BIFF, Day Six: 9 and Sin Nombre

I’m afraid I don’t have a great deal to say about the two films of the day. One of them was good, the other very good. They are both the first feature films of directors I think have the potential to make even better films.

99 is an animated film directed by Shane Acker. He is formerly known only for a short film, also called 9( you can see it by pressing link), which won an Oscar in 2005. I was a big fan of the short film and therefore had my hopes up for the expanded feature version. Unfortunately, the transition hasn’t been to the film maker’s advantage, at least not artistically.

What made the short film 9 such a unique creature was that it threw us smack into a world that seemed familiar and alien at the same time, never offering any explanations for what we saw or why. While having many of the characteristics of a post apocalyptic earth, the protagonist was a rag doll with the number 9 painted on his back. There were no humans in sight. Exploring this destroyed world, he came upon a monstrous creature that started an intense chase of the frail doll. He found a round metallic object that, put properly together, released ghostly forms of other rag dolls who faded away into the ether or afterlife. This was the plot, and I didn’t feel I needed to know more, really. There were no dialogue and this strengthened the pure chase concept. It was certainly clear that Acker had an eye for design and a good understanding of what makes animation work. His sense of movement and gravity in animation was particularly impressive.

acker05_9shortFor the feature length version, the chase of the short film constitutes the beginning of the film and yes, ghostly figures – souls of the dolls? – are released at the end. In between we have an hour of more chase scenes and so many stock situations that I wondered if the script writers had encountered some paint by numbers guide to how to write trite dialogue for scenes seen a hundred times before.

As in the short film, the character 9 starts out mute, but unfortunately that situation is quickly remedied. As soon as these dolls start speaking American, they lose a lot of mystery, but also intelligence, it seems. All of a sudden they spout feelings that are supposed to sound dramatic or even political, but comes off as something a child would say. And no, this is not intentional. “We must save him! You are a coward! I’m sorry! You can’t hide from reality!” For some reason, the script writers have only been able to think in exclamation points while writing the dialogue. The same heavy-handedness can be found in the plot as well; never offering dilemmas we haven’t seen many times before, spouting Disneyfied sentiments about the importance of sticking up for one‘s friends and reducing everything to a fight between the good guys and the bad guys, with no grey scales. This is where animation studios like Pixar and Studio Ghibli really excels, never going for the easiest solutions or indeed world views.

7As the film, then, is never more than a question of getting from here to there, I found myself bored even by the generous amount of action taking place in the plot. What saves the film is that the animation is absolutely gorgeous and that Acker hasn’t lost his eye for design and for making the characters move in exciting and fresh ways. The world he has created is indeed fascinating and had the script been better, especially the dialogue, this could really have been something. As it is it is never more than entertaining, at times it is less.

I think I’ll blame one of the producers, Tim Burton, for this. Hell, I’m feeling magnanimous, I‘ll blame the other producer, Timur Bekmambetov, as well. For one thing, I guess it was Burton who made Pamela Pettler write the screenplay. She also had a finger in the screenplay for Burton’s Corpse Bride, so I assume her presence here is no coincidence. I have a feeling that all my objections to the dialogue should be directed to her, and to Burton. Let me take a moment to explain why I consider Burton poison to the film.

9 would probably not have been made without Burton’s name attached to it, so for that Acker must be grateful. But when did Burton really make a more than passable film? His latest, Sweeney Todd, had its moments, well helped by the dependability of Stephen Sondheim’s wonderful songs. Big Fish is a cinematic atrocity best forgotten. Sleepy Hollow should have been a horror film, but was turned into an exercise in style and quirkiness and never remotely scary. His two stop motion animation films, Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, seem designed only to be different in concept from most mainstream animated features, but are they really that good? Sure, some of Danny Elfman’s music is catchy, but what is really the point of the films? That outsiders have feelings too? Burton is the cosy Goth, never daring to be different enough to be disturbing, intent on turning the borderline strange into the definite mainstream. Has he ever had any meaning behind his films other than the aforementioned call to accept the goth, the freak, the outsider? Subtle, he is not, and intelligence you have to search for elsewhere. After Edward Scissorhands, he should maybe have called it a day, realizing that he had made his masterpiece and not emulate the same formula again and again.

The point to make here, is that while the original short film of 9 retained much mystery and, by necessity of its format, perhaps, allowed the audience to actively make its own interpretations of what they were seeing. After Burton’s hands have fondled the package, every movement now has to be given a reason and that reason is never very interesting when you peel away the, grantedly, spectacular surface. Much like so many of Burton’s own films.

Pretty much all the protests I have directed at Burton’s cinema, I could also send the way of the film’s other producer, Timor Bekmambetov. He as well has made a career on pure surface, seemingly having little interest in what he is actually trying to say, or even accomplish, with his films. Daywatch, Nightwatch and Wanted all look very good, but have so many narrative problems that were they a person, Mel Gibson would seem sane in comparison.
While these big name producers ensured that Acker could bring “his vision” to the big screen, they also ensured that said vision would be severely diluted, turning all mystery into cliché and placing something that had aspirations of being original plump into the safety of the still waters of the mainstream. And that, my friends, is not where you catch the biggest fish, and certainly not the most succulent.

sin-nombre_jpg_595x325_crop_upscale_q85Sin Nombre is a film about people seeking escape because they have to. The young Honduran girl, Sayra, has no prospects in her own country and chooses to set out on the long journey towards USA with her father, who she hasn’t seen for many years. El Casper(or Willy, as he sometimes calls himself) is a young man – or boy – who has pledged his life to a local street gang, seemingly in perpetual war with the rival Los Chavalles. After he kills the leader for a number of reasons, he knows that his life is over, but chooses to make his way to USA as well, on the same train as Sayra. I don’t want to say more about the plot, again not to give away too much.

The director, Cary Fukunaga, has formerly made a short film about the subject of Mexican immigrants dying of overheating in a truck, trying to make their way into USA. However, Sin Nombre, separates itself from a number of films about the crossing over the Mexican/US border by treating USA almost as a MacGuffin. USA is some vague goal that we doubt will influence the proceedings in other ways than to bring the action forward.

sin-nombre-gangThe film is as much about the possibility of starting anew in a philosophical sense than in the particular case of USA as the necessary site of this renewal. More than that, it is about innocence and the limits of innocence; the mechanisms that taints us by some sin, some overstepping of a boundary we only realize that we have crossed when it’s too late to go back.

I hear that the director spent some time travelling on top of trains the same distance as the protagonists, in order to get a grip of what they are going through. This, if true, serves the film well, as the train riding scenes seem very realistic, while at the same time offering the director the opportunity to show how evil and good is often a question of the geography of chance.

I should not forget to mention that Sin Nombre works very well as a thriller. It shows us a world we don’t often see and there is not a false scene or sentiment in the film. The guns are primitive, and they don’t make the explosive noise of a Hollywood actioner, but they are just as deadly. And in many ways they are more fatal.

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