Tuesday, 13 August 2013

7 Lessons every director could learn from Hayao Miyazaki

Legendary director Hayao Miyazaki should be one of the first names of the bat in any conversation that begins with the question 'who are the best film makers working today?' and frankly should be equally quick of the bat when the question is broadened to 'who are some of the best directors ever?'

His body of work is almost unparalleled and is marked by the fact that you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who'd call any of his films an outright failure or bad movie. This is a rare quality, the man over 3 decades just hasn't slipped up.

Of course not every director is like this, yet I'd hazard a guess that many wish they were. So I thought I'd try to help out by compiling this list of lessons that every director (and some directors more specifically) could learn from Mr. Miyazaki.

1.     Don’t be afraid to switch genres: Too often people mistakenly contend that the art form animation is a genre in and of itself (as one would speak of drama, or comedy, or action movies). This is wrong for many reasons; the most damaging is that it limits the form, and limits the respect we pay to masters of the form. Hayao Miyazaki has made films in the following genre: action, adventure, fantasy, comedy of manners, message movie (if that’s a genre), family, political satire, farce, coming of age, and straight up drama (to name a few). Had he done so in live action the Academy would have replaced plain old Oscar with an image in the likeness of this Japanese genius! So to those directors out there, afraid to branch out, afraid to venture off the well worn path of familiarity, look to Mr. Miyazaki for inspiration and proof that not only can you jump between genres, or meld multiple genres, or throw out the whole idea of genre – you can do so without the work suffering. Far from the ‘little genre experiments’ that directors are prone to do between their ‘important’ projects, every Miyazaki film, regardless of genre, has the same level of care, quality, and excellence. I’d like to think this is because he isn’t interested in genres at all – rather he’s interested in telling a story about people. Which leads us to point 2.

2.     Invest in your characters: Watch one frame of any Miyazaki film and if you’re in any way familiar with him you’ll be able to pick that the work is his simply from the look. Another reason you might be able to pick it is that Miyazaki has his messages, he has his beliefs, and these come across quickly. Ideas such as environmentalism, or the innocence and importance of children, are prevalent in his films – but they are not primary! Miyazaki is one of the most convincing and articulate directors when it comes to communicating a message or idea but never at the expense of character! Never at the expense of people!* Chihiro, Kiki, Nausicaa, Fio, and Sheeta are all young women who are expected to do more (or take responsibility for more) than their age would deem appropriate, and many are in films that cover similar ‘territory’. BUT each and every one of those women are distinct, each is unique, each is fully human, fully engaged, fully understood. They are not tools or puppets for Miyazaki to use to further his agenda or explore his themes. They are people who are having their story told. Obviously I only mentioned a handful (literally a handful) of characters because the list of brilliantly developed, intricately understood people* in Miyazaki’s films would be more like an armful (perhaps two or three or in the case of Kamaji…) if fully spelled out. This is a big part in why his films are so easy to revisit, it’s like going to a party with all your friends, and a few people you love to hate.

3.     Make it hard for yourself: There’s a moment is Princess Mononoke where Ashitaka is riding his whatchamacallit through the forest and they near a creek bed. They move forward brushing by an overhanging branch. THEY BRUSH AGAINST THE BRANCH, IT MOVES, IT MAKES A SOUND, THE CHARACTER AND THE WORLD INTERACT. And this isn’t even during a scene where such a thing needs to occur. And when one considers the herculean task Miyazaki set himself by animating some 100,000 frames of this movie himself, I think we would have given him a pass had he wanted to draw the branch a little higher so that Ashitaka could skirt by unmolested. But no, if this were out in the world, in an actual forest, more than likely someone would brush against a low hanging branch, and so it’s in the film. Just because it’d be easier not to, and people probably wouldn’t notice, isn’t a reason not to do something. Because when you create art, you do it right, and you do it well, even if it’s harder! There’s a reason his films never fail, there’s a reason they have such a special quality, HE PUTS IN THE WORK. (And I haven’t even mentioned the moment Chihiro taps the toe of her shoe on the ground to make it fit right.) So to all you budding directors out there, I wish to quote another great artist by saying: “The work waits.”

