Friday, December 26, 2014
Monday, December 22, 2014
Friday, December 19, 2014
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Monday, December 15, 2014
It was eleven years ago this month that Peter Jackson wrapped up his first foray into Middle Earth with The Return of the King, and I can remember every detail of seeing that film with my family, on opening night in a packed and enthusiastic theatre, as though it were yesterday. The hallway at the Colorado Mills multiplex where we stood in line, and the enormity of the big, dual-purpose auditorium we all filtered into; if I went back there today, I could probably pinpoint the row in which we sat. I could tell you what the movie looked like to me as an eleven-year-old boy, the sheer enormity, grandeur, and grace of it – the way I felt, at the end of those three-and-a-half hours, that I had left my body behind and taken a life-changing journey to another world. I think I even remember the moment my father reluctantly left the theatre to use the restroom, defeated, for the first time over the course of the trilogy, by the film’s runtime.
Of course, every detail of every time I saw a Lord of the Rings film theatrically, on first viewing or on repeat, has stayed with me over the past decade. We don’t choose our favorite movies. It is not the sort of thing one has a say in picking, but an emotional reaction one feels in one’s bones, the sensation that, no matter how many movies one loves, this particular picture is the one that lives in one’s heart of hearts – the shining, internalized soul that fuels one’s love of cinema. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, collectively, is that soul for me. I have no say in the matter, and I haven’t ever since my life was changed by The Fellowship of the Ring thirteen years ago. The Two Towers only solidified things further, confirming that my love of Jackson’s Middle Earth was no fluke, and that the sheer, awesome power of cinema the director had introduced me to was not restricted to that first film. By the time that cinematic journey finished with The Return of the King, my own journey, as a film critic and scholar, was just about to begin; the impact of that final chapter was the ultimate push to send me off. There are no cinematic memories I treasure more than seeing The Lord of the Rings in theatres, and no films I hold closer to my heart than these, because my devotion to cinema is synonymous with their existence.
Eleven years later, Jackson’s second foray to Middle Earth concludes with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, and the film arrives in an extremely different landscape. The euphoric anticipation that met The Return of the King does not exist for The Hobbit films, for unlike The Lord of the Rings, they have not been groundbreaking or transcendent. The first film, An Unexpected Journey, was an inconsistent, overlong return to a Middle Earth filled with too much CGI and not enough plot; yet the film exceled where it counted most, delivering stupendous portrayals of every major character – Martin Freeman’s Bilbo in particular – and nailing the big moments – ‘Riddles in the Dark’ in particular – even as I found the lack of central focus troubling. The second film, The Desolation of Smaug, was a more confident and enjoyable feature in many ways, with better set-pieces and superior character work, though the film’s structure seemed even more haphazard than it did the first time around. All the while, I found myself unwilling to make any major judgment on the trilogy, as so many were both before and after the films started coming out. I wanted to see how Jackson would wrap things up, to discover whether or not the final chapter would satisfyingly pay off on the two films preceding it, before deciding whether or not this second trip to Middle Earth was ultimately worth the voyage. Suffice it to say, I doubt there are many people out there more invested in the idea of Peter Jackson recapturing that Lord of the Rings magic than I am.
And in The Battle of the Five Armies, Jackson has finally tapped back into it, one last time.
Continue reading after the jump...
Sunday, December 14, 2014
Saturday, December 13, 2014
Thursday, December 11, 2014
The real-life story of Cheryl Strayed and her 1,100 mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail is the sort of subject I could easily see being destined for simplistic Hollywood schlock. There are so many obvious avenues a studio could follow to wring all the humanity out of this tale, to exploit every ‘inspirational’ moment or personal triumph for maximum emotional manipulation, and to turn Cheryl and her story into a symbol or stereotype rather than a genuine human journey. Indeed, the most impressive thing about the film Jean-Marc Vallée and Reese Witherspoon have made is that it takes none of those easy paths. Wild is an insightful, deeply felt chronicle of a complex protagonist on a compelling, multifaceted journey, a modest and dignified film about overcoming grief, guilt, and other internal barriers. The film is emotionally rich, and absolutely inspirational, but it comes by these sensations honestly, only occasionally overplaying the story’s strong dramatic core, and always approaching the material with sensitivity and intelligence. As stories like Strayed’s go, I cannot imagine a more effective cinematic rendering than this.
Continue reading after the jump…
Tuesday, December 9, 2014
I’ve been working overtime these last few weeks, trying to see as many films as I can in preparation for my year-end Top 10 list, which you should expect to see here on the site on or around Friday, December 19th. There have been and will continue to be many reviews posting between now and then (and afterwards, even), but as a result of watching so much content, I’m not going to be able to give every film the full attention it deserves. Instead, as I did at the Denver Film Festival this year, I’m going to start posting articles with thoughts on batches of films, with 2 or 3 movies discussed per post. That gives me the chance to discuss a wider swath of content, without taking the time to write an individual review for everything (it’s a more taxing exercise than it looks).
