Sunday, August 29, 2010

Satoshi Kon (1963-2010)

Two years ago, I took the opportunity to see anime filmmaker Satoshi Kon at the Lincoln Film Center in New York City. They were showing his movies, and that night, he appeared for a Q&A after a screening of Paprika. He came out with a camera, and proceeded to photograph the audience. Through his translator, he proclaimed he liked rearranging positions, and in this case, he was observing the audience.

Satoshi Kon passed away this week, on Tuesday August 24 2010. He was 46 years old. The news came to me, as well as many other admirers, as a terrible shock.

I have seen all four of his movies, and had only recently started watching his anime series, Paranoia Agent. I was seeing a lot of stuff for the first time while at college, and among it were the movies Perfect Blue and Tokyo Godfathers. Needless to say, I was blown away by both of them. At the time, I was still slow to accept anime, with the exception of Hayao Miyazaki. But someone told me that Satoshi Kon was just as unique as Miyazaki, so I went on a hunch. And I'm glad I did. His movies are filled realistic images (too realistic by animation standards) being disrupted by surrealistic and dreamlike occurrences and disturbances. I immediately likened him to David Lynch, in terms of writing. He has a real talent of directing stories that enchant the audience with psychologically complex stories, in spite of the incoherent nature of the writing. And yet through all the drama, there is plenty of visual treats and edgy humor to balance the movies out. Very impressive.

My heart goes out to Satoshi Kon's family. Thank you for the magic, Sweet Prince.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Tales from Earthsea: We're not there yet...

Tales from Earthsea is sort of like a progressive rock album. On a technical level, it is quite extraordinary. The way the shots and action are arranged are top-notch. Unfortunately, it falls very, very short in terms of its content.

Mind you, I only compare this to progressive rock, because I've been listening to a lot of it lately.

The film starts off with a promising plot. But about 30 minutes in, it doesn't feel like much has changed since then. The beginning shows two dragons fighting in the sky, and this is witnessed by a ship crew below. It is established that seeing a dragon is normal, but to see them fighting viciously is very unusual. The two dragons are never explained again. We are meant to assume that this is a symbol of unbalance in Earthsea's environment.

The story moves very slowly. Its almost like a J.R.R. Tolkein story, fully of allegories surrounded by mythical and medieval occurences. But it takes a long time to reach the point of something, and you are never certain why you are reaching that point. Like Tolkein, it exists within a world of its own, with its own history and mythology. That much is explained, but it is never really explained how the main characters are connected to that.

The characters are never fully explained. My attention was mostly focused on the character of Arren, who is introduced murdering his father, and then running away, having periodic moments of suicidal tendency. This fascinated me, but wasn't touched upon later in the story. It seemed more like Arren was recovering from something, but we never find out what. Its possible his problems may be an allegory for bipolar disorder.

The character of Therru is kept a mystery throughout much of the story. We learn that she was an abused child, and her low social status makes her a severe outcast. But at the end of the movie, she is shown to be immortal, which is never fully explained. It seems like there wasn't enough time to fully round her out as a character.

The antagonist, Cob, is a very confusing character for me. On a simpler note, he's a wizard wishing to gain immortality, but the story alludes to a past he has, which is connected to Earthsea's mythology. The latter isn't explained very much.

Goro Miyazaki definitely has the technical prowess down. For a first time director, he helmed a nicely organized visual treat. But as a storyteller, he needs a ton of work there. And this seems to be the general consensus of the whole thing. Goro Miyazaki, the son of animation icon Hayao Miyazaki, needs to really concentrate on what he wants to say in a story, and how to fully explain that to the audience. It seems like he didn't spend very much adapting the screenplay (based on books by Ursula K. Le Guin), and more time structuring the technical challenges of the movie.

Something nice about Tales from Earthsea: it fits nicely with Studio Ghibli's other films. Its not the best thing they've done, but it doesn't ruin their track record.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Back again: Belated respone to Toys and Bad Guys

I apologize for not showing up here in nearly four months. These past four months haven't been easy. Back in March, where I last left the Domain, I got screwed over by two jobs.

When that happens in the same week, your judgement gets messed up. I saw How to Train Your Dragon that same week, but in the midst of everything going, I think my judgement of the movie was clouded. I will wait for the DVD, and watch it on a day when I'm feeling pretty good about stuff.

To be on the safe side, I probably shouldn't discuss one of the issues. But I can safely give the reasons I have been away from this blog for so long. Its simply been an issue of work, and the intolerance of not being paid. I did managed to snag a couple of jobs, but they require me not disclose them anywhere. But in all, everything that happened in 2009 caught up with me, and I saw just how degraded the animation industry has become. While waiting for the industry to clear up (if it ever does), I have focused exclusively on improving my writing skills. Now that might sound ironic as I am explaining why I haven't been around here. But some things I have to keep to myself in the meantime.

In the meantime, my movie-going has been few and far in-between. Again, this is due to money. There were few movies I wanted to see in the meantime anyway. The only two animated features to grab my attention were Toy Story 3 and Despicable Me. Every other animated trailer I've I managed to see both Toy Story 3 and Despicable Me, without clouded judgement, even in a summer-swollen New York City.

