Film #286: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

creator: Walt Disney
language: English
length: 83 minutes
watched on: 28 April 2017

I think I watched this as a child, but it was so long ago I can’t remember it at all. Anyway, recently some of the less reputable shops in Japan have been selling old Disney movies for ¥80 a pop – it says on the sleeve that they’re now in the public domain. I suspect that this isn’t the case in America or the UK, but I don’t know. The knock-off DVDs are pretty low quality, though, of course. You can see the interlacing and it skipped a couple of times during the movie.

I kind of assume you all know what happens in this movie. I knew the basic story already, it’s just the details that have escaped me. I don’t really know what I expected from this period (compare with His Wedding Night (1917), for example), but the gender roles are ridiculously strong in this movie. Snow White controls everything around her with her beauty (the animals do her bidding when she sings), and her role in the dwarfs’ lives is to be a positive feminine force – she basically makes a deal to stay with them if she can do all their housework for them, and before she arrives, they’re slovenly, like college students. As for Prince Charming, I think he has a total of about two minutes’ screen time. Not quite enough to establish a romance, I’d have thought.

Things I liked included Dopey, basically a silent film character whose role is to provide slapstick humour, and the few sequences in the movie that were actually kind of scary, like when the dwarfs chase the witch away up a cliff during a thunderstorm. The dwarf characters are all established well and have distinctive characters, even when they have very little screentime – this is in direct contrast to movies (and indeed books) like The Hobbit. Over the course of that trilogy, I could only reliably distinguish about three of the dwarves by character, and I couldn’t remember any of their names.

It was also nice to hear the songs, although “Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, it’s off to work we go” is still the only one I actually know in any capacity. And I found the film funny, mostly. It’s nice to revisit things like this. I got two more ¥80 DVDs at the same time, so I will eventually watch and review those too. Watch this space, I guess.

How about you? What’s your favourite Disney movie?


Film #278: Sing (2016)

directors: Christophe Lourdelet & Garth Jennings
language: English and a bit of Japanese
length: 108 minutes
watched on: 26 March 2017

I caught this movie after work, because I’d heard it was alright and I didn’t want to go to the gym that day.

But I was a bit disappointed by the movie. It’s like a crap version of Zootopia with an unlikable protagonist, predictable plot arc, and singing animals having a go at the latest pop hits.

In terms of setting, it is reminiscent of Zootopia, but is clearly set in a version of San Francisco. I have so many questions about how all the species coexist like they do – we barely see two of the same species in the same shot at any one time – and yet seem to only pair off in heterosexual same-species couples. And for some reason the pig couple has twenty children or something. And they’re clearly trying to fit into a human sized world, viz. the tiny mouse in a regular sized car. It just ends up with a lot of weird side-effects.

The other thing is that all the main characters are anthropomorphic mammals – in fact there are very few non-mammals in the movie, a few establishing shots of fish in water and so on, a lizard supporting character, and little else. I’m so confused – do insects exist in their world? Are they sentient?

The film is also trying to bring together a lot of disparate stories and ideas – the London-accented gangster gorillas on their hijinks bare little resemblance to the rest of the movie, for example – and it doesn’t quite manage to tie it all up. I also got very annoyed at the main protagonist, played by Matthew McConaughey – so much that he did was annoying for me, especially the lying and stealing.

But it was funny enough to amuse me for a couple of hours, and despite all the above I enjoyed watching it… but it was definitely inferior to Zootopia, and the pop music in it will date it badly in a few years. It’s also telling that the only joke that the Japanese cinema audience laughed at was the one directed at them, when the main character tries to speak Japanese and says something offensive. I could put this down to bad subtitling (it’s a perennial problem), but I shouldn’t be so generous. Its comedy is lukewarm and childish.

Film #276: April and the Extraordinary World (2015)

aka: Avril et le monde truqué
directors: Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci
language: French
length: 101 minutes
watched on: 23 March 2017

I picked this up randomly when I was back in the UK at new year. In fact, I think I bought it mainly because if I bought two DVDs with a particular deal, they’d be £20 for two (it was this and Departure, if anyone’s wondering, and I also bought a bunch of other movies too). DVDs are expensive, yo!

