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|28 reviews in total|
As someone who has watched all of the original "Futurama" episodes
several times each, I've mostly enjoyed the new episodes while making
some allowances for a creative team getting its act together. Some of
the episodes were very good, some just OK, none quite up to the level
of the best original Fox episodes. As it happens, "The Prisoner of
Benda" was the last of the new episodes I had a chance to watch, and it
knocked me for a loop!
"Prisoner" makes use of the old science-fictional device of mind-swapping along with the associated themes of making use of the potential for freedom in being someone other than one's self, the discovery of unexpected limitations in one's "new self", and the renewed appreciation of one's previously taken-for-granted advantages. One new wrinkle is the condition that two given minds, once switched, can't be switched back (an inconvenience initially known only to the first two mind-switchers, and discovered by them the hard way). Add to this various personal hangups on the part of the Planet Express crew (does Fry only love Leela for her body? might Zoidberg be less repulsive if he was a human?) and Bender's limitless capacity for troublemaking, and things spin out of control very quickly.
This is perhaps the least predictable "Futurama" episode ever; it keeps adding new surprises and plot twists right up to the end. Among other treats, it includes some sexy "fan-service" bits as well as one scene that can only be described as the very opposite of "fan-service", both to hilarious effect. The episode's tone can turn on a dime, though; some scenes possess unusual emotional depth, including one bizarre, funny and touching scene featuring Scruffy the janitor, usually the series' most enigmatic figure. Remarkably, "Prisoner" stays true throughout to "Futurama"'s well-established characters, maintaining their believability even while putting them through one weird change after another.
I found "Prisoner" the most uproariously funny "Futurama" episode since "Roswell That Ends Well". Both episodes take outrageous delight in stretching the show's continuity fabric beyond previously imaginable limits, and the sustained possibility of breaking the show beyond repair powers the episodes' humor. One reason I've been on the fence with the new episodes of "Futurama" is because episodes like "Roswell" set such a high standard, but now I'm ready to stay with them until they come up with another one. (I just hope we don't have to wait another nine years for one this funny!)
There's not a lot I can add to what's been said about "X2", but I did want to kick in my short personal take on the movie. Even though I'm not an effects maven, the variety and sheer visual wonder of the effects in "X2" bowled me over. They wouldn't have been as worth watching, however, if Bryan Singer & co. hadn't balanced them off with effective character sequences as well. Though these aren't necessarily up to the level of those in a good movie for grown-ups, they make the film come closer to capturing the "soap-opera" appeal of the X-Men comic than the first movie did. Superhero movies seem to be steadily improving, so to call this one "the best in the genre" isn't exactly an original tactic. Except maybe for last year's "Spider-Man", though, "X2" is as close to a classic film as the superhero genre has produced.
I've not read Louis Sachar's original book HOLES, but his movie adaptation
not only works splendidly as a film, it contains so much story
material--with several interlocking mysteries variously turning upon class
conflict, prejudice, thwarted desire, and the consequences of personal
transgressions being passed down through the generations--that I'm prepared
to say it's as faithful a translation of the book as one might care for
(though I'll seek out the book to make sure, of course). Few filmmakers
could have handled the various backstories' complexities, but HOLES delivers
its flashbacks matter-of-factly and with faith in the audience's ability to
follow along and put the pieces together. (And while it IS a kids' film, it
offers a lot to adult viewers; anyone who enjoyed John Sayles's LONE STAR,
for instance, should see HOLES.) No Hollywood formula could possibly
contain the plot, and a lot of tension results because it's nearly
impossible to predict what's going to happen from moment to moment. While
the ending was a little too perfect, Sachar so ingeniously worked even
apparent throwaway bits into the narrative logic, not to mention coming up
with a perfect resolving symbol for one of the generational stories, that
I'll not quibble.
Andrew Davis's direction was so eye-catching-yet-efficient that on the basis of this film and THE FUGITIVE I'm ready to venerate him as the reincarnation of Michael Curtiz. The cast was good-to-excellent; while Jon Voight, Tim Blake Nelson and Sigourney Weaver gave their own spins to the present-day villains, the juvenile actors largely carry the movie. Shia LaBeouf and Khleo Thomas's lead performances deserve to be singled out, but even the boys with little screen time make the most of it.
As a highly original story executed with spirit and commitment to doing it right, HOLES is one of my favorite movies of the last few years, likely to top my "year's best" list.
I'm not the only one who thinks "Citizen Kane" is a great film because Orson
Welles and his collaborators thoroughly exploited the potential of the sound
film in telling their story, combining fine acting, intricate plotting and
editing, and well-composed visuals and sounds in ways that just NAIL the
viewer. Very few films have ever juggled so many filmmaking resources so
well, but one of the few to do so, in my opinion, is the English
clay-animated short "The Wrong Trousers".
