Zootopia (aka Zootropolis, 2016)

Another solid Disney animated film after Frozen and Big Hero 6, this deals with a world of anthropomorphised animals where the big threat is the reversion by the predator animals to ‘savagery’ (i.e. their ‘natural’ animal state). Our hero is Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a bunny rabbit from a country carrot farm with dreams of serving on the metropolitan police force (called “Zootropolis” in the UK version, but “Zootopia” everywhere else), yet despite her ambition, she seems thwarted by the unfeeling old timers on the police force, led by their buffalo captain (Idris Elba). However, after falling into the ambit of small-time grifter fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), they team up to help solve a series of kidnappings. When you look at the character list, it all does seem very silly, but into this buddy-coppy fantasy adventure format, the film is trying to push some pretty serious ideas about civic corruption (Jenny Slate voices the assistant mayor, a sheep if not always sheepish), not to mention racial intolerance and understanding — all enfolded up into the big mystery of the savage animals which Judy and Nick are tracking down. Even aside from the thematics — and I have no idea how they’d play to children, as some of the ideas are pretty complex — the animation is gorgeously detailed and replete with all the expected blink-and-you’ll-miss-them visual puns in the backgrounds, not to mention sly hommages to various films (few of which would be known to kids, unless The Godfather and Chinatown are considered typical viewing for that generation these days).


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore | Writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston | Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate | Length 108 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Chelsea, London, Thursday 21 April 2016

Advertisements

Descendants (2015)

I don’t intend to make a strong case for High School Musical auteur Kenny Ortega’s latest film, but it is brightly coloured and likeable in a fairly anodyne way, as befits a made-for-TV Disney Channel movie. The premise is that Disney’s famous villains, having been sent away to live on the Isle of the Lost, far from the good guys, have grown up and a number of them now have children who are to be reintegrated into the mainstream world of Auradon, where their parents hope they will continue to spread their legacy of evil-doing. As ever, the hierarchical society is premised on benign royalty (Beauty and the Beast in this case) ruling justly over a fluffily-updated mediaevalesque world populated by bland white prep kids. It’s up the bad guys to inject some colour (not to mention people of colour, for that matter) and they are all so clearly far more interesting than the ‘heroes’ that this amounts to its own form of critique. Certainly brief book-end appearances by musical veterans Kristin Chenoweth (as Maleficent) and Kathy Najimy (as the Evil Queen) lend a bit of Broadway pizazz to the older generation (which also includes a Black Cruella de Vil and an Iranian-American Jafar), though generally the film could do with more music and dance numbers — I understand these were only added at the late arrival of Ortega to the project, so at least there are some I suppose. The kids are all pleasant to watch, with Maleficent’s daughter Mal (Dove Cameron) being the purple-haired highlight. There’s not a whole lot more to say, and for what it sets out to achieve it feels like it’s generally a success.


FILM REVIEW
Director Kenny Ortega | Writers Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott | Cinematographer Thomas Burstyn | Starring Dove Cameron, Sofia Carson, Kristin Chenoweth, Kathy Najimy | Length 112 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 27 January 2016

High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2008)

The conclusion to one of film’s most joyful trilogies finds Kenny Ortega with a far higher budget and even a cinematic release. He doesn’t squander the pennies, either, in mounting a few glorious numbers, including “I Want It All”, which liberally tips its fedora to similar sequences in classic Hollywood films. Sure, as a whole it doesn’t sustain the momentum quite as well as the second film — Gabriella and Troy remain an underwhelming screen couple, and the other pairings are sidelined by a largely charisma-free bunch of new recruits (who I believe were originally intended to take the series forward into a new generation) — but it’s in the musical sequences that it finds its raison d’être. There’s little more invigorating in cinema than a good dance number, and High School Musical 3 has several, even if some of the fashions and heteronormative couplings already seem a tad old-fashioned.


FILM REVIEW
Director Kenny Ortega | Writer Peter Barsocchini | Cinematographer Daniel Aranyó | Starring Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, Lucas Grabeel, Corbin Bleu | Length 111 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Thursday 31 March 2011 (and many more times on DVD, most recently Saturday 19 December 2015)

Bill (2015)

