Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Persepolis on DVD



Just a few weeks ago I was in a car with Tee Bosustow, on the way to an interview for his Toon In podcast. We kicked around a few thoughts on different animated productions, and when I mentioned that I really liked Persepolis, he said he wasn't as enthusiastic about the film.

"What?!?" I said. "Let me out of the car right now. You know what? Don't even bother stopping. Just slow down and let me jump out."

Okay, so maybe that's not exactly how it went down. For that matter, I don't really remember why he didn't like it as much as I did. But at the time his reasoning struck me enough that I recently re-read the comics in anticipation of the DVD release, which I watched not too long ago, along with all the extras. Here are some of the impressions I came away with:

It's always kind of funny when you mistakenly get the DVD with Spanish menus.

Catherine Deneuve is at the Persepolis press conference at Cannes and doesn't get asked a question? How is that possible?

I suspect that Iggy Pop is incapable of sitting in one place for too long without taking his shirt off.

Finally, upon rewatching I think that Persepolis is as much a tribute to Marjane Satrapi's grandmother as it is an autobiography. Never mind the bittersweet ending; from the moment the young Marjane opens her mouth to question authority in school, she's negotiating the principles of self-awareness and honesty to oneself that her grandmother taught her against the realities of the world around her. Whether she's telling off members of the Guardians of the Revolution or standing up to French bigots, she's channelling her grandmother; and guess who's the person she goes to whenever she has serious problems, and the first person to bite her head off if that's what she needs?

Because of the story's geographic and spiritual location in Iran and the timing of the movie's release, some might consider Persepolis political. Because of the strength and intelligence exhibited by Marjane, her mother and her grandmother, some might consider it feminist. After watching the extras, I don't think Satrapi would agree with either sentiment. Persepolis is the story of ordinary-yet-extraordinary people—we all know folks who fit in that category—in trying circumstances, and the legacy that she carries.

Yeah, I'm still on the Persepolis bandwagon.

Where to Get It
Buy Persepolis books and DVDs from Amazon.com


[Crossposted from Frames Per Second.]

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Friday, June 27, 2008

WALL-E



I hate it—I mean, really hate it—that whenever an animated feature is reviewed, writers feel compelled to mention whether or not kids would like it. It's a testament to the fact that, regardless of what the individual writers, editors or publishers feel, the public at large still can't process the idea that adults might want to watch animated features for themselves.

Past responses to this prejudice have included making films that are most definitely not for children, making films that are mainly for kids but include nod-and-wink throwaway gags for adults, and making films that kids and adults can enjoy equally. These have worked to varying degrees, but they all carry with them a fairly standard idea of what children will watch and enjoy.

WALL-E is a bit different in this regard, because it expands the idea of what kids will find entertaining. When Cast Away was released eight years ago, a big deal was made of the fact that there was no dialogue for almost half the movie (in the literal sense; Tom Hanks's character did speak, but no one answered). A similar fuss is being made over the lack of dialogue in WALL-E, but the unspoken question is, will kids be able to sit still for a 103-minute film where the main characters rarely speak?

From the reactions of the kids in the audience (especially the ones in the row right behind me) on Wednesday night, the answer is yes. And in the same way that Tom Hanks's acting was credited for making the dialogue-free parts of Cast Away so compelling, the Pixar animators must be given props for the remarkable acting in WALL-E.

With one exception, none of the many robot characters in the movie can truly speak, and the two that do (WALL-E and EVE) pretty much only say their names, each other's names, and the word "directive." That means that every robot character has to rely on rigid bodies and eyes (or eye surrogates) to communicate and express emotion. Interestingly, WALL-E himself is among the least flexible of the movie's robots; he has treads instead of feet, a pair of rigid mechanical viewfinders instead of an eye-mimicking LED display, and unbendable arms with three flat "fingers" at the end.

In sum, the movie has to be carried by characters that can't speak and are all limited compared to human bodies, and the main character is in some ways the most limited. And it works, thanks to Pixar's careful application of animation's twin traditions of pantomime and bringing inanimate objects to life. There are several references in WALL-E to A113, an in-joke that refers to CalArts's old character animation classroom. In few other films is that gag as relevant as it is in WALL-E; the movie is such an accomplished expression of the pre-digital yet universal art of conveying emotion and story purely through movement that when human characters show up and start talking, they seem clumsy and inelegant in comparison.

