Monday, November 13, 2006

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Somehow I got the impression that this film was worth watching; I think “Entertainment Weekly” rated it highly. Just goes to show you can’t trust a movie critic whose publication is owned by Time-Warner.

The film is based on the book “Howl’s Moving Castle,” by Diana Wynne Jones. I haven’t read the book, but reviews suggest that the film retains the book’s spirit pretty well. If so, it makes sense that a Japanese filmmaker, Hayao Miyazaki (“Princess Mononoke”), was chosen to direct the animated film. Like every other animated Japanese movie I have seen, “Howl’s Moving Castle” evokes the reverence for nature, the disdain for war and weapons, and the complex characters that are the hallmark of Japanimation. Unfortunately, the film is also plagued by the bizarre, out-of-left-field mysticism and incomprehensible storyline that is also a hallmark of Japanese animation. Every film I have seen from this genre, from “Final Fantasy” to the beloved “Akira,” has been the same way. They start out well enough, with great animation, intriguing characters, and good action. Somewhere around the middle, though, these films veer off into storylines based on some sort of animistic magic that must make more sense to the Japanese than it does to me.

“Howl’s Moving Castle” is about Sophie, a sensible, serious girl who gets turned into an old woman by a spiteful witch. After the initial shock, Sophie takes this surprisingly well, with the droll observation that, “At least my clothes suit me now.” In her rickety new old body, she heads out into the wilderness in search of the infamous wizard Howl and his walking castle. She hopes that Howl (who never actually howls, by the way) will break her spell, but he ends up being such an emotional mess that she has to save him instead. Two kings are at war, and each demands Howl’s loyalty. Meanwhile, the Witch of the West, who cast that aging spell on Sophie, wants to literally steal Howl’s heart. Sophie tidies up the moving castle and helps the moody, androgynous Howl keep it together, while a fire demon named Calcifer (voiced by Billy Crystal) keeps the castle moving. The un-self-conscious Sophie is a perfect foil for the vain, but well-intentioned Howl (who maybe should have been named Cry or Whine).

“Howl’s Moving Castle” does have some things to recommend it: Billy Crystal’s Calcifer is amusing, and I really liked the Sophie character. The animation is beautiful, and the flying machines and moving castle looked really cool. Still, by the time the credits rolled, I felt like I had been ripped off. The movie is about 30 minutes too long, and that half hour is filled with mostly incomprehensible magic-related crap that fails to explain all the intriguing mysteries introduced earlier in the story. In the translation from an English book to a Japanese movie and back to English, some clarity was apparently lost.

Or maybe not. As I mentioned before, every animated Japanese movie I have seen seems to run into the same problem, getting mired in Earth-spirit mysticism that leaves me scratching my head. I’m sure some of this is just a cultural difference. We Americans tend to associate Japan with crowded cities and technology, but Japan is actually a naturally beautiful country, and a reverence for nature seems to be a part of the Japanese character. There also seems to be a romantic yearning in Japan for the feudal past, represented by the image of the noble Samurai. It helps to recall that the Japanese embraced industrialization only as a response to American military might (Anyone remember the Great White Fleet?). The Japanese attitude was also shaped by having two of their cities nuked in WWII, and this influence is seen in many of their films. I don’t know, though. I am hesitant to blame my problems with Japanese animation on Japanese culture, seeing as how I have thoroughly enjoyed live action Japanese movies like “Seven Samurai” and “Yojimbo.”

Whatever the reason, I don’t dig Japanimation, and I dug “Howl’s Moving Castle” less than most. Check it out if you want, but don’t come crying to me, and don’t ask me to explain the plot.

2 stars out of 5.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Friday Night Lights (2004)

Anyone who has been through Texas will recognize the landscape of Odessa, the setting for “Friday Night Lights.” The country is scrubby, dry, and flat, and human habitation there is necessary only because of the oil industry and maybe some farming. It takes this kind of desolation to drive people to follow high school sports, and in Odessa, TX the sport is football. Ratliff Stadium, the high school football venue, seats 19,500, and the population of Odessa is about 93,000. You do the math. In a state that loves its football, Odessa still stands out as a high school football town.
“Friday Night Lights” is based on the book of the same name by H.G. Bissinger, which follows the Permian High Panthers of Odessa and their run at the 1988 Texas state championship. The film is a dramatization of the events, but DVD interviews with the original players suggest that “Friday Night Lights” is very faithful to the actual events and people. Understand that this is not exactly an underdog story. Prior to 1988, the Panthers had already won 4 state titles and a national championship. In a town where the high school football stadium can seat 20% of the population, you can imagine that the coach and players feel a certain amount of pressure. That pressure only increases when their star running back, Boobie Miles (played by Derek Luke), blows out his knee, essentially ending his football career and presumably dashing the Panthers’ hopes for a big season. While the town vents its frustration on Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), Gaines focuses on keeping the rest of his team together, bringing out the leading men in players who were accustomed to being Boobie Miles’s supporting cast.
In my opinion, sporting events are really rather trivial affairs, but sports movies have always succeeded in bringing out the drama in these seemingly unimportant games and lending gravitas to the outcomes. “Friday Night Lights” does not disappoint in the drama department, and you don’t have to be a football fan to wind up caring about the Permian High coach and players. Lead actors Billy Bob Thornton, Derek Luke, Garrett Hedlund, and Lucas Black deliver excellent, natural performances. Without being preachy, the younger actors make you feel the ridiculous pressure placed on these teenage athletes. As quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) puts it, “I don’t feel 17.”
This movie is also remarkable for one particular scene in which three of the players are out shooting skeet. In most Hollywood movies, generally made by liberal urbanites, you rarely see regular people target shooting, using a gun in self-defense, or just legally carrying a gun. If someone besides a cop, soldier, or criminal has a gun in a movie these days, you can pretty much bet that they will end up shooting their child with it or having some other horrible tragedy as a result. In “Friday Night Lights,” though, the shotgun doesn’t make another appearance. No one kills himself with it or uses it in a misguided bank robbery or anything. It’s pretty refreshing.
“Friday Night Lights” will not change the way you look at the world, or even football, but it is an extremely enjoyable, accessible film. You can’t go wrong with this one.
4 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Trouble in Paradise (1932) *****

