HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE (2004): “enchanting”

I admit to being utterly bewitched by this. Hayao Miyazaki is my favourite storyteller of all time. His Oscar-winning Spirited Away is one rare gem, while this, Howl’s Moving Castle, offers an entirely different picture: this is a dance through a tale of melancholy, youth and age, truth and the impossible.

I’ll be assessing this adaption of Diana Wynne Jones’ novel having seen the English dub. Young Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer), who works in a hat shop, has a spell cast on her by the Wicked Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) that turns her into a old lady (Jean Simmons). Scared and baffled by her transformation, Sophie runs away. The Wizard of Oz touch lands with the helpful scarecrow she finds in the fields, while its the Notre Dame vibe that brings about Sophie’s sanctuary: her befriending of fire demon Calcifer (Billy Crystal) and Howl (Christian Bale), the troubled wizard who is as scared as Sophie of the world beyond him. Howl has refused to fight in a war raging across the kingdom. As these misfits fend off endless attacks, Sophie falls in love with Howl, even though she could easily be his great-grandmother.

I remember showing my own grandma Howl’s Moving Castle, unable to place what kind of film it is while we watched it together. There’s no commercial pang, nor a racy speed that pulls your emotions in a number of directions. Really, this piece is just a sublime little mystery, travelling across and around, eschewing traditional storytelling and prioritising character focus and emotional coherence.

The castle itself regenerates from being a wheezing contraption to a splendid magic-cave-turned-armour. This metamorphosis seems to hint redemption is possible for some of the evil characters fighting the castle, and it’s a bold argument the story dwells on at several points.

Warfare is the central theme, though. “No war is a just war,” says one of his characters. “You reek of flesh and steel,” complains Sophie to Howl. The possibility of annihilation hangs over these characters who you’ll grow to love by the end. The most visually spectacular scenes land when the screen is just a blaze of crimson tides awash like the blood of martyrs. It rings of rage, perhaps talking to the global wars of today.

Finally, I’d say this film is pretty much perfect. A seductively alluring half-dream, it sticks to its directors vision always and never patronises its younger audiences. It teaches us empathy and the ability to imagine, constantly asking you to immerse into the waters of its morality. Howl’s Moving Castle is vibrant and intelligent, but ultimately it’s just lovely. I found it enchanting.

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BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2012): “just a mite bloodless”

Peter Strickland’s tale about the odd goings-on in a fusty Italian post-production suite is thrilling, complex and abstract all at once.

Toby Jones’ aloof sound engineer has been entrusted with recording dialogue and sound effects for “The Equestrian Vortex”, a horror picture complete with a “dangerously aroused goblin”. Sound is sacred in the Berberian Sound Studio: heard before transforming in front of your very ears to its most sinister possibility. Forget frames. The sound is what’s crucial. It manipulates, bends, speaks. Passion and fascination urge this digital world to grow and multiply. You can hear Strickland crafting his creature of a story out of what he hears, you hear and then what cannot be heard, too.

Ambivalence fills the little voids left between the stories told and movies shown. At one point, the film itself fragments, on the brink of fission.

Might “The Equestrian Vortex” be saying a metaphor a tad too honest about the natural world? Ultimately, nobody can figure out whether the Berberian Sound Studio exists to corrupt or reveal the destiny for Jones’ engineer. With a face suggesting innocence and involvement, Toby Jones gives the performance of his career, and Peter Strickland has emerged as a key British film-maker.

This picture’s vision, audacity and conviction left me feeling very cold in a very warm space (my living room). It rumbles as loud as a winter storm demands you hear it.

Now to watch it with folks…

THE WITCH (2015): “which witch is which”

So… The Witch. Hm. Hm hm hmm. Hmmmmmmmmmmmm… Huh. Well, I was told it was good. Do I agree?

Yes. I was expecting a solid 9/10 film. What I got was a creeping, twisting, tense family drama cast against the fear and paranoia of the witch scares of Puritan New England. So things I love: psychological horror, 1600s America, witch trials. Things I got: a beautifully weaved psychological study of a puritanical family coming apart at the seams, exasperated by accusations of witchcraft and genuinely bizarre occurrences, written in the genuine tongue of a puritan. The way the character arcs converge is brilliant, speaking as a writer I was immediately depressed after watching it – the narrative is constructed in the perfect way. It is paced to perfection, every element is necessary and it is constantly moving. Seriously, seriously brilliant stuff.

