Saturday, February 26, 2011

Summer Wars: Googles of Fun

Kenje is hired by Natsuki to be her "boyfriend" for the weekend during her grandmother's 90th birthday celebration. The bad news: the world collapses over the weekend and it's partly Kenje's fault. The good news: Natsuki's family is there to make things right!

The characters remind me of Miyazaki, especially in their friendliness and work-hard attitude, but there is little depth or real emotion going on, apart from embarrassment, especially on the part of the two in the romantic focus. The best character is the grandmother, Sakae, who is shown to be insightful, tough and imminently confident. However, the whole group is fun with all their little quirks and attitudes. The English dubs are pretty well done as well, if you are thinking about going that way.

The visuals are magnificent and detailed, especially when dealing with Oz, the internet world that everyone seems to be going on. There's a lot to see, and a number of fun little details.

The plot reminds me of .hack more than anything else. It's kind of silly, but the best part is how they integrate all the characters into this fun story. It's a perfect plot for today's gaming teens and pre-teens. It connects the gaming world with the real world and also connects family with internet. It is illustrating a chance for the isolated internet junkie to be worthwhile and connected to his or her world surrounding them.

This is probably the most fun I've had with a movie in the last year, and certainly deserving of consideration in next year's Filmspots.

Steve's rating: 4.5/5
Mercy's (my ten year old daughter's) rating: 5/5

Friday, February 25, 2011

The State of Indie

Wait, no, not THAT Indy! I'm talking about independent cinema. (Thanks to ses for the joke)

What is independent film? It is a kind of movie that is made outside of a major studio, which provides an opportunity for unique films to be made. Since Robert Redford's Sundance Festival and Soderberg's Sex, Lies and Videotape, indie films have been a force to be reckoned with, with some obtaining bigger budgets and big name stars. Indie films are simply a part of the cinema landscape now, with films like Reservoir Dogs, The Big Lebowski and Requiem for a Dream being just a few examples of independent cinema gone viral.

Just as mainstream cinema seems to be going more for the successful visual and the clever staging (like Inception and Black Swan) and even psychological drama seems to be psych-lite, independent film is focusing more on character. I want to give three examples of indie films to get an idea of where successful independent film is heading:

Please Give

This film is about a couple who has a successful business reselling retro furniture they obtain from estates. They see themselves at times as vultures, waiting for people to die off, and not more so than with their neighbor, a 91 year old who is renting a space they lease, but when she dies they expect to use her space to expand their own. Their success in this makes Kate (Cathrine Keener) neurotically guilty and want to hand out fives or twenties to people on the street. It also makes their marriage seem more like a business partnership rather than a intimate relationship.

This is a good character-driven story, and it opens up some ideas about guilt and wealth that are rarely seen in cinema. Unfortunately, the characters that the film focuses on are generally unlikable or so filled with their own self-focus that it is hard to appreciate them. The plot follows the characters well, making real people out of the sometimes eccentric personalities, but in the end, for me, these people are simply not the kind of people I want to spend time with.


Speaking of unlikeable characters, the title character played by Ben Stiller is immensely unlikeable. He is socially crippled, finding the wrong thing to say almost every time. I wrote a review of this film in a previous blog, so I'm not going to go in detail here. It is just enough to say that this, too, is strongly character driven. Stiller gives an amazing performance, and the plot never missteps by making a character say or do something out of what seems natural for them. But do we really want to know these people better? Greenberg is purposely unlikeable, and the only reason he is in any kind of relationship with Florence is because she is so used to acting for others, not really even knowing what she wants. But who wants to spend time with such extreme characters, who are not really likable, but simply pathetic?

The Kids Are All Right

This film is about a lesbian couple who had children through a sperm donor 18 years previous. Now the children want to meet their absent biological father. So they contact him, which causes the family's tenuous existence to topple.

This film is an example of the best of what independent film can be. Again, this is a character-led drama/comedy and there isn't a single misstep with character. At times one of the mothers, Nic is simply angry and controlling and the other mother, Jules has an affair, both of which could make these characters seem flat or unlikeable. However, the characters are so carefully written and played that we still feel connected to these people, even though they have made decisions we don't like.

We recognize these characters, not just in an abstract sense of "I know people like that", but we recognize aspects of their lives as being similar to our own. This isn't just "lesbian couple" or "organic farmer" or "children of lesbian couple" as if they were labeled in a zoo. These are people who in some ways are just like us. The emotional reactions are real for us. If we were in similar circumstances, we would react the same. The awkwardness of the first dinner with them all and the desperation to make it all right in the second dinner together is so perfect. We can feel the tension and appreciate the attempts to make relationship.

I would really like to see more films like The Kids Are All Right. Character-driven drama is important in film and we need to see well made ones-- as all three of these films are examples of-- but also we want to resonate. And to be able to resonate with characters that are so different, socially, than ourselves, is a real success.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Why Enter The Void Is the Prototypical 2010 Film

Enter The Void is a film which follows the adventures of a drug addict after he dies. We follow him as his carelessness destroys not only his life but his sister's and his friend Alex's. The film is two and a half hours in his head, one long very pretty, very depressing drug dream.

This film is like an extreme version of most of the films I watched in 2010. Some cutting-edge visuals, stylistically innovative, but ultimately lacking in substance or meaning. I'm not saying that there's no meaning, its just that the meaning is shallow compared to the effort and time used to convey the meaning.

Gasper Noe said that he created the film to show the emptiness of humanity. If that is the case, then why portray both an animal side to sexuality and a mystical side? And if death is simply a really long drug dream, then the movie isn't really about the emptiness of humanity, but the emptiness of the protagonist. If he wanted to show the emptiness of humanity, then he should have shown us a seemingly fulfilling life and how it was actually empty. Instead, he gives us a pathetic example of a human being and lets us spend two and a half hours roaming around his cranium. Thanks a lot, Noe.

However, visually the film was stunning. Very 2001-ish with a lot of neon and fractal-type images. I can't recommend it for all that, though. One other thing, if you are interested in watching the film, despite my half-heartedness, there is a lot of fairly graphic sexuality here, and at times it feels more like a porn film than mainstream. For myself, as well as for others, I would not recommend this film just because of that. 3/5

But what does all this have to do with 2010? So many of the praised films of 2010 are much like this one-- either filled with miserable lives, or full of stunning visuals but having little substance.

Black Swan-- Amazing visuals decorating a pretty simple, predictable film about psychological collapse.

Inception-- Nolan tells you exactly what will happen in the second half of the film, and fulfills his promise with amazing visuals, but is completely predictable.

The Social Network-- A bunch of miserable characters told in a very entertaining fashion.

127 Hours-- Danny Boyles style is remarkable, but it is still a story of a guy whose arm gets stuck under a rock for 127 hours. We know what's going to happen, so the rest of it is style.

I could go on, but you get the point. I'm not saying that these films aren't good-- again there are a lot of stylistic innovation and clever visuals. But that doesn't make these movies great. There simply isn't enough theme or mental stimulation to make them excellent, in my opinion. As far as I'm concerned, a great film stimulates both the mind and the senses. For the majority of films I've seen from this last year my senses have been stirred, but my mind has only been tickled, not challenged.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Mobsters of 2010

For the most part, I am terribly weary of watching mob movies. I loved the Godfather films (all three) and The Wire is just fantastic, but why should I bother seeing more? Sure, I heard Sopranos was excellent, but that's a lot of Italian mafia to swallow. I saw enough of Scarface to never bother seeing the rest of it. Senseless violence, destructive personalities, assassinations, corrupt cops... it's all the same and if I want to see a half-truth, why should I see such a negative one, filled with evil people "trying" to be good or whatever?

Animal Kingdom (2010)

"Just another day of killing with the family."

See, this is what I'm talking about. Josh's mother dies and he moves in with his grandmother who's boys are all hard core criminals. Josh's narration at the beginning talks about how they all know that they are right on the edge of losing everything. So, we know how the movie's going to pan out, don't we? Pope is one of the more selfishly evil characters I've seen, and frankly, everyone else is only marginally better. No stand out performances, just a lot of senseless killing. There's a lot I might forgive of the film, but almost every character is just stupid.

However, I do think it has the best use of Air Supply of any movie. 2/5

The Prophet (2009)

"It's a lonely business, being the head of a crime syndicate."

But this French film, filled with Corsican and Arabic, reminds me of why I still occasionally watch mob films.

It is smart and mystical and powerful and sad. It is as starkly realistic and as intense as a season of The Wire (although without the award-winning dialogue).

It follows Malik into prison, his home for six years, as he is faced with a Hobson's choice from a Corsican mobster who runs the prison: kill a man or I will kill you. It could be see as a paint by the numbers rags-to-riches criminal story, but Malik remains so boyish, and his friend Ryad is so real and the ghost of his first kill haunts the screen. There is a lot in this movie, and it is worth watching.

(For those who haven't seen the film, skip this next paragraph.) One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is the mystic side of it. Malik is visited regularly by the ghost of his first kill, Reyeb, who is a criminal who will testify against his boss. I think that the development of Reyeb is fascinating, especially after he dies. He is a hash dealer who wants to trade sexual favors for drugs. After he died, he hangs around Malik, with little animosity. By the end of the film, he is giving Makik visions and encouraging him to worship God. So the ghost of Reyeb seems to be pulling Malik one direction, but his criminal reality is leading him, without pause, toward evil. This is a fascinating way to create moral tension, one which I've never seen in a mob movie before. Religion plays a role in Malik's life, but by the end of the film, he seeks out Reyeb, but Reyeb cannot be found.

Yes, it has a lot of violence, much of it seemingly senseless. But this movie is so well acted and conceived and is just original enough that it is worth whatever discomfort it might give you. 4/5

Saturday, February 12, 2011

My Toy Story Rankings (no, this isn't a brief post)

This isn't exactly a review of what some have called "the greatest trilogy in film" (those are the people who haven't seen The Colors Trilogy by Keislowski, clearly). Rather, it is a defense of why I think Toy Story 2 is the best of the trilogy. Please don't think I am putting down any of these films. They are all amazing. But only one makes my list of top 100 films. Here's why:

Toy Story

"Who is that happy child?"

Of course, this film is great. It is what started Pixar in feature films and introduced us to Buzz, Woody, Hamm and Potato Head. It also sets up the important themes of the other movies-- double lives, friendship, mortal limitations, faithfulness, devotion. It also gives us the building blocks for the other movies-- ingenious planning, Buzz's bravery, Woody's insight but emotional instability, Rex's small intellect, as well as nuggets that become bigger in other movies-- the puppy, the Emperor Zurg, Mrs. Potato Head, Al's Toy Barn.

However, in the end, this is still a first film and it has the weaknesses of a first film. The main song is great, as well as is "Sailing No More"-- but apart from Ragtime, Randy Newman really shouldn't be writing and singing an entire score. A little more variety would have been good, as there was in the other two films. Also there are inconsistencies. Woody has brilliant planning, but just a little while before he couldn't figure out how to get out of Syd's house and then all of a sudden he knows all the ductwork? Andy hears something drop into the box next to him and suddenly W and B appear out of nowhere? They aren't even on the floor of the car?

But the biggest weakness of Toy Story, in my opinion, are the darkness of some of the characters. Woody is so blinded by jealousy that he isn't smart at all. I'm not saying that it isn't realistic, I'm saying I much, much prefer the Woody of the other two movies. Mr. Potato Head is ready to jump to severe conclusions. In the other movies, all the toys do this ("Woody, don't sell yourself!"), but it's on the normal level of the toy universe, not talk of "murder". How does one "murder" a toy by knocking him out of a window anyway? The accusation doesn't make sense. Buzz is a stellar exception. He is wonderful all throughout, even when he is fuming mad at Woody, or driven mad by his discovery that the delusions were unreal. ("The hat looks good, right? Sure, the apron is too much...").

I feel that they really understood these characters better by the second movie, and they were able to clean up the scripts to make the toy universe more consistent. Frankly, although the first movie is excellent, the second movie perfects a very good beginning.

Toy Story 3

"You have to the end of the week to decide"

The first time I saw this film it was, let's say, less than stellar conditions. A terrible noise ruined five minutes during the climax of the film and just ruined the whole thing (I never did ask the theatre for replacement tickets although I should have).

My family and I watched it again and it was just wonderful this time. Frankly, I think I would have enjoyed it better this time anyway.

The significant theme of Toy Story 3 is mortality. This comes right from the beginning when the classic Randy Newman theme ends with, "Our friendship will never die..." Even though toys don't really die, death is the major theme of Toy Story 3. When toys are no longer wanted by their owners, then their life is over. Sure, they may have some nefarious afterlife in the attic, or perhaps be resurrected by playing with the owner's kids, but in reality, their life is over. Death looms over all this film. And like Gilgamesh (the first novel ever published), the toys are desperately seeking to extend their lives. What makes a toys life meaningful? Being played with. So that's what they want to find-- a place where they will always be played with, never to be forsaken by owners. They want eternal life.

And they find it at Sunnyside Preschool. But instead of a simple paradise, it is a heaven or hell situation. It is interesting how here there is a subtle critique of monotheistic religion. Those who rule heaven are autocrats, choosing some for hell so that they can retain their paradise. And really, isn't that what most religion is about? People choosing themselves for heaven, which automatically means that some are destined for hell.

The toys, of course with Woody's help, escape hell--literal fire-- and find a completely new kind of afterlife-- reincarnation. They can be reborn with a new existence in a new owner's imagination. I really doubt that the authors had all of this religious idealism in mind (although I think they really were critiquing monotheistic afterlife), but it is interesting how this Divine Comedy plays out. They are taking some of the oldest themes of literature and playing it out in a "children's" movie.

In this way, Toy Story 3 is, in a sense, darker than the other two. The stakes are higher, the themes are deeper and the symbolism is more powerful than the other two.

Toy Story 2

When somebody loved me...

But I still think that Toy Story 2 is the best-- at least in my opinion. Perhaps Toy Story is the Illiad of the trilogy, concerning the "hubris of Woody" and TS3 is the Divine Comedy of the trilogy, exploring the different afterlifes of the toy universe. But I think that Toy Story 2 is more of a piece of art in it's own right, even without exploring deeper themes. TS2 is about loyalty. We saw loyalty in the first movie-- Slink is the personification of that. But Slink's loyalty was unfounded, untested. TS2 is about the test of loyalty-- choosing to be faithful to one's friend even when the situations are at their worst, even when you are given fame in exchange for that loyalty.

In that sense, TS2 is a great example of what Pixar itself is all about. Yes, they make films and program software, but it is not only about the work. It is about the families and the relationships and having fun as a community. The leaders of Pixar could have been controlling, like Walt Disney, or manipulating... but they chose to be about relationship instead. So TS2 talks about what is most important at Pixar-- community over success. And they obtain success anyway. Woody, as usual, remembers what is most important about being a toy-- being there for his owner-- and in that he remains true to his friends.

And TS2 reflects the themes of the others. Friendship despite conflict. Mortality. Rejection of those most important to us. But it does it in the most entertaining fashion. TS2 not only is a deep movie, but it is deeply emotional and deeply funny. It perfects the TS universe, enriches it and keeps it all entertaining, every step of the way.

TS3, I think, it the one that is the closest competition. The universe is perfect there, too, and the writing is excellent, the characters well developed without being irritating. But so much of it draws from the other two films, that it just doesn't seem original enough. And, frankly, I find TS2 more entertaining and more interesting to watch.

All are brilliant, but here is my line up:
Toy Story 2- 5/5
Toy Story 3- 4.5/5
Toy Story -3.5/5

All great, but some greater than others.

A Guy Ritchie Joint: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

'Splodies? Check. Shirtless fight sequence? Check. Burning man? Check.

I probably went in expecting too much. It starred Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, and it was about Sherlock Holmes. I figured the script would be smart and funny and we'd see some antics, but we'd be heading to a generally good time.

What I got was a stylized action film with House, MD and his sidekick Robert Wilson.

Sherlock Holmes isn't bookish or full of disguises in this film, he is clever, but far more smart about anatomy and how to hit his opponent than he is in solving a case. Dr. Watson is far less proper than his short story counterpart, and more likely to threaten than to heal. And their relationship is almost identical with House and his best friend in the TV show, with Sherlock being manipulative and Watson being sarcastic.

It's a good show. And Guy Ritchie is certainly in control here. The visuals are fantastic, even the final credit sequence is stunning. But I was so disappointed in what I had hoped to watch that the interesting looks couldn't sway me. Perhaps it was the obvious CGI that did me in?

If you are looking for a nineteenth century action/mystery film, with cool visuals this is for you. But if you were hoping for a funny, smart script and a new take on an old set of characters, don't bother. 3/5

Friday, February 11, 2011

Hey, I Know This Guy! Greenberg (2010)

It's unusual for me to do this, but I watched Greenberg cold. I had never seen a previous Noah Baumbach film, I didn't really have a clue as to what Greenberg was about, I had never seen a trailer or read a review. It was refreshing to come to a film so fresh. And yet, it was soooo familiar.

I would swear that Ben Stiller followed around a couple of my friends. I am a minster to the mentally ill, among others, and Stiller's character here is just like a couple people I know. So self absorbed that every difficulty is someone else's fault and every conversation is centered around him. When someone acts in a normal manner, he gets angry and would possibly walk out without warning. Greenberg (and my friends) are those who, even if not specifically diagnosed with a mental illness is so socially crippled that they don't really have friends, simply victims. Or those who try, ever so slowly, to make them into fuller human beings.

I just want to say that Greenberg is realistic, for the most part. I recognize the character of Florence and although her depth of passivity is rare, it isn't unknown. And the thought of throwing these two characters together is fascinating and it was interesting to watch.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the excellent characterizations of Stiller and Gretta Gerwig, watching Greenberg was like watching a social train wreck. It is amazing, and it keeps your attention, but in the end you feel a little dirty and you wish it could have had a different ending. Tragedy is terrible, even when it is deadly quiet.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

In America (2002)-- The Best Movie About A Family. Ever.

Yes, this film is the best movie about a family ever made. Not only is the acting of the highest quality, every scene is both dramatic and real. No matter how many times I watch this film, I laugh, I cry. It moves me, Bob.

Johnny and Sherry have moved their two girls to New York from Ireland in order to make a better life for themselves. They do this illegally, and without any support from family or friends. They end up moving into a run down building, filled with addicts and the mentally ill. Occassionally they are disturbed by the screaming of a neighbor downstairs. But they are determined to work hard, to love and to survive. To survive as joyfully as possible, which isn't easy. The struggles they go through the first couple years aren't unusual, but powerful as they settle into their new country.

In the family, every character is distinct and well developed, but the family as a unit is also perfectly realized. And then the inclusion of Djimon Hounsou to shake the family up is simply wonderful. This is the only movie I can think of that both times I watched it I thought, "This is a perfect film." There are other films that hit all the emotional moments and have wonderful characters, but few that I appreciate so much being a part of their lives, if only for a short time.

Technical-- 5/5-- Well crafted film. The cinematography isn't stunning, but it is interesting. The acting is top-notch and the story is perfectly told.
Interest-- 4/5-- I only lost interest the first time I watched the first scenes. But they soon captured me and I can't take my eyes from the screen.

Tension--4/5-- The scene at the carnival is just amazing. The stakes seem so small at first. And this isn't a tragedy, we know where it should go. But no matter how The dual sickbed scenes. Totally intense.
Emotional--5/5-- I cried both times I saw this film. The important thing is that the joy, the anger, the sorrow isn't just cheap tricks-- the emotion is at the core of the film, making it a personal experience.
Characters-- 5/5-- This is the real strength of the film. I have never seen a whole family, including children, presented with such completeness. I know these people. I want to know them better.
Theme--3/5-- Thematically the film isn't very strong, but the experiences of the parents resonate. Allowing oneself to feel is a major theme, as is the stress of simply trying to survive.

Ethics--3/5-- The occasional interesting ethical situation. How should we deal with addicts who ask us for money? How do we best raise our children in a frightening environment?
Personal--4/5-- I can relate to the raising of my two girls. The joy of the family reminds me of the best times with my family. But more than that, I understanding putting my family into situations that are both familiar and pretty scary. And perhaps this is why it connects with me so strongly. We've never been immigrants, we've never spent more than a week or so in another country. But we are constantly dealing with dangerous situations, and it is just so stressful and difficult. Perhaps, just perhaps, this film is so "perfect" for me because it resonates so strongly. 5/5

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Notes on The Dark Knight

My second watch, this time on my laptop screen instead of IMAX. It was just as amazing. Christopher Bale is pretty dull in this, but Heath Ledger and Aaron Eckhart (who I just saw in Black Daliha) and Gary Oldman more than make up for Bale’s Keanu-Reeves-ness. It is smart reflection on human nature. And the variety of ethical parables that make up this film make my heart beat faster than five hours of top notch special effects.

It is also refreshing to have a truly evil villain—not strictly mad, but completely and brilliantly sociopathic— in order to experience true fear of him. Perhaps it is a little bit of a mess. If so, it is a perfect messterpiece. I don’t see how Nolan can top this.

Technical-- 4/5-- The storytelling is convoluted a couple times. Generally excellent, however.
Interest-- 5/5-- Never a dull moment. Sometimes I needed to pause just to catch my breath.
Tension--5/5-- One of the most intense movies I've ever seen. The scene with the two ferries.

Emotional--3/5-- I really struggled personally with some of the situations the Joker set up.
Characters--3/5-- Ledger's Joker is perfect. Bale's Batman was a bit dull. Overall, alright.
Theme-- 4/5-- Holding to one's principles in the face of pure evil. Well done, even if the theme does get muddied in the plot.
Ethics--5/5-- Not because the ethics are perfect, but because of the ethical struggle the whole movie posed. I prefer an ethical exercise rather than a sermon. And this exercise is top notch.

It offers many questions that have come up in the war on terror, but in an uber-urban crime setting. If you have a set of principles, should they ever be set aside for the sake of security? Should privacy of private citizens be set aside for the sake of security? Is it ever right to torture someone for information? And there is the magnificent playing out of the prisoner's dilemma. Read about the prisoner's dilemma here.

A lot of classroom time could be taken here. Few of these questions are answered, but the fact that they are even considered makes this a magnificent film.

Personal--3/5-- In general, I can resonate with the struggle to maintain principle when it doesn't seem correct. But the stakes in the movie are too high to really identify with.

Overall, The Dark Knight is an intellectual film with an enormous amount of tension and melodrama-- as are most of the films that Christopher Nolan directs. That is a balance I particularly love. 4.5/5

Spirited Away: The Greatest Film of All Time

"An alternative universe coinciding with our own"

I really appreciate what a co-movie lover said recently, that as one gets to the top of one’s all time favorites list, that it becomes more personal. I think that is really true. My top ten is peppered with films that mean something important to me personally, but may not be as thrilling to others: Wendy and Lucy, The Mission, Being There. They all carry double meaning for me: not only being well done films in their own right, but also expressing messages that are important to my life. They not only speak to others in a general way, but they speak to my life directly in a way others might not understand.

So, with Spirited Away, I can give you the many reasons why this favorite film of my favorite director is generally excellent. The animation is top notch, for one. In re-watching Ponyo, I realized how much we are missing in focusing on computer animation instead of hand-drawn. It has taken hand-drawn animation almost a hundred years to reach this place, while computer animation is still a teen. Computer animation is wonderful, but it still has a long ways to go to establish a set of symbols we recognize as human emotion. Miyazaki, however, has taken the step that Disney never did to make characters that are so real we feel that we know them. This is certainly found in the writing and the voice acting (even the dubbed vocals!), but especially in the drawing. It is not because they are more realistic looking, but because we grew up with this kind of animation, and Miyazaki, adding in expressions found in manga and older anime, has given us a visual language we can truly connect with.

"Living in the stream of life, led by love"

Also, Spirited Away is one of the magnificent stories of imagination. Setting aside the Japanese spiritism (which we will talk about in a moment), the amount of imagination that creates both the setting—a bath house for spirits—and specific unique characters such as No Face and the Radish Spirit, takes even the imaginative achievements of The Wizard of Oz, The Neverending Story and Labyrinth to new heights. But more than that, this imaginary story is realized perfectly visually. We can see this world existing. This isn’t just an amusing tale with muppets or dressed up humans or poorly executed claymation. This is another world that we have the opportunity to visit for a couple hours, and that experience gets added to our own.

I am just saying what could really be said of almost any of what I call “first tier” Miyazaki. As well as this: Miyazaki’s characters are fully realized. These are real people, even the spirits are of a type of character we recognize. While there is sometimes comedy, it is the comedy of real life, not just pratfalls and one liners. When there is achievement, it is rarely of the deeply heroic kind. Rather, it is the daily success of those who act noble in small ways. In this way, Miyazaki can connect to us in ways that blockbusters rarely do. There are scenes in Miyazaki that, despite the outlandish settings, we can see as reflections of our lives. Or our lives as we wish them to be.

"Look, I can do it, too!"

There are two reasons, however, that Spirited Away especially speaks to me personally. First of all is because we get to see Chihiro/Sen grow up. I have three children of varying ages—17, 14 and 9—and they are all in different stages of development. All of them are, in a sense, Chihiro. At the beginning she is whiney and grumpy and self-centered. The move is hard on her, her parents realize this, but it is necessary and they need her to stay strong through the difficulty. But it is when her parents become self-centered that she is forced to grow up and become stronger than she—or her parents—ever thought she could be.

Step by step we can see her shed her self-centeredness and fully take on the task of being responsible as the best of grown-ups are. This is in contrast to Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service who begins the movie responsible and hard working. Chihiro had to struggle through every step of the way. First she expresses the moral outrage many young people express when they see grown ups acting irresponsibly. Then she follows important instructions for how to live in the new world (something most fairy tale protagonists fail to do). Then she learns boldness and tenacity in the face of threat. Then she learns about hard work under someone else’s orders. Then she learns about loving people even when they seem to not be lovable at times. Then she learns about sacrifice for love. And finally, she learns that intelligence balanced with care and wisdom is what truly saves the day.

"Soaring high"

These are the life lessons I want all of my children to learn. They are the lessons I see them learning, bit by bit. The art of raising children is the art of seeing them become the Chihiro at the end of Spirited Away. Every once in a while, as a parent, you can think to yourself, “I taught them that”, but most of the time you can’t. These are lessons they have to learn themselves in the midst of the struggles they have to face in life. But at the end of the movie, I am so proud of Chihiro, the buttons on my vest would burst, if I actually wore a vest. She is my children. My son becoming a responsible adult. My oldest daughter being self-confident and self-reliant. My youngest daughter learning to speak with respect and act in mercy. This is all I hope for my children, in the strange worlds they will have to challenge.

My final reason is my strangest, and probably my most significant personal reason why I love this film. I am only going to tell you guys, and I hope you won’t tell anyone else. Not because I’d get in trouble, but because it’d be difficult to explain to my denomination and especially my congregation. I could do it, but it wouldn’t do any good, so why bother? Anyway, here it is: the metaphysics of Spirited Away is pretty close to how I see the world functioning.

"Christianizing Shintoism"

No, I don’t think that spirits have their own bath house and restaurants. I don’t think that if humans eat spirit-food that they turn into pigs. Nor do I think that young girls could be hired by someone to serve spirits. I do, however, believe that there is an alternative universe, that runs on its own physics, that runs parallel to ours. I do think that there are beings—and you could call them spirits—that live in that universe. I also think that most of them are morally neutral, neither good nor bad, just trying to live their lives by their own values. And I think that, at times, the two universes can converge, and allow communication between them.

This is not an unusual worldview, in the broader scheme of things. Historically, before the Christian era, almost everyone in the world believed that summary of mine. Certainly the ancient Jewish people did, as well as the first Jewish Christians. It is Plato and his disciple Augustine that began to turn the world away from this notion. They saw the spirit world as either the realm of ideas or as under the control of a single unified being. Under their philosophy, the spirit world is neat and orderly, with everything politely lined up perfectly, within the mental grasp of humanity.

The ancient pagan world, the ancient first temple Judaism and the first century Christian church saw the spirit world as full of chaos as it was of spirits. Each spirit had its own focus and desires and hopes. They had their own realms of responsibility—jobs, if you will—of rivers and vegetation and winds and planetary beings. Part of the spirit world is described as a sea, filled with dragons of chaos, battling against spirits who desired order and peace in both the spirit world and on earth.

Spirited Away, although a fantasy, is based on Japanese spiritism, a form of that ancient worldview. In a twisted sense, the metaphysical basis of that movie is somewhat the same as the writers of the Bible. This is how I see the world working. I do not deny scientific reality—our world does operate on the laws of physics and development of life as discovered by scientists. But looking at the physical realm is only a part of the story, like Chihiro’s parents seeing an abandoned amusement park.

Some are content with this world and understanding its laws. Others get to see the wonder and magic of the world below the surface, on a level not usually seen by eyes. I wish to be one of the later.

Any who are concerned about my right to be a pastor, or my sanity, I would be glad to give the phone number of my denomination, and you can rat me out. I understand. Sometimes I don’t think I’m completely sane, either. By the way, my wife already knows, so you don’t need to bother calling her.

Mother (2010)

"Love is insanity."

I'm really enjoying South Korean cinema. I love the breaking of genre, the humor mixed with pathos and tragedy. And this is among the best that I've seen. And Kim Hye-ja is almost a miracle. I couldn't take a break from the movie because I couldn't stop watching her. Even the most insane actions were truly believable and larger than life. I also loved how the movie leads us to make character judgments on a couple people, only to find we were wrong about them, or at least that they were more complex than we originally thought. Every scene had a new surprise. What a wonderful, true, powerful film.

"Mother won't let anyone dirty you through."

The question I'm left with: is it possible for love to go too far? We talk about love being blind, but is blindness really something we want to strive for? This movie shows that even the purist form of love, the loyal love of a mother for her grown but developmentally disabled son, can cause harm to others. This is why love is only really love when it is focused not just on one person, but it is something we have for all people.

Again, this is an excellent film, both to watch and to consider.


The Illusionist 2010

"Although nothing really changes, that doesn't mean you don't get left behind."

My daughter Mercy and I went out to see this tonight. You all probably know this, but it is based on an unfilmed script by Tati, the director of Mon Oncle and Play Time. I haven't seen any films by Tati, but I can see the influence of early film here. First of all, for all intents and purposes, it is a silent. And although it is about an older man caring for a younger as if she were his daughter, so without a romantic element, the main relationship has the flavor of Chaplain's Modern Times or City Lights.

I could see this being a classic silent film, and frankly, I think that animation is the perfect medium for this style of cinema. It is very reminiscent of the first half hour of Wall-E, and we can see Pixar using this same style of cinema, to even greater effect. But The Illusionist, instead of pressing for the quick plot or the quick laugh, is slower and yet still very entertaining, and thus it is utterly charming. This is a quiet film, and at first you wonder what it is about, then you wonder if it has a point, but it seduced me by the end. And it won me over with the ending. How wonderful and sad and touching. Passages of life and all that.

Nothing deep here, just a fine story well told. 4/5