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Director: Alain Ughetto
Release Date: June 10, 2013
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Jasmine © Alain UghettoAfter ‘Persepolis’ (2007) ‘Jasmine’ is the second animation film about the Iranian revolution of 1979.

In his strongly autobiographical film Ughetto rediscovers his love relationship with Jasmine, a young woman from Iran, whom he visited during the turmoils of 1978/1979, and whom he left behind, to return to France, alone.

Ughetto doesn’t spare himself, and realizes leaving her was a big mistake on his part. To tell his story he uses love letters from the time, 8mm film images he shot during the Iran revolution and clay animation. He also shows the clay animation process, his elaborate sets made from styrofoam packaging material and collections of clay figures.

Unfortunately, Ughetto’s clay animation is very limited. His plasticine figures are devoid of any facial expression, and they all look the same. The only difference between the Alain and Jasmine puppets is their color (caramel vs. blue – reflecting the color of her eyes). There’s only a limited amount of animation, and little of it is expressive.

Because of this, the film relies heavily on the voice overs, Alain telling his story, a woman reading Jasmine’s love letters. Without the soundtrack the film becomes utterly incomprehensible. Only at one point in the film, the animation images leave a strong impression themselves: when the oppressive forces of the new Islamic regime strike down and kill the former revolutionaries. This is shown by giant floating turbans suddenly falling down and crushing discussing people.

‘Jasmine’ is an intimate, very personal and honest film, and the story of the Iranian revolution and its effects on the everyday lives of people remains moving. But ‘Jasmine’ is no ‘Persepolis’ and in the end falls short as an animation film. It could easily have been a live action film, a documentary, or even a novel, instead.

Watch the trailer for ‘Jasmine’ and tell me what you think:

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Director: Âle Abreu
Release Date: September 20, 2013
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

O menino e o mundo © Âle AbreuIt seems that with their growing economies the BRIC countries enter a new creative era, in which costly projects like animated features are now possible. Especially Brazil is a surprising new country from which unique and distinct animation films sprout.

In 2013 the Holland Animation Film Festival had shown the ambitious ‘Uma História de Amor e Fúria‘, this year it’s the charming film ‘O menino e o mundo’ (The Boy and the World). Surprisingly, given the extremely different animation styles, the two features have more in common than one would expect.

According to its director Âle Abreu* the idea of ‘O menino e o mundo’ was conceived when the little boy character suddenly appeared in his notes when studying Latin American protest music of the last hundred years. The film tells about this little boy growing up in the countryside, near the jungle, who goes to seek his father, who has left for the city to work. On his trip he discovers the real world that is Brazil, far from his idyllic place in the hills. He meets cotton pickers, people in the cotton industry, and even discovers how cotton is shipped to some futuristic cities (vaguely resembling the US) to be made into clothes, which are shipped back to Brazil to be sold at ridiculous prices.

I say Brazil, but Abreu insists that this story is the story of practically every Latin American country, or even every third world country emerging from a dark dictatorial past and now getting caught up in the World Economy. Indeed, the film’s world may be one great fantasy,  with vehicles like animals, towns like mountains, and great futuristic cities in the sky. Yet, what happens in this world is instantly recognizable to people all over the world,

Meanwhile, the film clearly shows the grand effects of the global economy on the lives of ordinary and poor people. Without reservation Abreu shows us cotton pickers being fired because they are old and sick, workers working ridiculously long hours in hot industries to produce cotton, only to be replaced by a machine in the end. We watch poor people living in favelas (slums), while advertisements on the streets and on television produce images of a happy life they’ll never be able to reach. We watch people who demand more freedom being oppressed by military police, in a particular powerful sequence in which a colorful bird of freedom is crushed by a black bird of oppression, etc.

It’s this focus on social injustice that ‘O menino e o mundo’ shares with ‘Uma História de Amor e Fúria’. Unlike the latter film, however, Abreu’s film never becomes too heavy-handed, because we keep on seeing this world through the eyes of a child. To achieve this, Abreu uses a wonderfully naive style resembling children’s drawings and pastel crayons. All images are drenched in imagination and wonder, even those of the city and the oppressive forces, whose tanks look like large elephants. When the boy approaches the city, more and more magazine clippings are added to the colorful images. Abreu says he wanted to tell a tale about freedom, so he wanted to have freedom during the making of this film, too. He says: “A director should listen to the voice of his film, and listen to where the film wants to go“.

The result is an absolutely gorgeously looking film, simply bursting in color and fantasy. The animation, too, is superb, especially when considering that most of it was done in Photoshop. According to Abreu the drawings were then printed, filmed, and imported in After Effects for compositing. Moreover, the whole film was made with a very small crew. Nevertheless, the makers have reached a high quality by any standards.

To tell his story Abreu uses no dialogue. Yes, we hear people speak, but in a language that is constructed of Portuguese words spoken out backwards. Indeed, the voice actors had to act and sing in this backward language. However, in no way comprehensible dialogue is missed, for Abreu is perfectly capable of storytelling by images alone. Added to the mix is the cheerful score by Ruben Feffer and Gustavo Kurlat, which is a perfect match to the colorful images. According to Abreu, even the sounds of nature are made by musical means, like hand claps for rain.

‘O menino e o mundo’ is a magical film of sheer delight, deserving to be shown everywhere in the world. And unlike American films, it doesn’t shun the big questions our world needs to answer. For this bravery alone, it deserves a large audience.

Watch the trailer for ‘O menino e o mundo’ and tell me what you think:

* Quotations from Abreu are taken from his introduction and Q&A at the screening of his film at the Holland Animation Film Festival, March 20, 2014.

Director: Rémi Vandenitte
Release Date: June 8, 2013
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Betty's Blues © Rémi Vandenitte‘Betty’s Blues’ is Vandenitte’s ode to the country blues, and its origins in the South of the United States.

The film is a frame story, with two distinct styles. The framing story is told in stop-motion. We watch a young black blues singer perform in a small and empty bar near a metro line (we hear the cars rattling by from time to time). The singer tells his audience the story of Betty’s Blues. Enter the drawn animation.

The story itself is about a blues singer who loses his girl to the K.K.K. and becomes blind himself. In return for his blindness he receives the gift to make everybody dance to his guitar playing. When he meets the K.K.K. again, his revenge is sweet. The film ends with the audience shocked with horror by this rather violent story.

Both Vandenitte’s stop-motion and 2D animation are of a high quality. His stop-motion puppets have a delightfully gritty texture, and Vandenitte’s animation of guitar playing is wonderfully convincing. In the 2D sequences Vandenitte makes use of a technique simulating wood carving, combined with bold and evocative coloring, sometimes mimicking the color palette of that great cinematic ode to the musical South, ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’. The result is a gorgeous film, if a little shallow in the end.

Watch the teaser for ‘Betty’s Blues’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Sabrina Peña Young
Release Date: October 5, 2013
Rating: ★
Review:

Libertaria - The Virtual Opera © Sabrina Peña Young‘Libertaria: The Virtual Opera’ must be one of the most unwatchable animated features ever made.

This science fiction film is utterly pretentious, using heavy texts to tell a dystopian story about some post-apocalyptic America. The film makes use of some interesting split-screen techniques, but is hampered by erratic storytelling and the most primitive computer animation techniques. The animation of the characters is appallingly poor and amateurish, and the designs hideously ugly. The emotions of the songs are not mirrored in the images, at all. Even the cheapest video game looks better than this.

This combination of dead serious pretentiousness and extremely poor execution make the film a nightmare to watch. Its best aspect is its music, because that, at least, has some quality. Indeed, Sabrina Peña Young is a composer, not an animator, and it remains puzzling why she wanted to make this film in the first place.

Cobbler, stick to your last!

[UPDATE: Sabrina Peña Young reacted to this blog post to explain why she made this film. Please read her response below]

Watch ‘Libertaria: The Virtual Opera’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Sam Stephens & Christopher Mauch
Release Date: May 2013
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Tumbleweed Tango © Sam Stephens & Christopher Mauch‘Tumbleweed Tango’ is a charming little film about two balloon dogs falling in love in a menacing desert full of prickly cacti. The two dance a romantic tango, and together transform into a large bird, escaping the threatening cacti world. 

‘Tumbleweed Tango’ is a virtuoso computer animation film, full of swooping camera takes, elaborate landscapes, and convincing animation on the two balloon dogs. Even their metamorphosis into the balloon bird is believable.

Watch ‘Tumbleweed Tango’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Bill Plympton
Release Date: October 11, 2013
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Cheatin' © Bill Plympton‘Cheatin’ is Plympton’s sixth feature – no small achievement for an independent animator who insists on drawing everything on his own.

‘Cheatin’ is no exception to his rule. True, for this film Plympton had hired some staff to reproduce the looks of his watercolor illustration style, but he still drew every single frame himself. According to Plympton*, the costs of the extra staff broke him, and he had to go for a (luckily successful) Kickstarter campaign to be able to finish his film. Unfortunately, distribution in his homeland, the United States, will remain problematic, as, according to Plympton, ‘Cheatin’ is 1) no computer animation film, and 2) it’s not directed at children. Both ‘handicaps’ are enough to alienate the average American distributor. Add the absence of dialogue, and ‘Cheatin”s chances become mighty low, indeed…

This is a pity, for Plympton is in great shape in this film. His sketchy drawing style is as virtuoso as ever, and his human protagonists are drawn to the extreme – using weird camera angles and outrageous exaggeration. Practically every single frame is a beauty.

‘Cheatin’ is a surprisingly lighthearted love story. It tells about Ella and Jake, who meet each other at a bumper car stand – and it’s love at first sight. They marry shortly after, and nothing seems to stand in the way of their happiness. Unfortunately, more women take interest in the muscular Jake, and one of them frames Ella – making Jake belief she meets other men. Prostrated with grief, Jake decides to take revenge, and to pick up as many girls as possible himself…

At this point, the film starts to falter a little. Plympton steers away from reality to plunge into a weird plot using a strange machine to get to his happy end. This is a pity, for his outrageous portraits of the common aspects of love are perfect in itself. To me the film would have been better if he’d stuck to a more familiar pattern of love, rut, adultery, and revenge. For example, Plympton’s depiction of Ella opening her heart to let love in is the most endearing sequence in the whole film. And his depiction of the married couple’s happiness accounts for the film’s most stream-of-consciousness-like sequence, accompanied by the drinking song from Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’.

When Jake starts cheating, Plympton focuses on his behavior at the EZ motel. However, it remains a rather unclear how Jake behaves at home. He has clearly become cold and distant, and denies Ella the love and sex she desires. But at no point in the film there’s any trace of irritations, rows or fights between the two lovers.

Plympton says the film is based on a experience of his own, in which he discovered he wanted to strangle and to make love to his girl at the same time. There’s indeed a scene depicting this feeling. However, it gets a little lost in the strange plot twist. What it does show is that Ella’s desire to hurt Jake is weaker than her desire to be loved by him. Although both characters look rather cliche, in the end Ella is a far more interesting character than Jake, who remains a rather simple strong man loaded with testosteron. Plympton doesn’t show much of Ella’s character, but her more complex inner feelings can be distilled from several scenes.

Despite the plot flaws, ‘Cheatin’ remains a well-told film throughout, making clever use of Nicole Renaud’s gorgeous score, and of some classical pieces –  apart from Verdi, e.g. Leoncavallo’s ‘Ridi Pagliaccio’ sung by Caruso, and Maurice Ravel’s Bolero. The absence of dialogue never becomes a handicap –  on the contrary. And the emotions of the characters are played out well – sometimes grotesquely cliche, like Jake’s ride of grief; sometimes subtle and sincere, like Ella’s suffering from Jake’s rejection.

Plympton calls his film ‘anti-Disney’, but ‘Cheatin” is in no way a reaction to Disney’s world. One can say it’s decidedly non-Disney: the film stands on its own and shows us an animation world totally different from Disney’s, one in which American animated features are not synonymous to family films, but can be as wildly diverse as live action features.

I certainly hope Plympton’s world will once come true.

Watch the trailer for ‘Cheatin’ yourself and tell me what you think:

* quotations from Bill Plympton are taken from his introduction to the film at the screening at the Holland Animation Film Festival, March 19, 2014.

Director: Luiz Bolognesi
Release Date: April 5, 2013
Rating: ★★
Review:

Uma História de Amor e Fúria © Buriti Films‘Uma História de Amor e Fúria’ (Rio 2096: a Story of Love and Fury) is a a rather depressing film from Brazil, showing three violent episodes in Brazilian history, plus one in the future.

Main protagonist is the Tupinambá Indian Abeguar, who is granted the possibility of flight and immortality, reincarnating as a bird. Through his eternal love interest Janaína he can reincarnate back into a human form, which he does three times during the film.

This framing story binds the four separate episodes, which take place in 1556, the 1820s, 1968-1980 and 2096. The first episode shows us his Tupinambá self, and how his tribe gets slaughtered and enslaved by Portuguese colonists. In the second episode Abeguar reincarnates as a poor farmer joining a troop of enraged farmers and escaped slaves during Brazil’s war of independence. In the third episode he’s a teacher fighting the military dictatorship, and in the last episode, taking place in the future, he fights in a war over scarce water.

‘Uma História de Amor e Fúria’ shows Brazil’s troubled history. Throughout the picture life is showed through the eyes of the underdog. Abeguar sarcastically observes that his oppressors get statues, while the oppressed remain anonymous.

‘Uma História de Amor e Fúria’  is an accomplished work: the animation is fairly good, if a little mechanical, the backgrounds are gorgeous, and the production values pretty high. The film clearly aims at a more adult audience, not eschewing nudity or graphic violence.

The film is hampered, however, by rather ugly designs: the humans look like those from Disney’s Pocahontas (1995), but with even more angular designs. The animation of emotions is crude and stereotypical. But more important: the film is totally devoid of humor. It is dark and heavy throughout, without any light moments. This gives the film a propagandistic gravity, which becomes tiresome in the end.

Watch the official trailer of ‘Uma História de Amor e Fúria’ and tell me what you think:

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