The Secret of Kells (2009) Dir. Tomm Moore

Got to see some more foreign animation this past weekend.  This time it was Ireland’s first animated feature, The Secret of Kells.  I have to say I found this movie to be pretty interesting.  The hardest part for me was trying to follow the folklore myths the story was based on, where I had some trouble remembering names and following which deadly creature was which.  But it didn’t stop my enjoyment of the film, which not only has a lot of adult themes in the guise of a children‘s story, but the film itself goes to some wicked dark places, and its full of scary, startling imagery. 

The story follows a young boy named Brenden (a kind of monk in training) living in an outpost that has to protect itself from these dark viking/barbarians.  Brenden‘s Uncle Abbot Celloch, who is the leader of the outpost, is pretty dead serious and always worried that the outpost will not stay fortified enough to withstand an attack.  In the meantime an older man, Aiden, shows up with a magic unfinished book called The Book of Kells, which is supposed to hold a secret wisdom and power.  To complete the book, Brenden is sent into the dark enchanted forest to find special kind of berries that can only be used as ink for the bookIn the woods he meets a magical young wolf-girl named Aisling who helps him along.  

 There’s a lot more that happens, but one of the problems with the movie is that at times the story gets a little convoluted, as if its packing too much in at once when it probably needs to break things down in a more simple way.  I don’t mean dumbing it down, because foreign animation tends to lean on more sophisticated storytelling techniques, but it would have helped to clarify a few things.  I suppose if you know the Irish legends the story is based on its easier to follow,  but it’s a little hard to know what the importance of The Book of Kells is and how certain elements play into the story.  It’s worthwhile to watch though just because the film goes to a few dark frightening places, such as the terrifying vikings that attack the outpost at the end of the film.  My favorite image was when Brendan awakens the dark creature in the woods, and somehow it causes these black vines to take over Aisling‘s body, making her face grotesque and distorted.  It was really cool stuff, unlike much of what you’d see in an American film.  The other issue is that the pacing of the film is a little too up and down at times, especially in the beginning.  There are a few kind of slapstick kind of moments in the beginning of the film when first introducing Brenden and some of the other monks.  It’s a little odd because the film sets up these comic moments like it’s your typical Disney film, but the obnoxious humor quickly dissipates (thankfully) when the story takes off, and it actually began to take itself more seriously.  Some of the more comic monk characters in the story felt like they were underutilized, where they were set up to be funny characters, but not really given much to do.  

As far as the visual style and animation goes, it has its ups and downs as well.  I’ll say right away, the look of the film is just mindblowingly fantastic.  It makes itself as a kind of living tapestry, and the layouts in many cases have no perspective, but it gives the film a unique visual style all its own.  With the animation however it‘s a little different.  Sometimes its well done, but at other times, the acting of the characters gets a little to cliche, with characters going into stock animation poses.  The film seems to attempt doing full animation, but it jumps around getting a little too limited in places, sometimes with the animation jumping from 2’s to 4’s.  It’s a little distracting.  But there are times where its done very well and it looks great.  The other problem I had with the visuals was the tendency to mash in a bit of the cartoony Disney style.  It’s not always obvious, but many of the characters had facial features that were directly lifted from styles played in Disney charactersIn a way, I wish the film could have broken away from that more like A Cat In Paris, because the Disney look also influences the animation, which is one of the reasons I felt it gets into too many stock acting choices.  I don’t know what the research into other animated films was from this movie, but if their choice was to mix a kind of Disney look with medieval style, a film to look at that makes it work probably would have been Sleeping Beauty.  The Secret of Kells is a little more abstract in its look of course, but it reminded me most of the look of Sleeping Beauty in what it was trying to attempt with the marriage of animation and a medieval style.  But while the techniques used might have a few flaws, it didn’t distract me that much, and I was pretty engaged in the story all the way through.  

If you have Netflix and would like to check out The Secret of Kells and A Cat In Paris, both of them are on Instant Watch.  They are two very different and unique animated films, unlike much of what you would see in the mainstream.  They are both enjoyable, and I recommend anyone to check them out.   


Cool Sons of The Desert Pic

I’m getting pretty bored of Aint It Cool News now, but if I have at least one reason to come back it’s to check out the Behind The Scenes pic columnThe image above is from the Laurel and Hardy feature film, Sons of the Desert.  It’s the one “classic” Laurel and Hardy movie I haven’t seen yet, but I’m dying to check it out because it also co stars one of the great comedians of the Hal Roach studios, Charley Chase.  By the way, last year finally released was a new collection of Chase shorts.  Check it out!  ( Click Here!  )   

Oliver Hardy, Charley Chase, and Stan Laurel in Sons of the Desert

UPDATED! 2/8/13: Adam and Dog (2011) Dir. Minkyu Lee

UPDATE:  Minkyu Lee has posted his film Adam and Dog online.  Watch the film, then check out my review below!  

