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Princess Mononoke it's not a name, it's a description
Hayao Miyazaki, the animation legend who brought to you such awesome films as Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away, and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, strikes again with this eco-friendly tale about the struggle between man, animal, and god within a deep, dark Japanese forest.
Prince Ashitaka (voice of Billy Crudup) of the Emishi, stricken with a curse foisted upon him by a rampaging wild boar that was possessed by a demon, heads west upon his trusty golden elk Yakul to find a cure. He's also out to possibly save his people, as the appearance of the demonic boar portends grave consequences for the village the gods and demons are reclaiming the forest.
Ashitaka attempts to buy some food in a neighboring town with a gold nugget, but the shopkeepers do not quite believe that the nugget is a valid form of currency. Our fair prince is saved from further embarrassment by a monk named Jigo (Billy Bob Thornton), who offers his assistance to Ashitaka. Ashitaka learns from Jigo of a town called (in the English version, anyway) Iron Town, since they mine iron. Jigo also mentions that the forest gods still dwell around Iron Town, a fact that is certainly not lost on Ashitaka. He heads out the next morning.
Meanwhile, a long column of men and oxen, carrying rice back to Iron Town to feed the denizens, is attacked by two giant wolves one of whom bears a masked girl. Leading the men is Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), who orders her men to fire their brand-new muskets at the wolves. The wolves are driven off, but their mama, named Moro (Gillian Anderson) soon arrives and lays everyone to waste. Half of Lady Eboshi's men fall off the mountainside.
Further down the mountain, Ashitaka hears the battle above and comes across two men in the river. He pulls them out (one unconscious, the other with a broken arm) and carries them both through the ancient forest to Iron Town. On the way to Iron Town, Ashitaka encounters the wolves and the girl by the river side. The girl is San, the Princess Mononoke, i.e., the Angry Princess. Why is she so angry? Because Lady Eboshi has been killing all of the animals, which has been causing the forest to fall into disrepair and has angered the forest gods. She kind of has good reason to be mad.
The reception at Iron Town is mixed, as many distrust the newcomer Ashitaka. Ashitaka learns that everyone in the village helps mine the iron, with the women operating the mighty bellows themselves. Lady Eboshi also explains that San really has it in for her (because of the forest damage Eboshi's caused) and that when the Forest Spirit himself is dead, San will become human (although to the viewer she looks perfectly human as it is). San, raised by wolves, is not on board with this eventuality.
All of which leads to everyone fighting everyone, with mass destruction guaranteed. Iron Town is under siege by Lord Asano and his samurai, who wish to control the iron ore. The Iron Town citizens are left to defend themselves against Asano while Eboshi and Jigo the monk seek out the Forest Spirit; Jigo has a letter from the Emperor himself that guarantees a large sum of money if Jigo can bring the Forest Spirit's head to the Emperor (who believes it will grant him immortality). Then there are an entire tribe of huge wild boars who want to avenge the death of one of their own the boar that wound up cursing Ashitaka to kick all of this off as well taken on the humans for being humans. Oh, and apes who also want to kill the humans, particularly Ashitaka, whom they want to eat so they can gain his strength.
There's plenty of action, in other words. In fact, the violence is a bit more explicit than you might expect in an animated film. When Ashitaka is first dealing with his curse, he fires an arrow at a soldier who is attacking him; the arrow cuts the man's arm clean off. Ashitaka doesn't know his own strength, it would seem. There's also a fair amount of blood, and a couple of particularly icky scenes: one in which San removes a bullet from Moro by sucking out the blood and spitting it out and another in which San helps Ashitaka eat by first chewing beef jerky and then passing it to him by mouth (he's very weak, you see). I understand, but eww.
Princess Mononoke has plenty of strong-willed characters, and many of them are female: San, Lady Eboshi, and Moro, plus Ashitaka and Jigo. The Forest Spirit is a wonder to behold, too, appearing to be part human, part ape, part deer, and probably parts of lots of other animals as well. And the visuals are about what I expected from the maestro Miyazaki, although I think they weren't quite as well developed as they were in some of his other works, like the earlier Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. And it's also possible that there are just too many characters and plot lines and conflicts in Princess Mononoke to easily track. But overall, this is an unquestionable triumph of animation.
