Eye on animation, and debated interpretations
The films this month included two widely different kinds of animation as well as two films that have generated controversy over their interpretation.
Up in the Air
Up in the Air, despite its six Academy Award nominations (no wins), left a number of reviewers confused about its point, its success in achieving that point and its honesty. Part of the problem is George Clooney, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance.
Like no one since Cary Grant, Clooney can be charming, elegant, and likeable, and he exudes all of these qualities while playing Ryan Bingham, a slick professional who spends most of his time flying about the country for his boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman).
Bingham’s job is to go to a company and fire employees who are being downsized, thus sparing the company’s boss the discomfort of this task. He flies in, fires the people as humanely as possible, flies out and is paid very well to be a “termination facilitator.” Bingham loves the fact that he is “home” (a small apartment in Omaha) only a few days a year, and he has few connections, physical or emotional. He even gives talks on eliminating unnecessary ties and clutter (including people) from your life. In a demonstration of acting ability, Clooney makes this person almost attractive.
Two complications enter Ryan Bingham’s life, both in the form of women. First is Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a beautiful woman whom he meets in a bar and who sees herself as exactly like him, except female.
They immediately start a no-strings-attached affair that resumes whenever their travel connections cross. The second is Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a bright young woman who is hired at Ryan’s base firm and has convinced the boss that Ryan’s terminations, delivered in person, could just as easily be delivered over the Internet, thereby saving enormous amounts of travel money.
To prove to her that she is wrong, Ryan takes her on one of his road trips. The rest of the film shows how these two women affect Ryan’s life and the conclusions he has made about himself (don’t anticipate a Hollywood ending).
The acting is excellent across the film. Clooney was nominated for best actor; both Farmiga and Kendrick were nominated for best supporting actress Oscars; and Melanie Lynskey and Danny McBride are fine as Ryan’s sister and her fiancé.
The dialogue is sharp and often witty, especially between Farmiga and Clooney, and the screenplay, adapted from Walter Kirn’s novel, was Oscar-nominated. The film was also nominated for Best Picture and Best Director.
The major flap about this film centers on whether director Jason Reitman sympathizes with or exploits the people whom Bingham fires. While some of the terminated are played by professional actors, Reitman also hired some people who recently had been fired and let them extemporize their lines in reaction to Bingham’s interview. He rubs further salt into the wound by closing the film with cuts of these same people saying how losing their jobs ultimately had been good for them. Whose side is Reitman on?
Fortunately, this discussion is one that occurs after the film is over, so it doesn’t interfere much with the pleasures of watching a talented cast in a tightly scripted film about the value of human connections and the void at the center of Ryan Bingham’s life. Top
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox has been adapted by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach into an animated film that combines Dahl’s quirky subversive interests with the eccentricities and themes that Anderson developed again and again in films like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited.
The result is a charming, surprisingly unified film about dysfunctional families, father-son relationships, and the dangers of trying to recapture the achievements of the past, while yet acknowledging one’s true nature—in this case, being a wild animal.
The animation really is the star of the film, and, despite the achievements of Pixar and other such studios, Anderson wisely chose to go back to the now-antiquated technique of stop-motion animation. First perfected by Willis O’Brian and Ray Harryhausen for The Lost World and the original King Kong, the technique moves the “actors” (figures of various sizes built on movable armatures) a fraction of an inch, takes a photograph, moves the figure another fraction of an inch, takes another photograph, etc. When the still photographs are run through a movie camera, the result is that the actors seem to move on their own, much in the fashion of the little flip booklets that kids play with. Obviously, it’s a method that is time- and labor-intensive.
Harryhausen made a career of the technique, bringing to life prehistoric dinosaurs, science fiction creatures and monsters from Greek mythology in films such as Son of Kong, Valley of the Gwangi, Twenty Million Miles to Earth, the Sinbad series, and the original Clash of the Titans. Tim Burton used it in The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride and Henry Selick used it recently (with computer smoothing) in Coraline. (Selick originally had planned to work with Anderson on Fox before he left to direct Coraline).
While it works well enough, the technique inevitably remains a little jerky, giving an unreal quality to the character’s movements. In Harryhausen’s films, integrating these creatures with human actors sometimes created scenes that required the viewers to suspend disbelief fairly radically. Strangely enough, this quality adds to the vision of Fox (as it did to the Burton films) since all the characters move with the same unrealistic style.
Further, it’s quite clear from the onset that a talking fox who wears corduroy suits is not a realistic concept.
One other problem that constantly plagued Harryhausen was that, in creatures with fur, it was impossible to move the creatures without moving their hair—you can clearly see it in the original King Kong as his fur flows and ripples whenever he moves. Fox’s fur also ripples, but, again, here it seems merely to add to the artificial, antiquated quality of the story being told—it’s as though these creatures are constantly in motion from an unseen breeze in a deliberately unrealistic style. (Anderson’s films with human actors also often have an artificial style, a quality which has earned him significant criticism among some reviewers.)
Anderson has expanded the plot, adding some characters (e.g., a nephew fox named Kristofferson) and condensing the fox children to one son named Ash. Anderson also designed Fox’s clothes after his own suits and Fox’s study after the garden house in which Dahl wrote his children’s books. Throw in Whack-bat, the craziest game since the flying cricket matches of Harry Potter, and it’s all quite charming.
The voices of the characters are exactly right, with George Clooney playing the sly Fox, Meryl Streep playing Mrs. Fox, Jason Schwartzman playing Ash, and Sir Michael Gambon (Dumbledor) playing the villainous Farmer Bean. Anderson regulars Bill Murray and Owen Wilson play Badger and the Coach, Willem Dafoe plays the French rat, and Eric Anderson (Wes’s brother) plays Kristofferson.
Is this a film for children? Since children vary enormously from kid to kid, it’s a tough question to answer. Children will enjoy it, especially the silliness of Whack Bat and Fox’s chagrin over the loss of his tail, but they may not get all of Dahl’s satire, some of it fairly dark. Rat dies onstage dramatically, and a rabid dog with foaming jaws menaces the heroes, but most children can handle these things. They’ll also understand Ash’s concern that his father may favor his nephew over his son. As Roald Dahl knew, they’re smarter and tougher than most of us realize. Top
From the stop-motion animation of Wes Anderson to the hand-drawn animation gels of Hayao Miyazaki is a huge step, and whatever the virtues of Anderson’s animation technique, the only word that can describe Miyazaki’s work is “gorgeous.” Revered even by the Pixar and Disney Studio executives, Miyazaki has created such masterpieces as My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke. Anyone who enjoys animation but hasn’t seen some of these should check them out immediately. The images rival and often outdo anything Disney has done.
Ponyo, drawing plot elements from The Little Mermaid but making the characters much younger, tells the story of a little girl-fish, one of the daughters of the undersea wizard Fujimoto (Liam Neeson), part of whose task is to keep the earth and the sea in balance. Ponyo (voice of Noah Lindsey Cyrus), however, has become infatuated with Sosuke (Frankie Jonas, a younger Jonas brother), a five-year-old boy she encounters when he saves her by putting her in a bucket of water after she’s washed onto the shore (she’s the size of a small fish).
Fujimoto sends giant fish and waves to bring his daughter back, but he finds he can’t keep her confined because she has magical powers inherited from her mother. She uses these powers to escape, but in the process she upsets the balance of the tides and creates a huge wave that threatens Sosuke’s village and the ship that his father is on. Ponyo and Sosuke, both impulsive children, undergo a number of adventures before Ponyo’s father and her even more powerful mother are able to restore the balance of nature and give their blessing to the friendship of the children.
If all this sounds complicated and slightly mystical, don’t worry. Much of the time the plot in a Myasaki film is simply the story upon which beautiful artwork is hung, and the pleasure of the film is in the visuals. This quality is especially evident in Ponyo, which seems aimed at a younger audience than most of his previous work.
The themes are still there of the pollution of the ocean and his concern for a Japan that has industrialized itself almost out of existence, but they are downplayed in favor of the adventures of the two children.
The entire film is a visual delight, but the opening underwater scene is especially outstanding as luminous creatures swim in a pastel environment. Other memorable scenes include Ponyo skipping along the backs of huge fish as they carry her on top of roiling waves, a view at a submerged road along which prehistoric fish swim, as though they were out for a Sunday drive, and the polluted bed of the ocean being dredged up by a fishing boat—a scene that recalls the purging of the polluted river-god in Spirited Away.
While reviewers raised questions about the suitability of Fantastic Mr. Fox for young children, there are no reservations about this G-rated film for children of any age. Watch it with children and enjoy the visuals; they will enjoy the beauty of it instinctively and respond to the mythic elements of the plot, probably better than the adults. Top
Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
Since its debut, Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire has been controversial. Originally called simply Push, the film underwent a title change to avoid confusion with a science fiction film with the same name that was released around the same time.
The new name, apparently chosen to draw an audience from those familiar with the novel, has to be one of the clumsiest titles ever. Praised and criticized by both whites and blacks, the film began to build audiences when it was endorsed (“co-produced”) by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry after the film was completed and exhibited. Winning prizes at Sundance and the Toronto festivals, the film gained momentum until it was nominated for six Oscars and won the best supporting actress award for Mo’Nique.
The film is based, as the title states, on a 1996 novel by a Harlem poet and performance artist named Sapphire, who wrote a first-person account, from Precious’s point of view, based on the poor and desperate students she encountered. Lee Daniels, the director, previously directed Shadowboxer (2005), and had produced The Woodsman (2004) starring Kevin Bacon as a pedophile, and Monster’s Ball (2002) for which Halle Berry won an Oscar.
The film follows a few months in 1987 in the life of sixteen-year-old Clareece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), an obese, illiterate, abused teen who finds herself pregnant with a second child by her own biological father (the first child, mentally retarded, is cared for by her grandmother). Dominated, vilified, and physically abused by her mother Mary (Mo’Nique), Precious is removed from her regular school when her pregnancy becomes obvious and is sent to an alternative high school with a program called Each One Teach One that is deigned to help students prepare for the GED.
In the teacher, Blu Rain (Paula Patton), and in the other students Precious finds people who are interested in her and her future, and she begins to open up in her journal. After the birth of her second child and the encouragement of a male nurse (Lenny Kravitz), Precious applies for welfare at the insistence of her mother and is interviewed by Ms. Weiss (Mariah Carey). When the welfare worker then interviews the mother in her office, the audience finds out, in a long monologue, how badly Precious has been abused and for how long. The film ends not on hope but on the possibility of hope as Precious escapes the abusive world of her mother’s apartment.
The acting ranges from good (Kravitz and Patton) to surprisingly good (Carey) to excellent (Mo’Nique and Sidibe). Mo’Nique’s achievement is not just in the powerful confession she delivers near the end, but in presenting a thoroughly despicable character while yet generating understanding for her.
Critics have said the film often becomes exploitive as the list of indignities heaped upon Precious becomes almost unbelievable, but supporters point out that Sapphire said she saw what she wrote about. Some critics have argued the film is racist because all of the positive characters have light skin, and Precious fantasizes about looking in the mirror and seeing a white girl; others argue, given her experiences, how could Precious not hate being black? Reviewers also argue about whether the characters are believable or whether they are stereotypes or social case studies.
Whatever the pros and cons of these arguments, Precious should be seen and evaluated by anyone interested in contemporary films; it is one of the most powerful and emotional viewing experiences of the year. Top
—Leonard G. Heldreth
Editor’s Note: Films are available on DVD or VHS from local stores. Reviews of earlier films can be found at www.mmnow.com
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