Tag Archives: Musical

“MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO” Review (✫✫✫✫)

My name isn’t Totoro, kids.  It’s Hayao Miyazaki. 

Now this is what we’re supposed to get when we go in to see an animation picture.  My Neighbor Totoro is everything you expect it to be, and equally as much everything you don’t expect it to be.  This is definitely a kids movie, intended to fulfill the needs of the most innocent and simple-minded of younger viewers.  But this is a rare treasure for adults too, a film that is equally fulfilling and emotionally appealing to older audiences as it is upbeat and joyous for the younger ones.

Taking place in 1950’s Japan, My Neighbor Totoro follows the story of two young sisters named Satsuki and Mei (English dub by Dakota and Elle Fanning), who are moving into their new home with their father Tatsuo (Tim Daly) in order to be closer to their mother in the hospital, Yasuko (Lea Salonga).  Their mother has been sick with an unknown disease for quite some time, and it really concerns the girls because they can’t even get her home for a visit.  Most affected is Satsuki, because her father is always busy, Mei is painstakingly afraid that her mother will leave them, and Satsuki is forced to be the strong one during this time of hardship.

Deep in the forest though, the girls encounter strange beasts of wonder and splendor.  There are these small, darkly black fuzz balls called soot spirits, who hibernate from one dark spot to another.  There are two bunny-like creatures, one white young one who can phase through objects like a ghost, and an older blue one who carries a knapsack of acorns with her everywhere.  Most fascinating though, is a giant, loud, gray beast called Totoro (Frank Welker), a gentle-hearted forest spirit who loves nothing more but to sleep and play on his flute in the silence of the night.  The girls are at first afraid of Totoro’s large, intimidating appearance, but through his gentle, kind-hearted spirit, learn to appreciate him and become friends with Totoro and the forest creatures.

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, My Neighbor Totoro is a rare animated film where the characters are as vibrant and colorful as the beautiful animation that is being expressed on screen.  You really just need to see these little girls in action: they’re one of the most energetic, emotional, endearing, and inspiring little characters I’ve ever seen.  I knew from the first moment I saw them that I would like them: they are these little oddballs of energy, two cute girls who are literally exploding with energy and enthusiasm as they run across the front lawn, or explore the mysteries of their upstairs attic.

The best moments, however, come from when the little girls encounter Totoro.  Looking from a straightforward perspective at Totoro, its a case of what you see is what you get.  He’s a big, fluffy creature who loves to eat, dance, fly, talk (and by talk, I mean roar loudly), and more than anything else, sleep.  If this were any other animated film, I would say the character was another interpretation of Garfield.

I, however, think Totoro is required for more fervent analysis.  I can’t help but look at Totoro like an emotional recompense for the girls, almost like an imaginary friend to distract them from the pain they experience everyday through their sick mother.  Kids with only one parent will know what I’m talking about: when the one you love is in pain or worse, they want everything in the world to distract them from the reality of what they are experiencing.  Its simply too painful for them to take in all at once.  They need something to distract them, to divert them from reality, and so the younger ones try to focus on something fictional that will put their mind at ease, like an imaginary friend for them to talk with.

Totoro reminds me of that imaginary friend.  Unlike an imaginary friend, however, Totoro is real, and this is proven through the interactions he has with the girls.  He is not just a simple-minded, unintelligent forest animal.  He is considerate towards the girls.  He cares for them.  He expresses real and genuine affection for the girls, and he shows this by dancing with them in the middle of the night, growing trees with them in their backyard, or by letting them ride his Cat Bus in cases of emergency.  Even though Totoro is fictional, he’s the most real thing in the movie, taking the girls story filled with hardship and tragedy and filling it with energy, enthusiasm, and life that cannot be faked in a movie.

Every single fiber of me wants to look at this movie and say it is a perfect film, but something stops me.  What is it?  It certainly isn’t the characters, the animation, the story, or the emotion being expressed on screen.  What is it then, if its none of the above?

Of course, I think.  Accessibility.  The weakness with this film, much like the stark foreign language films and the ancient black-and-white silent films, is that it strictly appeals to a certain audience.  You know what I’m talking about: what is the typical american viewer going to see, a boisterous and explosive action movie with big name actors starring in it, or some independent animated film made by some guy whose name they can’t even pronounce?  The weakness here is this: people who don’t like anime won’t like it, and probably shouldn’t see it, because this film mainly appeals to that same audience and culture through its story and through its execution.  Because of that, Totoro will lose some viewers in its audience.

But even then, is that the fault of the filmmaker for not conforming to their tastes, or the audiences for not being open about it?  Regardless of what you think, My Neighbor Totoro is a magical little film, an uplifting and wonderful fantasy that taps into the inner child in all of us, and in many ways reflects the behavior of children: animate, lifelike, endearing, sincere, and visually expressive.  It’s a movie whose characters are so precious and lifelike that a live-action portrayal couldn’t have been as real as this.  It’s a film that allows us to believe in miracles, even if we don’t necessarily believe in them.  And at the heart of it all is Totoro, a warm, fluffy forest spirit that only loves children more than he does sleeping on his favorite moss bed.

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“PITCH PERFECT” Review (✫✫)

Special appearance from the cast of “Glee”!  

Pitch Perfect is a predictable, formulaic film, a movie enveloped in its conventions, forcing in cliche characters, and bolstered only by its joyous music, which cannot help but seem misplaced in a movie like this.  It’s the sort of movie that doesn’t deserve the word “perfect” in its title.  I’d offer an alternative title, something shorter and more subtle such as simply Pitch, but I’ll advise against that for the fear of people mispronouncing it.

The story begins on a young and rebellious Beca Mitchell (Anna Kendrick), an aspiring DJ who dreams to one day become as popular as Skrillex or David Guetta (80’s kids, look them up on wikipedia).  Her father however, who just happens to be a professor at Barden University, encourages her to become more immersed in her education and to get more involved on campus.  Beca hates school and hates socializing even more, but will put up with it because her father will help her out with her DJ career if things don’t pan out at school like he wants them to.

She gets a job as an intern at a radio station, and ends up joining the Bellas, a group of diversified female singers who all compete at an acappella competition at the end of the year.  These girls are Aubrey (Anna Camp), the snotty, stuck-up leader of the Bellas, Chloe (Brittney Snow), the more civil and more approachable Bella out of the group, and Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), a woman who is determined to throw herself out there despite her weight and her unattractive appearance.  Just so you know, I’m not calling her “Fat Amy” on purpose.  That is the specific name she instructed the Bellas to call her when they mistakingly called her “Amy”.  I’ll bet her mother is proud of that, hearing her daughter wanting to be called Fat.

The Bellas were disqualified from the last competition because Aubrey vomited all over the front row of the audience last year (believe me, that wasn’t a pretty sight to see).  Aubrey, as a result, is even more strict about protocol, behavior, and song selection than before, and so now she functions as a sort of an acappella Hitler to these poor college girls who are just trying to find their place at this university.

Let me say something here: there is something seriously wrong with your picture if your best comedy comes from a girl called Fat Amy and the worst involves girls swimming in pools of vomit.  That’s not figurative, by the way, that is a literal reoccurring joke in the picture.  This is perhaps the biggest problem with the picture over everything else: the comedy is not funny.  It is not original, clever, precise, or even remotely well-written.  It is unbelievable, insincere, forced, and extremely ham-fisted.

Why do I say this?  Because not a single laugh was genuine.  Nothing was funny.  The jokes all involve typical cliches or moronic conventions, things you can find easily on a television network like ABC or Nickelodeon.  What other examples do I need to give, besides the vomit jokes?  How about awkward parents, preachy life lessons, bad singing, rapping, stereotypes, hazing and topics about sex?  I’ll thought I was watching a musical here, not an episode of “Kids In The Hall”.  

Oh yes, this film is not funny, but even worse are its characters, who are so unbelievable and overly-dramatized that they can only be in a movie.  These girls are an annoying, rambunctious sort, a group of absent-minded drama queens who worry only about what tradition they uphold or which boys they are sleeping with.  I know they’re meant to be seen as overly-expressive college archetypes, but for Pete’s sake, at least try to be more creative.  “High School Musical” had more interesting characters than this.

Anna Camp is both spoiled and paranoid, a woman who is an over-exaggerated negative picture of sorority girls.  Snow is meager, idle, and useless, there only to inspire Beca to join the Bellas, but not much else since she’s so passive when confronting Aubrey.  Kendrick is good as Beca, but not really that compelling, and even when she first appears on screen we get a sense that the script is going to force us through some deep, meaningful character romance even though it isn’t really that deep or meaningful.  The most compelling and talented actress here is Rebel Wilson as Fat Amy, who is so spirited and so enthusiastic in her role that she ends up more appealing than any of the other sorority brats in this movie.  Her attitude and her humor was uplifting and energetic, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she served as a sort of inspiration for overweight girls everywhere.  Dare I say I was turned on by her energy?  No, but she was close.  Really close.

Ultimately, Pitch Perfect is a flat, typical experience.  It provides nothing we haven‘t seen before and its immature handling only reveals more of its desperate copycat nature.  Why, then, am I giving it two stars when it’s story clearly deserves one?  That is because of the music.  If the movie accomplishes nothing else (and it doesn’t), it has the most beautiful covers and acappellas I’ve ever heard, even better than what most of what the TV show “Glee” produces.  There was one great moment where Kendrick even does an original acappella with only her voice, hands, and a plastic cup to use at her instruments.  That does not happen by insincere chance, fellow readers.  That is genuine, passionate talent, one that is evidenced in every beautiful note in these acappellas (although I don’t understand how a woman is capable of singing in baritone.  That’s another issue though).

Oh boy, am I going to get roasted for this.  What, I wonder, do people find so entertaining about this movie?  Look, I don’t expect a perfect film.  I don’t go into these things expecting to dislike them from the outset.  All I ask is that you have good singing, a solid story, and appealing characters for me to appreciate.  Here, the singing is incredible, but the dialogue is flat, the story is predictable, and the characters are more annoying and high-strung than the Kardashians.  Pitch please.

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“LES MISERABLES” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

An opera of unexpectedly epic proportions.  

The first thing that crossed my mind while watching Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables is that this entire story is based around truth.  Not a true story, mind you, but rather the truth about 1800’s great Britain.  In that time period, the country was engulfed in sadness, desperation, and revolution.  The rich outmatched the poor.  The sick and the hungry dominated the streets.  Employment was scarce.  In times like these, misery seemed to inhabit every dark corner, and God was hard to find in the shrinking light.

Perhaps this is also a metaphor for today’s world, but that’s besides the point.  Les Miserables shocked me with its energy, its spirit, and its mature handling of its subject matter.  If the film industry was a railroad, and the train is Les Miserables, Tom Hooper is the conductor, and he’s taking me through a roller-coaster of emotions that range from shock, to sadness, to grief, to anger, to loss, to laughter, and ultimately, to happiness.  How was I supposed to know that I would begin the film with a sulk as low as Russell Crowe’s beard and end the film with a smile beaming as brightly as the sun?

This is the kind of film that Les Miserables is: the kind that finds the light shining through the cracks in the concrete.  Based on both the original novel by Victor Hugo and the subsequent musical by Claude Schonberg, Les Miserables follows the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a convicted criminal in 1815, Great Britain who was put away nine years ago for stealing a loaf of bread.  After being released from prison and breaking parole, Javert (Russell Crowe) is tasked with finding him and imprisoning him once again.

But somewhere along the way, Jean’s hardened heart changes. He encounters Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a sick prostitute mother who greatly fears for what will become of her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen). After hearing her dying wish pleading for Cosette’s safety, Jean vows to find Cosette and raise her in the world as if she were his own child.

This is an emotion-stirring epic that is vast and grand beyond all comprehension. Directed by Tom Hooper, Oscar-winner for 2010’s The King’s Speech, Les Miserables is a movie that juggles emotional tensity with visual splendor and grandeur, with Hooper’s dignified set pieces shining brightly all over the place in a broadly dignified fashion.  The opening sequence in itself is bold and spectacular, beginning deep in British seawaters and lifting itself out of the water to show a view of British prisoners pulling a ship into the bay.  With the visua effects, there is a great historical context within this picture, focusing attentively to many issues in 1800’s France, including criminal treatment, poverty, child neglect and the French revolution.

At the same time though, this movie thrives as an aesthetic piece, with these characters conveying their thoughts and emotions through their powerful performances and voices through the film.  Russell Crowe is upright and stoic as Javert, a man committed to law and order to the point where it is almost inhumane and cruel.  Anne Hathaway is affectionate and masterful as Fantine, and her character is one of the more tragic characterizations I’ve come across in recent cinema.

Hugh Jackman, however, steals the show as Jean Valjean. He is a man who has experienced cruelty and unfairness firsthand and has hardened his heart so much just so he can survive in this world. But he is also a man who has gone through a change, a man who experienced a kindness and love that no one has shown him for so long. Jackman is brilliant in the lead role, and a powerful spiritual connotation is told through his fantastic, emotional journey through the perilous land of France.

Admittedly, the film is at times overly expressive, and the music is also overwhelming to the story. The plain and simple fact is that there’s too much of it in the picture: 98% of all of the performances in the film involve singing and music, and only one or two lines are spoken through lines of actual dialogue in this movie. Won’t people get tired of hearing just relentless music numbers one after the other?

But the important thing is that Les Miserables has the emotion to match the dramatic tension that is heard through the music. As far as story and character goes, Les Miserables is unparalleled, and draws in its viewer through the drama and tragedies the characters are experiencing.  I’ll admit, balance is an issue, and people might have trouble staying interested in a two-and-a-half hour musical.

This isn’t just a musical though. This is an opera of unexpectedly epic proportions.

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