Per qualche dollaro in più (1965)
For a Few Dollars More . we'll kick in a free poncho
Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollars More (1965, ***1/2) is, in theory, a sequel to A Fistful of Dollars, which was itself a big hit for the man and the studio. The bad news is that it's a sequel mostly in name, but the good (great) news is that it's every bit as deliciously violent and captivating as its predecessor.
Clint Eastwood returns, although he's no longer The Man with No Name; he's Monco, a "bounty killer" not a bounty hunter, because that might imply he intends to bring 'em back alive. Monco has his eyes on a desperado named Indio, played by Italian actor Gian Maria Volontè. Trouble is, another bounty killer, name of Colonel Mortimer (Lee van Cleef) also wants Indio. The fact that the man has a reward of $10,000 on his head probably figures into things a little. Add in the rest of the gang, and you're looking at maybe $27,000. Which today I assume would be $75 million. I don't know, you look it up.
Mortimer and Monco do decide to team up; after all, we can't have too many bad guys. That doesn't mean that they won't try to double cross one another. The plan is for Monco to infiltrate Indio's band and get him to move north, toward the town of El Paso, where they'll attempt to rob the town's Fort-Knox-like bank. Oh, Indio goes north all right, with Monco, and the bank is hit, but well, let's just say things don't go as planned for anyone.
For a Few Dollars More is an epic, even though it's "only" 132 minutes long. I mean it's an epic in the same way that Lawrence of Arabia is an epic, with majestic, sweeping vistas followed by (in Leone's case) extreme closeups of the three leads. There are duels in the streets, just as you'd expect a western to have. For all I know, this happened all the time, and in this movie it happens repeatedly. Still, it's not as if every fight is carefully sanctioned, as there are plenty of ambushes to be found.
This was the middle film in the series that really put the then-somewhat-young Eastwood on the map. Van Cleef's Mortimer calls him "kid," and Eastwood's calls Mortimer "old man"; in reality, the two were only five years apart in age. Eastwood, of course, is still kicking; he turned 86 a couple of months ago. Maybe his days as a taciturn gunslinger are long behind him, but he's still a creative genius. And he learned a lot of the directorial tricks of the trade from Leone himself, a master of the western genre. This, along with its series counterparts, is definitely not to be missed.
The Big Short (2015)
The Big Short is about the great collapse of the American housing market (and subsequently the world economy), and as such doesn't appear to fit the mold of a scary movie. But scary it is, particularly for those folks who lost their jobs, savings, and homes as a result. Odds are pretty good that you or someone you know was directly affected by this avoidable catastrophe.
The movie focuses on a few Wall Street guys who figured out years in advance that the housing bubble was going to burst. In the movie, their names are Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), Michael Burry (Christian Bale), Mark Baum (Steve Carell), Charlie Geller (John Magaro), and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock). The script, by director Adam McKay and Charles Randolph, changes the names and some relatively minor details, but everything's based on fact. And since we know how it all turned out (hint: there was a collapse), there isn't much suspense left.
And yet the movie succeeds. The casting is great, for one thing check out Carell as a broker with a strong moral center and some serious anger-management issues. His is a role ripe for overacting, but Carell never goes overboard, doing a perfect slow, slow, slow burn as he grills various money managers about their methods, which aren't pretty.
There's also humor, a flavor that's desperately needed when dealing with a real-life tale of misery, don't you think? Injecting a little humor into the situation makes the characters look, well, more like human beings than fine-suited Wall Street fellas. That's not to say that there are no poignant moments: one scene in particular involves Carell's Mark Baum and his wife, played by the always-terrific Marisa Tomei. Finally, several of the characters break the proverbial fourth wall, addressing the audience with asides some of which involve disclaimers about what exactly in the present scene is 100% true and what's been tweaked a little bit. Believe me, it works.
