Steve Jobs review

The life of Apple visionary Steve Jobs appears to be a source of endless fascination for Hollywood. There was an unsuccessful drama starring Aston Kutcher, and this year’s documentary from Alex Gibney. Now, legendary screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle have taken a unique stab at the man who changed the history of how we communicate. Sorkin, who wrote the brilliant, acerbic The Social Network about the rise of Facebook, is no stranger to the lives of tech giants. While Steve Jobs is not as successful as that masterwork, it’s still an arresting and original portrait.

The film is driven from a sensational performance by Michael Fassbender, who can seem to do no wrong. He nails the sometimes toxic combination of madness and genius that drove Jobs, the kind that is well-suited to running a company but also leaves his personal life in shambles. Fassbender can express more with his eyes that most actors can with their entire bodies. It’s a difficult performance to pull off well, but he never misses a beat.

Sorkin’s talky screenplay forgoes the typical biopic treatment to focus on three major points in Jobs’ tech career: the 1984 unveiling of the original Macintosh, the 1988 reveal of the Next computer and the 1998 release of the iMac. Each event takes up about a third of the runtime, and updates us on Jobs’ relationship with the key players in his professional and personal life. There’s his “work wife” assistant, Joanna Hoffman (an always-stellar Kate Winslet), his boss, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), his co-founding partners in crime, Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) and Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his estranged lover and daughter, Chrisann and Lisa Brennan.

The film takes place almost entirely in doors, with tons of backroom meetings, last minute changes and personal revelations. Because each sequence takes place during the minutes leading up to a tech unveiling, everyone is always flustered, snappy and on-edge. Sorkin wisely realizes that it is in these moments where honesty emerges, and people show their true selves. When we’re first introduced to Jobs in 1984, he’s pretty much an unlikable cad who refuses to support his lover with more than the very basic of child support and stringently denies a paternity test that claims Lisa to be his daughter. There’s also his strained relationship with Wozniak, who insists that Jobs acknowledge the original Apple II team during the tech unveiling. With CEO Sculley, his attitude ranges from mildly antagonistic to outwardly hostile. He accosts his co-workers with unreasonable demands, like getting the Macintosh to say “hello” onstage despite everyone saying it’s impossible.

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Steve Jobs is an arresting and creative portrait of the legendary tech genius.

Sorkin’s script is certainly a warts-and-all portrait, but it never makes Jobs out as a true villain. What makes the story so brilliant is the way it peels back layers with each sequence, revealing new depth to the man than what was previously shown. When we learn, for example, how hard it was on him never knowing his birth parents, or how deep and complicated his relationship with his daughter really is, we begin to understand the true nature of the man. It’s interesting to note that Sorkin focused on two product launches that were seen as failures before giving us a successful one at the end. Here is a man whose genius was birthed in the fires of failure. It also helps that Sorkin is a master at dialogue as well; the film is wryly observant and funny; it trades cheap jokes for sophisticated pop culture references that really anchor us in the time and place of each sequence.

I was impressed with the visual variety and complexity on display here. It’s tough to make a film that takes place mostly behind stages (we don’t ever see Jobs give a full speech to a crowd) look as good as it does here. Thanks to Boyle’s assured direction, Alwin H. Kuchler’s dizzying camerawork and Guy Hendrix Dyas’ sumptuous production design, the film still manages to put on quite a show. The film experiments with pop-up graphics and text that give us something new to look at without taking us out of the story.

But Steve Jobs is the kind of film where expectations should be managed. Because it is not a full biopic but rather a portrait, we don’t get as comprehensive a view of Jobs’ life as some might like. The film dives deep into the thoughts and moments that defined these three points in his life but, other than a few brief flashbacks, we don’t get much of the scrappy wherewithal of Apple’s early days, or anything related to Jobs’ later-day successes or illness and eventual death. As such, we view his personal life solely through the lens of his career, which gives the film an odd feeling of being both deep and shallow at the same time. I’d love to see the approach given here adapted to some sort of miniseries; there’s a lot more story to tell (you may want to check out Gibney’s Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine to help fill in some of the gaps, or read Walter Isaacson’s excellent biography).

In the end, this desire to learn more about the man behind Apple doesn’t dilute the film too much. Steve Jobs is an absolute must-see, a stirring portrait of a man who had everything and nothing at the same time. It’s one of the most well-made films of the year, and the stellar acting on display from all involved is worth the price of admission alone.

“Hard for a good soul to survive:” The legacy of Gorillaz’ Demon Days

The world would be forgiven for not knowing quite what to make of Gorillaz when they were first introduced to the music world in 2001. The collaboration between Blur front man Damon Albarn and Tank Girl artist Jamie Hewlett was an immensely weird and entirely new creation, one where visuals and music melded together in kaleidoscopic brilliance. Hewlett’s iconic music videos featured the exploits of the fictional band at the group’s center: 2D, the band’s zombie-like singer; Murdoc Niccals, the group’s moody bass player; Russell Hobbs, playing drums and frequently carrying around a dead pig; and Noodle (guitar, keyboard, background vocals), an unpredictable young Asian girl.

Gorillaz self-titled debut was a hit, introducing catchy tunes like “Clint Eastwood” and “5/4” to the world. That album featured what would become group staples: repetitive, trance-like beats, nonsensical lyrics, an emphasis on guest artist collaborations and a surprising variety of sounds and styles. And yet, the album feels ultimately inessential, a decided product of its time.

The same can’t be said for Gorillaz highly-anticipated follow-up, 2005’s Demon Days. Ten years later, it’s hard not to look upon this dark, moody masterpiece as anything other than a modern classic. When I first heard Demon Days (specifically, the popular track “Feel Good Inc.,” I instantly fell in love with the band, and the album remains one of my all-time favorites. Delve into the album with me to find out why.

Referencing the Beatles is a bold move for any music artist. Thankfully, the greatness of Demon Days justifies such a decision.

Referencing the Beatles is a bold move for any music artist. Thankfully, the greatness of Demon Days justifies such a decision.

