My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (2017; Dir.: Dash Shaw)
By Daniel Barnes
*Now playing at the Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinemas in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
Jason Schwartzman voices another Max Fischer-esque high school fabulist in this singular but strangely aggravating animated feature, an odd blend of crude hand-drawn animation and sophisticated Photoshop. Like the 34 year-old debut feature director, the protagonist is named Dash Shaw, a high school sophomore and fledgling journalist prone to printing fantasy as fact. The lengthy title should be taken literally – after Dash uncovers a real conspiracy involving fudged environmental impact reports, the entire high school sure enough sinks into the sea. Dash and his nerdy friends scramble up the floors to safety, while their classmates and teachers die horrible deaths all around them. It’s meant to play like the sketchbook fantasies of a 15 year-old outcast, and the characterizations of high school archetypes are Daria-level broad (the lunch lady knows kung fu, etc.), but it feels more like an extended, not funny version of a Community gimmick episode. My Entire High School… is deadpan to a fault, with monotone line readings that feel unnaturally disconnected, a tone that lacks command and a story that feels feckless and bored. Better things are surely ahead for Shaw, so just file this one under J for “juvenilia.”
Phantom Boy (2016; Dir.: Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
The New York-based independent distributor GKIDS is becoming as important an imprimatur of quality animated cinema as Pixar or Laika. Specializing in importing the best in hand-drawn foreign fare, GKIDS has racked up eight Best Animated Feature Oscar nominations in less than a decade, and in the last few years alone they released such enchanting and challenging movies as Ernest & Celestine, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Song of the Sea, When Marnie Was There, Boy & the World, and this year’s April and the Extraordinary World. Their latest film is Phantom Boy, directed by the same French team that made the Oscar-nominated GKIDS import A Cat in Paris, and it’s as charming and inventive yet modest and unpretentious as most of the films that carry the GKIDS label. Phantom Boy weaves together comic book, film noir and supernatural sci-fi tropes into a sensitive (but not lugubrious) story of a young chemotherapy patient discovering new powers while his mortal body wastes away. As a phantom, the boy can travel anywhere he chooses, teaming up in the hospital with an injured cop to bring down a disfigured supervillain who tries in vain to reveal his origin story. There’s just barely enough film here to make it to feature length, even with a silly finale that involves guessing a computer password while a clock ticks down, but there’s a nice balance between genre homage/send-up and a genuinely eerie and affecting story of death and disease, with a vision of New York City so loving and romantic that it could only come from a foreign visitor.
April and the Extraordinary World (2016; Dir.: Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci)
By Daniel Barnes
*Now playing at the Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
Pure enjoyment, but then I’ve always been in the bag for humanist sci-fi, lizards wearing robot armor, unusual and meticulous production design, and adventure stories where one of the heroes is a brainy woman and the other is a talking cat. A cheeky but emotionally mature vision of a retro-future past where Napoleonic rule continued into the 20th century, but a string of unsolved kidnappings of famous scientists kept the world stuck in the steam and coal age, April and the Extraordinary World feels utterly fresh and genuine compared to a please-all-masters appeaser like Disney’s Zootopia. Married scientists Paul and Annette are working to create a serum of invincibility and immortality when they’re captured by a mysterious force and presumed dead. Years later, their determined daughter works in secret to recreate the serum, aided only by her self-aware feline Darwin, but pursued by the same forces that took her parents. Marion Cotillard voices April/Avril in the French-language version that I screened, and other voice actors in that cast include the legendary Jean Rochefort and Dardenne brothers favorite Olivier Gourmet (meanwhile, Paul Giamatti, Susan Sarandon and J.K. Simmons contribute to the English-dubbed version). It’s part steampunk whimsy, part Lost-like mystical conspiracy, part science vs. nature philosophical discourse, part slapstick-laden intellectual hero’s journey, but all respect-yourself-in-the-morning animated fun.
Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (2015; Dir.: Roger Allers, et al.)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens tomorrow at Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinemas in San Francisco and Landmark Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.