And if that weren't enough to keep the movie wildly entertaining, the script takes time to explain certain relevant financial terms to its audience without being boring or dreary. Terms like CDO, explained by master chef Anthony Bourdain (comparing a CDO to fish that remained unsold at his restaurant at the end of the day), or derivatives, explained by pop star Selena Gomez and economist Richard Thaler. It felt weird understand what they were talking about.
But here's the scariest part of it all. The viewer spends a couple of hours following this sordid tale. We see the bad guys, we see the good guys, and we know that if this were fiction, the bad guys would probably get theirs in the end. But it's not, and we know they don't. We know that despite the canary-in-the-mine behavior of these guys, millions of people lost their jobs. And really, none of them were the movers and shakers on Wall Street. That's because when the big banks had bad mortgages that were in danger of defaulting, they packaged them up and sold them to someone else, who did the same thing to someone else, all the way down the line. The poor sap left holding the bag when the bubble burst lost it all, and those who instigated it lost zilch. That's the terrifying part. All of this in concert between Wall Street, its private-sector overseers, the government, and Big Business. They raked in the dough by breaking the law and, even when caught, suffered few consequences themselves. Which makes The Big Short ten times more horrifying than any gorefest movie I've seen.
Le salaire de la peur (1953)
In The Wages of Fear, four men in a remote South American town have the enviable task of transporting a metric buttload (technical term) of nitroglycerin across mountainous roads in poor condition. It's a taut, superbly suspenseful thriller, guided with a steady hand by director Henri-Georges Clouzot, who would go on to direct the classic Diabolique in 1955.
Yves Montand, in a rare dramatic role, plays Mario, the ostensible protagonist of our tale. He's been stuck in this backwater for some time, but it costs a lot of money to get out plane fares are through the roof, and there's no train, and there's no neighboring village. In short, you're stuck there until you can buy a ticket and pay for a passport, of course.
Mario spends his days looking for work, wooing tavern worker Linda, and despairing about the lack of work. There's an American oil company in town, but they're no longer hiring. His monotonous lifestyle is interrupted by the arrival of fellow expat Jo (Charles Vanel), a tough-looking older man who quickly wins Mario's favor at the expense of the rest of the men in town.
The oil company, in fact, has its own problem one of their large derricks has exploded, causing a huge oil fire. Company man Bill O'Brien decides to send two trucks loaded with nitro from the town up the mountain to the derrick. (The eventual idea is to set off charges, which will somehow contain or extinguish the fire.) O'Brien has no trouble scaring up volunteers for the task, since the men of the town are largely unemployed. Four men will be selected to take the two trucks. Only one truck is needed; the second is truly just in case there's an accident with the first one. The men will receive $2000 when the work is finished, more than enough to secure passage out of the backwater.
Mario and Jo are chosen, as are Mario's roommate Luigi (Folco Lulli) and German expat Bimba (Peter van Eyck). The two trucks depart early in the morning, full of gas and of nitro. Danger awaits.
Theirs is not an easy task. The road is full of ruts. In one place, the wooden deck that trucks use to make a sharp turn up the mountain has been damaged from disuse. It's hot and muggy. And one has to be very, very careful, as even the smallest bump might set the whole shebang off. There's also tension among the four drivers Luigi is unhappy that Mario is spending more time with Jo than with him, Mario is unhappy with what he perceives as Jo's cowardice. Bimba seems to get along with everyone, though.
The whole time I was watching this movie, I was certain not all four were going to make it. I will not spoil what is now a sixty-three-year-old movie, but I was still genuinely surprised by the ending. This ain't no fairy tale or sitcom. This is a movie about desperation, redemption, sacrifice, and comeuppance. It's not necessarily about justice.
The Wages of Fear is a singularly terrific movie from start to finish, exquisitely shot and expertly written. Its money maker is its tension, something present here in spades. The writing is impeccable; even personality changes make perfect sense within the film's context. There are intricacies within a straightforward plot. This is a must see for lovers of thrillers.
Much Ado About Nothing (2012)
Let it been written down that I am an ass...
