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The House Of Magic

The House Of Magic

(2013)
3 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes

In too many ways, the Hollywood animation industry has ruined the market for everyone else. Disney and Pixar are leading a pack - DreamWorks, Fox, Sony - that have considerable resources at their disposal: they can easily afford to hire the best talents and bombard the entire world with adorable tie-in merchandise, even if the films they're producing aren't particularly good. It's a real shame, because it means that smaller, semi-independent efforts like The House Of Magic - an utterly charming French co-production - might too easily fall by the wayside.

Abandoned by his owners, a cat sneaks into a mysterious mansion that the neighbourhood pets are convinced is haunted. In short order, our feline protagonist gains a new name (Thunder) and a new master - the genial, elderly Lawrence, a magician who lives happily in a magical world with his toys and mechanical gizmos. However, Thunder also gains a few enemies: Jack Rabbit and Maggie Mouse have no intention of allowing him to become part of Lawrence's act, even as Lawrence's nefarious nephew Danny plots to sell the house away.

Plot-wise, there isn't anything particularly special about The House Of Magic. The story marches along in largely predictable fashion - the schemes cooked up by Thunder and his buddies aren't enormously innovative and the ending of the film is never in doubt. It's also the kind of movie in which moral complexities are easier to ignore than include, so don't expect many shades of grey in the characters of Thunder, Lawrence or Danny. Even Jack Rabbit, who proves a worthy, grouchy secondary antagonist to Thunder is quickly forgotten in the film's action-packed ending.

But it's all woven together to charming, sweet effect in the film, which benefits enormously from its excellent character design. It's easy to forgive the straightforward narrative when it's hurried along so effectively by the bouncy, adorable Thunder and his desire to be part of a family again. Lawrence's toys are also wonderfully realised: Edison, the most expressive walking lightbulb you'll ever see, is a standout, but the other supporting characters are lovingly developed too. Much of the joy in the film comes from watching them come together to thwart Danny's efforts.

Taken all together, The House Of Magic has the feel of a well-worn bedtime story: it may occasionally feel like something you've seen a thousand times before, but it's also powered by a comfortable, familiar spark of magic - the kind that makes you feel right at home, wherever you might be.

Summary: This house breaks little new ground but is nevertheless filled to the rafters with its own magic and charm.

Springsteen And I

Springsteen And I

(2013)
9 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Watch a documentary on a musician and his music, and what do you expect? A biopic, perhaps? A film about his beginnings, his inspirations, the way his fans have changed him, the crippling (or enabling) effects of fame? A glimpse, perhaps, into the singer as a man - the humanising of someone touched by the supernatural glow of celebrity. Or perhaps it's a concert documentary: a film focused more closely on talent and musicianship. Much as pioneering rock-and-roll icon Bruce Springsteen is deserving of all such cinematic treatment, Springsteen & I, refreshingly, falls into none of those categories. Instead, it's a movie for his fans and made by his fans - and, as a result, one that works very well too as an examination of the modern phenomena of celebrity culture and fandom.

Checking in with Springsteen's fans from all over the world, the documentary is spliced together from their home videos and personal accounts - resulting in stories that range from the hilarious (a mother who has forcibly passed her love for the Boss down to her offspring) to the touching (a British couple get an unexpected surprise when they fly to New York to catch a live concert). Fans talk about the electric moments in which they find themselves unexpectedly sharing Springsteen's spotlight, whether it's onstage or in an impromptu street performance. Of course, there's much ruminating on the way in which Springsteen's music has underscored and even changed the lives of his fans - even if they've never had the chance to see him perform live.

There's a real danger at every point in the film that it might become too mawkish and self-congratulatory. Indeed, if this were a documentary made by any other world-famous celebrity, it would likely come off as self-aggrandising, arrogant pablum. But because Springsteen has somehow managed to maintain a reputation for humility and being, as a fan put its, very much "salt of the earth", despite being one of the biggest stars on the planet, he just about gets away with it. Fans of the man and his music will recognise their own stories in these sweet, affecting tales, which ring with truth and a shared passion.

