris on Air France. This in turn meant that I had the rare opportunity to watch some classic French cinema on the entertainment system (actually, on the KLM flight I’d had the opportunity to watch some Dutch cinema, but it turns out that this is mostly unappealing, so I’d given up). The 400 Blows is one of those few movies that often comes up on recommended lists that I haven’t yet seen, so I picked this one to start off with.

The film is about a boy, I think probably an author insert by director Truffaut, who is essentially very naughty, and his antics as he skips school and turns to petty crime of one kind or another.

It’s easy to see why it appeals to anyone with a rebellious streak, and there are plenty of comedic moments throughout the movie, but perhaps the subject matter is quite dark, as the boy spirals out of control and the poverty of his parents becomes more obvious – eventually he ends up in a juvenile correction facility.

It’s more accurate to say that it’s fondly remembered for its cinematography and other filmmaking techniques and themes than its outstanding subject matter, though. I thought the way the film was shot was often very unique, personally. It’s very much in the French New Wave, even a defining member of that movement, and this definitely shows.

One of the movie’s strengths, I believe, is that viewers are always invited to sympathize with the kid, and he’s played well despite being universally despised by all the adults in the story. I didn’t feel like my emotions were being manipulated at this point, too. I guess I’d recommend it, but only if you already have an interest in older French cinema or New Wave in particular. It’s a completely different kind of movie than those that are usually shown these days!

Book #88: Who We Are (2012)

WhoWeAreAUD-MEDAuthor: T.J. Klune
Language: English
Length: 762 minutes (12 hours 42 minutes)
Finished listening on: 8 July 2015

This book is the second in the series that began with “Bear, Otter and the Kid” – a book that I really liked despite its obvious flaws. So I was keen to keep the series going and try the next one too.

This book picks up pretty soon after the end of the last book. The three main characters that make up their unconventional family have just moved into a house together that they call the “green monstrosity” after the gaudy colour of the outside, as depicted on the cover illustration. After the closeted happenings of the main character Bear at the of the last book, this book feels more free to explore the dynamic of the two characters in a more open situation. To that end, it features some other sources of conflict than the internalized homophobia that dominated the first book – such as a hot young student hitting on the main character, and a trip to a gay bar.

In many ways, this book was much of the same that the first one had been. It doesn’t feature a whole lot of character development: on the contrary, they frequently risk becoming caricatures of themselves. Bear gets angry a lot and the Kid is a know-it-all, for example. But it was nice to see the Kid’s character coming out of his “shell” a bit more in this book, and he manages to make a friend.

Among its many flaws is the ending – it’s hasty and the (spoiler!) hospital visit that happens in the final act feels tacked on. It features an effective sequel hook in the form of a jump to the future, when the Kid is now a teenager. It convinced me enough to want to hear the next book too!

Oh – and before I forget, I should mention that I was very confused when listening to this audiobook, because the person reading it changed, and the second guy read Bear in a deeper voice than his partner Otter, the opposite to the way that the other guy had read it. I actually did a double take a few times when I realised which character was speaking! They should have coordinated it a bit better!

I liked the book. I think the author has a certain amount of skill to make me care and worry about the characters, even though the stream-of-consciousness style is still a bit grating, and the plot left something to be desired, and a lot of the problems of the first book have not been corrected. He’s very much a character author. I’m aware that this perhaps is more indicative of the dearth of LGBT fiction out there, than it is that this book is legitimately good, but I would still recommend it. I found it a worthy emotional investment!

Film #153: The Hunger Games (2012)

hungergamesDirector: Gary Ross
Language: English
Length: 142 minutes
Watched on: June 30 2015 (3 of 3 on my flight to the UK)

This was the third movie I watched in quick succession on the flight back in July. Like Frozen, it was another movie that I’d missed when it first came out a few years ago, but had permeated the pop culture enough that I knew a few details of its plot already – namely, that it has a very similar plot to Battle Royale, a very violent movie starring Beat Takeshi (although as far as I know, this is a kind of coincidence).

It’s an important story because – as far as I know – it (or its novel predecessor) started the recent trend for Young Adult dystopian sci-fi, some of which I’ve covered before on this blog. The eponymous Hunger Games are a reality TV show in a future North America featuring teenagers bludgeoning each other to death and otherwise murdering and maiming one another, to see who emerges the last one standing. While in Battle Royale it was sadistic teachers conducting an experiment, this is the rich residents of a central city punishing the outlying districts of their continent for a past uprising.

The main character is Katniss, who volunteers herself instead of her sister to be the tribute of her district. As a character, she’s also important for starting a trend of more focus on female protagonists, and the story is to be commended for that. She’s played well by Jennifer Lawrence in the film. Over the course of the story – well, I don’t think it’ll be a spoiler that she emerges victorious, exactly; that’s more like narrative inevitability – she uses a combination of stealth and resourcefulness, and seems to be the only one not so keen on the whole concept of the Hunger Games, actively trying to help supposedly rival contestants.