So, yes, kids will like WALL-E, as will adults. And we have the art of animation to thank for that.

[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Kihachiro Kawamoto Films on DVD



If there were awards for truth in advertising, then Kino International would have to win something for the use of one adjective. The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto contains the bulk of the animation master's work, seven short films made between 1968 and 1979.

Kawamoto is considered a stop-motion animator, and his recent feature-length masterpiece, The Book of the Dead, features gorgeous sets to accompany his beautiful puppets. However, this DVD serves as a reminder that his shorts were rarely quite so straightforward. All of the films on the DVD involve the manipulation of physical objects—if not puppets, then cutouts—but Kawamoto freely mixes them with drawn animation and flat paper cutouts with varying degrees of abstraction.

In earlier films like 1972's The Demon, Kawamoto plays with this stylization by having characters move in sync with the background music's rhythm, almost as if they were performing the story as a dance. By the time of the final film, 1979's House of Flames, he's also using stark lighting and elegant compositions to suggest, at times, a stage play. The three middle films in the collection, An Anthropo-Cynical Farce, The Trip and A Poet's Life (from 1970, 1973 and 1974) all break from the use of puppets and the use of ancient Japan as a setting, but are no less compelling. They are perhaps a bit more obtuse in that unique way that independent animation from the 1970s could be.

Kino has also released the feature-length The Book of the Dead, which features some of Kawamoto's most exquisite—there's that word again—stop-motion work to date. Like his best-known short-form films, the movie features Buddhism in ancient Japan. However, this time Buddhist teachings are central to the film, as it takes place in the eighth century, around the time that Buddhism was being introduced to Japan from China. Unlike his shorts, Kawamoto has chosen here to fill out his sets with physical objects and far more characters, all realized with considerable detail. It's hard to watch a sequence with a room full of elegantly dressed puppets with their clothes blowing in the wind and not be awestruck by both the scene's verisimilitude and its poetry.

As lovely as these releases are, there are a few things I'd have liked to have seen. The Book of the Dead uses the English narration with no option to hear the original Japanese (though all the dialogue is still in Japanese, with optional subtitles) and neither disc includes any kind of extras. While Kawamoto's work speaks for itself, the level of craftsmanship on display on both DVDs leaves you wanting to see and hear more. Finally, completists are likely to wag their fingers: The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto lacks four shorts that were included on the Region 2 Kihachiro Kawamoto Work Collection DVD.

Where to Get It
Buy The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto from Amazon.com
Buy The Book of the Dead from Amazon.com
Buy Kihachiro Kawamoto Work Collection from YesAsia.com


[Cross-posted from Frames per Second.]

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Friday, May 09, 2008

Speed Racer Learns from Manga, Can Teach Feature Animation a Few Things



I'm generally not a fan of live-action adaptations of animated TV shows, because they almost always disappoint. The problems usually start with the choices the filmmakers make in order to get animated (or animated-looking) characters into a live action universe. The Flintstones had fake-looking rock sets; Alvin and the Chipmunks and Scooby Doo had CGI critters in an otherwise realistic universe; Fat Albert had the TV characters coming to life in the real world.

In Speed Racer, the Wachowskis do what none of the creators of these other films had the will to do: they created a cohesive universe in which all of the elements in any given frame look like they belong together. In the process, they also highlight something that's been missing from mainstream animation for quite some time.

As I was sitting in the cinema watching Speed Racer, it occurred to me that I already knew how most journalists were going to describe the movie's look. Some would say that it looks like a video game, or that it's anime come to life. They're dead wrong. Outside of some race scenes the movie looks nothing like any video game you've actually played, and outside of a few Akira-like shots and a nod to the original series opener, it looks nothing like any anime you've ever seen. Really, these are just phrases that reviewers use when they want to say that there are lots of things moving around very fast, or that have bright-coloured, futuristic-looking elements.

In a strange way, however, they're also right. Speed Racer, like many video games, demands that its viewers process a lot of visual information at once. Like anime, it stylizes motion in a way that isn't entirely realistic but is believable within its own reality.

If anything, Speed Racer's filmic cues come from green-screen/digital-set movies like the most recent Star Wars trilogy and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, along with shorts that feature heavily processed and manipulated live action, like Gaëlle Denis' City Paradise. But the Wachowskis' real inspiration here is manga. This doesn't just apply to the racing scenes, but to just about anything set outside of the Racer family home. Take a look at these images, and pay special attention to how they put the focus on certain foreground objects or characters and use the backgrounds to denote movement, atmosphere and mood, These compositions are pure manga:







Better still are the transitions, in which the camera moves around a foreground character's head and the backgrounds change to show scenes either as a transition or as a flashback to the past. Some of these scenes are multi-layered, including audio from both the current time and place and the location or time being referenced. There's even one scene where one character tells Speed about about something that will happen in the future; as the camera whirls around Speed, the background shifts to show scenes that highlight what the other character is saying—and eventually we discover this isn't speculation, but what actually happens in the future. The whole sequence interleaves between the present moment and flash-forwards, kind of like an episode of Lost on, well, speed. (Lazy journalists will look at all this and make references to audience members with short attention spans or ADD; the truth is, you really have to pay attention if you want to follow it all.)

I'm just scratching the surface here. All in all, Speed Racer is a visual effects spectacle that doesn't reserve its inventiveness for eye-candy money shots; rather, it's a carefully constructed, dynamic reality that is unlike anything seen on the big screen. All of which brings me to the question I kept asking myself when I left the cinema: why haven't I seen anything like this in feature animation for so long?

It's a cliché these days to say that effects-heavy summer movies are cartoon-like, and there's some truth to that. But it's also true that live-action movies have, through the heavy use of CGI, taken animation's "anything can happen here" mentality and run with it. Meanwhile, feature animation has largely concerned itself with looking more realistic, obsessing over things like realistic fur and hair. Even those productions that aren't so fixated are, relatively speaking, conservative. I've very much enjoyed Pixar's films, but when you get right down to it they mostly fit into a niche best described as "Talking ____s," with the blank filled in by toys, bugs, fish, rats or what have you. The Incredibles was an exciting departure, but so far the new direction that it signalled appears to be a dead end.

Where's the wow? Where's that moment when you jump up in your seat, excited because you've been shown something you've never seen before? Speed Racer provides that in spades, but in feature animation it's been sorely lacking. I remember seeing Tron in 1983, Akira in 1988 and Mind Game in 2005 and each time feeling like someone had redefined what was possible in animated cinema because I was being shown things I hadn't seen before. I've had that same feeling many times over since then, but when it comes to animation it's generally been in OAVs, shorts and—much to my surprise—television.

I'm all for the blurring of boundaries, but to me movies like Speed Racer indicate that feature animation is ceding ground to live action. Something is very wrong with this picture.

[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

DreamWorks Brings You Ghost in the Shell Again



Just 15 months after Kodansha and Production I.G. kissed and made up over optioning Ghost in the Shell, they've found a taker: DreamWorks, who released Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence in North American cinemas under their GoFish banner in 2005, has acquired the rights to make a live-action, 3D version of the property.

While I think Ghost in the Shell is a great selection for a 3D film, I can't say I'm particularly enthusiastic about the news. I'm generally not a fan of live-action remakes of animated shows or comics; overall, there have been more misses than hits. More to the point, the recent spate of rights acquisitions for anime (or anime-like)-to-Hollywood live-action adaptations (Robotech, Akira, Avatar: The Last Airbender—have I missed anything?) reminds me of the old maxim that in Hollywood no one wants to be first, but everyone wants to be second. Speed Racer is due to hit cinemas in just a few weeks, and I've long had the sense that these acquisitions are a means of lining things up to ride an anticipated wave of anime-inspired movies, in the same way Spider-Man and X-Men helped launch a wave of comic-inspired movies.

One thing I won't do, however, is claim that Spielberg (or any of the other directors/producers working on adapted anime works) will somehow "ruin" the original. Gimme a break—that's like saying a bad date will ruin your memory of your first kiss.

[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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