Movies: The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Love & Mercy, Mad Max: Fury Road, Only Yesterday, Whisper of the Heart
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness
This is the 2013 documentary that follows legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki as his studio simultaneously produces The Wind Rises and The Tale of Princess Kaguya.
The best thing about this movie might be how gentle and observational it is. There's no plot here, no clear agenda, no sharply delineated point of view. The weird thing is, that absence should make a documentary fall apart -- if it's not really telling a story, what's the point? But the process of film production (on The Wind Rises -- the far superior Tale of Princess Kaguya is being made elsewhere) provides enough of a clothesline to tug us along through the film, holding our attention.
Instead, the production style feels really relaxing. Instead of having to intently lean forward, you can lean back. You let the experience wash over you, with lengthy shots of mundane tasks, "pillow shots" of local scenery, and discursive conversations. You don't desperately wonder what is going to happen next -- instead, you settle into what day-to-day life is like at Studio Ghibli.
And you slowly get a feel for the man himself. Hayao Miyazaki, at the end of his career, is still wracked with doubts -- about the value of that career, about the significance of animation overall, about whether his current movie is even complete-able. He growls about political bêtes noires, but you sense a sort of detachment, like there's only so angry he can get when he knows he'll be leaving the party soon.
I find myself wondering to what extent the filmmaker (Mami Sunada) deliberately made this feel like a Miyazaki film, with its gentleness, and its long shots of high clouds, and its quiet, calm feeling that its not terribly beholden to a plot. But perhaps these are more like Japanese qualities that both the documentary and the studio naturally have in common.
Love & Mercy
This is the Brian Wilson biopic currently in theaters, featuring Paul Dano as Wilson during the Pet Sounds/Smile sessions, and John Cusack as Wilson in the 1980s, living under the predatory and controlling 'treatment' of a shady psychotherapist.
First off: of course I'm going to love this. I've read more about the original Pet Sounds sessions than any reasonable person should, and so on some level I was just giddy to see recording-session recreations that perfectly matched the known archival records.
But I also appreciated that there seem to be two movies at war with each other in this film. On the one hand, there's a clear, simple, realistic re-telling of how Pet Sounds and Smile tore the band apart, as Wilson's artistic peak was followed by a catastrophic collapse into mental illness. And there's a fairly straightforward story of how he met a woman in the 80s who finally got him free of some truly disastrous psychiatric care. It's a story with normal scenes that make sense, clearly laying out the conflicts, clearly laying down the exposition. It's kind of the high-rent version of a biopic you might see on Lifetime.
Then on the other hand, there's a formalist, impressionistic film, bent on giving you incredibly subjective glimpses of what it's like to suffer panic attacks, or to dream up complicated vocal harmonies, or to spend your whole life reeling from brutal, abusive parenting. People who noted the oddness, in this film, of having Dano and Cusack play the same guy at different ages -- those people don't know the half of it. Towards the end, it just becomes this 2001-esque mélange of characters, and images, and remixed footage from earlier in the film.
That tension, for me, made the film. I couldn't have watched two hours of cinematic-freakout, but I would have been bored senseless by a by-the-numbers re-telling of events I already knew way too much about. The "straight narrative" part of the movie was a little *too* by the numbers in places: to quote an earlier post of mine, "If I'm mad at you because you remind me of my father, who was never satisfied with the work I did back on the farm, I'm probably *not* going to say 'I'm mad at you because you remind me of my father, who was never satisfied with the work I did back on the farm!'" This movie often hit that level of on-the-nose, but it kind of had to be, to support, say, the terrifying airplane panic attack early in the film.
At its best, the film found some kind of middle ground between the two extremes. The scene where Wilson and Melinda Ledbetter first meet is phenomenal -- weirdly oblique, uncomfortable, and perfectly acted by Cusack and Elizabeth Banks. If I ever get around to rewatching the film, I'm sure I'll see this as a completely different scene, recontextualized by everything that came afterwards. But even outside of those individual standout scenes, the two halves -- the narrative half and the arty half -- play off of each other well, with the narrative half providing a simple story to follow, and the arty half providing the gutpunches of how the experience must have felt.
Mad Max: Fury Road
This is George Miller's return to the world of post-apocalyptic Australia, as lone adventurer Max Rockatansky helps a high-level enforcer free a group of enslaved "brides" from a powerful warlord in a mad, automative dash across the desert.
I kind of hate the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Yes, I get that Jack Sparrow is fun, and there are cool special effects, and... that's kind of it, but it's enough for an entertaining time in the theater. But what I hate is the bloat. I hate that, as the series continues (and continues, and continues), the movies get needlessly bigger, with more and more plotlines meandering around, with set-pieces that get more and more crowded. An action scene happens, and you have no idea where you're supposed to rest your attention. Five different plotlines lumber along, and you have no idea which is important. It all just washes over you blandly.
