Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

In the abstract, the concept of a 2010s CG animation Spider-Man origin story sounds dreadful. In practice, prankster screenwriter Phil Lord explodes the concept into a wild cosmic comedy by making a movie about the world’s over-abundance of Spider-Man origin stories (and about the art of CG animation at large). Into the Spider-Verse is a shockingly imaginative, beautiful, and hilarious take on a story & medium combo that should be a total drag, but instead is bursting with energetic life & psychedelic creativity. I wouldn’t believe it myself if I hadn’t seen the feat achieved onscreen with my own two eyes – which are still sore from the vibrant, hyperactive swirl of interdimensional colors & spider-people that assaulted them in gloriously uninhibited 3D animation.

Even if Into-the Spider-Verse had stuck to a single, straightforward Spider-Man origin story, it chose the exact one that could have kept the formula fresh for a modern audience. Afro-Latino teen dweeb Miles Morales is a welcome deviation in representation from the countless white-boy Peter Parkers who have swung across the screen over the years. Miles inhabits a hip-hop centric version of NYC that’s largely missing from the rest of the Spider-Man canon- represented in graffiti bombing, boomboxes, earbuds blaring legitimate radio-rap tunes, and a social pressure to code-switch when attending a predominately white school for the gifted. It’s a refreshing perspective for a Spider-Man universe NYC . . . until the obligatory machinations of the Spider-Man origin story take over the plot. When Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider, the audience has an all-too-clear idea of where his story will & should go as he transforms into an unlikely, geeky superhero. Except, Phil Lord immediately dislodges this story from that well-established groove to chase something much more unpredictable & self-aware.

Two distinct narrative deviations disrupt the typical Spider-Man origin story trajectory once Miles is bitten by that spider. First, he becomes aware that he’s living in a comic book. His inner thoughts become deafening narration he cannot escape, and his world is suddenly contained in Ben Day Dots and sectioned-off panels. Second, he becomes aware that his is not the only Spider-Man comic book. In fact, there are countless variations on the Spider-Man origin story that exist in a vast multiverse that begins to perilously overlap with his own. These variations include novelty spider-people like Spider-Man Noir (Nic Cage) & Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), whose outlandishness could not be further from Miles’s grounded hip-hop version of reality. Miles’s first-act run-in with a radioactive spider (and subsequent heartbreak with the tragic death of a family member) may be as consistent with Spider-Man lore as the NYC setting, but the comic book environments & quest to reconstruct the multiverse in proper order that result form that bite feel wildly imaginative for the material.

Those comic book environments & psychedelic multiverse overlaps do more than just open the Spider-Man origin story to exiting new avenues; they also allow for experimentation in CG animation that feels like a huge creative breakthrough for the medium. Where most modern animation pictures feel flat & unimaginative in their design, Spider-Verse is overflowing with ideas. The Ben Day Dots, panel divisions, and deliberately off-set screen-printing effect of its comic book design afford it a distinctly retro visual style, one enhanced by the claymation effect of its off-kilter frame rate. The endless possibilities of its collapsing multiverse also invite a total surreal meltdown of psychedelic colors & shapes, transforming Miles’s grounded NYC into a melted-candy nightmare. I usually dread CG animated kids’ movies even more than I dread the latest needless reboot of Spider-Man. Both of those well-worn mediums subverted & exploded my expectations for what they could achieve in this out-of-nowhere visual stunner, often multiple times in a single scene.

The only arena in which Into the Spider-Verse falls a little short is in eliciting a genuine emotional response for Miles’s journey from geek to hero. It’s a little difficult to lose yourself in his story when the visual language of the film is so (literally) flashy, and when other Spider-Men are on-hand to make self-aware, Deadpool-lite references to things like the character having “an excellent theme song & a so-so popsicle.” Every time a new, outlandish spider-person appears to announce, “Let’s start from the beginning one last time,” it’s an amusing joke at the expense of the character’s endless parade of reboots. However, by extension that also means it’s at the expense of Miles Morales, who likely deserved to have a straight-forward, gimmick-free Spider-Man origin story more than any other version of the character we’ve seen in the countless live action adaptations before him—one that’s likely to never arrive now.

The most emotional I got in Into the Spider-Verse was in an end-credits acknowledgement of the character’s creators – Steve Ditko & Stan Lee, who both died last year. Whether or not its boundless creativity left room for genuine pathos, Into the Spider-Verse feels like as perfect of an encapsulation of everything that collaboration inspired as you’ll ever see – both in its scramble to gather every variation of the character it can and in its vivid graphic artistry. I went into Spider-Verse expecting a humorous, satisfactory reboot of a character who’s been through the ringer too many times to yield any true surprises. I was frequently surprised and more than merely satisfied by the psychedelic, playfully meta spectacle that unfolded, then imploded before me instead. By the end of the film I could only cite one unturned stone that felt like a true missed opportunity, and then that exact gag ended up being a standalone scene after the end credits. The movie is that good.

-Brandon Ledet

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Perfect Blue (1997)

The debut feature of tragically-deceased Japanese animator Satohi Kon (Paprika, Tokyo Godfathers) is taking a 20th anniversary victory lap in digital restoration, so I had the unexpected opportunity to see it for the first time in a theatrical setting. What a fucked-up delight! Because Paprika is one of the few anime films I’ve watched repeatedly over years of admiration & study, I was somewhat prepared for the sugary pop psychedelia & loopy nightmare logic Satoshi Kon established in this predecessor. What I did not expect going in blind was that the film would fit so comfortably within my beloved Evil Internet horror genre, given that it arrived so early in the development of online culture. The internet is fertile thematic territory for the horrors of the Unknown because its mechanics & functions have continued to feel like a novel, depthless mystery to the average user. I can only imagine that effect was even greater in 1997, when a global network of intercomputer communication felt like a man-made miracle. Perfect Blue not only exploits the eeriness of that brand-new unknown by reflecting it in the similar subliminal space of a bad dream & an unraveling mind, but it’s also prescient of the Internet’s worst functions as a future real-world evil – both as a tool for misogynist bullying & as a corrupter of personal identity. Unlike other early Evil Internet thrillers like The Net or FearDotCom, it’s remained effectively creepy instead of devolving into a quaint joke precisely because it got the internet exactly right. It perfectly captures our ongoing, collective online nightmare, despite arriving in a time when the internet was mostly a tangle of blogs & message boards.

A female pop singer is pressured by her managers to leave her music career behind to pursue acting. This professional shift is coded as her public image growing up, leaving behind the girlish innocence of her pop idol persona to pursue a more adult, sexualized career. She lands a small role on a racy “Japanese psycho thriller” TV series (the kind of sensationalist drama that plays for high ratings on HBO in the 2010s), requiring her to perform increasingly sexualized acts for the camera, including participation a brutal rape scene. Pretending she’s okay with this career shift so she appears agreeable to her talent agency causes a rift inside herself, where her still-innocent inner voice (visualized as her former pop idol persona) screams out in dissent. Meanwhile, an online stalker blogs in first-person as her former self, reinforcing the bifurcation between her two personae. The pressures of her job & the online harassment amount to a fever pitch as she starts losing time and waking to find that the entertainment industry goons who pressured her into sexually compromising positions are being found systematically murdered. Her pop idol self, her TV show character, her dreams, and her false online persona all collectively unravel her sense of identity to the point where she can’t say for sure whether she is the mysterious murderer or even if the murders are actually happening. She can’t even answer basic questions like “Am I dreaming?” or “Am I alive?” with any confidence or certainty. Pressures from her pop music fans to remain an innocent child clash with the television industry’s pressures for her to expose her body & pretend to be a rape victim for commercial entertainment – two opposing, impossible standards only she suffers the consequences of as their target du jour. It’s no surprise that the internet is the primary tool of this misogynist cycle, as it’s only served that function more intensely in real life in the decades since.

Early on in Perfect Blue the protagonist receives a threatening fax from her stalker and the machine’s mechanical scrapes & hums mutate into an industrial pop score that overwhelms the soundtrack, heightening the eerie threat technology poses in her insular world. That’s when I knew I would be all-in for the movie’s technophobic feminist nightmare, which only became more rewarding the further it broke apart from reality to sink into the (literal & figurative) machines of misogyny. Like most well-regarded anime, Perfect Blue is technically impressive as a feat in traditional animation, fully utilizing its medium to achieve logic & imagery unattainable in live action cinema. The particulars of how it uses that medium to reflect the eeriness & artifice of the internet, nightmares, and the entertainment industry are a more rarified wonder, especially since it’s an effect that actually has something substantial to say about the exploitation & commodification of women in the public sphere. Perfect Blue can occasionally be super uncomfortable in its depictions of sexual assault, but at least in a way that’s relevant to those themes. Overall, it’s a strikingly beautiful, effectively creepy work of animated psych-horror, one that approximates the full danger & eeriness of the internet in a way that’s only since been matched by the likes of Suicide Club, Unfriended, Nerve, and #horror. I mean that as the highest of praise, as this is a genre I find consistently fascinating, but rarely this effectively scary. It’s worth noting too that the 20th anniversary digital transfer of the film has not seemed to sharpen, flatten, or distort its original appearance the way some digital “restorations” of animated classics have. Perfect Blue looked to me of the exact grainy, matte quality you’d expect an animated 90s movie to appear like on the big screen. Our relationship with the internet may have intensified drastically in the last 20 years, but Perfect Blue appears to remain untouched as a pristine, enduringly terrifying object – a beautiful technophobic nightmare worthy of continued discussion & preservation.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made CC, Britnee, and Brandon watch Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006).

Boomer: I first saw Live Freaky! Die Freaky! nine years ago at a friend’s house while his wife (who is one half of the duo behind the on-hiatus podcast Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Undead–and yes, I gave them that title) and daughter were out of town. They’re just my kind of good people: both of them grew up in fundamentalist Christian households like I did, both rebelled and escaped that lifestyle, both are horror nerds like me, and they even got married on Halloween. My cat used to be their cat! I found the movie to be pure, unadulterated trash, but also hypnotic and impossible to ignore. I immediately went online to see what information was floating around the 2009-era internet, and there wasn’t much. There were a few Amazon reviews, but all of them had the same tone: if you liked this movie, you are a sick and twisted individual, and should probably seek medical help. While that’s certainly a valid point of view, nothing about Live Freaky! Die Freaky! really feels sinister, at least not in comparison to other films that interpret history through a rose-colored lens. We’ve certainly seen more than our fair share of historical epics that paint over the true history of slave masters as being honorable “men of their generation” and not traffickers in human misery acting with complicity and for their own gain as part of a centuries-long grievous crime against humanity, or action flicks set in places like Pompeii where, yes, real people died. The difference here is that serial killer Charlie Manson, whose little cult murdered ten people over the course of single year, is being glorified, but that’s kind of the point.

Director John Roecker said in an interview over a decade ago that he went to thrift stores all over L.A. and everywhere he looked he saw dozens of copies of Helter Skelter next to a copy or two of the Bible or the scripture of another religion. He wondered, with so many copies of the book in print, what would happen if someone in the distant future, far divorced from the murders of the LaBiancas and Sharon Tate’s cohorts, came upon a copy of Helter Skelter and considered it a religious text in and of itself? It’s not that strange an idea: the American Civil War was barely a century and a half ago, and yet even in such a short time the rise of Lost Cause theology and rapid countering of historical fact by Confederate survivors and their families means that, in 2018, we’re still dealing with the racism of the antebellum world, as anyone watching the news in slack-jawed horror can attest.

In the film, a nomad in the year 3069 discovers the aforementioned true crime book that detailed the rise and fall of the Manson Family. Mistaking it for scripture, the man reinterprets the text through a lens that is sympathetic to the Mansons and antagonistic towards their victims. (This is a concept that seems alien, but consider the Old Testament from the point of view of the Canaanites, who had a bunch of nomads show up in their land and say “God says this is ours now, get out!” then got slaughtered for not doing so. Virtually all religious doctrines have documents that give them permission to commit genocide somewhere in them under the guise of divine permission and forgiveness; the only difference is that these killings, unlike those of the Manson family, are far gone from living memory. That, and the scale of the Mansons’ destruction is a lot smaller.)

I feel like I might be coming across as too sympathetic of the Manson Family here, and that’s certainly not my intent. I just find it curious that the psychology of the general audience member allows them to frame the Manson murders as horrible crimes while ignoring other social issues. Live Freaky, Die Freaky is a purely satirical film, but I also understand that I might be a sick fuck. CC, most of the outrage that I’ve found on the internet regarding this film has to do with the fact that the villains (at least in this contextualization) are real people who were victims of a real series of heinous crimes. Do you feel like this pushes the movie over the edge into “too far” or “too soon” territory? Would this have worked better if the names were entirely fabricated and divorced from the real people who inspired the film?

CC: Ah, Boomer, this movie isn’t offensive because it is based on real-life tragedy – no, it is offensive for so many other reasons! I think the thing that I was most uncomfortable with (well, after the scenes of claymation fucking where the vaginas are literal slits cut into the puppets and you could see them fall apart from the force of said puppet-fucking) was that I couldn’t tell who the “bad guys” were. Sure, the victims were terrible – “Sharon Hate” hates trees and her Sassy Gay Friend™ has non-consensual sex with the developmentally disabled – but “Charlie Hanson” calls all women “Woman” (or worse) and is obviously a megalomaniacal abuser. Who am I supposed to root for? Better yet, who was the director rooting for? I’m really put off by the idea that some people watching this could see it as a pro-Charles Manson propaganda piece, start wearing “Free Manson” shirts unironically, and try to lecture me on why “Charles Manson was really quite innocent of the crimes he is incarcerated for – another example of the unjust American justice system” the next time I accidentally wander into the wrong social environment. Charles Manson was a really bad person, y’all. He preyed on vulnerable people and manipulated them into giving up their individual identity to better serve his racist, misogynist, homophobic agenda. You could argue that the whole thing is satire, but I feel like in order to be satire and not a long slog through a string of loosely related, offensive “jokes” it needs to have a strong point of view. What exactly is John Roecker’s point of view? I mean yeah, it’s fun saying things that upset everyone – I think overall he managed that task – but in interviews he mumbled something about trying to show the pitfalls of following any strong leader [a vaguely post-9/11, anti-Bush message several years late to the party]. Watching this film I don’t know if I would have picked up the message to beware leaders with a messiah complex, especially in light of the framing device. Overall, Roecker may have had an easier time getting that message across if he had used a fictional story, but I probably would have still been offended.

This movie arrived in a post 9/11 cultural climate, where mistrust of government leaders was high on both sides of the political divide and the seeds of the Tea Party movement were finding fertile ground. Other works from that era like Team America, That’s My Bush, and (too) earnest albums like Green Day’s American Idiot similarly vented frustration & anger filtered through satire & metaphor. Brandon, how do you think Live Freaky! Die Freaky! fit in with this cultural milieu? Did it arrive too late to find a place at the table?

