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By Bob Clark

It’s almost peculiar to see just how much emotional investment there is paid to a franchise of cartoons, comics and now movies that have, for all intents and purposes, been based on a line of cheap action-figures from the 1980’s, but there you have it. To be sure there’s no shortage of big blockbusters for film and television that capitalize on the merchandizing potential of their stories and characters as a way of boosting sales– Star Wars, My Neighbor Totoro and Neon Genesis Evangelion might not’ve existed on public awareness if it weren’t for how “toyetic” they could become (the last one having heavily sexualized fetish-objects branded in its image that nearly wound up driving the series’ creator nuts). It’s not even terribly surprising nowadays to see the tail start wagging the dog and see the toys and merchandise be created before the multi-media franchising– in truth it’s something we’ve seen happen at least since the 80’s, with the Transformers line and other Japanese-imports. But there’s something even more bizarre with the myriad of creative turns that some franchises have taken over the decades,  primarily for how they sometimes exceed the boundaries of mere generational nostalgia. What stands out about GI Joe, for instance, is just how seriously it can be taken.

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By Bob Clark

This weekend marks the closing of this New York International Children’s Film Festival, which has been one of his highest profile years yet, with releases in multiple theaters throughout the city, from the IFC Center all the way to Lincoln Center. Over the past several years the festival has become one of the best, if not only places to check out recent releases of international animation in Manhattan on a regular basis, with new works from Europe sharing ample screentime with established anime voices like Mamoru Hosada, Makoto Shinkai and the storied house of Studio Ghibli. And though it can be more than a little disheartening to mull over the fact that even in the art-house circuit the only animated works that receive any real attention or release are bound to be ones targeting the youngest of viewers (it’s an uphill climb to even get a teen-oriented movie like Evangelion a stateside release), the contrast that can be seen here between the lush, mature work from around the glob and the crass, polished-plastic output of Pixar and the like in the United States couldn’t be clearer. Between this and the other myriad retrospectives and new releases gracing New York screens I was only able to check out three of the films, but they stand out as easy contenders for some of the best animation to reach our shores this year, though not without a few points to clarify.

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Two reasons to rerun this article this year– both the second anniversary of the devastating crises in Japan that began March 11, 2011, and a rare American television broadcast of Hideaki Anno’s magnum opus in the form of  Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone. The film will be showing on Cartoon Network this Sunday at 1am during its Toonami block. Anyone in the States with basic cable, there’s no excuse to miss it. Not even Church in the morning.

By Bob Clark

After the recent devastations of earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear meltdown struck Japan, there were many comparisons made to the nation’s many imagined instances of various science-fiction disasters, from Godzilla rampaging through the streets of Tokyo to the apocalyptic wasteland of Neo-Tokyo from Katsuhuiro Otomo’s Akira. These, and so many other one-note similes, were rather tasteless ones, to my mind. They ignored not only the root-inspiration for all those horrifying kaiju and anime calamities in the usage of American atomic weapons on the civilian towns of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and furthermore ignored the untold losses of life and livelihood presented by the new disasters, ones which continue to threaten the safety and security of an entire nation that already knows all too well the cost of nuclear fall-out, with the largest and potentially most deadly radiation event since the days of Chernobyl. However, in the midst of all these pop-cultural associations, there has been one that rings true, when an energy-conservation effort to help the besieged TEPCO power plant was unofficially dubbed “Operation Yashima”, quickly spreading as an internet-meme and gaining popular support throughout Japan as a rallying-cause to help solve the nationwide crisis through personal sacrifice for the good of everyone.

But what is “Operation Yashima”, and what does it have to do with cinema or science-fiction? In short, it represents the climax of the first six-episode arc of Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion, one of the modern classics of contemporary Japanese animation, in which the entire electrical supply of Japan is used to destroy a monstrous alien invader bent on destroying mankind. Channeled into a high-powered positron cannon built by the Strategic Self-Defense Force, used as an immense sniper-rifle by the clandestine United Nations organization NERV, the requisitioned power is the only hope of beating the bizarre attacker, known as an “Angel”, but requires a nationwide outage for the duration of the assault. As the operation begins, the lights go out throughout the entire country, putting everyone in the same position, huddling together and waiting in the dark for news of victory or defeat. By the end of the battle there will be immense destruction, both in the wakes of the surreal attack and NERV’s epically desperate attempts to fend it off, but our attention as viewers will not be to the catastrophic fields of destruction or the untold millions of lives hanging in the balance throughout Japan, much less billions throughout a world that is already suffering from a near-apocalyptic contact with the Angels fifteen years ago.

