31 March 2010

MIYAZAKI HAYAO: SPIRITED AWAY (2001)

After completing Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki Hayao issued one of those threats that directors sometimes do: having found the experience of making that film so grueling, he'd elected to abandon filmmaking altogether, dedicating his time instead to the planned Ghibli Museum, and to the studio itself, where he would stay on as an executive. It never works out like that, though, and after only a couple years of this semi-retirement, Miyazaki happened to spend some time with the pre-teen daughters of a family he was friends with. It occurred to him during this visit that he'd never made a film for people in that nebulous age between childhood and adolescence; and he grew certain that the images and ideas presented to that age group weren't what really spoke to their hearts and souls. Without any fanfare, he simply slipped out of retirement to create a fantasy about a 10-year-old girl, and how she learns to be mature and responsible.

Thank whatever gods are listening for indecisive directors and their inability to commit to retirement, because Spirited Away, Miyazaki's 2001 return to his art, is positively miraculous. I wouldn't feel the need to argue too strenuously with anyone who tried to convince me that it was the masterpiece of his career, though I would not agree, but that's of little matter. What matters is the film itself: a gorgeous fantasy steeped in the iconography and spirituality of Japan, but with a narrative structure that equally calls to mind Western fairy stories; and the most visually sublime of all Miyazaki's films, creating a universe of impossible creatures and magnificent, evocative structures and landscapes in a way that only cinematic animation could ever achieve. It is, at heart, just another plot-light parade of grotesques in the Alice's Adventures in Wonderland model, but given life with fuller characters and grander fantasy than most of that genre's numerous examples would dare to reach for. It was also something of a return to form: after more than a decade of somewhat more mature films, Miyazaki was back in the realm of children's fantasy (that could, by all means, be thoroughly enjoyed by anyone), with a sharp edge of cuteness. If it's more ambiguous, ultimately, than a Kiki's Delivery Service, it's far less sober and difficult than its predecessor or Porco Rosso.

Naturally, it's quite a simple scenario: Chihiro (Hîragi Rumi) is moving with her parents to a new town, and she's not happy about it. Along they way, the family gets lost, and they decide to explore the ruins of an amusement park built in the heyday of Japan's bubble economy in the early 1990s. As her parents gorge themselves on food that inexplicably appears in the ruins, Chihiro suffers from a foreboding that proves terribly true: at nightfall, the park is light with ghostly lights, Chihiro's parents transform into pigs, and a march of otherworldly creatures presents itself. The girl soon learns that she's stuck in the spirit world, at the site of a bathhouse for the gods, run by the dictatorial Yubaba (Natsuki Mari). In this place where humans are given no more attention beyond their value as food, Chihiro is able to find work, thanks to the kindly intervention of Yubaba's lieutenant, Haku (Irino Miyu), a worker named Lin (Tamai Yumi), and Kamaji (Sugawara Bunta), who operates the boilers that keep the bathhouse running. To survive and save her parents, Chihiro must learn to rely on skills she'd never recognised in herself, and in so do doing pass beyond the sullen little girl she is when we first meet her.

Hooray for me, I can reduce a story to its simplest elements. Believe me, it does no good to the movie that I've done so. Spirited Away is full of riches, thematic and visual, and the best way to understand them is simply to watch the film and take it all in. It's not a crafty, confusing film that you need a roadmap to navigate; Miyazaki's genius generally is that his films are so obvious without being obnoxious about it, and this is perhaps the greatest of them all in that respect. Frightfully dense in places, the viewer is nonetheless intuitively aware of exactly what each beat of the story means, and responds in accordance emotionally. The film has the uncanny feeling of moving right through you, operating on something more internal and personal than just your mind.

In essence, the filmmaker is playing the audience like so many fiddles, but when the result is as stunning to the eye and the heart as Spirited Away, it's really not worth complaining. We go to the movies to be moved, after all, and Miyazaki's film does that in spades.

The biggest reason why is Chihiro herself; despite some stiff competition for the title, I'd be inclined to proclaim her the most sympathetic, and appealing protagonist anywhere in Miyazaki's filmography. A lot of this has to do simply with her design: she falls in an extremely narrow range of looking enough like a cartoon that it doesn't feel (as it often does with Miyazaki's young women) that she's meant to be "realistic"; at the same time, she's not so impossible that we can't relate to her. There are a few examples in Miyazaki's films of characters who thread the same needle of caricature and realism (Mei in My Neighbor Totoro leaps to mind first), but even then, few characters are called upon to exhibit such a full range of expressions as Chihiro, and her design allows for that, as well.




There's also the far-from-insignificant matter of how Chihiro is presented to the audience. The very first shot of the movie is from her perspective, staring at her feet. And the opening scene is basically comprised of nothing but either similar POV shots, or medium shots of the girl herself; in no uncertain terms, we are being conditioned from the very first seconds of the film to identify with Chihiro, and to watch for her.

As for her personality, despite the unpleasant details that she needs to grow out of (the coming-of-age element of Spirited Away), she's actually quite a smart kid. She intuitively understands, as her parents do not, to stay away from the tunnel leading to the spirit-infested amusement park, she has the good sense to not eat the enchanted food, and throughout her adventure she is always well in possession of her wits, without which she would die a number of times over. Like all wise children, in other words, she understands the rules of a fairy tale universe without having to have them explained, and it's not an accident that Spirited Away is the best cinematic fairy tale of its kind (the innocent journeying to the Other World) to come out in years, and maybe decades. Chihiro is an ideal protagonist for such a story, because she doesn't ask needless questions, but allows the reality of what's happening to her to unfold naturally. This is not a beloved mode of modern storytellers, who like to have everything explained clearly; perhaps it's simply the result of the different focus of Japanese fantasy compared to American fantasy, and perhaps it's just that Miyazaki is more interested in effects than causes.

Here, the effects are positively stunning. It's the first thing that anyone notices about Spirited Away, that it's a right cavalcade of fantastic images like nothing else, and I would rather not harp on that, because the only two options I see are to spend thousands of words and tens of screenshots on gushing over the film's marvels, or simply to mention that they exist, and hope that the reader knows what I'm talking about, or is sufficiently curious to seek the film out.

There may be no nobler aim in animation than to provide wonders that could not otherwise be seen; if that is the case, Spirited Away is perhaps the most noble animated film of all time, for it is almost nothing but wonders, though they are never arbitrary and always anchored to the film's emotional honesty. We are never dazzled for the sake of it; we are dazzled because Chihiro is dazzled. We are never delighted, terrified, amazed, or comforted, except as those things happen to our protagonist. And thankfully, her writer and director knew enough of children to make her a guileless innocent without making her stupid, and to allow her the space to feel awe without forcing her into empty spectacle. I think, for example, of the amazing sequence when the spirit world first manifests itself around Chihiro: the environment changes slowly and at times subliminally, while maybe the finest piece of music in Joe Hisaishi's long collaboration with Miyazaki imparts a feeling of simultaneous dread and exotic mystery to the eerie images. It's a perfect sequence, visionary while also making good story sense and further tying our perceptions to Chihiro's emotions. That's the great achievement of this great animated film: it understands that the true meaning of fantastic worlds is not what they show us, but how they make us feel in doing so.

29 March 2010

CHLOE IN THE AFTERNOON

For the second time this year (Shutter Island was the first), we come across a film with a twist ending that's so terrifically obvious that you almost can't help but assume the filmmakers meant for us to figure it out beforehand; and at the same time, it's rather difficult to actually discuss how the film works without reference to the twist. But I shall make a good-faith effort.

The movie in question is Chloe, the latest by Canada's Atom Egoyan, one of modern cinema's harshest psychological interrogators. A remake of Anne Fontaine's 2003 French film Nathalie (which I haven't seen), Chloe is first about the increasingly disaffected marriage of the Stewarts, Catherine (Julianne Moore) and David (Liam Neeson), and only incidentally about the titular character, a classy prostitute played by Amanda Seyfried. Briefly, the situation is thus: Catherine is certain that David is cheating on her, and after a chance encounter in the restroom of a swanky restaurant, she hires Chloe to seduce her husband and return with a full report. One report quickly turns into several reports, as Catherine finds herself both devastated by Chloe's casual news about David's infidelity, and aroused by the girl's equally casual description of the various sex acts she and the cheating man perform. Things get a lot darker than that before the thing ends; and if you've read enough reviews you've probably picked up the idea that the thing ends with a bit of a rough thud. I can't really disagree with that: it's a bit unpleasantly rushed and it takes a wildly clichéd turn that's mostly redeemed thanks to the outstanding performances by the two women. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Though it is a very sexual movie, boasting a jarringly frank sex scene that represents the exact moment that the first part of the film turns into the second part, Chloe is not at all an erotic film, nor is it meant to be; and this is what seems to have tripped up the vast majority of American critics who are so keen on pulling out the easy and tremendously inaccurate comparison between Egoyan's film and an early-'90s Skinemax late night special. Mostly, it's about Catherine's head; and the quicker the viewer realises that Chloe lied about ever meeting David, and is making up the details of their dalliances because she believes (correctly) that Catherine gets off on hearing them, the likelier the viewer is to be able to appreciate the film, and Moore's amazingly subtle exposition of a woman who refuses to acknowledge the existence of her own desires.

Erin Cressida Wilson's script (the first time Egoyan has directed a film that he didn't write) isn't necessarily subtle or nuanced about setting this up: the first time we see Catherine, she's explaining in very patient terms how the orgasm is a mechanical process (she plays a gynecologist, which may or may not have icky overtones, depending on how you read the last half-hour of the film). Nor does the rest of the film's dialogue win it any prizes for being terribly sly or clever: there's a lot of people explaining in small words exactly what they're thinking, especially in the last 20 minutes, where the film really does start to go off the rails a bit - or maybe, that's when it well and truly gets on the rails, and those rails don't lead to anywhere we want to go. It's a very tidy conclusion that the film takes for itself, and baldly expressed (there is one particular slow-motion shot, you'll know it when you see it, that is so laughably bad that it seems impossible that a gifted filmmaker like Egoyan could have been present on set the day it was filmed), and if we believe it at all, it's because Seyfried gives her all to make the character work.

Chloe is one of those movies in which a young actress tries to prove that she is a serious artist by taking off all of her clothes; it is testament to Seyfried's commitment that her eyes, and whatever secrets they mask, are always her most arresting feature. Those of us lucky enough to have spotted her in Mean Girls or the TV show Veronica Mars have known for years that she was a talent to look out for, and she's proved it in this film, where she has to play a character who necessarily doesn't exactly have a personality, and do it in a way that suggests the actual person hiding inside the persona named "Chloe" (that may or may not be her name; we never really do find out). Seyfried's role is given the brunt of the unbelievable and preposterous melodrama in the last act, and it must be confessed, that she can't absolutely save it; but she comes much closer than most 24-year-old actresses I can name would have likely done.

Both Seyfried and Moore are tasked with the unenviable job of playing two women: the version the script tells us about, and the version we only see in light of the twist. The pair of actresses are incredibly successful in this endeavor, and if Chloe only worked as a performance showcase, that would still be reason enough to justify its existence. But Egoyan is a better filmmaker than that, and despite the odd clinker of a scene here or there (one moment, in which Catherine masturbates while thinking of Chloe and David, is grossly overdetermined; but there's little besides that and the slow-motion shot that I'd call "bad"), his handling of the material is both removed and elegant. With his regular cinematographer Paul Sarossy, he frames the story as a series of boxes, and boxes-within-boxes (especially the ambitious and mostly successful motif of characters appearing in mirrors). There are many glass walls in this film, locking the characters into one version of a fish tank or another; it at once suggests the inside/outside dichotomy that is the very heart of the film's psychological investigation, while also presenting the characters as trapped, usually because of their own devices. It is thus a cruel movie; but not an unforgiving one, and though the pat ending is irritating and suggests an erotic thriller that couldn't be farther removed from Egoyan's arch visuals, it can do nothing to completely overturn the uncanny mood created by the first hour.

8/10

28 March 2010

MIYAZAKI HAYAO: PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997)

We're ten films into this Miyazaki Hayao retrospective now, and so far I've said barely a word about how they've been made; and it's worth discussing, because it's fairly special, and explains why thus far I've made so freely with "Miyazaki did this" and "Miyazaki did that", despite the fact that one usually doesn't treat feature-length animation using auteur theory. The reason we get to in the case of a Miyazaki film is that he oversaw the production of literally every cel of key animation; and if he didn't like one, he personally redrew it. In the case of tonight's subject, Princess Mononoke, that translates to 80,000 out of a total of 144,000 frames that the director personally approved (though by no means did he himself draw 80,000 frames - we'd still be waiting on the film if that were the case). That level of control - call it micro-managing if you like, I'll not stop you - is not just rare: to my knowledge, no other filmmaker working on the same scale has ever come close to that level of direct personal involvement in the creation of the animated features he put his name to. This, I shouldn't wonder, is the very reason that Miyazaki films are so uniform in quality, and so deeply felt.

Now, there's a reason that I've finally brought all this up, because Princess Mononoke was the last film produced this way. It was completed when Miyazaki was 56 years old: not a decrepit old fool but neither a spring chicken with something to prove. At any rate, he was old enough that he didn't want to indulge in that kind of draining, labor-intensive filmmaking any more, and he indeed announced that he'd be retiring from features altogether after Princess Mononoke came out. This didn't happen, of course, but he has not since then involved himself so deeply in any project. Indeed, he first intimated that he'd retire from features altogether, a threat he repeated after his next two pictures as well.

So: Princess Mononoke, the last all-Miyazaki Miyazaki film, in a sense. And what a confoundingly uncharacteristic film at that. If I were to summarise all of the previous subjects we've seen in this retrospective, one of the key things that would surely crop up would be the director's commitment to a sort of innocence. Even at their most adult (the political undercurrent in Porco Rosso, the post-apocalyptic warfare in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind), his films still have enough amazement in them, and enough delight at the worlds they've created, that even the ones that aren't clearly "children's" films are still at heart the kind of fable that is family-friendly, if not family-geared. And does this thread continue on in Princess Mononoke?

No, it does not.

When Princess Mononoke opened in the United States in 1999, it became the first anime for a whole lot of us Americans; anecdotally, I might be inclined to call it the greatest anime gateway drug of all time. But without being readily compared to Miyazaki's earlier films - which most of us had barely heard of, and never seen - it's not so jaw-droppingly obvious that this is a damn dark movie, darker by far than anything he'd previously done. And I don't just mean that it's violent.

Okay, I kind of mean that it's violent. But even more than that, there's a grim seriousness to the whole film that is light-years removed from the fable-like nature of nearly all of Miyazaki's earlier stories; not just the obvious fairy tales like My Neighbor Totoro, but even a gung-ho bedtime story adventure such as Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Out of all his films, only Nausicaä (and perhaps the short "On Your Mark") has a similar approach to creating a world of social and political tensions in which real violence and warfare is a genuine possibility, and Nausicaä still has moments of unbridled whimsy and playfulness. It's no accident, I suspect, that Princess Mononoke is the very first Miyazaki film that completely lacks his signature, flight or flying machines - invariably a signifier in his work of the ecstatic possibilities of the unexplored horizon. There is no ecstasy in this film, which despite possessing some of the most beautiful landscapes in any Miyazaki film, is nevertheless rooted in mud and earth, flesh and blood. It is a profoundly physical film, for animation, fixated on bodies and their location in space and their destructability, even the bodies of gods.

Before I get to the story, let me bitch about the English-language title a moment; technically, Princess Mononoke is a very literal translation of もののけ姫 (Mononoke-hime), though it has the deeply unfortunate implication that there is in the film a princess named Mononoke, and the translated script, both in the dub and the subtitles, don't exactly contradict this. But if I am not mistaken - any help from Japanese speakers would be outstanding - the sense of the title is closer to "Princess of the Mononoke", where mononoke is a Shinto concept that we don't really have in English, but I gather it's something close to "nature spirits". I can certainly appreciate why Princess of the Nature Spirits isn't marketable - I still find it irritating.

In approximately the late 15th or early 16th Century on the island of Honshū, one of the last villages of the dwindling Emishi people is attacked by a demon: a boar god that has been overrun by some kind of worm. The Emishi prince Ashitaka (Matsuda Yôji) is able to repel the demon, but in the process the worm-substance attaches itself to his arm, infecting him; the village elders agree that he shall assuredly die unless he can find a cure in the west, whence the creature came. He journeys on his red elk Yakul, meeting a nomadic monk called Jiko (Kobayashi Kaoru), who tells him of a forest god nearby who may be able to help. Ashitaka is eager to find this god, but when he arrives in the region, things are all in disarray: the forest is besieged by the residents of Iron Town, an important smelting community led by Lady Eboshi (Tanaka Yûko). The forest will not take the humans' aggression quietly though, and its chief defender is a wolf god named Moro (Miwa Akihiro), and her human daughter San (Ishida Yuriko), locally known as mononoke-hime. Ashitaka's loyalty is torn between the Iron Town humans whose fragility in the wild moves him, and the forest, which he recognises as a primeval force greater by far than the simple imperial need for firearms. Thus is the stage set for a horrible battle between the forces of industry and nature, that will surely result in grave casualties on both sides.

This much is true: we're squarely in Miyazaki Country thematically. This is, indeed, a somewhat pushy message picture when you get right down to it, and the message is one that the director had been referencing ever since Future Boy Conan, 19 years earlier: the environmental cost of technological advance is dire, and probably not worth paying, but nor can you just flip a switch and stop technology. You could fairly argue that Princess Mononoke is a bit didactic about this, but at the same time, Miyazaki is far too great a storyteller and entertainer to channel his inner Bertolt Brecht. The film is also a rich - appallingly rich! - fantasy adventure, though the fantasy elements are somewhat subdued by the fact that it's also an historical epic (at 134 minutes, it's comfortably his longest film), taking place in a mythic past where the line between history and folklore starts to blur, and what we might call "magic" in Western film is really more the animist traditions of Shinto belief, freed by the distance of history to be an active part of the everyday world. Not that I want to commit the sin of suggesting that all Japanese filmmakers are equals, but it calls to mind more than anything the jidaigeki (period films) of Kurosawa Akira, especially the ones where the paranormal is given free reign, like Throne of Blood; or maybe I'm just being unduly influenced by how much Princess Mononoke quotes visually from Kurosawa's depictions of historical warfare.

Really, though, Princess Mononoke is most heavily indebted to the epic filmmaking traditions of all countries, which since time immemorial have made their various breads and various butters out of the fetishisation of the vista and the long-vanished details of historical civilisations.


If the screenshots haven't made it plain yet, let me go ahead and say it: Princess Mononoke is stupefyingly gorgeous - probably the most beautiful of all Miyazaki's films, in terms of sheer grandeur. And if that weren't enough, it also has one of the most intensely controlled visual schemes of the director's career as well. There is a significant use of color to define narrative moments (whenever you see red, human depravity is nearby), a very deliberate use of lighting effects to suggest subtleties of emotion, and a careful alternation between wide shots and close-ups that keeps the epic scale of the world from dwarfing the human characters. For Miyazaki is as always an essentially humanist filmmaker, and he does not here abandon his chief concern that his stories must be about the human toll of events; in this case, the intractable divisions between human industry and nature are even more tragic because of the personal crises they beget.

I cannot lie, though: the humanism in Princess Mononoke is strained to me, perhaps even forced, something never before seen in a Miyazaki film. I think that if it weren't so unbearably luscious, I might have a difficult time liking it much at all: the very grim seriousness of the message, and the director's earnest use of epic film tropes, tend to leave the movie rather too grand for the simple personal narrative that has always been the heart and soul of his work. To put it another way, there is a personal narrative, but Miyazaki is doing everything he can to subvert it, with his scope and his nightmare-fuel imagery.

He was trying something new, and that deserves all of our respect; but in his bid for grandeur, he lost sight of what he does better than just about anyone. Princess Mononoke is a bloated film - there, I said it, and it doesn't feel very good to do so. Endlessly beautiful without a doubt, and clearly a sincere passion-project - no other filmmaker would devote so much majesty to what boils down to a moralistic fable about environmentalism - but the soulfulness that makes Miyazaki's best work so emotionally moving seems, to me, not absolutely present. Which is another way of saying that it's not completely absent, and I really, really like Princess Mononoke. But I do not love it. It is too ambitious, too sure of its own vastness to love it; it demands respect more than affection.

26 March 2010

MIYAZAKI HAYAO: "ON YOUR MARK" (1995)

One music video, two languages

Japanese Version ("On Your Mark"):



English Version ("Castles in the Air"):



These videos are both fairly "young", in terms of being pulled down for copyright violations, but the first was by the clearest version of "On Your Mark" I stumbled across, and the latter is the only video of "Castles in the Air" I could find. If one or both of those links dies, please let me know at antagonyecstasy@yahoo.com)

In 1995, during the first real lull in Miyazaki Hayao's filmmaking career since the beginning of the 1980s, he was approached by the pop duo Chage & Aska, who wanted him to make a music video. With nothing else to do at the moment, Miyazaki took the opportunity, and the result is one of the rarer oddments of his career, but a satisfying one anyway. "On Your Mark", a nifty little sci-fi fable, was released in theaters with Kondo Yoshifumi's Whisper of the Heart, Studio Ghibli's higher-profile project for the calendar year. At some point, a somewhat re-edited version the video was married to another Chage & Aska song, the English-language "Castles in the Air". It seems to be a matter of some debate which is the "intended version of the video, as there is apparently evidence that the "Castles" variant was actually screened for the public first; but I am not going to get into that, for whatever the film's merits as a music video, we're here to talk about Miyazaki, not Chage & Aska, and he was by all accounts given a free hand to make whatever story he damn well pleased without having to pay much attention to the lyrics.

The story- aye, but you just watched the video, didn't you? And maybe twice. Anyway, the story of two futuristic policemen (modeled after Chage & Aska) who find a mysterious angel girl and save her from the evil future fascists is pleasantly, cleanly expressed, with just a dash of non-linear content that serves to give some emotional heft to the scenario, such as when the girl's abduction by the men in white suits comes only after we've seen a vision of the girl and the policemen playing delightedly in the countryside.

He'd made masterpieces and great films aplenty before this, but I don't know that anything speaks as highly of Miyazaki's filmmaking skills as his ability to distill a story that could support a feature length project into six minutes and change, and to do it in pantomime. Certainly, it's a mark of his and his animators' talents that they could communicate so much emotion in such a few key images. Take this:

Even without the context of the story, it's tremendously easy to unpack what those two men are feeling, from their body language (including the way the man on the right is slumped)m to the details of their setting (one of them isn't eating, one of them is picking at his food, they haven't bothered to get out of their workclothes). You can either have two characters discussing, at great length, how they're going to save an abducted woman, or you can just show it in a shockingly tiny number of images that get us to the terrifying experimental lab where the plot continues.

(Incidentally, the lab, and the hints of nuclear devastation around it, were inspired by Miyazaki's thoughts on the Chernobyl disaster, though I detect some Future Boy Conan in there as well).

Of course, not all of the animation is bent to the service of the story: the video is positively rotten with shots of things flying, giving us yet another example of Miyazaki indulging in his favorite kind of imagery.


And then, there are the images that are pretty as hell, just for the sake of it - the privilege of any animator.

As much as the flying cars and girls prove "On Your Mark" a Miyazaki film, there's a certain sensibility to it that feels somehow alien to the rest of his body of work. Obviously, there's the thing where it's a dark, Blade Runner-inflected science fiction setting without even a hint of fantasy to it. I mean, I guess the angel girl is fantastic, but she doesn't feel "of magic" in the same way that Shita from Laputa: Castle in the Sky does, if you follow me.

I suppose what I mean to say is that there's a certain sleek violence to "On Your Mark" found nowhere else in Miyazaki, though it is certainly not unfamiliar to anime as a whole. You can't take the humanism out of a humanist, of course, and the story remains very tender and emotional, but in the shots of a truck outrunning an exploding elevated freeway, I for one think we're in the territory of a different kind of filmmaker than Miyazaki shows himself to be over and over again. This is not a bad thing; perhaps, freed from the expectations of making a feature, the director felt he could try something new and wildly different.

The most important development, though, has nothing to do with scenario or setting: the most historically important element of "On Your Mark" is something much subtler.

It's easier to notice in the video, where it's moving, but the city and some other details throughout make history as the first computer-generated images in Miyazaki's filmography; I believe indeed that it was the first time Studio Ghibli attempted CGI. The degree to which it works is up to the individual, but I have here the same problem that I had with all of Disney's attempts to fuse traditional and computer-generated animation, or any other time it has been done: the textures are too jarring, and the cels float awkwardly above the CGI backgrounds - made even worse because unlike Disney, Ghibli's cels were hand-inked.

Still, it's an important jump forward, that gave Miyazaki a number of new possibilities to explore, and his very next feature would take no small advantage of this technological leap. But that is not to relegate "On Your Mark" to the status of a tech demo: the director tried hard and succeeded at making a genuinely interesting, moving little story, and there is not a single moment that feels like it was crafted with anything but the greatest care and sincerity.

25 March 2010

MY BRAIN? THAT'S MY SECOND FAVORITE ORGAN.

Did you enjoy Blade Runner? What about Oldboy, did you like that one?

If you said "yes" to either or both of those questions, then you are exactly the kind of person who is both the target audience for Repo Men, and exactly the kind of person who is going to be most turned-off by director Miguel Sapochnik's immensely feeble attempt at a science-fiction action epic. For as desperately as the film apes Blade Runner's iconic design (join the club), and tarts itself up with bloody combat scenes that owe a hell of a lot to the Asian Extreme style made popular in the mid-'00s (it also cribs its third act in both very specific story details and the way they are presented visually from another iconic film, but even to name it would be to spoil the present subject's ending), Repo Men never manages to be anything but a wan, watery knock-off of infinitely better movies. And that's when it's trying to be a knock-off. For the most part, it's not even that interesting: just another chase movie with technological gewgaws that can't nearly disguise that nothing the characters do, say, or think is remotely interesting.

Somewhere in time, and it doesn't appear to be all that far in the future, the whole world seems to be in the control of a single corporation. And not a weapons manufacturer, or some other kind of industrial conglomerate: The Union is a medical supplier. So not only do we have on our hands one of those keenly irritating "corporate nation-state" stories that only rarely work, it's one where that nation-state is GlaxoSmithKline. Which, okay, now that I type it out, isn't as silly as it seemed in my head. But still, here's the central premise: The Union makes absolutely flawless replacement livers, hearts, lungs, et cetera - the trade name is "artiforg", absolutely the ugliest portmanteau word you could make out of "artificial organ" - and it charges exorbitant fees for them, though apparently not at much of a profit. Where The Union makes its money is in charging senselessly usurious rates, and woe betide the poor soul who can't make a payment; you fall 96 days delinquent, and the company will send their repo men after you, to take their property back. If the client happens to die in the process, well, that's the waiver they all signed at the start.

The best repo is a gent named Remy (Jude Law), who works alongside his boyhood friend Jake (Forest Whitaker); the implication is that they were both a bit thuggish in youth, though Remy has the unexpressed soul of a poet. Things are great, and Remy has the eye of Frank (Liev Schreiber) - I don't know what Frank does; he seems to be The Union's CEO, but then why does he spend time as a salesman, and if he's a salesman, why does he also seem to be the repo men's chief? Frank mostly just stands around smirking, because he is played by Liev Schreiber, and stopping the plot short every now and then to look at the audience and remark, "by the way, the medical industry is made of howling liquid evil" - until a repossession accident shorts out Remy's heart. Now he has an arctifrog that he can't pay for, and a newfound inability to cut the life out of people who, as he now realises, have families that love them. So he goes on the lam, meeting up with a certain fugitive named Beth (Alice Braga), who is as much as 400+ days in arrears, with a body made up almost entirely of arftirfogs, and he concocts a plot to destroy The Union's callous financial records. And of course he falls in love with Beth, despite it making absolutely not a goddamn shred of sense that he should do so. This is a movie, and movies have sex scenes, and that's just how it goes.

(Despite the marked similarities to the 2008 cult hit Repo! The Genetic Opera, the two are totally unrelated; Repo Men was written by Eric Garcia & Garrett Lerner from a novel Garcia started years ago, published in 2009).

Doubtlessly, the filmmakers and the studios have spent the last several days - okay, maybe several days last week - tapping their fingers in glee at their outstanding good luck: to have opened their broadside assault against the capricious business practices of the medical industry in the very same week that health care reform is the topic in the news! Well, that sure as hell didn't work out for them: at the exact time that the country was starting to really sort out the bloody mess of who is supposed to pay for what, along comes this lumbering train wreck that seems to think that it's making a bold stance about corporate greed (against), when really all it has the brains for is to keep being distracted by shots of human rib cages being stretched open, and ghastly, endless scenes of Law furrowing his brow and shooting a snazzy futuristic taser pistol. This is meant to be bad-ass, but it happens about 9000 times in the first thirty minutes, and there are only so many ways that you can film Law striking a pose, and tragically, Sapochnik only uses two of them.

Stupid entertainment has its place, but it needs to be entertaining: Repo Men is just stupid, largely because the action is so freaking repetitive. If by some amazing chance you haven't seen any of the films exactly like this, you will nonetheless understand the feeling, because by the end, Repo Men is just devouring its own tail and regurgitating its own ideas. Armed with virtually no ideas for how to effectively stage action, the film feels like 111 minute of watching water circle in a clogged sink.

As with most Blade Runner copycats, the best parts are the tiny snatches of detail: an early news report that helpfully notes of Nigeria, "That's in Africa!", or a gleaming billboard for The Fast and the Furious 10, brief little moments where we actually get a sense of how this world is meant to function. But these Easter eggs are always quickly swallowed up by Remy and Jake, running around and fighting shit. If you squint and wish and clap three times for fairies, you can probably see the version of this movie that's a good deal of gaudy fun. But that would require an actual talented director, who knew how to breath life into the material. Instead, Repo Men is just one horrible stretch of the most soporific "action" sequences that have crapped their way onto U.S. theaters in months.

3/10

23 March 2010

MIYAZAKI HAYAO: PORCO ROSSO (1992)

Miyazaki Hayao's sixth feature film grew out of an idea pitched by Japan Airlines, who were looking for a short in-flight movie: "a fun movie for middle-aged businessmen whose brains became tofu from overwork", in the translation provided by the excellent Miyazaki fansite Nausicaa.net. But by the time Porco Rosso was completed, it had far outstripped that relatively modest aim. Like Kiki's Delivery Service before it, the short had exploded to feature length, and outside political elements - namely, the outbreak of war in Yugoslavia, in the very same region that Miyazaki planned to set his story - made the director feel that a more serious film was called for. Not that Porco Rosso isn't still fun, and charming; it's still a cartoon about an animated pig. But there's a serious undercurrent to the story that you'll notice whether you're looking for it or not, and the fantastic narrative is far too demanding and symbolic for tofu-brained businessmen to get nearly as much out of it as it has to say.

The dominant mode of the film is nostalgia - it is how the main characters all feel about their past life and the present life that is quickly slipping away; it is how the filmmaker evidently feels for the bygone era of adventurous sea pilots and derring-do in the years between the world wars. Miyazaki lets us know everything we need to know in a single image that occurs practically at the very beginning, even before we've seen our protagonist's face.

That magazine tells us two things: the year (1929), and the film's eventual indebtedness to cinema history. Far more than any of Miyazaki's other features, before or since, Porco Rosso feels indebted to Western - that is, primarily American - film traditions. It is a film that romanticises '20s pilots all out of proportion, lingering with great satisfaction over their haunts and their craft, while standing back in unabashed glee at the fortitude of the brave souls who fly for a living; even though everyone we see is perfectly mercenary, whether a bounty hunter (the hero) or a pirate (everyone else). Above any other consideration, these are flyboys, those magnificent scoundrels whose greatest love is their plane, and whose home is the open sky. The most famous of all the films in this mode is assuredly Howard Hawks's Only Angels Have Wings released ten years' after Porco Rosso takes place, but the romance extends into the silent era: the first Best Picture winner, 1927's Wings, is just such a story, and examples can be found still earlier.

One assumes that Miyazaki was a fan of such pictures, for he is a known fan of aviation history. Porco Rosso was based, loosely, on a manga by the director that is very little other than an excuse for him to depict old aircraft in loving watercolors; and of course, one does not need to dig very far into his filmography to find that his love of flying machines and the act of flight is one of the overriding concerns of his career. So maybe a Western, '20s-style plane adventure was an inevitability, though it seems in other ways like an outlier: the only one of Miyazaki's films that takes place in a definite time and place, with specific real-world history that informs the narrative.

That narrative, I suppose I should say, concerns Porco Rosso (Moriyama Shûichirô) - "Crimson Pig", in Italian - a bounty hunter operating in the Adriatic Sea. By the time the story begins, nobody seems terribly unnerved by the existence of a bipedal pig who acts in all ways like a human, and he's even become something of a legend in those parts as the one hero that no pirate can best - as we see right from the start, when he rather easily takes down the Mamma Aiuto gang (Italian for "Mommy, Help!"), despite an engine that keeps stalling on him. In his down time, Porco relaxes alongside many of those same pirates in the region's designated neutral zone: Hotel Adriano, where all the flyers go to hear the incredible voice of Gina (Katô Tokiko), a woman who's married and lost three pilots in her day. It's thanks to her that we start to pick up clues about Porco's backstory: he used to a human pilot in the Italian Air Force, Marco Pagot (named for Miyzaki's friend and collaborator on Sherlock Hound), who at some point turned into a pig, and has taken great lengths to hide his identity from the world.

Clues are all we'll ever get, and this is the chief respect in which Porco Rosso, for all its similarities to Hollywood adventure stories, is clearly a different thing than they: there is never any concrete explanation for the event that turned Marco into Porco. We can guess that it has to do with the same impulses that led him away from the air force: the experience of losing all his friends in the Great War, and the subsequent rise of the Fascists, whose fetishisation of the military certainly wouldn't sit well with a pilot who was already having grave misgivings about such matters. While this mystery, and its dark political overtones, bubbles on throughout, the film makes at least a stab towards amusing those businessmen, with a story about the cocky American, Donald Curtiss (Ôtsuka Akio), who throws in with the pirates and forms an instant rivalry with Porco, and the pig's budding friendship with 17-year-old Fio Piccolo (Okamura Akemi), the granddaughter of a famed airplane designer who proves to have some very great ideas about design herself.

That a pretty great adventure movie can rest comfortably alongside a strange tale of identity and morality that is itself set against the rise of Fascism is proof enough that we're in the hands of a master storyteller, and of course there's the matter of how Miyazaki the animator uses his medium to so beautifully evoke his beloved airplanes: their shape, and the miracle of flight.


Unlike some of the director's more A-list projects, the beauty of Porco Rosso lies not in its depiction of the fantastic and the impossible, but of the historic. You could argue, with a minimum of difficulty, that Miyazaki is really just indulging himself here, no different in his ultimate intent than any given fanboy in making a short film filled with Star Wars in-jokes. The difference is that Miyazaki has the artistry to match his passion, and so he makes his obsessions our obsessions. I defy any viewer to leave Porco Rosso without having sighed at least once that the glory days of flyboys are resigned to a dusty corner of modern history. That is what Miyazaki's love does: transform something already romantic into something legendary and epic.

The film is no shallow bit of praise for the past, though: in a very real sense, he is trying to examine the birth of the contemporary world by looking at how it was formed. Fascism, in the movie, is little more than a nuisance to the characters; but the viewer knows - or damned well ought to - that the Fascists were shortly to raise arms in the hideously bloody conflict that would define the second half of the 20th Century. By taking a snapshot of a moment just before the Fascists' schemes went from the local to the global, Miyazaki provides us with a reminder that events don't come from nothing; history is an iterative process.

He even applies this level or analysis to his own artform, in a low-key but tremendously memorable sequence where Porco watches a cartoon, in which a villainous aviator pig (who bears a notable resemblance to Porco himself) kidnaps a cat and is comically beaten up by the cat's ambiguously canine boyfriend. It's theoretically a new film in 1929, but the contrast between Miyazaki's representation of late-'20s "rubber tube" animation (with a Winsor McKay dino thrown in just for fun), and his own anime aesthetic is stunningly effective in a tiny way, to remind us once again that where we are is the result of where we've come from.

By no means is Porco Rosso a dry, intellectual exercise, nor is it a depressing story of war and morality; those are just the undercurrents. On a more immediate level, this is another in the director's yet-uninterrupted string of marvelous fantasies that are as delightful and thrilling as they are emotionally powerful; though I can't carry that argument far enough that I won't also state, emphatically, that this is Miyazaki's most un-childlike film - if he ever made a "grown-up animation", to use a phrase that I suppose would anger him greatly, it's this one. But grown-up or not, it's still a blissful fantasy/adventure movie, not that at this point I need to keep mentioning that. Miyazaki makes blissful fantasy/adventure movies like other people make pancakes, and Porco Rosso merely finds him proving that neither genre, historical veracity, nor philosophy can stand between him and a really damn great cartoon.

22 March 2010

QUEENS OF NOISE

There are a number of things The Runaways does right, and virtually none that it does wrong; yet at the same time, there are very few things it does exceptionally well. Thus it falls into that set of movies that are good, altogether good, and quite perfectly enjoyable for the time that you're watching them, except that I can't shake the niggling feeling that you'd be better off spending your time doing anything else. Such is the ineffable nature, of course, of most biopics.

Compounding matters, the one thing it does absolutely wrong is a pretty dire misstep: it is a movie about the seminal punk girl group that itself fails entirely to be a punk movie. Not that it screws up the details: the Runaways swear and fuck and dress tough and scream their music. But the film itself is quite unassuming and middle-of-the-road, aggressive enough for the people who loved punk in the '70s but are not account executives and upper managers who don't ever watch anything more avant-garde than a CBS sitcom to watch comfortably. Compared to e.g. 24 Hour Party People, which looks at punk and new wave through a raucous stylistic prism, it's more than a little bit disappointing that The Runaways should have so much visually and narratively in common with e.g. Ray. One would expect a veteran music video director like Floria Sigismondi to be a little bit edgier about this, but one would be wrong.

You know the story, even if you don't know the story. In 1975, a teenage guitarist named Joan Larkin, AKA Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) has the luck to meet a producer, Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), who responds favorably to her idea for an all-girl rock group. He puts her together with a drummer, Sandy West (Stella Maeve), and then begins the search for a front-woman, a girl who sums up all of Fowley's dreams of sex and youth and anger. They find her in 15-year-old Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), whose personal life is not particularly happy - her dad (Brett Cullen) is a drunk, and her mom (Tatum O'Neal) is moving to Indonesia with her new husband - and whose square upbringing very quickly gives way to Fowley's desire that she become, essentially, a jailbait pin-up girl. The band gets big faster than they're ready for, and Cherie gets way in over her head with drugs and fame, and burns out before she can clamber back into being a well-rounded human being.

