#29: The Court Jester (1956) December 23, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Comedy, Musical, 4 stars, 1950s, Adventure, 2012 , add a comment
Danny Kaye stars in today’s 100 Films Advent Calendar review, a swashbuckling musical comedy…
#99: Winnie the Pooh (2011) February 25, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Animation, Comedy, Musical, Disney, adaptations, 4 stars, 2010s, 2011 , add a comment
Winnie the Pooh, as many reviews on its release were keen to point out, is for small children. It doesn’t have the attempts to placate adults with their own jokes that elevate/plague most American animation; it’s only an attention-span-friendly hour long; and it has a lovely, genial, friendly tone, with brightly coloured characters, plinky-plonky songs and heartwarming moral messages.
The thing is, I don’t hold that this makes it “just for ickle kiddies”. Sure, it can, and when it’s done poorly it most certainly does, but that’s not Winnie the Pooh. Look back to A.A. Milne’s original stories and you see the same thing: ostensibly it’s just for the kids, but there’s actually all kinds of wordplay and (admittedly, gentle) subversion that’s clearly targeted at the adult reading the book. This new film captures that same effect. Naturally this means it won’t work on the cynical or black-hearted viewer, or the Mature type whose favour isn’t even curried by the adult-targeted jokes in a Pixar film, but for the rest of us it can make it a delight.
In few other films would you see the characters interact with the narrator; see them scramble across the words in the pages of the book their story comes from; indeed, see the presence of those tangible letters help along the plot — I won’t spoil how. You don’t have to love Winnie the Pooh in an ironic still-a-child-at-heart kind of way, even if the presence of real-life Manic Dream Pixie Girl Zooey Deschanel on vocals suggests you might — it’s clever and witty enough to transcend that.
The majority of the film’s other elements click into place nicely too. The traditional animation is gorgeously executed, the voices are the ones we surely all know from growing up alongside Disney’s Pooh output, particularly Jim Cummings pulling double time as both Pooh and Tigger, as he has for decades. The exception I’d make is Bud Luckey’s Eeyore. I don’t know if he’s always sounded like that and I’d forgotten, but his voice didn’t work for me. It’s not the only problem: the songs can be a bit insipid; equally, a couple transcend that to work beautifully; and there’s no denying that it is a bit short; but then it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and hey, Dumbo’s no longer.
The American Academy have overlooked Winnie the Pooh in their nominations this weekend (not to mention Tintin, and probably some other stuff I’ve forgotten), I imagine writing it off as “just for little kids”. And that’s a shame, because I don’t think it is. I certainly loved it more than Rango and it’s definitely better than Kung Fu Panda 2, to pick on the two nominees I’ve seen. I struggle to believe I’ll find Puss in Boots more endearing.
Nonetheless, as much as I would dearly love to give a new Winnie the Pooh film full marks, there are a few niggles that hold me back — the songs, Eeyore’s voice, the length. But it is ever so lovely, and it came ever so close.
The 2012 Oscars are on Monday at 1:30am on Sky Movies Premiere.
#54: The Princess and the Frog (2009) October 25, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Animation, Musical, Disney, Fantasy, Romance, 2000s, adaptations, 4 stars, 2011 , add a comment
With box office and critical acclaim sliding, Disney abandoned traditional 2D animation for their significant films in the early ’00s, switching to the computer-animated 3D that was doing so well for Pixar and Dreamworks. I don’t know if it helped the box office any, but it didn’t help with critics — it wasn’t the medium that was at fault, it was the storytelling. Notoriously, as soon as Pixar’s John Lasseter was put in creative control of the whole of Disney he instituted a return to 2D animation. The Princess and the Frog was the much-heralded first film after this change.
The resultant film is very enjoyable — not because it’s in 2D animation, but because it’s just good. Set in ’20s New Orleans, it retells the well-known story of a prince turned into a frog who needs a kiss to return to human form in typical Disney style: expanded, funny, contemporary, with songs. And that largely works. OK, so no individual song is exceptionally memorable, but their jazzy style suits the film down to the ground. There are no bad or dull ones (not something that can be said of even some classic Disneys, in my opinion) and all are certainly entertaining while they last. Though it’s a little brief, the villain once again gets the pick of the bunch. I’m biased that way though; others may well disagree.
