Friday, April 29, 2011

Remembering Elisabeth Sladen As Sarah Jane Smith

"My favorite assistant in many ways has to be Elisabeth Sladen, because she was so good to me-.... Elisabeth, she's a wonderful girl, but also she's a beautiful actress with great sensitivity.... She was marvellous." -Tom Baker [Doctor Who Magazine #179.]-

I've been reading and viewing Doctor Who: The Tom Baker Years of late for obvious reasons. The loss of Elisabeth Sladen has been strangely affecting. My adoration for her is not false. I loved Elisabeth Sladen reflected in my coverage of her in the Doctor Who reviews here and in my post regarding The Sci-Fi Fanatic 50+: Greatest TV Influences. You simply expect those you grew up adoring to always be there and when they unexpectedly expire... well, you're left pondering the fragility of life and its many gifts I suppose.

I've been thumbing through a special edition of the Doctor Who Magazine called 200 Golden Moments. The folks who manage and edit that magazine do an amazing job. It's splendid, astounding work really. The use of gorgeous archival images and the wealth of knowledge by those who love Doctor Who at that magazine is simply unmatched. Does anyone make a science fiction magazine better than the British? I'm not so sure. They can do up a royal wedding too I suppose. What their magazines sometimes lack in content is certainly more than compensated for in effort, energy and enthusiasm. The wonderful SciFiNow is a great example and over the course of the past few years that magazine has truly won my heart over in the absence of the Starlog [USA] and Starburst [UK] defunct publications of the world.

The case for the Doctor Who Magazine is actually even stronger. This publication really is the complete package. It's like a mass market release of the UK Fanderson publication FAB. It's simply chock full of brilliance. I haven't bought all of the recent Doctor Who Magazine issues, but I buy them when it tickles my fancy. If the subject matter centers on the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, or any of his companions like Elisabeth Sladen, maybe even David Tennant, I'm generally very interested.

Well, I was reading over the 200 Golden Moments Special Edition. The magazine focuses on 200 moments extracted from 200 episodes of Doctor Who from the beginning to the publication date. The Ark In Space segment written by Philip MacDonald was perfect really. He captures two of my favorite moments from that adventure. First, he briefly mentions the Doctor's speech on homo sapiens, which is brilliant in its own right. Second, he discusses the Golden Moment. The scene he describes brilliantly captures one of the many Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen exchanges from that era. The two play the scene brilliantly. The dialogue is deliciously crafted.

Sarah makes her efforts to crawl down a tight passageway to run a conduit for the Doctor on the Wirrn-infested space station, Nerva. It's a terrific moment because it genuinely reflects the depth of Tom Baker's character as well as the courage and fiery persistence of Sladen's Sarah Jane Smith. When Sarah Jane becomes stuck in the tunnel, the Doctor moves to stimulate Smith with some good, old-fashioned, reverse psychology.

The dispirited Sarah Jane is frustrated and jammed. The Doctor yells, "Oh, stop whining, girl. You're useless!" Smith responds "Oh, Doctor!" "Oh Doctor?" Tom Baker begins to really shine, but it's Sladen who is very important to the mechanics of that scene. "Is that all you can say for yourself? Stupid, foolish girl. We should never have relied on you. I knew you'd let us down. That's the trouble with girls like you. You think you're tough, but when you're really up against it, you've no guts at all. Hundreds of lives at stake, and you lie there blubbing!" It's simply a brilliant moment in Doctor Who history and of course the Doctor's words are anything but the truth and he knows it. Incensed, Sarah Jane Smith to the rescue and she is pushed to success. Popping out from the shaft she declares, "I can manage. I don't need your help. Thank you!" Baker is thrilled. "You've done marvellously, Sarah." He adds, "I'm very proud of you. I really am very proud of you." It marks one of those scenes that genuinely highlights why Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen made for one of the best Doctor/ Companion combinations in Doctor Who history. The thrilling sequence spoke volumes about Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen's chemistry.

