Archive for the ‘Movie Review’ Category

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April 13, 2014: “Babette’s Feast”

April 13, 2014

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“Babette’s Feast” (1987) was one of the first ever DVDs I acquired for my movie collection. This film has a unique combination of being an “indie-foreign-foodie” category. It is based on a Isak Dinesen (the nom de plume of Karen Blixen, of “Out Of Africa” fame) short story. I’ve never seen a film that more perfectly communicates how excellent food effects humans: the artistry required to do it well, the generosity of making it, and how food not only satisfies and pleases, but may change one’s very outlook and attitude for life itself.

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The story takes place in Denmark, the Jutland coast, 1871. Two sisters, Martine and Philippa, are aging spinsters in a remote Lutheran village. The sisters spend most of their time (and money) doing good works for members of their dwindling and aging congregation of their father (now deceased) who was once minister.

Flashback to 40 years before. Martine and Philippa are young and beautiful, their father alive, and adamant about staving off all male attention to his daughters. The minister easily squashes the amorous advances from the young men in his congregation, but challenges arise from the outside world. The first is a young  ne’er-do-well lieutenant, banished to the Jutland coast to get his act together. Once Lieutenant Lorens Löwenhielm claps his eyes on Martine, he decides that she is the focus for a new life, one free from his child-like behavior with this beautiful angel by his side. By subtle means, the minister manages to unsettle the  lieutenant to the point that he sees Martine as a lost cause and then throws himself into a military career, giving up on true love…forever.

The second challenge takes the form of famed French opera star, Achille Papin, who craving solitude and silence, is visiting the Jutland coast. The silence only succeeds to point out to Papin that he is at to the end of his career. He happens to hear Philippa sing, and imagines tutoring not only a gifted protegé, but perhaps a lover as well. At a voice lesson the two practice Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which ‘tho classical to modern times, has enough “joie de vivre” to seems like porn to 19thC. Lutherans. Again with subtle pressure from the father, he compels Philippa to ask to stop voice lessons with Papin. […and the relish in which the minister does so…condemming as he has, both daughters to a lonely spinsterhood, far from their true capabilities and destinies, makes this viewer hate him not just a little.]

Back to 1871, on a stormy night, the sisters receive a visitor: a woman escaping the ravages of the French Revolution. She carries a letter from none other than Achille Papin, begging the sisters to take this woman into their service. He explains that General Gallifet has executed her husband and son, and that she herself has narrowly escaped with her life, but has lost everything. She is Babette Hersant, who Papin writes, “knows how to cook.”

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For 14 years, Babette is a servant to the two sisters. In that time, her Danish improves to the point that she has confidence to “tame” not only local merchants but also the constantly bickering congregation. Then, comes a communication from France informing Babette that she has won the annual lottery she has entered since her departure, to the sum of 10,000 francs! Babette asks the sisters to allow her to make a French meal for the 100th anniversary of the minister’s birth. As Babette has never asked for anything before, the sisters agree, but as materials start to arrive, they have second thoughts: live quails; a green turtle, WINE…what will all this do to the congregation?!!! Martine has a dream that the congregation ends up dead…or worse…dead drunk, because of the meal! Martine expresses her doubts to the congregation and they, comparing Babette’s meal to a “witches Sabbat” assure her that they will ignore the food as “no importance.”

A surprise, last-minute guest of the meal is non other than (now) General Löwenhielm, who acts as a kind of interpreter of how precious the meal truly is, to not only the congregation….but to the film viewer. His discoveries, observations, and amazements are lost on the other diners as they reply to his sophisticated exclamations with comments about the weather.

Babette’s Feast:
Green Turtle Soup (wine-Amontillado) [Green Turtle Soup served with turtle eggs]
Blinis Demidoff (wine-Veuve Clicquot 1860 Champangne) [a kind of pancake covered topped with sour cream, caviar and shallots]
Cailles en Sarcrphage (wine-Clos de Vouget 1845) [Babette’s’ own creation: a quail, stuffed with pate and truffle, baked in a puff pastry]
Salad of Belgian Endive with vinaigrette
Rum Cake with Candied Fruit, Cheese, and Fresh Fruit, for dessert
Coffee and Port

During the course of this meal, it is revealed that Babette was head-chef  at Paris’s famed “Cafe Anglais” and was most esteemed by the very General Gallifet who condemned her. Even more, Gallifet was quoted to say of Babette:

“This chef had the ability to transform a dinner into a kind of love affair, that made no distinction between the bodily appetite and the spiritual.”

One thing is clear: the special meal opens the hearts of the congregation to the point that past animosities are understood, forgiven, and forgotten, as…

“Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.”

[The true generosity of Babette is only revealed in the last frames of the film. “Babette’s Feast” touches on the ability of the artist to change the perception of the world by giving of their best, the importance of service and to return one’s debt to benefactors. Oddly, there is also a harmonious meld of extreme religious belief with the sensual appetite in “Babette’s Feast.”

