Friday 31 May 2019

Ani-MAY-tion: Tower (2016)

On August 1, 1966, a man took a number of weapons to a high point of the clock tower at the University Of Texas and spent over an hour and a half indiscriminately shooting people in the surrounding area. The injured and the dead would total over 40, with the very first victim being a pregnant woman, Claire Wilson (a figure who will become a catalyst for those caught up in the horror), and it remains one of the deadliest mass shootings in US history. Sadly, I am not sure how long that distinction will remain, as more and more damaged individuals continue to get their hands on more dangerous weaponry.

Tower tells the story of that day, but it also tells much more. Director Keith Maitland has used actors, for the most part, to deliver the testimonies of many people involved on that horrific day, then covering over their likeness with rotoscoped animation. The same method is used for moments that recreate the actions of the individuals as viewers are shown the layout of the campus and the movement of people who were often trying to figure out how best to avoid a bullet.

Tower is incredible, and I commend Maitland, and everyone who worked on it. A real emotional journey, what starts off as a tense and horrible situation actually serves as the springboard to explore something beautiful, and that is the sheer courage and resilience of human beings who show the very best of humanity while finding themselves exposed to the very worst of it. It's hard not to feel your heart swell and find your eyes shimmering as you hear all about Rita Starpattern, a woman who ran over to Claire Wilson and lay beside her on the hot concrete, keeping her talking and keeping her conscious, all the while knowing that she could be shot at any moment.

But what Tower also does, and does so effectively, is to remind everyone that the people affected by the events of that day can't just shake it off after time. That includes those who helped the police directly take down the shooter, those who lost loved ones, and those who survived, but who spent a very long time grappling with their actions of that day, whether they managed to act without overthinking things or whether they were pinned to the spot by fear. Even the story of Claire, who lost her baby and her partner on that day, is almost too emotionally turbulent to properly digest as you hear about her subsequent life and the repercussions from those bullets.

Over half a century later, it's heartbreaking that attempts at this sort of thing have become more commonplace. And equally heartbreaking that many shooters are plastered all over the news cycle, their name raised up to a level of infamy that they surely aspired to when they first picked up their guns. The focus should always be on the dead, the injured, and the brave souls who were momentarily brought together to stop the further loss of life. People like Claire, Rita, Officer Houston McCoy, Allen Crum, Officer Ramiro Martinez, Thomas Frederick Eckman, Robert Hamilton Boyer, Devereau Huffman, Aleck Hernandez, Paul Bolton Sonntag, and many more.


Americans can buy it here.

Thursday 30 May 2019

Ani-MAY-tion: The Boxtrolls (2014)

Another slice of fine stop-motion entertainment from Laika, The Boxtrolls may be their weakest film so far but that doesn't mean it's bad. It just means that I have enjoyed their other films a little bit more. Laika have yet to disappoint me, and the visual beauty and creativity of Kubo And The Two Strings will take some beating as the jewel in their crown.

You won't be surprised to find that The Boxtrolls is a film about creatures called boxtrolls, trolls that live underground and wear boxes as clothing. They are deemed a dangerous menace, ever since they kidnapped and killed a young child, and an exterminator named Archibald Snatcher strikes a deal that will reward him handsomely when they are all gone. Of course, unbeknownst to the locals, the boxtrolls aren't really dangerous. There's a different story behind how they ended up with the child in their midst, but will anyone learn of it before all of the boxtrolls are dealt with?

With the usual level of beautifully detailed animation, Laika once again show that they're up there with the very best studios working in this field today. The world depicted in the movie may be a grubby one, for the most part, but it's rendered in such an eye-pleasing and stylish way that every scene still manages to look gorgeous.

The screenplay by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava, based on the novel "Here Be Monsters!" by Alan Snow, is very good when it comes to the development of the central characters and the main themes that come to the fore. There aren't loads of fun one-liners or verbal gags, it's not that kind of film, but the script carries everything surprisingly effortlessly while the animation layers on the comedy and quirkiness. And praise must be given to those who decided that a large part of the plot should revolve around a love of cheese tastings and the desire that Snatcher has to be sitting in on such an event, despite the reaction he has to cheese.

Isaac Hempstead Wright is the boy raised by the boxtrolls, he does well enough in his role, and Elle Fanning is a young girl who discovers his real identity after initially fearing him, and his troll brethren. Ben Kingsley is superb as Snatcher, the scheming exterminator, whether in his standard guise or in the form of  . . . well, you'll have to wait and see. He is in charge of three characters who are wonderfully voiced by Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, and Tracy Morgan. Last, but not least, you have Jared Harris, the town official who thinks he is doing a good thing by hiring the services of Snatcher. The character played by Harris is also the father of the character played by Fanning, with the latter continually exasperated at the way she is ignored or dismissed by the former.

Directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi do a great job at keeping things tonally perfect, helped by the script and the performances of their cast members. This is in line with every other Laika film in that it talks to children without ever talking down to children. Which is how the best animated movies are, and why every Laika movie is worthy of being considered among the best.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.

Wednesday 29 May 2019

Ani-MAY-tion: Mary And Max (2009)

Every time I dive a bit deeper into the world of animation, I am almost pleasantly surprised by the sheer range of style and content to be explored. Far too many people still think that animation equals kid-friendly movies and, while the great majority of animated films do fall into that bracket, that really isn't the case for people willing to give their time to film-makers wanting to deliver their message in a way that isn't the standard live-action film form.

Mary And Max is a prime case in point. I guess that children could watch this, there are moments of darkness but nothing really too disturbing or graphic, and it would raise some interesting points for discussion. But it will really strike a chord with adult viewers, those who have seen the world through some of the filters used by both protagonists. Mary has the innocence of youth for a lot of the film, Max has a tense and confused relationship with a world that expects him to act like every other adult, despite the fact that he has health issues affecting the way he interacts with others.

Narrated by Barry Humphries, this is the tale of two unlikely pen pals, and therefore also manages to be the tale of two lives. Mary (voiced by Bethany Whitmore, and then by Toni Collete) is a lonely young girl who lives in Melbourne. Max (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a middle-aged man who lives in New York. The two would seem to have nothing in common, yet they develop a strong friendship through the years. Can it last though?

Written and directed by Adam Elliot, it doesn't take long to see why he decided to make this an animated movie. First of all, he heads up a great team. Second, there are many moments in this film that would be unbearably depressing if shown in live-action. In animated form, viewers can still find humour in the many lovely touches in each frame, carried through some of the darker scenes by the attention to detail. This is a movie that feels, like so many of the best animated movies, crafted with real care, hard work, and an eagerness to pack every frame with subtle delights.

The voices are equal to the visuals. Whitmore is a naive joy as young Mary, while Collete somehow keeps the voice of that inner child there even as she becomes more affected and worn down by adulthood. Hoffman is wonderfully gruff at all times, whether he's being grumpy or sweet and earnest. And Barry Humphries is a great addition as the narrator, given so many great scripted lines that it's hard to imagine him not relishing every one of them.

Despite me going on about the animated coating making the pill easier to swallow, this isn't an easy watch. There were moments in the third act in which I had to stop my lip from wobbling and my eyes from tearing up as I journeyed on to whatever the end would bring. I had become so strongly attached to both of the main characters that any of the ways in which life started to intensely knock them down caused me to have a lump in my throat immediately.

This is, to date, the only feature from Elliot. I hope he does more, and I'll be keen to check out his short films ASAP.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.

