Cure for Wellness, A (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
Gore Verbinski’s “A Cure for Wellness” is yet another example of a horror picture that boasts beautifully haunting images but, upon closer inspection, is actually hollow on the inside. If presented only with select individual scenes, it would pique our interest and we’d yearn to discover its deepest mysteries. But with a running time of almost two and a half hours, it is instead padded with scenes that do not consistently push the story in the forward direction. We get a sneaky feeling that its many ideas often get in the way of properly executing a concise horror-mystery with something important to say about modern society’s relationship with pseudoscience despite well-researched, scientific information being available right on our fingertips.
Its most memorable moments involves the protagonist being in an enclosed space. Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), an ambitious employee of a financial firm tasked by the board of directors to acquire a superior from a sanitarium in Switzerland, being stuck in a sensory deprivation tank as eels slowly surround his vulnerable near-naked body is what nightmares are made of. And yet despite the terror happening inside of the tank, there is a dark, macabre humor unspooling right outside it. It is a classic setup involving gasps of horror turning into laughter, vice-versa. Clearly, Verbinski understands how to execute an effective action sequence that plays upon the audience’s deepest fears. If only the rest of the film functioned on this level.
Part of the problem is it feels as though it doesn’t know what kind of movie it wants to be. Clearly influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” emphasis is placed on establishing a creepy, slithery atmosphere. Almost every person Lockhart meets in the Swiss Alps is highly suspicious. Nearly each room wishes to whisper its history. Knickknacks on desks and files inside drawers beg to be explored or read into. And yet, for some reason, it is stuck on delivering one hallucinatory moment after another. We get it: There must be something in the drinking water. But if we cannot trust our own protagonist in an increasingly untrustworthy place, what is there to hang onto?
I found the answers to the mystery to be generic, something I’ve seen too often in smaller pictures and have been told better in those movies. There is no surprise to be had here in terms of revelations; one simply has to listen closely and pay attention to whom the camera, other than Lockhart, tends to give the suspicious eye. But perhaps I’ve seen one too many mysteries, especially on the television show “Criminal Minds,” that the denouement feels rather trite, spineless, safe, television-like.
While performances are solid all around, one cannot help but feel an aching disappointment (and frustration) especially because it seems Verbinski had access to nearly every element that could help to make a highly watchable, spine-tingling horror film. It would have been interesting if Verbinski had only less than ten million dollars to tell the same story. I bet that the results would have been less beautiful visually but with a far more interesting internal details.
Barber, The (2014)
★ / ★★★★
John McCormack (Chris Coy) seeks a man that he believes to be a serial killer who got away with seventeen murders twenty years ago. This man, Eugene Van Wingerdt (Scott Glenn), is now in his fifties, possibly sixties, and is working as a barber in a small town. John hopes to gain Eugene’s trust and become the man’s apprentice. In doing so, it is like confessing to the crimes he had in fact committed. However, it is no easy task considering that Eugene is a very smart, careful, deeply private person.
Based on the screenplay by Max Enscoe, “The Barber” is a mystery-thriller that never gets a chance to truly take off. Although the premise of a cop pretending to be a novice murderer is interesting, he undergoes no inner transformation as his journey requires him to visit dark places. Glenn’s decision to underplay his characters’ yearning to kill is the best thing about this underwhelming movie.
John is not written as a protagonist we cannot help but root for. The problem is that his personality is between a really good guy and an antihero. There is no substance to him; there are flashbacks of his childhood involving a drunk father who became so obsessed with his work that it ultimately consumed him, but these do not detail the inner sanctum of a law enforcement officer who had gone rogue. Coy is good at looking glum and moody but it all comes across as artificial.
More frustrating is how Audrey, John’s girlfriend who also happens to be a cop, is represented. At first she is introduced as a strong woman who is intelligent and knows how to handle herself in tricky situations. Over time, however, she turns into an object requiring to be rescued by her man. Because she makes such a strong first impression, I was excited because I considered the possibility that perhaps she really is the central protagonist all along, the secret ingredient that must be introduced into the small town in order for the serial killer to finally get his comeuppance. It would have been a fresh move, but alas, it did not turn out to be that way.
Not enough detail is put into this specific serial killer’s methods. Although the character’s obsession with neatness and cleanliness is more of the point, we never see if he has any rituals or signatures he cannot help but perform or inflict upon his prey. This makes the character a less interesting subject.
Directed by Basel Owies, “The Barber” offers neither standout cinematography nor does it employ eye-catching or creative camera angles when we are supposed to be engaged in the action. Moving at a leisurely pace from beginning to end, it is a bit of a bore because it fails to offer anything new, surprising, or exciting in terms of character and visuals when it comes to the serial killer genre.
★★★ / ★★★★
While out on a rescue mission over the Pacific Ocean, the engines of the plane that Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), an Olympic athlete, and his fellow crewmen are on start to fail which meant a certain plunge toward an endless stretch of water. Louis manages to survive, along with Mac (Finn Wittrock) and Phil (Domhnall Gleeson), but it is a long way till the forty-seventh day until they are to be rescued by the Japanese—with only a box of chocolate and a small container of fresh water.
Based on a true story, “Unbroken,” directed by Angelina Jolie, is a straight-forward dramatic film about a survivor of World War II. It can be critiqued from the angle of not surprising the audiences enough, whether it be in terms of tone, pacing, or how the story unfolds, but it can be given credit for giving us exactly what we expect. I belong in the latter camp; it is not the most exciting movie from a technical point of view, but I was interested enough in the trials that Zamperini had been through.
O’Connell plays the protagonist with stoicism and dignity. And because he portrays the character in this manner, the moments in which Zamperini breaks down command all the more power. O’Connell has always been ace at playing young men who are a little rough around the edges. What he does differently here is that the performance is a bit more controlled instead of a manic hyperbole. He plays the character tough on the outside but with something to prove on the inside.
The picture is beautifully photographed, whether it be the scenes taking place in the middle of the ocean—hungry sharks and all—or the Japanese detention camps, bathed either in yellow or blue. The flashbacks showing Zamperini’s childhood has a sense of timelessness about them. Each event is important enough to be etched into the boy’s memory and to be remembered during early adulthood.
Less involving are the supporting characters Zamperini meets along the way. None of the American soldiers are especially memorable, from physicality to performance. In fact, a lot of them look so much alike that at times I found myself unable to discern whether a captured soldier in a particular scene is the same one who had a conversation with the protagonist about half an hour ago. Supporting characters need personality especially if the subject is not exactly very expressive. The villain, a cruel Japanese sergeant named Watanabe (played quite nicely by Takamasa Ishihara), stands out but the script does not provide depth in terms of his intentions and actions.
Although I was satiated, “Unbroken” leaves a lot untouched. How is his family like? Other than being encouraging, why does Louis have so much respect for his elder brother? What role does Zamperini’s newfound spirituality play during the horrors that unfold in the detention camps? These are important questions that must be answered because they provide a good amount of substance to the story. Otherwise, one gets the impression that this person’s story is worth telling only because of the things that he had been through.
Revenge of the Nerds (1984)
★★★ / ★★★★
Best friends Gilbert (Anthony Edwards) and Lewis (Robert Carradine) head off to Adams College with the hope of being treated much better for being intellectuals. After the Alpha Beta house, home of the football players, burns down, Gilbert and Lewis, along with their fellow nerds in the freshman dorms, are forced to live in a gym until they find appropriate housing. Soon a rivalry between the jocks and the nerds erupts when the latter group decides to form a fraternity and take over the school council. Being in the council means power and the jocks will not go down without a rumble.
