Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
I’m giddy. I get to publish reviews by Outlaw Vern and Clarence Beaks, two of my favorite AICN contributors, in the same day. Vern’s in Seattle, checking out the scene at the Seattle International Film Festival, and has the following report to file:
Dear Harry and Moriarty,
Vern here. I saw two more movies at SIFF and here is what they are.
First of all I saw MISSING PERSONS which is a low budget computer animated feature done by two twin brothers named Matt and Dan O'Donnell. At least I think there are two of them, they are twins. And no these are not the creepy american twin animators who speak with british accents, you're thinking of the Quay brothers. This is a completely different set of twin animators, as far as I can tell.
The credits only list these two guys, and then the songs, so apparently they did the entire thing themselves (all the animation, all the voices, even apparently designed the software, etc.) so it's pretty impressive. On the other hand, for this reason it is not always up to the technical standards expected by most grown adults who watch cartoons.
But that didn't bother me too much, because underneath it you got real good characters and story and a completely original use of the cartoon type medium. The story is about two sets of characters who are connected by events but are not really related - there are no good guys and bad guys, or people opposing each other. You just got two relationships - an older cop who maybe sees too much in his eccentric/stupid young partner "Snookie", and an ex-con drug dealer and his robot partner Computo. The drug dealers interested me more because early on Crazy Legs gets shot in half by cops (yes, SHOT in half - always worse than a mere CHOPPING in half) but is man enough to stick it out for a while. So he's crawling around on his hands, dragging what's left of his spine and intestines out the ass end, trying to accept his lot in life and get by just like you or me, but instead of discussing the films of the Cinema on the internet like us he just has a robot who sells shrooms for him.
Computo, to me, is the heart of the picture. He's a non-humanoid type robot with a red pill shaped head and camera lens face, erector-set pincher arms and one wheel. Also he wears a metal hat. He doesn't talk much so as he buzzes and whirs around he kinda reminded me of that penguin in the wallace and gromit picture "The Wrong Trousers." You know how the penguin goes around and he has kind of a blank look on his face but you read all kinds shit into it? That god damn penguin. Well that's what Computo is but a little less sinister and a little more tragic.
You see it is revealed in a hilarious/sad court room scene that Computo was part of a line of World War II military robots who, once they were no longer in use, were abandoned, dumped off into the streets, the same way they do with veterans, without the skills or knowledge to integrate into society. (At least he doesn't have Gulf War syndrome I guess.) So he doesn't really understand right or wrong or proper drug salesmanship. At one point he offers drugs to the two cop characters, in uniform, and they yell "We're cops!", so disgusted by the stupidity of what he's doing that they ignore the illegality. Later he tries to get a real job but doesn't understand not to put "incarcerated for shooting a cop" on his resume.
The story does not follow your usual hollywood good vs. evil, plot twist on page 32, trying to achieve a goal type formula. In fact maybe it was the Tom Waits song but it kinda reminded me of the quiet, unpredictable rhythm of a Jim Jarmusch picture. Except with a robot. The actual cinematism is very live action, with non-joke oriented dialogue between characters and songs (and they never use that "hey now, you're an all star, you're an all star, here we go now" song) used to great effect.
There are lots of funny jokes, but not really punchlines, and the humor isn't exactly rapid fire. All of the characters are pretty tragic. There is a really bleak flashback that is either really fuckin sad or hilariously absurd, depending how you look at it.
By the way do you think in the next Air Bud movie he becomes a NASCAR driver, and it's called Air Bud: Pooch Position. If not Air Bud: The Fast and the Furriest. Ain't no rule says a dog can't race cars. But that really has little to do with this review, sorry. Just thought I'd put it out there.
The style of MISSING PERSONS is not your usual 3-D computer cartoons like "Toy Stories" or "Shrek". The characters I guess are 3-dimensional models (the camera rotates around them and what not) but they are made up of solid lines like drawings. None of that failed attempt to look photorealistic bullshit. But still this might be the exact wrong style to tell this story in, because the setting and most of the characters are gritty and urban, but the computer animation is completely clean. Most of the backgrounds are not detailed enough in my opinion, although sometimes they put in some nice real life details like an Andre the Giant sticker on a light pole or Sugar in the Raw packets on a table. But to me there are too many clean lines and solid colors, not enough texture, or grit. You want this new york city to be real nasty like Ralph Bakshi had in HEAVY TRAFFIC and STREET FIGHT, all those paintings and collages had a messy chaos to them that you can't really capture with clean computer lines.
God damn fuckin computers.
I don't know, maybe it was an intentional artistic choice but I suspect it was more a sacrifice they had to make in order for two identical looking dudes to make a cartoon feature all by themselves without spending, like, twenty five years. The same could be said for the voices. The older cop was perfect, some of the others were too goofy or hard to understand. Also some scenes have some pretty unnatural computery lookin movement (maybe because of the software they created to make the animation easier) but I mean I'm not that much of a twit I'm not gonna get too picky about that.
See I was willing to forgive the low budget animation because it's great to see a couple of twins using the cartoon type medium in new ways. Unlike Final Fantasy it's a story that couldn't just as easily be done in live action, but it's also not following all the other cartoon formulas. To me anything that can add variety to this particular medium is worthwhile. I mean for all the making fun of Disney that Shrek did, it sure was exactly like every fuckin Disney movie I ever seen. Lovable celebrity voiced creature with cartoon sidekick from Mulan goes on quest, falls in love with princess in fairy tale world, makes modern references which pass as humor aimed at the adults in the audience. MISSING PERSONS is not another "it's exactly like Disney but it's not Disney" movie, and it's especially not a "it's not like Disney, 'cause it has tits!" thing like that gawd awful "SPAWN" tv show or "HEAVY METAL 2000."
No, this is more in the category of WAKING LIFE (which I never saw, but I heard about it once) or WAVE TWISTERS. The category of the low budget independent picture that uses animation as a medium to achieve a particular vision, instead of as an easy route to your wallet.
But I guess I wouldn't recommend MISSING PERSONS to most people, because I don't think most of the audience was willing to look past the animation (or maybe they just don't like stories about a guy that gets shot in half and survives). I saw at least 7 people walk out, and one dude turning in his ballot afterwards said "I need to punish that guy somehow for what he put me through."
I liked it though. Now that they've proved they can make an entire cartoon movie all by themselves, I hope these twins get a little money and a small team of animators and voice actors. If that happens you bet your ass they'll make something that'll blow your socks out your ass. Or whatever the saying is.
Hey don't feel bad twins, because I saw even more walkouts at PISTOL OPERA and that one's by one of the old masters, Seijun Suzuki. And I'm not gonna make any excuses for these fuckers walkin out because this was truly a wonderful picture.
That's one of my favorite parts of the film festival is watching people trying to restrain from walking out just long enough that they feel like they're still open minded. And as soon as one person walks out there's another two or three on the same aisle who follow while they have their opening.
My guess is they wanted a little more pistol and a lot less opera. Especially at the end, it gets so stagey and artistic-like they must've felt like they accidentally bought tickets to the legitimate theater. But if you've seen some Seijun Suzuki movies (I've only seen the obvious ones, BRANDED TO KILL and TOKYO DRIFTER) you know what you're in for and it's not some pre-curse-of-Jean-Claude-Van-Damme John Woo shootout spectacular. It's got a kitschy plot about colorful, nicknamed assassins competing for the coveted #1 killer slot, told with bold colors, very theatrical sets and often with dance-like movements. Not like Gene Kelly type dance, more like Butoh or something. The movie is at times very disorienting but I think I followed it better than the relatively more normal BRANDED TO KILL. It's everything Suzuki is known for pumped up for the modern day. Everything I like about Seijun Suzuki, but more extreme.
Let me describe to you some of the characters in this movie to give you an idea of what we're dealing with. The protagonist is Stray Cat, a gorgeous young killer who wears high heels and a kimono with cat eyes on the waist. She usually carries a toy gun because she's not allowed by the Guild to use a real one, but she's still able to pick off many of the other Guild killers without much trouble. We first see her in a brilliant duel with The Teacher, a badass in some sort of a freestyle wheelchair. To be frankly honest, she probaly woulda been in for if the neighborhood she fights him in were more wheelchair accessible. But I guess you can't blame society when you lose a duel to the death, even if it really is society's fault. You just gotta accept it.
Stray Cat works for some lady with a bright purple scarf across her mouth. And she has a talent for reappearing somewhere else on the set whenever the camera angle changes (handy for surprising an opponent from behind or in front). She fights a white guy named Painless Surgeon who doesn't mind stabbing a guy through his own hand. Everywhere she goes she's followed by a little girl with a lantern sticking out of the back of her shirt.
By the way I never figured out why Japanese movies often show up a little girl's skirt. Here in america our culture is different, we wait until they're 16 or 17 and then we start wishing they were 18. So there are several parts with this little girl that are creepy at least in this culture so I should probaly warn the more sensitive viewers.
Anyway the violence in this movie is very campy and inventive. For example Stray Cat straps herself back to back with a dead guy, then walks around backwards so it looks like he's the one doing the fighting. Everything is very well choreographed and wanders between gorgeously textured outdoor sets and minimalistic, sometimes monochromatic sets. Some of the most striking images are when everything is bathed completely in a bright yellow light. Some of the other ones you're not sure what they mean, like a ditch digger dumping rose petals on a house in slow motion. That's the one thing even the people who hated this movie would have to admit: the look is absolutely phenomenal. Completely stunning use of color and in the more abstract, otherworldly scenes Suzuki uses digital compositing in what the young people would call an "old school" way, bringing his style of visuals to the next level.
These two elements, the gimmicky violence and gorgeous design really come together in the climactic duel which is more like some kind of weird live performance than a fight scene. In this section Suzuki goes Julie Taymor on that ass. It takes place on a stage complete with rotating sets, bald dudes painted white who stand around in weird poses, and special effects lighting. Those of us who don't give a fuck that we have no idea What It All Means will love it and everyone else will walk out early scratching their heads.
I think that's the key to PISTOL OPERA - if you think you know what it means you're probaly fooling yourself, and if you HAVE TO know what it means you should probaly stay home and watch tv. But I think this is a new level of achievement for Mr. Seijun and I'm sure the people who have been waiting 8 years since his last one won't be disappointed. And if they are, they are assholes.
If you’ve never followed that link to visit Vern’s site, go do it now. It’s a wonderland of hardcore fucking film criticism, and it makes me smile for days.