You can see that significant scene in my coverage of The Ark In Space. The bottom line is, we loved Elisabeth Sladen. Just like the Doctor, we knew Sarah Jane Smith wasn't foolish. We knew she wasn't stupid. She was far from useless. She was very dependable. She was all about tough and she was all about guts. Her bravery never let us down. In the end, we will miss Elisabeth Sladen because she represented so many of these qualities that represent the best in us. She was the epitome of all the things the Doctor saw in a great companion. Sladen was as brave in her own life and her battle with cancer as she was in character. She was clearly a special, effervescent, magical, forever youthful woman of strength and character.

It was not lost on me that day when I saw Elisabeth Sladen's obituary that it shined next to a foolish story on the selfish world of Charlie Sheen. It merely amplified the class, the responsibility and goodness that was at the heart of Elisabeth Sladen. She carried herself with dignity and she leaves a little void out there to some of us who were fans of her work. She was class all the way.

In a 2009 interview Sladen was asked by Doctor Who Magazine for a Special Edition highlighting her character, Sarah Jane Smith, if she could "imagine a final conclusion for Sarah?" It's certainly a Catch-22 for a woman who worked so hard right up until the time of her passing. To see such a conclusion come to fruition she would have had to give up the very thing she had finally made such a success, the lead for The Sarah Jane Adventures, spotlighting the very character she made a success. She worked tirelessly to bring The Sarah Jane Adventures into Series 5 completing just three episodes. Well, Sladen thought about it and responded, "I don't know what that would be. I haven't found that at the moment. Maybe it will just appear. Maybe it will rear its head with clarity. But at the moment, I just want to open the next script. I really do. I don't want to stop just yet." What telling words from the late actress. Her love for this character and her love for her series was self-evident. She placed her heart and soul into it. Interviewer John Ainsworth concluded fittingly, "We don't want you to stop either." How true those words were.

In some bittersweet way it seemed fitting Sladen never closed the book on The Sarah Jane Adventures in a tight, neat, little package. That's not what fans wanted and it's not what Sladen wanted either. The truth is fans always loved Sarah Jane, the character, and the lovely actress who played her for her vitality and zest for living and in her small way she gave that life to the character and to the fans. The fact is, without the proper closure to that series, Sarah Jane continues to live on. And maybe that's exactly how Sladen and fans of Doctor Who would want it. Yes, her spirit lives on and I'm completely good with that.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Arrival

The only image you'll find in my look at The Arrival, the promotional art, should speak volumes about my affection for this film.

It almost seemed wildly appropriate to soak in the madness of a Charlie Sheen film with his publicity tour in full swing during the first half of 2011. The irony of The Arrival [1996] landing in my lap with Sheen as the primary couldn't be more perfectly timed. But, would I be "winning" with his film? I know, "winning" is quickly becoming an overused catchphrase isn't it? Once upon a time, before the crazy set in, Sheen was a steady customer in Hollywood. He was less the deranged personality natural we see today and more the young stud version of his father Martin Sheen attempting to navigate his way through all of the stardust. What is it about Hollywood that's seemingly in the water magnifying the personality extremes of these entitled actors?

Oliver Stone's Platoon [1986] was the first big film I remember enjoying in my youth. It was perhaps the biggest, coolest, most startling war picture I could recall to that point. Of course the equally astonishing Full Metal Jacket [1987], by Stanley Kubrick, soon followed, but Platoon was probably the biggest genre event I remember outside of seeing bits of his father's Apocalypse Now [1979] by Francis Ford Coppolla. Though, apparently, young Sheen was an extra for that film.

Now by no means am I a fan of the work of Charlie Sheen. But, there seemed to be some potential there inside of Platoon. Don't get me wrong, he wasn't Willem DaFoe or Tom Berenger, but there was some flashes of inspiration there a la Tom Cruise in Stone's Born On The Fourth Of July [1989]. Sheen might become something. John Sayles' Eight Men Out [1988] was good, but otherwise he's been a fairly big non-event. In fact, I would not sign up and pay money for the Charlie Sheen Torpedo tour. Seriously, who is going to this show? Somehow along the way I sort of lost track of Charlie's work never finding myself all that drawn to him as an actor. I'm sure he's delivered some serviceable work. He's certainly a likable enough character. For me, he'll always be remembered for his work in Platoon as Private Chris Taylor, oddly enough. I've never actually been a Two And A Half Men kind of guy and he was fairly good on Spin City following the departure of Michael J. Fox. Those were big shoes to fill, but Charlie knows spin. He's amusing, but let's face it, it's not science fiction. Despite the insanity of his TV success, Sheen has clearly bought into the elixir of his own success. His belief 9-11 was an inside job by the federal government and other assorted rants have cropped up along his journey into weird.

Today, Sheen is fully uncorked, unleashed, "one gear, one speed, go!" and "bangin' 7 gram rocks." He's his own drug called "Charlie Sheen" according to Sheen. Tiger blood Sheen is driving in radical coke mode and that's how he's rolling. To be honest, the Charlie Sheen world tour is as weird and wild and as sad as those media displays and soundbites would no doubt have you believe. He is completely unrestrained and out of the box. His fate seems somehow sealed, but the man is a character and in the land of plenty there's always room for redemption, just look at Mickey Rourke and Robert Downey Jr.. It can happen. It will be interesting to see how it all ends, simply because you just can't turn away from that massive train wreck. The media gives us a piece of the man wherever he goes. I can't imagine it will end well, but he is a fascinating, entertaining kind of nut. But, this really isn't about the war genre or all about Charlie Sheen.

Oddly enough, Director David Twohy teamed with Charlie Sheen for a little known science fiction film called The Arrival [1996] years before Sheen went on the bender. I wish I could call it a little known gem. Twohy has come up with interesting, if not always perfectly executed material in films like A Perfect Getaway [2009] and Pitch Black [2000], in my opinion his two best attempts to date. Twohy has made a name for himself as a scriptwriter too. He even had a hand in the disappointing Impostor [2002] as well as Kevin Costner's Waterworld [1995], Ridley Scott's G.I. Jane [1997] and Andrew Davis' The Fugitive [1993]. The big picture on Twohy does begin coming together as something of an uneven run. His career has not been a shining example of excellence and I sincerely enjoyed some of those aforementioned scripts. But Twohy has also written and directed his fair share of films and A Perfect Getaway does give me hope.

Somehow the pairing of Sheen and Twohy screamed for a viewing. I happened upon it in a rare non-on-line appearance at Best Buy. I picked it up. The time seemed oh so right to see what this strange offering might bring. I wish I could have my two hours back. This is my warning to you to run far and wide. It's too late for me. I'm a goner. I've lost two precious hours of my life never to be returned, but this is my chance to give something back to humanity even if it's my last selfless act. Okay, dramatic. Well, there's no lack of that here, but it's of the cheese spread variety.

The Arrival was adorned with a 25 million dollar budget and made roughly 14 million back. I'd say dead on arrival is a little more like it.

Sheen plays the part of a technician, Zane Zaminsky [as in zzzzzz], who stumbles upon the makings of an impending alien invasion in progress. Yes, these things have already arrived. Vintage 1996 alien special effects get disguised as humans in what comes off like a cheesy sci-fi, comic, thriller. But this isn't as good as those B movie Creature Double Features we loved. It simply straddles the line of dramatic, sometimes comic and Twohy seems to suck the excitement and tension out of every scene with Sheen offering little to the material. In many ways, this is a far less effective riff on John Carpenter's superior They Live [1988] minus the classic Corey Hart sunglasses concept. Honestly, many adjectives come to mind for this film: hokey, poorly-executed, poorly-acted, ill-conceived, insignificant, unoriginal, and boring. A few nouns come to mind too, shite and abject failure, a dismal one. I'm sorry to have to report that I missed this one along the way, but somehow it still found me. I guess they really are here to stay. I'm not sure what I was hoping for, but this failed to satisfy this Fanatic on almost every level including its denouement complete with more achingly bad dialogue.

I wish I had better news. I thought a film like The Arrival, with its concentration on character over special effects, might have been more pleasantly substantive than some of today's fast food science fiction. It certainly could have been, but it swings and misses badly. What I've come to realize is Director David Twohy is neither a terrific director [at this point] or writer, of which chores he handles both in the case of The Arrival. He also wrote and directed A Perfect Getaway. His skills behind the camera have much improved since the making of this Sheen disaster, but even A Perfect Getaway has its writing problems. He never quite delivers the proper balance and some of his strongest works have benefited from the assist of co-writers. I can get by the cheesy special effects, but bad writing and uninspired direction and casting make The Arrival wholly unwelcomed.

Close Encounters Of The Unwanted Kind. Close Encounters Of The Worst Kind. In fact, GET Close Encounters Of The Third Kind [1977]. See it again all over with new eyes. Heck, The Fourth Kind with Milla Jovovich [2009] would probably be better, but that's a guess.

Unfortunately, The Arrival is the kind of thing that has defined Twohy and Sheen's often sub par careers [with exceptions]. This is an unexceptional movie and one that really never should have happened. Granted, this is my take on it and yet, oddly, there is enough here to give others a counter argument. I understand this is less a proper film review than a stream of consciousness-styled attempt at humor, but I simply cannot relive this film in detail- that might be considered masochistic. The Bill Of Rights strictly forbades Cruel And Unusual Punishment and as an American I must respect the will of the framers.

Well, there's a sequel out there called The Second Arrival. Is this the second wave? Did the others leave? Stop! I don't want to know. You don't want to know. Don't look for coverage of it on this site. Good grief. Stabbing my eyes with a fork might be preferred.

Friends. My apologies for being so quiet of late, but getting to the keyboard has been difficult to fit into a tight schedule. Still, I love writing and I love taking time out to write and exchange ideas with everyone who visits. Thank you for your continued support for all things sci-fi here at Musings.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Elisabeth Sladen [1948-2011]

I picked up a newspaper today [a rare thing] only to discover to my surprise that the lovely, beautiful Elisabeth Sladen [1948-2011] passed away this week. She was an amazing force in the world of Doctor Who during the Jon Pertwee years. Her presence was even more crucial to The Sci-Fi Fanatic during those classic Tom Baker years. See here for a sample of her fine work.

Truth be told, I've never been an ardent follower of her work following her Doctor Who departure, and had no idea she was suffering from cancer, but her work is memorialized among the classics of science fiction heroines. Today, the fact Sladen had been filming and working hard on four seasons of The Sarah Jane Adventures these past few years speaks volumes to the toughness of this lady.

In fact, I purchased the first two volumes of her series, The Sarah Jane Adventures, not having seen the show, but based solely on the confidence that I would adore the performance Sladen would deliver once again to fans. Her spunky, atypical heroine was always a draw for me and she will be forever remembered as that sexy, sweet firecracker from my youth. She was simply unforgettable and had me cheering for her throughout every adventure. When time permits upon returning from a short break I will pay her a proper tribute. I was gobsmacked by this sad news. She was a young 63. This day another one of the good ones was taken. She will be missed as the world seemed a better place with her in it.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Why not, right? Fishing. Seriously, I'm going to do it for a day. I'm going to sleep, exercise, watch movies, catch fish and then I will prepare the fish with my handy Eva-00 Progressive Knife. I will then enjoy the fish dish! Be back soon.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Voices Of A Distant Star

"I just gazed at the passing clouds and the star-filled sky, and thought, 'These problems of mine are small things not worth taking note of in this world... I have a feeling that I am alone in this vast world, but I am here.'" -Makoto Shinkai [sleeve notes of Voices Of A Distant Star]-

Can you hear me now? The electronic blips from a cell phone keypad. The cold disconnect of an automated response. “You are out of your calling area.” These feelings of isolation and distance accurately reflect the heart of the film short Voices Of A Distant Star [2002]. Establishing shots and images speak volumes about the film's intentions.

The use of pillow shots in anime is one of my favorite aspects of the genre. Love those powerlines!

There is a tone of loneliness surrounding this “love story that transcends time and space” between two separated lovers. Director Makoto Shinkai knows how to manage an image and utilizes each passing frame of his short film to great effect building upon each moment with new emotions.

Voices Of A Distant Star was the film that truly ushered the arrival of Shinkai following his everso brief five minute opus She And Her Cat [1999; included on the DVD for Voices Of A Distant Star]. He would move on to lengthier storytelling with similarly stunning visual results in the ambitious The Place Promised In Our Early Days and even more beautiful 5 Centimeters Per Second. These films, beginning with Voices Of A Distant Star, were entirely conceived, produced and animated by the creative mind of Makoto Shinkai. In a quiet, minimalist, cerebral kind of way, the short feature film had gradually attained notice in the world of anime. Rarely does a film arrive with so little fanfare, yet leave audiences stunned, affected or moved by the sheer beauty of the production before them. This was precisely the effect of Shinkai's Voices Of A Distant Star. It was like the little film that could. The effort is a shining example of the kind of meticulous craftsman Shinkai would prove to be. A virtual unknown, Shinkai’s little independent film continues to soldier on gaining the attention of anime fans the world over.

Astoundingly Shinkai has achieved no small feat handling his own chores outside of the anime mainstream [if there is such a thing]. Shinkai has forsaken the big studio route in favor of a personal computer on Voices Of A Distant Star. Miraculously, his non-studio supported indie budget has single-handedly driven his success all the way to the bank while garnering across-the-board critical acclaim. Shinkai gambled in pursuing his vision and moved 5,000 copies initially, but ADV Films picked up distribution rights and turned production into 120,000 copies. The result is a short and sweet love story for dreamers.

It is an amazing, mighty little work with deep, emotional resonance thanks to Shinkai's attention to the spare, simple, beauty in character and an accompanying mood, emotion and atmosphere. It's a great example of achieving great things with a simple approach. It is a gentle, understated, pretty, quiet, poetic romance and makes exceptional use of Shinkai's singular focus. It is easy to see why Voices Of A Distant Star was the launching pad for one of Japan’s finest new and inspired talents.

The year is 2046. An alien race, an alien race, the Tarsians, are intent, persistent and unrelenting in their efforts to destroy the human race and plague the solar system. Earth’s defense is on offense as fleets head into the void of space in the hopes of destroying the enemy before reaching Earth.

Shinkai, like the great Hayao Miyazaki for whom he is tiresomely compared, establishes a heroine in the lead as his mecha-pilot. The female combat pilot has certainly been firmly established in series like Patlabor and Neon Genesis Evangelion with heroines anchoring works like Major Motoko Kusanagi in Mamoru Oshii's Ghost In The Shell. This turn is certainly not new to anime, but Shinkai takes a more emotional, tender route in his direction and style. It is distinct and certainly what sets him apart from others. His story centers on two fully realized characterizations. Lead character Mikako Negamine always dreamed of working for the United Nations and enlists into service as an ace space pilot. She leaves behind Noboru Terao, her one true love, so that she may join the war effort and pilot a Tracer in the Third Platoon to resist the Tarsians' offense. Her male counterpart waits back on the blue planet’s home front. The male/female juxtaposition is an interesting twist when considering the concept of spousal separation during wartime particularly during World War I or II when women often remained on the homefront.

Through time, Mikako yearns for her provincial home and the arms of Noboru. Though she cannot see him Noboru nourishes her survival giving her hope for the future as she fights through electronic communications. Modern day love letters in the form of e-mail text messages are sent back and forth to one another on cell phones. Incrementally, the electronic mail takes days, weeks, months, eventually even years to reach Noboru the further Mikako reaches back into the vastness of space. The endless distance is a symbol to the strength of their growing, unconditional love. Mikako’s desire to return to him drives her. He too is lost without her. Inevitably Noboru moves on with life despite the pain, as Mikako is separated by the span of eight years. She breaks down, as any soldier would, from the ache of loneliness. Shinkai is a master of manipulating emotion and his writing is clearly from the heart. It would be a quality he would cultivate further in later films.

I just wanna get something to eat, at the bus stop, with you… I just wanna see him again… tell him I love him,” she cries alone in the recesses of black, cavernous space. It is an intimate, romantic film surrounding two lovers torn apart by war, space and time. The memories nurture their survival, but their yearning desire to be together juxtaposed by their physical distance begs the question to all of us: how long would you be willing to wait for someone? Could you do it?

The film underlines these substantive existential and philosophical questions. Mikako asks Noburo if the mere singular thought in and of itself of one’s existence is enough to sustain love. If it were so, it would be remember, “I am here.” That poetic sentiment is real and is at the heart of Shinkai's short picture. He conveys real feeling in this mighty little film better than many in recent memory. Isn’t that sentiment, the knowledge of existence, what connects us to friends and lovers past and to those we love present? To at least know they are out there and they live. To know they live and they exist still and that their lives, which touched our lives endures somehow transcends the physical. The connection to these people is what sustains our existence emotionally. This is the affecting power and sweet truth of Voices Of A Distant Star and Shinkai understands this depth of emotion inherent in human nature. He knows how to deliver it through film in image, character and music.

Visually, Shinkai serves up a deft blend of 2D and 3D digital animation. His matte-like backgrounds are spectacular. The director's transition was quite natural moving from his exposure within the graphic designer world of the video game industry to animation easily. His keen eye for detail is striking and beauty is unveiled in the simplest things. He is a master of light manipulation thanks to a love of computers. His strength in animating his vision is drawn from his knowledge of technology and how to attach and utilize these resources to great effect.

The coloring is lush with picturesque greens and blues. It's like the vast world of a painted watercolor-flavored vista come to life. Warm, soft, inviting colors are awash in the memories of a beautiful once upon a time; of things remembered lovingly. The welcoming, nostalgic, sometimes photo-real locations complement the story as Mikako and Noboru reminisce of the special places spent together.

The film, like his first short She And Her Cat, is loaded with stills in what the Japanese often refer to as pillow shots. The quiet and tranquil images offer a window into a character's world that even words need not describe: the train tracks, the skyline, a school classroom. Each snapshot is so detailed Shinkai is able to bring the world of Voices From A Distant Star to life without uttering a word. Artists like Hayao Miyazaki and Hideaki Anno have employed similar effects in their works to great effect. These artists offer some of the best anime has to offer. These affecting, simple images drive the film along injecting further poignancy into a story.

When Noboru or Mikako recall, “summer clouds and cold rain, quiet snow, I remember good things like these,” it is Shinkai speaking those sentiments. He recollects those moments strongly from his youth in the liner notes. “The distinctly prominent outline of the scenery from those times remains strongly impressed upon me. I’ve packed in as much of my feelings from those times as possible into Voices Of A Distant Star."

Shinkai's auteur-like hand often evokes the power of a gifted filmmaker like Hayao Miyazaki often striking the comparison. Three films later the comparison has become tiresome and cliched. He offers something entirely his own just as the late Satoshi Kon, too, was a unique visionary. There are certainly plenty of wonderful trademarks to look forward to from Shinkai, but before he is annointed the next Miyazaki let's see a little more than a couple of films.

As a designer Shinkai imagined mecha with some fresh concepts. Mikako appears in space inside a transparent cockpit. Externally the Tracer units harness a unique propulsive engine system that allows for quick, aggressive movements in zero gravity. The metal chassis is backed by an automated force-field array that is initialized instantly when engaged by enemy fire. Tracer flight and defensive abilities are only rivaled by their sheer firepower from laser-generated sword and rapid-fire machine gun cannon to six motion-seeking missiles or tracers. Shinkai’s bullet-riddled, delayed impact, Tarsian blood-bursting destruction is splendid, simple, but decisively special. The enormous bi-ped units depart from a cosmonaut space freighter known as the Lysithea. The starships, having applied Tarsian technology, have allowed the human race to take the offensive beyond Earth. The battle intensity is heart-pounding and captured with staggering intimacy. When Shinkai’s massive Tracer units land on foreign planetary soil they lumber slowly with the kind of weight and real hydraulic power one might expect from such a colossal machine. Voices Of A Distant Star suspends disbelief by giving credence to its science fiction. The mechanisms feel real just as the solitude and isolation feels real. The sense of physical and emotional realism infuses the film with depth.

