L.O.L. – ¡Loser on Line! (Hate the Player, Hate the Game)

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So I can’t figure out if it would be more ethical to lay out my problems with the concept of Ready Player One on the floor now or to keep them to myself and pretend I’m not entering the movie with any pre-existing biases and I just figure I may as well come clean so whoever wants a shining review (pun unintended) will be let down easy.

I have never read Ernest Cline’s original novel of which Zak Penn based his screenplay on, but from what I understand of it (and Cline) it sounds shallow and emblematic of everything I am unimpressed with regarding “nostalgia as token” storytelling, especially 1980s nostalgia. And to be quite honest, I feel like Penn’s screenplay and parts of director Steven Spielberg’s storytelling retains a lot of the things that make the concept abhorrent to me: the strict focus on male-centric fan culture elements, the shallow background tokenism of minorities as support to the conventionally attractive white characters being the only ones with depth afforded to them (and even then, not by much), the gatekeeping moments where the villain is coded so because he doesn’t have enough John Hughes knowledge (including the now much-mocked line of “a fanboy can always tell a hater”), the antithetical ignoring of certain properties’ core substance to use them as bald action figures bashing against each other (most notably, the famously anti-violence The Iron Giant – created by a character whose only traits that aren’t a spoiler are their love for violent shoot ’em ups and their gearhead intelligence and the character is used accordingly).

None of those things are film-damning to my mind, honestly. It just means I stepped into Ready Player One with little faith to begin with, enough to overshadow my usual faith in Spielberg delivering another great piece of zippy popcorn entertainment despite the premise being trying desperately to sell the kind of escape a person can have in pop culture and video games. Probably because the movie doesn’t know whether or not it wants to also be a doomed look into a society so dependent on escaping reality that it falls apart and that’s honestly the more compelling area of the film to me.

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That video game that society is escaping into is called the OASIS, an open-world virtual reality environment where folks have invested so very much of their time and finances to the point of nationwide (at least) dystopia. This environment is represented with two major characteristics: first, motion-captured computer-animated scenes by Industrial Light and Magic that’s understandably “poor” in the way video game graphics would be but also filled with dazzling lighting effects for an imagination playbox as opposed to the last time Spielberg played with this toolbox in the fully animated The Adventures of Tintin. Second, OASIS is filled with a nauseating amount of pop culture references beyond the frequent name-dropping that would occur in character design, set design, vehicle design, and even soundtrack – mostly with wide-eyed shallow love for the 1980s. Which… ok, I guess.

It is completely believable that an unlimited sandbox world would be quickly overpopulated with pop cultures models rather than unique designs or a desire to exude personality, in case we forget we essentially have the OASIS in existence in real as VRChat and damned if you don’t come across a million anime characters and Ugandan Knuckles in those worlds. Somehow instead of the world being bitter about the ruined economical state against the creators of the game, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), they are idolized to the point that when Halliday abruptly announces his death in a pre-recorded stream, he also announces an easter egg hidden deep within the game – the prize of finding it being his entire estate including total control of the OASIS.

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Obviously that would attract the attention of a huge amount of players, including ones commissioned by the shadowy commercial corporation Innovative Online Industries and their apparently unimaginative profit-driven CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendehlson), who is somehow able to make his choice of AI as himself except Thanos-color and -body type, desiring to turn the OASIS into a giant marketing platform that would feel like a Who Framed Roger Rabbit reference of a plot point if it wasn’t obvious this movie would telegraphing the hell out of such an intentional decision. It also grabs the attention of a ragtag group of egg hunters, including blue elf avatar Parzival and his Ohio teen player Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan). Watts’ hunt leads into digging deeper into the tragic hermit life of Halliday for several clues to help him, gun-lugging orc Aech, Ninja Sho, Samurai Daito, and the mysterious and determined similarly elfen avatar except pink named Art3mis.

And for being the major draw of the movie, it just feels so… bored of its own spectacle. There’s no true investment in most of the decisions on what reference to drop in the film, no giddy excitement like we know Spielberg to shake out of us except within a certain giant battle in the climax of the film and a certain second act challenge that’s an homage to a certain famous filmmaker friend of Spielberg’s right up until they add dancing and floating zombies. Otherwise, it’s no slouch but it’s no more an impressive fully-animated video game landscape than TRON: Legacy, which had character and felt a lot more solid and sleek in a manner that’s much more interesting to watch. Meanwhile, Ready Player One feels like a kid playing with actions figures, but not in an excited joyous way. More like a kid who doesn’t want his little brother to touch them. All the more so by the reluctance Spielberg openly had for referencing his own work, something that’s certainly valiant and humble but wrong-headed when his work defined the era that Cline fetishized.

In any case, it’s still a Spielberg film and it takes a lot of work for one of those to not at least have an efficient sense of pacing (something especially impressive given the 140 minutes it has to move through) and it even manages to give that time some compelling content in the form of the live-action scenes. They’re superior to the animated Family Guy skit of a plotline in every way: Mendelsohn’s performance is so much more interesting when we’re actually watching him flopsweat about (it’s a lesser version of his work in Rogue One but better version of him than The Dark Knight Rises), the design of the dystopian Columbus, Ohio as a stack of trailers looking Babel-esque is able to work at establishing the dive in class for its inhabitants without feeling like miserablism, and most of all, we get to see more of Halliday. It’s a role which Rylance is wildly overqualified to play but something he approaches with lovable earnestness – he takes the social blocks Halliday appears to have and twists them into either vulnerable windows of his fears of social interaction or truly alienating and difficult resentment depending on what the scene asks. In Bridge of Spies, Rylance came across as the least Spielberg-ian entity, but here he is the most Spielberg-ian element of all: a Willy Wonka of sorts that was unprepared to deal with real life with a downfall the movie treats with honesty but not harshness. It is the closest thing Ready Player One comes to feeling like it has a soul and so if you hold tight to the glimpses of Halliday like I did, you might just find yourself at the end of the ride quicker than you expected.

They do have Battle Toads, though. So passing grade.

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September 21, 1945… That Was the Night I Died.