And more and more, this is what tentpole action movies are: they're not focused, they're not *about* anything, they don't *matter* in any way whatsoever, they're just big. It's all as bland as porridge... but hey! there's a lot of it! Surely it includes every single component that the studio corporate guys thought would test well -- so it *has* to be a good movie, right?!
Fury Road is very pointedly not that.
The bloat is gone. It pares things back so much that I was reminded of some critic's quote about Waiting for Godot: "Prior to Godot, everyone thought that a play required 'x' -- Beckett showed you could make do with 'x-1'." This is just a big chase scene. That's all the plot that's happening here. Max gets captured by a warlord, he gets mixed up in a renegade enforcer's breakout, and then he's in a mad dash to help his newfound group get to safety. There's a chase in one direction. There's a chase in the other. Our team wins. The movie ends.
And that's it.
And that is such a goddamn relief. It's a relief to see a movie that's not desperately trying to gin up as much plot as possible. Instead, it creates just *enough* plot: something simple, and clear, with life-and-death stakes. And that's it. There's no tedious exposition, setting up additional threads. There are no moments of, "Wait, what are they showing me now? Why is this important? Ugh." We know why we're here, we know why it matters, we know what it'll take for this setup to feel resolved, and we can get on with it. It's a throwback to something like Duel.
And paring things back to a simple, clear plot makes room for a lot of good stuff. If we're not mentally straining to figure out the half-dozen plates of plot that a movie is awkwardly spinning, then the movie can challenge us in other ways. Much has been said about the movie's effortless, implicit world-building, down to its jargon-filled language, various social classes, detailed sets, and elaborate vehicles. Everything came from somewhere. Everything has a story. And again, without all that baggage of studio-noted, superfluous plotting, we can *see* all of that, and take it in, and appreciate it, without tripping ourselves up.
So that's one way this movie is saying "no" to the modern action blockbuster.
The other way is how little -- or I should say "how judiciously" -- the movie uses CGI. Now I love CGI. I also love that CGI has grown by leaps and bounds, year after year, in what it can represent. And I completely recognize that most modern directors use it too much. It serves wonderfully for background mattes, for adding touches to filmed action sequences, or for a million other filmic uses that nobody notices or describes as "CGI". But when it's front and center, the only thing for the viewer to look at, it can become bland, plasticine, and weightless. A massive explosion sends bodies scattering, and we idly wonder when this part of the level playthrough will be over.
We're finally starting to see a backlash against that. When Abrams announced a move back to practical effects for the Star Wars franchise, the fandom did greatly (and with great relief) rejoice. Fury Road takes this desire for practical effects and practically turns it into a fetish. And as a result, things feel real. Things explode, and it's messy. Things crash, and they have weight. The action feels like it matters.
Maybe this is a sign that the action genre is turning back from its bland, CGI bloatfests. Or maybe the success of Fury Road will *cause* the genre to change course a bit.
Lastly, much has been made of how strongly feminist this movie is. But I just don't have a lot to add to the zillions of insightful think pieces that are already out there. I'll just note that, for the most part, all Fury Road does is treat women like human beings. But, in the context of a genre that has somehow gotten *more* sexist over my lifetime, even something like "the lead female character has shit to do besides snogging the leading man" makes people's heads explode. With starry-eyed optimism, I hope that twenty years from now we have to patiently explain to kids exactly *why* Fury Road was so different from its contemporaries.
So all in all, I enjoyed the film. I could watch it again; I don't need to watch it again. Mostly I'm glad that it exists, and I'm keen to see how, or if, it affects the industry.
This is the 1991 Studio Ghibli feature about a woman in her twenties who goes back to the rural town she visited as a child. The film bounces back and forth between the 'current' storyline and flashbacks to when the protagonist was in fourth grade.
I don't really know what happened here.
This much I know: I saw this movie in 1998 at the Brattle Theater, back when I was living in Boston. They were running it as part of a complete (as of that year) Studio Ghibli program, presumably as a lead-up to the U. S. release of Princess Mononoke. And at the time, the movie absolutely shattered me. I cried and cried and cried.
And for years since, I was unable to see it. I never found it (or perhaps never looked hard enough) on the piratewebs. It never came out on DVD in the U. S., and was only available as an expensive import. But I still swore up and down that it was my favorite Ghibli film. It was simple -- no magic, nothing fancy, just closely observing real life, and realizing, all of a sudden, what a wide gulf of years separated you from your childhood.
A couple of weeks ago I saw it again, and... nothing.