I’m starting this effort off today with a combined look at two of the most interesting films of the year, which are also sort of tonal polar opposites: Bennett Miller’s chilly true-story drama Foxcatcher, and Damien Chazelle’s exhilarating indie favorite Whiplash.
Read my thoughts on both after the jump…
Thursday, December 4, 2014
Review: "The Tale of Princess Kaguya" is a challenging, euphoric achievement for Isao Takahata and Studio Ghibli
For many, Studio Ghibli is synonymous with the work of Hayao Miyazaki; given the amount of attention his work receives from critics and scholars – myself included – one might be forgiven for thinking he is the studio’s sole major figure. That is hardly the truth, though, for Isao Takahata, the studio’s co-founder and other prominent director, is just as significant an artist; if Miyazaki is my favorite director, as I have often said, Takahata is just a little ways’ further down the list, and only because of personal taste and preference. Takahata’s body of work is smaller, and less well-known outside of Japan, but when one looks at the four films he made with Ghibli in the late-1980s and 90s, it is simply staggering what a powerhouse series of singular masterworks he has to his name. 1988’s Grave of the Fireflies may well be Ghibli’s greatest film, an anti-war statement like no other, and one of the most impactful and uncompromising uses of animation in film history. 1991’s Only Yesterday (which has never been released in North America) is the kind of poignant, well-observed portrait of daily life and small-scale human issues Yasujiro Ozu himself would be wowed by, and one of the most profound films I have ever encountered. 1994’s Pom Poko is, artistically speaking, Takahata’s equivalent to Spirited Away, a positively overwhelming exercise in visual imagination with a beautifully delivered environmental message. And 1999’s My Neighbors the Yamadas saw Takahata, always an adventurous filmmaker, take his experimentation to new heights, illustrating the highs and lows of a quirky family with a boldly minimal watercolor aesthetic and an episodic, ‘anything goes’ approach to storytelling.
After that, though, Takahata disappeared for a long time; perhaps part of why he has remained obscure in the west while Miyazaki’s stature continued to grow is that, during the period in which Ghibli’s films became widely available around the world, Takahata produced nothing new. I feel his legacy would have been secure even had his feature career ended in 1999 – it may have required a scholarly push of re-discovery at some point, but those films are too great to be ignored – but after 14 years, he has finally returned with a new film, and it is the kind of work destined to ignite a newfound passion for Takahata’s filmmaking around the world.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Kaguya-hime no monogatari) – now playing in select cities throughout the United States (I am reviewing it from the Japanese Blu-Ray release, which arrived this week) – is a film of such astonishing ambition and artistic control that, after one viewing, my thoughts on it are, in all honesty, rather limited. My grasp on what Takahata has made here is far from full, and while I could try to blame that on various perceived shortcomings – at different times, I wondered if the film was too long or indulgent, too insular and restrained to leave an impact – I think the fault can only lie with me. This is not a film made to be digested in one viewing, and it builds to a final half-hour so enormously powerful and piercingly profound that I look forward to revisiting the rest of it, and seeing how my reading and reaction may evolve. The effect The Tale of Princess Kaguya had on me is not one I can yet quantify – all I know for sure is that it was immense.
Continue reading after the jump...
Tuesday, December 2, 2014
"Seeing With Eyes Unclouded: Representations of Creativity in the Works of Hayao Miyazaki" - my undergraduate thesis project is available online now!
You may remember that for a long stretch this year, between August and early November, I posted next to nothing here on the site, save for the podcast - and even that got interrupted periodically. While I have spoken about the reasons for my absence a little bit on the show, I have not written about it in text here, and today, I can not only explain to you where I was and what I was doing, but actually show you.
For the majority of the Fall, I was working on my undergraduate Honors Thesis at the University of Colorado at Boulder. This is the process by which the University designates Latin Honors for graduation, and gave me the opportunity to create something I have wanted to write for a very long time. Over the past year, and during the last few months in particular, I researched and wrote what is effectively a book-length study into three specific films by Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki, who many of you may know is my favorite film director. This study, focusing on the way creativity is represented and explored in three of his most fascinating films - Kiki's Delivery Service (1989), Whisper of the Heart (1995), and The Wind Rises (2013) - was a real passion project for me. It is called Seeing With Eyes Unclouded: Representations of Creativity in the Works of Hayao Miyazaki, and it is both the most challenging and rewarding project I have ever taken on; I also think it is the best thing I have ever written.
And now, you can read the entire thing, online and for free, at the CU Scholar portal, where it has just been published. You can visit the main splash page for details on the project and links to download, or follow this link for direct access to the PDF, which can be read online or downloaded and perused locally.
More details on this project, and how you can access and read it, after the jump...