It’s also a bit long. A tighter opening and, especially, journey through the bayou in the middle would’ve improved it. While I enjoyed sequences like the crocodiles, guiding fireflies or frog-hunters when considered in isolation, there are just too many stacked up back to back for my taste. The voodoo material seems like it might be a bit on the scary side for kids, though maybe that’s just because too many children’s films are sanitised these days — I agree with the regular argument that it was better when films and TV aimed at kids included a bit of a scare or sadness, rather than more modern entertainment’s attempts to keep them wrapped in cotton wool for too long. The death of a character in the climax also sits in the same vein.
One thing that can’t be faulted, however, is the animation. It’s beautifully done: backgrounds are gorgeously painted, character animation is fast and fluid. There are some stunning individual shots, like when the fireflies become involved in creating glorious lighting and patterns in the bayou, for instance. There’s a nice use of different styles when appropriate too: a blocky art deco rendering of Tiana’s dream restaurant during Almost There; a splash of something hallucinogenically psychedelic during Dr Facilier’s number.
Many other Disney films have stand-out sequences; things to latch an appreciation on to. The best often have several of these stacked up, in some cases non-stop from start to finish. The Princess and the Frog is missing anything like that (though some may grab on to Almost There or, like me, Facilier’s song), but what it has instead is a very consistent tone, where the musical numbers fit effortlessly into the flow of the story rather than stopping the film for a showpiece. This is also true of the very best entries in the canon — Beauty and the Beast, for arguably the greatest example — and while I don’t claim Princess and the Frog reaches such giddy heights, I think its consistency makes it entertaining as a whole film, rather than as an up-and-down collection of varying-quality set pieces.
Not Disney’s best film, then, but one I believe has come in for an unfair amount of flack. I really liked it.
The Princess and the Frog is on Disney Cinemagic today at 5:40pm and tomorrow at 4pm.
#69: Tangled (2010) October 21, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Animation, Musical, Disney, Fantasy, Romance, adaptations, 4 stars, 2010s, 2011 , 1 comment so far
Disney’s 50th animated feature is Rapunzel in all but name, for no particularly good reason. It seemed to be met with universal praise on its release last year, critics hailing it as a return to Disney’s previous quality after a run of lacklustre releases, in particular the underwhelming return to 2D in the year before’s The Princess and the Frog.
Well, to get that comparison immediately out of the way, Tangled isn’t as good as The Princess and the Frog in my estimation. I’m not sure why it seems to have been more widely praised — it’s solid and good fun, but I thought Frog had more going for it.
Which isn’t to say Tangled is bad. It’s funny, which is its biggest asset, and exciting at times — as usual, the highly movable camera of CG animation adds fluidity, speed and excitement to the action sequences, making them one of the high points.
It’s not all good and shiny though. The setting — a comedic-ish fantasy-kingdom world — can come across a bit like lightweight Shrek, lacking the anachronistic postmodern real-world references that made that film zing. Worse, the songs are distinctly unmemorable — I’d forgotten some of them by the time it came to their own reprise. A gang of thugs singing about their dreams is the best thanks to its comedy, but I couldn’t hum or sing any of it for you now. I especially lament the lack of a decent villain’s song, a number I usually particularly enjoy. It has one, I suppose, but it’s one of the weakest examples I’ve ever heard.
Tangled isn’t bad by any measure, but I don’t feel it should be the praise-magnet it became. There are certainly better Disney musicals — it can’t hold a candle to those — and there are better funny fairytales too — but at least it holds up as a solid addition to that sub-genre.
The UK TV premiere of Tangled is on Disney Cinemagic this Sunday, 23rd October, at 5pm and 9pm.
#72: Sucker Punch: Extended Cut (2011) October 11, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Action, Musical, Fantasy, Sci-fi, War, 4 stars, video game films, alternate & director's cuts, 2010s, 2011 , 5 comments
Zack Snyder’s fifth venture in the director’s chair is his first not to be based on someone else’s pre-existing material; or, to put it another way, the first wholly original story from the director of 300 and Watchmen. On the strength of its critical and box office reception, he may be relegated from the chance of doing such original work in future (his next effort, as I’m sure you know, will be a reboot of Superman).
I read a good summary of the critical reaction to Sucker Punch somewhere: that critics (and viewers) split into two types, one who thinks it’s a shallow story-free brain-dead over-indulged video game of a movie, the other who think it has hidden depths and themes worthy of exploration. And both sides are likely to call the other stupid, one for not being bright enough to spot the subtext(s), the other for bothering to read stuff that isn’t there. I side with the group that thinks there’s something more to the film, which, as the minority, I guess makes this review a defence.
