Tag Archives: Animation

CAPSULE: MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (1988)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING, (Disney dubbed version)

PLOT: Two young girls befriend a forest spirit who lives in a tree near their new country house.

Still from My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: My Neighbor Totoro is somewhat strange, like being dropped into the unfiltered imagination of a six-year old girl. Its kidlike oddness is not sustained enough to thrill adult weirdophiles, however.

COMMENTS: In My Neighbor Totoro, Hayao Miyazaki takes yōkai, Japanese traditional folk monsters, and literalizes them in the only way possible: by making them into real spiritual phenomenon that are only visible to children. None of the adults in the movie, even Satsuki and Mei’s university professor father, doubt the real existence of the yōkai; a grandmotherly character confesses that she could see them when she was young, but lost the ability with age. This strategy creates a pleasant truce between kids and adults as to the reality of these fairy creatures. Grownups can’t see or interact with Totoro or his friends, but they don’t denigrate or patronize kids for believing in them. The girls’ first encounter with the mythical creatures is in the form of “soot sprites” who huddle in the dark corners of the long-vacant country home. Later, Mei, the younger of the girls, will encounter a couple of miniature troll-creatures (these mini-Totoro’s are never explained); following them leads her inside a hollow camphor tree, where she finds the massive plush Totoro slumbering, and immediately befriends him. Later, at a rainy bus stop, Satsuki meets Totoro, too. Impressed by her offer of an umbrella, he introduces her to the film’s strangest invention, the Catbus: literally, a fuzzy bus with a tail and a Cheshire cat grin. Catbus is a fusion of the organic and the mechanical, a newfangled yōkai for the 20th century. Although there are magical nights when the girls soar above the treetops with Totoro and friends, not a lot of the movie’s running time is actually devoted to fantastical encounters with yōkai. Most of the time, we are engaged in the girls’ domestic life with their doting dad, and in observing the bucolic vistas of a Japanese country village. There is a distant stressor in the girls’ sick mom, but for the most part their days are spent happily, exploring the countryside and doing cartwheels among the flowers. Although some adults may find the lack of expected tension and conflict in the story perplexing and unfamiliar, Miyazaki’s technique strikes a chord with young children across cultures. What four- to eight-year-old girl wouldn’t want to have a huge, friendly, protective teddy bear like Totoro as a friend to recline and rely on? Totoro doesn’t have bad guys or moments of serious jeopardy because its ultimate message to kids is that they don’t have to be scared by life’s challenges and changes; the unknown isn’t a threat, it’s an opportunity.

Although Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli has long been intimately associated with its current distributor, Walt Disney, in the English speaking world, the fact is that Totoro‘s first American distributor was none other than the low-budget exploitationeers . The scant negative reviews for the film that can be found almost all relate to the Troma theatrical release. It’s not clear whether this is because Troma’s dub job detracted from Miyazaki’s magic, or whether Disney’s seal of approval predisposed critics to approve of the effort. Disney acquired the rights to this early feature in 2006 and re-dubbed the film with a better-known vocal cast. Meanwhile, Totoro himself became so popular that he was incorporated into Studio Ghibli’s logo, becoming Japan’s equivalent of Mickey Mouse.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the film evinces a disorienting combination of cultures that produces a nowhere land more confused than fascinating.”–Leonard Klady, Variety (Troma theatrical version)

156. STRANGE FRAME: LOVE & SAX (2012)

“How fortunate are those who can frame the beauty of the strange.”–opening title of Strange Frame

DIRECTED BY: G.B. Hajim

FEATURING: Claudia Black, Tara Strong, Ron Glass, 

PLOT: In the 28th century, saxophonist Parker falls in love with songwriter and escaped debt slave Naia on Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. The two women form a band, which catches the eye of a music producer. When the producer kicks the sax player out of the band to set Naia up as a solo act, hooks the singer on drugs and isolates her from the outside world, Parker teams up with two interplanetary trash haulers to penetrate the corporate defenses that separate the women.

