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Robin Hood (1973)
I've watched Robin Hood since before I could understand language. Even back then it entertained me, enough for my parents to have to play it whenever they wanted to keep me out of trouble. One would expect that anything that can hold the attention of a toddler is not going to have the same effect on an adult. I am glad to say that it does. I can watch this film today with the same eagerness, the same enjoyment and the same suspension of knowledge of what's going to happen. Who could help doing otherwise? It's first class storytelling.
There are the age-old characters, archetypes as well known as the story itself. In a twist of genius, the tale is set in the animal world. Robin Hood, everyone's hero, brought to magnificent life by a fox and given a dashing yet endearing voice. There's his ladylove, the long-lashed, elegant, eminently lovable Maid Marian, also a fox and just as perfectly voiced. One look at Marian, and it's easy to understand why Robin is so lost in his dreams of her that he ruins the stew he's been stirring.
Prince John, however likable the others, has somehow topped my list. Fittingly chosen to be a mane-less lion (compare his appearance with his brother Richard who has an ample mane), constantly whining for his mother when thwarted and complaining about Richard, he is the best representation of John I've ever seen. One mustn't forget his penchant for alliterating, in especial reference to his much put-upon sidekick/adviser Sir Hiss, a snake. Priceless gems like "Procrastinating Python", "Slithering Serpent" and of course the irresistible "You eel in snake's clothing" can all be heard directed at the pitiable Sir Hiss whenever John is frustrated in his plans to capture the elusive Robin. The unfortunate duo plays off each other very well. It must be said that whoever thought of getting Sir Peter Ustinov to voice the role of P.J. should have been promoted instantly. The late, brilliant Ustinov is greatly missed, but he lives on in his wonderful comedic works. His part here is right up there with his best performances. No one could have done greater justice to the younger brother who (rightly) feels that his governance compares unfavourably with Richard's.
A few other characters deserve to be mentioned. Little John, a bear very reminiscent of Jungle Book's Baloo, is light-hearted, trustworthy and the perfect companion and friend for our Robin. On one occasion early on, they have a great outing together as cross-dressers and use their very believable disguise to steal P.J. for everything he has on him. As for his voice, Little John's carefree American accent works very well alongside the British ones of the others. The lady-in-waiting to Marian, Clucky, is a brave lass and Friar Tuck is a kind old fellow. There are also the kids in the family of rabbits who understandably admire and adore Robin and Marian.
The script is smashing. What with the comedy, the heroic and witty lines for the good guys and the hysterical silliness of the sour villains of the story, this is a winner. It's always fun and never grows tired. The little ditty about Prince John's incompetence that goes around ("too late to be known as John the first, he's sure to be known as John the worst") is very in keeping with the rest of this film's tone. And who can forget the sheer madness of such a line as "I sentence you to sudden, instant and even immediate death", courtesy of Prince John of course.
It's not only comedy, because to top it all off, this film must have the best confession of love ever filmed. Although it works infinitely better when you watch it, I will attempt to sketch it here. Caught, tied up, sentenced and threatened with execution, Robin looks into Marian's expressive eyes and says "Marian my darling, I love you more than life itself". Her emotional response is an equally memorable one to behold. More sweetness inevitably follows in the eventual escape, but I'll leave that for your viewing pleasure.
The film wouldn't be complete without a fitting climax, and to satisfy us all, we've been given a good one. Climbing to the top of a turret, Robin has to leap down into the moat to avoid the fires that are close on his heels. His friends down below look on to see where he surfaces and are dismayed to find Robin appearing nowhere yet, to the delight of Prince John and Sir Hiss. It's a nice tug at the heartstrings. Although initially all hope seems lost, we know that the story isn't finished until the deserving Robin gets to be with his Marian and all's right with Nottingham and England.
Disney surpassed themselves with this one. It's much more than the sum of its parts (voice talent and likable characters, witty script, character designs, plotting). Having watched this a countless number of times in the past, I look forward to continuing to do so.
The Wind in the Willows (1995)
As wondrous and dreamlike as a hazy afternoon
This film is packed with nostalgia: of my childhood when I first watched this, of the first novel I read all by myself and of the lovely English countryside.
It's a wonderful adaptation of Wind in the Willows (interspersed with a little from Willows in the Winter). The graceful beauty of the river and its surroundings is captured marvellously in aquarelle-like animation. Light colours evoke the breezy simplicity of fond childhood memories of picnics outdoors and long walks.
And in all of this there is to be found the yearly grand adventure: seasons changing and new avenues beckoning. Ratty describes it best with his poet's heart when he hears some far off call he feels compelled to respond to.
The animation really is beautiful. The style chosen is so fitting for the settings and the story told, that you realise instantly why Disney-like animation would not have been right for this. The plot is dreamy, set in the countryside in warm afternoons and cold winter evenings. The fact that each frame is like an aquarelle painting is what makes the visuals match up so well with this. The paintings are like some old illustrations meant to go with the novel that have come to life and are flowing into motion. I could continue gushing about this forever, but I'll end by commending the artists for having achieved the impossible.
Ratty, Mole, Badger and Toad are all perfectly voiced, though I feel a special mention of Mayall's Toad is in order. Whoever thought of casting him in this part was possessed by utter genius. Toad is an over-the-top obsessive character whose energy and zest for life should instantly grab you, and Mayall has caught that completely. It's a troublesome, tiresome, irritating, friendly, genial, loyal animal that can't help falling from one trouble into the next. He's surrounded by friends who stand by him through his silly and at times infuriating antics. There's something endearing about all four of the main characters, but Ratty was always my favourite. Clever and always trustworthy, knowledgeable in the ways of the River, with an appreciation for Its beauty and a respect for Its mysteries.
There are many memorable scenes in this film, with adventures within adventures. Some standouts include Toad's frenzy about his new vehicle and the scene mentioned earlier where Ratty is considering heeding the distant call of a new adventure. Michael Palin's voicing of Ratty in this moment takes on a beautiful lyrical lilt and softness. It almost lulls you into the same spell and you want to rush out and follow that same adventure.
A particularly memorable scene is one where Ratty and Mole are looking for the baby otter Portly who's gone missing. Whilst rowing on the River searching for it, Ratty hears the mysterious sound of a pan-flute or was it the reeds rustling in the wind? He sees a face through the reeds, calling, speaking to his heart and whispering weird and wondrous things. When they eventually come upon the lawn where Portly has been playing, they just manage to see who the otter baby's been keeping company with. It's some mysterious God (the Greek Pan, I think) gently holding Portly, lovingly looking after it and taking care of it, while every animal was worried it might have met a tragic end. The vision disappears and a happy little Portly is taken back to its delighted father.
Later on, when he and Mole are rowing on the River again, Ratty tries to recollect the sight of that strange and wonderful creature whom he describes beautifully. He listens to some song welling up inside of him that is telling him that what he'd witnessed will slowly fade into a dream. And once again we see that strange and magical being dancing around on the grass and playing on its flute, its face slowly fading away through the reeds. Probably to reappear when it wants to dance and play its Panflute in the countryside once more. Or when it wants to make friends among the River's creatures.
A very lovely film indeed, for all ages. Highly recommended for lovers of the country and of the book.
Another Miyazaki masterpiece
The story begins in a Japan of centuries ago, with the noble young hero Ashitaka being cursed by causing the death of a god-turned-demon. Leaving his lands and community behind, he journeys to where the god originated to find out what caused it to change into a demon. What he discovers are men who, in their single-minded pursuit to obtain more and more iron for their iron-mining town, have made war upon the forest situated nearby and its inhabitants. The film proceeds to show this war and its effects on both forest and townspeople, and how the presence of Ashitaka influences them.
