At the end of the 28th century, the people of Earth have moved to one of the moons of Jupiter. Advances in biological engineering allow scientists to give people special abilities, such as the ability to withstand alien gravitational forces and extra strength. As these genetic tweaks shift from modifications required to survive on other worlds to a form of government control, an underground radical movement forms. Parker C. Boyd (Claudia Black) is among the many workers resigned to a life of servitude when she catches a performance by rebel singer Naia (Tara Strong) and falls madly in love. Parker joins Naia's band as a sax player, and the pair look to live and love together on the road, but shady record executive Dorlan Mig (Tim Curry) has other plans for Naia, cutting Parker loose and turning the people's musician into a pop star. Teaming up with the pilots of a junk cruiser, Parker knows something's fishy about the new Naia, and goes on a reckless rescue mission to get her girlfriend back.
Advertised as the world's first lesbian animated sci-fi film, Strange Frame was crafted by director / co-writer G.B. Hajim out of hand-cut paper, similar to South Park. Even the harshest critics will have to concede that the movie is an electrifying trip for the eyeballs, fully embracing a visual style that, at most, very few films share. Hajim's vision of the future rejects the drained and dreary appearance live-action movies frequently choose for dystopias as swiftly and emphatically as a punch to the face, covering every surface and character in eye-popping colors that frequently glow or shimmer. Occasionally, Hajim will drop in a snippet of a photograph, a clip of a black-and-white TV show from the 1950s or 1960s, or some other pre-conceived element (one stand-out sequence flies into a series of geisha paintings), and viewers with sharp eyes and ears will catch references to some sci-fi classics, like Blade Runner and Star Wars.
It's also great that this movie boldly goes for LGBT sci-fi fans, who are almost certainly not drowning in sea of choices when it comes to movies and television. Although the film does separate the characters as part of the story, the early scenes between Parker and Naia are surprisingly intimate, not just for a sci-fi film or an animated film, but for films in general. Through the vocal performances and the visuals, Hajim drives home the sense of physical contact between the couple. Each moment Parker and Naia share together crackles with a potent sexual energy that's only all the more impressive considering it's all done with bits of paper. The film also makes good on the "sci-fi fans" half of the equation with a cast that includes genre icons like Black, Ron Glass, Michael Dorn, Juliet Landau, George Takei, and Claudia Christian, and the characters are all multi-cultural, an interesting, subtle note about this concept of the future.
The cast and visuals will be enough to get the audience's attention and keep it, but a number of flaws lurk beneath the surface. Although the film is always incredible to look at, the huge caveat is that the abstract style often kills spatial geography and visual storytelling. Conversations between two characters are often made up entirely of medium shots, in front of a visual that's eye-popping but entirely indefinite -- less of a background than a backdrop. Imagine a live-action film, shot in a house with white walls, but the production designer hangs gigantic paintings and oriental rugs to cover the background of each shot. Strange Frame gets to coast a little while longer because it's so unique, but the principle is still the same: the environments the characters in are part of the context of each scene, and the film becomes vague and monotonous when that context can't be deciphered. This kind of technique also defeats an action scene: when the characters are planning a mission, Hajim includes a clear diagram of the escape route in the form of a hologram, but when the actual escape occurs, the big moment doesn't really look like anything thanks to odd angle choices and a lack of definition in the environment.
Strange Frame is also fixated on world-building. Wikipedia says Hajim initially plotted the film as the first of a series, but in trying to create a specific identity for the Strange Frame universe, the movie stumbles across a common, painful sci-fi pothole: slang and foreign languages. For some reason, in the world of Strange Frame people don't swear: "feck," "fect," "fork," "kack," "snickit," "vack," and some straight-up alien profanity are used in lieu of blue language -- except, as the punchline to a joke, an actual f-bomb is suddenly dropped. Characters will frequently describe objects and situations using similar slang, which will be meaningless to the viewer (one example on my notepad after the movie was "rankle of newzips"). The story could use some work, which is often motivated by chance instead of action and leaves the reasoning of the villains a little vague (it doesn't make sense that Mig keeps the band but dumps Parker, and the sub-thread with Juliet Landau's character Bitsea is hard to follow). Hajim also envisions this as a musical, but the few songs in the movie are bad or forgettable.
Despite all of the film's shortcomings, though, Strange Frame is a positive experience. Many movies have tried and failed to coast on sheer style, but Hajim successfully squeaks by because even when he flounders as a director or screenwriter, the film's inspired casting and look will carry the viewer along, as well as its appeal to a unique and undoubtedly under-served audience. According to that Wikipedia article, the film's been in the works since 2001; hopefully it doesn't take another 12 to Hajim refine the formula with a sequel.
On the shelf, the DVD cover for Strange Frame might seem like a strange Photoshop disaster to potential buyers who don't realize the film actually looks that way (which says more about what passes for DVD artwork these days than the look of Strange Frame). The disc comes in a plastic-conserving eco-case, and there is a postcard insert advertising Wolfe releases on VOD networks.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, strange Frame gets a shockingly good DVD transfer. Despite the film being a non-stop minefield of potential color bleeding, artifacting, and other ugly DVD compression flaws, the worst thing I noticed here was some relatively restrained banding in a couple of dark scenes. A slight softness is perfectly balanced, taking the digital edge off the movie's intense visual style and prevents aliasing from overwhelming the image.
A Dolby Digital 5.1 mix advertised on the package as being by Skywalker Sound is also excellent, humming and pulsing with the film's hypnotic score. Action sequences are bold and exciting, with rich, immersive surround effects, and a scene where the characters go on a drug / booze trip is particularly spectacular. Dialogue is extremely heightened and bursts straight through the center channel in a way that seems to suit the film. English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
One deleted scene (5:18) drastically changes one character's exit from the picture. It's pretty heavy-handed, so it was probably wise to cut it, even if the alternative is an extremely abrupt farewell. It's followed by two short featurettes, "In the Studio" (6:34) and "Claudia Black on Strange Frame, Sex Scenes, and Sci-Fi" (7:26). The first is a pretty inconsequential glimpse of some of the actors recording their lines, so skip straight to the Black interview, which has a bit more substance.
A Wolfe Video anti-piracy promo and trailers for A Perfect Ending, Kiss Me, Face 2 Face, and Mosquita y Mari play before the main menu. An original trailer for Strange Frame is also included.
Strange Frame is mostly style over substance, but what substance is there is designed to appeal to a specific audience that's likely starved for entertainment. There's more than enough invention and spectacle in Strange Frame to recommend it, even if it's not a genre classic.
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