Ultimately, this is less the tale of The Runaways than it is The E! True Hollywood Story: Cherie Currie (it was primarily based upon her autobiography, Neon Angel, though it was produced by Jett, which may explain the sudden and intense pro-Jett turn it makes in the closing scenes). Which isn't necessarily a problem, though it leaves more than half the band with nothing to do but stand around and fill up wide shots; these roles are played by Scout Taylor-Compton (lead guitarist Lita Ford) and Alia Shawkat (composite bassist "Robin"), both of whom are "name" enough actresses that it's hard to imagine them eagerly taking what amount to cameo roles, and it's possible to imagine that the film we have was cut down from a much more expansive treatment of the band's life with the Cherie Currie material simply being the A-plot. Or maybe Taylor-Compton and Shawkat just wanted some of that Kristen Stewart magic to rub off on them.

Cheap shot! Sorry. Actually, just about the most unexpected and delightfully surprising aspect of The Runaways is its revelation that Stewart can be a perfectly good actress when she sets her mind to it - the same revelation is true of Fanning, but that was more of a "known" prior to now. Admittedly, neither of these young actresses is given many demands by the fairly un-probing screenplay (Stewart especially doesn't have to do much besides get pissed-off, though it's still more than she's done in the Twilight pictures or Adventureland), but they do what they must without fail.

In Fanning's case, this involves a lot of swearing and strutting around in suggestive clothing, and grinding about, and here is where The Runaways perhaps reveals its true colors; it's maybe not so much a story of rock life as it is a vehicle for the young actress to smoke and kiss girls and show off her post-pubescent body in a way that's absolutely less exploitative than it could have been (the Fanning/Stewart kiss is absolutely tame and vague), but certainly leaves the viewer with a queasy feeling: like her character, Fanning was 15 at the time of shooting, and all moral hand-wringing aside, some of what happens could almost qualify as child pornography, given a sufficiently lax definition of pornographic. Not unlike Fowley in reality, Sigismondi doesn't really run from the possibility that all of this is arousing, and well, it's distasteful. There, I'm a prude. Anyway, Fanning has courted such controversy before, which doesn't necessarily mean much here, but at least it's not Shocking! especially because the ad campaign has stressed it so much.

Lost in all this is what ought to be the central question: what does The Runaways say about The Runaways? Not enough: their historical importance is alluded to, but the film doesn't say anything about the music industry or '70s rock that hasn't been said, and it frankly says a lot less than some other treatments on the same topic. Here's what I know from the film: Fowley's exploitation of Currie's sexuality got in the way of the fact that the band had actual legitimate talent, and then Joan Jett started a much more famous and much better band a couple of years later. It mostly reminds me of a less adventurous and non-satiric version of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, which had more to say about the commodification of girl power and image control in the music industry 28 years ago than The Runaways is even remotely interested in thinking about.

Parts of it are great: Shannon's portrayal of Fowley as a shallow, slimy genius is right-on (his exclamation, "Jail fucking bait!" is one of the best movie moments of the first quarter of 2010), and anytime the band gets to playing, the movie rises to a whole different level, one that's legitimately dangerous and sexy and raw as hell (Stewart's vocal impersonation of Jett is scarily good, which helps). If the whole movie had stayed in that register, The Runaways could have been one of the great music biopics. But it doesn't, and what we get instead is a modestly diverting film that, at best, might reignite some interest in a good band that broke up over three decades ago.

6/10

19 March 2010

MIYAZAKI HAYAO: KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989)

In 1987, Studio Ghibli acquired the rights to a children's novel written by Kadono Eiko, titled Witch's Delivery Service: the story of Kiki, a 13-year-old girl, and the last year of her training as a witch, as she set off for a new town away from her family and had to learn independence and self-sufficiency. It was a suitable subject for an animated children's movie, sure enough, but for a little while, nothing happened with it: directors Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao were still at work on My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies, respectively, and the new project - which was, by the way, still titled Witch's Delivery Service, despite the fact that English speakers have always known it as Kiki's Delivery Service - was at first conceived as a short special, 60 minutes meant to showcase the talents of Studio Ghibli's younger, less well-established, less-famous artists.

That plan went a bit awry, for Miyazaki, at this juncture just the film's producer, grew increasingly convinced as the film inched its way through pre-production that none of the directors who had been approached had the right feeling toward the material, and the screenplay that had been written (by an individual whose name is not known to history - to his relief, I suppose) was particularly galling to his sensibilities. He rewrote the film himself, and in the absence of a director, led the pre-production team (including character designer Oga Kazuo and production designer Ohno Hiroshi) on a tour of European cities that would ultimately serve as inspiration for the film's fictional, geographically indefinite town of Koriko. By the time Miyazaki and crew returned to Japan, he'd basically become its director, a decision that was not formally announced until July, 1988, after he'd finished the screenplay (and in the process earned the ire of Kadono, who was not pleased with Miyazaki's increased drama, and the emphasis on Kiki's setbacks as a means to sculpt the narrative; ultimately she allowed the film to continue, though she has apparently never warmed to it). The film was completed and released a year after that, no longer a short special, but the fourth theatrical release produced by Ghibli, and the fifth by its director.

I have absolutely no doubt that then as now, Miyazaki does not put his name to any project that he is not certain of, that he has not completed to his exact wishes. But there's something about Kiki's Delivery Service that suggests, in an indirect way, that it wasn't necessarily a project that came from the filmmaker's heart and soul. Not because of anything within itself - by all means, it's a wonderfully fun movie, sweet and humanist and warm - but because, stacked next to Miyazaki's run of films leading up to it (and it is just for that stacking that we're all here), it lacks a certain measure of urgency. His last feature, My Neighbor Totoro, was a deeply personal film that explores the imaginative possibilities of childhood with the gravest sincerity and untrammeled delight; both Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind before that are epic adventures in world-building and myth-making. Compared to all of that, Kiki's Delivery Service is a bit slight, and not just because it has very little plot to it - certainly, it has more plot and conflict than Totoro. I suppose what I'm driving at is that I can't quite put my finger on the "why" - what about this film drove the director to such lengths to make sure it was exactly perfect? It's all kinds of charming, but for me, at least, it never quite hits the euphoric heights of some of the director's earlier work: the emotions simply aren't as full and rich here, in what's ultimately a well-realised but fairly straightforward coming-of-age tale.

There's not much more to the story than what I've already implied: Kiki (Takayama Minami) leaves home in accordance with the traditions of her profession, taking with her only three mementos of her past: her father's radio, her mother's broom, and her familiar, a black cat named Jiji (Sakuma Rei), with whom she can speak, and who is the only true friend she has. She finds herself for the first time in a bustling metropolis, and though she quickly befriends a local baker, Osono (Toda Keiko), and a painter living in the woods, Ursula (also voiced by Takayama, underlining the degree to which this young woman is something of an older, wiser version of Kiki herself), she finds herself no closer than before to self-reliance and independence. Her only useful skill is her ability to fly, and thus she has decided that her official job as a witch shall be to courier packages, but few people demand her services, and she slips quietly into a depressive insecurity, while the signifiers of her childhood eventually fall away from her, and she is left with neither success nor comfort in this big new world.

This is a Miyazaki film, not an Antonioni film, so of course she is eventually given the opportunity to prove herself, and to become a successful young adult. Still, the predominant mode of the story is not triumph (the happy ending has to share space with the end credits), but of uncertainty. For that alone, it's hard to deny that there's some real power to Kiki's Delivery Service, probably more than I give it credit for. It's the furthest thing from dour or miserable, buoyed up by an energetic score by Miyazaki's regular composer Joe Hisaishi, and playful characters, but the core of the film is serious and entirely unwilling to lie to its presumptive child audience: growing up is hard, necessary work.

Also keeping the film from every slipping too far from good cheer and whimsy is its bright, clean palette: it's the most boldly-colored Miyazaki film since Nausicaä.

It should not come as any surprise that Kiki's Delivery Service is an absolutely gorgeous movie, although for the first time in Miyazak's Studio Ghibli years, the lovely visuals feel a bit more like cartoons than otherwise. That's no sin, of course: there is an honesty and artistic purity to cartoons. I present this more in the spirit of observation than of critique: the film is bright and round and easy on the eyes, and it's simply not, on the whole, as visionary as Nausicaä or as haunting as Totoro for that reason. Not that it lacks for artistic ambition: the depiction of Koriko, a pan-European blend of influences both architectural and chronological, is as breathtaking as anything in Miyazaki's earlier films.


It is, however, mainly more of a cartoon this, and ultimately for the good; for if Kiki's Delivery Service weren't a cartoon, then we wouldn't have the joy of its, well, its cartoonishness. Some of the film's most successful elements are those which are the simplest and most childish, and I'd argue that the chief of these is Jiji, who is an absolutely delightful little character if ever I've seen one.

He's not as cute as the Totoros, p'raps - nothing is as cute as the Totoros, but given a whispy, light voice and a magnificently expressive face that gives him the feeling of a solemn, saracastic preteen, Jiji is immensely appealing, but he's hardly just a device to sell toys. In the film, his function is to be Kiki's other self, the only being she can depend on, and the only being she wants to depend on - but this means that he can't come with her on her development into adulthood. And the moment that this first manifests itself is as heartbreaking to the audience as it is to the witch. In essence, our (presumptive) affection for Jiji as a cartoon character mirrors Kiki's relationship to him, which is probably the subtlest and most effective of all the film's attempts to link our perspective to hers.

There you have it: I attempt to praise the film for its silly talking cat, and in the space of a paragraph, I get back to Miyazaki's author-angering focus on the loss of innocence. So plainly, Kiki's Delivery Service is more than just a fun kid's movie, although it's that. It still showcases the director's effortless ability to respect the perspective of childhood as well as any of his other films do; as in Totoro, the existence of magic is neither foregrounded nor commented upon, but simply a fact. Nor is the idea that a 13-year-old girl should be ready to stand on her own two feet questioned by anyone but characters who we're meant to understand as misguided. It is a sensible, nice film that assumes there is a certain intelligence to the young that is not the same thing as precocious wisdom, and shows once again why Miyazaki is one of the best family filmmakers in history. I cannot explain why it is that I'm thus left a touch cold by it: maybe because the story doesn't feel quite as organic as some of his other films, maybe it's because the director wasn't working from something that came from his own imagination and passions, and maybe it's because nothing that came in the wake of Totoro could possibly satisfy me, not even a fine, sincere piece of bittersweet delight like this.

18 March 2010

REBEL WITHOUT A BRAIN

O marketing gurus with your fixation on playing keep-away with spoilers take note:

I had no intention whatsoever of seeing Remember Me. It didn't hit #1 at the box office, and otherwise, the only thing that seemed remotely interesting was the promise of a grim spectacle as Twilight star Robert Pattinson fought a mighty, losing battle against his innate lack of talent. I've already paid those dues: I saw the awful Little Ashes, with Pattinson as Salvador Dalí, and he even appears in gay sex scenes in that movie, so a wobbly PG-13 romantic drama promised to be an even duller affair as far as that goes.

And just when I was ready to write it all off, I heard about How It Ends. This is the sort of detail that critics tend to write about with thick warnings about spoilers coming up, and only then after a whole lot of breast-beating about whether or not it is an ethical act for a critic to give away the ending even when there's little or no way to sensibly describe certain stories without that context. In the case of Remember Me, I don't understand that mentality at all: How It Ends is by far the only interesting thing about the film, and frankly, the only reason I even considered paying to see the film was because the explanation of How It Ends seemed so impossibly wrong-headed that I absolutely had to view it with my own eyes. So it was only by breaking the cardinal rule that these critics - who were by no means defending the film - got me into the theater. So I have an idea for the Summit ad men: instead of advertising the DVD release with the aggravatingly vague tagline, "Live in the Moments", you might want to try this one:

"A Romantic Drama Where Robert Pattinson Dies in the 9/11 Attacks. Yes, He Seriously Fucking Does".

Oh, um, spoiler alert.

MY GOD, it's amazing. It's like being bathed in chocolate and candy canes, it's so delectably, irresistibly wrong That a remarkably straightforward and hugely routine (if unusually incompetent) love story about two sullen 21-year-olds should make a grab in the last five minutes for some kind of greater import by invoking the great national American trauma of the last 10 years is one thing: but Remember Me is so barbaric about it! The baldly exploitative nature of it is quite breathtaking. I have seen literal Holocaust pornography - and yet I have still never seen a movie that uses the Holocaust quite as crassly and shabbily as Remember Me uses 9/11. It seems to be something along these lines: "We know that our story is quite bad, but look! HE DIED IN THE WORLD TRADE CENTER! Now don't you feel guilty for not liking our movie?" No, but I will admit that my dislike has been replaced by being utterly flabbergasted. I wonder if this is the way you feel after seeing The Day the Clown Cried.

The idea of using 9/11 as the tragic denouement to a New York love drama isn't inherently vile, I suppose, though it would be stunningly difficult to pull off: at a minimum, it would need a singularly charismatic lead actor inhabiting a role written to be at once absolutely specific and yet emblematic of the soul of the city in the early days of the 21st Century, while presenting from beginning to end a story so compelling and heartbreaking that the audience is perfectly willing to regard it as a moment of history trapped in a bottle. Remember Me has none of these things: it has Pattinson as Tyler Hawkins, a 21-year-old in the summer of 2001 whose family was ripped apart by the death of his elder brother years ago. Tyler is supposedly brooding and hurt, pained by his loveless father (Pierce Brosnan, equipped with a phenomenally broad Brooklyn accent), and finding solace in the arms of the equally wounded Allie Craig (Emilie de Ravin), but mostly he's just an unlikable asshole. It's hard to say how much of this is the fault of first-time screenwriter William Fetters, who doesn't seem to release that Tyler is mostly an unjustified crybaby, and how much is the fault of Pattinson, who appears to have heard that there was once this fellow named Marlon Brando, but does not seem to have gone out of his way to watch The Wild One, and thus his performance consists only of directionless angry mutterings. Either way, Tyler's character appears to consist solely of his reluctance to shave and his massive cigarette habit that is given more screentime than most of the named characters.

It is damnably tiresome to spend so much time in the company of such a perfectly unlikable individual played so lamely, and the film's minutes scrape by endlessly as we watch this miserable bastard hero act pouty and horrid, and generate no sexual chemistry with his paramour whatsoever (though at least they have more than the pronounced anti-chemistry Pattinson shares with Kristen Stewart over in Twilightville. But have no fear! Tyler is far from the only character in the movie who is completely rancid. There's also his precocious young sister Caroline (Ruby Jerins), a particularly grating example of the irritating child trope, and his roommate Aidan Hall (Tate Ellington), who in a horror film would be the odious comic relief, and a singularly unendurable example of the form; here he's just the tragic clown, or some damn thing. My mind pretty much shut down in protest every time he appeared on screen.

Fetters's screenplay is a slapdash mess, beginning with a prologue from Ally's POV that doesn't fit into the structure of the rest of the film in the remotest degree, and after that it's pretty much just a pushy countdown from May to September, with dates studded in gracelessly so we know exactly where in time we are. The dialogue is better left unmentioned; though I can't help but admire the brazen way that a prominent line early in the film is stolen from a particularly iconic moment in Se7en, but otherwise, if you're morbidly curious, the trailer has some terrifically choice bits of insane, undeliverable purple prose ("I'm undecided." "About what?" "Everything.")

As for director Allen Coulter - a freaking Sopranos veteran - he presents the material with a slackness unforgivable in a college student. There are some flat-out terrible compositions liberally peppered throughout the film (my least favorite is a shot in a library that cuts off Pattinson below the neck), and the editing is often clumsy to the point of dysfunction; a cut from a high angle to the same shot, but from a low angle, amateur-hour mistakes like that. Jonathan Freeman's cinematography is as dour as the story and the characters, full of portentous shadows that don't apparently mean more than "these are sad people - look at their sadness!"

