I Am Vengeance… I Am the Night…

30 November 1955 – 10 November 2022

If you’ve been reading since the last few weeks, you already got my perfect introduction to Batman: The Animated Series in the list of my favorite episodes. Still I’ll paste it below for ease:

“I happen to have grown up exactly in the sort of generation where, if you were a Batman fan as I was and still am, your first exposure to the character was almost certainly Batman: The Animated Series – which shares with myself the distinction of having turned 30 this year – the groundbreaking animated television series that kickstarted an animated universe developed by creators Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski and Paul Dini, renewed interest in the artistic medium’s potential for mature storytelling, idiosyncratic processes, and translating comic book visuals. They lifted from art deco shapes and expressionist lines (so basically just an animated noir!), they drew backgrounds on black paper, and they provided some of the most nuanced and well-dimensioned villains in all of superhero pop culture to the point of even re-wiring the source material. It in effect amplified the way that Tim Burton’s 1989 smash-hit feature film made the character one of the most recognizable in all of pop culture.

And yet, even with all the various forms in which one has to have been exposed to Batman through television, movies, comic books, video games and such… when I think of the character, the very first image that pops into my head is the square-jawed black cowl against grey cartoon that Timm designed off of Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s original caped crusader. And the man who gave that version its voice was Kevin Conroy, who is sadly no longer with us as of this past weekend. So basically the affinity I’m voicing for Conroy’s work as the voice of my quintessential concept of Batman is shared with an entire age group of fans and likely beyond.”

As I mentioned in that same post, I unfortunately don’t have the time in my life to review every single episode of that monumental tv show in my life. I do however have time to talk about what spent most of my life as my favorite feature film involving the Dark Knight himself, a spin-off of that animated series that was originally intended for the small-scale direct-to-video release but shifted gears after the success of the show’s first season. The result was that Timm and Radomski – who were co-directing the film – had to crunch hardcore on the production the feature compared to the usual schedule theatrical animated features receive, but when you’re built off of the incredible technique and profound iconography that Batman: The Animated Series got off of, you’ll still end up a near-masterpiece at the very least.

That near-masterpiece released on Christmas Day of 1993 as Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.

As the spin-off of such smash hits and based on an inescapably popular character, the screenplay (written by Dini, Alan Burnett, Martin Pasko, and Michael Reaves) begins in media res of Batman’s career as Caped Crusader to the city of Gotham. It appears that a specific group of Gotham’s old time gangsters are being bumped off one-by-one and because the figure who is arranging these murders is a shadowy figure who fades in and out like the night, the M.O. frames Batman for these slayings. We know that’s not the case from scene one since we see Batman and this Phantom (Stacy Keach) in the same room, unlike how Batman and billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne are never in the same room*.

(Because Batman is indeed Bruce Wayne under the cowl, in case you did not know what the hell a Batman is.)

As these murders are being investigated by both Batman and the police, Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany, who would return to the DCAU voicing Lois Lane, the romantic interest of the OTHER big DC superhero, when Superman: The Animated Series premiered 3 years later) returns to the city and she happens to be an old flame of Bruce’s. In fact, the complicated past relationship between the two happened to overlap with the moment Bruce fully committed to his new identity as Batman and it’s through a series of flashbacks that we are made privy to what Andrea’s presence did to brighten Bruce’s life and why that was something unsustainable to Bruce’s mission. Basically what we associate with an origin story is instead used to deepen where the present-day investigation is going, especially rewarded by how honestly predictable the storytelling is and how swiftly it moves to our projected revelations in a runtime below 80 minutes.

Because for one thing, Mask of the Phantasm is as deep a dive into Bruce’s psyche as Batman Begins or Batman Forever. Any reasonable person would recognize the way out that love offers for them and take it with no strings attached, but Wayne’s burden is something he is unwilling to detach from and that’s what shapes the tragic character study of Batman as a figure. He doesn’t just feel responsible for carrying the pain of his parent’s death, he NEEDS to carry that pain. Conroy’s performance is intuitively aware of how to portray that byzantine self-punishment for the character throughout the movie’s runtime, whether it’s the disruption Andrea brought to his life, the aggression when his trusty valet Alfred (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) verbally observes the way the case and Andrea’s return has cut deep, or just the complete shambles he is in trying to recognize the crossroads he’s at. Is it Conroy’s best work in the 30 years he spent in the role? I’m a bit hesitant to claim that when he’s seldom failed to be at the top of his game, but I must confess: “I didn’t count on being happy” is probably the single most devastating line delivery I’ve heard out of him. It is the very soul of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm as drama and of Conroy’s Batman.

But the other thing about that flashback weaving of Bruce and Andrea’s romance abruptly cut by Bruce’s determination to transform into Batman is how it plays into this movie’s invoking of repetition as an anchor to how it suggests the cyclical highs and falls of Bruce and Andrea as a romantic couple. Tim Brayton at one point used a trio of shots involving a composition of Bruce or Batman facing away from the audience to a spot of parental remembrance to best demonstrate how the visuals play into repetition in a resemblance to comic book symmetry. But it’s also just one of many arenas the movie is about the past is coming back to knock the wind out of Bruce from various angles: from Andrea, to his need to consult his grief for direction, to even that long-time and almost-as-iconic nemesis The Joker (Mark Hamill in a performance that, alongside the tv show, rivals Luke Fucking Skywalker as his most iconic work) having some root in his past with an impressive sourcing of his recognizable character design in one of the flashbacks.

In fact, that strategy of compositional patterns is probably one of the few arenas where the visuals in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm comes close to the average highs of the animated series**. It’s not devoid of any impressive usage of thick shadows, deco designs, and pop iconography for hard-impact imagery – just consider the expressionist portrayal of Bruce donning the cowl for the first time and the gigantic look of horror on Alfred’s face (including a breathless utterance of “my God!” that might be Zimbalist’s best line delivery in the role) – but sadly the rushed production schedule ensured this movie would never surpass those highs. The movements particularly leave a little to be desired in their aimless waving, particularly when it comes to the action sequences (outsourced to Korean studio Dong Yang, who would afterwards be doing most of the work on the imminent second season) or floppy gesticulating of tertiary antagonist Arthur Reeves (Hart Boechner) as he uses his political influence to push a police manhunt for Batman. The closest graphic strengths it has alongside the echoing shots come to the design of its most essential background location: a futuristic World’s Fair exhibit that is monumental to Bruce and Andrea’s romantic optimism and in turn gets transformed over the time lapse into a robotic abattoir for the bitter final battle to occur. The design of the set feels not only like a worthy expansion of 1950s Metropolitan concepts but also plausibly uses the model scales so that the three-way fight gives proper homage to the work of artist Dick Sprang. It’s a literal larger-than-life treatment of the conflict at hand, both emotional and physical.

And that’s in fact the staying power of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm: it really does feel like it’s trying to amplify the bombast to the grand movements of opera, even in the areas where it had to succumb to its budget or schedule. Hell, even the music by Shirley Walker is aiming for the big theatrics with its opening gothic choirs. That’s all a good thing. The emotions are bigger, the scope of the story is bigger, the scale of the action is bigger, and the only thing that keeps it human-level is the fact that the thing at stake most is Batman’s soul, trying to fill out the space where Andrea claimed his heart. Maybe it’s a bit melodramatic for some, but I seldom want my comic book movies to be subtle when they are based in an artform that is about the fundamental effect that is a character you can recognize like the back of your hand striking poses of great pageantry. The pomp in this case is not just in those images, but in the direct and sweeping storytelling as it’s in there that Mask of the Phantasm became my favorite superhero movie when I was a child. It took my favorite superhero and made him as engaging and psychologically accessible as he’s ever been – in the comics, in the movies, on the television, whatever – and that’s probably why the hooks Conroy’s voice got into me as Batman will never ever leave my immediate conceptualization of the character.

Thank you, Kevin.

*”Perchance to Dream” and “The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne” don’t count, don’t @ me.
**I guess this is as good as any spot to note humbly that I’ve been able to see this movie on 35mm TWICE now and each time was a different aspect ratio: 1.33:1 which would be expected for a direct-to-video production to accommodate the television screen shape in the early 1990s and 1.85:1 which would of course be conventional for a modern theatrical release. I think both have their strengths and weaknesses: neither version is absent of cut off characters or cramping, but there’s less of it in the widescreen presentation. Still the full frame iteration has my heart as I feel the looming nature of Batman as a character and the centralizing of each shot’s subject gives it more accentuation and power. Plus at first I felt weird about how the full-frame sort of fades into the black paper it was animated on, but now I’ve come to dig it.

