Monday, February 29, 2016

Movie Musings: Wait, I've Seen this Before!

So my wife found a Blu-ray edition of It Happened One Night by Criterion Collection for a great price at Costco (of all places). We had the DVD release for quite a few years, but figured we could replace it with Criterion's clean up copy.

So yeah, this print looks great, but what surprised me was the sound. Holy crap did that audio sound as crisp and natural, as if the film were just made yesterday instead of 1934. I shouldn't be too surprised, Criterion always does a fine job with restoration. But before this turns into a full fledged commercial for the Criterion Collection (too late), I had this odd epiphany while watching the movie.

I wrote earlier this year about how much Ex Machina reminded me of Ghost in the Shell. I have an upcoming post about the similarities between Dune and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. So I must have movie comparisons on my mind. But It Happened One Night was something different. It reminded me of a ton of different movies while watching it. But the reason for that is because It Happened One Night pretty much refined the romantic comedy genre into a a crystallized perfect specimen... in 1934! Nearly all mainstream romantic comedies that followed have borrowed in some way from this classic film. Some have modified and improved elements. Most just copied and pasted the sequences and moments wholesale into their films.

Memorable scene? Sure, but there is more to this movie.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing, It Happened One Night is a very entertaining film. It has some great dialogue, two excellent performances, and moves a great pace. Frank Capra does a fine job putting the whole thing together, and working with the chemistry between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Sure every time this film is mentioned all you see is the infamous hitchhiking scene. But this scene works even better in the context of the film because of the adventures and interaction building up to it. This movie may be considered the great grandfather of romantic comedies, but it works so well: you laugh and you swoon. What more do you want in this type of film.

We are actually getting away from the influence of It Happened One Night in this modern era of movies. Fellow writer Richard Bellush at Richard's Pretension has pointed out that many modern "romance" films view romance through a cynical lens. Characters who fall in romantic love are mocked and considered the oddballs. The comedy stems from how bizarre these characters are. After years of Hollywood basing their films off of It Happened One Night, it is a pretty refreshing.

That said, I'm a softy at heart (check out my review of Oh My Goddess if you don't believe me). So something like It Happened One Night or When Harry Met Sally still work great for me.

I love the whole discussion about dunking doughnuts.
What is interesting is that even though It Happened One Night feels overly familiar, through no fault of its own, I still enjoy it. But on a revisit of North by Northwest, I found it really hard to get over the fact that I knew every plot twist and sequence because so many movies have borrowed (and yes lets just say it, ripped off) the 1959 classic thriller. I wonder if it has something to do with the genres. With a thriller you are there to enjoy the twists and the build up of tension. With those things neutralized the movie is less entertaining. I enjoyed North by Northwest, but not as much as I enjoyed rematching Rear Window. Might have to take a closer look at why in a future blog post.

But for It Happened One Night, I am there to watch the interaction between Gable and Colbert. I'm there to see those characters work their way out of those situations. And I'm there for fun ride. All those things hold up well, and make it a true classic, not just of the genre, but in the space of all film history.

Have you ever watched an older film that inspired a whole slew of imitations? Did that impact your reaction to the original?

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Friday, February 26, 2016

Nostalgia Nugget - Do It Now!

Divi-chan, the mascot for
If there is one thing I've learned from the internet, it is that you can be nostalgic about anything. No, it is true, I looked it up. I figured if the Nostalgia Critic could be nostalgic about commercials, I can be nostalgic about trailers, and specifically anime trailers.

I've mentioned before that I became a bit of a hard core fan of Japanese animation in the mid and late 1990s. I was writing for one of the first websites to cover reviews of anime on DVD... hence the name It was a lot of fun, and I learned quite a bit about review writing, fandom and even a bit of Japanese culture. This side job even landed me a ghost writing gig for an actual book about Animation on DVD.

This era has a lot of great anime related memories for me. Especially the excitement of seeing a trailer for new anime coming to a DVD (or VHS, which was still a viable alternative at the time). Companies approached trailers in a myriad of ways. But the one that always stuck out in my mind was the "Do it Now" trailers from ADV (or A.D. Vision).

The logo on more than half of my anime DVDs
from back in the day.
At the time ADV was kind of the scrappy new kid in the anime releasing biz. Companies like Animeigo, Manga, Pioneer and Central Park Media had been around since the 80s. But ADV arrived in the early 90s with a few solid shows (including one of my personal favorites Gunsmith Cats). But when they got the rights to the ultra popular Neon Genesis Evangelion they shot up to the top of the business.

They also had some great trailers cut together by a gent who posted on the anime forums under the name Dan the Man. Most of these used oh so 90s techno tracks, quick music video editing and showed you just enough to get you excited about an upcoming release. It worked so well that most of us picked up a movie or series based on the trailer alone, only to realize that Dan the Man made the show look much better than it really was.

On VHS nearly all the trailers on an ADV tape ended with the "Do It Now" trailer montage. Dan would use a particular techno piece, the eponymous Do It Now, and cut a whole bunch of different series and movies together, flashing the name on screen before a series of images exploded into view. These trailers got all us anime fans pumped up for more anime and the feature presentation. Most of the "Do It Now" trailers ended with Neon Genesis Evangelion, because ADV was proud of their flagship title. Talk to most anime fans who were around in the era and all you have to do is mention "Do It Now" and you'll get a "Hoo-uh" followed right after it. Check out the trailer below at around the 40 second mark to see what I mean.

And yes I had to pick the one that featured Gunsmith Cats. Any time you get to see Rally blowing away bad guys, it is a good thing. Do you have any favorite movie trailers? Do you find yourself nostalgic about commercials?

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

And Then This Happened...Dune

You know when you invite Sting to the party things are going to get interesting. And if David Lynch is directing, then it is going to get surreal. Caption this!

And then this happened...

Sting will cut anyone who doesn't click an ad before they go. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Favorite Scenes - Castle in the Sky - Postcredit Sequence

The film opens with a pre credit sequence with Sheeta in an airship, obviously being escorted against her will by the urbane Muska. The airship comes under attack by Dola and her pirates. Musk and his men attempt to defend their position, but will the battle rages Sheeta escapes by climbing out the window of the airship. Muska's men try to stop her but instead she panics and falls plummeting into the clouds below and fainting along the way. Then the credits begin...

The credits end showing Sheeta in her homeland before she is abducted by Muska (although we don't know that yet). What is great about the rest of this sequence is that it gives us a little taste of everything Castle in the Sky is about in the first few minutes.

We get this gorgeous shot of the night clouds and something falling between them bathed in moonlight.

Sheets falls unconscious and helpless.

Then her amulet explodes with a brilliant and mysterious light, brighter and more powerful than the moonlight.

The mysterious power slows her decent and causes her to float slowly in a prone position.

We see her small form contrasted to the huge clouds.

The angle switches again and we see her floating toward lights on the ground, a village of some kind.

The sequence then moves to introduce our other protagonist. We get a better view of Pazu's village.

We see that even at night the village is bustling with activity. It also enforces the setting beyond the airships we saw in the pre credit sequence. This time feels 1800s.

Suddenly we are inside one of the shops and bathed in warm light and warm colors (in sharp contrast to the cool blues and greys we saw as Sheeta fell).  Sheets was isolated and alone, but Pazu is part of a community.

Pazu is heading to work when he sees the glimmer of a falling star, but no, it is too bright to be a shooting star and it is floating so slowly.

Pazu realizes he can maybe catch the falling object if he runs, so he chases after this falling star. Notice how Pazu has left the warmth of his community and entered the cool darkness to meet Sheeta.

As he gets closer he realizes that this is not a star, but a person. He hurries even faster over the ruined landscape.

Sheeta is falling into an enormous crevasse. Pazu races around the edge of this dark pit. At first you wonder if he is on some kind of battle field. The ruins and pits seem to indicate that.

But the camera switches and we see that this is a huge mine! More of the industrial technology is visible and adds another layer to the setting. But the ruins we saw a few seconds ago hint at some kind of war or battle, and we learn later in the film that Goliath and the military rule this land with an iron grip.

Pazu is able to reach Sheeta as she floats down near a plank extending from a giant gear.

Pazu catches her floating form and seems a bit uncertain about what to do with this sleeping cute girl that just fell from the sky.

We see Sheeta as he does. Is she some kind of angel and why is her amulet glowing? She's so light!

And then the amulet stops glowing and Sheeta's full weight is revealed. We get this humorous moment where Pazu struggles to keep from tumbling into the mine. A bit of cartoon physics is employed to keep our heroes from plummeting.

Pazu manages to retain his balance and place Sheeta in a safer platform. He even puts his vest over her inert form to keep her warm.

He then rushes off into the mine to help his boss work the steam powered elevator.

This scene is a great examination in how to tell a little about your characters, introduce more of the world they inhabit and getting the mystery and adventure all started. The amazing thing is that there is very little speaking in this scene. Pazu wonders a few things to himself (and in the English dub he monologues quite a bit), but the mystery and wonder of this scene are really carried by Joe Hisaishi's score (I shared the music for this scene in my Anime Juke Box for Castle in the Sky

A scene like this seems so simple and easy, but we don't see too many movies (live action or animated) rely on such clear and yet descriptive visual storytelling. Miyazaki really knows how to get a movie started.

The ads aren't as visually impressive as this film, but click one any way.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Castle in the Sky (1986)


Two years after his massive post-apocalyptic science fiction adventure Nausicaaof the Valley of the Wind , director Hayao Miyazaki brought a different kind of adventure to the big screen. This turned out to be a unique film in many ways. It looks into Miyazaki’s past work and also gives us a glimpse of the future. In so many ways Castle in the Sky plays like a greatest hits of Miyazaki’s work, before he had even completed enough work to create a greatest hits. But a greatest hits film from one of the masters of animation means we have a pretty good movie to look at.


In a world very similar to ours during the industrial revolution a young man named Pazu (James Van Der Beek) is toiling away as an engineer’s apprentice. His job is to keep the mining machines in good order.  But his ordinary day is interrupted so he can catch a glowing girl who falls from the sky! Her name is Sheeta (Anna Paquin). She tells Pazu that she is being pursued by dangerous sky pirates lead by the notorious Dola (Cloris Leachman) and a sinister government agent Muska (Mark Hamill).

Pazu decides to help Sheeta evade both parties, and the two find themselves falling in an out of peril. They’ll delve into the depths of the mysterious mines, fly in soaring airships, do battle with pirates and even encounter a bizarre robot. This mechanical being is supposedly from the famed floating city of Laputa. And Sheeta may be the only person alive who is able to unlock the mystery of this legendary land. But is the secret of The Castle in the Sky a blessing or a curse?

Good Points:
  • An amazing world visualized in both production design and sweeping action
  • A powerful symphonic score by Joe Hisaishi
  • Maintains a fun action packed adventure feel through the whole film

Bad Points:
  • Can go from dramatic to incredibly goofy at the drop of a hat
  • The original score may contain too many 80s synths for some viewers
  • Tries to do too many things and ends up losing some of its impact


After the dark mythic saga of Nausicaa, Miyazaki went for something more fun and light. He creates a memorable steampunk world before steampunk was even a thing. Pazu and Sheeta are delightful characters you immediately care about. Their adventures and perils are entertaining and well realized. But the movie seems to shift from pure adventure to slapstick comedy a few too many times. There are so many elements in play that no one part ends up really sticking. As a result, I always enjoy watching the film, but it is one that I tend to forget about when I want to revisit a Miyazaki film.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review
Gulliver never had an adventure like this.
This is a strange movie for me. I know it has a lot of fans and some folks consider it one of the best in Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki’s filmography (something that can be said of nearly every movie in that filmography). Castle in the Sky is a movie that is filled with great ideas and is a lot of fun to watch, but lacks sticking power. As you can see from my ratings there is nothing particularly wrong with it. If this movie was presented by another studio it may be considered a classic. But when placed in the same group as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbor Totoro it ends up falling into the shadows.

I think I know why that might be, but before I delve into that, let’s take a look at the film in all its parts.

The little red engine that could.
Like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind before it, Castle in the Sky is a marvel of design and visual splendor. Miyazaki takes us to a world in the middle of their industrial revolution and pushes the concepts to some interesting places. The mining town Pazu lives in is inspired by coalmines in Wales. In fact much of costume design and settings in this film are based on a very European look. Miyazaki started this with Castle of Cagliostro and could continue using this visual approach up to Howl’s Moving Castle. The mining town is built in and around deep crags in the earth. There are plenty of steam-powered machines around, including a plucky little train that is used in one of the many chase scenes of the film.

The first portion of the film keeps us on the ground and then deep inside of the earth as Pazu and Sheeta escape into an abandoned mine. This underworld scene is filled unique visuals, including glowing rocks and enormous caverns. It reminds me of the world under the toxic forest in Nausicaa.

Dola's pirate ship has a beak!
But Castle in the Sky really takes off when we hit the skies. Muska and his government forces use enormous war dirigibles that wouldn’t be out of place in Nausicaa either. The sky pirates, commanded by the grouchy Dola, have unique insect and bird inspired vehicles they operate. Then you have the enormous and visually stunning flying island of Laputa itself.

While the name of the flying island comes from Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the design doesn’t look like it came from the age of reason. The technology we see at work in Laputa contrasts to the steam and gear powered machines used in the rest of the film. Laputa is a world powered by nature and by some kind of unique energy source found in the mysterious stones that Sheeta can activate. Is this some kind of biological connection to the earth that the people of Laputa were able to wield? It is never explained. Visually it makes for such a difference: clean and vibrant compared to the coal and smoke we see earlier.

The airship Goliath searches for trouble.
Once again Miyazaki’s fascination with flight is on full display. He uses many of the visual styles and techniques for the thrilling dogfights in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and expands on them. Castle in the Sky is filled to bursting with intense aerial action. All of it looks great and is so impressive for hand drawn animation from 1986.

Equally impressive are the chase scenes in the first portion of the film. Many of these remind me strongly of his fun car chase scene that opens Castleof Cagliostro. There is a mix of intense speed, cartoon physics and surprising maneuvers that keep everything light and frothy, but also keep the momentum moving.

Sheets and Pazu take a quick break from the various
That is one of the keys to Castle in the Sky. The movie moves at a brisk pace, jumping from one adventure and set piece to the next. There are few moments where things slow down, such as when Sheeta is captured by Muska, or when Pazu and Sheeta explore Laputa for the first time. Miyazaki is known for a leisurely pace in most of his films. With this movie falling into the action adventure category he makes sure something exciting is always happening or about to happen.

When it comes to sound effects, this film does a solid job. Most of what you hear is real world sound. It helps ground the viewer and gives weight to the film. In fact many of the machines in the movie feel more realistic because of the sound design for them. The only place where we get unusual sound is for Laputa and its unique technology.

The wonders of the underground cavern are revealed.
In 1986 Studio Ghibil wasn’t yet the powerhouse of animation that it would become after the release of My Neighbor Totoro. As such they didn’t have the budget for a full symphonic score. Miyazaki turned to his collaborator for Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, Joe Hisaishi to bring Castle in the Sky to life. But with a tight budget he had to rely heavily on synths. In most cases this wouldn’t be a problem, but with a film so rooted visually in late 1800s it feels natural to have something a bit more orchestral.

Is the robot an enemy or a protector?
In a way it doesn’t really matter. Hisaishi crafted some wonderful music for Castle in the Sky. His main theme for the film is one of his most beautiful pieces, and he uses it throughout the film, adding a feeling of wonder to many key scenes. The postcredit scene would not be as impactful without this theme and this performance. When Disney obtained the rights to release Castle in the Sky with a new dub, they brought in Hisaishi to rework the score with a full orchestra and add an additional 50 minutes of music. They wanted to give this film a theatrical release after they released Princess Mononke in theaters in 1997. They felt a symphonic score would add to the grandeur of the film.  I have to say in many ways they were right. For the most part the new score backs the action really well. There are a few moments where the score seems to be a bit too much. But Hisashi is a lot like James Horner, he always goes for the emotion, and he usually goes big. On DVD you can hear the original synth score if you watch with the Japanese dub, and hear the symphonic if you watch the English Dub.

Muska's greed endangers everyone on Laputa.
Speaking of the dub, well it is a bit controversial. As I mentioned the movie moves pretty quickly and you may find it difficult to keep up with the subtitles. But if you pick the English dub you’ll notice right away that Pazu and Sheeta sound a bit older than the characters look. Disney opted to have them dubbed as pre-teens, and in Japanese they are obviously children. In addition, the English dub has a lot of the background characters providing a lot of additional chatter (especially during the sky pirate scenes). Some of it is pretty amusing, but the result is a noisy dub (something that Kiki’s Delivery Service also suffers from). Disney eventually stopped trying to overcook the English dubs. Honestly I’m not sure this a deal breaker to anyone but anime fans. It is a solid dub, and Mark Hamill provides an excellent performance as the dastardly Muska. Plus you get the gorgeous symphonic score with the English dub.

That said, a well informed reader, Jon, informed me that Disney made some changes to later releases of Castle in the Sky on DVD. The first DVD release (from 2004) contains both the original Japanese and English dub as it was first released (with the symphonic score). The 2010 Region 1 release drops the symphonic score and cuts a lot of the added chatter to bring the dub script closer to the Japanese. But other regions retain the symphonic score but contain the de-chattered dub. The Disney Blu-ray is also missing the symphonic score. So if you want to see the film with that version of the score, you might want to seek out the 2004 DVD release.

Sheets and Pazu discover another puzzle on the
castle in the sky.
Castle in the Sky was the first official film from Studio Ghibli. As such Miyazaki needed this to be a success so he could continue his path to creating a major animation studio. His approach was to craft an adventure film the whole family could enjoy. Nausicaa was a visually impressive film with overtones of darkness and a heavy mythological and ecological message. Miyazaki wanted to keep things more fun and light, but still include an ecological theme to the movie (something that appears in nearly all of his movies in some form). In addition, he also wanted to comment on human desire to advance technology no matter the cost.

The final result is a script that has a great adventure at its heart, and one that carries the film forward with great skill. But it has too many underlying themes that end up fighting for attention and a place in the final product. This makes the movie vary in tone. One minute we are goofing around with sky pirates and cracking silly jokes. The next we are talking about civilization destroying weapons and subjugating nature.

The power Sheeta channels is what Muska wants
Muska is a real nasty character, one that will threaten innocent people and children to get what he wants. Castle of Cagliostro had a similar issue, but I think it worked better because the main characters were all rogues and most of them were adults. The danger and the cartoon humor was odd, but it didn’t’ seem wrong. But when you put children in real danger all the cartoon slapstick feels out of place to me. This kind of wild tone shift would be toned down in future films. But I think that Castle in the Sky could have used a tighter script. As amazing as the visuals are, they end up being the part of the film I always remember most, and story just kind of slips away.

Is destruction the only solution to the power within
What struck me during this viewing was how much of this film would create seeds that would spring up into full bloom in later Miyazaki films. The theme of humankind’s use and abuse of nature would be a key focus of Princess Mononoke. The amazing airship battles and rollicking fisticuffs would return in Porco Russo. Sheeta looks like a prototype for Kiki of Kiki’s Deliver Service. Elements of Laputa and the airships would appear in Howl’s Moving Castle. The giant tree in Laputa could be related to the giant tree in My Neighbor Totoro. Dola looks like she could related to Yubaba from Spirited Away. The crazy train chase could be a prototype for the crazy drive up the island in Ponyo. I already pointed out how many elements of the film seem to drift over from Castle of Cagliostro and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. In a lot of ways, this is the ultimate grab bag of Miyazaki visual style.

Sheets and Pazu escape by skydiving! Is Coleman
Francis directing this scene?
Maybe it is because he put so many interesting ideas into one movie that Castle in the Sky feels fun but never really gels together. Going forward I feel Miyazaki would channel his creativity into a much narrower focus. He’d craft a solid story, with only a couple of underlining themes. He’d ensure that the visuals support the story instead of crafting set pieces to build a story around (which is what this feels like sometimes). The result of this focus would come in his next film, the one that turned Studio Ghibli into one of the most popular animation studios in Japan and the one that really made Miyazaki a household name in Japan: My Neighbor Totoro.

Pazu may just be a kid, but he is a hell of a

Pazu offers his help to young Kiki... I mean Sheeta.

Dola and her goofy pirates prepare for revenge!

Muska tries to use gifts and courteous words to get
Sheets to help him find and claim Laputa.

But his intentions are far from pure. He is after power
and this robot hints at plenty.

Sheets is always ready to roll up her sleeves and get
to work.

Sheets and Pazu discuss the possibilities that
Laputa offers.

There is a very good reason this doorway looks like
a coffin.
Pazu and Sheeta fly off into a new adventure!
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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Anime Juke Box - The Girl Who Fell from the Sky - Castle in the Sky

For the second collaboration between legendary director Hayao Miyazaki and composer Joe Hisaishi we were treated to Castle in the Sky. There are actually two versions of this score. The first was the 1986 version that included quite a bit of 80s synthesizers. Anyone familiar with Hisaishi's work on Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind has an idea of what that sounds like. 

In 2000, Joe Hisaishi was contracted by Disney (who had struck a deal with Miyazaki for distribution rights in North America) to write a full symphonic score and expand it to roughly 90 minutes. The original synth score was about 40 minutes.

Being a fan of full symphonic scores, I tend to prefer Hisaishi's revisit. It has some gorgeous moments, and one of them is the opening sequence. Here is the track containing the main theme and one of it's best representations, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. Enjoy!

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