The Supernatural Romantic Tedium of Anomalisa (2015) & Schizopolis (1996)

In our initial discussion of our current Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Steven Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, I asked Boomer how he felt the film’s tale of adulterous doppelgängers differed from the similar themes in Charlie Kaufman’s recent stop-motion drama Anomalisa. In Schizopolis, Soderbergh & (his real life ex-wife) Betsy Brantley play duel sets of doppelgängers who cheat on each other in existential searches for romantic passion, only to find more of the same in their “new” partners. To me, this “Love the one you’re with” messaging felt wildly different from Anomalisa‘s central conflict, in which a traveling businessman sees the entire world outside himself as one homogeneous personality except for the woman he’s currently cheating on his wife with, until she too is absorbed into the society of milquetoast doppelgängers that populate his life once the initial spark is gone. I asked Boomer for insight on this difference because I knew he’d be better at articulating it than I would. He wrote, “Schizopolis is a film about projection, but in a way that explores the various ways that multiple individuals categorize and compartmentalize their interactions between different people depending upon the intimacy (or lack thereof) of their relationship, the difference in their social classes and the power dynamic thereof, the emotional distance between them, libido, and other factors. Instead of Anomalisa‘s Michael facing the difficulty of seeing every person–strangers, his wife, his ex, his boss–as the same, Fletcher Munson’s interactions vary, demonstrating the dissonance between his words and his thoughts in his conversations with various people.” Those differences in varying social interactions & perspectives truly are essential to what distinguishes Schizopolis from Anomalisa. It still surprises me, though, how significantly the two works overlap in form to achieve their respective goals.

One of the most immediately striking aspects of both Anomalisa and Schizopolis is the crudeness of their visual forms. Shot with no solid script while palling around Baton Rouge, Schizopolis has a strikingly informal look to it, approximating the home movies & sketch comedy hybrid that defined the style of The Kids in the Hall. For its part, Anomalisa adopts the medium of stop-motion animation, which inherently has a kind of imperfect crudeness to its motions. Offsetting the leaps made in the medium by studios like Laika, however, this film intentionally shows the creases in its characters’ faces, calling attention to its own seams & artifice. Both films also dwell on the anonymity of utilitarian spaces & the empty babble of corporate speak. In Anomalisa, Michael’s depression is amplified by the doldrums of occupying a hotel room while away on business, with nothing especially exceptional about his transient spacial surroundings. The Baton Rouge office buildings & suburban homes Fletcher Munson drifts through in Schizopolis are just as unremarkable & devoid of personality. Munson’s job writing nonsensical speeches for the L. Ron Hubbard reminiscent cult leader of Eventualism & author of How to Control Your Own Mind is also reflected in the big speech on optimizing customer service efficiency (or some other empty form of corporate chatter) Michael travels to deliver. For two films about supernatural events in which bored businessmen drift into romantic entanglements with physical copies of their partners, Anomalisa & Schizopolis both make a point to keep their visual pallets anonymously bland & unassuming. They both seek to wring the supernatural out of the mundane, which requires the outlandishness of their premises to be rooted in visual monotony. The differences between their achievements have less to do with their respective visual styles than with how one story takes boredom with the hegemony as a freeing opportunity for irreverence while the other allows that boredom to fester into contempt.

As Boomer wrote in our initial conversation, “The biggest difference between the two films is in the fact that Anomalisa only gives us Michael’s point of view and insight into his particular problems with intimacy, communication, empathy, and humanity. […] Shizopolis gives us the points of view of several people, and highlights how each of them have their own problems with communication, which vary from person to person.” It’s arguable which choice of perspective makes for a more rewarding film, but being stuck in Michael’s head certainly makes Anomalisa the more uncomfortable watch. In Schizopolis, Soderbergh casts himself as a bland everyman. Anomalisa envisions a world where every man is bland. Not only is every character outside Michael’s head boring (and vaguely reminiscent of Michael Ian Black); they’re also an annoying, unremarkable sea of braying idiots with nothing unique to offer the world. I appreciate the bizarre accomplishments of Anomalisa from an emotional distance, but never truly fall in love with the film because it feels as if it should display just as much contempt for its villainous protagonist as he does for the rest of the world. Whether or not his perspective is the symptom of a chemical imbalance, the lack of empathy in Michael’s worldview makes him out to be an elitist monster who’s far more difficult to resonate with than Fletcher Munson’s more recognizably common suburban doldrums. Schizopolis is willing to examine its protagonist’s close-minded selfishness in its third act reversal of perspective that replays scenes through Mrs. Munson’s POV, while Anomalisa just dismisses Michael’s cruel boredom as “psychological problems,” as if they’re something universally experienced. The most perspective we get from Jennifer Jason Leigh as Michael’s titular love interest is a sweetly pathetic rendition of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” which is played more for pity than it is for empathy.

As much as I prefer the deranged silliness of Schizopolis to Anomalisa‘s bitter people-watching, Michael’s climactic speech about customer service optimization does devolve nicely into a kind of dual mission statement for both films. He asks himself (and his audience) “What does it mean to be human? What is it to ache? What is it to be alive?” in existential desperation, only to answer those questions with frantic repetitions of “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.” These films approach that crisis and the oppressive mundanity of modern life from entirely different perspectives. Schizopolis searches for meaning in interpersonal relationships, finding its frustration with the ineffectiveness of language at truly connecting two human souls in a punishingly tedious world that increasingly doesn’t make sense. Anomalisa, by contrast, despairs at the punishing tedium of other people, who are just as uninteresting & personality-free as hotel room furniture. No matter which perspective you find more honest or worthwhile, it’s eerie how much these visually crude doppelgänger narratives overlap in form. Their supernatural romance dramas are rooted in two incomparable philosophies, yet they’re both staged in a common, tedious modern world setting with intentionally limiting means of expression.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Steven Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

My Life as a Zucchini (2017)

This stop motion animation gem was nominated for a Best Animated Feature award last Oscars season, but is still making its way through rounds of slow trickle American distribution. Don’t it let slip by you. A French language black comedy written by Céline Sciamma, director of Girlhood & Tomboy, My Life as a Zucchini is more spiritually aligned with the quiet comedic gloom of Mary and Max than the kid-friendly antics of more traditional stop motion works like Shaun the Sheep & A Town Called Panic. Its plot is quietly simple. Its animation style is similarly unambitious. However, its empathetic portrait of young, lonely kids in search of a family to call their own is rawly authentic and had me crying like an idiot baby throughout. The good news is that even in its lowest moments of real world gloom and heart-heavy reflections on the lingering effects of abuse and abandonment, My Life as a Zucchini knows how to make a good joke land just when it’s needed most and there are just as many opportunities for a laugh as there are to reach for a handkerchief.

The titular Zucchini in the film is actually a human boy whose mother happened to nickname after the vegetable. With the sunken eyes & oversized head of Anna and the Moods, Zucchini looks like what would happen if Tim Burton attempted to draw Milhouse Van Houten without the glasses. Newly orphaned after a freak accident, Zucchini arrives at a group home where other children await adoptions that are likely never to come. These kids have been through Hell: physical abuse, neglect by way of addiction or mental illness, being left stranded by an uncaring immigration system. My Life as a Zucchini will coldly let their naked pain sink in with a quiet patience too. The kids will complain, “There’s nobody left to love us,” or openly gawk at other kids who do have traditional families while the movie chooses to linger on the raw nerve of the moment, allowing its brutal honesty to sink in. Even when they’re joking around or staving off boredom in the group home’s playground, these haunting moments find their way to the surface, openly daring any eyes focused on the screen to remain dry. It’s not easy.

My Life as a Zucchini isn’t overly maudlin or emotionally manipulative. It’s just honest. One of my favorite aspects of the film is that (with very few exceptions) there are no real enemies driving its central conflicts. Life is just difficult. The foster system cares about ​these kids dearly, but they’re a little older than whom most families would be looking to adopt (Zucchini starts the film at age 9). There’s an older, would-be bully at the home who would serve as the antagonist in most versions of this story, but his transgressions don’t amount to much more than light ribbing (he calls Zucchini “Potato”) and he actually has more empathetic wisdom than most of the kids about how the system works & how they can best look after each other. Even when Zucchini looks back at living alone with his alcoholic, possibly violent mother, he reflects, “She drank a lot of beer, but she made good mashed potatoes and sometimes we had a lot of fun.” As dark as some of these kids’ backstories can be, My Life as a Zucchini often focuses on the “sometimes we had a lot of fun” end of that recollection and the movie balances out its real life gloom by celebrating the small victories and moments of levity that cut through its pint-sized characters’ emotional pain.

All things considered, this is a fairly traditional coming of age story, one that’s stop motion medium has a sort of twee sweetness to it that recalls things like the animated sequences of Taika Waititi’s debut Eagle vs. Shark. The orphans who populate the film indulge in small acts of vandalism, frequently erupt into juvenile sexual humor, cut loose at adorably safe-feeling late night dance parties, and navigate their first experiences with things like romantic crushes & hand holding. The movie itself can be adorable in the same way, whether depicting precious carnival ride miniatures & tiny crayon drawings or piles of empty beer cans complete with their own generic labels. For all of My Life as a Zucchini‘s instant appeal as an adorable object and a sweetly empathetic coming of age narrative, though, the movie often distinguishes itself in how it builds these charms on a foundation of real life emotional pain. When the inevitable sadness & boredom of life at this stop motion animated orphanage disrupts the playtime fantasy of the kids who populate it, the movie always chooses to slow down and let the ugly truth of that moment linger. It’s not always a pleasant experience, but it is a deeply rewarding one.

-Brandon Ledet

The Little Prince (2016)

three star

The recent animated feature The Little Prince has had an interesting path to reaching American audiences. After earning rave reviews abroad and being advertised at theaters in the States, the film was dropped from its release schedule and unceremoniously dumped on Netflix streaming following months of distribution limbo. I’m far from a connoisseur of modern CG animation. Pixar movies don’t quite excite me in the same way they do for most folks and I’m much likelier to seek out a hand-drawn or stop motion-animated film than a Wreck It Ralph or Big Hero 6 or what have you. I will say, though, that the way The Little Prince has been quietly swept aside baffles me a great deal. It’s by no means a contender for best animated feature of the year or anything (not with Kubo & Zootopia looming large), but it’s at the very least more thoughtful & well-constructed than what I assume (but hopefully will never find out) most people got out of this year’s lesser CG fare: Storks, Trolls, Angry Birds, oh my! And those all made huge profits at the theater. Anyone looking for Pixar-quality storytelling & emotional resonance is likely to enjoy this discarded dark horse on some level, even if it wasn’t my usual taste in entertainment, so it’s weird to see it dismissed so casually on the distribution end of the business.

There’s two dueling storylines in The Little Prince. One is told in a storybook fashion and is based on the popular children’s book of the film’s namesake (which I honestly know mostly from Tumblr posts & friends’ tattoos, not from growing up with it); the other is a coming of age tale in which a young girl befriends a lonely old man. The Little Prince is interesting in the way it never puts too fine of a point on the way the themes of its two halves communicate. Both stories are in some way about the value and difficulty in maintaining companionship, but overall the movie exists as a love letter to childhood imagination. In the film’s own words, “Growing up is not the problem, forgetting is.” The old man (voiced by Jeff Bridges), who spends most of his days working on model planes, listening to Dixieland jazz, and recounting the story of the Little Prince to his new school age friend, never forgot the value of play & imagination as he grew older. Every other adult seems to have lost that perspective. As the little girl protagonist faces a rigid summer schedule meant to prepare her for an intensely regimented educational institution, everyone from her own mother to her educational oppressors seem determined to dampen and homogenize her imagination. The old man and his story of the Little Prince offer a (literally) brighter, more exciting future, and a lot of the film’s conflict is generated in the clash of those two ideals.

What drew me into watching this film in the first place, despite it not being my typical thing, was the multimedia approach to its animation. The story of the old man & the young girl is an all-CG, Pixar-reminiscent proposition, one that looks a little like a cheaper version of the medium like Anna and the Moods due to its budgetary limitations. The film begins with a hand-drawn sequence with watercolor added for texture, though, and the titular Little Prince half of the story is told through stop motion animation, something I’m always a sucker for. If the entire film were as interesting to look at as the Little Prince’s claymation worlds, I might be praising it a little more emphatically. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the wraparound CG story quite as worthwhile as the storybook Little Prince vignettes it contains, as it both looked & felt less special in the context of its time, where a CG-animated tale about the value of imagination & individuality are not at all difficult to come by.

I wouldn’t say that The Little Prince would have been a more resounding success if it were all stop motion or hand-drawn. I had some problems with the story too, particularly when its two worlds collide in a third act attempt to transform what was at one time a character-driven familial drama into a cookie cutter action adventure. My main complaint with the film is that outside that last minute stretch, when the film feels least emotionally impactful, its two halves never really feel like a cohesive whole. The stop motion animation version of The Little Prince‘s source material is something very interesting and beautiful to behold; the CG framing device was fine, but not something I would seek out without the titular hook. There’s some clever visualization of the monotonous trudge of time & adult life that colors that half of the film and I’ll admit I teared up at the emotional climax of its story arc once the action adventure shenanigans were put to rest (not that it takes much for me to cry these days; a TV commercial can get me to do that in seconds). I just could never shake the feeling that The Little Prince didn’t fully belong tied to that Pixar-shaped story in the first place. Those more in tune with that genre might be inclined to disagree and I think it’s at least fair to say this film deserved a fairer shake than the one it got, as I’m sure there was an audience out there who would’ve been eager to see it at the theater.

-Brandon Ledet

A Town Called Panic: Double Fun (2016)

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Double Fun isn’t exactly a sequel in a traditional sense, although it is the latest theatrical release in its franchise since the 2009 feature A Town Called Panic. Rather than standing as a feature length follow-up to its madcap stop motion comedy predecessor, Double Fun is a “one day only” (it actually screened over two days at Prytania Theatre) theatrical event that cobbled together several short films from the A Town Called Panic catalog to reach a very slight feature length as a loose anthology. As a trip to the cinema Double Fun was an amusing novelty, not quite living up to the manic brilliance of the original A Town Called Panic movie, but still functioning fairly well as a crash course in the Belgian cult television show’s surreal, maddening mode of crude stop motion animation & slapstick comedy. It was great to see something so aggressively trivial play out on the prestige platform of the oldest running cinema in New Orleans, but I wouldn’t necessarily call the experience essential (like I would have with Prytania’s 100 year anniversary screening of Cinema Paradiso last year).

The main bulk of Double Fun were two mid-length shorts, titled “Christmas Panic” & “Back to School Panic.” I usually detest watching Christmas-themed media out of season, especially when it’s sacrilegious to the still-approaching holy day of Halloween, but I’ll make an exception when it means watching the KaBlam!-style antics of Horse, Cowboy, and Indian on the big screen. Of the two 2016 shorts, “Christmas Panic” was noticeably inferior to the high concept insanity of “Back to School Panic,” but it was still amusing to watch the Panic gang rob both the kindly Santa Claus & the abusive jerk neighbor Steven in the name of the true Christmas spirit: greed. “Back to School Panic” was the true attraction of Double Fun, starting with a very simple plot of Cowboy & Indian trying to avoid having to return to the classroom and somehow winding up playing with a Being John Malkovich situation inside a farm pig’s mind. “Christmas Panic” was cute & the mini-shorts that buffered the two featured segments of Double Fun were a great glimpse into the humble beginnings of the franchise, with the de-evolution monsters of “Cow Hulk” especially standing out as a treat. However, if A Town Called Panic fans are to seek out just one segment of this theatrical event, “Back to School Panic” is the one that most stands out as exemplary of what makes this manic stop motion franchise so weirdly endearing.

Double Fun works best as a crash course in Panic if you have already seen the feature film, which is likely a much better starting point. The way the anthology is curated answered a few lingering questions I had after watching the absurdist feature film. My main ambiguity about whether the franchise was intended for children or stoned adults was somewhat resoundingly answered by the rowdy groups of young tyke attendees at the screening who met the series of shorts with transfixed silence & wholesome giggling. In a way it seems like the series is moving in a more kid-friendly direction in general, especially in making Horse more of a father figure to the increasingly childlike Cowboy & Indian and in softening the music cues. There’s still the requisite partying, alcohol, theft, violence, and manic tension that makes A Town Called Panic distinct as dangerous-feeling children’s media, but the shift was noticeable. Watching the 2016 shorts mix in with the shoddier quality of the series’ humble beginnings was also illuminating as a recent convert, as was hearing the English-language voice actors in the dubs, which took some getting used to, but felt like insight into how the show is typically packaged outside of Belgium.

If you’ve never seen A Town Called Panic before, I urge you to start with the 2009 feature, as it’s a great reminder of the wonders of stop motion as a medium, even when crudely executed. Double Fun is great supplementary material for the already converted, especially in the unreal sci-fi absurdity of “Back to School Panic,” but it’s not necessarily something you need to kick yourself for missing in its very brief theatrical run. If either of those storylines had been used as a launching point for a proper feature length sequel, however, I might be singing a different tune.

-Brandon Ledet

A Town Called Panic (2009)

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fourstar

I have a bad track record with modern CG animation as filtered through companies like Disney & Pixar and a traditional 2D, hand-drawn animation feature is increasingly difficult to come by, so stop motion might very well be my final refuge in animation as a cinematic medium. This might help explain why (besides them being lovingly crafted & emotionally devastating) titles like Mary and Max & Kubo and the Two Strings have stood out to me as some of the more memorable animated features of the last decade. The 2009 stop motion madcap comedy A Town Called Panic, adapted from a cult Belgian TV show of the same name, doesn’t aim for the same awe-inspiring depth & beauty of titles like Kubo. All things considered, it’s probably a lot more in line with the slapstick antics of something like Shaun the Sheep. However, its tactile visuals, which go out of their way to call attention to its stop motion format, and its manic comedy style make for a much more memorable, enjoyable experience than most of your standard talking CG animal features could. I’m not saying that A Town Called Panic is automatically “better” than all CG animation features because of its virtue as a stop motion work (at the very least, it’s highly likely that Zootopia will make my Top Films of 2016 list at the end of the year and it easily falls under that umbrella). I just find it remarkably easy to tap into the film’s headspace because I am in love with its methods, however crudely executed.

