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For the Love of Pete: Why “Crashing” is one of the Best Comedies on TV Right Now

Full disclosure, I fell in love with Pete Holmes the moment I saw him show up on my screen like some gangly white ray of sunshine.  I stumbled onto his show Crashing by accident, scrolling along the homepage of my HBO GO app until I saw a photo of a man sitting on a couch in the middle of the street mock-screaming directly into the camera. “I don’t know who this guy is,” I thought, “but I have a feeling he gets me.” Long story short, it was a show about a comedian, I’ve done stand-up a handful of times, and I’m a regular sucker for guys whose noses are of the Adrian Brody variety. I gave it a go.

My love of comedy about comedians started with Jerry Seinfeld. For me, he was the first comic to use serialized television to tell an audience the ins and outs of being a working comedian. Yes, I realize this dates me as a ’90s child – I’m sorry about it, too.

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25 Animated Films You MUST See #17: Song of The Sea

Everyone.

It’s been awhile.

You’ll have to excuse me, I’m slowly getting accustomed to life in the outside world. Aside from going to my 9-5 job, I’d been tucked away in a corner of my apartment, furiously pounding out pages of my thesis project for grad school. My thesis was a hefty section of my novel, 120 pages to be exact, and now that the sheets have been bound, the section turned in, and my degree received, I can slowly begin to acclimate myself to normalcy. Most of this has involved slowly exposing myself to sunlight, understanding that the food pyramid is not just a giant slice of Domino’s pizza, and getting all the sleep.

But I digress.

As my time in grad school came to an end, I spent a lot of time thinking about the future, my own specifically — where would I go, what would I do, what would things look like for me a few years down the road?

But I also began to think about the future of the things I loved. With E3 in full swing, I wondered where video games were headed. What new, immersive technology would pop up, which franchises would live on, and OHMYGOD THERE’S A NEW STARFOX GAME.

Needless to say, I’ll be updating you all soon (if I can contain my excitement until then).

But I also had some similar thoughts about the future of animation. As most of you have noticed, a large portion of this list are films that were made more than five years ago, some even older still. There are one or two newer films I’ve considered putting on this list, but it’s obvious that the pool of animated films is definitely getting thinner. With Studio Ghibli’s (potentially) last film, “When Marnie Was There” in theaters and more films going the way of Pixar-style animation, it’s hard not to wonder where things are headed.

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25 Animated Films You MUST See #18: Kiki’s Delivery Service

Last Monday, I sat on the hardwood floor of my  apartment, leering at the white cardboard box in  front of me. The box, which contained a  disassembled nightstand from IKEA, had been  sitting under my bed for weeks. And one night after  getting home from work abnormally early (before 8  p.m.), I did the adult thing – I put a load of laundry  in the wash, ordered a pizza from Dominos, dragged  the box out from under my bed, and put on “Kiki’s  Delivery Service.”

“Kiki’s Delivery Service,” or Majo no Takkyūbin, was  a 1989 release from Studio Ghibli about a young  witch, Kiki, who leaves home with her talking cat companion Jiji on her 13th birthday, part of a custom where a young witch must be apart from her family for a year and find another town to live and use her special ability in. Kiki’s ability of flight seems like an ordinary witch power, but she finds that in her new seaside town she is able to use it as a delivery girl for a bakery. But her journey to using her talent doesn’t come without obstacles. After one delivery goes sour, she seems to lose her powers. She can no longer fly or understand Jiji and becomes deeply depressed before finally regaining her confidence in herself and her abilities.

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25 Animated Films You MUST See #19: Persepolis

persepolis4One of the many things I admire about animation is that it has the ability to make a mountain of emotion out of minimal resources. Sure, animation programs aren’t cheap and under careless direction they can go the way of several live action films that adopt the mantra, “the more money we pour into this, the more money we’ll make.” And while there’s certainly nothing to scoff at if you’ve got the cash to pump into your feature, if you’re throwing money at the project for the sake of money, chances are you might have some incorrect intentions.

But I say all of this because this week’s film did so very much with so very little – a little over $7 million to be precise. Though that amount might seem high, consider it in comparison to some other animated films — even Studio Ghibli’s work can rack up some high costs. “The Wind Rises” burned through $30 million, and “Spirited Away” cost about $19 million. But that’s a drop in the bucket compared to some of America’s production companies. Pixar’s last film, “Monsters University?” 200. Million. Dollars.

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25 Animated Films You MUST See: #20 The Triplets of Belleville

When I was looking for a film for this week, I wanted something…new.

Different.

Not in the Japanese anime style, is what I’m saying.

Yes, I realized that when it comes to my animated films, I show Studio Ghibli a lot of love. But I’m working on it. Really.

But difference in animation style isn’t the only reason I wanted to add “The Triplets of Belleville” to the list — this film is just different in general. There really isn’t a way to describe the way I feel about it. You’ll find yourself grinning once the film’s over, because it has this strange ability to be insanely dark and insanely satisfying, all at once. There isn’t just one descriptor that does it for me — weird, goofy, grotesque, odd, magical — it is all these things and more.

This 2003 comedy written and directed by Sylvain Chomet tells the story of Madame Souza, an elderly woman who lives in a slumping house in the parisian countryside with her grandson. When she finds that he is in love with cycling she buys him a bicycle and trains him until he is one of the top cyclists in the world and finally ready to compete in the Tour de France. (more…)

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25 Animated Films You MUST See #21: Grave of the Fireflies

So. It’s been awhile. 

Yes, I realize this is an understatement. 

But when it comes to wondering why it looked like I’d fallen off the face of the planet, you can either place the blame on my graduate thesis and full-time job — or the fact that the next movie in this countdown left me a crumpled heap of sadness, a blob of inactivity lurching its way through the holiday season and fighting the urge to live in a glass case of emotion. I hope you choose the latter.

 Grave-of-the-Fireflies-thumb-560xauto-24189Grave of the FireflysGrave of the FireflysGrave of the FireflysGrave of the Fireflies 1Of course, I’m talking about the 1988 film “Grave of the Fireflies” or “Hotaru no haka.” This has everything you need for a good night in of just you, a box of tissues, and a tub of whatever ice cream you prefer, which you will immediately regret consuming throughout the course of this film. 

