How many times do I have to say “I’m back” for it to be real? This week in Nathaniel’s Best Shot series, we are doing shorts courtesy of a site called Short of the Week, a site that might just be my new fix. Let us have some good, weird, black and white fun, shall we? First is Mikey Please’s The Eagleman Stag. Let me just begin by saying that it’s either my anxiety or my incoming sleep deprivation but I have no idea what this short is about.
One. Here, the protagonist says “This half pint makes my hands look…huge.” This reminds me of every time I try to take a long shot picture of something, hoping that the camera focuses on the one thing within a huge canvas. And then the lens shut and I see the image I took and everything flattens, my focus being one of many objects instead of THE object. An amalgamation of elements – the dimensional nature of stop motion animation and the protagonists monologue – bridges that connection between our selective eyes and a supposed flat surface.
Two. The protagonist inserts a serum in his brain, leading to a chaos of unpredictable personal consequences. What ensues is a Borzage-eque montage starting with this.
Next is from Ray Tintori, who was the effects guy at Beasts of the Southern Wild and directed music videos for MGMT and the Cool Kids. But let’s talk about Death to the Tin Man. One. The Psycho shot, depicting the silhouette of a man named Bill whose soul now inhabits a Tin Man version of him.
My two best shots for these shorts are companion shots, the first is one of Tin Man’s ways of wooing back his beloved, the hammered in expression surprisingly conveying emotion. I am pairing it with a shot of the beloved trying to paint eyes on zombie-Bill, preferring the soulless body to the heart-equipped human. These characters live in a quirkily-framed bleak world, comparable to Chaplin’s movies about how modernity isolates.
They are driven to obsessive desperation, with no reliable moral centres to guide them to the right path or people. They’re slowly realizing that the characters around them value romanticized appearances over the truth. These shots explore our discomfort with uncanny human ugliness, these characters inadvertently vandalising the human form, trying to recover the original, trying to play God towards the ones we love.
…and I will scream about it from the top of my lungs. It was out yesterday. Topics include (sexy) TIFF, summer movies, the (sexy) part surprisingly not coming from me. I sound so un-feminine I hate it.
The podcast in which I guest hosted is called Critical Mass Cast. And I’m trying to pull a Johnny Depp and not listen to myself but that’s shouldn’t stop you.
Disney’s protagonists have always had to leave home. This is true from Snow White to Belle and even characters in Disney movies that are outsourced from Pixar like Wall-E and the gang from the Toy Story series. But unlike these debutantes and adult inanimate objects, The Lion King‘s Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) an actual child, and a change of environment at such a young age demonstrates how precarious the idea of home really is. He delightfully gasps when he sees the untouched African jungle where Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) live, a place ripe for adult Simba (Matthew Broderick) to be too content to to live. But there is something to be said a carnivore adapting to eating bugs, Fear Factor style.
The jungle didn’t look like emeralds, outdoing that scene in The African Queen in showing how luscious and verdant it could be. The jungle isn’t the only landscape feature here, as we also have the African veld pre and post-Scar, and within desert dunes where Simba does some slow motion running. All of those have the Dinsey glow even though its animators were still working in 90’s technology.
Zazu (Rowan Atkinson) sings “It’s a Small World” to the chagrin of the regicidal and decadent lion Scar (Jeremy Irons) , Simba’s uncle. When Simba and his unlikely crew attack Scar, Poomba does his part, goes on a Travis Bickle rampage and exclaims ‘They call me MR. PIG!’ before doing a number on two unfortunate hyenas (Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin and Jim Cummings). Pop cultural humour happens when a movie allows the supporting cast to talk, and I’m constantly surprised how our generation didn’t invent it. Movies or populist artistic expressions in the turn of the twenty-first century has this insecurity about itself that it references earlier work. Everything else before it seems like a solid text that I forget that these works have their own pasts, and that the people who are behind these older texts might, a bit, have felt the same way. Or that these references exist so that the kids will know that the world they’re watching isn’t exclusive and is actually relate-able to them.
Africa is in new and rougher hands because of Scar and while that is not untrue, it’d be more right to see that outside forces equally let destitution happen and no, hyenas don’t count as outsiders.
Timon sings the first and last verse of “Can You Feel The Love Tonight.” If only he’s more famous than Elton John, or maybe his already and I just don’t know it yet. During that musical number Simba and Nala grow from friends and much more. Nothing around Timon and Poomba’s jungle would have pushed him to adulthood, but finding love should.
Hakuna Matata – no worries. It seems like an alien concept in a worry-centric world. But this laid back feline only becomes victorious because of two inherent things, his royal lineage – which contributes a lot to his physical prowess, even with eating all those bugs – and his goodness. He doesn’t have a Rocky-esque montage where he trains to beat Scar (Jeremy Irons) and instead, he looks down on a pond to see his father Mufasa’s (James Earl Jones) but as himself.
This means two things. First, that there’s a difference between becoming and being and that, despite how Simba makes it looks easy to kick his Claudius-like uncle’s butt, that we have to believe in ourselves first. Although with this interpretation, what’s stopping the Claudius-like Scar from thinking the same way, grumbling to Zazu and the other animals that he IS the king.
The second involves adolescence as a state and the different responses towards becoming an adult. Some of us might be anxious to get the process of growing done already, but Simba partly gives up on it because he’s lost the proper environment to do that. The movie has Timon and Poomba harmlessly yet deliberately laughing at Simba’s interpretation of what stars really are. This shows adolescence as a state when we can be derailed and when our childhood narratives of destiny can be crushed. At least he learns kindness and acceptance towards creatures whom he would have eaten had things gone differently, even if they’re jokey and a bit passive aggressive towards him.It’s not cool to think you’re the king. But on that note their jokes are nothing compared to what would have happened if he stayed in Pride Rock – Scar would have probably subjugated him. Somehow the time off works, as the pressure to be and to have lost the throne is cagier than him slacking off, attaching himself to swinging vines all over the jungle and looking at the stars. Or let’s compromise and say that both suck.
Nonetheless, Simba in the jungle symbolizes a tendency within many of us to be oblivious of our own growth, that we need a good support group like Rafiki, Nala and a mirror to tell us what we can do. Broderick’s voice work as Simba has the gravitas with the roles he’s taken half a decade earlier, but he still has Bueller’s reputation and a boyish demeanour that he could easily switch on, even at thirty-two. He eventually finds himself snarling at Scar as if he’s just learning how to do so, as if he’s surprised that he can do it. It may seem like a compromise to show that he can only reclaim to his kingdom or as his old self but not do both. But he’s returning home because he’s a different being and that greatness is deserved through change.
This is a blog post equivalent of Febulights, where I talk about a movie about the emotionally draining festival weeks after the fact. And this isn’t even about Christmas or a non-Christian holiday that also coincides with it. Why can’t the channel I tuned into broadcast one about the Maccabean revolt? I’m sure there’s many of those. Instead, we get the pre-Shrek Dreamworks offering called The Prince of Egypt. It’s a curious title that also hints at the complexities within the Biblical hero, Moses (Val Kilmer) who also happens to be the adopted brother of slave driving Pharaoh Ramses II (Ralph Fiennes). Fiennes lends his voice to a villain contending against the laws of nature, the latter of which is a force powered by good. Ramses also wears a lot of make-up and campy costumes and is sexually and species ambiguous like every other Fiennes character. Anyway, they still have contend with their relationship despite of the ethnic division wedged between them. Ramses is still in close contact with Moses, allowing the latter in his son’s wake, a sign of compassion from both ends. But Moses’ presence is still a reminder of the transaction that must take place in order for his kind of racist God to stop ravaging Ramses’ country.
There are some conventionally sub par parts in the animation like how hair, as beautiful as it looks, is fashioned in clumps as opposed to of strands. How gold looks more yellow. When light or fire comes out of the sky, which looks awesome yet artificial. Speaking of artificial, how about when it’s trying to replicate camera movement? The same artificiality also affects the scene with the parting of the Red Sea, looking like a tenth grade computer assignment. However, that part redeems itself when we see silhouettes of a whale trapped in the water while the Israelites pass through, showing us what they would have seen in this moment. It doesn’t distinguish itself from Disney although Disney movies will almost never have a predominantly dark-skinned characters and will never have Jewish protagonists. There are some new touches like recognizing Orion or how objects touch light or vice versa. But I mainly like how old school the movie looks, where the rocks or buildings are rugged on the foreground but looking painterly as they recede. Or during the Exodus when the Israelites, their carts and tents placed within the picture through brushstrokes. This movie also features the greatest looking eyes ever.
