aladdin (ron clements and john musker, 1992)

I make a lot of Letterboxd lists. Too many, really. One of my favorite kinds of lists is what I call "Blind Spots". These lists (I have 35 of them) are full of movies I've never seen. The vast majority are based on IMDB lists of the top this or top that. Before I watched Aladdin, for instance, it was on five Blind Spot lists: the Top 50 IMDB lists of Animation, Family, Fantasy, and Musical movies, as well as the Top 250 IMDB list for all movies. You could say that it was about time that I watched Aladdin, 30 years after its release.

There's a reason I never got around to it. I'm not all that fond of the Disney movies of that era. In particular, I don't like the songs. But for some reason, the songs in Aladdin didn't bother me that much, so I liked the movie more than I expected. It's an OK film, and yes, Robin Williams gets to be Robin Williams.  He's all over the place, although it takes a while for his Genie to appear. According to Wikipedia, "Because Robin Williams ad-libbed so many of his lines, the script was rejected for a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award nomination."

The version on Disney+ also contained this disclaimer before the movie started:

This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.

Disney is committed to creating stories with inspirational and aspirational themes that reflect the rich diversity of the human experience around the globe.

To learn more about how stories have impacted society, please

All I can find specific to this was a line in a song in the original which went, "Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face". This was changed to something less stereotypical.

Thanks to Robin Williams, and the relative absence of crappy songs, Aladdin is a good movie. (It did win Oscars for Score and Best Song, so don't listen to me about the quality of the tunes.) It's still a standard bland boy meets bland girl tale. Gilbert Gottfried does a notable turn as a parrot, but he inadvertently shows the problem with using names to dub dialogue in animated films rather than professional voice actors. Gottfried's voice is so recognizable that it takes you out of the movie ... you don't think hey it's a talking parrot, you think hey it's Gilbert Gottfried.

coco (lee unkrich and adrian molina, 2017)

Coco is a multi-award winning film, including an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. It filled absences in many of my "Blind Spot" Letterboxd lists of popular movies I haven't seen. It is a landmark in Latino cinema, "the first film with a nine-figure budget to feature an all-Latino principal cast." I am pretty picky about animated features ... I love Miyasaki, like a lot of Pixar films, but am not a fan of a lot of the animated musicals that are ever-present. Coco comes from Pixar, and it is one of their best.

I watched in Spanish ... dubbing for animated films doesn't bother me, but ordinarily I'd have opted for English. But I knew they had made a specific Spanish-language version of Coco, and given its setting in Mexico and its emphasis on Mexican culture, Spanish seemed like the proper choice. (The only voice actor to appear in both versions is Gael García Bernal.) I can't make comparisons, but at the least, I was very satisfied with the Spanish voices.

I was also satisfied with the songs, which is often where I check out. I don't know if it was the way the Spanish-language versions felt less intrusive or something else, but I didn't gag. Meanwhile, the way Coco shows not just that Family Is Good but that Family Is Difficult was done in a pretty powerful way. Honestly, I didn't expect to like Coco ... now I can't wait to watch with my grandson.

the lion king (roger allers and rob minkoff, 1994)

Am I the last person on Earth to see The Lion King? We all have blind spots in our viewing histories ... I'm no different from anyone else, we just all have different blind spots. The Lion King never appealed to me, because I knew it was animated Disney with songs, and the songs don't usually appeal to me (this makes it hard for me to enjoy modern musicals in general). And sure enough, I can't think of a single song in The Lion King that I'd need to hear again (outside of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", which isn't specific to this film).

So while I finally got around to watching it, I was never going to be its biggest fan. And I admit that every time a new song appeared, I wanted to hit the fast-forward button (since the movie is only 88 minutes long, I'd have ended up with a short subject). But I'm glad I watched it, because when characters weren't singing, I found The Lion King interesting. The music by Hans Zimmer is evocative. The visuals are good to look at. The story is elemental, but what the heck. It seemed a bit emotionally wrenching for kids, despite its "G" rating, with one death that evokes that of Bambi's mom. The Lion King isn't my favorite animated feature, nor is it my least favorite. It's a good movie, outside of what I usually find worth watching, but given that everyone else has already seen it, you don't really need my opinion.

The vocal cast includes just about everyone. Since I tend to disagree with the idea that famous actors are better than professional voice-over actors for animated films, I was distracted by people like James Earl Jones, who sounds like himself even when he is playing a lion. Having said that, Jeremy Irons was wonderfully effective. And I liked the idea of laughing hyenas who were also bad guys, no matter who did the voices.

what i watched

Inside Out (Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen, 2015). I'm never quite sure what I think of the use of celebrity voices for animation. It's not that they do a bad job, it's just that they are taking work away from actual voice-over artists. The ingenious Inside Out takes place largely inside the mind of a young girl, Riley. The world-building is impressive ... while the gimmick is fun and at times evocative, room is also made for the events happening to Riley outside of her mind. In her mind, five characters connected to emotions help guide her actions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger. Joy seems to be dominant, and to the extent we want a happy ending, we root for Joy. Sadness runs a close second in importance, though, and much of the plot hinges on Sadness mucking things up.

Anger is voiced by Lewis Black, and even I have to admit it's a good use of a celebrity voice. I have a feeling even the most accomplished voice-over actor would appreciate this casting, for who else would you cast for a character filled with anger than Lewis Black. It's inspired.

There is plenty going on for the adults in the audience, as is true in the best Pixar movies, which Inside Out is. I don't know how little kids would take it, but 11-year-olds would surely connect with Riley. Inside Out is #139 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century, and that seems a bit much, but it is almost universally acclaimed, and won't argue too much about that ranking. And I'm always in the mood for anti-broccoli sentiment.

Geezer Cinema: Cha Cha Real Smooth (Cooper Raiff, 2022). I knew next to nothing about this film prior to watching it. I'd never heard of Cooper Raiff, who wrote it, directed it, and starred in it. I read a positive review the morning I had to decide what Geezer Movie to watch, and decided on the spot to choose this one. I'm glad I did. It constantly threatens to turn bad ... the basic rom-com setup of a young man just out of college falling for Domino, a woman in her early-30s, doesn't work for me on the page (good thing I didn't know anything in advance). But Raiff gives us an entire movie of characters with some depth, and even the people who seem at first glance to be creeps turn out to be OK, which works better than you think. The film has a positive feel, even though it's not exactly filled with happiness. Raiff gets an excellent performance from Dakota Johnson as Domino, who manages to give an honest picture of someone who is depressed a lot but trying hard to change. The real find, though, is Vanessa Burghardt as Domino's autistic daughter, Lola. Burghardt, who is on the spectrum, makes her debut, and Raiff apparently encouraged her to make Lola as realistic as possible. As with most of the characters in the film, Lola is complex but believable. Toss in a couple of better-known actors like Leslie Mann and Brad Garrett, and you have a low-key indie film that hopefully will find its audience.

film fatales #136: encanto (byron howard, jared bush, and charise castro smith, 2021)

Last month, I bitched and moaned about Tick, Tick ... Boom! I added nothing to the discourse about the film. I could have just stopped at "not my cup of tea" and moved on.

I can't fairly judge Encanto, because it's not my cup of tea. I appreciate some of the obvious positives ... the long-due representation of Colombian life, a heroine who doesn't look like a Barbie doll, the brilliant use of color. But Encanto is also praised for its animation ... care has been taken to make each character have their own personality that comes out in their facial expressions and body movements. But those facial expressions drove me crazy. Every character has gigantic eyes, and so what, except when attached to expressions that reflect "reality", those eyes, along with the body movements, give the characters an unreal feel. Hey, it's a cartoon, we don't expect Bugs Bunny to look exactly like a rabbit. But I think we're supposed to react to the characters in Encanto as if they are animated but real, and I was nothing other than distracted.

