Movie Project #6: My Neighbor Totoro [1988]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

My Neighbor Totoro [1988]

My Neighbor Totoro [1988]
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Screenplay: Hayao Miyazaki
Country: Japan
Genre: Animation/Family/Fantasy
Starring: Hitoshi Takagi, Noriko Hidaka, Toshiyuki Amagasa
Running Time: 86 minutes

Reason for inclusion: I wanted to continue to watch more Studio Ghibli films, and this seemed to be the most highly-regarded out of those I hadn’t seen.

Accolades: Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film, Animage Anime Grand Prix prize, Mainichi Film Award for Best Film, ranked #163 on IMDB’s Top 250, ranked #41 on Empire magazine’s 100 Best Films of World Cinema

My Neighbor Totoro is as simple as it gets, but it is infinitely rewarding. Originally released on the same bill as Grave of the Fireflies (still the greatest animated film I have ever seen), Totoro remains one of Hayao Miyazaki’s crowning achievements, a children’s film that can be passed down from generation to generation.

Set in 1958 Japan, the film tells the story of a university professor and his two daughters, Satsuki and Mei, who move across the country to be closer to the hospital where their mother, Yasuko, is recovering from a serious illness. Their new residence is an old house that the girls immediately believe is haunted. Rather than allow themselves to be scared — “they’re just dust bunnies” — the sisters embrace the spirits and settle in as best as they can.

My Neighbor Totoro [1988]

While the older sister, Satsuki, is off at school, Mei notices a small, white rabbit-like creature playing outside. She chases after it, eventually reaching a well-hidden area inside the forest. Inside, she finds an even bigger creature, a very large “totoro” who is in such a deep sleep he doesn’t even notice the little girl. She instantly becomes attached to this creature, dubbing him Totoro, and begins seeing him on their property from time to time.

Even though Totoro only speaks in loud roars, he becomes a much-needed friend for Mei, and it isn’t long before Satsuki starts seeing him as well. When the girls tell their father about these mythical creatures, he smiles and doesn’t act for one second that he doesn’t believe them. As such, it’s refreshing to see an adult in an animated film not dismiss a child for these whimsical thoughts.

My Neighbor Totoro [1988]

It’s difficult to put into words what makes My Neighbor Totoro so great. The wild imaginations of children are expertly captured, and I can’t think of a better film that nails the general sensibilities of youth. The bond between the little girls and Totoro is heartwarming, especially as they are essentially using this creature as their way of coping with their sick mother. “Adult” issues are brought up and handled with care, and there is not even the slightest notion of condescension.

The sisters are believable, lifelike characters, and their jubilant behavior while exploring their new house is fun to watch. Totoro and his many smaller relatives are wonderful creatures, and it’s easy to see how they have remained popular worldwide over the years. There is also an incredibly unique “cat bus” that transports Totoro around the forest, one of the coolest looking modes of transportation I have ever seen.

My Neighbor Totoro [1988]

In a nutshell, My Neighbor Totoro is a beautifully-animated film that has a little something for everyone. It made me feel like a kid again, which is rare in itself. An absolute must see, even for those who generally sway away from animated films.

9/10

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Retro Gaming Project #3: Contra [NES]

Last year I announced the creation of a Retro Gaming Project in which I would finally go back and play through all of the classic NES and SNES games I missed over the years. This is a long work in progress with no set end date.

Contra [NES]

Contra
System: NES
Genre: Run and gun
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Konami
Release Date: February 1988

Super C, the 1990 sequel to Contra, may very well be my favorite video game of all time. I know a great deal of my love for the game is owed to nostalgia — it was one of the first I ever played — but I still love dusting off the old cartridge and playing it today. Amazingly, even after all these years, I had never played the original game in the series. In an effort to go back and kick-start this Retro Gaming Project, Contra seemed as good of a choice as any to get back into it.

I felt right at home instantly.

The run-and-gun, shoot ’em up gameplay fits in perfectly with the excess of 80s action movies, and the two dudes on the box art are even dead ringers for Rambo and Dutch from Predator. The plot is standard sci-fi/action fare — aliens have invaded Earth, and only Bill “Mad Dog” Rizer and Lance “Scorpion” Bean are bad enough to destroy them.

Contra [NES]

The gameplay basically consists of shooting everything that moves while dodging enemies and stray bullets. In fact, it’s most beneficial to keep a finger on the shooting button the entire time — you never know when an enemy will pop up out of nowhere.

There are eight levels in total, all but two of which are side-scrolling fare. The other two, the “Base” levels, place the camera behind the player, only showing one room at a time. Once the room is cleared of enemies, it’s onto the next one and then the next after that, ultimately culminating with a boss fight.

The boss fights are glorious as expected, with some really ugly mothers tossed in there. These are always some of my favorite moments in the Contra series, and they do not disappoint here. Destroying the alien heart in the final level is immensely satisfying.

Contra [NES]

Also as expected, Contra is one tough son-of-a-bitch. When I first started playing, I struggled to make it past the first level. I mean, three lives only last so far, especially since it takes just one hit to die. That’s when I remembered the famous Konami code:

Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start

With that, I had 30 lives, and the gameplay experience became instantly more gratifying for a rusty gamer like myself. Although it felt a bit shameful to cheat like that, I was happy to make it past the second level and ultimately beat the game. Major props to Konami for realizing their game was hard as hell by throwing a bone for the rest of us.

Contra [NES]

I would be remiss not to mention the existence of the greatest weapon ever created in gaming history: the spread gun. It remains the best, most rewarding gun I have ever come across, and using it is one of the action genre’s greatest thrills. The other weapons (i.e. the laser gun and cluster shot) are effective as well, but nothing compares to the almighty spreader.

Contra still holds up remarkably well today, especially if played with a friend. The run-and-gun gameplay remains a blast (albeit an often infuriating one) on your own, but co-op is the way to go if you have that option. I’m glad that I was able to go back to this classic, even though Super C is still the better game for my money.

9/10

Movie Project #44: Cinema Paradiso [1988]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Cinema Paradiso [1988]

Cinema Paradiso [1988]
Director: Giuseppe Tornatore
Genre: Drama
Starring: Philippe Noiret, Salvatore Cascio, Marco Leonardi, Jacques Perrin
Running Time: 124 minutes (international cut)

I was long looking forward to finally seeing Cinema Paradiso — frequently dubbed a film lover’s film. Giuseppe Tornatore’s Italian drama won 19 awards upon its release, including an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, and its praise has been unanimous since (even holding a ranking of #76 on IMDB’s Top 250, as of this writing).

Cinema Paradiso tells its story through the eyes of filmmaker Salvatore Di Vita (played as an adult by Jacques Perrin). After returning home late one evening, Salvatore receives a bit of tragic news: his longtime friend, Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), has passed away. Distraught, Salvatore lies in bed and reminisces about his history with Alfredo, wherein the film also takes us through their years.

Cinema Paradiso [1988]

As a child, Salvatore had a deep fascination with movies. He was a mischievious little kid, often getting into trouble, but he was able to forge an unlikely friendship with the projectionist of the local theater, Cinema Paradiso. This projectionist, Alfredo, takes the boy under his wings, becoming a fatherly figure of sorts, while also teaching him the ropes of operating the projection booth.

By the time Salvatore reaches his teenage years, he is a hopeless romantic, falling in love with a pretty girl, Elena (Agnese Nano). Undoubtedly influenced by the countless films he has screened over the years, Di Vita stands under her window every evening, patiently waiting for a moment in which she might open the window and let him in. To me, this is a creepy gesture, even if the true motive is meant to be romantic.

Cinema Paradiso [1988]

Not only do we follow Salvatore and Alfredo over the years, but we are also there to witness the lifespan of the actual cinema. It’s rather interesting to watch as we go from the early days of the local priest splicing out scenes of kissing and other “pornography” (as he puts it), to seeing a more liberal and free-spirited theater in its later years. And, of course, all good things must come to an end, culminating with the death of the theater due to a lack of interest (thanks to television and the like).

All in all, it’s a well-told story, and there are copious references to classic films throughout. There are glimpses of Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable and countless other legendary figures, and the passion for film from all involved shines throughout. Cinema Paradiso unnecessarily dips into weaker melodrama by the end, but it’s still an engaging endeavor that is especially enjoyable for movie buffs.

8/10

LAMB Movie of the Month Review: Heathers [1988]

Heathers [1988]

Heathers [1988]
Director: Michael Lehmann
Genre: Comedy
Starring: Winona Ryder, Christian Slater and Shannen Doherty
Runtime: 103 minutes

I was pleased to see Heathers selected as the LAMB Movie of the Month. This is a film that has been on my must-see list for a while now, and its nomination gave me validation to bump it up in the queue and finally sit down to tackle this cult hit / dark comedy.

The film gets its name from a high school clique of popular/rich girls that all share the first name of Heather. They are cruel to everyone in school, and despised by most. Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) is a classmate of theirs who associates with them to maintain her popular status. Veronica is generally more caring than her associates, but is forced to act like them in order to remain “friends”.

Heathers [1988]

Things get interesting at school when Jason Dean (Christian Slater) shows up. J.D. is a rebel, a new guy who doesn’t give a shit about anyone or anything. Naturally, Veronica finds him to be fascinating, and the two hit it off. As Veronica is disgusted with her “friends”, she works with J.D. to concoct a plan to get rid of them one-by-one. This plan is taken to another level, however, when J.D. poisons the lead Heather (Kim Walker), killing her and leaving a note behind to frame it as a suicide. This is only the beginning of what soons become J.D.’s rampage, one that Veronica struggles to stay away from.

Going into Heathers, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew it was a dark comedy (which I generally love) and that it starred Christian Slater in his breakthrough role. What I didn’t expect was non-stop snappy dialogue that had me in hysterics, and the very dark suicide subject matter. In this regard, I loved what the film had to offer.

Heathers [1988]

On the other hand, there was one thing that nearly ruined the movie for me: Christian f’n Slater. I am not too familiar with his work, having only seen him in True Romance, but he was beyond grating as James Dean. Slater’s godawful Jack Nicholson impression is just terrible, and I could not help thinking as such every time he appeared on screen. Based on this performance, it blows my mind that he was once considered a heartthrob.

If J.D.’s role were given to a more competent actor, I wholeheartedly believe that Heathers would rank among my favorite comedies. As such, while I enjoyed the film, I did not fall in love with it like I wanted to. There’s so much to like, especially the witty dialogue and Winona Ryder’s fun performance, but Slater really drags the film down. Still, it’s easy to see why this is a cult hit, and it’s worth seeing regardless.

7/10

Movie Project #35 and #36: Grave of the Fireflies [1988] and Crash [2004]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

Grave of the Fireflies [1988]
Grave of the Fireflies [1988, Isao Takahata]
Starring Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Akemi Yamaguchi.

Grave of the Fireflies is unlike any other animated film I have ever seen. It is simultaneously beautiful and devastating as it shows life in Japan near the end of World War II. The movie follows two orphaned children, 14-year-old Seita and his 4-year-old sister Setsuko, as they struggle to get by in their war torn village. They find temporary solace in the home of a distant aunt, but she makes it clear that they are a burden on her and her family, and they are hardly welcomed in the household. Later, the children attempt to live on their own, but it is obvious that Seita is not in a position to take care of a young child. It’s heartbreaking to watch the two children fend for themselves as they struggle to acquire even basic nourishments.

This is an incredibly sad and tragic film, one that is made even more powerful because it is based on a true story. Grave of the Fireflies is an emotional experience, to say the least, and it may very well be one of the best anti-war films ever made. An absolute must-see. 10/10

Crash [2004, Paul Haggis]
Crash [2004, Paul Haggis]
Starring Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Thandie Newton.

Out of all the movies in my project, the inclusion of Crash is what garnered the biggest reaction. The initial response from commenters was mostly negative, but then it started to get some vocal support as well. It’s clear that this is a polarizing film, and that’s why I wanted to see it. As the credits began to roll, I had just one question: How the hell did this movie win Best Picture???

There really wasn’t much I liked about Crash at all. The film tries so hard to tackle the touchy subject of racism, even going so far as to incorporate at least a half dozen different races, all of whom make derogatory comments to each other. There are no likable characters, and they all act irrationally. The whole movie felt artificial and forced to me, as characters found ways to incorporate racist remarks into *EVERY* single dialogue exchange. Look, I know there are a lot of racist fucks out there, but I still have a hard time believing people speak this way all the time. Some of the character behavior was simply ridiculous, too, such as that of Terrence Howard’s character, who exploded into a fit of rage that was completely out of character considering his past actions. The entire film had an air of pretentiousness to it, right down to the pompous soundtrack that tried to make everything more dramatic than it really was. With hackneyed writing and dozens of pathetic stereotypes, Crash is an embarrassment that should not have even been nominated for Best Picture. 4/10

Movie Project #9: Akira [1988]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

Akira [1988]

Akira [1988]
Directors: Katsuhiro Ohtomo
Genre: Anime/Action/Fantasy
Language: Japanese
Country: Japan

When it comes to anime, I have no problem admitting that I am very much a novice. I have seen a few Studio Ghibli films, and a handful of random TV show episodes here and there (mostly Ranma ½ and InuYasha), but never fully explored the genre. One movie that I have heard come up time and time again whenever anime is mentioned is the 1988 film, Akira.

Based on the massive eponymous manga series, Akira is a cyberpunk-themed sci-fi film set in dystopian Neo-Tokyo. The story revolves around Tetsuo, a motorcycle gang member who develops powerful psychic powers. He’s not alone in having these abilities; he comes to find out that there are multiple youths who have unique powers, including Akira, the child who caused Tokyo’s destruction 31 years ago. However, Tetsuo soon becomes megalomaniacal and begins to threaten the city in his own way. His buddy and fellow gang member, Kaneda, sets out to stop the potential devastation, all while getting caught up in the middle of a battle with the city’s oppressive government. Naturally, there is a lot of violence and crazy shit happening throughout.

Akira [1988]

As someone unfamiliar with the original manga, I couldn’t help but get lost during the movie. The story moves along at a fast clip, and I had no idea what was happening at times. I had no interest in the main characters, and couldn’t empathize with Tetsuo, even as he was fighting back against the evil government. From what I have heard, it really helps to have read the original material before watching the movie, and I certainly got that feeling myself.

The animation, while obviously dated, still looks cool and I thought it was a strong suit for the movie. I dug the cyberpunk feel, as the visuals do an excellent job portraying a gritty city that is still feeling the effects of its previous destruction. For a 20+ year old film, Akira still looks sharp.

I feel like I may need to watch Akira again to appreciate it more, but I am also wondering if I am just not a fan of this style of anime. I liked the visuals and the environment they portrayed, but I felt hopeless as the story began to spiral out of control.

Akira fans, what am I missing here?