Tag Archives: Movie Review

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

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Rating- B+/ Normally, I’m not the biggest fan of Westerns. I occasionally like to watch one with my dad, but they’re not typically my favorite genre, or my second favorite genre, for that matter. That said, the premise for Bone Tomahawk immediately caught my interest. A western? Pfft. With hill-dwelling cannibals? Huh. With cannibals and a bit of the old ultra-violence? Gentlemen, you had my curiosity. now you have my attention. I just had to watch it.

My level of interest was increased exponentially by the presence of Richard Jenkins, a veteran character actor I’ve loved and admired since my early teen years, when I saw him in Burn After Reading and The Visitor. But really, like any other of the ubiquitous American character actors that blend into small roles in big movies every year, I’d seen him so many times before that. And let me tell you, this movie started out with a bang.

Rather than being a straight-out slow burn, Bone Tomahawk starts out cuckoo and then slows down around the middle to reflect on it’s themes and characters, then becomes balls-out sadistic in it’s final act. Some people think the 2/3 part drags, but I would not be among them. How can a movie drag with such a great cast of actors and characters. If you want to flat-out categorize this as a horror-western, then Bone Tomahawk has something 99.9% of contemporary horror movies lack- it makes you give a damn about it’s protagonists. Which is something in this day and age as rare as Aztec Gold.

Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) is the cool-as-a-cucumber man of the law in a tiny town in the old West ironically dubbed ‘Bright Hope,’ this moniker being ironic because three people have just been abducted from Bright Hope by feral hill people who also happen to be inbred cannibals.  Arthur (Patrick Wilson) is the happily married man and former cowboy whose wife Samantha (Lili Simmons) is abducted by the psychos.

This comes at a particularly bad time for him (not that there’s any particularly good time to have your wife kidnapped by cannibals) because Arthur has recently broken his leg falling off a roof and must decide whether to go after her in his current condition or stand by impotently while the love of his life gets eaten by hill people. Except for Arthur, there’s no deciding about it. He’s going, man.

Arthur and Hunt are accompanied by Brooder (Lost‘s Matthew Fox), an racially biased flirt and Chicory (Richard Jenkins,) a chatty eccentric and Hunt’s right hand man despite his rapidly advancing age. Together they have no idea what they’re getting into, and personalities clash when Brooder’s abrasive nature, lack of compassion, and casual racism butts up against the others’ surprisingly Liberal values. Added to the explosive mix is Arthur’s hotheadedness when it comes to saving his wife his way and his powerlessness when dealing with his broken leg. Not to mention how fast the posses’ horses get stolen by Mexican bandits. How could this situation go wrong? Add conflict, injury, and homicidal cannibal nutcases and stir well. Let simmer.

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Bone Tomahawk is an exceptionally well-written and well-thought out horror movie that happens to have a few scenes that rival the fucking Human Centipede in gore factor. And I’m not talking the surprisingly tame Human Centipede I. I’m talking Human Centipede II, with Martin tearing out peoples’ tendons, baby. Except this movie offers more in the dialogue department than the THC movies. Not that that would be hard.

The conversations the characters have in their blooddrenched journey is fairly idiosyncratic, a little Tarantino-esque, but with a verve of it’s own. Subjects such as flea circuses and reading in the bath might seem a little random and out of context until you realize no, they make more sense than you originally suspected. Slowly, the pieces of the narrative start to fall into place, the good, the gory, and the weird.

And boy, is this movie gory. There was one death in particular (you’ll know it when you see it) that had me squirming in my seat. And I am not a prude. Depending on your threshold for really bloody movies, this might have you cheering or running in the other direction. The violence is really raw and sadistic, definitely not for everybody, or even most people for that matter. But it’s not all about the gore here. The filmmaker, a first-time director named S. Craig Zahler, has more tricks up his sleeve than just wanton brutality.

Although the characters’ lack of true shock and horror at the events unfolding rapidly in front of them seems kind of unlikely given the circumstances (they seem disturbingly calm after having someone disemboweled in front of them, not a likely reaction for anyone who isn’t a hardcore psychopath,) this movie is for anyone who’s wanted to see the Western genre done a little differently, but with a deft hand in terms of dialogue and character development.

The miracle of Bone Tomahawk is that it utterly keeps your attention and your investment in it’s characters alive for it’s 2+ hour runtime. That’s no mean feat for a first-time director who allegedly was told my many people prior to filming that this movie couldn’t be done. Maybe they should have spent more time making their own movies and less time arguing that Zahler couldn’t see this project to completion. But as Taylor Swift wisely said, the haters gonna hate, and this film is evidence of their failure to sway the dream of a potential-packed filmmaker with a bright future.

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The Kindergarten Teacher (2014)

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Yoav Pollack (Avi Shnaidman,) an adorably precocious kindergartner who is also a brilliant wordsmith, captures the attention of his unstable teacher Nira (Sarit Larry) who becomes dangerously obsessed with with maintaining the continuation of his poetic talent in this unsettling Israeli drama. The majority of the film follows Nira as she becomes increasingly disenchanted with the ordinary people surrounding her and pushes her little Mozart to succeed in the poetry world and maintain his creative chutzpah. Obviously you can’t push a child that young to reach artistic greatness without eventually breaking him, and Nira’s all-consuming obsession with young Yoav will have eventual and long-lasting ramifications.

Of course, the boy’s talent is never about him or his happiness as much as it is about Nira and her failure to make anything meaningful of her life. Like an ugly mother who enters her attractive daughter in a beauty competition, Yira is simply living vicariously through her bright-eyed young student. And while she avoids having sex with her husband (Lior Raz,) Nira disturbingly finds some kind of outlet in bathing the young boy (in a supremely creepy scene, although none of the child actor’s sensitive parts are shown.) Yoav’s father (Yehezkel Lazarov) could care less about his son’s burgeoning talent, but the icily determined Nira is determined not to let it fester.

Sarit Larry’s spectacularly unlikable protagonist strikes me as an incredibly cold creature, preoccupied with putting up a veneer of warmth. At this she does a tremendous job, vacillating between deeply damaged and deeply disturbing in the smallest but most tremendously telling ways. Larry has some of the most coldly striking eyes I’ve ever seen, and even when she smiles, it doesn’t seem to reach those eyes as much as startlingly contrast them. The boy is adorable and shows a kind of genuineness on screen, his character displaying a kind of Asperger’s-like oddness in his behavior and precocious examination of his narrow world.

Despite the compelling nature of the premise and the impressive display of acting talents, I felt this movie tended to drag a little too much. It’s two hours long and nothing really seems to happen until the last twenty minutes. The characters also seem pretty unlikable with the exception of the young boy. Although The Kindergarten Teacher is well-filmed, with extraordinary tracking shots and close-ups and well-acted, I had difficulty getting sucked in by the story it had to tell. it didn’t help that I had no sympathy for Nira, an ice queen unconcerned by exploiting her student’s talent and sacrificing his happiness for what she thinks he should do with his life.

Also, no matter how precocious Yoav is, the sheer sophistication of his poems seem very unlikely. I came across a theory online that Yoav was blessed with an eidetic memory and merely recited the poems his uncle (Dan Toren) had written, and that actually sounds more plausible to me than the surface explanation (that the kid was a flat-out wunderkind.) The Kindergarten Teacher is a well-made movie that ultimately leaves you a little cold, without the confidence in its clinical iciness that made Michael Haneke’s films so effective. It’s definitely worth watching, but I don’t expect it’ll make you want to add it to your collection immediately after. Technically outstanding, but not much fun, and not entirely memorable due to your lack of concern or interest it’s characters.

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Two Days, One Night (2014)

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You know how some movies feel so real it’s like you’re watching a documentary? Well, this is one of those films. It’s not for everybody, because it’s sllooww, and by slow I mean straight-up kitchen sink realism with virtually no frills. But what I really like about Two Days, One Night is how close it hit to home for me. I grew up with a sporadically depressed mother with very low self-esteem and I started suffering from severe Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder when I was five, and was put on medication for clinical depression in my early teens.

This movie understands the effects of depression on people suffering from the illness as well as their loved ones. Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, an often infuriating but utterly plausible character. Sandra has just been fired from her job at the factory and prepares to sink back into the abyss of depression, taking long afternoon naps and gobbling Xanax like a hardcore druggie.

Sandra is depressed because without her job to sustain her, she will have have nothing to distract her from hopeless sadness and she will be on the dole, but mostly because the majority of her co-workers voted against her in favor of a substantial raise. Shortly after her lay-off, it comes to light that the foreman at the factory, Jean-Marc (Oliver Gourmet,) most likely intimidated the other workers into screwing Sandra over. Now, she has two days to convince the employees to give up their raise so she can return to her job at the company.

Sandra has a devoted husband (Fabrizio Rongione) and two beautiful kids (Pili Groine and Simon Caudry, ) but she is deeply unhappy and endlessly self-defeating. She also undermines her husband’s support at every turn. Even  more concerning than her depression and suicidality is her casual abuse of prescription medication. Both her misuse of drugs and her unhappiness is the proverbial elephant in the room. We can tell immediately something is not right in this household, her husband Manu comes home from work and runs upstairs when she doesn’t immediately respond to his shouted greetings as if her half-expects to find her hanging from the ceiling.

