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By Andrew Osmond     June 11, 2000

LAPUTA, THE FLYING CASTLE, or CASTLE IN THE SKY, as Buena Vista renamed LAPUTA--oops, pardon my Spanish. (Writer-director Hayao Miyazaki borrowed the name from GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, but missed Swift's satiric joke). Whichever, this is an extraordinary anime adventure. Two young children--one a girl with a mysterious crystal--are caught in a frantic hunt for a legendary flying island. Is it a treasure-trove, or something far worse? LAPUTA's world is an inspired mix of Jules Verne and the Fleischer animators. Apparently set in the 19th-century, it's on a time-track where great airships fill the sky like flying whales (no, not F2K's). The mute, wholly alien Laputan robots were based on a Fleischer SUPERMAN cartoon. The pacing is perfect, the action terrific and the protagonists charming. There's humor aplenty, some refreshingly cartoony, but the main story is 100% earnest. The last quarter is brilliantly creative in its own right, and the showdown as tense as any live-action.

The Buena Vista dub, featuring Anna Paquin (THE PIANO) and James Van Der Beek (DAWSON'S CREEK) was recently shown in New York. A video (and possibly limited theatrical) release should follow soon. Historically, LAPUTA takes story elements from Miyazaki's 1979 TV serial FUTURE BOY CONAN, another superb fantasy, already available on French video. Is there any chance of a US release?

NEAR DARK (1988). A thoroughly refreshing and original take on one of horror's oldest myths, Kathryn Bigelow's NEAR DARK is a superior effort in cinematic vampire lore, and a superior horror film by any measure. The simple story: farm boy Caleb meets girl, Mae. Caleb falls for Mae. Mae a vampire) bites Caleb. Caleb now must become member of Mae's nomadic vampire family, roaming the countryside in stolen autos, hiding out behind black-taped windows in daytime and doing their murderous feeding at night. But there's so much more to Bigelow's film than this simple story. At its heart is a compelling study of conflicting loyalties--Caleb's for Mae, Caleb's for his former family, both Caleb and Mae's for the vampire gang, the gang for their reluctant new member, who both seeks acceptance and yet finds the whole barbaric trade extremely distasteful. Bigelow's examination of the band as a family unit, striving to live within the boundaries of their nature in a world that is not really their own, is fascinating. The glimpses we have of their personalities and common bonds gives us a kind of respect for them, even though, like Caleb, we must opt for their destruction in the end, and, like Mae, we must return to the proper world of daylight after our sordid tryst with the night.-Randall D. Larson

PINOCCHIO (1940). This is the greatest animated film ever made. Sure, a statement like that ruffles the feathers of many aficionados, and sure the case could be made for other numerous features. In terms of artistry itself many argue for FANTASIA; in terms of pacing and timing others could point to the work of Chuck Jones; and for breaking the rules, still others favor Anime. But, for all of the elements that are an animated film--story, character, music, art, filmmaking--they don't come together more perfectly than they do in PINOCCHIO. Working on numerous levels (as childhood fantasy and an allegory for life itself) and with numerous levels (there's the lithe movements of Jiminy Cricket and the enormous, tactile mass of Monstro the whale), animation filmmaking has rarely achieved what Walt Disney and his artists achieved in this film.
In their book, THE DISNEY VILLAIN, animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston discuss a scene from PINOCCHIO, with writer John Culhane. In the sequence, one of the young boys, transformed into a jackass, cries, in terror, at the villainous Coachman, 'I want my mama!' Culhane noted, 'I have worried about that kid my whole life!' Such is the power of Pinocchio.Mike Lyons

SUSPIRIA (1977). American dancer Suzy Bannon travels to Germany where she has enrolled for study at a famous dance institute. Little by little, as fellow students disappear and tensions begin running high, she comes to learn that the school is under the control of a coven of witches led by a raspy breathed 'immortal one'. From horror director Dario Argento, SUSPIRIA is unquestionably his most definitive work, displaying all the Italian director's over-the-top talents in one crushing, cinematic, tour-de-force blow: vicious murders by faceless killers; dazzling, fervent photography; elaborate, finely crafted sets; a somewhat convoluted plot with an underpinning of eerie European folklore. Horror has always held a dubious connection with Rock-and-Roll, but it hadn't been properly addressed until Argento brought the association to a head with this film. Working with Italian rock/fusion group Goblin, Argento empowers SUSPIRIA with a pounding rock score that leaves viewers covering both their eyes and ears during the film's many violent offerings. Challenging, but not exploiting, Argento connects directly with our suppressed lust for the thrill of the kill, giving us some of the artiest scenes of murder the genre has ever witnessed. Oh, and let's not forget all those squirmy maggots. Yuck!Norman England

TESTAMENT (1983) tells the story of a family from a small Northern California town in the wake of a nuclear holocaust. One seemingly normal day, Carol Wetherly (Jane Alexander), her children and neighbors, are cut off from the rest of the world after the bombs fall. The town tries to hold together without power, services, or word from outside. As the survivors gather at town meetings and ration necessities, radiation sickness starts to take its inevitable toll. Directed by Lynne Littman, this is a small film, with no spectacular visual effects. The screenplay by John Sacret Young (story by Carol Amen) and remarkable performances by the cast give the film its sense of authenticity. Jane Alexander received Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for her portrayal of a mother forced to watch two of her children die. TESTAMENT came out during the Reagan years, as we amassed an overwhelming nuclear arsenal. I lived in Northern California, where scientists publicly stated that no one could plan for or survive an all-out nuclear war. Moviegoers in my city of Santa Rosa left the theater weeping, terrified and amazed by TESTAMENT, which made the aftermath of a nuclear war more real than the telefilm THE DAY AFTER, or Britain's THREADS. TESTAMENT did not seem like science fiction to me, or even fiction at all, but rather a glimpse at a not-too-distant future. Anna L. Kaplan


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