Sunday, 14 February 2010

Today's Viewing & Reviews: Ponyo + A Single Man + Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief + The French Connection


I’ll start with the shocking revelation that I’ve never been blown away by the much-fêted Studio Ghibli. Okay, that’s largely due to the fact I haven’t seen very many. I enjoyed Spirited Away but, still, their appeal always largely mystified me. You’ll note the use of ‘mystified’, past tense.

It’s worth pointing out that I saw the English-dubbed version, which seems heavy-handed in its voice-casting, but Ponyo was everything I’d been lead to believe Ghibli’s (and more specifically Hayao Miyazaki’s) films were. Once I was able to absorb the cutesified anime rendering, which makes Disney princesses look world-weary, the cherubic world the film inhabits is a wonder to behold.

To sell it in story terms doesn’t do it justice as it works far better on a credulous emotional level. Ponyo is the name given to an odd fish-like creature (referred to as a ‘goldfish’ in the film) discovered and taken-in by Sosuke, a sweet-natured young boy. When Ponyo’s father Fujimoto (Liam Neeson) takes her back undersea, she decides to become human. That’s really all you need. If it hasn’t sold it to you by then, chances are it’s not going to.

The nautical air of the film is awe-inspiring from the stylised, Hokusai-like rolling ocean to the detailed craft and graceful aquatic creatures. When there’s a storm, it feels like a storm, despite the rolling waves largely being comprised of gigantic fish. The Ghibli world is not anchored in reality. The human characters lead ordinary lives but defy a real grounding in logic while the magical realms follow no formula and throw in a bit of everything.

The thing is, none of that matters. It’s all about how it makes you react. Sure magic spells and whatnot are a convenient get-out clause for any situation and, despite living undersea, Fujimoto is not only human but a New Romantic androgyne. None of it makes any sense.

There’s never an implicit bad guy. Nobody comes out of it badly and there’s never a real sense of any danger. In other such simplistic fables that might be a problem but here it’s not. The whole thing is so beautiful it barely crosses your mind.

It’s a joyous, marvellous, childlike adventure, told from a child’s perspective and its complete lack of cynicism is what makes it so blissful to behold.


A Single Man

Much attention has been focused on the fact that A Single Man is fashion designer Tom Ford’s first foray into film-making. To focus on his previous career seems almost unfair but then so much of the film is about style and fashion is fetishised from beginning to end. That’s not to say that it’s necessarily a bad thing and it’s by no means all that’s going on. There’s certainly a lot else to love in this debut feature.

George (Colin Firth) is a sartorial English professor who we follow for a day in his life, eight months after the death of his partner Jim (Matthew Goode) in a car accident. It just so happens that the day we follow him appears to have been planned as his last day.

It has been meticulously photographed and the washed-out aesthetic and veneer of grain in every frame suits the 1962 setting. It also gives a considered artfulness to every scene. Colin Firth puts in an amazing performance, the kind you had long forgotten he was capable of. George is a fully-rounded character whose grief is believable and tangible without ever breaking down into the unsubtle displays of anguish we’re used to seeing on film. His relationship with both Jim (told in flashback) and Charley (Julianne Moore) have the trappings of genuine emotion, with Moore again proving why she’s possibly the most fearless actress out there.

It’s a shame that it’s the film’s occasional lack of subtlety that’s its undoing. Whenever an ounce of joy is introduced to George’s life (whether it be as minute as a smile or a conversation), Ford ramps up the colour and the screen radiates, lifting the greys. It’s a cheap shortcut and stands out every time it occurs. As well as the exaggerated colour grading, the film is also thwarted by an ending (which I won’t delve into) which is so neat and perfect it’s almost unbearable.

It is hard to look beyond the stylistic trappings at times but there is a powerful, beautifully told story in there which really does convince on a number of levels.


Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief

As lazy a comparison as it is, there’s not much more to this than a Potter pretender. Harry Potter may not have been terribly original (or good) but Percy Jackson & The Lighting Thief is very much following in its shadows, crying out for a franchise to rival its inspiration.

Here’s the thing though, I enjoyed it more than any of the Harry Potter films. I think if I were to pinpoint a reason it would be due to the fact that it wears its inspiration on its sleeve. If you’re going to pinch mythology from other sources to weave together into something ‘new’, at least choose from the best. Swiping characters and villains from Greek mythology does precisely that.

Percy Jackson is living a cinematically ordinary life but discovers he is the son of Poseidon, and therefore a demigod. As concepts go, it’s pretty slick and it opens up a world of established, iconic figures (Centaurs, Satyrs, Medusa, Hydra and Minotaur among them). The quest itself is largely inconsequential seeking, as the film does, to merely introduce characters and concepts in the hope of building upon them in later films.

The central tenet of a youngster finding his place is weak but it’s pretty gutsy for a kid’s film. Characters are beheaded, blood is drawn in (practice) ancient war games and to an extent viewers are credited with at least a basic knowledge of Greek mythology without having it entirely rammed down their throats. It moves along at pretty decent pace, never really leaving adequate time for you to get bored by it, despite an obvious obstacle methodically appearing at every turn.

The star names never amount to anything more than cameos. Pierce Brosnan is wise mentor, Uma Thurman is Medusa (played as Cruella De Vil), Rosario Dawson appears as a sultry Persephone, Sean Bean is a stern Zeus and Kevin McKidd is a fatherly, noble Poseidon. Catherine Keener makes an appearance having apparently given up on taking any interesting roles, now consigned to playing harangued mothers in every film requiring one. The biggest waste is Steve Coogan as Hades. Allegedly the film’s main villain, he appears late-on apparently still in character as Tommy Saxondale and promptly does very little.

Despite being Hellenic Gods (played by British actors) they apparently only seem interested in banging Americans, if their progeny is anything to go by. The entire film posits America as central to this new generation of deities; they’re born there and the Olympians have decreed they be trained there. Even the entrances to the Underworld and Mount Olympus are dutifully hidden in iconic American landmarks. It gets pretty wearisome.

The Potter-aping ‘chosen one’ core is pretty brazen but it’s entertaining enough with a decent central premise, nice special effects and a smarter-than-your-average folklore to keep it ticking along.


The French Connection

This is another of these films which are generally regarded as a classic, with the Oscars to back it up. It’s also one which I had never seen.

Based on true events, detectives Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) are hard-bitten New York cops who stumble across a plan to import large amounts of heroin from France. What follows is their bullish, headstrong charge into building a case and sorting out formalities later.

It’s the prototype for gritty cop thrillers and completely deserving of its iconic (although, at the time, iconoclastic) status. William Friedkin was a master at his craft and able to create a gripping narrative from what is (by today’s standards) bordering on slight. It’s not overwrought and just gets on with the business of progressing things at a steady pace, with a driving force.

You’ve got everything you need and it never feels dumbed-down. In much the same way as The Wire 30-years-later, it doesn’t simplify. If you don’t catch something, tough. In contrast to the scenes of bravado shown on the street, Hackman and Scheider have a nice chemistry together and the partners have a sense of fun with each other which never seems forced.

The iconic elevated train car chase stands up well, as do the film’s foot chases and scenes of surveillance. They’re all handled with efficiency by Friedkin and keep the momentum going for the relatively short running time. They’re helped in part by that most important, but often forgotten, element; the authentic location. New York is as much a part of the film as any of the characters and the sense of legitimacy rings out from every frame. Accompanied by Don Ellis’ sparse jazz score, the visuals have a verve rarely scene in other works of the genre.

Marginal slenderness aside, this is absolutely solid with an ambiguous ending which manages the rare feat of tying up a film satisfactorily without overtly neat packaging. Its influence is instantly recognisable in much that has followed.


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