Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) Review

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As much as I love gory horror films like Friday the 13th or more highbrow films like The Artist, I’ve come to appreciate small quiet films, like the ones Studio Ghibli puts out, just as much. Now before any question of my manhood comes in let me state that 1. Kiki’s Delivery Service is an adorable film and 2. I absolutely love Kiki’s Delivery Service. There thought ought to cover me right? Nah in all seriousness, Kiki’s is an excellent and cute movie that really acts as a pallet cleanser for the rougher works out these days.

Kiki (Kirsten Dunst) is a young witch who, upon reaching the age of 13, leaves home to find a new town and start her year of witch training. With her cat familiar, Gigi (Phil Hartman), she settles into a large oceanside city and is taken in by a kind baker. Utilizing her ability to fly on a broomstick, she starts a delivery service and thus her struggles begin as she tries to understand how to balance out being a normal girl and following her witch training (while still keeping up her deliveries).

On a personal note let me say that I used to see trailers for the original release of this movie all the time on Disney VHSs and DVDs. I was always fascinated by the animation and the catchy (but shitty) pop song they played, but the concept never seemed that intriguing to me, nor was it at Hollywood Video so I never got around to watching it. So finally seeing this movie was really interesting as it was an experiment in challenging long held expectations. While we’re on the subject, that original VHS/DVD release is different then the one currently out on DVD/Blu-Ray. The old recording is reused, with the same great performances from Kirsten Dunst and especially Phil Hartman, but a lot of the excessive lines that Hartman had are taken out and the original sound effects and music are put back in. The dub you find nowadays is rather close to the original japanese and quite good, so check it out.

Now Kiki’s is another remarkably simple film from Ghibli, more so then the others. It’s a rather plotless journey of a girl as she learns to adjust in the city. If the first twenty minutes don’t grab you then the rest of it won’t, because all in all it’s paced rather slowly. It takes its time to address a lot of the issues that Kiki faces and while for some of the audience it will be really interesting and/or identifiable, others may find it boring. It doesn’t have the visual splendour of other Ghibli works because there’s not much to animate, but what there is is rather nice. It’s just a cute, simple film and I know I’ve said that but that’s because thats what it is. It’s simplicity is what makes it so refreshing and it really hit some interesting notes for me. The characters all rather simple too, but not in a bad way. With the exception of Kiki or Gigi we don’t get much from each character, but they’re far from cliche and we can definitely tell that there’s more to all of them. If I had to make a complaint it would be that every girl besides Kiki seems to be an asshole, but thats kind of the point.

Kiki’s Delivery Service may be too slow for kids, but it’s perfect for the nostalgic adult or the cinephile looking for a pallet cleanser. It probably could have stood to have more going on in it, but it sacrifices quantity for quality and rightfully so. It’s in many ways the antithesis of Howl’s Moving Castle, an overly ambitious film I still enjoy. Kiki’s is probably the most Western of all of Ghibli’s movies, with it’s witch-centric premise. It’s very easy to get into the world and characters of Kiki’s Delivery Service as the themes of growing up and finding acceptance are very universal. All in all it’s worth at least one watch even from the most tough and stubborn of moviegoers.

The trailer here is the aforementioned one from the old release. Holy Nostalgia Batman!

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Porco Rosso (1992) Review

Besides telling tales of epic fantasy, Studio Ghibli can also be… a little silly and there’s no sillier movie of theirs then Porco Rosso. It’s the tale of a seaplane fighter pilot who quits the Italian army and becomes a bounty hunter after he mysteriously gets the head of a pig. Now living out his days in isolation, Porco Rosso is forced to get his plane repaired in Milan after getting shot down by American rival Curtis. There he meets Fio, a smart and talented engineer who teams up with him for his final battle with Curtis. Without going into detail you can tell that this is a rather silly movie, but its silliness isn’t what makes it great. Rather it’s the balance between silliness and seriousness that truly make it stand out.

Porco Rosso is a brilliantly funny movie, with witty dialogue and a complete exploitation of its very silly concept. Part of that is the Disney dub, which westernizes plenty of the jokes for the purpose of… well making them jokes. None of the changes betray the spirit and tone of the original and they’re welcome indeed. The cast does a great job, with Michael Keaton at the helm as Porco and a score of Disney stock actors to support him. The only really bad performance is Cary Elwes as the Texan Curtis, as his accent is absolutely awful. BUT I’m positive that this is played for laughs to make Curtis more of a caricature, because I’ve heard Cary Elwes do a half-bad American accent.

