Home on the Range (2004)

2016 #32
Will Finn & John Sanford | 73 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | U / PG

I have many goals within my film viewing, quite apart from trying to watch 100 films every year. Some I’ve completed (the Rathbone Holmes series), others are almost done (every Spielberg film), others not so much (every Hitchcock film), and others I’ve barely begun (the Zatoichi series). One of these goals is to watch every Disney Animated Classic, their canon of feature animations that currently sits at 55 titles (with another scheduled for later this year, in the US at least). I did a pretty good job on the real classics while growing up, and have since filled the gaps of the modern classics, so I’m left ploughing through their lesser periods: the content they pumped out in the war-affected ’40s, and the post-Renaissance pre-Lasseter clusterfrack that was their ’00s produce. My best hope is to uncover a hidden gem while I mop up this dross.

Home on the Range is not a hidden gem.

The plot, such as it is, locates us in the Old West, where a trio of singing cows hunt for an outlaw in order to save the farm they live on. The early ’00s box office was not a great place for musicals, Westerns, or traditional animations, so one does have to wonder what inspired Disney to make their 45th Animated Classic a traditionally-animated musical Western.

Still, box office failure does not equate to a lack of quality. No, the film achieves that all by itself. There’s a plodding, familiar, poorly-structured story, with dull characters, who spout flat dialogue, which does nothing to help their unoriginal relationships. The voice acting is irritating, with the exception of one or two over-qualified performers (Dame Judi Dench?!) The songs are weedy, repetitious, and unmemorable. The villain’s number is the best of a bad bunch, but only because it has a moderately amusing reveal in the middle of it. The animation is unremarkable, besides some terrible CG intrusions. It seems to be under the impression that “hog” is a word for “cow”, based on the number of puns. A couple of gags do land — I even laughed out loud once, though I’ve forgotten why — but the majority is resolutely uninspired.

It’s actually not the worst of Disney’s canon (as I mentioned, there’s the odd flash of enjoyment, which is more than can be said for Chicken Little), but it’s still one for aficionados — or completists — only.

2 out of 5

Rage (2009)

2009 #81
Sally Potter | 98 mins | streaming | 15

RageI really didn’t expect to like this: a series of straight-to-camera monologues, performed in front of just plain-coloured backgrounds, about the fashion industry, written and directed by the writer/director of Orlando, which I thoroughly disliked. But I watched because it was going free and, despite the concept’s innate pretentiousness, it’s an intriguing one. Once Rage settled into its stride (or, perhaps, I settled into its stride), however, I loved it.

The group of fourteen people who appear before the camera are almost entirely self-centred and/or not very nice, which you may guess from the outset considering their industry, though almost all still have something to reveal as the film progresses. It’s surprisingly funny too. The off-screen action is conveyed by a very effective sound mix — we see nothing but talking heads (until an incongruous final shot, at least), but there’s always background noise, however subtle, and the key action in the wider world is revealed to the viewer through this, plus comments from some of the talking heads. But time isn’t wasted spelling out what we can’t see; instead, a bit of the viewer’s own imagination is required in addition to the sound and dialogue clues to create a version of events.

A starry cast (Steve Buscemi, Lily Cole, Judi Dench, Eddie Izzard, Jude Law, John Leguizamo, David Oyelowo, Dianne Wiest… plus recognisable (depending on what you’ve seen, of course) faces like Simon Abkarian, Bob Balaban and Babel’s Adriana Barraza.) provide exemplary acting across the board, even if some of the accents (mainly Brits playing at yanks) are frequently dubious. It seems unfair to pick anyone out, but Lily Cole is perhaps the most surprising, her fragile character aided by her Pipling-esque eyes and pale skin, but it’s her actual performance that ultimately delivers more than her autobiographical-seeming first appearance would suggest. And one can’t ignore Jude Law playing a Russian/American female(?) fashion model — for once I actually thought he was quite good. Maybe this is his niche. The majority of the performances err toward the theatrical — something certain film viewers seem to struggle with — though the intercutting and passage of time, reflected in intertitles and costume changes, make the whole experience more suited to film; indeed, with the cameraperson being such a major character (as it turns out), it is technically unstageable. (It could be staged, of course, but it belongs as a film.)

And, talking of how things turns out, the most intriguing character of all is Michelangelo, the cameraman and only main character we never see on screen — indeed, it’s a considerable amount of time before we realise he’s a character at all and not just a filmmaking conceit. His presence and the filming style (supposedly shot on a mobile phone (or, I suppose, ‘cell phone’) camera) is not just a gimmick, but, as it turns out, vital to the story. It’s probably the only film ever made that perhaps works better viewed streaming online. All the characters are in some way unveiled throughout the film, but, almost without the viewer releasing it, so too is our supposedly-inconspicuous cameraman. By the end, what seemed to be a critique of the fashion industry — and a well-worn one at that — has something else to say too.

At least, one hopes this ‘critique’ of the fashion industry isn’t the main point, because it may be the film’s biggest problem. There’s very little, if anything, new to be found in the comments and criticisms made — we well know it’s a business filled with too-thin weight-obsessed diva-ish models, self-obsessed pretentious designers, money-grabbing moral-less Murdoch-alikes and no-hope fame-hungry wannabes, and Rage doesn’t have much more to say about it than this. Sure, no one sits around pontificating on why it’s all so evil, but it doesn’t take much to see the subtext. At least it’s often funny about it; though based on comments I’ve read online, it seems this humour may be too subtle for some. Perhaps they can’t see the inherent ludicrousness of it all, with the performances flying closer to realist than the My Family-level bluntness some require from their comedy.

It’s hard going at times, even if one is enjoying it — after all, it’s still just a succession of people talking to camera. Obviously what they say — and, indeed, don’t say — reveals things about themselves, others, and events off screen, but while I was never bored there were several occasions when my eyes strayed to the clock out of curiosity over how long was left. I’ve still seen much duller films.

I don’t doubt that Rage isn’t for everyone. Indeed, you only have to look at IMDb to see how many people loathe it with near-religious fervour. (Prepare yourself if you do, because some of the criticism is irritatingly brain dead. But hey, that’s IMDb!) Some people just won’t get on with its style, or find it too slow, and with 14 characters in 98 minutes, awarding them an average of under seven minutes each, you’re not going to get Alan Bennett-level character deconstruction. But Rage unapologetically is what it is, and I liked it.

5 out of 5

If you’re interested in an in-depth (and spoiler-filled) review of Rage which features phrases like “extraordinary testament to the mindbrain”, “Mugel and Potter use sound to build an entire lifeworld”, and “it enlivens, emboldens and enriches the film, engaging ear, heart, mind, memory, intelligence, even skin and senses as a brilliant texture”, try this one from Little White Lies.

Rage placed 10th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2009, which can be read in full here.

Fargo (1996)

Fargo2007 #23
Joel Coen | 94 mins | DVD | 18 / R

Fargo is the latest film to have been inducted into the United States National Film Registry, donchaknow. It’s also 105th on the IMDb Top 250 [it’s now 153rd], and the 21st film from the 1990s. So it’s pretty much a modern classic then.

It is indeed very good; the only thing holding me off giving it 5 is a lack of that Something which leads me to rate so highly after one viewing. Maybe it will go up in time.

4 out of 5

Romance & Cigarettes (2005)

2007 #13
John Turturro | 102 mins DVD | 15 / R

Romance and CigarettesI was attracted to this because it was billed as a modern musical, with an impressive cast. Tsk.

Some people are put off by the musical tag — well, don’t be. The characters occasionally sing along to some popular songs (and sometimes to ones you’ve never heard in your life), and sometimes do fun dance routines. This sits at odds with the gritty-ish melodrama of the plot, but that’s the fun.

It’s worth a punt, but expect to dislike it.

3 out of 5