The Man with the Magic Box (Czlowiek z magicznym pudelkiem)


Did you hear the one about the star-crossed lovers?

(2017) Science Fiction (Artsploitation) Piotr Polak, Olga Boladz, Sebastian Staniewicz, Helena Norowicz, Wojciech Zielinski, Bartolemej Firlet, Bartosz Cao, Anna Konieczna, Agata Buzek, Arkadiusz Jakubik, Bogdan Koca, Roma Kox, Bartosz Bielenia, Bartosz Adamczyk, Kamil Tolinski, Modest Rucinski, Marcin Sitek, Piotr Farynski, Kasia Koleczek, Maria Patykiewicz. Directed by Bodo Kox

 

There are movies that spell things out for you and then there are movies that force you to figure things out. I don’t have a problem with the latter kind of cinema but there’s an occupational hazard that the film can lead you down the primrose path without giving you the payoff you deserve for your efforts.

Adam (Polak) wakes up in 2030 with no memory of who he is or what he’s doing in Warsaw. He is given a job as a janitor in a high-tech office building where good-natured Sebastian (Staniewicz) shows him the ropes. It is at work that he encounters Goria (Boladz), a beautiful but somewhat aloof manager – at least she seems to be as she is one of the few who has an “office” of her own – and with whom he falls deeply in love. At first she rebuffs his advances (somewhat caustically, I might add) but during an explosion and fire in a neighboring building causes the panicked workers to flee their own building, the two engage in sweaty, manic sex.

Adam stumbles upon an old-style radio that picks up mysterious broadcasts which might be coming from the year 1952. He also begins to have visions of that era, visions that he struggles to understand. As it turns out, like Billy Pilgrim, he is unstuck in time and whether he will stay in a past ruled by dictatorial communists or in the dystopian future ruled by a KGB-like secret police but which includes Goria, is anybody’s guess.

I’m not 100% sure that this synopsis does the plot justice. Bodo Kox has created a future that looks very lived-in although to be blunt, the technology seems a might more advanced than ten years hence seems likely to produce. Water is severely rationed (which given the situation with climate change seems like a distinct possibility) and privacy is non-existent (which given how little privacy we currently have given that everything we do is recorded). People live in fear of a secret police that are aware of everything they do. It’s not the sort of Brave New World that we signed up for.

The chemistry between Polak and Boladz is a bit complicated; at times there is a genuine bond apparent between them but at others there’s a distance that’s just as tangible. That chemistry is central to the success or failure of this film and I can’t say that it works completely. This is the film’s most glaring flaw; there are also some logical missteps in the story.

I have to give the filmmakers points for trying to deviate from standard time travel and dystopian future formulae. The script could have used another go-round of polish and the leads maybe recast although to be honest I’d keep Boladz; she has star quality. Polak is a bit bland, leading one to wonder what the Polansky she sees in him. Cerebral sci-fi fans should give this one a look.

REASONS TO SEE: The production design depicts a lived-in future.
REASONS TO AVOID: The chemistry between Polak and Boladz is inconsistent.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was nominated for two Polish Oscars in 2017, for Best Production Design and Best Music Score.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brazil
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Incredibles 2

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Amnesia


Sitting out in the warm sun can be a kind of amnesia.

(2015) Drama (Film Movement) Marthe Keller, Max Riemell, Bruno Ganz, Corinna Kirchhoff, Fermi Reixach, Marie Leuenberger, Félix Pons, Florentin Groll, Eva Barceló, Lluis Altés, Rick Zingale, Kate Ashcroft, Joel Rice, Alfie Davies Man, Fabian Krüger, Joel Basman. Directed by Barbet Schroeder

 

It is said that the sea has no memory; if that is true, an island is the perfect place to forget.

Marthe (Keller) lives a kind of idyllic life in Ibiza. It is 1990 and the Berlin Wall has just fallen. Her house is absolutely charming with a breathtaking view. There is no electricity but she is absolutely fine with that. She grows many of her own vegetables and goes fishing when she is hungry. That which she can’t get from the sea or grow herself she picks up at the local market. One of her cousins is visiting and urging her to return to Germany to dispose of a property for which her presence is required. She politely declines.

