Category Archives: Animation
I didn’t go a lot to the cinema in March but I made up for it watching more European films (from Belgium, Spain and Denmark, to be precise). So here are my short and sweet reviews. Dig in!
Belgica: the story of Cafe Belgica and Jo and Frank, two brothers who own it. We see the evolution from hole-in-the-wall bar just for the locals with some live music into concert venue with regular gigs and selected clientele. At the beginning working at Belgica seems like the best thing in the world (sex, drugs and rock and roll) but, as time goes by, we see that it comes with a lot of baggage and pain, paralleling a heavy night of partying and drinking (more Bukowski’s style). What grabs more the attention is the music, it cleverly evolves in style with the changes of the bar and the strifes and troubles between the brothers. The cinematography is also to the point: the film begins with a red, warm hue suggesting intimacy and fun and, as the bar expands beyond control, the color schemes shift toward a harsh and cold blue. The performances of Stef Aerts and Tom Vermier as Jo and Frank are convincing and compelling. One minor quibble could be that some interesting secondary characters are not given much depth, but it’s just nit-picking. Intriguing —7.5/10
Zootopia: the latest Disney animated film is set in an anthropomorphic city where mammals, predators and not, co-exist peacefully… more or less. Comedy, adventure and crime drama are well mixed together in a story that has never a dull moment. There are endearing characters like our heroine Judy Hopps, who is the first bunny to join the police of Zootopia, and cheeky ones like Nick Wilde, a fox and a hustler. There’s humour for kids and grow-ups alike (the sloths at the DMV are priceless) and a nice message about tolerance and inclusion that works well without being too corny or cheesy. The voice actors are perfect for their characters and the animation is top-notch. Maybe it’s not my favorite among Disney animated films but it is entertaining. Fun —7/10
Land of Mine: the life of German prisoners in Denmark in 1945, right after the end of War World II. The Danish government decided to use thousands of German prisoners of war to remove the mines on the western coast of Denmark (put there by the Nazi during the occupation). The film tells the story of a small group of such prisoners, mostly still boys, and Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moeller), the Danish soldier in charge of them and their mission. While beautifully shot the film falls short of the mark: the story of each character feels flat, without any reasonable development or believable motives. Sgt. Rasmussen suddenly change from Nazi-hater and treating the boys worse than animals, to father-figure, especially with Sebastian (Louis Hofmann), the unofficial leader of the group. The most important issue of the Geneva Convention about prisoners of war and not behaving like the Nazis did is completely glossed over, which makes for an easy way out for the director and writer Martin Zandvliet. Stray observations: no way it’s always sunny in Denmark, even in summer; if it’s windy it’s nigh impossible to keep the sand out of your eyes; the boys have always perfectly trim hair even after months of work… doubt that a barber showed up there every few weeks! Disappointing–5/10
A Perfect Day: another movie about the aftermath of a war, this time is the Balkans in 1990s. What is most compelling is that the main point of view is neutral, the viewer is shown the ugliness of war in an objective way without judgement or taking sides. The plot is about an international group of aid workers who are supposed to clean up wells to provide the local population with potable water. Drama and comedy are dosed well, combining interesting and insightful situations that stem from language and cultural barriers, moronic bureaucracy and personal relationships. Black humour at the expense of military authority and the helplessness of the UN is reminiscent of M*A*S*H. Benico Del Toro and Tim Robbins, as the two old-timers of the group, are spectacular and well worth watching. Alex Catalan’s superb cinematography of the arid mountain landscapes and war devastated backdrop further enhances this enjoyable dark comedy/ funny drama. Unusual and riveting —7.5/10
The last month has been mostly about Oscar nominated films… surprise, surprise! So without further ado here’s February selection of speedy reviews:
The Danish Girl: the life of Danish painter Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, pioneer transgender, and his wife Gerda, also a talented painter. I know that this is considered an Eddie Redmayne’s film, whose performance is both convincing and effective, but the one that truly shines is Alicia Vikander as Gerda. She embodied the role of loyal, supporting wife and her struggle to make sense of her life and her husband’s. I must say that she’s the one who really sold me the story and ended up making it convincing and gut-wrenching. Tom Hooper skillfully handles this dramatic tale and beautifully recreates both Copenhagen and Paris in the 1920s. Affecting —7/10
Carol: Todd Haynes gives us an artfully shot, intense period drama with two great actresses (Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett) at the top of their game. Therese, shop girl and aspiring photographer, meets and falls in love with the titular Carol, an older woman trapped in an unhappy marriage. Set in the fifties, this love story has all the complications that come with the social mores of the time and strongly reminds of Far From Heaven, however it’s a little more hopeful but less powerful. Cate Blanchett should always dress as a New Yorker in the 1950s, she’s spectacular. Kudos also go to Kyle Chandler for his solid performance as the abandoned husband and Sarah Paulson as Carol’s best friend. Interesting —7/10
Anomalisa: the quirky genius of Charlie Kaufman takes the viewer along for a ride in a weird world. Using stop-motion animation he tells a story of alienation and loneliness (which are recurrent themes in his films): a customer service guru, Michael Stone (David Thewlis), feels detached from everything but, on a business trip, meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), his anomaly, and things suddenly change for the better…at least that’s what it seems. While the plot is rather straightforward, the storytelling is multi-layered as is Kaufman’s wont and the different media is meant to add an additional twist. Unfortunately, the latter completely backfires (at least for me) because I found the facial features of the puppets utterly distracting and not in a good way. Unexpected —6/10
Hail, Caesar!: Eddie Mannix’s (Josh Brolin) life as fixer for a major Hollywood studio is very complicated and demanding. He has to deal with a difficult director (Ralph Fiennes), a pregnant starlet (Scarlet Johansson), nosy gossip journalists (Tilda Swinton), the kidnapping of a movie star (George Clooney) and his inner demons. The Coens brings back the lights and shadows of Hollywood’s golden era with their usual humour and manage to coax great performances out of Clooney, Brolin, Ehrenreich and the rest of the cast. There’s a cornucopia of references to different film genres and their cliches as well as to the lives of celebrities, mostly what should be kept from the public. I particularly enjoyed the discussion about religion with a rabbi and representatives of the different christian confessions. Lighthearted —7.5/10
I must confess I found this film a little underwhelming. This is the first feature film by Otomo after his unforgettable masterpiece Akira. There are more that fifteen years between the two movies and they couldn’t be more different story wise, however they both have a boy as central character around which everything revolves. In this film Otomo goes steampunk, setting his tale in England, 1860 circa, or, more accurately, in an alternative version of it.
Young Rey Steam (Suzuki) is a gifted inventor as his father Edward (Tsukayama) and his grandfather Lloyd (Nakamura). They are all skilled engineers and have great dedication to their work. Edward and Lloyd are pursuing their research in America since they couldn’t get appropriate funding in England to achieve their goals (apparently brain drain is a problem even in sci-fi anime). They manage to design a new device called “steam ball” (not the most creative or inspired of names, I must say), which contains highly pressurized vapor of a particular type of water, and revolutionise the current state of technology. Rey receives one of these new devices in England and a mad chase ensues. The warmongering and greedy Americans want to utilise it for evil purposes while Rey and his grandfather and the British Empire have more peaceful uses in mind… well at least Rey and grandpa do, the Brits want to prosper and maintain their supremacy (my my, who would have guessed!). The theme of technology employed in the service of mankind’s self-destruction is not a new one and applied better by Miyazaki in a few of his films. Howl’s Moving Castle, that also came out in 2004, uses magic as metaphor but it’s the same concept. In this film sadly most the characters are one-dimensional, little more than stereotypes, leaving the viewer too detached to really care what happens to them. In addition, suspension of disbelief needs to be put in high gear (pun intended) to be able to follow the story and enjoy all the complex, imaginative and original machines and inventions.
