25 February 2014

Episode 30 of The George Sanders Show Now Available!

Welcome to our annual Oscar Complaints episode of The George Sanders Show! This week Sean and I whine about inadequacies in 1936's Best Picture winner, The Great Ziegfeld, and point out every single thing wrong with the Academy's pick for the greatest film of 2002, Rob Marshall's Chicago. We also run down the inadequate films that we think will win at this year's ceremony, and then pick our favorites in each category because we're under the impression that we are better suited for this than people that are actually paid to work in the film industry. 

Listen now:

Feedback is welcome at thegeorgesandersshow[at]gmail[dot]com and @GeoSandersShow.

Next timeJason and the Argonauts & The Three Musketeers (2011)!

17 February 2014

Episode 29 of The George Sanders Show Now Available!

Tying in with the release of George Clooney's The Monuments Men, Sean and I ride the rails with Burt Lancaster in The Train, directed by John Frankenheimer. We then hop a freight through the majestic Pacific Northwest for a front row seat in Robert Aldrich's Emperor of the North, starring Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine. Meanwhile the deaths of Shirley Temple and Philip Seymour Hoffman bring us down, and our Cinemassential Train Films does not include Buster Keaton's The General.

All aboard!

Listen Now:


Feedback is welcome at thegeorgesandersshow[at]gmail[dot]com and @GeoSandersShow.

Next time: Our Oscar spectacular with The Great Ziegfeld and Rob Marshall's Chicago!

07 February 2014

The Witch Rises: On Kiki's Delivery Service

A young witch coming of age arrives in a seaside town to master her abilities. To do so she has left behind her family and her home, with nothing but a broom, a bag, and a cat by her side. The girl is a romantic and a bit of a klutz, longing for the ocean whilst crashing into trees. She is taken in by a kind woman on the verge of motherhood, who gives her a job and a home. An enthusiastic and indefatigable boy falls for her and pesters the young woman to be his friend. The witch makes pancakes. It is wonderful.

Kiki's Delivery Service is certainly one of the most low key films director Hayao Miyazaki has created. While at its center it has a protagonist with magical powers, the film is more often concerned with the minor moments in life that we all face, meeting a new person, getting over an illness, being bored behind a counter. There are no cat buses or cities in the sky. No one turns into a pig, a scarecrow or a giant forest god. More than any other movie, this Miyazaki film is about people. Most of them are strong, independent women of varied experience and expectations. All of them, every single character, even the non-humans, are rich. Think of Jeff the dog, a fleeting character who gets two minutes of screen time at most, much of that unconscious. The care in conceiving and animating the altruistic animal's movements tells us more than we could ever hope to know about a hound.

The animation throughout Kiki's Delivery Service is, in a word, astounding. The Ghibli backgrounds are all framable, a series of lush masterpieces depicting ornate cityscapes, quaint storefronts, and cozy houses. Miyazaki's undying passion for flight is on magnificent display as well. The attention to detail in Kiki's windblown skirt and the physics of making midair adjustments is second to none. Much of the enjoyment comes from the little nods to intricate care that Miyazaki sprinkles throughout. The brief pause as Kiki's dad lifts her up, adjusting for more weight than he expected; Kiki's brief slip as she rounds a corner running to save Tombo; even the mere inclusion of a once motionless train car falling into line as the cars preceding it begin moving is beautiful.

One of the most enjoyable elements of Kiki's Delivery Service is how practical it is despite the existence of magic. Sure, Kiki can fly and talk to cats but she still has to clean her room with a bucket and a brush. There are no Disney creatures popping out of the woodwork with a song and a helping paw. This is work. The assured dedication to one's goals is a common theme throughout the film. Kiki demands to help out around the house of an elderly woman and her caretaker after they pay her for a delivery that is canceled. Tombo boasts of how hard he needs to train in order to get his legs in shape to power his flying contraption. Ursula spends her days in the forest, sketching crows, and dedicating the entirety of her life to art.

Whilst sitting on the beach with Tombo after crashing his bicycle-plane, Kiki confides that although she used to love flying, the passion is gone now that she does it for a living. Upon returning home after this confession, the young witch discovers that her magic is missing. It's tempting to read Kiki's subsequent existential crisis as an allusion to Miyazaki himself, who by this point in his career had painstakingly finished his passion project, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and released what to this day is still his most beloved film, one whose title character went on to become not only a global phenomenon but the icon for the animation studio that he had founded. Was Miyazaki burned out? Did he think at this relatively early stage in his career that his best ideas were behind him? It is unclear.

What is known is that Miyazaki did not originally plan on directing the film but got so invested in the screenplay process that he jumped in head first immediately upon finishing My Neighbor Totoro. Kiki's Delivery Service was released a mere fifteen months later. When recently discussing his retirement, Miyazaki mentioned that each successive film is taking longer to complete than the last. It is astounding that at one point in an animation director's career, one who in particular, also writes his own screenplays and does much of the drawing himself, managed to knock out two indisputable masterpieces so close to one another. So this is what it was like to live during the same time as Mozart or Shakespeare.

04 February 2014

Baseball & Basho: On My Neighbors the Yamadas.

Isao Takahata's delightful My Neighbors the Yamadas is the most atypical film released by Studio Ghibli. Concerning the day-to-day lives of a three-generational Japanese family, with no real plot to speak of, its story is the most mundane of the company's pictures. It contains none of the fantasy elements that abound in co-owner Hayao Miyazaki's features. Even its source material is an odd choice for the studio, which on the occasion they choose to adapt, tends to take on Western works like Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle and Mary Norton's The Borrowers. Instead My Neighbors the Yamadas is based on a Japanese manga called Nono-chan by Hisaichi Ichii. This source material goes a long way in explaining the most obvious example of the film's uniqueness, its visual style, which abandons Ghibli's highly detailed anime look of lush backgrounds and detailed characters for a sparse, sketched quality.

Consigning the story to such a loose palette allows for flights of fancy that wouldn't be achievable in the normal Ghibli mode. These include reveries like riding a toboggan down a wedding cake and the appearance of a masked superhero, riding a scooter and firing pistols behind his back. At times the animation can be subtly complex. A late scene involving a motorcycle gang is drawn in a more realistic, yet still unfinished style, which is an inspired choice since it is the one scene that takes the family's story outside of itself, having the Yamadas' little world interrupted by the rest of reality.

To the Western viewer this style and the film's rhythms are reminiscent of comics beyond its source material, Charles Schultz's Peanuts in particular. The Yamadas even have a deadpan dog that seems to be smarter than everyone else. There is a quality to the comedy throughout that recalls the three-panel newspaper comics, which deliver a quick set-up-and-punchline delivery. Another classic American comic that comes to mind is Bill Watterson's immortal Calvin and Hobbes. This is most apparent in a scene that sees the father, Takashi, trying to get his television-transfixed family to get outside and experience the beautiful snowfall, which recalls nothing more than Calvin's dad on one of the family's ill-fated camping trips. Later on in the film, Takashi tries to interest his son Noburo in a game of catch. Noburo, who has previously shown an utter ineptitude for baseball, asks why and his dad says that catch is a form of bonding between fathers and sons. Noburo then suggests that if that is the ultimate goal, then there are plenty of other things the two can do. Cut to his father outside throwing a ball against a wall, alone. These moments cut deep.

One of the film's greatest achievements is this ability to sincerely capture the outlook and experience of each of the family's three generations. Takahata taps into the quiet revolutions that shape a child's existence, showing a frozen-faced Nonoko listening to her family discuss how she and Noboru might not exist if circumstances were different. Further up on the family tree, the aged matriarch, Shige, visits a friend in the hospital. Her friend gossips about the patient in the bed adjacent and is catty about most everything else. The two friends laugh and joke until Shige asks why exactly her friend is in the hospital, and her friend pauses before breaking into sobs. The answer remains unspoken but we see that the end is imminent and this casual visit was much more, a brief but bold respite from dire circumstances.

And yet, My Neighbors the Yamadas is far from melancholic. The film's repeated use of poetry (most often by Basho) to end its vignettes is more contemplative than emotional. In fact, the picture is the most consistently funny of all the Ghibli films. It's hard to believe that the same director helmed the devastating Grave of the Fireflies. The humor can be wry, broad, verbal, or visual depending on the scene, but it is never cheap. A great gag comes when mother Matsuko wants to watch a movie but her husband is in the middle of a baseball game. She steals the remote but Takashi blocks the device's signal by holding his newspaper up in front of the screen. Their fight for televisual supremacy is staged like a sword fight.

A common joke throughout the film is each family member's terrible forgetfulness. Umbrellas, lunches, briefcases, shoes, even children are left behind when one Yamada or another gets preoccupied. One of the film's longer sections occurs in the beginning when the family accidentally leaves little Nonoko asleep on a bench in a shopping center. The scene is very crucial to the rest of the picture as it clearly and convincingly lays out each family member's personality, both separately and in relation to the others. Both parents are distraught and distracted by their missing daughter so they chase after a car that left with Nonoko even though they don't know what direction it went in, or what it even looks like. Shige meanwhile chastises everyone for letting such a horrible thing happen, even though she was there and just as culpable as everyone else. Noburo says Nonoko will be fine, partly because he knows his sister better than anyone else and because he wants to get to a store before it closes. For her part, Nonoko sees the situation differently, thinking that her family got lost, not she, since she never left the bench.

And so this sweet little film stands on the shelf, sandwiched between epic tales like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and youthful flights of fancy like Ponyo. There the Yamadas sit, reading the newspaper and listening to the occasional Mahler. The parents watch their children stumble through a familiar rite of passage, while grandmother watches her grown children make the same mistakes she did. Then she forgets to get groceries again, so they all order sushi. This normal little family, leading funny lives just like you and me.