All posts by JD Hansel

Schindler’s List Review

Seeing as how I’m obviously in no position to write a review of this film, I’ll just comment on one aspect of the film that I believe ought to set an example for other filmmakers.  This movie is one of the few exceptions to the general rule that Spielberg specializes in a sentiment that J. D. Hansel will never understand or learn to like, but what I appreciate here in particular is Spielberg’s understanding of the value of black and white.  By the 1990s, it’s no wonder why audiences had come to assume that color films were the default and black and white films are deviants.  It’s nice to see a film that sees how making a black and white film in the age of color has its advantages.  Black and white allows the filmmaker to make some scenes on location with strikingly raw realism and others on a set with highly-stylized film noir-like expressionism, with all of them fitting together beautifully.  There’s no sense that this film is inconsistent in style (even though it is) because the modern viewer sees all of it as the same style: black and white.

Since Orson Welles would say that one of the main benefits (if not the main benefit) of colorless film is that the actors look better and their performances hit harder, which I think I can agree with, I have to ask the question: why should we even have color if film works better without it?  The answer, in my view, is this: color is only worth using if you’re going to use it well.  Usually this means vibrancy and theatricality, like the color in Dick Tracy, but other times it means using color as a communication device for purely practical reasons.  With the girl in the red coat, Spielberg shows that using color in a way that’s simply functional (in this case it’s just an identifier, nothing more) can actually create a greater sense of meaning than the use of color in the average color film.  With such a masterful film that holds the special honor of being both highly unconventional and extremely popular with audiences, there’s a lot that I could take away from it, but this was the main lesson for me, and I think it’s a very, very good one.

War of the Worlds (1953)

I usually have a pretty good idea of how I’m going to feel about a movie before I watch it – I’m just that kind of person.  Even when the trailers for a movie don’t do it justice – consider Baby Driver – I’m often able to see through the marketing and get a sense for what a film’s strengths and weaknesses are going to be.  I think that’s what made the 1953 War of the Worlds so disappointing to me.  I knew I would like elements of the visual style – the alien ships are absolutely brilliant, and some of the costumes and lighting are also notably excellent – but it actually wasn’t was colorful, dark, vivid, and theatrical as I’d hoped it would be.  It’s really rather painful to sit through thanks to its story, most of which I found fairly uninteresting.  Obviously, some of the writing is very smart – I am, of course, fully aware of the significance of H.G. Wells – but this story just doesn’t work as a movie.  The ending isn’t really satisfying, and the message is repulsively preachy and spiritual, even though it doesn’t make sense to do a “Thank God for His Gracious Ex Machina” ending after all the needless tragedy that fills the film.

In short, I can appreciate the film’s technical and creative accomplishments, but it’s far from my idea of great sci-fi.

Moonrise Kingdom Review

You know what’s an ugly color?  Yellow.  Yellow is a really sucky color.  It can make a movie look pretty terrible, or at least it’ll make the color scheme seem smelly.  In fact, one of the main reasons I’ve waited so long to watch a Wes Anderson film is that I didn’t think I’d be able to stomach all of the colors (or at least hues) he tends to use that make me sick.  The second reason is my distaste for films that are overly quirky for the sake of being quirky.  Much to my surprise, I found that I can appreciate the film’s colors and quirks because Anderson can appreciate the beauty in the fakeness of things.

The important thing to remember about the film is that it takes place in a strange version of the 1960s, and the film is very conscious of that.  Anderson doesn’t stylistically approach the decade the way that most filmmakers would though.  Perhaps because he’s playing with themes of childhood and nostalgia in the film, he uses color, grain, and visual effects to make the film look like an old photograph from the ‘60s or ‘70s, which is exactly what any of us today would have to use to get a glimpse what the time period was like for kids.  No one could ever have a jacket as vividly red as the narrator’s in real life – real life doesn’t look like that – but in old photos it would seem normal, and photos of our childhood inform our memories of what the world used to look like.  It’s a very strange effect, but it makes for a look and feeling that’s oddly warm and charming.

But there’s much more to the visual style than that.  Anderson has a knack for playing with size and perspective, somehow making many of the props and set pieces look like little toys.  I think part of this is done with camera tricks, and some is done by using small models of props and set pieces instead of the real thing.  This gives the sense that everything on his set is one of his little toys to play with, as though making a statement in favor of Auteur Theory the characters are just as much his puppets as the characters in his stop-motion film are.  Now, most people don’t notice this as much as they notice his unique cinematography – his habit of framing his subjects symmetrically, moving the camera steadily in elaborate tracking shots, and filling the frame with things dropping and sliding and jumping and spinning so nothing is ever too boring.  Since I’d seen a clip or two from this movie a few years ago, I figured I would find it irritating, but in context, I don’t mind it.  I think I’m okay with it because, on the one hand, Anderson is clearly having too much giddy, childlike fun doing it, and on the other, he keeps it limited to what will help the scene/story more than distract from it.

And this story is good.

The story itself is rather quirky, but it builds up to its least plausible parts very carefully, so it still feels like it’s been written carefully – not like everything has been thrown at the wall, as I would have expected.  And I think it has been written carefully.  The story is both innocently childlike and unsettlingly adult, somehow blending emotions one would only expect to feel in an old Tim Burton film with an empathetic love for these characters.  It’s incredible that characters with so little visible emotion grab the heartstrings the way these characters do – I don’t understand how it’s possible – but they keep the viewer completely sucked into the story.  In fact, I believe this movie tells one of the most intriguing and captivating stories ever told, and it tells it beautifully.  So, yes, some aspects of the film stray far from what I usually like, but Anderson keeps me engaged on a level that few others can, and he seems to have a heck of a lot of fun doing it.  I’m not sure if I liked this movie for itself or just because I’ve never seen anything quite like it before, but I can say that I look forward to watching it again.

The Fisher King Review

While I think it takes a while to really get going, The Fisher King is almost certainly Terry Gilliam’s best film (perhaps excluding his Python work).  Continuing his exploration of how Western civilization thinks of insanity, he presents a very strange, but charming, romantic comedy about people who are truly not right in the head.  This goes beyond the usual romantic comedy about people who do crazy things for love, and beyond Silver Linings Playbook.  Robin Williams’ character is purely mad – plain and simple – and Gilliam is able to use this to create two very different kinds of effects.

The first effect is that of childlike naivete.  We see a man who wears kiddish pajamas and loves his toys, but he’s not a man-boy.  He just looks at the world a little differently, and he dares to try things most of us wouldn’t.  He believes in fairy-tales and in fairies, and yet he very much understands sex.  He doesn’t judge people for their craziness – he usually just doesn’t see it; he simply sees people who ought to join him in singing some fun old standards like “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.”  The way that this benefits the movie the most is in what it allows Gilliam to do as a director and cinematographer: when we see the world through Parry’s eyes, we see a red knight in fiery light riding towards us on a frightening steed and a hundred busy people become a ballroom of dancers the moment his crush appears.  While I can’t say I’m in love with everything about the movie – by no means – I have to say that it’s very charming (and in all the right ways).

The other side of this, however, is the film’s darkness.  The movie largely takes place in a bad part of New York, where Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is selling pornos in a rundown movie rental store.  When an insane man enters his life, it only makes the lives of Jack and Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) even more hellish, which leads to some of the best drama I’ve seen in any film.  Much of the drama comes from Ruehl’s performance as Anne, which rightly won an Academy Award, and which made me empathize with this character in a way I never thought I could.  Even with the movie’s tragic terrorist shooting, suicide attempts, and violent beatings, it’s still the relationship between Jack and Anne that’s the most intense part of the movie, and I didn’t really like either of them at the start.  By the end of the movie, while I have no intention of revealing how the story ends in this review, Gilliam makes us love the last people on earth one would think we could love, and that’s surely one of the greatest accomplishments of any artist in history.

Forrest Gump Review

My brother got very upset with me a few weeks ago when he found out that I, the film major in the family, hadn’t seen Forrest Gump, and understandably so – it’s one of the most famous movies ever and it’s by my favorite director.  That being said, we must remember that it’s not a film that critics praised or that academics have felt the need to seriously studied.  It’s one of those films that has actually been the subject of much study and scrutiny just from the average movie-goer, if only because of its rather biased historical revisionism.  However, now that I’ve seen it myself, I’d like to look at another strange aspect of the film: the story.

What makes this movie really stand out as a story, not just as a technical accomplishment, is that Gump himself has no ambitions in most of the film.  He doesn’t really plan on going to college, or plan on meeting the president(s), or plan on going to the army, or plan on starting his own shrimp business.  He doesn’t even try to do these things.  I know that’s related to the theme of the movie, but it shouldn’t make for a good story.  The fact that Forrest is by and large a passive character (at least emotionally) should also make the film rather boring, yet it’s entirely captivating.

I think it works well because it alternates between two interlinked stories: one being a comedy, the other being a drama.  The comedy comes from the fact that Forrest has clearly lived the most interesting life imaginable, but he has no conception of just how absolutely amazing it is.  Most scenes in this movie could easily make for movies of their own – how Elvis learned his dance, how Lennon wrote “Imagine,” etc., but instead we observe all of them briefly through the eyes of someone who can’t appreciate them, which has a funny kind of irony to it.  The audience is waiting to see how he’ll behave around the next famous person he’ll meet, and the next one, and the next one.  It’s more of a running gag than a story, but it’s fascinating nonetheless.

The dramatic story is actually the story of Jenny.  She, too, lives through an unbelievable life.  Her story, however, is much clearer.  Ever since childhood, she’d rather run from her problems (or wait for them to go away) than confront them.  She’s accepted the fact that people take advantage of her and mistreat her, and she allows it, while at the same time, she runs across the country trying to escape her past and find herself.  Of course, she realizes in the end that she could have had the happy, fulfilling life she wanted if she’d just allowed Forrest to love her, but instead she insisted on running.  It’s rather tragic, but at least the last few months of her life are happy enough.

The synthesis of these two stories may reveal the Major Dramatic Question: Will Forrest and Jenny ever tie the knot?  I do think that’s the main pull of the story, but it’s not used the way most narrative scholars and writers would say it should be.  Only a few scenes are focused on moving the characters towards the climax, and they’re all scattered about, mixed in with scenes that don’t push the plot forward at all.  It’s never clear that Forrest’s main goal in life – in everything he does in the film – is to resolve this particular conflict, so naturally it feels like most of the film doesn’t have much conflict.

On the other hand, every now and again, a story is written about a character with such a strong personality and such an interesting life that an audience is willing to be with that character through anything, even if there’s virtually no conflict.  At the end of the day, I’d gladly sit on that bench next to Forrest and listen to him telling his stories just because he’s (perhaps paradoxically) so interesting to listen to, which makes for a good movie.  Would it work well as a play?  Probably not.  It might not even work well with any other actor, writer, director, etc., but somehow, as it is, Forrest Gump makes for one heck of a movie.  And that’s about all I have to say about that.

Coraline Review

I know everyone who likes Tim Burton and cares about Christmas and animation is supposed to love Nightmare Before Christmas, but I’ve honestly never been a huge fan.  It has positive elements and is very creative, but I find it slow and boring.  I also don’t love the visual style as much as I’d like to – something about it feels lacking to me.  The music irritates me too – that “This Is Halloween” song is pretty good, but the rest of the soundtrack is difficult for me to sit through.  I guess I ought to watch it again sometime soon and see if my tastes have changed now, but I remember not liking it as much as I wanted to.  James and the Giant Peach is another film by the same director, Henry Selick, but I’ve never felt like watching it because what parts of it I did see as a child were really off-putting for me then, so I still think negatively of it now (even if I don’t have very good reasons).  Coraline, however, has intrigued me on some level ever since I saw the trailer when I was much younger, and I’ve been in the mood to watch more stop-motion lately, so I decided to try this one on for size.

By gosh, what a beauty.

We see in Coraline an excellent experiment in taking all of a child’s fears, dreams, anxieties, hopes, annoyances, and pleasures and rolling them up into one nightmarish package.  On the one hand, it addresses fairly normal frustrations for children to deal with – moving away, meeting new, strange neighbors, finding vermin in the house, running out of things to do outside, and dealing with parents who don’t usually show how much they love their children (at least not in the usual ways).  This makes the movie not only relatable, but approachable.  Then there’s the flip side – the part of the film that plays with the viewer’s psychology, almost like a surrealist artist might.  Selick plays with impostor anxieties, false paradise anxieties, deoculation anxieties, “living toy” anxieties, insect anxieties, and more, all while retaining a charming children’s book feel.  It never feels like it’s trying too hard to be a horror movie – it’s just creepy and uncanny without apologies, and it’s entirely fun, whimsical, and brilliantly creative along the way.  While I have some tiny gripes with it and I suspect some parents would find parts of it inappropriate for their children, I consider this film a masterpiece, for both its mouth-watering visuals and its wonderful storytelling.

The Iron Giant Review

The Iron Giant is, in some respects, a concerning and disappointing film.  Whenever a movie has the capacity to encourage children to think more like scientists, but instead chooses to reinforce the old notion that believing in wild alien stories and conspiracy theories is good, this is disheartening.  However, because it is typical of Hollywood films to have a pro-faith stance of some sort, this isn’t a deal-breaker for me – the film is still really well-made and manages to have a lot of heart in a way that doesn’t annoy me, which is hard to do.  With this said, what impresses me most about the film is the way that it goes against common values, at least to some extent, and it encourages children to think in new ways.

The beauty of The Iron Giant is that it exemplifies how a film can be nostalgic about the past while also being highly critical of it, all without contradiction.  It’s clear that the filmmakers are engaging with classic B-movies and comic books, romanticizing the 1950s all the way, but also pointing out how silly the 1950s could be.  The old horror movies of the day are parodied to great effect, but of course there is also a twist on the old story about an alien coming from Mars to destroy humanity, with Earth’s only salvation coming from the United States military forces.  Remember, Indepence Day came out around the same time, so for a film to made the U. S. army look inept, primal, and, to some extent, malevolent, was pretty risky, but I love a movie that keeps American patriotism in check.  It’s unique and daring storytelling like this that must be encouraged in children’s cinema, and for this alone I consider The Iron Giant to be one of the most important animated films of its time.  Add this to the fact that the story (and storytelling) are clever, creative, and captivating, and I conclude that this film is truly a great classic for all ages.