4.     Falling in Friendship is often more interesting than falling love: Go watch Ponyo. Done? Good. Now go watch whatever love story’s playing at the cinemas right now. Done? Well if it wasn’t Before Midnight then it’s safe to say one movie was remarkably more interesting, right? Miyazaki’s filmography is overflowing with touching, memorable, fascinating friendships and stories of people* becoming friends. Because that's something that we experience far more frequently – and generally lasts far longer – in our lives. But who’s out there creating art about it? Very few – I blame pop music.

5.     Don’t dumb it down because children might watch it: A friend's 4 year old said to her recently; “mum, why do they call it a hand bag, it should be called an arm bag.” When was the last time you heard an adult say something so insightful, or engage with a easily held truth is a fresh way? Maybe regularly – good for you, you have fine friends – but even if that’s the case it still shows you don’t need to dumb things down for kids. You also don’t need to make things tamer for kids. There’s a line in Nausicaa where Lord Yupa is questioning a captured Princess Kushana when she reveals injuries suffered from an Ohmu attack years before by showing that her arms are (let’s say) mechanical. Yupa says “an Ohmu did that?” her response: “Yes, and believe me the man lucky enough to become my husband is going to see a lot worse.” When I first heard that (I was 25 at the time) I flipped! I couldn’t believe it, I may have had to readjust sitting position it hit me so strong, even as I was writing it now tears came to my eyes. I couldn’t believe someone said something this beautiful, this powerful, this simple honest in any movie let alone “one of those cartoon movies for kids” – but you know what? Look around, a lot of kids have seen this movie (not as many as should have but still) and the world’s still going (and probably better for it). So don’t tame it down, kids can handle it, and the world will thank you. Note: Miyazaki follows this exchange with one of his more childish jokes involving two kids and a password and its hilarious, so that just goes to show you can have it all!

6.     If you’re going to have action sequences make them exciting and make them followable: Go watch any recent blockbuster, now watch Princess Mononoke (or Porco Rosso, or anything really) enough said.

7.     Never Ever Retire: Did you know Miyazaki was going to retire early on in the millennium? Then he came out of ‘retirement’ to make SPIRITED AWAY! Have you seen that film? Well then you know how grateful we should be, and if not check out it’s rotten tomatoes score – it’s so fresh it’s been hung off rear view mirrors in taxis everywhere. So attention Mr. Soderbergh, Mr. Tarantino – artists should never retire: who knows if you’ve reached your greatest work yet – don’t risk it forever been lost wandering in the recesses of your creative mind – keep creating!           

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Review: The Bling Ring

Okay, well I've been away a long time - laziness mostly. Well that awkward collision of laziness and business that leads to a kind of stressful apathy to anything that isn't immediately required.

But I'm attempting to get back in the saddle. I'm also coming back with something I haven't done before; a review of a film that's current - usually I limit myself to retrospectives and lists. But today something different. Why? Well it's not that this is the best film of the year or anything, but my good friend +Julien Faddoul recently reviewed The Bling Ring also - and although I agree with most of what he said, and he generally writes better than me, I wanted to air one or two objections and put forward a thought or two of my own. So here we go... my review of The Bling Ring.

Celebrities in the C21st allow us unprecedented access into their lives, far more than any 'ordinary' citizen would be expected to relinquish. Of course, this isn't enough for us. So we dig deeper, we push further, upturning the rug and rummaging through the trash hungry for more; and if those searches do not yield the desired fruit, we can always make stuff up.

If this is the way we behave as a society, if this is action deemed appropriate, then is entering a celebrities actual physical homes and helping ourselves to their stuff any worse? After all, the houses were unlocked and they have soooo much stuff.
We could even argue we've already stolen their stuff every time we model an outfit after our favourite red carpet arrival.

I don't know if Sofia Coppola answers any of these questions (she doesn't really get close enough to her own film to do so) but I hardly find this a fault. We are presented with dislikable characters in a dislikable culture and allowed to draw for ourselves conclusions regarding our own culpability.

Ms. Coppola avoids all the usual pitfalls one might associate with a 'young people commit glamorised crime in L.A.' kind of movie: for example the obligatory R&B hip hop music accompanying slow motion glamour shots is used, NOT during the robberies, but when the bling ring are enjoying the spoils - because isn't that what this music has become about now days anyway? Not people, not life, not action, but stuff. She's creating a far more interesting and perplexing product than the crimes themselves. Could one not also argue that this mirrors what we see in the world - not the 'crimes' that lead to the production of this stuff, this oppressive abundance of stuff, but the pretty little things themselves. This may be drawing a longer bow than is helpful, but nonetheless I like to think that Ms. Coppola provided me with amply elastic string to draw with.

Finally, two quick hats off (and because this is this movie, imagine it's a very stylish hat that I am tipping) - one to Stacey Battat for her incredible costume design a character all on its own. And one to Mr. Savides, way to go out dancing, good sir.

Go see the film.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Holiday Special -- Chinese New Year

Continuing the holiday retrospectives we turn our attention to the Chinese New Year, and I thought about writing a post about a great Chinese film. Unfortunately, this is not a area of my expertise. So, I've brought in a guest writer for this post: from The Cinema Touch, Julien Faddoul.

Raise the Red Lantern

Julien Faddoul

Of all the prominent and praised directors to emerge from the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers who began making films after the Cultural Revolution, Zhang Yimou was their champion. After decades of little-to-no cinematographic information on China, its people or its culture, the world was blessed with a number of luminous, non-propagandist films, delivered by a group artists in the 1980s (most of which graduated from the Beijing Film Academy, class of 1982). Films filled to the brim with bold integrity, aesthetic ingenuity, a searing beauty, an overwhelming effervescence and, for the most part, a deep, deep sadness.

Of all these pictures the best of them is Raise the Red Lantern (1991). Zhang Yimou’s first two features Red Sorghum (1987) and Ju Dou (1990) are great films in their own right, but his said third film is his masterwork. He entered the film industry as a cinematographer and actor. Red Sorghum did two major things for him: it established Zhang Yimou as a director internationally and it showcased his early mediative manner for employing strong female protagonists. The film also marked the beginning of a personal and professional relationship with actress Gong Li that would last through seven films. Zhang Yimou experienced harsh political hardships with Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern when Chinese censors banned both films. After performing well internationally, and receiving Academy Award nominations, the films were reinstated by the Chinese government.

Set in the 1920s, Songlian (Gong Li), the college-educated beauty who arrives at a feudal mansion at the beginning of Raise the Red Lantern, requests that she lug her own luggage, which is practically the final turn of liberation she will be allowed throughout the course of the film. Obligated by her stepmother into what is basically the existence of a concubine, Songlian has settled to become the fourth wife of a feudal patriarch, a man so imperial that each of his wives supervises over her own isolated home. While acknowledging the man’s presence, Zhang Yimou then spends the rest of the film blatantly ignoring him, for this story is about women. Four women. Reined by intricate sacraments, the wives spend their time patiently waiting (or not) to be plucked for the night by their mutual husband, whose ways of deciding include allocating a special foot massage to the woman he likes best. "If you can manage to have a foot massage every day, you'll soon be running this household," wife No. 2 (Cao Cuifeng) tells the new arrival.

For the rest of its running time (128 minutes), Raise the Red Lantern takes on the episodic nature of a great Chinese novel, or an extravagant American soap-opera. It is as slow, quiet, and ritualized as the life it depicts. And needless to say, it ends in tragedy. Most of the movie unfolds in static long shots that beautifully cover so much emotional ground. On the scarce instances when the director moves in for the close-up, there's not much action, only twinkles of countenance dashing athwart the actresses' faces. Yet those faces hold us with great power, believe me.

Throughout his career Zhang Yimou has always insisted that “…the objective of any form of art is not political…I am not interested in politics”.  This is a complex ballet of words, for Raise the Red Lantern is one of the greatest movies ever made about the politics of power and control. It traces Songlian's mounting shrewdness once she becomes comfortable to the censures overriding her fresh life. It ultimately develops into an account of deceitfulness and treachery in some quarters and solidarity in others, with a narrative that harvests numerous shocking swings of character and mood. Songlian learns, among other things, never to believe her first impressions, and not to lose sight of who her enemies are. In a way, the film is about having enemies and the testimony that Zhang Yimou is telling us is that most of us don’t like to admit we have enemies or people who dislike us intensely, but we all have them, every single one of us, and there’s nothing we can do about it. The final moments of the film are some of the most beautiful and haunting as any I have witnessed and Gong Li’s performance is the most gorgeous vision of tragic wretchedness ever captured on film.

