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Friday, December 6

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Howl's Moving Castle
I had a choice of advanced screenings this week: Brad and Angelina's Mr. and Mrs. Smith (a film I am genuinely excited about seeing, mainly because Doug Liman is directing) or Howl's Moving Castle, said to be the final movie by legendary animation pioneer Hayao Miyazaki. I'll have Mr. and Mrs. Smith for you next week.

Based loosely on the popular book by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl's Moving Castle is like many Miyazaki films: difficult to explain with mere words but oh-so easy to understand while you're watching his elegant images move before you. Because Disney is distributing the film in the United States, you'll be forced to watch a dubbed version of the film, but that's not as bad as you might think. Since the characters in the story are British, it doesn't seem as odd that they're speaking English. And the executives who oversee the importing of Miyazaki to Western audiences tend to be very protective of the material, so they don't try to wow you with A-list voice casting or major dialogue alterations. The biggest name doing a voice here is Christian Bale (as the wizard Howl), who really wasn't all that famous in the states before being cast in the upcoming Batman Begins. (If the thought of watching dubbed Miyazaki makes you want to throw up, the DVD will have dubbed and subtitled versions from which to choose.)

It always surprises me when I see young children attending certain Miyazaki films. As much as he tends to feature young characters in his movies, they aren't necessary films little kids are going to enjoy. They tend to run long (about two hours), have stories that focus on more grown-up themes (the subject of war dominates Howl) and can feel drawn out. I don't mind Miyazaki's deliberate pacing because it gives you time to absorb the details in his animation. And more than any other animator, Miyazaki makes his characters come to life. There's an enormously fat witch in this film (voiced by Lauren Bacall), whom you wouldn't want to stand near because you can tell she stinks. You can almost see the smells coming off of her sweaty body. And the titular moving castle undulates in such detail, you expect little pieces of the building to come falling out of the sky.

The story isn't as important as the imaginative process with many Miyazaki movies. In Howl's Moving Castle, the plot centers on a young girl named Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer), who is put under a spell by the Witch of the Waste (Bacall) and turned into an old woman (Jean Simmons). She finds a job as a house cleaner for Howl, who lives in a castle that seems to act as a portal to several different locations within a kingdom on the brink of war. The castle is powered by a friendly fire demon (a much-subdued Billy Crystal), who is helpful in orienting Sophie to her new magical surroundings. Howl is a tough character to get into. His motivations are never really clear, although he seems sincerely opposed to war. But his narcissistic tendencies make him a little less than sympathetic. When Sophie accidentally causes Howl's hair to change color, he enters into a depressive funk that makes him start to melt with grief because he doesn't think he's beautiful anymore.

The other difficult aspect of Howl is that the gang's mission is never quite clear. Some only seemed concerned with breaking the spells that have been put upon them. Others want to stop a war. Still others want to defeat the king's nasty sorceress, Madam Suliman (Blythe Danner). In the midst of all the chaos also rests a sweet love story, as old Sophie falls for Howl, who clearly knows she's actually a young girl he'd met earlier in the story, but he barely acknowledges this. It probably won't help the kiddies that there are about four different versions of Sophie's "old" look. Sometimes she appears as a hunched-over old woman, while other times she looks like young Sophie with gray hair and the young girl's voice. I've discovered that with Miyazaki, it's the ambiguity and unanswered mysteries that make his works so superior to today's largely computer-generated animated features. He never panders or feels every nuance has to make complete sense. I treasure his films, and the idea he may never make another saddens me. Howl's Moving Castle may not be his best work, but it's most certainly his most mature, combining a child-like sense of adventure with adult concerns. This is what he does best, and this film is the best example of what makes him the greatest animation director in film history.


