Category Archives: films

Review: The Cat Returns

220px-Cat_Returns

(Note: between job interviews and anthology submissions, no time to write a proper blog post this week. So, here’s one I made earlier –  ie, dug out of my drafts from 2013.)

Whisper of the Heart was a reasonably complex and original coming of age story with a perfect blend of fantasy and realism – but evidently the most popular part was the dapper talking cat, Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, for he got a kitty-themed film all to himself.

It’s a much shallower film than its predecessor, with less detailed animation and a straightforward fairytale plot. Schoolgirl Haru saves a cat from being hit by a truck. The cat transpires to be the Prince of Cats, and his father, the Cat King, is so grateful than he insists Haru take the prince’s paw in marriage. Not enthused at the prospect of marrying a cat, Haru seeks the help of the Cat Bureau. Therein enters the Baron, a living cat figurine who is determined to save Haru before she is transformed into a cat forever…

It’s pretty standard children’s fantasy far, with a lot of kitties – and I mean a lot. If you’re a cat person you will probably like this film. If you’re not a cat person you might come out of it hating them.

The ending is something of a disappointment, with Haru having grown as a person by virtue of… I don’t know, adventure? And cats? But it’s worth a watch, partly for the star-studded English dub (Anne Hathaway as Haru, Tim Curry as the Cat King, Cary Elwes as the Baron) and partly because it’s pure kitty-filled fun.

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2013 Film Reviews: More Comedy

kinopoisk.ruThe Way Way Back

Here’s a rare thing: The Way Way Back is a film that can only be described as awkward – and that’s a compliment. Somehow.

It’s a coming-of-age story about a shy fourteen year old boy getting a job at a water park while on vacation with his mother and her boyfriend. And that’s really about it, in terms of plot. The dramatic climax is a ride on a water slide. But somehow it really does work.

The Way Way Back excels at evoking awkward social situations in a manner which is played primarily for awkwardness, not for comedy – though it often is funny. It’s something of a socially awkward fantasy. A recurring theme is apparently awkward situations the protagonist is forced into turning out to be entirely positive. Is that a thing that happens often? I don’t know, but it’s a nice idea, motivationally speaking.

All in all, it’s a really nicely written dramedy that I suspect will be overlooked somewhat – the premise is not an easy sell and its trailers misrepresented it as a rom-com – and very much worth seeing. Especially if you’re a community fan – Jim Rash a.k.a. Dean Pelton co-wrote and directed. If that’s not something to recommend it I don’t know what is.

MV5BMTU0NzE0Mzg3M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzY2MDY3OQ@@._V1_SX640_SY720_In a World

Now here’s a thoroughly unusual comedy. Lake Bell’s directorial debut and (presumably) pet project, it’s a feminist comedy about trailer voice-overs.

Bell plays Carol, daughter of legendary trailer voice-over artist Sam Sotto. She works as a freelance vocal coach, but dreams of breaking into the male-dominated field of movie trailers. The film is firmly grounded in reality: the gender disparity in voice over work is very real, as is the domination of a tiny number of performers. It even opens with documentary footage introducing the late great Don LaFontaine before seguing into the fictional world. It’s hard to tell exactly where the line is at times: the film trailers Carol voices are entirely fictional, but at least some of the characters are real people.

But the world of trailer voice-overs is largely a backdrop. Much of the film is concerned with Carl’s personal life, her budding romance with her sound-mixer, her sister’s struggling marriage, and her changing relationship with her father as the two of them come into competition for the same job.

In a World is ultimately a meditation on the important of the female voice, literally. Women’s voices are a recurring theme throughout the film and Carol’s voice is eventually heard by the whole world. It’s an important message and it’s delivered, though not perfectly, without being heavy handed.

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2013 Film Reviews: Animation

Despicable-me-2-many-minions-pp33148Despicable Me 2

Despicable Me 2 is more or less exactly what you’d expect from a sequel to Despicable Me. Which is to say: if you liked the first film, you’ll probably like this one too. It has the same tone, the same sense of humour, the same slightly surreal quality. But unfortunately it has many of the same problems.

The action-adventure side is just as good as the first film – possibly even better. It does a good job of fleshing out its world with the addition of an anti-villain league. How’s that for a rarity: an animated film sequel that actually advances the story rather than simply retreading.

Unfortunately, the emotional centre is less solid. The emotional centre Despicable Me was very much Gru bonding with his adoptive daughters. Here it’s the romance subplot. It’s a sweet enough romance subplot, if a little shallow in some places, but romance subplots are dime-a-dozen. The three daughters have less screentime; it would have been nice to see more development of their relationship with Gru, and to see any development at all of their relationship with Lucy (the woman who – spoilers – becomes their new Mom).

Really, though, most of the problems with Despicable Me 2 can be traced back to one thing: the Minions. Don’t get me wrong, the Minions are funny as hell, but they have far too much screentime here. The issue with the Minions is that as cute and funny as they are, they cannot sustain a narrative. They have no individuality. They’re just an endless mass of yellow blobs in dungarees. And yet for some reason they play a central role.

But if you’re willing to put that aside, Despicable Me 2 is a whole lot of fun.

Monsters_uni_post_2Monsters University

A whole lot of people seemed to be a whole lot more excited for this film than I was. I’ve never been that keen on Monsters Inc – I re-watched it lately and I like it just fine, but it’s one of Pixar’s more predictable films. And – though this seems to be a common sentiment – I’d rather have seen a sequel than a prequel. The ending of Monsters Inc was plenty open enough to warrant one.

So in a sense, I was pleasantly surprised by Monster’s University. It has the same flavour as its precursor, the same style of comedy and the same vibrant visuals – the monster designs are truly brilliant – but with a plot that’s actually kind of surprising. I confess I was spoiled for the ending, but I think had I not been it would genuinely have taken me offguard. The climax of Monsters University messes with your expectations in a big way, twisting conventional narrative tropes on their head and arriving at a really unusual Aesop: the ultimate message is that you sometimes have to accept that, no matter how hard you try, there are things you’re just no good at.

But on the flip side, predictable as it was Monsters Inc had a striking premise, some fascinating fantasy concepts, and enough attention to detail in the execution to pull it off. Monsters University has… college movie tropes. Subverted at times, sure, but they’re still standard fare. As much as I enjoyed it, I can’t help but think that there was some wasted potential here.

I’m also really not sure who the target audience is supposed to be. Monsters Inc is very much a family film, with themes tailored for children and their parents. Monsters University is a film that will only really speak to college students and graduates – possibly only graduates, since I have no idea how well it reflects the contemporary American university experience.

However, as is often the case, this is me nitpicking. Pixar is in the unfortunate position of having set the bar very high for themselves. Their filmography is so strong that it’s hard not to measure their recent films against it. On its own merits, Monsters University is a really fun film with a moral message that rings true without being overdone. Thoroughly recommended.

Epic-Movie-2013-HD-WallpaperEpic

I really wanted to like this film. The first trailers had me hooked with their whimsy and (literal) fairytale quality. It looked like it had the potential to be a really great animated fantasy film. But unfortunately, Epic belongs to a class of animated film that is intensely frustrating.

For the amount of love and effort and attention to detail poured into the animation is just breath-taking. It’s so fluid and so colourful and so creative that really it’s worth watching the film just to get a look at it. The water! The motion! The colours!

But the writers… did not follow suit. Epic is hopelessly generic. You can predict the plot almost blow for blow. The only real surprise for me was (spoilers!) relationship between the lead antagonist and his son – which is, despite initial appearances, loving and mutually supportive. I’d actually liked to have seen it developed more. For the most part, though, Epic is a film with generic, bland leads and all the interesting characters shoved to the sidelines.

What I really wanted from Epic was Ferngully done right. I’ve heard that the director does not like people comparing the two – to which I would tell him that if he didn’t want comparisons to be drawn he should not have used almost exactly the same plot (human teenager gets magically shrunk down, befriends pretty fairies, wacky animal sidekick, almost gets eaten by giant version of small animal, helps save the forest from decay-monsters, learns valuable lesson – c’mon). In some respects it’s what I wanted, but bizarrely Ferngully actually has a stronger moral message.

The villain of Ferngully is pollution, and hence a very real threat to the ecosystem. The villain in Epic is… rot. This is played as the antithesis of life. I don’t quite understand the logic here; yes, decay can kill, but it is itself driven by living things. The weapons wielded by the Boggans mostly seem to be fungal life. Then there’s the use of ‘evil’ animals like bats and crows to characterise the villains – it’s clumsy.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t like it. It’s generic in a reasonably appealing way – plus there is a lot of creativity and there are some interesting characters (see: Colin Farrell as the steely-jawed leader of the Leafmen). It’s not a masterpiece (dare I say it’s not the masterpiece it could have been), but it’s decent enough.

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Only Lovers Left Alive

only-lovers-left-aliveAs much as I enjoyed Only Lovers Left Alive – and I really did enjoy it – I was surprised to realise that it just barely tops two hours. It feels longer. It feels like at least two and a half hours; and I’d swear half the run-time was composed entirely of Tilda Swinton’s character dancing while the camera spins around her and Tom Hiddleston’s character moodily playing the guitar and the drums…

This is not a fast-paced film. I’ve seen it described as ‘languid’, which seems like the right word. It’s rarely dull, but it’s slow and meandering and for the first hour almost entirely plotless. Actually, it’s a pretty effective demonstration of how you don’t actually need a plot to tell a story. There’s no exposition; we never learn how Tilda Swinton’s Eve and Tom Hiddleston’s Adam became vampires, or how old they are; or how they’re related to Mia Wasikowska’s Ava or John Hurt’s Christopher Marlow; and their fates after the film are equally ambiguous. It’s implied at times that they might be the real Adam and Eve (and Ava Lilith) but this isn’t dwelt on.

It’s a meandering slice out of a much longer and more sprawling story that we only need to see one slice of, because it repeats itself constantly. Adam and Eve have parted ways and come back together before. Adam has been through depressive periods before, and been pulled out of them. Encounters with Ava always end in a bloody death. The recurring spinning imagery (spinning records, Eve dancing, the rotation of the earth) implies the cyclical nature of the story, and of both human and vampire life more generally. Things are bad at the moment; they’ll get worse; they’ll be good again in the future. ‘This place will rise again,’ Eve says of Detroit.

Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are both fantastic; they were made to play vampires. They have the perfect faces for it, equal parts beautiful and creepy, when they want to be. These are vampires that feel truly old and inhuman while also being warm and relatable. Adam broods and isolates himself, but Eve has a constant zest for (eternal) life; if his character is perhaps a cliché, hers is endlessly refreshing. And when did you last watch a film about a vampire who was passionate about science?

But I hesitate to call Only Lovers Left Alive too refreshing, because it does fall into some of the usual traps of vampire fiction. These are the all-to-common vampires with the mysterious ability to befriend only people who will be famous in the future – although Adam does also name-drop a few old friends who aren’t household names any more, which is a nice touch. And these vampires don’t drink their blood out of bags because it’s more ethnical; they do it because killing humans is ‘so fifteenth century’.

In a word: these are hipster vampires. Classy hipster vampires who have absolutely earned the right to their intense pretentiousness, but hipsters nonetheless. That’s not a complaint; Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as hipster vampires. What’s not to love about that?

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2013 Film Reviews: More Summer Sci-Fi

prPacific Rim

I’m just going to get this out of the way first: I am honestly shocked that so many people thought ‘G*psy Danger’ would be a good name for a giant robot. I can see something like that making it into early drafts of a script, but all the way to the cinematic cut? Truly baffled. Had I known G*psy Danger was the lead robot rather than just a throwaway detail I’d have been much more reluctant to go see Pacific Rim at all.

But that nasty little detail aside, Pacific Rim is a really excellent sci-fi film. Giant monsters begin crawling out of a dimensional rift beneath the Pacific. The governments of the world come together and decide that the best way to deal with the situation is to build giant robots and punch the problem till it goes away.

If you want to see a giant robot beat up a sea monster with an ocean liner, Pacific Rim might just be the film for you.

It’s not the most imaginative premise, but it’s lavishly detailed, from the workings of the Jaeger technology to the dog-sized mites that live on the monsters. It’s big, it’s visually stunning and all-round awesome. Probably my favourite film of the summer.

weThe World’s End

The World’s End, the final installment in Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s ‘blood and ice cream trilogy’, is really two films. There’s the sci-fi bro-comedy it was marketed as – and a much darker, much bleaker science fiction film. Though really, one could say it’s three films: a bro-comedy, a sci-fi comedy, and a science fiction film. But I doubt many people watched it without knowing the reveal. (Spoilers: there’s alien robots.)

Five schoolfriends get together to complete ‘the Golden Mile’ a legendary pub crawl in their home town – only to discover that the town has been taken over by sinister alien robots. It’s a very funny film, but likes its predecessors – in particular Shaun of the Dead – it’s not without its darker and more poignant moments.

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost change roles here, with Pegg playing the slacker manchild and Frost playing his straightlaced friend. Pegg’s character was played very much as a comic figure in the film’s trailers; in the film itself he is from the beginning as pathetic as he is funny and as events play out his behaviour becomes genuinely disturbing. There’s a truly shocking reveal late in the film, carefully hidden behind all the robots. It may take you by surprise.

Then there is the ending. To avoid spoilers as much as possible: there is an abrupt, bleak and shocking swerve in the final minutes of the film that will almost certainly take you offguard. It comes out of nowhere, is completely at odds with the tone of the rest of the film, and to be honest I wish it had been cut. The World’s End might have been a stronger film had it ended one scene earlier. So it goes.

 

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Recently Released Films: Comedy

heatThe Heat

I went to see The Heat partly because my friends wanted to see it, partly because I really enjoyed Bridesmaids and partly because it was a film I kind of wanted to support – it’s a buddy cop movie with female cops. You don’t see that very often

And I can say that, if you liked BridesmaidsThe Heat will not disappoint. It has the same brand of comedy, but here with a more dramatic flare and sans the gross-out humour – though there’s one scene that seems calculated to make up for the lack of grossness by packing as much as it can into a few short minutes. (Word of advice: if you’re squeamish about blood, don’t see The Heat.)

That one scene aside, the comedy is all top-notch – the Boston accent confusion (knock/narc?) is funnier than it has any right to be – and the dramatic scenes have a real emotional resonance. The happy ending and its partnership between the two leads really does feel earned.

So my only real complaint about The Heat is about that rocket launcher. You know, the one on the poster and in the trailer – that does not get fired even once in the whole film. For shame.

We’re the Millers

millersWe’re the Millers is a film with a really good concept. After being robbed, a low-level drug dealer is forced to become a drug mule to get back in his boss’s good books – and gets the idea to fool the U.S. border guards by putting together a fake family and playing tourist. There’s a whole lot of potential there, the trailer was reasonably funny – and hey, that’s Jennifer Aniston and Will Poulter (of Son of Rambow and Voyage of the Dawn Treader)!

Unfortunately – and unsurprisingly – it falls apart on the execution. It’s not that it isn’t funny; it’s very funny, though most of the best laughs are in the trailer. It’s that We’re the Millers doesn’t seem to know what kind of comedy it is. Is it the heartwarming kind of comedy where its characters learn the value of family? The darkest kind of comedy with jokes about incest? Or the kind of comedy that’s all dick jokes?

It succeeds only at the latter. We’re the Millers never goes beyond the fringes of truly dark comedy and it’s happy families message is confused. The ending – which has the ‘Millers’ staying together as a family through the witness protection program – falls flat because you just don’t buy that these people have really become a family, nor that all of them want to. (With the exception of Kenny. Kenny is truly lonely.)

It’s not a bad comedy. The funny moments are (for the most part) funny, the touching moments (for the most part) touching – it’s just confused and unbalanced.

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100 Animated Films V: Stop-Motion Wonders

piratesPirates! In An Adventure with Scientists

Pirates has a lot to recommend it. It was made by Aardman animation – their first stop-motion film since 2005, their first to be filmed in 3D and (I believe) their first to extensively blend stop-motion with computer generated animation. The voice cast includes Hugh Grant, David Tennant, Imelda Staunton, Lenny Henry – all perfectly cast. Of the films on my list this was one of the ones I was most looking forward to.

I’m not sure how to verbalise what about this film I found lacking. The humour, animation and voice acting are all top-notch – it was something about the plot, which involves surprisingly little pirating and a lot of quite disparate elements drawn together. Aardman Animation excels at short films but their full-length films tend to be bitty – this, I think, is why their best films are Chicken Run and Arthur Christmas. Both could easily have been short films – but they’re better for the extra length and use it for character development rather than more plot and more gags.

On the subject of character development: Pirate Captain, our protagonist. Pirates! is a film which does something I hate: it attempts to create the illusion of character development through a montage of the main character being very sad. But has he actually changed in anyway, or learned anything? Do his crew forgive him for any reason other than ‘well, the script says so’? Not really, no. Sure, he’s trying to make things right, but more to get his crew to like him again than because he understands what he done wrong.

And also: dodos were large birds. They stood about a metre tall – ‘bigger than a swan’ was a common comparison. I keep my sanity by imagining that Polly the Dodo is a member of a previously unknown species of Dwarf Dodo from a smaller island – but perhaps I am giving the film-makers too much credit.

panicA Town Called Panic

I’m at a slight disadvantage here because I’ve never seen the TV series of the same name – and I get the impression A Town Called Panic is very much an extra-long episode. My only prior experience with A Town Called Panic  was the series of Cravendale Milk adverts made by the same people with more or less the same characters.

That said: I enjoyed A Town Called Panic very much. The animation, though simple, is distinctive and very clever; that the characters are all, essentially, toys, appeals to the child in me. The plot structure reminds me a little of an episode of The Simpsons: it begins with the other characters attempting to get a birthday present for Horse but then spins off into something completely different… and completely different again… and again.

The toy-like animation models plus the disjointed plot make for an experience something like watching a story made up by someone playing with toys – the village actually reminds me of the shoebox ‘towns’ I used to make for my dolls to live in. It costs along on its own odd internal logic, from the Arctic to the bottom of the ocean to the centre of the earth. I love that kind of story-telling.

FrankenweenieFrankenweenie

I think the best summation of Frankenweenie I’ve seen so far is ‘more Tim Burton’. I think it might his most Tim Burton-y film to date. And I’m not actually dead keen on his style.

Still: Frankenweenie is a lot of fun, with some memorable characters and spot-on Hammer Horror pastiche. Victor’s relationship with the prophetically-named Sparky feels very real; it honestly hurts when the dog dies and Victor’s obsession with bringing him back to life is oddly touching.

That said, I feel like the film missed his own message. At the end of the film (spoilers!) Sparky dies again… but rather than just acknowledging that hey, dogs die sometimes, and moving on is important, Victor brings him back again – with the help of the townspeople, no less – and the film ends.

It’s not a very healthy message. How long does Victor intend to keep raising his dog from the dead when it dies? And given that he has now proven that it’s possible to raise the dead with sufficient electricity – how long is it before someone tries his trick on a dead family member? Sooner or later this world is going to have a Pet Semetary situation on its hands – or worse, a full-blown zombie apocalypse. Sure, the fact that most of the raised pets were monstrous should put most people off – but Sparky was just fine. For a desperate, grieving person with access to frequent lightning storms those would look like some pretty good odds.

Lots of ethical and metaphysical questions; not many answers. It’s a fun family film, but only if you don’t think too hard.

CoralineCoraline

Based purely on the animation, Coraline is a masterpiece. It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating: this film is entirely stop-motion animated. There are no green-screen shots. The more you know about stop-motion, the more impressive it becomes – I’m still trying to wrap my head around just how you could create the climax in stop-motion. There’s effects that would likely be tricky to accomplish in CG. It holds a record for longest stop-motion film. Let’s all agree now: Laika are the masters.

Unfortunately, it has the same slight issue as Paranorman: the stop-motion is so good that if you didn’t know better you’d assume it was generic-looking CG. Aardman animation has always managed to avoid this by having such a distinctive stop-motion style that you couldn’t mistake it for anything else; Laika lacks this quality.

So what about the rest of the film? I’d say Coraline falls victim to what I’m going to dub the Thief and the Cobble dilemma. The Thief and the Cobbler is a tragically unfinished animated film made by Richard Williams. It was intended to be the greatest animated film of all time, and in some respects it would have been – check out this scene. But the plot and characters are uninspired and the Arabian Nights setting is about as heavily stereotyped as Disney’s Aladdin. How do you judge an animated film? By the animation or the content?

Not that Coraline is a bad film. It’s full of inventive and interesting plots and characters, but much of that it owes to its source material. If it had been made in CG animation I’d call it so-so: it’s enjoyable, creepy, Coraline is a strong and realistically child-like lead. It’s a great fairy tale – but again, it owes that to Neil Gaiman’s novella. I found the overall quality a little patchy; the last third or so devolves into a kind of video-game plot.

But it’s sure as hell not a bad film, even leaving aside the animation. It’s a rare female-led animated film children’s film that is not a romance (the only other such film released the same year was Dreamworks’ Monsters vs Aliens). It may be lacking in some areas – but it is definitely worth checking out.

Fantastic_mr_foxFantastic Mr. Fox

Oh, Roald Dahl. When will there be an adaptation of your work I actually like?

Fantastic Mr. Fox isn’t a bad film. Critically it was quite acclaimed. I enjoyed some of the deadpan humour and the music and it does get some parts of its source material down – Boggis, Bunce and Bean are done beautifully.

But Mr. Fox himself is not Fantastic. Not even a little. Some kind of vital essence or spirit of the character is missing. I’m not sure what it is – but he lacks the brilliance and dashing charm of his book counterpart. The constant deadpanning doesn’t help – it’s irritating and not very suitable for animation. This is a medium that needs more energy.

The animation itself doesn’t help either. The models have an eerie realism to them, disjointed movements, and creepy dead eyes. It’s not nice to look at, except in stills, and it’s not nicely shot – for some reason the film keeps cutting to close-ups. Close-ups of jerky, dead-eyed model faces. I don’t know who thought that would be a good idea – and it’s not that Wes Anderson isn’t used to working with animation, because he didn’t direct the stop-motion, just the voice actors.

Ultimately, my problem with Fantastic Mr. Fox is the same as my problem with many adaptions of children’s books: if there’s not enough source material to comfortably fill out a feature-length film, don’t make a feature length film. It’s really not that complicated. Some books are just better suited to short form – or to not being adapted at all.

Next: Studio Ghibli.

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