Tuesday 28 May 2019

Ani-MAY-tion: Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)

My memory isn't what it used to be, and even some years ago it wasn't always the sharpest when compared to some others, but I MAY have ended up seeing Kiki's Delivery Service before I saw any other Studio Ghibli movies. It was certainly one of the first that won me over, alongside Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. And it remains a firm favourite, absolutely up there with the best of them.

The story is simple. Kiki is a young witch. At the age of thirteen, tradition dictates that she leaves home and looks to make her own way in the world. She flies through the sky on her broom, accompanied by her feline familiar, Jiji. Eventually landing in a town that she thinks may need a witch, Kiki struggles to come up with a plan to best make use of her particular talents, until she helps a woman by making a quick delivery. That leads to her gaining somewhere to live, a job, and a connection with various town citizens, including a young boy named Tombo.

Okay, for the sake of full transparency, when I first watched Kiki's Delivery Service I watched the English-language version (I cannot recall if any other version was available on the disc when I first bought it) and that remains the preferred version for me to choose, although I did also put on the subtitles to check for any major differences in the translation. I'm sorry, Kirsten Dunst has a voice that works very well in the role of Kiki, and Phil Hartman is great as Jiji. You also get good performances from Tress MacNeille, Janeane Garofalo, and Edie McClurg, to drop the names you may recognise, and Matthew Lawrence is fine as Tombo, the boy who takes an interest in Kiki from the first time that she arrives in town.

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, based on the book by Eiko Kadono, this is as gorgeous as you'd expect, and as imaginative and lovingly crafted. It may not delve into the pure fantasy elements that are contained within his more celebrated works but, don't be fooled, every frame of this movie has a delightful serving of magic mixed in.

And the gorgeous animation is just a cherry on top. Kiki's Delivery Service is also similar to the other Studio Ghibli greats in the way that it delivers some meaningful lessons to younger viewers in a way that never feels patronising or silly. Kiki may be a witch, but she may as well be any young teen who has started trying to sample independent life, be that in the form of getting a paper delivery round to earn pocket money or being brave enough to head along to a party full of new faces not all guaranteed to be friendly. Every child will identify with aspects of Kiki's journey.

One last thing worth mentioning. People are alarmed at times to see Kiki on her own. They are concerned for a child who may not be able to look after herself. But nobody is ever phased by the fact that she's a witch. It's just something that everyone accepts, which is another lovely plus that you don't think of as being so important for children until you watch something aimed at them that is so beautifully put together. Whatever the youngsters who watch this want to be, they should feel comfortable in the knowledge that so many other people in the world will accept them. That feeling may become worn away over time, as reality sadly erodes the optimism, but I hope they cling to it for as long as possible, and use it as a powerful core that helps them bat away more and more assholes as they eventually have to deal with more aspects of adulthood.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.

Monday 27 May 2019

Mubi Monday: The Angels' Share (2012)

Robbie (Paul Brannigan) is a thug when we first see him in The Angels' Share. His criminal history paints an ugly picture, one he can never seem to change due to an ongoing feud and the facial scar that leads to him being pre-judged wherever he goes. He is, however, ready to try and change his life. His girlfriend (Leonie, played by Siobhan Reilly) is due to have their baby, and his latest bout of community service sees him benefiting from the kindness of the driver/supervisor, Harry (John Henshaw). This leads to him, and a few of his fellow criminals, being shown the world of whisky tasting, which leads to them hatching a plan. That plan is based around the idea of the angel's share, a portion of the whisky that is lost from the cask by evaporation.

On the surface, this comedy-drama would seem like an unexpected outing from director Ken Loach, best known for his filmography being practically bursting at the seams with social commentary, especially when it comes to the class divide in the UK. But, working once again with writer Paul Laverty (the pair have been quite the team now for over two decades), it soon becomes apparent that this is exactly the kind of tale that Loach would enjoy telling. It has some big laughs, arguably some of the biggest in any Loach film, but also never strays too far away from the focus on how people often become trapped in bad lives, and how it only takes one or two acts of kindness to sometimes really help turn things around for them. Although everything here is based around whisky, and steeped in the Scottish landscape and language, the scenario faced by the main character is one that many face throughout the UK.

Brannigan is a very likeable lead, even in the scenes that have him violently reacting to the other men who won't let him keep his past in the past, and he's surrounded by a great selection of characters. Henshaw is the agent of change that the younger ones need, treating them with decency and kindness that they don't get from many other people. Reilly is sweet as the woman who wants the best for her family, Jasmin Riggins (billed as Jasmine Riggins) is the light-fingered woman who proves essential to the plan, and William Ruane and Gary Maitland are the other members of the group, with Maitland getting most of the best lines playing a character who is far from the sharpest sgian-dubh in the drawer.

Making good use of his locations, mainly Glasgow but also some moments in Edinburgh and further afield, Loach creates something that, overall, sits very nicely near the top of the pile of many great films that have made the most of Scotland. Those who don't like swearing my wince every now and then, and there's one absolutely disgusting moment that I always forget about until I rewatch the movie, and then it makes me gag again, but most people should find plenty to enjoy here. Even if it is another film to use I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) on the soundtrack.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.

Sunday 26 May 2019

Netflix And Chill: Flushed Away (2006)

The last film to be co-produced by Aardman Animation and DreamWorks Animation, Flushed Away has a reputation as a bit of a disappointment. That's how it seems anyway, when you consider the relatively poor box office result and the fact that few people mention it nowadays when listing favourite animated films. That's a bit of a shame, because Flushed Away remains a lively and witty adventure comedy, full of great vocal work, wonderful sight gags, and hilarious singing slugs.

Hugh Jackman is the voice of Roddy St. James, a pampered pet rat who enjoys his good life. But that is all thrown into disarray when his owners go on holiday and a sewer rat named Sid (Andy Serkis) finds his way into the house and decides to take it over for himself. In attempting to get rid of Sid, Roddy ends up in the toilet, and then . . . flushed away. Down in the sewer, completely out of his element, Roddy eventually teams up with a rat named Rita (Kate Winslet), the two aiming to return Roddy to his home and foil the deadly scheme of a rat-hating toad (Ian McKellen).

Directed by Sam Fell, who came up with the initial story idea, and David Bowers, Flushed Away works as well as it does thanks to the detailing of the underground city populated by the rats. It's a mini version of London, with plenty of puns and visual nods and gags, and there are plenty of items repurposed for the rodent citizens. It also has a pretty great script, written by a team of writers including the mighty sitcom masters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. You get memorable characters and numerous fun exchanges between them, although the weakest element may be the central strand showing the two leads always being pursued by henchmen of The Toad.

The animation throughout is lovely, although fans of Aardman may be slightly put off by the fact that this is computer-animated throughout. That doesn't make any difference to the character design work, or the attention to detail, but it does give it a different look to the typical stop-motion aesthetic that so often adds to the charm of their projects.

Jackman and Winslet do well in the lead roles, the former really ladling on the charming toff act as he is appalled by grime and nastiness around him and the latter being much more ready to get things done without any attempted airs and graces. McKellen makes an amusing villain, helped in his scheme by characters voiced by Bill Nighy, Shane Richie, and Jean Reno, who are all also very enjoyable in their roles. Serkis isn't really involved for many scenes, but he does just fine. And whoever did the sound work on those slugs, who first appear shrieking at the appearance of Roddy before popping up occasionally to show off their singing voices, deserves a big slap on the back. It's a fantastic addition to the movie, even if it is just a bit of nonsense.

I am sure that I will remain in the minority with my love for this movie for some time to come, but I encourage others to at least remember it exists, and maybe give it a rewatch with the knowledge that the sheen of computer animation does nothing to lessen the humour and creativity we've come to expect from Aardman over the years.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.

Saturday 25 May 2019

Shudder Saturday: The Transfiguration (2016)

Whenever people complain about the state of vampire movies, as they have done ever since the success of the Twilight series (it's fine, not all films are created with hardcore horror fans in mind), I am always heartened to be reminded of the great variety of films within the subgenre. This is not unique to the vampire film, all of the archetypes still allow smart and creative film-makers to provide a wide range of tales either using or breaking the general "rules", as they see fit. But few have the wealth of imagery and tropes to draw on as well as the vampire movie (any movie reworking Frankenstein would be the next contender, as far as I'm concerned).

The Transfiguration sits nicely alongside some of the more interesting examples of the vampire movie that we've had over the years but, perhaps more interestingly, it equally sits alongside a number of quality dramatic films that show glimpses of life as an African American in the USA. Martin is namechecked, but so is the aforementioned Twilight, as the boy at the centre of it all tries to provide himself with a unique identity patched together from others he has decided to identify with. He kills and drinks blood, but does that make him any better or worse than the local kids who drain money from the wallets of those looking for drugs and kill those they take a disliking to?

Eric Ruffin plays the main character, Milo, an introverted young man who lives with his older brother, Lewis (Aaron Moten, billed here as Aaron Clifton Moten). Milo acts very much like a vampire, and seems to have no qualms about picking off victims he can then suck blood from, but it's not initially made clear what powers he has, if any, and what could strongly affect him. He develops a friendship with a young woman named Sophie (Chloë Levine), with the two spending a lot of time together discussing vampirism and their preferred examples of it throughout decades of cinema.

The feature debut of writer-director Michael O'Shea (before this he had crafted a short film titled Milo, I have yet to see it but it may have the germ of an idea expanded for this), The Transfiguration is a perfect mix of horror elements and character study. Milo spends a lot of the screentime being a typical teen, but moments of sudden violence crop up to remind viewers of how he views himself, and how coldly he can decide the fate of anyone he sees as a victim. Although veering between the sweet and the horrific, this never loses focus, never gets the balance and tone wrong, and basically never puts a foot wrong. It would make a fine companion piece to Martin, which is high praise indeed (if you enjoy that movie as much as I do).

Ruffin is fantastic in the lead role. It's a quiet performance, very natural and somehow garnering your sympathy despite showing a very dark side. Levine is just as good by his side, and the two have a great chemistry in their many scenes together. They're both slightly awkward while also being completely open, neither fearing the judgement or rejection of the other once the strong connection is made. Moten does well in his much smaller role, as do all of the supporting cast members, but the film belongs to the leads.

Thought-provoking, engrossing, surprisingly emotional in places, this is a film to rewatch, be rewarded by, and appreciate. In fact, it's a near-masterpiece.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.

Friday 24 May 2019

Ani-MAY-tion: Batman Ninja (2018)

Okay, first point to be made here, I watched the American version of Batman Ninja, which was apparently rewritten by Leo Chu and Eric Garcia into something fairly different from the Japanese version, written by Kazuki Nakashima. It's hard to imagine how different the two incarnations could be, especially given how the direction from Junpei Mizusaki does such a great job of reworking the familiar Batman imagery in something much closer to the traditional style of anime, but it may well be worth checking it out when I have the time and opportunity.

Let's get to the plot. Batman is thrown into Feudal Japan, all thanks to a time machine created by Gorilla Grodd. Various villains have already staked their territorial claims, with The Joker being the one who seems to be the one with the best plan for ruling all (of course). But don't count out Penguin, Two-Face, Deathstroke, or, indeed, Gorilla Grodd himself. Any one of them could have a surprise up their sleeve to try and gain the upper hand over the others. Batman will have to rely on his ingenuity, some older battle tactics, and some other creations that I won't spoil here.

This is absolutely superb stuff. I've been a fan of most of the animated Batman movies that I have seen over the years but the recent twists on the material (I am thinking mainly of this outing and Batman: Gotham By Gaslight) have allowed film fans to get their usual dose of batty action without it feeling too repetitive and stale. Give me another example of this, even if it turns out to be an interesting failure, over something like Batman: The Killing Joke. Give me another pairing of Batman and Scooby-Doo over that.

Guided by Mizusaki, who has a small selection of projects on his CV so far, the look and feel of this is a perfect blend of the two worlds. That seems to be thanks to Takashi Okazaki, the man responsible for the character and background designs, and probably best known to anime fans for being the creator of Afro Samurai. Things start off with nice detailing throughout, drawing viewers into the world, and then the creative visuals just keep building throughout, leading to a third act that is delightful and potentially surprising (certainly to those who thought this would be more in the DC aesthetic than anime).

The voice cast all do decent work. Again, I am talking of the American version here. Roger Craig Smith isn't the best Batman, most of us will know who has the best voice for the role, but he's good. Tony Hale is a very good actor for The Joker, and Tara Strong has fun in the role of Harley Quinn. You also have Grey Griffin as Catwoman, Tom Kenny as Penguin, and Fred Tatasciore as Gorilla Grodd. Some of the cast members voice multiple roles, as standard, and there are others who also put in good work alongside the main players.

I encourage all fans of animation to check this one out. Every scene is beautiful, although I will try to avoid trotting out the old expression about being able to hang every frame up as a painting (but . . . yo could though), the storyline is well put together, the action beats are impressive, and it's yet another top-notch animated outing for The Dark Knight.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.

Thursday 23 May 2019

Ani-MAY-tion: Perfect Blue (1997)

Mima (Junko Iwao) is a member of the J-pop group CHAM! She is idolised and adored by fans, but they are upset when she announces that she is leaving the band to become an actress. While getting used to the art of acting, her first job gives her only the one line that she frets over and rehearses again and again, Mima also has to deal with the fact that she seems to have a stalker, there's a website that purports to be her personal diary online, and people around her are starting to die.

If you think that Perfect Blue sounds like a standard thriller then you'd be right. But there are other elements in place that make it stand out. The main one being the fact that this is another animated movie from Satoshi Kon. You also get some wonderful moments that blur fantasy and reality, as you would expect from Kon.

I'm not going to beat about the bush here. I have seen three features from Kon (this one, Tokyo Godfathers, and Paprika). I gave those other two movies 9/10 ratings. This, his first feature as director, is his masterpiece. 10/10. It drew me in from the very beginning and kept me entranced throughout the runtime, even if the grand finale felt a little bit weaker than anything else that came before it.

The script, by Sadayuki Murai, is based on a novel by Yoshikazu Takeuchi. Not only does it sketch out the main characters and throw you quickly into a strange reality you can find both familiar and also new and unsettling (unless you have experience of being a J-pop star). It provides the standard tension and thrills, and there's a fake rape sequence that is somehow more disturbing because of the animation making it harder to completely separate bodies from one another, while also looking at what people do as they pursue fame, what others believe they are entitled to claim from celebrities, and the slippery slope from admiration to obsession.

Iwao is very good in the main role, Rica Matsumoto is also fine in a main supporting role (playing her manager, Rumi), and Masaaki Ōkura plays a stalker who may or may not be the biggest threat in the movie, but I am not going to pretend that their input is essential. It feels like the voices here come second to the visuals and the style of Kon, who is the main name drawing people to the film.

It may sound strange to say this but . . . everything in Perfect Blue feels so believable and authentic that it resonates much more than it otherwise would. There are some over-the-top murders, of course, but everything around the fresh corpses makes sense, even if watching a character have a delusion that involves an imaginary character talking to her. The glare of the spotlights, the desperate need to do well that leads to someone doing something they may regret, the creepy actions from fans that people handling a star will dismiss while they reassure their client that everything is fine.

I suspect that you could pick any Satoshi Kon movie as your absolute favourite on any given today. This is mine for today. That could change, although I don't foresee that happening any time soon.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can get it here.

Wednesday 22 May 2019

Prime Time: Yellow Submarine (1968)

Having been a big fan of The Beatles for many years, I am sometimes surprised when I remember that I haven't seen many of their movies. Then again, they're not celebrated for their acting skills. Then again, it's The Beatles. Anyway, I finally watched A Hard Day's Night a year or two ago, and I really enjoyed it. It was time for me to check out Yellow Submarine, wondering how I had somehow never watched it in my youth.

It only took a few minutes to see why I never watched this before. Despite the colourful and surreal visuals, it isn't aimed at younger viewers. Strangely, considering the storytelling form and the voice cast used, it doesn't feel as if it is aimed at fans of The Beatles either. And then it starts to work as intended. And while it works, it starts to feel like it knows exactly who it is aimed at, which is a group of people who don't mind their classic pop tunes interspersed with silly jokes and psychedelic visuals. So, y'know, Beatles fans.

The story is simple enough. Pepperland falls to an attack by the Blue Meanies (who are blue and, well, mean). An elderly sailor, Fred, takes the yellow submarine and heads off to find the people who may be able to help the land. The Beatles. They have been in Pepperland for a long time anyway, in the guise of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, so will surely be able to defeat the Blue Meanies and save Pepperland. The fab four travel through various seas, and songs, meeting a variety of characters en route to the inevitable final battle.

Although The Beatles are used when it comes to recorded songs, and they make a very brief live-action appearance at the very end of the film, their animated representations are voiced by Paul Angelis (Ringo & George), John Clive (John), and Geoffrey Hughes (Paul). All three men do a good job, with Angelis showing even more range in a number of different roles. Peter Batten also spends some time voicing George, although I couldn't point out who is responsible for the voice in individual scenes. Dick Emery and Lance Percival are the two other main voice actors, and both have fun with their work.

Heinz Edelmann is the man with the main vision, leading the animation and design, and his work is well utilised by director George Dunning, also working with the story idea from Lee Minoff (who helped to write the screenplay with a few others, springboarding from the famous song).

Throwing viewers in at the deep end, no pun intended, this is a movie experience that takes a while to warm up to. Stick with it, however, and you are rewarded with a whole cornucopia of gags and sly references (the sheer wealth of them makes this eminently rewatchable) while being drawn into a wonderfully offbeat and imaginative world. If you ever get the chance to see this on the big screen then do so, I promise you that it will be well worth it.

To state the obvious, those who are not fans of The Beatles may find the whole thing slightly less enjoyable. But who wants to go through life not being a fan of The Beatles?


You can buy yellow on blu here.
Americans can dive in here.

Tuesday 21 May 2019

Ani-MAY-tion: Sherlock Gnomes (2018)

I am going to start this review with a confession that probably won't shock many of you. I quite enjoyed Gnomeo & Juliet. I know, I know, the bright visuals, the puns, the Shakespeare references, the puns, the voice cast, the Elton John songs, and the puns. It was a strange mix that worked for me. So when they decided to bring out a sequel, utilising the influence of Sherlock Holmes, I figured that it would probably amuse and entertain me. That was not the case.

The plot is, at the heart of it, very simple. A load of gnomes are going missing throughout London, leaving the mystery to be solved by Sherlock Gnomes (Johnny Depp) and Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor). This coincides with some tension between Gnomeo (James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt) as the pair settle in to their new London home, alongside the other garden residents. When Gnomeo is also snatched away, Juliet has to team up with Sherlock, who is insufferably dismissive of those who help him. This crime must be the work of Moriarty (Jamie Demetriou), surely, despite the fact that he seemed to be squished/smashed in the opening sequence.

Sherlock Gnomes is bright and colourful, just like its predecessor, and it has some Elton John tunes here and there. That's where the similarity ends. The merging of the various elements just doesn't work well at all, leaving a bit of a mess that will satisfy none but the youngest viewers, who can at least be kept entertained by the main characters.

Director John Stevenson fails to wrestle the script, by Ben Zazove, into anything close to a decent adventure. The few set-pieces fail to impress, the humour falls flat, and, perhaps worst of all, the character of Sherlock is made into something almost unrecognisable. Okay, he LOOKS familiar, but that is it. I MIGHT have missed some references, but this also felt very lazy in the plotting and script, missing out on any opportunity to reference the great selection of cases that Sherlock Holmes fans would be aware of. It smacks of something put together without any enthusiasm or care.

Depp isn't actually bad in his voice role, although I am sure Holmes purists will balk at the very idea, and Ejiofor is equally good alongside him (although his Watson is even further removed from the character that we know and love, all for the sake of a lazy and obvious plot turn in the third act). Demetriou is fine as a non-menacing Moriarty, but you do get a couple of decent villains in the shape of a pair of gargoyles (voiced by Dexter Fletcher and Javone Prince) and Mary J. Blige as a female character named Irene. Blunt and McAvoy are good, once again, in the lead roles, and the supporting cast includes Ashley Jensen, Matt Lucas, Stephen Merchant, and Ozzy Osbourne.

And I almost forgot to mention the Elton John songs, but that's because the film feels as if it almost forgot to include any. You get snippets here and there, and musical motifs interspersed throughout the score, but this is done in a way that is much more jarring than it was in the first gnome-filled tale. That had two main focal points, the Shakespeare-inspired love story and the songs. This has the tale of two garden-dwelling lovers, the central mystery to be solved by Sherlock, and the songs. That may not seem like too many plates to spin but it's obviously one too many, leading to all three becoming more and more wobbly until they fall and smash on the ground.

While it didn't actually pain me to watch it, Sherlock Gnomes was a massive disappointment. And it could have easily been on a par with the first film, if anyone had cared about what they were making.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.

Monday 20 May 2019

Mubi Monday: Paranoid Park (2007)

Gus Van Sant. Sometimes I really enjoy his movies, sometimes I REALLY don't. Paranoid Park is one I really don't, there's no point beating about the bush. Based on the novel by Blake Nelson, it's like a skateboarder riff on Blow-Up, which could have been fine if not for the fact that the script is weak and the acting, at times, absolutely terrible. Top tip - don't use social media to put together your cast. It shows. Oh boy, it shows.

Gabe Nevins is Alex, a young boy with a story to tell. That story revolves around the people he meets at the titular skate park, the accidental death of a security guard, and his relationship with a young girl named Jennifer (Taylor Momsen).

Although there are a few things that I'll grudgingly admit Paranoid Park gets right (that restlessness of youth that leads to the need for change, even as everything seems to be going well), there are far too many things it gets wrong, including the tension that should be created by the central investigation into the death of the guard. If you can recall times in your youth when you spent time either skateboarding or thinking about skateboarding, in between other fleeting teenage problems that felt heavy upon your young shoulders, then this may work better for you. Everyone else will be annoyed by it.

A large part of that annoyance comes from the cast. This is another project that Van Sant thought would benefit from casting non-actors in key roles. He is wrong once again, and that is painfully obvious in a few key scenes. Nevins isn't as bad as he could be in the lead role, although he doesn't have an ounce of appeal or charisma, and Momsen shows that she's one of the cast members with acting experience. Others range from pretty poor to absolutely dire. I wasn't surprised to look up the filmography of Lauren McKinney and find that this is her only role. I don't like singling people out for particularly harsh criticism but McKinney gives one of the worst performances that I have ever seen. Imagine convincing a child to speak lines of dialogue by waiting just behind the camera with a biscuit-shaped reward and you'll have an idea of how she acts. She looks directly at the camera on at least two occasions, seeming to be pleased with the fact that she had just managed to deliver all of the words she was told to say aloud.

It's a shame that the acting is sometimes SO bad because the directorial style would work well with natural performances that were actually good. Van Sant knows how to nonchalantly film things with a seeming lack of focus while also ensuring that the viewer is taking in the right details, be it dialogue or character interactions, or even just a look from someone.

I am guessing this works better in book form. In adapting it to the screen, Van Sant mashes together two separate aspects without ever effectively blending them. It feels like there is room for more content to be packed into either main element, either more detective work with the feeling that the situation is getting more dangerous for the main character, or more simple entertainment in the form of skateboarding sequences.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can stream it here.

Sunday 19 May 2019

Netflix And Chill: Peelers (2016)

Here's something I never thought I would say some years ago. I have seen LOTS of horror comedies that pit strippers against zombies. A couple of them were released a few years ago, while the best one (Zombie Strippers!) was released just over a decade ago. Which makes Peelers feel like a latecomer to what was a fleeting trend. That wouldn't be a bad thing if it looked as if everyone involved had been taking extra time and care to make sure everything was as good as it could be. Sadly, it doesn't look that way.

It's the closing night of a small strip club, a bittersweet time for owner/star Blue Jean (Wren Walker). What should be a night of celebration and sexiness, although the quirk of each act is often difficult to actually label sexy, is interrupted by a group of people who have become infected and are going to zombie around all over the place. There's biting, limb removal, bodies being too active unless damaged through the brain, and a smattering of nudity.

Written by Lisa DeVita, her first feature script, Peelers is pretty dire throughout, and the script is the main culprit. I can reel off a number of the other cast members, for example, but none of them make an impression, which means the whole thing rests on the shoulders of Wren Walker. While she does okay in her role, she has to deliver some lines and character moments that feel far too close to parody to be taken seriously. DeVita obviously thinks the central idea is good enough to make up for any other failings. It's not, not when it is so sorely mishandled. Potential weapons are highlighted in the first act (they may as well have large neon signs pointing to them), tensions are created that end up not actually feeding in to the main plot when things start to get more dangerous and bloody. They are either not used well enough or just dismissed after far too short a time.

Director Sevé Schelenz takes a step back here, after the imperfect but interesting Skew, although there are individual moments that work well. The highlight is a lapdance for two gentlemen being performed while the dancer is temporarily unaware of her clients moving from the state of living to dead.

JUST because they turned up and did what was asked of them, I will mention Caz Odin Darko, Madison J. Loos, Kirsty Peters, and Nikki Wallin. There are many others onscreen, but they are the ones I am namechecking before returning to mention Walker again. Although hampered by the weak script here, I wouldn't mind seeing Walker in a similar role that gives her much better treatment. She's the best thing here, and would work well in something with a better ensemble of characters.

The gore effects aren't good enough, mainly thanks to the wrong-headed idea that the FX would be improved/complemented by CGI, most of the characters are completely forgettable and disposable, the humour doesn't work, and nor does the horror. Yep, ending with something else I didn't think I would ever say, this is the least enjoyable movie pitting strippers against zombies that I have seen. Check out any of the others ahead of this.


Americans can buy the blu here.

Saturday 18 May 2019

Shudder Saturday: Dead Birds (2004)

Set in the time of the American Civil War, this is the tale of a group of people, led by William (Henry Thomas), who rob a bank and then lay low in a house located, effectively, in the middle of nowhere. While they are all on edge, and with some trying to figure out how to increase their own share of the ill-gotten gains, things start to get a bit creepy. The house has a history, and that history is not staying locked in the past.

There are two great American horror movies that I was pleased to discover in the past twenty years, two that still stand out from so many others that I have enjoyed over the years. Session 9 is one of them, Dead Birds is the other. The former may hold up slightly better, but this one still deserves to be found and loved by horror fans.

The first feature written by Simon Barrett (who started his run of movies with this film and the fun of Frankenfish), Dead Birds is an impressively atmospheric piece that also delivers some impressive moments of gore and decent jump scares. Unfortunately, as decent as they are, it is the jump scares that now hold this back from being closer to a modern classic, with the CGI used and the snap of movement now all too familiar to genre fans who have seen it overdone in the years since this was released.

Director Alex Turner doesn't have too many other movies to his credit (his only other feature so far is Red Sands from 2009 - it's been a decade, Alex, get your finger out) and that's a great shame. Although helped massively by the casting, Turner does a fantastic job behind the camera here. Guided by Barrett's script, Turner takes plenty of time during the first half of the movie to set up the characters and their motivations, allowing the standard mistrust and unease of co-operating criminals to weave through various interactions until more supernatural happenings start to affect everyone. There's also an injured party to be looked after and the memory of an innocent bystander who was killed during the robbery, both of these things, and more, feeding in to the atmosphere and the heady brew of bloodshed and betrayal that has brought these people to where they are, and perhaps where they deserve to be.

Thomas is good in the nominal lead role, although he is matched by excellent performances from Isaiah Washington and Nicki Aycox, both playing characters who seem to cause friction amongst the group just by being accepted as important members. Patrick Fugit is slightly weak, although he works okay while his character physically weakens from injury, but that is compensated for by typically fine performances from Michael Shannon, Mark Boone Junior, and Muse Watson.

Although it stumbles in a few places, Dead Birds generally remains a satisfying, rich, experience. If you somehow haven't heard of it before now, be sure to check it out now. You won't be disappointed.*

*does not apply to anyone who is disappointed


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.

Friday 17 May 2019

Ani-MAY-tion: Smallfoot (2018)

Built around a very fun central idea, Smallfoot is an unassuming and entertaining animated feature that makes good use of a decent voice cast (even James Corden suits his role) and a mix of comedic mishaps, nice songs, and the life lessons you usually get from this kind of fare.

Channing Tatum plays Migo, a yeti living happily in with lots of other yetis in their mountaintop community. Everything is done a certain way, according to rules written on various stones, including someone being launched head-first at a gong to start the sun rising (the current holder of this position is Dorgle, Migo's father, and Migo is keen to take over the role). But things change when Migo ends up falling down the mountain and spotting a strange, legendary, creature. A smallfoot (Percy, voiced by James Corden). In a reversal of the way these things are normally done, Migo tries to convince the others of what he saw, and then sets out to get proof.

Do children still hear much about yetis nowadays? I know I was obsessed with these things as a child but it feels as if cryptozoology isn't the fertile ground it used to be. People are so used to not trusting anything put in front of them nowadays because they're all very much aware of camera glitches and photoshop trickery. Years ago we may have had Harry & The Hendersons but nowadays it seems that unknown animals are mostly used in a wide and varied selection of horror movies. Yetis aren't cool, if you'll pardon the expression, and Smallfoot is more endearing because of that.

The more I think about Smallfoot, the more I like it. It would be easy to sneer at it, to dismiss it as a film exactly the same as many others you may have already seen, and enjoyed. But what separates it from many of the other animated releases from recent years is a refreshing feeling that it is wanting to tell a story with humour and heart without necessarily also attempting to be cool and trendy. Yes, there are a couple of scenes making use of modern technology (and Percy is a human who is hoping to fake a yeti sighting in order to boost the ratings for his TV show) but the core message of the film seems to reject the potential misrepresentations and misunderstandings that electronic communication can throw up in favour of just connecting with one another and trying to show that our common traits are much larger in number than our differences.

Based on a work by Sergio Pablos, this is the second animated feature from Karey Kirkpatrick (Over The Hedge is fun, and let's not mention the one live-action film in between, which is an Eddie Murphy vehicle far from his best), who is joined by Jason Reisig (making his debut in a co-director capacity). Kirkpatrick also co-wrote the screenplay with Clare Sera so I will praise both of them for the tone of the film. The visuals are nice and imaginative, especially when showing the daily lives of the yetis, and the pacing is perfect, with the few songs throughout playing long enough to be catchy without going on and on to the point of overstaying their welcome.

Tatum is very good in the lead role, Corden equally so, and there's a solid selection of supporting cast members. Zendaya and Common are two of the main ones, with the latter being a character responsible for maintaining practices that are designed to keep the yetis safe from harm, but you also get Danny DeVito, LeBron James, Gina Rodriguez, and Yara Shahidi.

As far removed from childhood as I am, I'm going to have to buy this soon. And I'll look forward to rewatching it. I may even sing along with the songs. Even if I do sound . . . abominable.


You can buy it here.
Americans can buy it here.

Thursday 16 May 2019

Ani-MAY-tion: The Red Turtle (2016)

The first animated feature film directed by Michael Dudok de Wit, after many years spent working on animated works ranging from Heavy Metal to  Fantasia 2000, this is a quiet and contemplative drama that somehow manages to be very effective and moving by the time the end credits roll.

The story revolves around a man who finds himself stranded on an island. He tries to leave, of course, but his attempts are unsuccessful. During one such attempt, he encounters a large red turtle. It seems to want to stay near him, which the man doesn't appreciate. He ends up reacting rather violently, although this leads to the shell of the turtle opening up to reveal a woman inside. And so the rest of the film shows the man and the woman making their life on the island a good one.

It's hard to think up much to say about The Red Turtle, which says a lot without seeming to say anything at all (this is dialogue-free for most of the runtime, but I am referring more specifically to the main theme of the film and the impact of the ending, which is bittersweet). It's not a film to throw on if you need what you can get from other, standard, animated fare - gags, characters to be thrown on anything that can be merchandised, lively set-pieces - but it's one to watch when you're in a thoughtful mood, one to let wash over you with the beauty of its simplicity.

The animation is like the content, simple and beautiful. It's also clean and often slightly muted, even more so when scenes move into dream sequences that the main character is having. This could easily have been a live-action film, probably with the red turtle created by computers and placed alongside one main actor, but the animation makes it much more appealing. It has a softness to it, and a feeling that this is the work of a child who has stumbled on to something universally resonant.

Pascale Ferran helped to co-write the screenplay, which really just allows us to watch a condensed version of the lifetime of one man, and it works well. Dudok de Wit directs the material with an admirable lack of any easy "outs" for viewers. He wants you to sit down, be drawn into the story, and patiently watch it unfold from start to finish. Although a co-production with many countries attached to it, the combination of heart and maturity make it easy to see why Studio Ghibli have their logo placed at the start. It may not have their usual Japanese style and elements in place, as the Dutch director was asked to make a movie for them but it certainly feels well-suited to their catalogue.

I'm going to wrap this review up here. It's already longer than I thought it would be. This is not something to really discuss and dissect. It's more like a poem brought to animated life. Not a lengthy poem either. Just a little rhyme that you enjoy because it feels unsophisticated and to the point.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.

Wednesday 15 May 2019

Prime Time: Watership Down (1978)

Look, I didn't get to reach my mid-40s without being aware of how far removed Watership Down is from the image of animated fluffy bunnies frolicking around I had in my mind as a child. It may have taken me far too long to see it, although I thought I was somewhat mentally prepared after having seen The Plague Dogs (from the same team) some time ago, but I knew what to expect. Well, I thought I did.

The story is simple. A group of rabbits (led by Hazel and Fiver, voiced by John Hurt and Richard Briers) leave their warren to seek a new home, due to Fiver having a vision of some major doom heading their way. Their journey is a perilous one, and they meet a variety of characters, some of them who become friends and many who show themselves to be enemies.

People speak about Watership Down with a mixture of emotions. It's a favourite, it has some lovely moments, and yet it traumatised many who didn't know what to expect, especially those who saw it closer to the time it was initially released. Some people may warn you if you're about to check it out for the first time. And you steel yourself. You know that not all of these bunnies are going to have a happy life. You know that there are going to be moments of darkness and danger.

What you may not know is that this is an almost non-stop barrage of bloodied bunny bodies in a tale that amounts to little more than intense rabbit genocide for much of the runtime. Construction development, gas, a snare, a cat, a dog, other rabbits, a shotgun, natural causes, these rabbits face danger and death at every turn. The film starts with the entire species being cursed by a god it has been a bit cheeky to. The entire species doomed to be hunted forever.

And don't start me on "Bright Eyes", a beautiful song written by Mike Batt, and performed by Art Garfunkel, that I always assumed would be at least a moment of lovely relief from the pain and death onscreen. Yeah . . . no, it isn't. Not at all. "Bright Eyes" plays while a rabbit spirit is heading over to join the others in the rabbit afterlife. It's not a sweet song to accompany the visuals, it's a bloody elegy. All of these years I have spent knowing the song, humming or singing it at various points in my life, and it must have sent any rabbits within a 40-metre radius into hiding, wondering which of their furry friends had just died.

Writer-director Martin Rosen (adapting the Richard Adams novel) does a good job, I guess. I begrudge praising him because of how traumatic the whole thing is but it's actually well-judged in terms of how to absolutely upset younger viewers while allowing the beautiful animation to soften the harsher imagery. This is a film that must be watched as a rite of passage, although I feel sorry for any parents who settle down to watch this with their children without enough tear-wiping accessories to hand (have a box of tissues, an old t-shirt, or even a towel, to hand).

The voice cast is wonderful. So many of the supporting roles also sounded familiar to me, although I couldn't pinpoint every voice, but Hurt and Briers are the heart and soul of the film. Michael Hordern and Ralph Richardson are quite instantly recognisable, due to the memorable timbre of their speech, and Michael Graham Cox, John Bennett, Simon Cadell, and Roy Kinnear are all worth mentioning, as well as Lynn Farleigh, Hannah Gordon, Nigel Hawthorne, Derek Griffiths, and, almost managing to lighten the mood slightly, Zero Mostel, who voices a seagull named Kehaar. I'll also single out Harry Andrews for the fact that he plays Gen, Woundwort, arguably the scariest character in the movie.

Watership Down is an absolute classic. I just don't know when I will be ready to watch it again.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans may want to wait until there's something at a better price.

Tuesday 14 May 2019

Ani-MAY-tion: Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse is the best Spider-Man movie made, to date. That's not to say that some of the others don't come close, or to call this perfect. It just captures the spirit of the character, and the comic-book style, better than anything else put onscreen so far, helped in no small way by the stylistic choices made, and a fantastic voice cast.

Shameik Moore plays Miles Morales, a teenager who finds his life becoming a bit more problematic when he's bitten by a spider and turned into Spider-Man. It's confusing because, in the universe that Miles inhabits, there is already a Spider-Man (Chris Pine). And then another Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) turns up. And then quite a few other incarnations of the character also turn up: Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney).

Taking a cue from the character of Morales, this is a movie infused with the energy and colour of well-made street art. It has a sense of anarchy art times, and yet remains surprisingly on point when it comes to the kind of lesson that we're used to seeing delivered by a Spider-Man film. It's loud and vibrant for a lot of the runtime. It also takes some time to allow Morales to try sorting through his own muddle of thoughts as he figures out how best to adapt to his potential new life.

Directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman do a great job with the script, co-written by Rothman and Phil Lord. There's a reason for the events onscreen (a device being fired up by the main villain, Kingpin) and everything is balanced out perfectly. You get plenty of moments to make you laugh, plenty of fun action sequences, and a plot that actually makes sense and builds towards the sort of spectacular finale you get from any standard superhero movie, despite this feeling far removed from standard superhero movies in a number of ways.

The voice cast are absolutely superb, across the board. As well as those mentioned, you also have great work from Brian Tyree Henry (the father of Miles), Mahershala Ali (a cool uncle that Miles looks up to), Liev Schreiber (Kingpin), Kathryn Hahn (a scientist working for Kingpin), Zoë Kravitz, and Lily Tomlin.

The only thing holding this back from being a perfect movie is the fact that it's sometimes a little bit TOO loud and busy in scenes that have your eyes darting around to try and take in every single detail. And most scenes have plenty of details that will make this a treat to rewatch again and again.

Who would have thought that, while attempting to tell various Peter Parker adventures again and again, the secret to making the most satisfying Spider-Man movie to date would involve putting Miles Morales front and centre? Actually . . . a lot of Miles Morales fans have been saying it for years. It's good to see that others can now see how right they were.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.

Monday 13 May 2019

Mubi Monday: Madeline's Madeline (2018)

Directed by Josephine Decker, who also co-wrote the script with Donna di Novelli (although I suspect she wouldn't take full credit and would instead point to it being a collaborative, organic, experience), Madeline's Madeline is the kind of film that I usually tend to dislike. The main characters are generally insufferable, the style of the film attempts to be so overly natural and earthy that it feels fake, and it's got moments of people doing the kind of drama school schtick that you suspect many actors cringe about when they think back to whatever they had to do to pass whatever course they signed up for.

Helena Howard is Madeline, a young girl with a number of problems. It's never made clear exactly why she is on medication, but major mood swings and abusive tantrums seem to indicate a serious mental health issue (perhaps bipolar disorder, perhaps a form of autism) that affects her life, and the lives of those around her who care for her. The main carer for her is her mother, Regina (Miranda July), and the worst scenes in the film show her bearing the brunt of her daughter's rage. The one thing Madeline loves is performance art, and she seems to be very good at it. So good that a theatre director, Evangeline (Molly Parker), decides to use her more and more, allowing Madeline to just let everything out while they develop the project around her "character".

This is another film that has an interesting idea at the core of it, yet doesn't do the best it can with it. Unfortunately, in this instance, I'm not sure if Decker realises where the more fertile ground lies, which leaves viewers watching scenes in which the lead character is horrible before she is then finding her happy place while performing. The word cathartic may have art in the middle of it, and many of us are aware of the power of it, but it's perhaps not always the wisest move to indulge someone who may need a bit more care/aftercare to stay grounded and even in between the highs that performing can deliver.

The camera moves around people, and right up beside them. The soundtrack is made up of ambient noise turned all the way up, this is another one of those films in which we have to hear the breath of every main character. It's a choice made to throw viewers in amongst the cast, and perhaps show just how much Madeline takes in from the environment around her, but it works out to be nothing more than another annoyance in a film full of them. It softens some hard edges that should have been there throughout, as far as I'm concerned, and tries to keep viewers onside with a main character who just isn't very nice. You can have main characters who aren't very nice, be it their fault or not, and still make a film around them (especially here, because Evangeline is really the more horrible character, due to the fact that she should know better than to essentially abuse the situation). Decker doesn't do that here. She wants to, and perhaps thinks she has, but the script, and the stylistic choices, make this a failure in that regard.

Howard does well enough in the lead role, and there are decent supporting players, but the scenes that work best are those that involve July and Parker, both of the main adults viewing someone they care about from two very different angles. A better film would have brought out even better performances from them, I suspect, but they still remain highlights here.

It's horrible, it drags (I've seen 180-minute epics that felt briefer than this), and it doesn't manage to make any interesting comments on the central relationships. A huge missed opportunity. But, hey, at least you get enough moments of actors pretending that they're animals. Can you even call yourself a thespian if you haven't convinced people you were a cat for five minutes.


There's a Region A disc here.

Sunday 12 May 2019

Netflix And Chill: Bee Movie (2007)

Look, I am easily pleased by puns and CGI that is halfway-decent. That means that most modern movies aimed at younger viewers will tend to keep me amused. I'm not always the most mature person in the room, and I am absolutely fine with that. I am fine with being able to sit back and do my best to be open to whatever a movie is trying to provide. But that doesn't mean that I'll just sit there and give everything a free pass, even if it may seem that way sometimes when I am reviewing movies while being more charitable than some.

Bee Movie isn't as bad as you may have heard. It's also not that good. It sits squarely in the middle, hampered by some strange choices in the plotting and voice cast.

Jerry Seinfeld is the voice of Barry B. Benson, a bee who doesn't necessarily want to move straight into his working life when he is deemed ready for it. Despite the protests of his friend, Adam (Matthew Broderick), Barry heads off for a trip into the wider world outside. He then ends up befriending a human named Vanessa (Renée Zellweger), which leads to him finding out the horrible truth about just what happens to all of the honey that the bees make. Something has to be done, but what will the repercussions be?

Directed by Simon J. Smith and Steve Hickner, two men who have a directorial selection composed of more shorts than features (although the latter has a much more extensive selection of projects he has worked on as an artist), this is a strange central concept that is squeezed into a fairly traditional, family-friendly, movie. A lot of people worked on the script, including Seinfeld, and it feels like all of them had a different idea of just what kind of film they were making. Ironically, that makes some of the crazier moments among the most fun, certainly for older viewers (the highlight being a moment in which Ray Liotta is called as a witness in a court case, playing himself).

As much as I like Seinfeld, his voice doesn't feel right for the lead role here, and I'd struggle to think of any animated movie that would work with his particular vocal stylings at the centre of things. Matthew Broderick is better in the role of the best friend who is happy with his lot in life. Zellweger is also good in her role, helping to sell the fact that her character can become firm friends with a bee. But the best work comes from the three people I can enjoy listening to at any time: John Goodman (as a lawyer), Chris Rock (a mosquito), and Patrick Warburton (a human who has his life turned upside down by Barry).

Children should enjoy seeing the world that is created for these bees to be living, and working, in. Adults should enjoy the more random moments, such as that Liotta highlight and a honey-steeped homage to The Graduate. Few people will enjoy the whole thing as a cohesive movie experience, but there are enough moments to amuse and help the runtime pass by painlessly enough. Oh, and the CGI is halfway-decent. Halfway.


You can buy it here.
Americans can buy it here.

Saturday 11 May 2019

Shudder Saturday: The Ranger (2018)

Directed by Jenn Wexler, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Giaco Furino, The Ranger is a modern slasher movie that appears more widely available now after a series of crowd-pleasing festival appearances that marked it out as one I knew I wanted to see ASAP.

Described in almost every review as a punk slasher movie, the plot sees a group of friends escaping to a cabin in the woods after a run in with the law at a music show. The individuals are Chelsea (Chloë Levine), her boyfriend Garth (Granit Lahu), Jerk (Jeremy Pope), his boyfriend Abe (Bubba Weiler), and a girl named Amber (Amanda Grace Benitez). Chelsea used to spend a lot of time in the cabin as a young girl, and she is remembered fondly by the local park ranger (Jeremy Holm). Unfortunately, the ranger isn't so nice to everyone. He has a very strict way of dealing with people he views as disrespectful and troublesome.

Although it is fun in places, The Ranger is a bit too uneven to be a complete success. I mentioned that every review describes it as a punk slasher movie just to say here that I'm not quite sure how that actually works in the movie. Take away those opening scenes and all you have are a bunch of characters who dress kinda punk. And they drive a van that looks like a punk version of the Mystery Machine, I guess. It feels like something that has been thrown in to try and give the film more of an identity than it actually has, without anything substantial backing it up. Perhaps this is an attempt to make up for the lack of focus elsewhere, especially when it comes to the titular killer, but it backfires, especially for anyone who has enjoyed movies that actually DO feel punk.

The direction is fine, with Wexler doing good work with a bunch of limited resources and money (I assume, because this is not the kind of thing to get millions and millions thrown at it). Where it suffers is in the script and pacing, with the latter particularly problematic in a film with such a brief runtime. This runs at just under 80 minutes, yet the killing doesn't really start until just over the halfway mark, and there's a final act that feels padded out and badly misjudged. The Ranger gets some amusing lines, mainly while commenting on bad behaviour using the various laws and codes he wants people to abide by, but nowhere near enough. This had the potential to be much more fun, and it just isn't.

The acting from Levine and Holm is very good, which makes up for the rest of the cast. It's not that they're terrible, they're not, but they're just not given much to separate them from the group. They're a collective, without enough identity or individuality to help you care for them when the killing begins.

None of this would matter, of course, if the kills were good enough. They're not, unfortunately. There's one great piece of nastiness, but the rest all seems too tame and uninventive. Even the backstory feels slightly lacking, compared to the lengthy history of "killer motivational moments" that we've had over the decades.

The Ranger is not a bad film. It's well made, the cast do decent work, and the premise has the potential to be a lot of fun. It's just a shame that the potential is never fulfilled. This should fly by, from one death to the next, but it drags instead. And a brief slasher movie aiming to entertain horror movie fans should never drag.


Americans can buy the movie on shiny disc here.

Friday 10 May 2019

Ani-MAY-tion: Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation (2018)

Love or hate Adam Sandler, and most people fall firmly into the latter camp nowadays, it's hard to deny the easy appeal of the animated movie series that cast him in the role of Dracula. Almost every classic monster you can think of makes an appearance, the jokes are no less amusing for their obviousness, and everyone seems to be having fun doing their voice work.

This time around, after surviving the perils of seeing his daughter fall in love with a human (in the first movie) and then figuring out how to best be a grandparent (second movie), Dracula is taken on a holiday on a cruise ship. The whole gang is with him, of course, and there's an immediate connection between Drac and the ship's captain, Ericka (Kathryn Hahn).

Although not quite as good as the two films preceding it, this third adventure for "the Drac pack" has plenty packed in it to keep fans of the series amused. None of the characters are twisted into something they shouldn't be, mainly because that work was done in the first movie when the monsters realised they could get along with humans, and the straightforward plot has a couple of twists that you can see coming from the opening scenes and a finale that basically falls back on that old standard, a dance off.

Sandler is good in the lead role. In fact, I would say that most people will find him much more enjoyable as an animated Dracula than in his normal, live-action, guise. Selena Gomez and Andy Samberg are just as good, playing Drac's daughter and son-in-law, respectively. Hahn is good fun as the cruise captain with an obvious secret, and Kevin James, David Spade, Steve Buscemi, and a few others return to join the monster mash.

Also returning is director Genndy Tartakovsky, who has been at the helm since the first movie a few years ago. He also co-wrote the script, with Michael McCullers, which manages to keep focused on the leads while also providing a selection of amusing moments for each one of the main supporting characters.

If you enjoyed the previous Hotel Transylvania movies then you should enjoy this one. I'd prefer them to end it here, having already started creeping down the slope of diminishing returns, but I also know that I will watch any future instalments.


There's a good triple pack here.
Americans can pick it up here.

Thursday 9 May 2019

Ani-MAY-tion: Shark Tale (2004)

An animated film that mixes elements of the classic "Jack The Giant Killer" tale and numerous aquatic puns and gags, Shark Tale doesn't reach greatness in any individual aspect, but the silly jokes and excellent voice cast make it a fun way to pass some time.

Will Smith is the voice of Oscar, a small fish that dreams of big things. He works in a whale washing business, employed by a puffer fish named Sykes (Martin Scorsese). So preoccupied is Oscar with his dreams, he is oblivious to the fact that another employee, Angie (Renée Zellweger), seems quite smitten with him. Meanwhile, a mob boss shark (voiced by Robert De Niro) is struggling to get his youngest son, Lenny (Jack Black), to think and act like a proper shark. All of these characters are about to collide as Oscar turns his fortunes around after a major incident involving his close proximity to a dangerous shark that ends up dead.

It's hard not to see a couple films from this time as cynical attempts to grab some of that Finding Nemo money. You had this film and you had The Reef AKA Shark Bait (2006), and neither of them managed to be as good as the Pixar film that seemed to birth them. Thankfully, however, this is closer to the first movie than it is to the later one, which is just cheap (at least it certainly looks cheap), lazy and visually ugly.

That's not to say that directors Vicky Jenson, Bibo Bergeron, and Rob Letterman do much to garner praise here. The visuals are fine throughout, although sometimes it can be easy to forget that things are set under the sea (despite all of the main characters being fish), and the script, co-written by Letterman and Michael J. Wilson, is simple and amusing, keeping everything bright and lively for the intended younger viewers.

But the cast is where the movie shines. Smith is in fine form, all smiles and cockiness even as he looks to move further and further out of his depth, no pun intended. Zellweger is a sweet friend/potential romance, even if her character doesn't get to do much beyond helping Oscar and making heart-eyes at him. Scorsese and De Niro are both wonderful, their voices fitting their very different characters nicely, and their every interaction a treat for film fans. Black is a bit weak in his role, as is Angelina Jolie, also suffering from the fact that her character is shallow and only interested in someone with plenty of money, but the other people lending their voices to the proceedings include Michael Imperioli, Peter Falk, Ziggy Marley, Doug E. Doug, Vincent Pastore, and one or two others you should enjoy.

You'll probably never prioritise this in your viewing schedule unless you have little ones to entertain but you could do a lot worse. It has a decent soundtrack, plenty of colour, and one silly little gag involving a hammerhead shark and a piece of cutlery that makes me laugh heartily every time I see it.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.