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The Shelf: JOHN WICK and Three From Studio Ghibli

If last week was a little sparse on the home video front, this week has good stuff by the truckload with the release of one of the best action movies of all time (not even kidding) and three animated features from Japan’s most beloved animation studio, Studio Ghibli. One of these films is an under-appreciated Hayao Miyazai masterpiece, one is his cohort Isao Takahata‘s weirdest, and the third is the debut of his son, Goro Miyazaki. All in all, you guys, it’s a damn fine week to be fans of Blu-ray.

John Wick

A hitman seeks revenge on the criminal organiz– HEARD IT! Jeez, how many movies have been made with that premise? Show me something new! Well, how wrong I was when I passed initial judgment on the plot of John Wick. And on paper, this probably was only slightly more interesting than your average action movie, but what makes it one of the best action movies we’ve seen in forever are the performances and direction. Making their feature directing debut are David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, both veterans of stunt work and second unit shooting, who bring a ferocity and stylishness to all of the film’s many action movies, each one with its own defined look and feel. Wick never does things the same way twice.

As I said, the story is relatively simple: John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a retired hitman living off of his fortune earned from years of killing people. His wife, the love of his life and the reason he left, has recently died of cancer and he’s left despondent and aimless until, via his wife’s last request, a little puppy is delivered to keep John company. One day after a drive in his sweet-ass 1969 Ford Mustang Shelby, a group of Russian punks make an offer on the car, but Wick refuses. They follow him to his house, beat him up, kill the puppy, and steal the car. Wick recovers and is MAD, learning that the Russian punk (Alfie Allen) is actually the son of his former boss (Michael Nyqvist). John Wick was the most feared killer in the whole underworld and the boss knows he has to kill Wick if he wants to save his son. This begins double hunt – Wick hunts down the son while other assassins (including Willem Dafoe and Adrianne Palicki) hunt Wick.

This movie features a few of the finest choreographed “Gun Fu” sequences in all of action cinema, the one in the club being the major standout, which features Wick shooting millions of guys in the head while going through the multi-room, multi-story night spot. The movie also has one of Keanu Reeves’ finest performances, imbuing John Wick with a lot more feeling than you’d think would be necessary, as well as just looking cool as shit in a dark suit. Everybody gets the proper tone with its tongue-in-cheek humor mixed in. Dean Winters, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Lance Reddick, and David Patrick Kelly also make memorable appearances.

The Blu-ray features a directors’ commentary and many featurettes on the making of the film. Well, well worth the purchase.

Porco Rosso

Last year, I did an essay series called Miyazaki Masterclass wherein I reviewed each of Hayao Miyazaki’s eleven feature films. Of those (and I loved almost all of them outright), the one I kept feeling like deserved more praise was his sixth film, the one sat right in between Kiki’s Delivery Service and Princess Mononoke (basically a bridge between his two lightest films and his two darkest films), 1992’s Porco Rosso. It’s one of the most fun, adventurous, and joyful films I think I’ve seen in who knows how long. It’s a gorgeous piece of animation that brings together Miyazaki’s two biggest strengths: aeronautic action and wistful magic.

In the interwar years in the Adriatic Sea, a former WWI ace fighter pilot, who is now an anthropomorphic pig after being cursed nicknamed Porco Rosso (The Red Pig), lives on a beach in Croatia and takes jobs fighting off air pirates for money. When the film opens, Porco defeats a group of pirates led by Mamma Aiuto and then heads to the Hotel Adriano. The hotel is owned by his friend Gina, a woman with whom he once had a romance, but that has fallen away since his cursing. She still has affection for him, of course, pig person or not. The bar in the hotel is a watering hole for a number of pilots in the area, and generally hostilities in the air are left there. However, a new pilot, an American named Curtis, arrives and decides he wants himself a piece of Gina, but is dismayed to learn that she is acquainted with the great and notorious Porco Rosso. The two begin a midair rivalry that is much more about precision in flight than it necessarily is taking each other out. But if Porco is going to win, he’s going to need the help of a new engineer, the young and brilliant granddaughter of his old friend and mechanic. The two strike up a friendship and the airplanes take off.

This is truly one of Miyazaki’s best films and I’m really pleased it’s finally being released on Blu-ray for people to see in glorious HD. While the disc doesn’t have many features, only those released on the original DVD, it’s nevertheless well worth the purchase thanks to what it is and how it nicely splits the two halves of Miyazaki’s canon.

Pom Poko

Like his Studio Ghibli co-founder, Isao Takahata, also makes films that are wholly Japanese. But unlike the more famous filmmaker, Takahata’s films are made about life in Japan, be they in the realm of myth or reality. Grave of the Fireflies is his most famous film, and also one of the saddest animated films ever made. His most recent film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya has been nominated for an Academy Award this year, but easily his weirdest movie is 1994’s Pom Poko, which is so about Japanese folklore and contemporary society in 1990s Japan that I had to do a lot of research about everything involved.

Pom Poko is about a community of Tanuki, which are Japanese raccoon dogs, living near a city whose territory is being slowly infringed upon by the ever-expanding human population. Raccoon dogs, I learned, are a species of canine native to Asia that literally do look like raccoons, in a really creepy away. In folklore, these Tanuki have shape-shifting ability, along with foxes who are known to be wilier and less apt to forget a scheme and have parties. The group of Tanuki all decide they must learn the ancient shape-shifting ways in order to infiltrate the human world to get intel that might help them save their community, lest they go to war like some of the members of the clan want. There’s also apparently a thing where these animals have giant testicles and in the movie they can make their balls grow enormous and bounce on them, like a much later episode of South Park. It’s just the strangest movie of all time.

Tales from Earthsea

Animation runs in the family, and Hayao Miyazaki’s son Goro joined his father in the industry to become a director himself in 2006 with Tales from Earthsea, a fantasy epic based on the novel by Ursula K. Le Guin. Of the three Ghibli releases this week, this film is the most straightforward. Being from a Western novel, the story is just your average young prince meets a wizard story, but being Ghibli, the animation itself looks gorgeous and has unrivaled depiction of movement. Worth checking out, but not up on the same level of distinctiveness as the other two.


Dracula Untold – Universal’s attempt to reboot the famous Bram Stoker character by bringing the historical figure of Vlad the Impaler into it, and make it more of an action movie than a horror movie. Check out all our coverage of the film here.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby – James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain star in this experimental film that was made un-experimental after the festival stage. Read my review/rant here.

Ouija – A terrible horror movie.

Coffee Town – College Humor’s first feature film, it stars Glenn Howerton as a man who works “from home” but uses a local coffee shop as his office, much to the irritation of the shop manager (Josh Groban). Ben Schwartz, Steve Little, and Adrianne Palicki co-star.

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