Volume 2, Number 25
This Week's Reviews: Chicken Run, Fantasia/2000, 8½ Women, The Color of Paradise.
This Week's Omissions: NONE.
(Dir: Peter Lord & Nick Park, Voices include Julia Sawalha, Mel Gibson, Miranda Richardson, Tony Haygarth, Jane Horrocks, Benjamin Whitrow, Tomothy Spall, Imelda Staunton, Lynn Ferguson, and Phil Daniels)
BY: DAVID PERRY
I have stood as one of the biggest fans of Aardman Animation over the years. Their creations have always been the best in claymation, sometimes the best in all-media animation. They have made animated films that have been perennial Oscar nominees. 1990 featured two nominations for Nick Parks with Creature Comforts and A Grand Day Out, the first Wallace and Gromit short. Creature Comforts won, with the two other Wallace and Gromit features winning to make up for the mistake (1993 for The Wrong Trousers and 1995 for A Close Shave. Aardman would also grab nominations for Adam in 1992, Wat's Pig in 1996, and Humdrum in 1999.
Now Aardman has come into making a feature film. It took four years to do it, but it sure was worth it. Chicken Run is a grand vision, a stand-out in animation. Sometimes films in this genre lead into stylish meltdown, allowing the visual sense to only be there for the story (remember Pocahontas?). Chicken Run is a story second, a treat for the eyes first.
The film is a turn on POW films. But instead of Allied soldiers in a Nazi camp, these are chickens in a egg farm. Here, a dry season in the egg production means a trip to the chopping board. While they are doing their best to meet their respective quotas, the chickens also plan and plot out various escape attempts, always failing.
The leader of the pack (or in this case flock) is Ginger (Sawalha), an upstart that will not rest until she can live outside of the gates and in the open country. Ginger has finally come up with a final idea, one that she is sure will work. The chickens will all get in a large catapult and fly over the fence, parts thanks to a pair of thieving rats (voiced by Phil Daniels and the great Timothy Spall). When the rats change their asking price from chicken feed to eggs, Ginger must give up the idea since the eggs are the only way they can stay alive.
But that is not the end of any chance of flying out. A rooster lands in the yard with promises of teaching the earth-bound chickens to fly in return for his safe hiding from the circus. Rocky the Flying Rooster (Gibson) gets into the new life, with all the flaunting chicks and great relaxation. He knows that teaching chickens to fly is impossible, but he keeps the dreams going for them.
Meanwhile, the owner of the chicken farm is living her own dream. With egg sales decreasing dramatically, Mrs. Tweedy (Richardson) decides to bring in a hulky piece of machinery, something that brings fear into the chickens whenever its power causes the ground to quake. The only way to get away from this machine is to escape as soon as possible, and Ginger and the other chickens must believe in Rocky for their lives.
Right away the film lets us know that it is a rewrite of The Great Escape. The opening of the film highlights various attempts at escaping, leading towards ginger sitting in solitary (in this case, the garbage container) playing with a baseball, to a tune that sounds distinctly like Elmer Bernstein's The Great Escape score. There are also touches of Stalag 17, however much more subtle (the bumbling, pudgy second-in-command of the camp, the muddy boots that plague the walks in front of the ranks, and the main coop is #17).
It's amazing to look at the way the camera is used in this film. Thanks to it being claymation, the camera is allowed to move around, creating a great three dimensional effect. One can only wonder about the technical details that go into moving the camera slow enough to stay with the speed of claymation frames.
The vocal artists are engaging, especially Sawalha of Absolutely Fabulous fame (fellow Ab Fab alum Jane Horrocks does a voice). Sawalha gives a charm to Ginger that is needed for her. She is not simply a leader like Steve McQueen (though I always feel that the true leader in The Great Escape is Richard Attenborough), but a lovable mug.
Mel Gibson has been kind of flat as an actor over the last few years, with mediocre to poor performances in Ransom, Conspiracy Theory, and Lethal Weapon 4. Here there is something that was missing in those other performances. Where Matt Damon's vocal work in Titan A.E. seemed like he was just standing there saying the lines, but Gibson really gets into the material, something that he needs to do more often.
Miranda Richardson is back, thank heavens. I was really fearful of her career after she did vocal work in The King and I animated remake. It was bad, real bad. Here I did fear Mrs. Tweedy, with much thanks to the way Richardson conveys the character in her voice. The only other actress I can think of that might be able to give be goosebumps of fear with her voice is Glenn Close.
There have been so many great achievements in animation
over the years and Chicken Run is one of the best. Nick Parks (all the
Wallace and Gromit shorts) and Peter Lord (Adam, Wat's Pig) have taken
so long to work the clay perfectly, that the story remains finely tuned. Chicken Run is
even better than the shorts, the best thing out of Aardman yet.
(Dir: Don Hahn, Pixote Hunt, Hendel Butoy, Eric Goldberg, James Algar, Francis Glebas, and Gaėtan Brizzi, Appearances by Steve Martin, Itzhak Perlman, Quincy Jones, Angela Lansbury, James Earl Jones, Penn & Teller, Bette Midler, and James Levine)
BY: DAVID PERRY
In 1940, Walt Disney chose to take a step at converging the budding art of cinema animation and the age-old art of classical music. The film was, of course, Fantasia, a great amalgamation of the two. Unfortunately it was not really appreciated at the time, both by critics (too hoity-toity) and audiences (too boring), and Disney chose to never return to his plan, to add to the sequences in Fantasia every few years. Disney would never again take such a dramatic step in animation, only making films like his two successes sandwiching Fantasia, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio.
Now it is the time that Disney vision can come to life. Roy E. Disney has taken to making a newly added and resurrected Fantasia for his uncle. Fantasia/2000 follows the Walt Disney idea of adding new pieces to the old. And, in my personal opinion, goes beyond the original.
Today there are so many new ways of working on animation, just look at the last few months in animated cinema: Titan A.E. (3-D CGI integrated into regular animation), Princess Mononoke (hand-drawn cells), Dinosaur (fully computer generated animation), and Chicken Run (claymation). Fantasia/2000 does its best to work with every form it can, much like the original. There is some CGI work, as well as some regular animation and some hand-drawn cells.
Like most anthologies, it is tough to fully take on the film without taking on its parts, so here we go.
Piece #1: A flock of bat-like triangles fly around to Ludwig Van Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony in C minor, Opus 67" directed by Pixote Hunt. Not the best representative of the film as a whole. Unlike the others, this one tells nothing in the form of a story, not necessarily a bad thing, merely working as eye candy. It is interesting to hear the most common classical piece in the film used on something as uncommon as this. (If I were to rate merely this segment: B)
Piece #2: Whales move from the ocean to the skies with the beats of Ottorino Respighi's "The Pines of Rome" directed by Hendel Butoy. This all CGI work is one of the most dazzling of the film. It has a beautiful story to progress, however head scratching it may be. The look and appeal of the whales is perfectly paced with the Respighi music -- leaving the viewer without a care as to what whales have to do with Roman trees. (If I were to rate merely this segment: A)
Piece #3: Depression age New Yorkers work gloom in to George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" directed by Eric Goldberg. This is really the best part of the film, a great story with a different look than the rest. The animation is inspired by the works of Al Hirshfeld, a look that has never been present in anything from Disney before. It is incredible to simply watch how the actions perfectly go with the music, everything from actions to character changes. I was hooked with the first beats of Gershwin's piece -- by the end I was enthralled. (If I were to rate merely this segment: A+)
Piece #4: Hans Christian Andersen's "The Story of the Steadfast Soldier" is put to music with Dimitri Shostakovich's "Piano Concerto No. 2" directed by Hendel Butoy. Of all the pieces, this is the only one that does not really mesh well with the music. While Shostakovich's work is great to listen to, it seems like an afterthought considering the solidity of the story. I fondly remember having this story read to me as a child, so the Andersen short story is great to see on screen, but would have been better as a short instead of a Fantasia segment. (If I were to rate merely this segment: B)
Piece #5: A group of flamingoes are tormented by another flamingo wielding a yo-yo during Camille Saint Saens' "Carnival of the Animals" directed by Eric Goldberg. Short and sweet, this is a nice change of pace after "The Story of the Steadfast Soldier." Yes, it is kookie and angelic, but that is not a bad thing, is it? (If I were to rate merely this segment: B+)
Piece #6: The original Fantasia piece of Paul Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" returns directed by James Algar. Probably the best known of the works in the original still works to this day. Mickey Mouse's problem with a group of overworking brooms is just as much fun now as it was in the original's setting. Admittedly the style does stand out as very different from the others, mainly due to the fact that the print is 60 years old. (If I were to rate merely this segment: A-)
Piece #7: Donald Duck loses Daisy Duck as he prepares Noah's Ark to Sir Edward Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" directed by Francis Glebas. Admittedly this was not one that I looked forward to since I thought it would be too much like an old Disney cartoon short. Instead it surprised me by thoroughly delighting me. This is both funny and touching, something that had not been done yet in the feature. The graduation march of "Pomp and Circumstance" is a bit of a surprise choice, but it really does work. The image of the animals marching onto the ark as we hear the same tune played at so many graduation processions is a fine visual parallel (plus watching those laughing animals is funnier than most of the comedies I've seen this year). (If I were to rate merely this segment: A+)
Piece #8: Mother Nature must find herself able to work her magic again set to Igor Stravinsky's "The Firebird Suite" directed by Gaėtan and Paul Brizzi. A miraculous story to close the film with. I was reminded of Princess Mononoke by the deep felt love of the land through an abstract person, which added to it more than it detracted to it. This piece allows the viewer to be both disturbed and enlightened by what happens. It is the best ecologically based Disney film since Bambi. (If I were to rate merely this segment: A)
The segments are introduced by various celebrities, some of whom work into the segment (Penn & Teller introduce "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" with magic), some do not (how can you have a film without both Steve Martin and Bette Midler?). One of the biggest complaints about the original was that Deems Taylor's narration is now so dated, well, at least it wasn't half as cloying as these. Most of the segments (directed by Don Hahn) fall flat and are neither funny or enlightening (with the exception of Midler's presentation, dealing with ideas for segments that were not used [the Salvador Dali baseball one sounded really absurd and interesting]).
Even with the cheesy openings the new Fantasia is
incredible simply for its segments. Fantasia/2000 is a beautiful piece of
cinema, a fine achievement both in animation and in film altogether.
(Dir: Peter Greenaway, Starring John Standing, Matthew Delamere, Vivian Wu, Polly Walker, Shizuka Inoh, Toni Collette, Natacha Amal, Kirina Mano, Amanda Plummer, Elizabeth Barrington, Manna Fujiwara, Don Warrington, Barbara Sarafian, Myriam Muller, and Claire Johnston)
BY: DAVID PERRY
"How many film directors make films to fulfill their own sexual fantasies?"
Such are the words of Philip Emmenthal (Standing) as he contemplates Fellini's standings after seeing 8½ and making his own personal brothel of unusual, Fellini-esque women. It's doubtful that Peter Greenaway wrote this line without any thought of its implications dealing with the film at hand, 8½ Women. Is this film here only to fulfill the sexual fantasies of Peter Greenaway?
Considering the repertoire of Greenaway, films that frankly deal with sex and its situations going awry, the answer would be a definite yes. Greenaway has never tried to keep his films toned down for audiences, they are in your face sexual romps. The only reason his films are considered art and not porn is that he continually works with the dramatics of sex. Just ask that poor chap at the end of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.
There is nothing in the world wrong with a film being personal (i.e. The 400 Blows), but it's not the best thing when the film is here only to pleasure its maker. It's almost as if Greenaway does not let the audience in on his innuendos paying off. These are the fetishes and interests of (hopefully) only Peter Greenaway, and for that very reason, everything that he throws out is of little interest to the audience. (Sorry, Pete, watching a nude woman scrub a hog in a bathtub is not my idea of erotic.)
The film is about Philip Emmenthal's attempt to have his own 8½ women, each one there to fulfill his sexual urges. This is not simply the brainchild of Philip, but actually the product of his son Storey (Delamere). Philip is so upset with the death of his wife that dutiful son Storey has sex with him (off-screen, by the way), takes him to a theatre showing 8½, and convinces him of the heaven that would come from such a brothel.
The 8½ women are a mixed bunch. Simato (Inoh) is the first, a woman brought into the scheme after the obsession with gambling on Emmenthal owned Pachinko machines blows up in her face. Kito (Wu) is the workaholic advisor and translator for the Emmenthal's business. Griselda (Collette) is a Norwegian nun in the making, complete with S&M undergarments and a full body shave. Beryl (Plummer) is an animal lover, who perhaps loves her pig too much. Clothilde (Sarafian) is a maid in the Emmenthal household, who has been a little weary of what Mrs. Emmenthal has had. Mio (Mano) is a Japanese woman who thinks that the only way she could truly be a woman is if she could live a life as a female impersonator in Kabuki theatre. Giaconda (Amal) is a woman who makes money by becoming pregnant and selling the children. Palmira (Walker) is a spurned former wannabe lover of Philip, who sees this as her chance to get into his life.
Well, that's eight women. Where's the half? There are so many ways that Greenaway could have touched on a person being half a woman, but instead he just keeps it in the air. Giulietta is barely in the film, only enough to be half a woman thanks to her lack of legs. They kept her character so hush-hush that when we do have some form of a pay-off it is in the form of another listless Greenaway masturbatory scene.
The film is bad. It's bad in that artsy-smartsy way. This is the perfect film to join Mike Figgis' The Loss of Sexual Innocence in a double feature of supposedly perverse films that fail miserably. The characters are too broad and unappealing, the scenarios are too unabatedly absurd, and the sex isn't even that good.
The film comes off as merely a voyeuristic jab at the art house films. Seeing nudity in these independent and international films (8½ Women is a co-production from the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, and Great Britain) is not usual, but it is not every week that I watch a father and a son stand nude beside each other to see what one once was and what the other will become.