Anyway, my last foray into French animation was a complete dud, so I was slightly worried that I’d have the same problem again, but this is not computer-animated. Phew! It’s gone down the Japanese route of adapting a comic book (manga, bande-déssinée, whatever you want to call them) to the big screen, and it looks the part. A lot of the character styles, and the sensibility of the animation, remind me strongly of Tintin, and likewise a lot of the humour seems to be drawn from a similar source.

The movie is an alternate history story where the age of steam didn’t die out, electricity was either never discovered or never harnessed properly, and things stayed roughly as they were in the 19th century. The film is set around the 1930s or so, but the history is completely different: needing coal and wood to power everything, Europe faces an energy crisis and starts fighting over who gets to strip-mine Canada. It’s “steampunk”, in a word. Things that would be controlled by electricity in the real world are clunking great steam machines. It’s very much in the vein of Howl’s Moving Castle, or the Japanese anime Steamboy, which I watched a few years ago. In fact, the plot of Steamboy, just reading back on Wikipedia, seems suspiciously similar to this one. There’s a MacGuffin (the elixir of life, or something), and people have to fly around on clunking machines to get at it.

Anyway, the characters are funny – I like the fact that the main character is female, for one thing. She has a talking cat pet, which also tangentially reminds me of Tintin. I think the world is well-developed and looks nice, if very brown. From the exquisite descriptions on the DVD case of the visual style of the film, I was expecting something less beige. But it does make the colourful parts come alive a bit more.

Say no more for now, but the film just goes bonkers in the third act when the identities of the secret captors are revealed. I think by this point I’d decided just to enjoy the film, and even though it’s stupid, it ties together somehow. So I can let it off.

The level of technology in steampunk stuff always amuses me. It’s always way above and beyond what we in the real world can produce, despite being set a hundred years ago. This is guilty of that – the “bad guys” have some kind of super space age ‘copter that can control the weather and go invisible, but the rest of the world are stuck with heavy pollution and mechanical parts that break a lot. It reminds me of the bonkers last act of Wild Wild West, when Kevin Kline has a giant mechanical spider. Like, there’s steampunk, and there’s pushing the boundary of what can be considered physically possible, and that danced right over the line.

It’s enjoyable, anyway, one of those gems I was lucky to find by browsing (this is why physical stores are important). And if anyone wants to borrow this or any of the other DVDs I have, you’d be welcome. Has anyone else seen this? What do you think?

Film #264: The Secret Life of Pets (2016)

secretlifedirector: Chris Renaud
language: English
length: 87 minutes
watched on: 2 Feb 2017

After Sing Street, this was the second of three DVDs I borrowed from Tsutaya. (The third was another Xavier Dolan film, but it turned out to be in a very thick Quebec dialect and had no English subtitles, so I gave up on it … for now anyway.)

I wasn’t so hotly anticipating this film, but it was out last year too, and I hadn’t seen it in the cinema. It’s a kids’ film, or something that’s marketed as “family”. It’s by the same people as Despicable Me and the Minions films, which I’ve tried to avoid. Despicable Me was intelligent and funny, but the minions have blown up to something much larger than they have the right to be… and I’m tired of seeing them. I was a little worried when I saw a minion on screen in the first few seconds of the movie, but it was just the company’s logo.

The story of the movie is the same as Toy Story, but with animals instead of toys – the idea being that animals have their own conversations and go on adventures when their humans are out at work or whatever. Louis C.K. plays the main character Max, who loves his owner – but one day she comes home with a new, much bigger dog, who tries to impose himself. But through a series of unlikely events they get separated from their dogwalker in the park, and get lost. They’re found by a group of homeless pets that hate humans. Shenanigans ensue.

