[Aug 7] “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004)
Timid hat maker Sophie is cursed to have the body of an old woman. In an effort to break the spell, she leaves home and ends up becoming the cleaning lady for the wizard Howl in his constantly moving castle. It turns out that she’s not the only one with a spell to break, though.
I think Howl’s Moving Castle was one of the earliest Ghibli movies I watched, and I hadn’t read the book (by Diana Wynne Jones) that it was based on at that point. I didn’t remember much from the movie, and I was pretty excited to watch it, especially because I had reread the book recently, and it’s one of my favorites. It was really hard for me to separate the movie and the book when watching it, but I’ll try, given that the movie isn’t anything like the book – it shares the premise at the beginning, but ends up going in a totally different direction before it comes back to the book at the end. The movie seemed to mainly tell an adventure story – there is a little personal growth (especially with Sophie), and some comedic scenes that are pretty funny, but overall it just seemed like stuff happened without the character motivations making a lot of sense. For example, in Spirited Away, Chihiro and Haku’s friendship makes sense, you see why they like each other, and the same applies to San and Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke but I didn’t see how Sophie and Howl ended up liking each other. Also, Howl’s character seemed pretty inconsistent, he has some of his obnoxiousness from the book (the infamous “green slime” scene), but there’s no real context for his vanity. His anti-war inclinations seemed way out of place too (in the book, Howl spends most of his time romancing women and then getting terrified every time they start to like him back and running away; there is no war.) And the villain’s motivation for both starting and ending the war didn’t seem to make any sense at all. Sophie’s character was good, although very different from the Sophie in the book.
I did enjoy the movie despite my complaints – I just had really high expectations due to both the book and previous Ghibli movies, and they were not met.
[Aug 8] “Carbon Copy” (1981)
A white corporate executive suddenly discovers that he has a black son who can’t wait to be adopted. When he tries to integrate him into his family, he loses his job, gets kicked out of the house, and discovers that he has no money. He has to figure out how to deal with everything he knows disappearing suddenly. We mainly watched this movie because it is Denzel Washington’s first movie (he plays the black son.) It’s mainly a comedy, although it does take a turn towards the dramatic at the end. It reminded me a little bit of Trading Places, but it’s not as good. The characters and situations exist entirely to serve the plot – for example (spoilers!), after rejecting the main character, his wife and father-in-law inexplicably show up again and ask him to come back to them, despite nothing having changed except that the main character has a little more confidence in himself now – enough to say no (end of spoilers). I did like Denzel’s character, he seemed consistent throughout.
[Aug 10] “American Splendor” (2003)
This movie tells the story of Harvey Pekar, the Cleveland author of the autobiographical American Splendor comics. It’s a pretty unusual biopic; it features both the real life Harvey Pekar (and his family and colleagues) commenting on some scenes, but mostly it stars Paul Giamatti as Pekar. I don’t think I’ve seen any other media that broke the fourth wall this blatantly, there barely even is a fourth wall. It’s a very good movie, I’m finding it hard to talk about because it seemed like I just saw a very well-edited video of someone’s real life, it doesn’t even seem like a movie. Paul Giamatti did an excellent job, as he always does (especially while playing sad/depressed characters), and Hope Davis was great as Pekar’s wife as well. Of course, it was great to see a movie set in and about Cleveland; there aren’t a lot of those. Highly recommended.
[Aug 11] “Executive Decision” (1996)
When terrorists hijack an airplane, intending to use it to release deadly nerve gas in Washington D.C., Dr. David Grant (Kurt Russell), an intelligence analyst, accompanies a mid-air boarding team sent to take control of the aircraft. Of course, things don’t go as planned and Grant ends up in a much more deadly situation than he signed up for.
Executive Decision is very much a dumb action movie; it’s a little bit like a Jack Ryan movie and a little bit like Air Force One, but it stars Kurt Russell, so that makes up for a lot of its shortcomings. The terrorist leader is played by David Suchet, who plays Poirot in the BBC series, and I really couldn’t take him seriously as a threat – he’s so mild mannered. Andreas Katsulas plays a captured terrorist leader (that Suchet’s character wants freed), and he’s also very mild mannered (plus I can’t not trust him, he plays G’Kar on Babylon 5, one of my favorite characters ever.) The rest of the cast is pretty great too – John Leguizamo, Halle Berry, BD Wong, etc. There isn’t much else notable to say, except that the scenes of Kurt Russell flying the planes seemed very realistic to me.
[Aug 12] “A Hologram for the King” (2016)
Washed out salesman Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) ends up in Saudi Arabia trying to sell a new IT system to the king in an effort to revive his career and pay for the rest of his daughter’s college tuition. He’s far away from home in a very strange culture, there’s a possibly malignant lump on his back, and he hates his life already. A Hologram for the King reminded me of Lost in Translation, which I love; it highlights the same sort of cultural differences and isolation, and the occasional absurdities of human interaction. Of course Tom Hanks is great – how could he not be? The movie didn’t have a very strong narrative, we see various incidents, but they don’t fit together to tell a simple story. There’s a little bit of a conclusion, but mostly it just shows life being life. I can see how that might turn some people off, but I actually really enjoyed it. Some things depicted in the movie seemed unlikely to happen in Saudi Arabia, but I liked the movie enough that I didn’t mind.
[Aug 13] “Criminal” (2016)
When CIA operative Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) is killed during an important mission, death row inmate Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner) undergoes an experimental procedure to receive Pope’s memories in order to finish the mission. This is the second movie I’ve seen Ryan Reynolds in recently that involved transferring memories/consciousness between bodies, and this one is far better than Self/less (reviewed here.) It’s not a great movie by any means, but it’s fun. Kevin Costner is a little unbelievable at first as the incredibly dangerous Jericho, but as he starts processing his memories, he becomes much more familiar. The rest of the cast is great too – especially Gary Oldman and Tommy Lee Jones (playing an unusually passive character), who are reunited with Kevin Costner for the first time since JFK. Some character motivations seemed pretty dumb (mostly Gary Oldman’s CIA boss who makes the worst decisions), but you kind of expect that from movies like this. Other than that, the movie avoids quite a few common tropes, and it actually explores the idea of implanting normal human memories into someone who doesn’t have the capacity for morality in an interesting way, so I’d recommend it.