We’ve reached the point in the year where it’s safe to start legitimately putting together a rough outline for your top 10 films of the year. Your number one might be displaced come December, or a handful of others might infiltrate the rest of the list; but it’s likely that those you’ve already decided are your favourites, will still be there or thereabouts by the time we compile our End of Year Awards. Continue reading Top 5 Films of 2017 (So Far)
“This, right here, is heaven. We fucked it up.”
From Ben Affleck, the director of Argo and The Town – and starring Ben Affleck, the star of Argo and The Town – comes an early competitor for most infuriatingly boring film that should never have been so infuriatingly boring: Live By Night.
Maybe my expectations were set a little high? Maybe I was hoping for a little too much? Maybe, the pedestal I’ve put Ben Affleck on in recent years is too lofty for him? But this film – a film that stars Affleck, Chris Cooper, Elle Fanning, Sienna Miller, Zoe Salanda and Brendan Gleeson, to name but a few – and Affleck on directorial duty; this film disappointed in such a massive way that I felt crushed as I left the screening on Saturday afternoon.
After a stint in prison for his part in a bank robbery, long time petty crook Joe Coughlin (Affleck) hits the streets of Boston a free man with money, power and revenge on his mind. Aligning himself with the head of the Italian mob, the Irishman is sent to Florida to remove certain entities from power and start making the boss some money.
Coughlin uses his smarts and is quickly the top dog in the sunny state, making a fortune selling dark Cuban rum in the height of prohibition America. Of course, working your way up from nickel-and-dime hood to being the most powerful man in Florida brings you an enemy or three and now Coughlin’s found himself on the wrong side of some very powerful people.
Pretty much “30’s Gangster Movie 101”
Based on the novel of the same name by writer Dennis Lahane – writer of books like Shutter Island and Gone Baby Gone (Affleck’s directorial debut) – Live By Night is surprising in its awfulness considering just how good its inspiration is.
Whilst it’s not the worst film Ben Affleck has starred in (not by a long shot) Live By Night is most certainly the weakest of his directorial efforts. By quite a margin. The man has no one else to blame but himself.
Writer, producer, director and star may have been too much for the current Batman to do all by himself this time around as every role that he took responsibility for in the creation of this film suffered a lack of care and attention: This, considering The Town is one of my favourite crime thrillers (I’ll forgive it being an ADD, Boston based remake of Heat), a film I think is beautifully made and superbly paced with excellent acting all around. Affleck’s latest seems to have forgotten all the skill that made his 2010 crime thriller great and has decided to make himself a paint-by-numbers prohibition movie in an age that includes Boardwalk Empire having once been a thing.
Lacklustre, badly paced direction and a beyond poor script do little to take away from the terrible acting in this film. Not just from Affleck, but his whole cast.
Chris Cooper’s police chief, who a penchant for burying his head in the sand, looked bored on screen. As did Elle Fanning – fresh from an excellent performance in The Neon Demon – as the chief’s daughter: A woman with Hollywood bound aspirations. Both Sienna Miller and Zoe Salanda are neither convincing (nor apparently convinced) in their roles as Coughlin’s fancy pieces at various stages. The whole ensemble seem like puppets with someone’s hand up their arses doing the talking. Only their puppet master is asleep at the wheel.
Live By Night takes a tremendously long time to get to its wholly predictable conclusion. Considering how much good quality strong coffee I get through on a standard Saturday and the venti double shot Americano I take in with me to almost every screening, there is no way I should have been dozing off whilst watching this. Yet there I was, nodding off in my chair like your old man after Christmas dinner.
Not bad considering I don’t remember feeling tired when I went in.
Counting on all of his fingers and toes like a mildly autistic Ben Affleck in this week’s main review, The Accountant, Steve Norman has discovered the magic number!
Turns out that De La Soul weren’t lying and it is three. Steve, Paul Field and Andrew Brooker, if you want to be precise, with Owen Hughes on a camping trip in Wales or something.
As well as yet another 2016 thriller to barely register any thrills, there’s also room on this week’s bitesize episode to review two other new releases, as Brooker dissects Nocturnal Animals and Paul kicks off the section with a new horror film, Rupture, starring Noomi Rapace.
We also have What We’ve Been Watching with competitive tickling documentary (no, really), Tickled, plus indie horror The Neighbour – and even a few softcore pornos make it on with the boss absent (sort of). Tsk tsk.
“You have to choose. Are you going to be a victim?”
So it seems my hopeful search for a great thriller in 2016 is over. The last of the high profile cinematic rollercoasters has hit the screens and now we must prepare ourselves of the onslaught of Christmas ensemble movies that are incoming.