Brandon: Given how long & arduous the stop-motion animation process is, it’s highly likely the edgy humor of Live Freaky! Die Freaky! felt a lot fresher at the start of production than it did by the time the film saw a minor theatrical release. The casting of Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong as Charlie Hanson likely seemed like a huge get when the film was first pitched, presumably around the time his band’s American Idiot album rode anti-Bush sentiment to the largest boon of their already decades-long career. Bush was still in office by the time the film was released, but the huge wave of protest-art pop records from major alternative artists like The Beastie Boys, Le Tigre, Bright Eyes, Kimya Dawson, and The Thermals was already starting to die down. Hell, even The Dixie Chicks’ moment of on-stage Bush dissent was years in the past. The major protest-art sweet spot may have been in 2004, the year of Team America, American Idiot, and Fahrenheit 9/11; but I’m honestly not convinced that this film would have been any more politically effective even if it had arrived earlier in the anti-Bush protest era. If likening George W. Bush to Charles Manson was Roecker’s original intent with the film, then he was incredibly subtle with the metaphor, so much so that it went over my head completely. I’m having trouble believing that to be the case, since literally nothing else in the film is handled with subtlety.

What hasn’t aged well about Live Freaky! Die Freaky! isn’t the timing of its supposed anti-Bush politics; it’s, as CC points out, that it seems to have no discernible politics at all. The closest the film comes to making a clear political point is in the framing device of a possible (if not probable) future where mass pollution had completely obliterated the ozone layer by 3069, leaving Earth practically uninhabitable. The rest of the film’s political jabs are frustratingly vague, typified by snide references to The Moral Majority, depictions of cops as anthropomorphic pigs, and the transformation of a crucifix into a swastika made of dicks. Without any careful attention paid to its selection of targets, the film’s central political attitude appears to be for-its-own-sake Political Incorrectness. It’s the same “Nothing is offensive if everyone’s offended” ethos that informed the comedic approach of aughts-heavyweights like South Park, Howard Stern, and Bill Maher. The further we get away from pop culture’s Gen-X apathy hangover and instead reach for radical empathy & sincerity in more modern works, the worse these “politically incorrect” lash-outs have aged. Everything from its performative Political Incorrectness & surface-level co-option of punk counterculture to its basic understanding of sex & the female body is embarrassingly juvenile. The most embarrassing part (besides maybe its squeamishness with menstruate) is the age range of the Los Angeles punk scenesters who participated in the film’s production & voice cast, including members of Green Day, Rancid, X, Blink-182, AFI, Black Flag, and the list goes on. Based on their aimless rebelliousness & juvenile need to shock the uptight masses with their political incorrectness, you’d think the movie was made by those groups’ evergreen legion of teenage mall-punk fans, not considerably well-off musicians approaching middle age.

The only times Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s performative subversiveness worked for me was in its small selection of novelty songs (which likely shouldn’t be a surprise, given the number of musicians involved). There was something about the clash of the film’s crude animation & aggressively Offensive villainy with its weirdly wholesome, vaudevillian novelty songs that I found genuinely funny in a way I struggled to match in any scenes of spoken dialogue. Britnee, were the song & dance numbers that broke up the politically incorrect dialogue exchanges also a highlight for you? Might you have been more charmed by the film if it were more of a full-on, traditional musical (while still remaining animated with stop-motion puppetry)?

Britnee: Live Freaky! Die Freaky! made me sick to my stomach for almost its entire runtime. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the gross, demeaning clay puppet sex scenes that churned my stomach. Watching the movie brought me back to a time where I was an ignorant teenager desperately trying to fit in with the cool crowd of punk kids at school. I watched the film with Brandon and CC in their lovely home, but mentally I felt like I was in my old best friend’s garage bedroom with walls covered in signatures, cartoon drawings, and offensive sayings – all written with black and red Sharpie markers. We all had grungy Converse shoes that looked similar to the walls and would blare Cheap Sex until the early morning hours. Most of the punk guys that would come over to hangout would rave about how brilliant and misunderstood Charles Manson was, and I always believed what they said because they were so much “cooler” than I was. If we would have come across a copy of Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, watching the film would have been a weekly ritual. Thankfully, a few years later I would get a mind of my own and realize how big of a piece of shit Manson was.

Despite the emotional torture I went through watching the film, I found the songs to be really catchy. I even sang along to parts of “Mechanical Man” because I was so entranced with the music. “A half a cup satanical, a teaspoon puritanical stirred with a bloody hand. A quarter cup messiahcal, a sprinkle of maniacal and now I’m a mechanical man.” The “Strangle a Tree” musical number performed by Sharon Hate where Sharon sings about how much she hates Nature while tapdancing on the hood of her moving convertible was actually my favorite part of the film. If more of the musical numbers were like “Strangle a Tree,” the film would have been much more tolerable. It’s so strange how Live Freaky! Die Freaky! is marketed as a musical and contains a full-length musical soundtrack, but doesn’t feel like an actual musical. Maybe it’s the overall lack of dancing?

I feel like I’m complaining too much about Live Freaky! Die Freaky!. Yes, I did find it to be very unpleasant, but as a fan of claymation, the rough style of the clay figures was very interesting to see. I liked how the styles of each clay character looked different. Sharon Hate and Charlie Hanson were both very detailed, while Hanson’s crew looked like they were created in an elementary school art class. Boomer, do you think the lack of consistent quality between different clay figures was intentional?

Boomer: My roommate has been studying a lot of music theory lately, and we had a discussion the other day about guitar and how, essentially, you can learn to play anything on guitar with a knowledge of a minimum of four hand shapes, just moving them around a little bit. This is reductive, but nonetheless accurate, although it ignores some of the more experimental and radical things that truly great musicians can do with the instrument. I asked him: “Oh, so that’s why so many fuckbois learn to play the guitar?” Not that everyone who learns the guitar and has three chords and the truth is a fuckboi, but it led us to the discussion that (ignoring the fact that the guitar is generally considered the defining instrument of rock and roll, for better or worse) there is a reason that the punk music aesthetic is based on guitar and not a more difficult (but rewarding) instrument like, say, piano, which requires a lot more flexibility and forethought. As much as I can look back on my younger self and consider past!me to have a tangentially punk anti-authoritarian ethos (if not a punk aesthetic in manner or dress), I was always distant from that scene strictly because so much of it was predicated upon Roecker and his ilk’s tendency to promote that identity and ideology through being, for lack of a better term, dweeby edgelords. If there’s anything that defines Live Freaky! Die Freaky!‘s presence in the history (or dustbin) of pop culture, it’s the film’s attempts at being “edgy.” It’s the same reason that I and most people outgrew South Park (which I have other larger social issues with, not least of all that its content normalized antisemitism for an entire generation, the effects of which we see in our current political climate): there comes a time where you just have to accept that there’s a line between satire and attempting to, as Brandon noted, offend everyone along the political and cultural spectrum. The sad thing that most punks don’t recognize is that every successive generation is going to take the progress of the previous generation for granted and push for something more. Attempting to graft the grungy, D.I.Y. dirtiness of anti-authoritarian movements past to current progressivism ends up creating something like Live Freaky! Die Freaky!: it’s not an architectural artifice upon which we can hang new ideas; it’s an artifact of attempted subversiveness, a relic of a different time.

Artists tend to get quite defensive about being surpassed by the next generation, and instead of making continual strides forward or growing and evolving, they can get stuck in doing the same old thing. The punk scene is particularly subject to this weakness, as were other modernistic art movements before them, like Dadaism. When your entire body of work is structured around the single concept and conceit of attacking and removing the mask of “the establishment,” becoming that establishment generates an existential identity crisis. Compounding this problem is that the proponents of these genres pride themselves on rejection of cultural norms, meaning that any kind of maturation or progress is automatically deemed “selling out.” With regards to examples in film, take comic book artist (and general lunatic) Alan Moore’s hatred of the 2005 film adaptation of V for Vendetta. Since he wrote the original graphic novel as a screed against British Thatcherism, seeing it turned into a film that took aim at the policies of the then-contemporary Bush administration upset him, but this is nothing new. There have been several adaptations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, all of them as criticism or proponents of certain political ideologies of their day (from anti-communist sentiments, to post-Watergate paranoia about observation and otherness, to fear of biological terrorism in the wake of 9/11); that’s a good thing. Making an anti-Thatcher film in 2005 would be ridiculous, but Moore’s disgust for the way that his source material was adapted to fit contemporary global politics is not a mark in his favor, but rather a demonstration that he, like many others whose political and personal identities were shaped by the politics of the past in a way that they cannot surmount, has not found a voice that transcends a particular time and place.