What I find very engaging is that the pace of this film never slow down. There is a lot of camera action that I’ve never seen in an anime before. Instead of quick edits, some scenes are panned, zoomed, or rotated with incredible accuracy, as if they were actually filmed rather than being drawn. This is the strongest suit of the film since the story feels rehashed and the characters are not particularly endearing. Ingenious —6/10
This is my second post in the Blind Spot Series 2016, a blogathon organised by Ryan at The Matinee
Brilliant psychiatrist Chiba (Hayashibara) helps people with dream therapy using a new device, the D.C. Mini, designed by her genius colleague Tokita (Furuya). This new machine allows not only to enter someone else dreams but also to record them. Chiba is determined, dedicated and a little aloft and, with her boss Shima’s (Hori) blessing, she treats patients using the D.C. Mini outside a sanctioned project of the Foundation for Psychiatric Research. Her fun-loving easy-going dream alter-ego, Paprika, is currently aiding detective Kowaga (Otsuka) working through his issues, visiting a recurrent dream of his about an on-going case. Unfortunately, Chiba, Tokita and Shiba realise that a D.C. Mini has been stolen from the research centre and the thief is using it to enter people’s minds, when awake, and distract them with their own dreams and those of others. Mayhem ensues and the boundary between dream and reality starts to fade. What follow is a desperate search for the culprit: the trio of scientists uses all their knowledge and, aided by detective Kowaga, put together the pieces of the puzzle.
The viewer is treated to incredibly rich and absolutely nuts dream sequences (as all dream are!). They are integral part of the investigation offering both clues and red herrings. They also are more and more intertwined with reality as the film progresses. The result is stunning: it feel like a roller-coaster and a merry-go-around ride at the same time, without detracting from the smooth flow of the plot. I particularly liked Kowaga’s dreams, full of film references and homages, quite a treat for a movie buff! The animation is nothing less than top notch and it appears to be the perfect medium for such a story. I doubt that a live-action version would have been this lavish and outlandish. I know some might say that Inception did that but we are not even close. It is interesting, however, the parallel on useful technology turned into a weapon and the need for exploring and understanding one’s subconscious.
Sadly this is the last gem of Satoshi Kon’s short filmography. I do recommend watching his other films: Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress and Tokio Godfathers.
Raul Garcia brilliantly assembles a collection of five animated stories adapted from Edgar Allan Poe. Each segment has its unique style of animation, colours and narrator with very different yet impressive results. The stories in question are: the Fall of House Usher, the Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, the Tell-tale Heart, the Pit and the Pendulum and the Masque of the Red Death. The grim and foreboding atmosphere that permeates each tale, and it’s so characteristic of Poe’s dark universe, is translated very effectively to the screen with the help of an apt music score and a perfect voice cast. As a curiosity: Garcia went to great lengths to recover old Bela Lugosi’s recording in order to have him “narrate” one of the segment. I particularly appreciated the nice touch of the interludes with the dead writer, represented by a crow, conversing with Death while hopping among the statues and the tombstones of a cemetery. This omnibus is quite an accomplishment just by an animation point of view: its mixture of 2D and 3D techniques, diverse textures and rendering methods suit well the mood and tone of the tales. In addition, the source material is excellent and Poe’s fans can definitely enjoy this new approach. Riveting —9/10
