Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, September 20, 2014

Halloween 2014: September 20


King Kong (1933)

“King Kong” is one of the most iconic films ever created. The idea of a giant gorilla scaling a tall building with a beautiful woman in hand has become one of the most instantly recognizable images in pop culture history. The story – of an expedition to the ominously named Skull Island, of Kong’s fascination with Ann Darrow, of his capture and escape in New York City – are so well-known that there’s no need to summarize it. That’s why people keep trying to reboot the character. Even if the original movie is not that widely watched today, King Kong is still world-famous. Most impressively, Kong is a complete American original, emerging from the mind of Merian C. Cooper.

Part of “King Kong’s” undying appeal lies in the pulpiness of the material. The film is well in line with the rip-roaring adventures that lined the low budget action films and pulp magazines of the day. The characters are in this mold. Carl Denham is the adventurer filmmaker, telling stories of filming charging rhinos and constantly building up his own legend. Jack Driscoll, the heroic lead, is probably the least-well defined character in the film. He’s a tough sailor of few words who survives his encounters with the monsters of Skull Island through his steely determination to survive. Fay Wray’s Ann Darrow has an interesting arc. She is more-or-less living the dream. She was a poor girl scooped out of a woman’s shelter by a big-shot director and sent on a crazy adventure. On that adventure, she meets the man of her dreams in the prototypically heroic Jack. There’s very little reason for Jack and Ann to develop romantic feelings. It’s a plot development born out of the needs of the script. It’s difficult to say that “Kong” intentionally works in archetypes because the film helped defined those archetypes. Even the map that leads the expedition to Skull Island reminds one of legends of mysteriously discovered treasure maps.

The human cast is important but Kong is the star of the show. From the moment he appears, the film’s pace picks up considerably. Even to this day, Kong is an impressive creation. The stop-motion effects are not realistic. To any modern eye, it’s obvious that King Kong and the creatures he fights are models on miniature sets. Who cares. I never been convinced that realism was ever even a goal, as Kong’s eyes are obviously more expressive then a real gorilla’s. Kong is such a personable, beautifully realized character. His eyes, brow, and mouth twitch in excitement, fear, anger, and sadness. The middle section of the story isn’t much from a writing perspective. The movie basically follows Kong and Ann as they encounter one monstrous predator after another, the powerful ape emerging victorious every time. The action scenes are so thrillingly composed that it doesn’t matter. Kong’s battle with the T-Rex is still hypnotic, the gorilla climbing on the dinosaur’s back. They bite and bash at each other until Kong snaps the dinosaur’s jaw in two. In a widely imitated and utterly triumphant moment, he plays with the dead creature’s mouth before beating his chest in victory. The following encounters with the snake-like Elasmosaurus or giant pteradon are no less impressive. Kong may be a simple model but his face and body language is so expressive that his struggles against the bizarre monsters of Skull Island inspire you.

Looking back on it, you might be reluctant to consider “King Kong” a horror film. It probably better belongs to the lost world fantasy or jungle adventure genres. This latest rewatch confirmed to me that “Kong” is indeed a horror film. Take for example the scenes where the sailors are rafting across a foggy lake. Only seen as a black shape, rising out of the water, is a brontosaurus, looking more like a sea serpent then a sauropod dinosaur. The brontosaur wrecks the raft, tossing the men’s bodies through the air. Despite being a plant eater, the dinosaur still chases a man up a tree and eats him. This is dark, violent, thrilling stuff. Kong himself could accurately be described as a monster. He’s certainly a remorseless killer. Most of the expedition crew is taken out when Kong shakes them off a log into a deep canyon. (If the notorious spider pit scene hadn’t been excised, there wouldn’t be any debate about “Kong’s” horror bonafides.) The great gorilla’s rampage through the native village is one of the most thrilling sequences in the film. He stomps on people, crushing them under tossed rubble, chews them up in his mouth. Kong may be the film’s hero in an odd sense but his wanton destruction certainly makes him monstrous.

And as with all classic monsters, Kong is sympathetic too. Later adaptations would play up the gorilla’s connection with Ann as blatantly romantic. Not so much in this version. Ann is nothing but terrified of Kong in the original. The mere sight of him causes her to faint. She spends the entire middle section of the film trying to escape the gorilla. When Kong is captured and brought to New York, all Ann can do is talk about “that awful day on the island.” The film hammers home its theme of the beauty and the beast. Ann is a classical beauty, frail and innocent, and Kong is rather beastly. Yet the gorilla is playful with her. He pulls at her clothes, sniffing his fingers, fascinated by her. Most touchingly, before falling to his death from the Empire States Building, he caresses Ann one more time.

Merian C. Cooper and his co-creators seem to see the film as squarely an action/horror/tragedy. The film is ultimately too important to watch only through these eyes. Through its simple story, “King Kong” tackles numerous, deeper themes. As Tarantino pointed out, Kong is taken from his native land, put in chains, brought across the ocean, and put up on stage for display. Was the film intentionally invoking images of slavery? Is Kong’s rampage through New York a righteous revenge for his capture? Or is it an inflammatory message of letting savages roam around a modern city? The film’s racial context can be hard to read, especially since the Skull Island natives unfortunately fit the then-stereotypes about black people and Africans. I doubt Cooper was intentionally playing with these ideas. However, “Kong” is undoubtedly a story of imperialism and the exploitation of nature by man. Man ventures into a strange world where he doesn’t belong, brings the King of that world back to America, and pays the price for it. This is most notable in the scene where the explorers cruelly shoot an unconscious stegosaurus to death. Because Kong is a tragic figure too, the film becomes about his exploitation as well. Denham is wrong. It wasn’t the airplanes or Beauty that killed the Beast. It was his selfish and thoughtless degradation of an innocent creature that killed Kong.

That’s the great thing about “King Kong.” It is many things at once. We’re expected to feel sorry for the great ape as he thumbs at the gun wounds on his neck and flails to his death. We’re also supposed to be shocked by his destruction of New York. The derailing of the train car or the destruction of the bi-planes are still enormously thrilling sequences. That’s why the movie endures. The images are unforgettable, the base upon which cinematic legends are built, and the ideas stick in your head, evolving in complicated and intriguing directions. Few movies are this fun, thought-provoking, exciting and horrifying. And that’s why “King Kong” is a masterpiece. [9/10]




Dawn of the Dead (2003)

We horror fans were pretty excited when the zombie boom of the early 2000s started. Ironically, zombies have become the horror fad that wouldn’t die. After a decade of diminished returns, the undead sub-genre is in sad shape. George Romero’s original zombie flicks were full of social commentary, when they weren’t outright satirical. Now, the genre is an escapist fantasy for would-be survivalists. I fear most modern zombie nuts would relate far more to the redneck good ol’ boys shooting the undead for fun in the original “Dawn of the Dead” then George himself. Fans like this miss the point. We, the viewers, aren’t Roger and Peter, the bad ass zombie slayers. We, the viewers, are the zombies. I blame video games and “The Walking Dead.” Anyway, I’m rambling. Let’s revisit the remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” the movie that truly launched the zombie boom, in a modern world suffering from both zombie and Zack Snyder fatigue.

Remaking “Dawn of the Dead” was a fairly terrible idea. The original is the high-water mark of the entire genre and has been widely imitated over the years. Smartly, the movie is a fairly loose remake, keeping the zombies, the mall, a few choice lines, and nothing else. The zombie apocalypse strikes and a group of disparate folks make their way to a shopping mall. Once inside, they fight among themselves, find ways to pass the time, and occasionally blast some zombies. In time, they realize sitting around a mall is not surviving and plan an escape into the zombie-infested world.

Former cult filmmaker and now proven blockbuster maker James Gunn penned the script. Time has made it clear that Gunn knows his stuff. At the time, his writing skills were still unproven. Let’s get two facts out of the way: “Dawn of the Dead ‘04” isn’t bad. “Dawn of the Dead ‘04” still has a lot of stupid stuff in it. The stupidest thing? Those fucking running zombies. It trades the slow, shambling dread of the original for shrieking, MTV-style jump scares. The zombies have amber eyes, bust their heads through doors, scream, tumble, and run. It’s obnoxious. Also stupid: The fucking zombie baby. What would happen to a pregnant woman if she got bitten is a question worth answering. Answering it with a screaming, undead infant is not the right answer. The remake also ejects most of Romero’s social commentary and satire, leaving the material bankrupt on anything but the most superficial level.

Also unproven at the time was director and owl enthusiast Zack Snyder. “Dawn of the Dead” is more-or-less Snyder’s entire career in close-up. It’s an intense action movie with some visual panache but is completely dead and soulless inside. Many of the filmmaker’s future Snyder-ism are on display here. His love of ramping, things going real slow and then real fast, is not as oppressive as it would be in the future. It’s still there, mostly employed in close-ups of cocking guns. The color palette is washed-out and grimy yet also slick and commercial. The pounding music goes a long way towards draining tension and foreshadows potential scares. It’s still probably Snyder’s best film, as he even holds off on his juvenile approach to violence, at least until the very end when the chainsaws and the improbable aiming skills come up.

“Dawn of the Dead” also has something lacking in every other Zack Snyder joint: Humor. The remake’s best moments are usually its funniest. Both the original and the remake feature a montage showing the growing ennui of the mall residents. Romero’s version went for drama. Snyder and Gunn’s version goes for laughs. Set to Richard Cheese’s cover of “Down with the Sickness,” the mall dwellers find creative ways to pass the time. Ving Rhames’ cop plays chess with the gun shop owner across the street. The budding teen couple watches old sitcoms together. Most amusingly, the group shoot zombie celebrity look-a-likes. There are a few chuckle-worthy one-liners throughout the film, like one of the guys commenting on the elevator music. Considering everything else Snyder has done has been incredibly self-serious and humorless, I’m willing to give Gunn credit for all the jokes.

The best thing “Dawn of the Dead” has going for it is a fairly likable cast of characters. Ving Rhames gives one of his best performances in recent memory as Kenneth, the hard former cop who slightly rediscovers his will to live. Sarah Polley’s Ana doesn’t have much of an arc but Polley remains a winning screen presence. Ty Burrell’s Steve is probably meant to be an asshole but the actor’s sharp comedic skills make the character memorable. Veteran character actors like Lindy Booth and Matt Frewer do their thing, making bit roles likable. The scene of the cast sitting around and discussing past jobs is one of the most touching in the whole film. It’s impressive that one of the best characters in the movie is almost never heard. That would be Andy, the lovable gun shop owner across the street. The cast is still too large and a number of characters are horribly underwritten. Monica is blonde and slutty, Tucker wears a trucker’s hat, Norma is a lady trucker, and Glen is gay and weird. Considering how little most these characters contribute to the film, they could have been cut without much problem.

The unnecessarily nihilistic ending is a good indicator of the empty heart of “Dawn 2004.” The movie is good for a decent laugh or exploding head. It’s probably the best remake we could have asked for, running zombies and undead newborns aside. Still, I think it speaks volume that, despite launching an unending wave of new zombie films, this remake isn’t talked about much today. Maybe it’s because we’re all sick of Snyder’s tricks now. Or maybe it’s because the remake, for its strength, just doesn’t have much to say. [6/10]





Tales from the Crypt: Loved to Death

I’m being entirely sincere when I say I’ve missed “Tales from the Crypt” in the last ten and a half months. From the fun house opening sequence to the greeting of the Crypt Keeper’s cheesy one-liners, the show hits the horror nerd sweet spot for me. The familiar can be comforting. The show’s scripts always follow familiar story beats, usually involving wrongdoers being punished ironically for their crimes. In “Loved to Death,” a lonely nerd named Edward, an unsuccessful screenwriter, lusts after his statuesque female neighbor. She either ignores him out right or is actively hostile to him. Desperate for her attention, the guy goes to the creepy, voyeuristic landlord who sells him a love potion. As it always does, this backfires spectacularly. Edward learns that you can get too much of a good thing as Miranda’s suddenly smothering affection drives him nuts.

The horrific content in “Loved to Death” is fairly minor. There is some suggestion that the creepy landlord played by David Hemmings might be Satanic in nature. The plot leads to murder, as it so often does in “Tales,” with the would-be killer’s plot backfiring. The too on-the-nose ending has the killer being met in the afterlife by his obsessive lover, who killed herself after he died. Only now, she’s disturbingly needy and brutally deformed. It’s a mean-spirited ending for sure. “Loved to Death” is a weaker episode, probably most of note for its HBO-allowed sexual content. The always game Mariel Hemingway stripes her clothes off and spends most of the half-hour crawling over Andrew McCarthy. As is usually the case with the weaker “Crypt” episodes, the Crypt Keeper’s pun-filled host segments are more entertaining then the episode. [5/10]




So Weird: Medium

Rewatching “So Weird” last year for the first time since it originally aired on the Disney Channel a decade ago, I found I had no memory of some episodes while others stuck with me vividly. “Medium,” the season two premiere, is definitely one I remembered. Its maybe the first time my young brain saw skepticism treated in a positive light. The story begins with Fiona, the paranormal-obsessed teen daughter of on-the-comeback pop star Molly Philips, visiting a spiritualist in hopes of getting in contact with her dead dad. While at the séance, one of the visitors to the circle steps up, revealing the medium as a fraud. Intrigued, Fi tracks down the debunker who turns out to be a real medium, driven to expose the fakes after loosing his own powers.

Like many episodes of “So Weird,” “Medium” has a strong emotional backbone that is hampered by the constraints of half-hour kid’s television. Fiona’s opening monologue expresses skepticism of spiritualism while also saying that it’s natural for those who mourn to want a second chance with their lost loved ones. Fi’s tearful cries for her father during the séance are genuinely touching. The episode ends with a touching conversation between Fi and Molly, where the mother talks about how she still suffers from her late husband’s loss. Cara DeLizia and MacKenzie Philips once again do excellent work.

Unfortunately, “Medium” is rushed in a few ways. Character actor Andrew Wheeler is good as the debunker. However, the character revealing his true powers to Fiona after a few minutes of talking is contrived. Molly’s memories of her husband being illustrated with flashbacks is a clumsy device. Fi’s brother Jack, played by the usually excellent Patrick Levis, has a small role in this episode, with his most interesting actions happening off-screen. Still, “Medium” is a good example of how savvier andmore  mature “So Weird” was compared to the other stuff on the Disney Channel at the time, as the episode packs some strong emotion within its brief framework. [7/10]

Friday, September 19, 2014

Halloween 2014: September 19


The Lost World (1925)

Most probably assume the kaiju genre began with Godzilla. If you define the genre as guys in rubber suits wrecking miniature sets, it more-or-less did. If you define the genre as giant monsters stomping cities, it’s much older, older then even Kong. That classic film, with its plot of a great animal brought from a lost world to the modern world and Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion effects, wouldn’t have happened without 1925’s “The Lost World,” a silent era adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s archetypal science-fiction adventure.

Despite being adapted and ripped-off countless times over the years, I don’t think the story is that well-known. Set in turn-of-the-century London, the film follows Dr. Challenger, a fiery scientist being laughed at by his peers for his stories of still-living dinosaurs. This story is from Maple White, an explorer who claimed to discover dinosaurs atop a huge plateau in Venezuela. White’s daughter, Paula, hopes Challenger can get a trip to the plateau sponsored, in hopes of rescuing her lost father. Eventually, the money comes through, after news reporter Edward Malone, sportsman John Roxton, and Professor Summerlee latch themselves to Challenger’s crazy ideas. Atop the plateau they, of course, discover a bunch of friggin’ dinosaurs.

I find something comforting about silent cinema. The audible hum of the reel, the color-correction of the film, the shadowy footage of the movies themselves. All of this is incredibly tactile, giving silent films a unique grit and appeal. “The Lost World” features plenty of the trademarks you associated with the format. There’s a pinch of romantic melodrama. Malone journeys to the plateau just to impress his off-screen fiancé. Naturally, he falls for Paula and the two swear their loves to each other. The comic relief can be quite broad. When Challenger finds out Malone is a reporter, he punches the boy, the two rolling down the stairs of his apartment. Unfortunately, there’s a buffoonish man-servant in black face who speaks in embarrassingly broken English. Many of the characters aren’t very interesting but I found the determined, argumentative Challenger to be really interesting and charming.

The opening scenes set in London are a bit dry. Things pick up considerably once the characters get to the titular lost world. The plateau, a thin black shape reaching up into the sky, makes for a highly memorable image. A reoccurring adversary of the film is a demonic-looking ape man that pester the heroes a few times. The ape man’s make-up brings Fredric March’s Mr. Hyde to mind.

But we’re here for the dinosaurs. The first dinosaur seen, a flying pterodactyl, flaps on-screen unceremoniously, suddenly spied from the ground. The stop-motion effects are crude now but were considered mind-blowingly realistic at the time. Some have aged better then others. A few shots, such as a pair of Allosauruses dueling, are choppy and unconvincing. Others, however, are still impressive. The close-ups on the dinosaur’s faces show an incredible amount of expression and character. The T-Rex flaps his jaws and whips his tail. The Brontosaurus sneers aggressively. The fight between the two biggest dinosaurs ends with another unforgettable sight, the bronto falling from the top of the plateau. Other memorable moments include a family of Triceratops fighting off a predator and a nest of freshly hatched dinos caught in the path of an erupting volcano.

What truly makes “The Lost World” a predecessor to the Japanese kaiju flicks is its final act. We don’t see the brontosaurus carried back to London, the shipment happening off-screen. Heck, we don’t even see it escape captivity, another character explaining this. However, we do see the dinosaur rampage through his new location. The brontosaurus menaces a fleeing woman with the claws on his feet. He sniffs a lantern, is shocked by its heat, and smashes a store front in retaliation. The dino attack is ultimately a small moment of the film, tucked in at the very end. However, it’s undoubtedly the best part of “The Lost World.” The dinosaur gets away too. It waddles onto London Bridge, only for the landmark to collapse under its wait. As the Brontosaur wades back home, Dr. Challenger sadly watches it go, dismayed that his scientific discovery has gotten away.

“The Lost World” probably would not be a good first choice for an inexperienced silent film watcher. The film lacks the intense black-and-white atmosphere of the Expressionistic films of Germany or the early Universal monster movies. It also relies a bit too much on title cards, creating a creaky effect. The public domain release I have is scored to a rendition of “Swan Lake,” making the dinosaur battles unintentional, and humorous, ballets. These things didn’t stop the movie from being a huge hit in its day, grossing 1.3 million in 1925 dollars. Though slightly awkward, its influence on future films is undeniable and is a good time for experienced dinosaur and monster movie fans. [7/10]




Return of the Living Dead II (1988)

At the start of last year’s Halloween Horrorfest Blog-a-Thon, I watched the original “Return of the Living Dead” which is a great movie to open any horror marathon with. Considering this, it seemed logical to open this year’s Blog-a-Thon with the sequels to that film. I hadn’t seen “Return of the Living Dead II” in years but remembered not caring for it. That’s the general consensus but the sequel does have some defenders. Either way, nothing says Halloween like new wave zombies.

“Return of the Living Dead II” is one of those sequels that function on the “More of the same!” principal. The sequel is blatantly derivative of the original. Both begin with barrels of Trioxin being displaced. In both, an innocent party stumbles upon the gas, accidentally releasing it. In both, the gas wafts over a near-by graveyard, resurrecting the cemetery’s entire population. The film even brings back Thom Mathews and James Karen. Despite playing different characters, they have the exact same character arcs. They are normal humans who, after being exposed to the Trioxin, slowly and painfully transform into zombies. Despite patterning itself so closely after the first film, “Return of the Living Dead II’ does not reference the zombie outbreak in Louisville at all. The affect of the gas is quite different too, with these zombies being slower and more vocal. All of this points to a lazily written screenplay.

The first “Return” was a horror-comedy and a hilarious one at that. The sequel copies this aspect too but, like everything else, it half-asses it. In the original, the zombies were funny because of how their behavior contrasted with the rest of the movie. This allowed the zombies be funny without robbing them of their scare factor. In part 2, the zombies are undead goofballs. A secretary zombie puts her glasses on after pulling herself out of her grave. One zombie gets repeatedly stepped on while attempting to surface. A decapitated head is stabbed with a screwdriver, causing it to usher some lame one-liners. The bad joke cracking head returns for the final scene too. By the time a zombie in a “Thriller” jacket shambles on-screen, I was screaming "END IT!” There’s far too much silly undead shenanigans in this one.

The movie’s painfully unfunny humor seems to be a result of its new kid-friendly direction. Making a kid-friendly zombie movie sounds like an awful idea and, in execution, it mostly is. One of the main characters is Jesse, a tween kid who reads comics and gets bullied. His primary bully eventually becomes a zombie, leading to a climatic showdown between the two kids. Trying to do the “Monster Squad” thing with zombies is a horribly inappropriate idea but not necessarily a terrible one. Mostly, it’s the shrill, obnoxious way the movie handles it. Jesse gets out of too many scraps he should have been eaten in. To make it clear how little the writers respected the original, early on Jesse shoves the Tar Man, the MVP of the first film, into a river. That’s the Tar Man’s sole appearance in the film too.

“Return” part 1 applied prime eighties special effects to the zombie genre, creating some fantastic looking ghouls. The quality of effects in part 2 decline sharply. The zombie’s all have similarly constructed faces, with broad foreheads and angular chins. Unlike the varied zombies in the first, all of these guys wear tattered suits. There are a few attempts to add personalities to the undead masses. One zombie has worms squirming in its face. Another gets its jaw torn off, causing a tongue to lob around. However, the special effects are more rubbery and cartoonish looking then last time. The gore is also stepped way back. I think there’s only one on-screen brain munching. What the hell kind of crime is that? The zombie behavior is also different this time around too. They all shamble, instead of running, and they have a bizarre, previously unmentioned weakness to electricity.

Bringing back Thom Mathews and James Karen was a blatant attempt to appeal to fans. Especially since they’re stuck in a similar situation. Karen’s Ed is no Frank though. He gets religion after being gassed, pleading and whining for divine forgiveness. Thom’s Joey undergoes the exact same scenario as part 1’s Freddy. The only difference this time is that he’s more successful in eating his girlfriend’s brain. Disappointingly, both characters are suddenly dropped before the last act. The little boy’s older sister and a random hunky cable man are the primary heroes. The town doctor is annoying, even if he gets to toss brains to the zombie hordes. The characters here are bland at best and obnoxious at worst.

“Return of the Living Dead II” is not a good sequel. The film’s attempts at humor are dangerously unfunny. The characters are not endearing. It comes off like a lamer rip-off of the fantastic original. Amazingly, the attempt to make the sequel kid-friendly paid off, at least in my home town. My local video store stocked this one in the Kid’s Section, right next to the Disney tapes and “The Never-Ending Story.” The people who ran my local video store were dumb. So is this movie. [4/10]




Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993)

I can’t imagine there was much of a demand for a new “Return of the Living Dead” movie in 1993, especially since part 2 sucked and the eighties’ horror boom had dried up by then. For whatever reason, the living dead returned for a third time. Directed by Brian Yunza, an eccentric but inconsistent talent, the third flick jettisoned comedy in favor of supernatural-tinged romantic tragedy. This made the movie a cult hit in its day and, weirdly, predicted the post-“Twilight” obsession with love stories featuring monsters and ghoulies. Who would’ve guessed that the first “sexy zombie” movie came out in 1993.

In the years since part two, the military still hasn’t figured out how to destroy the Trioxin gas or the indestructible zombies it creates. As military institutions are prone to do in movies like this, they decide to turn them into weapons. The freeze guns they’ve cooked up still aren’t very good at stopping the undead. The teenage son of Col. Reynolds, Curt, and his hot girlfriend Julie sneak into his dad’s place of work, seemingly because they think it’ll be cool. There, they witness the Trioxin experiment. Later that night, Curt crashes his motorcycle, Julie dying in the collision. The heart-broken teen drags his dead girlfriend back to the laboratory, reviving her with the gas. The kid’s attempt to bring his girl back results in another zombie outbreak and certainly puts a cramp in Curt and Julie’s love lives.

Like I said, “Return 3” isn’t funny like its predecessor. In fact, the film’s bleak earnestness is one of its best attributes. It still has more in common with the original then the overly goofy second entry. The lead characters are, once again, teenagers dressed in whatever fashion passed for “punk” in the early nineties. The love story between Curt and Julie is, on the surface, nothing special. It’s the typical troubled teen plot. Curt’s dad is an asshole and doesn’t approve of his son’s life-style. We don’t spend very much time with Curt and Julie before the zombie plot gets rolling. However, we spend just enough time that the audience buys their affection for one another. The actors, Mindy Clarke and J. Trevor Edmond, have great chemistry with each other. The way she crawls over him makes it seem like Clarke was genuinely into the guy. It’s a good thing the audience buys the love story, as it’s the motivator for the entire film. As Julie becomes a self-mutilating zombie, the film becomes about a decomposing relationship. The ending has Curt rejecting the world of his father to burn with his undead girlfriend, making the movie a horror take on “Romero and Juliet.”

Speaking of Julie Walker… The reason, I suspect, so many VHS copies of “Return of the Living Dead 3” were rented back in the day was because of the cover, which featured a pierced, punked-out, partially nude Mindy Clarke. The character brought something new to the well-established zombie genre. In the first movie, we learned that zombies eat brains to dull the pain of being dead. In this one, we learn that pain can force back the hunger for brains. In order to keep her craving under control, Julie self-medicates with self-mutilating, cutting and stabbing her body. The movie’s centerpiece, and poster-lending image, is at the half-way point. Left alone, Julie goes nuts, mutilating her entire body with nails, broken glass, and whatever is lying around. The film, doubtlessly, turned an entire generation of guys on to body modification, which is particularly mainstream now. Julie is still sexy, maybe even sexier, when skewered. Her look not only quickly became a fan favorite but added a new, kinky, sexy flavor to the zombie concept.

While the special effects aren’t as ground-breaking as the original’s were in 1985, the zombies in “Return of the Living Dead 3” are still pretty cool looking. This film’s version of the Tar Man is a semi-melted zombie, its head fused to its shoulder. Quickly, the zombie tears his head away from his shoulder, revealing its skull. Though clearly a puppet, it’s still a neat idea. There are other gooey, oddball ghouls in the film. In life, a man has his head torn off, dangling by his spine. Returned as a zombie, his head bops around on the bloody spine. One of the military attempts to weaponize the zombies has mechanic exo-skeletons attached to the undead flesh. The end features a primary character, now undead, outfitted with such a device. It’s a neat image, especially once parts of the flesh are blasted away with a shotgun, leaving only bloody meat. Though featuring far fewer zombies then the first two, the movie’s atmospheric ending, which has the zombies set loose in the military warehouse, is appropriately apocalyptic.

“Return of the Living Dead 3” is kooky, creative, and features a heart-felt romance. It has its weakness. The script construction is fairly weak, with a random batch of characters wandering around through the second act before solid structure returns at the end. Curt and Julie stumble into a number of stereotypical ethnic types. There’s an Asian shop owner and a gang of embarrassingly broad Mexican hoodlums. Soon, the two teen lovers wind up in the sewer, hanging out with an eccentric homeless man named Riverman. Though Basil Wallace gives it his all, Riverman is basically the horror movie version of a Magical Negro, saving the heroes multiple types and providing sage wisdom. The stern, military types that are the film’s villains aren’t much better.

After the stink-fest of “Return of the Living Dead II,” the third part comes off a lot better. I miss the humor. Besides the Trioxin gas, I feel the film doesn’t have much connection to the others in the series. Yunza and company certainly put their own take on the zombie genre and made a memorable cult film. Weird as it sounds, it’s hard to resist the siren call of a sexy zombie chick, even if her body is full of sharp points. [7/10]




Lights Out (2013)

Earlier this year, a few of the film websites I read daily posted about a new horror short, “Lights Out,” calling it everything from creepy to extremely scary. “I’ll be the judge of that!” I though to myself. The 3-minute short’s plot is as simple as can be: A woman alone in her home, getting ready for bed, notices a strange figure appears whenever she flicks the lights out.

A premise like that is probably built for cheap jumpscares. “Lights Out” features one, the nude figure leaping across the hallway with the flick of a switch and a loud trumpet on the soundtrack. Otherwise, the film focuses on using sound design to quickly, effectively build intensity. As the woman cowers in bed, she listens for sounds of foot steps in the hallway outside, for the click of the light switch, or the creak of the door. This builds up fantastically to the final sequence, which has her reaching out from under the safety of the covers to jiggle a malfunctioning plug back in place. The final image is quick but not jarring, instead allowing the audience to soak in the ghastliness of the image. So, my verdict on “Lights Out” is indeed a positive one. It plays on common fears to create a great spook-show and shows a lot of skill and discipline. [8/10]

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Halloween 2014: Preamble


"HELLO!" shouted the skull.

Last November, after the Halloween festivities were over for another year, I buried my jack-o’lanterns in the moss garden under a tree in my front yard. Throughout this year, I have watched those seeds, fully unexpectedly, bloom into an enormous pumpkin plant. A plant that has, thus far, produced something like twenty different pumpkins. Watching the vine grow has become a suitable metaphor for how Halloween looms over my entire year. I write about horror films frequently here at Film Thoughts. I even published a collection of horror stories back in June. Yet Halloween is special. Once a year, for six weeks, I devote myself fully to my favorite of all holidays. It is the closest thing horror dorks have to a religious celebration and I look forward to it with baited breath all year round.

But it’s not like a religious celebration because it’s actually fun. Halloween makes me happy for a whole bunch of silly reasons. Watching as many horror movies and TV shows over the course of forty-four days is one of those reasons. Last year’s Halloween was one for the books, as I accomplish everything I set out to do. As 2014’s season rolls towards us, there’s no way of knowing if this year will be as good as last year. Let’s leap into that pumpkin patch together and find out.

I can’t leap ahead without a plan though. Earlier this year, I watched and reviewed all of the Godzilla and Gamera movies. Turns out covering 42 giant monster movies over the course of two months was not enough to satisfy my Kaiju Kraving. I found myself wanting to talk about some of Toho’s other kaiju flicks, earlier giant monster examples, and off-brand stuff I’ve never even heard of before. Even though it threatens to occasionally take me out of the horror genre, September and October seem like the right time to do this. Thus, a large portion of this year’s Halloween Horrorfest will be devoted to KAIJU-A-THON. Much Tokyo stomping, off-sync dubbing, and rubber suits await.

There’s other stuff too. I try to coordinate my Blog-a-Thon watches with what we’ll be talking about on the Bangers n’ Mash Show. There are actually several other film series I want to rewatch and explore this year but I won’t reveal which ones. It’s a dancing demon, tall men and little monsters filled surprise. In addition to that, I plan on continuing last year’s reviews of “Tales from the Crypt” and “So Weird.” I might even make some time for a few spooky shorts. My plans are jammed-packed and I’m rearing to go.

My growing pumpkin plant.

Beyond film watching, there are other creepy and kooky things to look forward to. At the start of October, my podcast co-host and I will venture once again to Monster-Mania in Baltimore. Monster-Mania 29 is a bit light on quality guests but Robert Englund and Billy Dee Williams are the big ones. Amazingly, I’ve never met Freddy or Lando before so I’m looking forward to that. I didn’t make it out to Apolloween last year but I plan on correcting that in 2014, including a midnight screening of the much-loathed “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” I did run through a corn maze and a haunted attraction last year. I definitely want to do those things again.

As for the rest of the world… Movie studios and theaters took it easy on horror releases last October. This year, things are swinging back. Middling horror fare like “As Above, So Below” and “No Good Deed” are still stinking up theaters. “The Conjuring” prequel “Annabelle” is the first major release of the season, despite not looking very good. Also not-looking-very-good is “Dracula Untold” – Universal’s latest attempt to retro-fit their classic monsters as big budget action entertainment – and “Ouija,” a bizarre cross between mall-horror and board game marketing. The remake of “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” is probably the most promising of the major releases this October, despite a subpar trailer. Lucky for us, the indie front is much stronger. Kevin Smith’s oddball “Tusk” opens tomorrow, as does Adam Wingard's much-buzzed about "The Guest." “The Babadook,” with its fantastic festival reviews, is easily the most anticipated release of the season. Alexandre Aja’s long-awaited “Horns” and “The ABCs of Death 2” are also coming. I can’t say if “Where the Devil Hides,” “Housebound,” or “Stonehearst Asylum” will be any good. I’m just happy to see October loaded with so many horror movies. Heck, there’s even some mildly spooky stuff ahead for the kiddies, like “The Boxtrolls” and “The Book of Life.” In all of that, surely there will be something worth seeing.

As the leaves begin to fall, the candy corn self-generates in our treat bags, and pumpkins prepare to be carved, I ask myself a question: Why do we Six Weeks?

The answer: Because we love horror, as it speaks to something deep inside us, whatever that might be. Because we love Halloween and feel one day of celebration isn’t enough. Because it helps us mark the passing of another year and the changing of the seasons. Because it connects us with the good times and friends and happy holidays we’ve experienced in the past. We Six Weeks because we love Halloween, we love horror, and we love to write about both. 2014’s Halloween Horror-Fest Blog-a-Thon: It has begun.

HORROR AHEAD

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Bangers n' Mash 49: The Films of Tim Burton

I have uploaded a new episode of the Bangers n' Mash Show. I've mentioned this over and over again but I am shameless about recycling the reviews I write for this blog as material for my YouTube show. So after wrapping up my Tim Burton Director Report Card, it should come as on surprise that we would record a show about the director's films. It turned out pretty well. Much jaunty tuba and black-and-white spirals ensue.



While I'm here, I have two other things to say. First off, YouTube now forces you to give them your phone number before you can upload a video. This is very sleazy on your behalf, Google. Secondly, come back in a few hours for... Well, you know what. 'Tis the season and such.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Director Report Card: Hayao Miyazaki (2013)


11. The Wind Rises
Kaze tachinu

Multiple times over his long career, Hayao Miyazaki has threatened to retire. “Spirited Away” was supposed to be his final film before the assigned director dropped out of “Howl’s Moving Castle,” bringing Miyazaki onto the project. I’m fairly certain he talked about retirement a few other times too. When the director announced that his eleventh feature, “The Wind Rises,” was going to be his final film, it was hard to know if he was being serious. As the release of the film approached, it became clear that the director was serious. Miyazaki was truly retiring, for realsy this time. For his last film, he chose an unusual project. As a drastic change of pace from his usual children’s film or fantasy action/adventures, “The Wind Rises” is a low-key drama about Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, the Japanese fighter jets that dropped the bombs on Pearl Habor.

Beginning in 1918, the film starts with Jiro as a thirteen year old, his love and fascination with airplanes already in place. He wears glasses which prevents him from being a pilot himself. After an encounter in a dream with Italian designer Giovanni Caproni, Jiro devotes his life to designing airplanes. Jumping ahead to 1927, Jiro scores a job with Mitsubishi designing planes for the Japanese airforce. As the threat of war looms, Jiro regrets that his beautiful creations will be used to destroy cities and end lives.

Despite being based in fact, “The Wind Rises” deviates wildly from the truth. The facts concerning Horikoshi’s career as a plane designer are more-or-less intact. The building and failure of the Mitsubishi 1MF10 is documented, along with the creative process that eventually led to the creation of the Zero. However, most everything else in the film is fictional. A major subplot is Jiro’s relationship and brief marriage to a woman dying of tuberculosis, which is invented whole-cloth. A long series of scenes revolving around Jiro befriending a German designer don’t have any basis in reality either. More-or-less, all of the insight the film gives into Jiro’s life is fictional and created for the film. “The Wind Rises” is a biopic in only the loosest sense. Instead, it’s mostly a fictional drama that takes loose inspiration from true events.

The story the film is telling is grounded in truth and mostly concerns the day-to-day life of normal people. Which raises the question of why the film had to be animated. A question that Miyazaki answers by including a number of fantastical dream sequences in the film. “The Wind Rises” actually opens with a stunning five-minute dream sequence, totally free of dialogue. In this scene, 13-year old Jiro jumps on a bi-plane docked atop his home. He flies through his small town, zipping under a bridge, pass the workers and farmers below. As he climbs higher into the sky, a strange air-ship emerges. Shadowy figures standing atop bombs dangle from the ship. Jiro tosses his goggles and cap aside, revealing the glasses on his face. His eyes bulge behind the lens just as one of the bombs crashes into his plane, sending the boy falling towards the ground. An interesting decisions has the noises of the airplanes not being canned sound effects but rather provided by mumbling, grumbling human voices. As in Miyazaki’s best films, an incredible amount of emotion is conveyed through the use of images, motion, and music. As far as openers go, this one is a stunner.

It is also the only dream sequence that truly feels like a dream. This is, perhaps, intentional. Early on, Jiro has a dream that has him meeting Caproni, his hero and the man who would inspire his profession. These dreams are reoccurring and are more like visions or psychic communications then genuine dreams. In the first, Caproni shares his vision of an air-bus before it is ever actually built. Another has the Italian inviting Jiro onto a giant bomber plane. For its test ride, he has invited the families of his workers to enjoy a flight. The film’s emotional conclusion has the two meeting again, above a destroyed field. In an image recalling “Porco Rosso,” the two watch a fleet of Jiro’s Zeroes fly by before they soar up into the sky, disappearing into a stream of stars overhead. The meetings with Caproni are potentially overwrought. However, they provide a structure to the film, giving a clearer look into Horikoshi’s ambitions and plans.

Miyazaki has never kept his love of aviation and air travel a secret. Considering how fascinated he is with airplanes, it’s surprising that “The Wind Rises” is only the second film Miyazaki has made to explicitly revolve around planes. The detail is, naturally, obsessive. The planes look as realistic as possible and are outfitted with an insane amount of detail. The film has a clever way of conveying Jiro’s innate understanding of plane physics. During one of the test flights, the designer can tell that the plane is about to shake apart under the high velocity. He focuses on the wing, seeing through the canvas to the frame swaying inside. Another moment has Jiro explaining his latest work of art to his co-workers, who see the design spring to life around them. “The Wind Rises” uses the animated form to convey a deeper, more intuitive understanding of what makes airplanes special.

The film is two different types of love stories. Horikoshi doesn’t see planes as vehicles or weapons but rather works of art and has an artist passion for designing them. The film is also a literal love story. While on a train headed back to the Tokyo university, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 hits. The land ripples around them, the train derailed and the city bursting into flames. Jiro rescues a young girl named Nahoko from the crash without ever revealing his name. A decade later, the two meet again, the girl having never forgotten about him. The second half of “The Wind Rises” is heavily devoted to the growing bond between Jiro and Nahoko. Some of the scenes drip with melodrama, primarily because of Nahoko’s inevitable death from tuberculosis. However, others are more low-key and touching. The two lovers walk through a rainstorm, both crouching under a hole-filled umbrella. After being married, Jiro works on his planes designs at home. Nahoko scoots his table closer to her sleeping bag so that the two can hold hands. The best moments concerning the romantic subplot are the ones that make the most use of the film’s dream-like tone. While Nahoko recovers in her room, her hat blows off her head. Below, Jiro dances back and forth in order to catch it, a moment of releaving Buster-Keaton-style slapstick. Another effective moment comes during the successful test flight of the A5M. Instead of being proud of his success, Jiro is distracted by a sudden wind. He has sensed that his wife has died. It’s a quiet, effective moment. The love story never quite connects with the film’s thematic concerns but is not without touching elements.

“Porco Rosso” also did a great job of capturing a world in transition. “The Wind Rises” does much the same, being set during a similar time period. In the time period after World War I, Japan is destitute. Banks are closing, thousands are out of work, and no one has any money. Meanwhile, the government is pouring money into the military. Jiro’s best friend Kiro Honjo points out that the two of them are making decent money while the rest of the country is fighting to survive. While overseas in Germany, Jiro sees the growing influence of fascism first hand. During the night, a fleeing man is cornered by the secret police in an alley way and beaten, expressionistic shadows cast on the wall behind them. While in the countryside, Horikoshi befriends a German named Hans Castrop, who is a vocal critic of both Hitler’s growing power and the militaristic tendencies of the Japanese Empire. For this friendship, Jiro is pursued by government agents for the rest of the film. The inevitability of World War II affects the entire film. The film paints a picture of a world still crippled from one world war while on the verge of another.

