Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Iron Giant - A Film by Brad Bird (1999)

I was eager to watch this film as I’d not seen it before, and as I had been convinced by a number of people I trust that it was worth my while. I admit to a bit of a disappointed “oh” when I first began the film; I think because I am so accustomed to the glossy Pixar look that this animation felt outdated. BUT I soon found myself swept up into this magical story, and I rather reveled in the relative simplicity of the animation than otherwise.

I suppose the film is not without its stock characters and near-clichés – the spunky little kid (bullied at school) as the main character; the struggling, doing-her-best, but sympathetic single mother; the artist (a beatnik) on the fringe of society with pearls of wisdom to offer (“you are who you choose to be”) and a heart of gold, ahead of his time (he drinks espresso) and willing to think outside the box; the unimaginative, egoistic, bullying government man – but all of these characters were somehow fresh enough, fun enough, within this story to make me forget they were or could be clichés.

The story itself is well-told and it captured me, and there are any number of especially effective or poignant moments. The opening is great: a “meteor” flashing past the screen, past the Sputnik satellite (a nice move that immediately orients me to the era), hurtling towards earth – cut to a lone fisherman on a raging sea, unable to see the lighthouse – then a light that is not the lighthouse, but our first introduction to the Iron Giant – the terror of the fisherman – then cut to a red dawn and a peaceful seaside town just waking up and a small boy cycling through town towards a place that just says “Diner.” We follow him inside and in the scene that follows we are introduced to (most of) the main characters and themes of the film.

There are some really wonderful moments, too, between the boy Hogarth and the giant. I loved this one:

There is something irresistibly sweet about the giant crashing ungracefully to the ground in order to sit across from Hogarth (it’s a moment that delighted my then 5-year-old daughter, too – and convinced her, finally, that the giant was “a nice giant”).

The film also brilliantly, but not heavy-handedly, sets the stage in terms of the atmosphere of the times – the paranoia about foreigners, about Sputnik, about being spied on, about the nuclear threat – and atmosphere that produces the strike first, think later mentality that precipitates the crisis for the giant and (because the giant only arms itself when threatened) for the people themselves. I loved the scene in the classroom in which the students have to watch an appallingly perky, cheery film about what to do in case of an “Atomic Holocaust”:

Some things did feel heavy-handed about the film, particularly, the government/military people – the general, for example, apparently likes killing (he’s got animal heads on his walls and an animal rug on the floor – these things contrast with the scene in the forest when the hunters kill a beautiful deer and the giant learns about the horror of death) and he probably thinks of himself as a grand cowboy in the Wild West (he’s watching a show with a shooting cowboy racing across the screen).

But ultimately, the heart of the film is the relationship of the giant and boy coupled with the awakening (self) consciousness (and conscience) of the giant. The rather trite phrase “you are who you choose to be” gains a beautiful freshness at the climax of the film when the giant gently pushes the Hogarth away and chooses to be “Superman,” instead of “Atomo,” zooming up to stop the nuclear bomb with his own body and so sacrificing himself. It sounds bland on paper, but the sacrifice of the giant was incredibly moving. Overall, just a captivating, wonderful film I’m eager to recommend as I know it’s one that has passed under the radar for so many people.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Winter's Bone - A Film by Debra Granik

Hush-a-bye, my baby, go to sleep on mama’s knee.
Journey back to these old hills in dreams again with me.
It seems like your mama was there once again
and the old folks were strummin’ that same old refrain.

Women with hard, lined faces
Doors that slam open and offer no entrance, or dubious entrance
Children who learn to spot and gut a squirrel, but still jump, laugh, play in the cold air on hay bales taller than they
Yards with stray shoes, scattered and broken toys and cars, clothes hanging in the wind, and ramshackle coops where hens cackle
Men with closed faces and a heavy presence
Thick blood, hardening in its maze of lines
One mother gone quietly and sweetly mad

And this girl-woman with a round face and wary eyes and hands wrapped tight around what she wills not to lose

Winter’s Bone, the story of this girl-woman, Ree, opens with a lullaby – a lone, unaccompanied voice, singing out its tenderness and warmth, heartache and years. And while the story and the characters here are driven forward by a particular need, a particular mystery, what this film really does is immerse me in a place and a people and a feeling, at once utterly foreign to me and somehow deeply familiar – as foreign as an unknown, winding road in the night and as familiar as my own mother’s voice.

This film feels like music, but not like the complex density of a Bach fugue – it’s something at once simpler and less traceable than that. There’s a scene in the movie in which Ree, on her quest, steps into the home of friend – here, other friends, family, neighbors, perhaps, have gathered to celebrate a birthday. The rooms are full but the celebration is quiet and unassuming –and in one corner a group of musicians is playing, as much for themselves and their pleasure as for anyone else - country instruments and a woman singer, a woman with a face that would never sell an album but with a voice so sweet and low that I at once fell under her spell. Like that music – particular music I’ve never heard before but feel I must have because it so quickly embedded in my bones – this film burrows deep.

Way down in Missouri where I heard this lullaby
when the stars were blinkin’ and the moon was shining high,
and I hear mama callin’ as in days long ago,
singing hush-a-bye.

(To hear the full lullaby, go here: )

Looking for Eric - A Ken Loach Film

(I will have to get back to writing about the Decalogue at some point - I've finished all the films and just need to type up my thoughts about about them ("just" - HA!), but for now, I'll be posting reviews to a few other films that I've watched this year.)

Looking for Eric (Ken Loach, 2009)

Walking out of this movie, I had a big, probably silly, smile on my face, and when I made eye contact with a woman who was also walking out, we both just outright grinned at each other. "It was so great, wasn't it?" she asked. And yes, yes it was. It was the kind of movie that makes me want to hug a random stranger and laugh up at the sky; it feels something like being in love, I suppose, all that joyous giddiness. Strange for a Ken Loach film, right? I’ve been discovering Loach this year, and having watched three other Loach films (Sweet Sixteen, Raining Stones, and The Wind That Shakes the Barley), I've discovered that Loach is certainly the gritty political realist of the screen that people say he is. He shows us real, working class people and offers us no easy answers to their hardships. I am in awe at Loach’s skill at showing us these lives and fleshing out these characters, and especially in Sweet Sixteen and Raining Stones, making large political realities come vibrantly, painfully alive in particular individuals and the small communities in which they live.

Looking for Eric is a bit different. We are still immersed in the lives of working class people and in the life and pain of one particular soul. Eric is a middle-aged postman, lonely and unhappy, whose life feels out of his control and very far from the happiness he felt in love and in life in his earlier years. We sense that he is not sure how he’s reached the place where he is now, without a wife and love, but with two teenaged sons, who are living under his roof but who are essentially estranged from him, getting on with their lives and despising Eric.

The central device of the film, the device that moves the action forward, is a bit strange, but somehow, I completely accepted it. You see, Eric is a football fan, a Manchester United fan and a Eric Cantona, footballer, fan, to be exact. And it is through Eric’s imaginary conversations with Cantona, that Eric begins to see a way out of his desperation. I will not comment on that aspect of the film further, except to say that somehow, it works. It really works. And you don’t have to be a football fan to love the way that Eric loves his hero. It’s absolutely moving. I believe that Eric would be moved to action by that love and by that belief, however fantastical.

Along with Cantona, and also in the midst of Eric’s loneliness are his postman friends, his “lads,” who, we get the sense right away, are a close-knit, roughly kind group. There’s a wonderful, small scene early on in the film in which the lads are watching Eric wearily going through the motions of sorting mail and they resolve to try to make him laugh. I don’t want to give away the scene, but it’s simply lovely, full of gentle humor and warmth. Again, a small scene, but indicative of the film as a whole (though I should say that the film does go to some dark places).

Loach has a knack, at least in all the films I’ve seen, gritty and grim or not, for getting friendship right, for showing us the bonds of people with one another in small communities – they are relationships with no pretensions, they are not without bumps and bruises, but the relationships we see on screen make us deeply love these characters and the communities, however small, of which they are a part.

Ultimately, the joy of this film comes from the depth of the relationships among the friends and the family members, a depth that is revealed as the film moves on and as Eric begins to act, to change. The community is everything, and if Eric has to realize one thing above others, it’s that.

Some reviewers have complained that this film feels too neat, too tidy, that the ending, essentially is too happy and resolved. But I, for one, am satisfied with that ending. I love gritty Ken Loach, but I love the Loach who can see some happy resolution in the midst of the difficult, messiness of life, too.