The intro to the album sets the tone; it’s filled with low, subtle bass sounds. The sonic blend casts a hypnotic spell, and then fades away with the epic refrain: “You are now entering the harmonic realm.” The opening beats of “Last Living Souls” take over, as Albarn’s hypnotic voice asks: “Are we the last living souls?” The question sets up the theme of isolation on the album. It’s hard to know if the speaker’s isolation is self-imposed or a result of cultural influences. There’s also the possibility of a post-apocalyptic interpretation (literally, everyone else could be dead). The album seems to tease this possibility throughout, but Albarn respects his audience enough to avoid spoon-feeding us any one interpretation of his cryptic lyrics. Whatever the interpretation, the song establishes Albarn’s panache for taking a grab-bag of instruments and styles and allowing them to gel beautifully. This track alone features keyboard, piano, acoustic guitar and violin accompaniment.

The album slides further into chaos with “Kids With Guns,” which bemoans our culture’s blasé attitude towards violence. But the lyrics take things a step further by analyzing the motivations behind the kids with guns who are “taking over.” “And they’re turning us into monsters/Turning us into fire/Turning us into monsters/It’s all desire, it’s all desire, it’s all desire.” In an anything goes, do-what-you-want culture, one that idolizes the individual and seems to make promises it can never keep, we end up with a generation of “mesmerized skeletons,” walking corpses, if you will. “It won’t be long” before they explode. Such a message is even more relevant today than it was when the album released.

“O Green World” bemoans a different kind of violence, that which humanity is doing to the environment. The haunting background chants express a longing for a world that no longer exists. When I hear this song, I picture some kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland. Albarn expresses a desire to return to living a life of oneness with nature. “Oh green world/Don’t desert me now/Made of you and you of me/But, where are we?” It’s one of the album’s most creative and relevant tracks, as Albarn’s initially subdued vocals rise to a cacophonous cry along with the music, which starts and ends the song with utter sonic chaos.

“Dirty Harry” is probably the album’s coolest song, and one of my personal favorites. Continuing hints at a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the lyrics continue the album’s focus on cycles of violence. “I need a gun to keep myself from harm/The poor people are burning in the sun.” Gorillaz’ penchant for collaboration is featured here, with the San Fernando Valley Youth Chorus providing excellent background vocals and Bootie Brown busting out a wicked rap interlude.

There may not be much to say about “Feel Good Inc.” Everyone has heard it; it was the song that sparked my initial interest in the group. I can say that the music video is awesome, and the lyrics make no sense. My guess would be that the flying windmill featured in the video and referenced on the track is the band’s attempt to flee the chaotic violence of the world below, a sort of Noah’s Ark, perhaps. This is all wild interpretation, because the song gives few clues. “Windmill, windmill for the land/Is everybody in?” suggests a desire to fly away and leave everything behind. The creative, iconic rap by De La Soul helps the track maintain its more upbeat vibe. Oh, and did I mention that Jamie Hewlitt is an amazing artist? Seriously, check the video out. It’s good stuff.

The melancholy quickly returns with “El Mañana,” a haunting track that sees the destruction of the windmill of hope from the previous song. Safe to say, the song is a bit of a bummer, but it once again highlights the album’s staggering variety from song to song. I particularly appreciate the gorgeous string accompaniment here.

“Every Planet We Reach is Dead” delves into some much-needed funk, but the lyrics continue their strain of longing. “But God only knows it’s getting hard/To see the sun coming through/I love you…but what are we going to do?” The song is something of a masterwork, with a creative use of guitar, excellent strings and Ike Turner’s kick-ass, bluesy piano solo. It’s certainly an album highlight.

“November Has Come” is a more restrained but equally fun track. It opens with my favorite rap on the album, a subdued, sublimely rhymed poem from MF Doom. But Albarn still makes room for his melancholic questions. “Something has started today/Where did it go? Why you wanted it to be?/ Well, you know November has come when it’s gone away.”

The album’s sense of isolation reaches its apex with the aptly titled “All Alone.” The heavily electronic track is highlighted by a gorgeous, fanciful refrain from guest artist Martina Topley-Bird. “’Cause I don’t believe, when the morning comes/It doesn’t seem to say an awful lot to me.” I love the use of multiple voices to echo the repeated lyric “All Alone!” The staggered vocal effect seems to suggest the sense of isolation that can exist even in a crowd.

That aching feeling attempts to be filled with alcohol in “White Light,” which only contains the lyrics “white light” and “alcohol.” The chaotic, grungy guitar work suggests a descent into inebriated senses to help dull the pain. And, for this track at least, it seems to work; the track is frenetic but I believe purposefully lazy in its attempt to replicate the temporary, fizzy high of inebriation. It’s all style and absolutely no substance, but that seems more like a deliberate thematic choice than a simple case of poor songwriting.

DARE is a straight dance track, and almost prohibitively catchy. It’s tons of fun, with an entertaining vocal from Shaun Ryder. There’s not really much to analyze here, though I do feel like a broken record for reiterating that the music video is beyond amazing and, of course, delightfully weird.

I’ll admit I wasn’t initially much into “Fire Coming out of the Monkey’s Head,” Dennis Hopper’s spoken word feature. But now, it’s probably my favorite track on the album. Hopper tells a complete story, one that highlights the dangers of greed and hubris. It essentially distills all of the album’s major themes into one track: our culture’s obsession with violence (and war in particular), our destruction of the environment and our celebration of the self over all else. Greed is particularly dangerous here, as it results in the destruction of the town where the “Happyfolk” lived. It’s a brilliant and haunting cautionary tale, especially when Albarn’s brief refrain chimes in. “Falling out of aeroplanes and hiding out in holes/Waiting for the sunset to come, people going home/Jump out from behind them and shoot them in the head/Now everybody dancing the dance of the dead.”

In my opinion, Demon Day’s final two tracks catapult the record from simple greatness into masterpiece status. The gospel-infused “Don’t Get Lost in Heaven” seems determined to try and find some peace or at least understanding amidst all the chaos the rest of the album dishes out. The London Community Gospel Choir does an incredible job here, as this brief interlude surveys the destruction the rest of the album has wrought. The cautionary lyrics that echo the song’s title are certainly open to interpretation, but seem to suggest a hope that the listener will not stay lost in high-minded thinking while ignoring the very real suffering in the world. That suffering is referred to as the “Demon Days” on the album’s closing track. “In these demon days it’s so cold inside/So hard for a good soul to survive/You can’t even trust the air you breathe/Because mother earth wants us all to leave/When lies become reality, you numb yourself with drugs and T.V.” But thankfully, the inspirational chorus is not content to leave us in the despair. “Pick yourself up it’s a brand new day!/So turn yourself around/Don’t burn yourself, turn yourself/Turn yourself around/To the sun.”

This hopeful ending refrain is incredibly powerful, especially because I’ve read the lyrics spelled as “sun” and “son.” Given the track’s gospel sound, it wouldn’t necessarily surprise me that the “son” referred to is Christ himself. Such an interpretation would echo a sinner’s redemption as he turns himself around to God and denies his old ways. I think “sun” is the more likely spelling, but perhaps Albarn left us to figure this out for ourselves, like he did on much of the rest of the album.

This is one of the many things that make Demon Days one of my all-time favorite albums. Albarn and his incredible team of collaborators are willing to have a ton of silly fun, but the album is at its best when it sometimes abruptly drops deep, meaningful truths. Many of these are open to interpretation, and that’s the way it should be. The group respects its listeners enough to come up with their own interpretations. Some may be more correct than others, but we may never really know. In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for one of the most sonically diverse, thematically daring, original and downright inspired albums to ever grace the ear. That seems like a pretty good deal to me.

Holiday Movie Review Roundup

This Christmas season, Hollywood seems especially concerned with one primary aspect of the holiday: consumerism. Several recently released films are about money; how much American society needs it as well as how much that same consumer society destroys and corrupts good and bad alike. During a time of year obsessed with consumerism, it’s an important theme. They’re also about dreams, both those that are broken and those that are occasionally fulfilled. I checked out a few new movies receiving major critical and awards attention.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is a three-hour effigy to excess. Scorsese teams up once again with Leonardo DiCaprio, who gives a fireball of a performance as Jordan Belfort, the real-life sleaze ball broker who made millions by scamming people out of money by selling them phony stocks. Along the way, he enlists the help of Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and a few select others in their attempt to grow their phony company, Stratton Oakmont, into a legitimate operation.

The film’s early scenes are fascinating, as a bright-eyed Belfort with ambition and ideals is enthralled by a Wall Street veteran (a brief but brilliant Matthew McConaughey) and begins to build his phony firm from the ground up. The process behind the operation is the most interesting part of the movie.

Belfort and company’s rise to the top (and descent to the depths of debauchery) is chronicled in increasingly graphic displays of rampant sex and drug use. It’s fun for a while, and some over-the-top scenes rank among the funniest in Scorsese history (one particularly brilliant, almost vaudevillian sequence involves Belfort’s overdose on Quaalude, his drug of choice). But the movie wears out its welcome by the end. So much screen time is devoted to the film’s ribald sexual content that most attempts at lasting character development fall flat. By the time the narrative switches gears by throwing in an FBI agent (an underused Kyle Chandler) hot on the scent to bust Stratton, it’s much too late to rein in the film’s overstuffed ambition.

Then there’s Belfort, a completely horrible person from beginning to end. Are we actually supposed to be rooting for this guy? Scorsese has made a career out of depicting despicable yet fascinating characters, but Belfort takes things a bit too far. DiCaprio plays him much too charming to actively root against, either. Azoff and the supporting characters don’t fare any better; everyone is thoroughly unredeemable. Much talk has been made over whether the film is misogynistic, and I think the criticisms are justified. There are lots of naked women in this movie, and, while Belfort’s model wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie) gets ample screen time, she’s mostly just there as a sex object, too. It’s a shocking misstep from a director who has a history of very strong female characters.

Of course, some may argue that these things make sense when viewed through Belfort’s eyes, an unreliable narrator who often breaks the fourth wall to talk directly (and down) to the audience. But just because the film hews to Belfort’s real-life story doesn’t imbue it with meaning. The film’s ultimate letdown is that it doesn’t bother to make us care for these sick characters or say anything new. It’s certainly outrageous that one of the foundations of our economy could be manipulated like this, but “money corrupts people” isn’t exactly a novel concept.

Wolf is an occasionally brilliant movie, but I can’t help but think that this is Scorsese’s version of a frat boy comedy. DiCaprio is certainly deserving of high praise; he seems to be completely enraptured in his insane performance; if the man doesn’t get an Oscar for this one, I’m not sure he ever will. The movie itself is an enthralling, often hilarious portrait of a director at his most gloriously unhinged, but those looking for a bit more depth beneath the madness will very likely feel bludgeoned and numbed by Scorsese’s raucous, slick con job.

 American Hustle

David O Russell channels his own inner Scorsese in American Hustle, a brilliant caper film that begs comparison to Goodfellas, among others. It’s the kind of film Scorsese used to make, a smoldering mix of memorable characters, a twisty plot and the distinct voice of a true American original.

Loosely based on the FBI ABSCAM operation of the late ‘70s (the opening states that “some of this stuff actually happened,”) the film follows the exploits of Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, with what is described as an “elaborate” comb over), a professional New Jersey con man who, along with his girlfriend, Sydney (a sweltering Amy Adams) is pulled into an FBI sting operation led by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). The goal is to implicate multiple Jersey politicians in taking bribe money under the banner of restoring the once-glorious Atlantic City.

Things are complicated both by Irving’s vindictive wife Rosalyn (a manic-depressive Jennifer Lawrence) and his friendship with naive politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who DiMaso asks Irving to implicate in the sting.

Hustle pulses with the urgency surrounding a high-stakes plot that could unravel at any moment. And, between con over con and Irving’s complex love triangle, the film threatens to unravel, too. But it doesn’t. Director O’Russell is such an exhilarating director, swooping the camera in every imaginable and lending the movie a vibrant, breakneck pace. O Russell proves himself once again as a brilliant writer, too. Despite the machinations of the plot, the film is ultimately a deep character study, a look at survival and the role the characters’ duplicitous natures contributes to their working-class ennui. In particular, the relationship between Irving, Sydney and Rosalyn is handled with aplomb, and grows even more engaging as the film continues.