There was a lot to like about this movie. I especially liked the attention to detail, such as in the imagination of the future world’s fashion. That reminded me a lot of The Fifth Element, particularly the depiction of the Capitol city – and here the contrast with Katniss’s hometown was stark and obvious.

As its major theme, the story is a strong indictment of reality TV culture and the obliviousness of the general population to poverty and other issues that happen outside their own culture. To a certain extent I agree with this, and I’m not the kind of person who watches a lot of reality TV or anything… but I remain unconvinced that reality TV is the downfall of civilization, and when I watch films or shows like this that suggest such, I get a bit frustrated. I think the comparison is as vapid as the TV that it is trying to criticize, frankly.

But that aside, I liked this, and one major advantage it has over similar movies like Battle Royale is that it’s not gory. Most of the violence is non-explicit, as I remember. It’s certainly aimed at a lower age of audience than, say, The Maze Runner, another young adult dystopia, which was quite scary in places with its big spiders. This by comparison has a low-level sense of dread running through it, but is easier to watch. I’d recommend it, with the caveat that it probably has an upper age cutoff in the early 30s, since its characters are all teenagers, with all that that entails. I think if I was a lot older than I am now, I’d just be finding them a lot more insufferable. As it was, I’m still young enough to forgive them.

Film #152: Frozen (2013)

frozenDirectors: Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee
Language: English
Length: 102 minutes
Watched on: 30 June 2015 (2 of 3 on my flight to the UK)

Ahh… Frozen. Frozen was everywhere, for a while, back in early 2014 or so. It appealed to the Japanese market so much that at one point the top three in the Japanese charts were Let It Go, the Japanese dubbed version of Let It Go, and a dance remix. It was a little crazy for a while as fever for the movie (here it’s titled Ana and the Snow Queen, confusingly) gripped Japan.

At that time, as I’m sure you’d perhaps expect, I was put off so much that I avoided it outright, mostly. So I finally decided to give it a try when I was on the long flight back to the UK in July, more than a year later.

I don’t think I’ll have to recap the story too much here, but for all the pictures, songs and character snippets I heard, I still didn’t have a very clear idea of the story before I sat down to watch it – in that case, I probably should recap it! The two main characters are Elsa and Ana. Elsa is the “Snow Queen” of the Japanese title. She has the magical gift to turn anything into ice, but she suppresses it after accidentally turning her sister into an icy statue. She also shuts herself off from the outside world and refuses to come into contact with her sister. Naturally, this all comes to a head at her coming-of-age ball, when she finally snaps at Ana. At that point, she runs off into the wilderness and constructs a castle for herself from ice – but this sends the entire kingdom into a deep winter. Ana then chances after her, to indicate the power of sisterly love, or something.

I found a lot of the themes of the movie a bit hokey, as demonstrated by that particular theme. Ana also falls in ill-advised love with an untrustworthy man, who she foolishly entrusts the kingdom to when she leaves to find her sister. Fortunately, it’s fully explored within the context of the movie that this is a stupid idea, especially as the guy turns into the movie’s big baddie. It’s suggested that the love between Ana and Elsa is a kind of feminist theme, as it shows women looking out for each other and not having to rely upon a man, although I remain unconvinced by this argument in itself – I could perhaps be convinced, if the movie didn’t also show Ana consistently relying on a man for the entire rest of the movie, or if the sisters hadn’t been locked away in a castle without significant human contact for most of her life.

Aside from the main story, there are the songs, as this is very much a typical Disney film. Let It Go is of course the most famous, but there are some more as well, and many that for me were new. Let It Go is so well-known that I could already sing it without having even seen the movie – although the only other one I knew about was the one about building a snowman from near the start.

There are also the side characters – I liked Olaf a lot, actually, and he acted as a kind of comic relief for much of the movie. The Norse-looking guy talking to his reindeer was also funny. They did serve to round out the movie, and I appreciated them for that.

Having seen the movie, I can’t say I quite understand why the movie has become so popular. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s a good movie, but it wasn’t worth the hype at the end of the day, and I do suspect that it’s mostly popular because anything by Disney would be popular anyway. In terms of recommendation, I’d say yeah, go for it. It’s worth watching.

Film #151: Gone Girl (2014)

gone-girl-movie-still-4Director: David Fincher
Language: English
Length: 149 minutes
Watched on: June 30 2015 (1 of 3 on my flight to the UK)

In July I went back to the UK for a few weeks, as it was my mum’s wedding. It was good fun, but as usually happens, I had to endure a long-haul flight on the way there. This was the first movie that I watched on the plane.