Still from Strange Frame: Love & Sax (2012)
BACKGROUND:

  • This is the first feature film from Hawaii-based director G.B. Hajim and the first script and soundtrack from co-writer/co-composer Shelley Doty.
  • Hajim and Doty began discussing the project in 1999, and began writing the script in 2002. They envisioned Love & Sax as the first in a series of four films.
  • More than forty Hawaiian high school students worked as interns on the film over its seven years of production.
  • The black and white live action footage edited into the film comes from the all-black feature The Duke Is Tops (1938), starring Lena Horne as a singer who is manipulated into leaving her lover behind with promises of becoming a star in New York City.
  • “Star Trek” alumnus George Takei has a vocal cameo.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Strange Frame is at its visual best when it’s a free-flowing montage: cut-out mutant space lesbians in the foreground, swirling psychedelic backgrounds drifting in and out of focus in the background. It is therefore a difficult task to isolate a single strange frame from this movie; every image is in a constant state of flux. One of the best sequences occurs when Satanically suave agent Dorlan Mig plies the women with powders and rare liquors in an upscale Ganymede nightclub populated by horned celebrity dominatrices and their monocle-wearing cat-person managers. Immediately before the lovers are launched into a trip that’s visually unhinged even by this movie’s extreme standards, we see them reflected in his mirrored shades, one girl improbably and perfectly framed in each lens, before their visages dissolve and morph into pink lips and tongues. That’s about as standout a standalone image as you’ll be able to find in this Heraclitan river of psychedelic cinema.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This story of two renegade lesbian rock stars gigging among the moons of Jupiter is a bit odd, but really not all that weird in and of itself. It’s the visuals that (as the movie’s legend promises) “frame the beauty of the strange.” Imagine dropping a hefty dose of LSD on the set of Blade Runner, and you walk through a door and suddenly you’re in the Star Wars cantina. Now, imagine that experience animated by the team behind Fantastic Planet working under the direction of , take that result and square the weirdness quotient, and you have some inkling of Strange Frame‘s visuals.


Original trailer for Strange Frame

COMMENTS: Strange Frame is an animated psychedelic lesbian science fiction musical. Just to be clear, I would have been happy with any three Continue reading 156. STRANGE FRAME: LOVE & SAX (2012)

CAPSULE: THE PAINTING (2011)

Le Tableau

DIRECTED BY: Jean-François Laguionie

FEATURING: Voices of Jessica Monceau, Adrien Larmande

PLOT: Figures leave the painting in which they reside and go searching for the Painter to find out why he left some of them incomplete.

Still from The Painting [Le Tableau] (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s visually imaginative and ambitious, with a few hallucinatory moments, but the morally naïve allegory adds a kitschy feel that’s incompatible with the high art graphics. If the story had been sketched out with as much loving detail as the beautiful Impressionist-styled artwork, this might have been a masterpiece, rather than something that’s just nice to look at.

COMMENTS: True to its post-Impressionist inspirations, The Painting is visually stunning. Taking its cues from early Picasso, Gauguin, and (especially) the crazy geometries and color schemes of Matisse, this movie always looks like a canvas come to life. Standout scenes include a dreamlike sequence of a magical flower observing a captive figure with its glowing eye-like stigma, a raucous animated romp across the bridges of Venice during Carnivale, and moments where the characters push through the permeable burlap canvas to emerge in the “real” world. Storywise, however, there isn’t much to The Painting. There are three classes of painted figures in the movie; the fully colored-in Allduns (who consider themselves superior and oppress the “lesser” figures), the incomplete Halfies (who may be lacking nothing more than a corner of the hem of a dress to be complete), and the Sketchies (black and white figures whose shape has only been suggested). A forbidden Romeo n’ Juliet relationship between an aristocratic Alldun and a Halfie leads the characters to leave the painting in search of answers (and hopefully a dye job) from the Painter; they move across other canvases and eventually into the Painter’s studio (where animation mixes with live action). The plot is basic, with the scarcely developing characters simply moving from one CG environment to another. Allegorically, however, The Painting has grand ambitions. It wants to be both an existentialist take on the search for the Creator and a class parable about bigotry and oppression (it also reserves a few minutes to declare its basic anti-war sentiments). By tackling two huge themes, however, director Laguionie ensures that each only gets half-sketched. The idea of the creations searching for God is an appealing conceit, but ultimately the movie has nothing to say about that ultimate reality beyond “be responsible for your own fulfillment.” We’re not convinced that the Almighty Creator is very much like a mortal painter, and so the analogy can’t satisfy our own sense of the mystery of existence. As far as the class parable goes, it’s never clear what the divisions are supposed to represent. Are the differences between the Allduns, Halfies and Sketchies racial, economic, or cognitive? Maybe the Sketchies represent the physically or mentally handicapped, who are, in some offensive sense, “incomplete” creations? At any rate, the movie’s position that the Halfies and Sketchies should “complete” themselves strikes many commentators as ironic and unsatisfactory. Shouldn’t the Allduns learn, or be forced, to tolerate those who are different, rather than the inferior classes accepting that they are defective, and figuring out how to fix themselves? These questions won’t bother youngsters, who will absorb the valuable (if insipid) lessons about tolerance and self-reliance well enough. But the movie’s failure to complete the grand philosophical goals it sets for itself makes it much like a partially unfinished artwork. Still, the part that is painted looks awfully good, and that’s enough to make it worth looking at, if not thinking about.

The French animation studio Blue Spirit produces mostly children’s television programming, but they also worked on the brilliant The Secret of Kells.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The animated film’s aesthetic employs expressionism, realism, and cubism, but the morality plays are layered on as thickly and haphazardly as a toddler’s finger painting.”–Caroline McKenzie, Slant (contemporaneous)

SATURDAY SHORT: IMAGINEERS IN EXILE (2013)

There are a decent number of submissions sent in to this weekly column, some of which don’t end up on the site. That being said, it was hard to ignore A DandyPunk’s submission, even after featuring him once already. We admire the ambition of those with the ability to express their art through multiple mediums, and, more obviously, those who do so through less conventional means.

366 UNDERGROUND: THE BULGARIAN PROPHET (2010)

DIRECTED BY: El Vulgario (Yavor Batchev)

FEATURING: Will, Chetan, Sienna, Sanjita, Anuj, Chintu

PLOT: The life story of Ivan, a Bulgarian refugee who arrives in America in the early ’70’s and begins the immigrant’s journey towards The American Dream, which in his case involves being anointed by the God of Shit to start The Temple of Holy Shit and spread the Word. Bestowed with supernatural powers, he performs miracles, advises government figures and amasses a following—until he is kidnapped by KGB agents and shipped to the USSR to use his powers for their benefit.

Still from The Bulgarian Prophet


COMMENTS: As Steve Martin once said, “Comedy is not pretty”. That saying applies equally to satire, especially when the satire is as sledgehammer blunt as it is in The Bulgarian Prophet. The movie is set in the America of the early 70’s, long after the Summer of Love has peaked and degenerated, after the Summer of Manson had finished it off. Vietnam is in full swing, Nixon is in office, and the time is right for all sorts of strangeness to take root. Enter the ‘hero,’ Ivan, escaping the Communist regime in his native Bulgaria to make a new start in America, where any man can pursue his heart’s desire—as long as that desire involves insanely huge amounts of cash and loose women with insanely large breasts.

There should be a lot of things working against this, from the animation style (courtesy of 3Danimationindia.com), to the occasional stiff line readings, but oddly, they complement the broad satire. In fact, if this were done as a live-action no-budget indie, it would come off as half-assed and worse than amateurish. Animation, even crude animation, allows for the full expression of Batchev’s ideas, unfettered by budgetary constraints and laws of physics (such as when Ivan walks across a swimming pool full of sewage in front of the media as a demonstration of his newfound divinity.) And in comedy, all that matters is that you get the laugh—and The Bulgarian Prophet does get them. After all, finesse is for critics to argue about.

Normally, you’d probably would have to look for this at underground film festivals, since the style and tone is way too blunt for mainstream film and animation festivals to screen. Your best bet to see this is to check for it on YouTube, or visit The Bulgarian Prophet official website.

