Howl’s Moving Castle

Howl's Moving Castle (2004) movie poster

(2004) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 06/17/05 at Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA

Hayao Miyazaki is one of the best things to happen to cinema. Not just animation, not just cel animation, but to cinema as a whole. He is a visionary auteur whose richly designed and developed fantasy worlds are utterly awesome and engrossing. His films are as good as feature animation gets and are so beautifully imagined and developed that it’s little wonder that Pixar trumpets his greatness. There is no working animator who comes close to his work.

The San Francisco Chronicle reveiwer said that this film feels like it comes from another age, but really, it attests to the timelessness of his fantasy world, the mixture of old Eurpoean landscapes and weirdly period setting. Howl’s Moving Castleis a fun adventure of a film, just fantastic.

It is not as good as Spirited Away(2001), but that film was likely his masterpiece. This film is excellent.

There are many classic creations at play, Calcifer the fire demon, Turnip Head the scarecrow, and the castle itself. The film is about a world of witches and wizards, of magic and transformation, the latter of which I believe is the core of animation. Though adapted from an English novel, Miyazaki takes the story and design and renders it as something wholly his own.

I honestly wish that everyone would see his films. I wish that I could take my son to see this, but I think it’s a bit scary for him.

Long live, Hayao Miyazaki, and may he make films until he is 200 years old.

Trouble Every Day

Trouble Every Day (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Claire Denis
viewed: 06/29/2005

Trouble Every Day is like an “art film” version of an exploitation film, beautifully shot and paced, with some less than clear narrative elements. But it has a horror film’s true gore, in two graphic scenes of sex and cannibalism, added shock value for the art house circuit and even enough to make an impression on those familiar with such violence. It’s a heck of a strange film, in that sense.

I had seen only one of director Claire Denis’s other films, the visually powerful but not so literal adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Beau travail (1999). Her work is quite interesting.

When sexually aroused, the characters of the film lust for blood, feeding on their sexual partners. It is indicated that this is some sort of disease that they are afflicted with due to some scientific experiments in their past. But, as one knows, it’s always metaphorical, even if it wasn’t an art film, but since it’s an art film, there is probably a lot of intention behind it. I guess it’s very Cronenberg-like.

The title of the film strikes me as somewhat funny, like an understatement, but the film isn’t quite so humorous. Maybe that is what it lacks.

All told, a pretty interesting film.

Sin City

Sin City (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino
viewed: 05/27/05 at AMC Van Ness 14, SF, CA

I just realized, looking at the list of films that I have seen in the theater, what a bunch of nerdy choices there are: sci fi, sci fi, comic book adaptation, anime…it’s kind of silly.

It has to be said that I haven’t been making it out to the theater for much and have been missing the less mainstream fare lately, despite having a number of films on my list that are less akin to these. Then again, the Metreon is incredibly close and convenient to my work and I’ll probably end up there more often than not. Well, then again, the 1000 Van Ness ain’t far either and it’s pretty much the same thing, just arranged in a different order.

What amazes me, in San Francisco, is that all the multiplexes have the exact same films, probably the exact same films playing in middle America at a multiplex, too. The great homogenizers, the multiplexes. Around here, they let the smaller theaters handle the independent and art house circuit. They don’t even bother with it.

But I am not a complete film snob. I like a good mainstream film myself. As long as it is actually “good”, which most are not.

Sin City is a pretty cool film, somewhat of an experiment, but a fairly successful one. As I understand, most, if not all of the film was shot on green screen (didn’t it used to be blue?) and all of the backgrounds and effects are digitally rendered. Shot largely in black and white, which is a financial gamble these days (some people won’t watch a black-and-white film), it has an interesting look. There is some claustrophobic aspects to the shots, all on a soundstage, lacking the feel and openness of location shooting. But it works, as this world is a completely different one from our own.

It’s a fantasy land where larger cultural development stopped at Film Noirbut the brutality and physical prowess of the protagonists and antagonists is hepped up on steroids. It’s the world well-adapted from the comic book, of which I have indeed read some. Frank Miller is even given co-director status by Robert Rodriguez, to inflect his vision more consistantly through the adaptation.

Rodriguez is a semi-interesting director. He’s got verve and largely approaches fun projects. His low cost at any cost budgeting usually shows itself in his increasingly widespread film releases. He writes, directs, composes scores, edits, probably holds the microphone. But his stuff always comes off as fun but shallow. It’s a confection, that at best might be stylish and entertaining, but at worst is just hollow junk. Luckily, this is among his best. But I am willing to bet that The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D (2005) is on the other end of his spectrum.

Vive Rodriguez, nonetheless!