To be perverse is not necessarily a bad thing -- hence the reason Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, Prospero's Book, and The Pillow Book (all of which feature male frontal nudity, by the way) are not considered bad films. The problem is when nothing comes from being so. Yes, Greenaway paints a portrait of a father-son relationship that thrives on sex in every way possible, perhaps exactly what Greenaway wanted, but that does not make it interesting.
That is not to say that the film does have some good parts. Perverted old man or not, Peter Greenaway is still a fiend with the camera. The set-ups that he and cinematographers Reinier van Brummelen and Sacha Vierny are at times incredible to look at (my favorite is a really wide shot of the two protagonists getting out of a car, with all the action at the very bottom of the screen, leaving the rest filled with their shadows). There were also some fine performances, namely Standing, Delamere, Collette, and Wu.
Still this is not a film to even think about seeing for
those small pleasures. At one point in the film Storey defends cinema as "two
hours of forgetfulness" from life. It's going to take me longer than two hours
to forget this mess.
|The Color of Paradise
(Dir: Majid Majidi, Starring Mohsen Ramezani, Hossein Mahjoub, Salime Feizi, Elham Sharifi, Farahnaz Safari, Morteza Fatemi, Mohammad Rahmaney, Zahra Mizani, Masoomeh Zeinati, and Ahmad Aminian)
BY: DAVID PERRY
The Color of Paradise opens with the words "To the glory of God" on the screen. From that moment on, it is a transcendentalist journey as to the beauty and meaning of what God does with his glory. This is not a religious film, but by that one little subtitle, it is set to have a meaning that would otherwise be unseen.
Majid Majidi works with God working through a small child in Tehran. Mohammad (Ramezani) is a blind child, one that is happy with his handicap, but unhappy with what others have acted due to it. There is a moment early in the film in which a baby bird has fallen out of its nest. Mohammed takes to finding the bird, scaring away prey, climbing a tree, and finding the nest, returning the bird safely to its mother. In a way, Mohammad is, at that moment, hands for God to use.
But the reason that Mohammad is able to save this bird is not really a good one. He goes to a school for blind children in the city, far from the countryside where his family lives. His widower father (Mahjoub) does not really want him, and leaves him waiting at the school for him to pick him up. There are many heartbreaking shots of Mohammad sitting there alone, unable to see anything but hoping that his father is nearby.
When he does finally arrive, he walks by Mohammad unannounced, heading straight to the office of the school's headmaster. He sees Mohammad as an impediment to his living and wants to leave the child at the school for the entire Summer. The headmaster refuses, much to his chagrin.
When he gets Mohammad home, he pretty much does everything to keep Mohammad from living the life he wants. It's not that he is being malicious, but that he thinks that the child spending time with his two sisters will only cause him to be singled-out and ridiculed (when, in fact, Mohammad has a grand time on the day he is allowed to go to school with his sisters). The father decides that giving Mohammad a trade would be best and leaves the boy with a blind carpenter, hoping that Mohammad can be a type of apprentice.
The father in this film is not a bad man, just stubborn. He is so deeply hurt by everything that he cannot see anyone else being either happy or unhappy. To think that Mohammad or his loving grandmother (Feizi) might have a good time while he works on the outside of the house is hard for him to handle. He thinks that there is no one for his future; his mother will die, his daughters will marry and leave, and Mohammad is incapable of taking care of him when he becomes old and gray. He hopes to court a woman from another town who is rather wealthy, leaving taking care of Mohammad to the backburner.
The actor playing the father, Hossein Mahjoub, is the only real actor in the film, everyone else is here on their first try. Both Ramezani and Feizi are incredible for novice actors, giving performances that would shame many regular American actors.
The only real problem comes in the film's finale, which is so out of nowhere that it cannot stand for as long as it does. Yes, there is very much meaning to why it is there, but it comes off so contrived. The previous hour and a half of the film had been so strong in telling a naturalist story, this part seemed more like an Americanized version of an ending.
The pacing of the film allows the ending to not hit as hard as it could. The Color of Paradise literally flies by as it tells its story. It is really rare that a film can go by as quickly as this one does. Most any other film that goes nuts for glorious visual shots becomes overlong (i.e. the recent Indian import The Terrorist), this one does not. Every bit of the film leading up to the finale goes at a quick speed. The ending almost seems longer than the rest of the film.
Majid Majidi is a fine filmmaker, allowing the film to stay almost in the 'eyes' of Mohammad. Every moment of the film weighs on Mohammad, even those in which his father is busy courting a new woman. Even the soundtrack is set for a blind child, using only the sounds of the land for setting and mood. I was somewhat reminded of Ponette, a fine French film about a girl having to deal with a widower father that is entirely from her view.
Majidi's films are Iranian family films. They are
dramas that can play to children as well as to adults. His last film, the Oscar
nominated The Children of Heaven, leaned more for children, this leans more for
the parents. That is not to say that this is not a film for the kids, but those that
will really learn from the film's message are the parents.