Bewitching Funny Animals

Over this Easter Long Weekend, I have seen two movies on drastically different poles. The first being a funny animal message movie from the House of Mouse, the second being The Witch.

I have also been listening to The Idle Weekend, a podcast I would recommend if you have any interest in Video Games, and this has got me thinking about “rating systems” and their utility. I feel like it would be an exercise in helping me derive my thesis and have it show in the text of my articles if I adopt a simple Yes/No system. Why is it that I say Yes, this is worth watching, or No it isn’t? Numbers have always seem rather arbitrary to me, unless you’re someone like Tim Brayton, in which case more power to you.

With that in mind, I shall debut this system here for these two movies.

1) Zootopia.

YES

First thing’s first. Zootopia is super duper ultra adorable, and that instantly won it a lot of points with me (Full disclosure: I adore cute/adorable things). It also has beautiful production design and strong vocal performances.

Zootopia is a funny and witty funny animal take on the Buddy Cop genre, pairing the city’s first Rabbit Police Officer on an impossible mission with a Fox con-artist. Needless to say, the two of them learn there’s more to each other than surface level characteristics, and one of the film’s great strengths is its setting up and subsequent subversion of these stereotypes to fulfill the dual purpose of getting laughs and digging at character truth. The mystery they set out to solve is ultimately rather predictable, but their character interactions and various approaches to solving it serves as the main driving force of the narrative and provides Zootopia with its heart.

As mentioned before, it is a message movie, and it strives hard to talk about prejudice and its damage, particularly racial prejudice. The world of Zootopia consists of a society run and governed by Predators, with a majority population of unequally disenfranchised Prey animals.

It does have some mature things to say about the nature of prejudice, and how even well meaning people can bring great harm to particular groups of people through ignorance and spreading misinformation.

Zootopia is not without its flaws, though. A particularly big one being the way the world has been conceptualised. It sets up Predators as the animals in all positions of power, yet ultimately positions them as victims of prejudice. The film makes specific mention of the fact that the City’s population is 10% or less predators, and its use of this specific language shows a lack of awareness as to the signifiers being used, and the power/class differentials in real world prejudice. Zootopia comes dangerously close to fighting in the corner of privileged groups and suggesting that they have it as hard, if not worse off than genuinely alienated groups in our societies. This is a dangerous message for the film to send to its child audience, or even its adult audience for that matter.

Lesser grievances I had with Zootopia revolve around how it feels more like a movie produced by Dreamworks Animation than Disney. It relies quite a bit on pop culture references for its humour, rather than sticking to its much stronger character motivated gags. You are sure to find references to The Godfather, Speed, and Breaking Bad among others, and it feels like a crutch to make the film seem relevant to this time, rather than acting as a timeless piece, confident in its central thesis and characters to carry it. It even ends on a dance party.

Interestingly, a secondary thematic arc flows through the movie; that of women struggling to be taken seriously in typically male dominated fields, with both the main Bunny character, and a prominent secondary character struggling to make it in their chosen vocations. The film, however, foregrounds its faulty race metaphor and this secondary theme feels more like incidental flavour than a genuine attempt to explore another dimension of prejudice and privilege.

But when Zootopia explores its central characters and their relationships. and the struggles of its female characters, it shines. It is not a great film, but saying its botching of privilege and power relationships renders it incapable of having any intelligent insight into the workings of discrimination would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It also happens that Zootopia is an adorable and often funny family adventure film, and I would take an ambitious animated film over one that tries to coast along any day.

2) The Witch

YES

The Witch is a difficult movie. It is a slow burner that gradually builds tension while the world unravels for its characters, and it is simultaneously deeply invested in being authentic in its construction of time, place, and character. It runs the risk of being alienating to horror fans and people interested in costume dramas. But by god does it do these two things well. So well, in fact that the one could not exist without the other. So entwined is the horror in its world building, and its world building in its horror that to favour the one over the other would be to rob The Witch of its potency.

