Hausu is the strangest dream you’ve ever had brought to life on film. It is a haunted house movie where the characters are aware they are in a movie. They comment on their own actions, their role in the story, and the nature of film itself.
The 1977 Japanese horror/comedy/fantasy was green-lit by Toho studios only when they were struggling to make money with more traditional films. Director Nobuhiku Obayashi was allowed to direct the screenplay after two years of trying to get the contract. The turning point was the studio realizing an over the top sensational film–translated as “incomprehensible” in most articles–was worth the risk.
This “incomprehensible” label gave Obayashi the freedom he needed to capture the essence of this bizarre haunted house story. Seven friends agree to spend the summer at a beautiful old house in the country. Though Gorgeous hasn’t seen her aunt, the owner of the house, in over ten years, she’s sure that her aunt will still be as generous as she was the last time they met. The seven girls quickly discover that the house is capable of terrible things.
The beauty of Hausu is the absurdity of the visuals. Obayashi combines animation, different film stock, layered editing, and theatrical set design to define a fantasy landscape. The special effects are very low budget, but the early emphasis on experimentation and artificiality makes them profoundly effective. In a world where a man can fall down the steps in stop motion and walk away, everything is possible.
So much of Hausu just should not work. Most of the stars had no prior acting experience. They did not know how to act on film, let alone in an intentionally bizarre and artificial horror film. Their performances are broad and static at the same time. The characters do not grow or change as the story goes on. The only character that changes is the house itself, and its arc is one of increasing desperation.
The sheer audacity of the visual landscape shouldn’t hold together at all. The composite shots work so long as no one is moving. Any action onscreen immediately gives away the gag. The scares are all telegraphed with flashing green lights yet they still have the power to scare or elicit a laugh.
Hausu revels in the absurdity of telling a ghost story. The concept of a haunted house is one we cannot explain in a logical way. Why should haunted house films conform to any traditional notion of logic? Is a house eating visitors really that far away from the insanity of a house coming to life to scare visitors?
A story like that doesn’t need to be told in a traditional way because there’s nothing traditionally cinematic about a film focused on the setting itself as the main character. How else does a house come alive? The exaggerated styles and experimental techniques bring Hausu to life.
Have you seen Hausu? What did you think? Sound off below.
Joe Hill is responsible for two of my favorite books of the last ten years: Heart-Shaped Box and 20th Century Ghosts. Unfortunately, neither one of those has been optioned for a feature film adaptation yet.
What we get is his (ironically) less morally ambiguous sophomore novel Horns coming to theaters. Despite being a story about a man who grows horns that force people to reveal their darkest secrets to him, Horns is a linear tale of good and even.
The poor man cursed with horns, Ig, is a good guy. His girlfriend was raped and murdered and everyone in the town thinks he’s responsible; he’s not. He’s just the most obvious suspect because of his relationship. Ig spends the rest of the novel meandering through a series of encounters with increasingly reprehensible people as he tries to hunt down the real killer.
Horns just didn’t do it for me as a novel. I understand what Hill was going for but kept wanting more. It’s so restrained even in the most outrageous confessions that I found myself losing interest.
Film could be an entirely different story. A bizarre concept meshed with a standard good versus evil procedural could really come alive onscreen.
Alejandro Aja (High (Haute) Tensions, The Hills Have Eyes remake) will direct Daniel Radcliffe as Ig. Entertainment Weekly got the first set photo of the character and it looks great. He’s very different from how I imagined him–Ig is described as having slender horns popping out of his head, where these are thick and curling back into his hair–but the horns really pop thanks to the wardrobe.
What do you think? Sound off with your thoughts below. Love to hear from you.
Is there a species on Earth that coddles their young more than humans? Birds teach their babies to fly by pushing them out of the nest. Fish take a swim fast or lose out approach, relying on the natural instincts of the young to swim from danger. Even other mammal species cut the cord, so to speak, much sooner than humans.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is the story of Hushpuppy, a young girl being raised to “beast it” at every opportunity. Her father, Wink, leaves her alone in her own house and refuses to let her move in with him. Instead, she is taught how to survive in the Bathtub by a teacher with one major lesson: “we’re all meat.” The people in the Bathtub are survivors by necessity, living south of the new levee outside of New Orleans. One day, they will be flooded off the face of the earth. Only strong children will survive when the world comes apart and Hushpuppy is being raised to be king of the Bathtub.
Hushpuppy is a strong, powerful, intelligent tentpole in the Bathtub community. She’s also only six years old.
Writer/director Benh Zietlin, adapting the stageplay Juicy and Delicious by Lucy Alibar, makes a bold film driven by theme and community, not character and story. The narrative is simple: the Bathtub must survive no matter what. The complexity comes in how this community is built, challenged, and drawn to the same goal.
To say Beasts of the Southern Wild is a beautiful film is an understatement. Ben Richardson’s cinematography is lush and alive. The use of light, shadow, and color to create the world of Hushpuppy–one that she believes she is capable of saving or destroying with a single action–is mind blowing. Even in the darkest hours in the Bathtub, the film celebrates life. Rain, tragedy, joy, and triumph are celebrated in equal measure because “everybody loses the thing that made them. The brave men stay and watch it happen. They don’t run.”
What sets Beasts of the Southern Wild off so nicely is the use of young Hushpuppy as the central figure. This girl is just starting to come into her own as a young person. However, the line of reality and fantasy are not yet established. She’ll pick up any animal she sees to hear their heartbeat. Hushpuppy may only be six years old, but she has the full knowledge and respect of the entire Bathtub community.
She also believes in the town’s big myth. All children are taught about the aurochs. Aurochs roam the earth, looking for weak children to devour right in front of their families. No one can stop an auroch once it chooses a target. For Hushpuppy, the reason she needs to be strong is to make sure the aurochs don’t eat her and take her away from her daddy.
The aurochs are the core of the Bathtub curriculum judging by the visual aid permanently etched on the teacher.
The aurochs appear again and again throughout the film, growing in number and size as the situation becomes more challenging for Hushpuppy. Their appearance–dark and furry tusked creatures against a bleary white background–is a startling reprieve of unabashed fanstasy from the harsh reality of life in the Bathtub.
Without the fantasy and beauty of the visuals, Beasts of the Southern Wild would be unbearably dark and disturbing. It brings back memories of natural disasters, deadly epidemics, and the fear of abandonment as a child. It is the fantasy–the hope–of the six year old Hushpuppy that allows Benh Zietlin to take Lucy Alibar’s stageplay concept as far as it needs to go to work onscreen.
You will not soon forget the people of the Bathtub and the brave little girl who thinks she controls them all. This is a cinematic experience unlike any other in years and should not be missed on the big screen.
Thoughts on Beasts of the Southern Wild? What did you think of Quvenzhane Wallis’ performance as Hushpuppy? I was impressed by her presence onscreen, but wish she had a more active role in the early part of the film. Her big scenes are great, but I’m not sure how much she was really doing during the exploration scenes. What about you? Sound off below. Love to hear from you.
There is a myth in India about a beautiful female snake with the secret to immortality. Nagin possesses a stone called the Nagmani that keeps her young forever. The only way to even encounter the true power of Nagin is to steal her lover and bring about her wrath. Only if she cannot free her love herself do you even stand a chance of surviving the confrontation, let alone obtaining the Nagmani for your own use.
This is the basis of writer/director Jennifer Chambers Lynch’s ambitious and troubled erotic suspense story Hisss. The director worked in India with a mostly Indian cast and crew to bring what she viewed as an ancient romance story to life. What she wound up with was a company that wanted a horror story so badly that Lynch couldn’t even edit her absurd feminist vision to tell the story she wanted to.
A detective does not realize what he’s stumbled into in the face of the mysterious mute woman
Somewhere in Hisss is a really cool story. The myth of the Nagin and the integration of the human players is captivating. A rich American man with terminal brain cancer will stop at nothing to draw out and capture the Nagin for immortality. At the same time, an uptight police detective is trying to enforce the laws during a massive outdoor festival filled with drugs and depravity. His mother in law is in the late throws of Alzheimer’s and is so desperate for a grandchild that she prays to the Nagin every night for help. And somehow, somewhere, the Nagin becomes the hero that every woman in India needs while on the quest for her stolen lover.
In other words, Lynch set out to create an almost-superhero movie about the power of women, love, and desire and somehow got trapped into a SyFy-level nightmare of bad editing and poor special effects.
The festival scene really shows off what Hisss should have been
This really is a shame. The moments that work in the film really fall in line with Lynch’s vision. Everything you’re told about the Nagin–explained as a vengeful and violent shape-shifting deity–by men is recontextualized again and again. The vision firmly starts in horror and destruction and arches into a pure tale of romance, justice, and tragedy.
The technical elements of the film are mostly spot on. The practical makeup and visual design of the film is beautiful. The festival, filled with paint pigments and water, is gorgeous. The cast mostly does a great job with very strange material. Mallika Sherawat is captivating as the human from of Nagin. Even the digital design of the snake to human transformation is fine; it just falls apart when the actors don’t know how to handle a scene with a not-present monster that large.
Hisss has enough going for it that a monster movie fan or someone big on mythology and Greek-styled tragedy would find some worth in it. It is by no means a great film. It just has enough potential in its current form to grab your interest.
Thoughts on Hisss? I knew I had to see it before Despite the Gods was available. That’s the documentary about Jennifer Chambers Lynch losing control of Hiss. Have you seen the snake woman movie yet? Sound off below.
Every time I watch a Stuart Gordon film, I forget that I’ve watched other Stuart Gordon films. There are certain recurring elements in most of his feature. He usually works in a dark comedy/horror hybrid with lots of bloody gags. The performances are exaggerated to make even the traditional hero seem uncanny and ghastly. There’s some big shocking conceit that he’s not afraid of revealing in the first five minutes. Yet, the subjects and stories he chooses to tell couldn’t be any more different unless he intentionally set out to do a new genre with every film (like musical, sci-fi, or Western).
Dolls is no exception to those rules. Judy Bower is a young girl with a strong imagination. Her best friend in the world is her teddy bear and only he gets her through the struggles of long summers spent with her father and stepmother. The reluctant family gets caught in the mud somewhere in Great Britain and are force to spend the night in a large mansion populated by an elderly toy maker, his caring wife, and thousands of handmade dolls. A bumbling man and a pair of pickpockets join them for a stay during the longest night in the world.
Judy has an overactive imagination centered on toys and fantasy
In case you haven’t figured it out, Dolls is an evil toy movie. It might be the best evil toy movie, too. Gordon takes the conceit and twists it in every imaginable way. Judy becomes best friends with an ugly Punch doll (Punch & Judy, get it?). The toy maker goes on and on about the magic of toys created by the love of children. His wife brews large pots of strange soups and charms with a cackle and an eerie smile. The bumbling man befriends the little girl when no one else believes her stories. And the other four adults refuse to see the value of toys in the modern world.
Ostensibly, the only problem with the film is a very distinct tone. It’s very dark and fantastique. No one, not even our young protagonist, acts like a normal person. Every movement, every word, every expression is a grotesque caricature of human emotion. It’s not enough to smile–everyone must grimace. A tear must be painful and pain must be the worst thing in the world to see. It’s an unsettling blend of fantasy and the grotesque to say the least.
The house is elaborately staged to be Gothic and an ever-expanding toychest at the same time
Yet, if you accept Gordon’s vision of a world ruled by the morality of children, Dolls is a rewarding nightmare. The special effects work from the long defunct Mechanical and Makeup Imageries company (From Beyond, Ghoulies) is still quite startling. When the dolls first come to life, you’ll notice. The design and decoration of the mansion is just exaggerated enough to create tension without falling into parody. And the story, penned by Ed Naha, is internally consistent and genuinely frightening.
Dolls is not a very serious horror film. Where it excels is creating a morality tale surrounding a child intended to speak to adults. It’s too graphic to actually be a children’s story, but it might just open up a childlike sense of wonder again for the adult viewer.
Thoughts? Dolls is available on Netflix streaming right now if you haven’t seen it. What do you think? Sound off below.
Ray Bradbury, one of the all time great authors of speculative fiction, passed away today at 91 years old. Where most genre authors are known for one great work, Bradbury goes down in the record books with several iconic titles.
His debut novel The Martian Chronicles weaves an intricate tapestry of life on Mars for the first colonial settlers. Fahrenheit 451 is one of the most influential science fiction novels of all time, speculating on a future where information and opinions are controlled by the destruction of every book in existence. Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Halloween Tree are seminal works in the canon of youth horror and two of the best Halloween-set novels ever written.
Bradbury wrote for television, theater, and film. He composed over 400 short stories and novellas. He saw great critical and commercial success in his lifetime and used his fame to fight for literacy and libraries.
The man is an icon and he will be missed. I believe his own words serve as a fitting tribute. via Letters of Note
I discovered there was a typing room where you could rent a typewriter for ten cents a half hour. I moved into the typing room along with a bunch of students and my bag of dimes, which totaled $9.80, which I spent and created the 25,000 word version of “The Fireman” in nine days. How could I have written so many words so quickly? It was because of the library. All of my friends, all of my loved ones, were on the shelves above and shouted, yelled and shrieked at me to be creative. So I ran up and down the stairs, finding books and quotes to put in my “Fireman” novella. You can imagine how exciting it was to do a book about book burning in the very presence of the hundreds of my beloveds on the shelves. It was the perfect way to be creative; that’s what the library does.
Though I don’t talk about it as often as horror, I really love fantasy. Dark fantasy, silly fantasy, musical fantasy, fantasy novels, fantasy games, fantasy art–the list goes on. It’s the idea of creating an entirely different world, or even an alternate version of our own, that I find so appealing.
Over at the Regretsy forums, someone was asking for the ten best fantasy films of all time. I went knee-jerk and threw a list together. Then I stood back and realized that I more or less stand by the list and could have fun getting into the thick of it in a longer form. Such is the ten minute genesis of my 10 Best Fantasy Film list that I’ll stand by even without including any Lord of the Rings or Star Wars entries.
I couldn’t find room for any Miyazaki or Disney on the list, which feels like more of an omission than it is. Just consider Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, Alice in Wonderland, and Dumbo right on the cusp of the list.
I have a strange fondness for Peggy Sue Got Married and Pleasantville. It’s the throwback nostalgia mixed with the time travelling “what if” fantasy that gets to me. And Kathleen Turner in the former. I just couldn’t bring myself to bump off better films for favorite films.
Tim Burton is a bit too fluid in his genres for me to throw in Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, or Nightmare Before Christmas as fantasy films. A dark fantasy list they might make, but not when the whole genre is considered.
Me, of all people, should have found room for a musical like The Wizard of Oz or Brigadoon. I didn’t.
10: Curse of the Cat People (1944)
Irena comes with a gift for the lonely little girl.
Curse of the Cat People gets a bad rap. It is a fantasy sequel to a horror film that focuses on the power of a child’s imagination through suggestion. The girl in question is the daughter of the cat woman’s husband and his new wife. She has no friends. Her parents are concerned when she begins to see a strange woman named Irena (the cat woman) in the woods behind their house. The girl also befriends a retired actress/recluse who teaches her fantasy and folklore.
Curse of the Cat People is almost the cinematic mold for future child-driven fantasies. Some of the films on this list might not even be able to exist if it weren’t for the quiet tale of a child’s imagination used as a tool for self-actualization against the wishes of her parents. When judged as a fantasy/character study, it’s hard to beat the strength of this film’s storytelling and visual vocabulary.
9: Willow (1988)
The evil queen in Willow does not fool around.
Consider Willow a surrogate for all those wild 1980s fantasy films targetted at all ages–Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, The NeverEnding Story, etc. It feels like if you’re interested in fantasy, one of those films appeals to you more than the others. For me, it’s Willow. I like the story and the setting.
More importantly to me now is the technical quality of the film. Willow is a beautiful movie. The makeup prosthetics still hold up today. The costumes are gorgeous. Even the digital effects mostly feel right in the context of the film. It’s just a sweet, feel good fantasy film in that swords and sorcery vein.
8: Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
I’m a bit obsessed with Greek mythology. That culture really developed some wonderfully rich stories and characters. Jason, in particular, has a great story that was brought to life in Jason and the Argonauts. It’s an epic in the literal sense of the word.
In fact, that story–combined with Ray Harryhausen’s extraordinary stop motion animation–is what makes Jason and the Argonauts worth watching. The acting is serviceable, if a bit stiff, and the settings are ok. The editing of Harryhausen’s brilliant character designs and distinctive animation are in a class of their own. Even then, the story is the real star and it’s strong enough to carry the weight of the effects.
7: MirrorMask (2005)
The colors of industry--muted metallics, shadows, and dirt--define MirrorMask's fantasy.
This is one of those films that treads on a lot of the same territory as Curse of the Cat People. A teenage girl grows up in a traveling circus. When her mother becomes very ill, she enters a fantasy world of her own creation to reclaim the mythical MirrorMask and wake the slumbering queen. It’s not just an Alice fantasy. The fantasy is used to force the girl to wrestle with the difficulty of her own life and emotional health.
MirrorMask is slick. The acting is strong and the visuals are executed to dark and dreary perfection. Perhaps the most noteworthy element of the film is the flipped color scheme. When a child escapes into fantasy, we expect bright colors and friendly creatures. MirrorMask flips it. The girl grew up with the circus. Therefore, gray, black, brown, and metallic colors are foreign to her, not candy colored perfection. It’s just enough of a twist on the Wonderland/Oz formula to feel fresh and interesting.
6: The Exterminating Angel (1962)
Desperation takes over in a failed attempt to leave the dinner party.
The Exterminating Angel is an absurdist/surrealist masterpiece with a simple fantasy conceit. A group of upper class dinner party guests discover that they are physically incapable of leaving the room once the meal is finished. Over the course of a few days, their carefully constructed personalities begin to crumble when they cannot escape other humans for even a moment.
The fantasy of The Exterminating Angel is the backbone of the film. How the story unfolds is not exactly fantasy as you would expect it. For me, a good fantasy is defined by the world it creates. Writer/director Luis Bunuel twists something very simple into an unforgettable film.
5: Alice (1988)
Sometimes, fantasy is defined purely by how the story is told. Jan Svankmajer’s Alice is a perfect example of this. All Svanmajer does is portray Lewis Carroll’s story on film. Countless people have done their own Alice in Wonderland adaptations.
The difference here is execution. Kristyna Kohoutova, the young girl playing Alice, is the only actor in the film. Everything else is done with puppets, stop motion animation, and very clever editing. Alice is a film where the style becomes the substance. It exists to showcase the endless creativity of a modern master of animation.
4: Heavenly Creatures (1994)
Teenage girls become obsessed with their every fantasy in Heavenly Creatures.
Could I have chosen another Peter Jackson fantasy property for this list? Yes. Would I feel good about ignoring one of the more ingenious uses of fantasy to raise the stakes in reality? No.
Heavenly Creatures is a brutal, unsettling film about an unhealthy friendship between two New Zealand girls. They create a brilliant fantasy epic, but also use their new found alliance to conspire against their parents in a crime story ripped from the headlines. Most unsettling is Peter Jackson’s use of the one girl’s actual diary for voice over narration and insight into a truly damaged psyche. This is almost as dark as dark fantasy can get with all the beauty and splendor of the most elaborate sword and sorcery epics.
3: Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
The fawn does not let the young girl off easily.
I said “almost as dark as dark fantasy can get” for a good reason. Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish Civil War set Pan’s Labyrinth is a coin toss situation. Is it horror? Is it fantasy? Both are valid arguments. I’ve come down on the fantasy side of the argument because the otherworldly content sets the tone, not the real life horror.
What is not in question is the quality of this story. There’s a good reason that Pan’s Labyrinth picked up accolades and awards all over the world. It is probably the closest any film has ever come to distilling the essence of dark fantasy. The creature design, character development, and dueling plot lines based in reality and fantasy are so tight that it’s difficult to find even a minor flaw in the film’s logic. The story is incredibly moving and manages to make some very dark subject matter accessible to a wide audience.
2: Beauty and the Beast (1946)
It is a struggle for Belle to even look at her own reflection.
Jean Cocteau is one of my favorite playwrights/screenwriters/directors. His expansive and twisted take on the tale of Beauty and the Beast is breathtaking. Belle is a Cinderella figure, forced to slave away at the hands of her spoiled older siblings while her father works outside the home. Her father steals a rose from the beast’s garden for Belle, which results in Belle being sacrificed to the beast.
However, upon seeing Belle, the creature wishes to spoil her as his wife. He will lavish her in all the finery and praise her older siblings thrived on. Belle does not know what to do on a number of levels. The appearance of the beast is the least of her concerns as she comes to terms with everything she has suffered through in life. Cocteau’s take on Beauty and the Beast would be unbearable melodramatic pulp in anyone else’s hands. Good thing he came up with this brilliant treatment of the story and did everything himself.
1: The Seventh Seal (1957)
It figures that I would choose something as bleak as a meditation on life, death, and the existence of God by way of a fantasy chess match as the best fantasy film. What can I say? Happy fantasy doesn’t do as much for me as the darker, meatier stuff.
I’m not afraid to call Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal a masterpiece. The conceit–a dark game with the devil–is an old one, but it works wonders in context. It almost makes the somber setting more bearable. The man playing the game is a knight during the height of the bubonic plague. People are literally starving to death around him as his interactions with death unfold. It’s an expansive look at a great number of historical, social, and philosophical issues through the lens of an ancient conceit of fantasy.
This is the part where you get to tell me how wrong I am. What did I miss? Where am I completely off track? What…more cheerful fantasy masterpiece am I missing? And why do I let a fantastic Kathleen Turner performance convince me that Peggy Sue Got Married is a great film? Sound off below.
When J.K. Rowling announced Pottermore–an interactive annotated guide to the Harry Potter series–last fall, I was skeptical. What could be the draw for anyone but the most dedicated fan? It’s fan service from the biggest fan of the series herself.
No one is as consumed with the Harry Potter series as the author herself. Rowling spent seventeen years working on the seven mega hit novels. As she reveals in Pottermore, she even created what she calls “ghost trails”–side plots for major characters that didn’t even come close to making the final edits of the books. Her universe is so well-planned and researched that she sometimes forgets these side stories are not common knowledge.
Diagon Alley is filled with life in Pottermore
Pottermore is where the world of Harry Potter will really come to life. The films added a visual, the games interaction, and the theme park physical presence, but Pottermore is opening up the universe beyond Harry’s experience. Ever wonder how Harry’s Aunt and Uncle grew to hate him so much? What about the real origin of Professor McGonagall’s distaste for Slytherin? Or a history of how Olivader’s Wand Shop knows exactly which wand a wizard needs?
These are not random little tidbits being thrown out to earn money. For one thing, Pottermore is a free website that anyone can join. No, these are fully developed ideas that Rowling very easily could have turned into additional books. She already did that with The Tales of Beedle the Bard and Quidditch Through the Ages. Pottermore is fan service of a unprecedented scope.
Pottermore is an interactive online community with gaming elements. It’s not quite an MMORPG as I predicted when it was first teased, but it’s close. You explore all the various settings of the novels chapter by chapter. You interact with objects to find additional information and stories from J.K. Rowling.
Brew potions to earn points for your house in Pottermore
However, once you get past Harry’s humble beginnings, you become a part of the story. You are the newest student at Hogwarts and you have to get ready for your first year. You buy your books and supplies, receive your wand, and get sorted into your house. You can earn points for your house through various tasks. Maybe you’ll excel at wizard dueling or potion making. Perhaps your eye will complete collections of items for bonuses. It’s up to you.
The only rule in Pottermore is that you have to follow the story in order. You can’t jump to the final chapter until you’ve explored the entire first novel. The locked features open in a specific order. Once content is unlocked, you can always go back and explore further.
I would not consider myself a big Harry Potter fan by any means. I read the books (to a point) and saw the films (all but the last three on TV or DVD). I am, however, having a good bit of fun exploring Pottermore. It’s a clever supplement and one that will only keep growing as they add on the rest of the series book by book.
I like Doctor Who. I think it’s a fun sci-fi show with a good sense of humor and a big heart. What started as an educational TV show transformed into something far bigger than anyone could have ever expected.
I’m also fascinated by this My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic Internet culture. I’ve only seen one episode–the now-redubbed Derpy Hooves episode–and can’t get over how a simple little children’s show about tolerance (and magical ponies/unicorns/pegasi) has become an all consuming meme.
MLP:FIM versus the Daleks
Naturally, the good Doctor would eventually encounter the ponies. There had to be a crossover. I mean, I saw it at NYCC. In the venn diagram of sci-fi/fantasy fans, Doctor Who and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic had to meet. Both have such a large online presence that the mashup is inevitable.
This is not to say Dr. Whooves and Assistant is the first meeting of Doctor Who and MLP:FIM. It’s not even the first time someone has called him Doctor Whooves.
What this short video does is provide a slick crossover story. The Doctor crash lands on Equalia, completely unaware that he has taken on the form of a pony. He runs into a confused little pony (Derpy Hooves) who gets him to realize what he has become and why the TARDIS has taken him to Equalia.
Dr. Whooves and Assistant is supposed to be the start of a collaboration series on Newgrounds. Whether more episodes are made is another issue entirely. The only short so far is cute, funny, and well-executed. I’ll be looking forward to more in the future.
What happens when Hayao Miyazaki writes a film and passes it over to another animator to direct? In the case of The Secret World of Arrietty, magic happens. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi makes his directorial debut with a lot of style and heart.
The Secret World of Arrietty is based on the novel The Borrowers by Mary Norton. Arrietty and her parents are a small race of people only four inches tall. They live under the floorboards of a big house and survive by borrowing little things no one will miss–sugar cubes, cookies, singular tissues. When a sick boy named Shawn moves in to rest before surgery, he immediately spots Arrietty practicing for her first night of borrowing.
The strength of The Secret World of Arrietty is not the beauty of the animation–it’s gorgeous–or the quality of the voice acting–the dubbed voices sound great and match the actions of the film. The strength is the clarity of storytelling. Anyone can walk into this film and understand what’s happening. It’s not that it’s dumbed down to appeal to a younger audience. It’s simply an honest telling of a lovely story that isn’t afraid to spend time on character development.
Arrietty always hides from Shawn
The character development is quite engaging here. Take, for instance, the relationship between Arrietty and Shawn. Arrietty knows that the culture of The Burrowers will require her entire family to find a new home if she is seen by a human. So, every time Shawn and Arrietty talk, she hides herself in some way. She might shout out from a hidden corner or stand behind a leaf. As their relationship grows, she takes more risks in how she chooses to approach Shawn. She still won’t let him see her directly, but she trusts him not to try and steal a glance.
Another interesting trick that Yonebayashi uses to further connect Arrietty and Shawn is perspective. For Arrietty, everything in the human world is grand in scale. Crickets can fight her for a wildflower and rats would have no problem overpowering her. A nail barely sticking out of a wall can act as a step or a fish hook and line can be use to repel down the side of a cupboard.
Shawn is also constantly placed in larger surroundings. His guest bed is large and imposing. The ceilings in the house are tall and the tops of the doors would probably be beyond his grasp. When he’s in a scene with other humans, the camera is kept wide above them. He might as well be living in a wooden box filled with doll furniture like Arrietty for how large and intimidating his temporary surroundings are.
The two characters are trapped in the same situation in The Secret World of Arrietty. Shawn and Arrietty are old enough that they’re trusted to be left alone to do as they please in leisure time, but not old enough to be trusted with any real responsibility on their own. They’re only twelve and fourteen years old, respectively. The adults in their lives still view them as children while they both hope to reach independence in the near future. It only makes sense that these are the characters who drive the story when they pair off so nicely.
Quiet details are the key to The Secret World of Arrietty
The quiet moments are where The Secret World of Arrietty shines brightest. From the elaborate animation of crickets to the slow lumber of a predatory cat, the details that are used to enrich the setting and context of the story are precious. It’s Arrietty’s story, but the world of the title is its own character. The quiet moments that slow down the narrative wisely put the focus on the world that always changes. Even when they linger just a bit too long, the quality of the animation and score make them worth the wait.
The Secret World of Arrietty can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of age. I have never seen a theater that packed with children sit so quietly and still during any film. There weren’t cries of “Mommy, what’s happening?” or “I wanna go home!” every five minutes. There was simply an audience of adults and children taking in a beautiful and honest film that exploded into private discussions as soon as the animated portion of the credits ended.
Phoebe in Wonderland uses the visual fantasy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels to explore the life of a young girl with undiagnosed mental health issues. Phoebe (a wonderful performance from then nine year old Elle Fanning) lives with her parents and younger sister. Both of her parents are writers, with her mother working on a book about Alice in Wonderland. The children are raised in a house that encourages them to be different and express themselves. When Phoebe has a chance to play Alice in a school production, she builds up the courage to audition, setting her tapping, walking, and jumping rituals into overdrive.
Phoebe is presented as a bright and inquisitive child with a wild imagination. For the first thirty or so minutes, we’re viewing the girl from the perspective of her mother (ably played by Felicity Hoffman) who refuses to admit that anything might be wrong with her daughter. However, it becomes increasingly clear that Phoebe cannot control her rituals and even starts patterns of more disruptive behavior–shouting, spitting, and conversations with people who aren’t there.
Phoebe gets ready to follow Alice down the rabbit hole in Phoebe in Wonderland.
The only world Phoebe thrives in is theater. Her teacher, Miss Dodger, gives her a second chance to audition for Alice in Wonderland after she’s dismissed immediately for showing up late. Phoebe admits for the first time that she has a problem, “I have to wash my hands a certain amount of times,” allowing Miss Dodger to become the most compassionate and therapeutic influence in her life. With hands scrubbed raw, Phoebe takes Miss Dodger’s direction and gives the best audition of any student in the school.
Writer/director Daniel Barnz crafts a delicate story of coming to terms with mental illness. He gets at this great sense of realism by allowing Phoebe to escape into a total fantasy world. Phoebe “can’t stop” herself from performing her rituals, so she knows she has a problem. It is her family, her teachers, and her peers that struggle with her. Her mother, father, and sister all have different opinions of what to do. Her teachers and principal blindly punish her by labeling her a troublemaker. Her peers mock her mercilessly, provoke her to ritualize, and then get her in trouble for what they caused. As Phoebe starts to craft her own identity through the school’s theater program, everyone else in her life begins to fall apart.
Two big factors hold this film together. The first is the visual design of the film. The real world the characters inhabit is dull. There’s a constant presence of gray and lack of bright colors even while the school children play outside. The school’s theater is more vibrant because Phoebe is comfortable there. The third level is beautiful. When Phoebe enters her fantasy world of Wonderland, the world comes alive. Cobblestones become paths of gold, the sky explodes in vibrant pops of blue and white, and larger than life representations of the Caterpillar, the Red Queen, and Alice herself appear to guide Phoebe through life.
The effects in the Wonderland sequence are gorgeous. One particularly strong moment sees Phoebe recreating the race with the Red Queen. They run in place as the revitalized world blurs around them. They’ll have to go twice as fast to even begin to go anywhere and take in the scenery. The fantasy drops back into the–for the first time–clearly dull world when Phoebe’s mother comes outside to find out what Phoebe’s doing.
The second, and perhaps more essential, layer of glue for the film is Patricia Clarkson’s performance as drama teacher Miss Dodger. It is remarkable what Clarkson brings out of a character that, on paper, probably read as a cliched wacky drama teacher. From her first moment popping into Phoebe’s classroom with the first few lines of “Jabberwocky,” leaving, then popping her head in to invite the children to the tea party, Clarkson finds the perfect balance between Phoebe’s fantasy world and how arts teachers behave in real life. It’s a character that easily could have just become the magical other that doesn’t change. Clarkson avoids that trap.
Daniel Barnz does tip his hat towards foreshadowing a bit too often. One scene between Phoebe’s mother and her therapist is horribly distracting. It reiterates information we were just given a few minutes before and creates an awkward and unwieldy subplot of denial and unfulfilled ambitions for Phoebe’s mother. If the scene appeared at the end of the film, it would have flowed better.
Phoebe in Wonderland is filled with little moments that just don’t quite work like that scene. They derail the momentum the film built to those points and always throw the balance too far into realism. If anything, Phoebe’s story needed to be more fantasy-driven to demonstrate what triggers Phoebe’s rituals and worsening condition. The reveal of Phoebe’s actual condition at the end feels less authentic than it should because of the “this is important so we’re saying it again” interludes in the film.
Daniel Barnz gets so much right in Phoebe in Wonderland that it’s easy to overlook these moments. They might stop the film from being a masterpiece, but they do not drag down the intelligence, honesty, and style that define the film.
The trio of adventurers descend into the volcano in Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Journey to the Center of the Earth is a science fiction/fantasy novel from 19th Century author Jules Verne. Our protagonist is Axel, the nephew of the acclaimed Professor Liedenbrock, who unwillingly breaks a code detailing directions to the center of the Earth. The Professor immediately drags them on an expedition to a slumbering volcano in Iceland, where their guide, Hans, will lead them down into the vast series of caverns beneath the Earth’s surface.
Filled with technical jargon and a love for debating the merits of translation, Journey to the Center of the Earth holds up better as a novel of defying expectations than a traditional work of science fiction. It’s a given that the assertions of another world hidden within the core of our own are preposterous on face value. Verne even acknowledges this again and again throughout the novel. In spite of this impossibility, the book compels you to keep reading.
One thing I found absolutely fascinating is how easily this could have turned into one of the first non-Gothic horror novels. Take, for instance, the chapters where the trio of explorers wander for days without enough water down a dead-end path thousands of feet under the earth.
In fact, we had to ration ourselves. Our provision of water could not last more than three days. I found that out for certain when supper-time came. And, to our sorrow, we had little reason to expect to find a spring in these transition beds.
The whole of the next day the gallery opened before us its endless arcades. We moved on almost without a word. Hans’ silence seemed to be infecting us.
A handful of times, the characters are driven to the brink of utter madness by the Professor’s refusal to return to a safer area. From scalding hot water sources to monstrous creatures battling each other, Verne pushes the characters into literally and metaphorically darker territory. The further they descend into the Earth’s crust, the further they remove themselves from reason. It becomes impossible for them to just turn around and leave their expedition because they no longer know a goal beyond finding the center of the Earth.
With the exception of the super-tidy ending, I liked Journey to the Center of the Earth quite a bit. It has this great sense of life and energy. Verne’s prose, translated from French by Professor Von Hardwigg, is beautiful. Long passages of scientific discourse read like melodies and the repeated punctuation of measurements–temperature, angle of descent, depth, and direction–become the earmarks of the novel. It’s a lovely piece of science fiction that transformed to pure fantasy once science conclusively proved Verne wrong.
To fully explore this concept, I have to go into important plot details of Midnight in Paris. If you have not watched the film yet, read on at your own risk.
Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (full review) is a sweet tale of nostalgia. Gil, an American writer in 2010 visiting France, finds a way to travel back to 1920s Paris. He has literary and philosophical discussions with all his idols (Hemingway, Stein, Dali, the Fitzgeralds) while falling for a well-known mistress of the salon crowd. He tries to balance these new stimuli with his engagement to a wealthy entitled woman.
Like many of Allen’s films, the setting becomes a major character in the film. He hits on famous locations in four distinct time periods for comedic effect and allows the historical allure of Paris to define how Gil relates to his own life and experience. More important, however, is the use of light.
Midnight in Paris is a very yellow film. Seemingly every added light source has a yellow filter on it to brighten, highlight, or distract from the action happening on screen.
Face Off is SyFy’s original competitive reality show about professional special effects makeup. Season 1 saw twelve professional makeup artists competing for $100000 and a year’s supply of professional makeup equipment. Body painters competed against independent gore masters competed against makeup educators competed against professional sculptors in a series of film-themed challenges. One week, the contestants would have to design an original alien that could survive in a specific otherworldly atmosphere. Another week, they would go head to head in gender-swap makeup for engaged couples. The challenges were varied and open to a wide range of interpretations.
Season 2 is coming in January and I will be tuning in. Why? It’s the movie effects equivalent of Top Chef or early Project Runway. It’s not a matter of which contestants don’t belong on the show; it’s a matter of who has an off week. The first eliminated contestant last season was a professional body painter eliminated for doing a poor job painting an improperly applied prosthetic. The third runner-up only didn’t win because she ran out of time to bring her psychedelic version of The Little Mermaid to life. Very few contestants presented what the average film fan would consider “bad makeup,” which made the show all the more compelling.
As an educational look into the world of movie magic, Face Off fails. So little is described in the process until judging that you’d have to watch the episodes twice to pick up on all the nuances. Where it succeeds is bringing a very visual medium with a lot of bells and whistles to TV screens in an engaging way.