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Essential Viewing

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind: Film Review

By | Essential Viewing

Released – March 1984 (Japan), February 2005 (U.S., English Dub)
Written By – Hayao Miyazaki
Directed By – Hayao Miyazaki
Starring – Japan: Sumi Shimamoto, Goro Naya, Yoji Matsuda, Yoshiko Sakakibara, Iemasa Kayumi. English Dub: Alison Lohman, Patrick Stewart, Shia LaBeouf, Uma Thurman, Chris Sarandon
Runtime – 117 minutes
Genre – Anime, Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Even avid Hayao Miyazaki fans tend to overlook his oft-forgotten sophomore feature, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Adapted from Miyazaki’s manga of the same name, Nausicaa follows a young princess (of the same name) as she becomes embroiled in a war between post-apocalyptic fiefdoms, all while trying to stop an environmental disaster that threatens the last vestiges of humanity. In order to save her small kingdom from war and environmental ruin, Nausicaä must discover a way to bridge the gap between man and nature before it’s too late.

Nausicaa is the princess of the Valley of the Wind, a small community on the edge of the former kingdom of Eftal. The world as we know it has been destroyed by the Sea of Corruption, a bio-mass of death and decay that has been slowly swallowing the world for 1,000 years—since the dawn of the industrial era.

Nausicaa and her people lead peaceful lives, until the warring Torumekian people launch an attack on the Valley, setting up a base to begin their campaign against the Sea of Corruption. When the Valley goes to war, Nausicaa takes charge, and offers herself as a hostage to stop the carnage. The Torumekians try to take Nausicaa back to their kingdom, but end up crash-landing in the Sea of Corruption. There, Nausicaa discovers that the Sea is meant to cleanse the world of pollution by destroying the old and creating the new. She also finds out that if the Torumekians succeed in their plan to try and destroy the Sea, they will also destroy the world. Through the power of understanding, Nausicaa manages to stop the war between man and nature, creating harmony and balance.

This film marks the beginning of Miyazaki’s signature style as an auteur. His aesthetics, themes, and modes of storytelling all can be traced back to this 1984 classic. Like many of Miyazaki’s films, Nausicaa features sweeping, gorgeous animation, focused on expansive backdrops and visages of growth, death, and decay. It stars a young protagonist, wise beyond her years, as she combats jaded adults whose misguided goals threaten the safety of the world. It also explores one of Miyazaki’s favorite themes: the connection between spirituality and nature.

Nausicaa also takes on a decidedly more episodic structure than Miyazaki’s other films, owing to the original story’s roots in manga. Watching as an American, it’s a bit disorienting at first. We’re so used to three-act structure as the dominant storytelling form that seeing anything else automatically puts us off-balance. While the episodic form does service the story in some ways, it hampers it in others. It’s easy to lose the plot in some of Miyazaki’s more abstract musings—no matter how beautiful the aesthetics might be.

While some can argue that this is Miyazaki at his most pure, the film also has its fair share of rough edges. Its use of music can best be described as dissonant, wildly changing the tone between scenes. Some of the world-building feels incomplete, particularly when we start to learn about the warring factions. It almost feels like there are two separate movies here: one about the connection between humanity and nature, and one about a petty feudal war. While the parallel narratives do come together in the climax, it’s a bit of a jumbled (yet gorgeous) mess.

Since Nausicaa, Miyazaki has found a way to preserve the elements that define his style as an auteur, while working within a more accessible (read: commercial) mode of storytelling. Worldwide successes like Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Grave of the Fireflies are testaments to this. Some may see the Western success as a dilution or corruption of his work, but I would argue that his embrace of accessibility has allowed his art to showcase his best attributes without alienating the audience. Much like the Sea of Corruption, what appears to be destruction and decay of his work is actually a positive.

Ultimately, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind may still not appeal to Western audiences. However, the film does offer lessons that all filmmakers can examine and learn from.