A little more than halfway through Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing, our anti-heroine Beatrice and our anti-hero Benedick profess their love for each other. It's a tender, affecting moment that neatly offsets the humor of the rest of the film. It's such a beautiful scene, in fact, that I grew misty eyed and euphoric, and that's how Shakespeare movies and plays are supposed to make you feel.
Elegant without being condescending, Whedon's modern-day take on the classic comedy of errors is a masterpiece. In short, Don Pedro, his right-hand man Claudio, and his brother Don John visit a noble named Leonato. Leonato has a daughter named Hero, with whom Claudio quickly becomes infatuated. Don Pedro offers to woo Hero at the evening's costume party, whereupon he will "give" the young lady (with papa's permission) to Claudio. Simple subterfuge, but all is revealed to Hero, and all is well. Until the villainous Don John gets involved, that is, and a major misunderstanding tears the couple apart.
While all of this is going on, Claudio's best pal Benedick - an avowed bachelor who scorns marriage - spars verbally with Hero's cousin Beatrice, who is equally adamant on the topic of marriage. This being Shakespeare, I think we have a good idea where these two are headed. Oh, and along for the more-obvious comic relief (as opposed to the more cultured banter between Beatrice and Benedick) is the local night watchmen, overseen by Dogberry, a man who would have trouble detecting his own behind with both hands. I'm digressing, but you get the idea.
I won't go too much deeper into the plot, because most viewers probably had to read the play in high school or college. Since it's a comedy, suffice to say that all's well that ends well. But the performances! Many of the players had worked with Whedon on earlier projects such as Angel, Buffy, Castle, Firefly, and The Avengers and may be familiar by look if not by name. Nathan Fillion, the able captain of the good ship Firefly, is well cast as the clueless Dogberry (in one memorable ad-libbed scene, Dogberry and his assistant realize they've locked their keys in their car and frantically search their pockets). Clark Gregg, Agent Coulson to you, plays Leonato. But the entire cast stands out. This is a real triumph of talent, expertly shot (at Whedon's own house) and acted with such audacity and tenaciousness.
Cidade de Deus (2002)
A real shot to the heart
City of God (2002, ***1/2) is a brutal look at the drug wars fought in Rio de Janeiro's slums over a period of several decades. It's not always an easy film to watch, but it's utterly gripping and (improbably) humorous at turns.
The movie centers on a boy/young man named Rocket (Buscapé in Portuguese, the spoken language in this movie) in the titular slum, the wrong side of the tracks in Rio. Rocket's older brother is in a gang called the Tender Three; this trio commits armed robbery but gives at least some of the proceeds to their impoverished brothers and sisters. The gang's not for long in this story, as one of their sidekick Little Rascals, Li'l Dice (Douglas Silva) has higher aspirations; soon he under a new moniker, Li'l Ze' is the top kingpin in the City of God. Ze's chief rival, as time goes by, is a ginger-top named Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele). As Carrot and Ze' fight each other for control of, well, everything, Rocket tries hard to stay above and out of the fray. He's not entirely successful.
The movie is quickly paced. If you don't pay attention you may lose track of who's who, if only because there are plenty of supporting characters. Alice Braga, niece to one Sonia Braga, plays a one-time love interest for Rocket. Hers was the only familiar face for me, but many of the fine young actors (or nonactors, as the case may be) offered compelling standout performances.
And this was all based on a true story, as they say. During the closing credits news footage, including interviews with gang members, is shown. The real Rocket appears, as well. Most striking? Might be the group of little kids known as the Runts; this cohort robs, maims, and kills everyone they can ostensibly under the control of Carrot, but truthfully subservient to none. Close your eyes and imagine a five-year-old kid shooting someone in cold blood. That was this slum in this time period.
