Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Animated Reviews: Suzume

Suzume is the latest animated feature from Makoto Shinkai, which follows a successful series of movies in his filmography, like The Garden of Words, Children Who Chase Lost Voices, and 5 Centimeters per Second.

Y'know, I've harped on this in a prior blog post but it still bugs me. Before watching the spectacular film Your Name back in 2017, 5 Centimeters per Second was the only Makoto Shinkai film I'd seen before. And while I've seen '5 Centimeters' two times now, I still don't remember a single thing about it. In doing some research for this article, I read the plot and I still don't remember this film. I'm not sure what that means. I mean, it's a film by Makoto Shinkai, so I'm sure that the visuals were amazing, the characters relatable, and the story multi-faceted. I've got it on DVD but I'm not sure what a third viewing would do for me. It's only an hour long, so wouldn't be a bad thing to watch it again, but I find it odd that I can remember details about some really obscure animations, however this one gives me so much trouble. I didn't even remember that I had watched it two times when I wrote that blog post in 2017. Now that I've reviewed the reference blog post, the really odd thing is that I remember mentioning not remembering watching the film to a friend, and then going on to watch the film with him--but I still don't remember the film itself. Here's the trailer for '5 Centimeters'.

Nope. Don't remember any of it. The thing that spooks me about the idea of rewatching it for a third time is what if I walk away not remembering anything about it--even with all the information I now have regarding the characters and plot? I have to admit though, due to the nature of memory being so nebulous it's almost more interesting to me to know the reason why it's so difficult to remember watching this film. Hrm.

Oh, yeah. Suzume...

Well, it's a Makoto Shinkai film, so, as I said earlier, the visuals, backgrounds, and character animation, you know they're going to be spectacular. And this film did not disappoint. The story is about a girl who meets a young man on the way to her school and she quickly gets swept up into a supernatural plot to stop massive earthquakes in Japan. The layer beneath the metaplot is the young man trying to explain to her the nature of reality all while she is coming to terms with tragedies in her own past. For me though, it really wasn't the supernatural/sci-fi elements of the story that roped me in, it was the human elements: those relationships that develop between the characters as she races against time across Japan. Those interactions are the really interesting elements of this film. Those alone make Suzume worth a second viewing.

In the pantheon of Shinaki's films that I've seen, I'd put this one as better than Weathering with You but not as good as Your Name. I do recommend watching this movie in the theaters while it's still there--a large format screen really allows for one to absorb a lot of visual detail that you'll miss on a television screen--but be sure to see it when it comes to streaming platforms or DVD/BluRay. While I didn't have enough of an emotional connection to "Weathering" to want it in my DVD collection, Suzume is one of those that I just might pick up when it hits the stores. 

* * *

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Animated Events: TAAFI Film Festival 2023

Well, the Toronto Animation Arts Festival International's annual film festival has come and gone. And while I miss spending the weekend in Toronto, enjoying good food, great films, and the chance to spend time with valued colleagues, I'm very thankful that TAAFI has made the decision to maintain a hybrid virtual/in-person festival format for the time being. Since heading over to Canada isn't an option for me at the moment, it's nice to still be a part of some of the best animation festivals in the world.

This year, TAAFI had a number of their feature-length animated films streamed online along with the full shorts competition and a number of presentations. After the features, they would bring on the creator (usually the director) to discuss the film and take questions from the audience. 

While I was disappointed that I couldn't watch The Amazing Maurice and Unicorn Wars (due to them not being streamed and only shown to the in-person portion of the festival), Unicorn Wars is a rental on Amazon Prime so I don't mind throwing a couple bucks to a filmmaker through their choice of streaming platform. And I imagine that 'Maurice' will be on streaming platforms soon enough (I missed it's run in the theaters), so no worries there. As I've largely moved from watching movies in a theater to enjoying them in the comfort of my home theater, it's become my preferred way of consuming film. And it was a very pleasant experience as TAAFI showed the features in the evenings during the week and followed up with the shorts programs over the weekend. So the festival fit into my work schedule quite nicely.

Final TAAFI Film Festival 2023: Terry Ibele from Toronto Animation Arts Festival on Vimeo.

I started off the week watching their first feature film presentation: Rift.

Okay, Rift was an interesting experience. The visuals were a quantum leap backwards in time. They were "primitive" in every sense of the word: the models looked blocky, as if they were constructed out of primitives (spheres, cubes, cones, etc). Very primitive facial expressions with little animation. Most of the motion was stiff and stilted. The backgrounds were blocky and not as detailed. Honestly, the whole movie reminded me of the T.V. series Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles from back in 1999, except produced with worse graphics (full disclosure: I enjoyed ST:C and have all the DVDs). If you watch the trailer for Rift, you'll see what I mean about the visuals, backgrounds, and animation.

Now, credit where credit is due: this film has a very interesting story with decent voice acting. So what is the payoff, you may ask? Why would someone create a film like this? An attempt to be retro? Bringing their personal vision to life? Well in this case, the director was working with new technology and a production pipeline that was designed for smaller production filmmaking during a lockdown which would be easily adaptable to a limited budget, limited staff production.

Much of the animation was motion capture and performance capture which would be cleaned up by animators with special tools that allowed for minute changes on the models -- things like changing a mouth position or tweaking the movement of a hand gesture. And the film was also produced with Unreal Engine as the backend render engine for both the development and final film production phases.

All-in-all, it looked more like a stage between pre-visualization and final production. But it's a very interesting production pipeline and it is really worth keeping an eye on the technology as it develops since it makes feature-length animation much more affordable and accessible to smaller production teams. Is it ready for "prime time"? I'm not too sure about that, but Rift was a good stepping stone (or perhaps a proof of concept) as the technology evolves. The director and his production crew did a decent job with the tools they had and the restrictions they were under, so I'm very interested to see what Hasraf Dulull produces next as well as how this technology develops and is adopted by other filmmakers.

The next feature that stood out was Interface by Canadian artist Justin Tomchuk.

Interface was actually edited together into a two-hour feature-length movie from a series of web shorts that Tomchuk released previously. I'm not sure I could summarize the plot and do it justice, so here's the description from TAAFI's website:

"Henryk, a man who doesn’t age, and Mischief, a clown-like entity with the ability to shapeshift, travel across several locations searching for Henryk’s great-granddaughter, all while being pursued by KAMI, a mysterious, artificial “god” created by the most likely malicious Greetings Robotics Corporation."

Interface was weird. It reminded me of one of those quirky features that I sat through on a lark at the  Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema but would end up enjoying by the time the film was over. It was surreal with visuals that ran the gamut from what looked like 8-bit video game graphics to experimental to European animation. I'm planning on watching this film again when I have the time to really sit there and digest what I'm watching.

Justin Tomchuk has released the full film online for free viewing, so give it a look. I'd say sit through the first fifteen minutes or so and see if it ropes you in like it did me.

As the weekend approached, I waited patiently for the animated shorts screenings, which traditionally are my favorite events of the festival. And they did pay off. TAAFI groups the shorts programs into general themes: Oddball Shorts, Dark Shorts, College Shorts, etc. I don't know why, but I really appreciate that format. Maybe because there's a sense of harmony across the films. Thought for another day.

While it was very fun to see some more popular short films, like the Rick & Morty spinoff web series highlighting the Vindicators, there were a couple films this year that really spoke to me.

The Queen of the Foxes was a delightful film directed by Marina Rosset. The story follows the Fox Queen and her coterie of foxes that scour the city at night looking for unsent love letters. It's a wholly charming film with a great payoff. The trailer is below, but this is one of those films I'd love to have in my collection. 

Sincereality is one of those films I'd love for everyone to see. It's created by a Japanese director "Dada Gaugin", and it succeeds in being anime without being anime. It's basically a music video about a girl and her struggles to be a musical performer. And fortunately for everyone, the director posted it online about a year ago. When you watch it, click on the "CC" option as it's got English subtitles. Dada Gaugin is one of those directors I now have on my list of artists whose career I need to follow. The song is so fun and uplifting and the visuals match the pacing of the film so well, even if you don't speak Japanese, the film is easy to understand. 

Here's the film. I challenge you to watch this film and not walk away with a smile on your face.

Chit Chat and Homebody were both films about social isolation -- the first a film about a socially awkward man who dials people on the phone, looking for someone to talk to, who ends up striking up a friendship with an elderly woman. Homebody told the story of a shut-in woman who lived vicariously through her friend's adventures. In both cases, these films really struck home for many of us, especially during the waning days of Covid. The directors (Elisa Baudy & Jeanne Dalmas & Flore Pean & Gabin Ageorges & Bradley Lejeune, and Sophia Du respectively) struck a very good balance between highlighting the painful situations their characters find themselves in but choosing to end the films on a hopeful note. I'd happily watch both films again.

Mileage was good. Very good! Mileage was one part horror and one part psychological thriller all wrapped up in seven minutes. Horror isn't the easiest genre to pull off in animation and I'm very impressed that the directors of this film were able to set up the conflict, build tension, and finish up with a resolution that really points a spotlight on human nature without being overbearing. If you have the chance to watch this at a festival, definitely check it out. Props to the directors Jennifer Wu & Kym Santiana & Ruyee Lu & Christopher Hsueh & Nicole Taylor-Topacio & Joy Zhou & Ruby Saysanasy & Miranda Li & Saul Benavides.

And then, after the last Saturday screening, it was over. I felt a little wistful since I was able to watch some incredible animated films, but since I didn't get to watch them in Toronto with my friends and colleagues, I was left with some good memories but with noone to share them with. All in all though, I remain very thankful to the folks over at TAAFI for continuing this in-person and virtual festival format so folks all around the world who would be there otherwise can be a part of the festivities. Hopefully next year, things will be closer to normal and a return trip to Toronto will be a part of my festival plans.
 * * *