I have written reviews for both, although they are both late. I've been too distracted to write them as quickly. They simply take no immediate priority. But I still have my right to comment on them, even if nobody is interested in them now.


If this is to be the final installment of the Toy Story movies, they did a terrific job.

I also kind of hope this is the last Toy Story movie. When Pixar did the first two movies, they were still perfecting their technology, and trying to get a natural look for their movies. As such, the first two movies don't look as unique and exaggerated as Pixar's more recent endeavors. But to keep Toy Story 3 in the same vein as the first two, I guess it was important for it to look slightly realistic so as to keep it in close relation to its predecessors. After this, I would prefer Pixar to continue expanding the different directions the visuals of their movies can go.

The first movie focused on Woody and Buzz. The second movie did the same, but also equally focused on Jesse and the new introductions. This movie gives its total focus to all of the main characters of "Andy's Toys," making it an ensemble film of sorts. And it works. While not all the characters get equal screen time (there's just way too many), they are given enough development for the audience to identify them.

The new characters are given fresh twists, both amusing and dark, compared to how toys were portrayed in the previous movies. In the daycare center, new characters like Lotso (Lots-o-huggin Bear), Ken (Barbie's companion), and Lotso's henchmen are complex toys that have lost their owners, and been given a desolate view on life. Lotso felt abandoned, and his own psychology told him that everyone should be made to suffer just as he did, and they earn their rewards. Ken is a unique character, as he is male but has all the accessories of a girls toy. He's probably been mocked his whole existence, and feels the need to be one of the tough guys to prove his "boys-toy"-hood.

The toys in Bonnie's room are among my favorites. Whereas in Andy's room, the toys treated it like an office job, the toys in Bonnie's room are like a theater troupe acting in plays with their owner. My favorite new character would have to be Mr. Pricklepants, a cute hedgehog in lederhosen, who thinks of himself as a thespian actor.

The garbage dump/incinerator scene is one of the high points of the movie. I have to admit, some children may be scared of this scene, but that's not my problem. This scene kept me on my seat, and the character animation enhanced the emotion of the danger beautifully without overdoing it (i.e. getting too wordy and sentimental).

Now that I am into the Toy Story movies for the time being, I will wonder if anybody is interested in the twisted logic behind the movies' universe. Does anyone care how these toys come to everlasting life? How can toys made of plastic and cotton have vocal chords? And why hasn't the government latched onto these potentially useful weapons of home invasion? Just let that sink in for a bit.

All in all, as I said before, a nice finale to what turned out to be a trilogy. Pixar really pulled it off this time. I like the dark direction they are going into, as it seems to relate to most of the movie going audience nowadays.

Day and Night.
This may be the best Pixar short in years. Technically, the concept is simple. The two main characters are hand-drawn, but colored with 3D animation. The simplicity ends there. They are fun to watch, and we are curious about their interactions. I do have to admit though, the concept gets a little lost in the middle, when a paranoid radio broadcast in played. That seemed kind of forced. Also, I would have preferred a music different from the happy-go-lucky 1950's soundtrack. That keeps the designs tied in with 1950's UPA.

Despite all that, a good experience.


This movie came from Illumination Entertainment. It's not immediately original, but its not a bad movie really. Some studios are really trying to put their best foot forward, even though the economy prevents them from getting too far. The plot of the movie sounds unique, in that a "bad guy" is the protagonist this time around. The main character, Gru, is not a pleasant looking figure, but we grow to appreciate him as the movie goes along. Something of an anti-hero, Gru is trying to maintain his status as a super-villain, while dealing with an unexpected new role as adoptive father to three little girls.

The animation is very cartoony. Lots of exaggerated poses (well not a lot, but more than what you'd find in a Dreamworks movie).

The roller coaster scene is actually pretty impressive. The way the shots are positioned and sustained, you really do get the queasiness of being high up on rails.

Nice characters designs. Nice to see a unique one for the main character. There's nothing typical about Gru's design, as he is supposed to be a bad guy, and bad guys usually have interesting appearances. According to interviews, the designers referenced Ronald Searle for inspiration. The could have done a little better for Gru's mother, who I felt had a tired design.

The minions are never explained. I read somewhere that they are genetically enhanced corn pops.

We have the usual half-hearted voice overs. Steve Carrell's faux-german accent is pretty funny most of the time, although a little forced in parts. Russel Brand does the best job as Gru's aging scientist.

A big plus for the screenplay is the humor. There is very little reliance on pop-culture for the most part. The interaction between Gru and the little girls provides a unique backdrop for some very humorous conversations.

I didn't like the last 15 minutes of the movie. It was in the end that it got too cliched. It gets too glossy at the end, with a big disco scene, and everyone suddenly accepting one another. And this disco scene wasn't the first in the movie. I didn't understand the connection between Disco and super-villany. Sometimes, opposites don't always attract.

Not a perfect movie (again), but not a bad one. I didn't cringe anywhere in the movie, so that's a big plus.