Anime listicle: the utopian workplace comedy

As I’ve written previously, I don’t have the emotional patience to watch anything that isn’t fairly light and diverting, so even my anime diet is suffering reduced portions of the action and science fiction shows I used to consume in large gulps. Though there haven’t been any new shows like this in a few seasons, it occurred to me a while back that there’s a certain type of comedy that I find to be particularly appealing. Broadly speaking, it’s a slice of life show, but one that centers on the workplace as the unifying institution in the characters’ lives. There is almost always some sort of blossoming romance threading through the series, and there is almost always a self-conscious absurdity to the show—usually in the form of a character’s simply implausible eccentricity, perhaps in the form of a supernatural element. In any case, the most important thing about all these shows is a certain vibe that persists in greater or lesser degrees.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how to characterize this vibe. Categorizing it by the shows’ premise—the “workplace comedy”—doesn’t really capture it, just as the “school club comedy” doesn’t really capture the range of comedies anchored in after school clubs. Categorizing it by other (sub)generic classifications—farce, screwball, romantic comedy—also don’t quite suffice. Those labels fit, as do adjectives like “zany” or “charming.” They just don’t capture it. In fact, the closest American analogy I can think of to what I dig about these shows is Parks and Recreation, which is certainly a workplace comedy with farcical and romantic elements, and which is frequently both zany and charming. Parks and Rec also grows out of a long tradition of workplace comedies like Taxi, WKRP in Cincinnati, Wings, Newsradio, and, obviously, The Office. Perhaps the most characteristic thing I can say about the vibe is that it is strangely utopian. Think about it: as much as the characters in these shows annoy the crud out of each other—to the point of being arguably dysfunctional—the truth is that the workplace is what provides these characters what is, as far as the audience can tell, the most important social network in their lives. The sitcom format also requires the minor conflicts of each episode largely to be resolved by the end of each episode, meaning that longstanding conflicts or resentments can be nursed for extended periods of time, but that there’s enough stability and human connection there to patch over those conflicts for at least another week.

Think about M*A*S*H, for instance. This show was entirely about the struggle of its characters to maintain their sanity and basic human decency in the middle of a war. People of good will can disagree over whether it travesties Robert Altman’s original film or if the shift toward dramedy in its later seasons was a bridge too far.[1] At heart, what really makes the show work is the genuine affection that the characters cultivated for them in the audience—characters that started out as caricatures (especially in the film, if I may be so bold), but who discovered and cultivated their shared humanity amidst the most deplorable conditions. In essence, these were all characters stuck in the workplace from hell, but it was either form a passable community or bust. So it was that 4077, with all its dysfunction, absurdity, and (debatably) bridge-too-far descents into melodramatic tearjerkery, was a utopian space created anew each week for just over twenty minutes.

The best of these workplace comedies acknowledge that many of the characters (if not most) have other important relationships in their lives, of course. Many supporting characters have significant others that remain with them for most of the series, or they have friends or social lives that are fulfilling in other ways. But these comedies acknowledge the often uncomfortable truth that we spend more time with our coworkers than we do with our families, and that many of our most important relationships—or at least most of the small, daily, mundane activities and events that give shape and definition to our inner lives—are rooted in the workplace. There’s something utopian about seeing a dozen-odd characters forge a long-lasting community over the course of however many weeks we spend with them.

In short, I love workplace comedies when they’re done well, and the anime shows that channel this particular vibe are especially good at plugging into a little something extra that we just can’t get with most live-action shows (although, again, Parks and Rec somehow managed to do it). The following shows are listed to give you a sense of the kind of show I mean. I’ve listed them in descending order, with the most paradigmatic show listed last. If there are any that I have neglected to mention, by all means let me know in the comments. I’m always happy to take recommendations.

