Monthly Archives: December 2014

A Scanner Darkly

Normally I’m not a huge fan of the rotoscoping technique; it tends to look jarring and awkward when put up against regular keyframed animation, be it hand-drawn or CGI (though that tends to have plenty of live action reference). However, it has been used well in different ways by certain filmmakers, most notably the likes of the Fleischer brothers, Don Bluth, Steven Spielberg in his Tintin movie, and in today’s entry, Richard Linklater in his adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. With the help of Bob Sabiston, who had worked with him on Waking Life (though sadly Sabiston was kicked off this project mid-stream thanks to production woes), Linklater creates a great, almost comic-book style to depict the near-future goings-on and drugged-out characters of the story.

Said story is often meandering and goes down dead ends, but that fits the tone of the whole enterprise, focusing on the increasing paranoia and blurred identities of the cast. At the center is Fred (Keanu Reeves), an undercover cop investigating a household for links to the manufacturers of a dangerously addictive drug called Substance D. His roommates include the likes of Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.), Luckman (Woody Harrelson), Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) and Donna (Winona Ryder). Adding further complications is that Fred has been ordered to spy on his own alter ego, Bob Arctor, since he and his superiors keep their identities secret from each other through the use of “scramble suits” (an ingenious visual effect). As things spiral out of control, Fred/Bob begins to ask himself that age old question: what is real?

I have never taken drugs myself, or been around many people who have taken them, but despite this, there seems to be an eerie verisimilitude to the performances and writing of these characters, ready to turn on each other for the most mundane reasons. An argument about the number of gears on a bike manages to be by turns hilarious and terrifying, the hallucinations are more convincing than they might have been in live action, and a late-film reveal calls everything we thought we knew about the plot into question. The actors all put in excellent work. I feel like Keanu Reeves gets a bad rap for not emoting as much or underplaying things, but I tend to think that works for a lot of his characters. He has a couple monologues here that benefit greatly from his matter-of-fact monotone. Downey is scarily charismatic as usual, and one wonders if there is an alternate universe where he ended up playing supervillains instead of Tony Stark thanks to roles like this. Harrelson provides some welcome comic relief, Cochrane gets excellent mileage out of his Jeremy Davies-esque twitchiness, and Ryder brings some interesting shades to Donna, especially by the end.

The film is curiously non-judgmental in its portrayal of drug users. It probably helps that Dick was one in real life, and had many friends who were, but the anger in the film seems directed more at the manufacturers, rehab facilities and the ineffectual time-wasting of the police going after burnouts like Barris or Freck to try and get to a higher level. The ending, with the horrifying revelation made about the New Path rehab company, seems to reinforce this. There’s a slight glimmer of hope at the end, but the user-rehab-police cycle is shown to be a vicious one. The heartbreaking list of friends and colleagues Dick lost to drug use at the end (including himself-“Phil”) doesn’t help.

All in all, A Scanner Darkly is an excellent curiosity. It tackles material I wish was tackled in American animation more often, and in ways that find dark humor and sadness in the proceedings. Ultimately I was left a little cold emotionally, but it was still very compelling and intriguing in its way.

Whisper of the Heart

Whisper of the Heart resembles other Studio Ghibli films like My Neighbor Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service in that there are no grand adventures, no epic struggles. It’s the simple but utterly charming story of a teenage girl trying to find herself. Written by the master Miyazaki and directed by the sadly late Yoshifumi Kondo, it’s a film I find myself returning to again and again for its quiet majesty and good nature.

Much like Kiki’s, the film is eerily good at getting into the mindset of not just what teenagers sound like, but what being one felt like. It captures the boredom of class, the excitement of first crushes, the uncertainty of what you want to do with your future and when curiosity distracted you from doing something important. There’s an absolutely marvelous little sequence where our heroine, Shizuku Tsukushima (Brittany Snow in the English dub), follows a portly cat across town in lieu of returning books to the library. It’s a quiet, yet exciting journey, and Shizuku manages to take the film in a direction we don’t expect as a result, finding a quaint antiques shop and a friendly old man, Nishi (Harold Gould), who turns out to be the grandfather of the boy she’s starting to like, Seiji Amasawa (David Gallagher).

My favorite part of the film is the subplot that develops where Shizuku decides to pursue her writing skills. The teen romance stuff is all very well done, sweet, funny and any complications that arise are dealt with quickly (a potential love triangle is mercifully brief). Yet Shizuku’s struggles with writing resonated with me far more; I consider myself a writer, and much of the pain she goes through attempting to do it is all too familiar, such as her agonized self-critique of a first draft. Yet the encouragement she gets from Nishi is just as important: stories can be rough that first time, but they can also be beautiful and passionate, only needing fine-tuning and refinement.

As usual for Ghibli, the technical merits of the film are excellent. Character designs are smooth and appealing, with the animation being nicely realistic and awkward in its depiction of teenage body language (my favorite bit is probably when Shizuku’s friend, Yuko, has been crying and looks absolutely miserable, but it’s still kind of funny). Yuji Nomi, taking over for usual Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi, provides a diverse score of orchestrations and more modern electronic music, though the best stuff is probably in the brief fantasy interludes where Shizuku imagines the characters and world of her story. The English dub is quite good, with Snow, Gallagher and other teenage actors at the time like Ashley Tisdale and Martin Spanjers giving down-to-Earth performances, with Gould probably being the best amongst the supporting cast, which includes James Sikking and Jean Smart as Shizuku’s parents and Courtney Thorne-Smith as her older sister.

Whisper of the Heart is probably my favorite of the non-directed-by-Miyazaki Ghibli films (outside of My Neighbors The Yamadas, never been much of a Takahata fan), with a subtlety and gentleness that I wish more American animation was willing to try. Arguably it’s far better than a lot of live action teenage-focused properties; authors would do well to study it. They might learn something.