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Coney Island

Midway Mishaps for a Classical Comedy Partnership
Keaton and Arbuckle traipse around Brooklyn's little coastal amusement park, feuding over the affections of a flighty young female. In the process of exploring the grounds, they repeat many bits from preceding collaborations - Fatty batting his eyelashes whilst in drag, Buster weightlessly tumbling over obvious obstacles, both men exchanging food projectiles and kicks to the seat of their pants - but the spotlight share has shifted. Rather than a young hopeful, guest-starring on a much larger celebrity's turf, Coney Island features a more balanced partnership. Keaton actually gets a slim majority of the screen time and his role is definitely the more sympathetic of the two. He's coming into his own as a comedian, refining and improving his act with every appearance. No wonder Arbuckle kept casting him.

It's interesting to see the theme park in action, too, charming and delighting the olde-timey crowd with an assortment of thrill rides that wouldn't pass inspection today. Of course, the starring duo exploits this opportunity for all it's worth, misusing the rides until they spectacularly fail, so maybe I've let that cloud my judgement just a little bit. A curious film in that sense, possibly moreso to anyone with a personal connection to the island, but a bit on the shallow end in terms of story and fresh humor.

Cidade de Deus

Violence and Disregard Begets Violence and Disregard
A hauntingly real dive into Rio's seedy side, exploring the turf wars and drug scene of the city's worst neighborhood during the culture-rich 1970s. Beginning with an uncomfortably close look at their hopeless childhood living conditions, we see how, for many of these kids, guns and violence are literally their only chance at getting a leg up on life.

Not that they're all sympathetic victims, either: some people are just born bad. Most of them, actually, seem to prefer a short career of quick gains and tragic ends. Why slave away for fifty years, selling fish out of a rickety old cart like your parents, when you can just live fast and die young? Take the eventual warlord Li'l Dice/Li'l Z for example: a malicious orphan who discards his older friends' warnings and cuts a violent swath through the city, thugs and innocents alike, before he's old enough to shave. His brand of me-first barbarism spreads through the community like a plague, spawning countless imitators while earning fear and respect in equal measures.

Even the kids who try to make good, like the conflicted narrating photographer Rocket, dip their fingers into that drug-fueled honey jar when life gets tough. It's inescapable and, for a while, it all works out. The gangs enforce their own rules, a strict code that effectively eliminates random crime and establishes a sense of predictable normalcy for the unconnected population. It can't last forever, and it doesn't (there's an intense, if fleeting, power vacuum after the two bigwigs finally settle their score), but for a time that senseless chaos somehow produces its own twisted sense of order.

Cruel and unflinching, with an appropriately frantic visual character, City of God swings with power. It'll touch you and hurt you, attract and repulse, and ultimately stick in your gut for days.

Oh Doctor!

Unfunny and Unfocused; Arbuckle and Keaton are Capable of Much Better
An impulsive doctor takes his small family to the horse track for a bit of front-row excitement. Overhearing a hot gambling tip, he dumps his savings into a losing bet and swiftly tumbles into the manipulative paws of a crooked married couple. This nasty pair does their best to remove him from what's left of his estate, though they're really just as fundamentally inept as their quarry.

I wasn't feeling this one. The plot is transparent from the start, the constant shifts in scenery limit the crew's opportunities for ad-libbed laughs and Buster Keaton is wasted in an ill-fitting role as the doc's irritating young son. The story gets more direction than usual, given the age, genre and format, but that comes at the expense of the free-wheeling humor that is Arbuckle and Keaton's mutual forte. Nobody bats a thousand.

His Wedding Night

Fatty Arbuckle Wooes the Boss's Daughter Again
In something of a thematic follow-up to The Butcher Boy from just a few months prior, Fatty Arbuckle plays a drug store clerk with a thing for the owner's daughter. Despite the sweetness of his immediate wedding proposal and the usual array of silly antics and messy customer confrontations, Arbuckle's character explores some strangely dark corners in this one. Price-fixing the gasoline and taking swigs from the pump may be one thing, a disconcerting throwaway gag, but swapping perfume samples for chloroform is another, especially when he uses the opportunity to make advances on the kayoed shoppers. It's weird and out of place, a dirty turn for what's, otherwise, a very light-hearted romp around the soda fountain. Buster Keaton is kicking around the store, too, as a harried delivery boy recruited to model gowns for the bride-to-be, but he's a less active participant than usual and the comedy suffers for his absence. The best scene, pictured in most promotional materials, involves Arbuckle's ill-fated attempts to somehow get a live mule up on his shoulders. Strange but mostly amusing.