I have listed this film as YES, so if any of that sounds appealing, please go track it down. The less you know about the particulars of the movie, the better. 

It is clear a lot of research has been conducted for this film, with dialogue even being lifted from source texts. The details from dialect to set dressing and costuming to the presentation of Puritan customs and lifestyle, lends the film a verisimilitude that informs the way the viewer reacts. This verisimilitude is aided by a stretch at the beginning of the film dedicated to setting up the world, the key players, their situation and beliefs, before spending the rest of the runtime challenging those beliefs. 

The basic premise is such; a family has been exiled from their community due to their patriarch’s prideful insistence that he and his are the most Puritan of all. First time director Robert Eggers shows his handle on formal elements by never allowing the viewer a clear look at the community. You see the family and the judges, and the most you see of the settlement is from the midst of the family, showing a narrow and mostly eclipsed view of the main path receding away until the gates are shut on them. 

With this the audience shares in the alienation from the one potentially comforting and safe location in the film’s world. Another thing to note, the first image of the film serves to establish a point of view character while also sowing seeds of doubt in the viewer. To say much more would venture into spoiler territory. 

The Witch is a film about the horrors faced by people in a certain time and place, be they natural or supernatural. It is a testament to the strength of the film’s construction that it can immerse the viewer in a potentially alien belief system, and mine its horrors from it. In that way it is similar to The Exorcist, though not as profane or overt. I understand it is heretical in some circles to say this, but I found The Witch to be all together more affecting and disturbing than The Exorcist, as a person outside of the Faiths presented in both movies. 

Watch it if you want to be transported to a time and place unlike ours to be unsettled by what you find there. 

#52FilmsByWomen 1 to 5

I’m taking up the #52FilmsByWomen pledge this year, and I thought I would also write about these movies after I have watched them. It’s one thing watching 52 films directed by women, it’s an entirely other thing to try and process them.

Keep in mind that I am ordering these films based on viewing order, not based on an assessment of their quality.

So here are capsule write ups 1 to 5!

1) A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night:
A visually dazzling black and white movie. Slow burning, dripping with atmosphere with not much in the way of narrative. It feels more like a series of vignettes set in the fictional Bad City (A city that lives up to its name). Though allegedly set in Iran, it is shot in California, adding to the bizarre otherworldiness of the film.
The titular Girl initially comes off as a quasi-feminist figure, protecting the victimised women of Bad City from the men who exploit them. Her character is coloured by her continued insistence that she is a bad person as well as her killing of a harmless vagrant for no given reason.
Unfortunately I do not have the context to be able to talk about the films A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night pays homage to, but I can say it is a striking feature debut and I look forward to more.

 
2) Honey Moon:
An unsettling and effective low budget character driven horror movie. The film is at its best when it is operating as allegory. It gets great mileage out of exploring the uncertainty faced by people when their romantic partner no longer appears to be or act like the person they remember them to be early in the relationship. Highlights can be found in scenes where one of the characters is rehearsing and memorising details of their previous life, as if they were trying to continue putting up a facade of what attracted their partner to them in the first place.

 
Unfortunately, the movie does fall over when it starts relying on more conventional horror techniques, veering into body horror and gore in the last leg, and stretching the allegorical premise too far.

 
Still, a well shot, tightly paced character study that bodes well for the director’s future.

 
3) Kung Fu Panda 2:
This movie is gorgeous. It looks absolutely stunning, is popping with style and colour, and has some amazingly staged action sequences. It is not necessarily as snappily written as the first Kung Fu Panda film, but still ends up a surprisingly mature exploration of PTSD and processing trauma. When it fires on all cylinders, it is an amazing piece of pop entertainment. In particular, the stylistic decision to have traumatic flashbacks and night terrors rendered in 2D, while “normal” memories and real life are rendered in 3D allows for one particularly gorgeous sequence when the 2D slowly transitions into 3D. It is story telling through form and elevates the movie above some of the other 3D animated family movies I have seen in complexity and competence.

 
I am honestly quite surprised that it isn’t regarded as fondly as the first Kung Fu Panda, and that so many people read Po’s struggling to come to terms with his trauma as a dumb character failing to see the obvious truth in front of him.

 
4) I Believe In Unicorns:
This film is definitely as twee as the title suggests. That said I was surprised by how honest and emotionally raw it was. It is a coming of age teen romance, and the real strength of the movie, other than its stylistic boldness, is the aforementioned emotional honesty. It really feels voyeuristic at times; I felt like I was witness to things too personal to be seen by me.

 
It is shot on 16mm with fantasy sequences shot on super 8mm. The stylistic playfulness is interesting at first, starts to become grating after a while in its utter tweeness, then veers into a surprising and dark place when the real world narrative does as well. The fantasy sequences trade heavily in stereotypically girly imagery (unicorn toys, glitter, sparklers), and serve to chronicle the main character’s desire for escapism, and her dawning realisation that her real life relationship cannot serve the purpose she wants it to.
Her prince charming, an older skater boy, is her ticket away from her depressing life taking care of her disabled mother. They initially bond over absent fathers, go on an ill advised road trip, and then their individual neuroses start revealing darker, more troubling aspects of each others personalities. She prods and pokes at his emotional scars and insecurities, inviting conflict, and he in turn lashes out with barely controlled anger and violence. Their previous, clumsy, playful exploration of their sexuality becomes more violent and desperate as the film goes on. It is a chronicle of two kids trying to play at being adults without the skills or knowledge to navigate the world, let alone each other’s company.

 
At this point I have hit what is probably the most personal, and most overtly “female” coded of the movies I have set out to watch this year. While it is stretched too thin, even at a brisk 80 minutes, its emotional authenticity more than makes up for it. Another promising feature debut.

 
5) Live Nude Girls Unite
A documentary by Julia Query and Vicki Furani that offers a unique and at times very personal look behind the curtain as the employees of The Lusty Lady unionise and fight for safer work conditions.

 
A well crafted film that is playful, angry, sad, and hopeful. It was a wonder to see the hard won battle to form America’s first Union for sex workers inspire sex workers across the country to challenge abusive work practices.

 
Julia and Vicki do a good job of quickly laying the groundwork by explaining the terminology behind unionising, as well as the situations that sex workers at various establishments found themselves facing. This frees up time for the film to focus on its characters as they deal with every loss and victory on the path to establishing a union. Each woman’s individual life experiences and circumstances are covered, and in the film’s short running time, they are all fleshed out, underlying the film’s thesis that sex work is just work, and sex workers are employees that deserve to be treated with the same respect afforded to employees in other industries.

 
Tangentially, Live Nude Girls Unite explores Julia’s relationship with her mother, a doctor who has dedicated her career to aiding prostitutes to lead a safer life. She is an incredibly passionate woman who is doing huge amounts of good with her efforts. Both Julia and her mother are striving to improve the lives and conditions of women in the sex industry, however Julia was not out to her mother about being a sex worker herself. The film gets a lot of human drama out of this, and things come to a head as they both find themselves presenting at the same conference about sex work.

 
In chronicling the struggles of the employees of the Lusty Lady, as well as the relationship between Julia and her mother, Live Nude Girls Unite explores the complexities of the sex industry, the women who choose to work in it, and feminism’s differing opinions of sex work and sex workers.

 

 

So that ends the first 5 capsules of my series. I am still sitting at 49 films on my list (and one of them is an anthology of 26 shorts, with only two of the shorts directed by women). In order to sample a wider range of voices, I have decided to hold myself to watching one film per director. That I am having difficulty identifying films directed by women, or finding a way to watch them legally with the limits placed on travelling to the far reaches of Sydney by my current living situation is something that frustrates and upsets me.

It is most definitely an unfortunate combination of my own inability to work up the effort and the limited market penetration of films directed by women, and had I the psychic fortitude to hunt these movies down, or the funds for that matter, I would have an easier time of hitting the 52 mark.

