Waltz With Bashir

Waltz With Bashir movie poster

 

Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir could eas­ily be filed away under any or all of the fol­low­ing gen­res: doc­u­men­tary, auto­bi­og­ra­phy, mem­oir, jour­nal­ism, and non­fic­tion. If there’s one thing all of these have in com­mon, it’s that none make for nat­ural car­toons. The excep­tion that proves the rule is Mar­jane Satrapi’s Perse­po­lis (read The Dork Report review), which began life as a pair of graphic nov­els before being adapted into an ani­mated fea­ture film. Waltz With Bashir takes the oppo­site route, start­ing as a film and end­ing up as a book. Could ani­mated ver­sions of Joe Sacco’s Pales­tine and Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale be far behind?

Fol­man has lost his mem­o­ries of a key expe­ri­ence dur­ing his ser­vice in the Israel Defense Forces dur­ing the 1982 war in Lebanon. A con­ver­sa­tion with a friend sparks a frag­ment of mem­ory involv­ing the Sabra and Shatila mas­sacre. The Israeli Defense Force sur­rounded Pales­tin­ian refugee camps in Beirut, but stood by as the Pha­langists, a Chris­t­ian Lebanese mili­tia, entered and mas­sa­cred a still unknown num­ber of Pales­tin­ian civil­ians. Was he really there, as he now seems to rec­ol­lect? Did he have any­thing to do with it?

Waltz With Bashir

Fol­man speaks of mem­ory as “some­thing stored in my sys­tem,” as if his brain were merely a com­puter, dis­as­so­ci­ated from any cul­pa­bil­ity in the mas­sacre. He merely wit­nessed it, but it was enough for him to sub­con­sciously erase his mem­o­ries over the inter­ven­ing years. He seeks out old com­rades in the search of some­one else who served with him and may help fill in the blanks in his mem­ory. Like a detec­tive story, the search for clues pro­vides a use­ful sto­ry­telling device while pro­vid­ing an episodic nar­ra­tive structure.

The title refers to a fel­low sol­dier that madly waltzed with a machine gun while sur­rounded on all sides by Lebanese fight­ers. “Bashir” is Bashir Gemayel, the assas­si­nated Pha­langist com­man­der lion­ized by Lebanese, and a celebrity on a scale that one Israeli likens to how he felt about David Bowie.

Fol­man is an artist as well as a film­maker; at one point he asks one of his old friends if it’s OK to sketch his fam­ily dur­ing their inter­view. His visual sense man­i­fests in Waltz With Bashir’s stun­ning images, com­po­si­tion, and color. Like Star Wars: The Clone Wars (read The Dork Report review) and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Com­plex, it fea­tures stiff, sim­pli­fied char­ac­ters atop fully-rendered 3D envi­ron­ments. Human faces are crudely ren­dered with small looped expres­sions, when not totally still (note that the 2D vec­tor ani­ma­tion is not the same tech­nique used in Wak­ing Life or A Scan­ner Darkly). They con­trast sharply with the fluid move­ment of the detailed, com­plexly lit vehi­cles, back­grounds, and weapons. If such styl­ized human fig­ures were a delib­er­ate artis­tic choice, what is to be gained? A few pos­si­ble explanations:

  • As recent CGI movies like Final Fan­tasy: The Spir­its Within, The Polar Express, and Beowulf have proven to their detri­ment, the uncanny val­ley (the point at which a sim­u­la­tion of a human becomes almost, but not quite, real­is­tic and thus creeps audi­ences out) is a very real prob­lem fac­ing ani­ma­tors as tech­nol­ogy pro­gresses. All three of these are tech­no­log­i­cal mar­vels, but the human char­ac­ters are still just one step away from dead-eyed zombies.
  • In the most prac­ti­cal sense, ani­ma­tion is use­ful to cre­ate images of his­tor­i­cal events where no cam­eras were present. Fol­man does recount see­ing jour­nal­ist Ron Ben-Yishai boldly film the afore­men­tioned fire­fight in which his friend had his machine-gun-waltz with Bashir, so per­haps some actual footage existed for reference.
  • The dream­like unre­al­ity of ani­ma­tion plays into Folman’s theme of the muta­bil­ity of memory.
  • Like Isao Takahata’s stun­ning Grave of Fire­flies, ani­ma­tion makes it slightly eas­ier to watch painful images. Takahata’s emo­tion­ally drain­ing film involved a lit­tle girl slowly starv­ing to death after the World War II fire­bomb­ing of Japan, and Waltz With Bashir fea­tures such images as a field full of dying horses and the corpse of a child buried in rub­ble. The end of the film snatches away this dis­tanc­ing tech­nique; we finally see archival footage of the massacre’s aftermath.

Waltz With Bashir

Is it fair to crit­i­cize the film for tak­ing the Israeli point of view in a story about the Sabra and Shatila mas­sacre? Save for one woman that appears in the actual footage seen at the end, Pales­tini­ans lit­er­ally don’t have a voice in the film. But nei­ther, for that mat­ter, do the Pha­langists. In the case of this his­tor­i­cal event, Israelis were pas­sive bystanders, nei­ther vic­tims (as they were dur­ing the Holo­caust) nor oppres­sors (as they are now over the Pales­tini­ans — I invite objec­tions in the com­ments below, please). If to bluntly ask what Waltz With Bashir is for, it does three things: First, it’s a med­i­ta­tion upon the com­plex­ity and unre­li­a­bil­ity of human mem­ory. Sec­ond, it’s an act of jour­nal­ism; return­ing the Sabra and Shatila Mas­sacre to the pub­lic con­scious­ness. Third, it’s one man’s per­sonal com­ing to terms with his past.


