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The Devil Wears Prada

Film: B-
What the MPAA Rating should be: PG (for language and brief sexual content)

Directed by: David Frankel
Written by: Aline Brosh McKenna
Based on the book by: Lauren Weisberger
Produced by: Wendy Finerman
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Stanley Tucci, Adrian Grenier
Studio: Universal Pictures

Anne Hathaway is a surprisingly talented comedian and it's a shame to watch her get so hoplessly dwarfed by all the actors and actresses around her. Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci and Emily Blunt all make Hathaway's performance inferior, even when it's not a bad performance at all. This contrast sounds deadly but works in the film's favour. All the other characters seem larger than life and we can feel Andy Sach's terror and pain whenever they glare at her for messing up yet again. The film builds a brilliant first third of the film where Streep as fictional fasion magazine "Runway" editor in chief Miranda Priestly fleshes out the boss from hell without batting an eye. Streep makes the boss so terrifyingly bitchy she's almost scary to watch when she turns around and gives one of those fake smiles (like when Andy tries to correct her) and glares to imply burning a hole in the next wall.

But as Hathaway's character gets better at her job and more accepted, the film begins to fall apart. Clever turns to predictable and brilliant turns to phony. Whatever seems to be great in the first third is anti-King Midas'd by the last. For instance, trying to turn Miranda into a sympathetic character doesn't do good for the film at all. And the character of Andy's boyfriend comes off more annoying and childish than anything else.

Yet, somehow, despite all this, the film is something else. It's entertaining, damn it and it's got some great performances to boot. If the script feels like leftover refrigerated food, I'm glad Streep, Hathaway, Tucci, Blunt and director David Frankel (a veteran of Entourage) tried to cook it well enough to make it edible.

King Kong

Film: C+
What the MPAA Rating should be: R (for sequences of intense, brutal violence)

Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens
Based on the story by: Merian Cooper and Edgar Wallace
Produced by: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Jan Blenkin and Carolynne Cunningham
Starring: Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Andy Serkis, Jamie Bell, Colin Hanks
Studio: Universal Pictures

I'll give it to Jackson, King Kong was an extremely entertaining movie, despite its length. But I canít see why so many intelligent people obsess over this film. I could write one of the greatest episodes for Mystery Science Theater 3000 for this movie. The cliches in use are not Tarantino-esque homages but simply cliched moments used by a director who doesn't realize they're cliches. Like a hopeless scene involving Naomi Watts mistaking the identity of her favorite playwright. A borderline racist portrayal of the friendly local villagers, whose purpose is to be everything evil. One of them is played, in a sad fall from grace, by the same actress who was Grandma in Whale Rider. There is even a scene where a kindly black man is killed. There is one scene where Kong slides around with Ann in his hand and, despite the fact they are being chased by half the world, they stop to play on the ice and shots of Ann and Kong laughing fade over each other like a Coca Cola commercial. Then the lake explodes and the tank comes in. So I laughed. Shoot me. The film occasionally references the classic original, but these are references, not homages, Jackson prefers to homage his own earlier splatstick films than Merian Cooper's. Much eye rolling follows.

The splatstick homages I speak of involve a scene where Jack Black's crew are attacked by giant bugs in a valley. Among other strange creatures, a giant worm/slug pokes out of the marsh and opens up one end of its cylindered body to reveal many rows of circular teeth and promptly begins devouring the head of a screaming young soldier. Gigantic spiders rip others to shreds. How did this film get a PG-13? Whatever you do, don't take your kids to see this. I'm the kind of person who wouldn't mind if you took your kids to see Deep Throat (hey, they watch you having sex anyway), but not this.

But I am only mentioning its faults. King Kong is a very fun film, if not quite the emotional experience some have suggested. In this case, the original, which retains brilliance through simplicity and brutality, is still far superior.

Grave of the Fireflies (English Dubbed Version)

Film: B+
What the MPAA Rating should be: PG (for some violence and scary situations involving children)

Directed by: Isao Takahata
Written by: Isao Takahata
Based on the book by: Akiyuki Nosaka
Produced by: Tohru Hara
Starring: J. Robert Spencer, Rhoda Chrosite, Veronica Taylor, Amy Jones, Dan Green
Studio: Toho Company

Since the late 80's, Disney has gotten better at dubbing some of the anime that has been coming in from Japan. Spirited Away was a terrific example of truly great dubbing...if I remember correctly Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (which I haven't seen in years) had great dubbing as well. Now contrast it with something like Castle in the Sky, in which they gave a child character a grown man's voice, implying a midget. Or Grave of the Fireflies. In Grave, the voice actress (Rhoda Chrosite) who does a toddler girl named Setsuko, is clearly a grown woman. To sound like a toddler, Chrosite uses a very whiny voice the wrong side of Joey Lauren Adams combined with a sort of whisper. It was so grating it completely distracted me from the rest of the movie. Although Takahata had made what was clearly a beautiful film I couldn't focus on it for a minute. All I could think was "Shut up!" Since I was only able to appreciate the scenes where Setsuko does not speak, I feel I was robbed of an emotional pay-off somehow. Not that I know there would ever be one in the first place. I'd have to see the original Japanese language version to judge that.

Now...on the film. There were many scenes I found quite beautiful. There is the chilling scene when we first see the bombs dropped and we watch them makes trails in the sky and whistle quietly before they explode. A lovely scene where protagnoist orphans Setsuko and her caring teen brother Seita light a cave they are living in with fireflies (which, with a little imagination, become a Japanese Navy parade in Seita's mind). And I have trouble forgetting the dread and horror that filled my stomach when Seita discovers his sister eating dirt balls. Or when he sees his mother in the makeshift hospital. Homeless people picnicking on the beach. A montage that skips through Setsuko's life. And my favorite scene, where Setsuko cries over her mother's "sickness" and Seita tries to distract her by performing tricks on a bar nearby (Setsuko does not pay attention).

The film might be a little ovverated. It is not without flaws (somehow a scene showing Seita and Setsuko as happy ghosts seems painfully tacked on to the rest of the movie) yet is one of the stronger anime films made. Amazing it came out on the same double bill that year as My Neighbor Totoro.

But every time that girl opens her mouth...!

Woman in the Dunes

Film: A+
What the MPAA Rating should be: R (for strong sexual content)

Directed by: Hiroshi Teshigahara
Written by: Kobo Abe
Based on the book by: Kobo Abe
Produced by: Kiichi Ichikawa and Tadashi Oono
Starring: Eiji Okada, Kyoko Kishida, Hiroko Ito, Koji Mitsui, Sen Yano, Kinzo Sekiguchi
Studio: Toho Company

Long after seeing this, the lonely shots of sand, water and wind remain in my memory. This is a haunting film that refuses to be forgotten. The film sucks in as it begins like the sand pit itself. An entomologist (that's a bug collector to you) is wandering some lonely sand dunes near the ocean. He is doing research for a paper. He stays out late. That night he is offered a place to stay by some local villagers, who have him stay with a somewhat strange woman...I'd rather not tell you more of the plot and encourage you to avoid reading a synopsis of it. Because this is a movie, something happens that is not great news to out entomologist. This is the kind of film you don't really want to read the plot to, instead allowing the film to play in front of you and reveal itself little by little.

...which means I'll have to keep this review more or less pretty short. One of the most haunting images in this film involves the entomologist in ragged clothing, stumbling away in the desert, not quite sure where he's going or if he wants to get there. Anyone who has appreciated films like 2001 and the Terrence Malick films for their stunning visual beauty will already be interested in this film. Hiroshi Segawa's cinematography erotically captures the unstable dunes in somewhat fuzzy black and white photography.

Behind the camera, the entomologist is played by Eiji Okada (Hiroshima, Mon Amour) and the title role is filled by the wonderful KyŰko Kishida. The film was directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, who, in a rare and great Oscar surprise, was nominated for Best Director. I hope this film isn't too hard to find for you. However long the search, it's worth seeing.

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