A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 599 – Persepolis

Persepolis – October 20th, 2011

This is one of those movies I’m sure I would have been somewhat curious about but never curious enough about to actually watch had we not been doing this project. The subject matter combined with the format led to it getting a lot of attention and it looked interesting, but I often shy away from heavier movies and every description I read of this one made me think it would definitely be on the heavy end of things. And it was. It was also well worth watching and I will, at some point, have to get the book(s) and read them. It’s also a great example for when I encounter people who stubbornly insist that animation is, by default, for children. Yes, they are still out there.

Much like there are people who insist that animation is for kids, there are people who refuse to recognize the graphic novel as a potentially deep medium. I find it hard to wrap my own head around at times, considering that memoir like Maus has been around since at least the 1980s and fiction like Sandman has been around since at least the early 1990s. And even before then, the medium was hardly brand spanking new. Perhaps it comes from people who still see anything in the format as a “comic book” and I don’t want to get all pretentious here, but that’s why I use the term “graphic novel” for some things. Even just the “comic” part of “comic book” implies humor, even if people don’t think that through every time they hear it. So this isn’t a comic book movie. It’s an animated movie using the same artwork as the graphics in the graphic novel. And while it has its comedic moments, it isn’t really comical.

I haven’t really done any research into this movie beyond the basics, but I did see some mentions of it being somewhat controversial in terms of how it portrays the country of Iran and its history and culture. The thing is, this is a memoir. It is the story of a personal and familial experience. Not being a part of the culture she’s writing and speaking about, I can’t really make any judgement on that. But I will take it as a given that what she’s presenting is authentic for her. And so long as she’s not fabricating events entirely, that’s really all that matters to me.

Marjane Satrapi grew up in Iran during a time of revolution and war and changing regimes with changing ideals and rules. The movie follows her through her young childhood and into her teenage years and then out of Iran and into Switzerland where she went to University, then back to Iran to see her family before deciding to leave for good. There’s narration over the entire movie, from Marjane’s point of view, looking back on her own actions and opinions. Marjane’s family is portrayed as involved in the revolution from the outset. Relatives end up in jail or worse. Marjane herself seems to shift loyalties based on what she hears and from whom, changing her mind as she learns and grows. I think this is really a key point for memoir – an unflinching look at one’s own past.

It’s a brutal story, with friends and relatives hurt, people confused and upset. Marjane visits her uncle, Anoosh, in prison just before he’s executed. Relatives of her friends report being tortured while imprisoned. Marjane herself rebels against the restrictions the government places on the people, listening to bootleg heavy metal cassettes and speaking out against what seem to her to be ridiculous rules about what women can and can’t wear and can and can’t do. And eventually she leaves for Europe, where things seem better but where she is ashamed to be Iranian and denies it when she meets new people. Some of her friends romanticize her background, seeing her as something of a poster child for revolution, but others see her as being from a backwards society. And this is key for me when trying to understand this movie. Marjane doesn’t hate Iran or being Iranian. She doesn’t hate the culture she was raised in. But the movie makes it very clear that she doesn’t equate what she grew up in with what she left. That isn’t a criticism of the culture. That’s a criticism of the government.

I can’t make any claims to expertise in drawing style or artistic technique, but I do think that the art of this movie, both in the style of the original illustrations from the graphic novels and the animation, is excellent. It’s deceptively simple, what with the vast majority of it being black and white with little to no shading or color, but there’s a lot of detail and care put into the visuals. It suits the story and I’m incredibly glad that it was made animated instead of live action. The only way I think this movie could have worked with live action would have been if it had gone a very Sin City type of direction, with the live action mimicking the artistic style. But even that wouldn’t have done the story the sort of justice it deserves. There’s a reason why Satrapi used the format and medium she used for the original story and to take it too far from that would have turned it into something entirely other.

Despite how good this is, I know I won’t be putting this back in unless I’m showing it to someone else who hasn’t seen it yet. It’s not a casual movie and it’s not one I could pause on while flipping channels. But it is an excellent movie and a fascinating story. I’m glad I’ve seen it once, even if I never see it again.

October 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 573 – The Return of the King (1980)

placeholderThe Return of the King (1980) – September 24th, 2011

Where do I even begin? I’d seen this ages ago and unlike the other two animated adaptations, this one just didn’t stick with me. I had vague memories of songs and unpleasantness and that was about it. Now I know, I must have blocked it out of disappointment. It’s a truly sad conclusion to the animated trio of movies and I’m going to have to watch the new version of the last book several times to get this thing out of my head. And while I’m more than happy to re-watch the new adaptations any time, it’s a sad state of affairs when one is watching them to clear out the memory of Meriadoc Brandybuck as voiced by Casey Kasem. Never should one have to wonder if Merry is going to say “zoinks,” though I suppose Hobbits do tend to smoke a lot so there is that to consider.

We really only bought this because it seemed silly to have the animated versions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and not the conclusion. I don’t know, now, why that was so silly. We should have known better, really. Andy had a much clearer memory of it than I did and we still purchased it. Maybe he likes it better than I do. All I can say is that about five minutes in I started to tune out. Why? Because it became apparent that this movie was picking up from The Hobbit, character designs, singing and all. And while that style worked okay in a story that was intended for a younger audience, and the songs in that were taken from Tolkien’s writing, I honestly think it is terribly ill-suited to this story. And these songs? No. Not Tolkien. No.

It’s an odd sort of follow-up, having to deal with the strange pacing of the Bakshi movie that preceded it. After all, the last one ended in the middle of The Two Towers, with Helm’s Deep dealt with but the travels of Sam, Frodo and Gollum only just beginning. And on the flip side, since they had all that stuff from The Hobbit this version picks up from that too. I mean, why bother actually animating what was going on in this story when they could make flashback montages? Apparently it was always intended to be made as a sequel to The Hobbit, regardless of the Bakshi film, which I just find bizarre. Sure, let’s omit the entire first two books. That sounds like a grand idea.

There are some events in this one from the second book, but for the most part it is an extremely truncated version of The Return of the King. It’s heavily narrated and contains quite a few songs, making it feel more like an animated musical Cliff Notes version of the book as opposed to an actual adaptation. I’d go over the plot, but like I said, I tuned out. I know things happened, but I don’t really care. And I don’t think the movie much cared either, given the aforementioned narration. I do recall that a lot of time was spent on Sam carrying the One Ring and considering what he might do with it, making the world one huge garden full of beautiful plants. So instead of a Dark Lord they would have a Gardener? Not dark, but green and bountiful as the harvest? Riotous as the vines and stronger than the roots? All shall weed and despair? Whatever. I rolled my eyes whenever the movie tried to make it this big damn hero moment.

The movie does seem to focus mainly on the Sam and Frodo aspect of the story, but there are bits from the rest as well. The battle at Minas Tirith and Denethor’s madness and all that is indeed in there, but it has so much less impact in this movie than it should because there’s no real lead-in to it all. Who gives a damn that Eowyn pulls off her helmet and reveals herself to be a woman when facing down the Witch King in the Battle of Pelenor Fields when we weren’t ever really given any time with her prior to that? The whole Gondor aspect of the plot feels so much less for the lack of time spent on it. And this isn’t a long movie at all. It’s under 100 minutes all told, so the lack of details and plot was clearly intentional. Someone decreed that they didn’t matter so much and weren’t connected to The Hobbit so they didn’t have footage to do flashbacks from so they’re not there.

I just can’t bring myself to take this movie seriously. The songs alone would disqualify it but then there’s the goofy looking character design and the complete lack of several major characters and plot points. And yet they kept in things like the Mouth of Sauron. Come on, the Mouth of Sauron is supposed to be scary, as are the Orcs. How am I supposed to take either one seriously when they’re done by Rankin and Bass? I just can’t do it. Maybe if I could have forced myself to keep my attention on the screen I’d have found more positives to say about the movie, but I couldn’t. And that should be damning enough, really.

September 24, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Return of the King (1980)

September 24, 2011

The Return of the King (1980)

How can such a short movie seem so interminable?

After Ralph Bakshi’s strange rotoscoped Lord of the Rings movie ends abruptly after the battle at Helm’s Deep there was a need for a conclusion to the series. This movie, produced by Rankin and Bass like the Hobbit made for TV movie that came before it, is that conclusion. What’s bizarre about this movie is that it tries to follow up on the Bakshi movie, but it is also a sort of sequel to the Rankin/Bass Hobbit. It might have made more sense if they had re-made the first two books in the style of the Hobbit before moving on to this one, but I suppose there were rights issues, and it had only been a couple years since the theatrical animated Lord of the Rings film. So this movie attempts to be a sequel to the Hobbit that assumes knowledge at least of the happenings in the first two Lord of the Rings books but does not directly follow on to the Bakshi film.

The result of this odd choice is that this movie has to spend a LOT of time explaining what’s going on. We’re eased into the action by a lengthy prologue that takes place in the house of Elrond after all the events of the great war of the ring. The movie is told in flashback as the story of how Frodo lost his finger and the one ring as related to Bilbo. I suppose that from a story-telling perspective it’s slightly preferable to just a lengthy voice-over (although there are plenty of those later on) but it does somewhat eliminate any tension in the story since we know at the start how things are going to end up.

This movie also suffers from the problem the Hobbit film had, which is that the action scenes are necessarily truncated by budgetary restrictions. It’s not nearly as pronounced here as in the Hobbit, but it is still clear that the large epic battle at Minas Tirith cannot be fully realized in animated form. Oh, there are a lot of scenes of battle and carnage, but they all feel.. somewhat elided. We get to see little highlights of the battle, but for the blow-by-blow we must rely on the narration provided by Gandalf, who explains most of what’s going on.

All this narration and the prologue, and the internal monologues of the characters combine to make this a dreadfully exposition filled movie. I’d say there’s probably more exposition than actual dialog, which makes the movie rather tedious to watch. It is the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

Then there are the songs. The songs in the animated Hobbit movie, constant as they are, at least for the most part use Tolkien’s words. These songs were written by producer Jules Bass, and they are not very well written at that. The male chorus constantly singing about the ring bearer/the ring wearer are just another form of exposition, really, in an already exposition heavy movie. This is the movie that has the song about “Frodo of the Nine Fingers” and the famous “Where there’s a Whip There is a Way” song. The incessant singing is irritating and insipid.

I will say that the animation in this movie is significantly better, in my opinion, than that in yesterday’s film. It shows its Japanese anime roots rather more than the Hobbit did, (Such as the glowing hero pose that Sam strikes while bearing the ring) but it’s a significant step up from that film. I enjoyed seeing the character design from the Hobbit movie brought over to this deeper, more expansive story. As a movie, however, this leaves much to be desired. Amanda commented as we watched it that it felt like an abridged book on tape of the Return of the King with some animation added in. I’m very glad that Peter Jackson gifted the world with his absolutely stellar live action trilogy based on the same books, because as soon as we were done watching this we put his Fellowship of the Ring in to fulfill our Lord of the Rings needs. For decades this interminable and plodding adaptation was all that Lord of the Rings fans had, and that’s a kind of sad thing.

September 24, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 572 – The Lord of the Rings (1978)

The Lord of the Rings (1978) – September 23rd, 2011

Following last night’s movie, we move on to a very differently done adaptation of Tolkien’s works. Instead of the very cartoonish style of Rankin and Bass, we have here the rotoscoped animation from Ralph Bakshi. I know it’s got a very mixed reputation and to be honest, I’m not really a zealot about it in either direction. That being said, I do like it. I vastly prefer the newer Peter Jackson version of the story, but I don’t dislike this. I will grant, however, that it is an odd taste and I am well aware that my opinion will not be shared by many others.

I first saw this movie long before I knew what rotoscoping was. I watched it and for some reason I really liked it, odd as it is, and so it remained in my head that it was something I enjoyed even long after the last time I’d seen it. Some years later I learned about rotoscoping and what it meant and how it was done. Personally, I think it’s fascinating and produces some very odd stuff. I don’t know if it was the best choice of medium for this particular story, but there are some bits and pieces that I think work very nicely. Oh, it’s far from perfect, and I have some very specific issues (such as the actor who played Gimli being only slightly shorter than the actors playing the humans and elves and this not being adjusted in post), but I don’t have any real hate for it.

The biggest issue I have with this movie is that while it does tell the story fairly well, it’s paced horribly. Part of it is that the original book is incredibly dense. Even the incredibly long special editions of the new versions are missing whole chunks of story and entire characters, so it’s no shock that the story is compressed more than a bit in this animated version and that certain things were lost. But add to that the odd choice to carry the story out of the first book and into the second and it just feels off.

I won’t go into detail about the story, since really, I don’t think I have to. The basic points are all ther. Bilbo Baggins decides to leave the Shire and handing over his home and the One Ring to his nephew, Frodo. Gandalf later realizes what the ring Frodo has actually is and sends him and his friends off to Rivendell. Once at Rivendell a fellowship of Gandalf, the four Hobbits, two men, an elf and a dwarf is formed to take the ring to Mordor to destroy it. Action ensues. But where the original book ends with Frodo and Sam parting ways with the rest of the fellowship after Boromir tries to take the ring, this movie continues. We follow Frodo and Sam and see them realize that Gollum has been following them, then we see them capture him to force him to be their guide to Mordor. We also follow the rest of the fellowship. We see Merry and Pippin meet up with Treebeard and remeet Gandalf and we travel to Rohan and see the confrontation between Gandalf and King Theoden. And finally we see the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Well, not finally. I believe the Frodo and Sam bit is the actual end of the movie.

Consider that for a moment. If you’re not terribly familiar with the original books it might not sound like a bad thing. After all, why not end with a big climactic battle? The trouble is that the big climactic battle is actually the big climactic battle from the first half of the second book in the trilogy. In the new versions it’s the climax of the second movie. Here it happens and then there’s no follow-up to it. I believe this was done in the hopes of making the trilogy into a pair of movies, each handling roughly a book and a half. But then the second movie never got made. Not by Bakshi, anyhow. This wasn’t a two movie deal or anything. So when it didn’t meet with critical raves the second proposed movie never got funded. Instead Rankin and Bass took up the reins again and we got tomorrow’s movie. Alas.

Here’s the thing: I think the semi-realistic, dreamlike and sometimes very dark animation style of the rotoscoping works. It’s a stylistic thing and somewhat a matter of taste, but I do find it interesting. Some day I’m going to have to go back and watch the movie far more carefully than I did this evening as I’m not sure if this was intentional or simply a side effect of the rotoscoping process, but there’s a tendency for the darker parts of the movie to have more texture left over from the original live action footage. And I can see how that could be used very interestingly indeed. The goblins and orcs, for example, tend to show up in darker lighting than the more heroic characters, so they end up with more artifacts from the live action, making them grittier and more shadowy. The heroes, on the other hand, are shown in brighter lighting, resulting in less texture and a more solid appearance. And I can see how this side effect of the process could be used artistically to portray the differences between the heroes and the villains. Unfortunately, I suspect not quite enough thought or effort went into it to achieve such a thing. Still, it’s one reason I really do like the rotoscoping.

