Posted in: Animation, Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD

Blu-ray/DVD: ‘Dark Knight’ and ‘White Zombie’

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 2 (Warner) completes the DC Universe Animated Original adaptation of Frank Miller’s landmark graphic novel, with Peter Weller voicing old man Bat with the cold edge of an angry survivor and Michael Emerson taking on The Joker with a perfectly underplayed glee for chaos.

Like the first half (released in 2012), this adaptation (directed by TV animation veteran Jay Oliva) manages to capture the best and the worst of Frank Miller: along with the savage deconstruction of superhero fantasy is a glib satire of social liberalism as blind hysteria and criminal enabling that makes Ayn Rand look measured. Miller’s heroes, however, are not captains of industry but vigilantes and old soldiers beholden only to justice in a world where the figures of authority are more interested in self-image than public good. Which makes Batman the great libertarian hero: the maverick loner more interested in protecting individuals than institutions and making sure the most savage criminals are duly punished (there is a real streak of Old Testament retribution in Miller’s take). The Miller philosophy is pared down to the bone in the inevitable showdown between Superman (voiced by Mark Valley), the patriotic good soldier dedicated to protecting the country and following the orders of his commander in chief, and Batman, beholden to nothing but his conscience.

While any direct-to-disc animated adaptation is doomed to fall short of Miller’s sensibility, this is as good as we could hope for. Oliva takes some shots right out of Miller’s graphic novel, and though the clean line-drawing animation can’t match the heavy wood-cut slashes that look carved in to the graphic novel, the big, blocky, heavy character designs of Bats and Supes are preserved, as is the gruesomeness of the smiling dead left behind by the Joker. And not only does this have a body count appropriate to the savagery of the world gone wild violence, but it is shockingly cold-blooded. Oliva creates an eerie atmosphere for the last act showdown, which occurs under the gentle fall of nuclear fallout looking like ashy snow, and makes blindly-aggressive Cold Warrior Ronald Reagan look even more like the walking dead than Miller did in the original graphic novel.

Blu-ray and DVD, with the featurettes “Superman vs. Batman: When Heroes Collide” and “The Joker: Laughing in the Face of Death,” the dense 45-minute “From Sketch to Screen: Exploring the Adaptation Process with Jay Oliva,” two bonus episodes from “Batman: The Animated Series” and one from “The Brave and the Bold,” and a sneak peak at the upcoming “Superman Unbound.” The Blu-ray also includes a digital comic excerpt from Miller’s original graphic novel, a bonus DVD, and an UltraViolet digital copy for download and instant streaming.

The 1932 White Zombie (Kino), from the Halperin brothers (producer Edward and director Victor), effectively and evocatively recreates the misty gothic mood of the Universal horrors of the day on a B-movie . The divinely satanic-looking Bela Lugosi sinks his teeth into his best role since Dracula, a languorous hypnotist and voodoo master who dominates the film with his assured bearing and cruel control. Not just menacing, he is ferociously vindictive, supplying the local mills with an army of zombie laborers and turning his enemies into his personal zombie servants. The film drips with atmosphere from the opening credits, accompanied by eerie chanting, and the arrival of our romantic couple (Madge Bellamy and Robert Frazer) in Haiti in the dead to night, where they witness a mysterious midnight burial and coming face to face with Murder Legendre (Lugosi with goatee and searing eyes), who becomes obsessed with the young woman. The supporting roles are stiff and mostly overacted, but Lugosi is mesmerizing and the oppressive atmosphere of fear and almost perpetual night inhabited by the lumbering, hollow-eyed walking dead is remarkably effective. In one scene, as Frazier drowns his sorrows in drink at a Haiti nightclub, the money-saving suggestion of crowds through off-screen sound and shadows cast on the wall becomes a nightmarish scene of a man haunted by the disembodied ghosts of the island. Moments like this make me think of the film as the poverty row answer to Dreyer’s Vampyr, one of the overlooked classics of early American horror and the first true zombie film.

This bargain bin regular is remastered from a fine grain print and presented on Blu-ray and DVD in both digitally remastered and “raw” versions, the former clean and scrubbed of texture, the latter scratch and grainy and full of detail. Also features commentary by film historian Frank Thompson, a six-minute interview with Bela Lugosi from 1932, a gallery of stills, and the trailer from the 1951 re-issue.

More releases at Videodrone on MSN

Posted in: Animation, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Reviews

Castles in the Sky: Ten Films from Studio Ghibli

Castles in the Sky: Miyazaki, Takahata and the Masters of Studio Ghibli , a retrospective celebrating the great animation studio of Japan, kicks off on Friday, June 22 at The Uptown.

The series features 15 films from Ghibli, the studio created by animation master Hayao Miyazaki, on 35mm film and plays for two weeks at The Uptown. I profiled the series for Seattle Weekly here. As a  companion piece, I offer thumbnails notes on ten standout films in the series. See SIFF Cinema for the complete schedule.

Castle in the Sky

Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind (1984) – Hayao Miyazaki’s second feature and the feature debut of Studio Ghibli. Set on a faraway world of medieval castles and massive airships and splintered kingdoms, the story from Miyazaki follows an adventurous young princess who discovers the secret of the toxic jungle that spews poisonous pollen and breeds giant angry insects and the cure for her world, still recovering from a global war 1,000 years ago that almost destroyed the planet. Miyazaki’s fabulous images are full of a sense of wonder and his animation style is glorious and graceful. It’s a simple tale with a plucky heroine that became a hallmark of Miyazaki’s later films, and the themes (and even some of the story elements) would be revisited with greater complexity and resonance in Princess Mononoke. (Thursday, June 28)

Castle in the Sky (1986) is a grand adventure from Miyazaki’s private mythos, the odyssey of an orphaned girl with a magic crystal and a courageous young engineer’s apprentice is set in a world of magnificent flying machines and sky-born cities. Chased by a wacky pirate family and shifty, suspicious government agents, it all converges on the legendary floating castle of Laputa, an ancient civilization in the clouds which holds the key to great power. (Friday, June 22 and Monday, June 25)

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Posted in: Animation, by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Film Reviews

‘Madagascar 3’: Third Trip Is a Charmer

Third in the lucrative series, this European adventure grabs you up for a brightly colored, fast-action odyssey full of energy and pizzazz — and never lets go. Three-dimensional effects are integral in Madagascar 3, climaxing in a spectacularly surreal laser light show under the Biggest Top ever. All in all, a Mad-cap romp that plays it straight, generating warmhearted laughs for kids rather than piling up nonstop popcult allusions and innuendo for the pleasure of snickering adults.

Madagascar 3

Stuck in Africa, the Madagascar menagerie are still jonesing to get back to the little Central Park zoo they once called home. When best buds penguins and chimps take off in their Rube Goldberg flying machine, destination Monte Carlo, the gang of four — Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) — snorkel their way over to the Riviera.

There, in a luxe casino, the hilariously grotesque “King of Versailles” — comprised of two chimps masquerading as a Louis XIV dandy, including a ginormous powdered wig, whiteface, lounge lizard mustache and lipstick — is busy breaking the bank when lion, giraffe, hippo and zebra literally drop in. Needless to say, chaos and widespread destruction ensue, triggering wild pursuit all over Europe by a fanatical French animal control cop.

Continue reading at MSN Movies

Posted in: Animation, Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

DVD/Blu-ray: ‘The Secret World of Arrietty” and other Hayao Miyazaki wonders

The Secret World of Arrietty (Disney), the latest animated film from Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli, adapts Mary Norton’s classic children’s book “The Borrowers” in the old school art of hand-drawn animation. Hiromasa Yonebayashi is the director but the sensibility is very much Miyazaki, who produced, co-scripted, and planned the production.

The Secret World of Arrietty

Miyazaki is a living treasure in Japan, a revered storyteller and beloved filmmaker whose work is treated with the same respect as Disney classics in the U.S., and he has long offered strong, brave girls as the protagonists of his stories. Arrietty is yet another dynamic heroine, a teenage girl only a few inches tall who lives hidden in the floorboards of a human home with her father and mother.

She knows of no other Borrowers (as these little people are called, because they “borrow” things the humans won’t notice missing in their nighttime forages) so, despite her own instincts, she befriends the sickly boy who has moved into the house and quietly observed her presence.

The images are marvelous, a lovely example of Ghibli hand-drawn animation and a reminder of the kind of personality that comes through this kind of art, but it is the compassion and depth of character that makes it such a moving film. So rarely do films for kids explore themes of mortality and isolation with such delicacy and depth.

Also new this week is the Blu-ray debut of two classic animated features from Studio Ghibli. Castle in the Sky (Disney) and Whisper of the Heart (Disney), written and produced by Miyazaki and directed by Yoshifumi Kondo.

Continue reading at Videodrone

Posted in: Animation, by Andrew Wright, Contributors, Film Reviews

Anarchy in the CG

Despicable Me

Me and my minions

Dir: Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud

Sincere Question: During this, Pixar’s Golden Age of Animation, is it somehow ungrateful to wish for an occasional decent deviation from Masterpiece after Masterpiece, in the way that Bugs Bunny and Co. served as a hellzapoppin’ corrective to Disney’s dignified heft? (Despite the repeated efforts of Dreamworks, the mere presence of pop culture references and ’70s songs on the soundtrack just doesn’t scratch the itch, somehow.) Call me Looney, but the more resonant and spectacular Pixar’s output becomes, the greater the risk of reducing the surface pleasures of watching drawings (or renderings or whatever) do things that real people can’t.

Despicable Me would likely be enjoyable on any terms, but in the wake of the heart-wrenching Toy Story 3, its emphasis on Rube Goldbergian pratfalls and spittakes seems almost heroic. Much like last year’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, it recognizes the virtues of letting a cartoon be, well, cartoony, no matter how newfangled the technology.

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Posted in: Animation, Film Reviews

Review: Watership Down

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Establishing a mythology of creation and existence based upon the centrality of rabbits in the frame of things, Watership Down endows itself with a mythic sense that takes a familiar shape. It divides roughly into three parts: the first of these deals with the journey of a group of rabbits from an old, doomed warren to a new place of settlement; the second with their quest to secure females with whom to populate the place (a sort of Rape of the Sabine Bunnies); and the third with the final battle in defense of the new warren, a baptism of blood that seems to officially open the new world. Placing this leporine Aeneid in a genuinely cosmic context are the appearance of a creator, named Frith, and a “Black Rabbit” of death, a sort of grim leaper.

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Posted in: Animation, DVD

M Butterfly and The Sky Crawlers – DVDs for the Week

M Butterfly (Warner)

Warner Home Video releases a quartet of DVD debuts, all with troubled critical histories: loved by some, disliked by many, largely ignored by most. And that’s what makes their arrivals so interesting: it gives us a chance, an excuse even, to revisit the films. That said, I’m up to my eyeballs in the Seattle International Film Festival and thus only had time to see one of them, but it was a revelation.

M Butterfly on DVD
M Butterfly on DVD

David Cronenberg’s M Butterfly was largely misunderstood or, worse yet, dismissed by most critics when it was released in 1993. The coolly dispassionate screen adaptation of the David Henry Hwang’s Broadway play, itself based on a true story, is in the same key as Cronenberg’s Crash and A History of Violence, and explores the same issues of identity, sexuality and self-definition that he’s been exploring all his career. But in 1993, coming in the wake of The Crying Game and Farewell My Concubine, this elegantly directed period film struck critics as wrong-footed. Jeremy Irons’ René Gallimard, a French diplomat in 1964 Peking, falls in love with Chinese Opera star Song Liling (John Lone), who becomes his fantasy of the submissive Asian woman, as much René’s creation as Song’s. Because, of course, Song is a man. It’s not only obvious to us but to everyone around René that Song is a man (if not as it plays out, then in retrospect – the odd looks René gets as he comes backstage at the Chinese Opera to see Song and the disgust on the face of Song’s servant as René visits Song’s home are not for Song but for René). His mistake is not a misreading of the culture – that would require some knowledge of it – but a complete ignorance of it.  Anyone who knows anything about Chinese Opera understands that the female parts are  all played by men, as least before the Cultural Revolution put an end to all such decadent and chauvinistic practices. There’s plenty of evidence that René sees only what he wishes to in the Chinese culture, from the trap that he and his wife fall in to accepting all the western assumptions of Chinese clichés to his disastrous predictions of the Chinese response to American policy in Vietnam. Just like the opera that gives the film its name (and the name that René gives Song: Butterfly), it’s a western fantasy of idealized, self-sacrificing Asian submitting to the power of the west with demure grace and romanticized tragedy. In other words (Song’s words specifically), another example of imperialist arrogance in a foreign land.

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Posted in: Animation, DVD, Pre-code Cinema

Pre-Code Paramount and Fleischer’s Superman – DVDs for the Week

Pre-Code Hollywood Collection / Cleopatra: 75th Anniversary Edition

Six sexy pre-code films from Paramount Pictures
Six sexy pre-code films from Paramount Pictures

Universal Home Video plunges into the sex, sin and bathtub gin of pre-code Hollywood films with their answer to the “Forbidden Hollywood” series from Warner. The Pre-Code Hollywood Collection is branded as part of the “Universal Backlot Series” but it actually collects six films Paramount Pictures (Universal owns the rights to the early Paramount catalogue), a studio with a sensibility as different as can be from the snappy, punchy, street-smart Warner attitude. Paramount boasted a more elegant style and opulent touch, more glamour and soft-focus gloss than the working class Warner films and a roster of directors that included Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg, Cecil B. DeMille and Mitchell Leisen, a director who began as a costume designer and art director on Douglas Fairbanks adventures and Cecil B. DeMille spectacles.

I bring up Leisen in particular because his 1934 Murder at the Vanities is a highlight of the set, a combination backstage musical, showbiz comedy and murder mystery, all with the sex and smart-alecky attitude and snappy pace of the best pre-code studio pictures. Leisen mentored under DeMille as the director transformed himself from silky sex comedy director to self-promoting epic filmmaker and king of the spectacle. Leisen’s earlier film, the classy drama Death Takes a Holiday, is a somewhat lugubrious production but by Murder at the Vanities, Leisen starts to come into his own as a deft director of light romantic comedy and cool, clever Hollywood entertainment. It’s based on a play by Earl Carroll, creator of the “Vanities” stage spectacles, and while he doesn’t appear in the film as such, Carroll’s presence hovers over the entire film through cagey name dropping. Carl Brisson and Kitty Carlisle (as the singing stars and romantic sweethearts) headline the show onstage but the offstage antics by fast-talking manager Jack Oakie (playing a former newspaperman and all-around wise guy trying to prove himself to boss Carroll) steal the film. He outmaneuvers thickheaded Irish cop Victor McLaglen (in his usual hammy lug of a performance) in a race to solve a murder before the curtain drops and handily wins the battle of wits with snappy repartee and smartly delivered quips.

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