Thursday, March 31, 2011

Ponyo (2008)

It comes as no surprise that the man who started Pixar, John Lasseter, loves the films of Hayao Miyazaki, sometimes called the Disney of Japan--but unlike Pixar and Disney, Miyazaki's medium has always been cel animation, as meticulous as Pinocchio (1940), with an eye for the rhythms of nature--rain, flowing water, wind on a grassy field--and a willingness to work in bright pastels--especially in Ponyo (2008), the most accessible of his films for smaller children. As with most of his other films, Miyazaki invents a mythology for Ponyo, one related to a love for nature, but also--as in the sometimes deadly serious Princess Mononoke (1997) (his only PG-13-rated film)--recognizing humanity's place in nature, as problematic as it can be.

In Ponyo he imagines a kind of Father Nature of the sea, Fujimoto,* who disdains humanity and seeks only to fill the seas with as much life as he can draw from his alchemical vials. But he loses one of his (many many) goldfish "daughters," Ponyo, who makes it to land and becomes more or less human. I will not divulge too much plot; suffice it to say that, although elements of Ponyo might feel like Finding Nemo or The Little Mermaid--or the aforementioned Pinocchio--let alone any number of his other films, as always Miyazaki produces something original, with enough beauty and rushing action--and half-whimsical, half-hallucinatory sequences (the flooded town and boat trip makes for yet another of his unforgettable waking dreams)--to keep children's attention--a tricky feat these days.

At the same time, Ponyo once more explores a recurring motif in Miyazaki: the search for the parent, the child who waits for his or her family to return--but in the meantime also leaves, often on a quest to find a companion beyond the parents. Ponyo becomes a love story, and is told with such exuberant innocence (if that's possible) that all the other loves--the magician/scientist for the teeming life of the sea, the husband for the wife, the mother for the child, the child for the little old ladies in the nursing home (and their love for him)--weave together, all because Ponyo saw her chance and headed for land.

Generally, if one has never seen a Miyazaki film, the best advice is to begin with My Neighbor Totoro (1980) or the startling Spritied Away (2001)--my favorite; but Ponyo (aside from being only one of two Miyazaki titles on Instant Play) works well, again especially for the wee ones, as a glimpse into a world that shines somewhere adjacent to the one we know.

*Voiced in the English version by Liam Neeson; most of Miyazaki's English-dubbed films feature familiar voices--here the cast includes Cate Blanchett, Noah Lindsey Cyrus, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Frankie Jonas, Cloris Leachman, Lily Tomlin, and Betty White.

Monday, March 28, 2011

My Bodyguard (1980)

Please don't make me use the word "'tween" as I recommend My Bodyguard; just believe me when I promise this movie looks at that period between childhood and adolescence without irony, without condescension--instead, almost as a fable, in which Goliath befriends David.

We may have heard this odd-couple/underdog story too often, here in 2011--but My Bodyguard set the modern standard thirty years ago, especially with its excellent cast, beginning with Chris Makepeace (ironic, yes?), who as the set-upon new kid is suitably average--in a good way, the level-headed one who is surprised and confused by the bullying. But the real standouts are the supporting players: Matt Dillon, still in mini-Brando mode (and again, I mean that as a compliment: early on, Dillon was working on a kind of lanky mulishness, half-amused by the world, half-suspicious of it), is the bully. A surprise, because the real hulk in the picture is played by Adam (no relation to the brothers) Baldwin, who in seven years would steal brutal scenes in Full Metal Jacket (also on Instant Play) before moving on to the role he was born to play, Jayne Cobb in the immortal TV series Firefly. (And this, too, is on Instant Play, you lucky person--Can you hear the Josh Whedon geeks genuflect?) But I can still recall watching Baldwin back in 1980 finding a friend and shedding his sorrow--and I was certain he would do remarkable things. Of course, as it often does with the talented, Hollywood fumbled Baldwin for too long. Still, here he is, just a big kid but managing to evoke Lennie from Of Mice and Men, at least in his mute misunderstanding of his place in life.

My Bodyguard lacks some of the snap of other coming-of-age movies such as American Graffiti or A Bronx Tale, but it still provides just enough uplift to make you happy to have survived your 'tweens--darn; almost made it.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Sweet Land (2005)

In the rural Minnesota of Sweet Land, post-Word-War-I anti-German sentiment ostracizes mail-order bride Inge (Elizabeth Reaser). She cannot even attend, let alone get married in, her husband-to-be's church. Structured as a family memory, the film looks through Inge’s eyes at those who reject her, while managing to ask us in the present to reconsider our own attitudes--in which, for instance, “official language” acquisition becomes more important than the quality of the newcomer's character. And of course the irony is that these are Norwegian farmers--Torviks and Frandsens and Thorwalds--their own voices soft with fading accents, and isolated as only Upper Midwest farmers can be.

But Sweet Land operates only peripherally as social commentary. The film remains a personal story of all-but-despair, resolution, and the blind persistence of love. The performances are affecting--Reaser is a shining light, her fiancé is played by Tim Guinee (who reminds of Nathan Fillion--take note, ladies and others who find him dreamy) with an Old Hollywood boyish charm suitable for suitors, Alan Cummings grins and squints affectingly as the best friend--and John Heard's Reverend is especially compelling: He scowls at Inge's foreignness, denies her any opportunity for respectability--but does so without movie-villain hardness. Instead, he is almost kind, as though he's simply waiting for her to repent for a sin she didn't commit, and be welcomed in her humility.

The fact that she refuses false humility--and chooses instead honest pride--is the film's heart, as beautiful as the sweeping fields and sky the movie is in love with, Nature spread over this (at first) melancholy story and trying Her best to provide moments of sun and shade as needed.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Carlito's Way (1993)

Depending on whom you talk to, Brian DePalma's Carlito's Way is either an old favorite or an obscurity. Unlike star Al Pacino's other crime films, this one is often overlooked--at the least, it seems to have dropped out of basic cable rotation. But in some ways it's one of DePalma's best movies--and definitely among its stars' (Pacino and Sean Penn) best performances. Penn especially has a ball immersing himself in his red-afro'd '70s coked-up mob lawyer. And Pacino drops the surreal Latin accent of DePalma's Scarface and wears his jet-black hair and beard as easily as the soft but precise and almost melancholy cadences of his Puerto Rican ex-con/neighborhood legend. Its Godfather III-ish plot--a crime world "pulls him back in"--provides many opportunities for Pacino to add layers to his character--and allows the movie to move into Penn's world, where he walks the highwire without a net, clutching Carlito's sleeve the whole time.

Along the way, DePalma allows himself some directorial flourishes, but he is surprisingly restrained: For better or worse, this picture eschews the controlled hysteria of his earlier thrillers--or later ones such as Snake Eyes (1998) and Femme Fatale (2002)--most of them a lot of fun; but what makes Carlito's Way memorable is the actors', not the director's, flourishes. And the mood of the picture tones things down: Carlito's "way" is old school--and, to the ferocious young guns he has to deal with, old hat. His neighborhood is gone, and every favor received feels like a threat, while every favor given, as Carlito puts it, "gonna kill you faster than a bullet."

Don't get me wrong; this is not a "quiet" picture, not with this bunch. It can be garish and brutal, fast and funny (Carlito in the courtroom is a hoot--and Penn just doesn't stop being a hilarious, dangerous nebbish)--and the rest of the cast pitches in as well: Wait for Viggo Mortensen as a wheelchair-bound, miserable rat, not to mention John Leguizamo's balls-out up-n-comer, Benny Blanco, while Luis Guzman, as usual, is solid as a stocky rock. All in all, despite its two-plus hours, Carlito's Way keeps moving, almost episodic (like the more frenetic Scarface), but nonetheless pushed forward by Carlito's efforts to step back from his own life and live.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Return to Me (2000)

Having lived in the Midwest for going on twenty-five of my fifty-plus years, I think I'm entitled to have a crush on Bonnie Hunt. She's bright and unassuming, almost bland--but underneath there's often (harmless) mischief at work. Her appearances on David Letterman's show capture this perfectly, two Midwesterners sharing a more or less private joke on the rest of the country: that, for all their goofiness, they too have figured out a few things--while all-but-flirting, happy to see a familiar face--in her case, the classic Chicago neighborhood kid, the perky blond who's not a dope or pest, the pal you still want to date.

I've glanced at her as a talk show host and performer, but it's her one effort as a theatrical film director that really shines. Return to Me does not ask us to do more than enjoy assured performances and melt a little into a mild conceit: that a man (David Duchovny) can find himself inexplicably falling in love with a woman (Minnie Driver) because, you see, she received the transplanted heart of the man's dead wife; it calls to him, and he follows. Can you picture this in black and white, sometime in the early 1940s, with maybe Myrna Loy and William Powell taking a break from the Thin Man? You might be more likely to forgive its contrivances; but Hunt's movie gives you all the opportunities you need to time-travel without guilt, its tone honest in the wish that such dreams can come true, without fanfare or smirking.

She is helped immeasurably by the performances. Minnie Driver is confident, as always, in her ability to be just as sweet as she needs to be--and also to pull back when necessary. And David Duchovny makes me mourn the movie career he should have had over the past decade, his blandness waiting to show some cracks and let him yearn a little, let him raise those pretty eyes to almost fill with tears. Again, I can feel Hunt's personality slip in: quietly sentimental and eager to make someone happy.

And then there's Carroll O'Connor (in his last film appearance) and Robert Loggia and David Alan Grier--and Bonnie herself--playing Dads and buddies, a TV family she would work with over the next decade. And maybe that's it: the benefit of the TV-movie vibe, which at its best (from Marty to Brian's Song to Something the Lord Made) gives us economy, sure-footed-ness, and general plot satisfaction. Return to Me is certainly satisfying, a nice evening with friendly, gently feisty Chicagoans who know true love when they see it, eventually.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

I Like Killing Flies (2004)

While not the original "Soup Nazi" of Seinfeld fame,* Greenwich Village restaurateur Kenny Shopsin, the subject of Matt Mahurin's 2004 documentary I Like Killing Flies (the film is better than the title), has been known to eject patrons for arriving in a party of more than four or ordering just coffee. And he shouts a lot--a lot--and scowls and growls. But more than that, he has cultivated a monumentally kvetching persona, a man who has a complaint for every human weakness, real or imagined--and best of all, an ingenious analogy for every occasion. (His comparison of fusion cooking to, shall we say "adventurous," sexual activity is hilarious--and all but certain to ruin your appetite--depending on your appetites, that is).

In the same cramped and cluttered location for over thirty years, Shopsin's offers what seems to be an endlessly inventive amalgam of foods, featuring Dali-esque selections of soups and pancakes. The Shopsin's website provides (aside from links to outré products such as a "Chinese cleavage clamp"--I will say no more) a PDF of its menu--which seems to change with Kenny's mood swings, of which there are many. It's as crowded as his old restaurant (the film documents the change of location after they lose their lease) and features such offerings as duck breast potato curry, pecan chicken wild rice cream enchiladas, ricotta and carmelized banana pancakes, and sandwiches such as the "Jewboy" (BBQ pulled brisket, grilled onions, swiss cheese)--and of course the "Jihadboy" (beef, pomegranate, olive, feta, pistachio, tahini)--and over fifty soups, literally hundreds of offerings.

But this is half the feature, as they say. The real star is Kenny himself, as ready to pontificate as cook, delivering a stream of profane wisdom that he has obviously crafted over the decades, like Louis Armstrong in his prime, into what can only be called an orchestrated improvisation. And despite his nonstop tirades, in the end he emerges as a lover of not only the sound of Kenny Shopsin's voice but of every hungry fool who's ever crossed his path. When he finally gets around to his general view of humanity, he manages to make you feel good that "everybody's a piece of sh-t"--because in Kenny's eyes it's a blessing, an opportunity to admit fault (oh, the cold comfort of this Jewish comfort food) and to feel good about the little good one can do, despite such a scatological shortcoming.

The noise and grime and jangled claustrophobia of Shopsin's is perfectly captured by the visual style of I Like Killing Flies; Mahurin tosses his low-end video camera around the place, cutting and freeze-framing like a caffeinated Scorsese, getting us close--almost too close--to the delicious, vertigo-inducing world Kenny and his family have wrought. At least with Kenny as God, you know you won't go hungry--as long as you're a party of four or less.

*That would be Al Yeganeh, according to Wikipedia.