Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, August 30, 2010

Director's Report Card: Satoshi Kon (2003-2006)

3. Tokyo Godfathers
“Tokyo Godfathers” is easily Kon at his most light-hearted and whimsical. It’s also one of his most cartoonish films. The character’s faces are very animated, more so then usual, and often exaggerated in order to emphasize emotion. It’s a bit of a break from Kon’s more realistic style and seems to correspond with the comical tone of the film.

The story is a character piece, revolving around three very different characters coming together over the care of a child. One is a worn out old drunk. The other is an over-the-hill drag queen. The last, a run away teenage girl. As the film goes on, we find out that each character has the same problem. Each one made a big mistake and now can’t go home and face their family.

One of the primary factors in the story is coincidence, to the point where that’s almost a determent. I get it, I understand why our gang encounters who they need to at just the right moment, but it can’t help but stick in my teeth. It’s a little too easy for them. Though, after it happens over and over again, you realize it’s not sloppy writing but intentional.

I really like the way the opening credits are written out on the building’s signs. The music, with the way it incorporates Christmas carols but in a new, different, way helps establish the off-beat, holiday mood. The animation is rich and full of details. The ending involves a big, high speed chase. That’s handled with humor but, at the same time, I feel like going that big maybe wasn’t the way to properly end this.

Anyway, it all wraps up a-okay in the end. I don’t have a lot to say about “Tokyo Godfathers.” It’s sweet, funny, and fairly minor, but still enjoyable and worth seeking out. [Grade: B]

4. Paprika
Definitely the most visually intense film I’ve seen this year, probably in a couple of years. All the freedom that animation allows a filmmaker to explore is completely taken advantage of and that’s something that’s rare in and of itself. Some of the images produced here are utterly fantastic and potentially unique. There are grotesque, absurd, hilarious even. “Paprika,” simply put, looks nothing like anything else out there right now and is probably the most important animated film in quite some time.

Other aspects fall a little bit short of the visual side of things. While I enjoyed everything, I’ll admit to not completely understanding the story and I feel the logical thread gets lost before the end. (Being all about dreams, the movie does, more or less, allow itself to stop making sense. But still…)

The characters are lovable and very well realized. I found the detective’s subplot to be really well-written and Atsuki and Takusa’s relationship is bittersweet and realistic. Satoshi Kon’s love of cinema really comes through here as many different homage are paid. The fine line between fantasy and reality and the perception therein, a theme first seen in “Perfect Blue,” is revisited here though explored on a far more in-depth level. “Paprika” is all sorts of crazy awesome, landmark not only for anime, but animation in general. [Grade: A]

I'd also highly recommend Kon's television series, "Paranoia Agent." It is every bit surreal and visually intense as his best film work. If you can compare most anime to American television in the early nineties in its reliance on easy audiences and formula, "Paranoia Agent" is like "Twin Peaks" in the way it breaks the mold and impresses. I might do a full review of the series in the future.

Satoshi Kon had all ready started work on a new film called "The Dream Machine," which, just based on the title alone, I can tell would've been an ideal project for him. Wither or not that film will be completed or released, I can't say.

As it is, Kon currently left a fantastic legacy behind with his small but potent body of work. He deserves to sit among the greats of the genre.

Friday, August 27, 2010

DIrector's Report Card: Satoshi Kon (1998-2001)

Satoshi Kon's death came as a depressing and surprising blow. At only 46, he was certainly taken before his time. Mr. Kon has proven to be one of the most talented directors to work within the animation genre in recent years. His ability to create visual tapestries was unrivaled and, over the course of only four feature films and one television series. he proved himself to be a master filmmaker. This Report Card was planned some time in advance and Mr. Kon's passing is a sad coincidence. May it stand as a minor tribute to his body of work.

1. Perfect Blue
“Perfect Blue” is a real mindfuck. It starts out as a study of celebrity status and self-image, and how easy it to confuse other people’s perception of you with your actual self. This is pretty good, in and of itself.

Then towards the middle of film, the vision becomes more surreal, and we really do begin to wonder what’s really happening. We are even given the possibility that the character’s lives are actually imaginary. It’s manipulative, yes, and at times frustrating, but Satoshi Kon and his co-creators get serious points for wrapping their audience around their thumb with such expertise.

By the end however, there is a master reveal and we are given a neat wrap-up, one that you would expect from a more conventional thriller. It’s a satisfactory conclusion but I felt a little let-down. Still, “Perfect Blue” is a really well done character study filled with more then it’s fair share of great thrilling moments, excellent use of music, and beautiful animation. [Grade: A-]

2. Millennium Actress
I was admittedly disappointed in “Millennium Actress,” especially after all the praise it received. After exposing myself to the reality-bending nature of his first and fourth films, as well Kon’s excellent television series, “Paranoia Agent,” this one was more down to earth. The laid-back tone was a surprising shift.

Still, “Millennium Actress” has plenty to offer. First off, the animation is gorgeous. It easily meets, and in some ways, surpasses the high standard of theatrical animation. The way real life and fiction weave in and out of each continues many of the visual motifs of “Perfect Blue.”

