Category Archives: Animated

Mad dogs and Englishman: My Dog Tulip ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 13, 2010)

Love in the time of collaring: My Dog Tulip

In my 2009 review of The Wrestler, I wrote about how unexpectedly affected I was by Mickey Rourke’s emotional acceptance speech at the Golden Globe awards, specifically when he paid homage to a dear and devoted friend:

…by the time Rourke proffered “Sometimes when you’re alone…all you got is your dog,” and then thanked all of his pooches (past and present) I was done for. I haven’t cried like that since the first time I saw Old Yeller.

What is it about the very thought of a wet nose, a pair of fluffy ears or a simple game of fetch that can make a grown man weep? Not only to weep; but at times to so sorely grieve-as the late British writer and literary magazine editor J.R. Ackerley once lamented:

I would have immolated myself as a suttee when (my dog) Queenie died. For no human would I ever have done such a thing, but by my love for Queenie I would have been irresistibly compelled.

In fact, Ackerley was so smitten with this “Alsatian bitch” that he was inspired to write two books based on the 15-year long relationship he enjoyed with his beloved pet-a memoir called My Dog Tulip (1956) and a novel, We Think the World of You (1960). The latter book, a fictionalized, semi-autobiographical version of how Queenie came into his life, was adapted into a 1988 film featuring Alan Bates and Gary Oldman (an underrated gem that has yet to see the light of day on DVD). And now, the 1956 memoir has been adapted into a lovely new animated film directed by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger.

The Fierlingers utilize a simple, elegant style of animation that triggered memories of the soft, comforting pastel line drawings that adorned the Ludwig Bemelmans “Madeline” books I pored over as a child. That being said, be advised My Dog Tulip is more Feiffer than Bemelmans. Nor can it be labelled as “adorable” in any way, shape or form (Marley & Me, this ain’t).

Indeed, there is much ado about loose poops and “double anal glands”. There’s lots of estrus fixation and doggie sex. But the film also contains something you won’t find in most Hollywood fare, and that’s heart and soul. Again, sans the maudlin sentimentality; as the Ackerley quote which prefaces the film makes so abundantly clear:

“Unable to love each other, the English turn naturally to dogs”.

And so we are introduced the protagonist, the author himself (wryly voiced by Christopher Plummer), who describes himself as a middle-aged, “confirmed bachelor”. Every night, he leaps up from his desk at the BBC, rushes to the tube station, eager to get to his flat, throw open the door and tumble into a full body hug with Tulip, a rambunctious German Shepherd.

If it wasn’t so obvious that one of these mammals had four legs and a tail, you could just as well assume that their body language telegraphs smitten lovers on a permanent honeymoon. This is, at its heart, a love story. “Tulip offered me what I never found in my sexual life,” explains the narrator, “…constant, single-hearted, incorruptible, uncritical devotion, which is in the nature of dogs to offer.”

Ackerley rescues the young Tulip from well-meaning but neglectful friends. Being of a neurotic breed, she developed “behavioral issues” as the result of confinement to a tiny back yard with little opportunity to run around, explore the world, and do as a dog does.

Trying times lie ahead for both dog and new owner, including a running “feud” vying for Ackerley’s attention between his control-freak sister (the late Lynn Redgrave) and the territorial Tulip. When Tulip comes of age, there is the matter of dealing with her need to breed. This takes up the middle third of the tale; with an exasperated Ackerley displaying the patience of Job as he journeys far and wide to find Tulip a suitable “husband”.

This is one of the more unique films I’ve seen this year, set to a breezy jazz score by John Avarese. It is not so much a “man and his dog” tale, but  a  rumination on the nature of “love” itself, which as we know comes in all colors, sizes, shapes and guises. Is it a need-or a necessity? I suppose that’s a complex question. Then again, perhaps the answer is simple: Sometimes, “all you got is your dog”.

Zippy little number: 9 ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 12, 2009)

A stitch in time saves…oh, never mind.

I haven’t been shy about relaying my general aversion to the Pixar school of animation. It leaves me cold; it doesn’t feel “lived in” and lacks the relative warmth of hand-drawn cel animation. It’s too…digital (I liken it to the “vinyl vs. CD” argument). Perhaps I have an innate fear of technology that I have yet to come to grips with.

How ironic that one of the first such animated films to catch my fancy is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi tale about a world where the warmth of the human imprint has been eradicated by cold, detached machines. That is the premise of 9, an imaginative variation on a well-worn genre, directed by Shane Acker and produced by Tim Burton.

The story centers on a diminutive, sentient, semi-organic laboratory creation named “9”, a cross between Frankenstein and Pinocchio who looks like a voodoo doll stitched together with recycled burlap and held intact by a handy zip-up front. He awakens one day on the floor of a lab, Rip van Winkle style, to a decimated, desolate and very strange world, alongside the scientist who created him (long dead).

As he wanders about getting his bearings, it becomes apparent  the machines have “taken over”. Very nasty machines, like a frightful predatory contraption resembling a T. Rex that might be constructed in a fever dream by a demented Erector Set enthusiast. When a chance encounter throws “9” in with a tribe of similar beings who have also survived the apocalypse, a possibility arises that some spark of hope and humanity might still remain-somewhere.

The “fear of technology” theme has been a sci-fi film staple, from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, to The Terminator and beyond. In fact, while I was watching 9, I was thinking that if Fritz Lang were alive today and were to work with computer animation, he would probably cook something up that “looked” very similar to this film.

At times I was also reminded of the otherworldly films by the Brothers Quay (Street of Crocodiles), all set to a moody soundtrack by Danny Elfman. The film is so wonderfully atmospheric and visually stunning that I was willing to overlook its (inevitable?) disintegration into loud, repetitive action sequences and an abrupt denouement.

I’d be curious to know if the director (who created the original story from which Pamela Pettler adapted her screenplay) was inspired by The Lord of the Rings. His film is, after all about a “fellowship” of nine who set about  on a quest to save their world from the dark forces which are bent on destroying it (and the fact that our little Frodo-like animated hero is voiced by Elijah Wood adds fuel to that fire). Other familiar voices: Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, and the ever-loopy Crispin Glover.

So what’s with all the “nines” at the box office? Numerologists must be having a field day with the convergence of District 9, Acker’s 9, and the imminent Nine (the film adaptation of the Broadway musical based on Fellini’s 8½). Hmm…maybe the machines should take over soon. It might be time to hit the “reset” button for Hollywood.

Sea my friends: Ponyo, on a Cliff by the Sea ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 15, 2009)

If you are not particularly in the mood to watch summer movie viscera exploding across the screen in a sea of gore, I do have an alternative suggestion. The newest film from anime master Hayao Miyazaki has finally reached U.S. theatres (in limited release right now).Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea is a slight but lovely tale in the Hans Christian Andersen vein, infused with the lush visual magic we’ve come to expect from Studio Ghibli.

A young boy named Sosuke, who lives (wait for it)…on a cliff by the sea discovers an amorphous ocean creature with vaguely humanoid features floundering on the beach one.  Naming “her” Ponyo, he lovingly nurses it back to health. Imagine his surprise when the little fish begins to mimic human speech (at the point where she says, “Ponyo loves Sosuke!” I couldn’t help but wonder if Miyazaki was homage to the classic “Fa loves Pa!” line from Day of the Dolphin).

Sosuke’s affinity and kindness toward his “pet” is soon reciprocated via a  wondrous transmogrification; it’s sort of a puppy-love take on Wings of Desire. Complications ensue when Ponyo’s dad (a Neptune-type sea  god) registers disapproval by unleashing the power of the ocean.

Although many of Miyazaki’s recurring themes are on display, they are less strident than usual; still, I think this is the director’s most accessible and straightforward storytelling since My Neighbor Totoro. I’ll admit, in the opening scenes I was initially a bit dismayed that the animation seemed more simplistic than usual (at least by Studio Ghibli’s own standards); but as the film unfolded I came to realize that the use of soft lines and muted pastels is a stylistic choice that meshes perfectly with the gentle rhythms of its narrative.

My review is based on a screening of the Japanese PAL DVD that is already available. I still anticipate catching it on the big screen (always preferable), especially for some gorgeous and amazingly detailed underwater milieus, and a powerful sequence of an ocean tempest that features the most breathtaking animation I’ve seen in quite a while. Overall, it may pale when compared to, say, Spirited Away, but in my experience, there is no such thing as “mediocre” Miyazaki. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Welcome to the Hotel Babylonia: Waltz with Bashir ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 7, 2009)

George Carlin had an absolutely brilliant routine concerning his disdain for the rampant use of euphemisms to sugarcoat hard truths. As an example, he traced the metamorphosis of the term “shell shock” throughout the course of 20th century warfare:

There’s a condition in combat. Most people know about it. It’s when a fighting person’s nervous system has been stressed to its absolute peak and maximum. Can’t take anymore input. The nervous system has either (click) snapped or is about to snap.

In the First World War, that condition was called “shell shock”. Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables, shell shock. Almost sounds like the guns themselves.

That was seventy years ago. Then a whole generation went by and the Second World War came along and the very same combat condition was called “battle fatigue”. Four syllables now. Takes a little longer to say. Doesn’t seem to hurt as much.” Fatigue” is a nicer word than “shock”. (Stridently) “Shell shock!” (Subdued) “Battle fatigue”.

Then we had the war in Korea, 1950. Madison Avenue was riding high by that time, and the very same combat condition was called “operational exhaustion”. Hey, we’re up to eight syllables now! And the humanity has been squeezed completely out of the phrase. It’s totally sterile now. Operational exhaustion. Sounds like something that might happen to your car.

Then of course, came the war in Viet Nam, which has only been over for about sixteen or seventeen years, and thanks to the lies and deceits surrounding that war, I guess it’s no surprise that the very same condition was called “post-traumatic stress disorder”. Still eight syllables, but we’ve added a hyphen! And the pain is completely buried under jargon. Post-traumatic stress disorder.

I’ll bet you if we’d of still been calling it shell shock, some of those Viet Nam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time. I’ll bet you. I’ll bet you.

A rose by any other name. Whether you want to call it shellshock, battle fatigue, operational exhaustion or PTSD, there’s one thing for certain: unless you are a complete sociopath and really DO love the smell of napalm in the morning…war will fuck you up.

In a new animated feature called Waltz with Bashir, writer-director Ari Forman mixes the hallucinatory expressionism of Apocalypse Now with personal sense memories of his own experiences as an Israeli soldier serving in the 1982 conflict in Lebanon to paint a searing portrait of the horrors of war and its devastating psychic aftermath. A true visual wonder, the film is comprised of equal parts documentary, war diary and bad acid trip.

The film opens with an unsettling sequence of a terrified young man being relentlessly pursued by a pack of raging, snarling hell-hounds, nipping at his heels as he flees through a war-torn urban landscape. This turns out to be the visualization of a recurring nightmare that haunts one of the director’s fellow war vets. While lending a sympathetic ear to his pal as he props up the bar and continues to recount his psychic trauma, Forman has a sudden and disturbing epiphany: his own recollections of his tour of duty in Lebanon are nowhere near as vivid; in fact they are virtually non-existent.

This leads Forman on a personal journey to unlock the key to this selective amnesia. He confides in a psychiatrist friend, who urges him to seek out and interview as many of his fellow vets as he can. Perhaps, by listening to their personal stories, he will ultimately unblock his own.

The answer may lie in the possibility that he had a ringside seat to the horrific Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres, in which a large number of Palestinian non-combatants (including women and children) were rounded up and summarily executed by members of the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia while Israeli Defense Force troops stood by. What follows is an affecting rumination on repressed memory, circumstantial complicity and collective guilt.

The director generally steers clear of heavy-handed polemics; this is more of a “soldier’s story”, a universal grunt’s-eye view of the confusion and madness of war, in which none are really to blame, yet all remain complicit. This eternal dichotomy, I think, lies at the heart of the matter in trying to understand what it is that snaps inside the mind of the walking wounded (or “shell-shocked”, if you will).

How do we help them? How do we help them help themselves? With the recent distressing news about the ever-escalating suicide rates of our own American Afghanistan/Iraq war veterans, I think these questions are more important than ever, for a whole new generation of psychically damaged young men and women. In the meantime let’s continue to hope for a day when the very concept of war itself has become but a “repressed memory” for the entire planet.

SIFF 2008: Sita Sings the Blues ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 7, 2008)

One early audience favorite at this year’s SIFF is  Sita Sings the Blues. This is the first full-length animated feature from cartoonist turned filmmaker Nina Paley, whose alt-comic strip Nina’s Adventures has appeared in the San Francisco Examiner and the L.A. Reader.

Paley cheekily adapts the Ramayana, an ancient Sanskrit epic about the doomed love between Prince Rama (an incarnation of the god Vishnu) and the devoted Sita. She juxtaposes it with a neurotic examination of her own failed marriage; the result is perhaps best described as Annie Hall meets Yellow Submarine in Bollywood.

Borrowing a device from the 1981 film Pennies from Heaven, Paley literally “jazzes up” the tale with musical interludes featuring the long suffering Sita lip syncing to scratchy recordings by 1920s vocal stylist Annette Henshaw. Modern context is also provided by a parallel narrative about the travails of a modern NYC couple.

The contemporary scenes are demarcated by a stylistic departure from the computer generated animation that informs Sita’s story; Paley switches to a mix of stop-motion line drawing and rotoscoping. She also utilizes three narrators, who amusingly break through the fourth wall to debate with each other about the subtexts of the tale.

Paley’s film is actually not the first animated adaptation of this story; there is a 3 hour Japanese-Indian production from 1992 called Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama. Keeping in mind that the original Ramayana is a 24,000 couplet poem, and that this is an 80 minute film obviously taking a Cliff’s Notes approach to its venerable source material, it may not sit well with scholarly purists. But for those who have no objection to an imaginative deconstruction of such a culturally archetypal tale, Sita Sings the Blues is a lively, tuneful, funny and eye-popping cinematic treat

In dreams: Paprika (****) & The Lathe of Heaven (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 21, 2007)

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It’s no secret among fans of intelligent, adult sci-fi that some of the best genre films these days aren’t originating from Hollywood, but rather from the masters of Japanese anime. Films like Akira and Ghost in the Shell display a quality of writing and visual imagination that few live action productions  can touch (well, post-Blade Runner).

One of the more adventurous anime directors is Satoshi Kon. In previous work like his TV miniseries Paranoia Agent, and in several feature films, Kon has displayed a flair for coupling complex characterization with photo-realistic visual style;  making me forget that I’m watching an anime. Most of Kon’s work has drawn on genres that one does not typically associate with anime: adult drama (Tokyo Godfathers), film noir (Perfect Blue), psychological thriller (Paranoia Agent) and character study (Millennium Actress). Kon’s latest, Paprika, is the first of his films that I would call “sci-fi”… and it’s a doozy.

A team of scientists develops an interface device called the “DC mini” that facilitates the transference of dreams from one person to another. This dream machine is designed primarily for use by psychotherapists; it allows them to literally experience a patient’s dreams and take a closer look under the hood. In the wrong hands, however, this could become a very dangerous tool.

As you have likely guessed, “someone” has hacked into a DC mini and begun to wreak havoc with people’s minds. One by one, members of the research team are driven to suicidal behavior after the dreams of patients are fed into their subconscious without their knowledge (akin to someone slipping acid into the punch).

Things get more complicated when these waking dreams begin taking sentient form and spread like a virus, forming a pervasive matrix that threatens to supplant “reality”. A homicide detective joins forces with one of the researchers, whose alter-ego, Paprika, is literally a “dream girl”, a sort of super-heroine of the subconscious.

“Mind-blowing” doesn’t begin to describe this Disney-on-acid/ sci-fi murder mystery, featuring  Kon’s most stunning use of color and imagery to date.  Kon raises some philosophical points (aside from the hoary “what is reality?” debate). At one point, Paprika ponders: “Don’t you think dreams and the internet are similar? They are both areas where the repressed conscious vents.” Perhaps Kon is positing that the dream state is the last “sacred place” left for humans; if technology encroaches (any more than it already has) we will lose our last true refuge. A must-see for anime and sci-fi fans.

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While watching Paprika, I was reminded of one of my favorite sci-fi “mind trip” films, The Lathe of Heaven. Adapted from Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic novel, the film was produced by Thirteen/WNET-TV in New York and originally aired on PBS stations in 1979. A coveted cult favorite for years, it was reissued on DVD by Newvideo in 2000.

