Crash Course: Caveman Movies

After doing a number of these “Crash Course” articles about important filmmakers and relevant themes I thought it was high time to take a look at a handful of movies that were a bit lighter.  So, for no reason in particular, the time seems right to explore a handful of movies about people living their lives in pre-history: the time of the cave people.  I’m going to take a look at six movies from different eras and in vastly different styles and tones that deal in one way or another with our distant forefathers. Should make for some fun summer viewing at the very least.

One Million Years B.C. (1967)

While I’m calling these “caveMAN movies” a lot of them focus just as much on the cave ladies, cave ladies in varying degrees of undress.   This late sixties movie in particular seems to have largely been made for two reasons: 1. to show Raquel Welch in a deerskin fur bikini and 2. to give the audience some cool Ray Harryhausen stop-motion effects, but with a strong emphasis on the former.  In fact the movie may very well be more famous for a publicity still of Ms. Welch that became the basis for a very popular pinup poster which would eventually find its way to Andy Dufresne’s prison cell wall in The Shawshank Redemption.  I had kind of expected the movie to be the Flintstone’s to Barbarella’s Jetsons, but the actual movie isn’t really all that salacious outside of Welch’s costuming and is actually more of a family adventure film in a lot of ways.

The movie opens with an authoritative voice-over of the kind you’d expect from a Disney nature documentary, which is odd because as you can probably tell from the title, scientific accuracy is not much of a concern here.  Homo Sapiens as we know them didn’t exist much further back than 100,000 BCE and any human ancestors alive in 1,000,000 BCE would have been hairy and somewhat apelike.  One other thing you most certainly wouldn’t have seen in that year were freakin’ dinosaurs, but they’re all over this movie.  While most of these were created by stop-motion effects there were a couple created by taking real animals, specifically a tarantula and an iguana, and making them look giant through rear projection techniques and those look pretty bad both because there were never any giant spiders or iguanas and also because the effects are transparent.  The rest of the dinosaurs do look a lot better though, at least in that slightly cheesy way that Harryhausen’s effects were always charming.

The film’s highlight is a section where the film’s protagonist, a dude apparently named Tumak, fights off an attack by an Allosaurus with a spear.  I’m pretty sure I’ve seen clips of this scene before in a film documentary or something because it was definitely familiar.  There’s also a pretty cool scene of a Pteranodon that’s worth watching.  Interestingly, despite the film’s complete disinterest in evolutionary realism it does take the step of keeping its characters from speaking English.  Like in a lot of these movies it opts to go with visual storytelling over dialogue driven narrative, a decision that I’m not entirely sure the movie was equipped to back up but it does get by fairly well.  There isn’t really a whole lot to the story or the movie really. It’s a fairly average B-movie that’s been elevated slightly by some fun special effects and a hot chick, but at least it’s remembered for something.

*** out of Five

 

Quest For Fire (1981)

Cave people have been something of a archetypical character for ages, but you can probably count the number of films that deal with them seriously as historical figures rather than as camp figures on one hand.  One of those movies, and perhaps the most famous of them, is Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1981 French-American co-production Quest for Fire.  The film’s trailer opens with a narration that proclaims “Fourteen years ago, 2001: A Space Odyssey was the astounding epic that aroused a generation, telling them where they might be headed. Now, 20th Century Fox presents a science fantasy adventure that will arouse this generation, telling them where we might have begun.”  That gives you something of an idea of how seriously this movie took itself, it wanted to be the definitive caveman adventure and in some ways it was.  Rather than have the cast speak broken English they hired Anthony Burgess to invent a primitive language involving a variety of grunts for the characters to speak while a more advanced group they meet later uses the Cree language, all of this presented without subtitles, forcing the viewer to experience the movie as an exercise in visual storytelling.

The film’s basic story is fairly simple.  The central tribe does not fully understand how fire works and thinks they need to keep the flame going in order to keep using it.  When their flame is extinguished in an opening battle they need to go on a quest to find more fire and bring it back.  The film features Ron Perlman in his first role and along the way they meet a cave lady from another tribe played Rae Dawn Chong, who is essentially nude through the whole movie, which comes across as more tasteful than that sounds.  That said, caveman sex is one of the more uncomfortable aspects of the film because through much of the film the cavemen more or less feel entitled to rape the cave women in an animalistic fashion.  This behavior is not eroticized and it’s seen as a sign of progress when the sex becomes a bit more consensual later on, but it’s still kind of an uncomfortable metaphor and a romance of sorts that comes into the film late never really works.

The film also isn’t as authentic as it claims to be.  It reminded me a bit of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto in that it kind of conflates different eras of an area into a single adventure narrative.  The kind of apelike humans seen in the opening scene would been long gone before the kind of village dwelling tribe seen late in the film would have established itself and the odds of all three groups being in such close proximity with such vastly different levels of development is ulikely.  And simply as a piece of filmmaking this is a bit of a mixed bag.  The film incorporates a lot of good scenery but some of the special effect don’t look quite right.  Sabre tooth tigers are created by simply putting fake teeth in the mouths of real lions (would hate to have to be the guy who has to install those), which is a level of practical effects work that I should appreciate but which also means that humans don’t really interact with them during the action scenes.  Ultimately I just don’t think Annaud quite the chops to pull off the rather challenging trick he was trying to do with this movie and that 2001 comparison from the trailer is just really off-base, but I appreciate that the movie was trying to compete with that movie during an era when everyone was trying to make the next Star Wars.

***1/2 out of Five

 

Clan of the Cave Bear (1986)

Clan of the Cave Bear was made about five years after Quest for Fire and the two movies are generally linked in the public’s collective memory and it’s not too hard to view the newer film as a Hollywood repackaging of the earlier film.  However, Clan of the Cave Bear is actually an adaptation of a novel by Jean M. Auel which was the first in the popular “Earth’s Children” series.  By all accounts the film isn’t a very faithful adaptation, in fact most of the reviews of the film on IMDB seem to be written by fans of the book who are pissed about the movie, but that’s not really much of a concern for my purposes.  It was directed by Michael Chapman, who spent most of his career as a fairly accomplished cinematographer and worked with Martin Scorsese on some of his most famous works including Taxi Driver and Raging Bull before trying to launch a directorial career.  His first film was the early Tom Cruise vehicle All the Right Moves and this was his follow-up and it seems to have kind of ruined his career because he went right back to being a DP afterward.  The movie was in fact pretty widely disliked upon its release and more or less flopped at the box office, but there are certainly people who remember it with some fondness and watching it now it definitely seems flawed but it hardly seems like some sort of all time turkey.

The film is set about 20,000 before the Common Era and has a particular interest in the interactions between Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals.  In fact the film is about a Cro-magnon woman who becomes separated from her tribe as a little girl and is picked up and raised by a band of Neanderthals.  While in that pack she feels at home but not at home.  The Neanderthals think she’s something of an ugly duckling and that she’ll never find a mate (even though, to modern eyes, she’s the only hottie on screen) and she occasionally proves to be more adept at using tools and the like.  Like Quest for Fire the film has its characters talking in a grunty invented language but unlike Quest for Fire subtitles are included and there’s also an omniscient narrator who explains perhaps a bit more of the plot than she should.  Honestly I’m kind of impressed they didn’t just have the characters speaking broken English given that this was trying to be more of a mainstream Hollywood product, but this is part of why the film never quite connected with audiences; not being in English was too weird for the mainstream but not going all the way with the experimentation wasn’t impressive to the cineaste types and that same inability to please both audiences kind of runs through the movie.

Based on the film’s poster of Daryl Hannah in meticulously applied ritualistic makeup I think I was expecting something a bit more outlandish than the actual movie, which is surprisingly respectable.  In fact the film seems to be applying something of a feminist message to this pre-historic setting given that the third act addresses a taboo within the tribe about women so much as touching hunting weapons, which our main character breaks and then becomes the tribes first female hunter as a result.  Where the movie starts to go wrong is in the presentation.  The film’s narration is something of a problem as it really over-explains things and I’m not sure Daryl Hannah works that well in the lead as she just looks like a very modern blonde movie star and never really uglies herself up enough to really feel like a cave person.  Beyond that I just kind of wish there was either a little more story here or a lot less.  It’s not minimalist enough to feel like an experimental peak into the past but also doesn’t quite have the kind of strong narrative that can work as more conventional cinema.  I think the movie’s biggest problem really is simply that it isn’t Quest for Fire.  That movie is plainly better on a number of levels and you can’t help but compare the two given that one was only made a few years after the other.

**1/2 out of Five

 

10,000 BC (2008)

After the box office failure of Clan of the Cave Bear Hollywood opted not to make any caveman related movies during the 90s or early 2000s aside from Encino Man and The Flintsones.  So it wouldn’t be until 2008 that we’d get another prehistoric epic and it would come from, of all people, Roland Emmerich.  Emmerich, the German born master of disaster who made a fortune during the 90s making bland spectacles like Independence Day, Godzilla (1998), and The Day After Tomorrow, seemed like an odd choice to helm a movie that seemingly couldn’t feature the destructions of major landmarks but at the point he did need to try to do something that was at least a little bit different.  The film he came up with is essentially a ripoff of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto or at least feels that way.  I’d be reasonably willing to believe that this was in production before that 2006 film came out but given that this is about a hero from a distant culture who’s in pursuit of an evil tribe that kidnaps people from the surrounding areas to bring captives back to a nearby city filled with pyramids and decadence it’s a little hard not to directly compare the two and that is not a comparison that 10,000 BC can live up to.  That movie was the harcore version of this story with bloody R-rated violence, real looking animals, and dialogue in the Maya language where this is more like an attempt to make that movie in more of a mainstream PG-13 way.

