Friday, September 26, 2014

The Triplets of Belleville Review

Upon seeing the trailer for The Triplets of Belleville (2003) I was captivated by the remarkable and surreal animation. I discovered it around the same time I found The Secret of Kells and only now got around to it since it became available on NetFlix Instant Play. The animation of each movie are worlds apart from each other, but were made by a common studio. It's a pretty weird movie, but it's really good as well.
Madame Souza, an elderly woman, instills in her grandson, Champion (for who she acts as his guardian), a love of cycling. As a young man, he does become a dedicated road racer with his grandmother as his trainer. During a mountainous leg of the Tour de France in which Champion is racing, he goes missing. Evidence points to him being kidnapped. Indeed, he and two of his competitors were kidnapped; the kidnappers want to use the threesome's unique skills for nefarious purposes. With champion's overweight and faithful pet dog Bruno at her side, Madame Souza goes looking for Champion. Their trek takes them overseas to the town of Belleville. Without any money, Madame Souza and Bruno are befriended and taken in by three eccentric elderly women, who were once the renowned jazz singing group The Triplets of Belleville. The triplets help Madame Souza and Bruno hatch some ridiculous schemes to try to locate and rescue Champion.
Contrary to my usual pattern, you'll notice I haven't listed any cast credits. The reason for that is there is basically no dialogue in The Triplets of Belleville. You hear some characters chuckle every now and then, but that's about the extent of any vocalization. There are voice actors credited to the movie, but it doesn't specify who they were supposed to have played. Along the same vein as Wall-E, this is essentially a modern silent film, though Triplets has even less dialogue. None of the characters actually speak; the majority of the film is told through song and pantomime. As such, the characters are very expressive even when silent. It's simply amazing how much story is told without any major speaking roles.
The Triplets of Belleville was written, directed, and designed by French comic writer, animator, and film director Sylvain Chomet. His style of animation is positively fascinating to watch. It's full of intricate details, surreal characters, meticulous designs, and gloriously smooth movement both subtle and overt. Many of the characters here have odd proportions that I found distracting at first, such as enormous noses that would probably keep them from seeing properly. Yet it was animated in such a way that as I watched these characters move and go about their business, the distinction between animation and live action becomes less obvious. They move in such a realistic and believable way that at length you forget it's animated if not for the grotesquely proportioned characters. Champion, for example, has large bulging thighs and calves from biking so much, but his upper body is whip thin. I also liked how the villain's henchmen were animated as if it was one large rectangular person when walking side-by-side.
While I generally enjoy foreign films, I don't have a lot of experience with French films specifically. There is a stereotype that French films tend to be slow paced. On the one hand The Triplets of Belleville gets a good story told in only an hour and twenty minutes, but on the other hand it thankfully doesn't move at the insane dizzying speed of most American animated features aimed at kids. Because of the usual breakneck pace of American animated features, most American viewers will probably expect loud, eccentric tempo in any animated movie. The Triplets of Belleville will seem slow-moving by comparison, but it's not dull or uninteresting. The movie is rated PG-13 for "images involving sensuality, violence and crude humor," which seems a little harsh to me, although there are a couple of images I wouldn't expect most parents of young kids to wish for them to see. There's a brief shot of a topless woman in an early scene. While not exactly sexual, the only thing I can think to say to explain it is it's a French film.
The Triplets of Belleville mocks animation studios that exclusively do 3-D CGI movies these days. The animation is beautiful, the imagery is surreal, and the funny and quirky characters are engaging. Sylvain Chomet's unique style makes this film all the more interesting to watch. It has a slower pace than most bombastic American animated movies and it's basically a silent film. That might put off some viewers, but if you can get around that, I highly recommend seeing this obscure gem. It was up for Best Animated Feature but lost to Finding Nemo. This has a 94% on It's worth seeing at least once.

