The Secret World of Arrietty (A-)
Japan/U.S.: Hayao Miyazaki/Jiromasa Yonebayashi/Gary Rystrom, Walt Disney
The everyday beauty and transcendent charm of The Secret World of Arrietty -- the latest feature cartoon import from Japan's master animator-writer-director Hayao Miyazaki -- is a balm to the restless spirit, a tonic for the troubled heart. As I watched this tender, rapt, whimsical tale of little people (only four inches high!) who live, hidden, beneath the floorboards of a Japanese country house -- one of whom, a daring 14-year-old girl named Arrietty, befriends a sick human boy named Shawn awaiting a heart operation -- it became the kind of joyous experience, that art (and especially art intended primarily for children) often promises and seldom delivers. I felt refreshed and renewed after watching it, and tranquil. Maybe younger too.
The little people of the movie are called Borrowers: Arrietty Clock (voiced in this American version by Bridgit Mendler) and her parents Pod (Will Arnett) and Homily (Arnett's real-life wife Amy Poehler). They are the brain-children of writer Mary Norton, who created them for her '50s classic The Borrowers -- the source novel for this film -- and for four other children's books and the 1997 British film. Long a dream project of Miyazaki's, it has finally been realized here with all of the legendary resources of his wonder factory Studio Ghibli, where Miyazaki and his team made Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Howl's Moving Castle. But not under Miyazaki's directorial hand.
Now 70, the genius of Castle in the Sky has limited himself this time to the chores of writer and executive producer, and handed the directorial reins over to his longtime key animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Yonebayashi, who has worked on a number of Miyazaki's classics, knows the master's style, his touch, and, the byways of his own secret world. No one who loves Miyazaki's previous work should be disappointed here. It is a fine student's meticulous tribute to his brilliant master -- and perhaps a precursor of Yonebayashi's own future brilliance.
Like most of Miyazaki's work, The Secret World of Arrietty centers on a plucky young female protagonist -- here, little Arrietty, who is adventurous and daring, and is about to be taught the art of "borrowing" -- what the little people must do to survive -- by her father. Papa Pod, equipped with miniature mountain climbing equipment, ventures out into the house at large when it's safe, scales what are to him gigantic walls, stairs and dressers and steals (or "borrows") the minuscule amounts of food (sugar cubes, mostly) and equipment they need. Now Arrietty must learn the same. Since she is a Miyazaki girl, we have little doubt she'll be a very apt student.
But in the meantime, Arrietty has been adventuring outside on her own, exploring the verdant domain of the country house's big backyard and woods, rendered by the Ghibli artists in a radiant watercolor style of dense greens, grass and thick bushes dappled by sunlight -- a world where she eludes her nemesis, the fat and inquisitive house cat. Finally, Arrietty is spotted by Shawn, the sick boy.
Shawn (called Sho in the Japanese version) is entranced. Arrietty is amazed.. Their rapport blossoms into friendship, despite the fact that Pod and Homily have long warned their girl never to associate, or even be seen by, humans.
Shawn's contact with Arrietty unintentionally opens up the Borrowers' little world to the snoopy gaze of the house's mean and slightly hysterical housekeeper, Haru (a.k.a. Hara), voiced lustily (and meanly) by Carol Burnett. Haru goes after them, tries to find their hiding place. Shawn tries to thwart her. The fat cat prowls. Danger gathers itself to pounce. Must the Borrowers, and Arrietty, leave?
That's the plot -- and we can see why the story would appeal so to children, for whom their home and its environs are a little world unto themselves, the world they love. Shawn, in a way -- symbolically of course -- is an artist himself, and the little people he finds and meets are the world-within-a-world every artist, no matter how small, creates.
This spry and lovely little movie, so full of compassion, imagination and humanity, attests once more to the beauties of Miyazaki's art and the powers of his studio. And it's a tribute to our homegrown animators from Disney and Pixar that they've devoted so much care and love and skill to bringing Miyazaki's work here, to translating it and preparing it for American audiences.
Red Tails (B)
U. S.: Anthony Hemingway, 2012, 2oth Century Fox
There are two ways to look at Red Tails, producer George Lucas' long-gestating World War II movie about the storied all-black Air Force unit, the Tuskegee Airmen.
You can see the show as a big spectacular action movie, with incredible aerial dogfight scenes, based not too scrupulously, but respectfully, on some interesting and even inspiring historical material. Or you can see it as a failed war drama mucking around with meaningful and important historical material about racism and American social and military history, which has been Hollywoodized, snazzed up and sugared over, and who cares if it has wonderful fight scenes?
Either way you choose to judge it, and I lean toward the former, you'll get a mixed reaction -- because the action stuff is so good and so brilliantly and excitingly executed, and the dramatic stuff so comparatively clichéd and this-is-where-we-came-in-ish. Red Tails is easily better than most big action movies of its kind, and exactly the kind of movie I would have expected from Lucas.
The subject of Red Tails is the Tuskegee Airmen, a.k.a. the 332nd fighter group, an all-black Air Force unit, which had to combat both racism in their own world, among their white superior officers and fellow pilots, and the hell of war besides: the deadly forays of the German Luftwaffe fighter planes, including one ubermensch-ish Teuton dude they call Prettyboy, in the skies over Italy in 1944. Two black officers -- Terrence Howard as scrappy Colonel A.J. Bullard and Cuba Gooding Jr. as the more meditative and pipe-smoking Major Emmanuel Stance -- fight to keep up their men's morale and get them into the thick of the battle. They's up against opposition from hard-ass or gentleman-racist attitudes in Washington and the Pentagon, and also ridiculous evaluation reports that insist "Negro soldiers" are not suited for complex fighting duties like flying a plane and going on bombing raids.
Since we know that the Tuskegee Airmen are a famous World War II outfit with a great war record, we know that report will not stand. But in the beginning the Tuskegee pilots -- reduced to bombing munitions trains and shooting it out with occasional lone German planes -- are relatively inactive, hungry for the fight.
We like these guys. The fliers and ground support of Red Tails, also fictional, are mostly war-movie types, some with colorful tics or descriptive nicknames, like Declan "Winky" Hall (Leslie Odom. Jr.), Leon "Neon" Edwards (Kevin Phillips), Andrew "Smoky" Salem (Neyo), Antwan "Coffee" Coleman (Andre Royo) and Samuel "Joker" George (Elijah Kelley). Among the more notable of the bunch, for personality and screen time, are squadron leader Marty "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker), who likes whiskey; Ray "Junior" Gannon (Tristan Wills), who'd rather be "Senior" and whose back-row status makes him champ even more at the bit; and Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oylelowo), the charismatic star pilot, daredevil and lover-boy of the group.
There's no suspense about what's going to happen in Red Tails overall, except over who lives and who dies. So our pleasure in the movie comes from following characters we like through hazardous situations that we know not all will survive. Howard's Bullard, who's no go-along guy, keeps up the pressure to get his men their shot and make nonsense out of that "report." And finally, the brass relents, and the Airmen get to fly (in special signature planes with red-painted tails), and of course they prove themselves magnificently. Some die, some live, and almost all get their moments in the sun and in the exploding skies, in Lucas-style dogfights that look like William Wellman's Wings crossed with Star Wars.
Writers John Ridley (U-Turn) and Aaron McGruder (Boondocks) don't try to give these characters, either the officers or the men -- or their sometimes supportive white colleagues -- too much depth or nuance. They try to make them all likable or pungent movie star or character types. They do. It would have been nice if the movie achieved great drama as well as great action. It doesn't.
The Woman in Black (B)
U.K.: James Watkins, 2012, CBS Films
The Woman in Black is the film in which Daniel Radcliffe becomes an onscreen father and a post-Potter star, and it's also the picture in which the legendary Hammer horror studio rises up from the grave. It's an old-fashioned horror movie that gives us pretty much what we expect from this kind of show -- and I mean that as a compliment.
I like old-fashioned horror movies, including some of the admittedly cheap and even sort of sleazy, but stylish, Peter Cushing-Christopher Lee specials that the old Hammer Studio, revived here, made between 1948 and 1979. And I like them especially compared to most of the blood-drenched, wildly violent and/or wildly illogical new-style ones, like the Saw and Final Destination series or the mock shockumentaries like The Blair Witch Project or The Devil Inside.
A movie like The Woman in Black, though -- a film that tries to mesmerize you the old-fashioned way, to grip you with eerie atmosphere and bizarre characters, that may even boast some literate dialogue and psychological acuity -- and that deploys its violent scenes as part of a pattern rather than the whole raison d'etre -- is often more memorable, more fun, than the ones that simply try to freak you out and creep you out with orgies of carnage that they vainly try to convince you are real.
The Woman in Black, by contrast, is an old-style British horror movie with some new-style violence, a film that takes advantage of the new screen freedoms and technology, but that also employs, often pretty effectively, a lot of the familiar archetypes and tropes of British literary and movie horror, particularly the ones for the haunted-house subgenre. They're almost all here -- from the old dark house full of flickering candles, shadowy corridors, ectoplasmic high jinks and wicked-looking toys, to the usual bedeviled hero or heroine, to a murderous ghost (or monster) running amok in a once-peaceful village populated with scared, hostile villagers suspicious of outsiders, to moonlit tides and glowering skies, to strange old family photographs with scratched-out eyes, dark secrets and mysterious mirror and window reflections of people, often dead, who vanish.
With all that, The Woman in Black -- based on the highly-praised novel by Susan Hill -- is a movie that may not scare you silly, or make you jump or fill you with fear and loathing, but that also tries to entertain you in other, more traditional, likeably antique ways.
Like much of the better classic-style British horror, from Dead of Night to The Innocents to The Others, this movie makes us feel both comfortable and uneasy. And, since the lead actor, Radcliffe, is known to us in a literary context, as the impersonator of the literary hero Harry Potter, one feels comfortable with him too, even though he may still be too young for a role like this: a lawyer and father named Arthur Kipps in early 20th century London , a legal employee who has lost his wife (in childbirth) and plunged into awful gloom.
In the beginning, Arthur is summoned by his boss and sent to a northern coastal village called Crythin Gifford and a forbidding old mansion called Eelmarsh to try to straighten out the last affairs of the recently departed Mrs. Drablow (Alisa Khazanova).
Eelmarsh (lovely spooky name, that) is an impressive but ominous-looking place, with Dickensian turrets and rooms full of bric-a-brac and shadows and the memory of murder: a place that has seen much evil and dubious housekeeping. At times Eelmarsh is cut off from the country by the tide. This is the house that's haunted, in this case by the restless, infuriated spirit of a grief-stricken mother, Jennet Humfrye (Liz White) who lost her child in an accident in the nearby bog and muck-mire, and who now terrorizes the town by stealing away its still living children, and taking them over to the dark side, somewhere north of Hammer.
How uncomfortable for Kipps! Almost everyone in Crythin Gifford seems to want him gone, or maybe dead, and his own 4-year-old son Joseph (Misha Hendley) , who survived the childbirth that killed Joseph's mother, is due in a few days by train. Yet Kipps, sad and unwelcome as he is, goes to Eelmarsh, helped by the town's one seemingly brave and rational man: Joe Daily, played staunchly by the beefily British and mild-eyed Ciaran Hinds. Driven to fulfill his unhappy assignment, Kipps goes out to the luckless house and pores over the grisly Eelmarsh past, while mysterious, possibly supernatural phenomena erupts all around him.
Hinds provides most of the top acting in the movie, along with the marvelous Janet McTeer, who plays Joe's mad wife. Radcliffe mostly has to react, silently, to the horrors of Crythin Gifford, of which there are many.
The Woman in Black has its flaws. But, sitting down and watching it in a darkened room sent a pleasant tremor through me, something like settling into a huge comfortable armchair by a crackling fire in the warm, cozy library of a sturdy English village manor, while the wind shivers through the trees outside.
This Means War (C)
U.S.: McG, 2012, 20th Century Fox
Let me try to do this one in 25 words or less: McG's This Means War: Reese Witherspoon torn between CIA super-agents and ex-pals Chris Pine and Tom Hardy. Ultra-slick. Techno-happy. Obnoxious rom-com. Overblown action. Don't bother. (Extras: commentary by McG; three alternate endings with commentary by McG; deleted scenes with commentary by McG; gag reel; trailer.