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MASTERING ANIMATION
StudioCanal has just released two more Hayao Miyazaki films onto Blu-ray, The Castle of Cagliostro and My Neighbour Totoro. I’ll start with the older of the two, The Castle of Cagliostro, which was originally released in 1979. This is subtitled rather than dubbed and deals with master thief Lupin and his team, who rips off a Monte Carlo casino only to discover that the money is all counterfeit. He traces the bills back to the European country of Cagliostro, ruled by an evil Count. Lupin was a very popular anime series and this is an instalment in that series. It is very spotty visually and a little bit primitive both in terms of animation and its script, which sometimes feels like a poor attempt to ape American cinema. But Miyazaki was still learning his craft so there are still a few of the visual flourishes that have become his trademark. It is nice to see that it’s on Blu-ray at last. The Castle of Cagliostro is only really for Miyazaki completists as it can be hard work in places…
My Neighbour Totoro was released in 1988 and it is far more accomplished than Cagliostro. It deals with a family who move to the country in Japan to be closer to their ailing mother. Their new house happens to be near the home of a group of friendly trolls and the two girls go on a series of adventures. It is a very sweet children’s film, displaying the depth of imagination and invention that Miyazaki has become renowned for and is able to shift tone effortlessly in its script. It’s dubbed rather than subtitled and this is less distracting for animation than subtitles and makes it a far more immersive experience than if it were subtitled. My Neighbour Totoro is unquestionably a classic and deserves a Blu-ray release. You can see why Miyazaki is called the Japanese Disney as this film matches the best of Disney. For aficionados of animation, My Neighbour Totoro is a must-buy…

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TWO SETS OF CARTOON CHARACTERS
A new Pixar film is usually an event that’s worth waiting for, although last year’s Cars 2 was a fairly weak affair. Brave, Pixar’s latest effort, has had a slightly chequered history, as it lost its original director Brenda Chapman. Despite this, the film, which deals with Scottish princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) and her attempt to live her own life despite the demands of her parents Fergus and Elinor (voiced respectively by Billy Connelly and Emma Thompson), is very enjoyable. Although it’s not up there with the best of Pixar, Brave has heart and visual flair with some talented voices creating the characters and the 3D recreation of Scotland looks incredible. Merida is a decent female protagonist and Macdonald shows that she is well suited to animation. Connelly, Thompson, Craig Ferguson and Kevin McKidd make for a decent supporting vocal cast. It’s not a classic but it is a very likeable film and one that sits well with the Pixar canon. Brave is worth seeing…
Expendables 2 is the follow-up to 2010’s film which brought together a group of past-it eighties action screen figures under Sylvester Stallone’s wing. Despite the fact that it wasn’t actually very good, it made enough money to justify another one. Jason Statham, as the young(ish) turk is back as is Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Bruce Wilis and Arnold Schwarzenegger have bigger parts in this second film. This time around, we also have Jean Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris join the cast. Directed by Englishman Simon West (Con Air, The General’s Daughter), Expendables 2 is one of those films which is pretty critic-proof. It has a fairly stupid script, Stallone looks even weirder than he did last time, there are a few nice comic lines that show that the makers are aware that most of the cast are well past their sell-by date but they don’t really care and it has some well-directed action sequences. If you enjoyed the first one and miss the regular big screen exploits of Van Damme, Stallone, Norris et al, then you’ll lap it up…

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CHILD’S PLAY?

I went to see two prominent children’s films over the last couple of weeks so I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast the two in terms of approach and assessing whether they work.
First is Puss In Boots, a spin-off of Dreamworks’ successful Shrek animated movies featuring the swamp’s most likeable character. Voice talent Antonio Banderas returns as the ginger swashbuckling cat in a tale (pardon the pun) that gives us his origin story. Director Chris Miller throws the eponymous hero in a story that owes a lot to Jack and The Beanstalk with his partner in crime Humpty Dumpty, a fellow fairytale orphan who betrayed Puss years ago and seemingly wants to set things right. Voiced by The Hangover‘s Zach Galifianakis, Humpty has an accomplice, Kitty Softpaws (Penelope Cruz), who is a very talented cat thief. So they decide to steal Jack and Jill’s magic beans to allow them to reach the giant’s castle. The film is a clever pastiche of classic westerns and obviously things like Zorro and Miller has a deft hand for action and character. There is chemistry between Banderas and Cruz (not the first time they’ve collaborated) and Zach Galifianakis acquits himself pretty well as do Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris as Jack and Jill. The 3D animation works nicely and visually Puss In Boots looks lavish and cinematic. Now that Shrek has been retired from the big screen, expect to see more outings from the ginger furry lothario. Puss In Boots is an enjoyable, occasionally smart and very likeable mainstream animated feature…
Hugo, based on illustrated book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is director Martin Scorsese’s first foray into children’s films. The Hugo of the title is an orphan who lives in the works of a fictional Paris train station, making sure that the clocks run on time, who has spent a number of years trying to unravel the mystery of his father’s untimely death. His life appears to change when he meets curmudgeonly watch seller Georges (Ben Kingsley) and his young charge Isabelle (Chloe Moretz). It’s a very strange film: it starts life as an epic mystery seemingly about Hugo’s father (played by Jude Law) and an automaton that he was obsessed with and then changes tack and direction about halfway through. It is being shown in 3D but the 3D doesn’t add a lot to proceedings except when Scorsese is showing off the inner workings of the station. Asa Butterfield as Hugo is very good on screen but Moretz tries far too hard as she plays against her usual type. Kingsley is excellent: rather than chewing the scenery and the script as he usually does, he underplays what is arguably the pivotal role here, and you do feel genuine sympathy for him. The cast is a bit of a mixed bag: Sacha Baron Cohen as the station inspector with a clockwork leg, shows that he isn’t an actor, merely a comic turn but a small cameo from Christopher Lee as the sinister-looking Monsieur Labisse at the grand age of 89 makes you wish they did more with the character. Stepping outside of Scorsese’s comfort zone of gangsters and killers doesn’t quite work as some of Hugo feels very artificial but it is still a very charming film with mostly a strong cast and some well-excecuted ideas. It isn’t as creatively successful a kid’s film as Tintin but at a time when Hollywood blockbusters usually consist of giant robots beating the shit out of each other or meteorites destroying the Earth, there is something refreshing about what is such a nostalgic affair. Hugo passes two hours very pleasantly indeed and will do decently at the box office for cinemagoers looking for something a little bit different to the usual fare…

