Tag Archives: 4 stars

Film Review – Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road

In a stark desert landscape where humanity is broken, two rebels just might be able to restore order: Max, a man of action and of few words, and Furiosa, a woman of action who is looking to make it back to her childhood homeland.

During grotesque warlord Immortan Joe’s chase of Max, Furiosa et al, one of the many, many vehicles is fronted by a blind bloke in a red jumpsuit playing a double-necked guitar that spews fire. For no apparent reason. And that pretty much sums up the absurdity of Mad Max: Fury Road.

They say never go back, but that’s exactly what director George Miller has done and there’s absolutely no signs whatsoever of him mellowing with age. Incredibly light on dialogue and exposition, Fury Road opts for retina-burning action instead, rarely giving you chance to catch your breath before the heavy metal soundtrack erupts and away we go again.

You feel sweaty and grimy, covered in dirt, sand and oil just watching it, and it feels great.

Its several action set pieces are visceral, brutal and simply spectacular, stunningly choreographed into a dance of death across the dystopian wastelands. Whilst undeniably impressive, the non-stop action does become a bit one-note and the film would benefit greatly from just taking the odd breather and fleshing out its characters a little more. Max himself feels woefully underdeveloped, and just giving us that little extra glimpse into who he is would have been welcome.

Charlize Theron as Furiosa

One of the main reasons the films works as well as it does is the aesthetic created by Miller and his cinematographer John Seale. Many post-apocalyptic films tend to have a rather washed out colour pallette but Fury Road is drenched in colour which just adds to the ludicrousness of the whole thing. And then there’s the vehicles and the noise and the make-up and bonkers editing – you feel sweaty and grimy, covered in dirt, sand and oil just watching it, and it feels great.

Whilst claims that Fury Road is some kind of visionary feminist masterpiece are somewhat wide of the mark, the film does do plenty to puts its men and women on much more equal footing than most other films of similar ilk.

For most of the film, this is Furiosa’s story, not Max’s – whether you want that is up to you.

You don’t need to look much further than Charlize Theron’s apocalyptic Ellen Ripley, Imperator Furiosa (Furiosa Road?), and her relationship with Max for proof of this. Furiosa enjoys just as much screen time as Max and we learn much more about her than Max’s Silverback grunts and gesturing ever give away. For most of the film, this is her story, not his – whether you want that is up to you.

At times Max does feel a little sidelined and this does bring about some issues, not because he has the right to be front and centre at all times, but because here we have a main character that, often, you struggle to really become invested in. Those who have seen the original Mad Max films may fare better here, but for those new to the series, there’s a good chance you won’t actually care that much about Max.

Whilst Fury Road is hardly the modern day classic some are labelling it as, it’s hard to beat when it comes to adrenaline-fuelled, fire guitar-wielding action. Its sheer vision and extravagance are to be applauded, and whilst a little more plot/character development wouldn’t have gone amiss, it’s a tremendous way to hopefully kickstart a new era in the Mad Max franchise.

Pros

  • Amazing action set pieces
  • Strong female lead in Charlize Theron’s Furiosa
  • Wonderful aesthetic and lore

Cons

  • Becomes too action-heavy
  • Could have done with more character and plot development

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Interstellar

Interstellar

With the Earth’s food supplies running out, farmer and former astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) travels across the universe in search of an alternative home for Earth’s inhabitants.

There are few directors whose films generate as much excitement as Christopher Nolan’s. And for good reason. With a back catalogue to date including Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception, Nolan might not be prolific but he certainly knows how to make a film.

Which brings us on to Interstellar, his most ambitious project yet, which given the head fuck that was Inception, is no mean feat.

What starts off on Earth as a relatively low key drama soon expands to the far reaches of our universe and beyond. Space exploration in films is of course nothing new but here it feels special for the most part, and some of that is down to the film being routed in realism. Sure, some of the science may not totally add up, but much of the film (the first two thirds in particular) feels plausible and not beyond the realms of possibility. It’s both exciting and scary to think this may one day become science fact rather than fiction.

Space exploration is only one aspect of the film, however, and as with the majority of Nolan’s films, Interstellar has family at its heart. It owes a debt to Robert Zemeckis’ Contact in this respect, knowing all the while that Cooper’s daughter Murph (but weirdly not his son) is at the forefront of his mind. It adds some emotional weight to the story that hasn’t worked for some but I thought gave the film a more human feel.

Black Hole in Insterstellar

Unfortunately, this good work is partly undone by some pretty hefty plot contrivances and whole strands of story that simply don’t work. Matt Damon’s brief storyline, for example, just feels forced and unnecessary, whilst trying to work out how Cooper ended up finding the NASA headquarters and being involved in the mission makes less sense than anything else that happens in the film.

But what Interstellar lacks on plot and script, it more than makes up for in ambition and grandeur. It looks absolutely stunning for a start, particularly some of the shots in the depths of space, whilst its final act is a brave one for a mainstream blockbuster. It does things other films would be afraid to do and should be applauded for that. It takes its cues from 2001: A Space Odyssey and whilst it does fall some way short of Kubrick’s masterpiece, it’s still quite the spectacle.

All the actors give decent performances with Matthew McConnaughey, Anna Hathaway and Jessica Chastain all handling their roles pretty well. None are particularly spectacular but do what they need to do when they need to do it.  However, it’s Mackenzie Foy as the young Murph who truly sparkles and adds some real emotional clout to the film. Foy’s character is central to everything happening to the film and fortunately she carries such pressure with ease.

Interstellar is not Christopher Nolan’s best film but is still a film to be appreciated, if just for its technical achievements. Like Gravity, it may not have the strongest script but is a visual marvel and will make you realise why you fell in love with cinema, particularly if you’re a sci-fi can. See it on the biggest screen possible and just drink it in.

Pros

  • Amazing cinematography
  • Pure cinema at times
  • Great performance by Mackenzie Foy

Cons

  • Some horrible plot contrivances
  • Some sections *cough* Matt Damon *cough* just don’t work

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Upstream Color

Upstream Color

Whilst a club Kris (Amy Seimetz) is kidnapped and drugged using some kind of larval parasite which makes her incredibly susceptible to suggestion. After eventually being freed by her captor, Kris has no knowledge of what’s happened to her and meets Jeff (Shane Carruth) who appears to have suffered a similar experience and with whom she has some kind of instinctive bond. 

Think of Upstream Color’s narrative as a balance beam covered in washing up liquid. The first few steps are pretty easy but at some point you’ll probably begin to wobble and slip. You’ve got to concentrate pretty hard on staying on course and if you lose your concentration for a moment then you’ll likely fall off. However, if you concentrate then you might just make it to the end.

See, there’s a good chance that at some point during Upstream Color you’ll wonder what the hell is going on. Just when you think you fully understand what’s going on and you start to relax, it’ll throw you a curveball and make you question everything you’ve already seen. You’ll question what’s real, who’s who and what on Earth the pigs have to do with it all. It doesn’t quite cross the line into surrealism but there’s definitely an abstract nature to it that lets the viewer come to their own conclusion on meaning and significance.

Upstream Color

The film has a very oneiric, almost other wordly, quality throughout which adds to the belief that not everything is as it seems. The score (also done by Carruth) also plays a big part in this, the near-constant, often monotone music rising and falling throughout, almost as if trying to lull you into a trance.

Whether Upstream Color is for you will very much depend on what you look for from your films. If you want something with a traditional narrative that you can switch off to then stay well away. However, if you want something that’s going to test you a little and you don’t mind having to join some of the dots yourself then there’s a lot here to enjoy.

Personally, I enjoyed it, even if I didn’t totally understand what was going on at all times. I definitely wobbled on that balance beam a few times but just managed to stay on, and the film’s conclusion does just enough to wrap things up if you’ve paid enough attention. It might be a little too abstract for its own good at times but the majority of the film is mesmerising and wholly unique, at least to my eyes.