Luckily, whilst most of this year’s thrillers have barely been able to hit average in my books – only really thrilling in the same way that paying £15 for a ticket to the latest churned out Halloween nonsense can be called horrifying – The Accountant at least has a decent stab at dragging us to the edges of our seats. And while it isn’t always successful in its endeavours, it’s a damn sight better than a lot of its recent competition.
Ben Affleck is Christian Wolff, a man who has grown up with a few factors that decided his fate early on. First, he suffers from what appears to be Asperger’s Syndrome; an inability to communicate with the majority of the world, as well as a few other telling issues that we get to see as the film goes on. Christian has a difficult life ahead of him. A life made worse by point number two: Left with his tough-as-nails military father after his mother decides she can’t cope and leaves, Wolff’s traumatic childhood is made harder when his old man tries to teach him about the world his own way.
Fast forward a few decades and Wolff has made the very best of his situation. He’s become an accountant with the uncanny ability to unravel even the most complicated books around. This makes him an invaluable asset to everyone from the locals doing their returns, to crime bosses looking for skimmed cash. When a run-of-the-mill job for a corporation uncovers more than it should have, Wolff and the company accountant Dana (Anna Kendrick) find themselves on the receiving end of an awful lot of guns-for-hire looking to take them out. All the while, he’s being investigated by a treasury agent (the always splendid JK Simmons) with a bit of a thing against our main character.
The Accountant is another one of these films that no one seems to know how to market. Delayed to let the market react to Batfleck earlier this year, it’s advertised as this strange action thriller hybrid and doesn’t really fully check either of those boxes. But whilst most of what I want to say about the film is complimentary, it doesn’t feel like it when I say that it’s played out better than most of its ilk this year.
But I do want to be positive and complimentary. There’s plenty of good stuff to say about The Accountant. For starters, Affleck’s portrayal of Wolff and his issues is nothing short of brilliant. The film goes to some considerable length to not name our main character’s affliction, yet Affleck does a wonderful job of convincing us that, even as an adult, he has issues leaving work unfinished or maintaining eye contact; all tell tale signs of his lifelong struggle with his condition.
Likewise, the way the film makes you feel hatred for Wolff’s father for the way he treats his son is beautifully offset when you realise that the accountant has essentially used his upbringing to turn what would possibly cripple some into something close to a superpower. When you see that Christian is really an accountant/lethal killing machine, you are almost impressed by what his old man did, whether or not it was cruel at the time.
With a superb cast supporting him, Affleck really does shine in his role, as do Simmons and Kendrick, with John Lithgow and John Bernthal doing a decent job bringing up the rear. Although, with such a cast, you may end up (as I did) wanting just a little more from the guys we got on screen.
And that’s something that can be said about a lot of the film. You’re left wanting just a bit more, and a bit more, and a bit more. Director Gavin O’Connor – the man behind films like Pride and Glory and Warrior, (favourites of mine) – seems to lose his way in the middle of his two hour math-a-thon. Our introduction to Christian Wolff goes very well, and the flashbacks to his childhood are interesting. I’m enthralled once the final act begins and we get to see Wolff the super killing machine, but the middle, say, thirty minutes, seem to sag. Not knowing how to push the story forward and get us to the reveal we all knew was coming, it just seems to stutter a bit trying to get to its last section. A real shame for a film with so much going for it.
But don’t be disheartened. I thoroughly enjoyed The Accountant. I just wanted it to be ever so slightly tighter than it turned out to be.
Welcome to another episode of the Failed Critics Podcast where hosts Steve Norman and Owen Hughes were left entirely to their own devices as both guests bailed on them faster than Gareth Bale operating an AB 43HS-series.
(It’s a waste-handling baler. It bales stuff.)
Hastily rejigging the content of the show just hours before recording, the podcast this week features a triple bill about drunks on film, suggested to us by Underground Nights co-host, Paul Field. Presumably in honour of the fact he and Jonathan Sothcott got legless recently and professed their love for Failed Critics down the phone to us. Either way, it produced some interesting choices from both Owen and Steve, even if we do say so ourselves.
Also on the podcast this week, the pair discuss the news that Dev Patel is absolutely unequivocally 100% not in a new Slumdog film (or is he??) plus Joe Manganiello being cast as the only villain in Ben Affleck’s solo-Batman movie (or is he??). There’s also time to squeeze in a couple of reviews. Steve discusses the unwanted and totally pointless Ben-Hur remake that makes a mockery of the original and flagrantly disregards the lack of audience for modern epics. Owen fares slightly better with the Fede Alvarez horror / thriller / home-invasion / psychological-drama / thing, Don’t Breathe in all of its Sam Raimi produced glory.
