Friday, September 4, 2009

Miyazaki Midnights & Matinees (and more)

One of my favorite films of the year so far is the latest animated feature from Hayao Miyazaki, Ponyo on the Cliff By the Sea, also know as just Ponyo. Made by a near-septuagenarian, and perhaps aimed primarily for children just barely old enough to sit still for a movie, this Japanese re-imagining of Hans Christian Andersen holds the power to captivate a childless 30-something willing to be awash in Miyazaki's visuals, whether depicting the crashing of furious waves as a Hokusai woodcut come to life, or the simple process of serving a bowl of ramen to a little girl who has never eaten noodles before. Miyazaki's inked lines are more robust than ever, and his gentle-handed ecological message perfectly apropos for his pre-school protagonist Sosuke, who understands the import of the chain of events he has set off less completely than audiences of any age will, yet it better able to make a crucial narrative leap of faith than a more world-weary individual might. He provides an inspirational model for us all.

Some Miyazaki fans seem to be, at least mildly, disappointed in Ponyo in comparison to the master's other animated films. I can't understand almost any of their arguments, and I can't help but wonder if some are registering disagreement less with the film itself than with the Disney Corporation's decision to release the film only in a dubbed version, in contrast to their making Howl's Moving Castle available to theatres both an English-dubbed and a Japanese-language version with English subtitles. Sprited Away, too, was sent on the festival circuit in a Japanese version before its theatrical release with American voice artists providing the soundtrack.

I've watched both versions of Ponyo. First I saw a 35mm print of the Disney-dubbed version; though I was mildly bothered by Liam Neeson's distinctive tones, and Cate Blanchett's essential reprisal of her Galadriel role, their Ponyo characters are relatively minor and I was so overwhelmed by Miyazaki's fluid animation and florid imagination that they couldn't mar the experience in any meaningful way. The other voice actors submerged their star personae and were unrecognizable to me until the end credits. In sum it was a terrific dub job; nothing like the distracting celebrity voice-fest of the Miramax Princess Mononke dub. Watching a friend's Japanese Ponyo DVD import with English subtitles shortly afterward was nearly as wonderful, but I'm glad it was not my first experience with the film. In fact the dub translation was slightly superior in a few instances, as I confirmed with a native Japanese speaker. The only major improvement was the end-title song, which Disney turned from a sweet farewell to the film into a groan-worthy techno remix involving its stable of pop singers.

In any language, Ponyo is absolutely something to see on the big screen if you can, and if you live in Frisco that's still possible, at least for another week, as it continues to play at the Balboa Theatre until Thursday. Miyazaki fans holding out for the subtitled DVD, you'll thank yourself for taking the opportunity to see it in a cinema. If you want to display your original-version-purist credentials, take the rare opportunity to watch the Japanese-language version of Miyazaki's Spirited Away this November when it plays four midnight shows and a matinee in Frisco Bay theatres. Both the Clay here in Frisco and the Piedmont in Oakland have included the 45th San Francisco International Film Festival's audience award-winning film in their autumn lineup of cult favorite screenings. The Clay shows it November 6th & 7th, and the Piedmont on November 13th & 14th, with an additional 10 AM screening on the 15th.

Other midnight movies coming to Landmark theatres this season include This is Spinal Tap, the Wiz (featuring Michael Jackson as the scarecrow, of course) the original release cut of Donnie Darko, the Graduate, the Shining, and more. Check the Landmark After Dark website. And though the Bridge will no longer be the site for full summer seasons of Peaches Christ's Midnight Mass series, the horror hostess will present a one-off screening of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 there on October 24th.

Meanwhile, the Red Vic on Haight Street has a midnight hit on its hands as well these days. The Room, Tommy Wiseau's enigmatically awful, but clearly rather expensive passion project, has been packing in viewers and solidifying screen-talkback rituals the last Saturday of every month all summer. The tradition, as revealed in the latest Red Vic calendar, is planned to continue this fall with shows on September 26th and October 31st (come in costume as one of the characters for additional fun.)

Finally, my friend Jesse Ficks has been hard at work putting together his season of MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS shows at the Castro. Tonight he's playing Risky Business, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and the Last American Virgin in a set entitled "Cocky White Guys". October 2 is "Bite Nite", pairing the Santa Cruz-set the Lost Boys with Katheryn Bigelow's Near Dark, which I've never seen (for shame!) And November 6th is called "Love Kills", with True Romance, Natural Born Killers and a midnight MiDNiTE screening to be determined. Looking at the thematic pattern, I bet it'll be something written by Quentin Tarantino. Though Jesse has been known to have unexpected surprises up his sleeve.


  1. PONYO, PONYO, PONYO . . .!!!

  2. I'm a vegetarian but I approve of animated characters eating ham.

  3. Ponyo, Sousuke, SUKI------!!!!!

    I love Ponyo . It's a great movie and no wonder the theme song of this movie (Po~~nyo po~~nyo ponyo sakananoko!) was all over Japan when this movie was out.

    I understand that some people (old Hayao fans) were disappointed in this one because it doesn't seem to have "depth" and "complicated-ness"( did I just made new word?) like his other films.

    Hayao's movie is basically for kids. Like "Totoro", "Kiki's delivery serves"(awesome!),,,,but I've been feeling that his stuff went too complicated like Hawl's. So I think this Ponyo, Hayao tried to come back to his old style which I LOVE! Because it's easy to make "complicated-good" than "Simple-good", and I love this "simple-good" movie!!

  4. I agree with Seikov, just because it's geared more towards kids this time around doesn't mean it's any lesser of a Hayao film. Why must the 'great' animated films appeal to both kids and adults to be esteemed? Appealing to just kids is as valid.

  5. Seiko, Adam, thanks for your comments! I agree that Ponyo is trying more to be a high-quality entertainment for very young movie-watchers than for all movie-watchers. I wouldn't mind reviews of the film that acknowledge this while expressing that the reviewer didn't personally connect with the film in ways they had with others. Unfortunately, what I've seen more of are claims that Miyazaki is repeating himself, or that he's lost his touch. I wish some of the authors of these pieces could somehow "unsee" My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, or at least come to Ponyo as if they were experiencing Miyazaki for the first time. I think they'd realize it's as beautifully realized and wildly creative as those films, or nearly so at any rate.

    I think it indeed may be more difficult to make a great "simple" film than a great "complicated" film.

    The only critique of Ponyo that has given me serious food for thought (though on first blush I'm not convinced) is this one. I wonder what you think of that analysis?