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Hello! Here you will find occasional film reviews together with a few other things I notice along the way.

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Chico And Rita

This animated film opens in modern day Havana, Cuba, but we are soon transported back to the beautifully drawn cityscape in 1948 where Chico is a confident pianist out on a night dancing who is captivated by the beautiful singer Rita, although she is not so keen.

The film follows the story of Chico and Rita, which mainly consists of laborious cycles of Chico stalking Rita, who plays hard to get but relents and is then heartbroken by Chico’s stupid actions. Away from the main characters and about midway through the film a man called Chano Pozo appears. He is fantastic and brings a bit of comedy and a change of style, but sadly he is no more than a cameo.

The background drawings and cityscapes are beautiful. The foreground people are not quite as good: still nice but they are very strangely animated and appear to be disconnected with the backgrounds, floating around quite oddly. It’s a style that might look unique for the dancing scenes, but looks lacking elsewhere.

It’s alright.

2 on 5

Info
Directed by: Tono Errando, Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal Starring: Lenny Mandel, Limara Meneses
UK release: 19th November 2010

Step Brothers

This film directed by Adam McKay and starring Will Ferrell and John C Reiley is barely deserving of a review.

The premise is that Brennan (Ferrell) and Dale (Reiley) are two 40-ish men living at home with their single parents. They become step brothers and room-sharers when their parents marry and move in together. It feels like a first draft rather than a finished film and it’s just not funny enough. It has two moments of inspired comedy, where there is childlike charm and naïvety (the bunk beds scene being one and the balls on the drums being the other) but for nearly all of the hour and a half it’s just like watching two rude 7 year olds arguing. Nothing other than two 7 year olds arguing. That’s not a film, that’s an impersonation.

It seems a subject that could be ripe for a good film – the number of mid-thirties childish sons and daughters still living at home with their parents, but this film is an insult to the audience’s intelligence. The filmmakers seem to be aiming for a response along the lines of “Huh! Shout a swear word again! Dat’s like I is!! Huhhhh!”

It’s just not good enough.

1 on 5

Director: Adam McKay
Starring: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Mary Steenburgen, Richard Jenkins, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn UK Release: 29th August 2008

 

Berberian Sound Studio

I like Toby Jones and if you can get past the inaccessible title, the premise of a film set in a post-production sound studio sounds intriguing. So does the idea of the timid, English engineer who is at home recording birdsong on the North Downs being sent to an Italian horror film studio and being asked to record sounds for the stabbings and screams of a horror flick using various vegetables appeal! The quiet Englishmen being thrust out if his professional comfort zone and into a world of Italian emotions and loyalties. But unfortunately this turns out to be a flappy, vague drama.

The film’s atmosphere is set initially and you are intrigued, but nothing is really done with it. It also plays on national stereotypes a bit too much and the characters are weak. Toby Jones’s character is too mute and the Italians are too rude and theatrically portrayed to be convincing.

It seems to be primarily a romantic nostalgia piece to analogue tape equipment. In fact the sound recording moments are interesting, but there’s just no story in particular, and certainly no ending.

2 on 5

Info
Director: Peter Strickland
Starring: Toby Jones, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Susanna Cappellaro, Cosimo Fusco, Suzy Kendall UK Release: 31st August 2012

Tracks

A story about a remarkable journey a woman called Robyn Davidson took in the late 70s crossing the desert land of Western Australia to the ocean with only 4 camels and a dog for company.

It’s a 1700 mile journey (which is like walking from London to Ankara) she undertakes in this film (played by Mia Wasikowska) partly because of her upbringing and father’s travels, but also partly because she seems to dislike modern city life in general and people in particular. Moving home to be away from the city doesn’t seem to help initially as all the men she encounters early in the film appear to be bigoted idiots, so she decides to distance herself from everyone! As we journey with Robyn on a slow meander through the countryside she just seems to get more and more miserable and intolerant.

Mr Eddy (Roly Mintuma) is the high point of the film as the cheerful babbling aboriginal elder who helps Robyn through sacred lands. However for most of the film there appears to be quite a troubling undercurrent in the way the various different groups of peoples are portrayed either all positively or negatively, but thankfully this is resolved in the last third. Robyn even smiles on at least two occasions before the film finishes!

I didn’t really like it or dislike it very much, but it is a bit disappointing that they squandered what could have been an interesting film about an inspiring woman’s story and ended up with a gloomy one that just sort of happens really.

2 on 5

Info
Directed by: John Curran
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver, Roly Mintuma
UK Release: 25th April 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

I think I’ve only ever seen one Wes Anderson film before this one – The Royal Tenenbaums. I didn’t really enjoy that as I found it quite inaccessible and very flat, with lots of sitting around pontificating, but The Grand Budapest Hotel is a very different affair.

It begins with a lot of throwbacks to previous generations. The author narrating picks up the story earlier in his life (played by Jude Law) in the late 60s in the hotel, housed in the mountains in the fictional Eastern European country of Zubrowka. The hotel is introduced to us in its spectacular setting and it looks like a beautifully hand-crafted model, almost like a stylish painting. In the hotel, the author encounters the hotel owner – Mr Moustafa – and the story gets thrown back further to when Mr Moustafa was a trainee bellboy for concierge Gustave H. The story now settles on this time period and our protagonists Zero Moustafa and Gustave H are played by Tony Revolori and Ralph Fiennes.

The film really has the feeling of a novel that meets a cartoon. Initially, and especially with Jude Law’s scenes, the dialogue feels straight out of a novel, and the visual style despite being live-action on the whole is very cartoon-inspired with bright colours, fantastical settings, caricatured characters and a sense of fun.

It’s the sense of fun from early on that makes the film work so well. It makes the introduction of the settings and the characters enjoyable and funny (even though everyone has an accent from a different place it seems not to be a problem), then as it moves to a more adventurous caper you feel happy to go on the journey with them and genuinely threatened by the baddies in the tale. One of those is played by Willem Dafoe and he is a brilliantly evil creation that had me genuinely concerned. But Ralph Fiennes is the star of the show. His camp character is nostalgic for the class structures and politeness of years gone by and he maintains a level of decorum, nobility and impeccable customer service which keeps the guests returning, but this exterior occasionally cracks and he blurts out expletive-laden attacks. His comic timing is spot-on. Mr Moustafa puts it well when he says “His world had vanished long before he entered it, but he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvellous grace.”

Some of the shots are fantastic as well, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s finer moments. I particularly loved the ski-chase! The film is in different aspect ratios according to the time period: starting in 2.35:1then thinning to 1.85:1 and finally 1.33:1 (the old 4:3 of squarer tellies). Whilst this is a nice touch, it does mean the bulk of the film is stuck with 1.33:1 which feels quite constrained and limiting at times.

A satisfying if poignant round up completes the story – it’s great: I loved it!

5 on 5

Info
Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Mathieu Amalric, Saoirse Ronan, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Harvey Keitel
UK release: 7th March 2014

The double

Based on a novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, this film concerns Simon James: a man who is anonymous, lonely and impotent in the constrained and prescribed world of a 1920s Orwellian future. He yearns for co-worker Hannah, but his crippling shyness prevents him from even talking to her.

One day a new worker called James Simon turns up in the office and he is the spitting image of Simon. His personality, however, is the complete opposite. James is confident, a hit with the ladies, doesn’t take any nonsense, a social climber: everything that Simon wants to be.

It’s directed by Richard Ayoade, a multi-talented man who apart from being a film and music video director also appeared in The I.T. Crowd and is a member of the Shaman Council as Saboo in The Mighty Boosh. He has Jesse Eisenberg as his leading man who plays the dual roles very well. He plays them very straight, especially Simon, and any laughs in the film are usually at the situation he finds himself in rather than physical comic acting. Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) plays a good contrasting character, similarly lonely but with a lot more confidence than Simon.

The visuals are impressive and allied with the soundtrack create a pleasingly strange world of contrasting repeating geometric patterns, muted colours in the foreground with bold primary colours in the background and industrial sounds leaking from one scene to the next. This place is a mash-up of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and David Lynch’s Eraserhead and has lots of very talented people calling in for cameos: Wallace Shawn is great, pretty much reprising his role as the yappy boss from The Incredibles, J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr. appears as a janitor, Paddy Considine appears on the telly and Chris Morris and Tim Key are on screen far too briefly.

With all these great elements thrown into the mix, sadly it comes out a little bit without direction and purpose. The story never quite takes off and it’s all a bit one-note.

It’s a bit like a good looking pizza with far too many toppings. You like all the ingredients, but couldn’t really sink your teeth into any one of them. You leave the restaurant full up but a little disappointed.

2 on 5

Info
Directed by: Richard Ayoade
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, James Fox, J Mascis, Chris Morris, Yasmin Paige, Tim Key UK Release: 4th April 2014

Her

Another Spike Jonze film is something I look out for after the excellent ‘Being John Malkovich’ and ‘Adaptation’. This film, set in LA, involves a recently-separated man (Theodore – Joaquin Phoenix) who has a job writing other people’s love-letters. It follows his increasing emotional dependence on his new operating system Samantha, which is programmed to have emotions and learn from experiences.

The voice of the OS initially seems disconnected and clearly added in post-production, as it is not coming through the computer but just from ‘everywhere’, but actually this is probably the effect they wanted to create as Theodore wears an earpiece to communicate with the OS. It offers a near-future that in one sense is disappointingly device-dependant, but on the other hand one where people would at least be talking to their devices rather than walking along or driving, looking at their screens and tapping away like they do today.

It doesn’t really cover any fresh ground and it follows the path you would expect. It’s quite dour in tone as the protagonist is still really hung-up about his divorce for most of the film (as I’m sure you would be!) and the colour palette seems to reflect this with beiges everywhere. Despite a good performance from Joaquin, there are inevitably an awful lot of scenes that just involve starting at his face as he talks to a computer. Still, there are occasional lighter moments: the brief day-out scene is welcome, the paper clip in the pocket is a nice detail and I found myself looking at the apartment and skylines with awe (possibly because the story wasn’t holding my attention). A lot of the filming was actually done in Shanghai (which seems to be happening more often), as well as in LA itself.

It’s very whimsical and a bit too long (what’s a surprise) and I’m sure some people will enjoy it, but it felt quite empty to me. The moral of the film appears to be that if you are going to invest in an emotion-based learning OS, then make sure it’s not a cloud-based solution, make sure it’s exclusive to your devices. A lesson for us all there then.

3 on 5

Info
Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlet Johansson
UK Release: 14 Feb 2014