Thursday, 28 July 2011

Arrietty (借りぐらしのアリエッティ) Review

Arrietty (借りぐらしのアリエッティ) 

When I think of ‘The Borrowers’ I always remember the 1997 film adaptation by Peter Hewitt, starring Jim Broadbent, John Goodman and the then young Tom Felton. However Studio Ghibli’s version is a much restrained and beautiful approach to Mary Norton’s novel. Winning the ‘Animation of the Year’ award at the 34th Japan Academy Prize, Arrietty has been largely successful in Japan. Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a key animator for Studio Ghibli, this is his directorial debut, and it’s a great start for the young film maker. 

Set in Koganei, outside Tokyo, the story follows a 12 year-old boy named Sho, who is suffering from a heart illness. He is visiting his great aunt’s house which is also home to a family of ‘borrowers’. ‘Borrowers’ are 10cm tall people, who ‘borrow’ from the household in order to survive. Arrietty (Mirai Shida), her father Pod (Tomokazu Miura) and mother Homily (Shinobu Ohtake) have recently settled down in their comfortable refuge. However, Arrietty’s first experience of ‘borrowing’ unfortunately leads to their discovery. Paranoid about the danger resulting from being found, the family decide to move. Yet, Sho and Arrietty form a dangerous friendship that is being threatened by the maid of the house, Haru. 
Arrietty’s plot is simple with a light-hearted and gradual pacing. With fewer characters when compared to the likes of Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away,  Arrietty is intended to be a more character developed and focused story. However my problem with the film comes in the form of the Japanese voice-acting which is usually solid in a Studio Ghibli production. The cast is filled with Ghibli ‘regulars’ and well known Japanese names. Kirin Kiki who plays Haru, the suspicious and intrusive maid, is fantastically villainous in her performance. Mirai Shida also performs well as the youthful voice of Arrietty with a charming and whimsical grasp of the character. However the characters of Spiller, Pod and Sho fail to really develop and aren’t very memorable. Their limited personalities and lack-lustre voice work definitely hinders the film, somewhat contrasting with the joyful and captivating temperament created by the stunning visuals, soundtrack and other performances. 
However, what Studio Ghibli always gets right is its beautiful animation. From the gorgeous backgrounds, to the simplistic yet emotive facial expressions of the characters, the various animators and artists have outdone themselves. There’s a real richness to each ‘shot’, with a colourful palette and incredible intricacy to every minor detail.  The difference in scale and atmosphere between the environments of the human characters and that of the ‘Borrowers’ is elegantly designed and composed. The result is a ‘world’ that only the imaginative and unique qualities of animation could truly portray. Soundtrack-wise, Arrietty’s score and theme song have been composed by French musician, Cécile Corbel. Taking influence from traditional Celtic music, it’s a brave departure from the usual works of Joe Hisaishi. However it’s a fantastically composed score that perfectly mirrors the visual richness of the film. The predominant use of the harp gives a calming, angelic tone that does well to enhance the delicate essence of Arrietty’s world. 
Overall Arrietty is a delightful film that is a fantastic debut for the youngest director of a Studio Ghibli film. Hiromasa Yonebayashi has crafted an animated picture that is full of colour and emotion. However its simplistic story and dialogue, whilst accommodates for a younger audience, doesn’t hold the subtle complexities as seen in other Studio Ghibli works like Only Yesterday or Whisper of the Heart. But that doesn’t stop Arrietty from being a thoroughly enjoyable animated film. Highly Recommended

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Sucker Punch Review

Sucker Punch 

Zack Snyder has had mixed success in his filmography. Gaining fame for 300, he has been quick to show that he is a director who uses a more stylistic approach to film-making. This was further reinforced with his average adaptation of the influential Watchman graphic novel. Whilst many have praised his films, I have always been a bit apprehensive towards his work. Style and cinematography have significant roles in cinema. From the likes of Hitchcock to Ridley Scott, camera-work, editing and lighting, used right, can create great atmosphere and tension. However, like Bay, Snyder has opted for CGI and ‘slow motion’, therefore accumulating the weaknesses and flaws that comes with that style of directing. And the problems are clear in Sucker Punch. Everything is just bad; story, characters, acting, dialogue, even the CGI is unimpressive. It’s a huge mess that suffers from the lack of variety in Zack Snyder’s directing. 
The plot follows Baby Doll (Emily Browning) and her tragic imprisonment in a mental asylum after accidentally killing her sister. She is to be lobotomised in 5 days, thus she hatches a plan to break out using ‘a map, fire, a knife, and a key’. With help from her fellow female ‘nut jobs’, they enter various dreams or trance sequences to seduce the guards and take the items. It’s all set up in a sort of ‘video-game’ structure with levels and end bosses. All it needs is a health bar and an inventory. 
It’s simply a giant mess, with weak character development and an ending that doesn’t make sense.  The dream sequences attempt to dazzle with full-blown action scenes featuring nazi-zombies and robots. But they soon become dull, uninspiring and stupid. The ‘Japanese school-girl, samurai’ sequence, while initially ludicrous, goes full blown lunacy when giant, samurai ‘demons’ are introduced with rocket launchers and mini-guns. The same goes for the implementation of ‘mechs’ in the WWI-esque battle with the ‘Nazis’(?)  Oh..........and there’s a dragon. It’s all ridiculous and over-blown, to where it simply gets boring. The time period of the film is also all over the place. There’s 50/60s noir and fashion intertwined with 80s music, which has been modernised through the various terrible covers. As well as getting the time periods confused, Snyder also fails to convey his intended “empowerment of young females” and women in general. It’s hard to see that when the actresses are dressed in lingerie and skimpy outfits, whilst ‘escaping’ to a burlesque/ brothel environment. And if that statement was intended to attract a strong female audience, then the marketing team and Snyder seemed to miss the point. In the end, it plays into the cinematic tastes of young teenagers who play too many video games and love Bay’s Transformers.
Acting-wise, it’s not good but it looks pretty. Emily Browning who impressed in Lemony Snicket’s: A Series of Unfortunate Events, fails to do anything here, except look fantastic. This is the same for the majority of the actresses who fail to bring any background or personality into the film. Abby Cornish, who gave a great performance in Limitless, nowhere near reaches those levels. Instead she is wooden, and plays the cliché apprehensive, bossy character. The dire High School Musical series has been Vanessa Hudgens claim to fame and she digs herself into a deeper hole in Sucker Punch. Her basic performance fails to impress, and being released in the same year as Beastly, her career needs a fresh start. The rest of the girls are never truly developed; Jena Malone’s character has a substantial part to play, but she doesn’t perform well. Scott Glenn is absolutely terrible in this picture, playing a ‘mentor’ or guide for the girls within the dream sequences, he spurts off confusing advice, morals and god-awful lines. It’s crystal clear that acting, plot and dialogue took a back seat, therefore allowing style to take over.
As with all of Snyder’s work, CGI and special effects play a predominant role. But it’s used far too much in Sucker Punch to the point where it isn’t stunning and it’s used for the most simplest things. Even a shot of a car driving is rendered in CGI. The problem with this is that everything looks fake and the screen is over-saturated with explosions, people, dragons, nazis, and gunfire. Snyder also add his usual over-the-top use of slow motion which remains pointless and does nothing to sort this bloody mess of a film. 
Overall Sucker Punch is a teenager’s ‘wet dream’; action-packed and sexy. However while the actresses look the part, the acting is terrible and so too is the script. Snyder’s overuse of slow-motion has become tiresome, yet he still remains adamant that he’s onto a winner. The CGI isn’t anything special and the overall style of the film is confusing. Everything about this film fails to be interesting or entertaining, and that’s a major problem for a blockbuster action film. With Zack Snyder directing the new Superman film, I’m seriously worried about his vision towards an iconic piece of culture. Lets pray that by 2012/3 he has gained a much more wider understanding of film and cinema, and doesn’t stick to his stupid, boring ways. 

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

From Kokuriko Hill (コクリコ坂から) Review

From Kokuriko Hill (コクリコ坂から) or (From Up On Poppy Hill)

I'm currently on holiday in Japan, thus was fortunate to see the new Studio Ghibli film. Here is my review: 

Gorō Miyazaki returns after his ‘not so impressive’ Tales from Earthsea in 2006, with a wonderful adaptation of Tetsuo Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi’s 1980s manga. After gaining negative reaction, including winning the ‘Worst Movie’ and ‘Worst Director’ awards in the 2006 Japan’s Bunshun Raspberry Award, many have been apprehensive towards Gorō’s next project. This criticism has certainly hurt Gorō reputation, but it all seems too critical. Many seem to forget that Tales from Earthsea was his directorial debut, and with his father being the great Hayao Miyazaki, it was always going to be tough for Gorō to make a spectacular first impression. However From Kokuriko Hill is a fantastic addition to Studio Ghibli’s strong filmography and certainly proves Gorō Miyazaki has enough cinematic and animation knowledge to work under the prestigious banner. It’s charming, funny and refreshing after the constant magical and fantasy approach of the studio, and Japanese animation in general. 
The story takes place in Yokohama in 1963, where we follow High-School student, Umi Komatsuzaki. She looks after her grandmother, younger brother and sister, whilst completing the housework. Each morning she raises her ‘Safe Voyage’ flag, and heads to school. After witnessing a stunt by the ‘Culture Club’, Umi meets Shu, a fellow student who is ‘second-in-command’ of the club, and Shirou, the President of the Student Council. It is this new found friendship and relationship between Shu and Umi which builds and matures revealing an intertwining background and charming romance. Alongside this character-driven story is the struggle occurring between the high-school and the various students of the ‘Culture Club’. The dilapidated building filled with history and memories is being threatened to be demolished. It’s up to the students to convince the ‘adults’ that their creation and interests are preserved. 
Written by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, the story is realistic and historic in theme. Gone are the cutesy, magical monsters and characters, as well as the environmental commentaries Studio Ghibli is best known for. Instead From Kokuriko Hill deals with the ‘Rise of Post-War Japan’ and the incoming Tokyo Olympics. The film certainly creates a fitting atmosphere. Shots of Japan’s growing exporting and importing industries, office businesses and the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, clearly indicate the modern transformation of the country. We also experience the tragic nature of the Korean War and the impact on families and friends. The story also focuses on the widening gap/ split between traditional Japanese culture and the modern, business age. It was during this ‘miracle’ period where Japan looked forward, rather than back, and the contest between the ‘school’ and the ‘students’ dramatise this theme. The contrast between the old buildings and industries of Yokohama, and the trains, cars of Tokyo symbolise the changing ideologies and philosophies of the nation.
While it may sound very mature when compared to previous Studio Ghibli’s films, it still deals with adolescents in a adult world, like Nausicaa and Laputa. However whilst magical characters and mysticism connect with the imaginations of children, From Kokuriko Hill uses its high-school environment and the sincere, pure nature of childhood relations to connect with younger audiences. It’s the characters that help with the portrayal of the story and the bring these environments and themes to the screen. And they are fantastic. While not as memorable when compared to the likes of Chihiro (Spirited Away) and Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro), they still possess enough personality and charm for the audience to care for them. We are introduced to various different students, all whom have different personalities. However the film focuses on the main characters of Umi and Shu and therefore unfortunately leads to other characters not being fully explored or developed to the same extent. Umi is beautifully portrayed and developed. Her calm, mature exterior hides her damaged background. We experience the loss of her father, and the growing pressure and responsibility she has gained with her mother studying abroad. Meanwhile, the strong-willed, charming personality of Shu, also obscures an uncertain background that becomes clearer with the relationship with Umi. Gorō and the writers have carefully constructed the characters and story, achieving a steady pace that allows for a deeper exploration into From Kokuriko Hill’s world. 
The film looks amazing. After the spectacular animation of the previous Studio Ghibli production Arrietty The Borrower, it would seem impossible to top the artistic achievement of that film. However From Kokuriko Hill manages to. With its detailed interiors and sublime visual portrayal of Yokohama and the coast, its simply jaw-dropping to see the painstaking animation, artistic competence and talent that was involved in creating such an beautiful film. Clever sequences of animation liven up dull scenes like climbing stairs, as the ‘camera’ constantly follows the characters rather than having still ‘shots’. Alongside the fantastic animation is the soundtrack which is brilliant as always. Satoshi Takebe mixes long-flowing orchestral pieces with lively, jazz-like tunes like those of Kiki’s Delivery Service. It all adds personality to each scene without over-powering or distracting from the visual nature of the picture. Aoi Teshima ‘Summer of Farewells’ is a fantastic theme song, that remains in the memory well after the end of the film. 
Overall, From Kokuriko Hill is a wonderful piece of animated cinema that certainly shows Gorō Miyazaki growing talent. Not only is it a beautiful work of art and song, but it’s a triumph in story-telling and character development. While it isn’t as memorable as the likes of My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away, and moves away from the magical essence of Studio Ghibli, it is still is impressively constructed and directed. And with the unfortunate inevitability that Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki won’t be around forever, it is reassuring that young artists and directors are successfully proving themselves as the future of Studio Ghibli. 

Note :Unfortunately an international release date has yet to be decided. Therefore I imagine the USA and UK won’t get a chance to see this spectacle until 2012. 

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2D) Review

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2D)

The Transformers franchise never featured heavily in my childhood. I was too young to watch the original TV series and too old to watch the various recent versions. However after being dragged to see the Michael Bay films, it was inevitable that I would have to finish this trilogy (hopefully it stays a trilogy). Bay is a simple director. CGI, explosions, hot women, racial stereotypes and little plot, are trademarks of the money-making director. From the awful Pearl Harbour to the acceptable The Rock, there is little that gets film critics craving to see his next feature. Yet, whilst he fails to gain ‘critical acclaim’, he is continuously scoring at the box office. Transformers: Dark of the Moon will undoubtedly achieve in profits, but fails to fix the flaws of the past two films. The story is rubbish, the acting is terrible, and no amount of CGI and special effects can solve the glaring problems with the picture. 
The plot is based around the Apollo 11 mission back in the 1960s. In the 21 minute communication blackout, a mission was completed to investigate a spaceship crash on the Moon. It turns out the spacecraft was ‘The Ark’ which was the secret weapon that was going to help the Autobots win the War of Cybertron. Meanwhile Sam Witwicky is jobless but feels he has a greater purpose with the Autobots. Its a race against time as both the Decepticons and Autobots attempt to gain control of this ‘weapon’.  The ‘plot’ is weak with problems all over the place and questions that remain unanswered. Wasn’t Cybertron destroyed? There are Transformers on the Moon? What happened to the Rail-gun the army had? How many bloody Transformers are there? Where did all these new Auto-Bots come from? No writer and director is stupid enough to not be aware of the multitude of glaring plot-holes. But Transformers: Dark of the Moon proves wrong as it fails to tie up the loose ends of the previous films and those in this third instalment. Bay attempts to use action set-pieces to hide them, which doesn’t fix the feature but merely creates more questions. But plot isn’t what the majority of the Transformers fans are after. Gunfire, explosion, transforming robots and more explosions have attracted millions to experience Michael Bay’s ‘blockbusters’. What the first Transformers did well was to manage the amount of dialogue and ‘drama’, with ‘sci-fi’ and pure action. The end climax was entertaining and not overzealous, even with the weak plot. In Dark of the Moon, Bay implements more CGI and more explosions, that whilst serves the young audience, get a bit too tired and becomes a grind. 
The CGI is certainly spectacular. The scale of destruction during the never-ending final battle is amazing. Buildings fall down, vehicles explode and Transformers..... transform. Its all impressive but a little too much. The final confrontation goes on forever with various ‘crescendos’ and completely pointless scenes. It becomes a test of patience as Transformers die, people die and character suddenly appear. As well as the constant stream of CGI action, Bay uses slow-motion way too much. We’re not talking ‘Zack Snyder’ levels, but it gets old quickly. Every-time Optimus Prime or Bumble Bee transform, it goes into slow-motion, car jumps are in slow motion, there is even slow motion walking. One scene in particular; where Rosie Huntington-White stands in the middle of the street whilst slow-mo gun-fire and explosions are going off, it is so over-dramatic it’s just stupid. However CGI and special effects don’t make a film, and definitely not a good one. Instead the film attempts to introduce Bay’s understanding of ‘drama’ and ‘comedy’, and it falls flat on its face. John Malkovich and Ken Jeong have been introduced in an attempt to add character and comedic relief. But they both fail terribly. Both are annoying with Malkovich’s role being absolutely pointless, and Jeong acting his usual cringeworthy self. Racist caricatures have been avoided, however stereotypes are still featured: Terence Gibson has a ‘crew’ equipped with military gear, all driving black 4X4s, and has dialogue that includes ‘This is whack!!!’.   

This links into the fact that the acting is dreadful. Good performance such as Frances McDormand’s are few, as we are introduced to so many different characters that fail to be developed and are seemingly unnecessary. Shia LeBeouf is dull and uninspiring as usual. His role consists of screaming, having a hissy-fit and crying. It’s really awkward when the audience is supposed to route for a weak lead character, in amongst giant robots and military folk.  Rosie Huntington-White attempts to take over the romantic role that Megan Fox had in the original two films. She adds little to the plot and her acting can’t be taken seriously. She’s there purely for show, and Bay makes sure of that with endless shots of her ‘curves’. And when she does have a say in the plot, it is far too late, far too obscure and doesn’t make sense. John Turturro needs a new agent and to think about his acting career. And why is Patrick Dempsey in this film?...... he’s poor anyway. The acting isn’t helped by the terrible script that tries to be funny and dramatic. It ends up being obvious and lazy, clearly the special effects came first. 
Overall Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a boring, plot-hole ridden, mess of a film. Bay has attempted to eliminate the mistakes of Revenge of the Fallen, but Dark of the Moon still remains heavily flawed. The script is terribly cliché and lack-lustre, the characters are wooden and fail to be interesting. The action scenes are spectacular but go on for far too long and it has a stupid title for a film. It is inevitable that Dark of the Moon will be successful at the box office, but it is definitely not a good film. While it is better than Revenge of the Fallen, that would hopefully not be a challenge for any sane director and writer. And I guess the film does everything you’d expect from a Transformers film, and that doesn’t rate highly in my opinion. Lets hope that this will be the end of the  awful franchise.