28 August 2006

Tales from Earthsea (ゲド戦記, 2006)


Most of the critical reception to Goro Miyazaki’s (宮崎吾朗)debut feature film that I have read so far has taken the form the fairly predictable line of judging ゲド戦記 (Gedo senki), Studio Ghibli’s adaptation of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Tales from Earthsea novels against the work of his father, Hayao Miyazazki (宮崎駿). Critics and bloggers alike have jumped to point out the failings of Tales from Earthsea in relation to such films as Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し, 2001) and Nausicaa (風の谷のナウシカ, 1984). It seems hardly fair to judge a son’s first film against films made by his father at the peak of his career. Hayao Miyazaki and colleague Isao Takahata 高畑勲spent a long time as apprentices in animation studios before directing features of their own. In contrast, Goro Miyazaki has a background in landscape design and as such designed the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka no Mori where he also served as curator for four years.

Thus it should come as no surprise that the strength of the film lies in its beautiful rendering of architecture and landscapes. The Port of Havnor, pictured below, demonstrates the remarkable attention to detail and colour for which Studio Ghibli is famous. The most memorable landscape for me featured the two young protagonists of the film, Arren and Therru, sitting together on a hilltop looking out across a glorious expanse of wetlands and out to the sea. Simply beautiful. For some examples of the various landscapes and townscapes depicted in the film, click here to be directed to the trailer for the film. The trailer is accompanied by the powerful theme song of the film テルーの唄 (Therru’s Song) with lyrics by Goro Miyazaki and music by Hiroko Taniyama.



Goro Miyazaki has also done a fine job with the design of the dragons. I have read that his father was finally convinced that he should be allowed to direct the film when he saw the drawing of Arren with the dragon that would eventually become the poster for the film. Ursula K. LeGuin in her online response to the film also admired the design of the dragons. At the end of the trailer, they show part of the point-of-view shot of a bird of prey diving down toward the castle ramparts. This breathtaking shot is repeated later in the film from the point-of-view of a dragon. Moments like these demonstrate that Goro Miyazaki certainly has the animation skill to follow in his father’s footsteps.

The film falters however in its plot and character development. It is always a tricky business to adapt a novel to the screen, especially when the book has a following of devoted fans. There will always be things left out or altered in the process. The problem with Gedo senki is that they tried to do too much. Although the main plot comes from book 3 of the trilogy, The Farthest Shore (1972), the film has borrowed characters, themes, and plot elements from all of the novels. Arren’s shadow is clearly inspired by Ged’s shadow in A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), though the reason for its being there is not as clearly delineated. We don’t really get any of Tenar’s priestess backstory from the Tombs of Atuan (1970), she is just presented as a friend of Ged’s who is carried for young Therru. The filmmakers have concocted a bit of romance between Therru and Arren that does not occur in The Farthest Shore (but perhaps in The Other Wind (2001), which I have not read yet). I think that if they had kept to the story and themes of just one of the novels, the film’s plot would have been more gripping. LeGuin has a knack for gripping plotlines that keep a reader hooked until the very end.

That said, I found the conclusion much more satisfying than Hayao Miyazaki’s last feature film, Howl’s Moving Castle (ホウルの動く城, 2004), which is also an adaptation of a popular fantasy novel (by Diana Wynne Jones). Although I certainly wouldn’t rate it among the best films released by Studio Ghibli, Earthsea is a lovely film and I recommend seeing it if it comes to a cinema near you…. though unfortunately that may be a long ways into the future for those of you in English-speaking countries. Because a TV adaptation of the Earthsea novels was made a couple of years back, Ghibli won’t be able to get the licensing rights (at least not in N. America) until 2009. I have heard that the film will be shown at the Venice Film Festival with English subtitles. The festival runs from the 30th August to the 9th September.

The Japanese DVD (complete with English subtitles) can be purchased here:

Tales from Earthsea (English Subtitles) / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2006

21 August 2006

Pygmalian (ピグマリオン, 1938)



I’ve taught scores of American millionairesses to speak English.
The best-looking women in the world. I’m seasoned.
They might just as well be blocks of wood
- Higgins explaining to Pickering why he
need not fear that Eliza will be taken advantage of by him.

This is an example of some of the choice dialogue in the 1938 film Pygmalion that I believe was excised by 1964’s My Fair Lady. Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard’s adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw stageplay Pygmalion, is the perfect antidote to a screening of My Fair Lady. As much as I love George Cukor, I have always found Rex Harrison (cringe) and Audrey Hepburn (lovely as ever) very wooden in the roles of Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle. All the grand sets, beautiful costumes, and catchy Lerner & Loewe songs cannot replace the want of true feeling between the two leads. I also always cringe at the ending of My Fair Lady and wish that Eliza would become an independent woman at the end (as Bernard Shaw originally intended) or at the very least run off with foppish Freddy.