The Love Witch: Film Review

By | Essential Viewing

The Love Witch

Released – November 11, 2016
Written By – Anna Biller
Directed By – Anna Biller
Starring – Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddell, Jeffrey Vincent Parise
Runtime – 120 minutes
Genre – Comedy, horror, romance

In film, there are auteurs and then there are auteurs, individuals with such a command over a film that it’s undoubtedly their vision and theirs alone, individuals whose work makes you wonder how the hell did they all that, individuals who make italicizing and bolding the word auteur a necessity. Today, we’re talking about that kind of auteur.

Written, directed, edited, produced, scored, costumed, and set designed—whew!—by Anna Biller, The Love Witch follows Elaine (Samantha Robinson in a gloriously affected performance), a young woman who resorts to love magic to find a man, and is perhaps one of the most ambitious films in the last. . . pick a timespan. The reason? Biller enlisted period cinematography expert M. David Mullen to shoot The Love Witch on 35mm stock and to recreate the look and feel of films from the 1960s. The result is so effective, it’s difficult at times to wrap your mind around the fact that it was only filmed a few years ago, and only brief moments when modern cars or iPhones appear on screen break you from that illusion. The Love Witch’s appearance is perhaps what first gave the film exposure when it had its limited release in 2016, but without substance, the film would simply be a cool cinematographic experiment. Thankfully, The Love Witch is as thematically deep as its color palette.

Throughout the film, Biller flirts with parody, pastiche, and homage, but to label The Love Witch as any one of those is ultimately reductive. In fact, even labeling its genre as “comedy” or “horror” or “romance” is a vain attempt at boxing a truly unique film into easy-to-digest cinematic conventions. Perhaps the best comparisons are from the 60s and 70s—the technicolor melodramas, the softcore erotica, the psychosexual thrillers, and the giallo films of those decades—but The Love Witch boasts a sharper feminist critique than any that might come to mind. And that’s the key: although on initial glance it looks like an elaborate recreation of a bygone style of filmmaking, the feminist themes are decidedly modern.

Stylistic flourishes and eccentricities need to serve the story, and in this case the style definitely bolsters the themes. The movie takes place in a contemporary time, but the look is dated. This parallels modern society: specifically, women’s rights may have progressed, but many of those changes are superficial. As the #MeToo movement has shown, we still live in a man’s world and women bear its consequences. At its core, The Love Witch is a story of a woman trying to own her femininity and sexuality, but the outcomes are disastrous. In fact, many of the film’s men turn eager at the prospect of sex, but once Elaine’s desires pivot from sex to love, the men become allergic to her; they’re literally incapable of love, while sex and love are intimately intertwined for Elaine. In a way, Biller challenges the idea that we as a society have evolved significantly since the 60s and 70s and implies that sexual liberation might play into men’s desires more than women’s. The cinematography, like our world, is stuck in the mid-century.

The Love Witch is Biller’s sophomore feature; she had previously made the similarly ambitious (and perhaps even more niche) Viva, a sexual revolution satire which she also starred in, and between the two films, Biller proves herself to be a true visionary. Both are worth checking out, as her currently in-production third feature will likely be. Simply put, no other modern filmmaker is doing what she’s doing—nor as intelligently.

8th Grade: Film Review

By | Essential Viewing

Eighth Grade

Released – Aug 8th, 2018
Written By – Bo Burnham
Directed By – Bo Burnham
Starring – Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson
Runtime – 94 minutes
Genre – Drama, Comedy, Coming-of-age

A beautiful, uncomfortable portrait of everyone’s most traumatizing school year, Eighth Grade follows Kayla, your typical, uninteresting 13-year-old girl. Online, she creates videos to express herself, giving advice on topics she is woefully unqualified to talk about, such as: being yourself, having confidence, making friends. In real life, she is a quiet loner, hopelessly awkward, and desperate to fit in.

Kayla goes through all of the hallmarks of coming of age. Crushing on a boy out of her league, going to a pool party she was only invited to out of obligation, trying to make friends with older kids, disconnecting and reconnecting with her single dad, etc. All of this culminates in her graduation from 8th grade into her freshman year of high school, having grown up. . . just a little bit.