As far as kids-oriented comedy/thrillers based around the life of William Shakespeare go, this one is pretty good fun. In fact, for the quality of filmmaking and even set and costume design on show, I’d say it gives Shakespeare in Love a decent run for its money, and is frankly more enjoyable in many ways. If there’s a style it’s going for, then probably early Blackadder with a hint of Monty Python would about sum it up. Mathew Baynton’s Bill is a down-on-his-luck provincial type with a dream of making it in the big city as a writer, and so he ups sticks, leaving his wife Anne (Martha Howe-Douglas) behind and tries his luck — running into little success, but meeting Christopher Marlowe (Jim Howick) along the way. Meanwhile the Spanish King Philip (a properly moustache-twirling bad guy with a nifty line in stupid disguises, played by co-writer Ben Willbond) is plotting to kill Queen Elizabeth, all laid out courtesy of an actually rather thrilling pre-credits sequence. He duly takes advantage of the foppish Earl of Croydon (Simon Farnaby), who has been picked to write a play to be performed in front of the Queen (the perfect place for Philip’s plan), but knowing nothing of the dramatic arts has enlisted as ghost-writer… Bill! So it’s all very silly, and silliness really is the watchword, for while the film is not always as historically far-fetched as you might expect, it’s just mostly very silly indeed. Which turns out to be a good fit to the subject matter, hence an enjoyable film. I’m not sure if it’ll really play well to kids though, but what do I know. All I mean is, there’s plenty for grown-ups too.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Richard Bracewell | Writers Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond | Cinematographer Laurie Rose | Starring Mathew Baynton, Ben Willbond, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick | Length 94 minutes || Seen at Cineworld O2 Greenwich, London, Thursday 24 September 2015

Criterion Sunday 37: Time Bandits (1981)

If this is considered a family film classic, then it’s a dark and strange one. In many ways, it feels like something of a template for Terry Gilliam’s later filmmaking after the previous decade spent subsumed into the Monty Python comedy collective. It’s a story that comes from a place of imagination and wonder, so it’s suitably focused on a young boy, Kevin (Craig Warnock in his only film role), who’s led by a group of dwarves from his bedroom through a portal into another dimension of fantasy and Gilliamesque weirdness. I’m not sure I’m always a fan of Gilliam’s skewed take on the world, though it’s impossible to deny the anarchic energy he brings to every element of filming and set design, the latter of which seems to be entirely based around the toys littering Kevin’s bedroom. The film takes a child/dwarf’s-eye view of the world, with plenty of close-to-the-ground framings of various dastardly creatures (giants, swordsmen, God and Evil, and the very tall John Cleese as a condescending aristocratic Robin Hood). Gilliam keeps the film focused on the merry little band, with strong roles for David Rappaport as their self-appointed leader Randall and Kenny Baker as lovably dim sidekick Fidgit in particular, though given their bandit nature, all of them remain largely selfish and nasty up to the end. Time Bandits has that delight in upsetting the adult world of order that you see in, for example, Roald Dahl’s kids’ books, so it’s certainly not devoid of gruesome little jokes scattered around the madcap capering through this literalised dreamscape. Quite what it all amounts to, I’m not always sure, but it’s certainly diverting.

Criterion Extras: There’s a long filmed interview with Terry Gilliam from on stage at the Midnight Sun Film Festival, around the time of the release of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which he speaks volubly and at length about his career, with only brief prompting from his on-stage interviewer. He only briefly touches on Time Bandits, but it’s an interesting piece. There are shorter pieces about the creation of the film’s look, as well as archival footage of Shelley Duvall talking about her (very small) role in the film. The commentary track merges a number of interviews, primarily with Gilliam talking about the making of various scenes, but with brief interpolations from some of the actors like Craig Warnock, Cleese and Michael Palin, who was also a co-screenwriter, and is all very informative.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Terry Gilliam | Writers Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin | Cinematographer Peter Biziou | Starring Craig Warnock, David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, David Warner, Ralph Richardson | Length 116 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 17 May 2015

Inside Out (2015)

It’s been getting great reviews since it was released last month in the States, but for me the signs preceding Inside Out weren’t entirely auspicious, as I’d been feeling pummelled by the sheer weight of all the hype, and the apparent blanket saturation of the marketing. Admittedly, it’s not been quite as aggressive as Minions, but it’s also somehow less obviously appealing (those yellow creatures are awfully cute). The short film that precedes it in cinemas (“Lava”) is also pretty anodyne and faintly annoying (a cod-Hawaiian song about heteronormative volcanoes), so that didn’t exactly help either. Plus there were clearly a few grumpy contingents at the screening I attended, judging from the brief bout of remonstration being levelled at the parents of a crying child (the man’s insistence that the crying child was too young for the film somewhat belied by the film’s U rating, and also hey non-parents get a goddamn grip if you’re going to a U-rated film, even if it’s in the evening).

