Saturday, February 27, 2016

2015 Oscar predictions: The envelope, please...

Let’s deal with the elephant in the room.

As of a few weeks ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had 6,261 voting members. All of them submit nominations for best picture.

Alejandro González Iñárritu, left, and Leonardo DiCaprio are certain to win Oscars for
Best Director and Best Actor. But will their film, The Revenant, also take Best Picture?
Nominees in most of the remaining categories are selected via balloting by various Academy branches: editors for editing, cinematographers for cinematography, and so forth. The same is true of the four acting categories, where — again, as of this year’s balloting — 1,138 Academy members, all actors, determined the nominees.

So: 6,261 overall voting members, 1,138 of whom are in the actors branch. And all of whom are limited by one incontrovertible fact: They’re only able to consider the product booked into U.S. movie theaters during the previous calendar year. To put it another way, not one of those Academy actor members is, was, or ever will be in a position to determine which movies get made and/or released, in order to be voted upon.

Those decisions come from a couple dozen different studio heads: almost all male, and white, and young, and guided entirely by bean counters, focus groups and the panicked certainty that more than one flop in a row likely will cost them their jobs. Ergo, they all too frequently stick to the tried and true.

So why — why — is everybody so upset with the Academy, when an absence of diversity clearly isn’t their fault?

If people are unhappy about racial diversity in any category — and yes, I share their absolutely legitimate frustration — then the anger needs to be channeled toward Hollywood’s studio board rooms, and nowhere else. It’s a separate conversation.

The Oscars, one hopes, are presented to honor the best work in the best movies available during a given year. Anything else would be quota pandering, which would make a mockery of an institution celebrating its 88th anniversary this year.

So let’s embrace the tradition for what it is, and what it does — and should — represent. And let’s also enjoy the time-honored pastime of trying to predict what’ll win this year.

But before we get down to cases, some fun facts:

The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road are only the fourth and fifth films ever to receive nods in all seven technical categories — cinematography, costume design, editing, production design, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects — after Titanic, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and Hugo.

Bridge of Spies brought Steven Spielberg his 11th nomination for best director, a category he won twice, for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. Director William Wyler still holds the record, at 13 nominations and three wins: Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives and Ben-Hur. (But Spielberg still has plenty of time!)

• On the other hand, the total number of nominations accrued by Spielberg’s various films now sits at 128 ... to Wyler’s 127. That makes Spielberg the top nomination-gathering director of all time.

• All six of director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s films have earned at least one Oscar nomination.

• Jennifer Lawrence has become the youngest actress to earn four Oscar nominations, having snatched that honor from Kate Winslet.

• With a span of 39 years between Sylvester Stallone’s Oscar nod for 1976’s Rocky and last year’s Creed, he has broken the previous record of 38 years, held by Helen Hayes, Jack Palance and Alan Arkin. Stallone also has become only the sixth actor to be nominated twice for playing the same character, after Bing Crosby (Father O’Malley), Peter O’Toole (King Henry II), Paul Newman (“Fast Eddie” Felson), Al Pacino (Michael Corleone) and Cate Blanchett (Queen Elizabeth II).

Friday, February 26, 2016

Eddie the Eagle: Truly soars

Eddie the Eagle (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, and too harshly, for mildly suggestive material and partial nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.26.16

Winning isn’t everything.

Sometimes merely participating, and doing your best, is enough. More than enough.

When Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman, left) finally, reluctantly, agrees to help train wannabe
ski-jumper Michael "Eddie" Edwards (Taron Egerton), the task proves an uphill challenge
for a young man with no athletic grace whatsoever.
We tend to forget, after the increasingly overblown sequels, that in his 1976 film debut, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa merely wanted to “go the distance.” And that’s all he did, which is — in great part — what makes that film such an endearing classic.

British director Dexter Fletcher’s charming Eddie the Eagle is cut from the same cloth. This whimsical underdog saga is fueled by an engaging performance from Taron Egerton, superbly cast as Michael “Eddie” Edwards, the wannabe British ski-jumper who made such an improbable — and improbably triumphant — showing at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics.

An opening statement is careful to note that this big-screen account of Edwards’ exploits is “inspired” by actual events, which allows scripters Simon Kelton and Sean Macaulay to play fast and loose with a few details. They’re careful to retain the essential broad strokes that brought Edwards to Calgary, and of course his performance at the Olympics is a matter of record (and can be viewed in any number of YouTube videos).

But various supporting characters have been conflated or invented outright, in the manner we’d expect from a crowd-pleasing, feel-good movie. That’s less of an issue in this particular case, as such liberties merely augment the myth-making that put Edwards in the history books. Somehow, it feels appropriate.

Besides which, when the result is this enjoyable, it’s hard to complain.

We meet young Eddie as the bespectacled only child of working-class Cheltenham parents Janette (Jo Hartley) and Terry (Keith Allen), the latter a construction plasterer by trade. Despite poor vision, worse knees — the boy is shackled into a leg brace — and an utter lack of coordination, Eddie lives and breathes a foolish notion of growing up to become an Olympian.

Fletcher brings us through Eddie’s childhood with a brief prologue that highlights the boy’s stubborn pluck, much to the delight of his doting mother, and the exasperation of his aggrieved father. Hartley and Allen are delightful: She’s the mum we’d all love to have, while Allen — all bluster and bluff — makes ample use of his busy background as a popular character actor.

And how can we not adore a child who believes that holding his breath underwater for not quite a minute will qualify for some obscure Olympic event?

Friday, February 19, 2016

Race: Gold medal material, bronze execution

Race (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for thematic material and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

When it comes to true-life sports sagas, few can match the triumphant power of Jesse Owens’ amazing feats at the 1936 Olympics.

Having demonstrated his incredible speed on the track, Jesse Owens (Stephan James,
center) is congratulated by his coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis, far right). Both
have their eyes on the bigger prize: qualifying for the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
His few days in Berlin, striking a glorious blow against Adolf Hitler’s racist vision of Aryan supremacy, resonated to a degree that can’t really be calculated. Certainly the Nazi despot was humiliated before the world, and one can’t help speculating whether the subsequent timetable of German events was influenced by such embarrassment.

Such a story.

So sad — and so puzzling — that the better part of a century has passed, before it was brought to the big screen.

Director Stephen Hopkins has made up for this oversight, with the family-friendly Race — great title, just in passing — which displays a degree of heart and dignity that Owens likely would have appreciated.

Despite the existence of numerous published biographies and Owens’ own memoir, writers Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse have fashioned an original script that focuses solely on the two years leading up to the 1936 Olympics. That’s a shrewd decision, as it allows this 134-minute film to concentrate on these key events without feeling rushed.

We catch up with Owens (Stephan James) in 1934, just as he’s about to begin his college career at Ohio State University. He leaves behind a girlfriend, Ruth (Shanice Banton), and their young daughter, promising to send money whenever possible. Sadly, and despite being mentored by head track coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), Jesse finds the locker room environment unpleasantly racist.

No doubt the reality was much worse than what is depicted here. We certainly get the point, but Hopkins chooses a restrained approach more akin to 2013’s Jackie Robinson biopic, 42, than the often grim brutality of Selma (which also featured James).

The Lady in the Van: Driven to delightful distraction

The Lady in the Van (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and too harshly, for a fleeting unsettling image

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.19.16

Some plays make awkward films, the very nature of their enclosed stage universe rendered claustrophobic on the big screen.

When Alan (Alex Jennings) cautiously worries about his new "permanent interloper's"
ability to drive — let alone whether she even possesses a license — the feisty Miss
Shepherd (Maggie Smith) shrugs him off with one of her imperious displays of
dignified entitlement.
That absolutely isn’t the case with The Lady in the Van, which opens up quite cleverly under the guidance of director Nicholas Hytner and scripter Alan Bennett. The latter has adapted this charming little drama from his own play, which debuted in 1999 in London’s West End, and which in turn was based on actual events recorded in his exhaustive memoirs.

Maggie Smith starred in the stage production, and also played the same role in a BBC Radio adaptation. No surprise, then, that she delivers a crisp, saucy and richly memorable performance in this cinematic version.

She plays Mary Shepherd, an elderly homeless woman who lives in a dilapidated van that she has trundled about a bucolic North London street called Gloucester Crescent, a neighborhood which — in this late 1960s setting — hosts various British stage and literary luminaries. As introduced in Hytner’s film, we get the vague sense that “Miss Shepherd” has made a habit of parking in front of a given house until her sloppy ways prove too distressing, at which point she fires up the van and moves elsewhere along the lane.

Her eccentric behavior comes to the attention of playwright, screenwriter, actor and author Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) when he moves into the neighborhood, taking the house at No. 23. She’s rather hard to miss — given the combination of street rubbish and feisty imprecations that trail in her wake — and Bennett’s new neighbors are only too happy to supply details and rumors.

They’ve all kinda/sorta tolerated Miss Shepherd, out of a sense of liberal guilt that prompts them into occasional deliveries of food, reading material and any other small items they assume she might find useful. Parents cluck when their children, passing too close to Miss Shepherd, wrinkle their noses and complain that “she smells bad.”

Here, too, Bennett’s descriptive prose paints marvelous word pictures, when (for example) his running commentary describes her aromatic miasma as an “odoriferous concerto ... with urine only a minor component.”

The Witch: Barely casts a spell

The Witch (2016) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity

By Derrick Bang

Filmmaker Robert Eggers’ modest little chiller is being hailed as 2016’s first “New Wave horror masterpiece,” akin to last year’s It Follows.

Sadly, that’s high praise this film doesn’t deserve.

As Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) continues to suffer the guilt of having "lost" her baby
brother, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) tries to comfort her. But he does the job badly, in
part because of his own conflicted feelings about his older sister.
It also has been described as the unholy love child of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman and The Blair Witch Project. That’s much closer to the truth, albeit with far more Bergman than Blair. Unlike that 1999 cinematic con job, which was a case of the emperor having no clothes whatsoever, The Witch does deliver a few lurid sequences while building to its nasty finale.

But Eggers is a much better director than writer. He definitely gets full marks for moody atmosphere and unsettling tension, and — assisted by production designer Craig Lathrop — quite cleverly stretches the $1 million budget to deliver impressive period authenticity.

But the plot is clumsy and random, with key details and motivation left undisclosed, and the characters are badly under-written. We’ve no idea why any of this is happening, or what these poor folks have done to deserve it (although there’s a suggestion that female puberty is the catch-all culprit).

More to the point, character behavior is deranged, and therefore impossible to take seriously. Much has been made of Eggers’ meticulous adherence to early 17th century New England dress, mannerisms and particularly speech; that’s well and good, but he rather overplays the religious zealotry, to the point of generating unintended laughter at all the wrong moments.

On top of which, even with the aforementioned third-act climax, Eggers’ pacing is languid to the point of tedium. Something obviously is wrong, when you can’t sustain interest for a brief 90 minutes.

In a word, The Witch is a yawn. Until the final 10 minutes or so.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Boy and the World: A colorful, lyrical — and grim — parable

Boy and the World (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

This one sneaks up on you.

Brazil’s Academy Award nominee in the Animated Feature category is a dazzling, extremely personal and ultimately quite sobering allegory by writer/director Alê Abreu ... although, at first, it doesn’t seem that way.

Having made his way to the big city, Cuca is dismayed to discover a wasteland of trash
and human misery: the result of unchecked industrialization that rewards the wealthy
"pretty people" at the expense of the laborers who support their lavish lifestyles.
The opening act is aggressively simplistic, the characters little more than stick figures placed against the sort of random, wildly colorful landscape that one would expect from a small child playing with crayons. Indeed, our young hero — Cuca — is a small child.

He’s introduced while enjoying the carefree playtime typical of innocent youngsters brought up in a cozy rural environment: darting through fields, and allowing his imagination to run riot in an opulent kaleidoscope of fanciful adventures (such as jumping high enough to land on the overhead clouds).

Cuca can be happy via the simple act of planting a seed, particularly when helped by his beloved parents.

The pacing is slow, the cacophonous, hand-drawn visuals unapologetically haphazard and weird. The apparent “story,” such as it is, unfolds without dialog ... or, at least, without dialog that matters. Brief and occasional conversations emerge as little more than unintelligible grunts and whistles, much like the “talking” in Britain’s Shaun the Sheep.

Instead of dialog, Cuca’s escapades unfold against a lyrical musical score by Ruben Feffer and Gustavo Kurlat: merely a hint of the rich, genre-blending melodies to come.

The alluring visuals and music notwithstanding, you’ll likely start to chafe, wondering if anything of consequence is coming. The answer is absolutely, but — at least initially — patience is required.

Matters turn a bit more serious one morning, as Cuca watches his father depart on an oddly metallic, centipede-esque train (the first hint that Abreu’s animation style won’t remain as minimalist as we might expect). The boy doesn’t understand why Dad is leaving, although we assume the latter is seeking work. But Cuca isn’t willing to wait behind, like his patient mother; he charges out of the house, determined to reunite his family.

And thus begins a journey that unfolds like a tapestry — deliberately — and becomes increasingly complicated and politically charged, just as Abreu’s animation style turns equally complex.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Where to Invade Next: A whimsical and revelatory journey

Where to Invade Next (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity, asexual nudity, drug use and brief violent images

By Derrick Bang 

Guerilla documentarian Michael Moore has matured considerably as a filmmaker, since debuting with 1989’s Roger & Me. I daresay he also has gained wisdom during the intervening quarter-century.

After learning how an Italian couple has traveled the world and enjoyed fabulous holidays,
thanks to their six weeks of paid vacation each year, Michael Moore, right, symbolically
plants the American flag in their living room, in order to formally "invade" their country
and thus "steal" this fabulous idea.
He’s still mightily dismayed, disappointed and disgusted by the inexorably advancing death of the American dream, but he has gotten much smarter about the way he presents such information. Where to Invade Next is a playfully sly bit of cinematic propaganda, with a message that becomes inescapable through repetition.

In a nutshell: The United States can do better. As a country, as a culture, as a people.

Moore’s new film is, at times, an enchanting travelogue: a trip that centers mostly on Western European countries, with the corpulent and disheveled filmmaker serving as guide, his dryly mordant commentary at times making him sound like an edgier Bill Bryson.

Moore is “invading” these various countries only in a rhetorical sense, as an excuse to highlight and subsequently “steal” socio-economic concepts that appear to work superbly Over There, so that they can be made to work equally well Right Here. His rationale is cheeky but incisive; if we’ve genuinely invaded countries in the past for oil, or illusory political control, why not do so for more rational reasons?

He cheerfully acknowledges cherry-picking from countries that have their own problems, but that’s all right; as he notes, early on, “I’m after the flowers, not the weeds.”

His journey begins in Italy, where a typical couple extols the virtues of their roughly six (or even seven) weeks of paid vacation per year, not to mention the five months’ paid maternity leave granted new mothers. OK, fine; no surprise there. What employee wouldn’t delight in such treatment?

The point is hammered home more persuasively when two different company owners agree with the underlying premise: that well-rested employees work harder, and become sick less frequently. There’s also a genuine sense of bonhomie and mutual respect between workers and owners: a feeling of family.

More tellingly, the owners don’t feel obliged to make themselves obscenely rich, by cutting back staff salaries.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Deadpool: Gleefully revolting

Deadpool (2016) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for strong violence, gore, relentless profanity, sexual content and graphic nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.12.16

This is a flick for folks who felt the Kick-Ass movies weren’t violent enough.

And those who believe that Melissa McCarthy and Amy Schumer could be more potty-mouthed, if they worked harder at it.

Much to the disgust of companions Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand)
and Colossus, and moments before facing dozens of gun-toting thugs, Deadpool (Ryan
Reynolds) addresses his audience directly, to discuss precisely how silly everything
has been, up to this moment.
Which is to say, Deadpool is outrageously smutty, profane and gory: about as far from the usually family-friendly Marvel Universe movies as could be imagined. It’s another of those merrily anarchic Hollywood projects that makes ultra-conservatives fret about the end of Western Civilization as we know it.

It’s also rather funny at times, in a tasteless, dark-humor sort of way. But only at times; the shtick wears thin rapidly. Not even Ryan Reynolds can hold our interest with 108 minutes of nonstop mugging and smart-assery. Although — give him credit — he makes a game effort.

The character has an odd history in Marvel’s comic book world, having been introduced in the early 1990s as a villain in various X-Men titles. He gradually morphed into an amoral antihero with a back-story as an unscrupulous mercenary for hire, eventually granted the mutant power of accelerated healing at the cellular level.

Meaning, he can’t be killed in the usual sense. Bullets perforating his body, a knife to the head ... no problem. Hack off a limb, and it regenerates, like a lizard’s tail.

You can imagine what today’s unrestrained special effects wizards can make of that gimmick ... and director Tim Miller — a CGI/VFX designer/producer making his feature directorial debut here — is just the guy to orchestrate the requisite mayhem.

But messy invulnerability isn’t Deadpool’s primary characteristic; he’s best known for his refusal to acknowledge his role as a member of the tightly plotted Marvel Universe. Deadpool knows that he’s a comic book character; he frequently breaks the fourth wall and addresses the readers, or indulges in arguments with the writers who concoct his word balloons.

In that sense, Deadpool is a smug and sassy, 21st century update of Marvel's equally cynical 1970s icon, Howard the Duck. Deadpool also upsets the “regular” Marvel superheroes, who can’t be their usual, carefully scripted selves with this loose cannon shredding the pages.

I’m also reminded of Jasper Fforde’s marvelously whimsical novels, with heroine Thursday Next as a “literary detective” who can jump into classic books, interact with their characters, and even change the endings of stories we know and love. Except that, well, Deadpool is a lot nastier. And more callous. And unapologetically juvenile.

And ... you get the idea.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Hail, Caesar! — A block, a stone, a worse than senseless thing

Hail, Caesar! (2016) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, and rather harshly, for mildly suggestive content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.5.16

A new Coen brothers film usually is cause for celebration.

Not this time.

Capitol Pictures studio head Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) has just learned that his
water ballet star, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), is pregnant. She's also
unmarried: a potentially juicy scandal waiting to be scooped up by hovering
Hollywood gossip columnists.
Hail, Caesar! is a classic study of wretched excess: a labored, overcooked, star-heavy production that isn’t nearly as funny as everybody seems to think.

I’m reminded of Steven Spielberg’s 1941, also a bloated period comedy made at a point when the then-young director thought he could do no wrong. It, too, is an overwrought mess that mostly wastes the talents of a cast that was impressive for its time.

Spielberg’s 1941 attempted to mine humor from a WWII-era storyline that proposed a Japanese submarine invasion off the California coast. Hail, Caesar!, set in Hollywood during the “nifty fifties” — when, terrified by the arrival of television, the motion picture industry’s glorious façade was beginning to show visible cracks — attempts to mine humor from (among other things) a Communist submarine invasion off the California coast.

A moment which, it must be mentioned, climaxes the film’s most protracted and thoroughly inane subplot.

At its core, though, the Coen brothers’ script is a day-in-the-life study of Hollywood studio chief Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who confronts various crises — large and small — during a typical 24 hours. His soundstages are laden with sets and stars for numerous films in various stages of production, and all are typical of the time period:

• A sophisticated drawing room melodrama, where disgruntled, mildly prissy director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) has just been saddled with corn-pone singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) as his new young protagonist;

• A sailors-at-sea musical, with song-and-dance superstar Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) channeling Gene Kelly;

• A waterlogged, Busby Berkeley-style extravaganza, headlined by swimming sensation DeeAnna Moran (Scarlet Johansson); and, most particularly...

• A biblical epic featuring famed studio leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), as a Roman centurion who undergoes a moral conversion after encountering no less than Jesus himself.

The Choice: Choose something else

The Choice (2016) • View trailer 
1.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for sensuality and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

If we’re gonna get treacle, it needs to be served better than this.

Movies based on Nicholas Sparks’ novels have become an annual nuisance, much like the return of hurricane season. His formulaic plots have grown tedious, his signature narrative gimmicks ripe for parody.

Gabby (Teresa Palmer) is happily attached to a longtime boyfriend. She doesn't even
really like her neighbor, Travis (Benjamin Walker). She nonetheless invites him over for
a romantic dinner. Can you guess what happens next?
The newest assault on our tear ducts, The Choice, offers all the same ingredients. A quaint, gorgeous setting, often coastal; check. Somebody at an emotional crossroads; check. An introductory romantic dinner in a quasi-isolated setting; check. Written messages exchanged in some droll or unusual manner; check.

And, of course, a tragedy of some sort — illness, accident, meteor strike — that Destroys Everything; double-check.

One’s willingness to buy into such sudsy melodrama depends on many factors, but we must acknowledge the necessity of a competent script and reasonably talented actors. The Choice has neither, which — coupled with the usual Sparks contrivances — makes it not only unwatchable, but hilariously awful. I’d love to see the ’bots from Mystery Science Theater 3000 take a poke at it.

Bryan Sipe’s screenplay is dreadful, his dialog the stuff of puerile TV soap operas. People simply don’t talk like this. Director Ross Katz doesn’t help matters, having no distinguishable talent that I can determine. He gets nothing but stiff and robotic performances from his stars, and a middle-school film student could improve upon the bland camera set-ups.

Most damningly, though, leading lady Teresa Palmer can’t act a lick. (Alternatively, and to maintain the shared blame, Katz can’t draw a performance out of her.) Her line readings are flat and howlingly awful, and her fallback “emotional reaction” — employed relentlessly — involves bobbing her head and flipping her hair: a dead giveaway to her (one hopes more successful) former career as a model.

Her introductory “meet cute” exchange with co-star Benjamin Walker is impressively awkward and forced. And Katz deemed it worthy of a “cut and print” command? He’s delusional.

Monday, February 1, 2016

When Marnie Was There: A poignant slice of Gothic Lite

When Marnie Was There (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, and pointlessly, solely because some characters smoke

By Derrick Bang

As has become a rather quirky custom in recent years, two of the recently announced Academy Award nominees for Best Animated Feature prompted bewildered frowns.

No surprise, since both are all but unknown on these shores.

After a rather clumsy attempt at traversing the flooded marsh, Anna, left, gratefully
accepts some rowing tips from her new best friend, Marnie.
Brazil’s Boy and the World has yet to achieve wide release in the States, although a few Northern California venues are scheduled to open it later this month. Japan’s When Marnie Was There supposedly received “limited release” last spring, after a few festival appearances ... but it sure never played anywhere near our neighborhood.

Fortunately, Marnie is readily available for home viewing, having been released on DVD and Blu-ray on Oct. 6. It’s definitely worth the rental — or purchase — as it’s yet another of Studio Ghibli’s elegant fantasies, with a touching story perfectly told via lush, hand-drawn animation.

More than anything else, Studio Ghibli’s animators always establish a firm sense of place. Our heroine spends the bulk of her saga on the northernmost island of Hokkaido, in a moody, wind-swept marshland that frequently floods with the ocean tide. Grass sways gently; flowers and trees dance in the breeze; water laps along the barren shore.

The film is based on British author Joan G. Robinson’s 1967 novel of the same title, which until Studio Ghibli’s interest had become almost impossible to find (along with most of her other books). Hayao Miyazaki cited it as one of his 50 recommended children’s books, and in late 2013 announced that his studio would bring it to the big screen.

This wide-ranging interest in classic children’s fiction comes as no surprise to longtime Studio Ghibli fans, since 2010’s The Secret World of Arrietty was based on British author Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. That film was co-scripted by Miyazaki and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi; the latter has directed When Marnie Was There, and adapted it with co-scripters Keiko Niwa and Masashi Ando.

They’ve done a lovely job.

Our young protagonist, Anna, is a typical Studio Ghibli heroine who feels disconnected from the rest of the world. With short hair and plain clothes, she looks more like a boy than a girl: likely a bit of emotional defiance every bit as protectively concealing as the plain face she displays at all times.

“Everyone else is inside: inside some sort of invisible magic circle,” she ponders, during a moment of interior reflection lifted directly from Robinson’s novel. “But I’m outside.”