Antz (1998)

2017 #119
Eric Darnell & Tim Johnson | 83 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

Antz

I don’t know if there was something in the Californian water in 1998, but in the same year that major Hollywood studios faced off with similarly-themed disaster movies Deep Impact and Armageddon, fledgling CG-animation outfits did the same with ant-themed kids’ movies. One was Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, which has endured thanks to the ever-increasing cachet of the studio’s brand (it was only their second feature). The other, of course, was Antz, which has the starry-named voice cast but was only by DreamWorks, whose later success with the likes of Shrek has done little to elevate the standing of their entire oeuvre. Anyway, it’s a bit pointless me making these comparisons because I’ve still not seen A Bug’s Life. Maybe in that review, someday.

As for Antz in isolation, it’s a funny old film. It feels more aimed at adults than kids: star Woody Allen is doing a version of his usual schtick, and the plot riffs heavily on political systems like Communism, a combination which means most of the jokes will soar over children’s heads. That’s before we get on to the brutal war sequence against monstrous termites. Plus, the entire voice cast seem to have wandered in from a completely different kind of movie: as well as Allen there’s Gene Hackman, Christopher Walken, Anne Bancroft, Sylvester Stallone, and Sharon Stone. I don’t know how well it plays for kids, but, as an adult, all of this stuff gives it a welcomely different flavour.

A bug's famous voice

Visually, it also lacks the slick (if somewhat plasticky) sheen of early Pixar. I can’t quite decide if the animation has aged badly (it is 20-years-old CGI, after all) or has a certain timelessness. Some of the computer animated stuff is blocky and jerky, but it’s frequently paired up with painted backgrounds for scenery and the like, which gives a kind of pleasant mixed-media feel to some sections. The effect is emphasised by the quality of the transfer that’s around: although in HD, it’s clearly been transferred from an actual film print, not clean digital files. And not a great print at that: there’s spots of dirt and everything. I guess that shows the lowly standing even DreamWorks holds the film in, but there’s a certain kind of old-school charm to it. Which is probably just misplaced nostalgia on my part for old lo-fi media, but hey-ho.

Antz is an odd little film. It doesn’t contain the easy charms of a Pixar movie, and I can imagine kids would get very little out of it; but for adult animation fans, it’s kind of interesting.

3 out of 5

Antz is on Channel 4 today at 2:30pm.

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The Past Fortnight on TV #11

As discussed yesterday, I’m out of the country for a fair chunk of December, including when my regular monthly TV review is due. So to placate the ravenous need for my opinions about television that you will surely feel if such thirst goes unquenched for six-to-eight-weeks, here’s what I watched in the fortnight since my last TV post.

Crisis in Six Scenes
Crisis in Six ScenesWhen Amazon started making a serious effort to challenge Netflix in the field of streaming original series, one of their early moves was the headline-grabbing signing of Woody Allen to create his first TV series. As has since become clear, Allen didn’t know what he was letting himself in for. To summarise his comments from various interviews (and read between the lines a little), it seems he had a view of TV that’s about 20 years out of date, and thought he’d be able to dash off something suitable between two of his annual movies. At some point he obviously realised how much more sophisticated TV has become, and coopted a movie idea he’d had on the back-burner to expand into a short TV season. Allen’s been vocal about how miserable he found this process, but I’m not sure if he’s aware that he made a rod for his own back: he essentially made three movies in two years instead of his usual two. It probably would’ve been wise to swap out one of the films for the TV series, but you get the sense that, despite having been shown TV’s burgeoned respectability, Allen’s still something of a film snob. Rather than the potential of TV coming as a revelation to him, he’s declared he won’t be making any more.

On the evidence of the single six-episode season we did get out of him, that’s neither here nor there: Crisis in Six Scenes is just a slightly-longer-than-average Woody Allen film split into instalments. The first episode is the worst offender in this regard — it doesn’t reach a climax of any description, it just stops. The rest of the episodes aren’t as blatant (episode five’s ending even feels like it’s genuinely meant to be the end of an episode!), but none of them are particularly satisfying as a discrete segment. I’m not really one for binge-watching — I get fidgety and want a change; or if a show’s too good, I want to savour it rather than race on — but I watched all of Crisis in one sitting, because at heart it’s just a chopped-up movie. Some characters or events are confined to a single episode, but you get the impression that’s almost incidental rather than a deliberate attempt to make six finite units. The main storylines flow between episodes like the boundaries are artificially imposed — which, in a medium without the constraints of broadcast time slots and where all the episodes are released at the same time, they are.

A scene of CrisisBut enough of the form — what of the content? This is not prime Allen, that’s for sure. At times it makes for uncomfortable viewing, when it’s hard to tell if it’s half improvised or if half the cast are just a bit doddery (and I suspect it’s the latter). Other bits do work, though, and while it isn’t massively rewarding it is amusing at times. Even less assured are some broadly political points that it seems like Allen is trying to tap into, or maybe it’s just incidental. He appears to be using the series’ 1960s setting as a mirror of the present: the plot concerns a twenty-something anti-government protestor, and there’s lots of talk about unnecessary wars, campus demonstrations, young people staging protests, rights for women and black people, etc, etc. At first blush these parallels are all well and good, but I’m not sure they develop into much more than wry observations. The best I can take from it is a result of the particularly farcical last episode, where it may be that he’s trying to say people in general should be more aware and active, like the young are — to walk the walk of political change rather than just talking the talk.

If he was trying to spread such a message, it’s a bit buried. Maybe he was just picking on some low hanging fruit. Considering Allen’s half-arsed attitude to the whole endeavour, I guess that’s more likely. Oh well.

The Grand Tour (Season 1 Episodes 1-2)
The Grand TourAnother big gun in Amazon’s streaming mission, their £160 million “Not Top Gear, Honest” original series kicked off last month to widespread positive reviews and, apparently, big ratings (relatively speaking). I’m not really a ‘car person’, but like millions of others I wound up watching Top Gear during the height of the Clarkson / Hammond / May era for all the other hijinks. I thought it was going off the boil a bit even before their semi-enforced departure — I didn’t even get round to watching their last series. They come to Amazon after a short break (a long break for us, but it takes time to film these things, so, short break), and I think reinvigorated — possibly by the rest, possibly by the change of management, possibly by the huge budget.

There’s no denying that this is their Top Gear with just a few tweaks… unless you’re an Amazon lawyer, in which case it’s a completely different show. But the freedom from being a motoring programme on a public service broadcaster means they’re not quite so constrained by that remit. Episode 2, for instance, is half given over to them attacking a military training course in Jordan, a riff on Edge of Tomorrow in which they get to play at being action movie stars, and which features cars because action movies feature car chases, not because they’re actually reviewing how the motor performs while in a high-speed chase. There are still genuine car reviews, and they’re as dull / interesting (delete as applicable) as they always were. At least they’re excitingly shot and scored (still using cues from film music, as they always have).

Some bits are improved: the famous Star in a Reasonably Priced Car segment was always one of the weakest parts of the show (the track times were fun, but Clarkson is no interviewer), but here the need for celebrity guests is neatly pilloried. Conversely, a couple of things are weaker: their blatant attempt at a Stig replacement, The American, doesn’t really work. It’s also one of the bits that most feels “changed just enough to avoid a legal challenge”. I imagine there are only so many different ways to do a car show, so of course there are going to be similarities, but you could imagine them having done this as their next run of Genuine Top Gear (well, aside from the expense) without people thinking, “wow, they’ve completely changed the show!”

Still, it is what it is, and if you liked it before I can’t imagine you wouldn’t like it now, maybe even a little more.

Class (Series 1 Episodes 6-7)
ClassThe Doctor Who spin-off that no one’s watching continues with two of its strongest episodes. A two-parter that isn’t, the first is a “bottle episode”, with most of the cast stuck in detention and forced to confess their secret feelings by an alien rock. Cue arguments. Not Class’ strongest instalment — it’s a good idea, but the characters haven’t amassed quite enough secrets over just five episodes to make it feel as cathartic as it should — but it’s considerably better than the weaker ones. Even better is the next episode, which shows what Quill was up to while the kids were bickering. A world-hopping quest (presumably paid for by saving so much money on episode 6), it has several good ideas that it burns through like they’re going out of fashion. It feels most like Doctor Who, too, which provokes no complaints from me.