Offi­cial movie site: www.waltzwithbashir.com

Buy the DVD and graphic novel from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Star Wars: The Clone Wars movie poster

 

After writ­ing and direct­ing three pre­quels between 1999–2005, it’s easy to for­get that Star Wars god­fa­ther George Lucas opted out of direct­ing Episodes IV: The Empire Strikes Back and V: Return of the Jedi back in the 1980s. Now Lucas appears once again to be ced­ing con­trol over his most famous baby. He’s back to shep­herd­ing along splin­ter projects like The Clone Wars from the more aloof role of Exec­u­tive Producer.

For any­one else con­fused, as I cer­tainly was, Star Wars: The Clone Wars is a feature-film sequel to the 2003–2005 Car­toon Net­work tele­vi­sion series “Star Wars: Clone Wars,” in turn fol­lowed by a sec­ond series with the same name as the movie. Got that? There are much big­ger dif­fer­ences than swap­ping a colon for a defin­i­tive arti­cle, start­ing with the visual look itself. The best thing about the orig­i­nal series was its bold, strik­ing visual style, real­ized in a hand-drawn line-art look sim­i­lar to Gen­ndy Tartakovsky’s pre­vi­ous show Samu­rai Jack. From what lit­tle I under­stand of the process, CGI ani­ma­tion cre­ated in 3D can still be ren­dered in a flat 2D style, giv­ing it the look of tra­di­tional hand-drawn cell ani­ma­tion. So the char­ac­ters in the orig­i­nal at least appeared hand-drawn even though they prob­a­bly weren’t.

Ashley Eckstein and Matt Lanter in Star Wars: The Clone WarsAnakin trains a young propellerhead

How­ever, the fea­ture film sequel looks like direc­tor Dave Filoni opted to skip that step and ren­der the char­ac­ters with full 3D shad­ing. The result resem­bles a rough ani­matic or a throw­away videogame cut scene. Filoni gets kudos for not aim­ing for pho­to­re­al­ism, which becomes very creepy when approach­ing the uncanny val­ley — the point where ani­mated char­ac­ters look almost, but not quite, like real humans. Look with fear upon the night­mar­ish zom­bie hor­ror­shows Final Fan­tasy: The Spir­its Within, The Polar Express, and Beowulf (the lat­ter being a huge step for­ward, but still not quite there yet). But The Clone Wars’ par­tic­u­lar brand of styl­iza­tion just seems cheap to me; I would have pre­ferred the cool-looking 2D char­ac­ters as they appeared in the TV series.

The Clone Wars is canon within the Star Wars uni­verse, but no one (prob­a­bly not even Lucas him­self) would ever con­sider it as pri­mary as its six older sib­lings. One advan­tage to being rel­e­gated to the sec­ond tier is a free­dom to vio­late ven­er­a­ble Star Wars tra­di­tions. The clas­sic open­ing crawl is gone, replaced with a Cit­i­zen Kane-style news­reel catch­ing the audi­ence up with the key facts needed to make sense of what’s going on in between all the ‘splo­sions. That par­tic­u­lar change is a shame, but brace your­self for some heresy when I admit I find another change rather wel­come: Kevin Kiner’s very non-John Williams-esque score. As much as Williams’ music was the sound­track of my child­hood (my entire gen­er­a­tion can sing the Star Wars, Jaws, and Indi­ana Jones themes a cap­pella, on cue), I had long since tired of him. The point at which I lost it was the wall-to-wall blan­ket of redun­dant music that threat­ened to drown out the already almost over­whelm­ing Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan.

The Clone Wars series and movie are both set chrono­log­i­cally between the events of Episodes II: Attack of the Clones and III: Revenge of the Sith, a razor-thin slice of time in which noth­ing of import really hap­pened in Star Wars con­ti­nu­ity. The movies already showed us how the war began and ended, so The Clone Wars movie and series are basi­cally war sto­ries. This is actu­ally a good thing in light of how the pre­quel tril­ogy often became bogged down in tedious polit­i­cal pro­ce­dure involv­ing inter­plan­e­tary trade routes. The series was by its nature a string of vignettes, but the fea­ture film still feels like an episodic tour through a num­ber of spec­tac­u­lar bat­tles. A par­tic­u­larly grip­ping and excit­ing bat­tle takes place on a ver­ti­cal cliff face, “shot” with a hand-held “cam­era.” Lucas was sure to con­ceive of his two armies as droids and masked clones, allow­ing for car­nage and huge body counts with­out a drop of blood (not to men­tion the eco­nom­i­cal reuse of cos­tumes, and now, dig­i­tal mod­els). I remain puz­zled, how­ever, how clones and droids can have names, ranks, and vary­ing skill sets. This Dork Reporter grew up with the orig­i­nal tril­ogy, and still has trou­ble accept­ing stormtroop­ers being on the side of the good guys.

