Film reviews round-up: Despicable Me 3, Alone in Berlin, A Man Called Ove, Kedi,
Despicable Me (U)
Dir: Pierre Coffin, Kyle Balda, 90 mins, voiced by: Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Trey Parker
Despicable Me 3 is gleefully anarchic fun, a film that startles us again and again with its offbeat and surrealistic humour. Many of the nostalgic and self-reflexive references here will surely be completely lost on younger viewers but they should delight their parents.
The film’s villain is embittered former child star Balthazar Bratt (voiced by Trey Parker). Back in 1985, Bratt had his own TV show but then he grew up, got pimples and the show was cancelled. Now, he wants revenge on the world in general and on Hollywood in particular.
Bratt wears shoulder pads, dresses in purple jumpsuits and has a mullet-like haircut and moustache combo that might have embarrassed Hall and Oates. When he is pitted against his adversaries, he will challenge them to “dance fights”. (The winner is the one who preens and wriggles the most.)
His weapon of choice is super sticky, self-inflating pink bubble gum. His ultimate plan is to cover Los Angeles in this goo and then sit back and watch the city that rejected him float away into space. (The idea comes from one of the episodes of his old TV series.) In the meantime, he is busy stealing the world’s most expensive jewel.
Gru (voiced by Steve Carrell in that wonderfully weird, high-pitched middle European accent) is now one of the “goodies”, working for the Anti-Villain League. He is supposed to be bringing Bratt to justice but makes such a hash of it that his bosses “kick him to the curb” and fire him. Even the minions lose faith in him. He is in strong need of redemption.
The screenplay by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio makes us aware of the yearnings of all the other main characters too. Gru’s wife, kick-ass Anti-Villain League agent Lucy Wilde (voiced by Kristen Wiig) wants to prove herself as a mom to her adopted kids. Gru’s newly discovered, much better looking twin brother Dru Gru (also voiced by Carrell), who’s a wealthy pig farmer, is desperate to prove his credentials as a villain.
The youngest of the kids, little moppet Agnes (Nev Scharrel) is on a quest to find a real-life unicorn. She almost bursts with excitement when she meets a bar-owner who claims to have seen one. The film makes us feel sympathy for these protagonists – and even a little pity for Bratt himself as he tries to re-live his glory days in the Eighties.
However fantastical the plot becomes, the relationships between the characters remain straightforward enough. This means the film retains its emotional undertow. It helps that the faces of the humans are animated in such an expressive way: they all have huge, rapidly blinking eyes and their skin colour will change, reflecting their moods.
At times, it’s as if the minions are in their own, separate movie. They don’t feature very prominently but are at the centre of two tremendous sequences. In one, the little yellow imps invade a Hollywood studio, stumble onto a sound stage where a TV talent show is being recorded and then burst into an operatic song.
The words may be the usual gibberish but the rubbery creatures put across the music with such unlikely passion they receive a standing ovation. Even better is when they take over a jail. They’re so wild that even the most hardened convicts cower in their presence.
The filmmakers throw in a King Kong-style finale with Balthazar Bratt going on a wrecking spree across Hollywood, covering the city in bubble gum as he does so.
It is a testament to the ingenuity of producer Chris Melandri and the team at animation company Illumination that they’ve managed to make three Despicable Me feature films and a Minions spin off from what seems at first glance like such a flimsy original premise. They’re not drawing on old fairy tales or remaking forgotten Hollywood classics.
These are original stories. Despicable Me 3 is random in the extreme in structure but it is also wildly inventive, full of visual and verbal gags, and very good natured too. The energy levels never dip and each new set-piece turns out to even more bizarre and original than its predecessor.
Alone In Berlin
Dir: Vincent Perez, 103 mins, starring: Brendan Gleeson, Emma Thompson, Daniel Brühl, Mikael Persbrandt
This is a decent but dour film about decent but dour people making their own small-scale but extremely poignant protests against Hitler. It is based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, a couple who left hand-written notes dotted around early 1940s Berlin, attacking the Nazi regime, after Elise’s brother was killed in the war. The Hampels inspired Hans Fallada’s novel Every Man Dies Alone (also known as Alone In Berlin).
In Fallada’s story, adapted for the screen by director Vincent Perez, Otto Quangel (Brendan Gleeson) and his wife Anna (Emma Thompson) are the couple resisting against Hitler in their own idiosyncratic way. They’re similar to Ethel & Ernest, the British husband and wife in Raymond Briggs’s graphic novel. They’re determinedly ordinary: an inconspicuous lower middle-class German couple, living in a drab apartment block. Their grief at the death of their son drives them into their own form of resistance against Hitler.
Otto is foreman in a factory, good with his hands but very taciturn and with only limited education. He’s not a member of the Nazi party and has hitherto kept his reservations about it to himself. Gleeson plays him with melancholy gravitas. Once he has scribbled under a picture of Hitler in a book that the Fuhrer is a liar, the next step is to share this information as widely as he can. He writes postcards in laborious long hand.
The first one warns mothers that Hitler could well kill their sons too. He and his wife place the cards in doorways or on staircases. It’s a crude but effective form of home-front propaganda that infuriates the authorities. Otto and Anna are fatalistic. They know they’re likely to be caught and that their actions amount to little more than “throwing sand in the gears” of the Nazi machine.
Nonetheless, they find writing and distributing the cards to be both liberating and cathartic. Otto treats the task in the same methodical way as he does overseeing the workers in the factory.
Perez aims for a deliberately subdued storytelling style. Colours are desaturated. Very little sunshine seems to intrude into the Quangels’ corner of Berlin. Everything about their lifestyle is spartan and austere. Thompson conveys Anna’s bereavement and anger in subtle but moving fashion. She’s not a woman given to big displays of emotion but we can tell her feelings by her subdued and distracted behaviour.
The film shows effectively how every aspect of society has been corrupted by the Nazi regime. When a sadistic SS officer (Mikael Persbrandt) assaults police inspector Escherich (Daniel Brühl) for failing to track down “Hobgoblin” (as Otto is nicknamed by the Nazis), Escherich reacts by behaving in an equally brutal way to a suspect he knows is innocent.
The reason the postcards are taken so seriously is that the authorities, like everyone else, realise that the crude anti-Nazi slogans are truthful. Some of the Quangels’ neighbours are as heroic as they are but many others are venal and cowardly. If a little old Jewish lady is about to be evicted and arrested, there’s bound to be someone who’ll take her possessions.
Certain elements here are on the clunky side. While characters speak in heavily accented English, books and documents are, incongruously, still in the original German. There’s something unsatisfactory about the film’s portrayal of Escherich, the police inspector.
He’s intelligent and seems to be at the moral centre of the story. He has a conscience. As a detective, he has trained himself to understand the motives and behaviour of those he is investigating. At the same time, he is weak-willed and vacillating. We’re never sure whether to feel pity or disdain for him.
Taking its tone from Otto, Alone In Berlin is on the morose side. There is no humour or levity. Nonetheless, in its own quiet way, as its progresses toward its all too predictable conclusion, the film is absorbing. There have been plenty of other movies about resistance to the Nazis.
What makes Alone In Berlin distinctive is the form the resistance takes. This isn’t a portrait of a Jean Gabin-like freedom fighter, leading underground groups on daring raids against the Nazis. It’s about an ordinary middle-aged German couple who express their disgust for the regime by writing postcards. Stories about heroism don’t come any more understated.
A Man Called Ove
Dir: Hannes Holm, 113 mins, starring: Rolf Lassgard, Bahar Pars, Filip Berg
British viewers will find the main character in Oscar-nominated Swedish comedy-drama A Man Called Ove very familiar. Ove Lindahl (Rolf Lassgard) is miserable in a way that recalls Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. He complains about such matters as bad parking or neighbours’ dogs running amok with a splenetic vehemence that would put Victor Meldrew in One Foot In The Grave to shame. He is often just as much the butt of the joke as Mr Pooter in Diary Of A Nobody.
The film has barely started when Ove makes his first attempt at suicide. He’s 59 years old, has recently lost his job and was widowed six months before. He is desperate to rejoin his beloved wife in the afterworld but whenever he tries to sling a noose around his neck or to gas himself in his car, some busybody is bound to interrupt.
It is not hard to understand why A Man Called Ove, adapted from the best-selling novel by Fredrik Backman, has been such a huge success in Sweden. Writer-director Hannes Holm knows just how to mix the pathos, whimsy and the humour. This is very formulaic filmmaking.
You can predict exactly when the flashbacks will be thrown in. They reveal Ove as a child and very likeable young man, experiencing the usual formative experiences, bereavement and first love among them, before turning into the ogre he is now. The more grumpily he behaves in the present day, the more inevitable it is that he will eventually reveal his softer side and even show an unlikely heroism.
One of his new neighbours is beautiful young pregnant woman, Parvaneh (Bahar Pars). She’s an Iranian immigrant married to a layabout Swede. He begins by garrumphing at her but, sure enough, they soon become firm friends when he realises that she is as opinionated as he is.
A Man Called Ove is maudlin and sugary but it offers the same pleasures as all those other books and films about grumpy old men looking for redemption. Lassgard plays Ove with great comic relish, scolding, screwing up his face, and getting ever angrier at the very suggestion a Volvo might be a better car than a Saab (his marque of choice.) Parts of the film are surprisingly moving.
The story is dealing with raw subject matter. For all his comic tantrums, Ove’s despair feels real. The bungled suicide attempts are as pathetic as they are funny. Holm throws in close-ups of the beleaguered old man looking utterly lost and forlorn. Without the humour, the film might have seemed very bleak indeed but Holm is always ready to undercut the grimmest scenes with some uplifting comic schtick.
Dir: Ceyda Torun, 79 mins
These are tumultuous times in Turkey. There was an attempted coup last year. Democracy and free speech are under threat. You might expect filmmakers to deal with the seething unrest in the society. That, though, is not Ceyda Torun’s apparent concern in her documentary at all. Instead, Kedi is about the street cats in Istanbul and how the citizens interact with them.
This is a very lovingly and ingeniously shot film in which the camera follows the cats up trees and over rooftops; across roads and streets - and even into the gutters where they’re chasing mice. The city dwellers - at least the ones filmed by Torun - are all cat lovers. They feed the pussies, protect them and cherish their eccentricities.
There are hints, though, that Torun intends the film to be read at least partly as a political allegory. The opening titles point out that the cats have lived in Istanbul for thousands of years and have seen empires “rise and fall”. Though “cared for by many, they live without a master”. In other words, they will probably still be in the city after the current government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is long forgotten.
The streets seem empty without them and yet, as one interviewee notes, the city no longer “accommodates them ... our concerns for street animals and our concerns for people are completely related to one another”.
One of the most impressive elements in a very likeable documentary is the balance Torun strikes between analysis and affection in her approach toward her feline protagonists. If you’re a cat lover, you’ll find plenty of close ups of very cute looking moggies to coo over.
At the same time, the filmmakers take an anthropological approach toward the relationships between the humans and the cats. We’re introduced to one man who blithely tells us that caring for the animals helped him overcome a crippling nervous breakdown and brought happiness and meaning to his life. There is a historical dimension too - a sense that the cats are guardians of the ancient city.