M (1931)

M announces from the get-go what the film is going to be about. Before we even see a moving image, we hear a child counting out a playmate with a gruesome rhyme about a bogeyman who will soon come grinding down those present. A woman who overhears the kids cusses them out, but that only stops them until she’s out of sight, upon which they resume their game. To them, it’s abstract entertainment with no connection to real life, a naivety that carries through the rest of the film. To her, it’s a reminder of the very real threat of a serial child murderer (played to great effect by Peter Lorre) on the loose in Berlin, then one of the largest cities in the world.

This beginning also signals the importance of sound to the internal structure of the film, one of Germany’s first using the new technology. There is no non-diegetic music, something that would have been weird for a silent movie, much less one that could finally play back the same background music in synch in every cinema showing it. In fact, there are even stretches of the film that are fully devoid of any sound: no music, no speech, no effects. Those are quite eerie, certainly for a modern viewer not used to complete silence in films, especially when briefly broken by individual sound effects. The lack of non-diegetic music also accentuates every moment in which music is being heard, mainly in the form of whistling. Most prominently and famously, Hans Beckert, the killer, whistles a portion from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt (1876) when in pursuit of his compulsion; while not heard in its entirety, only in broken segments, the full piece is played ever faster and more chaotic until its conclusion, a fitting melody for a man forced to kill by his inner demons. Continue reading

She’s All That (1999)

Zack (Freddie Prinze Jr.), the most popular guy in a California high school, is dumped by Taylor, his shallower, female equivalent, shortly before graduation. Eager to prove both that he’s over her and that he still has a way with the ladies, he agrees to a bet: he is to turn a girl on the lower social rungs of school into the prom queen within a few weeks. The young lady picked is Laney (Rachael Leigh Cook), daughter of a single-dad pool cleaner, aspiring artist and standoffish loner with few friends except for a romantically non-threatening heavyset boy who would probably be depicted as gay in a modern film (cf. Mean Girls).

With a little bit of squinting, this premise is recognizable as a take on Pygmalion (both the Greek myth and George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play, which itself formed the basis for My Fair Lady). But it’s quite remarkable that, despite the supposed march of progress since then, Shaw’s circa-turn-of-the-century Eliza Doolittle remains the most feminist of the popular Galateas (the figurative statue turned into a real woman by Pygmalion). Continue reading

Technobabylon (2015)

About 70 years from now, Technobabylon predicts, nuclear wars will have become commonplace. In that world, the U.S. and China will both have violently split apart. The European Union, interestingly, stays together, but apparently at the expense of some unspecified liberties (an extrapolation, perhaps, of the current European attitude towards GMO). Newton, a new city-state implied to be somewhere in the area of what today is southern Somalia, is a place of refuge both for people fleeing from conflict as well as people aiming to test – and widen – the limits of what science can, and should, accomplish. Even the police detectives there are scientists.

This spot at the vanguard of research where almost anything goes technologically is also a remarkably diverse place, with people from all different corners of the world coming together. Because of budget restrictions and the fact that most of the game takes place at night, there aren’t particularly many crowd scenes where one could really observe this, but the main characters and the handful of NPCs are pleasingly varied in skin colour and sexual identity. As the Technobabylon of the title, the city is the setting for the newest game by point-and-click adventure-game publisher Wadjet Eye (developed by James Dearden from an unfinished series of freeware installments).

With its science-fiction noir trappings, the game’s story is difficult (and would be spoilery) to summarize. Suffice it to say that it involves deception, a string of weird murders, duplicity, a man accused of a crime he didn’t commit, treachery, a digital network more advanced than the internet (albeit looking like an 80’s cyberpunk vision of virtual reality), double-crosses, and a highly advanced artificial intelligence and the forces arraigned against it for reasons that are at odds with each other. All of these elements crisscross in the plot and ultimately prove to be the ripple effects of a decades-earlier betrayal. It’s all very engaging even if I saw the central plot twist coming halfway through (thanks to a painting and a name I correctly identified as foreshadowing and thematically relevant, respectively).
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Elf (2003)

According to a (relatively) recent article on the AV Club, Elf is one of the few Christmas classics of the last decade. I hadn’t seen it before, so I decided to remedy that. It says a lot about how little spare time I’ve recently had that, when I finally sat down to watch the film, winter’s last snow had long melted away, and the proper review based on my notes wasn’t written until mid-summer. Maybe I shouldn’t have waited that long. Seasonally-appropriate temperatures might have made me appreciate this rote holiday film more than I actually did.

The plot revolves around Buddy, a human who grows up with elves at the North Pole after crawling into Santa’s bag as a baby. When it is, at some point, no longer deniable that he’s not actually an uncommonly tall and clumsy elf, he travels to Earth to find his biological father. That man, played by James Caan (who for some reason is tied to Buddy’s adoptive elf father, played by Bob Newhart with a completely different temperament, by a similar vocal affectation), works at children’s book publisher, but seems unsuited for the job. He comes across as profit-obsessed to the point of cutting corners because children wouldn’t notice anyway. He’s also a workaholic, though with nothing to show for it, leading to tensions both at home and at work. Initially, he doesn’t want anything to do with Buddy, whom he disbelieves and whom he has removed from his office by security. The audience is clearly meant to root against him here, but really, that’s a reasonable reaction to a crazy story by an apparent crazy person. Continue reading

Winnie the Pooh (2011)

The confusingly-titled Winnie the Pooh is currently, and probably for the foreseeable future, the last traditionally-animated feature to come out of Disney. That is a somewhat more fitting (temporary?) ending than The Princess and the Frog, which, though overall okay, seemed torn between upholding the company’s traditions and injecting modern sensibilities. The new Pooh, on the other hand, is very definitely a film looking backward to the studio’s past and, for adult viewers, to the simpler time of childhood (the original trailer hits the nostalgia pretty hard). Disney even made a point of hiring Burny Mattinson, probably today’s longest-tenured Disney employee and who had worked on the original Pooh films back in the 60’s and 70’s, as head of the story department for the new instalment.

That adherence to traditions shows. The film opens, like the original The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), with live-action shots of Christopher Robin’s room, including all the stuffed animals to feature in the story. It is also somewhat episodic, though the subplots (getting Eeyore a new tail, “rescuing” Christopher Robin from a scary creature, and Pooh’s pursuit of honey) are more interwoven than the three originally-separate short films. There are even similar story beats (like a stylized song sequence illustrating the characters’ understanding of a fictional nightmare beast and Tigger… “expressing” himself). Continue reading

Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (1926)

A while ago, I had the opportunity to watch The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the very first animated feature film (or at least the first one surviving to this day). It’s not what we now call “traditionally-animated”, i.e., drawing characters on cels and photographing them in front of backgrounds, but it does follow a tradition, an even older one: that of shadow plays. The director and principal artist, German Lotte Reiniger, used models intricately cut out from cardboard and other materials, sometimes using joints to give them limited articulation akin to modern stop-motion films. They are lit from below, the only colour coming from the tinted backgrounds.

Considering the highly labour-intensive technique and its inherent limitations, the animation is astonishingly fluid and masterful and the characters are stunningly expressive. There’s never really any doubt about what happens or how the protagonists feel about it despite there being no spoken dialogue (it’s a silent film) and relatively minimal intertitles. That’s no mean feat for a film that has several antagonists and plot threads intermingling and features some plot twists.
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Léon (1994)

Given how prolific a director and producer Luc Besson is (I’d wager that I read his name several times a year), I was surprised when I noticed that I’d only ever seen a single one of his films: The Fifth Element (1997), years ago. It kind of feels like I know Taken (2008) by heart because I certainly know its premise and major plot points thanks to parodies and sequel coverage, but I haven’t actually watched that one, either.

So I figured it was time to take a look at the film that put Besson on the map, Léon (note: I watched the so-called international cut, which is called a Director’s Cut on the DVD cover, but apparently isn’t).

The movie opens with a long tracking shot straight through Manhattan, coming to rest on close-ups of first the hands, and then the iconic round sunglasses of the title character, an assassin for the Italien mob in the process of getting hired for a new job. Mimicking that initial camera move, we follow Léon (Jean Reno) as he single-mindedly and single-handedly takes a gangster’s posse to deliver a message. To his opponents, he must seem like a ghost, that’s how eerily efficient his actions and movements are. Once he’s finished, he goes to the cinema and watches an old movie. His previously stone-faced expression morphs into a child-like fascination regarding the moving picture. Continue reading