Tom Kane in Star Wars: The Clone WarsYoda’s look­ing more “kit­ten” than “tur­tle” today

The TV series focused mostly on the bat­tles, but the movie squeezes a frag­ment of a plot in between the action set pieces. Anakin Sky­walker is incon­ve­niently charged with train­ing Ahsoka Tano (Ash­ley Eck­stein), an annoy­ing teen “padawan learner” (a Luca­sism for “appren­tice” that still sounds very much like a George W. Bush mala­prop­ism). I still find it dif­fi­cult to accept that the Anakin we see here and in Episode III is so close to the tip­ping point to absolute cor­rup­tion that he will soon betray the Rebels and become the embod­i­ment of evil, Darth Vader. At this point, he still seems a merely moody and impetu­ous kid horny for the girl­friend he left behind on Naboo. Being respon­si­ble for the spunky, good­hearted Ahsoka cer­tainly does lit­tle to help him attain the state of emo­tional detach­ment Lucas equates with goodness.

Even though there’s no doubt a great deal of very expen­sive tech­nol­ogy behind this kind of ani­ma­tion, it’s still cheaper than mount­ing a live-action pro­duc­tion. Ani­ma­tion, where any­thing is pos­si­ble, is also the best way for the Star Wars fran­chise to expand the sto­ries of its exist­ing char­ac­ters, when the orig­i­nal actors have aged, become too expen­sive, dis­in­ter­ested, or passed away. So why focus only on the pre­quel char­ac­ters? Why not tell more tales star­ring the trin­ity that every­body really loves: Luke, Leia, and Han? Is Lucas afraid that mess­ing with the canon­i­cal heroes gen­er­a­tions of fans have taken to heart is to risk fatally wound­ing their deep emo­tional con­nec­tion to the mythos? Or to be cyn­i­cal, he may always uti­lize the var­i­ous masked char­ac­ters (Chew­bacca, Boba Fett, Jabba the Hut, Darth Vader, C-3PO, R2-D2) in any­thing at any time with­out clear­ing actors’ like­nesses. That said, some of the orig­i­nal cast do lend their voices to The Clone Wars, includ­ing Samuel L. Jack­son, Anthony Daniels, and Christo­pher Lee. James Arnold Tay­lor does an excel­lent impres­sion of Ewan McGregor’s excel­lent (in turn) impres­sion of Alec Guinness.

One last thing: it wouldn’t be Star Wars with­out at least one offen­sively char­ac­ter­ized alien. Jabba’s uncle Ziro the Hutt (Corey Bur­ton) is inex­plic­a­bly voiced as an old South­ern queen.


Offi­cial movie site: www.starwars.com/theclonewars

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

The Only Child: Neil Gaiman’s Coraline

Coraline movie poster

 

I saw Henry Selick and Neil Gaiman’s Cora­line on its open­ing day in my favorite movie the­ater, the best pos­si­ble venue to see any remotely visu­ally ambi­tious movie: the Clearview Ziegfeld in New York City. Fit­tingly, my tick­ets were mis­printed “Car­o­line,” a mis­nomer that is a recur­ring plot point.

Cora­line was writ­ten and directed by stop-motion ani­ma­tion genius Henry Selick, whose patient and pre­cise hands also cre­ated the utterly mad plea­sure The Night­mare Before Christ­mas (often erro­neously cred­ited to Tim Bur­ton, who pro­duced). As if Cora­line needed any finer pedi­gree, it was based on the fine novella by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman is a long­time Dork Report favorite, at least since my buy­ing the very first issue of The Sand­man new off the rack in 1989 (read my account of hav­ing books signed by Gaiman and Ray Brad­bury). Cora­line and his later The Grave­yard Book are both osten­si­bly aimed at “young adults,” which I guess means whomever is old enough to under­stand most of the words. Such a cat­e­go­riza­tion is more about mar­ket­ing and the con­ve­nience of know­ing where to shelve titles in book­stores and libraries, any­way. As is also the case with his children’s books The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Gold­fish and The Wolves in the Walls (both illus­trated by fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor Dave McK­ean), they’re all basi­cally for any­one that likes to read.

Dakota Fanning in CoralineCora­line tra­verses the por­tal into John Malkovich’s brain

Gaiman, once famous for pos­si­bly hav­ing the record for most unpro­duced projects in Hol­ly­wood, has been tear­ing up the movie biz of late. Just to name a few high­lights, he wrote the script for McKean’s sump­tu­ous film Mir­ror­mask (read The Dork Report review), had his fan­tasy novel Star­dust (orig­i­nally illus­trated by Charles Vess) adapted into a film by Matthew Vaughn, and co-wrote the bril­liant script for Robert Zemekis’ Beowulf with Roger Avery. As is his cus­tom now for all his pend­ing projects, Gaiman has been blog­ging and Tweet­ing about the Cora­line adap­ta­tion all along, a process rudely inter­rupted by his win­ning the New­bury Medal for The Grave­yard Book. His man­tle is now offi­cially groan­ing under the weight of all his tro­phies, medals, Very Impor­tant Prizes, and suchlike.

Gaiman was not directly involved with the mak­ing of Cora­line (beyond being on good terms with the film­mak­ers and mak­ing the occa­sional con­sul­ta­tion), but was pleased the fin­ished prod­uct and espe­cially with how well it was mar­keted by Weiden+Kennedy. Fre­quent read­ers of his blog will be famil­iar with how he blames Stardust’s rel­a­tively dis­ap­point­ing box office (in the US, any­way) with a mar­ket­ing cam­paign that mis­rep­re­sented what the film was actu­ally like (the pre­cise anal­ogy he used went some­thing like “more Princess Bride, less Ella Enchanted”). But I feel that this kind of height­ened level of com­mu­ni­ca­tion between artist and audi­ence made pos­si­ble by the inter­net might some­times be too much infor­ma­tion. Close to the release of Star­dust, I recall Gaiman urg­ing read­ers to see the film on open­ing week­end or even open­ing day if at all pos­si­ble, the nar­row win­dow that in today’s movie indus­try deter­mines the per­cep­tion of suc­cess or fail­ure. This time around, he made a point of men­tion­ing that Coraline’s pro­duc­tion com­pany Laika had basi­cally bet the entire farm on the film. I have been work­ing for movie com­pa­nies for years and am famil­iar with per­pet­ual job inse­cu­rity. I was happy to go see the film right away any­way, but I would have rather not wor­ried about whether or not I was pro­tect­ing someone’s job. Thank­fully, Cora­line appears to have per­formed above expec­ta­tions on its open­ing week­end, and all is well.

John Hodgman in CoralineThe Other Father gives us our 3D money’s worth

Apolo­gies for the ram­bling pre­am­ble. On to the movie: Cora­line (voiced by Dakota Fan­ning) and her fam­ily move into the ground-floor apart­ment of a crum­bling rural house. Her par­ents are busy gar­den­ing writ­ers with­out the time to actu­ally gar­den, let alone to pay much atten­tion to their only child. Coraline’s biggest prob­lem is that she’s unhappy at being so often left alone. I sus­pect that most over­pro­tected kids whose par­ents take them to see this movie will have trou­ble iden­ti­fy­ing with a kid who has too much freedom.

The res­i­dents of the neigh­bor­ing apart­ments are at least as eccen­tric as those of The Sandman’s The Doll’s House. Russ­ian acro­bat Mr. Bobin­sky (Ian McShane), may or may not be train­ing roden­tia to take part in a Mouse Cir­cus. Cora­line gets off on the wrong foot with unloved odd­ball Wybie (Robert Baily, Jr.), who takes his name from “Why be born.” British com­edy duo Dawn French and Jen­nifer Saun­ders appear as Misses Spink & Forcible (two Gaiman-esque names if there ever were any), a pair of well-aged actresses liv­ing in the basement.

Cora­line dis­cov­ers a long-forgotten door­way hid­den behind fur­ni­ture and lay­ers of wall­pa­per. Not unlike the very sim­i­larly diminu­tive door in Being John Malkovich, it is a gate­way to another world. Whereas the por­tal to Malkovich’s brain resem­bled the gross inside of a diges­tive tract, this one is part cob­webby cave and part glow­ing fun­house tun­nel. On the other end of the door is another, bet­ter ver­sion of Coraline’s milieu. In the real world, no one gets Coraline’s name right, but in the Other World, every­one knows her. She is well fed, the gar­den is a lux­u­ri­ous Eden sculpted in her image, her bed is made, and her toys are new. But alas, her Other Mother (Teri Hatcher) has con­structed this entic­ing sim­u­lacrum just to ensnare her. Cora­line is about to aban­don the real world for this cod­dled exis­tence, when she is given the price: she must sew but­tons over her eyes. This is point in the film when adults squirm and kids squeal with delight. Creepy, creepy, creepy!

Teri Hatcher and Dakota Fanning in CoralineThe Other Mother serves Other Omelettes for breakfast

Roughly the first three-quarters of the film is genius-level set­ting of tone, char­ac­ter, and atmos­phere. It fal­ters only when a rigid plot struc­ture appears out of nowhere and forces the nar­ra­tive onto fixed rails. Cat (Keith David), the only other crea­ture that can travel between worlds, tells Cora­line that the Other Mother likes games. This key char­ac­ter­is­tic would have been bet­ter shown than told, for Cora­line is able to turn the tables by sim­ply chal­leng­ing her to a game. The Other Mother imme­di­ately acqui­esces, and is appar­ently unable to resist a game in the same way that the mytho­log­i­cal Sphinx can’t resist a rid­dle (a plot point that also fig­ures in Mir­ror­mask). Coraline’s chal­lenge is equal parts game and bet: if she can find the five souls The Other Mother has trapped before her (her par­ents and three other chil­dren), she must release them all. Find­ing three hid­den objects hid­den in dif­fer­ent vir­tual worlds is a clas­sic video game sce­nario. Cora­line has no short­age of other MacGuffins to lose and recover, includ­ing a key and an Eye Stone (a mag­i­cal jewel for­tu­itously pro­vided by the actresses). Indeed, a tie-in videogame exists, which no doubt doesn’t have to stretch the story to struc­ture its own narrative.

Also dis­ap­point­ing are the three chil­dren the Other Mother has already cap­tured. Their trio of cutesy voices that com­pli­ment and encour­age Cora­line are the most con­ven­tional aspect of the film, not in keep­ing with the rest of the film’s enjoy­ably macabre tone. But actu­ally, maybe this all makes sense… the kids are def­i­nitely not as bright and spunky as her, for she alone has the brains to escape and defeat the creature.

Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders in CoralineThe com­edy stylings (and alarm­ingly large bosoms) of French & Saunders

Stop-motion ani­ma­tion is one of the old­est film­mak­ing tech­niques, but Laika (based in Port­land, Ore­gon) and Aard­man Ani­ma­tion (mak­ers of Wallce & Gromit and Chicken Run) are still mak­ing films more daz­zling than the most advanced CGI. The rea­son is quite sim­ple: you’re look­ing at mov­ing pho­tographs of phys­i­cal objects crafted by human hands. Like Beowulf, Cora­line is being shown in many the­aters in 3D. If pos­si­ble, the tech­nol­ogy seems to have improved even since U23D (read The Dork Report review), let alone since the 1950s. But as ani­mated movies such as The Incred­i­bles (read The Dork Report review) and WALL-E (read The Dork Report review) have proved, all the tech­nol­ogy in the world must play sec­ond fid­dle to a good story.

Gaiman has been say­ing in inter­views lately that his books for kids are creepier than his nov­els for adults (includ­ing Amer­i­can Gods and Anansi Boys). In keep­ing, Cora­line the film is won­der­fully deranged, weird, and twisted. By far the eeri­est sequence is the open­ing cred­its, fea­tur­ing the hands of a crea­ture we later learn is the Other Mother, rit­u­ally dis­em­bow­el­ing a pup­pet and recon­fig­ur­ing into a sim­u­lacra of Cora­line. Watch­dog site Kids-In-Mind nearly goes into melt­down count­ing the dis­crete instances of vio­lence and dis­turb­ing imagery, and expect to read a great many reviews cau­tion­ing par­ents to keep sen­si­tive kids away. But I sus­pect most kids will love this film, and will prob­a­bly be bet­ter off for hav­ing their imag­i­na­tions poked and prod­ded in ways that safer pap wouldn’t. One of the rea­sons I love movies is to expe­ri­ence the mad visual imag­i­na­tions of direc­tors like Selick (and Bur­ton, McK­ean, Terry Gilliam, Michel Gondry, Tarsem, etc.), and it’s a good thing “kids’” movies like Cora­line are here to warp young­sters minds early.


Offi­cial movie site: www.coraline.com

Buy any of these fine prod­ucts from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report:

 

The Incredibles

The Incredibles movie poster

 

Like writer/director Brad Bird’s Rata­touille, The Incred­i­bles is a vir­tu­ally per­fect movie. Bird’s aston­ish­ing one-two punch for Pixar builds on the ani­ma­tion studio’s rep­u­ta­tion for deep emo­tional res­o­nance already earned by Andrew Stanton’s Find­ing Nemo (read The Dork Report review) and later recon­firmed by Wall-E (read The Dork Report review). But Bird’s films add a wel­come matu­rity that proves the medium of ani­ma­tion can be, at its best, truly for all ages.

Although packed with action, spec­ta­cle, and chase sequences, it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine how lit­tle kids would react to such a rel­a­tively dark movie. Note the middle-aged anx­i­ety, mar­i­tal strife, and sur­pris­ingly high body count (granted, most deaths hap­pen off­screen, but only just!). I can eas­ily imag­ine most kids tun­ing out dur­ing the many long dra­matic sequences obvi­ously pitched at adults. Just to name one scene that might be hard for young­sters to grasp: Mr. Incred­i­ble saves a sui­ci­dal man who doesn’t want to be saved. Guest Dork Reporter Snark­bait asked her two lit­tle boy cousins what they liked best about their movie. They relate most to the char­ac­ter Dash, and prob­a­bly selec­tively ignore the bits they can’t yet under­stand. So per­haps I’m under­es­ti­mat­ing how well the movie works on mul­ti­ple levels.

The IncrediblesThe fam­ily that fights robot drones together stays together

Even the voice cast­ing is so per­fect, it’s impos­si­ble to imag­ine any oth­ers in their place. Craig T. Nel­son is as per­fectly suited to Mr. Incredible’s middle-aged anx­i­eties as Tim Allen was to Buzz Lightyear’s inno­cent blus­ter in the Toy Story films. I could go on to praise every sin­gle other voice actor, but spe­cial men­tion must go to Holly Hunter as sassy spit­fire Elasti­girl, Sarah Vowell’s per­fect expres­sion of teen anx­i­eties as (shrink­ing) Vio­let, and Brad Bird’s gut-bustingly hilar­i­ous impres­sion of Hol­ly­wood fash­ion leg­end Edith Head as the super­hero cos­tume designer Edna Mode.

Brad Bird and Holly Hunter in The IncrediblesBrad Bird steals his own movie as the unfor­get­table Edna Mode

If forced to find one thing to cri­tique, I would point to the rel­a­tively minor details of the char­ac­ters’ hair. On the DVD bonus fea­tures, the Pixar ani­ma­tors and soft­ware engi­neers brag about the tech­nolo­gies they invented to sim­u­late real­is­tic hair, but none of the vir­tual coifs sit well upon the delib­er­ately styl­ized car­toony faces. The char­ac­ters have cute lit­tle dim­ples instead of hairy nos­trils and waxy ear canals, so why give them such pho­to­re­al­is­tic hair?


Offi­cial movie site: www.theincredibles.com

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

Persepolis

Persepolis

 

Named after the ancient Per­sian city, Mar­jane Satrapi’s graphic novel Perse­po­lis is a mem­oir of her life in Europe and Iran after the Iran­ian rev­o­lu­tion. This ani­mated fea­ture joins the grow­ing ranks of comic book adap­ta­tions that prove that comics are not only about super­heroes that dress up in animal-themed cos­tumes to bat­tle crime. Hope­fully it, along with other good comics-to-film tri­umphs Ghost World and A His­tory of Vio­lence, will broaden movie­go­ers’ aware­ness of the many alter­na­tive gen­res already explored in comics.