There are quite a few changes made to the story, which is only to be expected. In this version it’s Legolas who meets them after Frodo is stabbed by one of the Nazgul. It’s actually supposed to be an elf named Glorfindel, who’s got a huge history associated with him from The Silmarillion but who is otherwise not really crucial to the story of Frodo and the fellowship. It makes perfect sense to me to have changes like that. What I’m not terribly fond of is the visual depictions of the humans in the movie. They’ve got a very barbaric quality to them, with both Aragorn and Boromir wearing tiny little tunics with no pants or leggings and Boromir wearing a helmet with horns on. The lack of pants had me giggling far too much, what with the “Gondor needs no pants” thing that came from the meme where key words in famous movie lines are replaced by the word “pants”. But it’s also bizarre to me. Apparently Aragorn is the Pantsless Ranger. Me? I’d want something on my legs if I was going mucking around in the woods in all seasons.

That being said, my issues with the movie are mostly small things. They’re certainly not enough to quash my enjoyment of it. It’s entirely possible that said enjoyment is driven by nostalgia, but watching it tonight with a more critical eye than I did when I was a kid, I still have to say I think it’s a solid movie. I don’t expect everyone to like it. I do expect that the animation style will turn some people off by its very nature. But I don’t really care. I just wish that the second movie had been made to follow this one and made by the same people. The dark semi-realism of the animation here is, in my opinion, far more suited to the story than the cartoonish goofiness of Rankin and Bass. But that’s a complaint for tomorrow.

September 23, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 571 – The Hobbit (1977)

The Hobbit (1977) – September 22nd, 2011

I’m not sure which we bought first, this or the 1978 Lord of the Rings. This we have on VHS, so I suspect we’ve owned it for a while but I can’t say for certain. I know I bought Lord of the Rings at a library book sale, but I forget when. Regardless, we’ve been holding on to them for a while, waiting for today. Because today? Today is Hobbit Day. And since the first part of the new version is still over a year away, well, we started with this one. Happy Hobbit Day. Now, let’s sing some songs!

No, really, I’m totally serious. The songs are what I remember the most from this version. I suspect that the new one will have far less singing, even if Tolkien himself was prone to putting songs in his books. When my father read them to me he’d always skip the songs. “And then they sang a song… about breaking plates.” That’s what I got until I saw this. The song from the beginning of the movie really is in the book. I don’t think all of the songs in the movie are in the book, but they’re not all just tossed in there to make this into a musical. And hey, I have to admit, it was a successful thing for the movie if I remember the songs so clearly so long after last seeing this. It has to have been at least fifteen years.

If you are unfamiliar with the story, it’s a prequel to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, telling the story of Bilbo Baggins and how he came to have the One Ring in his possession at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. The story begins with Gandalf showing up in the Shire, maneuvering Bilbo into joining a group of Dwarves who are going on a quest to claim a huge pile of treasure from a dragon named Smaug. Gandalf claims Bilbo is a burglar, though he is no such thing, and off they all go. They have a number of little adventures on their way to the Lonely Mountain including Bilbo getting split off from the rest of the group and finding himself playing a game of riddles with a creature named Gollum. Up until then, Gollum had been the Ring’s owner, but Bilbo finds it on the ground in Gollum’s cave. Since wearing it renders one invisible, Bilbo finds it quite useful indeed as the rest of the story progresses. Eventually he faces off against Smaug, using his invisibility to make himself seem more formidable.

Towards the end there’s a big battle between the Men and Elves and the Goblins and it’s always felt a little lacking to me. I’d need to look at the book to determine if it really is, but if I’ve got three armies on a field I want grandeur and I’ve never quite gotten it from this movie. Also, I’m not entirely thrilled with the visual depictions of the Elves and Goblins. The Elves were supposed to be the first residents of Middle Earth, wisest and most beautiful and graceful. And instead we have these blueish-green dudes with spindly arms and legs, knobbly joints and oddly bulbous heads. The Goblins all remind me a little of Snarf from Thundercats, which is also a Rankin and Bass production so I suppose that at least makes sense. Come to think of it, that likeness also applies to Smaug so now it makes sense that I’ve always considered him somewhat feline in looks. Now, the Dwarves and Bilbo? I can totally get on board with all of them. Gandalf too, and Gollum. So I suppose I shouldn’t get too bogged down by the Goblins and the Elves, since the movie’s focus is on Bilbo and the Dwarves.
Overall, I do enjoy this movie. It’s cheesy and it’s got some questionable visual depictions, but it’s also got some serious nostalgia for me. I’m afraid I don’t have much more to say about it aside from that. It’s not masterfully made and despite having had the Fifteen Birds song stuck in my head since we watched it, I’d probably have to say I prefer my father’s way of dealing with the songs better. But I do like Bilbo and the Dwarves. And I do like Smaug, likeness to Snarf notwithstanding. It hits the major plot points that I remember and does do decently enough. I don’t think I’d use it to introduce any kids to the story these days, and I’m glad I was introduced to it through the book well before I watched this movie. But all that being said, I’m glad we own it.