Which brings me the primary thematic thrust of “The Wind Rises.” Nearly all of the director’s films have an anti-war subtext. This film brings that reoccurring theme to the surface. As in “Howl’s Moving Castle,” the war is painted a futile, frivolous enterprise. The film does not go into the reasons behind the war, instead focusing on the lives that will be lost in the violence. Jiro creates his planes as expression of art. Throughout the film, he and other characters bemoan the fact that his artistic creations will be used as weapons. The war is never actually seen on-screen, instead merely refereed to. By focusing on Jiro’s desires to create something beautiful, the film makes the losses incurred during the war more personal.

It’s also somewhat impossible not to look at “The Wind Rises” as being about Miyazaki’s own career. During one of their imagined meetings, Giovanni Caproni tells Jiro that he is retiring, that his “ten years in the spotlight” are up. Is the director commenting on his own retirement here? Does he feel that he has wore out his welcome by staying in the animation business for so long? And how does this reflect on the rest of the film? Jiro is ashamed that his personal artistic creations are eventually misused by other people. Is this how the director feels about his own films? Does Miyazaki regret his films becoming so heavily merchandised? Or is he uncomfortable with the status Ghibli has come to hold in the Japanese animation industry? It’s hard to say for certain. However, this reading is inevitable and adds another interesting layer to the film.

Despite obviously being a passion project for the filmmaker, “The Wind Rises” might be Miyazaki’s weakest film. The movie’s pace can best be described as “meandering.” Long portions are devoted to Jiro and his friends sketching out planes, which is not the most cinematic action. The trip to Germany and back are broken up with long sequences of the two geeking out over German ingenuity or sitting in their hotel room. When Jiro is in the countryside, forming his bond with Nahoko, the pacing really takes a dive. Dialogue-heavy scenes devoted to two characters standing around and talking drag the film down. For a movie that’s already long at 126 minutes, “The Wind Rises” frequently feels even longer.

As his career went on, Miyazaki’s themes became more and more obvious. “The Wind Rises” has this trend coming to a head. The film is frequently didactic. Instead of expressing its thematic concepts through the story, the characters lay them out, speaking their feelings in lengthy monologues. This is most obvious during the final scene. Jiro and Caproni ruminate over their beautiful creations being destroyed in the pursuit of war. Jiro’s dead wife then appears to him, imploring him to move on with his life. Surely there were more elegant ways to express these idea. “The Wind Rises” too frequently feels like a lecture which only adds to its sluggish pacing.

“The Wind Rises” is a visually stunning film and one full of fascinating, gorgeously created scenes. It’s a highly personal statement but occasionally hampered by an uneven execution. It’s probably Miyazaki’s weakest film. His thirty-year-plus career was one largely without misstep and even his weakest film is ambiguous and impressive. [Grade: B]


  

As of now, it's hard to know if Miyazaki's retirement will stick, with rumors of a possible new project already circulating. Either way, the studio the director founded is in a state of transition. Studio Ghibli is not closing down, not yet anyway, but the company's future is uncertain. If Ghibli closes down forever, it would certainly mean a huge loss for the animation world, especially since there are still talented filmmakers at the studio, beyond Miyazaki and Takahada. Maybe in a year from now, we'll have more concrete answers. At this moment, we fans can only hope and wonder.

As long time Film Thoughts readers are surely aware, the blog will be going quiet for a few days before returning at the end of the week in a big way. You know what I'm talking about. See you soon.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Director Report Card: Hayao Miyazaki (2008)


10. Ponyo
Gake no ue no Ponyo / Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea

Studio Ghibli in general and Hayao Miyazaki specifically are both called the Disney of Japan. In one way, this is correct. The popularity and massive success of their films, and unlimited merchandising of their characters, is comparable to the status the Disney empire holds in America. (And most everywhere else in the world, let’s face it.) However, Disney is a huge conglomerate. Even when Walt Disney was alive, he was more of a supervisor than a hands-on filmmaker. Ghibli, meanwhile, is a smaller operation with Miyazaki still hand-drawing major parts of his films. Still, the comparison holds some water and it’s, no doubt, one the director himself is aware of. I can imagine him looking at the films Disney makes and thinking “I can do that!” “Ponyo” has similar roots to the films of the Disney Animated Canon but ultimately a style and a tone that is pure Miyazaki.

Set on a tiny island in the middle of a massive sea, the film follows two young children. The first is Sosuke, a serious and focused five year old boy, living on a small house on a hill with his mother, who works at the local nursing home. Sosuke’s father is a boat captain and frequently away from home. The other child is Brunnhilde, the fish-like daughter of a human man and the goddess of the ocean. When the rebellious Brunnhilde escapes her father’s care, she spots Sosuke playing on the coast. The little girl is immediately smitten with the boy, who adopts her as his goldfish. Renamed Ponyo, the girl steals her father’s magic, transforming into a little girl, and reuniting with Sosuke… And flooding the island in the process.

“Ponyo” has a visual design and look distinct from any other Ghibli film. The animation style is simpler and more colorful. The waves of the ocean are a cartoonish, bright blue, like a child’s crayon. The character designs are looser and more expressive. The backgrounds are less detailed and more simplistic, often looking like slightly abstract shapes set against colorful backdrops. The change in style doesn’t represent a drop in quality. Instead, it’s a deliberate choice. The film’s look reflects the energetic drawling of a child, full of big, bold colors and simple, highly defined shapes. It’s an interesting choice, and one linked to the story, for Miyazaki to change up his style on his tenth feature film.

Don’t get the impression that “Ponyo” is lacking in the crazy, meticulous detail we’ve come to expect from Studio Ghibli though. The vehicles, homes, and clothes are the characters are as life-like and dutifully recreated as expected. The film opens with some of the most visually stunning and beautiful animation the studio has ever created. From under the sea, Fujimoto, Ponyo’s father, stands in a giant bubble, seemingly directing the sea life around him. Huge colonies of jellyfishes, shrimps, and other sea creatures swim around him. Squids, glowing multiple different colors, float overhead, the man flicking lights at them. While he’s distracted, Ponyo sneaks out of her inclosure, floating on the back of a giant jellyfish, snoozing under a bubble. After the island is flooded, accurate recreations of ancient sea creatures are seen swimming underwater. Even the sea monsters have a sense of character to them. While Ponyo and Sosuke are climbing onto his ship, a little octopus can be seen in the background crawling over a shoe. It’s that attention to detail that make Ghibli films such a wonder for the eyes.

The North American DVD cover, in an oddly prominent way, proclaims that the film is based off Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid.” “Loosely inspired by” would be more accurate than “based on.” As in “The Little Mermaid,” Ponyo is a princess from under the sea who rebels against her anti-human father after falling in love with a human male. If the boy’s love fails her, Ponyo will die and turn into sea foam, as in the frequently excised original ending of Anderson’s story. Beyond that, there isn’t much resemblance between the two tales. “The Little Mermaid” is, in its original incarnation, a tragedy. While “Ponyo” is a softer, sweeter story. (The film also throws in an unexpected reference to the Nibelungenlied too, what with the rebellious daughter being named Brunhilde.) What “Ponyo” most resembles is Miyazaki’s own “My Neighbor Totoro.” Both are simplistic stories about children and their encounters with the fantastic. Both are set in rural areas and both deal with the relationship between kids and parents. Keeping on in this trend, “Ponyo” is the first straight-up kid’s flick Miyazaki has made since “Totoro.”

You could say the director is repeating himself. “Ponyo” is certainly awash in the filmmaker’s trademarks. Early on, while swimming towards the surface, Ponyo is caught up in a net full of garbage. Fujimoto’s hatred of mankind is based on the pollution humanity has pumped into the ocean. Miyazaki’s ecological themes take a backseat to another one of his pet themes. The film is full of strong, fully-formed female characters. Sosuke’s mom, whom he calls Lisa instead of “mom,” is a headstrong woman. She drives her tiny car in front of a ship just as it’s pulling into dock. Later on, when the island is being quickly submerged by massive tidal waves, she races the same tiny car around tight corners, huge waves threatening to swallow it up. She’s somewhat petulant when dealing with her husband, sending angry messages to his ship through Morse code blinkers. Yet she’s loving towards Sosuke and accepts Ponyo’s magical reappearance at their home. The nursing home Lisa works at contains three older ladies. Toki is equally headstrong while Yoshie and Kayo are more whimsical. All three love Sosuke and its clear that the little boy livens up their lives. A wonderful moment occurs at the end, when we discover the older women running freely for the first times in years within Fujimoto’s magical underwater bubble. Ponyo herself and her mother are both examples of this tendency too, of course.