On Cloud Nine

To go into the ways that Cloud Atlas has affected me as a person when I went to an extremely late screening one October night 2012 at one of the lowest points in my adult life would involve being a lot more emotionally and psychologically vulnerable than I’m willing to be in public. I only vaguely refer to how that watch was one of the most fundamental moments in my development as the person I am today to at least give an explanation on why I simply don’t think I can be THAT objective about the movie. I can give the impression of it – it doesn’t take too much effort to acknowledge at least one particular element that is out-and-out racist, full stop – and I think I’ve done enough hair-splitting on what defines “best” and what defines “favorite” to me that I can disrupt the illusion of perfection in any movie, let alone Cloud Atlas which has pretty clear missteps in my eyes. But all of that qualifying is just formalities in the face of the fact that there are few movies in the 21st Century that I feel changed my life the way that Cloud Atlas did.

Fortunately, there are also few movies that I can think of that radically codified what I look for in movies: I had definitely seen Intolerance beforehand, so ambition on this level was not new to me in 2012 but I think this made me consciously aware of what a vast canvas of styles and stories as realized by filmmakers Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, and Lilly Wachowski, all three of whom are visionaries in their own right (it is safer to say in 2022 now that the Wachowskis are working separately than in 2012 when they were still kind of an item). Of which Cloud Atlas would demand given that the 2004 novel by David Mitchell which it adapts is literally six different storylines, structured in the source material so the stories bookend each other snugly into a Russian nest doll style and flipping different forms of dialect appropriate to their setting. Tykwer and the Wachowskis decided to be a bit more radical than that structure where the only logic to Cloud Atlas‘ continuous cross-cutting between its stories is their momentum and trying to map their climaxes alongside each other, though I am certain they worked very closely with editor Alexander Berner to make sure that the patterns in character arcs and visual compositions were arranged like a cinematic symphony alike one of the central leitmotifs, the “Cloud Atlas Sextet” which is credited in the narrative to Robert Frobisher but actually is composed like most of the score by Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil.

Anyway, the stories: we have a sea-faring period adventure in 1849 about a fresh young lawyer connecting with a Moriori slave while a doctor in the lawyer’s employ reveals his intentions. We have a 1932 queer tragedy centered around a passionate amateur composer and the aging legend’s home he infiltrates. We have a 1973 conspiracy thriller centered on a journalist who has a chance encounter in an elevator that puts her in a position to blow a big damn whistle. We have a 2012 screwy British comedy on a publisher manipulated in his fleeing from crooks to be entrapped in a prison-like nursing home. We have a 2144 science fiction picture set in Neo-Seoul that depicts a class-based insurrection essential to asserting the personhood of clones (the closest it gets to resembling the CGI-heavy popcorn movies we think of these days, specifically with special effects miles better and more stimulating than most MCU movies). And last but not least, a post-apocalyptic yarn on an Islander’s survivor’s guilt and challenge towards his worldview when he is commissioned to guide a visitor from a more advanced civilization.

That’s a whole lot of material and that translates in the hands of these filmmakers (the Wachowskis directed 1849, 2144, and the post-apocalypse, which makes sense given their history with genre filmmaking, while Tykwer took on the more contemporary period pieces of the movie) with purpose to that as we are suggested the idea that these tales actually intertwine and influence each other’s course of action in subconscious ways, largely through the running theme of souls transcending time and identity and such. That last part is certainly embodied by the extensive cast of names and familiar faces continuously reappearing in roles whose arcs seem in conversation with each other or at least consistent in their carriage: Tom Hanks (whose unflappable enthusiasm reportedly was why the very unstable development of what was to be a very expensive production came through), Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Bae Doona, Ben Whishaw, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Keith David, David Gyasi, James D’Arcy, Zhou Xun, and Robert Fyfe altogether play multiple roles in the many storylines and most of them have been saddled with roles that reflect each other in ways I had never guessed from reading the novel with all of them finding the most dedicated ways to keep their performances in conversation (Broadbent, Grant, and Whishaw are absolutely the best at this; Weaving has the easiest path for this since all of his roles are characteristically villainous; Hanks I think has the most difficult set overall and therefore is most admirable in his loopiness).

This is where I must confess the primary reservation I have in recommending this movie to others liberally: part of the admirable conceit is that the actors play roles that cross genders and age and in one particular case… race. Specifically the Neo-Seoul storyline is almost entirely populated by non-Asian actors in latex makeup meant to make them resemble Koreans (Tom Hanks is a notable exception who appears in that storyline without the yellowface makeup, which no doubt would have demolished his screen image) and I truly understand the thought process that gets to that decision, but that’s not the same as thinking it’s particularly the right decision. It’s just racist. But in a film as expectedly indulgent as Cloud Atlas very much is, one would expect that not every decision will be the right decision and I personally consider messy self-betrayal of the lapses of the artist to be very much essential to art.

But returning back to that central idea: souls defying the end of life to find its way to some peace and satisfaction (I think most beautifully represented in Hanks’ characters – particularly when it comes to how interacting with Berry’s characters relates to his character’s corruptions), the connectedness of separate lives (the most heartbreaking instance: two lovers meet their ends in similar ways, one commits suicide through the mouth and the other is murdered by a gunshot through the mouth), the idea that one act can make ripples that it will never be aware of for the better (“What is an ocean but a multitude of drops”), all of this stuff drives Cloud Atlas as the most convicted embodiment of these admittedly fanciful but much attractive ideals. It is a very humanist picture at its core and its aesthetic decisions come from that humanism – explicitly through the cross-cutting that mostly tries to keep the movie at a propulsive rate but also finds the smallest gestures to make up the connective tissue within those cuts (characters on the phone, writing, running on elevated and slim platforms). In virtually every way, Cloud Atlas basically signals towards the future television series Sense8, but that is settled towards globetrotting in the present time and Cloud Atlas just takes blockbuster money to fully create worlds like Neo-Seoul’s futurism in spacey action movie laser blast setpieces and the ruins of civilization in the post-apocalypse against beautiful Pacific Islander landscapes as well as revisit dated designs like pre-war Belgium or 70s San Francisco (captured by production and costume designers and cinematographers regular to the director of their respective segments: the Wachowskis brought on Hugh Bateup, Kym Barrett, and John Toll; Tykwer brought Uli Hanisch, Pierre-Yves Gayraud, and Frank Griebe) that can only be made compatible by the beautiful visuals, mannered performances, or simply the familiar emotions within those distant worlds.

Such inspired and grandiose pursuit will of course collapse and fail in areas, even outside of the Asian make-up. There are performances that do not work, the Sloosha’s dialect is much easier to read than it is to say, the old age make-up is so blatantly artificial and cartoony. But all of that comes from the movie’s fearlessness and actually enhances the broad dramatics of its storyline with its artifice much more than its undisciplined screenplay could. I frankly feel the script flattens the complex density of the novel’s themes to near-incomprehensibility, even when its final third gets annoyingly didactic about what it thinks it’s saying. It pretty much aids the movie to be so sprawling to the point of disaster, particularly in the face of everything it miraculously gets right which outweighs what it gets wrong despite the odds. And it is never less than beautiful (both to look at and to listen to), watchable, and entertaining: it is as cinematic as things get and it is specifically a movie that best represents what it is to BE moved. In the darkness of that theater for its fully-felt 3 hours, I came to recognize that boldness extravagant to the point of chaos is the pinnacle of expression that a film artist can accomplish: daring, sincere, full of personality, and defiantly establishing its own terms. That’s Cloud Atlas: it’s the first movie that crosses my mind when I think of those specific superlatives, maybe my favorite example of “interesting messes” in cinema and unlocking what about them embeds their takeaway to my heart. Now what that takeaway was that I feel changed the course of my life 10 years… that’s between me and Cloud Atlas in the dark of that cinema.

…Print the Legend.

For Marshall

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is quite an outlier from the rest of the John Ford films I have seen in an impossible to miss way: it’s the one most reliant on its screenplay to talk to us than its visuals. And that’s maybe what makes me rank it at the lowest when it comes to John Ford’s masterpieces, the fact that the writing has to be most front and center to the imagery that makes Ford one of my favorite filmmakers of all time. But it’s just as well forgivable when it comes to what a perfect piece of writing it is.

