Animalympics (1980) July 31, 2013Posted by badblokebob in : Animation, Comedy, Sport, 4 stars, 1980s, 2013 , add a comment
Last weekend marked one year since the start of the London 2012 Olympics, which is the closest I’m going to get to a meaningful time to post this review…
#51: Cars 2 (2011) August 4, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Animation, Comedy, Disney, Sport, 3 stars, Adventure, 2010s, 2012 , add a comment
“Why is the police car wearing a giant hat?!”
For more thoughts on the seminal Cars 2, click through:
#90: Cars (2006) December 14, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Animation, Comedy, Disney, Sport, 2000s, 3 stars, 2011 , add a comment
Since the creation of the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, only two Pixar features have failed to win: Monsters, Inc., which lost to Shrek — surely a key computer-animated film in anyone’s book — and this, which lost to Happy Feet, which was… well, it was quite good…* Obviously this does nothing to help dismiss Cars‘ reputation as Pixar’s worst film. But then, that reputation doesn’t warrant dismissing.
Much has been criticised by others, but my biggest problem is that it’s a bit predictable, kinda like Pixar/any kids’ movie by numbers. Pixar are usually better than that. There may be one or two slight surprises along the way — mostly in aid of a Good Strong Moral Message for the kiddies — but at times it’s a bit thumb-twiddly as you wait for characters to reach the point they’re inevitably headed for. It goes about these in such a long-winded fashion that it drags in the middle.
In a special feature on the DVD, Lasseter talks about how it was a very personal film, with a story inspired by his own family and past, as well as the Pixar crew’s road trip along Route 66, with events from that directly inspiring elements of the final story. I think this shows on screen, but not in a good way. It’s another reason the film is allowed to be occasionally long-winded and indulgent. No doubt it led to some of the best bits — the sequence where The Girl Car (I forget her name) tells The Main Car (McQueen! I remember that one) how the building of the interstate killed off so many small towns is both historically accurate (more or less) and emotional — but I imagine it also explains why the film can feel so long.
This could be alleviated by the characters, but they’re not all that. Every one is lifted from a book of stereotypes, with such unfailing tedium that I can’t be bothered to list them. Some are moderately likable and occasionally they’re nice to spend time with, but it’s not a patch on any other set of Pixar characters — it can’t reach Ratatouille, never mind the Toy Storys.
The races — read: action sequences — are exciting and fluid. But then, would you expect anything less from Pixar? But then, with the film’s other failings, it’s good to see they haven’t lost all the magic.
I’ve often heard people criticise the world of the movie for not making sense but never understood why, because it doesn’t necessarily matter. But it does play on your mind while watching, and because it shouldn’t matter I think it’s indicative of faults elsewhere: if the characters and story were keeping your attention, if the film was consistently funny or exciting or engrossing, you wouldn’t be wondering who built these cars, or where their builders went, or how they reproduce… It’s like a child’s game writ into film: you can imagine a young boy playing with little toy cars, having them talk to each other and giving them personalities, and it doesn’t need to make sense because his age isn’t even close to double digits and he’s just playing. But does that make it a viable idea for a film?
Aside from being Pixar’s Bad Film, Cars has become best known for the marketing machine it turned into, in particular the masses of high-selling model cars that have been churned out on the back of it. I don’t know how intentional this was — not as intentional as it seemed to be for the sequel, I suspect — but once you know where this ends up it’s reflected back into the film. McQueen sports at least three different paint jobs, for instance — that’s a handful of model cars right there, and if you make them in different sizes… Disney accountants must have been rubbing their hands in glee when these things started selling. It’s disappointing that this seems to have been the motivation for Pixar creating their second franchise, but hey, if the money brought in by a Cars movie’s merchandise every five years allows them to keep pushing (albeit gently) at the boundaries of mass-(Western)-market animation with the likes of WALL-E and Up, then I guess we shouldn’t complain too much.
Cars is undoubtedly a below-par Pixar movie. It’s not a bad film — it has funny bits, exciting bits, a good moral message, some nice cameos and references and that kind of thing — but it doesn’t stand comparison to even a regular Pixar outing, never mind the best of their output. But hey, if you can produce 10 features that manage a 90%+ score on Rotten Tomatoes, I think you’re allowed a 74% slip-up.**
Cars is on BBC Three today at 9pm, and again on Sunday at 7pm.
