Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind belongs in the same canon of films as Lawrence of Arabia or The Leopard: epic and sweeping, but never losing sight of their characters or their true conceits. With a movie this ambitious, especially an animated movie, it’s easy to get lost in the scenery. It says something that Nausicaa has characters that upstage most of the action, and a story that lingers long after the images fade.
Nausicaa is the product of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki is rightly regarded as the grand living master of Japanese animation, and based on the total body of work he’s produced so far — which includes Spirited Away, Porco Rosso, Castle in the Sky, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke and many more films — he deserves to be recognized as one of the greatest living directors, period. Nausicaa only drives that point home all the more: until now it remained unseen outside of Japan except through bootlegs and fly-by-night screenings. Absolutely shameful.Read more
It’s common practice to use the term “thought-provoking” as praise for a movie, and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence has been designed from the inside out to provoke so much thought that said impulse threatens to override everything else except for its staggering images. It uses lush visuals and striking action sequences as a vehicle to deliver extended ruminations about memory, human nature, society, information theory, the mind vs. the body, and a good many other things that you would expect more to find in a college philosophy course than an animated science-fiction movie. That doesn’t make it bad, mind you, just a tough pill to swallow if you are not already primed for it.
GITS2 is an explicit sequel to the first Ghost in the Shell film (which I admired a great deal, and should also review when it’s reissued shortly). While it takes place in the same world and features many of the same characters, it’s not absolutely required that you see the first film to get through this one. It takes place some time in the future, when humans and machines have become heavily co-integrated; almost everyone in the film has electronically-modified eyesight, for instance, which allows them to receive metadata about everything they look at. Needless to say, digital terrorists and electronic crime run rampant, and you are about as likely to have your body hacked into as your PC or your bank account. Read more
In the very first scene of About Schmidt, a man sits in an empty office, watching the clock on the wall strike five. He gets up, takes his briefcase (which is probably empty anyway), and walks out. He has retired from his job of several decades as the chief actuary of an insurance company. He has no hobbies, no intellectual pursuits, no big questions, no big answers. He will spend the rest of whatever life he has playing golf, watching TV, and pretending that he didn’t waste the gift of his existence on simply…well, existing. His name is Warren Schmidt, and now that he has nothing left to do, he will realize that he has never done anything, either.
These opening scenes reminded me of the same void of the spirit in Akira Kurosawa’s great Ikiru, but About Schmidt is more comic and sardonic than openly tragic. That doesn’t make it any the less affecting, though, and there are many moments where we laugh with a lump in our throat. Like the bureaucrat in Ikiru, it takes the face of death and a real void of the spirit for Schmidt to realize he’s wasted his life. His wife is a stranger to him — dutiful, polite, but somehow perpetually annoying, and one night he asks himself: Who is this strange woman in my house? But he has TV and trivia to drown out the angry hum of his disappointment, and for a while they work. Read more
Fans of the blues know that most of the best blues songs are about broken hearts and violent revenge, two themes Takashi Miike seems happy to explore endlessly in his movies about Tokyo's criminal underground. Blues Harp is one of the very best of his urban-gangster movies, not only because it's got plenty of Miike's usual grit and crazy style, but also because it has an unexpectedly touching story. Miike can be gentle and poetic when he chooses to be (Sabu was a wonderful example of that), and it's films like this that I've come to savor most from him, not his splatterfests (Ichi the Killer) or his style-chewing showcases for lurid violence (the first Dead or Alive).
Almost all of Miike's protagonists are either criminals, quasi-outcasts in Japanese society (Koreans, Chinese, Russians, Brazilians, half-bloods), or both. Chuji (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, of Charisma and Space Travelers) is both: his father was black, his mother was a prostitute, and after growing up he drifted into Tokyo's criminal underworld, tending bar in a rock club and selling speed on the side to make ends meet. He has no fondness for the life he's leading — early in the film he administers a rather perfunctory beating to a smart-mouth American — and his real love is music, as expressed through his harmonica. One night there's a chase and a shootout in the alley behind the club, and almost without trying Chuji saves the life of up-and-coming gangster Kenji (Daisuke Iijima, Gohatto). Read more
Tatsuya Nakadai has one of the blankest, most impassive faces possible for an actor, and Sword of Doom is a showcase for him projecting the most chilling emptiness possible with that face. Most people confuse acting with emoting: they think of Jack Nicholson or Dennis Hopper throwing an on-screen tantrum. Then they see the films of Robert Bresson or Jean-Pierre Melville, or many of the newer Japanese directors (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Kore’eda), and see acting that has been dialed so far down that, paradoxically, nothing but pure emotion remains.
For the most part, Nakadai’s face is passive, his eyes large and unresponsive, showing all of the emotion of a mirror. Then, even more chillingly, he smiles. The smile is worse, because it is the rictus of an animal of prey. This is appropriate for a movie that is about a man who would at first glance appear to be nothing but a moral void. Then we look closer. Read more