Tron

28 05 2010

In the late-’70/early-’80s, Disney was attempting to reposition itself in a niche away from the traditional family product that they were known for, moving instead towards darker-tinged science fiction and fantasy. This was partly in response to the success of Star Wars in 1977, as is apparent with the generally goofy (but at times surprisingly sinister) Disney live-action feature The Black Hole, released only two years later.

So when a young, independent animator called Steven Lisberger approached the company, looking for someone to finance an experimental science fiction film about video games, it seemed like the perfect fit. This was the era of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Frogger, when home computing was beginning to make inroads and the potential of all things digital seemed limitless: the so-called “silicon revolution” had just arrived. What better way for Disney to remain relevant than to release a film that capitalised on such a current trend?

That film, of course, was Tron (1982). Combining back-lit animation, traditional animation and computer-generated imagery with live-action footage, this was Star Wars for the impending Information Age. Its setting was stark yet elegant and often beautiful; its themes struck at the heart of the increasing commercialisation of a market hitherto dominated by hobbyists and academics. In short, it was the mythology for a new age.
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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

26 05 2010

Metropolis (1927) is probably the most well-known silent-era German expressionist film, closely followed by Nosferatu (1922). But pre-dating both yet just as influential is Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920): everything from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) to Edward Scissorhands (1990) can be in some way traced back to this important work, but so can A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and The Sixth Sense (1999) as well.

This is one of the first bona fide horror films and the first to employ a twist-ending. More importantly, it was the first film to place a real narrative in a very unreal-looking world. The sets are truly staggering, looking like reality as seen in a fun-house mirror. Nothing exists at right-angles, with walls lurching in on the characters and trees almost seeming to grasp at passers-by (cue Snow White). Even makeup is, at times, heavily stylised, with flat-white faces and dark, ominous eyes marking-out one character in particular (cue Edward Scissorhands). The world as we know it has been twisted, distorted, up-ended in a nightmarish landscape that threatens with its stark, foreboding design.
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The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

24 05 2010

“This world we live in is full of enchantment for those with eyes to see it.”

That is a quote from The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), Terry Gilliam’s tenth film as sole director. It is also the thematic thread that ties all his work together, from the childhood fantasy of Time Bandits (1981) to the supernatural wonderland of The Brothers Grimm (2005). For over 30 years, Gilliam has been bringing old-fashioned magic to the screen, despite audiences becoming increasingly cynical and jaded over that time.

If the veteran storyteller was once Sam Lowry, battling a faceless system in order to keep his dreams alive, he’s now Doctor Parnassus (Christoher Plummer), an aging showman whose magic mirror fails to spark the interest of a public captivated instead by the bright, shiny objects of consumerism. And yet he persists because he must—it’s too depressing to think that most people will choose cheap thrills over the power of the imagination, given the choice.

In the film this is depicted via a series of bets between Parnassus and Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), each vying for the chance to win human souls. Parnassus’ Imaginarium offers anyone who steps into his mirror a choice between the rewarding challenges of their higher purpose in life versus the baser delights of ol’ Nick himself. For an alcoholic, this is the choice between a “12 x 12 x 12 step program” on the one hand and a lounge bar on the other, and for each person who enters the Imaginarium, the choice is just as personal.

And so Parnassus travels through the streets of London with his accompanying show and troupe, hoping to prove himself right—that people, at heart, want imagination and magic—despite all evidence to the contrary.
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Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!

21 05 2010

Ted Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) was not afraid of including social commentary in his children’s books. Besides being a children’s author, he was also a political cartoonist and writer for the military during World War II, with his Private Snafu shorts being particularly illuminating.

So it’s refreshing to (finally) see a modern Seuss adaptation that at least tries to adhere to the spirit of his work. Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! (2008) is the fourth feature from Blue Sky Studios, who also produced Robots (2005) and the three Ice Age movies (2002, 2006 and 2009). Blue Sky are like the Chuck Jones to Pixar’s Walt Disney, and so while they don’t produce serious, studied entertainment in the Pixar vein, they also don’t resort to the mindless hipster grab-bag approach of DreamWorks Animation; instead, Blue Sky offer a manic charm all their own.

It’s only fitting, then, that Blue Sky Studios adapt one of Seuss’ more memorable children’s books, following in the footsteps of Chuck Jones’ own successful adaptations. This is not a nightmare-fuelled acid trip a la Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000) (and the less said about Mike Myers as The Cat in the Hat (2003) the better); rather, Blue Sky’s Horton is colourful and whimsical, giving spectators an amazing 3D realisation of Seuss’ illustrations that is as faithful as can be. And while pop-culture elements are a little overdone at times, this is still miles ahead of the horrors that DreamWorks might have visited upon the source.
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Star Trek

19 05 2010

“Space: the final frontier…”

So goes the opening monologue for each episode of Star Trek (1966-69), a TV series that paved the way for every serious science fiction series in its wake. And yet, for a show that was so fresh and innovative at the time, its brand has become stale and repetitive over the years, turning into a shadow of its former self.

Enter the cinematic reboot Star Trek (2009), an attempt to revitalise the franchise some 43 years after its debut. Helmed by J.J. Abrams (the man behind Alias (2001-2006) and Lost (2004-2010)) and written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (who also brought us The Island (2005) and Transformers (2007)), this is obviously not going to be deep or thought-provoking. With those names behind it, you can bet on things being fairly fun, however, at the very least.

The approach taken seems to be akin to recent Marvel origin films such as X-Men (2000) and Spider-man (2002): keep the fans happy while playing-up the novelty of seeing familiar characters meeting, all while adopting a light and breezy tone. And then throw in a few curve-balls to shake things up a bit.
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Tetsuo: The Iron Man

18 05 2010

Some films are safely quirky, such as Little Miss Sunshine or Juno. Some films are odd or slightly disturbing, such as Brazil. Then there’s the nightmarish territory of Eraserhead, Videodrome and Tetsuo: the Iron Man, where plausibility gives way to perverse streams of consciousness.

So let’s get the David Lynch and David Cronenberg comparisons out of the way. Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: the Iron Man shares a stark, black-and-white surrealist aesthetic with Lynch’s earlier work, as well as the body-horror theme that pervades every film of Cronenberg’s. But Tsukamoto’s approach is rooted more deeply in the cyberpunk genre, where technology consumes, devours and dehumanises, and his hyper-kinetic editing gives a whole different tone to this tale of man versus machine.

The plot is hard to describe without sounding insane. In short, a man runs into a metal fetishist with his car, and soon he himself begins transforming into a man-machine hybrid. But that’s only the start…
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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

17 05 2010

Few people today fully appreciate the ground-breaking work apparent in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Now over 70 years old, this film is where animation grew up and matured into a complete art-form in its own right.

Never before had cel animation been used to tell a story in feature-length. Could animated characters display real emotional depth in a performance—enough to sustain an 80+ minute running time? Would audiences buy into the drama?

Three key scenes display the success of Disney’s gamble. The first involves the huntsman preparing to slay Snow White in the woods: the suspense builds as the spectator anticipates the blow, and yet as Snow White cowers, the huntsman finally relents and confesses. The second is where the witch offers Snow White the poisoned apple: again, the suspense builds, this time with the witch playing on Snow White’s innocence and naivety in order to trick her into taking a bite. Finally, the scene where the dwarves gather around Snow White’s bed to mourn her loss is heartfelt and genuine: the dwarves are real characters beyond their cartoonish, comedic function.

In all three scenes, characters other than Snow White carry the drama. Despite being the title character, Snow White is a foil, with her innocence and purity giving the surrounding characters something to react to. The Queen reacts to Snow White with contempt, the dwarves react to her with warmth and the woodland creatures react to her with curiosity and good cheer, but all find her archetypal nature captivating and powerful.
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