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Spirited Away
Disney DVD

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Castle in the Sky
Disney DVD

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Kikiís Delivery Service
Disney DVD

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Hayao Miyazakiís Oscar-winning Spirited Away isnít only a new benchmark in mainstream animation, or a radical mark of maturity in Japanese anime - itís a vaulting leap forward for its creator, a virtual one-man animation studio. By releasing two of Miyazakiís earlier classics - Castle in the Sky and Kikiís Delivery Service - at the same time as the DVD edition of Spirited Away, Disney has given fans of the director and the genre a chance to see that evolution happen.

1989ís Kikiís Delivery Service is a charming little tale of a young witch in training, set in a quaint pastiche of a Mediterranean seaside town. Castle in the Sky, made three years earlier, was more ambitious - a Jules Verne-inspired adventure story set in a world where Victorian industrial terraced towns cling to the sides of steep valley walls. Miyazakiís ability to create a wild little world was always his greatest strength, and only slightly let down by the sometimes cloying child protagonists of his films.

Spirited Away is a wholly new, and abidingly strange kind of thing, set in a universe where the nature spirits of traditional Japanese animist myth rule a world just below the surface of ours. My Neighbour Totoro, from 1993, was a first step in this new direction, and with Princess Mononoke, it was assumed that Miyazaki had created his masterpiece.

No one was prepared for the furious invention of Spirited Away, with its spirit bathhouse and water-covered shadow world, or the way his child protagonist, Chihiro, would transcend the mere cuteness of previous girl heroines. All of the new discs are two-disc sets, and include generous galleries of drawings and storyboards for animation fanatics, but the Spirited Away disc comes with two documentaries on Miyazaki that focus on the exhausting dedication he demands from his crew to make his films, while maddeningly revealing almost nothing of the sources for his fantastic inspiration.

click here to read a longer review of Spirited Away.

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Straw Dogs
Criterion DVD

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Sam Peckinpahís Straw Dogs is a film as legendary as its director, with a sinister reputation to match. Virtually banned in England for three decades, itís a story perfectly suited to the year of its release - 1971, when 60s idealism had finally crested and left behind a swamp of emotional wreckage and violence.

Dustin Hoffman and Susan George play a smart young couple renting a cottage outside an isolated Cornish village. Their relationship is starting to dissolve into sexual tension and cruel taunts, and they donít notice until itís too late how the blood theyíre drawing from each other has attracted the near-feral village toughs. The emotional blood turns into real blood and a siege of their cottage thatís considered one of Peckinpahís signature scenes, all slow-motion mayhem and orchestrated terror thatís only barely cathartic.

The bonus disc included with Criterionís edition includes documentaries and interviews that do little to debunk the directorís reputation as a man who became less than the sum of his personal demons, a truly haunted, unhappy persona, all macho despair and barely-contained paranoia.

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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Warner Bros. DVD

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It remains to be seen whether the principle feat of the Harry Potter phenomenon is rehabilitating the pitiless reputation of the English boarding school, bringing magic and wonder to a place known mostly for cruel social humiliation and bad food.

The two-disc edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets surrounds the action-packed but strangely forgettable film with a satchelful of production effluvia and interactive games and quizzes. What the Potter phenomenon will ultimately mean is as shrouded in mystery as the remaining chapters of J. K. Rowlingís books, but itís already clear that the story is heading for a darker place, suitable perhaps for its current fans as they enter adolescence, but perhaps already a bit too frightening for a younger crowd, an evolution that might be commercial suicide.

click here for a longer review of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

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The Truth About Charlie
Universal DVD

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Jonathan Demme and his crew obviously had a great time re-making Stanley Donenís off-beat 1963 thriller Charade. Itís a shame that he felt obliged to overwork this gossamer-thin tale, perhaps fooled into thinking that all those double- and triple-crosses required a film as strenuous and architectural. The charm of the original film - thoughtfully included with this deluxe package - rested entirely with its leads, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, and while Thandie Newton has glimpses of Hepburnís gamine appeal, nobody will ever mistake Mark Wahlberg, all muscles and earnest line-readings, for Cary Grant.

©2003 rick mcginnis all rights reserved.