The acting is off-the-charts great, with Bale, Adams, Lawrence and Cooper all pulling in AAA performances. Brilliant supporting work from Louis C.K. as a bumbling FBI agent and Robert DeNiro as a mobster (what else) rounds out the powerhouse package. O Russell’s attention to period detail (particularly the costumes and that glorious hair) lend the film an authentic vibe where it could have easily felt fabricated. His use of popular period music is equally exciting (and again, quite Scorsese-an).

Hustle has its flaws, but it’s so hard not to fall in love with, because it’s a movie in the purest sense of the word. A sheer joy for the art and craft of filmmaking permeates its pores. If he wasn’t already, David O Russell is now one of the most consistently surprising and accomplished directors in the business.

 Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks couldn’t be any more different. British author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) seems entirely uninterested in money. She calls it a “dirty word,” but profits from her successful Mary Poppins books have dwindled, and she decides to humor Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), who invites her to come to California in an attempt to convince her to sign over the rights to her story to make into the now-classic film.

Mr. Banks is the kind of film I instinctively enjoy, a movie about the movies that takes no small amount of joy in the artistic process. The ideological warfare between the stuffy and picky Travers (who insists she be called Mrs. Travers) and the wide-eyed, uncouth Disney (who insists he be called “Walt”) is engaging, but the real draw comes from the fact that these two impossible dreamers seem almost wholly unconcerned with money, but rather with seeing their dreams come to life. Of course, Walt Disney was a money machine, but its corrupting influence is, refreshingly, wholly absent here.

The movie tells Travers’ story by flashing back and forth from her traumatic childhood experience with her alcoholic father to her battles with Walt and company. The chronologically disjointed formula occasionally feels a bit manipulative, and many of the historical connections feel more concerned with cinematic indulgence than historical accuracy. But this is a movie of grand emotions, and it wears its heart very much on its sleeve.

Director John Lee Hancock gets great performances out of side characters such as the Poppins songwriting Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak) and Travers’ chauffer (a typically pitch-perfect Paul Giamatti). Thompson is brilliant as Travers, giving just the right amount of sugar to a rather bitter role. She’s never so nasty that she becomes unbelievable. While Hanks doesn’t exactly look the part, he brings a warmth and sincerity to Walt Disney that is just too infectious to ignore.

The film is a big dollop of Disney sugar, but Travers’ backstory and her stubbornness offers just the right amount of dramatic heft to balance things out. It’s a completely engaging, refreshingly cynicism-free look at dreamers who may, for once, actually be able to make their dreams reality.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire review: The odds are in this movie’s favor

The original Hunger Games film revealed both the triumphs and pitfalls of adapting a wildly popular book. While it was ultimately considered a success, its rushed pace, uneven acting and shaky cinematography left many cold. Catching Fire, the hotly anticipated sequel, feels like the movie the original film should have been. Thanks to a new, dedicated director in Francis Lawrence along with better source material, the film is a triumph both as an adaptation and a mass-produced entertainment that should thrill diehard fans and series newbies alike.

The story picks up with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) preparing for their victory after “winning” the 74th Hunger Games, a brutal blood sport started by the Capitol of Panem to keep the twelve districts from instigating a revolution against the oppressive regime. The Capitol is thrilled by Katniss’ and Peeta’s victory, as well as their seemingly budding romance, but all is not well. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) sees their dual victory as an act of defiance, and so did many of the districts, who begin staging a series of small uprisings. Snow makes it his mission to stamp out Katniss, the symbol of the revolution, for good by forcing previous victors back into the arena for another round of the Hunger Games.

One of the great pleasures of this film is seeing returning actors embody these characters. While Lawrence’s Katniss came off as somewhat robotic before, here we get to experience her full range of emotions as well as the toll the games have taken on her psyche and relationships. Fresh off her Oscar win for Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence has grown leaps and bounds as an actress, and it shows. Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth as Katniss’ competing love interest, Gale, are also given much more to work with here. Elizabeth Banks’ garish, Lady Gaga-esque Effie is a scene-stealer once again.

There are tons of new faces as well. Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the new head game maker Plutarch Heavensbee is a particularly inspired choice of casting, and may well be some fans’ favorite character come series’ end. Sam Claflin is brilliant as previous victor Finnick, and Jenna Malone steals scenes as the vicious Johanna Mason.

Director Lawrence (I am Legend) is a great replacement for Gary Ross, whose first film was a bit sporadic in its execution. The camera stays still and wide much more often here, allowing us to thankfully see the beautiful vistas and intense action much more clearly. Veteran writers Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) shove a lot of characters and events into 2 ½ hours, but the film never feels bloated. Scenes are allowed to breathe, and they thankfully avoid the rushed ending of the first film. That Catching Fire ends on a cliffhanger is a natural consequence of the movie being a middle chapter, but at least it’s a good one (brilliantly shot and exactly the same as the book, refreshingly). The fact that so much material fit into one movie without any major omissions is somewhat of a marvel.

Catching Fire is not a perfect movie. There are small plot holes here and there, and, in a film with so many characters, some are bound to be underdeveloped. But, in every important way, it’s the perfect sequel. It amplifies the things that worked in the first film while all but eliminating the many things that didn’t. Lawrence has breathed new life into a franchise that was already in danger of becoming stagnant, crafting an utterly satisfying, visually stunning and insanely thrilling ride from start to finish. It even achieved the rare feat of getting me genuinely excited for the next one. Your move, Hobbit. 

Miyazaki May: “Howl’s Moving Castle”

 

I don’t envy Hayao Miyazaki for having to follow up a film like “Spirited Away.” For inspiration, the Japanese animator turned to Diane Wynne Jones’ book “Howl’s Moving Castle” and adapted it into an animated adventure. By many accounts Howl is a great film, but as a Miyazaki film it settles for being merely good.

Sophie is a lonely girl who works in a hat shop when she comes across the mysterious and majestic wizard Howl. When Sophie is transformed into an old woman by the jealous Witch of the Waste, she tracks down Howl and his magnificent magic walking castle in the hopes of getting the spell reversed. Meanwhile, the kingdom is at war and the king is recruiting witches and wizards to fight.

Several things stand out in this movie. Howl’s castle is a wondrous character unto itself, filled with portals to distant lands and the heart of the castle, the belligerent fire demon Calcifer. The castle is spectacularly animated, fitting right in with other Miyazaki locations like Yubaba’s bathhouse and Laputa, the floating city from “Castle in the Sky.”

The characters are some of Miyazaki’s strongest. Howl is just a fantastic protagonist, particularly because he’s so flawed. Despite his immense power, Howl is afraid of everything, and he’s also a bit of a brat, which is a refreshing change for Miyazaki male leads. This makes for an immensely likable and relatable hero. The same can be said for Sophie. It is her immense courage and good humor that encourage Howl to face his fears and his demons.

Several things, however, conspire to make this a lesser effort from the famed animator. The first is simply that it is an adaptation. Miyazaki’s original stories are so exhilarating because they are his; the source material here is fine, but it does leave the director tied to a story he must try to be reverent to. Don’t get me wrong, the film is still incredibly inventive, particularly in its visuals, but it doesn’t quite exude the same level of uninhibited creativity as some of his previous efforts.

Then there’s the plot and the message, both of which are overly complicated and muddled. The first half of the film, with its focus on its characters and humor (finally, another truly funny Miyazaki film), is excellent, but as the plot thickens, the air begins to deflate. There’s some kind of war going on that isn’t explained very well, and the bland villain Madame Suliman, who has her own rather confounding reasons for recruiting witches and wizards for war. Also, a fantastic and mysterious character like Howl deserves a good back story, but when it comes its underwhelming and downright confusing. In terms of a message, Miyazaki seems to be making some kind of statement on pacifism, but it’s hard to get a message through when we don’t really know what everyone’s fighting about in the first place. Miyazaki films are known for their narrative simplicity and simple, clear yet powerful messages. “Howl’s Moving Castle” breaks rank in these regards.

I like “Howl’s Moving Castle.” The visuals and music are typically top-notch, and the characters are absolutely wonderful. But the story surrounding it all is a disappointment. Even a lesser Miyazaki film is better than 90 percent of anything else out there, but, by the standards of what has come before it, it is just an okay film from the master animator. It’s worth seeing, but don’t expect another “Spirited Away.”

Well, that wraps up Miyazaki May! I hope you’ve enjoyed and that I’ve encouraged you to check out some more films from my favorite of all filmmakers. It’s been a blast!

*Note: I stuck to films that Hayao Miyazaki directed, and avoided the studio Ghibli films he wrote or produced but did not direct. With that in mind, these are the films I did not get to this time around:

 “Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” “Ponyo,” “Porco Rosso”

 

Miyazaki May: “Spirited Away”

It’s May, and I’ve realized how long it has been since I’ve watched the films of master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. I remember loving them when I was younger (I wrote a research paper on the life of Miyazaki in 7th grade), but I’ve been curious to see how they hold up to these more trained eyes. Or, maybe I just love alliteration. Either way, Miyazaki May is on! 

 

To make one undisputed masterpiece in a filmmaking career is remarkable. To make two is almost unheard of. To make two in a row, well…that’s just what Hayao Miyazaki did with his simply magnificent follow-up to “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away.”

Many people can point to a movie that made them fall in love with movies, or perhaps rekindled that love. For me, that movie was “Spirited Away.” I saw it when I was about to graduate elementary school and my family was facing a move. Its themes of courage in the face of change and embracing our fears rather than running from them really spoke to me and allowed me to weather a stormy season of my life. There are several reasons I fell in love with movies (both Miyazaki and otherwise) shortly after that point, but the major one was “Spirited Away.”

The film follows a young girl named Chihiro, who is, like I was, scared to move with her family to a new house, a new school and a new life. On the way to their new house, they get lost along a country road and come across an abandoned amusement park. When day turns into night, the park becomes a bathhouse for various spirits to rest, and Chihiro’s parents, seen as intruders, are turned into pigs, while she finds herself trapped in the spirit world as she falls deeper and deeper down the figurative rabbit hole. With the help of a mysterious spirit named Haku and a bathhouse spirit named Lin, Chihiro must convince Yubaba, the old witch who runs the bathhouse, to turn her parents back and grant them passage safe back from the spirit world.

Along the way, Chihiro comes across the best and most eccentric cast of supporting characters in any Miyazaki film, including a spider-like boiler man named Kamaji and a misunderstood dark spirit named No-face, not to mention and anthropomorphic frog and a giant talking baby. This is certainly Miyazaki’s strangest and most overtly Japanese film, and that is meant in the best way possible. The film is filled with surreal images; the spirit bathhouse is a marvelous creation, populated with the oddest creatures ever put to animation. It’s Miyazaki at his most creatively uninhibited; you get the sense the Ghibli animators were willing to try anything because, in the spirit world, anything goes. It’s such a thrill to watch this movie time and again, just to see all that the animators have put into the background of almost every scene.

This is also the first of Miyazaki’s films to use digital technology to aid in coloring and effects, and it shows; the visuals here are in a different league from what came before. The colors and creatures pop off the screen (and yes, one or two of them are computer generated). And yet, the purity of the 2D animation shines through. I’ve identified one of the biggest differences between hand drawn and computer generated animation: it’s all in the eyes. I haven’t seen computer generated films quite get eyes yet; there’s something to hand-drawn eyes, particularly in the Japanese anime tradition, that has not been replicated with better technology. They’re just so big, colorful and lovingly crafted, and they’re something I’ll miss as we continue to gravitate toward CG animation.

I appreciate Miyazaki’s focus here on traditional Japanese cultural rituals, myths and spirituality. This is the kind of world where the smallest action can have tremendous consequences, requiring a blessing or a curse to alleviate the situation. There is so much rich cultural practice and heritage here, it’s not enough for one viewing. I urge you to take the time to appreciate the cultural nuances that differentiate this from an American animated film.

At the heart of this film is the greatest of all Miyazaki protagonists, Chihiro. Unlike many Miyazaki heroes, Chihiro is not a noble figure from the beginning. She is a whiny brat, afraid of the unknown and unwilling to face what she doesn’t understand. But, when her name is taken from her by the witch Yubaba, she faces an identity crisis and realizes that her old self just won’t do. As she learns to face her fears in the spirit world, she begins to see that her old problems just aren’t as scary anymore. She is the most sympathetic of Miyazaki protagonists, because her fears are relatable, as are her triumphs. We often wonder how we can find courage in our own lives, and the answer here is that we will always fear what we don’t understand. If we seek to understand our situation and the people involved in it, we may not always overcome our fear, but we can obtain the courage to act.

The primary theme of the film is Chihiro’s identity. When her name is taken away from her, she must try to hold onto herself before she allows herself to be controlled by Yubaba. We find out that is what has happened to Haku; Yubaba has taken away his real name, and he has become her servant, forgetting in the process who he once was. Even with her name taken away, Chihiro is constantly learning and growing, discovering herself anew even with her old self taken away. I may not forget my name, but I can relate to a feeling of alienation in my own skin, like I don’t recognize myself. The key is to hold onto the essence of what we are.

Let’s talk about the music for a second. Oh man, it’s good stuff. Joe Hisaishi has scored Miyazaki films since time immemorial, but I think this is his best. It’s a master-class through and through; somber yet hopeful, melancholy as filtered through the eyes of a dream. Good film composition not only heightens but also adds to every emotion the film conveys, and Hisaishi does this expertly every step of the way. I don’t know where Miyazaki films would be without Hisaishi, but it’s safe to say they wouldn’t be as good. Think of a Steven Spielberg movie without John Williams and you’ll have an idea how essential Hisaishi’s scores really are.

There is nothing in “Spirited Away” not to recommend. It’s one of the scariest, most consistently surprising and emotionally soaring movies you will ever see. It’s the movie that solidified Miyazaki’s popularity in the U.S. (it won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2002), and there’s good reason for that. It was also a movie that personally changed my life. I may not be writing on this site today if it wasn’t for this film. I was worried I’d look back on it today and see it diminished without the lens of childhood. I’m so glad I was wrong. If you could catch wonder in a bottle, it might look something like “Spirited Away.” I’ve watched it dozens of times and plan to watch it dozens more, particularly during one of life’s many scary transitions. I encourage you to do the same.

Here’s Hisaishi playing the opening theme to the film live. Enjoy.

http://youtu.be/d1ni1sVCgEk

Miyazaki May: “Princess Mononoke”

 It’s May, and I’ve realized how long it has been since I’ve watched the films of master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. I remember loving them when I was younger (I wrote a research paper on the life of Miyazaki in 7th grade), but I’ve been curious to see how they hold up to these more trained eyes. Or, maybe I just love alliteration. Either way, Miyazaki May is on! 

 

And here we reach the granddaddy of Miyazaki movies. I’ve never been able to adequately describe to anyone the experience of watching perfection. The best explanation I have is that you know it when you see it, because it will be extremely rare. It doesn’t help that perfection is objective, particularly in the realm of artistic expression. With those caveats in place, “Princess Mononoke” is indeed a perfect movie, or at least the apex of director Hayao Miyazaki’s creative talents, taking his most potent animation skills and themes and weaving them into a truly epic tale that stands along in the pantheon of all-time great movies, animated or otherwise.

The story is more of an epic adventure fable than anything else the director has done, taking place in a fantasy world of gods, demons and men. Ashitaka is a warrior in a small, isolated village who is given a fatal curse by a demon he kills while protecting his village. When he finds out the demon was a god infected by a ball of manmade iron, he sets out to find the city of iron where the ball was made as well as a way to lift his curse. Along the way he comes across San, a girl raised by wolf gods and a protector of the forest, as well as the people of Iron Town, led by the ambitious Lady Eboshi.

The people are intent on expanding the kingdom of man by cutting down the forest and killing the fabled forest god, while the gods of the forest want to protect their domain by killing the humans and driving them out. At the same time, the people of Iron Town are in battle with invading samurai armies. As Ashitaka realizes he holds a special bond with nature, it is his fate to instigate peace with the warring clans and re-forge the bond between man and nature that existed long ago.

When I describe the film as “epic,” I don’t mean it simply throws a bunch of cool, grand things on the screen (although it does do that). When I think of “epic,” I think of the quiet moments as much as the moment of grandeur. There are so many scenes here of quiet despair, such as when Ashitaka leaves his clan and realizes he can never come back, or a quiet reflection overlooking a forest landscape. These help to break up the grander action scenes.

The film has more action that other Miyazaki films, which is much more violent than anything the animator has done. The movie is bloody but not distractingly so; the characters and setting are aimed squarely at adults anyway. From an artistic perspective, this is Miyazaki’s most visually impressive work; the wooded landscapes and verdant green hills pop, as do the many explosions and battle effects. Most overwhelming are the creatures that inhabit the forest, from giant wolves and boars to tiny forest sprites. This is the best creature design of any Miyazaki film, and that’s really saying something.

The film is also Miyazaki’s most powerful antiwar and pro-environment statement. The boar god at the beginning of the movie is turned evil by a ball of iron, an invasion of the world of man into the world of nature. There was a time when man and gods got along (it’s telling that the gods are all animals inhabiting the natural world), but when a mighty emperor heard a rumor that the head of the forest god would grant eternal life, the kingdoms of men began fighting for the opportunity to hold such power. The film reflects poignantly on the power of hate and how it can destroy all that is good and natural about our existence.

Humanity’s lost connection to nature and peace is held together by the dual protagonists of Ashitaka and San (aka Princess Mononoke). Ashitaka is a largely archetypal hero in both word and deed, but his desire to avoid violence (and his revulsion when he must resort to it) is powerful for this type of film. San is much more aggressive and violent, but is determined to fight to sustain her way of life; her back-story, which I won’t spoil, is also pretty awesome. They remind me very much of an earlier Miyazaki hero, Nausicaa.

Miyazaki’s heroes refreshingly play against the cinematic type of the “hero” who does what he has to do to reach his goal, even if it means compromising his ideals or getting his hands dirty. Miyazaki’s heroes always stay true to who they are, even at the risk of failure. They are very flawed, but are aware of their shortcomings and work hard to redeem themselves. To anyone raised on American action movies, it’s difficult to describe how incredibly refreshing and vital this type of hero is. If most heroes (or antiheroes) reflect how we often are, Miyazaki’s heroes reveal what we have always wished (and know) we could be.

If the film has a human villain, it’s Lady Eboshi, the leader of Iron Town. She is not so much evil as misguided, believing that mankind can rule over the forces of nature. She also seeks peace, but, unlike Ashitaka, she does not believe she will find it. She feels she resorts to violence out of necessity, rather than choice. By the end of the film, she has realized that we always have a choice, and so have we.

What else to say? “Princess Mononoke” easily earns a coveted spot at the top of the heap of animated classics, alongside the likes of “Grave of the Fireflies,” “Spirited Away,” “Wall-E,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Akira.” It coalesces everything great about Miyazaki into one movie: noble protagonists, unparalleled animation, spectacular music (Joe Hisaishi again) and powerful indictments against war and the destruction of the environment, not to mention flat-out epic, unforgettable storytelling. Best of all, it reveals a storyteller at the peak of his creative talents, pouring out every ounce of his passion, skill and dedication into his craft. Would he be able to sustain this level out output in the future? Join me tomorrow to find out.

Miyazaki May: “Castle in the Sky”

 

 It’s May, and I’ve realized how long it has been since I’ve watched the films of master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. I remember loving them when I was younger (I wrote a research paper on the life of Miyazaki in 7th grade), but I’ve been curious to see how they hold up to these more trained eyes. Or, maybe I just love alliteration. Either way, Miyazaki May is on! 

In terms of sheer entertainment, “Castle in the Sky” is about as good a Miyazaki film as you’re likely to find. The film plays out more like an “Indiana Jones” or “Goonies” style adventure movie than anything else the animator has done. It’s Miyazaki at his most playful, yet still manages to convey some of the director’s trademark themes.

The story finds an orphaned boy named Patzu, living and working in a small mining town, who comes across a girl names Sheeta who seemingly drops from the sky. She is wearing a glowing crystal necklace with strange powers. It isn’t long before they are tracked down by both a government agent named Muska and a gang of pirates, who both believe the crystal may be the key to unlocking the secrets of Laputa, a fable floating city in the sky.

The prominent theme in this film is flight. Miyazaki’s father was a pilot, and an obsession with flying took up a good deal of his early years. Patzu’s father was also a pilot, and it is his goal to build a flying machine and find the floating fortress that his father was so obsessed with. In the film’s steam-punk universe, flying ships exist, but they are only available to the very wealthy and the military. The flight sequences are just spectacular; hand-drawn animation creates a sense of motion that is difficult to replicate in any other medium; everything from aerial battles to the floating city itself almost look real.

I absolutely love the humor in this movie. It’s Miyazaki’s funniest film by far. Most of the humor comes from the Dola gang, a family band of pirates led by an old woman named Dola and her awkward, bumbling sons. It’s a gentle humor that comes across as refreshing to an American raised on more aggressive and cruel one-upmanship. It makes me wish he had attempted this level of humor in more of his movies (although he did make other comical adventures, such as “Porco Rosso” and “The Castle of Cagliostro”).

As a more conventional adventure story, “Castle in the Sky” is one of the few Miyazaki films to contain a traditional villain. In this case, it works, particularly because Muska is such a cool villain (even with the purple suit and ascot). It helps that he’s played in the American dub by Mark Hamill, who can do no wrong in the realm of voice acting. But the real villains here are actually more esoteric. The floating city of Laputa seems to be a paradise, but there’s a reason the city has been abandoned. It represents all the potential good as well as the potential evil of a futuristic city with advanced technology.

The primary villain, however, is the villain in almost every Miyazaki film: humanity’s fractured relationship with the world in which it lives. Within a fun, fast-paced adventure, Miyazaki still makes a grand statement about our destruction of the earth. This message may seem didactic to American eyes, but it’s difficult to understate the Japanese cultural tradition that emphasizes our connectedness with nature. “The earth speaks to all of us,” says one character early in the film. “We come from the earth, and to the earth we shall return.” Compare this gentle, unobtrusive message to the didacticism of American films such as “Avatar.” It’s clear that Japanese culture has an apolitical appreciation for the natural world around it that American culture seems to lack. It’s a theme that Miyazaki will perfect in the next film featured in Miyazaki May.

Miyazaki May: “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind”

It’s May, and I’ve realized how long it has been since I’ve watched the films of master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. I remember loving them when I was younger (I wrote a research paper on the life of Miyazaki in 7th grade), but I’ve been curious to see how they hold up to these more trained eyes. Or, maybe I just love alliteration. Either way, Miyazaki May is on! 

Of all of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, the one that I least remembered was “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.” Upon revisiting, I rediscovered a gem that, while containing some unmistakable Miyazaki traits, also does some things that help it to stand alone in his body of work.

The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where much of the human population has been wiped out by poisonous gases created by the Ohm, a giant race of insects. Pockets of humanity survive in a few remaining kingdoms left on earth. One of those kingdoms is the valley of the wind, and Nausicaa is the princess of the kingdom. But unrest grows as tensions rise between the neighboring kingdoms of Tolmekia and Pejite, as humanity races to find a way to wipe out the Ohm and their toxic jungle once and for all.

The primary strength of this film is the character of Nausicaa, one of Miyazaki’s strongest heroes and one of the greatest heroines in movie history. Nausicaa is a pacifist and a Snow White type who loves all of creation, even the parts of it that have killed most of humanity. She struggles to find a way to make peace with the Ohm without wiping out the toxic jungle. She can be soft-spoken but has that prototypical Miyazaki-an courage in the face of adversity. In some ways, she is a Messianic figure (a trait the movie itself makes perfectly clear), but she is far from perfect; her challenges and struggles always remain relatable. This ain’t your typical Disney princess. In fact, one could argue that Nausicaa is a strong feminist heroine fighting against the Disney stereotype of passivity.

Miyazaki populates the film with his usual cast of odd and interesting characters, but the most memorable is the film’s “villain”, Kushana, princess of Tolmekia. I use quotation marks because “Nausicaa” exemplifies one of the grandest Miyazaki themes: no one is beyond corruption, and all are capable of redemption. Many of his films do not contain traditional “bad guys,” or, if they do, they are not so bad by movie’s end. Kushana exemplifies the other end of the princess spectrum; someone who always solves her problems with violence.  She has never known anything else. Even if she doesn’t exactly have a redemptive moment on-screen, it’s easy to see that encountering Nausicaa is forcing her to re-consider her way of looking at the world. The same can be said for the destructive Ohm, who come to their own understanding about humanity. I despise cheap villains in movies who seem to exist simply to give something the protagonist to fight against and this is something that Miyazaki refreshingly avoids almost universally.

The animation here is typically excellent, particularly on the Ohm, which is some of the coolest creature design I’ve seen. The fact that these awe-inspiring insects were created in the 1980’s, using hand-drawn animation, is a true testament to the power and endurance of the art form. Miyazaki also uses some experimental styles during a flashback sequence.

The score is provided by longtime Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi, and a Miyazaki film is never complete without one of his soul-stirring renditions. “Nausicaa” finds Hisaishi at his most experimental, utilizing more synthesized sounds and vocals, along with his traditional amazing piano work. I’m not sure his work was ever this consistently surprising in any other Miyazaki film. If you’re not familiar with his work, look it up on Spotify right now. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

“Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” finds Miyazaki working with some of his grandest and most enduring themes: pacifism and environmentalism. These themes are never obvious or on-the-nose, never politicized, never bludgeoned into the audience’s brains. Miyazaki never treats his audience like children, and one could argue that his films are not really meant for children anyway. This film is what I like to call a low-key great movie; it doesn’t exude the immediate awesomeness of some of Miyazaki’s later work, but that doesn’t make it any less of a triumph. Don’t allow this one to be overlooked in favor of some of the famed animator’s well-known works.

Miyazaki May: “My Neighbor Totoro”

 It’s May, and I’ve realized how long it has been since I’ve watched the films of master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. I remember loving them when I was younger (I wrote a research paper on the life of Miyazaki in 7th grade), but I’ve been curious to see how they hold up to these more trained eyes. Or, maybe I just love alliteration. Either way, Miyazaki May is on!

 

There are a select few films in the history of the medium that perfectly convey the experience of being a child. “My Neighbor Totoro” is one of them. All of the emotions are there, from the fears associated with losing a loved one and moving to a new place to the simple joys of standing in the rain or discovering a pool of tadpoles.

This very simple film (some might use the term pure) follows sisters Mei and Satuki, who move with their dad to the countryside to care for their sick mother, who is in and out of the hospital. As they explore their new surroundings, they come across the forest spirit Totoro and adventures ensue.

Of all Miyazaki’s films, “Totoro” is easy to describe, particularly because it is essentially plotless. One immediately striking feature of Miyazaki films is their complete lack of cynicism. A modern American cartoon might have a sassy school chum who doubt the existence of Totoro, or perhaps the father, who might tell his children to put away such childish things and grow up. But there’s none of that; all the adults in the film go right along encouraging the children in their beliefs. It’s partially cultural; in Japanese culture, everything is seen as connected, and that connectedness runs through the family unit. It’s a beautiful, refreshing look at the way families can stick together even in the midst of hardship (in this case, the mother’s illness).

Also prevalent here is that most magnificent of Miyazaki themes: bravery. Nearly all of his characters have it (though some misuse it); one of the greatest strengths of this film is the way the bravery of Satsuki and Mei to simply explore a dark room is given the same respect and admiration as the courage to go up against a giant vengeful forest spirit, as Ashitaka does in “Princess Mononoke.” Bravery, both common and uncommon, is highly valued; the girls’ bravery in the small things reveals their ability to overcome their physical displacement as well as their mother’s condition.

Children are often seen as more at one with the natural world around them, an idea that “Totoro” conveys clearly. The film finds just as much wonder in rain puddles and acorns as it does in giant forest spirits. In fact, very little of the film is focused on Totoro himself; much time is given to the landscape of the Japanese countryside. Miyazaki often uses the medium of animation for a dichotomous yet noble purpose; to help convey the beauty of our natural world. We can often grow bored with the physical world around us; animation helps us to see these seemingly ordinary things through the eyes of a child once again.

Finally, I get to the animation itself. As with every Miyazaki film, there’s nothing to complain about here. Not a single frame is wasted; and every one looks like a painting come to life. There’s just so much going on visually in every scene; from the way rain falls on an umbrella to the butterflies that dominate the foreground, somehow creating an illusion of depth that is not actually there.

I’ll be getting on my animation soapbox often with these posts, and I feel particularly obligated to approach the topic after Disney’s recent abandonment of 2D animation. It’s a shame that the modern film industry views 2D animation as archaic, because it is actually the opposite. 3D computer animation will always be subject to the whims of technology (just take a look back at those old “Veggie Tales” cartoon or the original “Toy Story” and tell me how well they hold up visually). But 2D animation is hindered only by the imagination of the artist. There’s a purity to hand drawn animation that computer animation has never come close to matching.

“My Neighbor Totoro” is a marvelous film, and a great starting point for those new to Miyazaki. Some might find the ending too pat, and Miyazaki is playing with themes and ideas that would be much more fleshed out in future efforts. But, for what it is, “Totoro” is about as pure and pleasant an experience as you could possibly have with a movie. Watch it and reflect on the glorious imagination of your own childhood.