Archive for 2010

The Secret World of Arrietty

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy with tags on March 6, 2012 by Mark Hobin

English author Mary Norton’s 1952 novel The Borrowers is transformed in this meticulously animated adaptation. Studio Ghibli’s latest offering concerns a tiny girl and her family who live beneath the floorboards of a house, unbeknownst to the human inhabitants above. They secretly acquire items without being detected in order to live. This is the same Japanese studio that brought us the critically acclaimed Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, both of which were helmed by internationally recognized director Hayao Miyazaki. However, The Secret World of Arrietty has a much more comprehensible story than those impenetrable epics. This is anime for the uninitiated. The more accessible approach may have to do with the fact that this was directed by newcomer Hiromasa Yonebayashi, making his directorial debut.

The fantasy is a beautifully designed work but dramatically it can get a bit languid. The drawings are careful in a cheerfully old fashioned style. It’s not the most fluid animation, but it takes it’s time and it has a sleepy pace that is rather soothing. Complementing this feel is the music. French singer and harpist Cécile Corbel draws on Celtic and folk traditions. Her compositions are an atypical score for an anime film. This is another example of how creativity raises this above the average. The sound effects of insects chirping or raindrops falling have sort of a calming influence that complement the visuals. I admit it’s quite peaceful.

There’s a elegance in the narrative’s simplicity. Part of the story focuses on the missions that these “borrowers” go on to obtain articles like sugar and tissue for the family to use. The point of view of the little people is perfectly captured. There’s beauty in how these characters accomplish their objectives. Arrietty’s father’s use of double stick tape and mittens to scale a wall is quaintly beautiful. But where is the excitement? Not a whole lot happens. There’s a storyline involving a sickly 12 year old boy named Shawn who comes to stay at the place while awaiting heart surgery. His friendship with Arrietty is a dramatic subplot and although it’s poignant, it never develops into anything particularly exciting. Then there’s Hara, an older female caretaker of the home. She provides some conflict, but she ends up becoming more of a nuisance than an actual threat. Nevertheless this is a welcome addition to the Studio Ghibli cannon. The details are what makes this so captivating. Despite the somewhat listless plot, The Secret World of Arrietty is an enchanting delight.

Postscript: This review refers to the U.S. dubbed version. There’s also a UK interpretation as well. Why different English voices were needed for the U.S. is beyond me.

A Cat in Paris

Posted in Animation, Crime, Family, Mystery, Thriller with tags on February 11, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketZoë is haunted by the death of her father. He was murdered by public enemy number one, Victor Costa, and the 7 year old hasn’t spoken since that fateful day. You see her father attempted to stop Victor from absconding with a giant statue called The Colossus of Nairobi. The object’s current transport to the museum is now being overseen by the Police Commissioner who just so happens to be Zoë’s mother.  Zoë is watched over by a mysterious nanny and her pet cat Dino, who keeps her company by day.  By night however, the cat retreats into the night to accompany a kindhearted and lonely jewel thief.

Delightful hand drawn cartoon has the appearance of the colorful Post-Impressionist work of French artists like Georges Seurat and Henri Rousseau with the elongated faces of Amedeo Modigliani thrown in for good measure. The art has an extremely simple, primitive look. Yet the bewitching style holds its own in today’s 3D CGI computer animated world. Witness the spectacle in the story’s final quarter where the lights go out.  Scenes in pitch blackness are artistically imagined as white chalk outlines on a black background.  It’s arresting in its simplicity.  The art has the two dimensional, traditional look that has all but vanished these days.

A Cat in Paris is a children’s book come to life, but with the surprisingly mature feel of an adult thriller. This has the complex machinations of classic suspense.  The cat really isn’t the focus of the film at all, but rather a device by which to interweave a myriad of plot threads involving human characters.  Indeed this could have been cast with human actors and succeeded better than most modern mysteries. One might question the morality of the script’s sympathetic portrayal of a burglar. Think Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s To Catch Thief.  He really has the little girl‘s best interest at heart, mind you. The production isn’t perfect, but it‘s close. Not a single frame is wasted as this mystery unfolds in a brisk 62 minutes. Illustrators Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli directed this comedy drama which put French studio Folimage in the spotlight.  This deservedly received an unexpected Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature in 2012.

Chico & Rita

Posted in Animation, Drama, Music, Romance with tags on February 5, 2012 by Mark Hobin

From their humble beginnings in Cuba to the big time in New York City, the rise of Latin jazz is documented through the love affair of Chico and Rita. The narrative is a bit conventional. It’s your standard rags to riches story and it hits all of the soap opera stereotypes you’ve seen a million times. If this was a live action drama there might not be enough here to engage our attention. However the chronicle never loses sight of our two protagonists as the focus. I found this to be a beautiful expression of jazz and Latin music during the 1940s and ‘50s in Havana and New York.

Chico & Rita is a rather unconventional animation. Every frame is drawn in a technique that qualifies as more than a mere cartoon, it’s art. The drawings employ a very clean graphic style, bold and bright with thick lines. The look and the mood of the era are exquisitely captured. The atmosphere, street scenes, and fashions are quite evocative. The uncharacteristic approach in which the drama takes its time is lovely. The production unfolds at a leisurely pace to tell its tale. Characters move at the deliberate pace of natural people. Their expressions aren’t nearly as detailed as the elaborate backgrounds, but they suggest much more than they show. Nuance and silence aren’t attributes usually associated with a cartoon, but they occur here. Even the sound effects get things just right, from the way the piano tones echo through a room or an idling car engine to footsteps across the floor and the sounds of traffic outside a window, everything has the feel of real life.

The film highlights Latin jazz and the compositions are sumptuous. Anyone with an appreciation for jazz will find much to enjoy here. The moviemakers clearly have a genuine affection for the genre. Spanish director Fernando Trueba who won the Academy Award in 1994 for Belle Époque joins Spanish artist Javier Mariscal and Mariscal’s younger brother Tono Errando, in directing Chico & Rita. Although this is a fictionalized account, artists Tito Puente, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker all make appearances here. These people give the fable a historical truth. Chano Pozo, a conga player in Gillespie’s band, is in a cameo here as well. His untimely death becomes a minor plot point. Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés, wrote the score and plays on the soundtrack as Chico. The movie which contains parts of his own life is dedicated to him. Idania Valdés (no relation) provides Rita’s singing voice. Her performance of “Bésame Mucho” is one of many standouts. Rita is positively seductive. Not since Jessica Rabbit has an animated creation been so sexually suggestive. In case you misunderstand, Chico & Rita is definitely NOT for kids.

The story arc may have the clichéd trajectory of a Behind the Music TV episode, but that’s because so many showbiz careers really have followed that career path. The main characters aren’t particularly likeable but they’re very authentic. They behave like human beings driven by lust and greed. These individuals curse, smoke, do drugs and have sex. They’re not sensitive or cloying.  What they are is a convincing depiction of real people and attitudes of a certain time period. That uniqueness is kind of refreshing. But most of all, this is a love letter to a bygone era made by aficionados who truly appreciate Latin jazz, which was essentially a mixture of bebop and Cuban folk. It’s a visually lush and beguiling re-creation that earned this a surprise Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. The picture draws attention to this beautiful music and I can think of worse things than reveling in these poetic rhythms for 94 minutes.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Posted in Action, Crime, Mystery with tags on September 27, 2011 by Mark Hobin