Shortly thereafter, a new neighbor moves in to the house just above hers on the hillside. He is Jo (Riemell), a German musician/composer who has been drawn by Ibiza’s burgeoning Electronic Dance Music (EDM) scene. His stage name is DJ Gello and he is angling for a gig at Amnesia, the 800 pound gorilla of EDM clubs on Ibiza (and yes, this is a real club which is still open today). Jo is a pleasant sort who shows up at her door requesting first aid after badly burning his hand accidentally. She gives him an herbal cream rather than a bag of ice and the two strike up a friendship.

Marthe is in her 70s and Jo in his 20s but the two hit it off. They become fast friends, Marthe introducing Jo to the laid-back Ibiza life, Jo introducing Marthe to the hypnotic sway of EDM which Marthe actually finds compelling. There are a lot of things Marthe isn’t talking about; the cello that she never plays, the reason she won’t drink German wine or ride in Jo’s Volkswagen. He also is upset when he discovers that Marthe, who claimed to be unable to speak German, turns out to be fluent in that language.

In fact, it turns out that Marthe is in fact German. She left Germany shortly before World War II broke out and fled to Switzerland with her love, a Jewish cellist. Disgusted by what her country did and became, she has renounced all things German, affecting a sort of amnesia by choice of her native country, her native language and everything relating to it.

When Jo’s parents visit, his doctor mother (Leuenberger) and his beloved grandfather (Ganz) are trying very hard to convince Jo to return and take part in the historic reunification between East and West Germany. As the two enjoy a paella on Marthe’s patio on a sunlit afternoon, the grandfather’s harmless stories – which had evolved over the years – under Marthe’s persistent questioning begins to crumble until a stark truth remains. Grandpa Bruno’s own stories had formed a kind of amnesia for events too terrible to contemplate.

Schroeder has made some wonderful films in his storied career (his first effort in the director’s chair came back in 1969) as well as a few turkeys but this one tends towards the former more than the latter. A lot of his films feature people dealing with an unsavory past and this one does so indirectly (and directly in the case of Grandpa Bruno). Marthe, as Jo’s mom points out near the end of the film, is dealing with her issues with her homeland by running away from her feelings. It’s hard not to blame her; in an era when Americans are increasingly disillusioned with the direction that their country is taking. While we don’t have evil on the scale of the Nazis running the United States, there are certainly a lot of reasons not to like the way our country is shaping up. I’m not sure I’m quite ready to move to Ibiza and never speak English again – well, maybe I’m ready to move to Ibiza.

The cinematography here might just make you want to move to Ibiza. There are some beautiful vistas of gorgeous sunsets, stunning views and charming marketplaces. While this is mainly the Ibiza of 20 years ago (other than two framing scenes at the beginning and end), my understanding is that it hasn’t changed all that much.

The writing here is very simple in terms of storyline and although the plot takes awhile to get moving it does eventually do so. Yes, some of the dialogue is a little clunky (as when Jo explains to Marthe what looping is) but by and large this feels a lot like real people conversing with one another albeit people conversing in a language not native to them.

Marthe Keller was a big European star in the 70s along the lines of Charlotte Rampling who has had a bit of a late career renaissance. A performance like this could get Keller a resurgence of her own; the septuagenarian is charming and natural, never rushing her delivery. She’s not so much grandmotherly as she is a bit of a recluse; her origins are kept secret early on giving her an air of mystery but gradually as her story is unveiled we get to understand her better. The relationship between Marthe and Jo is platonic although Jo hints that his feelings run deeper, and the chemistry between the two is at the heart of the film. Both of these people are somewhat wounded and need each other and in the end we see that they are good for each other in ways movies don’t often explore.

This isn’t slated to get a very wide release although if it does well in the cities it is playing in we might see it get more screens, so it behooves you to make plans to see it if it does show up in your neck of the woods. It’s also already on Google Play and should be out on other streaming services before too long. In any case, this is a worthwhile effort from a director who has helped shape the course of film over the past 50 years – that in itself should be incentive enough.

REASONS TO GO: The vistas of Ibiza are enchanting. The story is simple but effective.
REASONS TO STAY: The story takes a little bit of time to get moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house that Marthe lives in here was also used by Schroeder in More (1969) and is owned by the Schroeder family (his mother bought it in 1951).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Google Play
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Reader
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Born in China

Pick of the Litter – July 2017


BLOCKBUSTER OF THE MONTH

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

(EuropaCorp/STX) Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Ethan Hawke. Based on the landmark graphic novel and brought to life by French director Luc Besson, this movie follows the exploits of Valerian and his partner in crime Laureline who are tasked with the assignment of protecting Alpha, an amazing city where thousands of sentient beings gather to share technologies, cultures and knowledge with one another. It is truly a city of peace but it has become threatened by an unknown force and it is up to the two agents to not only discover who the threat is coming from but head it off before the galaxy is plunged into an all-encompassing war. July 21

INDEPENDENT PICKS

City of Ghosts

(IFC/Amazon) Matthew Heineman. From the director of Cartel Land comes this extraordinary documentary which chronicles the attempts of citizen journalists in the occupied city of Raqqa who attempt to call attention of the world to the horrors being inflicted upon them by ISIS. Even when they leave their home, these courageous chroniclers are not safe. It’s a truly sobering look at the human toll of religious fanaticism. July 7

Bronx Gothic

(Grasshopper) Okwui Okpokwasili. This is a documentary account of performance artist Okpokwasili and her preparation and execution of the riveting and controversial piece Bronx Gothic. Attempting to bring the plight of black women to audiences who don’t understand it, Okpokwasili put her own body on the line night after night to make the pain of the black woman real. July 12

500 Years

(Paladin) Pamela Yates. The Mayans built an amazing civilization on the Yucatan Peninsula. Their descendants however faced extraordinary deprivation under Guatemalan President Jose Luis Rios Montt. Against all odds, the Mayan people stood up against his tyranny and against the violence being inflicted upon him and brought the dictator to trial. This is the amazing story about how an ancient people found their voice again. July 12

Birthright: A War Story

(Abramorama) Civia Tamarkin. It is no secret that abortion is an explosive topic of conversation in our country. Many women thought their rights to choose were protected thanks to Roe v. Wade but it has become clear in this era of conservative activism that is no longer true. Draconian laws have been enacted at the state and local level that have become so intrusive into the lives and reproduction of women that even some conservatives are uncomfortable. This documentary exposes the human cost of the Right to Life and the hypocrisy behind it. July 14

Chasing Coral

(Netflix) Andrew Ackerman, Mark Eakin, Luiz A. Rocha, Joanie Kleypas. From the team that brought us the sobering melting ice cap documentary Chasing Ice comes this new film that looks at the coral reefs, a vital part of the ocean’s ecosystem. The world’s coral reefs have been dying at a terrifying rate, including the Great Barrier Reef, the oldest living thing on the planet. All hope is not lost but time is running out and action is required. July 14

Amnesia

(Film Movement) Marthe Keller, Max Riemett, Bruno Ganz, Corinna Kirchhoff. Master Director Barbet Schroeder brings us this tale of memory and loss. A DJ in a club called Amnesia in Ibiza is mesmerized by a lonely woman who comes to the club every night. He befriends her and as she slowly lets him in, she begins to reveal the past she has been trying to forget – only now she is trying to make peace with it. July 21

 Brigsby Bear

(Sony Classics) Kyle Mooney, Claire Danes, Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear. A strange and magical children’s television show, The Adventures of Brigsby Bear, has an audience of one – James. When the show ends abruptly, he finds that he cannot accept that his beloved show is gone. Therefore he decides to finish the show himself and maybe define himself in the process. It looks to have a bit of a Michel Gondry influence judging on the trailer. July 28

Catch 22: Based on the Unwritten Story by Seanie Sugrue


A party with macho guys, lots of booze and drugs and a mouthy hooker? What could possibly go wrong?!

A party with macho guys, lots of booze and drugs and a mouthy hooker? What could possibly go wrong?!

