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 100 films (which only scratches the surface, of course).

Posts in the series include:

#1: Vagabond

#2: American Psycho

#3: Daisies

#4: Wendy and Lucy

#5: Me and You and Everyone We Know

#6: News from Home

#7: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

#8: Beyond the Lights

#9: Ratcatcher

#10: What Happened, Miss Simone?

#11: Night Catches Us

#12: The Gleaners & I

#13: Bridget Jones’s Diary

#14: Diary of a Teenage Girl

#15: We Need to Talk About Kevin

#16: Citizenfour

#17: Suffragette

#18: Obvious Child

#19: Tallulah

#20: Paju

#21: Stories We Tell

#22: 2 Days in Paris

#23: 13th

#24: Fat Girl

#25: The Intervention

#26: To Walk Invisible

#27: Wanda

#28: Jesus’ Son

#29: Girlfriends

#30: Wonder Woman

#31: Spielberg

#32: Persepolis

#33: Real Women Have Curves

#34: Lady Bird

#35: First They Killed My Father

#36: Mudbound

#37: On Body and Soul

#38: American Honey

#39: A Girl Like Her

#40: Divines

#41: Morvern Callar

#42: Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

#43: India's Daughter

#44: Faces Places

#45: The Ascent

#46: The Spy Who Dumped Me

#47: The Dressmaker

#48: Private Life

#49: Mustang

#50: RBG

#51: Mikey and Nicky

#52: Leave No Trace

#53: Captain Marvel

#54: Shirkers

#55: La Ciénaga

#56: Exhibition

#57: Booksmart

#58: The Farewell

#59: Blinded by the Light

#60: Craig's Wife

#61: Hustlers

#62: A Woman, A Part

#63: Daughters of the Dust

#64: Tig Notaro: Happy to Be Here

#65: Who Took the Bomp? Le Tigre on Tour

#66: Fleabag

#67: Paris Is Burning

#68: Detroit

#69: Le Bonheur

#70: Little Women

#71: 35 Shots of Rum

#72: Honeyland

#73: The Rhythm Section

#74: American Factory

#75: The Photograph

#76: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

#77: Even the Rain

#78: The Edge of Seventeen

#79: Emma.

#80: Welcome to Me

#81: Knock Down the House

#82: The Nightingale

#83: Zama

#84: Harriet

#85: Cameraperson

#86: Relic

#87: The Old Guard

#88: Leviathan

#89: The Killers

#90: The Assistant

#91: Lost Girls

#92: Crip Camp

#93: You Were Never Really Here

#94: Babyteeth

#95: Dick Johnson Is Dead

#96: The Lure

#97: Never Rarely Sometimes Always

#98: She Dies Tomorrow

#99: The Headless Woman

#100: Totally Under Control

#101: My Octopus Teacher

#102: Jane Eyre

#103: Wonder Woman 1984

#104: Little White Lie

#105: The Invisible Frame

#106: One Night in Miami

#107: Shirley

#108: Nomadland

#109: Sweetie

#110: First Cow

#111: Promising Young Woman

#112: Town Bloody Hall

#113: Shadow in the Cloud

#114: Honey Boy

#115: Saint Maud

#116: Black WIdow

#117: Sword of Trust

#118: Beau Travail

#119: In a World

#120: The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show

#121: Shiva Baby

#122: Fast Color

#123: Worth

#124: Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emanicipation of One Harley Quinn

#125: Passing

#126: Time

#127: Meshes of the Afternoon

#128: The Power of the Dog

#129: The Lost Daughter

#130: Zola

#131: Eternals

And the following movies, which would be in the series except I’ve already written about them ... call them Honorary Fatales:

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]

ocean waves (tomomi mochizuki, 1993)

This is the seventeenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "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 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 17 is called "GKIDS Week".

For over a decade, GKIDS has been a godsend for the distribution of foreign, independent, and adult animation. Through a large line of Blu-rays and theatrical re-releases, this company has opened the door to the world of animation for those looking to cross the threshold. Recently, they obtained the rights to distribute the films of Studio Ghibli, so those are definitely on the table here, but I would suggest maybe taking a look at the many other wonderful films GKIDS has made available. Unless you haven't seen Porco Rosso. Get on that shit, a pigman flies a plane. So dope.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film distributed by GKIDS.

It was suggested that we look beyond Studio Ghibli, but Ocean Waves is a Ghibli I'd missed, so I picked it. It is an anomaly in the Ghibli universe, the first one directed by someone other than Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata. It was meant to be an opportunity for some of Ghibli's younger members, but it went over budget and over schedule. The film ended up on Japanese television, and wasn't seen in the U.S. for more than 20 years. It's something of a neglected stepchild, which is unfair, but in truth, Ocean Waves is not a typical Studio Ghibli release. It tells the story of a love triangle among three high school teens, and is absent the element of fantasy we've come to expect from films like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service, which predate it by a few years.

The young woman isn't as interesting as the adventurous girls that feature in Miyazaki movies. In fact, none of the three main characters are particularly interesting, and the plot is rather mundane. Ocean Waves is never less than pleasant, but it rarely rises above that. The film becomes more affecting near the end, as the characters mature, and the theme of nostalgia is more effective once we've gotten a sense of what the lives of these young people were like in high school.

Ultimately, Ocean Waves might play better for an audience unfamiliar with Studio Ghibli. Fans of the studio bring expectations that aren't really served by the movie, and it's not a classic on the level of Princess Mononoke, but that's hardly a reason not to watch it.

revisiting ponyo (hayao miyazaki, 2008)

Back in 2009, I wrote about Ponyo:

The best part about watching this in the theater, even though it was the English-dubbed version, was listening to the kids in the audience. They were enjoying the movie very much, right from the beginning, when the Studio Ghibli logo came on and a kid sitting behind me said to his parent, “it’s Totoro!” You see, I had forgotten Miyazaki makes movies for kids. I assume they’re more like Fantasia, movies for acid heads to enjoy while tripping. Ponyo is neither the best nor the worst Miyazaki movie, which means you should see it.

Not a lot to add to that, except to comment on the viewing situation this time. We watched at home with our 8-year-old grandson. He hasn't seen many movies ... his parents are pretty strict about that. But he has seen Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service, so he is familiar with Studio Ghibli, and he recently got an illustrated book version of Ponyo, so it was a good time for him to see the movie itself.

The weird thing was, he jabbered the entire movie about what was coming next. OK, that's an 8-year-old. But he had never seen the movie! The book he read, though, was quite accurate to the film, and he enjoyed seeing the animated version of what he'd seen on the page. (Once again, we watched the English dub. I wish they'd use voice actors rather than famous names. It's not that the famous ones are bad, but it's distracting to hear a character and recognize the voice of  Tina Fey or Liam Neeson or Betty White.)

by request: cloudy with a chance of meatballs (phil lord and christopher miller, 2009)

The request came from my grandson, who had already seen it a couple of times. His mom knows my feelings about kids and movies ... I don't believe in showing crappy movies to kids just because they are age-appropriate. She wondered if I'd be up for a movie that didn't quite meet my requirements. I told her it would be fun to watch with the squirt. Thus, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

First, I was glad to finally find out what the title meant. I assumed it was something suitably loony, and I guess it is, but it also makes sense in the context of the film, which is about a young inventor who creates the "Flint Lockwood Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator". You put water in one end, and food comes out the other. Eventually, disaster sets in, the machine ends up in the sky, and it starts raining food. Hence, cloudy with meatballs.

It may have been a good thing to watch on a regular TV, as the 3-D effects were a mixed bag if I'm reading contemporary reviews right (plus I'm not generally a fan of 3-D). The story and presentation was just intense enough to shake up the grandson once or twice, but he knew what was coming and was happy to watch again.

The voice cast was the usual bunch of big names ... am I the only one who misses when actual voice actors were used in cartoons? The standouts for me were Bruce Campbell, because Bruce Campbell, and Mr. T as a cop. Everyone else did a good job, I suppose ... I didn't recognize most of them, for what it's worth.

The grandson seemed to enjoy the fact that his grandparents could sing along to Lesley Gore, whose "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows" makes an appearance.

geezer cinema: revisiting princess mononoke (hayao miyazaki, 1997)

It was my wife's turn to pick a Geezer movie, and she had never seen Princess Mononoke, so she chose it. It is the best of the 45 movies we've watched so far in Geezer Cinema. I wrote about it way back in 2005:

It's an oddball epic, weird and beautiful and brutal by turns, sometimes weird and beautiful and brutal at the same time.

I often get a bit lost in the plots of these Ghibli movies, and Princess Mononoke was no exception, but they are so loony in their pretty aesthetic that it hardly matters. Hollywood is capable of creating special effects that cause your jaw to drop, but Miyazaki creates special effects out of his brain ... he's always got some little character that's unlike anything you've ever seen before (this time it's the white thingies whose heads crack sideways), and there's wild boars that transform into squiggly monster things (Miyazaki always manages to include beings that would fit comfortably into a futuristic Philip K. Dick book ... Dick would give them names like greebs), and stunning landscapes, and heroic young women, and complex characters with complex motivations ... this isn't just a good cartoon, this is a great movie.

And the thing is, even the plot got to me this time, for as the film nears its end, I was caught up in the narrative, gasping and moaning and, of course, dropping my jaw in amazement.

I should add that the version I watched was in Japanese with subtitles ... there's an American Disney DVD with Claire Danes doing the voice-over for the title character, and I have no idea if it's any good ... in general, I don't mind dubbing when it comes to animation, I'm just saying, caveat emptor and all that if you watch the American version.

I agree with all of the above, although this time, we watched the English dub on Blu-ray. I'd bought that Blu-ray to watch with our grandson, but his mom did a little research and found that this movie is not suited for a sensitive 7-year-old. I have to say she's right ... there's a reason it's rated PG-13. The English dub was fine ... it's been a long time since I watched the original, so I can't make much of a comparison. None of the voices seemed awful. The Blu-ray picture was gorgeous, which matters a lot for this movie (my previous time I was watching a DVD from a quasi-legal box set). I also noticed the score by Joe Hisaishi, which was truly fitted to the epic nature of the movie. Fifteen years later, Princess Mononoke remains my favorite Ghibli movie.

Here is a Letterboxd list of the Studio Ghibli films I have seen: