Tag: 2010

Movie Review: Chico & Rita (2010)

Seen: At the Kendall Square Landmark Cinema in Cambridge.

There’s always that one (sometimes two) film nominated for an Animated Feature Oscar that I never heard of and can’t get access to until long after the ceremony. It’s one of the few categories I actually pay attention to since I’m always looking for great animated films to watch. Chico & Rita seemed promising: A musical that begins in 1940s Havana and then moves into 1950s New York, following the stop-and-go romance of clueless pianist Chico and sultry singer Rita. Laced with jazzy tunes, a number of recognizable musical cameos, and a smidgeon of race commentary, it seemed a breath of fresh air for the animated musical genre so often reserved for family-friendly fare.

The thing everyone needs to know about this movie is that it is essentially a standard 50s musical, only with people of color and more nudity. The under-written romance, show biz lifestyle, inundation of jazz numbers, and character archetypes (dopey male lead who thinks he’s charming, sassy lady who just needs her outer shell cracked, jokester best friend who’s morally flexible, asshole white guy manager, etc) are all in keeping with the basic formula. I like those movies, so I didn’t mind it. It was like an homage, really, with a few moments of self-aware criticism as Rita’s character reacts against the racism she experiences in the American movie industry. Plus there’s a dream sequence that features Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart, and On the Town!

The music is great, and I loved that musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Tito Puente make appearances as Chico navigates the New York music scene. It becomes sort of a mini music history lesson on the influence of Cuban culture on American jazz. For the most part I liked the animation- it’s energetic and colorful- but there is a weird disconnect between the backgrounds and characters that gave it an off-putting floating effect. Presumably they used Flash for some parts? The painted backdrops are gorgeous though.

In the end I think it’s the script that’s weakest. Like many a classic musical, this romance isn’t strong enough to hold the film together. But there’s no clever banter or high-flying dance numbers to distract the audience. I really wish the issues surrounding Latin American performers in American theater and films had been more explored, but I think the filmmakers wanted to keep it more focused on the music.


Pair This Movie With: One of those other show bizzy-type old musicals, I’d say. There’s No Business Like Show Business comes to mind. Or Stormy Weather.

Movie Review: Kari-gurashi no Arietti (The Secret World of Arrietty) (2010)

Seen: On our big screen/projector set-up, streamed from Miles’ computer. Subtitled, not dubbed, hooray.

My only experience with the world of the Borrowers comes from the 1997 live-action film, which has an interesting premise and some cool visuals but wasn’t a very good movie as a whole. That’s kind of how The Secret World of Arrietty– Studio Ghibli’s newest feature based on the same novels- works out. Arrietty Clock and her parents Pod and Homily are each a few inches tall, living secretly in an isolated old house in the woods while the human “beans” who reside there unknowingly supply them with food and other necessities. When a sickly boy named Sho moves in and discovers Arrietty, they begin a tepid friendship that is troubled by her natural distrust of humans and a housekeeper’s vendetta against what she had always thought she’d just imagined.

Visually, the film is of course top-notch, with lush vegetative landscapes and a lot of adorable uses of big-sized human things by little Borrowers- ie, a tea container as a bureau, a sewing pin as a sword, a binder clip as a hair tie, etc. I really loved the way the animation swiveled around to show Arrietty’s perspective, conveying the general bigness of everything. Sound effects are put to good use in this manner as well, with Arrietty feeling every human heartbeat and footstep with deep resonance. First-time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi- who served as a key animator on several Ghibli films- proves himself a capable and imaginative filmmaker.

Unfortunately, the script (co-written by Hayao Miyazaki) is what’s really lacking. It takes forever to get going, and seems uncertain what the focal point of the story should be. By the end, Arrietty and Sho’s friendship seems to be the central emotional hook, but it’s given about 10, maybe 15 minutes of screentime in total. Their cheesy tearful goodbye meant nothing to me since they didn’t have any actual relationship to be crying over. And then the whole conflict with the suddenly crazed housekeeper calling pest control comes and goes without warning, feeling completely contrived and out of place. Arrietty’s closeness with her family is better shown, but even that isn’t really given any kind of focus.

There’s very little actual narrative to go by here, leaving the audience to absorb the beautiful scenery without becoming invested in any of the film’s happenings. The introduction of a fourth Borrower in the slightly wild Spiller, who lives in the woods, was the most interesting point, since the existence of Borrowers is such a vague thing as it is. The Secret World of Arrietty is not a bad film by any means, and for me it was worth it for the lovely animation and cute premise, but I would expect more substance from Studio Ghibli, especially with Miyazaki’s input on the script.


Pair This Movie With: Ummmm something else with tiny fantasy people, I guess? Thumbelina? Fern Gully? Gulliver’s Travels?

Movie Review: Di Renjie (Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame) (2010)

Seen: At the Landmark Cinema Kendall Square in Cambridge.

With a name like Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame and the promise of spontaneous combustion, this movie was an easy sell. Inspired by real-life Tang Dynasty official Di Renjie, the film sees the highly-skilled fighter/detective Dee (Andy Lau) released from jail (after 8 years incarceration for treason) to help catch a mysterious murderer. Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau), the first female emperor of China, is preparing for her inauguration ceremony and worries that a series of people around her bursting into flame is the work of rebel groups trying to discredit her reign. Dee teams up with the empress’s whip-wielding bodyguard Jing’er (Bingbing Li) and hardened police officer Pei (Chao Deng).

With high-flying action, a badass cast of characters, and some weird fantasy elements, Detective Dee has the makings of a really cool martial arts flick. The fight scenes are inventive, incorporating wire-work and a range of weaponry, and the mystery is strange enough to be compelling. There are not one but TWO badass ladies in this movie, with Bingbing Li totally rocking it as the no-nonsense, highly-skilled fighter Jing’er. Seriously, let’s get her to play Catwoman, she obviously knows how to throw around a whip convincingly. Carina Lau is awesome as the ruthless empress- even if she’s kind of evil I still rooted for her. And I must give her snaps for her courageous fashion efforts.

Unfortunately Detective Dee is bogged down by an over-long and unsatisfying script and distractingly low-quality CGI. It’s also a lot more serious than I had expected it to be, as it starts out more lighthearted and then becomes darker as it progresses, I couldn’t really get a handle on the tone. It’s memorable in its moments of weirdness and fun action, but the mystery isn’t actually that great and the potentially interesting characters are under-used.


Pair This Movie With: I don’t know why but I was put in the mind of Young Sherlock Holmes.

Movie Review: BKO: Bangkok Knockout (2010)

Seen: On a Thai-release DVD, on our big screen/projector set-up.

A few months ago my boyfriend went to ActionFest in Asheville and came back with one main movie to recommend: Bangkok Knockout. After introducing a young Thai stunt team, the film quickly thrusts them into an abandoned warehouse manned and guarded by masked fighters. While a group of wealthy foreign assholes watches and bets from a nearby pimped-out trailer, the team must fight their way out of a varied and treacherous death trap.

This really is basically an action video game of a movie. The characters are flat, the story is sparse, and the morals are black and white, but it’s such a fun time it all works for the most part. There are numerous kickass fight scenes, involving back flips and high kicks and Spider-man powers and motorcycles and a bloody ax, all of which are exceptionally choreographed and properly gory. It takes a while for any of the ladies to ever fight (both of them get kidnapped and tied up at some point, naturally), but it’s cool when they finally do at the end. Parts of it are like a slasher movie, and there’s even a nice display of trickery for the final showdown.

The acting is sort of cheesy, especially the performances of the billionaire foreigners and the over-the-top American organizer, but I’m definitely biased because the subtitles on this dvd release aren’t the best and ended up having a comedic effect at inappropriate times. The visual quality was pretty low, too. The film is getting a blu-ray release soonish so I expect to enjoy it more on a re-watch!


Pair This Movie With: Other fun Thai action movies I have seen are basically Ong-bak and Chocolate. Otherwise, I’m just going to continue to recommend Gymkata with everything.

Movie Review: Tabloid (2010)

Seen: At the Kendall Square Landmark Cinema in Cambridge.

It’s no secret I’m not really up on the hip documentaries. I tend to only see the ones relating to my personal tastes, meaning most of them are art/culture-related somehow. But when I heard a synopsis for Errol Morris’s newest venture Tabloid, it seemed like something I wouldn’t want to miss. Setting UK headlines ablaze in the 70’s, former beauty queen Joyce McKinney was arrested for allegedly kidnapping a Mormon missionary in England, chaining him up in an idyllic isolated cottage, and raping him. She claims that he was her fiance and came with her willingly, and that the Mormon church brainwashed him to say otherwise. She spent years trying to clear her name, increasing the press interest in her story as various details about her past came to light.

This movie is insane, I’m still reeling a bit just thinking about it. It’s a fascinating story, with a number of unexpected twists and turns and a wealth of entertaining interview moments. Joyce’s side of the story is a somewhat obsessive fairy tale, the Mormons see it as a horrific, ungodly abduction, while the tabloid journalists assume it’s somewhere in between but don’t especially care as long as it’s sensational and exploitative. As the film progresses through interviews with several players involved, it delves into secret practices of Latter Day Saints, wildly inappropriate disguises, S&M, garish make-up choices, lifestyles of the rich and famous, intrusive journalism, and a bit of cloning (though that’s sort of unrelated to the rest). Different perspectives are given and no one comes off as wholly trustworthy, so viewers are left to somehow distill this plethora of information into something resembling fact. I dug the newspaper collage aesthetic strewn throughout in little animated sequences between segments as well as in any descriptive text. Some of the stock footage used for comedic effect or to illustrate certain points is unnecessary, though.

I’m still left with a lot of questions after viewing Tabloid, partly because not everyone was available for questioning (most notably Kirk Anderson, the supposed “abductee” himself), and certain elements felt glossed over. Joyce, while at many points sympathetic, is obviously a practiced performer and I took most of her emotional outpourings with a grain of salt. Nothing can keep this from being a tantalizing and intricate tale, but it’s frustrating to still feel under-informed and generally unsure after such a seemingly comprehensive look. I blame the nature of the story and its characters, though, not necessarily the filmmakers.


PS So I guess Joyce McKinney is super against this movie and protesting it all the time? Not sure exactly what her problem with it is, though. Neither does anyone else, apparently.

Pair This Movie With: Oh jeez, not sure what this could be compared to! Maybe another documentary focusing on an eccentric? Man on Wire or Marwencol, perhaps?