A SIFF Weekend

Lots of SIFF action this weekend. Friday night, I attended An Evening with Ray Harryhausen. I've always loved stop-motion animation, and in that field the name of Harryhausen is royalty (for modern viewers unfamiliar with his name, the Pixar folks paid tribute to him in Monsters Inc. by naming the sushi restaurant where Boo cuts loose Harryhausen's). I loved Clash of the Titans as a kid, in large part because of Harryhausen's excellent work with Kalibos, Pegasus, Bo-Bo, Medusa, and the Kraken. My dad had a copy on Beta, and I wore that videotape out. So to see him in person was a treat.
After the man himself came out to a standing ovation, we jumped right into a screening of The Tortoise and the Hare, his new (or should we call it old? He began the short in the 50's and abandoned it) animated short. It explores the familiar fable using the magic of stop motion animation. What's so wonderful about stop motion animation is that it looks both real and fantastic at the same time. Since the materials are real, it has texture and substance in a way that even the most advanced CGI today fails to emulate. At the same time, the strobe-like movements give it a dream-like quality, as if someone had slowed film down to half its normal 24 fps frame rate.
After that screening, Harryhausen himself came out for some Q&A. He's over 80 years old now, but the Q&A left no doubt that his memory and mind are still sharp. Someone asked about what he thought about The Nightmare before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. He noted, correctly, that while they were delightful movies, they used stop motion animation to create a world of puppets, while his movies mixed real actors with stop motion animation, using the technique to achieve realism. He also noted that CGI was a fabulous advance in special effects but that its fatal flaw was its weightlessness. Having just seen The Matrix: Reloaded I knew exactly what he meant--the CGI fight scenes lack weight and impact. Most of the questions the moderator asked were dull; clearly he'd simply done some research on Harryhausen's filmography and proceded from one movie to the next, asking questions like, "Tell us about The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. What was that all about?" But Harryhausen himself was entertaining, a gentleman, and he even brought along a several inch high skeleton, one of the ones used in the movie we were about to see...
...Jason and the Argonauts is widely considered to be Harryhausen's best movie. He had good luck with Greek myths. I'd never seen it before. A grand time was had by all, and everyone applauded when Harryhausen's name appeared in the opening credits and after each of his famous stop motion animation sequences. I only wish the moderator hadn't consumed most of the Q&A time with his dull questions so more people could have asked him his thoughts on the modern special effects industry.
Saturday night, Whale Rider and The Animatrix played back to back at the Egyptian. I saw Whale Rider in Auckland, New Zealand, on its opening night there, in the company of a theater packed to capacity with Kiwis. The movie is about a Maori tribe (the Maori people are the aboriginal people of New Zealand) in modern times, struggling with its cultural identity. I didn't see it again Saturday, but getting in line at the wrong time and finding out that it was showing there reminded me of how enjoyable a flick it was. It's deservedly been a film fest favorite all across the world, so if you get a chance to catch it in theaters near you, please do.
The Animatrix itself was somewhat of a disappointment, but the Q&A was juicy. The 9 shorts composing The Animatrix were directed by some of the most famous names in animation. These were the creative minds behind well-known animation ranging from Cowboy Bebop and Akira to Aeon Flux and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. With such talent involved, and with the Wachowski brothers well-known love of anime, it had to be all good, right? Well, something in the formula was off, and the Q&A offered clues.
While each short expands on the mythology of The Matrix (much as various comic books and novels build on the Star Wars universe but aren't required reading for fans of just the movies), none would stand on their own as a story. As writers know, short stories have a lower margin of error than novels. Each detail has to be carefully chosen to convey as much as possible in as few words as possible. Movie shorts are the same way--to flush out characters and establish dramatic tension, every visual and phrase of dialogue has to be more carefully wrought than in a feature length film. Or you can choose to make the plot central and forget about establishing any memorable characters. Most of the shorts in The Animatrix failed to establish any memorable characters (an oft-heard and oft-just criticism of anime features in general), and their dramatic impact seems to have been miniaturized on the same scale as their running times.
The animation itself is of high quality. Those who love the sleek, sexy visual flair of anime won't be disappointed. Most of it, however, is recognizable from the animators' previous work and doesn't feel as groundbreaking now as it was then. I love anime; Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Ninja Scroll, and anything by Hayao Miyazaki are favorites. I really wanted The Animatrix to be a success. It felt like less than that. Matrix fanatics and completists and anime fanatics will no doubt pick up the DVD and will sing its praises to high heaven. Anime fanatics seem to be so fervent in their hope to convert the world to their religion that they have a blind spot to anime's faults, which are many. The rest of the world should pick up some of the original works by the directors involved but can pass on The Animatrix itself.