To sum up the movie, unlike Pixar, it doesn’t have as much aimed at adults. It has a definite kiddy atmosphere about it. I’m certainly not the target audience. But it has enough for adults to laugh at if they take their kids to it – there’s a joke from Some Like It Hot, for example, that had me in stitches. There is enough physical and slapstick humour in it that I found funny, but there’s also a definite divide between the kids’ jokes and the adults’ jokes, and I think the best of this kind of movie just has one kind of joke that everyone can laugh at.

The animal characters are really well-observed, too – except for parts where they’re talking and so on, they generally act like real animals. The way of moving and reacting is spot-on. I noticed when watching a couple of the DVD extras that many of the actors and producers said their main motivation for wanting to make the movie was because they were pet owners themselves, which I can’t quite relate to, but I have interacted with enough animals in my life to know it’s accurate. But if I compare this to something like Finding Nemo or its sequel, the latter is much more effortlessly comedic. Just to spoil something a bit, though – Finding Dory and this movie both have scenes where animals drive trucks, and I kind of want to know where that trope came from. That’s a part where I generally stop suspending my disbelief.

I must admit, too, that I didn’t feel much emotion from the movie. It’s a shame, but again I think that Pixar can do that better. And there’s one other thing that bothered me – of the two “villain” characters I can think of, one had a British accent, and the other was an African-American actor (the bunny in the picture above). Seems fishy to me…

Given all the above, though, I was suitably impressed by the movie. I wasn’t expecting much, I must admit, and I don’t think it’s going to be known as a classic, but the movie managed to deliver on my expectations and much more. It’s pretty funny in spite of its flaws.

Anyone else seen it?

Film #259: Your Name (2016)

kiminonawaaka: 君の名は。(Kimi no na wa)
director: Makoto Shinkai
language: Japanese
length: 106 minutes
watched on: 6 Jan 2017 (plane 2/3)

This movie has now become the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time, I heard. I actually missed it last year when it came out because it was still sold out when we tried to go. It’s still on in cinemas now, even. I heard the English-subtitled version is now on in Shinjuku (finally). I finally watched it on the plane, after Jason Bourne, and while I’d been looking forward to that film too, this was the one I really wanted to watch.

I’m kind of glad I managed to watch it with subtitles. I watched When Marnie Was There without them a couple of years back, and while I was able to understand most of the story, there were a few important details I missed out on. So this time I could understand everything.

The basic story is an unexplained body-swap that happens between two teenagers on opposite sides of the country – one boy in Tokyo (Taki) and a girl in the countryside somewhere (Mitsuha). The beginning of the film shows the two of them working out what’s happening and then rolling with it as if it’s normal. Body-swapping is nothing new, of course. This movie plays it for comedy a bit – initially Taki as a girl grabs her breasts and then acts very aggressively at school, while Mitsuha as a boy can’t work out which pronoun to use (a joke that is very hard to translate).

What people have been quite good at hiding is that there’s a twist about halfway through when we suddenly realize that (spoilers!) there’s also a time-travel element to the story, and the second act is very different from the first as a result. The plot takes on a much more layered and nuanced element from that point. I think to truly appreciate the many strands I’d have to rewatch it.

Recently when I watch movies, I’ve been scribbling notes about them (on a pad or on the notes app on my phone) as they go, kind of like liveblogging. For the last two movies it was mainly because I like to categorize the location, and Snowden and Bourne loved to travel constantly, and for a lot of the others, it’s to make the transition to this review smoother. But when I watched this film, I was so entranced I forgot to do it entirely, and as an afterthought, just wrote “wow” as my single note for the film. I think that fairly sums up my thoughts about the film.

Just to flesh out that opinion, though, I think the main thing I loved was the animation, especially the art design. It’s a lush film, to put it bluntly. The backgrounds are so detailed and colourful, and they’re incredibly realistic, too. The scenes in Tokyo are mostly set around Shinanomachi and Yotsuya, and I kept having that eery familiar feeling when I recognized the locations. I think the only other animation I know that’s been able to do that is Ghibli – I think it’s Only Yesterday (Edit: it’s actually Ocean Waves) that opens on the platform in Kichijoji station, where I lived for three years, which gave me a similar shock.

