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Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Gordon-Levitt’

As one legend of Japanese cinema makes a long-awaited return to UK screens, another bids farewell: at least that’s what the publicity for Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises indicates, for this film is described as his ‘farewell masterpiece’. Even if we can’t be 100% sure about the ‘farewell’ part, the ‘masterpiece’ thing seems pretty much on the money. But then this is Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, and masterpieces are virtually their stock in trade. Beauty and charm, along with dazzling technical expertise, are what you expect from a Ghibli movie, even the ones dealing with somewhat off-the-wall subject matter (demon bathhouses, child starvation, and possible cases of genetic sexual attraction).

The-Wind-Rises

It says something about how peculiar some of the Ghibli back catalogue is that a romantic social history of Japan between the two World Wars, focussing on the life story of the man who designed the Mitsubishi Zero (the all-metal fighter plane used by the Japanese navy to devastating effect in the early stages of the Pacific war), is a relatively straightforward choice of story by comparison. This is a heavily-fictionalised biography of the engineer in question, Jiro Horikoshi.

As a young boy in 1918, Jiro dreams of becoming a pilot, but his poor eyesight makes that impossible. Inspired by a dream in which he meets the Italian engineer Giovanni Caproni, he decides to become an aeronautical designer instead. The film follows him through university and his career with Mitsubishi, taking in major historical events like the 1923 Kanto earthquake and the great depression, as well as his relationship and ultimate marriage to his long-term sweetheart. The film also covers the rise of totalitarianism throughout the 1930s, both in Japan and Germany – the relationship between the two countries is, to some extent, dealt with in the film.

And, as usual, the artistic virtuosity on display throughout is simply jaw-dropping, including virtually photo-realistic backdrops and astonishingly intricate designs for characters and planes. Much of the time every inch of the screen is filled with colour and movement, and it is immaculately done – I’ve said this before, but I don’t think even the Disney company in the golden age of hand-drawn animation had the sheer level of expertise and attention to detail that the Ghibli animators routinely deploy. Nobody has ever made traditional animation better than this.

On paper the story does not sound especially engaging, but the actual film is very absorbing: quite apart from the sheer look of the film (which, as I believe I said, is gorgeous), the characters are appealing and the story is not without a certain fascination. Rather as in From Up On Poppy Hill, nostalgia for an older, unspoilt Japan is evident throughout The Wind Rises – there are numerous lovely landscapes, and everyone lives in beautiful traditional houses – but given that this is a film set in the 1920s and 1930s there is always a slightly ominous tone to the story. Every time Jiro or one of his colleagues vows to help Japan become a modern, technological country, a rival to Germany or America, you can’t help but be reminded that this is really not going to end well for the Japanese people.

It’s a mark of the film’s enormous subtlety that this point, though clearly intended, is never laboured or dwelt upon: in short, it treats the audience with intelligence (and, by the way, it’s clearly intended for a mature audience: probably not a movie to take your four-year-old to see). There’s also something very Japanese about the delicacy of the way in which it deals obliquely with some elements both of history and its own story. The climax is oddly obscure and understated, with a considerable amount left for the audience to surmise for themselves, while a post-War coda alludes to the terrible events which have occurred without addressing any of them in detail.

There is perhaps an issue with this, in that Jiro’s own responsibility as the designer of a warplane is never really addressed by the film. He is clearly a patriot, and a man interested in technical achievement for its own sake – ‘All I wanted to do was make something beautiful,’ is Jiro’s own comment – but to what extent does that excuse him from culpability, given his involvement with the Japanese war machine? Is there a greater responsibility than to nation and beauty? Again, it’s left for the audience to decide, but the difference here is that it’s a question that the film almost feels keen to evade.

Nevertheless, this is a minor issue given the achievement of the rest of the film on virtually every level. I saw the American dub, featuring the vocal talents of (amongst others) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, William H Macy and Werner Herzog, and all of them are fine, but the real strengths of this film are in the script and the realisation. This is a thought-provoking and beautiful film – and, yes, a masterpiece. I am actually rather astonished this film did not win the Best Animated Feature Oscar – perhaps it is just a little too mature and thoughtful for comfort. Either way, The Wind Rises is a superb film and a fitting conclusion to Miyazaki’s career.

 

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‘I can’t account for how at any given moment I feel the need to explore one life as opposed to another, but I do know that I can only do this work if I feel almost as if there is no choice; that a subject coincides inexplicably with a very personal need and a very specific moment in time.’   Daniel Day-Lewis

Well, I don’t know about you, folks, but to me that sounds less like a working method than a description of some sort of disorder, but hey, it clearly works for Mr Picky as he won his third leading-role Oscar last week. Come on, Marvel, get him on board for the Avengers sequel or whatever! I’d like to see him try method-acting Thanos or the Abomination.

Lincoln

Anyway, as a conscientous sort of chap who cares about his readers I thought it behooved me to go along and actually have a look at Day-Lewis’ turn in Lincoln, and as a purveyor of cheap jokes I worried that a lengthy biopic about the American Civil War and human rights might be a bit short on laughs so I took my trusty Comparison Wrangler with me (apparently he has some sort of Illinois heritage and, as a result, a personal connection to Lincoln – I believe that, in his lawyering days, the 16th President failed to get one of his ancestors off a parking ticket, or something).

Following the movie:

‘Okay, it’s time for the question. What would you compare that film to?’

An unusually lengthy pause. Then: ‘Forrest Gump meets Dirty Harry.’

I must confess to being more startled than usual by this latest gem. ‘Explain,’ I eventually managed to request.

‘Well, he was always telling people little stories – he had a story for every occasion – like Tom Hanks, in Forrest Gump.’

‘And Dirty Harry?’

‘He kept squinting all the time. Oh, and he was looking for justice, too.’

Believe it or not, I do go to the cinema with this guy out of choice. I can’t honestly endorse his appraisal of Spielberg’s film, though. This is one part historical portrait to two parts political drama, notably lighter on martial arts vampire fighting than last year’s somewhat similar Lincoln bio-pic.

The bulk of the film occurs in the space of a few weeks early in 1865. Lincoln has just been re-elected as US President, which is good, but the Civil War is in its fourth year, which is bad. That said, the Confederacy is virtually exhausted, which again is good, but Lincoln has not yet managed to get the US Constitution amended to outlaw slavery, which is also bad. For various political reasons it is absolutely vital that the amendment be passed by the House of Representatives before peace breaks out, but in order to do this Lincoln needs to manufacture a two-thirds majority which he simply does not possess.

Most of the film depicts Lincoln’s various endeavours to cobble together the majority required, which results in a number of plotlines going off in various directions – a fervent abolitionist played by Tommy Lee Jones has to be persuaded to moderate his position in order not to frighten the metaphorical horses, a dodgy political operator played by James Spader is retained to get votes from Lincoln’s Democratic opponents by offering sinecures, peace overtures from the South have to be carefully finessed, and so on. As I’ve said before, I’m not a great expert on American history, and my knowledge of their political system mainly derives from early seasons of The West Wing, but I found this all to be fascinating, challenging stuff, and I did come away wanting to learn more about the history of this period.

Less successful, I thought, was material concerning Lincoln’s relationships with his various family members – Mrs Lincoln is played by Sally Field, who to be perfectly truthful I like less than Mary Elizabeth Winstead from the other movie, and Lincoln’s eldest son is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt – cue the inevitable whisper of ‘Hey, it’s Batman!’ from the seat next to mine. If this stuff is here to try to humanise an iconic figure, or possibly portray him as a hero with feet of clay, then it doesn’t quite work, possibly because Spielberg’s heart isn’t quite in it. The film isn’t quite a hagiography of its subject, but it does have an aura of reverentiality to it, and while it’s by no means humourless, it is definitely steeped in gravitas.

Daniel Day-Lewis is operating on full power as Lincoln himself, but – as usual – I found the results to be oddly mannered and ostentatious. His performances are always arresting and remarkable, but for me he never disappears into the character he’s playing: instead he straps the accoutrements of their personality on like some ornate suit of baroque armour. I found Tommy Lee Jones’ performance, which isn’t nearly so technically refined, far easier to relate to.

But then this is clearly intended as a serious film on an important topic. Spielberg’s strike rate with this sort of thing is rather variable – and personally I prefer his films when they involve people being eaten by special effects – but this is certainly towards the top end of this section of his oeuvre, engaging, illuminating, crisply scripted, uniformly strongly played, and unflashily-directed. ‘Enjoyed’ is probably the wrong word for my reaction to Lincoln, but I certainly appreciated the skill that had gone into making it.

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(I don’t know, you wait ages for a review of a movie about time travel, and then two come along at exactly the same moment messing up each others’ causality and changing their own endings. Tut.)

Yet more evidence of dodgy judgement at the UK’s premiere cinema chain named after the Greek word for theatre: never mind their fondness for not showing Jason Statham movies, converting perfectly lovely foyers into coffeeshops, and not employing nearly enough (or indeed any) ushers to keep the vast numbers of foreign students who patronise their establishments quiet, they’ve also decided not to show Rian Johnson’s Looper at any of their standard cinemas.

I really wanted to see this film, given the subject matter and glowing reviews it’s received, and so there was nothing to do but attempt to get to Oxford’s out-of-town multiplex, an undertaking I have never before attempted without the benefit of a lift. To cut a long story short, two bus rides, a reasonably long walk, some unplanned hitch-hiking and a possible unexpected appearance on The Super League Show later, I found my way to said establishment.

(The Oxford Vue is not quite as lovely on the inside as its Cribbs Causeway counterpart, but the seats and facilities are still notably better than the ones at the sweetshop and the coffeeshop – especially since the refurb of the latter. )

Anyway, the epic journey turned out to be worth it as Looper is that rare beast, a good, intelligent SF film that works as a satisfying genre movie too. Our protagonist is Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an inhabitant of Kansas City in the year 2044 and on the face of it a fairly nasty piece of work – a drug addict who funds his habit by working as a mob executioner, or ‘Looper’. Why this unusual nomenclature? Well, therein lies the tale.

Joe’s employers are based in 2074, by which point time travel has been invented. In order to confound the cops in that year, when the syndicates want someone eliminated, they have him zapped back to 2044 where he is instantly killed by Joe or another Looper and his body disposed of. However, there is a catch – to protect themselves, sooner or later the mob always send the 2074 version of the Looper back in time to be killed by their younger self (this basically constitutes a termination of contract in more ways than one).

Most often the Looper executes himself without even realising it until it’s too late – but mistakes do happen, and the consequences for everyone involved are severe (Johnson includes a sequence of bravura nastiness and ingenuity early on to illustrate this point). Inevitably the day dawns when Joe finds himself sighting along his blunderbuss barrel at… himself.

But the future Joe (played by Bruce Willis) is not just here to be another victim – there are very particular things he wants to do very badly now he’s back in 2044. Can young Joe figure out what his elder self is up to? And even if he can, can he really bring himself to end his own life this way?

Well, the first thing one must say is that, unless you just treat time travel as a plot device tp get you to the scene of an adventure, it’s virtually impossible to come up with a story using  it which actually makes sense. Even the first Terminator, which seems to have been an influence on this film and is generally pretty coherent, got accused recently by an acquaintance of not making any logical sense. And while Looper has a pretty good stab at explaining why it is that future Joe doesn’t remember everything that’s going to have happened in the film on account of his already will having-had been there as young Joe (oh, time travel, gotta love the grammar), the same is broadly true: most of the details don’t really hang together.

On the other hand, Looper‘s consistent inventiveness, wit and style do a tremendous job, not necessarily of covering this up, but ensuring you’re not actually that bothered by it. The storytelling manages to be both clear and surprising, setting up a complicated scenario with commendable speed and economy and then constantly finding new spins and angles on it. On top of this, the movie’s action sequences are also solidly put together and genuinely exciting.

What really makes the film work are the central performances – Jeff Daniels has a great extended cameo as a very laid back crime-boss from the future, but most of the work is done by the leads. Emily Blunt deploys an extremely decent American accent as a character who’s crucial to the second half of the story, and manages to be more than just decorative. Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns in a sterling performance, all the moreso given the constraints on him – for one thing, he’s wearing prosthetics to make him look a bit more like a young Bruce Willis, and for another, he’s not just playing Joe, he’s playing Willis playing Joe. The prosthetics are not 100% convincing but the performance is. Bruce Willis himself is at the absolute top of his game in this film – watching him here you remember just how good he can be, both as a straight actor and an action movie star.

The presence of Willis, plus a few other elements, really put one in mind of the early films of M Night Shyamalan (before he completely lost the plot) – is this to suggest that Looper concludes with a monumental twist? I fear I cannot in all decency confirm or deny this. In any case, this is a startlingly good and clever piece of film-making that entertains and surprises virtually non-stop for two hours. Recommended.

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