Credibility for its Incredibility

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It’s petulant of me to be so hung up on the reception of Incredibles 2, which as of this writing has a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and an 80 on Metacritic, as being insufficient to what the movie accomplishes. I have yet to encounter a person who thinks the movie is bad and the worst that I’ve heard is “it’s fine but not as good as the original”. But I do have an inclination of what kind of person is more reserved for their praise for Brad Bird’s sequel to the 2004 animated superhero film The Incredibles and what they look for in movies is frankly different than what I look for.

This is not necessarily to state that the very existent flaws in Incredibles 2 are not to be taken seriously. After all, cinema is to many a storytelling medium first and the sloppiness of Bird’s screenplay in terms of thematic drive and character arc is not nothing. There’s even an explanation for what might have caused such a lapse in narrative delivery: the unofficial story regarding Incredibles 2 taking 14 years to exist is that Bird did not really want to make the movie*. There’s more to the unofficial story, such as the slightly suspicious suggestion that Bird was forced to make the film due to Tomorrowland‘s underperformance (though the screenplay was announced as started a month BEFORE Tomorrowland‘s 2015 premiere). There’s also the official story that Bird was under the impression that he would have one year more of production than he actually got and when Toy Story 4 was pushed back from a release date of 15 June 2018, Incredibles 2 was placed into the empty slot and fast-tracked (Bird has since suggested that he has enough unused material from this motion to make a potential third film, though I doubt he’s in a rush).

So what was Bird able to come up with in that short amount of time? Returning back to the exact spot The Incredibles ended on where the Parr family prepares to face-off against the underground drill driver The Underminer (John Ratzenberger). Strongman patriarch Bob aka Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) is able to cause enough collateral damage during the fight to remind us just why superhero activity was still illegal at the end of the last film, which is just the perfect arena for the telecommunications magnate Deaver siblings to enter – super enthusiast pitch man Winston (Bob Odenkirk) and lackadaisical tech genius Evelyn (Catherine Keener) – and suggest a campaign be done to convince the government legalize superheroics again, picking Bob’s stretch wife Helen aka Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) as its face.

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This takes a definite blow to Bob’s ego as he’s left to the domestic demands of raising three children with their own issues: invisible teenager Violet (Sarah Vowell), speedy Dash (Huck Milner), and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) who is quickly discovered to have a revolving door of powers from flame manipulation to multiplying to laser eyes to dimension hopping to shapeshifting and on and on. It’s apparent Bob does not prove to be as flexible towards house-husband life as Helen did and the presence of a mind-controlling supervillain known as the mysterious Screenslaver taking up most of Helen’s attention means it’s a new world Bob has to traverse alone.

The places Bird’s script goes with this are not very revelatory, including the Screenslaver as an antagonist playing by the recent Walt Disney Animation Studios handbook. There’s a messier handle on communicating whatever themes Incredibles 2 wants to carry, with a lot less incisive commentary on domestic life or its characters (Violet has her own larger conflict that’s part of Bob’s arc, Dash doesn’t really have one except “bad at math”). But it does introduce to us a large amount of superheroes and a bigger world of ramifications than the effective interiority of the first film, effectively scaling upwards in an unwieldy fashion, so the somewhat sloppy manner doesn’t really bother me nearly as much as it should.

Plus, I think the movie is across the board funnier, even when it’s clearly padding the running time with jokes: every scene with Jack-Jack’s now increased role is an absolute delight whether his screen partner is costumer Edna Mode (Bird himself voicing her) or a wily raccoon. There’s a sequence in the middle of the film that’s an obviously bad move on Bob’s part but gives us plenty of cringe humor for Violet. The next generation of superheroes are made up of a variety of gag-ready powers and personalities (including a beautiful exchange regarding the concept of “uncrushing”). Not to say that The Incredibles wasn’t an enjoyable chuckler, but its humor is of a drier sort. This got a whole lot of chesty laughs from yours truly.

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Anyway, if Bird’s disinterest in Incredibles 2 as a project clearly affects the story, it does not affect the actual craft of the film and that’s where the real excitement comes in for yours truly. Pixar, much like any other household animation studio (possibly moreso), has made a name out of slowly improving the technical aspects of their animation. The Incredibles, being an aesthetic particularly based on rejecting photorealism for simple cartoonish character designs and an aesthetic based on 60s pop culture flatness, are a challenge to that ideology and yet Incredibles 2 expands on every single aspect a Pixar film can expand upon: a variety of shot scales, lighting, and image depth explored without losing one inch of the caricaturization of its worlds inhabitants. And it’s certainly not style for style’s sake: a city-sweeping montage set against the Screenslaver’s distorted monologuing earns a gothic noir tone specifically for how the cynicism in its voice plays well with the metropolitan shadows.

A moment followed by the infamous strobe sequence fight scene, which is the unfortunate source of pain for photosensitive viewers but also the moment the film is proudest about Erik Smitt’s lighting, blasting images of dizzying monochrome swirls against silhouettes of action poses, so intensely that it’s hard to imagine it not distressing the viewer in a visceral way, whether or not they suffer from epilepsy. And it’s only one of the many creative action setpieces Bird takes a joy out of constructing. The most popular one: a race to stop a rogue train that brings out all the possible stops for a speeding Elastigirl, looking for new ways to force her contortions and obstacles to make a viewer catch their breath with the speed in which she zips and bends and twists in fluid sweeping wide shots that editor Stephen Schaffer can hardly look away from. It’s a heart-stopping sequence that certainly explains Bob’s egotistical jealousy of his spouse’s capabilities as a superhero, while also establishing that Elastigirl is just so much more fun to watch. My personal favorite is Jack-Jack’s mini Looney Tunes showdown against a raccoon, a kneeslapper distracting us from the primary story arc for a moment yet bouncing as many powers out of a hat as possible for Jack-Jack to get the Raccoon’s eyes wider and wider. Hell, the supporting cast of next-generation superheroes transparently exist to give the Parrs a new source of challenges, particularly Voyd (Sophia Bush) who creates portals that make for interesting antithetical combat to Violet’s force-field defenses.

In general, I think the complaints of those who walked away disappointed and the accolades of others like me who were fascinated with the film come from the same modus operandi: if Bird was going to have to make this movie, he was going to try to make it big. The reason The Incredibles worked so brilliantly as a story was its ability to intimately alternate between its function as superhero tale and domestic drama and Incredibles 2 tries to do that and admittedly fumbles a lot. It can’t accomplish this as smoothly because Bird is interested implying a larger world now: more focus on the worldview of superheroes than how its affects the Parrs, more focus on establishing a gallery of supers rather than giving them the same depth as the Parrs or even family friend Lucius “Frozone” Best (Samuel L. Jackson). But it succeeds at making the world seem wider and promising the potentials of visualizing every single nook and cranie of that world with its craft, filling it with style and bombast. Even Michael Giacchino has found ways to turn his already iconic score into a brand-new snappy soundtrack for the picture (there’s a snare-kick early on during the Underminer bank robbery that got me ready for anything). So if The Incredibles surpasses as a construction of fiction, I still think the choice is clear which movie functions better as popcorn cinema overall and I frankly might go as far to call Incredibles 2 the best Pixar film since Inside Out. Sometimes, more IS more.

*Indeed, this clear reluctance to make Incredibles 2 is a large part of why my expectations for it were pretty low.

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24 FPS

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Until the last breath, it appears that the great Iranian master filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami kept trying to break down the concept of cinema to its very bones. By the time he left us early in July 2016, gone appeared any indication that he was interested in telling a straightforward story (if still constructed in a slightly conventional manner, such as Taste of Cherry or Certified Copy. I have not yet seen Like Someone in Love, but I understand it was the case in this film too). Kiarostami’s reward as a storyteller was to demand the audience’s involvement in creating and piecing together the incident from fragments in no uncertain way from him.

His final feature film 24 Frames premiered almost a year after his death at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and is potentially his most extreme dive into his modus operandi as its premise is simple yet challenging: one by one, 24 static images each held for 4 to 6 minutes. They’re not frozen images, in fact they all mostly involve some impressively complex amount of digital work to give them… well, I don’t want to say life because their actions are consciously robotic especially against a still backdrop, but motion that obviously represents life. And it can’t be ignored that the motion is provided in “natural” forms such of winds and animals inhabiting the environments we spend those small amounts of time in. David Bordwell himself put it beautifully referring to the images as “nature morte” and I can’t think of a succinct way of establishing what we witness in 24 Frames.

Kiarostami doesn’t send us into this experience without warning, as he opens it up with an explanation that 23 of the images we will be sitting in on are based on landscape photographs he himself took and 1 in particular is based on the famous Pieter Brugel’s painting Hunters in the Snow (which also ends up being the frame most augmented by modern filmmaking techniques). And he doesn’t send us into this experiment with intent on making it uncomfortable or alienating: at the very least, the imagery is aesthetically in every possible way as they’re all centered with a sharp sense of lines that is frequently called attention to with a horizon established in some fashion (whether the line in which trees emerge from snow or a stone rail against a beach shore) and depth called attention to with Kiarostami’s powerful use of shadows, like practically hard-drawn artistry. And it’s quite a soothing lulling thing to listen to, composing a rhythm out of the sounds of whatever environments we’re dropped into so that we’re hypnotized into sinking into a frame rather than simply observing it, mostly pleasant with one exception – a frame where we are listening to a sinister droning relentlessly scoring a deer’s uncertainty before it’s punctuated by a violent crack.

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Which leads to the other thing that makes 24 Frames a much easier watch than I’d suppose it could have been: the digital reconstruction of the images Kiarostami wanted to bring to life also lead him to construct a story within each frame so that we’re not just sitting waiting for the next image but instead have a sense of direction. Not every one of the frames necessarily has a “beginning”, but they all have some punchline in which the cut to the next frame is not far behind like the orgasm of a lion or the flight of birds into the air (and at the very least, there are occasional interior shots specifically scored by a opera or orchestral song from a radio or record that furthers the concept of domestic respite after exploring images of the wild, so one can expect the end of the song to end the frame).

I feel there is an angle on which this could be seen as “cheating the experiment”, an attitude I’m not quite sure whether I adopt or not (though I sure it’s not as bad as I make it sound), but that begs me to recognize what the experiment is: Kiarostami is not only expecting us to determine what is the narrative in between the images, but also examine our personal ways of processing a series of images without any established guide to connect them in our minds. 24 Frames‘s ordering of each section isn’t random by any means – beginning with the Hunters segment to indicate towards us what to expect while making us be aware of the artificiality of the movements utilizing one of the most famous works in all of fine art, then establishing a pattern of sorts that uses images that favor windowed perspectives as checkpoints between alternating between the beach, the rain, the snow, the birds, and the quadrupeds, sometimes in combinations of each other. I can’t help imagining while every decision Kiarostami makes on which frame goes after which and what goes on in each on is deliberate, 24 Frames is meant to be an entirely subjective experience for the viewer to read the fragments of a story and input their own in between the shots.

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Obviously because it’s so well made, 24 Frames also could abide by us deciding not to create a narrative for the film and just relaxing within the landscapes Kiarostami captured for one last document. Nothing particularly about the film punishes us for not wanting to play along except perhaps the totally unconvincing manner in which the animals and weather conditions populate the images so that Kiarostami can make sure we’re aware that the cinema’s artifice is just as false as its narrative. But it’s of such a playful good faith sort of giveaway – the way you can tell a Harryhausen creation is obviously an effect but still will play along – that I can’t imagine the sort of viewer who could take umbrage at it, not when the result is still so dazzling. I mean, a movie about images that specifically takes time to return to looking out of windows has to already make you aware that you’re watching a frame within a frame literally.

Besides which 24 Frames as a final collection of all the things Kiarostami loved to do with movies – break narrative, break images, inject poetry, collaborate with the audience – is also a final document of Kiarostami’s pleasant sense of humor, particularly with its final frame, obnoxiously slowing down a television monitor while the rest of the image moves at normal speed until we can get one last gag that seems like a very sweet farewell, whether or not Kiarostami knew he was going to die or intended to continue after this film. The very last moment of 24 Frames is a winking knowing gesture that an artist could only accomplish by sharing it with a willing viewer.

P.S. Tim Brayton has suggested that Kiarostami’s preceding short film Take Me Home makes for an effective companion piece to 24 Frames and argued for it in his review of this film. I have not had the privilege but I hope above hopes that the short ends up on the feature’s inevitable Criterion collection release so I can see the pairing in action.

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Les Incroyables!

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Out of the four animated pictures Brad Bird wrote and directed, The IncrediblesThe Incredibles is my least favorite. But of course, Brad Bird is of an incredible (pun not intended) animation case where every single film he directed could fit a favorite spot for anybody and not get a blink from me.* Although, one has to admit it took the world maybe a tiny while to recognize that, as his masterful directorial debut The Iron Giant was a massive box office as a suspected result of Warner Bros. Feature Animation failing to market the film after clashing with Bird and trying to force him to add more “marketability” to it. Clearly that experience embittered Bird enough to take his ball and go to Pixar Animation Studios – then already earning its brand recognition as the high water-mark for contemporary animated storytelling – where he already had a friend in co-founder John Lasseter from their education at CalArts.

That ball happened to be a pitch on a domestic drama between a family of superheroes developing personal anxieties, developed by Bird to eventually become the full concept of a post-superhero society outlawing the superpowered crime-fighters for their collateral damage and the family’s attempts to conform into a mundane suburban existance with their relocation and government-mandated identities. And that family is the Parrs: made up of cocky child speedster “Dash”iell (Spencer Fox), teenage invisibility-and-force-field-capable outsider Violet (Sarah Vowell), stretchable housewife worn thin Helen (Holly Hunter), strongman Bob (Craig T. Nelson) whose weakness is midlife crisis, and baby Jack-Jack to round it off. The character and family metaphor behind all of their powers is impossible to miss, but it’s certainly not 2-dimensional. Their home life is in fact the very core of the narrative and grants it thematic richness, especially in terms of Bob’s painful nostalgia for old times and Helen having to deal with it. Back in the day, Bob and Helen were among apparently beloved superheroes, the two of them known as Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl respectively. And we’re introduced to this and other facts in an opening sequence that’s a rolling Rube Goldberg machine of setpiece after setpiece (with subtle expositional setups) while Mr. Incredible keeps himself busy with non-stop crises just before a big night, just before Bird masterfully brings the momentum to a screeching halt as the government pulls its shutdown in comedic black-and-white newsreels slowing us down to see the dead-eyed Bob fifteen years later with the story proper.

When it first came out in 2004, we just at the very cusp of superheroes carving out their own reserved spot in the annual cinematic discussion. They had an increased presence in the wake of the X-Men and Spider-Man successes, but we weren’t yet at the post-2008 surge into a pop culture environment where superheroes have now become an overwhelmingly permanent fixture on mainstream cinema. Back then, The Incredibles had earned the immediate fanfare that Bird desired from audiences and critics, generally considering it to be just another knock-out in Pixar’s early run of masterworks, but that doesn’t acknowledge what’s most fascinating about The Incredibles as a project was how distinguishable it was from the rest of Pixar’s output at the time.

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Not least of which in the visual design of the film, with Bird already coming to the studio with a conceit of the movie taking place in a world reminiscent of the 1960s and having Lou Romano and Ralph Eggleston give us a world of sleek shape-based metropolises that embody the pop art of that long-gone era of the idealized nuclear family, right down to Tony Fucile and Teddy Newton’s character designs. In general, the ending credits of the incredibles have a bold “POW” to its aesthetic that works as a cheatsheet to what the movie was going for, but those are flat silhouettes against the brilliant dimension given to the solid-block-without-feeling-blocky human beings (thanks also to some wise lighting conceits like a whole lava dining room demanding fiery chiaroscuro close-ups and silhouette wide-shots).

They look like comic strip illustrations that are given definition simply by the fact that they are 3-dimensional, like Mr. Incredible’s linear jawline and exaggerated torso. It’s a precursor to the later Lasseter-era Walt Disney Animation Studios CG films of the 2010s and a boon to the animated format Bird indulges in for this movie considering how it dives headfirst into the idea of being a cartoon than anything else Pixar made to that point. Pixar’s preceding release for instance, Finding Nemo, came bragging (very deservedly) about the photorealism of its water animation even if (very textured) cartoon fish were inhabiting that ocean. There is no room for photorealism in The Incredibles, the aesthetic wants to simplify everything from the trees to the cars to the chairs (and yet still finding room to make a costume designer’s home extravagant). And it’s because of that simplicity, the way it looks dynamic without demanding much from the eye, that The Incredibles feels like it held up the best out of any of pre-2010s movies. It certainly has a few shots (mostly moving or involving background “extras”) that feel paper-thin but it mostly retains the same sort of power 14 years since its release.

It’s not just mood and tone that the craftsmanship of The Incredibles gives to itself, it’s also strong storytelling. Despite the bright red tights of the family zipping through the exotic volcano location with futuristic Bond villain lair for a good part of the second half of its efficient 115-minute runtime, most of the first 45 minutes mutes its colors to zombie greys and whites for his insurance office or unexciting browns and faded greens for the Parr household. The very difference in energy once Mr. Incredible sets off on an hired adventure that the rest of his family must confront/rescue him about is night and day, mirrored by the climax of the family’s tense relationships with each other before they find themselves working together.

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And it’s not just visually, Michael Giacchino’s feature breakout as a composer yielded one of the most beloved Pixar scores, a blasting fun John Barry homage (Barry originally being offered the part) informing the pulp attitudes of its adventures and the mysterious element of Bob’s early attempts to keep his superheroing secret from his family, but it’s not even present for much of the first half save for a perilous attempt at reliving the glory days with partner-in-crimefighting Lucius “Frozone” Best (Samuel L. Jackson), until the secretive Mirage (Elizabeth Peña) approaches him with an assignment and the music begins whispering dreams of valiance building until up to the full bombast of the rest of the score. And the Oscar-winning sound design like-wise just fills the florid island environment within which the Incredibles chase and battle with the expected bird calls and forest brushes and alarming gunshots, but the powers of the children in particular get this unreal quality of quick pitter-patter for Dash’s speed (met in one brilliant surpise with a xylophone cue that may be my favorite moment in Giacchino’s score) and Violet’s force-fields augment and distort the dialogue taking place within them with a flanged muffle.

My word, The Incredibles is such a fully-realized work of art that I find it impossible to find elements not to exhaust regarding it, barely having time to recognize the A-game of the entire voice cast with some playing to their expected strengths (Hunter, Peña, Jason Lee as a role I feel like describing in detail would be a spoiler even for a movie this old) and some filling side-lined characters with charisma (Jackson and Bird himself as the superhero’s tailor Edna Mode). Or unpacking the further observations it makes about government or society, including the film’s infamous skirting with Objectivism (though Bird claims it was unintentional, I find the reading valid though I can’t say I consider The Incredibles to be Randian). There are so many angles to look at The Incredibles for and almost all of them are ones that demand your admiration that when I call back to the opening of this review acknowledging it is my least favorite of Bird’s animated features, I hope my enthusiasm for it illustrates just how much further we have witnessed Bird ascend.

*Ideally from anybody, but it seems like Incredibles 2 is sadly getting a very muted dismissal as “good but not as good”. Watch this space later for me to get back to that. And the general consensus appears to be that all four animated projects are superior to Bird’s two live-action films, the phenomenal Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and the forgettable Tomorrowland.

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You Can Check Out Anytime You Like, But You Can Never Leave

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Hotel Artemis is not the sort of movie I’d like it to be and it becomes a lot less of that sort of movie the more it progresses on. And yet, there’s nothing about Hotel Artemis I can call outright bad. On the contrary, it is one of the earliest joys I’ve had of what is turning out to be a surprisingly great summer. It’s just very clear that writer-director Drew Pearce – making his feature directorial debut after writing credits for Iron Man 3 and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – had a different idea of the potentials of the plot hook than I did and I don’t think what he does is much more interesting. No matter, he does what he wants to very well.

What that plot hook is: Based deep in 2028 Los Angeles with legendary secrecy (despite a hilariously eye-catching neon sign on the roof of its building), the Hotel Artemis is run by a very frazzled and agoraphobic nurse (Jodie Foster) as a penthouse medical refuge for criminals of several varieties, with the only other major staff member being her burly bruiser of an assistant, Everest (Dave Bautista). And from here, the concept could easily lend itself to a shaggy treatment at mundanity to the extraordinary premise – certainly one I would think in high demand from the popularity of the John Wick franchises’ Continental line – with a revolving door of in-patients bringing their own troubled stories without much interaction between them, but Drew Pearce has decided to things in a much more straightforward narrative line where the pieces are specifically arranged to have a large consequence by the end of the movie.

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Indeed, we end up visiting the Artemis during one of the most volatile times in recent L.A. history as a riot rages on its streets and that violence threatens to break into the walls of the Artemis itself. Indeed, it’s already inhabited by a French assassin and a weary bank robber who have a tense romantic history, going by the codenames of their rooms: Nice (Sofia Boutella) and Waikiki (Sterling K. Brown), respectively. Nice is in the Artemis for a purpose she’s keeping close to the chest while Waikiki’s wounded cohort brother Honolulu (Bryan Tyree Henry) has inadvertently threatened their lives by robbing a courier’s pen holding treasures that belong to the powerful and dangerous Wolf King of Los Angeles (Jeff Goldblum in a reveal that would have packed much more punch if the trailer and poster had not already spoiled it), who we learn has a more petulantly aggressive son named Crosby (Zachary Quinto). And just in general, spoiling all the fun is an obnoxious misogynistic arms dealer codenamed Acapulco (Charlie Day), not really having much stake in what occurs but derailing things just by sticking his nose in where it doesn’t belong and spitting harsh words towards anybody who enters the same room as him.

Early on, we see how easily the Nurse keeps herself from being rattled from these sort of complications she considers routine to the 22 years she’s spent there – a personal soundtrack (“California Dreamin'” makes an early appearance and if there is a third element to make The Mamas and the Papas references hat trick, I missed it) as she preps areas and a confident reliance on strict rules, like no guns, no non-members, no insulting the staff, no killing the other patients and some others, all enforced sternly by Everest. But as we can quickly discern, Hotel Artemis is set on a day when all the rules are about to be broken, some of them in ways the Nurse was not expecting. Drew Pearce does a very solid job keeping all the pieces moving towards the climax he was aiming for with the help of Paul Zucker and Gardner Gould’s snappy cutting bouncing in between rooms treating each one as its own narrative, resulting in a well-constructed boil where these characters each with their own pressures end up responding to those pressures in turbulent fashion. There are certain plot threads that come back full circle and some that don’t, but it’s a tight enough script that every development feels like a threat and those that don’t blow up in the characters’ face feel like a result of their smart decisions or a manner of coincidence that Pearce sells.

And what makes it work just as well as Pearce would like it to is a cast that doesn’t seem to have a single false note within them. Certainly, the grand majority of them are simplistic archetypes like Boutella’s femme fatale, Bautista’s cynical tough guy with a heart of gold and three different flavors of hot-headed wreck between Henry, Day, and Quinto (five if you include early cameos by Kenneth Choi and Father John Misty), but they all play those archetypes like a fiddle and everybody has tremendous timing with each other. I’m pretty sure there’s only a single scene shared between Bautista and Day where they share one line each and it’s effortless how perfectly the characters get on each other’s bad side. In any case, it does feel like the film is aware the only characters that actually have dynamic to them are Waikiki and The Nurse and the decisions Pearce makes for the third act are very aware of this, so it’s not a surprise that Foster gives the best performance in the movie (Brown and Goldblum battle for second place for me), playing the Nurse as a bundle of nerves who attempts at professionalism are the only think keeping her from breaking down. It’s clear early on all suppressed emotions that take beat by beat to let her guard wear itself out – once again Zucker and Gould do marvels of blunting this by cutting in blown-up memories of a beach – and it’s no surprise that we’ll learn all about what pains The Nurse by the end of the film.

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And yet all of this waxing about how well put-together Hotel Artemis is as a shallow but fun diversion narratively without acknowledging the most important character, the Artemis itself. Production Designer Ramsey Avery crafts two entirely different worlds where the outside of the building is graffiti’d rubble on flaming streets signaling the world’s collapsed while on the inside, the Artemis’ carpeted walls and aged bronze suggesting it’s merely on the way out with cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon lighting and coloring the screen with a melancholy whiskey brown darkness to both suggest Everest should probably change the light bulbs soon and that the Artemis belongs to a time long gone. Chung’s framing also favors the remnants of class respite that doesn’t seem to exist anymore except in nostalgic memories, like the mirrored bar taking up the majority of space for Waikiki and Nice’s discussion in it or Waikiki brandishing a gun in the smallest corner of a shot that is mostly a Hawaiian greeting card. Despite being inhabited by smooth plastic white screens and machines reminding us that the future’s already invaded, the characters of Hotel Artemis mostly yearn stylistically for an age long before any of them were ideally born (I can’t imagine these characters being older than a single digit age during the 1960s and 70s that the film tries to emulate), perhaps best embodied in Lisa Lovaas’ costume design for the Wolf King like some affluent Long Island vacationer, complete with leather sandals.

So, it’s a good time that wraps itself up a bit too neatly for my tastes (I would love to see a further series on how the Artemis continues on, but the box office take doesn’t seem to promise a franchise) and is a bit too dedicated to providing a full-on narrative than to live in the world Pearce and his crew have invented. That’s fine. I still don’t have any trouble recognizing that my disappointment at its approach is outmatched by the thrill I had with its trashy thriller sensibilities. Hotel Artemis is not devoid of issues but it seems to survive them just as easily as its namesake survives a night of in-patients and out-patients.

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Raccoon City

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Out of probably any other movie in all of Studio Ghibli’s canon, Pom Poko is probably the one most likely to be lost in translation between its Japanese audience and its international audiences. It all starts from the very U.S. title, which one would assume is supposed to the translation to something but is quite frankly just an onomatopoeia representing the sound a tanuki’s belly makes when it is beat. And when we reel back to the superior Japanese title 平成狸合戦ぽんぽこ and give it a literal translation, it goes Heisei-Era Tanuki War Ponpoko, a great epic mouthful helps settle the concept of this decade-spanning story being an ancient historical record for an intense period of time, treated the same manner as those feudal eras in Japanese history and narrated with period-based verve by Shinchou Kokontei.

Which is a charming joke because Heisei-Era is what Takahata Isao was living in when he was writing and directing Pom Poko and it’s an era we’re still living in today based on which Emperor is currently in the Chrysanthemum Throne, currently Akihito*. And it would be easy to tell even without that title, from all the modernized elements of Pom Poko‘s cities that make for one side of its conflict, that it’s taking place in a time of aggressive industrial growth… one that intrudes and interrupts on the lives of our tanuki protagonists.

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And in the tanuki is another thing that’s been lost in translation regarding Pom Poko‘s release on the other side of the Pacific, as they are a species indigenous specifically to East Asia and most especially prevalent in Japanese folklore. And because of their lack of presence in the west, Disney saw fit to decide to simply identify them as “raccoons” for the U.S. release, either because “raccoon dogs” (a closer approximation) is too much or they don’t realize that some kids will easily call those creatures tanuki without skipping a beat**. That Japanese folklore is the basis of their characterization in Takahata’s script where they are magical and agreeably mischievous, capable of shape-shifting and utilizing their expandable testicles as tools. I’m not sure if their tribalism early in the film or their traditionalist practices throughout are also rooted in folklore, but it nevertheless ends up becoming the very crux of the tanuki’s struggles from the moment where stern matriarchal Oroku (Kiyokawa Nijiko) interrupts the opening battle between two tribes over an already shrinking piece of land within the Tama Hills of Tokyo and insists that the tanuki unite and battle the humans.

In a world that is progressing beyond old means and attempting to optimize every square inch of itself, reverence towards culture is being muted. At least, that’s in the abstract sense. In a literal sense, the forests and nature in which the tanuki have thrived and made their home is being imposed upon by construction expanding the nearby cities. And so the tanuki spend the entirety of the film utilizing every possible trick in their arsenal to try to save their livelihood and resources. It’s pretty easy to assume that the ideal viewer will take this conflict seriously, but Pom Poko especially wants it to be understood how epic and desperate the stakes are for the tanuki so as to recognize the gravity of moments such as when tanuki use their testicles to cause apparently fatal car crashes or the wise elders of the resistance end up putting their future generations through grueling practices to continue the year-spanning fight.

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And Takahata certainly does well enough to establish that the Hills are worth the battle, how sacred they are to the tanuki, the casual flippancy with which the humans are attempting to occupy it in a dismissively utilitarian way. The Hills, when portrayed in robust abundant greens, are serene and tranquil before the imminent intrusion of noisy construction vehicles smashing through. The scale of certain scenes marry themselves to the tanuki’s perspective but the narrative is fluid enough for us to join the humans’ wonder at moments where the tanukis go all in on their powers of illusion. Like a parade of ghosts, demons, and spooks that’s the most eye-catching part of the entire movie. Or the grand finale of the film, responding to the melancholic and inevitable result of this fight with a warm look at the land the tanuki fight to preserve, which have now slowly muted into rustic but unlively browns as the movie has progressed, with enough persuasive power behind rich arbor to shift the ending note to an unexpected bittersweet place.

Anyway, this is not by any means a joyless film despite that intensity and lack of subtlety in its environmentalism. The music by Japanese band Shang Shang Typhoon is a bouncy flutey source of fun, giving the conflict a wild lack of edge without deflating the seriousness and updating on traditional-sounding motifs. And, like Takahata would as an animation director, he’s playing with a function of the medium and this time around focusing particularly on shifting the designs of the tanuki themselves (being creatures that lend themselves such a dynamic through their shape-shifting ability even when they don’t disguise themselves as humans) in three separate styles, depending on the tone or point of view of a moment.

The most amicable of these designs is a round cartoonish bipedal look of them when happiest or laziest or just plain knocked out, used for comedic punctuation and inspired by the work of Sugiura Shigeru.

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The most common-form was more detailed anthropomorphic forms with tufts of fur resembling hair and a more grizzled rough and patchy edge to imply wear to their bodily coats. Just enough information to feel complete and whole, but also broad enough to not lose a sense of humor.

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And then, there’s the most aggressive and realistic manner – usually used in direct contact with the humans – where they are reverted to much more detailed quadruped animals, inarticulately growling or standing in headlights.

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Takahata’s deft control between the demands of each scene are probably what sells the nuance behind this bleeding-hearted appeal for humanity to preserve the generosity of nature while recognizing the inevitability of change and the necessity for mankind to grow. It’s essentially a lot better at selling the complexity of the situation than Miyazaki Hayao’s much admired conservationist more straightlaced jidaigeki Princess Mononoke, which leads to an enlightened desire to sell progress and reverence in the same breath. And in that approach towards Pom Poko, it’s clear that Takahata was easy to admire alongside his long-time friend not only on account of his fluid aesthetic decisions but also on account of honest humanity towards all areas of life.

*Akihito has expressed an interest in abdicating next year thus ending Heisei jidai.
**I am certainly not helping with that review title but you have no idea how long I tried to figure out a pun to “tanuki” before giving up.

And because I am me, I could hardly live with myself if I didn’t drop a DEEZ NUTZ!

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Girlhood

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If you’re ever dealing with somebody pretends misogyny doesn’t exist in the film industry and somehow reminding them that Blue Valentine got an NC-17 rating over the fact that women can get orally pleasured doesn’t convince, consider explaining this to them: Takahata Isao’s second directorial film for the now-in-full-force Studio Ghibli (and 7th film overall, roughly if you consider the Panda Go Panda shorts one whole feature), Only Yesterday, took almost 15 fucking years to get a U.S. theatrical release despite being among the many films purchased by Disney in their landmark 1996 deal with the animation studio. It received only one quick television broadcast in 2006.

The reason being that apparently Disney was unwilling to release a film that featured scenes where girls learn about and deal with menstruation, while they were legally contracted not to edit any of the Ghibli films they purchase*. Meanwhile, Takahata’s next film Pom Poko got released in the US with scenes revolving around big-balled raccoons.

Oh well. Their loss because Only Yesterday stands tall as a masterpiece in Studio Ghibli’s history. Although without the benefit of hindsight, it might have looked as though Takahata Isao was not taking as many risks as one would associate him with.

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For like Grave of the FirefliesOnly Yesterday is based on autobiographical material on the part of Okamoto Hotaru, who co-wrote with Tone Yuko the manga source おもひでぽろぽろ (Memories Come Tumbling Down, the title which this film released under in Japan). And again like Grave of the Fireflies, the main focus of the story happens to be the childhood memories of human characters. Not entirely however, as Okamoto and Tone’s series was strictly focused on a year in the life of ten-year-old Taeko (Honna Youko) while Takahata’s screenplay takes the liberty of framing it from the perspective of a now-27-year-old Taeko (Imai Miki) as she takes a break from her office job in Tokyo to head down to the countryside of Yamagata to help her sisters’ in-laws harvest safflower. And it feels like the flashbacks embedded the adult storyline take Taeko aback just as much as they had to have taken the authors of this film aback, but there’s a connective tapestry between the two stories that re-frames everything as look on how our younger origins and yearnings inform the personality and decisions we might make in our later lives even if we don’t realize it until after the fact.

We learn almost immediately that Taeko’s desire to visit and be part of the country life came from an early life where her family was unable to acquiesce to her desire to take a school vacation out of the city, ostensibly because they had nobody they knew in the area. And I would say “that’s it” as far as how those memories tumbling down end up connecting to WHY Taeko is going to Yamagata and yet they do so much more to shape her personality in a manner that never fails to progress the story in some way: it’s almost Tarantino-esque how a scenario or tale adult Taeko is going through or talking about during her stay opens up to an episode of kid Taeko’s time, except it calls the least amount of attention to itself that a movie can while including the line “I didn’t intend for the ten-year-old me to come along on this trip”. It’s essentially the brain’s free association as a narrative structure. It’s smooth and organic and the lack of escalating incident for the movie beyond a late romantic development doesn’t make Only Yesterday feel the strained in the slightest.

There’s also how exciting the film is visually, like all of Takahata’s other films, without flaunting it the same way that his later films would turn out to be. In fact, the development of Takahata’s style between Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday is incredibly subtle, but I’d argue nested in the lines and colors of Only Yesterday is the genesis of all the habits stylistic that Takahata would spend the rest of his life exploring. And those habits are embedded in the distinct designs of each timeline.

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The one that would probably catch a viewer’s eye at first glance is the faces: the faces of adult Taeko’s storyline have more defined cheeks while childhood Taeko’s storyline has a flatter cartoon shape. Not too flat, mind you, just enough to really call attention to the dimension in the adult storyline (established to be the present as far narrative perspective is concerned). And Only Yesterday is very proud of those muscles: the first shot that introduces us to Taeko is her smiling loud enough for dimples and the film is more than happy to give her or one of her farming guides Toshio (Yanagiba Toshiro) scenarios where they smile and flex those faces.

Not that young Taeko doesn’t also have scenes to show off character designs, namely in moments of bliss were her eyes expand into starry happiness like talking to a crush or entertaining a future as an actress. And her reactions to her situations are more cartoon exaggerations, including a moment of her face constantly morphing to appalled looks when teased during the infamous period storyline. In general, the whole aesthetic of the storyline allow for more fantastical freedom – both of those blissful moments are given moments of big rainbows and literal flights of fancy – and while I’m not sure how close that is to the aesthetic of the mange itself, I’m glad Takahata and his crew found a space to use as a playground. It’s interesting to see how these fantasies play in the mind of adult Taeko, as we witness her quote her meeting with childhood crush Hirota (Masuda Yuki) and roll around in bed in happiness.

The other big trademark of Takahata is his exploration of using the blank white empty areas of the canvas to translate a narrative mood. Out of the three movies where he exercises this, he never uses them for the same purpose. In Only Yesterday‘s case, it’s solely applied to the 5th grade timeline where the backdrops are constantly fading at the edges, as though the memory is only barely grasped to and the locations (constantly in the most transparent watercolors) aren’t really being regarded by Taeko, only the event in question. It’s a distant look into the past that the film constantly calls attention to, including a shot where the image pulls away from us to fill the frame with more and more white until I leave the shot altogether and return the present, like an awakening. And yet that distance doesn’t prevent the flashbacks from having a pleasant nostalgia to them in the way of their soft colors and designs, much more pleasant and relaxed to look at than the full information of the adult timeline.

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And the adult timeline nevertheless keeps itself busy with landscapes of rural life: farms and fields and rivers abound in lush, full tones. It is clear that while Miyazaki Hayao was probably the most famously environmentalist of the two within Studio Ghibli, that attitude rubbed off very much on his friend Takahata with all the bright colors of the safflowers being picked (remarked by the narration consciously) and one majestic shot where we slowly witness morning sunlight landing on the workers of the safflower field (this is a very patient film despite never feeling slow, using spans of silence for atmosphere). Toshio mentions it’s important to be ecstatic about your work as his motivation for becoming a farmer and it shows that Takahata believed in that philosophy and wanted it to be prevalent throughout Only Yesterday: the harvest and the green and the dye and the lands are wonderful to be around and we get Taeko’s ecstasy at being able to accomplish her childhood dreams and her fascination with this world.

Which is a pleasant attitude that fuels all of Only Yesterday‘s breeziness, aided wonderfully by Hoshi Katsu’s graceful musical score and adult performances that sound like they’re emerging out of smiles. Obviously, Only Yesterday isn’t all pleasantries when it’s rooted in the turbulence of growing up, but the confusion from those memories simply prove to strengthen Taeko’s feeling of agency in the present and her wisdom, feelings that Takahata translates to us efficiently. Sure, Only Yesterday is probably the least radical film in his arsenal, but it’s also his most unassuming and confident about its own perfection.

*There is a famous legend regarding this clause where Suzuki Toshio or Miyazaki Hayao – depending on who’s telling the story – mailed Harvey Weinstein a katana with a note reading “no cuts” in response to Weinstein’s desire to re-edit Princess Mononoke for U.S. release.

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