Tag: romance

Movie Review: Kaze tachinu (The Wind Rises) (2014)

the wind rises

Seen: At the Kendall Square Landmark Cinema in Cambridge.

It seems for months I’ve been hearing about Miyazaki’s latest film, The Wind Rises. Possibly the acclaimed anime director’s final feature, it has for many proven to be a fitting end, a metaphorical journey through Miyazaki’s own creative struggles and achievements. Based on his own comic, which itself loosely draws from actual history, the film centers on Jirô Horikoshi, who as a child in the 1910s dreams of being a pilot but instead becomes an airplane designer when he realizes his poor eyesight would hinder him. We watch Jirô grow up into a quiet, hardworking young man who devotes himself to his craft, studying harder than his classmates and eventually going to work for a top aircraft manufacturer. Many of his ideas fail, but as a greater world war draws ever closer he pushes forward with a radical design that will prove to be his life’s most important work. Meanwhile, he meets and falls in love with Nahoko, a charming young painter suffering from tuberculosis.

With his typical emotional nuance and breathtaking visuals, Miyazaki has crafted a fitting end to his sizable oeuvre, if this does indeed turn out to be his final film. The grandiose, painterly backgrounds are to die for, especially the billowy clouds and detailed attention to wind effects. The characters are grounded and interesting, with notes of humor and sentimentality playing throughout the more serious main plot. Through Jirô, Miyazki allows us to glimpse a significant and fascinating period in Japanese history, a time of rapid industrialization, increased militarization, economic struggle, clashing cultures, and growing nationalism. The film is dramatic but fanciful, sweeping in its vision but still focused on small moments, and decidedly intimate.

I just wish I liked it more.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine film. The visuals really are top-notch, up there with Miyazaki’s very best. I adored the many dreamscape flying sequences, rife with soft pink light and visible brushstrokes in the clouds, with rustling grasses and wind-whipped hair. And I really loved this view of Japanese history, especially since it’s one of the few non-Western cultures whose history I’ve actually studied so I felt like I could contextualize things a bit more. He takes care to show us the mix of old and new, of Japanese tradition and Western novelty, though these hints are often more in the background (clothing, buildings, products, etc). The characters are generally likable and interesting, and I especially appreciated the kooky German ex-pat who warns Jirô of things to come.

But. As the film progressed it became increasingly difficult for me to root for Jirô, or even watch him, primarily because of his apparent forced ignorance. Throughout the film he is visited by a vision of Caproni, an early Italian aeronautical engineer, who tells his protegee that though his creations are beautiful, they may be put to violent use by others, just as his own planes were used in World War I. But he encourages Jirô to think big and make planes anyway. Jiro essentially dedicates his entire life to this idea: What he is making will DEFINITELY be used to slaughter people, but he’s gonna keep doing it anyway because of… dreams? What’s frustrating is that the character- who is otherwise shown to be thoughtful, compassionate, and kind- seems willfully ignorant, never fully considering the ramifications of his work even though he discusses it multiple times. He would have these conversations with his fellow engineer Honjô, asking about the war and politics and such, and he would just sort of dumbly say “but why are people fighting?”, think briefly about how it’s too bad airplanes are used in wars, and then shake his head and go back to designing airplanes. It was as if he couldn’t connect all the dots, so by the end of the film when his long-awaited final aircraft design is used by the Japanese military and all the pilots die (presumably along with various civilians and enemy soldiers), he’s all sad about it as if he didn’t foresee this completely obvious thing. I mean, if he didn’t want his planes to be in battle, maybe don’t work for a company that makes planes for the military. It’d be one thing if he was a militant nationalist who actually believed in Japan’s goals of expansion, but he acted more like a disinterested observer. I know he thinks his creative dreams are beautiful but if they’re employed for violence then it is his responsibility to STOP MAKING FUCKING BOMBERS FOR THE MILITARY. By the end of the film I was furious with this character, and had absolutely no sympathy for him because he knowingly aided in mass destruction, and for no other reason than he wanted to see his personal dreams realized. This is not an apt metaphor for Miyazaki’s art, because as far as I know his films don’t ensure the deaths of thousands of people. (Of course, I know there are parallels to how art can be co-opted by corrupt/commercial forces, but to me this really isn’t the same level. Though if it’s secretly a big fuck you to Disney, I guess I’ll take it.)