I recently posted a Tweet stating that if asked what I believe in, I would say, “A good sandwich.” I didn’t mean to appear casual or as caustic by this. I simply do not know what power(s) govern my life or the lives of others. What I cannot deny is that…once and a while…the sporadic generosity of the creator/universe/powers-that-be, present itself in a way to what both believers and the unbelievers may not contest,

Babette's feast

“Never would you give a stone, to the child who begs for bread.”]

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August 04, 2013: From Small Acorns

August 4, 2013

Bachelor's RavioliOK…in my constant effort to leave the world a slightly better place than when I came into it, here’s one really for the girls, by way of the guys.

Seriously guys,  you already have mad skills that women appreciate. That changing of the tire, the dark, rainy night you were stranded in the middle of nowhere…she thought that was pretty cool. Facing the bat that invaded the house…she saw this as very brave and was glad you were around to handle it. Your ability to rewire the sound system for surround sound…very impressive. Your teaching her the phone apps and connecting her to her friends on Facebook she will always love you for. But…you need one more skill, ‘tho that may lay a tad out of your comfort zone:

You need to be competent with at least one meal or culinary skill.

You have to trust me on this guys. The time invested in a single culinary ability is minimal compared to the benefits. Staying out of the kitchen is an old-fashioned attitude and is not as macho as you might think. I am always amazed at men who lack a single skill making food. It comes off with you appearing incomplete and pretty pathetic, and while she probably doesn’t say so, I’m betting that she thinks so too.

I’m not suggesting you take a cooking course or anything. We’re talking one meal, or one skill. It will take a bit of research, a tiny amount of time, and perhaps (god forbid) a bit of soul-searching. Just make it something you can repeat, make it good, and look easy. I think I can promise you a favorable response from your loved one. You just might find it is easier than you think and it just may lead to other culinary endeavors.

“From small acorns, great oaks are grown.”

Proof? Sure. My first year out of school, I was dating an older woman who happened to be my project manager (i.e. “boss”). Wanting to impress her in an adult way, I offered to make dinner for her. I’ll never forget her reaction:

She: “You can cook?”
Me: “Can’t everyone?”
She: “I’ve never gone out with a man who has cooked for me.”

Never turning my back on an opportunity, however unimagined, by my completing a fairly competent meal, I scored in every way imaginable.

A few years back, my nephew was dating a woman and during one of my visits back home the idea came up for me to coach him on making a meal for her. Between he and I, we settled on a menu of Minestrone Soup, Seared Tenderloin Steaks (with a port reduction sauce); Broccoli Gratin, Duchess Potatoes, Endive Salad (with home-made croutons) and Chocolate Truffles for dessert. Some of these I made ahead, but the onus was on him to follow directions and square it all away. This was all a tad out of Jon’s comfort zone, but he loved the girl, and stepped up to plate…all for her.

I guess all’s well that ends well…and while I’m sure the meal was only a small piece of what Jon brought to the relationship, I can guarantee that the meal did no harm.  In fact, he married that lady and now our family is blessed with a charming and delightful addition! They were in town last week and asking her about her memory of the meal, her response was “Best meal of my life!”

If I could do it all over again, however, I think it would’ve been better to have taught Jon to make a meal that was more simple, something he could do easily and completely, himself. The other night I wanted ravioli. Now, sometimes I make my own ravioli from scratch, but that is a big process that I usually reserve for guests. On my own, I resort to frozen, pre-packaged variety. I usually make my own sauce, but this night I was feeling exceptionally lazy so made a dish so simple, anyone could do it:

Bachelor Ravioli
Remove a bag of pre-packaged ravioli from the freezer (most brands are pretty good. For variety, some brands have spinach and broccoli with the cheese inside.) You will split the bag between the two of you. It should be about 16-20 pieces altogether. In a large, non-stick skillet, heat 2 Tblsps. olive oil over medium heat for about a minute and reduce heat to medium-low. Add ravioli and immediately turn with a spatula. Gently turn ravioli every minute or so until golden brown (the cheese filling will slowly defrost and by the time the outside of ravioli is golden, the filling will be cooked.) In the last-minute of cooking, add spices. I added a grind of fresh pepper, a Tsp. each of basil, oregano and herbs de Provence. One last gentle stir and take off heat.

Serve with a side of meat if you like and a good salad. At the table squeeze half a lemon over both of your ravioli. A topping of fresh parmesan cheese would not hurt at all. Practice this recipe by yourself a couple of times so that you feel comfortable and facile doing it under the gaze of that special lady.

only_you1994OK. If you’ve come this far, I’m going make one more suggestion. I hear a lot of couples say that they never agree on the films they watch together. Traditionally, a lot of guys want the shoot-em-ups, sci-fi, or action, women want the films with a bit more depth. As with every part of a relationship, an even give-and-take is healthy. Now I see a lot of films of just about every genre. I can usually take or leave the “chick-flics” but I saw one the other night that was pretty palatable. Checking IMDB, it turns out a number of the comments were from young-ish, hertero males that liked it as well.  The film was “Only You” (1994) and stars a very young Robert Downey Jr. and Marisa Tomei as the leads in love (and a more handsome couple I cannot imagine!) Outside of the two leads, “Only You” is pretty standard RomCom but it has the benefit of having most of its action take place in Rome and other Italian cites, and it also plays tribute to the most delightful scene in any RomCom: the “Mouth of Truth” scene from “Roman Holiday.” “Only You” has a couple of character surprises, and has enough humor to appeal and hey guys…it stars freakin’ IRON MAN!

OnlyYou1The only bad point of the film is that it makes much of every man being a liar. Really, Hollywood??!!! EVERY man???!!!! So guys, if you take this one on, be prepared to possibly discuss a very invalid premise. Hopefully this will be a point of humor for the both of you.

There you go. Dinner and Movie from The World of Okonomy! Think of us the next time you pass an oak. Enjoy!

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May 02, 2013: “The Remains of the Day”

May 2, 2013

Stevens+Kenton[I remember liking the film “The Remains of the Day” (1991) when it first came out and revisiting it recently, I found that I liked it even better the second time around. For me, this is the Merchant/Ivory film. This viewing, I noticed that the novel the film is based on, was written by an Japanese author Kazuo Ishiguro. Smelling an “East-meets-West” story, I took out Ishiguro’s book, which has been one of the best novels I have read in some time.

ROTD-kazuo-ishiguroHaving written the blog for some time now, it is amusing to see certain themes pop up, particularly when they sometimes run contrary to the overall East-meets-West theme of the blog. My interest in English butlers can be found in my article “Timbale de Riz Epinard “and the idea of tying oneself to a worthy, and moral master can be found in “Good Masters All“]

Head-butler at Darlington Hall for more than twenty years, Jack Stevens has been lately practicing his “bantering.” Not through any real interest of his own, however. It’s just that Stevens has observed his relatively new American employer seems to enjoy this “bantering” and diligent as ever, Stevens seeks ever to please. He’s just not that good at it yet. In Stevens’ mind his repartees are well thought out and meticulously crafted. But, despite his best efforts, Stevens’ “banterings” seem to go right over the American’s head.

Stevens is about to embark upon which amount to him a very rare “expedition.” He is soon to travel a couple of counties away to visit the former housekeeper of Darlington Hall from twenty years ago. Stevens has been noticing that, in small ways to be sure but very evident to himself, tiny mistakes he is making now on a daily basis. Mistakes that worry him. Ever diligent to be the best butler he can be, his only solution is to try to convince Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn) who he esteems as no other in his profession, to return to Darlington Hall.

So Stevens tells himself. Stevens however, as usual, is not perceiving the full picture.

As he travels, Stevens reflects on his memories from the time of Miss Kenton’s first arrival. Miss Kenton is everything Stevens is not. Where Stevens is polite, Miss Kenton is provoking. Where he is remote, she is passionate. He-respectful, she-caring. He-the pit, she-the fruit. He is ice, she is fire. Both consummate professionals, both at the pinnacle of their respective jobs, we soon see (as viewers/readers) as well as everyone else (with the possible exception of Stevens) sees: that Stevens and Kenton are made for each other.

Perhaps it is that he is such the stickler for the rules and the big one being “no romances in Darlington Hall” that prevents Stevens from realizing just how good Miss Kenton would be for him. His performing his every action “by the book” while certainly professional, constantly removes Stevens from the more human aspects of his occupation. His goal of being a “great” butler somehow makes him…constantly, a diminished person. He continually acts as if he just fell to earth from another planet. Human motives and actions seem to just confuse him. Indeed, Stevens represents many aspects of Aspergers, highly functioning at his job, but oblivious to emotions…including his own at times.

Anthony Hopkins as StevensIt doesn’t help matters for Stevens that he has tied his cart to the wrong horse. The Lord of Darlington Hall is heading down a dangerous path. Although a good and honorable (to a fault) man, Lord Darlington, in the early 1930’s, advocates appeasement to Germany, which allows a Nazi foothold in England when she can least afford it. As Stevens is privy to every communication that takes place in Darlington Hall, this makes Stevens a kind of accomplice to the ultimate evils of this very bad path. The worst is when Darlington hires two Jewish girls as staff, reconsiders, then sends the girls back to Germany…to almost certain death. Stevens is instructed by Darlington to fire the girls, and Stevens, and once more following the book, and much to the consternation of Miss Kenton, does so. Darlington later regrets this decision, but it is far too late. He has pulled everyone at Darlington Hall into a net of guilt by this wrong act and all are punished for it.

Aside from such dark moments, both book and movie are riddled with scenes of humor, also. When his godson visits, Lord Darlington feels impelled to finally “inform” the young man of the “fact of life” prior to his upcoming wedding. Feigning a busy schedule (but most likely because he is uncomfortable…and perhaps, just because he can) he sends Stevens to do the chore!

[From the book:] …The young gentleman reached down into the attaché case at his feet and brought out a notebook and pencil. “Fire away, Stevens.”

I coughed again and set my voice into as impersonal a tone as I could manage.

“Sir David wishes you to know, sir, that ladies and gentlemen differ in several key respects.”

I must have paused a little to form my next phrase, for Mr Cardinal gave a sigh and said: “I’m only too aware of that, Stevens. Would you mind coming to the point?”

“You are aware, sir?”

“Father is perpetually underestimating me. I’ve done extensive reading and background work on this whole area.”

“Is that so, sir?”

“I’ve thought about virtually nothing else for the past month.”

“Really, sir. In that case, perhaps my message is rather redundant.”

“You can assure Father I’m very well briefed indeed. This attaché case” – he nudged it with his foot – “is chock-full of notes on every possible angle one can imagine.”

“Is that so, sir?”

“I really think I’ve thought through every permutation the human mind is capable of. I wish you’d reassure Father of that.”

“I will, sir.” Mr Cardinal seemed to relax a little. He prodded once more his attaché case – which I felt inclined to keep my eyes averted from – and said:

“I suppose you’ve been wondering why I never let go of this case. Well, now you know. Imagine if the wrong person opened it.”

“That would be most awkward, sir.”…

[It was this passage that cased some concern at work. Finding me in convulsions (of laughter…but that was not immediately evident) some kind people were a little anxious of my well-being. A quick “thumbs-up” and I was able to return to my reading…and laughter. It is never exactly clear what is supposed to be in the briefcase, but Ishiguro later has young master Cardinal say that he …”knows everything about fish…” so one could surmise that the briefcase contains his valued catalogs of fish!]

Remains_ServantsTableIn his journey and with his remembrances, we come to see that Stevens has come to sacrifice everything of true value to his ideal of service: family, personal honor, self-worth, conscience, and love. At the end, Stevens is heartbroken, disillusioned, regretful, and feeling that his life has been wasted. Sitting on a bench at a pier, where just a short time ago, he spent his last moments with Miss Kenton, he is not quite alone. On an adjoining bench there is man who strikes up a conversation with Stevens. It turns out that this man has also been a butler, but in smaller household than Darlington. In one of those rare magic gifts, fate has delivered to Stevens exactly what he needs most: a complete stranger who just happens to understand all that he has been through. A little too late, Stevens begins to open up to the stranger who, in return, offers Stevens a ready ear, good advice and a slightly used hankie (Stevens is unaware that he has begun to weep.)

DarlingtonHallAfter, Stevens waits for the pier lights to come on at dusk and to marvel in the constant effect that this event has upon the crowd: they “ooo” and  “aaah” and draw together in conversation. Observing those young people closest to him, whom he assumes are close friends, Stevens is amazed to discover that they were strangers only a moment ago. In a kind of way, the physical light has engendered another kind of light. Stevens attributes this automatic bonding to the skill of their “bantering” and resolves to improve his own bantering-skills during the return trip. Sadly, once more, Stevens has missed the mark. One could well imagine him making these awkward, baby-steps towards a full person for the rest of his life. However, it is the effort that counts most of all, and there are worse goals for Stevens…and for the rest of us, in the remains of the day, than to just keep reaching towards the light.

[Ishiguro has gone on record to say that he endeavored to write a universal story of a wasted life.  I cannot imagine that his background in both Japan and his adopted England, each (to an American perspective) with its own, unique societal reservations, did not inform the story. Be that as it may, both movie and book are a joy. I suggest watching the movie first, and if you like it, move on to the book, which has (as most books do) much more detail.

Christopher ReevesThe movie, as I have said, is the finest of Merchant/Ivory. Beautifully photographed, magnificently staged and wonderfully acted. Anthony Hopkins has said that there is no chemistry in acting, but I see it in spades with he and Emma Thompson. Their obvious affection for one another in real life is reflected in their roles. The “book” scene between them I consider not only one of the best acted scene in cinema, but also one of the most erotic (despite the characters being fully clothed and hardly even touching!) A young Hugh Grant as master Cardinal is both humorous and touching. The film is worth a watch if only to see Christopher Reeve, not only alive but walking, as Senator Lewis. The 2001 version of “Remains…” has a couple of documentaries, a good commentary and deleted scenes, including the ending from the book (above) which was acted to perfection by Hopkins, but not used in the film.]

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March 09, 2013: “Snow Falling on Cedars”

March 9, 2013

Snow Falling on Cedars_banner“Snow Falling on Cedars” (1999) has been on my film viewing list forever. After seeing it today, I feel it is a shame that I waited so long. Judging from reviews and how well it did at the box office, and knowing how Americans might see it as somewhat “messy” plot-wise, I can see why it hasn’t been given it’s due, but for me it was a near perfect cinematic experience.

snow-falling-on-cedars-poster“Snow Falling on Cedars” takes place on an island off the coast of Washington state, in the early 1950’s during a blizzard. A trial is about to take place for the murder of Carl, a local fisherman of Nordic-American descent, by another fisherman resident, Kazuo, of Japanese-American descent. The two men, although friends and fellow workers, were embroiled in a dispute over a tract of land that was deeded over to Carl’s family at the time that Japanese-Americans were interned in concentration camps at the start of WWII. Motive exists, but motive alone does not always guarantee guilt.

To add to the situation, Kazuo’s wife, Hatsue, has a history, since childhood, with a local small newspaper reporter, Ishmael, who is covering the trial. Carl has died under curious conditions by a blow to head, followed by drowning. A coroner has testified that a blow to Carl’s head was caused by a kendo strike. Kendo is Japanese sword fighting, practiced with wooden swords. This is circumstantial evidence against Kuzuo, who has been trained in kendo by his father. Kuzuo’s defender, Nels Gundmundsson attempts to fight the still rampant hatred against post-war Japanese-Americans to find justice for Kuzuo.

snowfallingcedars-0002Part of what makes “Snow Falling…” work so well is the inherent claustrophobia of the situation, from the outside-in: an island is isolated further by a snowstorm. Most of the drama of the present takes place in a courtroom, further narrowing the present-day story to a very select time and place. This frees the story to a series of  flashbacks from the past of each character to flesh out how each of them arrived to the present, presenting clues about each of their lives, as well as those pertinent to the trial. In these flashbacks, we discover the romance between Ishmael and Hatsue from early childhood in pre-war conditions. Hatsue’s mother is against a union between the two youths, and steers Hatsue towards a Japanese match, while Ishmael’s father, himself a newspaper reporter and publisher, advocates the rights of the Japanese-Americans. As war breaks out, Kuzuo’s father is forced to deed his land off before he and his family is forced into internment in California. At the internment camp, Hatsue meets Kuzuo and having told Ishmael that her love for him is impossible, she marries Kuzuo.

Now rivals, both Ishmael and Kuzuo go off to war, but to very different arenas: Ishmael to the Pacific, to (oddly) fight the Japanese, Kuzuo to  Europe (most likely in one of the Nisei units) to fight Germans. Both return wounded: Ishmael almost drowns and loses an arm as well as his heart with Hatsue’s rejection. Kuzuo is wounded by being haunted of having unjustly killed a young German soldier.

Normally, flashbacks in movies are a clumsy device, but “Snow Falling…” does it very well, using sounds and images that trigger the flashbacks of each person, and as such, the movie addresses the very nature of perceptions and memories, and how extremely important both are to witnesses in a trial of law. As Hatsue says, when being grilled by the District Attorney, “Trials aren’t only about truth, even though they should be…”

IshmaelOne reason “Snow Falling…” has not reached popular appeal is because it is hard to classify: is “Snow Falling…” a period piece, a love story, a courtroom drama, a mystery? It actually is all of these. There is also the untidy and unfamiliar character traits (to Hollywood-ized viewers) that the leads have: we want Hatsue to love the “right” man (Ishmael) but her love is in question and consequently she marries Kuzuo. We want Ishmael to follow in his father’s honorable footsteps, but this legacy is questioned even by Ishmael, himself. Even the innocence of Kuzuo is suspect when he admits he did want to kill Carl. In a lot of ways, “Snow Falling…” is most like “To Kill a Mockingbird” in tone and message. but while the “…Mockingbird” story is more distilled down, “Snow Falling on Cedars” is much better produced and much more interesting. Both films address doing the honorable deed for all the right reasons.

As far as courtroom dramas, “…Mockingbird” and “Snow Falling…” are neck and neck. Our courtrooms should be the arena where the best of our laws (and indeed the best of our very natures) should be most evident, yet sadly they are not always. This is shown when the District Attorney sums up his case against Kuzuo,

“Look clearly at the defendant. See the truth, self-evident in him…Consider his face. Ask yourself, each one of you: ‘What is my duty as a citizen of this community? Of this country? As an American?'”

As rebuttal, the defense lawyer, Gundmundsson (played wonderfully by Max von Sydow) tells the jury,

“‘Look at his face,’ the prosecutor said, presuming that you will see an enemy there…Now, our learned prosecutor will have you do your duty as Americans…You may think that this is a small trial, in a small place. Hmm? Well. It isn’t. Every once in a while, somewhere in the world, humanity goes on trial. And integrity. And decency. Every once in a while, ordinary people just like you, ladies and gentlemen, get called on to give the report card for the human race!”snow-falling-on-cedarspreview

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January 29, 2013: Betwixt Two Worlds

January 29, 2013

Arrietty_and_Sean_in-fieldSoooooo….take a popular 1952 British story based on updated Celtic faerie imagery, further update it to a modern Japan anime. Then, translate the Japanese into English (with well-known and talented British actors in the speaking parts.) Transport the film to America, where Disney (who now controls the film’s distribution rights) feels somehow compelled to translate the British-English into American-English! Confused yet? With all these transformations, it takes a truly substantial and entertaining story to roll with all the changes. Somehow though, “The Secret World of Arrietty” does just that!

arrietty_under_leaf.jpgStudio Ghibli’s “The Secret World of Arrietty” is based on “The Brorrowers” by Mary Norton. “The Borrowers” were actually a series (a total of five) of books about small (about 5″) human-like creatures that live within, yet out of sight of, human households. Their name comes from their symbiotic habit of “borrowing”  materials that they need to live, from the “human beans” they live among, at the same time trying desperately not to be seen by those “beans.” The heroine of the story, Arrietty Clock (14 years old), lives with her father Pod, and mother Homily underneath the kitchen floorboards of a cottage in the English countryside. The Clock family have stories of other “Borrowers” but the reader/viewer sees no evidence of them for some time. Unlike the Celtic faerie creatures, “The Borrowers” do not have any magical ability, and seem to be just very small versions of the “beans” they live with. Their world is fraught with danger, not only from animals like cats and birds, but that a discovery of them by the “beans” would mean their expulsion into the wild, with all the dangers that represents.

Arrietty_and Sean“The Secret World of Arrietty” begins with the arrival of a young (human) boy (also about 14 years old) Shawn, at the cottage. Shawn is ill with a heart condition, from which he believes will soon die. Upon arriving, he notices Arrietty in the field outside of the house. On her first “borrowing” (an implied right of passage) Arrietty is seen, and mildly confronted, by Shawn. Once having met, they begin to learn more about, and ultimately trust one another, while both try to keep the secret of “The Borrowers” away from the other “beans” of the cottage.

“The Secret World of Arrietty” is only the latest film version of Mary Norton’s popular book. There was a 2011 TV movie; a 1997 film; a 1992 TV movie all called “The Borrowers.” I managed to find and watch the 1973 TV movie starring Eddie Albert as Pod, and this one comes closest to the book. This version also has, (while dated by 2013 standards) some pretty decent FX for its time.

While a few things managed to  twist the experience, I loved a lot of “The Secret World of Arrietty.” First, Studio  Ghibli’s films just get more and more visually detailed and beautiful! Second, the background sound is well done, often emphasized as it would be heard, made by large objects to tiny ears. I loved the instrumental music pieces and they were largely harp, very well suited to the faerie-like imagery. Most of the songs were very well suited, as well.

ForestI intend to write another article on Japanese-English translations as the problems of these are manifold. But really, what was the justification of the American-English version? Disney…c’mon you had fantastic voice talent with Mark Strong playing Pod and Saorise Ronan as Arrietty in the British-English version. That’s the version that I wanted to hear! Despite popular and talented voice talent of the likes of Amy Poehler and Carol Burnett, the American-English version was voiced alternately too flat or too shrill. A pop-song tacked onto the end-credits sounded totally inappropriate. Curious, I researched it and I found out it was sung by the young woman voicing Arrietty in the Disney version. This then, was just  shameless Disney promotion of their talent, and was totally unnecessary and discordant. The filmmakers left a large part of the original story intact, but their changes were just…confusing. They chose to introduce the character of “Spiller” in this story, when he doesn’t appear until the second “Borrowers” story. I haven’t read this one yet but I highly doubt he looks Ainu, like the “Spiller” from this film does. Either way, this choice seems odd, discriminatory, and just plain wrong.

Sean_in_fieldThe other change…the biggest and worst…was to make Arrietty and the boy Shawn the same age. In the book, the “bean” boy is 1o years old to Arrietty’s 14 years old. This is a huge psychological/emotional gulf. I know that in “…Ariettey” they were trying to set up a Tweeny-Twilight knd of romance there, but it just comes out distracting. Witness the scores of IMDB-ers who question the possibility of a “romance” when they consider the two characters’ large size difference. If a plot point takes you out of the film, it’s just not worth doing it. It is especially harmful, as the “romance” takes  a lot of the strength from the main character of Arrietty. In the book, she is clearly more mature, self-possessed.  and emotionally sound than the younger boy, and she often corrects his rather petulant behavior. Norton seems to be saying that a smaller physical size and being female does not mean you are not in control of your life. Losing Arrietty’s strength for “romance” is not a good, nor wise, trade for the character.

However, there is still much to like about “The Secret World of Arrietty” not the least is an interesting retelling of a perennial favorite. As the only Studio Gihbli film to sport a “G” rating, this makes it a good one for the kids.I leave it to the parents to de-program the Disney-fied parts. Oh…and to read the originals to the kids at bedtime.

[My thanks to the Hudson Public Library for supplying not only the film, but the Mary Norton original book.]

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January 18, 2013: Revisiting “Spirited Away”

January 18, 2013
Some really fantastic fanart of "Spirited Away" by Silver Melody

Some really fantastic fanart of “Spirited Away” by Silver Melody

I had the pleasure of seeing “Spirited Away” in theaters back when it first came to the states in 2001. Thanks to the Hudson Public Library I was too able to revisit it (as well as eleven other Studio Ghibli animations) in a great boxed set I discovered on their shelves.

“Spirited Away” is one of the most popular animations of all film history, not only in Japan (where it has won many awards and was the first film to surpass “Titanic” in sales there) but also pretty much the rest of the world as well. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, much in the vein of classic “coming of age” tales such as “Alice in Wonderland” “Peter Pan” and “The Wizard of Oz,” “Spirited Away” follows the adventures of ten-year-old girl, Chihiro, as she is mystically transported to an “otherworld” to suffer the bewilderment and loneliness of a stranger in a strange land. Foreign to the “rules” of this world, she is forced to find aid from the otherworldy people and creatures she finds there to overcome adversity, learn what is important, gain strength, find acceptance, and eventually…love, only then to find a way back home again.

Chihiro on Street_smAt the beginning of “Spirited Away” Chihiro, her mom and dad are traveling to a new town where they are moving. Close to their new house, the dad takes a wrong turn and comes to a dead-end of a standing stone in front of a tunnel. Curious, they enter the tunnel which comes out in a kind of abandoned amusement park. The parents notice that all the shops are restaurants, and eventually settle on one to begin eating. Chihiro, who is bit freaked out by the eerie surroundings to eat with them, walks on and finds a boy, Haku, who is surprised to find her there and anxiously orders her to return or else she will be trapped there if she doesn’t return before nightfall. As night descends, the park lights illuminate a town filled with specters. Chihiro runs back to the restaurant where she left her parents to find them transformed into pigs!

spirited-away-smChihiro is forced to return to the bath-house, which is the center of the town, where she starts to disappear, but before she can dissolve completely, she is rescued by Haku who feeds her a berry that restores her. Haku tells her that to prevent being turned into an animal herself, Chihiro’s only recourse is to find work from the witch, Yubaba, who runs the onsen (bath-house.) Chihiro strikes a bargain with Yubaba, who’s contract includes stealing Chihiro’s name. The work turns out to be a bit harder and bizarre than Chihiro expects as the onsen’s clientele are “gods” (but to Western eyes, they appear more like monsters.) One creature that Chihiro keeps running into is Nil-Face: a dark and insubstantial spirit with a blank expression and a rather innocent and benign temperament. Nil-Face helps Chihiro gain favor, aiding her to clean a “Stink-god” who then transforms into a river-god after the bath, leaving behind gold amidst the muck. Nil-Face notices the appeal the gold has on the staff and uses it to gain service for an outrageous amount of food. As Nil-Face consumes, he grows…and changes. He becomes more aggressive and eventually violent. He tries to tempt Chihiro with gold, but she resists and feeds him a charm that makes him disgorge the food, transforming him back into his benign form.

The story continues with more adventures for Chihiro, including a considerable amount of magic; a rivalry between Yubaba and her “good” twin sister Zeniba; the true nature of Haku, his prior history with Chihiro, and an assortment of odd “otherworld” characters…not the least of which is Yubaba’s 500Lb. “baby.”

“Spirited Away” is wonderful on many levels: first, the animation is just gorgeous. Not only the character animation, but even the backgrounds are stunning! The music is very well done, throughout, culminating with an especially pretty vocal piece for the credit sequence. Rich in details, I pick up something new from “Spirited Away” with each viewing. As always, story must be king and “Spirited Away” has a depth of story that draws on a plethora of mythological images, themes, and ideas from not only Japan, but from European sources as well. It’s one of those great films that prompt a good after-film-coffee discussion. There are better and more learned sources for the Japanese mythology, but either as part of the collective unconscious, or borrowed directly from the European sources I was familiar with, there were a couple of things that jumped out at me that really made the story work.

Chi+Nil-Face_on_trainFirst, the structure of “transport” into the spirit or faerie realm as the tunnel guarded by a standing stone could be straight from the many of Celtic legends of “faerie hills” that have just such a construction. Once within the faerie world there are rules: humans must never eat faerie food. To do so will bind you to that world and erase your memory of the mortal world. [Persephone, daughter the harvest-goddess Demeter, was condemned to six months in Hell for eating six pomegranate seeds given by Hades, which is why we have Winter.] It is careful that you never reveal your true name, as this will allow power over you by the faerie. [The clever Odysseus goes by the moniker “Noman” so that his actions against the gods can be said to be done by “no-man.”] Also borrowed from the Odyssey is the witch, Circe, transforming Odysseus’s men into pigs. There is usually a faerie guide in these stories to aid the human caught in their world. This guide normally does not return to the mortal realm with the hero(ine.)

Miyazaki weaves his own personal beliefs and experiences among the classical themes, to good effect. His protest over human disregard for the environment is shown in the transformation of the “Stink-god” into a “River-god” through the ritual bath. He seems to say that it is up to the compassion of youth today to act in order cleanse away the ills of our pollution of nature. With the transformation of the benign Nil-Face into a monster/destroyer, Miyazaki seems to suggest that avarice/desire is the antithesis of spirit and will destroy harmony of the self. Miyazaki has been quoted saying “Everyone has a Nil-Face within themselves.”

