Tuesday, June 27, 2006

All CGI, All The Time

The first two of the movies in this post were seen the conventional way, while the last two were at this weekend's second Brattle Anime Festival. There were other film from that festival that I considered reviewing, but I felt even less qualified to talk about the Cardcaptor Sakura movie or the third Inu-Yasha one. Those suckers clearly have pre-requisites; they're for experienced fans, which I'm clearly not. I actually thought they were fun enough stories, but just don't know enough to talk about them.

Sadly, the two features I was most looking forward to were run during the wee hours of the night - I'll have to rent/buy Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro when the new edition comes out in August, and pull My Neighbors the Yamadas off my shelf.

Learned about some nifty anime - Fullmetal Alchemist is a fun adventure series, and I really should give Cowboy Bebop another chance. I'm sort of flattened by FLCL - it's just a whole bunch of crazy packed into six episodes, with a surprising amount of interesting character work. I'm not sure whether it's too much or not quite enough yet.

Over The Hedge

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 May 2006 at Entertainment Cinemas Fresh Pond #10 (First-run)

There's something a tiny bit dishonest about advertising Over the Hedge as "from the producers of Shrek and Madagascar". PDI/DreamWorks certainly produced the film, but this thing's been a newspaper comic for years. Not that anyone reads those anymore, though.

Those who still read the papers know that it follows the lives of a group of forest critters whose natural habitat was leveled to make way for a suburban housing development, leaving only a small patch free. Though Verne (a turtle with the voice of Garry Shandling) had been the group's leader in the quest to forage enough food to last them through the winter, their usual hunting grounds are gone, and a recently arrived raccoon, RJ (voice of Bruce Willis) convinces them to start nicking the humans' junk food. What he fails to mention is that as soon as the crew has found enough to fill their hollow log, he intends to hand it off to a bear (voice of Nick Nolte) to whom he owes a previous debt.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 June 2006 at AMC Boston Common #7 (First-run)

If one was to imagine an Animation Hall of Fame to honor those who were involved with technical innovation and consistently excellent work, there'd be little argument over who the inner circle was: Windsor McCay, Walt Disney, Osamu Tezuka, Chuck Jones, Hayao Miyazaki, and I think it would be fair to include Pixar's John Lasseter. These names are held in such high regard that when the two who are still alive and active produce something new, the standard is not the other movies with the same genre or audience, but their own best work. This is why you can go to Cars, hear the audience laugh straight through, and then hear those same people on the way out talk about being disappointed.

So it's just an exceptionally good movie rather than a masterpiece. The film's biggest problem, I think, is that it's kind of self-indulgent. At nearly two hours, it's relatively long for an American animated movie, and though it doesn't quite feel bloated or flabby, Cars could probably do with having its aerodynamics studied a bit (as in, I don't know where that drag is coming from, but I can feel it). Sure, it may seem like that's a somewhat inappropriate complaint about a film whose message is to slow down a little and enjoy the journey, but this journey could use a few more roadside attractions to make up for its lengths. Also, some of the car-and-racing-related bits may be highly amusing to car people but less so to those who see the things as necessary transportation but no basis for a hobby. For instance, there's a racecar named "The King" that is voiced by Richard Petty. I was a bit amused to see his name in the credits, and figured that a certain uncle and cousins would have really liked that while watching his scenes. That bit's just going to be lost on many people; others might seem like active wastes of time.

Read the rest at HBS.

"Voices of a Distant Star" ("Hoshi no koe")

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 24 June 2006 at the Brattle Theater (The Brattle Anime Festival #2) (projected video)

I love that this short film exists. It's science fiction, the hard stuff, the kind that sees the laws of nature as the basis on which an emotional story can be built as opposed to things to be handwaved away because it's inconvenient. It's got action and adventure, joy and tragedy, and does it all without wasting any of its twenty-five minutes. And it looks pretty darn good for having been done, for the most part, by one guy on his home computer.

Mikako Nagamine and Noboru Terao are each other's first loves. Both gifted students, they are looking forward to going to the same high school, but that's before Mikako finds out she's been accepted by the United Nations space force's academy. There's a war on - a group of aliens called the Tarsians established a colony on Mars and our species don't get along - and Mikako will be piloting a combat mech. Basic training takes place on the moon, but while the mothership that takes Mikako from battle to battle can make hyperspace jumps, faster-than-light communication isn't possible. Mikako and Noboru communicate via cell phone text messages, and while ten minutes for a signal to get from the Earth to Mars isn't bad, the exponentially increasing distances as Mikako journeys to Jupiter, Pluto, the Oort Cloud and beyond will inevitably put a strain on their relationship.

I annoy people by criticizing the bad science in science fiction movies and television - why "it's called science fiction" is considered a valid argument but "it's called science fiction" isn't, I'll never know - so a story like this, which logically extrapolates a story from its premise, being found somewhere other than print is a special treat for me. I suspect that writer/director/editor Makoto Shinkai was able to tell this story at least in part because he didn't have to explain the relatively simple premise to a suit in Hollywood or Tokyo, but was able to just do it (originally, he also did the voice of Noboru and composed the music, but when distributor Mangazoo picked it up, those parts were given an upgrade).

Of course, if all the story had was good science, it would be clever and little more. Shinkai has strong storytelling skills, though - he sketches his characters out quickly and effectively, and knows how to build the world they live in without a whole lot of exposition. Having them communicate through text messages lets him give them their own articulate voices - they've able to believably say exactly what they mean, rather than engaging in awkward teenage conversation. He's good with the action sequences, too - not having a lot of runtime, he works their quick eruption and devastating speed into the story.

It's in the action scenes that he hits the limits of his tools; the three-dimensional mechs and spaceships don't have quite the same look as the two-dimensional characters piloting them. Those human characters are a little flatter and less mobile than some modern anime, but it fits the characters' introspection, but the mechanical things really do look like the best someone could do on his Mac. Still, even if the visuals aren't perfect, they are awe-inspiring - Olympus Mons on Mars, bolts of lightning that jump between Jupiter and one of its moons, a space battle near Pluto and Charon, virtual reality that lets the inside of Mikako's battle mech to fade away, leaving her letting her act as if she's floating in space.

That something like "Voices of a Distant Star" can be made more or less by one guy with some help from his friends is exciting, for film in general and science fiction in particular: It's a singular story told without compromise. Most people who make the attempt won't make something as good as "Voices" (they just won't have Shinkai's talent), but enough will, and they'll make the jump to bigger things like he did (his feature The Place Promised in Our Early Days came out a year later to much acclaim). Even if "Voices" isn't your thing, all film lovers benefit from having talented new voices able to tell their stories.

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 June 2006 at the Brattle Theater (The Brattle Anime Festival #2) (projected video)

There's something almost admirable about a movie as focused and single-minded as Advent Children. It is unabashedly constructed with a niche audience in mind. A lot of folks will look at it on the shelf and wonder what the heck happened to Final Fantasy II, III, IV, V, and VI, or why it doesn't seem to share anything with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. It's focused on looking good above all else, and if you catch it at the right time, that may be reason enough to forgive its confusing, barely-accessible plot.

That plot is... uh... there was some kind of disaster two years ago where a group of heroes barely saved the world from a corporation that nearly caused a genocide by trying to tap the life forces that circle the planet like a halo for energy. The heroes have gone their separate ways, but now "the planet has struck back" with a plague, a terrorist type is kidnapping orphans to brainwash them, and the new president of the evil corporation is trying something shady. Cloud Strife, the hero of the game, is trying to forgive himself for the people who didn't make it, operating a delivery service out of friend Tifa Lockhart's bar while they keep an eye on several orphaned kids.

Read the rest at HBS.

1 comment:

Reel Fanatic said...

I haven't gotten to see Cars yet, but am really looking forward to it, especially since Lasseter says he used a lot Hiyao Miyazaki's influence in making it ... as for "Over the Hedge," I went into it with no expectations at all and was thoroughly entertained