September 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Hobbit (1977)

September 22, 2011

The Hobbit

To celebrate Hobbit Day this year we’ve chosen to start watching the three animated Tolkien movies we have in our collection. Tonight is the Rankin/Bass Hobbit. Both Amanda and I have fond memories of our fathers reading to us from The Hobbit as children. This tale of a simple Hobbit plucked from the comfort of his hole for a grand adventure is one of those iconic stories that defines my childhood. Here, as illustration, is a picture of me dressed as Thorin Okenshield for Halloween in 1979:

Andy as Thorin

So naturally this movie is a thing of great nostalgia for me. More for the story than for the film itself.

I will say that as we watched tonight it struck me how rapidly the story of the Hobbit was told here. The way this book is put together is very episodic – each chapter is its own quick adventure. This works wonderfully for a bedtime story if you’re hearing a chapter or two each night, but compressed into the timeline of a TV movie it felt rushed to me. Each episode was compressed into just a couple of minutes: the dinner, the trolls, Elrond, the storm in the mountains, fleeing from the trolls and being rescued by the eagles, Mirkwood and the spiders, the elves and escaping by river… it is almost overwhelming. The movie does slow down and allow a couple scenes to play out at length, and I feel like those are its strongest moments.

The first time the movie pauses is for the Riddles in the Dark chapter with Bilbo and Gollum. It allows most of the riddles to be told in full (although one is presented as a song – which is in keeping with the rest of this movie but seems a little strange and the one about the thirty-two white horses is missing.) I like having a little bit of a breather there before it’s back into the rapidfire attempt to fit more bits of the book into a very short space. Then the film pauses again for the interaction between Bilbo and Smaug, which is also a lot of fun.

Part of the reason that things feel so disjointed and hurried I think is that the animation budget for the film really didn’t include enough to have actual action scenes. It’s very strange. There are a couple places which clearly call for action, but instead involve flashy light-show overlays while still pictures spin around. I think this contributes to the jumpy nature of the film because you want there to be some action to provide resolution to the events of a particular chapter, but instead there’s a strange interlude, and then the movie dives directly into a completely different scene.

It has been many years since I last watched this adaptation, but it’s a film with a very distinctive style that sticks with you. The design of the characters can be largely summed up in a single word: noses. Seriously – these characters are all gigantic schnozes with faces tucked in somewhere behind them. I suppose it works for the most part, and it allows the characters to be distinctively non-human. It also fits the artistic style of the film. The gorgeous water color backgrounds that portray the world of Middle Earth really need a strong feel for the characters that will inhabit it, and the movie delivers on that very well.

The other lasting impression of this movie comes from the many, many songs. From “we must away ‘ere break of day” when the dwarfs meet Bilbo to the “greatest adventure” over the opening credits this movie sets the stage for there to be a song of some sort over just about every scene. Most of them come from the poems Tolkien littered the book with, so I suppose they’re faithful to the source material.

Anyhow, this is a distinctive and memorable adaptation of a little piece of my childhood – even if it does feel badly rushed a lot of the time. I was interested to note that the movie does a lot of setting up for the Lord of the Rings right at the end, particularly in light of the fact that Rankin/Bass did not actually end up making the animated Lord of the Rings movie that we are going to watch tomorrow – although they did get to do the conclusion to the series.

September 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 561 – Up

Up – September 12th, 2011

Andy and I went to see this one in the theater when it came out. And I had been warned. I was told beforehand, by multiple people that not only would it make me cry, it would make me cry within the first twenty minutes. And they were right. This movie is explicitly built to tug – hard – at your heartstrings. And unlike, say, the Toy Story movies, it doesn’t wait for the climax or the ending to do it. Nope. It starts out with a gut punch before it lets you start enjoying yourself. I was warned. I brought tissues. And I needed them. The thing is, the nature of the story makes it more likely to make an impact on adults than children. I can see kids getting that it’s sad, but really, it’s adults who’ll feel like the movie is out to get their delicious salty tears. I swear, Pixar runs on them. Like Tyra Banks.

There are two stories in this movie, telling a larger story. There’s the majority of the movie, which is the story of an elderly man named Carl and a young boy named Russell and their adventure together in South America, where they find a rare bird and meet an adventurer who wants to capture it. And then there’s the story of Carl and his wife, Ellie, and their life together. Really, the story is all Carl’s. He’s the link between the two. And to be honest, I love that. I love that this movie spends so much time on his character. The grumpy old man is a movie staple but rarely do you get to see where that grumpy old man came from. It’s like they’re hatched, full grown, dug up from the earth like Uruk-hai with walkers and dentures and gout.