Honorable Mention: Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun

A technical case could be made that this is mainly a high school club show. Hence the HM, rather than a place on the list. But it absolutely has the vibe of what I’m talking about. All the characters in this show are linked by their relationships with a single character: Nozaki, who happens to be (secretly, natch) a popular shojo mangaka. The big joke of the show is that this artist, whose comics are so in touch with the authentic romantic desires of his female readership, is just some clueless dude who takes inspiration from the dumb stuff that happens to the people he knows in real life—only when he translates his comically dense misunderstanding of the world into shojo tropes, it’s romantic gold. The real heart of the show, though, is the way Nozaki’s social network coalesces into its own pocket universe, one anchored in what amounts to his part-time job.

Honorable Mention: You’re Under Arrest!

I haven’t seen all the shows in this series, but I’m calling it a HM mostly because it doesn’t quite reach the absurd heights of most of the shows elsewhere on the list, and it’s not as straightforwardly a comedy (although it’s frequently quite funny). The premise is simple: the daily adventures of a pair of traffic cops in a Tokyo suburb. As with most of these shows, the premise is a useful anchor point for bouncing a lot of characters off each other and slowly developing their relationships over an extended period of time. It’s wonderful in its various incarnations; I’m just not certain it gives off the vibe I’m talking about.

How editors motivate their talent.

7.) The Comic Artist and His Assistants

For the most part, this is an amalgam of harem and ecchi tropes packed into mini-episodes. You’d be forgiven for thinking, initially, that it’s just another dumb show about a perverted manga artist who somehow manages to find himself in uncomfortable scenarios. It is that, certainly, and if mild fanservice and pantsu humor are your cuppa tea, this is a passable series. What elevates it is that it becomes much more about one of the assistants and the real value she gets out of working for her (pervert) boss than about the titular comic artist himself.

At that hour, this must be powerful magic indeed.

6.) The Devil Is a Part-Timer!

Ranked slightly below the next entry primarily because the workplace aspect of this show is so tertiary to… well, pretty much everything. That said, it’s a fantastic show. The title explains the central joke: when the Devil flees his parallel dimension after a group of heroes defeats him in battle, he winds up in our world. With only minimal reserves of magic left to draw on, the Devil is forced to get a part time job slinging burgers, and he decides to rebuild his empire on our Earth by working his way up the corporate ladder. A lot of this show is devoted to supernatural battles (all excellently done), but the core emotional trajectory is that of the demon king learning the value of life, work, and friends.

Every joke in this show’s quiver, captured in one image.

5.) I couldn’t become a hero, so I reluctantly decided to get a job.

Nearly contemporary to The Devil Is a Part Timer!, Yu-sibu is, in most ways, terribly inferior as a show. The jokes are telegraphed and uninspired, the central romance is beat-for-beat predictable, and there’s a ton of gratuitous fanservice. And when I saw “gratuitous,” I mean there’s an episode early on that’s barely the respectable side of tentacle porn. Once the show figures out that it’s a semi-earnest comedy about a commoner teaching a highborn how to value living like normal folk (albeit one that continues with gratuitous, if not-as-rapey, fanservice), it works a lot better. What saved this show for me was, at rock bottom, the workplace vibe. More than most shows on this list, it makes a point of emphasizing the hierarchical structure of the Japanese workplace and the web of mutual obligations that go with it. For that, its high-stakes, action-fantasy climax feels weirdly earned and sincere.

4.) Denki-Gai

While not a masterpiece, Denki-Gai is an almost perfect example of the kind of series I’m talking about. It takes place in a manga shop in Akibahara, so all the clerks are otaku of some variety. Like a lot of school club comedies, it spends perhaps a bit too much time making a spectacle of its characters’ eccentricities and not enough time delving into their lives outside of the shop—there’s a relatively thin supporting cast here that is not institutionally connected with otaku culture—but it’s warm and funny. The focus is on the developing relationships among the core cast of characters, and a lot of wacky situations are contrived in order to make that happen. Much as I hate retail work, this kind of show makes it seem reflexively appealing (and necessary) without losing sight of how hard it often is.

The Boss, obviously.

3.) Servant x Service

Based on a manga by the creator of Working!, SxS follows the misadventures of a group of civil servants. Of all the shows on this list, it’s probably the most consonant with the feel of similar American sitcoms: a bunch of wacky characters bouncing off one another in the confines of their cubicles, with occasional detours into the lives of patrons or tertiary friends, family, and acquaintances. While not exceptional, like Denki-Gai before it, it is an almost perfect distillation of the vibe I’m talking about into a single series. Given a sequel, I think it could expand on its core cast’s relationships pretty significantly without losing sight of the dynamics that make it so appealing. Oh, and the boss is either a talking rabbit or he uses a robotic rabbit as his at-work avatar.

2.) Polar Bear’s Cafe

One of the truly great anime series I’ve ever seen, Shirokuma Cafe is not entirely about or set in a workplace, but overflows with the vibe I’m talking about. Like any sitcom, it has a relatively small core cast, but like great anime comedies dating back to Urusei Yatsura, it expands continuously on its cast in a rather astonishing feat of sustained social worldbuilding. Also like Urusei Yatsura, Shirokuma Cafe has a perspective entirely peculiar to itself: the humor is wacky and deadpan—not unlike Wes Anderson’s adaptation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox—but also pretty chill. Every once in a while, it sneaks in just enough snark to leaven the genuinely utopian feel of the rest of the series.

It’s one of those shows that you can easily describe in a single sentence and never quite capture: Humans and talking animals who hang out together at a cafe get into lots of dumb adventures. If that appeals to you, great—go watch the show immediately. But the particular characters in this show each have distinctive personalities and their relationships really evolve over time. The evolution is slow, and is more of a constant deepening—a strengthening of community by routine—but it’s also peppered with delightful absurdity and eccentric characters whose eccentricity is (thankfully) not stereocopied from any number of twee, so-called “indie” films.

The titular cafe and a nearby zoo serve as the institutional loci for the show’s copious network of characters, but the core trio is the lazy Panda, the unctuous Penguin, and the puckish Polar Bear, who holds the entire community together with a mixture of trickster humor and patronly care. There’s truly no end of delights in this motley assemblage of personalities, which range from the bizarrely eccentric to the aggressively normal. The cherry on top is that, by the end of this series, you feel as though all the main characters have truly grown—not just grown, but grown together, with their ad hoc community having been utterly central to their (ever-so-slight) maturation.

Takanashi is, quite sadly, not entirely misunderstood by his contemporaries.

1.) Working!!

If every series were like Working!!, I suppose the original wouldn’t be so special. That said, the anime industry could stand to strive for a little more market saturation if every studio could take a crack at making at least one Working!!-esque show. This show tops the list for the reason that it is utterly paradigmatic of the kind of show I’m talking about. While the drama, such as it is, is driven primarily by romantic comedy subplots (basically, they’re all idiots who don’t know themselves well enough to be honest with the objects of their affection about how they feel), the appeal of this show is the obvious pleasure it takes in following the daily absurdities that crop up when a bunch of slightly peculiar people wind up working in the same place. Based on a four-panel manga by Karino Takatsu (also the creator of Servant x Service, remember?) Everyone has his or her quirk, none of which are totally debilitating, but which set them all up for the kind of codependent niches they can only really find with the particular social set at this particular place. Not to say they don’t all have lives outside the workplace—they do, and Working! does a masterful job layering them all into the misadventures of the workplace crew—but our perspective on those lives is always filtered through our judgment of the characters as formed through their interaction with each other at Wagnaria, the family restaurant in Hokkaido where they all work.

So far, there have been three series focused on the original cast, and a new series set somewhere else is apparently on the way. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay to a show like this is that it makes working part-time in the food service industry seem like an innately desirable vocation. Given that working part-time in food service very nearly destroyed my mental health, that’s a testament to just how wonderful this offbeat slice-of-life comedy is. And as a sidenote, the opening themes for each series are about the most devilishly infectious confections you’re likely to hear. Whether you’re seeking the vibe I’ve struggled to articulate in this list, you should probably check Working!! out as soon as possible.

_____

[1] Personally, I’m a much bigger fan of the show than the film. I’ve been slow to recognize Altman’s genius over the years, but I’ve always like M*A*S*H. Two factors militate against my preferring it over the show: 1.) I grew up watching the TV version, whereas I didn’t see the film until early adulthood; nostalgia is a fearsome force when it wishes to be. 2.) As I grow older, I find that I much prefer bleeding-heart sentiment to the arch irony at which Altman excelled. I’m not sure that the characters in the TV show are necessarily more well-rounded than the ones in the film (although I think they are), but the anarchic film tends to use its heroes merely as archetypal tricksters, whereas most of the characters in the TV show are ultimately people. The only inflexibly dimensionless character in the show, Frank Burns, exited stage right just as the show figured out that its characters had to be people, and if the showrunners wanted to have moral monsters in the show, they couldn’t very well afford to have one as one of the regular cast. Rather than humanize Burns, they just wrote him out. Which is kind of a shame, since Larry Linville was brilliant, but also necessary, because it would be inappropriate to reframe the show’s tone on empathy, but retain the one character who couldn’t empathize with anyone, and with whom nobody else could, either.


Edgy and Modern and Hip and, likely, Morphitudinal

Don’t worry, fellow nerds: I’m not here to kvetch about whitewashing or how the new design looks nothing like Rita Repulsa from the 90s Power Rangers. I just want to register a comment about how easily the publicity for pop artifacts descends into utter vapidity. Consider what Elizabeth Banks had to say to People on Rita’s new look:

It’s definitely a modern and edgy re-imagining of the original Rita Repulsa.

This is an utterly content-free comment.

I know, I know. It’s People magazine, which has as its official mission statement: “Bringing you the latest in the totally irrelevant and salacious since 1908!”[1] One cannot expect movie stars to wax philosophical about the marriage of form and content when the secret marriage of Branjelica or Gwennifer or Whomsoever is the cover story. Nobody who reads People magazine cares.

Then there’s the fact that Banks is not being paid to wax philosophical by her studio masters, and even if she did, nobody expects great insight about the costume design for Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

In short, I’m being pedantically picayune. If you’ve read this far, you’d expect no less.

The point is that it is utterly unclear what relationship this particular “re-imagining” has to the adjectives “modern” or “edgy.” If these words have not already been totally emptied of all meaning in public discourse, Banks moves them that much further toward the goal line, past which all signifiers are empty and all interpersonal communication is reduced to pheromones and copyright-protected emojis.[2]

Admittedly, I’m being deliberately obtuse about this. I have a sense of what Banks means by calling this re-imagining “modern” and “edgy.” Ideally, what I think she means to suggest is that her Rita will be “hip to the youth” and “envelope-pushing.” Perhaps even “subversive.” (Gasp! Can such things be?) “Modern” compared to what, or when? Where exactly does the “edge” lie, along which Rita Repulsa’s “modern” look, much like the snail in Col. Kutz’s fever dream, is precariously balanced?

To be honest, I”m rather looking forward to the new Power Rangers movie. I don’t expect it to be good. But I have a genuine soft spot for MMPR. I’ve always felt that the first (American) film, while sort of terrible for general audiences, did a pretty good job giving a big-screen gloss for fans of the low-budget TV show, but that its terrible-at-the-time CGI climax has aged so poorly that it wrecks the relative competence of the rest. Contemporary special effects, in other words, could do wonders for a Power Rangers flick that displays even modest competence in its writing and performances. Elizabeth Banks is a fine actress, and I look forward to seeing what she does with this role. So all the hang-wringing over the new film’s fidelity or lack thereof to the 90s show simply does not speak to anything I care about at this point in my life. I just want to be entertained for an hour and a half.

That’s why the Orwellian hypespeak strikes me as the most significant part of this “first look” exclusive. Give me panem et circenses: I know very well that the Power Rangers movie is just one more footfall in the long slide of empire into the decadence and cultural corruption of its people. Just don’t try to convince me that the culture industry Juvenal was writing about a couple millennia ago, and diagnosed by every other cultural theorist in the last century-plus, from Horkheimer/Adorno to Matthew Arnold, is “modern and edgy.” It’s not. The fact that I’m willing to fork over my time and money for a distraction from the evils of contemporary life is nothing new. Elizabeth Banks, why can’t you just let me luxuriate my intellectual decomposition without giving me the offense of assuming that said decomposition already has been completed?☕

_____

[1] This is not People magazine’s official mission statement. The official mission statement is probably: “Filling that emotional void in your life with meaningless drivel since 1908!” Just deducing here. I could be in error.

[2] Saints and angels preserve us.


Essaying the top 100

I suppose videos like this are always tough to put together. Not only must you choose one film (just one!) as the best of each year, but you must then decide on a single shot from each film that not only epitomizes what makes the film so great, but you must also consider how the shots will flow together. I suspect that a number of these shots (some of which are maddeningly truncated) are also edited with an ear for the soundtrack. All of which is to say that this video is fine (as in, “pretty okay”), but it’s most interesting to me in its capacity to stimulate reflections on the entire process that went into the video.

I’m guessing that other, smarter/cleverer people have already written blogs or articles about this, so I’m not (probably) breaking new ground. But as someone who has grown up with the spread of the Internet and the proliferation of accessible film editing technology, it is astonishing to reflect on the fact that this video is quintessentially a top 100 list. But it’s a top 100 list in a form that, unless I miss my guess, is likely to become de rigeur for any self-respecting cinephile who comes of age in the 21st century. Back in my day (all of what, twenty years ago?), movie fans would have to write out and mail such lists to publications like Film Comment (or the zine/newsletter of one’s choice) to circulate them.

Once net access became widespread, you had your pick: create your own blog, frequent a message board, join a listserv, etc. Even fifteen years ago (I’m once again guessing) you could find films of this sort out there on the web, but they were likely put together by people who were either amateurs or folks enrolled in film programs. More than anything else, YouTube (guessing again!) made it possible to exhibit video essays like this, but I don’t think it was until video editing software became a standard part of OS packages that stuff like this became really widespread.

At this point, we’re spoiled for video essays. Sites like IndieWire, MUBI, and Bordwell’s blog (along with, I’m sure, dozens of others) include video essays as standard fare alongside more traditional essays and criticism. A well done video essay, of course, still requires time and effort. Folks like Matt Zoller Seitz, Tony Zhou, and Kevin B. Lee probably (in all likelihood) don’t just sit down, cram a bunch of awesome shots together with a one-take voiceover, and hit “publish.” At the same time, I’m positive that it takes most video essayists today considerably less time to cut an essay than it did last year—not only because of technological improvements, but because I suspect that video essays are now increasingly part of a standard skill set, the basics of which they have likely mastered due to practice. The result is an embarrassment of riches for cinephiles (and film studies instructors). It’s also, though, a paradigm shift in film discourse.

Years ago, there was a distinction between cinephiles and cineastes. Most of the former aspired to be the latter (if they weren’t the latter already), but I doubt that the distinction has any practical use any more. You might think of Jean-Luc Godard’s legendary Histoire(s) du cinema project. At first, it was the kind of thing only JLG might undertake: an epic personal essay intertwining politics and film history, pinning key moments of the twentieth century to particular images or confluences of sound, image, and text, then upending the entire thing. Or, to be a wee reductionist, it’s a really long montage culled largely from other sources. In either case, it’s the kind of project that required JLG’s particular set of skills: a former critic turned filmmaker whose heyday was marked by a radicalization of politics and aesthetics, who else could mount a project like that? Wading through God knows how many miles of film footage and splicing it together just-so over the course of a decade into nearly five hours of a multipart essay? You may imagine a gaunt, bespectacled Maoist practically mummified in reels of and reels of filmstrip, the dark editing room illuminated by a single French cigarette dangling from his pursed lips.[1] That was twenty years ago. Now? Imagine a couple of undergrad dudebros spending five hours on a Saturday slinging together their 25 greatest times people were told to “Go to hell!” in a contextually ironic situation.

What I’m getting at is that the physically and financially demanding labor of putting together even a montage of brief clips is so relatively easy now that the video essay is not a long-term project, but a discourse in its own right. An increasingly common rhetorical form in that discourse. So common that the aforementioned dudebros could conceivably scrape together something as technically sophisticated as anything by JLG.

When I think about that, I get a little excited and a little sad. Excited, because I love the idea of film nerds talking film in film language. Sad, because I foresee a time in which reading a film essay—I should say, “an essay written about film”—is something you only do if you’re an academic, and even then you’ll never read blogs or magazine articles, because the “real” discourse is done in video essays, not in typewritten language.

That said, there are (I believe) real advantages to talking film in video. All those questions I asked at the outset are concerns that can be addressed by the form of the video essay itself. A top 100 list, however eclectic, however well-written the blurbs are, will lack a certain coherence. In short, a list can almost never be an essay. (Or perhaps it’s simply the case that few great essays are quintessentially lists, even if the essay form doesn’t proscribe list making.) A video essay, on the other hand, through artful editing and layering of images and sound, can create a unity of experience that, in my judgment, exists in few written lists. There is a wealth of possibilities yet to be explored here. While the video posted above is not by any stretch a great video essay, it is exemplary of what it is that video essays can do when they apply themselves to the process of listmaking. The responses they stimulate, I hope, also contain a wealth of as-yet unexplored possibilities.

(h/t Sploid)

_____

[1] Or you can imagine him buried under an avalanche of videocassettes, which is closer to how he actually made the film.

 


Five films: a Spring Break roundup

For the last few years, I have found less and less of the emotional energy I need to concentrate on a proper film, so I don’t watch many movies these days. I’m far more likely to binge TV shows or watch one piecemeal over the course of the week, as time permits. That said, this last week was spring break for me, and these are five films I took the time to watch.

 

John Wick (d. Chad Stahelski, 2014)

For purity of tone and generic convention, this one reminded me of Payback and A Bittersweet Life. As straightforward of an underworld revenge flick as you can get, John Wick relies almost entirely on nailing the atmosphere and cadence of the alternate reality inhabited solely by hitmen, crime bosses, and femme fatales, who seem to spend most of their time partying in neon-hued cellar nightclubs, perpetually renovated old cathedrals, and posh estates in the hills with lots of windows and austere, minimalist decor. Directors like Stahelski and Nicolas Winding Refn seem to be the heirs to Michael Mann, populating their films with who’s-who faces and cleanly-shot scenes of violence. Keanu Reeves is wonderful in this film, channeling his charisma into a subdued smolder for most of the film and explosive, calculated lethality in some really stellar action sequences. The karmic themes are perhaps a bit thin, and the climax feels a bit tacked-on after a sustained, single-minded drive toward one bloody goal, but it’s a great film for fans like me of noir pastiche actioners.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (d. Matthew Vaughn, 2014)

I’d forgotten that Vaughn had directed Kick-Ass until I saw that this was based on a comic written by Mark Millar, who can be incisive and tasteless, but never incisively tasteless or tastelessly incisive (if that makes sense). Among the things that work in this film are Vaughn’s feel for kinetic, deft action sequences and a marvelous eye for production design. Colin Firth is his typical amazing self, and I always like Samuel L. Jackson when he does over-the-top villains. Among the things that don’t work are the structure of Kingsman as an origin story; we’re in Joseph Campbell territory here, so fans of Star Wars and Fellowship of the Ring won’t be terribly surprised (or terribly emotionally moved, I suspect) by a moment in the film’s midpoint that I’m sure Millar thought would be “shocking” or “unconventional.” (Even as he probably thought it was “mythical” or somesuch thing.) Watching Taron Egerton come of age as a superspy is fun, but Egerton doesn’t have Firth’s charisma, though he might get there in ten or fifteen years. Then there’s the fact that the cultural politics of this film are weirdly ambivalent. The aesthetics of a scene where Firth kicks the crud out of some bullies near the beginning of the film are identical to a scene where he massacres a churchful of American bigots. There’s a sense in which each group “gets what’s coming to them” that, to viewers of one stripe, might seem “anarchically subversive.” For viewers of another stripe (and you don’t need to look too closely to see these stripes peeking above my collar), the revelry in this violence (set to “Freebird,” as such things are) seems genuinely gleeful, and therefore genuinely gratuitous. It’s tough not to conjoin the revelry in gratuitous violence with the validation of juvenile androcentrism at the film’s end, when our young hero slays the (metaphorical) dragon, then goes to fuck a princess in the ass. (This is not metaphorical.) So there’s fun to be had with this movie, but it’s a sleazy fun. It dredges all the innuendo and sanitized brutality that lurks barely beneath the surface of of the James Bond franchise, then dives into it headfirst, like a Hustler centerfold doing graceful backstrokes through a wake of chum.

Hotel Transylvania (d. Genndy Tartakovsky, 2012)

Honestly, this movie was delightful. The A-plot was a funny, sweet story about an overprotective father learning to let his little girl grow up and bring a strange boy into the family. The B-story (allow me to read a bit much into the subtext here) is about how a group of bad boy outsiders (literalized here as monsters) grew up to become the establishment. It’s hard not to see the cast of monsters voiced by Adam Sandler, Kevin James, David Spade, and Steve Buscemi (though I’ll admit I’ve no idea who CeeLo Green is) as a metaphor for their place in the Hollywood ecosystem: a group of former enfants terribles who are now among the elder statesmen of popular entertainment. Again, I admit that I’m perhaps reading a bit much into it. At any rate, I laughed a great deal with Hotel Transylvania, and I look forward to seeing the sequels (someday).

The Last Witch Hunter (d. Breck Eisner, 2015)

The best thing about this film was watching Vin Diesel as a relatively chillaxed seeker of vengeance. Playing an immortal can go any number of ways, but the mixture of amiable, aloof, and ruthless Diesel cooked up for Kaulder, the title character, went a long way toward lugging this B-film across the finish line. As a mid-budget tentpole flick, it’s very slick, moderately-paced, perhaps boasting a bit too much grayscale production design for its own good (although I credit Eisner with not shooting the whole thing through those damnable blue/gray/brown color filters that directors seem to have loved so much for the last decade or so), but definitively unambitious. For urban fantasy junkies, this’ll scratch an itch, but it won’t quench your thirst.

The BoxTrolls (d. Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable, 2014)

Laika does pretty amazing things with stop-motion animation; ParaNorman is easily a high point in mainstream use of that technique. BoxTrolls is charming; it tries to balance the truly horrific implications of its cosmos (where genocide, fatal political malpractice, torture, and sadism, are narrative engines, just to name a few lovely aspects) with heartfelt relationships and positive messages about choosing one’s own path/identity and whatnot. It is one of the few children’s films that I’ve felt was appropriately cynical about the world. Yet it ultimately manages to resolve the major plot points without long-term negative consequences, and given the darkness this movie treats with, it felt like a bit of a cheat. If this film is a disappointment overall, it should be restated that Laika set the bar pretty high for itself with Coraline and ParaNorman. While I did totally buy into the relationships that Eggs, the boy hero, cultivates with Fish, his Boxtroll foster-father, and Winnifred, the girl who becomes his partner in heroism, the character dynamics of the bad guys worked especially well. Mr. Gristle is a chilling parody of unfettered cruelty, and Archibald Snatcher is the kind of main villain who is better precisely because his ambition and evil are so thoroughly human (and thus more monstrous); Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles are the evil henchmen with enough of a glimmer of self-awareness to recognize at the vital moment in the narrative that they’re not on the side of the angels. This rogue’s gallery gives you a pretty good snapshot of the spectrum of human frailty, and it is they who emerge as the most compelling figures in the ensemble. ☕


Jodorowsky’s Dune ☕ d. Frank Pavich, 2013

Three films are competing for screen time in Jodorowsky’s Dune: a love letter to the greatest film never made, a Herzogian tale of a mad genius doomed to failure, and (drumroll) Jodorowsky’s Dune, the film itself.

Having not seen any of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s work, I may be at a bit of a disadvantage in suggesting ways in which this particular documentary does or does not take his oeuvre into account. Alejandro Jodorowsky himself is a transfixing raconteur; (apparently) a consummate artist, nothing he says is delivered at a rhetorical pitch below eleven. By his own account, his plan for Dune was that the film itself, like Paul Atreides, would become a prophet, leading humankind into a new age of enlightened consciousness. By the account of everyone else who worked on the project, Jodorowsky was perfectly sincere in his ambition. The film’s narrative trajectory traces Jodorowsky’s quest to assemble a fellowship of “spiritual warriors”—likeminded artists who, regardless of their film experience or credentials, had the soul needed to bring his project to fruition. Many of these people had never heard of Jodorowsky before he sought them out for this project; they, too, knew nothing of his oeuvre. What compelled them to drop everything and move to his headquarters in Paris was much the same as what this documentary expects will compel its own viewers, many of whom may not be familiar with Jodorowsky’s work: the charisma and prophetic vision of the man himself. Of a film that might have been, and which might have revolutionized human consciousness. Continue reading


Miyazaki says sayonara

miyazaki-ponyo-bg

One of the world’s greatest living directors has retired from feature filmmaking. Miyazaki Hayao has been circling retirement for several years already (I had been under the impression that Ponyo would be his last film until I heard about The Wind Rises). As both ANN and Guardian Enzo note, he may still participate in other projects in various capacities — I suspect that such a restless muse as Miyazaki’s isn’t quite done yet — but it looks like we won’t get any more films directed by the man himself. The finality of this announcement strikes a chord of bittersweet triumph. It’s sad that we can’t expect any more masterpieces from the single biggest artist in Japanese animation, yet it’s a testament to the size of his achievements that he’s retiring at the top of his game at the age of 72. Most artists fade away; they may retain some cultural stature, but few choose to abdicate the throne while their reign remains virtually unchallenged. Fewer still are in a position to step down after a reign of decades. To see a giant gracefully lay himself to rest, rather than fall, is a privilege, if a poignant one. Arigatou gozaimasu, sensei. Here’s hoping we haven’t quite seen the last. ☕ Continue reading


Talk about softening the blow

Patrick Troughton Doctor

I was pretty disappointed when I heard that Matt Smith is leaving Doctor Who in this year’s Christmas special. Not upset — he’s given us what I consider to be the definitive New Who Doctor, and if he wants to take a bow while he’s still in peak form, I can’t blame him. Not to mention that it’s always exciting to anticipate what fresh face we’ll get to see next. But I’m still disappointed. Smith is such a joy to watch, and he’s done such a great job bridging the feel of classic and new Who in his performance that I had been hoping to see him grow with the role for a few more years, especially since he started so young. Though he might pop in here and there in the future, his era is coming to an end, and it’s a bit of a shame that we won’t get another year or two out of him.

But this news, if true, could very well make up for it. I’ve tried listening to the audio recordings of some of those missing episodes. It’s just not the same. Half the reason (possibly the biggest reason) to watch the classic episodes, apart from the imagination and wit of their better scripts, is to relish the performances. The core cast members especially are often doing quite a lot with their roles, and nobody more so than the people playing the Doctors. Finally getting to see such ballyhooed stories as “Evil of the Daleks” would be a real treat. I’ll definitely be keeping an ear to the ground on this rumor. Via io9. ☕


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 47 other followers

%d bloggers like this: