Tag Archives: Grave of the Fireflies

And like that *poof* he’s gone!

jmsJust over two-and-a-half years ago I started yet another blog that, like the previous ones, would inevitably hold my interest for a month or so until I got distracted by some new shiny things. I started it with the lofty ambition of watching all of the IMDB Top 250 films, and generally trying to fill the gaps in my cinematic tastes and knowledge.

On one hand it was a categorical failure, as I’m still well over 70 films away from completing the set. However, if the underlying aim was to get me watching and writing more about film, and to put me in touch with an online community of some of the loveliest film fans in existence, then colour me a winner (as well as a sentimental old fool). Besides, any top 250 film list that doesn’t contain a single Powell/Pressburger picture isn’t worth the pixels it’s displaying on.

And that’s why I’m really quite sad about moving on. While Failed Critics has been online I’ve doubled the number of kids at home, moved house to accommodate said kids, and found myself in the rare and privileged position of developing a career that I not only enjoy, but am actually quite good at. Something eventually had to give, and although I’m going to miss this place I know I’m leaving it in the very capable hands of our podcast’s own Owen Hughes, Steve Norman, and Carole Petts; as well as a loose collection of brilliant writers – all of whom have been brilliant to read and elevated the site far beyond what I ever hoped to achieve on my own.

I’ve had some fantastic experiences while running the site, attending the Prometheus premiere (and becoming life-long mates with Jason Flemyng and Benny Wong); watching a weekend of David Bowie films at the ICA; and a couple of great years at the Glasgow Film Festival where I got to feel like a ‘proper’ critic for two weeks. I’d like to thank everyone I’ve ever spoken to about film on Twitter, and everyone who has ever read an article on the site or downloaded the podcast. Every single one of those page views or downloads has made this mid-thirties man inordinately happy.

I’ll still be watching films, talking about them on Twitter, and keeping my Letterboxd ratings up-to-date. And maybe in time I’ll even get around to popping back on the podcast, or helping run the annual awards. For now though, please continue to visit the site and support the brilliant work Owen has already been doing while I’ve been otherwise engaged. I can’t wait to see what he does with the place.

Until then, let me leave you with my ten (sort of) favourite films that I saw for the first time while running the site. I think they sum up the era pretty well.

The Raid/The Raid 2

One of the earliest films we reviewed for the podcast back in 2012, and the opening still fills me with nostalgic glee. I only need to see that blue Sony Pictures Classics title card to be transported back to the John Woo/Chow Yun Fat Hong Kong action films of the late 80s/early 90s, but The Raid follows up on this promise and was the most fun I had in a cinema that year. The sequel (out on DVD next week) is a completely different, but just as impressive beast. Not many films had such a unanimous affect on the podcast team.

The Lego Movie

Currently sat at the top of my 2014 ‘Best of’ list, and it’s going to take something pretty special to budge it. I can’t imagine that I would have made a beeline to see it on the preview weekend if I hadn’t been running a film site, let alone paying to see it again the following week. But Christopher Miller and Phil Lord’s anarchic, brave, and playful animation is so funny that I don’t care how much of an advert it is.

The Before films

In an early podcast, I remember Gerry McAuley almost blowing a gasket over how much he hated Before Sunrise, the Richard Linklater film starring a young and gloriously pretentious Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. At roughly the same time we had an argument over (500) Days of Summer, which he enjoyed and I felt was trite, overwhelmingly kooky, and horribly shallow. I then went and watched Before Sunrise, and very quickly followed it up with Before Sunset, and Before Midnight. Much like Mia Wallace suggests everyone is either a Beatles or a Stones fan in Pulp Fiction, I have a theory that you’re either a (500) Days of Summer or a Before… fan. Pick a side.

Barry Lyndon

In the weeks running up to our Stanley Kubrick podcast special I was l living and breathing Kubrick. Already my favourite director, I relished the chance to revisit some of my favourites (A Clockwork Orange, Dr Strangelove, 2001) as well as delve into a few that I had missed (Paths of Glory, The Killing, Lolita). It was this recommendation from Owen though that completely blew me away that week. Barry Lyndon’s episodic nature and purposely static action may not be to everyone’s taste, but I was utterly bewitched by this gorgeous and entertaining masterpiece.

My Neighbour Totoro/Grave of the Fireflies

Before I started Failed Critics I had never seen a Studio Ghibli film. Let that sink in. Then in our second podcast we had a Triple Bill of Films with Child Protagonists, and Gerry chose (I think) both My Neighbour Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies, released as a double bill in 1988. During their recent theatrical rerelease I took my daughter to see My Neighbour Totoro as the first film that she really watched at the cinema (great hipster credentials for the future!), but chose to watch Grave of the Fireflies on my own. Which was lucky as I basically sobbed non-stop through most of it. Simply the finest anti-war film I’ve seen, and up there with Life is Beautiful in terms of raw emotional reactions I’ve had to films.

Christiane F

Another brutal punch-to-the-stomach of a film. I saw this as part of Bowiefest and, while the Thin White Duke makes an appearance in concert and his music forms the soundtrack, the star is Natja Brunckhorst, who plays the titular character. Based on the real life memoirs of a 14-year-old drug addict and sexually exploited child, it is an incredibly stark and realistic portrayal of 1980s Berlin. As hard-hitting as it gets.

Avengers Assemble

This was our first ever ‘Best Film of the Year’ winner, and is still the touchstone for the podcast team in terms of how to do a comic book film. If we have a catchphrase on the podcast, it’s probably “this is one of the best comic book/action films since Avengers”, and it’s easy to see why it gets so much love. A brilliantly warm and funny script from director Joss Whedon, pitch-perfect performances from all (particularly Robert Downey Jnr and Tom Hiddlestone), and the sense that Marvel are risking everything and succeeding on such an ambitious project. I’ll never tire of watching this film.

The Intouchables

This French comedy really shouldn’t work. ‘Immigrant and petty thief somehow ends up with a job looking after a millionaire paraplegic, and hilarity ensues’ sounds like an Adam Sandler movie pitch that Awesome-O would come up with in the seminal South Park episode. But this film above all others is the only one still undefeated in terms of my recommending it to people and their enjoying it. Is there anyone out there who doesn’t love it?

Rust and Bone

I’m a big fan of naturalistic French sex/relationship dramas, so when this film combined that genre with an incredible performance from Marion Cottilard and a brilliant soundtrack it seemed destined to be my favourite film of 2012. A story of violence, redemption, and killer whales dancing to Katy Perry’s Firework, and if that doesn’t make you want to watch it then I give up. Oh wait, I already am.

The Act of Killing

In my view not only the best film of last year, but simply one of the most important films ever made. This Indonesian documentary looked into a brutal and horrifying era of that country’s history, but rather than presenting the facts of the genocide that occurred in the 1960s the film gives the perpetrators of mass murder the opportunity to discuss and recreate their crimes in their favourite cinematic styles. What could have been a horribly crass piece of filmmaking ends up making the viewer look directly into the abyss of the darkest aspects of human behaviour. Essential viewing.

Failed Critics Podcast – COP: Studio Ghibli

My Neighbor TotoroWelcome to a mini-edition of the Failed Critics Podcast, and in this special episode we pay tribute to the latest inductee into our Corridor of Praise, the Japanese masters of animation Studio Ghibli.

James, Owen, and Gerry discuss their favourite Ghibli films, as well as discussing the history of the studio, and it’s impact on opening new eyes to world cinema, as well as exploring its influence over Disney and Pixar.

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Film4’s Studio Ghibli season: The highlights

Princess Mononoke, one of the films showing in Film 4's Studio Ghibli season
Princess Mononoke, one of the films showing in Film 4’s Studio Ghibli season

Today marks the beginning of two and a half weeks of cinematic excellence on Film4, as their Studio Ghibli celebration begins. Of course, very few people will have time to watch them all (Owen Hughes of this parish will probably manage it) so we thought it would be useful to pick out five to watch. These five would provide a perfect entry point into the magical world of Studio Ghibli but this list is by no means exhaustive. There are a large number of great films in their canon and I urge you to watch as many as you can – I will certainly be taking the opportunity to catch the ones I haven’t yet seen.

Wait, Studio Ghibli? What the hell is that?

First, a little intro to Studio Ghibli for those unfamiliar with this powerhouse of Japanese animation. Set up by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata in 1985 following the success of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the studio has always prioritised artistic integrity over commercial appeal. This, famously, has extended to a “no cuts” policy when distributing internationally; Harvey Weinstein, upon suggesting that Princess Mononoke be cut to give it more commercial appeal, received a Samurai sword in the post with an accompanying message of “no cuts” from the film’s producer*. Frequent themes are nature (and man’s destruction of it), childhood and magic. The studio is notable for its frequent use of female leads who are very different from the typical Disney Princess.

Of the ten highest-grossing films in Japanese history, Ghibli has produced four of them – including number 1, Spirited Away. John Lasseter, Pixar’s chief creative officer and director of Toy Story among others, describes Miyazaki as “the world’s greatest living animator”. Outside of Disney and Lasseter himself, it is hard to think of anyone who has had more influence on animated films.

Spirited Away – Tuesday 26th, 6.30pm [subtitled]; Saturday 6th April 4.35pm [dubbed]

Previously discussed here and here, this is one of my favourite films. I’ll leave it to the BBC’s Jamie Russell, writing in 2003:

With none of the sentimentality of Disney nor the computerised sheen of Pixar, this traditional animé even blows the brilliant Finding Nemoout of the water. It’s epic story is more imaginative, rousing and luscious than anything American animation has produced since the halcyon days of Snow White and the Seven DwarfsIn two hours Miyazaki offers more magic and innovation than most animators could manage in over two decades.

Princess Mononoke – Wednesday 27th, 6.05pm [subtitled]; Wednesday 10th April, 1.10pm [dubbed]

The highest-grossing film in Japanese history until Titanic came along and ruined everything, this is a Princess tale unlike anything Disney has provided. Set in an imagined 14th Century Japan where humans and forest creatures live side-by-side, there is a surprising complexity and ambiguity to this tale. The familiar tropes of animated fantasy in the West are gone here: no black-and-white morality with a valiant hero and a damsel in distress for Miyazaki and co. Instead we find that everyone has their reasons and not everything about them is bad; in terms of educating children how the world works, this is far better than the classic Disney tale. Visually stunning throughout, whilst the film may appear a little impenetrable on the surface please don’t be put off – Princess Mononoke is a landmark in animation.

My Neighbour Totoro – Saturday 30th, 4.55pm [dubbed]

Again, I’ve written about Totoro before so I will leave it to the great Roger Ebert to describe this, the only competitor with Toy Story in my mind for the title of best animated film:

Here is a children’s film made for the world we should live in, rather than the one we occupy… Whenever I watch it, I smile, and smile, and smile… It is a little sad, a little scary, a little surprising and a little informative, just like life itself. It depends on a situation instead of a plot, and suggests that the wonder of life and the resources of imagination supply all the adventure you need.

Howl’s Moving Castle – Monday 1st, 4.35pm [dubbed]; Friday April 12th TBC [subtitled]

Surprisingly, this film is based on a book by a Welsh children’s author and Miyazaki himself is a big fan of the country; its predecessor and sister film Castle in the Sky draws heavily on his experiences of the Welsh Miner’s Strike a couple of years before its release. Not quite achieving the clarity of thought and purpose of his previous efforts, this is nonetheless a tremendously entertaining film. Here we see Sophie, a young girl, transformed into a witch and journeying to the aforementioned castle to free a fire demon from a curse in the midst of a war.

Grave of the Fireflies – Friday 5th, 12.15am

Takahata’s tale of two children struggling to survive among the bombs in late WWII Japan is more ‘adult’ than the other films here, as evidenced by it being on late at night. One of the most powerful war movies ever made (seriously), this remains the only film to make me cry. You have been warned. That said, don’t be put off by the tragic element at all. The opening scene reveals that our narrator is dead so we know throughout that this is a doomed story; however there is joy, as well as sadness, to be found in the life he tells us about. That is the real power of the film – the characters are brilliantly formed and  we care about them. This is a tale of two lives, innocently caught up in war and the societal breakdown accompanying it. That an animation can feel so real and so relevant is testament to the skill of all involved.

*Miyazaki explains: “…I did go to New York to meet this man, this Harvey Weinstein, and I was bombarded with this aggressive attack, all these demands for cuts. I defeated him.”

A Decade In Film: The Noughties – 2002

A continuing series where Failed Critics contributors look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema, choose their favourite films from each year of that decade, and discuss the legacy those years have left us.

As this is podcaster Gerry’s idea, he’s nabbed the noughties. Here he gives us his top five from 2002 – be sure to check out the entries for 2001 and 2000 if you haven’t already done so. We’d love to hear your thoughts on these so please get in touch with a comment or on twitter.

5. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

the-lord-of-the-rings-the-two-towers-large-pictureI think we might have made a mistake leaving the Shire, Pippin.

The first was a towering achievement of storytelling and fantasy narrative brought to life on screen; the follow-up continued that great work and showed a generation of film fans and aspiring film-makers what epic productions are like. With more action than its predecessor, The Two Towers stepped up the cinematic intensity and silenced criticisms from some corners that the films were long and boring. Jackson builds steadily towards a triumphant final hour centred around the battle at Helm’s Deep, a battle scene which absolutely captivated my imagination as a 13 year old watching this in the cinema. I have, of course, since seen many epic films with epic battle sequences but this film is often a benchmark to compare them with. Podcast listeners will know I moaned about The Hobbit recently but as you may guess from this series, I bloody love TLOTR trilogy, and a decade on The Two Towers remains a staggering achievement, a lesson to us all on how to do exciting fantasy drama on a massive scale.

4. Spirited Away

spirited-away-large-picture-1Once you do something, you never forget. Even if you can’t remember. 

Studio Ghibli films are widely regarded by cine-literate people as outstanding. Yet the majority of the population seem blissfully unaware of their work. Spirited Away is much like their other films – it gets to the heart of childhood and imagination, transporting us forward into a hitherto unseen world of the creator’s making while simultaneously catapulting the viewer back to their own youth, that sense that magic lurked so close that a wrong turn could mean you winding up in a vastly different reality to your own. That is precisely what happens in this film. Chihiro’s family end up getting lost and wandering into an abandoned theme park – her greedy parents eating the tempting food left seemingly unattended and, of course, being transformed into pigs. Fans of Disney and particularly Pixar will find much to love in this classic animation, both in thematic content and the rich visuals our senses are practically assaulted with from the word go. I don’t think it quite matches up to My Neighbour Totoro or Grave of the Fireflies (note to Matt Lambourne – they’d better be 1 and 2 for 1988) but nonetheless, this is better than 90% of the kids films you will ever see – whether you’re a nostalgic adult or a child who hasn’t yet lost that wonder at the potential marvels of the world around them. [I’ve included this for 2002 as it was released in Japan in 2001, film festivals around the world in 2002 and in the UK in 2003, making 2002 the middle ground in such a confusing and drawn out release schedule]

3. Punch-Drunk Love

punch drunk love adam sandlerI have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.

I’m not going to lie to you – I only watched this film about a month ago. I absolutely loved it. No, in fact, I fell in love with it. A mild introduction to art-house cinema for the uninitiated (or soft-core art house if you like), Punch-Drunk Love is a quirky tale featuring Adam Sandler as a possibly autistic, possibly partially psychotic entrepeneur who falls for slightly-less-odd Emily Watson.  Despite the backdrop of constant belittlement from his seven sisters, their romantic journey begins, alongside Sandler’s efforts to disentangle himself from a scam he fell into by ringing a phone sex line to chat about his life. It sounds weird and it is a bit, but if you doubt Sandler’s credentials for this then you’ve obviously never listened to Mark Kermode before. Literally the only downside to watching this film is that you will now be even more annoyed by the constant stream of utter shit Sandler is churning out these days when he is capable not only of genuinely funny films like Happy Gilmore but also excellent serious acting performances like he puts in here. Psst Adam, here’s a hint – make more films with people like Paul Thomas Anderson and less with Dennis Dugan and you might be ok.

2. City of God

city-of-godYou need more than guts to be a good gangster. You need ideas. 

A gripping tale of corruption, poverty and crime in the underbelly of Rio de Janeiro, City of God did wonders for Brazilian cinema. I actually studied a module on Brazilian cinema in University purely based on the fact that in doing so I could watch City of God again and find out the context behind it. For all the complex and important social issues it explores, City of God has a fairly standard cinematic trope at its core: two boys grow up in the same place, take different paths in the face of external pressures, yet their lives always seem to be intertwined and meet with dramatic consequences. Famed for its use of first-time actors taken from the streets of the favelas themselves (even including the mother of one of the real-life criminals depicted in the film), there is a brutal realism to Cidade de Deus that some viewers may find unpalatable. In my view it is that harsh realism which makes the film so powerful and for it to be viewed as anything other than a strength is missing the point entirely. This war between drug lords really happened. It wasn’t nice. With brilliant cinematography that captures the lo-fi 70s vibe of the time whilst still producing stunning visuals and some iconic shots, it is no wonder that the film remains one of the most successful and well-known films in ‘world cinema’ to UK viewers. Fernando Meirelles hasn’t made the move to Hollywood big-shot as many predicted but is trying to make himself the Brazilian Almodóvar. Speaking of my mate Pedro…

1. Talk to Her

On the face of it, Hable con Ella is a pretty odd film. It centres on the solitude and inner turmoil of two men who bond over the beds of the female coma victims who they care for, the gradual entanglement of their lives – whilst in parallel the events leading up to the film’s present are slowly unravelled in flashbacks. There is a quiet power to the film which draws the viewer into this world so deeply that it is impossible to forget. Essentially, old Pedro tests how far he can push an audience (again), this time in terms of how much you’re willing to forgive because you like someone. I often say this about foreign films on the podcast but THIS IS WHAT CINEMA IS ABOUT. Tremendous performances, a director whose vision is so clear and whose skill is so well-developed that they are able to interweave symbolism and narrative to devastating effect, a story which engages throughout and an exploration of wider themes and societal issues without being preachy or ever failing to entertain.

Like all of his films are to some extent, at heart this is an exploration of gender roles. We have the two male leads crying over a performance at the ballet; a female bullfighter who is harsh and masculine, while her boyfriend is vulnerable and openly emotional; a male nurse; and a now infamous scene from the film-within-the-film which seems outrageously shocking, but is in fact less shocking than what it masks. There are a number of genuinely haunting scenes in Talk to Her, precisely because we are drawn into the drama so powerfully by the cast and crew. Javier Cámara and Darío Grandinetti are mesmerising. Almodóvar was under some serious pressure after the global success of All About My Mother and this was what he came up with.

In my opinion it’s his finest work – in a catalogue of films that most people in Hollywood would be proud to have in their DVD collection, let alone make. This is cinema. This is art without being arty or pretentious. This is a film about humanity, morality, imperfection, societal conditioning, sex, solitude, normality, mental illness… There is a disturbing, unsettling effect as you question your morality and precisely why you feel sympathy or empathy at certain points. It pushes you to think outside normality and ask questions of yourself and the world because it has engrossed you so totally and manipulated you so delicately. That, for me, is what cinema is.