I will always remember this movie for how Moses has more sexual chemistry with his sister Mariam (Sandra Bullock) than with his taller and skinnier wife Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer). The way their big eyes look at each other with the almost sighing expression, different from my experiences of friendly enmity that I see in other siblings. They are estranged and there have been other examples in other movies where people in that situation have the same reaction towards each other or more. Although personally I like the simpler looking Mariam better, Tzipporah looking too glamorous for me, even though her jewellery is a sign of class division within the enslaved Israelites. I don’t know what that says about my preferences about but enough about that.
And because this is an animated musical, Moses and the crew sing a song after being victorious against Ramses. Mariam and Tzipporah sing ‘When You Believe, made more famous by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, who are not the singing voices in the movie. The real character voices sing an octave higher than, what I imagine, the A-list actors would sound like. It’s not necessarily frustration and animation companies, under the veil of their drawn creations as opposed to real actors and sets, can hire as many people as they like to play a character. At the same, I never bought the ‘we chose a different singing voice to fit the character’ argument, even when MGM musicals of yore used the same justification. If they could express emotion through speaking, they can and should be able to do the same in music, and vice versa. I still want to know what Bullock and Pfeiffer’s voices sound like.
The movie ends with Moses with the Ten Commandments, bypassing the Golden Calf section because that scene would have soured the movie’s mood.
I tweeted earlier that Liu Jian’s début movie Piercing 1 is like “Beavis and Butthead Do The 2008 Economic Collapse And Its Effects On China.” The animation is like Mike Judge’s early work – gaunt two-dimensional figures, the movements are pretty one-two. But it also adds its own spin to a seemingly primitive, 90’s era take on the visual medium. It’s as if there’s no air in this fictional universe – flags and lamps don’t move but smoke rises up in the air. And the palette, lacking the colours yellow and purple, is dour and dark, which seems right with its depressing and scary subject.
Among the handful of characters that it follows are two men who have moved to Beijing. After a boss beats one of them for allegedly stealing, they hang out on a public space. Their litanies in their first scene together resonate with younger people and/or immigrants, as one of them is more defiant against returning to their small town, not even considering if their lives have been better or stable there. It’s like this refusal of an alternative because it feels like a million steps back. The more defiant youth also seems attracted to the trappings of capitalism. The money, the clothes, the promise of women – of which there are only two in the movie who aren’t sexually pursued – the exciting day and light lives, the population.
It loses steam after that scene, as it’s littered with Kafkaesque accusations and assaults. It’s as if every person they meet is misanthropic because of the anomie-inducting big city. The beaten youth comes back to his boss and asks for ‘mental damages’ and gets beaten. While eating noodles, he sees a woman get hit by a motorcycle only for that woman’s police officer daughter to beat him again. It’s like Jia Zhangke and Sion Sino collaborated and made an animated feature, the former’s portrayal of ghostlike modernity mixes with the latter’s theatrical violence. The last scenes veer into ridiculous heist movie territory since i this movie’s world, all Chinese businessmen are also sketchy money dealers. But I do give the movie credit for going into unexpected places.
I don’t get my movies in reputable places, so when I got my copy of Beauty and the Beast and started watching it, I thought it was colourful, suspiciously colourful. The film tells its prologue through a series of stained glass-like representations, my best shot is that of the haggard woman turning into a beautiful fairy. There’s something both pre-Raphaelite about her even if she also anachronistically looks like a 20-year old version of a “Powerpuff Girl,” her flared sleeves suggest a sweeping action just like the cartoons that would come a decade later.
This prologue is also the reverse Snow White, where young people who live by themselves have to be suspicious of old haggard women because they can kill or turn their victims into a half-bulldog, half-lion. The transfiguring women also bring objects that are physical manifestations of sexuality. While the stepmother’s apple overwhelms the daughter who’s too young, the rose can mean many things, reminding him that beauty, just like the rose, can be gradually destroyed by time, or by its own frailty. The haggard woman tires to offer the rose to the prince in exchange of shelter, as a way of saying that beauty can be used as currency and whatever else that implies. And of course, the stained glass medium, normally used for Christian imagery, is now depicting a fairy tale.
I don’t know why I assumed that the colours in this film would be duller. Maybe because the colours feel penciled in. I’d assume that watching this movie for the third time is what it’s like to see the Sistine Chapel after it’s been cleaned off of centuries worth of grime. It’s like seeing something as crisp as it would have been twenty years ago.
This is my second favourite shot. Instead of Belle’s mustard dress, I keep seeing blue throughout this movie. This shot also conveys the palace’s large space. It’s strange to see Belle and Beast within the vast palace, but when not when Gaston is looking for him. As if the couple is overwhelmed or understand that space while Gaston waltzes in without any decency. Speaking of which, I would like to congratulate Disney for being ahead of their time, since this movie’s villain comes from one of the most reviled groups of people for the past decade – juiceheads!
Since I like pictures, here’s a Busby Berkeley-esque musical interlude, the most uptight one getting to sing a few verses.
Gaston’s lynch mob for the Beast, looking Fantasia and all.
And Angela Lansbury. This post is part of Nathaniel R’s ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot‘ series.
An unnamed chameleon (Johnny Depp) finds fifteen minutes in a film to go from an emptied aquarium inside a car traveling a highway to a small town called Dirt, inhabited by other animals. Trying to blend in with these Westerners, the chameleon comes up with the persona of a mean, bar fighting man from somewhere more west and christens himself as Rango, getting his name from an alcohol bottle from Durango. He finds a love interest in Beans (Isla Fisher), the daughter of a dead bean farmer who’s had better days. Her provenance and femininity means that she’s both strong-willed and scrappy. She’d occasionally roll her eyes at Rango but she’s sometimes vulnerable and needs him.
Rango is about the visuals. We know that our hero is the perpetually domesticated one, unable to change his green coat no matter how many times he sheds his skin, which is ironic since he is a chameleon. We also know that the gamut of cowboys, gunslingers, ranch hands and Southern gentlemen of Dirt are anachronistically Western since they’re mostly grey and furry, their period clothing coated with the sand that might occasionally blow their way. The work in Rango’s scales of the scales of the other reptiles aren’t as intense like the work in How to Train your Dragon. The mammals sometimes look scarily realistic – you can feel the hair in their faces and all.
There are the other visual antics in the film’s mise-en-scene, lights, shadows, arid desert haze, textural rocks on the desert, a gigantic eye overlooking Rango’s posse as they cross through a system of underground burrows, infernal sunset light, Rango drawing on the sky (easily my favourite image of the film). The latter images aren’t oversold, but they are often references to other westerns/neo-westerns/movies set on deserts, the lack of originality is slightly frustrating. I also felt conflicted while watching the film, kicking myself for not seeing it in 3D but also thinking that the animation in itself effectively suggests dimension and depth.
The third conflict in my head, which quickly and surprisingly went away, started when I was seeing the featurettes for the film. The film is shot through ’emotional capturing,’ which is basically the cast in a studio acting the scenes out and there’s a camera involved or something. I always thought that I’d rather watch the actors on set than to see the animated product, a la Dogville. But then I liked watching the valleys where Rango and his posse are being chased. Or watching Depp personify this childlike, imaginative and naive protagonist, a role that would have been a bit old for him. Reminds me of Clooney in Fantastic Mr. Fox, where both can be goofier and funnier than their real, physical human bodies can allow. And hey, I’m actually liking a Depp performance. When was the last time that happened?
Rango meets a few enemies, his bravado looks laughable. His feeble body also means that he’s agile. His earlier, circumstantial tests of bravery eventually gets him to meet the town’s reclusive mayor (Ned Beatty, playing an animated villain again). They mayor appoints him as the town’s sheriff. His main duty as sheriff is to protect the scarce amount of water in Dirt, a commodity also used as currency. Here we have the biggest flaw of the film, the plot. The town eventually gets disillusioned from Rango, town gets disillusioned from mayor, Rango tries to win town back by finding out how the mayor controls the water and taking that control away from him. The formulaic storyline makes me care less about the outcome, the visuals mostly seeming like window dressing. 3/5.