Thursday, May 31, 2012

Castle in the Sky

Original Title Tenkū no Shiro Rapyut:  (Laputa: Castle in the Sky)

Starring the voice talents of James Van Der Beek, Anna Paquin, Mark Hamill, Cloris Leachman, Jim Cummings, and Mandy Patinkin

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Release Date(s):

Japan.....August 2nd, 1986
US.......... 1998 (Disney)

One day, a young man named Pazu sees a young girl fall out of the sky. Soon, he gets to know Sheeta, and the two of them discover they are connected to a legendary kingdom known as Laputa, a grand location many doubt truly exists. Pazu and Sheeta find that they are not the only ones looking for Laputa; others such as Captain Dola and her unruly songs, ruthless government agent Colonel Muska and the army are after the secrets hidden in the sky. What awaits our young heroes: fame, glory, or danger?

If you are a fan of animation, the names of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki should be very familiar to you. If this is your first exposure to those names, you may have picked one of the best films in Ghibli's libraries for new audiences. Castle in the Sky is a rousing action adventure film that has likable protagonists, sweeping visuals, and a fairly standard plot. You may be asking yourself: "Why would an average plot be a good thing?" Well, because normally Studio Ghibli films have plots that, while adhering to traditional storytelling devices, don't normally have such solid stances on where each characters' loyalties lie. Sure, Dola starts out as an antagonist chasing after Pazu and Sheeta in act one, but you never truly doubt that she's a crusty motherly figure with a good heart, or that Muska is a deceitful bad guy who's after more than he says. Still, this allows for the audiences to root for the good guys and not worry about more than "we're after a floating castle" in terms of the plot.

That said, there are a lot of great pros for the film, such as the great action sequences, the goofy humor, and the English voice cast. First, I have to say that many of the action set pieces in the film are fluid, fun and very memorable. As the majority of the film takes place in the air (Miyazaki is a huge fan of aviation), there are a couple of great moments with flight such as the DOLA gang fighting the military in insect-like air-bikes or Sheeta and Pazu in a struggling whirlwind in tiny glider. Next, the humor is great for children and adults; for instance, there's a memorable sequence shared between Pazu's boss and one of Dola's sons on who is manlier which involves exploding their shirts by FLEXING THEIR MUSCLES. Last, the Disney English dub is pretty good, with a few exceptions. I liked James Van Der Beek as Pazu (he gives the character a likability while also expressing a need to prove himself), Mark Hamill as Colonel Muska (come on, it's Mark Hamill as a villian....he's just awesome) and Cloris Leachman as Dola (she's cranky,  feisty, but can also be fierce, confident, and a dependable person). The only voice actors that don't work for me are Anna Paquin as Sheeta and Andy Dick as Henri, another of Dola's sons. Paquin is fine for the most part, but she keeps slipping between using an normal speaking voice and a strange European accent at times; it's just off-putting and does take you out of  the movie at times. Andy Dick.....he's just dull. He's playing himself and doesn't really do anything to make the character his own.

Final Thoughts: A great animated film by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki. FULL RECOMMENDATION.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty

Starring the voice talents of:

Saoirse Ronan................. Arrietty
Tom Holland....................Shō
Olivia Colman....................Homily
Phyllida Law..................... Sadako Maki 
Luke Allen-Gale................ Spiller
Mark Strong...................... Pod 
Geraldine McEwan............. Haru 

(US Version)
Bridgit Mendler.................Arrietty
David Henrie        .............Shō
Amy Poehler   .................. Homily
Gracie Poletti     ............... Sadako Maki 
Moises Arias     ................ Spiller
Will Arnett      .................. Pod 
Carol Burnett        ............ Haru

Directed by  Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Release Dates:

Japan                              July 17, 2010
United Kingdom              July 29, 2011
United States                   February 17, 2012

Note: I saw the UK version, which has Mark Strong, Saoirse Ronan and Tom Holland in the voice cast.

Adapted from Mary Norton's Novel "The Borrowers" from the illustrious Hayao Miyazaki, The Secret World of Arrietty looks at a fantastically microscopic view beneath our very feet.

In the country, Shō is a young boy awaiting heart surgery at her mother's childhood home.  Shō  has always been very weak, never having friends to play with due to his poor health. But one day, he spies something out of the corner of his eye: a little girl no bigger than a doll. Her name is Arrietty.

As is standard with Studio Ghibli films, the animation is absolutely stunning. There are many gorgeous details put into the flora and fauna in the yard, such as when Shō sits in the field in the afternoon or seen in the immaculate detail of water droplets during a rainy day. also, since much of the film takes place from the point of view of a 'borrower', there is a great deal of scale when looking at objects both big and small. One of my favorite moments is when looking at the objects in Arrietty's home, such as how her family uses stamps for pictures or how her father uses double sided tape to walk up a dresser. So yes, from a visual standpoint the film is absolutely stunning.

Unfortunately, the film does suffer from two major problems: a slow pace and character development. First, the film does have a slow pace which may detract many but will also bore children due to their being many scenes of pretty visuals like the dollhouse but nothing visually exciting like other Ghibli films. Second, due to this pacing and emphasis of visuals, there is little attention to character interaction. That is to say, you want to see more of the characters interacting, growing, doing more than is seen on the screen. For example, there is a fourth borrower introduced in the second act; his name is Spiller and is more of an outdoor borrower, someone who lives in the yard and is seen as a hunter. Then....he disappears until the last 10 minutes.

Final thoughts: The Secret World of Arrietty is a visually enjoyable movie with good characters and first-time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi does a good job with this movie. Still, the movie is a bit slow and doesn't offer as much character development as one would hope. Still, for fans of Studio Ghibli and animation, it gets a full recommendation.

Rating: 3.5 of 5

Sunday, May 6, 2012


The Avengers

Release Date: May 4, 2012 (US)

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Clark Gregg, and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury

Co-Written and Directed by Joss Whedon

This was a huge gamble. In 2008, Marvel Comics created their own in-house movie studio so that they could have different characters show up in another’s movie, such as Tony Stark appearing in The Incredible Hulk or Hawkeye making a cameo in Thor. What was the purpose of these appearances? To eventually get to a team-based movie, where Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk, Thor: God of Thunder, Clint “Hawkeye” Barton, and Natasha “Black Widow” Romanov come together to form THE AVENGERS.

If you’re wondering, I will review the other Marvel Studios films next; but in the mean-time, let’s talk about The Avengers.

When I first saw the post-credits scene in Iron Man where Nick Fury (Jackson) mentions the “Avengers Initiative”, I was both excited and nervous.   I was excited because as a comic fan, I knew that it would be a huge action movie with several of my favorite characters that may happen one day. I was nervous because having a team-based movie doesn’t always mean each character will get “their moment of glory”: then came Joss Whedon.

For those who aren’t familiar with Joss Whedon, he is the creator of the hit cult TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse. He is also responsible for directing Serenity and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Whedon is also a comic book writer who has written Astonishing X-Men, Runaways, Buffy: Season 8, and Serenity. Whedon is well known for his snappy dialogue, quirky humor, and great use of both action and comedy to form great stories. For example, many of his shows revolve around multiple characters who all have a unique voice and do not overshadow one another.  In short, he was the right man to write and direct a movie where several big name comic characters come together for one team.

The Cast: Returning from their own individual movies, we have Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America, Chris Hemsworth as Thor Odiinson, and Tom Hiddleston as the villainous Loki. There were also several supporting characters who showed up in those films, now seen as SHIELD agents willing to back up our heroes: Jeremy Renner as Clint “Hawkeye” Barton, Scarlett Johansson as Natasha “Black Widow” Romanov, Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson, and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Head of Shield. Finally, we have a cast change: Dr. Bruce Banner, who was first played by Edward Norton in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, is now played by Mark Ruffalo.  So, what do I think of their portrayals as seen in The Avengers?

Not only did Whedon know how to balance each character, but made sure that every character was developed and worked well as a team. I also think that Whedon knew how to use his trademark snarky humor in small doses, such as when Iron Man calls Thor “Point Break” or when Bruce Banner dryly jokes how badly an idea it is to put him in an enclosed area in the sky. The cast works great together, particularly Downey and Ruffalo; the two of them bounce well off each other and have a lot of good jokes about Banners’ “other guy”. So yes, I like Mark Ruffalo's portrayal as Bruce Banner; it fits well in this movie, and does have a really sweet development in his relationship with the Hulk. Then, Hiddleston is slimy and cruel as Loki, making him into a better villain than  he was in Thor.

A lot of people will say ‘oh, this was my favorite scene’, but I won’t do that in fear of spoilers. I will say, however, that this film is MADE of great moments, such as epic fight scenes and character developing moments, and exposition from previous films that never feels forced or clunky.  The fights in this movie are glorious; Whedon knows how to make these characters look like Titans battling to the death, making each and fight look momentous, even before the final battle in New York.

The only thing I didn’t like: Captain America’s new battle outfit.  If you didn’t see Captain America: The First Avenger, go watch that and look and how amazing Cap’s wartime outfit looks. In that movie, the red-and-blues look like combat fatigues fit for a soldier on the battlefield.  In The Avengers, it looks too thin, too cheesy looking. If you wanted a more “comic accurate” Captain America costume, I suppose you get what you wanted. But for me, I was hoping for the WWII costume to return.

When I walked out of the movie, I truly believed this was one of the best blockbuster movies I’ve seen in the last 5 years. Simply amazing.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars 

Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2
Captain America: The First Avenger