The screenplay in question by James Warner Belluh (his second script for Ford after having most of his short stories adapted into earlier movies, as we saw prior in this review series) and producer Willis Goldbeck, adapted from a short story by Dorothy M. Johnson, begins with a US Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie née Ericson (Vera Miles) arriving in a small frontier town by the name of Shinbone. He is ostensibly of such repute that everybody around takes curiosity to his arrival, most of all the local newspaper the Shinbone Star, who go so far as to impose in the middle of Ranse’s paying respects to a recently departed old friend to demand the story of who this man is to Ranse.

That man is by the name of Tom Doniphon and Ranse is miraculously patient enough to acquiesce to The Shinbone Star’s request, beginning from his very first arrival to Shinbone 25 years ago. An arrival that ends up extremely unwelcoming as his stagecoach is intercepted and robbed by the villainous Liberty Valance (a particularly smarmy and vengeful Lee Marvin) and his gang*. When Ranse dares to stand between Valance’s men and an old woman’s pendant, he gets himself beaten down for his bravery and then when Ranse’s response is specifically to tout the law – for you see Ranse at this point was fresh out of law school and eager to practice it within Shinbone itself – that beating becomes more severe and ends with Stoddard being left out on the road. Enter Doniphon (John Wayne), who carries him into the town and to the care of the Ericsons where Ranse is able to heal up and earn his shelter by working for the Ericson’s restaurant while also endearing himself to the town with his knowledge and planning his practice soon enough.

And for the next hour or so, the movie becomes less plot-driven and more about ideas. Explicit ideas, I’d dare to say close to didactic except that Ford, Belluh, and Goldbeck don’t necessarily provide an answer to the questions it brings up but nevertheless waste no words without shading out the tug-o-war particularly between Doniphon and Stoddard. A future confrontation between Stoddard and Valance is pretty much inevitable, given both Stoddard’s dogged devotion to having Valance dealt with by the law and Valance’s hatred of Stoddard at first sight (as well as Valance being such a notorious presence plaguing Shinbone outright to the point that the Marshal is looking for any reason to avoid crossing him). Doniphon is pretty much the only person in the world that Valance shows anything near fear towards and it’s clearly because Doniphon is a much bigger fella who has no problem flashing a big stick and puffing his chest out against Valance when necessary. And so we have at the center of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a conflict of ideals: Stoddard’s intelligent navigating around the legal system as he tries to invoke it in whatever way that might stick against Valance and Doniphon’s pragmatism towards force being used against force.

Which one can’t possibly think of two better actors to embody these two separate forms of masculinity than Stewart and Wayne, even while they both are notably a lot older than we’re meant to assume the characters are. Nevertheless, it’s a no-brainer: you take Jimmy Stewart, the very image of the moral arbiter that American cinema had in the wake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life, which somehow did not fade yet in 1962 even after his Hitchcock pictures and Anatomy of a Murder showed more of an edge. Which is of course better for his performance as Ransom Stoddard, which might be his career best, carrying just enough of that edge to his non-violent strategic rationalism to react to moments such as Woody Strode forgetting the “All Men Are Created Equal” in the Declaration of Independence and comforting him with “a lot of people forget that part” as well as the jagged way in which he confronts Doniphon’s alpha male approach to things (to the point of throwing a punch at him in one scene). Stewart imbues just enough doubt to Stoddard and his lack of familiarity with Shinbone to suggest a complication towards his convictions but yet let’s those convictions have enough presence against Wayne…

… who is basically doing a lot of the same things he’s always done with Ford: embodying the broad-shouldered, street smart, physical-minded Western hero archetype he fits on like a glove and even the melancholy he brings to the role is nothing new, given She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers. He’s less doubtful on his actions – and given the way that story develops, it’s safe to say he’s mostly validated – but he’s also got less chemistry with any of his co-stars, including Miles and Strode (Hallie is at the time of the flashback Tom’s girlfriend and that actually plays as a second contest for Tom and Ranse while Strode plays Tom’s right-hand man Pompey). And a bit of this may be based on how miserable Wayne made most of the people on set as a reaction to the way Ford made him miserable, but it gives an excellent little separation of Tom from the rest of the community as his own quiet island. And when you mix that in with Wayne’s effortless soulfulness, that just makes his lack of belonging sting a tiny bit more. In fact, the only real chemistry spark Wayne has on-screen is with Marvin as somebody for him to center all of his anger at when they stare daggers at each other waiting for a draw.

And so with those two embodying the incompatible ideals of how a man deals with the problems a man has to deal with, the story and Otho Lovering’s unexpectedly back-loaded pacing eventually uses its second half to boil all of that theory into something that requires guns be fired at the last second and the revelations regarding that explosive climax are too good to spoil, but suffice it to say… there are ways in which we learn how right and how wrong both were and in turn the way the world is starting to favor one after spending most of its development necessitating the other’s skills. It’s a movie particularly aware of politicking and image as an important element (by the beginning of the second hour, the discussion of imminent statehood and representation in the government becomes an active stake and given purple rhetorical delivery by Edmond O’Brien at his most Shakespearean and a surprise cameo by John Carradine matching O’Brien’s theatricality tenfold. It’s also the moment where Ford and Lovering see to adding close-ups that betray where the performance begin and ends when it comes to oratory politics) and the manner in which Belluh and Goldbeck’s screenplay ties all that up is certainly famous enough in its own right, but frankly I don’t want to take the chance that someone will read this and be spoiled on what is quite a poetic conclusion.

In any case, that’s a lot of time spent on the story itself and while I did say The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has that story take precedence over the image… it is still extremely strong imagery. For one thing, it is a return to black-and-white for Ford and his cinematographer William H. Clothier, a style which honestly I think found Ford at his most comfortable and strongest as he takes interest at giving as much unglamorized realism to the Western sets, like the walls of the Ericsons’ restaurant or the cluster of machinery in the original Shinbone Star office. And then there’s still the ability for Ford to marshal the usage of shadows when necessary, particularly the heart-pounding gun duel that everybody knows is coming the moment Valance and Ranse lock eyes to render the characters in a nihilistic blackness (which only expands further when considering that, in true visual villain form, Valance is dressed specifically in black compared to all the other central players). And of course, there’s Ford’s awareness of what character blocking means in regards to those character’s relations and attitude towards each other and there has never been a movie where that was more important given what Tom and Ranse represent. It appears that Ford is just as nimble with the 1.85:1 aspect ratio as he was in Academy, whether it’s a crowd scene at a bar discussing politics or one man tearing down a building in anguish, able to have the action fit into that frame in notable ways. He even gives the framing of one moving shot between two doors late in the film a sense of gravity that adds to what is happening. Ford’s framing and usage of shadows particularly mix the best together with a shot round the middle of a character entering a frame of pitch blackness before the lighting gradually reveals the presence of company with urgent disturbance.

Ford is not sleepwalking at all in this movie. He’s deferring certainly to the writing moreso, but he feels no less inspired than anything else he’s worked on and I imagine that’s done for a reason. This is absolutely the sort of movie that is tapping into a man aware that his career is ending and what sort of legacy gets left behind once you close that door. It’s why the frame narrative essentially involves the off-screen death of his biggest star and it’s why it’s a story aware of how the culture changes within barely anytime at all. Ford still had a few more movies left in him before finally packing up but The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was certain that the end had begun and imbues a lot of gravity in its musings and themes from that awareness. And if a lot of its final conclusions appear to be borrowed from Ford’s previous film Fort Apache, Ford’s revisit of them come with a punchier and blunter manner of delivering them and when the legend becomes fact…

*One unexpected benefit of this movie’s existence: Sergio Leone saw Lee Van Cleef playing one of Valance’s henchmen and liked the way he looked so much that he cast him for For a Few Dollars More and then The Good, the Bad, the Ugly.

…And The Valley of Them That Have Gone

For Marshall – who was one of the first people I’d met who’d push back on this movie’s ill-deserved legacy

We all know the infamous results of the 14th Academy Awards in 1942, where How Green Was My Valley won 5 Oscars including the third Best Director win for John Ford and Best Picture. And that happened at the cost of Citizen Kane, thereby leading to nearly 70 years of backlash that insisted because How Green Was My Valley was not worthy of that award because the win was stolen from “The Best Movie Ever”. What this post pre-supposes is… maybe this win was deserved.

