An animated Edinburgh: Sylvain Chomet at the Edinburgh Film Festival

I’ve spent the last week and a bit attending to one of my annual traditions: enjoying the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Among the many movies I managed to fit in there were, unsurprisingly a number from the comics and SF influenced end of films – mostly from the independent end of the pool – and, of course, some great animation. And since Wim’s been talking about The Illusionist, which has just opened in Europe and since it was the opening night gala movie let’s start with that.

Regular readers will know that I’m a huge admirer of Sylvain Chomet, who brought us the brilliant Bellevile Rendezvous, with its Scarfe-influenced characters and that I’ve been following the progress of his new animated feature as it came together in an Edinburgh studio. Rather appropriately, since much of the film is set in the Scottish capital. Adapted from an unused script by the great Jacques Tati (truly one of world’s cinema’s greats, easily up there in my book with Keaton), we follow Tatichef (another Tati reference), a tall, ungainly stage magician, struggling in 1950s Paris, so he takes himself off to London, only to find even less success there – old theatrical acts are out of fashion, the hip, young crowds of the post-war world want screaming rock’n’roll (cue some brilliant pastiche of 50s rock acts). Looking around for another gig to pay the rent an encounter with a (naturally drunk) Scotsman at a party leads to a booking in a wee village out on the islands off the west coast of Scotland, where he meets a young lass who, convinced he is a real magician, follows him to Edinburgh, where again Tatichef goes through a variety of gigs to try and get past in a world where his kind of act is now old-fashioned and no longer in demand.

As with Belleville Rendezvous, however, the story is only part of the enjoyment – the visual aspect is another, from the OTT comedy of the pelvis-swinging rock bands who steal Tatichef’s audience to a wonderfully drawn array of secondary characters (most notably the short ventriloquist). And then there are the landscapes; when the film moves to Scotland the artwork for the scenery is simply gorgeous (as indeed it is in real life), from the steam train thundering northwards to the boat to the islands, where of course it, being Scotland, is raining. And as the boat approaches the island and castle, in a scene paying homage to Tintin’s Scottish visit (although with a bit more visible under the kilt!), the rain stops and sunlight filters through gaps in the clouds creating the shimmering, golden dappled light effect anyone who’s been to Scotland has no doubt seen and it’s beautifully done.

The arrival in 50s Edinburgh is similarly beautiful and romantic, the steam train pulling into Waverley Station in its deep cutting between Old and New Town, landmarks surrounding it. As with Paris and New York in Belleville it isn’t an exact replica of the city but an idealised version, easily recognisable as Edinburgh (the Castle, the Scott Monument, Jenner’s, Balmoral, the rearing bulk of Arthur’s Seat) but a sort of magical, fantasy version of the city and again Chomet recreates the constantly changing quality of light we enjoy in Edinburgh, to quite beautiful effect. Okay, obviously I am totally biased here – being both an admirer of Chomet’s work and since I’m lucky enough to have Edinburgh as a home. If you know the city you will love the depiction of it that Chomet and his artists have created. And if you don’t then you will probably fall in love with it – as he did with the city – and want to see it for yourself; he’s talked about the changing quality of light in Scotland and how it inspired him, how it changes everything (it does, the same scenes are endlessly refreshed and changed a little) and there are some scenic passages which are clearly a love letter to the city.

(Sylvain Chomet on stage at the Festival Theatre with the EIFF’s Hannah McGill at the opening night gala screening of The Illusionist at the Edinburgh Film Fest, pic from my Flickr)

For all that beauty though and for the comedic elements – and they have given the cartoon Tatichef a wonderfully physical, very Jacques Tati feel – there is a strong melancholy running through The Illusionist. The young, naïve girl is lovely and obviously a little bit of company and sunshine in the older Tatichef’s life, but at the same time it serves to show that he is much older and that he has little to show for his lifetime of efforts but an act that no-one wants anymore, no home, no wife, no children. Her childlike belief that he actually is a real magician is touching, but it’s also an impossible image for Tatichef to live up to (and he tries so hard to make her happy) and something will have to give at some point. Throw in the complication of a young girl turning into a young woman and starting to notice boys (including a character who has more than a passing resemblance to a very young Sean Connery) and you begin to suspect that perhaps this won’t be as upbeat as Belleville. But over all that there’s the sheer beauty of the visuals – from the Flying Scotsman steaming in Waverley Station to a dizzying aerial spectacle of Edinburgh’s astonishing landmarks rotating below us. There’s laughter and sadness, often at the same time, some wonderful characters and above all some gorgeous artwork you can lose yourself in. You want to see it.

The Illusionist is out now in France and is expected in the autumn in the UK and winter in the US. Next from the Film Fest: geeking out with The People Versus George Lucas, the lonesome cowboy Lucky Luke delivers with both barrels, comics-style crime fighters in York, zombies in Athens and there are monsters on the Mexican border.

Advertisements

Animation at the Film Festival

Among the movies I was eager to see during my annual week off at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival were two animated features which we’ve mentioned on here before (regular readers will know of my fascination for all forms of animation) – the Australian stop-motion film Mary and Max (that rare thing, a feature length, independent  animated movie aimed at an older audience) and a more traditionally animated 2D offering from Ireland’s Cartoon Salon, The Secret of Kells, which was created primarily for a younger audience.

The Secret of Kells

Aisling Brendan Secret of Kells.jpg

(an illuminated text version of Aisling and Brendan)

Regular readers will probably remember me mentioning this rather beautiful Irish animation a few times before on the blog – artist Cliodhna Lyons (Irish 24 hour comics day) first put me on to it last year as she had been involved with the Cartoon Salon in Kilkenny and the descriptions and artwork I saw had me hooked. It is an Irish-French-Belgian production and this and the graphic novel based on the film meant Kells also had a presence at this year’s prestigious Angouleme Festival, which Wim covered back in January. Drawing (no pun intended) inspiration from the fabled Book of Kells, one of the incomparably beautiful books in the history of world literature, The Secret of Kells offers up the tale of a young monk, Brendan, a novice at the monastery of Kells where his uncle is the stern, towering, grim-face abbot.

It is an evil time for many – Rome is but a distant memory and the Dark Ages have fallen across much of Europe. One of the lights in the long, dark night comes from the early church and most especially in the monastery’s preservation and dissemination of learning and the dim, early days before nations like Ireland and Scotland were actually nations, but were slowly being forged in a cauldron of oral myth, the unique Celtic brand of Christianity, small kingdoms becoming larger kingdoms and the testing by fire of brutal events like the seemingly endless invasions of the Norsemen – the Vikings. Off the Western coast of Scotland, among the many islands which scatter there though the seas lies the spiritual home of early Scottish Christianity and it is from here that Brother Aidan must flee as the Viking raiders sack this sacred site and slaughter or enslave the holy men who live there, destroying or ransacking everything within. Aidan flees with a remarkable book, the Book of Iona, still to be completed after many long decades of patient illumination by many gifted, scholarly monks. Bringing it to Kells he hopes to complete it with the help of brothers in the scriptorium there, but the abbot has lost patience with such things, being totally obsessed with building walls and defences against the inevitable Norse assault he knows will come on Kells and the monks and many villagers who have fled there for protection. He actively discourages his young nephew from helping Aidan, who, now finding his old hands to unsteady for the job, seeks a gifted replacement to finish the book.

Disobeying his uncle Brendan steals into the forest, a dark place, home to strange creatures from Irish folklore, dark wolves, standing stones, strange caves, home to mythical beings. And a forest sprite in the form of a young girl (Aisling), who is suspicious at first but soon warms to Brendan until the two become close friends.

Secret of Kells.jpg

The film is beautifully animated – the artwork is often simply gorgeous, as befits a work inspired by one of the most beautiful cultural treasures in the world. Sometimes the characters appear to be walking in an odd way compared to the background and it felt to me that this was a deliberate style adopted by the animators; its as if the characters are flat and walking across a flat background, which seems appropriate to the art style of the period, long before the more normal (to us) adoption of perspective in Renaissance art much later. Some scenes are also broken into split screens, little triptychs which recall the lovely, large header illustrations common in many illuminated books of the period, while other scenes again draw directly for their design on the unique form of illuminated texts which the Celtic school of Christianity created, people, animals, beautiful plants, flowing script and twisting, interwoven lines and knots combining into something so beautiful it almost makes you cry (so beautiful its mere sight is supposed to blind sinners as Brendan says), while other touches are small and subtle, such as the way the dappled light sparkles in the forest as the sun comes through the leaves.

Contrasted against this the Norsemen are depicted mostly in shadows, dark black and blood red outlines of hulking figures, swords and horns, recalling the demon from Fantasia (for which the great Bela Lugosi posed for the Disney animators, long before motion capture). Their acts, while never shown in detail, are brutal, dark, terrifying – for a film aimed primarily at younger viewers possibly a bit scary, but then they should be and I think its good that the animators don’t hide the horrible brutality of the period, especially as it makes the book stand out all the more. Too late the abbot will realise that his endless obsession with defences will still not halt the tide of Viking onslaught and that while they are all transient beings the book is more important then any of them or the abbey itself; the book is a symbol of the light, a beacon to shine a path out of the Dark Ages and to touch the souls of men and women for eternity (as it still does to this day). But only if Brendan and Aidan, with help from Aisling and a rather smart cat can save this remarkable work of art.

Vikings Secret of Kells.jpg

(the demonic Norsemen attack)

Its an utterly beautiful film – there’s a lovely adventure and a tale of friendship, of learned responsibilities, of what is most important, of coming of age, of saving what you can against the ages, served with a helping of folklore and fantasy, some humour and some wonderful moments of wonder that will have the eyes of child audiences open wide and the eyes of the adults too, all served up with some beautiful, traditional animation, which moves from the reasonably simple to the gorgeously elaborate scenes directly inspired by the Book of Kells. And as a bonus hopefully it will inspire kids to learn more about our history and our shared culture. Sadly there is still no news on a general UK release as yet, so at the moment you will need to watch out for it at film festivals. Which is a huge hint to any film distributors out there – this is beautiful, enchanting adventure with soul and culture and it needs to be seen by more people (and parents its a perfect one to take your kids to). And its not just animation lovers like me – Secret of Kells took the much vaunted Standard Life Audience Choice Award at the Edinburgh Film Festival – that’s an award cast by actual audience members as they leave the cinema, not an award given by critics, so obviously the audiences here loved it too; you can find out more on the official movie site here and director Tomm Moore’s blog.

Secret of Kells at Edinburgh Film Fest.jpg

(director Tomm Moore – pictured centre – at the UK premiere during the Edinburgh Film Festival, from my Flickr stream)

Mary and Max

Also at the Film Festival I was lucky enough to catch another animated film I have been eager to see for months, Mary and Max. The first Australian film every picked to open the prestigious Sundance Festival and also the first animated film to do so (which is a strong indicator of how good it is, as is its award at Annecy), its one of those movies which has been gathering impressive word of mouth on the international festival circuit, although like all indy films that is only half the struggle – getting general releases in various countries is another matter and good showings at film festivals is part of that hard slog of getting the film seen by a wider audience (a task made harder by the fact its an animated movie made for adults – most film companies won‘t know how to market such a thing). And does Mary and Max deserve to be seen by that wider audience? Oh yes, without a doubt yes.

Max Jerry Horowitz Mary and Max.jpg

(Max Jerry Horowitz from Mary and Max)

This lovely, stop-motion tale is essentially a story of two damaged, lonely souls who find a remarkable connection across the world. Young Mary is a little girl in suburban Australia, with no friends at school, a funny looking face that gets made fun of, a father who spends most of his time on his hobby of taxidermy (using roadkill for subject matter) and a mother in hair rollers, hideous glasses and constant alcoholic and smoking fugue. It’s a lonely upbringing and Mary escapes into imagination and her love of chocolate and the animated show Nibblets. One day while her mother shoplifts items from the local post office Mary leafs through an international phone book, wondering at the ‘strange’ names in an American directory. On an impulse she decides to take down the details of one random name and write him a letter to ask about life in America.

Max is a middle-aged, obese Jewish man living in 70s New York, also a lonely, damaged soul (as we find out later, he has Asperger’s, which is one reason he has difficulty in relating to people until Mary writes to him), flitting between a succession of jobs, a number of fish (which keep dying and being replaced) and trips to Overeater’s Anonymous which are rather defeated by his love of chocolate. He is quite surprised to receive Mary’s letter, complete with some samples of chocolates from Australia and very soon they are swapping letters, chocolates and little bits of their isolated lives to something neither had before – a friend. It’s at this point that the situation could be seen as straying into potential landmine territory – lonely young girl corresponding with isolated, lonely older man? You can almost imagine a red-top tabloid screaming headline now. But it isn’t like that. Somehow these two damaged souls have found what they needed, a friend, and an unlikely relationship blossoms before, inevitably, hitting some more stormy seas, not least when a more grown up Mary, now at college, studies psychology and uses Max as her main subject.

The film doesn’t try to hide the shortcomings of the characters any more than it tries to wallow in sentiment – it simply presents them and the many little facets of growing up and life that everyone can identify with, from finding out the illicit pleasures as a child of sneaking a tin of sweetened condensed milk to the shattering implications of a dear friendship being damaged (and also presents Aspergers with some sensitive understanding). It’s often funny, sometimes quite sad, but even when sad it is that beautiful kind of sadness that draws you in. The animation is all done in stop-motion and looks wonderful. I have no problem with CG animation but there is something I always find fascinating about stop-motion, the fact that, as the producer (who did a Q&A after the screening) remarked, everything you see on the screen was there, it was all designed, built and then painstakingly moved by hand, frame by frame; its all real, every item you see on screen was touched by a person putting life into it.

Mary Daisy Dinkle Mary and Max.jpg

(Mary Daisy Dinkle wrapping up another package for her pen friend)

The voice talent boasts Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman, both agreeing to work for a fraction of their normal movie fees simply for the love of it (another indicator of how good this film is) and the narration comes from none other than the great Barry Humphries, who apparently they were huge fans of and terrified to meet, but he was charming and agreed to do it, even if he noticed Mary’s mother had a slight touch of the Dame Edna about her. It’s rare to see independent animation features and even rarer to see one aimed at an adult audience (although I think it’s also quite suitable for a YA audience too). There’s more than a touch of the Edward Gorey (or his modern heir, Tim Burton) to some of the style and humour, not so much Gothic but in the dark humour that life often throws up. What can I say except I absolutely loved it and, like the Secret of Kells, I hope that some film distributors pick it up and give it a proper general release here. Meantime, if you see it on the programme of a film festival near you, take my tip and go and see it.

I’ll See You on the Dark Side of the Moon

And if the dam breaks open many years too soon

And if there is no room upon the hill

And if your head explodes with dark forebodings too

I’ll see you on the Dark Side Of The Moon” (Pink Floyd, Brain Damage)

I’m currently enjoying my annual smorgasbord of movies at the Edinburgh International Film Festival where among the movies from around the world is a low budget, independent British film by Duncan Jones (previously known as Zowie Bowie – yes, David’s wee boy, but commendably he’s deliberately not playing on that, he wants folks to come on the film’s merits). Moon is a most unusual beast – it’s a British low-budget, indy movie that isn’t a social realism piece set in a housing estate. Not that I have any problems with those (some bloody good films come out of that field), but it often seems in the UK film industry today we either make small budgeted social realism dramas or larger budgeted (still small by US standards though) historical costume dramas for the most part. A low budget Brit indy science fiction film? Unusual. And one which uses story and intelligence in lieu of dazzling effects and big explosions? Remarkable.

Sam Rockwell Moon.jpg

I was lucky enough to bag tickets to the UK premiere of Moon at the Film Fest here – both scheduled screenings sold out very quickly (although it has been added to next Sunday’s Best of the Fest, essentially a Second Chance Sunday for sold out flicks from the Festival, book now before they are gone). Right from the start I liked it. Sam Rockwell (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Frost/Nixon) takes on a pretty tough role as he is mostly the only actor in the main scenes, apart from a few small spots (mostly video ‘letters’), a technician manning a mining station on the far side of the moon on a three year stretch, his only company a computer called Gerty, voiced by Kevin Spacey (and with a screen showing emoticons as a ‘face’).

As the film opens there’s a bit of a Dark Star vibe to the look and feel of it; like Dark Star, or the later Nostromo in Alien, this isn’t the gleaming future of mighty starships like Star Trek, this is space as workplace. Its grimy, its worn, its dirty in places. Rockwell’s Sam Bell at the start is a shaggy haired, straggly beared man talking to himself and his sickly looking plants or obsessively carving out his model of his small town home as he works alone on the Moon. The end of his three year tour of duty is approaching and Sam is counting the days until he can go home to his wife and little daughter. Rockwell does an admirable job of creating a convincing portrayal  of a man who has been as isolated as it is about as possible for any human to be (even the live communication link has been lost due to solar flares, he can only receive and send recorded messages via a relay, no real time communication). His twitches and habits are believable of a man in that situation and the emotional desperation as he watches a video letter from his wife with their wee girl on her lap saying “daddy is an astronaut” is incredibly touching, you can feel his desire to be with his family coming out of the screen, but Rockwell wisely plays it subtly, restrained, not over the top or hystrionic, which enhances the emotional resonance, I thought.

There are little hints that the constant isolation and lack of even real time communications are taking their psychological toll on Sam. Watching a video from his wife it looks as if there was a sudden blip – did something change there or his strained mind just imagining things? Making a cuppa he turns around to see a young, teenage girl sitting in his chair, accidentally scalding himself in shock. He looks again and of course there is no-one there, how could there be? His sleep and dreams are equally disturbed. Returning to work he takes a lunar rover out onto the Moon’s surface and approaches one of the huge, automated mining machines, making its way across the surface on its tracks, spewing out chunks of regolith from the back as it moves.  When an accident occurs and the rover crashes into the mining machine, Sam blacks out, only to wake up in the base’s medical bay with a concerned Gerty tending to him. How exactly did he return to the base, considering there was no-one else around to rescue him from his crashed rover? Confined to the base ‘for his own safety’ until he is recovered Sam suspects there is more going on than he’s been told and engineers a method to get outside and investigate. What he finds will shake him to the core – assuming its real and not the product of a mind collapsing under years of isolation syndrome.

And on the plot I shall say no more because to do otherwise would mean revealing potential spoilers, which I’d rather not do (I will also warn you that a BBC article on the film here, while interesting, does, in my opinion, blow a major plot point, which is damned careless, so be warned if you follow that link). On the production side, as I noted Rockwell does extremely well with a challenging role, the feeling of desperation and tension are palpable and the effects have a suitably dirty, grungy look to them. I had the impression that the exteriors were model shots – not because they were poor, I hasten to add, but they had that lovely physical feel that CGI sometimes just can’t manage (especially for dirtier, grittier looks such as the mining machines), reminding me (pleasantly) of the brilliant Moon models used for the likes of Space 1999. Director Jones and several of his crew were present at the screening and confirmed that they did indeed use physical models for those effects – in fact the same effects man who created the Nostromo worked on their models, which, as I said, looked perfect in the context of the film (and added to the physicality of the film in my opinion).

Moon premiere at Edinburgh Film Fest Duncan Jones Hannah McGill.jpg

(director Duncan Jones talking to the audience in the Cameo Cinema after Moon’s UK premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival on Saturday, larger version on my Flickr)

When asked about the budget (around £2.5 million – yes, really) Jones said that doing an SF flick for that money wasn’t too hard, but convincing the financiers that they could make this movie within that budget was much more difficult, they all assumed they would need a much bigger budget to achieve what they were planning (we should have asked for more money, quipped the producer). But through ingenuity they made it work – as their visual effects/designer guy pointed out its amazing the sets you can make with duct tape, paint and a bunch of Ikea flat pack furniture items (not that you can tell, it all looked very convincing). Jones told the packed (and very supportive) Edinburgh audience that they loved the SF genre and they wanted to veer away from effects-reliant ‘tentpole’ blockbusters and make ‘smart SF’. I’d say they’ve done so. Its a hugely admirable effort (especially for his first feature), Rockwell is convincing as the central character Sam, the look and feel of the film is suitably grimy, its quite a while before we can really tell if Sam is cracking up and hallucinating it all or if something sinister really is going on and from the look of it you’d never believe it was made for such a small budget.

Its British, its Indy and its bloody good science fiction. Moon gets its general release in the UK on the 17th of July (appropriately close to the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo lunar landing) and is well deserving of your attention and support. I’m guessing with that sort of budget they won’t have a mighty studio marketing machine, so if you like it, spread the word and give the guys some much deserved support for creating some bloody good Brit movie SF.