Saturday, 24 January 2015

'Django Unchained' Review

The year is 1858. Django, a slave, finds himself being rescued from that life by Dr King Schultz, a bounty hunter. Schultz wants Django’s help to find some slavers who are wanted for murder. This partnership soon turns unto a friendship, with Dr King offering to help save Django’s wife from her life as a ‘Comfort Girl’. However the pair has not yet faced up to a man as devious as Calvin Candy, the owner of the Candyland plantation. Will they succeed in rescuing her or have the pair pushed their luck one score too many?

Now being a Quentin Tarantino film certain things are a given. The direction is great, the acting great, the music and visuals great. Even if you don’t like his films it is hard to criticise the level of quality Tarantino is capable of bringing to his worlds. That being said I did have a couple of small complaints with the script.

One problem I have is the slightly unbelievable character arcs during the film. I found it hard to accept that Django took to being a bounty hunter as quickly and proficiently as he did, a suggestion that he is “a natural” does very little to suddenly explain his perfect marksmanship. I’m not saying that we should have had a wacky training montage but there is a reason these types of sequences are so synonymous with skill development in films. A man who seems to have never fired a gun before, shooting another man directly in the heart on his first attempt doesn’t really work for me.

More problematic is the change, near the end, in the character of Dr Schultz. Throughout the movie we are shown how in control he is, how he makes decisions rationally. When he eventually snaps it seems completely out of character and it’s hardly foreshadowed at all. Now this sudden snap in itself would be fine if this tendency towards extremes had been established in any way before, but it wasn’t. I really can’t accept that the character who we spent a lot of time getting to know would have taken such an extremely out of character decision, particularly one which endangers his friends.

Both of these changes in character could have been easily covered with a few little moments. If we’d seen Django getting better at shooting and seen Dr Schultz gradually lose himself, all would have worked perfectly. It’s weird because we do get a scene of Django practising his reading, with the implication that he has had numerous lessons. Similarly we get the scene with Dr Schultz being horrified by the dog attack but it doesn’t seem to stay with him for the following scenes, not until it is plot convenient for it to push him over the edge.

This lack of believable character development is an issue I have with a lot of Tarantino films. He can create brilliant characters at point A and B but he can never really explain how they move from one point to another. Frequently he covers it up by using traumatic, ‘life changing’, moments or by avoiding character arcs all together, with characters having undergone all their personality changes before the films begin. I like the characters in Django and I like the world that they inhabit but I wish I liked it more, making the characters more believable would have done a lot to ground me further in the world.

One other criticism with this film would be that it feels a bit bottom heavy. The first third of the film is used to establish the bounty hunting and it is easily the most dynamic part of the film. I think more time could have been spent here to establish the characters and the world. Too much time is spent at Candyland, with too much focus being given to Calvin Candy. In any buddy cop drama it is important to spend as much time as you can with the leading pair, deviations to spend time with your villains doesn’t help this partnership.

One thing I was genuinely surprised by was how well Tarantino dealt with the topic of slavery. Although occasionally going for more ridiculous moments the script has a real feeling of grounded reality to it. The sequence with the KKK like hooded figures, arguing about the quality of their hoods adds a real sense of humanity to unlikable characters. There is always a sense that films such as this want to white-wash history and make the villains fundamentally evil in some unexplainable way. Slavery is shown to be what it was, an everyday piece of life for the time that the majority of people, including unfortunately some slaves, accepted as normal. It’s important to show history in this way, without making it seem like something that could never occur in the world we live in today.

So it goes without saying that Django Unchained is still a very strong film. I haven’t really gone into describing the good things about this film because generally speaking if I haven’t criticised a part of it, it’s good. Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx have genuine chemistry which carries the film through the odd slightly rougher patch. The action scenes are brutal and perfectly staged, showing that Tarantino has only gotten better at directing as time has passed. It’s a testament to how well Django Unchained works as a film that it has spurred my attention considerably for ‘The Hateful Eight’.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Gotham Episode 12 'What the Little Bird Told Him’ Review

With the escape of two inmates from Arkham Asylum, James Gordon finds himself working with the Gotham police force again to track them down. Meanwhile Fish Mooney finally makes her move against Falcone, will she be successful and become the new Don?

Within seconds of this episode opening you can tell it is going to be better than most. ‘Gotham’ seems to sort its budget for the season based on the quality of the scripts. ‘What the Little Bird Told Him’ looks better, sounds better and just generally feels higher budget than most episodes seem.

So Jack Gruber or ‘The Electrocutioner’ as the press dub him is about as generic a villain as they come. He spends a lot of time saying text book crazy things which get pretty boring, not crazy, when they are said by every psychopath who has ever been in media. The craziness of Jack is hard to understand also as the episode makes an effort to point out that he forged his records in order to sneak into Arkham Asylum, for an easy escape compared to prison. Half of the episode makes a point of showing that Jack is insane while the other half explains that he was only pretending; this is weird. We get one bridging scene that suggests that being in Arkham made him crazy but this doesn’t really work. He works overall as a credible threat but he feels very generic for a Batman villain.

This episode thankfully focuses primarily on Falcone and Mooney. We get a flashback to Don Falcone as a child and follow his thoughts about his life throughout the episode. It’s nice when 'Gotham' remembers it is meant to be about the criminal side of Gotham City. Seeing why a man chooses to commit a crime is far more interesting than seeing why a man prevents crimes.
The battle of Falcone and Mooney is garnished brilliantly, once again, by Robin Lord Taylor’s Penguin. Much like last week’s scenes with Butch and his friend, we are unsure of how the battle will play out until the final moments.

This episode does have a few loose ends which feel pointless however. We get a scene with Barbara meeting her parents and several scenes featuring Maroni which add nothing really. As usual ‘Gotham’ got distracted by the size of its cast and chose to feature more than was wise. I appreciate these scenes might pay off later but I can’t help but feel that the exposition stored within them could have been handled better in another manner.

So ‘What the Little Bird Told Him’ deals with quite a lot of loose threads and does so reasonably well. I still wish that ‘Gotham’ would have the nerve to stop the, seemingly fixed, weekly villain staple. 'Gotham' is stuck between wanting to be a criminal police drama and wanting to appease the Batman fanbase by giving them costumed psychopaths. As usual the weekly villain undermines what would have been an incredible episode. That being said this episode of ‘Gotham’ is still considerably better than most weeks and it shows that ‘Gotham’ has still got it, even if it only really has it occasionally.  

Monday, 19 January 2015

'The Ice Pirates' Review

In the distant future, water shortages in the known galaxy have caused the value of water to skyrocket. Into this new economy stepped Ice Pirates who steal water from the Templers, who cruelly control what little water remains. Jason, the leader of a group of these pirates must help the deposed princess to find her father and the fabled 7th planet, which is said to be covered in water.

So ‘The Ice Pirates’ is a post-apocalyptic pirate film, harking back to the pirate movies of the 1940s. It harks back considerably closer to Star Wars than anything else however. Around this time studios were desperate to cash in on the rise in fantasy and science fiction films. However in some cases they really didn’t want to have to put any money down to do so. In those cases you get films such as ‘The Ice Pirates’.

To say this film is cheap would be an understatement. I honestly can’t think of a major studio picture, in this case MGM, which looks this cheap. The visual effects are ropey, the prosthetics look awful and the sets look as if they’ve been made in a garage. When you find yourself wishing a film looked as good as ‘Hell comes to Frogtown’ you know the movie has budget issues.

Now I won’t knock them for not trying, this film is very inventive with visual effects. One scene notably has marbles in clear tubes being used to simulate travel pods over a city. I’ll also give them credit for not limiting their ideas. One of the worst things you can do with a low budget is giving up creatively. That being said much of this film’s cheapness could have been hidden using creative lighting and smart direction, of which this film has neither. I usually wouldn’t knock a film for being cheap but this film is genuinely kind of embarrassingly low budget, as if made by students.

The production design is pretty strong, although also hampered by a lack of budget. ‘The Ice Pirates’ has an interesting mix of classical pirate elements, such as cutlasses facing off against science fiction elements like laser guns. Although cheap, it’s clear that thought went into making the props and costumes to the best standard they could with the money, all none of it.

The script is weird, it feels incredibly dated. Being a comedy film it has a problem of not really being funny, although I suspect this may be partially due to it being dated. This film was made in the time where a man being black was enough to form a comedy punchline. I was honestly stunned when the following scene appeared for example.

Now a jive talking, pimp robot is certainly not something I expected from this film or any film really. Now I don’t sense even the slightest amount of ill will from this film but it comes from a time when this kind of stuff wouldn’t raise an eye, Hollywood has changed since…ish.

In addition to feeling dated the script just meanders along from sequence to sequence. We get all the standard moments for this type of film including an Amazonian planet. It’s a tendency of these kinds of space epics to show you a huge amount of different worlds, to impress the audience through spectacle. This effect is somewhat ruined when your spectacle is not impressive, being that it is made out of paper plates or bubble wrap or some other household good.

I will say however that the ending sequences of this film are really interesting. While trying to reach the 7th planet the crew must pass their ship through a time warp. While passing through the time warp the crew begin to rapidly age, what with time passing at an elevated pace. While passing through the time warp they are attacked by a Templar ship, this causes a battle which takes place over a few minutes, or about 60 years to the crew. Cue giant beards and quite a few vastly more interesting moments based on the idea of quickly passing time.

So ‘The Ice Pirates’ isn’t great but I don’t hate it. It’s cheap to the point where it damages the movie and the script isn’t great. It’s interesting to see a young Ron Perlman and Angelica Houston appear in this film, even if they don’t manage to salvage it. The real saving grace of this film is weirdly the weirdness of this script, weirdness which will only increase as more time passes since it was written. I’m not the kind of man who could ever say he truly hated a film in which a robot shits itself, I simply can’t do that and I suspect you won’t be able to either.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

'The Raid 2' Review

So Rama, the hero of the original ‘The Raid’ has to go undercover within a criminal family in order to avenge his brother. Will Rama be able to find the evidence needed to bring down those corrupt within the police, or will he be discovered and face the same fate as his brother?

So ‘The Raid’ was a bit patchy for me. I loved the fight sequences but found the narrative linking them to be rather lacking. Despite having a somewhat weak story ‘The Raid’ was overall enjoyable, assuming you were able to switch off your brain towards the more stupid elements of it. So does the sequel fix any of the issues I had with the original, or is it more of the same?

The major issue with ‘The Raid’ was the narrative reasoning from the script. Characters chose to do things that would only make sense within a film. For example criminals with guns would choose to instead fight hand-to-hand, that’s when they weren’t forming an unofficial queuing system to fight the hero.

Now what made me forgive these immersion destroying moments was a mixture of two things, the stunt work and the direction. The choreography for ‘The Raid’ was stunning and it continues to be amazing in the sequel. Similarly the tense, atmospheric direction of Gareth Evans is yet again on top form. Now ‘The Raid 2’ attempts considerably more than the original film did. We have more and bigger fight scenes and we get tense character moments that are genuinely hard to watch. Unfortunately ‘The Raid 2’ also attempts to improve upon the story of the original and this causes a lot of problems.

So both ‘The Raid’ and its sequel depict violence in a very real way, neither film shying from the reality of the situation. ‘The Raid’s biggest weakness was the almost comic book like plot which held it together. In some respects however the childish nature of the story made the more ridiculous elements easier to accept. ‘The Raid 2’ attempts to have a far more grounded and sensible story but continues to have ridiculous elements, creating an awkward mixture of storytelling styles. It’s bizarre to have a scene where a man is upset that his father doesn’t respect him placed next to a scene where a novelty assassin kills somebody in a cartoonish way.

It doesn’t help that these drama scenes are not very well written, coming across like scenes from a daytime soap-opera. It’s as if somebody has watched Hard Boiled or Old Boy and taken themes, or in some cases, scenes from them without really understanding the theming or concept behind them. Consistency is the biggest issue with ‘The Raid 2’ over the original.

The original film by necessity had a simplistic plot of a man stuck in a building, who was trying to get out. The sequel goes for a variety of more complicated ideas and can’t seem to decide which film it wants to be. We start with a standard revenge story of Rama trying to avenge his brother. This evolves into a John Woo esque story of an undercover cop trying to understand his new loyalties. The film yet again evolves into a mafia crime war film, each time the film changes it forgets the previous plot entirely. It’s very hard to care for Rama when we don’t know if he’s fighting for his brother, his career, or his safety. The film attempts to hedge its bets and use all three as a driving force, this doesn’t work.

The issues with the fight sequences from the first film are somewhat resolved in the sequel. Large group fights are much more common and feel more believable. Unfortunately the one-on-one fights continue to feel odd. The ending fight sequences in particular feel as if Rama is making his way through a video game ‘Boss-Rush’, as he takes on opponent after opponent, with each patiently awaiting their turn for a beating in interconnected rooms.

‘The Raid’ was about a singular raid which went wrong. ‘The Raid 2’ loses this tight focus and instead feels somewhat messy in comparison. This is a shame because the independent parts are considerably better. Better cinematography, better music, better production design, better acting and most importantly better fights. I can’t say I disliked ‘The Raid 2’, I was just disappointed as ‘The Raid’ showed such promise that hasn’t entirely been delivered on in the sequel. All this being said ‘The Raid 2’ is well worth a watch if you enjoyed the original and it remains the only film I’ve seen with a car being used to do martial arts.

Friday, 16 January 2015

'300: Rise of an Empire' Review

While King Leonidas fights and loses the Battle of Thermopylae, Themistocles asks the Greek council for a navy to attack the Persian fleet with. The Persian fleet is commanded by Artemisia, a fierce woman known for her ruthlessness in battle. Can Themistocles defeat her and finally unite Greece together or will the country fall under the might of Persia?

So I didn’t have high hopes for ‘300: Rise of an Empire’. I recently watched ‘Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For’ and was rather disappointed. Therefore I had no reason to assume that yet another needless Frank Miller sequel could be worth much. So is ‘300: Rise of an Empire’ worth watching? Or did it fail to ‘URN’ my respect.. he he he

Like a great many people I rather enjoyed the original ‘300’. Although very enjoyable however it was certainly not a piece of film art, neither was it trying to be one. I am happy to say that ‘300: Rise of an Empire’ is simply trying to be more of the same, bringing with it the strengths and weaknesses of that similarity.

I enjoyed ‘300: Rise of an Empire’, certainly not as much as the original but I enjoyed it nonetheless. The battles remain brilliantly choreographed, the speeches suitably rousing. The only real issue with ‘300: Rise of the Empire’ comes in the fact that you can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice. We’ve seen ‘300’, this is more ‘300’.

Although in saying it is more ‘300’, it is more of a very specific kind of ‘300’. The battle scenes that were once deliberately punctuated with slow motion and gore are now constantly in slow motion, with rivers of blood shooting everywhere. Much of the blood hits the camera, along with splinters of wood and anything else that can be fired towards the audience. ‘300: Rise of an Empire’ went to the Jaws 3D school of 3D, with objects constantly flying towards the audience in an overly deliberate way. In watching this film in 2D, as I did, these 3D scenes look really strange and somewhat amusing.

The battle scenes are very good, which is fortunate considering they take up about 80% of the film. You can see that a lot of work went into choreographing these fight scenes and it shows on the screen. Much of the issue with these moments comes entirely from the lack of emotional connection with those fighting. Efforts have been made to engage us on a deeper level. For example we have a father and son fighting together, but these characters feel more like archetypes than flesh and blood creations, it is hard to really care about them. Sullivan Stapleton does a great job of playing Themistocles, but Themistocles is not Leonidas, despite the film wishing he was.

In terms of characters ‘300: Rise of an Empire’ has a clear winner in that of Artemisia, as played by Eva Green. Every scene that Green is part of comes alive in her presence. She really sells the idea of a female leader that armies would respect and fear. The only issue that she brings to the film is the amount of focus she shares with Themistocles, particularly due to a rather weird implied love between the pair. ‘300: Rise of an Empire’ lacks the singular focus of Leonidas and suffers due to it. I feel in some ways that an Artemisia film, shown entirely from her point of view would have worked a million times better.

For those who criticised ‘300’ for its political undertones towards the middle east, ‘300: Rise of an Empire’ continues this trend in earnest. We are treated to numerous speeches about the importance of freedom and democracy and the evils of Persian tyranny. I guess this is something to expect in a post 9/11 world and it is not as overt as it could be.

One weird thing about this film is how much more violent it is when compared to the original. Like ‘Sin City 2’, ‘300: Rise of an Empire’ seems to have been given the grindhouse treatment also. Although the addition of further violence, sex and sexual violence is not entirely welcome, it has not destroyed this film in the way it did ‘Sin City 2’. The universe of ‘300’ has no real airs of trying to be philosophical, so making the world more violent does not take away from it. Neither however does the more unpleasant world add anything to it.

‘300: Rise of An Empire’ looks and sounds really good. It isn’t as strong as the original film but the visual side of this it remains of a really high standard. It is nice to see the use of visual symbolism and repeated imagery in a film such as this. Most films today seem to prefer a sense of visual realism at the expense of working on the psyche of the audience.

So is ‘300: Rise of an Empire’ any good? If you like ‘300’ you’ll like this film. If you didn’t like ‘300’ you will dislike this film even more. It is clear how much of an impact Zack Snyder can have on a film. Without him at the helm of the sequel, ‘300: Rise of an Empire’ doesn’t have much bite. It tries to cover this by shocking the audience and fails. The battle scenes however are brilliant and the characters likeable, if not a bit generic. If nothing else ‘300: Rise of an Empire’ is at least 300 times better than ‘Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill for’, although that wouldn’t be hard.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

'Ocean Waves' Review

So ‘Oceans Waves’ was an attempt by Studio Ghibli to let the younger staff members produce a film of their own, albeit one for television. ‘Ocean Waves’ tells the story of a love triangle between three high school students, two of them best friends.

So if ‘Ocean Waves’ sounds like a soap-opera, that’s because in many ways it is one. The film even makes several jokes at the expense of itself for having a silly story. However ‘Ocean Waves’ sells itself short in this regard. The script of ‘Ocean Waves’ is surprisingly good considering it was developed by the less experienced members of the Ghibli team.

The story is told from the point of view of Morisaki, primarily in the form of flashbacks. We see from his position the moments that led to the love triangle and the fallout from it. Where ‘Only Yesterday’ focussed on the strong pull of memories, ‘Ocean Waves’ instead looks at the drifting, dreamlike nature of such thoughts.

This causes some pacing issues, with the start of the film feeling somewhat slow, even by Japanese standards. ‘Ocean Waves' puts a lot of time, time it doesn’t have, into introducing the lead but fails to put as much effort into the other two corners of the triangle. In the case of the girl, Rikako, this is to make her more mysterious and attractive. This works perfectly, making her someone you want to learn more about.

The issue comes that Matsuno, Morisaki’s best friend, is also left to be mysterious. This really stops us caring about his feelings in the situation and makes Morisaki’s loyalty to him seem a bit strange. The design of Matsuno doesn’t help things either, he looks like your typical anime school underdog, complete with glasses. Think slightly more competent Millhouse, that’s what he is. It isn’t really that he is a bad character but we don’t really get to know him and since we're seeing the world through his best friend, we should know him well.

Despite some initial pacing problems, once settled into its groove ‘Ocean Waves’ really holds your attention. Several times ‘Ocean Waves’ managed to remind me of moments from my own past, mistakes my younger self had made. It really captures that feeling of sharing a moment with someone, as if time has stopped around you. If nothing else it captures falling for a crazy girl pretty darn perfectly.

So ‘Oceans Waves’ reminds me of the scene in ‘Whisper of the Heart’ where Shiro Nishi describes the young Tsukishimi’s manuscript as a rough diamond, one that can be improved. ‘Ocean Waves’ feels like it was made by younger staff members. Due to this it has some issues as mentioned above but it also shows signs of brilliance at times. The film drifts through memories, sometimes drifting too much but it hits its emotional marks more times than not. ‘Ocean Waves’ is a bit inconsequential in some ways but it has a lot of heart and certainly lives up to the Studio Ghibli name in that regard.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

'Fire and Ice' Review

‘Fire and Ice’ tells the story of the evil Nekron who is trying to take over the world using his ice power. The only force still standing against him is that of Firekeep, a castle situated on a volcano. When the princess Teegra of Firekeep is kidnapped, is it up to the lone survivor of a village, Larn and the mysterious Darkwolf to save her and defeat Nekron.

So Ralph Bakshi has directed a multitude of animated movies, most notably ‘Fritz the Cat’. His reputation is that of a director who doesn’t feel that animation should talk down to the audience, or necessarily be only aimed at children. For ‘Fire and Ice’ Bakshi teamed up with Frank Frazetta, a fantasy illustrator, who had previously worked on characters such as Conan.

So ‘Fire and Ice’ is aimed at a very specific audience; that of the hard-core fantasy fan. You have your microkini wearing princess, your heavily muscled hero and your evil wizard. All of the tropes of fantasy art are represented here, even the ones that are more troublesome. You also have you dark skinned ‘sub-humans’ who throw spears and an evil lesbian witch.

I’m not going to criticise the film for having such elements as they are an inherent part of the works it is trying to reproduce. The offensiveness of such concepts, purposeful or non is a separate debate. What I will say is that they further reduce the audience for this film, one that feels very exclusive already. ‘Fire and Ice’ has no interest in entertaining you unless you love it unconditionally on its own terms.

I like fantasy films but ‘Fire and Ice’ left me quite cold. It feels surprisingly dry for a film in this genre. The direction of Ralph Bakshi, although very good, is far too serious for this type of story. It’s not like this type of film needs comedy scenes but it does require a certain self-awareness to the type of material being adapted. Without having a sense of playfulness ‘Fire and Ice’ feels needlessly heavy and somewhat pretentious.

The real issue with ‘Fire and Ice’ is the story and its severe pacing issues. The middle section of the film overstays its welcome for considerably too long. The ending feels rushed due to this, despite the film having had more than enough time to tell its relatively simplistic story. ‘Fire and Ice’ lacks urgency, we go from sequence to sequence with no real feeling of progression. It’s as if a series of fantasy illustrations have been selected to create animated sequences and they have been stitched together once completed.

I don’t entirely understand why this collaboration happened in the first place. You have an artist who creates stunning singular pieces of artwork and ask him to create hundreds of pieces of art for an animated feature. Obviously the lack of time will make the art suffer when compared to that of the paintings which inspired it. The power of fantasy illustrations is to capture a moment in time with a sense of well detailed hyper reality, something that a tight animation schedule would never allow. If inherent limitations of scheduling mean you can never capture the magic of these paintings, why bother to try?

So is ‘Fire and Ice’ without merit? Not entirely, the battle scenes are very impressive and the film features a lot of nice artwork. If you want to watch this kind of film however you have a lot of other options to choose from, many which have more of a sense of fun about them.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

'The Boxtrolls' Review

The Boxtrolls live under the city of Cheesebridge. The aforementioned are small Trolls who wear cardboard boxes and come out at night to collect human rubbish. When a human boy is seemingly kidnapped by the Boxtrolls, the humans fear the worst and begin a campaign of ‘pest control’ against them. The campaign is led by Archibald Snatcher, a man obsessed with becoming a member of the exclusive ‘White Hat’ council, which runs the city. Little does the human world know that the ‘kidnapped’ boy is alive and well and being raised by the Boxtrolls. Can the human boy ‘Eggs’, named after his box, manage to repair the damage between his two communities? Or are ‘The Boxtrolls’ doomed to become extinct?

So ‘The Boxtrolls’ is a stop-motion animated film. This is more of an apt description than you would imagine for this film. This is going to sound needlessly harsh but ‘The Boxtrolls’ is everything wrong with stop-motion animation. Now bear with me for a few minutes and I shall explain that rather hurtful remark.

I love stop-motion animation; it’s probably my favourite form of animation in fact. What I love about it is the hand crafted feeling it inevitably has. I love the thumb prints in the plasticine; I love the slight inconsistencies in the motion; I love the mistakes because they sell the art form. The personalities of those who work on the film are saved within each mistake and transferred to the audience. The passion of the artists is transferred and is infectious, making you fall in love with the film as the creators have.

In a truly great work of stop-motion, that personality also feeds the narrative, the greater world of the film. ‘The Nightmare before Christmas’ is full of personality from a passionate Henry Selick at the helm and it feels alive. ‘Corpse Bride’ is made by a passionless Tim Burton and is as dead as the titular character. Stop-motion is more than just a technical skill; it is a way of thinking, a way of being!

If a film is being made into stop-motion it needs that feeling of passion, it needs that injection of life. If you simply tell a story using a technique but without understanding the strengths of it you get something passionless, you get something boring, you get ‘The Boxtrolls’.

The story of ‘The Boxtrolls’ feels like about a half dozen other stop-motion films. You have your small Victoriana obsessed town, populated with cardboard cut-outs. You have you hero who doesn’t fit in to that world and your likable monsters that nobody will accept. I would forgive ‘The Boxtrolls’ for feeling generic if it had some feeling of artistic design behind it, some underlying heart but it doesn’t.

It could have easily had a more interesting story. ‘The Boxtrolls’ is full of interesting ideas but none are developed. The central idea of a child raised by ‘monsters’ has potential, but it is never given any narrative teeth. The subtle nods to the nature of fascism and humanity are also interesting but they are left as a background element. Lots of interesting elements are introduced but left as background detail to service a story that simply isn’t interesting. It isn’t interesting because it feels smoothed down and polished, simplified to remove any edges that might catch your attention.

The animation is similarly smoothed out. The animation is technically perfect, to the point where I had to double check the film wasn’t CG. Although that is a great compliment to the animators, it is a very harsh criticism to the film itself. What is the point of making a stop motion film that looks like it has been computer generated? Is it to prove a point? To prove that stop-motion can look as good as Pixar? Why prove that? Unless it looks better than Pixar people aren’t going to suddenly switch to an incredibly time consuming, fault prone method of making films.

This is the equivalent of a portrait painter creating photo realistic images using brush and paint. Yes they can compete with a stills camera but ‘perfection’ is not a painter’s strength. They create such types of images primarily to show that they can, not as a way to challenge photography. The strength of handmade art lies in the inherent imperfection of humanity. A computer will never be able to compete with that, so why try and compete with it for perfection? I’m not saying you have to purposefully make mistakes when you’re creating a film such as this to make it interesting. Mistakes usually come from risks being taken however, from people who are willing to take chances.

‘The Boxtrolls’ is a story about the value of life that feels completely lifeless. Some of this is down to the flaccid direction and some to the somewhat generic voice acting. Above all ‘The Boxtrolls’ feels lifeless because any life was strangled out of it in the pursuit of ‘perfection’. It’s sad that the only part of this film that feels interesting to me was the 2D animated credits; they have their own distinct personality and they exist as a sad reminder of what could have been had the rest of the film been allowed to be itself.

I completely understand wanting to save stop-motion animation from the endless pursuit of computer animation, I really do. The wonderful thing however, is that stop-motion animation does not need to be preserved. It exists as a potential in every webcam in the world. What artists at the birth of film had to struggle to create in months can now be created in an afternoon by a child with Lego. Stop-motion animation will live as long as people want to create it.  

Monday, 12 January 2015

'Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart' Review

‘Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart’ tells the story of Jack, a boy who is born on the coldest day of the year. Due to this, Jack has a heart made of ice, one that is quickly replaced by a Cuckoo-Clock to save his life. Jack has three rules he must follow to survive: Never touch the hands of his clock, never get angry and never fall in love. But as Jack finally ventures into the wider world will he be able to keep to these rules, particularly to the third.

So ‘Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart’ is a very European film. It’s a very French film to be precise. Every scene is filled with a certain sense of theatrical whimsy. How much you like this film will very much depend on your tolerance level for this kind of…well French-ness. I don’t usually watch films like this; they’re not often my cup of tea.

So did I like ‘Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart’? Yes and no, mostly yes on average. Distinct, that is the main word I would use to describe this film. This film exists in a very flooded genre, yet it still manages to stand out. Both visually and in terms of the story telling ‘Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart’ feels fresh and interesting. I could easily imagine this film being somebody’s favourite film, so personal an experience it is.

The animation and production design are simplistic at times but never unimaginative. Many of the shots perfectly capture the emotions the film is trying to share with the audience. This is unusual to see and is enough reason to recommend this film alone.

The script is very good overall. The characters are likeable, which is the most important thing. That being said the script has a tendency to over indulge. A cameo from Jack the Ripper seems particularly odd and doesn’t add anything to the script, aside from a musical number.

This will be the sink or swim point for if you like this film or not, the music. The soundtrack is by Dionysus, a French rock band. Despite being a rock band the soundtrack covers a variety of different genres. In addition to instrumental music, the band also composed a variety of songs, making ‘Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart’ more of a rock opera than anything else.

I quite liked the soundtrack but found it at odds somewhat with the visual style and direction of the film. It feels at times as if the film and soundtrack were developed separately and later combined. Despite generally liking the soundtrack myself I could see how it could easily be hated by others. If you don’t like, or can’t at least tolerate, the musical stylings of Dionysus, you won’t like this film.

So would I recommend ‘Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart’? Yes but with a few caveats. Firstly, this film isn’t really for children, despite the style of it. Although only featuring a few scenes that I would outright say were too adult for children, such as an eye gouging, ‘Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart’ simply deals with themes that I think would go over most kids heads.

Secondly I can’t overstate how much of an impact Dionysus has on this film. Their music permeates every part of this movie and if you’re not down with that, you’re going to have a bad time. Overall however, ‘Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart’ is interesting. Interesting is always worth a watch, even if it ends up winding you up.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Gotham Episode 11 'Rogues Gallery' Review

So Jim Gordon Is still stuck working at Arkham Asylum, following the demotion he received last week from the Mayor. It turns out however, that if Jim Gordon can’t get to the crimes, the crimes will come to Jim Gordon. Somebody is taking inmates from Arkham and experimenting on them using homemade shock therapy. Meanwhile Butch’s loyalty to Mooney is brought into question by an old friend of his.

So ‘Rogues Gallery’ is weird, it doesn’t entirely feel like an episode of Gotham. The characters are all in place and many of the elements fit but it just doesn’t feel right. I think this is partially because the episode is at odds with itself. It seems keen to separate Gordon from the wider world of Gotham, forcing him to solve things on his own. However we keep visiting the other members of the extended universe, completely undermining the sense of isolation the episode is trying to build.

This is a shame because Gordon hasn’t been this likeable in weeks, if at all. The character of James Gordon is at his best when he is put upon, when things don’t work out for him. Therefore forcing him into a situation where he is somewhat out of his league does a lot to ground the more annoying elements of his Mr Perfect character. We could have easily spent this entire episode following Jim and that would have been more than enough to entertain. 

The introduction of a new love interest for Jim is an interesting angle for the show. Dr Leslie Thompkins is smart, capable and interesting, three things that Barbara Kean continues not to be. I’m curious if Barbara’s dissent into drugs and alcohol are a way to write out the character or the setup for an end game redemption. If it’s the latter I’d be very surprised if Thompkins makes it out of the first season alive.

The Penguin doesn’t have much to do this week, being stuck in a cell at the police station. I get the feeling that with the amount of flipper hungry Penguin fan girls around, we will get increasingly more excuses to have him on screen. Even if the justification for why the character is around has to suffer. Robin Lord Taylor continues to excel as the Penguin, even when given very little to work with. 

As good as Robin’s Penguin or Ben McKenzie’s Gordon are, they are both easily beaten by Drew Powell’s Butch this week. It’s not unusual for the B plot in an episode of Gotham to be the stronger part of the story. That being said this is the first time that it has been done purely by the performance of one actor. Butch is stuck between his boss Fish Mooney and his childhood friend Saviano. Both parties want the other dead and the pressure this puts on Butch is palpable. It is a credit to Drew Powell’s acting that we do not know his decision, not till the final moment. 

So Gotham this week is a bit messy, what else is new? That being said the writing remains relatively strong and the cast remain fantastic. Several seeds have been planted in this episode and I’m curious what they will grow to become as the series progresses. Hopefully we’ll get a few shocks before the end of the season.