I’m quite glad I went with the crowd on this one. I was half-expecting some kind of hokey romance, especially when I first heard about it. So often the crowd in Japan just does what it’s told, and so much of the movies produced for the local market here are terrible, so to see something genuinely great is annoyingly rare. I’m trying to think of things I didn’t like about this film, actually, and coming up short. I guess the soundtrack is fairly uninspiring J-Rock… but I still liked the songs and want to try them at karaoke.

But anyway, this film is good and those who haven’t seen it yet should go out and see it. And if you have seen it… what did you think? Anything you’d like to add?

Film #250: Finding Dory (2016)

findingdorydirector: Andrew Stanton
language: English
length: 97 minutes
watched on: 26 Dec 2016 (plane 1/6)

I put off going to see this movie in the cinema last year when it came out, and I regretted that immediately, because after a week or two, only the Japanese dub was on wide release, and I no longer had the chance to see it. So it was actually one of my eagerly anticipated releases of last year, and I finally had the chance to see it on the plane on the way back to the UK in December.

The movie starts off strongly – it jumps in with wry observations on character archetypes with a married couple of fish, and I started laughing from the beginning. So the movie is at least in safe hands, and it was enjoyable to watch, but it had a much less universal appeal than Finding Nemo – a true modern classic. I found this one was much more aimed at children, and the inclusion of some characters, such as the turtles near the beginning of the film, seemed tokenistic, as if to please younger audiences.

Back when I wrote that last review of Finding Nemo, Finding Dory had been announced, and I wasn’t so excited about it. I still don’t really see why Dory has to have an origin story (although this movie explains why she can speak Whale, and read). I’m overall pleased with this result, actually, but the other main problem I had with it was it was trying to recreate the success of the earlier movie by doing the same thing again. Marlon, Nemo’s dad, has a particularly annoying lack of character development – he’s exactly the same ball of anxiety he had been at the beginning of the last movie, not seeming to have learned any lessons. In this movie, Nemo has to condescendingly talk down to him to get him to do anything.

The new characters are great. My favourite was the octopus, who’s actually a septapus (although I heard later that octopuses can regrow limbs), and the sarcastic British sea lions are great. A lot of the fish that Dory meets in the movie have some kind of disability or weirdness about them like that – there’s the dolphin who thinks he can’t echolocate (although he can, actually), and the blind whale shark who keeps bumping into things. I think the message behind this – that one can thrive despite such ailments – is a laudable one, definitely.

I also liked seeing the fish characters interact with the aquarium environment, there were a lot of jokes to be had there.

And despite what I said in my review of Finding Nemo about Ellen Degeneres playing Dory whinily, I’ve always somewhat looked up to Dory as a character. I saw her central happy-go-lucky message from that movie as the little song she sings, “Just keep swimming swimming swimming”, inspiring in a literal and metaphorical sense. My mother still reminds me sometimes that I used it as a mantra when my anxiety was really bad a few years ago. Thanks, Mum, I guess… In this movie, we find out the origin of the song, as well as the other points about Dory that I mentioned above – but again, I think I was happier not knowing for certain where it’s supposed to come from, and just accepting it as it is.

I’m very glad I could finally see this movie, and I’m glad it wasn’t a bad movie, but it definitely doesn’t live up to the absurdly high standards of its predecessor. That’d be very difficult. Rehashing similar plots rarely works, though.

Film #189: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

kaguyahimeaka: かぐや姫の物語 (Kaguya-hime no monogatari)
director: Isao Takahata
language: Japanese
length: 137 minutes
watched on: 7 June 2016

This actually came out quite a while ago, and I realized only recently that I’d missed it. My standard thing to do with Ghibli movies is to wait until they come out on DVD anyway, and I watched the previous movie, The Wind Rises in a more timely fashion back in 2014, after it was released on DVD – actually only a few months before this one. Oops – this movie is actually better than that one.

