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Quick ‘n’ Dirty: March at the pictures

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

Belgica

 

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

zootopia

 

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

land-of-mine

 

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

A-perfect-day

 

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Steamboy (2004): February Blind Spot

Director: Katsuhiro Ôtomo; Main Cast (Voices): Anne SuzukiMasane TsukayamaKatsuo NakamuraManami KonishiKiyoshi Kodama;

steamboy

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

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Paprika

Director: Satoshi Kon; Main Cast (voices): Megumi HayashibaraTôru FuruyaAkio ÔtsukaKatsunosuke HoriKôichi Yamadera;

Paprika

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.

Mesmerizing —9/10

This is my contribution to the Movie Scientist Blogathon: the Good, the Mad, the Lonely hosted by Christina Wehner and Silver Screenings, go and check all the other entries out!

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The Satellite Girl And Milk Cow

The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow

 

Director: Hyeong-yoon Jang; Main Cast: Yu-mi Jeong, Ah In Yoo;

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

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Consuming Spirits

Director:  Chris Sullivan, Main Cast (voices): Nancy AndrewsChris SullivanJudith RafaelRobert Levy;

consuming-spirits

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

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Despicable Me

Directors: Pierre CoffinChris Renaud, Main Cast (voices): Steve CarellJason SegelMiranda CosgroveDana GaierElsie Fisher

despicable-me

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

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Frozen

Directors:  Chris BuckJennifer Lee, Main Cast (voice): Kristen BellJosh GadIdina Menzel

Repeating the winning formula of Tangled (and ransacking one of Andersen’s story this time for inspiration), we watch the tribulations of an heroine, Anna,  who’s (overly)-optimistic, endearingly goofy and naive but also determined and courageous. With the help of Kristof and his faithful reindeer Sven, she needs to save her sister Elsa, who has magic freezing powers and has brought a perpetual winter in their fair kingdom of Arendelle. After adventure and betrayal, of course, amor omnia vincit but, for once, not as expected. As comic relief the snowman Olaf is the best I have seen in a very long time in a Disney movie, it almost makes worth watching this film just for him. However I still do not appreciated some hidden messages Disney sends to girls: Elsa finally is free to use her powers and suddenly she wears a flimsy, sexy evening gown and high heel…which are very impractical in the snow even if you don’t feel the cold…Well, still a bit sexist as a message, why can they come up with something better to depict strong women who accept who they are? Anyway it is entertaining —6.5/10

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The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists

Directors: Peter LordJeff Newitt, Main Cast (voices): Hugh GrantMartin FreemanDavid TennantImelda Staunton;

the-pirates-in-an-adventure-with-scientists

Latest stop-motion clay animation film from Aardman Animations, this time is about pirates and Charles Darwin. The animation is as always top notch although the story is too much cliched  and sometimes a little slow. There is still plenty of humor and few moments where you cannot avoid to laugh out loud but still it is not at the level of Chicken Run or Wallace & Gromit. —6/10

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Monsters University

Director:  Dan Scanlon, Main Cast:  Billy CrystalJohn GoodmanSteve BuscemiHelen Mirren;

monsters-university

How Mike and Sulley became the best scarer team at Monsters Inc.? Well, this prequel tells you how it happened. This time the focus is more on Mike, who grows up with a dream: be the best scarer ever! To do that he enrolls at MU and there meets Sulley, who comes from a long line of scarers and behaves like a jerk. We get the college experience with monster flavour, including the underdog team of outsiders (the OK fraternity). The duo is not yet what we are used to. They get into troubles, they try hard and, after failing in school, they find themselves and each other.Plenty of humor and flawless animation, nice to hear again Crystal and Goodman as the main characters and Helen Mirren is a great addition. Fun to watch and a positive manifesto for dropouts. —7/10

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The Secret World of Arrietty

Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Main Cast (voices):Bridgit MendlerAmy PoehlerWill ArnettDavid Henrie;

secret-world-of-arrietty

Notwithstanding the fact that he is not directing, this is still a Miyazaki’s story:  a boy and a girl meet and help each other, forming a deep bond in the meantime. This time, however, she is Tinker Bell’s size and she is a “borrower”, little people that take from the house of human beings where they live only what they need. Well, this is the first thing that left me a little nonplussed: borrowers are supposed to stay hidden and get from the humans the bare necessities…they are not very good at it and it looks like they splash out on their house, it reminds me of a hobbit’s hole. The other problem is the supporting characters (Arrietty’s parents, the housekeeper, the aunt) are too much Miyazaki’s stereotypes, nothing really new or endearing. The last issue I have with this film is the voice-over at the end, apparently it is only in the US version, too much Blade Runner theatrical release for my taste…I tend to prefer the director’s cut. So, as a fan of Miyazaki, I am somewhat disappointed, I had high expectations. The silver lining is the brief participation of a Jimsy-like borrower, really loved that. —5.5/10

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The Congress

Director: Ari Folman, Main Cast: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Paul Giamatti;

The Congress

Robin Wright, who is growing old and whose star is fading, receives a final offer from her movie studio (miramount, really?!): being “digitalized” and stopping performing for an audience. She accepts in order to care for her younger son, who is becoming deaf and blind.  Fast-forward to 20 years in the future, Robin is going to the titular Congress in toontown to re-negotiate her contract, and here the bad acid trip starts. The animation is “vintage”, reminding of Steamboat Willie and Betty Boop, and the story progresses a tad too slowly. Folman uses Lem’s idea of a chemical compound that once taken allows one to be whoever/whatever, wherever one wants to be. The final twist reveals a dystopian reality that could have been explored more in depth. Interesting premise but it doesn’t deliver — 6/10

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