Category Archives: Animated

If you really must pry: Top 10 Films of 2020

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 26, 2020)

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As the year closes, it’s time to pick the top 10 first-run films out of those that I reviewed in 2020. In a “normal” year, I usually watch and review between 50 and 60 first-run features and documentaries. This year, the tally was…substantially lower. 2020 was challenging for a movie critic (well…at least speaking for myself, as a low-rung player). Anyway (to paraphrase one of my favorite lines from Boogie Nights), that’s an “M.P.” (My Problem), not a “Y.P.” (Your Problem). Per usual my picks are listed alphabetically, not by rank.

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Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets – Anyone who has ever spent a few hours down the pub knows there are as many descriptive terms for “drunks” as the Inuits have for “snow” . Happy drunks, melancholy drunks, friendly drunks, hostile drunks, sentimental drunks, amorous drunks, philosophical drunks, crazy drunks…et.al. You get all of the above (and a large Irish coffee) in this extraordinary (and controversial) genre-defying Sundance hit.

Co-directed by brothers Turner and Bill Ross, the film vibes the “direct cinema” school popularized in the 60s and 70s by another pair of sibling filmmakers-the Maysles brothers. It centers on the staff and patrons of a Las Vegas dive bar on its final day of business. Populated by characters straight out of a Charles Bukowski novel, the film works as a paean to the neighborhood tavern and a “day in the life” character study. (Full review)

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Capital in the Twenty-First Century – So how did the world become (to quote from one of Paddy Cheyefsky’s classic monologues in Network) “…a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business”? And come hell, high water, or killer virus, why is it that “Thou shalt rally the unwashed masses to selflessly do their part to protect the interests of the Too Big to Fail” (whether it’s corporations, the dynastic heirs of the 1% or the wealth management industry that feeds off of them) remains the most “immutable bylaw” of all?

Justin Pemberton’s timely documentary (based on the eponymous best-seller by economist Thomas Piketty) tackles those kind of questions. Cleverly interweaving pop culture references with insightful observations by Piketty and other economic experts, the film illustrates (in easy-to-digest terms) the cyclical nature of feudalism throughout history. (Full review)

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Desert One – In 1980, President Jimmy Carter sent the Army’s Delta Force to bring back 53 American citizens held hostage in Iran. It did not end well. The failed mission also likely ended Carter’s already waning chances of winning a second term as President.

Using previously inaccessible archival sources (including White House recordings) two-time Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA) offers a fresh historical perspective, and (most affectingly) an intimate glimpse at the human consequences stemming from what transpired. She achieves the latter with riveting witness testimony by hostages, mission personnel, Iranians, and former President Carter. An eye-opening documentary. (Full review)

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Love Spreads – I’m a sucker for stories about the creative process, and Welsh writer-director Jamie Adams’ dramedy (a 2020 Tribeca Film Festival selection) is right in that wheelhouse. “Glass Heart” is an all-female rock band who have holed up Led Zep style in an isolated country cottage to record a follow-up to their well-received debut album. Everyone is raring to go, the record company is bankrolling the sessions, and the only thing missing is…some new songs.

The pressure has fallen on lead singer and primary songwriter Kelly (Alia Shawcat). Unfortunately, the dreaded “sophomore curse” has landed squarely on her shoulders, and she is completely blocked. The inevitable tensions and ego clashes arise as her three band mates and manager struggle to stay sane as Kelly awaits the Muse. It’s a little bit Spinal Tap, (with a dash of Love and Mercy), bolstered by a smart script, wonderful performances, and some catchy original songs. (Full review)

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Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always – Writer-director Eliza Hittman’s timely drama centers on 17-year old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) , a young woman in a quandary over an unwanted pregnancy who has only one real confidant; her cousin, BFF and schoolmate Skylar (Talia Ryder). They both work part-time as grocery clerks in rural Pennsylvania (a state where the parent of a minor must consent before an abortion is provided). After a decidedly unhelpful visit to her local “crisis pregnancy center” and a harrowing failed attempt to self-induce an abortion, Autumn and Skylar scrape together funds and hop a bus to New York City.