An old man (Guerra) tells the story of his childhood in idyllic Sbornia, small peninsula separated from the rest of the world by a huge wall. He reminisces about the simple way of life with its quirks and peculiarities of his birthplace, about his father Kraunos (Gomez) and his good friend Pletskaya (Nicolaiewsky), both appreciated musicians that enlivened the evenings of the town. Besides the love for music and merriment, Sbornians have a penchant for drinking bizuwin, a beverage made with a local, slightly psychotropic plant, and axe ball, a rather unusual sport halfway between rugby and hand-pelota. The bucolic life of Sbornia is disrupted on a fateful day when the wall collapses due to an accident and the modern customs and different social mores of the outside world are brought to Sbornia. Pletskaya and Kraunos observe the reactions of their countrymen and showcase the different attitudes: while some quickly adopt foreign culture as Pletskaya, others prefer to reaffirm the Sbornian traditions and resist imperialism much like Kraunos. The latter witnesses, with increasing dismay, the dramatic changes without being able to prevent the inevitable doom. To complicate matters, Pletskaya falls in love with Coqueliquot, daughter of the magnate that is industrialising Sbornia to produce a soda flavoured with bizuwin. The film is based on the play “Tangos & Tragédias” and it is an insightful picture of social and economical changes in a small community with plenty of humour and amazing music. The authors of the play, Nico Nicolaiewsky and Hique Gomez, have also wrote and composed most of this movie’s great songs and happens to be the voices of the main characters. The animation and the drawing style are distinctive and appealing, the story has a good pace and it’s very entertaining. Lively —8/10
This film follows the much used formula of boy-meets-girl but in a very unusual way. Meet Il-ho (Yu-mi Jeong): lonely, de-commissioned satellite who falls to Earth after hearing a song by a street musician and it’s transformed into a girl robot (reminding me a little of Nana Supergirl) by a close encounter with a monster-incinerator. Meet Kyung-chun (Ah In Yoo): hapless composer and musician of said song, heartbroken, after being dumped by his longtime girlfriend, and transformed into a milk cow. If being a milk cow and not a boy anymore wasn’t enough, Kyung-chun’s life is in danger from two horrible foes. First off, there’s a nasty teleporting bounty hunter with a magical bathroom plunger, he removes organs from the bodies of brokenhearted humans turned into animals and he sells them to a black market dealer. Secondly, perhaps even worse, there is the above mentioned monster-incinerator who roams the streets of Seoul looking for the same type of prey but to drop them into his fiery, gluttonous mouth. Well, tough times indeed for being heartsick, like adding insult to injury or, maybe more aptly, injury to injury. Anyway, our unlucky musician is helped by Il-ho and by the great wizard Merlin, who happens to be a toilet paper roll (consequence of a curse), yep you read it right and, let me tell you, it is the best part of the movie. Naturally amor omnia vincit but the whole story is definitely unconventional and, at times, quite funny. My only complain is the soundtrack since I don’t find romantic pop songs in Korean my favorite cup of tea. The animation is top-notch and I’m looking forward to seeing more of Hyeong-voon Jang’s work in the future. Remarkable —7/10
Sergio is a taxi driver in a, surprisingly, gloomy and rainy Naples (it seems Milan in November, if it wasn’t for the huge piles of trash laying around). He is mourning his brother Alfredo, who has recently died after spending the last ten years as a buddhist monk. As more often than not, grief brings along anger and self-introspection and the viewer goes on this journey, both psychological and physical (since a lot of the film take place on a taxi), with Sergio. Intertwined with his story are the snippets of his fares’ lives, that are instrumental in enriching the tale and in helping Sergio understand better his feelings. In the background the audience catches glimpses of Naples and its inhabitants, nice snapshots of ordinary Italian lives: resigned, fatalistic and vexed. The viewer finds out more about the two brothers and their relationship through flashbacks: how they used to be a jazz duo but never too successful, how Alfredo left for Tibet to become a monk and how, as a consequence, Sergio quit playing and got the taxi license (and the taxi) from their uncle Luciano (a rather colourful guy whom the audience get to meet). Fundamental to Sergio’s trip down memory lane is Antonia, who gets on his taxi very upset and in tears and without a destination in mind. They will tour Naples for a while, going to places that have a particular meaning in Sergio’s life, and also getting to know each other a little more. At the end of the film and of his cathartic, inner voyage, Sergio does attain a relative balance and accepts the pain of the loss, reaching the only possible conclusion: it doesn’t go away, one learns to make room for it and live on. This film is quite an achievement, not only it has been made by an all-Italian crew (direction, production, script, music, etc.), it is also an animation feature for adults which I must say it’s a first for Italy. The drawing style and animation are distinctive and sleek, along with a stunning soundtrack that matches perfectly the tone of the story and the moods of the main character. It might be difficult to watch it, no DVD out yet and I saw it at a film festival, but I strongly recommend it. Engaging and poetic —9/10