The Rough House

One-Note but Uproarious, Arbuckle and Keaton Burn Down the House
Housekeeping chaos for a well-off homeowner, his small cooking/cleaning staff and a visiting party of refined dinner guests with ulterior motives. As with most slapstick comedies of the day, it only takes a little nudge to transition from a sleepy ho-hum day around the house into a full-blown food fight with smoke in the air and a never-ending parade of head-over-heels pratfalls. This one spirals out of control in a hurry, with Fatty Arbuckle setting the bedroom ablaze before he's had his morning coffee and Buster Keaton flopping flat on his back twice in his first sixty seconds, then snowballs until Arbuckle is gleefully empying a gun into his own kitchen door while Keaton hurls butcher knives at the chef.

Honestly, there's very little to The Rough House beyond sight gags and ever-increasing stakes in a high rollers' game of physical one-upsmanship, but it's a riot when it's in the groove. Arbuckle and Keaton's brands of expressive comedy are compatible and complimentary, and their constant efforts to out-goof each other lead to increasingly rich rewards for the viewer. It doesn't mean much of anything, but it's a hilarious way to kill half an hour.

The Butcher Boy

Keaton's Film Debut (and Arbuckle's Second Indie Venture) is Light, but Amusing
Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton (in his first-ever film role) square off and ruin a humble neighborhood grocery in this early 20th century silent comedy. Arbuckle works the meat counter, carelessly flinging knives and beef slabs around the room whilst wooing the shopkeep's daughter, and Keaton tests his cinematic sea legs as a wiry customer with a pail needing molasses. The story couldn't be more rudimentary - it's just a troupe of well-versed vaudevillians, riffing on an idea - but the marquee names have strong chemistry right off the bat and that carries it a long way. The second reel, set in a girls-only boarding school with the big man disguised by a frilly dress, is more manic but less reliably entertaining.

Legend has it that Keaton nailed all his scenes on the very first take, unheard-of at the time, which got his foot in the door and earned him repeat roles in several future Arbuckle comedies. Curious in a historical sense, still good for a number of light laughs, but the storytelling is limited and the picture quality (even in the restored edition) is pretty rough.

Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini

Savini's Infamous Creatures Play Second Fiddle in This Drab Biography
The self-narrated life story of a respected horror effects master. Savini certainly has the credentials: he led the gore teams behind Dawn of the Dead, Creepshow and two early Friday the 13th entries, parlaying that cult stardom into a healthy fringe acting career later in life. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez are both longtime fans of his work, which led to small (but memorable) roles in From Dusk till Dawn, Django Unchained, both Machete movies and the like.

Savini seems like a genuinely nice guy, if a bit wacky and intense, but his story doesn't translate into an interesting biography. He's too polite to delve deep into the murkier aspects of his background - several rocky marriages, action in Vietnam and a difficult directing turn in 1990's Night of the Living Dead remake amount to nothing more than footnotes - which leaves very little dramatic meat on the bone. That void could've been filled with a more in-depth look at his special effects work, maybe a revealing glimpse into his creative process or running commentary on a few favorite scenes, but even that headline material is simply skirted and disregarded.

I'm not really sure how this chewed up ninety minutes. All the best bits are simple, regurgitated highlights from his filmography with no additional context or insight.


A Historically Important, if Thematically Dull, Sci-Fi Showcase
Fritz Lang's sci-fi godfather has been through several levels of re-cut hell over the past hundred years. Slashed by nearly an hour for its original western release, trimmed further by Nazi censors in 1936, color tinted and re-edited in the '80s (with a modern rock soundtrack) by Giorgio Moroder, then painstakingly restored for Blu-Ray in 2010, using lost footage from an old print in Buenos Aires. Up until now, my entire memory of the film comes from the Moroder version, which didn't make much sense from a story perspective but always wowed me with its wild, futuristic visions, ambitious special effects and expansive set designs.