Of course, whether it is Alice, Wendy, Dorothy, and now, Chihiro, the most important theme of these stories is that in order to overcome adversity (not to mention just plain weirdness) pass from childhood into adulthood, and to finally return safely home, you must be first find…and then be true, to yourself.

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December 14, 2012: Christmas in the Trenches

December 14, 2012

Joyeux NoelI’m a big fan of a number of movies that have to do with Christmas. All are wonderful stories of how the season can affect people. There is one film that is unique in that is based on a real historical event, an event  that one may argue represents a true miracle of how the spirit of the season can change even the worst of human behavior…that of our ability to wage war.

At Christmas Eve, 1914, in the heart of the first World War, up and down the front line, men from warring nations met in “no man’s land” the plain between the trenches that separated the two sides, to call a cease to hostilities. I was first introduced to this amazing story through the song “Christmas in the Trenches” by John McCutcheon. In reality, there were many stories of this behavior during WWI, much as the army leaders of Germany, France and England wanted to cover it up at the time. Truces of this sort were spontaneously called by soldiers even up to the Christmas of 1916. This is one variation of the story:

The Christmas 1914 Truce
On Christmas Eve, 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm asked an opera tenor by the name of Walter Kirchoff to entertain the German troops at the front line trenches. Kirchoff was singing “Stille  Nacht” (Silent Night) which was recognizable by the Scottish and French troops sequestered in their own trenches across no man’s land and they could not resist chiming in their own languages. One song, in three tongues mixed across the battlefield. One of the French officers who had seen Kirchoff perform, recognized his voice and called out to him. In an impromptu gesture of peace (and courage) Kirchoff snatched up a small Christmas tree that the Germans had sent to their men at the front and carried it across the battlefield. Soon, men left the safety of their trenches to meet other men, who earlier were their enemy. A temporary truce was declared. The soldiers of three nations gave and accepted gifts of brandy, cigarettes, chocolate, and sundry foods to each other. They shared photos of loved ones and more songs. At midnight, a mass was said in Latin (a language common to all three nations.) The next day…Christmas day, they arranged to have their dead returned and all participated in the burials, helping one another. After, a soccer game was held. The Germans won that one, 3-2.

O Come all Ye FaithfullThe French film, “Joyeux Noel” (“Merry Christmas” 2005) does a very good job piecing together the varied stories of the WWI Christmas truces into a single, coherent tale. It traces back and rounds out the story just before and just after the actual event. “Joyeux Noel” begins with a message of hate, presented almost obscenely as it comes from propaganda spoken by children from France, England and Germany. This capacity for adults being able to sow our hatred in our children, like salt in fertile field, is particularly upsetting. A hard scene to begin a movie devoted to the message of peace, but it sets the idea of how far the extremes that a nation’s propaganda in wartime will go.

joyeuxnoel“Joyeux Noel” does not shy away from the horrors of this particularly nasty and costly World War, from its toll on the hearts and minds of the men participating. Particularly sad is the Scottish soldier who has lost his brother. Clearly, this loss is preying on his mind as he believes he has abandoned the brother at his end,  yet he continues to write his mother of how well they are both doing.

joyeux-noel_9As always, even in the harshest conditions, innate human humor can leak through. The underplayed signs in the background of the trenches are brilliant. One, in the Scottish trench points to “Froggyland 5 Feet” while the French have a similar “Rosebif Land” (Roast Beef Land) pointing out the Scottish trench. A lot of the humor revolves around the troops being unable to communicate well with one another. The neighborhood cat, freely ignoring boundaries of each nation, is adopted by all, and as each side has named it, there is a tussle over the “correct” name for the cat.

truce_tinyAfter, asked by the chaplain what he could possibly put into his report to HQ, the Scottish lieutenant says, “Well, I wrote, ‘December 24, 1914: No hostilities on the German side tonight.'”

But no good turn is left unpunished and the peace is short-lived as the agenda of the military will not be fobbed off by an obscure report. Near the end of the film, the message of hate began by the children is bookended by similar messages from unlikely sources, including censors and condemnations of the participants of the truce from their government and even religious leaders.

imagesA wonderful theme of “Joyeux Noel” is the power and irrepressible nature of the human voice. It is the tenor’s wonderful voice that brings them all out of the trenches. It is his wife’s song in Latin, during the mass, that unites them all. It is the Scottish song “I’m Dreaming of Home” that even the Germans bring with them to voice their opposition when finally the powers of state censor their actions of peace. It is most appropriate that this song is sung by children during the credits. In the end, perhaps…just perhaps, the seed of hate need not endure.

“…This is no foreign sky
I see no foreign light
But far away am I
From some peaceful land
I’m longing to stand
A hand in my hand…forever
I’m dreaming of home
I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home”

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