Friday, 5 October 2012

HIFF 2012: Animated Dreams

We're back with another post about this years Love & Anarchy festival. This time, I focus on the animated movies shown at the festival. As animations go, this year really wasn't among the strongest, since there were precious few titles screened. And from those, even Ghibli's newest didn't really work for me. But there was one absolute jewel among a bunch of average movies, which always makes it all worth it.

From Up On Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka kara, Japan)
Director: Goro Miyazaki

Annually, Love & Anarchy presents Studio Ghibli's animations, new and old. This year's effort is from Hayao Miyazaki's son Goro, who previously directed the ho-hum adaptation of Tales From The Earthsea. But where that movie got lost along its overly complex plotting, it seems that Goro has learned from his past mistakes and is keeping things simpler this time around. His new film represents Ghibli's often-forgotten string of more down-to-earth teenage romance movies. And it's loosely based on Papa Miyazaki's own youth experiences, with the father of Goro and all of Ghibli having scripted the piece. The film takes place in the early 60's.

Umi is a teenaged girl living with her family in a beautiful garden villa on Tokyo seaside. Every morning she raises a flag to the sea to salute the passing ships. Her reasons are to greet her father who was lost at sea during the Korean war, but the message is noticed by an orphan boy called Shun, who lives and works in a ship. He sends a flirtatious poem for Umi to the local newspaper. However, the teens have never met, until their school is facing some renovations due to the upcoming Olympic games. These include the demolition of the old club house of the students. Both Shun and Umi rise up to protest against these plans. And at the same time they begin to fall for each other. But the history of their families has a secret, which may destroy the prospects of a blossoming romance altogether.

The story of two kids from different backgrounds coming together using a common cause as an excuse is nothing new. The old Ghibli charm makes it a hell of a lot more charming, but it is still lacking in the magic and originality so often attached to the studio's work. What's worse is the creepy undertones that the center romance has, which don't feel suitable to a movie aimed at kids and teenagers. But the hand-drawn animation and painted backgrounds are once again beautiful and the film has plenty of silly memorable minor characters to keep it barely afloat. Goro has at least learned to have a better rhythm in his storytelling, even though this is still patchy.

★★ 1/2

A Letter to Momo (Momo e no tegami, Japan)
Director: Hiroyuki Okiura

While Ghibli may have failed to make a Ghibli-quality movie, a former Ghibli employee succeeded in it just fine. Ghibli. Hiroyuki Okiura's first feature animation is one of those animated films where the mundane worries and troubles of a pre- to early-teens girl faces a vivid and magical fantasy world. Story-wise this is familiar stuff. But it still works quite well due to the final touches being so charming.

14-year-old Momo and her mother move to a suburban island near Tokyo. It is the island Momo's mother grew up in, and she has to rely on relatives and friends since she can't afford the rents of the big city any more. Momo is saddened by the recent death of her father, which is made worse by the fact that she had a fight with him soon before that. She is clutching on to the father's final letter that only has "Dear Momo" written on it. She also fears loneliness, since she finds it hard to make new friends. Since Momo's mother goes to work on a boat every day, Momo has to spend a lot of time home alone.

Momo is also scared of her new house and comes to believe it to be haunted. She discovers that three paranormal goblins have moved in with them, the always hungry Iwa, the shy but big-mouthed Kawa and the small, odd and soft-speaking Mame. She is the only person that is able to see these creatures. The goblins cause a lot of trouble with their ravenous appetite, yet they also have a mysterious mission to carry from the afterlife. Unsurprisingly, these three characters steal the movie and run with it. But best animations always have good use for comic sidekicks, and these Three Undead Stooges are really what sweetens the whole cake here.

As in many best family animes, the craft is in the small details. The old house creaks and is seemingly full of mystery. Water surrounds the house and feels isolating at times but becomes more inviting towards the end. The film knowingly does things very traditionally as it stars goblins straight out of old Japanese folklore. The film uses some animation help from computers, particularly in one big money shot towards the end, but it relies much on hand-drawn lines as well. Several scenes of the film feel a bit tacked on. Sometimes this doesn't matter (like in the superbly rapid wild boar chase), but it could at least have one less ending to avoid The Lord of the Rings syndrome.


Le tableau (France/Belgium)
Director: Jean-François Laguionie

Possibly the most innovative animation from this year's program, this is a new film from a true animation auteur. Laguione is a somewhat obscure French artist who often takes years to perfect his vision. This is his first film since 2004. And it concerns the inhabitants of a painting.

In an unfinished painting, the occupants aren't living as equals. The fully-painted Alldunns live in a luxurious castle, throw parties and frown on Halfies, the people who weren't quite finished and still have unpainted body parts or clothes. The Halfies have to live in a forest, but even they have it better than Sketchies, the people who were left as mere sketches and are persecuted and hunted by Alldunns. The Halfie girl Lola is an adventurous sort, and wants to venture far into the desert, where no painting has gone before. At the same time a forbidden love causes Lola's best friend Claire and her Alldunn lover Roma decide to run away together. But they are discovered and soon separated. Running for their lives, Lola, Roma and a Sketchie sentenced to death join together. The trio ventures beyond their limits and go to search for the artist of their painting. Lola hopes the artist could finish painting everyone so they all could live in harmony.

It's probably not a very big spoiler to tell that the trio finds new painting which to visit. The resulting film has no clear parallels, but reminds a little a classic Looney Tunes short where Daffy Duck visited various paintings and their inhabitants as well. The film utilized various different painting styles and thus each painting does seem like its own world. A war painting's world is grim and aggressive, a painting featuring the Venice festival is vast with surprises lurking behind every corner, and the artist's self-portrait has grown grumpier with years passing, alongside its creator.

If this was all achieved with beautiful hand-drawn animation, I would love it to bits. But budget limitation (I guess) mandate that this is mostly a computer animation, using Flash to create movements. It undermines the diversity of different styles and the message of the value of the art quite a bit.

In the end, the artist figures his most successful works should have a life of their own. He's not an angry god, but a gentle father, allowing his works to sort everything out by themselves. It's an exciting animation with plenty of creativity, but it also would've needed a bit more of a personal touch to its animation as well.


Pablo (USA)
Director: Richard Goldgewicht

This documentary about the legendary movie title credit auteur Pablo Ferro isn't actually an animation as such, but it does feature lengthy animated sequences. It's entirely reasonable that a movie about someone who does a lot of drawing for a living would be animated. Sadly, the film seems to be more surface than heart or information.

Ferro is best known for his typography used in credits. The films which include his signature style include Dr. Strangelove, Stop Making Sense and Men In Black. But Ferro wasn't limited to just lettering, he is a cracking visual artist to boot. He did the entire title sequences for such films as Psycho, Bullitt and The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!. He also did some ground-breaking commercials, such as the pre-music-video fast-cut trailers for Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange.

You might remember him from this.
The documentary, narrated by Jeff Bridges, goes through the life of the Cuban-born visualist, which has seen a lot of hedonism and bohemian vices, but also poverty, divorce and being left unrecognized for his work. His friendship with director Hal Ashby is in a central role, yet there are a few amusing anecdotes about Stanley Kubrick as well. In modern day setting, Ferro is suffering from achy joints and is recommended a sauna bath.

Even though Ferro has done so many iconic movie titles, the film just glosses over them quickly to tell about another party Ferro was having or a girl he once picked up. This decadence is shown to be kind of cute (due to it mostly being in animation). For a serious film fan, the fact that they don't go deeper into how Ferro got his groundbreaking ideas, or even how he created them, is a serious flaw. Big Hollywood names are brought to sing his praises, yet it never really dealt with, how much Ferro's work changed the face of movie titles or commercials.

Fortunately, Ferro is presented as laid-back and easy-going as they come. One wouldn't dare to nit-pick the movie while watching because his company is so enjoyable. Only afterwards does one realize that after watching the film, one didn't really learn much about title sequences after all.


Wrinkles (Arrugas, Spain)
Director: Ignacio Ferreras

Remember the one really good animation I mentioned in the opening paragraph? I referred to this one. As one can guess from the title, this Spanish gem deals about growing old. But at the same time it also has a warm, melancholic look at human lives, dignity, and the value of memories. So it's a kind of a sibling piece to Michael Haneke's magnificent Amour. But it has two key differences. First, Wrinkles deals with an institution and how it suffocates little people, a little in the vein of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Second, it places much higher value to friendship, pulling together through hard last years, and doing whatever one can to make life better for people trapped in a corner with no easy way out. All in all, it's not cold and analytical in the way Haneke tends to be but warm and compassionate.

Emilio is a former banker, living with his grown up son and his family. But Emilio is getting more and more absent-minded and at times thinks he's still working at the bank.After having enough of this,  Emilio's son decides to put him in a retirement home. There, Emilio is horrified to learn that many of the inhabitants are demented to the pint of madness, reliving their old days without any idea of what goes on in the outside world.

He befriends his roommate, the Argentinian Miguel, who is one of the few people in the home who has kept his mind together. But Miguel isn't above cheating some of the inhabitants and staff of the house to gain items to sell, or some money to gain. Nevertheless, Miguel gives advice on how to avoid being put to the upper floor hospital department, where the most vegetable-stated seniors are put to. But Emilio's mind starts to crumble and he also starts to lose his own possessions, of which he suspects his new friend.

The film is based on a comic book and its style resembles the stark lines and panel framing of one. The animation is still gracefully done, since with animation it's easier to mix the real world and the version of the past many old people go through in their heads. Mist is a notable element of the film and is featured in many key scenes and transitions. As a symbol, it could be taken to mean various things. One action/chase scene is also fitted to the film, which it could've also done without.

The film makes one ponder about how we treat the elderly, who are seen more or less as a nuisance, in our societies. It forces the viewer to put him- or herself in the position of not realizing what is happening around him. It's a stark message, but the animated style helps to get it across without being melodramatic or pushing the issue. It is also a buddy film, with the best pair of buddies I've seen in a while, going even back before Pixar started out. But most importantly, it works as a metaphor of being between a rock and a hard place in life. Happiness is found not through rebelling against the inevitable, but concentrating on the important things in life. This helps one go on.

One of the whole festival's best films.

★★★★ 1/2

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