I’m not saying that this excuses or even necessarily explains Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, although I know I’ve gotten pretty far from your question and I promise that I have a point; I’m not apologizing for the movie either or trying to make the argument that there was ever a time when it could have been considered inoffensive or appropriate (it never was and never will be). The issue that I’m discussing here is that the potential for irrelevancy and the possibility of being left behind is something that all artists face, and I occasionally worry about this with my own writing. I’m sure that, one day, if anything I create survives, there will be those (in my self-aggrandizing fantasies, they are academics) who consider my work to be antiquated, problematic, or harmful. They’ll note elements in my work that are backward and outdated from their perspective. I consider myself to be progressive, but I also know that, if one day someone looks at something I wrote and says “Yikes, this is kinda [whatever]ist, but it was progressive for its day, I guess,” that’s also a good thing, because it means that society kept moving forward and not backward. I really hope that one day my work is considered “fair for its day,” although I also hope I’m dead by then because I don’t handle criticism well (at least, I don’t predict I’d be very good at handling public shaming).

To circle back to your question: I don’t think there’s any significance to the disparity in the level of attention to detail with regards to puppetry design, other than that some of the characters are on screen more often and thus needed to have more expressiveness and flexibility. Sometimes this works for the best in a narrative context: the general cartoonishness of, for example, Tex (who is, curiously, not renamed with an “H” like most of the characters), makes some of the better darkly comic moments in the film work; my favorite is his deadpan reaction to Charlie’s insistence that the Family take Sharon’s fetus to be raised by them. Tex’s Peanuts-esque design subverts the horror of the moment in a way that I find legitimately funny, but I’m also convinced that this is largely unintentional. I don’t think it’s a statement, I think that Roecker just . . . wasn’t very good at what he was doing. Most of the comic bits in the film fall flat, and I think a lot of that has to do with Roecker. Take, for instance, the fact that he co-owned and ran the LA novelty store You’ve Got Bad Taste, which specialized in both kitschy garbage and serial killer memorabilia. In an interview in 1999, Roecker said ”A Gacy painting is much less offensive than, say, a Nike T-shirt […] Why wear advertising for a company that doesn’t care about you? We encouraged people to think for themselves.” I may have been heavily affected by the work of Kalle Lasn and done some adbusting and culture jamming in my day (for legal reasons I will not say whether I still do), but this statement is the perfect encapsulation of Roecker’s politics and his point of view: it’s not just enough to discourage mindless consumerism and contemporary capitalism and corporatism, but by making a capital-S “Statement” about it that attracts attention by drawing comparisons to (and minimizing) other tragedies. It’s one of the most triumphant examples of edgelordiness I’ve seen outside of a high school cafeteria. It’s exactly the kind of bullshit you would expect from a self-professed punk molded by the 80s and 90s living in the relatively calm days of the end of the Clinton presidency (post Gulf War, post Iraqi Kurdish Civil War, pre-9/11): “I’m not just an agitator against authority, but also I’m a goddamned hero (for selling Gacy paintings).” The fact that anything about Live Freaky! Die Freaky! leaves a positive impression on anyone other than those who are slavishly devoted to this kind of art in general is impressive.

CC, despite the fact that I hate musicals, the one thing that I enjoy about Live Freaky! Die Freaky! without reservations or explanations is the music, which is doubly bizarre since, of the list of acts who were involved with the film, the only one I have any respect for is Henry Rollins. Britnee specifically mentioned “Mechanical Man” and “Strangle a Tree,” which are my two favorites as well. Did you enjoy the songs? Did you find anything redeemable in the movie, other than the conversation we’re all having right now?

CC: I’m definitely enjoying this conversation more than I did any part of the film, even the musical interludes. I think the only song I truly enjoyed was “Strangle a Tree;” I could easily see future Gifties (kids who went to the Louisiana School of Math, Science, and the Arts are known as Gifties; Boomer & I are among the select few) belting that one out during a cabaret performance. My biggest problem with “Mechanical Man” was how catchy it was; it sounded like a kids song and was a total ear-worm. I don’t want to carry around a recipe for Charles Manson around in my head all day, let alone tap my foot along to it. Overall, I didn’t really love the early-aughts punk scene (except for a brief, regrettable period in middle school) and hearing it again mostly just made me cringe.

Brandon, director John Roecker also released a documentary about the recording of Green Day’s 2004 album American Idiot . . . in 2015. I understand that stop-motion animation takes years to create so Live Freaky! Die Freaky!‘s tardiness could be chalked up to simple production realities, but documentary features based on a few months-worth of footage usually doesn’t take nine years to edit and mix into something cohesive. Is Roecker’s delayed, shoddy work reflective of a true dedication to D.I.Y. punk ethos, are small-minded producers and distributors conspiring to prevent his genius from reaching the public, or is it just pure artistic laziness? I’m convinced it’s the latter.

Brandon: The Occam’s Razor interpretation certainly points to laziness, even though that’s the harshest & most unfair explanation of the three. Movies are hard work! It takes perseverance, collaboration, and intense stubbornness to complete any production no matter how professional, so my instinct is to cut Roecker slack on these out of time, crudely slapped together works of dusty mall punk pranksterism. On the other hand, I respect & admire D.I.Y. punk as an ethos too much to totally let his abominations slide without critique. Punk is meant to be an anyone-can-do-it, anti-gatekeeping challenge to the systems that keep ordinary people from making Important art. The entire point is that it opens art up to the talent & training-deficient who have something to say but don’t have the proper tools to say it. As such, it’s not Roecker’s laziness in craft that bothers me so much as it’s his intellectual laziness. Live Freaky! Die Freaky! has nothing particular to say about Charles Manson or the War on Terror or climate change or anything, really. Roecker uses the crude, accessible tools of D.I.Y. punk for cheap, aimless shock value and to play pretend as an Important Filmmaker with his famous L.A. punk scene friends. That’s what most grosses me out about this film, especially when you see those bands’ young teen fans uncritically embracing its non-message through social media support & merchandise. If I believed this Manson Family claymation comedy or a decade-late American Idiot documentary had something specific or worthwhile to say, the form they choose to say it in wouldn’t matter nearly as much. As is, both the form and the message are offensively underwhelming & undercooked.

Nothing illustrates Live Freaky! Die Freaky!‘s intellectual laziness for me quite like the interminable sequence set at Sharon Hate’s house. The Sharon Tate murder is the most notorious highlight of Manson’s career in occultist serial murder, so I was shocked by how empty & lethargic the film felt once Rocker starts recreating that tragic party. It feels as if characters are stalling for time – telling long-winded stories about cocaine & sexual abuse before the murders begin, then refusing to die even after their heads are removed from their bodies. I didn’t fully give up on Live Freaky! Die Freaky! until I was locked in that house for an anti-comedy eternity, where my antagonism towards the film grew increasingly potent with each pointless minute. Britnee, did you have a similar reaction to the Sharon Hate party from the film’s latter half? Was there ever a chance that you might have enjoyed the film overall if it hadn’t stalled for so long in that unpleasant sequence or did that just feel like more of the same, at peace with the first half of the film?

