Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Wind Rises

The Wind Rises ~ Also known as Kaze Tachinu, written and directed by the great Hayao Miyazaki, is a masterpiece of phenomenal artisanship and brilliance, but it's also a pretty hard film to like.

While I recall hearing of Miyazaki's love of aircraft and flight, it had never occurred to me that he'd make not just a film about it, but also a fairly historical film about it - and specifically about the creation of the Japanese Zero, a plane that destroyed Pearl Harbor and plunged the United States into World War II with only the skeleton of a functional navy. As an American whose father served in the Pacific theater in WWII, I found it both hard and frightening to sit still during this movie, beautifully animated, and wonderfully presented - or not.

Released by Toho in Japan, and Disney in the United States, The Wind Rises is a fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi, an aviation and engineering genius, who eventually designed what would become the dreaded Japanese Zero. This award winning film was based on Miyazaki's manga, which in turn was based on the 1937 short story by Tatsuo Hori.

While slow in places, it is a compelling tale of love, passion, dedication, and dreams, all wrapped up in a love of aviation and engineering. It's really quite brilliant and well done. I cannot decry the quality and achievement of this piece, but I am still left of two minds on it. This is a wonderfully realized film, definitely worth seeing.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Black Cauldron

The Black Cauldron ~ Disney's The Black Cauldron from 1985 signaled a jump from the Don Bluth era at the company to the more accessible and successful Little Mermaid and beyond era. For a while there, they didn't know what to do with the animation department, so they did this, and it almost killed animation at Disney.

The Black Cauldron is based on the "Chronicles of Prydain" by Lloyd Alexander, loosely based, if you will, specifically on the first two books but pulling in details from the entire series. There's this fantasy weapon of mass destruction called the Black Cauldron that the big bad, the Horned King, wants. With it he can raise an army of the undead to conquer the world. And there's a pig, an oracular pig, who can find it for him. Guarding the pig is Taran, a little bit like Wart from Sword in the Stone, he's a kid and wannabe hero. King seeks pig, hilarity ensues, quests abound, companions gathered, eventually good guys win - you know the drill.

All things considered, this is not a good film. When I saw it back in the day when it was in theaters, I remember the hubbub about it being too scary and not for kids, and the outrage about how dare Disney put out such a movie. Granted, they were trying for something a bit darker, a bit edgier, but man oh man, this was over the top. By today's standards the Horned King might be too scary. He is perhaps the most frightening Disney villain ever. We are talking definitely a baddie of the effed up "The Walking Dead" zombie monster type. Yeah, I can just imagine this gave some kids nightmares.

There's some blood, some violence, and no end to disturbing images. It's more adult than usual (there are even boob jokes), and it's just not a pretty animated film. Even comic relief characters like Creeper, the villain's jester-like underling is a little scary. The animation is a cross between Don Bluth and Ralph Bakshi after a night of drunken excess. Very blurry, moody, and it seems like it's always nighttime. I think there was more daylight in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy.

The best part for is one of the friends Taran makes out in the world, a sort of a weird cross between Lady (from Lady and the Tramp) and Stitch (from Lilo and Stitch) called Gurgi. His mumblings about 'munches and crunches' are addictive. You'll be doing it for days afterward. The rest of the movie is not so great however. Just when you think there are enough secondary characters in the flick, they add more. And just when you think the Horned King has gone far enough packing kids' pants with fudge, it gets scarier.

The voice cast is impressive and satisfactory. Notables include John Huston as narrator, Nigel Hawthorne, John Byner, a post-Caligula John Hurt as the Horned King himself, and if you listen close, you'll hear Witchipoo (from "H.R. Pufnstuf"), Billie Hayes, as one of the witches. She was fun.

I watched this with The Bride in anticipation of podcasting about it. I gotta say when you start riffing on a flick MST3k style just a few minutes in, it's not a good sign. The Black Cauldron is an interesting if dated time capsule of what Disney did wrong, before they did it right, worth seeing at least once. And if you want hear more of my thoughts, and The Bride's, please check out the special Black Cauldron episode of The Make Mine Magic Podcast.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

BoJack Horseman

Most Netflix TV series get a lot of publicity like "House of Cards," "Orange Is the New Black," or the recent tragic but wonderful conclusion to AMC's aborted "The Killing," but sometimes there are shows that just slide under the radar that are just as good. "BoJack Horseman" is one of them.

"BoJack Horseman" is an animated Netflix original from some of the same folks who do the Adult Swim programming on the Cartoon Network. It's about a washed up actor, who happens to be a horse, in a world full of both humans and anthropomorphic animals. The title character used to be in a wildly successful 1990s sitcom and is trying to make a comeback while having his memoirs ghost written by a rival's girlfriend.

Speaking of comebacks, it actually does remind me of HBO's brilliant "The Comeback," which is ironically coming back later this year. Aaron Paul of "Breaking Bad" is an executive producer and voices Todd, BoJack's friend/roommate/slacker/squatter. Will Arnett is in the title role, with other characters voiced by Alison Brie, Paul F. Tomkins, and Amy Sedaris.

I know the critics haven't been kind to it so far, but I love it. It's clever and fun, and hates Hollywood. And it does something that most network sitcoms don't do, it makes me laugh out loud. Give "BoJack Horseman" a shot, you might dig it too.

Monday, August 25, 2014

RIP Richard Attenborough

Award winning actor, director, and producer Richard Attenborough died yesterday. He was only a few days short of his 91st birthday.

Most people may know him from his acting roles, as in Jurassic Park, The Great Escape, Doctor Doolittle, the most recent version of Miracle on 34th Street, The Sand Pebbles, and one of my personal favorites, the original Flight of the Phoenix. But the truth, and his real talent was as the man behind such great films as Gandhi, A Chorus Line, Chaplin, and Cry Freedom.

We have lost one of the shining lights of both the British cinema and Hollywood. Lord Richard Attenborough will be missed.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

I came late to the party, or at least it seemed that way. By the time I first saw the Rankin-Bass version of "The Hobbit" on television, which I learned about from posters in the English classrooms at school, many of my friends were already into JRR Tolkien. I really enjoyed the animated film and later sought the book out, which I also dug.

Then I moved on to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. This was dense and not written in the light manner of "The Hobbit." I got through "Fellowship" and started "Two Towers," then gave up on it. I put Tolkien in the same category as H.P. Lovecraft and George Lucas, great conceptualists, but lousy on the follow through. Over the next quarter century I did finish the trilogy and even re-read it, but Tolkien's style was not for me.

I did enjoy the LotR movies by Peter Jackson however, but I wasn't gaga over it. My brother-in-law was. He convinced me to watch the ten-hour DVD set of it, and it was all right, once. He also got me to watch The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which I was a bit more excited for. Until the middle of the film, it seemed to go on forever. However once it got rolling it was pretty good, the bits with Gollum, and the Orcs on their trail had my interest.

I recently got a chance to finally see the second installment of The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug. First, three parts? Really? This couldn't be one, or two at most? This one had the same problem as the first, it dragged, was even boring in parts. I know Peter Jackson, and a majority of his fan base are in love with Middle-Earth, but it's gotta end some time, and you can't make other people love by making these movies longer.

Has anyone thought of possibly making a TV series, new adventures set in Middle-Earth, to possibly fill this need? Will Jackson be filming "The Silmarillion" or "Tom Bombadil" and making them six to nine hours long? There has to be a stop point, folks. I could see new tales (and there's been a little of that here), but stretching one book to match the trilogy made from three?

Lord of the Rings is a major problem here too, even though those events happen almost a century after The Hobbit. So much is put into setting up LotR that this is more like parts 1-3 of Star Wars rather than The Hobbit. All the bits with Legolas and Sauron, were they really needed, or was this continuity minutiae like what Roy Thomas did with World War II in the All-Star Squadron comic book series?

That said, the Legolas fight scenes were among the best in the movie even though none of it occurred in the book. It also occurs to me why isn't Orlando Bloom in a Marvel movie yet? He is action hero material, and he would be heaven sent casting as Quicksilver, even though that ship has left the dock. I also liked Smaug as voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. He was very good, except for when he was filling LotR continuity holes. I also disliked the weird love triangle, what the hell was that about?

I liked the movie okay, and it had slow spots as well, giving me a few quick cat naps. I look forward to the third and hopefully final Hobbit film, but I'm not sure I'll see it in the theater, after all, I waited nine months for this one. Your mileage may vary.