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THREE FOR TUESDAY

The last couple of weeks have been pretty frenetic. Unfortunately the year-long contract of work I thought I had has ended prematurely now so I’m left having to go back to hustle for freelance work. I have seen three very different films at screenings, all at Paramount’s screening room at their London office at Golden Square, so I thought I’d review them in this latest entry. The first film I caught was Centurion, directed by Neil Marshall, a low-budget British film that shows a Roman legion fighting for their lives against a group of Picts in Scotland in the second century AD. Centurion as a film is a bit of a throwback to the sort of movies we used to make over here in the Seventies: it’s shot in a gritty and very violent fashion. But I’m not criticising it for that: Marshall really uses the English and Scottish settings in a beautiful but rugged way and the action barrels along in an appealing fashion. Michael Fassbender, from the awful Inglorious Basterds, plays Quintus Dias, the Roman soldier who takes up with General Virilus (Dominic West from The Wire) and his Ninth Legion to try to crush the Picts only to find that they have them outnumbered in territory that they know like the back of their hand. West is good value on screen as is David Morrissey and Fassbender makes a good fist of it here too. Whilst its historical accuracy is questionable, Centurion is an enjoyable action yarn with a solid cast and interesting direction…

How To Train Your Dragon is a 3-D animated film from Dreamworks about a teenage viking, Hiccup, in a fictional village who is no good at traditional viking arts like fighting and pillaging who becomes friendly with an injured dragon, which is when his luck begins to change. With the voice talents of Craig Ferguson and the ubiquitous Gerard Butler, this is a very likeable kids film that uses the 3-D to its full effect with some magnificent visual set-pieces. Admittedly the plot, that the dragons attacking the vikings are just misunderstood, is rather predictable but Butler and Ferguson are good choices for the voices and there are some nice touches like the slightly Japanese look of the dragon that Hiccup befriends. Most importantly, How To Train Your Dragon doesn’t outstay its welcome and holds the viewer’s attention during its running time. It’s the perfect Easter holiday treat for children…
Finally, Agora is the new film by director Alejandro Amenabar (The Others, The Sea Inside). It’s a visually lavish affair about female philosophy professor Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) who finds herself caught in the middle of a turbulent period in Alexandria, Egypt during the fourth century AD while it was a Roman protectorate. Unfortunately, while it looks fantastic, capturing the feel of an ancient city effortlessly, Agora is let down by wooden acting (Weisz is particularly guilty of this here), a poor script and a plot that really doesn’t amount to anything in the end. The points it attempts to make about the friction between the Christians, Jews and the Pagans in the city are serious but they are so mishandled dramatically that it all feels like a BBC2 drama with all the money thrown at the production side. It’s a film that’s been hanging around for a while and, when you watch it, you can see why it’s been hard for it to find a slot. As a period film, Centurion works better than Agora because it does what it set out to do. File under curio…

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BEING SPIKE JONZE
Where The Wild Things Are is a film with a chequered history. Its director Spike Jonze had to reshoot it several times and there was even talk a while ago that it wouldn’t make it to the screen at all. But thankfully it has arrived and I went to see it the Vue Leicester Square with my fellow journalists. Where The Wild Things Are is a film based on a very slim illustrated children’s book by Maurice Sendak and Jonze has really fleshed out proceedings. Max is a lonely boy who lives with his mother (played by Catherine Keener) and sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs). He doesn’t get the attention he wants and so he runs away, seemingly ending up as ruler in this place populated by the Wild Things of the title. Wild Things is only the third feature that Jonze has directed but it is an assured and accomplished effort with the hand of a true auteur at its helm. Where The Wild Things Are is a brilliantly allegorical look at the emotional turmoil of a young boy with each of his feelings manifested by the puppets brought to life by Henson for each of the Wild Things. They live in this dreamlike, slightly unsettling world which looks a little like reality but with a disconnect. The Wild Things, voiced by James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker, Catherine O’Hara and others, look fantastic on screen and there is a real sense of interaction between them and young boy Max. The faces were created using CGI but the bodies were suits and this makes a huge difference. The vocal talent here is impressive and Gandolfini especially as Max’s best friend amongst the Wild Things, Carol, is magnificent. Max Records, who plays the young boy, is also extremely talented. It’s a film that makes you think and stays with you after you leave the cinema. It’s a melancholy and bittersweet film and one that may unsettle children who see it but the best children’s fiction and literature should do that and so Jonze should be applauded for this film. After a summer of moronic robots and disappointments, Where The Wild Things Are is a real breath of fresh air. A film that will develop a cult following and will be talked about for years to come…