Movie Review: The Red Turtle (2016)


Director: Michaël Dudok de Wit
Release: 2016


After a man is shipwrecked and marooned on a deserted island, he tries to escape.  Each time, however, he finds himself thwarted by a red turtle.  Then a woman arrives.  And the man is no longer so sure he wants to leave.


The Red Turtle is a special film, 80 minutes without dialogue.  Emotion is conveyed through the music and the visuals.  It is quiet, repetitive, seemingly aimless.  It is the story of a life.  There is no plot.

This being said, I suspect that this is a film I did not fully understand.  I love Studio Ghibli and I was excited to watch The Red Turtle at last.  I expected beauty.  A delight in nature.  A quietly reflective film.  This was present.  But somehow, I just didn’t get it.  I found myself counting the minutes until the end.

Admitting as much makes me feel somewhat uncultured.  The film has been nominated for plenty of awards.  It would seem that other people see something in The Red Turtle that I do not.  Maybe one day I will watch it again and I will see something new.  But that day will not be for awhile.

Movie Review: Only Yesterday (1991)


Director: Isao Takahata
Release: 1991


As twenty-seven-year-old Taeko goes to visit her relatives in the countryside, she begins to remember her fifth grade self.  Taeko has always lived in the city.  However, as she picks saffron flowers and begins to fall for a handsome farmer, she wonders if she’s living the life she has always wanted.


Only Yesterday is a quietly reflective film, one that moves between past and present as Taeko attempts to discern who she was, who she is, and who she wants to be.  It is a not a plot-driven film, but rather a character-driven film.  Not all the pieces fall into place and some memories that emerge seem unrelated to much going on in Taeko’s adult life.  But it’s that randomness that makes the film feel so charming, so very real.

Taeko herself is an engaging character who will earn viewers’ sympathy with her dedication to hard work, her delight in beauty, and her spirit.  That spirit is somewhat hidden in the twenty-seven-year-old woman, but it emerges in Taeko’s recollections of herself as a fifth grader.  Quiet, easily embarrassed, and often childish and petulant, the fifth-grade Taeko still has hope in life.  She enjoys simple luxuries like a bath.  And she’s asking her future self to wake up and to move her life in a direction that will make her happy.

Fans of Studio Ghibli will want to check out Only Yesterday.  It is a heartfelt endeavor that emphasizes respect for the land and finding one’s self in nature.  At times the message may feel heavy-handed, but the message is sincere.  And it’s difficult not to want Taeko to buy into it and to find her happily ever after working on a farm.

4 stars

Movie Review: Castle in the Sky (1986)


When Pazu rescues Sheeta, a girl who falls from the sky, he suddenly finds himself on the run from government agents and pirates.  All of them want the jewel that hangs around Sheeta’s neck, but what mysterious power does it hold?


Castle in the Sky stuns with its gorgeous visuals, its imaginative landscapes, and its fantastical worlds.  The story of a young boy from a mining town and a  mysterious floating girl, it combines a sympathetic look at the working classes and those connected to the land, along with an understanding of the need for humans to fly.  But even as the film revels in the possibilities of exploration and the wonders of technology, it remains grounded in its characters.  Pazu and Sheeta’s bravery and devotion stand at the heart of this story, ensuring that it is not merely visually beautiful but also a thoughtful look at the costs of doing the right thing.

The film begins with mystery and excitement as viewers find themselves witnesses to a pirate raid of an air ship.  A man in a suit seems to guard a girl, but the girl fears him and tries to escape.  Who she is, why she is under protection, and why a group of pirates has attacked will remain unclear for some time.  The film moves to Pazu, a cheerful and hardworking orphan boy who cannot be fazed even by girls falling from the sky.

This mixture of the serious with the everyday gives the film its special charm.  Destruction occurs, lives are lost, and injuries sustained, but the characters travel on.  When life hands you the opportunity to stop a group of villains, you stop them.  No questions asked.  And you’ll want to be sure to bring your workday lunch with you as you go on the run.  No use evading the military on an empty stomach.

This attitude of “everything is normal” helps make the film far less frightening than it might otherwise be.  It also helps that the pirates are fierce but ultimately comedic.  In Miyazaki’s world, there is often hardship, but the majority of people are kind and want to give you a hand, even if you’re a complete stranger.  It’s a beautiful vision, one that enchants me every time I watch a Studio Ghibli film.  Who doesn’t want to live in such a wonderful world?