Britnee: The sequence at Sharon Hate’s house felt like a prison. There was no escape, lots of garbage dialogue, and no entertainment to distract from it. It’s a shame because the set built for Hate’s fabulous celebrity home was so beautiful. There was so much potential for lots of entertaining moments to develop in the Hate house, but Roecker didn’t take advantage of it. The dialogue from that sequence sounds like something a group of disturbed 12 year olds would come up with while playing with Barbies. The joke that just wouldn’t die about the penis smelling like head cheese is one of the more prominent details I remember from the Hate house. I hated it the first time, and I hated it more the second, third, fourth time, and so on.

Like Brandon, I too was relieved when the characters got decapitated because I thought it was going to be the end. I thought the torture of watching the Hate house sequence was over, but the heads kept spewing nonsense and the scene kept going. It does eventually come to an end, but not soon enough.

Lagniappe

Britnee: Even though Live Freaky! Die Freaky! isn’t something I will watch again, I’m really glad I got to see it. I loved the clay puppetry and set designs. The style was a cross between Gumby and the cover for Marilyn Manson’s Portrait of an American Family album cover, two things I love very much.

Brandon: Intense negativity aimed towards micro-budget, D.I.Y. art projects is the exact opposite approach we usually strive for on this site, but I can’t feel too bad about ganging up on this film the way we have here. Roecker and his collaborators seem like the exact kind of Gen-X dweebs who complain that “PC Culture,” “SJWs,” and “Millennial Snowflakes” are what’s wrong with the modern world (anyone else notice how many ex-punks grow up to be “alt” Conservative goons?), so I suspect our moral outrage here is exactly the reaction they wanted to achieve. In that way (and that way only), I guess that makes Live Freaky! Die Freaky! a total artistic success.

Boomer: I would like to apologize for choosing a film that everyone found so upsetting. The glory and the tragedy of Swampflix is that we are all so similar in our tastes that finding a film that I love but that no one else on the staff has already seen is often difficult, and sometimes that leads me down the rabbit hole to find something that’s, as is the case here, not very good. Still, I think this has been productive from a discussion standpoint, and I appreciate your patience.

CC: Boomer, I fully and gladly accept your apology. I’m kinda glad we finally found something so equally reviled; I was beginning to think we all liked everything. Still, I’m ready for the reign of auteurs and edgelords to be over! Long live cooperative creation and radical sincerity!

Upcoming Movies of the Month
October: CC presents The Pit (1981)
November: Brandon presents Planet of the Vampires (1965)
December: Britnee presents Cloak & Dagger (1984)
January: The Top Films of 2018

-The Swampflix Crew

Night is Short, Walk on Girl (2018)

My mental library of anime titles is embarrassingly shallow; if it’s not Miyazaki or Akira, I likely haven’t heard of it. As someone who cherishes the artistry of hand-drawn, traditional animation, however, I’m often a huge sucker for the stray titles from the medium I’ve seen (I was even mildly positive on the egregious Your Name.-knockoff Fireworks from earlier this year, at least as a novelty). Since the animation artistry itself is often what I’m typically drawn to in these works, it’s the freewheeling, psychedelic end of the anime spectrum that most attracts me – titles like Paprika & FLCL that indulge in dream logic sequences of fantastical mayhem simply because it looks cool. That disposition makes me the perfect audience for Masaaki Yuasa’s latest feature film, Night is Short, Walk on Girl. Surely, anime & manga die-hards familiar with the film’s source material (an eponymous novel & a television show titled Tatami Galaxy) will have a much richer contextual experience with Night is Short than I, but as a previously uninitiated appreciator of psychedelic visual indulgences, I still had a total ease in enjoying the film as a stylistic exercise isolated from extratextual concerns. A plot-light immersion in visual excess & tonal drunkenness, Night is Short is wonderful as an exhibition of the virtues of traditional animation, a chaotic night of unhinged fun that requires very little familiarity with its medium to enjoy on a purely aesthetic level.

The POV of Night is Short, Walk on Girl is split between two unnamed characters: a teen girl brazenly entering “the adult world” through a wild night of drinking & a slightly older boy who’s following her from a close distance in a hapless effort to woo her through stalking. Of course, the film is most fun when seen through the girl’s perspective, but their adventures are evenly weighted & equally absurd. “The night that felt like a year” stretches on endlessly ahead of them as they plow through cocktail bars, open-air used book markets, porno auctions, strangers’ parties, and guerilla theatre happenings all over the city of Kyoto. Time is explained to move much slower for young folks (interpreted literally in the ticking of wristwatches), so their single night of missed connections stretches on for an impossible temporal bacchanal. Besides the way youth distorts our perception of time, the film also contrasts different age ranges’ philosophies on interconnectivity. Older late-night drunks feel isolated, prone to despair, while the titular girl is so bursting with life & feelings of interconnectedness with the people of Kyoto that she sees cocktails across the city only as precious jewels to be collected as flowers bloom in the air around her. When asked “How much do you drink?” she defiantly responds, “As much as is in front of me,” spending her entire night binging on the simple, immediate joys of life while oblivious to the lovelorn boy with eyes only for her.

If I have one regret about seeing Night is Short on the big screen, it’s that I didn’t have the option to watch it dubbed. I realize that tarnishes my anime credibility more than anything else, but in a film that’s most notable for its visual achievements it would have been nice to not have been distracted by the subtitles while taking in the artistry. For all the film’s vague philosophy about youth, interconnectivity, and the passage of time, its plot mostly amounts to a frantic night of drunken, incoherent yelling. It only really comes alive as an achievement in narrative storytelling in the 15min stretch when it mutates into a full-blown musical. Otherwise, it’s the film’s poetic, freeform animation style that commands the tones & rhythms of each sequence—shifting from storybook illustration to erotic printmaking to Powerpuff Girls-style retro cutouts to whatever the mood dictates as the moment blooms. I was reminded of the recent restoration of Yellow Submarine while watching it in the theater, if not only for both films’ willingness to exploit their shared medium for the full spectrum of absurd, anti-logic indulgences it allows, whereas most modern animation feels dispiritingly restrained & unimaginative. I can’t say with any authority whether Night is Short is an especially remarkable achievement as anime, but I can say with certainty that in our modern era of CG animation doldrums, it’s an invigorating, intoxicating elixir.

-Brandon Ledet

Yellow Submarine (1968)

The last time I watched the animated “Beatles” film Yellow Submarine I was . . . chemically impaired in Memphis, TN and a VHS copy of the movie was playing on a broken, color-distorted television. I can’t claim I was quite as enthused about the picture in its recent theatrical run as I was that nonsensical afternoon, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. For its 50th anniversary, the psychedelic animation classic has been restored frame-by-frame for a new 4k digital presentation, a modern spit shine that’s sharpened its line work, brightened its colors, and afforded its musical numbers an immersive surround sound mix worthy of the film’s overwhelming visuals. This modern cleanup effort affords Yellow Submarine an even playing field with recent works it’s obviously had an influence on (even if an indirect one), recalling titles like Adventure Time & My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea in the way it builds otherworldly fantasy-scapes out of complexly-arranged collages of hands-on, rudimentary illustration. What struck me most in this recent viewing, however, was how influential Yellow Submarine must have been in its own time, a whopping half-century ago. Predating werido animated classics of its ilk like Fantastic Planet & Terry Gilliam’s Flying Circus shorts by years, Yellow Submarine is an impressively substantial artistic achievement for a “Beatles” film that barely has any Beatles. That historical significance is something I didn’t appreciate as much in my contextless viewing of it as recreational, visual fodder on a color-distorted VHS tape, so it was wonderful to see it get its full due in a proper, legitimized form.

Frustrated with the finished product of 1965’s Help!, but contractually obligated to appear in a third feature for Apple Films, The Beatles almost fully weaseled their way out of participating in Yellow Submarine. They appear in live action at the film’s conclusion for a brief PSA about peace & love, and their music is interspersed throughout the runtime, but for the most part this is a movie inspired by The Beatles more than it is A Beatles Film. The Fab Four have animated avatars that “star” in the movie as a magical, traveling rock band, but those characters are voiced by barely-acceptable Beatles impersonators (two of whom were required for George, as the first was arrested halfway into production for deserting The British Army). Even without The Beatles’ direct involvement, though, the movie captures the irreverence of their young rock n’ roll spirit, packing its runtime with visual non-sequiturs, nonsensical puns, winking sex jokes, and anti-fascist sentiment. The film’s most significant accomplishment, however, is in reaching beyond aping The Beatles’ already established pop culture personae to carve out its own psychedelic visual language & laidback surrealism, something that eventually defined Beatles-inspired visual art (and hippie era animation at large) on its own, original terms. Adopting some of the pop art sensibilities of Warhol’s portrait work and the cover art for the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP, Yellow Submarine creates a postmodern backdrop for its anything-goes psych fantasy adventure, which explores the physical corners of space & time to discover its own, new corner of the universe (to surprising success).

There isn’t much of a plot here, at least not one that matters. The musical fantasy realm of Pepperland is turned to joyless stone by music-hating, weirdo perverts called Blue Meanies, who long for a uniform, quiet existence. “The Beatles” are recruited from across the universe to put a stop to this blue menace through the power of love & song, traveling to Pepperland in the titular yellow submarine. There’s a clear dichotomy between fascism & art established in that setup, but the Beatles’ clash with the Blue Meanies isn’t detailed much beyond that ideological divide. Most of the film is a psychedelic travel diary through various fantasy spaces seemingly lifted from a child’s nightmare (or a stoner’s sketchbook). Seussian animals with human faces & yellowed teeth gallop & glide through their psychedelic fiefdoms while a tiny yellow submarine carrying the world’s favorite rock band barely slips past their self-generated mayhem. Pop culture figures like King Kong, Frankenstein’s monster, The Phantom, and Marilyn Monroe complicate the storybook illustrations that provide these non-worlds a sense of structure. Collages of silkscreen-style photographs often loop in .gif repetitions, layering the screen with an incredible depth of rich, varied imagery. Yellow Submarine barely pretends to be a story about a rock group’s fight against music-hating fascists. It’s more a shamelessly aesthetic-driven string of hand-illustrated music videos, more than a decade before “music video” was household term. Its plot is only a convenient glue that binds its true purpose as a curated collection of rich images & sounds.

The only thing really preventing Yellow Submarine from being a flat-out masterpiece is its laidback, stony-baloney sense of pacing. Even in their music I’ve come to prefer The Beatles when they were young & brimming with energy, which is partly what makes A Hard Day’s Night such a perfect document of the band as culture-significant artists. Yellow Submarine is more a snapshot of exhausted, spaced-out, daytripping Beatles, the band that was so laidback & detached from this planet that they couldn’t be bothered to put in a few hours in a recording booth to voice their own avatars. More importantly, though, it’s a visual feat in hand-constructed, psychedelic animation, one that deserves recognition for its cultural impact beyond the bounds of Beatlemania. This recent restoration is a great start.

-Brandon Ledet

My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea (2017)

I don’t often get excited for modern animation. The flat, rounded-out, overly precise digital designs of CG-animated movies, including well-respected behemoths of the medium like Disney & Pixar, are largely uninspiring to me, even if they illustrate a well-told story. My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is the perfect antidote to these troubled, CG animation times. Jumping from Fantagraphics-published graphic novels to feature-length filmmaking, visual artist Dash Shaw overwhelms the senses in My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea with a tactile, unnecessarily complex visual style that feels like the philosophical opposite of modern CG animation doldrums. Shaw’s loosely sketched figures navigate blindingly colorful backgrounds of ever-shifting multimedia collage, recalling the more psychedelic impulses that invade the black & white stick figure frames of Don Herzfeld’s work or the short-form experiments you might catch in a late-night haze on Adult Swim. This eccentric visual design is paired with an over-the-top, go-for-broke plot (spelled out plainly in the title), but is also tempered by a laid-back, juvenile attitude that calmly strolls through its dizzying whirlpool of ambitious ideas. In a perfect world, a film this visually stunning & naturally cool would gather at least a cult audience through its challenge to the inhuman computer graphics style that typically guides modern animation aesthetics. Instead, My Entire High School Singing into the Sea had a single-week, single-screen theatrical run in New Orleans before disappearing for nearly a full year and then popping up on Netflix to little fanfare. Dash Shaw dared to leave his grubby little fingerprints all over this messy, overly-ambitious debut, delivering the film that modern animation needs, but no audience seems to want.

Jason Schwartzman stars as an unpopular jerk of a high school student who wastes his energy overachieving as a “journalist” for the school newspaper, making this film feel somewhat like an unsanctioned Rushmore sequel. Since he’s both a social nuisance and a known blowhard, his warnings to the student body that the school (which was built both cliffside and on a fault line) is at risk of crumbling at the slightest earthquake are an act of crying wolf. Early in the runtime, this foretold earthquake knocks the entire high school into the adjacent sea and the majority of the film is a Titanic-like race for survival as the building sinks into the water. Schwartzman’s prickly protagonist is joined on his voyage to safety by an impressive voice cast of tagalongs: Reggie Watts & Maya Rudolph as fellow newspaper nerds, Lena Dunham as a Tracy Flick-like over-achiever, and (the MVP of the movie) Susan Sarandon as a tough-as-nails lunch lady who acts as the group’s only muscle. Each speak in hushed, flat voices, incredibly calm in the face of their surroundings burning, crumbling and flooding in ever-worsening mayhem. My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is a laid-back irreverent comedy, but it does not shy away from the Hellish displays of widespread destruction its over-the-top premise naturally inspires. Our ragtag group of aggressively casual, self-obsessed teens (and their remarkably buff lunch lady) are subjected to the horrors of libraries aflame, flesh-eating miniature sharks, haunted locker rooms, and makeshift dystopian societies that deify social popularity to determine their leaders. It’s all very goofy & flippantly nonchalant about the panic that defines its borders, but it’s also a perilous journey to safety & rescue littered with the blood, guts, limbs, and severed heads of the less-fortunate students who don’t make the cut.

The simplicity of that story is a necessity, as it allows room for the much busier visual assault that obliterates eyeballs for the entirety of the runtime. Before the picture starts, a title card warns of potential risks for inducing photosensitive epilepsy. It becomes immediately apparent why, as just a character running to catch a school bus in the opening scene is a layered, video game-inspired adventure of visual hyperactivity. Dash Shaw’s debut movie is bursting with weirdo experiments that push animation as a medium by remixing older, more hands-on methods into new, stunning arrangements. It’s like the mashup DJ equivalent of a modern animated feature in that way, except that its adoption of past, rudimentary techniques are transformative, not nostalgic. Crayon scribbles, amateur sketchbook doodling, and Prince Achmed-style cutouts supply its elemental building blocks, but their cumulative, layered effect is something much more impressively complex than those D.I.Y. tactics imply. My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is a simple, irreverent comedy about teen brats winging their way through an absurd, impossible crisis. It’s also a bold vision for how animation can evolve in meaningful, tactile ways without fully succumbing to 100% computerization. And if you don’t personally enjoy what Shaw accomplishes in the picture, don’t worry. His dialogue promises, “Next time I’ll water it down so that it’s shitty and more popular!”

-Brandon Ledet

Fireworks (2018)

It’s always interesting what international media does or does not culturally translate in its voyage to America. The animated supernatural romance Your Name., for instance, seems like it should have been a massive crossover hit in the US, but it barely made a splash. The top-selling anime film of all time, Your Name. expertly plucked lovelorn teens’ heartstrings to a gorgeous visual palette and emo mall punk soundtrack, inspiring so many repeat visits to the theater in its target demographic that it became an instant cultural phenomenon. That phenomenon translated to a mere faint whimper in its US release, however, where the movie quickly died in near-empty theaters (despite being one of last year’s best domestic releases in my estimation). Meanwhile, in Japan, Your Name. was so successful that it’s already inspired a wave of pale imitators. Advertised as being “from the producers of Your Name.,” Fireworks (full title: Fireworks – Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom?) is another animated teen romance that filters low stakes emotional crises through a high stakes supernatural plot. With a reliance on cheap commuter animation to fill in its gaps and a ludicrous story that barely holds itself together in any intelligible way, it’s clear that Fireworks was rushed to market to capitalize on Your Name.’s (Japanese market) success as quickly as possible, quality be damned. It can’t help but open itself up to direct comparison because of that lineage, a side-by-side that is unforgiving to Fireworks’s lack of emotional depth, intelligent construction, and genuine beauty. Even so, the film is mildly enjoyable as a novelty, a quirky footnote to Your Name.’s instantaneous legacy (outside the USA).

Two teen boys long for the love of the same troubled classmate, who has just learned that she’ll be moving away to a different town at the end of the school year. Unbeknownst to the boys who carry a torch for her, she plans to escape her fate by running away on the next train to Tokyo with one of her would-be suitors in tow for company. She decides the lucky victor based on a swimming pool race, which is treated in-film as the single most significant athletic event of all time. After the two teens pair off for a date at the town’s celebratory fireworks display, the left-behind, heartbroken third makes a wish on a magical orb that the swimming match had gone differently. If this is all sounds absurdly melodramatic, it’s because it very much is. There might be something to how teenage crushes are treated in Fireworks the way they feel in real life: like the biggest deal in the world, a monumental flood of lust & embarrassment. For the most part, though, the characters’ heightened earnestness over minor social exchanges feels entirely inhuman & absurd. It’s a good thing, then, that most of the runtime distracts itself with the supernatural machinations of the wish-granting orb, which the teens use to keep resetting their young-love predicament until the right couple can successfully escape fate & run away to happiness. The more they reset the loop of their fateful swimming race & fireworks date, however, the further their version of reality slips away from the physical world we know, allowing the animators to play around with surreal, computer-smoothed fantasy-scapes overloaded with underwater distortions, golden adornments, and abstracted fireworks.

There is one thing Fireworks gets exactly right about human behavior: teenagers are grotesque, horned-up idiots (I can confirm this because I used to be one myself). As much as the kids of Fireworks might feel like over-the-top caricatures in moments when they’re frozen motionless by the slightest confrontation with social anxiety, they feel entirely real in the stretches of juvenile dialogue when they’re cracking poop jokes, drooling over teachers’ breasts, and having relentless, inane arguments about whether fireworks appear round or flat when they explode (a topic that repeats so often it’s included in the film’s long-title). Besides its bastardization of Your Name.’s basic formula, most of Fireworks’s novelty lies in the juxtaposition of its beautifully cheesy, heavenly screensaver imagery and its central subject of grotesque teenage horniness disguising itself as romance. Your Name. generated a deep well of empathy, curiosity, and genuine beauty that convinced audiences its central romance was powerful enough to supernaturally break through the barriers of space & time. When the shit & tits-obsessed knuckleheads of Fireworks attempt the same romantic transcendence (with the help of a fireworks display and a magical orb) the sentiment plays like a bizarre joke. It’s charming in its own way, though, if not only for its very existence as a mockbuster version of a much better film that, at best, barely has earned a cult status in the U.S. If Your Name. failed to translate to American audiences in all its transcendent beauty, it’s difficult to imagine this rushed-to-market frivolity faring much better. Even more dedicated anime nerds will likely struggle with finding much value in its mediocre charms as an occasionally beautiful, relentlessly cheesy, oddly grotesque teen melodrama. I (mostly) got a kick out of it, though, as it helped further illustrate what makes its more substantial predecessor so goddamn great.

-Brandon Ledet

Have a Nice Day (2018)

Questions of cross-cultural influence are always difficult to pin down with any definitive authority. At first glance, the animated Chinese gangster story Have a Nice Day looks like an awful lot like the post-Tarantino American crime pictures of the 1990s, where criminals spend way more time hanging out & chewing the fat than they do committing crimes. However, as Tarantino himself was heavily influenced by Hong Kong action cinema of the 1980s (the A Better Tomorrow franchise’s influence on Reservoir Dogs is especially apparent), it’s difficult to determine whether Have a Nice Day is a reflection of his work, a continuation of a larger Chinese crime cinema tradition, or a combination of both. There’s a second 90s-era American auteur who potentially had just us much of an influence on Have a Nice Day’s tone, though, a much more unlikely source of inspiration: Richard Linklater. The film’s flat animation style and long stretches of meandering, sometimes philosophical dialogue recalls a distinctly Linklater headspace that’s not exactly common to crime thrillers about villainous gangsters. It’s an unlikely source of inspiration that solidifies the film’s 1990s indie cinema atmosphere, even though its visual design resembles a graphic novel from the 2010s.

An in-over-his-head professional driver steals a bag stuffed with one million yuan from his crime-boss. Over the course of a single night, several disparate parties, from top level gangsters to money-hungry restraunteurs, jockey for possession of the bag, leaving a trail of broken bodies in their fight over its ownership. Have a Nice Day is less distinct for its narrative, which is a typical post-Tarantino crime story, than it is for its atmosphere. It feels as if its conflict is contained in a universe where it’s perpetually 3am and everyone’s as delirious as they are desperate for easy money. The landscape is established as a quiet, desolate picture of urban squalor, backed by hip-hop instrumentals & (more often than not) total silence. Meat cleavers, switchblades, cellphones, plastic surgery disasters, rundown internet cafes, a sparsely populated pavement slick with light rain: this is a small, inconsequential world defined by financial desperation & early morning depravity. The money in that bag means a lot to many people, maybe even least of all to the gangsters it was stolen from. The stolen money seems to be the only road out of this forever-rut of 3am crime sprees, a chance for freedom worth drying for, if not for escaping boredom alone.

The actual animation of Have a Nice Day isn’t as much of a draw as its static visual design. The crisp lines & flat fields of color feel representational of modern graphic art sensibilities, but the computer-smoothed movements of its action isn’t exactly impressive. Often, entire scenes will play out with a single character unloading long paragraphs of dialogue, portraying no movement outside the Flash animation flapping of tense mouths. The only break from this late-night drudgery is a tangential musical spoof of Chinese propaganda films, a brief daydream in an environment that requires that kind of mental escapism for survival. Otherwise, this is Tarantino (or Woo, depending on how you want to track that influence) without the explosive violence. This is Linklater without the broad relatability. The blankness of the animation style matches the financial & ambitious rot of desperate characters in an empty world where the only excitement offered is a stolen sack of cash. The film is calm, hollow, and slow-moving in its escalation of violence & danger, a distinctly 90s hangout vibe in an animated context where that type of atmosphere is a rarity.

-Brandon Ledet

Batman Ninja (2018)

Stretching back to the 1940s serial shorts, there have been over seven decades of Batman cinema to date, which makes adaptations of the unfathomably long-running comic book series common enough to be considered their own separate movie genre. As such, there are plenty of tropes & verbatim repetitions of scenes in onscreen Batman content that have become punishingly familiar to audiences who regularly seek this stuff out. No Batman movie need ever show a young Bruce Wayne witnessing his parents’ murder in a back alley again, for instance, as it’s an image that’s been deeply chiseled into our minds over the decades (right down to his mother’s broken strand of pearls skittering across the pavement). Many recent Batman movies have reached for a more distinctive novelty in their narratives as a result, especially the animated DC movies. 2018 alone has already seen the release of a film where Batman teams up with Scooby-Doo, one where he battles Jack the Ripper in a steampunk arena, and one where he crosses over into the treacherous, transcendent world of anime. It’s that last example where Batman cinema has likely reached its most absurd novelty to date, even promising in Catwoman’s opening dialogue, “You think you’ve heard every Batman story? I promise you haven’t.” The story Batman Ninja proceeds to tell after that tease is indeed one I’ve never seen before. What’s up for debate is whether it’s, factually speaking, a story at all, as opposed to a chaotic collection of incongruous tangents & flights of fancy. What’s clear, either way, is that it’s admirably bonkers in a way more Batman movies could stand to be, animated or otherwise.

