Monthly Archives: August 2015

Rental Corner: The puzzlement of “Spirited Away”

Disclaimer: The version reviewed for this post was the English-dub and thus much will be referred to on that cut and not the original Japanese cut. Regardless of the translation differences, it doesn’t change my opinion. 

483024-spirited-awayWhile I’m not a fan, Studio Ghibli has made a unique filmography. The majority of their movies deal with the unknown fantasy realm while keeping in tune with nature as seen in My Neighbor Tororo and Princess Mononoke while others like Kiki’s Delivery Service are simple fun. Unfortunately, those mentioned three are the only ones I have seen but I do admire their compassion to keep hand-drawn animated films alive. But of all the movies to make a mark, the one I always hear that is their crown jewel is Spirited Away. For the longest time, I never really had a moving interest to see this one or even a notion to do so. But yet, everyone couldn’t stop talking about it. Heck, it even won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. However, will all this praise and after finally getting the courage to see it for the first time, all the magic and wonder everyone was hyped up on just left me feeling underwhelmed. Needless to say, I don’t hate this movie but I felt more disappointed in the end.

fullwidth.1ea2e172The story is a basic dark fairy tale as little Chihiro is moving from her old home. We never see what this old home or town looks like as we focus on her and the parents already leaving. The father dumbfound of where to go stumbles across a set of ruins he and the mother mistake as an abandoned amusement park. As with most folklore, this takes the trope of blind parents lead to misfortune as they consume food that turns them into pigs (displayed in a rather uncomfortable scene as the eating sounds really got under my skin.)

As it turns out, Chihiro is left in the middle of a place where spirits go to relax and replenish themselves. From what kind of activity or work they do before a day of relaxing, we don’t know. All we know is that spirits at night go to this place just to kick back and relax. But here is one of the biggest concerns I have and it happens to be the setting and placement of this movie. Everyone who has talked about it praised the visuals and where the whole movie is set. So imagine my disappointment when I find out the whole story takes place within an enchanted bathhouse. You heard me right. A bathhouse were odd frogmen greet and seemly normal women (never specified if they are ghosts or creatures in disguise) are to wash the beasts after their long day. Already, I found it more perplexing as to why set the story here.

Url-2Maybe there can be something unique with a simple place like this? Is there a room or two that looks wonderful and glorious? Nope. Its just a bathhouse. Visuals like a man with spider-arms in the boiler room to a grand office that would make Mr. Burns jealous are the only highlights. Its a shame because I admit the animation looks unique with the shadings and shadows when it needs to feel menacing and bright. But I ask of all the places to set a fantasy movie, why this one? When watching the story unfold, I found nothing unique or eye-popping outside of the beastly clients that range from fat turnip creatures in a fundoshi to giant ducks. Charming indeed.

The plot, that is if you call it one, has Chihiro under the servitude of the place’s owner, Yubaba who could is very much a cross between the mythos of Baba Yaga and a bobble head of the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland. Chihiro has to wash and work the place in order to free her parents, who I guess remain in the form of pigs for the remainder of the movie. But most of the time, our focus is placed on the strange imagery that lay within the walls and occupy the screen. Throughout the duration, I felt there was never a single breath to allow us to look about or even take a break from such bizarre scenes like a creepy giant baby or a monster that is covered in sludge. And by the time we get to the most-talked about moment when it does get quiet on a train, all I felt was very fatigued than relaxed.

How can a movie like this pack so much material and yet everyone praise it as “originality”? You could argue its a mesh of traditional fairy tales like Cinderella (girl washes the place under control) while crossing it with traditional Japanese folklore like how dragons represent a river. But most of the time, I found myself predicting and knowing what was going to happen more than letting the story unravel itself. Perhaps being well resourceful of fairy tale tropes, I was really irked to see these “simple things” being praised as genius. These are elements that have been done before but in better tales. Entrapment under a witch like Hansel and Gretel, strange puzzles and clues to solve riddles or curses like in The Snow Queen and even a bit of Beauty and the Beast tossed in as our main girl has to wash off a monster covered in (what I HOPE looks like but I know it isn’t) sludge and mud.

spirited-awayMost of the time, I felt bad for the character Chihiro and all the stuff she goes through. Her character is only reduced to coming across a bizarre animation set piece or shouting dialogue once in a while. Even if she starts off wise like the choice to not to eat the magic food, the rest of movie has her brain taking a back seat as she gets lost in the world of spirits. I understand a place like this is new to her but why not be smart about it? For example, there is a scene when she has to give up her identity to the bathhouse owner in order to work there. Why not give a fake name so your true self can be kept from the clutches of the witch? But no, they explain she can remember her name thanks to a farewell card she got before moving from her old home. She is told by an ally of hers to keep it so she doesn’t loose her name and identity all together. But even that doesn’t pay off in the end. We never go back to the card or even feel like her own personality that she sold off is at risk.

Instead of being amazed by this world, I felt frightened to the point I barley got any sleep after watching it (true story). But even more stranger is the underlying message of how bad prostitution is. And no, this is not something that I’m looking too deep into. I did my research to see if I missed any symbolism prior to this blog post and found it has a possible underlying message on this adult subject. The fact the little girl sacrifices her name in order to gain a new identity so she can work on serving clients. The first one she has to service is dirty from head to toe and in the end she gets really greasy and grimmy after washing the monster off. One of the monsters tries to buy her service in gold. Its all there black and white. Clear as crystal. Now you could argue these are stuble underlying elements but I’m sorry. After being reminded of Deepa Mehta’s Water and reading on an interview with director Hayao Miyazaki himself, I can confirm this is another “double meaning” movie. One to serve as a fantasy for kids and the other to make a statement that really gives me uncomfortable goosebumps.

So yeah, this sounds like I really didn’t have a good time seeing this one. And, yeah its very true. For something that has grand designs, I expected something more like a grand adventure or something bigger. The simplicity of the plot and the over abundance of weirdness really killed the enjoyment. I guess what I expected was this grand and original fairy tale when what I get is more of a patchwork of traditional elements reworked into a small story. I’m okay with that but there was nothing interesting to me with the story or these characters. The more it continued, the more I wanted the film to end. I was done with the twisted place of monsters and its buffet of strange scenes that went on like no end in sight.

To compare, there is a movie that does a similar aspect but far different called Wolf Children. In my view, that is a much better movie because the story fits the simple animation and the characters have simple motives we connect to more. We got the mother Hana who has the challenge to raise her new kids but doesn’t know how. And even if she has no exact information on how to raise half-human and half wolf kids like her’s, Hana is really smart about her choices like debating on consulting a veterinarian or a doctor when one of her kids get sick. And not to mention the kids themselves trying to find a place in the world while one wants to be with nature while the other wants to be more social and open with the world. My god, why isn’t that movie getting more attention as opposed to the crazy roller coaster I had to endure?
maxresdefaultI feel like Spirited Away was created more for the crazy and insane visuals and I’m sure a lot of them will be implanted in my brain for a while. But sadly, this was not a case when I thought words got perfectly married with the animation. I understand many of you are rather upset at this point to hear my underwhelming and disappointing thoughts but no matter how much I wanted to enjoy this movie, I felt like I was getting nothing in return. An episode of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller gave more to offer than this two hour “epic” of unfocused insanity.

I am sorry. Very, very, very sorry. Deeply sorry. Sorry that I feel very indifferent to those who have a higher opinion about this movie than I do. Sorry for those who see this as a sacred cow as I walk by and question why. Sorry that I couldn’t get into a film that boasts grand images but yet has a very disappointing plot. Sorry that a good movie like this just didn’t amaze me as you did.

Spirited Away is a not a bad movie. It is just one that didn’t get my interest that much. This is a common thing that has happened once before when I had to watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon during a college course on Asian Cinema. All I saw in my view were sword fights, balancing acts on trees and a underwhelming story of past fairy tale tropes clogged together to make an original story with similar beats. Let me tell you after watching that “martial arts classic,” I was furious see a movie that everyone praised gave me nothing in return aside from imagery that belonged in a Cirque Du Soleil performance. On the other hand, perhaps history has a way of repeating itself…

“Fantastic” dud

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.....no, I didn't hit anything on accident. That is how I feel about this one.

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…..no, I didn’t hit anything on accident. That is how I feel about this one.

I recall last year seeing a high school performance of the “Beauty and the Beast” musical with a friend of mine. It was a study for play performances and this was a last minute choice. Let me tell you, everything looked like an Ed Wood movie. 75% of the cast wore wigs, 75% of the cast was mostly female and the beast costume looked like the Cowardly Lion’s twice removed cousin. But you know what, it was entertaining. Something about seeing the cast trying to perform under all the bad make-up and cheap sets was far more entertaining then the junk I had to see today.

The plot (that is if you can call it one) involves a science prodigy named Reed Richards (Miles Teller) who creates a machine in his garage that transports matter to another dimension. A scientist named Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) notices this at a science fair Reed attends and uses not just the machine but Reed’s skills to perfect his similar creation. The craft in general looks like a bunch of radioactive barrels with two solar panels hovering above it. This is only a sample of how “fantastic” the look of this movie gets.

Upon learning some government executives plan to send other scientists in, one of the creators Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) convinces Reed and two other colleges to be the first to try it out. As one would expect, mayhem ensues with them gaining bizarre abilities after their disastrous visit. Again, its hard to say if there is a real story here as the rest of the movie has our main characters cooped up in an army bunker as Reed and the survivors of the accident are coaxed into working for the government.

The story as a whole meanders so much it makes me wonder how can you not deliver a single storyline with something like this. Then again, the Fantastic Four adaptions do have a strange history of their travels to the big screen ranging from Roger Corman’s produced and (as of this review) infamously unreleased affair to Tim Story’s two films. It appears the idea of taking a team of people getting superpowers and using something with them could make for an interesting film. But only this latest reboot proves that executives and writers make it hard for themselves thinking there is no material to work with when their could be.

Last year’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” worked by having no origin story and only focusing on how the team members got together while delivering a fun and unique ride thanks to James Gunn. “Fantastic” seems to focus on the main characters and where they stand but it doesn’t go anywhere until the last 30 minutes when an actual plot happens but its far too soon. Most of time, the team is being manipulated by an evil government agent (or a possible scientist. either way, he’s dressed like an evil government agent so why not? Also he is played by Tim Blake Nelson) or trying to pick around for something to do. It appears there are ideas for spin-off films here and there as Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) is off fighting in other nations in news reports, Reed Richards is playing “Borne Identity” in Panama while trying to find a cure and Victor is very much forgotten in the other dimension until the last half-hour. The amount of space is at a waste.

The biggest crime of all has to be the acting performances. Not a single human being in this movie emotes or even acts interested. Most of the time, everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) talks in a robotic manner while keeping a hush tone. I barley remember a moment when one solitary person gave a smile or cared for another when in danger. Even the romantic chemistry between Reed and Sue Storm (Kate Mara) is interesting as toast as they try to share some interest of science but have odd John Hughes quirks. Some like Jamie Bell try but it feels like they know there is nothing to work with in a story that is so next to nothing. Reg E. Cathey gets a much deserved examination for how that actor never breaks his dull performance. I guess he’s trying to be Samuel Jackson-ish by being serious and dead pan. But when he carries this trait throughout the whole movie, it makes me want to cut every scene he is in to avoid such an annoying delivery. When words came out his mouth, I wanted to sleep.

Even more bizarre is the tone as the opening of the movie is reminiscent to Joe Dante’s “Explorers” as young Reed and Ben try out the homemade dimension jump device but then things keep changing throughout. First, it tries to be a serious science fiction movie then cranks up the intensity in spots that look more brutal than passable for viewers when its not needed.

Sure enough, it all ends in a climax that looks vaguely similar to “Man of Steel” as Doom shows up and plans to somehow destroy both Earth and the new planet in the dimension. How can such a travesty be averted? They have a fight scene on the uninteresting, CGI laden set while throwing debris and junk at Doom. Its formulaic and doesn’t have flair. Again, “Guardians” had risk with Star Lord, Drax and Groot making their way to stop the villain who was floating his way down to the planet to obliterate it. For support, you had Rocket and a team trying to prevent the ship from touching the planet and Gamora trying to shut down the security system while dealing with her sister. Sounds complex on paper but those two sentences described an energetic, engaging, on the edge climax that build and builds. Once the big fight happens, it evaporates like celluloid dust in hopes the film will end sooner.

Even prior to the release, “Fantastic Four” has been slammed by fans for being inaccurate to the source by changing certain things like the Human Torch being portrayed by an African American and certain character relationships. Most strange is how Sue Storm is adoptive but is never fully discussed. Something that wasn’t elaborated on that lead me to believe Doom and Sue were siblings when they weren’t. It was just information that wasn’t heavily addressed. Still, that didn’t bother me as much but what really did was the workings of the script, the performances and the overall movie in general. Why bank on Doctor Who and Rick and Morty with dimension jumping? Is outer space not interesting enough? Because that is how our leads got those powers in the process with the exception of Doom getting his from a lab accident. I went in with an open mind thinking this movie would be ok but it turned out to be worse than I imagined.

This is not an adaptation that reflects the source while giving viewers of new something to appreciate. It does the opposite by giving nothing to both parties in return. Even the character motives are standard and dull as an expedition to the new world is crafted from Doom’s drunk escapade as the evil government agent exploits the team for every other reason why this kind of guy would. Because this team has ultimate powers and as always in these kind of scenarios, the government wants control of that power. Yawn, yawn, yawn, double-yawn and deep sleep. I hope viewers who read this review are smart enough to see a more “fantastic” movie in the theater next door. At least “Howard the Duck” was far more inventive, creative and unique in comparison.

Why the Hate?: Cabin Boy

Aside from the stormy box-office, it sailed on to a better life....kind of

Aside from the stormy box-office, it sailed on to a better life….kind of

This is one of those movies I remember hearing about as a kid and always been curious to see how it plays out. It had a lot that interested me. An adventure on the sea, all sorts of strange and cool monsters as well as some neat looking visuals. Again, I never saw “Cabin Boy” but knew of its existence. And when the dawn of the Internet came into my reach and began expanding my knowledge of film history, I would learn that the cult following for this one was relatively small. In fact, this movie today is decreed as so bad that many disregard it as the worst or even straight bad. Which is a shame seeing there is clearly a lot of talent behind it. Chris Elliot not only stars but also writes the screenplay, Tim Burton (who couldn’t direct due to duties with Batman Returns) produces and there is clearly a lot of effort in trying to make this a grand eye-visual please. At least in where it tries to be grand on a small scale. So what is it about this movie that rubs people the wrong way?

Chris Elliot is the innocent Nathaniel as he talks to one of the locals played by David Letterman. Chris and David used to work on the Late Night show together

Chris Elliot is the innocent Nathaniel as he talks to one of the locals played by David Letterman. Chris and David used to work on the Late Night show together

Chris Elliot plays Nathaniel Mayweather, a self-centered snob with rich folks and crass dialogue that is sarcastically harsh but funny from time to time. And I know what your going to ask, it is one of those movies. The jerk goes on a journey of self-discovery and later learns to be a better person. The character arch isn’t that interesting but you have to give Chris Elliot credit. He really tries with the material even when the scenes he’s in are hit and miss. What works best of the character in my opinion in just how crass he is to not just the poor but even the higher-class too. It shows that he’s not the kind that is into his rich lifestyle but perceived as a grown up spoiled brat. Again most of the comedy works from his child-like antics but I can see this being done better with someone like Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman) or even Martin Short.