You’ll likely either enjoy Upstream Color or not take to it at all, but it’s without a doubt a film you’ll have an opinion on. Some will love it, others will hate it, but I guarantee you won’t have seen anything like it.

Pros

  • Unique concept
  • Great cinematography
  • Mesmerising score

Cons

  • Sometimes a little too abstract for its own good

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Captain America (Chris Evans), Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson and new recruit Falcon (Anthony Mackie) face a new foe in the form of the Winter Soldier as terrorist organisation Hydra rears its ugly head in the most unlikely of places.

Another week, another Marvel superhero flick. The genre is walking a very well worn path by this point and many are starting to feel a little bit numb to its formula. Captain America: The Winter Soldier could well have been the straw that broke this series’ back, but fortunately there’s enough new and interesting in there to ensure Marvel’s stock remains as high as ever.

Captain America: The First Avenger, Cap’s origin story, took place in World War II, but naturally (considering what happened at the end of that film and in Avengers Assemble) we’re now in a modern day setting. And we have modern day themes as well. The Winter Soldier examines themes of privacy, intrusion, drones, and other similar ideas that feel incredibly relevant when you take a glance at the news of today.

The problem with having a modern day setting is that it removes one of the key elements that made the first film work: the period World War II setting. That’s not to say this film doesn’t work, but it feels a little less unique.

However, despite its current themes and setting, the film actually feels more akin to a 1970s spy or espionage thriller, or even a Connery/Moore era James Bond film at times. Stick the Cap in a tuxedo and you’ve got yourself a Bond film. Apart from the guy who has massive metal wings and can fly everywhere, obviously.

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That would be Sam Wilson, or Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie), who’s one of the new characters introduced in The Winter Soldier. Falcon is a decent addition and along with the inclusion of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow as a main character completes an interesting and dynamic central trio.

Then there’s the Winter Soldier himself as the film’s central villain (or is he?). One aspect of the past few Marvel films where they’ve dropped the ball is with their villains, in that they just aren’t that villainous. Both Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World featured very weak villains, but they’ve upped the game somewhat here. The Winter Soldier is both menacing and also has an air of mystery surrounding him which adds up to a much more threatening villain than we’ve seen previously.

Much of The Winter Soldier is actually much slower paced and plot heavy than you’d expect from a Marvel film and this plays very much in its favour, although younger viewers may not appreciate this as much. However, true to form everything goes ballistic in the final third and we get the obligatory 20 minute action scene with everything being blown to smithereens. Obviously, with superhero films, this formula is the natural one to follow, but it would have been nice to stray from this for a change.

Whilst The Winter Soldier could, and perhaps should, have been the point where we tire of Marvel superhero films, it’s actually one of the stronger entries in the whole franchise that should see him have more equal footing alongside his super-peers when it comes to next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Pros

  • The Winter Soldier is an excellent villain
  • Interesting and more involved plot
  • Dynamic central trio of heroes

Cons

  • Final third a little too formulaic
  • Loses some of its identity with shift in time period from the first film

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Starred Up

Eric (Jack O’Connell) is a violent young offender who’s been moved to an adult prison. Whilst he’s locked up he brutally clashes with prison guards, but is taken under the wing of prison therapist Oliver (Rupert Friend). However, Eric’s biggest problem lies with fellow inmate Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) who also happens to be his father.

It always helps when someone heavily involved with a film can draw upon personal experiences in some way, and that’s exactly the case with Starred Up screenwriter Jonathan Asser. Asser worked as a voluntary therapist in HM Prison Wandsworth, and if he’s seen half the things that go on in Starred Up, then that’s all the encouragement anyone should need to stay on the right side of the law.

As you’d perhaps expect from a gritty British prison drama, Starred Up (the film is named after a term given to a young offender who is moved up into adult prison) can be pretty brutal and uncompromising. Within the first few minutes, Eric has already put a snapped radio aerial to a guard’s throat and that pretty much sets the tone for the film.

