Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Quarterly film roundup - July to September 2008

Open Season * - A lamentable, charmless, exceptionally derivative and unfunny animation which sees Sony borrowing shamelessly from the leaders in this field (Pixar and Dreamworks). The central buddy pairing of lumbering, complex oaf and fast-talking impulsive sidekick is ripped off directly from Shrek, only in a completely implausible way and without any trace of spark; whereas Shrek and Donkey needed each other and gradually learned to like each other, in Open Season Boog the grizzly and Elliot the one-antlered deer have absolutely nothing on which to base a relationship. Meanwhile, plot elements (hippy caravan-dwellers looking for Bigfoot - eventually rehashing a great Simpsons gag) and characters (violent Scottish squirrels) are apparently introduced only for comic effect and without any thought to relevance or structure. This isn't a family film - it's emphatically a kids' film, with absolutely nothing to recommend it to anyone over the age of five. Somebody needs to tell Sony that an animation has to have more than a wise-cracking sidekick in order to be successful. As an audience, we care about Shrek and Donkey; we care about Nemo and Buzz Lightyear and all the rest. We can't care about these unlikeable idiots. A terrible waste of time.

Wall-E **** - By way of direct contrast to Open Season, Pixar demonstrates its storytelling prowess by proving that we can even be made to care about a hundreds-of-years-old, somewhat eccentric lump of metal. The animation is never less than stunning, but it's the heart that makes the film so successful - and ultimately, it is a triumphant and remarkably human story. There's a timely, but not superfluous, environmental message here; not only is this necessary (all good sci-fi needs a decent dystopia to work with) but it is also well-balanced with the upbeat ending. And, as we've come to expect, there are nods to other sci-fi works and popular films aplenty, from Short Circuit to 2001: A Space Odyssey, via Disney's own The Black Hole - and is that even a cheeky Little Mermaid gag in there, too? Unfortunately, but inevitably, the film has been over-hyped and, perhaps as a result, it doesn't quite press all the same emotional buttons as Monsters Inc. or Toy Story 2, but it's still an instant classic. It was accompanied at cinemas by a hilarious short about a magician and his hungry bunny.

And, talking of magicians...

The Prestige **** - Christopher "Memento" Nolan deftly weaves fact and fiction and a highly erratic timeline to create an intriguing, suspenseful film about two Victorian-era stage magicians, whose rivalry becomes deadly. By working in real-life characters (Nikola Tesla, Chung Ling Soo) and with a fine attention to authentic detail, Nolan pulls off a magic trick of his own - making the extraordinary seem completely plausible, and hence massively increasing the sense of danger. And, although there is a gratuitous final "reveal" shot for people who haven't been paying attention, there are enough clues throughout the film for most armchair sleuths and conjurors to work out who did what and when.

No Country For Old Men *** - The Coen Brothers turn in a typically sprawling, meandering thriller - in truth, almost a horror - about a redneck being hunted down by a hired killer intent on retrieving stolen drug money, and the grizzled old sheriff who hopes to intervene. The good recreation of seventies small-town America helps increase the claustrophobic tension. However, the indiscriminate and dispassionate nature of the killings asks more questions than the film can possibly answer and also unfortunately brings to mind Sylar, the villain of the first series of Heroes, which probably isn't quite what the Coens had in mind.

In The Shadow Of The Moon **** - Documentary featuring many of the astronauts who manned the Apollo missions, discussing the development, execution and aftermath of their trips into space. Some genuinely moving anecdotes and utterly stunning genuine archive film and photography help to make this one of the most memorable films in some time. The DVD features additional footage of similar quality.

Lilo And Stitch **** - A heartwarming and visually sumptuous Disney animation about a little girl's friendship with an evil blue Elvis-loving alien. There's nothing exceptionally profound - the moral of the story is practically rammed down our throats - but the execution is sincere, heartfelt and fun.

Idiocracy ** - A brilliant idea (it's the future, machines do all the work and everyone is completely dumb) and even some impressive special effects do not make up for the poor story development. It's rather a shame; there are many elements that could have been explored further, but the viewer is left with the unshakeable feeling that the filmmakers simply ran out of funding and had to turn in a film half-completed.

Cars **** - So if Pixar can make us care about fish, toys and robots... can it do the same thing with cars? Almost unbelievably, the answer is emphatically yes, although of course it helps that the absorbing story is a readily recognisable human one. Much of the humour of the film is derived from the way in which human (and animal) archetypes are reimagined as road vehicles, but more subtle is the faithful reproduction of a quiet backwater town stuck in its 1950s neon-lit heyday.

The Wild ** - A bunch of zoo animals escape and head to Africa - the Wild - to rescue a lion cub. Proving once and for all that Americans can't tell the difference between accents, Eddie Izzard plays a neurotic koala, producing a few mildly humorous moments.

Tales From Earthsea ** - A highly distracting, simplistic visual animation style (even more so when contrasted with the sumptuous backgrounds which are typical of Studio Ghibli) is just one of the mistakes made by this loose adaptation of Ursula Le Guin's fantasy series. On the face of it, the source material is ideal Ghibli material, but even for those versed in the studio's language, there are some impenetrable plot elements. It's also pretty scary in places, with little in the way of comic relief. Possibly a wasted opportunity.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Quarterly film roundup - April to June 2008

Chicago *** - If musicals are always prone to artificiality and unlikely plot developments - if only because the real world isn't full of people spontaneously breaking into song - then this example of the genre is doing better than most. At least it has a point to the sudden flights of fantasy and ends up serving something of a lesson in the brevity of modern-day celebrity.

The Last King Of Scotland **** - A staggeringly powerful performance from Forest Whitaker as General Idi Amin, the increasingly paranoid military dictator of Uganda, towers over this film almost from the very first scene. The story is told through the eyes of Amin's fictional Scottish doctor and confidante, who finds himself helplessly woven into the fabric of the General's violent politics. Even when laughing amongst friends and even at his most vulnerable, Whitaker's characterisation is never less than menacing and sometimes outright dangerous. The threat that he is about to do something unspeakably evil counterpoints nicely with the surprising bursts of humour scattered throughout the film, which help showcase Amin's legendary charisma and add shreds of humanity to his brutal nature.

Enchanted *** - An unfortunate example of the type of film that has all the best bits in the trailer, this fails to live up to its billing (Princess Bride for the twenty-first century?) An animated fairytale princess is thrown into our modern hectic world, where she gains a third dimension, although not much of one, and may just be about to change the life of a little girl and her single father. Whether you can stomach the film depends, at best, on your attitude to musicals and, at worst, your response to dangerous levels of saccharine.

The Science Of Sleep ** - Michel "Eternal Sunshine" Gondry leads us on another labyrinthine journey through a dysfunctional relationship, but the writing falters without Charlie Kaufman's flair. As a result, the film is an impressively disjointed mess of reality and illusion, with a hint of menace that does not suit the nominal romance being played out. However, it's hard not to admire the work Gondry has put into the practical effects and one can readily imagine that the film would have been great fun to shoot.

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull *** - Preposterous even by the standards of its own franchise, this is still an entertaining, if over-long, entry in the series and clearly marks the way for future sequels. The action is wisely updated by a decade or two, so there are USSR KGB agents but no Nazis in sight. However, the most visually and emotionally striking sequences all occur in the opening twenty minutes or so, which means that the remainder of the film feels like something of a let-down.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated *** - Documentary investigating the seemingly arbitrary nature of the American film industry's censorship panel. The conclusions reached are somewhat predictable (that it's conservatively-run, secretive, and geared up to protecting the interests of the big studios rather than smaller artists). But there are humorous touches and small, satisfying victories on the journey.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith ** - Whether this is supposed to be a straight action film or a metaphorical take on the trials of modern marriage scarcely matters - it's so ridiculous that the only option is to switch off brain, suspend disbelief and watch slack-jawed as two of Hollywood's most attractive people try to kill each other.

King Arthur ** - This take on the old legends probably sought to do what Prince Of Thieves achieved - tell a familiar but great story within a plausible historical context. However, this particular retelling of the Camelot stories is excessively revisionist and, other than the name, ignores hundreds of years of story-telling by some of our leading poets and authors. Clive Owen lacks the gravitas required for such a supposedly great leader and Keira Knightley does herself and her career absolutely no favours whatsoever.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Quarterly film roundup - January to March 2008

Blood Diamond *** - Leo DiCaprio dons his best Seeth Eefreecan accent as a ruthless mercenary diamond dealer who may or may not have a little compassion in his heart. Overall an adequate thriller but could have been edited down to a keener run-time.

Bridget Jones: The Edge Of Reason ** - Goes to great lengths to repeat every single one of the most humorous gags from the first film, to generally unamusing effect. Where a new concept for a joke is introduced, more often than not it misfires. If Bridget Jones is supposed to be a hero to modern women, then why on Earth must this film (and, presumably, the book) attempt to mine comedy from far-Eastern women's jails and lesbianism?

Atonement **** - Very effective and affecting costume drama exploring a girl's guilt at a one-off case of childish jealousy and its devastating repercussions. Amongst the emotional anguish, it might by easy to overlook the film's technical achievements: an astonishing one-take Steadicam scene set on a wartime French beach is both low-key and dazzling, natural and virtuosic.

Serendipity *** - Two strangers meet by chance and feel a connection - but she's evidently a bit of a hippy, because she feels that their relationship should be governed by supernatural forces. This is a quirky, non-traditional rom-com which is mostly rather sweet. It's a bit unfortunate that love triangles tend to leave victims in their wakes, however, because while her partner thoroughly deserves to be ditched for the romantic ideal, his partner is entirely blameless.

Singin' In The Rain **** - They don't make 'em like this any more. While some of the songs are all-too-apparently selected to showcase MGM's catalogue rather than to drive the story, it's still brilliant, with catchy tunes, wit, charm, absolutely hilarious jokes, and that classic rainy set-piece.

Beauty And The Beast *** - Disney's award-winning take on the tale is let down in places by the odd non-sequitur, uneven plot development and some irritating "humorous" banter, and the well-known set-piece (swooping down from the ballroom ceiling) has lost some of its shine in the light of more recent advances in animation technique. But it still has romance and charm to spare.

Letters From Iwo Jima **** - The second of Clint Eastwood's pair about this wartime island conflict is told from the Japanese point of view and is markedly superior to Flags Of Our Fathers. The story attempts to explain the Japanese mentality: their dogged refusal to give up on their hopeless task; their ever-prevailing sense of honour. And, even as it condemns the officers for their cruelty, the film cannot help but be an awe of the men's courage.

Ice Age ** - Raucous, annoying and even tedious in places, this is the story of a prehistoric migration in which all the animals band together to escape onrushing disaster. The film fails to notch up the tension sufficiently quickly, the animals aren't sufficiently cute to hold a younger audience's interest, and the inclusion of comic vignettes involving a single-minded squirrel seem to be an admission on the part of the filmmakers that the film overall just isn't that funny. And an attempt to address important issues of identity and belonging fall flat, mainly because the character in question refuses to discuss them in any way.

Ice Age II *** - An improvement on the original, but no classic, this is essentially a take on the road-movie genre but with added sabre-toothed tigers. This time, the jokes are funnier, including some nice flights of fantasy that recall the wackier daydreams in Scrubs. Furthermore, the film doesn't try to burden itself with such awkward issues as before - this time, it's a simple theme of good vs. bad and doing the "right thing".

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Quarterly film roundup - October to December 2007

Angel-A ** - A desperate small-time crook is saved from committing suicide by a beautiful woman who may or may not be an angel - although if she is, she's a highly unconventional one. A typically stylised, black-and-white film from Luc Besson, there is exceptional beauty to be uncovered in its more whimsical scenes, but this is marred by a lack of chemistry between the man and his saviour, by the lead being essentially unlikeable, and by a thoroughly disturbing subtext of misogyny and sexual violence.

Flags Of Our Fathers *** - The first in Clint Eastwood's pair of films about the American attack on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima explores the complex emotions and relationships of a small band of soldiers feted as heroes due to their involvement in a staged reconstruction of an heroic moment. As such, the film strives to comment on the artificiality of media and the need of any political campaign to have its icons - as relevant today as ever.

Ratatouille *** - A beautifully-animated, if wildly implausible, Pixar tale about a rat who loves fine cuisine. Patience and repeated viewing does help to draw out the heart from the tale; unfortunately, at first sight, the story and execution seem a little too cold and clinical.

Gulliver's Travels (TVM) *** - An epic and comprehensive retelling of Daniel Swift's most famous work, with Ted Danson in the title role. A surprisingly complete and involving experience.

The Hunchback Of Notre Dame **** - Disney's animation seems to take as its cue the musical adaptation of Les Misérables - and indeed, the comparisons are legion. Apart from source material by the same author, there are thematic similarities; for example, a blurring of right and wrong and a villain who believes himself to be righteous. Even the musical set-pieces are staged and shot like a live-action musical. Altogether, an effective piece of work.

Caché *** - A disturbing and occasionally deliberately confusing thriller in which a normal couple suddenly start receiving video cassettes showing themselves, as filmed by a hidden cameraman, going about their daily lives. As they investigate, they must come to terms with a dark past. The tension is palpable.