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R.I.P. Takahata Isao
29 October 1935 – 5 April 2018

1988 – 30 years ago from this very day, Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli was not yet the worldwide phenomenon it has formerly grown to be but it was in the middle of significant success on the wings of co-founder Miyazaki Hayao’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (pre-emptively a Ghibli production before Ghibli even existed) and Castle in the Sky. 3 years after its inception in 1985, they were in the midst of releasing what the future would see as their flagship film – Miyazaki’s cuddly and fuzzy My Neighbor Totoro. And yet doubts were made unto the box office potential of the affable children’s film so the second of the co-founders Suzuki Toshio made the decision to attach it as a double feature to the adaptation being produced around the same time for publishing house Shinchosha on one of their novels by Nosaka Akiyuki.

That adaptation was written and directed by Ghibli’s third co-founder, veteran animation director Takahata Isao, and it was called Grave of the Fireflies. And side by side with My Neighbor Totoro, the two stand as not only the greatest films of a studio that seldom produced anything but great films, but among the greatest animated works of all time.

And despite this superlative, Suzuki’s tenure as in-house producer of Ghibli had a lot of brilliant ideas, but this was unfortunately not one of them. While the films did not end up box office failures outright, Fireflies received a chilly reception towards family audiences because it meant following up on the movie that stars a giant furry benign forest God with two young children suffering horrifying severe afflictions from the aftermath of World War II. Or not, depending on which order the uninstructed theaters played them, though I can’t imagine being in the mood for something as jovial and harmless as Totoro so soon after witnessing Fireflies either. And so while it remained praised by critics and made enough money that combined with Totoro’s exploding merchandising sales continued the sail of Ghibli, the uninhibited starkness of Grave of the Fireflies‘ material alongside the fact that it was one of the movies which Disney did not purchase North American rights en masse from Ghibli’s parent company Tokuma Shoten (who did not own the rights) left Grave of the Fireflies to fall not into obscurity but a state of being underseen nevertheless.

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Those who did see it would begin faced with the image of a teenage boy in monochromatic reds and a baggy oversized military uniform facing the audience as his voice hovers over announcing his date of death before we watch him have to witness and relive that moment that his gaunt, broken body in rags collapsed in the middle of an apathetic and dismissive crowd in Sannomiya Station. His last words before his life leaving a corpse practically swept away by janitors is a name “Setsuko”.

Setsuko (Shiraishi Ayano), we will later learn, is the name of the young girl we meet quickly after in the same reddish sepia tone surrounded by the warming light of fireflies practically dancing to the first cue of Mamiya Michio’s delicate lullaby score, watching the boy’s death before being met by his spirit in an exuberant manner that implies long awaited reunion as we also learn that boy is her older brother Seita (Tatsumi Tsutomu).

This opening death of Seita is the most notable major liberty one can know taken by the novel’s author Nosaka in what was a semi-autobiography and self-condemnation of his inability to save his sister Keiko from dying of malnutrition in the wake of the Americans’ devastation of World War II and we watch Setsuko and Seita live out his story from the waning months of the war, starting out by their ill mother’s side* with their father absent fighting in the Imperial Navy afar. Having not read Nosaka’s novel, I cannot know the extent to which informs the writing of Seita as a well-meaning but irresponsible and unfairly unqualified guardian (there is a moment very early on where Seita attempts to cheer his sister through playing on playground bars foregrounded by Setsuko’s unbated tears that illustrates just what Seita is not prepared for), but it feels as though the literal directness of Seita’s failures are Nosaka’s blunt lack of forgiveness for himself while Takahata brings in a humane sympathy to Seita for trying to desperately make it out a situation he should never have been thrown into by a war he’s not very much involved in (though his father being in the war does give him investment and we do witness later in the film his response to the war’s results).

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That’s part of the ghostly element of Grave of the Fireflies: while we soon after witness the effects of war laid on undeserving lives, the fighting’s always at a distance and it makes the unnecessary element of the casualties we and the children witness wound us deeper. Even the early firebombing of their home in Kobe that opens the story proper violently (in more than a few ways, the film’s serene opening credits of the peaceful spirits on the train is interrupted by a smash to the loud American B-29s on their trail) is too oppressively one-sided with not a single Japanese shot fired on-screen back, just people running and hiding for their lives (there is one particular Japanese soldier who stands defiant shouting “Long Live the Emperor” that Takahata frames at a distance from heads keeping down from incineration and it only screws in Takahata’s vehement anti-war attitude in the film, portraying an action intended as defiant nobility to futile imbecility. That irony towards Japan’s doomed patriotism continues in a later Navy procession scene interrupting the children’s sleep.).

Amongst those casualties being their mother rendered in upsetting deep reds soaking over bandages dark enough to look dirty from the soot and smoke still suffered in an atmosphere of harsh browns and ash grays, a palette Grave of the Fireflies will visually maintain except in moments of peace like a major beach respite or a glowing yellow speckled image of fireflies comforting Setsuko in their . This death forces the two children into a hopeless situation of drifting over to an aunt that passive-aggressively points out the hardship of life after wartime being multiplied by mouths to feed, leading to the children’s departure into homelessness from their only possible shelter and their slow demise by malnutrition.

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For the most part, this doesn’t sound like material that necessitates an animated production perhaps but Takahata is not just using animation because he happens to work in that field. Seita and Setsuko are generally defined cartoon children (with unmistakably young voices), barely enough to recognize them from a crowd of suffering and to facilitate any emotions of joy and sorrow the film needs to weave through (especially Setsuko’s design, whose tears are the glassiest out of fairly big baby eyes), moving through photorealistic landscapes, either ruinous or wild or industrial in dark tones that make it look like a Totoro nightmare. Those contradictory elements only make the danger to these characters who are easy to look at much more real and at least me as a viewer more anxious**. And it’s outright dreadful to witness them slowly develop coarse lines showing the toll the situation is taking on their bodies, in last cases accentuating their emaciation and only populating more and more of their designs until their basically the very shell we watched die at the beginning of the film.

No, it is very much because Grave of the Fireflies is animated that it feels so very devastating and heartbreaking as a picture, animation used to remind you of the fragility of its characters in the immediate knowledge of their fate. With all that deliberation in the visuals, it just makes moments like a group of girls in bright dresses laughing oblivious to a child mourning a heavy loss or a delirious moment of solid rocks being mistaken as rice cakes feel somewhat like redundancy to the anguish and sorrow the film puts us through, except in its final images and moments Takahata’s humanism takes a restorative turn to suggest a form of release from the suffering Seita, Setsuko, and their companion ghost fireflies faced and a sense of completion that while not optimistic maintains a peaceful sense of absolution to a story told by a man who could not find himself to get it from his confession.

So Takahata generously gave it to him by re-telling it.

*That is perhaps the most prevalent similarity between Fireflies and Totoro: Both of them focus to some degree on siblings dealing with the distressing state of health of their mothers, though I think one can easily guess that Totoro has a significantly happier ending about it.
**If I may lose some credibility with readers, I feel Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur (Pixar’s CCO John Lasseter is notably a Ghibli fan and possibly the biggest credit to their stateside exposure, though his creative input on the movie was probably not that much) attempts this as well and actually accomplishes it for the most part and I am as a result an inveterate apologist for it.

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I Love Vinnie

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So, there is a grand ol’ two-prong consensus about the Polish animated Vincent Van Gogh crypto-biography Loving Vincent by this point that’s beaten me down since my initial enthusiasm after seeing it well back in October and it is this: On the first part, the movie is wonderfully gorgeous, absolutely miraculous to see on the big screen (and I pity those who will only have the opportunity to see it on a laptop or something at this point in their life). It has to be. For a long while it was anticipated by some (including yours truly) as a… not-revolutionary (despite the marketing’s insistence on Loving Vincent being the first of its kind) but highly unique animated experience on the basis of its craft.

Let me get the unpleasantness element out of the way first though, because the second part of that consensus deals with the content of the film and it’s an unfortunate blunt one: the script is bad. In this world of a narrative-focused cinematic experience, when you keep hearing that the script of a movie is bad, that’s a dealbreaker regardless of how brilliantly the craft is. My attitude of the script by Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman & Jacek Dehnel (Kobiela & Welchman perform double duty as co-directors, Welchman TRIPLE as co-producer) is not nearly as damning, but it’s certainly not enthusiastic.

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The concept of a Rashomon-esque attempt at individuals attempting to deal with the aftermath of a suicide and trying to rationalize why somebody so gifted would be brought to the point of killing himself, spurred on by the young Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) being tasked by his postman father (Chris O’Dowd) to deliver the painter’s (Robert Gulaczyk) last letter to the art dealer brother Theo van Gogh (Cezary Lukaszewicz), only to discover Theo himself had passed away suddenly in the wake of his brother. And in his waiting game, Armand begins to take an interest in the circumstances of Vincent’s last years in suspicion of the how he died.

But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel beaten down by the continuous pointing out that the script quickly de-evolves, despite its attempt at structual exercise, into a cyclical series of talking heads all coming to the same dead end in how the late 1800s had no understanding of clinical depression and how because of that repetition, every inch of the movie’s 95 minutes is felt. And I understand that but the one piece of the script that really irks me (other than its overbearing coda and garbage ending credits song very labored) is how it attempts to give a finite answer to the source of van Gogh’s desperate depression and is weirdly satisfied about that answer. Given the subject matter, it feels icky to me.

So there’s that. That’s the script. If you’re a content-over-form type of person, you will more likely than not hate Loving Vincent and I’m sorry that you would. I am not at all that type of person and I found myself totally wowed and affected by the execution of the film’s core style.

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Directors Kobiela (a painter herself) & Welchmann overlooked 125 painters working on 65,000 frames intended to imitate the style of the legendary Dutch painter’s impressionistic oil works for its modern day, including pencil sketches for flashback sequences. A portion of these paintings are rotoscoped, but enough of them are from scratch to seriously impress upon anyone even slightly interested in the matter of fine art or even just the works of van Gogh (I can’t imagine how the two interests aren’t correlated though. Are there art hipsters?)

And maybe that might seem like a gimmick to some, but for someone like me who has never had the opportunity to witness any of Van Gogh’s works in person (but one dreams), seeing it on the big screen as opposed to a trailer on my computer makes me more aware of the physical element of the art short of actually reaching out and touching the thing (it’s something that makes me kind of wonder how the film would look in 3D, possibly akin to Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams). It’s impossible to ignore the inadvertent contours of the art, the gloopy swirls and strokes that maps all around the frames. Kobiela & Welchmann did very well with photographer Tristan Oliver to translate that beyond the flatness of the screen, they want you to feel the depth of the lines, like the landscapes extend beyond the frame, like the portraits betray the wear of the individual’s face.

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And then there’s the fact that you’re witnessing this in motion. Very little of the shots are stilled in place, you are literally watching art’s textures move little by little. This is obvious in sequences where water is on-screen and most especially obvious in sequences with rain pattering on its steps. And because this isn’t really frames so much as flat-out paintings being presented as frames, you feel the shifts in colors (and idiosyncratic colors doesn’t seem to cut describing van Gogh’s works – he seems to have a dark earthy sensibility to the colors of the world and a lack of scrutiny in using different shades and the film captures that beautifully) and contours being presented more as a visual progression than standard animation’s necessity to turn movement fluid and seamless. It’s fascinating work and while I was just dismissing the marketing’s claims of it being the first of its kind, I can still happily claim that the movie is unlike anything I personally have ever experienced in a cinema.

So therein is a choice to be presented to the prospective viewer of Loving Vincent, one that certainly lives inside an audience member since they began watching movies: Are you looking for content or are you looking for form?* I mean, the answer is pretty obvious to me, given I had just recently defended Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, so it’s no surprise I pretty much loved Loving Vincent. Because if you’re there to see some out of the box storytelling and intelligent storytelling, Loving Vincent is incapable of making most people very happy on that end and I am sorry to say that you might be happier selecting another movie. But if you’re sitting in that theater seat** because you’re an animation or fine art enthusiast or scholar and you’re looking for something to change the way you look at the works of one of the most influential painters in history (excusing my admittedly limited knowledge of the art form), you’ve made the right choice.

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*Ignoring the understanding that in a medium as aesthetically based as film and especially animation, content IS form sometimes.
**Assuming it will have a second-run thanks to its Oscar nominations pls

What a Happy Day It Is

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I’m going to spend almost the entirety of this post gushing over what I consider to be THE cinematic achievement of 2017 (and arguably the last movie I saw that year if you live in a timezone that is not mine), so I think I can be forgiven for identifying the most frequent criticism I hear on animator Don Hertzfeldt’s last-second released* short sequel to glorious and wonderful World of Tomorrow, this one titled World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts. That criticism is essentially “it does not hold up outside of the context of World of Tomorrow, more particularly it does not hold up without watching World of Tomorrow immediately before it.”

Now, identifying that criticism does not mean I agree with it. Certainly, people would enjoy World of Tomorrow better with the knowledge of having seen Episode Two and it’s probably a lot easier to catch all the neat continuations of World of Tomorrow‘s visual anchors with the first short film fresh in your head, but Episode Two is certainly its own standalone story with its own insights on humanity and its own abstractions of those emotions into gorgeous technicolor seas washing together to fill the screen and sharp digital lines of various forms.

That said, Episode Two is soooooooo very much rewarding with the context of its predecessor in many ways. For one, much as Hertzfeldt made clear how tough it was to craft a new narrative from the new audio recordings he took out of his 5-year-old niece Winona Mae, there’s not only a challenging yet coherent narrative out of Episode Two, there’s also an evident growth from the last time we saw Mae’s character Emily Prime, rendered as a stick figure like every other character Hertzfeldt ever animated who isn’t a Simpson. There’s a lot of room for a little maturity and confidence between ages four and five, as Emily will indicate when a new adult clone of Emily (animator Julia Pott again) with a 6 on her forehead and a clangy metallic machine on her back suddenly barges into the child’s peaceful drawing time with a lot more urgency behind her “HELLO EMILY” (or is that just the fact that every line Pott delivers from this heavily damaged being is so loud and heavy? She still retains her mostly emotionally stilted line readings like before, still a huge strength) and Prime responds to her presence with a frank “you have to sit down, okay?”.

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I don’t want to go to far into what follows that introduction of Episode Two on a narrative sense (I will try to keep things thematic instead) because it’s so eventful and full of wonderful surprises, but I will explain how the middle ground into the same arresting colorful backdrops of dynamically undefinable computer generated shapes comes from ours and Prime’s entry into the mind of the clone. And if you thought the universe Hertzfeldt gave us in World of Tomorrow was dysfunctional, at least that one had real-world logic to it so we could recognize a rock when we see it or what part is the ground. Here, Hertzfeldt takes advantage of the opportunity to frequently glitch (both in on-screen and on the soundtrack) and leave remnants of visuals well after it’s communicated that the character or object is not there anymore to establish the fragile and impaired state of the being whose memories and emotions we are exploring.

And those memories and emotions are the product of a feeling of incompletion and dishonesty to one’s identity (indeed Emily Six’s existence as a clone/storage unit to Emily’s experiences is what gives her the titular “Burden of Other People’s Thoughts”), visually represented by backgrounds with gaping angular holes in them either interrupting an otherwise colorful scene with big spots of empty black or cracking a monochrome shot with chaos underneath it all. The uncertainty of our character at one point causes the colors to bleed in an artificial and digital way and it is the moment when it is clear Hertzfeldt has now mastered the usage of computers for his animation style. The force with which he deconstructs already unstable settings with dissolves and superimpositions** and aggressive revolutions of vertical smoke and clouds in dark tones of purple and red (Taylor Barron is credited for those clouds and, man, the movie would not nearly feel as urgent without them) is reminiscent in my mind of “Part 8” in this year’s return of Twin Peaks***, a rivaling attempt to translate intangible interior sensations such as depression and pain and loneliness into pure stimuli for the viewer. It is then no wonder “Part 8” and World of Tomorrow Episode II are the only competitors for the Best. Damned. Thing. I. Watched. in. 2017. The difference, other than moods since Hertzfeldt has never been as dark as David Lynch, is that Twin Peaks‘ anchor is the context of the TV series itself and Episode 2‘s anchor are distinct character presences. We’re here not only to sink into the mindframes the visuals lull us into, but in turn to recognize how that is the way the apparently blank Emily Clone 6 feels before we dig into the why.

Did I not mention this movie is funny? I promise it is, even despite what I just described.

Indeed, the more time we spend within the clone’s mind, the more we realize “oh this piece of scenery is her memory” and the clearer it is what the elements on her person, like the “6” and the bracelet across her wrist are AND what they happen to mean to her, neither of which are very happy answers. I don’t have trouble guessing that the way Hertzfeldt tried to cheat his way around Mae’s mostly unconnected lines is by crafting the true crux of the narrative around Emily Six (indeed, there is a span of time where Pott is the only voice in the film and it’s the most structurally clean moment in the film, though it also contains the broadest humor in the work – which is still hilarious if not very surprising – rather than the joyous randomness of Mae’s presence) and it means that we’re privy to more sadness surrounding the first 2/3 of Episode 2‘s 22 minutes.

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The last third, though, oh my Odin. Let me count the ways in which it accelerates World of Tomorrow Episode 2 into my heart as a wonderful blanket for the soul. First, we witness the full clout Mae gets over Hertzfeldt’s story in two moments (one of which preceeds that last third, mind you) where she ends up giving resolutions we would expect to this dense and dark depth into questions about existence we never want to ask. And in the way that only a five-year-old child could possibly do. Second, by that hand, Hertzfeldt indulges in simple yet bright and playful (and so much cleaner) designs full of cotton-candy-colored energy and life while retaining the still-impeachable logic that the setting would need, acting a foil to all of the fearfulness we saw before (it also is maybe the most rewarding sort of callback to the first World of Tomorrow and I feel like even being vague about how is kind of a spoiler). And third is by a lovely sequence of fluid movement and animation lifted up by The Nutcracker‘s compositions, not only surprising for a stick figure, but particularly for Hertzfeldt who has never in his career given us anything to imply he could make his characters so graceful and flowing as he does within the last few minutes of Episode 2 and probably could not have done so if he hadn’t finally mastered the digital technology with which he now animates.

It’s at once a shining moment of unexpected versatility on Hertzfeldt’s part but a beautiful tear-welling moment of catharsis after an exhausting 22 minute journey. It’s not often that you see an artist who will bravely dive deep into the sort of melancholy and gloom that Hertzfeldt is more than familiar with at this point and still rise effortlessly back up into unabashed optimism and inner peace. It’s possible that he couldn’t do it without the help of the innocence of his niece’s imagination and that is kind of one of the conclusions The Burden of Other People‘s Thoughts lands on: that while it doesn’t do to live in the past, even when it hurts us, there is still a solace in our childhood we ought to embrace and remember. But that is only ONE conclusion of many The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts holds in its treasure trove and here’s hoping more can be pulled out before the next Hertzfeldt comes to surprisingly top this one (I didn’t think World of Tomorrow could be topped and yet here we are). I have only scratched the surface in my first two viewings.

Oh, I watched it twice. Did I mention that? On the same day.

*A last second release that probably cost it a spot on the shortlist for The Academy Award for Best Short Film, Animated and that shit is GOING TO STING for the rest of my life.
**Again, Hertzfeldt’s usual M.O.
***For those who read this asking when I will return to my David Lynch retrospective, STinG is not here at the moment but if you leave a message, I will get back to you as soon as possible. Thank you, bye bye.

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Christmastime Is Here

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I don’t watch TV very much and I don’t really celebrate Christmas except depending on who I’m dating at the time and if they celebrate. I do certainly admire the season though, especially if I’m spending it in an environment that’s nice and chilly and cold and bonus points if it’s snowing. It is certainly my favorite time of year. And regardless of if I’m attending a Christmas party that year or not, I’m gonna be spending more than a little bit of time watching certain favorites as a force of habit, namely holiday TV specials. Y’know, the kind that were animated and best made in the 1960s (though not by any “objective” standard. Even today, TV animation on a budget is pretty rough as is but Rankin/Bass’ stop-motion certainly tried to circumvent this). They’re short and sweet so I can watch enough to fill an hour before I sleep the night before Christmas and they’re a nice little amount of mood to continue on for the rest of the season. And I’ll especially give TV specials one thing over films:

If it weren’t for TV specials, I wouldn’t enter every winter season without the song “Christmastime Is Here” playing in my head. And I’m very happy to have that be the theme song of my winters, nice and falling singular piano notes apply a melody in my head to the imagery of snowflakes gently dropping to the ground. Just one piano tune over and over, something to cement early in my life the idea that jazz is always the best Christmas music, and Vince Guaraldi was the genius to make me think that.

Guaraldi’s soundtrack – which also includes “Linus and Lucy” another very close theme song to my childhood and a children’s choir performing the hymn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (there is also a children’s choir involved in “Christmastime Is Here” but my mind just goes to the piano underneath and its wonderful and evocative simplicity) – is not the only great thing that the 1965 TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas gave me, but it is the thing that sticks most to me. If it were not for the special, I don’t see myself being so enamored with jazz at such a young age that I would find it calming or atmospheric and all through the best kind of minimalism.

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If it weren’t for A Charlie Brown Christmas, I also would probably be a lot more cynical about Christmas than I actually am as an adult who has no intentions of religious alignment in his life and is in many ways actively against religious institution. I’m sure one more cynical about religion than I am could probably be dissatisfied as the makers feared with the solution to the loveable child blockhead Charlie Brown’s usual depressive woes, this time centered around the Christmas season, as simple as (SPOILERS FOR A TELEVISION SPECIAL OLDER THAN MY DAD WHICH I DON’T THINK PEOPLE WATCH FOR THE PLOT ANYMORE) the blanket-dragging child Linus reciting from the Gospel According to Luke and poof! There’s Charlie Brown’s answer to the missing meaning of Christmas, but it IS true in a literal sense and it’s a spirited and confident reading from a child! A legit child actor, Chris Shea, was able to stand and deliver the Bible communicating the full and expressive meaning of the Shepherds’ Annunciation of the Nativity of Jesus and as somebody who grew up in Islamic Sunday School watching a lot of fellow kids trying to memorize Qur’an, I can’t imagine most of my teachers would have deigned for that sort of awareness of the material and declarative reading.

That’s kind of the miracle of A Charlie Brown Christmas that makes it so pleasant for me. The entire cast from Peter Robbins as Charlie on down to Sally Dryer in a one-scene part delivering a proud insistence she never sent Charlie a “Merry Christmas” are all young children around the 9-to-11-year-old range and they have these blocks of dialogue expressing existential crises and criticisms of capitalism and “commercialism” (I don’t think I knew the meaning of the word “commercialism” at their ages) that they have to deliver and they ace it with flying colors. Emphasis on the right elements while still sounding wholly like the stuff children would say with only the slightest hint of a hand tipped in maturity.

Credit it to director Bill Melendez for knowing how to direct voice acting, credit it to Charles M. Schulz – creator of the original Peanuts comic strips series that A Charlie Brown Christmas is a part of and writer of the special (the television special was made right at the height of the franchise’s popularity) – who would know these characters better than anybody else in the world and knows just the right amount of character and youth to imbue into the writing, credit it to whichever casting director was able to pull in this many intelligent young actors who could certainly know how to express thoughts like these, and of course credit it to these kids for pulling it off most of all and instantly sticking to our ideas of how these characters sound. The moroseness in Brown’s voice, the bold egotism in Lucy’s, these are just impossible to remove from the characters as I remember them, even when I’m just looking at the comic strip that reliably entertained me from my own childhood onward.

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I am, truth be told, shocked that I’m nearing the end of my praise for my definitive work of Christmas-based pop culture and only now mentioned Melendez. Melendez’s animation work makes the best with what little they had, pushing the budget and month as far as he could, maintaining the flat 2-dimensional primitive stylizations of the hand-drawn comic strip so that it’s all in one plane, thereby establishing the style that every single Peanuts production since would have to live by lest they mess with tradition. And yet there’s still motion and spacing that Melendez is willing to play with, filling out an entire skating rink with individual (if still repeated motions) including a wonderful amount of liberty taken with Charlie’s beloved beagle Snoopy as he glides over the light blue ice (including a wonderful moment where he drags the other characters in a line all across the shimmering screen) or the memorable setpiece of everybody dancing to Linus, Pig Pen, and Snoopy playing “Linus and Lucy”. In fact, if it probably wasn’t for Melendez’s conservative usage of lines and colors in a manner that feels lovingly personal, it probably be able to sell the cuteness behind Charlie Brown’s choice of Christmas tree for the Christmas play, a lonely bent stick with barely peeking out of its branches. In a special that’s hardly the stuff of immaculate craft, this little tree that somehow means something to Charlie Brown doesn’t feel quite as bad and that means we sympathize with the care and adoration he wants his friends to give to the tree as well.

So, yeah, it’s not perfect. The audio feels like an unfinished element with missing sounds from what we’re viewing and very apparent seams where we hear what lines of dialogue are put together from separate takes (although there is a terrific gag of Snoopy giving his best impression of several different animals). And I’m sure some look for a more detailed design or fluid kind of animation from their animation, but I can’t see myself ever being dissatisfied with a Christmas night sitting down and playing this. A Charlie Brown Christmas is a television special that wants us to understand the meaning of Christmas and delivers it not just in substance but in the amount of soul that every single person involved in this special put into it. Melendez, Schulz, Guarini, and all their company gave us this one undiluted package of Christmas joy. I couldn’t feel any more merry after watching it if I tried.

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25 for 25 – E.X.P.L.O.D.E.

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Man, when I think about Otomo Katsuhiro’s 1988 anime adaptation of his own manga Akira these days, I feel bad. Once upon a time, as a teenager watching this movie in the middle of the night to avoid sleep, everything about it blew my mind and opened me up to exploring animation in film further than any moment of my life beforehand save for when I was a child and really ate that stuff up. And obviously, I don’t need to indicate that it was the same for most people here in the West long before I even had a chance to watch it. For the majority of American filmgoers, Akira is THE anime – the one that kept cyberpunk still rolling past its 1980s rule of science fiction culture to its optimization in the end of the 1990s by The Matrix and, more importantly, the one that introduced North America Japanese animation in cinematic packaging with all the storytelling elements that entails, including world-building, moral complexity, and gore, yo. Big time gore that 16-year-old me thinks makes the movie is the most mature piece of animation to ever exist and, to be sure, Akira is a hella mature film in a medium that was previously widely considered juvenile (something that always grits my teeth thinking about). Sure, the west didn’t need to go very far to find mature animation because Ralph Bakshi but there’s a clear difference between the puerile element of Fritz the Cat making it look too sexy for kids and the story-driven violence of Akira giving the environment a real sense of devastation and tension.

Anyway, later exposure to the works of Anno Hideaki and Kon Satoshi and, hell, even Takahata Isao has pulled me away from thinking of Akira as the best of even Japanese anime (as well as just subsequent viewings of the movie where it starts wearing out on me), let alone world animation. I think the only movie I’ve grown even more severely away from is Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, but in the end, nothing can take away from Akira‘s watershed moment in anime exposure to us Americans or from making me suddenly want to get into animated movies again and so here we are squaring with what Akira is outside of what I owe it for my cinephilia.

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And what it is is, all the wear still on it, a very solid science fiction junked-future story. One that follows Kaneda (Iwata Mitsuo), the leader of the Capsule biker gang, as he witnesses his childhood friend and lieutenant Tetsuo (Sasaki Nozomu) get kidnapped by government agents in the aftermath of a heavy battle with their rival gang The Clowns and Tetsuo’s bike being destroyed in an encounter with a very sickly looking child who seems aged to corpselike form (Nakamura Tatsuhiko). During his arrest, Tetsuo would be the subject of tests by Doctor Onishi (Suzuki Mizuho) under the oversight of the grim Colonel Shikishima (Ishida Taro) and discovers that Takashi, the child responsible for his wreck, is among two other similar looking children Kiyoko (Ito Fukue) and Masaru (Kamifuji Kazuhiro) in being tormented by Onishi’s experiments into having psychic powers. Powers it seems Onishi is intent on unlocking inside of Tetsuo himself utilizing Tetsuo’s already existent angst and stress from his tragic life. Meanwhile, Kaneda is trying to find a way to rescue Tetsuo, aligning himself with a group of revolutionary terrorists intent on overthrowing the government, though that is almost accidentally through his attraction to the young woman Kei (Koyama Mami) involved with them.

It’s a complicated plot summary trying to compact way too much material from a medium that could handle that to something like film where it’s all limited to a little over two hours, but somehow that doesn’t lose me at all. In fact, it’s exciting for a while to see a movie try to figure out what to appropriate from its supposed genre (there’s moments of biker gang action, moments of political thriller, moments of horror, etc.) and stream into Kaneda and Tetsuo’s stories. From what I understand, Otomo and Hashimoto Izo’s script adapts the first three volumes loosely and it’s every man for himself from there. But, it honestly feels like the storytelling strands really come apart once those volumes are completely brisked through (by the time Tetsuo unlocks his power close to the level of the mysterious “Akira” entity which has close to no presence in this movie and more in the manga), Otomo was lost in a story he still hadn’t completely finished and had the opposite effect as George R.R. Martin, rushing instead to find some satisfying ending point to most of the precious plotlines he retained and that’s kind of where Akira sputters out for me as a tale.

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Anyway, Akira is not a movie I watched for its story even when I thought it was the best thing in the world (and mercy to those who do), but there was a clear though I had watching the opening biker battle/chase for the first time through the streets of a fully detailed rich-in-color (especially red) and textured background post-destruction neo-Tokyo in all of its urban age and tear desperately trying to keep some industrial metropolitan identity even though not a single building seems devoid of cracks and it’s not hard to picture areas of the city abandoned. And that was in the motion of the bikes zooming through the streets and the beatings and crashes occuring, all so very fluid (including an iconic shot of Kaneda braking to turn around that is one of my favorite moments in animation, covered in lightning to give it extra kineticism included in his intense acute diagonal angle) that it felt too fast to be real life and yet it was so easy to buy within the world of the film itself.

I’d later discover that the animation was done one frame per drawing (as opposed to traditional 2 frames) which gave it such energy that I honestly didn’t know I’d ever see in another animated film again and made me more aware of the process than I had been before (and I haven’t really seen it done elsewhere, save for maybe Kon Satoshi’s work). And that gives more impact to the violence and grotesqueries at hand, especially round the middle nightmare sequence that has an arresting and frightening vibe because the stuffed bear growing more and more monstrous is so swift we barely have time to register. There’s a particularly small moment of an innocent bystander in a restaurant being killed by crashing motorcycle landing on his head that shocks the hell out of me to this day and to say nothing of Tetsuo’s final mutation in a coliseum to the demise of his poor girlfriend Kei (whose presence is just to be the victim of some really severe nihilism).

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Add to that the incredible lighting design for the late 1980s animation and the ability of the facial features to distinguish characters so clearly in attitude (we’re obviously meant to like Kaneda a lot more than Tetsuo and that’s done easily by Kaneda’s big boyish rogue feature and design with his cool red jacket and souped up motorcycle; Tetsuo on the other hand looks sad from the very get go and when he becomes outright villain wearing a red cape, it’s kind of laughable and reminds me of One Punch Man) and Akira stands right next to My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies as an argument for 1988 as the best year for Japanese animation.

It’s a shame I don’t have the love I once had for it and I had over the years been exposed to works that I felt accomplished what Akira wanted to do even more fully (even before I saw AkiraBlade Runner was already a movie near and dear to me and Akira probably owes its greatest debt in design and atmosphere to it), but in the end it still means something to be the first. And Akira absolutely gets to hold clear to that claim, standing might proud at its place in animation history and the history of my personal canon, marveling at the ambition of Otomo as its creator whether or not I think it really works out.

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Thanks for reading. Oh what’s this? A Patreon page? If you enjoyed my writing and would like to support it, share this post and tell your friends bout Movie Motorbreath on facebook. If that ain’t enough and you really want to give us financial support, go on that Patreon link and get you a bad stick figure of your favorite movie!

25 for 25 – The Colour and the Shape

This thing is only 8 minutes long and I only realized after writing this that I’m gonna be overhyping the short film if you watch it after reading, so PLEASE watch it before going on:

I don’t have a source on which to plot my intention on reviewing avant-garde films. Especially not avant-garde animated short films. Nothing gives you a quicker shake than an object by which you know you are meant to read or respond to something without any real guide on how to deal with it. I know some viewers find that sort of work frustrating, like the hundreds of people trying to convince me Inland Empire is not the best thing in the world. And then I know there are a significant amount of people like myself who truly find such challenges exciting and exhilarating, the way such an unfathomable element of form and content forces your mind to craft answers and draw from the imagery an emotion at the least, a message at most. I don’t think any response is truly wrong, in the end, when it comes to the subjectivity of film-watching.

To be absolutely honest, I find myself a lot more comfortable to indulge with that in animation (and I do wonder if its easier to indulge in avant-garde work with animation than in live-action with the amount of control the artist has) and so when it comes to my idea of the relaxing kind of avant-garde work that can stimulate you without being aggressive in its challenges, Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambert’s Begone Dull Care is my immediate go-to. Hell, it’s one of my go-to for animation, given that Canada seems to put out the best kind. They’re the only industry that doesn’t seem to have a truly defined language due to the amount of experimentation they indulge in. French animation is sort of recognizable, American animation absolutely (that’s what happens when CGI rules the industry, although Canada broke through on that animation aspect before America did with Hunger), Japanese is possible the most recognizable national animation of all, but Canada goes from The Bead Game to The Cat Came Back to McLaren’s most popular work Neighbours (which is much less inscrutable than Begone Dull Care) and Canada has never seemed to abandon any true technique, still indulging in sand animation, CGI, stop-motion, pinscreen, and paint-on-glass liberally. This was all thanks to the National Film Board of Canada opening up an animation studio in the 1940s with McLaren and founder John Grierson’s involvement and their desperation to find talented animators who didn’t leave for the War in Europe, amongst them Lambart who would collaborate with McLaren in her early career before moving on to works focusing on ballet and inventing her own style of animation utilizing paper cutouts in lithographic form (my god, the creativity of these artists makes my eyeballs pop out).

McLaren’s specialty was drawing his works on the actual film stock to supply a sort of visual music, something to reflect the tone and mood of the music which would match the rhythm of the music playing. He had started it ’round 1940 with Boogie Doodle and then had some fun incorporating a character within the film stock responding to the scratches with Hen Hop (1942) before making Begone Dull Care at his most carefree (I mean, there is the title expressing it). The drawing-on-film animation style interests me most because of how it brings more awareness to the physical element of film, even when I’m just watching it on a crappy YouTube video and not some 16mm film projection, but the deliberateness behind every line and spot and the color changes makes a case that imperfections can be used as tools for emotional manipulation just as much as any other element of movies. ‘Course nobody these days is going to be buying film stock, especially just to mess around and vandalize the quality of the film, but there it is of a time.

Meanwhile, the ability of McLaren and Lambart to have such awareness of the music they’re working with – supplied by the Oscar Peterson Trio, thus appealing to the jazz lover in me – that they can match their visual representation to the music by understanding the frame rate and controlling it around that just… that astounds somebody like me who would get exhausted trying to calculate how to work that. Because keep in mind and remember that in this film’s case, the visuals work as the music’s accompaniment, not the other way around. It’s not like Begone Dull Care just sticks on one image for a measure before on to the next, it moves! It pops! It feels so alive.

And I know I started this by saying how I find avant-garde movies intellectually stimulating, but that doesn’t mean I can’t just have fun with some occasionally. Begone Dull Care is surrounded wholly by color and sound in a marriage that I don’t have to turn on my brain to really appreciate it. If I shut off the music (and I’d rather not because the Oscar Peterson trio is bouncy and vibrant), I still get a candied melange of shapes and hues that feel just as loud as the soundtrack. If I just listen to the Oscar Peterson trio musical score, I can sure as hell tap my feet and groove with it. But smack them both together and it’s a brilliant sensation that holds me down for just a few minutes so that afterwards I can’t listen to even a pop jingle without thinking about how I’d apply a visual schema to it (it’s probably unfortunate that almost every song I listen to, I start imagining a music video for it).

I don’t know how people can be so antagonistic to abstract art when it can be as exciting and moving as this.

Anyway, I hope you watched it on the link above before reading this because otherwise… overhype’s a bitch.

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Thanks for reading. Oh what’s this? A Patreon page? If you enjoyed my writing and would like to support it, share this post and tell your friends bout Movie Motorbreath on facebook. If that ain’t enough and you really want to give us financial support, go on that Patreon link and get you a bad stick figure of your favorite movie!

Darkness! No Parents!

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There’s something that I wanna give The Lego Batman Movie a lot of awesome credit for right out the gate and that’s being the first theatrical Batman movie since Tim Burton’s 1989 film to introduce a new incarnation of the Dark Knight himself and yet not feeling obliged to have to recreate his origin story (Even if you consider Burton’s and Schumacher’s films to not be the same series, Batman Forever has a recreation of that fateful alley scene). I’m sure Thomas and Martha Wayne are being tired of being shot to death outside of theaters. The Lego Batman Movie has enough trust in its audience to figure they know the origin story of arguably the most popular superhero movie came from.

There’s also a lot more to give The Lego Batman Movie credit for in its writing, but sadly not as much as I want to and that’s from a very distinctive authorial voice being replaced – the genius duo of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the writers of the first Lego Movie (along with Dan and Kevin Hageman). Lord and Miller had already made a career out of turning can’t win high concepts into wholly creative and entertaining comedic filmmaking (especially on the animated side) since their wonderful television show Clone High came about (apropos of nothing, Lord is a Miami-native like yours truly and I’ve heard it rumored he actually went to the same middle school as I did, but I can’t really confirm that). With The Lego Movie, they turned an idea that sounded like an product placement scheme into an ode to imagination and ingenuity and teamwork.

Turn around to The Lego Batman Movie, which follows specifically the already primary character of Batman (voiced by Will Arnett in the most appropriate usage of his GOB voice and persona since Arrested Development) and focuses more on his own inability to connect with anyone, and we have Lord and Miller replaced by a rogues’ gallery of names that promise rewrite after rewrite after rewrite. Admittedly 4 out of the 5 names on the writing credits – Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, and John Whittington – ring no bells in my head, but one particular name Seth Grahame-Smith (who is credited for the overall story) made one post-modern novel I enjoyed when I was in high school (and I’m not sure I’ll have the same sentiment on a re-read) and promptly went on to write nothing that impressed me. Not only was it a downgrade from Lord and Miller’s genius, it was an alarm.

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Fortunately, The Lego Batman Movie pleased me and not necessarily in spite of its script. The humor is not as energetic and fun as the others and it happens to abandon a sort of gleefully jolly on joking about the Batman franchise by its halfway mark (in fact, the middle twist of the movie is a clear sign that Grahame-Smith and co. may have been more eager to abandon the resources available to them simply from the source material), but the story of Batman learning to stop being an island with the help of his trusty butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), the accidental adoption Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), and the new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), is a touching and impressively drawn one. It’s not reinventing the wheel about isolation turning into teamwork turning into family, but it’s aided by four fantastic cast performances (and a fifth by Zach Galifinakis voicing the most down-to-earth version of the Joker yet) and has a heart that sneaks up on us once the movie stops deciding to be about BATMAN the property and focus on this Batman as an individual. So yeah, well done, motley crew of writers.

There is another great big authorial presence that has been abandoned in the development of this film that can’t be ignored and that, indeed, is Phil Lord and Chris Miller – the directors. For obviously, they directed the first Lego Movie and moved on later to bigger things like making a Han Solo solo movie. In their replacement is a kind of unknown named Chris McKay, who was already attached to the previous film as an animation co-director for the Australian company Animal Logic. And while McKay isn’t a match for energetic humor and visual comedy, what he clearly is an upgrade in is outright beauty. You wouldn’t think there’s a way to massively improve an animation aesthetic that’s deliberate rigid and simple in movement and surfaces, but McKay clearly wants you to remember just how distinct the physicality of the characters and settings, even in the uniform toy world of Lego, can be. And that’s without even touching on the lighting effects which are so fluid and jaw-dropping in their illuminating rays that I couldn’t help but wonder if they physically had lights moving around Lego playsets, especially in a scene at Superman’s Fortress of Solitude involving lasers and party lights. And that’s just on top of the mapping of Batman’s more ambitious fight scenes, namely the opening round-up of all his famous villains to a metal earworm by Patrick Stump.

Anyway, it’s phenomenally animated and sincere, even if it’s nothing eye-popping beyond that. I’m not sure I can even say the humor is all that fresh against the Dark Knight since Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders came out last year, but that’s also one of the throwaway Warner Bros. Animation Straight-to-DVD films. The Lego Batman Movie is a straight up feature and a hell of a promising animation debut that happens to be a worthwhile time. Even if my expectations on a sequel to The Lego Movie and a new Batman film were a bit too high, nothing about The Lego Batman Movie‘s first 3/4 is dissatisfying in the least and the finale is quick enough to bow out before everything ends up ruined. Batman knows how to make an exit after all. He’s Batman.

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