PersepolisThe spirit of punk invades Iran

In a rare priv­i­lege per­haps only ever shared by Frank Miller in mak­ing Sin City with Robert Rodriguez, Satrapi served as co-director and writer of the film (with Vin­cent Paron­naud). She sings music to my ears in the DVD bonus fea­tures; to para­phrase, she states that it is a fool’s errand to make a lit­eral, strict adap­ta­tion of any graphic novel to film. As comics writer Alan Moore once bril­liantly and suc­cinctly put it, comics are wholly unlike movies because, sim­ply, “movies move.” The recent trend in Hol­ly­wood is to per­form fan ser­vice (as it’s known) and make the most lit­er­ally faith­ful adap­ta­tions pos­si­ble. Sin City, 300, and the upcom­ing Watch­men all pro­cede from the flawed pre­sump­tion that the source mate­ri­als’ fan­base (the nerdy, genre-convention-attending straw­men in stu­dios’ equa­tions that they expect to be buy­ing the tick­ets and DVDs) want noth­ing less than per­fect tran­si­tions from page to screen. But such a thing is never pos­si­ble, let alone desirable.

Persepolispolit­i­cally con­scious at a young age

That said, Perse­po­lis the film does share the strik­ingly stark look of Satrapi’s char­ac­ter­is­tic pen and ink illus­tra­tions. A mostly black & white ani­mated French mem­oir about a young Iran­ian woman could never be mis­taken for block­buster mate­r­ial, but it is funny, illu­mi­nat­ing, and moving.


Offi­cial movie site: www.sonypictures.com/classics/persepolis

Buy the graphic novel and DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

Batman: Gotham Knight

Batman: Gotham Knight

 

Bat­man: Gotham Knight is a direct-to-DVD pro­duc­tion from Warner Pre­mière, intended as a back-door pre­quel to the fea­ture film Bat­man: The Dark Knight. Warner Bros. has tried this tac­tic before, and will again. 2003’s The Ani­ma­trix was a planned inter­lude in The Matrix fran­chise, enjoy­ing exten­sive involve­ment from film­mak­ers the Wachowski Broth­ers. Com­ing soon is a motion-graphics ani­mated ver­sion of Alan Moore and Dave Gib­bons’ graphic novel Watch­men, pre­ced­ing the forth­com­ing live action fea­ture film adap­ta­tion (no doubt Moore, who has long since divorced him­self from his past work for Warner Bros.’ DC Comics, has a few choice words for this development).

Batman: Gotham KnightThat’s a good look for you, Mr. Wayne

Like The Ani­ma­trix, Gotham Knight is a port­man­teau films, the prod­uct of mul­ti­ple writ­ers and ani­ma­tion teams. But in con­trast, Gotham Knight is only tan­gen­tially related to its sis­ter film, The Dark Knight. A pair of detec­tives fig­ure as char­ac­ters in both, and the gang war that per­co­lates in the back­ground of The Dark Knight is the dri­ving inci­dent behind many of the Gotham Knight tales. But the short films (mostly in a Japan­ese animé style) vary wildly in qual­ity and comprehensibility:

  • Have I Got a Story For You” (Shou­jirou Nishimi) — A pack of skate rats tell tall tales of the Bat­man, until the real deal shows up. One of the best of the lot, with a unique hand-drawn ani­ma­tion style, mixed with a lit­tle CG.
  • Cross­fire” (Futoshi Higashide) — Two detec­tives are lit­er­ally caught in the cross­fire of a gang war. Suf­fers from par­tic­u­larly awful dialogue.
  • Field Test” (Hiroshi Morioka) — Bat­man receives a new toy from Lucius Fox that works a lit­tle too well.
  • In Dark­ness Dwells” (Yasuhiro Aoki) — Guest-starring two vet­er­ans of Batman’s rogues’ gallery: Killer Croc and Scare­crow. Some of the best ani­ma­tion, but the story is incomprehensible.
  • Work­ing Through Pain” (Toshiyuki Kubooka) — Bat­man, shot in the gut, strug­gles alone just to get home. He has hal­lu­ci­na­tory flash­backs to his spir­i­tual train­ing in the art of over­com­ing phys­i­cal pain. He recalls how his teach­ers rejected him for his impure moti­va­tions (to enable his revenge plan, not to attain higher spir­i­tu­al­ity). This, one of the best sto­ries, leads directly into:
  • Dead­shot” (Jong-Sik Nam) — …one of the worst. A mas­ter assas­sin (a bla­tant rip-off of the char­ac­ter Bulls­eye from Mar­vel Comics’ Dare­devil) tar­gets Lieu­tenant Gor­don. A really lame con­clu­sion to the collection.

Batman: Gotham KnightWhy so serious?

