Mamoru Oshii and The Sky Crawlers

Mamoru Oshii’s criminally under-seen existential ariel-combat science fiction film, The Sky Crawlers, recently screened in Toronto as part of Techno/Human retrospective on the master animators body of work. Oshii was on hand to discuss the film prior to the screening, which I captured on video, and subtitled via the interpreter. If you are a fan of films like Blade Runner, Code 46, Solaris and Never Let Me Go, than consider picking up the BLU. I will let the director give to you skinny on the ideas and craft behind the film, which was animated by Production I.G.; the same folks behind the Ghost in The Shell OVA/TV show and the O-Ren Ishii animated sequence in Kill Bill Vol.1

My original review of the film is below:

“Somewhere, in a country similar to ours There are children who do not become adults. They are very similar to us.” goes the tagline of Mamoru Oshii’s 2008 film. One that carried the promise (during its production cycle) of a more linear form of story telling after the convoluted Ghost in the Shell: Innocence and the strange Tachigui. I am overjoyed to report that while the story is linear, it is anything but straightforward or simple, and not the least bit diluted or dumbed down in regards to his philosophical and social musings – basically the essence of what makes Oshii stand out from his generation of masters of the Japanese animated feature. Using a pastiche of elements of contemporary science fiction (From “Ender’s Game” to “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”) mashed up with stirring World War II aerial dogfights and a his unique brand of austere and cold melodrama, The Sky Crawlers certainly will not be for everyone. The film is a feast for the senses, not only in the gargantuan fighter plane battles, which may be safe to say are the best ever committed to celluloid (and yes, that includes Hell’s Angels and the space climaxes of any of the best of the Star Wars pictures). This is true in ever single detail of the film (bravo Production I.G.) even the small moments: The cigarette smoke swirls, a Vespa engine hums as it idles, the airplane hangars and living quarters are textured, lived in, and the apple pie and coffee diners are gorgeously rendered down to the most minute detail. And the sound design (courtesy of Skywalker Sound) is among the best work they have ever done.

But wait, much this technical praise could be more or less said of, say, Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s equally well crafted Steam Boy, and that movie was more or less a failure due to overly convoluted and stilted story telling. The narrative may be cool and deliberately paced for a film with designs on a gigantic canvas, but that dovetails beautifully with the story Oshii is trying to tell. Make no mistake, this is social science fiction, and tonally controlled storytelling at its finest.

The world of The Sky Crawlers is a social and geographical fusion of 1950s America, Japan and Western Europe where propeller styled fighter planes co-exist along side satellite television, large multinational corporations and cloning science. While it is a time of apparent peace and prosperity, the large corporations conduct ‘real wars’ (mostly over the border ocean zones), televised of course, to placate any unrest or rebellion from the masses. Contrary to Orwell’s “1984”, where London is a perpetual war wreck and society fragmented and controlled, Oshii (and the writer of the original novel, Mori Hiroshi) postulate that for the most part, this ‘perpetual war’ has actually benefited society. Wars and equally importantly, all the social problems of an idyll, purposeless populace, involving real people can be avoided if they are fought in a fully manufactured way which has ‘real consequence’ built into the equation. The fighter pilots that fight for their parent corporations are of a genetically modified race who never age, fittingly called Kildren. Set in state of perpetual adolescence, they live to fight and pilot the fighter planes, and die for the entertainment and attention of the worlds citizens. The fact that this race is immortal otherwise, only ups the ante and the dramatic spectacle of flaming angels falling from the sky from the fantastic machines.

