Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Wind Rises ★★★★

    "The Wind Rises" is a Japanese animated historical drama that centers on the personal life of Jiro Horikoshi and his career as an aircraft designer in World War II-era Japan. This film features wonderfully hand drawn animation, along with a beautifully executed film score. With legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki lending his hand at writing and direction, this fictionalized tale of accomplished dreams and true love will leave you with a magical feeling of complete exuberance.

    This film begins with one of numerous spellbinding dream sequences that are to grace our presence. Young Jiro has a dream that introduces him to his love for planes and aviation. Astounded by this new found ambition, Jiro borrows an English aviation magazine, in which he diligently studies with an English dictionary to help translate. This leads into a second dream sequence that introduces us to one of the film's most convivial characters, Caproni, an Italian aircraft designer who is seemingly at the top of his game.

    Jiro has entered into the dream realm of Caproni, which is filled with phenomenal aircraft designs, friendly faces, and a backdrop of an endless green pasture and dazzling sun that will have you begging for spring. It is here that Caproni influences this young "Japanese boy" to follow through on his ambition and to become an airplane designer much like himself. In addition, this realm becomes the meeting place for these two friends, who have been fatefully brought together to express their passion and ideology for airplane mechanics.

Young Jiro with the great Caproni
    Accordingly, our story jumps ahead five years as Jiro is traveling by train back to Tokyo while on a break from his engineering studies. After briefly meeting a young girl named Naoko, the train and surrounding areas are hit with the devastating Great Kanto earthquake of 1923.
This scene will become the catalyst for the rest of the film and ultimately displays Miyazaki's brilliance in hand drawn animation. Naoko's maid suffers a broken leg in this traumatic event and, with the help of Jiro, she arrives safely back to her family. Jiro leaves and goes back to school where he eventually graduates and begins his work at an airplane manufacturer. Jiro's legacy will be defined by his devotion to this love for creating beautiful airplanes and his love for the young girl whom he met on the fateful day of the earthquake.

    The casting of voicing talents in this film are spot on and include some actors that you would never associate with Japanese animated characters. Joseph Gordon-Levitt provides the voice for the young protagonist of Jiro Horikoshi. Levitt executes this role brilliantly and for the duration of the film, you would never expect his voice to be behind this lovable character. Stanley Tucci lends his voice to the character of Caproni, who is very instrumental in guiding Jiro to the accomplishment of his goals as an aircraft designer; subsequently, helping Jiro discover himself.

    Hayao Miyazaki is a master at hand drawn animation. He displays a certain sense of elegance with the depiction of his characters, both internally and externally. (The faces and movements of the surrounding characters in the earthquake scene are proof of this.) The dream sequences complement this film exceptionally well and provide a much-needed release for our main character. Personally, I feel the scenes between Jiro and Caproni make this film and help to showcase the magic that you would normally expect from a Miyazaki production.

    "The Wind Rises" is a delicate and heartfelt film that will aspire even the most mundane of existences. The film sits just over the two-hour mark and will test the patience of the average moviegoer; however, it is well worth it. If you have never experienced the sensation of a well produced Japanese animated film, then this film would not be a bad start to begin your journey. It is exceedingly refreshing to see a two-dimensional film make it into the theater, even if it is not well received by mass audiences. We have become too accustomed to computer-generated films that try to replace story and character with over-the-top visuals and stunts.

    This film breathes new life into the world of animation with its marvelously inspiring symbolism and undertones. It may not possess the unique and extravagant worlds presented in other Miyazaki films, such as "Spirited Away," yet it is a picture to cherish, and it only adds to the legacy of one of the greatest animated film directors to ever engage the medium of film, Japanese or otherwise.

    "Airplanes are beautiful, cursed dreams, waiting for the sky to swallow them up."

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Insomnia ★★★

Image result for Insomnia 2002 film stills

    Sleep is a sine qua non. Every human being needs a tranquil night of sleep to live and to function properly. "Insomnia" is a 2002 thriller that centers on sleep deprivation and its effect on a veteran LAPD detective while he is working a young girl's homicide. This picture is a remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name. With direction by Christopher Nolan and featuring an all-star cast, "Insomnia" will delight and entertain with its fast-paced action and dark undertones.

     "Insomnia" begins with two LAPD detectives making their way by airplane to the small fishing town of Nightmute, Alaska. They have been assigned to help the local police force with a 17-year-old girl's murder. However, this is only one of numerous concerns that plague our central character, Will Dormer; Dormer is a veteran detective who has made reckless decisions in the past to guarantee that criminals remain behind bars. (Is this a crime?) Well, the internal affairs division of Los Angeles seems to think so, and they are knee-deep in an investigation of Dormer. Tagging along for this case is Dormer's younger and less perspicacious partner, Hap Eckhart. The relationship between the two is strenuous, to say the least, considering Eckhart intends to cut a deal with internal affairs to throw Dormer under the bus.

    Combine this with the fact that Nightmute is suffering from the perpetual daylight of the "midnight sun" and Dormer is in for a long work week.

    The murder victim is Kay Connell, and, after a small breakthrough by finding the girl's backpack, Dormer instructs for it to be replaced and to announce that it is missing. Consequently, this will inveigle the killer back to the scene of the crime where the detectives will be waiting. This particular scene, along with the aide of some thick fog, will set the blueprint for the rest of the film. Dormer will find himself in an even more precarious position than when he first arrives and realizes that he may have something in common with the would be killer.