The animation style isn’t what I usually associate with Ghibli, in that it’s not Miyazaki’s style, and uses paint and broad brush strokes to create a very different kind of scene. It’s most similar to My Neighbours the Yamadas, which I only now realize was Takahata’s last movie before this one. A fourteen year hiatus is pretty long, but it’s good to see Takahata back on the Ghibli scene (even if the two directors have now called an indefinite hiatus on Ghibli productions…).

The style is at times basic, and at times allows the director to create really lush landscapes, such as the one pictured above, but it always feels like a bit of a dream, especially as the background often wasn’t filled in fully. Another scene in the middle of the movie in which the main character gets angry was more obviously different from the ones around it – the colours were much more vivid, and the animation filled the whole screen. It was around that point that the animation style really came into its own.

The story is based on a Japanese fairy tale, and involves a magical girl discovered in the forest by an old woodcutter, who takes her into his home, instead of running away in fear and panic as I think I would. They’re also showered with gold and riches, and the woodcutter and his wife, who simply call her “Princess”, decide to make good on the name and take her to live in the capital to become a literal princess – she is initially a fish out of water and desperate to head back to her idyllic life in the countryside. The main part of the story is the princess having to take suitors, but setting them some impossible tasks as a prerequisite – they all pretend to succeed but actually fail. The ending is a bit strange and kind of unexpected.

One thing I was confused about in the story was the passage of time – the princess grows up very fast in the first act, literally getting bigger hour by hour and day by day. Later she shows a propensity to learn very fast and without effort. There are four seasons depicted over the course of the movie, strongly implying that the total time span of the movie was barely a year – but the other characters all grow beyond that, implying it’s longer than that and the seasons were merely symbolic.

But aside from that, the animation was beautiful, the story simple and at times heart-wrenching, and the characters were as realistic as they could be in a fantasy tale. It’s way better than The Wind Rises, and there’s basically nothing in here that could possibly offend. I wholeheartedly recommend it – whoever you are!

Film #185: Zootopia (2016)

zootopiaaka Zootropolis, apparently
directors: Byron Howard & Rich Moore
language: English
length: 108 minutes
watched on: 25 April 2016

This was the first movie I saw at the cinema since Star Wars last year, and there’s a pretty simple reason for that: there’s been nothing good on. As usual, Japan was behind with this movie, but only one month instead of the usual four (and for once, not the latest in the entire world). It was also behind with all the Oscar movies, which hadn’t even been released here when the awards ceremony happened, which was just stupid. I think The Revenant was out the same weekend as this, but I still haven’t seen that because I didn’t want to take a full three hours off work.

Anyway, Zootopia, uncharitably called the Furry movie on certain segments of the internet, is a story about sentient animals living in harmony in one city, which has to have different climate sections and architecture designed for all different shapes and sizes. The main character is a rabbit who comes there, wanting to become a police officer, but quickly finding out about discrimination inherent in the system, against small docile animals like herself. The other main character is the fox guy, who, true to his species’ stereotype, is a con-man. They like, fall in love or something, and he helps her with an investigation.

The film has a pretty simple message about discrimination and prejudice, and at its heart promotes diversity. The rabbit character is constantly batting off microaggressions from her massive predator colleagues, for instance. About halfway through there is an event that leads to widespread discrimination against the predators, saying that they’re likely to revert to their primitive ways.

The plot does get a little convoluted on the way, and had an unexpected twist near the end when the villain is revealed. There are more than a couple of unlikely coincidences that save the main characters’ skin, which annoyed me a little – but it’s a movie, and too much extra plot for the sake of avoiding this would have been more annoying in the end.

The main attraction to the film is the attention to detail – especially just seeing how a world with such a diverse array of residents would work and what would be different. A simple example would be the train doors (small ones for the mice and big ones for the elephants) or the different sizes of everyone’s smartphones. Or the tiny town for mice, where the rabbit is huge.

Similarly, it’s visually lush and grand. I really enjoyed watching it for these reasons alone – and if that’s not enough, there’s some light comedy too, like the scenes where they go to the nudist colony (naked animals?? oh no!!), and to the DMV office staffed with sloths, which was pretty relatable for any adults in the audience. So while I’d add the caveat that I don’t think it’s an instant classic of Disney, especially as the plot was pretty forgettable, I do highly recommend it for the reasons listed above. I think it will be remembered for the aesthetic instead of the plot or characters, ultimately.