The story takes place in “near future” Portland, at a time when the Earth is suffering  profound effects from global warming and pandemics are rampant (rather prescient, eh?) The film stars Bruce Davison as George Orr, a chronic insomniac who has become convinced that his nightly dreams are affecting reality. Depressed and sleep-deprived, he overdoses on medication and is forced by legal authorities to seek psychiatric help from Dr. William Haber (Kevin Conway), who specializes in experimental dream research.

When Dr. Haber realizes to his amazement that George is not delusional, and does in fact have the ability to literally change the world with his “affective dreams”, he begins to suggest reality-altering scenarios to his hypnotized patient. The good doctor’s motives are initially altruistic; but as George catches on that he is being used like a guinea pig, he rebels. A cat and mouse game of the subconscious ensues; every time Dr. Haber attempts to make his Utopian visions a reality, George finds a way to subvert the results.

The temptation to play God begins to consume Dr. Haber, and he feverishly begins to develop a technology that would make George’s participation superfluous. So begins a battle of wills between the two that could potentially rearrange the very fabric of reality.

This is an intelligent and compelling fable with thoughtful subtext; it is certainly one of the best “made-for-TV”  sci-fi films ever produced. I should warn you that  picture quality and sound on the DVD is not quite up to today’s exacting A/V equipment specs; apparently the master no longer exists, so the transfer was made from a 2” tape copy. Don’t let the low-tech special effects throw you, either (remember, this was made for public TV in 1979 on a shoestring). Substantively speaking, however, I’d wager that The Lathe of Heaven has much more to offer than any $200 million dollar special effects-laden George Lucas “prequel” one would care to name.

Two bongs up! Six degrees of Woody Harrelson: Scanners (***) & Grass (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 27, 2007)

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Richard Linklater entered the sci-fi arena in 2006 with his adaptation of the late Phillip K. Dick’s semi-autobiographical novel A Scanner Darkly (now on DVD). Set in a not-so-distant future L.A., the story injects themes of existential dilemma, drug-fueled paranoia and Orwellian government surveillance  into what is otherwise a fairly standard “undercover-cop-who’s-gone-too-deep” yarn.

Keanu Reeves stars as a dazed and confused narc that has become helplessly addicted to the mind-altering drug that he has been assigned to help eradicate (“substance D”). Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Linklater alumni Rory Cochrane are his fellow D-heads who may not exactly be whom they appear to be on the surface. Adding to the mood of hallucinatory psychosis is Linklater’s use of rotoscoping (as per his underrated Waking Life). The rotoscoping technique does present challenges to the actors; Downey, with his Chaplinesque knack for physical expression, pulls it off best, while the more inert performers like Reeves and Ryder are quite literally akin to oil paintings.

Linklater’s script keeps fairly close to its source material-particularly in relation to the more cerebral elements (Linklater’s propensity for lots of talk and little action may be a turn-off for those expecting another Minority Report). Depending on what you bring with you, the film is a) a cautionary tale about addiction, b) a warning about encroaching technocracy, c) an indictment on the government’s “war” on drugs, d) a really cool flick to watch while stoned, e) the longest 99 minutes of your life or f) all of the above.

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Speaking of the “war” on drugs-here’s a sleeper you may have missed. Grass is a unique, well-produced documentary dealing (er, pun intended) with the history of anti-marijuana legislation  in the United States. Far from a dry history lesson, the film builds its own “counter-myth” of sorts, by exposing the hypocrisy of the government’s anti-marijuana propaganda machine over the years; from the  histrionics of the 1930’s howler Reefer Madness to the Reagan administration’s “Just Say No” campaign in the 1980’s.

There is also an eye-opening  tally of all the tax money the various law-enforcement agencies have spent (thrown away?) attempting to eradicate marijuana usage…from the days of Elliot Ness to the present. The filmmakers ladle some well-chosen period music over a wealth of archive footage (maximized for full ironic effect). Woody Harrelson, who has famously lived through a series of herb-related legal problems, off-screen, narrates with winking bemusement. Whether you are for or against legalization, you should find this one quite informative and highly (sorry!) entertaining.