Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

After completing Castle of Cagliostro director Hayao Miyazaki shifted his focus to writing and drawing a graphic novel. It took place in a post-apocalyptic world and featured a young woman named after a princess in Homer’s The Odyssey. The manga turned out to be a big hit, and eventually he was approached to adapt his work for a big screen feature film. Miyazaki decided to place his hopes on Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. If it was a success, he would use the profits to start his own animation studio, if it wasn’t… well Lupin III was still cranking out episodes.

According to legend, the earth was nearly destroyed in the seven days of fire. Mankind unleashed their most horrible weapons and only succeeded in collapsing civilization. They also created a forest of corruption. This dense fungal forest is toxic to humans and breeds enormous insects that occasionally go on rampages and destroy human settlements and spread the fungus further and further across the land.

In the secluded Valley of the Wind, a group of humans manage to carve out a wind powered society. The princess, Nausicaa (Sumi Shimamoto) spends her time exploring the fungal forest and helping her people. But when a huge airship from a distant land crashes in the valley everything changes. The airship was transporting a disturbing cargo – a huge pulsating living creature. Then Princess Kushana (Yoshiko Sakakibara) arrives with her troops to retrieve this object and captures Nausicaa to use as a hostage. It is only a matter of time before Nausicaa escapes and begins her path to save her people and possibly learn the secret of the forest of corruption and humankind’s place in this dying world.

Good Points:
  • Amazing visual design: everything from costumes to creatures
  • Glorious flying sequences that pull you into the wonder and action
  • A thematically rich story with memorable characters

Bad Points:
  • Nausicaa is rarely wrong about anything
  • Joe Hisaishi’s score is a bit rough in places
  • Feels a bit familiar, because it inspired so many later films and television series

Miyazaki brings a fully realized world to life, with so much visual depth and detail that it is staggering. The story is layered with themes, but the plot is fairly simple. The characters are fairly stock, but you could argue that this is the first film to introduce many anime character tropes. For me, the animation and visual style are what makes this film so memorable. It is an amazing sophomore effort and well worth seeking out for any animation, science fiction or fantasy fans out there.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review
Nausicaa faces the darkness of her journey.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is a tricky film to write about. On the one hand it is one of the most influential anime of the 1980s, and often considered one of Miyazaki’s greatest works. On the other hand it has some flaws that come from a burgoning filmmaker who wasn’t sure if this was going to be his only shot at bringing his own material to the big screen. So he goes for broke and sometimes it doesn’t quite gel.

My other issue is that the graphic novel is really one of the best I’ve ever read. Miyazaki had time to expand and fully explore the world he created with nearly over a decade to write and draw it. The film covers only a quarter of the material the manga does. And once you read the manga with all the complexities, characters and themes, I’m sad to say that the film seems a little shallow in comparison.

The detail on the airships is impressive.
But for anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of reading the graphic novel, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind will impress. There is no way it can’t. The visuals are amazing at nearly every level. Given the fact that Miyazaki had two years to design and create his vision leading up to the film version, there is a depth of detail to the world that is mind-blowing. This is right up there with Akira and Ghost in the Shell when it comes to world making details. But in some ways Nausicaa may be more impressive because it isn’t building off of a world we know, but forging a world that is familiar and yet alien.

We recognize things like tanks, swords, airships and gasmasks. But Miyazaki takes influences from various historical time periods and fuses them to make his own world. I called the civilization wind powered, but that isn’t really correct. There is a strong feudalistic feel the culture, but they have airships powered by some kind of reactors. The tanks look like pre WWII models. The armor and weapons of the Torumekians looks like something from 1400s Germany.

One example of the gas masks used in the film.
I also like how the technology and culture also shows the necessity of working with the environment to survive. When we first see the sword master Yupa (Goro Naya), he and his avian mounts are wearing unique gas masks to avoid inhaling the toxic spores. The gas masks a constant reminder of how tenuous the human grip on this world is. Nearly every character has some kind of breathing filter or apparatuses on their person… just in case.  In addition, Nausicaa mentions that her people use cast off chitin from the giant insects as tools and other useful elements. This influences the visual design; a more alien and yet organic look to much of the Valley of the Wind.

An enraged Ohmu chases our heroes.
Then there is the fascinating creature design. The giant insects, especially the mammoth Ohmu are truly a wonder to behold. The Ohmu have a real heft and weight to them that makes their rampages even more horrible. Miyazaki would use the same visual principle for the giant boars in Princess Mononoke. The flying insects are equally impressive. I also like little Teto, the fox like critter that Nausicaa adopts. The explosion of creativity of these creatures would be unmatched in Miyazaki’s films until we get to the myriad of sprits in Spirited Away.

