The Babadook: Take a look, it’s in a book

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Horror movies rarely resemble true nightmares. It is possible for a film to be sufficiently scary with enough frightening stimuli. But to make us feel trapped and bewildered? To not simply frighten, but shake the ground beneath our feet? That is the sort of horror that I remember most a week later, when I’m awake late at night.

The Babadook is being marketed as a demonic funhouse thriller, akin to The Conjuring. The two films bear little in common, however. The Conjuring used a grab bag of old-school horror tricks to create a very scary thrill ride. It knew its audiences wanted a good time, and it delivered. The Babadook is frightening. But while The Conjuring left me giddy with post-scare endorphins, The Babadook left me trembling in its wake. Most horror gives the audience enough enough distance to remain oriented even as the protagonist is running dizzy for their life. But The Babadook puts its two protagonists; a woman named Amelia (Essie Davis) and her 6 year old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman); through a brutal fight for their sanity and their lives, and it makes the audience feel every blow.

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The Babadook occupies a space somewhere in between We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Exorcist. All three films are about mothers driven to their breaking points with the realization that something is unnaturally wrong with their children. The difference lies in the types of evil the films deal with. Kevin in We Need to Talk About Kevin is an evil person, pure and simple. Regan in The Exorcist is an innocent child who has been possessed by an evil spirit. But both films are primarily about the brutal tests their mothers endure for the children’s sakes. I think people forget that The Exorcist spends more time on Ellen Burstyn running her daughter through every medical and psychological test available than on the exorcism itself, which only comprises the final act.

Like both of these movies, The Babadook begins with a mother sapped of resolve, caring for a son whose needs seem beyond her capabilities. Whatever problems they are suffering at the beginning of the film will soon be dwarfed by the events that unfold. Where The Babadook falls on the Kevin-Exorcist scale depends on whether or not those events are caused by the evil spirit of the film’s title. I won’t spoil the film by answering that question here. More to the point, by the end of the film I was so drained it didn’t really matter.

The Babadook is surprisingly empathetic as descents into hell go. Endurance horror is usually aggressively cynical. Consider the nihilism of the French New Extreme films, like Martyrs and Inside. Both excellent movies, neither with so much as a whisper of hope. The Babadook starts off without a hint of horror at all; it is simply the story of a woman still grieving the loss of her husband and perhaps in over her head in trying to raise a son who needs more care than she can provide without support. That Amelia’s husband died in a car crash as he drove her to deliver Samuel at the hospital complicates her relationship with her son, to say the least. She has never emerged from the shadow of that day, and Samuel only now seems to realize that he has been living under it his whole life. Amelia reaches out to her sister, but gets no reciprocation. Her elderly next door neighbor loves her and Samuel, but she is frail and can only offer so much help. Amelia doesn’t seem to have any friends or deep relationships. Samuel isn’t doing too well at making friends himself. The one solace Amelia and Samuel have is their nightly bedtime reading.

This is a stage we’ve seen before. It is a versatile one. In another movie, Amelia and Samuel might make a friend or two to help them find stability. Or perhaps it would be a bittersweet story about the inherent struggles of being a single mom. This isn’t necessarily bedrock for a horror movie. Had I not known this film’s genre going in, I would have been surprised that it was a horror film. Most horror films telegraph their intent. The most common tactic is to open with a shocking sequence, to rattle the audience before beginning the plot. Consider the infamous first-person murder that opens Halloween. But there’s nothing to suggest that anything unnatural is afoot in the opening of The Babadook. This is not a happy family, but the goings-on are still firmly placed on a scale of normality. But when Samuel requests that Amelia read him a new book- titled “Mister Babadook- at bedtime, things begin to veer off the scale.

Let’s talk about the book that gives the movie its title. It provides some of the most frightening images in the movie. It is a pop-up book for the type of children who grow up into horror movie fanatics. When I was a child, I was a huge fan of Keith Moseley’s horror pop-up books (choice title: “Some Bodies In the Attic”). They were playfully gruesome but still very dark, confirming my suspicions that attics were places scary spirits and their skeleton friends gathered in their spare time. I imagine Moseley would recoil at the images within “Mister Babadook”. The book itself is crucial to setting the movie’s tone: the drawings within nudge across the line from spooky (say, Emily Carroll’s “His Face All Red”) to sinister (like Emily Carroll’s “Out Of Skin”)*

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*By the way, please read all of Emily Carroll’s comics. She is brilliant.

After the first read through, Amelia considers the book to be too frightening for her son, but otherwise nothing unusual. Samuel initially reacts as children often do to frightening books, taking it completely seriously. He starts to see the demonic Mr. Babadook everywhere. His behavior worsens. He injures his cousin, throws tantrums that would test the patience of a saint. It’s the Babadook’s fault, he says. He starts bringing homemade weapons to school, and gets suspended. He needed them to protect himself and his mother from the Babadook, he says. Amelia, already at the end of her endurance when the film begins, starts to turn on her son. Understandable impatience and anger turns to shocking verbal cruelty. This could all still simply be a tale of familial woe. But we begin to wonder, just a bit, if that is too simple an answer. And that’s when the film hooks us and and refuses to let go.

The rest of the film deserves to be seen without being revealed. Writer and director Jennifer Kent is in astonishing command of this story. As darkness overtakes Amelia and Samuel’s lives, we are never sure whether or not it’s the doing of the Babadook, or simply their inevitable personal unraveling. Kent doesn’t cheat. There’s no “it was all a dream” obfuscation. She builds a completely believable world, introduces the possibility of otherworldly evil, and sets things into motion. We are in the same place as Amelia and Samuel. The possibility of the Babadook’s existence is no more frightening than the possibility that Amelia is simply falling to pieces.

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Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman deserve far more plaudits than awards-givers will likely bestow on them. The movie rests on their performances, and they do far more than simply carry it. Davis finds every color on the gradient of exhaustion. I wondered how the hell she made it to the end of the movie, like a pitcher tossing a complete game on no rest. And Wiseman gives a performance of fearsome believability and energy. I grow weary of critics who dismiss child actors as simply being themselves on screen. It is a task for any actor of any age to stand up to this material and not just withstand it, but to be completely convincing.

Credit also goes to cinematographer Radek Ladczuk, production designer/art director Alex Holmes, and art director Karen Hannaford. The Babadook was filmed in sun-bathed south Australia, the film’s use of light and dark is essential to its tone. The outdoors aren’t much of a respite for Amelia and Samuel, but it’s a welcome diversion from their enclosed tomb of a home. The home becomes a character in itself. At one point, Amelia says to Samuel “we just need to get out of this house”, and I just about nodded in agreement. Without ever calling attention to the home in the usual horror movie way ( your usual dramatic exteriors and long shots down dark hallways), Kent instead slowly makes it feel claustrophobic.

The Babadook is one of the best films of this year, and yet difficult to recommend easily. You should see it if you want to see a superb movie. Just don’t expect a grand old time. It is a deeply unsettling experience, in a way that burrows deep and dies there. It is an assault on the most paranoid recesses of our minds. It wields empathy like a weapon; without such an understanding of its characters, it would not be nearly as effective. I actually hoped that Amelia and Samuel were under attack from a monster, and not simply caught in a personal death-spiral. I hoped, for their sakes.

The many dimensions of Interstellar

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Interstellar is far from being Christopher Nolan’s best movie, but it has stuck with me to an extent that I need to write something about it. I just didn’t know quite how to approach that task. It’s a big, at times glorious mess of a movie, and I admit that figuring out how to write about it in one piece was sort of daunting for me.

So instead, I’m going to write about it in pieces.

After seeing Interstellar, I wrote on Facebook that it felt like a film adapted from a first draft of a script. Weeks later, I still feel that way. Interstellar feels like multiple movies on stage at once, each taking hold of the mic for a moment before ceding the floor, with varying degrees of willingness.

So in lieu of a simple review, here’s my take on the different faces of Interstellar.

1. Just a bit of an Apocalypse

For a big-budget, special-effects driven spectacle, Interstellar takes a surprisingly low-fi look at the apocalypse unfolding on Earth. At no point does the film ever depict Earth beyond its unspecified American Midwestern setting. Hell, the headquarters for NASA are even conveniently located within driving distance from Cooper’s (the protagonist) house, albeit in a secret bunker. It doesn’t show much of this area beyond Cooper’s family and home. At one point he visits his daughter Murphy’s school, and is distraught to learn that in this society they teach that the moon landings were a hoax. Cooper and his daughter Murphy go to a baseball game, where the New York Yankees are barnstorming against local scrubs.

It’s an odd way to depict an apocalypse. It’s effective at getting across how things have changed for this one part of the world, but as “show don’t tell” goes, it shows us a small portion and tells us to take its word that the rest of the world is the same way. Children of Men (my favorite apocalyptic film) never ventures out of England, but in its opening sequence accomplishes more (showing the scope of the collapse of civilization, the culture that is evolving out of it, and the draconian government that has risen to control that culture) in significantly less time.

Ultimately, Interstellar‘s apocalypse is on the scale it needs to be for the movie to function. And that is fine. But as the dust continued to gather over the film’s Earthly anchor, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going on beyond the farmhouse and down the road a ways.

2. Lost in Space

The vastness of space provides endless narrative possibility. Alien told us that no one could hear us scream. 2001:A Space Odyssey turned space into a nearly religious experience, a stage for the unfolding of life in a manner completely foreign to that on earth. Gravity might well have scared off a generation of potential astronauts with this shot alone.

But all too often space is shorthand for “action-adventure set in the future”: the setting is less significant than the plot. And that’s a shame. Few locations so easily evoke awe as space.

Interstellar often aims for- and achieves- reverie. The vastness of the mission is characters are going on- exploring new planets, studying black holes- is never shortchanged. Space is never Nolan’s MacGuffin, a convenient excuse to move the plot.

As much as I enjoyed the film’s take on exploring wormholes and black holes and 3-D representations of 5-D, it was actually the scene on the planet that seemed to consist entirely of tsunamis that inspired the most awe in me. Space is vast, yes, but it is also filled with extraordinary locations that are so rarely given their due in science fiction. There are too many Earth 2’s in science fiction. I love that Nolan took a familiar concept (an ocean planet) and then turned it on its head, making it incomprehensibly terrifying and foreign. Subtle alterations to things with which we are already familiar can make them deeply sinister.

After the escapade on Planet Tsunami, I wondered if Interstellar might bring to life that aspect of Mass Effect that I enjoyed: planetary exploration, with the vast possibilities of actual space as the only limits.

That turned out not to be the case: the movie features one more planetary escapade that ends up focusing more on fisticuffs than fearsome terrain. That’s not inherently criticism, but it is an example of perhaps my biggest problem with Interstellar: it has big dreams, but it lacks commitment. That can be a passing annoyance when the movie suggests that it will be Around the Worlds in 80 Minutes/26 Years. But when it tries to inject something deeper into the story and then backs off, it is significantly more disappointing.

3. Voices through a Distant Wormhole

I keep telling you about 5 Centimeters Per Second, the exquisite anime by Makoto Shinkai. However, I don’t believe I have ever mentioned his first work, a 25-minute film called Voices of a Distant Star. Its plot is simple enough: in 2047, a teenage girl is recruited to fight in a war against an invading alien race. The war will take her deep into space, separating her from her boyfriend. She sends him messages regularly, but thanks to the (for this person with an English degree) mind-boggling relationship between space and time, the messages arrive days, then months, then years apart. By the end of the film, he is an adult, still getting messages his girlfriend sent him when they were both 16.

It’s an effective enough story. It’s not as polished or perceptive as 5 Centimeters Per Second. It rests on its plot, rather than mining the characters the way 5 CM does. But the simple power of its narrative makes Voices of a Distant Star memorable. I’ve been waiting for a filmmaker this angle; the way space travel would wipe out the modern Earthly comfort of instant communication wherever you are; and really explore it.

Interstellar announces the daunting relationship between time and relativity in a Chekov’s Gun moment; as soon as Cooper descends onto Planet Tsunami, we know that Murphy will soon be played by Jessica Chastain.

Nolan grants these scenes their due significance… in parts. Matthew McConaughey is brilliant during a scene where Cooper returns from a mission that has taken just a few hours to watch 26 years of increasingly despairing messages from his children. The scene is one of the film’s best, thanks largely to Nolan’s trust in McConaughey to carry it.

But Interstellar’s time games raised a minor pet peeve of mine: when the edges of a story are more interesting than the center, and the storyteller doesn’t seem to recognize it. The narrative potential of the relationship between time and relativity is immense, but in the film it never becomes more than a plot device. As the movie’s plot unfolds, it serves its purpose and then steps aside.

Again: this isn’t necessarily a problem, but bear with me. The fourth member of the film’s planetary exploration team is named Romilly, played by David Gyasi. He stays behind on the ship while the other three members of the team head down to a planet that, thanks to its proximity to a black hole, will experience accelerated time. In other words, Romilly will age with the rest of the galaxy. He will wait for 26 years. When he greets the team with the news that so many years have passed upon their return to the ship, I was rightly astonished. That’s one hell of a narrative bomb to drop into the movie. And I wanted to know more about him. What was it like to wait in isolation for 26 years? How did he cope? What is is like for a person to go through that? And to my great disappointment, Nolan showed little interest in exploring this narrative thread. Romilly had a purpose to serve: to announce that lots of time has passed, which effects Cooper and Anne Hathaway’s Brand emotionally because they have family on Earth. Romilly’s tale is just a means to an end.

And that aggravated me. Nolan is excellent at coming up with interesting material, but he struggles on occasion to form it into the most interesting possible narrative. Interstellar didn’t necessarily have to follow every narrative thread to its end, but for a film that rarely seemed to know what its primary narrative purpose was, I would have liked for its peaks to be its most interesting aspects.

4. Boldly Go Where Many Have Gone Before

It’s been a while since this movie came out, so I feel comfortable speaking freely about Matt Damon’s surprise cameo. Damon plays Dr. Mann, a legendary scientist who led a mission to explore one of the planets NASA targeted as a potential target for colonization. The mission went awry, and Mann was forced into an emergency hibernation, hoping that someday someone would find him.

The Dr. Mann sequence of the film begins as the film’s most surprising turn and evolves into its most familiar one. Once the shock of Damon’s cameo wears off, we begin to appreciate his performance. Dr. Mann is lonely, desperate, and we sense he’s no longer all there. There’s a sinister undertone to the scenes that pay off in a strange fashion. I wasn’t upset when Mann and Cooper were suddenly grappling with one another as Dr. Mann tried to maintain a significant cover-up. At the same time, as the camera pulled back and showed two pinpricks of actors wrestling on rocky terrain, I wracked my brain to try to figure out how the hell a movie so in awe of the possibilities of the galaxy had gotten to a point where two of our biggest movie stars were wrestling in space suits.

5. Plucking the Chords of Time

The greatest pleasures of Interstellar all involve some willingness to risk coming off as silly for the sake of taking a big leap. Let’s travel right into a wormhole! Hell, let’s throw ourselves right into a black hole! Let’s make the black hole a 5th dimension that has a 3D aspect to it that turns our lifetimes into little strings of light that you can peer into an manipulate!

Good science fiction should be bold and silly, in great measures. My favorite sci-fi film is Atom Egoyan’s Dark City, in which alien worms move around in trenchcoat-wearing human cadavers and psychic powers take the form of animated beams eminating from the forehead. There comes a point in sci-fi when you inevitably venture into unknown territory. It’s fun when storytellers use this territory as a playground for their imaginations. Yes, the visual of Matthew McConaughey floating around the gigantic loom of his own life was a bit goofy and on the nose, but you know what? I appreciated that the movie didn’t back down from the challenge of its own ending. The plot raises countless questions and the ending attempts valiantly to answer them. That it does so with narrative and visual audacity should be applauded.

Interstellar didn’t leave me thrilled to my core, but there was a zeal under its surface that consistently shone through its larger shortcomings. Every once in a while, that zeal burst through. The trip through the wormhole, for example, or the tsunami sequence, or when we finally venture in to the center of a black hole. Truth be told, I don’t know of Christoper Nolan could have made a great film with this material. It was all so unwieldy. There was no underlying structure like the caper movie format for Inception, or the pre-existing comic book templates of Batman to provide support for his many ideas. Interstellar could have used that sort of backbone. It is a beautiful journey that never quite figures out where it wants to go, or how it’s going to get there.

 

Over the Garden Wall: an autumnal masterpiece from Cartoon Network

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Over the Garden Wall is so good, so successful at everything it sets out to accomplish, that it is something of a miracle. I cannot fathom a better TV show debuting this year.

Over the Garden Wall tells the story of two brothers- the teenage Wirt and the much younger Greg- who have gotten lost in a forest. They are trying to find their way home. Early on, they run into a talking bluebird named Beatrice. Yes, this all sounds familiar. This show’s roots are in the fables and folklore that we seem to absorb through osmosis as children. This is a show with singing, magic, talking animals, witches, and more than the occasional sinister creature in the shadows. It contains elements that will be familiar to anyone who was a child. It’s how it uses those elements that makes it so special.

Many reviewers have given in to the temptation to describe Over the Garden Wall as whimsical, but it rarely struck me as such. Yes, Wirt is inexplicably dressed like a gnome, and Greg has a teapot on his head, and yes Beatrice is a talking bluebird. But Wirt’s and Greg’s costumes are given rational explanations in due time and Beatrice is neither a friendly Disney-style sidekick nor a snarky Shrek knockoff. She’s blunt and critical in a big sisterly sort of way and we grow to like her because her story is as compelling as any in the show. And it never stops telling compelling stories.

There is precious little exposition in this show, both for the plot at large and episode to episode. Each episode is largely contained to a single-serving of a new setting. In the first episode, the brothers end up in the home of a strange man living in the woods, warning them of a sinister creature he calls the Beast. Other settings include a town populated by sapient pumpkins; a sprawling, apparently haunted mansion owned by a tea mogul; and a steamboat transporting some very well-dressed frogs to their annual mud hibernation. This narrative approach is extremely engaging, giving the plot a constant sense of headlong momentum, even as it takes it sweet time exploring each world in detail.

And lord, what detail.

Over the Garden Wall looks so good that you could choose just about any still and want to frame it. It is autumnal in the best ways, alive with color and character.

The show frequently uses old-fashioned motifs, but they rarely seem to be calling attention to themselves. Techniques like the iris lens above are a callback to silent movies, but it also gives the opening sequence of the show a dreamlike quality that sets the tone before the story starts.

Before each episode, I found myself looking forward to simply seeing where Wirt, Greg, and Beatrice would go next. Each location is cool on the surface, and only get cooler as their layers peel back. In one episode, they end up in a creepy cottage where a teenage girl is held captive by her fearsome Auntie Whispers. Auntie Whispers looks like how Yubaba from Spirited Away might appear after spending a few years bathing in formaldehyde. But she is not simply a grotesque. Auntie Whispers ends up being one of the most interesting of the show’s vast roster of side characters, and the episode’s story takes a turn that is surprising, scary, and incredibly satisfying.

Another episode features a schoolhouse full of animals, being taught by a lovelorn human schoolmarm. In this show’s style, there is almost no setup preparing us for this setting, but eventually there is an explanation for it that somehow ends up making sense. One of the show’s delights is how heedlessly it explores its settings, and how thorough that exploration is.

There are plenty of musical sequences in Over the Garden Wall, and they are just about all delightful. Well, if not delightful, then excellent. This scene is the sort that would have haunted my dreams a kid:

That is a gloriously creepy 30 seconds. I don’t intend to show too much more of this show out of context, but here’s another, completely different song from another episode:

Over the Garden Wall uses music to set the tone its episodes beautifully. The first song is as jarring and disturbing as the second is jolly and fun. The first song creates a sense of deep unease. It’s downright trippy. The second helps define Greg as a character: infectiously optimistic and fond of nonsensical, improvised wordplay. The show navigates between these tones (and many more in between) effortlessly. At times it is pure delight and others genuinely frightening and all the while we get to know its characters a little more at a time until we are completely invested in their journey.

For all the rightful plaudits Over the Garden Wall receives for its animation and music, it is as good as it is in the same ways that any good show succeeds: strong characters, quality writing, excellent performances. The show’s creator, Patrick McHale, is yet another graduate of the Adventure Time/Misadventures of Flapjack school of animators who continually churn out outstanding shows (see also: Gravity Falls, Steven Universe, and Bee and Puppycat). Over the Garden Wall’s writing team includes a number of the best Adventure Time alums, including AT creator Pendleton Ward and alums Natasha Allegri and Cole Sanchez.

Wirt, Greg, and Beatrice are brought to life with outstanding voice acting by Elijah Wood, Collin Dean, and Melanie Lynskey. Wood’s voice has a constant tremble of harried anxiety, warm towards his brother, defensive towards Beatrice, and always at his wits end. Dean is charming as Greg, who is one of the best written child characters I’ve seen on TV in a good long time. It’s difficult for adults to write convincing children. Greg is not simply a fount of energy. Like many young children, he is endlessly curious about the world around him and equally lost in his own imagination. \

Beatrice is the show’s biggest scene-stealer, a slightly amoral bluebird (I did enjoy writing that phrase) whose clashes with Wirt slowly evolve into the sort of affection that comes with deep mutual empathy. Lynskey’s performance is warm but not fuzzy. Beatrice is the show’s most conflicted character, and Lynskey’s voice seems naturally laden with gravity, buoyant as it can be.

Each character is quietly dynamic in their own ways. The show has no use for preachy moralizing; its characters’ revelations are deeply personal, rooted in their relationships with each other and how far they realize they are willing to go for each others’ sakes. And I was just as invested in them by the end.

Over the Garden Wall billed itself as a “5-night Mystery Adventure”, and that’s apt. The show’s sense of mystery is not a parlor crime novel, but something more childlike. It reminded me very much of Spirited Away, a film that observed a fantasy world from a outsider, child’s eye view, with every new and amazing sight raising a new set of mysteries. With 10, 11-minute episodes, you can easily watch this show in its entirety over the course of the week in 22 minute chunks. Or you can take it all in at once (since all the episodes add up to less than two hours), and have the best fantasy movie experience of the year. You can buy the whole show on iTunes for ten bucks, and it is worth every penny and then some. If you have cable, you can find it On Demand. However you watch Over the Garden Wall, just make damn sure you watch it.

Edit: While looking for other reviews of this show I realized that I gave this post almost the exact same title as this article on Bloody Disgusting. It was a coincidence, but something still worth rectifying as that article came out before I posted mine. I have now changed the title.

Big Hero 6 and the pleasures of animated superhero movies

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My favorite superhero film remains The Incredibles. No superhero film before it or since has so deftly balanced so thoroughly engaging a story with an unrelenting sense of fun. Oh, there have been contenders for its belt. Heath Ledger’s performance as he Joker in The Dark Knight is one of those pitch-perfect turns that elevates the entire movie by setting a tone that reverberates throughout the whole film, like Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. As someone who has never hopped on the “Batman is the best superhero” bandwagon, The Dark Knight won me over by being the Joker’s movie.

This summer produced two films which announced their candidacies for my “favorite superhero movie” mantle: Captain American: The Winter Solider and Guardians of the Galaxy. Winter Soldier was a film blessedly devoid of plot excess, lean and thrilling. Superhero movies that trust in there lore- in this case, resting on Steve Rodgers’s lingering sadness over Bucky Barnes’s “death”- to drive the story without relying on excessive exposition are immensely satisfying. Make no mistake: Winter Soldier has more than its share of cheerful and goof moments, but it frequently ventures into shadows.

On the other hand, Guardians of the Galaxy was unabashedly goofy. In Chris Pratt it found the perfect star for this approach. Pratt has been one of the most charming actors on television for years. In Parks and Recreation, which boasts one TV’s most talented comic ensembles, he is frequently the standout performer. A lesser actor might have turned Peter Quill into a poor man’s Tony Stark, a repository of sass and snark and not much else. Pratt injects an sincere, just-a-bit sensitive core behind the smartassery. Pratt’s performance elevates the film much like Ledger’s elevated his, just in a different direction. Guardians of the Galaxy is a fun film, but without Pratt it could easily have teetered into a constant series of reminders that we weren’t supposed to take it too seriously. In an age dominated by sarcasm and irony, Pratt’s comic gift is how thoroughly he doesn’t break the fourth wall, and how convincingly he makes just about any setting feel like home.

But still, there was something missing in both those films that The Incredibles had, that special something that elevated The Incredibles to a higher tier: the ability to have fun with their material while still taking it seriously, and effortlessly changing gears between both tones without missing a bear. Having one overriding tone is not a flaw, but when sorting out my personal hierarchies, it can be a deciding factor. The Incredibles is no less interesting or engaging to me than The Dark Knight and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, no less willing to have fun with its material than Guardians of the Galaxy. But it has more fun with its material than those first two films and none of the arms-length self-awareness of the latter. The Increidbles is as earnest in its convictions as the 1978 version of Superman or the 2002 version of Spider-Man, only with none of their corniness.

I felt some of that same energy watching Big Hero 6. It’s not as good as The Incredibles or even Winter Soldier. Butt is the first superhero film since The Incredibles to take its material seriously without a stone face, to radiate with the joy of simply being fun without being obligated to find the material silly. And that both The Incredibles and Big Hero 6 are animated plays a big part in this sort of appeal.

I love animation for its ability to make any world feel fully alive. A live action film can be undone with poor special effects. Our point of view, no matter how otherworldly the plot might be, is always going to be rooted in reality. Sam Raimi’s 2002 version of Spider-Man suffered mightily for this; at times Spidey looked so rubbery that it broke the trance. Animated movies can render lo-fi universes without worrying about this effect- the immersiveness of the world tied to the scope of the artist’s vision. A literally sketchy film like Don Hertzfeldt’s Rejected is no less convincing in depicting its strange little universe than a technological wonder like How to Train Your Dragon 2, because realism is not the goal with animation. On the flip side, a live action rendering of Dragon would likely be much more difficult to do convincingly (considering how much of the Dragon’s emotional core relies on humans and dragons communicating directly, something that feels perfectly normal in animation). And a live action version of Rejected wouldn’t be Rejected, so let’s not even go there.

I have long felt that animation is an ideal format for superhero movies. The easy immersion into any world of the artist’s choosing, that 1:1 translation of an artist’s vision to the audience’s eyes, is what has made animation such an effective medium for fantasy. With animation, there’s no such thing as suspension of disbelief, because reality does not apply.

But in the modern (let’s say beginning with Raimi’s Spider-Man) era of superhero movies, The Incredibles had long been the only animated offering.

And lord, what a good offering it was. Right from the opening, its fleshes out the core cast of characters and the rules of the world they live in with a breezy sense of humor that nonetheless sets the stage for a meaty plot. We likely wouldn’t accept a Superman movie that opened with Superman shaking a cat free from a tree and defeating an evil mime on his way to his wedding, and then getting sued after the fact. But in a world as stylized as Brad Bird’s creation, every tone he aimed for fit. The goofiness was exactly what we expected from a movie with a futuristic 1960s aesthetic. The serious moments are earned from the realistic, at times unnervingly sad and human family drama that builds these characters.

A live action movie forcing actors to navigate these narrative waters would have a difficult time avoiding tonal dissonance. When a live-action movie or show adopts an “everything goes” style of storytelling, we call it “cartoonish”. It tends to be strictly comedy, shows like 30 Rock and Malcolm in the Middle.  Navigating across tones and genres is doable in live-action, but difficult, requiring a razor-sharp directorial focus and vision, and actors game for the challenge. Films like Fargo and Dr. Strangelove are classics for a reason. But when such a story is animated, the material is much easier to digest, and more easily applicable to simpler genre films.

Big Hero 6 doesn’t quite pack the narrative punch of The Incredibles. Brad Bird’s film was as much a drama about the relationships within its titular family as it was a superhero movie, which is what helped make it so good. But Big Hero 6 does benefit from the same narrative freedom granted to it by its medium. The first major action sequence in the movie is a delirious chase sequence through the streets of “San Fransokyo”* The film’s primary villain is a mysterious figure in a kabuki mask, who moves atop a massive swarm of completely mind-controlled microbots that act as a sort of sapient, free-flowing silly putty. It’s a wonderful bit of character design, and in a superhero film universe increasingly filled with indistinct and boring villains, it was terrific just to see one who looked so damn cool.**

The scene has a reckless silliness that reminded me of some of the best Pixar action scenes- the door chase in Monsters Inc., the paper chase in Ratatouille, and my favorite, the 100 Mile Dash scene in The Incredibles. Yes, they could all technically have been done in live action, but there’s a joy in seeing a sinister figure atop a flowing black mountain towering over a cityscape and experiencing absolutely no dissonance: for that image to be as organic to the world of the movie as the heroes who are being chased. To some degree, we are always aware the special effects are special effects. But in good animation, nothing feels like a special effect. Everything feels like a part of the film’s reality.

*I admit, much more could have been done with this setting. Ostensibly a hybrid of two of the most visually distinct cities in the world, in the movie it comes across as San Francisco with occasional superficial Japanese motifs. For example, the Golden Gate Bridge has pagodas.

**While the best villains have backstories as interesting as any hero, I like to employ what I call the T-1000 rule now and then: A villain consisting of nothing but menace and a great visual design can be spectacular when done right. Technically, this might better be called the Darth Vader rule, given that that describes Vader in the first Star Wars film to a T, but it stopped applying to him the moment he uttered the word “father”. 

Big Hero 6 lacks a truly compelling story for its villain, but it ended up being so much fun that I could forgive it that. It incorporates many of the expected elements of both superhero and Disney movies (tragic first acts, cuddly sidekicks) but they are seamlessly integrated. The other people who make of the team of six (Go-Go, Honey Lemon, Wasabi, and Fred) are all surprisingly distinct, and given plenty of character despite the limited runtime. Baymax is a delightful character, aided by a gentle and powerful voice performance by Scott Adsit. The protagonist, Hiro, is relateable and likeable even when he’s going through (usually completely understandable) bad moods. Their interactions are the heart of the movie and yes, it’s the most Disney film to stick its hero with a cuddly sidekick, but this hero and this sidekick felt fresh and new. The film relies a lot of physical comedy. Not pure slapstick, but the sight of the giant puffball that is Baymax trying to move around the world when he was clearly designed not to leave a room. Again, animation enhances the appeal of these scenes significantly. Baymax is every bit as normal resident in this world as Hiro. It’s easier to appreciate his physical comedy as a character, and not as a prop or an effect.

The Iron Giant is probably the finest example of a movie using the unique advantages of combining human and non-human characters in the same universe. The way that film continually came up with ways to creatively use space to create scenes with the Giant (Brad Bird again; where have you gone, dude?) was inspired, effortlessly flowing from desperate comedy to poignant drama.

Big Hero 6 still has a knack for physical comedy, though. A partially deflated Baymax is inherently hilarious, like an old basset hound rolling on its back, rolls of loose skin happily flopping everywhere. And his limited movement makes for some terrific tension in the early scenes that is easily combined with slapstick humor; for example at one point, Hiro and Baymax need to make a quick escape that’s impeded by Baymax’s inability to easily squeeze through a window. It’s a simple visual gag, but a funny one. It’s not quite the range of The Iron Giant, but the principles are the same: when you can easily integrate physically creative character, as animation allows you to do so easily, the possibilities for scenes that are just fun are endless, which for a superhero movie can be a priceless quality.

Big Hero 6 doesn’t quite have the deft control of its emotional range that makes for the upper echelon animated films. Its story is more broad strokes than the little details that make The Incredibles and The Iron Giant really special. But it has all the usual elements in place for a perfectly fun Disney film. And yet I enjoyed it more than that. Because superhero films that are built on earnest joy are unfortunately rare in this new golden age for the genre. And Big Hero 6 was the most pure fun I’ve had at the movies since Pacific Rim, another big action movie as goofy as it was sincere. I treasure movies like that, because they know that “fun” is not a synonym for “mindless”, that you have the most fun with any activity when you are invested in it. And both of the animated superhero films of this era have been so effortlessly fun without compromising their sincerity. I can only hope the third one comes out in less than ten years.

My five most memorable theatre moments

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It’s been a while since my last post. Work sidelined me for most of October, and my hopes to marathon and review horror films during Halloween got nuked by a nasty case of food poisoning.

In the meantime, I am soon going to watch and review La Dolce Vita for my next review roulette this week. However, I realize that, aside from my tribute to Robin Williams, review roulettes have been the overwhelming bulk of my content these last few months, which says more about my blog’s lack of content than anything else.

To amend this, I am going to start putting out some more fun, less criticism based posts just to shoot the breeze about my love of movies, games and television, which I did a lot more of when I began this blog.

This post is going to be about one of the most significant aspects of moviegoing that I think doesn’t always gets enough mention in criticism or cultural debates. I’m talking about movies as real-time theatrical experiences. When you see a film for the first time on a big screen, you are not always parsing through its bits and pieces. Sometimes, the right movie with the right crowd can be an electrifying experience in ways that don’t really have a place in traditional film criticism. The numerous factors that come into play that lead to a truly enjoyable cinematic experience are among the purest joys of moviegoing.

So with all that out of the way, here are my top five movie theatre experiences:

5. Gravity

While I was a longtime skeptic of 3-D (after the 3-D version Beauty and the Beast turned one of the prettiest of all films into a blurry, literal eyesore, I was kind of spiteful towards it) Life of Pi convinced me that the form could absolutely add to a film, rather than simply not detract. However, it was Gravity that converted me completely, convincing me that it was possible to make a film that almost demanded to be seen in as grand a setting as possible.

While Life of Pi had fun playing with the dimensions of shots (like that exquisite image looking up from the bottom of a swimming pool at the blue sky, with swimmers in between) Gravity at times felt only a few inches away. This was no gimmick: that long close-up of Sandra Bullock trying to gather her wits after flying off into space is much more effective by us feel like we’re pressed up against her helmet. The 3-D consistently created a closeness to the characters on screen, which was important for a film set largely in a void.

Gravity left me breathless and exhilarated. I still listen to that track that plays over its final scene to get pumped up. I can’t think of another movie that has ever left me so drained and limp with glee, and so much of its impact stemmed from how overwhelming it was on that enormous screen.

4. The Hurt Locker

I can’t say The Hurt Locker is one of my favorite films. It didn’t hold up on a second viewing all that well. I like it, but Renner’s protagonist is reckless to the point of unbelievability, which sort of undercut my enthusiasm about the rest of the story. However, this post is entirely about theatrical experiences, and my seeing the The Hurt Locker for the first time was one of the most enjoyable theatrical experiences of my life.

I was visiting my sister in New York in July 2009, and we were walking around late one night when we walked past a movie theatre. We stopped by to see what was playing, and sure enough, a screening of The Hurt Locker- fresh, new and just starting to build the buzz that would lead it to a Best Picture Oscar. We bought tickets and went it. The theatre was small, cozy, and packed to the brim. And damn if we weren’t all ready to be thrilled by a movie. I firmly believe that some films demand some level of audience participation. Not necessarily Rocky Horror Picture Show level acting along, but at least some level of the audience understanding the effect the movie is going for and letting the movie have that effect on them. The Hurt Locker is one such movie. Its logic often falls apart with scrutiny, but on that night no one was scrutinizing it. Everyone in the theatre had a vice grip on their armrests. Everyone fed off everyone else’s energy, and the result was one of the most beautifully tense moviegoing experiences of my life. While closer examinations of The Hurt Locker have since dampened my enthusiasm for it, that first viewing will always stick with me.

3. Princess Mononoke

Not all great theatrical experiences are first viewings. I had watched Princess Mononoke- my de facto favorite film/inaugural member of the top platform of my all-time movie pyramid- twenty times between 2003 and 2010. After the twentieth viewing, I vowed the 21st would be on the big screen. In 2012, the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge showed a marathon of Studio Ghibli films, including Princess Mononoke. Perhaps there was nothing for me to learn by seeing it on a big screen, but only in the sense that there’s technically no difference between seeing a great painting in person and looking at a photograph of it. Princess Mononoke is one of the great works of visual creativity in film history, a work of art by one of our greatest living artists at his absolute prime. To finally see it in a format that allowed it to envelop me, to see its beautiful images in their full splendor, was to finally make one of my most cherished dreams come true.

2. Jurassic Park

I don’t think I was aware of movies as a cultural thing, as something not just bigger than my living room but rather big in a way that connected people around the world, until I saw Jurassic Park. Leading up to it, I was a five-year-old in the full throes of my dinosaur phase. I think every kid goes through that phase when they realize that there were once these gargantuan reptiles that ruled the earth and for a year or two nothing else registers but dinosaurs. And here was this new movie whose entire point seemed to be “Dinosaurs are the coolest” and you can bet your ass I was there on day one, lined up with my dad and my big sister. And unlike previous movies, the line for this one was really, really long. I remember walking all the way around the back of the theatre to get to the back of the line when it clicked: everyone here; kids and old people and everything in between; is here to see Jurassic Park. It was a thrilling new reality for me. Movies were bigger than my little five-year-old orbit. They united us all.

That alone would chart this film, but really, does any film from the 90s carry quite so much nostalgic sway from our first cinematic viewings as Jurassic Park. It is a film constructed from Big Moments, and I remember my reactions to all of them. Steven Spielberg has been met as much derision as praise over the years, but I remain convinced that he is one of the few commercial filmmakers to really grasp how awe-inspiring movies are to children, and to bottle those feelings and put them in movies where people of all ages can feel them again. Yes, he has lost that deft touch, but it was never more present than in Jurassic Park.

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

The year 2003 was crucial for my love of movies. Seeing Spirited Away made me realize that movies meant something much much more to me than passive entertainment.  I was active on a message board that provided a spring of cheerful, welcoming people from around the world who were all too happy to chat movies with an overeager teenager who rather clearly had too much time on my hands and precious few similar outlets. I started reading books about movies voraciously, starting with Louis Gianetti’s Understanding Movies, an invaluable primer for cinematic language for newcomers. I was falling in love with movies, and none had my heart quite like The Lord of the Rings.

I had been a bit lukewarm about The Fellowship of the Ring when I saw it initially, but subsequent viewings and numerous chats with LOTR nuts had converted me into a true believer with The Two Towers. When the time came for The Return of the King, I felt like a pilgrim making the final ascent to a spiritual nirvana. Yes, that is embarrassingly overwrought. I was sixteen. Everything I felt was likely to be embarrassingly overwrought.

There was nothing particularly interesting about the screening itself. Packed theatre at the local mall. No, it was just the perfect movie for me at that time, one I knew I was going to love completely, a masterful spectacle that completely fulfilled every lofty expectation I had for it. The best theatrical experiences can be defined by many things, but sometimes, they’re defined by the perfect movie at the perfect time.

Review Roulette: Selection #9

The list:
Night of the Living Dead
Dark City
Raise the Red Lantern
Ratatouille
Children of Men
Yojimbo
Being John Malkovich
La Dolce Vita
Rear Window
Arsenic and Old Lace
Casablanca
Paths of Glory
Only Yesterday
The Conformist
Singin’ in the Rain

The random selection:

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Replacing La Dolce Vita on the list:

Pacific Rim

Unlocking Millennium Actress, Satoshi Kon’s Masterpiece (Review Roulette: #8)

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“After the full moon it starts to wane. But with the 14th night, there’s still tomorrow. And hope.”

This line of dialogue has resonated with me for years. When I first saw Millennium Actress, I was startled by the places it took me. As a 16 year old starting to fall in love with movies, here was an animated film like no film I had ever seen. At times it’s a frenzied chase through Japanese history, at times a slapstick comedy, and at times like the scene that gives us the quote above: sincere, contemplative, and bittersweet.

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The line is spoken by a painter. He is a revolutionary, on the run from a fierce looking army officer with a scar on his eye.  He finds refuge for the night thanks to a teenage girl named Chiyoko Fujiwara. She finds him wounded, takes pity on him, and hides him in the storage shed of her family’s store. Chiyoko and the painter share one night together, one that consists entirely of quiet and earnest conversation. He tells her of the beautiful winters in his home town. He says he will take her there to repay her for her help. He leaves her a key as a thank you present. He is gone in the morning. Their one meeting serves as core from which Millennium Actress derives its boundless energy, as it takes us through Chiyoko’s life. She becomes an actress, and then a major movie star. She marries a successful filmmaker. And she never stops looking for the painter. She holds on to the key like a relic.

The film opens on a documentary filmmaker named Genya and his harried cameraman named Kyoji trekking up a very tall hill to Chiyoko’s home. She is old, her former film studio has just closed, and Genya (an unabashed fan of Chiyoko and her films) wants to get an interview with her for his documentary about the studio. They start to talk, Kyoji films, and the movie begins to unfold.

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If this all sounds straightforward enough, buckle up.  Chiyoko’s stories from her life weave imperceptibly in and out of memories from her movies. Scenes repeat themselves, in different eras, sometimes clearly on film sets, sometimes clearly from Chiyoko’s life, often apparently both. Genya and Kyoji are always right there in every jump through time and reality. Genya plays along, sometimes inserting himself as a character, or weeping at how a moment that is clearly from Chiyoko’s real life made him cry thirty times. Kyoji, mercifully for the audience, is confused as he is jerked through time and reality, providing a running commentary of dismay.

Confused? Don’t be. Millennium Actress very quickly reveals itself as a film about feelings, not facts. We are following Chiyoko’s emotional quests, not a linear story of her life. Her search for the painter is not a quest in any traditional sense. It occupies her soul and affects her life time and time again.

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I love when films take radical approaches to how we perceive memories. In my piece about The Tree of Life, I mentioned how we don’t recall our pasts in perfect, chronological detail. The Tree of Life presented memories of a childhood in sun-drenched fragments that aimed less to tell a story than to bathe us in feelings. Millennium Actress takes an even more audacious approach, disregarding chronology and realism almost entirely.

But Millennium Actress is not science fiction. Chiyoko is telling Genya her life story. Genya is a huge fan of Chiyoko’s movies. Together, their memories might very well combine create something that looks like this movie. That Kyoji is very much afraid for his life as he is dragged through time is another matter for another time.

Millennium Actress was the second film by animator Satoshi Kon. His first was the psychological thriller Perfect Blue. That film was a hot mess in the best possible way, a headlong tumble into a genre rarely broached by animators. In Perfect Blue, a pop star turned actress deals with a violent stalker who is angry that she has abandoned her music career. The film, like Millennium Actress, deliberately blurred the lines between showbusiness and reality. But while Perfect Blue used this device as a thriller would, to disorient the audience and draw us into the world of a character growing detached from reality, Millennium Actress is more versatile. One montage of Chiyoko’s film career at first simply seems to be an exercise in style (a beautiful one at that) until it suddenly segues into something far more serious.

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The movie continually informs its narrative during its forays into Chiyoko’s memories. And when Kon makes it clear that a scene is depicting an actual event in Chiyoko’s life, those moments are all the more potent as a result. Consider a wordless scene where Chiyoko finds a gift that the painter left for her in the rubble of her post-war home. Or a scene late in the film when Genya confronts the scar-eyed general to learn more about the painter. The general pops up throughout the film like a specter of Chiyoko’s fears, but he is all too real a person, now broken by a lifetime of cruelty. These scenes are simple but overwhelming in their power. Millennium Actress builds to moments of heartbreak by showing us the contents of Chiyoko’s heart, rather than a point by point rundown of her history. We may not know the precise chronology of her life, but we are fluent in who she is.

Millennium Actress envelops you and then flies. It is a roller-coaster ride through memories and feelings, and it knows that those two things are inextricably linked in ways that movies all too often forget. Its is heartbreaking and uplifting, often at the same time, in ways that only a movie about an entire life can be. Chiyoko looks back through her life, one with seemingly far more regret than triumph. She dedicated so much of it to a chase that seemed destined to be fruitless. And all she can do is smile. It was the chase, she says, that she really loved.

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