So this is it: Miyazaki’s swan song. He brings together his great passion for airplanes with a recurrent Studio Ghibli’s theme: the pursuit of one’s dream. At odds with all his previous works, this film is an animated feature more for adults than children, being the biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, a Japanese aircraft engineer who developed the Zero (fighter plane used during World War II). Although it starts with a boy and his imagination, whose dream of becoming a pilot is impeded by his myopia, it evolves into a more serious and grounded story of a young man determined to become an aircraft engineer, who, in turns, matures into a talented designer of fighter planes. Miyazaki still delights us with his magic, giving it free reins representing Jiro’s dreams and a great character, Caproni, an Italian aeronautical engineer who appears as mentor and adviser in the dreams. On the other hand, the film also shows, very effectively, dramatic events such as the earthquake and the subsequent tsunami and firestorms that devastated the Kanto region and nearly destroyed Tokio in 1923. It is during this fateful day that Jiro, still a student at the time, crosses path for the first time with Nohoko, the girl who will become his wife years later. Miyazaki, while telling his hero’s story, only hints at the major historical events: Japan’s poverty, its race to armament (along with Germany), the rises of totalitarian governments, repression of dissent and war. It seems that the story, as well as Jiro, lives in a bubble and focuses only on making the best plane ever without really dealing with what it’s being built for. This is the major flaw of the movie and it is the drawback of telling a story grounded in reality when the author is so used to fantastic ones. The uses of planes for war is, indeed, briefly addressed and condemned but it feels like an afterthought, like Miyazaki realises too late that he cannot avoid making a statement. Anyway the film is still a pleasure to watch with its flawless animation and endearing characters. Miyazaki leaves us with a bittersweet ending, reminding us that the dream is over and it is time to wake up. Le vent se lève il faut tenter de vivre. —7.5/10
Set in Abidja (Ivory Coast), this animated film chronicles the life of Aya and her friends, Bintou and Adjoua. They grew up and live, along with their families and friends, in Yopougon, a rather poor area of the biggest city of the country. Like many other teenager girls, they have dreams about their future, want to have fun but also have to deal with their parents’ and society’s expectations. Marguerite Abouet (who is also the writer of the graphic novel) clearly knows well the subject and gives us a rich, insightful view of a seldom seen location and a rarely described period (the late 1970s, during president Houphouët-Boigny’s tenure), using the personal stories of ordinary but colourful characters. Aya is sensible, responsible and independent, quite unlike her two best friends, who are more frivolous and fun-loving. What is quite perplexing about this story is that, although Aya is the protagonist, she ends up being the witness and narrator of the exploits and escapades of the ones around her, being friends, family members or mere acquaintances. The directors seems to have much more fun regaling us with tales of foolishness, small-mindedness and ambitiousness. It is indeed entertaining and offers a biting social satire using the ample spectrum of human qualities. However it is not totally convincing, the well-known secret for a good movie is: don’t tell, show; unfortunately it is not always the case here. Furthermore I would have liked to know more about Aya and her dream of becoming a doctor in such a society, stifled by patriarchy and lacking opportunities but maybe it was a topic too tricky to explore. The animation per se is charming but nothing extraordinary, a good support to a nice story. Peculiar —6.5/10