As in "Kane", Nick Park and his crew of animators expertly combine a variety of methods in telling their story. The "acting," or rather the character animation, is wonderful, more so for the dog Gromit than for the goofy-looking human Wallace; Gromit's subtle expressions conveying everything we need to know about what he's thinking. Even more subtle is the penguin lodger, with a deliberately bland face but expressive gestures and body language. The plot is ingenious, with hardly an ounce of fat, and perfectly paced, starting slowly and gaining momentum almost imperceptibly until the climax.
The visual storytelling is excellent, especially since so much has to be conveyed without dialogue, and the clarity of the climactic sequence at the end marks a high point for film editing. The staging includes dramatic lighting and other bits of visual texture with which few animators bother. Finally, the music is one of "Trousers"'s most overlooked features--the sequence in which Gromit leaves in the rain while the penguin watches from the window offers a neat demonstration of music's effectiveness as a storytelling tool.
I don't really think "The Wrong Trousers" is really BETTER than "Citizen Kane", in an artistic sense. Of course, Orson Welles didn't try to make "Kane" as a 30-minute animated film with only three characters (two of whom are silent), either. As with "Kane", however, I get more out of "The Wrong Trousers" every time I watch it.
Forget all the rhetoric about montage theory and constructivism--"The Man
with the Movie Camera" is just an amazing film to watch. Hardly any other
movies convey the vitality of a society so comprehensively and so
I know very well that this impression is produced by clever cinematography and editing, and I know that director Dziga Vertov wants me to know this--indeed, that's part of what the film's about. I also know that this society's excited delight with modernity was tinged by fear, which grew ever more dominant in Soviet society as the Stalin era advanced, ironically making it impossible to create such a daring, forward-looking piece of art as "The Man with the Movie Camera". I even understand the irony of this film's innovations being utilized in later documentaries which depict the darker side of modernity, from "The Plow That Broke the Plains" to "Koyaanisqatsi".
Even knowing all this, watching "The Man with the Movie Camera" (which I just did, in an auditorium with a DVD projector and a terrific sound system--the new score, based on Vertov's notes for the film but with definite affinities to Philip Glass's "Koyaanisqatsi" score, is terrific) still makes me was to learn Russian and take a time machine back to the U.S.S.R. in 1929, preferably with a camera of my own.
If I have to chose between seeing a film because of its critical
or seeing it because it looks like fun, most of the time I'll take the fun
one. (Not having to chose at all would be the ideal option, but this
an ideal world.) Since I'm an animation buff, I already had the "Jimmy
Neutron" movie on my "must-see" list, and this week seemed like a good
to see it. Yeah, it was fun. The question is, was it ENOUGH
As befits a movie about a boy genius, JN:BG shows off a lot of intelligence. There's a lot of wit, both visual (most of Jimmy's homemade gadgetry) and verbal (well, I liked the "Blair Witch" reference, anyway). The characters and objects are animated like puppets, but it's senseless to complain about it since this was so obviously an artistic choice. On the other hand, the outer-space sequences were genuinely wondrous. (More about this later.)
As for the characters and the plot, that's where things get sticky. The story idea (aliens kidnap all the adults in Retroville, and while the kids have fun for a while they realize it's up to them to rescue their parents) is intriguing, but its execution feels like a genre exercise, giving the characters plot coupons rather than choices. The characters themselves come off as either comic relief (Jimmy's friends Carl and Sheen) or plot functionaries (the villains, Jimmy's parents, and his nemesis-turned-ally Cindy Vortex), with only Jimmy himself showing much individuality. (This is not intended as a criticism of the voice cast, by the way; everyone from Debi Derryberry on down does a fine job.) Most of the character detailing occurs early on (Jimmy's preparations for school, Cindy's tai-chi-and-soda-pop exercises), but there's not enough of it.
About those space visuals: I noticed that two Hugo-winning artists, Bob Eggleton and Don Maitz, were credited as "conceptual designers." This indicates to me that more thought went into JN:BG's visuals than its plot. (By the way, I don't mean to slight the other artists who worked on JN:BG by singling out the two Hugo-winners, these are just names I know and I'm familiar with their work. I suppose it's too late to hope for an "Art of JN:BG" book by now, alas.) The writers-director John A. Davis, plus Steve Oedekerk, David N. Weiss, and J. David Stern-have a substantial list of credits between them, but none of them appear to have much experience with either space movies or adventure movies. Not that their conception of the movie was bad, but they let the plot swallow up the characters without giving much back in return.
Still, even if JN:BG is no "Monsters Inc." or "Shrek," it does compare favorably to "Osmosis Jones" and "Atlantis." However, if I haven't scared you off and you still want to see it, you might wait for its run in your local dollar theater.
