Sunday, 29 July 2018

Movie Review: Spirited Away (2001)

Let's talk about anime.

Until a recent trip to America (RIP America), I was adamant that I hated anime/manga because... well... hell, I don't know. I guess it was because I didn't know anything about it, it wasn't familiar, and there was that pesky language barrier.

A few years ago, I spent an afternoon with a friend's boyfriend (well, they're both exes now but for totally unrelated reasons) and he made me watch Hellsing. I did not expect to like it. Boy, was I surprised. Sure, I grumbled about it a good deal but, secretly, I was fascinated.

Then, I caught Vampire Knight on Netflix and it freaking broke me. I was hooked. Death Note, Black Butler, Ghost in the Shell, Castlevania, etc. etc. Even though I fell for anime/manga several years ago, I still hadn't seen anything by Studio Ghibli.

Not enough vampires, I guess.

So, when I was making my list of 100 Classic Must-See Movies (That I've Somehow Never Seen), I decided it was time to fix that. I put both Spirited Away (2001) and My Neighbor Totoro (1988) on it. How did I pick which one to start with?

"Siri, flip a coin."

I'm actually a little worried about watching My Neighbor Totoro now because how can it possibly be as good as Spirited Away?! It was just... magical.


Okay, quick recap for anyone who, like I was a few days ago, is somehow enduring life without the magic of Spirited Away in it:

Chihiro is a ten-year-old girl who's pissed off about her parents moving her away from her school. Her parents, in true anime form, are detached and mostly annoyed by her existence. On the way to their new home, Chihiro's family come across what appears to be an abandoned amusement park but is really a kind of door to the spirit world, where Chihiro becomes stuck after her parents pig out on food intended for the spirits and are turned into... well, pigs.

Trapped in the spirit world, Chihiro is befriended by the sometimes boy/sometimes dragon, Haku. Chihiro is forced to work at a bath house run by the powerful and terrifying Yubaba until she finds a way to break the spell on her parents and earn her freedom. There are tests to pass and friends to be made along the way, but Chihiro eventually frees her family and they all go on their merry way.

The artwork feels a little more Westernized than some I've seen but it's smooth and colourful -- a real treat for the eyes. The music is truly ethereal. It's powerful and soothing at the same time. Spirited Away gave me some big time feels.

I love all the spirits, monsters, gods, and demons. Some of the creatures are truly bizzare, like the Ushioni ("cow goblins") and some are just plain creepy. If Jim Henson had done crack, he might have come close to the weirdness of the creatures in Spirited Away.

My favourite, of course, is No Face. The way he goes from all sweet and gee-let-me-help you to eating everything and everyone in sight... totally my spirit animal! (The sootballs come a close second, though, because aww!)

I love Chihiro most of all. Not only is she a true hero (I'll come back to that), she's freaking adorable. I love her grumpy face. I love her terrified face. I love her disgusted face. I just love Chihiro.

Chihiro is the kind of hero little girls need. She's the only one around (besides Haku, of course) who is't greedy. She's brave and strong. Chihiro tries to help everyone -- even the people who've wrong her. When her parents begin to feast, she's the one who tells them it's wrong. She has strong morals. Hell, she's the hero we all need.

My favourite moment in the movie is when a stink spirit enters the bath house and Chihiro gets stuck serving him. She realizes that something is wrong and starts to pull at the thorn in his side. It takes every employee of the bath house to pull the thorn free. Eventually, they pull out a whole wad of nastiness to reveal the river spirit inside.

It's a beautiful metaphor and an important lesson. You know what happens when you pollute your rivers? You get big, nasty stink spirits. But, it only takes one person to inspire a whole community to do something about it. If everyone works together, they can turn a nasty stink spirit into a beautiful river spirit.


Everything about Spirited Away is perfect. I absolutely adore it and I'm excited to watch My Neighbor Totoro next. I don't know what other surprises Studio Ghibli has in store for me, but I'm sure I won't be stopping there.

Friday, 27 July 2018

Movie Review: Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

When Jay starts a movie with the words, “I don’t know what you’re going to make of this,” I get nervous -- ‘cause, let’s face it... boy’s seen some weird shit.

It didn’t take long for Phantom of the Paradise (1974) to earn a “What the fuck am I watching?” from me. The intro is very early Punk but the movie immediately goes to a Fifties teddy boy crooner. Phantom jumps around a lot musically and contains just about every kind of genre there is. Phantom of the Paradise is called a “rock opera” but it’s a lot more than that.

Phantom of the Paradise, in a way, is like every movie about the evils of "making it" and, at the same time, like nothing else you’ll ever see. You’ve got a little Breaking Glass, a little Tommy, and a little Almost Famous.

Oh, did I memtion The Rocky Horror Picture Show?

There are a lot of similarities between Phantom of the Paradise and The Rocky Horror Picture Show and only about a year between them. Keep an eye out especially for the outside shot of the old mansion. They’re very similar. But, I’ll come back to all that later.

Right, so let’s talk about the very simple plot that doesn’t do Phantom any justice. Phantom of the Paradise tells the story of poor Winslow (William Finley) who just wants the world to hear his music but gets taken for a ride by the evil label, Death Records. Swan (Paul Williams) and his henchman, Philben (George Memmoli), promise Winslow the world but just screw him over.

Like I said, every movie about the record industry, right?

Jessica Harper’s Phoenix doesn’t fare any better. She just wants the chance to sing but Swan and his cronies aren’t interested in her voice. Phoenix and the other girls are “auditioning” for a spot but Swan and Philben just to see who’s willing to fuck their way in. As they tell her when they send her away, “We’re not looking for singers, we’re looking for screamers.”

There are some pretty obvious references to both Faust and The Portrait of Dorian Gray happening here, in addition to the Phantom of the Opera reference implied by the title. And, yeah, Winslow ends up hideously deformed, hiding in the shadows behind a mask, and stalking the female lead. Very Phantom-esque.

Winslow’s cantata tells the story of Faust and, in a way, so does the movie itself. Like Faust, Winslow sells his soul to Swan who, we learn, has already sold his soul to the Devil. Swan's deal, though, wasn't for unlimited power but for the ability to remain young forever. His contract is in the form of a recording, which has to be destroyed to bring him down. (Like Dorian Gray.)

Honestly? I started to get majorly triggered watching Phantom until I realised that’s exactly the point. You’re supposed to get pissed at the treatment of women, at the racism, at the abuse of power. This is satire, baby, and its a heavy-hitter.

Even before his face is mangled, Winslow isn't much of a looker. His looks don't matter, though, because Swan doesn't want him; he wants the music. Anyone familiar with the likes of Mili Vanilli should be familiar with this concept. Remember how it worked out for them? Yeah, that.

One of the most telling moments of the movie comes near the beginning when the massively popular band, Juicy Fruits, finish playing. The band members (who can't stop molesting women long enough to perform) and the audience all stop to look up. Everyone waiting for the mysterious Swan to applaud is, obviously, a metaphor for the masses waiting for the critics to tell them what they like. Brutal!

Later, when hunky and gender fluid Beef (Gerrit Graham) buys it, the crowd cheers like mad. I'm gonna go back to the Rocky Horror thing here. Beef is pretty obviously in the transvestite mould and tell me he doesn't remind you a bit of Rocky when he's lowered onto the stage in that box! Not really the point I was going to make, just a tangent. So, so many similiarities.

So, the crowd chants for Beef after he dies. When Swan prepares to marry Phoenix on stage, the crowd goes wild. Then, he and Winslow die horribly and the freaking crowd goes nuts. The crowds cheer just as much for a death as they do a wedding. They doesn't care what kind of spectacle they gets, so long as they get a spectacle. Sounds about right...

Phantom of the Paradise is a scathing indictment of the very worst parts of the recording industry, from creation to consumption. The police and prisons are all owned by Swan. Everyone and every establishment is corrupt and no one tries to hide it. And, of course, the fans aren't any better. They're mindless, just hungry for scandal, sex, and blood.

Told you it was good satire, didn't I?

Why this movie is overlooked is beyond me. It should be every bit as huge as The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I can only blame it on the songs not quite being as catchy. It certainly has everything else. Personally, I like the songs. They are good, even if they're not get-stuck-in-your-head good.

If you haven’t seen Phantom of the Paradise, I really can’t recommend it enough. Yes, it's dated. Yes, it's hokey. Neither of those things matter a jot with this film, though. If anything, they just help raise it to cult-level fabulousness.

I asked Jay what he thought about Phantom of the Paradise (after I picked my jaw up off the floor) and this is what he said:
"It was a weird, kooky movie I never intended to watch. It was just on. I kept watching it because it was just mental. I had to be about thirteen so that means I saw it before The Rocky Horror Picture Show. They're similiar, you know. They’re both outrageous musicals -- although they’re both very different, they tap into the same things. They're both full of sexuality and push the limits of what's acceptable. If it wasn't for the music not quite being as good, Phantom of the Paradise would have been just as huge."
Coming from the guy who used to make a "great Frank'N'Furter"... (By the way, if you have photos of my Beast as Frankie, send them to me! I'd love to get an eyeful of that!)

If you want to weigh in on this one, you know what to do. And, if you can recommend another movie like Phatom, do get in touch. I'm always up for weird little musicals!

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Movie Review: Billy Elliot (2000)

Because of its fame, I had an idea of what I was getting myself into when I settled down to watch Billy Elliot (2000) last night. Well... sort of. I had -- wrongly, I'll admit -- this image in my head of a PG The Full Monty. Yeah... don't do that. You'll only be setting yourself up for disappointment. The two are entirely incomparable.

If you're unfamiliar with the plot of Billy Elliot, here's a quick run-through: Jamie Bell's Billy is an angry eleven-year-old watching his world fall apart. His mother's died, his nan (Jean Heywood) has dementia, plus his father (Gary Lewis) & brother (Jamie Draven) are out of work. Billy joins a boxing club because it's what's expected of him but, as everyone is quick to point out, isn't very good at it. One day, he finds himself in the middle of the ballet class that meets downstairs and realises he has a taste for it.

Julie Walters's Mrs. Wilkinson is the teacher that won't give up on Billy, even when he's given up on himself. She believes he's destined for The Royal Ballet School and won't stop until he's made it. They have to fight his father, brother, and societal expectations to get him there, though.

There's no denying that Julie Walters is a master of her craft and adds a touch of magic to every movie she's part of. I loved her in Billy Elliot because of her no-nonsense attitude. The real star of the show, though, is Gary Lewis as Billy's father.

Billy's father is appalled to learn that his son has any interest in dance and does everything in his power to stop the boy -- until he sees him in action. When he sees Billy dance for the first time, his father becomes Billy's greatest champion, willing to do anything to get him to an audition at The Royal Ballet School.

I really want to talk about Billy's father more but there are a few things you need to understand about the film first, so let's get to that.

Billy Elliot is a British film -- and, by that, I mean it is so British. British cinema is awkward, clumsy, gritty, and wholly unapologetic. It's what makes films like Billy Elliot and The Full Monty the modern-day classics they are. You feel the Britishness in this one especially because it's set against the backdrop of the miners' strike of '84/'85, a time of tremendous political and social turmoil.

Set in a mining town, when most of the town struggle to make ends meet because of the strike, Billy Elliot captures the bleak, hopeless feel prevalent at the time. (This is second-hand information, of course. I didn't live through it; Jay did. Sadly, he hasn't seen this one so he can't give me his opinion on it.) It becomes even bleaker, even more hopeless every time Billy and his father face off over his love of dance because, every time but one, Billy backs down.

I'll be honest, I wasn't a huge fan of Billy's character. I thought he was a snotty-nosed little brat with an attitude problem -- but, hey. We've all been that, right? 😉

One of the most fascinating characters of the film is Billy's friend, Michael (Stuart Wells), who struggles with being gay in a place and time when it isn't just frowned upon, but is likely to earn you a beating. The relationship between Michael and Billy is beautifully complex but ultimately unfulfilled.

Billy's sexuality is a major theme of the film. Is Billy gay? Everyone around him seems to think so. Hey, I understand that. My father was convinced I was a lesbian through most of high school. (Hah. Only half right, Dad.) The issue of Billy's sexuality is never resolved, though.

There's a tense moment on his friend Debbie's (Nicola Blackwell) bed where you think they might kiss but the moment passes. Later, she offers to "show him her fanny", which he declines. Billy constantly tells people, "Just because I like ballet doesn't mean I'm a poof, you know," but never denies being gay, either. When Michael comes on to him, he gently dissuades the other boy, but with a smile. Later, as he leaves, he kisses Michael's cheek.

It's pretty obvious at the end of the film that Michael has ended up with someone else but who has Billy ended up with? That was my major problem with Billy Elliot. I thought his character just sort of... stopped. It was almost like he stopped being one person and became someone else, without the growth to explain it. Really, at the end of the film, you're left not knowing who Billy is at all. Does he like his life? Has ballet given him what life in a mining town couldn't? We just don't know.

(And, while we're at it, why isn't Mrs. Wilkinson in the audience on his big day?)

Billy Elliot doesn't talk down to the audience, which is one of the things that I did like about it. The adults talk to the children as if they're smaller adults. I don't know if this is particular to the area, but it strikes me as the right way to do it. It's really not that important to the plot, I just wanted to point out that a kid and his ballet teacher telling each other to "piss off" amused me.

The concept of sexuality and toxic masculinity are inseparable in Billy Elliot. All the way through, you're told what "lads do." Billy lives in a world where roles ares clearly defined by perceived masculinity -- or lack thereof. This is why I think Billy's father is the real hero of the story.

When his masculinity is challenged, Billy basically just stands there and takes it in the nuts. His father, while Billy's greatest opponent to begin with, is the one who is forced to explore the dangerous nature of gender roles. He's the one who hangs his head in shame as he crosses the picket line to give his son a chance. He's the one who breaks down, falls to his knees, and cries in front of his oldest son and co-workers. He's the one who encourages the town to support Billy's dream of attending The Royal Ballet School. And, at the end, he's the one who openly cries in public when he sees Billy on stage -- something a "real man" would surely never do... right?

Although I didn't enjoy Billy Elliot as much as I thought I would, I can appreciate it for what it is: a masterpiece of British cinema.

I'm not sure what to tackle next, so have a look at my list of 100 Classic Must-See Movies (That I've Somehow Never Seen) and let me know what you recommend. Thanks for reading.