From Up On Poppy Hill
2013 and 2014 are looking to be standout years for fans of the renowned Studio Ghibli. Already this year, the studio has collaborated on the critically-acclaimed video game Ni No Kuni, and a little further on down the road there will be new releases from both Hayao Miyazaki and Grave Of The Fireflies director Isao Takahata (his first feature film in over a decade). Not to be lost in the shuffle is this second film from Goro Miyazaki, son of Hayao, whose first effort was Tales From Earthsea, one of the very few Ghibli duds. His work with this film is an improvement in just about every way, and it is well worth making the effort to track down. Ranging closer to the tone of Whisper Of The Heart than Spirited Away, the film follows Umi, a young high school student still in mourning from the death of her father in the Korean War. Her life becomes more complicated when she meets Shun, who, along with his other male students, is working to save a dilapidated school clubhouse called the Latin Quarter. Together they develop a plan to save the building, while also falling for each other in the process, at least until the past threatens to break them apart.
With its teen romance and general melancholic tone, the film is geared to a slightly older audience than many of the other films In the Ghibli canon. The narrative feels more personal, and nostalgic for a former time (the film is set in the 1960s, when Japan was preparing for the Tokyo Olympics). The film succeeds the best at creating a sense of time and place, of focusing in on that period when a young adult is just starting to figure out who they are, while also looking back into the past to find inspiration. The Latin Quarter clubhouse is one of the more memorable and visually striking settings you’re likely to see in film all this year, and the central seaside location is very reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds. And unlike Whisper Of The Heart, which featured a brief fantasy interlude, the action in this film is kept firmly in reality, apart from a quietly spine-tingling dream sequence where Umi is visited by her father. That sequence, along with many others, is aided tremendously by the animation, which is predictably great while never calling attention to itself. In short, it’s a wonderful film that deserves a more widespread audience and distribution, an animation with real soul and passion, a far cry from the cookie-cutter fare that comes and goes with so little consequence. 9/10.
On the newest Criterion release of this 1955 Shakespeare adaptation is an informative special feature where Martin Scorcese talks about the painstaking restoration of the film’s image, as well as his own memories of watching the film for the first time. He talks about how, for his generation, Shakespeare on film was synonymous with Laurence Olivier. It’s a little bit different for someone like me, who grew up in the ’90s when Shakespeare on film was synonymous with Kenneth Branagh. For me, going into an Olivier film adaptation for the first time after seeing Branagh’s films ends up being a somewhat problematic experience. Since we’re talking Shakespeare here, it’s not the content of the film I have problems with, but with how Olivier presents the content as a film. And after being previously bowled over by Branagh’s incredibly cinematic Shakespeare adaptations (as well as Richard Loncraine’s 1995 version of Richard III, with its WWII imagery and Ian McKellen’s towering central performance), Olivier’s methods don’t hold up particularly well, coming across as overly stagey and unfortunately dated.
Which is not to say there isn’t any interest in watching great English actors like Olivier, Ralph Richardson, and John Gielgud, among others, performing Shakespeare, because there is. But too often the limitations of the filmmaking get in the way. The opening monologue is a good example. It’s a fine, theatrical piece of acting from Olivier, but you can almost see it in his eyes as he directs the cameramen to move along with him as he stalks around the set. The rest of the film is similarly awkward; apart from a precious few flourishes, there’s not much happening on a visual level here. The film feels more like a documentation of a stage play, with sparely-decorated sets and gaudy costumes, than something that has been tailored for the cinematic medium. Only in the final half hour does the film step outside for a breath of fresh air, but even then Olivier chooses to mix location footage with obvious studio shots. To be fair to the film, I didn’t watch Criterion’s most recent release, but their earlier version, where the image quality is incredibly inconsistent. But even if I had seen the film with pristine image quality, I doubt I would be more forgiving. Shakespeare’s play is timeless, but this film is very much of its time. 5/10.