I remember when we saw the notes Andy’s uncles sent us about working on the Ewok movie they mentioned that George Lucas had just watched Heidi with his daughter and liked the idea of a gruff old man with a child, so that’s what they went with for the movie. The thing about those movies is that they focus on the kid. They leave out the question of why the old man is so grouchy and consequently they leave out the answer too. But those old folks are people who were young once. And while I know plenty of grumpy young people, there are always reasons. In Carl’s case, he’s lost his wife. The entire first quarter of the movie is devoted to showing how Carl and Ellie met as kids, discovered their mutual love of adventure, got married, worked near each other, bought a house and made a life together. They wanted children, but Ellie found she couldn’t have any, and even as a happily childless woman, that’s a heartrending scene. But they forge on, making their lives full in other ways. They try to save up for a trip, but the money always seems to be needed elsewhere. Until Carl realizes they’ve grown old and purchases two tours of South America. Which they never use, because Ellie falls ill and dies. And Carl retreats, the tickets unused and left on the mantle with his and Ellie’s collected treasures. And that is the beginning of the movie.

See what I mean? Punch in the gut! And the thing is, if you paid any attention whatsoever to the ads and marketing for the movie, you know Carl is in the rest but Ellie is nowhere to be seen. When they couldn’t have kids? When they grew old together? I knew where it was headed. It makes it all the worse, knowing. Just writing the summary made me choke up, and I was writing it on a bus, in public, without the movie actually playing. It’s a good thing Pixar is making kids movies. If they turned their hands towards world domination through emotional manipulation they’d be ruling us all in as long as it takes to put a movie like this together. It’s not terribly hard to make me cry, granted, but Pixar seems to be able to turn on the tears for almost everyone I know. Interestingly, this movie gets the tears out of the way before the main plot starts. There are some emotional moments later, but it’s not on the same level as the beginning and there’s plenty of fun to be had in the main plot too.

To escape having to move into a nursing home, Carl lifts his house up off its foundation with a huge bunch of helium balloons and takes off for South America. It’s a wonderfully fantastical scene, with the balloons popping up out of the chimney and Carl blowing a raspberry at the two nursing home attendants who’d come to get him. And if this were only Carl’s story, then he’d be on his way. But it turns out that a local Wilderness Explorer, Russell, has accidentally joined him. Russell had only wanted to help Carl out and earn his Assisting the Elderly badge. Now he’s in a flying house on his way to South America. And when they get there, it’s Russell’s enthusiasm that gets them in trouble, but also what gives Carl more purpose than he’s had in years.

While trying to float the house from one end of a gorge to another Russell and Carl encounter a large bird and a talking dog. And let me say, I am unashamedly in love with Doug the dog. He has a special collar, made for him by his owner, that lets him talk. And he loves Russell and Carl. He loves them so much. Turns out his owner is Charles Muntz, a famous explorer who was disgraced when he claimed he’d found a previously unknown bird but had no proof. And he’s been in South America ever since, camped out in his zeppelin with his dogs, looking for the bird. The same breed of bird who is now following Carl and Russell. From there you can likely figure out the basic plot. Carl and Russell have to protect the bird from Muntz. Carl has to deal with his childhood hero being a total evil jackass. Russell goes off on his own to try and save the bird and Carl has to follow them. And in doing so he has to say goodbye to his house and, at the same time, Ellie.

Now, I’m not really one for “a child teaches a grouchy old person the true meaning of life” type plots, because really? You have to spend time around kids to lead a meaningful life? But in this case I think it works and it works for a couple of reasons. First, Carl isn’t just some old coot. He’s got a character and he’s got a background. This is a man who did enjoy life. He enjoyed life for decades and he did so without a child. It’s not the age of the person that matters here, it’s the attitude of wanting adventure and seeing new things. And that is certainly not a quality that’s limited to kids. It also works because we can see that Carl isn’t necessarily changing as a person. Instead he’s coming out of a long depression. And finally, it’s not Russell on his own. Sure, he’s a great character and he’s instrumental in it all, but it’s also Doug and the bird and the realization that Carl’s childhood hero isn’t who he thought he was. It’s the adventure that gives Carl the true meaning of things. And since this is Carl’s story and Carl’s adventure (and you can’t convince me otherwise) that’s the way it should be.

September 12, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

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September 12, 2011

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Oh, Pixar. How you love to make me cry.

I suppose there are plenty of movies about irascible and lonely old men, but most of them don’t go to such lengths to explain how he became so lonely. The opening of this movie shows our hero Karl as a young boy and how he meets his wife to be. Then – mostly in simple pantomime with a brilliantly simple but touching score – it shows highlights of their entire life together. It shows their marriage, their plans to adventure abroad often foiled by the usual events of real life, their inability to have children. Eventually they grow old together, never having been able to travel abroad as they had wished in their youth, and when Ellie dies it leaves Karl all by himself in the house they lived their entire lives in.

