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by Bill Gibron

14 Aug 2009

He is consistently hailed as the last great master of 2D animation, the Walt Disney of his own amazing and imaginative Japanese empire. Several of his films sit at or near the top of the list of the nation’s all time box office champions and he is considered the first director of anime ever to win an Oscar (for Spirited Away). From an early career working on adaptations of Puss and Boots and Treasure Island, to his breakout Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), he pledged to maintain a standard of quality and artistry that many in the modern movie biz can’t match. It’s a philosophy that’s followed him through other masterworks (My Neighbor Totorro) and true works of cinematic art (Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle).

Now comes his latest, the fanciful fairy tale Gake no Ue no Ponyo (Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea) and he’s actually brought the House of Mouse along with him this time. New head of cartooning, Pixar’s John Lasseter, has made it his goal to make Hayao Miyazaki a household name - and with this charming, visionary film, he just might do it. Sure, you might have to suffer through some trite English voice acting (courtesy of Miley’s Cyrus’ sister Noah and the Jonas Brothers’ sibling Frankie), but the images employed by Miyazaki and his crew defy description. This is easily one of the greatest achievements in animation - ever.

Poor little Ponyo is a fish-like creature who longs to be human. Her mother is the ancient Goddess of the Sea, her father a slave to his love of the ocean. Escaping to the surface, she comes in contact with lonely boy Sōsuke. He misses his own dad, the captain of a shipping liner. Ponyo falls instantly for her new pal. Soon recaptured, she vows to return to land and be with her new friend. Sprouting arms and legs, she uses the powers of the old ways to aid her transformation. Sadly, such spells cause the waters to swell, creating a storm and tsunami that almost consumes Sōsuke’s town. While Ponyo is happy to be with her playmate, her parents are very upset. And with the moon losing its orbit and destroying the tides, our little heroine must choose - a life as a human, or the powers that are part of the sea.

Ponyo is gorgeous, the lost art of hand drawn animation accelerated through a whirlwind vision of ecology trumped by man’s careless need for comfort. It’s a sly bit of preaching, letting images evoke the kind of emotional reactions that scientific hypotheses and philosophical rants typically produce. By using Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid as an obvious jumping off point, and instilling the narrative with a grandeur for all things ancient and mythic, Miyazaki reconfigures folklore for those who might not see the otherwise hidden agenda. By focusing on Ponyo’s desire to be human, by showing how that “selfish” act affects the entire ocean population, the movie mirrors the currently contemporary mindset. No matter how precious we think our environment is, we seem willing to undermine it for our own personal aims.

The addition of a nursing home and a group of elderly residents also plays into the theme of tradition and respect. Miyazaki uses the aged as a metaphor for what’s forgotten in times of tranquility, and what’s needed when cooler, wiser heads are mandated. The ladies may seem like Sōsuke’s most significant playmates (the kids at his school are introduced and done away with in a single short sequence) but the truth is, they will end up playing a major part in the resolution of this matter. That they are rewarded for their actions is another attempt by Miyazaki to emphasize the importance of the past. While the movie manipulates reality to play with the natural order, how he uses his characters to create symbolism and substance is one of his best moves.

Yet it’s the stunning visual set-pieces that make this film so magical. One of the most astounding occurs when Ponyo decides to defy her father and, loaded up on magical elixir, make her way back to Sōsuke. As the waters swell and the waves crest, as massive walls of ocean are metaphorically changed to huge schools of running tuna, our plucky little redhead runs the surface, her speed matching the mesmerizing backdrop the animators create. There is no CG here, no use of computers to guide or supplement (unlike other Miyazaki efforts). Instead, cell after seamless cell illustrates a tidal wave terrorizing a young mother and her son, car running roughshod over the flooded roads in order to transport them to safety. As we witness Ponyo’s resolve, we can literally witness the power of love.

Removing the Japanese voices from the film does do away with some of the movie’s indomitable spirit and magic. Just like seeing a martial arts epic stripped of its dignity, there is something about the process of Westernizing a movie like this that fails to match its inherent mystique. The movie was not made by American’s and even with Lasseter in tow as a ‘technical director’, the translation is a bit wonky at best. When seen in its native tongue Ponyo remains a classical canvas, a remarkable masterpiece of style and substance. English just doesn’t have to same power, no matter how capable the casting is. Indeed, this happens a lot in foreign filmography. A wholly unique film - Let the Right One In - can feel false and slightly pretentious when given the mandatory US mainstream make-over.

Still, it’s a credit to Miyazaki’s craft that he can overcome such marketing limits to fashion a film that’s so charismatic, so full of passion for the animated artform and all its varying disciplines that it reminds us of what came before while setting the benchmark for what will come after. In recent years, the major studios have backed away from 2D cartooning, stressing that audiences seem to prefer 3D computer graphics to the old pen and ink prototype. Clearly, few of these so-called “viewers” have truly experienced the unadulterated bliss within the medium - and if anyone can convert them, it will be Miyazaki. In a Summer of senseless mayhem and underwhelming efforts, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea is majestic. It easily matches (and in many cases, surpasses) the best the genre has to offer.

by Rob Horning

14 Aug 2009

The difference between something that is well-designed and something that is merely designy seems pretty self-evident if you base the judgment on functionality. But the difference between the two is always being blurred, usually by marketers trying to gain an edge for a product that’s not essentially different from its market competitors. So we get designy bottles of dishwashing liquid, designy stainless-steel appliances, designy retro-looking appliances and other pseudo-novelties. Design improvements that allow us to consume or use a good more efficiently are conflated with improvements that shift our attention away from use to abstract contemplation—the good becomes a mirror in which we see reflected our own good taste. Designy-ness, like so many consumerist products, lets us consume ourselves.

These efforts to sell products as a vehicle for design combine to create a climate in which design for its own sake is functionality, an aesthetic end that inherently enriches the lives of those who get to handle such “beautiful” objects. Industrial designers like Apple’s Jonathan Ive get elevated to the status of artists, as if their aim was not to sell more goods but to create the Good. Consumerism is thereby transformed into a kind of democratized connoisseurship; Target (or, if you are still trying to preserve class distinction, ABC Carpet & Home) becomes a museum from which you can take home the objets d’art.

by Bill Gibron

14 Aug 2009

One hates to think that this is how it would be. After centuries of resorting to internment and segregation as a means of dealing with ‘dissent’, the arrival of a technologically advanced (albeit aesthetically displeasing) alien race should result in something more progressive than an Apartheid-like police state. Yet that’s exactly what happens in Neill Blomkamp’s inventive extension of his 2005 short Alive in Joborg, now titled District 9. By showing us what happens to a derelict spacecraft stranded above South Africa, its entire extraterrestrial contents fenced off in squalid camps for the last two decades, the first time filmmaker offers the kind of sci-fi social commentary that made instantly classics like Planet of the Apes such pointed, prophetic allegories.

Utilizing a mock documentary approach (and then abandoning it when the drama demands it), Blomkamp doesn’t focus on our first contact with an interstellar civilization. Instead, we fast forward way beyond the “Prawns” arrival to their current sordid situation. Nicknamed for their uncanny resemblance to giant crustaceans, the nearly two million members of what was apparently the mothership’s working class crew have been housed in District 9 under the international auspices of the MNU (Multi-National United). There, they are subjected to horrific living conditions, the criminal infiltration by surrounding Africa tribes, and some despicable displays of out and out racism.

It’s up to newly appointed bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe (newcomer Sharlto Copley) to evict the unsettled creatures and move them to their new home - a clean and sterile “camp” called District 10. Naturally, a few of these beings don’t want to be relocated, especially ‘Christopher Johnson’ and his young ‘son’. Turns out, these two have figured out how to refuel the spacecraft and are desperate to get it running. But with Wikus in the way, they are prevented from acting. During a raid of their home, our human paper-pusher falls victim to a situation that has him suddenly turned from captor to captive. With Christopher’s help, Wikus tries to uncover the secrets settled in District 9 while getting back to his own uniquely “human” way of life.

By avoiding the typical end of the world apocalypse that most alien invasion movies mandate and illustrating instead man’s continual inhumanity to all things different and diverse, District 9 becomes that most elusive of science fiction films - a serious and thoughtful dissertation on who we really are. Indeed, the best speculative fiction is merely a mask for covering up our true selves. As Blomkamp begins his examination, giving Wikus, his surround government stronghold, and the various residents living near the “Prawns” a chance to air their views, we feel like its Southern American circa the 1950s all over again. Even the silly seafood slur becomes uncomfortable and disturbing after a while.

Blomkamp, clearly inspired by his native land’s unconscionable treatment of its long suppressed population, pours as many references to said history as possible. He wants to make sure we never forget the regrettable, indefensible manner in which the majority (or in the case of South Africa, the far more sly minority) wield power over those without standing or strength. The use of cat food as a metaphor for drugs and (regulated) drug addiction, the exploitive criminal element contained within the nasty Nigerian gangsters, remind one of contemporary urban blight, while the setting showcases how we tend to warehouse people problems (refugees, victims of natural disaster) in hopes that the complications will stay within the fence line. Of course, they never do.

But District 9 takes it further. It ventures dangerously close into Holocaust territory, especially in a sequence where Wikus learns of a Mengele-like lab where aliens are experimented on for their possible technological (and tactical) advances. It also argues for the kind of armed uprising that most cases of segregation and forced separation produce. Yet there is more to this movie than messages and CG civil rights. District 9 inside a solid action film, an infiltrate and investigate kind of military mission that uses the POV gimmick as a way of having us play a part. It also offers an unusual perspective from the character department. Unlike the implication of the trailers, this is not a “prawn” story per say. It is a human saga. As we see the creatures getting harassed, as we witness their own angry and occasional doe-eyed sadness, we sense something bigger at play. Once the last act arrives, Blomkamp delivers on said promise.

It’s hard to talk about the last 30 minutes of this movie without giving too much away. Faith plays a big part in the actions of several characters, as does a desire to do things strictly by the book. The soldiery comes off as faceless and forgettable, as meaningful as the mechanisms of death they bring to this final showdown. With Wikus still at the center, his decision to help Christopher occasionally clouding his judgment, we wind up with a fight for life that also has some cosmic consequences as well. With all these allusions and symbols shuffling around, you might think that District 9 is too “intelligent” to be entertaining, striving for parable when it should be putting on the spectacle. But this is where Blomkamp, along with producer Peter Jackson, really shine. Not only is this movie thoughtful, it’s thrilling as well.

Even better, District 9 doesn’t come up with the easy answers. When all is said and done, when the dust has settled and the smoke has cleared, the differences between man and alien still exist. One character’s motivations have changed forever, while another’s are left up to speculation (and a possible sequel). There is hope in the conclusion, as well as irreversible harm. Indeed, one could look at what happens and see a future where integration is all but impossible. Blomkamp’s tone does tend toward a more genocidal solution, and for all their claimed compassion, the face of the MNU looks like any other badly managed bureaucracy - loaded with waste and competing personal interests. Anyone who goes to District 9 and expects to see a WETA take on Independence Day will be very disappointed. Expect something a whole lot smarter and more subtle and you’ll be richly rewarded. This is one of the Summer’s - and the year’s - best. 

by PopMatters Staff

14 Aug 2009

Exotic on the Speaker
Releasing: 6 October (US)

The Tel Aviv DJs return on 6 October with a new mix CD featuring loads of hip-hop with a little bit of the Balkans thrown in for good measure.

01 El Nur ft. Ghostface, Tomer Yosef & Saz
02 Exotic on the Speaker ft. Rye Rye
03 Pitom Banu ft. Axum
04 Put ‘em Up ft. Lyrics Born & Axum
05 Darboukatron
06 SOS ft. Pigeon John & Ceci Bastida
07 Politrix ft. Del the Funky Homosapien
08 Come Back ft. Onili
09 Avood MeAhava ft. Oren Barzilay
10 We Keep On ft. Rebel Sun & Soul-J
11 Queen of Hearts ft. MC ZULU
12 Bo Be Easy ft. Axum & C. Le
13 1,000 Nights ft. Ravid Khalni

Soulico ft. Lyrics Born and Axum
“Put ‘Em Up” [MP3]

by Tommy Marx

14 Aug 2009

Alison Moyet, an incredibly gifted singer with a deep, rich, bluesy voice, first found fame in her early 20s. Joining forces with Vince Clarke, a former member of Depeche Mode, Alison formed Yazoo, a synth-dance band, in 1981.

Yazoo was a major success in England. Their first two albums, Upstairs at Eric’s and You and Me Both, peaked at #2 and #1 respectively on the record charts, and four of their singles became Top 15 hits. In the United States, the duo (renamed Yaz because an American rock band was already using the name) saw three of their singles become number one hits on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play chart, but they weren’t nearly as successful on mainstream radio.

Alison and Vince decided to disband Yazoo shortly before their second album was released.

Vince Clark went on to form Erasure with Andy Bell and had an astonishing 24 consecutive singles become Top 20 hits in the UK Alison Moyet began a solo career, and while her success hasn’t rivaled that of her former band mate (she’s had nine singles become Top 40 hits in England), she has never particularly strived for success on the radio. Instead, she has gloriously followed her own path.

The only real success Alison Moyet has had as a solo artist in the United States is with a song titled “Invisible” that became a Top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 on April 4, 1985. But that song was enough to make me a lifelong fan.

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'Fire Emblem Heroes' Is a Bad Crossover

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