25 September 2010

Dead Leaves

What is Dead Leaves (2004)?

Fun. Pure, unadulterated fun. I mean, really, that's the best way I can explain it. At first I thought "insanity," but that doesn't quite work. I mean, the animation is pretty insane, but surprisingly, the plot was fairly coherent.

But yeah, it was fun. It was a lot of fun.

What's it about?
Okay, so two people wake up naked in the middle of a field and don't remember anything about who they are, where they came from, or how they got there. One is a girl with a circle marking around her eye, who takes the name Pandy (as in panda). The other is a guy with a TV set for a head who ends up going by Retro.

The two decide they need some clothes and supplies, so they go on a crime spree to steal themselves some necessities. Then they figure, hey, why not a car? The police show up and a crazy high-speed shoot-out ensues. Despite their overall success, they end up crashing and finally arrested, and they are sent to the prison on the moon. That prison is called Dead Leaves.

They end up breaking out of their cell and freeing the other prisoners through the power of their rocking hot bout of sex. You heard me. It was, apparently, that awesome. The prisoners aid them as they try to escape, including such characters as a man with a giant drill for a penis. Remember where I said it's surprisingly coherent? That's assuming you just kinda go with the flow for some of these details.

Anyway, they end up discovering the secret nature of the prison and start to get an idea of who they are and such. Really, though, the whole point of it seems to be...

Badass animation
To say that Dead Leaves is "well-animated" is somewhat awkward. The animation isn't smooth, as the frame rate is sometimes visible and there's a lot of repetition of frames and such. However, it doesn't feel like it's because the animators were just lazy or something. It's all part of the style, which is just completely over-the-top. There is a ton of stylization going on here. Just watch for yourself.

The film pretty much goes full throttle for its entire 55 minute run. The plot is full of all sorts of nonsense and weirdness, but it never goes all intense cerebral like Neon Genesis Evangelion or even FLCL. The basic plot is pretty easy to follow, and the rest is more just there for the fun of it—just to be silly and over-the-top.

Strangely, it kind of reminded me of Dan Kim's Paper Eleven, though far more light-hearted. However, both are very stylized in their own ways and while the plots originally seem like they are going to be very confusing and obtuse, by the end, it's all fairly simple and understandable.

Not really sure what else to say about it. I'm not going to try and dissect the meaning or something because I don't think that's really the point. The point is to have fun.

Anyway, this made me excited for Redline (2010) all over again, which looks like it's gonna have the same vibe to it, but is coming from the same people who made Taste of Tea (2004), which is one of my favourite films.

As a note, I watched this on Netflix Instant Streaming, so if you've got Netflix and like crazy awesome animation, be sure to check it out. Sadly, the only option is the English dub, but as I said earlier, dubs tend to be pretty solid these days and tend to work fine for animation. I really liked it, though, so I'll probably check out the DVD sometime (maybe even purchase) and watch the original Japanese.

22 September 2010


I finally got around to watching Upright Citizens Brigade: ASSSSCAT! (2007) tonight, and I figured I would share a few of my thoughts after viewing it.

Upright Citizens Brigade
The comedy troupe known as the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) is probably best known for their TV show of the same name, though readers of this blog may also recall me briefly mentioning it with regards to Dog Bites Man. I was first introduced to the group through the television show as well, ranking it just after Mr. Show in my list of favourite sketch comedy shows. (For those who are curious, Kids in the Hall and Monty Python vie with each other for third place.)

However, the actual original origins of the troupe was as an improv group at Chicago's ImprovOlympic. Although ASSSSCAT! was done after the television show, it harkens back to the old days in many ways. A live, improv performance from the group was recorded and released as an hour-long TV special. The cast includes the four members from the show (Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh) joined by Horatio Sanz (part of the original improv troupe line-up) and Chad Carter, Sean Conroy, and Andrew Daly.

How it works
The resulting special is less a "film" than simply a recording of a live show. The purpose is, essentially, to give viewers at home a chance to see how ASSSSCAT! works without having to visit Los Angeles or New York.

The basic format goes like this: Members in the audience will shout out suggestions. These can be anything. The troupe will then have a celebrity guest act as "monologist," which basically means that they tell a story based on the suggested topic. The troupe then plays off ideas from the story to do improv sketches. After a while, they have the monologist tell a different story that is in some way related to their first one (though not necessarily the original audience suggestion), and they troupe will elaborate on those ideas again.

The difficulty in discussing improv
Ultimately, in the end, I'm somewhat at an impasse here. There's no real plot or characters to discuss. I could run through what the topics where and highlights from some of the sketches, but you might as just watch it yourself, then. Part of the fun of improv is not knowing what they're going to go with an idea.

I guess, really, I can only talk about how much I enjoyed it in a more general sense. Obviously, things are somewhat hit and miss with improv. However, UCB seemed to be pretty good at it, and when an idea just wasn't working and they could tell the audience wasn't really feeling it, they'd quickly switch out and start on a new trend. When they had something that was working, they would stick to it and flesh out the humour.