Raise the Red Lantern is based on a novel called Wives and Concubines by Su Tong. It is a cool study of sexual irrationality. It depicts a world where betrayal is the best possible action and transgressing is the worst. It is maddening, flamboyant, lush, intelligent and always fascinating. It also possesses a word that I use with great, great care: integrity. It is great film by a great filmmaker. See it.

You can see more of Mr. Faddoul's work at http://thecinematouch.blogspot.com.au/ or on twitter @JulienFaddoul 

Thursday, 31 January 2013

A film that could be my favourite film #2

As I said last month, each month I'll do a post on a film that could be my favourite all time film - this way I don't have to do a list, or make an outright declaration. So for February...

12 Angry Men (dir. Sidney Lumet, 1957)

"I feel sorry for you. What it must feel like to want to pull the switch. Ever since you walked into this room, you've been acting like a self-appointed public avenger. You want to see this boy die because you personally want it, not because of the facts."

My friend Julien once said that 12 Angry Men would be one of the films he would use to introduce people to Black and White, I go further. This is one of the films I would use to introduce people to the species of man.

12 Angry Men shows, that although we can think terrible thoughts and commit atrocious acts; from time to time one man can step up and redeem us all. One man can challenge us all not to give into the pressures of others, or succumb to society’s race to the middle. It shows that if one man stands tall for honesty and justice, wonderful things can happen. In the narrative of this film it is Juror number 8 (Fonda), in the narrative of the world: it is Sidney Lumet. 

This film is a lesson for all future filmmakers in 3 things: How to transport a small-scale play onto the screen, how to explore any male-to-male relationship, and how to utilise the power of ensemble.

For a film set essentially all in one room 12 Angry Men is boldly cinematic. Lumet’s exceptional direction, combined with the dynamic editing of Carl Lerner create and build excitement, tension, emotion, claustrophobia, and heat the way a stage production could never achieve. At no time does it feel that Lumet was constricted by the size of the room, yet at no time does one escape it. The camera moves around the room the way anyone of us would if we were there. Searching for clues, studying the faces and body language of every man in the room, examining the evidence, the facts, the motives, the clews in a desperate desire for truth; or the closest we can get to truth.

I have oft remarked that one of my favorite things about 12 Angry Men is that it covers every male-to-male relationship (and basically every kind of man) there is. This achievement cannot not just be credited to Lumet but to writer Reginald Rose, and to Martin Balsam, John Fielder, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Henry Fonda, Joseph Sweeny, Ed Begley, George Voskovec, and Robert Webber. All 14 must have been hit by the same bolt of lightning, they work with such combined focus and intent. Every man in this film could exist in another movie where they were the leading protagonist, and it would be a thoroughly fascinating study. Everyone is completely fleshed out, so that no decision feels at odds with whom they are; no word or deed could be attributed to anything but an organic, truthful reaction to the word or deed just experienced. Nothing in this film exists solely to support an ‘idea’, a ‘theme’, or a ‘device’ - everything exists to support the 12 Angry Men, and that is what makes it one of the most authentic, truthful, intelligent, emotional, and beautiful films ever made.

It is a treatise on life, on humanity, and on man. Every frame, every word is worth your study - for if you were to devote a year of your life to commit this film to memory: you would be richer for it.

It could easily be my favorite film.


Sunday, 27 January 2013

Holiday Special -- Australia Day

This is the first in my new series of Holiday Special Retrospectives, and since the holiday is Australia Day, the film will be my favourite Australian films: the 2001 gem LANTANA.

Lantana, directed by Ray Lawrence and written by Andrew Bovell based on his play Speaking in Tongues, is one of the rare Australian films that possesses a truly universal feel. An odd foray into adult drama from a country so determined to bring you various shades of Muriel. Lawrence manages to tackle the intricacies of adult relationships whilst maintaining a rather thrilling mystery as its central narrative device.

