Akira. Tokyo Movie Shinsha 1988.

Before watching the movie:

I’ve heard the title of this movie thrown around a bit, but I never really understood much more. I didn’t know if it was a movie or a series or what, probably anime but maybe not. I assumed it was action, and probably grim and gritty, and that’s about the end of what I thought I knew, until I saw it called out as being extremely influential on Eastern and Western animation alike, and as the referent of that one motorbike slide that’s everywhere in animation.

It turns out this seems to also be the source of that “Neo-Tokyo” I’ve heard about. And this is probably why some of the names I hear come up a bunch in Anime circles come up so much, but I don’t know what Japanese names are more generic versus more unique.

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The Secret of Kells

The Secret of Kells. Les Armateurs 2010.

Before watching the movie:

For a long time, I thought that this movie was Japanese in origin, I think pretty much entirely due to first observing it in a collection of animated movies that seemed to otherwise be exclusively Studio Ghibli movies. I had a vague sense that it was a story of Ireland, and likely concerned a fantastical adventure with nature spirits, but barely even that. I pictured something like Fern Gulley with the Irish forests. The box art was not very descriptive at all, and I’ve chosen a poster I haven’t seen before that gives more of a sense of story over mood, though I grant the other version is more visually appealing.

Having so little to go on, I think the main thing that kept me less than interested for so long was the design style of the boy and girl characters not being one of my favorite looks. I’m also not sure if the title is meant to convey more than I’m picking up. I’ve only ever heard of Kells as in “Celtic knots inspired by the Book of Kells”, so for a long time I thought the Book of Kells was a book cataloging design. For a bit, I entertained the possibility that Kells might be another name for Celtic knots.

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Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Warner Bros. 1993

Before watching the movie:

I have vague memories of watching Batman: The Animated Series as a kid. It was a thing that was on, sometimes I would watch it when it was available, but I don’t remember really making a habit of it. Even so, it defined Batman for me as a kid. I was aware of the live-action movies of course. I definitely remember at least one McDonald’s Happy Meal tie in that I got a Hot Wheels-size version of the best Batmobile out of, but I’m not sure the timelines actually sync up, since it would have been the 1991 promotion and I may have been a little young to be as aware of it as I remember.

Regardless, as for many my age, this is the definitive version of Batman to me. I’ve probably watched more episodes as an adult seeking them out, but the series brought as much plot and emotional complexity to half-hour episodes as was possible. It introduced characters and interpretations so compelling they were imported to the comics and other versions, it was the keystone to a shared-continuity animated franchise, and had two direct continuation series.

I’ve gotten around to Batman and Mister Freeze: Sub-Zero before, but I never made it to the first movie spinoff, the one that actually got released in theaters before. And it has taken me entirely too long to get here.

After watching the movie:

Batman busts a meeting of Gotham’s biggest crime lords, and in the ensuing chaos, Chuckie Sol gets accosted by a hooded, masked figure claiming to be his agent of death, who tricks him into crashing his car through a parking garage wall, leaving him dead. When bystanders look up at the commotion, they see Batman at the hole in the wall trying to understand what just happened, and news spreads fast that Batman might have graduated to murdering mob bosses. Councilman Arthur Reeves, in the mafia’s pocket, vows to finally have Batman arrested. Ten years earlier, in Bruce Wayne’s earliest days of crime fighting, before he figured out how to intimidate the criminals, he met Andrea Beaumont in the cemetery talking to her mother’s grave close to where Bruce was talking to his own parents, and they quickly bonded. Bruce became torn between the vow he made to his parents to avenge them against all crime in Gotham when he realized that plan never included having someone waiting for him at home, and their relationship ultimately ended in heartbreak. Now, Andrea is returning to Gotham, and Batman realizes that the gangsters getting killed all share a link with Andrea’s businessman father, but his investigation is hampered by Gotham law enforcement hunting him down for the same murders, while the next don on the Phantasm’s list has gone to a former mook and friend from the old days for help, now in business for himself as the Clown Prince of Crime.

When a movie gets made from a tv show, especially one still on the air, one of the important questions to answer is what can this do that an episode can’t. Aside from the corny early 90s CGI fly-through of Gotham skyscrapers right at the beginning that doesn’t contribute much except to show “look what we can do with a movie budget!” the answer is that I think this story plays with lore too integral to the Batman mythos to trust to a 30-minute story. It doesn’t just rehash Batman’s origin story, it goes inside the often-elided time when Bruce was still trying to figure out how to be a vigilante and tells us the love of his life we never knew about was there. It dangles the Joker’s life before he was the Joker in front of us. It shows us that Gotham once hosted a World’s Fair. And it does it all with incredible care, so that it feels like they’re sharing secrets instead of polluting an established story.

They also take a lot of time to explore the tragedy of being Bruce Wayne. For the first time here, he really has to wrestle with the conflict between what he feels he owes to his parents and a chance to let himself just be happy, and the weight of that dilemma is keenly felt. Of course, in a more realistic world, Bruce would be better served by getting therapy and realizing that maybe he took a flying leap from his parents getting accidentally shot in a mugging gone wrong to a duty to them to clean up all the crime in the city with only wits, fists, and gadgets, but this is not the world he lives in, and regardless of what he wants, becoming Batman is the destiny he cannot escape. And in this story, he rages against that.

Involving the Joker feels almost obligatory. The Phantasm may have unacceptable methods, but the motives are too sympathetic to be satisfyingly defeated alone, so one of the regular villains has to come in the last act to raise the stakes and be properly thwarted in the end. There’s really only one good reason it had to be the Joker, and one could argue that some of the other rogues could be made to make sense too (isn’t the Penguin a crime boss?), but he’s mostly just the one brought into the game late because he’s Batman’s most iconic antagonist, and this is this version of Batman’s first movie. It can feel about as lazy as making Moriarty the surprise mastermind behind every Sherlock Holmes mystery. A version of this story could probably be wrapped up with a dire fight against a well-prepared mob boss and his goons instead of against one of the Usual Suspects while on the run from the law. But Mark Hamill’s Joker is too charismatically sinister to be too upset about.

While this was shown in theaters, that was a relatively late decision, and it could’ve stood to have more production time to make it ready for cinemas instead of just a surprisingly good direct to video feature. I felt I was watching really good storytelling, but I didn’t quite feel like I was watching a real movie. Whatever it is or isn’t, even by the standards of Batman: TAS, this is masterful.

Across the Universe

Across the Universe. Revolution Studios 2007.

Before watching the movie:

I remember this being huge and then pretty much disappearing. I was actually a little confused for a while about whether this and Moulin Rouge were the same movie, because that is how little I knew about the story, and I know not much more now. I think I’ve seen one clip that has the romantic leads singing in a trippy cosmic setting that’s probably not diegetic, so I can rule out a space movie and probably a fantastical movie.

Essentially, all anyone will say about it is that it’s the musical that’s all Beatles music (though it seems it actually also includes Beatles-adjacent music, but I always thought Wings sounded like The Beatles anyway). Nobody really said much about what Mamma Mia was about either, and it’s not like the familiar music being the draw left it a disappointment, but this movie hasn’t had the impact that Mamma Mia did, so I’m not sure what I’m going to get, but it will probably look pretty and sound familiar.

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Meet Me In St. Louis

Meet me in St. Louis. Metro Goldwyn Meyer 1944.

Before watching the movie:

When I decided to cover jukebox musicals, I did some research to try to get some more variety. I found that Wikipedia is a bit lax with their definition of a jukebox musical. My impression is that they count any musical that has at least one preexisting song in it. However, a significant percentage of the songs in this show seem to be songs that were not originated for the production, and among those, many seem to be from the time the story is set in, if not already associated with the 1904 World’s Fair. It is at least close enough that I’ll take it.

That said, a lot of musicals from the golden age of Hollywood musicals have songs that originated with them but have become completely divorced from them and become standards. I’ve been taken by surprise by some other musicals, but in studying the musical credits I see that “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” both appear to have basically originated with this movie, but have long since come to stand on their own.

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Moulin Rouge!

Before watching the movie:

Unsurprisingly, I have very little knowledge of this movie from the outside. Maybe I should try to find more movies people have completely given away so I have more to talk about. I did manage to get that it had something to do with a cabaret in historic Paris, and after a long time being confused about the provenance of songs like “Lady Marmalade”, I came to learn it was a jukebox musical. This was probably the first jukebox musical I became aware of that wasn’t entirely from the catalog of a single act, and I was a bit surprised that could be done, since the most notable jukebox musicals I know of are Mamma Mia! (ABBA), Across the Universe (Beatles), and Movin’ Out (Billy Joel, not a movie yet as far as I know, also until just now I thought the show was bafflingly titled after “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”). Stepping back I think what happened was it became a bit of a trend for long-running musicians to license out their collected works to Broadway, which is certainly a lot easier to build a show around than trying to license the works that make sense to use in the story you planned to tell.

Anyway, the briefest of looks over what this movie is about informs me that it is not directly related to the previous movies named for the Moulin Rouge venue, and that Henri Toulouse-Latrec is a character here, which kind of makes sense since I know he painted for the Parisian cabarets and I dimly recall one for the Moulin Rouge. He’s not the lead, but does look a bit important, so I don’t know how that’s going to go.

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Mamma Mia!

Mamma Mia! Relativity Media 2008

Before watching the movie:

This month I will be focusing on jukebox musicals, and for me in my experience, there’s no more obvious jukebox musical film than Mamma Mia!, having spent 20 years of my life being very aware of the music of ABBA being in the world.

I think the plot they’ve woven around these songs has to do with a woman about to get married and wanting to include the father she’s never met, only to find out her mother isn’t sure who that is because she was seeing three men at the same time. There are some details I’m more certain of than others, but finding fathers is definitely involved. I think the “sequel” is a flashback to that time frame entirely.

The music has already stood the test of time, but the story has to live up to one episode of Community that spent all its budget on the gag that the Halloween party playlist was just ABBA’s entire catalog.

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The Night the World Exploded

The Night the World Exploded. Clover Productions 1957.

Before watching the movie:

Another one I stumbled upon that I know pretty much nothing about. It has something to do with an unknown mineral that’s been present in the Earth all this time igniting and bad stuff happens. I don’t know how the plot is going to set up that this thing can happen and is going to destroy the world if it isn’t stopped if it sounds like setting it off in one place will set it off all over the world, but that’s what I’ll find out.

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Along Came Polly

Along Came Polly. Jersey Films 2004.

Before watching the movie:

I think I was aware of this movie as a title floating out there, but that was pretty much the end of it. Even watching a trailer, I thought this was There’s Something About Mary for a moment. I wouldn’t have expected Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston to appear together in anything.

Total opposites romantic comedies, especially where the cautious guy’s world is opened by a wildcard girl, are pretty common (off the top of my head, Something Wild fits the bill), but what the concept reminds me the most of is Yes Man. It’s something about the mix of extreme activities that he never would have agreed to without this change in his life, I think. I don’t really have a whole lot more to say about a movie I barely knew existed, just how much it reminds me of more well-regarded movies.

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Ip Man

Ip Man. Golden Harvest 2008.

Before watching the movie:

I have heard this series mentioned a lot as some kind of great work that doesn’t have to be discussed because everyone in the conversation has already seen it. I’ve seen the sequels pop up from time to time, but the original movie doesn’t show up as much.

I have to admit I read the title as if it was English until I decided to look up what it’s about. What does a man of Ip do? Ip Man (or Yip Man, or Ip Mun, depending on the transliteration) is the name of a famous martial artist. He trained Bruce Lee. This is (very loosely) based on his early life. Apparently the story is about him standing up to invading forces to defend his village solo, which is to say it concerns things that absolutely didn’t happen to him in the Second Sino-Japanese war.

I have the understanding that while this movie did not originally get released in the US, it, or at least its sequels, brought Donnie Yen to the attention of American film studios. I do not know any of the names of the other actors, but it looks like they actually cast Japanese actors as the Japanese characters, which I suppose a Chinese production is more likely to do if they have access to Japanese actors, because Chinese audiences are very familiar with the differences between Chinese and Japanese people, unlike many in the American audience.

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