The film is concerned with something else too. A topic frequently oversimplified, if not out-right ignored, by most children’s media is the relationship between parents and their kids. This comes to the forefront in “Ponyo.” Ponyo is rebellious towards her father. As the film opens, she is contained in a bubble, along with her hundred little sisters. Fujimoto is protecting her from the world of man but, in a wider sense, is simply protecting her. As it is sometimes, the parent putting a leash on the child makes her want to wander more. Meeting Sosuke and becoming infatuated with the boy is just the catalyst needed to push the two apart. Fujimoto’s resistant towards his daughter is somewhat hypocritical. After all, he was once a normal human who fell in love with a mystical being from the sea. Sosuke and Lisa’s relationship contrasts. The absence of Sosuke’s father has had a profound effect on the boy. He’s mature for his age, with his mother frequently coming off as the more care-free one, like when she shares an ice cream cone with her boy or romps on the bed with him. Ponyo’s mother is the great Goddess of Mercy and happily accepts her daughter’s crush on the land boy, recognizing the similarities between their relationship and her and Fujimoto’s. The ocean mother is a figure of understanding and all-abiding love.

Like “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Ponyo” has an accurate grasp on the energy of youth. This is mostly evident in the first meeting between Ponyo and Sosuke. When she’s a fish, Sosuke is very excited to have her. He obsesses over the little fish, showing her to his pre-school friends. When the fish is taken back to the sea, he’s visibly sad, wishing for her return. Ponyo returns that devotion in kind. After being reunited, she leaps on the boy in a full-force hug. Ponyo shouts, leaps around, and is a little ball of energy in general. When introduced to ham, a towel, or hot tea, she goes crazy with enthusiasm. One tiny, notable moment has her running around the room in a circle, climbing over a couch, instead of walking to the dinner table in a straight line. She’s a good contrast to Sosuke’s controlled personality. Ponyo is pure, unrestrained childhood id.

It’s interesting that the film presents the two kid’s relationship as unabashedly romantic. The film makes a good case for “puppy love.” Ponyo’s feelings for Sosuke is something between a precocious crush and a kid finding her best friend. Sosuke, meanwhile, seems to have a calm, understated attachment to his fish girl. The film’s dramatic climax comes with what Ponyo’s mother calls the Test of Love. The mermaid princess turns back into a fish, shrinking in the boy’s arms. As she swims around him, Sosuke is asked if he’ll love Ponyo even if she’s a fish. He answers in the positive, providing this kid-friendly fairy tale with its happy ending. Inverting the usual trick, it’s the fishy kisses the little boy before turning into a little girl. Whether or not Sosuke and Ponyo will grow into lovers or be something more like brother and sister is up for the viewer to decide.

Since so much of the film revolves around water, it’s appropriate that it should treat magic as a fluid, natural process. Fujimoto’s main ability is to summon water-like creatures to do his bidding. The creatures, recalling the Blob Men in “Howl’s Moving Castle,” have big eyes amid thick, fluid bodies that stick out amidst the water. He draws his powers from strange, glowing potions, kept in elongated bottles in his underwater lair. When Ponyo escapes, she rockets to the surface on golden, glowing fish. Her little sisters swim around her, transforming into giant blue fish, and exploding out of the surface into the sky. Later on, the same batch of little sisters morph into older women while swimming around their sister again. The ocean goddess swims across the ocean’s surface as a giant reflection, gathering all the lost boats next to a still, huge wall of water. Ponyo’s transformation is the film’s best example of how fluid its use of magic is. She often shifts between human and fish while using her abilities, sometimes sprouting chicken-like arms and legs. Like Sophie shifting between ages in “Howl’s Moving Castle,” Ponyo’s face and body stretches between forms naturally and without comment.

“Ponyo” is not an action movie and is generally short on big set pieces. Save for one. When Ponyo’s escape, she unleashes her father’s ancient magic, causing torrential floods to surround the tiny island. This is portrayed as massive waves sinking around the small landmass. Sosuke and his mother attempt to outrun the flood waters behind them. Only the son notices Ponyo skipping across the surface of the water like a stone. The mother is more preoccupied with getting away from the giant waves threatening to swallow them. “Ponyo” is a kid’s flick and the viewer never really doubts that Lisa and her kid will make it out safe. It’s a testament to the skills of the filmmaker that, even then, the viewer is on the edge of the seat during the sequence.

After the floods subsides, the aftermath is treated in a surprisingly relaxed fashion. Despite a whole town being buried underwater, no one is hurt and no lives are lost. Instead, the film treats the flooded area almost like a fantasy wonderland. Ponyo uses her powers to turn Sosuke’s toy boat into the real thing. The two set out over the water, awing at the sea creatures below. They come across a husband and wife in a small boat, a baby in her arms. The little kids quickly make friends with the adult couple. Because there’s no threat of the kids being harmed, the two of them setting off on an adventure over the waves has almost a cozy feeling. It’s fun and danger-free. Considering the film is about a huge flood, it treats the situation in a surprisingly laid-back fashion.

“Ponyo” is not a game-changer. It’s a low-stakes kid’s flick and repeats many of the themes Miyazaki stated in bigger ways in previous films. However, the director’s skills with characters and creating fantastic worlds on-screen have never faded. It’s a charming, sweet, if light-weight, adventure for the youngest set. I was fortunate enough to catch “Ponyo” in the theater when it was released in America, even if it was in Disney’s respectful if slightly distracting English dub. I can say Ghibli’s vividly animated, beautifully detailed films deserve to be experienced on the big screen, even in a more minor film like this one. [Grade: B]

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Director Report Card: Hayao Miyazaki (2004)


9. Howl’s Moving Castle
Hauru no ugoku shiro

Some time ago, my older sister and her soon-to-be-husband lived in a home without a television. Instead of a TV, they had an entire room of shelves, lined with hundreds of science fiction and fantasy novels. In order to pass the time while spending long weekends there, I read many of those volumes. One title that always caught my attention yet I never got around to reading was “Howl’s Moving Castle” by Diana Wynne Jones. Years later, it was announced that Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli were making a film of the book. I knew nothing about the source material but the title was memorable enough that I recognized it. After seeing the film, it’s not surprising to see why the novel appealed to Miyazaki, as the story contained many of his favorite themes.

“Howl’s Moving Castle” is a full-blown fantasy revolving around wizards, witches, the demons they draw power from, and set in a fantasy world that resembles turn of the century Europe. Sophie, a young hat-maker, lives a town where rumors of a dashing wizard named Howl, and the moving castle he lives in, abound. By pure happenstance, she meets the handsome wizard, which incurs the wrath of Howl’s primary rival, the Witch of the Waste. Young Sophie is transformed into an old woman and seeks out Howl, hoping to find a cure. She’s quickly adopted into the wizard’s odd family of outcasts. The group has to survive as the countries around them march towards war.

Two of Miyazaki’s favorite character types are the spirit-filled young girl, just on the cusp of adulthood, and the tough elderly woman, determined and set-in-her-ways. “Howls’ Moving Castle” affords the director an oppretunity to include both of those personalities in the same character. Sophie comes from a family of beautiful, social women, including her stylish mother and newly married older sister. Because of this, she sees herself as plain and unexceptional, toiling away at her day job of making hats. Sophie is actually lovely, talented, and intelligent but is unwilling to acknowledge these facts about herself. When the Witch of the Waste curses her to become an old woman, Sophie maintains those personalities traits. She tracks down Howl’s castle and forcefully integrates herself into his household, giving herself the job of cleaning lady. What’s fascinating about Sophie’s curse is that its dependent entirely on her. While she sleeps, Sophie maintains her youthful appearance. When describing Howl’s positive qualities, she shifts from an old woman back to a young girl. In the second half of the film, her age is constantly morphing between the two extremes. The curse becomes a reflection of her own self-confidence. Sophie believes herself to be homely, so she looks like an old woman. Only after she learns to accept herself, with the help of Howl’s love, does she return to her original age again.

Howl is an equally interesting character. He fits the anime stereotype of the bishonen. He’s not only handsome but slightly androgynous, with wide eyes, a thin face, earrings, and shoulder-length hair. Howl is enough of a classic bishonen that he only superficially resembles the usual Ghibli character design. He also maintains the moodiness of the archetype. After Sophie cleans the bath room, moving the potions around, Howl accidentally dyes his blonde hair red. This has such an affect on him that he slumps into a depression, summoning shadow monsters into the room and producing a green slime over his skin. Yet Howl, in time, proves more complex than your average temperamental but good-looking bad boy. In exchange for his magical powers, he gave the fire-demon Calcifer his heart. This has caused his humanity to slowly erode, transforming Howl into an inhuman, bird-like monster when stressed. At night, he flies into the war zones but can’t bring himself to directly intervene. As his relationship with Sophie evolves, Howl’s humanity returns to him, forcing him to finally make a stand in the growing conflict.

The romance between Howl and Sophie is one of the most charming out of all of Studio Ghibli’s movies. The two are introduced when Howl walks up to Sophie on the street and lifts her up into the air, the two literally walking over the town. Though she can’t bring herself to admit it, she’s immediately smitten with the sorcerer. The girl’s co-workers talk about how Howl eats young girl’s heart, which they mean in a literal sense, but he takes Sophie’s heart in the strictly figurative sense. He accepts her into his home. His growing affection for the girl is evident when he takes glimpses of her as she sleeps. Howl’s declaration of love comes when he gifts Sophie with access to his secret hiding place, a beautiful valley field full of flowers and home to an isolated cabin where he spent his childhood. The emotional crux of the film is built around Howl and Sophie’s love for each other. The film wouldn’t work unless it earned that honest emotion.

As has become tradition, “Howl’s Moving Castle” features exquisitely detailed animation. The town, vehicles, clothing, and movement of the characters are all fantastic. One element stands above the rest. The titular moving castle is an amazing triumph of animation design. The castle is steampunk dream come true. Its belching smokestacks, clanking gears, and jittery spider-legs creates a kinship with similar clockwork devices in other Miyazaki films. The castle has multiple layers that are constantly overlapping and bumping into each other. A rough face is form by the different floors, two smoke stacks making eyes and the front of the castle forming a crude mouth. The shakiness of the design not only gives the castle a lived-in quality but also makes it seem like it could fall apart at any minute. When it does fall apart in the last act, a smaller version of the castle, sleeker and faster but no less home-made, crawls out of the wreckage. Amusingly, even after falling apart, the castle keeps on moving, even when its just a floor, a wheel, a belt, and a pair of wobbly legs.

The castle moves in more then one way. The film’s approach to magic, overall, is interesting. It’s less flying fireballs and mixing potions and more intuitive. One of the few classical magic spells Howl performs has him carrying his fire-demon into a magic circle, causing the interior of the castle to shift around his whims. But maybe my favorite element is a magical door inside the castle. A multicolored circle is connected to the doorknob. By turning the knob, the circle rotates to a new color. Each color corresponds to a different location. By changing the settings, the characters can step through the door to a different store front. This allows Howl to pose as different alchemist in different towns, maintaining his reputation and creating steady streams of income. It’s a clever idea and deployed fantastically.

The biggest assets of “Howl’s Moving Castle” is its cast of characters. Though not as free-form as “Spirited Away,” the film has a loose plot. This creates a “hang-out” feel, where most of the joy of the film comes from the audience enjoying hanging out with the characters. Howl has gathered together an unusual collection of friends on his castle. Firstly is Calcifer, the fire demon that lives in the castle’s fire-pit. Animated as a living ball of flame, he is expressive, mouthy, and frequently sarcastic. His flames stretch and change depending on his mood and how much fire wood he has to live on. His life force is connected to both Howl’s and the castle’s, so should he ever run out of firewood, it could be problematic. Amusingly, he’s quite bitchy about his food source. Howl’s apprentice is a little kid named Markl. At first, the kid acts older then age, frequently wearing a magic robe that disguises him as an old man. As the story goes on, he forms a bond with Sophie and begins to treat her as an older sister. Two sweet moments has the young wizard playing with his pet dog in a newly acquired courtyard and tearfully telling Sophie he loves her while hugging her deeply. Also among Howl’s crew of misfits is Turnip Head, a friendly scarecrow that hops around on his pole. Despite his face being frozen in a smile and having no movable limps, Turnip Head is surprisingly expressive and endearing. His frantic hopping provides a lot of characterization.

At the story’s beginning, the film seems to be setting up the slovenly Witch of the Waste as its villain. The character, though dressed in a silk dress, a fancy hat, and expensive jewelry, is morbidly obese. Huge rolls of fat push up against her face. She travels in a small booth carried around by her “blob men,” animated globs of black ink that she controls. She has a rivalry with Howl, possibly based in a failed romantic connection but is generally unelaborated on. At the midpoint of the film, there’s a great sequence where Sophie goes to meet the queen of the land, posing as Howl’s mother. The Witch is also there. Both old women laboriously walk up the steep steps, the Witch’s becoming more shapeless with each footstep. Once inside, the kingdom’s magic adviser zaps the Witch with giant light bulbs, draining her power. Suddenly, Howl’s most feared enemy is reduced to a senile old woman, tiny and feeble. She has lucid moments that come and go but seems to be changed for the better. They started as enemy but the Witch is quickly accepted into the family. By the end, Sophie and Markl are referring to the old woman as “Grandma.” There’s a dog too, Heen, a small breed with stubby legs that communicates in wheezing barks. Though intended as a spy for the army, he sticks around as a cute animal sidekick.

As with many of Miyazaki’s films, “Howl’s Moving Castle” features a strong anti-war message. A military conflict between the two unnamed countries provides the main plot points for the film’s second half. Why the two countries are battling is never fully explained. This is an intentional move. The war is completely frivolous and no reasoning could justify such a destructive conflict. Their ramping military complexes seem completely self-serving. War planes, flapping on bird-like wings, drop giant fire bombs on innocent towns. When Howl finally involves himself in the war, it is to protect the people he cares about, not because he believes in either sides’ cause. It’s not subtle and not as well illustrated as some of the director’s older films but it makes its point nevertheless.

Despite its pacifistic undertones, “Howl’s Moving Castle” still features some interesting action sequences. The most notable moment has Howl defending Sophie and the Witch from his former mentor and current wizard for the government, Suliman. The way the magical conflict is carried out is unlike any other I’ve seen on-screen. The room disappears, a field of stars cropping up around the characters. Vague, human-like shapes made of sparkling starshine surround the captives, light flickering from their hands. Howl and Sophie escape just in time, which sadly cuts the sequence short. Miyazaki’s trademark flying scene comes soon after, with Sophie and the others escaping on one of the military’s flying vehicles.

Yet the film’s most visually impressive moments feature no action at all. My favorite is a dream-like sequence that has Sophie, unaware that she’s a young girl again, walking into Howl’s inner sanctum in the middle of the night. The dirt walls of the tunnel are decorate with children toys, unexplained remnants from Howl’s innocent days. There, she encounters the wizard at his most monstrous, where the two share a short dialogue before he flies away, leaving Sophie an old woman again. The scene might literally be a dream, it’s hard to say, but its implacable tone makes an impression on the viewer.

The last act features Howl flying among exploding airships, fighting off monsters, and ducking under bombs. Yet the story’s climax is strictly an emotional one instead of an action-packed one. The castle is destroyed, the Witch’s greed and obsession with Howl comes to a head, and Howl and Calcifer nearly die. The true conclusion happens when young Sophie talks the fire demon into returning Howl’s heart. The wizard is made whole again and the demon is freed. However, before the end credits roll, Calcifer returns and the moving castle is rebuilt. The war subplot is resolved off-screen, Turnip Head being revealed as a prince under a curse. Ultimately, the relationship between the characters are more important then the battles. Howl and Sophie kissing on the balcony of the new castle is more satisfying then any fight scene could be.

“Howl’s Moving Castle” might be the most underrated entry in Miyazaki’s career. It was greeted with a horde of critical praise, as you’d expect, but the glow has faded with time. The script has some of the same problems as “Spirited Away” and, no, it’s not as fresh or impressive as his earlier films. But there’s something to be said for a film full of lovable characters that are simply fun to be around. The animation is gorgeous, the music lovely, and the world memorable. The film’s limitless charm outweighs all of these successes. [Grade: B+]