The year is AD 690 and the Empress Wu Zetian is soon to be inaugurated as China’s first female emperor. Two men in her court have spontaneously burst into flames, leaving just a pile of black ash behind. Apparently Wu Zetian’s ascendancy to the throne is threatened and she must determine who is out to get her. She turns to Dee Renjie (Andy Lau), a detective without peer. She knows he is the only one with the wisdom and the skills to solve this mystery. As speculative fiction, it’s based on the real life Di Renjie, who served as chancellor during Wu Zetian’s reign. Most of the plot unfolds like a whodunit blending mystery with historical drama.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is a eye popping cartoon fantasy. The details are where the spectacle shines. There’s a towering Buddha statue being constructed that is a particularly majestic set piece. The production design is phenomenal. To Western audiences it’s reminiscent of pictures like Crouching Tiger or Hero. But Detective Dee is much more fanciful than either of those flicks. It’s ridiculously over the top, verging on the convoluted actually. The action is a blend of CGI and martial arts and it’s dizzying display that is a wonder to behold. The feature is a comic book brought to life. Not unlike the classic movie serials that were made in the U.S. from the golden age of 1936 to 1945, the narrative has all the hallmarks of those short subjects. We’ve got the hero, the sidekick, the heroine, the heavy. There are multiple cliffhangers, each one more hair-raising than the next. The difference is it’s all done within the context of China during the Tang dynasty. It’s fun to watch but there’s not much depth behind it.

Overall the movie succeeds in spite of its flaws. Wu Zetian, the empress of China, isn’t particularly likeable. She exiled our protagonist in prison for 8 years because she didn‘t like his opinion of her. He’s released solely because she needs his help. The chronicle is criminally overlong and it’s plodding in parts. You’ll feel every single one of those 122 minutes, And yet, there’s a lot of visual style and creativity to love here. How can you not admire a story with a talking stag? The fight choreography is courtesy of master Sammo Hung and it’s powerful, as expected. The whole film is a visually impressive spectacular. Your eyes will be engaged the entire time. Your brain? Not so much. Detective Dee is an enthralling piece of cinematic hokum.

Brighton Rock

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on September 11, 2011 by Mark Hobin

British crime drama tells the story of a juvenile sociopath who seduces a naive waitress who can link him to a murder. Pinkie is an adolescent gangster in Brighton, England whose mob-boss mentor and father figure is semi-accidentally killed by Hale, the enforcer of a rival gang. Pinkie goes to take revenge on the culprit. But before Hale is done away with, a seaside photographer captures an incriminating snapshot of one of Pinkie’s accomplices, Hale the victim, and Rose an innocent bystander, at the pier. Now Pinkie must cozy up to the girl to get her claim ticket for the photo that would connect Hale’s subsequent death to him.

Based on a Graham Green novel, the drama was previously made into a British adaptation back in 1947. But where the novel and original were both set in 1939, this modern re-telling has been updated to 1964. The re-imagining adds to the narrative immensely. There’s a certain stylishness to 1960s era England amidst the clashing Mods and Rockers that’s very appealing. These are hoodlums, but they wear natty suits and ride Italian scooters. It all kind of suggests the British New Wave, a neo-noir thriller if you will.

At the center of the plot is the relationship between Pinkie and Rose. Pinkie Brown is played by Sam Riley. With his angular features and black hair he sort of physically suggests a young Kyle MacLachlan. The 30 year old actor is actually playing a teenager here. It’s a bit of a stretch, but his performance is magnetic enough to carry the suspension of disbelief. The object of his affection is Rose, played by actress Andrea Riseborough, a meek waitress who works in a tea shop. While it’s a portrayal that courts sympathy, I found her to be a most frustrating character. At first her naïveté and social awkwardness was endearing, but then it becomes incomprehensible. She is head over heels in love with a man who shows her little respect. Pinkie’s surliness is relentless. You’ll wonder what she sees in the reprehensible fellow. There is one particularly chilling scene where she implores the gangster youth to pledge his love for her on a vinyl recording. The scene is an eye opener to say the least.

Brighton Rock is highlighted by an expressionistic style that uses shadows, rain and religious iconography to set the mood. These stylish visual flourishes are further complemented by a musical score by award-winning composer Martin Phipps. At once ominous and beautiful, it’s reminiscent of the sumptuous music of a classic 1940s film noir. It’s decidedly old fashioned and I enjoyed how the vocal cues complemented the action on screen. This is the feature debut for screenwriter Rowan Joffé who just happens to be the son of director Roland Joffé (The Killing Fields, The Mission). Talk about pressure. Brighton Rock is not the hard-hitting political story his father is known for, but he does have a way with setting a mood. The evocative music and poetic visuals help dress up a slight story that is still is an excellent character study. There is much to enjoy in this minor, but entertaining period drama.