If you’re engaged by off-camera dialogue, over a single shot of cel animation a la Neon Genesis Evangelion, then it’s a good sign you'll revel in this mesmerizing play. Shinkai produced Voices Of A Distant Star with a power MacIntosh G4/4000 MHz implementing Adobe Photoshop 5.0 and Lightwave 6.2 3D CG. A number of filtering effects were applied enhancing the gentle energy of the story with blurred or grainy imaging for touching scenes. Only the music, sound [exceptional work by Pastral Sound] and voice dubbing were outsourced to complete the project. One thing Shinkai teaches the aspiring artist, regardless of the desired medium, is that the tools are out there, limited only by the power of imagination. Shinkai believed in the pioneering, independent spirit of filmmaking in anime. His work is free of the ties binding artists within the studio model [Gainax, Sunrise, Gonzo, Madhouse]; a new wave of anime filmmaker. The notion of the well-funded studio as the only way to bring creative expression to fruition is no longer true. He understood the studio was not the pre-requisite absolute to success. He focused on the art and less so the economics. Make no mistake, execution is imperative and Shinkai has achieved an extraordinary feat in writing and directing his dream. For more on this process, storyboarding, the making of, reflections by Shinkai, an interview with Tenmon and an explanation of terms be sure to grab the exclusive Voices Of A Distant Star/ The Place Promised In Our Early Days.

Speaking of Tenmon, Voices Of A Distant Star is supported by a spare, tender, ambient score by the musical composer, a friend formerly working within the gaming industry himself. Shinkai and Tenmon worked closely during storyboarding to synchronize the animation and music. “Sometimes I had to change the animation between these lovers." The music truly underscores and heightens the impact of the film. Tenmon’s opening ballad, Through The Years And Far Away (Hello, Little Star), is vocalized by Low and effectively and beautifully captures the emotional anguish and longing tone of the film. Sometimes J-pop theme songs can sound like poetic gibberish, but not here. Tenmon intentionally kept things simple with a heavy emphasis on piano. He veered clear of synthesizers at Shinkai’s request due to the director’s inherent aversion to their overuse in film often leaving a dated or hollow sound in their wake [Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind]. The score is entirely in keeping with the film’s atmosphere and themes.

Ultimately, the crux of great filmmaking is writing. It’s essential and must be fostered in young artists. Shinkai, Kon, Miyazaki, Anno all deliver, not just delicious animation, but strong writing. Voices Of A Distant Star is essentially a training ground for Shinkai and his writing strenths would be more pronounced on his more recent works, The Place Promised In Our Early Days and 5 Centimeters Per Second.

Shinkai even won the award for Most Valuable Newcomer at the Tokyo Anime Fair. So, is it fair to compare Shinkai to Kon or Miyazaki? Time will tell, but judging by the fruits of his distinctly stylized labors, he’ll be putting his money where his dreams are for years to come.

Voices Of A Distant Star may be short, but it is an essential viewing experience. You’ve heard the cliché big things in small packages or less is more, well here it is. With Voices Of A Distant Star another substantial talent is born, finds that distinct, director's voice and shines. Are you still out there?

Voices Of A Distant Star: A

Writer: Makoto Shinkai

Director: Makoto Shinkai

DVD Extras: The film short She And Her Cat: Their Standing Points [1999] is included. It is presented in black and white and is equally attractive in its simplicity. It is loaded with pillow stills referencing the feline’s world and the love it has for its owner from the cat's point-of-view. The short is a fancy feast for the eyes. ;) The gentle strike of Tenmon’s piano is a highlight once again. Shinkai was honored with two esteemed Japanese Grand Prix Awards for it. The short is semi-autobiographical of his own life at the time and composed on a shoestring budget via hand-drawn illustrations, photographs and some 2D/3D digital animation.

Several cuts of Voices Of A Distant Star are enclosed including a Director's Cut with voice work from Shinkai himself and his then fiance. An interview lends insight into his thriving independent spirit versus the studio system.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Battle Of The Planets: Orion Wonderdog Of Space

G-Force and Orion, the Saint Bernard wonderdog. The superhero team-up concept was always entertaining. It was like Marvel Team-Up brought to life.

"We wanted to make some cool-looking characters." -Ippei Kuri-

Battle Of The Planets offered some fine story moments across its 85 episode run in America, and even finer character and mech designs. Tatsunoko's Gatchaman was edited and cut down from its 105 episode series for the stateside release you'll recall. Ippei Kuri, president and founder of the company, Tatsunoko Production, founded in 1962, recalls seeing his classic work transformed for the overseas market and the addition of the dreaded 7-Zark-7. Ippei told Newtype in August 2004, "To be honest, I really didn't like having my work fiddled with. It was changed to be gentler, and there was really no other choice. At that time you had to [localize] or you wouldn't sell anything." But sell it did and the world of anime was better for it influencing a generation of new fans to the art form. He concedes, "It didn't exactly turn out lame, but we noticed that there were poorly done drawings stuck in." Umm, yes, we did too. We're sorry about that Mr. Kuri. Still, would I love something like Battle Of The Planets if it was lame? Uh... let's move on.

One of the notable facets about the strength of this series was the animation. The cel drawings are genuinely beautiful, pencilled drawings. It is truly artwork brought to life by those at Tatsunoko. It's no surprise the company, more than many others, was born from black and white manga. It was one of the first generation of animation studios in Japan. Logic was never a strong suit in the series.

It sometimes took comic book violence and action to new heights, while at times respecting the humanity, vincibility and fallibility of our heroes. Ultimately though, this was premium, high octance, sci-fi action adventure. There's hardly time for logic friends when you're trying to fend off an attacking metallic cockroach.

Watching several episodes over the weekend one scene comes to mind that certainly illustrates the fantastical nature of the series. Two young Mexican boys, the sons of fishermen, stowaway on Zoltar's spacecraft. They essentially become prisoners. As the episode comes to an end, the final minutes wrap up quickly with the Phoenix literally piercing the hull of Zoltar's vessel with the subtlety of a jack hammer. Nevermind that the boys are inside the very room they crash headlong into and that falling debris could snuff out their poor little lives without a second's thought. It's a minor miracle the boys weren't crushed. Well, these are precisely the kinds of minor miracles that occur on Battle Of The Planets. Safe, extraction plans were hardly a concern of implementation by the heroes of G-Force working within the confines of a 22 minute installment. Japan's Science Ninja Team Gatchaman had a job to do and every second counted. If a few stowaway children take one for the team so be it. Nevertheless the boys do survive and return to the sea and their fishing ways minus their metal pots as makeshift G-Force hemets. I'm having a bit of fun with it, but one should.

Still, for every one of these moments, there seemed to be moments of weakness and truth and as kids we connected with that reality. These are classic cartoons and Battle Of The Planets, even more importantly Gatchaman, seemed to straddle the fence on death and dying. It sometimes respected scenarios of serious harm or injury and death, while at times missing the details of those events described above. Still, Battle Of The Planets was one of the few animations making the effort out there to draw our heroes as flesh and blood mortals, and despite cerebonic super powers, exhibit signs of flawed human behavior or frailty.

But again, if it's total realism you seek then Battle Of The Planets is not going to be your cup of flashback tea. As far as superheor cartoons go, this series did have some tremendously creative moments. One such episode, Orion Wonderdog Of Space, put a smile on this face. Not only did the animators behind the episode give us the wonderfully conceived drawings of the Saint Bernard, Orion the Wonderdog, complete with cerebonic implants, the kind that enhance the skills and powers of our dear heroes, G-Force, but we were treated to an episode replete with action-packed, mini-mecha moments. As a child I yearned for those rare moments featuring these spectacular creations. It seemed every time I watched there appearance was few and far between. They were indeed a special part of the show that never got overplayed. It was a bit like waiting for the Batmobile in The Dark Knight.

As a child I absolutely adored the vehicles that graced the series. Each craft was designated for each of the G-Force members, G-1, G-2, G-3 and G-4. G-2 was my hands down favorite, complete with its special weaponry, but they all had their moments. Mark, G-1, probably received the most attention throughout the series, but each generated some special sequences along the way.

Orion Wonderdog Of Space gives us a nice snapshot of the kinds of daily excitement kids were drawn to upon their return home from school. In fact, and this speaks to those lapses in logic, Orion was actually so powerful thanks to the cerebonic implant he was able to run alongside G-2 and G-3 without missing a step. Unlikely? I think not. He's cerebonic of course. Yet, in the same breath, when Orion goes missing, the series ponders his fate. Is Orion hurt or better yet dead? Life and death, Battle Of The Planets-style. Boy, those were the days.