Laputa: Castle in the Sky

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1989) movie poster

(1989) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 09/07/03

I’ve been a fan of director Hayao Miyazaki for at least 10 years, since I originally saw My Neighbor Totoro (1988), though I had realized that I had seen others of his earlier films previously without knowing who he was. Despite a brief phase of trying to see some of his other films, I hadn’t caught up on all of his work. When Disney finally got around to releasing his back catalog on DVD (something they have only started), I snapped up Laputa: Castle in the Sky sight-unseen, which is notably unusual for me since I buy very few DVD’s and hardly ever (ever) ones that I have not actually seen before. Of course, I snapped this up a couple months ago and only just now got a chance to see it.

What is constantly amazing about Miyazaki’s work is his ability to create such amazing sense of location in his animation. The worlds of his films are typically fantastical, but are also amazingly realized. They are also quite typically beautifully rendered.

Many of Miyazaki’s themes are prevalent in this film. Like most of his films, Laputa features a young female protagonist, a subtle but appealing aspect of his narratives. His films tend away from having true “villains,” though often if there is any “evil,” it is embodied in unnatural pollution and those who act against the “environment.”

The most appealing fantasy aspects of this film are the decrepit giant robots and the sky pirates’ dragonfly-like air scooters. Most of his films feature some (or many) transformative fantasy elements.

One thing I can definitely tell you: I will raise my children to watch Hayao Miyazaki films. They are wonderful.

Too Many Ways to be No. 1

Too Many Ways to be No. 1 (1997) movie poster

(1997) dir. Ka-Fai Wai
viewed: 09/12/03

Too Many Ways to be No. 1 is a pretty wacky Hong Kong thriller/comedy that I watched as part of my delving into the Johnny To productions. The visual and narrative approach bore some French New Wave via Wong Kar-Wai sort of influence, featuring a two versions of the narrative playing out in which the gang either goes to Mainland China (in which they all die) or to Taiwan (in which they all become rich and powerful. I have read that this was perhaps a commentary on the then-contemporary hand-over of Hong Kong back to the rule of mainland China. This would be an interesting read on this film, but I wish that I had found time to write about it back closer to the time that I had seen it. Because right now, that’s all I’ve got on it. It was interesting, for sure.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Robert Rodriguez
viewed: 09/15/03 at AMC 1000 Van Ness, SF, CA

I was just reading an article about Robert Rodriguez and was thinking that he seemed like a cool guy; he has this admirable low-budget do-it-yourself mentality that he raises to near-mania. For Once Upon a Time in Mexico he acted as writer, producer, director, cinematographer, editor, score composer, as well as pitching in on special effects and production design. And from what I have read, he does a lot, if not most of it, from studios that he has built in his home.

Considering that he made his breakthrough film El Mariachi (1992) for $7000, Rodriguez has stayed true to his low-budgetary roots. He brings a refreshingly economist approach to all his productions, while stuffing his poppy, action-packed stories with a almost campy sense of fun. His films rarely attempt any level of seriousness, vying instead for humor and explosions, keeping the pace going and not stopping to get bogged down.

I had enjoyed Desperado (1995) when I had caught it in the theater on its initial release, so I was looking forward to this film. I can’t really put my finger on what this film was lacking…but the film was much better when Johnny Depp was onscreen rather than when he wasn’t (and I am not saying this in the tone of a smitten schoolgirl — at least I don’t think I am). Johnny Depp was a lot funnier and more interesting and made the scenes he was in more so, too. I guess it’s just part of what was lacking in the film,…more humor? I don’t know.

The other thing that nagged at me was the weird sort of Mexican nationalism of the film. It wasn’t so much that I took issue with it, but rather that it just seemed to lack grounding. I think that the parting image of Antonio Banderas marching toward the audience, trailing a huge Mexican flag was rather blunt, but I kept wondering…what is he supposed to represent? He is a hired vigilante who rescues the president from a bunch of drug dealers. It’s a plot line out of CHiPS or something…hard to take seriously. And then Johnny Depp’s character with his ambivalent (though largely amoral) representing the U.S. government (though he is so bizarre that one wonders if he is truly backed by them or is simply a rogue agent in the chaos that is this film’s plot.) Maybe there is a serious subtext here after all.

I don’t know.

Bowling for Columbine

Bowling for Columbine (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Michael Moore
viewed: 08/24/03

It took me long enough to get around to finally seeing this film. It was definitely one of those films that I had meant to get to see in its theatrical run, which ended up lasting almost to its DVD release date. Still, this is a simple fact of life that I am quite used to…that I simply see most of the films that I see on DVD at home.

Believe it or not, I have never seen Moore’s breakthrough film, Roger & Me (1989) and went into this film without having really seen him in action, outside of interviews. The thing that surprised me the most about Bowling for Columbine is how Michael Moore personalizes the subjects that sprawl throughout this film. Tracing connections to the Columbine massacre back to Michigan, Moore’s home state, and reflecting on another tragic shooting that occurred only a couple of years later in Flint, MI, helps to shape the material into something subjective but emotionally centered.

I think that one of the most profound things about this film is its commercial success. The market for Moore’s commentary is probably largely a group that essentially agrees with his views, for whom the film is an eloquent affirmation, enlightening in respect to certain facts, comments, and instances, but whom largely already totally agree. A film that speaks from such a clearly political slant seems like it might be more interesting to see with someone more prone to disagreeing with the arguments than simply nodding along. That said, I think that the intention here was that more than just “nodding along” that it might hopefully ignite some outrage as well.

In the end, though, this film might more be remembered for showing Charlton Heston as a doddering racist and Marilyn Manson as well-spoken and intelligent.

Irréversible

(2002) dir. Gaspar Noé
viewed: 08/30/03

Brutal and harsh, dizzying and disorienting, Gaspar Noé’s film Irreversible is far from pleasurable. Notable for a vicious 10 minute plus rape scene centerpiece, this film would make even the non-squeamish squirm in discomfort.

The narrative of the film rolls out in reverse, a gimmick that could have some significance for the film’s commentary (some issues of fate are clumsily expressed late in the film), but doesn’t feel entirely necessary. The world of this film is bleak and harrowing, one in which worst-case scenarios have already played out. The film opens with the arrest of two characters that the audience does not know and then shows them entering a gay S & M club and brutally attacking and killing a patron. As the backward events unfold, it turns out that they are exacting revenge for the brutal, aforementioned rape.

The second half of the film, which I guess begins after (or before) the rape, seems almost anti-climactic. Perhaps that is the intention. As the audience is given the backstory to the characters that it has watched in traumatic action, there is a seeming lack of profundity to their lives. All of the horrors that befalls them, while potentially “fated”, are clearly otherwise seemingly random. Ultimately, there is something potentially existential being suggested, but I don’t know if the suggestion is made successfully. The brutality of the violence is the film’s signature more than anything, something without a solid context, but utterly palpable and affecting. My reaction to it is hard to quantify.

I did find the film either vaguely or explicitly homophobic. Not only is the gay S & M club shot as a dark and frightening place, but the patrons are sexually aroused and cheering for a harsh, pummeling murder like something clearly from a nightmare. Because they used a genuine gay S & M nightclub as the location for this sequence, there might be some sense that the filmmakers feel that their depiction has some basis in “reality,” but the image of the crowd in a sex-crazed bloodlust was nasty.

25th Hour

25th Hour (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Spike Lee
viewed: 08/18/03

The narrative of Spike Lee’s drama, 25th Hour, is a about a man’s last night of freedom before heading to prison for a drug charge. But, as many people have noted, Lee takes this story of reflection and casts it onto the image of New York City as a whole, not simply as setting and background, but with as much a significant role as a primary character (a best friend, perhaps), which is not altogether hard to see or inorganic necessarily.

What seems much more significant about such a meditation is the timing of it. Much has been noted about the fact that Lee went ahead with the already-planned filming of this movie in New York City, not long after the World Trade Center attacks in September of 2001. And this event is duly signified in the film: in an opening sequence in which the nighttime NY skyline is seen with two powerful rays of light rising in the space that the World Trade Center towers once stood, in a scene shot in which “Ground Zero” is clearly seen as a backdrop (even noted by one of the characters quite explicitly), and also in a direct-address diatribe that the star Edward Norton delivers on New Yorkers, stereotypes, and more.

It’s interesting to see because the subject still seems so fresh, as this film was in production probably less than a year after the event. It’s not the speed of light, of course, but for a major Hollywood production, the film seems to have a social awareness of the present, at least, that seemed more timely and poignant than most. It will, of course, be interesting to see how history treats the events of September 11th, 2001, and how this film’s commentary is read would skew as well, one would think.

All this said, this stuff doesn’t necessarily dominate the film, which is probably a good thing. The film is otherwise a fairly solid mainstream Hollywood drama. It features a cast of Hollywood’s stronger mainstream actors, including Norton, Brian Cox, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Anna Paquin, and it’s a pretty good film.

When Spike Lee directed Summer of Sam back in 1999, much was made of the fact that it was his first film to not have a primarily African-American cast and narrative focus. This film is similarly atypical of Lee’s other films. Maybe no one made much of this because there isn’t much to say. Maybe it’s not a notable fact.