The vocal performances are fantastic. Miyoko Shoji and Shozo Iizuka in particular give resonant, heart-felt performance. If this had been a live-action film, I know for certain their acting would have received several awards. The story tracks the development of the Japanese film industry from World War II on, and we get homages and references to the propaganda driven melodramas, Kurosawa style historical epics, fifties character studies, and the Japanese sci-fi of the sixties. A Godzilla type creature even shows up at one point. The film studio at the story’s center is obviously a parallel to Toho Studios. I like how the rocket scene shows up in every act, each time in a different context.

Despite weaving film history so nicely into its story and the main character being a total movie nerd, the film has surprisingly little to say about the relation cinema devotees have with their favored art form. I find this surprising, considering how critical Kon has been of the nerd lifestyle in some of his other works. The script focuses more on how life and fiction parallel each other, a less interesting concept. Ultimately, its Chiyoko Fujiwara’s unending quest to find the man she fell in love with as a teenager that drives the story. It’s a touching, bittersweet tale that wraps up perfectly at the end.

However, its also a little unbelievable and features themes mostly unrelated to the movie’s other goals. The narrative is sometimes confusing as well. Maybe it’s just because I was tired when I watch this, but the way we shifted from reality to the world of movies without warning threw me off at times. So, despite being technically proficient and having an honest emotional core, “Millennium Actress” never quite comes together as a whole. [Grade: B]

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Review: Piranha 3D (2010)

5. Piranha 3-D
I had low expectations for “Piranha 3D.” The trend was ongoing when it was greenlit, but the horror remake fad is now winding down. I’m already sick of the new 3D. I figured the awful trailer was final evidence that Aja had left behind his European style and was strictly functioning as a director for hire.

Sometimes, low expectations are good. “Piranha 3D” is a blast, a campy, over-the-top throwback to exploitation cheese of the eighties. Right from the beginning, it’s obvious this was made by fans. The movie opens with Richard Dreyfus playing a character named Matt who sings “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” This is the first of many good signs.

The movie has two selling points: Blood and breasts. It doesn’t skimp on either. This might be the goriest horror film I’ve ever seen in the theater. The vicious piranhas tear their victims to literal pieces. Flesh is chewed down to the bone, limbs are eaten off, and the water quickly becomes red with blood. The highlight of the film is when the piranha menace hits the Spring Break partiers. Literally hundreds of victims step out of the water, their skin gnawed away, while others are left below to become fish food. Boat related carnage actually provides the gore highlights. A girl has her face torn off by a propeller. Another is literally bisected by a whipping wire. Eli Roth, the Paris Hilton of horror directors, has his head crushed in what might be the most satisfying horror movie death in years.

And what about the T&A? The first shot of gorgeous, top heavy model Kelly Brook is of her wiggling backside. I’m not made of stone, people. Puerile as it might be, the movie has no shame in showing off its actresses assets and, I’ll admit, it added to my enjoyment. Miss Brook and porn star Riley Steele have a fully nude, underwater ballet. The movie stops for about five minutes just to ogle these women. It somehow doesn’t come off as exploitative, but rather goofy, fun, and genuinely erotic. (That the characters hold their breath for ten minutes might be a good indicator of the cheese factor at work here.) In the scene most indicative of the movie’s mentality, a topless parasailor, played by 34DD-cupped porn starlet Gianna Michaels, first thrust her jugs into the camera and then has her legs eaten off by killer fish. 3D tits, covered in blood. You can’t argue with that.

Most amazingly though, despite being a gore and boobs delivery system, this is the first time in a while were I actually cared wither the characters in a horror movie made it out alive or not. Steven R. McQueen plays Jake. He is clearly crushed on Kelli, played the capable and cute Jessica Szohr, but never comes off as too whiny. The romantic tension between the two proves to legitimately sweet. Moreover, at the end, Jake proves himself to be a capable and resourceful hero, and pulls off the kind of “Smart teen saves the day” style scheme that was a hallmark of 1950 creature features. Adam Scott is similarly smart and badass, especially when he jumps on a water ski and goes after the piranha with a shotgun. Elisabeth Shue provides us with a strong female authority figure, a rare sight in a horror movie, and it’s a great performance. She plays both a mother and a cop with equal strength. Christopher Lloyd has a great cameo as the resident fish expert. Ving Rhames kicks a lot of ass, especially when he picks up a boat propeller and faces the aquatic threat one-on-one. Jerry O’Connell gets maybe the meatiest role as the Joe Francis stand-in. O’Connell has made a career of playing obnoxious douchebag, so much that I’m not convinced it’s an act. His eventual, 3D prolonged, incredibly painful death gives the movie its most over-the-top, gruesomely funny moment.

Aja direction is not as fierce as in his previous film but this suits the movie’s wacky tone. He does, however, get one great moment when he copies the reserve dolly shot of “Jaws,” a moment that caused me to cheer it was so cool. The piranhas themselves are vicious little fuckers, and brilliantly brought to life. The movie mixes CGI and practical effects extremely well. And did I notice a reprise of Pino Donaggio’s beautiful score from the original film at one point? “Piranha 3D” sets out to be the guilty pleasure of the summer and, goddamn, does it ever succeed. There will probably be competitors later on, but for the moment, this is the best, most entertaining horror film of the year. [Grade: A-]