The restored version offers improvement in both respects. Now cast in gorgeous monochrome, as intended, the art direction is even more stunning. New scenes and high-resolution scans give us new chances to admire the sprawling city, to really soak up the vast scale of Lang's concept. And the plot, naive and airy as it may be, actually moves in sensible directions now. It's incredibly slow moving and drawn-out, sure, overloaded with long shots of talking heads (which seems unnecessary for a silent picture) but at least it's headed somewhere.

As a long-time fan of the film, I'm glad to have finally seen the full thing. It's an iconic marvel, an artistic triumph that's, somehow, just as hypnotic now as it must've been in post-WWI Germany. That said, actually wading through the scenes without some sort of huge, dazzling art deco set piece, well, it can feel like work. I needed four sittings to get through this two-and-a-half hour behemoth, and I was personally invested before it hit my media shelf. First-timers will, no doubt, find it smothering. Deeply influential as a production, astounding as a purely visual showpiece, but critically flawed as a whole. Now excuse me while I revisit a few tunes from the 1984 release.


Medicore Comedy Meets a Basic, Digestible Sci-Fi Theme
A silly bit of '80s science fiction, in which a disgraced fighter pilot (Dennis Quaid) is shrunken to microscopic size (by way of... spinning really fast?) and then accidentally injected into Martin Short's ass. Whilst dodging fat cells and fighting the tides of a blood stream, Quaid dutifully explores the inner recesses of Short's body and, eventually, establishes contact with his unwitting host to guide himself towards salvation. Toss in a flaky supporting appearance by Meg Ryan, which almost instantly spawns a love triangle, and you've got the jist.

It's even dumber than it sounds. Many of Innerspace's best moments are when it embraces that truth and leans into the idiocy - the story's mustache-twirling villains are all playfully over-the-top - but it's wishy-washy about that and doesn't always seem like it's completely in on its own jokes. The plot is super redundant, too, with its heroes escaping capture no less than five different times and way too many evil masterminds / sinister henchmen crammed into the scenery. It does boast some decent special effects, and Short's energetic brand of physical humor is good for a few simplistic laughs, but otherwise it's just your basic cable-friendly time filler.

Safety Last!

Harold Lloyd, a Master of Anticipation, Manipulates Audiences Like a Puppeteer
Pretty standard silent comedy from Harold Lloyd, with a timeless, unforgettable third act. The setup is basic enough; it's the well-worn yarn of an ambitious young go-getter who moves to the city and finds that getting rich quick isn't quite as easy as he'd expected. He puts on an act for correspondence, boasting of a high-dollar lifestyle and shipping gifts to his girl while rent on his meager apartment goes unpaid; unwittingly spinning himself a flimsy web that tangles when the aforementioned love interest pops in for an unannounced visit. That leads to a few good bits of physical comedy, some crafty sleight of hand, several near-misses, but the premise drags after a while and the action is too often interrupted by unnecessary title cards.

It's only when he stumbles into a chance to actually make that long-sought bank, climbing the face of a twelve-story building as a promotional stunt, that the picture really hits its stride and jumps to a new level. Lloyd is incredible in these scenes, expertly toying with our anticipation and tempting fate with every step. He teeters on the brink (and even tumbles over the edge) countless times, always with a new gimmick or snare to up the ante, while the spectacular camera angles ensure that a crucial, cringing sense of risk is never lost.

I'd say the special effects hold up astonishingly for a century-old picture, but these weren't really effects at all. Though a misstep may not have led to *certain* death (a flimsy scaffold, just out of frame, allegedly provided some peace of mind), Lloyd was really gripping that skyscraper a hundred feet in the air, with an expansive view of 1920s Los Angeles spread out behind him. The gamble pays off; thanks to the seamless view, our subconscious worry makes for more nail-biting peril and quicker laughs when that tension is, momentarily, diffused. As a package, Safety Last is entertaining and well-made, but maybe not a top-notch example of the era. That last act, though, earns every last one of the callbacks and tributes it's been paid over the years.


Ridley Scott's Ancient Revenge Fantasy is a Burner, Through and Through
A number of giant, career-making performances (plus another impressive turn in the director's chair for Ridley Scott) fuel this rich, hard-hitting saga of betrayal, grief and revenge in imperial Rome. The dueling fates of Maximus (Russell Crowe) and Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) share the front and center, twin note-perfect parts that continuously clash over the spotlight, but dozens of supporting players also deserve recognition. Richard Harris as the guilt-ridden sage, Marcus Aurelius. Oliver Reed chewing scenery as a grizzled, cynical combatant-turned-slaver. Djimon Hounsou and Ralf Moeller, comrades in arms who convey an intimate, crucial sense of kinship. As an intensely emotion-driven story, Gladiator can't function without this level of acting power. In less capable hands, it might be laughed off the screen. With Crowe, Phoenix and company in command - and, again, Scott there to expertly piece it all together amid an appropriately epic score by Hans Zimmer - we're swept off our feet.

It's an enveloping film; a thick flood of sights, sounds and moods. We marvel over the bustling Roman Colosseum, tense our muscles in the raging chaos of battle, find peace in the metaphor of golden wheat fields as an afterlife. Maximus's justified outrage becomes our own, Commodus (with his barely-contained mania) our bane, and once it's got those hooks in, the script doesn't give an inch. An exceptionally powerful production, damn near perfect in all respects.

Menace II Society

An Earnest, Deep Dive into the Origins (and Repercussions) of Inner-City Violence
There's no such thing as an easy out, or an honest answer, for the children of LA's low-income housing projects. Particularly so in the early 90s, while the embers of the city's race riots still simmered and gang violence reached new levels with every passing day.

Menace doesn't flinch from any of that, depicting a tight-knit crew of conflicted teenagers that's neither heroic nor villainous. These are just kids, albeit kids with access to guns and ski masks, trying to sort out their place in society before the city rips them to pieces. They make bad decisions, as teens are wont to do, but also get caught in the crossfire of forces well beyond their control. Their daily lives are a whirling vortex of drugs, hormones, social influence and class warfare. No wonder they're so confused and cavalier, quick to resort to spontaneous violence. They're frustrated and overlooked, with a lack of guidance and compassion in their lives. Everybody's out to take what's theirs, so they either play the same game or go home empty handed. We can show compassion over the circumstances that produced them without celebrating the casualties of their noisy, adolescent snarls.

That message rings loud and true throughout the film's all-too-brief ninety-odd minutes. It's a boldly honest moment in time, a document of the sources behind such complicated injustice. Some of the acting performances might be wooden and recited, the independent-level production values occasionally transparent, but the raw emotion and brutal honesty is fair compensation. This one's gonna make you think.

Hauru no ugoku shiro

A Visually Spectacular Fantasy, Saddled with a Lightweight Plot
A relatively obscure Welsh fantasy novel provides the material for this, Miyazaki's follow-up to Spirited Away. It's a lovely marriage; two visions meant for one another. Howl's land of witches and wizards, steam-powered societies and shadowy machinations, calls back to several preceding chapters in the Studio Ghibli catalog, while still standing firm as its own original story.

The first hour is particularly good, setting the stage with the director's usual doses of playful imagination and enchanting personality. We've got magic doorways, talking flames, witches' curses, fantastic flying machines, ticker-tape military parades and, of course, gigantic palaces propelled by mechanical chicken legs. Ghibli always profits from these long establishing shots, having mastered the art of breathing life into a world and watching it blossom, and the opening act is stuffed with so much of it that I couldn't have wiped the smile from my lips if I'd tried.

It falls into a bit of a rut after that, struggling to stretch an airy premise into something larger and more meaningful. There's depth to the story, but much of it remains unrevealed as the plot meanders and stumbles its way to a hazy finale. The animation is great, as expected, with colorful characters and alluring scenarios to spare, but Howl grows lost after that initial sheen wears off.

Sin City

A Visually Daring, Intellectually Stunted, Love Letter to Crime Noir
Comic book legend Frank Miller snags an anthology-style feature film (and a co-director's chair) for his grim, noir-soaked passion project. Back in the 1990s, Miller used Sin City's contrast-rich visual style and crusty, x-rated subject matter to push the print medium to its limits. Now, with a similarly passionate, fringe-dwelling filmmaker along for the ride (that being Robert Rodriguez, he of Grindhouse and Desperado fame), he's placed himself in a great position to do the same for the silver screen.

In certain respects, the Sin City movie does everything it sets out to. It's gritty, edgy and cocksure. It's stuffed with big-name actors, playing roles that fit like a tight set of dark leather gloves. It's moody and violent, vulgar and cynical. With the exception of the aforementioned source material, nothing in the world looks like this. Start to finish, the whole film is a continuous rush of flavor and texture; a towering showcase of dynamic art direction and reckless digital risk-taking. Not every daring visual exercise pays off - a majority of the character interactions obviously involve actors on different sound stages - but I can admire the ambition behind sinking so much budget into what's effectively a million-dollar VFX demo reel.

That pervasive sense of style demands the whole spotlight, which is probably just as well because most of the writing (particularly the dialogue) doesn't make a smooth transition from page to screen. It's one thing to pay homage to the crime epics of old, something laudable and nostalgic, but Sin City carries that sleeve-worn admiration so far over the top, it can feel like a parody. The wife and I shared more than a few sidelong glances, scoffs and smirks as this one played out. Did they seriously just say that with a straight face? What's our tally of crippling groin injuries up to now? Its tendency to play fast and loose with the laws of gravity and physical vulnerability is another problem. In print, the space in-between panels affords us some essential creative license and smooths over such fuzziness. But there's no similar space to hide on the screen, just awkward transitions and mood-souring missteps.

Energetic, well-intentioned and bursting with creativity, Sin City's optics are betrayed by a script that badly needed a once-over by somebody outside the brain trust. Perversely entertaining; sometimes in good ways, sometimes in bad.

Alien: Resurrection

Inconsistent and Unrewardng, Alien 4 was a Bad Idea From the Start
Ripley returns, two hundred years after taking a Terminator-styled incinerator bath at the end of Alien³, this time as a genetic clone. Where a rogue military organization sourced her blood samples, not to mention how they also managed to duplicate the queen xenomorph incubating in her torso, well, let's just try not to think about that. The screenplay certainly doesn't.

Whatever the scientific explanation, it isn't foolproof. Both Ripley and the alien are imperfect replicas, each retaining bits and pieces of the other (temper, blood type, reproductive cycle) like a space-bound version of The Fly. Predictably, this experiment soon leads to disaster and we get back to the usual territory: Sigourney Weaver, sprinting through dim hallways and firing bulky weapons, en route to the last remaining escape vessel.

Screenwriter Joss Whedon (I know, I was surprised too) apparently intended this as a tongue-in-cheek take on the sci-fi genre, territory which he'd soon explore in Firefly and Serenity, and was aghast to see everything played so straight in the final film. I don't think the Alien franchise is a great place to experiment with that kind of tonal shift, but yes, Resurrection shouldn't be a source of pride. It has strengths - the special effects, for example, are a marked improvement over the last film - but they're quickly overshadowed by the rudimentary plot, repulsive climax and hammy, made-for-TV acting. That last point is surprising, given the big names in the cast. We've got Ron Perlman and Winona Ryder, in addition to Weaver and a bunch of seasoned supporting players; they just can't work any magic with this brand of stiff dialogue and cruddy genre tropes. Not good.

Dark City

High-Tempo, Genre-Spanning Gloom with an Arresting Visual Identity
Alex Proyas, director of 1994's similarly moody action gloomer The Crow, brings us this bleak vision of stifling, gothic noir in a bottled city that's never seen the sun. Super stylish and visually ambitious, it's a film with a boatload of high-concept revelations and almost no sense of chill. Even the editing refuses to take breaks, with jump cuts and extreme close-ups roughly every second-and-a-half for the entire duration. That gives the whole picture a feel of frantic energy, which suits the amnesiac protagonist in his confused quest for answers, but can be exhausting for the viewer. Sometimes we just need a few beats to let the message sink in.