(2016) Thriller (108 Media) Brock Harris, Al Thompson, Dónall Ó Héalai, Michael Rabe, Jayce Bartok, Charmane Star, An Nguyen, Phil  Burke, Cameron McIntosh, Gerard Assante, Zachary Clarence, Charles Kennedy, Melissa Crisafulli, Seanie Sugrue, Donald Paul, Malik Uhuru, Josh Folan, Olivia Howell, Zack Auron, Dana Eckley, Gloria Kim, Emma Lieberman. Directed by Josh Folan

 

Sometimes a movie tells you right off the bat what kind of movie it’s going to be. In the case of this one, the opening scene starts with a toilet in which the water is stained with what appears to be urine. In comes one of the characters and throws up into the commode. Eventually he notices that there’s a dead Asian girl (Star) in the bathtub.

There are five guys who have passed out in the living room; Smoke (Harris), Bird (Thompson), Vince (Bartok), Seanie (Rabe) and Mikey (Ó Héalai). Most of them have criminal records; one of them is headed to prison for dealing shortly; in fact, the party is a farewell party to their buddy. And now this happens.

What transpires over the next several hours is an attempt to figure out what happened to the girl. As one of the men says to the others, “We’re not gonna f*** each other.” And that’s just what they proceed to do. It’s a bit like a Bizarro World Hangover in which nobody can remember what happened over the past 24 hours until bits and pieces begin to return to memory in segments that are preceded by a static sound like a old television being tuned on UHF.

This is definitely a micro-budgeted indie and while there’s nothing wrong with that, someone needed to spend a little more of the budget on lighting; much of the film is dimly lit to the point where at times it is hard to tell the difference between some of the actors who with the exception of Thompson all have similar looks.

The relationship between the guys feels genuine to be fair. They talk like guys who have been friends from womb to tomb. They dress similarly in the way that guys who have bonded tend to dress the same. They act like they’ve been friends forever. I don’t know if there was any pre-existing relationship between the actors but it sure feels like they’ve known each other forever. If they haven’t, then all the more kudos to them.

I would have liked to have seen a bit more character development; all five of the guys tended to blend together somewhat to the point that at times I couldn’t remember who it was that was talking. Still, the story is mildly compelling and there is enough here to make me think that the filmmakers have a future, but there’s not enough here that lends itself to an unhesitant recommendation.

REASONS TO GO: The dialogue and male relationships are authentic.
REASONS TO STAY: The lighting is perpetually dim. The flashbacks are annoying. There’s a whole lot of man-posturing and not enough character development.
FAMILY VALUES:  The theme here is plenty adult; there are also graphic nudity, sexual content, a surfeit of drug use, some violence and a whole lot of profanity including racial slurs.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The real Seanie Sugrue appears in a cameo as a vagrant.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo,
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Very Bad Things 
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Ivory Game

Inferno (2016)


Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones at least got their exercise regimens in.

Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones at least got their exercise regimens in.

(2016) Thriller (Columbia) Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Omar Sy, Irrfan Khan, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Ben Foster, Ana Ularu, Ida Darvish, Paolo Antonio Simioni, Fausto Maria Sciarappa, Alessandro Grimaldi, Robin Mugnaini, Paul Ritter, Vincenzo Tanassi, Alessandro Fabrizi, Simone Mariani, Gabor Urmai, Jon Donahue, Fortunato Cerlino, Attila Arpa, Kata Sorbo. Directed by Ron Howard

 

I don’t know if it’s fair to characterize the novels of Dan Brown as an acquired taste. After all, he’s sold millions of copies of his Robert Langdon novels starting with The DaVinci Code. His plots tend to be complicated and sometimes overly so. Still, they can be an entertaining read. Now, his fourth novel in the series has become the third filmed version of the franchise

Professor Robert Langdon (Hanks), one of the world’s leading minds, wakes up in an Italian hospital with no memory of how he got there. Dr. Sienna Brooks (Jones) is trying to establish how he was shot; there is a head wound where a bullet apparently grazed his skull which might account for his amnesia. Just then a remorseless assassin (Ularu) comes for him, forcing the professor and doctor to flee.