I’m going to start by discussing the difference between the theatrical cut and this Extended Cut, because for once I think it makes a notable difference. Indeed, why this isn’t called the Director’s Cut is unclear: Snyder reportedly had to submit the film to the MPAA five times before they were satisfied to give it a PG-13; the R-rated Extended Cut restores all that, so surely it’s the Director’s Preferred Version rather than Version With Extra Stuff Bunged In? Some of it is significant in terms of clarifying the film’s story, themes and real-world/dream-world juxtapositions. If you hated the film in its theatrically released form they’d likely struggle to change your mind, but for those seeking extra clarity they may help.
From what I’ve read, there are lots of changes here and there, but it strikes me there are four major omissions or additions:
- an extended Orc fight in the fantasy/dragon world. Fine.
- the dance number to Love is a Drug. I’d wondered why it got replayed over the end credits! Presumably it was cut because it was a bit too much like a musical, which is an understandable (people don’t like musicals allegedly) but disappointing decision. It adds to the film though, not just in terms of being Something Different, but also showing us what the club/brothel is like during working hours. It’s a great sequence.
- A climactic scene with Jon Hamm’s High Roller and Babydoll. I can only imagine how baffling it was for cinema audiences to see the Mad Men star turn up for one half-arsed scene (namely the scene which now follows the High Roller one, which had to be gutted to make sense in the theatrical version). It’s a tense, uncomfortable, challenging scene that adds a lot to chew over — especially in context of:
- The smallest cut in length, but perhaps the most significant: when the Priest first brings Babydoll to the club, it’s discussed that she’s there to sell her virginity to the High Roller. Cut (like everything else) to get a PG-13 and because of the connection to that High Roller scene, it might sound like a minor omission, but restoring it clarifies both character motivation and some of the film’s themes, while juxtaposing the real world and dream world with, respectively, lobotomy and loss of virginity.
This is where the film is better than some would give it credit for: it’s not just a muddled excuse for some action sequences, it’s a dream-logic battle by a girl poised to lose her mind… or, maybe, already has. While her stepfather is taking Babydoll to the asylum for nefarious purposes, there’s little doubt in my mind that she’s already suffering serious mental health problems — PTSD, quite probably, seeing as she accidentally murdered the little sister she was trying to protect after almost being raped by the evil stepfather her dead mother has left them to. If you know anything of the crazy, fractured dreams/hallucinations someone with a damaged mind can have, and apply that to this film, it begins to make more sense as a story.
(Major spoilers in the next two paragraphs.) That doesn’t mean it isn’t a problematic depiction of this. Is the ending really saying a lobotomy is a great solution to mental health problems? It allows Babydoll to escape her guilt and remorse for killing her sister, but that’s hardly empowering — giving in to it is, thematically, tantamount to suicide. This is supposedly offset by the escape of total-innocent Sweetpea, which wouldn’t have happened without Babydoll, but that seems scant consolation. And Babydoll’s stepfather escapes unpunished, apparently! Oh dear.
That it was Sweetpea’s story all along is also an interesting conceit. Snyder does contribute to this — Abbie Cornish gives the opening voiceover, we first see Sweetpea in a stage-set like the one Babydoll was on at the film’s open, and when we enter the (first) dream world it’s Sweetpea rather than Babydoll who emerges from the rotating transition shot. But is that enough? Because we’re undoubtedly in Babydoll’s head throughout the film, the only exceptions being the real-world bookends in which we only follow her. (We do see the result of Sweetpea’s escape, but the visual style makes it clear it’s Babydoll’s imagining of what happened.) Maybe this is Snyder’s ultimate aim: it’s someone’s story told from the perspective of a (particularly interesting) supporting character. A little like the end of Super, actually.