High Tension
I may have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. One of the wonderful perks of writing from time to time for Ain't It Cool News is that I get two free tickets to the site's annual Butt Numb-a-Thon, held every December at the fabulous Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, Texas. For many reasons, BNAT 5 (2003) was my favorite, and many of the films screened at that event are just now surfacing in theaters. The staggeringly good Old Boy, which opened recently, had its world premiere at BNAT 5. Another film, the New Zealand zombie flick Undead, is set to open in Chicago very soon at the Landmark Century Center Theatre (review to come). We were also the very first, non-religious audience to screen The Passion of the Christ, followed by a 90-minute Q&A with Mel Gibson. Oh yeah, Peter Jackson was there, too, talking up some movie about kings returning somewhere.

The head geek of Ain't It Cool News, Harry Knowles, programs this 24-hour event and doesn't tell any of us what will be playing. Some are classics, some are not; some stick with you for long after the event. The film that genuinely got lodged in my craw after BNAT 5 was a French film called Haute Tension. There is simply no more aptly named film in existence. This relentless stalker film turns into an art film by the end, and is so over-the-top with its violence and its head-spinning climax that your first inclination may be to simply hate the film for playing the ultimate dirty trick on you.

The film's big revelation may actually negate half of what we've seen up to that point in the story. Without having seen the film, that statement probably makes no sense to you. But consider the film Adaptation, with "Donald Kaufman's" man-chasing-himself screenplay idea. Now you might have some idea of the confusion surrounding this film. Having said that, it makes no difference if huge sections of the film make no sense. It's still a great serial killer trucker vs. hot chicks film that attempts to gross you out and turn you on at the same time. Welcome to French grindhouse.

I haven't seen this film in a couple of years, but I'm hearing things I don't like about this Americanized version, retitled High Tension. I've heard it's partly dubbed, and partly subtitled. Huh? The distributor, Lions Gate, is usually good about leaving these type of edgy movies alone, but this is a bizarre approach to selling a foreign film to an English-speaking audience. I've also heard some of the extreme violence was trimmed to get an R rating. Ugh! There's a scene involving a large piece of furniture pushed down a flight of stairs I still have nightmares about.

Still, even with these two strikes against it, I can't imagine that the unseemly guts of High Tension have been entirely excised. For fans of gore and guts, this minor masterpiece from director Alexandre Aja is just what you need to counter the wimpy remake fare that Hollywood has been forcing down your throats for the last couple of years. With High Tension, you get to roll around in the blood if you want to. Let's hope the powers that be at Lions Gate didn't cut too much out. I tend to trust this particular distributor, so you should be in good hands.


Saving Face
While it certainly doesn't break any new ground in gay cinema, writer-director Alice Wu's debut is a sweet and worthy entry into the genre. Michelle Krusiec plays Wil, a Chinese-American doctor and closeted lesbian living in New York, who throws all of her energy into work rather than pursue a private life for fear of her traditionalist mother (the exquisite Joan Chen) finding out about her sexual orientation. But when the long-widowed Chen is forced out of her community after she reveals she's pregnant and won't name the father, she moves into her daughter's one-bedroom apartment. Both keeping secrets from each other, mother and daughter live in an uneasy co-existence. The situation is made all the more nerve-racking when Wil meets her boss' daughter and fellow lesbian Vivian (Lynn Chen), a statuesque ballet dancer.

As much as this film features such weighty issues as coming out to your family and to the world, Saving Face is strictly lightweight material, complete with the gay best friend and a wacky next-door neighbor. As much as Wil and her mother try to convince us of the pain they feel at being rejected by the Chinese community, they actually don't seem that bad off, and there was never any doubt in my mind that some event was forthcoming that would bring everyone back together in the end. The gossip mongering Chinese women are just too nasty toward Wil's mother for them not to get their comeuppance in the end.

Still, there are some surprises on hand, especially when the identity of the baby's father is revealed. And the sole steamy lesbian love scene should at least keep you awake for a few minutes. While I wasn't rolling on the floor laughing, Saving Face kept me smiling most of them time. I particularly liked a scene when Chen goes into a hole-in-the-wall video store looking for Chinese movies to rent, and the clerk points her to a shelf featuring The Joy Luck Club and The Last Emperor (a film the actress actually stars in). Saving Face plays it about as safe as a gay movie can, but by offering us a unique view of Chinese-American culture, the film doesn't embarrass itself too much. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.


Another Road Home
Remember what I said last week about how much I love going to documentaries that teach me something about a subject I know nothing about? Sometimes that philosophy works better in theory than in practice. Case in point: Another Road Home, or, as I like to refer to it, the single most boring documentary I've ever seen.

Israeli filmmaker Danae Elon had a great idea for a film: to chronicle her search for a Palestinian man who worked for her parents in Jerusalem and became her closest friend as a child. The man's name is Musa Obeidallah, and although he has a large family of his own in the West Bank, he devoted much of his adult life to taking care of young Danae and doing odd jobs for Elon's family, which includes her father, the famous author Amos Elon.

Danae lost touch with Musa when she left to serve in the Israeli army, and this fact alone should have made for some interesting discussion points during the course of Another Road Home. Guess again. Any opportunity for genuine human drama in this story is squandered. Discussions of politics, religion, class structure, human rights are completely ignored in favor of touchy-feely nonsense.

The first clue I had that this movie was no good is that it didn't take Danae all that long to find Musa. She locates a few of Musa's sons and travels to Patterson, New Jersey, home to an extremely concentrated Palestinian population. It is briefly mentioned that the town received some unwanted publicity when it was discovered that one of the 9/11 hijackers lived there. But in true form, Danae doesn't discuss this with Musa’s now-grown children. Surely, it must have been difficult for the Arab community to be under that kind of microscope, but the subject is ignored.

In many cases, I think Danae's camera crew hinders the conversations. When she questions Musa's sons about their feelings, as children, about the fact that their father spent so much time taking care of someone else's child (and an Israeli child to boot), the subject seems to be a sore spot for them, but they politely dodge the inquiry as they glance nervously at the camera. When Musa discovers Danae is looking for him, he makes his way to America (as do Danae's parents) for a big reunion. But when everyone gets together finally, there's no emotion. I'm sure there was for the Elon and Obeidallah families, but it doesn't make it to the screen. There are hints that the Obeidallah children harbor resentment not only against the Elons but also against Jews in general, whom they believe tend to play the victim to get world sympathy. Danae doesn't offer up any meaningful counter-thoughts to these expressions.

Considering the relatively short 79-minute running time on Another Road Home, the film is an epic failure. By the time Danae and Musa make their final trip together to Jerusalem, I'd lost all interest in the work. And when they part—a moment that should have had me drowning in my own tears—I felt glee because I knew the film was nearly done. If you don't believe me, check it out for yourself at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema, where it opens today.


The Honeymooners
Are you even considering going to see this "re-imagining" of the classic sitcom "The Honeymooners"? If so, come close…closer…closer…closer still…

SMACK!!! SMACK!!! SMACK!!! SMACK!!! SMACK!!! SMACK!!! SMACK!!!
SMACK!!! SMACK!!! SMACK!!! SMACK!!! SMACK!!! SMACK!!! SMACK!!!
SMACK!!! SMACK!!! SMACK!!! SMACK!!! SMACK!!! SMACK!!! SMACK!!!
SMACK!!! SMACK!!! SMACK!!! SMACK!!! SMACK!!! SMACK!!! SMACK!!!

Shame on you. There are 30 different movies playing right now that I'd recommend you see before this one. And even if you'd seen all 30 of them already, I'd still tell you to stay home and sort your sock drawer before going into a multiplex playing this crap. In fact, I'd insist that you not even see a movie playing next door to The Honeymooners, just to be safe. I don't care how many hip, black comedians they throw into this movie (Cedric the Entertainer is a personal favorite, make no mistake), this shit is not the bomb! Now tell me how much you're looking forward to seeing the big-screen The Dukes of Hazzard so I can smack somebody else!

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to .

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