Isle of Dogs (2018)

Isle of Dogs (2018) movie poster

director Wes Anderson
viewed: 04/07/2018 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Even as a fairly inveterate Wes Anderson film aficionado, it’s pretty easy to see the problematics of Isle of Dogs and its version of Japan and the Japanese. Even while trying to be overtly respectful (the film is meant in part as an homage to Akira Kurosawa), you can still wind up with something that is culturally tone deaf and resultingly offensive.  The fall-out from responses to Kubo might have been a signal if caught early enough in production.

In part, I think Anderson’s approach here works. The whole film is taken as translations. The dogs barking is translated into English. The Japanese is paraphrased in translation, whenever actually translated.

The film is totally gorgeous. And if you’re apt to like Wes Anderson films, it’s certainly that with snappy dialogue, amusing characters, deadpan humor. Though Anderson himself is not an animator, this stop-motion design and animation team is so perfect for his aesthetics, which I’ve compared before to cinematic dioramas or shadowboxes.

What’s most interesting to me about this movie is that its Wes Anderson doing speculative fiction. The story is set 20 years in the future and the world is totally garbage and destroyed (or at least Garbage Island is, where we spend most of the film). It starts from a pessimistic point, in which “man’s best friend” and a metaphor perhaps for what is good in humanity is removed from human society due to a variety of diseases. To further the dystopia being shoved down society’s throat, the replacement dogs are robots, capable of viciousness only.

Ultimately, the film resolves itself too easily. The villainous Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) has a change of heart for no apparent good reason. The stakes in a Wes Anderson film are typically not so high, and viewers can usually guess that things will work out in the end more or less.

I enjoyed the film, as did my teenage daughter. But I tend to like Wes Anderson constructions. It really is beautifully rendered.

Gandahar (1988)

Gandahar (1988) movie poster

director  René Laloux
viewed: 01/13/2017

Nowhere as fantastic as Fantastic Planet (1973), René Laloux’s 1988 film Gandahar is still something above and outside the norm of animation, fantasy, or science fiction. The English language version was produced by the Weinsteins and features a rather unusual crew of voice talent including Glenn Close, Jennifer Grey, Penn Jillette, Bridget Fonda, David Johansen,  and Christopher Plummer. Apparently, this version, which was adapted by Isaac Asimov, is not quite up to snuff of the French original.

Laloux adapted the story from Jean-Pierre Andrevon’s novel Les Hommes-machines contre Gandahar, and the style of design was led by French artist Caza. It’s still some pretty far-out stuff.

The animation style, though, is more conventional cel animation, so it’s more through the design aesthetics and muted tone through which the strangeness emanates. Actually, there’s a nice Kraftwerk video set to the imagery that fits groovily together.

The peaceful blue peeps of Gandahar are attacked by robot men. This leads their mostly bare-breasted women leaders to send out Sylvain to find out how to defeat them (all this peace has led them to forget to make weapons anymore). Sylvain discovers the mutated brethren of he Gandaharians and eventually this Metamorphis, giant brain thing also developed by Gandaharian technology that seeks to wipe them all out to achieve immortality.

Oh yeah, and the door of time.

If off-beat, trippy science fiction is a groove you can dig, you’ll enjoy Gandahar. Nowhere as radical or satisfying as Fantastic Planet, but well worth the time.

Cool World (1992)

Cool World (1992) movie poster

director Ralph Bakshi
viewed: 01/06/2018

Ralph Bakshi’s Id is not PG-13.

In 1992, I, like about everybody else, considered Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World a bit of a disaster. In part from a technical perspective, comparing it with the much better budgeted and realized Who Framed Roger Rabbit from only a couple years prior. But also from the weird tension of a film that was a lot nastier and racier than it was allowed to be.

I’ve been working my way through Bakshi’s oeuvre for the past few years, holding back on this disastrous last feature of his (still rated 4% on Rotten Tomatoes, apparently). So, I put it on for me and my two teenagers.

Oddly, they both liked it. And oddly, so did I.

Though the concept is weak, featuring Brad Pitt as a 1945 ex-GI stuck in the Cool World, policing live action dudes from cartoon (“doodle”) babes with the one law in the land: miscegenation. Holli Wood (Kim Basinger) is the hot-to-trot honey, a modernized Tex Avery dream girl, who’ll do anything to become a “real world girl”. She seduces Gabriel Byrne, a cartoonist who thinks he dreamed up the Cool World, to take her across dimensions.

Bakshi (or whoever directed it) fails to get most any shot where a live action person looks like they are actually seeing the cartoons. Pitt is almost the worst at this and looks a lot of the time like he’s just hoping they don’t make him look like a moron.

The animations, wheeling out of control and nearly non-stop in Cool World is like a crack-fueled reel through 1930’s animation, in particular the Fleischer and Terrytoon studios, where nothing ever stopped moving, but pulsed in a cycle. This would maybe be just cute mice if that were it, but this is a Ralph Bakshi picture, so there is this utter counterculture subversion of all these figures, all chasing one another with knives or guns, twisted prostitutes and pimps, caricatures just barely this side of racial stereotypes, cutting loose with all they’ve got.

It finally all explodes on early 1990’s Las Vegas (now immensely quaint by comparison). The production values will never escape your mind, but if you give into the animation and designs, there is a lot of weird action.

And I don’t know, but I liked it this time through. It’s not that it’s necessarily any better, but I appreciate it more. And like I said, my teens did as well. Weird.

Felidae (1994)

Felidae (1994) movie poster

director Michael Schaack
viewed: 01/03/2018

Wikipedia describes Felidae as “a 1994 German adult animated neo-noir crime horror film”. Francis the cat moves to a new neighborhood with his overweight but kindly owner only to find that someone is tearing out the throats of cast around the neighborhood. That seems noirish enough but as the story moves forward it heads into themes of vivisection, eugenics, and racially motivated genocide. And religious sect fanaticism. And the imagery gets dark, gory, and bleak.

Felidae is a most adult animation.

“Once there was a suffering dreamland… I was born there. It was a place of sorrow until the prophet came among us and brought us salvation.”

Filmed in classic 2-D cel animation, I wouldn’t consider the quality of the animation or character design to be that much above average. But as it is 2-D cel animation and the character designs aren’t worlds away from industry standards, it does “feel” familiar in style.

Also, interestingly, it was adapted from the first of a series of novels by German-Turkish writer Akif Pirinçci. I wonder where he took the series after this grim, dark original.

Felidae is a total anomaly. Really, quite the interesting movie.

 

Coco (2017)

Coco (2017) movie poster

director Lee Unkrich
viewed: 12/02/2017 at the Balboa Theater, SF, CA

My kids are both teenagers now, so all Disney or Pixar movies are no longer mandatory screening. I was actually a little surprised when my daughter asked if we could go see Coco.

After the atrocious and annoying Frozen “short”, the double-branded Coco begins. Patting itself on the back for its innovations in CGI and its due diligence to Mexican culture, the film opens up on the story of a long-lost patriarch and the remembrances of the Day of the Dead.

My daughter said her Spanish teacher had encouraged seeing it. And she was pleased by how many words she recognized (though I frankly knew about as much of the  Español myself.

It’s vividly-realized. I mean, this is Pixar, after all. The land of the dead is gorgeously depicted with meticulous details abounding in shot after shot.

Still, I wasn’t enthralled in it. I’m still trying to weigh exactly why this was. My daughter did enjoy it.

And I enjoyed going with her. I don’t know how many more of these we’ve got.

How old were you the last animated film you saw with your parents as a child? What was it?

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999) movie poster

director Trey Parker
viewed: 05/13/2017

Saturday night, combing through my queue at Amazon Prime, the kids spot South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut and respond “A South Park movie? Is that a real thing?” We’ve spent part of the past 6 months working our way through the series from the beginning and we’re almost caught up with the present. At 13 and 15, I think they’re mature enough to appreciate and consider South Park.

It’s actually been an interesting thing, time traveling through the show, which at best is wickedly funny, spot-on, and clever and interesting. At its weakest, it’s rather tone-deaf on gender issue and transsexuality, climate science, and a couple other things. Still, valuable as starting talking points.

The movie is, like the show, at its best, quite hilarious. The “Uncle Fucka” song and Cartman’s V-chip in his skull are classic ideas from Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and company, and very funny. Taking on the issue of swearing seems very appropriate for a show of foul-mouthed kids suddenly unleashed on an R-rated platform, and that they get their cursing from a movie they like, apropos.

But the satan/Saddam Hussein thing, and the whole apocalypse brought about by killing Terrance and Phillip is a bloated, and a lot less funny. Really, the movie could easily be pared down into on totally great episode of the show, and maybe should have been.

Who knows? Just my opinion.

Your Name (2016)

Your Name (2016) movie poster

director Makoto Shinkai
viewed: 04/08/2017 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

I often take my kids to movies on the weekends, and while we do hit some of the blockbusters and such, we also try to see more unusual or offbeat stuff.

So this weekend, I looked and there was not a lot calling my name. I was vaguely interested in Kong: Skull Island and the documentary about James Baldwin, I am Not Your Negro, but kind of uninspired. Then I saw that a new anime feature was playing, one I hadn’t really read much about. I thought, “Cool, maybe the kids would dig that.” And they were into it.

The weird thing was this Japanese animated feature Your Name was playing EVERYWHERE, including our local neighborhood cinema. And it was playing on the largest screen in the theater, squeezing Beauty and the Beast and Ghost in the Shell into the smaller ones. I guess it was massively popular elsewhere but this is pretty unprecedented, even in San Francisco.

Well, you know what? It’s pretty fucking lame.

It’s beautifully animated, but it’s a sort of teenager The Lake House with a boy and a girl occasionally swapping bodies because of a comet and some temporal shifts. I found it unengaging and kinda dull.

My son liked it okay. I couldn’t get my daughter out of bed.

So much for the most interesting thing I could find.

Long Way North (2015)

Long Way North (2015) movie poster

director Rémi Chayé
viewed: 02/18/2017

The style of this French-Danish animated feature reminded me aesthetically of Tomm Moore’s films The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, and it’s not so surprising. First time head director Rémi Chayé assistant directed the 2009 film.

Sasha is the daughter or a Russian aristocrat who leaves everything behind in a quest to find her grandfather or his missing ice-breaking ship, both of whom disappeared as he searched for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole. He’s a sort of Russian version of a Ernest Shackleton but more shaggy and fun.

It’s a nice film, with a strong female hero. It’s light but also mostly serious, with a lot less humor than your average children’s animated fare. Which isn’t really the problem.

The problem is more in the pacing and drama. Some things fly by, others happen suddenly without much impact. The polar bear scene near the end really lacked something. It’s hard to describe exactly what is off here, but both me and my daughter noticed it.

Still, enjoyable, if by no means a classic.

The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

The Lego Batman Movie (2017) movie poster

director Chris McKay
viewed: 02/11/2017 at CineArts @ Empire Theater, SF, CA

I really didn’t think I’d find myself watching The Lego Batman Movie. My kids are now 15 and almost 13, and while they still like animated movies, somehow I figured this was not going to be one that they were all that interested in. But as they are getting older and knowing that these times of going to see “kids” movies with them is a thing probably not long for my world, I’m happy to indulge them.

My daughter really enjoyed it, watching throughout with a smile on her face. The comedy is pretty quick and incessant.

I liked it. Not overly though.

Still, it might have been the best DC superhero movie to date.

When Marnie Was There (2014)

When Marnie Was There (2014) movie poster

director Hiromasa Yonebayashi
viewed: 12/17/2016

Studio Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There came with a lot less fanfare than many of their films, so we somehow missed it in the cinema.  Maybe it’s a film with a harder selling point, no giant cats or spirits, no flying witches, robots, pigs.  But it does have a ghost…of sorts.

And it’s surprisingly emotional, evocative, and beautiful.

The story is about an orphaned 12 year old, Anna, who suffers from depression, asthma, and some social disorders is sent to live with her adoptive mother’s friends in the country.  Her alienation from people is not so specifically defined but profoundly relatable.  It is only when she meets the mysterious Marnie, a girl from an abandoned mansion nearby, who pays her the kindness and attention that awakens life and love and friendship in the girl.

There is a lot that one can read into the story, or maybe simply “read the story as”.  My kids, with whom I watched the film, thought that Anna was imagining everything, a state of schizophrenia or something, but more so, as the story develops that the relationship between Anna and Marnie is a romantic one, of emotional and physical love.  So when the final twist falls, it’s a little hard to reconcile the various readings.

That said, it’s a very affecting film.  The emotions of loss and loneliness and alienation, of love as well, are palpable.  The mysteries and vicissitudes of the story remain open and richly evocative.

Studio Ghibli has been an amazing institution and Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There is another remarkable film to add to their legacy.