#41: My Neighbour Totoro (1988) August 19, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Animation, Anime, Drama, Fantasy, 5 stars, 1980s, world cinema, 2011 , 4 comments
Once, a few years ago, SFX published an anime special (it was their first, I think) with a rundown of the Best Ever Anime Films. You’d expect it to be topped by something regularly cited and, considering the source magazine, science-fiction/fantasy-y — Akira, probably; or perhaps Ghost in the Shell; or maybe Oscar-winner Spirited Away. But it was actually My Neighbour Totoro that rose victorious on that occasion, an unexpected choice you could tell the magazine felt the need to justify even in the article accompanying the list. But they weren’t wrong — this is a deserving champion.
Totoro tells a charming story, where very little of significance seems to happen, yet is never dull or overly stately. It works to build a lot of character and affection for them, so that by the climax, when something definitely does happen, all the work that’s gone into the characters really pays off. It doesn’t whack you round the head with its impressiveness, in the way those other films I mentioned might, but instead sneaks up on you with the realisation that it’s a beautiful work.
The fantasy element is quite light, perhaps surprisingly considering the titular character is a giant teddy-bear-like-creature. There are sequences of pure fancy, but it doesn’t saturate the film; it’s as much a gentle drama about two young girls in a new home waiting for their mother. It’s a little like Pan’s Labyrinth in this respect (or, rather, Pan’s Labyrinth is a little like this). It’s not scary in the slightest (well, maybe in the slightest, for some kids, but note the U and G ratings), but in terms of how it balances real-life dramas with the fantasy element. Only in both the real and fantasy worlds it’s a lot nicer, friendlier and cheerier than del Toro’s acclaimed fantasy-horror. To put it more succinctly, they share a similar structure and balance, but a completely different tone.
The story and characters are supported by the huge talents at Ghibli. It’s exquisitely animated, from the detailed painted backgrounds, to the well-observed character animation, down to little touches like flies around a nighttime light — things that have no need to be there but bring the frame alive. Jô Hisaishi’s music is equally beautiful. The music regularly plays more than its usual role in storytelling too, accompanying otherwise silent (bar sound effects) scenes perfectly. “Accompanying” is the wrong word — it’s not just accompaniment; it’s integral to the mood and the action. Normally such use of music is heavy-handed — “feel sad NOW”, “feel scared NOW” — but Hisaishi’s work is never that crass. It’s not omnipresent either, just appropriate; and it’s always adding something, without it necessarily being obvious what that something is.
The English-friendly version has advantages too: I love any subtitles which use semicolons. It’s not inundated with them, but there was at least one. Semicolons are so underused. I love a good semicolon.
My Neighbour Totoro is a very nice film — and not in a mediocre way. That’s not to say there’s no drama — see the climax — but there’s no enforced peril, no nasty characters. They’re not needed. It’s quite refreshing. Is it the best anime film ever? I’m not qualified to say. But it must be a contender.
My Neighbour Totoro placed 7th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.
#65: Evangelion: 2.22 You Can (Not) Advance. (2009/2010) June 19, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Animation, Action, Anime, Sci-fi, 2000s, 4 stars, Adventure, world cinema, alternate & director's cuts, remakes, 2010s, 2011 , add a comment
Just over a year since the preceding film made it to UK DVD and Blu-ray, and two years since this was theatrically released in Japan, the second part of creator Hideaki Anno’s Rebuild of Evangelion tetralogy reaches British DVD/BD today. Continuing to re-tell the story originally visualised in the exceptional, and exceptionally popular, TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion, You Can (Not) Advance throws in more changes to the original tale than its predecessor, including at least one significant new character.
This is very clearly a second part. It hits the ground running, with no thought for those not up to speed on the characters and events so far. Indeed, there’s perhaps little regard for those who may be familiar with it anyway: certain significant events rattle past, the storyline spewing mysteries via dialogue we barely understand, so dense is it with references and allusions. In some respects that’s realistic, of course — why would characters explain, for instance, the Vatican Treaty to each other when they all know about it — but it might leave the viewer struggling to keep up. It’s not all like that, but there’s plenty of it; and when there’s few answers forthcoming within the film itself, the mysterious references feel even more opaque.
For my money, the first 40 minutes or so of the film are (by and large) the best bits. It opens with a barnstorming action sequence, a great scene for newbies and fans alike as we’re introduced to Eva pilot Mari, who didn’t appear in the TV series. That she then disappears for most of the film, only to make a thoroughly mysterious return later, is one of those explanation-lacking flaws. I’m sure it won’t look so bad once the next two films provide us with answers. Well, I hope not.
After that the film seems to trade one-for-one on character scenes and action sequences: ostensible lead character Shinji and his father have what amounts to a heart-to-heart, for them, in a vast cemetery; Eva pilot Asuka is introduced in another action sequence — different to her intro in the TV series, and I’d say not as memorable, though it’s still visually exciting. This is followed by some of the film’s best sequences: an “every day morning in Tokyo III” montage is a beautifully realised piece of animation, depicting the commute to work/school under the backdrop of a megacity that can sink and rise as needed, moving into the school lives of our band of awkward misfit ‘heroes’. It’s not readily describable on the page, which is arguably the definition of properly filmic entertainment.
Then the gang take a trip to a scientific installation which is trying to preserve the oceans and their wildlife. It feels like animation shouldn’t be as effective for such a sequence as, say, the footage in a David Attenborough documentary, but nonetheless it feels extraordinary, in its own way. It also marks itself out with the interaction of the characters on a fun day out rather than their usual high-pressure monster-fighting world. And then it’s back to that world for another impressive three-on-one Angel attack.
I’m loathe to say it’s after this that Evangelion 2.22 begins to slip off the rails, because flicking back through it after (the distinct advantage of watching something on DVD rather than in a cinema!) I struggled to find any point where I felt it lost its way or dragged with an interminable or pointless sequence. That said, this is where it begins to get more complicated. Much is made of the international situation, something I don’t recall from the TV series. It’s a neat addition — the world bickering over who has the Evas and how many — but it takes some following at times and the relevance isn’t always clear.
But it’s all building somewhere. For one, there’s another of the film’s best sequences — certainly, it’s most shocking, which readily earns the 15 certificate. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone yet to see the film, because it’s one of the plot points that differs from the TV series, but it involves the death of a main character in a brutal, deranged way. I say “death” — they pop up in the third film trailer that runs after the end credits, so there’s more to this yet…
Other than that, it sometimes feels like the story is meandering through thematic points that don’t engage as well as the character and action ones earlier in the film. Again, flicking back through, I couldn’t spot what I felt had slowed it, so maybe it functions better on a second viewing, knowing what ending it’s headed towards — at least one apparently minor subplot is, in its own way, vital to the climax, and the climax is certainly vital: unlike the first film’s ending, which was suitably climactic but clearly with story left to tell, this is a major turning point, a proper cliffhanger. Indeed, after a long stretch of confusion, it’s something of a gut-punch to reach such a dramatic point. I loved it, even if I felt I was missing some of the significance of the five minutes that led up to it.
And then, after the end credits, there’s a brief scene that throws another spanner in the works! Double-cliffhanger-tastic… one might say…
Oh, and we get an explanation for why Shinji’s still using a tape player in the near-future (which, you may remember, was a (minor) complaint I had about the last film).
The second new Evangelion film isn’t as straight-up enjoyable as the first. It starts incredibly well, but then it feels like its getting too bogged down in the politics of a world that hasn’t been properly established for us and in the intricacies of some thematic considerations — the latter is especially worrying as it was this that made the ending of the TV series so unsatisfactory, which in turn led to a pair of movies that, frankly, didn’t do that much better. But the ending did cause me to rethink my position a little, and perhaps a second viewing would find the whole film a better structured and more understandable experience.
In short, if you’ve always liked Evangelion then you won’t be waiting for me to tell you this is a must-see reimagining; if You Are (Not) Alone was your first experience and you enjoyed it, this is an essential continuation of the story — but be prepared that it’s not as simplistically entertaining. I didn’t enjoy it as much on this first viewing, but it may in retrospect pan out as the better of the two.
Evangelion 2.22 is out on DVD and Blu-ray today.
#9: Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979) March 26, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Animation, Anime, Crime, 5 stars, adaptations, 1970s, Adventure, world cinema, 2011 , add a comment
The Castle of Cagliostro, the second animated big-screen spin-off from manga-inspired anime TV series Lupin III, was the first film directed by Hayao Miyazaki, who even non-anime fans have heard of these days thanks to Spirited Away’s Oscar win (eight years ago now!) and Pixar’s recent championing of him.