Here's the trailer for The Triplets of Belleville so you can get a taste for the animation:

Sylvain Chomet recently did a guest animated "couch gag" on The Simpsons not long ago you can check that out here if you like:

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Brothers Grimm Review

I had missed seeing The Brothers Grimm (2005) in theaters. On the one hand that's a shame because I loved the movie's concept, but on the other hand I'm not too upset since it wasn't as good as I had hoped. Nevertheless, this is a Terry Gilliam movie, and as such it's chockfull of visual splendor that is gorgeous to behold.
Will Grimm (Matt Damon) and his brother Jake Grimm (Heath Ledger) earn their living by traveling from village to village and vanquishing strange supernatural beasts that have been menacing the populace. Or at least that's what their clients think has been happening. As it so happens, Will and Jake are confidence men who cleverly stage the ghostly attacks and then take payment for making the creatures they fabricate go away. One day, the brothers arrive in a town and offer to help its people drive away evil spirits, unaware that the community is bordered by a genuine enchanted forest, and that young girls in the village have been disappearing at a frightful rate. The Grimm Brothers must now learn how to deal with real magic, with the help of the lovely but fearless Angelika (Lena Headey).
For The Brothers Grimm, both Matt Damon and Heath Ledger were counter typecast which was a great move. Typically Ledger played the brawny action sort of character while Damon often played the more timid, bookish characters. Here it's the other way around and they both did an excellent job in their counter typecast roles. Interestingly, Johnny Depp was Gilliam's first choice for the role of Will but the producer believed that Depp was not yet commercially famous enough for the role. No doubt the movie's producer was kicking himself since half way through the production Pirates of the Caribbean came out and Depp was suddenly a big success and everyone wanted him.
Typical of Terry Gilliam movies, each shot is so crammed full of beautiful details it's almost hard to take it all in at once. There's so much to see and it is always framed in such a remarkable attention-grabbing way that it's hard to take your eyes off the screen. There is a lot of decent CGI work (for its day) coupled with an excellent array of practical effects and detailed sets. The opening scene where  the Grimm brothers are "exorcizing" a ghostly witch looked fantastic; it looks eerie, chilling, and sets pretty high standard visually for the rest of the movie.
Unfortunatly, that's about where the good qualities end. The kindest way I can think to describe The Brothers Grimm is messy. The story feels haphazardly put together; most scenes work well enough individually, but feel awkward and disjointed when juxtaposed against one another. You get a feel for what the movie is trying to do, but for all the visual splendor, it remains essentially inert. You keep waiting for something to happen, and when it does, it seems to neglect to move the story or characters forward in any significant way. While the visuals will easily enchant, the story spins its wheels and fails to go very far.
One of the fun parts of the movie is watching for many nods to classic fairy tales strewn throughout the movie. They tend to be slightly different from the tales they reference. Little Red Riding Hood is referenced only by her red cape, the heroic woodsman is an evil henchmen, the Big Bad Wolf is a large wolf instead of a diabolical personification, and The Gingerbread Man (not actually a Brothers Grimm story, in the first place) is an incarnation of a mud monster. There are many more references that are fun to look for. Still, this is a very dark movie and many of the fairy tale references are remarkably creepy or unsettling. This isn't something I'd recommend watching with young children present.
The Brothers Grimm was disappointing, but still has a certain appeal. It looks fantastic and had lots of potential to be a great movie. But the weak characters and story tend to spoil many of the good qualities. Nevertheless, I think The Brothers Grimm is twice as good as most people say it is, but still only half as good as we were all hoping it would be. The visuals are rich and a treat to behold; I think that's what stands out most about this movie. I find myself reflecting upon the splendid visual effects and camera work periodically which makes me think I should get a copy of the movie just to watch the pretty pictures once in a long while. I recommend seeing The Brothers Grimm only because Terry Gilliam has such masterful skill when it comes to cinema imagery. If you're put off by weak characters and sketchy plot (like I usually am) You're better off passing on this otherwise forgettable movie.

What was your favorite Brothers Grimm story as a kid? Comment below and let me know!

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Hundred-Foot Journey

In light of recent major blockbuster action movies some other movies have been eclipsed by things like Guardians of theGalaxy, The Giver, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and others. Smaller, less bombastically advertised movies were overlooked. When I told friends I was seeing The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014) no one had heard of it. But since it's a foodie movie, the trailer piqued my interest and I'm glad I caught it in theaters.
Coming from a family of talented cooks, Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal) has a life filled with both culinary delights and profound loss. Drifting through Europe after fleeing political violence in India that killed the family restaurant business and their mother, the Kadams arrive in France. Once there, a chance auto accident and the kindness of a young woman, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), in the village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val inspires Papa Kadam (Om Puri) to set up an Indian restaurant there. Unfortunately, this puts the Kadams in direct competition with the snobbish Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) and her acclaimed haute cuisine establishment across the street where Marguerite also works as a sous-chef. The resulting rivalry eventually escalates in personal intensity until it goes too far.
The Hundred-Foot Journey practically demands that you take it seriously. It's cram-packed full of feel good themes and multicultural understanding, as if to stress "this is something important!" It even comes with the official stamp of approval from media proprietor Oprah Winfrey and legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg, both of whom are producers for the movie. The Hundred-Foot Journey clearly has artistic ambitions and is probably trying to pander to the Oscar judges. While the movie is certainly well crafted, well acted, and undoubtedly enjoyable, it is also conventional and predictable. The movie is about opening up your senses and sampling exotic tastes, but this comic drama plays everything a bit too safe to the point that it's a bit bland at times.
One of the best parts of the movie is the interplay between Helen Mirren and Om Puri as battling restaurant owners operating across the street from each other - one hundred feet away from each other to be exact, a short but fraught trip that various characters take for various reasons. Watching these veteran actors stoop to sabotage each other provides a constant source of laughs and a few shocking moments; I gasped more than a few times at the audacity each character demonstrates and the undermining stunts they pull. Mme. Mallory is all sharp angles, piercing looks, and biting quips; Papa is all round joviality, boisterous blasts, and warmhearted optimism. Their constant squabbling is the only tension in this soft and gooey dish, until the third act when the film goes all soft and gooey.
Hassan enjoys a flirtatious relationship with Marguerite which is cute but bland and fairly predictable. They do look lovely together and share a light but enjoyable chemistry. Hassan and Marguerite's storyline eventually takes the helm and steers the story in an unexpected direction that feels out of place with most everything that came before it. It all fits back together again by the end and results in a happy little movie that most anyone could enjoy.
This was a beautifully filmed movie. We get many shots of the rural French countryside which is stunningly gorgeous to say the least, and the camera work captures as much of it as possible. So many of the shots are picturesque and would look splendid if framed on your wall. Even the sets have this beautiful rustic texture that makes everything seem organic, natural, and has an antique quality to it.
As was the case in Julie & Julia, The Hundred-Foot Journey is a foodie movie. As such, food plays a prominent role in the film. We get to see some elegant looking French cuisine as well as some delectable Indian fare. We see everything from purchasing the food from local markets, to preparing the food, to cooking with tedious accuracy, arranging it in an attractive manner on the plate, and presenting it to the dining guest. Every step of the cooking process is shown over and over in different scenes but is no less interesting to watch. It is at least as interesting to watch as any program on The Food Channel. The movie made my mouth water; it was a feast for the eyes and made me crave Indian food.
I genuinely enjoyed The Hundred-Foot Journey even though it was predictable and tame. The story was good, the characters were fun, the romantic subplot was cute but very bland, the camera work and scenery was incredible, and the food was luscious to behold. This is a nice, clean movie and rests safely in the PG realm, though it probably won't hold the attention of younger viewers. I think this is worth catching in theaters if you can still find it. I enjoyed it enough that I might get myself a copy when it hits Blu-Ray.

Every culture has its own culinary traditions. What kind of food would you like to see used in a foodie movie sometime? Comment below and tell me why!

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Giver Review

I read Lois Lowry's book The Giver many years ago. It was originally published in 1993. Now that teenage dystopian survival movies have become so popular in wake of The Hunger Games, Hollywood seemed to think the time was right for a movie of The Giver (2014). The story has potential to be a great movie, but seemed afraid to take the necessary steps to make it a bold and memorable movie.
In the future society following a devastating war, "The Community" had decided to get rid of colors, therefore different races, and feelings. There is peace, harmony, and everyone has a purpose within The Community lead by the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep), and everyone is happy. Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) lives in his assigned family unit with his Father (Alexander Skarsgard) and mother (Katie Holmes) When Jonas and his friends Asher (Cameron Monaghan) and Fiona (Odeya Rush) turn eighteen, Jonas is chosen to be The Community's new Receiver of Memories. He enters into training with an old man called The Giver (Jeff Bridges). From The Giver, Jonas learns about pain, sadness, war, and all the unhappy truths of the "real" world. He quickly realizes that his community is fake. Confronted with this reality, Jonas faces the difficult choices about his own life and the future of The Community.
The Giver is a visually striking film. A lot of The Community had to have been computer generated, but it look clean and crisp and very comfortable. The first half of the movie is in black and white. Gradually more color seeps into the movie as Jonas learns what colors are and how to identify them. It's a very gradual transition that you hardly notice. Finally there are brilliant colors everywhere and it looks pretty. The camera work is above average and most of the sets are simple but elegant. There is plenty of stock footage and cut away scenes as The Giver gives Jonas memories. They are incongruent with the sterile, perfect Community but are still applicable to the story and look picturesque.
When a movie is based on a book it's hard not to compare the two. Really, the movie should stand on its own as a good movie independent of the book. There were so many changes between The Giver book and movie that they have to be brought up here. A few changes include Asher being assigned to be a Jet pilot. As soon as I heard that I knew exactly how Asher's character would play out and I was right. I didn't picture the story being nearly as sci-fi as it is depicted in the movie. There is a lot of subtle influence from Gorge Orwell's 1984. Jonas and his friends are supposed to be eleven going on twelve, but they are in their late teens in the movie. What's weird is they still frequently act like eleven-year-olds making pacts of eternal friendship, playing games, and getting into childish mischief. It's not unusual for young kids to behave that way but it's a bit creepy and weird for an eighteen-year-old to behave that way. Also, since they are older characters, there is an obligatory love interest between Jonas and Fiona which would have been very out of sorts if they were eleven. But thank goodness the movie doesn't use the overused teenage love triangle that is crammed into every young adult book movie these days, even though all the material was there. The movie plays up this "chosen one" trope which was completely absent in book; Jonas had been assigned to be The Receiver, not destined or chosen by fate.
The Hunger Games book focused on Katniss's perspective, while the movie added some scenes which allowed viewers a glimpse at the Gamemakers manipulating the games which Katniss would never have seen. In The Giver, there were added scenes that allowed us to see what was happening in The Community while Jonas makes a run for it. These scenes make perfect sense to the story and actually raised the stakes a bit more; this very well could have been going on in the book had the book's narrative taken a more omniscient perspective. Annoying as I found most of the new additions to the story, the ones towards the end of the movie were intriguing.
Even within the context of the movie's setting, there's a lot of holes in the plot. The Chief Elder seems to know all the history that The Giver knows; it's the function of The Giver to know the history and advise the Elders. If the Elders already know all the memories which The Giver is supposed to keep, why have a Giver in the community at all? Everyone in The Community takes injections to subdue their emotions, and yet when Asher tries to stop Jonas, Asher seems angry. We have no reason to believe Asher was skipping his injections, so was it even physically possible for him to be angry? There are plenty of others, and most of these plot holes seem to stem from not knowing the source material very well.
In the end, The Giver was a decent movie. Both the book and the movie got the same point across. The themes were still there, most of the story stayed intact, and it was, for the most part, a good time. Like the book, this isn't an action movie but a philosophical movie, contrary to what the trailers advertised. The great irony of The Giver as a movie that preaches the values of nonconformity, a lot of the story was changed to closely resemble The Hunger Games, Divergent, and other teen dystopian survival movies out there to capitalize on popular trends. Streep, Bridges, and Holmes were good, but the kid actors were pretty bland, even for characters who aren't supposed to have emotions. It's worth seeing, but it doesn't dig deep enough into the source material's thought-provoking ideas as it should have. This is a renter since it likely won't make a lasting impression upon its viewers. As a book, The Giver will doubtless continue to thrill readers of all ages, but the film version won't be enjoying a comparable shelf life.

Are there any other teen dystopia survivalist books out there? Would any of them make good movies? Are you getting burnt out on this subgenre altogether? Comment below and tell me all about it!