In short, Remember Me was already a damn bad movie, and that mystifying, inexplicable gotcha ending merely pushes it that extra bit into soul-scraping wretchedness. There's not one thing I can really point to as right about the whole affair: even Chris Cooper, that endlessly reliable character actor, can't boast a single worthy moment. But there is that gonzo ending, and I know that whatever I say, if you're morbidly curious, then you'll seek it out. Certainly the warnings about how godawful dull it was weren't enough to dissuade me. And that is why I will leave the specifics of How It Ends a surprise: for the narrative context and the visual way that the ending is presented are as immaculately ill-conceived as the 9/11sploitation itself, and I shouldn't want to ruin all the fun for you.

1/10

17 March 2010

MIYAZAKI HAYAO: MY NEIGHOR TOTORO (1988)

When I first had the idea of a Miyazaki Hayao retrospective, one of my biggest reasons for wanting to do it was that it would give me a plausible reason to see his 1988 feature My Neighbor Totoro, which I had, unthinkably, never watched until two days ago. Not that I should have needed a "plausible reason" to watch a movie that has been praised to the heavens by pretty much every single person who has ever seen it, but that's the way it goes.

If the praise of other animation buffs hadn't been enough to reassure me that I was in for a treat, then the poster would have done the trick. Go ahead, look at it, up there. That poster is one of the sweetest and cutest bits of movie advertising ever, I deem: and it all comes down to the way that the big grey creature - a Totoro - is sheltering from the rain with a leaf that doesn't remotely cover his whole head. The same image appears in the film proper, where the different composition (and the noticeably fatter Totoro) makes the image even cuter, if that's possible. The size disparity between the girl and the creature is maintained, but the lack of space above the Totoro's head emphasises his shape more, the extra space to the girl's right (our left) emphasises his roundness, and the slight redesign of the character makes his eyes much more appealing.

But all this theoretically puffery aside, I think it's probably much easier to explain: the Totoro is big and fluffy, he has no visible mouth, and he is behaving very simply and seriously (stay dry), but doing it in charmingly incompetent, silly way. "Cute", "silly", "charming", "sweet": these are the key words to describe My Neighbor Totoro. Even the word "Totoro" is derived in the cutest possible way; it's how a four-year-old mispronounces "tororu", the Japanese word for "troll".

When it was new, My Neighbor Totoro was a work without precedent in Miyazak's canon. After three features, and healthy portions of three television series, certain recurring elements had definitely established themselves (primarily in the three projects over which the director exercised an especially strong hand): a post-apocalyptic "used future" setting; the loving depiction of flight; a heavy thematic emphasis on the uncomfortable relationship between technology and machinery on the one hand, and the balance of the natural world on the other, with the post-technological human protagonists caught in between; central female characters who are somehow tapped into mystical energy; a central male-female relationship that is based on mutual respect and friendship rather than romantic feelings, that nevertheless hews closely to traditional gender roles (man=protector, woman=morally pure). There are hints of some of these things in Totoro, but hints only. This is instead a resolutely domestic story about a family living in a world not recognisably different from our own - Miyazaki has identified the setting as 1955, and in-film evidence tells us that it's August in the then-farming community of Tokorozawa, but it could take place anywhere that there's a big old house next to a sprawling forest just begging for children to lose themselves in its shade for a long summer day.

It is the story of the Kusakabe sisters: eight-year-old Satsuki (Hidaka Noriko) and four-year-old Mei (Sakamoto Chika). They and their father (Itoi Shigesato) have just moved to the country from Tokyo, to be nearer to the hospital where the girl's mother (Shimamoto Sumi) is being treated for a grave illness (tuberculosis, by implication). While playing one day, Mei spots a peculiar white creature, the size of a rabbit, that leads her to a tunnel through the underbrush, and on the other side of this tunnel she finds a cave that is home to a large grey creature (Takagi Hitoshi) of the same shape as the white one: these, as well as the medium blue one, are the Totoros, the guardian spirits of the forest. The Totoros introduce the girls to a small world of magical beings, and as the Kusakabes settle into their new life, Satsuki and Mei are led to an ever-deeper understanding of the wonders of life around them.

Here's another word to describe the film: delightful. Not in the sense that it is a delight for the viewer - although it is - but that the primary emotion expressed within the film is delight. My Neighbor Totoro is not a movie which does not know fear, but the fear within it is personal and specific: the fear of a young child who is faced with the possible loss of a parent. It emphatically lacks a fear of the otherworldly and the mysterious: Satsuki and Mei are first and above all thrilled to find that their new home is inhabited by strange black creatures called (in the English translation) soot devils. And Mei's first response to finding this huge sleeping creature is not trepidation, but unbridled enthusiasm.

This is one of the gentlest films I have ever seen about children meeting fantastic creatures. That Satsuki or Mei is ever in any danger is quite unthinkable - even when Mei goes missing, we can only question when, not if, the Totoros will use their powers to help her. Even the expected genre boilerplate in which the sensible parent disbelieves his children's fabulous tales is absent: both Kusakabe parents are excited at the idea of living in a haunted house, and the girls' father responds to their stories of the Totoros with guileless acceptance that what they say is true. Nor do we have the impression that he's just humoring them and letting their imaginations run free, as one might expect; for that would require the film to drift, even for a moment, to share his point of view, and except for scenes that are absolutely required for the plot to keep working, My Neighbor Totoro never abandons Satsuki and Mei's perspectives. If they would not notice something, or pick up on subtext, then neither do we. This strict adherence to a child's view of the story is vanishingly rare, which is part of what makes Totoro such a magnificent children's movie: it treats its audience with unstinting respect, validating their understanding of the world in a way that even a childhood-worshiping director like Steven Spielberg has never come close to replicating.

Visually, the film (designed by Oga Kazuo, soon to be a semi-regular Miyazaki collaborator) has the same gentleness of its narrative. I complained - or maybe, "observed with reservations" is a better way of putting it - that Laputa: Castle in the Sky was not as rich to look at as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and Totoro is softer and more pastel yet. Described by Studio Ghibli's top producer Suzuki Toshio as "nature painted with translucent colors", there is a watercolor dreaminess to both the locations and the characters.


If this were a Disney Studios feature, I would call this a storybook aesthetic. But that is not at all the feeling of My Neighbor Totoro - I would rather like to say that its overwhelming pastel softness is the look of childhood placidity. It lacks the brash colors of Miyazaki's earlier films - and some of his later ones - for the same reason it lacks the ambitious, conflict-driven narratives. It is a soft, approachable film, about simple, peaceful emotions and characters. That may sound unambitious, but it is the most ambitious thing of all: telling a story that is rich in human experience at the most primal level of understanding, and doing it without reliance on any kind of dramatic tension or external threat. That Miyazaki was able to accomplish this so successfully makes Totoro an unmitigated triumph of family cinema, and perhaps the masterpiece of the director's estimable career.

In 1988, the high cost of the film made it something of a huge gamble for the still-young Studio Ghibli (perhaps its slight running time - at 86 minutes, it's Miyazaki's shortest feature by far), and they released it as a double feature with Takahata Isao's Grave of the Fireflies, hoping that the gravitas of the latter film would increase the chances that the untested idea of children and friendly monsters in the countryside might actually pull in some box office (perhaps also, Totoro was meant to offset the incredibly depressing Grave, as manifestly un-delightful as its sibling is euphorically happy). The double feature ended up losing money, in the short term, though both films have since gained well-deserved sterling reputations; and in the end, the big Totoro became Studio Ghibli's official mascot. A fitting fate for a movie that sums up so much of what Ghibli is about: sincere, rich family entertainment, that uses the medium of animation to its fullest range of possibilities. If the studio, and the filmmaker, had never done anything else than this feature, their impressive reputations would still be fully deserved.