** Other review comparison and aggregate websites are available. Does not include Cars 2, which scored 38%. (Ouch.)
#85: The Damned United (2009) October 13, 2010Posted by badblokebob in : Drama, Sport, 5 stars, 2000s, adaptations, British films, true stories, Biography, 2010 , 2 comments
I have no love for football. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’d certainly never heard of Brian Clough before this film came along. I didn’t even bother to put it on my list of 50 Films I Didn’t See last year, despite its relatively high-profile release (here, anyway) because I wasn’t interested — and I’ve put Twilight and High School Musical 3 on those lists before now. (Which definitely says more about me and my dubious list-compiling criteria than it does about any of the films involved.) I’m not even entirely sure why I wound up watching it, to be honest; a mixture of it being free to download in HD and a couple of recommendations.
But I’m glad I did, because, even though it’s technically about football, The Damned United is a little bit brilliant.
For one thing, it’s not actually about football, not really. It’s about Brian Clough, what he was like, why he behaved the way he did. Of course it operates in the world of clubs and divisions and transfers and training and fan love and fan hatred, but those intricacies don’t really matter in themselves. What matters is how Clough reacts to them, how he uses them, how they motivate him and make him and ruin him. I care no more about football than I did before the film began, but I still enjoyed and engaged with every minute of the film.
The main person to thank for this is Michael Sheen, who, as I’m sure you know, stars as Clough, manager of Derby County and, later, Leeds United. Some have claimed Sheen is just a talented mimic, an impressionist who can act a little, due to his penchant for playing real people with unerring accuracy — Kenneth Williams in Fantabulosa!, David Frost in Frost/Nixon, Tony Blair in The Deal, The Queen and The Special Relationship — but those people are wrong. I have no idea if Sheen’s Clough is anything like the real man — though, based on form, I imagine he’s spot on — but it’s an outstanding performance regardless. Effortlessly charming on first encounter, apparently likeable even away from the media spotlight, any flaws are easily overlooked because he seems like a nice bloke. But this isn’t an airbrushed hagiography (unlike the amusing US poster): the cocksure and awkward-to-work-with man beneath the charismatic veneer is gradually revealed.
Of course this is partly down to Peter Morgan’s screenplay, particularly its two-headed structure that plays Clough’s 44 day stint as Leeds’ manager at the same time as the six preceding years that led him there — which initially seems needlessly complex but unveils its reasoning as Clough’s character is simultaneously revealed by each thread — but it’s also unquestionably in Sheen’s performance. There’s no shocking revelation, no big change for the character — he’s not obviously a different man at the start and the end — but the viewer is led to see the reality, the complexity, which comes out by getting to know the man over 90 minutes. The fact Sheen hasn’t, to my knowledge, bagged a single award for the role is testament to either a glut of good performances last year or indifferent bias (such as my own).
Though this is Sheen’s show, the rest of the cast give able support. Most notable is Timothy Spall as Clough’s right-hand man, Peter Taylor, the quiet force behind Clough’s showy, mouthy public face. Their relationship is — in nasty modern parlance — a “bromance” (I apologise), a fact only underlined by the final scene. It may not be apparent until late on, but if the film is Clough then his relationship with Taylor is its heart. It’s a subtler role that Spall still manages to pull everything out of. Colm Meaney and Jim Broadbent are also noteworthy, as Clough’s unknowing rival and his increasingly exasperated chairman respectively.
Morgan’s screenplay and Tom Hooper’s direction are mostly very good, with some irritants. Intertitles telling us what’s happening should either have been dramatised or dropped — some are needlessly repetitive, others could easily have been turned into a short scene or a couple of lines of dialogue. “Show don’t tell” and all that. On a related note however, the graphics showing clubs moving up the league table, and displaying full-time scores from key matches on screen, works just fine, and sometimes excellently: the simple statement “Leeds 0 - QPR 1″ speaks volumes (yes, even if you don’t like football — it works in context).
Hooper’s primary flaw is to indulge in a form of close-up framing which we’re seeing more and more, particularly in British TV dramas (they did it all the time in Luther, for example, and I seem to remember it in Red Riding too), and which is frankly irritating. Essentially, it involves placing the actor’s head (or more of the body, should it be a longer shot) in the lower half of the frame, with the top half being completely empty — blank wall, or sky, or whatever. It looks like the 16:9 image has been framed for 2.35:1 and someone forgot to crop it. I don’t know if there’s something I’m missing, but I don’t see the point of it, ever.
Still, such niggles pale next to Sheen’s work. I don’t imagine The Damned United will do anything to change anyone’s attitudes about “the beautiful game” (pfft), but that’s irrelevant. Sometimes an outstanding lead performance isn’t enough to make a film — just look at Ray — but other times, it is. Love or loathe football, this is an exceptional character study.
#21: Speed Racer (2008) May 10, 2010Posted by badblokebob in : Editorials, Action, Sci-fi, Sport, 5 stars, 2000s, adaptations, 4 stars, Adventure, 2010 , 1 comment so far
Sometimes, I get fed up with myself for being so far behind with my reviews. So this week I’m going to post five reviews hastily bunged together from my viewing notes.
Yes, I’ve admitted to doing something like this before — once I even just posted my notes (for a reason, at least) — but I intend to be even more straightforward about it this week.
I fear, however, there’s a depressing inevitability that some or all of these reviews will turn out to be indistinguishable from my regular reviews…
Speed Racer feels like an unfair place to kick off these half-arsed efforts because, despite the critical and commercial apathy it found on release, I really enjoyed it. This close to giving it 5 stars, I was. Still, it’s my oldest unreviewed film (from this year), so…
Firstly, it’s visually astounding. Speed Racer’s blocks of vibrant colour and computer whizzery are a natural fit for the modern digital experience. Action sequences are mind-meltingly fast, but also incredibly thrilling. When CGI is blatantly used in an attempt to fake something real it can leave an action sequence hollow; but here, everything is pushed to the limit — and, probably, beyond — and so it works.
The plot doesn’t have many twists or turns — at least, not any that are genuinely surprising — and yet it rarely feels boring or stale. It’s buoyed by the crazy action sequences, the likeable characters, the unabashed sense of fun that’s poured into every sequence. Little flourishes mark the film out: the Hallelujah moment with the sweets on the plane; Racer X’s delivery of a simple punch amongst a bevy of complex car stunts; numerous others lost to my memory.
Even some of the performances stand out, not something you’d expect from such a (for want of a better word) lightweight tale. Of particular note are Susan Sarandon as Mom and Christina Ricci’s Trixie, whose huge eyes help render her perhaps one of the most perfect live-action versions of an anime character ever seen. Yes, the characters mostly exist to service their place in the plot, but the odd scene or glance or line delivery adds some subtlety here and there.
The mediocre-to-bad reviews Speed Racer received on its initial release seek to chastise you if you happen to like it — look, Ebert’s already informed us why we’re wrong should we even attempt claims of artistic integrity in the Wachowskis’ work. Maybe he’s right — he can list a whole load of commercial tie-ins at the end, after all. Then again, this is the man who gave Phantom Menace half-a-star shy of full marks, a film that was only a little about story and quite a bit about tie-in merchandise if ever there was one (he awarded Revenge of the Sith the same, incidentally, and has included the granddaddy of all film-tie-in-tat, Star Wars itself, in his Great Movies series). And, to specifically rubbish his opinions here, Phantom Menace is praised for being “made to be looked at more than listened to… filled with wonderful visuals” and condemns Speed Racer because “whatever information that passes from your retinas to your brain is conveyed through optical design and not so much through more traditional devices such as dialogue, narrative, performance or characterization… you could look at it with the sound off and it wouldn’t matter.” Not that Film’s unique factor (over novels or radio or what have you) is its visual sense, and a silent film that can be told through image alone, devoid of any intertitles, was once a lofty aim. I’m sure Ebert could readily explain why Phantom Menace’s visual splendour is a good thing and why Speed Racer’s is so terrible, but, on the other hand… pot, meet kettle.
(For a point of clarity, I normally like and agree with Ebert — I’m sure some previous reviews where I’ve cited him will attest to this — which is why I pick on his pair of opinions here rather than those of some lesser critic who can’t be expected to maintain a critical ideology from one film to the next, never mind two that sit almost a decade apart.)
Back to Speed Racer. In every respect it’s like a living cartoon, and it’s the Wachowskis’ commitment to this aesthetic in every single respect that makes it work where others have floundered. It’s not perfect, I suppose. It may run a little long at two-and-a-quarter hours; but then, it so rarely lets up that I didn’t mind a jot. And the kid is often annoying; but then, as annoying little kids in films go, I’ve seen worse. At times I even liked him.
But, all things considered, when the chips are down, with all said and done, and any other clichés you feel like listing for no particular reason, I found this to be a candy-coloured masterpiece.
#14: Million Dollar Baby (2004) March 21, 2010Posted by badblokebob in : Drama, Sport, 2000s, adaptations, 4 stars, 2010 , add a comment
Million Dollar Baby currently places 143rd on the IMDb Top 250; it’s on the 2010 iteration of They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?’s fairly definitive list of critics’ greatest movies ever (albeit down in the 900s); it was Empire’s 13th best film of 2005 (no doubt lowered by being almost a year old when the list would’ve been decided); and, most notably, it won the 2005 Best Picture Oscar. But it’s also about boxing, a subject I couldn’t care less about, and indeed I don’t think I’ve ever seen a boxing-centric film before. Unfortunately, Million Dollar Baby did nothing to allay my suspicions that I wouldn’t care less about those either.
Despite this, and its adaptation from a book of boxing tales, the boxing is used by Eastwood (and screenwriter/was-going-to-be-director Paul Haggis) as a means to an end: this is really about Frankie (Eastwood’s boxing coach character) and Meg (Hilary Swank, apparently on Oscar-winning form), how they interact, change each other, what their relationship means to them. Unfortunately, my total disinterest in boxing prevents any significant engagement with their story and holds back my care for their characters. The training and fighting sequences don’t help, and even the film’s anti-boxing stance doesn’t do anything to change my opinion.
Dramatically, Million Dollar Baby takes off once Meg’s paralysed and the boxing’s done with. Undoubtedly this is built on the foundation of the preceding 90 minutes — how the characters and their relationships have been built up, what we’ve seen them go through, etc – and it goes some way to make up for all the tedium that’s gone before. That it’s a grim and downbeat finale, however, serves an anti-boxing message I already get but does nothing to redeem the tale.
Eastwood is a skilled actor and director and the film is competently made, and at times it’s even more than that, but it’s far from his best work in either field. The same can be said of Morgan Freeman, essentially recapping his Shawshank role as the wise old best friend/narrator; and also of Haggis — whatever your opinion of Crash, the one-liners he added to Casino Royale alone best any moment here. The same may again be true of Hilary Swank, but I can’t remember her in enough else to say. Certainly her character is the film’s saving grace, incessantly likeable throughout and eliciting a smidgen of genuine emotion once all that boxing malarky is finally out of the way. And it’s a good thing she is so likeable, because if her personality was anything less than perfect the tragic ending would elicit thoughts along the lines of “well, if you’re going to go boxing, that’s what you’re gonna get” (rather than the intended sympathy) from viewers like me.
I’m not sure if it’s deliberate or not but, as I say, it’s an incredibly anti-boxing movie. No good character’s life isn’t in some way ruined by the ‘sport’: Meg is paralysed and ultimately loses her life, not to mention realising how awful her family are; Morgan Freeman’s lost the sight in one eye and is reduced to cleaning up a run-down gym; ‘Danger’ gets beat-up; and Frankie’s lost his daughter, gets screwed over by his protégé, and ultimately loses Meg too. In no way is this a cheery depiction of boxing.
It’s funny, really: give me Jackie Chan, or Jet Li, or Tony Jaa, or some Western star’s stunt double, kicking seven shades of whathaveyou out of each other and it’s a brilliant, fun experience; but two people beating the hell out of each other for real in a ring holds not even the slightest semblance of interest or enjoyment for me. Maybe it’s the choreography of filmic violence that makes it more interesting, or maybe I’m just hypocritical — I don’t know, but I still don’t care. Some day I’ll see the likes of Rocky and Raging Bull, and maybe they’ll stand a better chance, but I’m no longer counting on it.
I’m giving Million Dollar Baby four stars out of respect for the skill of the filmmakers and for what it achieves during the final half hour (and in smatterings throughout), but it flies ever so close to a three.
#38: Field of Dreams (1989) June 9, 2008Posted by badblokebob in : Drama, Fantasy, Sport, adaptations, 4 stars, 1980s, 2008 , 5 comments
I’ve never made much of an effort to see Field of Dreams, for a couple of reasons. Aside from its famous mantra/catchphrase (”if you build it he will come”), the only things I’d heard were it was mawkishly sentimental and was about Kevin Costner trying to build a baseball pitch for a ghost — which doesn’t sound particularly exciting and is about sport, something I’m not very fond of. Of course, as anyone who’s seen it will know, I was a tad mislead on that last point, as the glorified rounders pitch is built in the first 20 minutes. What follows certainly has its fair share of sentimentality, but I wouldn’t call it mawkish.
In fact, it’s almost unremittingly pleasant. The lack of anything hard-hitting is no doubt why some have such a dim view of the film, as “nice” has become synonymous with “not very good” in modern parlance (I blame Primary School teachers desperate to increase vocabulary). Field of Dreams won’t shock you, it likely won’t make you think very hard, and any moral message or meaning it has is positive and reassuring… but what’s so wrong with that? The plot keeps moving, refusing to be bogged down in navel-gazing or star-gazing. The story is also too unusual to be marred by any serious degree of predictability, though some events are of course easily guessed, but the mystery of how the various elements would come together kept my attention throughout. Crucially, it doesn’t labour its sentimentality or batter you round the head with morals or meanings. It’s hardly ambiguous, but nor is it over done.
Field of Dreams may not be astounding filmmaking — it’s not especially complex, radical, thrilling, thought-provoking, intense or revolutionary, nor terribly serious or terribly funny, nor indeed wholly original — but it is nice. And I mean that in a good way.