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.


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.

“The Great Gatsby” Review: One big empty party

I’m not convinced “The Great Gatsby” is a movie. It more resembles a calculating machine, churning out just the right emotions and just the right plot point at just the right times to keep the audience in their seats. But when this party is over, there isn’t much left to do but go home and get some shut eye.

Baz Luhrmann’s much-anticipated adaptation of the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel is a dichotomous creation through and through. It’s both artistically ambitious and way too safe, exhilarating and deadly dull all in the same breath.

If you’re not familiar with the book, the story follows the narrator, writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) as he ruminates on his friendship with J. Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) the elusive billionaire who throws the hottest, glitziest parties in 1920’s era New York while harboring deep dark secrets. There’s also Carraway’s cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carrey Mulligan), who is married to Tom (Joel Edgerton). The film mostly focuses on Carraway’s increasing disillusionment with the city and his increasing friendship with Gatsby, the only man he can truly trust, while also helping Daisy deal with her husband’s affair with a local woman (Isla Fisher). The latter part of the film emphasizes the romantic past that Gatsby and Daisy share.

The best and worst thing about this movie is director Baz Luhrmann. Known for directing such sumptuous films as “Moulin Rouge” and “Romeo + Juliet,” he once again shows a flair here for staging elaborate, exhilarating set pieces. Gatsby’s parties live up to their reputations thanks to the production design of longtime Luhrmann collaborator Katherine Martin and the film’s soundtrack, which transitions frequently between 20’s era jazz and modern hip-hop (thanks to the influence of Jay-Z, who serves as a producer). The party scenes in particular do a great job of conveying the thrill of the moment while also revealing the claustrophobic and woozy lows such booze-filled revelries often include. The filmmakers’ stylistic indulgences work for a while, but the frantic energy of the film doesn’t ever let up even during quiet scenes. I wanted to pin the camera down and tell the editors to stop cutting so I could actually enjoy the actors and lavish environments more.

Any rhythm Luhrmann creates during his major set piece moments comes to a halt whenever things get serious. The director has never had tremendous skill in conveying complex emotions unaided by song and dance, and it shows here as the dramatic moments are handled with all the grace and nuance of a sledgehammer. Audiences should never expect subtlety from a Baz Luhrmann film, but it would be nice to be able to let the excellent actors (particularly DiCaprio and Maguire) breathe a little more without having to telegraph every moment. What, for example, do we get to convey the growing tension brewing between Gatsby and Tom Buchanan? A car race. An honest-to-god, hold-onto-your-hats, pedal-to-the-metal sprint through the city streets. I couldn’t help but think of that car race home in “Meet the Parents.” Except that was actually supposed to be funny.

What surprised me the most about this adaptation is its faithfulness to the source material. Fitzgerald’s original critique of the party culture of his era thankfully shines through the translation, as does the enduring allure of J. Gatsby, perhaps the greatest character in all of literature. DiCaprio is just marvelous here, one of his best performances ever, and it is his Gatsby, with all of his flaws and fascinations, that holds the film together, much like the book. But, if anything, I never thought I would be hoping for a more ambitious adaptation. Lurhmann hits all the important notes from the book, right on the nose. While it is relatively faithful, it leaves little room for surprises or truly creative scenarios. I would have loved to see Lurhmann let his creative ambitions loose in preposterous flights of fancy that, even if they deviated drastically from the source material, would have been far more memorable.

“The Great Gatsby” is actually more of the “eh…Gatsby.” I loved the film whenever it took creative risks such as the modern soundtrack, and the acting and production values are uniformly excellent. But for every thrilling scene, there’s another that completely deflates the film’s momentum. It’s a faithful adaptation that ultimately plays it much too safe. Sure, you’ll have fun at Gatsby’s party. But don’t blame the alcohol if you don’t remember much of it the next morning.

“Iron Man 3” Review: A spectacular return to form


To say there is a lot riding on “Iron Man 3” would be an understatement. After a disappointing sequel in the eyes of many critics and fans, Tony Stark appeared in the smash hit “The Avengers.” All eyes have been on his third solo outing to see if lightning will strike again.

Fans can rest easy, because “Iron Man 3” is a spectacular return to form for the wisecracking hero, combining the sharply written dialogue the franchise is known for alongside some wonderful new supporting characters and an overall darker tone that nonetheless keeps the spirit of Iron Man intact.

The story cleverly ties directly back to “The Avengers” as Tony Stark (once again played expertly by Robert Downey Jr.) is experiencing the emotional ramifications of the massive fight against aliens in New York City. His issues are taking a toll on his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow), whom he has let take charge of most of his company’s operations. And then, there is the villainous terrorist Mandarin (an awesome-as-always Ben Kingsley) and a scientist named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) who is trying to convince Stark Industries to invest in a product that uses the brain to bring about limb regeneration.

The numerous side characters, plot twists and complications should all add up to an “Iron Man 2”-sized mess. But the third outing works better because it stays grounded where it should: in the character of Tony Stark and his struggles. His internal conflict is more compelling here than in previous films, as he struggles with panic attacks and PTSD after the events of “The Avengers.” The film stays more literally grounded in the fact that, for the majority of the film, there is no Iron Man. With Jarvis down for a good portion of the film, Stark is forced to resort to some pretty cool Punisher-style guerilla warfare tactics (with the help of his friend Col. James Rhodes, played by Don Cheadle). Some might find an Iron Man movie without much Iron Man to be a betrayal, but most of the intrigue of this universe comes from the character of Tony Stark, not the exploits of his superhero counterpart.

That’s not to say that the suit tech is absent. Tony has created some impressive new gadgets, including implants that allow him to control a suit remotely as well as allow the suit to fly directly onto his body. By the end of the film, the promise of action is delivered through several spectacular aerial set pieces that outshine anything seen in the previous films. In fact, I would go so far as to say that some of the sequences here rival the best in the entire Marvel film universe.

There are a few aspects of this film that may irritate fans. The first is the amount of seemingly superfluous supporting characters that seem to pop up whenever Tony needs help. I would have found them annoying had they not been so well written. When Tony comes across a seemingly annoying child sidekick (played by the wonderful Ty Simpkins), it results in the funniest dialogue (and one of the best characters) in the entire series. These characters help to alleviate some of the murky plotting that plagued the second Iron Man and is still somewhat present here.

The major flaw of this film is, unfortunately, the villain. In a post “Dark Knight” superhero film landscape, a lack of a truly strong villain seems like a tremendous letdown. The blow is softened by the fact that Tony Stark is perhaps the strongest hero in the history of superhero films, but Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin, who starts out as a truly intimidating antagonist, devolves by the film’s end. A particularly lame plot twist leaves us wondering exactly what the villain’s motivations are and why we’re supposed to care. I really was hoping for more from Tony’s foil here.

Thankfully, Tony’s internal conflict is enough to carry the day here. “Iron Man 3” keeps the spirit of the franchise alive with stirring action, heavenly dialogue and the enigmatic man at the center of it all. I truly believe Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal will go down as one of the greatest combinations of character and actor ever to be put to film. To think of anyone else in this role is heresy. If this franchise is to continue further (either via “Avengers” or “Iron Man” movies), Tony Stark and Downey Jr. can never be anything less than a package deal.

Summer Movie Preview: My top picks

Few things get me more excited than a summer at the movies. And, so far, this summer is shaping up to be better than most. No matter your preferred genre, there really does seem to be something for everyone at the cinema. So grab your buttery, overpriced popcorn and join me for a few of my top picks in different genres.


Top Pick: Superhero movies—Man of Steel (June 14)— Before you see it: “Superman,” “Superman II,” “Watchmen”

This summer will see new and exciting entries in the “Iron Man,” “Wolverine” and “Kick-Ass” series. But, without a doubt the movie with the most riding on it is the artsy-looking Superman origin story “Man of Steel.” There hasn’t been a good Superman movie as long as I’ve been alive, so to call this film anticipated would be an understatement. Fans are cautiously optimistic, as the film is directed by Zack Snyder, who has a reputation for visually stunning yet narratively unsatisfying filmmaking (see: “300,” “Watchmen,” “Sucker Punch”). But, the fact that Christopher Nolan, director of the acclaimed “Dark Knight trilogy is penning the screenplay along with his collaborator David S. Goyer should propel Man of Steel back into “hotly anticipated” territory. Oh, and did I mention Russell Crowe is playing Jor-El and Amy Adams is playing Lois Lane?


Top Pick: Romance/Literary adaptation—The Great Gatsby (May 10)– Before you see it: “The Great Gatsby” (book), “Romeo +Juliet” (dir. Baz Luhrmann)

Also known as the shiny new adaptation of the only book in high school lit class you actually enjoyed, director Baz Luhrmann’s film looks to be garish, overproduced and completely awesome (not unlike his previous adaptation, “Romeo + Juliet”). Featuring an infectious modern hip-hop soundtrack and perfect casting all-around (how could Leonardo DiCaprio not play Gatsby?), the film is ambitious to say the least. But, if you’re not excited for this movie, you officially don’t have a pulse. However, if Gatsby isn’t enough to satisfy your hunger for modern literary adaptations, there’s also Joss Whedon’s (director of “The Avengers”) more intimate version of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” shot in just 12 days.


Top Pick: Sci-fi—Elysium (August 9)—-Before you see it: “District 9,” “Planet of the Apes,” “Dark City,” “12 Monkeys”

This is the very definition of a stacked category. Some might call it the summer of sci-fi. There’s the new installment in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, Will Smith in “After Earth” and Guillermo Del Toro’s much-ballyhooed Pacific Rim. But my pick has to be “Elysium.” In Neill Blomkamp’s stunning directorial debut “District 9,” the director proved adept at combining potent social commentary with solid genre thrills. Look for a similar formula here as humanity circa-2154 is divided between the wealthy, who live on a man-made space station where all diseases can be cured, and the rest of humanity, who are struggling to survive on this scummy place called “Earth.” Cue Matt Damon, who accepts a mission to break into the space station in hopes of bringing equality to humanity. If you’ve seen District 9, you know you’re already looking forward to this one.


Top Pick: Comedy—“This is the End” (June 12)Before you see it: anything starring the multiple funny actors in this film

Recommending comedies is difficult for me, because not only do I not watch very many, but there are just so many being made these days. Regardless, the concept behind “This is the End” is genius: a bunch of hilarious comedians are hanging out at a party when they are faced with the impending apocalypse. That may sound like a thin plot, but with the likes of James Franco, Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen, Danny McBride and Jonah Hill around, what else to you really need? If you like your apocalypse-themed comedies more British, there’s “The World’s End” starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Other anticipated comedies include “The Hangover III”, “The Heat” and the animated adventures “Monsters University” and “Despicable Me 2.” If you like watching terrible comedies for some reason, you should get a dearth of laughs from “Grown Ups 2” and “Smurfs 2.”


Top Pick: Action—“World War Z” (June 21) –Before you see it: “Dawn of the Dead,” “28 Days Later,” “World War Z” (book)

This summer doesn’t look to be a particularly exciting one for pure action movies, but the action/thriller/horror/sci-fi film “World War Z” is shaping up to be a tense summer shocker. While many fans of the book are crying foul over the seemingly loose adaptation, actor Brad Pitt and director Mark Forster are looking to innovate the zombie picture with what is being touted as “the most expensive zombie movie ever made.” Sure, money isn’t everything, but if one look at this  poster isn’t enough to get you excited, I don’t know what else I can do. If you’re a bit burnt out on zombies, there’s the sixth installment in the “Fast and Furious” franchise (yes, they’re still making those), Disney’s “The Lone Ranger,” “Red 2” and “2 Guns.”