I nearly left before Q&A, but my past experience had been that Q&A is often the best part of festival screenings. Peter Chung of Aeon Flux fame was the special guest. His short, Matriculated, was, as he told us before the screening, the "weird one" of the 9 shorts. This time, the same moderator from the Harryhausen event was on hand, but fortunately he kept his questions to a minimum and let the crowd fire away. I knew the Q&A would be good as soon as Chung said, "Well, I'm going to say a few things I probably shouldn't say, things I haven't said at press conferences." He had recently screened The Animatrix at Cannes.
The first interesting tidbit was that he wasn't one of the original directors invited. Since he wasn't working in Japan, the Wachowski brothers missed out on asking him to participate the first time they flew to Japan to court animation's hall of fame. This trip had taken place even before The Matrix had been released in theaters internationally. The first interesting secret he shared was that the Wachowski brothers had asked Mamoru Oshii (director of Ghost in the Shell, and Patlabor I and II) to participate, and he had refused, feeling like The Matrix was a rip off of his work. Hah! Probably true, though in that case Masamune Shirow should also check his wallet. Chung heard about the project and called Warner Brothers to try and throw his hat into the ring. They refused at first, but finally he was given a shot after a few other directors dropped out.
Chung's second slip of the tongue (or perhaps it was intentional?) was when he was asked how often he had spoken to the Wachowski brothers, and how they had received his short. Chung responded that he had only spoken to the Wachowski brothers once, for an hour, before he began his work. He noted that the Wachowski brothers are very private people, and he said that he could understand why now that he'd seen The Matrix: Reloaded. Ouch! The audience laughed nervously and in sympathy (Chung is probably the fourth famous cool person I've heard dissing Reloaded in public; Liz Phair did so during her Fishbowl appearance at Amazon). He also noted that the Wachowski brothers' editor had said, after seeing Chung's short, that Chung should be shot. Hmmm. That seems unduly harsh as Matriculated was one of the more interesting stories of the bunch (Beyond was the other short with a clever plot).
A few other interesting notes from Chung's talk: while the Wachowski brothers wrote four of the shorts (The Second Renaissance Part I and Part II, The Final Flight of the Osiris, and Kid's Story), they had other stories they wanted the directors to cover but most of the directors balked and wanted to cover their own material. To their credit, the Wachowski brothers let most of them have free reign. All the shorts were supposed to be 6 minutes long, but pretty much every director went over that limit. The Final Flight of the Osiris, created by Andy Jones the team behind Final Fantasy, was the most expensive short, with a budget exceeding that of all the other shorts combined. To me it was one of the least interesting shorts, playing like a few deleted scenes from the movie, with a pointless and somewhat redundant fight scene staged for sexual humor. Chung also noted that Universal Studios had contacted him about participating in a similar project, though he didn't say what it was about.
By the time Q&A had ended, my impression was that Chung was venting a bit. It doesn't sound like any of the directors enjoyed working with the Wachowski brothers on the project, and I doubt any would do so again if given the choice. Don't expect to see any companion anime DVDs with The Matrix: Revolutions. Perhaps the creative tensions explain the disappointing work. It's similar, perhaps, to the reason the NBA All-Star teams that go over to the Olympics always seem to fare so poorly.
Tonight, Sunday night, concluded my SIFF weekend. The theater was the Harvard Exit and the movie was Hukkle, pronounced who-clay (up until the film fest programmer introduced the movie I thought it rhymed with chuckle). It means hiccup in Hungarian. Its draw is that it contains no dialogue except for a few songs sung at the end (why couldn't they have screened this one at the Egyptian, with its murky acoustics? I hate the Egyptian). Film festivals love movies like this that push the limits.
I suspect many people attended not because the movie had no dialogue but in spite of that. The advertisements all referred to a murdery mystery in the plot, and I suspect that lured many curious moviegoers. Visual pictograms? Sounded like fun.
In that end that proved to be a bit of false marketing. Yes, there is a murdery mystery, but if that's the only reason you watch this movie you'll be disappointed. The murder mystery is just one part of first-time director Gy