The first problem with the movie is that, well, the people in it don’t seem much like cavemen.  Granted this is set several thousand years later than Quest for Fire and Clan of the Cave Bear and is about people who are firmly homo-sapiens but there’s a certain Hollywood cleanliness to how all the actors look and act.  Emmerich did have the foresight to mostly cast the film with unknowns, which was probably a smart move, but these people seem like they’re unknown for a reason and it doesn’t surprise me that none of them have become famous in the wake of the film.  The film also doesn’t bother to try to construct an ancient cave-man language and have everyone (well, all the good guys) speak modern English, which seemed understandable at the time but seeing that all these other movies took that extra step it seems a bit lazy and pandering.  I will say that having modern special effects for the prehistoric animals helped a bit.  The mammoth hunt at the beginning is pretty good and the sabre toothed tiger in the film is also pretty good and as much as I tend to prefer practical effects to CGI I will say the digital creations here are a lot more useful then the fur coated elephants and dentally augmented mountain lions used in some of these other caveman movies.

For all the liberties the movie take early on it’s not until the film’s third act where things really go crazy.  In that section our band of adventurers discover that the people who kidnaped their kinfolk are in fact agents of a strange city-dwelling tribe who are developed to the point where they can forge metal, build sail ships, and are using mammoths to construct large pyramids.  I don’t think these people are supposed to be actual Egyptians mind you, but some other civilization lost to time and the movie is very unclear about what strange geographic location all of this is happening in.  This is a ridiculous anachronism of course, ridiculous to the point where a throwaway line where someone mentions that these people “maybe came from the sky” suggests that all of this is meant to be some sort of stealth prequel to Roland Emmerich’s Hollywood debut: Stargate.  Or if not that then some other sort of riff on the popular conspiracy theory that the Egyptian pyramids were built by aliens.  Either way it’s stupid.  Still despite all that, I will say that the 8% rating that this currently holds on Rotten Tomatoes does seem just a little bit harsh… then again maybe it’s doesn’t.  Put it this way, dumb as the movie is, it’s dumb in a slightly more earnest way than some of Emmerich’s other movies and there is a bit more creativity to it than in some other bad movies that Hollywood puts out.  Had this project just been given to a filmmaker with a bit more vision and a bit more willingness to either hold back or lean into its nuttiness you might have had something.

** out of Five

 

Alpha (2018)

When the movie Alpha was out last year I remember seeing some of the advertisements for it and not really knowing what to make of it.  It was plainly obvious that no one involved knew how to market it and it ended up basically coming and going from theaters without leaving much of a mark on the culture at all.  However, what little I did hear about it did have me at least a little curious.  The film is set about 20,000 years ago and focuses on a tribal family that lives somewhere in Europe and specifically on an adolescent named Keda played by Kodi Smit-McPhee who has just become old enough to go with his father and another group to participate in a hunt for some species of bison.  But the hunt goes wrong and Keda ends up going over a cliff and is left for dead, but he actually survived the fall and when he regains coniousness he’s alone and has to find his way home.  Along the way however, he ends up injuring a wolf and over the coursing of the journey this wolf ends up following him and essentially becomes the first domesticated dog over the course of the movie.

So essentially this is a PG-13 prehistoric version of The Revenant but with a canine instead of a revenge story.  That’s not exactly the biggest built in audience and the marketers tried to compensate for that by making the dog the sales hook.  Essentially they were trying to use the fact that there’s a wolf/dog here to sell the film to the kinds of people who would enjoy Marley and Me or A Dog’s Purpose but what they failed to factor in is that those movies are sappy as hell and that the people who would like them are generally idiots and that the movie that they were selling has a less mainstream sensibility.  Case in point, Alpha isn’t in English.  Like Quest for Fire before it it’s in an invented language, albeit one that is fully subtitled.  It also doesn’t soften too many of the hardships of surviving in this world, including a family dynamic which is not traditionally “loving.”  So trying to sell that to the Hallmark crowd was probably a mistake, but there are also reasons why it wouldn’t be fully accepted by the arthouse or action movie crowd either.  For one thing its conceit that this wolf can become domesticated over the course of this one journey and its implication that this idea spread across the world from this one tribe is extremely simplistic.  These things happened over the course of eons, not months.  And while the movie isn’t exactly laser focused on the family audience it is still essentially meant to be a young adult adventure rather than a serious work.

The film was directed by Albert Hughes who, along with his brother Allen Hughes, made up the Hughes Brothers.  The Hughes Brothers came out really strong with their 1993 debut Menace II Society was a classic of its era but they were never really able to follow it up with anything truly great.  They certainly had the chops for Hollywood productions but all their subsequent projects, while generally interesting, only felt like they were 75% of the way to living up to their potential.  They’re working solo now but I’d say Albert still has the same strengths and weaknesses that he had while working with his brother.  He brings to the film a pretty strong visual style and does some pretty strong work with what I suspect was a mid-sized budget and he manages to avoid some of the compromises that a lot of other productions might have fallen into. On the downside I don’t think he necessarily makes his main character into an overly likable or interesting protagonist and on some level.  He also tones down the strong violence that is present in most of his and his brothers’ films but he also doesn’t soften things quite as much as the producers trying to make this into a family film might have liked.  The critics did respond to the film and gave it a pretty high Rotten Tomatoes score but they certainly didn’t champion it, and in some ways I wish they had.  While this one wasn’t perfectly tailored to the taste of critics, it is exactly the kind of bolder mid-budget movies with commercial aims that they supposedly want more of and if it had been marketed a bit more wisely I think it could have become a very good alternative for families tired of Disney extravaganzas.

***1/2 out of Five

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Crash Course: Ghibli Beyond Miyazaki – The Next Generation

Last year I did a Crash Course article that took a closer look at the famed Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli, focusing on the films made by people other than their most famous creator Hayao Miyazaki.  That Crash Course mainly focused on the movies of Isao Takahata as well as the one film that was made by Yoshifumi Kondō before his untimely death.  Now a year later I’m coming back to the subject to in some ways close the book on Ghibli by watching most of the rest of their non-Miyazaki output.  For this installment I’ll be looking at the films made in the 21st century by the younger filmmakers who were meant to be a second generation of animators who would take over from the aging and retirement prone Miyazaki and Takahata.  Two of these films were directed by the literal next generation vis a vie Hayao Miyazaki’s son Gorō Miyazaki, and two of them were directed by their longtime animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi, and the fifth (though chronologically first) was an odd little side project directed by a guy named Hiroyuki Morita, who was the closest thing to an outside mercenary working on a Ghibli film.

The Cat Returns (2002)

To the best of my knowledge there have only been two people to direct one and only one feature length theatrical film for Ghibli, and interestingly both of their movies are tangentially linked.  The first was Yoshifumi Kondō, who made the film Whisper of the Heart in 1995 but tragically died of an aneurysm a few years later.  The other is Hiroyuki Morita, director of what is something of a spinoff of Whisper of the Heart entitled The Cat ReturnsWhisper of the Heart was mostly a down to earth coming of age film but it did contain one fantasy scene which was meant to be a staging of a story the protagonist has written which features a dapper anthropomorphized cat called The Baron.  This character proved to be so popular that a Japanese amusement park commissioned Ghibli to make a twenty minute short featuring the character and other cats to be part of a ride.  Plans for the ride eventually fell through but Ghibli decided to continue with the short and expand it into a feature which would be something of a test for their young talent.  The film’s final director would end up being Morita, who unlike a lot of the other Ghibli directors is not someone who had been working non-stop for the studio for decades on end and actually has a pretty long resume doing anime work for more conventional studios and has credits as diverse as Akira, Perfect Blue, and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence.

Though the cat does indeed return in The Cat Returns this is not really a sequel of any kind to Whisper of the Heart and does not exist in that movie’s reality or continuity, in essence it simply recycles a popular character from it in a completely different context.  The film runs a scant 75 minutes and plays out a bit like “Alice in Wonderland” in the way its female protagonist finds herself entering a strange fantasy world in something of a dreamlike state before eventually facing down a homicidal monarch.  Throughout she is guided by The Baron, who remains a very amusing presence, but the protagonist herself is very thinly drawn and just generally not very interesting.  The film’s fantastical finale is clearly the highlight, but compared to some of the greatest set-pieces from some of Ghibli’s other movies it doesn’t quite stack up, and that’s probably true about the film as a whole.  In some ways it almost feels more like Ghibli fanfiction than an actual Ghibli film and it never really transcends its origins as a side project.  Still there are some highly amusing moments along the way and I wouldn’t say it was strictly for diehards and completeists, but it does border on that status.

