Tag Archives: anime

We Didn’t Start the Fire

Promare

by Matt Weiner

As the first feature-length film from Studio Trigger (the studio behind the well-received TV series “Kill la Kill”), Promare has its work cut out for it. It’s no easy task to maintain the studio’s unique blend of over-the-top yet self-referential action for a tight animated feature.

It’s a coup for director Hiroyuki Imaishi that Promare manages to do all that and more, while fleshing out characters who rise above their archetypes. (Well, most of them.) The film follows the members of Burning Rescue, a civil firefighting team that fights fires caused by “Burnish,” the name given to people who have mutated to spontaneously combust and must continue to start fires to survive.

The action begins 30 years after the first worldwide mutations took place, and most Burnish have been tracked down and imprisoned (or “frozen”). The plot manages to be both convoluted and contrived at various times, but the animation powers the events forward so relentlessly that I stopped caring. The style is wildly entertaining, and with enough hyperactive neon to make Into the Spider-Verse look like a Merchant Ivory film.

Art designer Shigeto Koyama is credited with the character designs. Western audiences are likely to know his work as designer of the robot Baymax from Big Hero 6, and he’s the perfect choice to make sure the futuristic mechas still allow the warmth and relationships from the characters piloting them to shine on screen.

Good thing, too, because without the laugh-out-loud characters and battles, the rest of the sci-fi plot would never make it off the ground. Even here, though, Kazuki Nakashima’s screenplay takes pains to give you permission to sit back and have a good time. He’s not above getting in a few digs at the absurdity: this is a movie, after all, with a literal Deus Ex Machina.

Promare is full of laugh-out-loud moments from the characters and the background animations—there’s a buoyancy that also makes the film a joy from start to finish. The real story behind the Burnish threat gives an unmistakable nod to global warming, but in the world of Promare what matters less is that we save the world (that’s a given, obviously), but rather how essential it is for our shared humanity that we save it by connecting more deeply with one another.

This plays out between the young firefighting hero Galo Thymos and the supposed terrorist leader, Lio Fotia. Here, too, Promare seems to delight in spurning convention: there’s no need for fans to wistfully ship the two adversaries, as the movie clearly does it for us. When the two burning souls connect and discover they must let go of what is holding them back and combust, I think we’re well beyond subtext.

Together, they offer a message of hope drenched in enough sharp, angular colors to fill out a 1990s t-shirt collection. Promare is an exciting first feature outing for Studio Trigger, and a sign that their distinctive brand of frenetic action hasn’t burnt itself out yet.

Family Matters

Mirai

by Brandon Thomas

Confession: I’ve never seen an entire Japanese animated film.

Spirited Away? Nope.

Howl’s Moving Castle? Sorry.

Akira? Not even a single frame.

I don’t have any kind of unreasonable hatred for this type of film, but I’ve never had much interest either. Thankfully, Mirai was a nice introduction for this anime novice.

Kun is a typical toddler. He enjoys playing with his toys, looking at books, and being the center of attention to his mom and dad. That changes when his baby sister, Mirai, is brought home. Confused by the changes happening around him, Kun retreats to a world where he is able to meet family members at different periods of their lives.

What struck me first about Mamoru Hosoda’s Mirai is how the film doesn’t shy away from letting Kun behave like a real kid. He’s selfish, loud and cannot control his emotions. He’s not the easiest protagonist to like at first. The delightful part is seeing Kun grow, and learn to put these bad behaviors to bed.

Mirai is interested in looking at how difficult it is to be a family. It’s tough for parents to bring home another baby when they already have one at home. Cleaning still needs to be done, dinner still needs cooking, life still happens… and that can cause friction. Likewise, it’s hard to be a kid in this kind of dynamic. One minute, you’re the center of mom and dad’s universe, and the next – you’re not.

Kun’s travels through time via the garden never feel like cutesy spectacle, as each of his meetings is rooted in character. Kun learns about empathy, and that his own parents struggled with things when they were younger. By becoming more in touch with previous generations, Kun is able to fully realize his place in his own family.

Emotional yes, but there’s still plenty of fun to be had with Mirai. Kun finds himself turned into a half-boy half-dog at one point, and takes an exciting motorcycle ride with his great-grandfather at another. There’s a joyfulness to Kun’s interactions with this fantastical world that’s perfectly childlike.

Mirai might lack the belly laughs that accompany a Pixar movie, but the message is just as potent. Once the credits start to roll, that message is what sticks with us.





Holding Out for a Hero

Teen Titans Go! to the Movies

by Hope Madden

Teen Titans was a beloved, fairly-serious, sometimes thematically challenging Cartoon Network program based on Glen Murakami’s comics.

Teen Titans Go! was Cartoon Network’s sillier spinoff show. Think Muppet Babies versus The Muppets: smaller, cuter, sillier and basically inferior in every way.

No, that’s too harsh. Teen Titans Go! to the Movies—the diminutive superheroes’ cinematic leap—is not without its share of charm. Directors Aaron Horvath and Peter Rida Michail (both from the TV series) bring the same zany, juvenile, self-aware sensibilities to the big screen that burst for years from the small one.

Robin, Cyborg, Raven, Beast Boy and Starfire aren’t being taken seriously by the superhero community. What they need is their own superhero movie! Everybody else has one! That’s how you know you’re really a hero, and not just a sidekick with a bunch of costumed goofball buddies.

What follows is a comment on the oversaturation of the superhero film punctuated by a lot of poop jokes.

The voice talent from the TV show (Scott Menville, Hynden Walch, Khary Payton, Greg Cipes and Tara Strong) is joined by big names (Kristen Bell, Nicolas Cage, Will Arnett, Patton Oswalt, Jimmy Kimmell) in fun cameos.

The best, most on-the-nose cameo belongs to Stan Lee, who sends up his own omnipresence as well as the Marvel/DC conflict and general nerdom with a spry little number.

There are laughs—some of them tossed with a surprisingly flippant sense of the morbid—and energy galore, but it’s all a kind of sugar rush. It’s fun for about 22 minutes, but by minute 23, you’ll be checking your watch.

By minute 50, you will be squirming restlessly in your seat.

By minute 80 you may have that fidgety kid next to you in a headlock, but who’s to blame him for kicking and wriggling and causing a ruckus? He’s as bored as you are!

By the 93-minute mark, you may be rushing for the door, and that’s too bad, in a way, because the bittersweet stinger you’ll miss with your hasty exit only brings home how slight and silly a spinoff Teen Titans Go! really is.

 





Splash

Lu Over the Wall

by Rachel Willis

To give away too much of the plot of Lu Over the Wall would be to steal the joy of experiencing this unique, quirky film. Director Masaaki Yuasa has crafted a sweet fantasy that explores the moving friendship between a boy and a mermaid.

The first half of the film offers an unpredictable journey that follows Kai as he gets to know the buoyant Lu. Along for the ride are Kai’s friends, Yuho and Kunio.

Before Lu, Kai is sullen and morose, having recently moved from Tokyo to a small fishing village with his dad following his parents’ divorce. Yuho and Kunio try their best to engage Kai, even talking him into joining their band. But it isn’t until Lu appears, drawn by Kai’s music, that he begins to open up to the world around him.

Though the first half of the film is unusual, and, at times, downright weird, the second half falls into a more predictable pattern. However, the shift into a more traditional story doesn’t detract from the film. And though the second section is more certain, the quirks and oddities of the story are maintained through the animation. Lu and Kai, along with Yuho and Kunio, face challenges as old prejudices and new curiosities are aroused by the arrival of Lu.

At times, the animation is reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki’s work, but it also occasionally has the slapstick style of Tex Avery’s old Bugs Bunny cartoons. The blending of styles, along with the film’s own specific elements, merge together to serve the unconventional story well. From the monstrous creatures to the everyday people to the village’s shops and streets, the visuals are the most memorable part of the film.

Music also plays an important role, but the soundtrack is a little stale when paired with the rich animation. Too often, the score and soundtrack fade forgettably into the background when the movie would be better served by sound that enhanced the animation onscreen.

Though often strange and unusual, Lu Over the Wall is a touching tale.

 

 





I Don’t Want to Go Out—Week of April 30

Great animation, very good foreign drama, better-than-expected war drama and one seriously disappointing ghost story—these are the choices. Let us help you with that.

Click the film title for the full review.

Peter Rabbit

In the Fade

Mary and the Witch’s Flower

12 Strong

Winchester





Who’s a Good Dog?

Isle of Dogs

by Hope Madden

First note in my Isle of Dogs screening notebook: God damn it, I want a dog.

