Paddington 2 (2017)

2018 #58
Paul King | 103 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.35:1 | UK & France / English | PG / PG

Paddington 2

Famous for its untarnished 100% Rotten Tomatoes score after almost 200 reviews (the best critical record of any film ever), Paddington 2 consequently comes with an awful lot of hype attached — perhaps too much for a movie that is, at heart, just a kind-hearted bit of fun about a marmalade-loving bear. But then, in our current climate, such a film is less barely necessary (unlike many sequels) and more a bear necessity.

Said bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) wants to buy a unique, and consequently expensive, pop-up book for his Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday. When the book is stolen by failed actor Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), he manages to frame Paddington, who is consequently sent to prison. His adoptive family (Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, et al) set out to prove his innocence, while Paddington makes the most of his jail time by making friends and livening the place up.

The film’s joy lies less in the facts of the storyline and more in the emotions it inspires. The whole thing has clearly been crafted with a lot of love, inventiveness, generosity, and a good-hearted outlook on life, which comes across from all the characters and their actions, making for a resolutely charming and feel-good film that’s beautifully made. Of course, the first one had a lot of those elements too, but they’ve managed that rare thing of striking gold twice. One thing the first movie didn’t have is Hugh Grant, who proves he’s more than just a stuttering romcom lead with a superbly witty turn as the film’s villain. HIs BAFTA nomination wasn’t as silly as it perhaps sounded.

Friendly criminals

But while there’s nothing bad about Paddington 2, and an awful lot to like, I feel like my expectations for its absolute perfectness were set too high. I feel like I should be giving it 5 stars just because of how lovely everyone else said it was — and it was lovely, but 5 stars lovely? I’m not sure. I did like it a lot — it’s funny, clever, sweet, and good-natured — but I wasn’t bowled over in the way I’d been led to believe I would be. Maybe I would’ve been if I’d seen it before all the hype? That element of almost-disappoint means I can’t give it full marks, but it’s still a film I’d definitely recommend, especially if you’re after something thoroughly nice, or that’s both suitable for and entertaining to the entire family. I look forward to watching it again sometime and refining my opinion. Maybe in a double-bill with the first film, which I’m currently tempted to say was slightly better.

4 out of 5

Paddington 2 is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video UK as of yesterday.

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“Christmas in July” Review Roundup

Being someone who lives in the northern hemisphere, and up towards the top of it too, we celebrate Christmas at, y’know, Christmas. But for people who live in places where 25th December falls in summery weather, all the trappings of the festival don’t feel so appropriate. Hence at some point someone conceived of “Christmas in July”.* I don’t know when — a long time ago, probably — but I first encountered the concept a year or two back.

Anyway, I don’t think it’s celebrated on a specific date (it’s just a thing some people do some places), but it turns out there is a “Christmas in July” in London — a great big marketing event, self-described as “the ‘London Fashion Week’ of Christmas press launches.” Well, what could be more Christmassy than massive commercialisation? That’s occurring today and tomorrow, and seemed as good a point as any to post this selection of leftover reviews from the festive viewing I enjoyed seven months ago.

In today’s roundup:

  • Elf (2003)
  • Scrooged (1988)
  • It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)


    Elf
    (2003)

    2017 #173
    Jon Favreau | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Elf

    Regarded by some as a modern Christmas classic (though it’s 15 years old now, so I’m not sure if “modern” still applies), Elf is about a human raised as one of Santa’s elves (Will Ferrell) who travels to New York to find his real dad (James Caan), in the process spreading Christmas joy with his charmingly innocent view of the holiday.

    An early starring role for Ferrell, the film is more concerned with letting him get up to funny antics than it is with, say, building fully rounded character arcs — Caan goes through his inevitable redemption in the space of one cut. It’s less character development, more character transplant. Heck, transplants take time to perform — it’s character transmogrification. By taking such short cuts it fails to earn the changes of heart for its characters, leaving it to feel kind of empty and unsatisfying on an emotional level. Nonetheless, the focus on comedy and an innocent’s eye-view of Christmas means it makes for a fairly entertaining, pleasantly festive time-killer.

    3 out of 5

    Scrooged
    (1988)

    2017 #174
    Richard Donner | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

    Scrooged

    Director Richard Donner transplants the most famous of all Christmas stories (that don’t star a divine baby, anyhow), Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, to the corporate ’80s in this fantasy comedy. (Most Christmas movies are “fantasy comedies”, aren’t they? Even the ones that aren’t (like, say, Home Alone kind of are. But I digress.)

    Bill Murray stars in “his first comedy since Ghostbusters”, as the UK poster boasts (“Bill Murray is back among the ghosts. Only this time, there’s no one to call.”). He’s the Scrooge figure, Frank Cross, a miserly TV executive visited by three ghosts who expose his negative effect on the world, and in turn on himself. Obviously, therefore, the film retains the broad shape of Dickens’ original story, but it goes a little further than that, taking all the salient details and adapting them to its own variation. It’s a good modernisation: true to the original, but without being slavishly beholden to translating the story word for word.

    It does feel like it could’ve been tightened up a bit, though according to Murray they “shot a big, long sloppy movie, so there’s a great deal of material that didn’t even end up in the film,” which I guess means this is already the improved version. Nonetheless, this is a Christmas tale with just enough ’80s cynicism and gentle horror to stop it being too twee, while retaining an appropriately goodhearted festiveness.

    4 out of 5

    It’s a Wonderful Life
    (1946)

    2017 #171
    Frank Capra | 130 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U / PG

    It's a Wonderful Life

    I’m a little late to the party here: It’s a Wonderful Life is a Christmastime TV staple that most people have been enjoying for decades, many since childhood. Frankly, that’s the main reason I watched it — almost out of a sense of duty, owing to it being an iconic Christmas film, and also well rated on polls like the IMDb Top 250.

    So I set out merely to rectify my oversight, expecting to find it a bit saccharine and twee, and probably overrated. But no, it’s not that at all: it’s a beautiful, brilliantly made, genuinely moving film — I even got something in my eye during the conclusion, even if its heartwarmingness was objectively inevitable. Now, my only regret is I didn’t watch it sooner, so that I could’ve been re-experiencing it all my life.

    It’s not often you get a film with a reputation like this that manages to live up to it, but It’s a Wonderful Life is that rare exception. Indeed, it’s so good I’d even say it exceeded its reputation. Wonderful indeed.

    5 out of 5

    It’s a Wonderful Life placed 6th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

    * If you happened to think this had something to do with the football — you know, like, “if England get through to the final it’ll be like Christmas in July for the fans” — then, um, no. Sorry. ^

  • Dudes & Dragons (2015)

    aka Dragon Warriors

    2018 #145
    Maclain Nelson & Stephen Shimek | 113 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | USA / English | 12

    Dragon Warriors

    Back in 2014, when it felt like I was contributing to Kickstarters for film projects left, right and centre (including a variety of short films I still haven’t got round to watching and several projects which never amounted to anything, which is why I’ve largely stopped), I helped fund a fantasy comedy called Dragon Warriors. To cut to the quick, it was eventually released as Dudes & Dragons, the title changed presumably to better indicate its comedic tone, and apparently at the end of last week it popped up on Prime Video UK — so, naturally, that made me finally get round to watching my Blu-ray copy.

    In a Dungeons & Dragons-y world, no one can show signs of love lest they be torched by the fearsome dragon Dolvarnög (the pronunciation of which is one of the film’s better recurring jokes). In fact, the dragon is commanded by evil sorcerer Lord Tensley (James Marsters, of Buffy and Angel fame), whose personal experiences with love have left him bitter. The dragon is just one threat to the relationship between human Camilan (Maclain Nelson) and elf Larec (Clare Niederpruem), and so he teams up with his mercenary brother Ramicus (Adam Johnson) — plus Camilan’s stable boy, Samton (Jake Van Wagoner), and Ramicus’ lodger, orc Shokdor (Erik Denton) — to save the world, etc.

    Comedy!

    As I said, and as the title surely implies, Dudes & Dragons is ostensibly a comedy — though not the kind of comedy the re-titling implies, I don’t think. I guess the lead characters are “dudes”, but they’re not, like, “dude” dudes… if you know what I mean. Setting that aside, potential hilarity is undercut by the film being overburdened with plot. My summary didn’t even mention the object of Tensley’s affections, his cousin Ennogard (Kaitlin Doubleday), who summons our heroes on their mission; or that Camilan’s parents forbid his marriage to Larec because of some stuff to do with laws of succession or something — this is meant to be a comedy, fellas! Who wrote it, Phantom Menace-era George Lucas? This necessitates rather too many scenes of exposition, especially early on, meaning it’s a while before the gags really begin to flow.

    Well, “flow” is a generous descriptor — the gag rate is alarmingly low. The exposition scenes are balanced on a knife edge where you can’t tell if the actors are playing it tongue-in-cheek because it’s supposed to be humorous, or if it’s because they’re reaching for a florid style that they think is correct for a serious High Fantasy movie. (“High” fantasy is probably what you expect from a movie called Dudes & Dragons, actually, isn’t it?) Put another way: take those joke-less scenes out of context and you might think they were just am-dram Fantasy. James Marsters is probably best equipped to navigate this, giving a sterling go at being both villainous and comic, though the uneven tone means he’s never allowed to be properly menacing nor properly hilarious, a balance we know he can strike thanks to the aforementioned Whedon series. The rest of the cast actually aren’t bad — when the script gives them some decent material, there are laughs to be had. The weakest link is a cameo from Luke Perry, who’s worse than most of the non-famous cast.

    Buffy flashbacks

    Production-wise, this is a very low-budget effort and it shows, but if you give it the benefit of bearing those cheap-and-cheerful roots in mind, it doesn’t look half bad. Well, mostly. I mean, some of the costumes are a bit cosplay, but the creature prosthetics are pretty good; and the CGI monsters are alright considering the next-to-no-budget; and it’s decently shot, especially some sequences that spoof the oeuvre of Zack Snyder, though it’s sometimes distracting that it was all done on green screen — were there no real forests nearby they could’ve popped down to?

    There’s some enjoyment to be had in Dudes & Dragons for the more forgiving viewer. It would’ve been helped immeasurably by a more streamlined plot, a higher preponderance of genuine gags, and probably by being a good 20 or 30 minutes shorter, too. As it is, most people after some fantasy-based laughs are going to want to look elsewhere.

    2 out of 5

    Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (2008)

    2017 #139
    Eric Brevig | 93 mins | download (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D

    Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (as it’s actually titled on screen, a rarity for 3D movies) is a very loose (very, very loose) adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic fantasy novel — indeed, you could say it’s more of a sequel, as the characters’ adventure is inspired by the belief that Verne’s novel is actually an account of real events. It turns out they’re right, of course, because otherwise this would just be a movie about a man and his nephew trekking up a mountain to find nothing — which sounds like a film someone would make, but not an effects-driven summer blockbuster.

    I remember Journey 3D (as the title card indecisively morphs into before finally moving on) going down quite poorly on its release a decade ago, but, looking up sources to cite for that now, I’m not wholly correct: it has 61% on Rotten Tomatoes, which isn’t great but is still considered ‘fresh’, and grossed a respectable $242 million (off a budget of just $60 million). Nonetheless, I expected little of it (I watched it mainly because it’s on my 50 Unseen from 2008, a notoriously under-completed list) but wound up pleasantly surprised… in some respects, anyway.

    They're all right

    The key to my enjoyment was watching it in 3D, in which it plays more like a theme park attraction than a movie: from the very beginning it has loads of those “sticking stuff out into the audience” hijinks that no one bothers with anymore (indeed, after watching a dozen other 3D movies on my TV, I don’t think I’ve seen anything poke out before). Gimmicky and in your face (literally) though it may be, the effect works, it’s uncomplicatedly fun, and it makes the movie better just because it’s trying. Relatedly, this was the first film released in 4DX, the South Korean-developed theatrical format which features “tilting seats to convey motion, wind, sprays of water and sharp air, probe lights to mimic lightning, fog, scents, and other theatrical special effects”. I imagine all that palaver suits the film really well — as I said, it’s more like a theme park attraction than a regular movie anyhow.

    However, that’s just one of the reasons why I imagine it would be nearly unwatchable in 2D. All the stuff that’s kinda fun in 3D would seem pointless in 2D, and the at-the-camera things would be horrendously blatant (I mean, they are in 3D, of course, but at least their purpose is retained). And as for the rest of the movie, the direction feels very TV-ish; or, again, like a theme park attraction — it’s a bit basic, basically. Some moments push towards achieving wonder. I’m not sure they quite get there, but I’ve seen worse. (Director Eric Brevig is a visual effects guy by trade, with credits ranging from The Abyss and Total Recall up through Men in Black and The Day After Tomorrow to John Carter and The Maze Runner, and many more besides. His second film as director was the Yogi Bear movie (you know, the one with that poster), which is probably why he’s not directed anything since.)

    Remember when Hollywood thought Brendan Fraser was Harrison Ford?

    Let’s not just reserve our criticism for the direction, though: the dialogue is terrible too, including what may be the single worst (or best — it’s so bad it’s good) exchange in the entire history of movies:

    Trevor: Max was right. He was right! [shouting] Max! Was! Right! Ha ha! [to Sean] Your dad was right. He was right.
    Sean: Hannah, your dad was right too.
    Trevor: They both believed in something that everyone told them was impossible. He was right! [echoing:] He was right!

    But hey, at least it makes an effort to do that screenwriting thing of eventually paying off every single thing we learnt about earlier… except for a yo-yo, the thing with the most “this is setup for later” introduction. Maybe the scene where they needed to do some hunting got cut… There’s added incidental amusement watching it a decade on thanks to the surprisingly old-fashioned technology on display: computer monitors are still CRTs; cool kids’ mobiles are still flip phones; being able to Google while on a plane is a wonder… It’s like the film is self consciously showing off how much technology has changed in the last decade — which it isn’t, obviously, because it couldn’t’ve known. And hey, if you don’t laugh at it you’ll cry because it’ll make you feel old.

    Really, Journey 3D is cheesy, tacky, and kinda terrible… but I also enjoyed myself. Yes, a big part of that was the 3D. I’d never claim it was a good film, and I don’t think that I’d even recommend it, but I wouldn’t write off watching it again someday.

    2 out of 5

    Almost Oscar-Worthy Review Roundup

    Each of these films was nominated for multiple Oscars… but failed to win a single one.

    In today’s roundup:

  • Big (1988) — nominated for Best Actor (Tom Hanks) and Best Original Screenplay.
  • Frost/Nixon (2008) — nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Frank Langella), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Editing.
  • Lion (2016) — nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Dev Patel), Best Supporting Actress (Nicole Kidman), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Score.


    Big
    (1988)

    2017 #91
    Penny Marshall | 100 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG* / PG

    Big

    Big is one of those strange gaps in my viewing — the kind of film I feel I should’ve seen when I was a kid in the early ’90s but didn’t.

    Anyway, in case you’ve forgotten, it’s the one where a 12-year-old boy makes a wish and ends up as an adult, played by Tom Hanks. Rather than solve this problem in a day or two, he ends up moving to the city, getting a job, an apartment, a relationship, and all that grown-up stuff. Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t expect that level of scale from a movie like this. Generally there’s some hijinks around “kid in an adult’s body” and it’s all solved in a day or two, but the length of time the kid’s predicament rolls on for allows the movie to tap into more than that. I mean, it’s still a funny movie, but it’s got a message about how it’s important to remember the childlike spirit, but also that it’s OK to be at whatever stage in life you’re at — don’t rush it.

    Plus the whole thing has a kind of sweet innocence that you rarely see in movies nowadays. We’re all too cynical, too concerned with realism (even in fantasy movies). If you made it today, it’d ether have to be sexed/toughened up for a PG-13, or kiddified (and likely animated) for a G. That said, that the 12-year-old boy in a man’s body is happy to sleep with the hot woman, apparently without it bothering his conscience one iota, is by far the most realistic thing about this movie.

    4 out of 5

    * The UK PG version is cut by two seconds to remove an F word. The cut is really obvious, too — was there not a TV version with an ADR’d non-swear? Anyway, it was classified uncut as a 12 in 2008, though that’s not the version they show on TV, clearly. ^

    Frost/Nixon
    (2008)

    2017 #136
    Ron Howard | 117 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & France / English | 15 / R

    Frost/Nixon

    Peter Morgan’s acclaimed play about the famous interviews between David Frost and President Richard Nixon (the ones where he said “when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal”) transfers to the big screen with its two lead cast members intact (Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon) and Ron Howard at the helm.

    As a film, it almost embodies every pro and con that’s ever been aimed at Howard’s directing: it’s classy and thoughtful, in the way you’d expect from a director who’s helmed eleven Oscar-nominated movies* and won two himself; but it also, for example, employs an odd framing device of having the supporting cast be interviewed as if for a documentary, which exists solely as an on-the-nose way of integrating direct-to-audience narration from the original play — my point being, it’s a bit straightforward and workmanlike.

    Still, when you’ve got actors of the calibre of Sheen and Langella giving first-rate performances (the latter got an Oscar nomination, the former didn’t, I reckon only because Americans aren’t as familiar with David Frost as us Brits are — his embodiment of the man is spot-on), and doing so in a story that’s inherently compelling (even if somewhat embellished from reality — but hey, that’s the movies!), what more do you need?

    4 out of 5

    * Many of those only in technical categories, but hey, an Oscar nom is an Oscar nom. ^

    Lion
    (2016)

    2017 #103
    Garth Davis | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, Australia & USA / English, Hindi & Bengali | PG / PG-13

    Lion

    Slumdog Millionaire meets Google product placement in this film, which is remarkably based on a true story — or based on a remarkable true story, if you want to be kinder. It’s the story of Saroo Brierley, a young Indian boy (played by newcomer Sunny Pawar) who is separated from his family, ends up in an orphanage, and is adopted by Australian parents. As an adult (played by Dev Patel), he resolves to find his birthplace and family — using Google Earth.

    If it was fiction then it’d be too fantastic to believe, but because it’s true it packs a strong emotional weight, not least Saroo’s relationship with is adoptive parents, played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham. The star of the show, however, is Dev Patel. You may remember there was controversy about him being put up for Supporting Actor awards, deemed “category fraud” by some because Saroo is the lead role. Conversely, he shares it with young Sunny Pawar, and Patel doesn’t appear until almost halfway through the film. Well, the “category fraud” people are more on the money, and it’s testament to Patel’s performance that it doesn’t feel like he’s only in half the film. Pawar is great — both plausible and sweetly likeable — but while watching I didn’t realise the movie had a near 50/50 split between young and adult Saroo. Maybe this means the first half is pacier, but its not that the second part feels slow, more that Patel has to carry greater emotional weight.

    Mother and son

    Rooney Mara is also in the film, as adult Saroo’s girlfriend. Her character is in fact based on multiple real-life girlfriends, but it makes sense to consolidate them into one character for the sake of an emotional throughline. However, her storyline ultimately goes nowhere — it ends with Saroo asking her to “wait for me”. Did she? Did he go back to her? It’s not the point of the film — that’s about him finding his family, and after that emotional climax you don’t really want an epilogue about whether he gets back with his girlfriend or not — but it still feels like it’s left hanging. I suppose it isn’t — I guess we’re meant to presume she does wait for him and they get together when he returns and live happily ever after — but it doesn’t feel resolved. It shouldn’t matter — as I say, it’s not the point — but, because of that, it does.

    So it’s not a perfect movie, but it packs enough of an emotional punch to make up for it.

    4 out of 5

  • Babe: Pig in the City (1998)

    2017 #42
    George Miller | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | Australia / English | U / G

    Babe: Pig in the City

    Between making the first Mad Max trilogy and winning an Oscar with kids’ animation Happy Feet, George Miller produced beloved family flick Babe, which was such a success he took the directing reins for this follow-up. I remember it going down very poorly at the time — Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t quite support that, but a quick scan reveals many of the reviews to be retrospective. Some were wise to it from the off, however: Roger Ebert gave it full marks and his presenting partner Gene Siskel chose it as the best movie of the year! Not everyone’s got on that bandwagon (it still has a low rating on IMDb), but it’s definitely developed a cult following. Sign me up, because I too thought it was rather brilliant.

    Set immediately after the events of the first film, it sees everyone’s favourite sheep-pig travelling to the big city to raise money to save his farm. There, he ends up staying at a kind of hotel for animals, and winds up in all kinds of hijinks. There’s no point trying to describing it — the movie is barking. Also oinking, and quacking, and… yeah, you get the joke.

    In some ways it feels like a kids’ movie made for adults. Sure, it’s about cute talking animals, but a lot of the jokes are squarely aimed at knowing grown-ups, as is some of the emotional stuff, such as a scene where the Jack Russell is clearly running off to Heaven, which probably (hopefully, even) goes over younger children’s heads. As that may suggest, it’s also a very dark movie. Most of the darkness is eventually undercut, subverted, or rescued, but not always immediately — the situations are allowed to get bleak first.

    Pig in a hotel

    There’s an above-the-call-of-duty quality to the filmmaking, too. It’s lovelily designed, in a hyper-real cartoon-strip way, and beautifully shot, by Andrew “Lord of the Rings” Lesnie no less. Plus there’s a credits song written by Randy Newman and performed by, of all people, Peter Gabriel. And that’s not some kind of “they used a song by them” coincidence — its lyrics are based around the famous “that’ll do, Pig” catchphrase. Barmy.

    Pig in the City made me really made me want to rewatch the original — I enjoyed it as a kid, but as an adult would I see all sorts of extra stuff that I missed before? Or was it the success of the “cute talking pig movie” original that gave Miller & co the freedom to cut loose in the sequel? Comments I’ve read suggest the latter. Well, even if Babe doesn’t merit revisiting as an adult, this sequel certainly does. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything else quite like it.

    4 out of 5

    Shrek the Third (2007)

    2018 #101
    Chris Miller | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | U / PG

    Shrek the Third

    Shrek the Third is notorious as The Bad One; the one where the bubble burst on the phenomenon that had sustained two well-reviewed and immensely financially successful films. The list of failed threequels is long — so long, you almost wonder why anyone bothers to make them — and while Shrek the Third does indeed do little to buck that trend, it could be worse.

    The title isn’t just a variation from calling the film Shrek 3, but also hints at the plot: when the king dies, Shrek is next in line to the throne. But he’s been struggling so much at royal engagements that he wants out of that life anyway, never mind a promotion. Fortunately, there is a possible alternative: a young lad called Arthur. While Shrek, Donkey and Puss set off to find this spare heir, Princess Fiona and a cohort of other fairytale princesses must fend off an attack from Prince Charming, who still has eyes on the throne.

    It’s not a terrible plot for a Shrek movie, but it’s not particularly original either. Thematically, Shrek’s disinterest in being royalty was covered in the last film, though at least this time it’s bolstered with a fatherhood angle. The choice of villain, however, straight up takes the last film’s secondary antagonist and recycles him as a primary antagonist — if there’s a more literal example of sequels representing diminishing returns, I can’t think of it.

    Action princesses

    As for everything else, there are some good ideas and funny bits here and there, but there’s also something that’s just… off. It’s not consistently amusing or creative enough. It doesn’t have the same effortless energy and pace as the first two. And some of its ideas sound decent on paper, but just don’t work in the film. For example, the fairytale twist on a high school where they find Arthur — Shrek’s got good mileage out of spoofing the real world before, so you can see the genesis of the idea, but it just doesn’t land here, with the setting being an irritant rather than an amusing parallel.

    Although the film still credits Andrew Adamson, writer and/or director of both previous films, as among its executive producers, I reckon there must have been debilitating changes behind the scenes, because the whole production just comes up short. Like, where the previous films offered legitimately exciting action scenes, the ones here could be decent but come off flat. It shouldn’t matter — this is a fantasy comedy, not an action movie — but it’s just one part that’s emblematic of the whole. Another is the song choices, which, like the fairytale high school thing, are seemingly okay but actually just wrong. As in, most of them are good songs, but they so often don’t actually quite fit the movie — I mean, Live and Let Die during a funeral?

    Shrek the Third isn’t entirely without merit, but something seems to have gone awry between conception and execution, and it doesn’t zing in the way its predecessors did.

    3 out of 5

    Vintage Tomorrows (2015)

    2017 #120
    Byrd McDonald | 67 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA, Canada, Czech Republic & UK / English

    Vintage Tomorrows

    Heard the term “steampunk” but don’t really know what it is? Or have an idea, but you’d like a fuller picture of the whole subculture? Then this is the film for you, my friend, because Vintage Tomorrows is basically Steampunk 101.

    For those that don’t know, steampunk is a kind of alternate history, where Victorian-esque technology and fashion rub against advanced technology — think steam-powered cars; clockwork machinery; and cogs. Lots of cogs. Although little more than an hour long, Vintage Tomorrows does a good job of providing an overview of the movement, encompassing the cool literature, fun costumes, impressive self-built gizmos, and so on. It also doesn’t ignore the political dimension: how steampunk does — or, frequently, doesn’t — deal with the dark side of the Victorian era: the poverty, oppression, racism, colonialism, misogyny, and so forth. Mainly, the subculture still needs to “grow up” and tackle that stuff. With plenty of featured interviewees, it’s also interesting to hear the different ideas that different people have about what exactly steampunk is and should be — there are clearly dissenting voices, rather than a homogenous whole. I guess that’s probably true of any subculture, but I imagine particularly one that’s quite counter-cultural.

    That said, when some people start placing steampunk in the context of widespread movements like the Beat Generation, hippies, punk, hip-hop — asserting that it’s following in their footsteps — I think they’re possibly going a bit far. It may be inspired by the same mentality (the rejection of the mainstream, the desire to create something different, the search for your own identity and people who share it), but to imply steampunk is having the same influence on wider culture that those earlier movements did… I don’t think so. Not yet, anyway. In the future? Who knows.

    Fire!

    Indeed, some pretentious assumptions come to the fore when the interviewees get on to the subject of modern technology. They don’t like sleek, minimalist, Apple-esque design — it’s not complicated or tactile enough for them. Fine, if that’s your taste — but it is just your taste. A lot of people love that stuff. And, actually, it’s not a different subculture that loves it, it’s the mainstream. If the mainstream didn’t like it, something else would’ve swept it aside by now. But a level of self-absorption seems to go hand-in-hand with those at the forefront of niche movements, so I guess we should expect such attitudes.

    Set aside those occasionally presumptive attitudes, and there’s a lot to like about steampunk. Well, if it meshes with your sensibilities, anyway. It’s not something I’d want to partake in myself, but it looks like a fun alternate reality to be a part of. And if Hollywood saw fit to give us a few more movies that fit into the genre (because there haven’t been many, I believe), I certainly wouldn’t complain.

    4 out of 5

    Coco (2017)

    2018 #109
    Lee Unkrich | 105 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Coco

    Pixar’s 19th feature is an American-produced animated fantasy movie that co-opts a foreign culture to tell a story about a guitar-playing kid remembering his dead family — wait, doesn’t that sound familiar? Yes, in broad strokes, Coco is Kubo and the Two Strings Pixar-style. But, instead of Japan, this is Mexico, based around the famed Day of the Dead festival — which has also already been the subject of an American animated movie, The Book of Life. But that didn’t get the best notices, and Kubo didn’t get the respect it deserves, and this is Pixar in non-sequel mode, and so Coco has been praised to the high heavens. And it is good. But I didn’t think it was that good.

    So, to start again: Coco is the story of Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a kid who desperately wants to be a musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Unfortunately for Miguel, all music is banned in his family, due to his great-great-grandfather abandoning his wife and young daughter to pursue it as a career. On the Day of the Dead, a convoluted and overlong first act eventually gets us to a point where Miguel finds himself actually in the Land of the Dead, surrounded by the skeletal form of everyone who’s passed away. To get back to the land of the living he must go on a quest, accompanied by downtrodden Héctor (Gael García Bernal), who’s being forgotten by the living and needs Miguel to reestablish his memory in the real world. More or less. I mean, the rules get more fiddly and complicated than that.

    The magic of music

    Frankly, the rambling length was my biggest problem with Coco. It’s not badly flabby, but it’s not as taut as I’d’ve liked it to be either, especially during stretches where you’re waiting for it to get to an inevitable plot twist or development. That’s not to say it’s without surprises — it pulls quite a dark plot twist about an hour in — and surprise isn’t the only virtue a story can have, of course, but it did reach a point where I was virtually shouting at the screen for them to finally get on with what was inevitably going to happen. Surely that’s a sign of something not working.

    Maybe that was the music — quite a central part of the storyline, as you may’ve inferred, but I can’t say I was a fan. Mostly it’s fine, but there’s the occasional musical number that just slowed things down. It’s not a musical in the strictest sense either, so the film does stop a bit in order to get each song underway (at least it usually then tries to progress the narrative while the song continues). The big number is the Oscar-winning Remember Me, which has grown on me slightly since I first heard it but, again, I’m not particularly a fan. I don’t know what it is, really, because when I’ve come across mariachi-style music in movies before I’ve often quite liked it. I guess it’s this particular set of tunes, then.

    Naturally it looks great — it’s Pixar, would you expect anything less? The colourful Land of the Dead stuff is the best visually, wide shots creating epic vistas, with stunning architecture that suggests quite a world… not that we get to explore it very thoroughly, even though the quest narrative takes us to a few different locations. We certainly don’t get any indication how it functions for the other 364 days of the year. Zootropolis showed us a glimpse of a well-imagined full-scale world, teasing enough that I wanted to explore it comprehensively in further stories. Coco’s just looks pretty.

    Colourful vistas

    Maybe I’m being too picky? Maybe I’m just trying to work out what it was everyone else loved so much, when I saw a pretty standard Pixar buddy quest story with new surface flourishes. Or perhaps I’m right, and other people were blinded by the emotional ending? The final few minutes are certainly effective at tugging at the heartstrings — even though I hadn’t fully invested in the rest of the film, even I felt a pang… albeit slightly undercut by once again having to yell at the characters to get on with what they were inevitably going to do. Not everything should move at a mile a minute, but c’mon, sometimes you’re just being languorous.

    Reportedly Coco had the longest active production of any Pixar movie, with work beginning in 2011 and (obviously) being completed in 2017. There are quite a few deleted scenes included on the Blu-ray which (from a brief flick through) seem to suggest the story once went in quite a different direction. I saw one person say those scenes suggest a much worse movie, too. I guess they kept tweaking the plot, then, maybe until it eventually resembled that familiar broad Pixar shape that dates right back to the original Toy Story.

    Coco is a good, but I certainly wouldn’t say it’s perfect. And I think I might go watch Kubo again now, actually.

    4 out of 5

    The UK becomes probably the last major market to get Coco on disc with its release on DVD, Blu-ray, and 3D Blu-ray today.

    Batman: Gotham by Gaslight (2018)

    2018 #105
    Sam Liu | 77 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Batman: Gotham by Gaslight

    I was all up for this adaptation of Gotham by Gaslight when it was first announced — I’m a fan of the original book, as well as the sequel (which they’ve also used parts of); and, I thought, even if they chose to deviate from it then I like the basic concept of “Batman meets steampunk”. But then the last few DC animations I’ve seen have been subpar, and the trailer for this one looked rather bland, so I decided to opt for a rental instead of purchase. Well, I never got round to doing that, and then Amazon slashed the price of the Blu-ray, so I ended up buying it — it still cost more than a rental, but if I liked it I’d save money in the long run. Fortunately, that turned out to be the case.

    If you’re not familiar with Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola’s original tale, it involves Batman battling Jack the Ripper in late 19th Century Gotham City. It’s regarded as the first Elseworlds story, which is DC’s branding for stories that take place in different times, places, or “what if” scenarios — “what if Superman had landed in Russia?”, for example. This animation is a rather loose adaptation, which takes the basic concept from Augustyn and Mignola’s work but otherwise almost completely rebuilds it, mixing in a lot of ‘Easter egg’ stuff (like appearances from many more well-known Bat-characters) and some elements of the sequel comic, Master of the Future.

    Fisticuffs!

    So anyone expecting a straight-up adaptation may be disappointed, but taken as a film in its own right, for the most part it works. Having all the different familiar characters pop up makes it feel like a proper Batman tale, rather than a Ripper story that happens to have a costumed vigilante in it. Most prominent is Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, although she isn’t really the latter here — Batman gets fully suited up, but the most Miss Kyle gets is a whip. The relationship between Bruce Wayne and Selina is one of the film’s best aspects, in fact, with the Elseworld setting seeming to allow a different focus than the usual antagonism that pairing has in screen adaptations — as one of the filmmakers says in the audio commentary, “it’s not a movie about Batman and Catwoman, it’s about Bruce and Selina.” Jim Krieg’s screenplay is good across the board, with several nice passages and scenes, even if at times it rests too heavily on exposition and speachifying.

    The one change that didn’t work for me is that it glosses over the bit about Bruce have recently returned from Europe, his return to Gotham coinciding with the Ripper’s arrival, thus making Bruce Wayne a suspect. Perhaps this isn’t a major point, but it’s a grace note that helps sell the whole concept for me. This wasn’t an oversight, however: they consciously decided to make Jack the Ripper a Gotham serial killer in this universe, so his London crimes never happened. But surely the point of using Jack the Ripper is the crimes he’s famous for? I think everyone knows he was a London serial killer, but the film does nothing to dispel this prior knowledge, nothing to establish that this version emerged for the first time in Gotham.

    The idea behind the change was to widen the suspect pool for the “whodunnit” element — if the Ripper had just come from London, his identity has to be someone who’s just arrived in Gotham. I can see where they’re coming from, but there are other ways round the problem — for example, the Gotham Ripper could’ve turned out to be a copycat, which would’ve added to the twist. As it stands, the identity of the Ripper (which has been changed from the book) is a huge twist, and, fair play to them, they pull it off. I’ll say no more because of spoilers, but I’m surprised it didn’t seem to cause outcry online. Maybe after the furore around The Killing Joke people just stopped paying attention.

    Miss Selina Kyle

    As with most of these DC animations, the quality of the visual is more TV than feature film, but they make the most of what they’ve got. There’s a squareness to the character designs, using few and simple lines, that is almost appealing. Perhaps it was inspired by Mignola’s artwork, though it does still feel sanitised compared to his exaggerated style. Also, a lot of effort is put into establishing this version of Gotham, with plenty of wide shots and scenes set in many different locations. Those were both deliberate choices to help make the city a major part of the film, and to give it life and texture as a Victorian metropolis. It’s an admirable effort considering the new era was a bit of a production headache: on their other movies, things like generic background characters and props can be recycled from film to film, but here every single element had to be designed and created from scratch.

    Voice casting is mostly spot on. Again, effort was put into evoking the period without wanting to go overboard — they didn’t want the voices to sound modern, but they didn’t want everyone doing English accents or something either. Bruce Greenwood makes for a dependable Batman and Anthony Head is perfectly dry as Alfred, but the foremost performance is perhaps Jennifer Carpenter as Selina. She’s most famous for Dexter, where she’s such a tomboy, but here she conveys a kind of Victorian elegance, with a hefty dash of feminism, very well. Inspired casting. Just as good is Scott Patterson as Commissioner Gordon. Best known for his modern, working-class character in Gilmore Girls, I didn’t even realise it was him until the credits rolled. Well, partly this is a problem with billing — only Greenwood and Carpenter get it. They’re the leads, so of course they’d get top billing, but Head and Patterson have sizeable roles and are surely just as famous? I guess it doesn’t matter, but it was a bit of a surprise to hear a recognisable voice crop up when they hadn’t been announced (as it were) by the opening credits.

    The Ripper approaches...

    In other merits, there are some surprisingly decent action sequences — a mid-way one atop an airship is the highlight — plus a nice music score by Frederik Wiedmann, which was partly influenced by Hans Zimmer’s work on the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films, but I swear I heard some overtones of Danny Elfman’s Batman in there also. In all the film is only an hour-and-a-quarter long, but it doesn’t feel like too much of a quickie — there’s enough incident here to fuel a ‘proper’ movie. I mean that in a positive way.

    As I said at the start, I expected very little of Gotham by Gaslight, for various reasons. I came away pleasantly surprised. In the commentary they talk about how much they enjoyed making it — how everyone involved, from the executives down to the storyboarders, all thought it was a particularly special project — and how they’d like to make a sequel, and they’ve got an idea for one involving the Joker. I’ve no idea how this has performed commercially, but I hope they get the chance.

    4 out of 5

    Another Elseworlds-y Batman animation, Batman Ninja, is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK this week, and will be reviewed in due course.