Tuesday, July 30, 2013

BREAKING NEWS: Discotek is Releasing Ringing Bell to DVD

And just in time to traumatize a new generation too! 

Six days ago, Discotek Media announced that they will be releasing the overlooked 1978 Sanrio film, Ringing Bell (aka Chirin no Suzu), to DVD, which has been out of print for over 25 years. Ringing Bell is a brutally honest tale about a young lamb who discovers the dangers of going too far with revenge, after his mother is killed by a large wolf. (I reviewed the film earlier this year on my blog here.)

Really, I can't be pleased enough. So many other anime distribution companies skip over older titles, likely fearing that they will not sell well, but not Discotek. They specialize in releasing classic movies and series from the 1970s and 1980s (such as: Animal Treasure Island, Lupin III, Unico, and Galaxy Express 999), as well as several cult classics from the 1990s and a few more recent titles. Now all we need to do is connivence them to release a couple of our other favorites. How about Horus: Prince of the Sun, or Hakujaden, or Future Boy Conan, or Only Yesterday, or Night on the Galactic Railway, or Ashita no Joe? Osamu Tezuka's Wonder 3? The Telecom Lupin III episodes? ....Uh-oh.... I think I'm starting to get a bit carried away here.

Stop-Motion Animation: A Brief History Part 2

By the second half of the 20th century, stop-motion animated films had become well established in the minds of movie enthusiasts and television audiences. This is primarily due to several talented individuals: Peter Lord and Nick Park of Aardman Animation, Tim Burton, and Henry Selick. Even current filmmakers continue to utilize stop-motion as an alternate to traditional animation and CGI, be they at the recently established studio, Laika, or independent filmmakers at home or abroad.

Aardman Popularizes the Medium

If you haven't heard of them, you have been living under a rock for twenty years.

Aardman is one of the oldest and most prolific stop-motion studios around today. Established in 1972 by Peter Lord and Nick Park, the company first attracted attention when it produced animated segments for the childern's programs Take Hart (1977-1983) and the Hartbeat (1984-1993). These segments featured a small Plasticine figure called Morph who would interact other inanimate objects and human actors on screen. Nick Park's "Creature Comforts" (1989) became the first Aardman production to win an oscar. The short was humorous take on the interviewing process, involving various animals complaining about their living conditions at a zoo. "Creature Comforts" later spawned a 27 episode series which ran on ITV from 2003 to 2006. "Stage Fright" (1997), a darker short about the relationship between the stage performer, Tiny, and Arnold, a arrogant, unpleasant movie actor, likewise met acclaim despite its more serious subject matter.

Aardman, however, is by far the most famous for creating its Wallace and Gromit series. Beginning in 1989 with "A Grand Day Out", the cheese loving inventor and his silent, stoic dog have gone on to appear in a total of four shorts (as of 2008) and starred in the feature film The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005). Shaun the Sheep, who first appeared in the short, "A Close Shave" (1995), got his own TV series beginning in 2007 and is also scheduled to get his own movie in 2015.

Although Aardman has recently produced two computer animated films, Flushed Away (2006, with Dreamworks Animation) and Arthur Christmas (2011, with Sony Pictures), the studio continues to use Plasticine as their main medium. Chicken Run (2000), an action comedy flick about a group of chickens attempting to escape a farm with the help of an American rooster, was the first of Aardman's stop-motion films. More recently, Peter Lord directed The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012) which was a modest success at the box office. Two other stop-motion films are currently in development, The Cat Burglars (director: Steve Box) and an untitled Nick Park project.

It's a POW flick starring chickens!

Tim Burton, Henry Selick, and Laika

Tim Burton making weird faces behind two characters you may recognize.

Even if his more recent films have not met as much critical praise as some of his earlier work, there is no denying the popularity of Tim Burton's uniquely gothic and often quirky productions. Burton began his career while working as an animator at Disney. The company was impressed with his work, particularly the stop-motion short, "Vincent" (1982), even though Tim Burton's style was in stark contrast to that of Disney. Thus, Burton was given more freedom to create larger projects. The result was the half hour live action Frankenweenie (1984), a black and white adaptation of the famous horror novel featuring a dog as the Frankenstein 'monster.' Unfortunately, Disney found the film too unorthodox for its standards and fired Tim Burton, fearing that the film would scare small childern. (This is extremely ironic since Disney would later commission Burton to remake Frankenweenie as a stop-motion film in 2012, after Burton had become quite famous.)

