June 21st, 2005


Far and away, the best fantasy film of the summer is "Howl's Moving Castle," by Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miazaki directing, freely adapted from the book by Diana Wynne Jones. For vision and plot, it is vastly superior to "Revenge of the Sith." Plot doesn't matter so much comparing with "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, " which is essentially a pleasant diversion. "Howl" is far more dramatic and exciting.

The plot centers around Sophie, a young woman settling into a circumscribed life as a milliner in the hat shop run by her glamorous stepmother. She incurs the wrath of the vicious Witch of the Wastes, who curses her to assume the form of an old woman. Feeling she now has nothing to lose, Sophie sets out in search of adventure, and finds it as housekeeper to the raffish wizard, Howl.

Howl is powerful and handsome, but also vain, shallow, and allegedly cowardly. Nevertheless, Sophie begins to have feelings for him as she carves a niche in his odd household, otherwise made up of the fire demon Calcifer and Markl, Howl's boy apprentice.

Events of the outer world intrude when Howl is summoned by the local King to assist in the war he is waging against neighbors he believes have done away with his son. Howl's attempts to at first avoid, and then fight against, the war put stresses on his physical, mental and magical being that jeopardize his humanity and sanity.

Miyazaki has done a beautiful job of bringing the story to screen. Fans will recognoze some design elements: for example, Old Sophie looks like the witch Yubaba from "Spirited Away" and Howl's birdlike flying form resembles her's in shillouette. I'm not sure if black, rubbery, flowing monstrosities are Miazaki's personal nightmare, but things of that nature show up here as well as in "Spirited Away" and "Princess Mononoke." Miyazake indulges his love of flying machines by updating the story from Jones' purer fairy-tale land to a steam-punk vision including battleships, whale-like armored flyers, and personal flyers resembling a cross between a dragonfly and a surfboard, and apparently powered by springs. The sheer invention, including the organic designs of the aerial warcraft, is astonishing and shows up how pedestrian "Steamboy" was by comparison. Add to this, first, Miyazaki's trademark gorgeous landscapes. Second, some really frightening scenes wherein Sophie's home town is subjected to bombardment from the air by night. it might not have really looked real, but it FELT real, and I'm sure there's at least one person in Studio Ghibli who remembers what it was like to have the bombers overhead, with the bombs raining down into a largely wooden city. I must say, that this sequence had some of the most effective animation of fire I've ever experienced. There are other beautiful but understated elements as well, such as Howl's magpie-nest of a bedroom.

The anti-war plot line is Miyazki's addition to Jones' story, and I think it is an effective replacement for her side jaunt into modern-day "real-world" Wales, which I thought did not really add to the novel. The Witch of the Wastes, who is the chief villain of the book, gets reduced to a pitiable invalid part way through the movie, although she still can make trouble--. There are some other changes as well, such as combining Howl's old teacher and the King's royal wizard into one character, the formidable Madame Suliman, who would rather destroy Howl's powers than see him "turn to the dark side." This is all to the good, since it cuts down on unnecessary characters for the movie version.

Released in the US by Disney, the orginal has been well-dubbed into English with a marvellous vocal cast, including Christian ("Batman Begins") Bale as Howl, Jeanne Simmons as the aged Sophie, Lauren Bacall as the Witch of the Wastes, Blythe Danner as Madame Suliman, and the immediately recognizable Billy Crystal in a relatively restrained performance as Calcifer. Emily Mortimer, herself a veteran actress, provided the voice of young Sophie.

Highly reccommended. Although there is no sex, nudity, or profanity, Howl's transformations can be scary and the war scenes perhaps too intense for young children.

Movies 2

Second-best of the summer SF/F movies so far is "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." It is different from prior versions of this story, just as every prior version has been different from all the others. (Which kind of cries out for a "good parts version" someday--.) All things considered, it is a loving adaptation, but not slavish, and it is hard to see where the work of Douglas Adams (who is given first credit as screen writer) leaves off and others took over after his death.

The movie starts off familiarly with the destruction of Earth and Arthur Dent's "rescue" by alien writer Ford Prefect. Of course, the rescue is into the clutches of the Vogons who, madly but appropriately enough all resemble Dickensian schoolmasters, (except for the shock troops who are all evidently female and costumed by someone with a rubber fetish, provided the rubber is from tractor tires). From there, of course, things go downhill, sideways and endways. If you know any of the versions of the story, the events will be familiar to you. If you don't it's a bit hard to describe.

The production is generally well-realized, with some beautiful elements and some clunky ones. Slarti Bartfast's workshop, visually, is worth the price of admission alone in my opinion. I can't find any credits for the two children who played Vroomfondle and Majikthis/the white mice, but casting them was a clever desision. On the other hand, the design of the "Heart of Gold" as a sterile white sphere disappoints. I must say that the solution to the problem of Zaphod Beeblebrox having two heads was handled creatively, but I'm still not sure it really works. The artifical legs of Humma Kavula (John Malkovich)are one of the creepiest effects you are likely to see this season.

Very nice performances by Martin Freeman as Arthur, Zooey Deschanel as Trillian, and brilliant voiceovers by Stephen Fry and Alan Rickman as "the book" and Marvin, respectively. (Warwick Davis did Marvin's on-screen acting.)

Highly recommended for fans of Adams and the story in its prior iterations. I'm afraid most other people won't get it.

Movies 3

So far, "Revenge of the Sith" sits at number threee on the summer SF and F list. On the other hand, I haven't seen "Batman Begins" yet, and that has a good shot at at least the number two spot, based on reviews. On the other hand, I have no expectation whatever for "War of the Worlds"--

It's not that "ROTS" (unfortunate acronym--) is a BAD movie--it's really not. It's just that seeing it, on the one hand, you realize that the three "first" movies taken together have about enough plot for one long movie, and, on the other hand, Anakin still falls to the dark side too quickly. OK, he really isn't starting off his career as a bad guy with a slaughter of the innocents; he's already done that once with the Sandpeople village, but the movie doesn't really point up that connection, which is a weakness.

Roles and acting level are much the same as the other two films of this sequence, and I suspect most readers already have opinions about those things.

Some of the things that pleased me most were the small things: Bale Organa’s starship is the same one that appears as the “blockade runner” at the beginning of “Episode 4”; in a closing vignette of the Death Star’s early construction, the distinctive image of the late Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin) appears. The reconstructed Darth Vader breaking the restraints of this operating table like Frankenstein’s monster--. There were some interesting bits done to reconcile plot inconsistencies, such as Senator Organa casually ordering C-3PO brainwiped so that he doesn’t know that Leia is adopted or has a brother. On the other hand, it still leaves some awkward connections: why would Yoda make the cryptic “there is another” remark at the end of “The Empire Strikes Back” since both he and Obi-wan (and the audience, if they had seen the films in “order’) know very well who the “other” is.

I have to agree with some other writers who opine that the Jedi have in part brought disaster upon themselves through decadence, arrogance, and complacency. Only when it is too late do any of them begin to wonder what “bringing balance to the Force” might really mean when the Jedi have been on top for so long. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but Obi-wan’s failure to kill Anakin cleanly is an act of either cowardice or spite that will of course come back to haunt him. Ironically, the film ends with two Sith and two Jedi—balance, indeed.