The Sky Crawlers Movie StillThe story revolves around one of the bases of Kildren and the little ecosystem in which they inhabit. Yuichi arrives to a new posting for the Rostock Corporation. The pilots there are kept under tight wraps from their base commander Suito Kusanagi (a fellow Kildren) and the lovingly stern chief mechanic (and ‘adult human’), both of whom immediately have an eye on Yuichi. This sets Yuichi on edge along with the stories of the non-Kildren ace pilot, a Red Baron type named ‘The Teacher’ who fights for the ‘enemy’ Lautern Corporation. The first half of the film focuses on the ecology of the air-base with a few combat laden sorties to get the adrenaline flowing. The drinking and sexual exploits of Yuichi’s roomate pull Yuichi into a few encounters of his own that strike odd chords of familiarity. This leads to Yuichi questioning his bosses mysterious past while the Rostock Corporation plans its biggest offensive to date. The findings of Yuichi in regards to his bosses and himself are the engine of the plot, but really not the films chief concern, and thusly the storytelling is not the least bit concerned with ‘twist endings’ or other high-concept gimmickry so often favoured within the genre.

Like Kazuo Ishiguro’s wonderful novel (and to an extent, Mark Romanek’s film adaptation) Never Let Me Go, Oshii does not bury the mystery or secrets of the narrative so deep that a conscientious observer won’t have things figured out within the first quarter of the film. But the joy here is in how things reflect and refract current social trends, and draw commentary and observation into the forefront of the storytelling. The film is postulating some big questions in amongst the lives of pilots, war melodrama and simply stunning action set-pieces. It is a film concerned for the future, while not necessarily nostalgic of the past. There is a character, one that goes unnamed, in the film (in the background really) that sits alone and silent on the front steps of a diner. The Kildren all look at him, but never make any real contact. This old man weeps for the world as it is, a peace bought at a curious price of static non-progress and cyclic stagnation. A moment in the film when another adult human, the lively cook and bartender at the diner, joins the old man in his silent withdrawal. This moment resonates. Oshii, who was 57 at the time was (and probably still is) concerned with the consequences of the punishing media distractions and general white noise of modern Japanese society, which leaves many young folks in a state of perpetual adolescence. He has constructed a curious epic that is evocative of history, while starkly original in tone and execution. A message movie that is subtle, urgent, and most certainly worthy of your time and consideration.

The Director’s Club: SAM FULLER

I recently made a guest appearance on the Director’s Club Podcast talking at length with Patrick Ripoll about the career, craft and overall style of the great Sam Fuller. Over the course of a few hours we also talk about Do The Right Thing, the short films of Kenneth Anger, the bawdy polish mind-melt film, The Saragossa Manuscript, and many more tangents and such.

Specific Fuller films covered at length are The Naked Kiss, Shock Corridor and Pick Up On South Street, but we touch upon many others with the exception being his film and TV westerns.

You can find the full podcast over at The Director’s Club.

Errol Morris on The Unknown Known

A Q&A I recorded at one of the Toronto International Film Festival screenings of Errol Morris’s new documentary on Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. Morris talks a bit about language, and a bit about the contradictions and snowflakes of a political lifer that is still in his bubble of denial. It is a rather excellent 12 minute supplement to the film itself.

TIFF Review: Jodorowsky’s Dune

Dune

One of, if not the, most famous films never made was Dune. Sure, we got the mid-eighties David Lynch version – admittedly that is a significant guilty pleasure of mine – and some terrible TV miniseries in the early 2000s, but every science fiction cinephile worth their salt has drooled over the folklore behind Chilean writer-director-mime-surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version which would have starred Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, Udo Kier and Salvador Dali and scored by Pink Floyd. The implosion of the project in the mid 1970s and the scattering of the creative and technical team resulted in Ridley Scott’s Alien, but also, according to the storyboard matches inside the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, inspired imagery from Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Flash Gordon, Contact and a host of other classic blockbuster science fiction epics. It was something like all the musicians that were at that one Sex Pistols show went on to create almost the entire Punk movement.

This documentary may be a talking heads and animated cut-away straightforward but when you have the burning energy of Jodorowsky as the main subject, even at 84 years young, there is more energy and passion (and more than a bit of crazy) to burn. His vision of the coming of a cinema version of Frank Herbert’s culty science fiction novel was as the coming of a cinematic God. It was to be something sacred, with more than a touch of madness. That he had never actually read the book, well that wasn’t going to stop him. He assembled his creative team, his ‘spiritual warriors’ in Paris from all over the world, young special effects and writer Dan O’Bannon (Dark Star, Alien), graphic artists Moebius, H.R. Giger and Chris Foss and preached to them, almost like a cult priest or guru, for months in designing the storyboards and production design element. None of the creative team had read the Frank Herbert novel either, trusting to Jodorowsky’s unrelenting passion for his own ideas and vision. To say there was hubris and grandiosity going into the project is an understatement, but this is the writer director of El Topo and The Holy Mountain, the former film birthed the idea of a “Midnight Movie,” a practice which still continues (to a degree) today, and the latter, perhaps the strangest movie ever made. Trying to raise money from Disney, Paramount and the Other studios proved fruitless, as nearly everyone speculates, it was too visionary (and its runtime likely too epic) for the Hollywood Studio system, and too expensive to make anywhere else.

Thus, the project lives on as a dream. The perfect dream that exists in the minds of a few, because it was never relalized, has become idealized. Something that was to be made by spiritual warriors to mutate young minds has, after 40 years, passed into kind of a legend, almost myth, and it is now collected here as kind of a bible insofar as the storyboards and concept art collection that resulted and how it is further (and handsomely) eulogized by way of this documentary.

Would you like to know more…?

Guy Ritchie Merges Indie with Hollywood Again

In recent years Guy Ritchie has swapped his indie film making roots for mainstream. With a successful slew of Sherlock films in the bag, he has somehow managed to not be too heavily influenced by Hollywood and continues to bring his own unique brand of directing and producing to the big screen. Now it seems that Ritchie’s relationship with Hollywood big guns, Warner Bros, is ongoing as it has been announced that he will produce the film adaptation of Thomas Kelly’s 2006 novel, “Empire Rising.”

Once famous for being married to Madonna, Ritchie struck gold when he released Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels followed by Snatch, both of which became cult classics and were met with rave reviews. His subsequent attempts at shifting his filmmaking to focus on his then-wife failed dismally and the feature film, Swept Away was panned globally by critics. Subsequent movies RocknRolla and film work on prestigious ad campaigns with “Nike” helped rebuild his reputation and his smash, 2009, box office hit Sherlock Holmes saw him regain some good press. Since 2009, Warner Bros. has released every movie Ritchie has made, successfully combining his gritty indie style with a more glam Hollywood production angle.

For Ritchie, this latest Warner Bros. collaboration is like hitting the jackpot at MobileSlots.net as it features an epically staged love triangle set during the construction of New York’s Empire State Building in the depression era of 1930’s. It’s exactly the fodder Ritchie loves to sink his teeth into and it’s made even more attractive by the fact that the novels writer, Thomas Kelly will provide the screenplay.

Ritchie’s current project is also a Warner Bros. feature and filming for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. has yet to commence. It looks like filming for Empire Rising will begin only after the spy series hits theatres next year. Warner Bros. obviously has a lot of faith in Ritchie’s ability and his talent at keeping the box office hits coming.

The transition from indie producer to relevant Hollywood film maker is not an easy one and I think Ritchie has managed to find an ideal balance whilst still staying semi-true to his roots. He’s creating solid films which offer a great cinematic experience and he keeps the indie buzz going whilst capturing the mainstream audience’s attention.

Is Woody Allen “Irrelevant?”

In a recent Cinecast Episode, the guys were asked where they would place Woody Allen amongst the elite directors of all time and the word irrelevant was thrown around.

So is Woody Allen an “irrelevant” director at this point in his career? Well first of all, what does it mean to be irrelevant? And what does “this point in career” encompass? For the latter, let’s just take the past ten years = past ten films = roughly 20% of filmography/career. For the former, that’s a little trickier. Webster defines relevant as “having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand; having social relevance“. The matter at hand would obviously be film direction. So does being demonstrable mean sheer output of film? It certainly could, but if that’s the case, obviously Allen would have no trouble passing the bar on this one as he releases about one film per year. So that isn’t it.

