Tales from Earthsea (2010)


Not every Studio Ghibli release is going to be an automatic home run & there’s no better reminder of the animation giant’s capability for mediocrity than its mid-00s adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Tales from Earthsea. Everything about this animated fantasy epic is competent, but difficult to rouse excitement over. Tales from Earthsea plays like a midway point between Miyazaki & Game of Thrones without ever reaching the heights of majesty or brutality from either end of that formula. Here you get the dragons & cursed swords of the best of the fantasy genre mixed with the magical bloodbaths of Princess Mononoke, but without the entertainment value powder keg that combination implies. Even the film’s director is not Hayao Miyazaki himself, but rather his son Gorō Miyazaki making his very unassuming debut. The result is pleasant, but ultimate forgettable & vaguely defined. You’d have to be really into dragons for this film to truly register.

The film opens with a noble king being murdered in his own castle by his own loving son. Confused & ashamed of his own actions, our reluctant assassin bolts into the wild, a desertscape with sprawling seaside villages that’s vaguely reminiscent of North Africa. There he befriends a cloaked wizard named Sparrowhawk and a mysterious abuse survivor around his own age, all while drawing the attentions of a second, much creepier wizard with an evil, soft-spoken voice & a wicked cruelty streak. Besides the heightened sense of violence & brutality promised early in an opening fight between dragons and carried throughout in details like forced slavery, threats of sexual violence, and a fantasy world stand-in for heroin addiction. Tales form Earthsea also recalls the adult parable leanings of Princess Mononoke in details like an organized wolf attack & the assassin child’s cursed sword, the source of his occasional urge to kill. Unlike with Mononoke, though, no themes are explored to any particularly enlightening end and the film’s big ideas about the balance between lightness & darkness, life & death mostly boil down to a battle between two rival wizards and their stuck-in-the-middle hostages.

From what I understand there were many changes made in adapting & condensing Le Guin’s work for the screen here that left many fans of the book frustrated, including Le Guin herself. Not familiar with this particular work from the author, though, I can only see that there were obvious elements at play that likely made the material look worthwhile for an adaptation (the eerie dream logic of tar-filled nightmares & the idea of a weapon possessing an otherwise kind soul were especially exciting), but they aren’t given a lot of room to develop or evolve here. Like with a lot of Le Guin’s work, which is typically expansive yet intricately detailed, this material likely would’ve been served better as a miniseries instead of a two hour film. Its problems extend beyond its supposed shortcomings as an adaptation, however. You can see it in the blades of grass. You can hear it in the emotionless songs. You can feel it in the CG aided camera movement. Tales from Earthsea is pleasant to look at, but thoroughly indistinct.

-Brandon Ledet

Miss Hokusai (2016)


Brandon directed us to keep it spooky this past October, and although that’s normally my forte, there was a dearth of time to check out much horror goodness this past month (notably, my only review last month was of Magnificent Seven, while my review of tense anxiety-driven thriller Don’t Breathe found itself online during September). I was fortunate enough to catch a screening of the animated feature Miss Hokusai, which, despite not being a scary movie, does have a lot of the hallmarks thereof: ghosts, dragons, demons, and spectres.

The film exists less as a straightforward narrative and more as a series of vignettes that depict short periods of time in the life of Katsushika Ōi, the daughter of Katsushika Hokusai, a painter most well known in the west for The Great Wave off Kanagawa, which I (and probably you) had a poster of in college. Plot descriptions of the film imply that the plot will largely center on the fact that Ōi was herself a painter whose own work was overshadowed by her more famous father, but this is actually a relatively minor element. The most overarching themes are Hokusai’s failure as a father to Ōi’s blind younger sister O-Nao (a character invented for the narrative), whom he ignores in favor of his work and because he feels responsible, as well as Ōi’s attempts to transcend her own artistic limitations. Along the way, she fends off an overzealous suitor and spends time with O-Nao, taking her for walks and treats.

The more striking visual elements come largely from dream sequences and a few scattered moments of magical realism. Most notably, a dragon that Ōi paints (after ruining Katsushika’s painting of the same) appears in the sky over their humble abode, and a courtesan whose neck is rumored to grow overnight is shown to have a spectral head that leaves her body in the night and attempts to fly away, but is kept in check by bed netting. In another sequence, a woman is haunted by dreams of Hell and the demons therein after receiving one of Ōi’s paintings depicting just that scene; Katsushika must correct this error by including an image of salvation in a tiny corner, underlining the apparent message that art releases beauty and terror into the world in equal measure. Ōi herself is also haunted by strange dreams of being trampled by gods when she realizes that O-Nao will die, and that the young girl fears damnation because her handicap prevents her from being a “good daughter” to her parents.

There’s a lot more going on in Miss Hokusai than is first apparent, but the film is not without its flaws either. The vignette nature of the film leaves something to be desired narratively, and there are musical choices that are, frankly, puzzling. Still, this is a beautiful movie with images that intrigue and disquiet, and it’s well worth watching if you can track down a screening.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Seventh Son (2015)


three star


Okay, here’s the thing: Seventh Son is a bad movie. It’s just awful. It’s already been called “staggeringly bad” “a creative miscarriage”, “a quickly forgotten pile of junk”, and maybe “the worst movie of the year”. I’m not arguing with any of those assessments. They’re true enough. I’ll even back up the complaints that the bland, medieval fantasy epic is even politically regressive. Indeed, its main plot involves two white men beating up & setting fire to the movie’s only female & POC-cast characters, who are all invariably evil. So, yeah. Seventh Son is a bad movie in almost all ways you can mean that phrase.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. It’s a mind-numbingly dumb & old-fashioned attempt at establishing a franchise (à la I, Frankenstein & Dracula Untold), but I honestly found the blatantly simple-minded picture kinda low-key entertaining. Watching a drunken, wizardly Jeff Bridges battle a half Dragon/half Disney villain Julianne Moore was lizard-brain cool enough to forgive almost any cliché plot points or b.s. franchise ambitions for me. This is the kind of fantasy realm nonsense that is overstuffed with dragons, blood moons, witches, ghosts, evil queens, ogres, and haunted forests. Better yet, it’s overstuffed with laughable scenery-chewing from two actually-great actors redefining what slumming it truly means. Jeff Bridges mumbling wizardly nonsense and a metal-clawed Julianne Moore cooing commands like, “Help yourself to the blood cakes, little one” were enough to make me glad that I gave the movie a shot despite it’s (well-deserved) awful reputation.

I’m not saying that you should support Seventh Son with your hard-earned dollars or even give it a chance when it’s streaming for free. I’d just be lying if I said I hated it. It’s a laughable failure of a film that won me over by laughter more than it lost me with its failure, especially in the final minutes when it promises (threatens?) a sequel that most certainly ain’t coming. Thankfully.

-Brandon Ledet