It’s one of the most heart-rendingly touching scenes ever committed to film, and it’s the opening to a children’s movie. This starting sequence is the reason that I now do not go to see a Pixar film in the theater without tissues in my pocket (a policy I was glad of when we went to Toys Story 3.)

You need this scene here, too, to make Karl a sympathetic character. As an old man he’s bitter and angry. He’s being pressured by a sleazy real estate developer to sell his house so it can be demolished to make way for a new high-rise building, and when it seems like he’s going to lose the home he instead opts to strap thousands of balloons to it and float it to South America. His behaviors and attitude would seem irrational and incomprehensible if you didn’t know already about Ellie and their life together.

Of course this movie is no all poignancy and meditations on lost opportunities and lost loves. It is, after all, a children’s animated movie. It features a disarmingly optimistic foil for Karl in his stowaway sidekick the young scout Russell. There’s also a loony cartoon bird and lots of talking dogs (given voices by a translator box on their collars. Indeed the movie’s very tenderness makes these more comedic elements that much more precious.

As is so often the case this movie wonderfully illustrates the brilliance of the geniuses at Pixar. Pete Docter understands how to use his medium to get inside his viewers. This is effective storytelling, plain and simple. I feel drained after watching it because it’s so emotionally taxing (and how many kid’s movies can I say that about) but it’s a good kind of emotional trip. Validating and affirming.

We have been somewhat avoiding watching this movie for a while now because I knew how taxing it would be. Although we wept through most of the film I have to say that in the end I’m delighted to have this in our collection. My one regret is that after having seen it twice in the theater in 3-D I have been unable to get it in 3-D Blu-Ray. Not that the 3-D effects are essential to watching the movie – it just ads a little bit to the experience that I miss now.

September 12, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 529 – Evangelion: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone

Neon Genesis Evangelion: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone – August 11th, 2011

Honestly? I’m not even sure how to start to review this. Mostly because it’s a re-do of a series that I would never have attempted to sum up in a short space. But also because I feel like there’s no possible way I have anything new to say about this. The series this is based on has been around for a while and it’s rather famous for its bizarre ending and heavily allegorical plot. What could I possibly say that hasn’t been said a million times before by hundreds and thousands of anime fans? Nothing, that’s what.

It just feels silly, trying to recap the plot here, but then that is something I do have to say about this. It’s been a very long time since I last watched the Evangelion series but while watching it I remember feeling like there were always things I was missing. Meaning I should have gotten but which turned out not to be revealed until much later on. At first it’s basically a monster of the week sort of deal, and only later do we find out that there’s a hell of a lot more going on. In this movie remake the same events take place, but with more of the overall plot incorporated into them. Or at least that’s what I’m assuming. Like I said, it’s been quite some time.

I first watched the Evangelion series when I was in college. I’m fairly sure it was during my sophomore year, because I can remember the apartment Andy was living in at the time and the way it was set up. We grabbed the episodes two at a time from the video store we were working at and watched them every night for a while. It’s not one of those series that went on and on forever, but it’s not a concise miniseries either. To be honest, it’s very much like The Prisoner to me: Full of lots of allusions and messages and purpose, then ending in a blaze of what the ever loving fuck. And I don’t dislike what-the-ever-loving-fuck endings, but the series seemed to have spend so much time on the build-up that it just felt odd. I can’t speak to how this movie series will play out, but at least the beginning feels a bit more cohesive.

As in the series, our hero here is young Shinji, who’s been away at school for a while and is pretty convinced his father doesn’t care about him in the least. He’s wrong, but not in a comforting sort of way, because his father does care but as far as this portion of the plot is concerned he only cares that Shinji has the ability to pilot a giant mech called an Eva. And the Evas are needed in order to defeat a series of giant attacking monsters called Angels. So Shinji’s father cares that Shinji is now useful, but other than that he’s pretty distant. Which leads to the immense amount of whining Shinji does throughout the story. Shinji is famous for his whining. And you know, if the fate of the world wasn’t at stake, I’d be a lot more forgiving of his daddy issues. His daddy is a remote jackass and at least in the series it becomes clear he’s also pretty creepy. So I’d totally let Shinji’s whining go, but it’s so ever-present that it feels egregious, and this is not something that this movie fixes. Even knowing that a lot of what Shinji is whining about is perfectly valid, I still rolled my eyes.

So Shinji shows up in Tokyo and is immediately told that he’s not there for a loving reunion with his father but is needed to pilot a giant mech he’s never seen or heard of before and oh yes, he needs to do that right now because an Angel is approaching the city. The only other Eva and pilot in the area are disabled due to an accident and so it’s up to him. Is it any wonder that he has trouble piloting the damn thing? The Angel kicks his ass, at which point his mech goes berserk and freaks out, giving us a clue that maybe the Evas aren’t really just big suits of armor. There are other clues by the end. It’s made clear that there’s a much deeper game going on, with something imprisoned deep down under the city, even below the fortified underground space where the city exists when it’s all been retracted during an attack. It’s clear that Things Have Happened and will continue to happen. And it’s clear that there’s a lot that isn’t clear.

