Sunday, 1 May 2011

More Films: Classic Ghibli, Insane Superheroes and a Ghostly Romance

Just a few more to add to the list. I’ve recently embarked on a mission to watch all the Studio Ghibli films after seeing and loving Kiki’s Delivery Service last Christmas on TV and recently rewatching the brilliant Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. For those who don’t know, Studio Ghibli is an animation studio in Japan founded in 1985 and headed up by the legendary directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. The studio is synonymous with high quality traditional animation built around story, theme and character and of developing talent and creativity in a nurturing and supportive environment. Studio Ghibli is very much akin to Pixar in the USA. And though Pixar are CG animation based it is the same ethos, the same dedication to meaningful stories and characters with genuine heart and soul as well as to beautiful animation that makes both these studios great and their films some of the most successful ever in their field. In fact Pixar and Ghibli have a relationship with Pixar supervising dubbing and US releases for several Ghibli films.

Anyway, here’s the update.


Iain Softley’s 2001 drama starring Kevin Spacey as the man claiming to be an alien from the planet K-Pax being treated by psychiatrist Jeff Bridges. This is a nicely made and mildly affecting drama about how tragedy affects people and how some people can positively affect others. Spacey is great, Bridges is fine. It’s a tad too mawkish and predictable at times but I still found it pleasantly watchable. 3 (out of 5)

Howl’s Moving Castle

Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 animated tale concerning a young girl called Sophie who works as a hatter and gets cursed by a jealous witch and turned in to an old woman. Sophie’s only hope lies in the form of a handsome, vain and self-centred wizard called Howl and his magical moving castle. But Howl is also in trouble being as he is on the run from sinister dark forces while the world around looks about to erupt in to a devastating war. Howl’s Moving Castle is a beautifully animated fantasy adventure with real depth and some great characters. Many of Miyazaki’s familiar themes are at play – female empowerment, learning to take on responsibility, hatred of war and violence, respect/love for nature, truth found in dreams etc. Wonderful stuff. 4.5 (out of 5)


David Keating’s grim, bloody and pretty effective supernatural folk horror set in rural Ireland starring Aiden Gillen, Eva Birthistle and Timothy Spall. A couple moves to the small Irish village of Wakewood to try and recover from the recent loss of their young daughter only to discover some truly weird local goings on. Think The Wicker Man (original not the Nic Cage abortion) meets Stephen King’s Pet Cemetery with a hint of Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. A very decent little chiller co-produced by the resurrected Hammer Films. 3.5 (out of 5)

Your Highness

The team (sans Seth Rogen) who made the excellent Pineapple Express come back with a foul-mouthed sword and sorcery comedy/adventure. Problem is it ain’t very funny (the gags work way better in the trailer) and James Franco is awful. Still, at least Natalie Portman looks hot and made me laugh out loud by mentioning the burning in her beaver. Disappointing and a little tiresome. 2 (out of 5)


Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s rather overripe 1946 gothic melodrama starring Gene Tierney, Walter Huston and Vincent Price. This was something I accidentally stumbled across on Film4 and just kept on watching…mostly because the late Gene Tierney struck me as being utterly gorgeous and quite a mesmerising screen presence. The story’s the same old guff about a young naive girl going to a be a governess at a big old house (the Dragonwyck of the title) where she then falls for the house’s master and local landowner only to latterly discover that he harbours a dark and deadly secret. Dragonwyck is a handsomely made and nicely shot film from back in the day. It’s those handsome production values and the strong performances by the lovely Tierney and the always fun to watch Price that elevate it above most of the other turgid melodramas of the period. As does its theme of 19th century America trying to throw off the old world shackles of titled landowners who by right of birth alone own not just the land but everything on it. Not great then, but watchable. 2.5 (out of 5)

The Ghost and Mrs Muir

I think Film4 must have been having a Gene Tierney season as this one was on a couple of days after Dragonwyck. The Ghost and Mrs Muir is a 1947 romantic fantasy also directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and based on a novel by Josephine Leslie. Set in 1900 England, the story follows young widow Lucy Muir who moves with her daughter to a cottage by the sea only to find it haunted by the ghost of its former occupant - a roguish sea captain played with great charm and gusto by Rex Harrison. After failing to scare the headstrong Lucy away, the ghost and the widow become reluctant friends and with Lucy battling money troubles they soon begin working together on a novel based on the captain’s colourful life. This is a cosily funny and pleasingly sweet story of loss, love and fighting to come to terms with the changing world around you. Once again, Tierney is lovely to look at and has an appealingly gentle, yet also strong and feisty take-no-crap persona. Harrison (as to be expected) is pure class and charisma as the rough, gruff ghost with a soft centre. Interesting to note it is Natalie Wood playing Lucy’s little daughter. This is a well-made and cute little tale with a bittersweet ending. But it’s probably not for all you hardened cynics out there. Call me an old softy. 4 (out of 5)

My Neighbour Totoro

Hayao Miyazaki’s delightful animated film set in 1958 tells of two young sisters Satsuki (10) and Mei (4) who move to a house in the country with their professor father while their mother recovers in hospital from an unnamed illness. While out exploring one day, Mei discovers friendly spirits living in the forest next to their house. One in particular – a big fluffy creature who sleeps in a giant Camphor Tree and calls himself Totoro – becomes her friend. Older sister Satsuki becomes jealous and wants to see Totoro too. She soon gets her wish in possibly the films greatest and most iconic sequence as Totoro comes to stand next to her at a bus stop while she and Mei are waiting in the rain for their dad to come home. This is a lovely and refreshingly innocent, fun and freespirited film. The story is simple. There are no bad guys or villains. Nobody dies or gets hurt and the two young sisters are great characters, full of life who charge everywhere at full speed eager to see and enjoy as much of the world as possible. It’s simply a great, positive tale of childhood imagination and exuberance filled with flights of creative genius and a warm beating heart. But underlying all of the fun is a childhood fear of losing parents, of being left alone in the world. The long mystery illness of the mother is always on both girls’ minds as they often fret that she might not come home to them as promised. And one evening when dad is not on the bus as he’s supposed to be on that fear of potential parental loss hits again. But this is all quite subtle and the overall feeling from the film is of upbeat and imaginative childish joy. A justified classic for kids and grownups alike that puts most Hollywood family films to shame. 5 (out of 5)

The Cat Returns

A Studio Ghibli film from 2002 directed by Hiroyuki Morita and a partial sequel to Ghibli’s 1995 film Whispers of the Heart. In The Cat Returns, Haru, a quiet, shy high school student, saves the life of a cat on a busy city street one day. Amazingly the cat speaks to her, thanking her for saving its life and promises a reward. Later, Haru receives a visit from the Cat King himself who showers her with gifts she doesn’t want (mice, cat nip etc.) and also says that as thanks she will be taken to the Cat Kingdom to marry his son the prince, the very same cat she saved. Horrified, Haru runs off and is guided by a mysterious voice to the Cat Bureau where she meets The Baron, a suave and kindly cat who promises to help her get out of the marriage. Soon, Haru is taken forcibly to the Cat Kingdom where as soon as she arrives she starts turning in to a cat. The Baron, together and his fat cat friend, Muta, travels to the Cat kingdom after Haru where he must somehow convince the King not to go through with the marriage and to return Haru home before she becomes a cat forever. The Cat Returns is another delightful fantasy adventure from Ghibli, this time being directed by first timer Hiroyuki Morita who does a great job. As with all Ghibli films it looks gorgeous and the story is full of charm and warmth. It’s not quite as rich in depth and scope as most other Ghibli films but The Cat Returns is still a great looking, fun and effortlessly charming affair. 4 (out of 5)


James (Slither) Gunn’s violent, demented and blackly hilarious real world superhero film tells the story of a man called Frank losing his mind as he falls in to the pit of personal despair after his drug addict wife whom he loves dearly leaves him for her rich nasty dealer. Frank’s reaction to his trauma is to channel his righteous rage (inspired by a terrible TV Christian superhero) in to becoming The Crimson Bolt. Armed with a hefty wrench, Frank/Crimson Bolt goes out on the streets and beats to a pulp dealers, thieves and just about anyone who does anything he doesn’t like including obnoxious people who push in line in queues. However Frank’s ultimate mission is to rescue his wife from the clutches of her drug dealer. At the same time the cops as well as local criminals are looking to hunt down this troublesome new costumed vigilante ‘hero’, a hero who has also now managed to pick up a sidekick - a psychotic comic book nerd girl who calls herself Boltie. Super is a brilliantly sad, bleak, scary, funny satire on superheroes, religion, love, longing, and life in general. As Frank, Rainn Wilson is very good, but it’s cute little Ellen Page as scary psycho Boltie who steals the show. And now Boltie's following me on Twitter. Gulp! 4.5 (out of 5)

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Miyazaki’s 1984 classic is a visually arresting, exciting, thought provoking and emotionally engaging tale of environmental collapse and humans battling the threat of their own extinction from ever encroaching poisonous jungles whilst also fighting each other for control of dwindling land and resources. In the midst of all this is Nausicaa, a young princess from an isolated and peaceful valley who has a natural affinity for all animals and who may hold the key to the human race’s ultimate survival. The story of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is beautifully told, intricately structured and plotted, and the characters – especially the smart, kind, sensitive, determined Nausicaa - are immensely appealing. Wanton environmental damage and the pointless and self-defeating nature of war and violence are familiar Miyazaki themes that are all present here and will be further explored in the likes of Princess Mononoke. Primarily, though, this is a sci fi post apocalyptic tale and is not folklore/magic-based, as is Mononoke. Watching Nausicaa I was struck by how much it reminded me of Cameron’s Avatar with a dash of The Lord of the Rings. The imagery is very similar to Avatar – the big, multicoloured jungles filled with hostile beasts where you can’t breathe the air, as it’s poisonous to humans. Then there’s the young princess who has a natural affinity with nature. And the main jungle creatures, the Omes, huge insect things, even produce glowy tentacles, which they use to communicate and also to heal. Plus you also have the big, lumbering human warships flying over the jungles, looking to wreak havoc. I’m sure Cameron is a fan and used much of this for inspiration for Avatar. A shame then that he didn’t also use some of Miyazaki’s more complex and richer storytelling. Nausicaa from the Valley of the Wind is a great movie and one I’ll be watching many more times. It’s intelligent, exciting, emotionally engaging and looks beautiful. This was the film that effectively birthed Studio Ghibli being a huge hit and allowing Miyazaki and co. to go set up their own studio. If you like intelligent sci fi that’s actually about something then give it a go. 5 (out of 5)

1 comment:

  1. Watched Super the other day, loved it! The Crimson Bolt is quite clearly mad, but not as mad as Boltie, she is scary! Insane , ultra violent and very funny!