Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Archives for: October 2009, 14

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

05:36:46 pm , 2936 words, 1565 views     Categories: Animation, Live-action

More VIFF 2009 thoughts

Some more thoughts on films I've seen at the VIFF. I'll start with the ones of more relevance to this blog.

I saw the fourth installment in the McDull series, Kung-Fu Kindergarten. I never saw the third one, but I'd seen the first two at the VIFF in prior years. The second had disappointed me, being a rehash of the first in style and tone, and seeming to show the seams of the material, which seems like nothing more than a series of gags in retrospect. I was astounded that the fourth film felt pretty much exactly like the previous entries. It's something of an amazing feat to be able to make so little progress after four films. I assume it's intentional, because the formula seems to work with audiences. The audience at the screening I saw was roaring with laughter at the tiniest little movement of a character. It seems like the film couldn't go wrong. The mere appearance of a cute anthropomorphic animal on the screen was enough to elicit a wave of "awws". I think I laughed honestly at the joke where the guy breaks a toothpick and throws it in his tea to perform an augury, and McDull goes, "Um, I used that to pick my teeth." But the rest as pretty slim pickins. Like the previous films, the style of the film is hand-drawn characters and CGI or paintings for the backgrounds and everything else. The backgrounds were actually quite nice in and of themselves in many spots, but the animation of the characters was just as lifeless and uninteresting as any of the previous films. I think part of what ruined it for me is people roaring with laughter at jokes that to me seemed like they might support at best a knowing smirk. Humanity depressed me in that theater. If I were watching it at home, I think it might have come across as a harmless little witty 70-minute entertainment, and an example of an internationally successful mainland Asian animation franchise, and I would probably have liked it better. I think it's fair to be demanding, though, and to ask: If it's possible for a franchise like this to be successful, where are the other mainland Asian projects trying to do something more ambitious? That's what I'd like to see. I thought the first McDull was ambitious and a laudable film. Making a series of it ruined it for me.

My Dog Tulip by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger is one of the best animated films of the last few years, no hesitation. It certainly renewed my faith in the possibilities of small-scale animated filmmaking after my viewing of the former film. This is indie feature filmmaking done right - a true work of love, handmade throughout without unnecessary polish, extremely creative with limited means, deeply felt, and with intelligent humor that elicits genuine laughter. I've been waiting for this one for years, and it exceeded my expectations, probably because I was not familiar with the source material. The source material, about the experiences of an English writer from the first half of the last century, is a masterpiece of dry English wit that serves up one of the most candid portraits of our relationships with our animal companions that has ever been put to paper (at least, judging by the film). The film largely consists of narrated reminiscences by the author about his experiences with his dog that are brought alive into visuals by the animation, much as was the case with the last film by the Fierlingers that I saw a few years back - A Room Nearby. The animation is very crude, with even buildings being drawn in a couple of askew scribbles, and took some getting used to. But this is animation at its most honest and real. Every movement of a character, every idea for what to portray on the screen and when in relation to the narrative, comes across as believable and funny, as the work of a master artist who isn't worrying about surface prettiness, but rather about creating animation that is truthful at every moment, whether it's in the realistic portrayal of the dog's behavior or the many flights of fancy in which the dog dons a dress and prances about. The humor of this film comes from wry and unflinchingly frank observations about the icky facts of life, whether it be describing the sanitary habits of one's canine, or going into an extremely uncomfortable level of detail about matters of reproduction (I now know more about dog vulvas than I wish I did).

Legendary Russian animator Andrey Krzhanovsky, who will be turning 70 next month, was represented at the festival with his debut live-action film, A Room and a Half, or a Sentimental Journey to the Homeland, released after 6 years of work. The film depicts the life of exiled poet Joseph Brodsky, and feels excessively languid and uninteresting in the sequences depicting his youth, but it works tremendously well in the various animated sequences that litter the film and bring alive the world of Brodsky's imagination and poetry. Together they make for a good balance in depicting a poet's life, and the film serves as a good example of how to use animation to heighten live-action filmmaking. I just wish the film were shorter and more tightly edited.

Trimpin: The Sound of Invention is a documentary about the outsider musician/inventor who goes by the name of Trimpin and currently resides in Seattle. I wish I had known about him when I lived there briefly, as the man has no cell phone, no web site, and there is basically no way to know where his work is being displayed short of contacting him directly. Which is a tremendous shame, because this wonderfully directed and edited documentary brings to us a picture of a true genius who is creating art that comes directly from within his soul. As the documentarist himself noted in the Q&A after the screening (at which a genial Trimpin was also present to kindly explain his take on things), his work comes across as a big up yours to the art establishment. Whether or not his art commands high prices, he will go on creating his extravagant sound sculptures, like a boy so endlessly fascinated by the magic of machinery that he must constantly take things apart to see how they're made, and put them back together in ingenious new configurations that bring dead and decaying technology humorously to life. Although Trimpin's sister was inclined to discount the suggestion that his genius is entirely the product of his upbringing in Germany, with its tradition of musical mechanical contraptions, I can see how Trimpin's playful art seems influenced by the whimsical sensibility of those mechanical novelty toys. This is the kind of art whose delightful ingenuity makes everyone, young or old, happy and puts a smile on people's faces, and I have nothing but respect for him for continuing to do what comes naturally to him, irrespective of whether fame follows or not.

The Hong Kong film Written By was the only film I walked out of this year. I haven't seen a film so excruciatingly artless, manipulative and ham-handed in a good long time. The acting was horrible, the directing was tasteless, and most of all the story was pretentious and ludicrous. It attempts to be sophisticated with its hilariously bad imitation of every Charlie Kaufman cliche ever mimicked by a talentless film school student of a scenario, but it falls flat on its face, as does every attempt at humor and emotion. It's been a long time since I've seen a film that so rubbed me the wrong way.

Toad's Oil by actor-turned-director Koji Yakusho left me with a good feeling inside. Although the film is very wobbly if judged critically, and there are a lot of things you could criticize about it, and I'm not even sure it's a good film, I liked it and I appreciate what Yakusho tried to do with it. I liked his acting to begin with. Despite having the world at his feet, I got the feeling that Yakusho was an honest actor and person. I can't think of a more honest and emotionally raw performance than his performance in Eureka. This film benefits of that same kind of unfeigned, instinctive emotional honesty. It deals with a dark subject, but none of the characters betray any emotion throughout what's going on, which comes across as laudably unmanipulative of the audience as well as an interesting examination of how people deal with tragedy, keeping things bottled inside and putting a happy face on grief.

The Wind and the Water was one of the most deeply satisfying films I saw at the festival this year. The film's production style is innovative, being a collective effort at the opposite end of the idea of auteurism that dominates art movies, and its exploration of its characters is richly nuanced and thought-provoking. Ostensibly the first film to be produced entirely in Panama, it tells the story of a native boy from one of the islands inhabited by the aboriginals who comes to Panama for the first time, and an aboriginal girl raised entirely in Panama who visits the islands for the first time, and how their lives intersect. Structurally very elegant, the film is full of little details about the two characters' lives that makes their experience very believable as well as shedding light on the dynamics of life on both sides of the divide. From the girl's perspective we see the ambition to become something in the new society, to leave behind the old culture tied to outdated norms of social behavior and illogical rules, as well as the racist pressure that looks down on who she is deep down, and would never accept her no matter how hard she tries to become something she's not. In our position we see things naturally from her perspective and feel sorry for the ignorance, darkness and poverty in which the natives enclose themselves, and understand her wariness at the world of the elders. The boy's perspective rooted in the island culture is equally believable. He's shocked at the hollowness and institutionalized interpersonal dishonesty of life in town when he goes there. The film is admirable because it isn't necessarily a naive praising of all that is cultural tradition and rejection of everything that is new and modern; it's an even-handed examination of the complex interplay of both sides. The film was made by a collective, with native youth from all walks of life contributing their own life experiences during pre-production to make the experiences of the two characters true to life in that area. (I found this very reminiscent of how Masaaki Yuasa filled out the back stories of the characters in Mind Game with experiences of his staff) In short, this is a magnificent achievement of a film.

Jermal is an austere film from Indonesia that makes for difficult but rewarding viewing. The story is about a boy whose mother just died who goes off in search of his father, whom he finds on a fishing pier in the middle of the ocean. The father had fled society years ago on a murder charge, and now lives a beastly and mute life as a brutal overseer of his fishing operation's child labor. The entire film takes place on the jermal, and it's testament to the quality of the directing that the film holds up during its full length and doesn't become boring or tiresome. It is, however, difficult to endure the banal violence of the torments to which the boy is subjected throughout the first half by the dozen other boys on the jermal, not to mention his own father. As he bonds with the boys and eventually begins to get close to his father in the second half, the film takes on a more straightforward drama trajectory that is a little easier to stomach and even has a moving emotional impact. In retrospect, though, I'm very skeptical about the concept of the film at a basic level. The father's rejection and meanness towards his son seems believable thematically as a psychological corollary to the very obvious physical metaphor of the jermal as a cocoon in which the father shuts himself off from the world - accepting his son breaks down the mental wall he'd built up, and leads to his rehabilitation with society, even if it means heading back to land to face jail time. The transition from brute beast to loving father is just a little much to accept.

I'm very drawn to the ferment occurring in Chinese cinema these days. Some of the best films and the worst films I've seen from Asia lately have been from China, but even in the case of the bad films there's always at least some kind of visceral thrill at what they tried to do and failed. There's real experimentation going on with young filmmakers over there. Kun 1: Action is unfortunately one of the prime examples of the bad side. I find it hard to criticize it, because it's essentially film student wankery, and it's kind of redundant to criticize film students for making pretentious films in homage to Jean-Luc Godard as if they were the first to discover him. That's just what they do. I just can't fathom why it was included in this festival.

Cow is the diametric opposite of the latter - a big artificial wonderful studio extravaganza with superb acting from a huge cast of talented actors, magnificent cinematography, spot-on directing and a satisfying and rich story and characters. This is a shining example of the sort of intelligent films they're making in China aimed at wide audiences. It's not an art film - it's too riotously entertaining and exciting for that - but it's very artistic in both theme and execution. Set in the 1930s in Shandong province in the midst of an attack by the Japanese army on a small Chinese village, the film is unflinching in its portrayal of the brutality of the army, but admirably makes a point to depict the naive young soldiers of the Japanese army as being coerced, like the Japanese people, into fighting a war at the behest of a brutal imperialist government. Probably the most striking thing about the film is its cinematography. It's like they shot the film, and then put it all through Photoshop with the contrast set to 100. Every single solitary object on the screen looks so sharp it'll slice off your finger if you touch it. It's quite beautiful in its elegiac sepia mood, especially in evoking the bomb-blasted colorless deadness of the countryside, but I thought maybe it was a little overdone. Most of all, though, the interaction between the main actor and the cow is quite extraordinary. They manage to create a real feeling of there being a relationship between the two, and to make it seem as if the cow had human feelings and reacted like a human to what was going on around it. It's very artificial, but also very entertaining, and it's admirable in that it makes audiences invest so much emotionally in a cow, something I doubt has ever been done before, or at least to this extent.

Nomad's Land is a simple video travelogue by a Swiss guy retracing the footsteps of a Swiss writer who had taken a trip across the middle east and central Asia by motorcar several decades ago and written an evocative account of his journeys. At first I found the narrator an insufferable prig who could do nothing but talk about his own angsty emotions like an inward-turned adolescent while he's traveling through eastern Europe and the near east, without making a single comment that was enlightening or informative about the culture of the lands through which he travelled. While this criticism remained to an extent thereafter, the sheer beauty of the people and landscapes he photographed once he entered the borderland of Afghanistan and Pakistan inhabited by nomads of old who lived a life apart from the dominant mulsim culture won me over and made the rest of the journey mesmerising and unforgettable. The hale beauty of the people, with their colorful clothing and ornaments and uncovered heads and open and inviting smiles, serves as a shocking contrast with the cultural and religious closedmindedness and fanaticism that encroaches upon them. It comes across as a miracle that they should be able to continue to exist in such an environment without having been annihilated by the monolith of monoculturalism and religious extremism. It was with a feeling of awe and deep reverence and that I observed the unfolding of their traditional winter solstice ritual, in which they must go sacrifice a goat up on the mountain lest the gods be angered and spring be forever withheld. After continuing eastward, the narrator finds himself in dire straits on a number of occasions, and it was more embarrassing than anything and you felt like the narrator was getting what he deserved for dealing the people of these regions the insult of looking at them through the rose-colored glasses of western pastoral idealization. For the imagery and the tone of the latter half of the film alone, though, with its continuously changing patchwork of central Asian cultural richness, it's worth the price of admission. It's an exciting travelogue that will make you feel like dropping everything and striking out on the journey of a lifetime, possibly never to return.