The characters aren’t as engaging and intriguing to me as the cast of Howl’s Moving Castle, but they are all surprisingly strong characters (at least on the protagonists side). Porco is one of those rare loveable assholes, who actually has an intriguing and complex background. Fio is just a great strong female character, but she isn’t afraid to show a little weakness and for me this sells her as a character. Gina, the hotel owner, is another great female character, as she strikes that balance between wanting a man without relying on men. On the flip-side, the antagonists are as one-dimensional as you can get, but it works because they’re played for laughs for most of the movie. I’d much rather watch well developed leads bouncing off of jokey villains then have the whole lot of them be half-developed. Thats not to say they’re cliche, as they still manage to be unique and engaging to watch.

Now for being as silly as it is, Porco Rosso isn’t afraid to get serious at times and it’s hard not to given it’s post-war setting. It’s the mark of a truly great kids film when the movie isn’t afraid to get serious, and Porco Rosso has that in spades. For example, we see plenty of people die (in the form of planes going down) and it’s clear that Miyazaki is putting a message of anti-fascism in the movie (not that there are many people who like fascism). Put somewhat simply, the dramatic serves as a good foil and break from the comedy and they feed off one other, creating a healthy symbiotic relationship. This is a pretty obvious statement that applies to most movies, but Porco Rosso pulls off that balance quite well.

I’m not sure why Porco Rosso isn’t more popular then it is, probably because it was in that dead zone of releases between Kiki’s Delivery Service and Princess Mononoke, but it really deserves more attention then it gets. It’s score is amazing (I paid attention this time), the animation is frigging gorgeous, especially for 1992, and its a brilliantly funny movie. On top of that, it’s a movie that can appeal to boys, girls, kids and adults. It’s a very very simple movie, and I didn’t take many notes while watching it, but it has everything that a great family movie, or any movie for that matter needs and I will be adding it to my collection as soon as possible.

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) Review

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Studio Ghibli is no doubt the “Feel good” studio. Almost all of their films are awe-inspiring fantasies or small stories that remind you of the good things in life and give a warm feeling inside. Now this is nothing new of me to say or for anyone to say for that matter, but it bears repeating because even with one of their most controversial works, Howl’s Moving Castle, I still get that Ghibli charm I just can’t get anywhere else.

Howl’s Moving Castle is the fantastical tale of hatter Sophie who after being saved by the mysterious wizard Howl gets cursed by his nemesis The Witch of the Wastes. The spell manifests itself by aging her tremendously and she decides to travel to Howl’s moving castle to see if she can get turned back. There she meets an annoying fire demon, a child apprentice and, of course, the mysterious and childish Howl. Sophie and Howl soon develop a romance, but their love seems in jeopardy as the country’s war escalates further and Howls involvement and demise seem inevitable.

Howl’s Moving Castle‘s quality is contested by fans because while it’s a good movie… it’s really not as good as other Ghibli works. At least thats my theory, and there’s evidence to back it up. Howl’s has strong characters, animation, and sound, far above most animated features, but it’s convoluted story weighs it down for people and prevents it from hitting that Ghibli standard.

I absolutely love the characters in Howl’s. It takes a while for you to get invested in them, but once they start acting as a family you can’t help but feel attached to them and really appreciate not only the individuals, but the cast as a whole. Even Billy Crystal’s Calcifer the fire demon, who’s pretty annoying for a good chunk of the movie has a hint of charm to him at the end of the movie. The aging dog that enters in the second half and the speechless scarecrow Turniphead both have a distinct personality despite a lack of lines and screen time. There’s just something about this ensemble and their chemistry that works for me and makes me want to see more.

The animation… do I even have to say it? It’s fucking gorgeous. It’s Ghibli and Miyazaki for christ’s sake. Everything from the character designs, backgrounds, and animation itself is high quality and meshes well. I really liked the design of the castle itself and it added a steampunk element that fit in this magic/science world. There are moments where you can tell that the animation jumps in quality so for an anime junkie who will notice that kind of thing it’s rather jarring, but for the average viewer it’s sure to not be a problem.