Eggers has pulled off the impossible too, working with both animals AND children, and getting terrific performances from both. Caleb is a standout, his performer delivers a brilliantly real and measured performance, shocking for someone who must be no older than 15… And Black Phillip. Fuck me, that is the creepiest thing. The way it rears upon its hind legs is just uncomfortable, and it has this weird look in its eyes… eeesh.

Anyway, yes, this is a bad review, very aimless and meandering. The ultimate compliment I can give to The Witch is that why I adore it so much completely escapes me. I just can’t put it into words.

Just watch it.

NEBRASKA (2013): “stepping on unturned plugs”

Alexander Payne should be known for Nebraska as much as he is for colourful comedy The Descendants which, yes, thanks to one George Clooney, glowed in Hollywood’s gaze but smacked of first-world problems.

Now for a bittersweet elegy shot in black-and white starring Will Forte, chiming with the longing for a past that once was and can never be again. You starting to notice a pattern? I sure am.

Nebraska is funny and tender. Bruce Dern’s alcoholic Woody thinks he has won the lottery, humoured by son David (Forte, my favourite Saturday Night Live lone voice in recent memory). For Woody, the money would validate his life amounted to something. That’s as tragic an idea for the film to take up, and it does. But the journey there is an amusing walk, often stepping on upturned plugs and cracking of immediate regret. It’s the stab of Payne. It’s Payne’s pain.

Dern and June Squibb are terrific together, the former’s blandness highlighted by the more showy turn that Squibb gives (and just watch what she does in that graveyard).

It’s the heart of Nebraska I love most, though, one that’s soft and still pulls punches, just through the sensitive approach. That comes down to the nuance Forte provides, which is appreciated. He alone can carry the beauty of the black-and-white, and his face often speaks for the whimsy of sad and charming that Payne seems to be constantly striving for in his works.

Payne’s themes land, too: male disappointment, realisation, vanity. Clooney’s solemn pondering expression would have sucked a lot of what makes this film tick (partly because he’s so captivating sitting on the beachside shore). It’s Dern all the way here, and I’m glad his delicate touch won him best actor at Cannes for his part in this.

That’s absurdly glitzy a note to end on, the kind which took away from what supposedly made The Descendants special. I won’t feel too bad, though.

I’ll just stick to knowing Nebraska is great for all its unspectacular methods.

MAGNOLIA (1999): “scent of magnolias sweet and fresh”

Why haven’t I reviewed this before? Huh. Maybe it’s difficult to do things like this, to sorta transcribe into a messy sea of words that ultimate thing that you watch one time in a bit of a weird place and I’m not really sure.

Thing with some films is that you give yourself over for like an hour and a half, two hours and you forget everything and switch off for a bit. Then certain others, they sorta make you incapable of switching off. They tap into something you want to forget, but aren’t able to forget. Paul Thomas Anderson, my favourite filmmaker, tapped into that sort of magic for me. Magnolia sprawls, and twists and dances throughout the San Fernando valley across twelve characters, all human and dramatic and magical.

I guess you can levy a complaint at the script – it swears a lot, and I suppose some people would feel as if it is over the top. Three hours of some of the foulest fucking language in cinema. People who say this can get out, the script is emotionally honest in a way that doesn’t seem to come about frequently, every line of dialogue in this maximalist masterpiece is shot through with the heart and soul of a man writing it with the very blood and tears from his body.

And then the direction. PTA directs the living shit out of all of his films, but Magnolia is another league. It’s an ultimate culmination of his early influences, the motion of Scorcese and the humanism of Altman, and supercharges them. This is Short Cuts on a hideous amount of speed, charging through its three hour run time in a perfectly paced work of “holy shit”. A lot of three hour epics can feel like thirty, Magnolia feels like a ninety minute film in the best way possible. Lose those three hours, and it feels like you were there for half of it. It moves, and moves and moves.

And that cast. Everyone is on fire. Whether it’s John C Reilly’s down on his luck sweetheart cop, Julianne Moore’s fiery woman on the brink of something awful, Jason Robard’s spectacularly heartfelt dying moments or… well, I never thought I’d say it but Tom Cruise actually does work here. He’s a horrifyingly charismatic career douchebag, and in the emotional climax of his character’s arc delivers the single greatest piece of acting I’ve yet seen. It cuts right to the core, and in a cast of actors who have gone beyond playing roles to becoming them, that moment is the highlight in a sea of gold. Damn, tears were shed then.

