Category Archives: Film

Studio Ghibli Layout Designs: Understanding the Secrets of Takahata and Miyazaki Animation @ Hong Kong Heritage Museum review

Hong Kong Heritage Museum Studio Ghibli

Of all the museums in the city, I seem to find myself back at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum the most often (somewhat annoying, given it’s probably the one that’s also the furthest away from me!), and the latest exhibition to entice me over to the Shing Mun River was Studio Ghibli Layout Designs: Understanding the Secrets of Takahata and Miyazaki Animation. I can’t claim to be a devoted Hayao Miyazaki fan – but like everyone else, I love Spirited Away and think Totoro is really cute, so why not?!

Studio Ghibli Layout Designs Hong Kong Heritage MuseumSpirited Away room, from news.gov.hk

The Studio Ghibli Layout Designs exhibition comprises over 1,300 drawings from the animation process behind the films of Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki – from their earliest works on television shows like Heidi: A Girl Of The Alps and Sherlock Hound, right through to the studio’s latest film releases The Wind Rises (Miyazaki’s last film) and The Tale of The Princess Kaguya.

Unlike many animation houses, Studio Ghibli continues to make all its films using traditional hand-drawn methods; rather than cute character studies, the works shown are more the backgrounds of scenes (layouts are regarded as blueprints for the film and are vital for its continuity), displaying the director’s ideas on colour, perspective, motion and other camera effects – and these sketches are practically artworks in themselves.

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The Switch (sort of) film review

This is exciting as it gets

As far as romcom premises go, the one for The Switch isn’t bad. Man swaps sperm donor sample for his own, chaos ensues etc. However, there was so much wrong with it that I’ve decided to list eight examples for posterity below:

  • No chaos ensues. You’d expect all kinds of zany shenanigans to be going on, instead you just get a child who collects empty photo frames. I am not joking.
  • When did Jennifer Aniston get SO old?! I love Jen, really I do, but really… WHEN?!
  • Who thought that Jason Bateman was a great choice for romcom leading man? I love Jason, really I do (Arrested Development 4eva, etc) and smug sardonic sidekick perhaps, but really… WHO?!

    Would you let this man be your romantic lead?!

  • Jen and Jase have zero chemistry. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. In fact, Jason Bateman has more chemistry with the magazine cover of Diane Sawyer that he wanks over to create the sperm in the first place.
  • When did wild child Juliette Lewis, who even has her own rock band for crying out loud, become rom-com bit part material? As the supportive girlie best friend of all things! In other news, she’s aging into Stockard Channing.
  • Why hire Jeff Goldblum, a bit of a minor movie legend, if you’re gonna give him literally nothing to do? I don’t think he had lines any more riveting than ‘Good morning’.
  • Possibly the funniest moment of the whole 100-minute film comes two minutes in, courtesy of that comedy staple, a man with some kind of Tourettes. Not an auspicious start.
  • The timeline and relationships don’t ring true. We start seven years ago, at the time of ‘the switch’. We then head to ‘the present’ (i.e. seven years from the start of the film), where Jen and Jase’s characters are such believable best friends forever that they’ve not had any proper contact since she left New York to raise the child. Suddenly, they’re back to being BFFs, except Jen feels ‘an energy’ between them (shame no-one felt to let the audience in on this energy too), despite the fact that in the intervening seven years, she doesn’t seem to have dated anyone. Next thing you know, she’s dating the person who she thinks is the father of the child and is considering moving in with him after what seems like one date… and if you thought that was fast, the father of the child (who isn’t the real father, keep up) is planning on proposing after the same length of time. Amongst all this, Jason Bateman *only just* remembers swapping the sperm whilst deciding he can’t live without the kid he’s only just worked out is his.
    Jennifer Aniston seems less of a mother than a benevolent pretty aunt on a sleepover with the child, her decade-long friendship with Bateman is unconvincingly founded on two dodgy dates aeons ago and when they do finally get together, she looks as happy about it as she did when she first saw the box office receipts for the film (hint: not good) whilst their first kiss, generally the crescendo of any good romcom, is so gingerly geriatric that the cameraman may have fallen asleep during filming, no doubt getting more excited about the prospect of grabbing a Subway for lunch later.