Film #183: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

fmfDirector: Wes Anderson
Language: English with a bit of French
Length: 84 minutes
Watched on: 26 February 2016

I mentioned in the previous video that I was sick in February with flu-like symptoms, but I didn’t bother going to a doctor because I thought it would get better by itself (spoiler alert: it didn’t, and I got an ear infection), but I decided to watch this movie so that I can at least say I watched something in February (I hate missing a month like that). I was a little delirious when watching it, I think.

I can’t remember any details the Roald Dahl book this was based off of, but I remember it fondly, as a short story that was pithy and funny. Some details came back to me when I watched the movie, but not a lot. It’s the story of Mr Fox, who tries to break into three nearby farms to steal meat and drink from the old men. A lot of details have been added, as it’s one of those movies that was liberally based on a short story, so I’m pretty sure Mr Fox’s family is completely new, as are most of the settings and a lot of other animal characters.

This movie is peak Wes Anderson – in fact, I’ve seen it argued, and I’d agree, that it’s even more archetypical of his movies than his non-animated stuff, as he doesn’t need to bother with real movie sets and people. OK, I guess that’s not to say it’s not funny. But the way of dressing sets to look like postcards wore thin on me during The Grand Budapest Hotel and it wore on me here too – plus here, the characters all stand up dead straight and don’t look real as a result. It’s probably deliberate.

The style of animation was one of those where the characters are constantly vibrating a bit – I think this is excusable since it’s actually made with stop motion instead of CGI, if I remember correctly, but the effect can be annoying at best. I think it was also filmed at a lower-than-usual frame rate, to amplify that effect, however, so that I’m not so keen on.

As for all the extra characters and details, it shifts the focus onto an American family unit drama, with one of the conflicts being between the overachieving cousin and the underachieving son. I wasn’t very interested in that, I was more up for seeing Mr Fox one-up the evil farmers.

But basically the movie works, and delivers its purpose. I also like the idea of Roald Dahl turning in his grave over it, since the more I know about him, the less I like him, even though I still like his books a lot. I just think I’d be better off reading the book of this than watching the movie.

Film #165: Inside Out (2015)

p1307955201-3Director: Peter Docter & Ronnie del Carmen
Language: English
Length: 94 minutes
Watched: 23 Oct 2015

I watched this movie after hearing about it a lot in reviews and other places, and seeing a lot of gifs and other screencaps from it on the internet. A lot of people had been saying that it’s a return to form for Pixar, and it definitely seems to be the frontrunner in the race for the Oscars next month.

It’s an inventive idea, that each person’s head has in it a cast of emotions running the day-to-day happenings inside their brain. Without the stuff going on inside the head throughout the movie, the rest of the story isn’t particularly complicated: a girl called Riley and her family move across America from Wisconsin to San Francisco, and shortly thereafter, she reacts badly and gets very homesick.

Inside her head, the character of Joy (excellently performed by Amy Poehler) is trying desperately to keep control, and to keep Sadness locked away, but a spat between them leads to them getting thrown out of the control room – reflected in real life by Riley becoming numb with a kind of depression, and having her other emotions – Anger, Fear and Disgust – take over. Joy and Sadness then go through a series of antics to try and get back to the control room.

I think the movie was very well-balanced, and the comedic moments contrasted well with the relatability of the emotions that Riley goes through upon moving so far from her home. As such, I was affected quite strongly, as I can see some of the way she acts in my own life too.

It also has a simple message that to me, seems obvious, but has to be recognized, as it’s easy to forget: having a balance between joy and sadness in one’s life is necessary, and one shouldn’t try to repress sadness too much, as it’s an important part of the human experience.

I also loved looking into the other characters’ heads – we only get brief glimpses, mostly in the closing moments of the film during the credits, or during one particular scene with the parents, so ideally I’d like to see more!