2022 | Weeks 18–20

These three weeks take us most of the way through May. When I first started writing this batch of reviews, I thought that would bring me almost up-to-date… but then I realised we were already over halfway through June, and, as I finish it, June is almost over. Time flies!

It’s partly because I haven’t been watching as many films over the past couple of months (so it doesn’t feel like I watched these as long ago as I actually did), instead spending a lot of my leisure time on finally watching Apple TV+ series For All Mankind (I’ve just finished season one, which was really good, and I hear only gets better) and replaying all the Monkey Island games (I’m on the fifth and, to date, final one now).

But I digress. Because I already posted Shang-Chi and Frances Ha separately, the remaining reviews from this period are…

  • The Monolith Monsters (1957)
  • Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
  • Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers (2022)


    The Monolith Monsters

    (1957)

    John Sherwood | 77 mins | Blu-ray | 2:1 | USA / English | PG

    The Monolith Monsters

    I watched this film in Eureka’s box set of ’50s B-movies, Three Monster Tales of Sci-Fi Terror. As you can tell from its inclusion there — and, indeed, its title — this is one of a wave of “monster movies” from that era. Except it isn’t, really. In fact, it’s a sci-fi disaster movie jerry-rigged into what I guess was the prevailing B-movie trend of the day: the eponymous ‘Monolith Monsters’ aren’t monsters at all, but an alien rock that expands relentlessly.

    Whatever you want to call it, the film offers a mix of B-movie daftness and real-sounding science that’s quite appealing. For example: our heroes discover this crazy, hitherto unknown multiplying rock; then realise they have maybe two days to stop it before it destroys their town; and rather than, say, alert the government, or call in expert help, they decide to… figure it out for themselves. But it does make you wonder: is this poor B-movie logic, or just 1950s Americanness? I love the thought that some crazy extraterrestrial incident may have occurred in some backwater town in the middle of nowhere, and no one ever knew about it because the locals just dealt with it themselves. “Oh yeah, aliens invaded back in ’57, but we didn’t see the need to bother nobody else with it, just shut ’em down ourselves.”

    Yet for all that silliness, there’s some scientific logic in play too. Whether it’s real science or “close enough”, I don’t know (let’s be honest, it’s probably the latter), but they manage to make it sound convincing. It helps contribute to an exciting climax, in which a plan to stop the monoliths can only be executed at the last moment before the town is overrun. Rocks don’t normally move fast enough to create race-against-time tension, but hey, these are alien rocks.

    The more I reflect on The Monolith Monsters, the more I like it. For a pulpy B-movie, it has an appealing seriousness. Sure, there’s some schlockiness that I wager is inevitable thanks to its era and budget range, but it feels like it’s trying to be more than trashy entertainment, aiming instead to be a more grounded, almost realistic sci-fi thriller. In reaching for that end it becomes a little slow going at times, but overall it’s quite fun.

    3 out of 5

    The Monolith Monsters is the 31st film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    Hannah and Her Sisters

    (1986)

    Woody Allen | 107 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

    Hannah and Her Sisters

    Hannah and Her Sisters is one of writer-director Woody Allen’s more popular and successful films. For example, it was nominated for seven Oscars, winning three; and nowadays, it’s his third highest-rated film on Letterboxd, above the likes of Manhattan and later-career highlight Midnight in Paris. All of which I mention because, personally, it’s the kind of film I’d describe as “something and nothing”, because I liked it well enough, but also didn’t really get what it was going for overall.

    It’s the story of… well, Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters. They’re three middle-aged women who all live in New York City (of course) and, over the course of a couple of years, we follow their lives and relationships, with a focus on the latter. Actually, if anything, I might argue the biggest focus is on Elliot, played to Oscar-winning effect by Michael Caine, who is married to Hannah but finds himself pining for her sister, Lee (Barbara Hershey).

    I say “might argue” because Hannah and Her Sisters is one of those films that feels like a collection of subplots. All of the storylines play out, then they stop, with happy endings almost across the board, and that’s your film. I expect it’s based around a theme of some kind, but all I really got it from it was the old “the grass is always greener” adage. Apparently Allen particularly wanted to make something about the relationship between sisters, because he thought that was more complex than between brothers. Fair enough, but I’m not sure it really comes across in the finished film. There are only about two or three scenes in which the sisters actually interact. They’re mostly off on their own subplots; and while those subplots do effect each other, I don’t think they truly speak to the sisters’ relationships; not in any revelatory depth, anyway.

    I’ve enjoyed quite a few of Allen’s films that I’ve seen, but Hannah and Her Sisters won’t be cracking my personal favourites of his work. It was fine to watch — not exceptionally funny or dramatic or insightful or original, but fine — and then it ends, and we go on with our lives. It’s not bad, but it also wasn’t anything much. Not to me, anyway.

    3 out of 5

    Hannah and Her Sisters is the 32nd film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022. It was viewed as part of “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?” 2022.


    Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers

    (2022)

    Akiva Schaffer | 97 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | NR* / PG

    Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers

    On the surface, there’s nothing here for me — a live-action remake/reboot of a late-’80s/early-’90s cartoon that I don’t remember ever watching — but something persuaded me to watch the trailer, and that convinced me to watch the film the moment I could. If you’ve missed said trailer, or any of the attendant hype or reviews, what sold me is that this isn’t just an update of a children’s cartoon with modern tech, but a Who Framed Roger Rabbit-style riff on cartoon celebrity.

    Like Roger Rabbit, it’s set in a version of our world where cartoons are ‘real’ and living alongside us, and they act in the TV shows and movies we know them from. Decades on from the Rescue Rangers TV show, Chip (voiced by John Mulaney) and Dale (Andy Samberg) no longer get along, but when an old friend goes missing, they’re thrust into investigating his disappearance together.

    Frankly, the plot and character arcs feel like stuff you’ve seen before — probably because we have. Although Roger Rabbit is the obvious reference, the film’s storyline feels very similar to the Melissa McCarthy-starring Muppet version of the concept from a couple of years ago, The Happytime Murders. It works better here, though, because it’s not leaning on crudeness as a comedic crutch. If you didn’t see that film, it might be to Chip ’n Dale’s advantage in terms of feeling fresh.

    Instead, the best bit of the film is that it’s full to bursting with fun nods and references to pretty much every facet of (Western) animation. These are often tucked away in the background or on the periphery for the eagle-eyed to enjoy, with the film rarely (if ever) stopping to show them off. To its credit, that means the abundant Easter eggs aren’t allowed to overshadow the story, and so the film avoids using them in the same way Happytime Murders used its vulgarity. It’s just a shame that said story is a little well-worn.

    Ultimately, Chip ’n Dale gave me the same kind of entertainment as its trailer, but for 95 minutes. Which, in a way, is fair enough — no one can accuse the trailer of being misrepresentative. On the other hand, it would be nice if there’d been something more to substantive to discover. It’s no contender for Roger Rabbit’s throne, but nor is it another Happytime mess. My score rounds up, because I did have fun.

    4 out of 5

    Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers is the 33rd film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.

    * There was no certificate listed on the BBFC website at time of review. As you may or may not know, there’s actually no legal requirement for streamers to have their content certified, and so it seems Disney haven’t bothered. For what it’s worth, Disney+ lists the film as “9+”, which I guess equates to PG. ^


  • 2022 | Weeks 16–17

    Ooh, it was gonna be a classy one this week, with two recent Oscar winners — of Best Picture and Best Animated Feature, no less — and a highly-acclaimed Kurosawa classic — the 12th greatest film ever made, according to Letterboxd users. But then two of those reviews got so long I thought they better belonged in their own posts, and so we’re just left with two very different coming-of-age movies…

  • CODA (2021)
  • Cruella (2021)


    CODA

    (2021)

    Siân Heder | 112 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA, France & Canada / English & American Sign Language | 12 / PG-13

    CODA

    When CODA became the Best Picture victor at this year’s Oscars, it wasn’t exactly unforeseen, but it certainly wasn’t what anyone had expected early on in the awards race. Indeed, the very reason it had became some people’s prediction hinged on the way the Best Picture votes are counted: a preferential ballot, which means that having a lot of second- and third-place votes is arguably even more important than first-place ones. The idea behind the system is to create a consensus around the winner, rather than the award going to the film with the largest minority of voters backing it. Certainly, pretty much everyone can agree that CODA is a nice film — but probably too “nice” to have won Best Picture, unfortunately.

    It’s not the kind of movie many will come away from feeling wowed. It’s a solid drama about a teenager coping with fairly typical teenage stuff, with the added twist that the rest of her family are deaf but she isn’t. Chalk up a mark in the ‘positives’ column for representation, then, in this case of the deaf community. It’s not one token character, either, but several major characters, who the film treats as real human beings who happen to be deaf, rather than as The Deaf Character. One reason it succeeds at this is because they’re not all perfect people just because they have a disability. Another is that the film doesn’t pretend their deafness isn’t a barrier — there are multiple obstacles it creates when engaging with the rest of their community. But CODA is a nice movie, remember, so everything turns out alright in the end; and it does so with enough effectively-managed (some might say “manipulated”) emotion that you may find yourself with a tear in your eye; or perhaps even bawling with tears flowing down your cheeks, depending on your susceptibility to such things.

    So, the best film of 2021? Almost certainly not. The one everyone is likely to agree they all liked? Most probably.

    4 out of 5


    Cruella

    (2021)

    Craig Gillespie | 134 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    CODA

    Disney’s wave of live-action remakes seem to fall into one of two camps: straightforward remakes of the original Animated Classics, sometimes to the level of feeling like shot-for-shot do-overs; or extensions and reimaginings that seek to fill in around the edges of the original work. Perhaps because they already did a live-action version of 101 Dalmatians back in 1996, Cruella takes the latter approach. It’s a prequel, naturally, showing how an ordinary(-ish) little girl grows up to be a wanton dog murderer.

    Except (non-specific pseudo-spoilers incoming!) not really, because the film ends in such a way it’s very hard to imagine this Cruella becoming the deranged villain of the original text. Indeed, I’ve seen some commenters refer to this as a reboot rather than a true prequel, which seems like a fair enough angle. I mean, this is a Cruella de Vil who has a dog for a best mate. Even with the “dalmatians killed my mother” backstory (which I think the film knows is a gag. Considering that such a plot point came up as a joke on social media as soon as the project was announced, you’d hope the filmmakers were aware how daft the audience would find it), it’s hard to imagine how this version of the character could go from how we see her here to being prepared to roundup and kill hundreds of animals.

    Setting aside the need for connectivity and looking to the film in its own right, I would describe it as delightfully stylised. It’s got a particular tone and style that will turn off some viewers (and, certainly, some critics), but — even if you don’t personally enjoy it — I think it’s something we should celebrate. We sometimes talk about big-budget movies being homogenised; focus-grouped to the point of blandness and similarity. Cruella isn’t that, instead hitting notes that are suitably camp and gloriously unhinged. It certainly isn’t the most radical variation in tone ever — it merits comparison with early Tim Burton, without ever being as genuinely out-there as his best work — but it’s more so than the average. It’s so much madder than it needed to be, and that’s why it’s fun and not the usual Disney live-action cookie-cutter money-spinner.

    To my mind, its only sins are an over-reliance on obvious needle drops and cheap green screen. The latter has been brought up online as a damning example of how poorly crafted big-budget movies are these days. They’re not wrong about the examples used: two key scenes that take place at a cliffside have clearly been shot day-for-night in a studio and lit very flatly. The nighttime (i.e. ultra-dark) colour grade helps to hide some of the sin by covering it in darkness, but whack up the brightness and it’s all too apparent how awful it looks. But I would counter that these are fairly isolated examples. Cruella is hardly a go-to example of the wonders of cinematography (and there are other weak shots, too), but most of the film looks pretty good.

    4 out of 5


  • Encanto (2021)

    Jared Bush & Byron Howard | 102 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Spanish | PG / PG

    Encanto

    The 60th film in Disney’s animated canon was, despite that status, sent straight to streaming in the midst of the pandemic. Possibly because of that, it seemed to catch on quite quickly as their latest major success. Case in point: one of the songs — We Don’t Talk About Bruno — ended up having greater chart success than Frozen’s notorious Let It Go.

    (I’ve got to take the time to say that I find this quite baffling. I don’t love Let It Go (I’m a 36-year-old man, not a six-year-old girl in 2013), but it’s clearly a catchy tune with lyrics that transcend its place in the film — you can understand how it became such a huge hit. But for the life of me I can’t work out why We Don’t Talk About Bruno has surpassed its success. It’s a likeable song that plays well in the movie — and I think hearing it in place is important, because the first time I heard it was on the radio and I couldn’t even work out what they were singing about. So, there’s nothing going on lyrically that makes it applicable in any other context, and I don’t think the underlying tune is so earwormy as to warrant play merely for that reason. Or maybe it is if you’re the right age, because clearly something made it a massive hit.)

    Anyway, the film itself is about a family, the Madrigals, who live in a magical house in an isolated part of Colombia and all have magical powers — except Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), for reasons no one understands. But when the family begin to lose their abilities, finding out what’s going on and fixing it falls to Mirabel. Because of course it does.

    Someone's gotta do the donkey work

    Encanto doesn’t look like your typical Disney Princess movie, but it’s not functionally different to them. The Madrigal family’s powers mean they effectively rule over their small town, albeit in a benevolent way, which makes Mirabel a de facto Princess; and she has the usual Disney Princess hangups about feeling under-appreciated and needing to find her self-worth. But hey, at least she doesn’t also need to find a husband! Nonetheless, it’s welcome that the film is less traditional is its setting — present-day South America, rather than the typical fairytale land of historical Europe — and the pace is also up-to-date. In fact, it’s quite frantic. Like, okay, calm down a bit; take your time occasionally; let stuff stay on screen long enough for us to appreciate how good it looks. And the animation does look great, with detailed designs, fluid movement and dynamic camerawork, and an incredibly colourful palette, especially when fired up by HDR/WCG.

    The songs are by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, unmistakably so. It’s something about the phrasing, the rhythm, the rhyme patterns… I’m no musicologist so I can’t adequately explain it, but they’re distinctively his work. But that’s what you want when you hire someone, right — their own voice. If you don’t like this style from his other work, chances are the music here won’t appeal to you either. If you do like it, there’s much to enjoy, from the opening number, The Family Madrigal, which introduces us to the large cast of characters at whipcrack pace, to my personal favourite, Surface Pressure, about one family member’s struggle with all the weight on her shoulders. And yet they put Dos Oruguitas up for the Original Song Oscar, apparently trying to emulate the success of Coco’s Remember Me. Oops. (Obviously they should’ve gone with breakout hit Bruno, but I reckon either of the other songs I’ve mentioned would’ve stood a better chance.)

    One of Encanto’s directors is Byron Howard, whose previous work for Disney has encompassed Bolt, Tangled, and Zootropolis — three films I’d class as among the very best of Disney’s current purple patch. It’s a helluva record. Happily, Encanto continues it. I might rank it a little behind the other three when all is totted up, but being next in line to such strong movies is nothing to be ashamed of.

    4 out of 5

    Encanto is the 28th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.

    Flight of the Navigator (1986)

    Randal Kleiser | 90 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | U / PG

    Flight of the Navigator

    I’ve written before (several times, I think) about how a lot of my childhood movie viewing involved catching up on the family-friendly blockbuster hits of the ’80s. But some stuff slipped through the net — or maybe didn’t slip through, but so totally failed to lodge itself in my memory that I don’t remember I ever saw it. We’ll never know which is the case. Either way, Flight of the Navigator is the latest title to fit that bill. It’s not bad, but I might’ve liked it more if I’d seen it as a kid.

    The film is split more or less into two halves. It begins in 1978, when 12-year-old David (Joey Cramer) goes into the woods near his Florida, knocks himself out, and returns home later that evening only to find it’s now 1986. Obviously, doctors can’t explain how he hasn’t aged a day in the eight years he’s been missing. Meanwhile, NASA encounter a spaceship near those woods. Could the two be connected? Maybe it’d be a more interesting film if they weren’t…

    Anyway, both end up at a NASA research facility, and with the ship calling out to David, he manages to sneak out with the help of an intern (an early screen appearance by a young Sarah Jessica Parker, surprisingly cute and likeable) and flies off in the ship (voiced by Paul Reubens, credited as “Paul Mall” to obscure his involvement, for whatever reason). Their adventures make up about the second half of the film. Not that they’re really “adventures” — it’s mostly David hanging out with the ship, doing some silly stuff while failing to navigate home. There are some nice moments here, but some cringey ones too.

    Davey phone home

    The standout aspect is the design of the ship, both inside and out, which is well-realised onscreen. Obviously these days it would be achieved with swishy CGI, but the film’s mix of models, practical sets, and early digital effects is done well for its time. Things like the highly-reflective inside of the ship are all the more impressive knowing they couldn’t just shoot whatever they wanted then digitally remove the crew. And the fact that they couldn’t just magic up anything they wanted for the exterior shots, either, makes the effects more restrained and pointed in how and when they’re deployed, which overall is to the story’s benefit.

    Sadly, the same can’t be said of Alan Silvestri’s score, which is badly dated from the opening cue onwards, never recovering. However, you could do a great “how music changes tone” demo with some parts. For example, when David escapes NASA in the ship, it’s shot with a lot of drama — thick chains breaking, lights crashing down, people running in fear — but Silvestri scores it with an E.T.-esque “isn’t this magical” type of cue. If you were to replace it with a dramatic, exciting, or even scary track, it would certainly work, but with an entirely different feel. It’s possibly deliberate that the music and visuals here sit so at odds, the contrast being exactly what they were going for; though, considering the rest of the film is formally straightforward, I can’t say I’m convinced.

    Altogether, I think Flight of the Navigator may have been entertaining for preteens in the ’80s and ’90s, but surely anyone older could only love it because of nostalgia from watching it at that age; and it’s probably a bit slow-paced for today’s youth. It looks like they’re planning a remake (it’s been in the works since 2009, but last September was announced for Disney+), and, honestly, for once maybe that’s a good idea: there’s potential in this concept that’s unrealised by this version. Whether a direct-to-streaming movie will handle it better, who knows, but it’s worth a shot.

    3 out of 5

    Flight of the Navigator is the 5th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022. It was viewed as part of “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?” 2022.

    The 100-Week Roundup XXVIII

    The 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing.

    This week’s selection includes a few more films from April 2019

  • Early Man (2018)
  • Amour (2012)
  • Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)


    Early Man
    (2018)

    2019 #56
    Nick Park | 89 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK, France & USA / English | PG / PG

    Early Man

    Only the third feature film directed by Wallace & Gromit creator Nick Park, Early Man is about a prehistoric tribe who invented football (aka soccer) and must defend their home from a more advanced civilisation by playing a winner-takes-all footie match.

    So, despite the Stone/Bronze Age setting, this is a sports movie — and with that in mind, the plot is as rote as they come. And, if you hadn’t guessed yet, the period setting is less historically accurate than Game of Thrones (at least Thrones is inspired by things that really happened). Plus, there are plenty of bizarre choices — like, if the story’s set in Britain, why is Tom Hiddleston doing a weird Generic European accent? But, for all that, this is an Aardman production, and so there’s tonnes of pleasure to be found in incidental details; the asides and background jokes and grace notes that frequently raise a full-blown laugh, or at the very least a warm smile.

    There’s also something to be said for the film being quite delightfully Brit-centric. When so many productions aim to be bland enough to appeal to a global audience, Park and co haven’t shied away from including an array of gags that are like to only be caught by Brits and/or footie fans. For example, there’s a reveal of the backstory of the tribe and their relationship to the sport that’s an obvious riff on England’s relationship to international football, and I don’t know how apparent that would be to overseas viewers; or characters with names like Goona and Asbo. Not that such things should turn off the uninitiated, however. For pun lovers alone there’s plenty of material, not to mention general quirkiness. I could try to explain what goes on with the duck, but it’s better I leave it for you to discover.

    Early Man isn’t Aardman’s strongest production, but their productions have a base-level charm that’s high enough to keep it ticking over, with the occasional inspired flourish to boot.

    3 out of 5

    Amour
    (2012)

    2019 #59
    Michael Haneke | 127 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | Austria, France & Germany / French & English | 12 / PG-13

    Amour

    German director Michaell Haneke may be much acclaimed by the arthouse crowd, but I’m not a huge fan of his previous works that I’ve seen (1997’s Funny Games and 2005’s Hidden — it seems I gave the latter four stars, which is not how I remember it). Palme d’Or, Oscar, and BAFTA winner Amour is the exception, however, even while some of its more arty asides hold it back somewhat.

    It’s the story of an ageing couple, Georges and Anne. When Anne has a stroke, Georges is left caring for her as her health continues to decline. In its depiction of this relationship — the strains placed on it and how it survives them — Amour is a truthful, affecting, and deeply moving character drama. Most of the major events (diagnoses, tests, a second stroke) happen off screen, with the film more concerned with day-to-day realities, but that’s part of where its power lies. It’s not so much about the big drama, more the reality of coping.

    But in between this powerful material, there’s random art house shenanigans, like a pigeon wandering into the apartment before Georges shoos it out, or a montage of impressionist paintings. Why do we see these things? I’ve not the foggiest. I guess Haneke had a purpose in mind, but goodness knows what it was — although, as he said in one interview, “consider the pigeon just a pigeon. You can interpret it any way you want. I wouldn’t describe it as a symbol. I have problems with symbols, because they always mean something specific. I don’t know what the pigeon means,” so maybe not. When combined with an overall slow pace, this resulted in the film becoming a bit of a slog for me, which was a real shame. The bits that are good — that are insightful and impactful and emotional — are so good, but, for me, those longueurs get in the way.

    4 out of 5

    Ralph Breaks the Internet
    (2018)

    2019 #62
    Rich Moore & Phil Johnston | 112 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Ralph Breaks the Internet

    The sequel to Wreck-It Ralph is indeed called Ralph Breaks the Internet, when Ralph Wrecks the Internet was right there. Although, if they wanted to be truly accurate, a better titled would’ve been Corporate Synergy: The Movie.

    The plot sees Ralph and his chum Vanellope heading out into the internet to fix the arcade game they live in. That includes an extended sequence set ‘inside’ the Oh My Disney website — originally the Disney Infinity game, but that got cancelled during production so had to be changed. I think that rather indicates the mindset and motives behind this movie: $ advertising $ . Most famously, it includes a sequence where Vanellope encounters the Disney princesses. It’s quite a funny sequence, somewhat undermined by the “no one can understand Merida (because she speaks Scottish)” gag. Imagine if they’d tried that with Tiana or Pocahontas or Moana and their accent/dialect…

    When it’s not being a big advert for its production company, Ralph Breaks the Internet seems to think it’s a clever satire of the online world. It does references and stuff, but doesn’t develop them enough to be genuine commentary — for example, Ralph finds ‘the comment section’ and it’s depressing, and then someone tells him “the first rule of the internet is never read the comments”, and… that’s it. It’s stating a widely-accepted truism as if it’s some kind of revelation or point unto itself. This extends right to the climax, which sees our heroes fighting with a giant virus born of toxic masculinity, an idea that’s somewhere between timely and fucking ridiculous (how does toxic masculinity inherently create a computer virus?)

    Other problems include a pile of plot holes and inconsistencies (such as when Vanellope does or doesn’t use her glitching ability, among others); that it’s a structural mess (the plot bounces from place to place just so it can even get started, then major motivating goals are dismissed and moved on from), which leads to it being needlessly long (surely kids’ animations are best around the 90-minute mark). Also, frankly, I don’t particularly like the characters or the style of humour they create. That’s only worsened when you shoehorn in blatant advertising, half-witted satire, and muddled messages.

    The best Disney canon movies are timeless. Heck, some of the worst ones are, too. But Ralph 2 is so about the ‘right now’ of when it was made, it’s probably already dated today, just a couple of years later, never mind how it’ll hold up in a couple of decades.

    2 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XXVI

    The 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing.

    This week’s selection, the final two films from March 2019, includes a pair of awards-worthy short animations — the first won an Oscar, the second was nominated for one. I was going to include more films in this week’s roundup (effectively bundle two weeks into one), but it felt like a disservice to this pair.

  • Paperman (2012)
  • Waltz with Bashir (2008)


    Paperman
    (2012)

    2019 #48a
    John Kahrs | 7 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 1.85:1 | USA / silent | U / G

    Paperman

    This Disney short was originally released alongside Wreck-It Ralph (and can now be found on that film’s Blu-ray; as well as on Disney+, I presume) and, as I recall, attracted a lot of praise at the time, primarily for its visual style. That was an innovation in creating 2D-looking animation via a 3D system — so it seems a bit daft that I watched it in 3D. I have to wonder if the added visual dimension highlights the underlying 3D animation, because it’s quite obviously been created in 3D with a 2D style over the top.

    That said, it look gorgeous, however you cut it. There’s an inherent beauty in how it’s executed, while the chosen black-and-white style emphasises the apparent setting (’40s New York) and also gives it a timeless quality. The 2D/3D combination works well, giving it the fluidity and dynamism of CG animation, but with a certain roughness — a hand-made-ness — that comes from 2D cel animation. Of course, that’s artificial, injected via design choices (like scruffy outlines on the characters), but it feels authentic.

    As for the actual story, it’s a charming little romantic number involving paper aeroplanes… until those sheets of folded paper become sentient and omniscient, at which point it lost me with its silliness. But as an exercise in style: lovely.

    4 out of 5

    Waltz with Bashir
    (2008)

    aka Vals Im Bashir

    2019 #49
    Ari Folman | 87 mins | TV | 16:9 | Israel, France, Germany, USA, Finland, Switzerland, Belgium & Australia / Hebrew, Arabic, German & English | 18 / R

    Waltz with Bashir

    One night at a bar, an old friend tells director Ari Folman about a recurring nightmare in which he is chased by vicious dogs. They conclude that there’s a connection to their Israeli Army service in the first Lebanon War of 1982. Ari can’t remember that period of his life, so he meets and interviews old friends and veterans, hoping to discover the truth about that time and reconstruct his own memories of the conflict. — adapted from IMDb

    This search for the truth has led Waltz with Bashir to be labelled an “animated documentary”, which sounds like an odd idea, almost oxymoronic — you can tell a true story with animation, of course, but can you document something? Well, yes. Rather than talking heads, what animation allows is the visualisation of the narrators’ memories and dreams alike, and means we can flow between them, too. On a practical level, it allows the film to stage scenes that would be impossible in live-action without a huge budget, meaning it doesn’t have to compromise on the stories it tells. More thematically, having a shared style between ‘reality’ and ‘dream’, plus the distancing effect of it being drawn, not ‘real’ — of being unequivocally created, not just filmed — helps to underscore larger points about the reliability (or otherwise) of memory. The dreams are connected to the memories; are the memories a kind of dream?

    Given the time period being remembered, of course the film is about war and how that affects the mind of its participants, but it’s also memory in general, I think. You’d think such extreme, unique experiences would be unforgettable, and yet the workings of the mind and memory aren’t that straightforward. One strand I found particularly fascinating was the way people are haunted by the suffering of animals in the conflict, perhaps more so than by the human-related atrocities they saw. Is this just a coincidence of the people Folman spoken to? Is it a particular interest of Folman himself? Or is it a genuine phenomenon? I don’t know the answer, but (outside of, say, War Horse) I don’t remember it being such a clear thread in a war-related film or documentary before.

    I’ve seen people say they couldn’t connect with Waltz with Bashir because they didn’t know the history of the period well enough. Conversely, I felt that was part of why the film was so effective: not really knowing what was going on or what was being referred to, I was discovering it as the character did. Some parts along the way could perhaps have used further clarity or explanation for those of us entirely unfamiliar with the conflict, but there’s enough information disclosed to be going on with. I found the film’s ending to be powerful beyond words, and part of what makes it so shocking and impactful is not knowing about it, of learning about it for the first time with the characters.

    5 out of 5

  • The Three Caballeros (1944)

    2020 #61
    Norman Ferguson | 72 mins | download (HD) | 4:3 | USA / English | U / G

    The Three Caballeros

    At one point Disney had a reputation for churning out rubbish direct-to-video sequels to their animated classics, a practice they put a stop to because, well, they were getting a reputation for churning out rubbish direct-to-video sequels to their animated classics. But there have also been a small selection of films in the Disney Canon that were granted sequels also within the canon. I have no insight into why this was the case, but I’d love to know the thinking because some of them are random. Like, okay, Frozen was a mega-hit, so makes sense you’d make the sequel ‘official’. Winnie the Pooh? Sure, Pooh is awesome (and also a reliable moneyspinner). Fantasia? Well, it was a passion project, and I guess its inherently artistic nature seems a reasonable way to mark the millennium. Wreck-It Ralph? Um… The Rescuers? Er… Saludos Amigos? Wait, really?

    Yep, The Three Caballeros is, technically, the first sequel in the Disney Canon, and that’s only really surprising when considered without context. It’s from the period when Disney were bundling together shorter films to make package features, of which there are half-a-dozen spanning the gap between Bambi (Canon #5) and Cinderella (Canon #12). The first of those was Saludos Amigos, which was basically a propaganda film to showcase South America with the aim of improving relations between the continents. Donald Duck starred in two of that film’s segments, and it introduced José Carioca, a Brazilian parrot character. The Three Caballeros is a sequel in that it also presents a series of shorts about lands south of the US, strung together via a linking device of Donald Duck opening birthday presents from his Latin American friends. José eventually pops up, and the titular trio is rounded out with the introduction of Panchito Pistoles, a Mexican rooster.

    The three sex pests

    For all the similarities, I thought The Three Caballeros was considerably more enjoyable than its predecessor. Its depiction of South America is perhaps a little more twee, leaning on culture and tradition rather than the modern cityscapes that were so important to the impact of the first film, but that doesn’t grate too much because it’s not striving so hard to be educational. Because of that, it’s also able to be more straightforwardly entertaining. That said, it very much has the feel of a “kids’ cartoon”, rather than the artistry that’s to be found in Disney’s best efforts. Although Donald Duck comes across as a bit of a sex pest at times, which I guess is just changing attitudes. Conversely, the sequences that blend live-action and animation hold up incredibly well, although that might be because Disney’s use of DNR is so heavy-handed that the live-action practically looks the same as the animation. And the finale, where it suddenly explodes into a psychedelic nightmare, feels like someone didn’t know how to end the film and so had a mental breakdown all over the screen.

    While I’d chalk up The Three Caballeros as a superior movie to its immediate predecessor, it undoubtedly remains a minor entry in the Disney canon. That said, apparently they updated it into a spinoff series a year or two ago (which I only know about because I happened to spot it on Disney+ the other day), so it obviously endures somewhat.

    3 out of 5

    Hamilton (2020)

    2020 #157
    Thomas Kail | 160 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Hamilton on Disney+

    Hamilton, the original musical, is one of the great works of art of the 21st century so far, and now we all get a chance to be in the room where it happened (provided you’re prepared to pony up some dough to Disney+) thanks to the makers having had the foresight to film a full production with the original Broadway cast back in 2016 (and then flogging that recording to Disney for $75 million).

    The show is a genuine phenomenon, but if you’ve let it pass you by, allow me to explain the basics. This is the life story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the USA; an immigrant who fought in the War of Independence, became the first Secretary of the Treasury, and in between and around all that most assuredly lived a life — there’s friendship and rivalry; romance and infidelity; genuine triumph and heartbreaking tragedy. Here that story is told via music, written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also portrays the title role), a fusion of hip-hop, R&B, and more traditional Broadway stylings, performed by a cast mostly made up of people of colour. It’s a tale of outsiders and immigrants and forward-thinkers who battled for the right to be recognised and respected — it’s a history lesson, but oh yeah, it’s timely.

    It premiered back in 2015, so over the past five years the praises of the original show and its successful soundtrack album (the primary medium through which most people have been able to experience the work, given the scarcity and cost of tickets) have been thoroughly sung. To briefly offer my perspective, I came to it ‘late’ — sure, I heard about it (initially thanks to references to its ticket prices), but I overlooked it as just another bit of mass-popular culture that likely didn’t have any weight or staying power. My mistake. Long story short, I finally listened to it in full in 2019 and was blown away.

    Aaron Burr, sir

    Adjectives to describe its quality are endless. It’s densely and intelligently written, packed with historical information at every turn, abundant with sly references to other media. Its structure is sublime, laced with callbacks and nods forward from the very opening number; musical motifs repeat, as do lines and ideas, some cropping up before their real significance has been reached, like flash-forwards; elements of plot and character are echoed and mirrored. Many of these are observable first time through; others only reveal themselves with repeat visits. The characters are sharply and smartly drawn, revealing layers and nuances and different perspectives as the piece goes on — it may ostensibly be about Alexander Hamilton, but multiple other characters are at least as richly painted, if not more so. It engrosses like a thriller and packs the serious emotional punch of a finely-wrought drama, but it’s also very funny at times, with numbers as toe-tappingly addictive as a great pop song. It’s hard to think of a more complete all-round experience.

    Well, complete but for visuals if (like me) you’d never seen it performed, only listened to the soundtrack. And, you know, the soundtrack’s not a bad way to experience it — it doesn’t feel notably incomplete. Normally when you listen to a musical’s album, you just get some nice songs from the production. With Hamilton, you get (very nearly almost) the entire soundtrack, and therefore the entire story — you can follow it and not feel like you’ve missed anything. (I do wonder if that’s part of why it’s been such a success.) The lyrics and music conjure up their own imagery in your mind — certainly for me, ever since I first listened to it I’ve pictured whole chunks of it as I’d realise them in a movie version. I’m sure they’ll do a ‘proper’ film of it someday (you really think they’re going to leave all that money on the table?), but I think it’s for the best that’s not the first way I’m seeing it, because I worry it won’t live up to what I’ve concocted in my version.

    As I mentioned at the start, this isn’t a film reimagining like a normal movie musical, but rather a filmed record of the original production. It was shot over three days back in June 2016 (shortly before the original cast moved on), during a mix of live performances and in an audience-less auditorium for the sake of closeups, crane shots, etc. That’s one of the things that elevates this particular film above other recorded-theatre productions I’ve been watching recently (like One Man Two Guvnors, Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, or the RSC’s Macbeth): whereas they have clearly been filmed live during a single performance, with all the restrictions that implies (limited camera angles; making editing choices in real-time), Hamilton has some extra remove, which has allowed director Thomas Kail to be a bit more creative.

    Looking for a film at work, work

    The camerawork endeavours to add something no theatre performance could, allowing us to see details that would be missed from even the best seats in the house. Closeups let us appreciate the full spit-flecked contempt from Jonathan Groff’s George III in You’ll Be Back; the restrained emotional sacrifice injected into Angelica by Renée Elise Goldsberry during Satisfied; Eliza’s heartbroken defiance from Phillipa Soo in Burn; or the rare occasions Leslie Odom Jr. allows Aaron Burr’s true emotions to break through in the likes of Wait For It and The World Was Wide Enough. That’s not to mention the countless other moments and performers that benefit from us being able to see how much they’re giving their performances; all the subtleties they’re adding.

    At other times the camera angles show off the choreography, for example with punch-ins to highlight specific elements during stage-wide ensemble showpieces, like the rewind at the start of Satisfied, or a bird’s eye view as paper flutters in the air during The Reynolds Pamphlet. Still other scenes are reframed for our convenience, such as an exchange between Burr and Hamilton during Non-Stop that takes place upstage off to one side, but is now centred through medium shots and closeups. If all that sounds like it might serve to undermine the staging, it most certainly does not. When called for, Kail and editor Jonah Moran frequently fall back on wide angles to ensure we see the scope of what’s occurring. Only once or twice during the whole two-and-a-half hours do you feel maybe they chose a less-than-ideal angle or over-edited a sequence.

    Having said that listening to the soundtrack feels like a complete experience, watching it certainly shows what you were missing. There’s so much more to add, from little nuances of performance, to visual-only gags and callbacks, to impressive dance and staging — and if we’re already comparing this to the presumed ‘proper film’ version that will exist someday, I also presume some of that staging will be lost in the visual translation. But while there’s an undoubted “designed for the stage” aspect to the blocking or the way some things are realised, it still works on film.

    Not throwing away their shot

    You can’t ignore that this is a film of a Broadway production — even if you wanted to, an opening subtitle reminds us it’s June 2016 in the Richard Rodgers Theatre, and the audience is frequently to be heard clapping, cheering, and laughing (mixed onto the rear speakers if you’re watching in surround sound, as you’d expect, along with a few other moments and effects that add to the experience if you can benefit from such a setup). But it’s so well staged and filmed that you can buy this as the intended experience. With those other filmed-theatre productions I mentioned, you’re often aware that what you’re watching has primarily been staged for those in the room, and that you getting to observe it from a few fixed camera positions is a nice bonus if you couldn’t be there. With Hamilton, it feels like nothing is missed; not only that, but that this is the way the story was meant to be told, complete with elements of theatrical artifice, like the stripped-back staging and actors playing multiple roles (which roles are shared by the same actors is not without significance). Whenever and whatever they do for that theoretical ‘proper film’, I feel like it won’t negate this version, not just as a record of the original show, but as a film in its own right.

    That’s perhaps the most striking aspect of this particular version: it doesn’t feel like a mere stopgap until they film it ‘properly’, nor a “that’ll do” stand-in for a real theatrical performance, but instead like a legitimate experience in its own right. Hamilton is a masterpiece, and getting to see it performed by the original cast in its original staging via a film so carefully and lovingly crafted is an absolute thrill.

    5 out of 5

    Hamilton is available on Disney+ now. It placed 3rd on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2020.

    The Lion King (2019)

    2019 #103
    Jon Favreau | 118 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    The Lion King

    The Lion King might be the best Disney film. It’s that or Beauty and the Beast. (I’m sure many classicists would plump for something older, but sorry, I’m a ’90s kid.) (Also, by “Disney film” I mean their animated output. Obviously Disney release tonnes of other stuff, and have for a long time, but by “Disney film” we really mean the animations, don’t we? Not “any film that happens to be released by Disney”. I do, anyway. Especially in this context.)

    Sorry, let me start again: The Lion King might be the best Disney film. So when they started down this road of live-action remakes of their beloved classics, it was inevitable their attention would turn to it. Of course, you can’t really do a live-action version of a film whose characters are all lions and hyenas and warthogs and stuff — not without going down the puppetry/costumes route of the stage version, anyhow, which apparently is gangbusters in the flesh (I’ve never seen it; that’s changing in August, Coronavirus permitting) but I can’t envisage working for the mass moviegoing audience. So instead they did the obvious thing and went for photo-real CGI. Heck, most “live-action” blockbusters nowadays are 50%+ CGI anyway, especially Disney ones (they didn’t even design the Avengers’ costumes for Endgame until post-production, ffs). But, at the end of the day, “photo-real CGI” is just another kind of animation. So what Disney have done is remake the animated Lion King in the totally different form of… animation.

    Yeah, you probably knew all that already, and maybe had similar rants in your own mind / reviews / Twitter feeds / in Wendy’s / shouted at tea, Sue (delete as culturally appropriate). But it remains a relevant perspective on this film, because it indicates the essential question one keeps coming back to when watching it:

    Why does this exist?

    The cub who would be king

    Obviously, the simple and true answer is “to make money”. These Disney live-action remakes have been financial successes, otherwise they wouldn’t keep doing them. The more popular the original animated movie, the more successful the remake. The Lion King is one of the most popular of them all, ergo it was a safe bet to be a big hit. The biggest risk was that “why bother?” question — audiences might’ve felt it was pointless and stayed away — but that didn’t happen: it made $1.656 billion worldwide, making it the 7th highest-grossing film of all time. The original film is down at a lowly 47th. If you were the kind of person who thought box office numbers were the be-all and end-all, you might conclude that this film is even better than the already-classic original. It is not. That it did well at the box office is no surprise — I think there’s a massive curiosity factor involved in these remakes (how faithful will they be; what will they have added or taken away; how will this familiar tale look and feel in a new medium) — but that would only get it so far, and most of it would come from opening weekend. Something obviously worked for audiences, because they must’ve kept coming back.

    Well, I can’t explain that one for you. On my first viewing, I didn’t think it was a particularly good film. I rewatched it last night, this time in 3D, and enjoyed it a little more second time round. In part that was because it has really good 3D. Indeed, the praise I’d read for that version was the only reason I was tempted to give the film a second look, and it didn’t disappoint in that department. Whatever you make of the rest of the movie, the photo-real CGI is undeniably a phenomenal technical achievement, and it’s only improved by the life-like dimensionality brought by 3D. With a screen-filling 1.78:1 aspect ratio, it really is like looking through a window. Beyond that, though, I liked the film itself a little more. That’s probably down to expectations — not that I was expecting great things on my first viewing, but knowing exactly what was coming, being fully aware of all the disappointments in store, mitigated them somewhat, and so I was able to enjoy the bits it did well.

    Be prepared for disappointment

    Nonetheless, I think the best way to sum up the experience is to say it’s like a cover song from a TV talent show: a reasonable approximation of the original, although clearly not as good, with unnecessarily added riffs and tricks as the cover artist struggles in vain to “make it their own” while not fundamentally deviating from what made the original so beloved. The trailers made it look like a shot-for-shot remake (possibly deliberately), but director Jon Favreau insisted it wasn’t. He’s right, but it might be better if he had been slavishly faithful, because when he strikes out in a different direction it undermines some of the best bits of the original. At least two songs are rendered as damp squibs by less-imaginative staging, while Can You Feel the Love Tonight is for some reason staged in the afternoon. But even more poorly handled is Be Prepared. It’s perhaps the greatest villain’s song in the Disney canon. You might’ve thought it was impossible to ruin a song so inherently fantastic. I certainly did. Sadly, Favreau has proven us wrong.

    The voice cast are uniformly adequate, with a couple of standouts. The major one is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who gives a suitably menacing and conniving performance as the treacherous Scar. It’s at least the equal of the original, which considering that was performed by villain par excellence Jeremy Irons is saying something. (Be Prepared is obviously a black mark against this interpretation, but it’s not Ejiofor’s fault he was lumbered with an underpowered rewrite.) James Earl Jones reprises his commanding performance as Mufasa from the original movie. Actually, I don’t know whether he performed it anew or they just recycled his original recordings. You assume the former, but the film is so faithful that the latter may have sufficed. Elsewise, it’s the comedy parts that are given room to shine, with a nice double act from Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa, and John Oliver nabbing the lion’s share of the best lines as Zazu (pun very much intended).

    The box office king

    This remake has enough residual quality leftover from the original film to tip the scales into the “didn’t hate it” category. More critical viewers may not be so kind — indeed, they haven’t been. Conversely, those who are less demanding may find the result reasonably likeable (I first saw it with my mum, who thought it was a pleasant couple of hours at the cinema). Still, even with all the technical prowess on show, it can’t replicate either the magic or the majesty of the original animation.

    3 out of 5

    The not-live-action live-action Lion King is on Sky Cinema from today.

    Toy Story 4 (2019)

    2019 #101
    Josh Cooley | 100 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | U / G

    Toy Story 4

    Last weekend, with dull inevitability, Toy Story 4 won Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. Of course it did — in the last decade, the award has gone to a Disney or Pixar movie eight times out of ten. I’ve not seen any of the four other nominees, but I strongly suspect at least one of them deserved it more, because Toy Story 4 is… fine. Heck, it’s good, even. But when the three films that precede it are all-time classics that formed a perfectly complete trilogy, just being “good” is not enough.

    Its first mistake is that it doesn’t need to exist. The filmmakers have self-mythologised that Woody’s story wasn’t complete and so needed this final chapter, or some such gumph, but anyone who’s actually seen Toy Story 3 knows that’s not true. No, this is someone at Disney or Pixar hoping they can mine one of their most popular franchises for more gold. Whether or not they also believed lightning could strike for a fourth time, or they didn’t care so long as it made bank, I’ll leave up to your own levels of cynicism.

    So rather than feeling like an equal part of a four-film series, Toy Story 4 feels like an afterthought; an addendum; a “here’s another one because you liked the others”. And at times it delivers on that — we like these characters, so they’re fun to be with; some of their antics are amusing or exciting; there’s a positive moral message or two about acceptance and seeing worth in yourself. There are attempts at emotional resonance too, particularly when the film tries to feel like an ending and a farewell; but 3 already did that, and did it extremely well. 4 has an uphill climb trying to match that, and even if it did (which it doesn’t), why should we believe it? It’ll only last until someone decides there’s a narrative for Toy Story 5 that simply has to be told (see you for that c.2026, I guess).

    In search of a new story

    Of course, there’s no doubting the film is well made. It’s easy to disregard that as just Pixar being Pixar, but there’s an ever-impressive technical skill on display here. Maybe on that level it does deserve award wins — although, while Pixar are undoubtedly frontrunners in such a race, there are other animation houses who can and do produce work that’s just as beautiful. (Besides, the Best Animation category is a funny one in that regard — is it rewarding the artistic/technical accomplishment of the animation itself, or is it “best film that happens to be animated”? A debate for another time.)

    Toy Story 4 is the kind of film I enjoyed well enough while it was on. Whenever I get round to rewatching the series, I’ll happily include it. But, while it doesn’t tarnish the series’ legacy, it does blight its unbroken record. If it had never existed, I’d’ve been fine with that.

    4 out of 5

    Toy Story 4 is available on Sky Cinema as of this weekend.