The soundtrack is standard Ghibli fare and rather unnoticeable which I guess means it did it’s job, but what I really want to talk about it the dub. I love the casting choices for the Disney dub and it’s probably one of the best out there. For the most part it’s unknown actors, but there a few celebrities in this cast. Christian Bale plays Howl and he does a fantastic job. I wasn’t sure he’d be able to pull of the more boyish aspects of the character, but he did and admirably at that. It’s a character archetype in Japan that has no real translation in the West and changes were made so if you’re a fierce loyalist to the original you may have problems with it. Billy Crystal, as I said before, plays Calcifer and does a fine job at that giving it that annoying touch without breaching into Jar-Jar territory. THE Lauren Bacall plays The Witch of the Wastes and she’s, of course, fantastic. She has this disney villainess quality about her, but it really works in this context. The rest of the cast is great too, but if I had any gripes it’s that the actress that plays the young Sophie has an accent that doesn’t match up with the speaking mannerisms of old Sophie and when they switch back and forth it’s quite distracting.

I suppose we should get to what doesn’t work… Howl’s Moving Castle is an extremely ambitious film in that it tries to juggle several different themes and plots. It unfortunately doesn’t succeed and the two aspects that end up suffering the most are the romance between Sophie and Howl and the war subplot. Now I understand the war subplots point of existing, that being to add a little tension and action to what would have been a rather quiet movie, but it could have been implemented better as it just pops in and out and there’s very little involvement or context with it. Sophie/Howl’s relationship gets pushed to the background while all this other stuff goes on and while you get a sense that their relationship is developing, there’s a lot of stuff I wish we could have seen to clarify it. One other fatal flaw of this film is that towards the end of the movie the plot just… goes all over the place. I’m not entirely sure how half of it worked or even what happened as the film tries to cram a lot into the last half hour and it doesn’t really take the time to explain properly. Everything’s jumbled and messy until the last two minutes where everything’s tied up in a neat bow, with too much convenience for my tastes.

I’ve said this about a lot of movies lately, but Howl’s Moving Castle is a ton of fun. It’s got a great mix between dark and light content as well as just enough maturity to keep an adult engaged while still keeping that childhood innocence for kids to enjoy. I thoroughly enjoy the characters and concept, and while I know there’s story flaws, who cares? If you know what you’re getting into and you let yourself get taken away by the characters, the weird pacing and underdeveloped story won’t matter to you (as much). A rottentomatoes rating or my recommendation really doesn’t do this movie justice as this is one film where I truly believe you must form your own opinion about so please check it out.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) Review

Martin Scorcesse is a legend of the cinema and I am so delighted to have seen one of his movies in theaters, kind of like how I’m excited to see a Was Anderson movie in theaters. Leaving my fanboy love at the door, I must however concede that The Wolf of Wall Street is not his best movie. That being said, it’s still an amazing movie. A little long, but excessively fun nonetheless.

The Wolf of Wall Street is told from the perspective of Jordan Belfort (Leo Dicaprio), a stockbroker who climbs the ladder of success when he starts his own trading company. The not-so-legal hobbies of him and his coworkers, paired with the not-so-legal practices of his company get the attention of the FBI. And so we see the arc of Belfort as he becomes engulfed with money, drugs, and sex leading to his imminent implosion.

TWOWS follows a LOT of Martin Scorcesse’s cliches. A lot. Imagine Goodfellas mixed with… well again Catch Me If You Can (Even though thats Speilberg). Matthew McConaughey acts as the mentor/rule-establisher. He tells the audience the rules and once the main character breaks them, we know his descent will begin a la Goodfellas. We have the New York centered main character and his big-haired brunette sassy wife, as well as the iconic use of narration and the very intentional use of music. Now these are all cliches yes, but they still make a fantastic movie, so no real complaints here.

TWOWS has one big thing going against it for me. It’s really fucking long. At 2 hours and 55 minutes, this movie is a real endurance test. Thats not to say it feels overly long, in fact it feels shorter then 3 hours, but after a while you do really feel the length. Scorcesse has this interesting style with these biography movies, in that he structures them to be a collection of vignettes that compound onto each other to create this arc. There are subplots that come in and out, but ultimately we hop from scene to scene like each is it’s own episode of a TV series. This is what really helps the movie along, because it keeps the pace brisk. Theres no need for long connections and establishment we just hop into the middle of the action and let the narrator fill in the rest.

