Dutch writer/director Michael Dudok de Wit has become the first European animator selected by Japan's Studio Ghibli to be the talent creating their feature The Red Turtle. Dudok de Wit is an inspired, wise choice. He understands the appeal of simplicity and the power of understatement, the more Eastern aesthetic of less suggesting more. 

This is certainly the case with The Red Turtle, which includes no dialogue, and yet it speaks quite eloquently about human and animal nature and natural elements. The situation is simple: a storm deposits a man on a desert island, a castaway scenario. Using resources from the bamboo forest that covers the island, the man repeatedly builds rafts, increasingly better ones, to attempt an escape, only to have the title turtle confront him with other ideas. I'll reveal no more as unexpected events follow in this rich, symbol-laden fable. 

Dudok de Wit has written that he "hoped to convey my deep love for nature: for the beauty of light and shadow, the special ambience of warm nights and rainy forests, and the naturalness of death and birth." Adding an emphatic emotional element, composer Laurent Perez del Mar's score never intrudes disagreeably on events though it magnificently interprets them.

Studio Ghibli is justifiably famous among those of us who love elegant animation on serious topics, among them My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl's Moving Castle, and Ponyo. I could go on so beloved are these films from 1986 on. Dudok de Wit works wholly within the Ghibli style, preferring, as quoted in The New York Times, "films that are monochromatic. It gives a purity and simplicity to the image," a complement to the minimalistic line drawings that nevertheless express realistic movement. This is a film to relax into, to enter as in a dream, and to relish for hours and days afterward.

Two and a half years in production, The Red Turtle was well worth the wait. Winner of the Special Prize in last year's Cannes International Film Festival's Un Certain Regard section and an Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Feature Film, The Red Turtle is playing at Landmark's Tivoli Theatre.

 

 

Elliptical and elusive, Dark Night offers vignettes of five individuals' lives over the course of a day. They will enter a movie theater, never, we know from opening shots, to leave alive. Writer/director Tim Sutton's dramatization explicitly alludes to the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, massacre and imagines also the shooter's day, though we're not sure of his identity early on.   

The title Dark Night fits that tragic evening and also reminds us that "The Dark Knight Rises" was showing at the Colorado multiplex where twelve people were murdered and 70 wounded. A briefly glimpsed television screen further solidifies that connection with commentary about the mental evaluation of James Holmes at trial. It's chilling, added to the opening shot of red and blue police lights reflected on the close-up of an eye with a stunned woman sitting on a curb. We've seen the end before the lead up to it.  

Stylistically, the film is reminiscent of director Gus Van Sant's Elephant on the Columbine massacre, though Dark Night mercifully does not include any graphic footage of the killings. Rather, Sutton shows the routine events of an ordinary day that culminates in what should be a pleasurable escape to the cinema. The young men and women share little more than that unfortunate connection.

Throughout the vignettes, Sutton minimizes dialogue, relying on visuals to chronicle this fateful day's events. The camera tracks with individuals or watches from a distance, the women regrettably, but accurately for our culture, sexualized. A sense of dread builds with the day's natural, sunny beauty shattered by the pervasive violence in video games, at target ranges, and in angry fantasies. And it is not just the killer participating in this widespread, oppressive gun culture defined by an ambiance that often feels alienating.

Of note, Maica Armata's haunting music plays during the introduction, skateboarding, bicycling, a woman lounging in a swimming pool, the murderer trying on masks and other events. Dark Night screens at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium Friday, March 3 through Sunday, March 5 at 7:30 each evening. 

 

"Short" is right. Most of these films run fewer than 10 minutes with one longer than a half-hour. And "sweet" is right, too, in a way, if "sweet" stretches to mournful. These Oscar-nominated short films advance the concept of brevity as good and worthy.

In "Pearl" in about five minutes, Patrick Osborne tells the story of a girl and her father, of their music, their life in a car), their cries for grace. "Pearl" was made in the US. So was "Borrowed Time," a Western directed by Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj about a father/son lawman team.

Canada offers a few minutes with "Blind Vaysha," made by Theodore Ushev and based in folklore of Eastern Europe. This short, unlike the first two, includes a narrator, and its mythic theme is hopelessness. The images are woodcuts.

The longest of the set is a heart-breaker from Canada: "Pear Cider and Cigarettes." Robert Valley, the director, voices over the story of his childhood friend, Techno Stypes. Techno's dad sends Valley to China to save Techno, whose kidney no longer supports his habits. First, Valley has to dry out his friend before surgery, and then he has to nurse his friend, a most unbidden help. The animation is all angles, and for all its sadness, "Pear Cider and Cigarettes" stays longer than it plays; however, it is not for children, unlike the littler films.

One of those is the last film, "Piper." This little film, only six minutes long, comes from the Pixar studio, now sheltered by Disney. "Piper" was directed by Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer, and like most things Pixar, it is a triumph. Feathers and foam surround a fledgling piper, who's cute as a button as it learns the ways of fearsome water. Such a treat!

 

 

Revisiting tragedies requires a sensitive, humane touch. When the revisited horror is the December 14, 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School murder of twenty elementary school children and six adults, the undertaking poses huge obstacles. In her documentary Newtown, Kim A. Snyder manages this Herculean task through present-day interviews with many directly affected. It is both uplifting and heartbreaking.    

We know the statistics: twenty-year-old Adam Lanza (his name never spoken) fired 154 rounds from his XM-15 rifle. He had driven to Sandy Hook after shooting and killing his mother in their home. After emptying multiple assault type bullet magazines, Lanza killed himself. What Newtown the film presents is the enduring effects that, understandably, will nominally, if ever, fade. 

Snyder begins with footage from breaking news reports followed by a series of poignant remembrances from parents, brothers and sisters, classmates, neighbors, teachers, the school custodian, library clerk, nurse, state troopers and first responders. Each adds a deeply moving, honest description of their immediate and everlasting pain. Later in the film Snyder interweaves brief crime scene footage from Lanza's house, clips from Congressional task force hearings on gun violence, Obama's condolences with the comfort he offers, and several families lobbying Congress for gun control legislation. They come away appalled by the lack of action. 

Throughout the documentary individuals often speak directly and calmly to the camera, their words expressing their deepest agony. Music doesn't intrude; none is necessary while the beauty of the Connecticut area contrasts with the enveloping grief. Events and comments that conclude the film are uplifting and a tribute to the community.

Humanely, quietly, profoundly, Snyder honors those killed and those coping and helps us understand. Newtown screens at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium Friday, February 24 through Sunday, February 26 at 7:30 each evening.

 

 

There's not a bad seed in this barrel of apples. All five, mostly a half-hour each, offer resounding stories -- well told, acted and filmed. They come from France, Hungary, Switzerland, Denmark, and Spain. Two of them swirl around the predicament of refugees in Europe. 

"Internal Enemies," directed by Sélim Azzazi, centers on an interview -- or investigation or interrogation, depending on the point of view -- between two Arab-Frenchmen in 1998. Their conversation considers terrorism, fatherland, and religion and could not be more pertinent, and the filming includes backgrounds of history. It's chilling.

"Silent Nights" is a story about compassion and tenderness in the face of foreignness. Directed by Aske Bang, "Silent Nights" tells a complicated love story of a Danish woman, Inger, and a Ghanian man, Kwame, who meet at a homeless shelter. 

The Swiss offering stars the luminous Jane Birkin as a woman who waves a Swiss flag at the passing train, the TGV. She lives in a blue-shuttered house by the tracks and her life is dwindling. The music is mawkish, but the story is kind of sweet. 

"Timecode," a Spanish film directed by Juanjo Pena, is a dancer's delight. Two security guards, who know each other only in passing, that is, as the one leaves his shift and the other assumes hers. But they find each other on the video tapes of the various garages they monitor, and they find each other in dance.

The girls in "Sing," the Hungarian short directed by Kristof Deak, find each other in song. "Sing" is largely about the warmth and wealth of girls' friendships, as the new girl is befriended by Liza. They are warned about singing, but they persist.

So many movies go on for far too long, but these shorts prove that length is not necessary for brilliance.

 

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