Sunday, 28 February 2010

Ponyo; Sherlock Holmes; Youth in Revolt; Baise Moi; Frostbite


Ponyo is the first Ghibli film directed by Hayao miyazaki since Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), with Tales from Earthsea (2006) being the last Ghibli release, controversially directed by Miyazaki’s son, Goro. Most of Hayao Miyazaki’s films involve some sort of wider story playing out around the main characters, but Ponyo is a return to the more simple storytelling of the Ghibli favourite, My Neighbour Totoro.
There is a bit more going on in the case of Ponyo than “girls meet and befriend forest creature; are upset that their mum’s in hospital; she gets better” - Ponyo is a fish, and the magical daughter of a wizard who has shunned the world of man and now works to keep the balance in the oceans; her mother is the Goddess of Mercy. One day Ponyo gets trapped in a glass bottle and is rescued by five year old Sosuke - they become fast friends, and although her father takes her back, she has fallen in love and wants to be human. This upsets the balance and the oceans rise, but if Sosuke truly loves Ponyo all will be well. He does, the end.

The visual setting of Ponyo is very ‘Ghibli’, that special mixture of standard anime style mixed with a rustic charm - Miyazaki favours a setting that throws in English Victorian village alongside modern day small town Japan and lots and lots of open space - the theme of ‘nature’ and man’s interaction with it stretches back to Nausicaa. Aside from the content, the actual style is very warm, everything having a hand-drawn feel that gives it a timeless quality - it could sit alongside the Ghibli movies of the early 80s as well as standing up today. Charming is the word.
The bounteous detail of the sea creatures filling the background of many scenes is a further indication of Miyazaki’s preoccupation with the natural world, but this does spill over into one awkward scene where Ponyo and Sousoke set forth on a magically enlarged toy boat and point out the extinct fish species that have returned to the recently flooded seaside town; it feels very much like thinly veiled educational programming at that point, but thankfully this is the harshest criticism that can be levelled against it. There are lots of lovely touches, such as Ponyo’s glee at the dinner table, her chicken-footed, frog-faced form between fish and human, particularly when using magic, the warm mutterings of the pensioners at the old folk’s home where Sousuke’s mother works next door to his school.

It’s not the kind of film that will gain many new converts to Ghibli studios, at least those over the age of ten, but for people who already have a special place in their hearts for the animation house’s output this is another in a long line of greats.

Sherlock Holmes

After the frenzy surrounding Guy Ritchie’s debut, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, I found myself distinctly underwhelmed by the film and disappointed in the attention given to the crap mockney gangster pic that spawned dozens of copycats. The resultant loathing for Ritchie and his output has blinded me to the fact that it was the only film I’d actually seen of his; despite the mixed or just plain awful receptions given to Snatched, Swept Away, Revolver and RocknRolla, I hadn’t bolstered my opinion of his work by actually watching any of them. Some would argue that this is perfectly acceptable - you wouldn’t need to have seen Uwe Boll’s work to hold a dismal opinion of them, after all, that’s what critics are for. No one has the time to watch everything, so you want to filter things and be left with the good stuff, or at least bad stuff that you enjoy.

I finally broke my no-Ritchie run with Sherlock Holmes. A new Holmes adaptation for 2010, with fighting and explosions, by Guy Ritchie? Surely not. The advantage here, though, is that Holmes is played by Robert Downy Jr., never less than watchable in anything he does and recently lifting the otherwise average Iron Man up to half decent blockbuster status.
Whilst this adaptation inevitably plays fast and loose with the source material, there is enough charm in Downey’s performance to keep you rooting for him throughout as he revels in the various aspects of his character - retreating into a messy funk due to the lack of challenge without a case to work on, his jealousy at Watson’s looming marriage plans and change of their cosy set-up, his flashes of deductive brilliance. There is a scene toward the end where various pieces of the overall puzzle are slotted together by Holmes all in one go, in what feels clumsy as part of what was up to that point a slick production, but other scenes use his unique skills remarkably well. Although Ritchie has a penchant for a bit of the old ultraviolence and has a particular audience to cater for, the combat scenes with Holmes (including one of bare-knuckle boxing, apparently one of Holmes’ methods of distraction from boredom) are peppered with wonderfully inventive slow-mo sequences where he analyses and plans the best course of action to fell his opponent, before we have a replay in more or less real-time; it’s a good way of getting meaty fight scenes in but incorporating them into the general atmosphere of the Holmes setting.

Speaking of atmosphere, the art direction is very impressive, getting the right mix of Victoriana and grime with belching chimneys and dirty brickwork, brass and clockwork devices and overall an impression that it feels films like From Hell came close to but here it succeeds; there’s something palpable about the paraphernalia and specimens in the lair of the ginger midget and the various items strewn about Holmes’ own room when Watson comes to relieve him from a funk as he attempts to invent a pistol silencer. It’s a world that is easy to get lost in and helps to ground the slightly hammier aspects of the performances.

Only the character of Rachel McAdams as the token yank sticks out, apparently an old flame of Holmes and one of the few criminals who he did not catch (there are references to her being something along the lines of a black widow or serial bigamist). She variously fills the role of no-nonsense dame and damsel in distress at numerous points, but is one of the few parts that starts to tug the curtain away from it all. Even Jude Law manages to put in one of his more charming performances as Watson, rather than one of his many slappable ones. The interplay between Downey and himself works well, and despite the allusions some have made to an undercurrent of homosexuality, their chemistry came across more as a version of Victorian repression of a close friendship, highlighted in one scene after Watson survives an explosion: Holmes stumbles out “I’m glad you’re…still with us” to which Watson replies by clearing his throat.

I never thought I’d say I’d enjoy a Guy Ritchie movie but there it is - certainly not the most faithful Holmes adaptation nor the best, but as a knockabout blockbuster which manages to reflect favourably on its source material it’s a lot of fun. Although I obviously went in with low expectations.

Youth in Revolt

Who would win in a fight between Michael Cera and Jessie Eisenberg? In an actual fist-fight terms, I’d go with Jesse, but with output too he seems to just about be in a different class. For two actors sewing up the awkward geek hero character roles, Jesse’s choices seem more measured/planned/calculated? Roger Dodger, the Squid and The Whale and the lands of Adventure and Zombies are his highlights, and whilst Cera has hit high with roles in Juno and Superbad, these were more ensemble or supporting gigs, with the more recent Year Zero pretty much a critical flop.
Still, it’s hard to dislike the guy so it was good to find that Youth in Revolt was a pretty decent stab at the “geek gets girl” movie.

Cera plays Nick Twisp who is your typical 16 year old American geek, although here he is burdened with his trailer trash mum whilst his unemployed dad is Steve Buscemi, who has shacked up with a hot 25 year old. As a typical teen boy he is obsessed with losing his virginity, and the unlikelihood that he will ever even meet a girl as they all go for jerks.
Anyway, his mum’s current loser squeeze (played by the Hangover’s Zach Galifianikis) sells a broken-down car to sailors, who upon discovering its condition threaten a beating, so the family all leave on an impromptu vacation to a shabby trailer in a holiday park. There, a cute, interesting teenage girl shows inexplicable interest in the poor boy and thus begins a mostly comic descent into mishap and adventure as he tries to be with the girl of his dreams. Chief to this is his invention of an alter-ego, the white-trousered, Gauloise-smoking bad boy Francois Dillinger, who sets him on the path of no good.

Buscemi and Galifianikis round out a decent supporting cast including Ray Liotta, Justin Long and Fred Willard, with Portia Doubleday as the object of Nick’s affections, Sheeni. She manages to play it so that it’s hard to tell if Sheeni is taking Nick for a ride and just using him for fun, or whether he actually means something more to her.

Youth in Revolt is certainly in no danger of winning prizes for innovation, but it all hangs together well and a teen romcom based around oddball humour is certainly preferable to the last run of gross-out comedies.

Baise Moi

Baise Moi rode the wave of arthouse films that were released after the change in BBFC guidelines in 1999. Alongside films like the Idiots, Romance and 9 Songs, Baise Moi was controversial for its inclusion of real sex scenes, but also married this up with violence.

Poorly shot on what I assume is digital video, it looks like out-takes from one of those stilted programmes used to teach French in schools. The performances are pretty poor and the score jars against the film, intrusive and spreading across scenes without helping connect them. The plot itself feels like nothing more than sensationalism, the idea that the women’s backgrounds in drugs, violence and prostitution drove them to their killing spree is hardly social commentary, rather an excuse for a bunch of low-budget gore and explicit sex. It’s just a bit empty when all’s said and done.


Swedish vampire movie set in the polar region where a night lasts a month. Yes you’ve heard the premise before in 30 Days of Night, but Frostbite was released in 2006, one year prior. It starts promisingly with a Scandanavian unit working with the German army gets stranded at an isolated cabin in the Ukraine in 1944. There are vampires in the cabin. But when we skip to the present day, and teen girl Saga is moving with her mother to a remote part of Sweden we drop into cliché – the vampires have monstro-vision meaning you see in first person and all monsters are mouth-breathers. These particular vampires see in wibbly red hues as they stalk lonely humans in the snowy dark.
Professor Beckert, a big name in Genetics, is the reason that Saga’s mother has dragged them to the far-flung town. But Beckert has secrets, including a comatose patient and dubious red pills, and before long people are turning up dead with holes in their necks.
Thankfully the wibbly effect isn’t overused, and the creature make-up is decent enough, nothing wildly inventive but better than the standard Buffy extra style do. The performances are strong throughout, though Beckert is perhaps a little overly sinister to not have attracted any attention so far. The conceit of the polar night isn’t really used, besides allowing for the story to play out over more than half a day without people having to hide indoors, making 30 Days of Night for once seem a far superior Hollywood offering, both in terms of the plot and the creature design.
Frostbite doesn’t rival its more recent cousin Let the Right One In either, not staying with any character long enough to give them a good chance to breathe, instead falling back on the set-pieces and effects work, and the few comedic moments aren’t quite enough (although good-hello talking dogs) to give it a point of difference.
Frostbite isn’t a bad horror movie and is well worth checking out as a B movie genre piece, but the stable of vampire movies is so swollen these days it isn’t hard to find something more satisfying. It is essentially director Anders Banke’s feature film debut, however, so it will be interesting to see if he gets the chance to build on this good start.


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