My Life as a Zucchini (Ma vie de Courgette)


A snow day is a great day!

(2016) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Will Forte, Erick Abbate, Romy Beckman, Ness Krell, Nick Offerman, Ellen Page, Amy Sedaris, Susanne Blakeslee, Barry Mitchell, Olivia Bucknor, Clara Young, Finn Robbins, JD Blanc, Michael Sinterniklaas, Stephanie Sheh. Directed by Claude Barras

 

What makes a movie a kid’s movie? Is it because the protagonist is a child? Or is it because it’s animated? Maybe the subject matter is less complicated than a film aimed at older audiences? These are all fair questions and while it is generally fairly easy to tell what is a movie meant for the elementary school set and what is not, some films are a little bit harder to gauge.

Icare (Abbate) is a sad, lonely child. He lives with his alcoholic mom in a flat which is littered with empty beer cans that his mom has consumed. His father is long gone. His only joy is flying a kite with a superhero drawn on it – one that perhaps is his notion of who his dad is. On a stormy day, his mother will no longer be able to abuse him any longer .

A kindly cop named Raymond (Offerman) takes Icare to a local orphanage where he declares that his name is Zucchini which is apparently what his mom called him for reasons never explained. As he has so little of her left to remember her by (poignantly he brings an empty beer can with him and his kite – his only two possessions) he insists on being referred to by that sobriquet even though it doesn’t really suit him, as Simon (Beckman), the resident bully, points out while spitefully calling him “Potato” which while cruel is entirely apt.

Most of the kids have a horror story to tell; Ahmed (Mitchell) waits for his deported mom to return, while Alice (Young) was removed from an abusive household and bangs her fork on her plate when she is stressed. Simon himself is the son of criminals who are jailed, leaving him in the orphanage to hope for adoption – although as Simon cynically informs Zucchini whom he eventually learns to respect, the kids are too old to have a chance at adoption.

Into this wacky family of kids comes Camille (Krell) whose father murdered her mother in front of her and then turned the gun on himself. She lives with an aunt (Sedaris) who only keeps her for the stipend the state pays her and is cruel and abusive towards her niece. Zucchini takes a shine to Camille and the two rapidly become inseparable. A field trip to the mountains with married teachers Paul (Forte) and Rosy (Page) only cements that bond. As for Zucchini, he has developed a close relationship with Raymond who is thinking of adopting him and maybe Camille as well. But the Aunt wants to bring back Camille to her house so she can get the government payments again. Will this new family be quashed before it can even be started?

The film is based on a children’s book which is apparently much darker than what is onscreen here; the look of the film is much different than the illustrations that are part of the book as well. This stop motion animated feature has a very European look to it; the big heads but expressive faces, the eerily long bendy arms and the backgrounds that speak of the Alps. It certainly doesn’t look like an American film and maybe that will put off some.

And, like European films that are aimed at children, it refuses to talk down to them. The movie looks at tragedy and doesn’t turn away or sugarcoat it. It allows the children to grieve, to be sad. It allows them to overcome and that is the important message; not that Zucchini had a tough time of it but that he came through it and in doing so was able to trust and love again.

The movie does have some flaws; from time to time I felt myself wondering how much was going to be piled onto Zucchini and let’s face it, there’s a lot. While the kids are a little bit too good to be true for the most part – Simon is the clear exception and even he is basically a decent kid – the adults are damn near Saints other than Zucchini’s mom and Camille’s aunt.

The movie does have the virtue of brevity; the film is only 70 minutes long so even those with the most acute cases of ADHD should be able to sit through the entire length of it. It also has a lot of bright colors that will keep the really little ones engaged. Never underestimate the value of bright colors and simple shapes in keeping the toddlers out of trouble.

The movie is full of moments of genuine emotion without leaving you feeling manipulated; it comes by those moments honestly. You can’t help but feel for these orphans who have been through so much yet are so resilient. Despite his mother’s shortcomings, Zucchini misses her. He feels her absence keenly. Perhaps that is the most human thing about Zucchini after all.

REASONS TO GO: The movie certainly tugs at the heartstrings. For once, the film doesn’t talk down to children. The subject of parental loss is tackled with some sensitivity.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is overly dramatic in places.
FAMILY VALUES: The loss of parents might be a bit more difficult for the young and impressionable.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Switzerland’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language film for the 2017 Oscars; while it didn’t make the final short list, it did pick up a nomination for Best Animated Feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pippi Longstocking
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Raw

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The Forest


Natalie Dormer finds some of the plot points a little foggy.

Natalie Dormer finds some of the plot points a little foggy.

(2016) Horror (Gramercy) Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Rina Takasaki, Eoin Macken, Stephanie Vogt, Ibuki Kaneda, Noriko Sakura, Jozef Aoki, Yuho Yamashita, Terry Diab, Akiko Iwase, Nadja Mazalika, Lidija Antonic, Cami Djeric, Tales Yamamoto, Yasuo Tobishima, Osamu Tanpopo, Kikuo Ichikawa, Gen Seto, Yuriri Naka. Directed by Jason Zada

In Japan, the Aokigahara Forest has a lethal reputation. Located at the northwest base of Mt. Fuji, it has been for generations a place where people have gone to commit suicide, and thus has a reputation of being haunted even among some fairly rational Japanese citizens. It is not a place where tourists are encouraged to go.

Now that reputation is worldwide thanks to this horror film which kicks off the 2016 movie release year. Game of Thrones vet Natalie Dormer plays a dual role as twins; Jess, the black sheep who has left messes for her more grounded sister Sara to clean up all her life. The two have been inseparable since the death of their parents when both were six years old; Jess was traumatized because she actually saw the bodies (Sara was spared that by her grandmother (Diab) who raised the two of them afterwards).

Now, Jess who teaches English at a girl’s school in Tokyo has disappeared, lost in the Aokigahara and Sara, who refuses to believe that her twin is dead despite being told that since more than 48 hours have passed since Jess went into the forest that it was likely she had killed herself, travels to Japan to find her over the objections of her husband Rob (Macken). You see, Sara has this connection with her sister; she always knows how she’s doing, and her connection tells her that Jess is still alive.

When she gets to the Aokigahara, she meets Aiden (Kinney) an American travel writer doing a story on the forest for an Australian magazine. He is venturing into the forest guided by Michi (Ozawa) who the park rangers use to periodically go through the forest and pick up bodies of suicides who have been successful. He allows the distraught but certain Sara to accompany him on a run through the forest, but warns her to stay on the path and to disregard anything bad that she might see as the forest sometimes plays tricks on those who are sad. He reminds her that it is very easy to get lost in the 14 square miles of dense forest.

The three venture into what seems at first to be a beautiful mountain forest but soon Sara begins to hear things, and has visions of unpleasant memories from her past. Eventually they find Jess’ camp but not Jess herself. It is starting to get late and Michi is eager to return back home; they can search for Jess in the morning but Sara insists on staying the night to wait for her sister to return and reluctantly Aiden agrees to stay with her and make sure she’s okay. However, once night falls and with Michi gone, the Forest will begin its work on Sara’s mind and soon it becomes apparent that all of Sara’s inner demons are going to be used against her. Can she survive the night and find her twin? Or has Jess been dead all this time to begin with? Will the Forest claim another victim?

First-time feature director Zada is given a juicy concept to work with but writers Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai have let him down somewhat by muddling things up with the Sara/Jess backstory and making it more about their personal horror than about that of the forest. I would have preferred more focus on the Aokigahara and less on Sara’s childhood. The movie also suffers from dumb horror protagonist syndrome; who in their right minds would stay in an unfamiliar forest overnight, particularly one with as grim a reputation as the Aokigahara? And for someone who believes in a psychic connection between twins, Sara seems pretty disbelieving in ghosts and other supernatural phenomenon; seems to me that a character like that would be a little bit more open-minded. I get that Sara was frantic about her sister but you would think that level-headed sorts like Michi and Aiden could have talked her down.

But to the thing that brought you to see this movie in the first place. While there are some legitimate scares to be had here, there aren’t enough of them to make this more than of mild interest. Some of the images were downright creepy, but there’s nothing here you haven’t already seen before and in much better movies. The movie’s soundtrack also tends to give away every single scare, which after awhile tends to lessen the effectiveness of them.

Dormer, however, is another story. The Game of Thrones veteran has a rabid fanboy following and for good reason. However, more importantly, the girl has screen presence. With the right roles and a little bit of luck, she could be a big star in the not too distant future. She shows a good deal of range here, playing two diametrically different characters in the same film and making it work.

The rest of the mostly Japanese cast acquits itself nicely with Ozawa, a big star in Japan making his English language debut, also showing some big potential. Kinney, who is best known for his work in Chicago Fire, plays a role very different than that in his television show which bodes well for his future.

The Aokigahara Forest has a great horror movie in it, but this isn’t that. While it isn’t awful, there aren’t enough reasons other than Dormer to really go out of your way to see it. While this wasn’t actually filmed in that forest (the outdoor scenes were mostly filmed in Serbia), the Aokigahara is a looming presence here. I suspect that some enterprising writer and filmmaker will eventually come up with a movie based there that will scare the crap out of us somewhere down the road. Until then, this will do, but just barely.

REASONS TO GO: Dormer shows some star potential. Some of the scares are pretty intense.
REASONS TO STAY: Wastes a great concept and a better location. Could have used more good scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of terror, horrifying images and disturbing thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dormer visited the actual Aokigahara Forest to research her part and ventured five meters off the path to take photos while walking through the forest; her Japanese guide and driver refused to step even half an inch off the path.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 11% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Here Comes the Boom

The Chaperone


Ariel Winter tells Triple H to suck it.

Ariel Winter tells Triple H to suck it.

(2009) Action Comedy (Goldwyn/WWE) Paul Levesque, Ariel Winter, Annabeth Gish, Kevin Corrigan, José Zúňiga, Kevin Rankin, Enrico Colantoni, Yeardley Smith, Ashley Taylor, Israel Broussard, Darren O’Hare, Lucy Webb, Jake Austin Walker, Cullen Chaffin, Taylor Faye Ruffin, Conner Ann Waterman, James DuMont, Nick Gomez, J.D. Evermore, George Wilson, Kate Adair. Directed by Stephen Herek

Prison can do two things to a person; it can make them even darker, finding more reason to hate society in general, or it can make one long to turn over a new leaf and become a better person. Ray Bradstone (Levesque, better known as WWE wrestler Triple H) has opted for the latter course. One of the best getaway drivers in the business, he wants to make amends to his ex-wife Lynne (Gish) and be a better father to his teenage daughter Sally (Winter). However, when he is released from prison and visits his former family’s home, he is essentially sent packing – neither one wants anything to do with him.

Unable to find work, Ray is in desperate mode when approached by Philip Larue (Corrigan), the leader of the bank-robbing crew Ray used to work for. He agrees to drive one last time but changes his mind at the last minute. This leads to problems for the heist, which Larue blames Ray for. In order to get away, Ray agrees to act as a chaperone for his daughter’s high school field trip to New Orleans, unknowingly taking the loot for the gang along with him. This as you might imagine doesn’t sit well with Larue and in short order they are after the kids and Ray and the ex-con knows that his daughter’s only chance to make it out is for him to take on his ex-gang, but the odds are most definitely against him.

At the end of the last decade, the World Wrestling Federation wanted to expand its brand and determined that a good way to do that was to put its wrestlers in films. Some of them got exposure (The Marine) while others sank without a trace. That initiative continues today, albeit in a much reduced form. While the WWE hasn’t turned out any new actors the caliber of Dwayne Johnson, they have plenty of performers with natural screen charisma.

Paul “Triple H” Levesque is one of those. He certainly shows a good deal of promise in his performance here. While he is something of a raw talent and in need of polish, he has flashes of charm and plenty of presence onscreen. Unfortunately, his natural gifts are given a Russian leg sweep by a script that lacks any sort of inspiration whatsoever. Nearly everything in the movie is by-the-numbers, giving the audience little reason to be invested in the characters or the action.

Even the action sequences are uninspiring. The villains don’t ever feel more than mildly threatening; in the ring Triple H could flex one bicep and they’d head for the hills. And in all honesty, most of the kids here are annoying enough that you wish the villains were better shots. The critics hated this movie, although not as much as the audience which stayed away in droves. It’s likely made at least some of its losses back in home video; I honestly think that while this isn’t great entertainment, it’s at least decent enough and no worse than some of the things that were box office blockbusters. It’s certainly one of those “no harm in taking a look” movies worth checking out if you’re bored.

WHY RENT THIS: Levesque has some genuine charm. New Orleans setting is cool.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cliche-ridden. Virtually no depth.
FAMILY VALUES: There is action violence, some rude humor and a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Ray is breaking up a fight at the school, one of the boys in the scene is wearing a “Lemmy” t-shirt. Lemmy Kilmister is the lead singer of Motörhead, the band that plays the ring entrance song for Triple H.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a surprising number of features considering that this is an independently made feature that bombed at the box office. There’s a blooper real, a music video by Ariel Winter, a look at the kids in the film as well as a featurette on the dinosaur exhibit, a video diary by Winter and a photo gallery.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $14,400 on a $3M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix. Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kindergarten Cop
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Chalet Girl

Italian for Beginners (Italiensk for begyndere)


There will be no Yankie on his cranky.

There will be no Yankie on his cranky.

(2000) Romantic Comedy (Miramax) Anders W. Berthelsen, Anette Stovelbaek, Ann Eleonora Jorgensen, Peter Gantzler, Lars Kaalund, Sara Indrio Jensen, Karen-Lise Mynster, Rikke Wolck, Elsebeth Steentoft, Bent Mejding, Lene Tiemroth, Claus Gerving, Jesper Christensen, Carlo Barsotti, Matteo Valese, Susanne Oldenburg, Steen Svare, Alex Nyborg Madsen. Directed by Lone Scherfig

Finding love particularly when you reach a certain age can be devastating. You are already pock-marked with the scars of failed romances and broken hearts and letting others close can be tricky. For some, confidence has been so completely lost in one’s ability to be an adequate lover that even talking to someone they have a crush on can be a monumental task.

In a small Danish town there seems to be an epidemic of that kind of thing. Andreas (Berthelsen) however isn’t really on the lookout for love; he is recently widowed. A pastor, he’s been sent to the town to temporarily minister to the flock of the disgraced former Reverend Wredmann (Mejding) who heckles him mercilessly at the pulpit.

He has moved into the hotel managed by Jorgen Mortensen (Gantzler) who has been given the task to fire his close friend Hal-Finn (Kaalund) who manages the hotel’s bar but seems clinically unable to be nice to people. Jorgen can’t really bring himself to do it. He also has fallen hard for Giulia (Jensen), the comely waitress in the bar who speaks no Danish. Hal-Finn advises Jorgen to attend the beginning Italian class at the local adult education center but when the teacher (Valese) dies suddenly, the class is left without a teacher and because attendance is nearly non-existent there really isn’t much inspiration for anyone to step in and take over.

In the class is Karen (Jorgensen) the local hairdresser who is the caretaker for an elderly mother with dementia and Olympia (Stovelbaek), a pastry chef who takes clumsy to new standards. All six of these lost and lonely people will find each other in a class where not only are they learning a new language but learning to love as well.

Scherfig was the first woman in the influential Danish cinematic movement Dogme 95. Basically advocates of stripping down film to its basics, Dogme 95 eschew camera tricks, post-production and special effects in favor of hand-held cameras, live music during filming and concentration on story and character. It is a precursor to other similar movements including mumblecore.

Most of the Danish Dogme 95 films prior to this were melancholic affairs in the Scandinavian ethos. That Scherfig went the romantic comedy route was a bit surprising and controversial (fellow Dogme 95 adherent Lars von Trier criticized her for filming a story about romance that had resolution but Scherfig replied that this was her style) but the way she approaches her movie certainly seems to fall within the parameters of the style.

These are definitely realistic people, some (in the case of the boorish Hal-Finn) less nice than others. Jorgen is shy and a bit plodding in his romance of Giulia while Andreas’ slow warming to Olympia is handled with what seems to be a great deal of affection on the part of the director. In fact, she seems to have a lot of affection for all her characters – in an interview, she has said that while most audiences want to be like the characters onscreen, her onscreen characters want to be like the audience. Here, she succeeds in that attempt.

Most of the actors are unfamiliar to American audiences at any rate but they all create characters with a good deal of depth and a good deal of realism. Likely you’d find yourself being irritated at Hal-Finn while watching a sporting event in the pub, while you might snicker at Olympia’s klutziness in the local pastry shop, or feel sympathy for Karen as she tells you about her mother’s latest and how hard it is to find good men around here.

That’s really where this film excels, in creating an atmosphere that’s familiar and heart-warming. You feel like you’re a part of the town and that these are people that even if you don’t know well are at least familiar to you in your day-to-day life. We are given a little bit of insight into who they are and how they live and in doing so we find that they are not all that unfamiliar to how we live and who we are. Inside like that is much more valuable than it appears to be on the surface of it.

WHY RENT THIS: Believable characters and story. Sweetness, heart and a touch of real people trying to find love and reinvent themselves.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too low-key for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some salty words here and there as well as some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: To date the highest grossing Danish film in the American market.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.4M on a $1M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: O’Horten

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Underworld