However, fortunately there’s a massive amount more to the film than just prison brutality. At the centre of the story is Eric’s relationship with two different people: his father Neville who’s also in prison with him, and Oliver the prison therapist. Both Neville and Oliver offer Eric something missing from his life up to that point, and although Eric is resistant to both in the outset, it’s interesting to see how the relationships develop and evolve over the course of the film.

Jack O'Connell

See, Eric is a pretty abhorrent individual; there’s almost nothing to like about him whatsoever, and yet somehow you end up feeling sympathetic towards him. It might be pushing it to say he’s some kind of anti-hero, but there’s just something about him that instils a sense of sympathy in you.

This could very well be down to Jack O’Connell’s superb central performance. O’Connell fills the role of Eric with malice and angst, and it’s a fantastic physical performance at times, although he also brings a wonderful layer of vulnerability to the character. He perfectly shows the character’s inner conflict, and there’s a real tension whenever he’s on screen as he’s just so unpredictable. Ben Mendelsohn is also excellent as Eric’s father Neville. There’s a similar conflict within him, struggling to know how to do right by his son whom he’s never really been around to care for.

What does let the film down a little is that at times it feels somewhat contrived and cliched. Making a weapon out of a toothbrush and razor blade, a corrupt prison governor, the suggestion that you’ll turn gay in prison; this kind of thing doesn’t hold the story back at all, but does feel like we’ve been there a few too many times before.

Some slight contrivances aside, Starred Up is a solid character-driven drama. It’s bleak and unflinching at times, which may put some people off, but it’s well worth seeing for Jack O’Connell’s performance alone.

Pros

  • Brilliant performance from Jack O’Connell
  • Ben Mendelsohn also impressive
  • Interesting relationships between the main characters

Cons

  • Sometimes contrived and cliched

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

 

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Quickie: Kiki’s Delivery Service

Kiki is a young witch in training. Having moved away from her family and struggling to adapt to life in her new town, moves in with local baker Osono and starts up a delivery service. But how will Kiki cope when she loses her powers amid the attentions of local boy Tombo?

You’ve no doubt seen countless coming of age stories before, but have you seen one about a witch who lives in a bakery and sets up a delivery business whilst being pursued by a boy who wants to make a flying machine out of a bicycle? That’s what makes Kiki’s Delivery Service so alluring – it tells its story in a totally unique and magical way that it feels unlike anything else.

It does play pretty young at times, sometimes verging on cheesy, although that could be due to the language translation in the dubbed English version I saw. However, its messages of believing in yourself, the rewards of hard work and always trying to challenge and improve yourself are nonetheless strong ones that can apply to absolutely anyone of any age. Kiki may be a witch but her problems are those that will ring true with many, young and old, and as such she’s a very relatable protagonist.

One could argue that Kiki’s Delivery Service will resonate more with female viewers than male, but it’s so charming that it’d be difficult for anyone not to get completely swept up in Kiki’s wonderful world.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Only Lovers Left Alive

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Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are two vampires who cope very differently with modern life. Eve embraces it whilst Adam rejects it and shuts himself off from the world. However, when Eve’s wild-child little sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) turns up, both their worlds are thrown into disarray.

Fans of director Jim Jarmusch will have an inkling of what to expect from Only Lovers Left Alive. It’ll be highly stylised, told at walking pace and you’ll have to dig deep to find much semblance of plot. Sounds pretty perfect for the world of vampires, doesn’t it?

Both Adam and Eve have been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years and we get two very different perspectives on what is essentially eternal life and how they cope with it. Both have learnt to resist the urge to quench their thirst for blood direct from humans, instead sourcing it from specialist dealers; just part of the ubiquitous drug analogy that runs throughout the film.

Eve seems much more comfortable evolving over time; she has an iPhone, is happy to travel and is more outgoing compared to Adam, who has a much more negative view of modern society. He’s reclusive, refers to regular humans as zombies and is so disillusioned with modern life that he even considers suicide.

only-lovers-left-alive03

The two don’t live together and seem worlds apart, yet there’s something that feels really genuine about their relationship. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston have excellent chemistry together, and they really make you believe they’re a couple who have spent hundreds of years in each other’s company.

And yet we never really know much about them. Their past is only ever hinted at, and whilst you could argue this adds to their mystique, it’s also quite frustrating that these intriguing characters ultimately appear rather underdeveloped.

Then there’s the issue of the film’s pacing, and it’s this which is likely to be the sticking point with many. Jim Jarmusch’s films are known for deliberately slow paced and this is very much the case here, focusing much more on the mood of the film rather than its narrative. Only when Eve’s younger sister Ava arrives does it break into a jog, and even though this does up the pace, it still feels a little too lethargic for its own good.

What Jarmusch does do, however, is create an absorbing atmosphere and world in which his characters inhabit. The oneiric cinematography of both Detroit and Tangier, the two locations in which the film is set, has a hypnotic quality mesmerising and really draws you into the film.

Only Lovers Left Alive is not going to appeal to everyone, particularly in its almost comatose pacing. However, it’s sultry, seductive and sexy, and thanks to some mesmerising cinematography and two magnetic central performances there’s plenty to admire if you just sit back and let the whole thing wash over you.

Pros

  • Hypnotic cinematography
  • Interesting take on the vampire story
  • Seductive performances from Hiddleston and Swinton

Cons

  • Pacing just too slow at times
  • Would have been nice to know more about the characters

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film review: Dallas Buyers Club

Rodeo cowboy Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) has his world turned on its head when he’s told he has AIDS and only a month to live. Discovering that adequate medication isn’t available in America, he and a fellow AIDS sufferer, the transgendered Rayon (Jared Leto), seek other methods of obtaining the drugs in order to help themselves and hundreds of other AIDS victims.

Lately it seems that every time Matthew McConaughey graces a cinema screen, he shocks people at just how good an actor he is. He may have produced an awful lot of dross in the past, but his roles in films such as Killer Joe and Mud, amongst others, have surely exonerated him for his past indiscretions.

And surprise, surprise – McConaughey delivers once more as he tells the real life tale of AIDS victim Ron Woodruff, an immensely unlikeable character who draws us in with his passion to make a difference.

Woodruff is white trash, a homophobic rodeo cowboy who lives for himself and no-one else. However, the revelation that he has contracted HIV makes him question everything and re-evaluate how he sees the world. Sounds a little cliched? To be honest, that’s because it is.

Most of Dallas Buyers Club progresses exactly as you think it will, with certain markers in the sand to help it along. We have the bigot who changes his views, the little man against the big bad pharmaceutical company, the rebel within the company who sides with the little man; it’s nothing that hasn’t been said and done many times before. But that’s not to say it isn’t done well, because it is. It’s narratively sound, which may sound like damning with faint praise, but this ensures more peaks than troughs.

Whilst the story may be somewhat formulaic, the performances are anything but, and it’s our man Matthew McConaughey in the driving seat. McConaughey is imperious as the bigoted Ron Woodruff, switching effortlessly between anger, compassion, helplessness, and pretty much every other emotion in the book. McConaughey’s acting prowess comes as little surprise to anyone anymore and this role still falls close to his comfort zone at times, but it can’t be argued that he handles the performance wonderfully.

It’s easy to see why McConaughey has garnered such praise for his performance, but it’s Jared Leto who shines brightest as transgendered Rayon. The character of Rayon was created specifically for the film, but it’s undoubtedly a better piece of drama for her inclusion, and it’s just as much her film as anyone else’s. It would have been easy to keep Rayon as a camp parody, but Leto adds so many more layers to the character; a scene in which Rayon holds back the tears as she asks her father for money is handled with the perfect amount of subtlety.

Dallas Buyers Club is a lesson in how to play to the widest possible audience, hitting all the right notes in all the right places. It may long for an offbeat here and there, but its stellar central performances ensure a compelling and genuinely affecting experience.

Pros

  • Another superb performance from Matthew McConaughey
  • Heartbreaking performance from Jared Leto
  • Brings an important topic to a wide audience

Cons

  • Somewhat formulaic in its story and message

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Inside Llewyn Davies

Llewyn Davies (Oscar Isaac) was one half of a popular folk duo on the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s until his partner threw himself off the George Washington Bridge. Llewyn must then rely on friends, family and strangers as he struggles to make it on his own, but doesn’t make life easy for himself.

There are few filmmakers who successfully span as many genres as the Coen brothers. Pretty much every film they make is a departure from the last, and yet you still know what to expect, such is their style. Inside Llewyn Davies may not be their most accessible film but is still another intriguing string to their already impressive bow.

Llewyn is a decent enough artist but has struggled to catch a break. He’s stuck in a rut, making no money and having to crash on the sofas of anyone who’ll have him. He’s also not a particularly nice person, leading to a rather uneasy, morose tone for the film. Llewyn tries to make his way in the world but we never really get the feeling it’ll ever work for him.

Looming over Llewyn and the whole film in general is the death of his friend and musical partner. From the first song we see Llewyn sing, ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’, to the nightmarish road trip he takes with jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) and beat poet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), death seems a ubiquitous presence throughout.

All this does make the film a little cold and not always engaging. Llewyn is his own worst enemy and generally a bit of a dick, which succeeds in keeping you just at arm’s length throughout. However, Llewyn is the source of a dry vein of humour that runs throughout, which is necessary to keep it from getting too depressing, and Oscar Issac must take a lot of credit for his performance. Isaac is note perfect as the downtrodden Llewyn, carrying an air of entitlement whilst trying to repress the fact he knows he’s not quite good enough.

As you’d expect, the music and in particular the folk songs (which were recorded live) are superb, and rather than just get snippets of the tracks, we’re treated to full length versions, which actually makes the film seem more akin to a traditional musical. Complementing the music is Bruno Delbonnel stunning cinematography which definitely has a touch of the Wes Anderson or Stanley Kubrick about it.

Inside Llewyn Davies also has an elliptically structured narrative which, whilst interesting, may frustrate some in not offering a clear conclusion to the story. But this is the Coens, so the chances of it wrapping up nicely were always pretty slim. It lets us draw our own conclusions, and few films recently have had me coming up with my own theories for so long afterwards.

In fact, there’s quite a lot to ponder upon and analyse should you feel the need. Everything from a ginger cat that Llewyn looks after to the songs he sings can take on alternative interpretations if you want to find them. It’s more than possible to enjoy the film at face value, but one could argue it’s a richer experience if you dig a little deeper.

Those expecting a by-the-numbers biopic are likely to be a little taken aback by Inside Llewyn Davies’s slow-burning, almost uneventful story, but the Coens have done what they do best in creating a film that rewards those who allow themselves to succumb to its peculiarities and idiosyncrasies. In short, the more you put in, the more you’ll get out.

Pros

  • Fantastic performance from Oscar Isaac
  • Great soundtrack
  • Stunning cinematography
  • Can leave you thinking about it for days

Cons

  • Some may find it slightly cold and unfulfilling

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Quickie: Grave of the Fireflies

Japan towards the end of WW2. Seita is but a young man but is forced to fend for himself and his little sister Setsuko after their mother is killed during a bombing raid.

Studio Ghibli are arguably best known for creating magical universes populated by wonderfully weird creatures, but if you go into Grave of the Fireflies expecting more of the same then you’re in for a shock.

The art style is familiar and is similar to that of My Neighbour Totoro, which is understandable as the two films were made alongside each other; tonally, however, the two films are about as different as they could get. Within minutes we know that this isn’t going to be an easy ride as we see Seita and Setsuko’s mother burned and bandaged following a bombing raid. Following that, as we see the pair struggle to survive and fend for themselves, the film continues to get bleaker.

But amongst the bleakness, there are moments of hope and joy. Seeing the relationship between the pair is delightful, particularly as Setsuko continues to play, unaware of their true peril. Seita doing whatever he can to provide for his sister is genuinely moving and heartbreaking in equal measure.

Grave of the Fireflies is not the whimsical tale many have come to expect from Studio Ghibli, but despite the overtly sombre outlook it is still an expert lesson in the horrors of war, the importance of family and the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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