This Isao Takahata tragedy opens in September of 1945, shortly after the end of World War II, and a crippled Japan is trying its hardest to survive.  The film opens at the ending, so be prepared for a giant sorrow punch to the gut. We meet the deliverer or said punch, 14-year-old Seita who is dying of starvation at Sannomiya Station, main railway terminal for Kobe. When Seita succumbs and dies, a janitor removes his body and finds a candy tin, which the janitor throws away into a nearby field. From the tin springs the spirit of Seita’s younger sister, Setsuko. And boom, you feel another immediate gut punch as the two spirits reunite and Seita beings to narrate their backstory, beginning with the firebombing of the city of Kobe in March of 1945, where they lose their mother

Seriously — minutes in and you already feel a little bit of your soul being consumed by the sheer amount of sad. 

Grave of Fireflies 2But oh wait, on the horizon there’s an entire mountain of sad for you get over. Because though the two siblings manage go to live with their Aunt, she becomes increasingly bitter due to the hardships brought on by the war and the quickly thinning food rations. She becomes so bitter towards the two that Seita decides to leave with Setsuko and care for her on his own. They find refuge inside an abandoned bomb shelter and release fireflies within for light. 

And I’m going to leave it off here. Any more spoilers at this point would either cause you to feel so depressed about pushing this animation through your eyeholes that you’d rather not press play in the first place. 

And I sincerely hope you don’t feel that way. 

Because yes, Grave of the Fireflies is sad — it’s supposed to be sad, and the animators at Studio Ghibli knew what they were out to convey with this film. They do a stellar job of making you care about these two kids, which makes their hardships all the more hard to watch. Every scene is there for a reason, every decision the characters make is a real one that they turn to for extremely believable reasons, and the ending will make this film one you cannot forget — for both exciting and horrifying reasons.  The animation is gorgeous, but depicts two very brutal, heartbreaking lives; the medium isn’t “real,” but brings out emotions and problems that are so real. 

Grave of the Fireflies 3War is a real thing, starvation is a real thing, things experienced by children and adults today all over the globe — and this film will make you think about those things. So, go watch it, and think about some uncomfortable things for awhile. And though I know the holiday season is over, maybe think about bringing about some change when it comes to ending world hunger too.  If you like, take a look at two sites that I’d really recommend: Bread for the World , a religious organization that focuses on feeding the hungry through legislation and boots-on-the-ground type work. Or, if you’d prefer an organization without any affiliation, check out The Hunger Project — both sites let you donate any amount you feel comfortable with, or maybe just read up on what world hunger looks like and educate yourself. 

Or hey, maybe watch “Grave of the Fireflies” first and join me in my cave of sadness — there’s plenty of room. 

25 Animated Films You MUST See #22: Perfect Blue

Not exactly.

Perfect_BlueThat’s my immediate response to the title “Perfect Blue.” Granted, there are plenty of things to like about the 1997 release from directors Hideki Hamazumm and Satoshi Kon. It gives us a great, thrilling story, following our protagonist Mina, a popstar who is forced to drop her career and pursue an acting gig to remain relevant. Though the plot goes much deeper than that, because Mima’s sudden retirement upsets a devoted fan and she begins receiving threats, obscene calls, and things take a set of extremely upsetting turns.

This film is great in the ways of mastering suspense and using very human issues to do so, dealing with the pressures of fame and the horror of cultivating an identity that someone else loves or desires to emulate to the point of self-harm or harming others. The animation is gorgeous and uncomfortable, and I mean that in the best way. Unlike “Cat Soup,” where the visual can be stunning but often nonsensical and use that to create an air of uneasiness, Perfect Blue doesn’t dance around the issue. This is one of the first on-point animation films I’ve seen that deal with horror in a great way and use every facet to its advantage. We are meant to be shifting nervously while watching this. Facial expressions are extremely distorted at points, the line between reality and fiction is hard – even for the viewer – to follow. The film features a rape scene (though one done as a recording for a television show) and it pulls no punches. It made me uncomfortable. It would make anyone uncomfortable. And it should. For these things, I’m glad that Perfect Blue exists; it pushed the genre, and it opened animated films up in ways that were dark, complex, and very gritty and real.

perfectblue1But for all those good things that are built up in the first three-fourths of the film, the end just throws it all out. I won’t give away the ending by any means (because it’s a great twist that I really enjoy), but the very end shows this intense progress by our main character that seems incredibly hokey when it’s all said and done. It seems like the film has built up all this sadness, all this mental instability, but they felt required to stabilize things by the end. It just felt like a cop-out, and maybe when you check it out, you’ll know what I’m referring to.

But when the rubber hits the road, Perfect Blue did a lot more good than bad for the animated world. It’s a great thriller, paced very well and using a lot of symbolism to get the job done. I would offer the small critique of it being a little over-stylized, but I would say that judgment is a tick-tack one, if anything. I would say that I genuinely enjoy this movie because of the emotions it makes you feel. Are they good ones? Absolutely not. But I can remember getting the same feeling when I watched “Requiem for a Dream,” a film that is, by design, meant to make you feel unwanted emotions. And to know that film, especially animated film, is powerful enough to accomplish that, it can do wonders for the medium and the audience that watches.

If you’d like to check out Perfect Blue for yourself, the easiest way to get a hold of it is through Netflix’s order system. But it’s also available on Amazon and even in major retail chains like Best Buy. So, if you’re looking for an anime staple to add to your collection that really packs a punch, give this film a go. It’s not perfect, but that doesn’t mean it’s not pretty darn close.

25 Animated Films You MUST See 
#23: Cat Soup

unnamed-3Late last week, a wrench known as late postal service has kept me from getting “Perfect Blue” delivered to my apartment in time for me to write the article. So, I was left without a film to review, and I didn’t want to skip a week. So on Friday night, I started flipping through the rolodex of my brain, thinking of all the old animated films I’d seen. The longer I thought, the more I wanted to just log onto a message board or plug “The Best 25 Animated Films” into Google, because that’s what this list should be about, right? The best of the best?

But after really considering things, I decided that the “best” animated movies weren’t really standout ones on my list; they were films that I thought were memorable. Aside from Miyazaki films, my list was obscure, strange, and sometimes only watchable on YouTube. But now that I think about it, I would say that’s a good thing. I wouldn’t want to lie to you, reader, and tell you to go see a film that I’d find boring or similar to every other animated film out there. No, I want you to see all the sides of animation – and that’s where “Cat Soup” comes in.

“Cat Soup,” or “Nekojiru-so” was a 30-minute film created in 2001, directed by Tatsuo Sato and inspired by the work of manga artist Nekojiru. With a hefty amount of awards endorsing it, including taking the “Best Short Film” award at the 2—1 Fantasia Festival, I was surprised I had never heard of it when a friend recommend this short film to me in college. I was also supruised that I couldn’t find the thing anywhere. Video stores, Netflix, Hulu – the thing was nowhere to be found. But I finally managed to find a full recording of it on YouTube. I remember that it was a rainy day, my roommate was out on a grocery run, and I was particularly bored, so I went for it.

unnamed-4The story itself is a simple one that we’re introduced to in the first 5 minutes of the film—a young cat finds out that his ill sister is being led by the spirit of death to the edge of their town. He attempts to save her, but is only able to keep a half of her. The mysterious death spirit explains that a certain orange flower can save his sister’s life, and the brother goes searching for it.

What follows can only be described as 26 minutes of animation – that’s all I can say. It’s not pretentious, it’s not plot-driven; it’s just…odd. The brother and sister journey through strange worlds and obstacles, from a flood to escaping the clutches of a very – odd – man who wants to make them into soup. There’s no dialogue, save for some indiscernible chattering and a few subtitles depicting location. The style is surreal, beautiful, and at times even a little disturbing. In short, this film is perhaps the weirdest but most magical collection of animated images I’ve ever seen.

cat-soup-6But the reason I’m including this film on the list isn’t because it’s perfect. Yes, it’s won some great awards, and when you’re watching it, it’s easy to see why. But is it something I would put on all the time like I do with “My Neighbor Totoro?” Of course not. This film is on this list for an entirely different reason than the others I’ve mentioned so far. Though the animation is beautiful, I just want someone else to see this film. I want someone else to say, “This is the oddest thing I’ve ever seen” and then never be able to forget it. There are several scenes and images in this film that will stick with me forever. Not because they move the plot, not because they bring out a particular emotion – except perhaps for confusion, which might be the point – no, I’m including this because it has this different type of captivating effect on me, as both an animator and a animation viewer. It definitely isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I will say that if you don’t like it, it’s only 30 minutes of your time, and I really do think it has something to say about the strangeness and awe that people experience when they watch animation.

So, reader, I could chalk this post up to being about a lot of things: wanting to get people to watch something different, what it’s like to experience animation, or – you know – an excuse for why Netflix hasn’t delivered “Perfect Blue” to my mailbox yet. But I think if anything, I’d like this post to give the impression that I’m not into playing safe with this list. Yes, I’m going to recommend some Miyazaki to you, and films like “Akira,” but I’m also going to throw some “Cat Soup” at you too. Because I should represent all the flavors of animation, even the odd ones.

You can find “Cat Soup” on YouTube, or if you’re really interested, you can purchase it on FYE or SecondSpin.com.

 

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25 Animated Films You MUST See: #24 Akira

unnamedAkira is the type of film that many have heard of, but not too many people have actually taken the time to sit and watch, which is understandable. The film was a big deal when it was released in 1988, but now it mostly comes up as a nostalgic centerpiece for those of us who enjoy anime and have a strong love for its roots. If I had to make a list of films that I would say changed the history of animation, Akira would definitely be one of them (hence why it ended up on this list). But the first time I saw it, I was really impressed – and truthfully, really excited. Let me explain.

I saw Akira when I was maybe 12 or 13. And I came from a pretty conservative town, so those of us with any kind of inkling towards anime were immediately pegged as oddballs. Anime was viewed as this weird fantasy world filled with way too much violence and nudity and way too little plotline. True, those anime shows definitely exist, but they shouldn’t consume the entire genre or make animated films that do have a smattering of nudity or violence immediately get the “fan service” label. But Akira avoided that label, and brilliantly. The films was definitely known for its violence, and the plot – a psychic teenager in a dystopian version of 2019 Tokyo in the year 2019 — gives a lot of room for a lot of blood.

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But when I first saw this film, all I could think was “It’s like The Matrixbut better!” And I think this is why Akira has such a great following, because it was really, really ahead of its time. Even watching now, I often find myself lost in the visuals and character design. Even the way the violence is depicted takes a lot of skill and is worth mentioning as artwork. But I love Akira because it brings up the question of what’s counted as permissible in anime and what’s permissible in live action by making a good quality film that mirrors a landmark film everybody knows. I’ve seen plenty of live action films with way more blood than Akira, but large akira1because Akira was animated, some reviewers were willing to criticize director Katsuhiro Otomo’s decisions when taking on the original 2182-page manga epic. In terms of plot, if you’ve read the manga, the restructured plot of the movie differs considerably from the print version, pruning much of the last half. But that’s not a reason to avoid it. This movie knows what it means to create a world and drop you into it with gorgeous visuals, great characters, and a lot of action.

But if you’re new to anime, think of Akira as your 101 course. It’s not an easy watch by any means, but it’s a landmark film, and it’s definitely one not to miss.

And speaking of animated films that were way ahead of their time, come back next week when I’ll be reviewing a thriller that dealt with performance personality before Black Swan’s Nina ever slipped on her ballet shoes.

25 Animated Films You MUST See: #1 Princess Mononoke

We start our list off with a Miyazaki flick — because come on, you should know me by now. This 1997 film was Japan’s biggest blockbuster of all time until James Cameron’s Titanic came along. But if you don’t recognize his name, you might recognize some of his titles, because he’s got quite a hefty animated resume working for him. Let’s start with childhood. Remember My Neighbor Totoro?

No?

UnknownHow about Kiki’s Delivery ServiceNaussica, Valley of the Wind? The newest of the batch, The Wind Rises. And moving into the older audience, there’s Howl’s Moving Castle, and surely you’ve heard of the big one, Spirited Away? All animated and directed by Hayao.

Now before I go any further, I have to make the animation defense, and I’ll do it by highlighting this specific movie’s relationship with my husband. Now, my husband studied film at BIOLA University in California, a school that knows the craft of film very well. He was still in school when this incident happened, and he told me he had never seen a Hayao film before.

After I questioned our relationship, I decided to be excited that I’d get to share a different form of film with him. I begged him for weeks to watch this movie. WEEKS. All the while, we’d been watching the typical films on a “film major’s” list. The 400 Blows, The Seventh Seal, Blue Valentine, A Clockwork Orange, and one night, I finally cornered him about why we hadn’t seen it yet. And although he didn’t mean to, he made it sound as though animation was a form of film that just couldn’t compete with others, because its characters weren’t real.

The child inside me that watched My Neighbor Totoro nearly every day, who cried with Kiki when she lost her witch powers, and who read books upon books of character molded from a writer’s subconscious wanted to swiftly and maturely kick him in the junk and run away. But instead, I led the gentleman upstairs with the promise of chips, dip, and a slew of whatever movie he wanted — if he only watched this one.

large_nQOOHGuhj9s9mDywIECOVpKNl7pSo, we sat down and began our journey into the plot of Princess Mononoke (I should also tell all of you that I plan on typing out “Mononoke” every time it shows up because it’s fun as all get out. And you just tried it. Point proved.)

So, the movie begins with an immediate showcase of the animation Hayao is capable of. The lush landscape of medieval Japan unfolds around us, letting us enter into the dawn of the Iron Age, when nature was at war with civilization — a regular “Gilgamesh.”

But in the midst of the gorgeous animation, we are immediately confronted with a problem. There is a watchtower guard who shouts that he has noticed something “wrong with the forest.” From this point on, a giant creature, revealed as a boar-like creature covered in black leech-like worms, comes crashing out from the woods and begins to attack. Here we meet our hero, the brave Ashitaka, who is the prince of his isolated people, those who still live in accordance with nature, and who are peaceful towards it, not encroaching on its space. We also meet Ashitaka’s noble steed (who’s actually more of an ibex, but you understand), Yakkuru. Ashitaka and Yakkuru do battle with the creature, and he is finally able to slay it, but not before the worms attach themselves to his skin and leave a deathly-looking scar.

A wise shaman of the village is able to interpret what went on. The monster was a boar god, until a small iron bullet casing was embedded in its flesh and drove it mad. We are left wondering where the bullet came from, until Ashitaka is suddenly told he must cut his hair (a symbol of being cut off from the others) and leave the village, because he too has been infected with a demon of hate inside his arm, a curse. And so Ashitaka obeys. We watch him have a wrenching goodbye scene with his sister and he rides off towards to West to find the source of the bullet and to find out why nature is acting so strangely.

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From here on out, Ashitaka is thrust into a world of violence and war. Nature versus Civilization, humans versus gods, and he is caught in between to find some balance. He finds an area that is rule by Moro, a wolf god of an entire pack of gorgeous white wolves, and sees a human living among them, one who has been raised by them since birth. She is introduced as San — or Princess Mononoke

And San’s intentions seem wild, but noble. She is out to destroy Lady Eboshi, an iron-willed ruler whose village is manufacturing the very bullets and guns that are causing nature to revolt.

Ashitaka also ventures into Eboshi’s village to ask that she stop this production. Although her townspeople are gaining profits and land, they are loosing the ability to know the language of the gods (and animal gods are literally only being able to speak in animal sounds, rather than being voiced by actors). Their land is stripped of trees, slaves work in their factories, and lepers make weapons for Eboshi. Ashitaka even meets a slick-talking Jigo who wants to take the head of the Spirit of the Forest to have full control over nature.

But before you go pointing out the obvious “bad guy” here, Hayao throws in elements that make things far less black and white. Emperor Eboshi is adored by her people, and the lepers are accepted members of society (unlike Ashitaka was when he was pronounced diseased) by helping keeping the economy afloat, and she genuinely cares for her people and wants them to be wealthy and powerful. Even Jigo’s motives make sense at times. It becomes obvious — there are risks to each side, there are heartbreaking deaths that happen to major characters on each side of the problem, and everyone has their own reasons for justification. Pretty complex for moving drawings, don’t you think?

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All of this action includes an extreme depth and scope of human nature. For example, Ashitaka and San, who admit love for one another, see that they can never “lead the life of the other” and must sacrifice their love for freedom and see one another in passing glances. How many live-action love stories have been so deep?

The animation is stark, real, vivid, and appeals to the realistic view of the audience — no character is an afterthought. The white wolves are wonderfully crafted and detailed. They are not Disney-friendly. When they bear their fangs, they are shown as violent gods, ones who can and will kill for their ideals.

….As for my husband?

Unknown-1Once the movie was over, I flicked on the light and saw him staring, wide-eyed at the rolling credits. I asked him what he was thinking. He looked at me and said:

“I forgot that was an animated film well over an hour ago.”

Now I do not give you this review without pointing out a couple of things that might’ve distracted me. First off, it is a bit long (a little over 2 hours). I feel as though Ashitaka’s journey really, really takes him awhile, but when he meets San, things pick up considerably.

Also, it really does reflect “Gilgamesh” quite a lot — not that this is a bad thing, but it can make the plot a little predictable about motives and wether or not everything will come out alright in the end.

Speaking of which, I didn’t plan on sharing the entirety of the plot with you, because I want you to watch this for yourself. I want you, the reader, the follower of this blog, to have an experience. I want you to see that animation is not just reserved for Saturday morning cartoons; it can make the world of the animator come alive — he or she can bend time, space, reality, and get away with it all because they convinced you their characters were as real as Tyler Durden was to the narrator in Fight Club, and they can affect you just as much.

I honestly think Roger Ebert (who gave this film FOUR STARS) said it best:

“Animated films are not copies of “real movie,” are not shadows of reality, but create a new existence in their own right. True, a lot of animation is insipid, and insulting even to the children it is made for. But great animation can make the mind sing.”