I’m ashamed to say I haven’t see a great deal of Miyazaki’s output, so I can’t comment on how much of an indicator (or otherwise) Cagliostro is of what was to come, but it’s a fine film in its own right — Steven Spielberg reportedly called it “one of the greatest adventure movies of all time”, and I’m inclined to agree.
For starters, the action sequences are brilliant — exciting, inventive and varied. I don’t know if Spielberg saw this before tackling any of the Indiana Joneses, but you can feel the tonal connection. There’s also a similar amount of humour. The animation itself is very good — there are prettier examples of the genre, but the locations especially are beautifully painted, and it’s aged very well for a ’70s-produced animation. The score is rather dated though.
As I mentioned, this is the second spin-off film from a TV series, and at times it does feel like it: characters turn up under the impression the audience already knows who they are and what their connection is to the others. It’s not a major problem — most are introduced well enough within the context of the film that it can still be easily followed — but it’s there.
Is this a good film to interest non-anime fans? Maybe. The plot and structure are familiar (in a good way) from the wider adventure genre, and some of anime’s regular stylistic flourishes aren’t as much in evidence as in some other works. The genial tone may make it too “Saturday morning cartoon” for some — and by “some” I tend to mean teenagers or the teenage-minded, who would be better suited to something like Akira because it’s all Dark and Serious and Grown-Up; the kind of person who would’ve chosen a PlayStation over a Nintendo console because it was black instead of white/coloured and therefore Adult and Not For Children; childish idiots who think they’re Mature, in short.
Um, where was I? Oh yes: Indiana Jones; Roger Moore-era James Bond — it’s that kind of tone, more or less, and if you enjoy that kind of film then I don’t see why you wouldn’t enjoy this. Unless you think cartoons are for kiddies only (in which case, see the long sentence at the end of the last paragraph).
The Castle of Cagliostro is a fun and exciting adventure, and convinced me enough that I bought the only other Lupin III title currently available on UK DVD (the film that precedes it, The Secret of Mamo). And when the director of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park says something is “one of the greatest adventure movies of all time”, one really ought to listen.
The Castle of Cagliostro placed 4th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.
#41: Evangelion: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone. (2007/2009) April 26, 2010Posted by badblokebob in : Animation, Action, Anime, Sci-fi, 2000s, 4 stars, world cinema, alternate & director's cuts, remakes, 2010 , add a comment
When I (first) reviewed Watchmen, I commented that it was hard to divorce my opinion of the graphic novel from my opinion of the movie, so faithful was the adaptation. That’s as nothing to this, though: Evangelion: 1.11 (also known as Evangelion: 1.0 and Evangelion: 1.01, slightly different versions of the same thing) is a retelling of the first six episodes of the highly-acclaimed anime TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion, using the original animation and voice cast to recreate the story.
To put that another way: as a retelling of the first quarter of the original series, reconstructed from the original animation elements, some may wonder what the point of You Are (Not) Alone is — why not just re-watch the series? And how well can six episodes of a TV series work when stuck back-to-back as a film? To be frank, I’m in no position to accurately compare the content of the film and the original episodes, as I last (and first) watched them about three years ago. I can say that some of this is very familiar — one is certainly aware it’s the original elements re-appropriated — while other bits I suspect may have been drafted in from later in the series, and others I’m certain are actually all-new.
Despite some animation tweaks, other things go unchanged, occasionally making the future-set story seem already dated. A line mentioning cell phones, in an attempt to cover why Shinji is bothering to use a phone box, is a new addition I swear, while he also listens to a (digital, at least) cassette player rather than an iPod (other MP3 players are available, naturally). It’s not a major flaw — unlike, perhaps, the fact that the “covert” and top-secret Nerv organisation has great big signs plastered all over town and everyone seems to know about them — but, still, maybe a new bit of animation to replace the tape-playing close-ups would’ve been nice.
The original episodes run around 2 hours 20 minutes total (including all titles, trailers, etc) so edits have been made, but it’s intelligently done. Despite the time since I watched the series I’m aware of where some episode breaks fall, so it’s hard to accurately say how it hangs together as a film to a newbie, but it seems to me that it does rather well. It throws you in at the deep end a bit, but then so does the series. It’s a non-stop opening 25 minutes, a relentless onslaught of information and action, before the pace lets up a little. The pace is surprisingly good throughout, a well-considered balance between action, character and mysteries. Anno and co have retained some of the original’s light and shade — this isn’t just a plot recap, but includes some of the humour and character-based subplots. These elements are still the most trimmed, but there’s enough retained that they work in the context of the film. Indeed, it’s been so skilfully done that an uninformed viewer might even accept it was originally created as a film.
The pros and cons of the series remain. Shinji is alternately interesting, perhaps even complex, and a whiney little irritant. Here he has a character arc at least, suggesting he may be more sufferable next time out. His relationship with Major — sorry, Lieutenant-Colonel — Katsuragi, important in the series, seems to have an even greater focus here, providing a key emotional through-line for the characters. Some of the philosophical bits survive too, feeling as pretentious as ever, but — like the occasionally OTT humour — have been reduced by the need to hit a feature length and still pack the story in.
As best I can tell the English voice cast is entirely the same as the TV series. Though I presume they’ve all been re-recorded for the film, your opinion of their work is unlikely to be changed. I don’t mean this specifically as either criticism or praise, just that there’s nothing to distinguish between this and the TV version vocally.
One thing that worried me was that this would feel less like a standalone film and more like Part One of a much longer story, primarily because I recalled episode six being ‘just’ another big battle — an action sequence, certainly, but no more of a climax than any of the other fights. I don’t know if I’ve misremembered or if work has been done to place a heavier emphasis on it here, but it is unquestionably a Big Climax — an all-or-nothing finale, bringing together the plot, most of the subplots, and a Threat To The Whole World. There’s still a “To be continued…” — not only literally, but quite clearly in a raft of unresolved subplots — but it fits as an End Of Act One, much as does the end of, say, Fellowship of the Ring.
Another factor thrown up by the TV-series-to-feature conversion is the image quality. An HD big screen is a mixed blessing here. On one hand, it looks great on Blu-ray, with crisp lines and solid colours, the result of re-filming, colouring and CGI-ing the original animation elements rather than using the finished TV shots. On the other, such clarity sometimes shows up a lack of detail in the original animation — these elements were created for 4:3 mid-’90s TV, not a hi-def (home) cinema — and the solid colours and money-saving techniques (for example, showing something static rather than a lip-synched (ish) mouth during conversations) can remind the viewer of cheaper TV roots. Perhaps I’m being overly critical though, because much of it does look fabulous; at the very least, the thorough ground-up rebuild means it looks better than the TV series ever will, never mind has.
Ultimately, You Are (Not) Alone works satisfyingly as a film. Arguably it has a slightly unusual narrative structure or slightly unsophisticated animation, but it works much better than you’d expect from six TV episodes stuck together. With introductions, character arcs and a suitably important climax, it even functions as a standalone film, in a similar way to Fellowship or other trilogy/tetralogy/etc first instalments.
Plenty of mysteries remain at the end: who are Seele? What is the Human Instrumentality Project? Why does Shinji’s father hate his son but smile whenever he sees Rei? To mention just a few. They’re not allowed to over-dominate this story, but they let the viewer know that, while You Are (Not) Alone functions as an entertaining standalone tale, there’s a lot left to be revealed and investigated. It’s enough to make one scurry back to the series for answers, though the three movies still to come promise whole new characters, plots and a — frankly, much-needed — brand-new ending. After two misfires (one in the series, one in a film), hopefully Anno can provide something truly satisfying this time.
Evangelion 1.11 is out on DVD and Blu-ray today.
#65: Batman: Gotham Knight (2008) October 22, 2008Posted by badblokebob in : Animation, Action, Anime, Thriller, Sci-fi, 2000s, 4 stars, 2008, Short, superhero films , add a comment
Gotham Knight is an American-Japanese produced anime — the animation is Japanese and anime-styled, but the original soundtrack is English — that aims to bridge the gap between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. In this case that equates to six short films, with some narrative connections, strung together to make a movie.
Overseen by executive produce Bruce Timm (Batman: The Animated Series, and most of the DCAU) and all with story credits to Jordan Goldberg (Nolan’s assistant on Batman Begins and now associate producer on The Dark Knight), the shorts, in order of appearance, are:
Compiling that list, one has to wonder about the blurb’s claim that these shorts are directed by “some of the world’s most visionary animators”. I suppose the key word is “animators” (rather than “directors”), as some have worked on things like Neon Genesis Evangelion, various iterations of Gundam, and even Akira. Regardless of their level of experience, they all seem to do a fine job here, even managing a couple of vaguely memorable moments among fairly stock dialogue scenes and effective, if occasionally unoriginal, fights.
