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The Wind Rises remixes history to make a deeper, more personal point

May 25-30 is Studio Ghibli Week at Polygon. To celebrate the arrival of the Japanese animation house’s library on digital and streaming services, we’re surveying the studio’s history, impact, and biggest themes. Follow along via our Ghibli Week page.

By 2013, Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro director Hayao Miyazaki had built an identity around magic and whimsy. His films typically featured ghosts and witches, dragons and royalty. It wasn’t unusual for audiences to arrive at his films and see an anthropomorphic pig piloting an airplane, or children riding a Cat Bus. His family-friendly catalogue never fit neatly into a single genre, but his films shared a dreamy unpredictability.

So, when the elder statesman of animation announced not only that he was planning to retire, but that his final film would be a biopic, fans were understandably perplexed.

A biopic? Arguably the most formulaic, rigid, lifeless genre this side of slasher films? How could a career so creative, so combustible, so distinct, have such an anodyne coda? A biopic!

With seven years of hindsight, Miyazaki fans know the auteur didn’t produce anything like a standard biopic. Instead, he crafted arguably his grandest and most personal film. But a word of warning for newcomers watching The Wind Rises for the first time on Netflix outside America, or HBO Max in the States: the film demands attention.

Or to put it another way, if you decide to stream the movie while picking at your phone or baking some bread, you’ll mistake it for what’s on the tin: Just another biopic. But if you invest yourself (Noise-canceling headphones! Leave the phone in another room!) you’ll discover a film just as thrilling and unexpected as anything else in Miyazaki’s catalogue.

The life that never happened

The Wind Rises chronicles the life of Japanese aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, a Great Man of Historical Import. Horikoshi was the chief engineer of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane, which the Japanese military would use during World War II, including in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The story begins with Horikoshi’s childhood dream of creating the perfect airplane, and follows the incremental steps he takes to achieve that reality, in the face of bureaucratic, personal, and moral barriers. In true biopic fashion, the plot pairs Horikoshi’s artistic journey with a grand romance. He meets a young woman and they fall in love, but she’s stricken by a terminal illness. His professional success arrives alongside profound personal loss.

So far, so formulaic. Except that this tragedy never happened to Horikoshi.

That’s the twist, and it’s easy to miss. The Wind Rises isn’t merely one adaptation, it’s many. In the middle of the film, Miyazaki takes an extended break from Horikoshi’s “true” story, sending his protagonist to a rural resort to rethink his airplane designs. In the hotel, Horikoshi meets a mix of international guests, and they discuss the morality and ethics of his work within this period of turmoil. He also reunites with Miori Takimoto, a young woman recovering from tuberculosis.

The entirety of the resort sequence is a fictional cocktail combining three sources: There’s The Wind Has Risen, a short romantic fiction by the Japanese writer Hori Tatsuo; the French poet Paul Valery’s best known work, “Le Cimetière Marin”; and The Magic Mountain, a grim bildungsroman from German author Thomas Mann.

What Miyazaki borrows from each piece is obvious, even if you only know a summary of the works.

The Magic Mountain follows a shipbuilder named Castorp who visits his cousin at a sanatorium in Davos, and himself becomes ill with tuberculosis. In the sanatorium, he converses with a variety of characters with different philosophies and backgrounds, from a Dutch Dionysian to a Jesuit Marxist. The Wind Has Risen tells the tragic tale of a man (named “I”) and his fiancée, who’s overtaken by a terminal illness in a rural tuberculosis sanatorium. Tatsuo’s book was based on the author’s own loss, and further inspired by Valery’s poem. That poem provides the quote that opens Miyazaki’s film, and inspired the title of the film and Tatsuo’s book.

Even though these influences were written in three countries over two decades, they share similar elements and themes: illness, hope, the beauty of ideas while living in a time and space of immense tragedy and unpredictability, and the question of how we continue after experiencing such exceptional losses.

But why would Miyazaki stop the film for this lengthy diversion, mining a collection of works that have nothing to do with Horikoshi or even World War 2? Why let the diversion gradually become as important as Miyazaki’s actual subject in the film’s back half? Because the fictional story gets at ideas bigger than the historical truth.

The trouble with the biopic genre is that, for all its familiarity, entries are rarely universal. Most of us aren’t tortured artists. We won’t create things that will be remembered for decades, nor will we follow the biopic protagonist trajectory, overcoming our personal demons and personal sacrifices to produce some spectacular masterpiece.

Miyazaki’s film not only recognizes this limitation, it questions the validity of the Great Artist story as a whole. When Horikoshi leaves the resort, he stands at a crossroads. There’s the path of “greatness,” sacrificing his personal life for his achievements. And there’s the path of love, dedicating his time to Takimoto and other personal relationships.

Effectively, the Horikoshi in the film is given the choice between the real Horikoshi’s life within the war, and an alternate, theoretical life outside of it, one more anonymous, but less fraught.

After choosing to focus on designing his plane, Horikoshi learns one of his acquaintances from the hotel, a German expat, has likely been captured by Japan’s secret police. Takimoto’s illness worsens, forcing her to retreat to a sanatorium in the mountains, where she ultimately dies. And the plane he designed is ultimately used in a war with which he fundamentally disagrees. He loses friends and family, only for his art to be weaponized.

The film ends with Horikoshi achieving his dream, but because of his choice, that success came at profound cost. And for what? The film claims not a single Zero plane returned from combat, not because of the Zero’s design, but because they were leveraged in a war Japan would not win.

Why did a pacifist make a film about warplanes?

In 2013, Miyazaki making a film about Horikoshi seemed like an odd match not just because of the genre, but because of Miyazaki’s own beliefs.

He remains an outspoken pacifist. Ahead of The Wind Rises’ release, the director wrote a critique of Japan’s Prime Minister’s ambitions to change the nation’s constitution, making way for a revived military. Some of the nation’s conservative voices dubbed Miyazaki a traitor. Other fans questioned why a pacifist would create a film about the designer of a plane that was constructed in forced labor camps, then used in war to take thousands of lives.

The film itself is fixated on this conundrum, and the moral grey areas in which artists and creators often must navigate to survive. Miyazaki’s father ran Miyazaki Airplane, a company that created parts for Horikoshi’s Zero planes.

Like Miyazaki, the real Horikoshi criticized his nation’s part in war, believing the country’s leaders had doomed their people with their role in World War II. In his diary, Horikoshi wrote, “Japan is being destroyed. I cannot do [anything] other but to blame the military hierarchy and the blind politicians in power for dragging Japan into this hellish cauldron of defeat.”

But this internal struggle doesn’t lend itself to the sweeping, romantic visuals of a Miyazaki film. That’s the true value of Miyazaki including this parallel fictional story. It puts human faces on a set of big, abstract, messy ethical and personal dilemmas.

Horikoshi wants nothing more than to create his art, but it will literally cost him what he loves most. And Miyazaki chooses to illustrate that choice by bringing in the perspective of other artists, in the same way he adapted Diana Wynne Jones’ novel Howl’s Moving Castle by radically changing the story. Where most biopics try to maintain the illusion of “truth,” Miyazaki treats the genre and the “facts” as a canvas, a base layer on which he collages a variety of additional inspirations, including pieces of history, fiction, poetry and autobiography.

In interviews, Miyazaki said one particular quote from Horikoshi inspired the adaptation of the engineer’s life: “All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.” It gets at a singular focus that Miyazaki shares, about rules, expectations, and form. Everything people expect from creators and their works can be pushed aside in pursuit of the beautiful. Miyazaki unquestionably makes beautiful films.

But given what he’s pushed aside in his own life, including a relationship with his own son, he clearly relates to the questions Horikoshi asks in this movie, and the answers he finds for himself. When the credits roll at the end of The Wind Rises, I always wonder: When Miyazaki looks back on his career, does he feel like he always chose the right path when prioritizing his art above everything else?


Planes, trains, and Cat Buses: Studio Ghibli movies are obsessed with travel

May 25-30 is Studio Ghibli Week at Polygon. To celebrate the arrival of the Japanese animation house’s library on digital and streaming services, we’re surveying the studio’s history, impact, and biggest themes. Follow along via our Ghibli Week page.

Studio Ghibli’s movies always look and feel like they’re on the move. Throughout the Ghibli catalog, transportation often plays a major role in storylines or character development, so much so that car trips or plane flights almost always carry some extra layer of significance. Ghibli’s movies use planes, trains, buses, boats, and cars to herald the start of an adventure, or serve as a prelude before something extraordinary happens to the heroes. Public transportation can give characters a spiritual pause, a chance to reflect on where they’ve been, and where they’re heading next. Actually flying a plane isn’t just an act of skill and courage, it can also represent a meditation on the human toll of its use as a weapon, or the opportunity to save the day before it’s too late.

Hayao Miyazaki’s movies in particular tend to have fantastical modes of transportation. The heroine of his pre-Ghibli movie Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind uses a futuristic wind glider to travel between her lush, green village and the toxic post-apocalyptic world that surrounds them. In his Little Mermaid riff Ponyo, magic turns a child’s toy boat into a full-sized one, fit for a rescue mission. The movie later uses the image of boats returning to the harbor to show the restoration of balance between man and nature. Magical transport in Miyazaki movies can also take the form of otherworldly creatures, like when Chihiro of Spirited Away rides a flying dragon, or San of Princess Mononoke uses a giant wolf to defend her forest home.

And possibly no form of magical transportation in Ghibli movies is more recognizable than the friendly Cat Bus of My Neighbor Totoro. Waiting for their father’s bus during a rainstorm, young sisters Satsuki and Mei see the bearish forest spirit Totoro board a different kind of bus than the one they were expecting. The many-legged Cat Bus has a Cheshire-sized grin, eyes like headlights illuminating whatever it’s looking at, and a stubbed fluffy tail trailing behind it.

cat bus drives totoro away Image: Studio Ghibli

Later, Totoro summons the Cat Bus so the sisters can go see their mom in the hospital. The movie perfectly captures the girls’ excited reactions to sitting inside a living, breathing bus with a furry interior. The Cat Bus moves like an animal, and runs up trees like an animal, but its design includes windows, seats, and glowing-eyed rats that serve as running lights. It’s a strange beast, but an unforgettable way to travel through the worlds of Studio Ghibli — and a reminder that even the spirit world has its fanciful equivalent of the mundane objects we take for granted.

Trains in Ghibli movies tend to be a much calmer form of transportation, unless an accident strikes, as it does in Miyazaki’s biopic The Wind Rises. Even then, the dramatic event ends up introducing its idealistic plane engineer Jiro to his future wife Naoko. More often than not, trains in Ghibli movies connect characters with their past or future, giving them a chance to reflect on where their journeys have taken them. In Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday, Taoko’s train doesn’t just transport her from Tokyo to the countryside, it also takes her to her childhood memories of first love and growing up, setting her up to re-evaluate what she wants for her future.

These journeys can also take a spiritual turn, as they do in Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies. The film has perhaps one of the bleakest openings in any Ghibli movie, starting with a scene of a train station in post-war Japan, where a forlorn boy dies in plain sight of passersby. His spirit joins his sister’s, and the two board a ghost-train that leads them into a flashback retelling of their tragic story. The train continues to appear in various portions of the film, each memory a stop marking their inevitable decline. The train is empty except for these two young souls in the spiritual realm, but we see it full of life in the past.

A spirit-train also plays a significant part in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away when the protagonist, Chihiro, has to go on a spiritual quest to make amends with her boss’ twin sister. If she fears that the new witch she’s about to meet might be scarier than her twin, or wonders how she’ll get back to the bathhouse where she works, given that the train only goes in one direction, Chihiro doesn’t show it. She bravely steps aboard the curious train, which glides along the endless waters around the bathhouse. It’s a stunning, surreal scene, and Chihiro’s wistful patience contrasts sharply with her sullenness at the start of the film, traveling in a car with her parents. On the train, she has a purpose.

howl’s moving castle from howl’s moving castle Image: Studio Ghibli

Thanks to his family connections, Miyazaki grew up around plane designs, and was fascinated with aviation. He worked different aspects of flying into many of his movies, whether by magical means in Howl’s Moving Castle and Kiki’s Delivery Service, or through more mechanical options in Porco Rosso and The Wind Rises.

The latter two films also serve as benchmarks of how Miyazaki’s views of planes have evolved from a source of fascination to a nuanced acknowledgment of what planes can do as weapons. Porco Rosso is a fantastical story of a good-hearted but cursed bounty hunter who runs afoul of scheming air pirates and the fascist Italian government after World War I. He’s a duty-bound, honorable fighter who wrestles with his feelings for a longtime flame, and his insecurity over the curse that turned him into an anthropomorphized pig. While still wildly entertaining, Porco Rosso takes aviation on its simplest terms. Flying is the gateway to a story about lost love, living like an outsider, survivor’s guilt, and other themes, but it doesn’t examine the role of the biplanes and seaplanes populating this make-believe Europe.

Miyazaki’s most recent film, The Wind Rises, takes a more nuanced approach to avionics and their role in Japanese history. Jiro, the movie’s main character, embodies Miyazaki’s longstanding fascination with airplanes, but the film also acknowledges that these wondrous contraptions that help everyday people defy gravity on a daily basis also claimed a lot of lives in war. Over the course of the film, Jiro starts out so enamored with flying that he makes an imaginary friend out of a historical pilot. But he comes to regret his dedication to creating planes when his earnest passion is weaponized by the government, as his plane design becomes a major part of the war effort. Jiro is caught in a Catch-22 situation — his creations possibly only became possible because of wartime funding, but many people died because of his idealistic engineering zeal. It’s a troubled legacy, one we’re still dealing with decades after the events in the film.

So whether by air, sea, road, or magic, travel in Studio Ghibli movies is just as important as the destination ahead. Any time someone’s on the move, it’s generally either the most action-packed scene in a movie, or among the quietest moments. These trips develop characters and extend the plot even in movies that aren’t expressly about the ability to fly, or the know-how to summon a Cat Bus. However these moments play out in Ghibli films, they’re kind reminders that we should give ourselves a little more time to look out the windows on our next trip, and watch the scenery zip by before it becomes only a memory.


The latest details on the Studio Ghibli theme park

May 25-30 is Studio Ghibli Week at Polygon. To celebrate the arrival of the Japanese animation house’s library on digital and streaming services, we’re surveying the studio’s history, impact, and biggest themes. Follow along via our Ghibli Week page.

Ever wanted to follow Totoro deeper into the forest?

In the near future, a Studio Ghibli theme park opening its doors in Japan will recreate the worlds of the studio’s movies. After years of vague hints and whispers — with a rumored opening date of early 2020, at one point —the park is set to begin construction this year, pending our current pandemic situation.

Where is it located? What’s going to be in it? Will [insert your personal favorite Ghibli movie] have a themed location? Will there be roller coasters?

Here’s everything we know about the Studio Ghibli theme park:

a map of the proposed ghibli park Image: Studio Ghibli

Where is the Studio Ghibli theme park?

Ghibli’s park will be located in Aichi Commemorative Park, a location near Nagoya in central Japan. The park was the site of the 2005 World’s Fair, in which Studio Ghibli helped build a recreation of Satsuki and Mei’s house from My Neighbor Totoro.

What’s in the Studio Ghibli park?

According to reports, the Ghibli park will be divided into five lands, some based on specific movies with others drawing from multiple sources of Ghibli-based influence. The park is on a 200-hectare plot of land, which lends itself easily to the various sprawling, pastoral inspirations of Ghibli films (for context, Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom is around 50-hectares, while Animal Kingdom sits around 230). The park will have a focus on recreating the movie’s scenes and nature trails instead of thrills and rides.

concept art of a steampunk elevator Image: Studio Ghibli

Springtime of Life Hill (or Youth Hill): This area will be based on Howl’s Moving Castle and host a giant steampunk elevator, which will allow guests a view of the whole land. This area will allegedly be around the entrance of the park and contain lots of 19th century-inspired accents. It will also feature some inspiration from Whisper of the Heart, specifically the buildings inspired by the antique shop featured in the movie.

Dondoko Forest Area: The My Neighbor Totoro-inspired area will feature a replica of Mei and Satsuki’s house from the movie, in a lush rural landscape from the movie. There will be walking tours and paths planned in this area, which is designed to take a lot of the existing infrastructure of the area into account.

concept art of the warehouse area Image: Studio Ghibli concept art of the spirited away dining area Image: Studio Ghibli

Ghibli Large Warehouse Area: Designed to be accessible any time of year, regardless of weather, this large indoor area featuring Japanese and Western-style buildings will host the dining locations, shops, playing areas, and exhibition spaces. There will be a dining area here inspired by Spirited Away.

Mononoke’s Village Area: Dedicated to Princess Mononoke, this area will house a replica of Irontown and evoke the Muromachi period (1336-1573) that inspired the film. It’s also going to house giant sculptures of the movie’s spirits and creatures. This is one of the locations opening in 2023.

concept art of the kiki’s delivery service area amusement park Image: Studio Ghibli

Witches’ Valley Area: Inspired by both Kiki’s Delivery Service and Howl’s Moving Castle, this area will include a small amusement park, as well as a replica of Kiki’s parents’ house and Howl’s castle. This is the other location opening in 2023.

When will the Ghibli park open?

The park is still slated for a 2022 opening, though word’s out on whether that has been delayed due to coronavirus-related lockdowns. Three of the five areas (Springtime of Life Hill, Ghibli Warehouse, and Dondoko Forest) are supposed to begin construction in 2020 and open in 2022, with the remaining two areas beginning construction in 2021 and opening in 2023.


Studio Ghibli’s Porco Rosso is a fairy tale without a fairy-tale ending

May 25-30 is Studio Ghibli Week at Polygon. To celebrate the arrival of the Japanese animation house’s library on digital and streaming services, we’re surveying the studio’s history, impact, and biggest themes. Follow along via our Ghibli Week page.

The world of Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso strikes a delicate balance between reality and fiction. The story, which takes place in the aftermath of World War I, heavily features airplanes rendered in loving detail, and a setting where the time and place are so clear that the unfolding events can clearly be pinpointed in history. The main character, a, Italian bounty hunter named Porco Rosso, even quips that he’d rather be a pig than a fascist, referring to the rise of fascism in Italy at the time. That historical faithfulness is juxtaposed with a curse that turned Porco into an anthropomorphic pig, and a brush with the afterlife.

With the addition of sky-pirates and a star-crossed love story, Porco Rosso feels more like a fairy tale than historical fiction, in spite of its realistic trappings. But as Porco Rosso reaches its conclusion, the scales tip in a more bittersweet direction. The film’s denouement is happy but uncertain, forgoing the usual happily-ever-after in favor of something more subdued and realistic. It’s a fairy tale without a fairy-tale ending.

a woman in a white dress and hat The glamorous Gina. Image: Studio Ghibli

One of the big questions hovering over the film is whether the curse that turned Porco (formerly “Marco”) into a pig will ever be undone. It’s implied that his new visage is what keeps him from expressing his love for Madame Gina, who he’s known since childhood. When Curtis, an American pilot recruited by the sea pirates, attempts to woo Gina, she rebuffs his advances by telling him she only has eyes for Porco, and that she waits every day in her garden for him to come take her away. The easy conclusion to that love story would be for Porco to vanquish Curtis, regain his human form, and visit Gina in her garden. The Beauty and the Beast-esque structure is perfectly in place, but Miyazaki veers away from that seemingly inevitable finale.

The “happily ever after” he offers instead is one that treats the characters as though they were real people: Their lives are their own business, and the audience has pried enough already. Viewers aren’t owed a clear answer as to whether Porco and Gina end up together. Though the sight of an empty garden suggests that Porco finally confessed his feelings to Gina, there’s no explicit confirmation. Rather, the closing narration tantalizingly refers to the outcome of Porco and Gina’s back-and-forth as “their secret,” and leaves it at that.

Rather than lessening the power of their romance, Miyazaki’s resistance to fairy-tale storytelling conventions actually strengthens the film’s ending. The horror-movie principle that an unseen monster is scarier than one clearly depicted onscreen has its romantic corollary in Porco Rosso, as the romance of Porco and Gina’s story no longer stems from whether they did or didn’t get together, but from the imagined love affair that stems from speculation.

many battered planes flying together Thousands of planes flying together. Image: Studio Ghibli

The same goes for whether Porco manages to return to his human form. Fio, Porco’s frequent air-mechanic, catches a glimpse of his real face after he tells her a story about his experience in the war. It’s a moment of honesty from Porco, who spends much of the rest of the film adopting a roguish, carefree attitude and willfully ignoring the fact that the people around him care about him. But the change is temporary, which raises the question of whether it will be more permanent when a shocked Curtis briefly seems to catch sight of Porco’s human face in the film’s final moments. Viewers are left to guess Porco’s fate for themselves. But Gina clearly loves Porco, pig snout or no, so what matters isn’t the cosmetic change, so much as the attempt to overcome the survivor’s guilt at the root of Porco’s curse.

Porco Rosso emphasizes personal change: We don’t need to see a physical change so much as recognize that there’s been an internal one. It’s not so much a fable about inherent goodness (like Cinderella) or learning a moral (like The Tortoise and the Hare). It’s about these characters’ specific journeys. For the most part, Porco Rosso is rendered with such loving detail that it would be easy to mistake it for an animated version of a true story. Even though it stars an anthropomorphic pig, it ends in a realistic way, at least when it comes to emotions. Miyazaki forgoes easy answers, focusing instead on internal changes that can’t be so easily shown, and inviting the audience to draw their own conclusions rather than handing them easy solutions. It’s a bold approach to a story that seems like a fairy tale on the surface, but ultimately becomes a stronger, more affecting story.

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Amazon’s wild new sci-fi movie and everything else you can now watch at home

This week’s movie news is mostly to do with the projects that will get underway once the COVID-19 pandemic ends, as there’s still no indication of when it will be safe to reopen movie theaters. Spike Lee himself has said that he won’t go to a movie theater until there’s a vaccine, also noting that he’s unsure of how film production will resume safely. But the industry is working on protocol for future film shoots, and a new survey suggests audiences want to find a way back to the multiplex.

If Hollywood can figure out that new normal, we may soon see Cate Blanchett in Eli Roth’s upcoming Borderlands movie, Hamilton’s Thomas Kail direct a new version of Fiddler on the Roof, and a sequel to the Sonic movie, which is now in development.

In another landmark for post-pandemic life, Netflix’s talks to acquire the historic Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles have finally ended, allowing the streaming service to showcase its own content in a major theater without worrying about the exclusivity windows that made agreements to play Netflix films in Regal and AMC theaters so difficult.

In the meanwhile, however, theaters are still closed, here are the movie you can watch this weekend from the comfort of your own home.

The High Note

Where to watch it: Rent on digital $19.99 on Amazon, Google Play and Apple

tracee ellis ross in a red dress Photo: Focus Features

Maggie (Dakota Johnson) is the overworked personal assistant to music superstar Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross). Though Maggie seems to have hit a dead end in her job, she still aspires to become a music producer. Meanwhile, Grace’s manager (Ice Cube) wants her to take a residency in Las Vegas, which Grace views as a death sentence. In order to get what they want, Grace and Maggie have to learn how to work together.

The Vast of Night

Where to watch it: Streaming on Amazon

sierra mccormick in the vast of night Image: Amazon Studios

Set in the 1950s, The Vast of Night focuses on two teenagers investigating a mysterious radio frequency. Over the course of one night, switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) and radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) go on a supernatural scavenger hunt, investigating everything from reels of tape to anonymous phone calls as they attempt to uncover the frequency’s source.

On the Record

Where to watch it: Streaming on HBO Max

drew dixon in on the record Photo: HBO Max

Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s On the Record sheds light on the accusations of sexual assault and harassment against Russell Simmons, co-founder of DEF Jam Recordings. The documentary includes testimony from more than 20 women, and focuses on Drew Dixon, who accused Simmons of rape and experienced further harassment, as well as harm to her professional life, throughout her career. The film also addresses the way black women’s voices have been left out of the #MeToo movement.


Where to watch it: Rent on digital $12.99 through Corinth Films

people gathered around a botero painting Image: Hogan Millar Media/Corinth Films

You may be most familiar with Colombian artist Fernando Botero’s work from memes. Don Millar’s documentary on Botero paints him in a broader light, going back to Botero’s past in provincial Medellin in 1932 and following his rise through the art world. Millar weaves original footage together with archival photos and videos from Botero’s family as he endeavors to create as comprehensive a picture of the painter as possible.

New on Netflix this weekend

  • Comedy special Hannah Gadsby: Douglas
  • Steve Carell’s new comedy series Space Force
  • The third season of documentary series Somebody Feed Phil
  • The Safdie brothers’ magnetic Uncut Gems, starring Adam Sandler

And here’s what dropped last Friday:

The Trip to Greece

Where to watch it: Rent on digital $5.99 on Amazon, $6.99 on Google Play and Apple

rob brydon and steve coogan in the trip to greece Photo: IFC Films

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have now starred as exaggerated versions of themselves in four films for director Michael Winterbottom, the latest (and last) of which is The Trip to Greece, in which they attempt to retrace Odysseus’ footsteps while on a restaurant tour. It’s a fitting send-off for the series in the way it emphasizes the passage of time. From our review:

Four installments of the series have allowed a sense of intimacy to grow between the two men. Beyond the fact that Coogan and Brydon’s fictionalized selves seem transparent enough to be real — they air their petty grievances with no apparent regard for the cameras, and Coogan can’t seem to stop mentioning the BAFTA awards he’s won — four movies’ worth of companionship create a sense of camaraderie with the audience. It’s the same kind of emotional investment that people get out of, say, the Marvel cinematic universe, or a beloved TV series. (The film versions are edited together from six-episode seasons that air on British TV.)


Where to watch it: Rent on digital $6.99 on Amazon and Apple

simon pegg in inheritance Image: Vertical Entertainment

When a wealthy patriarch (Patrick Warburton) suddenly passes away, his estate is divided among his family. His daughter Lauren (Lily Collins) also receives a message from her father about a secret bunker under the property, in which she discovers a man (Simon Pegg) who claims he’s been held captive there for three decades. The revelation that their father might not be who he claimed to be threatens to tear the family apart. It’s Pegg’s performance that really pulls the film together. From our review:

On the other side of this psychological duel, which the movie helpfully underlines by repeatedly placing a chess set between its two leads, Pegg manages to be both menacingly mysterious and sympathetic. He’s especially fun to watch when he’s allowed to cut loose, and between his performance and some strong makeup work, he believably embodies someone a decade or so older than his actual age. He’s both the only actor in Inheritance who sells his character’s emotions and the only one who seems ready to admit that he’s in a pulpy thriller.

Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy

Where to watch it: Rent on digital $9.99 through Greenwich Entertainment

diana kennedy in diana kennedy: nothing fancy Image: Greenwich Entertainment

The documentary Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy is a delight. As filmmaker Elizabeth Carroll digs into the life of Kennedy, a renowned chef, she also gets into the complications of a white woman being considered the foremost expert on Mexican cuisine. Throughout, Kennedy, who is no-nonsense and almost rowdy despite her age, reveals years’ worth of research and dedication to food, including precious personal relationships with other cooks.

Lucky Grandma

Where to watch it: Rent on digital $12 through Good Deed Entertainment

tsai chin in lucky grandma Photo: Good Deed Entertainment

When Grandma (Tsai Chin), 80 years old and newly widowed, is told that she’s going to have a particularly lucky day, she decides to head to the casino and go all in. Unfortunately, her gambling nets the attention of some local gangsters. When she hires a bodyguard from a rival gang, she becomes mired in the middle of a gang war.

The Painter and the Thief

Where to watch it: Rent on digital $3.99 through Neon and your local theater’s Virtual Cinema

two people lounge in a room Photo: Neon

The Painter and the Thief chronicles a remarkable true story, in which a painter tracks down the thief responsible for stealing two of her works. When she finds him, the two become friends, and she ends up inviting him to sit for a portrait of his own. Against all odds, he becomes her muse.


Apple’s Central Park is trying to evolve the animated musical

Picture this: It’s 2010, you’re 15 years old, and you’ve saved up your allowance to buy the Wicked soundtrack from FYE. You haven’t actually seen the show, but your friend swears it changed her life when she saw the tour and you heard Rachel and Kurt cover of “Defying Gravity” on Glee. So you play the CD on your old janky CD player, trying to visualize the stunning special effects that your best friend gushed about, but because you don’t really know what the heck is going on, you pull up the Wikipedia page for the musical, reading along to the plot as you nod along to the songs.

Is this the ideal experience to consume Wicked? Probably not, but you’re 15, and it’s the best thing you’ve got.

Apple TV Plus’ Central Park, a new animated comedy from Bob’s Burgers creator Loren Bouchard, somehow replicates this experience of consuming a musical but not really consuming a musical. The animated show boasts a stellar cast, kooky characters, and some really fun songs, and when all those separate pieces come together, it’s an evolved form of the animated musical. Instead of a Disney movie, where the music serves to highlight the animated story, the visuals in Central Park augment the experience of watching a musical. But in the first four episodes of Central Park, those moments are few and far between, making the show feel, at times, like the Wikipedia scenario — good enough for now, but lacking when compared to those moments of fully realized musical theater glory.

the family sitting on the couch Image: Apple TV Plus

Central Park follows park groundskeeper Owen (Leslie Odom Jr.), his reporter wife Paige (Kathryn Hahn), and their two children Molly (Kristen Bell) and Cole (Tituss Burgess), along with scheming heiress Bitsy (Stanley Tucci) and her assistant Helen (Daveed Diggs). Each of them have their own internal motivations and struggles, but they’re all pulled together by Bitsy’s grand plan to buy New York’s legendary park and turn it into a mall.

And would it be an animated musical without Josh Gad? In Central Park he plays a street musician named Birdie, who defies logic, narrating the entire show to the audience and interacting with the characters. He serves to bridge the scenes offering transitions that you definitely could not call subtle — much like an omniscient Greek choir member, or the body text of a Wikipedia article — but they are effective. Whether or not they’re funny depends on how much you enjoy gratuitous fourth-wall breaking.

Central Park juggles each character’s individual storylines and, while they often cross, it’s a lot to track, especially when some of them weigh heavier on the overarching Bitsy-buys-out-the-park storyline than others. While Paige’s quest to be taken seriously as a real journalist means she’s weaving in and out of local politics and learning about the scheme, Molly’s hung up over a boy she’s never really talked to, and her daydreams about him grind some of the tension to a halt.

Lots of the scenes in-between songs struggle in a similar way, feeling non-essential or meant as build up for something better. That’s not to say that smaller character moments don’t deserve their time or that the boy Molly’s crushing on isn’t detrimental to the plot (he slips out that Bitsy is his aunt at one point), but the scenes leading up to her songs tend to drag and the songs themselves don’t quite hit.

josh gad’s birdie breaking the fourth wall Here’s Josh Gad! Image: Apple TV Plus

There are pieces of musical brilliance in Central Park, and they speak to the potential of the series. The first musical sequence — an ensemble piece where each character sings about their motivations à la “One Day More” from Les Misérables or the prologue from Into the Woods — fully embraces what makes such sequences in musicals so memorable (it’s all about coming together!) and uses the animation to showcase the side-by-side harmonies. The fourth episode sees Owen going head-to-head with the manager of a local garbage plant, with a quick back and forth as they dive into a book of New York City statutes, reminiscent of Hamilton’s “Washington On Your Side.”

It’s these moments of wonderfully realized musical theater that transcend the living-vicariously-through-Wikipedia slog and give a glimpse of what Central Park might be once all the pieces are working together. The first four episodes of any show’s first season won’t be its best, but there’s enough pure joy in Bouchard’s series to keep tuning in. It’s a show that feels more like musical theater than an animated comedy, but in its best moments it blends the two and shines.

The first two episodes of Central Park are now available on Apple TV Plus.

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Everything we know about Hayao Miyazaki’s new movie

May 25-30 is Studio Ghibli Week at Polygon. To celebrate the arrival of the Japanese animation house’s library on digital and streaming services, we’re surveying the studio’s history, impact, and biggest themes. Follow along via our Ghibli Week page.

Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement in 2013 following the release of The Wind Rises, but has been back at work since 2016. Initial rumors about what he was working on suggested he was turning his short film Boro the Caterpillar into a feature, but recent interviews with producer Toshio Suzuki have shed more light on exactly what Miyazaki is up to. From the title to the expected completion date to the story, here’s everything we know about Miyazaki’s next film.

What is Miyazaki’s new movie called?

The movie is titled How Do You Live? from Yoshino Genzaburo’s 1937 book of the same name, which follows a 15-year-old boy named Junichi Honda, nicknamed Koperu. Junichi lives with his uncle, and reflects on the experience of being human and spiritual growth.

Is it based on the book?

The film is not based on the book. Rather, the book is an important touchstone for the movie’s protagonist. Details on the plot of the film are scarce, though it has been described as a “big, fantastical story.” Suzuki says he was initially wary of Miyazaki making another film, since he’s achieved so much already, and doing something new and fresh would be difficult.

How is How Do You Live? achieving something new?

According to Suzuki, one of the new approaches Miyazaki’s latest film is taking is in its process. “One of the ideas that came out from that was, why not spend more time and spend more money [to make a film]?” Suzuki said. Given that rumors of Miyazaki coming out of retirement started in 2016, How Do You Live? has certainly become one of the most time-intensive Ghibli movies yet.

How much progress has been made on the movie?

Though the short film Boro the Caterpillar was done with computer animation, How Do You Live? sees Miyazaki returning to hand-drawn animation. The rigorous process, made all the more intense by a commitment to spending more time on production, has resulted in 36 minutes of footage so far. Suzuki estimates that the studio is completing one minute of animation per month, so 12 minutes of footage would be completed in a year.

So when are we actually going to get to see it?

Suzuki said that the film would hopefully be finished in the next three years. If all goes according to plan, that means we’ll get to see How Do You Live? sometime in 2023 or 2024.

Why is Miyazaki making another movie?

Besides the fact that he seems to live to make movies, he’s making this movie for a personal reason as well. Suzuki says Miyazaki wants to leave a movie behind for his grandson: “It’s his way of saying, ‘Grandpa is moving on to the next world, but he’s leaving behind this film.’”

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Miyazaki’s son gave Tales from Earthsea a powerful message about anxiety

May 25 to 30 is Studio Ghibli Week at Polygon. To celebrate the arrival of the Japanese animation house’s library on digital and streaming services, we’re surveying the studio’s history, impact, and biggest themes. Follow along via our Ghibli Week page.

Tales from Earthsea begins with the Kingdom of Enlad in ruins. Crops are dying, dragons are fighting, and humans are going insane for seemingly no good reason. The king and his council discuss the current circumstances of their world, and the history of dragons — how once upon a time, humans who chose possessions over anything else remained mortal, but those who cherished freedom became dragons. Root, a wizard in the king’s council, says that with everything in chaos between dragons and humans, the world is out of balance. Just as this chaos is brewing in the human world, the skies darken and a storm hangs overhead.

The outside chaos is symbolic of an internal storm, too — inside Prince Arren, the king’s son. Shortly after the movie begins, he kills his father because of a sudden, unexplainable impulse. Then he flees his kingdom. Although Studio Ghibli’s Tales From Earthsea, directed by Hayao Miyazaki’s son Gorō Miyazaki, was adapted from Ursula K. Le Guin’s series of young-adult fantasy series set in the Earthsea world, the movie focuses more on the journey of self-growth and overcoming fear and anxiety than on the original allegory about global warming.

That may sound like a strange way to start a movie, but it’s common for Studio Ghibli films to begin in ways that jolt viewers into full immersion in a highly specific fantastical world. And the fast-paced intro lets the story get to its central messages faster. After Arren meets a sorcerer named Sparrowhawk, he begins to learn about the light and dark forces disrupting the world’s balance. Sparrowhawk knows that darkness lives inside Arren, and all people, just as much as positivity and courage do.

The head of a black dragon, eyes and mouth dripping red fluid, descends from a stormy sky in Studio Ghibli’s Tales from Earthsea Image: Studio Ghibli

Tales From Earthsea mainly explores how human arrogance leads to larger consequences in the world, including global warming and environmental devastation. But the movie’s real strengths are in the ways it speaks to the hellish void of anxiety that lives in all of us in some way, and the things we do to escape it. So after Prince Arren stabs his father, worrying that there’s an unknown presence following him, the film reveals that at his tail is a mysterious, evil mirror image of himself.

When the ghostlike stranger finally confronts Arren, he flees it in fear, stumbling into a swamp and nearly drowning. While the scene feels dramatic, it’s a metaphor for the ways we ultimately hurt ourselves when we run away from our own failures and negative emotions instead of confronting them. Although Arren spends most of his journey attempting to outrun his dark doppelgänger, he decides to turn himself in for killing his father and repent for his crime. This is the core of the conversation the movie brings forward about anxiety, grief, and our deep human desire to avoid confronting our own pasts. We can run, but the only thing that will actually help us move forward is taking responsibility for the worst parts of ourselves.

The darkest parts of Tales from Earthsea explore the parts of ourselves that eat at us, make us doubt our goodness or capabilities, and push us to act impulsively in ways that hurt other people. The film interrogates whether anxiety and regret are as much a part of our identities as the parts of ourselves that make us feel confident and good. Arren’s attempts to overcome the dark inner leanings he doesn’t understand, and whose source he can’t seem to discover, are filled with relatable missteps. Early on in the movie, he toys with the idea of taking drugs to skirt past his misery and forget his troubles. The magical drug hazia promises to take away his sorrow and fear, so he’ll never again be forced to deal with the “misery and suffering of this world.”