Fear(s) of the Dark

Fear(s) of the Dark is a French anthology of black and white animated horror short films.

Each of the shorts uses a different art animation style, and if you have seen anything like Halo Legends in the past, you will know what you are in for. Much like other film anthologies, the shorts vary in quality.

The film begins with a traditionally animated short that was reminiscent of the animation style of Fantastic Planet – a fantastic, surreal French Science Fiction animated feature.

After this short (which turns out to be interspersed between the other shorts) is a bizarre sequence akin to watching a Saul Bass styled credits sequence while a neurotic French woman recites all she is, was, and ever will be afraid of in your right ear. I do not know if there was an issue with my audio setup, or if it was intentionally balanced to the right channel, as the other shorts seemed to have no such issue. This short, too, was interspersed and served to act more as an intermission than anything.

A third short was a manga styled ghost story, that had the quality of a campfire story. Not particularly scary, but interesting in its imagery. Of all the animations, it was this one that stuck out, as it was the most washed out looking of the shorts. There were no deep blacks to be found. It’s not necessarily a bad thing as it feels like you’re watching the faded panels of an old manga come to life, but it did feel a little odd compared to the others.

Fourth came a short that had a similar look and style of animation to the first short. It concerned a man recounting a series of events during an early period of his life when an unknown creature was terrorising his town. It was quite well animated and was drenched in melancholy.

The shorts evoked different moods, ranging from melancholy to oppressive to sensual. Disappointingly, for a series of horror shorts, they weren’t particularly scary. The sole exception to this was the fifth and final short (my favourite) that follows an unfortunate man as he stumbles around an unfamiliar home in the dark. It is the closest to being chilling and makes perfect use of a deep inky blackness. In fact, for a majority of its run time, most of the screen is black, and the short uses outlines and quick flashes to suggest the sinister goings on in the house.

As can be expected in a series of shorts by different animators, the quality of sound design also varied. I’d say, once again, the Fifth short comes out on top with an amazingly dynamic soundscape and wonderfully ominous music. At one point the protagonist loses his shoe, and the difference in the sounds of his footsteps is amazingly realised. This level of attention to detail added immensely to the creepiness of the short. Sound is an incredibly important aspect of film, especially of horror films, and this short nailed it.

I’d say Fear(s) is worth watching if you are a fan of animation and would love to see some, at times gorgeous and mesmerising black and white animation. It works as a moody piece of experimental animation, but do not go in expecting any genuine scares. In that regard the anthology falls short.

David Lynch’s DumbLand

I tried to subject my friends to it, they switched to Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters. That right there is a comment on how easy it is to sit through.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters is an infamously difficult to swallow film, seemingly content in its inane surreality, so for it to be easier to watch than something is a comment unto itself.

I have only ever seen one other Lynch product through to completion, Eraserhead, so I may not hold as much sway over you as others well versed in his ouvre. In fact, I attempted to watch Inland Empire, but I was scared away by its utterly alien presentation.

I can say, however, that DumbLand is a deliciously audacious exploration of the inanity and absurdity of suburban life. The protagonist (for he is no hero) is a crude, violent caricature of masculine impulsivity. He swears, farts and engages in sometimes disturbing acts of violence. His son is but a sketch of a child, wide eyed and foetus-like in his construction. The wife is a horrid scribble of a person who communicates solely in terrified murmurs and screeches.

Together, they are a portrait of suburban decay. Each episode, of which there are 8, is roughly 4 minutes long. Nothing much of objective interest happens in any of them (save the last), but through Lynch’s lens, the inanity of everyday existence is transmogrified into something surreal and nightmarish.

I can’t really recommend this series to everyone. It is purposefully obtuse in its presentation. Voices (all provided by Lynch) are distorted and uncomfortable to listen to, it is violent and vulgar, there is a lack of detail and the animation is laughably sparse at best. These qualities add to the charm, but they can also put people off.

All up, I enjoyed it, even though I feel the joke was on me all along.