P.S. For most of the picture I assumed the title referred to a geographical peninsula. It doesn’t, but I won’t spoil that little surprise here.


Posted in Biography, Documentary, Sports with tags on August 30, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Riveting documentary on the life and career of Brazilian Formula One racecar driver Ayrton Senna. Formula One or F1 is the highest class of single seater auto racing sanctioned by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). Senna, who in his ten years of F1 competition won the world championship three times, is widely regarded as one of, if not the greatest F1 driver of all time. The film builds a fairly convincing case of Senna’s importance in the pursuit of racing.

We are presented with an organized and interesting story, enjoyed by the fanatic as well as the casual spectator. Make no mistake, however, it will help to have some interest in auto racing to truly appreciate this biography.  A motorsport enthusiast will find more to love here. Filmmaker Asif Kapadia uses archival footage to show what it’s like to race from the driver’s perspective. These scenes are exhilarating. Formula One cars race at speeds of up to 220 mph (360 km/h). I, not knowing anything about Formula One Racing, gained a real appreciation for the talent and skill needed to be successful. You have to essentially memorize the racetrack because the twists and turns come so fast, it’s impossible to navigate without having some prior knowledge of what’s coming.

Where the picture truly shines is in the narrative which is built entirely from existing footage from Senna’s life. Director Asif Kapadia pored through thousands of hours of film to assemble the brilliantly edited piece of filmmaking here. Senna initially began his career with racing go-karts as a teenager. It clearly was a pivotal time in his life because it laid the groundwork for his life’s passion. He refers to kart racing as the purest form of the sport where politics played no part. He wistfully recalls those days a couple times during the story. We get to know the man directly and his own words largely form the structure of his story. When new narration is inserted, it’s underlying original footage of the era. Through brilliantly assembled archival footage we are introduced to the man and offered a window into his personality. He often comes off as surprisingly humble. Given his triumphs I would have expected a much more boastful individual.

His fierce patriotism is emotionally affecting. It’s inspiring to behold what he meant to Brazil, where he remains a national hero. Brazil didn’t have the greatest image as it was suffering through terrible times. But he reflected his Brazilian roots with joy. He brought honor and acclaim to his nation. After every victory he would take his lap of honor waving the Brazilian flag. Perhaps his most emotional race was the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix. Surrounded by his countrymen, it was an event Senna was overjoyed to win. His pride is infectious.

Director Kapadia has a respectful almost fawning reverence for Senna that sometimes gets in the way of an impartial depiction. This is where the biography falls short.  We’re invited to side with Senna in his intense rivalry with French World Champion Alain Prost. Of course what would his story be without a nemesis? But Prost, with his smooth, relaxed style, doesn‘t seem particularly hateful. He was rather successful however, ultimately becoming a Formula One Drivers’ Champion, four-times. Also Senna’s clashes with Jean-Marie Balestre, president of the FIA from 1985 to 1993, contribute to his grievances. It‘s during these moments Senna appears aloof and frustrated with the pastime. All of these controversies flesh out the profile of a man essentially in love with, but occasionally disheartened with the sport. It’s a stunning portrait and the documentary overall is absorbing from beginning to end. The tension climaxes to a momentous event at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. It’s an emotional conclusion, one you won’t soon forget.

Point Blank

Posted in Action, Crime, Thriller with tags on August 23, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Samuel Pierret is a nurse who walks in on the attempted murder of Hugo Sartet, a gunshot victim at the hospital. His quick thinking saves  the man in question. Later while bragging how he was a hero to his spouse, Hugo’s henchmen invade his home, knock him out cold and kidnap his pregnant wife. They are now holding her hostage until Samuel goes back to the hospital and frees Hugo, a man now under police surveillance, so they can finish the job. Apparently the heavys  are finished with the guy. Well paced suspense is a non-stop race through the subways and streets of Paris. It never lets up.

At a lean and mean 84 minutes, this thriller moves quickly and efficiently, providing excitement at a serviceable pace. Despite the French subtitles, this isn’t art house cinema. It’s about thrills, not script. Director Fred Cavayé’ clearly has one eye on Hollywood. The story unfolds very much like one of Liam Neeson’s recent vehicles like Taken or Unknown. The director’s debut, 2008’s Anything for Her, was even remade as The Next Three Days. Ironically that remake actually featured Liam Neeson in a supporting role.

There is little doubt in my mind that this picture will be remade as well, but don’t wait for the substandard remake. See the original in all it’s glory for the cast is quite good here. There’s a surprising amount of character development for a genre movie of this sort. Actor Gilles Lellouche stars as the likable protagonist pushed to break the law to save his wife. Roschdy Zem, a French actor of Moroccan descent, is Hugo Sartet, the thief he is forced to secure. I kept seeing Vin Diesel in the part, but Sartet is no indestructible action hero, his part is more subtle than that. Their interaction is a big part of what makes the plot so compelling. Also rounding out the main roles is Spanish actress Elena Anaya as his wife/damsel in distress and Gérard Lanvin as crooked Paris police commander Patrick Werner.

Point Blank is an above average action thriller. It’s not the first time you’ll watch an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, but it’s always a solid basis for a script. Director Fred Cavayé started as a fashion and advertising photographer. His training imbues the operation with style and flair. It’s probably only a matter of time before he’s invited to the U.S. to start making pictures there. Based on his first and only two films, I’d say sooner is better than later.


Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on August 21, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Based on fact, this is the true story of one Betty Anne Waters who decides to get her GED, then complete college and law school in an effort to exonerate her brother who has been condemned to life in prison. Kenny Waters was convicted and sentenced in 1983 for the 1980 murder of Katharina Brow in Ayer, Massachusetts.

In many ways this your standard potential miscarriage of justice drama. A docudrama, slickly mounted, well acted and produced. Initially, what lifts the study above “fighting the system” background is the ambiguousness of it all. Whether her brother committed the crime, is a question up for debate through most of the picture and wisely not answered until the very end. Kenny is good to Betty Anne, but he isn’t particularly likeable. The evidence, though circumstantial, relies on three witness that greatly tip the scales toward his guilt. Actresses Melissa Leo, Clea DuVall and Juliette Lewis are the testimony that form the foundation against her brother. They’re all excellent, but Lewis gives a particularly kooky scene stealing performance. Uncovering the hows and whys of the case are a big part of what keeps the action interesting.

But what ultimately raises Conviction beyond your conventional “triumph over adversity” account, is the acting. Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell are Betty Anne and Kenny, respectively. As siblings they convey a deep bond as family who have grown up together and remained close into adulthood. We see them as kids and then as adults, willingly supporting each other at various points throughout. Their portrayals are genuine and engaging. Betty Anne’s devotion to her brother is the emotional connection that causes the viewer to be invested in this material.

Director Tony Goldwyn will always be best remembered as playing the villain, Carl Bruner, in Ghost. But he has also directed a significant number of TV shows including The L Word, Grey’s Anatomy and Dexter. He’s a workmanlike director and his comfortableness with TV often pushes the proceedings here into Lifetime movie territory . At times the plot can appear a bit simplistic in the way it unfolds. Great performances are what elevates the melodramatic script to something much more powerful. Impressive depictions from a talented cast make Conviction a film to believe in.


Posted in Comedy, Drama, Horror with tags on August 17, 2011 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketBizarre tale of a rubber tire that inexplicably goes on a murderous rampage. In the beginning he can barely roll without falling over. The he begins destroying things. He starts slowly, first crushing only an aluminum can, then later a scorpion. The tension builds until he starts killing people, causing their heads to psychokinetically explode. Anthropomorphizing something as nondescript as a tire is no easy task. It has no discernible face, legs or arms. It can only roll around to convey personality and intent. In this case it also visibly shakes whenever it’s about to strike. The cinematography is stunning, the music is vibrant. The production certainly has style.