Hittman really gets inside the heads of her two main characters; helped immensely by wonderful, naturalistic performances from Flanigan and Ryder. Hittman has made a film that is quietly observant, compassionate, and non-judgmental. She does not proselytize one way or the other about the ever-thorny right-to-life debate. This is not an allegory in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale, because it doesn’t have to be; it is a straightforward and realistic story of one young woman’s personal journey. The reason it works so well on a personal level is because of its universality; it could easily be any young woman’s story in the here and now.(Full review)

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Pacified – The impoverished, densely populated favelas of Rio and the volatile political climate of contemporary Brazil make a compelling backdrop for writer- director Paxton Winters’ crime drama (a 2020 Tribeca Film Festival selection). A cross between The King of New York and City of God, it takes place during the height of the strong-arm “pacification” measures conducted by the government to “clean up” the favelas in preparation for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Tight direction, excellent performances and gorgeous cinematography by Laura Merians. (Full review)

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76 Days – Filmed during the early days of the Coronavirus epidemic and focusing on the day-to-day travails of Wuhan’s front-line health workers as they attend to the crush of first-wave COVID patients, this remarkable documentary was co-directed by New York filmmaker Hao Wu (People’s Republic of Desire) in association with China-based journalists Weixi Chen.

While the film is slickly edited in such a way to suggest everything occurs at one medical facility, it was actually filmed at four different Wuhan hospitals over a period of several months (it was shot at great personal risk by the two journalists and their small camera crews). Eschewing polemics or social commentary, the filmmakers opt for the purely observational “direct cinema” approach.

I know it seems perverse to include this in my top 10 for a year where movies serve as one of the few respites from the real-life horror of the pandemic; nonetheless, 76 Days must be acknowledged as a timely, humanistic, and essential document. (Full review)

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Tommaso – Writer-director Abel Ferrara’s drama is the latest descendant of Fellini’s ; although it offers a less fanciful and more fulminating portrait of a creative artist in crisis. The film’s star (and frequent Ferrara collaborator) Willem Dafoe is no stranger to inhabiting deeply troubled characters; and his “Tommaso” is no exception.

He is a 60-something American ex-pat film maker who lives in Rome with his 29 year-old Italian wife and 3 year-old daughter. At first glance, he leads an idyllic existence. However, it soon becomes evident there is trouble in Paradise. Again, it’s familiar territory, but worth the the price of admission to savor Dafoe’s carefully constructed performance. Handed the right material, he can be a force of nature; and here, Ferrara hands Dafoe precisely the right material. (Full review).

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The Trial of the Chicago 7 – In September 1969, Abbie Hoffman and fellow political activists Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner were hauled into court along with Black Panther Bobby Seale on a grand jury indictment for allegedly conspiring to incite the anti-Vietnam war protests and resulting mayhem that transpired during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. What resulted is arguably the most overtly political “show trial” in U.S. history.

While the trial has been the subject of documentaries and feature films in the past (like the 2008 film The Trial of the Chicago 8) writer-director Aaron Sorkin takes a unique angle, by focusing on a yin-yang clash of methodology between Hayden and Hoffman throughout the trial. He reminds us how messy “revolutions” can be; in this case as demonstrated by the disparity of approaches taken by the (originally) 8 defendants. While all shared a common idealism and united cause, several had never even been in the same room before getting lumped together and put on trial as a “conspirators” by the government. (Full review)

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Weathering With You – Here’s a question somewhat unique to 2020: Do you remember the last time you saw a movie in a theater? I do. It was a marvelously gloomy, stormy Sunday afternoon in late January when I ventured out to see Japanese anime master Makato Shinkai’s newest film. Little did I suspect that it would come to hold such a special place in my memory…for reasons outside of the film itself. I’ll admit I had some problems with the narrative, which may bring into question why its in my top 10 . That said, I concluded my review thusly:

Still, there’s a lot to like about “Weathering  With You”, especially in the visual department. The Tokyo city-scapes are breathtakingly done; overall the animation is state-of-the-art. I could see it again. Besides, there are worse ways to while away a rainy Seattle afternoon.

I have since seen it again, twice (I bought the Blu-ray). Like many of Shinkai’s films, it improves with subsequent viewings. Besides, there’s no law against modifying your initial impression of a movie. That’s my modified opinion, and I’m sticking to it. (Full review)

…and just for giggles

Here are my “top 10” picks for each year since I began writing film reviews here at Digby’s (you may want to bookmark this post as a  handy reference for movie night).

[Click on title for full review]

2007

Eastern Promises, The Hoax, In the Shadow of the Moon, Kurt Cobain: About a Son, Michael Clayton, My Best Friend, No Country for Old Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, PaprikaZodiac

2008

Burn After Reading, The Dark Knight, The Gits, Happy Go Lucky, Honeydripper, Man on Wire, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Visitor

2009

The Baader Meinhof Complex, Inglourious Basterds, In the Loop, The Limits of Control, The Messenger, A Serious Man, Sin Nombre, Star Trek, Where the Wild Things Are, The Yes Men Fix the World

2010

Creation, Inside Job, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Little Big Soldier, A Matter of Size, My Dog Tulip, Nowhere Boy, Oceans, The Runaways, Son of Babylon

2011

Another Earth, Certified Copy, The Descendants, Drei, Drive, The First Grader, Midnight in Paris, Summer Wars, Tinker/Tailor/Soldier/Spy, The Trip

2012

Applause, Dark Horse, Killer Joe, The Master, Paul Williams: Still Alive, Rampart, Samsara, Skyfall, The Story of Film: an Odyssey, Your Sister’s Sister

2013

The Act of Killing, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Computer Chess, 56 Up, The Hunt, Mud, The Rocket, The Silence, The Sweeney, Upstream Color

2014

Birdman, Child’s Pose, A Coffee in Berlin, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Kill the Messenger, The Last Days of Vietnam, Life Itself, A Summer’s Tale, The Wind Rises, The Theory of Everything

2015

Chappie, Fassbinder: Love Without Demands, An Italian Name, Liza the Fox Fairy, Love and Mercy, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Song of the Sea, Tangerines, Trumbo, When Marnie Was There

2016

The Curve, Eat That Question, Hail, Caesar!, Home Care, Jackie, Mekko, Older Than Ireland, Snowden, The Tunnel, Weiner

2017

After the Storm, Bad Black, Becoming Who I Was, Blade Runner 2049, A Date for Mad Mary, Endless Poetry, I Am Not Your Negro, Loving Vincent, The Women’s Balcony, Your Name

2018

Big Sonia, BlacKkKlansman, Fahrenheit 11/9, The Guilty, Let the Sunshine In, Little Tito and the Aliens, Outside In, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, Wild Wild Country, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

2019

David Crosby: Remember My Name, Dolemite is My Name, Driveways, The Edge of Democracy, The Irishman, Monos, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Putin’s Witnesses, This is Not Berlin, Wild Rose

Guest review: Call of the Wild (***)

By Bob Bennett

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Summary: An enjoyable film that skips the intensity of the original Jack London tale for an endearing “man loves dog” theme with surprisingly good special effects. Haters are gonna hate but this movie punches above its weight and makes you ponder what “civilized” really means.

** Possible light spoilers ahead if you’ve never read the source novel**

I am an unlikely admirer of Chris Sanders’ new family-friendly fantasy adventure Call of the Wild. I have never liked the perennially grumpy Harrison Ford, was convinced that using a CGI dog would be a travesty and was primed for disappointment as an amateur Klondike gold rush historian (I lead tours in Seattle on the gold rush).  And so, it was a surprise when I was genuinely touched by this movie that somehow punched above its weight.

The movie is the tenth film adaptation of Jack London’s original novel, The Call of the Wild, which was an instant success when released in 1903.  The book, authored by one of the first hardy souls to travel over the Chilkoot Pass when gold was discovered near Dawson City in 1896, was unsparing in its depiction of the brutality of nature.

Essentially the book is about how easily the thin veneer of society can be stripped away to reveal a harsh world where man and dog fight to survive through tooth and claw.  Frankly, in 2020 the book is a tough read; think angry Darwinism focused on inherent violence.

This version (adapted from London’s novel by Michael Green) is very Disney-esque, meaning that the movie is suitable for kids but still has enough going on for adults to be entertained.  Violent parts of the book are softened, non-PC portions are left behind (there are many) and new story elements have been added to heighten appeal.

Like the book, the movie presents human feelings through the experiences of a dog without going all in for anthropomorphism (the animals do not talk for example).  The book was always a work of fiction and the movie borders on fantasy.

Buck, a large city dog who is kidnapped and sold into the violent sled dog trade, is the main character.  As a stylized CGI dog, Buck has a commanding personality with just enough visual fidelity to let you regard him as real and with few distracting details.  Buck’s leaps and bounds are incredibly life-like due to use of motion capture sequences of a real dog and his facial expressions are very realistic – and I say that as someone who owns two large canines.

The other dogs in the movie and the wolves are well portrayed – such is the control that CGI gives the director.  One has to wonder if this type of lush storytelling will color our common perception of nature, since there is less and less “real nature.”  As another plus, the filming had a very low footprint on the real environment.  Still, if you can’t get over the CGI, you will not like the movie (in case you were wondering, all the human characters are portrayed by real actors).

The protagonist is a grizzled and despondent prospector, John Thornton, who is played by the well cast Harrison Ford.  John rescues Buck from a cruel and clueless owner (a city slicker of course) and bonds with him.  Ford struggles with old age, regrets and alcoholism – great family fare right?

There are three phases in the narrative.  The first covers Buck’s kidnapping from his plush city life and his baptism into the cruel world of men the dogs they enslave in pursuit of money.  The second features Buck development as a leader of his own pack of dogs.  The final chapter is Buck and John’s Homeric journey into the wilderness which is essentially a quest for deliverance from the evils of man.

The movie was shot partially on green screen, partially on location in California and features gorgeous background plates shot in the Yukon.  Somehow it mostly all works except for a bizarre scene where a pheasant is flushed (a few thousand miles North of their real habitat).

A high point is an incredible dog team action scene with Buck having earned his place as lead dog.  Buck takes his humans for the ride of their life and saves them from a huge avalanche (which was not in the book).

The movie is ultimately a lead up to Buck gradually integrating with a pack of wolves (who are incredibly lifelike).  The conflicting pull that Buck feels for John and the call of the wild by his new pack is the central theme of the story and is beautifully rendered on screen.

“Call of the WIld” is available for home viewing on pay-per-view (Disney)

Bring back that sunny day: Weathering with You (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 29, 2020)

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It turns out that it is not just my imagination (running away with me). A quick Google search of “Seattle rain records” yields such cheery results as a January 29th CNN headline IT’S SUNLESS IN SEATTLE AS CITY WEATHERS ONE OF THE GLOOMIEST STRETCHES IN RECENT HISTORY and a Feb 1st Seattle P-I story slugged with SEATTLE BREAKS RECORD WITH RAIN ON 30 DAYS IN A MONTH. Good times!

February was a bit better: 15 rainy days with 4.1 hours a day of average sunshine. But hey-I didn’t move to the Emerald City to be “happy”. No, I moved to a city that averages 300 cloudy days a year in order to justify my predilection for a sedentary indoor lifestyle.

In fact it was a marvelously gloomy, stormy Sunday afternoon in late January when I ventured out to see Japanese anime master Makato Shinkai’s newest film Weathering with You (yes, this is a tardy review gentle reader…but what do you expect at these prices?). Gregory’s Girl meets The Lathe of Heaven in Shinkai’s romantic fantasy-drama.

I probably should have taken notes; some of the finer narrative details have slipped what’s left of my addled mind. But I remember the rain. There’s lots of rain. In fact the film opens with a rainstorm; a rather tempestuous one that tosses our young protagonist, a teenage runaway named Hokada (voiced by Kotaro Daigo) into the drink (he’s hopped on a ferry, fleeing his rural island home to lose himself in the bustling metropolis of Tokyo). He’s saved by a man named Keisuka (Shun Ogari), who hands Hokada his business card.

Rain-soaked Tokyo is a less-than-welcoming new home for the likes of Hokada, who finds himself sleeping in alleys for a spell, with naught but the clothes on his back and a growling stomach. One day, he encounters a compassionate girl around his age named Hina (Nana Mori), a fast food worker who gives him a free meal. Hina and Hokada are bonded by family difficulties; with Hokada being a runaway and Hina recently orphaned (she barely supports herself and her young brother with her meager McDonald’s wages).

Fate continues to bounce Hokada around like a tennis ball. Still living on the streets, Hokada crosses paths with a Yakuza; he barely survives the encounter and stumbles across a gun, which he decides to hang onto for protection. Still, he’s buoyed by his burgeoning friendship with Hina and decides to look up his rescuer from the ferry. Turns out his savior runs a somewhat dubious news stringer agency out of a cramped office.

Keisuka’s sole employee is his flirty 20-something niece, Natsumi (Tsubasa Honda), who convinces her uncle to hire Hokada on spec to see if he can help them chase down stories to sell to tabloids. Hokada’s first assignment is to dig up some background for Keisuka’s article-in progress on a local legend regarding so-called “Sunshine Girls”, who allegedly have supernatural abilities to stop rain events purely through concentration and prayer.

One day by chance, Hokada is shocked to espy his new friend Hina being shepherded into a seedy exotic dance club by a less-than-savory looking character. Hokada pulls out the gun that he found earlier and confronts the man, who has intimidated Hina into working for him. Hokada and Hina flee to the rooftop of an abandoned building, where there is a Shinto shrine. Hina convinces Hokada to toss his gun away and reveals that she has the ability to stop rain with prayer. I know-that’s a lot to unpack in just one afternoon.

Therein lies the film’s main weakness…there’s too much to unpack in one afternoon (by the way, there are more developments to the story-so I haven’t spoiled anything). Shinkai can’t decide what he wants to convey: a coming-of-age tale, a social “message” drama, a fantasy, a statement about climate change. This may be an unfair comparison, but the narrative is not as focused and cohesive as in his previous effort, the outstanding 2017 film Your Name. That said, this is a very different type of story, and more ambitious in scope.

Still, there’s a lot to like about Weathering With You, especially in the visual department. The Tokyo city-scapes are breathtakingly done; overall the animation is state-of-the-art. I could see it again. Besides, there are worse ways to while away a rainy Seattle afternoon.

Blu-ray reissue: Millennium Actress (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 21, 2019)

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Millennium Actress – Shout! Factory

I think some of the best sci-fi films of the past several decades have originated not from Hollywood, but rather from the masters of Japanese anime. Films like Akira and Ghost in the Shell displayed a quality of writing and visual imagination that few live action productions match (well, post-Blade Runner).

One of the most unique masters of the form was Satoshi Kon (sadly, he died of cancer in 2010 at 46). His films mix complex characterizations with a photo-realistic visual style; making me forget that I’m watching animation. Kon drew on genres not typically associated with anime, like adult drama (Tokyo Godfathers), film noir (Perfect Blue), psychological thriller (the limited series Paranoia Agent) and this 2001 character study.

A documentary filmmaker and his cameraman interview a long-reclusive actress. As she reminisces on key events of her life and career, the director and the cameraman are pulled right into the events themselves. The narrative becomes more surreal as the line blurs between the actresses’ life and the lives of her film characters. Mind-blowing and thought-provoking, it is ultimately a touching love letter to 20th Century Japanese cinema.

The restored print on Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray edition is a thing of beauty. Extras are scarce (brief interviews with 4 of the voice actors) but it’s great to have this gem in HD!

SIFF 2019: Fantastic Planet (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 25, 2019)

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Director Rene Laloux’s imaginative 1973 animated fantasy (originally  La planete sauvage) is about a race of mini-humans called  Oms, who live on a distant planet and have been enslaved (or viewed and treated as dangerous pests) for generations by big, brainy, blue aliens called the Draags. We follow the saga of Terr, an Om who has been adopted as a house pet by a Draag youngster.

Equal parts Spartacus, Planet of the Apes, and that night in the dorm you took too many mushrooms, it’s at once unnerving and mind-blowing. SIFF is adding a unique twist: Seattle DJ “NicFit” will provide a live, “carefully curated soundtrack” of Flaming Lips tracks as accompaniment. Mushrooms not included.

I hate my sister: Mirai no Mirai (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 22, 2018)

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If you seek a family-friendly film for the holidays that doesn’t involve Grinches or umbrella-powered English nannies, the Japanese anime Mirai no Mirai (“Mirai of theFuture”) may be the ticket. The latest effort from writer-director Mamoru Hosoda is a fantasy-drama that plays like a cross between Where the Wild Things Are and Labyrinth.

The story centers on 4-year-old Kun and his busy parents (Dad is an architect and Mom is an executive). Not unlike many 4-year-old boys he’s a wrecking ball, but he seems like a happy kid, doing happy kid things like cavorting with his dog, playing with his toy trains, and generally enjoying all those perks that come with being the Center of the Universe.

Sadly, poor Kun has little clue that the dynamic of this pretty sweet deal is about to shift.

The thing is, Mom and Dad haven’t just been busy at the office. One day, Mom comes home with a little surprise for Kun. It’s a baby sister. Initially, Kun appears excited about the family’s new addition, much in the same manner a 4-year-old gets excited about a shiny new toy before the novelty wears off. His excitement soon changes to consternation when it becomes obvious that the novelty of “Mirai” isn’t wearing off for Mom and Dad. 

In fact, this little Mirai character is starting to suck all the air out of the room. Why are his parents treating Kun like he’s persona non grata? He was here first! What’s so special about her, anyway? She can’t even form a sentence. All she does is eat, cry and sleep. For this, she gets a medal?! In a fit of pique, Kun takes one of his toy trains in hand and menacingly looms over her crib. Luckily Mom stops him, then gives him a scolding.

Confused and angry, Kun pitches a major tantrum. He flees into the garden, where he bumps into a man lurking in the trellises, who imperiously introduces himself as the “prince” of the house. Or at least he was…until Kun dethroned him simply by being born (long story). This kick-starts a reality-bending journey through the time-space continuum for Kun, who learns the importance of unconditional familial love and ancestral bonds along the way (whether a 4-year-old is capable of such an epiphany…is open for debate).

Mirai no Mirai is less complex than Hosoda’s previous films (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars) Still, its heart is in the right place. Kids will identify with the child’s-eye perspective, and adults may be transported back to that period of the life cycle when worries are few and everything feels possible (before your mental carousel gets clogged up with excess baggage, if you catch my drift).

As beautiful as you: Loving Vincent ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 21, 2017)

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If I liken the experience of watching Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s first feature film Loving Vincent as akin to staring at an oil painting for 95 minutes, I could see how that could be misinterpreted as a negative. But I am only making you aware that their Vincent van Gogh biopic is literally a collection of the artist’s paintings, brought to life.

It’s actually an ingenious concept. Utilizing over 120 of van Gogh’s paintings as storyboard and settings, the filmmakers incorporate roto-scoped live action with a meticulously oil-painted frame-by-frame touch-up to fashion a truly unique animated feature. The screenplay (co-written by directors Kobiela and Welchman along with Jacek von Dehnel) was derived from 800 of the artist’s letters. It is essentially a speculative mystery that delves into the circumstances of van Gogh’s last days and untimely demise.

Our “detective” is Armand (Douglas Booth), the son of an Arles postman (Chris O’Dowd). A year after van Gogh’s suspicious death, Armand’s father entrusts his son with an undelivered letter from van Gogh to his brother Theo. Armand sets off to the bucolic countryside of Avers-sur-Oise that inspired many of van Gogh’s best paintings. As he encounters an ever-growing cast of characters ranging from the periphery to the inner circle of van Gogh’s daily life, Armand’s journey becomes a Rashomon-like maze of conflicting accounts and contradictory impressions regarding the artist’s final chapter.

While this is not the definitive van Gogh biopic (Vincente Minnelli’s colorful 1956 effort Lust For Life, featuring an intense and moving performance by Kirk Douglas, takes that honor), it is handily the most visually resplendent one that I have seen. The film represents a 10-year labor of love by the filmmakers, who employed more than 100 artists to help achieve their vision…and it’s all up there on the screen. The narrative, however, is more on the “sketchy” side, if you know what I’m saying (I’m here all week).

Still, the film teasingly offers up some counter-myths to the conventional narrative that van Gogh was another tortured artist who had no choice but to check out early because he was just too damn sensitive for this cruel and unfeeling world. Maybe he wasn’t even the one who pulled the trigger…hmm?

Granted, considering he produced 800 paintings (many considered priceless masterpieces) yet sold only one during his lifetime, and struggled with mental illness, it’s not like he didn’t have reasons to be depressed, but who can say with 100% certainty that there really was no hope left in sight, on that starry, starry night? I’d wager the answer lies on his canvasses; because every picture tells a story…don’t it?

Life during wartime: This Corner of the World ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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Is everybody safe?
Has everybody got a place to hide?
Is everybody warm inside?

Hear them singing
All the women of Bombay
Standing with the Nagasaki housewives in doorways
In eruptions and destructions on Doomsday

– from “The Yard Went on Forever” (lyrics by Jimmy Webb)

This past August 11, just several days after two sobering anniversaries-the nuclear destruction of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, respectively, a contemplative anime drama called In This Corner of the World made its U.S. debut; easy to overlook amid the Emoji, Spider-Man and Atomic Blonde mayhem.

Co-written and directed by Sunao Katabuchi, the film (adapted from writer-illustrator Fumiyo Kono’s eponymous manga) is a snapshot of everyday Japanese life from the 1930s through the 1940s, through the eyes of a young woman named Suzu (voiced by Rena Nonen). Katabuchi uses flashback and flash-forward to tell Suzu’s story. A dreamer with a flair for art, Suzu was raised in the seaside village of Eba (a sector of Hiroshima City). We first meet her at age 18 (a year before the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima).

Suzu learns from her parents that a young man named Shusaku (voiced by Yoshimasa Hosoya) is on his way from Kure (a nearby port city with a large naval base) to ask for her hand in marriage. The respectful and low-key Shusaku, who has a civilian job with the navy, once had a chance encounter with Suzu when they were both children (although she doesn’t remember). Obviously, she made more of an impression on him than the other way around; still, Suzu is intrigued and longs for a change of scenery. She accepts his proposal and accompanies her husband to Kure, where she moves in with his family.

Over the next year of her life, the harsh realities of the war begin to creep ever closer to home for Suzu and her family; especially once Allied bombers begin to target the nearby naval base. Suzu is still living in Kure when nearby Hiroshima befalls its inevitable fate on August 6, 1945. Separated by a mountain, Kure is out of the blast zone, but residents are witness to the blinding flash, the horrifying mushroom cloud, and fleeing victims.

What separates this film from previous anime dramas that beg comparison (e.g. Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies) is painstaking attention to historical detail regarding not only daily lives of Japanese civilians before, during and after the war (the aforementioned films focused almost solely on the immediate horrors of destruction and suffering), but in recreating the look and feel of the principal locations where the story takes place (the production staff did exhaustive research on pre-war Hiroshima’s architecture and layout, using archival photos and eyewitness recollections from surviving pre-war residents).

The animation is outstanding; there are several set pieces that are truly inspired, particularly a sequence that finds Suzu caught out in the open on the verdant hills overlooking the ocean during a U.S. aircraft strafing attack. Frozen in a strange state between fear and wonder, Suzu becomes oddly entranced by the exploding puffballs of flak in the clear blue sky around her. As the perspective subtly switches to Suzu’s POV, you realize that you are suddenly watching the frightful mayhem though an artist’s eye; the sky becomes a vast canvas, and the flak akin to Jackson Pollack shooting paintballs.

The only bone I have to pick is a bit of narrative confusion here and there, caused not so much by the vacillation between flashback and flash-forward sequences, but the occasional flights of fancy (or perchance, dreaming?) that Suzu has (a little pilfering from The Wizard of Oz, if you catch my drift). But then again, that could be a personal problem; choosing to watch a subtitled version can distract you from crucial visual cues (at the theater where I saw the film, they offered both subtitled and dubbed showings).

Those minor quibbles aside, this is an involving humanistic study (reminiscent of the quietly observant dramas of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu), with just the right balance of drama and humor.

Like Hayao Miyazaki’s 2014 anime The Wind Rises, Katabuchi’s film may delicately side-step any avenues that potentially lead to addressing thornier issues like collective guilt or complicity by fealty to the emperor; but considering that most of the characters are non-combatants, In This Corner of the World is closer in spirit to those great films that remind us that as long as we wage wars, there will always be innocents who get caught in the crossfire.

It is the duty of survivors, as well as subsequent generations, to dedicate themselves to build a world where the need to wreak such horrors upon one another becomes, once and for all, unequivocally abhorrent to all.

Blu-ray reissue: Ocean Waves ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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Ocean Waves – Universal Studios Home Entertainment Blu-ray

This 1993 anime is one of the last remaining “stragglers” from Japan’s Studio Ghibli vaults to make a belated (and most welcome) debut on Blu-ray (it was previously only available on PAL-DVD). Adapted by Kaori Nakamura from Saeko Himruo’s novel, and directed by Tomomi Mochizuki, it concerns a young man who returns to his home town for a high school reunion, which triggers a flood of memories about all the highs and lows of his adolescent years. It’s similar in tone to another Ghibli film, Only Yesterday, which also takes a humanistic look at the universality of growing pains.

On a sliding scale, this is one of Ghibli’s “lesser” films, but the studio has set a high bar for itself, and it will please  Ghibli completists (who, me?). Extras are scant, but the hi-definition transfer is lovely.

Blu-ray reissue: Metropolis (2001) ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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Metropolis – Eureka Blu-ray (Region “B”)

Japanese director Rintaro’s visually resplendent 2001 anime is based on Osama Tezuka’s manga re-imagining of Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film classic. The narrative (adapted by Akira director Katsuhiro Otomo) is framed as a detective story (not unlike Blade Runner), with a PI and his nephew attempting to unravel the mystery of Tima, a fugitive robot girl who has become a pawn in a byzantine conspiracy involving a powerful and corrupt family that rules Metropolis. Intelligent writing, imaginative production design and beautifully realized animation make this a must-see. Extras include interviews with cast and crew, and a “making of” documentary.

[Note: Region “B” edition; a multi-region Blu-ray player is required]