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Happy Valley

Director Amir Bar-Lev doesn't push the irony. He doesn't push anything, really. He just recounts the whole sordid story of the Penn State football scandal…

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Monsieur Hire

Patrice Leconte's "Monsieur Hire" is a tragedy about loneliness and erotomania, told about two solitary people who have nothing else in common. It involves a…

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* This filmography is not intended to be a comprehensive list of this artist’s work. Instead it reflects the films this person has been involved with that have been reviewed on this site.

"The Wind Rises": And Everything Just Floats By…

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Two and a half stars"The Wind Rises", a new animation feature film which will probably be the last work from a great master of Japanese Animation, looks as lovely as expected, but I did an unthinkable thing I have never expected; I checked my wristwatch in the middle of the screening, and I was rather disappointed that it was only half over. Sure, I appreciated its beautiful animation and several gorgeous sights, but I felt the increasing dissatisfaction with its standard old-fashioned story mainly stuffed with nostalgic romanticism. It does fly as its wind rises, but everything merely floats by like the clouds in the sky, and even the darkness of World War II, which is inexorably connected with its hero's life no matter how he thinks about its devastating consequences, feels like a trivial footnote attached to the story. While also partially based on Tatsuo Hori's 1938 novelette, the movie is inspired by the life of Jirô Horikoshi (voiced by Japanese animation director Hideaki Anno), who designed the Zero fighter plane for the Japanese Army right before World War II. I do not know how much the film is based on Horikoshi's real life, but that does not matter much because the movie is peppered with nostalgia and fantasy from the beginning. Everything looks nice, lovely, and optimistic to the main characters except few things, and nothing seems to be going wrong even when they mention the Depression or the possibility of war. And all Horikoshi cares about is making good airplanes. The opening scene shows young Horikoshi dreaming about flying his plane above his country hometown, and the movie gives us more fantasy moments through what Horikoshi dreams or imagines in his nerdy mind fueled by many aeronautics books. His childhood hero is famous Italian aeroplane designer Count Caproni (voiced by Mansai Nomura), and Horikoshi's imagination soars along with this brash, hearty Italian man and his airplanes which instantly take us back to the memories of "Porco Rosso" (1992), one of the director/writer Hayao Miyazaki's famous works. Horikoshi happily grows up with his plucky sister under the care of their generous mother(we do not see his father, by the way), and we soon see him as a grown young man hopeful about his future career as an aeroplane designer. He goes to the college in Tokyo, and his first day is quite unusual due to a sudden disaster which happens right before he arrives in Tokyo. The year is not mentioned, but you can easily guess it if you have ever heard about the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, which really caused lots of damages in Tokyo and the surrounding areas as shown in the film(While watching this part, some South Korean audiences may be reminded of the post-quake massacre of Korean immigrants by angry mobs). The years quickly pass as the city is restored, and, after getting an aeronautical engineering degree, Horikoshi begins to work as an engineer in Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. His direct boss Kurokawa (voiced by Masahiko Nishimura) looks like a grouchy and fastidious middle-aged man at first, but he turns out to be fair, generous, and helpful. Horikoshi is gradually recognized as a young, bright talent to be supported, and he is sent to Germany with others to look around Germany's advanced aeronautical technique. Later, he gets a chance to supervise the project for making a new fighter plane for the Japanese Army. Meanwhile, our reserved but confident engineer falls in love with a young woman named Naoko Satomi (Miori Takimoto), whom he met during a rather dramatic Meet Cute moment during the Earthquake. They briefly got close after she was saved by him, and then they got separated, but, what do you know, he meets her again while he is having a vacation in a rural hotel which has a wide, beautiful green meadow nearby. The sky is refreshing, the wind is rising, the clouds are floating, the grasses are swinging, and she is painting right on the green hill when he reunites with her by coincidence. This surely looks lovely with their clothes and the surrounding environments heavily influenced by European styles (even Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain" is mentioned by one minor character), but Horikoshi and Satomi's love story is your average doomed romance due to Satomi's terminal illness, and their story gets a pretty predictable ending except that Satomi does not suffer from Ali MacGraw syndrome. After all, this is an animation feature film, so she always looks pretty regardless of whether her illness gets worse or not. As indirectly or directly told by other characters, the storm is coming to everyone in the world, but Horikoshi does not seem to mind about that much because 1) he happily keeps working for his project under the protection of his company (Due to his close encounter with a certain character, he finds himself on the watch list of the secret police) and 2) he can spend the time with Satomi at home as a happily married couple even though their precious time is sadly too short for them. Horikoshi must be well aware of what is going on in the world, but the movie does not delve deep into the interesting contradiction occasionally acknowledged by him and others around him. His dream and ambition are indeed idealistic and innocent, but his creation is ultimately used as one of the main weapons by the Japanese Army during World War II, and the movie just looks at the dire eventual consequences for around one minute. After everything has passed away, Horikoshi merely laments around the ending that every plane of his did not come back. Did I get uncomfortable with the subject or contents of its story as a South Korean audience? I do not think so, because, despite a certain amount of boredom, I kept looking around and admiring the small touches and details in the painstaking efforts from Miyazaki and his animators on the screen. The movie is surely a lovely animation to be admired, and Joe Hisaishi's score is effective as usual. While enjoying the flying sequences in dream and reality, I particularly liked the impactful scene depicting the landscapes shaken and rolled like carpets by the rapid shock waves of the earthquake, and I was also impressed by the aftermath scenes involving the fire, ashes, refuges, and ruins in the city(it is quite an irony that these gloomy sights leave more impression than the upcoming war in the film). Hayao Miyazaki has always entertained me with his old and new works since I encountered his work for the first time through a pirate VHS copy of "Porco Rosso" (1992) in 1999. Three great animation films "My Neighbor Totoro" (1988), "Princess Mononoke" (1997), and "Spirited Away" (2001) further solidified my affection and admiration toward his works, and I enjoyed "Howl's Moving Castle" (2004) and "Ponyo" (2008) while gladly going back to "Nausicca of the Valley of the Wind" (1984) and "Castle in the Sky" (1986). All have their own enchanting moments, and they powerfully remind us that good animation films can be a lot more than mere entertainment for kids. On the whole, "The Wind Rises" is not a bad animation film at all (well, how can we possibly imagine that from Miyazaki?), but it only leaves a mild taste with little impression and lots of disappointment – especially if you are an admirer of Miyazaki's better animation films like me. It is not enchanting or charming enough to be recommended, and its story and characters are less engaging compared to the memorably colorful or complex characters we encountered in his other works. Early in this month, Miyazaki publicly announced his retirement as the film was shown at the Venice International Film Festival. Although he has been keeping implying about his retirement for many years, he seems to be really serious in this time considering his age, and I respect his intention to exit quietly with this mild nostalgic work as his swan song, but I cannot help but think that he could have gone more boldly with his imagination or his humanistic belief which is certainly far from the current right-wing Japanese government as reflected in his recent public statement. Compared to his towering career achievement, "The Wind Rises" feels like a minor footnote at the end of his illustrious career, and that will be a shame if his announcement of retirement really turns out to be true. Seriously, as feeling more conscious of its overlooked dark side, now I wonder whether my viewing of this film could have been improved by a double feature show with other Japanese animation "Grave of the Fireflies" (1988). That film really looks at the reality of World War II, but "The Wind Rises" keeps talking about how wonderful it was before the war. Yeah, it looks lovely, but, alas, that is all for us. Sidenote: I learned later from the review by Mark Schilling that the title of the film is inspired by a line from the Paul Valery poem "Le Cimetiere Marin (The Graveyard by the Sea)" that translates as: "The wind is rising! We must try to live!"

