Tuesday, March 29, 2011

March Quick Picks and Pans

Pom Poko (1994) This lesser-known animated film from Studio Ghibli follows the exploits of a group of raccoon dogs or tanuki (referred to simply as raccoons in the dumbed-down English translation), as they endeavor to survive the incursion of their habitat by humans and their Tama Hills suburban Tokyo development project.  Many of the tanuki possess transformative abilities, which they use to varying degrees of success to confuse and temporarily stave off the human invaders.   Initially, the transformations are played for laughs, but there is a darker side at work.  We see their environment rapidly diminishing, and their efforts to hold off the humans become more desperate and futile as time goes on.  There were times when the animals versus humans theme reminded me of Over the Hedge, which came more than a decade later and could have been influenced by Pom Poko, but the themes are much more complex here.  The main characters rise above stereotypical depictions of cute cartoon animals, and it’s clear that they have a rich history and cultural background.  Shinto tradition and spiritualism plays a prominent role throughout the film.  Director Isao Takahata was responsible for the emotionally devastating anime film Grave of the Fireflies, and he lends a weight to the story that emphasizes the life or death stakes.  He hits all the right notes, in a bittersweet story that’s sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, and ultimately accepting of an end to a way of life. 

Rating: **** ½.  Available on DVD.

The Illustrated Man (1969) Rod Steiger stars as Carl, the illustrated man, in this heavily flawed adaptation of the Ray Bradbury anthology.  Three stories run from middling (“The Veldt”), to competent (“The Long Rain”), to awful (“The Last Night on Earth”).  The stories are bracketed by a narrative concerning a young man named Willie, traveling the road from New York to California in the 1930s, on his way to a new job and a new life.   Willie encounters Carl, who has been tattooed from head to toe with illustrations (“Don’t you ever call them tattoos!” he screams.) that come alive.  During the rest of the film, Willie is subjected to rants from Carl, who is on a quest to find the mysterious woman who covered his body in this artwork, and determined to kill her for ruining his life.  For an anthology film, this bracketing story thread goes on much too long.  The filmmakers could have easily added another segment without lengthening the overall running time significantly.  Steiger’s character just comes across as unstable and unsympathetic.  In a role that called for subtlety and pathos, it just seemed like an opportunity for him to overact. 

Rating: **.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.

Crucible of Horror (1971) The title is somewhat misleading, since this is more of a family drama/thriller than a horror film.  The late Michael Gough stars as an overbearing father in a dysfunctional British household.  His wife Edith paints morose portraits, and seems to be in a continual depressive state, while his daughter is the recipient of the lion’s share of his physical and emotional abuse.  His son (played by Gough’s real-life son Simon) is the obvious favorite, as he seems to be exempt from the wrath that he exacts on the rest of the family.  After enduring years of physical and psychological abuse, the mother and daughter conspire to murder him.  Things don’t go quite as planned, however.  I wasn’t sure if the director was trying for a Hitchcock-style thriller.  If so, he falls short of these aspirations, displaying little of the wit or tension found in even Hitchcock’s lesser efforts.  The pacing of Crucible of Horror is slow, and the atmosphere is relentlessly dour.  There are no major missteps, but nothing exceptional either, outside of the senior Gough’s performance.  It’s not the sort of thing I would care to see again, but if you’re in the right mood it might be worth a look once.

Rating: ** ½.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.

Highway to Hell (1991) If you only learn one thing from Highway to Hell, don’t stray too far from the interstate when traveling in the middle of the night, and if you do, remember to stay caffeinated.  Chad Lowe and Christy Swanson (Don’t let the casting scare ‘ya!) play a young couple, Charlie and Rachel, on their way to Las Vegas to elope.  Paranoid that a policeman is pursuing them, Charlie veers his battered Ford Pinto off the main interstate onto a minor highway.  They stop at an isolated gas station aptly named “Last Chance,” where the couple receives a dire warning from its elderly proprietor (Richard Farnsworth) to keep alert on the road.   Naturally, his warning goes unheeded, and they’re soon pulled over by a strange police car and its stranger occupant, Hellcop.  Before they realize what’s just happened, Rachel is strapped in handcuffs (literally, in this case), and the demonic policeman drives away with her in tow.  Now it’s up to Charlie to rescue her before the Hellcop reaches Hell City and she becomes a permanent resident.  Highway to Hell is a little rough around the edges due to obvious budgetary restrictions, and not all of the gags work, but its quirky sense of humor shines through.  Some highlights are the Good Intentions road crew, staffed by multiple Andy Warhols, and Adolf Hitler (played by Gilbert Gottfried) who insists that they’ve got the wrong guy in hell.  Also, watch for cameos by Ben, Jerry and Amy Stiller.  It’s fairly evident that this was not made for mass appeal, but for late night B-movie viewing.  In this case, the parts are probably better than the whole, but there’s really nothing else quite like it.  For some strange reason Highway to Hell was never officially released on DVD, but if you have Netflix Streaming, I recommend giving this a try.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on Netflix Streaming.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Dumb Movies That I Like Anyway, Part II

I’ve spent more time than I care to recall watching movies.  A good film is like quality time with a cherished friend, while a truly bad film can be compared to a rectal exam.  If I thought about all the 90+ minute segments that have been stolen from my life and added them up, well, that would be a hell of a lot of wasted minutes.  There’s a special breed of movie that exists somewhere in the netherworld between good and awful.  While they’re technically not good, these films possess a high entertainment factor that transcends conventional notions of awfulness.  You won’t find anything by Stanley Kubrick, or David Lean or Akira Kurosawa in the titles below, but you might discover a new favorite…or not:

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)
The setting is a presumably alternate-history 1930s when zeppelins never left the skies, men were men and women were dames,  and the fate of the world rested in the hands of a lone fighter pilot known as Sky Captain (played by Jude Law).  Gwyneth Paltrow is go-getting, ace reporter (Is there any other kind?) Polly Perkins, who’s determined to find the big story, no matter what.  It’s an homage to the pulp sci-fi/fantasy magazines of the 1930s and 1940s, displaying a menagerie of giant flying robots, ray guns, weird creatures, a mad scientist and a huge rocket.   Director Kerry Conran spared no clichés from pre-WWII movies when bringing his labor of love to sepia-toned life. 

Law and Paltrow actually appear to have some chemistry together, trading barbs while dodging numerous computer-generated scenarios.  An eyepatch-wearing Angelina Jolie, with a special guest appearance by her lips, tries out her best fake English accent as one of Sky Captain’s old flames.  The dialogue never rises above cornball levels, and none of the action is remotely believable, but taken in the right vein, it’s a fun waste of 106 minutes.  It’s a trip down nostalgia lane about an era that that never actually existed.

Rumble in the Bronx (1995)
It’s not really NYC, but an incredible simulation!  Vancouver, British Columbia is cost effectively substituted for The Big Apple in this Jackie Chan action flick.  Of course, the New York I’m aware of doesn’t have a mountain range in the background, but that doesn’t stop the filmmakers from trying to convince us otherwise.  Chan fights a street gang that appears to have stepped out of a mid-90s Hot Topic.  The drama is on par with a TV Movie of the Week, but it’s all just a flimsy excuse to showcase Chan’s trademark dangerous and elaborate stunts.  Rumble in the Bronx is a fun and slight diversion that’s the perfect solution when you need a mental vacation.

Beowulf  (2007)
This might actually be the best example of Robert Zemeckis’ recent infatuation with motion capture CGI.  I don’t normally enjoy this medium, but in this instance it works in spite of itself.  Zemeckis’ superficial take on the literary classic turns the title character into a non-stop action hero, fit for the attention deficit generation.  It’s audacious, entertaining, and well paced, if not terribly cerebral.  The action is accompanied by one of Alan Silvestri’s best scores in years.  The motion capture animation could never be accused of looking real, but it certainly allows one to view a fully rendered fantasy world that could not be adequately realized in a more conventional live action film.  Only in this world would you believe that Angelina Jolie could be Crispin Glover’s mother. 

Flash Gordon (1980)
Dino De Laurentiis’ schmaltzy production updates the old 1930s serial with imaginative sets, large doses of red and gold, and some iffy effects work.  Sam Jones stars as Flash, an affable lug who’s over his head, and acting chops, after he’s shanghaied by Topol (the actor, not the toothpaste) to help protect the Earth from certain annihilation.  Max Von Sydow chews up the scenery as Ming the Merciless, and a pre-007 Timothy Dalton makes an appearance as Flash’s rival turned ally.  It’s like watching a train wreck.  You can’t look away, because you’re strangely compelled to see what’s thrown at the screen next.  It shouldn’t work, but it does, thanks to the fact that everything is played to maximum camp effect.  It’s straight out of the comic book pages, and doesn’t pretend to be anything else or aspire to make any profound statements about the human condition.  In a lot of ways, it’s the anti Dark Knight.  A word of warning: Once you hear the Queen-penned them song, you won’t get it out of your head for days.  Don’t say I didn’t tell you. 

Kindergarten Cop (1990)
What’s a dumb movies list without Arnold Schwarzenegger?  It’s like a cake without frosting, that’s what!  Kindergarten Cop is an uneasy mix of drama and comedy, with a rapid shift in tone in the third act.  The dramatic scenes seem weak and incongruous when compared to the comedy scenes, with the whole not adding up to its parts.  It’s almost as if two completely different movies were crammed together in an effort to appease Arnie’s action fans while showing audiences that he had a lighter side as well. His scenes as an ersatz kindergarten teacher, completely out his element, are what work for me.  Maybe it’s just hearing him exclaim “It’s not a toomah!” that makes me chuckle.  Things only get problematic when he steps outside of the kindergarten.

Motel Hell (1980)
 “It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters.”  Mostly forgotten and slightly underrated, Motel Hell plays like a redneck Sweeney Todd.  It never takes itself too seriously, but it does have some memorable scenes, along with a buildup to a great final line.  Rory Calhoun is Farmer Vincent, who manages a small motel off the beaten path, and sells his famous smoked meats based on a secret family recipe (Can you guess what the main ingredient is?). Nancy Parsons plays his sister, who probably should have stopped putting her hair in pigtails 40 years ago, who assists Vincent with the motel and other nasty business.  Motel Hell’s biggest fault is that it probably winks at the audience a tad too much with regard to some of the victims, such as a cartoonish rock band called Ivan and the Terribles, and an annoying S&M couple.  Minor quibbles aside, it’s still a unique and oddly effective horror film.  At any rate, it might make you think twice before stopping at a roadside stand for beef jerky.  What’s really in a Slim Jim, anyway?

Krull (1983)
I must confess that I wasn’t crazy about this the first time around, but similar to The Black Hole, it’s grown on me over the years.  Krull is the sort of epic adventure story that just isn’t done much anymore (with the notable exception of The Lord of the Rings).  One of the film’s selling points is a starfish-shaped weapon called the Glaive.  It should be the Krull equivalent of a lightsaber, but it’s actually quite underutilized in the picture, and it doesn’t amount to much more than a MacGuffin.  It’s not all that effective either, but at least it looks cool.  It’s the usual prince rescuing the princess story that borrows liberally from the Seven Samurai, Star Wars, and many, many others, but it’s a fun romp nevertheless.  The milquetoast hero, played by Ken Marshall, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, but you find yourself rooting for him anyway.  He somehow manages to round up a band of loyal followers and outlaws to help him rescue the princess from the clutches of the vile Beast.  They battle the Beast’s soldiers, called Slayers, who look like a cross between a storm trooper and a crustacean.  A definite highlight is a great stop-motion spider and a rousing James Horner score that borrows heavily from his Wrath of Khan score.  The whole thing is like sloppy seconds from other adventure flicks, but it’s still worth a watch.

Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)
William Shatner is at his smarmy best, playing small town veterinarian and nature’s gift to womankind Rack Hansen.  Hansen likes his beer and the ladies, and not necessarily in that order.  He quickly gets up to his knees in killer spiders, as masses of the arachnids gradually take over the town.  Kingdom of the Spiders is better than you would think, managing to build a fair amount of tension as the spiders become unstoppable.  Will the townspeople survive?  Can any woman resist Captain Smirk’s formidable charms?  Pop in the DVD and find out!

Clash of the Titans (1981)
Blame the public school system for turning me on to this one.  I think this film served as the backbone for any well-planned junior high mythology curriculum, as it showed up in not one but two of my classes.  How Laurence Olivier and a lot of other veteran actors got hoodwinked into starring in this, let alone allowing themselves to be billed beneath Harry Hamlin, I’ll never know, but they certainly lend a touch of class to the proceedings.  The true stars of the show, however, are the various animated creations of Ray Harryhausen.  The stop motion effects might look quaint by today’s standards, but they still possess a timeless quality that could never be duplicated by CGI.  Medusa, the main attraction, represents the culmination of Harryhausen’s best work, while Bubo the owl is a definite lowlight.  

Godzilla vs. Hedora (AKA: Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster) (1971)
It’s the one Godzilla purists love to hate.  I’m more of a Godzilla admirer than a purist anyway, so I can say without too much shame that I dug its groovy vibe.  Godzilla vs. Hedora is truly a product of its time with funky songs, a trippy dance segment, and random animated interludes.  Hedora is the product of sludge and filth that had been dumped into the ocean, resulting in a shape-changing monster that spreads a cloud of smog wherever it goes.  It’s a Godzilla movie like no other, with humans taking a bigger role in combating the monster.  The film carries a not-too-subtle message about how we are creating our own monsters by destroying the environment, and how it’s up to us to solve it.  On that note, Godzilla vs. Hedora remains as timely today as it was 40 years ago.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Classics Revisited: Re-Animator

This month’s Classics Revisited turns the spotlight on a modern classic.  So, what constitutes a “modern” classic?  Admittedly, the criteria are more arbitrary, based on personal preferences rather than a critical consensus.  The film needs to have withstood the test of time, being at least 25 years old but still in the collective public consciousness, possess quotable dialogue, and have been influential in its respective genre. 

(1985) Directed by Stuart Gordon; Written by Dennis Paoli, William Norris and Stuart Gordon; Starring: Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton, David Gale and Robert Sampson; Available on DVD

Rating **** ½

What’s It About?

Re-Animator was the debut film by director/co-writer Stuart Gordon, loosely based on the H.P. Lovecraft tale, Herbert West -- Reanimator.  According to the DVD’s production notes, it started out as a possible television series, and eventually evolved into a feature film.  Although Re-Animator did not exactly spark a reinvention of 80s horror, it epitomized everything about the best horror films of that decade: gratuitous gore and violence, rampant nudity, and a fearless, try-anything approach.

Jeffrey Combs stars in the role of a lifetime as brilliant and ambitious, but unhinged, medical student Herbert West, who has developed a formula for overcoming death.  As the film opens, he is conducting experiments in a Swiss hospital.  After something goes terribly wrong, he returns to the United States to continue his residency at Miskatonic Hospital (which looks suspiciously like the VA West Los Angeles Healthcare Center).  He rents a room from another promising medical student, Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), with the intention of continuing his experiments undisturbed.  It doesn’t take long, however, for West’s experiments to go awry, with Dan and his girlfriend Megan (Barbara Crampton) becoming unwittingly involved.  Things take a turn for the worse when West decides to try his formula on cadavers in the hospital.

The performances are suitably broad for all of the Grand Guignol action that ensues.  Robert Sampson plays Dr. Halsey, the uppity hospital administrator (and Megan’s overprotective father).  Dr. Halsey’s colleague is the morally/ethically challenged Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), who’s not above taking credit for other people’s work.  His lust for Megan leads to an unexpectedly icky climax (pun unintended) that the phrase “over the top” was invented for.  Throughout Re-Animator, Herbert West remains the main attraction, with Combs approaching his role with a maniacal zeal.  His deadpan performance is a perfect foil for the onscreen insanity.  It’s no surprise that he delivers the movie’s most memorable line.  West exists on a different plane compared to the other characters, steadfast with his convictions, and little regard for the consequences of his actions.

Richard Band’s score is evocative of (some might say it rips off) Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score.  I’ll leave it up to you to decide, although once you’ve heard both scores, it’s difficult not to notice the similarities.  Regardless of this, it’s tremendously effective.

Why It’s Still Relevant:

Horror and comedy are a bit like oil and water.  They’re an uneasy mixture at best, and generally fall apart at the end.  There have been a few notable exceptions (Return of the Living Dead, Dead Alive), but more often than not, filmmakers are rarely able to pull it off effectively.  Re-Animator manages to achieve the nearly impossible, by walking the line between funny and scary.  There’s a feeling that you don’t know what’s going to happen next, and when it does happen you can’t believe what you’ve just seen.

Re-Animator pushed the envelope of mainstream horror, and remains an antithesis to the numerous tepid PG-13 offerings that have passed for horror in the past decade.  There’s a gleeful disregard for the rules, and a desire to push the boundaries of taste – one scene in particular comes to mind (If you’ve seen it, you already know what I’m alluding to.).  It’s exactly the sort of thing that polarizes the audience, and it’s indicative of the kind of risky filmmaking that you rarely see anymore.  Your sensibilities have truly been disturbed, but that might be the root of good horror.  Gordon wasn’t afraid to offend people with his film, and it’s a refreshing approach that contrasts the pervasive blandness of so many recent genre films. 

For Stuart Gordon, this was the first of several forays into H.P. Lovecraft adaptations, and it’s easily his best.  Purists would probably object, and Lovecraft himself would most likely have been appalled by Gordon’s take on his material, but it’s exactly this fast and loose approach that makes Re-Animator so memorable.  I’d like to do some sacred cow tipping myself by going on record that I am not the biggest H.P. Lovecraft fan.  I admire the worlds he created with the Old Ones, Cthulu, and so forth, but I have never quite felt that his stories were completely fleshed out.  His awkward prose seemed more like sketches for great stories rather than great stories themselves.  Lovecraft’s stories were ripe with ideas, if not execution, and were the perfect springboard for horror films, and I think that’s his greatest legacy (There, I said it!  I feel better now!).  Because his stories are such a good framework, it’s more than a little strange that paradoxically there have been few good adaptations, but Re-Animator is among the best.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


(2010) Written and Directed by Gareth Edwards; Starring: Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able; Available formats: DVD, Blu-Ray and Netflix Streaming

Rating: ****

Shot on a meager budget of approximately $800,000, Monsters isn’t your ordinary, run-of-the mill alien invasion flick.  The titular creatures often take a supporting role to the human activity, as much of the activity focuses on the aftermath of the invasion and humans dealing with a changed world.  This shift in focus to the human drama enables Monsters to transcend its low budget limitations, with much of the creature action remaining off-screen and left to the viewers’ imaginations.  This could have easily come off as a cheat to those expecting non-stop creature mayhem, but the deft combination of images of destruction, eerie sounds, and fleeting images of the creatures set a tense mood throughout.  Even when they are not seen, their presence is clearly felt.

Monsters takes place six years after alien life has invaded Earth.  Many of the specific details about how the invasion occurred are sketchy, but signs point to a crashed space probe as the likely culprit.  Northern Mexico has been infected with the deadly creatures, and a giant wall has been erected by the United States to keep them from crossing over the border.  The infected zone on the Mexican side is cordoned off and restricted, although numerous alien incursions into the non-infected areas seem to be frequent.  U.S. warplanes continually fly overhead in an effort to help contain the creatures, but losses appear to be heavy on both sides. 

Andrew (Played by Scoot McNairy) is a gung-ho photographer who’s stationed himself in the area that straddles the infected zone, with the hope of getting the perfect shot, presumably for a Time or Newsweek type of periodical.  He’s diverted from his goal when a wealthy magazine publisher, who also happens to be his boss, entrusts him with bringing his daughter Sam (Whitney Able) back home to the United States.  He doesn’t exactly relish his assignment, so he looks for the most expedient way to send her on her way and get back to the action. After their passports and her $5,000 ferry ticket are stolen, however, they are forced to take a more treacherous (and illegal) route, through the infected zone. 

The characters slowly build momentum, moving beyond two-dimensional 20-something idealist stereotypes.  Andrew isn’t particularly likable at first, seeming more selfish about his career goals than concerned with Sam’s safety.  Sam, on the other hand, comes off as a bit of a spoiled rich kid with good intentions, who at once identifies with the plight of the villagers she encounters, but seems out of touch with Andrew’s more working class values.  There’s an interesting exchange between the two as she comments about him profiting from others’ misfortunes, and he argues about his need to make a living.  He mentions that he can get $10,000 for a picture of a dead child, but nothing for a picture of a happy child.  We learn that he has a six-year-old son back in the states, but he’s now estranged from the mother who informed him that the child came from him, but he’s “not his father.”  Sam becomes increasingly ambivalent about her impending wedding, which seems more like a business transaction than a marriage.  When she’s forced to barter her ring in exchange for passage through the infected zone, it looks like an emancipation.

One of the ways that Monsters rises above the usual sci-fi action genre is the social commentary, which is integral, not ancillary to the plot.  In an early scene Andrew asks a taxi driver why he doesn’t just get out.  The cab driver replies simply “Where would I go?” adding that his family is here.  Andrew takes his peripatetic lifestyle for granted, not realizing how others are simply resigned to their fate.  The enormous wall that separates the United States from Northern Mexico’s infected zone with the intent of containing the alien creatures is obviously a not-too-subtle metaphor for the United States’ ineffectual attempts to stem the flow of illegal immigration.  The implication is that by isolating the infection, it remains “their” problem rather than “ours.”  Another theme that is reinforced throughout is the significance of money.  If you have enough (or at least a valuable diamond engagement ring), you can get what you want.  It’s the one true universal language.

Some of the effects shots seem reminiscent of Cloverfield or The Mist, but Monsters never really seems overly derivative.  The alien creatures have their own unique life cycle and characteristics that distinguish them from their cinematic cousins.  Considering the film’s budget, most of the effects look quite convincing.  A few shots of probing CGI tentacles look fake, but they’re never too distracting because we are invested in the characters.  In the end, it’s not the effects that make the movie, but writer/director Edwards’ emphasis on mood and character that triumphs.  It will be interesting to see where his career goes from here.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Whisper of the Heart

(1995) Directed by Yoshifumi Kondo; Written by Hayao Miyazaki

Available on DVD

Rating: **** 

The Japanese-animated Whisper of the Heart is the sort of film that could never have emerged from the Hollywood system.  Its deliberate (some might say slow) pacing, allows the viewer to be introduced gradually to the individual subtleties of its characters, and gives them time to breathe and take on a life of their own.  Most animated Disney offerings would have been filled with random slapstick, smart-alecky peripheral characters, and show-stopping musical numbers (The filmmakers of Whisper of the Heart apparently have an unfortunate obsession with a particular John Denver song, but more on that later.).  Here, however, the emphasis is on the characters. 

The main character, Shizuku, is a junior high school girl, on the cusp of womanhood.  Her driving passion is reading, often to the detriment of her school work and derision by classmates.  Her interest is piqued by a name that keeps appearing on the books she checks out from her school library, Seiji Amasawa.  This mystery person appears to share her love of books and subject matter, and she becomes determined to find out who he is.  As the clues eventually lead to a boy her age, this sets the stage for a serendipitous but reluctant romance.  I couldn’t help but notice that this little plot device is sadly obsolete now, with book checkouts by paper card having gone the way of the slide rule.  At one point, the film even acknowledges Shizuku’s disdain for the electronic card catalog that’s soon to replace the paper one.  Of course, without the paper trail, there would be no story.

Aside from the characters and story, Whisper of the Heart is beautifully animated, with meticulous attention to detail.  Director Yoshifumi Kondo doesn’t forget the minutiae that comprise a believable world, such as swinging hand straps inside a commuter train, the intricate workings of an old clock, moths of various shapes and sizes fluttering around a light, or the iridescent eyes of a cat statue known as “The Baron.” Architecture in Shizuku’s town looks distinct and fully rendered, not cartoonish.  There is also a natural, three-dimensional quality to the animation, which appropriately conveys a natural appearance to the hilly countryside and winding roads.  Similarly, height and depth are depicted in an entirely convincing manner.

Fans of another Studio Ghibli film, The Cat Returns, will undoubtedly recognize two non-human characters that make brief appearances here.  Both have pivotal roles, lending mildly fantastical elements to a story that’s largely grounded in reality.   In one scene, Shizuku follows the pudgy cat Moon (aka: Muta) on a train and through an affluent neighborhood, leading her to an antique shop with unexpected treasures.  As she explores her writing, she fashions a tale involving The Baron, and his cat-centric world.  We are treated to a handful of fantasy sequences as her words describe The Baron’s adventures.

Although many of the themes in Whisper of the Heart are more or less universal, there are some significant cultural differences, compared to Western society.  Much emphasis is placed on Shizuku’s neglect of her studies, and her poor test scores.  Her individuality takes a backseat to what’s expected of her, which is to work hard so she can get into a good high school.  From an American perspective it might seem like an alien concept to have your future mapped out at such an early age, with a clear idea of what your future livelihood will be.  There is also a great deal of  pressure from Shizuku’s other family members to succeed, as exemplified by her hard-working older sister, graduate student mother, and father who works in a library.   Shizuku’s struggles are largely applicable to anyone, however, as she tries to find her place in the world while listening to her heart’s desire.  All of this is weighed against real world responsibility, tempered by the potential price of failure.  The film suggests that there is a happy medium to be discovered, as Shizuku finds a balance between responsibility and dreams.

One of the more beguiling aspects of Whisper of the Heart does not involve the cultural differences, but an unfortunate preoccupation with the John Denver song “Country Roads,” which presumably serves as a sort of mantra for following the ambling roads of your dreams.  One version of the song is heard at the beginning of the film, followed by several iterations of the same tune, milking it for all its worth.  Don’t let that scare you, though.  Aside from the aforementioned John Denver tune, Whisper of the Heart is a charming exploration of young love, imagination, and the triumph of self-discovery over self-doubt.