So this time, I'll keep it short. Encanto is not my cup of tea, your mileage may vary. But if this looks and sounds good to you, then by all means, check it out:

the mitchells vs the machines (michael rianda and jeff rowe, 2021)

I've been mulling over this movie for a few days, and I finally realized I don't have a lot to say about it. It's an entertaining film with fun animation (the action scenes really shine) and a reasonable combination of kids-will-love-it and this-will-go-over-kids'-heads-adults-will-love-it. I wish voice actors got more work than the big name people who end up with the parts in movies like this, but Abbi Jacobson is perfect as Katie Mitchell, the main hero (as well as being perfect as Dog Cop, although that's a bit of a cheat since Dog Cop is voiced by Katie Mitchell in the movie).

Much of the attention being paid to The Mitchells vs the Machines focuses on the film's featuring an LGBTQ+ character at its center. Katie is gay, without ambiguity. It's understated, but not obscure, and that understatement is especially important because the primary drama of the movie comes from the difficult relationship between Katie and her father. Their conflicts are familiar to anyone who has lived through that situation ... Dad doesn't "get" Katie, which leads to frustration on both ends. But never is it suggested that Katie's gayness is part of those conflicts. It's just accepted, by Dad, Mom, everyone. While some might want a more obvious portrait of an LGBTQ+ character, it works for this movie.

Yet with all of this, I couldn't get past the father character. It's not Danny McBride's voice work that is the problem. The problem probably just lies within myself. But I found the character impossible to like, and so the happy ending didn't bring tears to my eyes. Like I say, maybe I'm the problem.

The Mitchells vs the Machines got an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, but the entire category is almost unfair, since one of the five nominees is the brilliant Flee, which is also up for Best Documentary and Best International Feature. Of course, now that I've said that, Flee will go home empty-handed.

Here are the first ten minutes:

And here is one of the better movie tie-ins in recent memory, Katie Mitchell's Letterboxd page.

flee (jonas poher rasmussen, 2021)

You can learn a lot about Flee by looking at the three categories for which it has received an Oscar nomination: Best Documentary Feature, Best Animated Feature, and Best International Feature. It is the first movie in Oscar history to get nominated in all three of those categories, and it is clear from those nominations that this is not a straightforward presentation. Animation draws attention to its unreal nature, while documentaries at least pretend to show "real" life. By choosing to animate his film, Jonas Poher Rasmussen is making a statement about the veracity of documentaries.

The film is also complicated by the possible untrustworthy source of its narrative. Flee tells the story of the pseudonymous "Amin", who is a long-time friend of the director, and who is a refugee from Afghanistan. Rasmussen wants to tell Amin's story, wants to give Amin a chance to tell his story, but Amin has good reasons to hide behind anonymity. We don't know exactly what he looks like, since he is animated in a style so close to rotoscoping that we might forget the face is probably not a match for the real person. We learn of his escape from Afghanistan as a child, and to some extent, that explains all of the ways Amin hides the truth. Rasmussen assumes he knows much of the story, but over the course of the film, he learns that Amin has never told people his entire true story. The revelations are new not just to the audience, but also to the director.

Once you realize that Amin will adjust his story to protect himself, you question the validity of what he tells us about his life. The emotional makeup of the character feels very real, and his reasons for protecting himself are obvious. We sympathize with him ... we don't turn against him when we see how his story is sometimes a bit sideways to the facts, just as Rasmussen remains Amin's friend even as he learns that some of what he has known isn't literally true.

It strikes me that my two favorite movies so far from 2021 are documentaries. Summer of Soul remains my top choice, but Flee is in the same league.

film fatales

So I don’t have to explain this every time, some history about a series I began in 2015 that I call “Film Fatales”. The name comes from a group with the same name that describes themselves as “an inclusive community of women feature film and television directors who meet regularly to share resources, collaborate on projects and build an environment in which to make their films.” When I discovered them, I checked out a couple of lists of films by women directors, and the more I looked, the more lists I found. Since then, my own list has grown to almost 250 films (which only scratches the surface, of course).

