Blind Spot 35: Whisper of the Heart

This month’s blind spot pick marks a big accomplishment in my animation blogging career: I have now seen every Studio Ghibli film! I’ve even seen the obscure 2 shorts Panda! Go, Panda! (adorable btw). This month’s entry Whisper of the Heart is my final film to check off the list and fortunately it marks another solid entry from the studio. Not my favorites but perfectly amiable animated film with some great messaging.

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Whisper of the Heart is by one-time only director Yoshifumi Kondō. It also marks the only Studio Ghibli film to have a spin-off or sequel. Covered earlier this year, The Cat Returns is about a minor character in a fantasy story that the lead character Shizuku writes.

In the movie Shizuku is a 14 year old who loves reading and writing. She loves going to the library but she starts to notice that all of the books she is checking out have already been read by a boy named Seiji. What she doesn’t know is Seiji is a young man who she is annoyed with and has to work on a school project with singing ‘Country Road, Take Me Home’ by John Denver.

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Seiji is learning to make violins and even goes to Italy to study under a master. Meanwhile Shizuku spends time with Seiji’s grandfather Nishi, who owns an antique store. He shows her the statue of the cat Baron and she decides to pursue her dreams of writing.

The romance between Seiji and Shizuku plays out like a classic romantic comedy, which I really enjoyed. I also thought the sequences with the fantasy story with the Baron were a lot of fun. As a big fan of homeschool, I also like that Shizuku decided when she wanted to focus on her writing and when she wanted to attend the public high school.

whisper of the heart

The animation is nice and it feels like a Miyazaki movie with a young heroine, trips to Italy, flying sequences and talking cats, so you can’t go wrong there. I also enjoyed the music and overall it’s a fun little movie.

I guess what keeps it from being a favorite is at nearly 2 hours it feels a little drawn out for the plot. It would have been a little better at the 90-100 minute mark and some might find it boring.

Aside from that I would definitely recommend Whisper of the Heart. Watch it and then watch The Cat Returns and you will be delighted!

Smile Worthy

smile worthy

So there you have it! My last Studio Ghibli film to watch. What other anime films would you recommend? Let me know in the comments section.

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Current Mini Reviews

So I must admit I have been on a bit of a role lately! I not only have been making podcasts I love on both of my channels (Hallmarkies and Rachel’s Reviews) but I have been able to see a lot of movies (I’ve done several double-headers). Some I have reviewed on my channel (and some on this blog) but others I haven’t gotten around to covering. So that means it’s time for my Current Mini Reviews update! I will let give my brief thoughts, whether it is smile/frown worthy and where it lists in my 2018 Releases Ranking. Enjoy!

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Life of the Party

I seem to be one of the few who hasn’t grown tired of Melissa McCarthy’s shtick (I even enjoyed Ghostbusters!).  Now we have Life of the Party and it wasn’t the greatest comedy but it was serviceable. I laughed enough to enjoy myself and the supporting cast is strong including Maya Rudolph, Gillian Jacobs and Molly Gordon who plays McCarthy’s daughter. Luke Benward is very hunky as McCarthy’s boy-fling.

Smile Worthy (barely)

51 out of 71

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Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation

This franchise has produced 3 entertaining if a bit unmemorable films and that includes Hotel Transylvania 3. It was an enjoyable sit with some nice animation and good laughs. It doesn’t have the emotional punch of Pixar but it had a sweet message to it.  I think this is an improvement over HT2 which didn’t use its ensemble cast very well.

Smile Worthy

19 out of 71

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Gotti

With a 0% on rottentomatoes and moviepass making it basically free I couldn’t resist watching this trainwreck. And trainwreck it is. Pretty much everything is off in this biopic but the most absurd part is they try to paint the mafia as a persecuted minority that the cops are hounding unfairly. There’s even a title card at the end explaining the efforts the FBI went to take them down and the FBI is the villain!

Frown Worthy

69 out of 71

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Hearts Beat Loud

I think this might have been oversold to me as ‘the next Sing Street‘. Hearts Beat Loud isn’t a bad movie but I left feeling underwhelmed. The performances are nice and a couple of the songs decent but I was never emotionally engaged with the main relationship between the father and the daughter. Both my friend and I agreed that it felt cursory when they could have dove deeper and asked more questions. The only emotion I felt was between the daughter and her girlfriend. Sing Street it is not. I honestly found it kind of boring…

Frown Worthy (barely)

52 out of 71

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Set It Up

Since everyone knows I love romcoms I was told by many to check out this Netflix entry in the genre. My response was it was ok. I liked the lead couple Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell and they had decent chemistry. Lucy Liu is also good as an ice queen boss that gets more character development than the trope typically allows. However, I found the movie to be a bit too cynical for my taste. I like my romances to be a little more light and fluffy.

Smile Worthy (barely)

50 out of 71

Maquia

Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms

Very sweet fantasy anime that is about an immortal woman’s struggles to be a mother and watch her mortal child grow up and suffer. The animation was stunning, and I got very wrapped up in it. It has some pacing issues but over all I definitely recommend it. Director Mari Okada has made a fantasy film that is ambitious in its world building and lovely in its emotional depth. Fantasy fans, not just anime fans will really enjoy it.

Smile Worthy

12 out of 71

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Whitney

I love Whitney Houston and was so sad to see her life spiral out of control leading to her eventual death. So naturally I was interested in this documentary and it’s mostly satisfactory. Director Kevin Macdonald does a good job showing all sides to the singer and her impact on music and pop culture. However, there are a few things that felt a little exploitative to me and his attempts to tie Whitney’s life into broader world events felt a little heavy handed. Still worth checking out. Bring tissues.

Smile Worthy

39 out of 71

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Ant-Man and the Wasp-

I really enjoyed the first Ant-Man. I think more than most, so I was excited for this sequel and I left thinking it was just ok. The action is a lot of fun and the cast knocks it out of the park but it wasn’t as funny as the first one and several plot threads got a little boring for me. Still, it’s a decent superhero movie with some fun moments.

Smile Worthy

23 out of 71

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Skyscraper-

This was more entertaining than I expected it to be. There are some entertaining action set pieces like a fight that happens in a room with mirrors. Also I liked that Nev Campbell’s character wasn’t a cliched warrior woman or damsel in distress but just a smart Mom. I’m not sure why they needed him to have an artificial leg except for one kind of gimmicky scene.
The villain characters were very snoozeworthy with lame motivation. Still, if looking for summer entertainment that doesn’t take itself too seriously you could do worse.

Smile Worthy

35 out of 71

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Fireworks-

With the marketing heavily leaning on the ‘producer of Your Name’ I wondered if this would be a disappointment. It didn’t seem to have much to sell of itself but just its similarities to a beloved film. Sadly my worries were correct. Fireworks does have some good things but for each good aspect there was a negative. Some of the animation was beautiful and then others used CG in really terrible ways. Some character moments were sweet and others felt really cheesy. Some parts of the story worked and other parts felt very muddled and confusing. There’s a sexuality in the character design and story that was strange.

Frown Worthy

61 out of 71

 

 

Blind Spot 28: The Cat Returns

When I announced my 2018 Blind Spot picks I was planning on reviewing one of the last Studio Ghibli films for me to check off my list, The Cat Returns, in June but it ended up being the Studio Ghibli Fest selection for April, so I am swapping my picks and will review The Green Mile in June instead of April. (On a side note, if you aren’t seeing the Studio Ghibli Fest films you totally should! It’s an amazing opportunity to see these anime films on the big screen).

So what did I think of The Cat Returns after seeing it on the big screen? Well, while not the greatest Studio Ghibli film by any measure, I was thoroughly entertained by the creative and strange story of a young girl and her adventures in a world of cats.

The Cat Returns is directed by Hiroyuki Morita and is his only feature for Studio Ghibli . It is evidently based on a manga and is a pretty strange story. Like many Ghibli films, it focuses on a young girl as the lead character. Her name is Haru and one day she saves a cat from being hit by a truck. Unbeknownst to her she has rescued Lune, Prince of the Cat Kingdom. In an effort to repay her she is taken to marry Lune, and she even starts to develop cat-like qualities such as whiskers and a tail.

Fortunately there are two cats who come to her defense and help her find a way out of the Cat Kingdom before it is too late: a suave debonair cat named the Baron (also featured in Whisper of the Heart evidently) and an overweight white cat named Muta.

These characters were a lot of fun. I thought the Baron had a bit of a Sherlock Holmes vibe to him. He is cocky, not very self-aware and loves to make a special kind of tea. Muta is a curmudgeon who gets a lot of the comic relief of the film.

The Cat Returns is definitely an odd film, but I found the world-building to be very unpredictable in an appealing way. It is also witty and unlike some Ghibli films, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. This is just a strange, comic fantasy, and I enjoyed it on that level. At 75 minutes it also doesn’t outstay its welcome and become boring.

The music by Yuji Nomi almost seemed too orchestral and grand for such a silly story but it is beautiful. The animation is of course great, and I loved the way the characters moved and flowed through scenes. Plus, there is something cute about all these cats!

It doesn’t have the emotional complexity that the great Studio Ghibli films like My Neighbor Totoro or Princess Mononoke have, but I still enjoyed The Cat Returns. It’s a fun little creative, strange romp through a world of cats! It kind of reminded me of Porco Rosso in a way- a comedy with anthropomorphic animals/human merging in together in unusual ways.

I did see it with the English dub that has Anne Hathaway playing Haru, Cary Elwes as the Baron and Peter Boyle as Muta. They all do a good job and are perfectly fine in their roles.

Overall Grade- B

Only one more Studio Ghibli film for me to see (Whisper of the Heart) and I will be finished their entire canon!

What do you think of The Cat Returns?

Current Mini Reviews

I, Tonya

The performances are very strong from Margot Robbie and Allison Janney and deserve nominations, but I had mixed feelings on I, Tonya. On one hand it is interesting to hear another side of such a famous story but the style of the movie felt a little too silly for the narrative it was telling. It was unique but felt unfair and superficial to all involved especially Nancy. You can’t humanize a somewhat notorious character by making her struggles a joke.

Grade- B-

Smile Worthy for the Performances

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

I don’t have much nostalgia for the original Jumanji film, so I was able to go into this sequel with an open mind. In the end, I was entertained by Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. The movie gets a lot of material by mixing up the genders of the characters in the movie and it is pretty funny. The special effects are great and it was overall a fun family film. The middle dragged a bit for me and I got a little sleepy is my only complaint. It does have a few inappropriate jokes involving the gender swapping parents should be aware of.

Grade B+

Smile Worthy

Batman and Harley Quinn

This is an absolutely appalling movie where a man is raped as a joke and Harley Quinn proves to be one of the most annoying characters in recent memory. It is awful

Grade- F

Frown Worthy

Big Bad Fox and Other Tales

Very sweet animated shorts that will make the entire family laugh. The animation is a sketchy style but very pleasant and it stays strictly G rated fun. I particularly liked the final short which is holiday themed

Grade- B+

Smile Worthy

Call Me By Your Name

This film has gotten a lot of Oscar buzz with good cause as it is very beautifully filmed. The Italian countryside never looked better! Call Me By Your Name tells the story of a young man who falls in love with an older man played by Armie Hammer. I think this movie suffered a bit for me in comparison to Moonlight, which I think was a lot stronger. Moonlight has something anyone can relate to in the different parts of Chiron’s life. Here I struggled to relate to the lifestyle of these rather pedantic expats living in Italy. However, Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer are great and have wonderful chemistry together. I enjoyed the leisurely pace and the great writing by James Ivory. It’s a good movie. Just not as good as Moonlight.

The sensuality is very strong in here so you’ve been warned.

Grade- B+

 

Smile WorthyBattle of the Sexes

I don’t have many complaints about Battle of the Sexes. It’s a perfectly fine true story sports movie with some good performances. It tells the story of Billie Jean King and Bobby Rigg’s iconic tennis match in a satisfying but by the numbers way. Nothing really stood out to me and I had the feeling I will quickly forget it, but it’s fine.

Some strong sensuality in here also

Grade- B-

Smile Worthy

Sword Art Online: The Movie

As someone who has never seen the anime show it was a little confusing at times but Sword Art Online was pretty entertaining. I really like the set up and the world-building. The animation was great and the action was awesome. The female characters were a little weak. The pacing in between action scenes could drag but it was a worthwhile anime to watch

Grade- B

Smile Worthy

Ferdinand

This latest offering from Blue Sky is a harmless sweet animated film. It is certainly worlds better than the trailers demonstrated. I liked Ferdinand and how there really was no villain just characters with different points of view. The humor, especially the calming goat, was mostly good and overall it is enjoyable. The main problem is it feeling very played out and generic. I loved the music by John Powell with songs by Nick Jonas

GRADE B-

Smile Worthy 

Birdboy: The Forgotten Children-

I reviewed this for rotoscopers.com and it was a challenging film to review. It’s worth seeing for the visuals but it is a very strange movie. The characters are uber-cute but the settings and events are very violent and disturbing. It was intriguing but the lack of narrative was challenging. I admire it more than I like it but I’m glad I saw it

Grade- C+

Barely Smile Worthy for the Artistry

Disaster Artist

A very heartfelt and sweet movie about the making of the worst movie ever made- The Room. James Franco becomes Tommy Wiseau in every way and Dave Franco is also good as Greg Sestero. It’s a funny and engaging look at the power of creating something even if it is terrible. It’s no Ed Wood as far as filmmaking but I was entertained.

There is some nudity and language in this film

Grade- A-

Smile Worthy

The Mountains Between Us

This is a very dopey romantic survival story. Good thing for this movie is I like dopey romantic survival stories. It was just silly and fun enough to be entertaining. It’s not a good movie but I enjoyed watching it. It does make you wonder how 2 such quality actors got stuck in this film?

Grade- C+

Smile Worthy but I admit it isn’t a great film

Man Who Invented Christmas-

This checked off a lot of boxes for me. I love Christmas Carol. I love Dickens. I love British stories. I love this whole cast. I love Christmas movies. So it didn’t have to do much to win me over so it succeeded in doing just that. I loved the performances of Dan Stevens as Dickens and Christopher Plummer as Scrouge. I loved seeing the process behind the writing of Christmas Carol with them diving into his past and father at points. This is totally a  film I plan on buying and watching each year for the holidays.

Grade- A

Smile Worthy

So overall a pretty successful month of movie going! What have you seen? How would you rank these films? Put in the comments section. If I have time I will do longer reviews for these and will definitely be reviewing Greatest Showman and Coco eventually on this blog. Some like Ferdinand and The Disaster Artist I’ve reviewed on my youtube channel. Check those reviews out and make sure you are subscribed to this blog and the channel.

Merry late Christmas!

Blind Spot 23: Giovanni’s Island

There are some movies that have universal appeal. They move people of all races, backgrounds and religions. Then other films have more of a regional appeal, which can be valuable. While placating audiences is not a good thing, I also believe not every movie needs to be for every group. In today’s Blind Spot pick we have a movie, Giovanni’s Island, that I have a feeling appeals to the Japanese in a way that doesn’t translate super well to American audiences- or at least this American.

When I first heard about Giovanni’s Island I was hopeful it would be a new Grave of the Fireflies but unfortunately it comes across like a lightweight copy of Fireflies more than an update. It has some powerful moments and beautiful animation but it never really connected with me.

Let’s start with the positive. The animation directed by Mizuho Nishikubo is wonderful. The fantasy sequences with a ‘galactic railroad’ are particularly strong.

It also has some moments of genuine heart. The story is about two brothers, Junpei and Kanta who live on an island in 1945 Japan. The early parts of the movie show them frolicking happily around the island, going to school, meeting new Russian families including a girl named Tanya and trying to find enough food. They have a father, a nare-do-well uncle named Hideo, an old-school fisherman Grandfather and a teacher named Sawako. All of these characters play out basically the way you think they will.

The island ends up getting taken over by the Russians and the Japanese get sent away to camps. This causes the boys to go on a journey to find their father and survive the war. There are moving moments but even those can feel a bit heavy-handed and played out.

The dubbing is also incredibly bad. They don’t even bother to translate the Russian or all of the Japanese. It is extremely lazy, so I would watch it with subtitles instead.

I can imagine in Japan this piece of their history is very important and so they may be more forgiving of this films flaws. It has a nice heart to it and like I said the animation is amazing, so it is not a total loss. It wasn’t awful just nothing special either.

The music by Masashi Sada, with a mixture of Japanese and Russian themes,  is another standout.

The ending of Giovanni’s Island feel particularly mawkish and ham-fisted, but I can see how it would mean a lot to the Japanese. It was just too much for me. I’d recommend watching Grave of the Fireflies instead.

In This Corner of the World Review

‘Slice of life’ films are not for everyone. Some viewers demand a narrative with a traditional start, climax and conclusion, which I can certainly appreciate. However, some of us can sit back and let a film take us to a particular time and place and simply live with characters for a little while. I love those kind of films and the new anime In This Corner of the World is such a movie. Director Sunao Katabuchi (who I had the chance to interview for Rotoscopers.com) takes us to 1945 Japan in meticulous detail as we follow the life of a young woman named Suzu.

The film starts out with Suzu in Hiroshima in 1944. She has been assigned a marriage to a young man named Shūsaku who lives in the city of Kure. Following the custom of her day she agrees to marry and moves away from her family. This may be difficult for modern viewers to understand but it is portrayed with tact and subtlety that never endorses the practice but merely says ‘this is what happened’. Luckily Shūsaku is a nice man who is probably as nervous as Suzu and the two are able to form a bond.

Of course, wartime is going on and this makes things difficult for Suzu and her new family. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a war movie that was exclusively told from the perspective of civilians. We get incredible attention to detail and particularly focusing on the food- its scarcity and how it had to be prepared during wartime.  There is even a long segment that goes through how rice was prepared to make it last extra long and feed more people.

As Suzu works hard for her new family and faces the struggles of war you see her grow up and become a more confident woman. The entire time she is also an artist and sketches what she sees. This becomes more liberating as the days go by. She must eventually decide who her family is and where she belongs.

Because she is an artist, sometimes the animation can have sketchy elements to it. I was reminded of Isao Takahata and Grave of the Fireflies while watching it. It’s not quite on that level but it was beautifully animated and took some creative risk. The music was also perfect for the simple story.

Some people will find In This Corner of the World to be boring. I can completely understand that.  There is stuff that happens to Suzu but a lot of the film is profiling her daily life. You’ll either like that style or you won’t. I enjoyed it and am glad I saw it. It’s not on A Silent Voice or Your Name level but it is a quality anime film that I am better for having watched.

And this year in animation how many movies can you say that about…

Overall Grade- B+

A Silent Voice Review

2017 has been a weak year for most of us when it comes to animation. There have been a few surprises but aside from Your Name we are waiting for that great animated film. Well, from the ranks of anime we have a contender. It’s not quite Your Name but it is really strong called A Silent Voice or Koe no Katachi.

Based on the popular manga it tells the story of a boy named Shoya Ishida who bullies a deaf girl named Shoko Nishimiya when he is in elementary school. Obviously he is an unhappy child but this spirals out of control as a teenager to severe social anxiety and even suicide. I loved the way they animated this mental health crisis with Ishida surrounded by crowds of Xs over their faces because he is constantly staring at the ground.

You might wonder how can they make the bully the hero or protagonist? Well, that’s what makes this special. They do not glamorize or excuse his behavior at all. It is painful and uncomfortable to see him attack Nishimiya and her disability is not leaned on for sentimentality either. These are two people who had this event happen to them and you follow them to see how it impacts their lives. They are lonely people who society doesnt gel well with and so in a way they need each other desperately.

