Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Reanimating Animation - Secret of the Kells & Song of the Sea

If you’ve been following me for some time or if you know me at all you know I dream of being the next Walt Disney (creatively speaking) and I adore the work of Disney, Pixar and SOME Dreamworks. American animation studios are far from perfect, but there are some golden projects produced by these studios. I want to do a post on Pixar/Disney shorts and the power of short films sometime soon.

However, because certain types of animated films make the most green in our ADHD society, we often bulldoze over the subtler, quieter animated films. Films that are gloriously beautiful, unique, and heartfelt. Other than Hayao Miyazaki’s films and many other churned out of Japan’s successful Studio Ghibli, foreign animation studios are sadly not household names here in the U.S.


I want to share a little bit about the work coming out of Cartoon Saloon based in Kilkenny, Ireland. I'm a bit partial to things of a Celtic persuasion, but they honestly have created two of the most enchanting animated films of all time, The Secret of the Kells and Song of the Sea. 

Both films are based deeply in Irish culture and history. Kells gets it's inspiration from The Book of Kells, one of the Illuminated Manuscripts. An astonishingly beautiful, 4-volume collection dating back to 800 A.D. It contains about 340 folio leaves made of calf-skin parchment. The work consists of the Four Gospels primarily, with various other supporting texts and tables. In the film, the book is referred to as “the book that turns darkness into light.”

In this story we are drawn into the monastic life surrounding the creation of the texts via a young boy named Brendan. He later crosses paths with Aisling (pronounced Ashlynn in the film), a faery girl of Celtic Pagan tradition. 

Secret of the Kells is indeed about light in the darkness, focusing on the creation of the Illuminated Manuscripts in conjunction with the aim to defeat the dark pagan deity Crom Cruach, who resides in a cave within the forest. Crom killed Aisling's family and the rest of her people. Brendan and Aisling's friendship sheds light into the dark places. In fact, the song in the film taken from the Irish poem Pangur Ban ends with the lines "I get wisdom day and night, Turning Darkness into light." The poem was written by a Monk about his cat and in the film the cat's name is Pangur Ban.

Samurai Jack
The style of both these films is similar to the style of Cartoon Network's Samurai Jack (which is a pretty legit show). This method creates very angular, two dimensional characters that seem to pop-out like paper dolls from the ornate, and hyper-detailed backgrounds. Though Samurai Jack originates from an Asian influence, there is similar ground in the contrast of simplicity/complexity between figures and backdrops. I used to think this style was odd, but now I see it as a breathtaking, welcome change for the eyes. In Kells, we see this style taken to the next level with some of the most stunning backdrops in animation history. The use of Celtic knots, plaits, and spirals in the design is absolutely magical, using both nature and man-made marvels to dress the scene.

In Song of the Sea we see the same animation design but taking us from the forest to the ocean. Since most of the magic in the film takes place at night, the tones are darker with blues and purples. There's a twinkling, sparkling atmosphere that is very celestial throughout. There is a strong presence of watercolors in the background whose subtlety leads your mind to the water just as the story does.

From the moment this film began with the words of William Butler Yeats "The Stolen Child" I was in love. Just like Kells we see the lovely use of cultural poetry. If any of you saw the film The Secret of Roan Inish in the 90s as a child you'll have a nice sense of nostalgia as this film has a very similar plot. Just as the Book of Kells is an important part of Irish culture, so is the legend of the Selkie. Selkies are described as comely women (though there are men too) who can transform between a human form to the body of a seal, shedding their skin when they reach land.
In the beginning, we are brought into a lovely moment between an expectant mother named Bronach telling a story to her young son, Ben. Her husband Conor, a lighthouse keeper, is nearby as well. Bronach "dies" that night in childbirth and we are forwarded six years into the future. Conor grieves in drink and Ben has projected his anger and hurt into his younger sister, Saoirse (pronounced Seer-shuh), blaming her for the loss of his mother. Saoirse hasn't spoken a single word her entire life and often has her mind fixed elsewhere.

As it turns out, she has a magical connection to this world and others. She discovers a white garment of her mother's hidden in a trunk.Without hesitation she puts it on and in that moment becomes a Selkie, an adorable white seal frolicking in the sea.

Though her father, brother, and grandmother are frustrated with her daydreams and unknown excursions, Saoirse determinedly focuses on her destiny and fulfilling a quest only she can understand.

Song of the Sea is a film about grief and moving on, and how differently people accept (or don't accept) loss. Ben takes to anger and resentment, Conor to drink and depression, but Saoirse seeks a way to connect with her mother and press onward, even though she was born in tragedy.

I cannot wait to see what Cartoon Saloon will do next. I highly recommend these two films to any film lover, even if you generally aren't an animation buff. You will be refreshed by their quality and charm. I know Kells is on Netflix streaming as of right now and Song of the Sea is available on DVD. Additionally, both films have absolutely exquisite scores, especially if you're a lover of Celtic music. I leave you with the beautiful "Song of the Sea" to guide you peacefully through the rest of your day. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Minions - My First Podcast With Reel World Theology!

Yay! My first podcast up on the internet! I've increasingly become interested in doing podcasts and finally got to do one on the team of Reel World Theology.

This one was all about the Minions film, part of the Despicable Me franchise. I really liked Despicable Me and the sequel, but Minions was a disaster from the word "go."

This begs us to ask ourselves to have more discernment with family movies. Film and TV these days are often seen as babysitters to distract children for 30-90 minutes. We discuss the need to be more intentional about what children watch. Not just for content, but for quality too.

Click the link below to listen in! I am a little embarrassed by my amount of "ums," "likes," and losing my train of thought, but I was kind of nervous. Next time I'll be ready and armed with cue cards and notes haha.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A Storm is Coming - Revisiting 2011's "Take Shelter"

I wrote a post on Take Shelter in 2011 when the film was out in theaters. I recently watched it again, as I am in a psychological/suspense films phase to assist me with my script revisions. After this viewing, I decided my post needed a revision of its own. Four years later, this one definitely still sticks with me. It’s a beautiful, well-acted storm worth being swept away by. 

Jeff Nichol’s film seems to draw inspiration from Hitchcock, Coen Brothers, and Shyamalan thrillers with their endearing characters that are stuck in frightening situations they must overcome through a test of faith of some kind. 

The film was shot on super 35mm film (always a plus in my book), fastidiously captured and organic. Scenes focusing on people are very bare and simple, whereas scenes focusing on nature are intense and bold. The natural world is in a subtle revolt, flocks of birds and gray skies make you look at normal occurrences through an apocalyptic lens. Many of the wide shots showcase Ohio farm country landscapes that – through the genius of good camera work – transform blue skies filled with puffy clouds, emerald trees, and grassy fields into objects of discomfort. David Wingo’s score helps to color the film with strings and bell tones delivering a quietly nervous and ominous mood.

It’s a character driven story centered on one man played almost too perfectly by one of my recent favorites, Michael Shannon. Curtis is a simple guy on the surface. He works for a drilling company, speaks in a low and calm voice, and buries his emotions. He is a family man who adores his wife and their sweet daughter (who happens to be deaf) more than anything. He’s a show-er, not a teller, and any move he makes is out of a deep love for them. 

When Curtis is plagued by apocalyptic visions of coming storms, psychotic people, and birds falling dead from the sky he is overcome with fear. His mother is a schizophrenic who unwittingly left him alone in a car as a child and they found her a week later living in a dumpster. It seems likely at first that he may be suffering from the genetic hand-me-down of her mental illness. His is a sudden descent into madness… night terrors, visions, hallucinations, isolation, obsession, anxiety, and paranoia.

Curtis endeavors to build a shelter to protect his family from the great storm he believes is coming. He keeps the reasoning to himself, withholding his emotions and fears from his wife, dreading that she will think less of him and he will lose her. He spends their money, uses equipment from his company without asking, and puts his friend under speculation all because of his obsession. By doing what he thinks he must, he tears his life apart. It is universally acknowledged that the more you cling to your life the quicker it will slip from your fingers, and the harder you run away from your fears the more likely they are to come to pass. “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” (Luke 17:33, Matthew 10:39)

His wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, another favorite), shows us what it looks like on the other side. When someone you love appears to be losing it and people start to question them and your relationship. She struggles to understand throughout the story, like most of us would. Samantha's role is showing us the reality of dealing with someone in mental crisis, but learning to do so in love instead of judgement. 

The entire movie is like the quiet accumulation of storm clouds until suddenly Curtis snaps, like lightning and thunder, and the flood begins. This build-up is one of the many amazing facets of Shannon's performance. He remains stoic for so long trying desperately to maintain self-control so that, when he finally does snap, it's completely genuine and convincing. As he dissolves into tears, Samantha stands back in shock for a moment. He humiliated their family and himself in front of so many people, but instead of flipping out on him, she reaches out and holds him close, helps him stand, lets him cry. 

In the story's turning point, Samantha and their daughter Hannah are in the shelter with him. He refuses to unlock the doors. He asks her to do it because he can’t, he’s too afraid. She tells him that even if she opens the door and he sees everything is okay, he still won’t be better because only he can make the choice to be free of this fear. If he doesn’t open the door himself, nothing will change. Instead of wrongly coddling his fear, she tells him exactly how this can be undone. 

I want to talk a little about the ending too, which infuriated many people who saw the film. The problem is (what it always is, especially in American society) people are trying to take the film too literally. Film is art and sometimes art is realism, and sometimes it’s allegorical, parable, or legend. Sometimes it’s both realism and allegorical, which in the case of Take Shelter, I would say is the truth. 

Just when we think things are normalizing, we’re given a tasty twist. Curtis and his family head to Myrtle beach for rest after everything they’ve been through. He seems to relax and enjoy making sandcastles with Hannah. Suddenly she stands and looks out to the ocean. Curtis asks her what’s wrong, she signs “storm."

Samantha steps out of the beach house and also witnesses the cyclones and receding tide. Curtis looks at her and she nods, to assure him she sees it too. With Samantha and Hannah confirming, he knows and it’s not all in his head. The storm is identical the one he saw in his visions, right down to the oily, gasoline-like rain drops.  

Jeff Nichols said in an interview that the heart of the movie was commitment, staying by someone when they're falling apart. Curtis and Samantha had this wedge between them for most of the film from his anxiety and spiritual/mental battle with himself. His greatest fear was having to leave his family, the way his mother left him, but in the end they are all together. Nichols says that the moment is the look Samantha gives Curtis, acknowledging she sees what he sees. They are on the same page together. That being said, Nichols also said he loves the audience theories and that when it comes to the literal/figurative event in the ending it's open to interpretation. 

On the surface, it does seem crazy that dreams and visions could be anything more than fear or paranoia, but perhaps the real insanity is our constant desire to quench the fires of possibility and curiosity prematurely. Take Shelter reveals that there’s a side to our nature that is closed so tightly, so stubbornly we often miss the chance to explore possibilities and seek understanding. Just like Curtis, we hide in our own shelters, but eventually the storms will find us no matter where we run. Overcoming fears isn't merely treating them, it's getting to the root of where they come from in the first place. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

ICP - Quentin Tarantino

Probably one of the most well-known and controversial directors in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino. I recall some film students I went to school with making him their own personal god. Though I do not share their religious exaltation, he truly is one of my favorite artists in film.

Tarantino didn't get his success handed to him like so many in Hollywood, and he certainly didn't get it by following the rules. He dropped out of public school at 15 to attend full-time acting classes at James Best Theater Company in Toluca Lake, though he grew bored with it after a couple of years. 

He then got a job at Video Archives, a video rental store in Manhattan Beach, L.A. where he would discuss cinema with customers and offer them lengthy recommendations on which films to watch. He has said that his time working there inspired him to take the writer/director route.

"When people ask me if I went to film school,
I tell them 'no, I went to films."

In 1987 Tarantino met Lawrence Bender at a Hollywood party. Bender encouraged him to write a screenplay. He wrote for a couple of projects before his premiere film Reservoir Dogs became a reality in 1992.  Bender got the script into the hands of Harvey Keitel, known for his performances in films like Scorsese's Taxi Driver and Mean Streets, just to name a couple. Keitel liked the script so much he contributed to funding, making him a co-producer and also garnering him a role in the film. Lawrence Bender went on to produce most of Tarantino's films.

This is absolutely fascinating to me as an aspiring filmmaker. Tarantino didn't come from a known family, have a degree, or fat resume, but all it took was one influential creator in Hollywood to believe in him and his career skyrocketed. That's the magic of the biz.

 "I'm never going to be shy about anything, 
what I write about is what I know; it's more about my 
version of the truth as I know it. That's part of my talent, really, 
putting the way people really speak into the things I write. 
My only obligation is to my characters
and they came from where I have been."

Though Reservoir Dogs was successful, it wasn't until Pulp Fiction that Tarantino became an unforgettable name. It was the first independent film to ever gross more than $200 million, an enormous feat in any decade. The roles in Tarantino's sharp-as-a-tack script revived John Travolta's then waning career and catapulted Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman into stardom.Though they had talent, it was Tarantino's writing that gave them a firm foundation to let loose with their characters and wow audiences the world over.

His unique style completely changed the composition of Hollywood film by combining multiple genres and ideas into intense and unpredictable stories. There really has never been anyone like him before or since.

Admittedly, I was not always a Tarantino fan. It wasn't until the Kill Bill films that I really noticed his talent. I was enchanted by the use of multiple cinema styles such as western, martial arts, film noir, and even anime all in one single film. The colors, the lighting, the use of sets, it was absolutely hypnotic. Yes, there was blood spewing everywhere, and yes lots of uncomfortable curse words and dialogue at points, however, there was something far greater within the narrative that not only kept my attention but made me fall in love with it.

That love grew even deeper in 2009 with Inglorious Basterds. The first ten minutes of the film alone were absolutely mind-blowing, heart-stopping, and other such anxiety-inducing metaphors. It was the dialogue (Tarantino's greatest creative talent) as well as the consistent emotional tension. Additionally, he cast actors from their native countries and had them speaking their native tongues for most of the film.

Seeing Inglorious Basterds made me want to rewatch his older films with new eyes, and I did. Though I don't care for them as much as his later work (mainly due to my own personal preference in content) I was able to fully understand what astonishing pieces of cinema they are. Samuel L. Jackson delivering his "Path of the Righteous Man" speech at the end of Pulp Fiction is now one of my favorite scenes of all time.

In 2012, he released Django Unchained. I still have a hard time deciding whether or not it or Inglorious Basterds is my favorite film of his. Both cleverly (and violently) rewrite two of the greatest atrocities in human history and both are filled with scenes of incredible dialogue born from some of the finest performances on screen.

"It's not my job. It's my calling."
Just like my first ICP in the series Lindsey Stirling, he didn't become successful by compromising his vision or himself. He became successful by BEING himself. In film school I was taught that the way to sell a movie in Hollywood is to show not tell, keep dialogue short, have a 3-act structure, and lots of effects. Tarantino defies every rule. He has beautiful, lengthy dialogue scenes, he doesn't follow the 3-act structure, he keeps special effects to a minimum, and has shot all his films on 35mm film. By Hollywood standards they shouldn't have even let him in the front door, but when your work is good enough it can break down those barriers that keep us inside the box.

Whenever people ask him to explain his violent content or controversial subject matter, he shuts them down by saying he doesn't have to explain anything to anyone and refuses the question. I think this is incredibly brave because often times people cave in to media pressure to protect their image. Tarantino protects his work over his own image, that's a true artist.

I very much look forward to his next film, a wild western called The Hateful Eight set to come out this Winter. I've also heard rumors that he plans to retire after it's release. I hope that's not true. In this current cinema state of overcooked franchises, rushed storylines, and menial dialogue we need more creators like Signor Tarantino to freshen the blood supply. With the amount of blood in his films, that shouldn't be too hard.

"...I don't make movies to pay for my pool. When I make a movie, I want it to be everything to me; like I would die for it."

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

"We all have a destiny." - The Redemption of Lieutenant Dan

Though it may be overly sentimental at points, Forrest Gump remains one of my favorite films. It’s beautifully told, superbly acted, and wields a mighty theme. The message that someone who is branded “stupid” by the world is essentially one of the most encouraging, accepting, peaceful people on the planet. Forrest is an openly loving person surrounded by hurting people who are greatly influenced by his character. Additionally, it's just a fun story that weaves its central character in and out of some of the most defining moments of recent American history.

There are many themes and characters I could discuss from the film, but my focus today is on my favorite character, Lieutenant Dan. He's played brilliantly by Gary Sinise who is pretty much just as awesome as his character in real life.

When we first meet Dan he’s doing pretty well. He’s an army lieutenant focused on both the welfare of his men and his obsession with fulfilling his destiny of dying with honor on the battlefield. Forrest informs us in his narration that a member of Dan's family died on the field in every great American war. Dan is kind of an abrupt, no-nonsense guy, but he makes a good leader because of his instincts and awareness of his comrades.

Not long after Forrest joins up with Dan in Vietnam, they find themselves in a middle of an intense enemy attack. Forrest saves many lives that day, including Lieutenant Dan’s. Dan has been horribly injured. He begs screaming to be put down and left to die as Forrest carries him away from danger, but Forrest does what he's best at and just keeps running.

Soon after we find Forrest and Dan in the hospital together. Forrest is recovering from his bullet wound “in the buttocks” and eating all the ice cream he can. Dan has had both his legs amputated below the knee. He is defeated, purposeless… or so he thinks. One night in his despair he grabs Forrest right out of his bed and pins him on the floor…

Lt. Dan: Now, you listen to me. We all have a destiny. Nothing just happens, it's all part of a plan. I should have died out there with my men, but now, I'm nothing but a goddamned cripple! A legless freak. Look! Look! Look at me! Do you see that? Do you know what it's like not to be able to use your legs?

Forrest: Well...yes sir, I do.

Lt. Dan: Did you hear what I said? You cheated me. I had a destiny. I was supposed to die in the field… with honor… That was my destiny, and you cheated me out of it! You understand what I'm saying, Gump? This wasn't supposed to happen. Not to me. I had a destiny. I was...Lieutenant Dan Taylor…

Forrest: You're still Lieutenant Dan.

That line holds such incredible power. Though Forrest is simple, so is the truth. Dan put his entire identity into being a war hero. That’s all he was to himself. A soldier whose sole purpose was to die on the battlefield. So when that honor was “taken” from him, he was left to contemplate the horrifying truth, that he doesn’t know who he truly is at all.  

We leave Dan for a time during the story. When we next see him it’s not hard to imagine with those missing years were like between that hospital in Vietnam to the moment he finds Forrest on the streets of New York. His hair is long and messy, he’s dressed like a homeless bum (though he’s not homeless), and pushing himself around in a rickety wheel chair. Forrest is thrilled to see him, though Dan doesn’t seem to reciprocate.

Though he appears to be nothing but a ball of bitter rage, it’s clear that Dan has missed Forrest and desperately needs a friend. They reconnect over the holidays and it’s during the New Year’s Countdown when the world around him is cheering and throwing confetti that we see Dan’s true self. Miserable and alone.

Very rarely do we get glimpses of male depression, so I am grateful this film does not shy away from sharing a little bit of what that’s like. The bitterness, the anger at life, at God, whatever. Dan talks to Forrest on Christmas Eve about God, and it’s pretty obvious who he’s really angry at.

Forrest leaves Dan again to keep his promise to his fallen friend, Bubba, and start a "shrimpin' business." Dan scoffs at the idea saying, “If you’re ever captain of a shrimping boat, I’ll be your first mate.”

Naturally, Dan eats his words. Forrest does captain a boat, though not a lot of shrimp seem to be coming aboard. Dan keeps his promise and joins Forrest as his first mate. Unfortunately, even together they don’t seem to be able to catch enough shrimp to make a cocktail.

Forrest: [dejected] No shrimp.

Lt. Dan: Where the Hell is this God of yours?

Forrest: [voice over] It's funny Lieutenant Dan said that, 'cause right then, God showed up.

Suddenly, a violent hurricane sweeps across the water. Forrest is terrified, flailing around trying to keep the boat afloat, but Dan is in another place all together. From atop the crow’s nest, he laughs maniacally, screaming at the sky.

Though I was quite young when I first saw this film, I completely understood what was happening in this “showdown” between Dan and God. Dan’s anger was as fierce as the storm. He was tired of losing. His legs, his dignity, even the shrimp. He wanted God to end it, take it all, wash it away. 

Yet, much to Dan’s surprise, this was not a storm of wrath, but of grace.

The waters calmed and the storm had destroyed every shrimp boat except their own. With no competition, they found shrimp in abundance. Their loss had been replaced a thousand fold. Soon Forrest and Dan became two of the wealthiest men in the south.

As they found themselves sailing through smooth waters- both literally and figuratively- Dan turns to Forrest and for the first time thanks him for saving his life in Vietnam. He then lifts himself onto the boat edge and falls into the water, swimming beneath a heavenly sky. 

Water represents rebirth, baptism, being washed clean. Though he never actually says so, Forrest and the audience can now surmise that his own storm has passed and he now is at peace with God, and life.

The wonderful thing about Grace is that it is an overflowing fount. Lieutenant Dan lived through some of the hardest things a man can live through in this life, and through that pain and suffering a new and more glorious life was born.

When I think of his story, I am reminded of Job 23:1-10...

“Today also my complaint is bitter;
    my hand is heavy on account of my groaning.
Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
    that I might come even to his seat!
I would lay my case before him
    and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would know what he would answer me
    and understand what he would say to me.
Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
    No; he would pay attention to me.
There an upright man could argue with him,
    and I would be acquitted forever by my judge.
“Behold, I go forward, but he is not there,
    and backward, but I do not perceive him;
on the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him;
    he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him.
But he knows the way that I take;
    when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold."

In the last, tearful chapter of the film- during Forrest’s marriage to Jenny- we finally see Dan again. Several years have passed and we can see he really has come out as gold. He’s cleaned up and standing tall on two titanium alloy legs. The “magic legs,” as Forrest calls them. At his side is his fiancĂ©e, who happens to be Vietnamese, and that in a way brings his journey full circle. His loss, his suffering, and pain did have purpose. He was right about having a destiny, and it's safe to say that in the end the destiny he was given in grace was far greater than any fate he originally intended for himself.