Forget Pixar, Dreamworks or Japanese anime, this is something very different. Chris Sullivan spent 15 years making this feature animation, using various techniques and obtaining a rather unique and surprising result. It tells the story of Gentian (Jenny) Violet, Victor Blue and Earl Gray, who live and work in Magguson, a small town of the Rust Belt. Jenny and Victor appear to be in their late thirties, they are friends and co-workers at the local newspaper, The Daily Suggester, while Earl is an older man, hosting a program about gardening at the local radio. Their lives seems rather ordinary and a tad lonely but an accident on a fateful night (due to alcohol inebriation) set off a chain of events that will lead us to discover secrets about the past of the characters and their deep connection. This is not a family movie, it is a rather dark tale about ghosts from days gone by and how they haunt us, a story of love and jealousy, of chasing after things that are lost without never really catching them. I’ve interpreted the title as referring to both the imbibing of alcohol and the spirits of the id, and I find it very appropriate. The view of this film requires not only a staunch heart but also patience, since the chronicles of Jenny, Victor and Earl move with a slow pace, still, you should stick with it to know all the details and understand them better. Unusual and disconcerting —7/10
If you are looking for a good anime and you like horror and fantasy, well, look no further. The Japanese had a pretty nifty idea, they remade the live-action show Supernatural (created by Eric “evil genius” Kripke) which is awesome to begin with, into 22 animated episodes. So our favorite hunters of all-things-that-go-bump-in-the-dark, Sam and Dean Winchester, take us on the road from case to case; you get classics like vampires, demons and werewolves or stranger stuff based on urban legends and ancient mythology. Like Buffy, most of the episodes are a “monster of the week” type of story but there is also a series arc with a Big Bad. The different medium allows for a more striking and creative rendering of all that is supernatural compared to live action. The animation itself is top-notch and it doesn’t hurt, at least in my book, that Sam resembles Spike Spiegel (fans of Cowboy Bebop won’t fail to notice it). It is fast-paced, grim and quite dark but still with plenty of funny moments. If you know the live-action show, this series covers roughly the storyline of season 1 and 2, taking a few liberties with background stories and making it more PG13. Furthermore all the characters’ appearance, except for the Winchester bros, are very different so it might take a while to get use to. Lastly, one minor issue, unless you are a hardcore anime fan who watches everything in the original Japanese, the English version has Jared Padalecki (live-action Sam) dubbing Sam but Annakid Slayd dubbing Dean for all but two episodes instead of Jensen Ackles (live-action Dean), which sounds really weird and requires from the viewer a little time to adjust to it. Anyway great anime with gripping story and characters. —7.5/10
Gru is a criminal mastermind with a mad scientist as associate, tiny yellow minions and a vast secret lair under his suburban house. But his life is not all rainbows and two-headed puppies, there a new up-and-coming villain, Vector, who stole the pyramid of Giza and made him look bad. Gru has a new amazing plan to put every other evildoer to shame: steal the moon! To do that he needs money to built a rocket and steal a shrink ray device, easier said than done… his troubles are increased by three little orphan girls that he adopted to forward his devious scheme. Needless to say children will change his life for the better and greater good (?) will prevail. I love the details of both lairs (Gru’s and Vector’s) and, of course, the little yellow minions, but the villain that finds out his true heroic nature is old. Sweet and charming but not amazing. —6.5/10
Makoto is a teenage girl going about her normal life: school, playing baseball with her best friends Chiaki and Kosuke, wondering about her future and dealing with minor set-backs. One day something weird happens to her (guess where… in the science lab… of course!) and Makoto discovers that she can leapt back in time and re-live events in a different way. She starts using her newfound powers for rather silly things: avoiding embarrassing conversations with Chiaki, acing a math test, fixing Kosuke up with a cute but shy girl and other mundane incidents. Makoto is pretty happy with herself until something terrible happens and she finds out more about the origin of her powers. It is a nice story with a good pace and with all-round characters. The animation is quite good although not perfect, some minor details of bodies and movements are just wrong. Anyway it is a very pleasant film and a good choice if you need some anime fix (and have already seen everything from Miyazaki and Kon). —7/10