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The Wind Rises (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | April 6, 2014 | Add Comments

Jiro Hirokoshi designs airplanes and finds love in The Wind Rises (2013)Ravishing fantasy adventures that appeal to young and old have always been Japanese animation wizard Hayao Miyazaki’s trademark. Films like My Neighbor Totoro, Princess MononokeKiki’s Delivery ServiceSpirited AwayHowl’s Moving CastlePonyo, and others have gained him international acclaim, a legion of fans, and an Oscar. Personally, I’ve always been a fan; his films’ childlike wonder and sometimes philosophical themes are a always a nice refresher from the crass glut of American CGI.

Miyazaki’s latest film, The Wind Rises, is also his last (you may recognize the title; the film was nominated for Best Animated Feature at this year’s Oscars). Moving away from make-believe worlds of wonder, the film is loosely based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, a designer and engineer of many Japanese fighters during World War II. The film follows Jiro, from childhood and college, to designing and engineering, past earthquakes, death, and war. Dream sequences, a trip to Germany, failure, innovation, and romance are all on the menu in this epic wartime love story.

With such success with his “kids movies”, you might think Miyazaki would falter with a serious historical drama rated PG-13. And if you thought that…you’d be wrong. The Wind Rises is easily one of his best works, filled with character, depth, and subtext that will probably reward repeated viewings. Like always, the animation itself is the most impressive aspect of the film (and that’s not a bad thing). Miyizakaki, and his Studio Ghibli, have made visual leaps and bounds since My Neighbor Totoro, released 25 years ago. Backgrounds don’t look grainy, characters no longer have a cute simplicity, and fast-moving action has lost the blurriness of yore. Though the less complex technology worked with his previous films, it almost feels like Miyizaki couldn’t have made Wind Rises until now. The sumptuous, rich visuals have 3-D dimensional scope that wows you in every shot. The movie is like a thousand gorgeous paintings: it could be silent film and still be a must-see.

Perhaps that is what makes the rest of the film so impressive. The brain has as much to think about here as the eyes have to see. Miyizakaki’s script is thoughtful and ponderous, with a lot to say about life, love, and war. Most interesting is the exploration of the relationship between man and machine. Jiro builds planes of beauty and complexity, only to watch them be flown off to kill, kill, kill. By creating these planes, is he encouraging war? Or is he simply designing masterpieces of engineering? There’s so much to chew on here and the filmmakers want you bite it all off.

Wind Rises is also peppered with a strong cast of supporting characters: Jiro’s younger sister, his boss, his best friend, and, maybe most fascinating of all, an on-the-run criminal staying at a nice hotel. In telling the story of a man’s life, it’s inevitable for a film to drag a bit here and there. Near the middle, Wind Rises is a little slow but its meandering feel makes it a unique achievement. It’s like we’re living with main character, watching the world from inside his head.

What a way to go out! The Wind Rises‘ arresting animation and contemplative story make this a true masterpiece and one of the best animated films in recent years. Farewell Miyazaki and thanks for the ride.

The Top Ten Films of 2012…and more! (Flick’s List)

Posted on | February 8, 2013 | 4 Comments

We’ve never done it before, never, not for any other year. But all of the other critics do it and we believe the time has come. It’s time to list the top ten films of the year. Below, you can find my top picks. So, what’s the “…and more!”? Well that would be some awards that will be given to the Worst Film of the Year, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Director. Enjoy! I hope to be posting more posts in the rest of the new year!

First, a word or two describing the year. 2011 was widely considered a terrible year for movies. Personally, I think there were some great spectacles, but, similar to this year, there were also many disappointments. All in all, I would say this year was a better year than last. That is not to say that there were no disappointments. In fact there were several films that I was highly anticipating, that dropped my excitement on the floor.

This was not the year of the spectacle. Many of those let-down films that I mentioned are big, explosive blockbusters. The summer was an unfortunate time for films, but the fall and winter films took the torch to a higher level. So what was this year? This was the year of the small (some large) films that put storytelling first. They didn’t use action sequences and laugh-out-loud jokes to carry the film on their shoulders. No, they used them to build your interest in the story. The films weren’t afraid to have A+ list actors sit in a room and talk for 150 minutes. The films weren’t afraid to build tension during cinematic reincarnations of events that we already know will turn out this way or that way. The films on my top ten list all did one thing in common: they told stories of different scales with one common goal. That goal was to keep the audience wanting more. I’m not saying that we need another sequel. What I mean is these were the films that I responded to…and will treasure over time. But before my list…The other lists!

The Other Top Ten Lists

Below are links to other critics thoughts on the year in film. Some are ten best lists while others are just thoughts and some are both, plus some are even audio. Enjoy!

David Edelstein (New York Magazine/Fresh AirRead the list from New York Magazine here. Listen to his thoughts on Fresh Air here.

A.O. Scott  (The New York Times)

Manhola Dargis (The New York Times)

Stephen Holden  (The New York Times)

Michael Phillips (The Chicago Tribune)

Josh Larsen (Larsen on Film)

David Denby (The New Yorker)

Anthony Lane (The New Yorker)

Adam Kempennar and more (Filmspotting) Listen to Part 1 here. Listen to Part 2 here.

Bob Mondello (All Things Considered)

Todd McCarthy (The Hollywood Reporter) Read his thoughts here.

Empire Magazine 

Total Film Magazine 

Ty Burr (The Boston Globe)

Wesley Morris (The Boston Globe)

Roger Ebert (The Chicago Sun-Times)

The Top Ten Films of the Year

10. Frankenweenie

Tim Burton’s ode to classic monster movies beautifully blends sentimentality with purposefully cheesy scares. It features a wonderful opening scene that I won’t spoil here. All I’ll say is that, of every moment in the film, the opening showcases Burton’s wildly funny imagination the best. The rest of the film isn’t quite up to your average Burton par, but it’s still enjoyable fun.

9. The Amazing Spider Man

It’s not the best action film of the year (save that for my next pick), but it’s one spot away (second place!), and an entertaining film at that. It was the only summer spectacle that not only met my expectations, but also took them and threw them out of the window. The film features several mind-blowing action sequences (large poles falling down, a scientist turned lizard, etc.) that may not have revolutionized visual effects, but certainly filled the spot of “Lack of Massive Summer Blockbuster”.

8. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Peter Jackson’s decision to adapt J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit into two films scared some people out of their minds. But that shock was much smaller than a baby Hobbit compared to the level of surprise when Jackson announced that there would be not two films, but three. Whatever you think about Jackson’s decision, we can only judge the first film. So…let’s judge! Despite that looming dread in the back of my head (“There’s two more coming! Two more coming! Two more coming!”), I managed to enjoy most of the film It’s worth the extra money for the IMAX and 3-D, and despite the overly lengthy battle sequences (“Just throw the rocks already!” raced through my mind), this is an enjoyable romp through the mystical world that Tolkein and Jackson have magically created.

7. Moonrise Kingdom

An extraordinary achievement from a director who managed to blend story with humor, style with substance in this indie wonder. Wes Anderson is the man I am talking about. Anderson only overdoes the story with style a few times, and even those segments are entertaining because of the style overdose. Mostly though, he creates cinematic feats of marvel without using $250 million. Anderson has the ability to create entertaining moments out of small two person conversations, and that is unfortunately a rare however delicate skill.

6. Argo

A tense, politically personal thriller-drama that’s expertly crafted. The entire first three and a half quarters of the film are fabulous. Is it possible to have your heart racing, as you’re laughing? Director and star, Ben Affleck proves it is. The amazingly funny scene stealers are Alan Arkin and John Goodman, although Affleck does underuse them somewhat. The only major weakness of the film is the climax. Affleck makes the final moment so obviously fictional that I shivered in my seat. Other than that though, high marks to Mr. Affleck!

5. Life of Pi

While it doesn’t quite rise to the full potential that Yann Martel’s stunning novel gives, it is still a visual masterpiece and for what we have here, Ang Lee and his screenwriter, David Magee, do a good job with keeping everythng straight. The 3-D is the best I have ever seen and this is a competitor for my favorite visuals in a film of this year. (The only other close contenders areThe Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Amazing Spider Man.)

4. Les Miserables

Forget what they said. The critics were wrong. “A tasteless bombardment” and “I screamed a scream as time went by” were two of many criticisms that critics threw at this film. But, I heartily disagree. The only reason why you could possibly not like the film is because of the camera-on-a-rope effect that is slightly overdone and, of course, if you don’t like the music, then you won’t like it anymore after sitting in the dark for nearly three hours. But I love the music and the film. Tom Hooper’s decision to actually sing live (on set), was a great one because it pulls out the true emotion in the actors which forces us to feel like we’re sitting just above a Broadway stage. All of the actors are wonderful, especially Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. And while Russel Crowe doesn’t have quite as perfectly rounded a voice as Jackman and Hathaway, he can sing. I dreamed a dream that time went by and this remained…CLASSICCCCCCCCCCC!!!!!!!!!!!!

3. Searching For Sugar Man

Searching For Sugar Man is in my opinion the best doccumentary of 2012. There were many other good ones, but this one prevails. It takes the story of an American musician who, ironically, failed in America but was a big success in South Africa and then…He shot himself in front of an audience at the end of a performance. But the film searches for the musician who went by the name Rodriguez. The story is fascinating and as a South African record store owner and music journalist come closer and closer to the truth, the pulse pounding kicks in. And boy does it kick hard. The film doesn’t only tell a fascinating story, but it also tells it well. On top of it all, Rodriguez’s music is wonderful and fortunately director Malik Bendjelloul isn’t afraid to incorporate Rodriguez’s music into the story, this giving the film a breaking-the-boundaries-of-doccumentaries feel. When the credits roll you are left with Rodriguez strumming his guitar and singing his pesimistic, yet amazing lyrics. “Sugar man” he sings. “Oh my gosh!” I respond, in awe of a riveting tale.

2. Lincoln

Steven Spielberg has a wide range: sci-fi ’70s action films to Indy & co. adventures to gritty warfare violence. But I didn’t think he could do this. Here, Spielberg manages to shift the focus in key moments from Lincoln to other vital characters. He also manages to do what, judging from the trailer, everyone thought impossible: turn Lincoln from giant legend statue to intimate, understanding, man. Best of all is Daniel Day-Lewis’ unflinching portait of Lincoln that is without a doubt mesmerizingly real. The screenplay by Tony Kushner, I agree with the critics, does feel more like a play than a film. That doesn’t mean that Spielberg loses sight of his usually cinematic camera angles. In a year of films that ranged from the plain awful to the cream of a very good crop, Lincoln managed to battle it’s way to second place. It is a sincere and beautiful film, not because it involves $250 million effects (which it doesn’t), but because Spielberg and his team took their time. In doing so they have created a film that is beatiful because it is so unlike anything else. It is a real masterpiece.

1. Beasts of the Southern Wild

Raw. It’s definition: “a material or substance in it’s natural state; not yet processed or purified”. That’s how I would describe Beasts of the Southern Wild. It is directed by a debut director and it stars an adult who is a debut and…Quvenzhanè Wallis. Possibly the best performance of the year, as it is unrivaled in realistic feeling. By the way, she was five when she shot it and had never acted in anything before. And the film was shot with just under $2 million. And yet Zeitlin manages to capture truly wonderful acting in order to ground the film in raw, stark reality. The first time I watched the film, I was under impressed, but the second time, the film was totally different to me. Now, I can’t wait to see it for a third time.

The Year Roundup

I hope you enjoyed my list of the top ten films of the year. But no worries: it’s not time to say goodbye yet! Oh no! To give light to other films that didn’t crack the top ten, but were brilliant or horrible in their own way, I have decided to list off some achievements. Let’s start with the worst of the worst.

Worst Film: Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax

I love Dr. Seuss’ playful and funny books, his wit and his humor that travels to all ages. But this animated film is the opposite. Here we get a piece of tasteless trash. A despicable film this is. Not only does it not do justice to a timeless book, it seems as if the filmmakers are prurposefully trying to make this a terrible experience for the audience: it’s unbelievably that bad! The songs are tastelessly antagonizing the already boring film. Am I overwhelming you with terribly awful adjectives? I am sorry, but this film deserves them. There is however one redeeming element to the film: it’s a very short 86 minutes!

Thoughts on Performances of the Year:

This year was a great one for performances. They ranged from debut breakouts that include Suraj Sharma to Ben Affleck sporting a ’70s hairdo to Hugh Jackman singing at the top of his lungs. Some actors and actresses starred in many films like the Hemsworth brothers, Liam and Chris. (Liam appeared in three films: The Hunger Games, The Expendables 2, and Love and Honor. Chris on the other hand, tied his brother’s amount of films and appeared in The Avengers, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Red Dawn.) But my favorite actor and actress of the year both appeared in one film. The actor nearly didn’t get the part, not because he wasn’t offered it, but because he dismissed it. Once he accepted, he researched the role for one year. The actress had nothing to research. She did the audition. Two days later, her mother gets a phone call. She got the part. Both performances are massively different, but both are, in my opinion, truly wonderful works of acting. Here they are.

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)

I have never seen an actor like Daniel Day-Lewis. This is the only film I’ve seen him in, but while and after watching him, I could feel Lincoln. Lincoln is one of the most loved American presidents of all time. He is one of the most famous people of all time. He died one of the most tragic deaths of all time. How do you translate all of that into one film, more precisely one performance? You don’t. You focus on one task out of a trillion and make that performance a nail biting “How did he pull that off?” craze. In a year of great male performances, this one arose from the rest because of Day-Lewis’ sheer skill.

Best Actress: Quvenzhanè Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild)

“Come on! She was five years old when she shot the film!” If you haven’t seen the film, that is what must be racing through your mind. That’s exactly what I thought when I heard the buzz. There were definitely many great performances from adult women this year, so why did this youngster surpass them all? I highly doubt that Wallis was aiming for perfection. I think she was just doing her best. But there is a raw intensity that she posses. It’s far too raw for some; many people don’t enjoy watching something so real. But I love it. I love the overwhelming expressions that spread across Wallis’ face as her character, Hushpuppy, experiences many things that your average 5 year-old wouldn’t be able to handle. This is barely a performance: to me it registers more as a 5 year-old being put on camera, acting as she always would. This is probably part of Wallis’ genius.

Thoughts on Directors: I’ve already talked about the great performances of the year, but now the question has come: how are these films crafted so greatly? They are directed by a great director. Also, the entire film. From the special effects to the score to the cinematography; it comes down to the director to make the final decision. The greatest directors of this year are the ones who have been able to take the stories and make them something of their own. They put their style into it. Lincoln wouldn’t have been the same if it was directed by Benh Zeitlin or Terrence Malick or Martin Scorsese or Tim Burton. As you read those names you must be thinking “I can’t even imagine the film with those directors at the helm!”. That’s my point! Spielberg makes Lincoln his own film. But what about some other directors who are just starting out. Take for example Malik Bendjelloul (Searching For Sugar Man) or Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man). Are they just as good? Judging from this year, yes. But my No. 1 pick just barely manages to rise above the rest.

Best Director: Steven Spielberg (Lincoln)

Although Beasts of the Southern Wild managed to beat out Lincoln for my favorite film of the year, Spielberg managed to beat Zeitlin for my favorite director. Why? Because, with Lincoln, I sense Spielberg is moving into a new phase of his career. Is this enough for me to award him as being the best director of the year? No. But this phase, judging from this film, will be a wonderful one, an absolutely great one. Spielberg garners great performances from his actors, but so does Zeitlin! Yes, but I think Wallis is more responsible for her performance than Zeitlin. I think Spielberg is very much responsible for not only Day Lewis’ performance, but the entire ensemble’s performance. Spielberg has so much to deal with: keeping John Williams’ score hearty and exciting, but reserved, keeping the editing in sync with the film’s long, slowly drawn out pace, not allowing for Janusz Kaminski to get too fancy with the camera work, and of course getting the most emotional, dramatic, yet real performances out of the talented cast. And he pulls it off. Every nitty-gritty trick, it’s all there.

With that, I hope you’ve enjoyed my year end-wrap up extravaganza. It was probably the hardest post to write out of any that I have written. It’s also just about the longest (or pretty close) post I ever wrote. But, I think it was worth it. Was it? (Comment below! COMMENT BELOW!!!!!) Until the next post…”That’s all folks!” (Trust me, that’s really all there is left to say.)

Seven Samurai (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | October 3, 2012 | 2 Comments

Seven Samurai Poster

Seven Samurai tells the epic tale of a group of farmers and the seven samurai they hire to defend them from rice robbing bandits. But as complications arise will seven samurai win against 40 bandits?

My brother and I chose this movie to watch for our birthday this year, because we knew it was a classic and inspired many future films. Last year we watched Citizen Kane. And I think the two movies are equally great though the stories are different.

I watched the original 207 minute Japanese cut. The American version is 141 minutes, because the company thought American audiences would be able to sit through it. Eventually longer cuts were released in America and now you can watch the Criterion that I saw.

This is a great movie though it is very, very long. It takes 67 minutes for the samurai to get to the village and the final battle scene lasts an hour, however this does allow for more character development and epic action sequences.

It’s interesting that Akira Kurosawa made the decision not to develop the Bandits characters, but to make some more important than others (although even the spotlighted ones are simple). You don’t even know their names let alone their backgrounds. But if they were developed that would make the film even longer which would be highly unnecessary. Overall the film’s length isn’t unbearable because the movie is so good but if it was remade nowadays it would probably only need to be 2 and a half hours.

Seven Samurai: Battle In The RainThe actors are terrific. Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura are the standouts mainly because they get the most screen time. Shimura (as Kanbei) is great at being a thoughtful yet strong master Toshiro Mifune plays the role of Kikuchiyo and is subtly funny and all out crazy. Kurasawa gives the youngest samurai time to develop his romance with a a young woman and others questioning if he is a real samurai. The rest of the actors who portray the samurai are suitable but with so many characters it’s hard to develop them all.

The action scenes are also interestingly well done. They are very different than today’s fast edited non stop battle scenes. For that reason and many more this an essential watch for those who are studying the action genre. Some of the battles don’t even seem like they are fight scenes because they are so slow. I wouldn’t have minded just a bit faster action but then again, if I had seen the film when it first came out I probably would have been fine with it because that’s what everybody was used too back then.

The film was nominated for best Art Direction and Set Design for a black & white film, but it wasn’t even nominated for Best Foreign Language film or Best Picture at the Oscars. This is one of the many times that the Academy overlooked a film that would go on to become a classic. The actual winner for Best Picture was Around the World in Eighty Days, which is not highly regarded now and is not even on the IMDB Top 250 Greatest Films list, while Seven Samurai is 17th.

For those who don’t like foreign films (and subtitles) this one will be more than a bit slow for their tastes though the captivating story and characters might pull them in. It’s also interesting to spot out how different characters, story lines and scenes have inspired other movies. The plots of A Bug’s Life, and, to a lesser extent, Avatar are both derivative of this masterpiece. George Lucas has often spoke about how Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress inspired Star Wars (he is even interviewed on the Criterion DVD) but the Obi-Wan Kenobi Kanbei character in Star Wars (1977) is suspiciously close to that of Kanbei in this film. But rather than distracting it’s fun to identify these influential scenes. Another fun fact: Toshiro Mifune auditioned/turned down the roles of Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (1977) and Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid (1984).

Not only have films reused bits and pieces of Seven Samurai it was also remade as a 128 minute western, The Magnificent Seven. In 2014 The Weinstein Company’s The Seven Samurai, a modern retelling featuring seven security forces produced by Hisao Kuroaswa. Meanwhile Tom Cruise is attached to a Magnificent Seven remake.

Seven Samurai: Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) JumpingMy favorite character is the master samurai, Kanbei, because he is very smart and thoughtful about planning out what all the samurai should do. He successfully led the search to recruit all the samurai. Takashi Shimura is a skillful performer because he’s believable in the role. At 49, he plays someone who appeared older. Toshiro Mifune is know as the lead actor of Kurosowi films, but Takashi Shimura has been in more of his films, 19 in all, but later in supporting roles.

My favorite scene is at the end of the big battle because it is thrilling, climatic and suspenseful. You don’t know who will survive and who won’t until the very end.

Seven Samurai is rated UR (unrated) by the MPAA. I would rate it PG for intense epic battle scenes, some brief romance, name calling, drinking, smoking, and a drunken character.

Suspenseful, emotionally moving, featuring a great cast of characters, terrifically directed, magnificently acted, and showcasing a large number of exciting old fashioned action scenes this is a classic that all movie buffs can’t miss. While a bit long in parts and slow in others Seven Samurai nonetheless influential, iconic, and a foreign film favorite.