The Good German (George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Tobey Maquire)
A stylistically nostalgic film that chronicles an American journalist’s attempts to solve the murder of a deceptive young corporal that nobody else seems interested in. His journey takes him through an intricate web of relationships that draw him to a Russian commander, a presumed-dead member of Hitler’s SS, and an ex-lover with her own deceptive agenda.
Pros: The Good German does an amazing job of capturing the film styles of pre-color (and post-silent) films, not only in its visuals, but also in its plot and characters. I was also surprised that Clooney and Blanchett so easily pulled off their non-English moments while on the screen. Clooney is particularly strong here.
Cons: The plot could have used some thickening to make it fit together better. Perhaps this was part of Soderbergh’s design in engaging with a nostalgic film past, but it can be a little jarring if you’re not used to the style. Tobey Maguire is not at his best in this one (thankfully his role is rather small).
Ultraviolet (Milla Jovovich)
Based on the comic book series, this attempt at high-concept science fiction thrusts us into a future world where “pure” humans have waged a largely successful campaign to exterminate the infected hemophages. Violet, a hemophage, steals a human weapon only to discover that it is actually a boy with a mysterious origin.
Pros: The concept here is actually quite brilliant. This is a world in which weapons can be hidden is strange dimensional “pockets” on the body and where germophobia has been taken to its logical extreme. There are a lot of great science fiction concepts in this film.
Cons: The first ten minutes or so are wasted on a monologue explaining to us who the main character is. For a movie that is supposed to be rather action-packed, this is not only a drain, but exceedingly annoying. The visuals also are lacking. Whether they were going for a certain “video game” style or not, it looks amateur at best and downright awful at the worst. It’s a waste of a perfectly good concept to reduce it to fouled up visuals.
Whisper of the Heart (Hayao Miyazaki)
Shizuku is a junior high student going through the trials and tribulations of self-discovery. During her summer vacation, she notices an ordinary-looking cat riding the train and decides to investigate. Soon she meets Seiji, a boy who is determined to follow his dreams, and soon sets out on her own journey to follow her dreams of writing, weaving a tale of magic and intrigue, using characters made familiar in The Cat Returns.
Pros: Some brilliant characterization here. Unlike other animated films I have seen, this one does not skimp on making all of its characters completely three-dimensional. One of the most interesting things about this movie is how it ties into The Cat Returns; you get the sense that The Cat Returns is more an extension of the Shizuku’s imagination and stories, a metanarrative, if you will; this adds some brilliant depth to a film about talking cats and other silliness. There’s a lot of charm here.
Cons: The story tends to drag. This is not “typical” Miyazaki. There isn’t a lot of magic and weirdness here, but more an in-depth, emotional journey through the world of Shizuku. It’s a beautiful story, but somewhat difficult to get into if you don’t go into it with the right mindset.
My Neighbor Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki)
A unique story about a family split up by an unexpected illness and two sisters who discover the world of the mysterious Totoro. The Totoro come in all shapes in sizes, but all of them are furry, and all of them cannot be seen by adults. This heartwarming tale is a clever mixture of family drama and Alice in Wonderland style oddness.
Pros: The visuals in this are quite unique, not because this is a Miyazaki film, but because the design of the settings and characters are memorable in every way. I especially loved the detail of the cat/bus thing. My Neighbor Totoro is also quite cute and powerful for a film meant for kids. I think there’s something that had to be said about the ways that Miyazaki manages to take complicated subjects and make them work for a very young audience.
Cons: The ending feels very much incomplete. I won’t ruin the plot or what is incomplete, but just note that this doesn’t end in concrete fashion. There are still some unanswered questions. Other problems are that this one can drag just a little in the beginning, which seems typical of Miyazaki.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (Hayao Miyazaki)
Kiki, a thirteen-year-old witch, heads out into the wide world in order to fulfill tradition and spend one year training away from home. With Jiji, a talking black cat, and her mother’s broom, she sets up a magical delivery service in a seaside town. A cute tale about a young girl discovering herself, Kiki’s Delivery Service is a fantastic film by one of the greatest animation directors of all time.
Pros: A cute story with brilliant animation (as expected) and wonderful characters. I got a kick out of Jiji and wish there had been more of him. While not my favorite of Miyazaki’s, this is certainly memorable and enjoyable. If you have kids, this is definitely one they should see. Don’t forget to watch the end credits, because there’s loads of cute stuff there.
Cons: The ending is somewhat un-fulfilling, if not incomplete. There is a resolution, but it didn’t meet what I had expected by the end. Beyond that, though, it’s hard not to love this one.