Stop motion studios like Laika pride themselves in pushing their medium to a technical extreme, smoothing out the movement of their figurines through CGI doctoring and striving to achieve grander, larger scale accomplishments in their films’ action sequences. A Town Called Panic is refreshing in the way it casually approaches the medium, intentionally drawing attention to the crudeness of its visual style. Its characters are simple figurines anyone could pick up out of a dollar store toy bag: a cowboy, an Indian, a horse. Their character names are just as simplistic: Cowboy, Indian, Horse. When they run from danger they have to hobble violently because of the limited movement of the plastic bases attached to their feet. There’s a world built around their overly simplistic shapes; pianos, cars, houses, and computers are designed so that they can be operated by horses. It’s not the intricately mapped out, multiscale world of Zootopia, however. It’s more like a children’s playset. I haven’t seen stop motion employed so casually & so conspicuously since KaBlam! in the 90s. The approach doesn’t necessarily read as lazy, though. It merely works as a reminder of how effective stop motion can be as a visual medium even when stripped down to its bare parts. The animation in A Town Called Panic is just complicated enough to deliver the physical comedy & whimsical absurdity of its story. It’s function over fashion, but in its kids’ playset simplicity the film does achieve its own aesthetic.

The plot is similarly bare bones. As with a lot of television series, especially comedies, A Town Called Panic plays like several TV episodes strung together instead of a traditional feature-length movie plot. Cowboy, Horse, and Indian are three roommates who’ve formed a strange, symbiotic domesticity within their household. Horse is the responsible adult of the house, while Cowboy & Indian are his goofball foils. They kick the plot into action when they forget Horse’s birthday & build him a barbecue as a last minute present. Through a mistake anyone could make, really, Cowboy & Indian order 50 million bricks instead of the mere 50 required to build the barbecue and decide to hide the bricks from the much put-upon birthday boy. For all of its manic energy & physics-bending absurdity, the best attribute of A Town Called Panic is its comedic patience. There’s a great payoff to the absurd visual gag of “hiding” 50 million bricks, but it’s a very slow, methodical reveal that relies on the strength of comedic timing even more than it does on situational humor. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a stop motion feature more confident with showing absolutely nothing happening onscreen in lingering shots so the impact of its long-game gags can pay off with greater comedic confidence. The setup of the bricks leads to many ingenious punchlines and episodic adventures, including an Atlantis-esque underwater colony, scientist kidnappers, and farm animal ammo in a territorial war. The absurdity is gradually, incrementally escalated, though. It’s a payoff that doesn’t arrive immediately, which is both surprising for a feature with such manic energy and impressive in terms of comedic confidence.

Overall, it’s difficult for me to pinpoint the exact tone of A Town Called Panic from the outside looking in. Is the franchise intended for children or stoned-out-of-their-mind college students? Both? It commands neither the cutesiness of Wallace & Gromit nor the dramatic ennui of Anomalisa, leaving it in some kind of stop-motion libido. Outside of a few details like alcohol consumption, marital infidelity, and the occasional potty language of words like “bastard” & “dumbass” it’s hard to say for sure that kids wouldn’t be able to watch it over parental concerns, but the humor isn’t exactly “adult” either. Its irreverence & whimsy recalls the stop motion comedy of Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo or Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, but it traffics in the crude simplicity of something like KaBlam!. Maybe if I were Belgian I’d have better context for A Town Called Panic’s target audience, but as an American Doofus & a stop motion fanatic all I can say is it’s very funny and I’m glad it exists. It’s rare to see a comedy in an medium brimming with so much minute-to-minute energy, yet patient enough to let longterm gags reach their full potential before payoff. This is a confident work of a very particular, unique mode of stop motion comedy & entirely deserves the traction it’s gaining as a cult curiosity on an international scale.

-Brandon Ledet

Black Moon (1975) was the Most Honest Surrealist Take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice . . . Until Alice (1988)

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We were having a hard time in our initial conversation about August’s Movie of the Month, the fantasy realm art piece Black Moon, in pinpointing an exact interpretation of the film’s basic plot or intent. It’s highly likely, of course, that director Louis Malle didn’t want his exact intent or a definitive plot to be discernible at all in the film. Black Moon feels very much committed to a certain mode of surrealism that points to the coldness & seemingly random cruelty of existence by being, you guessed it, cold & randomly cruel. The interpretation we more or less settled on as a crew was that Black Moon was best understood as a down-the-rabbit-hole story that aped the structure of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland series as a means of capturing his young protagonist’s unsettling journey into womanhood. Whatever that journey means or what it even is largely falls under the umbrella of personal interpretation but the Wonderland influence was undeniable as an overarching aesthetic in its basic structure. Black Moon is by no means a strict adaptation of that source material, but it does wear the influence on it sleeve, as openly admitted by Malle himself in interviews. I’d also argue that the film was the best surrealist take on Wonderland’s cold, random cruelty depicted on film for well over a decade, capturing that aspect of Carroll’s work better than any of its many peers that were straightforward adaptations of the novel. That is, until it was upstaged by 1988’s stop-motion animation classic Alice.

Czech director Jan Švankmajer had been producing short films all the way back to the same art scene in his home country that produced 1967’s Daisies before making his feature film debut in Alice. To be honest, Alice’s structure & pacing reflect his short film past in a lot of ways, recalling modern filmmakers like Guy Maddin & Roy Andersson who are remarkably adept at constructing individual images & vignettes, but struggle a little when it comes to piecing those moments together to achieve a digestible feature length work. Alice is a stunning visual achievement, a tactile work of stop-motion animation that values the specificity of curio cabinet oddities, Joseph Cornell shadowboxes, and taxidermy animals over the clay figurines we’re used to seeing in titles like Coraline & Kubo. What makes Alice interesting as an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s source material, however, is not in the visual achievement, but in a tone that matches the cold surrealism of Louis Malle’s Black Moon. As Švankmajer put it himself, he wanted to reinvent the interpretation of Alice in Wonderland in other adaptations that posed it as a fairy tale with a moral center and instead present it as a cold, amoral dream with no point to be made outside its own absurdism, a reading that captures the essence of Black Moon just as much as it hints at the power & intent of Carroll’s source material. Švankmajer explained, “While a fairy tale has got an educational aspect – it works with the moral of the lifted finger (good overcomes evil), dream, as an expression of our unconscious, uncompromisingly pursues the realization of our most secret wishes without considering rational and moral inhibitions, because it is driven by the principle of pleasure. My Alice is a realized dream.” Considered in that context, Black Moon also functions best as a dream & not as a fairy tale, despite what you’d expect based on its talking unicorn.

The difference between the dream structures of Alice & Black Moon, however, is that the latter often functions as a nightmare. Both films’ plots survive on the surreality of minute to minute obstinate confusion, but there’s a lighter tone to Alice that isn’t quite matched in Black Moon. Black Moon can be funny at times, but it often veers into uncomfortable imagery like hawk murder & interspecies breastfeeding, while Alice finds its individual vignettes in moments like a cute rat cooking a can of beans on its young protagonist’s head. Most of the film’s creepiness lies in its old world imagery, a curio cabinet specificity that recalls a similar immersion in Nature, strange animals, and odd domesticity to what we see in Black Moon’s languid sleepwalk through an earth tone dreamscape, but with noticeably less malice. Black Moon pulled a lot of its surrealist influence from Carroll’s creation in Alice in Wonderland, an uncaring, dreamlike tone that recalls the structure of a fairy tale, but without the lesson to be learned. 1988’s Alice picks up that torch & runs with it, applying that same amoral interpretation of Carroll’s intent to a straightforward adaptation of his novel. Together they have a lot to say about the potency of dream logic, the philosophical implications of surrealism, and the meaninglessness of meaning. I highly recommend them as a double feature next time you’re feeling particularly existential & loopy.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, Louis Malle’s surrealist fantasy art piece Black Moon, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s comparison of its lame duck unicorn with the divine unicorns of Legend (1985).

-Brandon Ledet

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

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It would be dishonest of me to echo the complaints about how lackluster this summer’s movie offerings have been, since I’ve enjoyed so much of what’s been released, from major productions like Paul Feig’s unfairly-reviled Ghosbusters reboot & Shane Black’s neo-noir comedy The Nice Guys to weirdo indie outliers like The Fits & The Neon Demon. Where I sour on 2016’s movie industry output, however, is in those films’ box office numbers, which are dismal at best. Seemingly, the only movies able to make significant money in our current cultural climate are either bloated superhero spectacles or CG-animated films featuring talking animals. What’s frustrating me the most this week is that Kubo and the Two Strings, the latest masterful offering from the stop-motion animation marvels Laika, satisfies both of those requirements in its own way. It features both an in-over-his-head protagonist with superhuman abilities and his talking animal sidekicks and yet, like so many other great films this year, it’s flailing in its opening weekend attempt to recoup a significant fraction of its production costs. Kubo and the Two Strings alone is proof positive of 2016’s major cinematic conundrum: great films are being made; it’s just that no one’s paying to go see them.

Inspired by Japanese folklore & the rich cinematic past of samurai epics, Kubo and the Two Strings is at heart a story about the power of storytelling & the ways memory functions like potent magic. The film’s titular protagonist is a small boy who makes a living for himself & his disabled mother by telling stories for market place shoppers’ spare change in town. Kubo illustrates his own tales by playing his banjo-esque musical instrument, the shamisen, which brings to life colorful sheets of paper that fold into origami shapes & act out his stories as he narrates. What the townspeople don’t know is that the witches, samurais, and magic moon kings of Kubo’s stories are also a real life part of his past . . . which is why his tale doesn’t yet have an ending, a frustrating quality that always leaves his audience hanging. When that past catches up to him Kubo is caught in the middle of two opposing quests: his own mission to reclaim his deceased father’s armor and his witch & moon king enemies’ quest to steal his only remaining eye (finishing a job they started when he was only a newborn) and, thus, destroying his capacity for empathy & his free will. Kubo’s only company on this journey are a goofball beetle in samurai armor (Matthew McConaughey in his best performance since Interstellar) and a no-nonsense monkey (Charlize Theron, who’s just as fierce here as she was in last summer’s Fury Road). Along the way Kubo learns the responsibility & discipline necessary to command his magic abilities, but more importantly he learns that only he can bring a happy ending to his own story, however bittersweet.

A lot of what makes Kubo and the Two Stings such an overwhelming triumph is its attention to detail in its visual & narrative craft. As with their past titles like Coraline & ParaNorman, Laika stands out here in terms of ambition with where the studio can push the limits of stop-motion animation as a medium. The film’s giant underwater eyeballs, Godzilla-sized Harryhausen skeleton, and stone-faced witches are just as terrifying as they are awe-inspiringly beautiful and I felt myself tearing up throughout the film just as often in response to its immense sense of visual craft as its dramatic implications of past trauma & familial loss. The film also allows for a darkness & danger sometimes missing in the modern kids’ picture, but balances out that sadness & terror with genuinely effective humor about memory loss & untapped talent. What’s really impressive here, however, is its efficiency in storytelling. There isn’t a single image or element at play, from a woven bracelet to a paper lantern to an insectoid buffoon, that doesn’t come to full significance if you lend the film enough patience. Kubo and the Two Stings could’ve easily rested on the laurels of its visual spectacle, a result of infinite hours of painstakingly detailed labor in an animation studio, but it instead pours just as much care & specificity into its reverence for traditional storytelling. Nothing presented onscreen is wasted. This is narrative prowess at its most essential & efficient, an attention to craft reflected in the fact that the film’s protagonist himself is a storyteller & an animator in his own right and that his quest mostly centers on a desire to seize & steer his own narrative to a satisfactory ending. This film definitely falls into the category of cinema about cinema, art about art, but it doesn’t call attention to that conceit. It all takes naturally & beautifully as the plot continually folds in on itself like intricate origami.

