Tag Archives: Animation

CAPSULE REVIEW: NEON GENESIS EVANGELION: DEATH AND REBIRTH (1997)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of , , ; , Amanda Winn-Lee, Tiffany Grant (English dub)

PLOT: Three children are recruited to defend humanity from a series of monstrous Angels.

Still from Evangelion: Death and Rebirth (1997)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While certainly bizarre, there’s no reason to put an uneven recap of a television series in the List when a superior candidate exists in End of Evangelion.

COMMENTS: Despite its reputation as the seminal weird anime, for the majority of its original 26-episode run Neon Genesis Evangelion was not particularly unusual, aside from its penchant for psychosexual and biblical imagery. The series’ most notable quality, its focus on the emotional and psychological well-being of its cast, was remarkable in its depth but hardly unprecedented. Mobile Suit Gundam, arguably the most iconic and influential mecha series of all, made the traumatic nature of war a core part of its storytelling nearly two decades before Evangelion’s existence. The bizarre, surrealist elements that Evangelion is best known for today mostly comprise the last third of the series, culminating in its astonishing final two episodes.

The depletion of the series’ budget forced creator and director Hideaki Anno to complete it using narration over a combination of concept art, storyboards and stock footage. Whether by necessity or choice, the last two episodes of Evangelion more or less abandon the series’ narrative. Instead, they are expressionist psychological studies of the series’ protagonist, Shinji Ikari, and seemingly of Hideaki Anno. Today, Evangelion’ s final episodes are jaw-dropping, but in 1996 they were reviled by fans seeking resolution to a series they loved.

Evangelion: Death and Rebirth only makes sense in the context of the backlash to Neon Genesis Evangelion’s final televised episodes, because it clearly targets jaded fans of the series rather than newcomers. Death and Rebirth feels like a make-good from Anno to fans disappointed by the series’ finale. It is split into two parts: the first, Death, is a 70 minute compilation of clips from the original series, while the second, Rebirth, is a 30 minute preview of End of Evangelion, the film released four months later as a replacement conclusion to the television series. Death serves to remind fans why they loved the series, while Rebirth promises them a more satisfying ending.

Summarizing a plot as dense and labyrinthine as Neon Genesis Evangelion’s in 70 minutes is likely an impossible task. Death and Rebirth makes no effort to actually do so, and is a better film for it. Instead, Death uses events from the series to summarize the emotional journey of its three main characters: the anxious and self-loathing Shinji Ikari, the depressive and reserved Rei Ayanami, and the competitive and narcissistic Asuka Langley. The trio of teenagers are tasked with Continue reading CAPSULE REVIEW: NEON GENESIS EVANGELION: DEATH AND REBIRTH (1997)

366 UNDERGROUND: STAR TREK TIME WARP TRILOGY (2010-2013)

DIRECTED BY: Brandon M. Bridges

FEATURING: Brandon M. Bridges

PLOT: A series of time paradoxes reunite a Starfleet captain with a friend he’d long thought dead.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While a handful of scenes approach delightfully high levels of weirdness, the trilogy as a whole is too monotonous and just plain boring to be worthwhile.

COMMENTS: For the lover of outsider cinema, fan films are a tricky lot to evaluate. On one level, fan films make up one of the most plentiful sources of DIY filmmaking. Persons whose movie production experience ranges from amateur to none gather together out of nothing but a shared enthusiasm for their subject to make films. They write their own scripts, sew their own costumes, scout out whatever locations their friends and family have access to, and rent or buy their own equipment, all with zero expectation of commercial recompense due to copyright law. The best of fan films are filmmaking for filmmaking’s sake, regardless of budget, experience or competence, and that’s fertile ground for weird cinema.

