Miyazaki May: Princess Mononoke (2001)

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As a genre, animated movies are by and large treated with kid gloves, often being dismissed based on their cartoony aesthetic and place in the multiplex cycle. Films like Princess Mononoke shatter this frequent preconception. Hayao Miyazaki’s stunning and meditative epic illustrates that the genre can be a canvas for exploring complex themes and depicting the world in ways that not only awe us, but also enlighten us too.

Princess Mononoke tells the story of a young prince- Ashitaka (Yōji Matsuda). After fending off and sustaining injuries at the hands of a cursed boar, the prince goes in search of a cure. His travels take him to a distant land in the East, where he finds himself in the middle of a bitter feud between industrialist- Lady Eboshi (Yūko Tanaka) and the title character- (frequently referred to as San throughout the film) who is a ferocious human warrior that was raised by wolves.

Rather then being a standard fairy tale about the ills of man in taking down the natural world, Mononoke is instead a potent parable about Japan dealing with its post war trauma. On the one hand is the industrial response whereby Lady Eboshi believes that arming and conquering will make her little corner of the world (Iron Town) much more powerful.

In this way, Iron Town is a stand-in for Japan insofar as becoming more like its enemy in developing weapons that will bring catastrophic ruin to generations of people (in this case animals). Then you have the various factions of the forest (wolves, boars, apes) who believe in retaining their small corner of the world thorough whatever means possible. This is representative of Japan licking its wounds by attempting to hold on to its identity amid the growing escalation of continual warfare.

This aspect is thrown into even starker clarity with some of the characters in the margins such as the leper and priest. Their cynicism about the cursed nature of the world (resulting from war and anger) and what it’s done to the land is akin to a mournful Greek chorus for Japan’s malaise after the Second World War.

Aside from this central metaphor coursing through the film’s veins, Princess Mononoke is also an excellent example of a Russian doll set plot. As the movie goes on, the initial  ideas of good and evil are slowly unravelled as factions and motives are revealed. But this also embodied in the central plot involving Ashitaka’s attempts to get through to San. At first he sees a primal person whose seething hatred and attempts to get revenge are all consuming. But deep down he sees someone whose humanity and life does not have to perish in the pursuit of vengeance. This central relationship is touching and heartfelt.

Visually, the film is an interesting mixture of Western and Japanese imagery. There’s a clear homage to John Ford and Sergio Leone with the design of Iron Town insofar as being a place that could have existed in any of their Western pictures. But the film’s most arresting imagery are the ones where nature is being in a sense corrupted. One example is the initial image of the demonic Boar, which is quite striking, particularly the pulsating and gooey black substance revealing the creature. It calls to mind the work of HR Giger filtered through depictions of the Symbiote from Marvel Comics.

With an enchanting score, stunning painted background vistas and breathtaking point of view shots, Princess Mononoke is a beauty to behold in terms of animated features. It sometimes suffers from bombarding the viewer, but in its best moments it’s a spirited adventure for the mind and senses.

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Editorial: Intro to Miyazaki May

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May sees the continuation of themed months. From the small pockets of reactions, I’ve gotten in my personal life, admitting to not seeing a Hayao Miyazaki movie is akin to a cinematic sin. Well, your honour I now stand here ready to watch and review some of Miyazaki’s films for May. In my defence: despite my early love of animation, courtesy of the 90s Disney Renaissance and the studio’s classic hand drawn efforts, the genre has not held my interest in my adult years. I’m hoping this changes with Miyazaki’s films.

Last month, I only managed to watch and review three movies as opposed to the advertised four. This was because I was feeling a little burnout in the middle of the month, which caused me to fall behind. I did not think the quality of my fourth review would match the rest, so I decided to abandon it. Sorry for any disappointment caused. A review of Dario Argento’s Dracula will turn up in another themed month (down the road).