What films do you consider the height of stop-motion animation as a medium? The Nightmare before Christmas? Fantastic Mr. Fox? Alice? Mary & Max? Kubo and the Two Strings easily belongs in the conversation at even a moment’s glance. The film boasts an impressive depth of visual detail & intricately mapped-out story structure, yet it’s remarkably light on its feet, leaving plenty of room both for moments of levity & for heart wrenching blows of emotional impact. Just watching the endless parade of bland talking CG animal kids’ comedies in the trailers preceding Kubo and the Two Strings, each more annoying & forgettable than the last, is enough of an eye opener as to why this film’s arrival in our current cinematic climate is such a goddamn relief. You owe it to yourself to watch this modern classic on the big screen and, please, bring a friend. The idea that there are no great films being released this year, that Hollywood is simply out of ideas and the world was somehow more creative or inspired in past decades is honestly getting to be more than a little silly. There are plenty of great films in the theater right now. We just need to get smarter about throwing our attention & dollars at them. I suggest starting with Kubo and the Two Strings. You could do far worse with your money than escaping the August heat in the air-conditioning, admiring a projection of a modern animation masterpiece in the comfort of public darkness.

-Brandon Ledet

Anomalisa (2015)

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fourhalfstar

As is the case with virtually every project that has Charlie Kaufman’s fingerprints on it, Anomalisa is an insight into the writer/director’s particularly idiosyncratic worldview and plethora of neuroses. The film tells the story of a lonely, mentally ill man (voiced by David Thewlis) who travels to Cincinatti to present a keystone speech at a customer service convention. Every person that he encounters along the way has the same face and speaks with the same voice (Tom Noonan), including cab drivers, his wife and son, and even the former lover with whom he attempts to reconnect on his single night in town. When she revels how emotionally and irrevocably devastated she was by his departure, he finds temporary succor in the arms of a shy woman named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose face is scarred and who is attending the conference with her more extroverted and attractive BFF Emily. Although he contemplates leaving his family for her, in the light of day, she moves from anomalous to anonymous as she takes on the face and voice of everyone else. His presentation goes awry when he has a mental breakdown on stage, and he returns home as empty and incomplete as he was at the film’s outset.

The film is a technical marvel, a stop-motion animated feature that utilized 3D printing to create the many stages of facial expression across a sea of duplicate people, and the design and detail work on display is simply stunning. Michael Stone’s gradually building psychotic episode is beautifully telegraphed in a mirror-contemplating scene that sees his face revolving through a series of different faces, and an operatically composed dream sequence includes a moment where his countenance falls apart and reveals the framework underneath. Technically, the film is virtually flawless once you become accustomed to the world’s aesthetic (the line that separates the tops and bottoms of faces is distracting at the outset), and the concept of a world of interchangeable people is realized elegantly.

The narrative, however, leaves a little to be desired. As a peak into Kaufman’s mind, this is yet another story about a reprehensibly self-oriented and self-interested man whose outbursts this time around are rationalized as the result of an undiagnosed mental illness. Once again, an unsympathetic man is brought so low that we the audience cannot help but feel some empathy for his plight; we spend so much time with Stone alone and in an “unobserved” state that he becomes familiar enough that we’re willing to go along on his journey. Of course, his journey exists only in the literal sense, as, ironically, there is no self-discovery for a man who spends so much of his mental energy reflecting upon himself.

Stone is a man who: passively suggests hooking up with his ex, moments after she reveals that she spent the first year after he left her unable to get out of bed; has raised an utterly spoiled and ungrateful child whose brattiness is communicated in a scant three minutes onscreen; and considers leaving his wife and family for what he presumes would be a life of less self-loathing with an uncomplicated Midwestern woman (who has much more going on under the surface than he is willing or able to see). Although we’re living in a post-Don Draper world and it feel’s like the west is drowning in stories of this ilk, Anomalisa feels fresh, if only because of its unusual visual rhetorical space. It’s utterly impossible to like Stone despite his fundamentally broken nature, but the nature of the presentation goes a long way towards making him stand out from the Tony Sopranos and Dr. Houses of the world. It’s a third-person depiction of a first-person point of view, and this immersiveness saves the film from feeling too stale.

This should in no way be read as an indictment of Thewlis’s performance, which is fantastic. He’s not alone: Leigh also does great work here, playing Lisa’s vulnerability and tenaciousness in equal parts, giving life to a character that is ultimately much more human and endearingly honest than Stone. There’s an edge to her line-readings that gives Lisa a physical presence that could be felt even if there were no plastic bodies awkwardly humping each other on screen. Noonan embues each of the diverse characters he plays with variations on a theme, and his irascible cab driver and burned lover are standouts. Still, Thewlis brings a great dimension to the role of Stone, which also contributes to the effectiveness of the story despite its static narrative.

The story is really only tired in broad strokes, however, as the particularities of details are generally novel. Lisa is essentially the opposite of a manic pixie dream girl, a customer service team leader from Akron who lives in Emily’s shadow and considers herself stupid; her favorite food is scrambled eggs and her musical interests skew heavily toward Cyndi Lauper, but she is genuinely interested in improving herself and the state of her life. Her encounter with Stone changes him not at all, but she grows as a result of it, which is a narrative anomaly (no pun intended). The film is also quite observational in the way that it captures true-to-life moments in awkward conversations with eager service industry personnel (including phone reps, cab drivers, bellboys, bar attendants, and cashiers) and being forced to witness interactions between unhappy couples.

This all illustrates the film’s interest in drama but fails in its recapitulation of the comic elements. Much like last year’s Queen of Earth, there is a conscious meditation upon the way that living with or adjacent to mental illness is not the perpetually joyless experience that forms the narrative basis of most literary interrogations of the subject. It’s a rarely discussed observation of the human condition, that while some people are comic or tragic figures, most of us have varying percentages of both throughout our lives, and it’s not always easy or indeed necessary to categorize existence in such binary terms. That’s not to mention the other subtle jokes throughout the film; for instance, Cincinatti chili sounds intriguing and horrifying, and I appreciate the pride that the fictional Ohioans take in their bizarre concoction and their zoo. There’s also a lot to unpack about the fact that Stone’s breakdown stream-of-consciousness is interpreted to be critical of soldiers, prompting an attendee to shout about “supporting the troops,” especially combined with the hotelier’s framed George W. Bush portrait in Stone’s dream sequence.

Speaking of which, as the film largely sticks to a realism even if the point of view is warped, the surreality of Stone’s nightmare sequence is worth the ticket price alone, and is what I expect most people will be talking about long after seeing the film. It’s also the most recognizably Kaufman-esque part of the movie; the sea-of-interchangable faces conceit is present throughout and is obviously evocative of the restaurant full of John Malkovitches seen in Being John Malkovitch (and revisited in Adaptation), but Stone’s story doesn’t otherwise lend itself to Kaufman’s more eccentric imagery. In the dream sequence, however, there’s an exploration of space that is reminiscent of the half-floor in the office building from Malkovitch, and Stone’s attempt to escape through a sea of improbably-close desks is pure Kaufman visual flourish. There’s less Synecdoche, New York in the film’s DNA, which may be for the best, as this film feels less like a masturbatory ode about being a misunderstood and self-destructive artist and isn’t also largely impenetrable (individual responses may vary). That having been said, in defense of Synecdoche, none of Anomalisa’s images are as haunting as that film’s perpetually burning house, curling tattooed leaves, or infinitely recursive series of miniaturized metropoli.

Overall, Anomalisa is a great film that draws you into its headspace with compelling imagery. While the plot may not be as much of a technical masterpiece as its cinematography, its potentially played-out story is sufficiently fleshed out (again, no pun intended) that it will likely remain culturally relevant long after the genre of paint-by-numbers privileged-white-guy-versus-ennui has receded back into the ether from which it came. If not a masterpiece, then the film is definitively a cinematic experience that demands to be seen.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Dungeonmaster (1985)

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twostar

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Although there’s no way to ever again think about or mention the proverb “too many cooks spoil the broth” without calling to mind the short film that took the internet by storm last year, few statements are more accurate when it comes to the abysmal failings of 1985’s The Dungeonmaster. The title is inaccurate, as there are absolutely no dungeons in this movie, nor is there a master of these unseen dungeons. The alternate title, Digital Knights, is also incorrect, as there is only one person who could reasonably be called a knight in this film. In fact, even the original title, Ragewar: The Challenges of Excalibrate (as it was known before the reaction from a San Antonio test audience convinced the producers to change it), was also wrong, as there is no war in this movie whatsoever, and, despite it being mostly garbage, you’ll feel more unfulfilled by the movie’s underwhelming 73 minutes than moved to any strong emotion; this movie can’t inspire mild interest, let alone rage.

In 1989, Charles Band founded direct-to-video production company Full Moon Entertainment. Although it’s easy to ignore how revolutionary this was at the time, Full Moon was the first studio to create features exclusively for the burgeoning home video rental market in much the same way Netflix began creating content for its subscribers when streaming video began to catch on as an alternative to broadcast TV. Their first film was the surprise hit Puppet Master, which was not only a sharp and commercially successful film but also included a featurette about the film’s production on both the VHS tape and the Laserdisc, a novel idea at the time. When Full Moon released its fifth feature, the sequel Puppet Master II, it also introduced VideoZone, a video magazine that featured introductions from Band, featurettes, ads for Full Moon merchandise, and interviews that spotlighted upcoming releases. It was a brilliant and inventive business model that reflects how Band was an innovator, despite a less-than-stellar reputation that features (probably true) accusations of plagiarism and failure to properly credit artists involved in his ventures.

The strange thing about Dungeonmaster is that it also demonstrates innovation, or at least attempts to. The film is about handsome computer programmer Paul (Jeffrey Byron), who has created an inexplicably advanced computer named X-CaliBR8, which, in addition to acting as his FitBit/Google Glass/smartwatch, allows him to interface with ATMs and control traffic lights while being kind of a dick to commuters. Also, “Cal” (voiced by an uncredited actress) can process data like some kind of god, answering seriously open-ended questions featuring an anxiety-inducing number of factors with more speed than it took me to construct this sentence. Paul’s girlfriend, Gwen (Leslie Wing), is jealous of Paul’s relationship with the sultry-voiced computer, but she accepts his seemingly impromptu marriage proposal with only minor hesitation.

That night, the couple is kidnapped by Mestema (Night Court‘s Richard Moll–in fact, TV legend has it that he shaved his head for this role and then auditioned for the sitcom, leading the producers to suggest he keep it that way for all nine seasons), a sorcerer or demon or something, who transports Gwen and Paul to a quarry somewhere. He turns Paul’s magic computer into a gauntlet with buttons, and it is just as ridiculous and terrible as you are imagining; Cal identifies Mestema as the devil himself, which, were I Satan, I would find terribly embarrassing. Mestema exposits to Paul, to whom he gives the awful, awful name “Excalibrate,” that he has waited a long time for a challenger who’s up to his level or something and issues Excalibrate a challenge to seven trials, or else Mestema gets to keep Gwen. That’s where Band’s innovation comes into play: the rest of the film plays out as an anthology, with each of the seven trials being directed by a different person. This makes the story mostly incoherent overall, but some segments are better than others. In order to give the film a fair star rating, I’m going to rate each segment individually and then average them out.

The first trial contains the images that intrigued me most when I saw the trailer, as it features a Ray Harryhausen-esque stop motion statue monster. Entitled “Stone Canyon Giant,” this sequence was directed by David Allen; unsurprisingly, Allen’s earliest credit is for cult classic Equinox, where he worked on the movie’s beloved (if campy) visual effects. His only other feature directing credit is for the aforementioned Puppet Master II, but he was a stop motion artist and puppeteer on both classics like Willow, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and *batteries not included as well as disputably nonclassic but beloved movies like The Howling, The Stuff, and Prehysteria (which was released on Moonbeam Entertainment, Full Moon’s family-oriented division). The titular giant is bound to induce nostalgic reminiscence of Harryhausens of yore, and the segment also features an appearance by New Orleans native Phil Fondacaro, formerly the second most well-known little person in show biz (Peter Dinklage has knocked him down to third place, with Warwick Davis still in first by a wide margin, in my book). Overall, though, it’s mostly mediocre, and it isn’t helped by the fact that it includes the first of many times we will see Paul inexplicably shoot lasers from the wrist-mounted Cal. 2.5 Stars.

The second segment was directed by Band himself, and is a headache-inducing music video for W.A.S.P. in which Paul must force his way through a group of “scary looking” punks at a metal show before Blackie Lawless (as himself, I guess) can turn into Mestema and cut Gwen in half. It’s titled “Heavy Metal” and is just awful. 1 Star.

The third segment is titled “Demons of the Dead” and was directed by John Carl Buechler. Two years later, Buechler would direct the underrated classic Troll starring The NeverEnding Story‘s Noah Hathaway, a movie which has long been surpassed in popularity by its (notoriously and endearingly) awful not-really-a-sequel sequel. He went on to direct the seventh Friday the 13th as well as Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go To College (wait, what?), as well as a bunch of stuff I’ve never heard of. I knew that this would be Buechler’s segment from the moment I caught sight of Ratspit, a highly detailed and technically perfect goblin puppet who rules the dead. Most of the segment is utterly forgettable. Fighting reanimated corpses should be more exciting than this! 3.5 Stars.

The fourth segment, “Slasher,” relocates Paul to contemporary New York, where he spends most of the time he’s supposed to be saving Gwen from a serial killer trying to escape from the custody of two clumsy cops. This sequence does have some striking visual elements in its favor, but it, too, is largely forgettable. This was the only directorial effort ever put forth by actor Steven Ford, whose roles include such noteworthy appearances as “Secret Service #2” in Escape from New York, “Nuke Tech” in Armageddon, the nameless “Four Star General” in Transformers, and “Prometheus First Officer” in Babylon 5: In the Beginning. 1.5 Stars.

If I remember correctly, the fifth segment was Rosemarie Turko’s “The Ice Gallery,” which works in the sense that it feels like an homage to Hammer Films. Paul and Gwen are once again separated in a cave full of fictional and historical monsters frozen like wax figures in a museum. Marie Antoinette and Jack the Ripper are there, alongside the Wolfman, a mummy, a samurai, and, for reasons that I cannot begin to fathom, Albert Einstein. This is probably the most visually interesting segment overall, even if it’s dumb. Turko’s only previous film experience was writing, producing, and directing a film titled Scarred, about an underage girl who turns to prostitution to support her baby. She never directed, wrote, or produced anything after Dungeonmaster. 3 Stars.

“The Cave Beast” is the penultimate trial. It makes no sense. Paul gets lured into a cave and vanquishes a monster that is actually revealed to be an angel once defeated, or something, by figuring out how to reflect laser beams off of stuff. Director Paul Manoogian also directed Full Moon’s Demonic Toys and was the first AD on James Franco’s bombed directorial debut The Ape. 1.5 Stars.

The final segment was directed by Ted Nicolaou, director of TerrorVision and all of the Subspecies movies. He also directed Bad Channels, a Full Moon release about a radio station that is taken over by an alien infestation and features a Blue Oyster Cult soundtrack (I have a fondness for Bad Channels that I know is indefensible). His contribution to this film, “Desert Pursuit,” however, is a lazy Mad Max rip off that features, as you might have guessed, a pursuit through the desert in ridiculous vehicles. 1 Star.

Paul wins all the trials, challenges Mestema to a physical fight that the warlock loses, and throws Richard Moll into a convenient lava pit. The end. Wraparound story: 1.5 Stars. So, the average is just shy of 2 Stars (1.9375, if you want to get obsessive about it). Despite an intriguing approach, Dungeonmaster is a lousy movie overall. If you want a positive experience, track down and watch the film’s trailer, as it consists of the three good minutes of this movie and leaves out the chaff.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Shaun the Sheep (2015)

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threehalfstar

Stop-motion animation masterminds Aardman Studios return to the big screen for the first time since The Pirates! Band of Misfits this year with the exceedingly charming Wallace & Gromit spin-off Shaun the Sheep. British audiences are likely to already be familiar with Shaun through his television show, but for casual, American Aardman fans this is probably the first introduction to the delightful little sheep. As always, Aardman delivers fantastic stop-motion work here, but although their films are consistently entertaining, there’s something particularly special about Shaun the Sheep that makes it feel like their best feature at least since 2005’s Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Because the movie is largely a non-verbal affair, its success relies entirely on visual comedy that feels like a callback to the silent film era & it’s incredible just how much mileage it squeezes out of each individual gag. It’s going to be difficult to determine just what children’s attention spans will survive that kind of antique entertainment, but for adult animation fans it’s quite a treat.

That’s not to say that the film is at all stuffy. It’s far more smart than it is intellectual. For every brilliant silent comedy gag (such as a black market in which ducks are paid in bread or the strange idea of birdwatching as a form of sexual voyeurism) there’s just as much pedestrian humor to be found in plumber’s cracks, farts, burping, and public urination. Children & adults both are likely to share a chuckle or two there, but I doubt many tykes are going to catch on to the on-screen references to films like The Silence of the Lambs, Taxi Driver, and The Terminator. There’s also a plotline that poses celebrity culture & social media as forces that turn people into sheep for trends & fads that may be a little more adult than the kind of humor you’d find in Ardmaan’s (much less satisfying) Pirates!, but it’s a thread of thought that is somehow a lot more cute than it is cruel. Even if some children can’t connect with Shaun the Sheep at every single turn, there’s easily enough universally enjoyable positive vibes in the film’s pop music montages (which at one point include a bah-bershop quartet & beat bah-xing), plot-summarizing rap song at the end credits (something I genuinely wish more movies would bring back), physical comedy, and potty humor to keep a lot of them entertained.

The story Shaun the Sheep tells is perhaps its least interesting aspect. The fish-out-of-water tale of a herd of sheep traveling to “The Big City” (which is not too dissimilar to “The City” in Babe 2) to recover their lost farmer/caretaker/best friend leaves a chaotic path of destruction & an opening for a newfound villain in a heartless animal control bounty hunter, but nothing too interesting in the way of narrative invention. I’ve never seen the Shaun the Sheep television show, but I’m assuming that the urban landscape is a break from the daily drudgery of farm life portrayed in the series, since that’s how the movie version begins. For newcomers unfamiliar with Shaun’s traditional farm setting, the story is more or less a loose framework that provides a platform for Aardman’s genuinely amusing line of nonverbal humor. Shaun the Sheep is cute, smart, and thoroughly hilarious from front to end. No matter whether the movie inspires you to erupt into belly laughs or mild chuckles, it’s one that’s near-guaranteed to leave you with a positive feeling.

-Brandon Ledet