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By Bob Clark

It’s depressing at times to think of how many films by my favorite directors I’ve been exposed to primarily on television. There are obvious cases like films by Lucas & Spielberg, or any other mainstream releases that came out well before I was born, but those are easy to shrug off. Likewise there are films like Blade Runner or Pulp Fiction which may have seen prominent theatrical releases or rereleases during my lifetime, but early enough in my childhood that being introduced to them on the big screen would’ve been out of the question. Even some of the more niche works I’m fond of like Heaven’s Gate or any given anime feature I’m able to accept seeing for the first time on television, due to the fact that there just weren’t any other options at the time to check them out– yes, Cimino’s magnum opus may be enjoying a big-screen revival nowadays, and it’s become more and more common for classic films of the Ghibli canon to find art-house exhibitions, but one can’t always be patient enough to wait for a classic, sometimes forgotten masterpiece to play in the proverbial theaters near you. This is one of the great advantages of the home-video generation of film consumption, the option of curate one’s own cinematic vocabulary through VHS and DVD, instead of relying upon the personal whims of local theater programmers. It’s an empowering way to digest a heavier volume of content, but what one loses in the context of the reductive home television experience as opposed to the expansive theatrical one can’t be underestimated, especially with one of the great widescreen gambits of that premier experimenter of the cinema, Jean-Luc Godard.

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By Bob Clark

Note– This piece is rerunning on the occasion of this film’s appearing this weekend in the New York International Children’s Film Festival again, this time in an English dub. Anyone with an interest in animation in the New York area can check showtimes and locations for this film and others at– http://gkids.tv/intheaters.cfm

When I was a very young child, there was nothing I liked better than to spend an afternoon at the planetarium. Whether it was the Hayden in Central Park, made famous on film by Woody Allen and Diane Keaton’s escape into its confines from the rain to stare at metorites on display in Manhattan– thus preserving it in pristine black-and-white before its modern conversion into the Museum of Natural History’s Rose space center– or the more humble atmosphere of the local Hudson Planetarium in Yonkers, there was very little in my early childhood that was quite as thrilling as the experience of sitting in the dark and watching wondrous projections of shadow and light upon those huge domed ceilings, and allowing one’s self to be transported into the far-flung reaches of our Solar System’s farthest limits and beyond. In many ways, a planetarium offered the most immersive kind of cinematic experience possible, envoloping one’s total sphere of direct and peripheral vision with a 360 degree panorama of light-shows, especially when I was a small enough to have to stand up in my seat to get a clear vantage of the interstellar display. Even if all that was shown was a series of static starscapes and superimpositions of classical constellations, there was enough magic in all the wondrous presentation of all those magic-lantern marvels to stoke the fires of my budding imagination– I’d cover my eyes and hide whenever the image of Perseus carrying the head of Medusa was projected on the planetarium’s false-sky, for fear that I’d be turned into stone just like Ray Harryhausen’s monsters in Clash of the Titans. Listening to a loudspeaker narration describing the endless void of the vaccum and watching an infinite of stars and planets expanding as far as my little eyes could see, I came far closer to experiencing the religious awe of a holy moment in there than I ever did at Church, made aware of how small I, everyone I knew and everyone on our blue-green ball of surf and turf were in the limitless expanse of space. It could be a frightening idea to wrap your head around at the pre-school age (hell, it’s not too comforting to think about even in maturity), but it was also awfully exciting, too.

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By Bob Clark

One of the issues facing anyone who wants to experience classic films in their best condition is the matter of availability. Usually this revolves around the question of what is or isn’t playing on a big screen at any given time, if you live in an area that has enough theaters devoted to repertoire screenings of old films. But availability also cuts into the arena of home viewing, and in the case of classic films it can be very easy to simply take any given movie’s ubiquitous presence in video, DVD and TV broadcasts for granted and miss the chance to experience them in a theatrical venue, even when it becomes an option. John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon is probably one of the best examples of this syndrome, a movie that’s no less respected and cherished after the decades of play it’s received on television long after it originally bowed from cinemas. In that time it’s accrued almost as much of a legend for itself as it details for “the black bird” throughout its running time– as the third adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s book, and the only one that matters; as one of the touchstone examples of the film noir movement as recognized in post-war French criticism; as a cult object so feverishly defended that its fans fought off Ted Turner’s colorization efforts and keep it for time immemorial in glorious monochrome.

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By Bob Clark

At the request of regular contributor Jaime Grijalba-Gomez, I’ve taken this week to expand upon my thoughts on last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild and drum up a full piece for his Oscar series over at Overlook’s Corridor, where it’ll be going up Saturday night. Since I’ve been spending my time here recently writing my thoughts on what it means to see movies in theatrical venues, here’s an excerpt from the review that deals explicitly with my experience with the film on the big-screen.

When I went to see the film during its initial release in the middle of last year, I was first struck by the immense amount of attention it was receiving from older audiences. There were one or two pairs of parents standing on line who had kids in tow, a not together unusual sight for art-house theaters, but for the most part the crowd the movie had assembled was one of adults, and not just the usual mass of twenty/thirty-somethings that habitually seek out art-films either. Many of the attending filmgoers I found myself surrounded with were well past retirement age, and as such well past the ages that receive most of the attention in the film’s running time. And furthermore there was such a crowd, the likes of which I haven’t encountered before in years of seeing movies at small suburban art-houses like this, that it was only by the skin of my teeth that I was able to purchase a ticket and cram myself into the theater, right up by the front of the screen, the lines and seats so teeming with patrons that you’d think the screen would be filled to fire-department regulation capacity.
 

What was it about this film that by its very reputation it was able to draw crowds large enough to sell-out at a theater which would ordinarily be lucky to fill half its seats at a time? Is it the simple power of the innocent characters up against reality’s intimidations as seen through the palpable veneer of the American dream? Is it the dense, immediate imagery of the piece, the kind that encourages you to get up as close to the screen as you can and reach out to feel it with your bare hands? Perhaps it’s that mesh of the real and the unreal, and furthermore the crossed barriers and comfort zones when dealing with dreams so intimately based upon reality, that kindles this kind of curiosity and stokes the fire of imagination.

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By Bob Clark

Note: In hindsight I should’ve rerun this last weekend and saved the Picnic at Hanging Rock for now, but I expected to be writing up some noirs playing locally that turned out cancelled due to inclimate weather in the Tri-State region. Whatever– Phil was stuck in Punxatawney for well over a week due in no small part to another blizzard, to say nothing of perfect storms in time and space. So we’ll just go for this for now.

Late in Peter Weir’s underrated Fearless, there’s a scene where Jeff Bridges, newly transformed from a mild-mannered San Francisco architect into a passionate bon vivant by the divine intervention of a catastrophic airline crash, violently unplugs his son’s video-game system (a TurboGrafx-16, if memory serves), protesting the cavalier attitude that the boy’s game (Splatterhouse, I think) puts forward about death. In real life, Bridges insists, there are no such things as “continues” or “extra-lives”– just one great big “game over” for the rest of forever. It’s a funny and meaningful scene for any number of reasons, not the least of which being how Bridges himself played a game designer turned video-warrior in Steven Lisberger’s Tron, but mostly for how it exposes the central fallacy of mainstream gaming in its depiction of life-or-death adventures. Because like it or not, the man is right– in real life, there are no second chances, and not just from the big stuff like death. Indeed, most of us would probably write off the consequences of life’s end if we were given just one opportunity to go back and redo some smaller, more intimate moment of our time on Earth. Whether it’s the girl that got away, that job you never got or even that ball you couldn’t hit like Casey at the bat, there’s no shortage of regrets built up over a lifetime’s worth of pruning at our own personal gardens of decision trees.

The problem with games of any ilk, digital or otherwise, is that you can always find a way to erase your past mistakes in ways that just aren’t possible in life– all you have to do is reload a past quicksave, use that last 1-up, or just call “mulligan”. That’s the problem with games, but that’s also the magic, as well. Some of the best video-games have known how to explore this territory, in their own odd ways. Sometimes they introduce crucial decisions into the matrix that can’t be so easily overwritten during the course of gameplay– whether it’s Solid Snake unable to withstand Revolver Ocelot’s torture and save the captive Meryl or Andrew Ryan’s ill-begotten offspring giving into the temptation of harvesting a Little Sister in the underwater dystopia of Rapture, there are plenty of games whose designers cleverly structure savepoints and moral choices in rather uncomfortable ways, forcing the player to live with their actions rather than going back in time and editing their mistakes, like so many Marty McFlys or Docs Brown. Sometimes, however, we see games that do not so much avoid the fallacy of gaming-revisionism as they do embrace it, making the player’s natural instinct to rewrite the past not just a feature of the game but a central tenant of its design, itself. Probably the best example of this (or at least the most well-known) would be from the experimental Legend of Zelda entry Majora’s Mask, released in 2000, which put Shigeru Miyamoto’s iconic Link on a three-day mission to save a parallel world from impending destruction, in which he must constantly travel back in time and relive the same three days in order to accomplish his quest within the limited time-span. Upon its release (and lukewarm reception), the game was often compared in the gaming press to Groundhog Day, which had only been around for seven years but had already gained a surprising popular embrace from moviegoers, film critics, philosophers and religious leaders around the world for being something more than just a mere comedy. It became one of those rare catchphrase movies were merely stating the title would be enough for people to understand its premise, and more importantly a movie with a premise that was worth embedding into pop-cultural ubiquity to begin with.

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By Bob Clark

Among my growing obsessions while following movies for the past several years has been observing the cinematic experience– that is, the act of actually seeing a movie in the cinema, in the theater, as opposed to merely watching it at home on a television or computer screen. Increasingly we’re seeing a whole host of generations growing used to viewing films made for the biggest of screens on the smallest of devices. The gap between a mainstream film’s theatrical lifespan and its home-video release in all manner of physical and online forms grows shorter and shorter, with some filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh even cutting out the middleman entirely and preferring to experiment with solely on-demand and streaming releases for some works. We’ve also seen the rise of television as a prestige medium for storytelling, something which is relatively new in America but established most other places. A crucial difference lies in the balance of creative power, however– whether in live-action or animation, television in Europe and Asia can very often be a director’s medium, whereas in the United States it is almost always a writer-driven affair, which can result in excellent long-form serial narrative but oftentimes lackluster visual storytelling. Add to this the by now standard habit of sending out screener discs for industry-insders to catch up with new releases at home before casting their ballots during awards season, and one may well wonder if the various recipients ought to be receiving Oscar or Emmy statuettes for their troubles.

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By Bob Clark

It’s been fine year of proclaiming the death knell of cinema and the end of its relevancy as the dominant mode of popular art and entertainment. Most of this high talk and hot air has been ballied about online, but a fair amount of it has made its way into ink through publications like the New Yorker and the Village Voice and subsequently in books from the same authors, who read doom for art-cinema in the tea-leaves of blockbuster franchises, a steady rise in the quality of the rival medium of television, and a steep decline in the readership and employment of their own traditional print critics as online reviews become the norm. But the movies and their connoisseurship have been under these same threats and competitions for decades, or even the better part of half a century by now in some form or another, and the silver screen hasn’t been tarnished beyond the pale of public sight just yet. If there has been anything that’s fallen into some kind of danger over the past year, or several years, it’s been the idea of “the movies” as a public theatrical event, something witnessed in a crowd of patrons on a screen at least as tall as a basketball net, in lieu of shorter and shorter waiting periods between a film’s initial debut and its eventual home-video release in the various formats of DVD, Blu Ray, download and on-demand streaming. Though it’s routine to mix cinema and television freely on this blog and countless other sites, I’ve made sure to only include 2 works created for the small screen on this final personal top-ten for the year, and one of them was seen in part on the big screen, anyway. So let’s get to it.

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