Hey look, we're still walking! Still more exciting than us kissing though

That being said, The Switch isn’t terrible. There are some nice quirky moments with Bateman and child, played with a natural ease by Thomas Robinson (so expect Nicholas Hoult style reinvention to cool hot teen in ten years from now). But being neither funny, nor romantic and a terrible waste of potential on all sides, it’s just a bit of a damp squib. An unloved wet patch on the mattress of noughties romcoms, which probably should never have been marketed as romcoms in the first place. Still… Jennifer Aniston’s hair looks nice.

5/10

The Lodger: Hitchcock Retrospective @ HK Film Archive review

People say silence is golden but is this the case for cinema? I decided to put this theory to the test with The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, the first film and only silent one in the LCSD’s current Hitchcock retrospective.

Although it was Hitchcock’s third film, it is widely-regarded as the first “Hitchcock” film, setting in motion his signature style. Having never seen a silent movie in a cinema before, keen to see the beginnings of Hitchcock’s trademark thrillers and hardly breaking the bank at fifty bucks per ticket, I thought it would prove to be an interesting experience.

The Lodger is Hitch’s take on the Jack the Ripper story. A serial killer murders blonde women around foggy London on Tuesday nights, leaving a calling card of ‘The Avenger’. A witness describes him as having a scarf pulled up round his face – cue a mysterious stranger, complete with scarf pulled up round his face, arriving at a boarding house nearby i.e. the eponymous lodger (Ivor Novello). He soon gets friendly with Daisy, the pretty blonde daughter of the house, whilst skulking around the place and acting creepily enough to arouse the suspicions of anyone with eyes and a functioning mental capacity. Is he The Avenger? Will he kill Daisy? Will anyone tell him to tone down on the creepy front?

I found The Lodger more interesting in terms of witnessing the start of Hitchcock’s development rather than a film in its own right, and there are plenty of distinctive Hitchcock motifs – the pursuit of an innocent man, the obsession with blondes, a bathroom scene, touches of humour, strong visuals and innovative shots – to keep the average film geek going. The opening close-up of a woman screaming as she is being murdered (back-lit to emphasise her halo of fair hair) is pure Hitchcock, whilst a clever shot that sees the nervous landlords look up at their shaking chandelier, dissolving to the Lodger’s feet pacing the floor above it (achieved by shooting his feet from under a glass floor) is unbearably tense. And if you thought that The Thomas Crown Affair is the ultimate in sexy chess scenes, there’s a really sensual one here albeit with a dangerous undercurrent about forty years early!

It was also interesting to see Ivor Novello, the actor and matinee idol, rather than just the long-forgotten name behind a prestigious song-writing award. He’s actually rather beautiful, with his feminine lips and milky pale skin set to glow, but he overacts to such an extent that his performance practically reaches the exhibition hall downstairs. He arrives on-screen looking and acting like Nosferatu and I haven’t seen an actor delight in being so obviously sinister since the audience burst out laughing at how weird (and seemingly talcum powder covered) the Cullen kids were in their first appearance in Twilight. There’s an ultra-magnified close-up of his kissing lips that may have had the swooning audience of the 20s reaching for their hankies in pleasure yet it’s just gigglingly uncomfortable nowadays.