Pygmalion comes fairly close to offering Shaw’s original vision, as he himself adapted the screenplay and wrote a slightly more ambiguous ending for the film. I believe that My Fair Lady must also have reduced the role of Mrs. Pearce, Henry Higgins’s housekeeper, because I don’t recall Rex Harrison’s Higgins being told off by her [just checked: MFL replaces this scene with Higgins singing “Let a Woman in Your Life”- a most dreadful song!]. I had tears in my eyes when Mrs. Pearce, played with a lovely Scottish brogue by Jean Cadell, tells Higgins off for swearing and having bad manners at the breakfast table. A hilarious joke about alliteration ensues. There is also some dialogue between Higgins and Colonel Pickering that indicates that he enjoys being told off by Mrs. Pearce. Higgins also is told off all the time by his mother. This sets us up nicely for his growing fondness for Eliza. In the final argument scenes between Eliza and Higgins, Leslie Howard’s face softens at times, so that his expression belies some of the more harsh words he flings at Eliza, and for the first time I realized that he really has fallen in love with Eliza. In My Fair Lady, Rex Harrison played the part so coldly that I usually stop watching the film after the scene after the final confrontation at Mrs. Higgins’ tea table.
Wendy Hiller, famous for her stage performance in this role, does a commendable job of bringing Eliza to the screen. She has such an expressive face. The supporting cast are all equally superb, David Tree plays Freddy in a convincingly foppish way, Marie Lohr brings all her dignity and condescension to the role of Mrs. Higgins, and Scott Sunderland plays Colonel Pickering well (Colonel Pickering and Mrs. Higgins are the only characters in My Fair Lady that make it worth watching for me). The real difference between the acting in My Fair Lady and Pygmalion is that the later employs more film acting and less “staginess.”

The best line in Pygmalion goes to a nameless policeman who, catching Freddy kissing Eliza on the street says: “Now then, now then, now then. This isn’t Paris, you know.”

©cmmhotes 2006

18 August 2006

The Women (ザ・ウィメン, 1939)



Theres a name for you ladies, but it isn't used in high society... outside of a kennel. 

I just re-watched this film for the umpteenth time. With every screening, it just gets better and better. The dialogue is so rapid that one often misses jokes spoken under the breath (esp. by Rosalind Russell) the first time around only to catch them the next time around. Some of the dialogue is a bit dated – often shockingly so. For example when Mary’s mother tells her to stop lying about on her bed “like a swastika.” I don’t mind that the plot centers on men but I do object to some of the dialogue that demeans women. I tolerate it because the film really is a product of its time -- and there is so much great dialogue that outshines any awkward moments. Though this is my favourite George Cukor film, I do admit to hitting rewind before the very last scene because it is so saccharine it makes my stomach turn.

But enough feminism as I could hardly compete with Jeanette Winterson’s fabulous essay on the film ( read it here on her website). I love this film because of Clare Booth Luce’s crackingly bitchy dialogue and for the stunning performances from some of my favourite 1930s actresses. The lead is played by Norma Shearer, one of the classiest actresses of all time and so under-rated these days. Joan Crawford plays “the other woman” and perfects the bitch stereotype that would haunt her for the rest of her career. I don’t know if all the stories about Crawford and Shearer hating each other in real life are true or just publicity for the film, but they do have a wonderful frisson of chemistry in the dressing room confrontation.

Rosalind Russell, master of physical comedy, puts in an astounding performance as a truly awful high society matron – and wears the most hideous clothes. The wonderful character actress Mary Boland is hilarious as the Countess De Lave (L’amour, l’amour) – I also recommend seeing her as Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice (1940). One of the original Goldwyn Girls and at the time wife of Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard plays the foxy Miriam Adams. I recently discovered that her fourth husband was the renowned writer Erich Maria Remarque – would love to read more about that relationship. Goddard was a great comic actress and it is a shame that she lost out on the role of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. She would have been great in that film. Joan Fontaine is beautiful as always but annoying as Peggy. The poor thing must have hated not having any of the good lines. Among the many other ladies in the piece, I will end with a nod to Phyllis Povah as the obnoxious woman with too many daughters, Hedda Hopper who plays a herself to a T, and of course the young Virginia Weidler, who was a truly great child actress and sadly died much too young. She puts in a great performance as Katherine Hepburn’s sister in The Philadelphia Story (1941). If you haven’t seen it yet, then it’s time to paint your nails girls…. JUNGLE RED!
Some of my favourite lines:

Nancy Blake: You're so resourceful, darling, I ought to go to you for plots.
Sylvia Fowler: You ought to go to someone.

Olga: She's got those eyes that run up and down a man like a searchlight.

Sylvia Fowler: You simply must see my hairdresser, I DETEST whoever does yours.

Miriam Aarons: A woman's compromised the day she's born.

Exercise instructress: Let's begin with posture. A lady always enters a room erect.
Sylvia Fowler: Most of my friends exit horizontally.

Nancy Blake: Spider's in the parlor. Lets go join her

©cmmhotes 2006

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