Thursday, June 18, 2009

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)
JAPAN --- fantasy/horror

Dir: Kenji Mizoguchi

Ghost stories are almost always used to expose the psychological defects of the stories’ characters. Often times like most horror tales, they will also sometimes reflect the underlying nightmares of the society in which the teller of the tale dwells. In other words, ghosts are buried secrets that won’t stay buried.

The lust of power, fame, and wealth lead two farmers into the clutches of their own nether regions in Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu Monogatari“. Taking place in 16th Century Japan, they are going through rampant civil wars. Genjurô is a farmer who happens to have become a successful potter, selling his goods for a decent wage. However, at the start of the film, he is arguing with his wife about his tireless ambition toe become well-known for his pottery. His brother and assistant, Tobei, also has a fruitless campaign to become a samurai to the bane of his wife Ohama, to which he and his wife also squabble over. There is a sequence which seems a completely accurate display of the process of pottery, perhaps in defense of the films’ protagonist to show the hard work that goes into it; though it is a group effort.

When warring barbaric bandits begin to filter into the village, often taking men for forced labor, stealing for and possessions, and killing and raping the women, Genjurô and Tobei flee for their lives. Unfortunately, Genjurô has just finished preparing some pottery in a kiln, and risks the fires going out when he isn’t there. Fortunately, the pottery survives, and Genjurô and his brother take what they can and flee the area on a boat nearby. While onboard the boat, they come upon another boat with a dying voyager who warns them that there is danger ahead, so Genjurô leaves behind his wife and son Miyagi and Genichi. They get to town and sell their items successfully. While there, Genjurô is approached by the wealthy noblewoman Lady Wakasa who invites him to her home, Kutsuki manor, and offers to buy his remaining items. Meanwhile, Tobei foolishy chases after the samurai army with the money he has in hopes of joining. His wife Ohama in turn chases after him, and is subsequently raped by bandits in a deserted monastery outside of town.

Genjurô is taken in by the intoxicating Lady Wakasa who claims to be a fan of his pottery skills and demands they get married immediately. She does quickly seduce Genjurô, to the point that pretty soon he forgets all about his family. At this point in the film, Mizoguchi shows us the fate of Miyagi and Genichi are a fending for their own back in the village which has been raided by ruthless bandits to and fro and murder her for scraps of food, leaving the child motherless. The film then focuses on Tobei's rise to power as a famous warrior, who quite accidentally kills a powerful general of an opposing army. He brings a decapitated head to another general who proclaims him to be a great warrior, thus making Tobei a great warrior. At this point, the two main characters lives grow to their height and quickly come crumbling down, as Genjurô discovers that his newlywed wife is a ghost and is assisted by a Buddhist priest excorcise the spirit. Tobei does not fare better, as he discovers that his wife has turned to prostitution and in her own right has become successful. Genjurô narrowly escapes the advances of his bride from beyond the grave, and returns to his village in search of his family.

Ugetsu Monogatari is a amalgam of cautionary tales and ghost stories used to their absolute excellence in displaying the worst in human nature. They are based on a couple of stories from a book called "Tales of Moonlight and Rain" by 18th century writer Ueda Akinari. "Asaji Ga Yado" (The House in the Thickets) which was a straight on ghost story and "Jasei No In" (The Lust of the White Serpent) which was another kind of ghost story but more uniformly traditional in the myth of a spirit in snake form. Mizoguchi paints these ghost stories with light and shadow, and utilizing the black and white imagery to convey certain specific emotions. It is possible he studied some of the Hollywood Universal horror films of the 30's and allowed his cinematographer to build on that feeling. There seemed to be a lot more ghost story films coming out of Japan after this period, and many find it interesting that they come about after the events of World War II.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

STRINGS (2004)
--- fantasy/animation

Dir: Anders Rønnow Klarlund

When it comes to fantasy epics put on film, they are few and far between. That’s because it is too costly, time consuming, and difficult for the filmmakers to idealize a fantasy world that is so far from reality that it’s hard to imagine.