It really was. Certainly, How Green Was My Valley is not better than Citizen Kane (likewise, Orson Welles is my favorite director where as John Ford is only my favorite American director) but not being as good as Citizen Kane still leaves room for being one of the best movies ever made.

And I get how it may feel like the sentiment inherent in How Green Was My Valley‘s storytelling from a script by Phillip Dunne adapted from the novel by Richard Llewellyn was being awarded as a reaction to Kane‘s cold cynicism but if you may permit me the chance, I’d like to propose that How Green Was My Valley accomplishes that sentiment of a child’s memory but from the eyes of an adult that clearly came to recognize the beginnings of what is a darker and immediate present. That’s after all the first thing we are faced with before anything: an unseen narrator voiced by an uncredited Irving Pichel observes with us the audience a blackened and smoke filled hillside Welsh village as he prepares to leave this place for good. The very shot has us hover past his hands preparing to leave and exiting out the window of his home where blackened ground and smog from the nearby colliery greets us by filling an place in the frame where the sky could be visible with gray toxicity.

After Pichel delivers his defiant monologue for remembering the valley the way it was over the way it now is, we fade into a view of the major road where young Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowell) and his father Gwilym (Donald Crisp) are able to view mountains as far as seen filled with trees and brightness in Arthur Miller’s glowing black-and-white cinematography but even within that opening introduction to our narrator’s – who is identifiable as the adult Huw – childhood reminiscences, the beginnings of that “black slag, the waste of the colliery” is visible (including a shot where it takes up a third of the frame at the top of the village’s adjacent hill. That slag is introduced to us in the frame narrative with practically half of the village’s homes buried beneath it, thereby even from the start of Huw’s voiceover waxing we are reminded grimly that the destruction of this village has already begun.

And before I go on, if I may note something I really love about the way these first three minutes (for indeed, I’ve only JUST described the first three minutes!) invite us to watch Huw’s memories with him: the introductory montage in the present brings us to face the remnants of the village with straightforward cuts from James B. Clark to each reveal but then once we fade into the past, a single moment – Huw and his father walking to the coal slag before Huw’s sister Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) calls out to them through song and Huw calls her back with the same tune – features crossfades between the shots, giving it more of the sense of something associative rather than continuous. Which is an outstanding usage of editing a single event to tell us how this is a movie communicating moments popping into the mind of a man rather than an active history. It will not return for most of the film, but as mental place-setting, it did all it needed to in those 3 minutes.

Something else that won’t necessarily return until later is the sense of things becoming for the worse, since this is in the end a movie about adult Huw’s attempts to maintain nostalgia as Pichel’s narration never ceases to be warm and wistful no matter what the scene be. Even while the central colliery remains hovering over the village with its smoke and its waste taking up one isolated quarter of the landscape shots involving that lovely and cozy village main village road (a studio set* designed by Richard Day and Nathan Juran in a manner that greatly favors Miller’s full frame and Ford’s attempts to resemble 19th Century British landscape paintings), Huw plays softball selecting early memories like his eldest brother Ivor (Patric Knowles)’s marriage (and Huw’s immediate infatuation with his sister-in-law, Bronwyn (Anna Lee)), the men working that colliery that make up that village’s entire economy singing proudly in Welsh at the end of the working day as they prepare to wash up the soot covering their bodies, and the pleasant domesticity of dinner together with the family.

And yet before very long, we are faced with the first major conflict: the wages of the coal mine workers has been cut and the remaining four of Huw’s brothers that were living in the Morgan home clash with their father on the matter of creating a Union to protect their rights as workers. And then further on more quiet conflicts occur at the margins of Huw’s happy memories until they start taking over the narrative structure. That’s the most impressive thing about Dunne’s writing here: the way it lets the events play episodically until they catch together as something like momentum to the inevitable around halfway through. It is also one of the ways this movie allows Ford to slip in as much of his socialist politics as possible: the union business, the lingering presence of capitalism and the awareness of its coming effects, and even fits in environmentalism in the quietest (though not subtle) ways.

In any case, just as much as Pichel attempts to provide resilience to the early signs of his village and his family’s future, there is still one more formal element to provide reinforcement to that swell and it’s Ford and Miller’s favor of wide shots and wide angle lenses. Which certainly makes sense for exterior sequences that add to the sense of community when we witness all the workers filling the streets and the screen, singing together or marching together or even just need a reminder of what is at stake with the shots of the entire village and what is coming with the colliery standing in the back. But the interior sequences – those particularly in the Gwilym home though the chapel in which Pastor Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon) preaches between acting Huw’s secondary father figure has a significant presence and there is also an incredible usage of a schoolhouse hallway that stresses the out-of-placement of certain characters – give up the game by abiding by the same angles and lenses where we see just how tightly fit together the Morgans are in their own home, particularly when they get to pull Ford’s favorite trick of capturing the ceilings (introduced earlier in Stagecoach). Yet even within those homey walls, there are battles to be lost: the forces of the colliery ruining the livelihood and home of these people move back as the interpersonal conflicts take center stage, some of which are the acts of good people not knowing right (such as the afore-mentioned tension between Gwilym and his sons on unionizing), some are complex (as in the romance between Gruffydd and Angharad), and some are just the cruel acts of the vindictive (the deacon Mr. Parry (Arthur Shields) is the closest this movie has to an antagonist).

It is perhaps through the characters (and the ensemble’s lively way of playing them even at their most significant hardships) that Huw most finds his memories faced with a lack of pure sweetness. The perspective of which we are particularly watching Gwilym beckons the sort of uncontested admiration a son would have of his father, aided by the firm human patience with which Crisp (in an Oscar winning performance) fills Gwilym. But yet there are moments where Gwilym is fundamentally wrong and while it is admiring to recognize the manner in which Gwilym holds tightly to patience and manners, the course of events eventually locks on what his second oldest son Ianto (John Loder) declares “If manners are what keeps us from speaking the truth, then we shall be without manners”. Gwilym’s demeanor and role in the family are idealized tenfold especially from the eyes of a child, but it is not the answer in all cases and it unfortunately leads to the inevitable dissolution of the household by the end of it all (and maybe the best function of Sara Allgood as Gwilym’s wife Beth, the matron of the family, is how she gives by far the most emotive performance and the sadder moments in her performance give way to a better knowingness of where we are being led to than anybody else on-screen). Meanwhile, Gruffydd himself is a more grounded figure in Huw’s life who – even in his capacity as spiritual leader – leads the people to more down-to-earth perspectives and matters. And yet in the first of essentially two climaxes in this film, he finally betrays himself to an emotional outburst that promises all bridges burnt against the hypocrisies of the church he works in, something the film finds extremely unmanned even in the truthfulness of it all.

And so here I declare that How Green Was My Valley, even as blessedly affectionate and romantic about the past as it may be, is doing so in a defiant struggle against the clarity of what the real implications and consequence of the times Huw lived in as a boy. And the result is something as effectively bittersweet as anything else could be when introducing a boy’s dearest recollections the sort of gravity only a mature mind can recognize, something more complex than I feel the detractors give How Green Was My Valley credit for. Can it truly be blamed for wanting to indulge as much as possible in its maudlin sympathies? Can a man truly be condemned for wanting to remember simpler times, especially as he recognizes they were not so simple at the same time as the viewer does? That the very final moments of How Green Was My Valley fights the grimmest tragedy with the comforting fact of the affable homeliness at the very beginnings of this memory’s journey (including recalling the sing song calling in a new context) and refuses to return to that initial frame narrative before the credits gives me the sense that even if the past is distant and the present is impossible to escape, perhaps Huw’s battle was not in vain. And that is impossible for me to disparage in any capacity, especially in how it stands as memorable to me as any of Ford’s Westerns.

*An outlier amongst Ford’s pictures, which are usually shot on location. Unfortunately, the ongoing Second World War – which Ford would later famously be involved in the documenting of just after this movie was released – made shooting in Wales out of the question.

A Period Film

Autumn de Wilde’s debut feature film Emma., adapted from the same eponymous Jane Austen novel as the second-to-last movie I covered (with an added punctuation to the title that de Wilde has explained by the means I alluded to in this review’s title), has a very special place in my heart for me. Outside of Tenet, it became the very last movie I saw in a cinema during its release the night before AMC shut down as part of the measures taken in the early days of the coronavirus when the country pretended to care. And it is a comfort in the following days that my last two movies in a movie theater while I refuse to step in one for the foreseeable future were among the very new releases I had seen over the past 12 months.

I like to think none of that sentimentality has a hand in my positivity towards the movie. Even if I hadn’t seen Emma. in that contest, it is certainly the case that it has retained my favorite quality of all of my favorite Jane Austen adaptations: a refusal to be nice to its characters. Including and especially Emma Woodhouse, played by Anya Taylor-Joy as the lead in a phenomenal cast that finds a way to import a much modern attitude in their performances as they can do without feeling out-of-time with the setting. That modernity is how de Wilde and her cast are able to hash out as much nasty teasing from Austen’s source material and Eleanor Catton’s screenplay adapting it from Emma’s place of extremely noted privilege with wealth and background to her ostensible new recruit as a best friend, the much lower class Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a relationship that we have enough distance to regard as pretty shitty and enough engagement to hope that Emma will recognize her snottiness and develop as a better person.

A trick that is of course at the heart of Austen’s work – as I mentioned in that aforementioned Clueless review – as her judgment of her judgmentally presumptuous protagonists and the judgmentally presumptuous social norms they engage is what animated her literary storytelling and it seems that cinema finally caught on to that with a vengeance in the mid-90s, even if Emma remains “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. Well, Taylor-Joy’s Emma delivers sarcasms and snipes like a second-language and even in the understanding that she’s being mean, it ends up being absolute fun to listen to as dry comedy and restrains from foreshadowing any future thawing though it remains a believable character arc. In the meantime, Goth and Miranda Hart (as the very talkative and excitable neighbour Miss Bates) are wonderful sports as the most frequent recipients of these meddling while acting as the secret weapon for Emma.‘s humanity and bringing us to root more for the idea of Emma making amends with Harriet and Miss Bates and earn their friendship than for Emma making amends with potential suitor George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) or Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) and find love. I expect it is just as much the fact that Goth and Hart are both clearly the best performances in the movie that the power of friendship is more appealing than the power of love in an ostensible Regency romance story, but it does not feel inadvertent on de Wilde or Catton’s part nor like a bug.

The cast and script are of course only one level through which Emma. was so enjoyable as a late-night watch. As expected of any period film worth a damn, the production and costume design use the Regency accuracy as an opportunity to explore the chance to act as extensions of what drama is happening inside them. Most particularly the complete polarity between Kave Quinn’s decision to make the palaces and mansions throughout feel elaborate and overindulgent in its lines and curlicues and Alexandra Byrne’s desire to restrain as much as possible in the attire of these characters. The latter seems to function all the better to define the social differences between Emma, Harriet, Miss Bates, and the rest as well as really stress that stuffy rigidity that Emma and her father (Bill Nighy) seem to embody in their style just as much as their personality. In the meantime, the whirly Englishness of the sets is particularly a starting point for de Wilde (who clearly showcases a developed eye from her background as a photographer and music video director) and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt to exaggerate the fussiness with similarly rigid compositions that nonetheless lend to imbalances (especially in Blauvelt’s camera movements) and add rosy tints to even the least compatible colors while softening the focus so that everything just a tinge unnatural and off-putting (an act that makes way for a visual surprise later in the film). Which feels no less a sarcastic manner to present an ostensible time and place of pageantry than it does to use the heights of the English language to give unbecoming snipes and actions.

In any case, Emma. happily embodies all the brittleness of the time it was made to translate effectively Jane Austen’s critique of a time that was while still indulging in all the visual splendour that makes worthwhile period pieces a treat to look at. It would be tempting to claim that the latter is what makes it an easy and appealing watch while performing the former, but the fact is that the same biting attitude of the content informs a lot of how the movie looks and so it intertwines together into the sort of knowing joke on the time and place that at least this viewer loves to be a part of. And the sort of movie that I satisfied me enough as a farewell to the cinema for the time being.

Tosses her head and flips her hair, she got a whole bunch of nothing there.

I would not make assumptions on the experiences of others based on my own experience, but this last rewatch of Amy Heckerling’s 1995 high school comedy Clueless had me realizing I fell into a trap of misremembering this movie just how scathing and antagonistic it is towards its characters and their lives. And in order to defend myself – as this was my third viewing of the movie – I suggest that this was a fairly easy trap to fall under. For just as much as it is a biting satire with deeper cuts to land than one would expect on first look, Clueless is also a really breezy and easygoing comedy with cinematographer Bill Pope supplying glossy visuals towards the home life and mall life of it bubbly Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) while making sure to flatten any incident outside of there and an arc that does suggest an earnest core behind its superficial characters and the fact that any movie around the runtime of 90 minutes (Clueless being only 7 minutes over) is obviously the work of very nice people who only want what’s good for you.

But about 10 minutes into that runtime, Cher opens her mouth to give an argument about the Haitian refugee crisis and it is in there that Heckerling’s script begins to show its hand a bit as she goes to compare the struggles of these desperate refugees to her venal lawyer dad (played by an expectedly intimidating Dan Hedaya)’s 50th birthday dinner in Marie Antoinette-like fashion. The large amount of differences between a life-or-death situation for displaced people and a situation for her where the crisis is just that she had to accommodate wealthy guests who just did not RSVP in advance is not something stressed on by either Heckerling (who backdrops Cher’s speech with a patriotic musical score and punctuates it with the applause of her peers in the class, though the bemusement of her debate teacher) or by Silverstone’s comfortable performance in a Valley Girl skin with enough self-awareness to play further into the blindspots of Cher’s position rather than cover them, but Clueless trusts that such a reductive approach to the situation should be recognizable for any given viewer.

And as Clueless continues on to depict the “way normal life of a teenage girl” of Cher’s stature, we learn just how much of it is talking her way out of consequences, imposing on the lives of others, and quiet snobbery and ignorance, all of which portrayed with the same bright view of things as Cher’s internal monologue delivers her short-sighted but energetic observations with. None of Heckerling’s writing for Cher is malicious and there is often the implication that Cher wants to do the right thing, but the undertones of her motivations or methods are dark enough to have that bite towards a character we are still ostensibly meant to find pleasant if mockable company.

Which is just as appropriate given that Clueless is famously an adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma, sticking to the events of the book extremely accurately. It remains fairly to the spirit of Austen’s judgmental look towards the higher-classed people for Heckerling to have this wry attitude towards the contemporary teen culture in which her script and direction transposes the material, which also triangulates Clueless into being a part of several different trends in popular culture: it started the trope of directly adapting (as opposed to be inspired by) contemporary works of literature to modern day settings. It particularly came at the exact peak of the Jane Austen adaptation craze that the BBC ignited in the early 1990s (in fact, a year later Emma would receive a straightforward adaptation this time written and directed by Douglas McGrath). And for my money, I think it’s one of the few Austen adaptations that gets the scoffing nature of Austen as a storyteller rather than the lavish costume dramas that look at the lives of their characters rosily because “old means prestige”. Perhaps that’s a perspective Heckerling was afforded from her choice of time and place to set Clueless.

But probably the most material of these trends since it’s the one Heckerling and company are dissecting and ridiculing is how Clueless arrived right at the beginning of the end for the Beverly Hills valley youth subculture’s place at the center of America’s attention (if you are like me and define the beginning of the end as “when Luke Perry left Beverly Hills 90210). A social trend based in the glorification of the status you were born into and the apparent merit of separating yourself from the have-nots, which is obviously just the perfect state of mind to apply to high school life (and costume designer Mona May particularly has a good time applying gaudy and loud outfits to Cher, Stacey Dash’s character Dionne, Brittany Murphy’s character Tai, and Elisa Donovan’s character Amber while dulling out the colors and stressing the ill-fitting nature of the outfits for guys like Breckin Meyer’s stoner skater dude). And perhaps less obvious but something that couldn’t help sinking into my mind during this rewatch, but Clueless also came fairly early into the time where Generation X and the youth of America was hooked and appealed into political involvement with things like Bill Clinton appearing on MTV, something I can’t help feeling Heckerling has a bit of pessimism about. Certainly Clueless is not a political movie by any measure, but Cher as a character talks about current events like refugees in such a frivolous or simply asks for a charitable cause to be involved in for appearances has quite a bit of connotation coming from the mid-1990s.

So what to do with this central character who is vapid as hell regarding the and the environment around her that facilitates the way in which she takes everything for granted and assumes that she knows best (after all, there is even a moment where Cher’s father praises her for manipulating her teachers into fixing her grades rather than earning them)? How does a movie knowingly give us these characters and still get away with a reputation for being fun and enjoyable?

Well, to start with, Silverstone and the rest of the cast are really amiable company (especially Murphy, who is nonstop adorable even in the brief moment where she gets to act as a heel). Silverstone has a deft handle of Cher’s slang and takes care to modulate the amount of ignorant bliss Cher has to still let it wallop when she has a sober epiphany about the guy she had a crush on being gay or realizing she can’t talk her way into passing her driving test (the reckless driving being one of the more direct areas where Heckerling suggests danger to these kids’ airheadedness while still allowing it to have the sort of wacky tone as any other comedy). The characters themselves treat their interpersonal conflicts as small things that come and go, such as the invisible nature with which Amber will be a source of disdain for Cher or Tai and then turn around and still hang out with them at the Galleria. Outside of Jeremy Sisto’s Elton, the only source of downer energy is from the snarky presence of Paul Rudd’s Josh and that’s the same character who evidently has most of his head on his shoulders with his engaged college life and his confident sense of direction. And he still gets to be effortlessly likable on the basis of being baby Paul Rudd.

But what’s most impressive about Clueless trying to have its cake and eat it too is that because Cher’s harmful influence towards is nowhere near the magnitude of, say, a Ferris Bueller, we do cheer for her to find love and have her friendship with Tai and to get things… kind of figured out without actually really changing as a person. And the manner in which she accomplishes these things gets to keep dark undertones – like the pseudo-incestuous nature of the final pairings or the conversion of an innocent personality unbeknownst them – that can linger in our heads while the movie cheerfully grins and insists that this is a happy ending. Clueless is the type of movie that is having a good time and if you go “wait, what a minute?”, you’re telling it anything it doesn’t know but it asks that you play along and get with the vibe. And by golly, it works.

The Princess Bride

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I would love to hide behind the fact that I am still – 7 months later – not ready to say goodbye to Takahata Isao as the excuse that I was sooooooooooo tardy with this retrospective and this final entry is last-minute. No, I shall be transparent about the fact that a mix between laziness with this site and an overwhelming amount of real-world responsibilities arresting me with anxiety was why this 5-film goal took way longer to complete than I intended.

But the fact IS that I am not ready to say goodbye to Takahata and it’s frustrating not just because of how long its been since his death, but because with The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Takahata pretty much made the perfect film with which to say goodbye to the world. Even while Takahata worked until the very end (as he had later as artistic producer for The Red Turtle, the latest of Studio Ghibli’s releases), it’s hard to imagine him not being aware that his age at 78 when the film premiered in 2013 and the large 14-year gap in between his last two films spelt the end of his directorial career. So he made it count in more ways than one.

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Let’s tackle The Tale of the Princess Kaguya outside of that context for a second, because it is an emotionally moving film even outside of that retrospect. Adapted by Takahata and Sakaguchi Riko from what is believed to be the oldest surviving Japanese prose monogatari “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”, a bamboo cutter (Chii Takeo) discovers a tiny baby girl residing in one of the stalks he cuts down (this resembles a sequence in My Neighbors the Yamadas so well that I expect Takahata was planning this film for longer than the 14 years between) and brings her home to his wife (Miyamoto Nobuko), believing the child to be of a divine presence. The baby’s accelerated growth into a child and the discovery of gold and silks within more bamboo only furthers this belief on the cutter’s part, so in no time they make for a life of nobility in the capital with the girl they have since named Hime (Asakura Asi). It is much to her dismay that she must leave behind the rest of the village children she had grown with, including the strong and mature Sutemaru (Kora Kengo), and learning the sort of restrictions and demands a life as a princess forces upon her only adds to Hime’s blues, later to be re-named Kaguya by a priest.

The 137 minutes that make up The Tale of the Princess Kaguya are certainly not of a brisk sort (particularly a middle sort involving numerous unappealing attempts at courting the then adult princess start to drag in a repetition of punchlines), but it is nevertheless one that recognizes the ephemeral sweep with which this girl must live her life: growing and going through stages with barely enough time to recognize and adore this world she’s been brought into with the sparse and direct nature of storytelling that folklore grants itself. At the same time, Takahata and Sakaguchi import a lot of contemporary depth via Kaguya’s feelings on her drafted princess-hood, the deft inherent talent she has at the position fighting against her desires to live a normal human outside back in peaceful rusticity. Likewise, her adoptive parents have their own emotions driving the story: the bamboo cutter’s desperate resentment at his previous poverty and the denied legitimacy of his ascension among the upper class and the wife’s attempts to help Kaguya feel comfortable with this life without willing to sacrifice their gained wealth.

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This dichotomy and conflict is – as would be for any animated film, especially one by a master such as Takahata – a visual one just as much as it is a narrative one. Once again, Takahata’s valued minimalism where the image is just fading at the edges into white is utilized to shape the image into something like a painting, aided by the elegant and traditional hand-painting that makes up the animation style as though illustrations to a storybook. Moving illustrations with a vivid fluidity to them that rejects the formal roots of its aesthetic, particularly in a later sequence where we watch Kaguya zoom out of the palace and the city and into the field as a flurry of thick black lines in one direction, lifted by the romanticism Joe Hisaishi’s score elevates the tale to (shockingly his only collaboration with Takahata in their careers, even despite the fact that Takahata was the one who brought him to Studio Ghibli in the first place). Meanwhile, the forests are a very appealing bunch of watercolor greens and browns while the city goes for a muted white-based lack of personality that explains Kaguya’s lack of belonging in that place, without losing the grace of those hand-drawn lines that build up the image.

This is overall a scenario that affords a lot of different bittersweet observations about the human experience in such a limited time: the satisfaction of simple lives, the performative nature high-class society and its attempts to flaunt their wealth, the balancing act of parenthood where one must prove clairvoyent in knowing what’s best for their children, the certainty that things will mess up regardless, toxic men filling up more and more with hot air when they can not enamor a woman and going beyond their boundaries, women having no choice in their place in life and trying to make what they can out of the rapid changes thrown at them. All of these themes with wisdom and patience as the film scratches at them. Nothing within its observations on these matters is entirely positive, though it does afford a few respites of happiness where Kaguya can free herself an inch and it is heartbreaking when she must return to her princess status.

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There is one final observation The Tale of the Princess Kaguya has to give us before it ends and, while I don’t want to spoil it in detail, I can only say it is one about how hard it is to say goodbye to the world and the people who make up your world. Introduced at the very last leg of the film is an indomitable conclusiveness to all of Kaguya’s worries that also means a lot of sadness and emptiness in the lives of the bamboo cutter, his wife, Sutemaru, and everyone else that Kaguya cared for in her very short time on Earth, only accentuated by this abrupt obstacle. The beauty with which this is carried out – looking and sounding akin to a festive celebration rather than anything else – gives the promise of things feeling right by what’s occurring but the emotions behind the characters having to go through this and the fact that they are the ones we’re familiar with makes it all the more devastating despite this. It entirely ties up the bittersweet nature of the writing and the comprehensive manner of its plot as a portrayal of life itself, ending the film and Takahata’s career with a poignant final shot that feels as much of a tearjerking comfort as the titular fireflies in Grave of the Fireflies.

And having that moment be the one that sees Takahata off as a filmmaker only makes things feel like he was setting us up for that goodbye. It only seems fair to deal with his departure in as graceful a manner as Kaguya suggests one can. But, for a filmmaker whom I’ve never met that lived in a country I’ve never been to and so could only admire from afar, it can just be so hard to have to deal with the fact that he’s not going to make any more art for one to admire. In any case, I’m forever grateful to Takahata for what he did leave us with and they will continue to be my comforts in the years to come as life goes on.

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29 October 1935 – 5 April 2018

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And Freedom Tastes of Reality

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So given how I rage-quit the dare my best friend and I made to read E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey books very early and thus never made it into its literary sequels, I can not tell you how much of the James’ screenwriter husband Niall Leonard retained into the script of Fifty Shades Freed, the third film in the main trilogy (a second trilogy of the story written by James from a different perspective existing). I am going to assume all the spousal disagreements that make up the early turbulence in protagonists Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey’s (Jamie Dornan) marriage and honeymoon, including Christian’s unambiguous possessive nature to Ana as his wife, most notably Grey’s frustration to the point of unprofessionally barging into her office to demand why the hell she didn’t take a new email address with his last name for the business. And if that IS the case, then I’m going to assume it is at worst Leonard’s writing or at best only James Foley’s mishandled directing that gives this less of and “this is something Christian has to grow up about” attitude and more of a “will she or won’t she” attitude which is absolutely troubling, since it is one of the areas where Christian has no grounds to be such a baby about it.

Not that he has as much of one over how he tries desperately to keep Ana locked away in their luxury condo (missing any ounce of character in how it was originally shot and designed in the first movie in this trilogy), but at least in that case, their lives are actually in danger as they are targeted and stalked by Ana’s former boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson). Yes, indeedy, Fifty Shades Freed is one step closer to transforming its shoody material into good-bad movie territory now that it has that “returning antagonist comes back in psychotic supervillain” mode and Leonard’s screenplay is also – to its very little credit – significantly more focused on this prevalent threat on the characters’ lives, weaving well enough in between Hyde’s presence and the couple’s accommodation to newfound married life. Still it’s not quite there when Foley is still intent on turning this movie into an over-sincere delivery of issues that simply can’t be taken sincerely even by the author who acknowledged them as her “midlife crisis, writ large”.

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Foley’s direction can be felt as unsmiling no matter how ridiculous the moment: the significant increase in amounts of sex scenes (which at least indicates that they finally get why the hell these stories sold, though the vanilla framing and cutting of it and even the easy “quick google search” version of the kinks they take part in like the ice cream scene keep it from being anywhere near arousing), the attempts at thrilling moments like the slowest and least exhilarating car chase scene I may have ever seen in a major motion picture. There is only so fast one can go in rush hour traffic but Foley and the editor has magically found a way to make it surpass that as its own form of suspended time and space where the only true adrenaline coming from the moment is Dakota Johnson childishly stating “I’m a race car driver”, one of the few moments where the fun actress seems to be having in the role leaks out into the role totally undeterred by the total creep she is trying to evade.

Ah yes, Johnson. This is once again a performance where she cracked the code of giving these movies a camp performance that can take everything happening to Ana and Christian here seriously enough to make them feel like stakes while still fully aware of how ridiculous the circumstances seem to be for this couple. She has less reinforcements this time around given that the majority of the screentime is between her, Dornan, or Johnson with occasional pop-ins by Luke Grimes as Christian’s younger brother or Arielle Kebbel as the architect hired to fix up the married couple’s new house. And by “fix up”, it apparently means “completely tear down the mansion and rebuild the glass house from House on Haunted Hill over its grave and also flirt openly with Christian to Ana’s consternation”. None of which seem to catch up with Johnson’s cue (Kebbel is close enough but her screentime doesn’t last too long).

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Least of all, Dornan who seems to think the response to the material is to take only so much more seriously enough to demand he now have slightly more expressive faces from the fixed glares he began with and that’s… a choice. The night and day between the two lead performances get in the way of any possible chemistry they might have as screen partners. They’re simply not acting in the same movie, let alone being on the same page. Needless to say, I end up preferring the movie that Johnson is acting in.

No need to hold them too accountable because it seems like there was just never much space for the movie for anybody to act like people. The characters are just existent to facilitate the multiple sex scenes that Foley and company just seem utterly disinterested in (shall I state that the very last shot and cut is a door closing just as sexytimes is about to happen?) written as though Leonard is an alien trying to figure out the most literal inelegant way that they can move from “this issue popped up regarding this cute person who is smiling at you too much” to “well, I guess we can just sweep that quickly under the rug” with just dialogue and a scowl. That Hyde ends up the conflict with the most staying power seems to just be on account of that having more pieces moving (including – *le gasp* plot twists) than Ana being angry at Christian’s texts. The second most-present conflict enters deep enough in the movie to qualify as a spoiler, but suffice it to say, it only sticks around on account of the rich multi-billionaire who has enough money to buy ten lifetimes of Chipotle acting like his life is thoroughly ruined by this development and taking it out on Ana because if there’s one thing this series established, it’s that Christian only knows how to take out his frustrations on women.

It’s apparent by the finale montage of “highlights” in the entire trilogy that the film is convinced we were highly invested in the domestic happiness of a couple that can’t even decide on the exact type of house they want. I’m very certain for some audiences, they probably were. It is also my understanding that many members of the BDSM culture find it to be a harmful portrayal of their practices without a single thought to how trust takes part in it. I can’t say the Fifty Shades trilogy gave me much more than a downward spiral into the idea that sex can be utterly mundane if you try hard enough and there is no floor to that.

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Three-Fifty Shades

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So, like, when I talk about the movie WatchmenWatchmen, there’s a certain compliment I like to apply to a movie I otherwise dislike: the actors seem to be under the impression that they are in a very different movie than the director is making and they’re in a better movie. And I think that same compliment/observation can be applied mostly to Fifty Shades Darker, the second film in the Fifty Shades of Grey adaptation series based on E.L. James’ BDSM based Twilight-fan fiction. At least to the female actors – Dakota Johnson was already settled into realizing this character she’s playing is ripe for ridiculous overdramatics in the “romantic” side of things, Marcia Gay Harden rips into the material for her own character with fearless camp, and new entry into the franchise Kim Basinger doesn’t seem entirely aware of the quality of the material she’s playing, but she seems suspicious enough of it to apply the most 1980s seductive villainess you could give to a movie this otherwise sober-minded. The male actors – certainly Jamie Dornan, who plays mysterious BDSM billionaire Christian Grey – are not as lucky, probably less willing to jump into camp as they are to jump into a goddamn river. Bella Heathcote herself is somewhere in the middle, understanding that her character is feeling an amount of pain that nothing in the script seems aware of and turning a two-dimensional Fatal Attraction knock-off into a wounded soul.

There IS a compliment I pay to Watchmen as well that can not be remotely applied to Fifty Shades DarkerFifty Shades Darker doesn’t feel visually interesting or inspired. This is a shame because the first Fifty Shades of Grey, I am embarrassed to say, kind of was even despite being boring as all hell. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, director Sam Taylor-Johnson, and production designer David Wasco all figured on the cleanest coldest domain for Grey’s demons to reside in, utilizing his last name as visual motif the way you’d probably have to to get anything out of this material. All three of these figures are sadly replaced in Darker by John Schwartzman, James Foley, and Nelson Coates respectively (but not respectfully) and they shoot and design Fifty Shades Darker like an Ash Wednesday version of a Sears commercial, attempting to oversell the “dark” tone of the material as a make-up for no visual character at all. And this is already going to get hamstrung by the fact that most of the material isn’t residing in the shadowy chrome sharp corridors of Fifty Shades of Grey* is luxury porn scored by the happiest uncomplex pop song you could imagine Taylor Swift and Zayn Malik writing intercut with the occasional knowledge that screenwriter Niall Leonard just quickly wrapped up another conflict and they have a huge amount of movie left “so lemme try to figure out what to do with this here helicopter” or “wait a minute I just realized I named this white fuckboi Jack Hyde, lemme collect on that”.

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Leonard, by the way, is notably the husband of James and so evidently more devoted to translating the very letter of his wife’s novel as sincere, straight-faced, and sober drama treating Grey’s sudden return into the life of Johnson’s publishing worker character Anastasia Steele as fiery romanticism when stalking you ex-lover and utilizing your financial power to buy her place of employment should be a red flag about the sort of toxically damaged individual you are. And again it’s not like it’s not a toxic workplace to begin with anyway when her creep supervisor is named Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson). And credit where credit is due, Grey’s extensive amount of backstory exploring – rivaling that of, say, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – just how much loathing he appears to have towards his mother for not being sexually conservative and her personal struggles with drug abuse and all I can think of is if I can’t stand this sort of subtle slut-shaming in attempted trash like the Scream franchise (I’m gonna be honest and say if a movie is legit trashy in an enjoyable way, yeah, I’m probably gonna eat it up as silly junk, but neither Scream or Fifty Shades are that) what makes Leonard think I’m gonna go “poor baby” towards Grey for using that as the basis of a whole revolving door of pretty violent relationships that left enough scarring on an individual to make her an unfair secondary antagonist. I think it’s already been acknowledged by enough viewers how harmful this franchise has proven to be about portraying BDSM lifestyles and I can very much see why.