To Shell With It: Should Anime Franchises be Made Into Live-Action Blockbusters?

It’s true. Ghost in the Shell is being made into a live action film.

unnamedA few years ago, that sentence would’ve spit out the same thought I get when people say there are ‘talks’ about a live action Cowboy Bebop or Gundam film: useless rumor. But with the recent news of Margot Robbie, the talented actress who played opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2014 smash film Wolf of Wall Street, being cast as the film’s protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi, Ghost in the Shell really seems to be turning into a reality. Because of that, and my general feeling about anime-turned-live-action projects, I’d say it’s definitely worth talking about.

Now when I say I have feelings about live action remakes, they aren’t neatly categorized ones. The notion of loving or hating a film before it’s even made is a real crapshoot and between the cast list, director, and screenwriter, there are still a lot of holes to fill. But if history shows any inkling of repeating itself, we’re not in for a good time.

But let’s start by talking about where the idea of producing a live action remake of an anime comes from. Anime series in Japan usually start out as a manga, or a graphic novel. The novel then can be transformed into an animated series. The manga can have a long-running series before it’s picked up and made into an animated series (like Dragon Ball Z), or be relatively new (like One Piece, which was made into an animated series in 1998, only two years after its first publication). Anime series also have been known to take risks and deviate from the plot of the original manga, and a good example of this would be Fullmetal Alchemist, debuting as an animated series in 2003. The plot included most of the same characters and the overarching themes, but writer Shō Aikawa took some major liberties in deciding the order of events. Then in 2009, another series came out, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. This new series played much closer to the manga and left fewer stones unturned, garnering a lot of praise. But within the realm of anime, plot change from the manga to the series is pretty forgivable – there’s a lot to account for when going from one medium to another, in this case book to film. And even if manga are typically more expressive and have much more illustration that regular literature, the process comes with several challenges, some of which result in some plot getting cut or a character arc being changed. And sometimes, animated series will get animated films of their own. Fullmetal has gotten two, and the Gundam series, Cowboy Bebop, and even Ghost in the Shell have their titles. These films are usually hit or miss, but it’s easy to see that the animators, writers, and voice actors are working their hardest to make their fan base happy.

But when it comes to taking an animated film and making it into a live action film, the problems are almost identical to that of making a book into a movie. Why? Well, for me, there are really three big reasons. One: anime is boundless. There isn’t much you can’t do with pens, paper, and a computer program or two. Characters can have big expressions and imaginative costumes or designs, actions and reactions can be overdrawn to represent raw, unfiltered emotion, and the location possibilities are endless. When you decide to move that over to film, you get a lot of this:

 

That’s a poster from Drangonball: Evolution, the remake of the popular anime Dragonball Z. It’s a film I’m still trying to bleach from my retinas. The character designs are laughable, the script so very forced, and the plot makes anime fans look immature, to say the least.

But that’s not the only time a remake has really scorned the people who helped make it popular, anybody remember Shyamalan’s Avatar: The Last Airbender?

unnamed-1If not, be sure to use that two hours of your life to the fullest, because I can never get mine back. Avatar was proof that even if you had actors who were talented and smart and even knowledgeable of the material, a writer who doesn’t know what they’re doing can send everything down the drain at breakneck speed.

But I can’t completely blame the writer, because truth is, someone else (probably in marketing) is pulling the strings. And this is where my second biggest problem comes in: the demographic gets exponentially larger. When you’re making an animated movie from a manga, you know who your audience is. You started in animation, a demographic that is niche, to put it lightly. There’s a special kind of formula that goes along with writing, animating, and producing these sort of films, just as there is for any film. And just as with any other film, there’s an audience that comes with it. For example, if you’re a die-hard horror fan, you’re probably not going to catch the newest romantic comedy at the theater, because it just isn’t your cup of tea. And the same could be said of animated films, fans of anime know what they want (and no, it isn’t fan service), and filmmakers are well-versed in how to deliver a product that fills that need; they really aren’t out to draw in anyone else.

But once that movie gets put into the hands of a big name producer like Michael Bay, the demographic is blown wide open. Suddenly, this isn’t just for the people who have watched the series, this is a film for your everyday movie go-er, and that means a lot of changes that most fans won’t agree with.

I can’t tell you how much I don’t want the smash 1988 animated film Akira to be made into a live action film, which is set to film this Spring. Not because I don’t want people to see it, I’d gladly give anyone the copy I own, rather I think that Akira is right in the medium it needs to be, and I think this is where my third reason comes into play: anime just isn’t taken seriously. There’s this odd stigma to animation, like it’s something that can’t be a “real film” until it’s made into a live action version. There’s the stigma that anime isn’t art and that it’s all fan service, or that anime fans are somehow not in touch with reality because they prefer their films to be animated. To be honest, those are all part of the stigma of not being taken seriously – and that really needs to go. And honestly, it’s going to take a lot more than Miyazaki’s Spirited Away to make things better. But I’m afraid this is what’s going to happen with Ghost in the Shell. The protagonist is a strong female cyborg who leads a law-enforcement division of the Japanese National Public Safety Commission. Her basic job is to capture powerful hackers and bring them to justice. But all I can think of is people at the planning meeting saying, “So, we just need to make a lady Robocop, right?”

But hey, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this remake will set a standard and bring animation into a new world of possibility. Maybe we’ll do something right.

Or maybe you’ll find me in Spring with an Akira picket sign in my hand.

Down in Front: Why I Don’t Go to the Movies

3d-movie-audienceI won’t mince words with you: I hate movie theatres, and I hate myself for it. I don’t know how it happens to me, but I become some cynical old curmudgeon when my film-buff of a husband asks if we can go see the latest flick, and it’s quite a visceral response.  But it wasn’t always this way. I remember quite often going with friends to the movies and seeing big blockbusters for the first time on the big screen: Titanic, The Lion King, Avatar, and others.

And I remember the feeling of excitement, I really do. Seeing things explode, lovers reunite, or a protagonist turn out to be far less of a hero than expected – it was nice, seeing a movie.

Now it’s just constant refusal. Nope. Not going. Even though I’d love to tear into Guardians of the Galaxy and I regret never seeing Boyhood, I’m still not budging.

Why?

I can blame a lot of things, really. The fact that as time moves in its linear fashion, I am forced to become embittered with age and hate the coming generation; the fact that society has obviously declined, somehow right in tandem with my childhood. But in all seriousness, the thing I’m blaming knows no age or amount of perceived politeness: Netflix.

MovieTalkingNetflix has turned a movie theater into a large living room with an even larger cover charge. And it’s a real double-edged sword, because I love Netflix. I love knowing that I can access films (a lot of them Criteron Collection or classics that have been restored) right from my living room. Or, you know, I can binge watch Bob’s Burgers without feeling ashamed. But at the same time, we’ve gone mad with power, and it ties in with the technology we bring along. People sit in theaters and browse on their phones like they’ll be able to press pause and rewind the movie. I’ve seen people check emails, and even take phone calls, during the most pivotal points of films.

But it doesn’t even come close to the people who talk. There is literally nothing worse than sitting in a film and knowing that you’ve lost the seat lottery because you sat next to someone who can’t keep their mouth shut. And I understand, there are moments of a film that are shocking, scary, funny, and they all usually elicit responses that are vocal – a scream, laugh, etc.

But during the last film I saw, Dawn of the Planet of Apes, there was a guy next to me who could not go five minutes without providing his own commentary on the film, the new age equivalent of “DON’T GO IN THERE, NOPE, DON’T DO IT.”

ontrendgravityAnd the film before that? Gravity. Someone messed up my IMAX viewing of Gravity, one of the most immersive film experiences in existence, and I was livid. But my anger is a slow, sluggish one, seeping out of my pores like some radioactive sludge that eventually burns an acidic hole in my hope for humanity to get its act together.

And every time I watch people do this stuff in their seats, I’m always reminded of what I’ve been taught by my screenwriting professors in grad school – the brilliant Tim Kirkman and the wonderfully talented late Syd Field. They always reminded me that when you step into a theater, you sign an invisible contract. You say, “Okay, director, producer, and everyone else involved with this project, I’m here to give you my time. I paid you to come here and sit in the dark with strangers and be told a story, so it’d better be a good one.”

But the more I go to a theater, the more I’m convinced that everyone in the audience has forgotten that this applies to them, too. Being in a theater audience is a beautiful thing when you really think about it – people of all different ideologies, world views, and economic status are gathering together in a room and having a real experience together. And a lot of the time, that experience tells us a lot about us as human beings. But the more people interrupt that experience, the more people that break that contract, the more I’m convinced that the only thing I’m being told is that we really, really suck.

So if you’re reading this, remember the invisible contract next time you’re in a theater, remember that you’re people getting together to have a real experience, and if you just can’t control yourself – that’s what Netflix is for.

 

Ending Point: My Journey Through Miyazaki’s Essays In Light of Studio Ghibli’s Possible End

71EuDoeYx5LAbout two weeks ago, I started reading “Starting Point,” a collection of essays, speeches. interviews, and newspaper articles written by Hayao Miyazaki. For those of you who don’t know, Miyazaki is one of the biggest reasons artistic animation is taken seriously in the U.S. Miyazaki animated several blockbuster hits such as “Spirited Away,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” and “Princess Mononoke,” one of the highest-grossing films of all time in Japan. He also animated “My Neighbor Totoro,” the first movie I remember seeing. To put it simply, he did a lot for me as a kid, mainly opening up my brain a little every time I sat down to watch one of his films. His imagination, couple with his brilliant team at Ghibli, have produced fantastic worlds that draw you in with their sights, sounds, and gorgeous rich colors.

In short, my feelings toward the guy are nothing short of adoration. And to read “Starting Point” is to feel a little closer to the person who inspired my side work in comics and made my childhood really special. I’d really recommend the book to anyone who was interested in animation, or who likes picking the brain of a creative person. I’ve loved every page of the book, and it’s full of meaningful little quotes that really make his work and personality come alive, like this one:

“A moving perspective that incorporates a sense of space in the picture, that creates a sense of liberation, and that makes our souls want to greet the wind, the clouds, and the beautiful earth we see unfolding far below – these are the wonderful scenes and machines I dream of someday depicting.”

But when it was rumored that Ghibli Studios might be putting down its pens only a few months after Miyazaki had retired, I had some mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it seemed wise for them to know when to pack it in; they spent years making beautiful films and if they ended now, they could still be remembered that way, not as a company that desperately tried to cling to a reputation that had changed into something new over the years. But on the other hand, just because Miyazaki knew his time in the sun was over with, it didn’t mean the studio couldn’t go on and create more beautiful things. Plus, it’s a selfish reason, but I wanted Studio Ghibli to continue making movies because, well, why wouldn’t they? There was so much to want to cling to, there was such a large legacy there – and I know that if I was personally working there, I’d put up a fight to keep on animating.

Either way, it’s just a rumor, but there is something to think about here – how do we as creative people (and people in general) regard the things we create? I know that my own personal connection to things that I’ve written or drawn is a strong one, and I wouldn’t want to just give it up because in some small way, it proves I made something of my life, I did something worthwhile – no matter how small. And the more successful those creations get, the harder it is to come to terms with one day letting it go.

But Miyazaki had another lesson to teach me here as well. Below, you can see stills from the Studio Ghibli documentary “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness,” which was originally released in Japan last year. These stills are from Tumblr site Nicholas Kole:

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To me, a statement like that takes a lot of humility to say. I think that a lot of people, including myself, would practically throw themselves at Miyazaki’s feet and beg him not to let the company go, asking him to keep it around for reasons – some big and extravagant, like making beautiful movies, and some for practical reasons, like making money or keeping jobs in the animation arena open.

Because as creative people, things like recognition and fame still matter. We still vie for the attention of others and chase the elusive, all consuming aspect of fame. But I really think that Miyazaki challenges us to remain dedicated to what we love, not what can become of it – and in a way, he also challenges us to embrace how small we are as humans. Yes, he founded one of the biggest, most successful animation studios of all time, and yes, he’ll be remembered long after he passes away. But for him, it’s about knowing when to let go, because even if Ghibli isn’t closing up shop now, it will eventually. But it seems that he knows when to say, “I have done what I loved to do, and now it’s time to rest.” There’s a certain grace to it, and it makes the argument that fame isn’t what lasts, but rather the experiences and love you share with others during the journey.

But all in all, no matter how I view the possible closing of one of my favorite companies, I do recommend Miyzaki’s book to you. Even if you aren’t into animation, it’s about much, much more than lines on a page.

Astronomical: How Sailor Moon’s Reboot Improves on the Original

Can I admit something to you?

I really didn’t care for Sailor Moon as a kid.

SMC-640x426And being a girl who grew up in the ’90s, that’s a hard thing for me to admit. Most of my pals who had a fair share of animation adoration (and even those who didn’t) had a special place in their heart for the series.

I tried to like Sailor Moon, believe me. And looking back now, I can see why I kept on watching, and why all my friends loved it. The show about a troupe of magical teen girls, led by our main character Usagi (or Serena in the U.S. version), who can transform into the beautiful Sailor Scouts, all represented by a planet in the solar system. These Sailor Scouts, use their powers to save the world from the dark grasp of the villainous Queen Beryl. You have it all there: magic, secret powers, and girls near our own age. It had the makings to be something great. And in Japan, it was.

The original series in Japan, Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, received lots of acclaim and was even said to have revitalized the magical girl genre in both the manga and animation world. The manga won the Kodansha Manga Award in 1993 for shōjo and the show was said to be popular with girls because our heroines were using their power to save people, not just to have fun or play tricks, which was popular in other similar shows at the time.

Screen Shot 2014-07-20 at 4.08.11 PMBut then DiC picked it up and tried to air it in America. And if people my age remember anything of what the TV landscape looked like in the early 1990s, we remember that what sold was often boxed in ‘80s packaging, with bright neon colors, some shoddy fight scenes, and a moral at the end of every story. Basically, if it wasn’t  “Saved by the Bell,” “Power Rangers,” or the like, it wasn’t selling.

So, though I don’t doubt them, it’s easy to see that DiC did their best to try to sell the Sailor Scouts — they added in gimmicky lessons at the end, awful Power Ranger-esque dialogue during fight scenes, and animation scenes more reused than a hipster’s mason jar collection.

The show also ran into some cultural barriers as well.  Scenes of near nudity, an implied lesbian relationship, and that infamous transformation scene all caused major controversial edits to be made to make the show “suitable for younger viewers.” But I also felt like something else was edited out: the fact that these girls were supposed to be heroes. I felt like Serena cried a lot, whined, and generally made life hard for all of the other Sailor Scouts until she was saved by the mysterious male lead, Tuxedo Mask.

Basically, it just felt like a bit of a letdown when a big battle would be about to take place, and Serena would run away and leave Tuxedo Mask to take care of most of the dirty work. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to like it so very badly, but at the end of the day I’d end up rotting my brains out to Cowboy Bebop instead.

Screen Shot 2014-07-20 at 2.42.54 PMAnd I finished the series, but after that, I left the Sailor Scouts behind. I saw that several other series followed it, Sailor Moon S and Sailor Moon SuperS (as well as some films), so it must’ve still been doing well. But when Hulu started streaming the unedited series back in June, I watched a few episodes, and it wasn’t awful. I still didn’t really care for Serena, but it was more tolerable.

But then, two weeks ago, Hulu also started streaming the brand new Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon Crystal. And I decided to give it a go. It was hands-down one of the best animation choices I made this year (next to buying a Wacom and watching “Attack on Titan”) and I could not be happier with it.

First of all, it looks gorgeous. From the opening scene of the first episode you can practically hear creator Naoko Takeuchi yelling, “I take this seriously and so should you!” The animation is nearly flawless and crafted with such a light, careful hand — I can’t help but just watch it to stare at the craftsmanship.

Screen Shot 2014-07-20 at 2.43.10 PMBut I also noticed something in the opening credits, the new theme song includes the lines, “We are not helpless girls/Who need men’s protection.” Now those are some big claims. And as I continued to watch the first two episodes (the third will be up next week), I think they’re going to keep their promise. Now sure, the show does not come without its problems.

It follows the manga more closely, which is nice, though a little too narratively tight at times for my taste. And Serena (now back to her original name, Usagi) is definitely still a teenager who is pegged immediately as popular and ditzy — but she wants to fight, she just doesn’t know how to use her powers yet. And once the other guardians are located and join the team, I can only see character growth coming our way. And I keep thinking this might just be the show I longed for when I was a young girl watching anime shows where, most of the time, guys got the save the day.

So, if you are like me, if you gave up on Sailor Moon all those years ago — or maybe you didn’t, maybe you stuck it out and are a die-hard fan — you’ll love this new installment. Even if you aren’t particularly into animation, the artwork is definitely worth an episode or two of your time.

The episodes are available for streaming on both Hulu and Crunchyroll. So in the name of the Moon, get to watching!

 

Taking Care of Business

For years, comedy has hit hardest in poking fun at the workplace. From catching a case of “The Mondays” in “Office Space” to the Jell-O based antic of Jim Halpert in “The Office,” there’s just something about poking fun at when our workplace is at its worst.

 

jim-the-officeBut for Great Work Cultures, it’s no laughing matter. This non-profit company noticed a recent Gallup poll stated that 70 percent of employees feel disengaged and planed to change the corporate mindset. They aspire to put a positive spin on the workplace by injecting it with a new norm of respectful workplace cultures to help boost worker effectiveness and happiness. And they’ve gotten some serious response.
This month, The Morning Star Packing Company became the lead supporting champion for Great Work Cultures. Morning Star, a tomato packing company, made it a point to practice a deeply respectful management system that caused them to be selected as the Management Innovator of the Year.

morningstar_large“As a Champion of Great Work Cultures, I hope to see business philosophies based on a bedrock of mutual respect go mainstream and maximize harmony and prosperity in the workplace,” stated Chris Rufer, Morning Star’s founder.

And Morning Star’s efforts have paid off. Last year one of their processing plants had a 100 percent return of their seasonal workers.

Rufer also says that they’ve made a commitment to values that allow for a self-managed workplace environment, or each colleague manages their mission absent directives from others.

“These values set the stage for working with fellow colleagues, customers, suppliers, and industry participants within a framework of solid integrity and openness, in pursuit of voluntary and mutually beneficial transactions and relationships.,” he stated. “This is also something we encourage colleagues to adhere to in every other aspect of their lives. This pathway has been very rewarding for us as a company and as individuals.”

But Great Work Cultures also finds innovative ways to tackle the problem of the grueling work week. From utilizing work culture practices like Self-Management, High-Performance Work Places (HPWP), Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE), and Holacracy (which Great Work Cultures is using for their governance structure) to using documentaries to show the reality of workplace practices.

If you’re interested in learning more, check out their website at http://www.greatworkcultures.org. And they’ll also be making an appearance at the World Workplace 2014, an expo for all things synergy that’ll be taking place in September.

Is E3 Important Anymore?

For 10 years of my life, I was an avid subscriber to the late, great magazine Nintendo Power. I would be excited every month when I got to catch up on my favorite consoles, games, and installments. But there was an issue every year that always stood out — the publication’s coverage of E3.

Now for those of you who don’t know, E3 — or the Electronic Entertainment Expo — is an annual fair sponsored by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) and it begins today. The Expo has beenlmwmrfgsfxo6eezzeoqx the premier place for companies to show off all their new games, systems, and merchandise. E3 has been around since 1995, and in its glory days, it was like watching Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference. Big consoles made all of their debuts there, there were wicked displays by companies that went all-out, and the place was just magical. I personally never got to go, but just watching live coverage was enough. E3 was a regular gamer’s dream, and this year the event will be at the Los Angeles Convention Center on June 10–12. But I can’t tell if I should be excited or not.

Lately it seems that the expo is fading into the background, just like Nintendo Power (I still own a copy of volume 282), and I’m not sure how to feel about it. Several game developers are saying “good riddance,” while others like to make the case that the event still brings gamers and developers together, and therefore is important. But for me, I’m busy asking what the point of E3 still is? When it comes to funding, a lot of indie gamers can’t afford to show off their stuff, while some of the larger developers aren’t using the expo to make those grandiose statements, opting to do it beforehand and not dropping too much cash. And because of this, I feel like surprises are now few and far between.

yluovazuiigvxtahr424But speaking of dropping cash, what’s the point of a normal gamer to go to E3? As time goes on, the place only seems to have become a swirling carnival of demos among professionals swapping of business cards, and regular gamers are just paying way too much money to get swept away by the tide.

But the 12 year-old inside still says I’m wrong, still says that the coverage is totally worth it, and still says that Nintendo’s new Zelda WiiU game they’ll be premiering is totally drool-worthy. But how do you guys feel about E3 — is it still worth getting excited about? Do you find yourself following all the coverage, or are you burnt out?

 

My Wonder Wharf: How Sunday’s Episode Proved that Bob’s Burgers is the Best Animated Comedy on Television Right Now

Bob's Burgers - Currently in Season 4
Bob’s Burgers – Currently in Season 4

To say that Bob’s Burgers switched it up last Sunday night is a major understatement. The first of the two-part installment, Wharf Horse (Or How Bob Saves/Destroys The Town—Part I), harkens back to the Simpsons’ Who Shot Mr. Burns? episode couplet.

But just comparing it to the Simpsons won’t cut it for me anymore, because with this episode, it seems a major change has taken place in the Bob’s Burgers universe — namely that the universe itself is starting to matter.

From the beginning of this episode, we know things are going to be different. Instead of the usual bright xylophone dings, we get a haunting establishing shot of Wonder Wharf — the central character of this episode. You heard me right, Wonder Wharf is the crowning jewel here. Not Gene’s one-liners, Linda antics, or the usual episode absurdities, all of which are hilarious in their own right. Tonight, Fischoeder’s borther, Felix, wants to destroy the wharf and build condos and a nightclub for his singing, 29-year-old girlfriend, Fanny, but Fischoeder doesn’t want to sell.

So Felix appeals to Bob’s fantasy — Bob’s Burgers on the beach — and all Bob has to do is convince Mr. F to sell the wharf. What follows is a decently funny plot of “kidnapping” Fischoeder, intermingled with Louise’s desire to ride the wharf’s new rollercoaster, and Tina’s need to save her old equine carousel companion, Mr. Goiter. The characters are spot-on — even when Linda is at her worst, she’s still the absolute best. Jordan Peele as Fanny was astoundingly creepy and Felix’s character was way more appealing than his original appearance in “Ambergris.”

So, though everything seemed to be in place, something still felt different. There weren’t as many 409-002-bobs-burgers-wharf-horse-photos-lightbox-tbdlaughable moments, but the longer the episode went on, I realized that getting laughs wasn’t the point — that’s not all Bob’s Burgers is going for anymore. There was a need to immerse the viewer in the universe that characters lived in.

The whole episode is dedicated to the history of the wharf — each plotline revolves around some aspect of it, and it means something to each of the characters. And I realized, like Dorothy’s beloved Kansas, the wharf had been there all along, another character hiding in the recesses of many of my favorite episodes — “Art Walk,” “The Deepening,” and others. It was clear; Wonder Wharf was becoming the new Springfield.

I started watching Bob’s Burgers only a few months ago, and when I decided to jump on board I was there for entertainment — I wanted laughs. They were delivered, tenderly grilled and severed up on a soft, funny pun. But after a few seasons, I could see that the writers were making me care about the family I was watching. I feel like the dynamic between the siblings got stronger, the plots are more intertwined in the desires of the parents, and I watch them all reach out to each other in very real ways, even if the situations were still insane. But with this episode, I felt the writers saying, “It’s time to go up another level, get to know more about this place, because it’s built to last.”

And with that, I was convinced — Bob’s Burgers is the best animated comedy on television right now. It fills the shoes set out by The Simpsons (who I believe have completely given up, now that they’ve announced a crossover episode with Family Guy and killing off a major character), it takes the regular family formula and goes deeper, and even when it switches things up, it’s definitely tasty enough to go on the specials board.

If you’re not watching yet, who are you? (And you can find the latest episodes on Hulu and past seasons on Netflix).