Jolly Good Thursdays – I Capture the Castle

I Capture the Castle (2003, dir. Tim Fywell)
Starring Romola Garai, Rose Byrne, Henry Thomas, Marc Blucas, Bill Nighy

This is not the sort of story you would expect from Dodie Smith, the same author behind 101 Dalmatians. Instead of a tale aimed towards the younger set, this is a coming of age story set in the mid-1930s. Themes of wealth and love and how the two are intertwined make up the spine of the picture and, what might have been a trite film, is aided by great performances to become something quite a bit better than that. The picture manages to be both an escapist romance and a grounding story of how much love can hurt.

The film opens with the Mortmains’ arrival at an old castle where their author patriarch has relocated them. The events are narrated by middle child Cassandra (Garai), who is overshadowed by their father’s second wife Topaz and Cassandra’s older sister, Rose (Byrne). The castle, which was a magical place when they first came to live there, has become a dank and moldy tomb for the family. Things begin to change when the owners of the castle, American brothers Simon and Neil Cotton arrive to decide what they are going to do with the estate. Rose sees this as her opportunity to marry into money and tries to woo Simon, the elder brother. However, Cassandra is also smitten with Simon and Neil has feelings for Rose.

The Mortmain family is incredibly eccentric and director Fywell is tasked with finding humor in their quirks as well as showing they have consequences. This is particularly highlighted through Mr. Mortmain, a successful author when his family was young, but who has failed to be able to write anything of value since. At first his hang ups and odd behavior come across light, but as the film progresses we see the detrimental effect that have on his entire family. Cassandra is also forced to face the fact that her father’s mental state may be beyond help. That’s quite a heavy weight for our plucky 16 year old protagonist to handle. In a similar fashion, Rose’s vapidity and desperation to find a man are played for laughs at the start, but when she enters into a relationship with a man she doesn’t actually love we can see how a harmless quirk becomes destructive to many people.

The film is not a major cinematic achievement by any means, but it is a very solid and well paced story about eccentric people having to deal with how their behavior effects others. The story is a very mature one, that lets the characters lose themselves in the giddiness of a first love, but also grounds them by not having everything tied up in a neat package. There is hurt and not much closure for our protagonists. In many ways this is a more adult Nicolas Sparks tale, that refrains from maudlin sentiment and allows its characters to have real flaws.


Newbie Wednesday – Daybreakers

Daybreakers (2009, dir. The Spierig Brothers)
Starring Ethan Hawke, Sam Neill, Willem Dafoe

Vampires are on the brain of many a Hollywood screenwriter these days. From the Twilight franchise to CW teen drama The Vampire Diaries, the sanguine are a hot commodity. The vampire is one of those monsters that seems to have a couple different interpretations. You have the elegant sex object popularized by Dracula and the Anne Rice novels, you have the eerily inhuman humanoid seen in the classic Nosferatu, and then occasional we see a completely bestial form. What’s interesting about Daybreakers is that it touches on each of these forms; and while the film is high concept, does it live up to the ideas it presents?

In a world where humans were overtaken by vampirism about a decade earlier, humans are becoming extinct and without a steady blood supply, the vampires are experiencing a secondary mutation. The blood deprived vampires end up feeding on each other, poisoning their systems and becoming more animal than human. Edward Dalton (Hawke) is a corporate hematologist seeking to synthesize a blood substitute and tests are less than successful. He’s overseen by his intimidating boss (Neill) and army grunt brother. Eventually, Dalton crosses paths with the human resistance movement and their leader, Elvis (Dafoe). Elvis was once a vampire but through a random circumstance he reverted back to human. Dalton sets out to figure out why and see if he can cure humanity once and for all.

The film is chock full of amazing ideas. Life is lived at night or in a series of interconnected tunnels beneath the city where there are copious little cafes or newspaper stands. Life is fairly similar to our own, except for the whole needing to feed on blood part. It was also refreshing that there would be select vampires who retained empathy that outweighed their biological needs to feed. There’s even a senator featured on a news program whose big issue is humanity rights and wants to remove humans from being used a cattle. The cinematography is also very clean and sharp. The directors definitely know how to set up a stylistic shot and their previous special effects works comes through.

