SUNDANCE LOG: DAY 2 (ABE, ELEPHANT QUEEN, FAREWELL)

day 2

Day 2 of the Sundance Film Festival has come and gone and despite having only gotten 4 hours of sleep last night I powered through and saw 4 films in 3 different venues today! Maiden is still my favorite of the festival but there were some interesting films today I’m glad I saw.

abe

Abe

The first movie of the day is a film called Abe that was screened at the SLC Library and it is part of the Sundance Kids lineup. It stars Noah Schnapp as a young man of both Muslim and Jewish ethnicity who is trying to balance his backgrounds and the people in his life carefully all through his love of cooking and food.

This one was a bit of a mixed bag for me. I loved everything with Abe and Noah Schnapp does a great job. He’s a very easy character to root for. I also liked all of the cooking and food scenes (particularly when he goes to work for a local Latin American fusion chef it’s very strong. What I didn’t like was all the other adults. They all claimed to love Abe but then would act in such shrill, inconsiderate ways. At one point he makes an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner for his grandparents and instead of eating it like grownups they start a big fight ending with one of them saying Abe should never have been born. I just don’t think a loving Grandparent would behave in such a way in front of their grandchild. It didn’t feel authentic so it was frustrating.

But in the end Abe is a strong enough character to carry his movie. One warning it should not be in the kids section as there is the f word 6 times. It would definitely be rated R by the MPAA.

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

elephant queen

The Elephant Queen

Next up in the Sundance Kids section is a nature documentary called The Elephant Queen. Director’s Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone spent 4 years following a group of elephants to make this incredible film. The shots they get from the very small dung beetle to the giant savannas full of elephants are very impressive.

Like Disney Nature films we get names and a narrative to all the characters but it all worked for me and was very charming. I particularly liked the ‘late to everything’ geese hatchling named Steven. Chiwetel Ejiofor narrates and aside from being a touch too long for small kids it’s an adorable film the whole family will love.

9 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Sister - Still 1

Animation Spotlight

I must admit I go to the Animation Spotlight each year more out of obligation as an animation blogger than anything else. The selected shorts are almost always disappointing. It feels like all the creators are either trying too hard to be Don Hertzfeldt or to be too grown-up and edgy. Last year was a pretty good year with The Driver is Red and The Burden being standouts but there was nothing that strong this year.

The best of the group were Untravel and Obon. My least favorite of the group was Acid Rain which went on forever and was unpleasant in every way.

3.5 out of 10

Frown Worthy

farewell

The Farewell

Last of the night is the family drama The Farewell which stars Awkwafina as a young woman who goes to China to be with her dying Grandma. The only problem is her Grandma doesn’t know she is dying. The whole family is visiting under a farce that her cousin is getting married (did he actually get married though? It was a little unclear).

Anyone who is part of a big family will be able to relate to this story. Both in the lies we tell each other to get through family gatherings but also how every family has that person who is a treasure to everyone in the family- usually a grandparent. If the ending doesn’t make you tear up than I don’t know what to say!

There are some pacing problems but all the acting is good and overall I really enjoyed The Farewell. Watch it with your Grandma.

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Loving Vincent Review

2017 has been a banner year for independent animated films. I wouldn’t be surprised if my top animated films ranking at the end of the year has 7 or more indies in the top 10. They have just been that good. All that said, now we get to one of my most anticipated indies of the year, Loving Vincent, and I must own to being a little disappointed. What the animators have accomplished is a great achievement but unfortunately it is not a great movie.

Let’s talk about the great accomplishment first. Loving Vincent is the first animated film to be made entirely with oil paintings. The creators gathered 115 different artists and made oil paintings for all 65,000 frames of the movie! It is a bold, audacious project and visually it pays off. This movie looks gorgeous and the movement of the animation really captures the feel of a Van Gogh painting. You can see in this trailer how amazing the animation is:

They also got a strong vocal cast for Loving Vincent including Chris O’Dowd and Saoirse Ronan.

The problem lies with the story. I’m fine with artistic movies with little plot like A Ghost Story or Knight of Cups; however, Loving Vincent isn’t that kind of art film. No, it has a plot. It’s just not a very good one.

Basically it is about a man named Armand who is assigned the task to deliver a letter to the estate of Vincent Van Gogh. The artist has died via suicide along with his brother Theo. As Armand tries to deliver his letter he begins to suspect maybe it wasn’t a suicide after all…

The problem is it doesn’t have much to say about life, death, suicide, art or anything else. It’s just Armand interviewing a bunch of people and them reciting back facts. If this was a live action film it would never see the light of day. There just isn’t enough meat on the bones here to enjoy the story.

The characters are also not very compelling. Armand is very bland and most of the other characters are kind of cold and cruel. Van Gogh isn’t even compelling because we get so little of him and it is mostly through cliches. This is a man who cut off his own ear and mailed it to someone. Certainly his story must have been more interesting than this?

Loving Vincent is certainly not a bad film and I recommend seeing it if only for the visuals. It’s just disappointing because it could have been great and it isn’t. But hey at least we got something fresh, new and beautiful to look at. I’ll take that deal any day.

Overall Grade- C

My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea Review

I’ve mentioned it many times on my blog that I’m not particularly excited about this years animated films. Depressed would be a better word but one of my hopes is that indie animated films would swoop in and save the day. Well, the first promising indie entry comes to us from distributor GKIDS and animator Dash Shaw called My Entire High School is Sinking IUnto the Sea.

On first glance it is easy to dismiss this film as indie hipster crap but I think that is selling it short. In High School… you get a good script with engaging dialogue, some inventive animation and nice riffs on the disaster and teen movie genres.

The animation has a rough quality, which I enjoyed. Some will find it too simplistic and juevenile for them, but I appreciated the different approach.

The narrator of High School… is a boy named Dash (Jason Schwartzman) and his best friend Assaf (Reggie Watts). They are both hard workers in the school newspaper and intent on getting the big scoop at the school. To start off the movie the two friends get in a quarrel over an article and a girl named Verti (Maya Rudolph). This seems very petty but isn’t that the way high school is? Full of petty arguments?

Dash becomes convinced he needs to find the next big scoop and diescovers the high school is built on an earthquake fall and my be sinking into the ocean. Unfortunately before he can do anything about this the high actually does start sinking!

It’s at this point High School… becomes a parody of disaster movies with Dash, Assaf, Verti, a gir named Mary (Lena Dunham) and Lunch Lady Lorraine (Susan Sarandon). With each floor the group faces new obstacles from sharks to anarchist students. It is pretty entertaining and surprising. The dialogue is also sharp and reminded me of other indie hits like Juno and Napoleon Dynamite.

 

High School… also reminded me of Me Earl and the Dying Girl especially the character of Dash who was very similar to Greg in Earl. He’s sarcastic and comes dangerously close to being unlikable but he just wins you over. Same thing with Assaf. They both can be pretty selfish which makes sense in a disaster when you are thinking mostly of yourself.

The voice cast felt very Wes Anderson inspired to me and they all did a good job. Even Lena Dunham who I normally can’t stand was fine in this. Her character is pretty minor. I liked Susan Sarandon as the lunch lady. She got some really fun lines responding to all the sassy teens.

You have to give a lot of props to Dash Shaw for this movie because he wrote, directed and produced it. I liked how he never let the disaster stuff overpower the student body stuff. This allowed it to still be a sharp teen movie and a riff on a disaster movie. Dash Shaw did a tremendous job on this and I will be excited to see what he comes up with next!

The soundtrack by Rani Sharone is also very catchy and fits the style and tone of the movie very well.

If you are willing to try something small and unique then I would say give My Entire High Scool is Sinking into the Sea a shot. I think you will like it. The film is rated PG-13 and there are some crude elements but nothing too harsh.

If you are open to new and different styles of animation and a more adult story (PG-13) I think you will like My Entire High School is Sinking into the Sea. It’s a long title to a fun movie! Only real downsides is the harsh language and sarcastic tone may bother some more sensitive viewers.

Give it a shot! Support independent movie theaters in your area! Try something with an indie flare and I bet you will be glad you did!

Overall Grade- A-

My Life as a Zucchini (or Courgette) Review

my life as a zucchini posterI think I could have subtitled this review- Grown Ups Suck! In fairness there are some lovely adults in My Life as a Zucchini but boy the one’s that suck, REALLY SUCK! This is such a hard review to write but I just wanted to state that out-front and get it out of the way.

So let’s talk about the Oscar hopeful My Life as a Zucchini.  This is a stop motion animated film out of Switzerland that could receive 2 nominations come Tuesday (it is up for best foreign and animated film). On the whole I’d say those nominations will be deserved if they come.  This is a challenging, but rewarding film with amazing animation that draws you into the experience.

It’s very hard to talk about this film without giving out spoilers but I will do my best. Basically it is about a little boy nicknamed Zucchini who’s Mother dies in a shocking way to start out the movie. He then goes to live in a group home for troubled orphans. There he meets a mostly friendly group including a girl named Camille and a rebellious boy named Simon.

zucchini-main-imageThe plot is fairly simple from there. It’s about these kids and how they become a family and help each other overcome their traumatic upbringings.

Just as an example, one of the girls has a hideous aunt who wants to remove her so she can get the foster care money for caring for her. The kids must then figure out a way to protect their friend when the adults fail.

In a way, My Life as a Zucchini is kind of like Annie but there’s not just one Miss Hannigan. Each child seems to have their own Miss Hannigan nightmare, which is probably fairly accurate for the type of child in a group home like this.

That may sound like a real downer and it can be but the film also interjects comedic segments into the story that really work. It can be a quite joyous film and in a way the brutal sequences make the joy more sweet and precious for the kids.

There is also a nice chemistry between the kids.  They feel real and genuine with a terrific English dub cast. These are not the typecast kids you might get in a film like Hook where there is the rebel, fat kid, sweet kid etc. These children are unique and are all pretty well portrayed. The script takes time for small moments of character development  like when one orphan finds a pair of ski goggles on holiday. The owner accuses him of stealing them but he is so happy with them that her daughter gives them to the orphan in a lovely gesture. This isn’t even our lead character and yet it is such a touching moment of human empathy. courgette02When I got out of the theater I tweeted that My Life as a Zucchini was an unusual mixture of the brutal and adorable and that’s really true. It’s like  if Sesame Street had a ‘life kind of sucks’ episode. One of the ladies outside of the theater compared it to Bambi but I don’t agree with that. Bambi has a sad event take place where My Life as a Zucchini is more about pushing through when all of life seems to be out to get you. It’s about finding family, hope and joy in the midst of everyday struggles.

One character in particular, Simon, is particularly well written. Again, he could easily be the rebel kid we’ve seen in a million of these stories but he’s not. There’s a point where he is very envious of Zucchini and Camille but he still gives a loving response. He still tells them that they have to do what is best for them despite him wishing he could be so lucky. It was a beautifully written scene. zucchini-statueIt was really cool after the screening they showed us one of the puppets of Zucchini and told us about the making of the film. Stop motion always blows me away and this is no exception. They did a tremendous job making the characters come alive. The eyes were particularly expressive. It is a tremendous accomplishment and they deserve all the praise they are getting in the animation department.

courgette31There were some children in attendance at my screening but I have to say if I was a parent I would be a little reticent about showing them My Life as a Zucchini. Not that I think children should be sheltered but it’s a lot of bad behavior for a kid to absorb in just one movie. We would certainly have to do some major talking after about addiction, selfishness, wrong choices, poor parenting and the reality of evil. We would also have to talk about the power of friendship, family and love that does pull through in the end for the characters.

It’s a movie of contrasts I suppose, but in my opinion it’s not really a movie for small children, which is fine but perhaps the animation style would lead you to believe otherwise.

I feel like this review is a bit all over the place and that is because I kind of feel that way about this film. It’s shocking, sweet, beautiful, funny, upsetting and adorable all at the same time. A side of me wonders if on rewatch this could become one of my favorite animated films of the year. The writing and animation is strong enough but it’s just so different I’m not there yet.

I certainly recommend seeing it and participating in this unique experience on film. In a way it is kind of like the 400 Blows in animated form! It’s not every day you can use that in a review! If you do see it let me know what you think. I will definitely do a spoiler review in the future and dive into the plot in more detail than I can here, so keep an eye out for that.

For now I give My Life as a Zucchini…

Overall Grade- B+

Ethel & Ernest Review

ethel-and-ernestAs much as I love complex movies that take large artistic risks, I also love simple movies that execute their vision well. Such is the case with the recent UK export Ethel & Ernest. What a lovely portrayal of a marriage and life. It might be too simple for some but that’s what makes is so special.

Ethel & Ernest is based on the graphic novel of the same name written by Raymond Briggs about the life of his parents. Starting in 1928, Ernest a simple milk man, falls in love with a house-maid named Ethel. They decide to get married and end up having a son named Raymond.

ethel-and-ernest2Their love is simple and yet it carries them through the tough times including the trials of World War 2. They work through these hardships together and we see Raymond grow into an adult making his own choices of love and a career. The whole thing is completely adorable and I defy anyone to not be able to relate to some part of their lives.

Some people might think such a story is boring but not me. I love seeing stories about life and it gives me hope that good things can come when life is hard. It gives hope that the life of simple men and women like Ethel and Ernest actually matter and that there is beauty in their simplicity.

ethel-and-ernest3The animation in Ethel & Ernest is a simple hand drawn water color style but I loved it. It was refreshing and added to the sense of wistful nostalgia in the story. The vocal work by Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn is top notch (two of my favorite actors). You really can’t imagine these characters with any other voices.

I guess if I was going to fault Ethel & Ernest it’s probably not something I will remember in 10 years, but I don’t know if I care about that. While I was watching it, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

The music is also excellent including a new song by Paul McCartney!

So if you are looking for something to brighten your day and make you feel hopeful than give Ethel & Ernest a watch. I think you will really enjoy spending time with this wonderful couple and learning about their life together.

Overall Grade A-

Long Way North Review

long-way-north2For the most part the 2016 animated blockbusters have been excellent. Even the middle tier films like Storks and Secret Life of Pets weren’t half bad. That said, I wish I could convince more people to enjoy the equally strong indie animated scene of 2016. We have had great films like April and the Extraordinary World, Only Yesterday (which grows on me more I see it), Miss Hokusai Phantom Boy and now Long Way North!

Directed by Rémi Chayé, Long Way North, is like nothing else you will see this year in animation. It is a small 2D animated adventure that uses color blocking to create a unique visual style.

long-way-north5Rémi said about the style:

“What interests me is the emotion. I want animators to spend time on the characters’ emotions. I don’t want them to spend time tracing details or pulleys. That’s why the graphic style is so simple. No buttons, no laces, no folds in the clothes. So for the ship, the train, the dog sleds, the carriages, we made 3D objects”

This was so beautiful to watch!

The story is set in 1882 Russia where a girl named Sacha is worried about her grandfather who left for the North Pole and never returned. His failed expedition has become a joke and her family is disgraced. She then sets out on an expedition to find her grandfather and redeem her family name.

Adobe Photoshop PDFMy favorite part of the story was Sacha as a character. She is a strong female character but not in a cliched way. She has diva moments where she doesn’t want to let go of her aristocratic ways and I liked that. She felt human and was fallible and grew over the course of the movie.

long-way-north-sacha-voiced-by-chloe-dunn-in-the-northI also liked once they got to the North Pole how things didn’t play out exactly the way I thought they would. Honestly I could have spent even more time there as the adventure really got going then.

long-way-north-still-3-sacha-voiced-by-chloe-dunn-in-a-scene-from-long-way-northThe animation is stunning. I loved, loved, loved, loved it. There was a roughness to the lines and a brightness to the color palate that was so refreshing and beautiful. I think Rémi is right. The simplicity did help me to focus on the emotion of the scenes and Sacha as a character. It’s funny with everything trying to be realistic these days (ala Jungle Book) I get much more emotional truth out of animation like this that is mostly shape and color.

I also really enjoyed the music by Jonathan Morali and a rock band called Syd Matters. It felt modern but as Sacha was a modern voice in this world it worked for me.

long-way-north-sacha-voiced-by-chloe-dunn-and-katch-voiced-by-tom-perkins-set-sailUnfortunately, there were some negatives to Long Way North. I love a good adventure story but some will find Sacha’s story to be predictable.  This wasn’t a big problem for me but I do think they could have introduced more conflict earlier to make it a bit more interesting. For example, it does not take the narrative risks that April and the Extraordinary World takes.

Also I think the middle segment in the boat lasts a bit too long and I got a little bit bored (also that section was the least visually interesting in my opinion). Once they get to the North Pole it picks back up again and I was engaged.

sasha-at-ball

Even with a few issues, I think it is a very strong feature film for Rémi Chayé and he and his 2D animated team deserve tons of applause. Long Way North is a 100% European production with a studio in Paris of 20 animators, 15 layout artists and 20 cel painters and the staff is equally male and female (how refreshing is all of that!). I love what they produced here and can’t wait to see what comes next!

We need independent visually unique voices in animation so I hope you will seek out films like Long Way North and give them your support. Don’t be surprised if you hear about this one come Oscar season!

Overall Grade- B+ (I’ve gone back and forth between B and B+ but it is so pretty I will go with B+)

Life, Animated Review

life animated4It’s no secret that 2016 has been kind of a sucky year for movies, particularly blockbusters. Sure there have been some exceptions but for the most part they have been meh to very disappointing. Such is not the case for indie films! I have even found 3 documentaries that I have loved already this year and one of those is a little gem called Life, Animated. All of you animation addicts need to see it!!!

Life, Animated is a documentary made by Roger Ross Williams, based on a memoir by Ron Suskind. It chronicles the story of Ron’s son Owen who is diagnosed with severe autism at the age of 3.  We are introduced to Owen at the age of 23 but there is a great deal of home footage that helps give you an idea of Owen as a little boy.

life animatedYou see Owen connects to the world through animated films, particularly Disney animated films. And when I say connects I mean it quite literally.  There is a heartbreaking section where Owen’s parents talk about Owen not being able to speak anything but gibberish for 4 years. Can you imagine not being able to talk to your son for 4 years? Then one day Ron has a breakthrough using an Iago puppet from Aladdin. I was bawling.

life animated3The film uses animation to bring to life segments of the film and it works so well (props to Disney for allowing their catalog to be used in clips and recreated in the animation sequences).

In another instance Owen comes up to his Mother after not speaking for years and says “Walter doesn’t want to grow up like Mowgli and Peter Pan”. They are of course stunned by this and it starts them on a journey of communicating to their son through Disney. He literally has every line from every Disney film memorized!

life animated5It is not an easy road working with Owen but the movie doesn’t do the “look how perfect and inspirational I am”. This feels like a real family (because it is a real family) and they acknowledge challenges and blessings in just the right way. I particularly liked his brother who ironically is named Walt! He is honest about his responsibilities in caring for his brother and what that is like. The Dad, Ron, is also vulnerable and strong and lovely.

life animated6This is not an ‘I am Sam’ type of film where being a special needs person is better or made to inspire us able bodied folks. No, this is just about one family, one person and how animation allowed him to communicate with the world.

life animated2This is perhaps personified most in a recurring animated segment based on a story Owen writes as a child. It’s called the Legend of the Lost Sidekicks. These sections almost reminded me of something Tomm Moore would draw. They were peaceful and gave such insight into the way Owen thinks about life.

Particularly with the current election it is easy to feel discouraged and frustrated, so I am grateful for movies like Life, Animated.  They help me to understand others better and remind me that good will always outweigh the bad. Sometimes the fandom cultures of the internet can make you forget how special this art we call movies is. Owen’s story reminded of that. It reminded me to get more joy out of these crazy toons I watch all the time. It reminded me to be myself and notice the sidekicks more. It reminded me to be grateful for my voice, my words and my family.  It was a great movie!

Overall Grade- A

Here is the trailer if you are interested