“Revenge of the Nerds,” written by Steven Zacharias and Jeff Buhai, is funny and poignant seemingly without effort. It is an accomplishment because it draws upon strict stereotypes so one can almost expect by-the-numbers charades of the protagonists being tortured, humiliated, and eventually rising up from the ashes to deliver the antagonists’ much needed comeuppance. Although it touches upon these expected elements, the picture is able to rise above them because the humor has a good-hearted spirit. It makes fun of everybody—including the nerds who we are supposed to root for.
Infantile humor is abound, from burp contests and jock straps to panty raids. But instead of simply being gross and embarrassing, these scenes actually work because they are shot with verve and performed with commitment. The jokes appear left and right, one scene right after another so the audience is at a constant high. Because it is able to consistently entertain, we look forward to the next scene and the surprises it has to offer.
The picture might have been improved upon if there had been more substance to Lewis and Gilbert’s friendship. During the first fifteen minutes, we sense their closeness but it is almost immediately dropped right after the first act. Thus, when the two share a would-be touching moment toward the end, it comes across as false and flat. It would have been nice if the two shared a memory or two from high school and the details of them being bullied. Sure, it might have been a downer but at least there is a reminder that their friendship is central to the film. It gets carried away with fun and games at times.
The secondary nerds are all memorable, from the prepubescent kid genius (Andrew Cassese) to Booger (Curtis Armstrong)—no explanation necessary. They are punchlines, sure, but the recurring jokes that they lead have a freshness to them. Since each one is some kind of stereotype, there is a risk that we will grow tired of them. Here, the line is not crossed. We want to see more of these guys. Particularly memorable is Takashi (Brian Tochi), a recent immigrant from Japan with an obsession with “hair pie.”
Directed by Jeff Kanew, “Revenge of the Nerds” stands the test of time because of its bona fide sense of humor and ability to surprise consistently. There is a musical number here that made me feel so joyous because of its creativity and self-awareness. Most importantly, all outcasts—not just nerds—will be able to relate with the picture somehow. The screenplay is smart enough to point out an undeniable truth: Those in the “out-crowd” far outnumber those in the “in-crowd” so maybe bullying the the “un-cool” might not be such a great idea.
Welcome to Happiness (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A picture like “Welcome to Happiness,” written and directed by Oliver Thompson, will likely fail to hold up under scrutiny, at least under the standards of what makes a film palatable for the mainstream audience. It is weird in just about every definition of the word, from its story, the structure of the plot, the way it is told, how it ends. It is not impressive when it comes to dialogue, how it is shot, or how it looks. And yet I loved how it made me feel.
The plot revolves around a writer named Woody (Kyle Gallner) who is having trouble continuing his current book about a cat that is not at all curious despite the common saying. But the storyteller is most curious. He is given the task to let strangers who have hit rock bottom into his apartment when they knock on the door, to ask them questions, and to eventually lead them to his closet. Inside the closet is a small door that opens—and can only be opened from the other side—when the stranger is finally alone. No matter how hard Woody tries, the door does not open for him. He wishes to know why this is the case. And this increasing curiosity leads him to desperation.
Notice that each room we visit almost always has two things: paintings and books. But they are just not any other painting or book—the type of paintings and books varies depending on the person who owns them. Also, their numbers differ based on their owner’s income. Some of them are placed or hung near the floor, while others cannot be reached so easily without a stool or a ladder. Words and pictures dominate these characters’ lives. The more we get to know them, we can choose to categorize them under either tribe. Some of us may ask ourselves where we fall in the spectrum, words on one extreme and pictures on the other.
The material is interested in how its characters define happiness. Is happiness being with another person? Being with one’s most prized possessions? Being with oneself and his hobbies? Her passions? Is happiness creating something that the world can appreciate? Is happiness to forgive, to move on, to never look back? Or is happiness having the ability to fix or erase the unjust? I admired that the material asks big questions and more questions than any one movie can possibly handle. I think the point is neither to answer nor to probe deeply into them but rather to look inside ourselves and evaluate our priorities, our philosophies.
“Welcome to Happiness” will likely appeal to those with a taste for the bizarre. I can talk about well-written and well-executed scenes like the mysterious opening sequence or when Woody asks an amputee to go inside the closet so she can experience something that will change her life. I can talk about how vibrant colors are utilized as both metaphor or irony. I can talk about solid performances by Gallner as a tortured writer or by Brendan Sexton III as his character recalls his biggest regret. But I choose not to. And choice is, I think, the point of the film.
★ / ★★★★
There is an interesting idea deep inside “Indigenous,” written by Max Roberts and directed by Alastair Orr, a creature-feature ultimately standardized for mass consumption. Halfway through, one of the characters is able to upload a video in which he seeks help after he and his friends have gotten lost in a Panamanian jungle, hunted by chupacabras. The video goes viral within hours and so family, friends, and authorities become aware of what is going on. This is a fresh idea, but it is most frustrating that the filmmakers neglect to play with it.
Instead, we are made to sit through interminable horror picture tropes. Perhaps most painful are would-be intense chases in the jungle where we see only darkness, beams emanating from flashlights, and the camera undergoing seizures. We hear screaming from the women and screeching from the monsters. The men strive to protect their girlfriends. No one says or does anything interesting. And why is this the case given that it is supposedly the characters’ last hurrah before adulthood, holding down “real world” jobs?
Even the environment looks nondescript—a difficult thing to accomplish given that it appears the picture was shot in a believable random forest. By comparison, the setting of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’ “The Blair Witch Project” is more inspired, certainly more ominous. And much of the 1999 classic unfolds during daylight. It is curious that not enough wide shots are employed to make the characters smaller, to make the audience feel or appreciate the presence of the breathing biome.
At least the creatures look somewhat terrifying. I appreciated that these are not CGI creatures. It makes a whole world of difference when a monster’s movements are believable. It helps the performers, too, because they are reacting to something tangible. Perhaps the strongest scene takes place in a cave where one of the American tourists (Pierson Fode) discovers where the bodies are taken to be eaten. It works because the camera is actually able to keep still. The balance of light and darkness is used in an intelligent and thrilling way. Why couldn’t the rest of the picture function on this level?
“Indigenous” had the opportunity to be about many things other than tourists becoming chupacabra food. Had the writers dared to dig deeper, it could have been about young Americans’ lack of respect toward other cultures when visiting foreign lands, challenges couples must endure and go through together so their relationships could evolve, or, perhaps most intriguing, the role of social media in horror movie sort of situations. Perhaps it might have made a better satire. Regardless, the brain simply isn’t there.
Hatchet III (2013)
★ / ★★★★
Marybeth (Danielle Harris) thought Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder) was dead. She had just shot him in the face after all. But after taking a couple of steps away from her assailant, he springs right back to life. And they are once again at it.
Deciding to watch “Hatchet III,” written by Adam Green, is like biting into a rotten apple. Actually sitting through it, as I have, is a choice to keep chewing and finishing that bad apple. I was in a mood for blood, which the film delivers by the bucketload, but the script is glaringly bad, as if it were written by a high school student who has neither read very many books nor seen very many scary movies. Just about every ingredient is formulaic which makes the entire picture a bore.
One of its most important misstep is not allowing the survivor, Marybeth, to do very much other than to look brooding and spewing out would-be snarky lines. What good is a final girl when, for more than half the picture, she sits in a car not doing or saying anything remotely interesting? Harris is a charismatic performer and she is best when in motion. Having her character sit in a jail or in a vehicle is waste of the actor’s talent.
As expected, the blood is generous and it will please fans of the red goo. However, the kills are devoid of joy. There is not one genuinely suspenseful scene in which a character we care about is chased through the Louisiana swamp. There is only men and women holding guns, a rustling of the leaves nearby, and the inevitable contact with the urban legend that is Victor Crowley. It gets repetitive and tiring real quick when you can predict just about every step the film is about to make. Director BJ McDonnell lacks inspiration.
There is one new character I liked but she is not utilized exceptionally well. Amanda Pearlman (Caroline Williams), a journalist and ex-wife of the sheriff (Zach Galligan), is a self-proclaimed expert on the Crowley legend. Her character is utilized to establish the rules and to reveal to the final girl what must be done in order to put an end to the gruesome murders. She is capably acted by Williams but her character is not given dimension beyond merely functioning as a convenient tool of the plot.
“Hatchet III” offers a few amusing moments, like the scene between Deputy Winslow (Robert Diago DoQui) and a racist redneck (Sid Haig), but there are not enough chuckles or laughs to tolerate the lack of scares, fresh ideas, and unexpected moments. At this point, the series is exhausted beyond means and it is best laid to rest.
Ghost Team (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
A delightful comedy with bona fide intention to entertain despite its limited budget, “Ghost Team,” directed by Oliver Irving, might have been improved significantly if it had undergone more rewrites designed to trim elements that don’t work and to amplify its strengths. Individual scenes work either as a comedy or horror; the picture is clearly made by fans of television shows that involve ghost hunters because references are abundant. However, the film does not command a strong enough tone or identity of its own to convince the audience that this particular story is worth telling and seeing.
Sick of the ennui of their every day lives, best friends Louis (Jon Heder) and Stan (David Krumholtz) find inspiration from their favorite ghost hunting show and decide to form their own group of paranormal investigators despite not having any money to buy fancy equipments meant to detect otherworldly activities, let alone other friends that would comprise their team. Highly determined to go on their first expedition, Louis and Stan manage to convince relatives (Justin Long, Paul W. Downs), who just so happen to have connections with the necessary electronics, an equally bored co-worker (Melonie Diaz), and a local psychic (Amy Sedaris) to join them in the attempt to gather evidence that ghosts really do exist in an abandoned farmhouse. As it turns out, they just might stumble upon what they’re after.
Each character is given a defined personality. This is not particularly difficult to accomplish but too many of its contemporaries tend to overlook the importance of the viewers being able to tell the characters apart, especially in scenes where it is dark and people end up running around and screaming for their lives. Although these characters are pigeonholed into certain archetypes, it works well enough because the comedy is never really meant to skewer. It helps that the performers seem at ease and genuinely having fun with their roles.
A few scares are surprisingly effective given that the film is, for the most part, a comedy. I enjoyed the scenes where characters split up to explore the farmhouse and there are cutaway scenes where we observe them on different screens. It subtly plays on perspective and expectations. One moment we are in a dark room with the characters and we are not certain whether they should or should be afraid. But then we get a chance to look at the monitors that see everything and we learn that something is in the room with them and they have absolutely no idea.
The twist is amusing and briefly enjoyable because it gives the filmmakers a chance to be more creative. For instance, their take on “zombies” is actually rooted on reality. Despite this, the third act is, without a doubt, the weakest link because once the rug has been pulled from under us, there are no more surprises. We realize then that one of its strengths is how it has managed to tease our curiosities, we were invested in what paranormal phenomena were in store for us as viewers and for the motley crew as first-time ghost hunters.
Written by Oliver Irving and Peter Warren, “Ghost Team” is a comedy that is unafraid to be quiet. This works in horror scenes, at times accompanied by an effectively uneasy score, where characters explore a strange room and all we hear are their footsteps and their curious breathing. This also works in the more comedic scenes because they allow us to absorb the jokes… and the non-jokes. With a few more script revisions, with special emphasis on the third act, it would have been a horror-comedy to be remembered—not necessarily for decades down the line but at least during the year of its release.
2 Days in New York (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Mingus (Chris Rock) and Marion (Julie Delpy) live together in a New York City apartment with their children from previous relationships. Mingus is a writer and talk-radio host and Marion is an artist and they consider themselves to have a pretty stable life. However, their current state of equilibrium is disrupted when Marion’s father, Jeannot (Albert Delpy), and sister, Rose (Alexia Landeau), come to visit and offer their support for the biggest art exhibit Marion’s has had in years. It doesn’t make it any better that Rose decides to bring her current boyfriend, Manu (Alexandre Nahon), who, like Rose, is a slave to his impulses.
“2 Days in New York,” based on the screenplay by Julie Delpy and Alexia Landeau, begins with great comic timing in that it seems willing to take advantage of the fact that its lead actors know how to handle fast-paced dialogue without losing track that they constantly need to exude charm so the audience can overlook their more unlikable eccentricities while at the same time delivering proper dosages of irony so the material can function as a character study. Unfortunately, it drops the ball somewhere before Marion’s big night as it sacrifices the awkward but believable chuckles for drama that feels forced, draining, and not at all funny.
When the film is unafraid to explore potentially offensive issues, it is exciting to watch because it feels open to possibilities. The issue of Marion and Mingus being an interracial couple is touched upon but I felt at times that it could have pushed the envelope a little further. Most of its humor involves the African-American character being weirded out by the visiting white French relatives because of their habits like being quick to offer an opinion when not asked, being very open when it comes to talking about sex, and being unafraid to be physical with one another. The rapid-fire discoveries that Mingus finds himself in the middle of is a great source of amusement. However, the French relatives aren’t given equal chance to show their reactions when they think that something about the African-American culture is strange. I felt slightly annoyed when I noticed the picture holding back the blows when it is the other way around. Isn’t the point to show that everyone can’t help but judge?
While the marital struggle between Marion and Mingus is engaging initially, it becomes a victim of diminishing returns. This can be attributed to the screenplay attempting to make its characters less aware than they really are for the sake of the mechanisms in the plot. It is obvious that Mingus and Marion are smart people very early on. It is unusual—and extremely frustrating—that they are unable to reason and act like responsible adults when things turn critical. The childish behaviors that make the second half feel so contrived do not match the original characteristics of the couple.
Directed by Julie Delpy, “2 Days in New York” might have been stronger if it had turned more inwards, working through the intricate details of the drama in order for the comedic punches, once they arrive, to have more impact, instead of being too showy with its influences. For a work that is supposed to reflect reality, about half of it comes across as disingenuous.
Lost in America (1985)
★★★ / ★★★★
Entering his boss’ office, David (Albert Brooks), having been with the advertisement agency for eight years, is expecting to receive a much-deserved promotion to senior vice president. Instead, he is informed that not only had the position been already filled, he had been transferred to New York City to lead a new venture. This is terrible news because David and Linda (Julie Hagerty) have just bought a new house. Venting his unfiltered rage and frustration, David is eventually fired. On a high from the recent turn of events, David runs down to his wife’s place of employment and convinces her to quit. Both feel they need to start their lives over anyway so they liquidate all their assets, buy a Winnebago, and set their sights on Las Vegas.
Written by Albert Brooks and Monica Mcgowan Johnson, “Lost in America” is a dialogue-driven comedy, consistently having only two people in a frame, but it is immensely watchable because the jokes have satirical punchlines that still sting minutes after they are delivered. The first thirty minutes is spot-on in its critique of the American middle-class lifestyle—of not knowing exactly when sufficiency equates to (or should equate to) happiness. From the very first scene, the conversation revolves around having more “stuff,” like a tennis court in David and Linda’s new home when neither of them even plays tennis, and being worried that maybe they will regret not having “more” later.
At least from my perspective, the David and Linda’s so-called woes are funny because a lot of people would be so thankful if they were in the couple’s position. They have their own home, have great-paying jobs, and they have each other. The significance of these three factors are shown to us with efficiency and wit so when the couple begins to lose the things they ought to have valued and appreciated, we are able to laugh at and with them at times for not having realized it sooner.
The trip to Vegas pained my stomach from all the laughter, specifically when Linda turns out to have a gambling problem. Linda screaming, “Twenty-two! Twenty-two!” like some drunk wacko while playing roulette despite judging glances all around her is hilarious because eyes bulging out of their sockets, looking very pale, and stinking of desperation is not something we expect from that character. Hagerty has a knack for playing extremes with enough calculation for us to still believe that her character has her own identity and yet still represent anyone who has tasted freedom after leading a life that was too safe for so long.
Compound that with David’s attempt of convincing the casino manager to return their money because it will be “good for the casino’s reputation in the long run,” the film pulsates with situational creativity. Brooks injects his character with such an air of confidence, so close to yet not quite hubris, that the screenplay dares us to wish he would fail. I watched in complete fascination as to whether the manager will be kind or gullible enough to issue a refund. Linda and David encounter one problem after another that it comes to a point where we are forced to wonder when or if they are finally going to get a break. I wasn’t entirely sure if I wanted to see them return to their former lives.
Directed by Albert Brooks, while “Lost in America” is very funny, it deserves an ending that matches its tone and mood, something a bit more snarky or self-deprecating instead of farcical. With such a limp way of crossing to the finish line, it left me only feeling satisfied instead of ecstatic for having seen something unexpected.
Ma vie de Courgette (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Claude Barras’ stop-motion animation “My Life as a Zucchini” manages to accomplish more in its breezy seventy-minute running time than most other pictures, animated or otherwise, with twice the amount of time to tell their stories. And despite its chosen medium, nearly every character comes across so human that we do not feel ready to leave them even though we know in our minds and hearts that it is time. I wish to know how these nine- and ten-year-old orphans would be like as teenagers, as young adults, and as grown individuals who’ve lived.
From its opening sequence, perceptive viewers will recognize that what is in store for us is no ordinary film for children. No, I’m not referring to the wicked sense of humor involving an accidental death. I refer to how, within a scope of seconds, we absorb, quite readily, the details of the Zucchini’s (voiced by Gaspard Schlatter) room, how his drawings look like they could be art of actual kids, the manner in how he handles and plays with his toys, how he turns objects that are not toys into playthings that could be a source of fun. Clearly, we are in the hands of capable, imaginative, and intelligent filmmakers. They understand how a child’s mind works and so they allow us to experience how a child may process the world. It is a deeply humanistic picture.
The conflict is deceptively minimal. One may call it a slice-of-life animated film and that person will not be wrong. We observe the orphans’ every day in the orphanage, how they relate to one another, to adults who work there, and those who visit. They talk about what’s important to them, their dreams, their hopes for the future, what friendship means to them. Sometimes they get into silly fights and other times they show surprising amount of maturity.
It is beautiful how each character is written. For example, I loved how Simon (Paulin Jaccoud) gives us the impression that he is going to be the archetypal bully but, within a few minutes, layers are added onto him—a delightful surprise because it is standard that either this type of character is given no dimension at all or he is given some heart, usually saccharine-flavored—halfway through or at the end of the picture. Credit to the screenwriters—Céline Sciamma, Claude Barras, Germano Zullo, Morgan Navarro—for creating human characters that we can all relate with.
I can stare at its style of animation for ages because there is so much to appreciate. Notice how a character being solemn is not just expressed through silence but also in the way the eyelid falls just a little bit, one’s posture when sitting down, how the camera shows us the back of a character’s head and we are left to imagine its subject’s facial expressions. Details can be found in the orphans rooms, the articles of clothing they wear, how they sport their hair. So much effort is put into this project inside and out.
“Ma vie de Courgette,” based on the novel by Gilles Paris, is clearly cream of the crop and it deserves to be seen by many, across a spectrum of ages and level of maturity, because of its subtle lessons about empathy. In our current world where it is so easy to fear others, this film inspires us to talk to the person next to us and discover where they’re coming from, where they hope to go, and how they intend to get there.