The concept of mashing up Batman with anime sounds like a nerd’s wet dream, a juvenile pleasure impulse Batman Ninja attempts to live up to in every self-indulgent frame. With intense character redesigns from Japanese manga artist Takashi Okazaki and an impressive team of traditionalist animators, the movie is almost well-crated enough to pass itself off as an art piece instead of what it truly is: nonstop over-the-top excess, a shameless sky-high pile of pop culture trash. The film begins with Batman being transported back to feudal Japan with “a time displacement device,” where he must stop anime-redesigned versions of his infamous foes from taking the country over & rewriting history. The Joker, Poison Ivy, Two Face, The Penguin, etc. are introduced like Pokémon selections in a video game. Each present a different setting-appropriate challenge to the Caped Crusader as he anachronistically drives his shape-shifting Batmobile around feudal Japan. The movie chases its own impulsive whims from moment to moment in these barely-connected conflicts as Batman subdues his enemies one by one, struggling most to conquer The Joker, as always. The resulting spectacle is pure lunacy. Batman sumo-wrestles Bane in a mech suit. The Joker’s goons manifest as samurais in welded clown masks. An army of monkeys assembles to form one giant monkey that challenges a similar gigantic Batman gestalt (composed of bats, naturally) to a climactic kaiju battle. I don’t know that I can praise Batman Ninja as disciplined comic book storytelling, but it’s certainly a novelty as visual spectacle, something that must be seen to be believed.

Ostensibly, there’s a long-running connection to ninja training in Batman’s origin story that could potentially be used to justify this absurd indulgence. If nothing else, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins could’ve easily been retitled Batman: Ninja School without much of a fuss. The truth is, though, that Batman Ninja seems entirely unconcerned with justifying its own for-their-own-sake impulses. Its experiments in the newly discovered artform of Batmanime seem to be born entirely of “Wouldn’t it be rad if __?” daydreaming. It’s a refreshing approach to Batman storytelling, as most of the character’s feature-length cartoons are much less comfortable with fully exploring the freedom from logic animation affords them. In an era where memorable novelty is essential to keeping Batman narratives viably fresh, it’s difficult to imagine Batman Ninja being outdone on a measure of pure imagination, even if it makes zero goddamn sense.

-Brandon Ledet

The Phantasm’s Looming Shadow Over All Animated Batmen

We’ve been singing the praises of the 2010 animated Batman feature Under The Red Hood this month for giving viewers something they’re not used to from most Caped Crusader cinema. Forgoing the obligatory origin story opening that weighs down every other Batman reboot and skipping far enough ahead into the lore that it can support two! Robins the Boys Wonder, Under the Red Hood feels remarkably unique in the modern comic book adaptation zeitgeist for its confidence in viewers’ familiarity with its central characters, allowing it a larger freedom in storytelling. The film feels much less unique, however, when you consider the obvious debt it owes to Batman: The Animated Series, particularly the show’s feature film debut Mask of the Phantasm. I’ve written previously about how Kevin Conroy’s voice work as the Caped Crusader on The Animated Series has been the defining standard for all animated Batmen, leaving Under the Red Hood/Gotham By Gaslight voice actor Bruce Greenwood very little room to leave a distinct mark. (The same could probably be said for Mark Hamill’s deranged voice work for The Joker as well). That’s not where The Animated Series’ looming influence stops, though. For all of Under the Red Hood’s narrative details that feel unique to cinematic Batman storytelling, the broader picture of what it accomplishes more than vaguely resembles Mask of the Phantasm. In fact, it follows Phantasm’s template so closely that you wouldn’t have to change many character details around for it to function as a remake.

To be fair, Under the Red Hood’s story about superhero vigilantism gone too far is a fairly common one within comic book lore. In our initial conversation on Under the Red Hood, I wrote, “Now that there are roughly a dozen major superhero releases annually, the stories are more varied, but for a while it felt as if the majority of them were hinged on the moral conflict of what, exactly, separates the masked vigilantes from the masked criminals.” However, the details of how that story is told onscreen in these two films are similar enough to push Under the Red Hood’s parallels to Mask of the Phantasm beyond general adherence to storytelling cliché. Both the titular Red Hood & Phantasm vigilantes challenge Batman’s moral code by pushing their dedication to crimefighting too far, specifically by assassinating mob bosses that control Gotham’s crime rings. The identities of the mysterious people from Batman’s past who mask as these vigilante personae in both films are also presented as impossibilities, as they are both dead. In Under the Red Hood, we see (the second, younger) Robin murdered brutally at the hands of the Joker in the first scene, but presume that The Red Hood could only be him in disguise, somehow resurrected. Similarly, recognizable voice actor Stacy Keach is obviously voicing The Phantasm in the earlier film, but the character he plays is shown to be dead long before The Phantasm arrives, making it an impossibility. The strange circumstances that make these transformations possible are doled out in staggered flashbacks in both films, one to a story of an early romance and one to Robin’s pre-crimefighting youth. The stories also reach their respective climaxes by deploying The Joker as an outside element of chaos in a last-ditch effort to save mobsters’ lives, creating total chaos that reveals the mysteries of the two vigilantes’ secret identities. Some of the individual characters have been swapped out and the animation style of these productions has changed drastically from the 90s to the 2010s, but in narrative terms The Mask of the Phantasm & Under the Red Hood are practically the same movie.

What’s left to distinguish them, then, is a question of aesthetic, for which I’ll always be biased to affording Mask of the Phantasm the upper hand. The action sequences of Under the Red Hood are an impressively complex mix of traditional and computer animation, but they have nothing on the tactile mat painting backdrops and Art Deco designs of The Animated Series, which is about as gorgeous as crime detective noir ever got. Mask of the Phantasm also drives to a much more distinctive climax than Under the Red Hood, staging the final showdown between Batman and The Joker in a sprawling miniature of Gotham at an abandoned, Atomic Age World’s Fair exhibit. The play with scale in that climactic battle makes the two forever-foes appear to be kaiju-size, which is an absurd effect unmatched by anything mustered in Under the Red Hood (or most live-action Batman flicks for that matter). Mask of the Phantasm is the definitive animated Batman move, its influence looming over every one of its successors. Story-wise, the only notable improvement Under the Red Hood holds over it is in skipping the origin story plotlines for Batman & The Joker, which are told uniquely in Mask of the Phantasm, but likely don’t need to be told at all. Otherwise, it follows a very faithful pattern established by that Animated Series offshoot, which becomes blatantly apparent if you ever watch the two films back to back. I don’t intend to point out these similarities to diminish Under the Red Hood’s significance; I was impressed by the film in a way that’s exceedingly rare for DC animated features. I just continually marvel at how influential The Animated Series and, by extension, Mask of the Phantasm were on the entirety of the animated Batman canon. Even one of the most uniquely independent entries into the franchise is still very closely tied to that series, both structurally and tonally, speaking to its staying power as a foundational work.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the animated superhero thriller Batman: Under the Red Hood, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this profile of its Caped Crusader voice actor, Bruce Greenwood, and last week’s look at how it uses the voice talents of Neil Patrick Harris.

-Brandon Ledet