Join us again next week as Paul and Tony Black help us to review the latest Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett collaboration, Blair Witch.
It might not be the podcast you wanted, but it’s the podcast you deserve. It’s the proper critics in one corner, the audience in another corner, and your hosts Steve Norman and Owen Hughes with special guests Brian Plank and Andrew Brooker in the other corner. The final corner is where Sad Ben Affleck is hanging his head in disappointment, next to Henry Cavill’s pile of gold.
That’s right, this week we’re reviewing DC’s latest $250m mega-blockbuster, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Divisive amongst those who’ve watched it, as well as on this episode. We’ve a full spoiler-free review where the team discuss everything they liked (mainly Batfleck) and didn’t like without giving away much, before Spoiler Alert Returns towards the end.
Also on this episode: Owen reviews freshly released found-footage horror JeruZalem (that’s with a capital ‘Z’ and no lower case ‘s’); Brian prepares for Zack Snyder’s superhero movie in the only way he knew how… by watching Kramer vs Kramer…; Brooker revisits Failed Critics favourite Kill Your Friends; and Steve finally catches up with our third best film of last year, Disney Pixar’s Inside Out.
Join us again next week for any episode that’s probably not going to be 50% comic book oriented.
This isn’t the film you wanted, but it’s the film you deserve.
I’ve seen that line totted out recently in relation to Zack Snyder’s latest offering in the newly established DC cinematic universe. Often by folks that I’m dubious as to their claims of having actually seen the movie yet.
Nevertheless, to quote Steve Coogan’s fantastic fictionalised autobiography I, Partridge, as an adolescent Alan is called ‘Smelly Alan Fartridge’ by his school tormenters, it’s a line that is “about 3% as clever as it thinks it is”. Or I guess maybe it’s 1%. But if there’s a 1% chance, then it should be taken as an absolute certainty, right?
It’s mainly a statement repeated in relation to the bleak, cold, depressing realisation of the world that Superman – and now also apparently his nemesis Batman – inhabits, where humour, warmth and vibrant colour are secondary to moody, dreary greys, suspicion, paranoia and snarling teeth.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice isn’t an AC/DC soundtracked flash of electric-blue, pyjama-clad heroes, comic-book niceness. Nor does it ever try to be anything but what it is. Nor should it even try to be anything else.
This is a place, as established in 2013’s divisive blockbuster Man of Steel, where an alien descended from a dying world to be raised amongst us, as one of us, to love us and protect us until he was old enough to decide whether to make the ultimate sacrifice to save us from ourselves/angry aliens. By, er, destroying half of the largest city in the US during a fist fight with said angry alien that resulted in thousands of collateral deaths. Deaths that an angry billionaire human dressed in a bat costume now wants to avenge. As does another psychotic billionaire by the name of Lex Luthor, with slightly more suspect motivations.
If the unremittingly desperate and sullen tone for this first live-action, big screen clash between DC’s iconic superheroes is what we deserve, then I’m OK with that. It sure as Hell is exactly how I wanted it to be in a number of different ways.
That isn’t to say the whole movie is exactly what I wanted from Snyder’s second foray into the often unforgiving spectrum of comicbook fanboy elitism. Just as Man of Steel left millions of steaming big blue boy scout fans loudly exclaiming “that’s not my Superman”, as if that was at all relevant, then just wait until the masses get ahold of the virtually unrecognisable character traits of their beloved caped crusader. If the internet could be fitted with a blast screen, now would be the time to assemble it.
The Dark Knight has always been, well, dark. Cracking bones, smashing skulls, practically crippling criminals for the rest of their life, all in the name of justice as he carefully tiptoes along the delicate line of his moral conscience, never straying into the territory that there’s no coming back from. But here, there are some rather extreme and remorseless attacks by the Bat that will please fans wanting a more grown up comic book film, as well as pop a few pulsating veins on the temples of outraged viewers.
Personally, I think it’s precious to perceive only one possible interpretation of a character that has seen hundreds of writers and dozens of actors portray him. Who’s to say that the kooky Adam West version is not the definitive creation? Or what about Tim Burton’s criminal-burning take in Batman Returns? Why not use Frank Miller’s portrayal of a grizzled old Bruce as the only measure?
The best versions of Batman in the comics in recent years have been, to my mind, when he went insane during Grant Morrison’s series that began a decade ago this year, and in writer Scott Snyder’s Detective Comics run – when it wasn’t even Bruce Wayne who was Batman, it was Dick Grayson. So really, it just doesn’t matter which you prefer, or what you think makes Batman the character he is; there are literally hundreds (if not thousands) of representations of the character that are as valid as each other. This movie is no exception to that rule.