    Our performances in "Insomnia" are modest to say the least, with the exception of Al Pacino, who even at an older age still proves that he has the mojo to carry a less than stellar cast. Pacino excels in the role of Will Dormer and demonstrates his experience as an actor. His dreary line filled face makes him an essential casting for this character, who, evidently, has seen one too many murders and has been beaten into submission by a career filled with dread and anxiety. Pacino's delicate performance breathes life into this gloomy film, and he displays flashes of brilliance in a few particular scenes, including a scene in which he interrogates and scorns a young girlfriend of Kay Connell.

    The rest of the cast is headed up by Robin Williams in his role as Walter Finch, a local writer, and admirer of the deceased teenage girl. Williams shines in this performance, which, unfortunately, is limited to phone conversations and short-lived dialogue. Nevertheless, Williams exhibits a sense of dignity and blends well with the character of Dormer. Their scenes together highlight this film and simply gives us a reason to watch. Hilary Swank, an Academy Award winning actress, rounds out this cast with her role as Ellie Burr, one of the local police officers of Nightmute. Swank is acceptable in her performance as a young and inexperienced detective who acts as a sponge in order to absorb all of Dormer's experience and intellect. Swank also converses well with Pacino and shows that she is more than just something sweet to look at.

    Christopher Nolan is best known for his role in the direction of the "Batman" trilogy of films and the much-overdone film "
    "Insomnia" is a subtle film that indulges in the concepts of guilt and culpability. It is a suitable remake of the Norwegian original that showcases the fine talents of an aging legend in Al Pacino. The luminescent town of Nightmute and the "midnight sun" prove to be an excellent component of the film. In addition, the plot does not care to try and deceive the viewer with the identity of the murderer with other insignificant characters. This is a rather ingenious technique that should be adopted by the numerous thrillers that will ultimately grace our lives in the coming years. This film thrills, entertains, and doesn't pretend to be what it is not.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Patriot Games ★★1/2

   "Patriot Games" is a 1992 film based on the novel of the same name written by Tom Clancy. It stars Harrison Ford as the title character of Jack Ryan, and it is the second movie in a series of novels and films to feature this protagonist. Ryan is an ex-CIA analyst turned U.S. Naval Academy professor who, after interfering with an attempted assassination, is thrown into a game of cat and mouse with the lives of himself and his family at stake. This is a technically sound film with moderate direction; however, it falls short simply because of its inept ability to blend a seemingly intricate plot with the action and suspense we expect from an entertaining film.

   This film begins with Jack Ryan and his family, consisting of his beautiful wife Catherine and his lovable daughter Sally, vacationing in London. After giving a guest speech at the British Royal Naval Academy, Ryan walks the short distance to meet his family at a local park. This is where Ryan witnesses an attempted assassination on the life of Lord Holmes, a British Secretary of State and member of the Royal Family. Of course, it is only an "attempted" assassination due to the heroic efforts of Jack. He disarms one culprit and, after being shot once himself in the shoulder, he proceeds to shoot two of the other assailants, killing one of them. This lone climatic event will spur the rest of the storyline in this film.

   The man that Jack Ryan disarms is Sean Miller, the older brother to the man Ryan kills. Although the plot consists of varying components underlying this attempt on Lord Holmes' life, (including Irish Republic Army strategy) the film becomes one-dimensional and focuses primarily on Sean Miller and his efforts to enact revenge on Ryan by killing him and his family. There is little action to fuel the flames and to keep the viewer interested. In fact, we are ultimately left with a film that has forgotten that it should rely on suspense and thrills instead of mundane dialogue and conversation.

   This picture has many familiar faces and consists of a very talented cast. As mentioned above, Harrison Ford stars as Jack Ryan and, although his performance is unblemished, this character lacks the enthusiasm and charisma that this film direly needs. Jack Ryan is a reserved and dignified individual who is suddenly pitted against a man hell-bent on his destruction. This does not bode well for Ryan and, throughout the film, we wait for him to display some sort of emotionally charged anger to no avail. (I assume that is why he was always an analyst and never much of a field operative, as he is not cut out for killing, even if there is the motivation for that action.)
   Anne Archer plays Catherine Ryan, a doctor and wife to Jack. Archer is a very talented actress with a resumé that speaks for itself. She provides an emotional outlet for Jack, among other things, but, unfortunately, her presence ultimately comes off as nothing more than a plot device. Without her, there would be no collateral for Sean Miller to act upon. The attempt on her life gives Jack Ryan a reason to once again get involved in CIA operations and to try and track down this man. Sean Bean delivers a mediocre performance as the principal bad guy, Sean Miller. This character lacks all the necessary components of what a "villain" should consist of. Miller's only ambition is to kill Ryan; consequently, making him one-dimensional and a rather boring character. There are two notable appearances by seasoned, veteran actors James Earl Jones and Samuel L. Jackson. They are limited in screen-time and dialogue; however, their performances help shake the calm waters.

   "Patriot Games" is a film that teeters on the lines of intrigue and boredom. I mean, Jack Ryan has all the essential qualities that we expect in a hero, but he lacks the emotional traits that lure us into caring for the individual. This is a thriller that seems to just run through the motions, and it doesn't evoke the best out of its story or the actors.

    It all leads to a rather unexciting conclusion where all of the characters are coincidentally in the same place at the same time, and it becomes just another example of a best-selling novel that is begrudgingly adapted to film. (There is no denying that Jack Ryan is best viewed in the black and white borders of a novel.) The big screen intimidates Jack Ryan, who ultimately comes off as nothing more than a poor man's James Bond.