Reviewing Ghibli: the music of My Neighbor Totoro
After a busy day at Anime Boston, I’m too tired to watch AND review a new anime film like I hoped to do every day. So to fill the void, here’s my next entry in my Reviewing Ghibli series: the relentlessly charming “My Neighbor Totoro”.
There are two authorities on film I trust more than any other: the late Roger Ebert (goes without saying), and my 14-year-old sister Rosie (whose knowledge of old Hollywood cinema is pretty astounding).
Ebert listed Totoro in his esteemed “Great Movies” collection (one of three Ghibli films in the list; “Grave of the Fireflies” and “Spirited Away” are the others). Ebert, in one of my favorite lines of his, said of the film: “Whenever I watch it, I smile, and smile, and smile.” My sister described it as one of the few films she loved as a small kid that makes her as happy today as it did then.
Those two observations sum up the unique appeal of this film. In his recent, brilliant speech at the San Francisco Film Society, Steven Soderbergh expressed fear that the increasing reliance on overseas grosses in Hollywood, and appealing to as many people as possible around the world (let alone just the USA), is leading to more watered down, uninspired movies. Films are increasingly sterilized to be as generic, and easy to market, as possible. It’s a legitimate concern, and I encourage anyone to read the speech in full.
But not to stray. I bring the Soderbergh speech up because with “My Neighbor Totoro”, Hayao Miyazaki created one of the most universally appealing of films, a movie that still is as imaginative and unique as anything else in his canon. In this case, the appeal stems not from homogenization, but in mining the truths of childhood or, more accurately, in his crafting of the most honest child’s-eye-view of the world the movies have seen. The film is enchanting, yes, but it’s also full of moments that will ring true to anyone who remembers what it was like to truly believe in monsters, magic, and catbuses.
To dismiss (playing devil’s advocate) “My Neighbor Totoro” as cutesy and childish is to willfully ignore its craft. I talk a lot about rhythm in film, and I swear that I’m not crossing streams. Watching a movie that is on a plot-based autopilot is like listening to song without rhythm or melody. “My Neighbor Totoro” has plenty of both. It finds its rhythm section in its day-to-day observance of the lives of its characters. I love when films let us learn about characters through observations detached from the main plot. “My Neighbor Totoro” tells us more about the sisters Satsuki (older) and Mei (younger) in a scene in which they race through their new house than any amount of expository dialogue could. Satsuki opens and closes doors and windows and Mei, as younger siblings do, tries desperately to keep up and copy her older sister’s every move. Rather than impose his own rhythm on these characters, Miyazaki observed them as actual people, and found a rhythm in their lives.
The film’s finds its melody as a showcase for Miyazaki’s unmatched imagination. Has there ever been a filmmaker capable of conjuring such images as Miyazaki, and then fitting them seamlessly into a story? The Totoros are timeless characters. They lack dialogue, but they are full of expression, movement, and sound. Their motives and day to day routines are mysterious. Miyazaki never tries to explain why these creatures do what they do. The girls don’t care, so why should he?
I find pointless explanations a bane of good storytelling. If you’re explaining something for the sake of it, then you have begun to miss the point. Satsuki and Mei instantly accept their new friends, and why not? They are completely non-threatening, and can summon trees from mere saplings. Miyazaki also resists the urge to even suggest that the Totoros are simply figures from a dream, or worse, to have the girls’ father try and dissuade them from their belief in the Totoros.
The girls’ adventures with Totoro and his Totoro-minis are a distraction for them from their mother’s illness. The exact nature of the illness is not elaborated upon, nor is it played for much drama, aside from the occasional panic caused by misheard information. Like much else in this film, it is simply a part of their lives. They deal with it as they must.
And yes, part of dealing with it involves their fun with their new fuzzy pals. But these interludes are not played for sentimentality. Miyazaki is relishing in the sheer joy of his creation. These characters could be interacting under any circumstances. The scenes are not a dramatic device or a sugar dispensary. They exist because because, in the world of this film, they could happen. They are the melody, floating in time with the film’s rhythms.
Scenes from Mad Men: The Crash
I just realized that I never wrote an entry for this week. Then I realized that there was no purpose trying to make sense of a damn thing in this nutty episode. Also, writing one whilst attending Anime Boston would prove too strenuous a task than I an willing to undertake. So here’s a gif of Stan preparing to have his arm shish-kebabed by an exactoknife.
“Five Centimeters per Second”, the best movie you haven’t seen that you should watch right now
As I am want to do with films that I love, I’ll be delving into spoilers in this, but I’ll try to keep them minor.
How often are teenagers in the movies portrayed as hopelessly earnest? So many movies portray teens in so many lights (consider the rash of cliches that the “high school comedy” genre has provided: cynical, bubbly, horny, square, nerdy, jock…ish?) but rarely do the venture out of archetypes and address the way teenagers so often live on a constant plane of heightened emotion. One of the toughest parts of being a teenager is how little those emotions are taken seriously by adults. It’s much easier for movies to depict teenagers as emotional infants with the desires of adults than to hone in and approach teen characters with utmost seriousness.
It is that earnestness that drives Makoto Shinkai’s magnificent “5 Centimeters Per Second”. Here is a film that takes the melodrama of teenagerdom completely seriously. There were elements of this approach is Shinkai’s previous two works, the short film “Voices of a Distant Star” and his first feature “The Place Promised in Our Early Days”. But both those films framed their emotional stakes alongside intergalactic conflicts. “5 Centimeters Per Second” doesn’t bother hedging its bets: it’s completely about its earthly characters. It has cosmic elements, but they’re poetic parallels to the story, not the driving forces.
And the film doesn’t just work when it seems like it ought to drown in melodrama- it excels. It is, by far, my favorite entry into the teen romance genre aside from “Whisper of the Heart”. And yes, both those films are anime. For the non-anime watchers out there, there are a ton of genuinely great films that you’re missing out on.
“5 Centimeters Per Second” presents itself as a trio of short stories, and that’s about right. It’s only 62 minutes long. Few films deliberately mimic the short story format. While the likes of Guy de Maupassant and Edgar Allen Poe made short stories viable with twisting and turning plots, the form came into its own with tales that emphasized the gravity of small moments over dramatic turns of screws. The most dramatic scene in my favorite work of literature, James Joyce’s “The Dead”, involves a woman simply telling her husband about an event in her past that he hadn’t heard of before. She considers it a minor story, but it strikes her husband, and the reader, like a lightning bolt. “5 Centimeters Per Second” follows this kind of beat. The opening act, “Cherry Blossom” has a plot that is incredibly simple: a 13 year old boy taking a long train trip to see a girl. More significantly, a girl who occupies a space that’s neither fully romantic nor platonic, but that for someone of that age contains more importance than anything else. The simplicity of the story rings true to anyone who has been on a delayed train, and that ends up making it absolutely nerve-racking. The boy, named Takaki, experiences delay after delay thanks to a severe snowstorm, and experiences a full course of dramatic stresses, starting with nervousness and evolving into panic and, finally, resigned defeat.
Which is why the ending of the story, again, almost spare in its simplicity, is so utterly satisfying. The girl, named Akari, waited for him. They meet, share their first kiss, and take shelter for the night in an old shed. Shinkai takes a plot that anyone could have made puerile and imbues it with so much truth that it feels triumphant. Every stop Takaki makes, every delay he experiences, brings us as much misery as he feels. If we were being told this story point for point, it might seem boring. But in this film, it’s captivating.
It is the second part of the film that elevates it to greatness, however. “Cosmonaut” is, again, a story we’ve seen before. Takaki is relegated to supporting status, and the segment is narrated by a girl at his high school named Kanae. She is hopelessly in love with Takaki, in that way that adults can’t seem to take seriously and that teenagers feel like is unrecoverable. And slowly, she tries to work up the courage to tell him. However, she is unable to get past the fact that he is constantly texting someone, someone who she feels will forever have a place in his heart that she will never occupy. Without saying any more, “Cosmonaut” absolutely nails teenage unrequited love, and how it’s perceived by all those involved. It treats Kanae’s misery with utmost respect, while simultaneously understanding Takaki’s situation, as the film knows exactly what we do as well. This teenage melodrama is splendidly framed in front of a constant backdrop of stars, rockets, and other cosmic objects. Shinkai is not trying to diminish these characters’ feelings by juxtaposing them against proof that there are much bigger, more important things than summer romance. Rather, the film’s visual scope truly isolates these characters. They are alone in their feelings, feelings whose magnitude is equal to the size of the cosmos.
The third part of the film is an odd little denouement one that takes place with the characters as adults. To say anything about it is difficult, as it’s a very short segment and any piece of information would be too much of a giveaway than I’m comfortable with in this review. So I’m going to leave it at that and let you get back to me when you see this magnificent film.
Kick-Ass, Hanna, and Let Me In: A thought purge on killer movie girls in two parts
I remember reviewing “Kick Ass” for my college’s newspaper in 2010. I hated it then and I still do today. A year later, Joe Wright’s “Hanna” came out, and was one of my favorite films of the year. Last month, I watched “Let Me In” and loved it to tiny little pieces, even more than the excellent “Let the Right One In”. And my love for the last of those films made me remember the last time I’d seen Moretz portraying a young girl who kills remorselessly, which in turn made me remember “Hanna”, another film about that subject that I much prefer, and as you can tell I began thinking in circles. And when that happens, you gotta write that down and get those thoughts out of your head so you can go back to watching “Arrested Development” for the fifth time before it launches again. Thought maelstroms increase in intensity exponentially if left unpurged. So, here is my purge, a comparison of these films about killer girls in two parts.
I’m presuming you’ve seen these films, but if you haven’t, spoilers abound:
1. “Hanna” and “Kick-Ass”
As I said before, I hated Kick-Ass. I will probably say it again before this is over. If you loved “Kick-Ass”, please stop reading. I don’t want this to ruin our friendship. I hated “Kick-Ass” for many reasons, many of which I don’t care to go over here. One of my points of contention, the one I’ll harp on for the purposes of this post, was the character of Hit-Girl. This was a starmaking role for Chloe Grace Moretz, and not without reason. She’s a very engaging performer, and she’s exuberant in the role. But the role, as written for the screen, was very one note, and that note was a sour one for me. She’s introduced in two scenes with her father, the first in which he shoots her to test a bulletproof vest:
and a follow-up when she fakes her dad out by pretending she wants a “girly” birthday present, which terrifies him:
The point of these scenes is transparent. Establishing Hit-Girl as a badass. The shooting scene is played straight up for laughs. The birthday request scene shows how Hit-Girl rejects the sort of things girls are supposed to like.
And that’s pandering at its worst. It’s telling disguised as showing, telling us that this character is not a “typical girl” without giving her any extra depth. It’s playing on the shock value, quickly played for laughs, of a little girl being shot and then cursing like a sailor.
Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with shock value. But shock value in place of character and storytelling is as bad as unearned sentimentality.
“Hanna” mines much the same territory as “Kick-Ass”, and yet it doesn’t fill me with contempt. Its star is an adolescent girl who kills without remorse, but in this film that fact doesn’t disgust me.
I suppose it goes back to one of Roger Ebert’s oft-repeated rules: it’s not what a movie is about, but how it’s about it.
And “Hanna” and “Kick-Ass” approach their material in completely different manners.
In “Kick-Ass”, I could never shake how the film seemed to treat Hit-Girl’s willingness to kill in cold blood not only as inherently cool, but something to be played for rowdy, full-throated guffaws. Consider this scene, every aspect of which (including the murder of a terrified and apparently innocent woman who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time) is intended to be funny:
Matthew Vaughn is attempting to have his cake without even baking it first. He’s forcing Hit-Girl down our throats as a badass, cheerworthy character without telling us a damn thing about her other than that she kills to ironic music. I’m sure he’d argue that the scene is about how disturbing Hit-Girl is to Kick-Ass, but let’s not kid ourselves. He wastes no time partnering up with her and her dad later in the film, and every aspect of how disturbed Hit-Girl is gets glossed over. The scene is an exercise in the film trying to float above its material without actually addressing it. Addressing this material is something Matthew Vaughn had no interest in doing. And it’s a fundamental reason that “Kick-Ass” is an infinitely less interesting film than “Hanna”. While “Kick-Ass” wants to be a romp of a movie with a murderous kid as a sort of mascot, someone who will be described millions of times over as “awesome”, “Hanna” is actually kind of curious about its protagonist.
“Hanna” features a similar scene of wanton death dealt by its pubescent leading lady. And yes, it plays up her abilities as inherently cool. Because in the context of a film like this, that’s fine. It’s an accepted trope of action films that one’s coolness directly correlates with one’s capacity for doling out violence. Again, “Kick-Ass” didn’t fail because it’s about a murderous child. It failed because it copped out in being about a murderous child. “Hanna” shows Hanna killing like whoa, and then spends the rest of the film asking “well, why?”
“Hanna” is very spare compared to “Kick-Ass”, but it’s richer and far more compelling. It knows the inherent perverseness of its story and embraces it in a way that “Kick-Ass” was too scared to do. “Kick-Ass” tries to float above its material, holding it at an arm’s length. “Hanna” delves uncomfortably close. Notably, it’s a rare film to pass the reverse Bechdel test (ie, none of its male characters ever talk to each other about anything other than a female character). In this film’s case, that’s a less a statement about its feminism than it is the fact that this movie is completely, utterly about Hanna, and everything that led her to becoming who she is.
The movie doesn’t apologize for Hanna, but it’s also far more honest about how screwed up she is, and how her cold-blooded killing skills might scare the hell out of someone not well-acquainted with wanton violence:
“Hanna”, unlike “Kick-Ass” has the guts the actually be about the most unsettling but also most interesting aspects of its material. A “Kick-Ass” that actually addressed the relationship between Hit-Girl and Big Daddy without treating it as a joke would be far more interesting than anything featuring that simpering, insipid lead character the film thrusts upon us as a lead… and yeah, I should stop there. My many reasons for hating “Kick-Ass” could provide a month’s worth of articles.
2. “Let Me In”
Chloe Grace-Moretz is a seriously talented actress who for some reason has become the go-to girl to play murderous preteens. I suppose one reason is that she’s good at it. I fault the material she’s given in “Kick-Ass”, not her performance, and she’s even more excellent in “Let Me In”, Matt Reeves’ superb remake of Tomas Alfredson’s already superb “Let The Right One In”. I’ll save my comparisons of those films for a later post (perhaps around Halloween, when this site morphs into a horror movie blog). Superficially, I could say all the things I said about “Hanna” also apply to “Let Me In” and be done with it, but that wouldn’t be fair to “Let Me In”. While “Hanna” is about how Hanna’s very unique balance of nature and nurture created a superhuman fighting machine, “Let Me In” arrives with Moretz’s character, the vampire Abby, fully formed over decades of bloodletting. We have no way of knowing how she came to be; the appeal of this film lies in the exploration of her friendship with its lead character, a lonely adolescent boy named Owen.
Here is a film that treats Abby’s heartlessness with tremendous gravity. While “Hanna” has fun with Hanna’s killing abilities, the killings by Abby and her servant (a nameless man played by Richard Jenkins) play out with the same grimness they’d have if the film was about their lives as serial killers. Which, technically, is what they are. The law doesn’t make exceptions for supernatural feeding rituals.
But the film also leads us inexorably to its inevitable conclusion: Owen joining Abby as her next servant. And one of the reasons I preferred “Let Me In” to “Let the Right One In” is that it treats the relationship between the boy and the vampire with more delicacy and sincerity. They’re able to bond as adolescents can and often do.
Of the three films I’ve talked about in this post, it’s the vampire character who is the most capable of human interaction. Granted, she limits that to one or two people at a time, and is happy to eat the rest, but I digress. The point is, “Let Me In” is a full exploration of the ground “Hanna” nodded at and “Kick-Ass” ignored. I forgive “Hanna” that because it’s a damn cool action film that’s actually about something and that something is pretty damn interesting, and I don’t forgive “Kick-Ass” because that movie sucks.
Scenes from Mad Men: “Man With a Plan”
Don Draper isn’t used to getting dumped. And when he is, he takes it more badly than most.
Even though his marriage to Betty had long fallen apart by the time she called it quits, but her leaving him sent him reeling, not stopping until he hit the lowest point we’ve ever seen Don reach. Other than that, Don has been far too aloof with his feelings to develop a romantic attachment that would wreck him like that again, Peggy’s departure from SCDP last season broke through his armor in a way that few things can. He hemmed and hawed and belittled her accomplishments at first, before finally accepting her resignation with mournful kiss on her hand.
With his many extramarital dalliances, Don has deliberately distanced himself from his partners. For Don, sex is a way to exert control over his life in ways he cannot in marriage and at work. After giving monogamy a try in season 5, Don has reverted back to his cheatin’ ways with Sylvia (Linda Cardellini, who has been superb in the role), his upstairs neighbor. But unlike his other mistresses, Sylvia seems much more on level terms with Don. In the game of infidelity, they’re on equal terms, with both Don’s and Sylvia’s spouses a floor away at any given coupling. We don’t know the origin of their meeting, and it’s entirely plausible that she initiated the affair. Like Don, she’s unhappy with a spouse who appears to otherwise be a perfectly swell human being. Her one difference from Don, however, is what she gets out of the affair. When Don, in a dominant sexual roleplay, tells her “you are in this room for my pleasure”, the line is ironic (and cringe-inducing, but mainly ironic). Sylvia is in this far more for pure pleasure than Don is. She enjoys master-servant game for a bit, clearly turned on at first. But when Don won’t let up on it, forcing her to remain a prisoner in a hotel room on his whims, she grows tired of it, his taking her copy of “The Last Picture Show” being the last straw. Tellingly, she isn’t disturbed or disgusted. She’s a grown up. She tells Don that playtime is over. She has more important things to do.
For Don, the roleplay seemed to be an extension of his battle for control in the workplace. For Don, work is as much a source for pleasure as sex, and the office has gotten far too complex for his tastes since his impromptu merger with ex-rival Cutler, Gleason and Chaough. Ted Chaough shows up as co-partner at the office and doesn’t even need a damn chair in Board of Director’s meeting. Don tries to pull the same power play on Ted that he pulled on Roger in season 1, drinking him into a stupor as a dick-measuring contest. Ted calls Don’s booze and raises him by flying them both to meet a client in his personal plane. Ted rocks the aviators while Don sheepishly holds on for dear life and reads the book he stole from Sylvia.
Don’s been in far lower, darker places than this, but he’d rather be perpetually high, and when the workplace doesn’t do the job, the bedroom has to double the order.
For Don, his dominant bravado in this episode was not just a fantasy. It was his trying to keep from slipping into another stupor. When Sylvia said she needed him, it energized him in a way we’ve only seen once more this season- when he conjured the merger with Ted out of thin air and landed Chevy as a result. But Don needed Sylvia far more than she needed him. She’s had her fun with Don. She’s ready to move on with her life. Don had no plan B. He really had no plan at all. He couldn’t have expected his affair with Sylvia to last forever. But when she said goodbye, all he could do was kiss her hand, and disappear back into the haze of his own mind.