Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka)


Moments of delight amidst the horrors of war.

Moments of delight amidst the horrors of war.

(1988) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Yoshiko Shinohara, Akemi Yamaguchi, J. Robert Spencer (English version), Corinne Orr (English version), Amy Jones (English version), Veronica Taylor (English version), Crispin Freeman (English version), Nick Sullivan (English version), Dan Green (English version), George Leaver (English version), Shannon Conley (English version). Directed by Isao Takahata

Offshoring

The horrors of war don’t begin and end on the battlefield. War effects everyone, not just the combatants. Sometimes the worst aspects of war are felt at home.

In the waning days of World War II Seita (Tatsumi/Spencer), a teenage boy and his four-year-old sister Setsuko (Shiraishi/Orr) live in the port town of Kobe in Japan. American bombers are a common sight and when they come to Kobe, they come bearing napalm. The city, mostly built of paper and timber, burns like a firecracker. Their mother (Shinohara/Taylor) is badly burned and eventually succumbs to her grievous injuries. They go to live with their aunt (Yamaguchi/Jones).

However, as food shortages become acute, their aunt becomes more and more indifferent to their plight, raging against their inability to “earn” what she cooks and after they sell their mother’s kimono and buy rice with it, keeps the lion’s share of the rice for herself. Seita and Setsuko decide to strike out on their own and find a nice hillside cave to take shelter in.

Although Seita has some money from his mother, enough to buy food, there is no food to be bought and he is reduced to thieving and scrounging. As the children slowly starve however, they manage to find moments of delight – a gaggle of fireflies that light up the cave one night, or playing with air bubbles in a local river. But the need for food to survive trumps all and the children are in dire straits. Can Seita find a way to keep them both alive?

The answer to that question comes at the very beginning of the movie. I won’t spoil it for you here but most of the movie takes place as an extended flashback, and the viewer’s knowledge of the fate of the children colors the entire film. Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most powerful emotional experiences that has ever been committed to celluloid, something that stays with you and haunts you long after the film ends. Many critics, as jaded moviegoers as can possibly be, who see the movie speak of being moved to tears and being unable to watch it a second time, although they are near universal with their praise.

The animation here is beautiful and occasionally delightful even though the subject is grim (having a child watch his mother’s burned, maggoty corpse being carted away is something Pixar is unlikely to ever display) it is startlingly breathtaking looking at the bombs, flying down from the sky trailing cloth streamers, or the fireflies dancing in the cave, or the children making play food out of mud.

It has been described as maybe the ultimate anti-war movie and while the director has objected strenuously to that depiction, referring to it as more of a relationship film between the brother and sister, the effect is nonetheless very much about the stark and brutal realities of war regardless of the director’s intentions. You cannot watch the plight of these children and be unmoved.

The reason for that is because both Seita and Setsuko are more than just cartoon characters in a literal sense; they are given personalities that make the tragedy all the more awful. While some complain about Japanese anime as being too cutesy (a charge that isn’t without merit), despite the gigantic eyes and tiny mouths that is characteristic of the art form, these children remain unforgettable, indelible images that will haunt you weeks after you see it.

Some may be hesitant to see this movie because I’m making it sound like an endurance test in watching it and that’s not the case, not really. Certainly it will tap into powerful emotions and some may find that to be uncomfortable. However, it is certainly a film that is experienced rather than watched; you cannot simply passively sit on your couch and dismiss the movie half an hour after it’s over. It demands your immediate and intimate involvement and no matter who you are, it draws you in and forces you to feel. The catharsis of a movie like this is incalculable.

Some movies simply transcend the genres that are ascribed to them and become something different, something more – a human movie. Possibly because this was based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Nosaka Akiyuki whose sister did die of starvation during the war, and whose death has haunted him the rest of his life. His anguish is palpable in the novel and Takahata has managed to transcribe that anguish to the screen. This is a movie everyone should experience at some time in their lives.

NOTE: It should be noted that the movie is currently out of print on both DVD editions although it is still available for sale on Amazon both in new and used formats. While the Blu-Ray was out of stock as of this writing, hopefully it will soon be back on the shelves and available for purchase.

WHY RENT THIS: Will create an emotional response in everyone. Beautifully crafted and animated. Powerful themes and thought-provoking concepts.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Dark themes may be too intense for some children.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes; may be too dark and intense for some children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the only film adaptation of her work that Agatha Christie was ever truly satisfied with. She attended the premiere in 1974 and would die 14 months later in 1976.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Collector’s Edition DVD includes an interview with the late Roger Ebert on how the film succeeds where other films fail, as well as a round table discussion of the historical perspective of the war in 1945, the portrayal of the war in the film and how it reflected the facts of the times, and a look at the locations portrayed in the film and how they looked both then and now. The more remastered DVD edition doesn’t include these features but the overall look of the film is far superior, so make your choice accordingly.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Not currently available but will shortly be re-released), Amazon (not available), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wind Rises
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Far From the Madding Crowd

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Fireflies in the Garden


Family dinners in indie films rarely end well.

Family dinners in indie films rarely end well.

(2008) Drama (Senator) Ryan Reynolds, Julia Roberts, Willem Dafoe, Carrie-Anne Moss, Emily Watson, Ioan Gruffudd, Hayden Panettiere, Shannon Lucio, Cayden Boyd, George Newbern, Brooklyn Proulx, Diane Perella, Natalie Karp, John C. Stennfeld, Philip Rose, Babs George, Frank Ertl, Grady McCardell, Chase Ellison, Michelle Brew, Gina Gheller, Stayce Smith. Directed by Dennis Lee

There are those who say that we cannot escape childhood. Like death and taxes, it pursues us with relentless ferocity and those things in childhood that wounded us remain with us, periodically picking at the scabs.

Michael Taylor (Reynolds) is a best-selling author although what he writes is generally considered “light” reading. His relationship with his father Charles (Dafoe) is strained at best. Charles is himself a frustrated writer who retreated into the halls of academia when his career as a novelist didn’t pan out. A strict disciplinarian with his children but mostly with his son, Charles meets any indiscretion with the most horrific and overreacting punishments imaginable. You can imagine what this academic does when Michael as a boy (Boyd) shames him by plagiarizing a Robert Frost poem and presenting it as his own.

Michael is definitely abused but he has two women in his corner; his gentle mother Lisa (Roberts) and his feisty aunt Jane (Watson as an adult, Panettiere as a teen) who protect him against the worst of his father’s rages and comfort him when their protection is breached.

As an adult Michael has definitely made some errors. He has separated from his wife Kelly (Moss) and continues to have a contentious relationship with his father. When a family tragedy brings the family into the same place, Michael and Charles will have to confront their feelings for one another perhaps for the first time in their lives.

Although set in Illinois, the movie was filmed in Texas and has a kind of Southern gothic feel to it that is almost soap opera-esque. Dafoe is note-perfect as Charles whose anger issues and self-loathing point to deeper waters that the film doesn’t explore but that Dafoe seems to have a handle on. Roberts’ Lisa at first glance seems like the long-suffering wife archetype but it turns out that she has some secrets of her own and not all of them are pleasant. Roberts, normally a star who appears in much higher-profile movies, imbues Lisa with decency and humanity.

Reynolds in recent years has gotten all sorts of flack for appearing in some sub-par films but to my mind is actually capable of some pretty good work. This is an example of him at his finest, showing that Reynolds can really deliver when given the right script.

The jumps between present day and past can be jarring and with all the souls revolving around the story here it can be difficult to distinguish one character from another. Simple linear storytelling might have served the film better, or failing that cutting down on the superfluous characters would at least be helpful.

The pacing here is as slow as a tax refund when you really need it which suits me just fine but some viewers who prefer a more robust pace might find frustrating. Lee does have a good eye and some of the scenes have an artful grace to them, such as when the family is swatting fireflies with badminton racquets or the bookending scenes in which young Michael is forced to walk home in the rain after a transgression in the car and his nephew Christopher (Ellison) runs away from nearly the same spot 22 years later. Despite the star power for this indie feature, there isn’t enough here to really sustain interest over the course of a full film although there is enough promise in Lee’s work to keep me interested in his future endeavors.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Dafoe, Roberts and Reynolds. Some graceful touches.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Multiple actors playing the same role gets confusing. Storytelling is a bit muddled. Languidly paced.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language as well as some sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moss and Panettiere share a birthday.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.4M on an $8M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tree of Life

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Bad Words

The Green Mile


The Green Mile

Michael Clarke Duncan shows Tom Hanks which direction he'll have to grow in to be as tall as he.

(1999) Drama (Warner Brothers) Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, David Morse, Bonnie Hunt, James Cromwell, Michael Jeter, Graham Greene, Gary Sinese, Doug Hutchison, Sam Rockwell, Barry Pepper, Jeffrey DeMunn, Patricia Clarkson, Harry Dean Stanton, William Sadler. Directed by Frank Darabont

 

I know of at least three authentic American geniuses in the arts named Steve: Stephen Sondheim, who doesn’t figure into this; Steven Spielberg; and Stephen King.

Spielberg started out as a director of entertainments that while not always taken seriously by the critical cognoscenti nonetheless enjoyed extreme popularity. Later, he would direct projects that met with critical acclaim, Oscars and the respect of his peers. He is now rightly considered one of the greatest directors of all time.

Stephen King appears to be paralleling Spielberg’s course. At the start of his career, his work was dismissed as mere horror novels, but they sold in record numbers. Then starting in the late 1990s, he began to produce works of greater depth and heart. Witness The Green Mile, which has been brought to the screen by Frank Darabont, who also directed one of the best filmed adaptations of King’s work, The Shawshank Redemption.

Like Shawshank, The Green Mile is set in a prison in the ’30s at the start of the film. In this case, it’s in cellblock E of the Cold Mountain Penitentiary in Louisiana (moved from Mississippi in the book) circa 1935. Paul Edgecombe (Hanks) supervises the guards on the cellblock, which is better known as Death Row. He has a pretty good team of guards working for him, most notably Brutus “Brutal” Howell (Morse), a surprisingly gentle-natured bear of a man. Their job is to keep calm the men who are waiting to die because, as Edgecombe tells Percy Wetmore (Hutchison), a sadistic guard with connections to the governor, “they can snap at anytime and hurt themselves, or somebody else.”

Into this volatile mix comes John Coffey (Duncan), a huge, hulking, simple man who dwarfs even Brutal. He has been convicted of the rape and particularly brutal murder of two young girls. He seems gentle and frightened, but as his lawyer (an uncredited Gary Sinese) explains, a dog may seem gentle and loving and then unexpectedly turn on you.

Coffey joins a group of men waiting to be executed, including Eduart Delacroix (Jeter), a timid prisoner with a very precocious pet; Wild Bill Wharton (Rockwell), who is understatedly described by Warden Hal Moores (Cromwell) as “a problem child”; and Mr. Jingles, a mischievous mouse.

Coffey, you see, has a gift – a unique and miraculous gift. He shoulders the burden of this gift in a world of suspicion, prejudice and brutality. The Green Mile looks at that world without flinching or blinking, the kind of a world that produces a Wild Bill, a John Coffey and a Paul Edgecombe, who is a decent man doing a horrible job.

Parts of The Green Mile are hideous (a botched execution attempt) and sometimes beautiful (unexplainable cures, fireflies in the moonlight). It also has more urine than you’ll ever see in five movies (courtesy a urinary tract infection for Edgecombe), so those who are squeamish about bodily fluids be warned.

 The acting here is uniformly good, with Hanks at the top of his game and Morse, Jeter and Cromwell – some of the finest character actors in Hollywood then and now – all delivering fine performances. Duncan and Rockwell, both at the very beginnings of their careers, were both terrific, Duncan receiving an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his performance. That was one of four Oscar nominations the film received and while it didn’t win any of them, certainly it received plenty of love from the Academy who are not known for extending much of it to Stephen King and his movie adaptations.

Despite being three hours long, The Green Mile never drags for a moment. That’s because this really isn’t a film about prisons and crime; the human spirit is really the subject of the picture – the nature of good and evil, death and dignity. There are some emotionally gut-wrenching moments. Da Queen had tears streaming down her face for about the last half hour. She claims that The Green Mile is off the Hankie scale completely, and advises that you just have a whole box of tissues available when you sit down and watch the movie. Preferably one of those industrial strength Costco sizes. Trust me, you’re gonna need it.

Sometimes, a movie comes along that you know from the first few moments is going to be a great motion picture experience, one that touches you in deep places, perhaps even comforts you. The Green Mile is just such a movie. It was my pick for the best film of 1999 and remains to this day more than a decade later a modern classic, one which bears repeated viewings. It certainly is a staple in my family and I’m not alone in that assessment. If you haven’t seen it, you are truly missing out.

WHY RENT THIS: A modern classic. A touching treatise on the human spirit. Excellent performances from Hanks, Morse, Duncan, Rockwell, Cromwell and Jeter.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Maybe you hate Stephen King on general principles.

FAMILY MATTERS: The language can be pretty foul, there are some sexually oriented scenes as well as some fairly disturbing images of murder and execution. There are also lots of scenes involving urine, so be warned.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Stephen King visited the set during filming and asked to be strapped into the electric chair. He was somewhat unnerved by the experience and immediately asked to be released.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: While the original DVD release (2000) didn’t have much room for features, the 2-disc special edition (2006) did and included Duncan’s original screen test and a make-up test with Hanks (he was originally set to play Edgecomb as an old man but the make-up was unconvincing and so Dabbs Greer was cast in the role in his final screen appearance) as well as a new nearly two hour feature on the making of the film. The Blu-Ray (2009) has all of these as well as a 34-page Digibook with background on the film, actor bios and an essay on Darabont’s three King adaptations to date.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $286.8M on a $60M production budget; the movie was pretty much a Blockbuster (and is the highest-grossing Stephen King adaptation to date).

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

The Princess and the Frog


The Princess and the Frog

For every princess, there must be a prince, frog or not.

(2009) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Anika Noni Rose, Terrance Howard, Oprah Winfrey, John Goodman, Keith David, Jenifer Lewis, Jim Cummings, Bruno Campos, Randy Newman, Emeril Lagasse, Jennifer Cody, Peter Bartlett, Michael-Leon Wooley. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker

Once upon a time, all animation was hand drawn in a painstaking process that took years for each feature to be completed. However, computers not only made the process faster, allowing for more animated features to be created every year, those who were more programmers than artists created an onslaught of computer animation that had little soul and nothing much to recommend them while still doing great box office. The days of hand-drawn animation seemingly at an end, Disney shut down its pen and ink division and decided to go full time to computer animation. When their own in-house efforts yielded less-than-stellar results, Disney wound up buying Pixar (whose films they had distributed from the get-go) and installing their chief, John Lassiter, in charge of Disney’s entire animated division, including Pixar.

But Lassiter did a funny thing for a computer guy; he re-instated the traditional animation department, hiring back many of the animators who had been let go. Their first effort is this take on “The Frog Prince” only with a distaff sensibility.

Tiana (Rose) is a young waitress in jazz-age New Orleans with a dream. She wants to open up her own restaurant where she can serve up her daddy’s gumbo recipe, with just a dash of hot sauce. Her daddy (Howard) died in the Great War, leaving her and her momma (Winfrey) to care for each other. Tiana’s ditzy best friend, Charlotte LaBouff (Cody) and her doting dad (Goodman) are out to get Charlotte a prince, and when one drops in her lap, she’s ecstatic.

That Prince is Naveen (Campos) from the impoverished country of Moldonia. He needs to wed a rich lady to help restore the empty coffers of the Moldonian treasury but quite frankly, Naveen is more interested in playing music and letting Le Bon Tomps Roullez in the French Quarter. He also attracts the attention of the evil and nefarious Dr. Facillier (David) a.k.a. the Shadow Man, who casts a voodoo spell on the Prince, turning him into a frog while his soul is transferred into the body of Naveen’s manservant/butler/attaché Lawrence (Bartlett) who would then hand over control of the money and Moldonia to the evil Doc.

In desperation, Naveen tries to find a princess to kiss him and restore him to his former shape, but mistakes Tiana, dressed up for the engagement party of her friend Charlotte, for a princess and the kiss only turns Tiana into a fellow amphibian. Chased by Dr. Facillier who needs the frog prince to refill his magical potion that keeps Lawrence in the form of Naveen, Tiana and Naveen head to the swamp where they meet up with allies of their own; the practical firefly Ray (Cummings), the trumpet-playing crocodile Louis (Wooley) and his buddies (Lagasse, Newman) as well as Mama Odie (Lewis), a voodoo priestess who perhaps alone can reverse the curse of Dr. Facillier.

Is this a return to the form that saw Disney create classic after classic in the 90s? Yes and no. While this doesn’t quite measure up to Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, it’s much better than recent attempts such as Home on the Range or Brother Bear. As a matter of fact, while it doesn’t hit the high notes that Pixar’s movies tend to, it’s still a pretty solid effort.

Rose makes for a feisty princess, the kind that Disney can easily market not only to young African American girls but to the legions of princess-happy tots whose parents deposit hundreds of millions of dollars into Disney’s coffers. The cast has a great deal of energy, particularly Cummings, Cody and Wooley, and the movie barrels along at a jolly pace.

The New Orleans locale is inspired, albeit this is something of a fantasy Big Easy, but it’s recognizable nonetheless. New Orleans is the kind of city that has enough mystery and romance that other cities can only hope for; only New York and San Francisco among American cities have the kind of cachet that the Crescent City possesses, and the jazz age New Orleans is something special again.

There are some passable musical numbers but oddly enough, many of them bring the movie to a grinding halt as the characters go into a song and dance routine that temporarily halts the story’s progression. Personally, I might have cut two or three of the numbers, but I might be in the minority on this one; certainly kids will love the brassy, jazzy music that has a touch of modern hip-hop, gospel and even rock and roll on the edge. This isn’t your mommy and daddy’s Disney.

And yet, in a very real way, it is. This is very much the kind of movie that Disney was making ten years ago to great success and had it been released then, it might well be considered a classic on the level of, say, The Little Mermaid. Even so, it is better than most of the Disney releases before and after that incredible run in the last decade, and marks a welcome return of an art form that was certainly on the endangered list. For that accomplishment alone, regardless of the social implications of an African-American princess (which are certainly important in their own right), this movie deserves a respectful audience, who will be rewarded with a rollicking good time.

WHY RENT THIS: The first hand-drawn Disney animation in six years is worth celebrating; it is also a return to form for an artform that has widely lost its luster with the explosion of computer animation which Pixar helped usher in.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Two many musical numbers stops the films momentum dead in its tracks from time to time.

FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences – c’mon, it’s DISNEY, you know.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Not only is this the first Disney film to feature an African-American princess, it is the first to feature a left-handed princess (Rose is also left-handed and she requested that the animators make her character the same).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray includes featurettes on the history of Disney Princesses and how the newest one fits in. There is also an interactive game for the kids, as well as a music video of Ne-Yo’s “Never Knew I Needed You.” All in all, chock full of goodies as is the way Disney normally does things.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $267M on a production budget of $105M; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Morning Glory