 I was given the opportunity yesterday to check out the animated short Adam and Dog, directed by one of my former Cal Arts peers, Minkyu Lee.  This film is nominated this year for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Subject.  I’d like to express thanks to some of my former classmates who worked on the film and offered to show it to me after I wrote a post about the film early last month.  After I finished watching the film, I had a good long talk with my friends about it, and I asked why it was important for them to do this and help Minkyu make this film possible.  One of the nicest things I heard about it was that for some people who worked on it they were inspired to go out and actually make their own film.  It’s as if working on someone elses own personal short was an awakening and a realization they also had it in them to make their own film.  More animators out there, I think, could really use a film like this as an inspirationWhat it can tell you that the real, true art of animation doesn’t come out of collaboration.  It always begins with the vision of one person.  

What did I personally think of the short?  I liked it.  It was very well made and it has a nice story.  I have some issues with it, but I thought the film was emotionally miles above Disney’s Paperman.  To me, Paperman was a film that relied too heavily on its polished look, and the emotional undercurrent of the story felt, in my opinion, completely fabricated.   Adam and Dog feels much more personal and sincere in its telling, and it never has any reason to compromise its own vision.  It’s a good film and its worth seeing.   

Let me get into my review.  I’m going into Full Spoilers here, so if you‘re planning to see it and don’t want it spoiled for you, you might want to stop reading here.   

Adam and Dog is the story of the first dog in the Garden of Eden, and his meeting with Adam.  It’s a simple story about the very first relationship ever between a human and a dog.  Adam discovers all the things dogs like…being scritched behind the ears…playing fetch with a stick, etc.  The dog starts out as a kind of loner creature until he finds Adam and the two of them form a bond.    Then of course, Adam meets Eve and the rest is history.  Well, almost.  Like any human relationship, Adam gets infatuated with Eve and wants his four legged friend to go away for a little while to be alone with her.  By the end, when the banishment from the Garden takes place and Adam and Eve are left alone in a barren world, the dog voluntarily joins them, and the first family bond between a dog and his masters takes place.  Of course, minus a female dog for Adam’s dog to procreate with, but that’s another story!     

I can say I’m a little biased in liking this story having been a dog owner all my life.  There are plenty of moments here I could relate to that we can all identify with our dogs that makes it a really charming little story.  I heard that some people complained they didn’t know the story took place in the Garden of Eden.  Minkyu tries to hint enough at it without fulling giving it away, and there are a few extinct creatures that show up, like for instance the giant wolly mammoth that passes by the dog.  But it’s a bit of a challenge to keep the fantastical elements of the myth at bay since the story wants to try and keep itself more grounded.  The subtlties in communicating the Garden have both benifits and drawbacks.  The problem is if so many people didn’t get it was the Garden of Eden, it might have been playing itself a little too subtle, and its a problem since the Adam and Eve myth plays an important part with the ending of the story.  Without understanding that, the audience looses some of the impact of the more powerful scenes in the film.  For instance, like the scene towards the end when it started to rain with lightning, and we see Adam and Eve running away through the woods covering themselves.  When Adam turns his head and we see his distorted face, we know right away what happened without having seen anythingIt’s really great filmmaking but if you don’t know what’s going on, the scene won’t make much sense, and it‘s an easy thing to missThe good news, however, is that the Adam and Eve story is not terribly important in understanding the relationship between Adam and Dog, which is the center of the story.  And if you didn’t get they were in the Garden, it can still be read as a simple relationship story between a wild dog and the meeting of his master.  

The main problem I have though is that the film feels a little too simple and straightforward.  The story plays on the framework of the Adam and Eve myth, but when the actual Myth part of the story takes over at the end of the film, the story of Adams relationship with Dog kind of takes a backseat and doesn’t seem to connect with the act of the Banishment from the Garden taking place.  The film sets itself up to be about the relationship between Adam and Dog.  But once Eve arrives, the story is put on hold while Adam runs off with Eve, and Dog has to wander aimlessly for a little while until Adam and Eve are banished.  It’s only after that event the story picks up again when Dog reunites with the couple.  

Once Adam leaves, there’s somewhat of disconnect to what’s going onDog seems more confused than upset that Adam’s disappeared (which makes sense since they haven’t really spent enough time together to fully bond).  But we don’t see any bigger emotional conflict going as a result of their relationship.  The real conflict of the story (the banishment) has nothing to do with either of them, and the two events happening side by side never really meetI was hoping the story would go to a more emotionally gripping place, or that somehow the Adam and Dog story would relate to the Original Sin act, and how that might in some way affect Adams relationship with the dog before he’s banished.  Without that, there really isn’t any common ground to what’s happening.  If the film had something to say about using a religious backdrop for the story, I kind of wanted to know why that setting was chosen and what Minkyu wanted to say about telling the Adam and Eve myth from a dog’s perspective.  As it stands, the Adam and Eve Myth feels more like a clever centerpiece for a story that really could have taken place in any time period.  It’s the story of mans first relationship with a dog I guess, but I couldn’t understand how that was supposed to connect with the larger biblical story, and the ending of the film just didn’t give me enough to think about.  

But other than that, it’s a beautiful short, and Minkyu really went out of his way to create some stunning visuals.  He is an outstanding animator and filmmaker.  While he had some help, he deserves a tremendous amount of credit for what he’s accomplished here, and that his own personal project managed to achieve one of the highest honors bestowed on a filmmaker.  Whether or not he receives the award, the fact that he made a film on his own without the help of a studio, and that its out there among the masses.  Thanks to the Oscars, it has the benifit of being seen by millions of people.  It really is an accomplishment on its own, and its an inspiration to others.  My personal congratulations to him for making this film, and I look forward to seeing where this takes him in the future. 

Groundhog Day (1993) Dir. Harold Ramis

I think we should all thank Harold Ramis for one great thing in life, which is giving us the gift of his film Groundhog Day for us to celebrate every year.  It’s probably the only movie that dedicates this day and does it in such profound, brilliant, and hilarious way.  Everyone knows the story of course, and its one we can’t help but watch over and over again.  I was 11 when this movie first came into theaters and I absolutely fell in love with it then.  But over the years however, my point of view of this film has changed.  When I was younger, I saw it as a kind of morality tale, where the universe is playing a trick on an egotistical, self-absorbed jackass, to make him into a more humble loving human being.  But in more recent years I’ve come to see something completely different.  To me this is a film about spiritual growth and transformation.  What happens is every day Phil Connors is stuck in this time warp, it’s like watching each layer peel itself away that he’s built up in his lifetime, until his spiritual center is truly revealed at the end of the film.  He is not only spiritually centered, but he finds the compassionate human being he always was but never knew.  The universe, which he sees as a menace in the beginning for putting him in this time warp, it reveals itself to be a kind of spiritual teacher, helping to put Phil through all the stages of spiritual transformation.  

The first of that step is discovering he can do whatever he wantsIt becomes an opportunity for him to fulfill all of his physical desires…eating unhealthy food, smoking like a chimney, punching the annoying Ned Ryerson in the face, driving his car on the railroad tracks, and acting out in all the ways he’s free to do when the next day there are no consequences.  But there are consequences he doesn’t realize at first.  They turn out not to be external, but what he carries with him through the next day.  

When he gets bored, he tries getting the beautiful Rita, his producer to sleep with him.  He uses every day to charm her, but when she sees he’s just trying to sleep with her and get what he wants, it all flies back in his face when he discovers the one thing he really does want he can’t get.  Hes seeking a prize he can never truly own, and when he discovers he can never truly be happy with himself as he is, it leads to depression and then suicide.  But even though because of the time warp he can’t actually physically kill himself, the truth is Phil actual does die, but it’s a spritual death.  It’s the death of his old selfWhen he finally starts to realize he has no control, at the same time, he also realizes hes been given a gift.  He can do whatever he wants.  So he starts to work on himself, doing all the things he’s wanted to but never allowed himself to have, like become a piano master, take up ice sculpting, speak French, he helps the towns people, saves lives, and winds up becoming the most beloved person in town.  Probably the most important and final stage for him is the sequence with the death of the homeless man, where he discovers he has no control over life and death.  While his newfound passion for life brings him closer to Rita, the fact that she does end up falling in love with him and he’s able to break free from the time warp…it doesn‘t matter.  Phils own experience in the time warp probably amounted to 10 years of his life.  But in the end the result is a man who finds for himself that tranformation of the spirit, and he reveals for himself the life that was always waiting for him but couldn’t see from the very beginning.  

So in honor of celebrating the day, today is a good day for a classic film such as this, at the very least just as a reminder that the life we’ve always wanted was always there to begin with.  Groundhog Day is a tremendous story which truly speaks volumes.  If you’ve seen it a hundred times already, one more time probably wouldn’t hurt.  😉       

REVIEW: A Cat In Paris (2010) Dir. Jean-Loup Felicioli, Alain Gagnol

A Cat In Paris is one of those animated films I’ve seen in passing for a little while now, but never had the opportunity to see until now.   It was praised by a relative of mine who said I should check it out, and that the film was repeatedly watched by her 6 year old daughter.  When she asked her daughter why she liked the film so much, her daughter told her, “I like it because its complicated.”  What she meant of course is that the main cat character in the film is neither bad or good.  There are shades of grey with all of the characters, who do bad things, but will help out others in trouble when needed.  After watching the film last night, I have to say, it is a very complex story for a children‘s tale.  And that’s a wonderful thing.  

A reason for the complex story is that this film is not American, it’s French.  The style and design of the film is also unlike what you would commonly see in feature animation.  If anything, the art direction is like something out of a beautifully illustrated children‘s book.  And what’s wonderful is how much the emotions and facial expressions of the characters are underplayed.  The characters don’t need to go into elaborate expressions for you to know what they’re feeling.  There’s a wonderful balance, where the film plays with dark themes, but approaches it in a light-hearted way.  Things will get serious and there is a strong conflict.  But it never gets too heavy.  The story revolves around a cat that leads a double life.  By day, the cat stays with a little girl, who almost never speaks, but shows the cat affection.  The girls mother is a police detective searching for the criminal who murdered her husband and the girl’s father.  Her mother is a bit obsessed with her work, but is conflicted in trying to give her daughter attention while at the same time trying to fulfill her desire for justice.  Meanwhile, every night the cat goes out and enters his other life, which is aiding the help of a local cat burglar!  

The film is not so much about the cat himself as it is about watching everything from the cat’s point of view with these two lives he’s part of, and how his connection manages to bring these characters together.  The cats feelings are pretty impartial and unchanging, but we love him because we can see where his loyalties lie.  He also does some wonderful “cat things” we can all relate to, like every night on his way to the cat burglar, he passes by a barking dog.  All the cat has to do is sit on the wall and let the dog bark at him, till the dogs owner gets angry enough and throws his shoe at the dog.  The scene is hilarious just in that the cat can be devious while never having to make a move.  I’ve actually seen smart stray cats in my neighborhood do this to my own dogs!  But the humor completely derives from the cat always doing cat-like things that we know of and can relate to.  I have to say too, that sometimes the cat will react gleefully to unpleasent situations, revealing a kind of dark side.  The scene in question where I saw this happen, I was completely wowed by.  It’s a piece of character work that you would almost never see in an American animated film. 

The biggest highlight of the film for me, however, is the gangster villain, Viktor Costa.  From the point of view of the police detective, he is a disturbing image in her mind, and she visualizes him as a monster.  But when we see the real Viktor as he is, he’s actual a bit bumbling, dealing regularly with his not too bright lackeys.  Like the cat, this runs with the films theme when appearances can only be judged by a persons point of view.  The other reason I really like Viktor is that he is just as much a victim to himself, suffering from an almost delusional desire to attain a valuable object.  When the delusion finally catches up with him at the end, our emotions about him are conflicting, and I found myself feeling sorry for him.  As far as a villain goes, he really is one of the most complicated animated characters I’ve seen in a film that can be considered made for children.   

That is really the most inspiring thing about this film, which is that there is absolutely nothing black and white about it.  No one is truly a hero or a villain.  There is no labeling at all in that sense.  What we have instead is a sophisticated world with characters that are all trying to make the best of their given situations.  Their desires for money or valuables for instance are not driven by evil, but in an innate need for survival in a difficult world.  There is a lot of pain as well fueling the characters and their inner driving force.  

A Cat In Paris is really a wonderful movie, and is unlike any animated film out there.  It also shows the places foriegn animators are willing to go with their stories, especially ones designed for children that I have to say American films are either missing out on or just not willing to go.  Stylistically, a film like this is terrific to watch, because it shows us all the amazing places we can go with the medium of animation that are not just restricted to the Disney or Pixar way of doing things.  This is a film I highly recommend to people of all ages, because as my 6 year old cousin will tell you, it is indeed a complicated story.  And she’s right.