Film 2023: Laputa Castle in the Sky


Laputa

Once again I’m going to swim against the tide and say that I was not that much impressed by Laputa Castle in the Sky. For all its high reputation and its widespread influenxe, for all that it was the first Studio Ghimbli anime, and for all that it is the work of Hayao Miyazaki, I found it too limited as a story, somewhat archaic, frequently blurred in tone and ultimately lacking in conviction in what might have been a stunning and unexpected conclusion, that Miyazaki reneged on in order for a happy ending. This latter aspect emphasised to me what had been clear about the film for some time: it was a children’s adventure story, for children, without the adult/universal aspects of practically all his later work.

Miyazaki chose to begin in media res sand let his audience work out what was going on. An airship is attacked by air pirates. A little girl with a crystal pendant takes the opportunity to escape captivity, stealing back a crystal necklace, but falls from the ship from a great height. A light from the crysatal slows her flight, she floats down unconcious and lands, so to speak, in a grimy mining town where she’s aided by an active boy of her own age. She is Sheeta (voiced by Anna Paquin), he is Pazu (voiced by James van den Beek). Both are orphans.

So far, so good, yet whilst I usually appreciate this kind of approach, for once I felt oddly detached, wanting just a little bit more information about what was going on. This was possibly prescient: almost none of the information I wanted to establish a context for the opening – who, what, when, where, why – was actually given in the rest of the film.

That was part of the problem: it left the film ungrounded for me. Even the setting, in a fictional late Nineteenth century, fe lt unmoored. I had no real sense of why this wass happening, which added to the atmosphere of a children’s story. Pirates who wanted… well, was it something more than just treasure? A Government secret agent who wanted… what for his Government? All the explanations that would have established what the film was about were either ommitted or reduced to simplistic levels not more complex than a Malcolm Saville Lone Pine book.

The objective was a floating Castle in the Sky (the original Japanese title was simply that: English speaking territories added Laputa, from one of Swift’s lesser-known Gulliver’s Travels). At first it’s a legend, a myth that Puza wants to find: his late father saw it once but was accused of being a liar, but Puza will vindicate him. But to Colonel Muska (Mark Hamill) it’s a real thing he intends to find for his Government: Laputa’s power once ruled the Earth. To Sheeta… well, Sheeta’s an orphan with a crystal that’s significant but who only wants to be left alone.

Ultimately, it transpires that Sheeta is heir to the former Royal Family of Laputa (it’s always bloody kings and royals, I wish people would grow up) with power over the crystal thanks to spells taught her by her grandmother, including one of destruction that must never be used. Ultimately ultimately Muska also turns out to be a descendent of the Royal Family, whose true aim is to restore Laputa’s supreme power in his own hands, just like any cheap would-be dictator. The film was made in 1986, almost forty years ago, based on Miyazaki’s own manga serial, itself influenced by, of all improbable things, Welsh mining villages in the UK Miners’ strike of 1984. Perhaps this is why it felt so limited to me, that it did not extend beyond very basic fantasy power struggles?

What part do the pirates play in all this? Structurally, they’re integral. Puza is an orphan living in a poor working community. He seems to be aged 14 though in the original Japanese soundtrack he and Sheeta are voiced as pre-teens. Bright, passionate and mechanically agile as he is, he can’t go up against a massive Government operation involving intelligence agents and an Army detachment, not on his own, so the pirates are needed to provide a credible force to get him into the heart of things. But Miyazaki is wildly inconsistent in how he uses them. First, they’re sinister attackers, bent on violently assaulting the airship on which Sheeta is being transported. Then they’re implacable, destructive pursuers, wantonly destroying anything in their past. They’re evil and cruel on a par with the government men pursuing Sheeta, and come over as knowing exactly who and what she is and wanting her her the same reasons as Muska.

Then, as soon as Puza needs an ally, they become comical, lovable rogues. Grandmotherly Captain Dola (Cloris Leachman) switches from being an evil tyrant to a gruff but sentimental leader, her three sons are bumbling idiots and the pirates become comic figures for the rest of the film, much like Goscinny and Uderzo’s pirates in Asterix (they even get their ship ‘sunk’).

There’s another confusing element created by the decision to uplift Sheeta and Puza’s ages. Yes, they’re certainly no more than fourteen, but once their relationship is underway, it rings of being a love relationship, as purely as a silver coin thrown down on stone. There’s a chauvinistic element to it in that Sheeta is constantly being treated as the ‘girl’, no matter how much she acts competently and determinedly but despite that the whole feel is of a pair who’ve found each other. You find yourself expecting a kiss. No such thing is going to happen, but the lack of an outward expression of such feelings does undercut what little reality the film possesses.

A lot of this could be redeemed by the ending. Muska has taken over the deserted, idyllic but overgrown Laputa using the crystal and is going all megalomaniac about it. Sheeta gets the crystal away from him, instructs Puza to run and drop it in the ocean, put it beyond recovery, whilst she faces Muska and the certainty of her death, but death in a cause. Suddenly, the seriousness multiplies. Puza, however, has his own idea. He stands with Sheeta, the pair clasping the crystal. Together they will recite the spell of Destruction. It will save everything, at the cost of their sacrifice. It’s a truly dramatic moment. Together they speak. Muska is blinded and falls to his death. Laputa shatters. Only the pirates get away.

Oh, wait, no. Laputa may have shattered but not all of it. There’s this great central tree supporting the castle-like bit at the top and look, there, among the ruins, Puza and Sheeta are still arrive, for no better reason than that we want a happy ending, little kids that we are. All the good of that extraordinary ending undone.

So that’s Laputa Castle in the Sky for me. It has its good points, its well-made, it creates places as do later Ghibli films that look and feel real even as they are fantastic in themselves. But to me the story and its ending, not to mention its lack of an initial context, makes it juvenile in a way later films do not. It’s the difference between The Weirdstone of Bringamen and The Owl Service, except that, coming to Laputa as almost the last of the Ghibli films, I find it very much harder to adjust my expectations than when discovering Alan Garner in the late Sixties.

*******

And with that, Film 23 enters another phase. This is the last of the collection of DVDs built up since last summer and added to along the way. From next week, the films I watch over the next several months are going to be films accessible on YouTube, films watchable for free and not even the minimal amounts some of these DVDs have cost me. Some of these are going to be films I’m not quite committed to so commenting on them will see me coming from a different direction. I’m looking forward to the change of atmosphere. Which one first?

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Film 2023: Tenet


tenet

All I really knew about this film, before I pressed Play on the laptop, was that it was written and directed by Christopher Nolan, that it had several Five Star reviews in the UK Press, that it featured scenes of Elizabeth Debicki running around in a bikini and that the DVD itself was incredibly cheap. There are worse, but perhaps more reputable reasons for choosing an unknown film with which to while away Sunday morning.

Looking at the film’s entry in Wikipedia after sitting through its 143 minute length, I was gratified to find that reaction to Tenet was not as universal as the DVD box made it seem, relieving me from the familiar but still uncomfortable position of yet again flying in the face of the majority. Long before the film’s conclusion, I was ready for it to be over. I found it deliberately confusing, ill-conceived in the effects of its central conceit, much too long, much too in love with its own cleverness and lacking in any convincing human element. It’s a film in pursuit of its idea, that of inverted entropy, or to be plainer, time reversal, that chose to build an edifice of obscurity upon that notion without stopping to consider the merits of a greater similicity and its concomitant, clarity.

Tenet is a science-fiction film crossed with an espionage milieu that’s layered with ultra-deception between all its characters. It begins with a terrorist raid on the Opera House in Kiev that’s a cover for a CIA extraction team to grab a wanted person – who and why is never revealed, because it’s of no importance whatsoever, yes, the ‘M’ word again – which leads to its team leader, John David Washington, passing a somewhat stringent test to become a member of a super-secret organisation named Tenet. John David Washington is the actor: his character has no name but is once or twice referred to as the Protagonist. I shall refer to him hereafter as JDW. The lack of a name serves to raise a spurious air of mystery, in a most pretentious manner, whilst being an emblem of the film’s near total lack of concern with anything actually human.

JDW is introduced to ‘inverted bullets’, which travel backwards through time. They’re sent from the future, which wants to destroy the past. The inversion process is under the control of Brittish-based Russian Oligarch Andei Sator (Kenneth Branagh with a husky cod-accent). JDW’s task is to find out, basically, what, how, where and why. The answer will be that Sator, a controlling madman of no redeeming characteristics, is dying of inoperable pancreatic cancer and is deadman-control-linked to something called the Algorithm, which will invert the entire world and destroy everyone and everything when he goes. Nolan does touch upon the sciento-philosophic question of won’t destroying the past destroy the future, but not in any great depth because the question is unanswerable: all we get is a few gnomic references to the Grandfather Paradox.

But that’s the thing about inversion. Inverted objects travel backwards in time according to our perception, based on a ‘normal’ entropic motion from now to then, energy to inertia, cause to effect. The problem with this is that, as a once avid SF reader, I wanted to understand how, in actuality, that could function with objects and people simultaneously moving past each other, forwards and back, and Nolan wasn’t interested enough to give me any kind of practical exploration (I didn’t expect scientific justification, one, because there isn’t any and two, because I wouldn’t understand it if there was). All he was interested in was clever visuals, presenting scenes of such things happening, in the form of car chases, shoot-outs, mercenary raids and a long fight that turned out to be JDW fighting himself. Very clever, excellently choreographed but ultimately fruitless except as a spectacle.

Which was the film’s ultimate failure for me. There was all this stuff going on, the fate of the world was at stake and long before the halfway point of the film my attitude was, so what? I had no investment in the film because I had no investment in the charactersm because there were no characters. JDW was a skilled undercover operative, Bond deluxe. His handler, Neil, was an equally super-competent sidekick and quartermaster, whistling up supporting hordes for setpieces as if buying them at the supermarket. Neil was played by Robert Pattinson, who I’d never seen before, in a cheerful, cynical, laidback manner that reminded me of Nigel Hawthorne at his most insouciant (as did his hairstyle, clearly borrowed for that very reason).

To get close to Sator, JDW found his way in via the Russian’s much younger, much taller and estranged-but-controlled wife Katherine Barton, or Kat (Debicki). Kat was under Sator’s thumb because she’d made a mistake, possibly deliberatelky, in verifying a Goya drawing for which her husband had paid $9,000,000, which was a fake perpetrated by an artist who might have been Kat’s lover. Sator’s lever is their son, Max, contact with whom he rations viciously, to be withheld permanently if Kat doesn’t do everything he wants.

Kat is devoted to her son and hates Sator to the point of wanting to kill him, which she will finally do near the end whilst wearing that bikini. This is the emotional element of the film, but in keeping with his intellectual approach, Nolan has Denicki play cool, self-contained and self-controlled for almost all of the film. It’s a technique reminiscent of the detachment of New Wave SF in the Sixties, still largely practiced by Christopher Priest, and it has the effect of nullifying the emotional elemy, because Debicki doesn’t come anywhere near letting go in a way that true emotional depths force upon you.

It also blurs beyond recognisability the reason why JDW becomes so protective towards her. It’s not love, it’s not sex, he’s lied to her but that’s intrinsic to his job and he shows no shame at so doing, but to an extent that frankly contradicts the premise of his character as set up by his ‘recruitment’ test, he goes to extraordinary lengths to not only try to preserve her but to bring her back from a fatal gunshot to the stomach.

To go back to nearer the film’s beginning, its opening scene at the Opera, taken at frantic pace, an action spectacular, I was reminded of the writing maxim espoused by the late SF writer, Alice B. Sheldon (better known as James Tiptree Jr), who explained it as ‘Start at the end, preferably in darkness, and then DON’T EXPLAIN!’ Nolan takes that largely to heart, inverting not just his sequences but his storyline until any clear understanding is buried by detail, contradiction and withheld information. As I said, I ended up caring little. In a book, able to move at my own pace, I would have found the whole thing far easier to comprehend, but in a film, with the pace of exposition going one way at Nolan’s pace, it was difficult to grasp the nuances and I gave up. I won’t try to explain any of the eventual revelations, save to say that if you remember the final episode of The Prisoner, you may have seen the big ‘reveal’ coming. The devil was in the details but that was all they were, endless trees obscuring the fact we were in a forest intentionally.

One last point that I was equally glad to discover was not just me, and that was the sound-mixing. Remember how I struggled to make out what characters were saying many times over in Nolan’s The Prestige? It was the same thing with Tenet. Between background noise, an insufficiently clear soundmix and the Director’s propensity to have his cast speak softly, quietly or huskily, there was a good 25% of the lines I just couldn’t make out.

Overall, save for the lovely Ms Debicki in her bikini, and that mostly covered by an unbuttoned but clingy-because-wet blouse, the film did not work for me. There was a good film, a very good film in there but it was buried under too much lumber, spectacle and convolution for the sake of it, requiring too much digging out to retrieve.

Film 2023: The Cat Returns


Cat

When the film doesn’t quite work and you’re watching it with your head full of a cold, whose is the fault, yours or the film?

The standard answer is a bit of both, based on the principle that very little in life is purely one thing or another, but having read about the background to The Cat Returns since coming to the end of the film, I’m inclined to go with the film being the primary disappointment.

The Cat Returns, short at 75 minutes, is the only Studie Ghibli film directed by Hiroyuki Morita. It’s a sequel of sorts to Whisper in the Heart, linked by the two cat figures in that film, the figurine of the Baron and Muta, the fat white cat with the one dark ear. Whereas Whisper in the Heart was a very grounded film, with some very limited fatnasy sequences, snippets of the story Shizuku writes, The Cat Returns starts off on a similarly grounded level but spins into fantasy for rhe majority of its length.

In principle, it’s a great idea, so why didn’t it work like that for me? Reading about the film’s development convinces me of the reason. Basically, it started as a short of 20 minutes length, requesting by a projected theme park company to feature cats. Hayao Miyazaki selected the Baron and Mutu as subjects. Aio Hiiragi, creator of the manga Whisper of the Heart, was commissioned to create the manga ‘Cat Project’. When the theme park company pulled out, Miyazaki converted the Cat Project into a training exercise, 45 minutesw length, to test future Ghibli directors, which was given to animator Morita. Presumably on the basis of his work, the film finally became a full-length film for commercial release.

It’sall a bit mechanistic, which does not preclude the creation of art, but basically we have a 75 minute film built up in stages from 20 minutes via 45 minutes, stemming from a commercial commission. In short, this is not a story that appears at any point to have been conceived because anyone had an idea they desperately wanted to pursue. It’s a nice adventure story in the end, disfigured slightly by an obvious moral lesson to be learned, redolent of American Saturday Morning Nineties cartoons where the kids have to be shown a positive lesson, but ultimately I thought it let me down by being a Disney movie, not a Srudio Ghibli film.

The story is nice enough. Fourteen year old Haru Yoshioka (English-voiced by Anne Hathaway), a gawky, unco-ordinated, sleepy schoolgirl who finds her entire life awkward, saves the life of a cat about to be run over in thestreet by a truck. To her amazement, the cat stands on its hindlegs and thanks her, before going off sbout his business. Haru treats this as just one more of life’s tribulations, until that night she’s visited by the King of the Cat Kingdom (Tim Curry). The cat she saved was Prince Lune, the King’s only son, and the cats are profoundly, and embarrassingly grateful. Worse though, once they realise that an amplitude of catnip, mice, cat-tails and even more lacrosse sticks than you could, er, shake a stick at, the cats, via the laidback King, decide that the true reward is that Haru shall receive the Prince’s hand in marriage.

Haru does not share their enthusiasm for the match. For one thing, she has a bit of a crush on a boy at school who already has a girlfriend that is prettier, more elegant and certainly not anything like as wide-eyed as her, not to mention that she’s only fourteen and even the thought of marriage is totally scary. Oh, and yes, she doesn’t want to marry a cat.

A phantom voice sends her to seek assistance from the Cat Bureau. She’s led there by Muta, who is every bit as grumpy and complaining as in his first appearance but who now speaks (with the rasping voice of Peter Boyle), and takes her to a miniature, cat-sized square that includes an antiques shop occupied by the figurine of the Baron, which now comes to life (his creator was so dedicated to his creation that it imbued the figurine with a soul, as it did Toto, the stone raven: a lovely, touching thought that obviates any other explanation).

Baron Humbert von Gikkingden (Cary Elwes) dedicates hiself and his little team to saving Haru from her fate. Unfortunately, they cannot prevent a phalanx of cats from kidnapping Haru and spiriting her off to the Cat Kingdom, where she starts turning into a cat herself. The Baron follows, to procure a Pimpernel-esque escape. This forms the bulk of the story, and the most Disneyfied aspect of it all, there being little more to it that just anime adventures, even though, once she gets back to being human, Haru is transformed into a normal but this time self-confident girl, whose attitude to hearing that her crush has broken up with his girlfriend is indifference: it doesn’t matter anymore.

That’s the film’s main drawback, that to go into its story in any more depth would be merely to add detail rather than greater understanding. It’s ok, but it doesn’t ascend beyond ok because it was never conceived with anything to say, and it’s transformation of the heroine after her experience – almost exclusively as the passive beneficiary of other’s efforts on her behalf – is cliched, perfunctory and frankly predictable. There’s the makings of a good film in there but, in the words of R.E.M., can’t get there from here.

As for the animation itself, Ghibli’s enviable record in constructing fascinating and beautiful envronments takes a bit of a knock here. Backgrounds whether in Haru’s real world or in the Cat Kingdom seem to be flatter than usual, as if one or more layer of depth has not been used to create somehing truly immersive. And I’ve got to criticise one central element of the animation, which is the way the cats have been portrayed, standing on their hind-legs. It just looks wrong. Morita has gone for an accurate anatomical vision of cats stood up, which means that they look awkward throughout. Every cat leans slightly backwards, to keep its balance, whilst forepaws basically dangle uselessly, because neither they nor Morito know what to do with them, whilst their shoulders hulk top-heavily when they run. It draws attention to itself, even with Muta. In contrast, the Baron is physically portrayed as moving like a human, which ould have been a much better option: it may have been unrealistic and very Disney to have done so but it would not have drawn the viewer’s attention out of the story at every moment.

Of course, I’m still very much conscious of my thick head and raw throat – I desperately need a coffee! – interfering with my ability to escape out of myself and inti the story, but I think on balance I have to lay most of the blame for diminished satisfaction on The Cat Returns rather than my irritating illlness. Better luck next week.

Film 2023: Rear Window


Rear

No boxset is complete without the one you didn’t really fancy, the one you have to take in order to get the ones you want. I have never previously seen Rear Window, having never particularly warmed to the idea of it, nor been a particular devotee of Alfred Hitchcock either. But it’s in the James Stewart boxset, and so it gets its morning in the sun.

Like Rope, in the same decade, Rear Window is affected by the sense that it is more a tachnical challenge to Hitchcock than the story itself: can you create a thriller in which the hero is immobilised throughout? Stewart plays L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jeffries, an action photographer laid up with a broken leg, in a cast up to his waist, confined to a wheelchair in which he sleeps rather than struggle to transfer himself to his bed. Jeff is stuck in his tiny apartment and his only amusement is watching the world go by out of his window. His window is the rear window of his apartment, opening onto a Greenwich Village courtyard consisting of the rear windows of all the surrounding residents. His view is all their rear windows, separate, silent soap operas taking place on a daily basis. Voyeurism is less a subtext in this film than an aggressor grabbing your collar and shouting in your face.

The thriller is a murder. Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), the cosmetics salesman living opposite, is married to a bed-ridden wife who he takes care of single-handedly. She’s not so bed-ridden that she can’t get out of bed and taunt him over a meal on a tray she doesn’t like. One night he kills her, dismembers her body and sets things up to look as if she has gone for a holiday upstate. No-one sees this happen, it’s Jeff’s surmise as the voyeur watching ghoulishly, and his theoiry is based on odd behaviour by Thorwald.

But then again, everybody he’s watching is behaving oddly. There’s ‘Miss Torso’, the beautiful, pneumatic blonde, forever practicing ballet routines or having handsome men in to drinks in droves. There’s ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’, a desperate spinster serving up romantic candle-lit dinners for two and prettending to have a suitor. There’s the top-floor couple sleeping on the fire escape in the 90 degree plus heat, letting their little dog down three floors in a little basket. There’s the newly-weds behind their drawn shades, opened only for a few seconds so that an increasingly drawn him can stare out the window before she’s calling him again. There’s the songwriter, endlessly composing at the piano, and is and everybody’s sound floating across the courtyard in a haze of jazz that screams early Fifties.

And let’s not forget Jeff Jeffries, permanently peeking out of his rear window and, demonstrating that he’s every bit as off-centre as everyone else because he’s trying to get out of his relationship with socialite Lisa Fremont, who loves him as whole-heartedly as any woman has loved anyone in film, and since she is being played by Grace Kelly, as her most gorgeous, and most elegant, he’s clearly nuts.

So no-one on this elaborate set – no matter how well-detailed its construction, and in particular how naturalistically it is lighted, this is at first glance obviously a set, maintaining an underlying atmosphere of artificilality from start to finish – is well-balanced. It’s Jeff’s old war buddy, Detective Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey), who comes from outside this enclosed madhouse of urban living, who stays sane and points out no murder has actually.

But Doyle’s wrong. We know he’s wrong, because he’s not the star, Jimmy Stewart’s the star, and he convinces Grace Kelly, not at first but in a second’s flash when she used her own intelligence (to be belittled as feminine intuition but it’s her own previously disparaged smarts that does it) to realise that Jeff’s paranoid little fantasy is not a fantasy at all. We know he’s right though we only see silent windows in the middle of the screen, like television sets through a neighbour’s window, because if there is no murder there is no story.

Jeff’s a voyeur and so are we. We see what he sees, we come to the same conclusions. Hitchcock manoeuvres us along the inevitable path towards revelation. The film can’t be completely static so we’re brought direcly into peril twice, albeit once at the same observational distance. Lisa breaks into Thorwald’s apartment to look for evidence but is caught and threatened, wih the same fate as his wife. For the first real time, Jeff is drawn into the scene he’s watching, along with us, helpless and hopeless, reliant on her alone to save herself – once the Police he’s called show up.

(At the same time, Jeff and his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), his other supporter, see Miss Lonelyheart preparing to commit suicide: in a shockingly callous but realistic manner, they abandon her to her fate – saved by the songwriter’s music fascinating her: Hitchcock’s not that brutal.)

Then, as Thorwald realises he has been observed all along, Jeff is attacked in his own apartment, a helpless man faced with a big, heavy would-be killer that could overwhelm him physically even in perfect health. his one momen of direct action actually lets he film down, except for setting up the amused smile ending: Jeff asleep in his chair wih two broken legs, Lisa lying on the bed, reading. We infer he’s accepted her as able to share the adventurous life he is determined to maintain from the Himalyan book she’s holding, but Lisa is still her own woman, dropping it to read the latest Harper’s Bazaar…

What I enjoyed most about the film – and indeed I enjoyed it – was not the story, no matter how absorbed I was in it, but rather Grace Kelly. Not for her looks, gorgeous though she was, bu instead her portrayal of Lisa in the film’s opening half hour, before she suddenly comes to Jeff’s conclusion. In that half hour she’s just a woman in love with a man, trying to convince him that they should be together, that their many differences in background, upbringing, class and experiences are not insuperable barriers. She’s doing all this on the surface, hampered by an era and a class that values coolness and detachment above all. She’s having to make it an intellectual argument instead of one of passion – even later, when she plans to stay the night with him – without resorting to the passion she feels. Kelly shows us all this without once once ruffling that Hitchcockian-blonde surface. Broken leg or no broken leg, I’d have snatched her up in a second. When she comes round to his theory, she’s much less interesting, because then all she has to be is surface: strong, self-sufficient, wholly admirable, but without the same depth.

I’m trying to remember if I have ever watched Grace Kelly in a film all the way through before and I don’t think I have. If she was this good in everything she did, someone should have shot Prince Rainier before he took one step outside Monaco.

Film 2023: Whisper of the Heart


Whisper

Little did I expect, when I began to watch the 1995 Studio Ghibli aime, Whisper of the Heart, that the first thing I would hear would be a female Japanese Choir singing ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’, hardly a favourite song of mine. Still less did I expect that performance to segue into Olivia Newton-John’s British hit performance of the song, nor that it was going to be a signal theme in what was to follow. It was hardly auspicious on a personal level, yet the film was a delight throughout, and a very welcome corrective to the flat and dull mood with which I had woken, carrying on from New Year’s Eve.

Whisper of the Heart intrigued me for a very long time. It’s original name translates as ‘If You Listen Closely’, and the title it is known by in the west is no translation. The Japanese title is more apt, but perhaps too subtle. The cover led me to expect something shot through with the fantastic that is Studio Ghibli’s hallmark, but with the exception of a few flashes, adding up to two or three minutes in the film’s last half hour, it’s wholly naturalistic and realistic.

Though the film was scripted and storyboarded by Hayao Miyazaki, from the manga created by Aoi Hiiragi, it was directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, seen by the Studio as Miyazaki’s successor. On this evidence he would have been a fine successor but sadly this was his only film as Director before the tragedy of his death three years later aged only 48.

I said that the film ‘intrigued me for a long time’. By that I don’t mean that it fell apart, faded, or betrayed its early standards, not in any way, but rather that, for a very long time I was unable to tell what the story was, or even if there was a story at all. In terms of a plot, there isn’t. If you wanted to give the completely wrong impression of what’s going on, you could describe it as a romcom, but it’s in no way as limited as that. It’s about two young people, Shizuku Tsukishima (voiced by Britney Snow) and Seiji Amasawa (David Gallagher) and their relationship. The pair are fourteen-year-olds – I’d have guessed rather at twelve in Shuzuku’s case – in their last year at Junior High School.

We see the film through Shizuku’s eyes, her cramped family apartment, her librarian father (voiced by James B Sikking, another Hill Street Blues stalwart), her mature student mother, her older college student sister, her best friend Yuko Harada (Ashley Tisdale), her class at school. Shizuku is obsessed with books, constantly reading. Yuko is at that awkward age when she’s beginning to become aware of boys, in that adolescent atmosphere of absorption, embarrassment and awkwardness. Shizuku isn’t quite at that point yet, having sublimated so much of her life into reading, and is actually unaware that some boys are becoming aware of her.

There’s nothing particularly original about the little world Miyazaki and Kondo build up. There’s a boy who seems to have read all the library books Shizuku borrows before her, and we expect him to be the stranger boy who acts like a jerk around her once or twice, and he is. We expect Shizuku’s attitude towards him to soften as he starts to behave more seriously towards her – not in any romantic sense but in terms of genuine conversation. The signs that the pair are developing a quite serious crush on each other are plain to see.

What makes the fuilm so enjoyable is the clear and open way in which this is presented as something fresh and new, which of course it is for Shizuku and Seiji, and for each one of us, once upon a time. The animation is naturalistic, the city looks like a very good place to live – the film is set in west Tokyo, Tama city, in the area of Seiseki-Sakuragaoka station – though probably a lot cleaner than the original. That the background is taken from a real, concrete district, gives the film a solidity that’s enhanced by the constant passing of men, women, cars, bikes etc., going about their lives with the same realness as the two teenagers.

I keep calling the film realistic and it is, yet it manages to incorporate a little flash of magic, as Shizuku would see it, and in this film who would gainsay her? An odd, plump, sleepy-eyed cat, yellow-brown but for one almost purple ear, jumps on the trsain, sirs next to her and ignores her completely. When it leaves at her station, she follows it, higher and higher, into a lovely looking, almost idyllic residential distruct (I usually want to move into most of Ghibli’s landscapes to live, but I’d take this district to heart any day). All the time, the cat, who is named Moon or Mutu depending on which familiy’s food it’s eating, leads Shizuku to an Antiques Shop run by Shiro Nishi (Harold Gould), who greets her as if she were his own granddaughter. Shizuku becomes fascinated by a statue of a cat, dressed in a Victorian suit, with emerald eyes.

When she visits again, she finds Seiki there. Their friendship stumbles past awkwardness as he relates the story of the Baron, as the cat is called, and that he is part of a matching pair with a missing Baroness named Louise. Shizuku leaerns that Seiji wants to become a professional violin-player. This brings us back to ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’. Shizuku is re-writing its words for herself and her girl friends to perform, adapting the lyrics to apply them to where they live, West Tokyo instead of West Virginia. Seiji will only play his violin if she will sing – ‘Take Me Home, Concrete Roads’ naturally – and in a moment of magic, Shiro and his two music playing friends return and enhance the background music.

But that’s what gives the film it’s notional story. If Seiji is to realise his ambition, he must study in Cremona, Italy. He is fighting for his chance against his parents’ reservations and wins a two-month trial that will take him away from Tokyo, and Shizuku, who is only noew beginning to realise that she doesn’t want him to go so far away from her that she’ll never see him. Ah, young love.

The film’s one true oddity is that whereas girls commonly mature faster emotionally than boys in their mid-teens, for which see Gregory’s Girl, but here it is Seiji who is further ahead than Shizuku. She suffers from feelings of worthlessness, of not being good enough for him, because he has this firm ambition that he’s struggling towards and she has no idea what she wants to do – or can do – with her life.

But she can write. So Shizuku commits herself to writing a story and completing it by the time Seiji returns for graduation. She plans a fantasy for the Baron and his missing love, and seeks Shiro’s permission, given happily but on condition that he be first to read the story. It becomes Shizuku’s obsession, warping her life, her relationships with her family (who prove to be unrealistically compliant with what she wants to do but then it’s part of the film that nothing truly bad will happen) and her important schoolwork. But at last she finishes, and gives the story to Shiro to read. By then, she thinks it stinks, but he not only assures her that it is the expected first draft, rough and needing polish, but with gems in it. And he tells her the true story of the Baron and Louise, which is his own love story with a German woman from whom he was separated by the War.

Shizuku’s experience has been cathartic. She still wants to be a writer, as she should, but she is better balanced about the other things she needs to give time to, in order to be a writer. Seiji returns, a day early. He’s been validated as having promise, but like Shizuku, he’s going to go on to High School, and back to Cremona then. By that time, she will be going with him. There’s a bit too obvious an analogy over riding a bicycle up a steep hill, but it must be abundantly clear by now that there is nothing new in this film, it’s how everything has been put together, how a child’s eye vision of the world as a happy place to be, and love as something pure and clean, that makes Whisper of the Heart so enjoyable an experience. By the time I finished watching it, I was free of the malaise that extended from last year to this.

Story or picture? A bit of both. Nothing really changes but everything does. Skizuku comes of age in her heart. She’s who she was when the film began, just more so, and with a cleaer idea of what she still needs to grow up. At the very end, she allows Seiji to hold her hand, and even hug her, through his thick coat. He’s already ranging ahead to the idea of being married in the future. She’s contented with the thought. A live action sequel, set ten years later, was released in Japan just three months ago, in which Shizuku has given up her ambition to be a novelist, Seiji is pursuing his career and they are drifting apart. It’s been given two stars out of five. As far as I’m concerned, it has never happened. This pair should not be translated out of anime: you can see immediately why this down-to-earth story could not have survived in ‘real’ life.

Film 2022: It’s A Wonderful Life


It's_a_Wonderful_Life_(1946_poster)

For the first time since I started watching a film on Sunday mornings, a Film season has fallen upon Xmas Day. What better film, what other film could I choose to begin the day?

It’s a Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra, starring James Stewart as George Bailey, Donna Reed as Mary Hatch Bailey, Lionel Barrymore as Henry Potter and Henry Travers as Clarence, the Angel (Second Class), is a classic that, like many other classic films, was not well-regarded or particularly successful when it was first released. The critical side of me, which is getting its sole run-out here, wonders if this theme is a function of nostalgia, a looking back on what was and that we perceive as having been better infesting the films of the time with a rtrospective glory their contemporaries dismissed? Right, that’s it. I chose this film so I could wallow, and wallow I shall do.

We all know the story by now. It’s cliched and it’s predictable and the bits with the angels talking in the heavens is just plain silly, and it’s stuffed full of more sentimentalism than an entire warehuse full of Paxo, but we don’t care. Because it’s played throughout with the one thing that a film of this nature muat have, and that is complete, heart-deep sincerity. It’s played with belief, and for 130 minutes we all believe, and can pretend that the world really is like that, because inside us we know that we as human beings can be extraordinarily wonderful, and that we don’t always have to try to be, and this is us being and doing just that.

But let me remimd you of the story. Stewart plays George ailey, a talented, passionate young man with a gift and an ambition. George was born, and has always lived in Bedford Falls, a sleepy, no-horse American midwestern town, a long way from everywhere else. It’s quiet, it’s homely, it’s limited, it lacks any purpose but to just exist. It’s classically American and you can tell at a glance that ditchwater is fascinating next to it. George thinks so. George wants out, and George is going to get out. He’s going to see the world, all the great and glorious things in it that Nature and Man have made and he’s going to shake that world by designing and building bigger and better things to improve it for everyone. He’s got the ambition, he’s got the talent, he’s going t o be great.

But of course he’s not. Bedford Falls is dominated by its leading citizen, the crippled Henry Potter. Potter owns everything, runs everything. He’s confined to a wheelchair, sour, offensive, dictatorial, but by god he is master of all he surveys and he always will be. It would be another decade before the analogy came into being but Potter has an Asterix’s village holding out againat him, the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan, dealing with the poor, the ordinary, the working stiffs, the cattle that Potter despises beause they are so easy to own and control. They are the thorn in his side, the one thing he can neither run nor ruin.

Barrymore is superb. Without once exaggerating, he is the embodiment of evil, an indictment of capitalism. His determination to rule everything, without any benefit or pleasure, is Hannah Ahrendt’s banality of evil turned out upon the streets of America’s heart and heartland. He radiates the desire to rend, tear down and destroy everything within his grasp for no reason an ordinary human could understand.

Bailey Bros. is George’s Dad and his silly, forgetful, easily distracted Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell). The film starts at its end, with George in despair, suicidal despair, a course from which Clarence (a basically bumbling character still awaiting his wings) is sent to save him. We don’t know why or what from, so the film builds up George’s life in jumps through time as, one after another, as if planned by a malignant devil, his every opportunity, his every shot at escape, at growing out and away, is torn out of his hands by crises. George Bailey is a man whose very life is spent where he desperately wants not to be, doing a job that is beneath his abilities, that he hates every day of his life. The banality of everyday life, surrounded by people who are in no way his equals, supported by a wife he loves but before whom he is secretly ashamed that he cannot give her the life of content, luxury and freedom he believes she deserves, is a prison for him, a hell-hole.

The film has been criticised, loudly, for emphasising that, for painting Bedford Falls, as some kind of paradise, for impliedly castigating George for ambition as if that was above his station. Which is true in one aspect. But each time George stays, forgoes his dreams and desires, he does so at his own choice. He gives himself up for others’ welfare, to serve his father’s confident and heartfelt dream. The prison walls around George are built with his own sense of responsibility, and duty.

By now we’ve seen enough to understand that though George has happiness with Mary (Donna Reed didn’t want to play the part, thought it too bland, admitted she was wrong) and his four little kids, his life is built upon frustration and a despair that only needs oe thing, one unsurmountable obstacle to trigger it. And that thing occurs on Christmas Eve. Uncle Billy takes $8,000 to Potter’s Bank to deposit it. He takes the opportunity to taunt Potter over Harry Bailey, George’s younger brother, a War Hero who saved the lives of an entire troop convoy. In his excitement, he accidentally wraps the envelope of money up in Potter’s newspaper. When Potter finds it, he keeps it. It’s his golden opportunity to destroy George Bailey, the pipsqueak who stood up to him, for once and for all.

It’s the push that starts the spiral. George faces disaster. Ruin, prison, the loss of everything he’s worked for, the entire house of cards come falling down around his ears. His fall is swift but unstoppable. In his despair, the only course that seems viable is to die: his Life Insurance makes him worth more dead than alive.

So, from the start of the film we come to the start of the film. Clarence pre-empts George by jumping into the river himself, knowing that who and what George is means that he will not allow the wierd little guy to drown. And in a stroke of genius brought on by George’s inwardly-directed bitterness, Clarence gives him his wish, not to have been borm at all.

And suddenly the film turns into a horror story. Everything turns round. George gets to see what life would have been without him in it and it’s a neon-swirling, hateful and aggressive nightmare. Bedford Falls is Pottersville, and Potter’s spirit invests everything. It’s lively, progressive, active, awake, busy, but everything that is bright is coarse, appealing to human weakness: bars galore, lurid films, weekly fights, stripclubs. Oh yes, this is Pottersville. Everything George did has been wiped out, and everything is the worse for it.

George stumbles from point to point, unable to take it in, searching for some point of stability, some point of familarity, but nothing remains. It’s one in the eye for social spirit, oh yes, but the breaking point is naturally George’s own personal loss. The one unequivocally good thing in his life, his wife, his children. There are no children because there was no marriage because there was no George, and Mary is an old maid, tightly-wound, nervous, frightened of everything around her. Donna Reed was a beautiful woman, and her part in this film, as the girl who has loved George since she was a kid, the rock upon which his life is constructed, the pragmatic, practical one who achieved her ambition, to be with George, is handled beautifully, but in the few seconds in which she plays her other self, Reed is astonishing, pulling herself into herself, a pitiable creature and, the master touch, we still see behind that shrinking frame, those big round glasses, enough of the beautiful woman Mary Hatch couldd have beeb, if only…

And so George recants despair and his real life is turned back on, and everything comes back to him, including the resposibility that has driven him all his life, and with it the great big drowning in sentimentality ending as everyone who has known George, whose life has been touched by him, that we can now see for the better, chips in, money galore, more than $8,000, more than he needs. A Tolkienian eucatastrophe of stunning proprtions that we can’t quite believe in in the real world, even though we know we can do it and simply don’t, but which sweeps us away, emotion overriding everything, which is as it should be on Xmas Day.

The film was a flop and now it’s a classic, thanks to a clerical error. In 1974, when the film’s copyright was up for renewal under the system then in use in America, something went wrong and the copyright lapsed. Television networks realised that like all public domain products, they could screen it without having to pay any licence fees. They started showing it at Xmas. The rest is history.

I’ve seen this film many many times, on TV, at Xmas, with a blazing gas fire filling the room with heat. I can’t remember when I saw it first, it’s just part of the blurred memory of Sunday afternoon and Xmas-time black and white films, watched for comfort or watched because there’s nothing else to do, or just what the hell? Today, it’s begun Xmas Day, preceding all the other aspects of the day and I feel contented. But you’ll have to excuse me now, I’ve a pile of presents to open…

Film 2022: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown


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There is an old joke that Terry Pratchett adapted in one of the early Discworld books, describing a character as the sort of person who, each morning, throws all his clothes at the wall then wears the ones that don’t stick. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is the obverse of that, giving the impression that Director and writer Pedro Almodovar, in the film that first brought him to world-wide attention, has thrown all his plots at the wall and chosen the ones that did stick.

At the centre of the film is Pepa Marcos (Carmen Maura, who is brilliant), a television voiceover artist in her early forties and still attractive in an appealing, lived-in sense. Pepa has been living with fellow voice actor Ivan (Fernando Guillen), who’s over a decade older than her and superficially distinguished until just before the film starts, when he has left her. He’s also left her pregnant, which Almodovar doesn’t reveal until the closing moments, but any viewer who hasn’t realised that within the first five minutes should stick to Huckleberry Hound cartoons.

So naturally the highly-strung Pepa has something to be highly-strung from. She needs to let Ivan know. She wants him back, though the film inexorably, without ever once emphasising the point, establishes that the crucial question is What On Earth For? He’s already planning to fly off on holiday to Stockholm with the aggressive feminist lawyer Paulina Morales (Kiti Manver), he’s doing everything in his power to avoid Pepa, in short he’s a shit, though a shit of the kind women are prepared to fall for, and in real life not just films, sadly.

What Pepa wants is to deal, one way or another, with the non-breaking-up of her relationship. Almodovar has other ideas, even if it takes him about half an hour of the film where this theme is followed and other elements are merely introduced without explication. There’s Candela (Maria Barranco), her friend. There’s Lucia (Julieta Sarrano), Ivan’s ex-wife. There’s Carlos (Antonio Banderas), his son, and Marisa (Rossy de Palma), Carlos’ fiancee, who will lose her virginity during the film but only in her dreams.

Obviously, what we’re building up to is a farce. Not a classic, Feydeau-esque French farces as the sexual element is displaced, but the same tangle of people with concerns and motives, thrust together in a stage setting, alternately co-operating and being at cross-purposes, with chaotic outcomes that are cleverly controlled and dovetail. The film really gets going once everyone cpmes together in Pepa’s penthouse apartment, where she’s already set the bed on fire (don’t touch her, she’s a real livewire) and ripped the phone out and thrown it through the window onto her terrace of birds and plants.

Enter Candela, tall, skinny, model, dumb, panicky, full of her own woes (she’s unknowingly harboured three Shiite terrorists intent on hijacking the Stockholm flight because their leader was shagguing her continually and is now afraid of being picked up by the Police as an accomplice). Enter Carlos and Marisa, viewing the flat with intent to rent (Pepa has only just discovered that Ivan has an adult son, screwed up by his absent father and mentally-disturbed mother, whilst the virgin Marisa is turning her nose up at everyone and everything. Marisa will drink a gazpacho that’s been liberally laced with sleeping pills and spend most of the film with her long legs stretched out, having orgasms in her sleep, whilst Carlos will spend several chunks of it kissing Candela without too much resistance. Enter Lucia, coincidentally arriving with the Police, out to persuade Pepa not to fly off with Ivan, whilst Pepa believes he’s going off with Lucia, except he’s going off with Paulina, who was Lucia’s lawyet who got her out of the mental institution where she was incarcerated for nearly all Carlos’s life, when it’s actually Paulina… You see what I mean?

The final twist, or final significant twist, is that Lucia is not and never was cured, she faked it to get out, because the only way she’ll really recover her sanity is to find Ivan and kill him…

What Almodovar does that is really clever is to pick the perfect point to end the film, which is Pepa’s acknowledgement of her pregnancy to the one person who wakes up at the end, namely Marisa. On any kind of serious footing, he has created one mother of a mess, the sorting out of which, and especially the working out of which without painful consequences, is going to take forever, and simply dismiss it. Pouf! It’s gone. Leave it till tomorrow and forget about it. Because this film might dabble in serious situations but it doesn’t intend to take them seriously. It is highly coloured, artificially so in its early scenes. It might have been made in 1988 but there’s nothing about it except the absence of mobile phones that would suggest it wasn’t made today. Almodovar made it for entertainment, a life-enhanced farce, for fun, and fun does not include sweeping up the broken glass afterwards.

And yes, as I thought, I had seen the film before, or at least a large part of it, and if my memory is serving me correctly, it was at my mother’s, though why my mother would have had on a Spanish language, sub-titled film in the first place is a mystery that the ages will now guard jealously. My attitude to the box-set of films I watched earlier in the year was rather mixed, but this one I enjoyed whole-heartedly, and I’d happily look at any other film Carmen Maura was in, in high expectation.

Uncollected Thoughts: The Amazing Maurice


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Already I can’t remember if it was Tuesday or Wednesday when I first discovered that Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents had been adapted as a film via the magic of CGI animation. And here I am, two or three days later, days full of eagerness and anticipation because I have a feeling that that this one might well be good, recovering from the frost outside in Screen 11 of The Light cinema in Stockport, ready.

This is only the third film I have seen all year, which makes this only the third film I have seen since the pandemic first struck, and the first non-superhero film I have seen in god knows how long. It’s also my first time in Screen 11, which turns out to be a mini0-cinema in a side room on the ground floor, five rows of seats only: C6 is halfway from side to side and top to bottom.

It’s the only performance of the day, one for the kids, at 11.10am, and it’s not sold out. In fact I am the last of four tickets sold. The timing takes me back, pleasantly, to December 1966, and my Grannie and Grandad taking me to see the Thunderbirds film at the old and big Odeon in Manchester. Long, long ago.

The 11.10 am kick-off is for the ‘ptogramme’, which means adverts and trailers first, all of which I watch with a stony face. The adverts go on for hours (or seven minutes if I believe my watch) and are almost exclusively for video games (do we still call them video games?), though I cannot help an ironic smile that the last advery is for Neurofen headache tablets. The trailers take even longer and there isn’t a human film among them. It’s not just a flaw in my character which means I only go to watch superhero films.

Just as the Certificate comes up, the last pair take their seats and, glory be, one is a child. Who immediately starts wingeing lodlky about having to sit in the second row when he wanted to ‘go on top’. For the first time in a long life, I was minded to go over there and mahke the calm but firm point that I hadn’t paid to be here, at this hour of the day, to listen to him moan incessantly, but he shut up of his own accord and I did not need to break character (didn’t stop his keep getting up and scrabbling for things in his bag which, for some unaccountable reason, he had placed on the seat three to his right instead of next to him).

The film. At the end, coming out, I couldn’t contain myself. The cleaner had come in to tidy up and I had to tell someone: ‘I don’t care what anyone else says,’ I told him, ‘but out of all the adaptations of Terry Pratchett I’ve seen, this is the first one I’ve seen where they got it.’ The other bloke, who can’t have been more than a decade younger than me, agreed whole-heartedly. The makers of this film got it and how. I giggled all the way through, except for the seriously serious bits, which were beautifuly serious. They got the atmosphere, the charm, the slightly manic off-centre style. The voices were uniformly excellent, the story kept up a constant pace without ever skimping on scenes and there were wonderful visual details everywhere. You had to be aware of the entire screen because if you concentrated on what was going on up front there was so much background stuff you’d miss.

And I don’t just mean Easter Eggs although there was one absolutely gorgeous one in the coda for us true Discworld aficianados.

One thing about which I was slightly dubious at the start was the film building up the part of the Mayor’s daughter, Malicia Grimm, the hyperactive girl intent on forcing life into Story with a capital S. As well as her role in the story, Malicia also appeared as the narrator, lending a touch of metafiction to the whole thing, but enabling background information to be brought out without awkwardness. It took the film across Neil Gaiman terriroty by making the story about Story, but that’s far from inappropriate, and though it felt at first a bit too much like cleverness for cleverness’s sake, it went on to work briliantly. Between Emilia Clarke’s sparky voice and Malicia’s appearance as a very skinny but incredibly cute redhead, I loved it.

Clarke was not the only prominent name voice actor. Hugh Laurie played Maurice himself, and David Tennant was Dangerous Beans, the rat mystic, whilst David Thewlis was his customary impeccable self as the villain, but the best thing was that, with the exception of Thewlis, their voices submerged into their characters. Laurie was Maurice, not Laurie, and Tennant the rat not Tennant and the film so much the better for it. Even with Thewliss, he was so right as the bad guy that your consciousness of hearing the actor never detracted from his performance.

So time just flew. I was never once conscious of wondering hos much there was to go, indeed I would have welcomed another half hour of that without any qualms, but that was being greedy. Part of the film’s strength was keeping it tight. Either way, it’s a gem, the most fun I’ve had in a cinema in years. God knows what the kids will think of it – I didn’t hear the kid laugh once though on his way out he was telling his Gran it was a great film – but Terry Pratchett fans should be flocking to it in the now semi-legendaery droves. I don’t rule out going to see it again next week…

Film 2022: A Few Good Men


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I said I wanted a great film to watch: A Few Good Men is a great film.

I’m surprised at myself for only acquiring the DVD of this film this past summer, but perhaps the personal connotations it has for me have held me back. I first watched it, we first watched it one Friday night back in the early Nineties when my then long-term girlfriend had come round for the evening and I hired it from the local newsagents, and we were enthralled by it. We watched it together at least once more and then, on a night in 1997, when things were falling apart between us, I came home from work, spotted it was on ITV at 9.00pm and phoned her to let her know. We talked. We didn’t quite quarrel. She was advising me about something I thought she knew nothing about (though eventually she turned out to be completely right) and I was trying to sound as if I was listening without disagreeing with her when suddenly she said, “Alright, I’ll watch A Few Good Men,” and slammed the phone down on me. It was far from the first altercation we’d had and usually I would move heaven and earth to set things right, and always did. This time I chose to accept it. Let her make the first move, if there was going to be one, and so it ended. I can’t think of the film without remembering that night.

But I can watch it completely oblivious to any outside considerations for its two hour length. I can marvel at the strength of the scripting, the intricacy of the dialogue and the amazing level of the acting throughout. This is Tom Cruise’s film, he is the star, and I am not a Tom Cruise fan but he is brilliant in the part of Jr. Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee of the Navy Judge Advocate General legal corps, assigned to defend two Marines accused to murder at Guantanamo Bay. Demi Moore plays his co-Counsel, Lt. Commander Joanna Galloway of the Internal Affairs Division: we both agreed that the standards of everyone in the film were so high that even she caught acting.

But the film belongs to Jack Nicholson as Colonel Nathan Jessup, Commanding Officer Guantanamo Bay. He’s billed a second lead. In terms of screentime he falls way short of Cruise and Moore, but when he’s on screen you know it. You cannot take your eyes off him. There is not one atom or one second in which Nicholson isn’t a veteran Army Colonel, charged with the command of men in securing the safety of his Nation. He is the sum of all his experience, his understanding of the tricky situation in which he lives every second, his sense of duty and responsibility and his determination to do the job he is in place to do for the benefit of the millions who do not understand who he is, what he is, why he is and that he has to be each and every one of these things, and a tyrant to boot, because that it what the performance of his job demands of him. Every second of ever day.

In short, he’s an out-and-out bastard of a kind we would instinctively loathe, in part because he makes us afraid. Of what he is, what he does, what he faces. The film, and the script and Nicholson all make Jessup a monster but they also show us every facet of the man. A monster, but a necessary monster.

The script was written by Aaron Sorkin, he who would shortly produce The West Wing, from his 1989 play. Sorkin sees things from all angles. The film mixes the genres of courtroom trial and coming-of-age in a way that is nothing original, in fact the two are often natural companions. The two Marines, Lance Corporal Harold Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison, immense in his role as a man committed to his Corps, to its loyalty and honour, strange to us in many ways but understandable and oddly heartening in this performance) and Private Louden Downey (James Marshall, fresh from Twin Peaks, a slow-thinker fitted perfectly to the role of ordinary soldier and carrier out of orders) tackle Private William Santiago, assaulting him in his room, gagging him and binding him with masking tape. This is a ‘Code Red’, and internal, unofficial disciplinary action ampong the men themselves, focussed on an individual who is letting the Corps down. Santiago, who is a weak marine, has gone outside the chain of command, writing to Internal Affairs to ‘snitch’ on a fellow M

The script was written by Aaron Sorkin, he who would shortly produce The West Wing, from his 1989 play. Sorkin sees things from all angles. The film mixes the genres of courtroom trial and coming-of-age in a way that is nothing original, in fact the two are often natural companions. The two Marines, Lance Corporal Harold Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison, immense in his role as a man committed to his Corps, to its loyalty and honour, strange to us in many ways but understandable and oddly heartening in this performance) and Private Louden Downey (James Marshall, fresh from Twin Peaks, a slow-thinker fitted perfectly to the role of ordinary soldier and carrier out of orders) tackle Private William Santiago, assaulting him in his room, gagging him and binding him with masking tape. This is a ‘Code Red’, and internal, unofficial disciplinary action ampong the men themselves, focussed on an individual who is letting the Corps down. Santiago, who is a weak marine, has gone outside the chain of command, writing to Internal Affairs to ‘snitch’ on a fellow Marine – Dawson as it happens – to secure a transfer. Santiago dies.

We flashback to a discussion between Jessup, his Executive Officer Lt. Colonel Matthew Markinson (J T Walsh) and Santiago’s Platoon Commander Lt. Jonathan Kendrick (a pre-24 Keifer Sutherland). Markinson recommends transfer, Jessup refuses it. Santiago is to stay, and be trained up to scratch. Later, Jessup will tell a different story, agreeing an immediate transfer for Santiago’s safety but, tragically, the first flight out was not until 6.00am, by which time Santiago had been dead for nearly five hours.

Joanne – ‘Jo’ – Galloway wants to handle the case herself. She’s earnest, she’s competent, she thinks there’s more to it than the simple, open-and-shut story on record. She’s denied that request, in erms, behind her back, that acknowledge that his is messy and could look bad. So the case is tossed to Jr. Lieutenant Kaffee, a year out of Law School, nine months in the JAG. Kaffee’s a whizz of a lawyer, fast, fast-talking, a specialist in plea-bargaining. He’ll get them a decent sentence, twelve years in Leavenworth insyead of twenty, natch. Hardly a committed lawyer, you may think. Kaffee’s pragmatic. He’s a wheeler-dealer. Why risk fighting and losing when you can moderate the sentence? When Jo accuses him of being a used car salesmen it’s an awfully cliched line but a Marine’s dress uniform white gloves don’t fit any snugger.

Because this is the other half of our story. Because Kaffee may be fast, and fast-thinking as well as fast-talking, but he’s an arrogant, self-centred, superior, idle bastard. His Dad was a great Trial Lawyer, one of the best. But Dan, Danny, is idling his service away. He’s smarter than everyone else around him, he prefers playing softball to working, he has very little sense of duty and none of commitment, he is an asshole and we’re going to watch him grow up.

And we do. He never stops being an arrogant bastard, that is one very truthful bit of writing there, and right until the end we don’t feel that Kaffee is fighting for his clients but rather to come out on top over Jessup who, monster that he is, in a hundred times the figure Danny will ever be. He isn’t even fighting for the truth, or Justice. All he cares about is getting Jessup.

The story turns on this ‘Code Red’. We will learn a lot about it: that it is purely unofficial. That it has been banned by high authority. That it is essential to building the kind of corpsmanship that binds soldiers together, that builds trust, the kind of trust essential to placing your life in your comrade’s hands. The Marines case is that Dawson and Downey along with all the other platoon members, were ordered not to touch Santiago. Their case is that they were separately ordered by Kendrick to carry it out. Kaffee’s case is that Kendrick was ordered to give that order by Jessup. The key to the climax is Kaffee’s understanding that Jessup not only did issue that order but that he considers it right and proper and would do so again and again. All he has to do, and what he does, is to get Jessup to say that in Court. Because he wants to.

And so it works out. Like I said, there’s not much original or innovative about this film. It’s old-fashioned in many ways, especially in being about people, especially in tackling the military mind and its innate culture, presenting that as simultaneously horrific and inhuman and equally honourable in a way we’d prefer not to have but which is inevitable. The only overt comments upon this come at the end: Dawson and Downey are found not guilty of Murder and Conspiracy but guilty of Conduct Unbecoming: they are to be dishonourably discharged. Downey cannot understand: all he did was follow Orders, Orders that he could not disobey. But Dawson realises where their Honour was lost. They were supposed to protect those weaker than themselves. They were supposed to protect Willie. That Kaffee acknowledges him, tells him that Honour does not requie a patch on the arm, earns Dawson’s respect. We understand he will survive, where Downey will suffer all his life.

A couple of additional comments. Though Danny and Jo slowly begin to learn respect for one another, as required by the arc, the film avoids all but the merest suggestion of a romance between them. Moore not only catches acting, and in a big way, she also dresses against her image as a screen beauty, with a practical and militarily suitable but unflattering hair-style throughout, not even let down during their one off-duty dinner.

And the film’s only weak(ish) spot is the hinge-point of the coming-of-age story. You know it’s got to happen, I know it’s got to happen, the world world and it’s daughter knows there must be a scene where the jerk grows up, takes things seriously, starts to fight. It’s the one one thousand percent inescapable cliche and nobody has ever come up woith an alternative or an individual approach to it. This one’s been used a hundred times before but Sorkin rushes past it with almost indecent haste, hoping we won’t notice. It’s the old I-was-chosen-to-lose-this ploy with the mould scraped off it yet again: Cruise practically incarnates it in the first two-thirds of the film but, to quote myself many many years ago in another sphere, there are many things that are foolish and fallow but which are given weight by their context.

Yes, a great film. I must have another, or at least a potential another, next weekend: the Xmas Day slot is already booked and you may be able to guess the film already.

Film 2022: Tony Takitani


Tony

I can’t say that this film wasn’t what I expected, because I had no idea what to expect, save that this was presumed to be another anime, an assumption reasonable from its sale on eBay as one of five anime films, two of which I definitely wanted. It’s not anime, it’s live action, though the term ‘live action’ is in itself a misnomer, as I shall shortly explain.

This film, made in 2004, is highly regarded. It’s the first Japanese film I’ve seen outside anime, and it is sub-titled rather than dubbed, which is apprpriate for what it is. The film is based upon Haruki Murakami’s short story of the same name, itself taken from the writer seeing the name ‘Tony Takitani’ on a t-shirt. This Tony Takatani was running for political office but the combination of American and Japanese names inspired Murukami to write his life story as fiction. I am assuming that the story has no relation to the real-life Takatani.

Story is a bit of a misnomer here, as far as I’m concerned, as is film. Tony is born in the aftermath of the Pacific War and given an American name on the assumption of future American prominence in Japan. His mother dies when he is three days old, his father is a touring Jazz trombonist, Tony grows up isolated. He turns into a very skillful illustrator, specialising in technical, not human subjects. He meets Eiko, a client fifteen years his junior, and persaudes her to marry him. She is obsessed with buying beautiful clothes. When she tries to cure herself of this addiction, it ends up killing her. Tony is further distanced from the rest of humanity by this.

I mean, that’s about it. There’s some more after that, about his Dad dying and leaving him with a collection of valuable old Jazz records, and a short scene with a young woman he considers hiring as an assistant to wear his wife’s clothes as her office ‘uniform’, who reappears briefly in the film’s abrupt and pessimistic ending, but that’s about it. There’s room for a very good film to be made, even out of such a brief outline as I’ve provided, but the film is either far too subtle to do so or else it’s completely inept at the job, and I’m afraid I follow the second opinion.

Because this is not a film story to me. It began inauspiciously, with a montage of scenes from near the end, followed by a very slow shot of sand being shaped, filmed in a slightly grainy appearance and soundtracked with the kind of ethereal jazz that consists of one or two individual piano notes being played softly every five seconds or so, vaguely melodic but never adding up to a melody (Riyuchi Sakamoto, who else?) The impression it gave me prejudiced me against what I was about to watch, and the rest of the film made no effort to overturn that prejudice.

Because although there was occasional, elliptical dialogue from time to time, spoken very slowly, so slowly that the sub-titles rarely were longer than three words or else they’d get miles ahead of what was going on, the dialogue was unimportant. The film consisted of an offscreen narrator (Hidetoshi Nishijima) reading out the short story over the very slow-moving ‘acting’. Once in every scene, this would be varied by having the principal character in that scene read out the narration themselves, never more than two lines.

There was no attempt to animate the story into life, very little animation in the acting, and not much more in the camera. Issey Ogata played both Tony and his father. There is a very famous Dorothy Parker line about an actress whose performance ran the gamut of emotions from A to B, but Ogata had her beaten for the narrowness of his emotional range. If acting consists of sitting or standing still, with an expression that went way past inscrutable into immobile, then Ogata was a superb actor. Rie Miyazawa played both Eiko and Hisako, the girl who might have been employed to wear Eiko’s clothes. She was more life-like, and quite often smiled, to good effect, but it was clearly the director’s intention that her performance, like Ogata’s, should be flattened out as much as possible. As Hisako, she was required to burst into tears in the only long scene in the film, because Hisako had never seen so many beautiful clothes in one place before, and that was the closest the film got to emotionalism in its 76 minutes (thankfully including credits, the ‘story’ itself running out at more like 70, maximum).

The scenes were short, and there was very little movement in them. What there was was promarily the camera, scrolling slowly from left to right. With very few exceptions scene transitions were effected by the camera sliding right, through a ‘wall’ into a totally different setting, and continuing to move across screen. Movement from right to left was confined to background figures (the only significant leftwards motion was more implied than shown, Eiko turning in her car, causing her offscreen death) and if there was any particular dialogue to the scene, the camera would stop.

Between all these factors, deployed to not merely symbolise Tony Takitani’s isolation, before, after and to some extent during his marriage but smothering the entire film and giving us nothing human of the title character to latch onto, I found myself wondering what was the point of the film at all. Why had someone bothered to assemble so many people to write, act and film something whose sole intention was to separate the viewer from any sense of connection to anyone in it?

Such ‘stories’ are, as I have been known to observe, difficult to end. The final quarter hour of the film was about Tony reasserting his isolation by getting rid of everything that connected him to other people: Eiko’s clothes, his father’s records, all sorts of paper records burned on a garden fire, save for one thing snatched back from the flames. This turned out to be Hisako’s thumbnail photo and her telephone number. So we end on Hisako being held up in the street in conversation with a street cleaner whilst the phone in her home rings. It’s Tony, we know it’s Tony, calling with the false ending, the holding out of hope, except that to offer that would be as alien to the film’s whole purpose as Darth Vader turning up in the Rover’s Return, because before she can get to it, we cut to Tony and he puts the phone down.

That’s as close to an ending as the film has got, more of the same but not different, redemption waved like a teabag over a cup of boiling hot water, but all you get to drink is the water itself, unflavoured except by its local sources. It’s all the film can do, a surrogate stopping point, a corner surrounded by drying paint on bare floorboards.

I’m not having much luck with this season of films but then what was to be expected from impulse purchases driven by utter cheapness. I do have some guaranteed good ones to watch. I’d better select one of those next Sunday.