If such gifted younger directors as Quentin Tarantino, Tim Burton, and
especially the Coen Brothers can attract hosannas for pastiches of/homages
to classic films, then there's certainly no harm in letting a gifted older
director/writer/performer try his hand at the same thing.
That said, I didn't find the overtones of screwball comedy some other viewers claim to see. The influences I detected included films of Billy Wilder--"Double Indemnity", since it dealt with insurance investigation, and "The Apartment", reflected in a romance between two characters at the insurance office. Charlize Theron's character could have stepped straight out of "The Big Sleep"; indeed, she's the only one who acts she's in a 1940's film.
The most notable influence, in my opinion, was Bob Hope. Woody Allen has always claimed Hope as an influence on his comic persona, but since Hope has a reputation as a straightforward comedian while Allen's comedy is so twistedly ironic, few people have taken Allen at his word. However, Hope in many ways can be considered the first comedian with a "neurotic" persona, and so many people followed in his footsteps that it's hard to appreciate his innovations today. It's not too hard to imagine "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" as a Bob Hope film; one might even imagine it as something written for Hope back in 1940, then shelved and lost until today.
Besides detecting influences, the chief pleasure in the film comes from watching the actors at work, especially Allen and leading lady Helen Hunt. The plot is interesting but not especially compelling, the visuals mostly functional, and while the dialogue is OK it's not up with the best of Allen's work. The actual delivery of the dialogue, however...that's different.
Allen, as a veteran insurance investigator who gets by on gut instinct, and Hunt, a newly hired efficiency expert whose operations threaten Allen's job (and whose intelligence and assertiveness threaten Allen personally), squabble throughout most of the film, and the only "screwball" aspect of it is that we know they're fated to be together by the end. Allen's role is a variation on his usual film persona, but within that persona he manages to convince us that he is a competent, though sometimes sleazy, investigator, and none of his actions and little of his dialogue are out of place for 1940. Hunt, on the other hand, seems more of a creature of the last twenty years or so; if time travel existed, one might think she'd emigrated from the present day to 1940. Since few movies set in the past fail to say something about the present in which they are made, this is excusable; indeed, some of Hunt's actions as an efficiency expert (such as organizing the files and pondering the wisdom of maintaining an in-house investigative department; both of these horrify Allen, naturally) could be considered the wave of the future, just as (in hindsight) this bright, unashamedly assertive female executive herself is.
It would be nice to think that there are purposeful deeper meanings in "Curse of the Jade Scorpion", since Allen's best earlier films worked equally well as comedy and introspection. While I could speculate on what its plot implies about Allen's psyche, I'd rather take this film as it was obviously intended, as unabashed light entertainment. It may be that Allen doesn't care anymore to reach deep within himself for material to move audiences, and to the extent that we remember the impact of such films as "Annie Hall", "Manhattan", "Hannah and Her Sisters", and "Crimes and Misdemeanors", "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" is unavoidably disappointing. This has not been a great year for films, however, so it still stands head and shoulders over most of the rest of what's out there now.
"Surogat" (mostly known in English-speaking countries as "Ersatz") was the
first film produced outside the USA to win an Oscar for "best cartoon".
While there were many great "foreign" cartoons in previous years,
"Surogat"'s Oscar was auspicious in that it marked the point at which the
mainstream of American animation took notice of such work. In view of the
course American animation eventually took, it's easy to see
"Surogat" itself shows evidence of American influence, specifically from the UPA studios. UPA's animators developed a style (really a range of styles) taking cues from modern art and graphic design. Figures were rendered iconically; what they stood for was more important than their exact resemblance to what they depicted. UPA used this style to tell fables for a presumed adult audience, and avoided cuteness and slapstick.
"Surogat" is an adult fable as well, but obviously director Dusan Vukotic and writer Rudolf Sremec didn't feel bound by UPA's anti-slapstick rule. Otherwise, their film could easily pass as UPA product, though it outdoes all but UPA's very best work. The figures consist of simple geometric shapes, and most of their movements are either parallel to one of their edges or else curvilinear in the manner of "rubber-hose" animation; in other cases, they simply "pop" from one pose to another. (An acquaintance of mine called it "a bunch of triangles and shapes hopping around." "The Simpsons" effectively parodied the style by taking advantage of attitudes like that.) Despite this minimalism, the characters are identifiable as characters, and within the boundaries of fable the story works just fine.
UPA's main influence on American animation lay not in its "artistry" so much as the way its style was easy to copy, and to transfer over to "limited" animation for television, a growth industry at the time. TV animators also watched cartoons like "Surogat" for potential shortcuts they could use in their work. (I believe one immediately influential aspect of "Surogat" was its music, a sort of advanced semi-jazzy big-band/orchestral piece that wouldn't be out of place in, say, a "Jetsons" episode.)
However, when a new-generation of animators went to work for Hanna-Barbera and attempted to take their work "back to basics", they took artistic cues from UPA and other "artistic"/"iconic" work of the 1950's which influenced H-B. Hence, the influence of "Surogat" shows up in such recent work as "Two Stupid Dogs", "Dexter's Laboratory", "The Powerpuff Girls", and (the most self-consciously "artistic" of this group) "Samurai Jack".
Unfortunately, "Surogat"/"Ersatz" is very hard (at least for Americans) to find on video. Janus put it on a collection of short films, but this would appear to be out of print; however, it may be found in some libraries, especially those with older or larger video collections.
...the world may never know. (The film that did take the "best
short" Oscar that year, "Anna and Bella", is very good, but it's no "Big
Snit". Both are available on Expanded Entertainment's "World's Greatest
Animation" compilation, in case you'd like to compare.)
"Snit" and its director, Richard Condie, have attracted so much attention that there's little for me to add. I'd like to note, however, that the film contains one of my very favorite single "shots" in an animated short, the one where the man opens the door to let the cat out. I don't want to give away the actual events depicted here, but the first time I saw the shot I was whipsawed from one mood to another, then seconds later to still another. That shot has never failed to affect me that way since. For this shot, and for the way Condie builds up to that set of moments, "The Big Snit" deserves the tag of "masterpiece".
...it could have been better. Give the Disney people credit not only for
attempting an original story rather than yet another adaptation, not only
for chosing a story that demanded a more mature manner than most of their
stuff, but for rendering that story with enough artistry to make compelling
viewing for the duration of a feature. Nevertheless, there were enough
flaws to partially mitigate "Atlantis's" considerable virtues, and the
nature of the flaws suggests that the filmmakers didn't know their own
film's strongest points.
The first major flaw is common among original fantasy movies--the filmmakers tried to cram too much story into too short a film. (Other victims of the syndrome include films as diverse as "A Close Shave" and "The Phantom Menace".) At the very least, they should have allowed the visuals some time to sink in, the better to awe the viewer. As it is, they barely have time enough to move the story along. Then too, all that neat Atlantean stuff to look at makes one wonder about the people who created and live among it, yet we never really learn much about the Atlanteans themselves, not even the king and the princess (the two major Atlantean characters). As few as ten more minutes could have done "Atlantis" a world of good.
The second major flaw grows directly out of the first--the characters are too shallow, and most of their distinctiveness comes out of their comic aspects. Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with an abundance of funny characters--indeed, most people ARE funny at least some of the time--but given the short time we get to know these people, we never get to see other sides to them, and the few bits of their backgrounds are told rather than shown (with a few minor exceptions for the main character). Thus, when they finally stand up to the bad guy, it's not because of any strength of character hinted at earlier, but because the story demands it.
(To be fair, most of the comedy is carried out well enough. Special thanks here to Don Novello, whose deadpan portrayal of the explosives expert [matched by an animation team led by Russ Edmonds] stands as the perfect riposte to the manic comic sidekicks which have plagued so many recent cartoon films.)
A few minor flaws involve matters of taste, so you're free to ignore them if you like. First, this is yet another film revealing the heavy hand of "Star Wars" among its obvious influences. At least the dogfights here take place in an atmosphere, so they're not as obviously impossible as the space-based dogfights in "Star Wars", but it's hard to believe the technology of 1914 could accomplish some of the things depicted here. (Maybe the story should have been set immediately after the World War rather than before it, even if it meant throwing out that one line about the Kaiser.)
James Newton Howard's music also showed a heavy "Star Wars" influence, which is too bad because he's capable of better. For one thing, John Williams's original "Star Wars" music itself derives heavily from early 20th century sources (notably Holst's "The Planets"), and it wouldn't have been out of line for Howard to draw upon some of them as well, considering the time of the story. Secondly, the intimations of gamelan in part of the closing credits music suggest a sense of wonder that would have greatly added to the visuals had similar music been used during the film proper.
Finally, I'm not sure I like the emphasis (also present in Disney's "Tarzan") on colonialist exploitation as a source of evil. For one thing, it was perhaps less appropriate in this movie than in "Tarzan", which had some ecological hooks on which to hang the message. Also, I consider it retrograde to suggest that the wielding of oppressive, exploitative power is a special sin of gun-wielding white males, rather than a potential temptation for any human being in the right place at the right time. (The backstory of Atlantis itself, once the most powerful society on Earth [in this movie anyway], suggests a way the latter option could have been rendered. Unfortunately, this is yet another thing we are told rather than given a chance to see and feel for ourselves.)
Nonetheless, the best parts of "Atlantis" are still wonderful to look at, and to wonder about. Too bad that in the quest to make a more "mature" film the Disney people chose to model "Atlantis" after "Star Wars" rather than "Snow White", because they had all the story material and artistry necessary for an American answer to "Princess Mononoke".
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