Archive | February 2014

Movie Review: The Wind Rises

Growing up can be a funny thing. In the last 5-7 years, I had grown shocked when such popular animators like Andreas Dejas and Glen Keane took their leave from Walt Disney Feature Animation. And then in the fall of 2013, one of the most shocking proclamations was made: legendary Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki claimed he was retiring…for real, this time!

After almost a decade of saying each new animated feature film would be his last, Hayao finally admitted that The Wind Rises was truly the end of the road for him, marking his 11th directorial workand also one that seemed a real departure from his previous works… in a manner of speaking.

Unlike his past works,The Wind Rises focuses on a real-life figure: Jiro Horkoshi. While that name means nothing to Western minds, Jiro was a renowned aircraft designer in Japan during the second World War. One of his biggest claims-to-fame, was the design of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. In historical terms, it was these planes that would be instrumental in numerous attacks on Pacific targets, including Pearl Harbor.

Airplanes and flight have largely seemed a point of fascination for Hayao Miyazaki, as seen in the majority of his films. Along with crafting his own flying machines for many of his fantasy pictures, his 1992 production Porco Rosso, took place amid the European world in the 1930’s, with numerous aircraft playing big roles in its storyline. Needless to say, it almost feels like The Wind Rises shares some animated DNA with Porco.

In a dream during his childhood, Jiro encounters Italian aircraft designer, Caproni.

At the start of the film, Jiro is a young man who dreams of flying, but is frustrated that his near-sightedness means he won’t be able to soar above the clouds. It is in his own thoughts that he resolves to do the next best thing: if he cannot fly aircraft, he can design them. His dreams soon include famed Italian airplane designer, Gianni Caproni, after he has read about Caproni’s many works. Jiro soon becomes so enamored with the designer, that the two seem to “share” a dream, with the Italian giving Jiro guidance, and showing him aircraft that have not yet been built.

The overall film shows Jiro traverse across almost 30 years of his life, growing from a dreamy young boy, to an employee for the Mitsubishi Internal Combustion Engine Company Limited.

At work, Jiro is constantly being scrutinized by his diminutive boss, Kurokawa. Much like the character of Piccolo in Porco Rosso, much comedy is milked out of these situations, from Kurokawa’s constantly flapping hair, to his quick and snappy demands. Word was, some on the Studio Ghibli staff said the character reminded them of Miyazaki himself.

Jiro (left) shows his latest efforts to senior designer Hattori (center), and his boss, Kurokawa (right)

The process of the company’s airplane construction is also rather intriguing. Jiro’s friend Honjo tells how he wishes for them to develop airplanes that are as advanced as those in other corners of the world, but that by the time Japan has done so, newer innovations will keep them behind. Also as a show that the country is still behind, is that when it comes time to take their latest creations to be tested, a team of oxen are utilized to pull the aircraft.

In the film, Jiro is given the role of a man who seems to constantly be upright and in control of a situation, even when it seems to be falling apart. This may seem odd to some Western minds, but it is the concept of the film’s “hero” being in control that seems to be at work here. It could be that this is a way of Jiro thinking, “this didn’t work, but my greatest masterpiece will happen one day.” There’s a look and action about Jiro, that reminded me of Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke, and to a lesser extent, Haku from Spirited Away.

Naoko (left) and Jiro (right) make their way through a freak downpour.

The one concept that has never really been a big part of Miyazaki’s films, has been romance. Or if there is, it’s usually been very subdued. However, the use of it within Rises becomes something that feels rushed, and rather implausible. The meeting between Jiro and Naoko Satomi has its moments, but unlike some of the stronger female characters we’ve seen Miyazaki give us in the past, she comes off as more of a prop to Jiro’s story. While the real-life Jiro did marry in his lifetime, the character of Naoko is largely fabricated. It’s possible she may have been created as a way to showcase the life of those in society outside of the factory walls.

It is also within the narrative structure of the film, that I found myself rather non-plussed. Japan has been known to do non-linear storytelling, but even in concepts like Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle, I was still able to not feel jarred as much from the story, as I was during Rises. It feels like the film could have been 3 hours long, but was truncated to only show certain highlights of Jiro’s career.

Another area that I found rather off-putting, was that I never really felt like I connected with many of the people that Jiro is surrounded by. The two most prominent characters that stood out to me, were Mr Kurokawa, and Jiro’s sister, Kayo. Maybe it was because they were two that seemed to get a little more ’emotional’ than some of the more subdued, extra characters. I was expecting maybe more interaction even with Jiro’s co-worker and University friend Honjo, but he seems almost as stoic and deep-in-thought as Jiro at times.

Naoko contemplates by a small pool.

Of course, one thing we cannot discount, is that the tradition of painterly stylings by Studio Ghibli is alive and well in this latest feature. While the film relies once again on computer technology, much of the vehicular flight and movement appears to have largely been achieved by hand. Even in one scene, where smoke is released from a series of plane engines, it curls and swoops in graceful ways that computer simulations can’t replicate.

In each of his films, there seems to be an element that Miyazaki chooses to do differently from his other works, and in Rises, it becomes a notion of sound. Much of the sound of the airplanes we see, are comprised of human vocals making noise. This even seems to carry over into one of the most eye-opening sequences, when Jiro finds himself in part of 1923’s Great Kanto Earthquake. The sound of the event is one of a heavy-breathing, almost visceral human voice. Even in the eventual aftershocks, the Earth seems to ‘breathe’ like that of an angered being.

In the last few years, Studio Ghibli has given itself over to films that seem more real than fantasy. 2011’s From Up On Poppy Hill is almost completely devoid of these flights of fancy, and The Wind Rises also seems to be going down a more ‘mature’ path. Even so, Hayao’s swansong seems a little more “humble” next to his greatest works like Princess Mononoke, or Spirited Away. In a sense, it almost feels like a last great experiment, much in the same vein as Ponyo (which was done without the use of computers).

The real Jiro Horikoshi

In select cities, the film is being released in both an English-Dub, and a subtitled version, which is the first time since Spirited Away that one of Studio Ghibli’s films has had this happen. If you’re a fan of Hayao’s work, then I strongly recommend taking the time to see The Wind Rises.  Though it isn’t as full of previous flights of fancy, there’s a finality to it that almost seems to gel with Miyazaki’s claims that his retirement this time is permanent…and if that is so, he can be credited as one of the few directors that was able to go out on decent note.

A Peanuts Prospectus : Linus Van Pelt finds Truffles

In February of 2013, I was inspired to write a small piece on Charlie Brown’s short relationship with a little girl named Peggy Jean.  The concept of love within the Peanuts strips has often been a fascination for me (the hopeless romantic inside is alive, somewhere in there), and I was surprised when several other people enjoyed the read.

Following that train of thought, I thought I’d cover a relationship that occurred with another main cast member of the series: Linus Van Pelt.

Though many know of Sally Brown’s infatuation with Linus, he has rarely ever returned her feelings, often leaving her with a bad case of unrequited love for her “Sweet Babboo.”

There have been several little girls over the years that Linus showed interest in, and one of the more famous ones will be discussed today.

In March of 1975, Linus recruited Snoopy to go truffle-hunting with him. After wandering a ways into the nearby countryside, the two were surprised to come across a little girl leaning against a tree on a farm.

When Linus explains that he and Snoopy are hunting for truffles, the little girl happily tells him that he has “found one,” as that is her name too (of which even Snoopy thinks is rather ridiculous). Apparently, it was a nickname that was given to Truffles by her Grandfather, who claimed she was “as rare as a truffle.”

Of the different character designs done over the years, Truffles’ is one that is a little more ‘bizarre’ than most. While most of the Peanuts characters have simple dots for eyes, Truffles is one of the few with pupils inside large circles. Schulz used such a design in his early renderings of Lucy, making her seem cuter and more innocent, before he rendered her in the normal dots.

As Linus talks with Truffles, it starts to rain, and the three retreat to a barn on her Grandfather’s farm. During the storm, the three explore the barn, where Linus is fascinated by the construction materials, as well as numerous other sights.

Once it stops raining, Linus and Snoopy return home, both having been affected by their meeting with Truffles. Charlie Brown encounters both of them writing letters to her, but doesn’t go further into examining the love triangle that’s developing.

When Linus finds out what Snoopy is doing, he gets defensive, claiming that Truffles loves him. It is shortly after this that Linus encounters a problem:

Though he wants to see Truffles again, he doesn’t know where she lives. Given Snoopy’s hunting dog skills, he most likely could lead Linus there…but naturally, Linus wouldn’t want him to come along.

When he tells Snoopy about this predicament, Snoopy does the most natural thing possible: chuckles at Linus’ situation.

