…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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In the Jungle, the Miny Jungle

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It’s been a little over 3 years now, but I don’t think we as a film culture have ever healed from the shock of Robin Williams’ suicide and I don’t think we ever will frankly. And the reasons why are as clear as the nose on our face. Not only was it upsetting to discover how Williams was suffering in such a sudden fashion, but it was the suffering of a man whose constant animated mugging and heavy warmth moved an entire generation of young filmgoers in a sentimental manner away from a similarly manic but not nearly as heartfelt a contemporary as Jim Carrey. And I am sorry to say that, despite growing up right in the middle of that generation (Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire having come out around my first year on Earth and being inescapable), I am not one of those people as an adult. As a child, it was probably easier for me to enjoy but as an adult, I just don’t think the mugging and tenderness mix very well, though I think Williams pulled it off wayyyyyyy better than somebody like Roberto Benigni.

Let this often be a lesson in how heartless and muted from nostalgia I am as a human being.

Joe Johnston’s 1995 adventure children’s book adaptation Jumanji has more than enough mediocre elements in it that I don’t really have to talk about Williams any more once I get started than to say that while there are moments where he is definitely selling the manchild aspect of his character of Alan Parrish (most particularly his anxious body language in a scene where he avoids kissing Bonnie Hunt’s love interest Sarah), this is a frustratingly sedate performance that doesn’t nearly make good on the promise of a wild man emerging out of the jungle biome of the titular cursed board game, Jumanji, an admittedly interesting piece of lived-in production design that feels carved and otherworldly. At the center of that board game is a supernatural looking orb that feels like it’s just full of darkness.

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How Parrish ends up trapped in that board game to begin with is of the interest of the first scene set in 1969 as the adolescent Alan (Adam Hann-Byrd) and Sarah (Laura Bell Bundy) deal with Alan’s troubles with his wealthy and overbearing father (Jonathan Hyde), bullying from Sarah’s boyfriend, and guilt from costing one of his only friends Carl (David Alan Grier) his job by playing Jumanji and ending up with Sarah traumatized by watching Alan get sucked in and then getting run out by a bunch of bats.

Fast forward 26 years and now the board game has fallen into the hands of newly orphaned siblings Judy and Peter Shepherd (Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce, respectively), who begin playing it after moving into the Parrish home and finding themselves in peril as the board game unleashes a jungle into the house and with it eventually an adult Alan (Williams). Finding out soon enough that they cannot undo all this damage to the house until they complete the game AND that they cannot progress in the game without the now adult Sarah (played now by Hunt), they begin tunneling their way through warning rhymes of a new beast prowling amongst them that they must dodge or incapacitate as vines and trees and rain and other environmental elements begin covering up the Parrish home.

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Now, essentially this is just a platform for setpiece after setpiece of our characters versus Giant Venus Flytraps and Crocodiles and Lions and all until the in-game hunter Van Pelt (Also played by Hyde, probably to represent Alan’s unwillingness to grow up in a very shallow way, but Hyde’s clearly having fun with it) breaks out and the mayhem spills into suburbia. And the unfortunate thing is that these are… bad setpieces. Forgettable and flat, with terrible CGI (though I doubt this bothered me in the 1990s, but the monkeys especially look bad. The best looking monkey is a makeup job.) and a lack of urgency in the way they’re cut at all.

Joe Johnston is mostly hit or miss with me as a filmmaker, but I get the feeling that Johnston is so much stronger when he gets to work in period pieces like the previous Rocketeer and the later Captain America: The First Avenger. And Jumanji is not not that, given that the “young Alan in the 60s” scenes take up a frustrating amount of runtime but they’re shot in the most default Rockwellian aesthetic that would have been the laziest thing I’ve ever seen Johnston do if it wasn’t for the carwreck that’s The Wolfman. And that’s the closest to inspired he ever feels, for when it gets to the modern world… everything’s so bland and uninteresting to look at, especially in a very central chase through a department store where any energy comes from a clamorously percussive score by James Horner and a completely uncertain sense of cutting by Robert Dalva. Neither of these things give the movie a manic chaotic sense of fun, it’s just tiring in a nauseating way. The jungle scenes in the mansion at least want to have some sense of atmosphere but they’re so clearly colored in a funereal manner that dampens any sense of fun and lit like an amusement park’s promotional material. It’s unable to match up to Jumanji‘s goal of being an answer to the earlier Jurassic Park – a family oriented hit about a dysfunctionally put-together “family” trying to survive the savagest elements of nature.

Even when the movie finally gets everything wrapped up neat and tidy in the 90s storyline, there is still no less than 15 minutes left to go as it tries to solve all of Alan’s childhood dilemmas in one swing and even when it’s nowhere near as long, it’s reminiscent to me of the feeling I had with the multiple endings of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I had a desire for things to just stop and fade eventually for I did learn or gain anything from watching Jumanji and could feel the time slipping out from under me like Alan’s fingers slipping into the board game.