But — and I sense you’re expecting this “but” — I needn’t have worried. The director Pete Docter comes to this project from his previous Pixar success Up (2009), and if you’ve seen that film, you’ll perhaps have a sense of the emotional tone deployed here. Sure there’s comedy (it’s a Hollywood animated film; there’s always comedy), but the register feels a lot more reflective and even melancholy at times. This is matched by the sound design, which isn’t afraid to jettison the musical score and embrace relative silence when it suits the story, which revolves around the emotional trauma of an 11-year-old girl, Riley, whose parents relocate the family from the Midwest to San Francisco. The particular device the filmmakers use to reflect this is to personify her emotions as individual characters (Amy Poehler voices Joy, Phyllis Smith voices Sadness, and there’s Disgust, Fear and Anger besides), sitting in a control tower in a colourful visual representation of her mind. The animation is crammed with little details that extend the central metaphor (it’s a very metaphorical film), and there are some delightful sequences that play out as Joy and Sadness must make their way back to the control tower from the outer reaches of Riley’s brain (the one that takes place in ‘abstract thought’ comes to mind, as well as the dream sequences).

It’s commendable that Docter and the screenwriters keep the story focused on Riley when it would have been easy to mine further laughs from the similarly-represented minds of those around her (a device sparingly but effectively utilised). It also all seems to work pretty coherently as a metaphorical representation of the mind and its emotional processes, with memories stacked up like bowling balls and colour-coded by the guiding emotion at play, then sent off for filing in a vast repository, which includes a dump for those discarded memories. Core memories stay in the control tower and are the foundations of various personality traits, imagined as outyling islands around the control tower (cerebral cortex, one imagines). The care thus shown to the creation of this interior world, and the film’s avoidance of excessive mawkishness, surely mark it out as one of the finer Pixar filmsm one that’s sure to become one of their audience’s core memories.


© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Pete Docter | Writers Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley | Starring Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, Lewis Black | Length 94 minutes (+ 7 minutes for the short film Lava, dir./wr. James Ford Murphy) || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Tuesday 28 July 2015

Muumit Rivieralla (Moomins on the Riviera, 2014)

Just a quick note on this film which I caught up on for my New Year’s resolution. It’s clearly aimed at children, and if you judge it with that in mind, it’s no doubt an excellent film. It follows Tove Jansson’s Moomin characters, particularly the hippopotamus-like creatures of that name (as well as some ancillary ones), as they travel to the French riviera from their unspecified northern land. The themes gently incorporate critiques of celebrity culture and vapid self-centredness (predictably focused around the young female Snorkmaiden), and on the overvaluation of the art market, amongst other things. The film is made in a rather quaintly old-fashioned animation style, with a voice cast erring towards the undemonstrative (at least in the English version), and moves at a less hectic pace than many modern animated films. If anything, it brings to mind (for me at least) fondly-remembered television cartoons from my childhood. There’s only the tiniest hint of darkness around the edges (focused most of all on the gleefully anarchic Little My character), meaning that it may come across as just a little too anodyne for adults, but for the most part Moomins on the Riviera is a warm and loving evocation of these characters.


© Nordisk Film

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Xavier Picard | Writers Leslie Stewart, Annina Enckell, Hanna Hemilä, Xavier Picard and Beata Harju (based on the Muumipeikko comic strips by Tove Jansson and Lars Jansson) | Length 80 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Chelsea, London, Monday 25 May 2015

April 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in April which I didn’t review in full. It includes a couple of films I actually saw in March but had thought I’d write up in their own posts (I didn’t).


Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, USA, dir. Joss Whedon) [Sat 25 Apr at Cineworld Wood Green]. Look at how crowded that poster is and you’ll get some sense of the film, assuming you haven’t already seen it. I enjoyed it perfectly fine, but I get the sense that whereas for the average punter, it’s a long film, for fans of yr Marvel Cinematic Universe and those who are heavily invested in these characters, it’s probably not long enough. They even add new characters (one of whose superpowers I’m still not clear about, but perhaps it’s the power to do whatever’s required by the narrative at any given point). The crowdedness of the ensemble cast is evident in the number of scenes where everyone’s just standing around, stepping forward periodically to deliver their line and then stepping back. Whedon does the best he can and adds those nice little self-aware lines which define his work (like Linda Cardellini’s “I’ll always support your avenging…”, not the mention the snarky asides) but it’s still a big pummelling superhero film that has a protracted denouement, a nonsense evil villain plan (though James Spader is always dependable in such a role) and lots and lots of CGI effects (which are at times so indifferently executed I thought I was actually watching a video game, as in the opening sequence). YMMV. ***