Looking for a classic, we once again dipped into Roger Ebert’s The Great Films, and came up with a wickedly funny, sexy, romantic comedy that puts to shame most of the romantic comedies made since. Released not long before the motion picture codes were put in place, “Trouble in Paradise” is frequently referred to as “sophisticated”. This is because it openly acknowledges things like sex between un-married couples, infidelity, and the fact that crime sometimes does pay.
Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall play Lily and Gaston, a pair of thieves who meet up in an opening segment that exudes sex without being graphic. The story then jumps forward a few years, a period the two have apparently spent gallivanting around Europe, stealing for a living and living the good life. Their next potential victim, however, presents a new challenge to the pair. Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), widowed heiress to a perfume dynasty, is beautiful and charming. She also turns out to be horny as hell, but un-tempted by the unsuitable suitors (Charles Ruggles and Edward Everett Horton) who hilariously vie for her hand. When she develops an interest in the smooth-talking Gaston, he can’t help but return the affection, and a classic Hollywood love triangle results.
“Trouble in Paradise” has crisp, clever dialogue that is a bit less affected and stage-like than that heard in many of the older movies. The cast is charming, and they are photographed beautifully. Charles Ruggles and Edward Horton in particular provide comedy that is second to none. In one hilarious scene, the two console themselves on losing Mariette Colet to Gaston (who is posing as her secretary), by discussing that he is the boring, reliable, secretarial type that women seem to go for (Neither of them knows, of course, that Gaston is a daring, international thief.)
Most folks in the film industry credit director Ernst Lubitsch with making this film the classic that it is. His famous “Lubitsch Touch” can be seen in the sophisticated wit and treatment of sexuality which makes this film age so well. Indeed some would say that modern times have not yet caught up with Lubitsch’s sophisticated treatment of sex and relationships. This is discussed in an excellent commentary by Peter Bogdanovich on the Criterion Collection DVD of “Trouble in Paradise,” which also contains an old Lubitsch silent film as a bonus. If you have the means, I highly recommend you pick one up.

5 stars.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Third Man (1949) *****

Orson Welles once said that black-and-white film was the actor’s friend, and that there were no great performances in color. There have certainly been plenty of great performances in color since then, but it is easy, watching a gorgeous film like “The Third Man,” to see why Welles was so enamored of black-and-white. The crisp play of light and dark on the faces of the actors and on the streets and sewers of post-WWII Vienna makes this film just stunning.
Visual qualities aside, “The Third Man” is quintessential noir. Noir films typically portray a mostly-good man’s descent into a situation where he is surrounded by evil. The outlook is pointedly bleak, and the protagonists of noir films do not generally perform heroic acts to overcome evil. At best, they manage to avoid becoming evil themselves. The tension in a noir is primarily over whether or not the protagonist will lose his soul.
The protagonist in this movie is Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an American pulp writer who travels to Vienna to take a job with his friend, Harry Lime. Unfortunately, he arrives only to find that his friend is dead, accidentally run over by a truck. This is Vienna after WWII, occupied by Allied forces, with just the beginnings of Cold War tension starting to show. The bombed-out city is filled with soldiers, desperate citizens, and international types with shady motives, reminiscent of some of the characters in “Casablanca.” As Martins brushes up against these characters, he learns two things: 1) His friend Harry Lime was involved in the black market. 2) There is something fishy about Harry’s death. One witness says that two men carried Harry’s dying body out of the street, while another claims to have seen three men carrying the body. The mystery of that third man gives the film its title, and gives Holly Martins a reason to stay in Vienna. As he descends further into the heart of darkness, Martins falls for his late friend’s lover, the beautiful Anna (Alida Valli), and discovers that Harry’s crimes are much worse than he had imagined. Eventually Martin’s sense of right and wrong collides with his sense of loyalty to his friend.
“The Third Man” is, quite frankly, a perfect movie, as memorable for its small touches as for its big scenes. The famous chase scene in the sewers of Vienna is a triumph of cinematography, although interestingly enough, Orson Welles refused to shoot his parts in the sewer, so his shots had to be done on a set. Welles’s most memorable line, meant to justify his misdeeds, is a classic, “…in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” One small touch that is very funny and revealing about the character of Holly Martins is that he constantly gets other people’s names wrong, but then is very indignant when someone does the same to him. Joseph Cotten delivers the complaint without irony, revealing the narcissism which is Martins’s biggest weakness.
I haven’t seen any other films by “Third Man” director Carol Reed, but I think it is safe to assume that this is among his best works. “The Third Man” is certainly one of Orson Welles’s greatest appearances, and the beautiful photography does justice to his pre-bloat years. For lovers of film, this is absolutely necessary viewing. I suggest moving it to the top of your Netflix queue. 5 stars.