雲のむこう、約束の場所

[Screenshot]I was first intrigued by this by some fairly vague trailers airing on the Anime Network, suggesting it had a lot to do with love, airplanes, and war. Also, that The Place Promised in Our Early Days was the most cumbersome title to come down the pike in some time. recommended it too, so I took a look at it (this is what I love about Netflix: I can satisfy all sorts of curiosities). So, yes, there are love, airplanes, war, and all the beautiful artistry I can imagine over a sentimental story. As my response to Whisper of the Heart might indicate, this pushes several of the right buttons for me.

There were some aspects of the story that I wasn’t exactly prepared for, either by the trailer or the Netflix summary. The summary made reference to a divided Japan post-WWII; and since the film made reference to a US/Japan coalition, I assumed it was the post-war occupation and that this was real history (I know we occupied Japan after the war; I assumed that Hokkaido being an autonomous separate entity was just something I’d missed). So I figured this story took place in, maybe, 1947, until I saw computers and whatnot and finally figured out that it was an alternative history, one where Japan was partitioned like Germany (which would, I suppose, make the “Union” a Soviet territory). I suppose this is instantly obvious to anyone who actually knows anything at all about Japanese history.

But, anyways, the first section of the story, other than the historical differences, corresponds about to what I expected: young people getting excited about flying and first love and being all sweet and whatnot. Then the function of the tower is revealed, rather suddenly, and the story changes radically. It works, but nothing I read led me to expect that twist, and I couldn’t help but feel vaguely betrayed by the sudden left turn into pseudoscience. And after that twist, I expected another one: with the discussion of parallel universes and the experiments to make contact with them, I expected a clever twist along the lines as the Big Spoiler from Full Metal Alchemist. But, no, we never see the parallel universes, which is a bit disappointing, and in fact the story pans out about the way we’d expect.

I recommend this one on the strength of the lovely characters and excellent artwork (not superlative art, but pretty enough), but it’s a bit flawed in, as mentioned before, the plot thinness near the end and the excessive use of monologue. The monologue is entirely Hiroki’s, too, so we learn a lot more about what makes him click than either Takuya or Sayuri.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, AniDB.

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Tűzoltó utca 25.: Historical snapshots

[Screenshot]I really wanted to like this one. I really did. István Szabó is one of my favorite Hungarian directors, and I like his historical and family themes a lot. Both family and 20th-century history figure prominently in this film, but the result is a jumbled, disordered mess. It’s ambitious, but I don’t think it succeeds in its ambition. The camera-work is grittily realistic, but the actual screenplay is not terribly so: we jump from one time-period to another without warning; dead and vanished characters reappear, presumably as imaginings only. The time-shifting probably makes more sense to those more steeped in Hungarian history, but to an ignorant American like myself, the multitude of characters in a multitude of settings only confuses matters.

Note: the disc I got was cracked, so I missed the last 10 minutes. Dunno if I missed anything actually important that way.

See also: IMDB.

攻殻機動隊: Braindiving

[Screenshot]I’ve seen Ghost in the Shell a couple times before, but without subtitles. It’s a good but not superlative anime: it stands mostly on the strength of the source material (Shiro Masamune’s provocative and daring manga of the same name) and on being an early herald of anime’s incursion onto America’s shores. It’s beautifully animated and presents a compelling world, but the actual storyline moves through a kind of jerky, disordered pacing which somewhat loses the subtleties of the political realities surrounding the main plot-token (the Stand-Alone Complex series, which has more leisurely pacing and episodic focus, fleshes out a more cohesive world, but not in the same continuity).

As one of the earliest arrivals of modern Japanese animated cinema on our shores, I find Ghost in the Shell intriguing in that the Japanese seem to have come up with a different way of looking at technology than Americans. American movie-producers don’t actually seem to understand computers: watching any major Hollywood film will convince you of that. But, ultimately, I think we take a pretty shallow view of what technology, and especially computer networking, means to society. I think of computers and networks in American cinema and what I see is threat to security (The Net, Firewall), a communication forum (You’ve Got Mail), and occasionally an incomprehensible murder-machine (Fear dot com, Stay Alive. No, I haven’t watched any of these films). And, of course, a laughable comprehension of how computers, and computer security, actually work.

Not that the Japanese are better on technical details, really, but they’ve protected themselves from criticism by considering computers, not by way of what they literally represent (data processing and communication), but as metaphors and philosophical abstractions. Individual identity, the collective unconscious, communication divorced from the physical realm: these are ideas the Japanese play with over and over again, as in Ghost in the Shell, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Serial Experiments: lain, among many others. And they’re very cool things to see kicked around. So even though the plot of Ghost in the Shell is a bit of a mess, it’s worth watching as part of a larger picture of anime.

Side note: while the phrase “Ghost in the Shell” conjures up the film’s outlook on the dichotomy between soul and body in a heavily cybernetic society, the Japanese title, “攻殻機動隊”, really has nothing to do with ghosts or shells or bodies or souls at all (殻 can mean “shell”, but also can mean “armor”—character-by-character the title is roughly “assault shell machine movement unit”, which is conventionally translated “mobile armored riot police” by people who actually know Japanese).

