Blu-ray: Long Way North

Shout! Factory

Long Way North (Shout! Factory) is a gorgeous French-Danish animated feature about a 15-year-old girl from an aristocratic family in 1880s Saint Petersburg who flees her palatial home for the far north to search for the lost ship of her explorer grandfather Oloukine. He disappeared in his attempt to conquer the North Pole in the “unsinkable” ice breaker “The Davai” and is assumed by all to have sunk but Sacha, the aristocrat with the heart of an adventurer, finds clues in her grandfather’s papers that suggests he took an alternate route and she seeks out a ship to search for the ship. There’s a handsome reward for its recovery, which is what finally convinces a Captain to take on her search, but she’s driven by her adoration for her grandfather and her desire to rehabilitate his reputation.

First-time director Rémi Chayé was an assistant director and storyboard artist on the Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells and the lovely French feature The Painting and he brings a strong, sure sense of design and layout to the film. This is traditional hand-drawn animation with an unconventional visual style, less drawn than painted with big, bold fields of color and details suggested in splashes of shadow or small, simple lines.

Continue reading at Stream On Demand

New reviews: ‘Coraline,’ ‘Push,’ ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’

Coraline (dir/scr: Henry Selick, from the book by Neil Gaiman)

Coraline opens on a rag doll efficiently taken apart by hands of skeletal steel (like Edward Scissorhands but with menacing needles for fingers) and then turned inside out and recreated in the image of the blue-haired heroine Coraline. It’s eerie and tender and weird and sets the perfect tone for the film to come, a gorgeous and imaginative storybook fantasy with nightmare echoes. Think Dr. Seuss by way of Edward Gorey, all executed with the creative flair and painstaking detail that Henry Selick brought to The Nightmare Before Christmas.

A foggy day: like walking on clouds
A foggy day: like walking on clouds

Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is an adolescent with nothing to do in her new home, a creaky old house subdivided into apartments inhabited by eccentric neighbors. Ignored by her busy parents and too proud to play with the goofball boy next door, she spends her days with a curiously lookalike doll she names “Little Me” and her nights going down her own version of Alice’s rabbit hole.

“I’m your Other Mother, silly,” a cheery mommy doppelganger (Teri Hatcher) tells her in the fantastical remake of her world through the hidden door. Everyone is more fun and attentive, everything is yummier, every day is a sunny play date. And everyone has buttons for eyes, which is more than a little disturbing.

Coraline is classic fairy tale stuff, the story of a girl who escapes boredom and parents too busy to pay attention to her through a fantasy world where everything is better, brighter, tastier and more fun, fun, fun. But all this wish fulfillment is a facade that sags and decays over time, literally rotting over the shadowy reality under it, or stretched into an unsettling parody of itself as the monstrous creature underneath pokes and pushes through.

Coraline, a marvelously willful, doll-like moppet in blue hair, is given the body language of a budding drama queen and the delight of a little girl by Selick and his crew. They create a world to match, stuffed with delights, secrets and distinctive personality. In one scene, a misty morning fog feels almost alive, and the kids stroll through it as if walking on clouds.

It’s also the first (in the words of the press notes) “high definition stop-motion animated feature to be filmed in stereoscopic 3-D,” and it is a fantastical and imaginative use of the process. Give credit to director Henry Selick for getting the obligatory “spear into the audience” shot (in this case, a massive sewing needle jabbing into our faces) out of the way in the opening credits and dedicating the rest of the film to more interesting and playful and unexpected 3D effects. Stop-motion animation has a solidity not always felt in computer animation and it gives this film a distinctive presence and the 3D process more weight and substance. When Coraline opens the hidden portal behind the wallpaper, the tunnel seems to open up behind the screen, like looking through a tube stretching farther and farther away.

Coraline and Other Father do a little gardening
Coraline and Other Father do a little gardening

I review the film for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer here.