I’m not saying that Miyazaki is promoting these ideas. The film is clearly anti-war, and at times it pointedly criticizes Japan’s and Germany’s actions in the buildup to WWII. But I think I as a viewer was supposed to feel sympathy for Jirô, to believe in him and his ideas, to want him to succeed. But I just couldn’t, because ultimately that blood was on his hands. He never fought against the war, never worked to ensure his ideas weren’t used for violence. Even the subplot of his romance with Nahoko, which was completely fictionalized and I assume added to humanize him more, fell flat for me. Her character was barely fleshed out, just a prop for him to lean on, supposedly inspired by love or whatever. She herself was shown to be a painter, but never is her own creative output discussed- Was she in art school? Was she painting professionally or just as a hobby? Why did she choose to paint in the Western Impressionist style instead of returning to traditional Japanese styles, as many contemporary artists were? You’d think there would be conversations comparing Nahoko’s creative aspirations and experiences with Jirô’s, but nope. She was just there to encourage him in his work and not have much of her own personality, putting on a brave face while slowly dying of tuberculosis.

I feel like many other people who’ve seen this movie aren’t reading it the same way I am, so perhaps I need a few more viewings to solidify my opinion. I hate having negative feelings about a Miyazaki film, it goes against my nature. I really did like so many aspects of The Wind Rises, from the period setting and entertaining side characters to the fanciful dream sequences and wondrous visual design. But I can’t move past the reservations I have about Jirô’s character and his actions, whether or not it’s all meant to be a grand metaphor for the creative process. I’m still sort of working through my feelings about it, and wondering about Miyazaki’s intended response (if he had one). Need to read some more, I think, but I wanted to get my initial thoughts down.

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: I was so taken with all the history stuff, it reminded me of Millennium Actress, which similarly moves across Japan’s mid-twentieth-century history through its central character, this time a beloved film actress.

Movie Review: An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (2013)

an oversimplification of her beauty2

Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from netflix.

As focused on visuals as I typically am, it’s no surprise that I am a complete mess for experimental animation. If a film toys with stop-motion, or time-lapse, or imaginative cel animation, or cut-outs and silhouettes, I tend to be automatically entranced and very forgiving of narrative/thematic faults. Terence Nance’s An Oversimplification of Her Beauty uses several animation techniques, to gorgeous effect, blended with live action sequences. The project started as a short film inspired by Nance’s real-life relationship with Namik Minter, who plays a version of herself. They are close friends whose dynamic borders on romance, but she remains committed to her relationship with another man, who is never named. Nance describes his frustration with his own feelings, his misreadings of and assumptions about her, and his disappointment when she blows him off for what he considered to be a special date. He expanded the project into a full-length film that offers more insight into their interactions, into his personal dating history, and into their future as a couple.

an oversimplification of her beauty1

With a disjointed structure and loose, unresolved narrative, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty is at times hard to follow, and doesn’t really have any follow-through on its offerings. Realistic, I suppose, for a film based on actual experience, without the tidy organization of movie fantasy. Its comically bombastic narrator attempts to summarize as well as explicate certain events, moving back and forth between the original short film and more recent footage, all interspersed with colorful animation. I love love love Nance’s artistic vision, he ably blends this huge range of techniques but makes it all work as a single whole. His remembrances of past relationships are visually represented by fluid, painterly cel animation, slightly surreal to match the uncertainty of memory. Sometimes he moves into fantastical patterning, referencing mask and textile imagery of indigenous African peoples, but updating it with a sort of graffiti-style vibe. The saddest moments are reserved for stop-motion, with quiet clay figures lost in a black expanse, unable to move forward in their undefinable relationship, or for dark time-lapse footage of Nance struggling with the film itself. It is also a plus that everyone in this movie is really ridiculously attractive, and there’s a lot of wonderful big hair.

an oversimplification of her beauty3

What’s interesting to me about this film (besides the visuals, I mean), is how self-aware Nance is. When I first read the description I thought the story would be sort of (500) Days of Summer-y, like this self-satisfied romance told from the man’s point of view. It definitely completely from his perspective, but he’s remarkably thoughtful about it. He recognizes that he doesn’t fully understand the situation, that he is making assumptions about Minter, and that in obsessing over her, he is also oversimplifying her and essentially creating a character out of her. He sees his own faults, his own self-destructive tendencies. He recalls his past girlfriends and doesn’t place blame on them for how their relationships ended (it’s like a reverse High Fidelity, I guess). He asks Minter how she feels about his short film, and she decides she’d like to make a film about her own side of the story, and he helps her. Their relationship still felt a little ambiguous, she still seemed kind of unsure, but she was supportive of his creative point of view while recognizing that it was one-sided.

an oversimplification of her beauty4

I don’t think this is necessarily a “great” movie: it’s too disorganized, too meandering, and the concept is stretched too thin for a full feature. I do really appreciate what Nance has accomplished, though, a sort of visual poem, a self-reflexive ode to his own romantic entanglements. It’s funny and a little sad, with interesting turns from Nance and Minter as themselves, and enough playful camera tricks and experiments to keep the eye interested even when the script drags. I am so excited about the animated bits that I can easily overlook any other faults, and I look forward to checking out Nance’s other work and to any future projects.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: The theme and mood reminded me of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, which is kind of a nice counterpoint since it offers a woman’s point of view on sex and relationships. The style of filmmaking was a little reminiscent of Four Eyed Monsters, another experimental love story.

Movie Review: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

seeking a friend

Seen: On my parents’ tv, on some HD movie channel.

Consider this: In three weeks, an asteroid will strike earth, ending all life on the planet. Everyone in the world has three weeks to live. What to do? I’d probably try to travel if I could, see Japan and Egypt and Vienna. Of course, time with loved ones would also be a priority, and watching every movie and reading every book I could. Lorene Scafaria’s characters in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World react to this news in a variety of ways: suicide, drugs, orgies, riots, relentless optimism, and the like. After his wife literally runs away from him, hypochondriac insurance agent Dodge (Steve Carrell) comes to the realization that his entire life has been meaningless. He meets a British neighbor, Penny (Keira Knightley), who fears she’ll never see her family again, and the two end up on a road trip to fulfill their last wishes. Dodge hopes to find his long-lost first love and Penny hopes to find a plane to take her to England as the countdown to the apocalypse draws to a close.

I am a bit of a sucker for a road trip romance, I just like the story structure that generally accompanies road trip movies- making jokes, running into trouble, learning about each other  through forced close quarters, long shots of the open road, meeting kooky characters along the way, etc. Seeking a Friend follows some of these tropes, but with a central premise so fascinating that even the stereotypical elements in the script take on more weight. Scafaria explores various aspects of human nature through how different people might respond to the apocalypse, and it reads both humorous and utterly depressing. And generally pretty true. Of course everyone would eat everything, do drugs, and sleep with whomever they could. Of course many couples would dissipate or experiment or regret their whole history. Of course some survivalists would stock up on guns and food and huddle down in underground bomb shelters. And of course some people would meet for the first time and fall in love just before the world ends. I mean, why not?

The film is an at-times cutesy, at-times moving exploration of its theme, with a strong cast and a great script. I like sad-sack Carrell, he’s suited for the role of a quiet man whose mid-life crisis happens to include tracking down his first girlfriend while gradually falling in love with a slightly eccentric younger woman while an asteroid happens to be heading towards earth. I normally don’t like Knightley but she’s fine here, cinematically quirky but sympathetic and unglamorous. The cameos are great, from Gillian Jacobs and Melanie Lynskey to Martin Sheen and Derek Luke, with some fulfilling a comedic function and others moving the story along. Most of all I think I liked the conversations best, just the one-on-one interactions between Dodge and Penny as they get to know each other under these bizarre and terrifying conditions.

It’s far from a perfect film, but it made me cry so I guess they did something right. The music choices certainly helped.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: I would show it with one of my favorite road-trip romances, Wristcutters: A Love Story, which also has nice bits of surrealism and satire in it. For more Lorene Scafaria, there’s the enjoyable one-night comedy Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which she co-wrote. Lots of good tunes and driving in this one, too, so I guess she has a type.

Movie Review: Flirt (1995)

flirt
Seen: On my laptop, originally rented from Scarecrow Video in Seattle.

Months ago I was taking a train down to my brother’s graduation, and I started watching Flirt, the one Hal Hartley movie I’d been unable to find during my Hartley craze sophomore year. Then the train ahead of me derailed somewhere in Connecticut and I was ferried about from train to train for a very long, very unpleasant night. So I never finished Flirt. Last week I was on another train on the way to NJ for Christmas, and I decided to test fate and watch Flirt again. And it WORKED. Basking in his own love of repetition and theatricality, Hartley places the same story in three different settings, considering how nearly-identical scenarios would play out in New York, Berlin, and Tokyo. When one person prepares to leave for an extended stay in another country, their lover must decide whether to go ahead with a long-distance relationship or embark on a new romance with a friend who is separating from their partner. They move around their respective neighborhoods, looking to friends and strangers for advice on what to do, and each walks into a violent situation at the end.

Working in a number of his regulars (Bill Sage, Parker Posey, Martin Donovan, Karen Sillas, Elina Löwensohn, Miho Nikaido, among others), along with some new faces, Flirt is a fascinating exercise in storytelling possibilities. The premise sounds kind of dull: a bunch of people wandering around moaning about their love problems three times in a row. But, as with most Hal Hartley films, I found myself captivated. Each segment is unique, though linked by circumstances, and I was ever-curious about how events would play out. In New York the events take place primarily in a bar, with Bill Sage aching over two women and seeking advice from strangers in the bathroom. In Berlin, ultra-stylish Dwight Ewell wanders around the city as he is forced to choose between two men (one who is married), interacting with varied denizens and merging languages. Finally, in Tokyo, Miho Nikaido is a theater student torn between a fling with her married teacher and her long-term filmmaker boyfriend (played by Hartley himself!).

While linked by their supposedly flirtatious natures, the protagonists in each story are wildly different, as are their contexts. Hartley not only hints at cultural variables affecting each story but also individual personalities, so that each tale manages to be unpredictable. I loved Dwight’s attitude, but was surprised when his confrontation with his love interest’s wife morphed into a dangerous seduction. I loved the juxtaposition of performance art and realism in Miho’s story, a fun commentary on Hartley’s noted theatrical style and intentionally stilted dialogue and blocking. I of course also loved Bill Sage’s section, mostly because he’s really attractive, even if he has a terrible 1995 haircut. It’s a strange little film, beautiful in many ways and one of the director’s more daring features. I was a little frustrated with the anthology structure mainly because I wanted more time with these characters, and their stories all felt cut short. But of course it’s amazing because Hal Hartley is amazingggggg. Lovely soundtrack, too, as usual.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: After every Hartley movie I only want more Hartley, that’s just the way it is.

Movie Review: Wuthering Heights (2012)

WH
Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from netflix.

I remember reading about this film years ago, as there was something of a furor surrounding Andrea Arnold’s decision to cast a man of color in the classic role of Heathcliff, a part usually played by a white dude even though he was written as “dark-skinned” and likely Romani. I never really loved Wuthering Heights but I applauded Arnold’s casting and was intrigued to see her version of the story. Set in an isolated farm house along northern England’s moors, the film uncovers the intense, complex relationship between Catherine Earnshaw (Shannon Beer and Kaya Scodelario) and her sort-of-adoptive brother Heathcliff (Solomon Glave and James Howson). A homeless black boy, Heathcliff was found by Cathy’s father and taken into their home because it was “the Christian thing to do,” but he is never fully accepted by his new family or their neighbors due to his unknown background and somewhat wild ways. Though they are inseparable as children, Cathy eventually is pulled into the well-to-do world of their neighbors the Lintons, and when she agrees to marry their son Edgar, Heathcliff runs away in despair. He returns after a few years a grown man, and endeavors to once again become an integral part of Cathy’s life while also seeking revenge on her hateful older brother Hindley (Lee Shaw).

Filled with despicable people who turn everything into a life-or-death melodrama, Wuthering Heights is actually kind of ridiculous depending how one looks at it. The only thing I really remembered about the book was that I felt bad for Heathcliff even though he was a jerk, I hated everyone else, and I had to make a family tree to keep all the characters straight. Also the frame story was unnecessary. Arnold wisely cuts the frame story, leaves out some characters, and ends her film before the events of the book actually end, thus trimming the plot down to its basic components: two people who are unhealthily obsessed with each other. She casts inexperienced unknowns to varying success, and zeroes in on small, intimate moments to tease out her story. It is completely told from Heathcliff’s point of view, and his perceived “otherness” is clearly delineated. He overhears snippets of conversations and cautiously watches others’ lives unfold, all from a removed standpoint. After he runs away from his enforced baptism, he is never fully included in the life of the Earnshaw household, always made aware that he doesn’t belong- for reasons of his skin color, unnerving silence, and unseemly origins.

The real star of this story has always been its memorable setting, the vast and mysterious moors in which Cathy and Heathcliff roam as children. Arnold’s thoughtful handheld camera and quiet takes depict a beautiful, tragic landscape with foggy skies and howling winds. She takes her time with the narrative so that she can linger on these natural elements, and the viewer is invited to consider how these breathtaking but lonely settings influence and reflect the protagonists. I’ll admit I wasn’t particularly engaged by the love story- mostly because I don’t really like any of the characters- but I was wholly taken in by the visuals and by Arnold’s pensive style of storytelling. The cast is capable (though the children aren’t great), and the casting of a man of color in the role really emphasizes the theme of difference and ostracization so central to the development of Heathcliff’s character. Also James Howson is like, a total babe. Mhmmmm.

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Unsure! Maybe the other recent Brontë adaptation, Jane Eyre?