Does irrelevant correlate with number of tickets sold i.e. box office numbers? That makes a little more sense, so let’s lightly analyze…

TITLE
WORLDWIDE BO GROSS
Blue Jasmine N/A
Rome with Love $73,244,881
Midnight in Paris $151,119,219
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger $34,275,987
Whatever Works $35,097,815
Vicky Christina Barcelona $96,409,300
Cassandra’s Dream $22,658,532
Scoop $39,215,642
Match Point $85,306,374
Melinda and Melinda $20,085,825
ROUNDED AVERAGE $62,000,000

Now compared to Iron Man or Man of Steel (or any other movie about a man made of metal), the above graphic’s numbers might as well be in pennies. But in comparison to like-minded films, these are honestly pretty respectable numbers for low budget, indie dramedies/thrillers playing in less than 800 screens. Before Midnight isn’t done yet; but for a well respected, beloved franchise, why is it only at a measly $11 million and won’t come anywhere near Allen’s numbers – all the while playing on 900 screens? How about Mud? $21 million. Are Linklater and Nichols considered irrelevant? One is a highly established and extremely well received director and the other is an up and coming hot shot in indie cinema who is equally well-received critically. Don’t know/like those names? How about Joss Whedon and Steven Soderbergh? Their two films currently wrapping up semi-wide releases made a whopping $4,169,353 and $32,172,757 respectively. I would hardly call Whedon or Soderbergh irrelevant directors (putting aside Soderbergh is now done making movies). Hell, even 2 Guns starring arguably two of the most bankable stars in Hollywood right now barely make the same numbers Allen’s films do (on average) while playing on over 3,000 screens!

Looking at the above examples, I’d say box office is a poor decision maker on deciding a film maker’s “relevance.” Sure you could come up with counter-examples but that would only help in kind of proving my point. If our annual box office competition has taught us anything, it’s that numbers are unpredictable and don’t really tell us much about the quality of a film or it’s director, cast or crew. And even if they did, in terms of where Allen’s types of films play, how many screens they’re on and what their competition is, the numbers are relatively large.

Who is Allen’s audience? On the above mentioned Cinecast, it was brought to light that it’s only old people going to Woody Allen films. While I think that might be a bit of a sweeping generalization, it’s kind of hard to dismiss. *Personally speaking, the latest Allen film I saw in the theater (Blue Jasmine), was roughly 90% over the age of 65. And to take it further, probably 75% of those people were closer to 80 years of age. And I’m not kidding. But it was a packed house. So this begs the question: is relevance directly related to the demographic a film maker is shooting for?

As sad as it is, I think this might actually be the best argument for proclaiming Woody Allen irrelevant. My gut reaction to this statement was “poppycock.” I mean what does it matter who the people are sitting in the seats? Why does it matter that they’re old? Cinema isn’t just for the kids. It’s for everybody. Still, in terms of film making craft and new ideas, Allen is hardly the trendy, hip, ground breaking director he once was. Despite making quality pictures, he isn’t really pushing anything new – in fact it’s arguable he’s consistently retreading old territory. Wes Anderson is a favorite around these parts but he’s already being criticized in some circles for just doing the same old same old over and over again and he’s a director with only seven features under his belt. Seven. Allen has upwards of 45. But it’s his old territory; and like Allen, there will always be people wanting to play in that playground even if they’ve seen it before.

Still, doing something over and over again hardly makes a person relevant. Trying new things and striving for originality and breaking some new ground creatively is what keeps the buzz going. It’s why people continue talking about you and anticipating your next project.

But back-pedaling again even further, maybe one could argue that these types of films make him even more relevant for a particular niche/demographic. Is it fair to say Tyler Perry is irrelevant because he only makes movies aimed at the black audience? Is Almodóvar irrelevant because almost all of his films are about gender identity, women’s issues and/or homosexuality? These examples open a whole new can of worms that I’m not really interested in exploring at the moment, but they do help illustrate that just because someone is making films for a very specific audience (intended or otherwise), doesn’t necessarily make them irrelevant on the whole. Maybe irrelevant to teens. Maybe irrelevant to action fans. Maybe irrelevant to vulgarians. But certainly not irrelevant to an entire generation of film-goers who look extremely forward to each and every release and are going to miss the hell out of Woody Allen when he’s gone.