With this in mind, I will only be watching and reviewing three movies this month. I’m still fortunate enough to be working from home on a full time basis, but it does mean that my output is slightly reduced. In terms of selecting which Miyazaki’s movies to watch, I’ve gone for the films that I’ve most wanted to see (due to striking me in terms of subject matter or critical consensus etc). I’m also going to watch the original versions with Japanese dubbing and English subtitles. I think this is a no-brainer to respect Miyazaki’s vision.

Like last month, down below are the titles for the month along with a brief comment and where you can watch them.

Movie 1: Princess Mononoke (2001)

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This is not only my introduction to Miyazaki but also my first dip into the genre pool of Japanese high fantasy. Out of all the movies I’m covering, this is the one I’ve been most curious about. Princess Mononoke is available to stream on Netflix.

Spirited Away (2003)

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This is the one Miyazaki film that’s broken into the mainstream in terms of critical acclaim and his talent. I’m eager to see if it lives up to its celebrated status. Spirited Away is available to stream on Netflix.

The Wind Rises (2014) 

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The Wind Rises was on my radar when it was originally released in 2014. What put me off was that it was touted as Miyazaki’s last film. I did not think I could speak to it meaningfully because I had no prior knowledge or relationship with the rest of his movies. Hopefully, that can change (slightly) when I cover it for Miyazaki May. Like the other two films, The Wind Rises is available to stream on Netflix.

In the meantime, what film out of the lineup intrigues you the most? Which Miyazaki films have you seen? Let me know in the comments below.

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My Favourite Track: The Force Awakens (2015)

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Welcome to my favourite track, a new series of blog posts dedicated to a piece of film music that has moved me enough to get off the proverbial couch and madly type at the keyboard. From snappy songs to stupendous scores, the sky is the limit on the discussion. However, my knowledge of music theory is about as good as a cat’s knowledge of the innermost workings of the human psyche. So, I do hope you bear with me as I attempt to make my way through the exciting world of Film Music.

John Williams’s return to the Star Wars franchise in 2015 with The Force Awakens was equally as miraculous and exciting as the series itself. Williams’ score proved to be captivating with its exciting assortment of new themes and retooling of vintage ones.

There are many tracks that I could cite as my favourite. The mysteriousness and eventual budding of Rey’s theme (via the chimes of bells) make The Scavenger a blissful listening experience. The gentle use of strings in Jedi Steps illustrate the humbleness of Rey’s journey. And there’s just a tragic beauty in the track- The Starkiller Base.

However, my favourite track of The Force Awakens is Finn’s Confession. Though it’s shorter compared to a lot of the tracks on the soundtrack, it says so much in that time. At first listen, it has a striking resemblance to Anakin’s Theme from The Phantom Menace. That theme was a pure embodiment of innocence and a jubilant testament to Anakin’s  boyhood dreams of adventure.

In Finn’s Confession, Williams takes that strand of innocence but injects it with a measured and melancholic tinge (via the use of strings at a slow tempo).  It greatly illustrates Finn’s strife in telling Rey about his Stormtrooper past. I think Williams chose to evoke Anakin’s theme because it’s his way of telling the audience that despite Finn’s angst, he’s innocent and his heart is in the right place. It’s musical judgement through the referencing of a pre-established theme.

The next important part of the track starts at 0.55 seconds. This stretch of music is played in the movie when the Millennium Falcon is making its approach to Takodana and Rey remarks while seeing the planet’s surface for the first time- “I didn’t know there was this much green in the galaxy.” The music is soaring and uplifting, conveying Rey’s awe at that moment.

In the context of the track, it seems like a response to Finn’s attempt to reach out to Rey. It’s akin to a reward for being honest and sincere. But with its use in the movie in mind, the track is much more applicable to Rey. For choosing to go on the adventure and helping BB8, she’s opened herself to a much larger world via stunning green pastures.

One excellent aspect of the the Force Awakens score is Williams’s choices in the track inclusions. He’s not only going for what sounds good for the audience insofar as a 70 minute soundtrack experience is concerned. But he’s also choosing music based on emotion and theme.

An instance of this comes from “That Girl with the Staff.” In that track, Williams musically depicts three instances of how Rey is viewed through the narrative. The first is warm and familiar with the use of a light statement of Rey’s theme as she introduces herself to Finn. The second is when Finn encounters Rey while she is running towards him with her staff (via a brisk tempo). The final employs the brass section in an ominous manner to evoke Kylo Ren’s first encounter with Rey.

In the same vein, Finn’s Confession feels as though Williams is paralleling Rey and Finn. They’re both attempting to open up in some way and are in a sense rewarded for their efforts, whether it’s through understanding (in the case of Williams’ homaging Anakin’s theme with Finn’s plight) or Rey seeing much more of the galaxy.

In contrast to the proceeding music, the last minute of the track feels quite playful and fun. The music is used to accompany Finn’s, Rey’s, BB8’s and Han Solo’s walk through the entrance of Maz Kanata’s castle. As the camera pans up, the audience is treated to many flags and a statue of Kanata. I love the swell of the string section as the characters pass these sights, particularly as it’s edited exactly in time when the audience see the statue for the first time.

It echos the moment in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring when the remaining members of the Fellowship look up at the giant Argonath statues. In that scene, there’s grandiosity to the music as the camera pans up and sweeps around to show the ancient monuments. Equally, Williams is illustrating ancient grandness as Han alludes to the age of Maz’s castle. The final moments have a calming reassurance to tell the audience that our characters are in safe hands.

Overall, Finn’s Confession is a track that for me encapsulates one of the major themes of the franchise. It’s about reaching out, whether that’s to another person or beyond the parameters of your every day existence. The track is like a warm embrace (in musical terms) for that mind set.

What do you think of Finn’s Confession? What’s your favourite track from The Force Awakens soundtrack? Let me know in the comments below. Happy Star Wars Day. May the 4th be with you.

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Argento April: The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)

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In the context of what’s come before in Argento April: The Stendhal Syndrome miraculously seems like an answer to my chief criticism of Dario Argento’s output. He seems more fixated on the cinematic flourishes that pervade his films as opposed to doing anything interesting with some of his characters or aspects of his narratives.

The Stendhal Syndrome is about Detective Anna Manni (Asia Argento) who’s on the trail of a sadistic serial killer- Alfredo Grossi (Thomas Kretschmann). Manni is afflicted with a condition called Stendhal Syndrome. It causes someone to become dizzy and devastated when viewing stunning pieces of art. In their battle of wills, Grossi attempts to exploit this weakness while Manni attempts to heal herself via sessions with a therapist.

In contrast to Argento’s earlier efforts, The Stendhal Syndrome is a film that’s less firmly rooted within the horror genre. In fact, it fits squarely within the genre of twisty ’90s thrillers such as Seven (complete with a shocking end reveal). But the film that’s mostly on Argento’s mind is Vertigo. Like Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal classic, Syndrome concerns itself with a controlling character who attempts to remake a woman in his perfect image.

Conceptually, this seems like an interesting idea, particularly within the context of a  relationship between a serial killer and a committed detective. However, in execution, the movie only seems to play to this idea with its ending twist. In fact, it reframes the entire relationship as Grossi is seen a controlling person who had a masterplan for breaking down Manni. This seems like a far cry from Grossi’s modus operandi of torture and torment as opposed to ownership and control. The retcon goes into the realm of preposterous to evoke Hitchcock’s film.

Instead, The Stendhal Syndrome is much more interesting as an illustration of how a woman deals with rape. Manni primarily overcompensates by showing very masculine traits (most prevalent in her relationship with boyfriend- Marco). She also reviles sex as and any sense of weakness. During this stretch, the idea of Manni being like her tormentor is theorised and is much more interesting then where the film goes with the “control twist.”

As a portrait of someone whose being psychologically damaged by a traumatising event, it feels sensitive and resonating. Most of this comes from Asia Argento’s daring central performance that flickers between victim and aggressor with believable and captivating power.

