Tag Archives: 2012

San Andreas

Podcast host Steve Norman has been to see the latest disaster film starring the Rock and picks the faults with San Andreas.

by Steve Norman (@StevePN86)

san andreasDisaster films often disappoint. While the likes of Twister, Volcano, 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow portray the worst kinds of weather and natural disasters they make the viewer experience the same kind of peril that standing in a puddle would.

In fact the only ‘disaster movie’ of any note is Impossible, the movie starring Ewan McGregor and based on the real story of a family caught up in the 2006 Boxing Day Tsunami in Asia but of course this is very different to the Hollywood bombastic blockbusters.

Across the board these movies fail with boring plots, over the top CGI and dull performances from the cast.

San Andreas matches those movies almost step for step. You have a protagonist from a broken family, a child in trouble, a dickhead who gets his comeuppance and some (probably, I’m no seismologist) awful, awful science, although not as awful as 2012’s mutating neutrinos.

In fact the only thing that pulls this film into watchable-yet-forgettable territory, instead of the disappointing-and-forgettable area, is Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (I’m not sure which he wants to go by so I hedged my bets). He has the charisma that Dennis Quaid lacked in TDAT and is far more believable in the role of leading action hero than John Cusack in 2012. The Rock is exactly the kind of person you want at the helm here. He is toned down from the almost cartoonish character he plays in the Fast and Furious franchise but still an all-out action hero.

Other than the Rock, there aren’t many positives. However, the special effects and set pieces are spectacular and exciting. The negatives are in abundance though. Despite the mass destruction, you never feel that the central cast are in any real danger and the story meanders at a very predictable pace.

You also have Paul Giamatti playing the scientist guy. He seems a bit out of place; comes across as if he’s phoning in his performance. Giamatti just doesn’t seem to commit to the role. He and his band of science people have come up with a way of predicting earthquakes and are annoyed when people don’t listen to them despite them having come up with their new hypothesis one day before the proverbial hits the fan and they probably haven’t even put the results in to report form yet.

We have two English brothers who have the most annoying, over the top – and in the case of the Australian playing the older brother – fake accents. In fact, other than the Rock trying to find his daughter, and his daughter trying to be found, all other characters are pretty irrelevant to the plot.

Oh, and there’s a fleeting appearance from Kylie Minouge.

And the ending. Oh my god. Such American patriotic bilge. This may not have been appropriate.

San Andreas is decent in the switch your brain off and watch some over the top action kind of way but it is ultimately instantly forgettable and they only time you’re likely to watch it again is when it becomes one of those films that ITV 2 repeat three times a week and you have spent the last hour indecisively flicking through Netflix.

And you will be able to hear Steve talk about San Andreas on the next episode of the Failed Critics Podcast.

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Avengers Minisodes: Episode 6 – Avengers Assemble

In the run up to the latest hotly anticipated Marvel blockbuster Avengers: Age of Ultron, Steve and Owen have been busy putting together a series of short 20-25 minute long minisode podcasts. With clips from the films, trailers, retro reviews taken from our archived podcasts as well as brand new retrospective reviews featuring a varied mix of different guests for each episode, we’ll be running through all of the MCU movies thus far in chronological order.

The longest episode in our Avengers Minisode series sees us clock in at a bumper 30 minutes! But it’s worth it for Avengers Assemble, the film that truly cemented Marvel Studios as the groundbreaking film company they are today. The third highest grossing film of all time, earning over $1bn in ticket sales alone, The Avengers was an unstoppable juggernaut of a film that earned almost as much critical praise as it did in box office revenue.

It was the final stamp on a project that began all the way back in 2005 and closed out Marvel’s Phase 1 in style. The heroes we’d seen develop in the five preceding movies finally got together on screen for the first time under the direction of Joss Whedon.  To see Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), finally together alongside Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) of SHIELD as they tried to thwart an alien invasion, led by Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the movie was the massive pay-off that the franchise so richly deserved.

Long time listeners to the podcast will recognise our retro review here has been taken from the second ever episode of the Failed Critics Podcast with James, Steve and Gerry, back when the film was first released in 2012. Joining Owen for a brand new retrospective look back on the film is our special guest – and former podcast regular – Carole Petts to assess whether or not the film still holds up considering all that’s come after it in Phase 2.

You can keep up with all of the episodes released so far and those to come here.

Warning: our Avengers Minisodes may contain spoilers

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Half A Decade In Film – 2012

To bastardise a famous Eric Cantona quote: 2012 was a great year for film. Failed Critics was born.

Yes, this humble, modest, unassuming (what?) and shambolic film blog and podcast had its inaugural year less than a third of a decade ago. Beginning life as James Diamond’s personal blog, The Failed Critic, as he attempted to watch through the entire IMDb Top 250 list (and, suitably enough, failed to do so), it quickly expanded to include a weekly podcast and half a dozen other writers and contributors. Almost three years later and here we still are, if a little podgier larger than we were back then…

As we continue our quest to bring you the Failed Critics’ favourite films of the first half of this decade, it’s to 2012 that we look back on. A year when a James Bond film grossed over $1bn worldwide; when Peter Jackson introduced HFR to the mainstream with his first return to Middle Earth since The Lord of the Rings ended; and when people suddenly started to take Ben Affleck seriously again.


Dredd

Judge Dredd Still ImageNegotiation’s over. Sentence is death.

There’s a thing I do when I write something that someone else might read. If I’m reviewing anything, be it a film or a game or whatever, before I start writing I watch the trailer for it. Mainly so I know how far I can go with spoilers. If it’s in the trailer, it’s fair game to talk about. I do it when I’m spit-balling ideas on what to write and I can fully load my notes with stuff before I watch or play whatever I’m reviewing.

When I watched the trailer for Dredd to get the ideas flowing before I watched it that night, all the shivers I got the first time I saw it came back and I realised I’d made the right choice in my pick of 2012.

Judge Dredd was the only comic book I read as a kid. I still have my dog-eared copy of The Dark Judges on my bookshelf. So when I saw that trailer on a trip to the flicks, the teenager in me screamed! 13 year old me still hasn’t forgiven me or Sylvester Stallone for the abomination that was Judge Dredd. Stallone and his damn ego ruined the one comic book I love and seeing the trailer for Dredd showed me hope!

Turns out, that was pretty well placed hope. Dredd‘s story of a Judge and his rookie taking down a drug ring based in an apartment block is uncomplicated, brutal and just outstanding. Forget that awful “The judges are good guys really” thing from Sly’s film, Dredd is single-mindedly lethal and 100% the judge that fans wanted in the film adaptation of Mega City One.

Karl Urban’s Dredd is excellent. You can finally forget that terrible moment you saw Judge Dredd’s face (and it was Stallone) and place your faith comfortably on Urban’s gruff, uber-masculine chin and its outstanding acting ability. I had to fight against every fibre of my being wanting to stand and cheer when he says the iconic “I am the law”. Lena Heady is terrifyingly brilliant as the brutal head of the drug empire in the Peach Trees tower block. Going up against Dredd needs balls and smarts and Heady’s “Mama” has both, in spades. The two going at each other is a sight to behold for Dredd fans. Now, if we could only get a sequel.

by Andrew Brooker (@Brooker411)


The West Memphis Three

unnamedIf I focused on the things I can’t change, the things that have hurt me, what people have done to me, then they would have already broken me.

2012 was the year of the documentary feature for me and I’m going to give them some love in this week’s Half A Decade In Film. Jackie Siegel in The Queen of Versaille, she had me shouting at the screen and holding my head in my hands. Joyce McKinney told her ‘Mormon in Chains’ story, in Errol Morris jaw-dropping and sleaze fuelled Tabloid. Things got even weirder by the time The Imposter hit our screens… this actually happened, really and truly. I’ve seen the dramatised version of this and they tone it down to make Frederic Bourdin’s tale even vaguely believable. Right there is a mind blowing triple bill, but its another triple bill that tops 2012. The West Memphis Three.

Damien Echols, Jessie Miskelley & Jason Baldwin and their tangle (understatement of the decade dropped in there) with the Arkansas justice system. In three ground breaking and truly eye-opening films we follow their story in Paradise Lost (1996), Paradise Lost 2 – Revelation (2000) and finally Paradise Lost 3 – Puragtory arrives to conclude matters. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky had no idea how this project would pan out and even if you’d told them, they’d never have believed you. If you don’t know their story, then it has to be seen to be believed, don’t go Googling though – go in knowing nothing and you’ll take away so much more. If you’re curious, but not convinced by investing 7 hours of your time to watch all this, Peter Jackson (yes, that one) & Amy Berg put out another film West of Memphis in 2012; this covers everything in a couple of hours, but the reality is, that simply doesn’t do their story justice.

Incredulity, rage and many, many tears is what awaits you here. Two decades of story telling warrants seven hours of your time.

by Paul Field (@pafster)


El Ultimo Elvis (The Last Elvis)

the last elvisHave you ever felt that you’ve done everything? That you’ve reached all your goals?

The recent “Best Film” Oscar for Birdman will, hopefully, result in interest being shown in the back catalogue of Armando Bo, co-writer of Birdman and the writer/director of this wonderful drama from Argentina.

Despite the name, this is NOT a film aimed at Presley fans. I don’t, knowingly, own any Elvis records and yet absolutely love this film; it’s a story about fandom taken to levels that far exceed what most people would class as obsession.

Carlos “Elvis” Gutiérrez is a Buenos Aires based Elvis Presley impersonator. Other than the fact that he is a fat, sweaty, bloke crowbarred into a sparkly jumpsuit, he doesn’t much look like Elvis but he most certainly does sound like him. The problem is Carlos isn’t content to just sound like him, he’s focused on being Elvis.

He spends the day working in a washing machine recycling factory with headphones clamped to his ears. When he visits his, understandably hostile, ex-wife he constantly calls her Priscilla, her name is Alejandra. His daughter and his car are both, naturally enough, named Lisa-Marie.

When Alejandra is badly injured in a car crash, Carlos has to put his “big plan” on hold to look after his daughter. The bulk of the film follows the relationship he attempts to build with Lisa-Marie and his spiralling, deeply damaging, obsession starts to change the way you feel about him. Is he a harmless crank, to be allowed his passion, or is he a selfish jerk?

Carlos is played by John McInerny, an American professional Elvis impersonator. The producers initially hired him to coach an Argentinian actor for the live performance segments of the film, apparently he won them over to such an extent they gave him the part instead. Considering he is not an actor by trade, his performance throughout the whole film is nothing short of wonderful. He is completely believable in the part. He plays the numerous emotional scenes superbly and, needless to say, the musical performances are of a very high quality. The only part of his performance that is hard to judge is his speech. I do not speak Spanish so am not qualified to comment. It sounds authentic to me but could well be a Dick Van Dyke abomination to a native speaker, and we all know how horrific that is.

Infuriatingly, the polish of this jewel gets a little rubbed by the horribly heavy handed direction of the end of the story. There’s nothing wrong with the writing or the acting, but the way the climax is handled visually really does grate. That most dreaded of Crime Against Film-Fan Humanity, the montage, gets a pretty full work out, the accompanying music takes a distinct turn for the worse too.

It’s nowhere near enough to spoil the film but it’s an annoying feeling to take away with you at the end of a great watch.

by Liam (@ElmoreLTM)


The Intouchables

intouchablesWe listened to your classics. Now it’s time to listen to mine.

During this year I had noticed a film advertised at the cinema, a French film called The Intouchables, yes even Cineworld were showing it. Yet the poster didn’t really inspire me to see it, just a standard promo shot of Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy, it really was quite lacklustre. I remembered Cluzet from Tell No One back in 2006, but had no idea who Omar Sy was, I couldn’t even be bothered to look him up on IMDB; I was that unimpressed with the one-sheet.

During the films second week a friend turned to me and said “have you seen Intouchables?” I said I hadn’t. He just said “you really need to see it, it’s fantastic.” I had to take the next afternoon off to go and see it on this recommendation. I’m so glad I did. Intouchables ended up being one of my favourite films of the year, in a year which included Avengers, Skyfall, Amour and Rust & Bone, it really was a good year for French films.

Aside from the recommendation, my expectations were still very low. I really wasn’t prepared for how much I enjoyed this film. From the opening sequence as Sy drove Cluzet through the streets of Paris, the stunning cinematography accompanied with a fantastic score; a wonderful piano piece from Ludovico Einaudi. I was hooked. The sombre opening the scene changed as Sy’s explosive personality coned the local police after been caught for speeding that they were in an emergency and needed to get to the hospital, the whole mood changed. Cue September from Earth Wind and Fire and Sy and Cluzet singing along in the car escorted by the police, from sombre to comical effortlessly. I was then taken back in time and to the story of Philippe (Francois Cluzet) and Driss (Omar Sy) first encounter together and how the relationship between these two people turned into a truly remarkable friendship. I really want to be coy about the circumstances of both men, how they become friends because I really don’t want to spoil it for people who haven’t seen it. Also I don’t want to put people off either, I know people are not interested in films regarding certain conditions or situations, or even the poster…

Cluzet is remarkable as Philippe, it must have been one of his toughest acting jobs. I really did believe him, a sombre man due to his condition, the life sucked out of him. Then Sy as Driss is equally as good, filling the film with his personality, his fun and bringing life back to Philippe. There are scenes which make you howl with laughter, and scenes which make you want to cry, in both happiness and sadness. The emotional range I went through watching this film was incredible, with a perfect ending which always makes me smile.

The direction and writing from both Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano is assured, they never over cook the drama or under cook the comedy, the balance is perfect. Along with one of my favourite mixed soundtracks of all time, the Einaudi score pieces are sublime and with a good mix of songs as well. A remarkable film and if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you do watch it.

by Mike Shawcross (@Shawky1969)


Avengers Assemble

avengers“Steve Rogers: Big man in a suit of armour. Take that off, what are you?
Tony Stark: Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.

Marvel’s The Avengers. The Avengers. Avengers Assemble. “That film with Ironing Man and Captain USA and Thaw and that green dude Bulk.” Whatever you want to call it, the Marvel juggernaut finally hit full steam (if juggernauts are powered by steam?) crushing lesser comic book films in its path. It is actually one of four 2012 releases to have grossed well over a billion dollars worldwide (Skyfall, The Dark Knight Rises and The Hobbit being the others) and currently sits at 3rd in the all time highest grossing films list. Regardless of your opinion on comicbook movies, if you didn’t see Avengers, then I haven’t done the maths but I believe that means you simply weren’t on this planet upon its release.

Indeed, as voted for by listeners of the podcast way back when, it came out top of the pile in our first ever Failed Critics Awards. Whilst time and a rewatch has slightly softened my initially held incredibly high opinion of Joss Whedon’s superhero team-up blockbuster, it’s still a movie that I thoroughly enjoy. After leaving the cinema, thinking about what I’d just witnessed, I couldn’t think of a similar type of movie that I had seen done as well as this, nor one that was more fun. It had it all. Whilst the likes of Nolan and Snyder had tried to make superhero films that were gritty and a touch more realistic relatively speaking, Marvel had decided to stick more closely to what their readers and film fans wanted; a cartoony, humorous, ludicrously over the top actioner. Not only that but with Whedon at the helm, they had a guy who knew how to write light-hearted and entertaining characters. And who knew that he could direct action scenes involving multiple heroes, aliens and giant multi-dimensional worm things so well?

So, as mentioned, over the past couple of years, I’ve come to perhaps enjoy a couple of other movies released in 2012 slightly more, such as Looper and The Raid, yet none have ever topped that experience I had of walking out of the cinema believing I had just seen “my generations Star Wars“. The child-like excitement, the satisfying buzz and relief I felt that they had finally nailed what a comic book film should be has never left me and it still remains one of my favourite movies of its kind.

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)


And there we go, another year down, and only two more to go! As with previous articles, we’re more than happy to debate the relative merits of all the films above, or if you just want to contest our decisions entirely, simply leave a comment below and tell us where we’re going wrong. We’ll return next week with (yes, you guessed it) our 2013 article.

 

Rise Of The Guardians

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Last year, DreamWorks Animation celebrated its 20th anniversary.  To mark the occasion, Callum Petch has been going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment.  Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.


Rise-of-the-Guardians-image25] Rise Of The Guardians (21st November 2012)

Budget: $145 million

Gross: $306,941,670

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 74%

Rise of the Guardians is a bomb.  It is a big bomb.  Oh, sure, it doesn’t seem like it is, its eventual worldwide gross is double that of its production budget – the typical measure by which you determine whether a film is successful at the box office or not – but it is.  Domestically, the film took 10 weeks to scrape and claw its way past the $100 million mark, and the longer a film stays in cinemas the less money the studio actually gets (you can get a full-on explanation of that here).  Overseas, the film performed somewhat better but still not great, especially in comparison to prior DreamWorks films, and once the breakdown of the foreign dollar came in (and you can find out how that works here) DreamWorks still didn’t make a profit.  In fact, they had to take an $87 million write-down on the film, the first time they’d lost money on a project since Sinbad nearly a decade ago.

So, why did it bomb?  It’s not the fault of the film being bad – which was critically praised and is a damn good if crippled film, but we will get onto that later – so why did it just face-plant right out of the gate?  That’s what most of this entry is going to focus on because that’s our through line for the last sixth of this series and it could provide us with explanations for the box office prospects of the remaining pair of films in this series.  So, apologies for those of you who were hoping for an in-depth look at the film.  We’ll look at it if there’s time, because it’s a damn good film with a killer final 20 minutes, but for this series we need to examine the box office performance of the film rather than the film itself, unfortunately.

Full disclosure, here: since Rise of the Guardians is a relatively recent film, and was the first notable major underperformer that DreamWorks had seen in a decade, much of the stuff that I’m about to say is being referenced and sort of lifted from websites who, at the time, were filing think-pieces on this very subject not even 48 hours after the first weekend totals came in.  Many of the things that I will say here were theories that I had prior to going off and doing research anyway, but other writers’ reasons and thought processes helped open my mind a bit as to specificity.  So, with that in mind, I’d like to give credit to HitFix’s Gregory Ellwood and Animation World Network’s Ed Hooks for helping, thanks to their respective articles, shape my thoughts and theories for this article.  With that said, let’s dive in.

Undoubtedly, one of the biggest reasons is that the budget for this thing is ridiculous.  Although it clearly makes usage of every last cent, $145 million for an animated movie in this decade is insane and unsustainable.  Yes, Pixar and Disney blow that amount on every film they make but, as we have previously touched on, they can get away with it.  Everybody else has realised that $150 million domestic isn’t guaranteed anymore, so they’ve purposefully started making films for less than/equal to $100 million to compensate.  That’s why Aardman’s The Pirates! In An Adventure! With Scientists! was able to recover from a dismal American showing, it only cost $55 million to make.

DreamWorks, however, continue to pump all of their movies with the same level of money, increasing the risk if one fails and regardless of whether said pumping is necessary.  If you’ve been following along, you’ll have been keeping track of the “Budget” segment of my article pre-amble and seen that no film post-Shrek 2 has come in at under $100 million.  Now, in certain cases, like with this film or the Kung Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon series, that’s fine, as extra detail and money helps with the world and tone and such.  But for animated comedies?  Did Megamind really need a $130 million budget?  Despicable Me came in at $69 million and it looks way more distinctive and, arguably, better than that film did.  Or, in blunt terms, is there any reasonable explanation as to why the budgets for How To Train Your Dragon 2 and Penguins of Madagascar are separated by only $13 million?

That’s as good a link as any to my next point.  The budget thing is also systemic of a larger problem: DreamWorks still trying to play like it’s 2005, like they’re the only non-Disney/Pixar players on the Western feature-length animation block.  However, thanks to them blowing up the Disney dominance back in the early 2000s, more and more animation studios – and, specifically, distribution studios like Universal who are now more willing to get in the game – have now sprung up, creating further competition.  They started poking their heads above the water tentatively in the mid-to-late 00s, when Laika would release Coraline and Blue Sky Studios – obligatory pleading to PLEASE NOT F*CK UP Peanuts – would quietly become a consistent and reliable studio, but 2010 onwards has seen them burst on through en mass.

2012, in particular, saw new efforts from recent upstarts Illumination Entertainment (The Lorax), Laika (ParaNorman), and Sony Pictures Animation (Hotel Transylvania), as well as long-timers Aardman (The Pirates!), Studio Ghibli (The Secret World of Arrietty actually opened on nearly 2,000 screens in a rare display of genuine confidence in that brand from at-the-time distributors Buena Vista), and Blue Sky (Ice Age: Continental Drift), in addition to Pixar (Brave) and a resurgent Disney (Wreck-It Ralph).  When you also throw in DreamWorks’ other 2012 release (Madagascar 3), that is a crowded as hell schedule – one, relatedly, that has only gotten more crowded the further into the decade we get, which pleases me to no end – and one just cannot coast anymore.  The days of DreamWorks being able to guarantee butts in seats, regardless of the quality of their films, purely because there is nothing else available have long since departed.

Not to mention that each of these films carried with them their own unique, distinct, and marketable identity that didn’t just rely on brand recognition.  The primary trailers for The Lorax hit the “From the studio that brought you Despicable Me” and “Based on the story by Dr. Seuss” buttons, but also clearly outlined the premise and the film’s bright, candy-land colour scheme and art style.  Boom.  Sellable.  ParaNorman had that gothic horror meshed with broad comedy feel and identity front and centre, albeit with its darkest edges sanded down to make it more palatable to, for some reason, snobby stop-motion-averse mainstream audiences.  Boom.  Sellable.  Ice Age is Ice Age and came out when literally nothing else was in cinemas, Wreck-It Ralph slapped the videogame conceit over everything, Hotel Transylvania emphasised its loudness and physical comedy.

DreamWorks, however, still sell their films the same way they always have – some attitude, pop culture references, and licensed soundtrack for comedies; lots of flying, out-of-context gags, and emphasis of the 3D elements for more dramatic fare.  They don’t sell individual films so much as they sell the DreamWorks brand – Home is even suffering from this, even though I actually rather like its trailers.  This is fine for, say, a Madagascar sequel, because audiences already know what they’re getting and like what they’re getting and the trailer just needs to promise them more of the same, but becomes a problem when you’re trying to sell a new film, especially when you pump them out with the factory-like efficiency that DreamWorks do.

Here, for example, is the first trailer for Rise of the Guardians.

Now, that trailer does a lot of things right: it establishes a clear tone, introduces us to our main characters, has some mystery in there instead of simply showing everything off all at once, and it sets itself apart from most of the other animated features on the market.  Yet, simultaneously, it’s a major failure.  It relies too heavily on kids’ prior affection for seeing characters like Santa and the Easter Bunny teaming up to fight evil (more on that in a moment), it fails to properly establish Pitch Black and his motivations, our true lead character, Jack Frost, is nowhere in sight, and it doesn’t explain much at all.  It’s a tough line to walk when it comes to trailers, show too much and you negate the audience’s desire to see it but show too little and you do just as much damage, and Guardians’ first one, although it does a lot for me, shows too little to engage general audience interest who like to have more than the sketchiest sketch of an idea of what they’re getting into.

In fact, to link into the film itself, that belief that audiences would be enamoured enough by the idea of Santa, the Easter Bunny, Sandman, Jack Frost, and the Tooth Fairy teaming up to fight evil feels sadly outdated.  In the 21st Century, this worthless irritating and pathetic century, heart-on-sleeve sincerity and wonder is something that society very much seems to frown upon.  That desire to be a little cheesy, to have fun, to be sweet and nice is something that we, as a culture for some utterly confounding reason, have decided is beneath us and that we must laugh out of the room at every opportunity.

Instead, the only way we can accept enjoying these things now is with a sort of ironic detachment – hence why 80% of movie musicals spend their entire runtimes apologising for being musicals, why romance films are so po-facedly serious about everything, and why sci-fi almost never kicks back and has any fun anymore.  When something like that does come along, like this past weekend’s Jupiter Ascending because never let it be said that I don’t try and keep this column topical, everybody laughs it out of the room because we apparently can’t accept that sincerity anymore.  Maker, animation has quite literally only just gotten over this image problem, and we can blame that tangible attitude of Shrek for sending us down that path whilst thanking this Second Disney Renaissance for finally pulling the public back out of it.

Therefore, you present the general public with a film like Rise of the Guardians – a film whose marketing relies on kids’ prior attachment and desire to believe, and whose finale literally involves the villain being defeated by a scrappy group of kids believing in wonder with all of their heart with no cynicism or sass from the film (and it’s f*cking amazing, for the record) – then of course it’s going to open poorly at the box office and never truly recover!  Our society doesn’t foster that kind of genuinely sincere wonder and heart anymore, so most will just dismiss it out of hand and move on with their lives.

And then there’s also the tangible thing.  A common complaint that keeps cropping up in people’s excuses as to why the film did poorly or just in general conversation about the film: Santa’s Russian accent.  This is very much a creative choice that has baffled people, with some even thinking that that’s why the film failed.  Because kids are familiar with Santa, err, not being Russian and that would therefore turn them off the film totally.  I sort of get where they’re coming from, it’s the tangible element of a larger problem that not many people can totally figure out – in that the beefy, warrior-ised, badass designs of the Guardians fit their personalities and the more action-heavy moments but clashes with the sincere childlike hope of the rest of the film – but I highly doubt that it’s a reason all by itself for turning people away.

Finally, there was the release date: Thanksgiving weekend.  I get the idea, it’s the holidays and a big family movie is just the kind of thing that audiences are in demand for.  But, as we have previously talked about, thanks to the way they do business, DreamWorks movies aren’t Events like a Disney film or a Pixar film are.  They’re films that come out on a semi-regular basis and you either watch them or you don’t.  Even when the films are Must See viewing – and we’ve covered several of those in this series – their releases don’t carry that air, despite the millions of dollars that the company throws into marketing these things.  So whilst Disney can get away with releasing Tangled or Frozen over that weekend, DreamWorks can’t because, unlike Disney, Rise of the Guardians is not an Event Movie.

Hence why the thing basically died in fourth place opening weekend behind Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part 2 (second week), Skyfall (third week), and Lincoln (third week), and just barely fending off Life of Pi by virtue of that opening on less screens.  All of those prior factors, with really sub-par marketing likely being the inarguable main reason and let us not forget general DreamWorks over-saturation, conspired to send Rise of the Guardians to an early grave.  Many of these are actually rather recurrent in the reasons behind DreamWorks’ other recent failures, which means that we might get more time each week to actually talk about those goddamn films properly, but that’s also a really worrying sign that the company doesn’t seem to be learning from its mistakes.  Rise of the Guardians is rather much Patient Zero for this recent commercial trajectory that DreamWorks have gone down and, for some reason, it’s been allowed to fester instead of being quarantined and dealt with.

So… with all of that said and sorted… how is the film?  I realise that I have pushed it to the background here, much like I did with Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron way back when, but I needed to since, as we all know, this is the start of the spiral that DreamWorks are currently stuck in and to not talk about it is to do a disservice to this series I’ve been working on.  It is, however, a shame because Rise of the Guardians is very much worth talking about.  If I were writing for a website where 8 straight A4 pages of text could be presented in a way that wouldn’t cause one’s eyeballs to rip themselves out of one’s skulls and hightail it to the heavens to get away from the torture, I’d happily spend the next 4 pages talking about it.  Unfortunately, I’m about 1 full A4 page away from my word limit, so I’m going to have to be very brief.

Rise is a very good film that could have been an outstanding film had it not been forced to bow to the unspoken decree that ALL ANIMATED FILMS MUST BE LESS THAN 100 MINUTES, OR SO HELP ME!  The problem with it, and why it doesn’t work as well as it should for the first 70 minutes, is that it needs to be at least 2 hours and 10 minutes long instead of 89 (97 with credits).  Rise of the Guardians is a film that is stuffed to the brim with content and plot and story.  Not backstory, it’s smart enough to realise that you don’t need to waste time explaining the backstories of these characters, but story.  This is a film that needs to chronicle Jack Frost’s life, his emotional insecurities, to parallel that with Pitch Black’s insecurities, provide arcs for the pair of them, fill in the cast enough that the disruption of their daily schedules carries actual emotional weight, build a world, kill someone to raise stakes, cause the viewer to actually care about the kids who will factor into the finale, provide several suitably exciting action beats, and provide enough scenes of the guardians just hanging out together so that one gets the sense of how they are outside of the film, among many other things.

Surprisingly, it pulls off more of this than I was expecting – the Jack Frost stuff is brilliant, the parallels between him and Pitch are called out in dialogue more than action but it still works gangbusters and is far better done than it is in How To Train Your Dragon 2, and it nails the kid stuff spectacularly which is why the ending works so insanely well (more on that in a paragraph or two).  Unsurprisingly, though, it’s not totally successful, mainly because it never ever slows down.  How can it?  It’s got way too much content to have to get through, but it’s all necessary, so it has to pace itself like a drag race, never once letting up on the gas.  This does mean, though, that much of the first two-thirds of the film don’t click as they should – in particular, Sandman’s initial death should be a majorly heartbreaking “we are not f*cking around here” moment, but we barely ruminate on it enough for it to have any real impact.

There are chunks of film missing, basically.  The slower moments, the connective moments, where we ease up and relax with our characters.  They do exist, but they’re brief and hint at the film it could have been if there was more of that breathing time.  The best sequence not related to the ending involves the rest of the guardians helping Tooth Fairy with her job of collecting children’s teeth, because it allows the characters to just relax and be themselves.  Admittedly by turning this exercise into a silly competitive mini-setpiece, but it still feels genuine.  It deepens the cast, establishes their bonds, helps the viewer invest more, and the film needed more of that.  There just quite literally isn’t the time to.

Fortunately, though, the film f*cking nails its ending.  Seriously, the entire final 20 minute stretch, from Jack trying to help Jamie re-ignite his belief in Santa and the other Guardians, to the duo’s final goodbye, is damn near perfect.  It accurately captures that sincere, heartfelt spirit of being young and wanting to believe.  To believe that there are mysterious unknowable forces of absolute good in the world, that fear and nightmares really are just concepts that can’t actually hurt you, that you can effect real genuine change on the world through innocence and kindness.  It’s one of the best examples that I can find in recent memory of a film just getting that feeling of being a child, since most films instead either overly patronise or barely mask the fact that these are just adults attempting to remember how kids are and act.

Its emotional beats pay off excellently, even with the truncated runtime that the film has had to set them all off, the animation reaches extra special levels of gorgeous, seeing the guardians finally let loose is thrilling, the return of Sandman is one of those “oh, HELL YES!” moments that great fiction can pull from even the stoniest of human beings, and it’s all so sincerely joyous and heartfelt.  Again, the main narrative crux of the finale is whether a kid will believe hard enough that some kind of possibly unreal force of absolute good will rescue him from a nebulous force of absolute bad, and he and his friends are instrumental in saving the day purely because they believe hard enough.  And this is all played dead-straight for pure, heart-warming emotion, because this sequence, and consequently the film itself, absolutely would not work if it did so any other way.

And that is almost literally all of the time that I have this week.  There is so much more to talk about with regards to Rise of the Guardians – its sublime animation, the true extent of its pacing issues, its tone, how Chris Pine’s voice fits Jack Frost and unnecessarily distracts in equal measure, the marginalisation of Tooth Fairy, its themes of loneliness and how one can be shaped by that – but, much like with the film itself, I’ve tried to do too much in too little available time.  If I ever stupidly decide to retrofit this ridiculous series into a book format, then you’d better believe that I will be expanding this section majorly.  For now, though, Rise of the Guardians was a bomb, but it didn’t deserve to be, and it’s getting worrying that I can apply the first two parts of this sentence to more and more DreamWorks films as time goes on.


Rise of the Guardians was a major, notable financial dud for DreamWorks Animation, their first in nearly a decade.  It cost the company substantial money and likely put the studio on edge as to its future – not unfounded considering how 2013 would wrap up.  Rise also marked the end of the studio’s 8 year relationship with distributor Paramount Pictures as the success of Rango inspired the latter to make more home-grown animation, and DreamWorks’ desire for a deal with better terms for themselves.  In August of 2012, they signed a five-year deal with 20th Century Fox, owners of Blue Sky, and began this new relationship the following year.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the first film to come from this new partnership, The Croods, speculate on why this one was a success, and try to explore the further ramifications of this move.  Also, we’ll actually talk about the film this time.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch has got gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Apologies for the delay, this week, folks.  I needed extra time to be able to crack this one, and I’d rather be late than turn in a sub-par entry.  Anyways…

Last year, DreamWorks Animation celebrated its 20th anniversary.  To mark the occasion, Callum Petch has been going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment.  Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.


madagascar 3 224] Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (8th June 2012)

Budget: $145 million

Gross: $746,921,274

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 81%

Why is it that the third instalment in a trilogy is typically the weakest?  It’s a commonly held belief that the finale to a trilogy is always the weakest part, but why exactly is that often the case?  Typically, when a third instalment of something falls, it’s because the formula powering the series has become ever more apparent and the film itself lacks the ideas, energy, and originality to mask that fact.  Franchises are often scared to come up with new avenues to take their cast and world down, most likely out of fear that audiences will reject them out of hand, so they simply recycle and do-over, only increasing the scale in the hopes that the scale distracts people from the realisation that everybody involved is out of ideas and/or phoning it in.

There are two separate ways out of that issue, however.  The first is to use your characters and world to explore new themes, even if the surface dressing is still the same – the Toy Story series, for example, has the same basic plot outline each movie, the toys get separated from Andy and have to find their way back to him, but uses that to explore a different theme each time, with consumerism trends in the first film, the nature of collectables in the second, and growing up and maturing out of toys in the third.  Note how I specify “themes” there.  There needs to be a reason as to why the script is being changed, otherwise you just end up with a film that’s equally as pointless and aimless as one that just blatantly rehashes the first film – this is why The Hangover Part II sucked, because it soullessly redid the first film with no effort, and why The Hangover Part III is equally as bad, because the switch to a pitch black action comedy felt like an idea that somebody had but never bothered to properly flesh out.

The other way is to simply build on what works.  People typically don’t mind, or don’t mind as greatly, that they’re getting the same thing in a new coat of paint if the problems with the prior films are fixed, the new film has enough new ideas and spins and variations to justify its existence, and that the new instalment radiates joy – that it’s happy to be here and that everyone involved is happy to be here for reasons that don’t relate to their massive paycheques.  This is why nobody – except stuffy, or admittedly more discerning, film critics/snobs – cares that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is formulaic and predictable, because each film has enough new spins and differences, as well as a cast and crew who mostly look like they are having the time of their lives, that it gets away with it.

Into this picture enters the Madagascar series, one that by its very nature is going to end up feeling formulaic.  The entire premise of the series hinges on the cast never actually making it back to New York City as, once they do, you have to address that however you think is best before the series ends.  As fun as the cast is, they need that drive to get back to New York, along with the inevitable realisation that they actually rather like being free animals thank you kindly, because once you work through that there is nowhere else to go.  Hell, stretching it out over three full-length films is already inviting sighs of derision from more sceptical viewers.

Not to mention that, thematically, these films very much tread the exact same ground over and over and over again.  Each film’s central theme is about family, and specifically Alex’s family.  In Madagascar, he loses his anonymous public family but becomes closer to his surrogate family of friends.  Escape 2 Africa has him drift apart from his surrogate family as he reconnects with his real and long-lost family, before closing the film by becoming equally close with both of them.  Whilst Europe’s Most Wanted sees Alex discover how much his first surrogate family means to him, and replacing his anonymous public family with a second surrogate family of circus animals.  (OK, admittedly it’s a bit of a stretch, but you get what I mean, hopefully.)  Plus the fact that each film’s climax comes from him stepping up and assuming the leadership role that he is destined to have.

So, why is this not a problem, then?  I mean, the Shrek films trod the same ground over and over, and critics, animation lovers and, eventually to a degree, viewers revolted over it.  The Madagascar series becoming more and more popular, and becoming more and more critically accepted, despite doing the same thing seems to go against common sense.  Why?  Because it chooses Option 2 from before.  Each Madagascar film is working from the same basic template but tries different things and different tacks in the hopes that something fits and to keep things fresh.  The first film is a joke machine but also keeps falling back into bad DreamWorks habits so doesn’t work as well as it should, the second film went in on the ensemble nature and added the heart that was missing from the first, creating a superior if still not excellent film as a result.

The third film… well, saying that it’s a mess doesn’t even begin to properly describe it.

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted is the moment in which this series threw off any pretence of making sense, flipped off the DreamWorks formula that it had fallen back on as a safety net in the past, and embraced its zany, madcap, cartoon (for lack of a better term) nature.  The opening 20 minutes feature the penguins and the chimps trashing a Monaco hotel room, an elaborate Prince of Versailles disguise that’s also packed to the gills with technology, an interesting idea as to how close to Africa Monaco is, a ridiculous car chase, and an animal control hunter who is like a cross between a Terminator, Carmelita Fox, and a German Shepard (more on her later).  It’s bonkers, it’s silly, and it’s a huge stupid amount of fun.  The series seems to have finally truly found its voice!

But then our four leads stow away with an animal circus, in the hopes that their impressing of an American promoter – represented as the single most stereotypical American image possible, he even has a pet eagle – gets them a ticket back to New York.  From here, the zaniness is significantly dialled back down, the heart is pushed back up and we settle into a groove that’s like a more unique version of Madagascar 2 – a film that cribbed from almost literally every animated film ever.  The madcap zaniness, save for a few running gags, only resurfaces whenever the prior mentioned animal control hunter forcibly inserts herself back into a film that has no real usage for her – fitting, since she ends up operating well outside of her jurisdiction by this point and so is quite literally forcing herself into a place she no longer belongs in.

In fact, let’s not put this off any longer and just talk about Captain Chantel DuBois, already.  She is, undoubtedly, the highlight of the film because Europe’s Most Wanted just lets go of the leash and lets her run about with pretty much zero ties to reality.  She can break through walls simply by running at them, has back-up plans within back-up plans, breaks no sweats when escaping from prison, punches out snakes, can revive her heavily injured comrades purely through the power of overblown musical numbers, and has the kind of nutso determination that would even give Cruella de Vil pause – a comparison that almost literally every single film reviewer ever has made.  She is very much like the Penguins, except that the film is able to increase the laughs it can mine from her because, unlike the Penguins, the script doesn’t call for her to be anything other than this force of nature and that mystique makes her traits all the funnier.

She’s also barely connected to the film at large.  After the Monaco chase – the uproarious, delirious, ridiculous Monaco chase – she doesn’t come across the main cast again for literally another 40 minutes, and even then it’s purely to set up the pointless Third Act Misunderstanding so that we can have The All Is Lost Moment.  Her presence feels unnecessary, like the writers came up with this stellar idea for a character and refused to drop her when she became pointless to the story.  Yet, the film also ends up addressing this.  Everybody else in the film has moved onto to other, more important and pressing issues, but DuBois is crazed and obsessive and won’t let things lie, so she wrestles control of the film back to herself even though she’s completely pointless to everyone’s current story arc.

In that sense, she could be read as a stealth parody of villains in kids’ animated films, and especially villains in prior Madagascar films – the completely superfluous presence who feels here more out of supposed necessity than anything else, only with their competency amped up to extreme proportions and their not-being-needed actually being vital to the character itself.  In less capable hands, this would still make DuBois a pointless presence who ends up making the film feel unfocussed – the kind of satire that isn’t really satirical, just a self-aware example of what it’s supposedly making fun of.  However, DuBois is such a ridiculous presence that she ends up feeling vital to the film as a frequent shot of barely restrained insanity to keep the pace and tone up, much like the Penguins in the first two films.

Anyways, back to my prior statement of “Madagascar 3 is a complete mess.”  The reason that I say that is because under any level of thinking, the film falls apart completely.  Not in terms of plot, the jumpy “we’re making it up as we go” nature of the scenarios fits the “we’re making it up as we go” travel plans of the main cast.  But everything about the film itself is like a laundry list of faults.  Its tone is all-over-the-place, lurching from something close to Madagascar 2’s heart-on-sleeve sincerity to deranged anything-goes joke machine – King Julian’s plot this time is that he falls in love with a tricycle riding circus bear and everything to do with it is exactly as ridiculous as it sounds.  Its pacing never slows, sometimes to its detriment with it never truly letting certain events sink in.  The non-Alex parts of the main cast are, once again, shuffled to the back of the deck for more time with the new characters.

It’s a conflicted film, is what I’m getting at; one that, even when it seems to have found its groove – balancing madcap mayhem with an acknowledged but not totally prevalent undercurrent of sadness – still doesn’t know what exactly it’s trying to be.  One that simultaneously improves on its predecessors’ prior faults and also does nothing but repeat them over and over again.  One that makes absolutely no sense and, at the same time, makes perfect sense.  That’s the masterstroke, essentially; Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted is a stretched-out classic animation short.  Nothing makes conventional sense, expected rules are constantly flaunted, and thinking is actively discouraged as doing so destroys the magic.

It’s hard for me to truly explain why Madagascar 3 is a better film than its prior two entries because, as I’ve just said, trying to talk about the film properly reveals it to be full of holes that you could drive a truck through, but my guess is energy.  There’s genuine propulsive energy to proceedings, where every scene leads straight into the next, and what it loses in emotional heft by refusing to step off the accelerator post-title card it gains through fun and the fun kind of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks.  Hell, that madcap pace is the reason why the critics who did enjoy it tripped over themselves to praise it.

I guess this is the point where I should mention Noah Baumbach, huh?  Now, so far in this recent series of famous live-action talent stopping by DreamWorks to help out with their films, the implementations haven’t been huge DNA shifting inclusions.  By that I mean, they’ve not been as hands on as Baumbach was here – del Toro came on late to Megamind and was more involved with story in Puss In Boots than anything else, whilst Roger Deakins was specifically brought on to help with lighting for How To Train Your Dragon – although they were still very important, animation being a very collaborative medium and all.  By contrast, Baumbach got his hands on the script and proceeded to re-write 60 pages of it, which – since one page of a script often equates to one minute of film – is roughly two-thirds of the film, back in Summer 2010, two years prior to its release.

You may notice that I haven’t spent ages talking about how Baumbach influences the finished film, whether his voice is drowned out by that of DreamWorks, and if the film is better or worse for having him.  Well, that’s because I don’t know as, probably surprising no-one considering the gaps in my film library, I have never seen a Noah Baumbach film – with the exception of his co-writing credit for Fantastic Mr. Fox – so I can’t say anything for certain at this time.  What I can say is that there is certainly more quirk here, a more specific kind of quirk that feels very individualistic and auteur-ish in comparison to the typical group-written scripts of animated films.  Once again, there is a sequence where DuBois heals her badly injured comrades by singing “Non Je Ne Regrette Rien” – incidentally, I never knew how much I wanted to hear Frances McDormand sing that song until it happened – and that’s a different kind of quirk than King Julian’s continued habit of singing pop songs badly.

So, as you may have gathered – both by the unfocussed nature of the piece and the fact that I gave myself three extra days to try cracking this thing – I can’t really explain why Madagascar 3 works for me since, again, it is objectively a giant undecided mess, the kind of film that wants to have its cake and eat it too and it does manage to do both but you’re really not sure how and my head now hurts.  Its flaws are major but fade into the background whilst it’s running because the film is just so much damn fun and so fast as to eventually overwhelm the viewer and protect them from those flaws, some of which are deliberate – there are several instances of blatant product placement but the film does so in a way where it calls attention to how stupidly out of place it is, making it a joke in and of itself.

The public very much seemed to feel the same way, as Madagascar 3 would go on to be DreamWorks Animation’s most successful non-Shrek film ever.  Domestically, it opened in first place, trouncing expected chart-topper Prometheus by nearly $10 million.  It even held surprisingly strong against Brave, only tumbling down majorly once Ice Age: Continental Drift came along to poach its 6 week-old screens.  It closed barely $1 million less than what How To Train Your Dragon made domestically, making it the second-best non-Shrek domestic performance for DreamWorks ever and the tenth highest grossing film domestically of 2012.  “Afro Circus” may have gotten on the nerves of everyone who wasn’t 6, but you gotta admit that it served its purpose.

Overseas, the film was a frickin’ monster, more than doubling the amount it made domestically.  Now, the Madagascar series has always performed well overseas, especially in Europe, and adding 3D premiums onto that just pushes things into overdrive.  Number 1 debuts in Italy, Spain, Brazil, France, Russia, Germany, and The UK (those last two being especially surprising since, in typical inexplicable animation fashion, it didn’t debut there until October), strong performance in burgeoning market China, even Japan took to it and DreamWorks films usually sink like a stone there!  Just like with Escape 2 Africa before it, Europe’s Most Wanted closed with a foreign total over $100 million more than its predecessor, making it the eighth highest grossing film worldwide of the year, only beaten animation-wise by the quite-literally-inexplicably-popular-overseas Ice Age series.

So, why Madagascar 3?  Why this as the big foreign homerun over pretty much anything else DreamWorks have ever done?  Well, first of all, you have the Madagascar brand, and people like the Madagascar brand – as well they should, they’re good movies.  Mainly, however, I think that it is that unique surrealism that did it.  Although there are still some specific pop culture references in here, mainly stemming from King Julian’s singing habit, they’re not the main source of humour.  They never have been for the Madagascar series, not in the same way that the Shrek series is.  The jokes instead come more from character interactions, slapstick and physical comedy, and just plain weirdness, which translates better overseas.

Madagascar 3 doubles down on the weirdness and the slapstick and such, which makes the humour more universal, more global, and more appreciable to non-American audiences without sliding into generic non-descript jokes that lack identity – the sequence where the guards systematically go through every prison cell escape tactic in the book is a bit that’s hilarious to quite literally everybody and feels unique and specific to Madagascar 3.  That embracing of the weirdness elevates the film beyond Yet Another Talking Animal Movie and films with distinct, easily-marketable identities are near-guaranteed to do well.  Throw in the emergence of 3D, the goodwill banked by the franchise, it being a trilogy-ender, and the fact that it is a genuinely great film – although good luck getting me to explain why it is – and the combination is pretty much bullet-proof.

(Side Bar, real quick: This, incidentally, is why Penguins Of Madagascar switched places with Home on DreamWorks’ release schedule.  Madagascar was thought to be an impenetrable brand at home and abroad, and DreamWorks could have used a hit after the box office and financial woes that I have referred to and will continue to refer to throughout this series.  It’s also why the film’s total collapse at the domestic box office and mild performance overseas was genuinely surprising and alarming for pretty much everybody everywhere.)

So, with numbers and factors like those, is it any wonder that, despite having burnt through and dealt with the franchise’s end game, Katzenberg was still prepping us all for a fourth instalment in 2018, until recent events forced his hand otherwise?  If How To Train Your Dragon 2 had collapsed totally – which, in a way, it sorta did, but we will get to that – that would have left him with only one film series that he could rely on, and why not keep milking your cash cow until its udders turn black and drop off?  In any case, though, that leaves Madagascar as that rare series that started out mediocre but actively improved the further on it went, which is especially surprising for an animated film.  What began as a conflicted formulaic DreamWorks film would grow to embrace its weirdness and craziness, gifting it a unique voice in a landscape of films that simply poorly imitate the better competition, and the eventual somewhat begrudging respect of snobby critics.

I almost ended this by saying that Madagascar is DreamWorks’ equivalent of the Fast & Furious series, but then I realised how utterly deranged I would have sounded if I did.  After all, at no point does Madagascar 1 sink to the lows of 2 Fast 2 Furious and at no point does any entry in this series, even my favourite Penguins of Madagascar, reach the heights of Fast Five.  The spirit of the comparison is there, though.


We are nearing the end of the Retrospective, my friends – we only have four official weeks left and one of them is devoted to TV – which means that we are going to have to deal with the troublesome state that DreamWorks Animation is currently in.  In the 24 months separating next week’s film and near-enough-the-present-day, they have only had two mostly unqualifiable successes, which is a problem, since most of the films have been originals and we know how franchise-dependent DreamWorks is.  This will be our through-line for the remaining few weeks, as we use our remaining films to try and answer this one simple question: what the hell happened?  Next week, we begin with the one that started it all, Rise of the Guardians.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch is a long way from home.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

The Queen of Versailles

David Siegel and his wife Jackie The Queen Of VersaillesIt’s your birthday. You want to celebrate in the best possible way. So you arrange a party at the top floor of the Gherkin, with Girls Aloud playing a set. Oh, and it won’t cost you a penny – your employer is footing the bill, as it’s being classed as an industry event.

Sounds ludicrous doesn’t it? But it happened, to celebrate the birthday of a big name in the mortgage market back before the credit crunch hit. I started in financial journalism in 2007, a year or so after this particular shindig, but it wasn’t that unique.

There was the invite to be flown down to a day at the races in Cheltenham by helicopter, the three-day ‘summit’ in Monte Carlo, the all-afternoon (and sometimes evening) lunches in London’s best restaurants. Nobody batted an eyelid.

That almost innocent attitude towards the most excessive of spending dominates the first half of The Queen of Versailles, a documentary by Lauren Greenfield, which follows billionaire David Siegel and his family as they attempt to build the largest single-family home in America.

It’s fair to say that, at the outset, none of the protagonists are that likeable. David Siegel is, genuinely, one of the most loathsome figures in a film that I’ve ever seen, a man able to say with a straight face that all of the people in his life are better off as a result of knowing him.

His wife, Jackie, doesn’t fare much better. An engineer turned beauty queen, she totters around talking the viewers through her grand ideas for the new home, inspired by the palace of Versailles. If you manage to tear your eyes away from her ridiculously oversized boobs, you subject yourself to having to hear her prattle on about how much this chair cost, or how the home is going to have its own spa and bowling alley.

This is a woman who lives to spend.

Both are asked separately why they are building such a vast home, and the answers are very telling. Jackie says that her husband has worked very hard to be worth so much money and so deserves the largest home in America, like it’s some sort of reward. David’s answer is much more succinct: “Because I can.”

Worst of all though is the look behind the scenes at Siegel’s timeshare business. We get to see David’s son, Richard, giving the sales team a pep talk which is genuinely beyond belief. I’ve worked with some bullshitting salesmen in my time – hell, my dad’s an estate agent – but this guy was something else, emphasising that by selling timeshares they were saving lives as people that go on holiday more often are less likely to suffer serious illness.

The contrast with the family’s home help, a collection of Asian nannies and housekeepers, tells its own heart-breaking story, particularly the nanny who hasn’t seen her child in two decades, instead having to work thousands of miles from home in order to send money back.

Her living quarters? A giant dolls house that the Siegel children no longer want.

Then the credit crunch hits. And it all goes to hell.

Suddenly the cheap credit that had been the foundation of Siegel’s business isn’t there anymore. Thousands of staff are made redundant, the purse strings are tightened, and the Siegels are forced to put their unfinished dream home on the market.

The way they deal with this situation is fascinating. David becomes a recluse, locking himself away in his office or study, desperately trying to find backers for his Las Vegas project. His disdain for those around him, his wife, his children, grows by the minute. Suddenly the cost of the trophy wife and family seems a little steep.

In contrast, Jackie goes on something of a journey. She flies economy class to visit friends and family she hasn’t seen in years, goes back to her roots to reconnect with where she came from.

She begins to realise that the crazy spending of the past is over, and while she has an awful lot of trouble adapting to her new financial realities, you can see she has a good heart and wants to help both the family she loves and those former employees who are suffering as a result of her husband’s greed and ambition. The tension when they are on screen together is compelling viewing.

I spoke with countless Davids and Jackies in the days and months after the credit crunch hit. Plenty of businesses whose models were now entirely obsolete reassured me that they’d be back, they just needed to sort out some funding. I don’t hear from them anymore.

I do hear from the Jackies though. The firms that got caught up in the world of easy money, who have had their fingers burned and learned a few lessons. There’s still plenty of lavish spending going on, but there aren’t too many birthday parties on the top floor of London monuments this days.

The Queen of Versailles is an excellent documentary, almost by accident, a fluke of timing. It’s also the most accurate portrayal I’ve seen of the madness that led to the financial crisis in the first place.

The Queen of Versailles is BBC4 at 10pm on Monday 28th January, and released on DVD the same day.

2012: The Year in Film (in Music)

2012 was the first year in a long time where I didn’t compile a playlist of my favourite songs of the year. Either I’ve reached the age where I can’t hear ‘new’ music because nothing will ever top Mansun’s Attack of the Grey Lantern, or I’ve been too focussed on film to notice. I just haven’t had time to properly explore the great new music that is out there (although I did really enjoy the new Spector album). I did, however, listen to  more film soundtracks than ever before. I present a virtual mix-tape of my favourite musical moments in film during 2012.

holy_motors_accordn_sept12Let My Baby Ride – Doctor L (Holy Motors)
Otherwise known as ‘that awesome accordion song from Holy Motors’, which is exactly what I typed into Google to find out its proper name. One of the most exhilarating moments of Leos Carax’s bonkers masterpiece. Sadly there is still no sign of a Holy Motors soundtrack, so watching this on YouTube will have to do for now.

Tainted Love – Soft Cell (Sightseers)
One of the great advantages of discussing the best music used in film during the year is that a few stone cold classics will appear. This is one of those old songs given new life by a new context; this time by Ben Wheatley in his black comedy about a couple on a caravanning holiday who enjoy the thrills of serial killing. Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘The Power of Love’ gave the film a beautifully dramatic climax, but Soft Cell’s electro classic is the song that everyone remembers from the start of the road trip.

Firework – Katy Perry (Rust and Bone)
Another song given new meaning by the context bestowed on it, this time by Jacques Audiard in my favourite film of the year. As well as being the soundtrack to a tragic accident involving a killer whale, it is used to even greater effect in one of the film’s most touching moments. Sadly not included on the official soundtrack, which means I’ve had to actually buy a Katy Perry track.

Skyfall – Adele (Skyfall)
You can judge a Bond film very quickly by the quality of its pre-credit sequence, and its theme tune. Skyfall delivered wonderfully on both counts, with Adele’s effort creating the best Bond theme since Goldeneye, and a throaty homage to Shirley Bassey at her best.

Jamming (live at the Jamaican Peace Concert) – Bob Marley (Marley)
I know this feels a little bit of a cheat, a  Bob Marley song from a documentary about Bob Marley. However, this version (as used in the film and on the official soundtrack) is taken from a pivotal moment in the life of Bob Marley; his return to Jamaica to headline the 1979 Peace Concert where he persuaded the two political rivals of the time to shake hands on stage. An incredible moment.

Who Were We – Kylie Minogue (Holy Motors)
Another entry for Holy Motors, this time performed by the wonderful Kylie Monogue and written by Neil Hannon (of The Divine Comedy) in full-on Jacques Brel/Scott Walker mode.

man or muppetMan or Muppet – Jason Segel & Walter (The Muppets)
The song that earned an Oscar for one half of The Flight of the Conchords, and the highlight of Brett MacKenzie’s soundtrack for one of the funniest films of the year. I have adopted it as my own personal theme tune.

The Concept – Teenage Fanclub (Young Adult)
The resurrection of this classic track from the vaults of Scottish indie-band Teenage Fanclub was made possible by writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, who used it to great effect in one of the most underrated films of the year. What made this song unforgettable for me was how integral it was to the film, and how it became the trigger for Charlize Theron’s character (in an incredible performance) to go fully off the rails.

Song of the Lonely Mountain – Neil Finn (The Hobbit)
Watching The Hobbit felt like slipping on a pair of comfortable slippers. I knew exactly what I was going to get, and I was very content to spend a few more hours in Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth. A major contribution to that was provided by the Howard Shore score, and in particular this song which combined the vocal talents of the wonderful Neil Finn with Shore’s recognisable music, and the sound of Dwarfs singing and hammering on metal.

As well as these individual songs, I cannot end my round-up of the great film music of 2012 without mentioning the incredible work of Alexandre Desplat. This year alone he has produced brilliant scores for Moonrise Kingdom, Argo, Rust and Bone, and Rise of the Guardians. I cannot think of a more consistent brilliant composer working today.

Failed Critics Podcast: 2012 in Review/Failed Critics Awards

2012 in FilmWelcome to our first ever End-of-Year Review and the inaugural Failed Critics Awards! Get your tuxedo on, raid the free bar, and join Steve, James, Gerry, and Owen as they discuss their highlights from 2012, and their thoughts on the winners as chosen by contributors to Failed Critics. As well as the prestigious Top Ten Films of the Year, we also award the best performances, foreign-language film, documentary, and soundtrack of great year for film.

Not only that, but we also review our last batch of films for the year – including our thoughts on Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher, Ang Lee’s sumptuous Life of Pi, and Ben Wheatley’s caravanning ‘comedy’ Sightseers.

We’ll be back on the 14th January with our review of Les Miserables – and we would like to wish all of our listeners a very happy New Year!

LISTEN VIA ACAST FOR THE MOST INTERACTIVE EXPERIENCE

DIRECT DOWNLOAD LINK

The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film that definitely isn’t about Scientology looks incredible and has two great (and at times, astonishing) central performances at its heart. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell – an able seaman recently discharged from the navy at the end of the war and struggling to hold down a civilian job due to his alcohol dependency. We’re not just talking too many beers and whiskys though – Quell is some kind of booze alchemist, creating potions and poisons from any drink and household chemicals he finds lying around. We’ve all known someone like Freddie Quell, and chances are we haven’t heard from them in the last ten years or so. Philip Seymour Hoffman is Lancaster Dodds, the ‘Master’ of The Cause, who takes Freddie under his wing and struggles to ‘cure’ and control him.

Anderson creates a hugely believable world, with an interesting premise. Amy Adams puts in a lovely performance as Dodd’s wife, while the audience is also treated to a wonderful soundtrack from Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood.

Yet, The Master bored me immensely. In fact, I haven’t seen a film become less than the sum of its parts in such a drastic way in a very long time.

We’re presented with two fascinating characters, who when they’re talking to each other (and to the people around them) hold my interest and draw me in much like the cult they represent. The problem is neither character really goes on a personal or external journey of any real consequence. I could forgive the lack of a journey if I had some sense of the history of the characters, or some deeper insight into their motivations. Indeed, Quell’s lack of a personal journey is symptomatic of the failure of The Cause’s methods. But what makes Quell so different from all the other demobbed servicemen of the time? Does Dodds believe what he is teaching, and if not, what is leading him to deceive all these people? Over the course of the film’s 140-minute running time we see no great urge for money or power from Dodds.

The Cause is all about discovering past lives, and righting wrongs that may have happened billions of years ago. Perhaps it was Anderson’s intention to make the ‘current’ lives the viewer sees onscreen superficial and lacking in depth or context as a counterpoint to the teachings of The Cause. However frustrated me and felt like when I see singers get the crowd to bellow the lines of their biggest hit, seemingly unaware that the audience have paid to see them perform. Ambiguity has its place, but I demand my storytellers to actually tell me a story, and not rely on me to fill in the vast majority of the blanks.

There also appeared to be a TWENTY MINUTE training montage in the middle of the film. If you’re going to have a training montage, the least you can do is soundtrack it with something like “You’re the Best Around” from The Karate Kid.

Watching The Master felt like I was watching a film that I ‘should’ like. It did everything a great film should, and Anderson is clearly an incredibly talented director. I just couldn’t connect with this film at all.

It didn’t grab me here *points to heart*

Or engage me here *points to head*

Overall, there is plenty to admire about this film, but very little to love. Feels like a wasted opportunity.