The six-stories/one-film concept works well enough on the whole. While these are clearly standalone pieces in terms of style and each telling a complete story, they still work best when viewed together — most follow on from the preceding entry and some elements skip across films. These links are nicely varied. For example, while the end of Film 1 merely leads directly to Film 2, there’s a relatively minor action at the end of Film 3 that is picked up in Film 5, and a large chunk of Film 3 is spent on something seemingly insignificant that is picked up on in Film 6. There are some missed opportunities in this respect, such as the transition from the fourth to fifth entries. It would be neater if Batman’s injury in Film 5 was the one from Film 4; based on the settings and their consecutive sequence, I presume this is what was intended, so it’s a shame the wound’s in a completely different place.
Gotham Knight seems to be squarely aimed at fans — who else could work out that the long-haired mustachioed crime lord here is actually Eric Roberts’ character in The Dark Knight! This is just one of several other factors that seem strange considering Gotham Knight is meant to bridge Nolan’s two live-action Bat-epics: Alfred is the traditional posh Englishman; few/no other characters sound like their Nolan-era counterparts; one segment even features the Burton-style Batmobile! It’s also a shame that the Scarecrow short isn’t last as it would lead even more directly into The Dark Knight. On the other hand, it succeeds in crafting a decent-enough ‘real world’ explanation for Killer Croc, which is no small feat, and Kevin Conroy, now in his mid-50s, still makes a good younger Batman. Thankfully he doesn’t attempt Bale’s over-done Bat-voice, though a nod in that direction might’ve been nice.
I’ve managed to get this far without invoking The Animatrix, unquestionably the forefather of this and other similar projects. Gotham Knight takes the concept a step further by linking its shorts so clearly, and while it’s not wholly satisfying in this respect, it’s a successful enough step in the right direction. If we do get a The Dark Knight 2, I’d be quite happy to see another direct-to-DVD effort in this vein.
#107: Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion (1997) October 22, 2007Posted by badblokebob in : Animation, Anime, Sci-fi, 3 stars, 1990s, world cinema, 2007, remakes , add a comment
Eight weeks and sixteen films later than I’d've liked, I can finally complete the Evangelion story! (See here for my review of the first film.)
First off, don’t even attempt this if you haven’t seen all of the (excellent) TV series — it won’t even vaguely make sense. Sadly, if you have seen the series, it’s a disappointing climax. Promising a clearer ending than the original arty philosophical one, it winds up delivering something that’s almost as bad. It’s somewhat redeemed by what leads up to this final confusing half hour: some proper story, resolutions for some outstanding plot threads, and a few instances of decent action too. As a conclusion it’s far from satisfying though.
One can only hope the new four-film remake of the whole story (the first of which was recently released in Japan), which promises another fresh conclusion, can come up with something more comprehensible. I wouldn’t count on it though.
#91: Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth (1997) August 23, 2007Posted by badblokebob in : Animation, Anime, Sci-fi, 2 stars, 1990s, world cinema, 2007, remakes , add a comment
The genesis of this film is a long story (at least, longer than I’d like for this review!) The anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion ends with bizarre theme-centric episodes that fail to conclude the story; a film was produced to re-tell the end from a story-centric position and/or to provide an alternate ending (depending who you believe). This is not that film, but something that was released a bit before that.
The first 69 minutes (titled Death) are an intriguing reorganisation/summary of the series in a somewhat impressionistic way, including a few new scenes. It’s either quite clever or just a jumble. The final 27 minutes (titled Rebirth) are an all-new continuation of the story. There are answers, revelations, some great sequences, and a great cliffhanger! Unfortunately this section is also the start of the concluding film, which ultimately renders this as just one thing: a fan-only curio. Its main value, in my opinion, is the neat cliffhanger, which makes for a tantalising ending (instead of the first act plot point it must be in the next film).
If you’re curious about Evangelion and think a filmic summary sounds a good idea, don’t watch! Get hold of the series, it’s worth the time. (I’ll undoubtedly share my thoughts on the conclusion, The End of Evangelion, as soon as Play.com get it back in stock!)