The forest creatures are diverse, most of them part of Japan's native wildlife. Some of them, however, are from Miyazaki's own boundless imagination. There are Gods in the forest, whose purpose is to protect its life and creatures. It is they who battle against the townspeople. And what Gods they are: a mother wolf with two cubs and her human daughter, Mononoke Hime (Princess of the Spirits).
The war grows ever more intense as each side is determined to see the death and destruction of the other. The townsfolk reason that once the forest gods are dead, there will no longer be any resistance to obtaining iron ore. The most important of these gods is the Shishigami Sama (the Deer God) who looks like a deer during the day, but at night... there is no description for what he is or how spectacular he looks then. It's sheer visual splendour.
Having said too much already, I'll remain silent on the title character and further disclosure of the plot. Although the movie takes no sides in the matter, presenting both parties in the war impartially and imbuing both with good and worthy characters, it was impossible for me not to choose a side. The forest got my vote. After all, theirs was a fight to defend their very existence. Besides, where else do you see a Wolf giantess, with two tails, speaking in the tongue of humans in a male voice (in the Japanese version)? And noble boars, willing to fight to the end? Remarkable.
Miyazaki never once compromises his characters. The animal Gods remain animal, growling, with their appetites. Yet they are never unreasonable or dim-witted. The humans are indeed human. They have their own views, which are limited to considering only their lifetimes, their families, communities and livelihood, and so unable to see the bigger picture. However, they are not unreasonable either.
Perhaps the war is inevitable, for as communities grow so does the need for supporting them by diversifying labour. Iron mining in this case was their ticket to a well-provided and secure life. Man, having been part of nature until then, eventually found himself facing it instead, thinking himself to no longer be entirely subordinate to its rules.
The film's finale is exceptional, matching the brilliance of the rest. As the movie progresses, one already realises there will be no easy end. Suffice it to say it is very satisfactory indeed.
Being a Japanese film set in a semi-historic Japan, Shinto beliefs pervade the entire movie (as happens in most of Miyazaki's work, especially Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro). The spiritualism is quite moving, and whether the Gods existed or not, one secretly wishes they did and were still around. Providing some much-needed balance and antagonism in this world where nature has no voice to raise in retaliation and no visible way to fight back as we continue in our quest for progress, ignorant of our place in the world and the bridges we are burning.
For those who appreciated the natural spiritualism of the film, a suggestion (besides the other Ghibli masterpieces) is the exquisite, animated version of Wind in the Willows (UK, 1995, TV). It too features a mystical God, brilliantly rendered by the artists, comparable to the majesty of the Shishigami Sama. It's also filled with dreamy experiences inspired by the beauty and mystery of nature. Alternatively, one can just read the book.
The Terminator (1984)
More than meets the eye
For me this will always be the best of the Terminator films. The second is a great action film, the third is a popcorn flick. But this, the first of them, covers everything that the premise promises. The future, the present, and the strangeness of the laws that might govern time-travel (if it were at all possible). Kyle Reese is a great protagonist alongside Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor. She is very natural and her reactions to the situation she finds herself in are spot on. Biehn's Reese comes off very well too, his calm and collected behaviour in the face of the Terminator shows how much he must be used to such a menace in the time he comes from.
The action in the police station is justifiably legendary. The fact that Arnold's Terminator doesn't break a sweat when breaking into the well-guarded police headquarters and killing so many officers, really manages to drive home the point of what the terminator is. That's in case Reese's previous explanations about the machine didn't convince you. Lance Henriksen turns in a great performance as a real oddball of a character, just over-the-top enough to be plausible. Adding to the realism, this comic relief is taken out during the shoot-out at the police station. Just goes to show that no one is safe from the Terminator.
Like Blade Runner, it's surprising how much better executed this film is compared to the CGI-fests that have taken over the cinema nowadays. The oldies hold up incredibly well in the comparison. The sparse scenes depicting the future are well-handled and the sets in no way detract from the authenticity generated. This film just oozes atmosphere, with it's bluish lights, dark future, and dark streets of the present with tube lights everywhere that throw long shadows. And of course Brad Fiedel's minimalist electronic score captures the mood and everything else perfectly. The musical motifs for the unstoppable terminator and the comparably feeble resistance offered by Reese are all present even in the main theme. I for one never get tired of hearing the same tune repeated throughout the movie, which at one point manages to morph into the love theme.
It's a shame that Cameron didn't stick to making such films as this and Aliens (which is almost as entertaining, though for very different reasons). Titanic, which set out to be a romance, fell far short of it because it was the romance aspect that felt staged throughout. With the Terminator, James Cameron achieves a great balance between menacing action, a believable romance and comedic timing. Perhaps he should return to making films that don't aim for a love story, but end up having one as a by-product. Let's hope we can all put the disaster that was the Titanic behind us and look forward to films of a similar calibre to his earlier works. Regardless of whatever else he does, I'll always be grateful to him for the first of the Terminator movies.
Blade Runner (1982)
Others here might have commented on the plot and the book that inspired this feat of film-making, or on which version they preferred (director's cut or theatrical). I just want to add my highly subjective two cents. I've seen this movie numerous times now. After watching it again last night, I still find it so moving that I can't get it out of my head. I'm always immediately caught by the combination of the visuals and the music. Their synergy never seems to lose its impact, continuing to haunt my mind after the credits have rolled. The colours, the sounds. They all create this vision of a future that is heart-rendingly beautiful in its painful loneliness. The shots of the busy, crowded city contrasts with the man whose soul is silent. He might narrate the film (in the theatrical version), but to me his forced talking always seems as if he is urging himself to be alive and be part of the world around him. If he dropped the speaking, he might move back to his innate inertia.
The movie places you in his shoes, making you feel and hear the loneliness that is his life. Ironic, so much sound, yet so much silence. Vangelis' music is brilliant in it's ability to make the score more silent than silence itself. Also ironic is that Deckard's truest human interactions are with replicates. His conversations with real humans are devoid of meaning to him, and are only necessitated by his assignment. But his dealings with the replicates take on something greater: meaningful, important interactions at a subconscious level that leaves him changed each time. And then there is Rachel. The only other like him. The only person who feels real and alive to him, who makes him notice he's alive. It must have been some sort of betrayal to him when she implies she doesn't know whether her feelings for him can be trusted, whether they are real or artificial.
Perhaps the film's message is to show us that to be human is to feel and to live and to care. To be consciously present in each moment, as exhibited by the replicates desperately savouring their precious lives and implanted memories. This is opposed to the routine and almost automated behaviour of the real humans in the film, where each interaction is business-like. Though the world of Blade Runner doesn't appear to be showing up anytime soon (the future has changed too much now to conform to the projected visions of the book or film) it's still a lesson we can learn. We don't want to be among the few who are truly alive, living in a world crowded by people whose social behaviour has evolved into that of robots. It is telling that real animals are practically absent in this film. Because they cannot help being natural and true to themselves, their lively presence would have conflicted with the authenticity of the settings, confusing the feelings this film evokes.
Though I consider my tastes minimalist when it comes to romance, I'd have to qualify this film as such. It is in equal parts science-fiction, drama and romance. My girlfriend, though a peace- and nature-loving Korean animist, considers this film a favourite in spite of the violence and absence of nature. Together with The Terminator she also ranks it amongst the most romantic films of all time. So there you have it. It's memorable in every way and appeals to both genders. Having just watched the theatrical version, I find it hard to forget the final images. Deckard driving off with Rachel, fleeing, looking for a life they could share in a world that makes sense to them and allows them to just be. Strange how this scene is bathed in a light that is otherwise absent from the film, which for the most part was set in a perpetual night. The daylight makes it almost dreamlike, which it perhaps signifies. Yet I like to entertain the thought that the end is not a dream, that they did get away. If no one else.