Category Archives: Tom Scudamore

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.


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…

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.

WHIPLASH (2014): “dazzling”

You’ll be dazzled and exhilarated. And I’ll leave the film’s philosophy on realising potential to speak for itself.

Whiplash is outrageously watchable, excellently performed, kinda preposterous, and nowhere near as pretentious as it thinks it is. I watched this like a listen to jazz and drumming: on the edge of my seat and completely committed. I marvelled at so much in Damien Chazelle’s latest motion picture, from the thrilling classroom brutality through to the operatic spectacle in the final scene although, I’d argue, Whiplash somewhat drums itself into the corner and runs outta steam just before that finale.

Miles Teller goes full method in playing his student drummer boy, pushed and urged on by JK Simmons’ hell-raiser of a band leader. Seasoned character actor Simmons throws himself into the role with gusto, using every part of his body to convey the passion and irrefutability that is so true to the most committed directors in life amongst our society. He conducts with his fist, snatching the music out of the air and verbally devouring the culprit of a wrongly executed note in front of classmates.

To explain the relevance of Charlie Parker and the story’s narrative structure and content would dismiss the integral work of two performers at the top of their game. All I’ll say is that it’s in the finale that the film starts to be jazz, not just play its tune.

You’ll see blood, you’ll see sweat.

You may hate it like my parents did.

I’m calling it genius, though, the kind which flourishes only after everything has been played and the instruments are put away.

You’ll know what I mean when I say the word ‘impact’.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968): “spectacular”

Once Upon a Time in the West supersedes your normal adrenaline rush when watching a Western. Here Leone tackles both greed and revenge through a characterful plot. Set against a backdrop of one long railroad, this is a story which spells out both dreams and ambitions in a world that will often spell death for its walkers. Its somewhat predictable given the canvas and director this work represents, but it’s still charming, unconventionally so.

A film dominated by simple, silent men, it’s a gaping epic, all storms under a hot sun you can feel emerging through your screen. Sometimes I thought just the score would carry this, its surreal quality upending tones of nostalgia, curiosity and love which sting on every other narrative beat. That there’s a narrative is really a bonus!

And where Leone nails it is the scenes of revelation. The story treads at a snail’s pace, true to the tradition of its genre. The film soaks up any hint of progression it can.

Leone has called the interaction between his cast a “dance of death”, perhaps explaining the delay of that final showdown. In its constant lingering on every moment, sometimes Once Upon a Time in the West spits itself into parody. Yet here is a magnum opus unrivalled in focus, both in content and production. Leone has transformed from silly satirist to confident auteur.