Second note: Wait, Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton are in another film that appropriates Asian culture? Come on!

And that about sums up the conflicting emotions Wes Anderson generates with his latest stop-motion wonder.

Isle of Dogs is Anderson’s second animated effort, coming nearly a decade after another tactile amazement, 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. A millennia-long feud between the Kobayashis of Megasaki and dogs comes to a head when corrupt Mayor Kobayashi uses a dog flu outbreak to whip up anti-canine sentiment and banish all dogs to Trash Island.

But his orphaned ward Atari (Koyu Rankin) steals a miniature prop plane and crash lands on Trash Island looking for his beloved Spots (Liev Schreiber).

The little pilot is aided in his quest by a scruffy pack including Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), gossipy Duke (Jeff Goldblum, a riot), King (Bob Balaban), and reluctant helper/lifelong stray, Chief (Bryan Cranston).

Other voice talent as concerned canines: Johansson, Swinton, F. Murray Abraham and Harvey Keitel.

Explained via onscreen script in typically Anderson fashion, dog barks have been translated into English and Japanese remains Japanese unless there’s an electronic, professional or exchange student translator handy. The choice shifts the film’s focus to the dogs (in much the way Peanuts shows remained focused on children by having adults speak in squawks). It also means that moviegoers who speak Japanese are afforded an enviably richer experience.

But for a large number of American audiences, it means that Japanese characters are sidelined and the only human we can understand is the white foreign exchange student, Tracy (Greta Gerwig). From Ohio, no less.

Between an affectionate if uncomfortably disrespectful representation of Japanese culture and Gerwig’s white savior role, Anderson’s privilege is tough to look past here, even with the scruffy and lovable cast.

The animation is beyond spectacular, with deep backdrops and meticulously crafted characters. Atari’s little teeth killed me. The voice talent is impeccable and the story itself a joy, toying with our dictatorial nature, the need to rebel and to submit, and how entirely awesome dogs are.

Set to an affecting taiko drum score with odes to anime, Ishiro Honda, Akira Kurosawa and every other Japanese movie Anderson watched as a kid, the film is clearly an homage to so much of what he loves. His skill remains uniquely his own and nearly unparalleled in modern film.

And Isle of Dogs is a touching, flawlessly crafted animated dream. That probably should have been set in America.





The Screening Room: Action and Oscar Contenders

Busy week! Loads covered on this week’s podcast: 12 Strong, Den of Thieves, Phantom Thread, Call Me By Your Name, Mom and Dad, The Road Movie, The Final Year and Mary and the Witch’s Flower, plus a quick look at what’s new in home entertainment.

 

Listen in HERE.





The Studio’s Apprentice

Mary and the Witch’s Flower

by Matt Weiner

There’s something about the helpless awkwardness of growing up that guarantees the enduring appeal of magic. Mary and the Witch’s Flower taps into that spirit with appealing grace. And it’s a promising first feature from Studio Ponoc, home to a Studio Ghibli diaspora that formed after the venerable Japanese animation studio announced a production break back in 2014.

When a walk in the woods leads to a chance encounter with special flowers, Mary (voiced by Ruby Barnhill in the English language version) gains temporary magical powers. Her broomstick whisks her away to the magical college Endor, which looks about like if Hogwarts put down stakes in Spirited Away.

Mistaken for a witch and propped up by the magical flowers (apparently the PEDs of the wizarding world), Mary is deemed a prodigy by the excited school faculty. She soon learns she’s not the only one interested in those flowers, and outsider or not it will be up to her to save magic for everyone.

Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Ghibli veteran and Oscar nominee for When Marnie Was There, keeps the visual charm turned up throughout the film—a good thing, given that his script (co-written by Riko Sakaguchi and based on a children’s novel by Mary Stewart) lacks the heft of a typical Ghibli film.

For adult viewers, Yonebayashi’s light touch can be a bit too light. Mary, with her wild hair and strong will, is a charming stand-in for kids, but her hero’s journey will be instantly familiar. Endor professors Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee (Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent) exude sinister charm, but the rest of the sparse supporting roles don’t have much to add beyond perfunctory plot points.

These are minor complaints though. And the animation, especially the magical set pieces that test Mary’s mettle, makes up the difference. The film offers up a fully-formed magical world with smart visual economy over exposition (cough Fantastic Beasts cough). Mary’s determination is contagious, and even if her saving the day is inevitable it’s impossible not to feel moved by the choices she makes to get there.

For all the magic that infuses Endor, Doctor Dee was on the right track when he told Mary that electricity is just another form of magic. If Mary and the Witch’s Flower doesn’t always have the preternatural spirit that animates the best of Studio Ghibli, it’s a delightful visual successor even when it’s working a little harder to keep the spark alive.





Hiroshima Story

In This Corner of the World

by Matt Weiner

The animated film In This Corner of the World contrasts one of the single most destructive acts of war—the United States dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima—alongside a decade of daily life for the inhabitants of Hiroshima and the neighboring port city of Kure.

Suzu (Rena Nounen) is a free-spirited young girl with a talent for art that gets reflected in the film’s beautifully drawn seascapes and pre-war countryside. Suzu’s recollections, emotions and eventual tragedies are inextricably tied to the fantastical watercolors that make up the animated film’s palette.

The effect is beautiful—and unsettling. Writer-director Sunao Katabuchi centers a war movie around non-combatants. Loved ones die and faceless air raids bombard Kure. But Katabuchi grounds the Japan’s participation in World War II around Suzu’s family and other townspeople, blending uneventful tedium, Suzu’s vibrant drawings and matter-of-fact catastrophe to convey a routinization of horror that’s far more emotionally devastating than most war movies.

So when Suzu moves from Hiroshima to live with her new husband Shusaku (Yoshimasa Hosoya) and his family, it’s disarmingly easy to keep the effects of war on the periphery—as Suzu herself does. The film allows the escalating seriousness to insert itself into Suzu’s colorful idylls more and more as the date of the fateful bombing nears. But even then, these moments are deftly handled as impressionistic memories from a quiet domestic life: a rationing here, a death there—just more brushstrokes, some thicker than others.

When Suzu’s way of life is permanently shattered, she seems to be one of the last to realize that the life she thought she’d be growing into died long ago at the start of the war. It’s fitting that deeply personal violence is the emotional climax for Suzu. The bombing of Hiroshima and all its horrors are an almost perverse falling action, but Katabuchi’s focus on Suzu keeps things poignant and utterly free of sentimentality.

At times, the film’s languorous advance feels a little too at odds with everything going on outside their corner of the world. When coupled with the loose plot, some stretches veer closer to deadweight than emotional weight. But the editing mostly works, with the war on domestic bliss feeling as meaningful as any battle.

This is war under the influence of Ozu—a quiet but singularly focused attention to the ordinary in extraordinary times.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 





Major Upgrade

Ghost in the Shell

by George Wolf

For all the celebrated vision of the 1995 Japanese anime standard Ghost in the Shell, it resembled the inspirations of a teenage boy hopped up on the works of Phillip K. Dick and Hugh Hefner. There was warmed-over sci-fi pondering, and there was plenty of gratuitous boobage.

Director Rupert Sanders delivers the live action remake as a visually rich feast, bringing a welcome upgrade to both character and storytelling.

In a technically dizzying future where the line between human and machine is growing constantly thinner, Major (Scarlett Johansson) emerges as the first true “ghost in the shell”: human brain in a cyber body.

She’s viewed as the perfect weapon, but her mission to locate Kuze (Michael Pitt), a cyber-terrorist capable of hacking into human minds, leads to some revelations that will have Major questioning her loyalties.

The studio defense of Johansson’s casting amounts to a weak tap dance around the truth: she’s a big star who looks the part and they think she’ll combine butts with seats. While the “whitewash” criticism is fair, Johansson also brings a necessary shift away from Major as merely a ridiculous adolescent fantasy.

Johansson conveys well the clash of mind and machine at work in Major, while Pilou Asbaek (A War) steals scenes as Batou, Major’s macho partner who’s sporting a nifty new set of cyber eyeballs.

Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) and his visual team work wonders (the 3D version is worth the investment), re-creating various scenes from Mamoru Oshii’s original film with stunning new flourish. This future world pops with visual style in every corner while maintaining a cold, unforgiving and detached aesthetic that feels right.

Screenwriters Jamie Moss and William Wheeler do provide crisper dialogue and a more polished narrative than the original film, but it’s a tale still rooted in overwrought tropes and stale cliches. Ironically, with a moral so consumed by the preservation of humanity, Ghost in the Shell doesn’t give you much to think about.

This beautiful body needs more of a soul.

Verdict-3-0-Stars