Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Tales From Earthsea

I'm a long time fan of Studio Ghibli and their hand-painted animation. Two of my all-time favorite films are Spirited Away and Kiki's Delivery Service. This is my least favorite of the 10 (or so) movies of theirs I’ve seen to date. I have not read any of the Earthsea books, but that should not be a pre-requisite to enjoy any film.

For Goro Miyazaki (son of Hayao Miyazaki), this is the first film he’s written, storyboarded and directed. I can’t say there was anything new or compelling about the story or artwork. I’ve heard that Goro originally avoided anything to do with animation in his career, because he didn’t want to be compared to the accomplishments of his father. However, both the animation and characters were unmistakably identifiable as Hayao and Ghibli.

The character development was sparse and the story's setup was missing. Basically, a plight is afflicting the lands. It's feared that said plight is due to a weakening of the "balance" (of what, we're not told). The prince kills the king, steals his sword, and runs off into the wastelands where he happens upon Archmage Sparrow Hawk (who the prince tags along with for the remainder of the film). There are old sorceresses with big round faces, flying dragons, and a very graphic limb dismemberment scene near the end of the movie. This might not be a good film for young children.

Now, lets meet the characters:
  • “Sparrow Hawk” – Archmage of Earthsea. A powerful wizard who complains to sales ladies at the fabric store about the lousy thread count of materials he wants to use for making a new cloak.
  • “Arren” – The boy prince who stabbed his father and stole the magical sword. Suffering from split-personality disorder and sudden fits of rage are the least of his problems. Arren has that confused look upon his face reserved for Ghibli boy characters who don’t understand the leading little girls in their stories.
  • “Theru” – The [ungrateful, bitchy, tantrum-prone] little girl who Arren rescues from slavery. In return for his bravery and sacrifice, she detests him. She has that bitter attitude reserved exclusively for spoiled, little Ghibli heroines. Just call her dragon lady.
  • “Tenar” – Sparrow Hawk’s “woman friend”. Forever obedient to the Archmage’s wishes, often distrustful of his work ethic, and continuously mumbling disapproval under her breath for Sparrow’s wanderlust as he borrow’s Arren’s horse and disappears over the next hill.
  • “Lonkie” – Arren’s trusty steed. Everyone keeps calling this thing a horse, but it looks more like a donkey crossed with a llama.
  • “Cob” – The evil wizard who wants to live forever. He [or she] dresses and wears make-up like Brandon Lee’s character did in The Crow. I think maybe it’s a she, since actress Yûko Tanaka is the voice for the Japanese version. But in the English release, it’s dubbed by Willem Dafoe? I’ve got to say, Mr. Dafoe looks pretty good in a pair of women’s flats.

The trailer below is for the English release. I don't like it as much as the Japanese version.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Netflix streaming
Country: Japan
Language: English
Genre: Animation
Rating: 3/5

Official Site

Saturday, August 27, 2011


Syracuse is an Irish fisherman from the village of Castletownbere on the southwest coast of Ireland. His nickname is Circus, short for Circus Clown. His ex-wife is an alcoholic, and so was he for many years until their daughter Annie (Alison Barry) experienced kidney failure. When that happened, Circus decided to clean up his big top act. As the town's priest puts it to Syracuse in one of their confessional duets, "Misery is easy. Happiness you have to work at." His and his daughter's lives seem bleak and both are in search of escape.

Then one day, as Syracuse (Colin Farrell) is trawling for fish, he nets what appears to be a drowned woman. After untangling and resuscitating her, she cannot remember (or will not say) who she is or where she comes from, only that he may call her Ondine. Ondines (Latin: Onda; meaning 'a wave') are elementals. In German mythology, Ondine was a very beautiful and immortal water nymph. It was said that the only way for Ondine to gain a soul and become mortal was to fall in love with a man a bear his child.

The big question in this film is whether Ondine (Alicja Bachleda) is really a Selkie (a creature from Irish and Scottish folklore, similar in some ways to a Mermaid). If she does turn out to be one of these mythical creatures, then the story is a fairytale. If not, all bets for happiness are off and we may be headed for a brutal reality in which there's no happy ending. All three of the main characters in this film would like to loose themselves in a fairytale--Annie is dying, Syracuse is going to lose his daughter, and Ondine is running from a terrible past that is about to catch up with her. So, that's just what each of them does for the most part--lie to themself and believe that they can change reality.

According to director Neil Jordan, the idea for his screenplay evolved from the first image of a fisherman finding Ondine's body in his net, "those initial images suggested both a fairytale and an awful, harsh reality." Something that I found interesting, is that all of the locations in the screenplay exist. Jordan scripted the film such that all scenes could be filmed within five kilometers his house. Castletownbere is a real, working fishing village far from the path of tourists and places like McCarthy's bar are just part of the landscape.

Alicja Bachleda is somewhat of an unknown to me, I've not seen any of her other films (Trade, Summer Storm), or listened to any of her pop-music albums, but her performance here was excellent. After reading about how the water was freezing cold and that most of the time she was wearing just a knitted dress, I hope no one got hypothermia (at least she had a stunt double for the dangerous scenes).

Alison Barry, a ten-year-old girl from County Cork with no previous acting experience, was cast in the role of Annie. Her character's know-it-all attitude, precocious use of obscure vocabulary, and overzealous belief in Ondine's fairy powers annoyed me and shattered any dreamlike mood the film managed to achieve. Perhaps that was the director's goal.

I liked Stephen Rea's deadpan portrayal of the town priest.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Netflix streaming
Country: Ireland
Mood: Mysterious
Language: English
Genre: Drama, fairytale, romance
Rating: 3.5/5

Official Site

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Film with Me in It

Mark (Mark Doherty, who also wrote the film) is an actor who can't get a break, or a job. His brother is paralyzed and unable to speak. His girlfriend is ready to leave him. His dog is too bored to go for a walk. He's behind on his rent, and his apartment is falling apart in parallel with his life. The landlord isn't much inclined to fix the bathroom door that locks people in or the kitchen light that flickers constantly or the windows that slam shut without notice.

Fortunately, Mark doesn't seem too bothered by these setbacks. He and his unemployed, alcoholic, gambling-addicted best friend (the always entertaining and frequent Simon Pegg sidekick Dylan Moran) are too focused on who will play themselves in the movie they are writing, in which someone maybe commits a crime, or doesn't, but which will be epic. And Mark is genuinely shocked that, in the midst of all of this, his girlfriend doesn't see the wisdom in his booking an evening at a four-star hotel to get their relationship back on track. He's as helpless as he is hapless, it seems, and not someone cut out to deal with a crisis. But this is a black comedy, so of course there will be a crisis.

Or two.

Or three.

Or so.

Black comedies are a strange genre. They're not generally funny as such, but they work best when the calamities pile on absurdly enough that you can you can't help but laugh, even as the main characters dig the hole deeper and deeper. And as that happens, whether by the hand of fate or the hand of the heroes, otherwise normal people start behaving in increasingly abnormal ways, and the hole gets that much deeper. The comedy gets blacker, and you're supposed to feel uncomfortable. And then something else happens to make things worse.

As fate plays increasing crueler tricks on the pathetic Mark, at least he has his best friend along to help him consider the options for dealing with the crisis, like how believable a movie the story would make. And to remember the bleach.

- Paulette McKay

Venue: Netflix streaming
Country: Ireland
Language: English
Genre: Black comedy
Rating: 3/5

Irish Film Board
IFC Films

Friday, August 19, 2011

4 months 3 weeks and 2 days

This film was hard to watch, but not because some scenes are poorly lit, or because all of the characters speak Romanian. No, I am fluent in Romanian. And can see in the dark. What was hard to witness was the exploitation of a young woman seeking a late-term, illegal abortion. Well, that and the recognizably human fetus laying on the hotel's bathroom floor three quarters of the way through the film. But, let's rewind for a moment to see how we arrived at this situation.

After a 1957 decree legalizing abortion in Romania, that country saw an accelerated decline in its crude birth rate until, in 1966, it reached an alarming low of 14.3 childbirths per 1,000 people per year. The reason for concern was that diminished procreation of that level is barely capable of replenishing the dying generations. At the time, some politicians believed that the change in law was directly responsible for the drop in births. However, according to a paper written by Manuela Lataianu with the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, this was just one of several factors that contributed to the decline.

In 1966, Decree 770 criminalizing abortion was passed. That abrupt change in policy produced more dramatic and long-term effects than the original legalization. One of those effects was a substantial increase in dangerous and illegal abortions.

The film opens with a dizzying exchange of favor trading and merchandising as Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) runs from floor to floor trying to purchase a pack of cigarettes for her roommate. Her building resembles a thriving underground market of consumer goods where a random knock at the door might reveal lines of make-up products, shampoo, or perhaps cases of chewing gum. You get the impression that there weren't a lot of retail stores in Romania at that time.

Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) sits on the bed waiting for Otilia in the college dorm room that the two share. She has an exam in one of her classes today, but she won't be going. Instead, she's reserved a hotel room for the next three days. That's where she will go to meet Mr. Bebe, the man who will help her with her problem for a price. Only, he doesn't want money, he wants something much worse in return. What Mr. Bebe doesn't know is how pregnant Gabita really is. On the phone she told him 2 months, but in reality it's been long enough for the procedure he's about to perform to be considered murder.

There is a second thread to this story, one involving Otilia and her boyfriend. On the evening of Gabita's abortion, Adi (Alexandru Potocean) summons Otilia to his father's birthday party. His family seems very entrenched in pre-capitalist, communist ideals which Otilia does not share. For obvious reasons, she does not want to attend. This is the end of the golden age of communism in Eastern Europe.

And don't forget to visit the Transilvania Film Festival ! I did not know they had one.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Netflix streaming
Mood: Breath holding
Language: Romanian w/English subtitles
Genre: Suspense drama
Rating: 4.5/5

Official Site

Monday, August 8, 2011


Have you ever heard of the female painter Séraphine Louis (a.k.a Séraphine de Senlis)? She was a self-taught artist living in France between 1864 and 1942. Much of her work is of flowers, leaves and fruit. Whereas some painters "simply" try to reproduce the physical attributes of flora in still life, Séraphine somehow endows her creations with animalistic qualities--leaves scurry to and fro like large insects, peaches stare back at us with piercing black eyes, and bushes parade their plumage not unlike a peacock.

As with any biography, a writer is better off focusing on a particular time period in their subject's life. Director-writer Martin Provost has chosen to chronicle Séraphine's beginning in 1912 when she's first discovered by the German collector Wilhelm Uhde. Séraphine has been working as a maid for many years at this point. As a respite from his hectic life in Paris, Wilhelm decides to rent a two-bedroom apartment in Senlis where she does one hour of cleaning every morning. Purely by chance, Wilhelm sees one of Séraphine's paintings and immediately recognizes her potential.

If not for Wilhelm's attentions, Séraphine would likely never have been discovered, died in obscurity, and her paintings lost forever. There are only two characters of consequence in this film, Séraphine Louis (Yolande Moreau) and Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur). Neither is uncomplicated. The painter suffers from chronic psychosis, and will eventually die in a psychiatric hospital. The collector will become her patron, but abandon her twice, once in the face of war and a second time for reasons unexplained.

Yolande Moreau's portrayal of this woman is impressive. I can't imagine another actress playing this part. Watching Moreau's character apply brush to canvas was one of the most entertaining parts of the film. It also never occurred to me that some painters start with plain white and mix their own colors by adding organic substances (such as blood?). This is definitely worth seeing.

An excerpt from the press notes at Music Box Films, some important historical events that will help you to better appreciate the movie:

  • 1864 -- Séraphine is born on September 2 in Arsy-sur-Oise. Her father is a small time clock maker and her mother is a farm girl. As a child, Séraphine divides her time between school (she is said to be a good student) and the fields (she is a shepherdess).
  • 1877 -- When she turns 13, Séraphine is sent to work as a maid in Paris. She will later be hired by an institute for young women where she will initiate herself to art by observing the drawing teacher’s classes.
  • 1882 -- At 18, Séraphine is hired as a servant by the nuns of the Saint-Joseph-de-Cluny convent where she will stay for 20 years.
  • 1902 -- Séraphine begins working as a maid.
  • 1905 -- It was her guardian angel, according to her, who suggested to Séraphine that she draw and later, that she paint. Very pious, Séraphine is familiar with these kinds of visions and "voices" that will accompany her until the end of her life.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Netflix streaming
Art/Entertainment: 35%/65%
Language: French w/English subtitles
Genre: Biopic drama
Rating: 3.5/5

Official Site