Well, not 'nothing'. It's still a Studio Ghibli film, fercrissakes, and a middling Ghibli film is better than 95% of what's out there. But I was, for the most part, unmoved. It was a fascinating slice-of-life view of Japan in the early 80s (and the mid-60s). And, like many Japanese films, it has a welcome sense of not being an obsequious servant to its plot. Instead, it patiently delivers slice-of-life vignettes, trusting that a quiet breeze of storyline -- Taeko figuring out what to do with her life after a breakup -- will keep the whole thing from feeling like a lava lamp.
But who was I, seventeen years ago, that this movie spoke to me so?
Maybe I identified with Taeko? Maybe that was the point, for me, that I realized I was firmly in a new chapter of my life, one that was, in a relatively Internet-light age, thoroughly severed from the city I'd lived in before, and the people I'd known there, and the life that I'd had. Maybe the rural town Taeko visits reminded me of Pewee Valley, with its tall trees and its relative isolation from the big city. Maybe I was just younger, and felt things more.
As it is, current!me can only recommend this as an interesting glimpse at what Studio Ghibli is like when there are no machines, no airplanes, no magic -- just regular life, closely and perfectly observed.
Whisper of the Heart
This is the 1995 Studio Ghibli feature that follows a teenager through the months leading up to her junior-high graduation. It was the only Ghibli film directed by Yoshifumi Kondō before that director died of an aneurysm at age 47.
I first started this section with the phrase "This is the 1995 Studio Ghibli movie about..." And then I stopped. And then, with newfound inspiration: "This is the 1995 Studio Ghibli movie about a teenager who..." And then I stopped again. And then I deleted the whole thing and started over. The fact is, this is the least obviously "about-y" movie in the whole Ghibli cannon. Instead, it just gives us vignettes of junior high in Tokyo: Shizuku spars with her older sister, preps for the graduation ceremony, meets an annoying boy she kind of likes, and so on.
That said, it's still a riveting film, showing Tokyo with beautiful specificity and deftly etching in every character. It even feels a bit like Freaks and Geeks, full of small and quiet scenes full of big emotions. And if there's no big overarching plot, that's fine -- it's a little like the early stages of an old interactive fiction game, where you just wander the rooms, taking it all in, examining the objects, and getting the feel of the world.
And somehow, like walking absently and finding yourself in a strange place, it's a story about art. She discovers that the boy in question is a luthier, an adept musician who constructs violins in his family's workshop. And somehow, after following a cat to an old antiques shop, Shizuku decides that she needs to write a fantasy novel, with a strange, dapper cat figurine from the shop serving as the main character.
And the oddest thing is, that last sentence makes perfect sense in context. And it speaks to a larger strength of this movie. Many movies side completely with kids: "Yeah, look, these two teenagers have found TRUE LOVE and it's gonna last FOREVER! You hear me? FOREVER!" says the movie. And others hold up the kids to sneering ridicule, so grown-ups like me can roll our eyes at the kids with the Internet and the snapchatting and the stupid, shortsighted things they believe.
But Whisper of the Heart does a lovely job of sitting in both perspectives. Look, she HAS TO WRITE A NOVEL TO IMPRESS A BOY, okay? It's IMPORTANT. And we see that, and see where she's coming from, and we suspect that discovering she loves writing fiction might be more important, in the long run, than impressing the boy. Kids declare that they love each other and they're going to get married someday, and the moment is bright, and joyous, and perfect... and you can feel the film smiling wistfully at them, because it knows more than they do.
For next week: I'm watching RWBY and Last Week Tonight while exercising, and continuing my slow drift through season three of Mad Men. I liked the trailer for The Martian, so I'm giving the novel a whirl. Lindsey and I are still listening to Welcome to Night Vale and watching season two of Community.
 ... which accidentally makes them sound like either a Vaudeville double act or a couple of beat cops.
 Though the imdb "trivia" section helpfully points out that these scenes were reshot without Dennis Wilson, who had died just before the events of the 1980s section, and thus felt 'missing' in Brian Wilson's mental state at the time.
 I feel terribly unfair writing that, because I know that some of those "on-the-nose" lines are things that the people involved actually said, on tape, at the time. Just goes to show that real dialog is not always the best dialog, I suppose.
 See also: Wilson playing an early take on "God Only Knows" for his father, in one continuous shot.
 Consider the *other* time a fellow named "George" returned to his beloved film franchise after thirty years -- and we got The Phantom Menace.
 I agree heartily with this listicle from Cracked, and talked about bad CGI at some length when I wrote about the impeccable effects in The Prisoner of Azkaban.
 I'm probably overstating things here, cherry-picking the best aspects of Marion Ravenwood and Leia Organa. Still, it speaks to an inner sense of "Shouldn't these movies be *better* by now?"
 Or at least it was isolated when I lived there. Now it's basically a commuter suburb for Louisvillian lawyers and other expensive professionals.[8b]
[8b] Of course, I read that sentence and I realize that that's exactly what my dad was, when I was a kid in Pewee Valley, so my contempt is kind of amusing and silly.