The Shooting

The Shooting (1967) movie poster

(1967) dir. Monte Hellman
viewed: 06/27/2005

Director Monte Hellman’s films, Cockfighter (1974) and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) have earned him a strong and well-deserved cult following and were certainly my impetus to see The Shooting. It all especially fit together since I have been watching a number of Westerns lately. I have to also say that I am a fan of Warren Oates, who appeared in all three of these films.

The Shooting is a shoestring budget film executive produced by the king of the shoestring budgets, Roger Corman, and it bears a lot of the qualities and shortcomings of some of Corman’s best films of the time.

A very effective Western, the film stars Warren Oates as a man trying to track down his brother, Coin, who has run off, while under the gun of a woman who also seeks Coin for revenge. A Young Jack Nicholson is good as a mean-spirited hired gun. The film is tight, running at 82 minutes, but the pacing is slow.

The more I think about this film, the more I like it, frankly.

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. George Lucas
viewed: 05/23/05 at Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA

I got to see this on the IMAX screen by accident. I scheduled my ticket around the play times and didn’t realize what I had gotten myself into. That said, it was pretty cool. It looked great on the large format. And besides all the disappointment that the second trilogy of Star Wars has brought, this film was pretty satisfying.

That is not to say that it did entirely away with the groan-inducing dialogue or some of the hysterically ridiculous acting, but those problems were mitigated by a much more compelling story and the fact that Hayden Christiansen finally got to act like a bad guy instead of a petulant teen.

People are totally crazy about Star Wars, and it has turned me off of the films a lot more than I might have otherwise been turned. I loved the series as a kid and was excited about this second series as an adult, though the actuality of the films really dampered that ultimately. But people are too crazy about these films; it’s like a religious experience or deeper, their commitment to the minutiae and the fantasy. It annoyed me in film school, but it’s so prevalent on the internet…you want to just say, “Get over it already!!”

But really, I enjoyed this film much more than I thought I would. I think the most telling part of that was that I was thinking to myself that I really wouldn’t mind seeing it again. And honestly, though I did see the original Star Wars (1977) about 20 times in the theater as a kid (in the days not long before the VCR made that a more obsolete issue), I really don’t have the time, money, or energy to see films more than once on the big screen. It virtually never happens. And maybe it won’t this time, either.

But I liked it, better than Episodes I & II (hands down) and even more than Return of the Jedi (1983), which I never really cottoned to in the first place. That’s my opinion, anyways.

Red River

Red River (1948) movie poster

(1948) dir. Howard Hawks, Arthur Rosson
viewed: 06/18/2005

Howard Hawks is one of the directors around which the notion of auteur theory arose. That his films showed a consistancy of vision and themes and ideas, no matter which decade or genre in which he worked. This notion of the director as “film author”, the ability to imprint on one’s work uniquely. And he certainly lives up to that.

That said, I think it has been some 6-7 years since I last saw a Hawks film, and then it was probably His Girl Friday (1940). He is noted for significant difference between his action dramas and his screwball comedies, different focal points in each. So, outside of some poorly remembered details of him and his themes, I almost didn’t approach this film from an autuerist standpoint…except, that I have had in my head this notion of watching two of his other Westerns, Rio Bravo (1959) and Rio Lobo (1970), all Hawks’ Westerns all starring John Wayne. I figured, that might be the way to go in establishing an such an approach.

That said, Red River is a very good Western from the classic era. Following a cattle drive from Texas to Kansas, there are themes of family melodrama about it. Montgomery Clift plays John Wayne’s “adopted” son. The story is more about creating legends: the noble, hard-won taking of property in Texas and raising cattle, the independent trail-blazers who “built this country”. That part of it is played straight, with Indians as killers or comedy relief. Safe to say, it’s not very politically correct.

It’s a good adventure story, but as I said, it’s also largely melodrama, which from an “action” perspective leads to a somewhat anti-climactic ending, though it’s satisfying in other ways.

It’s good stuff. Yee Haw!!

A Bug’s Life

A Bug's Life (1998) movie poster

(1998) dir. John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton
viewed: 06/27/05

I know I said that I hate this format, but at the moment, the VCR in the living room works while the DVD player is on the fritz.

I am enjoying the experience of getting to watch films with my soon-to-be 4 year old son. I get to introduce him to stuff, but he’s still so young that he finds films even as seemingly kid-friendly as A Bug’s Life to be intense and scary, and in some cases, hard to follow.

Watching stuff with a child really makes one reconsider the material through different eyes,…or at least that is how parents/guardians ought to think. So often people let kids watch stuff that is way over their heads or so incredibly inappropriate, it’s downright scary. My wife and I are careful about what we allow my son to watch and try to talk to him through the process to make sure that he is understanding and supported.

It surprised me how this film was a bit “adult” for him, how scary the villan Hopper is, and how adult some of the humor is.

