Out in Theaters: THE WIND RISES

“The Wind Rises”
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Starring Hideaki Anno, Miori Takimoto, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Masahiko Nishimura, Steve Alpert, Morio Kazama, Keiko Takeshita, Mirai Shida, Jun Kunimura, Shinobu Otake, Nomura Mansai
Animation, Biography, Drama
126 Mins

(Note: I saw the original version in Japanese with English subtitles, not the redub featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

Traumatic and introspective, The Wind Rises is Hayao Miyazaki‘s magical realist account of pre-WWII Japan as it navigates a seismic earthquake, battles the emergence of lurking fascism and sees its populace wither at the hands of TB. To say it’s not an experience for kids is an understatement, so don’t let the pretty pictures fool you. And yet, preserved is the crisp and distinct Miyazaki visualscapes and a ubiquitous, if stayed, element of whimsy. “In good times and bad, life is magical,” Miyazaki seems to say with a hopeful sigh.

The Japanese visionary has talked at length about how this will be his final feature and accordingly it only seems fitting that The Wind Rises feels like a man penning his own epilogue; a storyteller past myth and allegory, finally willing to stare long and hard at the epoch of his lifetime and reflect, no matter how painful that process.  
The hero at the center of this tale, Jiro, seems telegraphed in from a poem. And yet his story is true (somewhat), making Miyazaki’s film a fantastical biopic of the oddest sort. How much Miyazaki saw of himself in the plight of the aviation expert can be assumed but why he has chosen him to be the representative of Japan’s 1920 era is a thing of mystery. But let’s save that debate for later.

Jiro Horikoshi is an aviation aficionado. We meet the glasses-touting to-be pioneer at a tender young age and watch him blossom into adulthood and his fledgling career as an aviation engineer. Ever since he was a boy, Jiro has experienced lucid dreams, his nights filled with times spent alongside Italian aeronautical engineer Giovanni Caproni, a figure of encouragement prone to designing ambitious triple layered bi-planes the stuff of fantasy. But even in these dream sequences, reality is grounded. There’s no fluffy creatures or wretched monsters, just the harsh reality of unbridled ambition and unrivaled aspiration. Nevertheless, Miyazaki’s 73-year old hand still paints as beautifully and classically as ever.

Although the animation here is far more realist than much of his former work, Miyazaki still dips in bright colors, painting backdrops so gorgeous you’d expect to find them in a Tokyo art exhibit. And just as his craftsmanship is rich with texture and life, his story is creeping with subtext. To make such a thematic shift this late in his career, away from quirk and metaphorical creatures and into a murky incitement of a culture’s past, surely gives us a glimpse into the mind of a haunted genius.

As the film presses questions of drive and autonomy and the turbulent mix of the two, our minds drift to the writer’s room. Is there intentional poetic justice in Miyazaki decrying the astringent nag that one’s work is never finished just as he’s retiring? Is this film a confession of regret? Of guilt? What has he sacrificed to get where he is today? Or is this merely a reticent sign off to a long and illustrious career? So many questions, so few answers!

And here lies the problem. For all the wonderful questions Mizayaki’s choice to make this his sendoff feature raises, the film itself deals in a tonally inconsistent and wandering narrative rife with teetering pathos that’s almost strangely personal. More tragedy than anything, The Wind Rises earns every bit of its PG-13 rating without ever uttering a swear or witnessing a swing of violence. No, the troubling but true subject matter is bleak and ultimately heartbreaking enough to make anyone old enough blink out a tear or two. Kids though will have all but the pretty pictures soar over their heads like one of Jiro’s aircrafts. That said, it is a visual wonder to behold. Just be prepared to explain to your four year old what tuberculosis is.

Is The Wind Rises Mizayaki’s masterpiece? Certainly not. But it’s an intriguing work nonetheless. It lacks the jubilant capriciousness of Mizayski’s prior filmography, a thing ineffably harder and more coarse than one would imagine from anything animated. In spite of its relative inaccessibility, it is a thing of mighty beauty, even if it is a bit of a melancholy note for Mizayaki to leave on. Like a man looking back at the perfect futility of human life, The Wind Rises is a bittersweet symphony of what it means to love and lose.


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Out in Theaters: SAVING MR. BANKS

“Saving Mr. Banks”
Directed by John Lee Hancock
Starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Colin Farrell, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, Rachel Griffiths
Biography, Comedy, Drama
125 Mins

Saving Mr. Banks may as well have been called How Walt Disney Saved The Day From The Curmudgeonly P.L Travers. It’s as whitewashed a narrative as can be, oozing Disney hallmarks to reinvent the notorious asshat that is Walt Disney into a salt of the earth type inspirationally adept at picking himself up by his bootstraps. He’s the American Dream personified and he circles Emma Thompson‘s P.L. “put the milk in the tea first” Travers with the predatory knack of a hawk.


Travers, whose opaque Britishness sticks out like Andre the Giant’s thumb if it’d been slammed in a car door, is a woman desperately struggling to maintain artistic control of a character she’s poured her very heart and soul into: Mary Poppins. Having either run dry in the ideas department or simply too stubborn to pen another Poppins adventure, Travers straddles the line of bankruptcy. Her only option lays in Walt Disney, who’s been hounding after the Poppins property for the past ten years.

While Travers flies over to LA to be courted by Mr. Disney himself, the earnest, creative folks at Disney are pouring themselves into turning Poppins into a product, equipped with sing-a-long numbers and dancing animated penguins. It’s a far cry from her original vision, and she battles tooth and nail to preserve the soul of these stories that mean so much to her but in the process only comes across as a mean old kook. I mean, this is the 60s, women have no place asserting themselves, amiright?

As audience members, we’re expected to cheer for this moustachioed monopoly man trying to ink out another deal with his enterprising smile. And after Saving Mr. Banks dresses Disney’s acquisition of Mary Poppins up as a promise to his children to one day turn their favorite storybook into a delightful family video, how can you not want him to succeed? Think of the children!

I don’t think I have to tell you whether or not Disney got his grubby hands on the rights to Poppins. So with that, the moral of this Disney story reads something like: big business always triumphs over the solitary artist. How sweet.

For all the tomfoolery that tries to pass as morals here, Thompson is undeniably powerhousing it as Travers. She’s confounding, frustrating, pitiable, and, for a majority of her screen time, detestable. Her 50 shades of gray comes in two flavors: frowny and disappointment. With a no-nonsense attitude so caustic she makes Professor McGonagall look like a bonafide class clown, Travers is the stuff of fairytale stepmothers – strict, rude, and utterly indifferent. But Thompson plays her with understanding, lacking an ounce of judgement. This year’s Best Actress talks have been all about Cate Blanchett but, with a performance of this caliber, Thompson might just have what it takes to knock her off her horse. There is one big thing standing in the way of that though: Travers is entirely unlikeable.

Typically, it requires a bit of mental gymnastics on behalf of the audience to acclimate to a character who is so legitimately awful and yet director John Lee Hancock makes no attempt to skirt around the dozen or so sticks up her butt. In fact, that seems the primary function of the first act – to reveal just how uptight Ms. Travers is. For most of the movie, she might as well be a plum. Says Hancock’s film, she’s a dried up old cooze more pleased by naysaying than any of this smiling nonsense. She wants for nothing save a paycheck so she may return to her flat in London and live out the rest of her days on trumpets, tea, and sighing. As she closes in on signing over that character which has come to define her and her career, she’s hardly a popular figure on the Disney campus. Making friends along the way is about as high a priority as stepping in a pile of dog shit. To her, they may as well be one in the same. With all her humbuging, she’s the Ms. Scrooge of the 2013 Christmas season.

But there’s no illusion that this pinecone of a woman won’t shed her crusty shell and reveal the little sweet girl inside, that flax-haired Aussie who we become well acquainted to through an unexpectedly prominent series of flashbacks. In his milking of the emotional teat, Hancock knows that you’ve got to show just how sour someone is to make their inescapable third act transformation all the more power. Most will likely fall victim to his ringing of the waterworks bell, but they’ll probably also be smart enough to see through the highly visibly emotional manipulation at work. So though you may cry, you’ll likely feel a sucker for it.

On the sidelines, the film is stuffed full of cheery secondary characters who either have helped raise Travers into the woman she is or those unlucky dogs who have to deal with her now that she’s grown into a froofy-haired, red lipstick-wearing bulldog. B.J. NovakJason Schwartzman, and Bradley Whitford are a fine trio of slick-job comic relief and their many colored reactions to Travers’ totalitarian workmanship are amongst the best moments of the film.

In stark contrast, Paul Giamatti‘s thick take on a white version of Driving Mrs. Daisy‘s Hoke Colburn is a prime example of Saving Mr. Banks as a hokey tearjerker while Colin Farrell‘s bubbling but bumbling alcoholic father is shaded with true characterization. He’s far richer in depth than many of these hackneyed stereotypes but belongs in a whole other movie; one far darker and sadder. Then again, the wealth the flashback scenes do seem like another movie entirely. It’s not until the end that it all finally comes together and we see the pieces for a whole. Nonetheless, Hancock never really justifies the amount of division the film must carry and the emotionally stirring conclusion still isn’t enough to make up for the sluggingness that clouds the first hour.

Saving Mr. Banks
is yet another Disney export of saccharine in the highest degree, an uplifting tale that also serves to reinforce the likeability of a dynasty that has swept up Pixar, Marvel, Stars Wars, and just recently Indiana Jones. But for those of us who’ve heard stories of Disney as a man who aligned himself with anti-Semitic organizations and would work his employees to the bone, attempts to make him seem like Saint Walt come across as disingenuous at best and full-blown falsification at worst. But it’s hard to look down your nose when Tom Hanks is playing the role with all his usual charm and gumption. Well played Disney, well played.


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“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”
Directed by Justin Chadwick
Starring Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Jamie Bartlett, Deon Lotz, Terry Pheto, Gys de Villiers
Biography, Drama, History
139 Mins


Nelson Mandela deserved better than the dour glossary of events present in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Failing to capture the spirit of the apartheid, except in bursts of violence amidst a rotation of disconnected massacres, Justin Chadwick‘s film replaces thoughtful reflection on a cultural epoch with as many headlines events as possible. Idris Elba‘s turn as the titular South African hero is the easy highlight of this otherwise throwaway film but the real motivation of Nelson and wife Winnie Mandela are trapped somewhere in the performances, left on the editing room floor, and never given enough room to breathe and evolve into the epic struggle we know the world around.

The biggest problem Mandela encounters is that it doesn’t seem to know what to keep and what to cut. Running over two hours and twenty minutes, the film is a definitive slog. From seeing Mandela as a young child growing up on the tribal plains of Mvezo to his election as president of South Africa, no detail is spared. Rather honing in on a number of significant events in Mandela’s life, William Nicholson‘s screenplay just blasts every minuscule detail in there. Inevitably, they land with as little impact as possible because of the snapshot nature of their inclusion. Had this host of details been incorporated into part of a larger scheme, or even a Mandela miniseries, this all inclusive tactic may have worked fine and given meaningful chapters to a meaningful life, but within the framework of a two-and-a-half-hour movie, the film feels bloated to the point of bursting.

Nicholson is no stranger to epics – he wrote the screenplay for Gladiator and Les Misérables – so there’s really no excuse for why the story got away from him. Letting the scope of the picture drive the story rather than the other way around, Nicholson’s script confuses information for intimacy. Instead of spending ample time getting to know Mandela, most of our meetings with him try to inform us of what kind of man he is. Rather than seeing the man in action, we hear about his actions secondarily – all serviced up expecting astonishment but frequently landing with a crunch. As a complete work, it’s closer in kind to Les Misérables wandering structure than Gladiator’s streamlined epic. While Maximus’ journey was a natural progression of events that increased the stakes chapter by chapter until a massively rewarding climax, Mandela’s long walk feels dull and meaningless by comparison. This fact alone is a bit of a disgrace.

Beneath the cake of old man makeup, Elba gives a solid performance as Mandela but he’s unable to keep the rest of the project afloat. He’s got the choppy cadence and regal tone down pat, and it’s nice to him see escape his recent slate of blockbuster supporting roles, but Nicholson’s lackluster script, surprisingly enough, doesn’t give him a ton to work him. For a man who spent 27 years rotting away in a jail cell on Robben Island, few scenes spend time probing the spiritual roller coaster of Mandela’s evolving psyche.

Shifting from lawyer to outlaw, man to message, “terrorist” to president – and always trying his best to remain a peacemaker – the Mandela onscreen remains largely the same. For all the heated ideas of revolution stirring, we’re in the back corner wondering when all this chatter will die down so we can actually dig into the man’s mind. Instead, we are forced to take any “transformation” at face value. We’re frequently told of a man changed but there’s little supporting evidence for these bold claims of metamorphosis. This is a man considered by many to be next to sainthood and yet it feels like he hasn’t grown a day in the 80-odd years we see him onscreen.

Although not helped a lot by the words on the page, Naomie Harris flounders as Nelson’s wife, Winnie Mandela. Screaming and shrieking her way through most of her lines, she is a character with a very clear transformation but it all takes place behind some mystical curtain. Audiences in search of understanding will be largely disappointed as we never see the stepping stones leading from Winnie 1.0 to Winnie 2.0. She shifts overnight, in the shadows, robbing us of any semblance of understanding, meanwhile rendering the film even more vanilla for its unwillingness to dissect a controversial character.

Obviously the makers of this film had nothing but good intentions in the making of Mandela but the fact of the matter is not everyone can get a gold star for effort. Their goal is appropriate; to bring a balanced biopic with equal measures of entertainment and education; but it just never comes to fruition, it never follows through on its promise. In their textbook approach, they’ve lost the majestic sense of wonder we come to expect of a film. Sidelining a succinct story arc for tell-all testimony, Mandela is designed to be played by substitute teachers in History classes across America for the next decade. It’s unlikely to have much staying power beyond that.

Nelson Mandela was a man who championed compromise, so maybe this is a suiting film for his legacy. Instead of being deeply entertaining or deeply informative, it lands somewhere in the middle, compromising depth for surface level knowledge and sidelining deserved dramatic beats for melodrama. Instead of being a really good chapter of Mandela’s life, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is little more than the Nelson Mandela Spark Notes.


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