The simple fact is that you can watch Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind any number of times and always find some new detail to wonder at and explore.

Ship to ship battles are frequent in this world.
The action is also impressive. This is the film that Miyazaki’s love of flight really shines. Nausicaa takes to the air countless times, often on her compact and quick glider. The movie has plenty of battles between airships, with diving into clouds, hiding in the sun and plunging into the depths of the fungal forest. These scenes are fully rendered with no cheats to be seen. It actually puts some modern science fiction ship battles to shame. What makes these scenes work so well is that we feel the thrill of flying, as well as the tension and danger of aerial attacks. Miyazaki’s dynamic framing and motion play a big part in this.

But I would be remiss to mention the other main reason these scenes work so well. Composer Joe Hisaishi’s music adds to the flying scenes immensely. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind marks the first time Hisaishi and Miyazaki collaborated on a film. And it would lead to a fruitful partnership that would span decades. The two would bring out the best in each other, and we see the very beginnings of the wonderful thematic work of Hisaishi in this film.

Nausicaa is always ready to defend her people.
The main theme for the film is heard in the opening credits, and is used several times during the movie. It has a majestic quality, and Hisaishi’s use of piano during the theme became an instant trademark for his scores on Miyazaki’s films. Perhaps his most effective pieces is the childlike lullaby that he uses when Nausicaa bonds with the enormous Ohmu creatures. There is a haunting quality to the tune and the way Hisaishi uses it. It feels ancient and yet with the child’s voice singing “la la la” to it, the tune sounds innocent. It is one of the most memorable musical moments in 1980s anime.

But not all of the Hisaishi’s material works for me. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind uses some unique and very 80s synth sound effects. Some of these are so jarring they actually feel out of place during the film. Other times, the otherworldly nature of the synths works with the strange visuals on the screen. I admit some of it reminds me of early video game music for the Sega Genesis, but it does end up giving the movie a unique sound. Hisaishi would continue to use synths in his scores, and improve on how they are implemented. Here, it just feels hit and miss in effect.

An encounter with a giant insect is about to go wrong.
The sound effects are handled well. Much like the visuals, sound design for the new world is an important part of pulling the viewer in. Gunshots and the airships make familiar sounds that help ground the viewer. But the giant insects, Nausicaa’s unique glider and her insect lures all have unusual sounds. It’s a good balance of new and old that supports the film.

The first time I watched this film was with an English dub produced back in the 1980s (I’ll go a little more into that at the end of the review). So some of my memories of the film are colored by that not quite adequate dub. For this viewing I decided to give the Japanese dub a try and really liked it. Sumi does a fine job with the character of Nausicaa. She is determined, forthright and strong when she needs to be. I also liked Goro Naya’s performance as the wise and deadly Yupa. When Disney released the film on DVD they gave it a pretty solid dub featuring an impressive cast including: Patrick Stewart, Edward James Olmos, Uma Thurman and Shia LaBeouf. For some reason that dub just doesn’t quite click for me. But I think that is my own mental malfunction.

Nausicaa flying off into adventure.
As I mentioned Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is a pretty simple story about a young woman who discovers a secret that can change the world. She has to make hard decisions and sacrifices to do the right thing, even in the face of overwhelming odds. She must break tradition and accepted social rules to save not just her people but all of humanity. It is an overwhelming role. In the graphic novel Nausicaa finds herself sinking under its weight.

But the film doesn’t have the time or inclination to really dig into that part of the story. Instead Nausicaa is presented as nearly perfect. She never seems to doubt, never seems to waver and rarely seems to be wrong about anything. She is guided by her own virtue, and one that lines up with a prophecy mentioned in the early portion of the movie. In this way, she is a true mythic hero, one who must journey away from her home into the underworld of the fungal forest, and return with the knowledge to save humanity.

Nausicaa witnesses the horrors of war.
But this mythic status drains her of humanity (ironically). She seems too perfect, too knowledgeable and too gracious to be much more than MYTHIC HERO. But in a way, the whole film feels that way. It is a legend, with all the tropes and concepts in place. In fact the opening credits play over a tapestry showing what will be Nausicaa’s story already preserved as legend. What is interesting about Nausicaa is that she may be the least interesting character in the film, but she also went on to inspire many other characters who built off her base and grew into something greater.

