In this quiet time (festivally-speaking) it appears that some films have slipped under the reviewing radar, having seen them in the small notches of time between work, garden, sleep and holiday preparations. So before they leak out of my face, here are a few films you may (or may not) want to consider the next time the crop up in the bargain bins.
The Sky Crawlers (Jpn) (wiki)
Shown early this year as part of the Leeds Young Persons Film Festival, this was a film I was determined that I would see at some point on the big screen, and although I was in a theatre with a load of noisy kids and babies (whose parents had clearly ignored the mature content advice on the flyer), it didn't spoil the screening too much.
The Sky Crawlers is an adaptation of a multi-volume book of the same name, and brought to film by Mamoru Oshii, the anime director in charge of anime hits such as Patlabor, the experimental Angel's Egg (caught at the tail end of LIFF 09) and most notably, Ghost in the Shell. It's set in an alternate universe not so different to ours, except the world is in a state of perpetual war. In a similar vein to one of the stories in Kino's Journey, the countries of the world have offered up a solution to the problem of unwinnable wars, and that is to sanitise it, package it, and put it on the nightly news. As aerial dogfights rage above the clouds, the civilian population get on with their lives pretty much as normal below.
Those who are given the role as soldiers do so under mysterious circumstance, and enter the training ranks barely into their teens. As one squadron receives a new recruit; an unnamed young man in his mid teens, we follow his hopeless and sterile acceptance of what he needs to do while he remains lucky enough to dodge the bullets. The awkward relationship with his fellow pilots and ground crew rarely progress beyond teasing out small personality traits and guessing at the rest, as invariably the next sortie may end up with one or more of them disappearing. Amongst all this, he develops a glimmer of a relationship with a young female captain who has spent many days seeing less planes arrive back than left.
Oshii's film cannot fail to impress technically and visually. It's traditional cel animation merged with 3D graphics work well together, and anyone who watched Last Exile through with interest will definitely find themselves in cosy territory. Newcomers to anime, and in particular, Oshii's work, may however become annoyed by the apparent laziness of some of the scenes, often saturated with uncomfortable silences and little in the way of movement, but I believe that this is deliberate and not for reasons of saving painting extra cels; these children are in a hopeless situation, unquestioningly doing their duty as it is all they know. No parents, no guidance on what it is to be a person, and no hope to get out, other than in flames. It is some of these scenes (especially the protracted one in the restaurant) where a lot of the character development is done, where we get some small insight into both the past lives of the couple, and their true feelings about their situation. It is then that the blank stares and silent moods become meaningful and less of an annoyance for the audience.
With that said, many will look on The Sky Crawlers and think of it as silly or pretentious, and in some ways it is, but for me it was one of those films that got better the more I thought about it afterwards, and it was certainly enough to encourage me to look at getting the translated books, should they ever come out. 7.5/10
Night and Day (US)
Tom Cruise. There are many things that are brought to mind when his name comes up, and I'll be willing to bet the tipping point between what we think of him now and what we used to think of him when he did films like Rain Man and Born on the Fourth of July, balances on his crazy-assed sofa-jumping stint.
Ever since then he has worked hard in his films to get some of his credibility back, and has done this quite often by sticking himself into the white-teethed super-cool action hero pose that paints him in a positive light. But, much as I liked Vanilla Sky, Collateral and multiple Mission Impossiblei, I will always have a niggling doubt at the back of my head that he's doing these sorts of films to say basically, 'hey, so I'm a Scientologist, but don't be scared of me; I'm still the old Tom you know and love, yeah? Now watch how cool I look when I shoot this gun..'.
