Fresh from the Festivals: January 2009's Reviews

Andrew Farago reviews three of the Oscar nominees for Best Animated Short along with two others: The Heart of Amos Klein by Michal and Uri Kranot, Lavatory Lovestory by Konstantin Bronzit, La maison en petits cubes by Kunio Kato, Sweet & Sour by Eddie White and This Way Up by Smith & Foulkes.

Within the world of animation, most experimentation occurs within short-format productions, whether they are high-budgeted commercials, low-budgeted independent shorts or something in between. The growing number of short film festivals around the world attests to the vitality of these works, but there are few other venues for their exhibition, nor are they often reviewed. As a result, distribution tends to be difficult and irregular. On a regular basis, Animation World Magazine will highlight some of the most interesting of these films.

This month:

The Heart of Amos Klein (2008), 14:40, directed by Michal and Uri Kranot (Israel). Contact: Netherlands Institute for Animation Film (NIAF); Ursula van den Heuvel, St. Josephstraat 135, 5017 GG Tilburg, The Netherlands; [T] +31 13 5324070; [E] niaf@niaf.nl

Lavatory Lovestory (2008), 9:30, directed by Konstantin Bronzit. Contact: [W] www.melnitsa.com

La maison en petits cubes (The house of small cubes or Tsumiki no ie) (2008), 12:03, directed by Kunio Kato (Japan). Contact: Robot Communications, Inc.; [T] 81-3-3760-1247 or 81-3-3760-1068; [F] 81-3-3760-1248; [E] faab@robot.co.jp

Sweet & Sour (2008) directed by Eddie White (Australia). Contact: The People's Republic of Animation Pty Ltd, ABN 99 120 086 786, 44 High Street, Kensington, SA 5068, AUSTRALIA. PO Box 177 Kensington Park SA 5068; [T] +61 (0) 8 8331 1446; [F] +61 (0)8 8364 3749; [W] www.thepra.com.au [E] sam@thepra.com.au

This Way Up (2008), 8:37, directed by Smith & Foulkes (Britain). Contact: Christine Ponzevera, Nexus Prods., 113-114 Shoreditch High St, London E1 6JN UK; [T] +44 20 7749 7500; [F] +44 20 7749 7501; [W] www.nexusproductions.com, www.thiswayupmovie.com; [E]Christine@nexusproductions.com

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The Heart of Amos Klein is executed in striking, stylized hand-drawn animation as we encounter flashbacks of Klein's history. © TinDrum Animation. 

The Heart of Amos Klein

The first film this month is particularly resonant now, given the current state of heated conflict in the Middle East. There are no easy answers to the issues facing that portion of the world, and Michel and Uri Kranot's film, The Heart of Amos Klein, to its credit, offers an analysis of Israel's war-torn history without condescension and without judgment.

During a heart transplant operation, Amos Klein revisits significant events in his life and how these events correspond with key moments in Israeli history. The elderly Klein is a hard man, often cruel and single-minded, but as he retreats farther into his past, the viewer learns that it takes many events over the course of a lifetime to shape a man's destiny, and even the most heartless of us didn't start out that way.

Michel and Uri Kranot utilize several different techniques to reveal the story of Amos Klein, all of them to great effect. Most of the film is executed in striking, stylized drawn animation as we encounter flashbacks relating Klein's personal history. Documentary elements are incorporated as a framing sequence, with live-action footage manipulated and altered until it fits alongside original materials. The back-and-forth shuttling between the archival footage and the drawn footage is surprisingly subtle, and the complexity of Klein's story and his past struggles take on the same level of reality as the live-action sequences that surround it.

Was Klein a hero, or was he a villain? Was he looking out for the best interests of his own people, or merely looking out for himself? Could his life have taken another path, or was he locked in place from the moment of his birth? There are no easy answers to these questions, and the film does not pass judgment on Klein, whose life is as complex as the land from which he hails.

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A woman with possibly the world's worst job searches desperately for a secret admirer in Lavatory Lovestory. © Melnitsa Animation Studio. 

Lavatory Lovestory

In sharp contrast to Amos Klein's story is Lavatory Lovestory, a lighthearted tale of yearning and romance... in the bathroom.

Is there any job less fulfilling than that of a bathroom attendant? Sure, you can make a list, but it's probably a short one, and the heroine of our story will readily agree that she hasn't made the best of career decisions. She sits in a small tollbooth every day as men come and go through the turnstile, depositing coins in her jar as they hurry to and from the coin-op restroom. Our lonely bathroom attendant occasionally gets to leave her small enclosure so that she can mop the men's room floor, but her day consists primarily of staring blankly at passersby and reading the newspaper while dreaming of a better, more romantic life.

One afternoon, while she has her nose buried in the newspaper, a secret admirer leaves a bouquet of flowers in the coin jar, providing a welcome distraction from the drudgery of her job. A fruitless search for the secret Romeo leaves her as dejected and depressed as before, possibly even more so. More flowers arrive, day by day, and only the perseverance that comes with one of the world's worst jobs allows her to see her mission through to its conclusion.

Director Konstantin Bronzit's film has wit, charm and style, which bolstered its ability to garner its Oscar nomination. The character designs wouldn't look out of place in a typical issue of The New Yorker, and the story is so engaging that the viewer is at no point disturbed by the fact that all of the action is taking place in the men's room and its adjacent hallway, which is quite an accomplishment in itself.

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The owner of La maison en petits cubes explores the depths of his underwater home after he drops his pipe through a hole in the floor. © 2008 Robot Communications, Inc. 

La maison en petits cubes (The house of small cubes or Tsumiki no ie)"An old man looks back on his past" is a very common storytelling trope. So common, in fact that it's already turned up once in this month's "FFF" and here it is again, already. Done poorly, this type of story becomes a tedious cliché, but done well...it's magic.

La maison en petits cubes opens as an old man in his small, dingy home opens a strange door in the middle of his floor, picks up a fishing rod, and casts his line down the hole. As his story unfolds, we find that his home is one of the few visible for miles around in the midst of a large, endless sea. One morning, he awakens to find that the surrounding waters have risen again, and, completely unfazed by this, he ascends to the roof and begins building a new home on top of his current residence. While attending to this work, the old man accidentally drops his pipe through the open hole in his floor, and watches helplessly as it drifts away. To retrieve the pipe, he rents a scuba outfit and explores the depths of his home along the way.

We soon discover that the rising tide has affected the old man's home before -- many, many times before. He descends level by level, pausing to reflect on the furniture and other effects that he'd abandoned over the years, and reminiscing about days gone by and absent friends. It's a very sweet story, and is sentimental but never saccharine.

It's a beautiful film, with beautiful illustrations by director Kunio Kato and a lovely score by Kenji Kondo. All of the artwork, including the backgrounds, is hand-drawn, and the animation was assembled very simply, using Photoshop and After Effects. The end results are extraordinary, and it's easy to see why this film received its Oscar nomination.

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In Sweet & Sour, a mongrel dog, Errol, discovers the wonders of Chinatown and overcomes his preconceived notions. © The People's Republic of Animation Pty Ltd. 

Sweet & Sour

In a fascinating collaborative project, young Australian studio The People's Republic of Animation joins forces with China's venerable Shanghai Animation Film Studio in an exploration of the West's perception of the East -- and vice versa.

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