Juno

[Screenshot]Another big, important film I missed in theaters. I get a lot of those. Anyways, it mostly seemed to work: it put off a kind of indie slice-of-life flavor while still having a solid story at the core, and the characters were for the most part well-crafted and had some depth. The plot seemed at first like the ending was going to veer into territory I find personally rather offensive and distressing, but it saved itself at the last minute and I have to give props for successfully stringing me along. There’s very little to pick at in the story. The early consideration and dismissal of abortion seemed peculiar and a bit alarming, but I guess if you want to build a worthwhile story around unwanted pregnancy, you have to get the most pat resolution off the table early, so I can’t fault the choice from a dramatic perspective. The only other niggle I have is in Paulie’s characterization. For a major character, he’s surprisingly undefined, which somewhat hampers the idea of any sort of romance, or chemistry, involving him. It’s not clear what personal attributes of his are attractive (not that he’s repulsive, either: he just is not presented in a light suggesting that he might inspire strong emotion of any sort).

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

István, a király

[Screenshot][Screenshot]A couple disclaimers: first, I watched this without subtitles, and with only a minimal plot outline; second, the recording of the 1984 movie I watched was a pretty crummy copy; to make up for it, I also watched a much crisper (and actually better artistically) recording of a 2003 open-air performance in Csiksomlyó. The music is excellent and stylistically diverse, although they make the common mistake of reusing old tunes for later plot events, so by Act 4 virtually everything’s a reprise. As for the performance issues, the movie and live performance were sufficiently different that they might need to be addressed individually. The movie was rather overfond of flashy effects, or what passed for flashy in 80s Hungary, which involved irritating quantities of slo-mo and stop-motion. Add that to the generally degraded quality of the print I was watching, and it was hard to get much nuance off of the characters. The Csiksomlyó performance, on the other hand, had a lot going for it in terms of character nuance, which surprisingly came down unflatteringly on the ostensible heroes: István seems indecisive and easily manipulated, and Sarolt just a tyrant. Oh, and in both versions the hordes of priests are pretty intimidating, so the overall effect is, to say the least, not exactly pro-Catholic.

I’d definitely recommend the Csiksomlyó performance, and even the movie if you can find a clean print, but I’m imagining the whole tihng’s a lot more enjoyable if you can find subtitles (I’m actually working on some, just for the hell of it, but it’s slow work for someone who doesn’t know Hungarian).

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

秒速5センチメートル/5 Centimeters Per Second

[Screenshot]Makoto Shinkai produces films which are generally quite excellent. But to a certain extent they’re all the same film. The concept of distance (emotional, physical, and temporal), was a major theme in both The Place Promised in Our Early Days and Voices of a Distant Star. Here, it’s not just a theme but is in fact the subtitle: “a chain of short stories about their distance”. So, like Miyazaki, Shinkai’s sticking to what he knows and what he does best. The effect is pretty good on most counts. As to technical aspects, he’s on form as always, with breathtaking backgrounds and a realistic and natural animation style. His lighting effects are perhaps a little over-reliant on cruciform specular glare, but always have been. The plot is, as promised by the subtitle, a sequence of three connected short stories exploring different aspects of distance. The multi-vignette style seems to suit Shinkai well, creating a middle ground between the slightly overdetailed The Place Promised… and the sketchy Voices. He managed to pack a lot of story into a fairly small space, leaving us to fill in the necessary gaps, and he incorporates a bittersweet open ending, lifting a page from Voices. In many ways, 5 Centimeters Per Second is a synthesis of the best ideas from his two previous successful films. And yet, in some ways, it feels to me like it falls short of The Place Promised…, which I still think was his best. However, for anyone who enjoys Shinkai’s style and themes, 5 Centimeters will be a joy to behold, and just enough different from his other films to feel original.

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

Dragonlance: The Soulforge, by Margaret Weis

I was crazy into Dragonlance way back when, so when I saw one of the newer Dragonlance novels in a pile of freebies, I snagged it in the hopes of learning where the franchise had gone. It’s written by Margaret Weis, so it promised to be technically competent. But as for its actual place in the world, it suffers from featuring a major character from a long-running franchise, which, as any comic book fan knows, means it runs into all sorts of continuity pitfalls and feels less like a novel evolving on its own than a fanfic explaining individual backstory elements from the core franchise. I figured we were in for a rough slog when nearly all the major characters from the original Chronicles series appeared within the first 30 pages. So we get about a million overly-cute foreshadowing allusions (even to the second-string novels — there’s a throwaway line about Kitiara going to the moon, which in one of the novels, she does). In among those there’s some pretty decent characterization and plot development in places. mostly having to do with the Majere family dynamics. But those, it seems, would be better served by short stories than by a novel full of filler and time-marking.

This book is best described by one of the reader blurbs in the front: “It’s great. It really answers my questions about Raistlin.” If that sounds awesome to you, you’ll like this book. But if it sounds like the sort of thing one would attach to a FAQ or a fanfic, you’ll probably find this one a bit disappointing.

Lars and the Real Girl

[Screenshot]This was a pleasant surprise. The conceit of this film is fragile enough that a less sensitive touch could turn it into something ugly, crude, and mocking. But it manages to stay on the decent side of light comedy, while ultimately delivering more drama than comedy anyways. I rarely have anything terribly useful to say about good films other than that they’re good, and this is one of thos. Nonetheless, it’s worth looking at what made it work. The sensitive and light script helped a lot, but much is owed to the acting as well. There are only five major characters in this film, and one of them’s inanimate. The actual animate actors, however, do an excellent job, particularly Ryan Gosling, who is compassionate enough that it’s actually hard to laugh at him, giving the unlikely-seeming masquerade of the townspeople much greater verisimillitude.

It’s not a perfect film. There are bits left hanging, like the extent to which Lars’s physical contact issues are physiological, but I guess we’re supposed to be making up our own minds on that and how he confronts it in the end. Ultimately, it tells a good story, a sweet story with a beginning, middle, and an end, and with little ceremony. And it works.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

The Golden Compass

[Screenshot]The great disappointment of 2007, The Golden Compass managed to mildly annoy everyone from fans of the book let down by the omissions to fundamentalist Christians who knew they were supposed to be upset with it but didn’t know why to movie critics who found it just incomplete enough to not really give much of a clue. Much has already been made of the significant digressions from the book, most well-hated being the extraordinarily minor trauma suffered by the boy whose daemon was cut away. Since others have delved into that and similar issues, I won’t go into it. What struck me, though, is how a story with a vibrant sense of wonder seemed to be drained of so much of it when put on the screen. Pullman’s alternate universe is a magical, wonderful thing. Riverboat gyptians! Balloon aeronauts! Armored bears! Witches! These are awesome, but they’re introduced into the film adaptation in the limpest ways possible, it seems. Iorek’s the only thing which seems really exciting, and even that’s much damped by the godawful ragdoll fight with Ragnar. To the point, while I’m not a splatter aficianado, we could have done with a bit here: this is a messy story, one with bear-maulings and souls being torn away and a lot of other, y’know, really nasty stuff. They’re not gratuitous: they drive the plot and the worldbuilding. This film doesn’t seem to have had the courage to really go ahead and do those, so we end up with something that’s, to say the least, a bit underwhelming.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

[Screenshot]I read the comic and saw the film in close succession, so I’ll write up about both of them at once, especially since they are extremely similar stylistically. It’s black and white with biold deliniations. The overall effect is very stark, reflecting accurately both a child’s view and the totalitarian state. Even within this constrained style, art-shifts are common, with paper dolls for the history lesson and Munchesque distorted, elongated scenes during a suicide attempt. And, of course, the artistic style in the comic is followed faithfully in the animation. It’s unusual for sequential still images, but for animation it’s positively bizarre. It’s a major departure from traditional animation styles, and, inexplicably, it works. So top marks for both media for style. As for the story, it too is strong and interesting, although it drags a fair bit during the Europe section: while the backdrop of Iran presents compelling drama for either a precocious child of a young woman seeking an identity, the “fish out of water” segment felt a bit too self-pitying and insufficiently dramatic. Yes, I know, it’s autobiography and real lifes have those interludes, but, still, it felt more like a distraction than anything else.

Other than that mild bog-down in the plot, however, Persepolis is a fantastic, engrossing story, however you choose to experience it.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.