Howl’s Moving Castle (2005)

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fourstar

Acclaimed, visionary animator Hayao Miyazaki recently announced that he’ll be returning from what has been a very brief “retirement” to work on a 3D-animation short film, which is exciting news for rabid fans of Studio Ghibli & innovative visual craft of all kinds. Not being especially well-versed in Ghibli’s or Miyazaki’s history, I didn’t realize that this decision was a case of history repeating itself. Miyazaki had “retired”several times before in the past, once doubling back on his resolve to return to the director’s chair (does that idiom translate to animation?) to helm the somewhat troubled production of 2005’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Whether or not Miyazaki was brought in as a pinch-hitter/afterthought on a project that apparently needed a strong guiding hand, Howl’s Moving Castle was well worth the animation giant’s time & efforts. It’s not the most mindblowing or heartwarming film among the few Ghibli titles I’ve seen but it is a singularly magical experience that the world is better off for being enriched with (with its context as a pacifist take on the war in Iraq being especially fascinating). If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Miyazaki in the few works I’ve seen from him it’s that the world is all too lucky to have him & we should all be grateful for each precious gift he delivers on his own time.

I call Howl’s Moving Castle magical because it’s a film that values the folklore of magic, wizards, and witches over the more human realm of physical labor & constant war. A lover’s quarrel between The Wicked Witch of the Waste(land) & a frivolous, vain wizard named Howl claims the health & well-being of an innocent passerby, a young hat shop clerk whose meeting of Howl in passing enraged the jealous, possessive witch. This jealousy inspires the wicked witch to cast a spell that ages the hat shop girl horribly, so that she loses her precious youth & beauty to an old, withered body that upends her life. Determined to win back her cursed youth, the girl moves into Howl’s castle, which is indeed a moving, walking, transitive structure that would serve as event the most casual of steam punk’s wet dream. What she discovers is that he wizard is in a perpetual state of adolescence, in desperate need of someone to care for his body & home, and prone to teen angst temper tantrums that result in him summoning “the spirits of darkness” when he’s bummed & exclaiming things like “I see no point in living if I cant be beautiful!” Howl is in no shape to deal with the crushing realities of a hard-fought war & ends up needing the help & emotional support of the cursed hat shop girl just as much as she needs him.

What feels so right about the approach to magic in Howl’s Moving Castle is just how fluid everything feels in the details. The rules of the curse seem to change from scene to scene as the girl’s age fluctuates depending on her mood. Enemies who initially appear to be pure evil soon reveal themselves to be hurt, vulnerable souls in need of repair. Physical spaces (especially the titular castle) & people’s bodies (especially the wizard’s) change constantly, directly reflecting the ebb & flow of a universe that can be hopelessly cruel or endlessly wonderful depending on the tides of fate in life’s current direction. The only thing that seemingly doesn’t change is the way the film values magic & fluidity over the concrete, destructive concerns of governments & war.

Appropriately enough, it’s that exact value system that makes Miyazaki & other folks at Ghibli feel like such a gift & a blessing. They’re constantly exploring new ideas & techniques within their craft, but their general spirit is deeply rooted in an old world magic & tradition that feels both authentic & endlessly endearing. It’s a testament to how powerful the the studio’s output is that I was greatly impressed by Howl’s Moving Castle, but still hung up on the Ghibli flim about racoon testicles that I had just watched a few days before. Every Miyazaki work is worthy of attention & adoration to some degree and Howl’s Moving Castle was no exception to that rule. It wasn’t the most spectacular, wonderful, magical animated feature I’d ever seen or anything like that,but I still felt like I was lucky to have seen the film, which feels like par for the course for Miyazaki & his peers. May his retirement never be permanent & may the studio never officially close its doors. May our luck never run out.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 3: Apocalypse Now (1979)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Apocalypse Now (1979) is referenced in Life Itself: In the first edition hardback, Apocalypse Now is referenced on page 2. Roger mentions that when “The Ride of the Valkyres”plays during a helicopter attack in the film, he got a rare, tingling sensation of “reality realigning itself,” the same feeling he had when he proposed marriage to Chaz & the day his father announced he was dying of cancer. In the film version of Life Itself, Ebert is shown arguing the merits of Apocalypse Now to a nonplussed Gene Siskel on two separate occasions. He seemed especially aggravated that Siskel enjoyed Full Metal Jacket more than Apocalypse Now.

What Ebert had to say in his reviews: “Years and years from now, when Coppola’s budget and his problems have long been forgotten, ‘Apocalypse’ will still stand, I think, as a grand and grave and insanely inspired gesture of filmmaking — of moments that are operatic in their style and scope, and of other moments so silent we can almost hear the director thinking to himself.” – From his 1979 review for the Chicago Sun Times

“Other important films such as ‘Platoon,’ ‘The Deer Hunter,’ ‘Full Metal Jacket’ and ‘Casualties of War’ take their own approaches to Vietnam. Once at the Hawaii Film Festival I saw five North Vietnamese films about the war. (They never mentioned ‘America,’ only ‘the enemy,’ and one director told me, ‘It is all the same–we have been invaded by China, France, the U.S. . . .’) But ‘Apocalypse Now’ is the best Vietnam film, one of the greatest of all films, because it pushes beyond the others, into the dark places of the soul. It is not about war so much as about how war reveals truths we would be happy never to discover.” -From his 1999 review for his “Great Movies” series

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It’s near impossible to tell whether or not I’ve seen Apocalypse Now before. Surely, there are plenty of scenes in the film that are vivid to me out of context, but I might’ve picked those up incidentally by catching them on a Greatest Movies of All Time clip show or playing on television while channel surfing. The reason I’m unsure if I’ve ever watched Apocalypse Now in its entirety before is that I feel like I’d more clearly remember a viewing experience as weighty as the film’s 3+hour runtime. I hate to be the kind of cinematic philistine who knocks a slow-paced “classic” for testing my patience, but Apocalypse Now is too damn long. There is a wealth of individual scenes in the film that carry a forceful impact in isolation, but when they’re broken up by a slow trudge upriver & Batman-gritty narration about “the horror, the horror” of war, Apocalypse Now reveals itself to be a huge commitment of time & effort that might not deliver everything it promises. As a literary adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness I think the film is a fresh, interesting take that reveals new truths about its source material by shifting its setting & narrative detail, but the truth is I found Heart of Darkness to be just as much of a chore as consuming Apocalypse Now in one sitting. This is a great adaptation of a novel I don’t care for & a runtime that spiraled out of control even before its extended “Redux” treatment. There’s no denying that the film is packing several powerful punches, though, and it’s all too easy to see how someone could fall in love with the film as a massive whole.

A lot of Apocalypse Now‘s imagery & one-liners are perhaps a little too over-familiar after years of reverent repetition: the ceiling fan blades fading into helicopter sounds, Martin Sheen’s mud-painted face emerging form the bog, the utterance of “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”, etc. However, it’s clear as day with two stretches of the film still play freshest in 2016. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of the film’s war-is-Hell grittiness covered thoroughly in other works. the alcohol-fueled PTSD, overbearing narration, and off-hand soldier quips like, “You’re in the asshole of the world, Captain” all feel like old hat at this point, whether or not they were groundbreaking representation in 1979. What does feel important & unique still is the film’s approach to representing madness among soldiers. Robert Duvall’s colonel might be remembered most for what he likes to smell in the morning, but his emotionally detached obsession with surfing under fire is what stands out most in modern viewings. While dodging bombs & bullets from the Viet Cong, Duvall orders his terrified young men to surf the incoming tide as if they were kicking back beers on a California beach instead of fearing for their lives under fire in Vietnam. It’s a perfect representation of how the war left many men emotionally detached & downright deranged.

Of course, Duvall’s colonel is just a small taste of wartime madness before the main feast: Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. It takes a three hour effort for Martin Sheen’s broken shell of a captain to make it upriver to meet Kurtz & decide whether or not to complete his mission of assassinating the defected madman. A lot of anticipation is built by the time Martin Sheen & Marlon Brando share their infamous face to face in the film’s third act and it’s amazing just how much Brando delivers under that pressure. His intensely weird performance as Kurtz is a tangible, skin-crawling kind of madness that feels inseparable from Brando as an actor, especially in light of the recent documentary Listen to Me Marlon that hits a lot of the same deranged, hypnotic notes. A lot of audiences in 1979 believed that, like Kurtz, Brando “had gone totally insane & that [his] methods were unsound.” However, if his performance were indeed a work of madness, it’s undeniably of the mad genius variety.

As Ebert points out in this review, any movie is lucky to have one or two great scenes & Apocalypse Now has many. The film gets on a particular roll in its final sequence once Kurtz’s mania graces the screen and the imagery & music combine to create a sort of wartime tone poem that just screams “art house darling” in every frame. There was a lot made of the troubled, over-budget production that plagued Apocalypse Now at the time of its release & there was indeed enough snafus during filming to support a feature length documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. The prevailing wisdom of the time is that director Francis Ford Coppola, was in the middle of a winning streak that included titles like The Godfather & The Outsiders might’ve bitten off more than he could chew with Apocalypse Now & the resulting film was somewhat of an untethered mess that couldn’t quite match its ambition with a unifying sense of discipline. Discerning critics like Ebert, who heralded the film like a masterpiece, had a completely different take, lauding the film as an impeccably visualized descent into madness, an entirely new & powerful way of representing war’s savage effect on the fragile human mind.

I think the truth probably lies somewhere between these two takes. The third, Kurtz-focused hour of the film really does feel like it taps into a troubled soldier’s plight in a way that few film scan claim to do, with much of the credit for that accomplishment resting firmly on Marlon Brando’s beyond mad shoulders & Coppola’s eye for haunting visuals. However, the film’s sprawling runtime & three separate versions (including the “Redux” & an infamous bootleg of a workprint) point to a director who may have flew a little too close to the sun to fully realize his vision. I respect Apocalypse Now‘s ambition & find its messy approach to Vietnam War cinema to be a lot more satisfying than more cookie-cutter examples of the genre, but I also find the idea of the film being a masterpiece to be a somewhat flimsy argument. It really does have more truly great scenes than most movies could dream to bring to the screen, but the film itself never feels like more than the sum of its parts. Much like Sheen’s protagonist, Apocalypse Now goes on a dangerous, mind-threatening journey upriver to seek great existential truths, only to discover it’s not sure what to do once it reaches its destination.

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Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

fourstar

Brandon’s Rating: (3.5/5, 70%)

threehalfstar

-Brandon Ledet