Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Boxtrolls (Graham Annable/Anthony Stacchi, 2014)

Despicable Me has a lot to answer for. Not only has it spawned a sequel, with a “”spin-off” later this year in Minions, but it has manufactured the specific creature that little kids will die imitating (perhaps loudly shouting “bottom”, as you walk through the supermarket). But The Boxtrolls, looking like an uglier, gothic cousin to the minions, is nothing to apologise for. Looking like Aardman animation meets Abe’s Odyssey, The Boxtrolls contains much more than empty crates and annoying little creatures. More creative and considerably more profound, The Boxtrolls is much more than a Despicable Me imitator.

Boxtrolls lurk underground. They mess up the streets at night and, with their muddy boxes and cluttered manner, are feared by the community they live beneath. Stories claim they are responsible for kidnapping children and carnival-performances are played out to ensure the public know how dangerous they are.  Of course, they are no threat. Introducing Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) as the villainous, desperate older gent who seeks a place at the table amongst the upper-class (termed as the “white hats”), the boxtrolls are his sworn enemy – despite their cheeky, playful manner. Indeed, the boxtrolls themselves are creatures with love to give and we see, akin to Monsters Inc, the raising of a child in their company. Named after the boxes they wear, “Fish” adopts human-in-a-box, “Eggs” (voiced by Isaac Hempstead-Wright, aka ‘Bran’ from Game of Thrones, and looking a little like one of The Riddlers). In an innovative twist, it is the daughter of the esteemed ‘white hat’ Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), Winnie (Elle Fanning), who clashes into Eggs one night. This forces the two to confront their differences while taking down the evil Mr Snatcher.

Of course, the synopsis could be as simple as “boxtrolls have to defeat snatcher”. But The Boxtrolls is more nuanced than that. Amongst the ramshackle underground home and steam-punk world they inhabit, there are revolutionary and bold statements made. Other than the greedy, cheese-obsessed Archibald Snatcher, very few others can be simply-defined baddies. The snooty white-hat wearers are arrogant, but considered misguided. Even the two henchmen (voiced expertly by Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost) are confused by Snatcher’s actions, as it slowly dawns on them that they are indeed “henchmen” (By the same token, the final gag during the credits goes even further as they muse on their existence, becoming one of the most intelligent and inspired jokes in animation.)

The winding tracks and creaky buildings that we walk down is a feast for the eyes. Tim Burton would surely get a kick out of the long-legged and bulging-bellies of the humans. The British tone of Aardman animation shines through, and the boxtrolls even seem to channel the trolls from Frozen a tad. But, unlike the cookie-cutter morals of most Disney and Dreamworks fare, the “makers of Paranorman and Coraline” tell a story that clearly draws parallels to our modern world. In a moment of frustration, boxtroll “fish” becomes incredibly angry, almost living up to the horror stories that we were told. It is brief and inconsequential, but a sobering moment as the parallel between anger and victimisation is drawn. In the final confrontation between Snatcher and Eggs, Snatcher tells him “they’ll never accept us…” What connects these two vastly opposing characters? Who does Snatcher believe “they” are? All is revealed when watching The Boxtrolls.

The ballooning abscesses as allergic-to-cheese Snatcher forces himself to eat brie is gross, colourful and guaranteed to make you laugh. The comedy is intelligent, the animation expert and the story is thoroughly engaging. The Boxtrolls is poignant and inventive and as much fun as it is bold in its statements.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Night Will Fall (André Singer, 2014)

It is difficult to digest the truth behind the Holocaust. The pictures in books, reconstructions and cinematic depiction of the events seem to detach us from the truth. It can feel like a nightmare that exists only in dreams and on screens. Night Will Fall manages to directly connect the nature of the truth in documentary with the horrors witnessed in 1945. Director André Singer (Producer of The Act of Killing and Into the Abyss) connects them in a manner that sharply forces history into focus. The collective efforts to murder a group of people by a brainwashed militia, consciously accepted by the citizens in surrounding villages that could smell the death, is too difficult to comprehend. Yet this definitive moment in history was captured on camera, and tasked to Sidney Bernstein and his team, to ensure that it was not lost and proved how despicable humanity can be.

Night Will Fall documents the attempt at capturing, editing and releasing the footage filmed when concentration camps were liberated (the unreleased film, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, has been painstakingly restored by the Imperial War Museum to be released later this year). But this is a moment that changed the world. Camera-clad soldiers marched, within lines of German soldiers, towards Bergen-Belsen, unaware of what they would see. Alfred Hitchcock was involved as a supervising director, recommending the location of the camps – and their surrounding towns – are shown in the film, to highlight how close others were to the death camps. He suggested that wide, slow pans were to be used to add an air of authenticity. There was no room for anyone to imply the footage was doctored in any way. Colour film was used in some instances, footage that brings the reality closer to home. But at a time whereby millions of victims were refused entry to the surrounding countries, the rolls of film and editing that had been put in place to bring this news to the fore, was shelved. The worry was that a public outcry would mean Britain and America would be forced to take these refugees into their own country – something that, after World War II, they simply couldn’t afford to do.

Prior to watching Night Will Fall, I visited the Imperial War Museum, and specifically the Holocaust exhibition. The information contained across two floors was too much to take in during one visit, but the history of Jewish discrimination that began so much earlier that the breakout of WWII is crucial to where it ultimately led. Stories of German Jews who fought alongside their nation in WWI only to be reviled little more than a decade later, embedded itself in my memory. The fact that Night Will Fall exclusively deals with the aftermath is important. The camps and their liberation only took place in 1944. We learn from our mistakes, we’re told. In the case of genocide, it is not an event whereby we want to liberate a country and find out afterwards the mistake was made again.

These camps were in action for years, with the loss of life in the millions. Eisenhower, shown visiting the camps, surely never believed he would ever see such horror. Billy Wilder’s use of the footage, in Death Mills (as Night Will Fall documents) focuses the attention on the crimes committed by the Nazi’s. But this documentary is about the truth and the consequence of inaction. The opening moments of Night Will Fall show the bodies in piles within camps. SS Guards were ordered to move the bodies to mass graves. Their faces are real. Despite the sunken eyes and gaunt cheeks, the faces are real. The bodies are rubbery and heavy. The footage gives you a sense of the weight of the corpses, and the guards who drag them over the rubble clearly show no remorse as they appear to move them like animal carcasses. But these are lives, hundreds and thousands, of innocent lives. I have never seen such explicit and shocking film from the concentration camps. Night Will Fall coincides with the release of the originally-intended film, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, but it is a masterpiece unto itself. Rather than explaining and recalling the events, Night Will Fall highlights the importance of film. Akin to diaries of photographers and journalists in war zones, Night Will Fall is unflinching in its intention to hold onto the mistakes we made, so that we learn from it. And in a time whereby YouTube captures every political decision (and indecision) and news crews attempt to capture every side of conflicts in Iraq and Israel, surely Night Will Fall reminds us that we need to make a change before it’s too late. Otherwise, like the cameramen in Bergen-Belsen, who knows what we will find in the aftermath.

Originally written for Flickering Myth

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Best Episode of The Simpsons? Season 10: Mom and Pop Art

In an attempt to get completely up-to-date on one of my favourite TV-series The Simpsons, after I watch each season, I will choose my favourite episode...

It appears that the last time I wrote a "Best Episode..." post was in October 2012. That can't be good if, in nearly two years, I have only watched one season. In any case, with the FXX marathon everywhere, I missed watching the show. I scrolled through the Season 10 guide. I read over the episodes I watched intermittently in the past year and a few happy memories came to mind. Ralph tasting the snow in Lard of the Dance, the make-up shot-gun in The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace and Pinchy in Lisa Gets An "A" are all memorable moments that make Season 10 such fun. And I'm sure Viva Ned Flanders is, pretty much, The Hangover nearly a decade before. It's fair to say that despite these highlights, Season 10 wasn't as memorable as the previous seasons. 

But, I'm an art teacher so choosing my favourites wasn't too difficult. The references, talking points and fun in Mom and Pop Art won me over. The enormous rubber that "erases" Homer after he criticises the art of (Simpsons-creator) Matt Groening only to reveal two workmen holding a large (Claus Oldenburg-like) pencil, with a rubber on the end, hitting Homer in the face is funny on multiple levels. The perfect "it's funny for the whole family" joke, as the situation looks funny it appeals to children, while we know the art reference and the play on an old animation-trick we've seen as long ago as Disney's Saludos Amigos in 1943.

For something as mainstream as The Simpsons, it maintains it's ambiguously open-stance. While it's critical of contemporary art and it's elitist buyers ("Smithers, years ago I blew the chance to buy Picasso's Guernica for a song. Luckily that song was 'White Christmas' and, by hanging on to it, I made billions!"), it is also appreciative of the nature of ready-made's and art as a way to express oneself. Indeed, "Outsider Art" is a real movement that focuses on artists outside of the art scene - "mental patients or a hillbilly or a chimpanzee" could fit the criteria. The incredible art-dream referencing Warhol, Dali and Leonardo Da Vinci, and the surrealist finish as Springfield becomes a lake unto itself, are moments that whatever your opinion on art, is simply unique to the show. Even a Jasper Johns cameo is a nice touch. Chris Barsanti of Filmcritic.com wrote it best, saying "the episode concocts a knowing satire – but also warm appreciation – of modern art".

Favourite joke? It comes in the episodes closing moments as Springfield wakes up to Homers final art piece...

Ned Flanders: What the flood?! Maude, it's a miracle! The Lord has drowned the wicked and spared the righteous.

[Maude gasps as she see's Homer row by on a raft]

Maude Flanders: Isn't that Homer Simpson?

Ned Flanders (annoyed): Looks like Heaven's easier to get into than Arizona State...

M (Fritz Lang, 1931)

In the media storm involving Rolf Harris and Jimmy Saville, it seems to be the relevant moment to rerelease the incredible thriller M. An unforgettable tale of a child-killer, Hans – labelled by the letter ‘M’ - preys on children using balloons and sweets. His horrific acts are not only investigated by the police but by the victims, gangs and criminals of the town. As part of the Peter Lorre season at the BFI, M is a must-see in the actor’s catalogue as it defined his character in many of his future films, including the established classic Casablanca whereby he retains his bulbous-eyed, sneaky and slimy persona in Ugart.

Akin to Nosferatu, only nine years prior, M uses shadow to reveal the murderer, Hans (Peter Lorre). The tense opener depicts innocent kids playing a game while singing a tune that acknowledges the killer himself. One of the girls wander off, and darkness looms over her before approaching. We then see her Mother, checking the time at home, slowly realising her worst fears. Police struggle to find the killer and the crime bosses decide amongst themselves that they will intervene. Others assist the criminals in hunting down Hans, with one bright spark marking his jacket with white chalk - and the letter ‘M’. He is cornered in a building and independently, the mob put him on trial. Though clearly guilty, he pleads for a fair trial and with seconds to spare, the police break in and stop the verdict. We cut to a courtroom and, abruptly, the film ends.

Anthony Hopkins had it with Hannibal Lector. Javiar Bardem had it as Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. An actor and role that is haunting, memorable and irreplaceable. Unlike the deeply sinister villains Hopkins and Bardem portray, Peter Lorre’s Hans craves your acceptance. He doesn’t plead innocence and only fails to understand his deep-rooted desires. In an early era of sound, the whistling-signal of his presence is an intelligent use of melody. Scarface would whistle in 1932, and more recently Omar in The Wire and the Guv’nor in The Walking Dead also. Could you trace this morbid use of a childish act, right back to M?

Lang’s silent films ended with Metropolis and Woman in the Moon two years prior. Kim Newman notes the likely influence of Hitchcock, who released Blackmail and The Lodger in 1927 and 1929 respectively. But rather than depicting a killer who is captured and sentenced, M turns the flashlight onto you the viewer. His framing is purposeful, placing you in the judge’s seat in those final moments. His trial is an awkward state of affairs as we are drawn into the argument. The stunted end seems to hint at the lingering question as to whether the courts will do a better job at doling out justice. Ambiguously, we don’t know. M is inspirational and unforgettable filmmaking, a reference point for thrillers and psychological horrors today. Now is the time to see it the way it was intended.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth

Monday, 18 August 2014

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982)

Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a staple of 1980’s teenage cinema. Part of the ‘Teenage Kicks’ season at the BFI, this is where Cameron Crowe (who would go on to direct Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous) and Amy Heckerling (of Clueless and Look Who’s Talking) would get their start. The many cast members, including Sean Penn as a sweet stoner, would all use Fast Times as a springboard for successful careers following its release in 1982. What separates Fast Times from teenage films such as Porky’s, is the sense of sincerity and brutal honesty it seeks. Fast Times at Ridgemont High is purposefully explicit, but it highlights home truths that our teenage selves might find difficult to articulate. It begins the conversation about masturbation, abortion and sex amongst teenagers, with a playful tone to balance the seriousness of the issues.

The watering hole of these teenagers is Ridgemont Mall. Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Linda (Phoebe Cates) work in a restaurant, and sex and boyfriends are the only thing to talk about. Stacy’s brother, Brad (Judge Reinhold), works in a fast food joint whereby he’s popular and with a girlfriend (though he toys with the idea of breaking up to be more “free” in his final school year). Mike ‘Rat’ Ratner (Brian Backer) works in the cinema, while close friend Damone (Robert Romanus) is a ticket tout for local concerts. Damone, stylish and slick, offers advice to Woody-Allen-esque Mike. Mike is in love with Stacy from the first moment he sees her in biology class. Finally, we have Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) and his chums (including Eric Stoltz). They smoke all day and fall into school when they’re not dreaming of surfing and bikini-clad women, to the frustration of crusty old Mr Hand (Ray Walston).

These very vaguely interconnected stories are the focus point for the school year. 15-year-old Stacy sets the tone of the film as she uncomfortably asks Linda about sex, before sneaking out of her parent’s house to lose her virginity at ‘the point’ with an older man. What Fast Times at Ridgemont High deftly manages to do is observe these kids without judgement. There is a sense that the older man is a little creepy, and she caves to peer pressure from her friends, but Cameron Crowe doesn’t spell it out. A teenage audience may see the story in a completely different light. The final act even touches on the theme of abortion, and this darker tone is a subtle hint at the potential dangers at play in those precious teenage years. Cool and likeable characters are revealed as insensitive and thoughtless, while naivety and innocence can be influenced easily, with dire consequences.

In many ways, this isn’t a ‘story’ at all, more an insight and snapshot of (white, middle-class) teenagers in the early 1980’s. The scorn you could hold towards lazy, stoner Jeff is countered by his dreams and ambitions of surfing, and his reckless optimism (that even drives him to order a pizza as he sits in class). Within this single year, Jeff will do fine. Job-hopping Brad too, though fantasising about his sisters friend, has his heart in the right place.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High is first and foremost, good fun. There is no definitive moral to the story, and though it celebrates the sexual freedom of youth, it doesn’t seem to pack a punch when it surely could. Abortion, rather than an easy-fix to a flippant situation, is often a difficult process for any woman to go through. By the same token, Jeff’s disenchantment and lack of interest in education is often the case with many, and very few are lucky enough to still achieve the grades to continue. But these are concerns that negate the purpose of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It raised awareness at a time whereby discussing the issues would be taboo in and of itself. By not placing judgement or criticism, it opens the door to interpretation and places the ball back in your court. Teenagers are irresponsible and, rightly so, Fast Times at Ridgemont High has this reckless attitude at its core.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth