Despicable Me

Despicable Me

d. Pierre Coffin + Chris Renaud / 2010 / USA/France / 95 mins

For those of you that read the last page of a book first, this review’s for you. This is not a film I’m going to recommend with any enthusiasm. We seem to have the tendency to describe something as “a good children’s film” rather than simply, a great movie, as if kids aren’t hugely complex, active makers of meaning. Luckily, films such as Princess Mononoke, Toy Story, The Princess Bride and Who Framed Roger Rabbit exist to blow these preconceptions out the water. But are these films primarily aimed at kids, and if they are, surely all that matters is that they’re fantastic by any standard? In recent years, the bar has been raised pretty high for what a “kids'” CGI film is capable of, and few have managed to slump to the depths of Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked. Indeed, Despicable Me is a much more competent film, but it still can’t help but be overshadowed by the winning formulae it imitates. There’s a great premise here, an interesting Euro aesthetic and a clear mix of creative talent but overall, a lack of depth stunts its growth.

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Koyaanisqatsi

Koyaanisqatsi

d. Godfrey Reggio / 1982 / USA / 86 mins

It’s been a while since I’ve written a review and perhaps this is an apt title to bridge the gap between the academic investigation of my PhD and this, my journalistic hobby. I’ve recently had the chance to read a lot of work by early theorists (Bazin, Deleuze and Eisenstein and the like) whose writings would go on to define how critics engage with film. What is consistent throughout all that I have read is the idea that film is a medium of stark contrast… Both temporal and spatial, sight and sound. Film communicates through movement and many have argued (although obvious counter-arguments exist) that film is defined within the spaces that lie between these sounds and images, that of its editing.

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Planes, Trains & Automobiles

Planes, Trains & Automobiles

d. John Hughes / 1987 / USA / 92 mins

John Hughes’ legacy is one of comedy. However, although the eighties saw him write and direct teen films such as The Breakfast Club, Weird Science and Ferris Bueller’s Day OffPlanes, Trains and Automobiles proved to be his foray into a slightly more mature (but no less irreverant) market and a highpoint of his career.

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It’s a Wonderful Life

It’s a Wonderful Life

d. Frank Capra / 1946 / USA / 130 mins

Based on Philip Van Doren Stern’s The Greatest Gift, It’s a Wonderful Life saw director Frank Capra reunited with James Stewart, allowing them to re-establish their cinematic careers, on hiatus since they were recruited into service for World War Two. Originally intended as a vehicle for Cary Grant, Capra’s involvement soon bore the trademark celebration of individualism that had defined his earlier works and made him one of the most celebrated directors of the 1930s. Although It’s a Wonderful Life would be overshadowed by William Wyler’s similarly titled The Best Years of Our Lives at the time of its release (the latter winning seven of that year’s Academy Awards), it’s popularity with audiences ballooned to mammoth proportions when it went out of copyright and was seen by a latter generation. It is now regarded as one of America’s finest films and has become associated with the holiday season, becoming a Christmas viewing tradition for families worldwide.

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Kung Fu Panda 2

Kung Fu Panda 2

d. Jennifer Yuh Nelson / 2011 / USA / 92 mins

What impresses me most about this movie and its predecessor, is that they have both managed to balance Chinese imagery and culture with an Americanised approach. They may not be attempting to bring Eastern myth to Western shores, but at the same time, this particular panda never displays any intent to do so, never repeating the misguided attempts of films such as The Last Samurai. Jack Black’s recognisable voice, along with super anachronistic, contemporary dialogue roots it in the current wave of excellent children’s films that America has been producing in recent years (many by Dreamworks themselves). The obvious fondness for its setting plays second billing to its devil may care attitude, making for a rollicking tale of kung fu wizardry that’s anything but Po-faced (a-hem).

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Mulan

Mulan

d. Tony Bancroft & Barry Cook / 1998 / USA / 90 mins

In the early nineties Disney were on a roll, releasing Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King in the short space of only four years. Almost twenty years later, Disney’s 2D animated features have still not managed to recreate the acclaim they once had, playing second fiddle to the 3D exploits of Pixar and Dreamworks. Although occasionally successful, many felt at the time that their late nineties offerings, (Hercules, Mulan and Tarzan) were the products of a company whose formula had turned stale.

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Moon

Moon

d. Duncan Jones / 2009 / UK / 97 mins

Owing much to the best science fiction films of the sixties and seventies (Solaris, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien to name a few), Duncan Jones’s feature debut finds itself at home alongside an impressive roster of sci-fi features. It’s a surprise that it’s not a literary adaptation (in actuality an original screenplay by Jones and Nathan Parker) as it also feels comparable to the short stories by the likes of Asimov. This may be because of its focus on a reasonably small and human scenario with technological development forming the catalyst. The resulting narrative minimalism (practically told through one set and one character) is also indebted to the film’s small $5m budget, but Jones and his designers have done a fantastic job of ensuring the lunar base looks suitably pristine and technologically advanced whilst still allowing it to have the worn and lived-in feel that becomes integral to the plot. With limited resources they have built a world that allows and adds depth to the film’s premise, showing a confidence that could not be improved upon with ten times its meagre finances.

Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, a lone astronaut charged with manning the lunar station responsible for harvesting helium-3 from the Moon’s surface. Alone on the base, with only the robotic GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) as company, Sam comes to believe that his contract of three years in isolation is too long for a man to reasonably cope with. Only weeks until his departure and replacement, Sam starts to suffer hallucinations that start a chain reaction of events that result in him questioning his own identity.

As with a few of my other reviews, I’m going to remain tight lipped about the remainder of the plot because it really is worth seeing with as little pre-existing knowledge as possible. Furthermore, it invites repeat viewings, rewarding viewers for careful observation. I’m not without criticism for the film and certainly don’t mean to build too grand an impression of it; as accomplished as it is, it is unlikely to push the boundaries of what cinematic science fiction is capable of, but it should be celebrated for being a small “what if” story, almost perfectly executed.

Jones and Parker’s intelligent script works from strength to strength, focusing on the humanity of Sam and his experience rather than trite action sequences. Rockwell gives what may be his best leading role to date, drawing his character in many separate directions whilst maintaining a great sense of continuity. Spacey’s influence results in both hits and misses, GERTY is given the opportunity to have impact on the story but the decision to cast such a recognisable actor in the role, and then to channel 2001’s HAL robs the AI assistant of its ability to be properly memorable. The last few moments of exposition are also slightly counter productive, allowing for a conventional sense of closure when a more open ended finale would have better suited the film’s sensibilities of uncertainty and isolation.

Moon might not be hailed in years to come as the zenith of the sci-fi genre, but its existence seems to illustrate the lack of intelligent and provocative hard science fiction that the last few years have generated. With all of its production seemingly centred around telling a surprisingly intimate story, this will certainly prove a hard act to follow.

The American Astronaut

The American Astronaut

d. Cory McAbee / 2001 / USA / 94 mins

I don’t like the auteur theory. The desire to champion an individualistic, creative approach to cinema may be noble but is undermined by a lot of contemporary debate about authorship and neglects to examine how film is ultimately a collaborative medium. I’m guilty myself of attributing a film to one man’s vision, as are most reviewers and critics who do so for the sake of simplicity. You may have noticed how my headings make reference solely to the director of the films I write about. I’m fully aware of my hypocrisy and you can take this little ramble as a taster for a feature on authorship I plan to write. It’s something that bothers me the more and more I write.

BUT. Here’s where I contradict myself… As The American Astronaut feels to be an incredibly individual work. A marriage of creative ideas and limitation of budget, resulting in a steampunk space-opera-musical-comedy fashioned from handmade costumes, well-worn sets and cobbled together props. Its scrap-like mentality pulls together myriad ideas that are easily recognisable individually, but puts them together to create something completely unpredictable. Roughnecks burst into song and dance routines, barns float through space and a cat is the first of many items to be traded for The Boy Who Actually Saw A Woman’s Breast. It’s been likened to Eraserhead, but owes just as much to the old Flash Gordon serials and the theatrics of Laurel and Hardy.

The plot follows Samuel Curtis (Cory McAbee), a hard-boiled space-trader on the lookout for a fast buck. On delivering a cat to Ceres Crossroads Bar, he takes on a mission that sees him trading items between the two sexually segregated colonies of Jupiter and Venus whilst being hounded by his nemesis, the psychotic Professor Hess (Rocco Sisto).

McAbee writes, directs and stars in this movie, performing the music with his band The Billy Nayer Show and even painting the backdrops that form the special effects and the promotional artwork that advertised its release. The entire film is shot in black and white and the plot is broken up with frequent musical interludes, featuring eyebrow raising songs such as The Girl with the Vagina Made of Glass. With a minuscule budget, the movie still manages to visually impress with extraordinary lighting that casts streaks of light amongst shadowy landscapes and careful mise-en-scene. Considering the variety of creative ability on show, McAbee soars far more than he falls. The American Astronaut is consistently engaging, its well meaning humour injects not only character but also more than a few laughs for every surprising twist that Curtis faces.

Surrealism is abound but always grounded through a twisted logic rivalled only by Hess’s own inability to kill those he has an unresolved issue with. Like Hess, the film takes pleasure from the nonsensical. There are a couple of sour notes; McAbee as a lead can’t compete with some of the terrific performances from his fellow cast and the knowing juvenile humour never develops into the story of sexual/societal development that is so frequently hinted at. The ride is exhilarating whilst it lasts and perhaps a more meaningful exploration of this segregated solar system would dampen that somehow; the only justification for the flat, abrupt ending is that it apes the serials that inspire it, leaving its audience with an appetite for more of Curtis’s adventures.

Despite its flaws, American independent cinema doesn’t get much better than this. Almost impossible to dislike as long as you’re in a good-humoured mood, McAbee manages to compete on every level with the average contemporary blockbuster for thrills and visual finesse, doing so through an obvious love for much of cinema’s diverse history and a desire to see it reach new heights.

True Grit

True Grit

d. Joel & Ethan Coen / 2010 / USA / 111 mins

The Coen brothers always have the ability to surprise with their choice of projects. Even though they are hugely individualistic directors, they frequently choose to direct genre-pieces as if working through a cinematic back catalogue of sorts. In this way True Grit owes as much to Intolerable Cruelty (their take on the romantic comedies of the 1940/50s) as it does to adaptations such as No Country for Old Men. It’s hard not to oversimplify this film as “the Coen’s take on the Western”, ticking off another arbitrary box in their own inimitable style. Perhaps it could best be compared to their version of The Ladykillers, as True Grit is a remake of a film that has already made its mark upon on our screens ( done so in Hathaway’s 1969 effort starring John Wayne).

Owing as much from Charles Portis’ 1968 novel as the 1969 film itself, the Coens reintroduce the book’s original ending and have attempted to recreate the darker yet occasionally humorous tone of the book, which is apt considering that if there’s one thing the Coen brothers excel at making, it’s black comedies.

Forget the cast listing on the posters or the fact that 14 year old Hailee Steinfeld was nominated as best actress in a supporting role at the Academy Awards, she is a leading performer and the principle character in this film. Possibly the most distinguishing characteristic of the movie is that it is told from her (Mattie Ross’)  perspective and not that of Rooster Cogburn’s (in this iteration played by Jeff Bridges). Not only does it play a twist (although only slightly) on the tradition of the curmudgeonly gun slinger, it allows the occasional southern Gothic feel of the film to shine through brighter, lending the film a dream like and more mythic quality on occasion. I enjoyed both Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon’s (as LaBoeuf) performances immensely but it was Steinfeld and the focus on Mattie that ensured I was as equally emotionally engaged as I was entertained. I have a sneaking suspicion that as fine as they were, without the shift in character’s importances, Bridges and Damon wouldn’t have been enough to elevate this above a distraction of genre in the Coen’s filmography.

As a Western the film is perfectly executed, the cinematography is excellent and the world certainly has a feeling of weight (or even grit) to it. Moments of humour and absurdity remind you that you’re watching a Coen film but otherwise the brothers have succeeded in proving they can handle the poetics of the Western myth with both style and substance.

It’s difficult to find fault with the film but also to justify its existence (if such a thing should be done). True, the Coens have adapted the original text with more loyalty than the 1969 release but like The Ladykillers, I’m not sure what purpose this remake serves. It’s certainly one of the best Westerns in recent years, and one of the most accessible and enjoyable Coen films I’ve seen recently but there doesn’t seem to be that definitive mix of style and content that films like Fargo offered. It isn’t the best contemporary Western (I still believe Unforgiven holds that title) and I doubt it will be remembered as either the Coen’s or their cast’s best film either (except for the possibility of Steinfeld who one hopes has a promising future). Does that mean it’s not a fantastic movie? Of course not. But it feels like a trail we have travelled many times before; enjoyable though the journey may be, I’m still looking forward to that sense of unpredictability that is synonymous with the name Coen and one that this feature seems to be a slight detour from.

Alice

Alice

d. Jan Švankmajer / 1988 / Czechoslovakia-Switzerland-UK-Germany / 86 mins

Švankmajer is one of the most celebrated animators in the world, and due to his interest in the themes of horror, surrealism and childhood, what could be more perfect than an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s (or rather Charles Dodgson’s) literary classic, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for his first theatrical début in 1988?

Whereas most adaptations have recreated Alice’s adventure as a fairytale, Švankmajer approaches the text from the perspective of a dream. This is not a land that has been meticulously constructed alongside the rule of three, each guardian requiring new tricks to outwit, words of caution and a moral lesson being its purpose. This world is far more threatening and yet at the same time familiar. The creatures and landscapes are reflection’s of Alice’s (and of course Švankmajer’s) deepest levels of subconscious.

A complete lack of music makes this world feel far more tactile, the scritching and scratchings of Švankmajer’s scuttling creations replicating the sounds associated with the act of play, a child sat on the ground, master of a grand toy box. And what a toy box Švankmajer has at his disposal, his visual inventiveness making sure the entire film is never short of wonder. Everything in Alice’s world has its origins in some sort of reality, nails and pins are a reoccurring theme, fabulous creatures are made from discarded socks, decks of cards and most frequently of all, taxidermy. As the orchestrator of her own wild flights of fancy, Alice (played by Kristyna Kohoutová) is truly able to reanimate the dead, inanimate objects and stuffed rabbits alike. The greatest weapon at her disposal is a pair of scissors, capable of destroying all that she has breathed life into with only mere whim, much like the Red Queen herself.

Only one other human is seen in the film. Cut out of shot at the head, her presence incomprehensible and detached for both an audience and Alice, only existing to cruelly dismiss Alice’s curiosity and precocious behaviour. Alone in her room, surrounded by these inanimate objects, Švankmajer creates a wonderful balance between Alice’s control over her fantasies and her helplessness to them. She narrates her own journey (at the beginning stating that “now you will see a film made for children – or perhaps not”) but is also constantly battling to retain control over her subconscious imaginations. In this manner, Švankmajer’s Alice is truly heroic, as vulnerable as she is malevolent and destructive, her reckless abandon and childish wonder allowing her to navigate her world safely. Many viewers may be surprised how violent this interpretation of Alice is, Švankmajer pulls no punches when showing us the realities of an exuberant imagination.

Alice may yet be the most faithful adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to make it to the silver screen, very infrequently deviating from the original’s well worn narrative. Although it lacks the mathematical and lexical purity of the original, it makes up for it by recreating the deeply psychological imagery of the book, exploring the boundaries of surrealism and insanity as it does so. It’s ironic that Tim Burton should be such a fan of Švankmajer’s considering how his recent attempt, Alice in Wonderland was subjected to great homogenisation. for those of you who feel a need to explore Wonderland on screen and feel neither of Disney’s versions have been up to scratch, Alice should be considered highly recommended viewing.