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, AniDB.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Mixing it up

[Screenshot]Took me long enough to get around to it. I miss out on an awful lot of movies on their first go-round, don’t I? Anyways, Azkaban was heralded as a departure from the usual Harry Potter fare, and a stronger film. I’m certain of the first and less sure of the second. It’s more cinematically appropriate than its two predecessors, for sure, which was accomplished via fairly hefty deviations from the book’s script. While this made for what might be a more satisfying viewing experience (if only because it was shorter than it might otherwise be), it meant a lot of development of character and plot development fell by the wayside. Hermione isn’t involved in Buckbeak’s trial, so there’s less viewer investment in his fate; the Ron-Hermione dynamic doesn’t have as much tension as it should, which somewhat weakens the actual impact of Ron’s belief that Crookshanks ate his rat; the mutual antagonism between Snape and Lupin isn’t really played up; the backstory of the four animagus friends is left completely blank. This all actually makes it hard for me to offer an honest assessment: sure, the film’s OK, but couldn’t it have been a lot better if we more fully understood characters’ motivations? My problem with the previous two installments was the focus on the swooshiness of Hogwarts rather than the story. Well, this installment cut down to the story and cut out a lot of the more distracting aspects of the previous cinematic portrayals, but I think it might have cut out some important development as well.

Visually, as mentioned previously, the film’s well-thought-out. There’s still a great deal of fantastic special-effects work, but none of it seems gratuitous. The one thing which struck me as a bit derivative is that the dementors look and sound a lot like Peter Jackson’s Ringwraiths, but the soul-sucking thing they do sets them a bit apart.

Acting is another area where I’m slightly befuddled. Yes, the kids do a good job, Michael Gambon fills Richard Harris’s shoes very well as Dumbledore, and Emma Thompson’s Trelawny portrays the character excellently, but to me the mainstays of acting in the Harry Potter movies are Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith, and it seems we see less of them in each successive movie in the series. Why hire the best if you’re not going to use them? All in all, an admirable effort, but not exactly getting me begging for more.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

La cité des enfants perdus: Terry Gilliam meets Charles Dickens

[Screenshot]Somehow, I fucked this up. I wrote up my thoughts on La cité des enfants perdus and somehow managed to overwrite it with the writeup of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Too bad; I had more intelligent things to say about La cité…. What I recollect from my original article: this one’s by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who brought us such peculiar comedies as Delicatessen and Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain. This is closer to the urban-grime Delicatessen end of his style, featuring an underground race with a weird idealistic agenda, madness, and a seemingly idiotic protagonist. It’s a lot more twisted in some ways, though: the primary facet of this film is its visual spectacle, which is distorted in every way possible, I think. The color balance fluctuates wildly, overly vivid at times, overly drab at others, and the only scenes with normal colors are dream sequences, but those too are subjected to optical distortion. The setting and costuming is highly reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s designs, especially Brazil and 12 Monkeys. Interestingly, this film was released almost at the same time as 12 Monkeys, which struck me as peculiar. There’s one visual which, if I didn’t know the timeline made it impossible, I’d swear was lifted directly from 12 Monkeys.

As to anything other than the visual spectacle, eh, it’s OK. It’s basically a neo-Dickensanian story, with poor orphans being abused and exploited by various parties, to be rescued by a plucky heroine and a childlike man. Add some complete upbefuckitude to that, and have the directorial moxie to make that come to life, and you got yourself an intriguing, if deeply disturbed, movie.

Last comment: they apparently offered Jeunet the opportunity to direct the next Harry Potter movie. He declined. That’s too bad, because it would have been awesome.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: Youthful idealism

[Screenshot]It’s rare that I can alternately think of a movie as deliciously cynical and hopelessly naïve. Frank Capra directed this one and Jimmy Stewart stars, so you can sort of imagine it’s going to be an inspirational story of the plucky, ingenuous little guy fighting back against a corrupted system. I expected it to end differently, maybe because I‘m too cynical. It would have been a better ending, and a more realistic one, but not a very Frank Capra one. Anyways, it manages to blend sweetness and cynicism pretty well: Claude Rains is a terrific foil to Jimmy Stewart, with his world-weary tarnished-hero ‘tude. And his freakish coiffure. You can’t beat it, can you? Not even with a stick.

Dunno if I’d rank it as an extraordinary film, but it’d be a fun one to show to students. Beats the hell out of that Schoolhouse Rock video about how they pass bills, anyways (before people get their hate-guns out to broil me to a crisp, let me comment that I like that song. But if Mr. Smith is naïvely idealistic, then Schoolhouse Rock is simply off the self-delusion scale).

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Gone with the Wind: The Great American Epic

[Screenshot]Yow. I got a feeling there is not a single damn thing I can say about this film that hasn’t been said before. It could be argued fairly convincingly that it’s the single most culturally significant, or at least culturally pervasive, cinematic work in American history. A number of quotes and schenes have entered public consciousness, and it’s received both critical and popular acclaim. It’s really damn long but it’s not padded to fill the length, it’s well acted, and it’s shot in gorgeous Technicolor. What can a poor cinephile possibly say to add to the tremendous wealth of knowledge and commentary about it? There’s a lot about race relations and the sanitation trhereof, but that’s definitely a subject that’s been done to death. So I’ll quit while I’m behind and leave it at a personal opinion: It was a stupendous film, consistently awesome, but in the realm of epic-length sweeping dramas, I think I still prefer Doctor Zhivago. That’s just a personal preference though.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.