Burton's live action film, Beetlejuice (1989) utilized stop-motion special effects, although his more recent productions opted for CGI. Of course, Tim Burton remains famous for writing and producing The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Burton did not direct the film due to being preoccupied with Batman Returns (1992). Instead, the cult classic was directed by Tim Burton's long time friend and collaborator, Henry Selick. (Nightmare was also originally released under Touchstone Pictures because Disney was still fearful about offending sensitive parents.)  Selick also directed the live action stop-motion combo, James and the Giant Peach (1996), while at Disney. Although the film was not a runaway hit, it has received more recognition in recent years.

In 2005, the Oregon based stop-motion production company, Laika, was established. Its first major production was Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (2005), which met moderate success and was the studio's first Oscar nominated production. Henry Selick's Coraline (2009), which was based on the Neil Gaiman novel of the same name, managed to rank third at the box office during its opening week. Coraline boasted a mastery of stop-motion special effects and CGI unseen in any animated film before. The movie spent over three years in production and was made with over 450 animators, 250 technical designers, and nearly 150 different sets.

Laika's most recent production, Paranorman (2012), was also shot in 3D and utilized 3D printers to speed up the animation process. Paranorman is a comedy horror film about a misfit boy. Norman's ability to talk with the dead allows him to save his town from the curse of a witch and some rampaging (but likewise misunderstood) zombies. Laika is currently working on The Boxtrolls, which is due to release next year on September 26th. Meanwhile, Henry Selick has returned to Disney and is set to direct an adaptation of The Graveyard Book and, possibly, an original project entitled The Shadow King. (Outside of Burton, Selick, and Laika, other recent American stop-motion productions include Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox [2009] and... the upcoming CGI and pop reference filled The Lego Movie [2014].)

If you haven't already, watch this movie!

 Stop-motion Overseas

Be it at at home or abroad, stop-motion animation doesn't show signs of disappearing anytime soon.

As with hand drawn animation, stop-motion is still commonly used by foreign and freelance animators, despite that major Hollywood players prefer to exclusively use CGI. Winter Days (2003) is perhaps the most ambitious and overlooked production made in the past ten years. The film was a collaboration between 35 animators living in several countries including Japan, Russia, Belgium, Canada, and the Netherlands. Winter Days utilized several animation techniques alongside stop-motion and featured various shorts based upon different Japanese poems. Another Japanese film, The Book of the Dead (2005) was set in during the Nara period, when Buddhism was being introduced from China to Japan. It follows the life of Iratsume, a noblewoman, and her relationship with the religion.

Several productions have also been made throughout Europe and in other countries in recent years. The Legend of the Sky Kingdom (2003) was Zimbabwe's (and Africa's) first animated feature. Although having a somewhat cliche plot, the animation itself was fairly unique. Each puppet was made from trash that the creators happened to find lying around their facility. Peter and the Wolf (2006) was produced by a British-Polish-Norwegian team and, despite having a run time of only 33 minutes, has caught the attention of several movie festivals. Peter and the Wolf is a true classic, not only because it manages to adapt a timeless tale for modern audiences successfully, but also because it manages to convey so much emotion without using any dialogue. Also of note is $9.99 (2008) an Australian / Israeli collaboration about an unemployed man searching for the meaning of life. In 2009 alone, three foreign stop-motion were released. Toys in the Attic was a Czech attempt at recapturing the spirit of earlier Eastern European animation, whereas A Town Called Panic (Belgium / Luxemburg) was a more slapstick, carefree film about small plastic toys. Mary and Max's (Australia) subject matter, involving a shy man with Aspergers and his young pen-pal, shows just how diverse the animated medium can be.

This short film won an Academy Award (and, in my humble opinion, is superior to the Disney version).

Monday, July 29, 2013

Stop-Motion Animation: A Brief History Part 1

To follow up my previous post on stop-motion special effects, I have put together a 'brief' (two part) article about  the usage of stop-motion in purely animated productions. Although stop-motion may be deemed 'primitive' or may be seen as less refined when compared to computer animation, the technique has a very rich and complex history and is still utilized today. Stop-motion's scope ranges from the cheery Christmas specials of Rankin-Bass to the strange, twisted films of Henry Selick and Tim Burton. It is popular not only with big producers, but also with filmmakers using shoestring budgets on Youtube. Perhaps the medium's appeal lies in building real-life worlds or creating tangible characters. Which ever the case, there is no denying the huge amount of labor and creativity that goes into creating a stop-motion film.

Ladislas Starevich: The Overlooked Innovator

Amazingly enough, these detailed figures were made over made over 75 years ago.

If you were to mention the name 'Ladislas Starevich' to one of your friends, you probably would be met with a confused look, even if they happened to be knowledgeable about animation. Despite this, however, Ladislas Starevich is a crucial figure in the history of stop-motion. He was one of the first filmmakers to perfect the technique, his earliest work dating back to the, now lost, short film "The Beautiful Lukanida" (1910). Starevich had an intense fascination with the natural world and many of his early films utilized dead insects and small animals as puppets (Starevich first chose to do so because he found live insects incredibly difficult to film). Within a year, Starevich had garnered attention throughout all of Poland. His 1911 film, "The Ant and the Grasshopper", was even honored by the tsar. Starevich also produced several other successful films up until 1920, when he and his family were forced to emigrate to France due to The Russian Revolution.

Starevich's later work became increasingly more sophisticated and surreal. He and his family made all of their film's sets themselves and began to construct their own handmade puppets (no longer from dead insects). His quirky and sometimes dark sense of humor, attention to detail, and portrayal of emotion transcended across demographics. Much of Starevich's work was not simply 'childern's stuff.' Indeed in the moral story, "Frogland" (1922), the foolish and greedy protagonists wish for a better king. But the king ends up being a stork, who proceeds to eat all of the frogs. Although American producers became interested in his work, Starevich was fiercely independent. He chose to make films completely within his own control, despite being offered large sums of money.

By the beginning of 1930s, Starevich had started transitioning to sound and his daughter, Irene, began to increasingly help him make (and appear in) his films. "The Old Lion" (1932) was the impressive result. The film encouraged Starevich and his small crew to start working on a feature length  production. At the same time, he made several successful shorts about the misadventures of Duffy, a small stuffed dog, beginning with "The Mascot" (1933), which remains, perhaps, his most famous piece. Starevich's 65 minute epic, The Tale of the Fox, was finally completed after ten years in 1937. Although it proved to be quite successful in its homeland, The Tale of the Fox remains rather obscure in many Western countries due to France being under German control at the time. Starevich continued to make films up until his death in 1965, although none of them meet the same acclaim his previous efforts met. His final film, Like Dog and Cat, remains unfinished.      

Yes, he used dead bugs. But they made good puppets!

Other European Pioneers

Lotte Reiniger produced the oldest surviving animated film and was one of the first female animators.

Several other people living throughout Europe made stop-motion films during the first half of the 20th century. Lotte Reingier's intricate use of silhouette cutouts made her productions quite unique and beautiful to behold. Today, her best known work is the 1926 animated feature, The Adventures of Prince Achmed. Reingier lived in Germany until 1933, when she and her husband fled the country due to their involvement with left winged politics. Reingier kept herself busy throughout the 1950s by making short adaptations of Grim's Fairytales for BBC and Telecasting America. Another notable film from Germany was The Seven Ravens (1937), an adaption of the folktale of the same name.

 The Crab with the Golden Claws (Belgium, 1947) was notable for being one of the earliest movie adaptations based upon a popular comic character. Although made on a tight budget, the film was fairly loyal to the original Tintin strip. Unfortunately, The Crab with the Golden Claws was only screened twice before its producer went bankrupt. Czechoslovakia director, Jiri Trnka, made several stop-motion shorts and features throughout his life in addition to illustrating childern's books. The Emperor's Nightingale (1949) an adaptation of the Han Christian Anderson story, his version of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1959), and the anti-totalitarianism short, "The Hand"(1965), have all met great acclaim throughout Eastern Europe and at film festivals.  

Tintin's film debute was far less elaborate than the recent Spielberg production.  

Popular Russian Shorts and the 'Golden Snail'

Meet Cheburashka, Russia's most popular whatchamacallit.

Soyuzmultfilm of the Soviet Union made several notable stop-motion puppet films throughout the 1960s and into the 1980s. Roman Kachanov's movies remain widely watched by Russian audiences today. His wordless short, "The Mitten" (1967), centers around a young girl with a bookish mother and a large imagination. The girl fantasizes that a mitten she finds on the ground becomes the pet puppy that she always wanted and she enters it in a dog fetching contest. Kachanov meet even greater success with his film series (made between 1969 to 1982) centering around the childern's book character, Cheburashka. Cheburashka is small imaginary teddybear-like creature with a childlike innocence and youthful personality who turns up one day in a box of oranges at a grocery store. His neighborhood adventures with his friend Gina the Crocodile and the cranky old lady, Shapoklyak, are quite popular in many countries outside of Russia as well, particularly in Japan. 

Another notable filmmaker is Yuri Norstein. Norstein is one of the world's most renowned animators. After working many years at Soyuzmultfilm, he began producing films on his own. Although he has only made seven films in total, each one his lovingly crafted with extreme attention to small details. Yuri's small but impressive output earned him the nickname the 'Golden Snail'. His work stands out not only due to his unique use of cutouts and glass layering, but also due to their wide range of subjects. Norstein's "The Fox and the Hare" (1973) and "The Heron and the Crane" (1974) were based on well known Russian folktales and aimed at a general audience. Likewise, his best known short, "The Hegehog in the Fog" (1975) was about a small hedgehog overcoming his fear of getting lost in the woods in order to meet with his friend, Bear. Norstein's other shorts, "The Battle of the Kerzhenets" (1971) and the acclaimed "The Tale of Tales"(1979), were more complex dramas adressing historical and contemporary events and issues in the Soviet Union.

"The Fox and the Hare" is a fable story in the finest tradition.

Although the heyday of Russian animation is long bygone and many artists have had a hard time finding sufficient funding since the fall of the Soviet Union, stop-motion films are occasionally still made. Yuri Norstein has kept busy on his feature length picture, The Overcoat, which has been in troubled production since 1981. "An Autumn Moon" (1993) recalled the wordless shorts of Roman Kachanov and The Ugly Duckling (2011), adapted the famous fairytale of the same name for a theatrical release. Another upcoming feature of note is Gofmaniada. Set to be released in 2014 by Soyuzmultfilm, Gofmaniada was initially planned to premiere in 2008. However, the ambitious project has proved to be very expensive and time consuming for the once successful studio.      

Entry into the USA

 Gumby, everyone's favorite...piece of living celery?

Up until fairly recently, stop-motion animation (outside of special effects) was less prominent in the United States than it was in European countries. Hungarian-born George Pal is often credited for introducing stop-motion shorts to the USA. He created several of his Puppetoons films from 1934 to 1947 before moving on to produce several live-action features. Hansel and Gretel: An Opera Fantasy (1954) was an another early effort. Although it remains a little known curiosity today, the 72 minute movie was notable for being one of the few non-Disney features made at the time.

Arguably, the Gumby series (1955-1969) and Rankin-Bass's various Holiday specials (i.e. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer [1964] and A Year Without Santa Claus [1974]) really helped cement the presence of stop-motion animation in America. They were often played over television airwaves and became a staple part of many people's childhoods, even if they were lacking in budget and limited in their resources. Will Vinton also met some success with his short films (including the Oscar winning "Closed Mondays" [1974]) and the various TV spots he made for California Raisins. He also directed the ill fated The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985) which is chiefly remembered for its overwhelming bizarreness and the many liberties it took from its source material.

Because of Rankin/Bass, everyone associated stop-motion with Christmas specials.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Before CGI: Stop-Motion Special Effects in Film

Dinosaurs, monsters, and robots, Oh my! 

Today, it is easy to take for granted all of the spectacular sights and fantastical creatures that appear on screen, largely due to the increasing efficiency and availability of computer animation. But prior to the 1990s, such special effects had to be done entirely by hand. There are several alternate options to CGI. Puppetry, which first originated in 3000 BC, involves manipulating inanimate objects to make them look alive in real time. Commonly described as 'mechanical puppets', animatronics were developed by Disney during the 1960s. They have brought characters such E.T., Jaws, and the Gremlins to life.

However, most special effects were created primarily through stop-motion. The technique has a long and interesting history, being used in film for over one hundred years. Unlike puppetry and animatronics, stop motion involves physically moving objects frame by frame for each shot. Therefore, it is a very time consuming process. (Fully stop-motion animated films take an average of five years to make!) Anything can be animated using stop motion animation, be it clay, wax, Legos, action figures, dolls, or even dead bugs.

Georges Melies: The Father of Special Effects

Early filmmakers were crazy. Crazy but ingenious. 

Not only did Georges Melies utilize stop-motion in his trick films, he also created illusions by using time-lapse photography, manipulating perspective, hand dying his films to create color, and by making outlandish costumes for his casts. Melies was passionate about bringing the unbelievable to life on the screen. Most of his films involve fantastical elements, be they Jules Vern inspired science fiction or elaborate period pieces. Melies created over 500 short films between 1896 to 1913. One of Melies's earliest works, "The Haunted Castle" (1896) is sometimes cited as the first horror film, although if was created to amuse people rather than to scare them. "The Vanishing Lady" (1896) is also notable. Its use of a hidden trap door made it appear that Melies 'disappeared' a young woman and replaced her with a skeleton. "The Astronomer's Dream" (1898) is perhaps the best known, and most surreal, of Melies's earlier shorts.  

Georges Melies's later work became increasingly more sophisticated. Rather than being a few minutes long and merely filmed magic tricks, they could be up to half an hour long and featured actual plotlines, a cinematic first. "A Trip to the Moon" (1902) is still commonly referenced and homaged today. The short was about a group of scientists who journey across space, land on the moon, and encounter some unfriendly aliens. Melies also met great success with "The Impossible Voyage" (1904), a similar Victorian space fantasy that featured a memorable sequence where a train, carried by balloons, gets swallowed by the sun.

Although some of his later work is now recognized for its importance by film historians (particularly "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" [1907] and "The Conquest of the Pole" [1912]), critics and audiences would soon begin to tire of Melies's films. They began to notice that much of his work tended to mill over the same material and Melies's filmmaking style was beginning to become outdated. Apparently, it never occurred to Melies that he could move the camera for close-ups or long shots. With the outbreak of WWI things became even more difficult. Melies fell into debt and was forced break his contact with Pathe in 1913, and many of his films were subsequently lost. Today, however, Georges Melies's creations are becoming recognized among the public again, particularly due to Ben Kingsley's portrayal of him in Hugo (2011).

Melies's most famous work, A Trip to the Moon (1902).

Willis H. O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen

Who knew audiences would go ape for a giant gorilla?

Arguably, the first person who really made stop-motion prominent in live-action film was Willis Harold O'Brien. O'Brien grew ranch-hand in Oakland, California and held several other odd jobs before realizing that his talent for sculpting could be used in the filmmaking process. Thomas Edison was so impressed with O'Brien's work and short films that he hired O'Brien to work for his studio. Willis O'Brien made his big break in 1925 when he brought dinosaurs to life in The Lost World. He awed audiences by utilizing split screen technology to make his tiny models appear gigantic in comparison to the actors on screen. The models themselves were made of clay modeled over wire amateurs and covered with rubber. King Kong (1933) is, without a doubt, is the most widely recognized of O'Brien's work. The titular character is impressive not only due to his imposing, powerful presence, but also because of his tragic end. In 1949, O'Brien created another another giant ape for the film Mighty Joe Young. O'Brein's efforts won him the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. The experience gained while making Mighty Joe Young helped train O'Brien's successor, Ray Harryhausen.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) was Harryhausen's first solo effort. Like many 1950s sic-fi movies, the film reflected growing concerns over the use of nuclear technology. It is about a large prehistoric creature, the Rhedosaurus, that is awakened by bomb testing in the Arctic Circle and proceeds to wreck havoc in New York City. The Beast proved to be a huge international financial success. So much so, in fact, that it inspired many similar monster movies, particularly the Kaiju Craze in Japan. The creators of Godzilla (1954) were so impressed with Harryhausen's stop-motion effects that they considered using the same method themselves, but later opted for using an actor in a specialized suit due to budget concerns.

Ray Harryhausen popularized 'Godzilla' before there was a Godzilla.

Ray Harryhausen met even more recognition with his first color feature The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), which would later spawn spawn two sequels, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). By this point Harryhausen had branded his stop-motion as 'Dynamation' in order to distinguish his work from claymation and other studio productions. Sinbad was a huge undertaking for Harryhausen and his small crew. They spent a total of eleven months creating the various beings and monsters needed for the film. His animation on the cyclops, the belly dancing snake-woman, and the living skeleton remain highly admired by filmmakers today. Similarly, Jason and the Argonauts (1963) met much praise for Harryhausen's work, particularly for its extended fight sequence between three actors and seven armed skeletons. The Valley of Gwangi (1969) was a dinosaur themed film that Harryhausen inherited from O'Brien, who was never able to successfully complete the movie on his own. The last film Harryhausen worked on before retiring was The Clash of the Titans (1981) which in, many ways, was a throwback to his Sinbad films, but with a Greek mythology theme. In fact, the Medusa model used in the film was a reworking of his snake-woman figure made over twenty years earlier.

Quite possibly the most impressive stop motion scene ever filmed.

The Blockbuster Era of the 1980s 

Phil Tippett, special effects extraordinaire.

Following the footsteps of Ray Harryhausen, Phil Tippet caught the public's attention in 1977 when he created the stop-motion miniature chess match for Star Wars: A New Hope. Tippet continued to do special effects for the next two Star Wars films in the original trilogy, most notably animating the Imperial Walkers and the Tauntaun in The Empire Strikes Back and designing Jabba the Hut and the Rancor Pit Monster for Return of the Jedi. He subsequently received his first Academy Award nomination for bringing to life the menacing monsters in Dragon Slayer (1981). By 1983, Phil Tippet had trademarked his own brand of stop-motion as 'Go Motion' and his work remains a prominent influence on Industrial Light and Magic of Lucasfilm. Steven Spielberg admired Tippet's work so much that he hired him as the special effects consultant for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). The third Indiana Jones film, The Last Crusade (1989) featured a memorable stop motion sequence, where Walter Donovan drinks from the wrong cup of immortality and ages so rapidly that he turns to dust. Phil Tippett also provided stop-motion effects for Robocop (1987) and Willow (1988).

"He Chose Poorly." Indeed.

Outside of Phil Tippet and Lucasfilm, several other notable films featuring stop-motion sequences were made during the 1980s. The camp horror cult classic, The Evil Dead (1981), utilized stop-motion to create rotting corpses and various monsters, as did its 1987 sequel. Ghostbusters's (1984) Terror Dogs and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man were also brought to life this way. The end of The Terminator (1984) is forever embedded into the public's mind, where the battle damaged Terminator pursues Sarah Conner and Karl Reese in a factory. Likewise, stop-motion was used to great effect in Aliens (1986), Beetlejuice (1988), and Michael Jackson's Moonwalker (1988). 

One of the Terror Dog models (with a wire skeleton) used in Ghost Busters.

Is Stop Motion Still Relevant?

Although considered, no stop-motion was used in Jurassic Park.

In 1993, Spielberg asked Phil Tippett to create dinosaur models for Jurassic Park. A test video was made, but Spielberg later decided to drop the idea of using stop-motion in his film, favoring animatronics and CGI. Although Tippett was somewhat dismayed at first, (He reputability stated, "I've become extinct!" upon hearing the news), he adapted to the changing film industry by switching over CGI and continues to provide character designs for various extinct animals, mechanical monsters, and mythological creatures. Tippet has kept busy with his spare time, however, on a self-funded project entitled "Mad God", which harkens back to his earlier work.

Reflecting Tippet's fate and the dominance of CGI, recent live-action / stop-motion tend to be lower budget or independently produced. (One could also argue that stop-motion has also been generally avoided due to the horrific box office bomb, Monkeybone [2001].) Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer has directed several disturbing, but daringly unique movies that blend both puppetry and animation with live actors. His best known works are arguably Alice (1988), Faust (1994), and Lunacy (2005). Elf (2003) featured numerous stop-motion characters (a snowman, puffin, polar bear cub, and a narwhale) in homage to the old Rankin-Bass Christmas specials. Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) had undersea wildlife that was also stop-motion animated. The film fared better than Monkeybone, but wasn't exactly successful with audiences or critics either. Stop-motion is primarily used this days in parody shows such as Robot Chicken (2005- present), foreign films such as Kooky (2010), and has largely moved on to animated features.

Today, stop-motion is primarily found in smaller, independent live-action productions.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Modern Times (Review)

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Company: United Artists

Year: 1936

Country: USA

Work is hell, but this movie is bliss.

To say that Charlie Chaplin was one of the most famous actors who ever lived is an understatement. Chaplin was also the director, screenwriter, editor, producer and composer of all of his films. Chaplin's comedic films managed to and still continue to entertain due to their timeless subjects. Chaplin's most famous creation, the character of the Little Tramp, a bumbling vagrant with a childlike, goodhearted personality, is one of cinema's most recognizable figures. The Tramp does his best to appear like a gentlemen, despite his ill fitting clothes, and commonly falls victim to circumstance and consequence. Arguably, the most acclaimed films the Tramp starred in are The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1928), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936). 

Modern Times is notable for a few reasons. It was the last of Chaplin's major films to feature the Tramp character, his first true "talkie", and was inspired by working conditions during the Great Depression. Modern Times follows the misadventures of the Tramp who is a factory worker on an assembly line. After enduring many grueling hours tightening bolts, being watched by his unsympathetic boss, and being used as guinea pig for the Bellows Automatic Feeding Machine (which badly malfunctions), the Tramp undergoes a major nervous breakdown. He gets sucked into the large gears of a machine and runs amok in the factory, only to be taken away by the medical ward. Once cured, the Tramp finds himself in various compromising conditions (being mistaken for a communist leader, getting sent to jail, and accidentally ingesting smuggled cocaine) before running into an orphaned gamine girl played by Paulette Goddard. The two then decide to travel together while avoiding the law and attempting to find steady jobs. Despite that the Tramp and the Gamine are constantly on the move and face many challenges, they remain cheerful, hopeful that, if they work hard enough, they can achieve a successful life together.

The Tramp quickly discovers that not all technology is practical... 

Besides being funny, this movie also manages to convey a great deal of social commentary. Modern Times's unflattering portrayal of the treatment of industrial workers apparently caused some controversy when the film was initially released. In the opening of Modern Times, the workers are seen flooding into the factory's gates, likened to a flock of a sheep, which reflects the workers' lose of self identity as they monotonously repeat the same tasks over and over. On the other hand, the factory's boss is shown to be completely dismissive of the welfare of his workers, being more concerned about how efficiently the factory runs and completing his crossword puzzles. Indeed, the factory's impressive machines, the exploitation of the workers, and the authoritarian mannerisms of the boss seem to recall the allegorical German film Metropolis (1927). The Tramp's playful antics keep this film from becoming too dire, however. When the Tramp goes on his crazy rampage in the factory, Chaplin plays the role very gleefully, obviously taking delight in wrecking all the machines on the set and squirting oil in the eyes of other factory employes.  (Chaplin grew up as a poor child in the slums of England, so he had reasons to poke fun at industry and people in positions of higher power.)

The looming presence of the Tramp's boss and the conditions he endures at work are certainly still relatable today. 

Paulette Goddard's performance as the orphaned waif is just as endearing as Chaplin's acting. A lovable street urchin, the Gamine is very hardworking and resourceful. First appearing about twenty minutes into the film, Goddard immediately catches the audience's attention while she is stealing bananas on a boat. She throws them to other street childern, carrying a knife in her mouth. She is one of the homeless people in this film who are portrayed sympathetically. Her family are victims of the broken wage system during the 1930s. They only steal because they need to do so in order to survive. The Gamine's scenes range from tragic (involving the death of her father and separation from her sisters) to whimsically lighthearted (when she and the Tramp try to live like a middle class family in a ramshackle house; or when she frolics in the toy display in an apartment store).  

Fun Fact: While Goddard was in Modern Times she was dating Chaplin and later would become his third wife.

Modern Times also manages to be very touching and sweet, but never overly so that it comes off as saccharine or too idealistic. Chaplin's innocent, cheerful portrayal of the Tramp manages to make otherwise serious scenes easier to swallow (and just plain fun). The faith that the Tramp and the Gamine put in one another is rather touching. The Gamine is forever loyal to the Tramp because he helped her escape the police. She puts up with his constant mistakes, loss of jobs, and frequent arrests. Likewise, the Tramp is always there to cheer up the Gamine when she most needs it. This film sends out a wonderful message that certainly spoke out to people during the Great Depression, and still does today. Life can be cruel and seemingly miserable. But as long as we keep our spirits up and continue trying, we can continue to move on.

Even in the midsts of depression, there is still hope.

Very few bad things can be said about this film. Although, the plot of Modern Times may seem simplistic by today's standards, its themes are universal and it isn't lined with any unnecessary frills. Modern Times is far more of a silent film than it is a 'talkie', but Chaplin's score and cinematography do a fine job of delivering emotional resonance and believability. Certain filmmakers today could learn a lot from the cheerful, confident direction of Chaplin's films. Sure, dark pulp stories can be great if they are directed skillfully, but overly cynical, violent films fail to connect with audiences emotionally and often don't create memorable (or likable) characters. 

Anybody who hasn't seen Modern Times is missing out on an essential piece of cinema. A good film is never to old to watch, and this one is a classic. There is a reason why it continues to be talked about despite being almost eighty years of age. Modern Times manages to be one of those few movies that is enjoyable to all ages and demographics. Next time it plays at your local film festival, run don't walk, to see Modern Times on the large screen. 

Nothing says 'the end' like walking out into a picturesque background! 

Rating: 5/5 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Vampire Hunter D (Review)

Director: Tooyo Ashida

Company: CBS Sony Group Inc., Movic, Ashi Productions

Year: 1985

Country: Japan

Some 'cult classics' are obscure for a good reason.

 The one downside of having a movie blog is that, once in a while, you have watch something really terrible in order to not look like a flakey reviewer. Vampire Hunter D is such a film, despite having a small but vocal following. It contains little more than shock value, excessive gore, awkward animation, and other such B movie related problems. If Ed Wood had lived to see this atrocity, he would have eaten his heart out. Vampire Hunter D is notable for a few reasons other than its awfulness. It was one of the earliest anime films to be made for the OVA (Original Home Video) market and also one of the first anime titles made available to US audiences on home media. Vampire Hunter D is based on a manga of the same name by Hideyuki Kikuchi which follows the exploits of a half-human half-vampire ( 'dhampire') bounty hunter who is hired to kill corrupt vampire lords in a post apocalyptic future.

Although the plot has interesting enough sounding set up, it is executed very poorly. Vampire Hunter D opens with Doris Lang, the teenage daughter of a deceased werewolf hunter, patrolling the countryside. Doris (who wears so little clothing that she could be mistaken as Sailor Moon's slutty older sister) is suddenly attacked by Count Magnus Lee when she intrudes his territory. Doris manages to get away, but is bitten by the lustful Count who plans on making her his new bride. (There is a major plot hole here: If the Count really wanted Doris, couldn't he have just taken her immediately to his castle?) To make matters worse, Doris is also being courted by the town's resident sleaze, Gerco Rohman, and she and her younger brother, Dan, are ostracized when her bite marks are discovered. Fortunately, Doris receives help from the mysterious horseman D, who promises to protect her and prevent Magnus Lee from abducting her on the next full moon.

