On Wednesday, July 26, we went to the South Shore Cinema for “Anime Movie Night,” which is apparently a monthly event put on by anime channel Crunchyroll (Which I keep thinking of as Crunchy Frog--).  We had seen the very brief teaser for The Ancient Magus’ Bride, which looked interesting.

The presentation was not actually a feature film: instead, we saw three episodes of what is going to be a new series on Crunchyroll, beginning in October. It is based on an existing manga of the same name, written and illustrated by Kore Yamazaki.

The protagonist is fifteen year old Chise Hatori (voice by Atsumi Tanezaki); abandoned by her family and homeless, she contemplates suicide, when approached by a man who says, “If you don’t care if you live or die, why not give yourself to someone that wants you?” Chise (who would be of legal age in Japan), signs what is essentially a “slave contract” and is put on auction. She is purchased by Elias Ainsworth (Ryota Takeuchi), an inhuman appearing Mage, who tells her she will be his apprentice, and eventually his bride. This is a bit unsettling, since his head appears to be the skull of a wolf or something similar, with demonic red eyes, and surmounted with antelope horns.

Ainsworth takes her to his home outside London, where he has a picturesque cottage, a fairy housekeeper, and an uneasy relationship with the local Vicar. He explains to Chise that he is a Mage, who uses the power of fairies and other spirits to do magic, unlike Sorcerors, who do magic as a kind of science. He wants her because she is a “sleigh beggy” (sic), who is a kind of “queen bee” for fairies and elementals. She is particularly special because she can see and hear them—the “curse” that has ruined her life so far. (“Sleigh beggy”  or “slay vega” comes from the Manx sleih beggey, which means one of the fairy folk. Her title in Japanese 夜の愛し仔(スレイベガ, “Beloved Child of the Night,” is a bit more evocative--.) The spirits are attracted to her and want to do things for her, but lack human judgement, which can cause disaster if they are not controlled.

In typical fantasy magician fashion, Elias is very stingy with information, which of course means there will be adventures ahead.

In the first three episodes, Chise almost gets kidnapped by the fairies, visits a Crafter of magician’s tools, and visits a dragon preserve.

The story was interesting as far as it went, and was good to look at, with decent animation, and backgrounds that rival those of Studio Ghibli (although Georgie and I both find some of the anime/manga conventions a bit peculiar--).

We also got a half-hour segment of another new production. “Children of Ether,” unusual since it written by an American black man, LeSean Thomas, and features a woman of color as the main character. It is set in  post-Apocalyptic world, where ominous forces are pursuing Rhonda, the protagonist, because of the mysterious power she possesses—which accidentally killed her beloved father. Rhonda is trying to find “The Goat”, a sage woman, to help her find some answers, while evading pursuit and the other hostile denizens typical to post-Apocalyptic scenarios. Character designs and backgrounds were very well done, but animation was spotty, with concentration on the fight scenes, but very clunky rendition of some basic things, like walking.

Early Sunday, we enjoyably killed some time by going to see Despicable Me 3.

In this outing, Gru (Steve Carell) and Lucy (Kristen Wiig) are both working for the Anti-Villain League, trying to take down ‘80’s themed supervillain Balthasar Bratt (Trey Parker). Bratt had a TV show in which he played “Evill Bratt” (yes, spelled that way) in the 1980’s which was canceled when he hit puberty and wasn’t cute any longer. Now he’s taking it out on society and general and Hollywood in particular by committing crimes base on his old show. Bratt continues to evade capture, although Gru has foiled his theft attempts. This isn’t good enough for the new AVL director Valerie da Vinci, who gives Gru and Lucy the sack.

Things are rather dark for Gru: with no job, he’s resisting the call of villainy, which causes the Minions to abandon him. Then, he finds that he has a long-lost twin brother, Dru (also voiced by Carell).

Dru is well-off, having inherited a pig-farming business from the father Gru had thought dead. Dear Old Dad, it turns out, was also a villain, and Dru wants Gru to teach him the ropes so he can carry on the family tradition.

This is of course a troubling prospect for Gru, although it does give him a chance to strike back at Bratt. Meanwhile, Lucy is working on being a Mom to the girls, with mixed results. How all this works out is of course very funny, and a visual delight with all the over-the-top gadgets. The 80’s references are fun to catch.

A must-see if you have been following the series.
The new French animated Steampunk movie, billed as April and the Extraordinary World, opened Friday, April 22nd, in Milwaukee. We saw it on Saturday the 23rd.

April and the Extraordinary World is the title used for English distribution. The French title, Avril et le monde truqué, more accurately translates to "April and the Twisted World." The "Twisted World" is a fair description of this Steampunk dystopia, which has its roots in France's Second Empire, which is on the verge of war with Prussia. Emperor Napoleon III has engaged a scientist to create a serum that will make his soldiers invincible. The serum has not had the desired effect, and the Emperor orders the experiments destroyed, which results in a catastrophic explosion, killing the Emperor.

This is the point at which history twists aside from our world. With the death of the Emperor, war is averted and peace made. However, leading scientists world-wide begin to disappear, which causes technology to stagnate. By 1931, reliance on steam power has not only exhausted Europe's supplies of coal, but deforested the continent as charcoal has become a strategic resource.

The movie is based on a graphic novel by Jacques Tardi, creator of "Adele Blanc-Sec," and his character design style is quite distinctive. Scenery and backgrounds depict a fascinating Steampunk Paris, with the skyline defined by the twin Eiffel Towers, the cable-car railroad, and a colossal martial statue of Napoleon III dominating the world.