Unfortunately, this level of care is not present in Argento’s direction. Throughout he tends to over egg the pudding, whether it’s the unnecessary use of CGI in mundane situations or distracting camera moves that unnecessarily point upwards. Argento’s signature style of a slow creeping dread (courtesy of camera moves that evoke a looming omnipresent predator) is gone and replaced with something far more average. Giuseppe Rotunno’s hazy cinematography and Ennio Morricone’s eerie dreamlike score pick up the slack in providing the film’s atmosphere.

The Stendhal Syndrome never rises above being an average curiosity. While it’s good to see Argento focusing more on character, his exploration in some areas lack shading and direction insofar as thematic focus is concerned. But there’s something special in Asia Argento’s performance that has an emotional truth even when the film does not quite lay the tracks down for her eventual path.

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Argento April: Deep Red (1974)

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Deep Red or Profundo Russo (Italian title) is the cinematic equivalent of soaring. It’s a film that illustrates Dario Argento is not merely working within the horror genre, but understands it so profoundly that he can bend it to his will and in the process the audience too.

Much like his debut feature (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), Deep Red is a Giallo set in Rome. However, this time the film is about a British pianist- Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) who finds himself thrust into a murder mystery, after witnessing his neighbour- Helga Ulmann (Macha Meril) being brutally killed through her apartment window.

Watching Deep Red is akin to waking from a long unwinding nightmare at 3.00 am in the morning. There’s a slow and haunting quality that pervades the film as the camera takes on a mysterious omnipresent quality, slowing panning around the surroundings with predatory precision.

In Crystal Plumage, Argento mixed opulence and terror. In Deep Red, the director is concerned with images of innocence that are corrupted and transformed into something nasty. The opening moments (via a low angle shot) depict a seemingly picturesque Christmas display. However, this is soon ruined by a murder (depicted via shadows) and a bloody knife, which falls close to where the grisly act is being witnessed.

Argento brings this quality of corrupting innocence throughout the picture. There are frequent shots that frame toys and strange looking objects as omens of the carnage that’s about to occur. A particularly freaky image is the black gloved murderer picking up a figurine of a baby.

Less impressive are some of the human elements of the story. The relationship between Daly and kooky reporter- Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi) is less Howard Hawkes in its charm and more a Punch and Judy show (involving casual male chauvinism and childish antics).

Despite the recurring theme of innocence being corrupted in the imagery, I wish Argento had explored this more in the characters. There’s a tantalising prospect of the theme playing out by the killer being Daly’s friend- Carlo (Gabriele Lavia). This aspect would have made sense, given who we find out is the boy who picks up the knife in the flashback scene. However, the film opts for a far less interesting reveal that feels like the ticking of a plot point then a genuine revelation.

There’s a scene when Daly is talking to Carlo early on. They’re both dwarfed by the scenery as Argento employs a wide angle shot. The moment embodies how the director feels about characterisation and how it’s secondary to the cinematic framing of the experience. Deep Red is flawed in this area along with occasional spots of plotting the mystery.

However, there’s something exciting about Argento finding his voice within the horror genre and melding it to his heightened sensibilities. This is even apparent with his first collaboration with Goblin, who create a chilling rock infused score. Deep Red is the sort of film that coasts on its cinematic verve and technique. For the devout and curious, it’s an enriching exercise in horror movie making. For everyone else, it may be an indulgent chore.

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Argento April: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1971)

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Loosely defined: Giallo is a popular 20th century genre that specialises in mysteries, thrillers and occasionally supernatural horror. The Italian word translates to yellow and the genre gets its name from the yellow coloured paperback novels that dominated bookshelves in post war Italy. While there were many Giallo movies before 1970, Dario Argento popularised the genre (with Crystal Plumage) and kick started its resurgence in post 70s Italian cinema.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is about an American writer, Sam Dalmas (Tony Mustane) whose been on a long holiday in Italy. Grappled with writer’s block as he’s about to leave the country: Sam’s world is turned upside down when he witnesses a woman in an art gallery being stabbed. Soon after, the writer finds himself in an investigation and race against time with a black gloved figure, whose been on a murderous rampage of local women.

Crystal Plumage’s greatest trick is its distortion. Much like Sam is convinced that he’s seeing the opening attack in one way, the audience is likewise led to believe that what we’re seeing is real. Part of this comes from genre expectation and who we typically see as the victim in similar stories. Argento also brings this aspect to some of the sequences.

One has Sam being chased by a gunman wearing a yellow jacket (an amusing reference to the genre’s roots). Sam eventually tracks the lone man to a sports convention where the majority of people are wearing yellow jackets.

In contrast to other Argento films I’ve seen, the direction is less bombastic and assaultive. Instead, the director in his first film favours opulence and dread. Many scenes have the characters slowly realising their impending doom in lavish surroundings. One scene that comes to mind is when a woman is walking back up to her apartment. As she climbs the staircase, the lights start to go out until she is met with complete darkness and has to resort to using a match.

Argento’s use of the top down shot that shows all the staircases aligned looks like a surreal panting. It evokes tension and the pervasive nature of the killer. Ennio Morricone’s eclectic score made up of gloomy bells, low male choral chants and a moaning woman provide the scene with its electrifying horror.

Despite this, the film’s central problem comes from the handling of Sam’s character. Conceptually, it’s fascinating to see someone who starts out as helpless in aiding a victim of the black gloved killer, becomes obsessed and end up helping to bring the notorious figure to justice. However, I don’t get any sense is grappling with anything (other then trying to remember details about the killer) and instead strung from one plot element to the next.

With Sam being a writer whose is in the midst of writer’s block, it would have been interesting to see him wanting to stay because it inspires him to write again. Or he has to solve the mystery, due to wanting to write a story about his experiences. Instead, it just feels like he stays because it’s convenient to the plot.

As it stands, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a scorching debut from Dario Argento. He plucks the strings of the Giallo genre with finesse, a black comedic streak (particularly with some of the secondary characters) and subversive wit. However, I can’t help but feel that the film could have soared and become something far more interesting, particularly with the exploration of Sam and his further entrenchment into the central mystery.

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Editorial: Intro to Argento April

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April sees the start of themed months and I could not think of a better filmmaker then Dario Argento, to begin this series of blog posts. Despite being into Italian horror cinema, Argento has fallen of my radar compared to other directors in the genre. Mario Bava has always felt like the most talented and interesting: working within several sub-genres and beguiling audiences with his feverish paintbox aesthetic.

On the other end of the scale is Lucio Fulci. His work has been purely base, feeling like adaptations of provocative B movie posters with hyperbolic statements. While his movies don’t entirely hang together (narratively), they can be relied on for having moments that horrify, strike and linger.

While Argento’s contribution to cinema is invaluable: he was one of the screenwriters of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and the producer of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), I don’t have enough of a sense of him as a director. I’m curious to see how his ascetic compares to his peers in the genre.

From Argento’s extensive filmography, I’ve only seen Suspiria (1977) and Opera (1987).  So, in terms of films to watch, I’m spoilt for choice. Below are the movies for the month along with a brief comment and where you can watch them.

Movie 1: Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1971)

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What better place to start then Argento’s first film, I’ve always been interested about this one. Crystal Plumage is available to rent or buy from Google Play, Prime Video and iTunes.

Movie 2: Deep Red (1975)

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Other then Suspiria, this seems to be Argento’s most celebrated film. I’m intrigued to see if it lives up to the hype. Deep Red is available to rent or buy from Google Play, Prime Video and iTunes.

Movie 3: The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)

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I wanted to feature an obscure and lesser known film in the line up, cue: The Stendhal Syndrome. You can stream the title on Shudder.com.

Movie 4: Dracula (2014)

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Dario Argento adapting Bram Stoker’s famous novel and ostensibly making a vampire movie, I’m all in. You can rent or buy the film from Google Play, Prime Video and iTunes.

In the meantime, what film intrigues you the most? Which Argento films have you seen? Let me know in the comments below.

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