For me the supporting cast of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind has always been more interesting. Yupa is a fascinating character. We hear a little of his travels and adventures. When he runs into enemies in the film, they all know him by an obviously impressive reputation. You want to know more about his mysterious swordsman.

Kushana unleashes the final phase of her plan
for conquest.
I also really like Princess Kushana. Her rationale for attacking the Valley of the Wind and attempting to harness the power of the terrible biological weapon all make sense once you hear her story. It becomes impossible to hate her, and she even turns into a valiant warrior of sorts. In the graphic novel she really gets to shine further during the political maneuvering of the second half of the saga.

But it really is Miyazaki’s direction that makes the familiar (and maybe overly familiar) story of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind work so well. The film is nearly two hours long, but it flies by as we join Nausicaa on her journey into the depths of the forest. The stunning visuals, the intense action scenes, and even the drama of the climax, that really doesn’t come as a surprise, all work together to make the film both entertaining and thought provoking.

Nausicaa may be perfect because she always seems to find the right answer for the hard questions, but those questions are ones we all must face. How far will you go to save your people? Would you kill innocents for them? Does revenge solve anything? Are humans supposed to control nature, or become supplicant to it? Do we even have a choice? Is hate really the only response to an attack? What if the attack is perfectly justified? Heavy stuff from a man who would later be best known for his child friendly films.

Featuring cast not appearing
in this film.
The film is well constructed, allowing the viewer to be pulled into the world and the story. The editing keeps everything moving along pretty well, which is why it seems a bit strange that the first North American release of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind was heavily edited and renamed The Warriors of the Wind. The dub simplified things a bit, and several key sequences were completely absent (causing some major rewriting of the overall plot to occur). This was how I first saw this film, and to tell the truth, I found the movie very odd and kinda creepy (I was probably around ten or eleven when I saw it). The voice actress for Nausicaa (renamed Princess Zandra) always sounded too old for her character. The Ohmu were just plain monsters in this version. And the whole thing relied more on the post-apocalyptic setting then the original version. One of my favorite things about this version was the cover art, which featured a bunch of characters who aren’t even in the movie. Poor Nausicaa is relegated to the far right.

But even in this hacked up form, the visuals enthralled me. It was such a unique looking film that I remembered it, and Hisaishi’s score for the finale scene with the Ohmu for years afterward. When I got back into anime in the late 90s, the film came up in conversation. People were describing scenes that I recognized, but from a film with a completely different name. it was an odd discovery to find out that Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind was considered an anime classic.

Nausicaa faces her fate, because it is the right
thing to do and the right time to do it.
I think it holds that title even today. It is the start of many themes, concepts, visuals and storytelling that Hayao Miyazaki would revisit and evolve over the decades. But more than a historical starting point, the movie is just plain entertaining. It shows what a great talent Miyazaki has and he would continue to improve as the years continued. Many consider Nausicaa’s film the pinnacle of his career. I don’t hold it so high, but man was it a great way to announce his presence to the world. His follow up, Castle in the Sky would take the animator in a familiar direction, but with a new twist.

Some more of the outstanding visuals from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.

The mysterious swordsman, Yupa... and his
huge, huge mustache.
A small but might tank used by Kushana's forces.
If you see this coming at you... you're dead.
Nausicaa in a gunship over a vast army of rampaging
Kushana observes her ultimate weapon.
The details inside the cockpits is amazing.
Nausicaa gives this review a thumbs up!

Friday, September 25, 2015

Nostalgia Nugget – My First Soundtrack

I have to say that 1987 was not a banner year for me. I was surviving the wilds of Junior High, doing my best to keep a low profile, but still managing to get book dumped at least once a week. My best friend moved to Mississippi later that year and I pretty much felt lost.

Somewhere along the way the joy of Transformers evaporated. I was into NES games, especially The Legend of Zelda, but I didn’t actually own an NES, and had to enjoy and play the game at a friend’s house (a friend who was a few years younger than me, and so I couldn’t hang out with at school and discuss the game).

This book contained tons of information
that went beyond the movies.
I was looking for something to fall back on, and that may be where I experienced my first bout of nostalgia. I rediscovered the Star Wars trilogy. Part of this came with a trip to Disneyland, and riding Star Tours for the first time. While I was there, my parents bought me the Star Wars Role Playing Game book by West End Games. It was filled with all kinds of story and character information I had never seen before.

I became (re)obsessed with the movies, watching all three again for the first time in years. I pulled out my old toys and started creating new adventures. And then I got an idea. What if I could take Star Wars with me wherever I went? I had a walkman cassette and headphones I had got for Christmas. There was a way… oh yes there was a way.

We had a radio with a built in microphone and you could record directly to cassette tape. I used that sucker to record the audio from Star Wars onto two tapes. It was a bit tricky getting the right timing so I wouldn’t cut off the movie in mid sentence to turn the tape over, but I got it done.

Ben Burtt obtaining new sound effects.
It was this experience that actually changed the way I appreciated film. First was the amazing sound effect design by Ben Burtt. At the time I didn’t really know anything about sound effects, but I still felt that Star Wars had its own unique world of sound. These sounds set it apart not just from our real world, but from other science fiction films I was familiar with like Star Trek and The Black Hole. Everything from the lightsabers, the blasters, the TIE fighters had its own sound. It wasn’t until hearing the movie divorced of the visuals that I understood that these sounds had to be created just for the movie.

The other element that really struck me was the music. Sure I grew up with the music to Star Wars cemented in my brain. But it was only the main themes that I really ever found myself humming. Listening to the film play out, I suddenly became aware of how little dialogue there is in the first third of the film and how much the music carries the feelings and power of the story. Hell, the music practically told the story. That was the moment where I realized how powerful a part music plays in film making. From that time forward most of my storytelling would be accompanied by some kind of score (either played while I write, or running along in the background of my imagination).

I listened to those tapes more than I’d like to admit. My parents must of have noticed because for Christmas they got me the actual score for Star Wars on cassette. My dad actually asked me to put it on our stereo and suddenly I could hear the music – without the dialogue and sound effects and it was like hearing it for the first time.

What amazed me was the music I never really noticed before. The music during the Tatooine scenes was very unusual, not at all what you think of when you think Star Wars. The variety included the percussive drumming for the Sand People, the loneliness of the Dune Sea and the playfulness of the Jawa music. There was even material not used in the film that was amazing to hear.

Once I knew that film music could be a wonderful listening experience outside of the film, I started to notice it more. Movies like Star Trek:The Motion Picture, Conan the Barbarian and Back to the Future all had memorable music, and I could now find it at record stores to listen to whenever I wanted. Part of the joy of collecting these was having a piece of the movie in your collection, a kind of souvenir. But there was also the amazing storytelling going on in the music itself that appealed to me.

When Star Wars finally made it to CD it was
in this awesome 4 CD set.
But the first quest was to complete the Star Wars trilogy. I found the Empire Strikes Back on cassette pretty easily, and wow was that a revelation.  Having the concert version of the Imperial March was a high point in my geek quest.  But for some reason Return of the Jedi was very difficult to obtain. It actually took me a couple years to actually find it. It was a big day for this film music nerd to play all three tapes back to back and indulge in the power of John Williams’ music.

I can blame Star Wars for my current hobby of collecting film scores. But it also opened up the idea of film being more than just visuals and story. The audio was a key element to movies, especially genre films. Star Wars changed a lot of things about movie making, but one of the things it brought back was the concept of a large-scale Golden Age style film score to support and accent the action. While that approach won’t work for all movies, and will wax and wane in popularity, it was what got me into enjoying film music in the first place.

Williams would continue to score the Star Wars films, and his sound helped define the world of the series. It is amazing how the music has become as much part of that cinematic universe as the visuals.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Disturbing Behavior (1998)

After Scream brought the teen scream horror genre back with a vengeance, we got some fun horror flicks (even if some of them weren’t supposed to be as funny as they turned out. I’m looking at you The Craft.) I somehow missed this one back in the day. My wife assured me that it wasn’t very good. But hell, sometimes that makes it even more fun, right?

Steve (James Marsden) and his family have just moved to Cradle Bay Island, a sleepy suburban town. Coming from Chicago, this is a bit of a culture shock, but Steve tries his best to fit in. Soon he befriends two local misfits who give him a rundown of how the school is run. But Gavin (Nick Stahl) is also convinced that something shady is going on in the town. You see the perfect and most popular of the kids in Cradle Bay weren’t always that way.

Gavin spins a yarn about rowdy kids disappearing overnight and then returning perfect and popular, but with some minor anger management issues. Steven thinks this is pretty funny, and spends more time hanging out with Rachel (Katie Holmes) the bad girl (you can tell she’s bad because she wears black a lot). But soon enough Steven begins to see strange things going on in the town. Is Dr. Caldicott j(Bruce Greenwood) just around to provide advice to students? Is the crazy janitor (William Sadler) really crazy, or just pretending? And if Steven starts exhibiting Disturbing Behaviour will he be the next to disappear?

