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.

Belladonna of Sadness (1973)

Belladonna of Sadness (1973) movie poster

director Eiichi Yamamoto
viewed: 10/29/2016

I first heard of Belladonna of Sadness from Scumbalina at Atomic Caravan.  I’ve been following Scumbalina and Atomic Caravan for about four years now, turned onto Jean Rollin, Aleksandr Rou, and now Eiichi Yamamoto.  I don’t know how hard it would have been to find Belladonna of Sadness, but its recent restoration and release have happened and a random reading of the New York Times told me something else: it’s streaming on Amazon Prime!

The film draws comparisons to George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine, which I assume is because there really isn’t anything else out there like it.  And the 1968 animated Beatles’ vehicle is both psychedelic and unlike most anything else itself.  I actually think it has more in common with René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (also 1973) than anything else I can think of.  Maybe some other Eastern European films of the time.

That said, it’s also very, very Japanese.

Inspired by La Sorcière, a French book about Satanism and Witchcraft from 1862, Belladonna of Sadness takes concepts of European descent and filters them through a psychedelic lens, imbued with elements of Japanese folkloric tradition, plus lots of sex and violence.

Produced initially by Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy and generally referred to as “the Walt Disney of Japan”, this is pretty far-out and sexy stuff.  This was the third production that Tezuka and director Eiichi Yamamoto collaborated on, following One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (1969) and Cleopatra (1970), though Tezuka left Belladonna early in its production.

The style is utterly different from anything else I can think of in feature-length animation.  Yamamoto uses long pans across complex, elaborate drawings oftentimes, using a single image to tell the story.  At other times, the highly stylized imagery comes to life, in gorgeous lines like ink and watercolor and in figures that recall Gustav Klimt or Aubrey Beardsley for many (the latter certainly for me).

The story and images are violent and sexual, with a phallic devil, a woman ripped between her legs, endless vaginas and penises, in what is attempting to be a proto-sex-positive feminism perhaps, though heavily muted by its violent imagery and convoluted path to female empowerment.  The film’s final image, confusingly straight out of left field, is a close-up on Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People”,  possibly suggestive of something hopeful and empowering?

People have cited the film for its slow pace and possibly drawn out length (even though it is short).  Also whether it is a successful attempt at a positive feminist message, a failed one, or one at all.  And I cannot say, certainly not on one viewing.

But what it is and why it is so striking is something so radically unusual, with visual designs so gorgeous and unique, I can’t help but find it a remarkable and impressive film, something strange and tremendous and fresh.

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) movie poster

director  Travis Knight

Laika Studios has become my favorite feature animation studio of present times.  Their first feature Coraline (2009) quickly became one of my favorite films, and while none of the ensuing other three features have quite achieved that film’s perfection, Kubo and the Two Strings, like 2014’s Boxtrolls is a very beautiful and wonderful fantasy feature.

It’s an original story, an under-valued commodity in mainstream film, set in a pseudo-Japanese fantasy world in which a boy, Kubo, and his mother hide out from a pair of evil aunties and a vengeful grandfather.  They wind up on a quest to find a sword, helmet and armor that will magically protect the boy.

The Asian-ness of the characters, design and story aren’t problematic for me, but I’m curious how they are read by others.  The Japanese-ness is very much baked into the designs and themes and the figures are stylized.  And though they are stylized and beautifully rendered, notably so, these would-be Asian characters are largely voiced by a non-Asian cast.  It’s easy to imagine that there is some backlash or criticism available here.

I’m not sure how I feel about it exactly, but the choices for the story, character designs, and castings were all conscious ones.

Overall, though, the film is beautiful, rendered in part, I’ve heard, through CGI, not exclusively stop-motion puppets.  The story and characters are compelling and I quite liked it.

My kids and I discussed our rankings of Laika films after watching it.  We all agreed Coraline is the best, though Kubo and Boxtrolls might swap positions.  We’ll see.

Finding Dory (2016)

Finding Dory (2016) movie poster

director Andrew Stanton
viewed: 07/24/2016 at the Alamo Draft House – New Mission, SF, CA

Pixar’s Finding Dory got pretty good reviews, but I wasn’t terribly bothered about seeing it, big screen or small.  My 12 year old daughter, though, given her druthers for a movie outing, opted for it.  And truly, as my kids break on through into their teens, I realize that my need to see the latest animated fare is on the verge of falling away.  So, I willingly embrace it.

I’ve commented before on Pixar’s once magical touch and how it’s been whittled down to a mere mortal hand.  The fallibility is less human and more corporate, of course.  Movies that didn’t need sequels now get sequels, this one 13 years out from Finding Nemo of 2003.

Ellen DeGeneres and Albert Brooks are back as Dory and Marlin, and Andrew Stanton is also back with another story of fish seeking family across the ocean.  This time, it’s Dory, she of the bad memory, looking for her family who turns out to live around Morro Bay, CA.

I guess they were running low on new fish.  This time we’ve got a beluga whale, a whale shark, and most notably a 7 legged octopus (Ed O’Neill).

You’d have to be a real grump not to enjoy it pretty well.  But it’s far from innovative, fresh, original, or overly compelling.  Often, even in a weak Pixar film, the innovations of their animation technology are stunningly on display, but nothing really stood out for me in that regard here.  I might even consider it moderately forgettable.

But my daughter enjoyed it.  And I’m glad we went.

Anomalisa (2015)

Anomalisa (2015) movie poster

directors Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson
viewed: 06/27/2016

Charlie Kaufman’s brand of bleak, self-loathing misanthropic surrealism takes on new form in Anomalisa, the form of meticulously detailed stop-motion animation.  It’s adapted from a play of Kaufman’s from a decade earlier, a play with a staging equally unique but utterly different from the film.  The key points that remain the same, apparently, are the script itself and the three person cast of David Thewlis as Michael Stone, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lisa, and Tom Noonan as everybody else in the world.

Michael Stone’s life is so bland and banal that everyone speaks in the exact same voice, from his taxi driver to his wife to his child to his waitress.  That is until he meets Lisa, the one person different in the world.  He falls in love with her, they make love, plan to escape the world,…that is, until her voice starts to take on the tone of everyone else as her words reflect the same mundanity of everyone else, and the robotic nature of humanity is revealed yet again.

Kaufman draws this world view from an actual syndrome, the Fregoli delusion, in which a person perceives all others as a singularity and source of deception.  It’s even the name of the hotel at which Stone stays in his visit to Cincinnati.

I’ve always found Kaufman’s work interesting and often poignant, but also very depressing.  It’s a depressing world view, not one with which I necessarily argue, but depressing nonetheless.

I think it’s somewhat interesting, and I’ll have to look into this, that this is an animated film by a director who is not an animator.  Kaufman shares directorial title with Duke Johnson here, which is more than fair.  The other films that immediately come to mind of this sort are Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and Martin Rosen’s Watership Down (1978) and The Plague Dogs (1982).  I’ll have to think on this a bit more.  It’s either quite unusual or perhaps very usual.  Who knows?

Zootopia (2016)

Zootopia (2016) movie poster

directors Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush
viewed: 03/06/2016 at Century San Francisco Centre 9 and XD, SF, CA

Disney bought Pixar in 2006, and since that time, the two studios, under leadership of John Lasseter, have cross-pollinated significantly.  This cross-pollination, though, has borne better fruit for the venerable Hollywood animation titan than for the upstart Emeryville, CA studio that made digital animation great and viable.  Disney has been on a roll again, the latest rebirth of a studio with a long history of change and redevelopment.  And Zootopia is their latest very good animated feature.

Digital animation only gets better, so it seems.  Every year, each new film, looks slicker and more amazing in its rendering of these vividly detailed fantasy universes.  You can actually sit in awe of the fur on a characters wrist (if you are so inclined, as apparently me and my now 12 year old daughter are).  But looks are certainly not everything.

Arguably, character and storytelling make up a much larger percentage of everything, but the beauty of the renderings should never be glossed over.

Zootopia is a parable about racism and sexism, set in a universe where all mammals have come to evolve into a happy urban fantasy, where “anybody can become anything”.  I don’t know how biting or mordant the social criticism stands, but the story shoots a bit higher than the average animated feature in themes, so that is worth noting.

It’s a buddy comedy about a bunny cop and a fox con-man who wind up having to solve the mysterious disappearances of several animals, all of former predatory classes, which uncovers an even deeper, darker, more divisive mystery below.  For the most part, Zootopia eschews big name stars in recognizable voice roles, and allows the characters to be developed as unique beings.  Thus Officer Judy Hopps and “Nick” Wilde’s humorous relationship and partnership works.  It’s easy to forget that was Jason Bateman behind the latter of the two.

It’s a funny, entertaining, at times a bit thrilling and scary (for little ones), another fine film from Disney, probably my favorite since Tangled (2010), who knows maybe longer than that?