An animated passion project shepherded to the screen by Salma Hayek, the hugely promising Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet arrives in theaters as a decidedly mixed bag. Gorgeous sequences of highly individualized, hand-drawn animation from some of the industry greats (including Bill Plympton, Song of the Sea director Tomm Moore, and Sita Sings the Blues director Nina Paley) are swarmed by a trite, clumsy, atonal central story directed by Roger Allers and adapted from a book by Gibran. The film plays like an old-school musical where the ecstatic dance sequences get overshadowed by an insufferable script – Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is basically the Royal Wedding of the hand-drawn animation comeback. In a mid-20th century Lebanese village, a mischievous mute girl named Almitra and her widowed mother (Hayek) take care of the imprisoned poet Mustafa (Liam Neeson, fulfilling his contractual obligation to appear in literally every movie), a mild-mannered folk hero condemned by the country’s government. When Mustafa gets released from prison for deportation, Almitra follows close behind as he walks among his devotees one last time, reciting his poems for an increasingly fervent and adoring crowd. It’s in these poetry sequences that the impressive roster of hand-drawn animation gods comes roaring off the bench, and some of their sequences are genuine showstoppers. Unfortunately, they’re dragged down by the bland, third-rate Don Bluth visuals and clunky dialogue (“We feed the body, but you…you feed the soul!”, etc.) of the Mustafa/Almitra story, which features more distracting celebrity voices than a Studio Ghibli re-dub. Speaking of Studio Ghibli, the bullied protagonist of The Prophet pales in comparison to the complex young female heroine of this year’s When Marnie Was There – Almitra lost her voice when her father died, but gains it back by the conclusion of the film, because poetry, the end. Save yourself the extra hour and wait for the inevitable YouTube supercut of the Plympton/Moore/Paley et al. scenes instead.
When Marnie Was There (2015; Dir.: Hiromasa Yonebayashi)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens today at Embarcadero Center Cinemas in San Francisco and the California Theatre in Berkeley.
Hand-drawn animation stalwarts Studio Ghibli shut down production late August following the retirement of guiding light Hiyao Miyazaki, so When Marnie Was There may be the last feature film we see from them in a while, possibly ever. A delicately personal and cozily mythic story of an asthmatic, self-loathing girl named Anna who gets shipped off to the country for her health, When Marnie… is less fantastical than Ghibli masterpieces like Spirited Away or The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, but the animation is just as gorgeous and the storytelling just as intricate. Anna imagines the world as an “invisible circle” with herself on the outside, observing that her relatives’ cottage “smells like a stranger’s house,” and yet the abandoned mansion across the lake “feels familiar.” She comes to befriend a lonely blonde girl that lives there named Marnie, who appears to Anna as equal parts ghost, imaginary friend, and memory. The most Ghibli-esque touch here is the way that the natural and spirit worlds easily commingle, like overlapping cels in the same frame. At one point, Anna is rescued from the rising tides by a burly, silent, white-haired boatman, and we get the brief impression that he is a supernatural apparition; a few scenes later, we see that he is just another social outcast bullied by schoolkids. It’s a really heartbreaking and beautiful touch in a film largely about acceptance and forgiveness.
Cheatin’ (2015; Dir.: Bill Plympton)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens today at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley, and the Rialto Cinemas in Sebastopol.
In a genre overwhelmingly dominated by major studios, nine-digit budgets, digital animation, wisecracking animals, A-list voice casts, and costly pop song licensing rights, animator Bill Plympton remains an iconoclast. Cheatin’, which had its U.S. premiere at Slamdance in January 2014 but is only now trickling out to theaters, is Plympton’s seventh feature film. It has all of the Plympton hallmarks, most especially the hand-drawn animation (you can practically feel every stroke of his pencil), but also the lack of true dialogue, the grotesque character design, and the focus on body mutilation and transmogrification. The film is structured as a series of absurdist gags, many of them quite crude, but it coalesces into a more traditional narrative as it develops. After a “meet-cute” on the bumper cars that is more horrifying than endearing, a young man and woman find love and an intense physical chemistry together, but a scheming woman tears them apart. Plympton blends elements from Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, Being John Malkovich, and The Prestige into this story of sex, obsession, revenge, and magic, and there are a number of awe-inspiring visual sequences. You certainly can’t fault Plympton for ambition; if only the jokes were a little stronger!