Next time: the Shadow Kin are back, again. Ah well.

Also watched…
  • Castle Season 7 Episodes 16-21 — by sheer bloody coincidence, the night before flying from London to the US I watched the episode where Castle flies from the US to London and has to deal with a murderer and possible terrorist on his flight. Super timing.
  • The Flash Season 3 Episodes 3-5 / Arrow Season 5 Episodes 3-5 — the much-anticipated four-way crossover between The CW’s superhero shows finished last night in the US, which means it’s at least a few weeks away over here. I’ll say something about it next time, then. Or the time after.
  • Junior Bake Off Series 4 — the main thing I take from this is that all kids are incredibly clumsy and slapdash.
  • The Moonstone — the recent BBC adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ novel, which is generally regarded as the first full-length English-language detective novel. This decent miniseries version was produced for daytime, and was the kind of series certain viewers proclaimed was good enough for prime time. It wasn’t.

    Gilmore GirlsThings to Catch Up On
    This fortnight, I have mostly been missing Netflix’s Gilmore Girls revival, subtitled A Year in the Life. Rather than race through the four feature-length instalments between their release last Friday and our departure yesterday, we decided to save them for when we’re back, like a Christmas treat. Maybe we’ll just watch them in four days then instead, but at least we’ll feel like we have a choice.

    Next time… a festive special, looking at what seasonal delights the tellybox has provided us with this year. As far as December 29th or so, anyway.

  • Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

    2016 #151
    Woody Allen | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13*

    Magic in the MoonlightWoody Allen’s 44th film is a Sunday-afternoon-style period comedy, which nonetheless manages to touch on issues of existentialism and the meaning of life. If that sounds terribly Deep, don’t worry: Magic in the Moonlight may tickle your fancy, but it’s unlikely to tax your brain.

    Colin Firth stars as Stanley Crawford, a genius illusionist and renowned debunker of spiritualists, who’s recruited by fellow magician and childhood friend Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) to expose a young ‘psychic’ named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who has enthralled a rich family in the South of France, but whose methods have Howard stumped. Despite his unconcealed cynicism, Stanley too struggles to find the truth, but he does find himself increasingly smitten with Sophie…

    After this setup the plot is no great shakes (the one twist is eminently guessable), but the rest of the film is a romantic confection made up of sunny Côte d’Azur locations, pretty vintage costumes, gently witty dialogue, and quality actors gamely playing along. Firth is hardly stretched as a romantic lead — indeed, he has one scene that is virtually lifted wholesale from Pride & Prej — but Stanley’s pompousness and sarcastic cynicism gives the role a little bite. Emma Stone’s big eyes do half the work for her, though she still gives it her all in a way that makes her character and performance endearing. Eileen Atkins, as Firth’s beloved aunt, and McBurney get halfway decent supporting parts, though there’s little time for the rest of the cast, especially Marcia Gay Harden, whose role as Stone’s mother is virtually nonexistent.

    Magic with daylightThe most pleasing aspect is probably Darius Khondji’s photography. He emphasises the region’s beautiful golden light, with saturated colours emphasised by deep shadows, to create a warm and idyllic atmosphere, further accentuated by the twinkling blue ocean and stunning locales. It’s exemplary work that will likely make you long for distant times and places.

    It may ultimately be a slight work, then, but it is still a delightfully pleasant way to spend 90-something minutes.

    4 out of 5

    * for “a brief suggestive comment, and smoking throughout”. So, it’s a PG, really. ^

    Bullets Over Broadway (1994)

    2007 #125
    Woody Allen | 95 mins | DVD | 15 / R

    Bullets Over BroadwayThe final Woody Allen film of this little ‘season’ is that rare thing: one that doesn’t star him!

    This is its biggest flaw, as John Cusack spends the entire film doing a blatant and middling impression of the writer/director. But he nonetheless does OK, and when the rest of the cast are note-perfect, the script pacy and funny, the photography gorgeous, and the long takes never more appropriate, it’s hard not to be impressed. Special mention for the final scene, a four-way shouted conversation between two high windows and the street — it’s beautifully written and executed.

    Another underrated Allen film, and probably the most down-right entertaining of his I’ve seen so far.

    4 out of 5

    Manhattan (1979)

    2007 #119
    Woody Allen | 92 mins | DVD | 15 / R

    ManhattanDrama (though it does include some very funny bits) focusing on the interrelationships of a handful of 40-something New Yorkers.

    Allen fails to convince as a bit of a womaniser, even if he is notably less neurotic than usual; however, once the viewer gets over that little fantasy of his, I believe there’s a lot to be had here. It’s a much more traditional film than Annie Hall — events occur in chronological order, with no unusual comedic breaks, or monologues to camera — and, as a drama, it’s all the better for this.

    The black & white photography is gorgeous throughout, helping the city to shine far brighter than any of the characters — for me, the best bit of the entire film is the opening three-and-a-half minutes, in which the beautiful images, Allen’s narration and Gershwin’s music combine in a tribute to what must be the most genuinely loved of all cities.

    (A 5-star rating system only allows minimal delineation, so for the sake of clarity I’d like to point out that I personally preferred this to Annie Hall, though it falls just off attaining a full five.)

    4 out of 5

    New York Stories (1989)

    2007 #117
    Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola & Martin Scorsese | 119 mins | DVD | 15 / PG

    New York StoriesAnthology of three shorts, connected only by the New York setting (which, incidentally, may as well be anywhere in all but the last segment).

    Scorsese’s Life Lessons opens the film, a tale of an artist and his love for his younger assistant. It’s an alright little drama. Next is Coppola’s dire Life Without Zoe, concerned with an irritating rich little brat and her irritating rich little brat friends (none of whom can act). Mercifully the shortest piece, but its very existence is lamentable. Finally, Allen’s Oedipus Wrecks drags the quality up. It may largely be typical Allen fare (see my Annie Hall review), but it’s quite funny and the fantastical twist halfway through is brilliantly bizarre.

    As a whole, then, an unsurprisingly mixed bag.

    3 out of 5

    The segment Life Without Zoe featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2007, which can be read in full here.

    Annie Hall (1977)

    2007 #115
    Woody Allen | 90 mins | DVD | 15 / PG

    Annie HallWidely considered to be Woody Allen’s breakthrough movie and winner of four of the ‘Big Five’ Oscars. One might call it a romantic comedy, but it’s very much an indie comedy-drama (for one thing, it utilises the ever-popular tactic of not taking place in chronological order), rather than the mainstream cliché-fest that first springs to mind whenever “rom-com” is mentioned.

    Annie Hall is either the basis for or just exemplifies all the clichés of Allen films (essentially, neurotic Jew who struggles with life), but that doesn’t make it bad. It’s very funny in places, suitably realistic in others, and has a nice line in comedic philosophy too.

    4 out of 5

    2007 | Weeks 46-48

    Welcome to the second most film-packed entry ever! Why has this come to be so?

    I’ve had a little bit of a theme season (one might say) these past few weeks, so I’ve been waiting for those films to appear in a single entry; plus there are other films watched in between, making the list even longer.

    So, what was the theme? Well, being the dedicated student that I am, I’ve watched all the suggested viewing for a seminar in which my group had to pose the questions. The seminar was on “Urban Rhythms”… but in film-viewing terms that translates to four Scorseses, four Woody Allens, and an anthology featuring shorts by both of them and Francis Ford Coppola (plus a fifth Scorsese that wasn’t on the list but was on TV). Such respectable viewing!

    Throw in another four films and this is the most film-packed entry since the seven-week, fifteen-film behemoth that was the first entry! And it makes it to only one film less in under half the time. Well blimey. Best get on with it then…


    #113 On the Town

    #114 Bringing Out the Dead

    #115 Annie Hall

    #116 Wild at Heart

    #117 New York Stories

    #118 Play Time

    #119 Manhattan

    #120 Hellboy: Director’s Cut

    #121 The King of Comedy

    #122 Taxi Driver

    #123 Goodfellas

    #124 Manhattan Murder Mystery

    #125 Bullets Over Broadway

    #126 Mean Streets