Push (dir: Paul McGuigan)

Part super-hero movie (minus the colorful costumes), part sci-fi conspiracy thriller (minus the smarts), Push plays in the comic book movie sandbox of gifted people doing magical things under the guise of psuedo-science (telekentics, telepathy, clairvoyance) and secret goverment experiments in paranormal activity. A group of these would-be heroes have escaped the government minders (the bad guys) and escaped into the urban warren of Hong Kong, where an entire underground of paranormal types scurry through the overpopulated streets. It’s a great setting (a pre-Blade Runner neon city, part techno-slum, part alienated urban jungle) and the effects are appropriately slick and flashy, but there isn’t much of a story behind the plot or a sense of culture behind the premise. And that doesn’t begin to address the thin characterizations or the vapid presence of Chris Evans, who is supposed to be the reluctant hustler hero whose badass (but still untapped) power will save the day. In fact, it’s Dakota Fanning doing a modern Artful Doger of a street urchin and hardened survivor who walks off with the picture (though I confess that Camilla Belle looks very good in bangs and a sad pout).
Continue reading “New reviews: ‘Coraline,’ ‘Push,’ ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’”

New review: ‘Waltz With Bashir’

“I lost my memory. I can’t remember anything about the Lebanon war. Just one image.”

An old friend shares a recurring nightmare, about being hounded by twenty six ferocious dogs, with filmmaker Ari Folman. It took him some time, but he finally traced it back to its origins in the Lebanon war twenty years before, when he was detailed to shoot the feral dogs around his unit’s camp. Twenty six dogs he shot. The discussion sends Folman’s mind reeling back to his war experience, which he has apparently blocked out of his mind. “It’s not stored in my system,” he explains, and over the next few years he meets up with friends and fellow soldiers from the war to help reconstruct those missing memories and find out what happened.

Young soldiers emerge from the surf
Young soldiers emerge from the surf

This is both art and autobiography for Ari Folman, a filmmaker with a background in documentary and a deep interest in psychoanalysis (he co-wrote much of the original Israeli series that was remade by HBO as In Treatment. The conversation really occurred. His memory gap was real. And he recorded his conversations as he made they odyssey back in time and memory. Those conversations (a couple of them reconstructed with actors, the rest with the real people) are the basis of this oral history of the war and this examination of the way guilt and fear and anger have affected those memories. You could call it an animated documentary, but that label doesn’t do justice to the experience or the ambition.
Continue reading “New review: ‘Waltz With Bashir’”

New Reviews: ‘WALL•E,’ ‘Wanted’ and ‘My Winnipeg’

WALL•E (dir: Andrew Stanton)

An animated robot love story with an environmental theme and a slapstick delivery, WALL•E is a charmer of a film and a delightful piece of storytelling. Directed by Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) with the animation wizards at Pixar, it takes on the challenge of delivering an animated feature that is predominantly wordless (and even some of those used are closer to sound effects than dialogue) and succeeds with both creative humor and visual grace.

walle.jpg
The little robot that could cradles the revival of life on earth

WALL•E is a little mobile trash compactor who putters around a junked and abandoned Earth, sharing his days with a skittering cockroach and finding his pleasures in the little treasures he scavenges from his loads.

The nervous little guy has evolved a personality over the centuries, which makes his isolation all the more poignant as he pines for someone (something?) to hold hands (or whatever you call his clamp-like digits) with. And so he falls in love with a sleek, specimen-gathering pod named Eve and follows her back to her ship, becoming one of those unlikely heroes whose pluck and perseverance overcome impossible odds.

With its long, wordless scenes and mix of slapstick gags and delicate mechanical dances, it doesn’t look or feel like your usual animated feature by Pixar or anyone else, at least until WALL•E finds himself with the physically inert future of the human race. It’s almost like two movies cut together, one with the robots and a somewhat more obvious and less magical one with the fat and complacent mankind willingly bound to a luxury liner spaceship.

The mechanical heroes are more expressive and more engaging than the tubby humans, solely through the mechanics of robot eyes and body language and a symphony of beeps and whistles. If it reminds you of a certain little iconic robot from a hit space opera epic, it’s no coincidence. Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt not only does the audio honors here, he’s credited as the voice of WALL•E.

Adults will pick up on a social satire in the portrait of a sedentary population lulled to distraction by a non-stop stream of media signals and small talk while the kids won’t miss the message of ecological responsibility, but the bright gags and childlike expressions of robot affection are so joyous that you can be completely charmed without even noticing the themes. Continue reading “New Reviews: ‘WALL•E,’ ‘Wanted’ and ‘My Winnipeg’”

‘Princess Mononoke’ – Gods and Monsters

“Something’s wrong. The birds are all gone. The animals too.”

Hayao Miyazaki recasts the mythic tale of man’s dominion over the earth with an animist mythology and a conservationist message in Princess Mononoke, his rich fantasy about a battle between the forest spirits and the industrial revolution. Set in the era of Japan’s Iron Age, it’s a time when the foundries first start to poison the forests and rivers around them, and the weapons they produce — from fine samurai swords to primitive cannons and guns — give humans the advantage in conquering the natural world.

Standing against the human charge of manifest destiny is Mononoke, a wolf-pack wild child and the original environmental guerrilla. As medieval industrial baroness Lady Eboshi razes the forests and drives off the giant boars and fierce wolf packs and dark, apelike forest guardians to lay claim to the resources of the land, Mononoke leads the battle against her blood kin. Her face slashed with war paint, she rides giant wolves into battle against armed enemies and invades their fortress with Ninja-like skill and ferocity.

Standing between the two sides in this civil war is a young prince from an exiled tribe. He’s on the trail of a diseased demon that cursed him with an infection that is slowly devouring and possessing him, and the trail has ended here.

Princess Mononoke is an environmentalist epic of blood-and-thunder adventure on an apocalyptic scale. Like so much epic fantasy, it turns on the tension between the natural (magical) world and the human (industrial) world. In other words, progress. Miyazaki doesn’t take sides but rather implores a balance, a coexistence between man and nature. Only this war, pushed into extremes by the greed of a few humans more interested in power than peace, has escalated into such hatred that compromise and truce seem all but impossible.

In this elemental world of animal tribes and woodland spirits and gods imagined as magnificent giants and enchanting imps, Miyazaki paints his figures in moral shades of gray, a yin and yang within both man and nature. Every frame is filled with an awesome sense of wonder and magic, and for all that is lost, he instills the ending with hope and healing. Grounded in a mythology as rich and complex as Disney’s fairy tales are simplistic, this is animation for adults in the very best sense of the term.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.

Patton Oswalt talks movies and comics and more…

That bastard Patton Oswalt!

I had ten minutes for a phone interview with Oswalt. It was just supposed to be a quick, light ten-minutes, a tie-in with the DVD release of Ratatouille. I would lob him some goofy questions about the movie, he’d bounce back some funny answers. I mean, he’s a comedian right? That’s what he does. Often with words that cannot be printed in a family publication..

It turns out that Oswalt is also a serious film buff. The man loves to talk movies. And, well, so do I. He’s also a cartoon fan and comic book fan. After the interview was over, I discovered that he’s even written some comics. Anyway, to make a long story short, we turned a short interview long. We ranged far off topic. He was asking me questions! I stopped interviewing and started conversing.

Patton Oswalt's new CD: Werewolves and LollipopsAnd I still had to turn in a light little interview piece to MSN.

A very small portion of the interview ran in MSN’s “What’s In Your DVD Players” series. I left out oodles of great material, and even more conversations chewing over topics that, quite frankly, I can’t imagine too many people besides us would even be interested in. But it’s there and I loved it so much that I felt I had to print the entire transcript (with minor edits to make me sound smarter). So here it is, in all its geeky glory and nerdish obsession with “The Wire” (the greatest TV series ever made), Michael Maltese, Anthony Mann, and Will Eisner and “The Spirit.”

Click here for Patton Oswalt’s website.

What’s in your DVD player?

I got that Janus Films 50 Years Retrospective box so I’ve been going through that. The last thing I watched on my DVD player was “Fires on the Plain,” which is a Japanese movie from 1959. It’s pretty amazing.

Kon Ichikawa, I believe. I saw that film for the first time just this year.

It’s pretty brutal.

Probably not a film that will ever make an appearance in your stand-up comedy act.

No, I don’t think I’ll be doing any “Fires on the Plains” bits. And I know this is such a lame thing to say, but I re-watched the third season of “The Wire.” I’ve probably watched each of those seasons two or three times apiece.

Continue reading “Patton Oswalt talks movies and comics and more…”