Tag Archives: movies

Anime Secret Santa 2015 – Patema Inverted

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Some time in the near future, a scientific experiment involving gravity goes horribly awry. As a result, gravity becomes reversed for many people; rather than being held to the ground, these “Inverts” are now pushed away from the Earth’s surface, forcing the survivors to take refuge underground. Generations later, the surviving population is divided into two separate societies: the underground society of the Inverts, and Aiga, the totalitarian surface city.

Patema Inverted begins, like these stories tend to do, with a precocious teenage girl who has little time for adult-imposed boundaries on exploration. Patema, the daughter of the Invert chieftain, has a habit of wandering near a large chasm called The Danger Zone (get your Kenny Loggins jokes out now). Unbeknownst to her, this chasm leads to the surface, and to the non-inverted people of Aiga. One day, a scuffle with a “bat man” (a black-clad Aigan soldier who is exploring the tunnels and, from Patema’s perspective, walks on the ceiling), Patema falls through the chasm and onto the surface. Before she floats away into the sky, however, she is saved by Age, an Aigan boy who wants to follow in the footsteps of his father, a would-be explorer who once tried to defy the fanatical government and see what lay outside the city.

If the broad strokes of the story described so far feel familiar, they should. Once Patema Inverted‘s two teenage love interests from different worlds have their first magic moment together, it’s no challenge at all to predict the path the story will take to its end. Our rebellious teen heroes meet, fall in love, and face adversity from ignorant authority figures, only to then discover secret knowledge about their fantastical world that they will use to bring their two divided communities together. None of the turns of the plot, or the secrets Patema and Age uncover, will come as much of a surprise. And it’s a credit to Patema Inverted‘s charms as a story that it can tread such familiar ground and still be as enjoyable as it is.

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Like writer/director Yasuhiro Yoshiura’s previous work, Time of EvePatema Inverted uses a fantastical premise to explore the way societies create barriers between people, and how overcoming those barriers creates empathy and, ultimately, understanding. In Eve, humans discover that when they encounter their android servants in a social setting where both hold equal stature, the differences between man and intelligent machine become harder to discern. In Patema Inverted, the Inverts and the Aigans view each other as freaks who could never fit in with “normal” people like them. When Patema and Age first encounter each other, they view the other with a mix of wonder, horror, and confusion, which eventually give way to mutual respect and compassion. Once you get to know someone, the fact they think the ceiling is the floor doesn’t seem like such a big deal after all.

The moments where characters from the two worlds interact are the obvious highlights. The scenes where Age and Patema walk through an open space, awkwardly clinging together to keep the other from “falling” into the sky, are all particularly beautiful moments for the way they capture a simultaneous mix of simultaneous emotions. They are confused, amazed, scared, and excited, all at once – all the things one feels when encountering something unknown, depicted through the act of trying to walk while holding on to an upside down person. Patema Inverted succeeds as a movie because it fully embraces the metaphorical meaning of its science fiction premise, which gives Yoshiura the opportunity to indulge in the movie’s most effective directorial flourish. Rather than maintain a fixed position as to which characters are upside down, the perspective from which the characters are portrayed changes depending on their emotional state and the power dynamics between characters; just because a character is standing on the floor doesn’t guarantee that they will be the one right side up in the frame.

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In most cases, Patema Inverted overcomes its utterly predictable story by injecting a surprising amount of life and emotion into the relationships between its characters. And its worst moments come, unsurprisingly, when it fails to do so. The most obvious weak spot comes in the form of the antagonist, Izamura, the leader of Aiga. While the rest of the characters experience conflicting emotions, Izamura feels just one: the need to be a cackling supervillain. He sneers, he plots, he torments the innocent, he makes Mr. Burns finger steeples without a hint of irony – and he never amounts to anything more than the panto villain he appears to be at first glance.

Patema Inverted is a movie of few surprises and simple pleasures. If you prefer your sci-fi to be philosophically heady and complex, then to you it will most likely feel insubstantial. But as a simple coming of age story and an earnest exploration of the experience of encountering the new, it’s perfectly satisfying.

Space Pirate Captain Harlock (2013)

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Space Pirate Captain Harlock is the newest version of manga writer/artist Leiji Matsumoto‘s space opera adventure starring the titular Captain and his crew, who sail the spaceship Arcadia across the cosmos and battle the forces of interstellar tyranny. Harlock has had multiple anime adaptations since the 1970s, and this time around has been given the theatrical movie treatment, directed by old anime industry warhorse Shinji Aramaki.

Space Pirate Captain Harlock is the latest of the CGI animated movies that Aramaki has been churning out for the last decade, usually to dubious results. It’s always been clear that Aramaki had ambitious plans for his computer animated movies, but the technology and expertise available weren’t able to deliver on it, resulting in stiff, plastic-looking, and often poorly executed animation.

CGI technology and the knowhow necessary to use it well have developed in the last ten years, and Harlock certainly looks better than any of Aramaki’s previous computer animated movies.There are some impressive cosmic starscapes and spaceship battles, and the scenery has a great amount of depth and detail. Still, Aramaki’s chosen medium has some obvious limitations, particularly when it comes to character animation. The human figures are sometimes stiff and floaty, a shortcoming of subpar CGI that stands out even more when characters are given the detailed and realistic textures they have here, and even with a decade of experience Aramaki and his crew still can’t capture the look and movement of hair. As much as Harlock‘s animation seems impressive compared to its predecessors, it never looks any more impressive than what can be found in a cutscene from Starcraft II. It also doesn’t always match up with Matsumoto’s design aesthetic. While most of the characters have the cartoonier elements of Matsumoto’s trademark look removed in favor of more 3D-friendly realism, a few character designs stick too close to the originals, looking too lumpy or too willowy for such naturalistic rendering.

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Bad animation is only the first of many problems. Space Pirate Captain Harlock’s story is made up of nothing but a series of increasingly ridiculous contrivances, trite philosophizing, and mystical mumbo jumbo. Most of the characters don’t have enough personality to have any real presence or impact on events, but those that do frequently make nonsensical decisions and change motivations as the twists of the plot demand; protagonist Yama changes sides not once, not twice, but three times in the middle section of the film, sometimes for the flimsiest of reasons. With each new use of unexplained super-technology and space-magic hokum used to justify every ridiculous turn and development, things go from being specious and silly to a complete mush of poorly conceived nonsense.

Harlock always fell on the side of space opera that’s more fantasy than anything resembling real science, but this newest iteration abuses genre conceits and fictional mythology well past the breaking point. An unnecessary new supernatural layer is added to Harlock’s backstory, as are ill-fitting design elements nicked from obvious sources like Star WarsMass Effect, and Warhammer 40,000 miniature figures. It’s possible to imagine a lighter, less self-serious version of all this nonsense being a pulpy spectacle that is at least fun to watch. Unfortunately, the movie’s pompous, ponderous tone keeps it from being even enjoyably silly.

For many older anime and manga fans, Captain Harlock is a beloved icon of an old aesthetic that faded away in the last few decades. Aramaki and his crew clearly know this, and even end their version of his story on a note meant to elevate Harlock to the level of an actual myth. Space Pirate Captain Harlock tries to be an argument for both Harlock’s timelessness and relevance, but it fails as both a nostalgia vehicle and a modern revival of a classic character.

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Space Pirate Captain Harlock is available streaming on Netflix in both English and Japanese, under the title Harlock: Space Pirate. Unfortunately, the only available subtitles for the Japanese version are a transcription of the dub script by Steven Foster.

“The Wolf of Wall Street,” Narrative Friction, and The Power of the Pitch

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The first thought I had when I walked out of The Wolf Of Wall Street was, “I want a smoke.” I had quit smoking months before and hadn’t felt the desire to light up again in some time, but Wolf tickled my hedonistic addiction center something fierce. The smarter part of my brain was louder than the part that wanted to indulge, but several hours later I still felt the urge. No matter how much I knew better, it wouldn’t go away.

Martin Scorsese’s new movie has attracted a lot of controversy, with many people decrying it as an ode to selfishness, hedonism, and immorality. To be fair, they’re almost right: protagonist Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) spends almost all of the movie’s 3 hour runtime bragging about how clever a scammer he is, to both other characters and the audience. The movie opens with Belfort smugly monologuing and puffing out his chest as he walks the the viewer past his mansion, his sports car, and his supermodel wife. Belfort’s ill-gotten wealth is so substantial, his chutzpa so galling, that it’s easy to focus entirely on his siren song and overlook how during this same monologue, he also mentions being under investigation by multiple federal agencies, recklessly bets stacks of money on dwarf tossing, admits to serious issues with drinking, gambling, drug use, and whoring, and is so high on cocaine that he has a near-drug induced panic attack while engaging the services of a prostitute.

That near breakdown stops the momentum of his posturing and blowhard pontificating entirely. His voiceover stops, the soundtrack cuts out and his cool, alpha male exterior vanishes in an instant. He quickly regains composure, but we’ve seen the truth: Belfort, Wall Street crook and spokesperson of the fortune-making power of jackassery, isn’t just a liar. He himself is a lie.

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While Wolf‘s detractors rightly pick up on the fact that the movie is not a simple morality play, where the narrative takes a righteous stance against the misbehavior of its characters and uses their story to create a cautionary tale of justice done, they are failing to notice that the movie shows a wide disparity between what narrator and central character Belfort wants his audience to believe about him and who he actually is. From that opening montage all the way to the movie’s conclusion, there’s a distinct gap between the image that Belfort tries to present and what is shown by the movie’s pictures and sound.

Wolf effectively tells two overlapping stories at the same time: the one in Jordan Belfort’s head, and the one that the audience actually sees. By itself, that second story, the one told by the moving pictures and the dialogue and the soundtrack, mostly takes a neutral stance on Belfort and neither interrogates nor speaks out against him. It simply tells his story, and lets him talk over it. But when those two versions of the story are played at the same time, the friction between them becomes obvious. The narrative doesn’t need to condemn Belfort, because Belfort’s lies do the condemning for it.

Belfort characterizes his wealth as righteous returns from a life of hard work and applied brains, while his actions paint him as a thief and a cheat whose only intelligence comes in the form of a cruel cunning for sniffing out ways to manipulate people. He describes his debauchery as if it makes him glamorous and enviable, yet it’s constantly driving him to new heights of idiocy. He clearly believes himself to be a true talent and an inspiration, when his only real talent is weaponizing his own greed and using it to whip other people into the same unsatisfiable frenzy for more, more, more that he lives his life inside of. And after he finally self-destructs, gets caught, and loses most of what he’s earned, he tries to pass off his story as something to be learned from, a teachable moment of reaching too far and getting burned by the sun. But that’s the biggest lie of all: that the story of his rise and fall has any value to anyone.

Saying that The Wolf of Wall Street tells a person’s meaningless story makes it sound like a movie without a purpose, and that the the movie’s critics are right about it lacking morals. But just because Belfort’s story itself, especially the way he recounts it, doesn’t have any value on its own doesn’t mean the same is true of the movie itself. That lack of anything useful about Belfort or his tale is, in fact, the movie’s point. This is driven home by the movie’s final scene, where an older, post-disgrace and imprisonment Belfort is seen employed as a motivational speaker with a paying audience waiting to hear words of wisdom from him, a confirmed spin artist and fraudster. The movie shows Belfort to be a meaningless person with no worthwhile talents, but there he is, still being praised and, even worse, paid. By any metric that accurately measures logic, morality, or sanity, Belfort never deserved any respect in the first place, and he certainly doesn’t deserve to keep it. What The Wolf of Wall Street is ultimately about, what it’s real meaning is, is to remind us all that the world we live in, the one driven by money and sales and who can move the most product out the door, doesn’t care about any of those things.

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In one of Wolf Of Wall Street’s early scenes, a successful stockbroker (Matthew McConaughey) explains to  Belfort that the reason people buy a seller’s product is a simple one: people are addicts. It’s not actually a salesman’s job to find what someone needs and then give it to them, or to explain why what they’re hawking is necessary, or helpful, or good. They don’t even have to know anything about what it is they’re selling beyond talking points. Their job is to make the person they are selling to want what they’ve got and feel good about getting it. “We don’t create shit,” Belfort’s mentor says, in between bragging how his success is possible only because his total self-absorption and disinterest in anyone else. The people in Belfort’s world who are most successful aren’t those who provide the most valuable service, they’re the ones who pick a mark and make him or her feel the best about believing in the bill of goods they’re selling. And because Wolf‘s Belfort is a character based on a real man, one who found incredible success and whose name still carries enough respect that he is still employed as a financial guru, the truth of his universe is the truth of the audience’s, too.

Even if you’ve never worked with the masters of the universe in the financial sector, this is all familiar territory to anyone who has worked in sales. It doesn’t matter what the product you are selling is, your sales manager will hammer home the same lesson until you learn it or lose your place on the team: “make them want what you have” (whether they need it or not). Don’t look for signs that they need you, look for things you can use to make them think that they need you. Even accounting for those salespeople who make a living for themselves being honorable, the ones who are the most successful are almost always those who care the least about whether their clients need their service or not. You don’t talk to customers, you talk to marks. What you’re selling doesn’t matter, all that matters is your pitch. And the only pitch that matters is the one that makes the person you’re pitching feel good about being pitched.

When people complain that Wolf endorses Belfort’s immoral activities and lifestyle, they’re picking up the same vibes I did when watching the movie gave me the urge to smoke again. It’s the same urge that Belfort (and every other savvy salesman) taps into when they call your phone or knock on your door. Everyone knows on some level that that’s how the sales game is played, and yet people still fall for it all the time. The world is still filled with Belforts big and small who make their living making pushing things that no one needs, but that they’re still able to make people buy. There will always be a part of us that wants something. The scammers and disreputable salespeople of the world know how to give that something a name.

The real world Belfort sold stocks. Wolf‘s Belfort spends the movie actively pitching the audience on the allure and primal satisfaction of his success. “I’ve got all this, and it makes me feel so good. Don’t you want it too?” Even as his life of luxury is shown over and over to be filled with self-destruction and deception, even as it eventually collapses on itself, he can’t help but give his spiel. That’s his skill, after all: making you think you need something that you really don’t need at all. Even as we see him for what he is and watch as the life he’s been pitching is revealed to be a sham, we still can’t help but feel the appeal. We know it’s wrong, but we want it to be right. So we want the movie to tell us that it’s wrong for us, to “make it real,” as McConaughey’s character would say, so that we can wise up and “get off the ferris wheel.”

But instead of reassuring us, of giving us a helping hand and pointing a scolding finger at the liar who won’t leave us alone, The Wolf of Wall Street lets Belfort talk. It let’s him make his sales call, and refuses to tell us that it could never work on us, we know better than that. It lets him give his pitch, and refuses to reassure us that it doesn’t have any power.