Archive | April 2014

Movie review roulette: Selection #6

Here’s the current pool:

Night of the Living Dead

Dark City

Raise the Red Lantern


Children of Men


Being John Malkovich

Millennium Actress

La Dolce Vita

Rear Window


Arsenic and Old Lace


Paths of Glory

The Tree of Life

The random selection machine selects:


Replacing Jaws in the pool: Only Yesterday.

I will honestly try to post these every two weeks at least.

See you then!

Movie Review Roulette #5: The Princess Bride, in 5 quotes

Sorry for taking so long with this (especially you, Nicole). The Princess Bride is one of the most quotable of films. Its wonderful dialogue needs to take the center stage of any look back at it. So I give you my review of one of my favorite films, inspired by its own words.

Is this a kissing book? You bet your bedridden ass, kid. This is a kissing movie based on a kissing book and by god, there will be kissing. And the romance is one of the reasons this movie holds up so well. For all its tomfoolery and silliness, The Princess Bride never gives in to the temptation to be a full-blown farce. This could have worked as a Mel Brooks-style celebration of vulgarity or even a Shrek-style sendup of the fantasy genre. But underneath the humor, The Princess Bride never views its story as a joke, least of all the love story.

The romance between Westley and Buttercup is delivered with the starry-eyed earnestness of Robin Hood courting Maid Marion. It would be easy to dismiss as maudlin, but instead it’s a confection, a welcome dose of sweetness that reminds us that the movie has enough self-awareness to both tease its material and embrace it with open arms.

I love when movies are unpredictable and challenging. But predictability needn’t be a pejorative. At times, we simply want and need to be entertained, and great entertainments are an art form unto their own. Sometimes, we just need a movie to give us what we want. When I see films that bore me to tears with mindless sequences of movement passing for action, thrusting characters on screen and expecting me to care about them without once giving me a reason to, I think of The Princess Bride.

Here is a movie that gives us, not just what we want, but what we didn’t expect to want and yet quickly grow to love. It’s like a surprise birthday party planned by a friend who knows you better than anyone else. Of course we expect sword fights, revenge,  and stormed castles. But what we really love are this take on those things. This story could have been told any number of ways while attempting to cater to the masses and featuring none of this movie’s charm. The story wants to please. The characters and the dialogue, however, aren’t content to stop there. They want to be remembered.

The best comedy is well aware about how much life can suck. Some days you’re just going out on a voyage to make some quick dough and boom, the most feared pirate in the world captures you. Great comedy often ventures into dark places just to find the light again, because comedy is rooted in truth, the truth isn’t always good, and good always feels that much better when been through worked hard times to get it.

“The Princess Bride” embraces its more mature material, which often playfully dances just off the edge of good taste. There is some PG-level violence, but far more memorable are Westley’s threats of violence towards Humperdinck are so beautifully gruesome that “to the pain” conjures the exact same imagine in everyone’s mind, even though we never actually see what it means. Westley is tortured until he is (mostly) dead, but the procedure itself is bloodless. Still, he screams in agony. So loud, the entire kingdom can hear him, and Inigo Montoya can identify his scream entirely from the purity of its anguish (“My heart made that sound when the Six-Fingered Man killed my father; the Man in Black makes it now”). It’s that kind of movie. It digs up some dark material for its story and then mines every last bit for potential jokes.

I dislike the word “witty” as it is typically used to describe films. It’s usually used to describe speed of dialogue more than humor. Wit is far more than that; it’s the speed of critical thought and the execution of a perfect verbal delivery of that thought. The battle of wits scene is both a beautiful parody of this concept, and in being that, a demonstration of wit as well. Vezzini is nowhere near as intelligent as he makes himself out to be, something both Inigo and Westley figure out rather quickly.

And yet what he lacks in critical thinking skills, he makes up for in his ability to overstate those skills hilariously. Westley playing along, clearly three steps ahead of his adversary? Another beautiful example of the script’s wit and Cary Elwe’s wonderfully deadpan performance. It would have been funny for this scene to be a genuine battle of wits. For it to take a farcical approach was braver, and funnier, and significantly more memorable. More than that, it shows what fun the movie is having scene after scene. Nothing in this scene is dictated by the requirements of the plot. There’s an almost episodic quality to the film that adds greatly to its sense of fun. It’s like (director) Rob Reiner sized up every scene on its own terms and thought “what kind of fun can we have with this?”

If The Princess Bride was all parody, it would not be as beloved as it is. One of the reasons I love it so much is that it is a rare film that captures that sense of losing myself in my imagination as a child. Films rarely achieve that sensation. Hayao Miyazaki does it effortlessly. Guillermo Del Toro as well. Films like HellboyPacific Rim, and the fantasy sequences of Pan’s Labyrinth pulse with childlike exuberance at the limitless possibilities for fun in the worlds they inhabit.

The Princess Bride is aware of the tropes of its genre, but it resists openly mocking it. Its humor is derived more from its characters being odd types for this sort of earnest old-fashioned material than from outright satire. The only character from old Hollywood central casting is Buttercup. Everyone else is their own brand of strange. But when the story calls for it, the film lovingly embraces its roots in old Hollywood classics like The Adventures of Robin Hood. Yes, Westley will stop Buttercup from killing herself by lamenting the potential damage to her breasts. But when time comes for kissing and swordfights, he can turn full Errol Flynn without missing a beat. And when castles need to be stormed, it’s going to be fun. It’s going to be the most fun you’ve ever had.

This is perhaps The Princess Bride’s most enduring and beloved line, and really, it sort of exemplifies everything this movie does so well. On its own, it’s a platitude of revenge. Depending on the situation, it can be funny, or moving, or thrilling. The movie is all of these things and then some. It’s usually dangerous for a movie to try to be most things at once, lest they end up playing themselves into a death waltz.

But The Princess Bride manages it with nary a moment of tonal dissonance. Why? Because of characters like Inigo. As I said before, the humor in the movie isn’t Shrek-style parody. Its plot is straight out of an old Hollywood fantasy. Its characters come from almost everywhere else, and are well-defined, their motives clear and personalities vivid. And none perhaps are quite as defined and vivid as Inigo, a man who has devoted his life to one purpose, who through the course of the movie stumbles multiple times on his way to achieving it, before finally emerging victorious.

The Princess Bride is a sandbox, and every corner of it was sculpted into something delightful. Yes, the main plot is in the center, but in the far corners, you spot an impressive clergyman here, a cowardly gatekeeper there. There’s room in this sandbox for all sorts of stories, and swordfights, and kissing. Hey, want to include a subplot about a Spaniard seeking revenge for his dead father? Let’s put that in there, but don’t just throw it in. Sculpt it. Craft it. Make it just right. Every little detail has got to shine. There’s no room for throwaway dialgoue and pointless scenes in this movie. Every moment, from the first glance to the last kiss, needs to be remembered.

It’s easy to chalk up the enduring appeal of The Princess Bride to nostalgia. But nostalgia cuts out the bad memories and leaves us only with the good. We latch on to that good to return to another time and place we want to remember well. But we return to The Princess Bride for another reason altogether.

There’s a special feeling that comes when something is just just right. A perfectly prepared meal, maybe, or when the balance of the temperature perfect matches the weight and warmth of your blankets (my personal fave). That is The Princess Bride.

“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die”.

Just right.

Words Unspoken: Studio Ghibli and Visual Storytelling Part 1

Hey all! Here is part one of my online, written out version of my Anime Boston Panel. Two more parts are forthcoming. There will be extra content in these posts that wasn’t in my panel because I’ve had three weeks to think about them. Consider these a director’s cut.

Part 1: Light and Whisper of the Heart

Describing the basics of the visual language of movies can take a long time and be very boring and who wants that, so here’s a quote from Martin Scorsese talking about light:

“Light is at the core of who we are and how we understand ourselves.”

-Martin Scorsese

All right, so why did I throw that little nugget in there?

Knowing the context of that quote helps. Last year, Martin Scorsese gave a speech at the Kennedy Center about the language of cinema. The alphabet of that language, Scorsese argues, consists of lighting and movement. Now, I have a lot to say about the movement in Whisper of the Heart, but for this discussion I’ll focus on light.

Scorsese went on to talk about how crucial light is to creation stories. Consider the first three lines of the Bible:

1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

3And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

From a storytelling perspective, light is hope against despair. It is possibility in the face of confusion. It is that inkling of inspiration flying free from the tendrils of doubt.

You also need light to see a damn thing. You may as well use it creatively.

Now, let’s watch the first few minutes of this movie. Watch the whole thing you really feel like it (and you should as it is an amazing movie) but for the purposes of this post I’m going to stop right when Shizuku exits the grocery store.

I love this opening. It’s a warm blanket and cup of cocoa of an opening.

What makes it so cozy, though? And more importantly, how does this opening begin telling this movie’s story? The answers actually go hand in hand.

Remember what I was saying about light before? Yoshifumi Kondo’s use of light in this sequence is telling right from the outset.



It’s easy to sit here and tell you that these shots are warm and comforting and just hope you believe me. But it’s important beforehand to consider how cities can take on characteristics of their own in a film.

For example, consider this first shot of the skyline in Dark City, the 1998 sci-fi film by Alexis Troyas (and my personal favorite sci-fi movie).


You can barely see a damn thing haha it’s called Dark City I get it now!

The skyline in Dark City is imposing and obscure and impossible to see because that’s the role it plays in this movie. This is a city that changes itself every night, a city that is unpredictable and even deadly. You can’t rest on your feet in this city. It’s scary, mysterious, and the opening shots tell us that right away.

Let’s look then at another famous skyline:



For the purposes of The Wizard of Oz, the Emerald City skyline needs to serve the opposite function as the Dark City skyline. It is bright and towering and a beacon of hope for our already optimistic crew. It shimmers in the distance, resembling not so much a city as a mythical rock formation, bursting with magic and possibility. It’s literally at the end of their damn trail this movie isn’t trying to be subtle here.

Skylines set the tone for their movies at both ends of the pole here. So where does Whisper of the Heart fall? Somewhere much closer to Wizard of Oz, I think. Let’s look again at that image of East Tokyo.


At first glance, there’s not much more here than an establishing shot. But there’s a watercolor quality to this image, and coupled with the music it’s a very inviting cityscape. This is not ominous. It’s more akin to The Wizard of Oz, bright colors, a sense of warmth, even a bit of mystery; while the Emerald City looks more like a beacon, a landmark than a city, this snapshot of East Tokyo invites us to peer in deeper and to learn more.

As the opening progresses, the portrait of this neighborhood only grows more inviting:

This is the first ground-level shot of the neighborhood, and isn’t it just cozy? Brightly lit storefronts and cars in the foreground, a meandering road leading up to the neighborhoods on the hilltops, speckled with multi-colored lights of their own. Turn off the storefronts, remove the cars, darken the hill, and you’d have a shot ready-made for a ghost story. Instead, Kondo goes out of his way to make us feel at home here:

See what I mean? Here we get another shot overlooking the city. However, instead of the detached, birds-eye view from the opening shot, we get a view from someone’s back porch! Hell, there’s even a sleeping cat perched there, the light from the house reminding us that we are home, no longer wandering (or… flying?). The colors of the skyline are more defined than the watercolor splotches of the opening. Again, the key here is tone: a city and its skyline can help define the tone of a scene. Uncertainty makes us paranoid. This shot, coupled with the ones before it, create about as human-feeling a city as you’ll find.

And here is the first shot of our protagonist, Shizuku. The film has finally established its where enough to begin to show us the who that live within. Again, note the lighting; we can only tell it’s nighttime because of the shots that came before.

Shizuku is walking out of a grocery store, a location that is often used to symbolize all that is sterile and nightmarish about quiet suburban life. In The Hurt Locker, a grocery store is more frightening to Jeremy Renner than defusing IEDs in Iraq.



Whisper of the Heart isn’t interested in portraying suburban unrest, however. For the purposes of this story, this little corner of the city needs to feel warm and comforting. It needs to be the light at the beginning of the tunnel. The significant lyric within the song playing over the scene is not the “country roads” at all; it’s where they lead, and where Shiziku is headed: home.

So why are light, comfort, and “home” so important to this opening? Whisper of the Heart’s drama hinges almost entirely on uncertainty. Not just any uncertainty, but the uncertainty of adolescence. Shizuku worries that she might not get into a good high school. It might not matter, because all she wants to do is write, and she worries she might never be good enough at that. The boy she thinks is her adversary turns out to be pretty cool. She likes him. A lot. Except he plans on leaving Japan for an long apprenticeship in Italy. These are all find and dandy plot points, but they don’t resonate unless it’s clear that they are genuinely shaking Shizuku’s world. And the best way to tell a story of teenage drama and make it resonate is to start at a place familiar and comforting, so that we understand how much each aspect of the story poses such a genuine challenge to Shizuku. It would be easy to turn this plot into a comedy. But when romance and school and anxiety are what you are venturing into from a place of unpreparedness, they can seem as dramatic and profound as anything.

And that it why it’s crucial for Whisper of the Heart to establish a sense of “Home” in its opening scene. And that is why the lighting is key. We aren’t just meeting Shizuku here; we are visiting her home. We start high above her city, narrow our view down to the street until we find Shizuku, and then she leads us to the place she is beginning from: her apartment, where she lives with her parents and sister.

There was no plot-related need for Yoshifumi Kondo to take this roundabout way of introducing us to Shizuku. He could have started at her school, or in the library, anywhere he saw fit. Instead, he introduces us to her home first. This is a film about a teenage girl realizing that she is going to have to find her place in the world, that growing up can be a terrifying thing, even when (and perhaps because) it so often consists simply of waiting through the unknown. And that carries far more weight if the place from which we launch is well-established. Once we feel at home, we don’t want to leave. Whisper of the Heart is about that feelings that arise when we realize that staying forever is not an option.

(I will work on parts 2 and 3 soon, but this one post has been holding up my blog forever, and I’m desperate to write a few more non-Ghibli posts this week)

(also: all uncredited images were captured by me)

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