Lantana like the weed it's named after weaves together a host of tangled lives - no heroes, no villians - just a group of men and women struggling to lift their heads out of the muck. Lantana is a film about our proclivity to misplace things: trust, affection, resentment, hurt, rage and the all the people who get hurt along the way because of it.

With perhaps the greatest cast assembled for an Australian film, I only wish to single out one shining light - Anthony LaPaglia as Detective Leon Zat. LaPaglia has fallen off the map in recent years, but Lantana stands as testament to his unique talent as an actor. His performance carries at once the size and weight to fill the shoes Bovell's stage creation, yet the intimacy, vulnerability, and truth to blow everyone else off the screen. The tough but repressed Aussie bloke struggling to come to terms with changes around him and demands to 'open up' emotionally is a common archetype in Australian films, but none have done it as well as Mr. LaPaglia, and sometimes I'm afraid no one will again.

Lanata is a masterpiece of tone and maturity, that cares for it's characters whilst not shielding them from the horrors of the world (a rare balance). It is my favourite Australian film, perhaps because, it is unlike so many others. You should see it, or rewatch it - and a rainy Australia Day public holiday seems like just the right time.     

Monday, 14 January 2013

5 Great characters in movies who love movies

There is some such scientific theory, that the universe will turn in on itself. I guess, I mean what do I know. But I was thinking about this is terms of movies, and the way I've decided to understand it is in terms of characters in movies who themselves love movies. The great thing about such characters is the insight they provide to the directors own love of film; and that's always beautiful - heck it's why no one plays Tarantino off at award shows.

So 5 great characters in movies who love movies:

  • Cecilia in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) as played by Mia Farrow.
    • From my understanding of history (something I majored in) rarely has a character in a film been so moved by a member of the audience that they left the film to hang out with the audience member. But when you love film as much as Cecilia, strange things happen. The great thing about Allen and Farrow's creation is that when she meets Jeff Daniels as the actor Gil Shepherd she is more excited than when she meets the character Tom Baxter - Understanding her worship of movies and their stars as larger than life, somewhat holy creations, makes Allen and Farrow's Cecilia one of the great lovers of movies in movies.
  • Romy and Michele in David Mirkin's Romy and Michele's High School Reunion (1997) as played by Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow.
    • "You know even though we've watched Pretty Woman like 36 times, I never get tired of making fun of it." Enough said.
  • Selma Jezkova in Lars Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark (2000) as played by Bjork.
    • Selma loves movies, she loves them so much she never wants them to end, and so to avoid that pain she always leaves during the second last song, so the movie can continue forever and ever. I wished Bjork's performance continued forever and ever. The tragic irony in this film is the song about the second last song, is one of the most heartbreaking things of all of film.
  • Betty Sizemore in Neil LaBute's Nurse Betty (2000) as played by Renee Zellweger.
    • Ok, technically she is so in love with a television show that when she suffers a traumatic episode she resorts into the fantasy world of that show, becoming one of the characters. But if you love something so much as to learn how to pour coffee without looking, so as not to miss a moment of Greg Kinnear's 'acting' - then you deserve to be on my list. The tragic irony of this film is that it's in the same year as Bjork's Selma, the choice of the finer performance is my traumatic episode that sends me into a fantastical world where Bjork and Renee Zellweger fight the injustices of Middle America.
  • Mickey in Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) as played by Woody Allen.
    • There are very few directors who love film as much as Woody Allen, and when you love film that much you're going to have a few characters who love them also (or at least who love Ingmar Bergman). So why Mickey? Why not Alvie? Why not Isaac? Well I could say it's because Hannah and Her Sisters is my favourite Allen (and one of my very favourite films in general) and just leave it at that. However, truly, I think it's because Mickey, at the very depths of his depression, goes to see a movie. A Marx Brothers movie he's seen many times before. During which, he has a realisation that pulls him out of depression, out of the quandary of human misery and leads him back to happiness; back to warmth, laughter and the arms of a beautiful actress... and isn't that what all Allen's movies are there to do. To greet our gloomy faces at the door and say "come on in, it's warm inside."