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.

whisper of the heart5

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.

whisper of the heart2

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.

Advertisements

Blind Spot 34: Scream

As I was planning my blind spot picks for 2018 I wanted to challenge myself with a few picks and step outside my comfort zone. And no pick did that as much as this month’s pick Scream. Directed by Wes Craven, Scream has become an iconic slasher film which went on to inspire 3 sequels and the Scary Movie spoof series.

scream3

One of the interesting things about Scream is it is not just a scary movie but it is a critique of the horror genre. There are many references throughout the movie both visually and in the script to classic horror franchises like Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Halloween. Unfortunately since I am a newbie to the genre a lot of the references were lost on me, but I can see why many fans really enjoyed them.

The story to Scream is simple. A man in a scream mask (called Ghostface) is calling teens, talking to them in an increasingly chilling manner and then stabbing them with a knife. Most people are probably most alarmed by the killings in the movie, but to me, the phone calls were the creepiest part. It is especially chilling in an opening scene with Drew Barrymore when the caller is giving her movie trivia to keep her and her boyfriend alive. That was pretty scary!

Most of the violence is done with a wink and isn’t especially scary. It’s more meant to be fun and silly. It’s not the kind of thing I am going to get nightmares of because it is very over-the-top.

scream2

Neve Campbell plays a girl named Sidney who is hesitant to give up her virginity because of her Mother being murdered (and raped I think) a year earlier. Her boyfriend Billy struggles with her choice but seems to respect it. There is also a sheriff (David Arquette), a reporter (Courtney Cox), a principal (Henry Winkler) and friends (Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Jamie Kennedy, and more).

The last act of Scream is a bit chaotic for my liking. I prefer the opening scene with Drew Barrymore over the messiness. It’s  much scarier when tension has time to build and bubble up until you can’t help but respond. The never-ending mayhem gets tired even as it is increasing in violence. The only thing that really creeped me out (or grossed me out) in the last part is a death involving a garage door.

scream4

But that said, Scream is an enjoyable film that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It has a winking sensibility to it and while I think I would enjoy it more if I knew what the jokes were referencing it still was a fun enough ride.

Of course, Scream is rated R so it won’t be for everyone but if you are up for a light-hearted slasher movie (such a weird description but it’s true) than this is the movie for you! I’m glad I saw it even if I don’t think I’d ever watch it again. Always good to get out of your comfort zone!

Have any of you seen Scream? What do you think of it and its sequels?

smile worthy

Blind Spot 33: Ikiru

Ikiru marks the 3rd film I have seen from acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa (I’ve previously seen Throne of Blood and Seven Samurai) and of the 3, it might be my favorite. In what feels like a Japanese version of Death of a Salesman, Ikiru paints a fascinating portrait of business life in Japan and how one man tries to stand out after learning of his imminent death.

ikiru

Ikiru is about a middle-aged man named Kanji Watanable. He has worked as a bureaucrat for 30 years and with a dead wife and selfish son/daughter-in-law he doesn’t have much to live for or be excited about. One day he finds out about a proposal to turn a cesspool into a community park and he thinks he might be able to make a difference.

Then he finds out he has stomach cancer and decides to make the building of the park his legacy. Unlike America, Japanese society often values group effort over individual accomplishment. This makes Watanabe’s subordination to get this park an extraordinary effort. His coworkers are shocked by his actions and after he dies they marvel at his boldness.

ikiru3

Watanabe also receives inspiration from a young girl who he has drinks with. He asks her ‘how do you have such love of life?’ and she says she simply loves her job making toys because the toys make children happy; thereby, giving her life the value of making the children of Japan happy (you see more of a group rather than individual accomplishment).

ikiru2

Like Death of a Salesman there is a melancholy to Ikiru because his accomplishment (especially to modern American eyes) is so small; however, I related to the emotions that Watanabe experiences. It reminds me of the great quote from You’ve Got Mail ‘I lead a small life. Valuable but small and I don’t know if I do it because I like or because I haven’t been brave?’ That is the question of Ikiru and to his credit Watanabe decides to be brave.

At the end of the movie his associates enthusiastically determine to follow his example and do bold things; however, upon returning to work they lose their conviction and life continues on as before. It’s sad how often the road more traveled, not less, is the choice of so many.

ikiru4

The cinematography in Ikiru is stunning. The way Kurosawa and cinematographer Asakazu Nakai use the black and white to capture loneliness and melancholy is breathtaking. I loved the way rain and snow looks in contrast to the black sky. Beautiful.

I also thought all of the acting was strong especially from the lead Takashi Shimura. Again, he has a Willy Loman quality to him with his shoulders slumped over at all times except when he is swinging in his park.

As for downsides, the film does lose steam when Watanabe dies and becomes a little repetitive. Also I wasn’t crazy about the music, which seemed a bit too bubbly for the sober story. Other than that, it was a great film! I definitely recommend it!

smile worthy

 

 

 

Blind Spot 32: Young Girls of Rochefort

I’m really glad I decided to make Jacques Demy’s classic The Young Girls of Rochefort  my August Blind Spot pick because it seems like such an interesting forebearer to films such as the recent Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again and certainly the Oscar winning La La Land. In fact, after seeing it, I almost feel like Damien Chazelle took the happy moments from Rochefort and the sad moments from Umbrellas of Cherbourg and birthed a movie. They are so similar it is weird- even the score sounds the same.

Anyway, it’s easy to see why filmmakers like Chazelle would be inspired by Jacques Demy as both Umbrellas and Rochefort are incredible films. Rochefort like Mamma Mia 2 is an effervescent bubbly celebration of love, and I kind of loved it! (Obviously Mamma Mia 2 isn’t near as good but it does have a similar tone)

rochefort

The story isn’t very important to Rochefort but it follows twin sisters Delphine and Solange (Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac who are real life sisters) as they meet 2 carnies Etienne and Bill (George Chakiris and Grover Dale) and have a romantic adventure for the weekend.

We also learn about their mother Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux) who had a love that she foolishly let go as a young woman because she didn’t want to have his last name. She meets her former love Simon (Michel Piccoli) and his American colleague Andy (Gene Kelly) and has her own romantic adventure.

And that’s about it. The movie isn’t about the story. It’s about the continual singing, great choreography and an overall feeling of joy. Just look at the opening ballet number and how much fun it is (and how much La La Land used for its opening number!)

I love that this movie took real care to make the singing and dancing great. It does not feel half-baked at all.  They dubbed all the singers so that the singing would be good. They have very impressive dancing throughout and all the costumes and colors are so dazzling.

Look at this effervescent delightful scene with Gene Kelly. The tap dancing at the end is perfection

I probably still like Umbrellas of Cherboug a little better because it is so moving but The Young Girls of Rochefort has definitely taken a place in my heart. I can watch Cherboug when I want something deep and watch Rochefort when I want to smile. Well done Jacques Demy!!

The Young Girls of Rochefort is definitely smile worthy!

smile worthy

Blind Spot 31: The Last Emperor

last emperor2

This month for my blind spot pick I decided to take a look at a film that took home 9 Oscars including Best Picture and Director: 1987’s The Last Emperor. I didn’t know much about it going into the film except that it was a long and sumptuously mounted production. After viewing it, I agree it is long and sumptuously mounted but aside from those qualities, I wasn’t very impressed by it.

The Last Emperor was helmed by Italian director Bernardo Berlotucci and it feels European in its grand scope and leisurely pacing. It was the first Western film authorized by the PROC to be filmed in the Forbidden City in Beijing, so naturally all of the sets and locations are authentic and grand. It is completely understandable why it won Oscars for art direction, cinematography and especially costume design. The music by Ryuichi Sakamoto is also very strong.

last emperor4

However, in many ways it felt like a foreigner telling a Chinese story. The Last Emperor is about the life of Puyi, the last Emperor of China. Evidently they based the screenplay off of Puyi’s autobiography, which is odd because so much of it rang flat and false.

To begin with, having all the characters speak English feels like an almost mocking choice. It takes you out of the scenes because this is supposed to be a serious movie and they are so obviously not speaking the right language. It’s one thing for an Indiana Jones movie to have accents but an epic masterpiece like The Last Emperor? Not so much. I guess you could make the argument it is in the traditions of old school epics like The Ten Commandments but those movies had stronger narratives to make up for the cultural awkwardness.

last emperor5

Speaking of story, it boggles my mind that The Last Emperor won Best Adapted Screenplay because the narrative is very weak. We see many events happen to Puyi but I never felt sorry for him or invested in his character. For most of the movie he came across as a spoiled brat without much nuance or introspection. Towards the end he grows as a person as he is incarcerated by the communists, but I still felt distant and like I never truly understood him. We are told Puyi is the “loneliest boy on earth” but he just felt like the blandest.

last emperor3

Some of the side characters are more interesting like his main wife Wanrong. She kind of has a lesbian relationship yet does seem to love Puyi and want him to succeed, which could have been interesting but it isn’t really explored in a satisfactory way. She’s a lonely character and I wish we got to know her better and have more time with her. Peter O’Toole is good as Puyi’s British tutor Reginald Johnston. He both kowtows and challenges the Chinese royal establishment, but even he could have been used more effectively and challenged more as a character.

1987-The-Last-Emperor-04

The frustrating thing is I can tell Puyi’s story is fascinating having gone from opulence to a puppet emperor to a prisoner and a common man all in one life. But the screenplay in The Last Emperor delivers that compelling story without any tension or emotional heft. It all landed like a thud and was really quite boring. I didn’t care about his character and the interesting parts were more like reading a textbook than watching a compelling narrative. It needed a Steven Spielberg type voice to come in with sweeping moments of drama and tension to sell the soapy dialogue and characters. That might have worked better.

I kind of wish they would remake The Last Emperor. I don’t think many are too attached to this version and there is a good story in there to tell. A modern filmmaker could have all the good qualities of this film but make it in Mandarin with a better, more compelling script and it could be an amazing film.

I can see why other people like The Last Emperor, and I do commend it for its production design, costumes, cinematography and music but it didn’t work for me as a movie. It was bland, culturally awkward and plodding. I’m glad I checked it off my blind spot list but it is definitely one I will never watch again.

frown

Blind Spot 30: The Green Mile

When I was trying to think of movies to see for this year’s blind spot picks I remembered a conversation I had with a friend who was shocked I hadn’t seen the 1999 film The Green Mile. It just never appealed to me and came out at a time I wasn’t watching rated R movies. So, the blind spot series was the perfect spot to finally cover this well regarded flick. Unfortunately this is one of those classics that didn’t work for me. I can see why it would work for others but I didn’t care for it.

There is a trope in literature and film called the “magical negro”. This is defined as ” a supporting black stock character in American cinema who is portrayed as coming to the aid of a film’s white protagonists and who often possess mystical powers” Director Spike Lee went on to describe The Green Mile as the “super-duper magical negro” and I certainly agree with him.

The Green Mile is based on a novel by Stephen King and tells the story of a prison warden named Paul Edgecomb played by Tom Hanks who gets a new prisoner named John Coffey played by Michael Clark Duncan. John is on death row for the rape and murder of 2 little girls. He is joined by other prisoners played by Sam Rockwell, Michael Jeter and more.

However, John is no ordinary criminal. He has special powers that can heal and make things last forever (and the lights go out). Paul is even cured of a bladder infection and the wife of one of the prison wardens of a brain tumor.

The strength of The Green Mile definitely lies with its performances. Tom Hanks and Michael Clark Duncan are the particular standouts and Duncan was nominated for an Oscar for his work.

Unfortunately the movie can never shake the uncomfortable and trope-filled premise. I do not understand why they didn’t have the prison block more diverse. This would make it feel more like a person with powers instead of the magic black person sent to be a literal savior for the white people (and of course he doesn’t get saved by them at any time). It’s unfortunate.

Adding to all of this The Green Mile is over 3 hours long and very tedious to watch. Not a whole lot happens and the characters are very unpleasant. At about the 30 minute mark I was ready for this uncomfortable experience to be over. I am sure it is a film made with the best of intentions but it’s just not for me.

Blind Spot 29: Gallipoli

This month’s Blindspot pick, 1981’s Gallipoli, is an interesting one because it is my best movie buddy Phaedra’s favorite movie. She is a blogger just like me but at least with prestige pictures we often have very different tastes. We can both have fun at silly films like 47 Meters Down (she went with me and enjoyed it!) but let’s just say our picks at Sundance are quite different. LOL. So knowing Gallipoli was her favorite film and that it was a war movie I prepared myself for some intense stuff. What I got was very surprising. Gallipoli is more of a coming of age film than a war movie and despite a very sad ending is surprisingly hopeful.

gallipoli

Gallipoli stars a very young Mel Gibson (you can definitely see how Gallipoli influenced Gibson’s Braveheart and Hacksaw Ridge) as Frank and Mark Lee as Archy. They are young men in 1915 Australia who meet sprinting together. Archy yearns to go to the war where Frank is more blasé about it but eventually agrees to go along for the ride.

gallipoli-1981-05

After a long walk through the desert the boys enlist and are sent to Cairo and eventually to the Gallipoli Peninsula at Anzac Cove.  Surprisingly we don’t see much of the war or any fighting until the final act. Most of the time is spent getting to know Frank and Archy and their friends. In many ways it reminded me of Chariots of Fire in the slice of life portrayal of young boys trying to figure out what they believe in.

gallipoli5

When we get to the ANZAC attack it is quite devastating because the characters have been built up so well. The most frustrating part of the bloodshed is that it is based upon a miscommunication between 2 officers, not on any actual need to fight. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers but Frank desperately tries to stop the advancement as a messenger in the final scenes and it is very intense.

In many ways it makes sense that Peter Weir directed Gallipoli. He always has a way of bringing out sincere and moving performances from young actors (Dead Poets Society, Witness) and this is probably his best movie. I was really engrossed in the story and felt attached to Frank and Archy as their journey progressed. There were light moments where you got to know them as people that made the losses of war feel all the more real and devastating. It was very well done.

gallipoli3

I also thought all the production values were strong in Gallipoli. The cinematography was striking capturing the dry, deserts of both Australia and the Anzac Cove. It also had fantastic music featuring both modern electronic and classical orchestrations. The war scenes felt convincing, which helped build the tension well and drew me into the story. I recently watched a WW1 movie called The Journey’s End and it was so dull, so I know this is not an easy task to achieve.

What makes Gallipoli a hopeful film is promise and potential we see in Frank, Archy and their friends. Yes they were put in a war and that is awful but seeing that potential and getting to know these characters is still a good thing. Hopefully we can see the joy and dreams in young people today and do a better job at not snuffing it out far too early. Even the imagery of Archy running throughout the film (and in the closing shots) is hopeful.

gallipoli4

Gallipoli is a great movie, and it should be talked more about as such. I think it is even better than Saving Private Ryan to be honest (both good films). It develops its characters better and builds up to the battle instead of starting with it. This makes you more invested (and devastated) with what is happening. There was a humanity in Gallipoli that moved me because it wasn’t just a clinical exercise but a story of 2 young men who wanted to run but ended up being unable to outrace the foolish decisions of their generals.

smile worthy

 

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?

Blind Spot 27: The Seventh Seal

There are certain rites of passages that go along with being a film fan: certain films or filmmakers that must be seen and experienced to have an understanding of film and how we have gotten to where we are in the artform. These include the films of Akira Kurosawa, Francois Truffaut, Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, to name a few. For the March Blind Spot film I watched my first Ingmar Bergman film, The Seventh Seal, and I can see why it has been such an influential film.

The Seventh Seal is a very creative film about a knight named Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) who is returning from fighting in the Crusades.  He is disillusioned and frustrated about religion, war and the meaning of life, which is understandable after such a brutal, pointless conflict. One day he meets the personification of Death (he looks kind of like what we think of as the Grim Reaper) and to avoid dying, Block invites Death to a spirited game of chess.

The story continues with Block meeting a group of actors who can’t see that he is accompanied by Death. There is Jof, Mia, and Jonas Skat. They all have varying degrees of faith and cynicism. Jof claims to see visions of Jesus and Mary but Mia does not believe her husband. Jonas is basically a womanizing cad

As the group moves along they confront the Black Death and those petrified of its power, and talk a lot about faith and obviously death. Block wants to be an atheist after what he has seen of humanity but there is always something holding him back from making that his belief system. He certainly does not believe in God but he can’t be a confirmed non-believer either so he is in a state of continual struggle and agony. He says:

“Why can’t I kill God in me? Why does He live on in me in a humiliating way – despite my wanting to evict Him from my heart? Why is He, despite all, a mocking reality I can’t be rid of?”

He goes on:

“I want knowledge! Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face and speak to me”

He reminds me of a section of the Book of Mormon where a man requires a sign in order to believe in God (see Alma 30). This unfortunately is not how God works. Jesus even tells doubting Thomas ‘more blessed are they who have not seen but have yet believed’. Those believers have a power in their life, a knowledge of who they are, and where they are going in the afterlife that ,can help them face any pain or evil. It can lead to poor choices when mixed with the desires of men but it still at its core has power.

It is this struggle with faith for Block that is almost as painful as the war itself. It’s an internal war that Bergman seems envious of those who believe and ready to punish them in revenge. One girl is burned at the stake for consorting with the devil, a theologian is beaten and scarred and a band of flagellants beat themselves into submission. All of these images are meant to show the pain of faith and the envy of those who do not believe (and are usually the ones inflicting said pain).

It’s kind of what Martin Scorsese was trying to do in Silence but without any of the impact or effectiveness (I absolutely despised the torture-porn fest that was Silence). In Scorsese’s movie the faithful are selfish and unfeeling because of silence where here they all suffer because of faith one way or another. God never said He wanted weak Saints!

While I certainly do not agree with Bergman’s cynical outlook on faith and spirituality it is still an interesting one. I appreciate he asks the question ‘what will happen to those who don’t believe who die and where is their solace?” I can see how these people are envious of the faithful and in a way want them to feel the pain that they feel.

I have strong faith, but I can see how to some “faith is a torment.” To someone like Bergman, God is silent when He should be saving the world from evil but to believers God cannot violate the agency of man. If he did he would cease to be God (this is a topic for a whole different discussion). He can guide us and comfort us but He cannot force obedience.

The ending with the dance of the dead was interesting because it felt hopeful and joyous after a pretty cynical film, and I like it when filmmakers end their movie on an ambiguous note.

The only downside to this film is I couldn’t help but think about Monty Python and the Holy Grail a lot. They were clearly trying to parody The Seventh Seal in many scenes especially with the flagellants, which is basically recreated in Holy Grail. Obviously that is a little unfair as a criticism but since Holy Grail is the greatest comedy ever made it was a little distracting!

As I am not someone who struggles with faith, I don’t think The Seventh Seal is anything I would ever watch again, but I’m glad I saw it once. I loved the black and white cinematography and the creative choices. It was different and at only 96 minutes is definitely worth a watch. It is a subtitled film (in Swedish) but I had no problem following the captions.

Have any of you seen The Seventh Seal? What do you think Bergman is saying about faith and religion (or the after life?)?