 

 

WALT DISNEY’S FANTASIA (1940)

Over a thirty year period I have seen Fantasia (1940) in theaters on a few occasions. During each showing I witnessed several members of the audience walk out. That is usually a good sign. There is little doubt that this experimental film (yes, Disney once was innovative) has unmitigated moments of lurid kitsch, with equal parts cinematic magic. It’s a flawed masterpiece, which begs the questions: does an infallible masterpiece actually exist? Fantasia represents it’s creator, Walt Disney, as utterly possessed by obsessive, artistic, and innovative ambition. It may be one of the most stand apart films ever crafted, which is why, seventy plus years later, it still has the power to provoke dumbed-down audiences who still look at artmusic with suspicion. Simultaneously, it also annoys insufferable academic elitists who cannot find it in themselves to embrace the film’s tawdrier moments.

Another supposed “strike” the film has against it is its choice of conductor: Leopold Stokowski. Stoki was the P.T. Barnum of transplanted Euro conductors residing in America. Mention him to any “serious” classical music lover and he’ll make a face like he’s heard fingernails scraping down a chalkboard. Stokowski was known for his Bach transcriptions, one of which—“Toccata and Fugue in D minor”—opens the film. Essentially,he romanticized Bach, making him sound more like Tchaikovsky. One wit described such tampering as “High Cholesterol Bach.” It’s a dishonest reaction, molded by unimaginative attachments to “historical correctness” and hyper-realism. Avoid such persons like the plague (they probably started life by pulling the wings off butterflies). For those of us who have no qualms admitting that we like plenty of syrup on our musical flapjacks, embracing this wizard’s transcriptions presents no problems. Seeing only Stokowski’s brazen self-promotion amounts to blindness. This former organist had one of the most prodigious gifts in drawing color out of every orchestra he worked with, which made him the quintessential choice for Fantasia. Compare his achievement in this film, awash in personality, to the comparatively monochromatic conducting of James Levine in Fantasia 2000.

The meeting of Stokowski and Walt Disney, in 1937 at Chasen’s restaurant, is the stuff of legend. Disney was starstruck with the conductor’s celebrity, mysterious accent, and fierce mane. The seed of an idea for a “concert film” sprang from the meeting. At this time Disney had only produced and released one previous feature: Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937). The idea of an animated feature had seemed risky and radical, with the naysayers predicting bankruptcy. The profits and critical acclaim from Snow White forever silenced those constipated doomsday prophets. Now, Disney was ready to take another risk. 1940 saw the release of Disney’s second and third feature films. Artistically, it paid off as Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia are, to date, Disney’s two greatest films (yes, I said that), released only nine months apart. The former was a critical, box office hit. The latter did not make money for nearly twenty years. Disney had proven one can go indeed broke overestimating the American public.

Still from Fantasia (1940)The Fantasia deal signed, Stokowski was excited and predictably offered numerous ideas about the use of color. A later biographer wrote that the conductor’s fascination with color was sincere, describing his various experiments with mixing alcoholic drinks for color effects. Stoki did a similar thing with “sound color” by incessantly changing the orchestra seating layout. Even visually, “Toccata and Fugue” is pure Stokowski. The opening piece is introduced via the superb narration of American composer Deems Taylor (to the public he was primarily known as a commentator for the NY Philharmonic Radio Broadcasts). This “absolute music” is total abstraction. Entirely hand painted, at times the watercolors almost appear to still be wet. Vibrant with texture, this is far removed from contemporary slick and soulless computer animation. Stokowski used no baton, so his beautifully powerful long hands are highlighted, jabbing through the splashing backdrop. The french horns are hauntingly lit in diaphanous color before the violin bows transform into silvery beams of light reaching for infinity. Sound and vision collide, producing crashing tides, ending in a literal fireworks display.

For those, like myself, who have overdosed on Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” Fantasia serves up a refreshing alternate vision, the most Continue reading WALT DISNEY’S FANTASIA (1940)