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#71 July 13, 2011

Marie writes: Once upon a time when I was little, I spent an afternoon playing "Winne the Pooh" outside. I took my toys into the backyard and aided by a extraordinary one-of-a-kind custom-built device requiring no batteries (aka: artistic imagination) pretended that I was playing with my pals - Winnie the Pooh and Tigger too - and that there was honey nearby; the bumble bees buzzing in the flowerbeds, only too happy to participate in the illusion. And although it didn't have a door, we too had a tree - very much like the one you see and from which hung a tire. A happy memory that, and which came flooding back upon catching sight of these - the animation backgrounds from the new Winnie the Pooh; thank God I was born when I was. :-)

(click to enlarge images)

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#70 July 6, 2011

Marie writes: Gone fishing...aka: in the past 48 hrs, Movable Type was down so I couldn't work, my friend Siri came over with belated birthday presents, and I built a custom mesh screen for my kitchen window in advance of expected hot weather. So this week's Newsletter is a bit lighter than usual.

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From the Valley of the Wind

There is a point in Homer's "The Odyssey" where Odysseus is washed ashore from a shipwreck.A young woman comes to his aid, rescuing him from his end. She was Nausicaa, lover of nature, and eventually serving as a mother of his rebirth. In Hayao Miyazaki's first masterpiece "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind" he heralds a protagonist of similar inspiration, whose own odyssey and heroism would take on Homeric proportions.

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'Ponyo,' the missing Oscar nominee,by Michael Mirasol of Manila

May Contain Spoilers

The Oscar nominees have been announced, now cinephiles everywhere have begun nitpicking amongst the nominations. Some will note those that should have and shouldn't have been nominated, but one almost criminal omission from the Best Animated Film category was the absence of PONYO, Hayao Miyazaki's latest work for Studio Ghibli.

In terms of filmmaking mastery, one can mention the name Miyazaki in the same breath as Spielberg or Scorsese. His works are beloved by animators, audiences, and critics around the world.

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Consensus? Mulholland Dr. is LA Film Critics' movie of the decade, too

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Critical polls conducted by Film Comment, indieWIRE, the Village Voice/LA Weekly, Cahiers du Cinéma and now the Los Angeles Film Critics Association have all chosen David Lynch's 2001 "Mulholland Dr." as the best movie of the decade.

UPDATE 2/12/10: The Muriels and Slant Magazine also choose "Mulholland Dr." as best of the Aughts.

Full list below...

Justin Chang writes at LAFCA.net:

Call us provincial -- David Lynch's psychoerotic noir is one of the essential L.A. movies -- but the more significant reason for the film's enduring critical favor may be its deconstruction of the toxic allure of the Dream Factory. "Mulholland Dr." projects an ambivalence toward Hollywood with which almost any critic can identify: Moving images have the power to seduce and move us, but many of them are the products of a system that routinely turns dreams into nightmares and artists into meat. Famously salvaged from a rejected TV pilot, Lynch's film stands as both a cautionary tale and a mascot for the triumph of art and personal vision in an industry that, from where we sit, often seems actively devoted to the suppression of both. [...]

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More film polls: Top 150 of Decade, Top 160 of 2009...

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Ow, my brain hurts. So, let's just get these out of the way, shall we? In the annual Village Voice/LA Weekly Film Poll, announced just before Christmas, 94 critics (including me) came up with 160 nominations for best films of 2009 -- and voted in a bunch of other categories, too, including Best Film of the Decade ("Mulholland Dr."). [My decade favorites are here.]

Meanwhile, Film Comment polled another big batch o' crix (a lot of the same ones, in fact) and came up with a somewhat different 20 Best of 2009 list -- and 150 Best Films of the Decade (topped by... "Mulholland Dr."). Just for fun, let us compare the two groups' Top Dozen for both year and decade:

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The ten best animated films of 2009

True, the once neglected art of animation has undergone a rebirth in both artistry and popularity. Yet having escaped one blind alley, it seems headed into another one: The dumbing-down of stories out of preference for meaningless nonstop action. Classic animated features were models of three-act stories: Recall "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" or "The Lion King." The characters were embedded in stories that made sense and involved making decisions based on values. Now too many stories end in brain-numbing battles, often starring heroes the age of the younger audience members. Here is no food for growth and for the imagination, just brainless kinetic behavior.

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Cannes #1: Up, up and away, in my beautiful, my beautiful balloon

As I have so often said, if Cannes ever opens its festival with a 3D animated feature, I'll believe houses can fly. I am a doubter no longer. Cannes 2009 awarded the honor of its opening night, which traditionally goes to a French film, to Pixar's 3D "Up." I would have given anything to be there for the morning press screening, to witness the world's movie critics, festival programmers, cineastes and academics fitting on their XpanD® Series 101 3D Active Glasses, which are, quote, "a stylish, eco-friendly, and completely immersive stereoscopic 3D experience."

Alas, I was not at that screening. Our flight arrival was a day later. But I have had the great pleasure of seeing "Up" in 2D, which is how most people will see it. Faithful readers will know that I don't at all miss seeing the 3D version. All I really miss is seeing the Cannes crowd put on the glasses. At the black tie evening screening, all the top design houses in Paris will have their hand-made gowns and formalwear complemented by the stylish and eco-friendly XpanD® eyewear.

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Roger Ebert's 2003 Oscar Predictions

Nothing that has happened since the Academy Awards nominations were announced has swayed me from my immediate conviction that "Chicago" will be the big winner on Oscar night. I know that "The Pianist" was named best film by the British Academy. I know "The Hours" was honored for its screenplay at the Writers Guild Awards. But, hey, I also know the Directors Guild honored Rob Marshall for "Chicago" over Martin Scorsese--and when a rookie can outpoll a living national treasure in a vote of directors, there's a bandwagon on the way."Chicago" is not the best of the nominated films. That would be "Gangs of New York." But you have to understand that the academy doesn't vote for the best film. It votes for the best headline. This year, it sees big type that shouts "The Musical Comes Back!" Having failed to honor "Moulin Rouge!" last year, the academy will vote this year the way it thinks it should have voted the year before. (Example: The 2001 Oscar for best actor went to Russell Crowe, who more reasonably should have won a year earlier for "The Insider.") Here are the major categories and my predictions:

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'Chicago' leads the parade

"Chicago" waited 27 years to make the transition from stage to screen, but finished strong, winning 13 nominations Tuesday as the 75th annual Academy Awards nominations were revealed. After last year's best-picture nod for "Moulin Rouge," the movie's front-runner status signals a rebirth of the movie musical.

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The Best 10 Movies of 2002

It was a year when more movies opened than during any other year in memory. A year when the big Hollywood studios cast their lot with franchises, formulas, sequels, and movies marketed for narrow demographic groups--focusing so much on "product" instead of original work that they seemed likely to be shut out of the Oscars, as they were essentially shut out of the Golden Globes. A year when independent and foreign films showed extraordinary vitality. A wonderful year, that is, for moviegoers who chose carefully, and a mediocre year for those took their chances at the multiplex.

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Toronto fest signals the opening of Good Movie Season

After Cannes, the Toronto Film Festival is the most important in the world. Last year's festival was ripped in two on Sept. 11. I walked out of a screening, heard the news, and the world had changed. Now comes the 27th annual festival, opening today. Are movies important in the new world we occupy? Yes, I think they are, because they are the most powerful artistic device for creating empathy--for helping us understand the lives of others.

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