Knight and Day is a particularly brazen addition to this format, with Cruise playing the international super secret super spy who like James Bond can get out of any scrape with a lot of car chases and wise-cracks. Throw into the mix a ditzy blonde Cameron Diaz who somehow turns from idiot to competent secret agent (and love interest) within an hour or so, to keep Cruises' starched loins from getting any creases in them, and you have a pretty good if predictable and slightly manipulative action film poised to get at least one sequel. Looking at it too hard, trying to extract anything meaningful, or regarding the main character as Tom Cruise, rather than Mysterious Mr Knight (you see what they did there) will only spoil what enjoyment there is, so don't bother. 6.5/10
The Illusionist (Fra/UK) (wiki)
The works of Jaques Tati is unlikely to roll off the tongue of most people including myself, so let's get the wikipedia lookup out of the way now. Tati was a filmmaker specialising in a few whimsical but highly respected comic pieces through the fifties and sixties, often starring in some of the main parts. The Illusionist is a similarly toned animated work by Sylvain Chomet, he of The Triplets of Belleville, based on an unpublished work by Tati about the life of an ageing magician doing the rounds of the cabaret circuits in the fifties, just as the style was retreating behind the curtains as the new rock and roll kids burst in. It's clear from the appearance of the unnamed magician that Tati himself was destined for the role, if it ever would be committed to film in his lifetime.
Leaving France for England, he tries to stay ahead of the wave of new culture by playing ever smaller concert halls with his trusty top hat and angry rabbit. His agent comes up with increasingly sparse lists of venues willing to show him, and those that do rarely have more than a couple of punters. As he enters Scotland, he is limited to performing in a pub, minutes before technology catches up with him and they get electricity, and thus can plug in their shiny new jukebox.
But 'Tati' makes an unlikely friend in a young girl working as a cleaner at the pub he stays in. Entranced and convinced that this ageing man can do real magic, and maybe missing a father figure in her life, she packs up what little she has and follows him to his next stop in Edinburgh.
The rest of the film is a bittersweet tragi-comedy about the two finding comfort and meaning in each other's company, rendered beautifully in pastel watercolour and old-fashioned cel animation, and a minimum amount of dialogue (much like in Tati's films). The Illusionist has next to no action, so don't bother if you're looking for that. But what it is, is a cosy warm blanket of a film, gently humorous with touches of both satire and genuine heart that leaves you with a slight lump in the throat. 7.5/10
Inception (US) (wiki)
Mainstream films that promise not to underestimate its audience don't exactly come around too often these days, so when I saw the praise for Inception, it had to be seen. Inception stars one-time chubby-cheeked child actor with a face like a slapped arse, Leonardo Di Caprio, whose film output these days is showing him to be a much more accomplished actor than I gave him credit for. He plays agent Dom Cobb, who with his partner Arthur do Men In Black-style jobs where they dive into the dreams of the rich and/or dangerous, extract information from their brains, and pass it on to the relevant authorities.
Cobb is offered the chance to get out of the business, having lost his wife to some dream-related experiments some time ago and haunted by her angered shadows in his own dreams ever since. But this job is a bigger one than before, instead of extracting information, they need to insert a thought into a mind; to alter the actions of a powerful man just as he takes the reins of a massive business empire from his dying father.
This is where things get complicated; the only way of successfully planting a thought is to get the subject to think that it is his idea, and that is going to require travelling down several 'levels' of dream state, (the second level being a dream within a dream, and so on). This raises an interesting dynamic, as the perception of time in each dream level is exponentially multiplied; you may have a dream that seems to go on for days, but you've only slept through the night, and this is magnified with each level down the agents travel.
A plan is hatched, and several dream agents are brought in, Mission Impossible-like to make it happen. One constructs the dream worlds, one is in charge of operating the electronics, and the others just have to pray it all works. They get into the head of their unconscious and dreaming target, plant the idea through several psychological twists and levels of dreaming, and then work their way back up the stack and get out before their time is up. At this point, the audience is expected to keep track of several dimensions of dreamscape, each with their own parallel but different temporal settings, and a whole load of plot and character development, not least Cobb's less than helpful after image of a wife, who is out to get back at him for abandoning her.
It's all terrifically complicated, but not once does the film ever feel overwhelming, I think that is down to giving the impression of all things happening in parallel but instead you're just heading down one side of an upturned triangle and back up the other.
Inception is a brilliant film. It starts a little shaky with some slightly creaky dialogue, but that quickly disappears and the action and intrigue quickly ramps up. It becomes meaty and enjoyable to get your teeth into, and complex enough to warrant multiple viewings to get all the details. Best of all it has that rarest of things, an ending that is both ambiguous and satisfying leaving you to work out between yourselves exactly what the situation is. 8.5/10
With the Tokyo Film Festival (which I'll be able to catch some of towards the end of my trip) and LIFF '10 coming up soon, there will be plenty more films on the horizon. Stay tuned.