On the flip side, the actual story of the film is complete and total mess. The transformation of Dafoe’s character never gets a comprehensible explanation and seems to be boiled down to wrapping yourself in a wet blanket and being exposed to sunlight, literally. This is the elusive cure for vampirism. The twists and turns the plots takes are either incredibly forced with no real reason behind them or simply an excuse to show people being torn limb from limb. Its apparent early on that the actors in this film are better than the material they are working with, and they most definitely don’t raise it beyond its mediocrity.

Asian Cinema Month – My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro (1988, dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

Hayao Miyazaki, Japan’s answer to Walt Disney, is mainly concerned with the rural and natural settings of Japan, rather than bustling metropolises. He can go very dark with this message (Princess Mononoke) or light (Ponyo), but he always returns to the ideas of children in an environment populated with copious vegetation and mystic animals. Once again, the children of the story need the help of a being from the forest to overcome the troubles of their lives and its all told in the type of lush animation you expect from Miyazaki.

Satsuki and Mei have just moved to a country house with their father to be close to the hospital their mother is staying in. The first day in the new home they are enthusiastic to explore, and encounter soot spirits, ashy ghosts that skitter away into holes in the wall when light enters. Little Mei explores further while her older sister is at school and follows a couple of magical rabbit-like creatures into the forest where she meets a gigantic sleeping furry beast. The creature identifies himself with a series of yawns which Mei hears as “Totoro”, the name she assigns him. The two girls eventually deal with a crisis moment involving their mother’s health and Totoro comes to the rescue to help diffuse the pain they feel with some lighthearted fun.

What I liked about the film was its rejection of the American fantasy formula. The drama here is kept very minimal and in the background. An adult audience is going to understand the mother’s condition as being a dark point in the picture, but it is presented in such a way that it won’t upset younger viewers. Miyazaki is able to tell stories for children, and adults not yet swallowed up by cynicism, in a way better than Disney ever has. The Disney films never feel like a real world, merely a construct and complete fantasy. Miyazaki infuses his worlds with details that make it feel like a place that could really be out there. They are the type of simple fantasies a child would truly dream up.

There is no need for princesses in Totoro. These are real little girls, captivated with simple things and vulnerable when it comes to the idea they might lose a parent. The creatures are never frightening and the children rush into the unknown without a sense of fear. It’s incredibly refreshing to see this kind of animated film, a style we see little of in the States.

DocuMondays – loudQUIETloud

loudQUIETloud (2006, dir. Steven Cantor, Matthew Galkin)
Featuring The Pixies (Charles Thompson, Kim Deal, David Lovering, Joey Santiago)

Kelly Deal, sister of Pixies’ bassist Kim Deal, sums up the nature of the band in very simple terms. She tells her sister, “You are four of the worst communicators I have ever seen!” And she is most definitely correct in this summation of the group. Throughout their 2004 Pixies Sell Out tour, the bandmates communicate with each other the barest minimum, retreating into their individual solo projects when not on stage in front of fans. What the documentary confirms is that there is no new Pixies material coming any time soon, and that the band simply got back together because, like most of us, they have bills to pay.

The Pixies were formed in the late 80s and fell apart in the early 90s, particularly from in-fighting between Charles Thompson and Kim Deal. As the film opens, Deal has recently come off a rehab stint for alcoholism and is accompanied by Kelly on the tour. They travel in a separate buses from the guys in the band because Kim must stay away from alcohol. Drummer David Lovering is also dealing with issues of substance abuse, though he hasn’t come to that realization. The rest of the band is visibly uncomfortable in his presence and eventually confront him about his constant cocktail of booze and Valium. The film is a meditation on what happens when a group of people who produce great art end up absolutely hating each other.

The most telling aspect of the picture is Kim Deal and her sister in this separate bus, following the guys. Even on the guys’ bus, Charles is caught up in negotiation a switch to a new recording label, Joey is working on the soundtrack for his documentary film, and David is unnatural chipper from the drugs in his system. These were the twentysomethings of the 1990s, now in their late thirties and completely self absorbed. Kim plucks away on demos for the new Breeders album, writing songs for it, never once thinking about new songs for the Pixies. At one point a reporter from Rolling Stone interviews Charles and asks about new material. Charles says he’s been keeping his solo demos around and letting the band hear them to hint about getting some new stuff together, but from seeing the rest of the film he seems disinterested, and often times annoyed to work with these people.

It’s interesting to see the enthusiasm of the high school and college aged fans who became aware of the Pixies years after the band fell apart. In their eyes the Pixies are a single unit and unreal. One girl brings a sign reading “Kim Deal is God”. She manages to slip Kim a copy of Brave New Girl, a novel whose protagonist is an obsessive fan of the Pixies. The camera is on Kim later in her bus as she thumbs through the book. Her reaction is one of distress, she quickly puts the book down and lights a cigarette. These people are simply that, people. Nothing more. They are in the middle of divorces, struggling with addictions, and trying to get by.

Director in Focus: Brian DePalma – Body Double

Body Double (1984)
Starring Craig Wasson, Melanie Griffith, Gregg Henry, Deborah Shelton

This film wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Vertigo and Rear Window. Once again, de Palma returns to his filmmaking mentor, Alfred Hitchcock to inform his own work. However, coming off of the stylistically redefining Scarface, Body Double feels like a Cinemax softcore porn with a creative cinematographer’s flourish lain over the top. For all the moviemaking love put into this film there’s just something off about it the whole time that taints it from living up to de Palma’s previous Hitchcock homages.

Jake is an actor working on a B-horror film, Vampire’s Kiss. He experiences a moment of claustrophobia during a scene in a coffin and the director tells him to take the week off. Jake arrives home to find his girlfriend in bed with another man and ends up homeless. Things are not going so well. He meets a fellow actor, Sam who needs a replacement for a house sitting gig in the Hollywood Hills. Jake happily takes the job and Sam lets him know about the woman across the street who nightly stands naked right in front of the large windows. Jake begins watching her obsessively and begins to realize she is in danger as a menacing figure stalks her. There are lots of twists and turns, but if you are an observant film goer you will probably figure out the picture’s twist early on.

What hurts the film about as equally as the lackluster script are the uncharismatic actors. Craig Wasson is so incredibly bland his performance comes across as comically bad. His interactions with Gregg Henry, who plays Sam, feel incredibly odd and unnatural, and this never comes across as intentional. Beyond Jake, there isn’t much acting going on in the film. All of the other characters, particularly female characters are flat props used simply to create peril and have violence rained down upon them.

The picture definitely feels like a film only the 1980s could have produced. It is full of excess and gratuitous sex that is put in the film merely to satisfy de Palma’s proclivities as well as to make Hollywood execs happy. Jake is eventually pulled into the harsh world of pornography to track down a woman that has a connection to the mystery he has become involved in. This gives de Palma the opportunity to shows lots of naked ladies (something he enjoys doing a little too much). At the end this will feel like de Palma’s cheapest film, a sidetrack back to Hitchcock country and a strange work to bridge the gap between Scarface and his later entrance into Hollywood big budget movies.

Asian Cinema Month – Yi Yi

Yi Yi (2000, dir. Edward Yang)
Starring Nien-Jen Wu, Elaine Jin, Issei Ogata, Kelly Lee, Jonathan Chang, Hsi-Sheng Chen

The one thing all families have in common is that they are complex beyond belief and filled with emotional nuance. This millennial picture focused around a typical middle class family in Taipei is able to explore the fragmented lives of the individuals without resorting to clich├ęd dysfunction. The drama is kept moderate yet the film is never too slow to disengage the audience. If you are of the mind to enjoy explosive Michael Bay-esque movies than this may not be the best bet for you at the moment. If instead you want to patiently follow the rise and fall of a quiet family then you are in for something very fascinating.