Ishida ends up expelled and as a high schooler decides to reach out to Nishimiya and try to make amends for what he has done. They both get to very low places but director Naoko Yamada (female director!) does a fantastic job controlling tone and keeping it at least a little bit hopeful.

The character designs are fairly generic anime but their actual personalities are very unique. They both talk in ways I can imagine for someone that age and in that situation. It’s very moving to see Ishida learn to forgive himself and apologize and then make things right and as Nishimiya learns to forgive.

As you can see from the above images, the animation is stunning. The way nature and light is used it makes it feel like there is magic when there isn’t. Just a wonderful coming of age story!

If you don’t like anime I don’t think this will win you over. It’s not one that tries to be mainstream like some of the Miyazaki movies. This is an experimental film that plays with timelines and characters in ways I really liked but it won’t be for everyone. It’s also a very emotional film, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

I can’t recommend A Silent Voice more highly. It’s a wonderful coming of age story about 2 flawed characters that help and forgive each other. It goes to honest and emotional places no other animation is touching this year except for Your Name. It’s the kind of movie once you have seen it sticks with you and you keep thinking about it. Watch it!

Overall Grade- A-

smile worthy

Your Name in Theaters this Weekend

This weekend the anime film Your Name comes to US theaters. This was my favorite film of 2016 and I saw nearly 150 releases. But don’t take my word for it. I compiled this video of a bunch of youtubers talking about why it is so special.

And here is my original review:

At least by me Your Name is getting a pretty big roll-out and is in 4 theaters, so hopefully that is emblematic of other places across the country. If not ask your local theater to carry it. This actually can make a big difference. I communicate with my local theater all the time about releases I want to see and more often than not they end up getting them if only for one weekend.

Your Name is the kind of film that doesn’t happen very often. It has layers of enjoyment. It’s funny, sweet, tragic, exciting and everything else. The animation is stunning and it’s one that gets better each time I watch it.

If you can please see it and support it.

BLIND SPOT 16: FROM UP ON POPPY HILL

Sometimes people think I have seen every animated film but in truth there are many I haven’t seen. Particularly in anime I have many holes. Well, this month for my monthly blind spot series I am checking a Studio Ghibli film off of my bucket list. Today we look at the 2011 film From Up on Poppy Hill.

This movie was directed by Gorō Miyazaki, who I still think was treated way too harshly for Tales from Earthsea which I enjoyed. However, this film is a definite step up for him as a director. It was written by his father Hayao Miyazaki but it reminded me the most of Isao Takahata’s film Only Yesterday. Both are films about the simple stories of every day people.

From Up on Poppy Hill will not be for everyone. Some will find it’s rather mundane story to be boring. I like slice of life films that let you walk in others shoes so I found it quite charming. It does not have supernatural characters or exciting events like many of the more popular Studio Ghibli films but sometimes I like gentler more calming films.

This tells the story of Umi and Shun. They are teenagers going to a boarding school who begin a sweet little relationship only to find out they are connected in unexpected ways. They are both children of single mothers and Uni’s mother is gone abroad most of the time. It is easy to see why these two are drawn to each other and have a connection.

At the same time there is an old building on campus where various clubs and organizations meet. The school wants to tear down the building and redevelop it into something new. The students meet and voice various ways to stop this from happening. Some are anarchists, some are more democratic and some want to protest. The girls suggest they fix up the building so that there is less reason to tear it down, which is what they do.

The animation From Up on Poppy Hill is gorgeous. I loved the watercolor feel to everything and the way the characters were designed in such approachable ways. There was nothing acerbic or strange like other Studio Ghibli films. This is just an extremely gentle, peaceful film.

There are some flaws with From Up on Poppy Hill. The music is a little too ever-present and a bit overbearing at times. Also the story does fall into melodrama on occasion but I didn’t mind that. It worked for the kind of story it was. After all, life can get melodramatic at times! Especially when you are dealing with love and romance!

So I would definitely recommend you watch From Up on Poppy Hill. It’s a sweet, simple movie about likable people growing up and figuring out who they are. I enjoyed it very much and it is beautifully animated to boot.

Overall Grade- B+