2013 First-Time Viewings: February Week 3

Kiki's Delivery Service

Kiki’s Delivery Service

This 1989 animated film from Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli follows the experiences of a young witch, who leaves home to venture out on her own and hone her magical abilities. With the exception of My Neighbor Totoro, this could be Studio Ghibli’s most low-key effort. But while My Neighbor Totoro has a grounded, reality-based narrative interacting with light fantastical elements, Kiki’s Delivery Service is almost the opposite, a primarily fantastical premise treated in as realistic a manner as possible. The majority of the film revolves around the main character Kiki struggling with living on her own in the big city, meeting new people and determining who she is and who she wants to be. Despite being a witch, Kiki’s experiences are universal, and the film ends up being about the transition period between childhood and adulthood, between dependence and independence. At one point, after encountering a string of obstacles, Kiki loses her powers. To shake things up a bit, the film incorporates this plot complication with a big action climax that, while thematically appropriate, almost feels at odds with the genial and easygoing nature of the rest of the film. As is always the case with Ghibli films, the animation is wonderful, and there really is no matching their level of craft when it comes to creating these amazing animated worlds. I’m not sure how often it will be the one Ghibli film I reach for when I’m in the mood for some beautiful animation, but, as I’ve said before, there hasn’t been a Ghibli film that I haven’t enjoyed at least on some level, and this one is really no different. 7/10.

End Of Watch

End Of Watch

Training Day scribe David Ayer writes and directs this 2012 film about the everyday on-duty and off-duty routines of two Los Angeles patrolmen, played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña. Throughout the film, the viewer watches the two cops, partners on the job and best friends after hours, as they go about their business on the streets. This more often than not involves at least some level of life-threatening violence. Strangely, the filmmakers choose to stage all this with a combination of first-person “found footage” and more traditional methods. This leads to some confusion, especially early on, when the film is constantly switching back and forth between these different types of perspectives without anything there to differentiate between them. There’s also a not entirely successful attempt to wrap the actions of the cops to an overarching narrative. Occasionally the film will step away from the cops to check in on a group of gang members, whose dialogue usually goes something like this: “We fuckin’ gotta fuckin’ kill these fuckin’ cops before they fuckin’ interfere with our fuckin’ business! Are you fuckin’ in or are you fuckin’ out, muthafuckas?” So that’s annoying, but thankfully the “villains” only pop up for a handful of scenes. It’s a credit to Gyllenhaal and Peña that, even with the film’s more off-putting technical and narrative/script decisions, their performances never come across as false. Peña in particular is wonderful; he’s just one of those screen presences who immediately elevates a film’s quality whenever he’s onscreen. A good portion of the film is just Gyllenhaal and Peña talking in their squad car, and to be honest I could have watched an entire film of just those scenes. That’s how believable and naturalistic and watchable the two central performances are. Despite the film’s problems, it ends up working beautifully as a portrait of the familial and loving bond that can form between two men on the job, as well as the mentality that it takes to work in a profession where your life is on the line every day. 7/10.

Sinister

Sinister

The setup is familiar: a struggling author, looking for inspiration for his next true crime novel, moves his family into a house with a gruesome history. When exploring the house, the author, here played by Ethan Hawke, finds a box of old Super 8 prints and a projector in the attic. As he watches the films, he discovers an evil presence that threatens the lives of him and his family. This is a standard foundation on which to build a horror film, and especially in the last six months these films have been a dime a dozen, so it all comes down to the execution when determining whether or not it is successful. And for about half of its running length, Sinister does what it sets out to do quite well. The house is suitably dark and creepy, characters spend a lot of time walking down pitch-black hallways, and the Super 8 films are actually legitimately frightening. There’s also an interest in watching the puzzle being systematically pieced together, and for awhile the film emphasizes a kind of creeping uneasiness over more obvious scares, with all the events accompanied by a unique soundtrack consisting of unsettling tracks from ambient-electronic artists. Once Hawke starts to put everything together and the images start to manifest themselves into the real world, however, the film moves onto much shakier ground. Right around the point when Vincent D’Onofrio comes onscreen in a brief cameo to explain everything, most of the intrigue and suspense of before is pushed aside in favor of standard jump moments, all leading up to an anticlimactic ending that you can see coming from a mile away. I’ve always felt with mysteries like these that the sense of discovery and unknown at the beginning is always more interesting than whatever the solution ends up being. So my ultimate disappointment with this film might just be related to my personal bias, and nothing to do with the film itself. I’m not sure I can convince myself of that though. It’s more likely that the film is a decent genre exercise that’s suitable for casual viewing on a lonely night or around Halloween, but not something that truly stands out from the pack. 5/10.

Side By Side

Side By Side

After something like a century of films being made on celluloid, the advent of digital technology in recent years has created a legitimate challenger and probable successor to the filmmaking throne. Presented by Keanu Reeves of all people, who to his credit does a solid job, this documentary details both the history of celluloid and of digital, and how digital gradually started to become a significant presence in the filmmaking world. Of course, digital has now essentially taken over as the industry standard, but the documentary wonders if there is still a place for film as well, with the two technologies able to co-exist side by side. Reeves interviews a wide range of filmmakers, each with their own valid and thought-provoking opinions. Some, like Martin Scorcese and Christopher Nolan, continue to embrace film, while others, like Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron and George Lucas, embrace the new technology and continue to push the digital revolution forward.  Personally, I find it tough to take filmmakers like Rodriguez and Cameron and Lucas seriously,  but overall I think the documentary presents enough opinions to obtain a balanced look at both sides of the issue. What I appreciated most about the documentary was that it wasn’t just an examination on a changing technology, but on a changing culture as well. It’s not just the way that films are being made, but also the way that films are being seen, with the rise of digital streaming and the ability to access almost anything at almost any time. In the end, the film posits, it really comes down to the storytelling, and if the storytelling is good enough it’s not going to make much of a difference to a movie viewer how it’s been shot or how it’s being projected. But this is still a documentary well worth taking the time to see, as it presents an engaging and informative look at an industry shift that may very well have gone unnoticed by most moviegoers. 7/10.

Trailer:

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About Andrew Alan Ramseyer

I am a Phoenix resident and I graduated from Arizona State University in 2011 with a Bachelors degree in Film and Media Studies, and from Northern Arizona University in 2013 with an English Masters degree and an emphasis on Professional Writing. The real world made sure that I would need to continue schooling in other areas, but I still love watching films and writing about films. Maybe someday I'll be able to do something film-related on a professional level, but for now I'm content with writing for myself and for others, who hopefully find my thoughts worthwhile.
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