IN THIS CORNER OF THE WORLD (Japan, 2017)

August 17, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. There is something hypnotic about the hand-drawn animation of writer/director Sunao Katabuchi’s film based on the 2007-09 Japanese manga (comic) by Fumiyo Kouno. With some similarities to Takahata’s 1988 classic Grave of the Fireflies, it’s more than a wartime drama – it’s a story of the human spirit.

It’s 1935 and Suzu is a young girl who lives in Eba, a town in Hiroshima. She is an exceptional artist with a vibrant imagination and an adventurous approach to life. Her innocence and pleasant childhood existence is rocked when, as a teenager, she receives an out-of-the-blue marriage proposal from a stranger. Life with his family in Kure forces Suzu into a daily routine of cleaning, mending and cooking – all while longing for her family in Eba.

The film clicks through the months and years, and provides a history of war time from the perspective of a family and village. While the date of August 6, 1945 hovers on the viewer’s mind, we experience how family dynamics are affected by war time. For Suzu, her daily routines such as food preparation provide a necessary structure and distraction, despite the ever-worsening shortage of food and supplies. These stresses are compounded by air raid warnings over the radio and Suzu suffers through vivid nightmares.

We so easily connect with Suzu as she continually fights through hardships – both physical and emotional – because of her determination to live a good life and overcome all obstacles. This is such expert story telling with a beautiful presentation, that the film periodically reminds us that war is close by. Even in a war torn country, the people must find a way to go about daily life while treasuring the rare moments of joy and understanding the strength of togetherness. It’s rare that an animated movie can deliver such a humanist look at fully formed characters and their feelings … all within a historical setting.

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A MONSTER CALLS (2016)

January 5, 2017

a-monster-calls Greetings again from the darkness. “From ghoulies and ghosties/ And long-legged beasties/ And things that go bump in the night,/ Good Lord, deliver us”. It’s an old Scottish poem that doesn’t take into account what movies like Pete’s Dragon, The Jungle Book, The BFG, and now this latest from director JA Bayona have intimated this year … not all those ‘bumps’ are necessarily evil.

Lewis MacDougal delivers an incredibly nuanced performance displaying a wide array of emotions as “a boy too young to be a man, and too old to be a child”. His beloved mother (the always terrific Felicity Jones) is bedridden with a terminal illness, and Conor faces relentless pressure for a kid: bullies at school, a dying mom, a strict grandmother, and some rough and vivid dreams/nightmares. As his clock flips to 12:07 am, he watches as a Groot-like giant sprouts from a nearby Yew tree. It’s an intimidating and magnificent beast who, through the dulcet tones of Liam Neeson, informs Conor that he will tell the boy three stories … after which Conor must tell his own.

The meaning behind the three stories (Prince/Queen, Apothecary/Parson, Invisible Man) is not immediately obvious to Conor, but the stories are animated through beautiful watercolors providing depth to the dreams and the lessons. This fascinating film is based on the novel by Patrick Ness who completed the idea of Siobhan Dowd after she passed away from the terminal illness that inspired the story.

I made the mistake of assuming this was going to be a kid’s movie in the style of another featuring the voice work of Mr. Neeson (as Aslan) – The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005). Instead, it’s a heavy drama, filled with emotions beyond what most kids experience. Conor is trying to come to grips with living with his stuffy grandmother (a solid Sigourney Weaver) while his mother slowly fades (but not without first introducing her son to the original misunderstood beast in King Kong), and already having a mostly absentee Dad (Toby Kebbell).

As with most tearjerkers (and this certainly is that!), there will be those who describe it as manipulative and obvious, but it’s likely most will find it to be a touching, well-written, superbly acted film with standout special effects utilized for the advancement of the story. Young Mr. MacDougal carries most of the movie and seamlessly bounds from anger to sadness to hopeful. Director Bayona proved in The Impossible and The Orphanage that he has an eye for kid actors, and when combined with the voice of Liam and the other fine actors it makes for a powerful experience … and a reminder that dealing with death is difficult for both kids and parents, and we all need a little help letting go (displayed literally here).

**NOTE: sharp-eyed viewers will spot a photograph of Liam Neeson as Conor’s grandfather on a shelf in the house.

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BOY AND THE WORLD (animated, 2015)

February 11, 2016

O Menino e o Mundo (Brazil)

boy and the world Greetings again from the darkness. It may not be Pixar, but this wonderful film from Ale Abreu is absolutely worthy of its Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, though it’s heavier on message than story. It’s a wonderful reminder that one of the best features of animation is that the look can be unconventional and still be effective.

The stick figure boy is on a mission to re-connect with his father, who left the family’s country home to find work in the big city. For Abreu’s film, the boy’s real purpose is to be our tour guide through this exploration of the state of the “civilized” world. It’s an adventure that provides the boy (and us) insight into cities, the sea, the countryside and agricultural life. It’s also an examination of the loss of childhood innocence as we are exposed to reality.

A rare hand-drawn presentation is also mixed-media, as it utilizes a few real news clips to emphasize the cluttered, damaged world. It’s a different approach in making the arguments regarding climate change, carbon footprints and socioeconomic imbalance. The hand-drawn core here is more complex than what we initially believe. Colors explode onto the screen, and the visuals often carry multiple meanings in depicting the intended message.

Dialogue is minimal and often garbled in a manner that reminds of any adult in the Charlie Brown comics … but we are never confused on what is being conveyed. In addition to the visuals, sound effects play a huge role, as does the music from composers Ruben Feffer and Gustavo Kuriat, and Brazilian jazz favorite Nana Vasconcelos. It’s a unique approach to reminding us that our harsh treatment of the planet could play like a horror story or dangerous adventure to the innocent eyes of a child.

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WAVES ’98 (animated short film, 2016)

January 21, 2016

waves 98 Greetings again from the darkness. With a prestigious award from Cannes, filmmaker Ely Dagher probably had hopes for an Oscar nomination in the animated short film category. The nomination didn’t happen, but that doesn’t diminish the fine work from the Beirut-born director, who also uses splashes of news reel footage to contrast with the animation.

A teenager in suburban post-war Beirut has become disillusioned with his days of school and mundane home life. He spends hours on a rooftop gazing at downtown Beirut and a world so close, of which he knows so little. One day he is drawn to the unfamiliar urban landscape by a light emanating from the tall buildings … a light encouraging the younger generation to cross the bitter lines of division that have been wrecking the city.

He soon enters a world of imagination and serenity, and finds his bond to his real life slipping away. It’s a reminder that change only occurs with action, not merely dreams of a better world. The recurring theme and the block in his mind are presented to us by these two lines: “I’m tired of hearing the same story over and over again”; and “It feels like everything is stuck.” These feelings are not uncommon in teenagers all over the globe, but especially poignant given this setting.

 


ANOMALISA (animated, 2015)

January 1, 2016

anomalisa Greetings again from the darkness. Seeing Charlie Kaufman’s work described as “strange”, “weird” or “bizarre” makes me cringe a little because most of his films hit my sweet spot of curiosity, insight and expression. I easily relate to his creative vision and commentary in films like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Synecdoche, New York. His characters are always searching for something and trying to discern the meaning of life … or at least of their own life. This latest has Kaufman adapting his own stage production, and collaborating with co-director Duke Johnson for what is likely (for the vast majority of us) our most startling existential stop-action animated puppet cinematic experience.

The unusual opening of the film is a black screen with only background noise and voices, and the first chuckle occurred within about a minute thanks to one of my favorite cultural references of the year: “Kojak, not Kolchak”. Slowly the screen evolves to show clouds in the sky, and soon an airplane appears and our first peek at Michael occurs … he’s a passenger on a flight. The vast majority of the rest of the film takes place inside the Fregoli Hotel – aptly named because Michael seems to suffer from a twist on Fregoli Delusion (a person believes those around him are all the same person in disguise).

We soon notice that Michael appears beaten down, even exasperated with life. He is an author in town to give a presentation on his specialty … Customer Service. The story continues along familiar lines of a business traveler in the midst of a mid-life crisis, until things change for him when he stumbles on a couple of his fans who are in town for his presentation. One of them is Lisa, whom Michael is attracted to thanks to her innocent energy and wonderful voice. What makes her voice so wonderful? Well, it turns out that Michael is voiced by British actor David Thewlis, Lisa is voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and EVERY other character in the film (male or female) is voiced by Tom Noonan. Lisa and her voice are the anomaly that makes up the film’s title … Michael is smitten with her because her voice is not like all the others – providing a spark of hope.

Mr. Kaufman seems intent on making us realize how easily we can slip into a rut and simply go through the motions in life … every day and every person being pretty much like the rest. Michael has learned to wear his Customer Service mask – one who pretends to care about the issues of others. It’s a terrific metaphor for someone refusing to face the responsibility for their own happiness. His awakening occurs at the hands (and in bed) with Lisa. Yes, you should be prepared for the uncommon and slightly unsettling site of Puppet Private Parts. The clumsy passion of the first encounter between Michael and Lisa does wonders for each of them … restoring her self-esteem and awakening him from his daily slumber of hopelessness.

While the story itself is quite simple, the use of puppets prevents us from getting overly personal or judgmental with the characters, and forces us to deal with the emotional and mental aspects of what keeps so many from leading happy lives. Lisa’s acapella version of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” ignites the fuse in Michael, and just like that, both he and Lisa are jolted from their own self-imposed limitations. No longer able to just go through the motions, Michael’s overreactions at breakfast and during his presentation are all part of his re-awakening … the most profound puppet awakening since Pinocchio. Perhaps Mr. Kaufman thought we might be more receptive to his message and observations if delivered by a non-threatening puppet, and perhaps he’s correct. The message is delivered loudly and clearly … though I will probably hear Tom Noonan’s voice in my nightmares. The look of the movie and the puppets is fantastic, and Carter Burwell provides yet another spot-on score.

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THE GOOD DINOSAUR (2015)

December 3, 2015

the good dinosaur Greetings again from the darkness. Two Pixar films in one year? Earlier this year, the brilliant Inside Out reminded us just what sets Pixar apart from other animation studios … the film was intelligent, insightful, thoughtful, beautiful, funny and emotional enough to bring tears to the eyes of many parents. In other words, it’s a tough act to follow – even for Pixar!

Of course, 2015 was not intended to be a double-header for Pixar. The Good Dinosaur ran into serious production and story issues at the same time the studio was going through layoffs and reorganization. So the six year project turned into eight, as a new creative team was brought in (led by director Peter Sohn), and the story and characters were re-worked and re-imagined. The finished product is likely the most staggeringly beautiful animation to ever hit the big screen, while at the same time being some of the darkest and bleakest material ever presented by Pixar.

The premise is pretty interesting: What would Earth be like if THE asteroid had missed, and the dinosaurs survived? That’s about as sciency as the story gets, other than it does portray nature as a colossal adversary (what’s with the hallucinogenic berries?). We first meet Momma and Poppa Apatosaurus as they work their corn fields (huh?) and wait for their baby eggs to hatch. The runt of the litter is Arlo, who just can’t keep up with his more active siblings and who feels inadequate in comparison to his majestic father.

Arlo and nature are responsible for the tragedy that sends Arlo off on a journey that features the full spectrum: the importance of family, the sadness of loss, the strength of friendship, and the self-discovery that leads to independence. While there are quite a few laughs along the way, the fear and isolation that Arlo experiences takes up most of the movie, and could leave all but the strongest kids feeling anything but upbeat and happy.

There is a life lesson about making one’s mark, and an oddball friendship between Arlo and young boy (named Spot??) who is wise to nature. But this one lacks the charm of most Pixar outings, while at the same time reaching technical levels that are breathtaking to behold. It’s difficult to imagine many kids wanting to watch this one again and again, but for all you Pixar nerds, you can rest easy … John Ratzenberger does make a vocal appearance.

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KAHLIL GIBRAN’S THE PROPHET (2015)

August 19, 2015

prophet Greetings again from the darkness. An animated, artistic, philosophical parable based on a 1923 book from a Lebanese poet … it’s as if the filmmakers went out of their way to make sure most everyone would be turned off by some aspect. Instead, director Roger Allers delivers a beautiful and thoughtful representation of nine of the 26 stories from Kahlil Gibran’s influential best-seller.

The story revolves around Mustafa, an artist and poet who was exiled seven years earlier when his words were deemed harmful to the local regime. Mustafa is informed that he will be granted his freedom to return home, and as he is escorted through town, Mustafa periodically delivers his insightful and inspiring words to the people of the land. These make up the 9 segments (Freedom, Children, Marriage, Work, Love, etc) within the movie, and each of these segments is the unique work of a different renowned artist/director. The artistic style and presentation varies between each segment, and some employ the use of music (Damien Rice, Glen Hansard).

As Mustafa recites the words of Gibran, the individual segments unfold with the artistry of each director. These blend well with the overall story which also features Mustafa’s housekeeper and her young daughter (who initially doesn’t speak). The voice acting is top notch thanks to Liam Neeson (Mustafa), Salma Hayek (the housekeeper), Quvenzhane Wallis (Almitra), John Krasinski (a lovesick guard), Alfred Molina (Sergeant), and Frank Langella (regime leader). Mr. Neeson is especially effective as the soothing voice of Gibran’s words.

This was evidently a pet project of Salma Hayek, who also is Producer of the film. She wisely enlisted director Roger Allers, who has ties to Disney and the hugely popular The Lion King. The film is Disney-esque in its approach, but is certainly not aimed at kids. It’s really a blend of the segmented structure of Fantasia, the adult-themed style of Watership Down, and the philosophical meanderings of Gandhi.

Gibran writes that “all work is noble”, and the work of these filmmakers certainly is. As with any poetry or philosophy, one must be receptive to the message and willing to be inspired. If not, it’s merely “love and flowers”.

watch the trailer: