Category Archives: Film

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm Blu Ray

Batman-Mask-of-the-Phantasm-Blu-rayI’ve written about Batman: Mask of the Phantasm on more than one occasion, often in glowing terms. I dubbed it the definitive take on the Batman character for film and ranked it pretty highly on my list of best Batman movies of all time. In addition to that, I did a straight-up review of the film as well. Most of these articles are old by the standards of this blog, but all of those write-ups were based on the DVD release of the film. It’s taken Warner years to finally put this film on Blu Ray, but it’s finally here and I’m going to tell you about it.

Now since I’ve already done an actual review of the film, I’m not going to go into much detail though I did re-read my review and I have some embellishments I can make in order to pad this post out. The Blu Ray itself is what is important for this post. Mask of the Phantasm is a film I always felt would benefit from a high-definition transfer because of all of the deep blacks, particularly in the backgrounds. The DVD release was an old one and not particularly good by the standards of DVD. It was re-released in multi-packs with the direct-to-video Batman films based on the animated series and I don’t know if any of those were handled better than the version I have. As far as the transfer goes, the Mask of the Phantasm Blu Ray is a mixed bag. My assumption the blacks would benefit was spot-on. Not only are they rich, but the deep blue of Batman’s cape looks great as well and the animation is nice and fluid. Sadly, there’s some blurring that takes place, particularly early in the film. I’m not sure if it persisted throughout at times and I just became engrossed in the plot or if it was confined to the beginning of the picture. Either way, it’s disappointing the transfer isn’t better.

The other disappointing aspect of the release is the complete lack of special features. The DVD did the same as both only include a standard definition version of the trailer for the film and nothing else. I find it hard to believe the likes of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm weren’t interested in doing something for this release, be it a commentary or a short piece on the making of the film. The subpar transfer and lack of special features really makes it feel like Warner cared little about the integrity of this release, which is a shame because it’s a film deserving of more respect.

Batman_Mask_Phantasm_Blu-ray_review_menu

What you see is what you get.

And what a film it is! In re-watching it for this write-up I’m just reminded of how well it gets the Batman character. Seeing Bruce’s early years as a vigilante really drives home the tragedy of the Batman character. And I don’t mean the sad origin of Batman, but in how Bruce has given up any chance at a healthy life by committing to being Batman. He’s fighting an un-winnable battle to rid Gotham of crime and foregoing marriage, children, and the simple pleasures of life. He’s unquestionably doing good in the community and helping people, but it’s probably not a fulfilling lifestyle.

batmanmask3

The Joker could have felt tacked-on to give the film a recognizable villain, but his inclusion pays off

The other aspect of this film that really merits praise, because it feels overlooked in light of The Dark Knight, is its depiction of The Joker. The Joker of the cartoon series is somewhat of a cornball. There’s some danger to the character, but standards and practices kind of holds him back. He’s overshadowed by the likes of Mr. Freeze and Two-Face as far as memorable villains go. Instead he’s kind of the old reliable stand-by for Batman as decades of Joker material from the comics means it’s relatively easy to come up with a decent episode. Here we get The Joker that the animated series probably wanted to give us, but couldn’t. He’s still a nut, but so much more menacing. There’s a real tension in his scenes because he feels unpredictable. Is he going to aid a character? Kill him? What’s his endgame? It’s a shame he doesn’t share screen time with a character we as an audience are invested in, instead he’s paired with scum and we don’t mind if Joker opts to murder them. And what more can be said of Mark Hamill’s performance as The Joker? He’ll always be my favorite.

What we have here is a mixed bag, a great film undermined by a mediocre release. Even so, the Blu Ray is an easy recommend for those who do not have the film already, especially if you’re into Batman and you’ve never seen it. It may be a brief experience, but it’s worthwhile. For those like me who already had the DVD, it’s a tougher sell. This strikes me as a release that will be discounted to the ten dollar bin by this time next year, so maybe waiting on it is the right move if you’re not eager to re-watch. If you’re perfectly happy with the DVD then sure, feel free to pass on this one. I don’t feel burned by it, but I do feel like at 19.99 it’s probably five bucks too expensive. Next year is the film’s 25th anniversary so perhaps there’s an outside shot of Warner doing a more robust release, but I kind of doubt it. This is probably all we’ll get with maybe a future two-pack coming along with an HD transfer of Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero, but I doubt that would feature any additional content aside from the films themselves.


Neca 1/4 Scale TMNT Movie Leonardo

IMG_1387NECA is now 3/4 of the way through the release schedule of their TMNT 1990 movie line with the release of Leonardo – the REAL leader of the group. And like Donatello and Raphael before him, he’s a pretty impressive specimen.

The original 1990 movie impossibly never had dedicated action figures. Playmates half-assed a line in recent years that didn’t seem like it committed to being a representation of either of the first two films and tried to have it both way, similar to how their own “classic” turtles were an amalgamation of the original cartoon and toy line. These giant figures from NECA have done an admirable job of filling that void, and while I do wish they came in a friendlier scale, I can’t deny how awesome these 16″ behemoths look.

Leonardo has all of the same articulation as his two brothers and that’s primarily because he’s essentially the same figure with a different head and belt. Of the three I have thus far received, I found Leo to be the easiest to pose right out of the box as his joints were pretty nimble and I never felt like I was in danger of breaking anything. His ab crunch however, hidden underneath the shell, is a little loose compared with Raph and similar to my Donatello. This means he has a tendency to pitch forward slightly and it’s hard to get his head to look straight out in front of him. The rest of his joints are tight and accommodating and the paint applications are flawless on my turtle. His belt is film accurate featuring two thing strips of leather crossing his chest from his right shoulder. I have no idea if the sheaths on the back of his shell are film accurate since you never really get a good look at them onscreen, but they look fine to me.

Leonardo naturally comes equipped with his twin katana. They’re very light which kind of surprised me and I do worry some about their durability. Currently, I’m a little scared that he’s going to fall off of my shelf and snap his blades, but hopefully that does not happen. They look pretty accurate to the film, and even have the octagonal hand guards and taped hilts. The film makes them seem a bit more dingy and worn, but that could just as easily have more to do with the lighting of the picture than anything. I can’t deny they look good, and their length seems spot on. Leonardo also comes with the same set of extra hands as Raphael. I’m a little disappointed that his pointing hand isn’t the reverse of Raph’s. He also comes with the same slice of pizza as the other two, but surprisingly he also comes with a canister of that famous ooze. Unlike the canister that came with Donatello, this one does not feature the crack from which the ooze leaked out and thereby justifying its existence. This means Leonardo comes with more accessories than brothers, though not by much. I would have preferred extra pizza to complete a pie, but oh well. Maybe Mikey will comes with that, though I doubt it since his weapons are probably the most costly to produce.

Aside from that, there isn’t much more to say since he’s fundamentally the same figure as the other two I’ve already reviewed. The only real downside to that is Leo should be a little taller than his brothers, and Mikey should be noticeably shorter (we’ll see how that turns out later), but it’s not egregious. The head sculpt looks fantastic and captures that grim seriousness embodied by the character in the film. The likeness is flawless, and I’m really glad to have this version of my favorite turtle upon my shelf. I very much look forward to completing this set when Michelangelo ships later this summer.


NECA 1/4 Scale TMNT Movie Raphael

1200x-Raph9-It took awhile, but I finally have my hands on the second turtle from NECA’s 1/4 scale series of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles based on the original film. Raphael was released back in February, but I left the preordering of this series to my wife who saw them as gifts for basically the coming year for me. My wife, bless her, is not someone who normally orders such things and she ordered from a site I had never heard of that ended up not getting Raph in when they were supposed to, so what was originally planned as a Valentine’s Day present turned into a June birthday gift. Fear not though, I have since clued her in to better vendors so my actual birthday present (Leonardo) should be arriving soon, as I know you are all waiting with bated breath for my reviews.

If you read my review for Donatello way back in January, then you should already be pretty familiar with Raph. Structurally, he’s essentially the same figure as Don as both make use of the same parts. This is both good and bad as it means the things that are great about Don are shared by Raph, and the not so great things are as well. That’s sort of the “curse” of being a TMNT collector as you basically buy the same figure four times, but it’s hard to argue against the practicality of the release.

 

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way before getting to the good. This is a big figure, being 1/4 scale, so he’s also pretty heavy. Being heavy means he needs tough joints or else his arms and legs would be too flimsy for posing. This also means some of the joints are really hard to work, and the cumbersome nature of a turtle shell doesn’t make things any easier. My Raph has a particularly troublesome left shoulder that’s hard to get the socket to work right so that he can lift his arm. There’s definitely some “breaking-in” required for these figures, but since they’ll end up running you over $100, there’s a reluctance to work the joints too hard out of fear of breaking them. While Raph possesses an abundance of articulation, it’s not the most functional articulation out there and the pictures you see in this post are essentially the only poses I was comfortable creating.

IMG_1368

Hey, brother!

These figures are also somewhat minimalist when it comes to included accessories. Raph, by virtue of having two weapons, actually has one more accessory than his brother Don. Don came with five extra hands, a canister of ooze, and a slice of pizza in addition to his bo staff. Raph comes with six extra hands and a slice of pizza to go with his twin sai. Strangely, one set of extra hands is identical to his stock hands so I guess you can break and/or lose a set before you’ll be missing anything. Raph has one unique hand gesture compared with Don, a finger-pointing left hand that can be used to hold his sai in a unique way or use as a gesture. He famously gestures to his holstered sai when confronting a pair of muggers in the film, though sadly his range of motion can’t quite recreate that one. This is consistent with Don who has a thumb’s up hand gesture that Raph does not. The slice of pizza included with Raph is the same as the one Don came with, right down to the placement of the black olives. Laying them side by side, it looks like we’ll need four additional pieces to make a complete pizza so I wonder if Mikey will come with some extra slices when he’s released this fall. The missing accessory here is obviously Raph’s trench coat, hat, and backpack he sports in the film when he heads out to a movie. I can understand why NECA didn’t include such as it would probably be a substantial cost addition, but that doesn’t mean I don’t miss it.

 

Raph primarily differentiates himself from Don with his head sculpt. One my favorite aspects of the original film is how the costume designers, the without peer Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, made sure each turtle looked unique. It was really the first time you could tell the turtles apart without their weapons or colored masks, even though they never remove their masks in the film. NECA did a great job with Don, and maybe a better job with Raph. His facial expression perfectly captures his beady eyes and that tough, but sympathetic, aspect of his character. A more serious expression works better for Raph than it did the more jokey Donatello, so it was probably easy for NECA to settle on a facial expression than it was Don. The “tails” on Raph’s mask are also of the same cloth-like material used for Don’s. The color matching between the tails and sculpted plastic of the mask is well done and it’s a nice, authentic, shade of red. The material adds a little personality to the ends of the mask that sculpted plastic can’t replicate. As I mentioned before, aside from the head sculpt the body is basically the same as Don’s. The freckles are different, and I don’t know if they’re just randomized for each turtle or if they match to the actual costumes in the film. Raph’s shell also sports significantly more ware and tear than Don’s, implying he’s probably been in more fights than his brother which certainly fits with his character. The musculature of his limbs is the same though, with an added vein here and there. His belt rides lower, as it did in the film, and the sai fit off to the side just fine, though I find angling them in the same manner as they are on the back of his box a little tricky. And that box, which resembles the original movie poster and VHS release of the film, is a nice way to display the figure for those who do not like to open their toys. I also love how the NECA logo on the rear of the box resembles the old f.h.e. logo of the home video release of the old cartoon.

