Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) – Retrospective Fantasy Film Review

In the third HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKBAN, the titular young wizard must watch out for an escaped prisoner and avoid the spooky guards sent to recapture him, rescue a gryphon sentenced to death, and deal with a professor who turns out to be a werewolf. In other words, it’s much the same formula as before; and yet, thanks to director Alfonso Cuaron, this third film in the series is better than the previous two combined. In fact, this is the first POTTER film that can stand on its own as a piece of worthwhile cinema, regardless of the popularity of the source material. The previous POTTER films suffered from that Masterpiece Theatre-type malaise, in which filming the book is considered enough to justify the project — without providing any real imaginative life on its own, in cinematic terms.
The cloying, precious, sentimentality that embalmed HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHERS’S’ STONE and HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS has been replaced by a more mature tone, in keeping with the visible aging of actor Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Harry now as more of a tortured adolescent instead of a privileged little boy. The storyline is smoother, unburdened with annoying distractions (like Dobby from CHAMBER OF SECRETS), and the visual scheme is much improved, with fewer obviously cartoony CGI effects.
More important, PRISONER OF AZKABAN is, the first POTTER film to generate some genuine emotions. The film jettisons the insipid psuedo-Disney sentimentality that embalmed the first two attempts at adapting J.K Rowling’s books into films. Harry gets to show some believable and justified anger, and there is a greater sense of dealing with difficult situations that may have unpleasant consequences.
Cuaron knows how to milk a scene to maximum effect, without letting the whole movie turn into an empty effects showcase, and much of it is genuinely suspenseful and even creepy. He also adds some sly touches that help spice up the blank Potter universe. It is particularly amusing, in the middle of this supposedly innocent family film, to see subtle sexual innuendo paraded right beneath the audience’s collective nose. For instance, the film begins with a scene of Harry in his bed at night, hiding beneath his sheets, and playing with his wand. You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to figure that one out. (Hint: this is a case where a cigar is not a cigar.)
There is even a fairly obvious homosexual subtext. Two male characters, including Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), are insulted by begin compared to an “old married couple.” Lupin, as his name suggests, turns out to be a werewolf; in other words, he has an embarrassing secret in his private life involving disreputable activities at night, which he hides by day while maintaining his respectable demeanor as a teacher. The film’s conclusion sees Lupin leaving his post because his secret has come out, and he knows that parents don’t want their children taught be (heavy dramatic pause) “…someone like me.” Tellingly, he doesn’t say “by a werewolf.” The script leaves it up to us to fill in the blank, making it easier to interpret the character as a closeted gay man.
None of this is meant to imply the Cuaron is out to undermine the Potter franchise; the director is simply inserting some badly needed zing to the material. The result is a film that is more believable; while still being completely fantastic and imaginative, it doesn’t float away like an inconsequential trifle. Not a perfect film by any means, PRISONER OF AZKABAN is nonetheless good enough to balance out the cinematic mistakes of its predecessors.

HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004). Directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Screenplay by Steve Kloves, from the novel by J.K. Rowling. Cast: Daniel Radcliff, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane.

The Incredibles (2004) – Retrospective Animation Review

When writer-director Brad Bird’s excellent Pixar animation feature beat out DreamWorks’ more financially successful SHREK 2 for the Best Animation Feature at the 2005 Oscar ceremony, fans around the world breathed a sigh of relief at seeing the most deserving film actually take home the award. This truly is a film that turns is every bit as incredibly good as it has been made out to be. In fact, it may be the best Pixar film up to that time.
The sensibility seems somewhat different from previous Pixar efforts, perhaps because it is essentially an auteur piece by Brad Bird (THE IRON GIANT). The concept seems to have been to make an action-packed, amusing family-oriented superhero fantasy that just happens to be achieved in animation. On that level, it succeeds as well as — and in some ways better than — recent superhero films like SPIDER-MAN 2 and X-MEN UNITED.
The film features Pixar’s best ever depiction of human characters, probably because the often exaggerated physiques and facial characteristics often avoid trying to duplicate believeable human features; in fact, the CGI creations somewhat resemble stop-motion puppets, but with a great degree of expressivity. (This helps to avoid the zombie-like quality seen in the trailer for THE POLAR EXPRESS, where the faces look more human but lack any believable life in the expressions.)
One interesting element you might not be aware of from watching the commercials is that the film is not just a comic book superhero spoof. In fact, much of the plot and action is far more reminiscent of a 1960s spy movie, complete with a maniacal supervillain with a massive facility located inside an uninhabited volcanic island (not too disimilar from Scaramanga in the 007 film THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN).
In keeping with this tone, the pacing is fast and the action is frantic. The CGI technique offers a certain buffer, removing the violence from any semblance of reality, and yet the plot works hard to inject a genuine sense of jeopardy, along with the laughs. Consequently, the film is not too scary for kids, but it is exciting and fun for adults in a way that the SHREK films never could hope to be.
In some ways the film might not be as endearing as previous Pixar movies (like TOY STORY and FINDING NEMO), but it really works as well as any contemporary live-action adventure movie . The carefully choreogrpahed action scenes, achieved in CGI in THE INCREDIBLES, leave you with yet more reason to wonder why George Lucas hasn’t been able to put together even a halfway decent scene in the recent STAR WARS prequels. Lucas takes live actions and makes their peril seem cartoony and unthreatening by combining them with computer-generated effects. With THE INCREDIBLES, Brad Bird created CGI characters that come to life in a wonderfully thrilling way.
THE INCREDIBLES (2004). Written & Directed by Brad Bird. Produced by Pixar Films. Voices: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, Jason Lee, Wallace Shawn.

