Spirited Away (2001)

Spirited Away

Every frame of Spirited Away is a jewel, but this one of Chihiro is the most poetic…

Even though I have seen Hayao Miyazaki’s uncanny masterpiece Spirited Away countless times (there are only two or three other movies I think I have seen more), I only just recently finally saw it on the big screen, as well as in its original language. Still, it lost not one ounce of its magical effect: The experience only added to it.

As the first anime movie I ever saw, I can safely say that Spirited Away is the one anime movie for people who don’t think they like anime movies. Miyazaki has made countless classics, but this has to be his number one film (though My Neighbor Totoro is a close second).

The story of Spirited Away is like that of Alice in Wonderland. A ten year old girl named Chihiro (Daveigh Chase, who was also Lilo in Lilo & Stitch) is on her way to her new home when her parents stumble upon what looks to be an abandoned theme park. They see food that does not seem to be for anyone, so they eat it (well, chow down). Chihiro eventually realizes that the park is a place of unimaginable creatures and spirits. Her quest has her meet unforgettable characters including the tyrannical boss Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette), the boiler man Kamachi (David Odgen Stiers), the blunt yet kind Lin (Susan Egan), and the helpful friend Haku (Jason Marsden).

I will leave it at that, because this a movie that is not to be seen or heard, but experienced. Any artist out there would benefit to pause every frame, and spend five minutes looking at it. Miyazaki (who also wrote the script) gives such pin point detail to each inch of our screens that we are stunned. Even the animators at Disney and Pixar will tell you how much of a master this man is.

Upon watching the movie again, I also realized how much of a hero Chihiro really is. It is not just that she puts herself in harm’s way (the scene where she runs on a pipe is beyond bold for any person), but it is why she does it. Despite her puny appearance (she looks like she weighs no more than 50-60 pounds), she has a heart of purity and soundness, and it is perfectly reflected in the film’s closing line (which is very underrated).

Parents, this is a movie for any child. There are some scares, but nothing too bad. More so, it is one which you can sit down and watch with them (and even enjoy).

 

Recently, I did a poll on Instagram about whether Disney should keep making live action remakes of their films (most were for the idea). I am personally growing tired of it: Some of them did work, but now they are just overshadowing the far better originals. Spirited Away is one movie that, no matter how much money Disney (or any studio) has will ever be done well in live action. Heck, bring in James Cameron, and a live action version would still be terrible. Some movies are meant to stay the way they are.

I could go on and on about my love for Spirited Away, but it is better to experience for yourself if you haven’t already done so. It is impossible not to be moved by this film.

 

Overall: Five Stars *****

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

 

Blade Runner 2049

One of many images that are entrancing in Blade Runner 2049

Despite some holes and question marks in the screenplay, Blade Runner 2049 still manages to be the best sci-fi sequel since 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day. It is a movie that challenges the mind and brightens your eyes with some of the most gorgeous imagery of recent years. I have only seen the original once, but I know that I have to return to get some answers (though not all the questions will have them).

The plot is a lot harder to follow this time around, but not too terrible. Basically, the new Blade Runner in town is named “K” (Ryan Gosling). After reporting to his boss (Robin Wright, having a very decent year with this film and Wonder Woman) the discovery of a dead replicant who died giving birth to a child, he is sent out to erase the mistake and kill the child. As he digs deeper, he realizes he is more and more in danger. It eventually leads him to the Deckard (Harrison Ford).

I will stop there for two reasons: I don’t wish to ruin any plot points, and I am also afraid that I may have still misunderstood the plot. I can talk about a few other characters, however. Dave Bautista (Drax of Guardians of the Galaxy) is rather surprisingly subtle and reserved as a runaway replicant. The owner of the replicants is played by Jared Leto, proving to be a better villain (or is he?) than he was in Suicide Squad. One of my favorite performances came from Ana de Armas as Joi. Joi is basically Suri, but far more upgraded. She has been with K (who she now names Joe) for so long she is almost like a personal secretary. So lovely and ironic is it that she is one of the most human characters in the film.

Now we get to the visuals. They are, quite simply, marvelous and uncanny. It should come as no surprise, mainly thanks to two men. The first is director Denis Villeneuve (who recently was nominated for 2016’s Arrival). He knows how to pace the film at the right tempo: If you think there is not enough action in the film, you are not paying attention.

The second, and possibly most critical, is cinematographer and legend Roger Deakins. Here is hoping that his losing track record at the Oscars (0-13) might end next February. Watching the movie, I had that same feeling when watching films from Studio Ghibli. You could pause each shot, and look at them for hours. You know what? I take back what I said: Roger Deakins will win the long overdue Oscar, and will get a standing ovation.

Parents, even if you children may have seen the original, you should be warned that his film has a lot more nudity in it than the first one. While the only real sex is through blurry glass, there is still a bit of sound. Add in the swearing and (not so horrible) action/violence, and you have a movie for only High School and above.

I mentioned before that the plot does have some holes: one character clearly betrays another and then shows their utmost loyalty. Even so, this movie is worth seeing just for the visuals alone. They are haunting, spellbinding, breathtaking, cold,…seriously, words don’t do the visuals justice.

On the sights alone, Blade Runner 2049 is a movie that, once seen, is something we people will not believe.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

 

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

the-tale-of-the-princess-kaguya

Princess Kaguya (Chloe Grace Moretz) is as free a spirit as they come…

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is as pure a fairy tale as one ever put to film. I was up early in the morning when I was watching it, but it felt like I was a little boy, being told a simple, beautiful bed time story by the masters of Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away, just to name a few).

The story is of a bamboo cutter (James Caan) who, while cutting, discovers a young child he immediately calls “Princess”. Along with his wife (Mary Steenburgen, who also does a stellar job narrating the story), they see her grow up right before her eyes in a blink of the eye. The Husband (no names are given to the parents) is determined to make her a Princess, and while the wife is set to follow her husbands wishes, she just wants her daughter to be happy.

She meets friends (who call her “Little Bamboo”), most importantly Sutemaru (Darren Criss), who knows she is destined for great things. One day, her parents take her to the palace, where she is indeed made a Princess.

We also meet Lady Sagami (Lucy Liu), brought it to teach the Princess how to act like a Princess ought to act (which is easier said than done). What we get is not a tale of palaces and fame and fortune, but of sad isolation and loneliness.

Five Princes approach to offer proposals for marriage, in a scene that will have you struck in awe of how it is handled (with a good number of laughs as well). The Princess (now having been called “Kaguya” does not seek anything more than happiness, which she learns is not always easy to obtain (shades of Citizen Kane come to mind).

It seems like the saying “Less is more” may be the best to describe the animation here. Basically all hand drawn almost like a coloring book, the film avoids all obvious uses of computer animation we would expect in today’s modern animated films. If you ever pause the film, you can spend five minutes just looking at the animation itself. One imagines how many pains in the wrist occurred to the animators.

Parents, they is one or two scenes of nudity, though it is non sexual. Toward the beginning, the mother realizes she is able to produce milk, and is able to breastfeed for the Princess (I assume it is normal for kids in Japan to see this as ok, but I am not sure). Without this scene, I feel the film is perfect for all ages.

There is a scene where Lady Sagami is showing the Princess how to observe scrolls. Sagami says to scroll slowly, while the princess unrolls the whole parchment from one end of the room to the other. In observing animated masterpieces such as The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, it should be observed the way Lady Sagami mentioned: Slow, and with attention to every detail.

 

Although I would not blame you for wanting to see it all for its glory as the Princess would.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

 

 

From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

Two teens make a connection, "From up on Poppy Hill"

Two teens make a connection, “From up on Poppy Hill”

While the animation is stellar, and the relationship between the characters (especially the main two characters) are nice to behold, the story is really a bore.

It tells the story of two teenagers who try to work together and save an old building on campus from being destroyed to get ready for the 1964 Olympics. This is from the studio who gave imaginary masterpieces like Spirited Away, Castle in the Sky, and My Neighbor Totoro.

That is not to say the movie is bad. It is just not up to par with the other films of Studio Ghibli. There is not much here bad for kids, parents. There just is not as much nourishment as in the other films.

Overall: Two Stars **

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Even without the wolf, "Princess Mononoke" alone is not worth challenging.

Even without the wolf, “Princess Mononoke” alone is not worth challenging.

The picture above may show that this film is not for kids (it isn’t), but it does not go and show how extravagant the film is for those old enough to see it.

Princess Mononoke is one of the best animated adventures in the area of celluloid. It tells the story of Ashitaka (Billy Crudup), a skilled young warrior who is cursed from a cursed boar (which is putting it lightly) and must go find the cure. He eventually finds himself in the middle of a war between humans and the spirits of the forest. One of those spirits, a wolf Goddess, has taken in a child who is the Princess (Claire Danes), or San for short. She is against the human leader Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver) and a bounty hunter named Jigo (Billy Bob Thorton).

In a line of great films by the unbelievable Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, this is justly one of the most famous. The animation is beyond the imagination, with imagery you would never have thought could exist. It is a movie you could freeze at any moment, and just observe the pain and time the animators put into the film. My only issue is that some of the film seemed to drag on a bit with a few stretches of dialogue. A minor issue, however, in an otherwise glorious film.

Parents, this may be animated, but don’t let it fool you: the PG-13 rating is just. There is some swearing (maybe two or three curse words), some animated cleavage, but mainly it is the violence, which is similar to The Lord of the Rings films. If they have seen those, this should be fine (though I would still say 13 and up).

One of the best things the film does is show the symbolism of the violence. We all have experienced violence in our lives (if you don’t think so, just turn on the news or read the newspaper). It is all caused by the curse of hatred, and that idea has never been shown so beautifully on film before.

Overall: Four Stars ****

Castle in the Sky (1986)

Sheeta and Pazu meet each other on their journey to the "Castle in the Sky".

Sheeta and Pazu meet each other on their journey to the “Castle in the Sky”.

It was my first or second semester of my freshman year of college when I first saw this film. Sadly, I was not paying much attention, as only my roommate and our friend were watching. After watching it a second time, I wanted to go back in time and smack my young self.

Re-released over a decade after its original release in Japan in 1986, the English version stars Anna Paquin and James Van Der Beek as Sheeta and Pazu. The film starts as Sheeta falls from a ship in the sky and is caught by Pazu. It is clear that others are after Sheeta for the gem necklace she has on (which is the reason she lives). At first she is chased after an old woman named Dola (wonderfully voiced by Cloris Leachman). She is accompanied by her countless number of devoted (but not at all wise) sons and her husband (who I feel may have been the inspiration for the look of Doctor Robotnik for the Sonic the Hedgehog video game series). Later, Sheeta is chased after by the army led by Muska (Mark Hamill, proving how great a voice actor he is by giving us shades of his voice for the animated Joker).

The movie proves that some stories cannot be made in live action (for more proof, see Spirited Away). It is filled with action and adventure that no filmmaker, no matter how rich, could do right with special effects. It also could not be done more beautifully. Made by Japan’s legendary Hayao Miyazaki, the film reminds us that animation of any kind can be entertaining with out 3D glasses. It is also, I feel, underrated for its humor (“There’s nothing worse than having your pigtails shot off!”)

Parents, this film has some action violence, but it is really nothing at all. This is great entertainment for any child of any age, and any adult for that matter. One of the best anime films. One of the best adventure films. One of the best animated films. Make sure you family visits the Castle in the Sky.

Overall: Five Stars *****

The Cat Returns (2002)

Haru (Anne Hathaway) takes to the sky in The Cat Returns

Haru (Anne Hathaway) takes to the sky in The Cat Returns

I believe the reason why I never heard of The Cat Returns (suggested to me by a young anime lover in my church named Sophia) is because it did not get the notice that it’s predecessor, the masterpiece Spirited Away, had gotten. It is a shame, because this film is very good.

It tells the story of a schoolgirl named Haru (Anne Hathaway), who is a kind hearted soul who just does not seem to have any luck. One day, she saves a cat from the street (in an awesome slow motion shot) and, to her surprise, the cat thanks her. Later that night, she awakens to see the Cat King, who informs her the cat she had saved was his son. The next day, she awakens to gifts of thanks that are kind hearted, but not well thought out.

Like any animated film, one of the main strengths is the characters, especially the supporting ones. There is the Baron, who is so perfectly played by Cary Elwes that we are convinced no one else could play him. Elliot Gould plays a crow named Toto with crisp delivery, but the scene stealer is the late great Peter Boyle as Muta, an overweight cat you would be advised not to call fat. It made me realize how much I do miss Boyle.

Parents, there is one scene that shows a female cat losing her dress, but it is mainly played for laughs. That being said, this film is for any age. The problem with the film is the editing. At times, the screen would go to black, and I thought I was watching a film made for TV. The film also seems to be too short. At only 75 minutes, I truly wanted more.

In short, the film is not the best of Studio Ghibli’s such as Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, or Princess Mononoke. Still, The Cat Returns is one worth searching for, anime fan or not.

Overall: Three and a Half Stars *** 1/2