On the other hand, non-fans and neophytes might find the general air of breathless reverence somewhat off-putting - although there are certainly elements in the film which they can probably appreciate too. Director Baillie Walsh puts the story together with a light touch, taking care to inject humour into the proceedings. Specifically, she presents the point of view of, for want of a better term, a "fan-in-law" - a man who dutifully but reluctantly accompanies his Springsteen-obsessed wife to concerts all over Europe. It's moments like these that expand the film beyond a mere homage to a celebrity. Look a little deeper, and the vignettes in Springsteen & I reveal a great deal about passion and fandom: the need for human connection, the power of music and poetry, the community and camaraderie that can form from shared interests.

Another undeniable huge draw of Springsteen & I is the live footage that runs throughout the film, as well as the exclusive concert highlights that unspool after the credits. The sense where the former is concerned is of Springsteen sharing the limelight with his fans: his performances, including some rare, purportedly never-before-seen live footage, are tied into their stories. He riffs charmingly on the hidden subtext in Red-Headed Woman, for instance, or sings Born To Run across years and generations to close out the film. The concert reel after the credits, taken from his Hard Rock Calling performance in London last year and featuring Sir Paul McCartney, includes six rousing, wonderfully-performed rock anthems that are alone worth the price of admission.

For anyone who's ever loved something or someone in an indescribable, soul-deep way, even if it isn't Springsteen (but especially if it is), Springsteen & I is a movie that will resonate. It acknowledges the huge, enormous place celebrity, music, culture and art can occupy in someone's life, without the derogatory allusions that usually come with being classified a nerd, a geek or obsessive. For those unacquainted with the cult of Springsteen, be warned: this could prove both annoying and cloying, though there's also a chance he and his fans could charm you with the strength of their love and devotion.

Basically: A fascinating, unexpectedly insightful documentary that pays homage to Springsteen but also celebrates the passion of his fans.

Before Sunrise

Before Sunrise

(1995)
10 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes

[b]Before Sunrise[/b] is a simple, poetic distillation of the essence of romance. On a cross-Europe train ride, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets Celine (Julie Delpy), and as they talk and impulsively jump off the train together to walk around Vienna for a day, they discover a connection so startlingly deep and touching that they fall in love knowing that they must part in the morning.

The movie camera does little more than follow Jesse and Celine on their extended date through the beauty of Vienna by night--they talk about anything and everything: first loves, heartbreaks, men and women. They get on each other's nerves, briefly, visit a cemetery full of unknown ghosts, and wrestle with their growing desire to meet each other again. It's lovely to watch, considering how easily the film could have been boring and pretentious with its protagonists making pseudo-intellectual chatter throughout (as Hawke's character wryly observes at one point). And yet, it's surprisingly real and heartbreakingly sweet, including the people they meet along the way--such as the poetic bum or the kind-hearted bartender.

One of my favourite scenes would have to be when Celine initiates a phone conversation with her friend, played by Jesse. As they hold their hands to their faces, pretending to speak into telephones while facing each other across a table, they reveal first impressions and secret thoughts, and find out new things about each other. It's sweet, yet real, and so... ordinary. But beautiful nonetheless. Hawke has a tiny moment when his character forgets, and his hand slips to cup his chin, entranced by Celine. But he quickly recovers himself and gets back on the phone... part of their charade, their little game of falling more in love with each step they take.

[b]Before Sunrise[/b] is a small, elegant picture that says more with its tiny cast and budget than a lot of films these days. I'm much looking forward to its sequel.

The Words

The Words

(2012)
10 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes

It‚(TM)s happened before ‚" I‚(TM)ve read poor to middling reviews for a film, wandered into the cinema with my expectations accordingly dialled down as low as they can go‚¶ and wound up really enjoying myself. I figured that could be the case for The Words, which has pretty much been slammed from all corners in a way that suggests either (a) it‚(TM)s really quite terrible, or (b) it‚(TM)s one of those oddball cult movies that‚(TM)s likely to gain its own small, loyal following. So I went in with an open mind ‚" and came away with the unfortunate conviction that The Words is every bit as bad as reviews will have you believe.

The film opens with celebrated author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) reading from his latest novel, which tells the story of Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper). Rory‚(TM)s life looks like a charmed one ‚" he‚(TM)s the new darling of the literary world following the publication of his book, The Window Tears, and he‚(TM)s deeply in love with his beautiful, supportive wife Dora (Zoe Saldana). But then he meets a mysterious old man (Jeremy Irons), weighed down by years and secrets and pain‚¶ and Rory‚(TM)s fictional world starts to crumble even as Clay finds himself defending his book and protagonist to grad student Daniella (Olivia Wilde), one of his most ardent fans.

To be charitable, I suppose Brian Krugman and Lee Sternthal ‚" who are both credited as directors and writers for The Words ‚" had grand ambitions of devising a profound, literate drama blending a wealth of intriguing questions and themes: what is reality, and what is fiction? What happens when you‚(TM)re not as good as you hope to be? How far will you go to get what you want? Is it really your story if you don‚(TM)t get to tell it yourself? Certainly it sounds like an intriguing movie could be concocted out of these elements, one which darts from reality to fiction and back, weaving a cinematic spell from lies and fiction until reality itself is warped and changed.

The Words is not that movie. For much of its running time, it‚(TM)s pretty inoffensive ‚" a half-baked drama that plods along in its mediocre fashion, with nothing that particularly recommends or condemns it. It‚(TM)s pretty to look at, Rory and Dora seem like a sweet couple, and the old man‚(TM)s story is interesting enough as sepia-tinted tales of falling in love on the cobblestoned streets of Paris go.

But then the film reaches its climax, which is a misnomer in this instance because there‚(TM)s nothing especially exciting about it. At that point, the film actually manages to plunge downhill from its steady plateau. Laughably bad dialogue abounds, the sort that is so clunky that Cooper‚(TM)s best efforts can‚(TM)t rescue it. Sometimes, the performances in a film can salvage it from the dustbin of history and The Words really does boast an unusually impressive cast. Tragically, not even Irons can do much to elevate the distinctly poor script, while actors who usually do solid character work like Quaid and Wilde seem to be sleepwalking through their scenes. It feels almost as if the directors cobbled their cast together by calling in favours from the biggest names on their Facebook friends list.

How Klugman and Sternthal‚(TM)s script ended up on the Black List in 2005, an annual compilation of the best unproduced scripts making the rounds in Hollywood, is a mystery to me. Somehow, from script to screen, the movie floundered and wound up committing the greatest crime imaginable for a film so concerned with the power of language ‚" it failed to find the right words to tell its story.

BASICALLY: A waste of words.

C.R.A.Z.Y. (Crazy)

C.R.A.Z.Y. (Crazy)

(2005)
10 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes

With its loud dayglo poster and hopelessly retro-hip trailer, [b]C.R.A.Z.Y.[/b] appears to be marketed (at least in Singapore) as a hilarious, hip teen flick about coming out of the closet... which had me half-expecting one of those gross-out comedies the Americans seem to love so much. I just figured the Canadians were about to get in on the act. Of course, I should have been sufficiently clued in by the numerous accolades and critical plaudits this movie has won to realise that it was no mere mainstream hit, though it certainly has crossover potential given the gripping universality of its themes. Thank heaven that [b]C.R.A.Z.Y.[/b], despite its trappings as a dime-a-dozen family drama about a young male protagonist's coming of age, actually breaks out of every marketing and genre mould you'd expect it to occupy, to create a fresh, touching and very real exploration of all the pain and joy associated with family, growing up, and wanting - nay, [i]needing [/i]- to be loved.

Zachary Beaulieu (played by Marc-Andre Grondin when a teenager/adult and by Emile Vallee as a child) is the fourth boy in a set of five sons, literally marked as different from his brothers by a scar - caused when he was dropped on his head the very Christmas day he was born in 1960 - and a stray lock of blonde hair at the nape of his neck that has never matched the rest of his dark hair. Each of his brothers have their own distinctive personalities, of course - Christian (Maxime Tremblay) is a bookworm who reads so voraciously even food labels don't escape his hungry eyes; Raymond (Pierre-Luc Brillant) a drugged-out loser of a hippie who nevertheless emanates cool; Antoine (Alex Gravel) a jock whose life revolves around sports; and youngest son Yvan (Felix-Antoine Despatie) whose sole distinguishing characteristic unfortunately appears to be that he's chubby. But there [i]is[/i] something different about Zac - not because he has miraculous healing powers imparted to him by the Christ-child whose birthday he shares, as his loving, quietly devoted and spiritual mother Laurianne (Danielle Proulx) wants to believe, but because Zac is gay (or at least bisexual). As he struggles for years to find and define himself as a human being, Zac battles his own disgust and horror at what he hopes he will not become, praying to an apparently unhearing, uncaring god to fix what he thinks is wrong with him. But even harder to handle than his own self-recrimination, Zac discovers, is the dark, bitter disappointment and denial of his beloved father Gervais (Michel Cote) that fundamentally and painfully redefines their relationship when the latter's suspicions about his son's sexual orientation solidify and start to colour his perception of Zac for the worse.

For the most part, [b]C.R.A.Z.Y.[/b] is a wonderful movie-watching experience - it's engaging, funny, thoroughly involving... and unless you've grown up a hermit and have no familial relationships whatsoever, it's also the kind of movie that strikes a chord with just about anyone anywhere. Who [i]hasn't[/i] felt, however fleetingly, that miserable feeling of alienation from the people you love the most, and most crucially, the people you expect to accept you and love you conditionally? The snapshots of a life provided by Zac's wry, quirky voice-over as he recounts seminal moments in his childhood are achingly familiar - and perhaps become most clear when he introduces each of his brothers with the knowing, weary frustration that comes from loving and hating them in equal measure, particularly his "mortal enemy" Raymond. That's just how sibling relationships are - the love is there, but it's buried beneath a layer of annoyance, frustration and what feels a lot like hate, frequently more immediate and certainly manifesting itself more obviously than its opposite. In this sense, the movie excels, because Zac's relationships with the key members of his family - namely his parents and Raymond - are painstakingly drawn, and coloured in with so many shades of grey that their relationships and motivations are always shifting and never predictable. In other words, they're - crucially - very much as you'd expect real people to be.

Standouts, of course, are not coincidentally also the stars of the show. Zac is front and centre, and is certainly a fascinating study of a young man not just dealing with growing up and its attendant hormonally-induced turmoil, but also struggling to understand his own feelings and sexuality. Thankfully, the scenes illustrating this internal conflict are usually subtly handled - ranging from the painfully funny (Zac's star-spangled rendition of a David Bowie song gets him a walloping from the macho Antoine and the bemused giggles of a gaggle of amused schoolmates outside his window) to the viscerally shocking (as Zac mercilessly pounds into the pavement the one boy at school who recognises and understands what Zac is going through) and the frustratingly, miserably sad (Zac projecting his feelings of lust for his cousin's boyfriend onto his cousin, in the misguided belief that incestuous feelings are at least a notch about homosexual ones). As Zac spirals through denial after denial, until he almost convinces himself that he was just suffering through a phase, his own actions (getting into a horrific car accident, shouting abuse at the same boy he beat up when) only play as a reflection of the same feelings of revulsion and horror that plague his father.

Which leads me to the wonderfully-drawn secondary characters in this piece, who I feel actually were the stars of the movie. Much as it belongs to Zac and his journey, it's also his father, mother and arch enemy of a brother that lend such emotional resonance to Zac's travails. Gervais, in particular, is perhaps one of the best minor roles in recent memory - tough, loving, bossy and a know-it-all, the audience watches with Zac as Gervais morphs from the world's best dad, when they go on special just-them outings for french fries, to a paranoid, untrusting homophobe who seems better able to accept a druggie stoner for a son than a gay. (The pride Gervais takes in Zac's manly exploits - beating up a kid in school, for instance - is funny in the context of the movie, but a great, revealing character moment too.) Even in the face of his wife's far less belligerent attitude towards Zac's possible sexual proclivities, Gervais remains adamant that he can fix what he thinks is wrong with his son, sending him for therapy or shouting him down in a rained-out carpark on the night of Christian's wedding. In a moment of particularly hard-won, tortured epiphany, Gervais finally sits his son down and explains to him just why he can't get over Zac being different in this particular way - and it's a moment shot through with so much pain and love that it becomes difficult to begrudge Gervais his longstanding refusal to give up on his son perhaps becoming normal.

Meanwhile, although given less screen-time and dialogue, Zac's mother Laurianne is as strong a presence in the boy's life - this stemming very much from her undeniable unconditional love for him, as she indulges the young boy's desire to push his baby brother's pram once out of sight of Gervais and the eye he always keeps open for any hint of girliness in his son such that it can be immediately quashed. Laurianne's quiet faith and devotion to her god and her children are never articulated, but come through strongly - from her reaction to Zac's gift to her of a book on Jerusalem, or the thudding sound from the kitchen that for her takes the place of heaving sobs as she irons bread for Raymond the way he likes it. Raymond, as Zac's dramatic counter-point, is another great character - lurking always on the peripheries of his brother's subconscious, Raymond is the brother Zac can neither understand not accept, because [i]surely[/i] what Raymond does is worse than what Zac only thinks about. As both brothers squabble, picking up on where the other is most sensitive to criticism (Raymond never fails to belittle Zac as a fag, above and beyond the casual use of slang), what's surprising is that love which still underlies their prickly, hate-filled relationship. Raymond fights for his brother's honour at Christian's wedding, or Zac secretly sends Raymond the money he refuses to personally give the latter. And tellingly, at one of the lowest points of Zac's life, the hallucinated person he first sees that gives him back his life is Raymond - something that becomes true, in a devastatingly literal way, nearer the end of the film.

Not to say that [b]C.R.A.Z.Y.[/b] is perfect - not quite. Tonally, it's a bit of a mess, and I have to admit that I far prefer the quirky charm of the first part, as we watch young Zac grow up and deal first with childhood neuroses like bed-wetting, and then far more serious grown-up problems of anger (breaking his father's beloved Patsy Cline record), resentment and denial. The feel of this section of the film recalls the offbeat appeal of [i]Amelie[/i], radiating as it does the rose-glow of childhood as Zac complains about sharing the Christ-child's birthday or gets taken to the local medium/healer Madame Chose (Helene Gregoire) so that she can tell if he shares her gift. It's also peppered through with gorgeous imagery - Zac hanging blissfully out of his dad's car window as they take a winding trip down a meandering country road, Zac getting dunked at camp as his mom's cross disappears into the blue nowhere. The slow disappearance of Zac's voice-over heralds also a shift into far more gritty, close-to-the-bone dramatic territory, as he grows up and his world becomes a consequently far darker, far gloomier place. The movie's appeal is considerably reduced when it becomes a series of increasingly depressing scenes which certainly add to the story (and the already hefty two-hour-plus running time), but unfortunately fail to elevate it beyond what had already been established story-wise (Gervais does not want a gay son, basically). Even the flights of fantasy to which Zac is prone become more disturbing in the darker half of the film, which certainly befits its more serious tone - but because the movie almost becomes a documentary in terms of how grave it gets the more running time is clocked up, these more macabre jaunts of imagination (Zac dragging his way across a hot, parched stretch of desert) are jarring rather than organic to the movie and its main character.

Nevertheless, [b]C.R.A.Z.Y. [/b]is one of the better coming-of-age stories to have emerged in recent years. Fortunately, writer-director Jean-Marc Vallee clearly wanted to create a true coming-of-age movie rather than a titillating one just about coming out of the closet - and it's a far richer, more engaging experience because of that. Smart, tender and painfully real, the movie boasts a cracking cast (all are great, but my favourites include the precocious young Vallee, the gruff Cote and the winsome Proulx) and heaps of touching, truthful insight into the ways families can pull together just as easily as they can tear themselves apart.

Shawne's Badges

Intel Hollywood Star Program (July 2012 - December 2012)
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