I’d been avoiding spoilers about this movie, but it was almost impossible to completely remove it from my sight in the end: I’d managed to be careful enough not to really know anything about the characters, but a mixture of narrative inevitability and the trickling of a few assorted spoilers meant that the main storyline was reasonably predictable.

In the story, Ben Affleck’s character and Rosamund Pike’s Amy are the two main characters. One day he comes home to find that she’s not there, and that there’s evidence of a struggle, or even that she might have been murdered, and then he launches a police investigation, in which he becomes the prime suspect. There’s also an ensuing media circus, as Pike’s character is famous. Of course, we soon find out that all is not as it seems, and that she’s not really dead at all (but you could see that coming, right? Nevertheless, I’m going to start discussing a few plot points, even if indirectly, so if you don’t want to read spoilers, you’d better look away now).

A lot of what I’d heard already about the movie was that it was a great divider of the genders: men would routinely side with Affleck, and women would side with Pike in the great battle of the sexes. I didn’t feel this when I watched it: I more felt that everyone was a wrongdoer in the great scheme of things. Clearly the two protagonists are trapped in a loveless marriage, and the actions that both take in the end are reprehensible.

There’s hints of Affleck’s character’s infidelity throughout, and plenty to suggest that the relationship with Pike’s character is strained at best, but more likely with a lowkey abusive element. It’s obvious that this is what drove Amy to do what she did in the movie, but the actions seem calculated and cold in such a way that they are undoubtedly disproportionate.

I also perhaps have a bit of trouble understanding or sympathizing with the idea that men and women are so different as to suggest that all heterosexual relationships are doomed in such a way, and I find the trope that marriage is such a cumbersome chore trite. Too often, irreconcilable differences such as are shown here are dismissed as the genders being incompatible. Perhaps it’s radical, but I think these characters could have worked out their differences if they’d just talked!

Aside from that, though, the movie was stylish and held my attention for most of it. It can be classed as a thriller, and it had enough shocking elements to be worth the watch. I definitely recommend it. Perhaps you’ll take away a different opinion about the gender divide. (I’d like to hear about it!)

TV: Orphan Black season 3 (2015)

orphan-black-season-3-premiereCreators: Graeme Manson & John Fawcett
Language: English
Length: 10 episodes of about 44 minutes
Finished watching on: 21 June 2015

It’s the third season of this show now. I feel like it’s losing the plot a little – that’s not to say that I wasn’t avidly viewing it week-by-week, though. I feel like every season Sarah and her clone buddies defeat the big baddie – in the first season, it was the weird cultists, and in the second, it was the pseudo-Amish – and at the beginning of the next season, there’s a few episodes’ lag while the new season finds its feet and we work out what the protagonists are supposed to be doing.

And this season took a little while longer to get going than its predecessors had. Helena is banished to the Mexican desert under the supervision of creepy “boy clones” (notwithstanding the one transgender male clone that we’ve already met in the previous season, making this moniker factually inaccurate), part of some army experiment. But it’s unclear who they’re working for, at this point. A large portion of the season concerns Sarah trying to work out how to bust her sister out of the prison.

Meanwhile, Alison’s antics – running for local school board elections and starting a drug racketeering business – feel even further removed from reality than they had in previous seasons, and I was getting whiplash whenever the story cut from a more relevant and poignant scene to Alison’s.

Most distressingly, the series has become more openly willing to shake things up from the status quo established in the previous season, and the most notable of those situations was the decimation of Cosima’s relationship with Delphine. Perhaps this is necessary to demonstrate character development of some kind, but it rings hollow in a world where lesbian relationships are regularly not allowed to survive on TV or in movies.

That said, I understand that TV can’t stay in a status quo, or it would stagnate. It’s also good that the season starts to pick up again towards the end, and the climax is satisfactory, if a little strange. Tension still ran high right at the end, even if the ending itself came out of left-field.

There are a few directions in which the show could go from here, next year, and I hope they choose the right one. I’d hate to end up with a show that I couldn’t suspend disbelief for anymore, which (let’s just say) is a distinct possibility. I hope they sort out the relationships of the characters and start answering more of the unanswered questions. I hope that they don’t send Alison careering away from the main arc just for comic relief, as that felt like lazy writing. I hope that there’s more focus on Tatiana Maslany’s clone characters, rather than the new “male clones”. But most of all I just hope to watch it soon! I hate having to wait almost a whole year between doses of shows!

If you got to the end of this review and are looking for a recommendation, you’re looking in the wrong place. It’s the third season, and this review already gave away loads of spoilers for the previous seasons. You’d better go back to those reviews, or just go find it online to watch it from the beginning. Mind you, that sounds like a good idea, to be honest. I don’t want it to sound like I’m completely trashing this season, but the first one was written much more tightly than this one, so rewatching it from the beginning sounds like a nice plan.