Offi­cial movie site: www.warnervideo.com/batmangothamknight

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

WALL-E

WALL-E

 

With the delight­ful WALL-E, Pixar con­tin­ues its as-yet unbro­ken win­ning streak of instant-classic films for all ages. From among their oeu­vre, my per­sonal tastes run toward the darker and more psy­cho­log­i­cally com­plex The Incred­i­bles and Rata­touille by direc­tor Brad Bird. Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E cer­tainly ranks among Pixar’s great­est hits, all films that will res­onate decades hence with chil­dren of all ages (as the say­ing goes). Other stu­dios con­tinue to pro­duce dis­pos­able pas­tiches such as Shrek and Ice Age, laden down with pop cul­tural ref­er­ences that will not age well and even­tu­ally be for­got­ten. While eye-popping now, per­haps some day Pixar’s ani­ma­tion will appear less than state-of-the art, and I do fear that one day Pixar may mis­cal­cu­late and pro­duce a crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial fail­ure. If they ever do, it will be because they lost their empha­sis on sto­ry­telling craft and sense for time­less relevance.

WALL-E looks back­wards in cin­ema his­tory for inspi­ra­tion to envi­sion its grim dis­tant future. WALL-E’s daily tra­vails on an eco­log­i­cally col­lapsed Earth resem­ble the des­o­late waste­lands seen in such joy­less apoc­a­lyp­tic down­ers as The Ter­mi­na­tor and The Matrix. WALL-E is the lone sur­vivor of his kind, dis­pas­sion­ately sal­vaging spare parts from his dead com­rades. All this is poten­tially very scary stuff for kids, but the lit­tle guy has become charm­ingly eccen­tric over the course of his several-hundred year long mis­sion, and his pos­i­tive, can-do energy pro­vides an amus­ing coun­ter­point to the dead world about him. Still, the themes of lone­li­ness and envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis are there for adults to plainly see and even the youngest view­ers to pick up on.

WALL-EWALL-E befriends the DustBuster3000

Long before WALL-E, the camp sci-fi clas­sic Logan’s Run sup­posed a future devolved human­ity, reduced to a self-sustaining infan­tile state. Human­ity impris­oned itself for the sake of sur­vival, but the ratio­nal was long since for­got­ten and the closed sys­tem no longer unnec­es­sary. It takes the rebel­lion of one free spirit to wake up the whole of soci­ety to the real­ity out­side the walls of their enclosed womb (or tomb).

WALL-E draws its eco­log­i­cal metaphors and even the visual design of WALL-E him­self from the clas­sic hip­pie science-fiction film Silent Run­ning. The last rem­nants of an over­pop­u­lated Earth’s bios­phere are pre­served in orbit­ing green­houses, until venal cor­po­ra­tions decide they are no longer nec­es­sary and are to be demol­ished. But one dri­ven botanist and his team of cute gar­den­ing droids con­spire to pre­serve a gar­den of eden for­ever, adrift in space, but a great cost: their rebel­lion is a bloody, mur­der­ous one.

The last major cin­e­matic touch­stone for WALL-E is, of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The visual design of the Buy ‘n’ Large ark car­ry­ing the rem­nants of human­ity is all about the clean, white lines of Kubrick’s space sta­tion, and none of the filthy grunge that has dom­i­nated sci­ence fic­tion ever since Rid­ley Scott’s Nos­tromo in Alien (but Sigour­ney Weaver does pro­vide the voice of the ship’s com­puter, per­haps finally find­ing vengeance against Alien’s evil com­puter M.O.T.H.E.R.). WALL-E’s chief vil­lain is the droid AUTO, with the sin­gle, sin­is­terly unblink­ing red eye of HAL 9000. Both are arti­fi­cial intel­li­gences that stunt the evo­lu­tion­ary advanc­ing of the human race in a twisted lit­eral read­ing of their pro­gram­ming to pro­tect it. Dele­te­ri­ous over­pro­tec­tion is also a theme in Andrew Stanton’s Find­ing Nemo; the Mar­lon learns that his pro­hib­i­tive cod­dling of his son pre­vents him from blossoming.

WALL-EPistol-packin’ Princess Leia-bot comin’ through!

But more than any­thing, WALL-E is a love story. If you think about it too much, you real­ize WALL-E is sev­eral hun­dred years old, and is thus rock­ing the cra­dle when he falls for the later model droid EVE. A pistol-packin’, short-tempered spit­fire in the fine tra­di­tion of Princess Leia, EVE is so far advanced that she’s prac­ti­cally a dif­fer­ent species of robot. Still, when WALL-E upends an entire soci­ety in sta­sis, he also awak­ens EVE to the joys of life.

Pixar has long had busi­ness ties to Apple, but this is the first film of theirs to make overt in-jokes. WALL-E has some­how rigged a vin­tage VHS cas­sette of Hello, Dolly! to play on an only slightly less vin­tage iPod. Apple’s res­i­dent indus­trial design genius Jonathan Ive report­edly con­sulted on the design of EVE. WALL-E’s startup sound is the clas­sic Mac­in­tosh boot-up fan­fare. The “evil” robot AUTO speaks with the voice of Mac­InTalk, the text-to-speech tech­nol­ogy invented by Apple in the early 90s. Any one of these gags would have been cute, but taken as a whole, one sus­pects the Berlin wall between com­pa­nies is break­ing down, result­ing in crass prod­uct placement.


Offi­cial movie site: www.wall-e.com

Buy the DVD [http://www.amazon.com/dp/B001EOQWEO/?tag=dorkreport-20] from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

Paprika

Paprika movie poster

 

There’s a huge inter­est in Japan­ese manga and animé in the us, but it’s rare for an animé fea­ture film to get a the­atri­cal release. From the name and poster alone (indeed, what caught my own inter­est), one might not even guess Paprika is foreign-language, let alone animé. Animé is a medium, not a genre, but it does have a cer­tain pop­u­lar per­cep­tion in the US: either the apoc­a­lyp­tic sci-fi of Akira or the fairy tale fan­ta­sia of Spir­ited Away. And that’s not even tak­ing into account the expec­ta­tions of a gen­er­a­tion of kids that grew up watch­ing the dubbed Robot­ech and Star Blaz­ers seri­als (which would be exem­pli­fied by… me).

The pop­u­lar per­cep­tion is not wrong; I’m not an animé expert, but Paprika has sev­eral of the super­fi­cial trap­pings: cyber­netic tech­nol­ogy (like Ghost in the Shell), a ghost­like female crea­ture (like direc­tor Satoshi Kon’s ear­lier Mil­len­nium Actress), and an expo­nen­tially grow­ing world-eating beast (like Akira and America’s own The Blob). But what sets Paprika apart is its psy­che­delic imagery, adult themes, and sheer weirdness.

PaprikaVal­ley of the Dolls

Like Blade Run­ner, it’s equal parts detec­tive story and sci­ence fic­tion, with a splash of hor­ror. The mys­tery genre pro­vides a struc­ture for the nom­i­nal plot: Paprika is the dream alter ego of Dr. Atsuko Chiba, a dream researcher build­ing a machine for use in psy­cho­an­a­lytic dream analy­sis. The device they’re build­ing is called the “DC Mini”, a name which, every sin­gle time, made this Dork Reporter think of DC Comics minis­eries. Chiba’s Blade Run­ner–esque mis­sion is to track down three miss­ing DC Mini devices, and their co-creator.

PaprikaI hate it when that happens

Paprika even shares a theme with Blade Run­ner: the moral reper­cus­sions of new tech­nolo­gies. If dreams are a kind of “place”, and can be a shared real­ity (like the world of The Dream­ing in Neil Gamain’s Sand­man comic book series), what is the dif­fer­ence between it and real life? The poten­tial of one world bleed­ing into another is very lit­er­ally dan­ger­ous. One of the film’s vil­lains uses the dream real­ity to com­mit a very dis­turb­ing form of rape, and another goes so far as to label the tech­nol­ogy a poten­tial form of ter­ror­ism: “Implant­ing dreams into other people’s heads is ter­ror­ism.” This is not hyper­bole in the film’s uni­verse: the city is almost destroyed by dreams.

Two final lit­tle things:

  • What’s the deal with the name? Is it a trans­la­tion issue, or some­thing about Japan­ese cul­ture (or cui­sine) I’m not aware of? A metaphor of spices and recipes is used at one point, but it still seems oddly random.
  • A key char­ac­ter is movie-obsessed cop, an ama­teur film­maker in his youth. His noirish dreams only fur­ther expand the Blade Run­ner par­al­lels. Paprika explic­itly equates movie watch­ing with dreams and memory.

Offi­cial movie site: www.paprikamovie.com

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to me.

The Iron Giant

The Iron Giant movie poster

 

The Iron Giant is a sorely under­rated ani­mated film remark­able on so many fronts, not the least being a rare film among the com­pany of The Incred­i­bles (not coin­ci­den­tally also directed by Brad Bird) as a story truly for the ages and for “all ages.” Also one of the few films capa­ble of chok­ing up such a hard­ened emo­tional rock as myself.

Happy Feet

Happy Feet movie poster

 

Happy Feet is a tough one to try to reduce to a sin­gle stars-out-of-five rat­ing. It pos­sesses two extreme split per­son­al­i­ties, its lack of inte­gra­tion call­ing into ques­tion its integrity. Was there a strug­gle behind the scenes between a stu­dio want­ing another cookie-cutter car­toon ani­mal kid flick vs. a film­maker envi­sion­ing some­thing of substance?

The first film totally embod­ies the worst cliches of the con­tem­po­rary CG ani­mated film: danc­ing, singing ani­mals talk­ing the kind of stereo­typ­i­cal enth­nic jive that would be con­demned as racism in a live-action film. Peo­ple laugh at Robin Williams’ “let me ‘splain some­thing to joo” Mex­i­can schtick in Happy Feet, but feel queasy about Ahmed Best’s gay rasta­far­ian rou­tine as Jar-Jar Binks in Star Wars Episode I. The cute­ness of see­ing anthro­po­mor­phized pen­guins shim­my­ing to con­tem­po­rary pop hits wears off fast, yet takes up at least half the film, sorely test­ing the patience of any adults forced to be in the audi­ence (in my case, it was a free work junket).

The sec­ond film is more in keep­ing with direc­tor George Miller’s track record with Babe: Pig in the City. A sur­pris­ingly dark and edgy film, the sequel to Babe was a stealth “real movie” that appealed to adults as much as kids, hav­ing more in com­mon with City of Lost Chil­dren and Brazil than Charlotte’s Web. After seem­ingly end­less, I say end­less, musi­cal rou­tines, Happy Feet slowly begins to reveal its true nature as an eco­log­i­cal para­ble. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for turn­ing kids into ecow­ar­riors, but many chil­drens’ films have man­aged to blend life lessons more fully into the nar­ra­tive; Toy Story II is about engag­ing with life, love and friends now as opposed to wor­ry­ing about the future or pin­ing for the past; Iron Giant is about break­ing the cycle of vio­lence; Happy Feet is about… either bootyshak­ing or over­fish­ing. I’m not sure, and nei­ther is the film itself.