Castle in the Sky is somewhat longer than other Studio Ghibli films, but it’s well worth the watch.  Beautiful, heartfelt, and just a little humorous, it’s a film that makes you feel better after you’ve watched it.

5 starsKrysta 64

Movie Review: Whisper of the Heart (1995)


Director: Yoshifumi Kondô
Writer: Aoi Hiiragi (comic), Hayao Miyazaki, Cindy Davis Hewitt, Donald H. Hewitt
Release: 1995


Shizuku Tsukishima begins to develop a crush on the boy whose name appears before hers on the checkout card of every book she borrows from the library.  But who is the mysterious Seiji Amasawa?  He can’t be that annoying boy on the bike, can he?


Whisper of the Heart follows the story of an ordinary girl–not particularly beautiful or gifted academically, struggling at home because her parents work too hard to pay much attention to her, desperately wishing for a fairy tale to come true but finding that love is much more complicated than the stories sometimes suggest.  Many a bookworm will recognize themselves in Shizuku, a girl who feels a little different from her peers and worries that her talents will never be enough.

Magic, however, occurs in everyday moments and Shizuku finds herself going on an adventure the day she decides to follow a large white cat.  Through him she meets the friendly owner of antique shop and learns the romantic past of a cat statuette.  Through him she also meets Seiji Amasawa, a boy who dreams of becoming a master violin maker.

Shizuku and Seiji begin a beautiful friendship in which they support and encourage each other as they pursue their dreams.  They are young and hopeful, but also young enough that every setback seems an insurmountable obstacle.  Their growth as individuals as well as a couple is what sets this film apart.

Cute, inspiring, and altogether delightful, Whisper of the Heart is another masterpiece from Studio Ghibli.

5 starsKrysta 64

Movie Review: The Cat Returns (2002)

The Cat ReturnsInformation

Director: Hiroyuki Morita
Writer: Reiko Yoshida
Release: 2002


After high school student Haru saves Lune, prince of the cats, his father rewards Haru with Lune’s hand in marriage.  Desperate to find a way out of the marriage, Haru seeks the aid of the Baron and the Cat Bureau.  But unless Haru can find a way to believe in herself, all may be lost.


The Cat Returns is undeniably a weird movie.  Centered around the premise that a human girl will wed a cat, it raises disturbing questions for adult viewers prone to overthink the logic of films.  Perhaps children in the audience will merely think the idea funny or in keeping with the spirit of fantasy.  This latter attitude seems the best one to adopt in order to get through the film.  It’s strange, it’s disturbing, but you just have to go with it.

Once you accept the weirdness of the film, it’s pretty enjoyable.  To avoid marrying the prince of the cats, Haru seeks the aid of the Baron, a cat figurine who comes to life.  He possesses all the dash, gentility, and charm you’d want from your hero and it’s not particularly surprising that Haru finds herself crushing on him a bit.  (I guess it doesn’t hurt that he’s voiced by Cary Elwes, either.)  A blend of comical hijinks and impressive swashbuckling ensues as the Baron accepts the challenge and attempts to mount his rescue attempt.  It’s serious enough that the stakes feel high but also light enough that no one will get scared.

The Cat Returns will probably never rank high on my list of favorite Studio Ghibli films, but it is a delightful story and a fun way to pass an evening, particularly if you’re looking for something light and cheery.  It ends with the obligatory feel-good message about trusting in one’s self and shares the Studio Ghibli trait of presenting the world as sunny and full of good people who just want to help others and make everyone feel good about themselves. It’s a world I love to return to.

4 starsKrysta 64

Movie Review: When Marnie Was There (2014)

movie review stars

When Marnie Was ThereINFORMATION

DirectorHiromasa Yonebayashi
WritersJoan G. Robinson (novel), Keiko Niwa (screenplay)
Release: 2015


After an asthma attack, Anna’s foster parents send her to the seaside, hoping both that her health will improve and that she will become less withdrawn.  There Anna continues to isolate herself,until she sees a mysterious light in an old house on the marsh and meets Marnie, the girl who lives there.  But is Marnie even real?


When Marnie Was There is potentially Studio Ghibli’s final film and thus of special interest to fans, not only because it might be the last offering from a great studio but also because it points to what future world could look like, should Studio Ghibli continue.  Even without Hayao Miyazaki, this film is beautifully rendered and has something of that touch of the magical with which he imbued his work.

Here we have many of the typical elements of a Ghibli film–the gorgeous landscapes; the slow interludes showing the passage of a train or something equally, seemingly mundane; the young girl protagonist.  Anne is not quite the believer in magic who often populates these films.  Instead, she is a self-pitying loner with a tendency to reject love and sabotage her relationships.  She is endearing nonetheless.  And she is about to embark on an adventure that blurs the lines between fantasy and reality.

This adventure, I admit, did not play out exactly how I might have wished it to.  Perhaps this is due to the way the novel was written–I don’t really know.  But there are glimpses of moments that might have been expanded, such as Anna’s spat with some local girls, or the quick looks at Marnie’s home life.  And, finally, there is the ending.

[Spoilers for the end of the film in this paragraph.]  The story sets Anna and Marnie’s friendship up as a budding romance (despite the presence of a boy in Marnie’s life–a boy Anna is clearly jealous of.)  Then the plot unravels.  It soon becomes clear that Marnie and Anna must be related.  One might argue that this makes the lesbian romance less objectionable to audiences (Joan G. Robinson published the novel in 1967 so she was probably concerned about that), but the choice has perhaps unintended repercussions.  Firstly, the story no longer makes sense.  It was written as a romance and then the writer essentially says “Haha!  Just kidding!” and pretends the declarations of love and longing stares never happened.  It destroys the integrity of the story.  Secondly, it just makes things awkward.  How are audiences supposed to feel about Anna crushing on the ghost of her grandmother?

The ending really marred this work for me. I recognize that it’s a beautiful film, that it has compelling characters, that it captures the magic Studio Ghibli is known for.  But when I think about the plot is finally undermined, it’s difficult for me to envision myself watching this movie again.

4 starsKrysta 64

Movie Review: Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

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Howls Moving CastleInformation

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Release: 2004
Based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones.


When hat shop girl Sophie is cursed by the Witch of the Waste to be an old woman, she sets off to find a way to break the spell.  With the help of a walking scarecrow, she ends up in the moving castle of Howl, a wizard of great reputation.  With age comes confidence, however, and Sophie ends up helping Howl put his life back together –including hastening the end of the war that is quickly destroying their country.


For a review of the book, click here.

Howl’s Moving Castle takes readers on a beautiful journey through what it means to love and how to make one’s own destiny. The movie opens with protagonist Sophie resigning herself to life in her father’s hat shop, trimming hats for all the girls she thinks more beautiful than she. However, she shows a burst of initiative when she throws a rude customer out of her shop after closing, and it is this feisty spirit she will convey through the rest of the story. (It isn’t her fault the customer was a witch looking for an excuse for revenge!)

The movie, then, quickly turns into an exposition of Sophie’s spunk and kind heart. Cursed to be an old woman–and forbidden to tell anyone about the curse–she adapts to her new role as quickly as possible, bossing people around and telling people the truths they don’t want to hear. Being old seems to liberate her in a way being young never did because she finally realizes she doesn’t have to care what others think. The others she meets love her as she is, and that’s a refreshing lesson.

There’s also a lot about teaching others to find their best selves. Practically no one in this movie ends it unchanged.

Unfortunately, all these touching scenes and uplifting ideas are encased in a rather confusing plot. The rules of magic in this world are incredibly unclear, and the parameters of Sophie’s curse are no exception, even though it’s the catalyst of the entire story and one would have expected someone to work it out. Like every other spell that gets broken, there’s absolutely no explanation for how it happens. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s something about the power of love and believing in yourself, but I’ll probably never actually know.

The other aspects of world-building are equally opaque. A friend I watched the movie with missed the one throw-away line by a background character that explains the reason for the war. He also wasn’t a big fan of the use of technology. Neither of us could figure out what the reasoning behind the entire climax is.

I like Howl’s Moving Castle. It’s imaginative, quirky, heartfelt, and fun, and that fact that half of it makes no sense doesn’t actually bother me. I’m willing to suspend a lot of disbelief for great characters, great messages, and great art.  I think it is worth noting for potential viewers, however, that the movie does leave a lot of unanswered questions and it’s something the audience just has to deal with.


Your Entertainment Outlook 10/14/15

Partially Cloudy
On January 17, PBS will launch Civil War medical drama Mercy Street.  The show was originally conceived as a docudrama, but as the project grew, PBS settled on a series set in Alexandria, VA that will take place at a general hospital.
rainbow weather
Yesterday Tolkien scholars Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond published The Art of the Lord of the Rings.  This book includes a number of maps and sketches that J.R.R. Tolkien used to build the world of Middle-Earth and will shed a new light on Tolkien’s mythology for avid LOTR fans.
Art of the LOTR sun
Disney recently announced that 14-year-old Auli’i Cravalho will voice the titular character in their upcoming animated film Moana.  Click the link to see an introduction video and some footage from Cravalho’s audition.
The BreadwinnerCartoon Saloon, the animation studio that brought up Song of the Sea and Secret of Kells, will be bringing us The Breadwinner in 2017.  This adaptation of the YA novel by Deborah Ellis will tell the story of an Afghan girl who must disguise herself as a boy in order to work and earn money for her family.
Do you have strong stances about Shakespeare’s language?  It turns out, so do a lot of other people.  On October 6, Daniel Pollack-Pelzner wrote a piece for The New Yorker explaining the history of reactions to Shakespeare’s language and discusses what we should do with it now.
rainbow weather
Good news for Studio Ghibli fans.  Retailer Wizards of the West has released a clothing line with patterns inspired by some of the studio’s most beloved films.  The garments are unisex and options are limited, but plans to release prints based on Kiki’s Delivery Service and Howl’s Moving Castle are in the works.

Movie Review: Pom Poko (1994)

Movie Review


Director:  Isao Takahata
Writers: Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata
Release: 1994


As a new human development encroaches upon their forest, the raccoon dogs of Tama Hills decide to renew the ancient art of shape-shifting in order to save their home.


The works of Studio Ghibli have often engaged with the theme of human development and the need to preserve the natural habitats of wildlife.  Pom Poko, however, stands apart from other films the studio has made in its somewhat more lighthearted portrayal of events; the raccoon dogs of Tama Hills are such a happy-go-lucky lot, fond of food and parties, that no setbacks in their master plan to save their home can make them downcast for long.  Watching the raccoon dogs constantly celebrate victories prematurely is sometimes bittersweet (we the audience know much more about humans and their implacable desire for development), but their joy of life is ultimately contagious.  Even as we watch Tama Hills undergo radical changes, we somehow have to believe with the raccoon dogs that things will work out.

Half the hilarity of the film comes not from the constant partying, however, but from the thought processes of the raccoon dogs.  They believe their ancient art form of transformation will enable them to learn about humans and to scare them away from the new development.  This results in ludicrous portrayals of humans and imaginative portrayals of ancient deities, monsters, and more.  What the raccoon dogs find believable or scary, however, does not always translate well to humans and that disconnect can result in ridiculous scenarios.  Still, as always,the amusing mixes with the somber; each failed attempt by the raccoon dogs means more destruction of their homes.

To its credit, the film provides no easy answers.  Humans, after all, will always continue to develop and the animals will always have to find a way to adapt or perish.  A serious undertone pervades even the most lighthearted of moments, such as when we watch the raccoon dogs court but know that they will have no way to provide for their new babies.  Still, somehow, we always, like the raccoon dogs have to have hope.  Things may change, but the raccoon dogs teach us to try to keep going, while always remembering our obligation to help those around us.

Krysta 64

Your Entertainment Outlook 5/3/15

A Snicker of MagicThe sun keeps on shining on Natalie Lloyd’s (A Snicker of Magic) career. The children’s author announced that she will be publishing a series about “seven strange siblings” called The Problem Children with HarperCollins, starting 2017. Lloyd will be publishing a middle grade book, The Key to Extraordinary, with Scholastic in 2016.
The outlook is still bleak for equality for “boy” and “girl” media. Shannon Hale blogged this past week about the frequency with which she encounters young male students booing any mention of “girl” media during her school talks.
Partially Cloudy
The identity of the “historical Mr. Darcy” may finally be coming out into the open. Historian Susan is reporting that Jane Austen may have based her dreamy character on the first Earl of Morley, John Parker. You can read about the theory here.
rainbow weather
Nancy Drew turned 85 on April 28. To celebrate, Nancy Drew Sleuths is holding their annual convention in Iowa near the home of Carolyn Keene. Her Interactive will be releasing their latest Nancy Drew video game, Nancy Drew: Sea of Darkness.
When Marnie Was ThereOn May 22, Studio Ghibli will release in American theatres what is potentially their last feature film: When Marnie Was There, an adaptation of the novel by British author Joan G. Robinson. The film was released in Japan in 2014.
Amusement parks are about to get a whole lot darker. Lionsgate has partnered with Dubai Parks and Resorts to open a Hunger Games themed park in 2016. Details of possible attractions are still unknown.

What entertainment news are you most looking forward to this week?