Celebrating Great Films

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Inside Out

#51 at the time of writing.

This is about Riley, an 11-year-old girl, and the personified emotions inside her head that shape her childhood and battle with the complexities of growing up.

Pixar excel at making films that work on multiple levels - in particular, children can enjoy them for the colourful characters and comic action, adults can enjoy the sly jokes and emotional undertones, and everyone can enjoy the stories that weave it all together.

This film is also experienced on a different level by adults than children, but instead of just laughing at different moments, the kids are laughing and the adults are slitting their wrists.

Yes, this film is depressing. It's core message is that growing up = loss; growing up is difficult and it's ok to be sad about it. This message is hidden behind storytelling and spectacle of the absolute highest calibre, but still, I left the cinema without the spring in my step that Pixar usually evokes. Instead, I left dragging my feet.

So I find this film difficult to judge. Well, not really, it is clearly wonderful, but I'm just not sure I want to see it again. It's going to be hard enough watching my own kids grown up without reliving Riley's loss of innocence.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

#30 at the time of writing.

I enjoyed Mel Gibson's Mad Max when I was a kid, so I thought I knew what to expect with this, and initially I didn't intend to go see it at the cinema. But then I saw it rocketing towards the top of IMDb's Top 250, so I gave it a chance.

It felt like being in the front row of a thrash metal concert for two hours. Seriously intense.

I can't think of the last time a film packed so much over-the-top action into what is essentially one epically extended chase scene without giving almost any respite at all, and yet was still compelling. The stunts - mostly done for real - are impressive, the disdain for action movie conventions is refreshing, the acting is persuasive, and the story has surprising narrative heft.

It is surprising that this film got made after languishing in development hell for over two decades, and even more surprising that George Miller was at the helm, the same director of the last three Mad Max movies, even though the last action flick he directed was 30 years ago and since then all he's done is Babe: Pig in the City and Happy Feet.

It was originally conceived back in 1998, and slated to be shot in 2001, until the September 11 terrorist attack put the kibosh on that. Another attempt in 2003 failed because of security concerns related to trying to film in Namibia and the outbreak of the Iraq War. By 2007, after Mel Gibson lost interest in the role, Heath Ledger was rumoured to be the next Mad Max, before he died from an overdose in 2008. (Really - that was 7 years ago already?) In 2009 the project was briefly recast as a 3D animated movie. In 2011 principal photography started in Australia, but heavy rain (not great for a desert movie) forced a move at the last minute to Namibia.

Yet, somehow, it got made. And, somehow, it's a blockbusting hit. Bravo.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Grave of the Fireflies

#67 at the time of writing.

Two Japanese children try to survive alone after their parents are killed and their city firebombed towards the end of World War II. An unflinching tale of the terrible personal tragedies of war.

Our Western sensibilities have trained us to think of animated features, and films starring children, as being for children. Yet this is a most adult, and artful, and depressing picture. It was produced concurrently with the delightful My Neighbour Totoro, and the two were released as a double feature - but they could not be more different. One is about the loss of innocence, the other embodies the purest innocence. One is about the consequences of conflict, the other avoids conflict altogether.

If you get a chance to see this, don't watch the awful dubbed version. The voices are so silly it takes most of the impact away. Why couldn't they do a decent job with the dubbing, like they did with My Neighbour Totoro! (Probable answer: this is one of the few exceptions to the Disney-Tokuma international distribution deal.)

SPOILER ALERT! Read no further if you haven't seen the film. Sadly, the film is based on a true story. Akiyuki Nosaka lost his little sister during the war to malnutrition and blamed himself for her death. His 1967 novel, on which this movie is based, was written to come to terms with the loss.

Monday, February 02, 2015


#38 at the time of writing.

I had mixed feelings about this one. It's about a young student who subjects himself to the fearsome tutelage of his mentor in his quest to become an all-time great drummer. It's a very good film, no doubt, but I don't like it when bullies are celebrated.

To be fair, the story stuck in my head, and the questions it raised. What does greatness cost? Does the end justify the means? When you're pushing for better, where do you draw the line? And actually it's exactly that ambiguity which elevates this film.

The tension runs high, and the lead characters are wonderfully played by Miles Teller and J. K. Simmons. The music is good, but it didn't really strike me as a music film - it's about other things. Anyway, full credit to debut writer-director Damien Chazelle for realising such a powerful film.

Sunday, February 01, 2015


#125 at the time of writing.

The most original film I've seen in a long time - probably in years. Having seen director Iñárritu's Amores Perros and Biutiful, I initially steered clear of this film, expecting it to be beautifully filmed, gritty, and soul-crushingly depressing. But more than once I heard friends say that this was something else - and indeed it is sublime. It's funny, hopeful, and always unexpected. The story fizzes along with captivating energy. I loved it.

It's about a washed up Hollywood superstar, famous for (long ago) playing Birdman à la Robert Downey Jr's Iron Man, who tries to reinvent himself as a respectable Broadway artiste. But he must overcome towering doubts, hubris and the bunch of wackos he calls family and friends. The style is very theatrical, with no visible cuts, plenty of backstage shenanigans and disarming magic realism.

I totally didn't realise until afterwards that Birdman was a real thing. That makes this movie the craziest adaptation since Adaptation. And that can only be a good thing.

(I just read that Antonio Sanchez's musical score, performed almost entirely by drums, was disqualified by the music branch of the Academy Awards. Why?! It's great!)