Grave of the Fireflies

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For all the praise I’ve seen Studio Ghibli receive, I’ve never been all too interested in watching their animations. Aside from Spirited Away, which I saw, enjoyed and forgot about a fair few years back, my investment in any of the studio’s films has waned. So then, I realise I’ve made a horrible mistake. Recommended to me with the confidence that it’ll be a ‘cry-fest’ (Just look at the title!), Grave of the Fireflies has assuredly reinvigorated my interest in the studio’s peculiar, heartfelt animations that have a certain type of charm to them – a charm not found in any 3D animation that Disney Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks churn out.

The film takes place in Japan during the final few months of WWII, where American air raids tore through the Japanese towns and villages. It follows Seita, a 14 year-old boy, and Setsuko, Seita’s (very) little sister, through their travails to survive bombings, poverty and malnutrition. It begins by revealing that the two protagonists die during the course of the film – portrayed as spirits shrouded by a red hue, the opening is both harrowing and visually stunning in equal measure. Which really does sum up the film – devastating, though the emotional punch not as powerful as I expected, yet exceedingly beautiful and a perfect portrayal of both the horrors and the idyllic nature of the Japanese countryside.

The score used for Grave of the Fireflies is equally powerful, tragedy conveyed by simple melodies. It’s use brings many moments of genuine joy – Setsuko running around with a group of fireflies is an exceptionally heartwarming moment – but also accentuates incredibly touching sequences – Setsuko’s tear-jerking instances of happiness particularly moving.

That’s not to say that Grave of the Fireflies is a perfect movie. While the animation is fantastic in places, it’s similarly rough and shaky in others. The voice acting feels forced (well, at least the English version) as do many of the characters’ actions (Seita’s aunt’s resentment towards the two protagonists is too drastic a shift in her feelings towards them). And while Setsuko’s death is moving, the fact that the audience expects it negates some of its intended effect.

Yet these few negatives don’t burden this sweet Japanese animation drastically – it remains a touching story with a mesmerising animation style; one that has reintroduced me into the quirky world of Studio Ghibli.

– Gus Edgar

Guardians of the Galaxy

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The reaction to Marvel’s next superhero flick has been more positive than even the optimistic main actor, Chris Pratt could have hoped for. Insanely risky, even for Marvel’s standards, Guardians of the Galaxy features a talking raccoon, a green Saldana and a talking tree. To top it all off, it’s directed by James Gunn, notorious writer of both Movie 43 and Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. Despite all the potential for disaster (there’s plenty), the film has been hailed as an entertaining, feel-good Marvel caper that’s totally original. So then, why’s it more of the same?

There’s a prominent formula that Marvel are seemingly sticking to. An introduction of the main characters as they assemble, a good look at the central antagonist and his motives, and some partially-relevant high-action antics just before a final showdown where everything explodes and the heroes eventually prevail. The same applies to GotG, and even then it can’t clarify the villain’s motives (more on that later). It’s wrong to say that GotG is an original Marvel flick; it’s disappointingly unoriginal, glittered up with colourful aliens and a fantastic 1970s soundtrack.

The film takes place, as the title suggest, around a myriad of areas contained within the galaxy. Opening with Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) as a child stating farewell to his mother, he is quickly whisked away into space and the rest is history. The opening credits feature his attempt to steal an orb with an unknown power set to Redbone’s Come and get Your Love (fantastic), setting the scene for what I expected to be an awesome watch. After his travails, he’s swiftly captured and reluctantly teams up with the aforementioned set of characters, Rocket the Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Groot (Vin Diesel) and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Batista). Of course, they’re rough with each other at first, but then grow to like their teammates and end up as an (admittedly odd) group of buddies.

Which leads to one of my major qualms of Guardians of the Galaxy – it’s incredibly clichéd and only has a facade of quirky characters to shield criticism from most reviewers. A good portion of the characters aren’t fleshed out, generic to the point where they become caricatures. The main antagonist – Ronan (Lee Pace) has incredibly unclear motives where it’s easy to assume that he seeks world domination simply because he’s assigned as the bad guy. His villainy is exaggerated tenfold, almost to the point where it’s ridiculous. The main protagonist, Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill has nothing interesting going for him. He’s arrogant and irritating, and sure, he develops to take responsibility and becomes a better person, but I still wasn’t invested in his character. Gamora, meant to be a strong female character, is identified fairly early on as Quill’s love interest and is set aside until the end for the predictable big kiss. The only other notable female character – Nebula (Karen Gillan) has barely five minutes of screentime (though I’m sure she’ll return for the second installment). Michael Rooker’s Yondu is incredibly irritating and stalls the film whenever he’s on screen. Similarly annoying is Rocket – intended to be portrayed as the badass of the group, this intention is laid on so thick that it’s hard to resonate with him. Instead, he comes across as obnoxious and only obnoxious.

Yet it’s not just the generic characters that Guardians of the Galaxy suffers from. Most of the film’s jokes fall flat – including nearly everything that Rocket says and a running ‘I am Groot’ joke that gets increasingly more boring every time it’s uttered. Sure, wit is present, and Drax’s moments where he takes everything literally is a great example of this. So why can’t there be more moments of this comedic ingenuity?

I want to clarify – I don’t dislike GotG as much as I purport. Despite my problems with the film, it has a decent entertainment value with some admirable sequences (the prison-escape scene comes to mind) and one of the best soundtracks of any film released in 2014. It may not be as good a film as you’d expect after all the praise dished out towards it, but Guardians of the Galaxy may still be worth watching if you’re looking for an enjoyable film with little substance but plenty of action.

– Gus Edgar

The Grand Budapest Hotel

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So, The Grand Budapest Hotel is certainly my favourite film of 2014 so far, and is perhaps Anderson’s finest film to date. Which is saying quite a lot; every Anderson film I have seen thus far (Moonrise Kingdom, The Fantastic Mr.Fox, The Darjeeling Limited, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Royal Tenenbaums) have all been individually outstanding and hard to top. Yet Wes Anderson delivers the goods once again with a crazy plot, an impressive Ralph Fiennes performance, eye-globbering visuals and his classic traits shining through the film.

The story, told in the present day in the past in the past… in the past, follows M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) as a camp concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel, and his faithful lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori), for the majority of its running time. It’s essentially a game of cat and mouse as the story circles around a valuable painting known as “Boy With Apple”. That isn’t the half of it, of course, but to explain the plot any further would take up too much space.

As does the vast amount of actors swamping the film, although they never seem out of place (aside from a brief cameo from Anderson regular, Owen Wilson). Oft-criticised before its release that it was Anderson’s ensemble film, with a plot that would potentially be burdened by its cast, I couldn’t disagree more. The film flows eloquently and is extremely fast-paced, but it still allows for character development, the main recipient being M.Gustave. Fiennes is excellent with a role that Anderson stated, and I would have to agree with him on this, was “made for him”. He plays camp surprisingly well, and his moments of foul-mouthed temper are perfectly played out. Revolori is also great, acting in a more observant than active role, only playing second fiddle to Fiennes. He plays the emotion weaved throughout his character in a brilliantly understated way. Out of its mammoth supporting cast, Jeff Goldblum stands out, a particular museum scene with an abrupt ending being a highlight of both Goldblum’s performance and the film as a whole. Dafoe an Ronan both do a decent job with the roles they are given, although Brody can’t escape from his stereotypical “bad guy” outfit.

The outstanding visuals are accompanied with a seemingly-neverending soundtrack that isn’t like anything I’ve ever heard before. The soundtrack sums up the movie: simply wonderful, original, and from the heart.

– Gus Edgar

Holy Motors

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I’m not even going to bother trying to explain the meaning of Holy Motors, a bizarre, wonderfully eccentric film featuring a crazed performance from Leos Carax regular, Denis Lavant. That’s not to say that Lavant is the only actor that steals the show during his generous screentime; Kylie Minogue (yes, really) and Eva Mendes both make odd, hilariously puzzling appearances in what can only be described as cameos.

The film has a deceivingly simple premise: Mr.Oscar (his first name is never mentioned) has been tasked with 9 appointments that he must fulfil during the course of the day. Then things take off; ranging from becoming a family member of a house full of chimpanzees, stabbing a replica of himself and participating in stop-motion shenanigans, Lavant uses all of his acting capabilities to put on a show for the audience (often literally).

The symbolism behind Holy Motors is alluded to plenty of times, but is never really explored enough to make it seem as if it’s the film’s focal point. It’s an idea that seems clever and inventive, but when stretched over the course of 1 hour and 40 minutes, it loses its intrigue fairly quickly. A good example of this would be a scene where Mr.Oscar puts on the disguise of an elderly gentleman on his death bed. It’s an odd scene that, while making a subtle point to the audience, kills off any momentum the film has.

Nevertheless, Holy Motors looks fantastic and has many scenes of real genius (but lack importance too). A scene where Mr.Oscar runs across a graveyard terrorising citizens and munching on bouquets of flowers is a joy to watch, while Kylie Minogue’s brief appearance where she belts out a solo is moving and fascinating in equal measures.

The best way to approach the oddities of Holy Motors is to throw logic and reasoning out the door. You must accept that the occurrences of the film make sense to someone, and live with that. If you achieve that, you can experience an oddball adventure with many stunning scenes. Its ending may leave you flabbergasted, but you’ll be flabbergasted for days on end.

– Gus Edgar

The Act of Killing

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Seems like I have a love for documentaries. The few I have seen (I for India, The Imposter, Exit Through the Gift Shop) have all been excellent, and this is certainly no exception. Yet despite how enthralling this film is, it’s a horrible watch. The Act of Killing documents Indonesian gangsters (responsible for the murder of thousands of “communists” in the 1960s), and specifically a gangster by the name of Anwar Congo, as he attempts to make his own film going into detail about how the gangsters exterminated those that he deemed evil. Instead, as this film and his film drive on, he comes to terms with the horrors of what he has done. Yet that’s not to state that Congo is a decent man. No, he’s despicable, his complete lack of remorse incredibly surreal. One particular poignant scene involves a man talking about how his step-father was dragged away and found dead in an oil rig, laughing sadly as he tells the story. Raw scenes like these feature heavily in this film, and it’s all the better for it.  If you do watch this, don’t think that you’re not going to come out a broken man.

– Gus Edgar

Man of Steel

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While the trailer for the new Man of Steel roared with entertainment and excitement, the film whimpered with waning enthusiasm. In truth, the film could’ve been a lot worse. Previous editions had failed to capture the power and riveting nature of Superman. This film gradually managed to achieve that, but it wasn’t without its faults.

The film indulged in destruction. Action scenes were never without a building or two crashing to the ground, windows being ripped off or stone pillars breaking in half. Sure, action is good. Right? Sadly, too much action leads to a boring, poorly directed film (see: Total Recall (remake)). Whilst it certainly wasn’t as bad as Total Recall’s unsightly remake, parts were unfortunately reminiscent.

A sad side effect of the relentless action was that the few sentimental scenes didn’t come into fruition. Instead, the film became boring and drab, its serious nature wearing off on the viewer. Superhero flicks, such as Iron Man 3, kept humour to keep the audience entertained; Zack Snyder’s choice to exclude it was poor, and one of the key factors as to why this film will annoy rather than impress.

That’s not to say that the film was entirely bad; each actor played their part sufficiently, Cavill being one of the better Supermen. And if you get past the Spy Kids-esque speed of the action scenes, the action is great. Unfortunately, a combination of action upon action, cliches being thrown at you and a drab overall feel to it makes this film is very much a forgettable one.

– Gus Edgar

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

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Mark Herman’s fascinating  adaptation of this famous book is a tearful adventure of propaganda and emotion. The story is set in Germany, during the Second World War, where rich-kid Bruno (Asa Butterfield) resides with his family. Cue a sudden move to the German countryside, due to his father’s (David Thewlis) important work as a Nazi officer. Bruno is introduced to a desolate house with a peculiar “farm” across the woodland..

Not many films are as achingly depressing as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Not many endings will leave you as empty inside. This is the true intentions of the film; Mark Herman leads you through twists and turns, building up the sorrow, and at the finale you expect the release of all this sorrow, you expect resolution. It never arrives. Themes brought up throughout the film are developed exceedingly well. The treatment of the suffering, “inhuman” Jews is relentless, yet is contrasted by the rare moments of happiness felt; Shmual’s (Jack Scanion) laughter during a Checkers game with Bruno, separated by an electric fence surrounding the concentration camp, and Bruno’s mother’s (Vera Farmiga) thankfulness towards a helpful Jew who fixes Bruno’s knee.

Bruno’s innocence is also explored in depth during the film; he consistently refers to the Jewish prisoners as “farmers”, blissfully unaware about the harsh reality. Furthermore, his innocence is scarred when he betrays Schmaul, sending him back to his concentration camp with a black eye.

Heartfelt moments are few and far between; the friendship between Schmaul and Bruno is unorthodox, but works in the sense that it gives the audience momentary joy. Of course, that joy is interrupted during the final scene. In the case of emotions, this film commonly includes depression and anguish; the mother’s hate at the treatment of Jews, an outrageous funeral scene and a gut-wrenching finale all give this film a lack of any form of resolution.

Vera Farmiga is by far and away the most assured, confident actor. Her development throughout the film, the twist and turns she faces, her refusal to back down; she breaks out of her stereotype and into a model of commanding stature, having a great influence on the course of the film. David Thewlis plays his part consistently well, as the manipulative father who despite his sinister acts behind closed doors, is a loving family man, corrupt by hatred of the Jews. Asa Butterfield works well in his role, and although not as developed or emotionally disjointed as the other characters (which fits well with his innocence), does just enough to put in a solid performance. Jack Scanion flourishes in his role, with the use of long periods of silence, stretched scenes and heartfelt drama making him a character of sorrow. His maturity despite his age contrasts effectively with Bruno.

So then, what’s not to love about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas? It’s only a few nitpicks here and there; Bruno’s sister’s character feels forced, and as a result, undeveloped, while there are many implausibilities, such as how none of the soldiers didn’t notice the “secret” discussions going on between Bruno and his sister. Furthermore, the film totters on the edge of pretentiousness in a few scenes. All in all though, this is a solid film, an emotional rollercoaster with a fitting finale.

– Gus Edgar