Copyright 2004 Steve Biodrowski

Steamboy (2004) – Retrospective Anime Film Review

Essential vewing, but not another masteripece, from from AKIRA-creator Katsuhiro Otomo

Katsuhiro Otomo’s STEAMBOY, his first feature-length anime since 1988’s AKIRA, is another excellent piece of cinematic science fiction, filled with the dazzling animation, beautiful backgrounds, and absolutely awe-inspiring action scenes. It is also a lesson in how the march of time can affect viewer reaction to an artist. When AKIRA came out, it was a groundbreaking piece of work that outdistanced both Japanese and American animation in terms of ambition and style. STEAMBOY, on the other hand, is a remarkable achievement, but it does not outclass contemporary efforts like GHOST IN THE SHELL: INNOCENCE.
Set in the Victorian era (1866, to be precise), the mildly convoluted story begins with an industrial accident in Alaska, presided over by the father-son team of Lloyd and Edward Steam, with the elder Lloyd insisting on going full bore while the younger Edward is injured trying to prevent disaster. The action shifts to Manchester, where grandson Ray Steam receives a package from Lloyd containing a “steamball.” Ray is instructed to keep the device out of the hands of the O’Hara Foundation, an American entrepreneurial company that employed both Lloyd and Edward, but both he and his grandfather are kidnapped by the company. Ray is surprised to find his father, now disfigured into a combination of the Phantom of the Opera and the Frankenstein Monster, still working for O’Hara, which is presided over by the founder’s obnoxious granddaughter, Scarlett. The steamball, it turns out, is a powerful energy source, filled with a mysterious liquid of great “purity” that has been highly condensed and pressurized. Edward wants to harness this new energy source to push humanity into the next century. Unfortunately, the O’Hara foundation earns its money by war profiteering, and Lloyd fears the consequences of leaving the steamball in their hands. In the final act, the O’Hara demonstrates their newest weaponry (in an amusingly absurd plot development) by launching a small-scale war at an Exhibition in London, destroying large parts of the city in the process. Ray, who has been pulled back and forth in the conflict between his father and grandfather, manages to improvise a flying device and help prevent an even greater disaster, rescuing Scarlett in the process.
STEAMBOY has rightfully been reviewed as a film filled with visual grandeur that falters in the area of narrative development. The story begins with not one but two machinery-gone-haywire scenes, first with Lloyd and Edward, then with Ray. Then the story shifts into a nice Alfred Hitchcock pastiche, with Ray as the naive innocent thrust into the middle of a pursuit for a valuable object sought by rival factions. There is some interesting dramatic conflict, with Ray torn between his father and his grandfather’s views of the progress of science, but the effect is somewhat undermined by Lloyd’s unacknowledged change of heart: when we first see him, he is the one willing to risk everything for progress; apparently, the accident changed his mind, but he never says so. The story slows down in the middle section, with the debates about the virtues and perils of science sounding like old-hat lectures (somewhat reminiscent of, though not nearly so bizarre as, the “amoeba” speech from AKIRA). Thankfully, the film delivers a spectacular climax that features Edward’s crowning glory, “Steam Tower,” a battleship size structure resembling a small city, literally taking flight over London.
STEAMBOY’s success is based mostly on its visual achievement, with numerous Jules Verne-inspired gadgets (flying machines, submarines, etc) showcased in breathtaking fashion. Early on there is a wonderful chase scene involving Ray’s steam-powered unicycle, a steam-powered tractor, and a train, which ends with a dirigible grapping one of the train cars and nearly crashing into Victoria Station. The battle scenes are exciting, without being as graphically violent as anything in AKIRA.
The film’s message may be heavy-handed, but it is delivered with a sort of over-the-top sincerity: Lloyd thinks his son Edward has turned evil because he has sold his soul to “capitalists” who make money from weapons; Edward’s English counterpart, Robert Stephenson, also wants to get his hands on the steamball, but for the sake of protecting the nation, not for making money. As is often the case in Japanese films, the conflict seems muddled to Western viewers because neither side is presented as wholly good or evil; rather they are competing philosophies, and the protagonist (in this case Ray) sides with one or the other depending on how it advances his personal agenda, in some cases flipping back and for the between the two (see PRINCESS MONONOKE for comparison).
The one element that prevents STEAMBOY from achieving critical mass is the characterizations. Otomo’s futuristic punks in AKIRA may not have been ideal role models, but they were interesting, in a cyberpunk kind of way. The two young leads in STEAMBOY come from a separate tradition of adorable, youthful protagonists, such as those seen in Hayao Miyazaki’s LAPUTA, CASTLE IN THE SKY. The difference is that Miyazaki actually manages to charm us with his cute couple; Otomo does not. Much of the problem rests with Scarlett – little more than a spoiled brat (basically, a caricature of the ugly American) who periodically beats her pet dog for no particular reason. Her obnoxious quality at times approaches camp levels, leading viewers to expect a comeuppance worthy of her behavior – which, sadly, never really arrives. (The closest we get is her rude awakening when she gets a first-hand glimpse at the carnage wrought by the weapons her foundation manufactures.)
Nevertheless, STEAMBOY remains a must-see for anime fans and for those interested in seeing a wonderfully exciting artistic vision put up on the screen with grandeur and beauty in abundance. Rather like LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN and SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, Otomo’s new film aims to create a futuristic alternate reality out of the past. Unlike those previous films, STEAMBOY hits the target with a bulls-eye, filling the screen with eye-popping entertainment that is carefully calibrated to astound without collapsing under the weight of its own excess. It may not be another AKIRA; it may not even be another masterpiece; but it is essential viewing.

TRIVIA

The obnoxious female lead is named Scarlett, and she just happens to be the “granddaughter of the founder of the O’Hara Foundation.” Although no character addresses her by her full name, this would seem to make her “Scarlett O’Hara.”
A montage of still images over the closing credits provides glimpses of the future adventures of Steamboy (i.e., Ray, looking a lot like Rocket Boy, with a flying jetpack on his back), implying that the film is intended to launch a franchise. On the director’s cut DVD, this montage can be viewed without the credits, providing a better view of the images.

DUBBING

In the United States, STEAMBOY was released in two versions: a subtitled directors cut and a re-edited cut (approximately fifteen minutes shorter) that was dubbed into English (featuring the voices of Anna Paquin, Patrick Stewart, Alfred Moline, etc.). The Director’s Cut DVD presents both the English- and Japanese-language versions in unedited form.
The re-voiced dialogue effectively captures dialects appropriate for the Victorian England setting (with the lead characters coming from Manchester, the soundtrack inevitably suggests — to American ears, at least — the Beatles in A HARD DAY�S NIGHT). This may be one of the few times that dubbing actually improved a film, because the new soundtrack is better suited to the story being told, in terms of accents and phrasing.
In fact, the high-toned anti-war, pro-science rhetoric actually sounds better in the English version. The dubbing improves over the subtitles by fashioning dialogue that is more dense and flowery avoiding the too-blunt, telegraphic approach of the written words. For example, upon seeing a vast room of new inventions, the lead character’s “Golly!” has been expanded to “This is incredible!” Somewhat less effectively, “Steam Tower” is changed to “Steam Castle,” even though the structure barely resembles a castle.

DVD DETAILS

The Director’s Cut DVD is a bit of a disappointment. Although the film itself is worth seeing, its presentation on disc does not do it justice. Still, the chance to see the uncut version with the English-language dialogue makes it worthwhile, in spite of the shortcomings.
The first problem is the image quality: the film looks slightly washed out, with low-contrast and dull colors. Curiously, the disc provides a gauge by which to judge the picture quality: the clips from the film shown in the bonus features are all bright and sharp and vibrant.
The Bonus Features consists of a handful of Featurettes; Animation Onionskins; and Production Drawings. (There are also trailers for unrelated films, like FINAL FANTASY VII and THE CAVE.)
The first featurette “Re-Voicing Steamboy” includes an assembly of interviews, mostly with the three lead voice actors: Anna Paquin (Ray “Steamboy”), Patrick Stewart (Dr. Lloyd Steam), and Alfred Molina (Dr. Edward Steam). Mostly they talk about the familiarity (or lack thereof) with Japanese animation and about their technical difficulties of creating a vocal performance to a film that has already been created. Lacking specifics, the featurette tend to bog down in dull generalities; about the most interesting tidbit is learning that that the sound director for the original Japanese-language version was involved with the dubbing process.
The interview with writer-director Katsuhiro Otomo tells us that he spent ten years on the film: three years planning and seven years of production work, but that is about all you learn of significance. Unfortunately, the auteur’s Japanese comments are translated into a voice-over audio instead of rendered in subtitles – a bad, distracting idea.
The longest featurette is a “three-screen” presentation created to promote the film before its release: the top half of the frame is divided into two small sections, while the bottom half provides a “widescreen” image. Beginning with comparisons of live-action reference footage, temporary renderings, and final animation, the featurette soon moves into a series of subtitled interviews with Otomo and the animators (who are not identified by name). A few interesting details are parceled out very slowly, and for some reason almost everyone involved seems to be having nasal problems – count how many times they scratch and wipe their noses on screen!
The “Animation Onionskins” are basically glimpses of unfinished animation, showing how scenes were originally rendered on the computer, with details gradually being added.
The Production Drawings segment features a nice montage of artwork set to music from the film. To some extent, the title hardly does justice to the images: much of what is seen is far more than a mere drawing, looking more like fully rendered paintings worthy of hanging in a museum.
The DVD Gift Set includes all those features, plus these bonus materials: 10 Steamboy Collectible Postcards; a 22-page manga (i.e., comic book); a 166-page booklet containing character designs, mecha designs, and selected storyboard sequences.
STEAMBOY (2004). Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo. Written by Katsuhiro Otomo & Sadayuki Morai. Voices (Japanese): Amne Suzuki, Masane Tsukayama, Katsuo Nakamura. Voices (English): Anna Paquin, Patrick Stewart, Alfred Molina.

Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) – Retrospective Sci-Fi Film Review

A hybrid of high-tech filmmaking and hackneyed storytelling

This is one of the most bizarre movies ever made. That description might make the film sound interesting, but the bizarre quality lies not so much in the film itself as in the thinking that went into it: What made anyone believe this was a movie worth making or that there would be an audience for it?
SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW uses modern computer-generated imagery to create a pastiche of old-fashioned film-making. There’s no crime in that, but the film intentionally wants to look not only old-fashioned but also deliberately out of date. Set in 1939, the film’s special effects deliberately evoke the look of the science-fiction class THINGS TO COME (scripted by H.G. Wells, no less), and the “futuristic” gizmos resemble something out of an old movie serial.
In short, the whole thing looks like a spoof, something that would be amusing for a few minutes on an old episode of SCTV, but the question here is whether any of this is enough to hang a feature film on? (In fact, the film’s origin lies in a six minute short by writer-director Kerry Conran.)
The answer, unfortunately, is no. The film has a wonderful look, with color photography that’s been carefully drained to make it look almost monochromatic, except for the skin tones. This creates images that resemble old black-and-white photographs that have been tinted, and one could easily imagine this working for a film like Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong (which is an actual remake of an old film, set in the original film’s time period), but SKY CAPTAIN uses its look and effects (achieved mostly by having actors perform in front of process screens rather than in actual sets) as an excuse for indulging in hokum of the most hackneyed sort.
This is a film in which characters always state the obvious about five seconds after the audience has figured it out. It’s a film in which the whole world seems to be under attack, yet the entire defense is nothing but one guy in an airplane (good for a laugh maybe, but we’re supposed to buy into the excitement of the adventure). This is a film in which in which the leading man and leading lady trade verbal barbs (and punches) that are supposed to tell us they really love each other, but the effect is flat and stilted, like an acting class doing an exercise. Best of all, this is a film in which we’re supposed to be impressed when our intrepid female reporter rips the slit in her skirt so that she can run faster—but, alas, she moves at the exact same speed as before! And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, Angelina Jolie shows up in an eye patch (that’s supposed to make her look dashing) and starts speaking in that same awful English accent she used in the Lara Croft movies.
Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow move through the scenes without generating any excitement. The unflappable quality that is supposed to endear them to us instead makes them seem almost like spectators in their own movie. But it’s hardly their fault when the script is interested in little besides aping old Republic serial-style storytelling, with a contrived plot simply an excuse to link together the big action scenes. Only Giovanni Ribisi really comes off well, because his sidekick role allows him to play most of his scenes for comic relief, keeping him free of square-jawed, can-do stiffness that’s supposed to make the leads seem heroic.
This might be tolerable if the action were any good, but the CGI work has that familiar unbelievable look about it. It’s so obvious that it almost becomes stylized enough to justify itself, except for one big problem: action requires momentum, and momentum cannot be realized effectively without a sense of inertia—the force necessary to put a body in motion or make a moving body stop. The magic of computer effects makes anything possible, but it can also make nothing seem amazing—not when the impossible zips right past our eyes without giving us a chance to appreciate how awesome and amazing it is. As is often the case with contemporary effects films, many of the highlights could have been far more effective if they had just been put together in a way that would let us see the incredible action, instead of covering it up with too many blurry shots that race by without revealing anything.
To be fair, there are a few good lines here or there that get a laugh or two, and every once in a while the film manages to come to life. The opening of the Hindenburg docking at the top of the Empire State Building is impressive, and the early attack (featuring giant robots marching down the streets of New York) has an over-the-top kind of quality that big-budget movies should deliver. But these highlights (most of which you’ve seen in the trailer) flit by and disappear, to be quickly followed by other, less interesting scenes. Despite what you may have been led to believe by the previews, this isn’t a War-of-the-Worlds-type adventure with civilization crushed beneath an unrelenting attack. The early attacks are just to get the plot rolling; the film then turns into a pursuit, eventually leading to a Lost World-type final reel.
The one-darn-thing-after-another storytelling could be amusing if it were presented with a light touch and a little wit, but for the most part we get a heavy-handed tone that’s supposed to echo old time movies—or more accurately, bad old-time movies. This film wants to be Star Wars and/or Indiana Jones for the 21st century, but those films were much smarter in the way they used old movie clichés, presenting them not only with modern technology but also with a post-modern self-awareness that invited the audience to laugh even while it indulged itself in the charms of simple old-fashioned entertainment. That’s the kind of magic SKY CAPTAIN sorely lacks, the sensibility that would make its offbeat visuals make sense. Instead, we have a weird high-tech hybrid: the finest technology money can buy, put in the service of a creaky story that is almost deliberately dumb.
Watching the result play out on the big screen, one cannot help but remember director Joe Dante’s 1992 film Matinee, in which much of the action takes place in a theatre playing a 1950s style sci-fi flick. Throughout Matinee we see several amusing glimpses of the film, called Mant (“half-man, half-ant—all terror!”), with all the beloved monster movie clichés spoofed to good effect. We see just enough to enjoy the film-within-a-film without its wearing out its welcome; Dante was smart enough not to make Mant into a feature. If only SKY CAPTAIN writer-director Kerry Conran had been as clever, he would have taken his original short subject and used it as a film-within-a-film, instead of expanding it to feature length.
SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW(2004). Written & Directed by Kerry Conran. Cast: Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie.

Copyright 2004 Steve Biodrowski

Retrospective: Miyazaki's Castle Howls into Hollywood

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared on the Hollywood Gothique website on June 10, 2005.]

The premier of HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE, shown in the English-dubbed version at El Capitan Theatre on Thursday, June 9, 2005, was a rousing experience for fans of animation master Hayao Miyazaki. Unfortunately, the Japanese writer-director was not on the panel discussing the film before the screening, but there was some informative and amusing commentary from moderator Charles Solomon (an animation expert), actresses Jean Simmons and Emily Mortimer, the screenwriting team of Cindy and Donald Hewitt (who provided the English-language dialogue), and a handful of Disney-Pixar people who supervised the dubbing of the film for American audiences.
Some of the interesting tidbits:
The lead character of Sophie, a young woman who is turned into a ninety-year-old crone by a witch’s curse, was voiced by a single actress in the Japanese version, but the American audio track splits the character into “young” and “old” voices, the first by Mortimer, the second by veteran actress Simmons. Simmons was chosen because she could convey not just a mature-sounding voice but a sense of youthful vigor masked by visible age. Mortimer was selected because she could sound like a younger version of Simmons (specifically, the filmmakers listened to Simmons’ old films like SPARTACUS).
The role of the Witch of the Waste was given to Lauren Bacall (whose career stretches all the way back to classic 1940s films like TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT). The filmmakers were worried that the actress, once an icon of glamour, would be insulted by the choice of character, warning her, “This character is a bit despicable.” Bacall’s response: “Darling, I was born to play despicable!”
Christian Bale landed the role of the ambivalent wizard Howl after his agent supplied a voice clip of the actor from BATMAN BEGINS. The casting is appropriate, since Howl (like Bruce Wayne) leads a bit of a double-life, turning into a winged bird-like monster at night.
After completing the dub, the film was screened in New York, with Miyazaki in attendance. To the surprise of the American filmmakers, Miyazaki sat through the dubbed version (he has a reputation for walking out in the past). Afterwards, the Americans asked Miyazaki’s translator to inquire whether he had liked the film. She warned them not to ask unless they wanted to hear the truth “because he’ll tell you, so if you don’t want to know, don’t ask.” The Americans asked; the translator translated; Miyazaki bowed and told them “good job.”
Jean Simmons called the dubbing process a “learning experience.” Unlike American animation, which records voices first and then animates the characters to match, Japanese anime is filmed first and dubbed later. (Perhaps jokingly, Miyazaki told the American dubbers that he uses this method so that he has complete control over how the actors read their lines). The trick, of course, is to get in character while standing in a sound booth watching through a window as the film unspool on a screen in a black room next door.
Under the circumstances, dialogue is difficult enough; almost as tricky is conveying the inarticulate part of the performance — for example, the strain Old Sophie endures when climbing a mountain of stairs while hauling an asthmatic dog along with her. “I never huffed and puffed so much in my life!” said Simmons.
Mortimer agreed, laughing, “It was almost like making a porn film — there was so much gasping and panting!”
By this time, the children in the audience were getting a bit antsy for the beginning of the film. Not surprisingly, in a city as diverse as Los Angeles, this Japanese family-oriented film attracted a fair number of Asian-Americans with young children. (The little boy a few seats down from me was a dead ringer for Toshio from THE GRUDGE; I kept looking around for his ghostly mother Kayako to materialize — the anticipation of which lent the screening an edge it might not otherwise have had.)
The film that unspooled was fairly typical Miyazaki, in all its strengths and weaknesses: it’s beautiful and filled with numerous heart-felt story elements and themes (about greed, cowardice, war, etc), but as is often the case, how these elements connect on a plot level is not as important as how beautifully they are rendered on screen. The film is filled with amusing characters and bizarre images (like a legless scarecrow hopping about on its wooden post), but you’d be hard-pressed to explain the logic of the film’s happy ending (at least three curses are lifted in the last few minutes, but the details of how this is achieved are glossed over).
Ultimately, the film is not as impressive as Miyazaki’s ambitious PRINCESS MONONOKE, but it captures the pastoral beauty and charm that we have come to expect from the creator of LAPUTA: CASTLE IN THE SKY and MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO. That’s more than enough to make it worth seeing.

Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski

Howl's Moving Castle – Anime Review

Typical Miyazaki, in all its glorious strengths and frustrating weaknesses

Hayao Miyazaki is rightfully considered one of the great artists working in the anime form. Eschewing the hard-edged violence that many American viewers (rightly or wrongly) associate with the form, Miyazaki creates painterly, pastoral visions filled with beauty and eccentric charm. And unlike much of anime, his characters are really animated: they live and breathe and move; they don’t just stand there filling up the composition while the extreme camera angles, moody lighting and striking character design strive to compensate for minimal movement. Moreover, the writer-director is not just a painter of pretty pictures; he fills his films with deeply felt themes (environment, war, etc) that are expressed through the grandness of the visuals. Unfortunately, the narrative thread binding these themes together is almost never as important as important as how beautiful the billowing white clouds look while cresting the snow-capped mountains and throwing their shadows on the verdant valleys below.
In this regard, HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE is a perfect epitome of Miyazaki’s work, in all its strengths and weaknesses: it’s beautiful and filled with numerous heart-felt story elements and themes (about greed, cowardice, and the futility of war), but how these elements connect on a plot level is subjugated to how beautifully they are rendered on screen.
[WARNING: Minor Spoilers) The story follows Sophie, a young woman who is rescued from being accosted by two soldiers when the mysterious and handsome wizard Howl intervenes, literally flying her through the sky (like Superman and Lois Lane in 1978’s SUPERMAN). Howl has a reputation for devouring the hearts of beautiful women, but Sophie doesn’t feel threatened because she doesn’t believe herself to be beautiful. Unfortunately, being rescued by the wizard is a case of going from the frying pan to the fire, as Howl is being pursued by the minions of the Witch of the Waste. The Witch puts a curse on Sophie, turning her into an old hag and preventing her from explaining what has happened. Unable to face her mother, Sophie leaves home and stumbles upon the titular castle, where she takes up work as a cleaning lady.
Domesticity takes a back seat when war breaks out and Howl is ordered to report for duty. Howl admits to Sophie that, despite his powers, he is a coward; even his magnificent moving castle is just a way to run from trouble. He sends Sophie to turn down the call to arms. Along the way, Sophie meets up with the Witch of the Waste, who has her powers stolen from her (we have no doubt that the same would have happened to Howl had he reported for service as ordered).
When full-scale war breaks out, Howl finally decides to stop running, but when his defense of the castle brings him to the point of death, Sophie destroys the castle so that he will no longer risk his life. More through luck than design, Sophie manages to lift a curse that has been binding him to the fire demon Calcifer that powered his castle. She also lifts a curse on a missing prince (whose disappearance was the cause of the war). And she herself returns to her youthful appearance (although her hair remains silver-hued.
The film is filled with sweeping visuals that pull the viewer along: the castle tromping across the countryside, a fiery aerial bombardment, Howl in bird form swooping through the skies as he is battered by the enemy. But the logic behind these events is frustratingly vague, and you’d be hard-pressed to explain the logic of the film’s happy ending (at least three curses are lifted in the last few minutes, but the details of how this is achieved are glossed over). Howl seems to recognize that the old woman who cleans is castle is the same young woman he rescued, but how or even exactly when is not clear. Sophie seems to regain her youth when she expresses concern for others, but this carries little dramatic weight, since she was never particularly self-centered to begin with. Apparently Howl’s problem has something to do with trading his heart to Calcifer (in exchange for what?), but the exact nature is never clarified, so it’s hard to tell how Sophie figured out a way to undo the damage.
Perhaps detailed explanations are not necessary. On a simple, primal level, it is clear that the characters are being rewarded for their altruistic behavior, even if the exact mechanism for how this works is never explained: if we know the “why,” the how is unimportant. But in some cases, even this emotional attachment is lacking: for example, there is a throwaway “plot twist” wherein Sophie’s mother betrays her, but this thread is cut before it can develop — it might as well have simply been cut out completely for all it contributes to the story.
The animation is all beautifully done. Miyazaki uses the screen lke a canvas, filling it with breath-taking vistas that are populated by amusing characters and bizarre images: including a legless scarecrow hopping about on its wooden post and an asthmatic dog that befriends Sophie. Both of these are the sort of cute characters that are immediately endearing, lighting up the screen whenever they appear, regardless of story deficiencies. Even if the plot points are not always clear, the visuals tell us what’s happening in a way that feels emotionally right (as when the formerly imposing Witch of the waste is turned from villain to victim, reduced to flabby, diminished version of her former self).
The English dubbing is very effective. Emily Mortimer and Jean Simmons seamlessly integrate the two versions of Sophie, young and old. Billy Crystal doesn’t overdo the jokes too much as Calcifer, and Lauren Bacall strikes the properly haughty tone as the witch. In the title role, Christian Bale is suitably enigmatic and ambivalent as Howl, alternating between awesome and alluring on the one hand and childish and craven on the other. Sadly, the look of the character seems to become increasingly boyish throughout the film, until it starts to resemble the familiar cliché of the too-cute wide-eyed anime hero.
Ultimately, HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE is not as impressive as Miyazaki’s ambitious PRINCESS MONONOKE, but it captures the pastoral beauty and charm that we have come to expect from the creator of LAPUTA: CASTLE IN THE SKY and MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO. That’s more than enough to make it worth seeing.
HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE(2005). Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Screenplay by Miyazaki, based on the book by Diana Wynne Jones; English adaptation by Cindy Davis Hewitt & Donald H. Hewitt. Voices: Chieko Baisho, Takuya Kimura, Akihiro Miwa, Tatsuya Gashun; English Voices: Jean Simmons, Lauren Bacall, Christian Bale, Billy Crystal, Blythe Danner.

The Village (2004) – Film Review

Not a nice place to visit, and you definitely don’t want to live there.

By Steve Biodrowski

Like UNBREAKABLE, this is another major disappointment from the writer-director of the excellent THE SIXTH SENSE. THE VILLAGE is not completely awful, but it comes closer than one would like to admit. Although there are a few good scenes and some strong performances, the film suffers from unbearably slow pacing, and much of the drama is uninvolving. There are a few suspenseful moments, but the film does not carefully build up to them – it simply serves them up at irregular intervals and hopes the audience will sit still long enough to get to them. The problem seems to lie at the heart of the film’s premise: What is the background of the mysterious Village? Where is the Village located? In what time period Read More

Catwoman (2004) – DVD Review

This semi-sequel of sorts to BATMAN RETURNS spins the popular Catwoman character off into her own film – the would-be beginning of a franchise that failed to materialize, thanks to dismal box office returns. An almost unmitigated disaster, this major studio production with a major star in the lead (the Oscar-winning Halle Berry) comes across like a direct-to-video production, complete with ultra lame computer-generated effects and clueless direction by someone who signs himself “Pitof” (whose previous experience lay mostly in directing visual effects – which makes the lousy work on display here all the more confusing). The film feel like a low-budget knock-off, something Warner Brothers pumped out on the cheap, hoping the sight of Berry in her Catwoman costume would suck in foolish ticket buyers, regardless of the amateurish quality. Read More

Ghost in the Shell 2 – Innocence (2004) – Anime Film Review

GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE is not only one of the greatest achievements in the history of anime; it is absolutely without doubt one of the most visually stunning films ever made. Much like AKIRA in the 1980s, this is the film that sets the standard by which all others of its kind are judged – and usually found wanting. Writer-director Mamoru Oshii picks the story up from where he left off in 1995’s GHOST IN THE SHELL, which was about an elite unit called Section 9 that handled politically related criminal cases. Most of the agents in the unit are cyber-enhanced – not only physical but also mentally – to the point that some question remains as to how much, if any, humanity is left. (The title is a reference to this phantom of human personal identity.)
The sequel is a new story featuring some of the same characters from the original, and it lives up to – and in many ways exceeds – its progenitor, both in terms of story and visuals. During the ensuing years, the field of computer-generated animation has advanced by light years, and it shows here. Much of the movie looks far more magnificent than many live-action special effects films that rely on CGI. (The opening title sequence, portraying the creation of a “gynoid” [a female android], is worth the price of admission alone.)

Much of the time, the film feels like a cross between I, ROBOT and SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, except that it’s much better than both of those films combined. Like ROBOT, the new GHOST film deals with the implications of manufactured life taking on the characteristics of its human creators. As in SKY CAPTAIN, the film intends to wow audiences with each new spectacular image that flies across the screen (there are even several similar sequences, such as the final act underwater stealth approach to infiltrate the villains’ lair). Unlike SKY CAPTAIN’s director Kevin Conran, however, Oshii knows how to make his images count. Each one is choreographed for maximum impact, and he knows how to use just enough of them to make his point, and then quit. (For example, a fight scene between two cyber-enhanced characters takes place in a brief few shots, instead of dragging out for five minutes; but you won’t feel short-changed in the least.)
There are also numerous other visual and literary reference points. The cyberpunk feel of the futuristic cityscapes and flying machines recalls BLADE RUNNER. The emphasis on high-toned literary quotations (Milton, the Bible, Shelly, et all) recalls the philosophical ambitions of the MATRIX sequels, but Oshii pulls it off far better.
In a way, Oshii’s murder-mystery plot is just a hook on which to hang his philosophical musings. Based on the manga of the same name, the premise is that a new model of gynoid is turning homicidal, killing its owners and then self-destructing. This gives plenty of leeway to discuss issues like nature of consciousness and reality: What separates humans from the artificial life they create? Are people themselves really just organic machines?
For most of its length, these ideas support and enhance the story, giving a feeling that the movie is dealing with a profound topic without getting bogged down by it. In the last reel, however, the dialogue does get extremely dense, and you may find yourself wishing that you were reading a book instead, so that you could pause after each new dialogue passage to digest the concepts.
By the end, the resolution of the mystery has almost come to be beside the point, as Oshii seems more intent on wrestling with his philosophical questions. It’s a slight let down, but you have to give the man points for his ambition and integrity. GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE is a piece of cyberpunk science-fiction that dares to take on heady issues in an entertaining, popular way; uncompromised by fear of alienating its audience, it’s a richly detailed and thought-provoking achievement that stands head and shoulders not only above American animated films but also above most live-action science-fiction films. Quite simply, it ranks among the best movies of its kind ever made.

In a brilliant visual joke, the tough-guy cybercop proves that he still has a spark of humanity because he loves his bassett hound

GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE (Inosensu: Kôkaku Kidôtai, 2004). Written & directed by Mamoru Oshii, from the manga by Masamume Shirow. Voices: Akio Otsuka, Atsuko Tanaka, Koichi Yamadera, Tamio Oki.

The Polar Express (2004)

THE POLAR EXPRESS wants to be a whimsical Christmas fantasy, but the spirit of Christmas gets taken for a ride and pummeled by a series of pointless action scenes that pad the running time while adding nothing to the story. The basic idea is simple: A young boy has reached the age when he’s beginning to doubt the existence of Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve, the Polar Express shows up at his door and takes him to the North Pole, where he meets Mr. C and learns to believe again. That’s pretty much the entire story. With clever writing, it might have made a half-hour television special, but there is no plot, no complications, nothing else on which to build a theatrical film. So the only way to stretch the feeble narrative to feature length is with gratuitous visual filler: the kid gets on top of the train as it’s about to go into a tunnel; he gets in front of the train as it’s about to go down a steep incline; the train nearly crashes on an ice lake. And the list goes on.
What truly kills the film is its lifeless character animation. The very first shot, with the un-named boy waking in bed, is supposed to be a magical moment of anticipation on Christmas Eve. Instead, when his eyes open, it feels as if you’re watching RESIDENT EVIL 3: ZOMBIE CHRISTMAS.
Sadly, that sets the tone for the whole film. The characters look weird or just plain bad, and the attempt at life-like computer imagery (using motion capture of real actors? performances) only emphasizes the artificiality of their facial expression. It’s like watching a film full of automatons pretending to be human and falling horribly short.
The computer animation is considerably more successful at rendering the titular train. Viewed as isolated set pieces, the action sequences are technically impressive, even if their inclusion works to undermine the Christmas spirit the film wants to engender.


In other cases, the technical wiz-bang is self-defeating, as when the train?s conductor serves the kids hot chocolate in a song-and-dance sequence that might have been breath-taking in live-action but which just looks cartoony and overdone in CGI. To overstate the obvious, seeing live performers dance up the walls and do back flips down the aisle would be impressive because it seems physically impossible; watching CGI characters perform the same actions is ho-hum, because doing the impossible is more or less par for the course.
On the plus side, the computer-generated imagery creates some beautiful backgrounds, especially for the North Pole sequence near the end, and one or two of the action scenes manage to be halfway exciting. The only real Christmas sentiment comes at the beginning and end, and it’s just enough to make you wish the whole film had sustained that kind of sentiment.
If you want a really wonderful Christmas movie for your family, rent THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS or any version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL or even THE SANTA CLAUS. Don’t, whatever you do, climb on board THE POLAR EXPRESS.

Meeting Santa Claus at the North Pole

THE POLAR EXPRESS (2004). Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Written by Robert Zemeckis & William Broyles, Jr., from the book by Chris Van Allsburg. Voices: Tom Hanks, Leslie Harter Zemeckis, Eddie Deezen, Nona M. Gaye, Peter Scolari.
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