Director Quentin Dupieux originally made a name for himself under the pseudonym Mr. Oizo. A French techno musician, he had success with an instrumental track called “Flat Beat” in 1999 which went all the way to #1 in the UK. In fact the multi-layered variety of music is one of the movie’s best features. Here he teams up with Gaspard Augé of electronic music duo Justice to create the genre hopping soundtrack. The director appropriates a 70s ethos that recalls Steven Spielberg’s 1971 made-for-TV classic, Duel. Part horror, part comedy, the cinema is probably best characterized as experimental. The type of offering a college student majoring in film studies might submit as their senior thesis. It’s rather offbeat and absurd.

An interesting idea could have been brilliant but the story wears out its welcome with a lack of story and self conscious artistic touches. You see some of the participants are aware they are in a picture. Actor Stephen Spinella as Lieutenant Chad address the audience early on and expresses a “no reason” philosophy of many movies (including this one, I presume). Other actors are members of a crowd watching from the sidelines with binoculars commenting on the action. Those conceits are less successful than when the tire is just acting under its own power. Confusion, anger, despair, even love – the tire feels all of these. It’s simply 82 minutes of surrealism. The brilliance of the script is that you actually believe it has these emotions.


Posted in Biography, Documentary with tags on August 1, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Documentarian extraordinaire, Errol Morris turns his attention to the authentic story of a former Miss Wyoming. Her obsession with her one true love compelled her to venture to Europe to find the man who mysteriously disappeared from her life. The title refers to the British tabloids that had a field day with the scandal back in 1977. “The Manacled Mormon” was how the case came to be known. “Kinky sex, religion, a beauty queen, Mormon missionaries, forcibly kidnapped. There was something in that story for everyone. It was a perfect tabloid story,” affirms a tabloid reporter. Apparently it dominated the English tabloid papers in the late 1970s, but I have yet to encounter someone in the US who was familiar with the crime before this movie came out. No matter. The account is a perfect example of how “truth is stranger than fiction”.

Errol Morris’ unbiased presentation of the facts, or at least how the principals see them, is riveting. On the one hand, there is a woman who claims she went to England to rescue her husband from the Mormons who brainwashed him. On the other hand, you have a man who alleges he was kidnapped at gunpoint, then raped while shacked to a bed. Perhaps reality is somewhere in the middle as one ex-Mormon suggests.  He recounts how the church exploited the controversy as an ominous reminder of the feminine wiles of the fairer sex. Despite the sensational and salacious details, the tone is clearly tongue in cheek. The information is presented with animations and collages that recreate scenes and old film stock that illustrates the points being made. They’re humorous and keep things interesting . However, none of that even comes close to being as affecting as the conversations with the woman at the center of the situation.

Only 6 people are questioned, but boy does Morris makes those interviews count. They each help clarify a most bewildering matter. Joyce McKinney is quite a character. At times she seems humorously charismatic, at others pathetically delusional. I suppose it’s those contrasts that make her statements so fascinating. There’s also Jackson Shaw, the pilot she hired to fly her to England, the Daily Express reporter Peter Tory who covered the exploits back then, ex-Mormon missionary Troy Williams, the photographer for the Daily Mirror Kent Gavin, and lastly Dr. Hong the scientist in Korea who cloned her beloved dog years later. None of these people can be considered a reliable narrator, but Morris isn’t really concerned with authenticating anyone’s story. They’re all presented as mere parts to a larger puzzle that the viewer must assemble and understand. Markedly absent is Kirk Anderson, the object of her desire. Sadly he is never interviewed as he (not surprisingly) declined to be interviewed for this feature. Although even his absence sheds some light on the events in question.

In the end, we really aren’t any closer to a certainty than we were in the beginning. It’s not even clear what the director thinks about his subject. But  Morris definitely shows an interest in his topic that comes through.  The drama is intriguing and worthy of his talent.  Tabloid may not have the sense of importance of his best work, but it is entertaining and well produced. It’s like a good mystery that lacks an ending that neatly explains everything. In a documentary, that’s actually kind of admirable.