In fact, it turns out a lot of people are after Langdon. The World Health Organization, with Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey (Knudsen) and .investigator Christoph Bouchard (Sy) are chasing Langdon with an unknown agenda. The Italian police are after him after surveillance footage reveals that he stole the death mask of Dante Alighieri  whose Inferno holds clues to a mad billionaire’s (Foster) plan to “cull the human herd” by releasing a plague that will kill half the world’s population and immediately ease overpopulation concerns. A bit of a drastic cure, that.

In any case as Langdon’s memories begin to slowly return, he finds he is in a race against time to find the killer virus and stop this mass murder on a demonic scale. In order to do that he has to follow a chain of clues left behind by the billionaire who killed himself rather than reveal the location of the virus’s delivery system to the WHO. Who can Langdon trust? As it turns out, not the people he thinks.

I have to admit I found the first film in the series, The DaVinci Code, to be genuinely entertaining – the follow-up, Angels and Demons, less so but still acceptable. The third in the series is by far the least entertaining so far; the preposterous nature of the plot has become far too glaring to ignore and the payoff not enough to be worth the ride. Hanks looks a bit tired here; I suspect he’s given Langdon about all he can give him as an actor. There were rumors that both Howard and Hanks were leaving the series after Angels and Demons but apparently they were prevailed upon to do the third film after pre-production on a proposed film version of the third book in the series, The Lost Symbol, stalled.

Again, Howard utilizes an international cast that is largely better known in Europe than in the United States with the exception of the Oscar-nominated Jones who shines here, reinforcing my opinion that she is one of the best young actresses out there who is likely to be one of the most honored actresses of her generation when all is said and done. Khan, who plays the nefarious head of a shadowy security agency, also has some meat on the bones of his character that he can work with but his part is all too brief alas.

Seeing the sights of Florence, Cambridge and Istanbul (among other places) is pleasing, particularly to me personally as I was in Florence just this past May and can attest to the beauty of the city having seen the Ponte Vecchio and the Uffizi with my own eyes. It certainly ignited the tourist in my soul to see some of the sights that the movie highlights. If you have that tourist gene inside you, you’ll likely be pleased by this as much as I was, but it’s not really enough to recommend a movie just for the setting. It’s rough when every ten minutes or so you’re rolling your eyes at yet another plot turn that defies logic. Even Dan Brown’s most loyal fans will be shaking their heads at this one.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of lovely tourist opportunities for places like Florence and Istanbul.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is absolutely preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES:  Action and violence in plenty here, as well as a few disturbing images, brief sexuality, some disturbing thematic elements and brief foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first Robert Langdon film not to be written by Akiva Goldsman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Outbreak
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Be My Cat: A Film for Anne

Jason Bourne


Matt Damon espies a Trump for President sign.

Matt Damon espies a Trump for President sign.

(2016) Spy Action (Universal) Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassel, Julia Styles, Riz Ahmed, Ato Essandoh, Scott Shepherd, Bill Camp, Vinzenz Kiefer, Stephen Kunken, Ben Stylianou, Kaya Yuzuki, Matthew O’Neill, Lizzie Phillips, Paris Stangl, Matt Blair, Amy De Bruhn, Akie Kotabe, Robin Crouch, Gregg Henry, Ava Katharina Maria Hoeller. Directed by Paul Greengrass

 

It’s been nine years since the most recent Bourne movie and that’s a long time for a spy to be on the shelf. Can the franchise that was once set to overtake Bond in the spy market recover?

Jason Bourne (Damon) has been living off the grid, but that’s what happens when the CIA wants you dead. He’s been making a living doing underground fights in Macedonia which is essentially a one punch affair for the world’s most dangerous assassin. Maybe all the blows to the head in the first three movies have jarred something loose but he remembers his past now, all of it. And he remembers in particular a meeting with his father (Henry) just moments before he was assassinated and at about the time that he – then known as David Webb – was recruited for Treadstone.

