SCREEN TIME: ‘The Boy and the Heron’ spirits audiences away
Animation maestro Hayao Miyazaki takes one more flight of fancy
We can be grateful that Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement didn’t stick. The legendary Japanese animator and Studio Ghibli co-founder announced in 2013 that his final film would be The Wind Rises. Miyazaki’s elegiac account of an aviation engineer seemed like a suitable career capstone for the flight-obsessed filmmaker. But I like to imagine Miyazaki a few months into retirement, puttering around his home and then exclaiming “Wait! I forgot to make a masterpiece about birds!”
Opening Dec. 8 in the United States, The Boy and the Heron isn’t just for the birds, but both a magical quest and an emotional journey for its young protagonist. As one would expect from the director of Spirited Away and other landmarks in animation, The Boy and the Heron is a film of remarkable richness, balancing wild imagination with subtle insights into human behavior.
Mahito is possibly Miyazaki’s saddest and most damaged hero, still grieving his mother’s death in a Tokyo hospital fire in the nightmarish prologue. A year later, his father moves them to a large country house, where Mahito rejects the kindness of his new stepmother. Early on, Mahito strikes himself in the head with a rock to avoid school, so for most of the film he has a partially shaved head wrapped with a large bandage, representing both his wounded soul and his stubborn determination.
Mahito realizes that he’s being watched by a mysterious heron who unexpectedly reveals the ability to talk (voiced by Robert Pattinson in the film’s English-language dub). One of Miyazaki’s most memorable characters, the heron has elegant design and movements that belie his coarse, untrustworthy personality. When Mahito’s stepmother goes missing, the titular boy and the heron become extremely reluctant partners on a mission to find her in the spirit world.
Despite the downbeat premise, The Boy and the Heron includes whimsical delights, like the seven old ladies who work on the estate and offer an obvious wink and Disney’s seven dwarfs. The film’s weirder, wilder creations include hulking, man-sized parakeets who clutch meat cleavers and prove both comical and menacing. Miyazaki keeps bringing The Boy and the Heron back to themes of grappling with mortality and legacy to find inner peace. The film’s Japanese title, How Do You Live? indicates the concerns of the 82 year-old filmmaker.
While the storyline has parallels to Spirited Away, in some ways it feels closer akin to Howl’s Moving Castle. The 2004 antiwar fantasy showed a tendency to introduce more mind-blowing ideas than the audience could absorb. Heron similarly throws in new characters and concepts up to the minute, such as a Parakeet King (voiced by Dave Bautista), who plays an unexpectedly pivotal role for such a late arrival.
Howl and Heron both can feel overstuffed, but that may be deliberate on Miyazaki’s part, as if he’s more interested in creating an emotional experience for the viewer than a logical one. Perhaps, after making films for decades, he has confidence that viewers can keep up with him without hand-holding. The director has hinted that he has another film in him, but even if The Boy and the Heron is his last film, it makes a great swan song.
If fans of Atlanta’s Dad’s Garage ever hoped the comedy-oriented theater would make a feature film, How to Ruin the Holidays might offer the next best thing. Former artistic director Kevin Gillese produced and wrote the screenplay, which stars his wife (and Dad’s mainstay) Amber Nash and faces familiar to the theater, including frequent guest Colin Mochrie and the late Tommy Futch.
Now available on VOD, How to Ruin the Holidays initially seems like a potential spoof of the Hallmark Channel’s spate of Christmas movies. Nash plays a career woman in the big city who returns home to reconnect to her family and the spirit of the season. While Holidays has a similarly bright gloss, the script aims for something darker and more personal than Hallmark’s output. Nash plays a sardonic struggling actor who unwillingly flies from Los Angeles to Atlanta to deal with her mentally addled father (Mochrie) and her developmentally delayed brother (Luke Davis), neither of whom seem fully able to care for themselves.
Ruin gets plenty of comedic mileage from Nash’s simmering irritability and Mochrie’s deft shifts from slapstick to sensitivity. How to Ruin the Holidays doesn’t always hit the heights of humor that one might expect, but it reaches some surprisingly sentimental conclusions that don’t betray its cynical streak. Holidays comes by its hugs honestly.
Poor Things — In this sexually frank, darkly comedic riff on Frankenstein, Emma Stone plays a young Victorian woman brought back to life after her suicide who embarks on a journey of liberation. Provocative director Yorgos Lanthimos helms a cast that includes Mark Ruffalo and Willem Dafoe. — Curt Holman
Opens Fri., Nov 10. Atlanta area theaters.
A Christmas Story — Don’t put your eye out enjoying the 40th anniversary of the beloved Yuletide comedy about a boy who wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Director Bob Clark’s diverse career includes Porky’s and Black Christmas, for different types of nostalgia and holiday trauma, respectively.
Sun, Dec. 10 and Wed., Dec. 13. Atlanta area theaters. fathomevents.com/events
Peeping Tom — Released the same year as Psycho, this English psychological thriller nearly destroyed the career of director Michael Powell but has since been reclaimed as a horror classic.
Tue., Dec. 5. Tara Theatre, 2345 Cheshire Bridge Rd. NE, Atlanta, 30324. taraatlanta.com
Carol — A soft-spoken shop girl (Rooney Mara) begins a fraught flirtation with a stylish socialite (Cate Blanchett) in the 1950s. Wussy Art House presents this screening of director Todd Haynes’ Christmas-set 2015 classic that combines swoony romance with film noir intrigue — Curt Holman
7:30 p.m. Thu., Dec. 14. Tara Theatre, 2345 Cheshire Bridge Rd. NE, Atlanta, 30324. taraatlanta.com
Wonka — This prequel to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory casts Timothée Chalamet as a winsome chocolatier struggling to succeed. While the premise sounds iffy, writer-director Paul King helmed the delightful Paddington movies, so perhaps this will be more than just eye candy. — Curt Holman
Opens Fri., Dec. 15. Atlanta area theaters
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation — Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) attempts to host the perfect Christmas for his family, only to be dismayed as his plans go wrong. The holiday hook gives this 1989 release the most staying power in the Vacation comedy franchise. — Curt Holman
7 p.m. Wed., Dec. 20. The Springs Cinema & Taphouse, 5920 Roswell Rd., Sandy Springs, GA 30328. springscinema.com
Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom — Unlikely king of the Atlantic Arthur Curry (Jason Mamoa) must team up with his villainous brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) to stop a monstrous threat. The previous film made more than $1 billion and director James Wan returns to the helm: can the Aquaman sequel break the 2023 losing streak of DC comic book films?
Opens Fri., Dec. 22. Atlanta area theaters.
The Color Purple — In 2004, Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre produced the world premiere of the musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel (previously adapted for the screen by Steven Spielberg in 1985). The film version of the stage musical stars Fantasia Barrino as Celie and features Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, H.E.R. and Colman Domingo.
Opens Mon., Dec. 25. Atlanta area theaters.