Aight, I’m getting heated. Lemme settle down a bit as I just turn this all around and wrap up my attitudes by reiterating. None of these unfortunate politics or dramatic self-tripping would bother me as much if the movie was maybe a little bit exciting to watch as a fabled “good bad movie” since the material is so askew to do it and God Bless Johnson and company for trying to herald its way into it, but Foley and Dornan and their departments clearly did not get the memo and have the more prevalent authorship in their self-serious treatment of the film. Most of all, Leonard’s inability to keep the juggling conflicts from braking the momentum of the plot and then inching forward and then braking back and forth unfortunately choke any possibility of making Fifty Shades Darker one entertaining experience.

*It’s insane how much hating Fifty Shades Darker is taking away an amount of my hatred of Fifty Shades of Grey. Still hate it, though.

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September 21, 1945… That Was the Night I Died.

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R.I.P. Takahata Isao
29 October 1935 – 5 April 2018

1988 – 30 years ago from this very day, Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli was not yet the worldwide phenomenon it has formerly grown to be but it was in the middle of significant success on the wings of co-founder Miyazaki Hayao’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (pre-emptively a Ghibli production before Ghibli even existed) and Castle in the Sky. 3 years after its inception in 1985, they were in the midst of releasing what the future would see as their flagship film – Miyazaki’s cuddly and fuzzy My Neighbor Totoro. And yet doubts were made unto the box office potential of the affable children’s film so the second of the co-founders Suzuki Toshio made the decision to attach it as a double feature to the adaptation being produced around the same time for publishing house Shinchosha on one of their novels by Nosaka Akiyuki.

That adaptation was written and directed by Ghibli’s third co-founder, veteran animation director Takahata Isao, and it was called Grave of the Fireflies. And side by side with My Neighbor Totoro, the two stand as not only the greatest films of a studio that seldom produced anything but great films, but among the greatest animated works of all time.

And despite this superlative, Suzuki’s tenure as in-house producer of Ghibli had a lot of brilliant ideas, but this was unfortunately not one of them. While the films did not end up box office failures outright, Fireflies received a chilly reception towards family audiences because it meant following up on the movie that stars a giant furry benign forest God with two young children suffering horrifying severe afflictions from the aftermath of World War II. Or not, depending on which order the uninstructed theaters played them, though I can’t imagine being in the mood for something as jovial and harmless as Totoro so soon after witnessing Fireflies either. And so while it remained praised by critics and made enough money that combined with Totoro’s exploding merchandising sales continued the sail of Ghibli, the uninhibited starkness of Grave of the Fireflies‘ material alongside the fact that it was one of the movies which Disney did not purchase North American rights en masse from Ghibli’s parent company Tokuma Shoten (who did not own the rights) left Grave of the Fireflies to fall not into obscurity but a state of being underseen nevertheless.

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Those who did see it would begin faced with the image of a teenage boy in monochromatic reds and a baggy oversized military uniform facing the audience as his voice hovers over announcing his date of death before we watch him have to witness and relive that moment that his gaunt, broken body in rags collapsed in the middle of an apathetic and dismissive crowd in Sannomiya Station. His last words before his life leaving a corpse practically swept away by janitors is a name “Setsuko”.

Setsuko (Shiraishi Ayano), we will later learn, is the name of the young girl we meet quickly after in the same reddish sepia tone surrounded by the warming light of fireflies practically dancing to the first cue of Mamiya Michio’s delicate lullaby score, watching the boy’s death before being met by his spirit in an exuberant manner that implies long awaited reunion as we also learn that boy is her older brother Seita (Tatsumi Tsutomu).

This opening death of Seita is the most notable major liberty one can know taken by the novel’s author Nosaka in what was a semi-autobiography and self-condemnation of his inability to save his sister Keiko from dying of malnutrition in the wake of the Americans’ devastation of World War II and we watch Setsuko and Seita live out his story from the waning months of the war, starting out by their ill mother’s side* with their father absent fighting in the Imperial Navy afar. Having not read Nosaka’s novel, I cannot know the extent to which informs the writing of Seita as a well-meaning but irresponsible and unfairly unqualified guardian (there is a moment very early on where Seita attempts to cheer his sister through playing on playground bars foregrounded by Setsuko’s unbated tears that illustrates just what Seita is not prepared for), but it feels as though the literal directness of Seita’s failures are Nosaka’s blunt lack of forgiveness for himself while Takahata brings in a humane sympathy to Seita for trying to desperately make it out a situation he should never have been thrown into by a war he’s not very much involved in (though his father being in the war does give him investment and we do witness later in the film his response to the war’s results).

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That’s part of the ghostly element of Grave of the Fireflies: while we soon after witness the effects of war laid on undeserving lives, the fighting’s always at a distance and it makes the unnecessary element of the casualties we and the children witness wound us deeper. Even the early firebombing of their home in Kobe that opens the story proper violently (in more than a few ways, the film’s serene opening credits of the peaceful spirits on the train is interrupted by a smash to the loud American B-29s on their trail) is too oppressively one-sided with not a single Japanese shot fired on-screen back, just people running and hiding for their lives (there is one particular Japanese soldier who stands defiant shouting “Long Live the Emperor” that Takahata frames at a distance from heads keeping down from incineration and it only screws in Takahata’s vehement anti-war attitude in the film, portraying an action intended as defiant nobility to futile imbecility. That irony towards Japan’s doomed patriotism continues in a later Navy procession scene interrupting the children’s sleep.).

Amongst those casualties being their mother rendered in upsetting deep reds soaking over bandages dark enough to look dirty from the soot and smoke still suffered in an atmosphere of harsh browns and ash grays, a palette Grave of the Fireflies will visually maintain except in moments of peace like a major beach respite or a glowing yellow speckled image of fireflies comforting Setsuko in their . This death forces the two children into a hopeless situation of drifting over to an aunt that passive-aggressively points out the hardship of life after wartime being multiplied by mouths to feed, leading to the children’s departure into homelessness from their only possible shelter and their slow demise by malnutrition.

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For the most part, this doesn’t sound like material that necessitates an animated production perhaps but Takahata is not just using animation because he happens to work in that field. Seita and Setsuko are generally defined cartoon children (with unmistakably young voices), barely enough to recognize them from a crowd of suffering and to facilitate any emotions of joy and sorrow the film needs to weave through (especially Setsuko’s design, whose tears are the glassiest out of fairly big baby eyes), moving through photorealistic landscapes, either ruinous or wild or industrial in dark tones that make it look like a Totoro nightmare. Those contradictory elements only make the danger to these characters who are easy to look at much more real and at least me as a viewer more anxious**. And it’s outright dreadful to witness them slowly develop coarse lines showing the toll the situation is taking on their bodies, in last cases accentuating their emaciation and only populating more and more of their designs until their basically the very shell we watched die at the beginning of the film.

No, it is very much because Grave of the Fireflies is animated that it feels so very devastating and heartbreaking as a picture, animation used to remind you of the fragility of its characters in the immediate knowledge of their fate. With all that deliberation in the visuals, it just makes moments like a group of girls in bright dresses laughing oblivious to a child mourning a heavy loss or a delirious moment of solid rocks being mistaken as rice cakes feel somewhat like redundancy to the anguish and sorrow the film puts us through, except in its final images and moments Takahata’s humanism takes a restorative turn to suggest a form of release from the suffering Seita, Setsuko, and their companion ghost fireflies faced and a sense of completion that while not optimistic maintains a peaceful sense of absolution to a story told by a man who could not find himself to get it from his confession.

So Takahata generously gave it to him by re-telling it.

*That is perhaps the most prevalent similarity between Fireflies and Totoro: Both of them focus to some degree on siblings dealing with the distressing state of health of their mothers, though I think one can easily guess that Totoro has a significantly happier ending about it.
**If I may lose some credibility with readers, I feel Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur (Pixar’s CCO John Lasseter is notably a Ghibli fan and possibly the biggest credit to their stateside exposure, though his creative input on the movie was probably not that much) attempts this as well and actually accomplishes it for the most part and I am as a result an inveterate apologist for it.

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