Sunday, February 9, 2020

Reviews from gulag: And 2019's still stinking up the place, part 3

In this installment: I Lost My Body, Atlantics, and Penguin Highway.

I Lost My Body, always the most purely-theoretical of this year's five contenders for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, is indeed one of those cartoons—foreign, weird, comparatively modest—for which just being nominated really was an honor, the extra eyeballs drawn to it by an Academy Award nomination always the best-case scenario for its existence.  I won't say it don't deserve them eyeballs, either.  It's a fun and thrilling, even moving piece of work, driven by a nonsensical but novel premise that could probably only fully work in flat animation in the first place (Body is partly-rotoscoped, and highly CGI-boosted, albeit mostly only in terms of backgrounds).  Arguably, that premise justifies the whole exercise, and it's certainly bizarre enough to get you to stop and at least think about watching it: I Lost My Body's title is to be taken literally, for it is about a body's part, specifically a right hand, that has been violently separated from its owner, and which has come magically back to life, absconding from the medical fridge it's being kept in so as to undertake an arduous journey across a tough urban landscape to reunite with the body it has, as noted, lost.

But then, I Lost My Body is also (and equally, or moreso) about the life of that particular body, a skinny, unassuming kid named Naoufel (Hakim Faris), who was orphaned by the deaths of his intellectual parents (Hichem Mesbah and Myriam Loucif) at an early age, and thereafter was sent to live with his loveless, brainless lump of an uncle and his shitty masculine stereotype of a cousin (Bellamine Abdelmalek).  Even so, Naoufel, now navigating the final years of his deeply-disappointing late adolescence, manages to muster up just enough desperate optimism to fall in love with a voice he meets while discharging his duties as France's worst pizza delivery boy (bad enough, frankly, to compete with Philip J. Fry in the internationals, though it is only Naoufel's hand, and not his wiener, that gets icy).  Contriving to meet this young woman, Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois), and testing the always-fuzzy boundary between "innocent pursuit" and "scary harassment," Naoufel winds up falling ass-backwards into a new life as an apprentice to her woodworker uncle (Patrick d'Assumçao).  This is the point that it becomes hard not to guess how the A-plot and the B-plot, chronologically disordered as they are, shall ultimately meet, and maybe one of the littler problems with the film is that it has absolutely no surprises up its sleeve in regard to how our heroes became twain in the first place.

A littler problem, mind you: it's a fairly fatalistic story anyway—however easy it is to respond sympathetically to Naoufel's obsessive, semisweet stalk-seduction, we never quite get the impression that this movie made in 2019 was likely to actually reward the poor bastard for being such an immature romantic—and ultimately the film's most legitimate suspense (though I do not want to undersell this as a point of really rock-solid suspense) is generated by the question of just how French this French cartoon was going to get in its last five minutes, given that at this juncture it gets real Goddamn French, real Goddamn fast.  The big problem with Body, then, is absolutely foundational, essentially that Body never manages to find any particularly compelling reason why this amputated hand's adventure and Naoufel's sad teenager melodrama should be sharing the same story, besides the fact that they were written to involve the same dude.

It tends to cast suspicion on the integrity of the whole affair, and you earnestly start to wonder whether the story that director Jérémy Clapin (alongside co-writer Guillaume Laurant) actually wanted to tell was just the emotional voyage of a depressed and struggling young adult that life keeps shitting on like it has diarrhea, and the hand stuff was invented to give a cartoon that tells an otherwise-standard indie coming-of-age story an interesting hook; or (and frankly this is just as likely) if the story they wanted to tell really was the odyssey of a disembodied hand going Pickle Rick across a Gallic cityscape, because that would be cool (and it is cool!), except they realized that this left them with a short subject's worth of material, and not a feature, and hence "Naoufel" was merely the notion they invented to provide some emotional heft, an origin story for the hand, and a sufficiently-long runtime.

Honestly, that disconnect is felt in pretty much every second of the film, though that hardly means it's devoid of value, cobbled-together as it might be.  Both these stories are enjoyable on their merits, even if the main reason they manage to mesh at all is just Dan Levy's elegiac electronic score.  For Naoufel's part, the kid is almost impossible not to empathize with, and the notes of bleakness and hope Body finds within him merge into something that at least gestures toward the profound.  I think I actually like Naoufel's young adult melodrama more than anything else here, frankly, though the hand stuff is routinely "better," in the sense that it's less problematic or less likely to become boring, and in the sense that it takes advantage of the medium in ways that a realistically-animated teenager, however sad-sack, cannot.  And so this half of Body offers a fairly standard but always-exciting "shrinking man"-style adventure that exploits the scale of our sapient hand (let us not ask how the hand sees or hears, though it clearly does, and that's bothersome) for a surfeit of neat angles on a multitude of quotidian things, like doors and pigeons and the like, while offering a number of fascinating hand-centric set-pieces.  It helps that it's a finely-animated hand, too, not given a personality of its own, but painted with enough of Naoufel's to render it a proper character that you root for.  Meanwhile, the hand stuff also interweaves with the flashbacks in a way that's interesting if not, ultimately, necessarily all that meaningful; the goal, presumably, was to provide an impressionistic look at human existence as something experienced through the tactile senses (often hard to reproduce in a visual medium) and through one of the things that make our species special, the ability to manipulate our environment with the strange prehensile appendages attached to our forearms.

Points off, however, for never even once alluding to what a teenage boy with a crush would use his right hand for; and if the idea that's supposed to tie the film's two all-too-disparate strands together is that Naoufel never got to hold the actual object of his affections, either physically or metaphorically, well, there's such a thing as doing so much work on behalf of a movie that you just wind up doing the filmmaker's job for them.  If you point to any given scene of I Lost My Body, I'd have to concede that it's spectacularly solid work; point to the whole, however, and it's simply incomplete.

Score: 7/10

They sound like two wildly divergent ideas, but the two things can be true at once: Mati Diop's Atlantics can be wildly, even eye-rolling overrated; and it's the kind of film that gives feature debuts and foreign art cinema alike a good name.  All told, it's a solid piece of filmmaking that hits its targets more often than it doesn't, but has a penchant for leaning on a whole lot of generic arthouse austerity as its default fallback position, in the (frequent) event its ambitious hybrid narrative doesn't quite cohere.  I suspect that's one of the things that's made it so appealing to champion: an easy, unchallenging parable that roots itself harder than it probably should in the trappings of seriousness.

If you take it all the way back, Atlantics is Diop extending the family business, both in general terms (her paternal uncle was Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty, Mati being Senegalese-French) and in much more specific ones (Diop's major focus has been on her father's home country, and her uncle's most famous film, Touki Bouki—which also did well at Cannes many years ago—is indeed faintly echoed in Atlantics' story).  Still, it's probably sufficient just to point to her 2009 non-fiction short "Atlantiques," plausibly the reason the French name of Atlantics is Atlantique, singular, even though it feels like it ought to be the other way around, given that the short, born from a desire to treat with Senegalese migrants today, dealt with but a singular individual and his motivations for making the dangerous trip across the Atlantic to Spain.  Either way, it was there the seeds of her feature were planted, as she came to regard the ocean as something like a grave, and of the several successes of Atlantics, I don't think anything about it is more successful than its photographic treatment of the Atlantic Ocean itself, rendered into something implacable and ugly and faintly monstrous, with the complexion of roiling iron.  Not violent, exactly—we never see the storm that dialogue references, nor even waves angrier than "slightly surly"—but it is sullen and cruel nevertheless, and not something you would ever want to venture into, if you could possibly help it.  It is a fairly perfect representation of the idea that was described to Diop, and which, in interviews, she has explained in turn: the idea that anyone who sought to make the trip to Europe was, after a fashion, already dead.

Which is where Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) enters the picture, only one of many workers we see toiling at a construction site in Dakar, laboring under the looming presence of an enormous silver tower wavering in the heat haze.  Whoever this structure is actually for is hard to say; but we can know, with some certainty, that it is not for the ones who built it.  Souleiman, along with his fellows, hasn't been paid in months; he does not tell his girlfriend, Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), that he's planning to make the crossing to Spain.  So he does not get to tell her goodbye, though he should have, because a storm comes and drowns him, and all the other boys Ada knows.  Now the focus necessarily shifts towards the person whose story it was all along, Ada, and we follow as the devastated teenager finds herself left with no other option than to go through with her betrothal to a rich man she's never loved (Babacar Sylla), and had barely even met--though the wedding night is marred by a fire that police, especially the dogged detective Cheikh (Abdou Balde), are certain was caused by a still-living Souleiman, with Ada's help.  But the truth is much stranger than that, and we shift moment by moment into a ghost story, one that is about justice, but also about love.

It's a decent ghost story, at that, especially the way it transitions from hard-nosed neorealism (or, maybe, impressionism by way of neorealism) into a supernatural fable without ever really giving up the pretense.  Then again, it's a pretty damn blunt fable as far as they go, with a lot of unexamined issues that it prays you not pick at, from the way it uses a medically-spurious "virginity examination," as a piece of narrative shorthand about where Ada and Souleiman left their relationship, to the quietly icky mechanics of its supernatural plot.  (Like... look, if I wanted to be a real sourpuss here, it wouldn't be hard.  Highlight for one big spoiler: the film's whole happy ending is premised on what amounts to a magic-mediated rape   Now, I don't want to be that big a sourpuss, that's just food for thought.)

Truthfully, for my part, Atlantics' more salient problems are just the way it tells a story that's a little too elemental for its own good, especially given that it's a story that also doesn't have much in the way of plot.  (Whereas the plot it has is clunky and, due to its clukiness, very obvious; halfway through the film, the detective becomes yet a third protagonist, for no organic reason, and so it's fairly easy to figure out why the movie has decided we should suddenly start spending a lot of time with him.)  It's also pretty light on character:  Ada is the most sharply drawn of any of them, and this is mostly just by virtue of being onscreen the most.  Even then, she's still mostly just a featureless teenager: at best, we can describe her as vaguely rebellious, pulled by one peer group or another (she finds herself stuck between her actual friends, the cool girls, and the tsking religious busybodies on the other); otherwise, she bears scarcely any trait than "loves Souleiman," who in turn has no trait whatsoever other than "loves Ada."  (Her actual husband winds up being such a non-obstacle that it might be intended to be funny, though it's not played as funny, much as literally nothing in this utterly humorless movie is played as funny.  Because it's in Senegal, where nothing's ever funny, or personable, I guess.  Did I mention Mati Diop is actually French?)

It survives these problems, in part due to the aesthetic: Claire Mathon's sunblasted tropical cinematography is really good (I have noted the ocean already), and there's something reasonably compelling about the "severe social issues drama" that never stops looking like a severe social issues drama even as it gets into wacky body-snatching territory.  The other part is Sane, who's tremendously good, commanding the screen and offering up something warm and real and humane to a role that is, ultimately, just a glob of very basic emotions.  Anyhow, Atlantics is perfectly fine, which is fine.

Score: 6/10

Penguin Highway sucks in the way that perhaps only anime could suck: taking a perfectly pleasant and anodyne fantasy premise and fucking it up totally with a bunch of convolution on one hand and a whole heaping helping of weird sex crap on the other, until it's no longer entirely recognizable as the perfectly pleasant and anodyne thing it started off as, when it was still just teasing its mystery about a flock of penguins that have appeared, apropos of nothing, in the middle of a Japanese exurb, roaming around and getting into gentle scrapes.

Those penguins were bound to draw the attention of our hero, however.  This is middle school genius Aoyama (Kana Kita), though he is constitutionally unable to acknowledge their inordinate cuteness: to the extent that Penguin Highway is a comedy (and, as it is pretty much a standard-issue kid's adventure, "comedy" is at least its most frequent mode), its laughs are driven largely by Aoyama's demeanor, which is arguably less "precocious child" than it is "Vulcan accidentally abandoned on Earth and adopted by bemused human parents."  In fairness, it is fairly amusing for a good little while, as Aoyama and his dweeby, not-nearly-as-bright buddy Uchida (Rie Kugimiya) deal with school and their backyards and bullies like Suzuki (Miki Fukui) and girls like Hamamoto (Megumi Han).  And yet Penguin Highway gives us a taste of its sourness very early on, possibly without us quite realizing it, when Aoyama's introductory voiceover explains all his elaborate, logical plans for the remaining 1400 or so days of his childhood.  He concludes by gesturing coolly toward his neighbor and dental hygienist (unnamed other than the Japanese word for "big sister," better translated as "lady"; voiced by Yu Aoi), whereupon he resolutely states that one day he'll be married to her.  Cute?  Sure, could be.  Anything's possible in animation!

So Aoyama and Uchida naturally deprioritize their other various investigations in favor of figuring out what the deal is with these penguins, who have appeared so far from their Antarctic home.  In a lollygagging, roundabout sort of way, they eventually do find out, discovering that penguins aren't even the half of it, and that this bizarre series of events has a lot more to do with Aoyama's dental hygienist than you could have possibly guessed, even given that you're obviously aware that this is a constructed fiction.

Paradoxically, the point where it gets really weird is also the point where it becomes boringly predictable.  Oddly, the weirdness lacks any real urgency—urgency is reserved for the final act, and that's just how it goes here—and the plot, such as it is, circles around and around with the children running about the woods and finding more and more evidence of something supernatural going on, resolving to keep it their secret.  Once all the pieces get set up, and they do fairly early, it becomes a kind of hang-out movie.  The weird part, then, and the part that tends to undo any charm it might've had—and let's be honest, the charms of stock anime children being run through an American-style kid's adventure was likely to get old eventually, though I suppose I can't say this for certain—is that much of this hanging-out includes, also, the object of Aoyama's affection (that is, a grown woman), who spends such an absurd amount of time associating with Aoyama off the clock and without any other grown-ups around that you honestly wonder if Japan has extremely different cultural associations with a minor having picnics, taking naps, etc., with their adult pal.

Or maybe you don't, given that it's more-or-less explicitly sexual throughout, from Aoyama's declaration of intent onward, with the film routinely taking on Aoyama's point-of-view and just soaking in the fact of a woman having breasts under her shirt.  It's not even especially good breast animation on the merits; leaving aside that it would be hard to have fun with it in this context even if it was something you'd usually have fun with, it's so aggressive about it that it's mostly just visually distracting, and rarely in conversation with any real-world physics.  Of course, in the animators' defense, they did have to work with an implausible amount of mass.  The VAs also have to work with an implausible amount of dialogue related to those breasts, which I surmise Penguin Highway believes is funny.  Anyway, the whole thing comes off as a fetish that's been gestating in somebody's head since puberty, and whatever possible point it thought it was making in regards to its E.T. riff winds up fairly hard to take seriously when the camera continually shoves its way into E.T.'s boobs, and even if you are (somehow) able to recalibrate your expectations to encompass Penguin Highway's extremely boob-centric story, it's hard to take that particularly seriously when the boob-bearer continues to fail to cohere as an even marginally credible human being.  Meanwhile, our normal child cast sort of just rots on the vine as the film lays out several extremely unsatisfying rebuttals to these critiques, apparently unaware that it had all the character types it needed for its story already.  Even a(n age-appropriate) girl.

Nominally, what we've got here is a coming-of-age tale, and that's something of a specialty for its source material's author, Tomihiko Morimi; besides Penguin Highway, he wrote the novels that were adapted into The Tatami Galaxy and The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl, the anime versions of which rock.  Of course, in those instances, the eruption of aberrant horniness was less unsettling, due to their dealing with late teenagers (on either side of the equation), and, in both cases, the women involved were never such entirely-blank, drunk-seeming ciphers whose only character trait was to openly flirt with small children.  (Of course, those movies weren't sci-fi stories loosely based on/loosely ripping off Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, either: it occurs to me that there was one possible way out for Penguin Highway that could've saved even the gunkiest parts of its narrative, and while it aims to be fairly heady for children's science fiction, it leaves any serious mindfuckery on the table.)

In any event, I can't say if Makoto Ueda's screen adaptation is better or worse about any of this stuff than Morimi's novel; but, either way, his script never sufficiently addresses any problems that were already present.  Nor does first-time feature filmmaker Hiroyasu Ishida's direction, which aimlessly shepherds a story that is fairly simple in its fundamentals, despite its numerous moving parts, long past its natural running time of about 95 minutes.  (Penguin Highway runs a downright stultifying 118.)  Ishida presents it all without any special visual flair besides an indulgence in bright daytime colors and the occasional montage of Aoyama's scientific method until the climax and the film's budget simultaneously kick in.  (And, credit where it's due, the reality-breaking climax is kind of visually interesting, though it still doesn't generate any particular sense of danger—and still manages to be boob-obsessed—despite representing the potential for the apocalypse.)

Penguin Highway's also the first feature cartoon from Studio Colorido, and for a first feature from a largely-untested B-studio, it's not technically a piece of trash, though you can definitely see the lowish budget and the lack of personnel, especially in the simplistic backdrops.  Still, you can easily imagine what they thought they were getting here: a fun family film with cute animals that would pay for better, more ambitious films down the line.  I pity them a bit, because while Penguin Highway obviously managed some financial and critical success—hey, enough to get it marketed in the U.S., which isn't nothing—Colorido will probably always be known to anime aficionados as the studio that made the gross children's movie about penguins and barely-latent pedophilia.  Except, word to the wise, the movie's not even really that much about penguins.

Score: 3/10

No comments:

Post a Comment