And then there’s the ending. Frogs rain from the fucking sky. Shit gets biblical, man. Everything goes to hell, and then everything stops making sense. The cosmic joke against the cast is revealed in full force in a moment that makes minimal logical sense, but in the narrative is the only way it could really go – the crux is that more or less, weird shit happens. You have to roll with it.

I’m rambling, so I’ll wrap this up. Magnolia is not Inherent Vice. That is to say it isn’t this hipster prick’s Harry Potter. If I remove my biases from the equation, Magnolia is the best film I’ve ever seen, and probably will ever see…

Till I finally watch The Witch.

CRIMSON PEAK (2015): “not many blue troughs”

Love a bit of gothic, me. I think I reviewed Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre at some point and sang the praises, and if I haven’t well I’d wax lyrical about it here too. But I’m writing about Del Toro’s most recent masterpiece in atmospherics, Crimson Peak. So yeah, gothic. Red, blood, bigass victorian houses, fanciful linguistics and all that tosh is out in full force, nearing the cliché and closer to being a run of the mill box ticking exercise.

So. Do atmospherics at the expense of plot make a movie? Well, yes if you want a tone poem but Malick, Innaritu and the Arthouse scene is over that way. Crimson Peak has actual characters with motivations and histories as intriguing as the titular manor – cast as a veritable victorian Amityville – and a trite, melodramatic narrative to accompany it all. Yeah, I’m not calling that a negative but it might be. Simple story executed with a lot of soul and heart, with beautiful visuals. Who cares if you can see everything coming if the ride is this sumptuous?

It’s elegantly played by Jessica Chastain, a classic deranged murderer, Tom Hiddleston, the regal man caught in moral strain, and my favourite actress – Mia Wasikowska. She can do no wrong in my eyes. They all treat the script with a delicacy and intent, leaving some passages of dialogue brilliantly played precisely when they need to escalate. Mia’s reaction to her father’s corpse and Tom’s false dressing down are the particular highlights – the former is one of the most startlingly realistic realisations of death that I’ve seen, encroaching on TJ Mackey territory.

So we call it a film of greatness, with a grand setback – the ghosts in the narrative. I love me a decent game, but in contrast to the beautifully realised sets, the CGI ghosts smack of an older Resident Evil quality wise, but have amazing art design that they still fit within the twisted tale, but I can’t help but feel disappointed by their realisation.

Final note: Crimson Peak > Pan’s Labyrinth. Come at me.

THE REVENANT (2015): “Hardy > DiCaprio”

Fuck Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu. The most annoying, pretentious director in Hollywood, aside from Captain Theatre Fetish Tarantino. Birdman, one of the most intriguing concepts in ages, was an overwritten and poorly directed holier than thou o marvel audience pile of crap, got him his stripes back. He rightfully lost them for Babel.

And yet… The Revenant happens. This is the best video game film I’ve ever seen. It’s camera swirls majestically throughout gorgeously recreated Frontier America, saving a frankly flat performance from Leonardo DiCaprio by sheer measure of brutal, unrelenting scenery porn. Does it really tell the story? No – it immerses you in the world being built, allowing the film to create a very intense, extraordinarily dense atmosphere around it. It’s very, very interesting stuff.

And then there’s Tom Hardy. What a man. What a legend. He gives a fantastic performance as the stir crazy Fitzpatrick, carrying a dogged malevolence and more acting talent in his gaze than DiCaprio has in his entire career, and provides an excellent antagonist for Hugh Glass to seek revenge against. I can’t understand a word of what he’s saying, but every other aspect of the performance negates that. I wish he had more screentime, honestly.

Ah yeah, that reminds me. Biggest fault going is bloat. This is a very simple revenge story, told in two and a half hours. It has pointlessly symbolic dream sequences which kill the flow and take you away from the fantastic, oppressive brutality of the frontier Jack Fisk has so intricately recreated, and it could much more easily be a slimmer film in general.

Good film, great even. Innaritu’s earned a little bit of faith from me. And I goddamn despised Birdman.