Successful improv comedy hinges on two things. First is, obviously, creativity. There needs to be a mind at work that will take a concept and draw from it something very unexpected. If you've worked at all in the retail business, you're probably aware that a lot of people have the same "spontaneous" idea for a joke given a situation. I can't tell you how many times I heard, "Hey, this is missing a price tag. Does that mean it's free? Hyuk hyuk hyuk!" I think a lot of people, if presented with, say, a banana, would pick it up and use it as a phone. Or if they're feeling lewd, hold it in front of their nether regions. UCB doesn't really use props, but I'm just illustrating something. Good comedy often involves surprise. It often makes us look at a situation in a new light, in a way we've never thought of before.

However, for improv troupes to work, they also need to be able to mesh together. There needs to be a similar sense of humour, and the group has to be able to read what the other members are getting at and follow it or change it in new and interesting ways. They also need to be able to see when their fellow members need them to step in to help, by either providing a new character in the situation or by switching out the scene altogether.

I would say that UCB is fairly competent in this regard, and the result is certainly entertaining. Again, it lulls at a few parts and at others it sores majestically, and I think that's just sort of part of how improv works.

All and all, ASSSSCAT! provides and interesting look at the roots of Upright Citizens Brigade and into the creative minds of its members. It's worth checking out if you're into improv or sketch comedy, as is the television series.

20 September 2010

Fievel Goes West

While I'm talking about kid's movies and nostalgia, I might as well talk about An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991), as I recently watched it on VHS while resting up. By the way, though not entirely an excuse, that's why I missed too days of posting. I was pretty miserable and didn't really know what to write about or what to say.

But I did watch Fievel Goes West while curled up under a blanket, and it certainly brought back its share of memories. I really liked this film as a kid, I think primarily for the cornball antics of the cowardly cat Tiger. Plus, what little boy doesn't love a film about a little kid who goes on to help save the day?

Considering that this film first came out when I was 3, and that I haven't watched it much since VHS went out of fashion, I wasn't really aware of things like animation techniques like I am now. As such, I never noticed how much rotoscoping occurs in this film.

For those who don't know, rotoscoping is an animation technique in which movement is recorded on film, and then the animators trace it. It was developed fairly early in the world of animation due to the fact that it greatly helped in the creation of realistic movement. For a great example of rotoscoping at work, see the video for Aha's "Take on Me."

Typically, rotoscoping is primarily used for character movement, but this is not the case in Fievel Goes West. Now, maybe a few scenes involved rotoscoped characters, but not to be significantly noticeable. No, it instead focused on rotoscoping the backgrounds. It seems like an odd choice, as backgrounds are generally fairly easy to "make-up," but it makes sense when you realize how mobile the "camera" is in this film.

While backgrounds may be fairly easy to draw when a camera is relatively stationary, the difficulty would likely increase when the camera is frequently spinning, soaring through the air, and generally moving all about the scene. Plus, it also allows for very realistic and ornate backgrounds, which is important when you realize that this film is, essentially, a Western for kids. What kind of Western would it be if it didn't have a beautiful, sprawling landscape?

The animation is honestly pretty good. Not necessarily my favourite, but the quality is pretty high and the mobility of the camera definitely adds a special cinematic flare to the whole film.

Voice acting
This is probably what I noticed most when watching this film after so many years. I didn't recognize these voices back then, but there were some awesome talents working on this film. For one, the "lawdog" sheriff Wylie Burp is voiced by Jimmy Stewart. And it's pretty obvious that it's Jimmy Stewart if you know what he sounds like. The characteristic stutter and everything is there. And it works exceedingly well.

But the other big surprise for me was John Cleese as the villainous Cat R. Waul. The voice is pretty much straight out of Monty Python, and while it worked, I could never quite get over the whole, "It's John Cleese!" thing. It was just so obviously him. Plus, I can't think of him anymore without thinking of these commercials. His voice isn't quite evil, but it fits in this the sort of high-class style of the character, as well of the comedic moments where the film reminds the viewer that, in the grand scheme of things, he's just a cat.

The one other weird "I know that voice!" character was the spider cohort of Cat, who was voiced by none other than Jon Lovitz. However, this one was less obvious, as it wasn't his normal acting voice. It was a lot stranger than usual, but if you've watched as much of The Critic as I have, parts of it will strike you as familiar. Still, I had to look this one up to make sure.

All and all, the voices are pretty good, though Fievel's seemed to fluctuate a bit in pitch or something. Sometimes, it just sounded higher pitched than others. But maybe my ill and feverish brain was just mishearing things. I didn't like Tiger this time through as much as I used to. His character was very, very silly, which I can see being appealing to me as a little kid, but I was now more amused by some of the more subdued humour from Wylie and Cat.

And again... Jimmy Stewart. Seriously. Apparently, this was his last film appearance. That's crazy to me.

Although I never had any specific feelings of nostalgia watching this film, it all felt strangely familiar, but in that déjà vu sort of way. You know, where you can't really say what's going to happen next but when it does happen, you're like, "Oh man! I remember this now!"

I definitely found myself appreciating it on a different level now. Before, I think I liked Tiger's silly antics and the full story, while I was now more interested in the voice acting and animation. Oh, and the music. I mean, really, this scene was just amazing:

That's right. The Blues Brothers. Do you really need anything else to convince you of how awesome this film is?

Anyway, watching it also made me realize... I should try and watch the original An American Tail (1986) sometime.

17 September 2010

Toy Story 3

Almost three months after its release, I finally saw Toy Story 3 (2010), in the theatre, no less. Gotta love those discount movie theatres.

Pixar does things right
As I said in my previous Disney post, I'm not entirely against 3D animation, but I am finding it boring as time goes by. Of course, I also tend to prefer 2D sprite work in video games whenever possible too. Part of it is just a personal preference.

That said, Pixar does it well. Before the film, there was a preview for Alpha and Omega, a film that both Emily and I agreed pretty much looks like student work. Especially compared to Pixar. Pixar's films look good (though I'll still probably prefer the look of, say, Fantasia).

However, the fact that they're on the cutting edge of computer animation is not what makes me like Pixar. No, it's because they are very good at...

Pixar knows how to tell a good story. Probably my favourite has been Up (2009). That first sequence showing Carl and Ellie's relationship is absolutely amazing.

As an aside, the Pixar short that proceeded Toy Story 3 was called Day and Night and likewise showcased their talent for storytelling. The majority of the story is conveyed visually, and though fairly simple, still has its own little nuances. Ultimately, two entities (one Day and one Night) meet and begin to fight over their differences, but gradually come to learn that each has their own unique things to offer which are new and exciting experiences for the other. As an additional aside, the animation in this was amazing, and I think I enjoyed it visually more than the feature. However, Toy Story 3's plot definitely affected me more.

For those of us who remember the original
Honestly, Toy Story 3 feels more like it was made for my generation than for younger kids. The basic premise is that Andy has grown old and no longer plays with his toys. As he is packing for college, he has to decide what to do, and though he decides to bring Woody with him to college, he plans on putting the rest in the attic. However, in a bit of a mishap, the rest of the toys eventually wind up in a daycare center, where they are abused by snot-nosed little toddlers who choose to throw them, paint on them, etc. Woody sets out to rescue them and bring them back to Andy.

While the story would certainly be entertaining for all ages, I think those of us who grew up watching the original Toy Story (1995) are going to feel its themes the most poignantly. And while theoretically it seems to be about kids just entering college, I think it's even more poignant after you've been away from home a little longer and had more time to reconnect with your childhood interests. I think most high schoolers and thus college freshman are still a little "too big" to admit that they, say, really loved Pokémon when they were kids. But the more time you spend in college, the more you remember that we all loved Pokémon. And before you know it, you've got Pokémon Red in your Gameboy and a VHS of old episodes on the TV and you're swapping stories with friends like you used to swap cards.

And when you first heard about Toy Story 3, well, it filled you with all sorts of feelings of nostalgia. And that's what this movie is really tapping into.

Not too big a man to cry
Towards the film's end, things are looking bleak for the toys and they all come together in support, and it obviously tugs at your heart strings a little. But given my experience with film, I could see it as largely Hollywood heavy-handedness and knew everything would be alright.

But at the very end, well, I don't want to ruin it, but it did get me. I'll admit it. I cried. Not because it was played up as this super sad event. In fact, it was kind of happy. But it was a kind of bittersweet nostalgic feeling I could really connect with. I'm an adult now. I'm getting married. And while I still try to have fun and keep the kid alive a little bit, the fact is, part of childhood is gone for good. Have you ever tried to sit down and really entertain yourself with your old toys like you used to? It's so hard now. You used to be able to imagine these huge, elaborate stories and everything. And, I mean, you can still make up a story now and everything, but your heart's not in it like it used to be. The whole magic of it is largely gone.

I still have my favourite stuffed bunny from when I was a little kid. I took him everywhere. Now, he's just a rag. His name is Buhbuh. I loved him. And in some way, I still do. But it's not the same. He's not alive anymore. Not like he used to be. He's no longer my best friend. When I'm feeling down, he doesn't make things better. Now, he's just a reminder for me of those times long past.

And these were all the things running through my head as I watched the finale. Really, I think, the film is about that moment where you realize you're no longer a kid and you feel like you've lost something.

Passing it on
But at the same time, it gives you a little ray of hope. After all, in the theatre are kids, just as young as we were when we first saw Toy Story. And as we sit there remembering our childhood, they're just beginning theirs, or are currently in the thick of it. And right now, this movie is everything to them that the original once was for us. Woody and Buzz are theirs now.

15 September 2010

Why I don't have television

Disclaimer: I don't think TV is evil. I don't think people who watch TV are idiots and I don't look down on people for having cable. This is just why, personally, I don't have cable nor do I really miss it. 

 When I moved, I decided to get my internet through Charter. Throughout the entire process, they kept wondering why I only wanted internet and now one of their package deals. They accept that I don't need a phone line because I have a cell phone. But no television? It baffles them.

I got a phone call from Charter in which they were explicitly trying to just selling me cable. The guy was absolutely insistent.

"Why don't you want cable?"
"I don't really like it."
"Well, that's okay. I'm not big on TV myself. But don't you watch anything?"
"I have Netflix. I watch movies and select series I like."
"Oh, yeah. Netflix is great. But they don't always have the most recent stuff and they don't have the biggest selection of TV shows. Plus, they don't have the news. But our Basic TV would only cost $10 more and you'd get—"
"But I really don't want any television. Most of it is stupid, commercials irritate me, and it just eats productivity. I really don't want any television."
"Oh, yeah, I know. Okay... So let's get you started with the Basic—"
"No, let's not. I don't want any television. Are you even listening to what I'm saying. I. Don't. Want. T. V. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, sir. Well, thanks for choosing Charter and I hope you have a great day!"

Okay, so one, this was a horrible salesman who made me hate Charter just a little bit more, but whatever, that's not why I'm writing this post. I'm writing this post to discuss why, personally, I don't want television.

The news
Really simple, here. I am already paying for the internet. I can get the news on there. And in general, I like it more. I can read it. I can choose sources that aren't as sensational as television news outlets.

But again, the biggest reason: I can get news without having to pay.

Getting the newest episodes
So maybe I miss this a little. As I'm currently at my parents house, I'm sitting here watching The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and yeah, it's kinda nice. I also wouldn't mind watching the new Futurama when they come out. However, a lot of this stuff you can find online, and the rest, well... I can wait to see it later.

To be honest, I don't really mind being out of the loop on Lost or whatever the hot new show is. And I certainly don't miss...

The commercials
This is probably the biggest thing that I absolutely don't miss about TV, as I am currently experiencing. Commercials are largely irritating. This is compounded by the fact that for the last four years, I've pretty much been watching DVDs. I haven't had TV at all for over two years. I've gotten used to a slower paced, narrative visual medium. Things follow more or less logically, and fast editing is basically only used for scenes that are supposed to be anxious, exciting, or generally intense. So when I see commercials, all I can think of, essentially, the drug-taking scenes in Requiem for a Dream. It puts me on edge. Having this happen randomly in the middle of a narrative is disturbing, especially when it keeps happening.

Plus, as we all know, commercials just don't make sense. It's sort of like a Mitch Hedberg joke:
A friend gave me a drug for attention deficit disorder, because he's afflicted. But I'm not. So what happened to me is I suddenly had an extra-long attention span. People would tell me a story, and it would end, and I'd get all mad. "Come on, man! There has to be more to that story!"
Seriously, though. I'm trying to figure out what the hell the commercial is all about and what the story is and, of course, it's already on to the next commercial that makes even less sense.

Okay, so maybe I'm not freaking out and having a bad trip whenever commercials come on. I'm able to deal. But I do notice myself getting anxious. Yeah, I'd get used to it again. But I don't want to get used to it.

A waste of time
This is the biggest reason, because ultimately, I don't hate TV (just commercials). In fact, I find it somewhat addictive.

And that's the thing. I have a mini library of books, a huge collection of DVDs, Netflix instant streaming, a bunch of video games I have yet to beat, and the goddamn internet. Do I really need another thing to help me procrastinate? Really?

So yeah, I probably would've finished this post earlier, but I was watching Good Eats on the Food Network at my parent's house. Just sayin.

14 September 2010

The Rescuers & The Princess and the Frog

I watched two Disney movies recently.

The Rescuers (1977)
Many would consider The Rescuers to be one of the last "classic" Disney films from the original animators, and it certainly shows. The whole style and feel of it is pretty classic. It also adds a certain sketchiness to the quality of the lines, insisted on by the head animators, which really sets it apart from the very clean, digital lines we often see today.

Overall, the animation is pretty solid, and the story is fairly entertaining. Of course, the film also seemed a bit dated in its plot. Essentially, two mice named Bernard and Bianca set about trying to save a kidnapped orphan by the name of Penny. Of course, the female mouse, Bianca, is rarely good for much other than falling out into tumultuous conditions or getting herself into other dangerous situations which the far more practical and level-headed Bernard must get her out of. Of course, in the course of things, they fall in love and decide to continue trying to save children, but the ultimate nature of the relationship is sort of this "Hey, Bernard! Let's go on an adventure!" "Well, gee, Miss Bianca. That sure sounds s-s-swell!" "Whoops, I fell out of the boat!" "Oh no! Never fear, Miss Bianca! I'll save you!"

I mean, she still manages to come in handy, for example, using the smell of her perfume to lure crocodiles into a cage, but in general she'd be pretty helpless without Bernard.

Despite being made in 1977, the film feels a bit '50s in its style and mood. It was great to see something with such a classic feel to it, and it really reminded me how much I miss hand-drawn animation. The story was rather cute and touching, if a little heavy-handed at times (it's Disney, what do you expect?), but yeah. The whole gender role thing felt the most dated in a bad way. Still, it was fun.

The Princess and the Frog (2009)
It was nice to see Disney going back to the 2D stuff after its long love affair with 3D that still isn't over. It's not that I hate 3D, and I certinly don't hate Pixar. They tell wonderful stories and they do 3D animation exceedingly well. However, it's just that everyone else wants to be Pixar. So all we see is 3D stuff everywhere, and it's starting to get a little too bland and uninteresting. So whenever someone comes along and does something well in 2D, it's bound to get more notice. Especially when it's Disney, a company that previously swore off all 2D animation (and sadly fired all lot of great animators in the process).

Anyway, despite the reference to Steamboat Willie in the new Disney animation logo, this is, not surprisingly, a lot closer to Mulan than The Rescuers in its look and feel. The animation is good, but obviously computer-heavy. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but again... As I was watching The Rescuers, it felt so refreshing to see all those hand-drawn cells again. But I'm not going to complain. It was 2D Disney again. And it was good. And this means maybe more 2D Disney to mix it up with Pixar a little more again. That's great.

But just as the animation style was updated so was the idea of the role of women. I mean, yeah, I'm sure some feminist could still go to town on this movie because Tiana and Naveen are all perfect and beautiful and the ultimate message is sort of, "Yeah, it's okay to have a job and devote yourself to that, but you'd be happy if you found a guy." Feminists would take this and run. "Oh, so a woman can only really be happy if she has a husband, huh?"

Really, though, cut it some slack. I think a better way to look at is, "All the financial success in the world won't mean anything if you don't have someone you love to share it with." In a culture that is rampant with consumerism *coughcoughDisneycough*, it's nice to hear them say, "Eh, money isn't everything. It's people that really matter." It's also kind of humorous considering who's saying it, but whatever.

Compared to Biana, Tiana is hard-wroking and dependent. Throughout the course of the film, it's usually Prince Naveen who's falling out into tumultuous conditions or getting himself into other dangerous situations which the far more practical and level-headed Tiana must get him out of.

Of course, everything ends super happy and everyone get just what their pure little hearts desired. What else did I expect from Disney? But really, if I made one change, it would've been for it to be a little less perfect, I guess. I mean, sure Tiana finally gets her own restaurant, but instead of it being the lavish place she had dreamed off, it's some little place, but with lots of regulars visiting in and people lined up outside. It doesn't end in Tiana and Naveen singing and dancing and just shooting the breeze while waiters and everyone busy around them, but just the two of them working the kitchen and the counter. They aren't adorned in all sorts of pretty clothes and such, but work clothes. But they're happy because they're together, and because they're doing what they love.

But eh. You gotta take the small victories when they come. It was still good, and its heart was in the right place.

13 September 2010

A Short Guide to Subtitles

When you begin to explore foreign cinema, you're eventually going to have to deal with subtitles. It's an inevitable part of the process. What I've prepared here are a few guidelines for the world of subtitles.

Why do people use subtitles?
Many people prefer dubs (where the vocal track is redone in English) over subtitles, so why use subtitles at all when that is an option? Well, for one, subtitles are more prevalent than dubs. Not everything has been dubbed in to English, as it is a more involved and pricey process. Thus, while you may be able to get away with dubs on more popular foreign works, the more you pursue these films, the less that will become a valid option.

But aside from that, the primary reason that many people such as myself prefer subtitles is that it keeps the work in its original form. The newly recorded voices may not accurately reduplicate the same tones and emotions expressed by the original actor. Furthermore, the language itself may add character and mood to the film that can be altered when a new language is introduced. For example, German, French and English all have very different cadences.

Likewise, dubs can create odd situations or changes from the original. For example, in the Japanese version of an episode of Excel Saga in which Excel visits America, she speaks in broken and misguided English to the Americans, which is the source of a great deal of humour. However, as in the English dub she is already speaking English, she instead uses broken Spanish, which makes significantly less sense. Enough so to ruin some of the comedic potential.

Likewise, Japanese characters with the Kansai dialect are frequently rendered into a Southern drawl, which doesn't carry the full cultural implications of the original dialect. In fact, it pretty much just fits the "country folk" stereotype, it does not fit the idea of "comedian," nor does it match the original cadence. The result is that it sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. The cowboy-hat-wearing Osakan businessman in Ghost in the Shell may work okay with a Southern drawl, but it does not suit the spacey Ayumu "Osaka" Kasuga nearly as well.

Animation vs. Film
As you may have noticed, I've mentioned a lot of anime. This is because it is primarily in anime where the subs vs. dubs debate rages the most, while fans of foreign films tend to be fairly accepting of subtitles from the beginning.

I think part of this might have to do with the fact that it is much more obvious when film is dubbed. Everyone makes jokes about the dubs in old Godzilla movies or kung fu movies for a reason. It's so painfully obvious that it's been dubbed because the photographic method captures all the intricacies of the mouth that occur during speech and even the best voice actors will not be able to sync the dub perfectly. It's impossible.

Animation, on the other hand, simplifies the mouth movements a lot, and we are more willing to accept that the new words fit as well. After all, the animation and the voice were created independently, while that is film were (usually) created at the same time.

Don't fear dubs
That said, do not always insist against dubs. While I think it is good practice to watch things in subtitles on your own if you are comfortable with them, dubs are still a valid way of watching foreign works. For one, dubs can provide an interesting new look at a favourite film or series. In some ways, it is just interesting seeing how something you enjoy was reinterpreted. Many dubs, especially more recently, are very, very well executed. A lot of work went in to them, at its worth it just to see what was accomplished.

Furthermore, not everyone is comfortable with subtitles. Sometimes, you may want to show a work you really like to a friend, but if they aren't a fan of subtitles and they aren't comfortable reading them, they arenðt going to fully enjoy the experience. You want them to be able to enjoy it too, and maybe that means turning on the subs.

See, not everyone likes to read while they watch a film or a show. And it's not just because they are lazy. Reading subtitles involves additional skills beyond just reading. For one, you must be able to read, at the very least, at the same speed that the language is spoken. This isn't usually too hard in and of itself, but if you can only read at the same pace as the text is displayed, you are just speanding your entire time reading a script.
Subtitles are enjoyable after you have become accustomed to them. You have to be able to not just read them, but be able to read them while simultaneously taking in the visuals. At a certain point, you are able to sort of read the subtitles out of your peripheral while you watch the film normally. It takes time to get to this point.

How to become comfortable with subtitles
Of course, some people may be interested in using subtitles over dubs, but they just aren't as comfortable with them yet. The only way you'll get better, though, is if you practice. But it can be frustrating to do so when you aren't really proficient in the skill yet. I know, I had to go through that too. To a large degree, I just suffered through it at first and I got better that way, but since then, I've been able to think of some tricks to help make it more bearable.

If you have a foreign film or show that you really like and have watched the English dub enough time that you generally know most of the plot and lines and so forth, try watching it subtitled. You're going to be a lot more familiar with what's going on and the gist of what people are saying, and you'll have already seen the visuals many times, so you won't feel like you're missing out as much. This will cut down on frustration.

Another technique, which I heard from an old coworker of mine, is to turn on closed captioning when you're watching English television. He watched TV this way when he worked as a guard on duty, and so he had to have the volume very low. Using closed captions helped him follow the dialogue better when it was barely audible. However, even with louder volume, it'll still get you used to reading while you watch, but whenever you get tired of frustrated with always reading, you can stop for a little bit and just watch.

At any rate, I hope this has been somewhat useful.

11 September 2010

Pelle the Conqueror

As you may recall, I was particularly impressed by the film Twist and Shout (Tro, håb og kærlighed, 1984) by Bille August some months ago. I thus had moderate expectations for Pelle the Conqueror (Pelle erobreren, 1987).

Of course, I also went in to it expecting it to be a bit different as well. Afterall, Twist and Shout is a very realistic story set in the 1960s. Pelle the Conquerer is a historical costume drama, a specific genre of films in Scandinavian that are set in earlier centuries. The best known example of a Nordic costume drama is probably Babette's Feast (Babettes gæstebud, 1987), which I had watched previously.

Character-centric storytelling
Given that Babette's Feast had a very thematic focus, I was expecting Pelle the Conqueror to follow suit. What I mean is, Babette's Feast was primarily concerned with its themes of religion, food, and lost loves. The ultimate impact and focus of the film is the feast itself and all it represents within the prudent Christian community. So I was expecting something similar to turn up with Pelle. Furthermore, given that "Conqueror" part, I was expecting something more... grandiose. I mean, it sounds like Alexander the Great or something. To be honest, I didn't really know what to expect plot-wise, but it certainly wasn't what I got.

The film I watched was, actually, surprisingly reminiscent of Twist and Shout with regards to its narrative focus, as it's primarily about the characters (and, not surprisingly, Pelle). Despite the auspicious title, Pelle is not a great leader, warrior, or anything like that. No, Pelle is a young boy, and an immigrant servant at that.

A struggle for freedom
The film opens with Pelle and his father on a ship from Sweden that is bound for Denmark. Pelle begs his elderly father, Lasse, to tell him again about how wonderful Denmark will be, which Lasse paints as a sort of paradise on earth, where food and drink are plentiful and the wages are so high that children can just play all day long. However, once they finally arrive on land, no one will hire them due to their age (too old and too young). After everyone has left, a wealthy man passes through and decides to hire them.

Pelle gazes longingly as the ship
sails into the Danish harbour.
Their new life is anything but paradise, as they share a small cubbyhole of a room in the barn, which contrasts strongly against the rich and lavish home of their new master and his wife.

The rest of the film chronicles Pelle and Lasse's lives together as servants. Throughout the course of the film, Pelle learns Danish through his interactions with the other servants and in class, and as his primary mode of conversation switches from Swedish to Danish, he grows in confidence in his interactions with those around him.

Numerous other developments wax and wane as the story progresses, with one of the more major ones revolving around another servant by the name of Erik, who tends to be the most defiant and rebellious towards their master. Aside from the primary relationship of Pelle and Lasse, which is at the heart, Erik is probably Pelle's closest friend, and they both share a dream of escaping one day to America, where they can then travel to China, Spain, Mexico, and all the world.

The film ultimately sets up two different goals for the struggling workers. One, embodied by Lasse, is to come in to enough money to finally live the good life. As the film unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that hard work will not accomplish this goal, and Lasse begins to pursue a rich woman whose husband has been missing at sea for over a year and is presumed dead. The plan seems to be, more or less, to play it safe and smart and marry into money. Essentially, to "find a good wife to take care of you."

Erik, of course, has less practical goals. His is the dream of freedom, perhaps even the dream of flight. It is the desire to fly away and to see new and beautiful things.

To conquer the world
In the end, the film is a touching story of one little boy's journey in life, and his ultimate desire to "conquer the world." This phrase is used specifically by Erik in regards to his desire for freedom. To be liberated is to become in control of one's own life, rather than be subjected to the fancies of others. Despite the short time frame of the film, it is an epic in its own right.

However, I don't think it quite affected me as much as Twist and Shout. I did enjoy it a lot, but it didn't resonate quite as much. Perhaps I like a bit more of a contemporary vibe? Whatever the reason, it just didn't click as much. Don't get me wrong, it was still a great movie, but unlike Twist and Shout, I think it's just one I'll be happy having seen, but not necessarily owning. As for Twist and Shout, I don't know why I have not bought the DVD yet...

10 September 2010

Dog Bites Man

I think this marks a first for me on this blog. I have never discussed a show before.

Admittedly, there are a lot of shows that I would place higher on my list of favourites than Dog Bites Man. However, as I recently rediscovered this show on Netflix instant streaming, and as the entirety of the series only spans 9 episodes, it seemed like a natural choice for a brief review.

Partly planned, partly improved
Those two words describe this show all to well. For those unfamiliar with this short-lived Comedy Central series, the basic concept behind Dog Bites Man is about the same as Candid Camera or Trigger Happy TV but with a much drier tone and a stronger sense of continuity.
The show does, in fact, have characters, as it follows a local television news team, which is in fact a group of four comedians. Kevin Beekin (Matt Walsh) is the starring reporter; Tillie Sullivan (Andrea Savage) is the team's producer; Marty Shonson (A.D. Miles) is the intern turned production assistant, and Alan Finger (Zach Galifianakis) serves as director. Aside from these four characters, the rest of the show involves "real people who were not made aware they were being filmed as part of a comedy show" (quoted from the pre-show disclaimer).

The show is, perhaps, bizarre in that it blends scripted and entirely unscripted elements. Each episode generally revolves around a specific story that the team is investigating, which is preplanned. Their interactions with one another in private are more of less scripted, though I'm sure some improvisation takes place.

Awkward and uncomfortable
However, while they are out in the field reporting, they are, in fact, baiting reactions from their unwitting victims. I say victims, and yet in actuality, a lot of what they do is far less directly disturbing as what might be done in other "hidden camera" style shows. The focus is not to pull pranks on the general public, but rather to verbally push comfort levels.

Sometimes, this just falls to discussing things in public that most people would consider more intimate or private and then prompting those they are interviewing or otherwise interacting with to respond. These moments can be funny, but are generally less so than some of their more creative ploys.

The show really shines when it mocks news itself. One particularly strong example is the episode "Assignment Brighton, Florida." In this episode, the news team is called out to Brighton, Florida to report on a kidnapping story, but accidentally end up in Colorado. Determined to still get the footage they need, they set about convincing the locals to pretend to be the missing girl's family, the sheriff, and so forth. In one scene, they ask a large group of people to pose as the mourning community. They then ask the crowd to do different reaction shots that can be used depending on how the story unfolds—one if she is found alive, one if she is found dead, one if she is found alive but missing a limb, etc. When the crowd questions this, Tillie explains, saying that all news channels do this sort of thing.

Then, the phone call arrives that the girl has been found alive, the scenario the team had not been betting on, and they are gravely disappointed, much to the crowd's outrage. Maybe that fake phone call was just them fishing for a reaction, but at the same time, you have to think: when the adage "If it bleeds, it leads," rings true, you can't help but think that maybe all news channels do this sort of thing too. Cuz afterall, death sells.

No one was surprised to see it end
Overall, though, it's not surprising that the show was cancelled before it even completed a full season. The premise was interesting, and I like the level of improv. As I'm fairly familiar with the comedic styles of both Matt Walsh and Zach Galifianakis, it's interesting for me to see how they play out and combine during the improvisational scenes.

Ultimately, though, Zach's incredibly awkward comedic style does nothing but amplify the vague awkwardness Matt's full-of-himself-but-actually-unappealing persona. As I said before, the show is awkward and uncomfortable. Painfully so, in fact. And as the news team pushes at the comfort levels of those they interact with, the viewer's boundaries are ultimately pushed as well (although not as far, as we the spectators are made aware that this is comedy).

Much like Zach Galifianakis's stand-up, I think the show demands a certain niche audience. And while that may be viable as a stand-up routine, it just won't cut it when it comes to network television. Network TV doesn't do niche. Not long-term, anyway.

Still, I have to wonder. How many episodes of Dog Bites Man could you get a fan of The Hangover to sit through before they decide it's just too weird? I mean, not to be like that, I was a fan of Zach way back when most people didn't even recognize his name, and most people reacted with, "Oh, yeah. That guy is really strange." How he ever became popular is beyond me, but more power to him.

09 September 2010

Kurosawa's early films

Janus's Criterion Collection recently released a DVD box set of Akira Kurosawa's four earliest films, which had until this point been rather hard to find. I had managed to see The Most Beautiful, his second film, quite some time ago, but this recent release afforded me the opportunity to see the other three.

Sanshiro Sugata (Sugata Sanshiro, 1943)
This is Kurosawa's first film. The version that exists today is, unfortunately, not the complete version, as it was re-edited during a time of strict censorship and the footage that was cut has now been lost. The plot is held together using some intertitle cards that explain the missing scenes, rendering it easily watchable, if a bit short. And, of course, I remember at least one moment where I read the intertitle and thought to myself, "Well, that sounds like it would've been a great scene..."

Anyway, the film was obviously a bit amateurish compared to his early works, but far less so than I was expecting. Everything feels a little clumsier than usual, but not by much. Compared to many directorial debuts, it (perhaps not surprisingly) shows a lot of talent and skill. Really, I was impressed at how much it reminded me of his later samurai epics and the like.

The story focuses on a judo wrestler by the name of Sanshiro Sugata. Originally planning on becoming a student of jujitsu, he is impressed by Shogoro Yano's judo technique and asks to be his pupil. Much of the film revolves around the relationship between Sugata and his master Yano. Sugata shows great strength and skill, but Yano worries that he does not have the power to restraint himself. As his skills begin to surpass even his master, Sugata becomes feared by his peers and the townspeople alike. Ultimately, Sugata must learn compassion and the spiritual side of judo.

In some ways, I couldn't help but think of it a bit like a Japanese Rocky, but it definitely echoed a lot of the chanbara fuedal era stuff. The structure of the dojo can be compared to the feudal class system, and motifs of honour, humility, and the way of the warrior all make a presence to some extent.

Overall, the film was quite good. The actors performed well and the writing was pretty solid. The story was, perhaps, a little too formulaic at times, but not badly so. I really enjoyed it a lot.

The Most Beautiful (Ichiban utsukushiku, 1944)
I will only mention this briefly, as I watched it quite some time ago.

The film was a bit weird given Kurosawa's entire body of work, as it's semi-documentary style was never really repeated (at least not in this fashion). Furthermore, the film was a bit too propagandist. It wasn't bad, but I'd definitely rank it as one of my least favourite Kurosawa films. It's biggest redeeming feature is it's focus on female characters, and interesting divergence from Kurosawa's more masculine filmic tendency. Given that, I think it could be a lot better and I could really like it, but the propagandist elements just hit a little too strongly here.

Sanshiro Sugata Part II (Zoku Sugata Sanshiro, 1945)
Given how much I enjoyed the first Sugata Sanshiro, I had pretty high expectations for its sequel. It was certainly just as well made, but I feel like it was a little more formulaic and predictable. Something just didn't resonate with me as well.

The story, obviously, continues to follow Sugata as he learns yet more about himself and Judo. The primary conflict is, again, between Sugata and his master Yano. Sugata also has more physical confrontations through his matches with other dojos. The fights are, perhaps, a bit more impressive and interesting in this one, as it includes two more dramatic cross-disciplinary matches. One against an American boxer and another against two brothers who know karate who are seeking vengeance against Sugata.

The inclusion of the American boxer is quite interesting. For one, the fight is truly bizarre, as one man is trying to dodge and throw punches will the other is trying to grab ahodl of him and throw him. However, more interesting is how the film portrays the Japanese side of the exoticism of Asian cultures. Americans are seen shouting loudly in English to the matches and gaping in amazement at the "strange" and "foreign" fighting styles. Concerns are expressed within the dojo that the Americans fight merely for entertainment, rather than the loftier ideals of the Japanese.

The climactic fight occurs with the karate masters, and though less bizarre in its pairing, the fight is certainly a spectacular one. It must be the highest budget scene of both of the movies.

In the end, the film is still very good, and in terms of the fight scenes, it outdoes its predecessor. However, the rest of the plot feels a little less powerful to me than the original. In the end, I liked the first movie better, but I could see how other's might easily disagree.

Men Who Tread on Tiger's Tail (Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi, 1945)
This film is based on the kabuki play Kanjincho which is itself based on the Noh play Ataka. Given the highly theatrical origins, the film is, perhaps, a bit more "Japanese" feeling than many of Kurosawa's movies. The plot follows Japanese theatrical structure and thus feels a bit oddly paced and anticlimactic to American audiences.

I have not studied Japanese theatre enough to speak at length about how the film should be read. All I can say is that the film is best experienced without being too overly concerned with the plot itself. The entertainment comes more from the individual performances.

The first act of the film foregrounds the circumstances around which the rest of the film will revolve. A band of men are infiltrating enemy land in order to kill a feudal lord, and they must cross through a checkpoint disguised as a group of wandering priests soliciting donations. However, when they discover from their porter that their disguise has been compromised, they realize they will have to provide quite the performance to convince the guards that they are priests and should be allowed to pass. The first section features heavy comedic elements from the porter, played by comedian Kenichi Enomoto.

The second act takes place at the checkpoint itself, in which Benkei and the rest of his men must convince the guards of their disguise. The primary focus is a very beautifully delivered speech given by Benkei (Denjiro Okochi). The group is questioned numerous times, and must continually materialize proof of validity. Ultimately, Benkei strikes his master Yoshitsune, who is disguised as a porter, in order to keep up the ruse.

In the final act, Benkei begs forgiveness for striking his superior, which Yoshitsune freely gives. Messengers from the guard tower arrive to apologize for their suspicious behaviour and thereby present a gift of sake. The men get drank and the film ends in song and dance, with Kenichi Enomoto again taking the spotlight with his comedically drunken dance.

Honestly, this film is probably the most comedic and amusing of all of Kurosawa's films, and deserves some attention for that. It certainly isn't one of his greatest masterpieces, but it's highly entertaining if you're in the right mood for it.