Spirited Away (2001, Directed by Hayao Miyazaki) English (Dubbed) 10

Voices of (English Dubbing) Daveigh Chase, Jason Marsden, Suzanne Pleshette, David Ogden Stiers, Lauren Holly, John Ratzenberg

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(10-Masterpiece)

Sweeping. Stunning. Magical.

A somewhat bratty ten-year-old girl, Chihiro (Chase), gets lost in a magical world of witches, strange creatures, and spirits, where she finds work in a bathhouse. In my opinion, the apex of Miyazaki’s artistry, the closest comparison is Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland. Typical of his work, there are no black and white characters. I love that Chihiro is never really fazed by the array of otherworldly monsters.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(736)

Pixote (1980, Directed by Hector Babenco) Portuguese 10

Starring Fernando Ramos da Silva, Marília Pêra, Gilberto Moura, Jorge Julião, Tony Tornado

(10-Masterpiece)

Brutal. Moving. Unforgettable.

Some movies depict parts of the world as bad as I can imagine. Pixote is worse. I never could have imagined the things it shows. Pixote is a hellish vision of youth in third-world Brazil made all the more brutal with its documentary-like approach to the subject. Apparently, at least at the time this film was released, São Paulo was overrun with orphans. As a result, a law was made that under the age of 18, regardless of the crime committed, you could not be put in jail. There was no room in jails for kids who would likely commit crimes just to have a place to stay. Because of this, kids were often paid by adults to commit crimes for them. Seen through the wide expressive eyes of the eleven-year-old titular character, kids are reduced to savagery in order to survive. Shocking, sobering, unforgettable, Pixote is a great film with one of the best child performances ever.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(721)

Little Women (1994, Directed by Gillian Armstrong) English 10

Starring Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Kirsten Dunst, Gabriel Byrne, Christian Bale, Trini Alvarado, Claire Danes, Eric Stoltz, Mary Wickes, Samantha Mathis

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(10-Masterpiece)

Consummate. Wonderful. Moving.

Adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic, and probably the best adaptation, though there’s been several. The story of Jo March (Ryder) and her sisters, Meg (Alvarado), Beth (Danes), and Amy (Dunst/Mathis) unfolds; their trials and moments of happiness detailed as the years pass. It’s simply a wonderful movie made from a wonderful book. We come to care for each distinct character, but especially the heroine, Jo. This adaptation boasts lavish visuals and a beautiful score. It also captures the joy and sadness of life’s constant passing as the March family perseveres.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(701)

A Matter of Life and Death (1946, Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) English 10

Starring David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey, Marius Goring

(10-Masterpiece)

Imaginative. Lovely. Wonderful.

Awaiting his inevitable crash and death, an RAF pilot, Peter Carter (Niven), speaks with an American radio operator, June (Hunter), and the two connect. When miraculously Peter survives, he finds  June, and they fall in love. However, his survival was due to a celestial error made by a relatively new angel, and heaven intends to correct it by taking Peter into the afterlife. Thus begins a sort of heavenly courtroom drama in which Peter, with the help of the saintly Dr. Reeves (Roger Livesey is wonderful in this role), makes his case to stay on Earth with the woman he loves. The movie alternates between color and black and white, but that’s just one of its numerous creative touches that make it a great film. Each actor is fantastic, down to Raymond Massey in maybe 15 minutes of screen time playing the prosecutor in heaven (a patriot during the American Revolution, he hates the British making him biased towards Peter). Made during Powell and Pressburger’s prime when they were making masterpiece after masterpiece.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(696)

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954, Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki) Japanese 10

Starring Toshiro Mifune,  Rentarō Mikuni, Kuroemon Ono, Kaoru Yachigusa, Mariko Okada

(10-Masterpiece)

Epic. Gorgeous. Awesome.

The first film in this epic trilogy charting the evolution of the legendary swordsman Musashi Miyamoto (Mifune). This installment follows Miyamoto in his early years as a rebellious soldier out for personal glory along with his friend Matahachi. After fighting for the losing side in a war, the two men forge wildly different paths for themselves, with Matahachi becoming idle after marrying an older seductress, and Miyamoto becoming a priest after a saintly man rescues him from his life as a fugitive. Added to the plot is Miyamoto’s romance with the woman who was supposed to marry Matahachi, and the story is set up for later installments. It’s a beautiful film on its own, but even more substantial as part of this sweeping series.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(628)

Seven Samurai (1954, Directed by Akira Kurosawa) Japanese 10

Starring Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Isao Kimura, Yoshio Inaba, Daisuke Katō, Keiko Tsushima

(10-Masterpiece)

Epic. Impressive. Unforgettable.

A quaint village suffering the tyrannical rule of a local gang of bandits must resort to outside help. With little or no money, how can they expect any great warriors to come fight for them? Eventually, they get a saintly warrior to take up the cause, and he, in turn, enlists five others. Add to this mix, the star, Toshiro Mifune, who tags along pretty much uninvited, becoming integral to their fight later on. This story has been told so many times in its wake, but The Seven Samurai remains the best of its model. The pinnacle of epic filmmaking. Grand, classic entertainment. Inspired The Magnificent Seven, A Bug’s Life, Three Amigos! directly.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(622)

Being There: A Masterclass in Buffoonery (1979, Directed by Hal Ashby) English 10

Starring Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, Jack Warden, Denise DuBarry, Richard A. Dysart

(10-Masterpiece)

Profound. Brilliant. Moving.

Peter Sellers, one of the great film comics of all time, built his persona on being the versatile fool. The bumbling French detective. The sage foreigner crashing a Hollywood party. Whatever the premise, whatever the accent, the joke was on him, and he was loved for it. But he saved his best performance right up until the end as Chance the Gardener in Hal Ashby’s Being There, released in 1979, just one year before his death. While the role is somewhat of a departure for Sellers, it still works largely because of our knowledge of his star image going in. The big difference is that this time instead of us laughing at Sellers’ foolishness, we are laughing at everyone else for not recognizing it.

Being There, adapted from a novel by Jerzy Kosinski, concerns Chance, a man we gather who has worked as a gardener for a wealthy man his whole life. Who his parents are, we’re not told. We also learn pretty early that Chance is unintelligent. After his benefactor dies, Chance is forced out of the house and onto the street. He apparently has never left the house, and we hear from a maid who also worked in the house that he cannot read or write. How can he survive in the world with no skillset outside of gardening, no intelligence, and advanced age? Fate puts Chance in the home of another wealthy man. A woman’s chauffeur hits the simple gardener. As an act of decency or perhaps just to avoid a lawsuit she, Eve (MacLaine) takes him to her mansion and has her doctor look at him. Eventually, he meets the influential Ben Rand (Douglas), the head of the house, the woman’s much older husband, an adviser to the president. Suddenly, Chance, the Gardener, becomes Chancey Gardiner and an instant star in the political world. His common advice about gardening is perceived as profound statements about the United States political landscape. This premise is the basis for Peter Sellers’ best performance and the most personal project he ever worked on. He fought for years to get this film made.

It sounds like a premise for anyone of Seller’s previous broad comedies. An idiot becomes political adviser to the president; a perfect setup for buffoonery. But Being There is not that film, and Peter Sellers does not give that kind of performance. Instead, we are given a profound and gentle satire. There are layers to it.  One level on which the film works is similar to say The Party, another film in which Sellers starred in. A sincere if simple-minded fool earns the respect of his peers through no effort on his part. The deeper level and the great thing that happens in the movie to me (and not everyone may feel this way as the film is very much open to interpretation) is that it sets Chance up as a comic figure- we laugh at how the sophisticated, brilliant upper-class society is taken in by a simpleton, believing him to be a wise man-but eventually I came to view him as a wise man myself. He does not pretend to know things he doesn’t. He only talks when he has something to say. When, in the end, Chance walks on water, I am surprised and then not surprised. Again there have been many interpretations of this scene, but my feeling is that because he doesn’t know that human beings can’t walk on water, he just does it. He almost literally knows no limitations.

So what drew Peter Sellers to this character? Why did he feel he had to play this character? He once said, “Most actors want to play “Othello”, but all I’ve really wanted to play is Chance the Gardiner. I feel what the character, the story is all about is not merely the triumph of a simple man, an illiterate. It’s God’s message again that the meek shall inherit the earth.” I think there is a general feeling of comedians being part of the meek. It is not the popular, great looking men or women who make us laugh in film typically. I can see why Sellers would be drawn to that aspect of the story. He said of himself, “I writhe when I see myself on the screen. I’m such a dreadfully clumsy hulking image. I say to myself, “Why doesn’t he get off? Why doesn’t he get off?” I mean, I look like such an idiot. Some fat awkward thing dredged up from some third-rate drama company. I must stop thinking about it, otherwise, I shan’t be able to go on working.” Also, and this idea was probably not conscious on his part, but there is somewhat of a parallel between Chance, apparently an unfeeling fool who proves to be incredibly sensitive and wise, and Peter Sellers, seen as just a clown and rumored to be a hard, cold personality. Sellers gives Chance a very bland appearance and plays him like a blank slate that slowly becomes a beautiful mystery. Again Sellers said this about himself, and I see it manifested in Chance, “If you ask me to play myself, I will not know what to do. I do not know who or what I am. There used to be a me behind the mask, but I had it surgically removed. To see me as a person on screen would be one of the dullest experiences you could ever wish to experience.” As the last film of his career, while he was alive, Sellers gets to play the Scaramouche for a final time, and then leave us thinking he wasn’t what he seemed, as he walks across the water, more than just a buffoon.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(618)