The crew of the Filthy Whore. And if that didn't make you laugh....

The crew of the Filthy Whore. And if that didn’t make you laugh….

Anyway through a huge misunderstand with a direction sign, he boards a fishing boat on accident thinking at first its a theme boat. But as the captain and crew get annoyed of his snotty attitude, the salty sailors appoint him as a cabin boy and try to find a way to get rid of him. All the while, Nathaniel tries to make things work with the grumpy fishermen as he tries to find his way to Hawaii in order to meet with his father or something like that. I guess you can sort of see the big problem here. There is little to no plot to keep an interest from time to time. Most of the movie takes part on the boat and trying to find something funny with the characters. And to be honest, a comedy can work that way but viewers like to have a story to follow or at least something engaging. This is really the weakest problem as the snobby lad goes from serving fish stick kittens for dinner to swabbing the deck with nothing but soap and his tongue. Its a movie that really feeds on jokes and gags than really giving a compelling story.

Honestly when the comedy works, it does work. There’s a scene when Nathaniel is set adrift on a small raft and has these weird illusions which does take a weird but funny turn. Chris’s material shows his innocent comedy by trying to keep positive despite the harsh conditions from using cooking oil as sun screen to going bonkers. And that’s sort of this movie in a nutsell. Its one gag after another and you wait for the next to come by. Dare I say, its one of those kind of movies you watch with a friend just to see how they react. You either laugh along or pray there is a good joke.

Chocki, half-man and half -shark. One of many unique monsters that shows how great a practical make-up job can be.

Chocki, half-man and half -shark. One of many unique monsters that shows how great a practical make-up job can be.

Also for a movie that was given a low budget, I’m surprised to see how much effort they tried to put into the special effects. In an interview, director Adam Resnick mentioned how he had a hard time trying to make this movie as it was originally meant for Tim Burton to direct. And yeah, I can see where he is coming from. Trying to attempt one’s vision is not easy unless you have someone who understands what he or she had in mind. But I think it was a good attempt. Some of the designs in the monsters have a Burtonesque quality even if  they feel simplistic. The visual look does have a Burtonesque quality even right down to those curtain backdrops. Again, “Cabin Boy” was made on a very low budget but you can tell they really tried to make something out of it. You still get some creative visuals like a ship in a stormy sea or a stop-motion ice monster. Even the make-up job on creatures like a half-man, half-shark being or a six armed goddess really shows what can be done with practical work. A testament to how well something real and in front of the camera can work compared to CGI.

Even the performances are not that bad either. Brian Doyle-Murry plays on the shipmates who knows his mythology and despite the movie he’s in you know he tries. There’s also some cameos by David Letterman and Andy Richter who get a funny line or two as well as some small running gags that are cute. I can’t say there is a bad performance or even one that was painful annoying. There were all around ok.

The Hallucinogenic Floating Cupcake...one of many iconic scenes that viewers remember

The Hallucinogenic Floating Cupcake…one of many iconic scenes that viewers remember

The only reason I can see why some viewers hated “Cabin Boy” on arrival was by how mismanaged the production was from the studio and what they didn’t know what to expect from its bizarre comedy. As a whole, the comedic tone is sort of a demented Popeye cartoon crossed with the surreal nature of Spongebob Squarepants. If this was done in better hands like Henry Selick, perhaps “Cabin Boy” would be molded into a better film. But from what I saw, I felt it was alright. I’m glad I finally got around to seeing it considering the continuing mixed reception that’s been building. It feels like a throwback to those fantasy movies of the 1930s with really cheap effects and silly stuff from time to time.  But if that’s not your kind of fun, I understand. I just think its a silly comedy that really tried. Nothing too horrible or insulting to the eyes bad but far from perfect. Give it a rent and judge for yourself.

“MI: Rogue Nation” is the best one yet

The stakes are raised and its for the better!

The stakes are raised and its for the better!

The “Mission Impossible” franchise is far different from the ordinary spy thrillers or even the Bond films for that matter. For the past entries, there is a certain formula it has been following even right from the first film. Have one intense set piece after another and care little of the plot. This is very clear in the first film as most of the story is hard to follow but it depends on how well you pay attention in order to connect the dots. “Rogue Nation” is a step up as it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where it improves.

Tom Cruise is back as Ethan Hunt and honestly, the series is nothing without him. Tom’s commitment to the stunt work really shows that no matter what hurdle his character comes across, there’s a way to achieve it. This is clear in the opening heist when Ethan finds himself hanging on for dear life to a cargo plane taking off into the air. There is something very refreshing to see a practical stunt at play and shows how brave some actors can be to ditch the blue screen. Dare I say Ethan’s character feels more like a daredevil than a spy at times but how many moments he puts this life on the life. Truly a vast improvement of the character.

Another big highlight that is worth the admission price is Simon Pegg as Benji. The tech wiz is back and more prominent than ever. What works well is Simon’s chemistry between Tom as comedy clashes with action in a beautiful yet very entertaining way. When these two banter on screen, it never drags and establishes where they stand. Benji is almost like Ethan’s conscious trying to veer him from this dangerous stuff even when he knows the only way to perform the dangerous task is to do it. There is never a moment that went by when I wished the comedy between them would end. It perfectly blends solid character depth and comedy that is better than any buddy cop movie to date.

The plot is a near improvement but I still feel less is more. A mysterious man known as the Syndicate (Sean Harris) plans to cause an uproar around the world even when he’s already doing it. Despite the amount of build up to this antagonist and a near chilling performance, I felt there should have been more scenes with him to establish the menace more. I also say near chilling because at times Sean’s voice feels like a whispery Marlon Brando that is trying to be eerie and sinister. It just came off a touch bothersome but then again, the focus is on our leads more than the problem.

Rebecca Freguson also joins the ride as Ilsa Faust, a spy that is attempting to gain back her place in the world while serving as help to Ethan. The chemistry between these two is sleek and sexier than Mr. and Mrs. Smith by how much they play off each other. One or the other knows they are in for a double cross as they try to remain one step ahead while showing how much they care for each other. As Ilsa fights for an identity, you keep asking just who side she is one while admiring the romance and how clever she can be in a tight situation.

The biggest highlight of these movies are the stunts and boy, they outdo every single one from the past films. To mark down each one would be ruining a child’s Christmas gifts the day before so I will only use one as an example. There’s an scene when Ethan and Benji have to stop an assassination at a opera house in Vienna, Austria. In a sense, the way its filmed rivals the finale to The Godfather Part III (which I feel is criminally underrated thank you very much) as the fist fights and operatic score match the action on screen. A perfect blend of art and blockbuster fun that rivals Mad Max: Fury Road.

From each action set piece that comes by and for every gadget that is seen, I never wanted “Rogue Nation” to end. In fact, the climax is far different from the usual “blow up” as we get a much quiet alternative. Some might want something to top the helicopter subway tunnel chase from the first film, but this ending works too. I won’t spoil too much but it leaves the door open for another entry than rather end with a bang and wonder how they will think of a way to top the last entry.

Let me tell you, this summer has been an explosive one and if I had to pick three movies that were the “cream of the crop,” they would be Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic World and this one. In terms of which one delivered more, surprisingly this one. While I was highly satisfied with an amusement park of dinosaurs and an artistic apocalypse, I felt there was more to “Rogue Nation” that had me sold. You have great performances, a perfect balance between humor and drama along with the right amount of explosions and intense stunt work to give you the perfect summer movie. Should you choose to accept that ticket to this must see flick is on your part but I couldn’t be more happy to see a nearly flawless action film.