Young Arryn, having just fatally stabbed his father, clutches the sword he stole from the body in Studio Ghibli’s Tales from Earthsea Image: Studio Ghibli

But while Arren is tempted by the emotional oblivion that hazia offers, Sparrowhawk warns him away. In this scene in particular, the film points a mirror toward the audience, asking how many of us try to outrun the void of anxiety by turning to questionable coping methods, instead of wanting to see out the long journey that might be before us. There’s a risk of interpreting this scene as dismissing the idea of anti-anxiety medication, or antidepressants, but it’s more a warning against trying to disassociate from or cover over feelings, rather than addressing or treating them. It’s meant as a reminder that problems don’t disappear simply if we ignore them. This kind of nod to Buddhist concepts of sitting with one’s demons fully, and without trying to escape, has been explored in other Ghibli films, like Princess Mononoke. The price of magic and power in these films can be high, and the price of selfish choices is just as weighty.

While Tales from Earthsea packs a lot of action into a relatively short period, the film’s real adventure mostly isn’t external. That storm in the beginning is just foreshadowing. The true journey is the one that inevitably follows in the wake of grief — the journey Arren takes inside himself, and the adventure we each embark on when we do something wrong and don’t know how to forgive ourselves. Earthsea shows us that while we might want to escape the pain of regret or discomfort in the moment, soberly examining our choices and the consequences eventually leads to growth. But it requires painful self-questioning and examination.

Although Earthsea shows the tumultuousness of the road to growth and self-acceptance, it does not condemn that journey, or the anxiety that comes with guilt and self-doubt. The message is subtler. The Ghibli film sheds light on the ways exploring and accepting your own behavior is a form of strength that brings balance to the world. This, too, seems to shed light on the specific Buddhist concept of the three poisons — ignorance, attachment, and aversion, which are said to be the primary causes that keep humans trapped in suffering.

A red-eyed white dragon tears by a sailboat in an early scene in Studio Ghibli’s Tales from Earthsea Image: Studio Ghibli

By the end of the movie, the world is once again at peace — not because Arren has defeated his darker self, but because he takes responsibility for his actions and confesses to murdering of the king, even though he knows it was literally the darker version of himself who did it. While that darker self is physically embodied at points throughout the movie, it’s merely a representation of Arren’s worst impulses.

And holding himself accountable for its actions is an overwhelming reminder that redemption and self-acceptance may mean abandoning our preferred self-images, our beliefs about who we wanted to be, or believed we were. Arren eventually learns to live with a more complex version of himself than he originally thought. And in the process, the audience vicariously learns how we, too, might learn to live with a more complex understanding of ourselves — not as good people or bad, but just struggling, suffering, striving humans.


Late-game Animal Crossing advice, and other highlights from this week on Speedrun

Turns out, my ideal island wasn’t so ideal after all. In fact, it wasn’t even close.

It’s a sentiment I’ve seen often, as more and more players reach the so-called “late game” of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. With terraforming unlocked, houses fully upgraded, and K. K. Slider lured into their town squares, they’re asking themselves “What next?” only to learn that there is, in fact, much more to be done.

Look no further than St. Frushia, the evil lair of Russ Frushtick, who came on Speedrun this week to show off his diabolical creations. Not only has he engineered his island to spawn rocks exactly where he wants them — he’s also made a movie set that would satisfy the most hardcore of Moon Landing conspiracy theorists. All it took was the right materials and the patience of a serial killer.

Speaking of games I thought I was done with: Mortal Kombat 11: Aftermath released this week, bringing none other than RoboCop himself to the cast of bloodsport brawlers. To celebrate, I pitted Speedrun’s host Jimmy Mondal against the cyborg on the hardest difficulty. Things did not go well.

Finally, we returned to Dead By Daylight, the cult hit centered on asymmetrical multiplayer modes, to play as Silent Hills Pyramid Head. Jenna Stoeber joined us to talk about the character’s affectionate fandom and the legacy of the series as a whole, all while trying to murder — or not be murdered — in the actual game. It’s a super fun format we plan on doing again as soon as possible.

All in all, this week felt like the calm before the summer storm. With PlayStation 5 news on the way, and The Last of Us Part 2 reviews coming soon after that, it’s as good a time as ever to take stock — to return to the existing games that are more vital than ever, before things get hectic again.

We’ll be back Monday with more Speedrun, and I’ll be back Friday to say hi. See you then.


Watch Martin Scorsese’s new quarantine short film

Martin Scorsese has been busy while in quarantine. He’s been on family Zoom calls, as per his Instagram, but he’s also made a short film, which premiered on Thursday on the BBC’s Lockdown Culture with Mary Beard.

The short, available to view in three parts on Twitter and with a runtime of less than five minutes, is a reflection on life in lockdown. Scorsese weaves in clips of classic movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man and Robert Siodmak’s The Killers as he reflects on his experience being quarantined. “At first, it was a day or so of a kind of relief,” Scorsese says to the camera. “I didn’t have to go anywhere or do anything […] and then, the anxiety set in.”

Scorsese’s ruminations, all recorded on his phone and varying in terms of portrait or landscape orientation, switch between footage of Scorsese himself and of objects around his home, including family vacation photos and window blinds. Scorsese also wonders just when and how production on his new film, Killers of the Flower Moon, will resume, given how much the pandemic is affecting the film industry.

Though very brief, the short film is a fun peek into how a legendary filmmaker is coping with self-isolation, as well as a look at what a Scorsese vlog might be like.

Watch the film below:

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