But as his long-time ally Nicky Parsons (Stiles) says, just because he remembers everything doesn’t mean he knows everything and he’s clearly got a lot to learn and he’s gonna go find out what he needs to know. New CIA director Robert Dewey (Jones) has a lot of skeletons in his closet and he doesn’t want Bourne opening his closet door. He sends an operative known only as the Asset (Cassel) after Bourne and Parsons, which doesn’t bode well for either of them.

Dewey in the meantime has an agreement with tech billionaire Aaron Kalloor  (Ahmed) who made his billions with a Facebook-like social media site that hides a nefarious secret and Kalloor is about to come clean, something Dewey cannot allow. Working on Dewey’s team is Heather Lee (Vikander), a CIA analyst and computer expert who is figuring out that there is a game afoot, but the players are playing for keeps and may well be out of her league. She will be the wild card when the end game makes its inexorable appearance.

I left the theater feeling a sense of déjà vu and not in a good way. There were high hopes for this franchise; not only was it making monster profits but first director Doug Liman and then Greengrass created bold, kickass movies that not only redefined the spy genre but made it relevant in the 21st century; even the James Bond franchise seemed to borrow from Bourne tonally once Daniel Craig was aboard. This feels like it cribbed a lot of its material from previous Bourne movies.

Greengrass likes to use the handheld camera for fight scenes and that does, I’ll admit, create a very kinetic action sequence. It also makes it nearly impossible to tell who is doing what to whom, and as a result it tends to waste the choreography and skill of those doing the fighting. I’m already prone to vertigo and those scenes don’t do me any favors; friends who have seen the movie who have no balance issues have reported feeling queasy during the fight scenes and having to look away from the screen. I get that this is something that Greengrass is known for and it’s tough sometimes for a filmmaker to give up a trademark of their style but perhaps he should consider it in this case.

Damon however, having won an Oscar since the last time he played Bourne, still is as Chuck Norris as they come in the role and yes I’m using the actor’s name as an adjective. He scowls with the best of them – in fact, I don’t think anyone cracks a smile in the entire movie that I could remember – and kicks bootie as well as any actor who doesn’t have a martial arts background to begin with. Bourne may well end up being his signature role (as Bond was for Sean Connery and Harry Callahan was for Clint Eastwood) and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Tommy Lee Jones is also fun to watch; he’s a crocodile in a business suit with a lapel pin and you can feel the slime dripping off of him as he works his magic. Hero or villain, Jones is one of the most reliable actors there has ever been; I can’t remember him ever phoning in a performance. French superstar Cassel (who is badly underrated here in the States) is almost Damon’s equal as the villainous Asset.

Despite the tendency towards overly kinetic camera work, Greengrass still knows how to mount edge-of-your-seat action sequences and the car chase down the Las Vegas strip near the movie’s conclusion may well be the best of the entire series. It is a thing of beauty and is worth seeing the film for all by itself. It is by no means the only well-staged action sequence in the film, however and in many ways other than Damon’s performance the action pieces are the best thing about the movie.

I don’t know if the franchise is getting a bit tired; something tells me that Greengrass probably has done about everything he needs to as far as Jason Bourne is concerned and while I think Damon is amazing in the role, it also might be time to put another actor into it if they are going to continue the franchise and if Damon won’t work with anyone else but Greengrass in order to play the part. Jeremy Renner will be returning in the not-too-distant future in another movie set in the Bourne universe, and perhaps it is time to see what other directors, writers and actors can do with it. I think that there’s a lot more that can come out of the franchise but this movie seems to indicate that those who have guided it successfully so far have essentially run out of steam.

REASONS TO GO: Matt Damon is as badass as ever. The Las Vegas car chase is a classic.
REASONS TO STAY: Shaky handheld camera work smacks of “Look, Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome. Too many elements are just like other Bourne films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence as well as a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Part of the film is set in Athens, Greece but due to the high taxes and bureaucratic obstacles, filming for that portion took place in Tenerife in the Canary Islands instead.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spectre
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Nerve

Shaun the Sheep Movie


Shaun the Sheep reads the early reviews.

Shaun the Sheep reads the early reviews.

(2015) Animated Feature (Lionsgate) Starring the voices of Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes,  Omid Djalili, Richard Webber, Kate Harbour, Tim Hands, Andy Nyman, Simon Greenall, Emma Tate, Jack Paulson, Sean Connolly, Henry Burton, Dhimant Vyas, Sophie Laughton, Nia Medi James, Stanley Unwin, Nick Park. Directed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak

Variety asserts that Shaun the Sheep is comparable to the legendary French comedian Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot and while that is a bit of a stretch, I can at least see where the reviewer is coming from. Certainly Shaun is about as loquacious as the French comedian.

Shaun the Sheep (Fletcher) made his first appearance in a Wallace and Gromit short before getting a series of 7-minute shorts of his own, more than a hundred of them most of which have been broadcast on TV. This is the first full-length feature and it follows the storyline of most of the shorts, to wit Shaun and his fellow sheep try to get out of doing any farm work, having to outwit the dog Bitzer (Sparkes) and the unnamed balding Farmer (Sparkes). The shorts are clever and cute.

This time, however, things get a little out of hand when after lulling the Farmer to sleep by jumping over a fence until he nods off, they store him in what the Brits call a caravan and we call a trailer. When Bitzer gets wind of the deception, he goes to wake up his master, only to send the Caravan on a beeline for the city – London although not specifically named. Upon arrival the farmer is bonked on the head and loses all his memories. Having no ID on him, he wanders the streets, trying to find some sort of clue as to who he is and what he does for a living. He ends up mistakenly figuring out that he’s a hairdresser and uses the clippers to sheer the heads of his celebrity clients, recreating the same sorts of styles he used to give his sheep.

Shaun knows he needs to go retrieve the Farmer so he heads out to the City, only to be followed by the rest of the flock and Bitzer. A super-zealous animal control catcher named Trumper (Djalili) is on the prowl for Shaun and his friends and eventually captures Shaun and Bitzer, imprisoning them in a dog shelter which looks much more like death row. There they meet the world’s ugliest dog who has no hope of being adopted. Their new friend helps them escape and eventually hide out, where Shaun comes up with a last-ditch plan to get their Farmer back home to the farm – and put everything to right.

I have to admit that my hopes weren’t high for this, as it is the first Aardman animation feature in awhile to arrive with little or no fanfare and quite frankly, it may very well be one of the best things the studio has ever done. One thing I’d worried about is that there is absolutely no dialogue – the animals communicate with gesture, look and an occasional bleat or woof. Humans speak in an unintelligible gibberish that puts the “WAH WAH WAH” spoken by the adults in the Peanuts cartoons to shame.

There is obviously a great deal of affection for the rustic way of life; the farmhouse is one of those beautiful old stone farmhouses that dot the English countryside, the meadow is beautiful and even the “work” that is done doesn’t seem all that taxing. The bucolic setting and the obvious affection the sheep feel for the farmer and vice versa is kind of moving. You would think that a farmer who has grown to middle age without a human partner might get unutterably lonely but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

Like most of Aardman’s animations, this is clever as all get out. It certainly seems to be aimed at a very young audience, certainly toddlers on up but unlike a lot of American entertainment aimed at the very young, this is just as easily digested by adult viewers. It’s very short as you might expect (barely over an hour) and not for a moment did I ever feel bored or talked down to. The opening sequence, done as a Super 8 film of the Farmer as a young man with Shaun as a baby and Bitzer as a puppy establishes the mood; it’s a rather sweet sequence and while critics have praised it, some might find it too treacly. Those who don’t like cute movies for kids would be well-advised to move on.

The charm here is undeniable and quite frankly although it doesn’t have the lofty aspirations of Inside Out or the epic setting of Minions this certainly belongs with those two films as the very best family films of the summer. Some families might be unaware of the character or the movie, but this is one I’d highly recommend for an afternoon out at the movies with the kids.

REASONS TO GO: Super charming. Clever like all Aardman films. Good for adults and kids alike.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little over-sentimental in places. Those who don’t like kid movies that are cute will not like this.
FAMILY VALUES: Some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Twenty animators worked on the film, each producing about two seconds of footage per day.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Mr. Holmes