Armchair Cinephile 

UNUSUAL SUSPECTS ALL AROUND

Spirited Away (Buena Vista)
Kiki's Delivery Service (Buena Vista)
Castle in the Sky (Buena Vista)
My Neighbor Totoro (20th Century Fox)
Speed Racer (Artisan)
Public Access (Vanguard)

OK, time to admit it: For once, the Academy really nailed the Oscars. They didn't quite ace the nominations, but out of the films they nominated, they made some truly startling, exactly right choices. (Pianist, we're looking at you.)

Among the awards that made my jaw drop was Spirited Away for best animated feature. I've been late to catch the Miyazaki bandwagon, but seeing this one made me regret missing so many; Spirited Away is as good at capturing the essence of dreaming as any film since, well now that you mention it, since a movie that should have been nominated when the Academy invented this category last year, Waking Life. Filled with magic, death-defying logical leaps, and spooky creatures, it's a worthy successor to Alice in Wonderland.

Buena Vista is bucking the trend for animation and treating writer/director Hayao Miyazaki like the great artist

 
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he is, releasing Spirited Away along with two of his other films in splendid looking two-disc editions. Each contains the feature, in its original screen format with the option of Japanese or English audio, and two of them - Kiki's Delivery Service and Castle in the Sky - offer obsessive viewers the chance to watch the movie as a series of the artist's original storyboards, accompanied by the finished sound and dialogue tracks.

Parents who worry that their kids aren't up to the unsettling imagery in Spirited Away should have no reservations about Kiki, which is like Mary Poppins to the more recent film's Lewis Carroll. Kiki is a fable about growing up that's as sweet and innocent as an intelligent movie can be: The protagonist is a 13-year-old witch in training who must leave her parents to learn her trade in a new town. Having no specialized powers, Kiki decides to put her broom to use and start a delivery service. Any description of the lessons she learns along the way would sound corny, but it's remarkable just how morally instructive a film can be while it's goofing around being charming and lovable. Incidentally, the dubbed soundtrack stars the much-missed Phil Hartman as Kiki's smart-aleck black cat.

Fox could learn a lesson or two from Buena Vista this month. Their recent release of his My Neighbor Totoro is not only an English-only release, denying fans the option of hearing the original actors, but it's pan-and-scan only, chopping off the sides of Miyazaki's perfect compositions and squashing everything into a box. The film itself is a welcome arrival, with exotic imaginary beasts foreshadowing those in Spirited Away, but savvy collectors will be waiting for a better edition of the DVD down the road.

It's not much of a favor to the creators of Speed Racer to mention the old TV series in the same breath as Miyazaki's masterworks, but there you have it; the first season was just released on disc in a nifty box covered in racing-tread rubber. To give the series its due, way back in the late '60s/early '70s it did pave the way for Japanese animation to cross over to mainstream American audiences. Comparing the series' technical merits to those of contemporary Anime is like racing a Yugo with a Porsche, but Speed and crew did get U.S. kids used to the genre's quirks, like those unnaturally large eyes, animals whose anthropomorphism is slightly creepy, and the fact that characters say "oh!" and "aahhhh!" a lot. Plus there's that blasted theme song, which has been bouncing around my skull for the last two weeks now.

Lastly, now that Mutant Mania is upon us, Vanguard Cinema presents an opportunity to see X-Men director Bryan Singer's first feature, Public Access. It's a mixed blessing. On one hand, Singer's story about a mysterious loner who arrives in an idyllic town and seems to trigger its destruction shows the gift for mood and ominous storytelling that he would soon use in The Usual Suspects; while the film's direction and camera work is clearly that of a recent film school grad, it's effective and shows Singer's nascent style. On the other hand, there's not enough meat on this story to sustain feature length - the filmmakers should've either added to the plot or trimmed this to an hour - and the DVD transfer is pretty poor, even for a low-budget film. Even a fancy-pants DVD package wouldn't make this a general interest release, but fans of Singer (a standout in his generation of directors) should give it a look. •


More by John DeFore

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