Sunday, March 30, 2008
O hai. I've been meaning to post something here, and this is as good a time as any to start.
Back in 2002, when Disney released Hayao Miyazaki’s magnificent SPIRITED AWAY in America, it kicked off a nice business partnership between the two companies, a side effect of which has been the release of several Studio Ghibli films on DVD here. THE CAT RETURNS is a particularly interesting entry
in their collective body of work, both tying in loosely to a past film and marking a young director’s debut. It’s very cute, whimsical, and imaginative, and fits into the Studio Ghibli tradition nicely while not being a total retread. You sort of know what to expect, but there are surprises along the way.
Our protagonist is Haru (voice of Chizuru Ikewaki), a girl in high school going through all sorts of problems. She’s habitually late, not very popular, and hopelessly swooning over a boy who’s already got a girlfriend. Typical teenage girl drama, until she saves a cat from being hit by a truck. The cat stands up and thanks her, and later that evening an entire procession of cats arrive with their king in tow, informing her that she has in fact saved the prince of the Cat Kingdom. The cats start sending her gifts, and promise that as a capper they will take her to their kingdom to marry the prince. This, needless to say, freaks Haru out, but a mysterious voice and a fat white cat named Muta (Tetsu Watanabe) lead her to the Cat Bureau, a miniature house inhabited by a handsome catman named Baron (Yoshihiko Hakamada). He promises to help her avoid her fate, but a herd of cats quickly bears her off to the Cat Kingdom, and Baron and Muta have no choice but to follow her.
This film is technically a follow-up to WHISPER OF THE HEART, a 1995 Ghibli production which introduced the characters of Muta and the Baron. Apparently the original idea was to revive them for a short film for a planned theme park, but when that didn’t go through the Studio decided to expand the story into a feature and use it to test out the directing skills of animator Hiroyuki Morita (by this point Hayao Miyazaki was eager to find a potential successor, though judging from the IMDB his retirement still has yet to arrive.) Once again I have not actually seen the important preceding work and so can’t make any comparisons.
I will say that this is a very sprightly picture, never dwelling too long on one thing or in one place. This is a blessing and a curse; the film can never develop any one aspect in a lot of depth, but at the same time it never gets stuck exploring something uninteresting. It’s light fare, of course, never very serious in the way some Ghibli films can be, and this again has its ups and downs. On the one hand, it makes the film less memorable, on the other,
it’s a film about a kingdom of cats and there’s only so much gravity you can get out of that to start with.
Cat lovers will get a kick out of the film, that’s for sure- though many of the cats here stand on two legs and talk and wear something resembling clothing, they’re not anthropomorphic to the degree most cartoon animals are. They are, in their mannerisms and even dialogue, cats, and their kingdom- originally conceived by author Aoi Hiragi as a kind of kitty heaven- is a weirdly farcical land where the sun is always at its peak and the tyrant king (voiced with great enthusiasm by Tetsuro Tamba) defenestrates subjects who displease him. This is pretty much how a cat civilization would be run, and the combination of cuteness and insanity is appealing.
Like many Ghibli films, THE CAT RETURNS deals with a spirit world separate from our own, and interestingly enough briefly raises the concept that objects that an artist puts his or her heart and soul into gain a spirit of their own (this explains how Baron manifests in this world, sort of.) This, of course, plays off the animism and spirit worship that has long existed in Japanese culture, and as in similar films the spirit world serves as a place where the protagonist can work out her emotional and developmental issues. In this case, Haru is suffering from a lack of identity- she doesn’t know who she is, or believe in herself that much, and in the Cat Kingdom this is particularly dangerous; there she runs the risk of losing herself altogether and actually becoming a cat. It’s an interesting conflict, and Haru is a charming enough character that we enjoy her development.
All in all, a solid first venture for Morita as director, and as such a good sign for Studio Ghibli’s continued success whenever the older guard finally steps down. Parts of it border on forgettable, but it’s entertaining and something I wouldn’t mind watching again. A lesser entry in this particular studio’s body of work, but that’s not saying a lot. By a more objective standard, this is a darn good time.
Adapted from a comic by Aoi Hiragi
Screenplay by Reiko Yoshida
Directed by Hiroyuki Morita
Saturday, March 29, 2008
Anyways, there is this awesome song played in the closing credits following the piece the band plays to close the film. Enjoy:
Thursday, March 27, 2008
It reminds me of the last I saw him in - a reel of Two Rode Together - a John Ford western featuring Widmark and Jimmy Stewart rescuing white captives from Comanche.... it was shown as part of a program of "pink films" - color films gone bad.... this film had washed out to pink, but left patches of other colors - a green lamp; the yellow in Widmark's lieutenant bars - that pushed those objects out of the screen - it looked like an Ozu film! Anyway - I don't now if the film itself is any good - it looked like there was going to be a lot of forced banter and conflict between the leads, with no one believing a word of it... but I wish I had seen the rest, just to watch Widmark and Stewart together in a John Ford film.
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Saturday, March 22, 2008
I found in the latest issue a story pertinent to the conversation here. At this moment the Green Mountain Film Festival is going on in a small town in Vermont--their state capital--at the Savoy Theater (their single-screen art house) and the City Hall Arts Center. They have about 38 or so films showing for its duration, about half of them documentaries. The thing runs from March 21-30 this year.
A couple things I find interesting about it:
They don't give prizes or rank the films, for the organizers of the event view it as a distraction. They feel anyway that such a thing seems kind of arbitrary. I like how they think!
Also there is no open call soliciting films for each year's festival, and there's no application fee that other festivals often use as a source of revenue. Rather, a committee scours the world for films. It is a curated festival. And, they don't do themes. They just want the best (mostly current) films they can find, plus give a nod to local talent.
The centerpiece of their festival is the film critic event. They get notable film critics like Kenneth Turan to attend by convincing them that Montpelier is the place they want to be at the end of March. I don't know how they do that exactly... This is also the perfect time for Vermonters to attend such an event, because as most other places have four seasons, Vermont has five--spring, summer, fall, winter, and mud. Things are just starting to warm up, and people are getting out more after the long winter--but it's a bit messy for outdoor activity, so this event comes at about the right time.
Last night, at the New Beverly Cinema, the marquee looked like this:
When I was a young lad in the Philadelphia suburbs, the local cable service included a channel called Prism. It carried all the Philly sports games, concerts recorded at Philly venues and just about every movie I recall fondly from childhood. (Remind me to tell you one day of the epic arguments my childhood friends and I still have to this day about which Mannequin movie is better. It's the first one, just so you know.)
My sister and I recorded The Monster Squad from Prism, and probably wore out the VHS tape watching it so much. Here was a movie where little kids cussed, read Stephen King, and fought monsters by kicking 'em "in the nards". It seemed designed specifically for me.
Before last night, I hadn't seen the film in a good fifteen years. I was worried. I didn't want to end up realizing this fond childhood memory is actually a terrible, terrible piece of shit.
Thank God, it's not. That feeling when I was ten years old -- that the movie was designed specifically for me -- came about because it was designed specifically for me, and all the wide-eyed, movie-loving youngsters like me. For those who don't know, the movie's about a group of monster-obsessed grade-schoolers who are somehow pitted against the "forces of evil", embodied by just about every famous movie monster ever:
I'm embarrassed to admit that I got a little choked up at some of the film's sentimental shots. The best among them involves one character watching a drive-in horror movie through binoculars from the roof of his house, munching on popcorn with his father. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a screen grab of that one, but I did find this one, which illustrates every young boy's wildest dream:
I wasn't the only one looking for a trip down memory lane. The show was sold out, something I've never seen before at the New Beverly, though it's easy to see why: not only were they showing the only 35mm print of the film known to exist (loaned by a private collector, they said), but the director of both films on the bill, Fred Dekker, was in attendance for a Q&A between screenings. Dekker was good-humored and friendly, and provided an interesting look at someone who didn't have great success in the industry. After making the two films from last night, he directed Robocop 3, which he described as "a film everyone hated." Though the audience clearly had great affection for The Monster Squad, the reality is it was a box office flop. "If these movies had done bettter," said Dekker, "you would've seen a lot more from me."
Then, as if someone had scripted a scene illustrating the tenuous nature of Hollywood relationships for our amusement, the moderator announced that the co-writer of The Monster Squad, Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), was in the theater. He waved to the crowd and to Dekker, who proceeded to give Black shit (in a jocular way) for not returning calls about appearing on the DVD of The Monster Squad. He told Black that Sony wanted to do a Blu-Ray of the film, which would include an extra where a box appears in the bottom corner of the screen, in which one sees Dekker and Black discussing the film. "I'll talk to you about it after this," said Dekker. The moderator asked for questions from the audience, at which point Black walked down the aisle and said to Dekker, "I've got a question: what's your goddamned phone number? I have to leave." Dekker said he'd give it to him after the Q&A. Later, Dekker called out to Black for help answering a question. Someone from the back of the theater shouted: "He took off!" Awkward!
After all this mayhem, it was time for Night of the Creeps, which I'd never seen before. It's missing the nostalgia and sentiment of The Monster Squad, but it's still a funny little zombie B-movie with intentionally corny dialogue. During the Q&A, many audience members made pointed references to James Gunn's movie Slither being a rip-off of Creeps. It's possible -- the alien slugs slithering along the ground and leaping into humans' mouths did seem awfully familiar -- but Dekker tried to be kinder about it, mentioning that there was a TV show in the 70s called The Monster Squad that featured Dracula, Wolfman and Frankenstein's monster that he'd never seen.
I think it's ideal to see Night of the Creeps in an environment like last night's -- 300 rowdy movie lovers wildly applauding every inane moment, such as a gold-hearted sorority girl strapping on a flamethrower to battle a swarm of undead fraternity boys.
Last night was a reminder of the giddiness that comes about from the shared experience of movies that are just plain fun. I know we all love films that aspire to be more than just a good time, but out with it: what are some movies that make you feel like a kid again?
Friday, March 21, 2008
Lee Daniels is probably the only black director/producer taking risks and bringing different kinds of stories to the big screen. I admire his ability to transcend the limitations of the studios, making great, yet flawed indie films about black life...well somewhat black...which also seem to be marketed to a wider audience. And he is a marvel at bizarro casting. Take a look -
Billy Bob Thorton/Halle Berry/Mos Def/Heath Ledger/Diddy
Cuba Gooding Jr./Helen Mirren/Macy Gray/Joesph Gordon-Levitt/Mo'nique/Darnell Williams
Kevin Bacon/David Alan Grier/Eve/Kyra Sedgewick/Benjamin Bratt/Mos Def
now in 2008 we have -
|Paula Patton||...||Ms. Rain|
and many, many other black actresses I have never heard of before. At least they will get to work in this flick!
For those unfamiliar with PUSH, it's bleak tale about a fat ghetto girl who gets pregnant with her father's child. It's sad and hopeless, written in a style reminiscent of Zora Neale Hurston. Lee Daniels seems to dig dreary stories, so I can't wait to see what he does with Sapphire's book. Mo'Nique does her best work in dramas. I find her to be terribly interesting when she isn't doing comedy. And Lenny Kravitz...the actor??? Can't wait.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
I caught this Japanese film directed by Nobuhiro Yamashita, about a group of high school girls getting a rock band together for a performance at a school festival. Things are complicated when one of their members injures her finger and cannot play guitar, so they have to find someone else to take her place. They change course a little and pick out a song they really like and ask this Korean exchange student to be their vocalist. She isn't fluent in Japanese, but she can still do the job.
This film is important in a broader sense because of its observation of Japanese-Korean relations circa 2005. During World War Two there were about 2 million Koreans in Japan, in many cases not by choice. Afterwards many were repatriated, but maybe 1/4 stayed behind. Today there are about 600,000 Koreans living in Japan, and laws have been relaxed via their status, and many are now able to become full Japanese citizens. It wasn't too long ago when Koreans still faced a lot of discrimination in Japan, but today it is thought to be "cool" to be Korean. Things have changed a lot. (It helps to stay for the after-movie discussion with Japanese cultural experts from the university.)
What is then remarkable about this story is how unremarkable it is thought to be that a Korean is fully accepted into this group of Japanese girls. It's as if no big deal, when it used to be so. There are some hilarious scenes such as one where a boy professes his love for Son (the Korean girl), and he's trying to speak broken Korean while she's trying to speak broken Japanese, and they can barely make sense of each other, until she realizes what he's saying and says she doesn't feel the same for him.
This film also observes the subtle differences between Koreans and Japanese, such as that Koreans tend to be a little more direct and ask pointed questions, such as a scene where Son asks this guy if he's an ex-boyfriend of one of the bandmembers. Something none of the other girls would dare come right out and say. The film may seem slow and plodding at times, but it is merely observing how the girls relate to one another. Culturally, Japanese tend to be more guarded about their thoughts, especially about anything deemed provocative. So some of the girls may take a little while to respond to a question or two. Or they might communicate with subtle gestures. Though the filmmaker also likes to probe the characters' faces, and I like that in a film.
The film follows the girls through practices and hanging out together, leading up to the big show at the end. Linda, Linda, Linda is the title song that is going to bring the house down, they hope. It is a song made popular by an 80s Japanese punk rock band called the Blue Hearts. I'm not giving anything away, because you know from the start where this thing is going.
After the title song, there is this really poignant part while the rain is falling, and in a few lyrics is laid out the history of Koreans in Japan. Nice coda.
The DVD is out and available! Here's a snippet from the movie:
Monday, March 17, 2008
If you haven't seen the 3 films of Chinese director Le You, I urge you to run out and rent them now. But his first 2 films, "Suzhou River" and "Purple Butterfly", pale in comparison to the operatic and sprawling "Summer Palace", just released this week. You has taken the backdrop of Beijing in the late 80's to weave a touching and epic story of 4 college students coming of age. It's a masterpiece, kin to the grand yet intimate storytelling prowess of Zhang Yimou (epecifically "To Live") but infused with a heavy dose of nouvelle vague. See it at all costs.
Sunday, March 16, 2008
Although it is set around Indian (Bengali) culture, it's really a film that transcends culture. It's about anyone who longs to branch out of the culture they grew up in, whether that culture be ethnically based or socially based or any other culture of our society. That said, it shows some wonderful insight into Indian culture with some gorgeous images (gosh, the women are just so . . . feminine). There are also some wonderful shots, and the director, Mira Nair is female and very talented. (Have to support those female filmmakers.) The acting is great, the shots beautiful, the characters well defined (with the exception of one stereotyped character that you'll pick out in a millisecond); it's really a very nice film.
The trailer is below, and the film is better than the trailer. Though the trailer suggests that the events of the film center on one event, that is actually not a very important part of the film and the film is much deeper than that. It's a good thing when a movie is better than its trailer--because this is one decent trailer.
It's about leaving your home, spiritually and physically. Having moved 2500 miles away from family, this film resonated powerfully for me, and this film has many very important things to say. I highly recommend it. This is an overlooked, and good, film.
It opened at the end of July of 2007, and their first-ever showing was Seven Samurai. I was out of town, so I couldn't be there for that grand opening, in which Alexander Payne showed up and everything. But being that I was at a jazz festival, I didn't mind so much. Anyways, I've met Alex before, when he had his Nebraska premiere of About Schmidt in Lincoln.
The theater is situated in a fast-developing part of north downtown (the author of said article says it's in a "deserted" area, which is an exaggeration) which has so much potential, because it's between the campus of Creighton University not four blocks away, and the arena-convention center only three blocks away that is where much of our city's people gather for sporting events or concerts (like the first and second rounds of the Midwest regional next week). It is not a bad neighborhood at all, and in fact four new hotels have gone up a block away from the theater. And what's more, there is a chance that the College World Series may be moved to a new stadium to be constructed--a block away from the theater. Perhaps I can go to a ballgame one day, buy me some peanuts and cracker jacks, and see a movie afterwards while all the traffic is filing out. Wouldn't that be a great evening!
Of course also, as the Times article mentions, there's a new indie rock nightclub a few doors up called "Slowdown", which is operated by the Saddle Creek Records label--though not all acts necessarily have to have performed on their label, in order to play there. I haven't gone there, mainly because I'm not into that stuff, I guess, but if you like it, and are ever in the area, it's definitely a place to check out. It looks like a really neat place when I peer through the window.
Across the street is an empty lot--which I can only guess developers are on the verge of doing something with--but waiting on the stadium situation before making any decisions. And then there's talk of bringing back the streetcar to Omaha, which last was here in 1950 before it was put out of service, and a city planner I talked to said if that ever comes to fruition, the street the theater is situated on would probably be the route. And then just three blocks away maybe, directly south of the theater, will be a new condominium tower go up across the street from the Union Pacific headquarters building, and so there you'll have a community of residents looking for places to go evenings. So, I think they did good by the location they chose. They couldn't have done better. Location means everything, and setting up an art cinema is no small task in a midwest city, especially finding the most ideal location for it on top of the problems you'd think they'd have besides.
Several years ago, another attempt was made at putting an art cinema in Omaha, but the location was bad for it, so it failed within a couple months. It was in an old shopping center where they had a multiplex before. So some enterprising film buffs fixed the theaters up and made a go of it, but being that it's not near any university or the types of crowds they'd hope to attract to such a theater, it was doomed to fail. They even offered alcoholic drinks, but that didn't help. I remember one time watching a Japanese film on a weekend afternoon--I had the theater all to myself.
Well, if it interests you, I found a YouTube video from the Slowdown nightclub. Enjoy, if you will:
Saturday, March 15, 2008
Alice Babs. Now, she's not totally an unknown in these circles, because she sang with Duke Ellington's band, starting in 1963. She had an extreme range as a jazz singer. Duke Ellington said that when she did not sing the parts that he wrote for her, he had to use three different singers.
Before meeting up with Ellington, though, she was a star back home in Sweden. Her first big breakthrough was in a....film, of course--that's part of the subject here--a Swedish film made in 1940 in the midst of all the turmoil going on outside Sweden's neutral borders--called Swing it, magistern (or Swing it, teacher).
Now...before Sweden became this liberal progressive ABBA nation we've all come to love and admire, it was once a quite more conservative population, and in spite of Alice Babs' well-behaved and cheerful nature, she was yet the object of scandal to members of the older generations. By our standards it would be hard to understand, but in her time she really pushed the envelope.
Of course, I'm not going to let you go without a little YouTube© video to leave you with. This is from the film, Swing it, magistern--which film has recently been released on DVD, according to english.megastore.se. The song is called Regntunga skyar, which means Heavy rain clouds:
Thursday, March 13, 2008
"Gardel sings better every day", is a popular saying in Argentina. That statement is given all the more meaning, since it so happens that he died in a plane crash back in 1935.
Carlos Gardel owns the "King of Tango" moniker, even given the existence of Astor Piazzola. Piazzola may be better known outside the country, but Gardel was the quintessential tango singer, and the song is an essential part of tango culture. There are even scholars who study tango lyrics. His grave site at La Chacarita cemetery is a place of pilgrimage for many in Latin America, too.
Why is he revered so, to this day? Well, though what recordings he made are in mono and not of the best technical quality, at least for our modern standards, I suspect that it's because his musicality and dramatic phrasing is too good not to appreciate, at least from my standpoint. And that he died relatively young, a "tragic hero" as it were, can't hurt his cause either.
Given his singing talents, it would make sense he'd become a film star as well, and also since at the height of his career the "talkies" started coming out, so it was a natural next step for him. The photograph here above is a still from the movie Tango Bar, I believe. The YouTube clip below is a song called Tomo y obligo (I drink and I invite) from the film, Luces de Buenos Aires (The Lights of Buenos Aires). The picture quality of whatever DVDs are available isn't nearly so nice, and I don't know if restored versions exist, or if they ever got the DVD treatment. They're not especially great films either--but they're special because of his presence alone. -Antonioni fan
A list of his films:
- Flor de Durazno (1917)(silent)
- Luces de Buenos Aires (1931)
- Esperame (1933)
- La Casa es seria (1933)
- Melodía de Arrabal (1933)
- Cuesta abajo (1934)
- El Tango en Broadway (1934)
- El Día que me quieras (1935)
- Cazadores de estrellas (1935)
- Tango Bar (1935)
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Roughly translated as "great in building", or what some would say is Sweden's version of "Fawlty Towers", this is a musical-comedy made in the 60s about a couple enterprising young entrepreneurs starting up a business in a small town, who are by happenstance blessed with good singing voices. I'm especially fond of Thore Skogman; I love how well he annunciates his lyrics.
Then three middle-aged curmudgeons come in to try and ruin the fun. And they provide most of the comedy. I'm not sure if they're mean old developers or government officials, because the DVD doesn't have English subtitles.
But it's got a lot of good music in it, which is the important thing--including an appearance by none other than the......Strolling Stones. Ha!
There's a lot of reading between the lines necessary in viewing this film, that is, if you don't understand Swedish. But being that its comedy is mostly of slapstick variety, it makes it a bit easier to follow along with the action, than if it were say, an Ingmar Bergman film.
There's a really cool webstore called http://english.megastore.se/, that has a lot of Swedish stuff marketed to English-speaking customers. -Antonioni fan
Not from this film, but here's Thore Skogman in another:
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Should I have an opinion on Elliot Spitzer? He's in NY, I'm not, so maybe I shouldn't care. Though I'm inclined to this opinion: prosecutors who rise to power don't do it by doing anything admirable - they play to the cameras, and woe to anyone who crosses them. I someone like that screws up like this, they deserve what they get. And they do seem to screw up a lot - Giuliani was just as bad...
Still, there's not much point in caring. I't not a NY voter. Though if I were, I 'd have to vote Kant - his argment against Nietzsche (helpfully posted at Pilgrim Akimbo is all too appropriate: he's not a whore-mongering atheist...
While over there - check out the personal libraries post. If a personal library says anything about you - what it says about me is, You Have Too Many Books! I've been rearranging things chez moi - creates some ugly in between points:
All right. Let's end with a couple film related links. As always, when in doubt, head to Girish - right now, you'll find a discussion of experimental cinema (and Pedro Costa, in the comments). Lots more Pedro Costa at Unspoken Cinema and The Evening Class. And Bordwell, of course: the whole front page is good, especially the Minding Movies and Bob Clampett posts.
And - I've been monkeying around with the template, to get that shot from Robin Hood up there. I'll close with a shot from another DVD I recently picked up:
Isn't that gorgeous?
UPDATE: I want to add: there are more Robin Hood pictures and an appreciation at my blog. I'm not sure yet how they should interact - that might be the sort of thing to cross post. Also, I changed the size of the pictures here, to get them to look a bit better. And here's another one, to see how scope looks: