Touchstone Pictures via Everett Collection
For a career that was spent constructing mystical worlds like the ones seen Princess Mononoke, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Spirited Away, it might seem a little odd that Hayao Miyazaki's swan song is centered on the real-life story of about the famed aeronautical engineer Jiro Hirokishi. But even though there aren't any magical creatures flying around the skies of a very true-to-life 20th century Tokyo, that doesn't mean that The Wind Rises is lacking in wonder. In fact, Miyazaki's last film may be his most inspiring yet, and is doubtlessly his most personal. After all, it's hard not to see the parallels between the subject of The Wind Rises and its creator himself.
The film follows the famed aeronautical engineer who dreamed of flight, but is kept out of the cockpit thanks to his nearsightedness. Instead, Jiro decides to focus his attention on designing and creating planes. He’s the kind of person that can see inspiration in the slope of a fish bone; every little slice of life can serve as source of inspiration.
Eventually, Jiro becomes Japan's premiere aeronautical engineer — and how could he not when he has the voice of Stanley Tucci in his ear, spurring him on? Tucci plays a dreamed-up version of Giovanni Caproni, a real life Italian aircraft engineer who inspires Jiro to keep working towards his goals. The dream sequences where Caproni visits Jiro are some of the film's finest moments, and Tucci puts as much Italian-accented verve and hope into his performance that almost inspires you to get out of your theater chair and start tinkering with whatever pursuit lifts your own wings. It is in these dream sequences where The Wind Rises really soars, as we watch the two inventors construct odd, curious, and wondrous flying contraptions that can take to the skies, even when the real world physics won't allow them to. Rises might lacks the fantastical worlds and creatures that populate Miyazaki's other works, but it's no less magical. But beyond the wonder of building airplanes, there are hard truths to be learned, and as Jiro realized soon enough, his creations will be dropping the bombs that will serve as Japan's introduction to much of the western world.
Touchstone Pictures via Everett Collection
But for all the fantastic dreamscapes and characters that populate Jiro's world, from Tucci's lively Caproni, to Jiro's excitable sister who has dreams of her own, to even his love interest Naoko, the one flaw in the film seems to be Jiro himself. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who voices Jiro in the English translation of the film, sounds utterly lifeless, and even in the film's emotional peaks and valleys, it sounds like he's reading a telephone book. And while the rest of the English voice cast mostly soars to the occasion, including Martin Short who voices Jiro's hot-tempered boss, and Werner Herzog who helps give the enigmatic Castorp an air of mystery, Jiro is a black hole of personality, and Levitt doesn't manage to give much of anything to Jiro.
The Wind Rises is also a crash course in early 20th century Japan, as we see a country yearning to show the world it's mettle, and we get a peak at the countries' growing pains. We see various events play out on screen including a beautifully animated depiction of the 1923 earthquake that levels Tokyo, and rips through japan like a cresting tidal wave (Studio Ghibli is in top form in the animation department as usual). We also see glimpses of the tuberculosis crisis, the depression, and the early foundations of Japan's relationship with Nazi Germany. These events don't take away from what is firmly Jiro's story, but serve as context to his journey
The Wind Rises is an ode to the dreamers. It's for the creatives who craft their goals in their heads, and unleash their creations for the world to see. It's a uniquely inspiring film that stands with the best of Miyazaki's filmography, and provides a graceful end note to a marvelous career.
With no new releases from Lars Von Trier, Werner Herzog, David Lynch, David Cronenberg or Richard Kelly, 2010 projected to be a down, if not disastrous year for the WTF Awards – our annual celebration of the most bizarre, baffling, head-scratching and cringe-worthy moments in cinema. Thankfully, the filmmaking community, as it has always done in times of crisis, rallied to fill the void left by the absence of these WTF titans, providing us with an abundance of examples worthy of honor with the Frank Trophy. The Frankie (so named for the beloved character from Donnie Darko) may not be the most prestigious award in Hollywood, but it is undoubtedly the tallest.
This year's winners:
Most Surprising Hit: Alice in Wonderland
That Tim Burton’s CGI confection was a hit is not a surprise; that it grossed over a billion dollars worldwide – enough to rank sixth all-time -- is. Goth and emo kids, it seems, have access to significantly more disposable income than anyone previously thought. And they appear to be multiplying. Time to start building that shelter – and buying Hot Topic stock.
Most Inexplicable Flop: The Tourist
Plenty of films disappointed at the box office last year – 2010’s total tally was the lowest in 12 years – but none boasted the star power (Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp!) and sexy, exotic locales (Paris! Venice!) of The Tourist. Then again, the same combination also failed Eat Pray Love. Perhaps directing and screenwriting still matter after all.
Best Inadvertent Horror Flick: Tie –
The Nutcracker 3D – A children’s movie that triggers instantaneous terror among most children who see it? Sounds pretty darn hilarious to me. Which is why I don’t have kids.
Sex and the City 2 – Four solipsistic ghouls marauding across the Middle East, leaving dignity, good taste and America’s reputation throughout the Islamic world in their gruesome menopausal wake. Eli Roth can only dream of this kind of revulsion.
Movie Whose Mere Existence May Prompt You to Consider Ending Yours: The Bounty Hunter
On the plus side, whenever someone at a party questions the difficulty of a job that entails watching movies for a living, I can now effectively silence them with just three words.
Most Superbly Crafted Film I Never Want to See Again: Black Swan
So prodigious are director-sadist Darren Aronofsky’s abilities to unnerve that even the presence of a Natalie Portman/Mila Kunis girl-on-girl sex scene fails to inspire repeat viewings of his critically-acclaimed camp freakout. Aronofsky achieved the same feat with his nails-on-blackboard brilliant Requiem for a Dream, in which even a fully nude Jennifer Connelly couldn’t ease the existential dread.
Movie That Could Only Have Come Out of Scandinavia: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
Leave it to those freaky Fins to re-imagine Santa Claus as a child-abducting, reindeer-slaughtering monster served by a corps of naked, shriveled elves. Jalmari Helander’s coffee-black comedy is perfect entertainment for tots not sufficiently traumatized by The Nutcracker 3D.
Most Egregious Bait-and-Switch: The American
As much as I enjoyed Anton Corbijn’s avowedly minimalist take on the quintessential “one last job” tale, I couldn’t help but feel for moviegoers who, lured by the film’s somewhat misleading marketing, went to see it expecting a polished popcorn thriller more worthy of an A-lister like George Clooney. Instead they got a spare, melancholy art flick, albeit one with a surfeit of nudity.
Most Disturbing “Love” Scene: Splice
Adrian Brody’s mad genetic scientist enjoys a drunken dalliance with Dren, the androgynous (and uncomfortably hot) offspring of his unholy experiments, in a scene glazed with just enough sensuality by director Vincenzo Natali to make our discomfort visceral. That the creature’s jambalaya genome includes bits of his own DNA as well as that of several other animals, qualifying the act as both incest and bestiality, is the icing on the cringe-cake.
Most Dubious Marketing Tagline: “From the Mind of M. Night Shyamalan” – Devil
Best WTF Cameo: Ed Corbin (The Bear Man), True Grit
In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn enjoy an awkward exchange with a hulking figure, clad in a bear suit and towing a corpse, who inquires in a creepy drawl as to whether either of them require medical attention. The scene wasn’t in Charles Portis’ source novel; it’s purely a creation of the Coen Brothers, whose yen for quirky peripheral characters is unmatched.
The George Lucas Award for Achievement in Legacy Dismantling: Kevin Smith
At first heralded as the voice of a generation and an inspiration to aspiring indie auteurs, the Clerks director has since degenerated into a just another Hollywood hack, reaching his creative nadir in 2010 with his buddy-cop flop, Cop Out. As a fan of his early work, I’m sad to see that he’s essentially become the Insane Clown Posse of filmmakers: amateurish, puerile, gimmicky, and a joke to everyone outside his army of inexplicably devoted followers.
Most Disconcerting Movie Trend: The Live-Action Comedy Famine
While animated comedies continued their profitable reign in 2010, their live-action counterparts were rejected en mass by moviegoers. Part of this can be explained by the dearth of quality titles; the rundown of rom-coms in particular -- Leap Year, The Bounty Hunter, Killers, When in Rome, The Switch, How Do You Know, et al -- reads like a to-do list at Guantanamo, and Little Fockers is now routinely invoked in pagan rituals to summon the fertility demon Naberus. But what’s more distressing is that the better comedies, like Easy A, Get Him to the Greek, MacGruber, and Hot Tub Time Machine, struggled to find audiences as well.
WTF Performer of the Year: James Franco
Let’s be honest: Any year in which Nicolas Cage makes a film is a year in which he wins this award. The man owns this category like Wilt Chamberlain owned the paint. As such, like Chamberlain, his dominance has inspired a rule change: In the interest of variety, the award will henceforth be known as the “Nicolas Cage Award for Achievement in WTF Performance.”
In 2010, no other actor dazzled, confused and, indeed, nauseated us as much as James Franco. His artistic output – from creative writing to cross-dressing photo shoots to Funny or Die shorts to big-budget cameos to his continued run on General Hospital -- was nothing short of baffling. And the strangest thing is, it all paid off. Among other accolades, he’s received his first Oscar nomination for his performance as arm-severing bicyclist Aron Ralston in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours.
Whichever agents negotiated Franco’s pact with Satan have earned their 5%.
WTF Movie of the Year: Splice
Human Centipede’s grotesqueries, while numerous and undoubtedly WTF-worthy, were of a strictly intestinal variety. Splice’s approach was much more holistic: It not only churned your stomach; it skull-f*cked your id. This is the kind of boldly batsh*t filmmaking for which the WTF Awards were invented. Congratulations to director Vincenzo Natali; we hope this helps ease the disappointment of losing out at the Teen Choice Awards.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
When all-American girl Susan Murphy is inadvertently hit by a falling meteor on her wedding day she grows to be nearly 50 feet tall. The U.S. military gets wind of this renames her Ginormica and locks her away with a slacker group of other “monsters” in a top-secret compound. But when a mysterious alien robot lands on Earth and begins wreaking havoc these good-hearted but inept creatures are called into action by the President and must band together as a team to save the world from certain catastrophe.
WHO’S IN IT?
As usual Dreamworks has assembled a stellar A-list voice cast led by Reese Witherspoon as Susan/Ginormica. Playing one of the rare female animated heroes Witherspoon’s sweet/confused demeanor — in light of her highly unusual status as a fearsome freakazoid — hits just the right tone generously letting her zanier colleagues steal scenes from right under her (a long way down by the way). Chief among these are a not-so-bright gelatinous blue mass named B.O.B. hilariously voiced by Seth Rogen; the genius Dr. Cockroach Ph.D in the capable hands of House doc Hugh Laurie; and Will Arnett’s half-ape half-fish The Missing Link. In the human roles there’s Stephen Colbert as the idiotic U.S. President Kiefer Sutherland as the monster’s prison guardian Paul Rudd as the ego-driven weatherman fiancé of Susan; and a deliciously villainous Rainn Wilson as Galaxhar the alien determined to take over Earth.
Superb 3-D effects aren’t overdone and add immeasurably to the ginormous fun of the film but even seeing it in theaters that only show it in regular 2-D doesn’t spoil the pure joy of this cartoonish War of the Worlds. Throw in parodies of every cheap '50s sci-fi movie you can think of and you have the ingredients for a silly monster mash sure to appeal to just about anyone who wants to laugh. Despite the impressive production elements it’s the smart and clever script that really sets it apart from its competitors — and that even includes the similar Monsters Inc. from Pixar.
Like any kid-oriented comic ‘toon today the action can be a bit too frenetic and Monsters vs. Aliens piles a lot of it on in its trim 95 minutes. Still the lovable characters carry the day and somehow make it all palatable.
When Susan now Ginormica brings her new friends home to meet her parents chaos ensues and so do the laughs. Also impressive are the large action scenes that make fine use of CGI animation breakthroughs.
BEST SUPPORTING BLOB:
It's easily the one-eyed lame-brained blue lug of a people hugger named B.O.B. perfectly matched to the talents of Rogen. He rolls away with the movie and inevitably the merchandise tie-ins.
After a brief flashback prologue where we see how the young lion Alex (Ben Stiller) is separated from his father Zuba (Bernie Mac) inadvertently ending up in the Big Apple the story returns to present day as our favorite New York zoo denizens prepare to take off from Madagascar in a crudely constructed airplane piloted by the penguins and propelled by slingshot. Unfortunately for Alex lovelorn giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) fast talking zebra Marty (Chris Rock) and svelte hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett-Smith) instead of landing in NYC the aircraft sputters and crash lands right in the middle of Africa where they run into a world of exotic creatures. This also includes Alex’s long lost dad and mom. Happy reunion? Not quite. Zuba’s nemesis Mukunga (Alec Baldwin) insists they follow lion pride lore which means Alex must go through a rite of passage -- one he is sure to fail if Mukunga has his way. Meanwhile Marty tries to integrate into a pack of zebras; Gloria gets hooked up with a soulful hippo (will.i.am); and Melman is up to his neck looking for love. Oh and they also all have to save the Kenya preserve from a life-threatening water shortage. No biggie! Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa’s witty and hip dialogue provides rich voice over opportunities for a talented crew of actors. Stiller continues to be a riot as the showbiz loving Zooperstar Alex especially in his attempts to earn the pride’s respect. Chris Rock earns his stripes as he tries to hang with a large group of look-a-like sound-a-like zebras. Schwimmer is winning and hysterical as Melman now considered a witchdoctor by his fellow giraffe-ians while Pinkett-Smith continues to shine as hippo Gloria looking for a little action. Among the new voices rapper will.i.am as Moto Moto the last of the red-hot hippos will have you wanting More More while Alec Baldwin gets to play the heavy with Lion King style. The late Bernie Mac playing it relatively straight as Alex’s father proves (as he does in his other new release this week Soul Men) shows us just how much his unique brand of humor will be sorely missed. Stealing the show however and getting king-sized laughs in an expanded role is Sacha Baron Cohen back as King Julien the hard-partying head of the lemurs. With a vast improvement in Madagascar’s state-of-the-art computer graphic work directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath take this sequel several notches up in terms of technical savvy including the exciting opening sequence as well as the plane crash. But they really score with the script with new co-writer Etan Cohen adding some crisp comedy. What was mostly just a serviceable script the first time around has gotten a lot more sophisticated and clever a development parents being dragged by their kids will be keenly grateful for. This is the rare animated sequel that actually has a reason for existence other than minting money. It has more heart drama and laughs than the original Madagascar which despite its flaws still made half a billion dollars worldwide. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa should make even more as it proves to be one of the year’s most entertaining comedy delights.
Like Madagascar the story starts at the New York Zoo. Samson (Kiefer Sutherland) the lion is once again the star of the show but unlike Madagascar’s Alex Samson claims he came from the wild. He regales the other odd assortment of zoo denizens--including a talkative giraffe (Janeane Garofalo) a lisping anaconda (Richard Kind) a snarky Koala (Eddie Izzard) and a take-charge squirrel (Jim Belushi)--with tales of danger and excitement abroad. Of course Samson can’t tell the real truth that he was actually born in captivity and is making it all up because everyone including his rebellious teenage son Ryan (Greg Cipes) would think less of him. But when Ryan runs away thinking he can’t live up to his dad’s reputation and is mistakenly shipped off to the wild Samson has keep up the charade as the gang embarks on a dangerous mission to rescue him. The lion does come clean at some point in case you were wondering. Another vocal roster of big names another dollar. This time around we’ve got Sutherland Garofalo Belushi all doing the animal thing. There’s also William Shatner as a villainous wildebeest headed for the loony bin after deciding he’s tired of being the prey and turns predator. He’s even got his herd of wildebeest dancing a Busby Berkeley number around a volcano á la Lion King. Sigh. Luckily there is one saving grace--sort of: Izzard as the wisecracking Koala bear Nigel who gets mistaken for a god by the wildebeest and milks it for all its worth which isn’t a whole lot. Still if anyone has seen the British comedian’s hilarious HBO special Eddie Izzard: Dressed to Kill you can just imagine him strutting around as a Koala dressed in women’s clothing and doing his shtick. The Mouse House once again proves it doesn’t have an inventive bone in its body--or even the gumption to realize that had something with potential. Apparently the pitch from writers Mark Gibson and Philip Halprin had been mulling around Disney for about nine years before it got made giving the likes of Nemo and Madagascar a head start (I’d be peeved if I were those writers). But even if The Wild did come first it still wouldn’t be able to measure up mostly because the story is insipid. Wildebeest turning into predators? What’s THAT all about? The CGI-animation is spot on of course but we are definitely taking all of that for granted these days. No now what we want is a good compelling story. If not that then at least we should have a couple of really funny characters--like commando penguins or a fish with short-term memory--to help things move along. The Wild doesn’t have either so while children may be left mildly entertained for an hour and a half parents will be left twiddling their thumbs waiting for it to be over.