Director Anders Rønnow Klarlund’s fantasy film, “Strings”, accomplishes this feat of epic storytelling. It captures the fantastical settings of films like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy or the recent “Chronicles of Narnia” adaptation. The only difference here is every character in this film is a marionette. Furthermore, the characters know it. But unlike Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds or Team America, we see something here that is the true work of a gifted puppeteer, in a single frame we get emotion from a block of wood, and the expressions of the marionettes are not switched around or anything. It’s the magical collaboration of the cinematographer, the director, the voice actor, and the musician’s score. The art of the puppeteer dates back as early as the 16th Century and in many cultures of the world, but I don’t believe it’s ever been filmed successfully - until, perhaps, this movie.

“Strings” is said to be inspired by America’s decision to go to war with Iraq. Klarlund’s mythic fantasy tells the tale of Prince Hal Tara, heir to the throne of Hebalon, who’s King has just killed himself. No one in the kingdom however knows this. The King’s wicked brother, Nezo and his spidery henchman, Ghrak, concoct a machination that convinces the prince and princess, Jhinna, was murdered by the kingdoms sworn enemies the Zeriths. Once the prince is notified, all preparations are set for a vengeance quest, but the uncle, has already planned for him to never return and for himself to be ruler of Hebalon. But Hal’s journey leads him to some shocking discoveries about his father and his kingdom, and he ends up finding true love in the most unexpected of places.

The film is a beautiful masterpiece for what it really is; a bunch of puppets. Reminiscent of Jim Henson's "The Dark Crystal", it is also aesthetically charming, and profound of the portrayal of its universe. The marionettes live in a world where they are aware of their strings. They live in harmony with them. They even have a “life string”, that if cut they will die. The other thing is the puppets are given even more character, by how their strings look or how what kind of wood they’re made of. For instance the prince and princess appear to be gilded in gold and porcelain, and later we see the swamp-dwelling Zerith’s are made of driftwood. “Strings” stunning cinematography is gorgeous and all throughout the film never falters in this regard, be it capturing a snowbound mountain or a vast rainy night. This is a can’t miss film for animation and fantasy fans alike.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936)
UK --- fantasy

Dir: Lothar Mendes

What if one day you were endowed with limitless power? What would you do with it? Would you try to make the world a better place for all humanity or selfishly take advantage of it for your own gain and amusement? Would you be hero or villian? Good or evil? This has been a staple of modern comic book stories which the superhero must question and take responsibilty for their actions and power. It also has been the message of a few "Star Trek" and "Twilight Zone" episodes. Author H.G. Wells had the forethought of what the pathos of these characters would experience decades later.

In his story, "The Man Who Could Work Miracles", he allowed an ordinary man to have absolute power for a short period of time, and yet have to truly think about the consequences of his own actions. The movie version, which was actually written for the screen by Wells, stays very true to the story.

Angels (or as it appears in the film more akin to Greek gods of some sort) decide to conduct a little experiment. They endow mildmannered and humble haberdasher salesman, George Fotheringay (portrayed by Roland Young) with absolute power one night. The do leave one ability out, he can not change anyone's free will of opinion or thought, as the angels explain only ONE can do that. George first learns of his abilities in a bar where he accidentally discovers he can upturn a candle. After being kicked out for fooling around, he goes home and tests his new found abilities to perform miracles, realizing he can do pretty much anything he wants.

In the morning, he returns to his day job and reveals to his fellow coworkers his abilities. George learns quickly what he is and is not able to do, such as making his beautiful co-worker, Ada, fall in love with him can not occur. His boss tries to convince him otherwise, and immediately tries to coerce him into a life of show business. George, however, soon comes to the realization he must use his powers for good. Even though he now has these incredible abilities, he makes a conscience effort to make the world a better place. So when he makes a visit to a priest, the priest initially does not believe his abilities are real until he proves it to himself. The priest begins to assists George as a counselor, and helps him with his first task at world peace with changing all of a local opulent solider's weapons into gardening tools. The climax of the film leads George to completely start over, with whomever he chooses to be in charge. He talks to all the heads of the world about how they've messed up. This is of course getting a little preachy at this point.

Alexander Korda produced this humorous and yet thought provoking comic fantasy. It now relates a lot to the Jim Carrey comedy "Bruce Almighty". Though, the special effects in this film are rudimentary to say the least, they actually hold up considering the time period they were made. H.G. Wells was a spoken pacifist who's novels like 'War of the Worlds' and 'Things to Come' showcase the folly of war. This is another addition to those stories, as the loom of yet another World War was within a few years and this tale obviously had fallen of deaf eyes.