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.