*** out of Five

Tales from Earthsea (2006)

While there are some Ghibli movies that people like better than others but they’ve only really made one movie that critics generally think is straight-up bad and that’s the 2006 film Tales from EarthseaTales From Earthsea was the directorial debut of Goro Miyazaki, who is indeed the son of studio founder Hayao Miyazaki.  Goro apparently wasn’t someone who long dreamed of getting into the family business and originally studied to be a landscaper.  Eventually that led him to take a gig landscaping for Ghibli’s museum in Mitaka, which he ended up serving as the director of, and somehow or other he ended up doing storyboards for the Tales from Earthsea project and was promoted to director by the film’s producer.  By all accounts this final promotion was not done at his father’s behalf, in fact Hayao actively fought against the move and led to a lot of friction in the family.  This might in part have been because the Earthsea books by Ursula K. Le Guin, upon which the film was based, was actually quite important to Miyazaki and he’s cited it as an influence on his own fantasy worlds and when given the chance to adapt them he didn’t want to be seen as risking it on nepotism.  This whole psychodrama had all the makings for a great story of a father coming to realize his son’s true potential but… given the final product Hayao may have had good reasons to question the hiring.

Watching Tales from Earthsea I couldn’t help but think of another movie that’s considered something of a lowpoint for a major animation studio: Disney’s The Black Cauldron.   Like that misbegotten 1985 film this is based on an entire series of fantasy novels but the film does a very bad job of bringing attention to whatever it is that’s supposed to make this fantasy world special and instead just feels like a bit of a mess with a super bland protagonist.  But unlike The Black Cauldron, Tales from Earthsea isn’t really doing anything terribly groundbreaking with its animation.  There are some cool images in the movie but nothing that really one-ups what’s been done in other Ghibli movies and the ending feels like a pretty standard fantasy battle of good versus evil.  In many ways it just feels like a lesser anime studio trying to imitate Ghibli rather than the real thing and even worse than that the movie is downright boring.  The movie did make decent money in Japan but critics rightly called it out.  It even went so far as to win Japan’s equivalent of the Razzie award, which is a bit much, but its reputation as an ambitious debacle is mostly earned and I have very few nice things to say about it.

*1/2 out of Five

The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)

The 2010s have been a kind of strange decade for Studio Ghibli.  The new generation seem to have learned from the failure of Tales from Earthsea that they were probably never going to be able to match Hayao Miyazaki when it came to making epic fantasy films and also weren’t really interested in engaging in wild experimentation of the Isao Takahata.  Instead it seems that the new generation of Ghibli found themselves doing what Yoshifumi Kondō did fifteen years earlier: using the Ghibli style to make more intimate character driven films.  The first of the new generation to try this was a guy named Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who along with Goro Miyazaki was slated to be the studio’s standard bearer for the future.  Yonebayashi, unlike Hiroyuki Morita, was a homegrown talent at Ghibli who had been working in some capacity or other on their films going all the way back to Princess Mononoke and would have been about 37 when he was entrusted to finally direct a full movie for the studio.

Yonebayashi’s first film is The Secret World of Arrietty (which was released as just Arrietty outside of North America) is an adaptation of an old British kids book called “The Borrowers,” which is one of those classic YA books like The Little Prince or The Secret Garden that they keep trying make younger generations read even though they kind of put modern kids to sleep.  It gets adapted a lot, as a child I think I saw a version of it that came out in 1997.  For this version the action has been moved over to rural Japan, which is a pretty reasonable fit as the story’s low key quiet nature kind of fits that setting well.  The titular character, Arrietty is one of these borrowers which are three inch tall little fairy people who live hidden in houses and “borrow” (but really steal) small household items that won’t be missed from the people who live there.  She’s fourteen years old and the plot kicks into motion when she is discovered and forms a friendship with a young teenager living in the house they currently reside in.  Actually “plot kicks in” is maybe a bit misleading because this story proves to be really, really, really low stakes. It’s almost more of a tone piece than anything, and I’m not sure that tone pieces are what people go to Ghibli for but it’s pretty effective at being what it wants to be.

*** out of Five

From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

After the artistic failure of Tales From Earthsea it wouldn’t have surprised me if Goro Miyazaki gave up directing and went back to landscaping, but instead Ghibli decided he deserved a chance at redemption and I don’t think they were wrong for doing so.  Tales From Earthsea was bad but it wasn’t incompetent; it’s failure likely less to do with a lack of directorial skill on his part and more from the fact that he was trying to run before he learned to walk.  For his next attempt he would take a page from Hiromasa Yonebayashi and try to use Ghibli animation to make a smaller scale and more personal film about young people.  That film was From Up on Poppy Hill, a Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa scripted film about a teenage girl living in Yokohama in 1964 who is working to save her school’s beloved clubhouse from demolition and who meets a boy along the way who she comes to learn she may be connected to through some murky past connection.

From Up on Poppy Hill is not a movie that “needed” to be animated necessarily.  There’s no supernatural aspect to speak of and even the period detail in the film isn’t overly elaborate, but it feels like it would be less noteworthy as a live action film just the same.  The film is in many ways a nostalgic look back on a time period, but for a time period that would have been far more familiar to the film’s co-writer Hayao Miyazaki than to his son.  That doesn’t really keep Goro Miyazaki from capturing what seems like an authentic if perhaps idealized version of its time and place.  Where the film starts to lose me a bit is with the characters, which are rather un-nuanced.  If there’s one thing about Ghibli that watching a lot of their movies has kind of exposed is that they tend to create really straightforwardly moral and uncomplicated protagonists for their movies, which isn’t such a problem when you’re making movies with more of a fantasy/adventure dimension but which becomes more of a problem when you make movies like this which are meant to be more straightforward character dramas.  It’s not a fatal flaw but it does keep From Up on Poppy Hill from really standing out as something more than a thoroughly “nice” story about a moment in the life of some young people.

***1/2 out of Five

When Marnie Was There (2014)

In 2013 Studio Ghibli released The Wind Rises, a film that was announced as the Hayao Miyazaki and then later that year (in Japan anyway) they released The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which was announced as Isao Takahata’s final film.  That one two punch meant that Ghibli would no longer be the home of the two filmmakers who had more or less founded the studio and acted as the twin pillars holding it up for over twenty five years.  So the question then was what would happen to the studio without them and the answer to that was and is rather unclear.  There was however one more film in the pipeline from Hiromasa Yonebayashi, another low key drama called When Marnie Was There.  The film concerns a girl who goes to live with her aunt and uncle in a small seaside town (small seaside towns are something of a theme with Ghibli during this era) and finds herself interacting with the ghost of a girl who once lived in a mansion nearby.  The film is based on an English children’s novel from the 60s by Joan G. Robinson and like Yonebayashi’s other Ghibli movie it has the feel of a certain old fashioned brand of “respectable” family film that I don’t quite have the name for.

When Marnie Was There isn’t bad at all, but it also doesn’t strike me as anything particularly brilliant.  Like a lot of these second generation Ghibli movies it feels like a movie that’s trying to coast on a sort of bland respectability rather than really using anime to do something special.  In many ways it feels like the hit 2016 anime film Your Name, or I guess you could say that Your Name took what Ghibli had been doing that decade and managed to take it that extra step into really feeling alive.  The film does manage to give its protagonist just a little bit more edge than some of their other main characters by making her a foster child with a bit of a chip on her shoulder, but she’s still ultimately a protagonist with a fairly minor arc and the supporting characters are also largely just “nice.”  The film somewhat interestingly makes its title character, the rather spectral Marnie, a white foreigner living in Japan.  I was wondering if that would ultimately play more of a role in the film but it mostly doesn’t, it would have mostly played out the same if she had just been another Japanese character.  It also has an ending which feels more enevitable than surprising, which I suppose was the point but just the same it didn’t do a whole lot for me.

*** out of Five

And so far that is the last film that Studio Ghibli ever put out.  Technically the studio was put “on hiatus” but I must say things aren’t looking too promising.  Isao Takahata passed away last year and even if he hadn’t he had already announced his retirement.  Hayao Miyazaki is now 78 and he’s been in and out of retirement.  He does appear to be making another last film, this one called “How Do You Live,” and if and when that comes out it will have been the studio’s first film in at least five years.  Either way he’s clearly not going to be able to keep the studio afloat single-handedly and it would appear that the people in charge have decided that the younger generation they trained don’t have what it takes.  Hiromasa Yonebayashi apparently got fed up and left Ghibli to co-found a competing studio called Studio Ponoc, where he directed a movie called Mary and the Witch’s Flower which I’ve heard some good things about.  I’m not really sure what Goro Miyazaki has been up to lately.  He apparently directed a TV series for another company in 2014 but the trail sort of ends there.

All told I do think that the way the studio was shut down through lack of faith in Goro and Yonebayashi was a bit harsh given that the movies they made were hardly terrible, but at the same time I can kind of sympathize.  I remember when those movies were playing in theaters and I opted not to go because I felt like I didn’t really have the background to contextualize the Ghibli films that weren’t Hayao Miyazaki joints and part of running these two series was to get to that place.  Having seen the movies I kind of feel like I was overthinking things before, but I also sort of feel like I wasn’t really missing all that much.  These late Ghibli films just kind of feel like well executed if highly run of the mill anime and they just don’t have that spark which made Ghibli an internationally beloved brand.

Crash Course: Italian Horror

There are only a few countries with the rich filmic legacy of Italy, the nation that gave us Fellini, De Sica, Rossolini, and Visconti.  But Italian cinema goes deeper than the arthouse titans as they managed to specialize not just in the highbrow but also in the lowbrow.  During the 50s, 60s, and 70s Italy became one of the premier makers of B-movies, most famously Westerns and Sword and Sandals epics but they also became makers of some rather innovative horror movies that pushed the boundaries of onscreen sex and violence and would go on to influence the slasher genre of the 80s as well as other forms of horror cinema.  However, I’ve always been a bit of a neophyte when it comes to Italian horror, in part out of some bad experiences with Argento early on.  The dubbing and sloppiness of Italian exploitation has always been a bit of a barrier for me, something about it just bugged me as a purist but I’ve come to sort of just accept it as what the Italian system did at the time.  As such the time is right to take a crash course in Italian horror by looking at a couple films from Italy’s three acknowledged masters of the genre: Bava, Argento, and Fulci.

Mario Bava

Black Sabbath (1963)

The first filmmaker I’m going to look at is Mario Bava a filmmaker who is of about the same generation as the other two but who was making horror movies about a decade earlier and was at the tail end of his career when the other two came around. His most famous film is probably a film called Black Sunday, which is ironic because that movie was in black and white and Bava is otherwise known for his vivid use of color.  I had seen that movie previously so for the purposes of this project I am going to start with his next major horror movie, the anthology film Black Sabbath (AKA The Three Faces of Fear) which is said to have inspired the name of the rock band.  The film consists of three short horror segments, all directed by Bava, of which the middle segment is both the longest and clearly the best.  Titled “The Wurdalak” this segment appears to be set somewhere in some unspecified Slavic country during the 18th or 19th century and focuses on a bit of folklore about a vampire/ghost-like creature called a wurdalak which comes back to life and tries to suck the blook of everyone in their family.  Here the main wurdalak is played by Boris Karloff, who also serves as a sort of host for the movie and the whole segment works very effectively both as a riff on the vampire and as just a straight-up ghost story.  The segment (and the whole film for that matter) don’t really have the blood and guts that I generally associate with Italian horror and in some ways reminded me more of what Hammer was doing at the time or Roger Corman’s Poe movies than it does the giallos that would come later.

The first and third stories here are a bit weaker, especially the first one, which is set during the present and is a bit of a variation on the old “when a stranger calls” legend.  It’s not a bad segment exactly but the milieu seems to clash with the period horror trappings of the film’s title and framing and feels more like an imitation of Hitchcock (particularly Dial M for Murder) than the kind of gothic chiller the film otherwise trades in and feels like a strange opener given the film’s title.  The third segment fares a bit better.  There isn’t really a whole lot to it and it’s rather short but it does tell a nice little haunted house type story which feels like it’s had some influence on some of the more recent jump-scare movies of the Conjuring variety.  All in all this is a bit uneven and perhaps not overly representative of Bava’s style or of Italian horror movies to come, but it’s a solid example of the kind of horror movies that were being made in the early 60s with some neat atmosphere and some of the right kind of cheese.

***1/2 out of Five

Blood and Black Lace (1964)

If Black Sabbath was perhaps not entirely representative of the violent Italian horror films that were to come his next major film Blood and Black Lace most certainly is.  In fact the film more or less invented the sub-genre that would be most heavily associated with Italian horror: the Giallo.  Now, some people erroneously throw around the word “Giallo” to describe any horror movie to come out of Italy in the 60s, 70s, and 80s but it actually refers to a very specific sub-genre.  Gialli are non-supernatural thrillers, usually about serial killers and based on detective fiction dime novels that were popular at the time, they were essentially proto-slasher movies.  The word itself translates to “yellow,” which refers to the fact that these novels were usually sold with yellow covers.  It’s a bit like how we refer to certain books and movies as “pulp.”  There may or may not be other precursors but many would argue that Blood and Black Lace invented this sub-genre.

The film was made during a time when the European film industry was seeing a wave of movies based on and inspired by a British mystery writer named Edgar Wallace and the producers who backed Blood and Black Lace were reportedly expecting a film along those lines from Bava, but Bava had become increasingly bored by those movies and wanted to shake things up by focusing on the violence of the murder mystery rather than the police procedural. The resulting film focuses on a fashion house in which a number of the models are being mysteriously stalked and murdered by a masked man with a hat and trench coat (he kind of looks like Rorschach from “Watchmen”).  We see some of the police investigation into these crimes, but for the most part it’s told from the perspective of the potential victims and eventually from the perspective of the killer and we spend a lot more time watching the killer commit these murders than we do watching those police piece things together and the mystery itself is not wildly fascinating.

As this was still a movie from the early 60s there are still some limits to just how bloody the film could be but it is rather noticeably brutal in ways that movies generally weren’t during this era.  As the title implies there’s also a rather shamelessly sexual dimension to the movie and its violence.  Again, it’s the early 60s so there’s little in the way of actual sex or nudity but a lot of the murder victims find themselves in lingerie (though not black lace lingerie as the title would imply), and yeah I’m sure that’s all kinds of problematic if you think about it but the point is that this movie was doing stuff like that before there was an entire genre for such things and he did it with more bluntness than something like Psycho or Peeping Tom.  Of course a lot of this appeal comes more from seeing it now and seeing its eventual influence.  A lot of its importance was likely less apparent at the time and indeed the movie probably proved to be a bit ahead of its time.  It wasn’t much of a financial success in Italy and while it did get released by America it wasn’t by the lucrative B-movie studio AIP like Black Sabbath was because it was (rightly) considered to be too intense for the eight-year-olds that would be the audience for horror movies of the Vincent Price variety.  The giallo craze would be delayed for a little while as Bava moved on to make horror flicks of different varieties and baton wouldn’t really be picked up until Dario Argento came along a few years later.

***1/2 out of Five

Dario Argento

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

Mario Bava may have more or less invented the giallo film genre but Dario Argento was definitely the one to popularize it and that process started right with his debut film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.  Like Blood and Black Lace this is ostensibly a mystery rather than a horror film but one that is very interested in filming the scenes where the killer stalks and murders people.  This one does take a bit more interest in the investigative elements of its story than Blood and Black Lace does in part because it’s being told from the perspective of an American tourist who witnesses a woman get stabbed and attempts to find the killer on the loose on his own while he’s stuck in Italy as a material witness.  The tourist is played by an American actor named Tony Musante, one of many American actors who appeared in Italian genre films the era for the same reasons Clint Eastwood appeared in his spaghetti westerns but never went on to stardom like he did.  Musante is actually a big part of why the film works as well as it does, unlike a lot of people who show up in exploitation films like this Musante’s character is genuinely likable and personable; you want to root for him and you feel like he has the right intentions.  The mystery at the film’s center is not exactly rock solid, it’s not the kind of thing you can really solve by looking at the clues and it finally comes together through something of a deus ex machina, but the story moves along in the moments and mostly works for the movies.

The film was almost certainly influenced by Blood and Black Lace but it also clearly comes from a later school of filmmaking that was less bound to soundstages.  The film was actually shot by Vittorio Storaro shortly before he would shoot major movies with the likes of Bernardo Bertolucci and Francis Ford Coppola.  The cinematography is more down to earth and natural than the highly expressionistic look that Argento would embrace latter in his career in movies like Suspiria but it does look slick in a way that elevates it a bit.  I was also surprised that this movie wasn’t really all that gory.  There are conceptually nasty killings in the film to be sure and some of them do have a little bit of that signature bright red blood but the camera does semi-tastefully cut away from a lot of the nastier bits and the movie isn’t going out of its way to invent gross ways to murder people.  In fact the movie apparently managed to play in the United States with a PG rating with only about 20 seconds of cuts, which even in a pre-PG-13 era seems kind of crazy, the movie is more violent than that would imply.  That lack of brutality likely did contribute to the film’s accessibility and helped it become a big international hit within the B-movie/exploitation world despite having a kind of terrible title.  This would start a giallo wave in Italy which Argento himself would continue through his trilogy of movies with animals in the title before moving on to full on horror movies with more of a supernatural bend.

***1/2 out of Five 

Inferno (1980)

In selecting Dario Argento movies for this project I was careful to pick one of his giallo films and one of his more supernatural projects and for the latter film it seemed the logical choice was his 1980 semi-sequel to Suspiria entitled Inferno.  While I doubt that Argento had overly concrete plans for sequels in mind when he was making Suspiria that film was inspired by an 1845 Thomas de Quincey book which described three personified “sorrows”: a Mother of Sighs, a Mother of Darkness, and a Mother of Tears.  This wasn’t outlined in Suspiria but it’s certainly outlined in Inferno, in fact much of the first half of the movie seems to consist of people reading from various old books about these three so that audiences will fully understand the connection between this Suspiria, and a third film that was presumably on its way.  The witch killed at the end of Suspiria was meant to be the Mother of Sighs (Mater Suspiriorum) and the witch at the center of Inferno is meant to be the Mother of Darkness (Mater Tenebrarum, though given this it’s curious that this wasn’t called “Tenebrae,” which was the title of his next film which was unrelated to all of this).  Argento would eventually finish his trilogy twenty seven years later with the film The Mother of Tears, which is by all accounts terrible.

Scene for scene Suspiria often operated on a pretty strange dream (nightmare?) logic but at its center was a pretty simple story of a girl who arrives at a dance school, observes strange things, then confronts the monster behind it all.  Inferno is not so simple; it swaps protagonists half-way through, it goes on endlessly about the lore of these witches while doing little to actually show how this covenant works, it has a bunch of side characters who only complicate things, and it frankly isn’t entirely clear why the characters are involved with these witches in the first place.  The film employs a lot of the same extreme lighting as Suspiria but it often isn’t as effective in the film’s various New York locations as it was in the previous film’s German dance school and it generally doesn’t flow as well given that the film isn’t largely from the perspective of a single character.  I was also kind of shocked that the film wasn’t in widescreen like Argento’s earlier films and I do think that took something away from the style.  There are a handful of solid horror scenes throughout the film, but it’s a much slower burn in general, which was possibly a response to criticisms that Suspiria peaked in its first fifteen minutes and wasn’t able to top its first couple of kills but it really hurts the film’s momentum.  Argento himself doesn’t care for the movie, in part because he was very sick while making it, and feels like that hurt the film and his memories of it.  That, along with the fact that the film was a failure at the box office, contributed to him cutting off his “Three Mothers” trilogy, and given the results I can’t entirely blame him.

** out of Five

Lucio Fulci

Zombie (1979)

I had kind of expected this look at the Italian horror tradition would be a nonstop orgy of blood and guts but so far things have been a little bit more tasteful than I expected, that is until now when we get to Lucio Fulci, a man who’s entire career has been largely defined by button pushing exploitation violence.  Like a lot of his peers, Fulci started working on films in the 50s and 60s and made films in a variety of genres including musical, comedies, and westerns, but in the wake of Dario Argento’s success with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage he started making gialli like Don’t Torture a Duckling, but he really solidified himself as a director of horror films with his 1979 film Zombie.  Known as Zombi 2 in Italy, this was one of a number of Italian movies from the era which used a loophole in Italian copyright law which allowed anyone to market unofficial sequels to any movie without purchasing the rights so long as the plot and characters were actually original.  In this case they were trying to pass their movie off as a sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which was re-edited into a more violent and less socially conscious film in Europe and released under the title “Zombi.”  The connections really do pretty much end at the title, although zombies probably weren’t as common on screen during this period so maybe the connection would have been more plausible at the time.

Zombie is partly an attempt to bring back the original Caribbean take on zombie mythology that was explored way back in movies like White Zombie and I Walked With a Zombie and mix that with the zombie rules that Romero introduced like “you have to shoot the zombie in the head to kill them” and “if a zombie bites you you turn into one.”  It’s also noticeably more violent and just generally schlocky than the movies that Bava and Argento were making and he doesn’t seem to have the same pretentions of making stylish and operatic horror works.  This one actually contained the first major instance of nudity out of the six movie I’m watching, and it came in the form of an extended topless scuba diving scene which famously ends with a zombie punching a shark.  The film also has one of the all-time gore moments in a scene where a zombie punches through a door, grabs a woman on the other side of it, and then slowly pulls her forward until her eye is gouged out by one of the pointy wood pieces right on camera in close-up without cutting away.  The zombies themselves are also particularly gnarly, and I distinctly remember seeing the VHS cover with the zombie with the worms coming out of his eyes as a kid and being pretty grossed out by it.  The movie ain’t Shakespeare, and it’s not for everyone, but for gorehounds of a certain era the movie delivered the goods and it’s going to be remembered because of it.

*** out of Five

The Beyond (1981)

The Beyond is probably Lucio Fulci’s most famous film along with Zombie and it’s actually a spiritual sequel to another movie of his called City of the Living Dead and would be succeeded by another film The House by the Cemetery which together make up the “gates of hell” trilogy.  I think this trilogy was meant to be something of a response to what Dario Argento was making with his “three mothers” trilogy: three movies of random horror murders sort of loosely tied together by a very ill-formed horror mythology.  The plot here is in many ways very simple: a couple buys a hotel that was built on top of a gate to hell, and scary/violent shit happens to them because of it.  The movie does very little to develop the various victims that would be killed by the various entities that come out of the gate.  The film kind of operates off of a similar dream logic to Suspiria and Inferno in that it isn’t terribly concerned with establishing consistent logic for the film’s various supernatural goings on.  Unlike Suspiria the film is not terribly interested in high falutin cinematography.  I don’t mean to say that there was no thought put into the film’s look or atmosphere at all, it’s certainly made with (relative) competence and has a look, but it doesn’t operate with the grandiosity to match up to that “dream logic.”

What the film does have a clear interest in is blood and gore.  Zombie was pretty bloody but this thing clearly tops it.  It starts by showing a guy getting wipped to pieces by a chain, nailed to a wall, and then having his face melted off and it kind of just gets more vicious from there.  Gory horror films usually like to focus on intestinal extraction but Fulci clearly has some kind of deep fear of eye torture because he has at least three different eyeball gouging scenes here that are trying to top the eye stabbing from Zombie.  Some of the effects in the movie have not aged perfectly and probably never looked quite right to begin with.  You can clearly tell that a lot of the bodies and faced that are getting their flesh ripped off are animatronic but just the same it’s sometimes the thought that counts in movies like this even if you don’t entirely believe the gore.  Like, take the famous scene where a guy gets bitten to death by flesh eating tarantulas.  They did get real spiders for the scene, but they never crawl on a real face and you can kind of tell that the p.o.v. shots are just being done by having the tarantulas walk on glass and when they start ripping off flesh from the guy’s face it is very plainly latex, but still how many other movies even try to show people people getting eaten alive by spiders?  Or take the dog attack scene.  In Cujo they cut away from all most all the parts where the dog murders anyone but here they go right in and give you a close-up of when the German Shepard rips off the lady’s throat.  Good wholesome fun.  Definitely not the first extreme Italian horror movie that anyone should watch but if you’ve reached a point where you really want to have that extra bit of violence in your life this will not disappoint.

*** out of Five

Crash Course: Early Bergman

In an attempt to better diversify the content on this blog I’m introducing a new series of pieces I plan to write called “Crash Course.”  This is a rather casual series that will feature sporadically and will cover a wide range of topics.  With each Crash Course article I’ll look at something that’s been a blind spot in my movie watching and examine a handful of movies related to said blindspot.  Some of these articles will look at the works of a certain filmmaker, some will look at movies from a common franchise, and some will simply be looking at some films that all have a common theme. 

In 2007 the illustrious Criterion Collection announced that they’d begin releasing a new line of products called the Eclipse Series.  This was explained at the time as being a series of DVD boxed sets which would consist of movies that Criterion had acquired the rights to but which weren’t famous enough to quite warrant the expense of one of their famous deluxe blu-ray releases.  These would be DVD-only releases rather than blu-rays, they would be cleaned up but not given a full restoration, and they wouldn’t have any extras but at least these movies wouldn’t be left languishing without distribution and would be available to fill holes in the collections of certain enthusiasts.  It was also announced that their first release under this new line would be a set called “Early Bergman” which curated five films that Ingmar Bergman made early in his career before his international breakthroughs like Summer with Monika and Smiles of a Summer Night.  This set has sat on my shelf for a while I’ve been getting by Bergman fixes from some of his later and more famous movies but I decided that with 2018 being the much celebrated centennial of Bergman’s birth the time was right to finally explore this tantalizing boxed set and see how the genius was formed.

Torment (1944)

The first film that Criterion/Eclipse included in their boxed set was actually not a film that Bergman directed.  This was actually directed by a guy named Alf Sjöberg who was a Swedish director of note from the time but Bergman wrote the screenplay and served as an assistant director on it and did consider it to be the start of his film career.  Bergman was 26 when this came out and was likely even younger when the screenplay was written and you can pretty easily tell this is a young man’s film given that it’s about a young man’s time at a private school and it very much takes that teenager’s point of view and mostly validates his angst.  At the film’s center is a conflict between the film’s protagonist and a rather cruel Latin teacher who everyone calls Caligula and it is most definitely not the kind of story where a teacher and student eventually come to respect one another.  The film reportedly drew from Bergman’s own memories of his schooling days and how he found them to be stifling and rather miserable.  After the film was released he even found himself in a public correspondence with his old headmaster, who found the movie to be something of a hit piece.  Bergman responded that he “definitely [had] not wanted to criticize my own school, but all schools” and the two seem to more or less reconciled their differences.  Having said all that, one should not minimize the influence of Alf Sjöberg on the film as the visual style here is different from Bergman’s.  The film’s look and the acting style on display hue a bit closer to what you might expect from a conventional Hollywood movie of the era than the arthouse direction that Bergman would employ once he started getting more control over his films.

*** out of Five

Crisis (1946)

While Torment marked Ingmar Bergman’s debut as a produced screenwriter but it was the film Crisis that was his true directorial debut and by all accounts it was not exactly smooth sailing on set.  Svensk apparently had a lot of faith in Bergman at first but started to get cold feet and called on Victor Sjöström to be brought in and supervise the production.  However I wouldn’t say that this shows too many signs of being a troubled production and I would exactly say that it’s the sloppy work of an amateur but that characteristic Bergman feel has not developed yet and frankly it gave me a slightly renewed appreciation for what Alf Sjöberg was able to do for Bergman’s script on Torment.  The film is essentially a light melodrama which takes as its jumping off point a story of a birth mother coming to reconnect with an eighteen year old daughter that had long been raised by a foster mother.  Though it begins as a story about the conflict between the biological and adoptive mother it’s really more concerned with the eighteen year old and her sexual awakening.  The film has a lot going on in it and at times isn’t quite sure what it wants to be.  At times it feels like it could be mistaken for a standard Hollywood “woman’s picture” but it’s more daring than those movies would be and you can clearly see Bergman’s affinity for stage plays in it as well.  It’s a weird little movie for the most part and not one that I think many would have remembered if Bergman had quit the film industry after making it rather than become one of the great auteurs of cinema.  Worth watching for completists like me, but not an essential movie.

** out of Five

Port of Call (1948)

The next film in the Bergman Eclipse set was made two years after Crisis and Bergman had made three other movies since then.  Clearly Bergman developed pretty dramatically as a filmmaker in those two years as Port of Call feels much more cohesive and daring than his debut feature even if he still hasn’t quite developed his signature style.  This film is actually said to be inspired by the neorealist movement that was in vogue in the late forties and Bergman has suggested as much in interviews, but there are limits to how much this movie could really be said to be part of the movement.  While the characters here are more working class than the rich or at least well educated people who usually populate Bergmans films and while the film does weigh in a bit more overtly on social issues, the film is not populated by non-actors and the film’s ending is a bit more hopeful than what you’d expect to see in a Rossellini or De Sica film.  The film focuses in on a sort of working class romance between a seaman and a young woman who had done a stint at a reform school.  The film doesn’t seem overly concerned with the economic challenges the characters face so much as the social constraints they seem to be fighting against and the movie proves to be incredibly bold in its exploration of the female character’s sexual past.  It its second half the film even looks rather fearlessly at the issue of abortion and comes out with a pretty strong pro-choice message in an era when abortion appears to have still been illegal in Sweden for those who couldn’t afford to bribe public officials.  That’s definitely some stuff you were not getting from American films from the 1940s and it likely would have even been bold by the standards of many other sections of Europe.

**** out of Five

Thirst (1949)

In between making Port of Call and this movie, Thirst, Ingmar Bergman made a film called Prison that was considered something of a failure and this follow-up was considered to be something of a more commercial re-do of that movie.  It follows a married couple as they take a train ride from Italy back up to Sweden after a vacation and goes into flashbacks of some of their previous relationships that inform their current situation.  The couple bicker like crazy, sometimes in that semi-playful way that certain married couples do, but sometimes in ways that show some real issues with the marriage.  Bergman was only 31 when he made this film but was already on his second of five marriages so clearly he knew a thing or two about marital dysfunction already.  The chemistry between Eva Henning and Birger Malmsten was quite good I also liked the first of the flashbacks, but some of the other flashbacks did not work as well and even at only 84 minutes the film feels a little padded.

**1/2 out of five

To Joy (1950)

With 1950’s To Joy Bergman once again looks at the dynamics of a dysfunctional marriage and is even more open about the fact that it’s a loosely veiled autobiographical work.  The film concerns a man who plays violin for a symphony orchestra in Stockholm and falls in love with a woman who also plays for the orchestra.  We know from the very beginning of the movie because of a flashback structure that this is doomed to end in tragedy, that they will marry but that the woman is going to die in an accident, so you’re mainly rooting for them to have some happiness while they can but they frequently don’t because the man is kind of pathetic.  The man is constantly in a funk because of his doubts about his skill as a violin player and worries that he’s a mere mediocrity and this takes a toll on the relationship as well.  It’s not hard to see this guy’s violin pursuit as a stand-in for Bergman’s own struggles as a young director, especially given that he cast his real life mentor Victor Sjöström as his stand-in’s conductor and mentor in the orchestra.  If this is indeed supposed to be a self-portrait of sorts it’s not a very flattering one, in fact it borders on the self-flagellating as it shows this guy not appreciating what he’s got until it’s too late and generally screwing everything up.  In life Bergman would go on to make a lot of the same mistakes all over again and would have five different wives in total as well as some serious relationships with other women, but from what we see in this film he has clearly learned a lot already and I’m sure it took some guts to put everything out in his art like this.

***1/2 out of Five

Crash Course: Ghibli Beyond Miyazaki – Takahata and Kondō

Ever since Turner Classic Movies ran a Hayoa Miyazaki retrospective back in 2006 I’ve been a pretty big fan of his work.  His hand drawn animations for the Ghibli studio have been among the most acclaimed animated films of all time around the world and have brought anime to a level of mainstream recognition and salability that most wouldn’t have anticipated.  I don’t love all of his movies but the movies of his I like I like quite a bit.  However, it has become increasingly clear to me that I’ve been kind of overlooking the work of his other compatriots at Studio Ghibli and in 2018 I’m hoping to rectify that.  As such I’m going to do two little retrospectives, the first looking at the work of Ghibli’s second most famous auteur Isao Takahata (aside from his classic Grave of the Fireflies, which I’ve already seen) and the one film their other early master Yoshifumi Kondō made before his tragic and untimely death.  I would also like to note upfront that these are not going to be the kind of “skeptical” reviews I did for Disney and Pixar and the like as I already have a great deal of respect for what Ghibli did with Miyazaki.

Only Yesterday (1991)

Though Grave of the Fireflies was actually not Isao Takahata’s debut film, it was the first film he made for Studio Ghibli and as such that’s usually where people start when discussing him.  That it was also basically his magnum opus meant that he had to spend the rest of his career trying to top it, which was basically impossible given how much of an emotionally charged story it was.  One can see the trouble this comparison has been in the differing fates of that film and his (sort of) sophomore effort Only Yesterday in the United States.  While Grave of the Fireflies never had a theatrical release in America (Anime was far from mainstream in the American marketplace in the late 80s) it did get a video release in the early 90s and became quite the cult hit as anime became more of a force.  Only Yesterday, by contrast, never even got an official American release until its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2016.  As such it’s sort of been the lost Ghibli film to audiences on the East side of the Pacific despite having been quite popular in Japan.

The film is in its own way a logical follow-up to Grave of the Fireflies as it is also a look at the life of children but children of the next generation growing up in what was a significantly better time to be a kid in Japan.  The film essentially looks at the life of a ten year old girl in 1960s Tokyo which is contextualized by a framing story about her as an adult visiting the countryside.  Like a lot of coming of age films like The 400 Blows or Boyhood the film is largely about finding profundity in remembering the little things in childhood in a sort of wistful fashion.  There’s basically nothing about the film that would, on the surface anyway, seem to require animation.  Today that’s not very unusual and there are entire genres of anime like that but it’s my understanding that even in the more open minded world of anime that was a pretty unusual idea back in 1991.  This is probably a big part of why the film took so long to cross the Pacific as the core anime audience in America, especially in the early days, were dudes looking for science fiction ultra-violence and this thing had a hard time finding a place in that marketplace.  The film certainly feels like it’s a work of deep nostalgia, but the film’s protagonist obviously isn’t a stand-in for Takahata (who obviously isn’t a female and who would have been in his early thirties during the time the film is set).  Ultimately I think what holds the movie back for me is simply that it feels like a bit more like a collection of moments than a coherent whole.  The connections between the scenes in the 60s and the scenes of the protagonist as an adult never seemed to fully connect and the film never really crescendos in a satisfying way.  Still, it’s a beautifully observed movie for the most part.

***1/2 out of five

Pom Poko (1994)

With Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday Isao Takahata had made two straight films that used animation to tell period stories that didn’t necessarily need to be made with animation.  One could have imagined Takahata making that his modus operendai but instead he made a sharp left turn with his next film, Pom Poko, in which a group of talking raccoons band together to fight humans.  Actually it’s a bit inaccurate to call the creatures in this film “raccoons” (even though the English translations go ahead and do that) when they are in-fact Japanese raccoon dogs or “tanuki” as they’re usually called.  Tanuki are in fact real animals, they’re canines that have raccoon-like patterns on the faces and tails but are not actually related to real raccoons (who are indigenous to North America) at all.  These tanuki play a large part in Japanese folklore, where they’re considered to be shapeshifting tricksters, which is in fact the same tradition that Super Mario is tapping into when he grows “raccoon” ears and tails after picking up a leaf.  Pom Poko is an attempt to merge these old tanuki stories with the modern world in the form of an environmentalist fable.

That was a whole lot of background required to simply set this thing up for a western viewer and I haven’t even gotten into the fact that all the male tanuki have visible ball-sacks present on their bodies throughout the film.  The English dub (that Ghibli somehow got Disney to produce) tries to call these appendages pouches but the subtitled version just straight up calls them testicles.  Tanuki nuts apparently are very much a part of the folklore behind these creatures, but to western audiences that seems pretty weird.  Generally speaking most of the complaints I might have about this movie are things like that which are less the movie’s fault and more the result of something getting a bit lost in translation.  If you’re willing to do the research though and go along with some of this stuff this actually is a pretty solid Ghibli movie.  The movie manages to explain the ecological situation facing these tanukis in some fairly interesting ways and also comes to provide some fairly interesting visuals along the way like the “parade” scene midway through the film or some of the sight gags along the way.  The movie could stand to have been cut down a bit for pacing and it’s not a movie for the closed minded, but certainly a worthwhile watch for people with a slightly deeper interest in anime and Japanese culture.

***1/2 out of Five

Whisper of the Heart (1995)

Though this installment is largely looking at the work of Isao Takahata I’m also going to be looking at this movie, which was the first Ghibli film to be directed by someone other than Takahata or Miyazaki.  Instead this was directed by a man named Yoshifumi Kondō, who was a little younger than Takahata and Miyazaki but still basically of the same generation and who had worked as an animator on a number of Ghibli’s other movies.  Miyazaki had intended for Kondō to be a become one of the studio’s top talents and a successor of sorts for its founders, but Kondō wouldn’t live long enough to take that role.  In early 1998 while working behind the scenes on Princess Mononoke Kondō suffered an aneurysm believed to have been caused by overwork and died at the age of 47.  His death by all accounts affected Miyazaki deeply and was a big part of why he has continually been announcing his retirement ever since.  We’ll never know what Kondō would have one day become, but we do have his directorial debut to look back on.

Given that this movie represents the legacy of a filmmaker who died prematurely I’d love to be able to say that this is a hidden gem but as Studio Ghibli movies go I actually think it’s a bit weak.  That’s not to say that it’s a bad movie, it isn’t, but it lacks a certain something.  The film mostly takes the Takahata approach of making a movie that is basically set in the real world and focuses on a kid but the animation is a bit more Miyazaki-like. The weakness here is that the film’s protagonist feels like she would be an adequately developed character in an adventure movie but who seems to be just a little too thin to hold her own in a character drama like this.  The film tries to capture the confusion of youth but doesn’t quite nail it and as a result the protagonist just kind of feels like a bit of a spaz at times.  I’m also not crazy about her boyfriend of sorts Seiji, who kind of seems like a gender flipped manic pixie dream boy.  That’s not so say there isn’t some charming stuff here, it’s just kind of minor as these things go.

*** out of Five

My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)

I haven’t spent a lot of time talking about actual animation style while discussing Takahata but it is clear that a big thing that differentiates him from Miyazaki is that he experimented a lot more with the basic look of his films than his more famous colleague did.  I don’t want to diminish Miyazaki’s artistry in any way but the basic look of his films didn’t really differ much from the traditional anime style outside of the fact that they had a lot more money and they found more creative things to animate.  That was also more or less true about Takahata’s first three movies, which were a bit more grounded and had slightly different color palates than Miyazaki’s, but with his fourth film My Neighbors the Yamadas he really started to go wild and break from what most people would expect a Studio Ghibli films.  The film was not based on a typical manga but on a comic strip of the Sunday paper variety and the film takes on that “cartoon” style in a way that will be readily apparent at the very first glance.  The characters here are drawn in an intentionally sloppy manner, almost like doodles, and the backgrounds in the film are minimal to the point of being plain white at times, but that isn’t to say it’s a super low budget production and it does do larger set pieces at times.

I think this movie expects its audience to have some foreknowledge of the comic strip it was based on because it really throws you right in the middle of this family’s antics without giving you much of an introduction to the characters.  There isn’t a traditional story here so much as a series of light vignettes about family life.  Given the film’s episodic nature it is perhaps a bit curious that they believed a feature film would be the best format for the content.  With its sitcom nature one could imagine it being made into a 30 minute TV show that could almost be like a Japanese version of “The Simpsons” or given its funky animation style one could almost imagine it as a (very high budget) Youtube series if this were being made in a different era.  As it is, the film did not really keep me overly engaged on a narrative or character level and I certainly didn’t find it overly laugh out loud funny, so there really just wasn’t a whole lot for me in this thing.  Granted, cultural differences likely played some role in my disconnection from the film and I was interested in it enough from an animation perspective  in relation to the studio’s other films (it was, oddly enough, Ghibli’s first digitally animated movie) that I was at least interested by it but it is an oddity that is probably best left for completists.

** out of Five

The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2014)

After My Neighbors the Yamadas Isao Takahata took a long break from directing feature animation.  During the over ten year span between his last two movies he focused his efforts on producing Studio Ghibli’s other films as they achieved greater and greater mainstream success and had a couple of other side projects.  Eventually it was announced that he would direct one final movie for the studio around the same time that his colleague Hayao Miyazaki was also planning to retire after making The Wind Rises.  Takahata’s retirement plans were met with less press than Miyazaki’s, in no small part because of the long break he took, but when his swan song finally came out it was met with a great deal of critical respect and a nomination in the Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars.  That film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, was an adaptation of an ancient Japanese folk tale about a bamboo cutter who finds a child in the woods and raises her as his own to eventually learn that she was sent by the moon people and that she would eventually have to return to them.  It’s a story with odd parallels to, of all things, the Superman origin story and has actually been viewed as something of a proto-science fiction story even if it doesn’t really feel like one.

To bring this 10th century folk tale to life Takahata decided to once again eschew the typical anime style and employ a unique form of animation, this one based on more traditional Japanese art.  The film is meant to look like a charcoal drawing brought to life with pastel watercolor added on top to make it look like an old Japanese scroll come to life.  It’s a much more successful aesthetic experiment than My Neighbors the Yamadas and really makes the film look unique and interesting and the film’s status as a Studio Ghibli production gives it more money to work with than an experimental idea like this would normally get.  The story seems to be very true to the original legend but with a bit more of an emphasis on what could be viewed as a sort of proto-feminism at the story’s heart as the titular princess rejects some of the more rigid gender roles required by the royal court and rebels against the life she eventually finds people trying to force her into.  If the movie has a weakness it’s that it is perhaps a bit long for how much of a simple fable the story is meant to be.  Takahata’s films generally tend to be a little bit longer than they need to be and have a touch of bagginess to them, but every time this one feels like it’s getting it bit dull it tends to bounce back with some kind of little twist of visual idea to liven things up a bit.

**** out of Five

And that is where this installment of my exploration into the wider world of Ghibli will have to come to an end.  There are still some Ghibli movies I’d like to check out and at a later date I do hope to do another installment of this where I check out the works of Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Gorō Miyazaki, and Hiroyuki Morita, who are basically the second generation of Ghibli talents who made a number of films in the last decade or two while the older masters were going into and out of retirement.  Of course a bit of a shadow hangs over the current retrospective in that, between the time I started it and now Isao Takahata passed away, leaving The Tale of Princess Kaguya definitively his final film.  Having seen all of his films now I can pretty clearly say he leaves behind a pretty strong legacy.  No, I don’t know that any of the movies I looked at here was quite a grand slam but all of them were interesting on some level and there’s a maturity and a fearlessness to his overall filmography that is very much appreciated.  Add to that the fact that Grave of the Fireflies is an undisputed classic and his status as a master of animation is certainly earned.

Crash Course: J-Horror

In 1998 a Japanese filmmaker named Hideo Nakata made a modestly budgeted horror film called Ringu which brought the traditional Japanese ghost story into a modern context through a story of a ghost child who wrecks vengeance upon the rest of the world through a haunted VHS tape that kills people seven days after watching it.  I’m not exactly sure how unprecedented this was in Japanese cinema but it was a wild success there and it clearly sparked something of a movement because a lot of somewhat similar horror movies began to be made in its wake.  This sensation eventually crossed the Pacific in the form of Gore Verbinski’s 2002 remake The Ring.  Like most Americans that remake was my introduction to that story and this style of horror and frankly I think it was probably an improvement over the original film.  That sort of kept me from really digging into the rest of what this early 2000s explosion in Japanese horror had to offer and the generally toxic reviews that the various remakes of these J-horror movies ended up getting kept me away from them as well.  Now however I’ve suddenly gotten the urge to go back and take a look at how this little sub-genre came to be and what it had to offer beyond the Ring movies.

Pulse (2001)

 Pulse was one of the last big J-Horror movies to get an American remake but was actually one of the first of these post-Ringu horror films to be released.  While a lot of these J-horror films have kind of disappeared over time, this one has stuck around longer, partly because of the continued fame of its director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (who is of no relation to Akira Kurosawa).  Kurosawa has never really had much of an international breakthrough and Pulse remains his most famous movie but he has a following; his movies regularly play in high profile international film festivals and he certainly sounds thoughtful and interesting in interviews.  On its surface Pulse certainly shares a lot of similarities with Ringu as both involve ghosts using modern technology to reach out to the world and haunt people, with this one using the internet rather than VHS tapes.  The bigger difference is that in Ringu (and even moreso in the remake) the ghost had a fairly rigid set of rules that it followed when it went about haunting people what with phoning people and waiting seven days.  Here the rules are a lot less clear.  Sometimes the ghosts contact people through the internet, sometimes they haunt people in person, and sometimes they drive people to suicide but it’s not exactly clear who or why.

Taken as a literal narrative Pulse does not make a lot of sense.  There’s no real rhyme or reason to the ghost’s (ghosts’?) behavior and its format of having separate simultaneous narratives is a bit confusing.  Treating the film as a puzzle is likely to lead to frustration.  Instead the film is notable for its thematic undertones.  This was made right after the turn of the millennium and the internet was still new-ish.  People were still using dial up, Facebook didn’t exist yet and for that matter neither did MySpace.  People were still optimistic about the “world wide web” would connect the world, but this movie was fairly forward thinking in asserting that it would actually lead to greater isolation and at the same time a greater reduction in peace and privacy.  That theme is actually discussed fairly directly in the film although its connections to all the ghostly goings on are sometimes more tenuous than other times.  As far as how well the movie works just as a straightforward horror movie, well, I don’t know that it has quite the visceral effect that some of the better ghost stories are likely to have but there are certainly some potent moments along the way.

Dark Water (2002)

The director who more or less started the 2000s J-horror boom was of course Hideo Nakata, who directed Ringu and its sequel in 1998 and 1999, his first horror follow up to his Ringu movies was his 2002 film Dark Water, which came out in 2002, the same year that the Hollywood remake The Ring came out and hit it big.  Dark Water certainly shares some things in common with Ringu in that both films are about divorced women with small children contending with the vengeful ghosts of drowned girls, but there are also clear differences.  For one thing, the fact that the woman at the center of Ringu is a divorcee seems to largely be thematically incidental but here it seems to be rather important.  The film is playing on this woman’s anxieties and doubts that she’s truly providing the best life for her child by moving her into this rickety old apartment and away from her seemingly wealthier father.  It just so happens that the problems with this living environment aren’t merely economic but also supernatural.

The film’s ghost also differs from the one in Ringu as it doesn’t operate on a convoluted high concept and instead haunts people in the more traditional ways you might expect from a ghost story.  He leaves objects lying around ominously, she appears suddenly in the distance and then disappears, and if she has a gimmick it’s that she makes the ceiling of this apartment leak occasionally and makes other creepy water related occurrences happen.  I don’t know that it did anything particularly unprecedented but looking at it now it’s hard not to see the roots of some of the modern haunting movies like Insidious and The Conjuring in something like this and in many ways I do think this might have been made with something of an eye on Hollywood.  This is a more streamlined and understandable version of a J-horror movie, but that’s not to say it’s a sell-out or a lesser version of the form.  Instead it’s better viewed as a very well-crafted and confidently made example of what one of these movies can be like.  Dark Water was given a remake in 2005, but it got reviews that were mixed at best and only did alright at the box office.  Unfortunately Nakata’s winning streak did not continue after this.  He was brought in to do the terrible sequel to American version of The Ring and hasn’t made anything that’s made much of a splash since then.

Suicide Club (2002)

Suicide Club (AKA Suicide Circle) is a different kind of movie than the rest of the J-horror movies I’m looking at for this piece in a handful of ways.  For one, it never got an American remake, and it also doesn’t really revolve around a ghost per se even though there is still an unseen force going after people.  What’s more it isn’t even entirely a horror film so much as it’s a sort of violent provocation along the lines of something like Battle Royale or Ichi the Killer.  The film’s opening sequence in particular is incredibly disturbing: it depicts as many as fifty seemingly normal teenage schoolgirls at a subway station suddenly line up and jump onto the tracks as a train is coming, killing them all.  Did I mention that this never got a Hollywood remake?  The focus is ultimately on the way society reacts to this and continues to react as similar incidents seem to pop up occasionally.  There’s a certain resemblance to the premise of M. Night Shyamalan awful 2008 film The Happening but the suicide epidemic here feels more like a mysterious crime wave than an apocalyptic cataclysm.  Much of the film focuses on a group of detectives who are investigating these occurrences and start to put together certain clues that seem to be leading to some sort of force causing these seemingly random mass suicides.

Unlike a lot of the J-horror movies that I’m looking at in this piece, this movie has something of a (very) dark comedic streak.  It’s not going for laughs exactly but the movie plays out its suicide sequences with a certain satirical tone which does seem to be in pretty questionable taste, but it does in some ways make what you’re watching seem even more disturbing and it does have the effect it seems to be going for.  The problem is that this isn’t necessarily the tone the rest of the movie takes.  The scenes with the detectives play out using the rather straightforward language of a mystery/police procedural like Se7en or something.  This investigation side of the movie mostly works pretty well scene to scene but there are loose threads that don’t really come together perfectly, which is partly intentional but partly not.  So what is the point of this all?  I’m not entirely sure but Japan is traditionally known to have a higher suicide rate than a lot of other countries and this is presumably a critique of that.  Perhaps it’s making some sort of point that people are complacent when fifty teenagers kill themselves separately but are suddenly shocked out of that complacency when they suddenly do it all at once and publicly.  The ultimate culprit that the movie suggests is behind all this chaos may also be something of a stand in for a wider culture that seems to in some ways give people permission to take their lives, albeit subliminally.  I don’t think I have the cultural context to connect all those dots though and with the odd shifts in tone I’m not sure the movie works.

Ju-On: The Grudge (2003)

Though there are a variety of J-Horror movies out there, in the popular consciousness the genre is largely defined by two series: the Ringu series and the Ju-On series.  The latter of those series was the source of the 2004 American film The Grudge (a film I’ve never seen), which was largely based on the 2003 Japanese film Ju-On: The Grudge.  This was not, however the first movie in the series.  That distinction actually goes to a direct-to-video film Ju-On: The Curse, which was followed by another direct-to-video sequel called Ju-On: The Curse 2 (Ju-On, incidentally, is Japanese for “Curse Grudge”).  These micro-budget films were well received and led to their semi-sequel/semi-reboot Ju-On: The Grudge getting a theatrical release which was a hit and its remake would become the one clear financial success to come out of the gold rush to bring other J-Horror films to American after the success of The Ring.  All of these films including the direct-to-video ones and the American remake and its first sequel were directed by a guy named Takashi Shimizu, who by my count has directed at least six of these things and the franchise has gone on since then and has produced no fewer than twelve different movies across its various iterations including one released just last year which was a crossover between the Ju-On ghost and the Ringu ghost.

The sheer number of these movies suggests that there must be something to them that’s appealing, but I really didn’t care for what I saw in this first and presumably best film in the series.  The film, like a lot of these movies, is about people forced to contend with a vengeful ghost (ghosts?) and this ghost is particularly murderous.  The spirit’s modus operandi is to curse anyone who enters the house it died in and comes into contact with anyone else who already has the curse… and that’s more or less all that happens throughout the course of the movie.  People enter the movie, get cursed, then die something like ten minutes later when the ghost decides the time is right.  Few characters are in the movie long enough for you to really care about them before they’re killed, and just to make matters even less clear the movie is told outside of chronological order to no real effect.  The basic mechanics of how the ghost stalks and kills (appearing and disappearing, that croaking sound) have a certain creepy quality to them, but their effect is quickly diminished with repetition over the course of the film.  There also isn’t really much to this ghost at the end of the day, it’s not trying to tell its story like the ghost from Ringu, it’s not trying to make some elaborate statement about the loneliness of death like the ghosts in Pulse, and it’s not even trying to find a new mother like the ghost in Dark Water, it just wants to kill everyone and that doesn’t make for a terribly compelling film.

Premonition (2004)

Premonition was a movie that came out towards the tail end of the early 2000s J-horror explosion, or at least towards the tail end of Western viewer’s initial interest in that scene.  There was a 2007 American film that was also called Premonition but my understanding is that that is not a remake.  The film was part of a loose series of sorts called “J-Horror Theater,” which was meant to be sort of an omnibus label that various directors would contribute films to, a bit like what Tarantino and Rodriguez were envisioning with their Grindhouse label or maybe what J.J. Abrams was trying to do with Cloverfield.  The film tells the story of a father who picks up a strange newspaper and sees an obituary for his (very much alive) daughter in it and then moments later this child is killed in a car crash.  The film picks up again years later when this evil newspaper comes back into his life and again starts predicting disasters that he’s largely powerless to stop and whenever he does stop them there seem to be dire consequences.  This setup is reminiscent of this TV show from the 90s called “Early Edition,” but here this magical newspaper seems more like a curse than a gift, especially given that attempts to prevent these disasters are usually punished.

In fact, the film’s “don’t mess with fate” theme actually almost harkens back to Final Destination (which does predate this), though obviously without the gory sadism of that rather unsavory franchise.  This one probably more closely resembles Ringu than a lot of the films I’m looking at for this piece, in part because there’s a clear investigative aspect to it and there are also elements Pulse in the way it seems to deal with a supernatural phenomenon that a lot of people are simultaneously trying to figure out.  The scares, however, are not really there and I’m not even sure I’d really call it a horror film so much as a kind of Twilight Zone scenario.  It’s not the most visually adventurous of these movies either and I’d say that it was pretty average for a lot of its runtime but it does pick up a little in its third act as the man tries to break the cycle to varying degrees of success.