Still, I think that Pixar is the cream of the crop of feature digital animation filmmaking. Greg designs, fun characters, good storytelling abound. They are very conventional, like they follow traditional narrative forms and largely mainstream ideologies. They do well the sort of filmmaking that Disney used to do well. I’d seen this moving in the theater when it first came out and I liked it this time around too.

I think Felix enjoyed it. But he was cuddled up with his blanket when the villain arrived onscreen.

The Wild Bunch

The Wild Bunch (1969) movie poster

(1969) dir. Sam Peckinpah
viewed: 06/15/2005

One of the great movies of all time. I’d never seen it, holding out for a chance to see it on the big screen than on a little television screen, but finally I broke down and decided to watch it. And guess what? It’s a great movie.

Something that is interesting about film, literature, maybe life in general, is the context in which one is first exposed to things influences one’s perception of them. For this film, nothing so profound struck me, but having just watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), a Western set in a similar era and released in the same year, a number of points of comparison arose.

Please note that I am basing my observations on overall historical knowledge, not on research.

The late 1960’s and the 1970’s were an interesting time for the Western. The century and popular media had grown up with the Western genre, one that was based in history but even more so in legend. Legend and American history are almost inseparable in the case of the genre, as is often acknowledged in historical knowledge of the period. As a genre form, legend seems to speak louder, creating mythoogies about how America was built, the character of the heroes of this period, and of the land itself. Of course, from any period, such recollection or story-telling is often influenced by the social commentary of the time that a film was made or a book was written.

Both Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch focus on the late period of the Wild West, some 30 years after the Transcontinental Railroad was created and the America crossed threshhold of the 20th Century. It was a period of change for the West, the period that spawned the legends which the Western would expand upon. 1969 was also a period of change for the Western, as many of the standards of the genre were turned around and the legends were beginning to be seen as seperate from history. Perhaps there was some deliberate choice in developing stories around this reflexive transition.

Again, I haven’t done any research here to know whether or not the two films were in any way paralleled at the point of production, but they do seem to developed their narratives from similar seats of legend. Along their narrative paths, there are many points to note: both films focus on renegade gangs of bank and train robbers, both films have a significant scene each depicting a train robbery and a bank heist, and both films end in a bloody shootout in which all gang members are killed.

Whereas Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is lighthearted action on the verge of comedy, The Wild Bunch is bloody and manly, serious adventure, with anti-heroes ultimately more heroic. This film is widely considered director Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece and probably with good reason. In some ways, it’s more accessible because the protagonists, while ruthless killers and outlawas, bear a strong sense of dignity ultimately, going back on a suicide mission to try to rescue their companion than taking off with their gold from the train heist. Though this could also be argued as their escapist option, heading in for doom because their way of life was on the verge of ending, ultimately, there is a manly bond to which they are adhering that ennobles them. As opposed to some other Peckinpah films, in which protagonists are often even more suspect in the typical qualities of heroes, here the gang is more understandable than not.

It’s an iconic film, even if the icons are new to a viewer. The film has many powerful sequences and excellent performances, particularly by William Holden, who is totally amazing. It’s one of those classic films that earns its reputation, that is easy to appreciate, that would seemingly get more and more interesting with further analysis and multiple viewings.

DiG!

DiG! (2004) movie poster

(2004) dir. Ondi Timoner
viewed: 05/28/2005

DiG! is a documentary about the rise and fall of Anton Newcombe and The Brian Jonestown Massacre in contrast with the steady rise of their friend Courtney Taylor’s band, The Dandy Warhols. It’s a study in rock’n’roll of ego, purported genius, success and failure, and mental illness. Anyone with any connection to music can easily recognize the scene here, the indulgence and the foolishness. Whether or not Newcombe is truly a genius, I have to say that further research would be required, but it is clear that many of the people in the film believe in him. He just seemed like an asshole to me.

Velvet Goldmine

Velvet Goldmine (1998) movie poster

(1998) dir. Todd Haynes
viewed: 05/27/2005

Recommended to me by a friend, Velvet Goldmine fantasizes about David Bowie and Iggy Pop, as lovers, rock stars, and Glam Rock as a site of the blurring of gender. It’s hard to know where the blurred line between the facts and fictions of these fictionalized characters starts and ends regarding their real life counterparts. The film fantasizes further, posing Oscar Wilde as the original glam rock star, as well as being from outer space. It’s easy to see the metaphor here, the specialness, the otherness of these fabulous ones.

Christian Bale plays the fan turned analyst of the story, a perspective that one could place with the director, though it’s all sort of weird in its narrative flow and flounces pretentiouly (as is appropriate for the subject matter) throughout. The pretention did weigh on me, and though I think one is meant to not fully understand or know the characters, I didn’t really connect with any of them.