The Cat Returns (2002, Directed by Hiroyuki Morita) Japanese 7

Voices of (English version) Anne Hathaway, Cary Elwes, Peter Boyle, Elliot Gould, Tim Curry, Judy Greer, Andy Richter, Kristen Bell, René Auberjonois

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(7-Very Good Film)

Lovely. Light. Captivating.

From the powerhouse of Japanese animation, or really just animation as a whole, Studio Ghibli, The Cat Returns follows a high school student named Haru (Hathaway) who saves a meandering cat from becoming roadkill only to learn that the cat is royalty in a far off kingdom inhabited exclusively by cats. In danger of being whisked away to said kingdom and forced into marriage, she enlists the help of the cat bureau led by Baron Humbert (Elwes) and the portly cat Muta (Boyle). This is a wonderful, light, oddball fantasy with truly fine voice work by its English cast. Not quite on the level of Hayao Miyazaki’s work but that’s no real indictment.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(901)

Fireworks Wednesday (2006, Directed by Asghar Farhadi) Persian 8

Starring Hedye Tehrani, Taraneh Alidoosti, Hamid Farokhnezhad, Pantea Bahram, Houman Seyyedi, Sahar Dolatshahi

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Painful. Assured. Poignant.

“Human beings are condemned to consequences.” Some wise old British writer once said that, though I’m struggling to place who. I, perhaps erroneously, remember reading it in some Graham Greene novel many years ago (The Heart of the Matter), but maybe it was Aldous Huxley as someone else has suggested to me. In any case, the quote perfectly underlines what’s at the heart of each film by the great, two-time Oscar winner, writer-director, Asghar Farhadi, a master in his prime. He found international acclaim and came to my attention back in 2011 with his powerful fifth feature film, A Separation, which won that year’s prize for Best Foreign-Language Film at the Academy Awards. He went on to win a second Oscar in that same category years later for The Salesman, and, as his reputation grew, some of his earlier works were made available to us in the Western world. One of these early films is Fireworks Wednesday. Young bride-to-be, Rouhi (Alidoosti), takes on short-term work helping the wealthy, dysfunctional Samiei family. The wife, Mozhdeh (Tehrani), is almost certain, let’s say ninety-nine percent sure, that her husband is cheating on her, and it’s that one percent doubt that is wearing on her. He makes her think that she’s crazy. Maybe she is. Like his other films, Farhadi’s Fireworks Wednesday focuses on the collateral damage, the innocent victims of domestic strife. In this film, it’s Rouhi, who’s like a third wheel in a toxic relationship, and it’s the Samiei’s young son. This is an involving drama and a potent one.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(890)

Porco Rosso (1992, Directed by Hayao Miyazaki) Japanese 8

Voices of (Dubbed) Michael Keaton, Cary Elwes, Susan Egan, Brad Garrett, David Ogden Stiers, Kimberly Williams-Paisley

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Exciting. Odd. Singular.

Its premise may be slightly reminiscent of the popular French fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast, but that’s where comparison stops. Like all of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, even the adaptations, Porco Rosso is wholly original. Marco Pagot, also known as Porco Rosso, was an ace pilot for the Italian military before going rogue after the events of World War I. Now he’s a notorious bounty hunter with the long arms of fascism reaching out to claim him from one side and jealous pirates trying to kill him on the other. Along the way, he befriends a young, spirited teenage girl named Fio, who has a talent for designing planes. Miyazaki’s obvious love of flight is on full display, perhaps never rendered as spectacularly as it is here. Typical of the master’s work, this is an artistic tour de force with a strange, engaging story and a fantastic score by Joe Hisaishi.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(865)

Shoplifters (2018, Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda) Japanese 6

Starring Lily Franky, Sakura Ando, Mayu Matsuoka, Kirin Kiki, Jyo Kairi, Miyu Sasaki, Naoto Ogata

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(6-Good Film)

Curious. Interesting. Muddled.

Acclaimed worldwide at its release, I was at a loss as to what to make of Shoplifters. It follows a ragtag, thrust together family of misfits living in poverty in modern-day Tokyo, collectively known as the Shibatas. None of them are actual family, apparently. The “dad,” Osamu, relies heavily on shoplifting and passes the dubious skill on to his adopted children, Shota and Yuri. The “grandmother”, Hatsue, collects payments from her ex-husband’s family. The “mom” works a menial factory job, and the “aunt” works as a performer at a hostess club. The idea of a makeshift family living together under one roof, shoplifting, to my Hollywood-influenced mind lends itself to the sentimental, family-friendly genre so well. The charming miscreants go through ups and downs but find that they all love each other in the end. That’s not what this is. Shoplifters looks to be more of a social drama, going for realism, I suppose, but I think that’s my biggest problem with it. I don’t know Japanese culture well enough to say anything with authority but I didn’t buy these faces as the look of abject poverty. They are a beautiful family with some dirt rubbed on them occasionally. It’s also a pretty shallow portrait of what it means to be a family. Shoplifters is a group of people using each other. That doesn’t take away from the acting, which is strong, or the storytelling but by the end, it didn’t add up to much for me.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(857)

Everybody Knows (2018, Directed by Asghar Farhadi) Spanish 8

Starring Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Ricardo Darin, Bárbara Lennie, Inma Cuesta, Elvira Mínguez, Eduard Fernández, Ramón Barea

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Gripping. Considerable. Adept.

There’s a series of mystery novels-for my money, the best series in all of literature-written by Ross MacDonald and featuring his ace detective, Lew Archer. I think about a certain quote from time to time, written, not in one of those books, but about the series as a whole. I’ve tried for a while now to find out exactly who said it to no avail, but it goes something like this, “Most mystery writers write about crime. MacDonald writes about sin.” With the amount of time I’ve spent reading, rereading, or thinking about Lew Archer’s cases, I come back to this quote often. It’s perfect. It’s exactly and succinctly the distinguishing characteristic of MacDonald’s writing and what I love most about his novels. I was reminded of this quote again while watching Asghar Farhadi’s most recent drama, Everybody Knows. Farhadi, an Iranian director, has made a number of great films in his own country (A Separation, The Salesman, Fireworks Wednesday) and abroad (The Past). He’s won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film twice. Only the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Vittorio De Sica, and Frederico Fellini have won that award more times. I have no idea if Farhadi has ever read a Lew Archer novel, but he works in a similar vein. He takes the holistic view of each mystery he untangles. Every character has secrets. Every character’s actions affect someone else in the story significantly. Every character has motives. Motives for Farhadi, and for me, are more interesting than the crime itself. None of his films that I’ve seen have that kind of Agatha Christie summation at the end that’s tremendously satisfying but also simplistic. It’s a release of tension and when you know everything, when you understand completely, you don’t have to spend any more time thinking about what happened. Farhadi never gives you that satisfaction. He never releases the tension.

His most recent film, Everybody Knows, takes place in Spain; a small town, apparently near Madrid. Cruz stars as Laura, returning home from her life in Argentina to attend her younger sister’s wedding. Laura has two children, a girl named Irene and a younger boy named Antonio, and an Argentinian husband, Alejandro (Darin), that most people in her hometown imagine to be a big-shot, stemming from the devout Alejandro’s generous donations to a local church. Bardem stars as Paco. He’s never left their hometown and from the beginning of the movie, we get the sense that he’s pretty popular. Paco’s married to Bea but they have no kids together. Laura and Paco used to be together and they’re both so attractive, you can imagine how admired they’d be as a couple in such a small town. Everything, every relationship, every past mistake, becomes important later on when Laura’s daughter is kidnapped and held for ransom. Everyone becomes a suspect. The kidnappers send their demands to Paco, as well as Laura (who would seem to be the natural target) and the characters, like us in the audience, wonder why would they do that? The things the friends and family members say to each other while they’re wondering form the real basis for the film. What’s interesting about Everybody Knows and, again, Farhadi’s films in general, are the minor twists. This is a very small town he’s using here and everyone knows each other. A lot of what’s revealed is already known by most of the characters. It’s us in the audience who are in the dark; who are learning as the film unwinds. The reveals, the would-be bombshells, the secrets aren’t very secret. The character’s responses suggest that it’s more about hearing it said out loud than it is what was said. The performances, from the supporting cast to the stars, are unaffected and observant. I admired little moments like when Paco has just learned something momentous. The next five to ten seconds or so are devoted entirely to this character thinking; no one speaking. I also appreciate Farhadi’s most common motif throughout his films of kids as witnesses; kids on the periphery of the main plot but still affected by the drama. That Farhadi can not only successfully tell an engaging story in another language, using a separate culture, but for him to make this film, Everybody Knows, fit so comfortably with the rest of work is an impressive testament to his skill. Whether working in his native language, Persian-A Separation, About Elly, etc.-or French-The Past-or now, Spanish, he’s an auteur. His vision transcends and shines through. Everybody Knows is yet another occasion.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(849)

Assassination (2015, Directed by Choi Dong-hoon) Korean 8

Starring Jun Ji-hyun, Lee Jung-jae, Ha Jung-woo, Oh Dal-su, Cho Jin-woong, Choi Deok-moon, Lee Geung-young

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Stylish. Action-packed. Appealing.

It’s 1933 and Koreans live under the oppressive rule of neighboring Japan. Kang In-guk, a Korean businessman and an ally to Japan, becomes the target for the resistance, along with Japanese general Kawaguchi Mamoru. Three wild card resistance members are picked for the assassination-Big Gun, Duk-sam, and Ahn Okyun (Ji-hyun)-and hired by Captain Yem (Jung-jae), a double agent secretly helping Japan. Ha Jung-woo plays a rogue assassin named Hawaii Pistol who eventually joins Ahn Okyun in her mission as the two imagine life together in easier times. There’s a lot of plot in this film, a lot of interesting turns and suspense. It’s not, however, the somber, earnest type of movie that I imagine when I hear the term “period film;” the prestige pictures that win awards but are usually pretty boring. Assassination uses its historical background as a springboard for an outstanding action flick with romance and intrigue and a group of villains that could give Indiana Jones’ nazis a run for their money.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(848)

Donkey Skin (1970, Directed by Jacques Demy) French 7

Starring Catherine Deneuve, Jean Marais, Delphine Seyrig, Jacques Perrin, Micheline Presle

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(7-Very Good Film)

Campy. Imaginative. Distinct.

Donkey Skin, as adapted by Jacques Demy, is a genuinely bizarre fairy tale. Based on a story by Charles Perrault (who also wrote Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty), I was unfamiliar with this one. A king (Marais) loses his wife (Deneuve) but promises just before her death to only remarry if the girl is more beautiful than her. Finding no one that qualifies for so long, the king eventually notices his daughter, the Princess (also Deneuve), has blossomed into the most beautiful girl in all the kingdom. Determined to produce a male heir, he demands his daughter’s hand in marriage. She responds by consulting a kind but mischievous witch, The Lilac Fairy (Seyrig), who has her wear the carcass of a magical donkey in order to escape a life as her father’s bride. Yes, it’s a strange tale told with relish. It’s a beautiful film to look at with Deneuve at its center in the most spectacular dresses, and like Demy’s other musicals, the soundtrack is lovely. There’s horror, beauty, humor, romance, fantastic creatures, lessons to be learned, songs to be sung. All expressed with Jacques Demy’s abundant imagination and a profusion of style, though, unlike some of Perrault’s other stories, Donkey Skin seems to lack any true depth.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(825)