This used to include links to all the relevant blog posts, but after keeping it updated for a few years, I realized it's a lot easier to just refer to this:

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies]

lupin the third: the castle of cagliostro (hayao miyazaki, 1979)

This is the twelfth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 12 is called "Animated Auteurs Week":

When discussing auteurs, we usually stick to live-action filmmakers, which makes sense based on audiences' relationships with animation (outside of Japan, anyway). Here we take a moment to see creators who have made a name and signature style for themselves through an animated medium. Considered omitting Miyazaki since he is the exception to the rule, but it's for that same reason I had to keep him in.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film directed by one of the following animated auterus: Ralph BakshiSylvain ChometDon HertzfeldtSatoshi KonHayao MiyazakiTomm MooreBill PlymptonIsao Takahata, or Masaaki Yuasa.

This was the first feature directed by Hayao Miyazaki, and it didn't do much for me, the first time I've thought that about one of his films (I've seen ten). I don't know much about the background of Arsène Lupin III, who starred in manga series going back to 1967. The Castle of Cagliostro presents Lupin in a more genial tone, apparently, which wasn't necessarily popular at the time but which has become more accepted as Miyazaki emerged as one of our greatest film makers. In this case, the characters didn't appeal to me, and I didn't really care about the plot. There is a good fight scene near the end that takes place within the works of a large clock tower, and the drawings of some of the secondary characters are intriguing. Ultimately, I just didn't care enough to get excited.

Popular choices for this challenge included Paprika and Millennium Actress, both by Satoshi Kon.

revisiting the 9s: spirited away (hayao miyazaki, 2001)

[This is the fourth in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. By rough count, I have only given the top rating to 17 non-documentaries from the 21st century. (For some reason, I don't have a problem giving tens to new documentaries.) So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

Back in 2003, I wrote:

I'm forever searching for films that reflect what I think of as the world of Philip K. Dick novels. Movies based on Dick books rarely meet my approval, but once in awhile, some other picture will find the psychedelic spirit of Dick's best work. You don't expect to find it in a "children's movie," for sure, but I take what I can get. There are a bunch of astonishing creatures in Spirited Away, and most of them would make sense as intergalactic beings from a PKD novel. My favorites were the little soot thingies ... that's what they are, soot with arms and legs ... but there's plenty more where that came from.

Over the past month on holiday, I re-read five Philip K. Dick novels (he's my go-to writer on trips, because I have so many of his books on my Kindle). Re-watching Spirited Away in that context, locked in as I was to the Dick spirit, meant I easily understood my long-ago comparison of the movie to Dick. But I also appreciated the way Miyazaki explores his own kind of weirdness. Spirited Away strikes me as even more of a fantasy than is usual for the master. Certainly Miyazaki works within the fantasy genre. But where something like My Neighbor Totoro places its characters in a seemingly ordinary home, from which they venture out into a magical forest, in Spirited Away, the family is on their way to their new home, but they don't make it. The magic and fantasy begins right from the start, as the parents turn into pigs. There isn't a lot to hold onto in Spirited Away, if you want at least a grasp of the "real world".

I complained about Holy Motors being unapproachable ... you have to accept the vision of Leos Carax, because that's all there is. Spirited Away is equally demanding of the audience ... without Miyazaki's vision, all you have is pretty pictures (and Holy Motors has a lot of pretty pictures, too). But Miyazaki invites us into his vision. He welcomes an audience, where Carax gives the impression that he doesn't care about that audience. The result is that I resisted Holy Motors, but I embraced Spirited Away completely.

I should note that I watched the English dub this time, if that makes a difference. I didn't recognize any of the famous voices, which means they did a good job. As for the "revisiting the 9s" angle, I have no idea why I didn't give this movie my highest rating back in 2003. Perhaps I really do have some subconscious inability to fully appreciate movies that aren't 50 years old. Spirited Away gets a 10/10. It is my favorite Ghibli movie after Princess Mononoke. #6 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century, and #159 on the all-time list. Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature.

[Letterboxd list of Studio Ghibli movies I have seen]