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Sofia Coppola’s Tenchi Muyo

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I don’t think I can blamed for feeling that sometimes feminine-focused storytelling is better understood by women. While of course Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood did fantastic work with their adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s A Painted Devil back in 1971 under the title of The Beguiled, but Sofia Coppola’s remake of their film is a lot more relaxed and confident about the complexities of its characters in a way that Siegel and Eastwood couldn’t be. Indeed where Siegel had to grab every incident in the plot and squeeze out the most melodrama he could possibly stomp out of a story that feels alien compared to the rest of his work (save for possibly another Eastwood collaboration – Two Mules for Sister Sara, though I have not seen that one), Coppola’s treatment of this material is more chilly and sleepy. And that’s appropriate since she’s a lot more familiar about the malaise shuttered women feel in a singular location for an indefinite amount of time, surrounded by the harsh masculine violence (portrayed by a brilliant sound mix just distantly implying the battles occurring).

In Coppola’s The Beguiled, she explores that malaise through the tale of Martha Fansworth’s (Nicole Kidman) girls school in the middle of Civil War-torn Virginia as one day her young student Amy (Oona Laurence) brings the wounded Union Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell). Bringing a smoldering and helpless man into these four walls obviously sends a shockwave through Farnsworth, her teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), and the five students, including and especially Alicia (Elle Fanning).

Young women locked in four walls and that empty time and space informing them. This is exactly the type of material she’s been working with for much of her career – her first three features The Virgin SuicidesLost in Translation, and Marie Antoinette especially. And while probably more plot-driven than either of those three films, Coppola ends up finding a way to let The Beguiled simmer into just watching all these characters who don’t know how to respond to each other bounce off the walls emotionally. Gorgeous walls they are too, designed by Anne Ross in light pinks to feel like a pale ghost of a house trying to dress itself up for company but giving way to beiges failing to hide the school’s emptiness. And captured in lyrically soft lights by Phillipe Le Sourd that let those colors blanket the scenes in bored yet distinct ways. It’s a lovely film to look at and thereby a lovely one to live in despite the characters we’re living with, all vulnerable in some way, all trying to hold control over the situation so they’re not obliged to one another. So that I find Coppola’s Beguiled better, by a sly margin, than Siegel’s Beguiled should not be a surprise to anyone who knows me except for maybe those whose opinions usually align with mine and diverge at this point by disliking the movie.

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Can’t bring myself to blame them. If there’s one place Coppola fails in Siegel’s stead, it’s that her Beguiled is so lax that it doesn’t bother to scrounge up any momentum as a thriller*. While that might add to a violent jar when the third act escalates, at no point in the movie – even at that first act – does it feel like it’s anymore than a really spiteful character drama without the slightest hint of danger. That’s probably not aided by fact that in an ensemble almost entirely personified by different levels of repressed female sexuality (this feels a lot sexually heightened than Siegel’s film, but it’s still there – especially in Farrell’s chemistry with Dunst) and varied in responses to that repression, the odd man out is Farrell. Maybe this is just as a unfortunate result of having seen the original first, but Farrell – extremely attractive as he is – does not have an ounce of the sexual charisma that Eastwood had as McBurney. Nor does his about-face around the second half of the film feel much dangerous as it is presented like a kneejerk response to misfortune. And that’s troubling, given Farrell has shown all throughout his career that he’s capable of both sex appeal and heightened antagony (I particularly think, funny enough, of another remake performance – Fright Night – combining both). In any other movie, Farrell’s muted performance would have been adequate. In the context of this heightened conflict of sexual wiles and manipulation, it’s an outright liability.

As for liabilities in the ensemble, the biggest one is not who is on-screen, but who isn’t. The black slave character of Hallie, previously a grounded presence that suspected McBurney early on, ends up removed on Coppola’s part (explained as her feeling unqualified to talk about slavery). Ignoring the evident collapse of the third act’s tension by taking away a character apprehensive to McBurney’s presence and thereby straining the already pretty languid pacing, I don’t really find much argument against the fact that deciding to make a Civil War film while consciously removing a pre-established black character is erasure (although Ira Madison III – among others – argues otherwise). In either case, the drama has to be entirely rearranged by Hallie’s presence and so Coppola as writer and director has more heavy-lifting to do.

I think she pulls it off and earns her Best Director Award from the film’s 2017 Cannes premiere, providing a film that balances the atmosphere in an uncanny way between the funereal and the flowery and brings a shudder to me while she also composes a forceful clash of charms from at least three different powerful personas on-screen (Seductive Fanning, Matriarchal Kidman, Erotic Farrell; on top of the brilliantly withdrawn Dunst and the impressive informal arc from innocence to complicit darkness in Laurence provides. I only regret that an actress as talented as Angourie Rice doesn’t get much to do). It’s not as overt as its predecessor, even in the carnality of certain relationships. I find that a boon, letting The Beguiled wrap around me into an ennui relatable to the characters on screen and nestling itself nicely into the output of a director I’m always ready to revisit.

*The guy I watched Coppola’s film with was actually surprised after-the-fact to find out that it was supposed to be considered a thriller. He hadn’t seen any advertising of course, which angled Coppola’s film as a horror film (I probably wouldn’t have convinced him to see The Beguiled with me if he saw those trailers).

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