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

No one who has a heart or a soul, or even a glimmer of imagination, could fail to be utterly bewitched by this work of cascading genius from Hayao Miyazaki. The Japanese director behind rare gems Princess Mononoke (1997) as well as the Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2003), this picture from Miyazaki is something else entirely: a two-hour waltz through the music of time that is as wise, beautiful, melancholic and true.

The story, based on a novel by children’s author Diana Wynne Jones, is set in a cosmic, almost Edwardian landscape. A young girl called 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 nonagenarian crone (Jean Simmons). Mortified, and unable to tell anyone what has happened, she moves as far away as possible. A scarecrow helps her to find sanctuary and employment as a housemaid in a moving castle powered by a fire demon called Calcifer (Billy Crystal) and owned by Howl (Christian Bale), a wizard who is in trouble with an empress-warlock (Blythe Danner) because he refuses to fight in the war that is raging across the kingdom. As this strange band of survivor-bravehearts fend off endless attacks, Sophie begins to fall in love with Howl, even though she could easily be his great-grandmother.

What kind of animated film is Howl’s Moving Castle? It is easier to say what it is not: it isn’t full of showy computer-generated imagery, corporate product-placements, or ironic yakking and wisecracks. Nor does it race along at breakneck speed and at ear-splitting levels. Rather, it is mysterious and sublime, full of space and silences, eschewing traditional storytelling in favour of emotional coherence.

Sophie, like many of Miyazaki’s heroines, is a young girl who goes on a long journey in the course of which she develops all sorts of new wisdom. But there’s something in her plainness and modesty that speaks of premature knowledge. Her shock upon peering into the mirror and discovering that most of her life has passed by, and that she has become slow and withered, is genuinely upsetting to witness.

Howl himself is a peculiar figure. He’s a sorcerer-peacock, a playboy-aesthete with streaky blonde hair and colourful earrings. He’s a reckless but gold-hearted young man, with the ability to turn into a bird. He’s also prone to despair and starts dripping with green goo when he does so. He’s in love with the idea of freedom, assuming multiple aliases to hide from his enemies, and also using freedom as a way of warding off adulthood with all the responsibilities and decisions that that entails.

If Howl is mutable, so is everything else in this flow-motion film. Sophie’s face switches from youthful to elderly in almost every scene, depending on how transported she is by the force of what she is feeling in her heart. Landscapes are liquid, transforming from Tolkienesque battlefields to bucolic meadows. Characters such as the Witch of the Waste, initially portrayed as black-hearted, later prove to be softer.

The castle itself moves from being a wheezing, clanking, chicken-legged contraption to a splendid magic-cave-turned-fighting-machine. This near-animistic capacity for change also suggests the possibility of redemption: nothing good exists that might not descend into barbarism, and nothing bad that might not be alleviated.

The ultimate barbarism, according to Miyazaki, is warfare. “No war is a just war,” says one of his characters. “You reek of flesh and steel,” complains Sophie to Howl on another occasion. The spectre of annihilation hangs over proceedings, and gives the drama a desperate, snatched intensity. Some of the most visually spectacular scenes are those in which huge swathes of the country are blitzed and swell with crimson tides of innocent blood. Don’t be misled by some of the antique Zeppelin-style airships: this is a film whose every frame reveals Miyazaki’s rage at the war in Iraq.

Howl’s Moving Castle was released in both a dubbed and a subtitled version. If at all possible, I would urge you to see the latter. No actor in the world could erode entirely the film’s charm and subtlety, but Christian Bale’s voice, a largely one-note cement-mixer baritone, is dissonant in the extreme, while Billy Crystal as Calcifer recycles the kind of over-the-top whoopsiness so often heard in American animated features, but that is inappropriate here.

In almost every other respect, Miyazaki’s film is close to flawless. True to its director’s vision – his studio museum in Tokyo has the motto, “Let’s lose our way, together” – it has the strange logic and seductive allure of a half-forgotten dream. Never once does it patronise or talk down to its audience. Never once does it try to fob us off with happy-ever-after platitudes. Empathetic and enchanting, imaginatively liberated and dripping with amazing imagery, Miyazaki’s work require a conscious investment of attention; you have to immerse yourself in them, and soon you will find yourself floating, buoyed up by his gentleness, his visual exuberance, and his unshowy intelligence and emotional literacy. It is a lovely film for all ages.


DEAD POETS SOCIETY (1989): “not cool to admit loving”

There are some films that, if you watch them for the first time at the right age, have the capacity to embolden you: Dead Poets Society is one such film. It is not a film that it is cool to admit loving. It is uncynical, ardent and optimistic – not qualities one necessarily associates with film snobs, but what it lacks in critical kudos it has recouped in audience appreciation. It has been voted the greatest school film and it is often cited by viewers as one of the most inspirational films of all time. It certainly inspired me at a time when I most needed it.

We all remember the teachers who inspired us. In Dead Poets Society, the late Robin Williams plays one of the big screen’s most influential schoolmasters. Williams’s portrayal of John Keating, the unorthodox English teacher who uses the power of literature to open his pupils’ minds, was based on a real teacher who had taught Oscar-winning screenwriter Tom Schulman, and Dead Poets Society is set in Vermont in 1959 in Welton Academy, an elite private boys school, and the way Keating, himself a Welton alumnus, shakes up the old school with his enthusiasm for poetry is heartening to watch. Williams’s character blends the poetry of Walt Whitman with imitations of Marlon Brando and John Wayne. He tells his class that when he was a boy: ”I was the intellectual of 98-pound weaklings. I’d go to the beach and people would kick copies of Byron in my face.”

Director Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Year of Living Dangerously and Witness) gets some fine performances from the younger actors, especially from Robert Sean Leonard, Gale Hansen and Ethan Hawke, who plays a student who is frozen with fear when he has to speak in front of the other students. Here Dead Poets Society is at its most idealistic a film, making it difficult not to feel a wave of affection now for Williams in retrospect.

Yet having watched Dead Poets Society twice, issues have always lurked beneath the emotional surface this film relies upon to succeed. On my first watch the adult characters seemed too crudely drawn; the hopes and dreams of the fathers – and one assumes, the mothers – too easily dismissed. My loyalties were divided: I sympathised with Neil Perry’s dreams of becoming an actor but I also understood why his father had reservations.

On a second viewing I was struck less by the depiction of generational conflict and more by what I now consider the film’s dominant theme: death. It is there in the opening image of the film, where a young boy prepares for school while above him hangs a painting of long dead former pupils. Death literally looks down. It is death that provides the propulsive force behind John Keating’s lessons to his class. It is there in one of the first lines of poetry he shares with his pupils: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old Time is still a-flying: And this same flower that smiles to-day To-morrow will be dying”. And it is there in my favourite scene of the film, where Keating ushers his young pupils towards the black–and–white photographs displayed in a glass cabinet of former pupils of the school. “They’re not that different from you, are they?,” he says as the camera slowly pans from the faces in the photograph to the boys in his class. “Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel… They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you… these boys are now fertilising daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you…”

It is a powerful scene and one more relevant to me than that my initial impressions when I was just fourteen years old. When I watch Dead Poets Society I am reminded that time is precious; that, in the words of Bob Dylan, he not busy being born is busy dying. Dead Poets Society teaches us to resolve to lead lives of passion and conviction, mindful of the fact that in the story of our lives the script is ours to write, but the ending has long been decided.

Nevertheless, carpe diem. Seize the day. Treat yourself to this fine piece of inspirational cinema.

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

This is a thrillingly unstraightforward film from the English director Peter Strickland about the odd goings-on in a fusty Italian post-production suite.

An aloof English sound engineer called Gilderoy (Toby Jones) has been summoned to record dialogue and sound effects for “The Equestrian Vortex”, a Suspiria-like horror picture complete with a “dangerously aroused goblin”. Sound is sacred in the Berberian Sound Studio: it is heard innocuously before transubstantiating into something more sinister. Inside, the film’s producer, Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), shows Gilderoy, and us, its title sequence; a blazing blur of Satanic etchings. We never see another frame of it; or at least, we probably don’t. The sound is what’s crucial, and all the occult equipment for creating and manipulating the sound effects. Strickland imbues this pre-digital world with passion and fascination. This is analogue sound, sound taking up space in the real world, a material to be shaped like paint or marble.

As Gilderoy crafts the sound effects for its baroquely violent scenes, his mental health starts to fray. Comic and barbaric actions of splattering marrows and tearing radishes in his recording booth to match the on-screen mayhem is in itself a fascinating peek into the Foley artist’s lot. What happens next is left ambivalent, although there are hints of David Lynch and Ingmar Bergman in it. Just as Lynch disconnected voices from their rightful owners in Mulholland Drive’s Club Silencio sequence, so Strickland grafts them onto unexpected sources. At one point, the film itself fragments as it did in Bergman’s Persona, another picture about a psyche on the brink of fission.

One film, bizarrely, is shown on screen: Gilderoy’s earlier work, what he clearly considers to be his masterpiece: a natural history documentary, knowledgeable, detailed, passionate but anodyne. Its interpolation in this inner drama of Gilderoy’s mental breakdown is a great moment. He believes this world to be gentle and comforting, and the poignant letters from his mother daily confirm him in both this view and his growing disdain for the world in which he finds himself now. Might “The Equestrian Vortex” be saying something more honest about the natural world? Ultimately, it is not at all clear if the Berberian Sound Studio is corrupting him, or revealing to Gilderoy his awful true destiny. With a face suggesting cherubic innocence, vulnerability and cruelty, Toby Jones gives the performance of his career, and Peter Strickland has emerged as a key British film-maker of his generation.

This picture’s vision, ingenuity and sheer gobsmacking audacity has blown me ten feet out of my seat. It is a great, rumbling thunderclap of genius.

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’s last film, the colourful comic drama The Descendants, won critical praise and an Oscar for its screenplay, but to me smacked of first-world problems: the kind of trouble that in less fortunate circumstances might pass for a lucky break.

Now he gives us a bittersweet elegy for the American extended family, shot in a crisp black-and-white that chimes neatly with the film’s concern for times long past.

Nebraska sees Payne return to the realm of real-world problems, and also to the bittersweet form of his earlier road movies, Sideways and About Schmidt – although it moves with a grizzly-bearish rhythm all of its own. Like Schmidt, it plays out across the cash-strapped expanses of the Midwest. Payne has shot the film in grainy black-and-white, as if even the colour here has been stripped out and sold for scrap. This severe dexterity gives a wintry plainness to that roadside Americana that Payne loves to point out. He will suspend the narrative to let us look at signs for churches, motels, scout halls, and to savour their authentic lack of glamour. Why, Nebraska is such a funny and tender film.

Woody, a retired and probably senile alcoholic played by Bruce Dern, becomes convinced by a scrap of junk mail that a magazine company in Lincoln, Nebraska has awarded him $1 million in a prize draw. His son David (my favourite Saturday Night Live singular performer, Will Forte) decides to humour him and drive him there to collect the non-existent winnings. For Woody, the money would be proof that his life has amounted to something, although as his long-suffering wife Kate (a tremendously prickly June Squibb) snips: “I didn’t even know he wanted to be a millionaire. He should have thought about this earlier and worked for it.” The film strolls along amusingly in its soles, but every so often it steps on an upturned plug, and you feel a stab of purest Payne.

Dern and Squibb give terrific performances. Woody also has a bland, submissive side, which comes out when he meets up with his two-faced former business partner Ed Pegram, who like everyone else is greedy and credulous about the rumour of Woody’s new riches. Stacy Keach makes him a wonderfully plausible monster, all thin smiles and lively eyes. What fascinates is that the fiction of the payout is quite as good as any nonexistent fact. The false rumour of riches brings Woody acclaim, status, prestige – which is a big reason, for many the sole reason, for wanting to be rich. As for the cash, all Woody can think of to buy is a new truck. The money wouldn’t change his life, but the fantasy has, and in pursuing this fake cash, he has forced a real crisis, and forced his family to confront some real facts.

Along with the hard truths, the movie has a soft heart. Perhaps punches are pulled, a little, and there are some uneasy plot transitions. Yet Nebraska is a beautifully made movie: an extended epiphany of sadness and charm. Classic Payne themes are restated throughout: male disappointment with life, tempered with a sweeter, subsequent realisation that these vanities are irrelevant. Dern’s own performance, ragged and delicate, won him the best actor prize at Cannes. What an absurdly glitzy afterthought that is to a delightfully unspectacular film.

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.

All Things Shining: Terrence Malick’s Cinema


Defining the cinema of Terrence Malick is a dangerous task. In the space of thirty years beginning from 1973, to which this analysis focalises, he made only three films, each one in a different genre. This in itself shouldn’t create much difficulty. However, the films are themselves highly resistant to the generic categories they inhabit.

Badlands (1973) is ostensibly a serial killer/road/youth movie, but it is not really any of those things. Kit murders several people but, as with Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith’s darkly comic novel, he so lacks everything we normally associate with a killer — his murders read more like elaborate accidents. Aside from the killings, his rebelliousness is non-existent: he instructs his imagined audience to listen to their teachers and parents and feels an obvious desire to impress the policemen who capture him. Neither is Martin Sheen that young — playing a 20-something Kit while in his early thirties. Days of Heaven (1978) is another quirky brew. On one level a Greek tragedy, and on another a meticulous reproduction of the kind of history frozen in the still photographs of the title sequence, with its agricultural machinery and brutal class politics. And finally The Thin Red Line (1998), a film that some critics rather ridiculously refused to define as a war film. If each film is individually so combative of categorisation then it would seem hopeless and perhaps even pointless to try and succinctly characterise his whole output, small though it is.

My theory: Malick’s cinema is poetic and he is a poet. And yet the phrase ‘poetic cinema’, like poetry itself, immediately seems to beg more questions than it answers. John Madden, in defining poetic cinema in ‘The Poetry of Cinema’ (1994), offered this list: ‘1. Open forms, 2. Ambiguity, 3. Expressionism, 4. Non-linearity, 5. Psychology, 7. Subjectivity, 8. Revision of a genre.’ Could Madden’s criteria be said to define only poetic cinema? And why ‘poetic’? Why not ‘novelistic cinema’ or ‘lyrical cinema’? The identification of Malick as a ‘poet’, or a ‘philosopher-poet’, or an ‘esoteric visual poet’, is concerned as much with aligning Malick to the literary as with telling us about the type of filmmaker he is. Likewise, his reclusiveness and lack of productivity is compared to literary figures such as Thomas Pynchon and J. D. Salinger, and in a larger context could even be read as part of his art — the way the hermit novelist of Don DeLillo’s Mao II realises the cultural interest in his absence has become more potent than anything else he can say.

By the simplified lies of commercial and political speech, and the desire for diversion, Malick asks the kind of questions that, in American intellectual history link him to such writers as Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville and James Agee. This idea comes close to claiming that Malick’s not-making-films is a positive bonus.

John Orr presents a much more convincing and rewarding setting for Malick when he compares him to one of his contemporaries, the filmmaker Arthur Penn. Both have produced films that deconstruct the myth of the west rather than revise the genre in the way Peckinpah, Leone, and Eastwood have done. Bonnie and Clyde, with its displaced sexual energy and charismatic bandits, is contrasted with Badlands and Kit and Holly’s casual evil, asexual and vacant. Days of Heaven is compared to Penn’s Missouri Breaks, but here the contrasts are great. Penn’s socially vibrant ‘filmic theatre’ and perhaps more than anything Brando’s loquacious performance are worlds away from Malick’s vision, which seems to ‘use film as a medium to invert the hallowed tradition of all sacred texts, where the word reigns supreme’.

The landscapes of Malick’s films make them a rewarding viewing experience, but the characters generally have a much more pragmatic view of the world around them. Characters in all Malick’s films tend to live and eat and die outside. Houses and shelters by comparison are places of death: the tomb-like house in Days of Heaven; Holly’s home in which her father is killed and which is burned down; the house in which Cato dies; and even the machine gun dugout of The Thin Red Line. Despite or perhaps because of the prominence of landscape in Malick’s work, we never quite know where we are. The landscape provides us with recognisable co-ordinates, but we are rarely given exact spatial specificity.’ In Days of Heaven we know there is a house and a river, but we don’t know where one stands in relation to the other. This gives us an almost dreamlike geography. The very human dramas unfolding in both landscapes attain an even greater poignancy and reverberation when one realises they are occurring against the backdrop of a passive landscape, one that is simultaneously detached from, and vital to, the development of relationships, power struggles and co-existence with nature.

Unlike Malick’s earlier films, the soldiers of The Thin Red Line are vitally alert to their surroundings. Being able to read the landscape correctly has a direct connection to survival, whether it involves calling in the precise co-ordinates for an air strike, hiding in the long grass, or using a river to escape. Like the migrant workers in Days of Heaven, the soldiers do not belong to the world they find themselves fighting in. It is something exotic and mysterious. The Thin Red Line almost seems to have pushed Malick’s technique to breaking point. The voice-over narration is no longer the single and strongly individual female voice of Badlands and Days of Heaven, but rather a regiment of voices who mutter like a kind of philosophising universal soul, at once vital and distracted. The landscape becomes a character in the film and the contrast between the beauty of the world and the horror of events reaches its most extreme manifestation with the corpse of a Japanese soldier literally blasted into the earth. In recognition perhaps of the discontinuity of Malick’s career, the film is considered separately in the anthology.

Perhaps we should class The Thin Red Line in a new genre entirely: Heideggerian cinema. Prompted by Malick’s background as a student and translator of the philosopher, for the film to be poetry and for Malick to be a poet these questions must not simply be presented, rather the director must present these questions and issues in such a manner that they become questions and issues for us. The film must poetically bring forth its subject, and since that subject is human existence or dwelling, the film must present this dwelling, and it must do so in a reflexive way that draws attention to this presenting.

Let these thoughts provide the starting point for what in time will no doubt be termed ‘Malick studies’ — if only he would make more films and, having witnessed his later work, haven’t possessed an increasing disregard of conventional narrative in favour of self-indulgent and meandering style…