WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Daigo loses his job in a symphony orchestra and decides to take off in new directions. He moves back to his hometown with his wife and answers an ad with the word “departures” thinking it’s for a glamorous job in the travel industry. It turns out to be an open position for an “encoffiner ” who prepares people for cremation. Needing money and taking on this new challenge without telling his wife he soon develops a new respect for people of all kinds one that will come in handy when the emotional issues of life and death hit very close to home.
WHO’S IN IT?
As the reluctant undertaker Masahiro Motoki is wonderfully understated and sensitive as his own frustrations give way to a deeply satisfying and sometimes painful new lease on life. His low-key performance is perfectly pitched for this beautifully spare drama and never seems forced or out of touch with the character. As his wife Mika Ryoko Hirosue is deeply touching earning audience sympathy and quiet respect. Tsutomu Yamazaki has the other major role as Daigo’s new boss and he’s droll and wise mentoring his new employee and subtly introducing him to a foreign world he never knew existed.
Director Yojiro Tokita has worked in a variety of film genres but nothing prepares you for the lyrical rhythms of Departures an enlightening and deeply satisfying movie of many small unexpected pleasures. If the deliberate pacing seems slow give it a chance to creep up on you. This is a film that doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve but earns our tears honestly and in real time. It’s ruminations on how we die — and how we live — while rooted in Japanese culture and customs that couldn't be more universal or relatable to anyone with a pulse.
With the imprimatur of a newly minted Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and 10 Japanese Academy Awards expectations may be too high for American audiences. This is a deceptively simple story sparingly told with dignity and wisdom. Hopefully moviegoers outside of Japan (where it has been an enormous local hit) will embrace it for what it is and see a bit of their own experience in the richly rewarding journey of Daigo.
It’s surprise win over stiff competition at this year’s Oscars was the biggest upset of the evening and proof that a movie with this kind of sincerity and solitude can trump the most formidable competition.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Considering the endangered species status of foreign language films in most American theaters it would be nice to support one as good as this and hope there’s more where it came from.
Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi) spends his summer vacation running away from
home and searching for the mother he never knew. A nosy neighbor sends
her no-good husband Kikujiro (Beat Takeshi) to look after the boy but
instead causes more trouble as the two hitchhike gamble and swindle
their way across Japan. Along the way the pair encounter a bizarre
collection of characters transforming the film into a sort of kooky
Asian "Wizard of Oz.
The players rise to the challenge of a script sparse in dialogue
effectively conveying character through expression and making the film
less dependent on its subtitles. Young Sekiguchi is especially
captivating employing few words and a face cuter and rounder than
Pikachu. Sekiguchi’s performance equals the fine young thespians in
foreign faves "Ponette" and "Ma Vie en Rose." Takeshi is alternately
sleazy and funny as the bumbling custodian neglecting and exploiting
his charge while sincerely caring. Mercifully he never succumbs to the
curmudgeon-with-a-heart-of-gold cliché plaguing too many Hollywood
dramas. Despite decades of age difference the duo gel onscreen for this
effective and unusual buddy movie
Writer/director/editor Takeshi Kitano unfurls his story slowly possibly
turning off blockbuster-bred American audiences. (If it’s mainstream
you’re looking for it’s unlikely you’d be cooling your heels for two
hours in front of a Japanese-language film.) Kitano rewards the patient
with believable characters comical moments and a rarely seen look at
modern Japan free of high-tech terror flashy city lights and
generational family conflicts
Ten-year-old Chihiro (voiced by Daveigh Chase Lilo of Lilo & Stitch) and her parents (voiced by Lauren Holly and Michael Chiklis) are driving to their new home in another town. When they stop along the way at what seems to be an old decrepit amusement park they're intrigued by its strange beauty--and by the wonderful aroma of cooking food from what looks like a deserted stall. They enter to find a spread of delectable delights and the girl's parents dig in. What they don't know however is that this food literally was from the gods set before them as a test. The parents failed and are turned into pigs; aghast Chihiro who never tasted a bite runs away. Like Alice through the looking glass she suddenly finds herself in a phantasmagoric spirit world where she learns she must accomplish a series of dangerous tasks in order to save herself and turn her parents back into people. Along the way she meets an assortment of wild characters who both hurt and help her: an old evil bathhouse owner named Yubaba (voiced by Suzanne Pleshette) her henchman Haku (voiced by Jason Marsden) who can transform himself into a wolfish serpent a ratlike cat a kimono-wearing frog and sootballs. Yep sootballs--and they're cute too.
The actors providing voices ultimately take a back seat to their own characters as the film's animation is the true star (in fact the film was dubbed into an American version no doubt to lure in those who can't both read and watch) and the dialogue is awfully trite. Unlike most American animated films this one has no clear good-vs.-evil message; in fact even our small heroine has her faults which is the reason why she's being tested. She never finds herself up against one single evil force either. The menagerie of characters she encounters are often good and not so good at the same time. In the end it's up to Chihiro to find and nurture the best in herself to get out of her predicament.
Spirited Away certainly doesn't suffer from American animation's tendancy to beat you over the head with the message; the plot here is decidedly less linear and somewhat harder to follow. The story often wanders with seemingly illogical elements to the narrative. The shape-shifting creatures might be a little too imaginative for traditional audiences to get their heads around--it's like watching someone else's drug trip. In the end though it's no wonder Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away has become the highest-grossing film in Japanese history won the prestigious Golden Bear Award at this year's Berlin Film Festival and took home the Japanese Academy Award for Best Picture.
What do the Golden Globes know anyway? Last week, voters nominated John Williams' underwhelming "Angela's Ashes" at the expense of his more stirring work for "Star Wars: Episode One - The Phantom Menace." And what of Marc Shaiman's brilliant satire of the musical theater, in the form of "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut"? Snubbed.
Well, we're here to set things right.
Which soundtracks broke new ground, broke our hearts and broke down barriers with crossover potential? Read on for our list of the Top 20 soundtracks of 1999:
20. "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," "More Music from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," "Pokémon: The First Movie" -- No, we weren't very impressed with the contents of these best-selling albums, just the marketing savvy behind them.
19. "Guinevere" -- While most guys would buy this CD for Sarah Polley's cover photo alone, Christophe Beck's music combined with Thelonius Monk is a wonderfully eclectic combination.
18. "Outside Providence" -- Do you like '70s classic rock? Then you'll dig this soundtrack. A fantastic compilation of tunes by the likes of Yes, The Who and The Eagles.
17. "Dogma" -- Howard Shore's apocalyptic musical imagery conveys both the demonic and angelic moods of the hilarious and controversial film.
16. "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" -- This HBO movie (starring Halle Berry) proves that the much-maligned tube can offer great music. One of the best big-band soundtracks available.
15. "The General's Daughter" -- Carter Burwell composes a moving score, including some reworkings of old Negro spirituals from the Library of Congress.
14. "Entrapment" -- Composer Chris Young takes you from Scottish castles to Malaysian street markets. A very enjoyable trip.
13. "The Mummy" / "The 13th Warrior" -- While these two movies were quite different, the scores weren't. Veteran (and prolific) tunesmith Jerry Goldsmith composed these scores within months of each other, and you can hear the similarities. Copycat syndrome or not, they're still excellent soundtracks.
12. "Sleepy Hollow" -- Danny Elfman ("Batman") strikes again! While we all knew this score would be brooding, dark and ominous, the pleasant surprise was how original the music was while maintaining Elfman's easily identifiable style.
11. "Toy Story 2" -- If you didn't cry during Sarah McLachlan's "When She Loved Me," you have no heart. The opening score track "Zurg's Planet" is pure science-fiction fun. It's just one of Randy Newman's enjoyable selections.
10. "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc" -- This soundtrack is worth it for track 26 alone: "Angelus in Medio Ignis." Go choir, go!
9. "For Love of the Game" -- Basil Poledouris presents a wonderful palette of colors and emotions with this score. You can really feel the game's tense focus when the electric guitar starts to growl! Buy the Varèse Sarabande CD and skip MCA's generic song-filled soundtrack.
8. "The Cider House Rules" -- One of the most romantic, poignant scores of the decade. A perfect companion to a beautiful movie.
7. "Mickey Blue Eyes" -- While the movie may not have set any box-office records, the soundtrack is a real winner. The CD features an eclectic mix of music, from Basil Poledouris' Italian-influenced score to up-tempo oldies by Rosemary Clooney and Louis Prima.
6. "Deep Blue Sea" -- Trevor Rabin's main theme to this summer sleeper reminds us how well he can write. Don't confuse this score CD on Varèse Sarabande to the horrible Warner Bros. rap soundtrack.
5. "Tarzan" -- Phil Collins and Mark Mancina combine their talents to create an invigorating, uplifting score. The vocals are unforgettable, and the percussion will make you want to swing from the trees in your back yard.
4. "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" -- This introspective look into the subconscious desires of the youthful psyche provides a gloriously uplifting foundation on which to build our hopes for world peace. Marc Shaiman's exquisite contributions elevate the music to a level not heard since ... umm ... since Beavis & Butthead?
3. "Princess Mononoke" -- Encompassing a wide range of style and melody, Joe Hisaishi's score brings us the wonder and mystery of an animated world filled with demons, gods and magic. Enthralling.
2. "Star Wars: Episode One - The Phantom Menace" -- While John Williams' prequel score doesn't quite equal the timelessness of the original 1977 film or its 1980 follow-up, "The Empire Strikes Back," it succeeds admirably on its own terms.
1. "Anna and the King" -- Graham Ravell's score to this just-released film encompasses all the grandeur, optimism and melody that we come to expect of an ambitious movie such as this. A wonderful achievement.
Hardened bad guy Yamamoto (Beat Takeshi who also wrote and directed) sneaks out of Tokyo after his Japanese mob family disbands. He travels to Los Angeles and tracks down his much younger half-brother Ken (Claude Maki) a petty drug dealer. Because thuggery is the only way of life Yamamoto knows he starts his own mini crime ring with Ken and Ken's buddies. Thanks to Yamamoto's determination not to mention his penchant for violence their little posse goes quickly from small time to the big league taking over turf from Ken's Hispanic suppliers teaming with a rival Japanese faction and facing off against the Mafia. Meanwhile as Yamamoto's gang's success grows and the money flows he develops an unexpected friendship and unlikely brotherhood bond with Ken's friend Denny (Omar Epps).
Takeshi's hard-boiled Yamamoto has two facial expressions--one with tics one without. Could one really reach the levels of violence he does in this movie without batting an eyelash? But he has an intriguing way of drawing out the viewer's sympathy even though he's hardly sympathetic toward others in the movie himself. The sadly underused Epps is very good as the wary young homeboy from a nice family who is caught up in the events around him and who has a genuine soft spot for the hardened Yamamoto. Think of Brother as the anti-Rush Hour 2 of the summer.
Sometimes it's hard to figure out what's going on in this stylish violent and weirdly comic thriller. Cryptic messages delivered in Japanese often are no more decipherable despite English subtitles and much of the first half is told in flashback a fact you may not realize until the second half starts. But once you figure it out the story moves quickly and keeps your attention--that is if you can stand to watch. There are some horrifically violent moments that just don't let up and by the second half the brutality is nonstop. Not only do you have bloody shoot-'em-ups taking place every other minute you've got a guy committing hara-kiri in front of his dinner companions fingers getting chopped off yakuza-style death by chopsticks etc. etc. (Oddly the gangsters seem to be L.A.'s only inhabitants--the cops are nowhere to be found.)