Little Big Man
During a brief stretch in the late 1960s, Arthur Penn made a handful of films about American history and the appeal of storytelling in embellishing on history and elevating past events to almost myth-like status. His most famous and highly-regarded film Bonnie & Clyde offers an inside look into the famous media-seeking outlaws. Alice’s Restaurant expands on the rambling insights of Arlo Guthrie’s classic Thanksgiving/Vietnam era song. And this film from 1970 follows the adventures of Dustin Hoffman’s Jack Crabb as he moves through life in the mid-1800s American West Forrest Gump-style, bouncing around and experiencing a little bit of everything during the time period. Most of his adventures revolve around the tensions between the Native Americans and the white men who are their enemies, and he frequently finds himself on both sides over the course of the film. In between those episodes he also has a religious phase, a gunfighter phase, and a snake-oil salesmen phase, among others, and part of the appeal of the film is getting to know the characters he meets (including small but memorable roles for Faye Dunaway and Martin Balsam), and then seeing how they change as he runs into them again later in life. I like the idea that as we follow the life-long adventures of one person, there may be equally interesting stories happening in the lives of the other people he meets along the way.
For whatever reason, I wasn’t expecting the film to have a lighter side, and it took me a little while before I realized that the film in some parts is meant to be broadly comic. But it also has a serious side, and as Penn proved in the final moments of Bonnie & Clyde, he knows how to handle violence in a way that gives it real visceral impact. It’s a tough balance to get right, and Penn mostly succeeds, with a couple exceptions. There is a flamboyantly gay Native American character that I’m not sure you could get away with if the film were made today, and General George Custer is portrayed as too much of a buffoon to ever take seriously (one of the better subtle running jokes is that he seems to have a new second-in-command every time he comes onscreen). The film does ends on an elegiac note though, with a simple, quiet final shot mourning the memory of a culture broken apart by Western Expansionism. It’s this last note that gives the film true resonance. 8/10.
Over the course of three films now, Jeff Nichols has been making a case for being one of the most promising new talents in American cinema. His first film, Shotgun Stories, explored the violent tensions between two Southern families. His next film, Take Shelter, focused on a husband/father who attempts to hide the signs of his mental illness from his family. His new film is Mud, a hybrid of coming-of-age story and Mark Twain-inspired adventure. The film follows two teenagers, Ellis and Neckbone, living in rural Arkansas, who find on a deserted island a boat stuck high above in the trees. The boat is inhabited by Mud, a mysterious drifter who beguiles the boys with stories and his plans to escape with his true love, played by Matthew McConaughey in what may be his best performance to date. The boys, still young enough to be swept up in Mud’s storybook-romantic ideas, offer to help him, and end up getting caught in the middle between Mud and the people looking for him.
Nichols has a nearly-perfect command of tone and atmosphere here, but there is more to the film than just expressive cinematography and backwoods adventure. All of the main male characters in the film are defined by the relationships with the women in their lives, and one of the big themes throughout the film is of men struggling to come to terms with rejection, especially at the point when they discover that the love that was once present in a relationship is no longer there. Mud, despite initially appearing as an enigmatic and potentially-dangerous figure, is revealed to be a hopeless romantic, still clinging to an idea of love that may never have been there in the first place. Ellis’ father refuses early on to accept his wife’s desire to separate from him, but eventually he comes to accept the inevitable change. And Tye Sheridan’s Ellis, really the main character of the film, has his first heartbreaking experience with love and rejection. He comes away wiser by at the end of the film, more understanding of the reality of relationships, instead of clinging on to the fantasy of them. That Nichols manages to balance this material with the more-familiar aspects of the narrative is a real achievement (Only the final climactic confrontation comes across as a little forced, a display of violence that comes across as a little too over-the-top and unlikely). He’s three-for-three now, and I’ll be eagerly anticipating whatever he does next. 9/10.
Top five first-time viewings in April 2013:
All About Eve
Children Of Paradise
From Up On Poppy Hill
Little Big Man/Kiss Of The Spider Woman