This isn’t the end of Sucker Punch’s thematic implications though. Some say it’s a deeply misogynistic film dressed up as a female empowerment movie — look at the hyper-sexy outfits, the ultra-action, the fact it’s set in a brothel… Others probably argue it’s about female empowerment despite all that, but one of the more convincing arguments I’ve read says it’s about female oppression: these characters think they’re independent and fending for/defending themselves, but everywhere they turn there’s a man in control. Even in the dreams-within-a-dream where the action sequences take place, the girls are given orders by a male commander and they follow them unquestioningly. I suppose it’s all down to your personal perspective whether you see this as evidence of misogyny or of a deeper, more thoughtful approach. Let’s be kind and see the latter, I think — it makes the film more interesting, more thought-provoking, and therefore more enjoyable. And enjoyable is good — if you’re setting out to hate a film for the sake of hating it then… oh, then just sod off.*
A far wiser man than I once theorised that any work of art, once completed and released, belongs to the viewing public rather than the artist.** (This is a lesson I feel someone needs to put to George Lucas.) Part of what this means is, if one reads something into the work — a thematic discourse, a moral message, whatever — then it is there, whether the author intended it or not. And if the author intended a certain message and you get the opposite, well, that’s right too (heck, even if you subscribe to the notion the work still belongs to the artist and only their intentions are valid, clearly they mucked up their delivery if you got the opposite). So, in other words, it doesn’t matter whether Snyder wrote and directed his film to ponder or convey certain points or ideas, or whether he just set out to create something that was “effin’ cool maaan, with, like, action and hot chicks and stuff, dude” — what I (and other critics) have read into it is still valid. So there.
Like the rest of the film, the soundtrack is divisive. Some think it contains weak re-workings of excellent classic tracks, others that it contains interesting and appropriate re-workings of excellent classic tracks. I must again side with the latter. For instance, there’s a Queen/rap mash-up that I actually quite liked it, and this is from someone who thinks the Wyclef Jean bastardisation of Another One Bites the Dust on Greatest Hits III is an offensive waste of disc space. The standout is probably the opening sequence, five minutes of dialogue-free brilliance with near-perfect visual storytelling (albeit aided by familiar imagery of abuse), set to a haunting rendition of Sweet Dreams (darkly, thematically apt for the entire film) sung by star Emily Browning herself.
Really, Sucker Punch is a musical. No, most of it isn’t sung, but every action sequence is accompanied by a cover song special designed to fit with it, many (or all) of which in some way comment on or add to what’s happening. Not a traditional musical by any means, obviously, but the way it’s constructed around these musical/action interludes belies the truth.
Said action sequences are all inventive, but they began to feel a bit samey to me. There’s just too many, and though they should feel drastically different thanks to the variety of settings, Snyder’s style links them too well: they’re all shot in the same brown/sepia hue and our heroes all use current-day weapons and vehicles, blurring what should be a clear difference between World War I with steam-powered Germans, an Orc-riddled fantasy castle and a robot-guarded train on a distant planet. They sound incredibly distinct on paper, but on screen it’s confusing whether they’re meant to be the same world or not. The last of these, a single-shot running gun battle along a train, should be a balletic triumph, but by this point the action’s beginning to wear. I love an action film, and especially a creatively-rendered sequence, and Sucker Punch does have a ton of originality, but there’s perhaps too much of an onslaught. Maybe it’s less battering on later viewings — another reason they cut back on it in the theatrical version, perhaps.
All of the dream levels (we go at least two deep) invite comparisons to Inception, though they’re radically different films. I’m sure there’s an argument to be made along the lines of Inception being a product of a very organised, methodical mind — all steel city blocks and precise Escher paintings made real — while Sucker Punch comes from a crazed creative place — a random grab-bag of ideas and concepts. For all those who complained that Inception’s real-world-influenced dreamscape lacked the creativity and madness of real dreams, Sucker Punch should be a marvellous experience.
Part of me wonders if, had I seen Sucker Punch in cinemas, would I feel the same way I do now? Would those big omissions have obscured the thematic depth I believe is there? To put it another way, how much do the changes really add? You or I will never know for certain. But I do think Sucker Punch has been underrated. It’s not the masterpiece I hoped it might turn out to be when I first began to notice the themes I think Snyder was (consciously or not) tapping in to, but do I think it’s a lot better and more interesting than most gave it credit for.
** The man in question where I encountered this theory was Russell T Davies, writing in his and Benjamin Cook’s book Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale. He may well have acquired this notion from some far older, grander source, but that’s still where I read it.
#48: Funny Face (1957) June 3, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Comedy, Musical, Romance, 4 stars, 1950s, 2011 , add a comment
Like Sabrina, Funny Face has Audrey Hepburn falling in love with someone old enough to be her dad. Fortunately, there’s enough other entertaining stuff going on to keep us distracted from that fact.
But let’s start with the negatives anyway. The plot, about a bookworm intellectual girl reluctantly being drawn into the world of high-fashion, falling in love with a photographer in the process, is as predictable as they come. It doesn’t matter, aside from the aforementioned fact that Fred Astaire is 30 years Hepburn’s senior and, though it’s obvious the characters are destined to get together, it doesn’t feel like the actors should. In fact, I’m not even really sure the characters belong together — of course they’re going to go that way, but the film doesn’t put a great deal of effort into making us believe it.
But the rest of the film does make up for that, with a surfeit of excellent humour, choreography, cinematography, light satire of both the fashion world and the intellectual world… Indeed, dishing out said satire in both directions means the film never comes across as either snobbish or anti-intellectual. It could well have dismissed the shallow world of fashion in favour of the depths of intellectual thought, or dismissed the dullness of philosophy for the glamour of couture, but it takes fair jibes at both equally — it’s not mean-spirited or cynical or dismissive, just… quite true.
All films look better in HD (when well done, naturally), but some seem to benefit more than others. Funny Face is one of those. It looks stunning — vibrant colours (especially in the opening Think Pink sequence), gorgeous location shots of Paris, the smokey confines of the intellectuals’ cafe… It’s a beautiful film. What it lacks in widely-remembered songs it makes up in the stunning visual sequences that accompany them. The opener may again be the standout, even though it features neither of the leads, but Hepburn’s barmy interpretative dance in the Paris cafe is also memorable, as is the three-way Bonjour, Paris!, or Astaire’s solo in the courtyard of Hepburn’s hotel, or their little darkroom number…
The cast are all great; specifically the three leads. Hepburn shows a perhaps-surprising affinity for dance (I wouldn’t say she’s known for it) and singing (she was dubbed in the later My Fair Lady); a rare film role for Kay Thompson as the fashion magazine editor, like Meryl Streep’s take but 50 years early (even the office looks familiar; which means they both look just like Anna Wintour’s — the more things change, etc); and Astaire is, naturally, brilliant.
Funny Face seems to have plenty of critics — mainly on the notion that Hepburn could be said to have a funny face. Pretty shallow reason to dismiss a whole film, if you ask me. While there are couple of bits that don’t wash with my appreciation — the age gap; I could take or leave the two scenes at the church — there’s far more to love about the film.
#20: Once (2006) May 5, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Music, Musical, Drama, Romance, 2000s, 4 stars, world cinema, 2011 , add a comment
Once is a very modern indie musical. And I mean indie as in “indie film”, not “indie music”. Lord save us from a musical of indie music.
The musical bit is both traditional and revisionist. The songs still reveal character and emotion, in the way they do in all good musicals, but here the lead characters are a pair of musicians and the songs are (mostly) placed in a plausible context — strumming on the bus, writing lyrics to a tune, recording in a studio, that kind of thing. The songs are of a folky variety. I don’t know how essential it is to like this style of music to enjoy the film — there are quite a few songs, but by placing them in a real world way Carney largely avoids the allegations of implausibility that are usually levelled at musicals. Perhaps this is a musical for the non-musical-fan, then. Personally I liked them enough to buy the soundtrack… but I suppose that’s meaningless if you don’t know the kind of music I like.
The visual aesthetic of the film is even more unlike your standard musical, shot handheld and digital video-y, it could almost pass itself off as a documentary. Carney and his cast don’t overdo the storytelling either, allowing looks and scenes and montage to do the work when others would’ve plumped for expositional dialogue. One of the film’s big reveals isn’t even in English, and nor is it subtitled, making for a “whisper at the end of Lost in Translation” moment (except you can hear this one, so a translation can be found online if you want to know). It’s a testament to the strength of the lead performances and the story they create that it’s not until the end credits roll you realise you never even knew their names.
The most ready comparison is Before Sunrise — “Before Sunrise with songs” might be the pat way to describe it. It’s not a rip-off — not Before Sunrise: The Musical — but there are plenty of similarities in terms of style and content. It didn’t quite click with me in the way that Linklater’s film did, perhaps because I’m not a musician. Equally that’s placing unfair weight on Once: there’s absolutely no need to be a musician to enjoy it; it’s a solid romantic drama, a very real-world (as opposed to rom-com) romance.
I’m beginning to think I’ve underrated it, actually…