Snoopy then continues to rub Linus’ nose in his predicament, when he goes to visit Truffles, and returns with a note from her, telling how they had a fun time.

Linus eventually calls Truffles (where did he get her number?), but upon reaching her at her Grandfather’s house, she tells him that she is going home. Linus is distraught about this, claiming he didn’t know how to get to her. “Somebody else didn’t have any trouble,” she replies, as the next panel shows Snoopy resting on her lap.

Linus then berates Snoopy for ‘ruining his love life.’ The two then sit thinking of Truffles, with Linus claiming his love for her was genuine…while Snoopy only liked her because she gave him cookies. Linus’ mind continues to be focused on Truffles for the next few days, which even causing him to miss a fly ball on Charlie Brown’s team, when the thought of ‘lost love’ clouds his judgement.

It looked like this was the end forTruffles, but 2 years later, she resurfaced in another story arc.

Linus and Sally’s class end up taking a field trip out to a farm. Naturally, Sally complains during the entire trip, but Linus is struck by a strange sense of deja vu. Seeing a barn, he suddenly recalls that it was the same one where he, Snoopy, and Truffles stayed in during the rain storm 2 years ago! And it just so happens that inside, he finds Truffles!

Truffles tells him that she’s visiting her Grandfather, but the moment is interrupted when Sally finds the two of them. However, when she claims Linus is her boyfriend, Truffles suddenly starts to argue with her. The verbal sparring between the two finally gets to be too much for Linus, and he climbs up onto the roof of the barn, claiming he won’t come down until they stop fighting.

It is then that Sally notes the school bus is leaving, and Linus finds that it was easier to get up onto the barn roof, than get down. Sally calls out that she’ll “send a helicopter” for Linus, and utters a phrase that would then become a staple of Peanuts’ verbal “lore.”

After Sally and the school bus leaves, Truffles continues to talk to Linus (yet doesn’t consider telling her Grandfather that there’s a boy on his barn roof). Even so, she then reveals that even after their first meeting, she still thought about him. Though there is some continuity issues, such as her saying she’s thought about him ‘all year,’ and that he never ‘wrote or called her.’ Personally, I’d chalk this up to Truffles’ slip-up, since she never did give Linus information as to where she actually lived. It is also about now that she starts using “the L word” (at a most inopportune time).

However, the sound of a helicopter catches their ears. And, if you had been reading most of Schulz’s strips during this time, you’d have a pretty good idea just who/what kind of helicopter Sally sent to rescue Linus: Snoopy (being piloted by Woodstock)!

There is a strange bit of comic strip continuity that goes on during the rescue. On January 29, 1977, we see Linus reacting to the helicopter (but we don’t see it).

Startng on January 31, 1977, we get 3 days worth of strips, showing how Sally gave Woodstock instructions to bring Linus back, before the little bird took off in Snoopy, on his rescue mission. Pretty much no words are spoken, as Linus grabs hold of Snoopy’s tail, and is hoisted off the roof. However, Linus is then airlifted away from the farm, and Truffles.

There is a rather “questionable” joke that came about on February 3rd’s strip. I kind of wonder what people at the time thought of it (see below).

The final strips returned Linus to the Peanuts neighborhood. However, when he realizes just where his pilot is going to drop him, he pleads for Woodstock to stop. But as in most cases, money talks. Seeing as how Sally was the one who paid off Woodstock and Snoopy, Linus is jettisoned…right into Sally’s waiting arms! And thus, Linus’ latest adventure came to a sad end, falling back into the arms of his best friend’s sister, whom he has no interest in.

This also meant the end of Truffles’ appearance within the comic strips. There were no further attempts by Linus to locate her (or vice-versa), and one can assume that Linus probably has her buried deep within him, a symbol of a lost love from his youth (I think many us have several of those).

However, when it comes to some Peanuts comic strips, the story arcs did find a second life in the world of animation.  Though in a strange way for the strips involving Linus and Truffles, they were presented out of context.

The first appearance of Truffles in animated form, was the hour-long 1982 television special, A Charlie Brown Celebration. The opening of the show had an introduction by Schulz himself, before delving into smaller episodes, and simpler vignettes. One of the episodes told, was the second appearance of Truffles. This was a rather shocking continuity issue, as those seeing the episode for the first time had almost no back story as to whom Truffles was, and she and Linus were being very expressive towards each other.

A Charlie Brown Celebration showcased a format that would then be streamlined down into a half-hour showing. This would then become The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show, which began to appear on Saturday Morning Television, in 1983.

It was during the first season of the Saturday Morning show, that Truffles’ “first appearance” finally saw the light of day. Much like the segment in Celebration, this episode didn’t stray far from the source material. However, much of Snoopy’s involvement was streamlined (most likely since one couldn’t understand the Beagle without his comic strip’s word balloons).

It is notable that both of Truffles’ animated appearances show her to have been streamlined from Schulz’s pen-and-ink stylings. If you look at the images of Truffles both right and above, there were some subtle character differences in how she was drawn.

Over the years, there have been several characters within the series that Linus has had crushes on. One of the more popular storylines took place in the 1960’s, when he was infatuated with a teacher named Miss Othmar.

In the mid-80’s, Linus met a new girl in his class named Lydia. However, Lydia proved to be frustrating, as when she found out Linus was 2 months older than her, claimed he was “too old.” She soon after developed a habit of randomly changing her name day-by-day. In the end, it became less of a relationship, and more of a ‘trial of romance’ with Linus, as it seemed Lydia enjoyed getting him riled up about something or other.

When looking over the series, I often moreso associate Truffles with Linus, the way I do Peggy Jean, with Charlie Brown. Both Truffles and Peggy Jean had a small amount of time with their respective “boyfriends,” before fate/life/etc intervened, returning our characters back to their regular lives.

In a sense, maybe it was for the best that Linus was taken away from Truffles, with her telling how she loved him. It would have probably been sadder had she grown tired of him, or admitted she had a boyfriend (something that happened between Charlie Brown and Peggy Jean during her last appearance in 1999). Many times we want to remember the good things moreso than the bad. One can only hope that Linus and Truffles somewhere in their own lives (however they may have turned out), probably still remembered those moments on her Grandfather’s farm with warm memories.

At the end of my Peanuts Prospectus, I always like to take a little time to shout out to the Charles M Schulz Museum. If you’re a fan of Peanuts, I strongly recommend clicking the image above to go to their Facebook page.

Episode Review: My Little Pony, Friendship is Magic – Pinkie Pride

When it comes to television series, one of the things that has gotten out of hand within the last 20 years, has been the idea of guest stars. Most of the time, the networks can’t help but just plaster their big guest star front-and-center on their advertisements. Pretty soon, guest star appearances were trumpeted on almost every other Simpsons commercial, and even Britney Spears’ appearance on Will and Grace was all that NBC seemed willing to tell people about.

But there were times when guest stars were able to “blend” into an episode. Lest we forget, Kelsey Grammar’s first turn as Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons, was met with almost no fanfare whatsoever (even Dustin Hoffman managed to sneak in under the radar for an episode).

Within the last few years, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, has been able to be a cultish success without trumpeting big-name guest stars. In fact, the only big-name guest one could say the show has had, has been actor John De Lancie. De Lancie came on board with the Season 2 opener, playing the chaos creature named Discord. John’s name didn’t turn many heads (unless one was a Trekkie), but his voice-acting here brought him a new fan-following, and made Discord a fan-favorite character.

In many circles, I’m sure there have been plenty of people who have speculated on famous faces who could find themselves “ponified” into Friendship is Magic, and with the latest Season 4 episode, the showrunners have done just that…with Weird Al Yankovic.

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In Ponyville, Pinkie Pie is eagerly anticipating putting together a Birthday party for Rainbow Dash. However, the event is doubly-important, as it’s also the anniversary of when Rainbow first came to Ponyville, making it: her “Birthiversary!”

However, the festivity-planning is interrupted by a lanky-orange stallion, calling himself Cheese Sandwich. As he introduces himself, Cheese then sings about how his “Cheesy-sense” told him about a party in Ponyville, and that he intends to use his own party-planning expertise to help make Rainbow Dash’s special day even better. However, as everyone seems to rally around Cheese, Pinkie begins to doubt her own party-planning skills.

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So far, Season 4 of the series has not had a whole lot of impressive episodes to me. Several have seemed like summer movie fluff (like Power Ponies, and Three’s a Crowd). I’ve always been enamored with the episodes that could get a little deeper into emotional territory, and Pinkie Pride seems to be one of the first episodes so far that is both emotional, AND funny at the same time!

The writers of the episode have actually given Cheese Sandwich, a little “meat” to his character. Much of the time, he has a very serious demeanor, but when it comes to parties, he just breaks out of his shell. That idea of an introvert/extrovert characterization was a nice way to go, as I’m sure some of us out there can relate to such things.

In fact, one of the coolest things the writers have done, is establish an underlying Western theme to the episode. We first see Cheese wearing a hat and poncho, shades of Clint Eastwood in The Man With No Name. As well, we get a rousing chorus sung by the Ponyville townsfolk, and even…a showdown!

One of the biggest elements in this episode, is that Pinkie grows concerned and sad that her talents seem to be less-than-stellar to many of the things that Cheese can put together for a party (seriously, the stallion talks about “fruit punch lakes” and “cake-filled pinatas!”). To me, Pinkie has been one of the most intriguing characters to analyze. Season 1’s episode titled Party of One is one of my favorites, as we get to see that even if she may seem wacky and a little off-kilter, there’s more to her underneath the cheerful facade (and no, not in the way of ridiculous fanfictions, thank you very much!).

There’s quite a lot here, that I could see some people really getting into. Pinkie’s dejected feelings that she might not be able to stack up to someone who seems to have more talent, is kind of how I’ve been feeling for the last year. I’ve been trying to get myself back into being creative, but out of laziness and being my own worst enemy, I’ve been rather slow to pick up a pencil, and do anything.

Daniel Ingram continues to churn out more tunes for the series, and brings us 6 songs in this episode, putting one in mind of Season 3’s finale, Magical Mystery Cure. However, it feels like the songs in this episode actually work a little better in the episode’s favor. What’s so weird is that most of the songs sound like something Weird Al would write…but Ingram has managed to channel Al’s stylings! It’s like the way the writers on Aladdin largely wrote the Genie’s part for Robin Williams, and their writing just sounded perfectly natural for Robin!

Even with Al’s vocals, the stage is also shared by Pinkie Pie’s singing voice, Shannon Chan-Kent. Shannon’s most memorable turn singing for Pinkie was the song Smile from the episode, A Friend in Deed. Here, she sings for Pinkie in a number of emotional ranges, and keeps us feeling invested in Pinkie at almost every turn. Even though Andrea Libman voices Pinkie’s speaking role, I still feel the Shannon owns the character in this episode.

While the episode is highly entertaining, it isn’t bullet-proof. There’s the general mob mentality in cartoons where as soon as Cheese arrives, the townsfolk seem quick to forget just how excited they were about Pinkie Pie a few moments before. As well, there are a few items that seem introduced, but were streamlined or cut out for time. One that looked like a fun foil, was Cheese’s mascot: a rubber chicken named Boneless. However, he only figures into a few scenes. There also seems to be an awkward transition regarding the end of some songs. It feels like the scenes should end there, but then it pushes back into the main storyline in an abrupt fashion.

At times, the episode also feels a little like a “Mary Sue/Gary Stu” fanfiction. For those not-in-the-know, those types of fanfictions usually involve someone creating a character that comes into a storyline, and is quickly embraced and brought into the main character’s fold. There are a few instances of that feeling in this episode, notably how Rarity praises Cheese Sandwich’s “party-planning expertise” almost every other time she has a spoken line.

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Even though there are negatives as outlined in the paragraphs above, Pinkie Pride does so many other things right, that it has been the most entertaining episode of Season 4 so far. Seriously, I can’t stop watching this thing!

While it may not do much for most of the cast, its focus on Pinkie Pie, as well as Cheese Sandwich, makes it something that is incredibly entertaining, not to mention the music that just gets so infectious to listen to after awhile. This episode came out a week before my Birthday, and I’m pretty sure it was the reason I sang two Weird Al songs when I went to a Karaoke Bar the other day.

There are some that do talk about Cheese Sandwich possibly returning, but I think he works best as a one-off character. Besides, it fits with the Western theme of the episode: the mysterious stranger who comes into town, sets things right, and then leaves, off to another locale.

Word is that the ratings for this episode performed incredibly well, and that can be both a good and a bad thing. Let’s hope that in terms of what those ratings were, Hasbro doesn’t suddenly decide to bombard Equestria with a plethora of famous voices wanting to be ponies. The series still pulls in impressive numbers just on its popularity alone, and it’s hopeful that there’s still plenty of character development that can be done, without throwing our Mane 6 into drastic circumstances.