Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Review: The 2009 Short Animated Film Oscar Nominees

The Oscars are only a week away, and I finally had some time to sit down and watch all the nominated animated shorts. As per usual, the selection comes from a variety of countries -- Russia, Japan, & France to name a few -- and feature styles ranging from computer animation to traditional hand-drawn. It's always a treat to get to see independent animation up on the big screen, but I felt this year's selection was a tad lackluster.

Nominee Photo Gallery

Of the five films up for the statue, Pixar's Presto was honest to God the best. As much as it hurts me to say it, the Pixar short was just more entertaining: livelier, brighter, sillier, and simply more impressive than the rest of the bunch. A relatively insignificant short about a hungry rabbit and his inept magician owner, the film looks gorgeous and stands head and shoulders above the other entries on technical terms. It goes up against three love stories (one about a Lavatory attendant in a nice but ultimately flat 2D flash design, one from Japan about an old man revisiting his life in gorgeous hand-drawn that's just too long and depressing, and another CG one about Octopi that just doesn't hold a candle to Pixar's lush lighting and shading techniques) and a silly CG animation about two pallbearers that just looks like crap (no offense, producers Mike Judge & Don Hertzfeldt. I still love you and the Animation Show).

The real treats lay in the short list entries, including Plympton's latest Dog short and a real gem from France titled Skhizein about a man who gets hit by a meteor. Worst of the lot was a 24 minute self aggrandizing, overly simplified treatise on the state of the environment called Varmints, directed by Marc Caste. Despite the lush CG and beautiful score by Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson, the film is a gratuitous plea for environmental change. I'll take my metaphors a little less ham-fisted, thank you.

All in all, last year's shorts were a better lot, and I'm surprised so many of the short-listed nominees didn't make it to the top five. Oh well. Either way, it's nice to be able to catch cartoons on the big screen, and I'm glad the AMPAS airs these guys out for everyone to see, even if it is just a glorified screener. (For those who see it -- be on the look out for awful, awful DVD style transitions with insipid quotes about the benefits of the short film medium).

Revisit: Fantastic Planet

An Anchor Bay release 1973

Directed by René Laloux

Written by Roland Topor & René Laloux

Based on the novel by Stefan Wul

On a faraway planet where giants rule, tiny humanoids must fight for their lives and their equality.

This surreal animated film was winner of the Special Grand Prix at Cannes in 1973. Decades later it still reigns as one of the premier surrealist animated features. The film lives up to it's title; artist Ronald Topor populates the story with a host of strange creatures and bizarre landscapes. A beauty to behold, the animation and artistry of images is what makes the film work. Without it, it's a bland tale about learning to live in peace with mutual benefit. But do check it out if you're an animation junkie.

Review: Let the Right One In

A Magnolia Pictures release 2008

Directed by Tomas Alfredson

Written by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Oscar, an overlooked and bullied boy, finds love and revenge through Eli, a beautiful but peculiar girl who turns out to be a vampire.

A chilling film about adolescence, love, and vampires, Let the Right One In sounds like an arthouse grindcore mess but manages to marry budding romance with bloody horror in just the right way. Alfredson's snowy white/pitch black palate, cold Sweden setting and deliberate pacing create a truly unsettling mood, one that grows throughout the picture and shakes off any absurd notions that come with the idea of human/vampire love. The child actors are terrific, particularly Lina Leandersson as the ancient vampire Eli. And the film has plenty of blood and effects to keep any splatter fan happy, without being too silly. An original and enjoyable film that was unjustly shut out of this years Oscar race.

Review: Coraline

Written & Directed by Henry Selick

Based on the book by Neil Gaiman

A young girl walks through a secret door in her new home and discovers an alternate version of her life.

I've seen Coraline twice now and I can't seem to get it out of my head. The mix of intense artistry and chilling children's fantasy is infectious, and incredibly beautiful. As of right now it's my top film of 2009 and sure to be on my top ten list come the end of the year.

There are two major reasons why I love this film. Number one: Henry Selick's incredibly detailed, labor of love animation. This is as good as it gets people -- a fully realized, amazingly in depth 3D world made entirely of miniature puppets and set pieces. A lot of heart and soul went into the making of this film, and every ounce of it shows on screen. Everything from the soundtrack to the V.O. to the little hairs on Coraline's head are pitch perfect. It's truly a wonder to behold, and infinitely more impressive than any computer generated image. It's a shame more filmmakers don't follow in his footsteps.

Number two: Neil Gaiman's beautiful story. A take on the classic Alice in Wonderland, down the rabbit hole type tale, the story of Coraline is as breathtakingly imaginative as the animation that brings it to life. Despite being a fantasy, it doesn't pander to overprotective parents and has some real scares that are sure to upset younger viewers. But no matter -- Gaiman knows that kids are braver than we give them credit, and it's refreshing to see a children's film that isn't all cute animals and silly colors.

The film does have its flaws. Some scenes drag on a tad too long and overall the screen story isn't as streamlined as the novel. But those are some small grievances that were easily overlooked on my first viewing. I may be biased as this film has a lot of elements that tickle my fancy, but seriously -- I don't think I could be friends with anyone who didn't like this film. Selick and Gaiman have done children (and adults) everywhere a service, creating a masterful and resonating work that should be cherished for generations.

Review: Friday the 13th

A Warner Brothers release 2009

Directed by Marcus Nispel

Written by Damian Shannon & Mark Swift

A group of young adults discover a boarded up Camp Crystal Lake, where they soon encounter Jason Voorhees and his deadly intentions.

Not so much a reboot or remake as it is a sequel of sorts, the new Friday the 13th amalgamizes elements from the first three Jason movies to create a 'fresh start' for the series. Continuing where the original Friday the 13th left off -- with Jason's mother being brutally beheaded whilst her son watches in the darkness -- the film quickly dispenses its ludicrous plot involving a weed heist and starts the killing almost right away.

While Jason and his victims may have never looked as stylish or sexy as they do in this entry to the series, they've also never been so damn boring. The strength of a slasher always rests on the creativity of its kills, something this entry severely lacks. Most of the death scenes rely on run of the mill pop up/jump 'look out behind you!' scare tactics, or even blatantly rehash kills from early Jason flicks (ie: the famous jump through the window scene from Part II). Several key story elements, such as the manipulation of Jason's mommy complex, are all lifted from earlier Jason flicks. As a result the whole flick has a been there/done that, I-saw-that-coming-from-a-mile-away type feel.

Rather than amping the creativity of the kills and the omnipresent nature of Jason's character, the film relies on and retools the worst slasher cliches: annoying, bratty, stupid teens and their sick vices. While I commend the filmmakers for managing to get Willa Ford naked and showing an ample amount of breasts, it's hard to sit through a flick where the main characters keep saying "bro" and pound beers till they vomit. Truly they are better off dead. The stupidity and immorality of the victims has always been a major thematic point for these kind of flicks, but I'm not sure if they've ever been quite as vapid or abhorrent.

It would be nice, for a change, to see some relatively decent people go up against the monster that is Jason. Or, perhaps even better, some actual camp counselors. Why does the series always move away from the camp idea? Wouldn't it be more terrifying to see some teenagers dealing with young children as well as a masked psycho killer? Balancing responsibility with survival? Camp Crystal Lake is barely present in these films anymore (at least beyond an overgrown forest/murder scene), and it would be nice to see it return.

Ultimately this reboot/rehash/whatever was all about streamlining the inconic killer and making a version that adhered to our modern technical standards. On that level it succeeds. But as entertainment it's completely inept. Amping all the intolerable cliches and lacking any real creativity, Friday the 13th is a truly awful representation of the slasher genre. Hearing that the guys responsible for this are planning a Nightmare on Elm Street reboot sends shudders through my spine...