The Case of Hana and Alice (Jpn) (wiki)
In my past film-watching experience, I've found the rotoscoping technique for producing animation to be a lazy one that causes nothing but a distraction to the film you are watching, to such an extent as to spoil it. There is something, probably somewhere down the uncanny valley about taking every nth frame of a filmed scene and tracing the lines until you have an animated equivalent. Though static shots of Hana and Alice seemed like your average anime, the previews threatened to confirm my worst fears. Though it took a little time to adjust, I'm glad I did see this film. I could so easily have snoozed in bed a few more hours and nearly decided to.
Tetsuko has just moved to a new area and needs to fit in at school. All seems normal until her new classmates start acting weirdly around the desk she chooses, it seems the previous occupant disappeared in mysterious circumstances, and the two free desks next to each other have a mysterious story to them that the other pupils seem reluctant to give up. Tetsuko, being a no-shit spunky type lets curiosity get the better of her, and leads her down a seemingly supernatural rabbit hole that eventually leads to a reclusive ex-pupil living next door.
Without wanting to give too much away, the film is of two strange halves; the first a meditiation on supersition and how that pervades in the fetile imagination of the young; the second an almost slapstick mystery caper of the scooby-doo caliber. Though you would expect a low mark for such a description, the change in direction is welcomed and gives the film chance to tie up several loose ends neatly towards the end. It's funny, entertaining and a little philosophical. 8/10
The Postman's White Nights (Rus) (wiki)
By the time I had realised that my preferred next film, Taxi (it got the Golden Bear this year), had sold out the second anime of the day (Rakuen Tsuiho, which I wasn't that fussed about) was well underway and I was across town, so my only other option was this.
Lyokha is getting on a bit; he is the postman for a remote Russian village, split off from the rest of civilisation for generations by a large lake. He lives a lonely life despite everyone knowing him, and lives alone, each day the same as the rest. Get up, take the motorboat out to get the post, come home and fill the rest of his day with the friends he used to get drunk with, but can't any more. His one hope is to finally win the affections of Irina, an old school friend and crush who lives a single life with her young son. These aside, all he sees are dying memories and the shadows of his youth.
But Irina is getting itchy feet and is looking to move to the city. Can Lyokha manage to woo her before she takes off?
Films such as this one can survive pretty well with just a beautiful landscape, and the lake and countryside shots of a relatively unspoiled corner of Russia are certainly beautiful to look at, but Lyokha's actions too many times are frustrating. He could make himself happier, but he doesn't. Chances are wasted and he doesn't seem to learn from them. For this it's hard to completely like or identify with the character, even though perhaps many would have taken the choice which maintains the status quo you are hoping just this once he will kick himself up the arse a bit for his own good.
I wish I could recommend this more as it had some great roles played by unprofessional actors from the village, and it got many things right, not least the sense of loneliness even in a tight community. 6/10
Miss Hokusai (Jpn) (wiki)
The director of Colorful from a few years back returns with an animated biography of O-Ei, the lesser known daughter of the famous Japanese 19th Century painter, Katsushika Hokusai. Nearing the skills of her father, many of her uncredited works were attributed elsewhere and this film tries to give her back some of that missed fame, albeit a little too late.
It looks like a Ghibli film for much of it's runtime and is similarly beautiful, but it is actually the work of the Production I.G. studio, an outfit that has collaborated with Ghibli several times in the past. But more than a cursory glance exposes the slightly pale imitation. Whereas a Ghibli film could usually be counted on however to have that extra something beyond high production values, something seems sadly missing from this film. It's still very good, but not a sign of the anime crown being passed over yet. It got a lot of the more tender aspects of the film - exploring the uneasy relationship between O-Ei and her parents, and that of her blind sister with which her father wanted little to do. But some of it felt a little too cloying, and I question the use of heavy J-Rock as background music as well, which rasped against the period setting quite uncomfortably.
It wasn't a bad film by any stretch, but again my presupposition about which film would come out as best in my eyes was turned on it's head. 7.5/10
Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie (Jpn) (wiki)
I have a love-hate relationship with Ghost in the Shell. The first film was just complex enough to be considered sophisticated, and I enjoyed the philosophy and style of the second and it was very rewatchable, so I could pick apart and theorise on what Mamoru Oshii was trying to achieve. But starting with 2011's Solid State Society, things just went into overdrive, plot-wise; the double crosses and numerous villains of the piece combined with the subtitle-heavy talking bits in-between where several onions were peeled not just one, made enjoying the film hard work. The New Movie (a strange, out of place generic name) continues this trend and is harder work still.
Set in the early years of the Majors' unit before it became part of Section 9, she and Aramaki's team separately investigate a presidential assassination that occurred simultaneously with a hostage siege, which was seemingly nothing more than a distraction to keep the forces out of the way. More twists and turns than ever - and someone relying on subtitles will struggle to keep up on the first watch) result in a thick soupy mixture of impressive, explosive action scenes mixed with thick talky bits, and you just have to assume that the good guys are hitting the right bad guys for the right reasons in the next action scene.
Ordinarily I would say things will become clear after a few viewings, but I'm not sure I have the stamina any more to work out who is who and get a full appreciation of the reasons everybody had their heads blown apart. If you ignore the storyline pretty much completely and just enjoy the ride the action has to offer you'll probably get a buzz out of it but feel a bit left out. 7/10
Empire of Corpses (Jpn) (wiki)
Well, where do I start with this one? I wasn't expecting a Victorian-era Ghost in the Shell set in London with zombies and buxom women in it, that's for sure. John Watson (yes they borrowed lots of English names) is fascinated with reanimating corpses, a practice the government is using to provide cheap labour after Victor Frankenstein managed to do it a century before. Thing is, he managed it just once and somehow got the corpse to have self determination and a soul, whereas the ones the government churn out are conveniently sub-servant. Watson is motivated to find the old way of doing things since the death of his friend, Friday, the still warm body of which he has managed to smuggle away from the graveyard and bring back to life. He's only good as a scribbler of all of John's experiences, and maybe as a coat rack, but John has big plans.
Such plans got put aside when the government find out about his illegal practices, although they see enough in his work to send him off to try and find Frankenstein's notes which will reveal all. Cue a worldwide hunt with a variety of characters and increasing amounts of destruction. Think Steamboy and you are quite close.
I did enjoy Empire of Corpses; it's well animated, high quality format, but you really, really have to stop yourself from laughing at the rather clumsy and sporadic use of people and places simply because they sound English. There are giant 'computers' dotted across the earth, each called Charles Babbage. Sherlock Holmes shares canon with Moneypenny. They suddenly acquire a submarine called.. yes, the Nautilus. Ghost in the Shell used naming references so much more subtly.
Even when you overcome that hurdle you have to get past the increasingly convoluted and bonkers storyline which lurches between continents with little regard for people stopping for breath, and the ending introduces random new things without any explanation. It's another of those films you just have to sit through and turn off your own internal analytical engine, save for it breaking under the strain of the logical twirling going on. If you can do that, it's an okay film, but you really do need to leave your knowledge of real-life history at the door. 7/10