Narrators are rarely used these days, at least not continuously like Scorcesse uses them and I really enjoyed it in this mostly due to the actor behind it: good old Leo Dicaprio. He does a fantastic job in this movie. He really is the character and in fact most of the people in the movie do the same. Jonah Hill is unrecognizable as Jordan’s right-hand man and he definitely deserves the Oscar for his performance.

Speaking of Oscars, let me say that this is definitely a far better competitor for the best picture award then American Hustle. While Hustle had energy, this has energy, and charm, and a sense of uniqueness due to the director at the helm. I still don’t think it will win, partially due to 12 Years a Slave being a thing, as well as the elephant in the room that will put off a mainstream audience and the old, rich, white conservatives running the Academy: It’s excessiveness.

TWOWS is balls to the walls insane. Literally. It has no qualms about what it’s showing, because it all fits perfectly into the world we’re looking at. There are no less then 2 orgies in the movie, copious nudity and sex, drugs, violence, language, offensive language and crude jokes. However… it’s god damn fun to watch. Scorcesse has the amazing ability to seduce us into the crazy backwards worlds of delightful sin he shows us and by god if I wasn’t cheering for the main character all the way. Some people won’t be able to handle it and thats fine, but there may be a few hesitant folks that are swept away by the story and characters and will be able to let it slide.

TWOWS breaks no new ground, does nothing innovative or technically spectacular. It’s just a damn good movie from damn good director and by the gods will I watch it again and again. I’m so excited for the DVD to see all the extra vignettes that Scorcesse couldn’t quite fit into the movie. I have high doubts that it’ll win, but if it does I’ll be one happy fanboy. Check this flick out in case by some small chance you weren’t going to already.

American Hustle (2013) Review

On Friday I saw a Scorcesse double feature, but only one of the films was directed by Martin Scorcesse. The other, American Hustle, was directed by David O Russell, and boy oh boy does he want to be Scorcesse. It’s almost sad really, because maybe if he had taken a few more liberties with this movie, American Hustle could have been something truly great, not just pretty good.

American Hustle is the “true” story of a con man (Christian Bale), his mistress (Amy Adams) and their arrest by the FBI. Rather then go to jail for a long ass time they work with Special Agent Asshole (Bradley Cooper) to ensnare a few people in similar cons. Their first victim is a New Jersey Mayor (Jeremy Reiner) who take a “donation” from their fictional Sheik in order to build up Atlantic City. As their deals go on they realize that they can not only ensnare this mayor, but Congressmen and Mafia bosses too! The game is afoot Watson!

As I stated before, Russell really wants to be Scorcesse, using shots like Scorcesse, characters like Scorcesse, music like Scorcesse, and DeNiro like Scorcesse. Not a bad thing per say, but it’s really noticeable and gives a feeling of unoriginality to the movie that it really shouldn’t have. So while the directing style may be similar to Scorcesse, the story is actually more akin to Catch Me If You Can mixed with Oceans 11. That’s not a bad thing, in fact the movie is fairly well written, with plenty of emotional and intense scenes. The movie doesn’t really get going until about 30 minutes in, but it’s certainly not boring as the charisma of the actors keeps you engaged. What didn’t work for me, and this is something that bothers me about a lot of the twist-ending-con movies, is that the twist at the end isn’t preceded by any indicators whatsoever. It’s like reading a mystery book and the killer is a person we’ve never met before, meaning the audience couldn’t figure it out on their own. American Hustle‘s twist is out of nowhere and it feels like a trick, because you had no clue. It’s a fine line to walk and it’s more a pet peeve then a true criticism of the movie.

This is an Actor/Character driven movie and an effective one at that. The characters are all rather unique and by the end of the movie you’re quite attached to them. Bradley Cooper’s character in particular was rather interesting to watch as his arc led him down a darker and darker path, but not in the stereotypical way. Reiner was a joy to watch, as his mayor was honourable and corrupt all at the same time. Louis CK also has a small role as Cooper’s boss and his is great! It shows that his acting range is a little wider then just a fat comedian dad and I’m excited to see his future film projects. Bale, Adams, and Lawrence are all great of course, but the drama between them was a little eye-rollingly stupid at times and the end was a little too neatly wrapped up for my tastes.

Since this movie is up for some Oscars and that’s pretty much why I saw it I should probably address a few of the categories it’s up for. The production design is absolutely amazing and it definitely should win. It truly feels like the 70s without missing a beat. Christian Bale is pretty good as the lead, but I don’t think he should win over Leo. Amy Adams certainly holds her own in this movie, and pulls off all the emotional twists and turns her character goes through. Jennifer Lawrence was believable in the role despite her age, but her performance was just kinda… meh. It didn’t strike me as particularly oscar worthy, even if it was really good. The editing… is meh for an oscar-nominated movie. There were a few continuity flaws, so hopefully there was a better movie, but I’m just being a prick now.

American Hustle has everything going for it. The budget, the actors, the director, the soundtrack, everything. However, unlike most great films, it fails to become more then the sum of its parts. It’s no Goodfellas, or The Godfather, or even The Sting. It’s a damn good movie, don’t get me wrong and I’ll say right now that everyone should go see it, but it fails to be anything more then just good. Let me emphasize that I’m not criticizing the movie for not being perfect, I’m just stating my reasons for why it shouldn’t win Best Picture.

Enough negativity! American Hustle is a fun movie! It doesn’t take itself too serious and while it is a emotional drama, it’s also a very funny movie. The witty writing and the charismatic acting makes it hard not to enjoy the fun adventure these characters are on. The whole movie has this energy to it thats hard to ignore, and it almost makes up for a lot of the flaws in it… almost. You may not have a best picture winner awaiting you, but you certainly have a film worth the outrageous ticket prices. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

John Dies at the End (2012) Review

With all the adaptations, remakes, and sequels flooding the Hollywood screen it’s easy to say that there’s no creativity left in movies. Even independent movies tend to be homages or remixes of the same old tropes and stories. However, occasionally one can find a truly original idea, one that relies less on the cliches of the past and more on creating the cliches of the future. It’s rare, but John Dies at the End is one such film… ironically it’s an adaptation, but aren’t all the greats? Well even if you don’t consider John Dies at the End one of the greats, it’s still true that it’s one of the weirdest, most and random, and frankly unique films to come out in a long time.

John Dies at the End is the story of… well it’s complicated. Meet Dave, just an average guy, that is until a weird encounter with a jamaican leads him to have to rescue his friend John, who’s fine except he’s high on something called Soy Sauce, which Dave gets accidentally injected with and this causes him to be able to remember things that haven’t happened yet and pull down the curtains of reality, until he’s interrupted by a stranger who puts a slug in his shirt and did I mention he’s telling this story to a reporter? Actually I guess the real question is that the same axe you used to kill the nazi with?

No I’m not bullshitting you. Yes thats all in the movie. Yes I wrote that summary intentionally confusing. If by now you’re completely turned off then odds are you wouldn’t like this movie. In fact there aren’t many people that would. John Dies at the End requires the pinnacle of belief suspension and that can only happen if you go with the flow. Either you figure out what’s going on and let slide the things that don’t make sense because they don’t make sense or you don’t. If you can accept John Dies at the End for what it is, then you’re in for a roller coaster ride of weird-ass fun. It has genuine twists and turns in the story and you get so lost in the film that you honestly have no idea where it’s going. There’s no formula or cliches to rely on and predict, just… strangeness.

The actual writing of John Dies at the End is extremely witty and the characters all feel like people despite the alienating things around them. They react quite similarly to how you do and that brings you closer to them as you are both trying to figure what the fuck is going on. The acting is fine, it’s not Oscar-worthy, but it’s never distracting and thats the important part. There’s actually a few notable actors in the film including Clancy Brown (The bad guy from Highlander and Lex Luthor in the DC animated universe), Doug Jones (Abe from Hellboy), and Paul Giamatti (A bunch of stuff, I don’t know he’s just really familiar), as well as a few notable voice actors from various shows and cartoons.

This movie clearly had a low budget, which isn’t surprising since no investor would put money into this movie. It never really shows in the camerawork or production design or anything, but it massively shows in the effects. John Dies at the End uses a mix of both CGI and practical effects, which is actually becoming a rarity these days, especially for low budget productions. These effects don’t look great and a lot of the practicals are frankly laughable, but there are still plenty of points where you don’t even notice and that means they did their job. Where the effects really falter is unfortunately the climax, where the enter the world of green-screened backgrounds. I think the theory was that there was no way they could afford to make that look good, so they decided to make their other effects look better. Which I was fine with, since by that point you’re so taken by the story you don’t give a shit anymore.

John Dies at the End is one of the most unique movies I’ve ever seen and for me it hit a lot of the notes I love to see in films or TV shows. So while I tried to remain objectionable, I clearly didn’t since this is going to become one of my favourite movies to watch. It’s most certainly not for everyone since it’s so fucking weird, but for those who can suspend their disbelief or are just intrigued by the concepts, this movie will stick in your brain forever as a fantastic film. It’s surrealistic and cult-moviey, but it’s a ton of fun. I both want to and don’t want to see more films like this. I would love to see more films take on the unique concepts in this movie, but at the same time I want John Dies at the End to stand as a purely unique and untouched jewel in the analogues of moviedom. Anyways, John Dies at the End is available on Netflix Instant, Amazon Prime, iTunes and Redbox.

The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya (2010) Review

The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya is the follow-up film to the beloved anime series of a similar title and in brief summary it’s fucking amazing. Taking the series as groundwork and using it to build a fantastic and heart-felt story, Disappearance manages to create a justified and satisfactory ending to the Haruhi story, even if you still want more at the end.

Disappearance picks up where the last episode (chronologically) ends and we are accompanied as always by the begrudging Kyon as he’s being dragged along for one of Haruhi’s schemes. The next day when he gets up and goes to school he finds that the world has changed and that no one knows who Haruhi is, or is there any evidence that she exists. With everything and everyone normal, Kyon struggles to find out what happened, what to do, and where in the world Haruhi is.

Lets get the technicals out of the way first. Practically everything about the original series is either maintained or improved on in Disappearance. The animation is even better then before, only showing weak spots on rare occasions. The music remains extremely well used, but this time there’s nary an annoying track to be found. The voice acting is astounding, with both Kyon (Crispin Freeman) and Nagato (Michelle Ruff) putting in memorable performances. The story is well paced and with little plot holes or objectionable content and the script is also good, with the same level of dialogue and wit being well balanced with more serious material. I really need to emphasize that the story is incredibly engaging and there are scenes that are so well done and impactful you may get goosebumps.

So yes. Go see it. Even if you haven’t seen the series give it a go. It’s themes are fascinating and it’s setting and story make it great for Christmas. What gets me most about this movie, and what really makes it a good film, is the characters. With a movie, you rarely have enough time to get particularly invested in the characters even if the story is more epic. With a TV show or anime you get invested, but the show rarely has a good finale to pay off your investment. However, with Disappearance, and with a lot of follow-up films to series (ie FMA, Firefly), you get an epic story that allows for all the proper payoffs with the characters you’d been hoping for. What Disappearance did for me was make me realize how much I was invested not just in Kyon, but in all of the characters. It had nods to subplots I had been curious about and it had callbacks to things that I had experienced with the characters (Endless Eight makes Nagato’s character parts all the more powerful). The SOS Brigade I realized meant the same to me as the Scoobies, Angel Investigations, the crew of Serenity, and the cast of Friends, Scrubs, HIMYM and Steins;Gate. They’re a group of people whose adventures I shared in a way, and who I got to see grow. There are so many poorly written movies and TV series these days that I’ll have to suffer through and hopefully along the way I’ll come across other characters to get invested in, but what Disappearance showed me by being a proper finale was that no matter what I can always come back to that club room and share in the adventures of Kyon, Koizami, Nagato, Ms. Asahina and the always happiness-spreading Haruhi Suzumiya. No I’m not some crazy fanboy of the series, as it’s in no way going to become an obsession of mine. It’s merely another moment of my life, but an enjoyable one. So don’t be a dummy and watch the show if only so that you too can take part in this excellent film. Unfortunately The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya isn’t available for legal streaming anywhere, but you can pick up the DVD again from Bandai Entertainment (until they go out of business).

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (2006/9) Review

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is a 28 episode anime comedy series from Kyoto Animation. It’s fierce fanbase is one that will claim betrayal against anyone who hasn’t even watched it. While Melancholy may be a fun and certainly unique series, it definitely isn’t as worthy of such standing as shows like Madoka Magica or Cowboy Bebop. What Melancholy does offer is a light, fun show (for the most part) topped to the brim with energy and imagination.

Kyon is your extremely average high school guy, but what isn’t average is the extremely odd, but beautiful Haruhi Suzumiya who sits behind him in class. After an off-handed remark Kyon inspires Haruhi to start her own club and after recruiting him, the quiet sole member of the literary club Yuki Nagato, the so kawaii Mikuru Asahina and the mysterious transfer student Itsuki Koizumi the SOS Brigade is born. Their mission: to seek out strange phenomena and in particular find time travelers, aliens and espers. However, Haruhi isn’t an ordinary girl, as it’s revealed to Kyon by the alien Nagato, time traveling Mikuru, and the esper Koizami that Haruhi is actually the unknowing, but all-powerful god of the universe and it’s up to Kyon to prevent her from finding out and accidentally destroying it.

What makes Melancholy an interesting watch is two fold: The bat shit insanity of the situations Haruhi puts her friends in and those friends themselves. The characters are really what make this show, and despite having little drama between them they’re a fun bunch to get invested in. The narrator for the series, Kyon, provides a fun spin on things with his sarcasm and wit. It should be noted that in the english dub, which is what I watched, he’s played by the excellent Crispin Freeman and he does a bang-up job of it. While we’re on the subject the english dub for Melancholy is rather nice, with solid performances all around even if it doesn’t have the same energy that the japanese does. Anyhoo back to the characters. The three supporting characters all fit into their anime stereotypes, but by the end of the series you have a sense that they’re more then that and that kind of character growth justifies the cliches for me. Haruhi herself tends to be one note, but looking at the series as a whole you can see that she actually has a complicated psyche and is much more then just “weird.”

The stories of Melancholy are often times simplistic, but they get blown out of proportion by the stakes involved. Something as simple as making a movie all of a sudden becomes an exercise in tension with the fate of the world riding on it. The show doesn’t really have any filler episodes since the status quo doesn’t change once the world is set up and all of the arcs no matter how long or short aren’t particularly earth-shattering. In fact it seems to me looking back on the series that… nothing really happened. Yes there was stuff, but comparing it to how much they could have done and how high the stakes were they actually did shockingly little. To me at least. Thats not to say the stories of Melancholy are bad, most of them are filled with witty dialogue and fun character bits to stay entertaining and the show does manage to repackage many anime cliches with a hint of Haruhi magic to freshen them up again.

The animation, done by Kyoto is rather good, but rarely is anything astounding. All the characters look consistently good, but there are several points where the animation quality drops when they’re farther away or in motion. The style itself is nothing too special, but the designs given to concepts like The Closed Space are rather interesting. The openings and endings have a fun energetic style to them and fit the rather good music well. The endings also have the characters doing a choreographed dance, which became incredibly popular and has appeared in every Kyoto show since. The score of the series is okay, with a range of music from jazz to pop and for the most part it does it’s job, but there are a couple extremely annoying songs that distract from their scenes.

Now before I wrap up it’s important I address the story arc that has sparked lots of controversy all over the internet: “Endless Eight.” “Endless Eight” finds our characters stuck in a time loop, forever repeating the last two weeks of summer. The only way to get out is to figure out what Haruhi wants to do before summer ends. In the first episode we see the characters go about their summer activities and have a good time. In episode 2 the same activities occur, but this time it’s discovered that they’re stuck in a time loop and they don’t know what to do about it. In episode 3 the characters have forgotten the time loop since time has reset, and so they go about same activities until they discover the time loop, but still they can’t do anything about it. Episode 4 has the same activities and the characters discover the time loop, but can’t do anything about it. Episode 5-7 repeat this trend until in episode 8 Kyon finally figures out a solution and the loop is broken. Now it’s not like the episodes repeat themselves, they are all animated separately and little things in the dialogue and the character interactions do change. Despite these changes you are pretty much watching the same episode 6-8 times depending on how you weigh the differences in the first and last episode. This is obviously hard to get through, but like a few films I’ve mentioned (Redline, Gravity) it’s an experience. It achieves something greater then the sum of it’s parts by you watching it and you can only get that by watching the entire thing. “Endless Eight” puts you into the shoes of Nagato who remembers all 15, 532 repetitions since her “mind” transcends time/space. This loop is massively important to her character and with each episode you slowly get dragged down by the tedium of it and you get painfully sympathetic. So while “Endless Eight” is a hard arc to watch, it is important to … at least once. After an initial viewing you can pick and choose what episodes to watch and I would probably recommend parts 1, 6, 7, and 8.

What damaged The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya most is that when it was aired, it wasn’t aired in the production release order, but rather in the chronological order of the events that occur. This completely screwed up the pacing of the series and while it did make some aspects of the story more obvious, they weren’t exactly unclear to begin with. So when watching Melancholy, make sure that the source you’re viewing it from starts with “Episode 00: Mikuru Asahina’s Adventure.” And with that said let me declare that The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is an extremely fun and entertaining show to watch, with lots of greats stories and characters that provide one of the most unique viewing experiences and one that could only be pulled off by anime. Melancholy is available from Crunchyroll and on DVD from Bandai Entertainment.

Sharknado (2013) Review

Sharknado. The title is a genius move on its own. It makes the movie everything stand out amongst all the crap coming out these days. It’s so grand of a name that it pushed the movie into the eye of pop culture, making it a social media phenomenon. While this cultural anomaly is worth examining, that’s not what I’ll be talking about. Instead I’ll be making the case that Sharknado is a good movie. Well, a good bad movie.

Every film has its purpose. Has its goals. Has a reaction it’s trying to illicit from an audience. A comedy wants to make you laugh, a drama wants to get you invested, a documentary wants to make you informed. And when one judges and critiques these films there is rarely a cross-breeding of expectations. You don’t criticize the documentary for not being funny enough and you don’t criticize the comedy for its lack of effective scares. However there is one thing all these movies have in common: they are trying to be good. Judging whether something’s good or not is the foundation of movie criticism and it really only in the past decade has started being challenged on that.* The idea of the so-bad-it’s-good movie has been around for awhile, but now quite a few filmmakers are striving to achieve that status. To make a movie so bad that it’s good.

This is where Sharknado comes in. Now right off the bat we can pass off the idea of the filmmakers unintentionally making their movie as bad as it is. When you sign on to a movie called Sharknado you know exactly what you’re getting into. There is no way you’ll make a movie called Sharknado the horror drama of the year because audiences can’t take it seriously. So why not just go balls to the wall? Make it a piece of shit, but an entertaining piece of shit. So with us throwing out the standard of examining if it’s good, we now have to examine if its bad qualities make it entertaining. And holy shit is Sharknado entertaining.

The story of Sharknado is that of bar owner Fin, who embarks on a quest to save his ex-wife (Tara Reid) and kids when a hurricane/water funnel/tornado full of sharks hits LA. Along with him for the ride is his Tasmanian best buddy Baz, his waitress/love interest(ish) Nova and frequent bar attendant George (John Heard). It’s obviously not the greatest of stories and the pacing can be uneven, but for the most part it is a non-stop thrill ride of shark attacks. What is important is that it’s rarely boring. You never have long 25 minute stretches like in other asylum movies where you want to tear your eyes out, which is really a mark of how good this bad movie actually is because it avoids the ultimate sin of filmmaking: boredom.

The acting is, of course, really bad. However, even if you got George Clooney and Meryl Streep to star in this movie no one would buy their performance as soon as they uttered the word “Sharknado.” So the acting is appropriate, with just enough cheese from some actors to balance out the woodenness of others. Tara Reid stands out as the complete brick wall of the movie and her asshole boyfriend gets the overacting award. The dialogue is really cheesy (of course), but it does attempt a little character development and is never confusing or misleading like in other films.

The actual directing and other camera work is adequate to sub-par with most of the movie being average and certain scenes so clumsily shot that it’s painful to watch, but you still get a sense of what’s going on. The continuity is a nightmare, with the either cloudy or sunny background being humorously swapped back and forth and especially with the copious amounts of stock footage.

The effects are hilariously bad, being the bastard child of a malfunctioning CGI computer. I don’t want to give away too much, but they are used effectively in the death scenes to create a mixture of awesomeness and cheesiness. They may be run of the mill for The Asylum, but a fresh audience will be taken aback by how blatantly bad a lot of the sharks look and how obvious the money shots of the movie are.

Sharknado is probably one of the most fun and entertaining recent movies to watch, especially with a group of friends. Not because it’s got the suspense of Jaws, but rather the opposite. It hits all the right notes of a bad b-movie without breaching into boredom or (on the other end of the spectrum) being too over the top. It does exactly what it intends to do and because of that I stand by my statement that Sharknado is a good (bad) movie. You know what you’re expecting if you want to see this and Sharknado delivers on those expectations. Sharknado recently became available on Netflix instant, and Amazon prime, as well as an upcoming DVD release from The Asylum.

*I’m aware that plenty of intentionally cheesy movies have existed before the 2000s, but with the internet and the independent movement, these films have exploded in number and popularity.