In 1931, the son of the original scientist, Gustave (French voice by Jean Rochefort), his son, Paul (Oliver Gourmet), daughter-in-law Annette (Macha Grenon), are attempting to continue the family work on the Ultimate Serum, while in hiding from the French police, because all available scientists are being conscripted to design new weapons for the Empire. Their young daughter, April (Angela Galluppo) assists where she can. They are raided by the police, led by Inspector Pizoni (Benoît Brière), who combines the persistence of a Javert with the ineptitude of a Clouseau. (Tardi typically depicts the French police as corrupt, brutal, and stupid. For some reason, many have Italian surnames--.) In the resulting debacle, Gustave escapes, Paul and Annette are lost in the explosion of a cable car, and April is sent to an orphanage, from which she escapes with the aid of her scientifically enhanced cat, Darwin (voice by Phillippe Katherine).

Then, we flash forward to 1941. April is grown up (now voiced by Marion Cotillard) and continuing her clandestine work on the family's serum project. The demoted Pizoni has her under unofficial surveillance by a parolee, Julius, (Marc-Andre Grondin), in hopes she will lead him to her grandfather, who is still at large. There is a war in progress between France and the United States over access to Canadian forests. Meanwhile, the mysterious force behind the abduction of scientists begins to close in on April and her work.

The story of how this all plays out is a grand adventure, with the settings, including the desert that is now rural France, well realized, and the Steampunk and other alternative technology creations depicted being worth the price of admission. I liked the fact that grown-up April is a rather plain-faced, square-shouldered young woman, not conventionally beautiful. Julius, the eventual and reluctant male lead, is a classic Parisian street youth, not conventionally handsome. Tardi's convention of drawing eyes with only black pupils but no irises is a bit unsettling at first, but one grows used to it. The characters as written are all very strong and well done, including April's grandfather, Gustave, who is the ultimate scientist.

One significant disappointment of the movie is that the ultimate crisis/climax very strongly parallels that of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. However, getting to that point, and, ultimately, past that point to a very satisfying conclusion, is very much worth the ride.

Recommended for Steampunks everywhere.

The main feature was preceded by two animated shorts, "French Roast," dealing with the embarrassment of a gentleman (drawn as sort of a French John Cleese) who, having had coffee in a café, discovers he hasn't got his wallet. Humorous complications ensue, in a beautifully drawn little movie. In the second one, "In Between," a young woman's social anxieties manifest as a cartoony blue 'crocodile' that follows her everywhere. This one was cute, sweet, and funny. These are both worth looking up, and can be found on YouTube.

French Roast: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wbmsid57MXw

In Between: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xp22IYL2uU


Apr. 19th, 2016 07:43 pm
On Tuesday, April 5th, we went to see Zootopia, the new animated feature starring Ginnifer Goodwin as “Judy Hopps,” a rabbit who aspires to be the first rabbit police officer in a world of talking (mostly) civilized animals. Jason Bateman is the voice of “Nick Wilde,” a street-hustling fox that she initially coerces into helping her with her first big case.

Zootopia is the greatest city of the animal world, where all species* live together in relative harmony**. The city is a beautiful construction of the scene designer’s art, a modernized Metropolis (or Duckburg), divided into climatically controlled neighborhoods suiting various tastes in habitat. There are also some very clever adaptations allowing large creatures like elephants and giraffes to co-exist with mice and shrews.

(* All species, as long as they are mammals. I don’t recall seeing any intelligent birds or reptiles, and insects aren’t represented. For that matter, there are no apes or monkeys, either, at least not with speaking roles.)

(** It’s glossed over what the civilized carnivores eat. The only foods we see on screen are rabbit-raised vegetables, frozen desserts, and doughnuts. Hey, it’s a cop movie, gotta have doughnuts--.)

The early part of the film follows rookie cop movie clichés: Judy graduates top of her police academy class through grit and wit, is accepted by the Zootopia Police Department under the Mayor’s affirmative action program, and then is assigned to parking patrol by Chief Bogo (Irdis Elba), since all the other police officers are large, powerful animals. Frustrated, Judy shoehorns herself into an unsolved missing persons case, wagering the Chief that she will resign if she doesn’t crack the case in 48 hours.

She does so, and normally this is where the movie would end. Judy keeps her job, gets a commendation, and becomes the public face of the Police. However, there’s a larger mystery yet unsolved, and Judy doesn’t help ease public fears.

How Judy and Nick solve the greater problem, expose the ultimate villain, and resolve their difficult relationship takes up the second part of the film, which is also interesting and exciting.

The film is really clever in a lot of ways. We will see it again just to look at backgrounds and character designs. While using a lot of cliché characters (the gruff police chief, the doughnut-gobbling desk officer), the film also has a lot to say about “profiling” such as the “dumb bunny” or “sly fox” caricatures and how this causes people to sometimes live down to expectations.
Good clean fun for all ages, although (as the toddler behind us demonstrated) some action sequences and snarling beasts may be too intense for young children.
On Wednesday night, October 7th, we went to the Times Cinema for our last showing in the Milwaukee Film Festival series, “Extraordinary Tales,” an animated anthology of 5 stories adapted from Edgar Allan Poe. Directed by Raul Garcia, each segment was animated in a different style. The pieces are tied together by a framing story, in which the spirit of Edgar Allen Poe (voice, Stephen Hughes), appearing as a flame-eyed raven, haunts a graveyard where the stones bear names of his characters. The voice of Death (author Cornelia Funke) cajoles Poe to come to her, but he initially refuses, concerned with fame and the remembrance of his name. To convince him, Death causes him to recall his stories, and how they reveal his love for Death.

The first segment, “The Fall of the House of Usher” is animated in a stylized and sculptural style that works well for the subject. There were features I liked, such as the gradual progress of the house’s collapse, mirroring that of the inhabitants, and some ambiguity introduced as to whether the climactic appearance of Madeline Usher is physical, ghostly, or a figment of Roderick Usher’s fevered brain. One can’t fault the delivery of the narration by Christopher Lee, but, as adapted by Mr. Garcia, the story falls flat. The faults lie in the timing, and in the lack of emphasis at the climax. The narrator runs from the fragmenting house, and it is shown to collapse in on itself, but the ending has none of the power of Poe’s prose: “While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened — there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind — the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight — my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder — there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters — and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the House of Usher.”

