City of God (2002)
Of all the films that appear on ‘greatest films of all time’ lists, an awful lot seem to be crime films. Maybe that’s because it’s a simple way to explore the darker side of human nature, or because we enjoy experiencing films about things that most of us would never do ourselves – I don’t know. But despite City of God featuring drug dealing, murder, and crime and conflict escalating further and further as the film goes on, like many other projects in the genre, it’s still a unique film. The City of God itself is a neighbourhood of Rio de Janiero; when it is first set up in the 1960s, it is originally relatively peaceful, with even crime serving to maintain overall stability, until events transpire to create an all-out war.
Immediately immersing you in its cultural environment, the film is very well presented, with many intimate and creative shots, particularly a tense scene involving strobe lights. The setting makes for a unique feel, and the characters are used effectively, with even the crime bosses showing some vulnerability. The use of children in organised crime here is pretty shocking to Western viewers, but within the corrupt society of this film, illegality is difficult to avoid. “Good guys” here don’t tend to be rewarded. The main character, Rocket, is not a criminal himself but an observer (appropriately, he wants to be a photographer): he has a difficult and often dull life, until his photography skills get him in with the crooks, whereupon he experiences more success but also no little fear. If you like crime films, this is something different that you should take a look at. Rating: 4/5.
This Alfred Hitchcock film stars Ingrid Bergman as the daughter of a Nazi spy, who is recruited by a government agent played by Cary Grant, for an undercover operation in Brazil: romance and risk ensue. Unfortunately, this was one of those classic films that made me think, “Am I missing something here?” I just couldn’t find much to say about it. The characters are alright, the chemistry between the two leads is sizzling, there are moments of great cinematography, and I was never actually bored watching it, but it certainly didn’t blow me away. I love movies, but sometimes I worry if I have some lack of cinematic knowledge and awareness that stops me from appreciating films that other people rave about. Maybe I should read Film Studies for Dummies or something. Or maybe I’m worrying over nothing and Notorious just isn’t my thing. Rating: 3.5/5.
Song of the Sea (2014)
On the other hand, I found plenty to like in this one!
The main characters in this Irish-made animated film are Ben and Saoirse, a young brother and sister who live on an island lighthouse with their father, their mother having apparently died giving birth to Saoirse. We learn early on that Saoirse is a selkie, as she puts on a magical coat, wanders into the sea and becomes a seal. After being taken away to live with their granny following this incident, the children try to get back to their lighthouse, encountering magical and dangerous beings along the way.
There are so many great elements in Song of the Sea. The most obvious one is the visual style, which is very different from traditional 2-D animated films. Even the more simple scenes like the children on the beach are effective and immersive in their presentation and sound effects, but it’s in the beautiful underwater scenes where the visuals really shine. And as you might expect from an Irish film, the music is beautiful too. At first, I wasn’t sure if I was really getting into the story, but once the more fantastical elements of witches and fairies properly come into play, it’s truly compelling (I like how several of the magical characters we see are analogous to people in the children’s lives we’ve already met). Then there’s the emotional side to things, like the complex brother-sister relationship: Ben’s initial animosity towards Saoirse, and how his feelings towards her gradually change, feel very real. The metaphorical messages about death and acceptance are presented simply but still make an impact, and as for the ending…well, I almost cried, and very few films have that effect at me. (No film has made me actually cry since childhood.) Highly recommended. Rating: 4.5/5.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Another animated film about a brother-sister relationship, only this one’s considerably more bleak. It’s about Seita and Setsuko, two siblings trying to survive in Japan towards the end of World War 2. There’s not really much of a plot to this one. Towards the beginning, the main characters’ home is hit by an air raid with incendiaries that is quite different from the loud explosions we usually see from depictions of air raids – there’s just small bomblets, then burning and destruction. Indeed, much about this film feels understated and sometimes frighteningly quiet. Following their mother’s death in the air raid, we follow Seita as he struggles to look after himself and the younger Setsuko, trying to maintain some freedom despite the additional problems that result. It’s certainly a compelling and emotionally powerful journey, as Seita encounters more and more hardships, and resorts to increasingly immoral means to overcome them. The two characters manage to find some simple moments of happiness here and there, but there are always reminders of the war and death in their homeland. Yet at the same time, they feel cut off from much of what’s going on: Seita has to learn about Japan’s surrender through word of mouth, for one thing. Matching the tone of the rest of the film, the ending is not a happy one, highlighting the hopelessness and pointlessness of what the characters have gone through. Rating: 4/5.
This biopic, directed by Richard Attenborough, depicts the life of Mohandas Gandhi, first as he fights for racial equality in South Africa, then for independence from the British in India. In some ways, this film – despite its length – feels quite basic: there’s nothing special about the cinematography, and the focus is on simply telling Gandhi’s story rather than exploring him in-depth. But in the storytelling regard, it certainly works. Ben Kingsley (ah, it’s so nice to see him in a serious, dignified role – damn you, Iron Man 3) captures the character of Gandhi magnificently: I like how he is shown as an truly intelligent man with intellectual notions to back up his core beliefs, rather than just a simple saint. With his determination and non-violent approach to achieving reform, we quickly see what sets him apart. As the film goes on, there isn’t much sense of how many years pass at a time (dates appear infrequently), and the whole thing could probably be shorter. But ultimately, it shouldn’t be: every scene has significance. I couldn’t always get into it, but there are still some very emotional moments. As we approach the end, there is some hopelessness as Gandhi doesn’t achieve everything he wanted; but even though we end (as we began) with his assassination, the film still manages to end on a positive and inspirational note. Rating: 4/5.