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Marion Cotillard owns this role. She superbly portrays the exhaustion and resignation of being clinically depressed, when everything, well… sucks, and nothing is good enough or fulfilling enough to make you laugh or even smile. The plot of this film is absurdly simple. but Cotillard and every other performance across the board makes it feel incredibly real. Sandra will piss you the fuck off half the time (even, or maybe even especially, if you see some of yourself in her) but you can feel her anguish like a flame burning the back of your hand.

Withholding spoilers, I was really surprised and pleased at how this movie ended. It’s not a conclusion you see coming but when the credits roll you realize it was the perfect way to wrap up the film. Thinking back on the plight of Sandra’s co-workers, I honestly don’t know what I would do if someone gave me that ultimatum on whether to keep a kind but slightly ineffectual co-worker on the team or earn a substantial raise. I would like to think I would pull through for Sandra, but then again who knows?

It wasn’t like these people were living in exorbitant wealth. They had kids to put through college, rooms to paint and renovate, bills to pay and food to put on the table. It’s hard to judge them, but at the same time, it’s hard not to, especially when you see how vulnerable Sandra is and how much she needs to keep her job. That’s the great thing about this movie; it doesn’t judge. The majority of these people aren’t sneering, bullying fat cats sitting on top of a massive fortune; they’re struggling to get by and support their blue collar families. In fact, they’re hardly mean at all, with the the marked exception of an older co-worker’s teenaged son, who’s a piece of work, and Jean-Marc, who’s just a total dick. But that’s realistic too. Not every one can be convivial and nice, just like not everybody is the equivalent of the high school bully who pantses you during gym.

Although this movie doesn’t have a whole lot of rewatch value in my opinion, it’s definitely worth watching once if you like kitchen sink realism and nuanced drama. Some people might be frustrated with the lack of empowerment of Cotillard’s character, but not every woman can be a superheroine. Sometimes, it’s enough just to survive. Again, Two Days, One Night is not a movie for everyone, but Cotillard’s performance is a genuine revelation, and even significant among the barrage of great performances we’ve seen lately, and are likely to see again.

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White Bim Black Ear (1977)

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Bad things can’t seem to stop happening to Bim, The canine protagonist of  the heartbreaking Soviet Russian film White Bim Black Ear. Despite happy beginnings with a tender-hearted widower named  Ivan Ivanovich (Vyacheslav Tikhonov,) Bim’s life is thrown into turmoil when Ivanovich’s old war injury deteriorates and he is placed in the hospital.

Despite Ivan placing a neighbor in charge of feeding and taking care of Bim, the faithful dog pines for his master, wandering the streets every day desperately searching for his person and meeting people both sympathetic to his plight and merciless. Is suffering to be Bim’s lot in life? Must he consistently be exposed to the worst human nature has to offer, even when aching for his owner’s return?

Warning; if you’re at all sensitive to cruelty to animals and/or a dog lover, this movie will hit you hard. My helpless weeping at the end of this film can not even be counted as a cathartic cry as such; it was an ugly cry, complete with my vision blurring so badly through a multitude of tears I couldn’t even see the screen. There’s only one movie involving doggie melodrama that made me cry even more than this one; and that movie was Hachi- A Dog’s Tale (the ultimate canine grief porn weeper, which you will desist from so much as mentioning in my presence.)

Although the emotional factor of this movie is alarmingly high, it is by no means a perfect movie. For one thing, it’s wwaaayy too long, just over three hours. It could probably be cut down by thirty minutes or so, but the director is intent on getting every moment of brutal tragedy in there. Luckily, I have a really long attention span for movies; on the other hand, some people don’t. Those people are likely to find White Bim Black Ear excessive or even, ahem, boring (it does manage to be bafflingly grueling at points, especially for a film that seems to have a fairly small story to tell and an awful lot of filler.)

I also have questions concerning how Ivan’s corpulent, gossipy neighbor (Valentina Vladimirova) is portrayed. She really doesn’t seem to have much motivation for ostracizing Bim, rendering her one-dimensional and almost cartoonish. The strident nature in which is she is portrayed in the film doesn’t really work, especially since it is her that deals the final fatal blow to Bim’s fate. It seems like she should be taken somewhat more seriously by the script; the only reason I can imagine for her atrocious behavior is that she is a horrid and deeply bored old hag, intent on making those around her suffer. She seems too over-the-top to be a real person though, despite the definite existence of people somewhat like her in this world.

Now for the good; the animal wranglers have picked an amazing dog actor to play Bim. Vyacheslav Tikhonov does an excellent job as BIm’s much-loved master and has good chemistry with the canine who plays him. This movie really shows the loyalty of dogs, although it goes to far at times at making Bim more intelligent than a dog could be in actuality (including making Bim know in his heart that the note placed in front of him on the floor is from his hospitalized master- I mean, I know that we’re told a million times that Bim is an intelligent dog, but come on.)

Take heed, this movie is not for children. It’s agonizingly sad; you keep holding out your hope things will turn out okay, but the tragedy overrides any happiness that might have been had by the characters. However, if you like heartbreaking Russian stories, drowned in hundreds of years of tears and Vodka, this movie is for you. Bim is a true innocent, ignorant to maliciousness of many human beings, but, as they say, sometimes it is the innocents who suffer. Keep tissues handy.

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The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

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   The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is a very strange movie that raises more questions than it answers, confounds even the most open-minded viewer, and is insistently vague throughout. That said,  it is worth watching for it’s unique portrayal of it’s titular hero and, by extension, the whole of the human race. It’s a secular fable for the cinematically adventurous, written and directed by the king of weird and polarizing art house films, Werner Herzog.

I have to admit, I’m not that familiar with Herzog’s directorial work. I’ve seen a couple of his films, but I mostly know him as the weird guy in Julien Donkey-Boy who chugs cough syrup while wearing a gas mask and sprays Ewen Bremner down with cold water while bafflingly screaming “Stop your moody brooding. Don’t shiver! A winner doesn’t shiver!” As you might have guessed, my experience with Herzog has been strange and surreal, and while Kaspar Hauser does not reach the heights of outlandishness of Julien Donkey-Boy, it’s got plenty of unnerving to go around. It’s allegedly inspired by a real case that took place in the 19th century, very closely based upon a series of letters written on the subject around that time.

Kaspar Hauser (Bruno Schleinstein) is a misfit. He’s spent his entire life in the basement of a man (Hans Musäus) who calls himself his ‘daddy,’ where he is only given a toy horse to play with and is beaten frequently. The only word he knows is ‘horsey.’ He eats nothing but bread and water and is virtually unable to walk or move in a typical human manner. I immediately drew parallels between Kaspar and Nicholas Hope’s character in Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby, but poor Kaspar has it even worse than the titular Bubby, having been shackled to a wall for seventeen years.

Even more disturbing is the fact that it is never explained why the man is keeping him there. Is he incarcerated for sexual purposes? Is his captor just batshit insane? Is the sick appeal of keeping a man chained to a wall his whole life a turn-on in of itself? We really don’t know. And that makes the final moments of the movie even more insanely cryptic. But for whatever reason, the man gets sick of having Kaspar around and dumps him in a small German town to fend for himself, standing stock still and without purpose with a letter in one hand and a holy book in the other.

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When Kaspar is ‘rescued’ only to be placed in a local jail for lack of anything better to do with him, they assume he is both utterly mentally deficient and incompetent. A kind man named Professor Daumer (Walter Ladengast) gets custody of Kaspar for the time being and begins to teach him how to function in society. The irony in this is that Kaspar soon begins to seem wiser and more genuine than any of the hoity-toity high society dandies who superficially observe his story.

He’s prone to be a bit of a philosopher, despite his odd appearance and slow halting speech. Kaspar is a delightful character, because he makes all the religious and moral authorities angry by taking all the demands that he be a proper human and a God-fearing Christian at face value. He’s a wise fool, someone whose ignorance actually lends him a less biased, more realistic view of life. He displays a soul by weeping at music that strikes him as beautiful, yet his elders can’t put him in a tidy box or clearly define him.

I have several problems with this movie, including the lead actor being portrayed as a teenage boy. Seventeen years old? More like a middle-aged Hobbit lookalike! (in fact, Schleinstein, a bit of a social outcast himself, was forty-one at the time of filming.) Jests aside, though, Scheinstein gives a effective, if somewhat one-note, performance. I also have to say that I was simply baffled by the ending. It was quite sad and, furthermore, was totally out of the blue. I think I would have preferred an ending that wasn’t so infuriatingly cryptic.

This is my favorite Werner Herzog (having seen My Son My Son What Have Ye Done and Signs of Life, neither of which struck me as particularly outstanding or memorable.) I don’t love this movie, but for better or worse, I think I’ll remember it.

In creating a unique and memorable character in Kaspar Hauser, the movie allows us to see life through an unbiased, unprejudiced lens- a lens truly untainted by worldly experience. Kaspar is like a blank slate onto which other characters try to project their beliefs and opinions, but, as inert and seemingly mindless as he is, he refuses to be a sheep for other people to control. He’s strong in a way that seems unlikely for someone of his kind, someone without influence, experience, or familial love. And we love him for it. Unsentimental and brazen, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is, in essence, an enigma, and one that might warrent repeat viewings. It might not be a particularly palatable film for the mainstream, but it has it’s astonishing moments.

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Boy Meets Girl (2014)

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As progressive as Boy Meets Girl might be for featuring a romance between a transsexual in the midst of making the transition from male to female and a young sexually ambivalent woman, it’s pretty much a bust in terms of pure filmmaking. I have to say, the Southern accents of the characters really threw me off. They were awful. However, the most dire thing about this movie is the way it presents it’s message with the force of a blunt sledgehammer. It’s a worthy message, one of inclusion and tolerance, but there’s a marked lack of subtlety in the way it’s delivered.

The film (a kind of ‘transsexual love triangle romantic comedy’ for the supposedly young and hip) involves Ricky (Michelle Hendley,) a young transgendered woman living in rural Kentucky who dreams of being a successful fashion designer. Ricky still has guy parts, and finds herself disenchanted with her romantic endeavors with men. Her lifelong friend and confidante is Robbie (Michael Welch,) a guy’s guy and womanizer with whom she owns a small coffee shop. When Ricky meets the Christian, wealthy, and very engaged Southern Belle Francesca (Alexandra Turshen,) the two buck expectations by becoming feverishly attracted to each other. But Francesca’s uber-masculine and homophobic marine fiance David (Michael Galante) looms over their chance at happiness.

Michelle Hendley is an actress who deserves a better movie. She’s fairly natural and actually pretty enchanting as Ricky. She’s really transgendered, so maybe that helps her relate to Ricky’s experience (although of course every trans person’s experience is different.) However, I can’t say the same for the other actors. Turshen is just so fake as Francesca, smiling madly and forcing her way through the entire film. As Robbie, Welch’s accent is dreadful, and although he steps up his game acting-wise about halfway through the movie, his very presence leaves a certifiable bad taste in one’s mouth.

Another problem is the matter of the fiance. David is made into the biggest a-hole possible for most of the movie; just an over-the-top racist, homophobe, and judgmental prick to justify Ricky and Francesca sleeping with each other. Nothing that comes out of David’s mouth seems genuine, it just seems so artificial. Granted, there are bullies and generally awful people in this world, but shouldn’t they be portrayed in movies as people played by capable actors and not one-dimensional cartoons? Of course, after Ricky and Francesca break it off David has a big-time road to Damascus, in other words, exactly when the plot requires him to.

The characters in Boy Meets Girl are caricature-like and shallow. Francesca’s the daughter of a rich politician (Christopher McHale,) and the moment we meet him he’s bitching about Obama to his wealthy Republican friends, just to show us how conservative he is and how out of her element Ricky is. As if fiscal beliefs and values about gender identity and sexual preference have jack shit to do about each other. This movie is just too one-dimensional and too strident in it’s attempts to be cute. Nothing comes off as being real or genuine. The characters sound like extensions of an inexperienced script writer trying to send a message. And the revelation about Galante’s character halfway through the film? Just… don’t. Did they pick this one out of Gay Movie Cliches 101? That’s just lazy script-writing. Boy Meets Girl has a decent idea, but in the end, it’s just another God darn failed opportunity of a concept  that could have been great

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Zero Motivation (2014)

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Who’d of thunk that the women’s training sector of the Israeli military would be a lot like high school? Cat fights, cliques, and general snarkiness are all par for the course. Moody Daffi (Nelly Tagar) would like nothing more than dispose of her uniform in favor of serving coffee at the Tel Aviv, but her service is mandatory, which means that she’s pretty much screwed until her senior officer Rama (Shani Kein) decides she can go. Daffi’s bestie Zohar (Dana Ivgy, star of the heartbreaking Or, My Treasure) tries her best to keep Daffi’s spirits afloat, but several differences of opinion turn the two friends into the bitterest of enemies.

     Zero Motivation is broken into three ‘stories’- one about a girl on the base’s suicide, another on Zohar’s self-consciousness about her virginity, and the third about a power shift between the two friends and the epic falling-out and stapling-gun war that ensues. The film seems to suffer from uncertainty about what genre it belongs in; sometimes it seems to be making a valiant attempt as a comedy, but it lacks much of the requisite mirth and humor; other times it comes off as dark and even depressing (as with the bloody suicide of a lovesick girl (Yonit Tobi) who was passing off as a soldier to get the attention of a boy who was, as they say, ‘just not that into her’ in the film’s first segment.)

I think I should be able to relate to these people, as a world-class slacker, but the characters lack likability. This is not the fault of the cast members, who are very good- it’s just that the protagonists (except Daffi, who seems pretty sweet for all her drama) take bitchiness to a whole new level. Sometimes their bile is funny, but mostly not so much. I guess this is kind of the point; to humanize the military in far away countries that people generally picture as dramatic or extreme by portraying their raucous, even silly set-backs and foibles. And the film is not a bad effort by a  long shot.

But there’s a crisis of tone at play here, as evidenced by the scene where the Daffi and Zohar beat the living shit out of each other when Daffi threatens to delete her former friend’s much-loved collection of online games from the military PC. The situation is absurd, and I guess they’re going for comedy, but by the end the girls are full of staples from a staple-gun attack and bloody. Not only that, but one girl tries to actually strangle the other with a length of cord. So, it’s a bit too dark to be slapstick, but is it supposed to be dramatic? (we’ve got to remember that the fight was over some video games, which is ridiculousness if I ever saw it.)

Is Zero Motivation a comedy? An attempt at dark and cynical absurdity? A drama with humorous elements? In the end, it’s just so hard to tell. I found myself chuckling a few times, but other times it seemed astonishingly dark but didn’t have the seriousness to be a drama. I love black comedies if they’re done right, but I’m just not sure this one is. Ultimately it’s just a curiosity (albeit a well-acted and competently written one) about raging estrogen and histrionic back-stabbing in a military facility for women. Which is not in of itself funny.

There is, however, some interesting political and social context to this movie,  like the patriarchal hierarchy the male soldiers inflict on the women, refusing to listen to their opinions, enlisting them to fix them nibbles at staff meetings; and surreptitiously ogling shapely female asses when the women come to bring them said nibbles. We see how hard it is to be taken seriously as a woman in the military; you kind of have to be mean; as Rama the perpetually angry and overlooked officer well knows. It is in these moments that the film really excels; showing us how unappreciated women who choose to be soldiers are, whether it be here, there, or anywhere.

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that 99% of the men in this movie are huge dicks. This Borderline display of misandry might frustrate male viewers, but to be fair, the male characters are a minority here, as the film focuses on femininity and how the women balance it in a job dominated by men, and men annoyingly mired in their own machismo at that. Just like I imagine it would be hard to be a female cop; especially an attractive one (if you’re a female officer and unattractive, it’s easier to blend in and become one of the guys.)

    Zero Motivation is not a movie without value, it just could have done so much more with it’s intriguing premise. When all is said and done, it feels a little lightweight, which is a shame. it could have been great. However, it still worth watching for buffs of multicultural films that look at social issues in a slightly skewed way, if not for those in search for a laugh-until-you-cry comedy.

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Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

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    -Watched English-Dubbed Version-

Witches, wizards, magic, and wondrous happenings. Hayao Miyazaki has done it again. It took me a couple of viewings to really grasp the wonderful themes of Howl’s Moving Castle, based on a book for children by Diana Wynne Jones. I fancied it ‘confusing’ and ‘convoluted,’ and was all set to write a skeptical review when I saw it again,  open-minded and unpreoccupied. It was like a whole different experience. So if you’ve seen this movie and found it slightly underwhelming or overhyped, I urge you to watch it again. It’s a bit more complex than Miyazaki’s other movies. But that’s not in of itself a bad thing.

The heart of Howl’s Moving Castle lies in the character of Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer,) a shy young woman who works at a hat shop. Sophie starts out as a timid, self-effacing Mary Sue,  but when the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) transforms her into an elderly woman Sophie (now voiced by Jean Simmons) must grow some cajones and learn to look after herself; with a little help from a brooding and magnificently eccentric wizard named Howl (Christian Bale.) The Witch of the Waste resents Howl because he spurned her affections as a fickle young sorcerer, and a witch who holds high position in political power (Blythe Danner) wants to recruit him to use his abilities in a long, bloody civil war.

But Howl’s real concern lies in self interest; namely, recovering his heart, which was stolen from him as a boy. Can Sophie help Howl, even trapped in her hunched, geriatric form? Along their adventures, Howl and Sophie meet many interesting characters, including an animate scarecrow with the head of a turnip, The Witch of the Waste’s malevolent, amorphous henchmen, and a deeply odd but adorable little dog who makes a sound vaguely akin to a asthmatic rodent. Not least of all, the viewer is introduced to Howl’s titular ‘moving castle,’ which, like The Overlook in The Shining, really stands as a  character in it’s own right.

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The castle, a massive Hodge-podge of gears and piles of scrap metal, is kept fully functional by Calcifer (Billy Crystal,) a wise-cracking fire demon, and between Calcifer, Sophie, Howl, and the boy apprentice of magic, Markl (Josh Hutcherson), they make sort of an odd little family. It’s going to take loyalty, friendship, magic, and faith in each others abilities to survive this crazy war and Howl’s equally crazy personal demons. Howl’s Moving Castle is set in a colorful steampunk world which resembles early 20th-Century Britain, but includes creatures and spells the likes of which no person of our world has ever encountered. If you know Miyazaki, you know that every film of his is an intensely visual experience, and besides Billy Crystal (who’s not as funny as he thinks he is,) all the English dub actors are fine in their respective roles.

Sophie, like Chihiro in Hayao Miyazaki’s earlier effort Spirited Away,  grows incredibly as a character throughout the film, but rather than developing from  entitlement to self-possession and maturity, she becomes much more assertive and builds her self-esteem exponentially. Sophie is a good role model for young girls, because although she starts out very Mary Sue-ish and ineffectual, she gradually becomes a more powerful character and is certainly not the average damsel in distress. While Sophie develops as a person throughout, Howl stays much the same, existing as both a powerful wizard and an incurable dandy, throwing a temper tantrum when Sophie mixed up his hair dyes and made him tint his hair the wrong color.

The characters in this are quite magical, so it would be a shame for anyone with a taste for the colorful and imaginative to miss it. Although I like Spirited Away marginally better, and admire My Neighbor Totoro for it’s boisterous innocence, Howl’s Moving Castle comes as a close third, and should be viewed even by people without the most rudimentary understanding or experience with anime.

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My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

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  -Watched English-Dubbed Version-

  My Neighbor Totoro was the first Miyazaki film I ever saw. The thing is, I really didn’t want to watch it at first. I grew up thinking anime was ‘stupid’ and there was some whining and complaining on my part when my Grandad and his girlfriend Franny rented it from a really cool movie place across town and suggested we watch it. To this day, although I’m still not a huge Japanese animation enthusiast, I’m grateful to my grandfather and Franny for introducing me to a Miyazaki movie and taking me out of my comfort zone. His films are, in a word, magical, and led me to checking out some other worthy choices in the genre like the mind-blowing Paprika and the relentlessly sad Grave of the Fireflies.

The plot of My Neighbor Totoro is simple, but there’s a lot of crossover appeal between young children (who will adore it) and older people (who are likely to be enraptured in the film’s gorgeous hand-drawn animation and joyful, innocent storytelling.) My Neighbor Totoro explores that time in childhood where the possibilities seem endless and seemingly insignificant experiences seemed like tiny wonders; a fleeting period in youth when yours truly taped feathers to her arms and tried to fly, and made a mad-dash attempt to use a plastic bag as a parachute and launch herself off the hill outside my house.

The story follows two little girls Satsuki (voiced by Dakota Fanning) and her little sister Mei (Elle Fanning,) as happy a two children as you’re ever likely to meet. But their life is not without troubles. The girls’ mother (Lea Salonga) has been in the hospital indefinitely with a vague but insistent illness, and their rather absent-minded father (Tim Daly) has moved them into a ramshackle house in the country and often outright forgets to look after them. Nevertheless, the sisters approach their new home with barely contained excitement and a genuine sense of wonder, and life gets a whole lot more exciting by the minute when they meet a friendly, cuddly forest spirit named Totoro.

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Dad seems utterly caviler about what appears to be wild flights of fancy on the girls’ part (most American parents would be sending their kids to the psychiatrist when their ‘delusions’ about giant forest spirits perseverate,) making me wonder if he believes in the existence of the creatures or if he’s just playing along for his daughters’ sake. Regardless, he’s a pretty cool dad, although his slips into inattention can be slightly worrying. The first thing you’ll notice about My Neighbor Totoro if you’re unfamiliar with Japanese anime is the unusual animation and the characters’ huge mouths- literally. The kid sister could stuff watermelons into that thing. I can be jarring at first, but My Neighbor Totoro‘s sweet-natured plot soon gets the better of you.

There’s not a whole lot of conflict on display here- a mild catastrophe takes place and Totoro and the relentlessly imaginative ‘cat-bus’ (half cat, half bus, with unbelievably awesome results) are there to save the day. The majority of the film, however, focuses on the Satsuki and Mei exploring their natural environment and discovering a wealth of benign mystical creatures like Totoro, the Cat-Bus, and the fearful ‘Soot Sprites,’ who flee from a room whenever you turn the lights on. There’s not a huge sense of danger or of trying to convince the parents of the creatures’ existence, the parents ‘get it,’ or are at least willing to play along.

Hayao Miyazaki’s lovely film is above all, a perfect embodiment of childhood, in an idyllic world where the child protagonists are able to fully explore their environment and traverse their surroundings without fear of unsavory adults or everyday terrors. Only at the very end do you get a hint of darkness, and it makes you consider that the dad probably should have gotten up from his papers and paid more attention to his kids. But All’s well that ends well, as Shakespeare says, and a series of magical, and occasionally frustrating and tense events lead to a heartwarming ending.

Like the best animated films, My Neighbor Totoro isn’t just for kids; it’s for everyone who remembers being a kid as well. It’s not fantasy on such an epic scale as some of Miyazaki’s later efforts, including Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, but it’s pure and innocent and true and charms the pants off of anyone who loves low-key, kind-natured movies that make you believe the best in humanity. Rent it for a son or daughter, a niece or nephew, or a film enthusiast grandkid (as my Grandad did)- just make sure you see it. It’s a wonderful and worthwhile experience.

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Spirited Away (2001)

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-Watched English-Dubbed Version-

If you’ve never seen anything by master animator and storyteller Hayao Miyazaki, you’re missing out. The esteemed filmmaker has several fantastic films to his credit, and 2001’s coming-of-age fantasy Spirited Away may be his most magical of all. The wealth of creativity on display in Spirited Away more than makes up for it’s occasional holes in plot and character development, and the heroine Chihiro’s wondrous (if sometimes scary) adventures should appeal to both the young and the old.

At the film’s start, Chihiro (voiced by Daveigh Chase) is a somewhat whiny and entitled nine-year-old girl with an even more entitled pair of parents (Michael Chiklis and Lauren Holly) who are moving their moody preteen daughter to a new house. In the spirit of adventure (or so he thinks,) dad takes a short cut and finds himself in what he thinks is an abandoned theme park. He gets out of the car to take a look around, finds an unattended banquet, and he and his wife throw caution to the wind and begin to arbitrarily chow down (sure, wouldn’t anyone?)

Chihiro refuses to partake and is spared the fate of being transformed into a pig, but her parents are not so lucky. Turns out the ‘theme park’ is a bathhouse for the spirits, and Chihiro must get over her orneriness and aversion to hard work in order to save her parents from becoming the next entree for the creatures inhabiting the magical realm. Along the way, she meets a brooding and mysterious boy (Jason Marsden) who moonlights as a dragon, and evades the evil clutches of Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette,) a malevolent sorceress and overprotective mother of a infant monstrosity worthy of Eraserhead.

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There’s commentary abound concerning (American?) decadence, greed, and laziness, including a creature called ‘No-Face’ who  idly feeds off the materialism of others while becoming increasingly grotesque and corpulent, but Spirited Away never becomes pedantic in it’s nuanced delivery of it’s message. One issue I see with the script is that the supporting characters don’t always have a lot of motivation for what they do. For example, the six-armed Boiler Man spirit (David Allen Ogden Stiers) sticks up for Chihiro shortly after her arrival at the bath house, more or less because the script requires him to.

He’s not developed in a way that this is a particularly feasible decision for him, just as Yubaba’s twin sister is a wildly inconsistent creation. One moment she threatens to ‘tear Chihiro’s mouth out’ if she blabs her secret, the next she asking her to call her ‘granny.’ Whaat? The exceptions Yubaba, whose behavior is unkind, but consistent,  and Chihiro and the boy, Haku, who have a fluid and interesting character arc.

However, Spirited Away is boundlessly inventive and visually stunning; a menagerie of intense color and bizarre creatures that stands up to multiple watches and should enrapture the imaginations of kids and adults alike. It’s certainly not dumbed down to the intellect of a slow five-year-old like a lot of kiddie matinee, it takes it’s young audience seriously and doesn’t treat them like morons;  that’s what’s so great about Hayao Miyazaki as a filmmaker, isn’t it? He trusts that kids will get things and doesn’t talk down to them.

The difference between something like this and the average animated comedy by Dreamworks studios is like the difference between a mountain and a rockpile. Like Pixar’s best films, Spirited Away combines eye-popping animation with memorable storytelling and a genuine sense of wonder to create pure movie making magic. Regardless of whether you’re a huge anime enthusiast, Spirited Away (and by extension, most of Miyazaki’s films) is utterly worth your time. If you like feverishly imaginative fantasy that transports you for a few hours from the mundanity of daily life, you’ll find a lot to love in Miyazaki’s masterpiece.

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