Nothing Fishy about Ponyo

28-Aug-09 10:38 AM by
Filed under Reviews; 1 comment.

It's been a good year for animation. Early in 2009, we had the phenomenal Coraline, a technically brilliant stop-motion that provided a chilling horror experience without being inappropriate for its target audience. Later, we received Up, a melancholy but still excellent movie that lives up to the high standard that past Pixar productions have set. Now, we have the wonderful Ponyo, the newest title from the most respected animator in the world today, Hayao Miyazaki.

Ponyo's plot is very heavily influenced on the classic tale of The Little Mermaid. It's a simple tale: the fish, Ponyo, meets a human boy, falls in love, and becomes a human. There are a few complications — Ponyo's father dislikes humanity, Ponyo's transformation upsets the balance of nature — but on the whole, the plot never gets much more complicated than the simple friendship of two children that forms its base.

Ponyo is geared towards smaller children — my 8-year old and 20-month old daughters both greatly enjoyed it — but there's much to be enjoyed by older viewers as well. The animation quality is phenomenal, with a heavy storm providing many especially spectacular moments. Characterization is well done and the film is filled with gentle humor that does not rely on awkwardly inserted pop culture humor like so many lesser animated films use.

The English localization of this originally Japanese movie is respectable. Of all of the voice actors, the only one I had any issues with Liam Neeson, not because he did a bad job but because his voice seemed at odds with his character's appearance. That's the only minor quibble I had; the rest of the cast fits perfectly and does an excellent job with the voices.

All in all, I highly recommend Ponyo to children as well as adults who appreciate beautiful artwork and simple but cute stories. Audiences looking for something darker and deeper like some of Miyazaki's earlier work such as Princess Mononoke may wish to look elsewhere. If you're still not sure, see the trailer after the break.

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Right on the Button

06-Jan-09 5:17 PM by
Filed under Reviews; Comments Off on Right on the Button

I recently saw an interesting film. It's about a boy and girl who meet in their youth, then go their separate ways: one to war, the other to pursue a career in the arts. Their lives continue to intertwine, but when her life takes a turn for the worse and he wants to be her hero, she pushes him away. Finally, she comes back to him, and they are together until his condition — which all his life has made him different and kept him apart from society — ultimately drives them apart.

Sound familiar? It should — it's Forrest Gump. But the movie I saw was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, about a man who is born old and gets younger. The main difference between the two is that, while Forrest Gump was funny with a touch of sad, Benjamin Button is sad with a bit of funny.

Before we begin our story, we're told a brief tale of a blind clockmaker. It's pleasant enough but does not tie directly into the life of Benjamin Button, delaying our introduction to that character. Once we get there, it's a fascinating tale. Reaction to Benjamin's condition is muted, and for awhile, it's amusing to see the reactions of disbelief he encounters living in a 1920s New Orleans retirement home. Eventually, Benjamin's mental age is old enough, and his body young enough, for him to strike out on his own with great enthusiasm. But he soon finds the coldness and loneliness of the real world unbearable, sending him back to Louisiana — but you can never truly go home again.

I can't remember the last time I saw a Brad Pitt film. Benjamin Button reminded me how unfortunate it can be when actors make the news for all the wrong reasons. We sometimes become so fascinated by the personal lives of the likes of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Aniston, and Tom Cruise that their perceived character flaws overshadow their genuine talent.

What's more remarkable is how little Brad Pitt is actually in this film. I am told that much of the first 40 minutes features not the actor himself, but a computer-generated double. I don't know if this is true, or if technology like image metrics was in fact used in place of makeup on several body doubles, but whatever the technique, it's astounding how few artifacts were present to alert the audience to this substitution.

The film has a colorful supporting cast of characters who come and go. One mainstay is Cate Blanchett (Indiana Jones 4; Lord of the Rings) as love interest Daisy. I did not see in Ms. Blanchett's biography that she trained as a dancer, but she certainly carries herself as one in this film. Those performances and her striking features make for a memorable role.

The movie makes some notable departures from F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story. Since the original was written in 1912, it obviously had a different setting, with Button fighting in the Civil War, not World War II. But of greater significance is Button's condition and the reactions of his loved ones. In the book, he is born more literally with an old man's body — all five feet of it — and, more important, an old man's mind as well. When Mr. Button first meets his strange son, the newborn asks him for a robe and a cigar. The boy is sent to school, but his mind is far too advanced to be as easily amused as a child would be. His advancing youth embarrasses those around him, who in contrast are getting older and weaker, and they demand he cease such rude behavior (as if his aging was entirely within his control). As he gets younger, he finds himself disrespected by his own son and unable to return to the military service in which he'd earned rank. These differences in setting and encounters underscore a more basic difference: in the book, the conflicts caused by Benjamin's age are often external, and the film moves that struggle to be internal, as Benjamin is rarely physically handicapped by or socially ostracized for his condition.

Both the book and the film can be off-putting at times, but the movie at least tosses the audience the occasional joke (often provided by the aging residents of Benjamin's home) to offset the almost continual stream of funerals. The closing montage is especially poetic, tying all the strings of Benjamin's sad life into a tapestry as rich as Siddhartha's:

"I figured out one thing. If you're growing older or getting younger, it really doesn't make any difference. Whichever way you're going, you have to make the most of what this is. Along the way, you bump into people who make a dent on your life. Some people get struck by lightning. Some are born to sit by a river. Some have an ear for music; some are artists. Some swim the English Channel. Some know buttons; some know Shakespeare. Some are mothers… and some people can dance…"

The Screaming Skull

10-Sep-07 4:46 PM by
Filed under Films; 2 comments.

Several titles have been bandied about for the next Indiana Jones film. Some may've been tongue-in-check references to its aging cast, such as Ravages of Time. Others, such as The City of the Gods, suggested a continuation of the first and third films' theme of searching for Biblical artifacts.

Finally, today we are presented with the official title — which tells us almost nothing:

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. (Sept. 9, 2007) — The title of the new Indiana Jones adventure, now in production under the direction of Steven Spielberg, is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it was revealed today by actor Shia LaBeouf.

LaBeouf, who stars in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull with Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone and John Hurt, announced the title during today's MTV Video Music Awards, which were broadcast live from Las Vegas.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a Lucasfilm Ltd. and is being distributed by Paramount Pictures. It will be released in the U.S. and simultaneously in most territories worldwide on Thursday, May 22, 2008. Frank Marshall returns as producer, with Kathleen Kennedy joining George Lucas as executive producer.

Breaking news about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull can be found at http://www.indianajones.com.

Now, I don't need spoilers anymore than this film needs advertising. And maybe, not being an archaeologist myself, I'm missing the connotations and backstory implied by the title. But it sounds as fabricated as the Temple of Doom. Come on, Steve — just a hint as to the plot? Pleeease?

"Who's gonna come to save you, Junior?"

07-Jun-07 5:03 PM by
Filed under Films; 1 comment.

Straight from the horse's mouth: Sean Connery will not appear in the fourth Indiana Jones movie, as stated today on the official site for the film:

I get asked the question so often, I thought it best to make an announcement. I thought long and hard about it and if anything could have pulled me out of retirement it would have been an Indiana Jones film. I love working with Steven and George, and it goes without saying that it is an honor to have Harrison as my son. But in the end, retirement is just too damned much fun. I, do however, have one bit of advice for Junior: Demand that the critters be digital, the cliffs be low, and for goodness sake keep that whip by your side at all times in case you need to escape from the stunt coordinator! This is a remarkable cast, and I can only say, "Break a leg, everyone." I'll see you on May 22, 2008, at the theater!

His absence is disappointing, though not entirely surprising; if we think Harrison Ford is too old for the role, then the years have probably been even less kind on Mr. Connery (not that 76-year-olds can't act — just maybe not in a whip-toting action-adventure).

To be honest, I didn't even know until reading the above announcement that Mr. Connery had claimed to have retired. Too bad he couldn't have gone out on a higher note than The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Moving on, confirmed cast members in Indiana Jones 4 are Harrison Ford, Shia LeBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone, and John Hurt. Of course, that's only because I haven't auditioned yet…