The film opens on the wedding of NJ’s brother-in-law. NJ is the patriarch of the central family in the film and he is a very patient and loving father. His son, Yang wants McDonald’s rather than the food being served at the reception and NJ submits to the child. On their way back to the party, NJ runs into his college sweetheart at the same hotel for a business meeting. Something appears to be rekindled between the two. NJ’s mother-in-law ends up in a coma shortly after the wedding and his wife becomes emotionally broken. The burden of tending the household falls on their teenage daughter, Ting. Ting has become friends with the new neighbor’s daughter and is caught in a high school love triangle with the girl’s boyfriend. Yang is constantly picked on by an older girl at his school and become very reclusive and obsessed with taking photos of mundane things.

The hits the three hour mark and is as epic as it is subtle and contemplative. There’s no sweeping score or dramatic crescendos. It’s simply life being played out and framed as if the mundane is just as epic as mythical heroes’ journies. The structure of the film is that of an entire human existence. We open on a wedding, end on a funeral, and in between there is love, heartbreak, tragedy, murder, people sharing good times over a warm meal, people feeling alienated, attempted suicide. But the picture never feels over the top or campy. The tone is kept tempered so this feels like dipping your hand in vat of pure distilled humanity.

I was made to think of Hollywood attempts at family dramas and how I can never fully engage with those characters because the script is forced to follow a 90 minute template. Yes, three hours is a long time for a film of this nature, but it is absolutely essential. And even three hours isn’t long enough to know these characters. No one is overly dramatic despite the situations they are put in. NJ is tempted with getting back together with his lost love and the outcome is left ambiguous. NJ does business with a Japanese video game developer during the film, Ota, who is one of the most intriguing characters in the film. He feels very real, a businessman who didn’t get to where he was because he was ruthless, but because he recognized the need of every person to be inspired by something.

This has to be one of the most positive, yet real films about people I have ever seen. It will leave you asking a lot of questions about our families, about the distance we have from them, and how large the scope of our lives truly is.

DocuMondays – Koko: A Talking Gorilla

Koko: A Talking Gorilla (1978, dir. Barbet Schroeder)

I have faint memories of being a little kid and seeing video of Koko the gorilla and her cat/adopted child All Ball. I also remember seeing Dr. Penny Patterson with Koko and years later came across an article that reminded me I was familiar with this story already. Now, as an adult, I go back to where the story began, the days before Koko was an internationally known figure and simply part of study at Stanford to teach a gorilla sign language. What she became is a mirror to put our own ideas of personhood and intelligence up against.

Koko was born in captivity in the San Francisco Zoo. She was lent to Stanford, but as the movie explains, she was kept past the agreed upon stay and things between the zoo and the college got very tense. Dr. Patterson, 28 at the time of the documentary, bonded with Koko deeply, and shows an obvious maternal instinct with the ape. Director Schroeder explains in the film that the entire documentary had to be kept quiet, lest the zoo contact authorities to have Koko removed.

Koko is shown going about her daily routine with Patterson, who we are told has to be there when Koko wakes up and when she falls asleep to keep their bond airtight. Patterson has in effect devoted her entire life to the care and development of Koko, same as a devoted parent to a child. Patterson even disciplines Koko with a fearlessness that shows an absence of distinction between man and ape. For us laymen, should a gorilla misbehave we would try to back out of the room slowly. For Patterson, she actually strikes Koko to reprimand her for tearing up her room.

The evidence in support of Koko being considered a “person” with the rights that come inherent to that is her ability to apparently synthesize language. She knows 1,000 American Sign Language signs and 2,000 words of spoken English. For objects she has no words for, Koko has shown the ability to merge two signs to describe the object. She had no word for “ring” so she called it “finger-bracelet”. She had no word for “duck” so it became “water-bird”. Fairly impressive. While there can be valid arguments back and forth about Koko being a person or not,  I found Patterson’s wish that Koko not be seen as something that could be owned a statement I would be in support of. The zoo sees Koko as their property, Patterson sees Koko has her child. Both may be a little presumptuous in their ideas of Koko. Once an animal gains the ability to use a human developed language to communicate it should cause us to step back and question many things. If Koko expressed a desire to leave both Stanford and the zoo, would she be granted this request?

A very thought-provoking documentary from one of the premiere documentary makers. Barbet Schroeder, much like the Maysles or Barbara Kopple, is not a character in his own film, but an observer. We hear the occasional question, but the subjects are truly the focus of his work.