 

NECA’s Raphael is every bit as good as Donatello which came first and which figure is better is probably determined by personal preference for the characters. Raphael was basically the star of the first film, and it’s great to see him brought to life like this. The 1/4 scale may not be for everyone (he stands over 16″ tall), but it’s hard to deny the level of detail the format allows. Licensing agreements with Nickelodeon and Playmates, who has held the main TMNT toy license since the cartoon was launched, prevent NECA from doing what they want with the license, but it’s clear the company has a love for the franchise. The price, which basically starts at $99.99 but is sometimes priced higher by other merchants, is also steep, but at least the release of each turtle has been spread out to help minimize the impact of such an expensive purchase. The figures are impractical, but if you loved the original film as much as I did, then you can probably talk yourself into collecting this line.


The Chronological Donald Volume 3

donaldv3-covIn 1949 a little short was released called “Donald’s Happy Birthday.” The short starred Donald Duck, naturally, and depicted his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Luey trying to find a birthday present for their beloved uncle. They settle on a box of cigars, but needing some cash to actually buy it, decide to do some yard work for their uncle. Donald is handed an invoice of $2.98, the cost of the cigars, and deeming it a fair price for all of the yard work they did he happily pays out. Unfortunately for the young ones, he also makes them deposit their earnings in their piggy back. The rest of the cartoon follows the nephews as they try to get their hands on the piggy bank, eventually outwitting their uncle and doing so, only to be caught with the cigars after the fact. Donald, thinking they purchased these for themselves, decides to teach them a lesson and makes the boys smoke the entire box of cigars only to discover a birthday card at the bottom of the box. Realizing his mistake, Donald is embarrassed and cartoonishly shrinks on screen to the size of a bug and slips out of the boys’ treehouse.

13

Donald’s punishment of his nephews lands this cartoon in the dreaded “Vault.”

This cartoon depicts Donald Duck’s birthday as March 13th, most likely because someone found that to be a fittingly unlucky number for Donald’s birthday to fall on. In actuality, Disney recognizes Donald’s birthday as today, June 9th, and dates him back to 1934 when he debuted in the Silly Symphonies short “The Wise Little Hen.” This cartoon, and many others, can be found on the Walt Disney Treasures release The Chronological Donald Volume Three, and what better time than now to revisit this set and give you a rundown of its contents!

Now, I realize I’ve done an entry on Volume One of this series, but not Two, so I’m skipping to Volume Three on account of Donald’s birthday, but I do intend to (eventually) make an entry on all four volumes. In truth, Volume Three is probably the best of the four, though it’s really close between this one and Volume Two. Volume One is just a step behind, and Volume Four is light on classic content as it was essentially a leftovers release. More on those another time. Volume Three though is noteworthy because it contains a lot of Donald’s classic foils, and marks the debut of his decades long rivalry with Chip and Dale.

Chip_an'_Dale_1947_2

Early appearances of Dale had him with a black nose like Chip, it would soon be changed to red to differentiate the two.

Chip and Dale (or more commonly expressed as Chip ‘n’ Dale) debuted in the Pluto short “Private Pluto.” In that, they were nameless and basically indistinguishable from each other, but they still did a bang-up job on old Pluto. Their official first appearance is in the Donald short contained on this set, simply titled “Chip an’ Dale.” In a setup that will be repeated numerous times, Donald chops down a tree that also happens to be the home for the little chipmunks. They follow him home to a rustic cabin where they proceed to make life difficult for the duck basically destroying his cabin in the process. For the most part, Donald’s encounters with Chip and Dale start off the same with him wronging them either inadvertently or intentionally, and then when presented with an opportunity to do right by them, he decides to mock them leading to a whole host of shenanigans that result in Chip and Dale getting the better of Donald. “Crazy Over Daisy” is unique though in that Chip and Dale essentially pick a fight with Donald by teasing him over his appearance as he heads off to woo Daisy. Even though the duo is in the wrong in this one, they still come out on top because they’re Chip and Dale. His battles with the duo are classic, and there isn’t a bad Donald Duck short that contains the two. Not all of his match-ups with Chip and Dale are captured on Volume Three as several carry over to Volume Four, but some of the best are, including a personal favorite of mine, “Toy Tinkers,” which I’ve written about before.

donald1

Donald and Spike.

Donald has more foils than just the chipmunks though, and this set contains some other entertaining ones that have been lost to time. The animators knew him as Spike, but it seems he is more often referred to as Buzz Buss these days, but either way he’s a little bee character who runs into Donald more than once. Often he’s either guarding or collecting honey to store for himself or other bees and Donald decides he needs to get his hands on it. A version of the character debuts in “Window Cleaners” from volume one, but his established look is first debuted in “Inferior Decorator” from this set. In it, he mistakes Donald’s wallpaper and its floral pattern for actual flowers and can’t understand why he isn’t able to draw pollen from them. When Donald mocks him, he decides to get revenge. He’s also featured in “Honey Harvester,” “Slide, Donald, Slide” and “Bee at the Beach.” The latter of which is in the “Vault” section of this release, though I haven’t been able to figure out why.

4

Donald’s forgotten adversary, Bootle Beetle.

An even lesser known adversary of Donald Duck also debuts in these shorts and that’s Bootle Beetle. To my knowledge, the character is never referenced any longer (I’ve at least seen Spike show up on The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse program). He resembles Jiminy Cricket, and like Spike, he usually clashes with Donald when Donald invades his habitat. He debuts in the short that bares his name and repeats in a few others. Interestingly, in the short “Sea Salts” he and Donald are shown as old folks reflecting on how they used to clash and ultimately became friends seeming to suggest this was to be a timeless rivalry. It wasn’t, though that’s not due to any fault with the shorts. Like the other characters, Bootle Beetle is a fun one to follow because of his diminutive size which allows the animators to have fun with the setting. The character also appeared in a non-Donald short called “Morris the Midget Moose” and in Disney comics as a friend of Bucky Bug’s.

Other characters are also featured such as Daisy and more from Donald’s nephews. There’s also a lion character that Donald has been known to tangle with from time to time. Other humorous sequences that didn’t need any additional star power include “The Trial of Donald Duck” where Donald gets stuck with a huge tab at a restaurant and is taken to court over it. Goofy appears in “Crazy With the Heat” in which the pair find themselves stranded in the desert. Goofy was fair game to include in Donald shorts, as was Pluto, but don’t expect to see Mickey. Probably the best short on the set is “Donald’s Dilemma” which features Daisy prominently as she recounts her own dilemma to a psychiatrist. In it, Donald is knocked on the head and loses his memory but gains the a singing voice reminiscent of Frank Sinatra and Daisy isn’t sure which Donald she likes more. And did I mention “Toy Tinkers” is on this set?!

donalds-dilemma-c2a9-walt-disney

In “Donald’s Dilemma,” Daisy starts off liking the new Donald but he soon has no time for her when he comes a big star.

The set is not without bonus features, though since the shorts take up most of the space on the discs, they are a bit light. In addition to standard galleries you’re not likely to view more than once, there’s some featurettes on sculpting Donald in three dimensions and another on his many looks. Probably the best special feature is the easter eggs containing the opening sequence to The Mickey Mouse Club and the various different endings of Donald smashing the gong. And like the other sets, this one contains a Vault section that requires you to sit through a lecture from film critic and historian Leonard Maltin. The lectures get old, but at least these shorts are presented uncut. Most are only in the vaulted section for smoking and alcohol use so it’s nothing particularly salacious.

The Chronological Donald Duck Volume Three is a great set and basically includes the best of director Jack Hannah, who handled most of Donald’s films post World War II. Hannah’s films are a bit more gag-reliant and very similar to Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies shorts, but are no less fun. Directors Jack King and Jack Kinney are also featured. Since the Walt Disney Treasures line was produced in limited quantities, these sets are hard to get ahold of at a decent price in 2017. If you have to get only one, Volume Three might be your best bet, though I consistently see Volume Two priced lower on the after-market. Either one is a can’t lose purchase if you appreciate classic animation and Donald Duck. The shorts are all presented in their original aspect ratios with no cuts and look quite good for a DVD release. And unless Disney decides to do a Blu Ray for these, they probably won’t ever look better. Considering Disney seems to place a low value on its old shorts (they’re almost never shown on television and are readily available to watch on youtube) holding out for a better release, or even re-release, seems unlikely. And what better way to celebrate Donald’s birthday than by watching some of his classic works?

The Shorts:

  • 1947
    • Straight Shooters
    • Sleepy Time Donald
    • Donald’s Dilemma
    • Crazy With the Heat
    • Bootle Beetle
    • Wide Open Spaces
    • Chip An’ Dale
  • 1948
    • Drip Dippy Donald
    • Daddy Duck
    • Donald’s Dream Voice
    • The Trial of Donald Duck
    • Inferior Decorator
    • Soup’s On
  • 1949
    • Sea Salts
    • Winter Storage
    • Honey Harvester
    • All in a Nutshell
    • The Greener Yard
    • Slide, Donald, Slide
    • Toy Tinkers
  • 1950
    • Lion Around
    • Crazy Over Daisy
    • Trailer Horn
    • Hook, Lion and Sinker
    • Out on A Limb
  • From The Vault
    • Clown of the Jungle (Disc One 1947)
    • Three for Breakfast (Disc One 1948)
    • Tea for Two Hundred (Disc One 1948)
    • Donald’s Happy Birthday (Disc Two 1949)
    • Bee At The Beach (Disc Two 1950)

From Up on Poppy Hill

Kokurikozaka_kara_film_poster

From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

I don’t envy those who have chosen to follow in the footsteps of successful parents in the same field. Apparently, neither does Gorō Miyazaki who was long said to be reluctant to follow his parents, and specifically his legendary director of a father, into the world of animation. So against the notion was Miyazaki that he went to school for agriculture and took up landscaping for many years. It wasn’t until he was 39 that he made his directorial debut with the Studio Ghibli film Tales From Earthsea. It is said he worked his way into the role of director, first starting off as a storyboard artist which impressed his bosses enough to promote him to director. This was said to have gone against the wishes of his father, Hayao Miyazaki, who felt the younger Miyazaki wasn’t ready. As a result, the two did not collaborate at all on the film, though the father gave the film a positive endorsement upon release.

The film community was less kind to Tales From Earthsea. Commercially it was a success, and there were some positive reviews for it initially, but since it has come to be viewed as probably the worst film released by Studio Ghibli. It’s the only one with a negative rating on aggregate review websites, and it would not have been surprising to see Gorō Miyazaki return to a lesser role. He did not though, and returned in 2011 with a new film; From Up on Poppy Hill. Unlike with his first film, From Up on Poppy Hill was a collaboration with father Hayao Miyazaki, whom together with Keiko Niwa, wrote the screenplay for the feature. As a result, it feels very much like a Hayao Miyazaki work as it features a hard-working female protagonist trying to make sense of adolescence on her path towards adulthood.

from-up-on-poppy-hill-umi-and-shun

Umi and Shun’s first encounter leaves Umi feeling embarrassed and angry.

Umi Matsuzaki is a sixteen year old high school student who lives at, and more or less runs, her grandmother’s boarding house. She is the eldest of three girls and takes on a maternal role to her younger sisters while their mother is away in the United States studying abroad. Her father was the captain of a trade ship that was sunk during the Korean War. Every morning since she was a little girl, Umi has risen early to raise signal flags wishing safe passage for all sailors. It was a practice she undertook while her father was alive, and continues even past his death.

The film takes the viewer to a post-war Japan, where those wishing to usher the country into a new era are clashing with those who wish to preserve history. At the center of this is a clubhouse located at the high school. It’s an old, dilapidated, building that some would like to see bulldozed, but the students who use it view it as a haven for their various clubs that occupy it. One such club is the school newspaper, and within it a poem about Umi’s flags appears one morning. A chance encounter that day with the newspaper’s editor, Shun Kazama, initially sours Umi to the young man, but she soon finds herself wondering about the poem and if Shun was the author.

from-up-on-poppy-hill

A tugboat proudly responds to Umi’s signal flags, leading to a poem appearing in the school newspaper.

The two end up striking up a fast friendship, due in part to Umi’s sister wanting to meet Shun following a daredevil stunt he performed at lunch the prior day. Umi was put-off by that same stunt, finding it reckless and foolish, but she comes to be drawn to Shun pretty easily. She agrees to help out with the paper, and things seem to be progressing the way a lot of young romances do, but soon something from Shun’s past pops up and things get complicated.

When the issue first surfaces, Shun becomes withdrawn from Umi and pays her only the bare minimum attention as she and her friends start helping out with the restoration of the clubhouse in an effort to change attitudes towards it. Umi is confused and hurt, not knowing what she did and interpreting Shun’s attitude towards her as being founded in anger. It’s a pretty relatable situation for anyone who went through high school and the awkward start to what seemed like a promising relationship. It’s a strength of so many Studio Ghibli pictures, the ability to authentically portray young adulthood, and they’re so well versed in doing it that it still translates across the ocean to a non Japanese audience.

screenshot_8_19669

The rundown old clubhouse is a character itself.

I don’t want to go into detail regarding Shun’s secret that he keeps from Umi as I don’t wish to spoil anything for those who have yet to see the film, though I’ll say it’s nothing nefarious or duplicitous. The silent treatment routine doesn’t last long, and the characters are forced to confront the new conflict, though just as quickly they’re ushered into a subplot about saving their old clubhouse. The clubhouse plot felt the most contrived of anything in the film, conjuring up memories of poorly executed teen dramas from the 80’s and 90’s where the characters seek to preserve a place of refuge for themselves. It’s not very compelling, but serves its purpose to force our two main characters into an awkward situation where they must work together and not let their personal lives disrupt their shared goal. The overarching conflict between the two is resolved in the end, and it was somewhat anti-climactic and not as rewarding as it probably could have been. It’s resolved in such a neat and tidy manner that I felt the issue wasn’t given its due. It could have been explored in greater detail, but perhaps those involved felt it couldn’t have been without straying into some weird, possibly taboo, places.

The resolution of the film may have been unsatisfying, but it didn’t ruin what came before it for me. The interactions between Umi and Shun are what drive the picture. We feel their quiet affection for each other as their relationship blossoms and we can cut the tension with a knife when things go wrong. They’re both strong, sympathetic, individuals and the film is able to say a lot with small, quiet, scenes. The supporting characters around them are only portrayed in the simplest of tones. We get some sense of the camaraderie that exists amongst the women staying at the boarding house, but we’re only given the bare minimum. Sometimes Ghibli movies are guilty of overstaying their welcome and upping the runtime needlessly, but this is the rare film in the studio’s catalog that probably could have benefitted from another twenty minutes or so (it’s listed runtime is 92 minutes).

01-Mm43ksS

Studio Ghibli’s scenic visuals have become routine, though no less breathtaking.

From Up on Poppy Hill is another Studio Ghibli production where the localization for english speaking audiences was not handled by Disney, but by GKIDS, who also handled other non-Hayao Miyazaki pictures like When Marnie Was There and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. The GKIDS localizations tend to possess less star power than the Disney counterparts, but they’re of no less quality. I’m of the mind that voice acting and traditional acting in front of a camera are of limited relation; success with one does not guarantee success with the other. The cast assembled by GKIDS is talented and professional, and I very much enjoyed my viewing experience.

The soundtrack for the film is perhaps understated. Composed by Satoshi Takebe, it won’t be mistaken with the works of other Ghibli composers, but it’s not a fault of the picture. From Up on Poppy Hill is a grounded, quiet, story that does not need grandiose pieces of music to fill gaps between scenes. What’s here works, even if it’s not particularly memorable. The visuals in the film are of the same, superior, quality of other Ghibli works. The backgrounds are lush and vibrant and the characters expressive, even if a bit simple. My only complaint would be some awkward walking animations early in the picture, that were either absent from the rest of the film or just not picked up on by me as I became engrossed with what I was seeing.

I have some valid criticisms about From Up on Poppy Hill, but at the end of the day this is still a film I very much enjoyed. Studio Ghibli is simultaneously both masters of the fantastic and the mundane. This is one of the studio’s simpler pictures, and it’s a well done tale about two youths navigating the sea of young adulthood without resorting to corn or cliché. The conflict is legitimate, and not young adult camp, even if it’s resolved in perhaps a far too convenient manner. Perhaps it was a quiet, grounded, picture like this one needed to extract the talent present in Gorō Miyazaki, as opposed to the more fantastic Tales From Earthsea. The younger Miyazaki has not returned to the director’s chair since From Up on Poppy Hill for a Studio Ghibli feature, instead taking his talents to the small screen with Sanzoku no Musume Rōnya. Hopefully, he does get the opportunity to direct another feature as I very much look forward to what he does next.


My Neighbor Totoro

My_Neighbor_Totoro_-_Tonari_no_Totoro_(Movie_Poster)

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

I am the father of an all most two year old boy who loves watching The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on Disney Jr. I’m constantly trying to find new things for him to watch and get excited about just so I don’t have to watch more Mickey Mouse. And it’s not as if that show is particularly bad or anything, it’s just made for young kids and isn’t supposed to be stimulating for adult viewers. I’ve had some success getting him to watch Looney Tunes and even The Simpsons. He’ll rarely ask for either like he will with Mickey, but he’ll let me have them on the television with minimal fuss. The only show he really, actively, watches though is still Mickey, and that’s probably because of his enthusiasm for it and because the show is interactive with the characters constantly addressing the viewer. When he watches something like The Simpsons with me, it’s mostly in silence and he’ll occasionally point at an object in the show and tell me what it is.

For the first time in his short life, my son actively watched a movie. Often to get him to watch something non-Mickey, I’ll get it started on the TV before getting him up from his nap, which is what I did this past weekend with My Neighbor Totoro. I have been somewhat excitedly waiting for a time to introduce my son to this movie because it’s one I have a lot of affection for. A stuffed Totoro was even the first toy I ever bought for him before he was born. I’ve always been pretty certain that he would like Totoro, to a point, but I honestly felt like we were still a few years away from that day. To my surprise, I got him up from his nap and put him in our big recliner with a cup of juice without him even mentioning Mickey. He hadn’t been feeling well so I wasn’t sure what version of my son I would get, but he didn’t object to what was on the television and I went into the kitchen to finish up some dishes I had started before his nap ended. As I was busying myself, I could hear him laughing. I stopped and watched and he was smiling at the television. He would giggle when he was supposed to, he’d point to things on the screen, and bob his head to the music. What seems like a small, insignificant, moment is amazing through the eyes of a parent who is observing their child do something for the first time. He was engaging with a film, and it was beautiful. I chalk it up to the magic of Studio Ghibli and it’s extremely talented director and co-founder, Hayao Miyazaki.

images-230

No wonder why my kid liked this one, who wouldn’t want friends like these?

My Neighbor Totoro is a charming tale about two young girls, Satsuki and Mei. They have just recently moved to an old home in the countryside with their father while their mother is recovering from an illness at a nearby hospital. The precocious youngsters are intensely curious about their surroundings and new home and take to the country with intense optimism. This is a film devoid of any kind of cynicism. Satsuki is the older sister and helps out her dad around the house and also by looking after Mei, who I would guess is around 3 or 4. When Satsuki is in school and her father at work, a local old woman affectionately called Grannie looks after Mei.

images-229

A little house in the country side.

Very early in the film the girls take-note of strange creatures in their new home. These soot spirits and their existence are not challenged by the adults in the story, and we see their father encourages his girls to think like children by doing so himself. The girls seem a little afraid at first, but their dad tells them laughter is the best cure for fear, and their laughter drives the little soot spirits away. When Satsuki is away at school though, Mei happens upon the dwellers of the forrest and the massive, cuddly, Totoro who resides there. When she tells her sister about the Totoro, Satsuki is skeptical, but once again their dad is encouraging and has the girls thank the forrest for allowing them to live with it. It’s hard not to imagine that Miyazaki, a noted environmentalist, didn’t see himself in the father character present here.

images-228

Mei in hot pursuit of two little forrest spirits.

The film follows the two girls closely and unfolds at a brisk pace. It’s an interesting tale in that there is very little conflict, danger, or suspense. There’s some implied with the film’s climax, but it’s never deceptive. My Neighbor Totoro takes your hand from the start to guide you through its story and we trust it implicitly. Perhaps more interesting, is that it all works so well. Someone who has never seen the picture would probably interpret my description of it as dull, but the film is so charming and positive that watching it is like a relaxing soak in a hot tub; it’s simple, obvious, but oh so good.

The art direction is wonderful, and the character designs for the forrest spirits are delightfully simple. Totoro and his little buddies are a bit rabbit-like in appearance, though cat-like in behavior. They’re cute, and it’s obvious why stuffed dolls of them exist in the first place. The Catbus, which appeared about halfway through the film, is pretty wild to take-in, but so much fun. It adds a little absurdity to the film that fits right in with the sometimes silly tone. That tone is mostly captured through Mei, who is perhaps the most authentic young person I’ve ever seen brought to life in an animated movie. Her movements, facial expressions, and behavior feel so spot-on and really add life to her character. I’m honestly a little sad whenever she’s absent from a scene, and it’s her character that lead to the biggest reactions from my own little guy as we watched.

images-227

Just two kids riding in a cat bus.

The forrest scenery is lush and dominated by shades of green. I love this countryside as presented here because there’s just so much nature. This is the kind of film that makes me think I’d be okay with a more relaxed lifestyle that isn’t so plugged-in. My copy of the film is on DVD, and Disney finally released a high definition version a couple of years ago, but I haven’t upgraded yet. The film is gorgeous, though I notice a little grain at times and I wonder if that would be present on the Blu Ray. Normally, I enjoy a little film grain and would prefer to watch a movie on actual film than digital, but this picture is so vibrant that I find myself longing for as clean and pristine an image as possible. The film’s score is done by Joe Hisaishi, and it’s effectively whimsical and beautifully composed. Hisaishi and Miyazaki have such an amazing ability to complement one another with music and picture and this rather simple score might be my favorite of the Ghibli movies. The closing title song is adorably sweet and poppy. It probably will appeal to children more than adults, but I find it undeniably charming.

myneighbortotoro1

Mei’s first encounter with Totoro.

This being a Walt Disney localized release, the english dub is of high quality and well done. Sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning play Satsuki and Mei. Tim Daly and Lea Solonga play the parents, and Hollywood’s go-to man for animal sounds, Frank Welker, plays Totoro. The cast is probably light on star power in comparison with other dubs of Ghibli films, but the actors are more than capable and make watching the english version of the film a real delight.

The film, at its heart, is also probably one that appeals more to children than adults, which makes it unique among Studio Ghibli films which don’t obviously focus on children the way Disney does. At least, my head tells me that My Neighbor Totoro is indeed a children’s movie, but I am so moved and delighted by it every time I view it that my heart has all but convinced me that this is a film anyone can enjoy and fall in love with. That doesn’t mean it’s a film for everybody, my own wife finds it criminally boring and weird, but it’s not a film confined by demographic. My Neighbor Totoro is a wonderfully charming story beautifully accented by gorgeous visuals and a moving score. It’s fantasy, but understated fantasy, and the movie effortlessly compels the viewer to buy into everything that’s on screen. It’s in some ways a perfect film, without obvious flaws, and I wouldn’t change a thing about it.


Logan

logan

Logan (2017)

A popular “gotcha” question from when I was a kid concerning comic books and the X-Men was, “What’s Wolverine’s mutant power?” The desired response was a reference to his claws, at which point one could interject with a “Nuh-uh! It’s his mutant healing factor!” Of course, later in the 90’s it would be revealed that his claws actually were a part of his mutation, thus putting an end to that one, but it was always kind of a stupid piece of trivia anyway. Wolverine’s defining trait are his claws, the healing stuff was just a way to excuse the beating he took in the pages of Incredible Hulk and X-Men. If he didn’t have those unbreakable claws, he probably never would have become the most popular member of the X-Men.

And yet, Wolverine’s claws were always a bit of an obstacle for comic writers and artists, and eventually animators and film makers as well. You have this violent, bad ass character, equipped with blades that can cut through almost anything, but he really can’t use them because of the obvious gore factor that would involve. Instead, Wolverine would often use the claws for show, deflect some attacks, cling to walls, cut through a fence, and everyone’s favorite – hack up some robots. That’s why it’s particularly liberating to see Wolverine go all out in the opening moments of Logan.

To a newcomer, or even someone who has just fancied themselves a casual fan, the violence and gore present in Logan will seem over the top, perhaps juvenile. The R rating the movie garnered may be viewed in a cynical fashion to appease young males who want f-bombs and blood out of their movies. For those who have been with this character since their childhood though, it’s a stark reveal of just who Wolverine is. This is the Wolverine we hear about from other characters, spoken of in hushed tones and feared by his enemies. This is a superhero who’s primary offense, and defense, is to just start hacking. And since this is applied to an older, very cynical, Wolverine we get a character who doesn’t operate in half measures – if you get in his way and threaten him or those who cares about, Wolverine won’t hesitate to remove your face from your skull.

maxresdefault-7

If you’ve always wanted to see Wolverine do this, then Logan will make you very happy.

Logan is a film set some 15 years or so in the future. It’s not a dystopian world or a wasteland. There are no flying cars or laser rifles, the setting is just an excuse to take a look at an aging, dying, Wolverine. When the film opens we see Wolverine has taken on a very mundane job as a limo driver. He walks with a limp, is an apparent alcoholic, and his wounds don’t close as quickly as they used to. When he’s not working, he’s scoring drugs and hopping the Mexican border where his perhaps only friends are hiding out:  Caliban (Stephen Merchant) and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). The drugs Wolverine purchases are for Xavier, who’s past the ninety-year mark and struggling to keep his wits about him. When the world’s most dangerous telepath can’t control his old brain bad stuff can happen. Wolverine is apparently saving up some cash to buy a houseboat where he and Xavier can live out the rest of their days without fear of harming anyone, or anyone bothering them (in the case of Wolverine).

Wolverine’s day to day life is disrupted when a borderline hysterical woman (played by Elizabeth Rodriguez) comes seeking his aid. Offering a substantial amount of money, she wishes for Wolverine to smuggle her and her daughter into Canada. Wolverine wants nothing to do with her, apparently not wanting any trouble. Soon a young man barges into his limo looking for info on the woman. He is Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), and we know from his demeanor and bad-ass cybernetic hand that he is certainly a bad dude and probably what the young woman is running from. Upon hearing this, Xavier naturally wants to help the woman as he senses a mutant presence, Caliban smells it as well (his mutant power). This is a big deal as there hasn’t been a mutant born in this world in over twenty years. Wolverine is sort of conned into helping the woman, and things get messy before they get any better.

Since she’s featured so heavily in the promotion, and the film makes little attempt to create any mystery about it, I might as well continue along and talk about Laura (Dafne Keen), the young mutant Wolverine and Co. end up taking in. Laura, known as X-23 in the comics, is a young girl with a very familiar set of powers and abilities, and also temperament. She is referred to by other characters as Wolverine’s daughter, but it might be more accurate to call her his clone. She’s on the run in search of a place called Eden and is running from Pierce and the people responsible for her existence. After the lengthy setup, the film turns into a road movie with Wolverine, Laura, and Xavier.

logan_charles

Jackman and Stewart are just beautiful in their portrayals of Logan and Xavier.

Logan is not a feel good movie, and it doesn’t offer much mystery. I found myself anticipating almost every beat the film hits, but I also didn’t care. The world of Logan is harsh and unfriendly, but there are small moments to break up the grim that either provide humor or just a small slice of life. Xavier and Laura make for a fun pair and easily form a warm relationship, even if Laura is essentially mute. Perhaps to the surprise of some, Xavier is the character most often relied upon for comic relief. He and Wolverine clash well, but underneath the surface conflict it’s obvious the two love and respect each other. Wolverine is a surrogate son of sorts to this version of Xavier, and waits on him like a doting son, though he seems to take some enjoyment in complaining about it every step of the way. The relationship feels very authentic, which is a word that kept coming to me as I took in this picture. Patrick Stewart comes across as especially authentic as Xavier. There’s a scene where the trio sits down to dinner with some strangers and Stewart plays Xavier in a way that’s reminiscent of every dinner I’ve ever had with an elderly person I had only just met. He’s delighted to speak with someone other than his irritable traveling companion, but his performance never teeters on parody.

Hugh Jackman is a captivating Wolverine in this film. I suppose that comes as no surprise since he’s been playing this character for almost twenty years now (the same can be said of Stewart). Jackman worked with director/writer James Mangold on the story, loosely adapted from the Old Man Logan story from the comics. It’s clear from interviews with Jackman that this was an important film for him and an important story for him to have a part in telling as Wolverine, for it’s to be his last turn as the character. The Wolverine of this film is best described as the exact assumption most would have of an old man Wolverine. All of his lesser traits -his irritability, cynicism, vices and so on have only been strengthened by father time. He’s still a good guy inside, but his pessimism makes him more of an introvert than he’s ever been. The film doesn’t dwell on the past, but it makes it obvious that all of the X-Men are dead. This is a Wolverine who has lost everything. He doesn’t want to start over, he’d rather just die. He’s pulled through this movie by other characters as well as his inner sense of duty, but it’s a struggle. The film tells this story through action and not so much dialogue. In doing so, Mangold is able to avoid a lot of the tropes that plague other films attempting to tell a similar story.

NEPbctPbbkOESW_2_b

I wonder where she gets it from…

Laura proves to be a compelling character in her own right. Portrayed by newcomer Dafne Keen, Laura is a wide-eyed girl experiencing the world for the first time. Everything is interesting and new to her, and Keen is forced to tell us what Laura is thinking through her actions alone while also being restricted from changing her usual stoic facial expression. She’s a fun character to watch when the film slows down, but also a sad character during the action sequences when we are forced to watch a young girl brutally eviscerate other people with cold precision. She’s in a way been denied humanity, while also being denied a childhood. Again, Mangold does a great job of just putting this out there in the film without editorializing it. We don’t need a character to tell us now depressing her upbringing was. The film slowly gives us more and more of the Laura character and it’s one of the few aspects that feels rewarding. I would guess most people will leave the theater wanting to see more of this character in the future.

All of this is to say the movie isn’t perfect. Like most superhero pictures, it’s probably longer than it needs to be. While there are no obvious scenes that could have been axed, the film does move slowly and if an editor had been ordered to keep the runtime under two hours they probably could have found a way without much compromise. The film is also so centered on Wolverine and Laura that the antagonists feel like after-thoughts at times. And as I mentioned, it is very predictable and there is a sequence in the middle of the movie that bothered me as a result because the characters should have been able to see the danger up ahead.

The flaws within Logan are minor and do little to bring down what some are calling the best superhero movie yet. I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate, as Logan could function as any kind of movie if you took away the super powers. The film isn’t centered on a conflict of good vs evil with the fate of the world in the balance. It’s a character driven film, and for people who have considered themselves fans of the Wolverine character, this is probably the film you’ve been waiting for. It’s a film for those who appreciate the essence of what makes Wolverine special, and it’s able to present the character in an authentic way without devolving into a ton of fan service. More importantly, this is also clearly a worthy story for Jackman to go out on. This is his finest performance not just as Wolverine, but of any film I’ve seen him in, and I assume that was the personal goal of Jackman going into it. I was totally fine with this being Jackman’s last time playing Wolverine, but once the credits started rolling I must admit I was starting to wish for more, and as they say in show business, always leave them wanting more.