Normally, this is the part of a film review where we’d get into our synopsis and talk about plot details, what Kayla’s arc is for the film, the various subplots, etc.

Except there’s one problem. Eighth Grade has none of these things.

And yet, it works.

I have likely chastised hundreds if not thousands of screenwriters for not having a proper plot in their stories. Now I need to explain myself to all of them. Bo Burnham can have no plot in his story and have it work; you, dear writer, probably can’t. Here’s why. . . .

Film as a medium has captivated us for over a century because of its unique ability to convey character, period, tone and emotion in a way that is simply impossible on the page. If you were to write a novel about a modern-day 8th grade girl, you could try describing some of the things you see: they’re always on their phones, they’re awkward around boys, they’re obsessed with social media, they have fresh acne and don’t know how to quite cover it up with makeup yet. All of it would come across as trite and inauthentic.

The reason it works in a filmic medium is because Bo Burnham captures this stage of life in a way that can only be captured visually. You could spend pages describing an Instagram feed, or Snapchat filters, or a Tumblr dashboard. You could wax poetic about how kids can get sucked into it for hours before bed, slowly watching their confidence dwindle away.

And we, as readers, would be bored to tears.

Burnham does this instead through an overlaid montage, to the tune of Orinoco Flow by Enya. We watch Kayla’s bored, expressionless face as she scrolls and scrolls and scrolls, liking pics, taking Buzzfeed quizzes, checking Snapchat stories. This is all done without judgment, or derision. It’s simply how it is. It’s the truest expression of her current state of being. You just can’t do that in a screenplay.

The only reason Eighth Grade works is because of Burnham’s masterful direction and savvy to our modern world. If some other director, say, Richard Linklater (sorry, Rich…) were to have directed this script, it might very well have been an unmitigated, directionless mess.

I say this not to discourage writers from writing low-concept, character driven stories, but to encourage them to go out and make that film themselves (feature or short). A script like Eighth Grade would likely never sell on its own. It would probably hit dead ends in contests.

But as a film? It’s poetic. It’s timely. It’s authentic. And it’s the type of work that puts someone on the map.

Falling Down: Film Review

By | Essential Viewing

Falling Down

Released – February 26th, 1993
Written By – Ebbe Roe Smith
Directed By – Joel Schumacher
Starring – Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, Barbara Hershey
Runtime – 1 hour, 53 minutes
Genre – Crime, Drama

In a city rife with racial tension, a struggling economy, and a dwindling middle class, a disgruntled middle-aged man has armed himself with a bag of guns and is rampaging the city. This may seem like a present-day news headline, but it’s actually the plot of a Joel Schumacher film from 1993 starring Michael Douglas. The relevance of the film is even more poignant today. With racial injustices prompting Black Lives Matter, and a disgruntled middle America electing Donald Trump into the White House, the plot for Falling Down seems to focus on the exact type of man who might vote for Trump and fit into a 2018 environment.

Michael Douglas plays a character we know only as “D-FENS,” based off his vanity license plate. The film starts in the middle of a blistering Summer day in Los Angeles, and D-Fens is stuck in traffic. Headlights and construction are all he can see, and in a visually unsettling montage of images, we get the impression that D-Fens has had “enough.” What he’s had “enough” of is uncovered over the course of the film, and it’s part of the film’s strength that we merely start out with a relatable character stuck in traffic. In a moment of pure frustration, D-Fens gets out of his car with his briefcase, and leaves his car in the midst of the traffic jam. “I’m going home,” D-Fens tells a fellow gridlocked individual (ironically played by the writer of the film, Ebbe Roe Smith).

Thus begins D-Fens’s journey across Los Angeles. His first stop is a payphone, but he’s missing the appropriate amount of change to make a phone call.  So, he stops into a local Korean bodega to get change. This is where the film starts to pick up momentum and veers into controversial territory. Frustrated with the Korean shop owner’s insistence that he must buy something in the store to receive change, D-Fens grows increasingly animated, to the point where the Korean shop owner reaches for a baseball bat. D-Fens grabs the baseball bat and proceeds to launch into a racist tirade about “you people” while trashing the store. Hmm, you might wonder, perhaps this D-Fens guy isn’t so likable. You’re correct in feeling that. D-Fens is actually the villain. And that’s when we get to meet the truly likable hero of the film, Prendergrast, a near-retirement cop played by Robert Duvall.

A lot of the controversy about Falling Down when it initially debuted in 1993 was that some people viewed the film as racist propaganda. That it showed an “anti-hero” who takes out all of “our” (the audience) collective frustrations about life. And for some people, it seems that it has become a sort of “hero” story about a guy who’s at the end of his rope and is wreaking havoc on the city of Los Angeles like it’s his enemy. But if you watch the film as the social commentary it is, you can see that it represents the type of privilege-gone-wrong that, potentially, causes the kind of violence we see today.

After the Korean store, D-Fens encounters a couple of Latino gangbangers (played in an overly stereotypical fashion) who try to mug him. D-Fens rightly defends himself, but takes it a little too far and bashes the two men with his stolen baseball bat. All D-Fens wants to do is make a call, and so he proceeds to leave the beaten men to find the nearest payphone. That’s when he finally talks to his ex-wife Beth, played by Barbara Hershey. Now, we’re finally getting to understand who D-Fens truly is. Beth is scared of him, and D-Fens indicates he’s coming home for his little girl’s birthday party. That makes Beth even more scared, and she calls the cops. But those Latino gangbangers come back for more, this time armed with a bag of guns. And in a confluence of convenience, they crash their car while trying to shoot at D-Fens. This provides D-Fens the opportunity to stalk up to their disabled car, grab the guns, and proceed to murder them while they’re injured.

The stakes have gone up. . . D-Fens has a whole lotta guns, and he’s angry enough to use them on pretty much anyone. His next source of frustration is a McDonald’s-type fast food restaurant that refuses to serve him breakfast at 10:33am (3 minutes past their breakfast cut-off time). But D-Fens has got the guns to force the situation to go in his favor. Restaurant in panic, D-Fens walks out with his substandard breakfast sandwich (“why is this not like the picture??”) and continues along his way.

The cops, mostly Prendergrast, are on D-Fens’s tail at this point. And we get to see the lovely moments where bumbling-yet endearing Prendergrast puts the pieces together. Prendergrast is a great detective, but he feels it’s time to retire to take care of his ailing wife. The ailing wife has pretty much lost her mind and suffers from an anxiety disorder because they recently lost their child. It’s all ridiculously endearing for Prendergrast to think he needs to give up the detective work he loves to make his wife feel better. And as Prendergrast starts tracking D-Fens through the seemingly unrelated incidents flooding into the police station, we get a sense that he’s actually a really good cop.

Meanwhile, ex-wife Beth keeps getting calls from D-Fens and the cops that visit her aren’t reassuring or at all helpful. She’s got a restraining order after all, and D-Fens has only threatened that he’s coming home, so there’s nothing they can do and they have more urgent calls to take care of. D-Fens then stops at an Army Surplus Store. He needs new shoes, and while the owner of the store seems like a homophobic asshole, D-Fens likes the looks of a pair of combat boots. At this moment, a cop on the prowl for D-Fens, happens to enter the store. The Army Surplus owner is a fan of D-Fens; he’s been listening to his CB radio and really likes the idea of this angry man shooting up Latino gangbangers and messing with Korean shop owners. So, of course Army Surplus owner covers for D-Fens and drags him down to his secret Nazi lair, complete with gas masks, swastikas and Nazi paraphernalia. This is also a controversial moment in the movie. D-Fens, while he’s an antagonist/villain by any other standards, is not a white supremacist. He’s just your average disenfranchised white male who’s suffered from losing his job, losing his wife, and subsequently losing his mind. So when D-Fens gets into a confrontation with this white supremacist shop owner, he rightfully (or at least in his fractured mind) kills him.

The next few stops are pretty easy to sum up: D-Fens blows up a construction site with a handheld missile launcher, gives an old, rich, white man a heart attack on a golf course, holds a young family hostage, and finally heads to his ex-wife’s house in Venice. You see, we learn that D-Fens is not just some average racist who wants to beat up Koreans and Latinos for no reason. D-Fens is frustrated with the whole system. He’s frustrated with immigrants. He’s frustrated with the government. He’s frustrated with rich, white people. He’s frustrated with white supremacists. He’s frustrated that he lost his job as a defense contractor (hence, his license plate) and that he’s been ousted by his wife who’s terrified of his anger issues.

D-Fens’s anger stems from him feeling like the world doesn’t care about him. He used to be a nice, middle-class man with a family. Now, he’s unemployed, divorced and the whole world seems to be against him. At the end, when D-Fens has finally chased down his ex-wife and his child, good ol’ detective Prendergrast has also caught up with him. Prendergrast’s wholesome, conversational approach seems to finally resonate with D-Fens. And in a moment of clarity, D-Fens asks Prendergrast “I’m the badguy?” Prendergrast is forced to shoot D-Fens when D-Fens pulls a water gun. It’s a moment of suicide-by-cop that shows that D-Fens understood his options were limited after he’d murdered people.

Yes, D-Fens, you are indeed the “bad guy” in this story. And this story feels incredibly relevant for so many reasons.

The movie explores how even the most seemingly normal person can become so overwhelmed with the supposed injustices of the world that they feel the need to take power by harming others. It also shows the ease of violence that comes with, more or less, readily available guns. This film is a study in how to write an antagonist, and how to make a connection with even the most vile person. Some people watch this movie and see a hero in D-Fens, someone who enacts all their deepest, darkest fantasies. I see a cautionary tale about what can happen when someone’s expectations of life turn out to be greater than the reality.

When the film was originally shot in 1992, the final few days of filming took place right as the L.A. riots broke out. There’s an interview on the DVD with Michael Douglas about how he felt the film represented a specific, societal frustration, and how the riots embodied that frustration.

He was right, and yet, those same frustrations still abound. I’m not saying Falling Down offers any answers on how to deal with that frustration, but it does provide some insight into the mentality of others.

And it provides an excellent blueprint for how to tell a story from the viewpoint of an antagonist.

The Crook: Film Review

By | Essential Viewing

The Crook (Le Voyou)

Released: November 20th, 1970
Written By: Claude Lelouch, Claude Pinoteau, & Pierre Uytterhoeven
Directed By: Claude Lelouch
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Christine Lelouch, Charles Gerald, Charles Denner
Runtime: 2 hours
Genre: Crime, thriller, caper

A contemporary of the Nouvelle Vague directors but never really one of them, Claude Lelouch continues to plug away at the age of 80, releasing a film annually to the indifference of French critics. In the States, his legacy will likely be the derisive laughter of high school French classes forced to sit through A Man and a Woman, but there are some genuinely interesting titles in his filmography. Similar to Truffaut, what comes through Lelouch’s work is a love of cinema, and The Crook is his film that most effectively conveys this exuberance.

Jean-Louis Trintignant stars as “Simon the Swiss,” a notorious Parisian thief on the run after escaping from prison. Hiding out with a lonely secretary he abducts at a movie theatre, he reconnects with his ex-girlfriend (Christine Lelouch) and former partner (Charles Gerald). It is at this point the narrative circles back to their crime, a kidnapping plot that if it doesn’t surprise with its twists will at the very least plant the phrase “Merci Simca!” in your mind forever.

The film has it all: a musical number, a “movie within the movie,” a little social satire, and a nonlinear timeline that trusts in the viewer to eventually figure things out. Trintignant is a cool, inscrutable anti-hero, but Lelouch takes the opposite approach to Melville—whereas Melville conveyed his thieves’ existential angst through a minimalist style, Lelouch isolates by surrounding him with all sorts of nonsense. Through it all, Trintignant reacts with a blank but charming insouciance, only showing signs of concern with food and drink (“biere, sans mousse”).

Self-aware but never cynical, the script’s elliptical approach not only keeps the viewer on edge but also creates the room for all sorts of fun bits of action. There are a number of memorable filmmaking touches (the way that Lelouch shoots his police interrogation scenes should be copied), and even sequences that seem conventional (like the inevitable car chase) take a unique turn.

Besides longing for the days of a more relaxed penal system (oh, how much easier it was to write prison break scenes!), The Crook is a reminder that just because a film has a familiar storyline and generic title doesn’t mean that it can’t find its own unique spirit.

Joe Versus the Volcano: Film Review

By | Essential Viewing

Joe Versus the Volcano

Released: March 9th, 1990
Written and Directed By: John Patrick Shanley
Starring: Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Lloyd Bridges
Runtime: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Genre: Dark comedy, fantasy, romance

Most people are familiar with the combination of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. From Sleepless in Seattle to You’ve Got Mail, the duo has proven to be a sure-fire winner.

But there’s a lesser known film in which the two star: Joe Versus the Volcano. When the film released in 1990, it was met with mixed reviews. Most people didn’t “get” it—and that’s not surprising, as the most common word used to describe the film is “quirky.” As you begin watching, bubbly Amblin credits roll over the screen while an amalgamation of depressing imagery harkens back to German expressionism. You may find yourself wondering, “isn’t this a comedy?” But this is the genius, near-impossible-to-pull-off tone of Joe, a comedic fantasy about the drudgery of modern life. Be patient with it. This is a movie you may have never seen the likes of, and may never see again.

The story itself is quite melancholy. . . . A chronically depressed, hypochondriac Joe (played by Tom Hanks, with a substantial mullet) is diagnosed with a terminal brain cloud that will painlessly kill him within 5-6 months. For Joe, a guy who’s been sleepwalking through his job at a medical supply factory where their specialty is manufacturing anal probes and lubricant jelly, this comes as an unexpected blessing. Joe is quickly offered an opportunity to “live as a rich man and die as a hero” when an eccentric billionaire offers unforeseen wealth if Joe willingly jumps into a volcano as a sacrifice to a superstitious, native island population. Having literally nothing to lose, Joe accepts the offer, quits his demeaning job, and begins his journey.

Meg Ryan co-stars in three—yes, three—different roles as three different women Joe encounters over the course of the story. Where the film really shines is also threefold: the dialogue crackles with the intensity that only a lauded playwright like John Patrick Stanley could achieve, the situations are bizarrely relatable, even though it’s a hellscape of depression and unrealized dreams, and the tone is somehow hilarious even though it’s crushingly sad.

The one area the film could use some modernization is the third act. And this may prove to be a struggle for a new audience. The tribe living on the volcanic island where Joe travels to is a cartoonish portrayal of a native population. It’s done for laughs, and it may not play as funny as it did in 1990 (. . . or perhaps it never worked at all). And the final VFX and outlandish turn of events may sour your final impression of the movie. Nonetheless, Joe’s overall ambition is high and should be respected as such. It’s a fairytale about a man who reclaims his happiness by jumping into a volcano. Pay attention to the details though, because it’s all about the theme lying underneath each piece of dialogue. It’s about the human, oddball moments that speak to everyone who has sometimes felt a little different and a little lonely. Like Meg Ryan’s 3rd character states so plainly, “I’m soul sick, and you’re gonna see that.”

To top off everything, the direction, production design, acting, and cinematography are as committed to the tone and the message as the script itself. And somehow, watching it now, the film seems just as daring as it must have in 1990. Though others have attempted to tackle the “unrealized life” fulfilled through fairytale—the underappreciated The Secret Life of Walter Mitty comes to mind—Joe Versus the Volcano handles tone and dialogue like no other film. And if you’ve ever endeavored to write or make a movie yourself, this is mandatory viewing to release your creative flow.