All agog over Gog
3D movies really took off in the early 1950s, from House of Wax to Dial M for Murder to, uh, Cat-Women of the Moon. By the time Gog (1954, **) was released to theaters, though, the craze had subsided quite a bit. So much so, in fact, that although it was filmed in 3D, most theaters had rid themselves of their 3D projectors, and Gog was instead released in 2D to an underwhelmed audience. It apparently was shown in 3D just a small handful of times, mainly in California. And then, after Gog's theatrical run, the 3D prints were damaged. 3D movies, at the time, were put together using a two-camera setup (left side of a scene, right side of a scene); the resulting films were then combined. The left side of the film was deemed beyond repair for decades until new technology came along. When I saw it recently at the American Film Institute's Silver Theater during its inaugural Fantastic Film Showcase, it was apparently the first time the movie had been screened in 3D in Maryland. Cool! In the movie, a military investigator played by Richard Egan arrives at a remote desert base to look into the death of a scientist and his assistant. There are plenty of researchers at the base, and Egan learns that they're all working toward one goal a space station! This is well before any humans had even made it to space, of course, so to the contemporary audience this must have seemed fantastical. Egan meets the various researchers in turn, including Dr. Van Ness (Herbert Marshall), who's in charge of the whole shebang, and his assistant Joanna (Constance Dowling). But most intriguing aren't the humans at the base, it's these two 600-pound robots, named Gog and Magog. (Don't ask me why they're so named.) Obviously, since the name of the movie is Gog, these two will factor into the plot somehow.
For a 60-year-old movie, the 3D effects are pretty good. Sure, sometimes their use is a bit over the top that is, there are scenes that appear to exist solely because of the 3D feature but there's no sense of overuse. The viewer isn't bludgeoned with 3D, and instead 3D sort of assimilated into the movie.
This being a 50s sci-fi movie, don't expect much in the way of scientific accuracy. There's an unintentionally funny scene where one snooty scientist scoffs that man is never meant to be in outer space. Never! Here we are, 62 years later, and we've been to the moon and sent robots to Mars and spacecraft out of the solar system. So there! If you get a chance to watch Gog in 3D, please do. It's not as if it won't make sense in good old 2D, but the threadbare plot and the strained acting will bother you much less if you can enjoy the now-antiquated extra dimension.
La vita è bella (1997)
As we get closer to movie #4,000, I find myself trying to see movies that let's face it are classics and that I have never gotten around to seeing. Many of these movies are foreign films, but that's a "problem" I can easily get past. (Hello, subtitles!) There's no excuse for not seeing them, not now.
Life Is Beautiful (1997, ****) is one of those films. The movie has Oscar written all over it, and in fact it won three (Best Actor, Best Foreign Film, Best Original Score). It was released nearly 20 years ago, so it's no longer new but not quite old enough (in my mind) to qualify as an old movie.
So now I've finally watched it. What a glorious film! What a flawless film, too, from the acting to the cinematography to the terrific plot including the subtle shift, about halfway through, from broad comedy to dark comedy with a tinge of sadness. You don't see that sort of mix often with movies that have a Holocaust theme. Oh, did I give something away? No, I did not.
Here's the synopsis. Roberto Benigni plays a Jewish-Italian librarian in 1930s Italy. Guido is a fun-loving cut-up with impeccable comic timing, and it's with his quick wit and that timing that he woos and wins over a noble lass named Dora, played by Benigni's real-life wife, Nicoletta Braschi. That's generally the first half of the movie, with Guido's antics providing some hilarious entertainment. The man rescues his lady with a green horse! But, you see, Guido is Jewish, and did I mention this was 1930s Italy? The Nazis are around, and Guido, Dora, and their young son Joshua are rounded up and taken to a concentration camp. Dora is immediately separated from her son and husband. Guido and Joshua are taken to some stark, ugly barracks. Guido knows perfectly well what's going on, but he desperately wants to prevent Joshua from knowing the awful truth of their predicament. So he tells the boy that everyone the other prisoners, the guards, his mom are part of an elaborate game. The winner gets to take home a tank! The rules include not asking for one's mommy, not crying, and not saying you're hungry.
Elaborate isn't the word for it, frankly. The other prisoners play along, too. Guido's love for his son is so powerful that he refuses to let the lad lose hope, even when other children insist that the guards turn people like Joshua into soap and buttons. Guido's indomitable spirit saves Joshua.
Benigni is amazing and justifiably won an Oscar for this movie. Remember him famously walking over seats to get to the stage at the Academy Awards? His outsized personality commands Life Is Beautiful, imploring us to find serenity, compassion, and love in even the most impossible places. Truly a triumphant film.
We Are Still Here (2015)
Effective retro horror
We Are Still Here (2015, ***) is a newish horror movie set in the 1970s. What's more, it maintains the look and feel of a movie released in that time frame, from the easy stuff like hairstyles and clothing to more abstract concepts like mannerisms and dialogue. It's a heck of a lot better than many of the cheesy horror movies released in that decade, too.
It's about an older couple (Barbara Crampton and Andrew Sensenig) who move to an isolated farmhouse in order to cope with the loss of their grown son, who died in a car wreck about a month earlier. Getting away to get away, in other words. Anne and Paul busy themselves fixing up the old place, but it's not long before Anne's getting the willies you know, weird sounds in the night, things moving that shouldn't be able to move even a littler. Paul, ever the pragmatist, insists there's a logical explanation, but he consents to having hippie-New Age friends of theirs, May and Jacob (Lisa Marie and Larry Fessenden) come up for a few days. You know, to calm things down. Of course, May and Jacob are into spiritual matters, and May instantly feels a presence. Is it the dead son of Paul and Anne? Meanwhile, May and Jacob's own son Harry is also coming up for a visit with his girlfriend Daniella.
True to its bloodline (ha), We Are Still Here does have plenty of blood, but it's the terrifying kind, not the Friday the 13th kind. That is, you genuinely feel like you're in this farmhouse with these normal folks, trying to communicate with the dead. The dead, it seems, bring dread. And death, which is sort of their thing. There are plenty of frights and good twists, with quick pacing and some visceral visuals. Huge praise is also due to Monte Markham, who plays a neighbor who knows more than he's letting on. Probably.
Terrific movie, but I'm not so sure the plot's as airtight as it could have been
And now we have Rashomon (1950, ***1/2), widely considered one of the finest films ever made. In a nutshell, a terrible crime is committed and various people tell their wildly differing tales of the transpired events.
A man dodges torrential rains to shelter under a town's gate. Two other men, one older and the other a priest, are already there. The older one keeps muttering that he "can't understand it." What can't he understand, asks the new guy. And so the older man, a woodcutter, tells his tale. He'd been out in the woods a few days prior and came across a lady's hat, a samurai's cap, pieces of cut rope and a dead man. The woodcutter explains to his companions that he ran to find the police. The scene shifts to a minimalist outdoor courtroom, where the woodcutter testifies. The next witness is led by a rope by a man who claims to have caught him the prisoner is a bandit, played by the legendary Toshiro Mifune. His captor says he came upon the bandit after the latter had apparently been thrown from his horse and was slaking his thirst at a lake. After the captor tells his tale, the impulsive bandit ridicules him and gives his version, which begins with his spotting a young lady riding a horse in the forest, being led by her husband, a samurai.
The bandit says that he wanted the young lady for himself, so he lured the samurai away from her and then attacked him, tying him up with rope. Then he abducted the lady and had his way with her, with the husband still tied up. The end result is that the samurai is killed.
The lady follows with her story, and then we get a third version from the deceased samurai, through a medium. Each of the speakers blames someone else for the murder, and other details in their stories don't match, either.
Okay, so there's plenty more that I'm intentionally leaving out so I don't spoil this 60-year-old movie for you all. Suffice to say we have multiple stories that contradict each other, a plot hook that's shown up in countless movies since then like Reservoir Dogs, for that matter.
Rashomon is a stirring visual masterpiece, brilliantly directed and photographed. It's definitely a classic. But there is a plot point I have an issue with. We hear these stories, and it's obvious that only one can be the truth they contradict each other, but they do so consistently. That is, the same detail will differ from story to story. Then, near the end, we hear an additional story that negates all of the others wholesale, thus making it seem as if those earlier tales were simply filler.