April 9, 2009

April is upon us once again, which means it's time for another round of Sprockets, the Toronto International Film Festival for Children. Browsing through the catalogue, I saw very few animated offerings, especially among feature-length titles. Here they are:

Dragon Hunters: This 3D computer animation from France, Germany, and Luxembourg is the story of Zoe, who loves stories about dragon hunts and aspires to join one herself. When her uncle sends her packing due to fears of a dragon called "World Gobbler" awakening, Zoe quickly recruits some unlikely "knights" in her quest and marches off to face the danger.

Little Dodo: Traditionally animated, this German film centres on a young orangutan named Dodo who discovers a violin in the forest, makes friends with humans, and gets scolded for his lack of musical talent by his animal neighbours.

Spirit of the Forest: Starring Giovanni Ribisi, Angelica Houston, Ron Perlman, and Sean Astin, this computer-animated Spanish film tells the tale of a ragtag band of animals who fight to save the life of a sentient tree threatened by developers. (I'm especially intrigued by the Clan of Free Cats mentioned in the description.)

Sprockets runs from April 18-24.

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September 16, 2007
Country: Japan
Director: Sori (Fumihiko Sori)
Length: 110 minutes
Rating: 14A
Distributor: FUNimation

Watching Vexille is a lot like going on a date with that hot airhead from high school: five minutes in, you wonder what excited you so much to begin with.

Vexille is the story of Vexille Serra (or Serra Vexille, if you live in the West), a member of a UN Special Forces unit called S.W.O.R.D. that monitors the advance of robotics and cybernetics technologies. The year is 2077, and for ten years Japan has lived behind a veil of electro-magnetic cloaking, building up the Daiwa Corporation robotics empire and refusing to allow real communications or travel in or out. Now the world fears that Japan has developed an android capable of passing as a human being, in violation of the same international treaties that caused Japan to withdraw from the UN years ago. And you guessed it: they have, and only through a chain of explosions, pseudo-scientific explanations, and thunderous Paul Oakenfold club anthems can the world be saved from a Bodysnatchers-like plot of android replacement.

Vexille has serious problems that render it more suitable for a late-night pizza-and-beer DVD rental than a twenty-dollar film festival movie ticket. But it's not all bad: Fumihiko Sori was the visual effects director for Appleseed, and fans of that silken, motion-capture-against-digital-vistas style will not be disappointed. The environments, particularly the slums of Tokyo and the toothy, glittering expanse of Los Angeles, are lovely. Tiny details, like snowflakes hitting a windscreen or grit kicked up by a tire, are well done. And the mechanical designs are fabulous. The aforementioned Oakenfold soundtrack keeps pace with the action. And the actions scenes themselves are good -- Sori knows how to execute a chase scene, if not how to inject one with any tension or suspense.

From frame one, the film plays like a bid to the Bubble-era "Techno-Orientalist" anxieties that Toshiya Ueno attributed to the West. It's all there: the threat of individual humans being replaced by human automatons as a result of Japan's technological superiority, Japan's hubris eventually becoming its downfall, Japanese people nobly sacrificing themselves en masse so that their virus cannot spread... The trouble is that the Bubble popped years ago. America has other fears now in China and Iran. Vexille might be an acknowledgement of those fears, or a parody of them. And if the film were smarter, it could have worked as the latter.

But the film is not smart. Every interesting plot point (the replacement of world leaders with "bio-metal" androids, or the giant, metal-eating desert sandworms borrowed from Dune) gets dropped in favour of yet another chase scene. And the titular character, Vexille, is just plain boring. Although the audience is supposed to believe her as a member of an elite fighting force, she does not behave like a well-trained or functional soldier. Yes, she pilots a mechanized suit very well, but so does everyone else on her squad. She seems to have no special skills to bring to the table, and frequently screams at the camera, bemoaning the fate of androids and humans alike instead of doing something useful to help herself or others. After watching a younger, more capable, smarter heroine in Terra, seeing Vexille Serra scream, cry, and follow secondary characters around causes no small amount of yawns and eye-rolls. It's telling when a titular character's most interesting plot development is learning via flashback that her boyfriend was in love with someone else ten years ago.

I saw only four films this Festival, but the other three audiences were loads more enthusiastic than this one. They laughed. They cheered. They held their breath. At the end of Vexille, the audience stood up and filed out quietly, more inspired by the need to find the night's last subway than the film they'd just seen. If you're an anime fan and you want good news from this year's Toronto International Festival, listen to this: Takeshi Miike and Quentin Tarantino are anime fans, and they've worked together on a live-action film called Sukiyaki Western Django. It's violent, funny, and plays like a lusciously-coloured manga flip-book. And there are anime in-jokes. Do yourself a favour, and wait for it instead.

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September 14, 2007
Country: Canada
Director: Aristomenis Tsirbas
Running Time: 85 minutes
Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Luke Wilson, Brian Cox, David Cross, Amanda Peet, Dennis Quaid, Rosanna Arquette, and James Garner

Today I saw Terra at the Toronto International Film Festival. My screening was packed, and I was lucky enough to attend a Q&A with the director. Tsirbas is a Montreal native, and remarked that premiering his first feature film at TIFF was a "moving and rewarding experience." There has been serious buzz about Terra, and after attending the film I learnt why.

Terra is the story of Mala, a young Terrian (a peaceful, art-loving, techno-wary race who resemble cute tadpoles) whose passion for designing and constructing gadgets makes her something of a misfit at school and home. One day, Mala (Evan Rachel Wood) and her friend Sen notice a mysterious alien ship. When it deploys several smaller ships, one of them crashes and Mala finds Lieutenant Jim Stanton (Luke Wilson) of the Earth Forces after he emerges from the wreckage. With the help of his robot Giddy (David Cross), she builds him an oxygen-friendly environment and learns his language. After the Earth Forces take Terra's father as a "test subject," Mala agrees to help Jim repair his ship if he takes her to the human mothership, known as the Ark, so that she can rescue him. Naturally, it all goes terribly wrong, and soon Mala and Jim are embroiled in a struggle for the planet Terra: Earth Forces military want to terraform Terra and render it uninhabitable for the native Terrians, and the Terrians must confront their warlike past in order to defend themselves.

Terra is not for everyone. It is not for neo-conservatives, although they would probably benefit most from seeing it. It is not for viewers who cannot stand violence in their animation. (Terra is very violent, but not graphic -- you'll see very little blood, but experience quite a lot of tension.) It is not for viewers who do not enjoy CGI, although the animation here is anything but the cheery plasticity of Cars. However, it is meant for people who enjoy great music, fast-paced action (including some fantastic aerial dogfights), and the sort of plot that Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks will never, ever create on their own. Although Tsirbas shied away from applying any sort of definitive moral to his story, Terra is already being discussed as an allegory for the Iraq War. Terra presents the sort of difficult moral world that Miyazaki fans will remember from Princess Mononoke. (But Mononoke does it better, thanks in part to a more eloquent script.)

Terra has a few other flaws. The character designs are somewhat at odds with the environmental and mechanical ones. The humans in particular look as though they have all been stamped from the same mould, which is partially a product of military costume: flight suits and shaved heads. One notable exception is the villainous General Hemmer, whose face one audience member called "copied from George W. Bush." In addition, there are the usual scientific errors that populate most film-based science-fiction: Terra is supposed to be a helium atmosphere, and at certain moments Jim's respirator helps him metabolize it into oxygen. And the script is not particularly witty -- instead it evokes feeling mostly through high-pressure situations and the grace of good actors.

That said, Terra is probably leaps and bounds more unique than most animated feature films due out this year, and it has a good shot at distribution. The kids at my screening had a great time, and the popcorn-munching died down quickly. During the final sequences, I could hear every tiny rustle in the seats -- the film held everyone's attention in a tight grip. I hope you all get a chance to see it, and decide for yourselves what the story's message is.

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April 13, 2007
Sprockets, the Toronto International Film Festival for Children, celebrates its tenth anniversary from April 13-22. Although the features programme this year is more strongly rooted in live-action film than animation, animation fans should take note of these titles*:

The Reef: Saturday, April 21, 11:00 AM, Canada Square Cinema 2. Directors: Howard E. Baker, John Fox, and Lee Kyeong-Ho. Starring Evan Rachel Wood, John Rhys-Davies, and Rob Schneider. After Pi, an ordinary little fish from Boston, is orphaned when his parents are snared by a fisherman’s net, he travels to an exotic reef to live with his Aunt Pearl. As he tries to orient himself in this new world, Pi meets the fish of his dreams, the beautiful and kind Cordelia, but things do not go swimmingly. Troy, the meanest shark in the ocean, is not only tormenting everyone in the reef community, but also has his eye on Cordelia.

Brave Story: Saturday, April 14, 10:30 AM, Isabel Bader Theater and Sunday, April 22, 2:40 PM, Canada Square Cinema 2. Director: Koichi Chigera.
While exploring an old building, energetic eleven-year-old Wataru catches a glimpse of a strange doorway floating atop a spiral staircase. It vanishes in an instant, but Wataru is certain of – yet perplexed by – this vision. Having heard the new kid at school, Ashikawa, refer to a mystical realm where wishes come true, Wataru is anxious to learn more.

Azur and Asmar: Sunday, April 15, 2:00 PM, Isabel Bader Theater. Director: Michel Ocelot. Azur, the son of a nobleman, is raised by a nurse alongside her son Asmar. Both boys adore the nurse’s whimsical tales of the beautiful Djinn Fairy who, captive within the black mountain, awaits a loving prince. Growing and living together as brothers, Azur and Asmar share the dream of one day marrying the mystical nymph – but this dream becomes a cause of sibling rivalry. Eventually, their habitual scuffles and one-upmanship create a rift that appears irreparable.

Michel Ocelot is set to direct Bjork's latest music video, and watching A&A will show you exactly why. It's hypnotic and beautiful. Moreover, it's one of the few films currently available in North America -- especially animated ones -- that touches on the complicated relationship between France and North Africa.

The afore-mentioned films are all features, but I would be remiss not to mention The Little Short-Sighted Snake, an eleven-minute animated film from Estonia directed by Aina Jarvine and Meelis Arulepp. It's featured as part of the "Animated Animal Tales" block, but I predict it will outshine the others on offer. LSSN's neo-retro designs, broad colour palette, snappy music, and closing sequence make it irresistible.

Have a fun festival, everyone!

*Full disclosure: Madeline Ashby is a Sprockets volunteer. She received no compensation for this blog post, and had nothing to do with the any Sprockets programming decisions.

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September 12, 2006
To stay current in the entertainment world, people often switch roles. Actors become directors, directors become producers, and producers start their own cable networks. In animation, this means that directors sometimes delve into the world of live-action cinema. Katsuhiro Otomo's (Akira, Steamboy) Bugmaster, which premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival, is not his first. Otomo's previous foray into flesh-and-blood film-making was World Aparment Horror, based on a story by anime auteur Satoshi Kon. In Bugmaster, Otomo once again adapts manga for film, bringing Yuki Urushibara's tale of turn-of-the-century Japan to the screen.

Joe Odagiri plays Ginko, a white-haired, one-eyed traveling "bugmaster" whose life was changed years ago by the "bugs," which the film defines as the spirits that inhabit both the dead and the living. These "bugs" (mushi) have a complex spiritual ecology. Each mushi has a function in the world. Some produce sound; others eat it. Some create darkness; others are in place to eradicate that darkness. Each belongs to a certain species of mushi and they often swarm, like insects. When mushi invade the bodies and souls of human beings, only a bugmaster like Ginko can heal the victim. Carrying only an unassuming manner and a pack of herbal remedies, Ginko is an apothecary, exorcist, and counselor to his clients.

The film deals with Ginko's confrontation with his past, and how he became a bugmaster. It vacillates ambitiously between period drama, buddy travel movie, light romance, and horror. Throughout, Otomo's aesthetic sensibilities as an animator show themselves in small ways. Most of the interior scenes are well-framed, and the slow pans pay close attention to detail. Kuniaki Haishima's unobtrusive, creepy score leaves room for the sound of wind through trees. Wisely, Otomo chooses to use special effects sparingly, but the blend is near-seamless. (One scene in which kanji crawl up walls like ants will resonate with fans of Kon's Paranoia Agent.) And Otomo's use of Makiko Esumi—and her distinctive, powerful voice
is flawless.

However, Bugmaster is 131 minutes long, and viewers will feel every second of it. Like Ginko, it moves slowly but steadily. The film also skips backward and forward in time, with many flashbacks. And Otomo gives Bugmaster so many good places for an ending that the film's final moments come as a complete surprise
it could just as easily go for another two hours, but would the audience feel any deeper resolution?

For strict anime fans, Urushibara's story has already been serialized in animated format. Called Mushishi and directed by Hiroshi Nagahama, it spans 26 episodes. Whether or not the series is released in North America may depend on Otomo's success with Bugmaster. As a live-action film-maker, Otomo is more of a Kurosawa than a Miike. Bugmaster is an interesting story populated by a plethora of sympathetic characters, especially the thoughtful Ginko and Lear-like Nui. And the environments are beautiful, with forests as green, dense, and primeval as any Miyazaki wonderland. It is poetic, ambiguous, and possesses a certain aura of magic realism. However, viewers who grow impatient with slow action, ambiguity, or convoluted flashbacks may want to wait for the DVD
provided Otomo's latest finds distribution.

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September 11, 2006
Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in advance of its release, this co-production between France, Luxembourg, and England was shot using a combination of motion capture and rotoscopy. Set in Paris, 2054, the film tells a familiar neo-noir tale about a hard-bitten cop, Captain Karas (Daniel Craig) of Section K, tasked with finding Ilona Tasuyiev (Romola Garai), a promising young researcher for the ubiquitous Avalon corporation, whose slogan is: "We're on your side for life." Naturally, things go from bad to worse for Karas, as he embroils himself ever deeper in Avalon's evil machinations, falls hard for Ilona's bad-girl sister Bislane (Catherine McCormack), and finds himself re-connecting with an old Arabic gangland friend.

Most other summaries of this film mention Frank Miller and Sin City. The comparison is tough to ignore, if only for the high-contrast black and white presentation and the brief-but-meaningful violence. However, the film closely resembles Shinichiro Watanabe's "Detective Story" portion of The Animatrix, and its plotline, which other reviewers found difficult to unravel, owes more to Jin-Roh and The Maltese Falcon than anything by Miller. Lovers of noir will have no trouble understanding Karas' struggle to find Ilona, or where Avalon's dirty secrets fit in.

The animation is also beautiful, and the blend of motion capture and rotoscope lets even small details like pinched lips or a surreptitious glance come through. Volckman takes great pains to add texture where there is no color, depicting a Paris with a Byzantine underground, controlled by crime bosses who bring to mind Sydney Greenstreet. The Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame blend in seamlessly with graffitti, post-modern Blade Runner architecture, and the animators' special treat—lovingly re-created snow and rain. (Curiously, the brief flame effect left something to be desired. It was blurry, more of a fire-signifier than anything else.) The film also spends a long time on reflections in water and glass, which are rendered believably. In addition, it's impossible not to bring up Nicholas Dodd's dead-on score, which also "colours" the film. The foley work here is sharp, too—sound often makes up for the lack of colour or immediately-recognizable star-power.

In short, see it. It's a triumph for Western animation that seeks to compete on the feature-length adult market. With any luck, the support for this one will be exactly what it deserves, and we will see more in this vein.

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September 9, 2006
As part of the Toronto International Film Festival, last night at the Isabel Bader Theatre the National Film Board of Canada showcased a retrospective of Norman McLaren's best-loved short films, including Neighbours, Pas de deux, Hen Hop, and A Chairy Tale. It was the North American premiere of these newly-restored films, and a celebration of 65 years of animation at the NFB animation studio. The screening, followed by a reception at the Windsor Arms Hotel, was attended by the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, the Governor-General of Canada, and her husband Jean-Daniel Lafond. Also in attendance were Jacques Bensimon, the Government Film Commissioner and chairperson at the NFB, and Piers Handling, director and CEO of the Toronto International Film Festival Group.

The screening coincided with a release of McLaren's works on a 7-disc DVD boxed set entitled Norman McLaren: The Master's Edition. All material therein has been restored to its original quality by NFB professionals. The NFB plans to tour the 11 films screened last night internationally. At the screening, the Governor-General said: "I believe that culture should always be viewed in the broadest sense possible," and touted McLaren as Canada's "very own film-making genius," adding that McLaren was "a pioneer of sound" who "re-defined the concepts of sound and image in film." Her husband added: "I know how important film-makers are to Canadians," and admonished the NFB to continue funding for artists in a way that frees them from "mercantilist restrictions."

Above: The Right Honourable Michaelle Jean, Governor General of Canada, at the Windsor Arms Hotel

Above: Two of McLaren's contemporaries at the NFB animation studio. The woman on the right starred in Neighbours.

The evening was a success, with a distinctly international crowd of artists, press, and politicians gathering to commemorate one of Canada's national treasures. And in a nearby ante-room, director Paul Anderson and his crew celebrated the upcoming film adaptation of a little game we like to call Castlevania...

Over appetizers, Anderson mentioned a possible May 2008 release date for his adaptation of the popular game franchise, as well as his intent to make "an epic romance," that would be more endearing to a female audience. The small gathering featured character art by Yoshitaka Amano.

Above: The Windsor Arms Hotel foyer, and entry to the Norman McLaren reception.

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