ゲド戦記/Tales from Earthsea

[Screenshot]I’ve been mourning the decreasing involvement of the elder Miyazaki in recent Ghibli productions since, well, at least when I reviewed Ponyo. This work is not actually a Hayao Miyazaki film; it’s made by his son Goro. I tried not to let that color my judgment too much, but the fact of the matter is that this movie doesn’t have a lot to set it above the crowd. On a technical level it’s quite good, particularly in backgrounds. The character-designs seem in some ways cruder than the Ghibli standard: maybe greater stylization and simplicity? They’re still quite good, mind. I listened to the Japanese dub enough to determine that it was passable, and then switched over to English, since Disney’s voicework for Ghibli localizations is usually excellent. They got good people doing good work this time too, but I think maybe someone told Timothy Dalton (who I honestly did not realize had done anything else after his stint as James Bond) “sound as much like Ian McKellan doing Gandalf as you can”.

So technically Earthsea is quite good, but realistically I expect nothing less. What brings me back to Miyazaki’s work is creativity and thematic strength, and on those fronts this story feels a little flat. I’ll admit the only book of the source material I’ve read is A Wizard of Earthsea, and except for a few side references to the larger world this story didn’t particularly resemble anything I read there, although I’m given to understand it bears a closer plot similarity to some of the later books in the series. In one particular, of course, it’s conspicuously different: I’m pretty sure Earthsea’s not supposed to have that many white people (where “that many” in this context happens to be “everybody”).

A lot of what I got from AWOE was about personal responsibility and the limits of personal power. Sparrowhawk fucks up horribly and then cleans up his mess, becoming a stronger person and gaining a greater appreciation for his own limitations in the course of his redemption. Power unchecked is somewhat a theme in this film, but without too much of a connection to personal limitations: there’s a great deal of nattering about The Balance of Nature and suchlike which all ends up mostly irrelevant to the actual confrontation and the villain’s plans. I’m not such a purist as to insist that an adaptation needs to be compatible in themes or plot or even characterization with its parent work, but where it cuts the original work out, it needs to put something else in its place, and even considered as a standalone work Tales is problematic. A lot of plot threads end up dropped abruptly: there’s no reason to suspect, for instance, that the blight on the land is connected to Cob’s machinations.

It’s a very pretty film, but left me with little to hang on to. Ponyo at least had charm, but this felt at least as unfocused and without cute fish. Of course, a girl does fly in it. Evidently producing films about flying girls is a genetically heritable trait.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, Nausicaa.net.

Red

[Screenshot]I knew, based on the reports on Warren Ellis’s blog, and by a quick look at the trailer, that this film would not be entirely faithful to the themes of the original comic. But I figured I wanted to see it anyways. If Warren Ellis was OK with it, I figured it wasn’t my place to say otherwise, and the reasons why it couldn’t be faithful were fundamentally sound: the original work was, among other things, far too short to actually make a satisfactory feature-length film.

But I’m afraid “Not entirely faithful” is a bit of an understatement. Taken on its own merits, it’s a fun comic action-caper flick, with wisecracking, quirky, supercompetent secret agents sticking it to the man and executing elaborate, complicated plans; which is one of the most extraordinary subversions of themes in the original work I’ve seen since Mankiewicz’s adaptation of The Quiet American. The comic had a fair amount of exposition and philosophizing about monstrosity and loyalty and responsibility which is notably absent, either in dialogue or plot, from the film. In this movie, Moses and Co. are just Big Damn Heroes, going out and doing what is right, for justice. Which is enjoyable in a brainless kind of way, but it wasn’t really what I expected to see at all.

Cinematically, it’s quite excellent. There was something quite naturalistic about the camera style during non-action sequences: long takes, with smooth and organic-feeling pans and dollies that manage not to seem self-indulgent. The action sequences are, by their very nature, self-indulgent, with a lot of flash and occasional slo-mo and suchlike. It manages to stay mostly on the tasteful side of cheap (unlike, say, Transformers, which was full of wholly unnecessary whoosh and bewildering camera-shake). The actors play the parts they’ve been given well: Malkovitch chews the scenery but believably and Mirrin delivers a delightfully prim ruthlessness so well that they actually upstage Bruce Willis, whose character comes across as pretty colorless and dull by comparison.

On balance, I enjoyed the time I spent watching Red pretty well, although I might feel disappointed if I’d gone to see it in a theater. Mostly my lack of enthusiasm derives from it being pretty far afield of what I expected. A writer with a characteristic style can make a good story, but take away all those signature flourishes and thematic elements and you have, as it were, a tale told by an idiot.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Micmacs à tire-larigot

[Screenshot]I have generally a good track record with Jean-Pierre Jeunet. I adored Delicatessen and Amélie, and liked City of Lost Children pretty well. He’s struck me as basically a French Terry Gilliam: gorgeous scenery, dark comedy, and a liberal helping of complete weirdshit. And I like Terry Gilliam (or at least, I like most of what he’s done), so generally the similarity has worked out well for me.

I’m afraid that I reservedly have to pan Micmacs. I’d still take it over any given four or five films by any other director, but it is not exactly the top of Jeunet’s game. There’s a lot of whimsy and comedy, but the basic soul of the work feels like it’s gone missing. Part of the problem from where I stand is that Jeunet, even in lighter works, has always kept me pretty off-balance. There’s a mystery, or a heavy shroud of surreality, or at least some incidental force which suggests much greater depth to the work than is apparent on the surface. But in Micmacs, pretty much all is as it seems, and the entirety of the work is mired in reality. There are early hints that there might be some deeper meaning to the shell-casing and the sketch which are Bazil’s smoking guns, but in the end it comes down to a revenge-fantasy thickly larded with political subtext. Yes, the squalor of the scavengers’ camp (and of poverty in general) is beautiful rather than dreary, and there’s a light touch of surreality over the whole work, but ultimately, it’s too relentlessly tied to real-world politics to really fly the way his previous delightful works had.

But lest I give a false impression of this film, let me reiterate that I actually liked this movie quite well. It’s extraordinary when it comes to settings and tone (Jeunet’s cinematography is generally pretty inspired), and at times quite funny, with the campy rivalry elements played to the hilt and the quirky scavengers given ample room to shine. Even working in a somewhat less-than-ideal space, Jeunet does a lot better with this work than I would trust most directors to. If you like Jeunet’s style, this won’t make you feel like your time’s been wasted; but expect something closer to Amélie than to Delicatessen or City of Lost Children. Visually, it bears much in common with the latter, but tonally, it’s definitely in a much more lighthearted and simplistic headspace.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

עיניים פקוחות/Eyes Wide Open

[Screenshot]More Israeli cinema, and a return to Orthodox Jews and their conflicting emotions about troublesome guests. This time, though, the trouble is homoerotic.

I seem to end up watching a fair amount of queer cinema, so it’ll probably surprise my readers to learn that I haven’t watched Brokeback Mountain, without which (as I understand it) I’m unlikely to actually get any film about restrained, clandestine homosexuality made in the last several years. With that having been said, I’ll admit I’m not sure I entirely got this film. It seemed to go from point A to B to C to D with a minimum of fuss, which may well keep things uncomplicated but also seems to raise questions about motivations. We go from Aaron’s sympathy for a charity case to open sexual tension so quickly that it’s difficult to see what makes either of our heroes tick, or what they see in each other. There’s no real sense of rapport, and likewise, once they acknowledge their feelings, it seems that we miss the most critical dramatic element, which would be Aaron’s internal conflict. Everything we have seen in the story so far suggests he should be tormented, and yet he only actually becomes upset when an external threat to his happiness appears. Maybe this is all meant to emphasize his reserve, but I’m not sure the acting is nuanced enough to get that point across.

Apropos of the final linear-plot-element, the (unnamed, as far as I know) community of Jerusalem where the events of this film take place turns startlingly ugly awfully fast. We get to see them being moralistic assholes in a non-homosexuality-related context first, but we hadn’t gotten even a hint of this particular social dynamic until the last half-hour. I wasn’t thrilled with this urn of events: even if it is an accurate depiction of the reception a revealed gay relationship receives in Orthodox communities (which I am not entirely sure about) it seems to dilute the cultural message to have the stones thrown by other people rather than by Aaron’s own psyche. Our heroes don’t come across as terribly complex, and that cheapens what might have been a distinctive voice in the gay-awakening-and-conflict-with-local-culture genre.

Cinematically, it’s a quite well-crafted work; shots are deliberately composed but not pretentiously so, and there are some effective tricks of light and shadow that serve to impart an often oppressive air to the scenes. The localization was rather imperfect, though, with some dialogue (and all prayer/singing) left unsubtitled, which was rather to the film’s detriment. I’d describe it overall as a technically accomplished work which is unfortunately treading well-worn ground with its plot and themes and bringing very little new to the table.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

A Devil at Noon

I saw this as part of the 35th Humana Festival of New Plays at Actors Theatre; it’s thus a bleeding-edge new play, with all the experimentalism and quality variation that might entail. As experimental new plays go, it’s not bad, although it’s riddled with pitfalls for the unwary. The first act is largely bewildering, consisting mostly of apparently unrelated monologues and extended mime sequences with foley effects. I knew from the blurb that it was supposed to be, after a fashion, a Philip K. Dick-flavored work, so I expected bewilderment but with a greater thematic cohesion, and by the intermission I was totally lost and really hoping the second act put it all back together.

To its credit, the play did end up eventually tying together most of its disparate threads (I’m still scratching my head about the symbolism of the oft-repeated moon motif), and does so in a manner properly in line with what I expect from Dick inspiration: confusion of identity and reality, with discourse on the interaction of creativity and perception. By the end of the evening, I had felt like I had digested a satisfactory work, while at the intermission I was quite certain it was a hopeless mess. From an expectation-management point of view, I’d call this work problematic: I think a fair part of the audience gave up at intermission. There were aspects that might’ve been tightened up to give it, even early on, a bit more drive and purpose: either dropping or better contextualizing the strange moon segments, and shortening the dialogueless mime segments (to be as unspoilery as possible: the mime/foley elements which serve in the place of actual stage setting actually have a plot-relevant purpose, but the sections where they’re manipulated without dialogue really slow the play down). However, for those of us who persisted to the end, I think the play ended up being a treat. If it could be structured in a way to give the audience greater faith that it’s actually going somewhere, it’d be even better.

As for the details of this specific performance: Actors is generally a good group, and they did well here. Leading actor Joseph Adams displays a moderate range, mostly on the wryly contemplative side but bringing some animation to the character when called for; Rebecca Hart’s range, which seems a bit more limited at first (her role seems to be the Quirky Younger Love Interest) opens up dramatically and she rises to the occasion. The other actors have less demanding roles but work well with them. The foley (and where necessary special effects) were good, and in spite of my distaste for the overuse of the mechanism, I have to register admiration for the extent to which the actors and sound crew made the no doubt difficult effect synchronization work live.

See also: premiere at Actors Theatre.