There’s something at the root of the fan film, however, that often prevents it from being a truly weird product. By its very nature, the fan film is intrinsically tied to the aesthetics and ideologies of the commercial film industry, because it’s the output of that very industry that fan filmmakers are trying to imitate. Fan films might be described as an audiovisual form of cosplay. Be it “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” or “The Lord of the Rings,” most fan films aim to replicate their source material as closely as a limited budget and volunteer crew and cast allows. While there’s still plenty of room for creative expression within these confines, just as there is in fan art and fanfiction, the firm ties to pre-established canons and aesthetics severely hamper the fan film’s potential for weirdness.

I don’t know if I’ve seen a fan film that typifies this dichotomy between slavish devotion to source material and bizarre outsider weirdness as much as Brandon Bridges’ Star Trek: Time Warp trilogy. Its visual fidelity to the “Star Trek” universe comes down to minute details of each ship and uniform, and it’s made all the more impressive by the fact that it was all done by one man. At the same time, the constant insertion of what are clearly the director’s personal interests throws all that fidelity into disarray. Archived video of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” plays a vital role in the protagonist’s attempts to determine the identify of a time-traveling warlord. Bridges also has a relationship with “The Price Is Right” that’s akin to ’s relationship with angora wool. Serious plot developments occur in holodeck recreations of the Bob Barker era set, and the game show’s full theme plays in each of the three films.

Maybe the strangest thing about the Time Warp trilogy isn’t its length, or its obsession with mid-70s daytime television, but rather how un-“Star Trek” the narrative feels. On a surface level, the story has many of the staples of “Trek,” particularly the original series and “Next Generation” films of the 80s and 90s. There are temporal anomalies, starship battles, and political conspiracies to disrupt peace in the universe. But most of the run time isn’t spent on any of these things; instead, it’s devoted to long, verbose conversations between the characters about their personal and emotional lives.

This isn’t to say emotional storytelling hasn’t been a focus of certain incarnations of “Star Trek,” but at their creative peak the franchise wove such storytelling into its narrative, revealing characters’ interior lives through their reactions to the events surrounding them. In Time Warp, sci-fi touchstones like time travel and alien invasions come off as little more than nuisances rudely interrupting the crew’s navel-gazing. While the concept of a mid-century melodrama occasionally interrupted by Romulans is appealing, the execution here is unfortunately just boring.

Each film in the Time Warp trilogy is available to view for free on Youtube.

317. MILLENNIUM ACTRESS (2001)

Sennen joyû; AKA Chiyoko: Millennium Actress

“I find memories and dreams belong to the same category of artifacts. In other words, if we want to make a contrast, we have reality on one side, which is opposed by the dream, the memory or even a fantasy… They are on a different ‘layer’ than our reality and can be superimposed on it.”–Satoshi Kon (translated from the French)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Shôzô Îzuka, Shouko Tsuda, Miyoko Shôji, , Fumiko Orikasa

PLOT: A film producer and a cameraman interview Fujiwara Chiyoko, a famous retired Japanese actress. As she tells the story of her life, they find themselves absorbed into her flashbacks, which seem to mix scenes from movies she acted in with her actual memories. Genya, the interviewer, delivers a key Chiyoko had left behind at the studio, and reveals that he has personal motives for visiting the actress.

Still from Millennium Actress (2001)

BACKGROUND:

  • After making Perfect Blue, Satoshi Kon intended to adapt Yasutaka Tsutsui’s novel Paprika (which he eventually made in 2003), but financial considerations led him to tackle this less expensive project first.
  • Kon co-wrote the film with Sadayuki Murai, who also wrote the screenplay for Perfect Blue.
  • Tied for the Grand Prize in the Japan Agency of Cultural Affairs Media Arts Festival (in a deadlock with Spirited Away).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Because they are striking, suggest transcendence, and bookend the movie, it’s the shots of Chiyoko in a spacesuit linger in the mind. Her discovery of a mysterious easel set up on the moon’s “pure white landscape” ends up as one of the strangest sights in Millennium Actress.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Free cameraman with flashback; Godzilla cameo; lunar easel

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: An interviewer tries to get to the root of a famous retired actress’ life, including the significance of a mysterious object (a key) from her childhood. A series of decades-spanning flashbacks paint a portrait of a life spent chasing an unobtainable goal; only, the memories get mixed up with scenes from historical epics she starred in. It’s like Citizen Kane, but with ninja battles.

U.S. trailer for Millennium Actress

COMMENTS: Although much of the movie is a retrospective of Japanese cinema from the 1920s on, fictional screen icon Chiyoko Fujiwara’s career spanned less than a century, much less than a millennium. So how does the title Millennium Actress arise? From the fact Continue reading 317. MILLENNIUM ACTRESS (2001)

WORLD OF TOMORROW EPISODE TWO: THE BURDEN OF OTHER PEOPLE’S THOUGHTS (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Don Hertzfeldt

FEATURING: Voices of ,

PLOT: “Episode Two” picks up some time after the events of the first film, with a previously unmentioned spare Emily clone seeking out the original Emily Prime. This “back-up copy” clone, recognized only by a 6 on her forehead, travels back through time to capture Emily Prime’s memories, as she will never receive third generation Emily’s memories due the Earth having exploded, thus destroying Emily’s bloodline. Confused? As with the wealth of ideas in the first episode, there is a lot to digest here.

Still from World of Tomorrow 2: The Burden of Other People's Dreams (2017)

WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: The original “World of Tomorrow” remains a long shot due to its short running length, and this sequel only improves on that aspect by about five minutes. It is equal, but not superior, to the quality of the first episode, and as a result will not be a List contender.

COMMENTS: The first “World of Tomorrow” arose from a series of audio recordings of Hertzfeldt’s niece, Winona Mae, then four years old, rearranged to form a script. The recordings for the sequel were made when Mae was five, and the dialogue was considerably more difficult to sculpt into a coherent work: “It turns out that writing a story around the unscripted audio of a four-year-old is pretty easy compared to writing around the unscripted audio of a five-year-old. Where once I had short and expressive reactions that could be gracefully edited, suddenly I was facing down long, rambling monologues from a small crazy person.” Difficult or no, Hertzfeldt has crafted another elegant and irreverently funny work here that captures much of the same resignation and melancholy of the first, while narrowing the focus of the narrative.

Where the first short took us to robot mining colonies and museums where living clones aged on display, here Hertzfeldt limits our gaze primarily to back-up clone “6’s” experiences. We see the distant planet where 6 grew up, and the friendship she formed with back-up clone 5, called “Felecia” to discriminate her from other Emily clones. Together Emily Prime and 6 explore 6’s mind and memories. A particularly poignant moment comes when Prime discovers a shining thing in a stream, which 6 identifies as “a glimmer of hope,” something that has become much rarer in 6’s mind. 6 informs Prime that her mind used to be young and idealistic like Prime’s, but then 6 grew up and she hasn’t “seen a new glimmer of hope… in many years.” Scenes like these conjure up the wistfulness for childhood that characterized much of the first film, that yearning for dreams that went unrealized, marred by the disappointments of adult life.

The disconnect between Prime and her clone’s perceptions of the same moment greatly informed the comedy in the first film, and this element returns in the sequel. Prime doesn’t understand the significance of much of what 6 describes, and her innocent, childish reactions are often hilarious. When 6 plaintively asks Prime if she recognizes the planet where Felecia is exiled, Prime innocently suggests it might be “near Kitty land?” before offering other imaginative possibilities. In between these moments of disconnect, Hertzfeldt expertly weaves affecting dialogue (“The closer I look at things, the less I know”) as characters move across a backdrop of digitally conjured imagery. This feast of kinetic eye candy takes the form of swirling, nebulous particles, replacing the  geometric patterns of the first episode.

Does Hertzfeldt’s description of a difficult second birth translate to the film emerging as a flawed outing? No, there are no major sequel shortcomings here: “The Burden of Other People’s Dreams” captures the tone and aesthetic of the first, pushing them in a slightly different, more specific direction. Perhaps narratively it is less than the first film’s full course meal (the glimpses of the larger world and story sidelines are missed), but ultimately “Episode Two” is even more intimate and affecting due to its limited scope. Without distractions from her story, we come to genuinely feel for 6, so that when the film reaches its climax and her current consciousness dissolves and Prime fulfills 6’s childhood hopes, we are moved on the same level as we would watching a live action film. The emotive power of Hertzfeldt’s films continues to be the strongest element of his uncompromising, independent oeuvre.

“World of Tomorrow, Episode Two” is available exclusively on Vimeo on Demand.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If ‘World of Tomorrow’ was a journey outwards to the furthest reaches of thought, ‘World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts’ is an epic voyage inward, a dizzying spin down the rabbit hole of the human subconscious.”–David Ehrlich, Indiewire (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Minami Takayama, Rei Sakuma, Kappei Yamaguchi; , , Matthew Lawrence (Disney English dub)

PLOT: As a rite of passage, a friendly 13-year old witch sets up a delivery service in a village.

Still from Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It doesn’t have quite the mania or kiddie surrealism of Miyazaki’s wilder works like Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away. We’re covering this one for the sake of Miyazki completeness.

COMMENTS: Kiki’s Delivery Service takes place in Anywhere, Europe—it might be in France, or Italy, or Austria—at a nonspecific time in the 20th century (there are automobiles, dirigibles, telephones, and black and white televisions, but no airplanes). In this alternate world, witches are real, and carry over some of the iconography of folklore, like flying broomsticks and black cat familiars. However, in Kiki, witches are accepted with none of the negative connotations of Häxan—they aren’t suspected of eating children by the light of the full moon. Rather “resident witches” act as public servants, one per town. According to the rules of witchcraft, smartly delivered in the film’s first twenty minutes or so, when a witch turns thirteen she leaves home and serves an apprenticeship. She has to find her own unique eldritch talent, which might be fortune telling, or potion brewing. Kiki’s quest to find out where she fits in this odd society is the engine of this coming-of-age tale (with a chaste, comical boyfriend subplot serving as bonus content).

Miyazaki, the son of an airplane manufacturing magnate whose extensive aviation-themed back catalog suggests he’s a frustrated pilot, creates some of his greatest flying scenes here. The freedom of the highly maneuverable broomstick allows him to “film” not only soaring green vistas, but vertigo-inducing shots from below and scenes of Kiki racing through traffic, levitating just inches above the pavement. The climax is a thrilling rescue as Kiki attempts to pilot an uncooperative broomstick, which keeps plunging when it’s supposed to hover. The excitement of the flying sequences helps win over boys who might be skeptical of a story revolving around a girl who sets up a small business.

I usually like, or am at least neutral about, Disney’s choice of dub actors, but I confess Kirsten Dunst’s voiceover was a little too bubble-gummy for me this time out. At least VO vet Phil Hartman, as the gently sarcastic cat Jiji (with just a touch of in his delivery), is excellent, stealing his scenes. Dunst’s performance is a minuscule nitpick anyway, and certainly nothing to overshadow Kiki‘s achievements as superior children’s entertainment. It’s not a transcendent example of its genre like Spirited Away, but Miyazaki’s craft and imagination never disappoint. Kiki delivers.

In 2017 Gkids got the rights to Disney’s Studio Ghibli catalog and began re-releasing the features on Blu-ray. This edition is almost identical to Disney’s 2014 Blu, right down to the extra features—but the one improvement that devoted anime fans will appreciate is the inclusion of an optional set of literal English subtitles, as opposed to Disney’s “dubtitles” (which often changed the original meaning slightly to make the story more accessible to Western audiences).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… top-drawer kiddie fare both for fans of the exotic and for mainstream family auds.”–Ken Eisner, Variety (contemporaneous)