*As a side note, my theatrical screening of Blue Jasmine was a Tuesday matinee. This could help explain the age demographic of my particular screening. It might also explain slightly lower than average box office numbers as well. Since movie going numbers are inexplicably tethered to dollars rather than tickets sold, it would make sense the dollars shown are smaller since the majority of the film’s audience is going during the day. Ya know, because old people can’t stay up after 8pm. Again, another can of worms.

The last bit of input I could bring in would come from critical reception. Rotten Tomatoes can be a bit arbitrary and each individual is going to have different opinions on artistic work; but in general, really high numbers (above 85%) mean a fairly high quality film that is both entertaining and smart in what it’s trying to accomplish and in general most people really enjoy.

TITLE
RT SCORE
Blue Jasmine 89%
Rome with Love 43%
Midnight in Paris 93%
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger 45%
Whatever Works 50%
Vicky Christina Barcelona 82%
Cassandra’s Dream 46%
Scoop 39%
Match Point 77%
Melinda and Melinda 53%
ROUNDED AVERAGE 62%

So of the last ten Woody Allen films, only one was outright horrible (Scoop), six of them fall into the mediocre or slightly less category, while four of them turned out to be pretty darn good – again, from critical standpoint. This is pretty all over the map. The guy isn’t making masterpieces time and again yet quite often he’s making highly successful, interesting and entertaining films. And it’s not only critics talking. The Academy (i.e. The Oscars, i.e. people in the industry) certainly takes note occasionally and adds to Woody Allen’s legacy as well.

TITLE
OSCAR NOMS/WINS
Blue Jasmine N/A
Rome with Love 0/0
Midnight in Paris 4/1
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger 0/0
Whatever Works 0/0
Vicky Christina Barcelona 1/1
Cassandra’s Dream 0/0
Scoop 0/0
Match Point 1/0
Melinda and Melinda 0/0

If relevance is determined by your peers opinion of your output, Woody Allen might fail in this regard. A nom here and there is certainly better than most film makers and the highly acclaimed Midnight in Paris helps, but in general he isn’t the Spielberg of the 1980s and in this regard probably isn’t all that relevant in award land. Which also sort of compares him with other film makers of today.

Still, it does seem that big name actors and actresses are clamoring to work with him: Baldwin, Clarkson, Cruz, Bardem, Sarsgaard, Blanchett, Winslet, Watts, Page, Eisenberg, Hopkins, Banderas, Sheen, McAdams, Wilson, Hawkins, McGregor, Ferrell, Farrell, Gerwig and many more. Some of them giving the best output of their careers (Cruz, Johansson, Brolin). Possibly even Blanchett and that’s really really saying something!

Judging audience reaction is a bit trickier; particularly for Allen’s films. Basically all I have to go on is the internet and since the internet is mostly a youth game and since we’ve established that in all likelihood Allen’s key demographic is senior citizens it’s unlikely to find too many reactions online from this source. Again using Rotten Tomatoes as a guide, the audience ratings fall mostly in line with critics (slightly below in most cases) and one might surmise that this is because the old folks aren’t running home from the theater to blog about the movie they just saw or click a radio button on some ratings web site.

I did briefly look at the average ratings for some of Allen’s films over on LetterBoxd and they mostly seemed to generally fall in line with what I see on Rotten Tomatoes. Again, this doesn’t really tell us much as the average age of a LetterBoxd user is probably somewhere around 26 (just a guess).

So we’re still kind of stuck with the same question: what does “relevant” even mean? After all this digging I conclude it’s kind of a conglomerate of all these things mentioned above; with some things bearing more weight than others. Basically I think “relevant” is a little bit too broad of a term and too difficult to pin down an actual definition for in the case of an artist. Allen’s films may no longer be considered “event” pictures, but I lay that problem at the feet of the general audiences of today, not Allen. For the most part, people want and demand amazing CGI effects, 3D IMAX and explosions these days. If Kubrick were still alive and working today would he be putting up $100 million box office numbers? Maybe, but I kind of doubt it. Eyes Wide Shut did pretty well back in the summer of 1999 but it had a lot less to compete with and there was the X factor of Kubrick’s death and the last chance to see one of his new films on the big screen. So maybe a poor example I guess. But it does make me wonder if Kubrick was still around making awesome movies, would people go around calling him irrelevant if it was mostly just film snobs like you and me going to see them and only making $60 million?

My final gut reaction is this, if someone is calling Woody Allen an irrelevant director at this point, it could be true, but it’s their own damn fault, their own misgivings and their own short-sightedness. Though it’s true that not all of his films are always really kicking in the most efficient gear, about every other one is received very well both critically, financially (relatively speaking) and from the audience (as well as can be determined from the web tubes). They maybe don’t have quite the panache that modern film makers are exploiting today and anything remotely resembling experimentation is non-existent, but that doesn’t mean these aren’t solid films that many people are still talking about today.

Steven Soderbergh’s Address on the State of Cinema

At the San Francisco International Film Festival, semi-retired (His HBO Liberace film is still in the queue) Steven Soderbergh gave a 35 minute talk to participants on his feelings on cinema, art, the business and all those things in between. The organizers politely asked nobody to record or repost this (although several were live tweeting the event) but as Soderbergh laments right in his talk, nobody can keep a secret any more. Perhaps the ‘don’t record this’ request by the powers that be was simply reverse psychology. Nevertheless, that the cat is now out of the bag, so have a listen.

Bon Mots:

“Whenever people start to get weepy about celluloid,” Soderbergh thinks of a quote he attributes to Orson Welles: “I don’t want to wait on the tool. I want the tool to wait on me.”

“The problem is that cinema, as I define it and as something that inspired me, is under assault by the studios and, from what I can tell, with the full support of the audience.”

Quoting D. Rushkoff, “There’s no time between doing something and seeing the result and instead the results begin accumulating and influencing us before we’ve even completed an action. And there’s so much information coming at once – and from so many different sources- that there’s simply no way to trace the thought over time.”

“Psychologically, it’s more comforting to spend $60 million promoting a movie that costs 100, than it does to spend $60 million for a movie that costs 10.”

“If you’ve ever wondered why every poster and trailer and every TV spot looks exactly the same – it’s because of testing. It is because anything interesting scores poorly and gets kicked out.”

Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola. Say Wha? [UPDATED]

Is this simply nothing more than a commercial for a perfume by a couple of well known directors or is this a tease at something greater? I’m too lazy to do the leg work on this one, so if any Third Row reader has any knowledge about this, let me know.

Here’s maybe a clue: I don’t recognize the gentlemen in the commercial/teaser, but I recognize the girl as the shop owner in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. It’s this girl.

Whatever the case, neat little nugget from Anderson and Coppola…

UPDATE: OK, so I figured this out. It is an ad for Prada. The directors are doing a three part short for the company (reminds me of the BMW ads so long ago with famous directors all taking a crack at shooting Clive Owen driving fast). At any rate, Part 1 and Part 2 of the short is under the seats…

Would you like to know more…?

How Do You Write A Joe Schermann Song: Available March 26th!

At last year’s Flyway Film Festival, Matt and I were honored to be among jury members for the fictional narrative feature category. While voting, it was a pleasure to award best director to Gary King for his musical, How Do You Write A Joe Schermann Song. Now, some may be screaming bias, but our jury is not alone in the festival world of awarding HDYWAJSS accolade after accolade. And now for the good news…

You can see HDYWAJSS starting Tuesday no matter where you are. You don’t have to wait for a festival screening to check it out as it will be available for download on several major platforms (Vudu, Hulu, iTunes, Amazon, etc.) and a DVD and Blu-ray will also be available on Tuesday. Here’s the OFFICIAL PRESS RELEASE

 

As a side note, if you’re in the Minneapolis area, I’ll see you at the upcoming screening on April 11th because despite being able to see it at home starting Tuesday, quite honestly if you can get to a big screen to see this spectacle. It’s quite shiny! Sign up for the Tugg to ensure your spot today. It will be at the Southdale AMC. Probably see you before and after stumbling from bar to bar in the area.