A Clockwork Orange (1971)

2015 #152
Stanley Kubrick | 137 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | UK & USA / English | 18 / R

Yet more dystopian sci-fi! Who doesn’t love some dystopian sci-fi? Here we’re in the ’70s, though (makes a change from the ’80s), with writer-director Stanley Kubrick adapting Anthony Burgess’ novel into a film so controversially violent the director himself eventually banned it from release in the UK for decades. Almost 45 years on, it’s testament to the film’s power that it is still in parts shocking.

Set in a glum future Britain, the film follows eloquent juvenile delinquent Alex (Malcolm McDowell), whose violent acts eventually catch up with him when he’s imprisoned. Being the cocky little so-and-so that he is, he manages to get himself on a programme for rehabilitation and release… though that may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

The first half-hour or so of A Clockwork Orange is brilliant. I think there’s a reason this is the part that the majority of clips used when discussing the movie are lifted from, and it’s not just to do with spoilers: here is where the best imagery, and the most potent examinations of violence and the male group psyche, are to be found. It’s shocking and uncomfortable at times, funny and almost attractive at others (hence the perceived need for the ‘ban’), but the cumulative effect is precise and striking.

However, everything from Alex’s admission to prison onwards could do with tightening, in my view. It may be sacrilege to say this, but I think the film would benefit from having a good 15 to 20 minutes chopped out. All the prison bureaucracy stuff is funny, but is it relevant? “Relevance” isn’t the only deciding factor about what goes into a film, of course, but I feel like we’ve seen plenty of red-tape spoofing elsewhere. Maybe that’s just an unfortunate byproduct of the film’s age. Other parts just go on a bit too long for my taste — there’s barely a sequence after Alex’s arrest that I didn’t feel would benefit from getting a wriggle on. I don’t think this is me bringing a youth-of-today “everything must be fast cut” perspective to the film, I just found it needlessly languorous at times. Maybe I was missing a point.

McDowell’s performance is fantastic throughout. I’ve seen Alex referred to as a villain (not often, but by at least one person), which strikes me (and, I’m sure, many others) as remarkably reductionist and point-missing. He’s not a hero, certainly — a mistake I think some critics of the film made, in part because the use of voiceover invites us to identify with him, and I guess anyone other than the hero having a voiceover narration was fairly new 45 years ago (feel free to correct me on that point). But he’s not a villain, especially when he comes up against the terrifying forces of the establishment. McDowell’s performance, and Kubrick/Burgess’ storytelling, is thankfully more complex than that.

That continues right through to the ending, which is quite different in the novel and film — though I say this as someone who’s not read the book, so apologies if this is off base. Reportedly Burgess ends with Alex moving away from violence of his own free will, primarily because he’s grown up and grown out of it; the point basically being that all young men go through a violent phase (even if Alex’s is extreme) and then grow out of it. Kubrick ends on a much more ambiguous note… so ambiguous, I’m not really sure what it’s saying… or even what all the ambiguities actually are…

A Clockwork Orange remains a striking film, and not just because of the ultra-violence. It’s at its best early on, with the remainder not always working for me, but it’s a fascinating experience nonetheless.

4 out of 5

A Clockwork Orange was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Tank Girl (1995)

2015 #180
Rachel Talalay | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Critically derided, this anarchic adaptation of the rebellious comic has become a cult fave. You can see why: a ramshackle plot allows for plenty of outré zaniness, including a big musical number to a punky Cole Porter cover, and surely no one predicted the bizarre truth about the Rippers!

Malcolm McDowell chews scenery as only he can, a pre-fame Naomi Watts grabs attention, and Lori Petty’s looniness somehow holds it together, helped by efficacious design from Catherine “Twilight” Hardwicke and sporadic animated interludes.

Compromised in post-production but too wacky to fully suppress, it isn’t strictly good, but I enjoyed it.

3 out of 5

Rachel Talalay directs tonight’s Doctor Who season finale.

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Bolt (2008)

2011 #11
Byron Howard & Chris Williams | 96 mins | Blu-ray | PG / PG

BoltBolt is the 48th film in Disney’s animated canon (whatever the official name for that is these days), from their CG-only era that filled most of the ’00s. It’s a period already remembered as When Disney Lost Its Way, after the second (or is it third? I forget) ‘golden era’ of the early ’90s; the time that produced flops like Treasure Planet, Home on the Range and Meet the Robinsons. Things are looking up — it’s been followed by The Princess and the Frog, where a return to 2D animation distinctly marked a more widespread change of direction, and the praised Tangled — but it may be Bolt that comes to be seen as the true turning point, because it’s actually rather good.

Let’s get the worst bit out of the way first: thankfully, Miley Cyrus’ part is quite small. She’s adequate, but one suspects she got roped in because a) Disney were already trying to find a way to continue making money out of her post-Hannah Montana, and b) she provided a surefire-selling song for the end credits. Chloë Moretz reportedly recorded all of Penny’s dialogue before Cyrus was brought in; one can’t help but feel that, age-wise (and probably acting-ability-wise too), she would’ve been a better fit for the character.

But it’s not about Penny, it’s about Bolt, and he is excellently realised. Bolt, if you don’t know, is a dog, and the animators have captured dogs’ behaviour perfectly. It’s not just the obvious things, as seen during the sequence where Mittens the cat trains him to be a ‘regular dog’, but all the little mannerisms throughout. The animals are anthropomorphised, of course, but they’re not just animal-shaped-humans; they’re what these animals would be like if they could talk. Crossed with humans, anyway.

Penny and Bolt in actionAlso noteworthy are the action sequences. Far from being perfunctory attempts at liveliness, these are properly exciting, making full use of 3D CGI to create exciting and dynamic sequences. I’m not just talking about the couple we get from the TV-series-within-the-film either, but also the ‘real world’ ones as Bolt, Mittens and Rhino jump onto trains, out of moving vans, escape from a pound, etc. Of course, the TV-series-within-the-film is completely implausible — like you could film a TV show with massive action sequences in such a way that you only ever do a single take, never mind achieve all those effects on a TV budget. But then this is a film where a talking dog, cat and hamster work together to travel from New York to Hollywood entirely of their own volition — I think it’s safe to say no one’s aiming for documentary levels of realism.

And it’s funny too, especially once Rhino the hamster turns up. It’s not the greatest comedy ever made (and the level of praise attributed to Rhino in some quarters may have taken it too far), but it’s genial enough and elicited a few decent laughs. It even had me getting a little emotional at the end, which isn’t something I ever expected to feel about a film starring Miley Cyrus and a dog made out of polygons.

Bolt swings into action

Despite being computer-generated and 3D, there are attempts to add a painterly look to the film — brushstrokes, pastel colours, that kind of thing. It works rather well when seen in isolation in backgrounds, some of the big wide shots, etc; but the obviously-CG main elements jar against it, the painterly style not extending to the characters or main environments fully enough for it to gel. Especially when the apparently-flat paint-styled backgrounds begin to move in three dimensions (for instance, as the camera pushes into scenery, so that trees/buildings move relative to road/field/hills/streets), it becomes a little weird. An interesting experiment, but not a wholly successful one I think. Something like Ratatouille’s attempt at softening CG animation’s usual hard crispness was more effective.

Bolt and RhinoIt would be easy to dismiss Bolt as part of Disney’s CG folly, especially as it stars Miley Cyrus and is immediately followed by their return to 2D animation, but I think that would be a mistake. It’s a fast-paced and fun adventure, with accurately-captured animals meaning it’s especially likely to appeal to dog lovers. Disney’s next golden era just might begin here.

4 out of 5