The Book of Life (2014)

The Book of Life (2014, USA, dir. Jorge R. Gutiérrez) [Mon 6 Apr on a plane]. A film I missed when it came out was available on my trip over to the States, so I availed myself of the opportunity, and even given the small size of the screen, it still impressed by its artful and gorgeously-coloured use of Mexican motifs in its story of rival suitors for a lady’s affections. It nods towards female empowerment, even if it has an old-fashioned adventure feel, but ultimately it’s the richly textured design that saves it. ***


En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, 2014)

En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence) (2014, Sweden/Norway/Germany/France, dir. Roy Andersson) [Thu 30 Apr at Curzon Soho]. Its pace is slow and deliberate, constructed in a series of tableaux-like images which frequently fade to black before the next image commences, and in many ways it takes its cue from that first scene, in which a tourist couple examine birds in glass cases, one of which is the titular (stuffed) pigeon. The humans throughout the film are themselves as waxy and pallid as dead creatures placed on display, and the sets are deliberately minimal in a depressingly beige way. But while Roy Andersson’s film is nominally a (black, deadpan) comedy, it’s really a cautionary moral tale of the bleak dangers inherent in capitalism, as our two Beckettian like heroes wander through a glum dyspeptic world retailing their ‘comedy’ joke items to little interest. There are restrained outbreaks of weirdness — jaunty songs, alternate realities, dreams — which suggest something deeper is going on, and indeed I think this one will work in most people’s minds afterwards, even if it sometimes seems a little inert while it’s going on. ***


Insurgent (aka The Divergent Series: Insurgent, 2015)

Insurgent (aka The Divergent Series: Insurgent) (2015, USA, dir. Robert Schwentke) [Sun 29 Mar at Cineworld West India Quay]. Having enjoyed star Shailene Woodley’s work elsewhere, I decided to watch the first film in the Divergent series in anticipation of this new one (and reviewed it in my March roundup). Usually the way these kinds of series go is that they drop off in quality with each successive instalment, but the first set up such a ridiculous and unbelievable world (dividing everyone into mutually-exclusive castes based on ability) that the bar wasn’t too high, and indeed has been cleared by Insurgent. I’m not saying the second film is a triumph — the world is still constructed along weirdly rigid lines, and the test that evil leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) sets for Woodley’s Tris is a bit confusing — but it opens up its world in interesting ways and sets up a next episode that I’m actually looking forward to.


Notting Hill (1999)

Notting Hill (1999, UK, dir. Roger Michell) [Sun 19 Apr on a plane]. I’m probably not supposed to like this, but what can you do. Every time it comes on — and I only tend to watch it when it’s there right in front of me — I end up watching the whole thing, and this has happened more than once, so it’s not just some kind of momentary weakness. I’ve not been sold on all screenwriter Richard Curtis’s films, though I’ve liked more than I’ve disliked, but Notting Hill just seems to work despite all its inherent naffness. Julia Roberts plays a big-time Hollywood star, Hugh Grant is a diffident English bookshop owner, they meet cute, one things leads to another, there are some funny setpieces, and well, it passes the time very pleasantly. **½


Pitch Perfect (2012)

Pitch Perfect (2012, USA, dir. Jason Moore) [Fri 24 Apr at a friend’s flat]. I’ve reviewed it before, and it’ll probably show up on this list many times more in the future, because I do love Pitch Perfect. It’s not just Anna Kendrick, whom I’ve recently had cause to hymn once again for The Last Five Years, but the ensemble cast and the time-honoured building-to-a-big-showdown narrative construction, not to mention the hummable music. ****


Premium Rush (2012)

Premium Rush (2012, USA, dir. David Koepp) [Sat 4 Apr at home]. At a certain level this is a fairly slight premise — Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s bicycle courier must deliver a package across Manhattan by a deadline, hotly pursued by Michael Shannon’s corrupt cop — but this is essentially an action film, and you don’t want to complicate the purity too much. That said, the filmmakers weave in a story of immigration and bureaucratic corruption without overwhelming the central chase motif, which is handled with a great deal of vigour and momentum. It also (as far as I can tell) charts a realistic depiction of New York geography as Gordon-Levitt frantically switches up routes to his destination. ***½


Wild Card (2015)

Wild Card (2015, USA, dir. Simon West) [Tue 31 Mar at Cineworld Wood Green]. The great Jason Statham returns in another action romp which as per some other recent outings, shows just a hint of actorly character development around the edges, as he essays the role of Nick Wild, Las Vegas security specialist. Most of the big name cast members (and there are a few: Jason Alexander, Stanley Tucci, Sofia Vergara, Hope Davis, Anne Heche) are there for single scenes only, leaving the main showdown to be between Statham and Milo Ventimiglia as a narcissistic, abusive gangster. If you’ve seen a Statham actioner before, you’ll probably recognise the broad contours, but in the tightness of the filming and the polish of the script this one is probably his best since Safe. ***

Paddington (2014)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Seen at Cineworld O2 Greenwich, London, Sunday 7 December 2014


© StudioCanal

Ever since a friend described this film to me as like Notting Hill or Love Actually but for kids, I’ve not been able to shake that link from my mind. Because, yes, this film is very West London in that slightly twee picturesque way so beloved of Richard Curtis and his ilk, in that people live in brightly coloured, neatly-turned-down terraced houses on rather grand streets with gorgeous big, bright rooms that no one in London can possibly afford anymore. (I suppose, for American viewers, it’s the equivalent of your struggling working folk sharing a massive loft apartment in Greenwich Village, or wherever.) The story also, for rather more obvious reasons — in that it’s aimed at families, and that it’s a comedy, after all — embraces the sentimental and wholesome in the end, as teddy-bear-out-of-water Paddington looks for a stable home life with the Brown family (with Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins as the parents). That said it does manage to shoehorn in a fair amount of furry-bear-related peril along the way, both in its opening sequences set in “darkest Peru” (as it is unswervingly referred to throughout the film) and in its later London-based caper sequences, as Paddington must fend off the advances of evil scientist/taxidermist (played with excellently gleeful maleficence by Nicole Kidman). It also makes some trenchant comments in favour of immigration, which in our modern political environment is certainly bold and should be welcomed. For all that, the initial comparison remains — and it would be damning except for the fact that, actually, I like Richard Curtis comedies (yes, even Love Actually), and once you’ve set aside the scrubbed-up locations, it’s rather sweet. It also has plenty of really rather funny comic asides (as well as stuff that will surely go over the kids’ heads); I’m still laughing about Mr Brown’s comment to the cabbie after the tourist-landmark-checking but geographically-ridiculous taxi journey that kicks off Paddington’s time in London. How it will play to children, I have no idea (there’s peril, and evil scientists, but never for too long), so don’t come to me for that. I am a fully-grown person, and I enjoyed this film.


CREDITS || Director Paul King | Writers Paul King and Hamish McColl (based on the character by Michael Bond) | Cinematographer Erik Wilson | Starring Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Ben Whishaw, Julie Walters, Nicole Kidman | Length 95 minutes

Muppets Most Wanted (2014)


Muppets Most Wanted [U] || Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Saturday 5 April 2014 || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable


© Walt Disney Studios

The previous film based on Jim Henson’s Muppet characters (was it a ‘reboot’?) was entirely delightful and charming — and, it seems, rather successful — hence this sequel. It lacks the first film’s charming and goofy star turns by Jason Segel (who also wrote that film) and the delightful Amy Adams, and I’m not entirely convinced that Ricky Gervais as this film’s bad buy (named Mr Badguy of course) is any substitute. This is not least because it replaces the first film’s cheerfully upbeat naïveté with criminal machinations (and an evil Kermit doppelgänger), though then again I’ve never been a huge fan of Gervais’s shrill comedic talent. Tina Fey has a far more easygoing charm, yet playing a Russian prison guard is probably not exactly comedy gold either these days. Fey wrings what she can out of the broad accent, and what with Ty Burrell’s French gendarme having a similarly ridiculous verbosity, this turns out to be a film heavily reliant on silly European accents. For yes, we find the Muppets now taking their show on the road, and if it currently seems the done thing with sequels to follow a US-set film with some exotic world colour, then Muppets Most Wanted is hardly going to stray from that formula, partly because it’s interested in sending up sequels as a category (the very opening song references the tendency for sequels to be inferior). New Zealand songwriter Bret McKenzie is again on-board to help with the songs, though they are generally a little less memorable than the earlier film’s tunes, and even more guest stars show up for cameos in each successive scene (Christoph Waltz does a waltz! Usher plays an usher!). Yet whatever unevenness of tone the film has, and however threadbare the story, it’s never pursued with anything less than a vigorous single-mindedness, and there are enough gags constantly being thrown around that least some of them stick, making this to my mind a likeable if inessential sequel.


CREDITS || Director James Bobin | Writers Nicholas Stoller and James Bobin | Cinematographer Don Burgess | Starring Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey | Length 112 minutes