REVIEW: Loving Vincent

A painting in motion — Loving Vincent. Brushstrokes that mimicked the iconic artistry of Vincent van Gogh’s own paintings moved to tell the biography of Vincent in a never-before-seen feature film. An hour and thirty-four minutes of animated paint, in the style of Vincent van Gogh, was an exquisite film that I felt honored to behold with my own two eyes.

It was a rainy Sunday night, with the typical wind chills of early November in Ann Arbor, when I went to see the film with some of my colleagues. We had just come from a fantastic dinner of pizza, including margherita pizza — my favorite kind of pizza — and joined the ranks of Loving Vincent moviegoers lined up outside of Michigan Theater.

Luckily, we had arrived just in time not to miss the beginning of the film itself. The whole lot of us settled upstairs in the balcony, appreciating the extravagance of the Michigan Theater’s classic theater setting and ambience. As soon as we settled into our seats, the lights dimmed and the screen flitted between trailers of upcoming indie films and the like. And then, at long last, Loving Vincent painted itself across the screen.

In a word, Loving Vincent was…divine. Artistic. Exquisite. Every second of it, quite literally the epitome of a painting in motion, enraptured the audience with its imagery.

Honestly, the second the movie opened, I was already mesmerized by the names rolling on the screen through their careful and immaculate brushstrokes. I was watching the lines of colors, imitating Vincent’s illustrious and iconic style, move across the screen in unison to depict movement. It was enrapturing.

I felt chills go down my spine.

The movie opens with the most renowned and perhaps most well-known work by the artist: Starry Night — hooking every audience member with its fine brush work and celebrated imagery as one of the most historically reputable works of art. It was so meaningful to see that be the opening scene to a film revolving around the artist, to whom the film is dedicated for, I was just captivated and touched by it. And then, when that Starry Night picture began to actually move, animated brushstrokes depicting the scene, my heart melted. Such an extraordinary picture transformed into a setting for a narrative to take place. It was the most fitting way to tell the biography of Vincent van Gogh.

As for the narrative itself — the story follows Armand Roulin, who is to hand-deliver a letter from Vincent to Theo van Gogh, Vincent’s brother. In this narrative, Armand learns more and more about the late artist Vincent, who had been a new artistic sensation in Paris at 28 but took his life while at the verge of his own impending success as an artist. Although skeptical and critical of Vincent in the beginning, Armand slowly grows wistful and fond of him. In fact, Armand even comes to Vincent’s defense when bad gossip arises and surrounds his death and reputation.

I’ll spare you all the details, but basically — the film follows Armand, a man who seems far detached from having any relation or kinship with Vincent van Gogh, and Armand’s journey to find the truth behind Vincent’s death — whether it was a suicide or a murder, what his motives were, who Vincent van Gogh truly was.

Ultimately the film really is a biography of Vincent van Gogh, which doesn’t lend itself to having that much opportunity to deviate from reality and express creativity and imagination as wildly as possible, as one might expect from an animated film. I have heard criticisms of the writing in Loving Vincent that claim the story is hard to follow, but they heralded the artistry of the film itself. Animation is a breathtaking craft, and it’s painfully difficult, and being able to dedicate an entire feature film of animated oil paintings for Vincent van Gogh is truly the only way to express his biography, I’d say. I personally don’t have a bad opinion of this film, having been so mesmerized by the immaculate craft of the moving pictures.

Now, my colleagues and myself hail from the art and design school at the University of Michigan, and inevitably we were drawn by the uniquely beautiful craft of the film, especially because we all express an interest in the art of animation. Safe to say we were all very moved and absolutely amazed by the sheer amount of work and effort required to make Loving Vincent and transform his most distinguished and impactful works of art into moving pictures.

If you have not seen Loving Vincent, I hope you at least consider it! If not for the story or biography of the great artist Vincent van Gogh, then for the beautiful craft of the film and its hundreds of artists who carefully painted and animated each frame of the film.

Go and love Vincent!

 

REVIEW: The 55th Ann Arbor Film Festival — Films in Competition 7: Animation

Another year of the incredible Ann Arbor Film Festival and another year of incredible films. And I have the great honor and pleasure of sharing the night of Films in Competition 7: Animation.

As any AAFF enthusiast and animator knows, animation brings inanimate characters to life. That can be anything between 2-dimensional drawing, stop-motion photos, claymation, 3D modeling, or maybe even any wild combination of them! Animation is a constantly growing and changing field in the film industry, and we can always trust technology and innovative animators to find new ways to impress and wow the audience with never before seen styles of animation.

The 55th Ann Arbor Film Festival showcased a series of remarkable new animations for the audience. As the official website phrased it, “Ten recent animated films from near and far, featuring an artificial intelligence with the affective capacities of a kitten, memories of the ‘birds and the bees’ talk, a suburban woman who can’t stop growing fingers, a mother’s alcohol addiction, the most notorious women’s prison in East Germany, broken dolls and boiling stew, screen obsession and more.”

Friday night, I walked into the Michigan Theater with a friend. And having arrived a tad bit late, we were greeted by a packed theater of fellow film enthusiasts. We managed to spot seats on the balcony and found ourselves under the gaze of a cat on the big screen — Kitty AI.

Artificial Intelligence for Governance: Al the Kitty is an animation directed by Pinar Yoldas with the official description: “It is year 2039. An artificial intelligence with the affective capacities of a kitten becomes the first non-human governor. She leads a politician-free zone with a network of Artificial Intelligences. She lives in mobile devices of the citizens and can love up to 3 Million people.”

In other words, AI the Kitty is a computerized cat governor destined for greatness. As messy as politics can be, AI the Kitty assures the audience of her efficiency and equity, promising that she herself is far too intelligent for the chaotic nature of politics and that her level of professionalism in her field of expertise was no laughing matter. I was definitely convinced.

Artificial Intelligence for Governance: Al the Kitty is an animation that felt a little like propaganda for a kitty campaign, but as if I would ever object to that!

The following feature was a 9-minute animation directed by Alain Delannoy, called “The Talk” True Stories About The Birds And The Bees. The title did a pretty good job of describing the short film. It was just as the title advertised: a group of people discuss their experiences with their parents when they first had “the talk.”

Fun, entertaining, and hilarious, “The Talk” True Stories About The Birds And The Bees circles the topic of sex with honesty and humor. It definitely questions the humility of the subject, addressing the fact that although we as a society are embarrassed to talk about it, we accept sex to be a “normal” part of life, something that humans do in order to reproduce. Simple biology. And yet, the way parents go about teaching their children always winds up on a whole new level of crazy, ridiculous, and unnecessarily embarrassing.

Up next on the screen was director Matt Reynolds’s Hot Dog Hands, a 7-minute animation following the woes of a woman tormented for her — you guessed it — hot dog hands. This woman grows fingers at an exponential rate, and even her arms are consumed by the growing number of fingers, making her unable to use them for anything and rendering her opposable thumbs useless. The fact that this woman is pink like raw hot dogs probably didn’t help her situation either.

Pushing the boundaries of body horror, the animation is definitely not for the faint of heart. Although it is brightly colored and playful, the mischief and playfulness in color and style is juxtaposed with disturbing acts of cannibalism that take place later in the film. Of course, Hot Dog Hands Lady does end up finding happiness, by losing her fingers to the mailbox-living-underground-cannibals who desperately need to feed on her fingers to sustain themselves. As a result, Hot Dog Hands Lady loses her unwanted fingers and is worshipped by the Hot-Dog-Hands-eaters who are able to sustain themselves off her regenerating fingers. And they lived happily ever after.

After that, was Whatever the Weather, a 12-minute animation directed by Remo Scherrer. In contrast to the animation that preceded it, Whatever the Weather carried a much darker, more solemn, and somber tone. Set in black and white, the animation is driven by the play between negative and positive space, using one and the other to create depth and shadow in the characters on the screen. The lack of solidity in the animation reiterates the theme of the narration: a child’s troubles beset by her alcoholic mother.

As it is summarized on the website, “Wally’s childhood is increasingly turned upside down by her mother’s alcohol addiction. She experiences the excesses and consequences of addiction first hand. Desperately, the eight-year-old tries to keep up normality in her own life and the life of her family by any means. A roller coaster ride between helplessness, excessive demands and desperation begins. It’s a daily struggle for survival.”

Following this somber telling of Wally’s childhood, was Lauren Cook’s TRANS/FIGURE/GROUND, a 5-minute animation: “Painted 16mm film undergoes a monstrous transformation becoming neither analog nor digital. A film about uncanny valleys and the space between.”

Without definitive characters or voices, Lauren Cook’s TRANS/FIGURE/GROUND becomes strictly visual and compelling. The entire animation thrums and the entire theater tremors to the pulsing sounds of this animation, which forces the disorientation in the audience to become innate and charged with emotion.

With four films left for the night, next was a dreary and somber 7-minute animation called Broken – The Women’s Prison at Hoheneck, which shares the story of political inmates Gabriele Stoetzer and Birgit Willschuetz at Hoheneck Castle, the most notorious women’s prison in East Germany. As the official website says, “Their story is one of overcrowded cells, despotic hierarchies, ruthless everydays, and the enduring effects of incarceration. Most of all, however, it is about the crushing pressure of forced labour. Prisoners at Hoheneck manufactured millions of pantyhose, bed sheets, and other products for West German retailers, bringing enormous profits to both sides of the Iron Curtain. Part of the young animadoc tradition, the seven-minute film pairs original audio interview extracts with abstract, monochrome animation.”

Edge of Alchemy comes onto the screen after it. A 19-minute animated collage directed by Stacey Steers, “Edge of Alchemy is the third film in a trilogy examining women’s inner worlds. In this handmade film, constructed from over 6,500 collages, the actors Mary Pickford and Janet Gaynor are seamlessly appropriated from their early silent features and cast into a surreal epic with an upending of the Frankenstein story and an undercurrent of hive collapse.”

“Surreal” and “Frankenstein” are the two best words to describe the world of Edge of Alchemy. Although I was out of context and had no clue about the other two films in the trilogy, Edge of Alchemy definitely delivers a world of intrigue, science, and bees. Scientist Lady brings Bee Lady to life, much like in the classic tale of Frankenstein.

The night of animation ends on a fun note in the form of two short and sweet 5-minute films.

First is Batfish Soup by Amanda Bonaiuto, a short story that is a little too relatable about relatives coming over to visit. As it is summarized in the official website, “Wacky relatives give way to mounting tensions with broken dolls, boiling stew and a bang.” Very, very wacky, Batfish Soup definitely proves itself to be entertaining and weird, in the best way possible.

Last but not least, swiPed! Directed by David Chai, swiPed is a fun take on the modern age’s obsession with smartphones and tablets. It’s cute, short, and playful, poking fun at everyone’s inability to stay apart from our devices. Equally as funny is its playful summary: “Texters texting, tweeters tweeting, likers liking, posters posting, Googlers Googling, Amazonians Amazoning, webheads surfing, snappers chatting, pinnters pinning, tubers tubing, tenders tindering, Netflixers chilling – are we binging too much? More connected than ever, but more distant by the day. Is humanity being swiped away?”

All in all, another year of the incredible Ann Arbor Film Festival and another year of incredible films.

REVIEW: Song of the Sea

Song of the Sea is an enchanting story that addresses family, loss, and closure through the lens of an animated fantasy drama. Directed by Tomm Moore, who is known for Academy Award nominee The Secret of Kells (2009), the magical tale of Song of the Sea follows the adventure of a 10-year-old Irish boy named Ben and his mute sister, Saoirse, a selkie — a mythological creature of Irish folklore that is human on land and a seal in water.

The story begins with a little background behind Ben and Saoirse’s family. Suffering the loss of their mother, Bronagh, their family struggles to be happy. Ben blames his sister for their mother’s passing, Saoirse longs for the love of her broken family, and their father, Conor, still struggles with the loss of his wife. When Ben and Saoirse discover her magical abilities, the two find themselves on a journey to save all the faeries in the land with the “Song of the Sea,” a song of healing that only the selkie can sing.

For those of you who have seen and marveled at the beauty of The Secret of Kells (2009), Song of the Sea proves itself to be even more beautiful. Although at times the story may be a little hard to follow, the breathtaking art and intricate details of the film captivates the audience and keeps them engaged.

The animation is entirely hand drawn and 2-dimensional, playing with the depth of the scenery by overlaying parts of the background with the characters on screen. Almost like a fairy tale book in the form of animated cinema, Song of the Sea is imaginative and beautifully crafted. The animation sequences are fluid and careful, drawn with precision and a kind of gentle softness that draws our eyes, and it becomes enchanting to watch.

Apart from the art, the characters in this film are also very representative of the different ways people deal with loss. The magical characters draw parallels with human counterparts, expressing a variety of ways that people mourn and reasoning with the harmful consequences that they might bring. Macha, the owl witch, promises to take away the pain and suffering by petrifying those who are hurt, even petrifying her own son to save him from the pain. However, Song of the Sea proves that bottling up your emotions and removing yourself from your feelings is not as helpful as we hope it to be.

Song of the Sea inspires its audience to find closure during times of loss and mourning through love and acceptance. The very end of the film brings about the closure the family desperately needed. After Ben and Saoirse’s journey brings them home to their father’s lighthouse, they realize their cooperation and love for each other saves them and their family, as well as all of the endangered faeries and mythological creatures.

Here’s the official summary for the film: “In this enchanting new story from the Academy Award-nominated director of The Secret of Kells, Ben and his little sister Saoirse—the last Seal-child—must embark on a fantastic journey across a fading world of ancient legend and magic in an attempt to return to their home by the sea. The film takes inspiration from the mythological Selkies of Irish folklore, who live as seals in the sea but become humans on land.”

REVIEW: A Night of Rakugo

Sitting on a 2’x2’ cushion on stage, in front of a large audience, telling a funny story — that is the 400-year-old art of Japanese storytelling, or rakugo.

Having some prior knowledge of rakugo, the moment I heard about a live performance in Ann Arborfree of charge — I knew. I was there. Doors opened at 6:30PM in U-M’s Modern Language Building Auditorium 4. The performance was planned for 7PM sharp. Although my friend and I arrived on time, we were greeted by a full house. In fact, it was so crowded, people were standing against the walls. We were handed a very nice program that was half in Japanese and half in English, detailing the night’s schedule.

Organized by the U-M Japanese Language Program and Center for Japanese Studies, I saw the faculty dressed in kimonos. In case you don’t know what kimonos are, they’re long, loose robes with wide sleeves and tied with a sash, originally worn as a formal garment in Japan.

Seeing beautiful and intricate patterns, colorful fabric, wooden sandals, I could feel my heart punch a hole through my chest. This was the real deal.

Well, thanks to my punctuality, my friend and I found front row seats…on the floor. The faculty handed us Japanese newspapers to sit on and apologized that there were no seats left. It was really no trouble, though. Sitting on the floor was a pain in the butt, but the show was free, and we had a great view of the stage. It was red, with a lush purple 2’x2’ cushion sitting on top of it. A paper lantern stood on each side.

The show began by first teaching the audience a little bit about rakugo and giving a short demonstration as to how a typical performance is done.


Rakugo
is a traditional comedic performance that definitely throws anyone for a loop the first time around, but it’s actually pretty easy to understand. Long story short, the performer sits on the cushion on stage and tells a story. They do this by enacting every character in the story, and using their only two props: a paper fan and a tenugui (Japanese towel). They may stand up on their knees but never on their feet, so the performance never leaves the cushion.

Because the performer has so much to act out, their creativity and skill shine through the performance. They can use the fan as a pair of chopsticks or as a pen, they can use the towel as a letter or a book! The performance really delivers the story.

After the crash course on rakugo, the performances came next. Because the show was organized by the university’s Japanese Language Program, students studying Japanese were able to participate in this unique art of storytelling. One by one, short stories a couple minutes long were told by each student.

One of the students told a story about a little girl greeting her father who had come home from a seaward trip. The girl urged to see his photos of the ocean, gushing over the fish swimming underwater. In one photo, the girl found a sea creature that was uglier than the rest and, disgusted, she asked her father what it was. Then the father scolded her, because it was not a fish — it was her mother!

In rakugo, the story typically leads up to a hilarious punch line at the very end. And honestly, they were really funny! I was cracking up on the floor, trying to hold in my hideous snorts.

After the students were the two Japanese rakugo performers, who had flown to the United States all the way from Japan as cultural envoys. Rakugo professionals.

Yanagiya Sankyo (柳家さん喬) and Yanagiya Kyonosuke (柳家喬之助) are two widely famous rakugo performers in Japan, and tickets to see their shows are priced usually over $30 per person! It was the biggest honor to be able to see their performances for free. I was just happy to be there. Even if I was sitting at eye level with people’s feet.

Unfortunately, photography was prohibited for the two famous rakugo performers. But I promise you, they were amazing. Sitting up there with their commanding presence, their expressions and voices varying with every character — it was truly an art. Just by a small turn of their torso, they suddenly became a different person! Their performances were definitely the highlight of the night.

Yanagiya Kyonosuke (柳家喬之助) performed first with the story Hatsu Tenjin (初天神, “First Tenjin Festival”), which was summarized in the program: “A precocious boy named Kinbou convinces his father to take him to the festival at the Tenjin shrine, on the condition that he won’t bother his father to buy him anything. At the festival, of course, Kinbou can’t help asking for everything he sees, causing problems for his father.”

It was a hilarious performance, and the room roared with laughter as Yanagiya Kyonosuke pouted and wailed as the child. Kinbou was one spunky child, and I loved every second of his character on stage. It was an incredible performance by an incredible performer!

The last performance carries the most prestige in a rakugo show. After a brief intermission, Yanagiya Sankyo (柳家さん喬) delivered the last performance, telling the story of Shinigami (死神, “The God of Death”). In the program, it was summarized: “The God of Death tells a man who has decided that he wants to die that it’s not his time yet and teaches him a way to make a living as a doctor. He grants the man the ability to see the God of Death and teaches him a spell. If the God of Death is sitting by the patient’s feet, then the patient will recover. He simply has to recite the spell and the sick person will get well. If the God of Death is at the patient’s head, there’s nothing that can be done for him. The man becomes very wealthy but spends lavishly on trips and ends up broke. When patients stop coming, he becomes desperate to regain his fortune. But is it possible to trick the God of Death?”

Shinigami (死神, “The God of Death”) is one of the most popular and famous rakugo stories out there, and although it’s a little on the scarier side, it has its funny moments. Shinigami was beautifully told by Yanagiya Sankyo. Everyone was plunged straight into the story as he acted out the God of Death and the cheating doctor. As the God of Death, Yanagiya Sankyo held the fan like a cane under his hands, chuckling at the man’s misfortune. I was enraptured by his performance, visualizing the elements that weren’t there. It was a wonderful story told by a wonderful performer to end a wonderful night.

If you ever catch the word rakugo keep your ears peeled. A story will be told!