This was a problem with most of the segments. The best one was “The Tell-Tale Heart,” where the narration consisted of a recording of the story as read by the late Bela Lugosi. The animation was done in a wonderfully eerie style of black on white, with the white background being negative space and all from defined only by shadows. In this piece, the pacing and action had to follow the recording of Lugosi’s reading, which makes it the most successful of the five segments.

“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” was next. I enjoyed the old-style horror comic style, including the fact that the main character (voice by Julian Sands) resembled Vincent Price as he appeared in the Poe-based films of the 1960’s. Again, however, the adaptation blew it at the climax. The rapid decomposition of Valdemar, the ultimate horror of the story, occurs in seconds, in distant silhouette, leaving only a man-shaped stain on the mattress. There is no voice-over at this point, so we are robbed of the power of “As I rapidly made the mesmeric passes, amid ejaculations of “dead! dead!” absolutely bursting from the tongue and not from the lips of the sufferer, his whole frame at once — within the space of a single minute, or even less, shrunk — crumbled — absolutely rotted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed, before that whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome — of detestable putrescence.”

“The Pit and the Pendulum,” narrated by Guillermo Del Toro, is perhaps the least successful. Done in a more photo-realistic style, the animation often directly contradicts the text, even as adapted. Admittedly, since the much of the time the character is supposed to be in pitch darkness, it’s difficult to do that in a movie, but his cell is shown as having a window to daylight even as the narration bemoans being immured in darkness. While the pendulum device is well done and matches Poe’s description, the piece totally fails to capture the terror of the pit.

The last segment, “The Masque of the Red Death,” was done in a water-color style that was beautiful to look at, and captured the decadence of Prince Prospero’s castle very well. There isn’t actually much action in Poe’s story—a lot of it is setting the scene, so the animated vignette takes us very directly to the masked ball. Annoyingly, when the specter of Red Death appears, it’s a conventional robed skeleton, rather than the blood-bedewed plague victim in Poe. (In these days of Ebola awareness, one would think that the artists might have portrayed something close to the type of hemorrhagic fever described by Poe--.) One nice touch is that the few lines given to Prince Prospero are voiced by Roger Corman, famous or directing his own freely adapted (but shocking) movie versions of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (in the 1962 anthology film, “Tales of Terror”). This version of “Masque” is done without narration, so we again loose the impact of Poe’s words, “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

Conclusion, a frustrating film. There was so much wonderful work and talent expended, all vitiated by the clumsy scripting. I think the lesson here is that, if you are going to play with the finely honed works of a master like Poe, great care is required to preserve his effect.
(Quotations are from the “Griswold” edition of Poe’s stories, archived on the Edgar Allen Poe Society of Baltimore’s web site.)
On Sunday morning, September 27th, we went to the Downer Theater to see the Milwaukee Film Festival's showing of "Song of the Sea," a 2014 animated feature by the same group that had done "The Secret of Kells," (2009), which we had enjoyed and admired.

We also enjoyed and admired "Song of the Sea." Unapologetically hand-drawn, two-dimensional, and often highly stylized, "Song of the Sea" is a truly beautiful film.

Contemporary in setting, the story incorporates classic elements of Celtic myth and legend. Bronach (voice by Lisa Hannigan), the wife of lighthouse keeper Conor (Brendan Gleeson), turns out to be a selkie, or seal-woman. About to give birth to their second child, she is compelled to return to the sea, leaving her newborn daughter with her husband. Before going, she exacts a promise from her elder child, Ben (David Rawle), that he will be as good a big brother as he can be. She also gives him a horn or pipe made out of a nautilus shell as keepsake.

Six years later, Ben is experiencing the typical frustrations of a brother with a young sister. In particular, Saoirse (pronounced "Sirsha") is fascinated by the ocean, whereas Ben is morbidly afraid of the element that claimed his mother. Added to his frustration is the fact that Saoirse, though a bright child has never spoken, which gives his grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) ammunition in her battle with her son, Conor, over taking the children away from the lonely lighthouse to give them a "more normal" upbringing in Dublin.

When Saoirse plays her mother's shell-pipe, magic lights appear that lead her to the chest where Conor has hidden the "selkie coat" that she was born with. She puts it on, and spends a night swimming with the seals, which puts both Conor and Ben into a panic. Reluctantly, Conor agrees to send the children to the city with Granny.

Almost immediately, the children run away, intending to get back home, but are lead by the magic lights to a fairy mound (located in the middle of a Dublin traffic circle!), where they learn that Saoirse will be hunted by the goddess Macha (also Flannigan). Macha was the mother of Mac Lir (here portrayed as a giant). Unable to bear Mac Lir's grief at the loss of his children (in legend, turned to swans for 900 years by their stepmother), Macha stole away his emotions, which had the side effect of turning him to stone. Herself unhinged, Macha sets out to "help" all the spirit beings of Ireland by giving them the same "cure," which can only be undone by the song of the selkie.

The children have but one night in which to evade Macha's clutches, and find a way to get Saoirse (Lucy O'Connell), who still shows no signs of having a voice, to be able to sing the magic song.

What follows is a mythic adventure, as the children try to get home with both help and hindrance from the remaining mystical beings of Ireland. It works out to a beautiful, sad-sweet conclusion.

The artwork is powerful and expressive and does all that is needed to put the story across, amply aided by the voice acting and a sometimes poignant, sometimes rousing musical score.

"Song of the Sea" has our highest recommendation.

The movie was part of the Festival's "kid friendly" programming, and by all standards, it is, though may be intense for younger children.

Inside Out

Jul. 2nd, 2015 06:45 pm
On Wednesday evening, July 1, we went to our local Marcus Cinema to see the new Pixar/Disney movie, “Inside Out,” which personifies a young girl’s major emotions, chosen as Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust (Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black, Bill Hader, and Mindy Kaling, respectively). The story deals with the emotional upheavals attendant upon the sudden transplantation of a young girl, Riley (Catlin Dias) from Minnesota to San Francisco, and the conflicts in her mind/brain complex that result. The film ends up being a sweet, slightly sad story (though with a happy ending) that has some moments of real tension.

Joy is a charming sprite who is the most intelligent and flexible of the emotions, and the de facto leader. Her mission is to ensure that Riley leads a happy life and to keep her existing mental structure (visualized literally as an internal landscape) functioning smoothly. That all of Riley’s “personality islands”, Family, Friends, Honesty, Hockey (her sport), and “Goofball” (her sense of fun), are positive, shows that Joy has been relatively successful so far, or anyway that Riley has had a very good life.

The unanticipated participation of Sadness into Riley’s new situation throws Joy for a loop, and a substantial monkey wrench into the functioning of Riley’s mind. This tends to be taken rather more seriously than intended by adult critics, who see memory loss, personality disintegration, and emotional flatness as indicative of serious mental illness, rather than the transitory loss of balance the movie shows us. However, the metabrain we see in the film is a virtual mindscape optimized for storytelling, and not intended to represent reality.

Pixar continues to delight and amaze with its animations. The visualization of “Inside” is quite creative and interesting, but the most fascinating constructs are the emotions themselves, which get more detailed the more closely you see them. It takes a good close up to see that Joy and the others don’t have smooth “skin” or even a textured integument, but that their borders are a zone of fine pixelations, almost as though suggesting the emotions were fractal in nature—as, indeed perhaps they are.

It also took me a while, and some of the darker scenes, to realize that Joy, is—well—radiant. The subtlety of this effect, and the modelling of her light on the environment around her is a triumph of the new art of animation, and one of the few things I think I have seen that absolutely could not have been done by more conventional means.

“Outside,” the Pixar artists have done an excellent job of balancing cartoonishness and the “uncanny valley,” so that it’s easy to emphasize with and accept the human characters. Ms. Dias as Riley does a good job characterizing a troubled pre-teen, and Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan do good jobs as Riley’s loving parents who are also distracted by the big move.

The film is not without its flaws, but they are minor. At points we see inside other people’s heads, where all five emotions are represented as the same sex as the outward person, as opposed to Riley, where Fear and Anger present as male. Perhaps this is something that changes during “Puberty”—which has had a big red alarm signal installed during the latest upgrade?

Highly recommended for fans of animation mature enough to understand the somewhat complex and esoteric storyline.
Tuesday the 9th, we went to see “The Book of Life,” the new animated movie by Guillermo del Toro (among others). This beautiful film is set in a mythic world where Mexico is the “center of the world,” and the town of San Angel, the center of Mexico. Three children, the vivacious Maria (Zoe Saldana), the soulful Manolo (Diego Luna), and the dashing Joaquin (Channing Tatum) become the subject of a wager between the Lords of the Dead. Ugly Xibalba (Ron Perlman) is tired of ruling the gray and despondent Land of the Forgotten, and wants to trade places with the beautiful La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) who rules the colorful and joyous Land of the Remembered. Their wager is on which of the two boys Maria will eventually marry, Xibalba choosing Joaquin, and La Muerte, Manolo. If Xibalba wins, he gets the Land of the Remembered. If he loses, he must cease meddling in the affairs of the living.

The plot is mostly straightforward and satisfying, with a few twists to keep it fresh. The movie design is bold and unique. In a framing device, schoolchildren visiting a museum are told the story by a docent, using wooden toy figures to illustrate it. We then see the action played out, but the people still are made of wood, with visible, toylike joints. Even given that, many of the characters are extremely stylized, old men in particular tending to have long snoutlike noses, influenced by Basil Wolverton or Mad Magazine. The visions of the lands of the dead are of course based on the folk art prevalent at the Day of the Dead time, with decorated skulls a particular motif. The result is one of the most visually creative and exhilarating films seen in years.

All the voice acting was quite good, with a few surprises (Placido Domingo!). The sound track was also enchantingly eclectic, ranging from mariachi and opera to pop ballads and original pieces.

Most highly recommended and good for most ages. Some scenes may be too intense for the younger viewer.

Big Hero 6

Dec. 9th, 2014 05:10 pm
Tuesday, we went to see Big Hero 6, and found it delightful.

Set in “San Fransokyo”, an amalgam city of San Francisco and Tokyo, I was grabbed by the movie’s design sense in the first images, a pan including what I am calling “the Tori Gate Bridge.” This combination of American and Japanese elements, combined with fantasy elements such as tethered wind-turbine balloons, make a setting that is attractive and fascinating.

The protagonist, Hiro (Ryan Potter), is a 13-year-old genius who has graduated high school, but dawdling over entering college that he doesn’t see the utility of. This changes when he visits his older brother Tadashi’s robotics lab, meets his self-described “nerd” friends, and becomes motivated to get admitted to college so he can do the kinds of work they are.

Hiro’s amazing entrance project, swarming “microbots”, is lost in a fire and explosion which also kills Tadashi (Daniel Henney). When he discovers the microbots have actually been stolen, he becomes obsessed with bringing his brother’s killer to justice, and begins by upgrading Baymax, his brother’s invented health aide robot (voice by Scott Adsit).

Baymax’s concern for Hiro’s “health” causes him to bring in friends Go Go, Wasabi, Honey Lemon, and Fred, (Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans, Jr., Genesis Rodriguez, and T.J. Miller) and Hiro uses his abilities to help build super tools reflective of each one’s specialty: speed and mobility for Go Go, lasers and plasma for Wasabi, and chemistry for Honey Lemon. Slacker Fred gets a monstrous super-suit gratifying his kaiju fantasies. Together they go after the kabuki-masked mystery man who has turned Hiro’s microbots into a devastating weapon.

Although the plot is standard comic-book fare (I knew immediately who the villain had to be--), there were still some surprises. The manner in which the kids get in each other’s way when fighting the foe is both realistic and refreshing, and Fred’s ongoing comic-informed commentary on “origins” and “revenge plots” does a lot to subvert the tropes in an amusing fashion. The blended city background is gorgeous, and the character animation effective and pleasing. (I thought there was more than a little well-done Miyazaki homage, particularly in the ominously flowing black mass of microbots. Such visions are frequently seen in Studio Ghibli movies.) Good voice characterization by all the actors and I thought the cartoonish character designs were distinctive and worked well.

Definitely the most enjoyable film we have seen this holiday season. Good for most ages, although as with most action movies, combat scenes may be too intense for younger children, and some images are scary.
On Friday evening, February 28th, we went to the Oriental Theatre to see the latest release from Studio Ghibli, "The Wind Rises".

This is said to be the last movie that the great Hayao Miyazaki will direct. Even if that is not the case, he certainly put many of his trademarks into it.

The movie is nominally about the life of Jiro Horikoshi (although heavily fictionalized), aeronautical engineer and designer of some of Japan's most effective World War II era military aircraft, including the notorious Mitsubishi "Zero." Besides the story of Japan's push toward technological equality with the West, the movie also tells us the love story of Jiro and his wife, Nahoko, and is an elegy for inter-war Japan.

Among the Miyazaki trademarks evident are the gorgeous painted backgrounds, the occasional dreams and visions, and the fantasies of flight opposed to the threats from above, ranging from a pulp-magazine fantasy WW I German dirigible to an American B-29.

We are shown that, as a boy, Jiro was already in love with flight, and supposedly enthralled by the designs of Italian air pioneer Count Giovanni Caproni. That Miyazaki is enamored of Caproni we know from "Porco Rosso," but I have my doubts about Horikoshi, since nothing could be further from Caproni's Gothic flying boats and tri-motor transports than the spare and lean Zero fighter.

Jiro goes to Tokyo to school for engineering. We see him surviving the devastating earthquake of 1923, depicted in a sequence that that is all the more effective for its subtlety. We see the rows of houses in Tokyo tossed like chips on a wave, followed by smoke on the horizon, flaming debris born on the winds, and the eerie roaring what would become a firestorm that consumed much of the city.

After graduating engineering school in 1927, Jiro is given a job by Mitsubishi Internal Combustion Engine Company Limited, who are competing for military aircraft contracts. While the film shows Jiro troubled by the prospect that his designs may be used for war, as prefigured by the eerie Herr Castorp, he wants his country to become a modern nation, and so he works to design and build the best aircraft he can.

The movie has been released in both a dubbed and a subtitled version, which are alternating at the Oriental. We were pleased to get the subtitled version for our showing. I'm sure that the English dub, featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt as the voices of Jiro and Nahoko, is probably just fine, we do prefer hearing the expression of the original language. That said, there was very good voice acting by Hideaki Anno as grown-up Jiro and Miori Takimoto as Nahoko, and an excellent supporting cast.

One on line review suggested that this was Miyazaki's most beautiful picture. That might be debatable, but it is certainly a strong contender for that title. Being set mostly in the real world with some excursions into dreams, there are not the flights of fancy found in movies such as "Princess Mononoke," or "Spirited Away," but the delicate and lovely renderings of rural Japan succeed in portraying the country as a land worthy of being loved.
On Sunday, July 14th, we went to see "Despicable Me 2," which in our opinion has well earned the success it has garnered at the Box Office.

Gru (Steve Carrell), retired master villian, is trying to settle down to an honest life with his three adopted daughters. Aided by his chief henchman, Dr. Nefario, and the Minions, initial efforts are having distinctly mixed success. When an extremely dangerous "transmutation" formula is stolen (in a delightful James-Bond homage opening sequence), Gru is forcibly recruited by Anti-Villain League agent Lucy (Kristen Wiig) to help find out who's got it and foil their plans.

Of course, no one's plans go as planned. Curmudgeonly Gru is of no mind to help law enforcement, Gru's own plans and home life are going awry, and pretty soon, he, Lucy, the minions and even the girls, are meddling in the plans of the sinister opponent.

Very funny and charming, with entertaining action and effects. There were numerous references to other action movie/science fiction/superhero films, which adds to the fun.

The animation for this film is remarkable, being as convincingly 3-D (even though seen in 2-D) as anything I have seen, Pixar efforts included.

Highly recommended.
It's been a busy couple of weeks with me pulling overtime to deal with a large client's needs, so time for some quick catching up.

July 4th, we picked up Chris Madsen, and went over to Mayfair Mall (open 10-6 on the holiday)to see "Monsters University," the prequel to "Monsters, Inc.". In this one, ambulatory eyeball Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) is the protagonist, and the story deals with his entry into the prestigious Monsters University "Scarers" program, which prepares one for a career harvesting the children's screams that power the Monster world. James P. "Sully" Sullivan (John Goodman) is his classmate, and both get washed out of the program for differing reasons. The plot then goes on to detail their plans to get back into the program.

While its an ultimately sweet story, actions have real-world type consequences, and there are plot twists that take it away from the "loveable losers save the day for the school" story that's been made a cliche after first having been done by Harold Lloyd in 1925.

The veterans are well-supported by an interesting voice cast in a myriad of monstrous shapes, lead by Helen Mirren as Dean Hardscrabble, and Alfred Molina in a nice cameo as Professor Knight. Unlike a lot of the "cute" monsters, Hardscrabble is a truly fearsome image, with the head,torso, and wings of a dragon, and the tail and legs of a gigantic myriapod.

Pixar continues to go from strength to strength in animation. The crowd scenes and long shots are particularly astonishing, as no to creatures are alike, or have the same number of heads, or number and types of limbs. The sources are drawn not only from myth and legend, but classical monster artists such as Hieronymus Bosch, as well.

We enjoyed the film a lot. As a prequel, it doesn't "spoil" Monsters, Inc., and you don't have to have seen Monsters, Inc., in order to see and enjoy "Monsters University."

After the movie, we went to the Applebee's restaurant at the Mall for dinner. This was the first time I'd been into one for many years. Chris and I each had their 9 oz. sirloin steak, and Georgie had a classic turkey breast sandwich. The steaks were good and cooked to order, and the potato and vegetable accompaniments were OK. Georgie said the turkey was good, but thought the ciabbatta used as bread was a bit insubstantial. We would definitely eat there again.

After that, we went over to Chris' place to chat and let dinner settle enough for dessert, which was apple pie and ice cream we had bought.

After leaving Chris, we walked down to Jackson Park for fireworks, which was a nice twenty-five minute show. We noticed a new color this year, a light greenish yellow that was quite interesting.

Saturday the 6th, we met Henry Osier for dinner at East Garden restaurant on Oakland Avenue, to be followed by the new film of "Much Ado About Nothing," by Joss Whedon at the Downer Theater.

East Garden is a Chinese restaurant, with the typical extensive menu. I had Mushu Duck, Georgie had Sesame Chicken, and Henry chose a ginger noodle dish. All the food was good, but not wonderful, and service was decent. I'd try them again if in the neighborhood, but wouldn't go out of my way just to go there.

"Much Ado About Nothing" is the production of Shakespeare's play put together by Whedon in ten days after "The Avengers" wrapped, shot in black and white, using Whedon's home as the villa where the action takes place, and cast with Whedon's regular players. The result is fun and interesting, with the cast giving a very accessible reading of the play that modern viewers not previously familiar with it can enjoy. The script was straight Shakespeare, although the actions were sometimes a bit more slapstick than typical on the stage. In particular, the antics of Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker) when they think they are eavesdropping on their friends, are rather over-the-top, but funny. Nathan Fillion was excellent as Dogberry, playing the role mostly straight, instead of as a Keystone Kop.

I generally liked the production very much, except for one salient thing--a wordless sequence at the film's opening showing the relationship of Beatrice and Benedick before the time of the play, which is directly contradicted by the script and the play's whole argument. This is responsible also for the reading given to Acker for her opening speeches about Benedick which are far from "merry war," and indeed bitter. I don't understand why Whedon thought this was necessary and find it a disappointing flaw in an otherwise fine film.

For me, the definitive film version of "Much Ado" is still the Emma Thompson/Kenneth Branagh version (although Fillion's Dogberry is better than Michael Keaton's baffling portrayal), but this is a very worthwhile addition to the canon of Shakespeare in cinema.


Jun. 16th, 2013 04:19 pm
We hadn't seen much advance information about the new animated movie "Epic," but went to see it on the strong recommendation of friends. I will second those recommendations.

"Epic" combines some very classical plot ideas, but manages to come up with something quite fresh. On the one hand, there is the situation of Mark Katherine, or "M.K.", (Amanda Seyfried), who is coming to live with her father after her mother's death. Father (Jason Sudekis)is a questionably sane science geek. His obsession with proving that a sophisticated society of little beings exists in the undergrowth of the New England forest is what has ruined his reputation and driven his wife and daughter away.

On the other hand, there IS such a society, which we find engaged in a deadly war between the forces of life and renewal, lead by Queen Tara (Beyoncé Knowles), and the forces of rot and decay, lead by Mandrake (Christoph Waltz). Mandrake is apparently insane as well, as, not appreciating that all things die as it is, and that rot and decay is the source of new life, he wants to extend his immediate dominion over all things NOW, which would result in disastrous disruption of the balance of nature.

Tara's people include the human-looking leaf men, plantoid people (called "jinns" in the credits), pretty birds and nice bugs. A snail, "Mub" (Aziz Ansari) and a slug, "Grub" (Chris O'Dowd)who provide the requisite comic relief for the good guys. Mandrake's people are called Boggans (think goblins from "The Hobbit" in horde quantities and two inches tall), and the usual creepy creature suspects like crows and bats.

Trying to catch the family dog (there are a number of "Wizard of Oz" references) M.K. steps into the middle of a crucial battle, and get shrunken down to two inch height when Tara calls on her for aid in her last extremity.

How M.K., the heroic Leaf Man leader "Ronin," (Colin Farrell) and the charming screw-up "Nod" (Josh Hutcherson) save the day takes up the greater part of the remainder of the film. The story, for all its basicness, is done with wit and charm, and some clever foreshadowings that we didn't see the significance of when they happened.

Perhaps more importantly, the movie is rich to look at. The micro-world of the forest is beautifully realized, and blends realistic, fantastic, and comic elements very nicely.

"Epic" is a pleasant, pretty, and ultimately sweet afternoon's entertainment. Recommended for all who can stand the intense action and scary creatures.

Besides, it has one of the best lines of the season: "I've got to go Heimlich my friend out of a slug."
On Christmas Day, we went out to see the latest animated feature from Dreamworks, "Rise of the Guardians." I hadn't been interested in this based on the previews, mistaking it for another "saving Christmas" epic (yawn). However, the movie got a very strong recommendation from our friend Bob Seidl, and we are glad we took his advice to see it.

While the "squabbling good guys come together to beat the bad guy" plot isn't wonderfully original, it is wrapped in a design that is often utterly marvelous and witty. Santa Claus has a Russian accent, large "Naughty" and "Nice" tattoos on his burly forearms, and swings a pair of cutlasses like a Baltic Sea pirate. He has a fantastic headquarters/factory/world watch in ice mountains at the North Pole, where the toys are actually made by Yeti, and elves are a somewhat fondly tolerated form of vermin. His sleigh, with its boatlike body and folding wings smacks of Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang. The Tooth Fairy resembles a humanoid hummingbird, and her palace is likewise a marvel of design. The Easter Bunny is a big, tough, rabbit with an Australian (!) accent, and boomerangs to match. His domain, although more pastoral, is also wondrous and witty. (I was bemused by the animated giant stone egg heads, until Georgie noted that of course they were Easter (Island) heads--.) There's lots more, and we will be seeing it again to catch what we undoubtedly missed.

There is a good plot in the origin of "Jack Frost" (voice by Chris Pine) who, given his magical existence by the mystical and mysterious Man in the Moon, does not know where he comes from nor what his purpose is. He has lead a frustrated and aimless existence, unable to directly interact with human beings and getting along with the other entities with difficulty, if at all. (The Bunny doesn't appreciate snow on Easter and holds a grudge.) Things change when he is called upon to aid the Guardians (Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, Sandman)against a resurgent Boogyman (Jude Law), who wants to replace children's belief in the wondrous with only belief in the fearsome.

The movie sets the current standard for computer-aided animation with very smooth and beautiful action, stylish character design, and the aforementioned gorgeous settings and backgrounds. The cast of voice actors is star-studded, and gives the quality of performances you would expect from Alec Baldwin as "North/Santa," and Hugh Jackman as "The Bunny." I wasn't familiar with Isla Fisher, the voice of "Tooth," but she has a lengthy resume and stands up to the boys perfectly well. The soundtrack is witty as well, crediting both Turlough O'Carolan and Dimitri Shostakovich, and borrowing from many others.

In sum, a very good story, and some of the most gorgeous and art I've seen on screen in a long time. Highly recommended.


Aug. 29th, 2012 12:21 pm
Sunday the 26th, we went to see "ParaNorman," the new stop-motion animation supernatural comedy. (One of a number coming up, including the new version of "Frankenweenie," and "Hotel Transylvania" (no relation to the book by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro--).)

The story is set in Blithe Hollow, a run-down town whose one claim to fame is a 300-year old witch trial there that resulted in the hanging of one "witch". "The witch" is memorialized by a Wicked-Witch-of-the-West styled statue, and a tacky tourist industry. However, the town does seem to have an affinity for attracting ghosts, which creates problems for Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a boy who can see them and talk with them, much to the dismay of his disbelieving and painfully mundane family.

However, it appears that Norman comes by the ability honestly, since his crazy Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman) not only has the ability too, but has also inherited the job of annually keeping the Witch and her zombie-cursed witch-hunters in their graves on the anniversary of her death. When Prenderghast dies suddenly, the job passes to the unprepared Norman, with expectable complications.

The movie is a lot of fun to watch. The stop-motion animated characters are quirky and amusing, yet you can see the types of people they are modeled on. CGI backgrounds and effects integrate with the figures very nicely. The story has a lot of spooky laughs, although the ending is a bit preachy.

Very good light entertainment with a moral. Suitable for anyone of an age not to be freaked out by movie monsters.


Jun. 28th, 2012 01:02 pm
On Sunday, June 24th, we went to see "Brave,"the new Pixar production released by Disney, and found it excellent. (Of course we had to go--Georgie is a life member of the League of Women With Unruly Red Hair.)

"Brave" is set in a Mythic Scotland, where some of the clans still paint themselves blue, Northmen invaders threaten, and there are bears in the woods (but no lions or tigers--). Fergus (voice by Billy Connolly) is the "king" of a loose-knit four-clan alliance. He is inclined to indulge his daughter, Merida (Kelly MacDonald), who has grown up as a wild-haired, wild-riding young woman who is far handier with a bow and arrow than she is with a comb and brush. However, he is also inclined to indulge his civilized wife, Elinor (Emma Thompson), who is determined to make a "proper" princess out of Merida and see her married to the son of one of Fergus' allies. With neither marriage nor propriety anything Merida cares for, a clash between the two strong-willed women is inevitable.

Things come to a head when the clansmen come to present suitors, and are humliliated by Merida. The epic scolding she gets from her mother causes her to flee into the woods, where she comes across the hut of an old woman who reluctantly admits that she is a witch. Merida makes a rash bargain with her for a spell that will "change her mother" and "change her fate,"--without determining any details as to how this is to be accomplished.

Of course, the spell causes things to go from bad to horridly worse, and then it's up to Merida to try to set things right, without letting her father know what's happened.

The character of Merida is a very real teenager, and her relationship with her mother is an honest one. (Athough, teenager like, her first impulse is to shirk responsibility. When catastophe happens, her response is "The witch did it! It's her fault!") Elinor is also a very real mother figure, and neither omnicompetent nor a total wet sock. It's very amusing to see her both trying to maintain her dignity and to help her daughter, even while bespelled. The other characters are mostly caricatures for Merida and Elinor to play off, but they are well done and mostly turn out to have some extra depths.

Pixar's mastery of digital animation continues to grow. I intend it as complimentary that the backgrounds and scenery are so beautifully done that you cease to notice them as artwork and just accept them as you would any other movie backgrounds. While the character designs are cartoony, they are still remarkably realistic. I was struck by details such as the interaction between Merida's lips and teeth: unlike more "rubber-featured" cartoons, it's evident that there's a rigid skull under the skin, so that you see teeth when she's talking when you should, and don't see them when you shouldn't.

Although the "be careful what you wish for" plot isn't new, "Brave" is still a strong story, freshly presented and beautifully mounted.

Recommended for all ages. Fight scenes may be scary for the very young.
On May 1, we went out to see "The Pirates! Band of Misfits," the new stop-motion (mostly) animation film from Aardman Animations, creators of "Wallace and Gromit."

The film is done in a refined version of Aardman's classic style, with sight gags piled one upon the other, such that we're planning to go back a second time just to try to catch more. (The credits are worth sitting through because they give you close ups of the many posters, portraits, and other graphics that decorate the "sets".) The seamless subtlety of the stop-motion, particularly in the character faces and expressions, makes you forget it's done with "clay" and meshes completely with CGI generated backgrounds.

The movie begins with Queen Victoria (voice by Imelda Staunton) getting a briefing from her Admiral on Britain's rulership of the seas, which is complete except for the nagging, minor, pirate problem. This sets Victoria off into a rant against pirates, whom she hates because, among other reasons, they are anachronistic. (Which is quite true for her time, and a satirical swipe at "Pirates of the Carribean"--.)

Cut to somewhere at sea, where The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) is planning his campaign to win Pirate of the Year after many failures. In real life, any pirate who managed to keep himself, his crew, and his ship alive for twenty years would have been a great success. However, Pirate of the Year is based largely on how much booty you can bring to the judging, and he is far outclassed by rivals "Peg Leg Hastings," " Cutlass Liz," and reigning champion, "Black Bartleby."

Frustrated, he scours the seas for more treasure, coming up empty until he overtakes Charles Darwin's survey ship, "The Beagle". Darwin (David Tennant) beguiles the Pirate Captain by telling him that he already has something that may be of "incalulable worth." However, Darwin's plan involves sailing to London and into the teeth of Queen Victoria's emnity.

Lots of slapstick swashbuckling ensues. It turns out that not only does Darwin have a hidden agenda, so does Victoria, who turns out to be a formidable foe.

The ultimate result is very funny, and thouroughly enjoyable. Suitable for all ages old enough to follow the plot.
On February 26th, we went to see "The Secret World of Arrietty," which is the most recent Studio Ghibli animated feature to be released in the US under the Disney aegis.

This is the Ghibli version of Mary Norton's award-winning 1952 book, "The Borrowers," which deals with the adventures and misadventures of tiny people living "below the radar" of normal-sized humans. Studio Ghibli's treatment has quite successfully updated the story from the book's quasi-Edwardian setting to the modern day, and moved it from the specifically English setting to a non-specific but gorgeously realized setting.

The plot is simple; the Borrowers are discovered by a young boy (Sean, English voice by David Henrie)whose attempts to learn more about the little people and to cultivate a friendship with the girl Borrower, Arietty (Bridgit Mendler), lead to discovery by others whose intentions are not benign, and trouble ensues. The pleasure of the movie is in the character interactions, and in the marvelous settings conceived by the animators. On the one hand, the internal world of the Borrowers, inside walls and under floors, is cleverly done and in its way, believable. The humans' house is a lovely construct, with its combination of European and Japanese features. The outside world, with its wild garden of flowers, is just beautiful, despite its dangers.

Adventurous Arietty and curious Sean ("The Boy", for much of Norton's book) are quite true to the original text, as is Homily (Amy Pohler), Arrietty's rather hysteric and agoraphobic mother. I think that the character of father Pod (Will Arnett), monosyllabic and workmanlike, is rather an improvement on the Micawberesque father-figure in Norton, partly because the film adaptation's emphasis is more on adventure than on humor.

A charming film,recommended for all ages.
And, speaking of movies that are almost, but not quite, entirely unlike their origin material, we caught up with “Puss In Boots” on Christmas Day. This spin-off from the “Shrek” fairy-tale world has nothing whatever to do with the Marquis du Carabas or any of the elements of the classic fairytale. Instead, it is largely an homage to Sergio Leone-style spaghetti Westerns and star Antonio Banderas’ own “Zorro” movies. Although according to the script, the setting is Spain, the environs of the town of San Ricardo and its inhabitants are pretty clearly Mexican, and there are other Leone homages such as split-screen sequences.

The plot is pretty good and surprisingly convoluted with some decent surprises as we get to see Puss In Boots’ origin story. Flashbacks are integrated with a decent action-adventure. Animation, character design, and backgrounds are actually a bit better than the Shrek sequence, natural for evolving technology, but without as many embedded jokes as we’ve become used to in “Far Faraway.”

Voice acting by Banderas as Puss, Salma Hayek as “Kitty Softpaws,” and Zach Galifianakis as the scheming “Humpty Dumpty”, is good, and it’s fun to find out in the credits that bad guys “Jack and Jill,” were voiced by Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris, and that Guillermo Del Toro did character voices as well.

Pure fun, and enjoyable for most ages, although young kids will miss some innuendos. Action sequences might be intense for the very young.
The odd things I speculate about as a fan--. Suppose the “Cars” world is one in which the “robot apocalypse” happened, and the robots won? Or, for you “Transformers” fans, the Decepticons took over--? Once having wiped out the humans, the robot society collectively decided that automobiles were the coolest and most aesthetic machines (and roads very convenient for getting around) so settled on the “car” form as a basic design. Then, the “Robot Masters” caused monuments, etc., to be modified into the car-centric shapes we now see, reinforcing the idea that things have always been that way (ala the old “Planet of the Apes” franchise). So, the next movie in this series would be “Escape from the Planet of the Cars”? Interesting thought but rather creepy to consider that Lightning and Mader might be Terminators underneath--.

BTW, we saw a trailer for “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” along with “Green Lantern,” and the premise seems risible. The idea of the original series, that the humans bombed themselves back to the stone age and the apes evolved to take over was halfway acceptable for suspension of disbelief. The new movie—naah--.



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