Then again, when you've got as much thematic ammunition as Proyas does in Dark City, maybe such intellectual force-feedings are preferable to a four-hour running time. It's a motion picture that often transcends the value of its components, succeeding in spite of its missteps and shortcomings. Many key elements take the form of guilty pleasures, far better in practice than they have any right to be, from the Nosferatu-esque pale, thin men in long black coats to the wacky, Akira-influenced psychokinetic duels near the end. That carries over to the not-quite-polished special effects, too, which occasionally show their seams and stitches but, somehow, feel more honest and appreciable for it.

There's a lot to soak in here, maybe too much for one movie, but I admire the effort and thoroughly enjoyed the end product. Would-be viewers should be ready to think and pay attention, lest they find themselves washed away by the raging torrent of ideas.

Wo hu cang long

Ang Lee's Fable is Powerful in Both a Physical and a Philosophical Sense
Mythic, romantic kung-fu that functions under its own peculiar set of rules. Like a storybook, Crouching Tiger is more invested in a sense of poetic philosophy than the concrete laws of physical reality. Hence, gravity is treated as little more than a passing concern and we're released to enjoy a string of smooth, balletic airborne action scenes. Needless to say, they're all fantastic. Each one a unique member of the family, having swapped weaponry, dance partners and scenery from a wide pool of spectacular options. Hard-hitting but precise, it's a stunning display of form, strategy and blink-of-the-eye counter strikes, with the occasional dance across a serene lake thrown in to cut the tension.

The underlying story is rich and meaningful, too, though it is guilty of suddenly filling in a whole lot of back-story in one long, jolting flashback scene that chews up most of the second act. It's about hidden passions, personal guilt, the conflict between what looks right and what feels right... plus a lost comb and a stolen sword. Even undisputed masters on the battlefield must deal with private regrets after they've thrown the final blow.

A resonant Eastern epic that's chock full of memorable scenes, well-crafted characters, gorgeous locations and risky personal conflicts.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Eerie, Mysterious, Moody Sci-Fi from a Young Steven Spielberg
UFOs of all shapes and sizes nonchalantly buzz the dirt roads and rusty mailboxes of a rural midwest town, leaving both physical and emotional marks upon its residents. Those who encounter the flying saucers are fundamentally changed, an overnight mind swap which leads to all manner of frustration among friends, coworkers and family members. For story reasons, these mental milkshakes function as a sort of inefficient cross-species ham radio, rewiring brain waves to bridge a communication gap, but they also serve as a (perhaps unintentional) indictment of how society viewed psychological health in the late 70s. In fact, it could be argued that the whole climax - spacecraft, aliens and all - is a particularly loud, ambitious hallucination, but we won't go too far down that rabbit hole.

Even on a superficial level, Close Encounters works just fine. We chase the thread of an ambiguous mystery, encounter official organized responses, see spectacular sights, soak in an expertly-matched symphonic score (hats off to John Williams, once again) and share a sense of awe-struck wonder at the sheer magnitude of it all. That last bit, in particular, is worth emphasizing. Writer/director Steven Spielberg, fresh off the monster success of Jaws, leans heavily on anticipation and a looming sense of the unknown to add oodles of atmosphere to the picture. Especially in that pivotal final thirty minutes, when the whole plot comes together under the shadow of a funny-looking Wyoming rock formation, it's an eerie, unpredictable blend that reaps great rewards.

Heisei tanuki gassen ponpoko

An Amusing, if Over-Long, Playful Adventure with the Tanuki
While Tokyo swells and expands, clearing forest to accommodate its housing needs, a nearby tribe of free-spirited tanuki (Japanese raccoon-dog) hatches plans to defend its turf. That's the intention anyway, if everyone would just sit still and pay attention long enough to chart a course of action. Fortunately, they do have one ace up their sleeve: the long-fabled (and nearly forgotten) ability to shape-shift. Once unlocked and understood, this plays heavily into the tanuki's efforts to subvert construction crews - destructive pranks, mostly - but also their day-to-day appearance.

Effective animation is essential here, and Studio Ghibli is up to the task. Depending upon the critters' moods, they'll slide from super-realistic to ultra-expressive, often several times over the course of a single scene. Ghibli makes it all feel smooth and natural, enhancing the important bits with their usual assortment of small details and charming body language.

There isn't much to the story - all the fun is in the light spirit, zany transformations and oafish nature of the animals - and that's a problem as the duration grows and the climax remains elusive. It holds on for way too long, repeating the same beats three or four times too often. The first hour is a wonderful blast of unbridled creativity and innocent attitude, peaking in a wild parade scene that rivals the one in Paprika, but I was ready for it to end at least half an hour before it did.

Mimi wo sumaseba

Charming But Slow, This Isn't an Essential Ghibli
A sweet, small-scale anime, which explores all the awkwardness and inner conflict of young love, teen social anxiety and an emergent personal identity. As late summer winds gently blow, we contentedly explore a sleepy Tokyo suburb alongside an aspiring, if apprehensive, young writer. Stumbling upon old thrift shops and secret city perspectives, we delight alongside her, mutually appreciating the sense of freedom and discovery. Little adventures can be the most satisfying, like these fleeting chances to probe and examine the private character of her home town.

That aspect of the film makes for some great, charming, slice-of-life material. And the relationship drama, after school is back in session, doesn't feel overwrought or exaggerated, either. It just... lingers and lingers, way beyond the point of watch-checking and brow-raising. Slow pacing is essential to those earlier scenes, allowing us to really understand and appreciate both character and setting, but it's not as powerful or purposeful in these later bits. Peppered with the usual Studio Ghibli joys and pleasures, it's beautifully realized and sincere, just a bit staid and long in the tooth. The playful flights of imagination so lavishly promoted on the movie poster don't last even five minutes.


The Glorious Culmination of Ghibli's Early Period
I'm convinced this is the film Studio Ghibli spent its early years building up to. While previous efforts like Castle in the Sky and My Neighbor Totoro contained mythical elements - sleepy deities, spritely spirits, magic-tinged talents - the influence of god-level beings often feels secondary, relegated to a few enchanting (yet fleeting) glimpses. In Princess Mononoke, such divine creatures are essential, active participants. They speak, argue, swing their weight around. We aren't left to guess about their opinions or motivations, because their words and actions carry such a resonant influence. It's mesmerizingly effective, a contrast between the seemingly petty concerns of human tribes and the mass and muscle of a much heavier entity.

Mononoke represents a huge step up for the studio, particularly in that sense of scale. Rather than maintaining the quaint, intimate essence that typified their early output, this time Ghibli has gone sweeping and epic. Everything, from the ambitious, enveloping symphonic score to the wide, gorgeous landscapes and distinct environs, emphasizes this point. We've left the village to find there's a broad undiscovered world out there. Yet the distinguishing little touches and unspoken human gestures haven't been lost in the transition, either. It still looks and feels like a Miyazaki movie, calmingly earnest and heartstrong, but the canvas is larger and more potentially powerful. And man, do they make the most of that promise.

Shichinin no samurai

Influential, Subdued Samurai Action That's Well Ahead of its Time
A frantic farming community, having overheard local marauders' plans for a post-harvest raid, hires a band of masterless samurai for protection. As strategies are hatched and strongholds fortified, we get to know both villagers and warriors on a close, personal level, uncovering their stories as the seasons change and invasion grows imminent.

Legend has it that Kurosawa went far above and beyond in fleshing out this cast, composing detailed family trees and personality profiles for each of the hundred-plus roles to help his actors (even the extras) get under their characters' skin. That level of crazy hyper-focus is indicative of the whole production, which vastly overstepped its budget and shot for nearly four times longer than originally scheduled, but the results can't be denied.

Seven Samurai is a justifiably revered classic, a prototype for the modern action movie (not to mention a roadmap for the entire western genre), and a rich portrait of a very specific time and cultural relationship in Japanese history. It may linger too long - there's definitely still some fat on the bone in the two-hundred minute theatrical cut - but the extra quiet time with important characters pays off in the dramatic, joltingly conclusive, final conflict.

The Idle Class

Constant Laughs With a Side of Social Commentary
Twin billing for Charlie Chaplin in this delightful case of mistaken identity. Charlie plays both an upper-class husband, slave to alcohol, and the more familiar role of a dusty, scrappy, opportunistic tramp who merely goes with the flow, stumbling wherever the wind may blow. There's a mix-up, a confused wife, an irate father, fisticuffs at a costume party - simplistic stuff - but the star's effortless charisma, elaborate attention to detail and smooth physical charms lift it to another level.

When he's on a roll, I could spend hours watching Chaplin riff on everyday life, and in that sense The Idle Class represents a creative peak. He's irresistible in this picture; shrewdly thieving clubs on the golf course, craftily dodging the law at a ritzy banquet, sneaking rides on trains and cars; floating into trouble and then floating right back out again, largely unscathed. His physical comedy is a riot, continuously inventive, with deep, genuine belly laughs at every turn. It's marvelous.

While obvious concerns over classism linger on the fringe (this was the onset of the roaring twenties, after all), Chaplin lets those simmer in the viewer's mind rather than addressing them too head-on. The snooty, wealthy types are justifiably lampooned, the point is made, no need to harp on at the expense of the light-hearted laughs that are flowing so freely. An instant favorite.

Shoulder Arms

A Time Capsule Curiosity - Chaplin in the Trenches of WWI
A burgeoning Charlie Chaplin tackles World War I, before the gunsmoke had even cleared from the trenches. Actually, this was released two weeks before the Armistice(!), which serves as a pretty darn good frame of reference. Nobody was really sure how ready the public might be to laugh at such a fresh conflict - most studios opted to steer far clear - but Chaplin, ever the bold one, was perfectly willing to jab at it.

Here he portrays the usual: a sad sack caught in the midst of chaos, racing to stay a half-step ahead of his own inevitable destiny. He stumbles through boot camp, mires in flooded field barracks, mourns a lack of care packages, goes undercover (as a tree) and confronts the enemy; a breakneck tour that maintains a charmingly light attitude despite the grave subject matter. On sharpshooter duty, he notches kills with chalk on a nearby fence, then scrubs the mark when an unexpected return volley blows off his helmet. It's gallows humor that doesn't allow itself to get too hung up on the gallows.

The whole production is stuffed with this brand of quaint, silly, observational irreverence, but it's short on really big, resonant laughs. Comedy with a light foot, then, which makes sense considering the aforementioned misgivings about the topic. Shoulder Arms is fascinating from a historical perspective, and important in a developmental one, but several steps below the silent movie star's best material.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

Mel Hits the Road, One More Time, to Finish His Wasteland Trilogy
Mel Gibson climbs back into the black leather pants for a third run-around as George Miller's dusty, dystopian desert-goer, in what would be his curtain call with the franchise. Something of a paradox, Beyond Thunderdome is both a different beast from the other Max movies and, at the same time, cut from the same cloth.

The budget has certainly ballooned, lending a mainstream sheen to the formerly scrappy, seat-of-pants production. That influx of cash goes a long way, enabling Miller's vision to blossom into a genuine dash of unrestrained wasteland genius (the wardrobe, vehicle and environment designs are way ahead of their time), but the non-action scenes feel far softer and less confident than before. Chalk that up to the extra director, I guess, who kept an eye on the shop while Miller concentrated on getting the adrenaline-driven shots just right. There's still no shortage of inspired, alien weirdness, but it feels less essential, less purposeful. Tina Turner's bejeweled junkyard princess is a good example, talking and acting tough but lacking the conviction and follow-through to really make the role mean anything. Max's mid-act sidetrack to meet an oasis-dwelling troupe of forgotten children is equally hollow, like someone dropped the pilot episode of a spin-off series in the midst of the original film.

At least it all comes together for an appropriately white-knuckled sendoff: another epic, high-octane pileup with a colorful fleet of spike-trimmed desert buggies and flame-belching hot rods. I was beginning to wonder what'd become of all the eight-cylinder death machines that were so pervasive in preceding chapters.

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