Monday, February 25, 2008

Miyazaki's Heroines

This weekend I watched Kiki's Delivery Service (1989), an animated film by acclaimed Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki, and found myself succumbing once again to the charm and enchantment of one of Miyazaki's quintessential heroine-driven films. Like Chihiro in Spirited Away and Sophie in Howl's Moving Castle (based on the Diana Wynne Jones book of the same name), Kiki is an independent young woman, struggling to discover inner strength as she meets the challenges that arise, slipping at times, but ultimately emerging victorious. Kiki may be a witch in training, but she is first and foremost, an average thirteen year-old girl.

Considered by some to be the "Disney of Japan" due to the critical acclaim and mass appeal of his animated feature films for young people, Miyazaki was one of the founders of Studio Ghibli, the studio behind the production of his films for the last twenty three years. However, unlike the typical Disney fare which tend to be plot-driven with a cast of older characters, and rarely with a single heroine in the lead (princesses aside), Miyazaki's films are character and theme-driven with one or two protagonists, often adolescent or teenage girls. (In most American films and television targeting children of both genders, the story rarely centers around a female character, rather it is usually the male character who take the lead with the female acting as his sidekick, in the assumption that boys are unable or unwilling to identify with female characters.)

While Disney films tend to jump into the action, spending little time establishing the worlds and the characters (so as to not to turn off children with short-attention spans), Miyazaki films are all about the establishment. Minutes are spent focusing on the beauty of the animated worlds - the breezes rustling in the treetops and the panoramic views of cityscapes and unusual, futuristic vistas. A similar amount of attention is spent on the main characters, settling them in their world, giving them time to interact with other characters and with their environments even when nothing much is happening, allowing them moments of gazing out at the sea or lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling. The films are very cinematic with a careful and elaborate focus on details to fully integrate the animated characters and their backgrounds (as is the case with most Japanese anime).

What is most exciting - and accessible - about Miyazaki films are his wonderful, well-rounded and identifiable heroines. These protagonists are not princesses in the Disney-sense of the word, the focus of their stories are not all about defeating the evil queen or winning the prince's heart. Rather, Miyazaki's heroines are real young women, the same age or only a few years older than the films' target audience. They may be enchanted like Sophie or a witch like Kiki, and they may even work in a bathhouse frequented by spirit gods (Chihiro), but ultimately, they are ordinary girls made extraordinary by the choices they make and the challenges they face.

These heroines are well-envisioned; their skirts billow in the breeze, their cheeks flush when they are angry or embarrassed, they run trippingly with flailing limbs, uninhibited and full of life. They are courageous, generous, and kind, beautiful on the inside, but often "ordinary" on the outside. They may be insecure and lonely at times and they may cry with frustration over losing a special skill or failing in a task set before them, but ultimately they swallow their fears and rejoice in their accomplishments, earning the affection and assistance of the characters they meet, and succeeding through their own determination and willpower. These young women don't just marry the prince in the end, they save their friends, themselves, and occasionally, even the world.

If only there were more of these heroines modeled in film and television for girls around the world to aspire to be.

Films by Hayao Miyazaki (English titles):

Howl's Moving Castle (2004)
Spirited Away (2001, won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2003)
Princess Mononoke (1997)
Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Castle in the Sky (1986)
Nausicca of the Valley of the Winds (1984)

Sunday, February 24, 2008

2008 Book List: Part Two

In early January I posted my 2008 Booklist, a list of 50 random books I am committed to reading this year - classics, fantasy, young adult fiction, etc. As of now, I am finishing up book #11 ("Why Buffy Matters", the inspiration for a future blog entry), and of course, since restricting myself to a mere 50 titles, I have already discovered some glaring omissions from my list, novels that I so desperately want to (eventually) read that I may not be able to wait until 2009.

Rather than knocking titles from the original 50, I've decided to add 10 books to my list. I'm averaging 6 books a month right now, so 60 books in a year should be more than achievable.

Drum roll, please ...
The List Continues!

  1. Beloved, Toni Morrison
  2. The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night-time, Mark Haddon
  3. Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card
  4. Fray, Joss Whedon
  5. The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory
  6. Paradise Lost, John Milton
  7. Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
  8. Queen Bees and Wannabees, Rosalind Wiseman
  9. Swimming Upstream: A Lifesaving Guide to Short Film Distribution, Sharon Badal
  10. Watership Down, Richard Adams
Random? Perhaps, but no more so than the original list. Or the order in which I choose to read them.

*Bolded means I actually got through them in '08!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Reading vs. Listening, The Debate Begins

I've often engaged in the age-old debate over the merits of literary adaptation. Which is better, the book or the movie? (akin to the equally inconclusive, which came first: the chicken or the egg?).

I most often side with the book as it is the book that inspires the movie to both recreate and reimagine a story that is (hopefully) worthy of being retold. An excellent book may become an excellent movie, but ultimately it is the film that must be selective when condensing the material, sacrificing character development and plot lines to trim the source material to a more manageable form. It is perhaps the television medium that is most suited for long form adaptation, although this medium has its own limitations, mainly in episodic structure and budget and time constraints.

Regardless of your opinion on the book vs. movie debate, here's a debate that you might not have heard before: reading vs. listening.

Shortly after seeing the adaptation of the first book in Philip Pullman's controversial His Dark Materials series, The Golden Compass (2007), I was chatting with a friend who was halfway through listening to the second book, The Subtle Knife, on his media player. He was expressing an interest in seeing the film but was concerned at the possibility of being disappointed with an adaptation that wasn't up to par with the books he was reading. It was here that another rather irate friend joined in on the conversation. She hadn't read the books or seen the movie, but she was very angry with our friend's use of the word reading when referring to a book on tape.

"You didn't read the book," she insisted, "you listened to it. It's not the same thing."

Although I hadn't thought about distinguishing reading a book from listening to that same book on tape, the differences in the experience of the text are indisputable. Even when the book on tape is unabridged and read word for word by a single narrator, the way you engage the material is fundamentally altered.

While reading, you are absorbed in the words and multitasking becomes virtually impossible. You see the words with your eyes, you engage with the layout of the text, consciously or subconsciously acknowledging the paragraph breaks, the emphasis on certain words. You can pace yourself, reading quickly or slowly, skimming ahead or back-tracking to re-read particularly eloquent or difficult passages.

Not only do you not have the freedom to determine the pacing while listening to a book, back-tracking or skimming ahead is more difficult to time accurately. You can't just flip back a page, you have to rewind to the precise moment or you're forced to re-listen to passages you didn't want to hear again. The choices made by narrators or voice actors cast in the roles of the characters limits the reader who may have heard them speak differently in her head. Most significantly, many people who choose to listen to books do so because they don't have the time to read. They listen as they drive, they listen as they do laundry or cook dinner, they listen as they are distracted from engaging exclusively in the text.

I've never listened to a book before, I enjoy the act of reading too much to find any reason to listen instead. Although I will acknowledge one benefit of listening. While reading has made me an excellent speller, I often find myself committing a faux pas when I mispronounce a name or a word newly added to my ever-expanding vocabulary. If only I had listened to the words instead.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Atoning for the Oscars

I haven't really watched the Academy Awards since The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003) swept all eleven categories it was nominated for in an unprecedented victory (and one that kind of made everyone feel bad for the other films nominated that night). Every year there's at least one movie that excites me - Finding Neverland (2004), Hotel Rwanda (2004) or Pan's Labyrinth (2006) - but these films, if even nominated in the top categories, are usually the underdogs. And usually they don't win.

Oscars, schmoscars, I say.

I probably won't bother watching the 80th Academy Awards as there were no films in 2007 that I'm really rooting for this year and it seems unlikely the underdogs will cause any upsets. Johnny Depp really doesn't have a chance of winning for Sweeney Todd (and the fantastic Helena Bonham Carter missed out on her nomination).

Of the five films nominated for best motion picture this year, there are only two that I've actually seen - Juno and Atonement. While Juno is charming and Ellen Page delivers a vulnerable and funny performance in the title role, I'm not so sure that the film is one of the top five of the year. This little indie trouper got lucky - good timing coupled with excellent word of mouth and riding high on the coattail of that other heart-warming indie film to get nominated last year, Little Miss Sunshine (2006). It will probably win best original screenplay but is unlikely to garner any of the other awards.

Atonement, on the other hand, probably will snag a few wins (original score, cinematography, and possibly even the coveted top prize). This sweeping narrative is at once an epic love story and a collection of quietly understated vignettes. While the visuals are far from muted (vivid colors abound), the film itself is subdued, made up of subtle moments that become significant, simply by being - an encounter at the fountain, a secret rendezvous in the library.

Even the war scenes are seemingly secondary moments not usually dwelled on in film. Rather than battle scenes, we are given the intermission - the parting lovers, a nurse giving comfort to an unknown soldier on his deathbed, and most staggering, a tracking shot through a beach of thousands of loitering soldiers all waiting to be shipped away to the next stage of battle and possibly to their deaths. The film's score is less subtle, penetrating the transitions relentlessly, pounding typewriter keys as the story unfolds.

Atonement ends somewhat unexpectedly with a bittersweet finale that few unfamiliar with the original source material (novel by Ian Mcewan) will see coming. It's hard to deny that the film is a rather beautiful, unique love story, but it is one that has failed to inspire me to tune in on February 24th. I'll be rooting for the film, I suppose. But only from a distance.


Just one question: How did the raw, Irish film Once, a love story told in song, fail to receive a nomination for best original score? That film's music really had the power to seep beneath the skin and grab a hold of the heart.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Producer's List - Part Two

This is a continuation of The Producer's List - Part One, a bullet-point list of big and small details that might get overlooked, particularly by independent filmmakers working in major cities like NYC.

Regardless of the size of the production, there's always the chance that some important detail will be overlooked, unless the producers have their eyes open and their toilet brushes in hand, for when the on-location bathrooms are too disgusting for the cast and crew to use and the unpaid PAs are all off running errands. Suck it up, producers, and soldier on.
  • A responsible film crew leaves a location in slightly better condition than the location was found. When on location, be sure to have plenty of trash bags and trash cans. Most importantly, know where the trash needs to be taken out and which days the trash is picked up, and any other trash collection restrictions that may apply.
  • When shooting on location, know how much electricity is available - not just for the film lights, but for everything that might need to be plugged in. Prop lights. Heaters. Air conditioners. Fans. Battery chargers. Lights for the green room. Blow dryers. Coffee makers. Never forget the coffee makers. All the electricity in the world won't be enough if there's a shortage of outlets and extension cords.
  • When shooting on location (especially in older buildings), make sure that the electricity has been properly grounded. If there's no record of the building's electrical history, have an electrician or someone qualified check out the wiring. If faulty electricity causes any of the film equipment to short circuit, most likely that will be deemed neglect by the filmmaker and insurance will not cover the loss.
  • The general advice is never to feed pizza to your crew. Never say never, of course, for sometimes pizza makes excellent, quick comfort food after a long day of shooting. The most important thing to remember is balance in your catering and craft services. For every bagel, have cereal or fruit as an alternate. For every chocolate bar, have a vegetable or cheese platter. For every cup of coffee, have twice as many bottles of water. Find out in advance the dietary needs of your cast and crew. If there are any vegans or vegetarians, lactose-intolerants, diabetics, or people with severe food allergies, plan accordingly.
  • Check the weather religiously before the shoot begins, and then every morning afterwards (keeping note of the weather is usually an assistant director's responsibility when preparing the call sheets). Have alternate shooting schedules if weather conditions prevent the exterior scenes from being shot first. Be prepared with plenty of tarps, umbrellas, and plastic raincoats should foul weather spring up unexpectedly.
  • When shooting on weekends or in particularly isolated areas, know what's available to you and when. Most rental houses are closed on the weekend, though some may have a weekend emergency contact. Local businesses may have shorter hours or may not be open at all. Film is hard to come by on the weekends, but especially hard to find anywhere outside of the major film metropolises. Have an emergency film backup available to you or plan accordingly and don't run out.
  • Have everyone's number stored in your phone or at least immediately on hand at all times. EVERYONE. Cast, crew, AAA, location owners, rental houses, taxi cab services, any emergency contacts other than 9-1-1, the state department, etc. You never know what may come up.
  • Have plenty of actor release forms available and at least one person in charge of collecting signatures, from the lead actors to the background extras, to the random passersby who happened to stumble into the last shot. Do it before you have to track individuals down or resort to blurring out faces in wide shots. Make sure that all legal points are covered in the releases and that a minor has a legal guardian signing in his or her place. Don't leave any room for a lawsuit if you can help it.
Well, that's all for now. Though there's plenty more to remember, so be on the lookout for The Producer's List - Part Three!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

James Marsden ... 27 Tries to Get the Girl

With the Academy Awards looming and all of the films marketing Oscar campaigns having debuted at the end of 2007 or holding off for summer blockbuster season '08, the early winter months are known for being sorely laking in quality entertainment.

27 Dresses is the latest in a series of mediocre romantic comedies to have debuted in the last two years (with Fool's Gold appearing to be the next). A cutesy premise and a charming performance from the comedically gifted Katherine Heigl (backed up by the equally likeable James Marsden and Judy Greer), couldn't save this otherwise bland installment. The notably entertaining scenes - overachieving bridesmaid Jane (Heigl) attends two weddings at once and then a few weeks later shares her closet full of nightmare bridesmaid's dresses from her past - are lost amongst the predictable blah blah blah as the film moves through the paces of an over-established formula.

While unexceptional, 27 Dresses was enjoyable enough for a little light escapism thanks of course to Heigl and Marsden. And you have to credit the casting director with one thing - after a long line of cinematic rejection, finally the funny, charismatic (and sexy) James Marsden gets his girl!

A few of his smaller films aside (Sugar and Spice, anyone?), James Marsden has never been the man the heroine falls for in the end. Instead, in his most notable roles, Marsden has been typecast as the "other guy" - he's good looking, he has his attractive qualities, but ultimately he's the one the heroine rejects when she realizes that she's really in love with her leading man. At last Marsden's luck seems to be changing, owing to the fact that he's more than just a pretty face.

Three cheers for our new favorite leading man! Katherine, don't let this one get away.