Whilst Novello just about gets by on charm alone, I can’t say the same for the unsatisfying anticlimactic ending. Given Ivor Novello’s heartthrob status plus the fact that Hitch would surely never be so obvious, the Lodger’s innocence is never really in doubt (although Novello’s acting does suggest that he should have been sectioned along the way) but for us never to find out who The Avenger really was is a bit of a damp squib. Apparently, Novello’s popularity put the clappers on any earlier ideas Hitchcock had about making his identity a more ambiguous affair whilst right until the final shot, I was still hoping for a twist that would see Daisy’s jealous cop boyfriend or her dim father turn out to be the one wot dunnit. Instead we get a baying mob persecuting The Lodger (in an admittedly thrilling sequence that was the only part of the film to elicit an audibly excited response from the audience when I saw it) and a prolonged happy ending. There is only the sight of the ‘To-Night Golden Curls’ visual motif, flashing in the background as it has repeatedly throughout the film and The Avenger’s reign of terror, to provide a very slight ominous touch.

Seeing the film in complete silence meant that every other sound in the small cinema at Sai Wan Ho’s Film Archive was magnified – sadly, in my case, this meant the stomach rumblings of the old man nodding off next to me. Unlike black-and-white as opposed to colour films, or hand-drawn animation as opposed to CGI, I really felt that the lack of sound meant something vital was missing. It’s worth pointing out that even in 1927, the audience wouldn’t have been sitting in complete silence like we were – there would have been live musical accompaniment, with a score performed by a pianist during the film to heighten the moods depicted on-screen. This screening would have been undoubtedly improved had the LCSD thought to do the same – given the space constraints, at least a man on a Yamaha keyboard or, joking aside, a CD player using the score from DVD versions of the film could have been managed.

However, seeing The Lodger on the big screen is still worth fifty of your best Hong Kong dollars. As with most silent (and indeed Hitchcock) films, there is barely an ounce of fat on the film and it zips by at a brisk, eminently watchable pace. Having over 100 people gathered to watch a film over eighty years old and basking in the near enough complete silence, especially in frantic eternally-modernising Hong Kong, has a special charm all of its own.

6/10

The Hitchcock Retrospective, 10 September until 28 November 2010, comprises of 20 films shown twice at the Film Archive, Space Museum or Science Museum. Tickets cost $50 from www.urbtix.hk (worst ticketing website in the world, seems to have been built in the 90s).

Each film has two showings, with the season quite heavily biased towards Hitch’s earlier films (Rear Window and The Birds are two notable omissions), but seats are limited and many of the most famous ones have already sold out. All films are screened in English only, whilst a series of lectures ($80 each) are all conducted in Chinese!

Film Archive, 50 Lei King Road, Sai Wan Ho, 2739 2139. http://www.filmarchive.gov.hk

He’s Just Not That Into You film review

I went into He’s Just Not That Into You having heard worrying tales of how depressing it was from my friends. Turns out, I was pleasantly surprised.

The audience is faced with a multitude of characters in a multitude of storylines, revealing this lit-to-flick adaptation’s origins as a self-help book. The writers achieve a balancing act that circus performers would be proud of in keeping each of the starry ensemble’s disparate stories ticking along nicely before resolving them in a not-too-cloyingly-neat manner, whilst fleshing out what is presumably fairly dry relationship guidance prose into actual plots.

Consequently, there are actually enough plots for about 5 movies (hey, that’s 5 more than most indie films manage). What they all have in common is romance, of course, but it pays to not plump yourself down with your popcorn expecting the usual fluffy rom-com clichés. What you actually get are some well-observed witty truisms about relationships – girls believing guys are mean to us because they secretly like us, coming up with convoluted reasons why he hasn’t called, the implausible stories about friends-of-friends who make love work despite the odds. All these antics look patently ridiculous on the big-screen, especially when exposed by Justin Long’s everyman, but they’re all horrifying recognisable from real life.

Jennifer Connelly’s storyline sees her as a repressed suspicious wife (to The Hangover’s Bradley Cooper), Jennifer Aniston as the woman who can’t make her long-term boyfriend (Ben Affleck, at least attempting to act in a manner other than wooden) commit. Both plots are told in a pleasingly low-key manner and are all the better for being without the expected fireworks and melodrama; both characters manage to be more sympathetic precisely because the actresses playing them don’t jump for the ‘pity-me’ jugular.

IMDB trivia states that Connelly gets just 25 minutes screentime, Aniston only 20. Heaven alone knows how many Drew Barrymore gets then (12?!), yet she is typically luminous in her role, with her story of navigating the perils of techo-romance offering some light relief. In a cast that also includes Scarlett Johansson as a mistress, it’s surprising that the least-familiar name (Ginnifer Goodwin) bags the biggest storyline as the desperate girl whose actions are watch-through-fingers cringeworthy yet you can’t help realising you’ve probably been guilty of in the past (not something I cared to share with my boyfriend though!).

People’s disappointment in this film lies with its marketing department, who couldn’t resist the temptation to pepper their posters with love-hearts and photos of the all-too attractive cast smiling in a sunny manner. Although the end is uplifting, there are bumps along the way (and no, we don’t just mean Affleck’s acting) but they’re all-too realistic bumps dealt out with a nice dollop of wit and an air of freshness, taking this a notch above the rom-com formula. I’d take it over Love Actually any day of the week.

7/10

Whip It film review

Whip It is such a great dynamic title for a film.  Roller derby – with its punning names, colourful costumes and the opportunity to see pretty girls on rollerskates beating each other up – is a great subject matter. And Drew Barrymore, an actress who seems a whole lotta fun, making her directorial debut with said film featuring a mostly-female cast seems a great idea. Shame then, that Whip It doesn’t quite capitalise on all the potential greats I’ve listed.

Despite the prospect of roller derby carnage, Whip It turns out to be a fairly generic indie coming-of-age movie. Ellen Page reprises her role as Juno – sorry takes on the role of Bliss Cavendar (see, she even has the indie-film requisite of idiosyncratic name), small-town girl with big-time ambitions to be the next roller derby star. This doesn’t tally with mother’s (Marcia Gay Harden) ambitions for her to be the next beauty pageant queen, nor with queen bee skater Iron Maven’s (Juliette Lewis) ambitions to retain top-of-the-league status. The next 100 minutes will see Bliss discover love, life and herself in true indie-movie style, with lots of quirky moments, acoustic-sounding songs and wistfully-framed cinematography along the way (the end shot is so indie it hurts… actually hurts, somewhere in the gut, I think).

In truth, Page’s performance is solid, un-showy and most importantly, believable. Far less irritating than the ever-quipping Juno, it anchors the film in reality– sometimes a little too much when you want Whip It to take off into the outlandish fishnet, fake eyelash and fisticuff-filled world of roller derby. Marcia Gay Harden, one-time winner of an Oscar, is a perennial feature of those ‘Whatever happened to…’ lists but on the grounds of this performance, she fully deserves to be back with a bang. Her portrayal of Brooke Cavendar is nicely-nuanced and she resists the urge to play the character more sympathetically. I enjoyed Juliette Lewis’ panto-turn as the villain of the piece and there’s sterling support from Arrested Development’s Alia Shawcat as Brooke’s bessie Pash (see, another weird name) and Kristen Wiig, RnB star Eve and Drew Barrymore herself as Brooke’s roller derby pals. Such is Barrymore’s innate watchability that you can’t help but want more screen-time of her brawltastic character, Smashley Simpson.

Whip It is a move from roller derby that gives the skater a burst of extra speed and to be honest, the film could do one. It’s never especially funny, or especially dramatic, but that means it’s not especially bad either. The whole thing has a certain charm that makes it impossible to dislike but for a film purportedly about rollerskating, it could have done with a lot more of it as its finest, funnest and most exciting moments come courtesy of the roller derby track.

During the credits, we get some deleted scenes and bloopers that show the cast having a ball – true to Barrymore form, it looked really fun to make. Shame a bit more of that freewheeling fun didn’t translate itself to the finished product.

6/10