Really, I’m not sure what else to say here. I’m watching this movie somewhat tainted with a years-back experience watching the series it’s based on. Of course that’s bound to color how I see the movie itself and I freely admit that I am a biased viewer. I know a lot of what isn’t revealed in this movie, so perhaps my knowledge of what’s to come is affecting how I see what was revealed. I know the natures of some of the characters a little better. I know the ending, such as it was when I watched it way back when. Ultimately, I came out of this movie having enjoyed it, and it was certainly nice to see a good quality version with what were likely updated effects. But I also came out of it wanting to rewatch the series to check myself and my perceptions of it. I don’t know how someone with no prior knowledge of the story and universe would react to it. Perhaps it would be an easier sell than the series. Or perhaps it’s just as incomprehensible, just in slightly different ways, and if you’re going to enjoy it you’ll enjoy it either way and likewise if you’re not going to enjoy it. I wish I could review it better, but like I said, I’m sure other people have already done so.

August 11, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Evangelion: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone

August 11, 2011

Neon Genesis: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone

Neon Genesis Evangelion was still relatively new when Amanda and I first watched the series. TLA Video had just about every episode of the series on the shelf (dubbed VHS I believe) when we worked there in the late nineties, and although the series was renowned at the time it was not acclaimed as it is today as one of the greatest and most completely befuddling anime series ever created. Indeed I am pretty sure that we started watching the series before all of it had yet been imported to America, so we had to wait in eager anticipation for the last two tapes to come out here and we got to scratch our heads in wonder when the series reached it’s completely strange climax.

The genius for me of Neon Genesis was that it started out as such a typical anime show. It’s the story of a fourteen year old boy who is forced by circumstance and by his uncaring father to pilot a giant robot to defend the Earth from giant invading aliens. There were little hints, even in the early episodes and in the opening credits, of some of the grander schemes afoot, but for the first few episodes this series was very familiar territory, with a different monster each week to be defeated by Shinji and his Eva unit. Of course there was much more than that. There was the mystery of what the “angel” attackers were, why they were bent on breaking into Nerv headquarters, what was the mysterious event called “second impact” which had so radically changed the Earth around the time Shinji was born, what role did his father play in things, and just what exactly was the giant machine he was piloting. As the series progressed it became clear that the world was much deeper and more complex than it at first appeared, and I loved that slow reveal. (In much the same way that I love the meticulous construction of the world Alan Moore created for Watchmen.)

Although the story told in the original Neon Genesis series has a very definite end this is in many ways the show that will not die. So great had its success become, and so confusing was its end that it continued to spawn new projects years after it was done. There were two movies based on the series – Death and Rebirth and End of Evangelion. Death and Rebirth is a pretty dense thing to get through because it’s a sort of “greatest hits” of the entire series, compressing 22 or so episodes into a single two hour experience. Then there’s End of Evangelion, which I have heard described as an alternative to the last two episodes in the series that presents more action and answers and less metaphysics and philosophy. There was also a “director’s cut” of the series that was released while I was working at Suncoast which is pretty much the whole series re-mastered and with some newer digital effects.

This movie is something completely different. In 2007 a project was begun to re-make Neon Genesis, preserving the character design, characters and overall plot, but doing it with a much bigger budget and with the benefit of hindsight. This re-make is intended to take the form of (I believe) four feature length theatrical films, although to date only two of them have come out. Knowing full well how confusing the end of the series is the makers of this movie have gone to considerable effort to start layering in the overarching plot much earlier. Shinji’s father is seen talking much more with his bosses in Seele – the conspiracy behind the Human Instrumentality Project, and it’s made much more clear that some kind of apocalyptic endgame is being planned by them.

I absolutely loved this film. We watched it in Blu Ray on my new computer’s hi-def widescreen monitor and it looks absolutely spectacular. I love seeing elements of the plot of the series being introduced much earlier in the new version, and I also loved all the familiar faces and scenes from the original. The lavish big-budget treatment and extensive use of computer effects fits very well with the epic story and lager than life creations in the world of Eva. This movie is a treat for the eyes, particularly near the end when things really begin to get blown up.

I will admit that I found some changes from the series jarring. Since this is in movie form the opening credits, which were one of my favorite parts of the series, are gone. Shinji’s first time piloting the Eva unit is significantly different than how I remembered it in the series – in particular I missed the moment when the Eva’t helmet gets damaged and a giant eye emerges, seeming to look right at Shinji in the reflection in a skyscraper. Also, part of the whole point of that first encounter was that the Eva seemed to come to life after all was lost, and when in theory it should be unable to move because its external power supply was disconnected and its charge was run down. I miss details like that. Oh, and I really miss “Fly Me to the Moon” over the closing credits.

I’m very much looking forward now to watching the second movie in the new series. I haven’t bought it yet, but I will be soon. Then it’s going to be a mighty long wait for the other two films. If they even come out.

I kind of hope that the proposed live action film never gets off the ground. Everything I’ve heard about the dreadful live action Akira makes me dread what might be done to this other anime classic.

August 11, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment