Monday, July 31, 2006

Howl's Moving Castle

It started with Princess Mononoke and burst open with Spirited Away. Hayao Miyazaki's star has risen and continues to shine with his latest feature, Howl's Moving Castle. There's long been a cultish quality about Japanese animation, and lately there's been a huge crossover in appeal to young adults in the United States and abroad, both on screen (anime) and in print magazines and books (manga). Many credit Miyazaki's success to his ties with Disney, but that isn't necessarily so - these films stand on their merits and garner more critical acclaim than most Disney features of late. In my opinion, they're leagues apart.

This film offers a fantastical look inside a distant world (decidedly Victorian in appearance), but with its own analogues to our current time. From within Howl's moving castle, the young wizard's magical door can open on several concurrent realms - each with their own ties to an evil presence threatening to upset the whole system. In the middle, a young girl is played a pawn and is thus drawn into Howl's world as he tries to reverse the curse cast upon her and save all that is good in the world at the same time.

Dramatic, scenic, endlessly entertaining. I highly recommend interested parties view the film in its original Japanese, with English subtitles. While the characters and settings don't benefit much from the language (as the culture represented is more European), the English dub is distracting (if downright annoying) and more tame (some of the innuendo is lost in translation to English spoken dialogue, but remains in the subtitles).

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Dirty Harry

Clint Eastwood. Such an imposing figure. Tall, commanding, and mostly silent 'til that characteristic rasp whispers a threat. Westerns use sweeping landscapes to cast a larger than life uncertainty upon their subjects. Eastwood's films usually use this expanse to tackle morality and justice. Many times, the context of these westerns have analogues to our modern day struggles with morality and issues of law enforcement. So, it wasn't a stretch that Eastwood took on the role of Harry Callahan (although, I understand that Frank Sinatra was originally slated as the character!).

It's 1971. A raving lunatic is on a killing spree in San Francisco, taking on life each day until the mayor pays up. Harry takes to the case to tracking the killer and bringing him to justice. Well, kind of. Harry doesn't realize he's not in a western. There's no such thing as vigilante justice as a modern police inspector. But, who cares about Miranda rights? As Harry spits, "The law's crazy." You'd think so too after seeing it all through his eyes.

I'd forgotten how arresting this film is: smart, efficient directing that could only have been produced in the 70's. The acting is taut - some great supporting roles, and Andy Robinson is freakish as Scorpio, the manic maniac (makes Hannibal Lecter look like a kitty cat). The cinematography is gritty and predominantly POV, for maximum impact. It's got a great, albeit cliched by now, soundtrack. It's unfortunate that it became a franchise that spawned 4 sequels that all pale in comparison. Next up, The Eiger Sanction! "You've got to ask yourself a question: do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"

4 out of 5 stars

Heart of Gold

I love Neil Young. If you were to ask me my favourite musician, I'd probably have a different answer each time you asked. But Neil would always be in the top of the top. Of the hundreds of concerts I've attended, Neil Young's performances have never failed to amaze - and they still resonnate with me after all this time. So, when I heard that Jonathan Demme had created a film document of Neil Young's recent "Prairie Wind" album, I was caught up.

Neil's no stranger to the cinema. His music has featured prominently in a number of films (either individual songs, or complete scores), and he's been the subject of more than a few concert films (the downright shockingly perfect Rust Never Sleeps, and Jim Jarmusch's Year of the Horse are thrilling documents of Neil's sometime (and raucous) backing band Crazy Horse).

But what makes this latest feature so captivating is it's location and context. Filmed at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium (home of the Grand Old Opry), this concert is something of a homecoming - and it feels intimate, downhome. There's a sobering tenderness to the proceedings that one simply cannot deny (especially since we're hit with it in the first moments of the film). "Prairie Wind" was written and recorded as the recollections of man looking back over his life with a strong sense of mortality. Just days before entering the studio, Neil collapsed with a brain anuerysm. Having the time and musicians already booked, he decided to soldier on and record the album before having his surgery - not knowing the outcome (thankfully, it was a favorable prognosis). The resulting concert, recorded just weeks later, is a triumphant return to form. Highlights include some of his best recent songwriting such as the "The Painter", and classics such as "I am a Child," "Heart of Gold," "Comes a Time" and a great cover of "Four Strong Winds." Intermittently, Neil adds color to the songs by talking about their context - something he rarely does. A real treat.

4 out of 5 stars