From here on out, the storyline begins to fall apart and tediously repeat itself. Doris, who is initially introduced as a street smart, competent fighter, is quickly reduced to the tired distressed damsel role. She is kidnapped then rescued, kidnapped then rescued, kidnapped...over and over again. All of the horror cliches are here, oddly mixed with western cowboy fare and science fiction. Count Magnus Lee looks like a Godfather wannabe and his minions resemble punk rockers. Gratuitous gore is shown when D kills his enemies, spurting blood everywhere, but it fails to entrain or be truly 'scary.' D is often shown to be way more powerful than any of his enemies, making everything about this film all the more predictable. Really, Vampire Hunter D leaves the audience either repulsed or bored more than anything else.

Take it from Doris, real vampires don't sparkle.

As this OVA was made on a seemingly tight budget, it suffers artistically which only becomes more and more apparent as Vampire Hunter D ages. The only nicely drawn thing in this film is its atmospheric backgrounds which certainly help heighten its bleak and often disturbing mood. The character designs are decent but unoriginal at best, and lack the sophistication of the manga's original artwork. At worst, certain characters just come off looking comically stupid. The animation itself is very poor, being constantly off model, choppy, or disproportionately drawn. Vampire Hunter D's sound effects are poorly synchronized and its soundtrack is very dated. It's not 'so retro that its cool again' dated, its just dated... Badly dated. (If you hate your ears and eyes, watch the trailer.)

The eerie backgrounds are one of the few things good about this movie.

Its inconsistent and sloppy character animation are the least of its problems.

The side characters in Vampire Hunter D are consistently annoying, stereotypical, or flat. Dan, Doris's kid brother, is particularly problematic. He does not add anything to the plot. His only purposes seem to be acting cute and providing comic relief that fails to be funny. Whenever he tries to solve things himself, Dan is only captured or held hostage. Dan's relationship with his sister is never deeply developed nor is he properly introduced to the audience. Frankly, if Dan died nobody watching this movie would have really cared. Another obnoxious and unexplained presence is D's living left hand. This left hand has a face and regularly talks with D when he is brooding over something when no one else is around. The left hand also posses the ability to fight off enemies by sucking in air and can reattach itself to D if it is cut off from his arm. The writers apparently ran out ideas.

D possesses a symbiote wise cracking left hand...for reasons unexplained.   

Instead focusing on trying to 'look cool', generating camp value, and showing off how many gallons of blood can get past the censors, Vampire Hunter D should have focused more on creating memorable personalities and relatable character interactions. Even successful horror films need these elements. Is there anything good about this movie? Well, a few of the film's subplots were slightly promising and likely could have been developed more if this movie had a more competent director. Doris's doomed relationship with D could have provided some merit if it were given more screen time. Doris was one of the few people who actually trusted D despite his mixed heritage, but D had to restrain any thoughts of romance in order to prevent giving in to his vampiric side of nature. Likewise, Count Lee's daughter, Lamica, is an interesting character. She constantly called out her father for not acting as a proper aristocratic vampire should. Ironically, towards the end of the film, Lamica learns that she too is a half-breed dhampire, and is left torn between her loyalties to Lee and D. Unable to deal with the shock of her discovery, Lamica chooses to die alongside her father as the Count's castle crumbles to dust.

However, the negative aspects of Vampire Hunter D far outweigh any of its positive factors. They prevent the OVA any chance of redeeming itself in the eyes of the viewer. Almost everything in this film reflects all the negative stereotypes that are often unjustly associated with many other animes: nonsensical plotlines, crappy animation, 'adult themes' that fail to be intellectually mature, unnecessary nudity, graphic violence, and so on. Do yourself a favor. Avoid this film. Avoid it at all costs.  

Count Lee, the audience sympathies with your disgust and boredom. 

Rating: 1/5

About the Dub: It's laughably bad which is probably because the dub was done by the infamous Carl Macek of the now defunct Streamline Pictures. Although the original Japanese voice work was nothing to write home about, it was tolerable. The English 1990s dub is a rather different story. Dan sounds like he was voiced by a middle aged British lady, Lamica has a terrible fake Romanian accent, and many of the other voices sound like nails grating on a chalkboard. To make matters worse, much of the original dialogue was changed for the dub, watered down, or plagued with lame jokes. But then again, given how terrible this movie is the dub seems appropriate in an ironic sort of way.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Important Blog Update!

Hello fellow bloggers! I have been pretty busy recently with a paid internship and my internet was out for a while, so I have been posting somewhat less frequently. However, I should be able resume my usual (one post a week) schedule within a short period of time.

On another note, this site is just over half a year old and I have already received over 10,000 page views. I'm touched. I don't really know how to express my happiness, but this GIF of Zenigata dancing with Fujiko comes pretty close. (Sadly, Zenigata still probably dances better than I can, but I digress.) I also plan on launching a tumblr page to supplement my blog, but only time well tell when that happens.