Sunday, May 22, 2011

Understanding Auteurs: Hayao Miyazaki (The Castle of Cagliostro)

Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki has a reputation as one of the finest filmmakers working today.  Miyazaki’s creative leadership of Studio Ghibli, the animation studio that he co-founded with director Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki, has led many to dub Miyazaki as the “Japanese Walt Disney.”  But whatever whimsy and sentimentality crop up in Miyazaki’s work is offset by a deeply weird, surrealist sensibility that doesn’t lend itself easily to toy deals or happy meal promotional tie-ins.  Miyazaki doesn’t shy away from using populist humor or cute, family friendly creatures in his movies, but his is clearly a deeply personal, singular sensibility, and he isn’t afraid to challenge, frighten or even confound his audience.

I was certainly baffled both times I saw Spirited Away (2001) on DVD and the one time I caught Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) in a now-defunct West Bend movie theatre.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – great works of art are always inherently difficult to process on some level, and the avant-garde at its best is able to tap into some fundamental yet hard-to-describe truths on a level that traditional, straightforward works can’t approach.  And although I would have a hard time giving a plot synopsis or even giving any sort of coherent thematic analysis of Spirited Away (and not just because I haven’t seen it in a few years), I still found it so ravishingly beautiful that I wouldn’t hesitate to call it one of the finest animated films I’ve ever seen, and perhaps one of the best films of the past decade.  But I’m of two minds about Howl’s Moving Castle, which I found stunning visually but couldn’t connect with on any other level. 

My experience with Howl’s Moving Castle discouraged me from exploring the rest of Miyazaki’s oeuvre.  Whatever curiosity I’ve had about his work has always been offset by a fear that I would be completely perplexed by his oddball vision.  It’s not that I have an aversion to oddity in art – I would actually go as far as to say that strangeness is a prerequisite for greatness, and most of my favorite filmmakers (Fritz Lang, Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Werner Herzog, etc.) made highly idiosyncratic works that are difficult to categorize and that can’t be fully unpacked even after many viewings.  I could blame my failure to connect with Howl’s Moving Castle on a bias against children’s films, since it’s true that I’m rarely the first in line to see anything that appears to be aimed at anyone under the age of ten, but I would have to ignore the fact some recent computer animated work by Pixar and some hand-drawn films by Sylvain Chomet and Michel Ocelot are among the most enchanting things I’ve seen in the past decade.  (Besides, even a novice like me can see that Miyazaki’s films are not necessarily aimed at children - or at least not just at children).  And while it’s true that I don’t have a very firm grasp of the history of anime, or its stylistic conventions – aside from genre landmarks like Akira (1988) and Grave of the Fireflies (1988), I really haven’t seen much – that can’t be the reason that I’ve been so thrown off by Miyazaki’s style, since he is clearly following his own muse rather than adhering to an inscrutable foreign tradition. 

I have to admit that the reason that I’ve remained ignorant of the work of Miyazaki for so long is probably simply that I’m afraid that I won’t “get it,” and I hate to be that guy who is so thrown off by a work of art that I can’t properly appreciate or evaluate it.  Miyazaki’s work is very difficult to compartmentalize, both because he shifts so quickly between different tones and because it’s hard (for me) to identify when he’s playing off of certain Japanese cultural tropes and when he’s simply making stuff up.  The English voiceovers added to the Disney-distributed editions Miyazaki’s films are also an obstacle to my enjoyment; while they nicely free up my eyes to pay closer attention to the astonishing visuals rather than subtitles, they also tend to feature distracting (and frankly pointless) appearances by celebrity actors rather than trained voice performers.  Miyazaki’s deal with Disney prevents them from drastically altering his films (part of the reason that Studio Ghibli was founded in the mid-80s was so that Miyazaki could retain creative control over the international versions of his films), but I do wonder if, for example, Billy Crystal’s goofy vaudeville-style voiceover as one of the comic relief characters in Howl’s Moving Castle may have given his scenes a tone that Miyazaki did not intend.  The DVDs helpfully include the option to view the film’s with either subtitles or the English dubs, but it’s hard to decide which version is preferable, especially as I imagine it may vary from film to film.

Thankfully, few of these concerns apply to Miyazaki’s first feature length film (he’d previously worked on several anime television series), The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), which is about as easy an introduction to the work of a filmmaker that I can imagine.  A narratively streamlined adventure film with a breathless pace, a goofy sense of humor, and iconic, easy-to-grasp characters, Cagliostro is presumably the furthest from the avant-garde that Miyazaki will be in his career as a filmmaker.  But even when making a crowd-pleasing blockbuster in what appears to be a sort of “house style,” Miyazaki brings enough personality to the proceedings to set his film apart from the pack.  Cagliostro isn’t an original Miyazaki creation – he and co-screenwriter Haruya Yamazaki were tasked with making the second film in the Lupin the III series, spun-off from a popular television series that was based on a manga series created by Monkey Punch (who based his creation on a series of French adventure novels by Maurice Leblanc) – but the film doesn’t bend under the weight of his complicated creative lineage, and it’s an easy-to-follow and engaging story that doesn’t require any prior knowledge of its source material.

Lupin the III is a master thief with a carefree attitude and a playful spirit.  He works alongside a sarcastic, laidback marksman named Daisuke Jigen and a focused master samurai named Goemon.  In the midst of apparently randomly cruising around Europe looking for adventure, Lupin and Jigen get in the middle of a wild car chase involving a mysterious woman and a band of thugs tailing her.  Despite knowing nothing about the situation, Lupin decides to rescue the woman, who promptly disappears but leaves him a distinctive and mysterious ring.  Lupin eventually comes to learn that the woman, Clarisse, is the princess of Cagliostro and is soon to be married to a villainous Count, who needs Clarisse’s ring to perform a ritual that will allow him to uncover the fabled Cagliostro treasure, which will add to the fortune that he’s made from his counterfeit bill empire.  In order to enter the Count’s heavily guarded castle, Lupin tips off his longtime rival, easily-agitated Interpol agent Zenigata, to his whereabouts, using the subsequent distraction to sneak his way past the Count’s guards and remote-controlled lasers.  Gradually Lupin and Zenigata are forced to join forces to rescue the princess and bring down the Count’s illegal operation, though complications arise when Lupin’s rival thief (and sometime lover) Fujiko turns out to already be attempting to swipe the counterfeit cash.

The characters are all fairly basic archetypes; even if the viewer isn’t familiar with the long-running Lupin series (as I wasn’t), they will be able to quickly identify each character’s basic function within the series’ universe, and there aren’t any unexpected twists in their personalities along the way.  There is no hint of moral ambiguity in the Count, and Clarisse is about as complicated as Princess Peach from the Super Mario Bros. video games.  Also, a few of the supporting characters have practically nothing to do in Cagliostro, and seem to only have been included in the script because fans of the series would expect them to show up at some point (samurai Goemon, who appears maybe five times in the whole film and does nothing of note, feels particularly shoehorned in).

These very simple characterizations may prevent Cagliostro from being a particularly sophisticated or original film, but the basic plotting allows the film to focus its full attention on its wonderful visuals and its many dazzling action scenes.  The film opens in the chaotic aftermath of a bank heist, and quickly establishes its tone when Lupin and Jigen decide to throw the cash out the window (it engulfs a bunch of passing cars, but magically doesn’t seem to cause any accidents), apparently more concerned with the excitement of the heist itself than any potential profits.  Miyazaki moves at the same jazzy pace as his heroes, flitting quickly between thrilling sequences like the aforementioned car chase, Lupin’s underwater stealth entrance into the castle, an out-of-control helicopter versus turret skirmish, and an awesome one-on-one battle in and out of a huge clock tower.  The animation team brings a real sense of dynamic momentum to these action scenes, and Miyazaki oversees a lot of vividly eccentric details, such as when a flash grenade tossed by Lupin causes one scene to play out on an entirely yellow background, with the characters appearing as black silhouettes.  There may not be a real sense of stakes in the by-the-numbers story – when one of the heroes is shot down in a helicopter, there’s no question of whether he’s going to get back up again – but Miyazaki’s incredibly visceral action scenes make Cagliostro even more exciting than the best James Bond or Indiana Jones adventures, and he gives the Count a surprisingly brutal death scene.  Even the scenes of comic relief or exposition have a sense of fun to them that is largely missing from contemporary action blockbusters.  The Castle of Cagliostro may not be complex or unique enough to mark reveal Hayao Miyazaki as a genius, but it is too damned entertaining for anyone to deny him his place as one of the world’s premier action directors.

UP NEXT  Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Saturday, May 14, 2011

TV on DVD: The Shield (Season Four, Disc One)

Episodes covered:  The Cure, Grave, Bang, Doghouse

I’m not very familiar with Glenn Close.  I’ve seen fewer than ten of the sixty-four projects she’s credited with appearing in on IMDB, and out of those, the only one of her roles that I remember fairly clearly is her crazed stalker in the terrible thriller Fatal Attraction.  And I haven’t seen a single episode of Damages, the FX (and now DirecTV) series that was so heavily built around its star that its working title was Glenn Close TV Project.

But I no longer feel like I need to have seen The Big Chill or Reversal of Fortune to understand why Close is such a highly respected actress.  Close’s work on the fourth season of The Shield is strong enough to justify any praise that she’s received in her career – a claim I feel comfortable making even after only seeing the first third of the season.  The veteran actress plays Monica Rawling, the new Captain of the Barn (Aceveda has finally moved on to the City Council position that it seemed like he would’ve already been in at the start of season three).  Though Monica is a character who’s never been mentioned in previous seasons of the show, and who (apparently) won’t be around after this season is over, she feels like a fully realized and fleshed out character the second she steps on screen in “The Cure.”  Rawling radiates the decisiveness and toughness that a person in her position needs to have in order to be in charge of institutional bullies like Vic.  Her years as a Farmington beat cop would be evident even if they weren’t spelled out by the dialogue, and her desire to make her district a safer place seems both sincere and well-informed, even if her zero-tolerance methods for reducing crime are highly dubious.  Basically, Monica feels like a real person instead of a character that this season needs to drive its storyline, and Close’s grounded portrayal is largely responsible.

Of course, the writing staff deserves some of the credit for making Rawling such a fascinating presence, and for integrating her into all of the other characters’ lives in a way that the many new characters introduced in the previous season weren’t.  Her relationship with Aceveda is unsurprisingly somewhat hostile, as she quickly establishes herself as a very different type of leader that isn’t afraid to do things that make the department look bad as long as the ends justify the means.  Rawling’s no nonsense attitude and her policy of putting as many bodies as she can spare on major cases endears her to Danni, who has been trying to get off of basic foot patrol since season one.  The new Captain’s policy of giving everyone something useful to do doesn’t extend to Dutch and Claudette, as the latter’s righteous quest to expose wrongful arrests has continued to alienate her and her partner from the rest of the police department – and the District Attorney’s office, who refuse to cooperate with any case where Claudette is the primary investigator.  Rawling seems to recognize that Dutch and Claudette are skilled detectives, but is refusing to take them off the sidelines until the latter apologizes to the D.A. – something that is obviously a major source of frustration for the ever-ambitious Dutch, who has gotten off on the wrong foot with the new Captain on a personal and professional level. 

Of course, Rawling’s most prominent tentative relationship on the show is with Vic.  After the events of last season, Vic’s Strike Team has been disbanded, with Shane heading off to a different precinct’s vice squad, Lem working for a juvenile detention center, and Vic and Ronnie doing menial surveillance work at the Barn.  Encouraged by Vic’s impressive arrest rate, Rawling puts the corrupt cop in charge of a new anti-gang task force.  Though she cautions Vic against using methods that will draw the suspicion of Internal Affairs, Rawling seems disturbingly undaunted by Vic’s “anything to get the job done” approach, and it will be interesting to see which lines she’s willing to cross as the season goes on.  Some of her methods may actually be more damaging than Vic’s, as suggested by her controversial “asset forfeiture” policy, in which she and the officers in her command take away any property purchased by drug money – even if it means throwing innocent children out in the street, as happens when she and Vic seize a home bought for a crack dealer’s mother and young siblings in the episode “Bang.”

That sense of the toll that rough and/or corrupt law enforcement takes on the underprivileged people that the law is supposed to protect is something that was largely missing from the first three seasons of The Shield, but it seems like it will be a major concern of the show’s fourth year.  Since the events of the show have always been depicted from the point of view of the police, even the most prominent criminal characters from the show’s past have tended to seem like thematic abstractions at best, and unambiguous villains at worst.  The Shield has featured frequent scenes of police brutality at its worst, but because the criminals have been so poorly defined in comparison to the law enforcement characters, the show has sometimes undercut its own points by making the guys on the wrong side of the law seem like nameless, faceless thugs.  The writers seem to have recognized that this was a problem, as they’ve structured most of this season’s early plotlines around the various ways that the Barn has failed Farmington, whether they are literally beating the puke out of a gang member in “Grave” or giving serious jail time to a man with a few pot plants in “Doghouse.”

These failures of justice open the door for truly savvy criminals like Antwan Mitchell (Anthony Anderson, in a riveting performance that far outpaces any of his other work I’ve seen), the ex-con leader of the One-Niners, who is able to gain the support of his community in a way that the police won’t ever be able to.  Since returning from a decade-plus prison stint, Antwan has rebranded himself as a compassionate community leader, more interested in providing support for his fellow citizens than in making a profit off of their misery.  Antwan is hands down the most intriguing criminal character seen on The Shield to this point, because it’s genuinely difficult to parse how seriously he takes his black pride rhetoric and how much he’s simply using it as a smokescreen for his drug dealing operation.

Antwan can’t be too noble a person, because he’s got an under the table deal going on with Shane.  It isn’t exactly clear what the terms of Antwan and Shane’s deal are, but we’ve already seen Shane cover up a murder committed by Antwan’s crew (in “The Cure”) and we’ve seen both men give each other compromising information about their respective organizations.  Shane collaborating with Farmington’s most prominent gang leader while Vic is running an anti-gang task force is clearly going to be a great source of drama going forward, especially since neither Vic nor Shane can really afford to turn the other in, given all of the dirt they have on one another, from the Terry Crowley murder to the Armenian Money Heist.  The Shield seemed to be losing some steam in season three, but season four is shaping up to be its most intense and dynamic collection of episodes to date.

Quick Thoughts:

-  Nice cameo by Katey Sagal as Gilroy’s widow in “Grave.”  Few actresses are better at instantly projecting the scars of their characters’ hard lives, and Sagal does it here in just two scenes.  Sagal is the wife of that episode’s writer, Kurt Sutter, and she currently stars in her husband’s terrific (if uneven) series Sons of Anarchy.

- Shane’s new partner Armando “Army” Renta (Michael Pena) hasn’t played a big role so far, but it will be interesting to see how far he’s willing to follow Shane down his flamboyantly corrupt path.

-  Julien is the only one of the major characters without a clear, compelling storyline so far this year.  I hope that the writers find something for him to do, as Michael Jace still provides one of the show’s most intriguing screen presences.

- I didn’t really get around to addressing the continuing fallout from Aceveda’s third season rape, but his newfound passion for extremely rough sex has provided some reminders that The Shield’s extreme content can still provide some genuinely shocking moments even after forty-odd episodes.  How long before his predilections put his political career at risk?

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Masterpiece Test: Yi Yi

Year of Release  2000
Country  Taiwan
Length  173 min.
Director  Edward Yang
Screenwriter  Edward Yang
Cinematographer  Yang Wei-han
Editor  Chen Bo-Wen
Cast  Wu Nien-jen, Jonathan Cheng, Chen Hsi-Cheng, Ko Su-Yun, Elaine Jin, Pang Chang Yu, Issei Ogata

Beauty  Yi Yi starts off so casually and so modestly that Edward Yang’s masterful direction isn’t immediately apparent.  Great care has been taken to ensure that Yi Yi’s events are grounded in contemporary reality, but Yang and cinematographer Yang Wei-han manage to subtly build up to a number of striking, unforgettable images.  One particularly beautiful expression of the film’s “everything is connected” theme involves a woman (Elaine Jin) standing in front of a window reflecting a busy highway, a red traffic light blinking in such a position that it looks like it could stand in for her beating heart.  Another memorable image finds the object of child photographer Yang Yang’s (Jonathan Cheng) affection framed against a projected film of a thunderstorm. 

Strangeness  Yi Yi is explicitly concerned with viewing realistic events from angles that aren’t normally available to human beings.  A major part of the story has to do with Yang Yang’s desire to show people the things that they can’t see.  This appears to be Edward Yang’s modus operandi as well.

Unity of Form and Subject Matter  The director follows Yang Yang’s lead by showing virtually all of the film’s events either from odd angles, from great distances, or refracted through mirrors or windows.  In doing so, Yang manages to show different sides of his characters’ personalities while also giving hints of the enormous, busy world going on outside of the frame of the story.  It’s impossible to forget that the film’s story isn’t simply about whoever happens to be onscreen in any given scene, but an extended family representing the modern social anxieties of an entire nation.  The script and the camera are perfectly in sync throughout Yi Yi.

Tradition  With its casual connecting of the dots between the members of its sprawling cast of characters, Yi Yi belongs to a tradition of large ensemble pieces first perfected by Jean Renoir in The Rules of the Game (1939).  Yang’s film sets itself apart from recent clumsy examples of the genre (such as 2006’s Babel) by smartly structuring its cast of characters around one central family, thereby giving the characters organic reasons to interact, and by varying the characters’ plotlines enough to give the film a dynamic, multilayered tone that justifies its surface ambitions.  Dense stories about large groups of people have largely migrated away from cinema and toward television in recent years, meaning that Yi Yi may possibly be the last great film of its kind. 

Repeatability  Any film with this much going on at once is going to benefit from multiple viewings, whether the viewer is discovering new connections between the characters or paying close attention to the subtly impressive shot compositions.

Viewer Engagement  Yi Yi is a quiet film that doesn’t go out of its way to impress its audience, but its calm demeanor has the effect of slowly drawing the viewer to the screen.  The full scope and ambition of the film gradually becomes apparent as the story unfolds, which makes it seem like the film is constantly improving, building from an unremarkable early scene at a wedding to a powerfully fragile conclusion at a funeral.  The three hour length is absolutely necessary to do justice to the many different storylines, all of which are given just as much (or as little) time as needed to reach their logical points of stasis.

Morality  Yi Yi doesn’t provide easy answers to any of the questions it raises about the place of honesty and integrity in business, the role of the individual in a family group, or the instability of romantic relationships.  It also doesn’t condemn any of its characters for making wrong or questionable decisions in several instances.  The script is built around various members of the central family visiting their comatose, dying matriarch’s bedside and venting the feelings that they have a hard time expressing to the people they’re closest to, so it’s easy to identify with any of the characters even as they are being shown from unflattering angles outside of their own limited perspectives.  In doing so, it reminds the viewer to seriously consider the things that they can’t see.

Yi Yi passes the Masterpiece Test

UP NEXT  A film with an even larger ensemble cast, Robert Altman’s Nashville.