Good Points:
  • A neat idea for a fun campy film
  • Some of the cast appears to be having a great time
  • Some of the dialogue is ridiculously ripe

Bad Points:
  • Can’t decide if it wants to be taken serious or not
  • Edited in a confusing way that often grinds the film to a halt
  • Katie Holmes attempts to play an edgy bad girl with a heart of gold… uh huh.

This movie actually has an impressive crew behind it. Lots of folks that worked on one of my favorite 1990s series, The X-Files were involved in this one. But somehow the whole thing just doesn’t work. Some actors are playing it over the top and campy (Bruce Greenwood is a hoot). But others are playing it completely straight. The editing is atrocious. Scenes stop, jump and skip around. You never lose the narrative, but in an attempt to be edgy (I think) the final project actually feels longer than it is. And Katie Holmes is just miscast in this film. She’s cute and all, but I don’t believe she’s the bad girl she’s supposed to be. The final result is a dull movie that moves in fits and starts. Not bad enough to be fun, and not good enough to actually watch.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 3
Sound: 3
Acting: 3
Script: 2
Music: 3
Direction: 2
Entertainment: 2
Total:  2

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Warriors (1979)

I vividly remember seeing this VHS box art at the video store and wondering what it was all about. I never got around to actually watching the film back in the day. In the last five years of so, I started hearing about this film again. First it was a few folks putting it on top ten lists of 1970s films and then John Muir covered it in his book Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of the 1970s. That is where I learned it was based on Anabasis by Xenophon. So now I knew I had to watch it.

Cyrus (Roger Hill) has a grand plan, to unite all the gangs in New York city, and take over the whole thing. United, there is no way the police or politicians can stop them. He asks nine reps from all the gangs of New York together for a summit meeting, and in attendance are key members of The Warriors, whose turf is Coney Island. As the summit progresses, the gangs begin to see the benefits of joining up with Cyrus. Then everything goes to hell when Cyrus is assassinated. The Warriors are incorrectly blamed.

Swan (Michael Beck), the leader of the Warriors, must now lead his crew of eight men through hostile territory.  Various gangs are hunting them down, after Cyrus gang puts a bounty on their heads. The police are searching for them too. Within the ranks, Ajax (James Remar) starts to question Swan’s leadership. Along the way they meet Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) a woman who may help or hinder them. They also have to watch out for Luther (David Patrick Kelly) the man who actually knows who killed Cyrus, and who wants to make sure The Warriors are the ones that pay.

Good Points:
  • Rolls along with a fierce intensity that keeps you watching
  • Has some fun and explosive action scenes
  • Some solid acting helps pull you into the story

Bad Points:
  • Some of the fight choreography is lacking in places
  • If 70s style and slang annoy you… avoid this movie
  • Not much depth to the plot and some of the characters are shallow 

Walter Hill brought the intriguing yet flawed Streets of Fire to the big screen, but before that he crafted this action tale. The Warriors does a great job capturing the desperation, intensity and anxiety of the original tale. The cast handles the roles well providing a mix of personalities that play off each other. The rival gangs are bizarre and colorful (love the baseball themed thugs) and the whole film moves at a great pace. Plenty of action and tension make this great for a 1970s action fix.

Batter up!
Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 3
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Score Sample: Taras Bulba

It has been a while since I featured a golden age film score on this blog for the Score Sample. Today I'm sharing a track I discovered last year, when I picked up a Charles Gerhardt rerecording compilation featuring the music of Franz Waxman. While the man isn't as well known as many of his contemporaries (such as Herrmann or Steiner) he has crafted some great scores for well known films including Sunset Boulevard, Philadelphia Story and Bride of Frankenstein. He even worked with Alfred Hitchcock on a couple of occasions for music used in Rear Window and Rebecca

Today I'm focusing on his work on the 1962 film Taras Bulba featuring Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis. Bernard Herrmann called the score one of the best ever written, and if you know Herrmann... well that is saying something. One of the highlights of the score is the track The Ride to Dubno. It is one of the most bombastic and energetic tracks of the era, and certainly a challenge to perform. In 2011 the city of Prague Philharmonic accepted the challenge and rerecorded the entire score for Tadlow records. Enjoy this amazing track and the talented musicians performing it.