However, I feel like I’m explaining myself around the issues with this movie, of which there are plenty. Much like when George Clooney put on the cape and cowl (and nipple-plate), it’s hard to separate Ben Affleck from Bruce Wayne. Maybe that’s an unfair criticism as it’s a fine performance, but whenever he’s out of the mask, it’s hard to see past Ben Affleck. He also acts the chops off of his opposite number, with Henry Cavill caught in the headlights of a crash-bang-wallop barnstorming Batman movie where he is playing second fiddle in what should be his sequel. His story. His character’s atonement.
Ignorance is not the same as innocence, or so we’re told, which leaves the film to question how the red-caped Übermensch can continue to separate his private life from that of his heroic exploits. A hole was ripped through the centre of the planet not 18 months ago thanks in no small part to his own quest for knowledge, yet here he his saving children from burning buildings and being heralded as a messiah. I would not be the first person to scratch my head at the hypocrisies of the DC universe, but it at least tries to answer some of the questions it poses. Admittedly, Democracy v Superman would probably not have been a snappy title for the film.
And therein lies its biggest issue. I do like Man of Steel. Very much. In fact, Thursday evening, I saw a double-bill of it followed by a Batman v Superman midnight screening, and quite happily endured it. The dialogue is blunt, to the point and often without ambiguity, but the narrative structure combined with the character development of the wandering drifter Clark Kent, discovering his true identity as Kal-El, and subsequent trial by fire at the hands of Michael Shannon’s exceptional performance as General Zod; the more I see it, the more I like it. The religious symbolism is perhaps heavy handed as he floats off into space in his Jesus Christ pose to save the Earth, but there’s depth beyond merely a superhero smashing a villain’s face in. Zod’s pitiful plea and loss of identity, or his “soul” as he claims, at a time where a triumphant Clark struts across a city blown to smithereens to victory-snog his girlfriend; its complexities are frequently lost in a tide of criticism because it just happens to take place during a mass of CGI destruction. I hesitate to make further comparisons between the two, but compared to some of Marvel’s third-act fight sequences (The Incredible Hulk, Age of Ultron and Thor: The Dark World to name but a few) which serve absolutely no narrative purpose other than “beat-the-baddie”, it just further increases my opinion that it is a vastly underrated movie.
Now, Batman v Superman, as you might expect, spends forever building towards a climactic fight sequence between (you guessed it) Batman and Superman. By contrast, yes it looks cool and yes Snyder’s fingerprints are all over it, but it is as shallow as a paddling pool during a hose-pipe ban. It merely gives the fans what they think they want and not what they deserve.
I’m not going to spoil who wins the fight for you! Needless to say, the victor was inevitable. And yes, the allegories to religion, domestic and international terrorism threats, and playing God, are all there. But they are in much broader strokes than seen previously.
As for the rest of the 2.5 hour run time, a huge proportion of it is a confusing, sprawling mess that I kept trying to pretend was still good, like a buttered piece of toast that had fallen on the kitchen floor. Alas, you could probably scrape it off and it’d still be edible, but why would you? There’s bound to still be a mystery hair or unrecognisable piece of grit to crunch sickeningly between your teeth. What I’m getting at with this confused, sprawling metaphor, is that you can dust off all the crap from Batman v Superman and see just the delicious slice of warm toast underneath, but as you chew, you will secretly feel a little ashamed and embarrassed.
There’s just one dream within a dream sequence too many for my tastes. There’re more Easter eggs littering this film, distracting from what should be an interesting concept of man vs God, than you will find in the Sainsbury’s Petrol Station reduced isle next week. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is a passenger whose presence merely exists to pay fan-service for the Trinity and set up future Justice League movies so the other two can get on with battering each other.
I’m not going to sit here and say that the fault with Batman v Superman is that they didn’t follow the blueprint so successfully laid out by Marvel. I do not subscribe to that theory at all. The Marvel blueprint was laid out to make the audience more susceptible to expanded movie universes, that doesn’t mean DC, by not copying the exact format of individual introduction movies building to a crossover event, have failed. What will make Batman v Superman a relative failure is the cramming of about seven different story strands (that I counted) into one single film. It’s convoluted and each one (or maybe two or three together) would have been better served if held back for individual movies.
That, plus Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor was either incredibly poor casting, or the right casting for the wrong film. His twitching peculiarities and eccentric ranting about his father only weaken what should make a menacing focal point for the story. He’s a raving lunatic with an unoriginal fiendish plot to, I don’t know, get in the way, or something. He shouldn’t have been in this film. Or, rather, it should have been Batman or Lex Luthor.
The rest of the supporting cast are as expected. Laurence Fishburne returns as Daily Planet head-honcho Perry White to probably the highest degree of competence out of the lot. Folks worried about Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s casting as Thomas Wayne, concerned it might mean yet another origin story, need not panic as his role is squished into a Watchmen-esque opening segment. Amy Adams as Lois Lane is not as integral to the plot as she should be, although her performance is slightly more assured this time around. Jeremy Irons as Alfred is just Jeremy Irons. No more, no less.
Batman v Superman is bloated, convoluted, full of inconsistencies and lacking in focus. As many suspected might be the case, Superman is reduced to merely a concept rather than a character as Batman takes centre stage.
But Affleck does do a great job carrying the burden of this movie. On more than one occasion, his skulking in the shadows alluded me for a few moments, which gave me a giddy thrill when I spotted him (mind you, it was nearly 2am by this point). Make no mistake, when you read articles online about the actors and creative people behind this movie claiming that it is not designed to win over critics, they’re not lying. This is a Superman movie designed for Batman fans.
Arguably self-sabotaging in typical DC fashion by trying to introduce Batman to what is perceived as a flagging franchise or series, it might simply be too much, too soon. Yet, I still kind of got a kick out of it on some base-levels and I’m sure plenty of others will see through its many foibles too.
“Now are you a rusher? Or are you a dragger?”
Yup, the Oscars are almost here. The annual celebration of people doing their job very well when they’re paid hundreds of thousands of times more than you and me do for our nine-to-fives. Basically, it’s Hollywood’s Employee of the Month award with an almost ironclad guarantee that winners will go on to do something bloody awful afterwards – I’m looking at you, Halle Berry and I’m DEFINITELY not looking at Swordfish.
So what do you say? Shall we continue my list of missed opportunities and wrong decisions? I promise to be a little less controversial than I was in the first part and hopefully, hopefully, you’ll agree with some of my choices. Only one way to find out.
1994 – Pulp Fiction
The first of a 1994 double bill that lost out to the bloody terrible Forrest Gump. Yeah, I know, I’ve probably lost you already, but hear me out. My dislike for Tom Hanks aside, I simply don’t like Gump and his stupid face. The whole film just bugs me, and the fact that it has beaten a bonafide classic like Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is just unforgivable.
The intertwined stories of gangsters, everyday criminals and Joe average that blurs the lines between good guys and bad is one of the most amazing films dedicated to celluloid. To spend the two and a half hour running-time with these characters is to spend a tenth of your day with some of the most brilliantly written characters in the history of film.
Between this, and the next film in my list, there’s no way on God’s green earth that anyone, ANYONE, can tell me that they think the escapades of Mr. Gump deserves that Oscar.
1994 – The Shawshank Redemption
Yeah, believe it or not, the Forrest Chump beat this to the Oscar too. Based on a Stephen King short story and current, almost permanent, number one on the IMDB top 250 (Pulp Fiction is 5, while Hanks’ statue thief sits at 13), Shawshank is regarded by many as the greatest film is ever made.
Frank Darabont makes his feature film debut and gets his name known around the world with what is easily the best prison drama put to film. Featuring Tim Robbins and an Oscar nominated performance from Morgan Freeman as a pair of unlikely friends working through years behind bars with each other. With escape constantly on the mind of Robbins’ innocent Andy Dufresne and Freeman’s “Red” living with the desire to just play out his time in peace and quiet; Shawshank is maybe the only film that could beat Tarantino’s Classic to the finishing line if quality of film was actually the standard used for handing out these awards.
1997 – Good Will Hunting
Genuinely, I think this is a no-brainer. Forget the star power of writers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, Good Will Hunting is a truly original film. The story of Damon’s Will Hunting who, with the help and guidance from his court appointed psychologist (Robin Williams) learns to find his identity in a world where he can solve almost any problem, but can’t seem to shift his own personal demons.
Compare that to the film that won the Oscar that year? A film about a giant sinking boat. And while Titanic may be a visually impressive film to watch, the fact that it’s a love story, based on an unsinkable boat that sank, where the happy ever after was one of the lovers freezing to death in the water while the other clung to a lump of wood to survive? No thanks. Utter guff. And again, no staying power. All these years later, Titanic looks like a CGI laden mess, Good Will Hunting can still draw you in with its fantastic drama.
2011 – Moneyball
Definitely more of a personal opinion for this one than a flat out obvious mistake on the Academy’s part. Based on Michael Lewis’ book, The art of winning an unfair game, this Brad Pitt starring drama lost out to The Artist. Now, I enjoyed The Artist; it was a well made film that, considering what it was, kept me riveted the entire time it was on. But in my opinion, it was a flash in the pan and on second viewing isn’t half as good.
Moneyball earned a handful of nomination in 2011, including acting nods for its star and, much to everyone’s surprise, Jonah Hill. The film takes the mundane behind the scenes stuff of pre-season baseball and makes it a thrilling, interesting, drama that has you hooked early on and doesn’t let go. Its author hits his third adaptation to get a nomination for best film this year with The Big Short (the frankly amazing The Blind Side as also nominated in 2009 but lost, quite rightly, to The Hurt Locker) and honestly, this should have been his first win.
2015 – Whiplash
Now, I know I’m gonna get shit for is one, and that’s ok. There was absolutely nothing wrong with last year’s winner, the brilliant Birdman was deserving of its statue. And even when watching it again, it’s just as good; well acted, brilliantly directed and with a very cool improvised jazz score I would gladly have The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance in my collection.
But it didn’t do one thing that Whiplash did. Not only did the film completely blow me away, but the story of the young jazz drummer going up against his abusive band leader and trying to come out on top left me walking out of the cinema in a state that I can only describe as shell shocked. It’s a state I’ve been in several times after watching this amazing spectacle of a film. Every rewatch leaves me exhausted and at the same time begging for more. The only other film to do that recently is 2016 best pic nominee Mad Max: Fury Road. And only time will tell us if whatever beats it has the staying power that both of these films have.
That’s me done. For this year at least. What did you think? Do you agree with my choices? Think I’m a complete imbecile for hating Titanic and Forrest Gump? Do feel free to let me know. There’s nothing I like more than a good argument over great films!
On an audio-pod adventure, they got hit by cosmic rays. And the four would change forever, in some most fantastic ways! Oh, Steve Norman is sarcastic, Brian Plank’s unusually polite. Carole is obsessed with Bill Murray, and Owen’s opinions are a crock of shite. Call for Four… Failedastic Four!
Yes, that’s right listeners. This week’s main release review is the not particularly well received [ahem] latest superhero film from Josh Trank, Fantastic Four. Or Fantfourstic if you’re going to take the poster literally (and we do.) We try to work out what exactly didn’t work and why it didn’t work with our special guests Carole Petts and Brian Plank, both of whom contributed to the Avengers Assemble and The Incredible Hulk episodes respectively in our Avengers Minisodes series from earlier in the year.
Staying with the comicbook theme, the team also take a look at the divisive Deadpool trailer that officially launched last week and react to the news that Bill Murray will be cameoing in the new Ghostbusters film. There’s even enough time for: Brian to spread the joy of Pixar’s recent hit, Inside Out; Carole questions the BBFC and their decision to rate The Diary of a Teenage Girl as an 18; Steve continues to be impressed by Ben Affleck’s directorial prowess with Gone Baby Gone; and Owen stares into the Heart of Darkness by watching Apocalypse Now.
Join us again next week for reviews of Pixels, Paper Towns and The Man From UNCLE.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Welcome back to the countdown of my Top 10 Films of 2014. If you missed Part 1, where we counted down entries #10 to #6, then you can go here to get caught up. Otherwise, we are going to get straight back down to business. So, without any further ado, GO GIRLS GO!
There may be spoilers. Proceed with caution.
Dir: Jonathan Glazer
Star: Scarlett Johannson
Under The Skin is not on the list because I enjoyed it. The rest of the films on this list are here because I enjoyed them; the commonly accepted barometer by which people typically measure the quality of a film. Under The Skin is not here for that, for I did not enjoy Under The Skin. I experienced Under The Skin, I endured Under The Skin, but I did not enjoy Under The Skin. Instead, Under The Skin is here, and is this high on the list, for two specific reasons.
The first – and honestly the more minor of the two, which is crazy to believe – is Scarlett Johannson’s performance as the lead character, which is the single best performance by anybody in any film released in 2014. Her performance of the main character is sensational, having to simultaneously keep them an enigma and yet clearly be able to give the audience some semblance of a clue as what is going on in their mind-set, and she is more than up to the task. Shedding all of her effortless movie star charisma, she positions herself in this very alien register, taking detached to new heights and playing each new revelation about her character – the discovery of a conscience, strange new emotions, exploring the form that it has taken, the reaction to its humanity – as major game-changers without bursting into a flood of emotion. She is on a whole other level compared to everyone else this year, and I spent so much of the film’s runtime in awe of her.
You know, when I wasn’t being made incredibly uncomfortable. That’s the second reason why Under The Skin is on this list, it got to me. It really got to me. If I were a hack writer and wanted to undermine the seriousness of that last statement, I’d make pun involving the film’s title right now. But, although I am, I don’t want to. Under The Skin really got to me. See, I am very sexually repressed, possibly bordering on asexual. I always have been. Nudity makes me uncomfortable, the concept of sex grosses me out, and having to witness sex or nudity causes me to want to reach for the exit as fast as possible. One of the main aspects of Under The Skin is all about sex, sexuality, and the body, but the film never shoots any of these aspects in an erotic way. It instead presents them coldly, clinically, alien, and explores how we are affected by each of those things.
Many of the film’s most disturbing sequences for me come from the depiction of nudity. The full-frontal shots of the men that return to the protagonists’ dark void of a room, the scene where the biker examines the protagonist, the sequence where they look at themselves naked in the mirror and inspect their body… all scenes that made me thoroughly uncomfortable because they contextualise themselves in the way that I often see the naked flesh, as something alien and strange. It’s not just that we are presented with these images, it’s the way that we are presented with these images as something unusual and slightly imposing. It taps very much into my psyche and pushes many of my buttons, confronting me with my fears in a presentation that visualises how I possibly see them deep down.
Not to mention how the film very much plays out its narrative as the visualisation of gender performance and gender awakening. The protagonist slowly identifying as female, putting on the airs required to be seen as acceptable in modern society, and being viciously punished the second it fails to keep up that act. If the film weren’t so deliberately abstract, Under The Skin could very much be read as a blisteringly angry clarion call against the way that our patriarchal society treats and views women. That hateful attitude – not to its protagonist, instead from how our world is presented through alien eyes, how our sh*tty attitudes towards women and our complicated relationships with nudity and sex can look to an outsider – seeps through the entire film and serves to further prey on my underlying fears and deep-seated issues.
No film this year has stuck with me and affected me in the same way that Under The Skin has. It’s not exactly a film I am clamouring to see again – I had to pause the thing three times whilst watching it because I just needed to stop and calm down – but it more than earns its place on this list.
Dir: Gareth Evans
Star: Iko Uwais, Arifin Putra, Alex Abbad
It’s all about pacing. The Raid didn’t understand proper pacing; that was a film that started at 11 and tried to stay at 11 for all 90 of its minutes. That gets tiring and it means that your finale doesn’t hit anywhere near as hard as it should do, and in fact bores a bit. The Raid 2 gets pacing. It gets pacing very much so. It starts at about 2 or 3 and then slowly builds to its 11 finale, so the 150 minutes that the film runs for pretty much fly by and its excellent finale works gangbusters and never ever bores or drags.
The Raid 2 also has a plot, something that The Raid sort of hinted at having but ultimately cut most of because it got in the way of the fighting. It’s not a particularly original story – undercover cop infiltrates a criminal organisation to bring it down from the inside, son of criminal organisation wants to prove himself to his father but his impatience leads to temptation, and then everything goes to hell – but it is fascinatingly told with strong characters and excellent performances. There’s a real stylish cleanness to proceedings, where every single frame is immaculately constructed and every shot tells you a story of some kind – a care and love that’s frequently missing from other action films nowadays in their desire to “immerse” the viewer by simulating being stuck on a rollercoaster mid-barrel-roll-crash.
Then there are the action scenes. Oh, man, the action scenes! Again, the film benefits from understanding pacing. They’re doled out when they fit the narrative, there are no extended fight sequences just for the sake of 15 or so minutes having passed without a few dozen dudes being murdered, and they escalate. The film’s opening fight involves a good 20 or so guys against 1 but lasts barely 90 seconds, the introduction of important lieutenants get fight scenes to establish their gimmick and dangerousness but they never drag, the final string of action sequences have ebbs and flows, peaks and troughs, and enough breaks between them to keep the plot going and not make the last 30 minutes feel like an endurance test. Plus, each sequence has enough variety and innovation to keep them from blending into one another.
And that final fight! Oh, man, that final fight! It is paced perfectly, the choreography is outstanding, the camerawork is beautiful, the story it tells is captivating and doesn’t require a single line of dialogue, and there is just this electric feeling to it that stands it above all other action scenes I’ve seen this year and maybe even this decade. It is a perfect six-and-a-half minute encapsulation of everything The Raid 2 does right and every single time I see it I am left short of breath with my palpable adrenaline running through me and a burning desire to fist-pump the air repeatedly.
Prior to seeing The Raid 2, I was excited but also very cautious and sceptical. After all, I was excited for The Raid and I have never been able to truly love that film. But The Raid 2 blew me away totally, surpassing my every expectation, fixing every problem with the first film, and being my favourite film of 2014 for the longest time. Gareth Evans is planning a third entry for some point in the future and I will be satisfied however it turns out. If it happens, I cannot wait to see how he tries to top what is almost the perfect action film. If it doesn’t, then I will still be satisfied thanks to this film kicking so much arse and that ending shot and line being almost the most perfect in all of 2014. This is what sequel-making should be like.
Dir: Richard Ayoade
Star: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn
When I saw The Double in the cinema, the thing that stuck out the most to me was the sound design. Everything about the way that The Double sounded just appealed to me. The way that the film balanced its score – its bloody, bloody, bloody brilliant score by Andrew Hewitt – with the various diegetic sounds of the film’s world that it handles in such a way as to draw direct focus to them in an almost drone-like repetitiveness. It does an outstanding job of getting the viewer inside the head of Simon James, conceptualising what it is like to be a spineless creep drifting through life making no impression, and I have done an appalling job at explaining and describing it. Watching the film is the easiest way to understand why it works for me, so props to the entire sound team for their work here.
In fact, watching The Double is one of the best ways to understand why it works so well. There have been many, many times this year where I think back on the film and question whether it is truly a comedy – the register it operates on being that black and the tone being that deadpan – only to re-watch it or certain clips from it and find myself laughing raucously along for pretty much every single one of its 93 minutes. The world that the film exists in is such a bleak and miserable place that there are sections of the police force set-up solely for the purpose of dealing with jumpers in a certain area, yet the officers’ matter-of-factness about their job and the open contempt they have for those they have to deal with somehow manages to make their existence darkly laughable. James is such a pathetic wet doormat when it comes to the world that it loops around from being sad to outright hilarious. And the world’s singularly gloomy and laser-focussed hatred of Simon skips straight past irritating and is instead a constant source of laughs.
The world of The Double, whilst we’re on the subject, is one of the most singularly focussed, believable and immersive worlds that I have seen a film construct in a long time. Even though it’s clearly not our world and many holes, specifically as to how this dystopia is like outside of the focus we get on Simon, are left unexplained, it still feels immersive. I sit down and I just get transported to this world and at no point do I question it or get dragged out of it. The sets do such a great job at filling in the details, the low-key lighting and claustrophobic camerawork paint the oppressive nature superbly, and little details like the glimpses of the in-universe TV series The Replicator, a look at their coins, and the usages of South Korean and Japanese artists on the soundtrack give an indication of life in this world outside of Simon James.
But The Double is about Simon James, and his physical doppelgänger, James Simon. Simon is such a spineless timid useless tool that he is incapable of spitting pretty much anything out. He walks around in life like he doesn’t exist and uses that to his advantage with his quietly obsessive stalking of his co-worker Hannah. It is quite clear that he wants to just say the words to her, but he glides through life so passively, and has for so long, that he is incapable of doing so. Crucially, the film recognises that James’ stalking of Hannah isn’t romantic and never endorses it – right up to the end, too; the last scene’s dreamlike ambiguity providing yet another fantastic ending for a 2014 film, a recurring thing with most every one of the entries on this list – but forces the viewer to have to get inside Simon’s head regardless and see why this has come to be. It’s a difficult balancing act, and the film pulls it off just about with surprising deftness.
James, meanwhile, is a detestable little shit. A weasely, conniving, smug prick whose slow absorption of Simon’s life is teeth-gratingly tough to watch. He is that rare character whom I hate for the reasons the film wants for me to hate him. As somebody who loves well-written and entertaining characters – and I mean properly loves, where I won’t sit there and demand their head on a pike because I juts enjoy their presence too much – it takes a lot to make me hate a character for the reasons that I am supposed to, but The Double pulls it off flawlessly thanks to an excellent script, by Ayoade and Avi Korine, and Jesse Eisenberg putting in the best male performance I have seen in a film all year. He’s always been good, and I have always liked him, but he is on show-stopping form as Simon and James, twisting performances that he’s given in Adventureland and The Social Network into something new and fresh and majorly compelling. The film hangs on his performances and he is more than up to the task.
Plenty of critics were tripping over themselves at the time of The Double’s release to throw plaudits in its direction, only for everyone to cool off and mostly forget it the further the year went on. I honestly don’t know why because it is the best British film that I have seen all year and one of the absolute very best films of 2014. Ayoade has had a fantastic directorial career so far, and I cannot wait to see how he tries to top this.
Dir: Steve James
Surprised? So am I. For the last month or so, I was quite certain that Life Itself was going to be my Film of 2014, such was the power, emotion and energy it stirred in me as I watched it. It touched me in a way that no other movie released in 2014, or even that I had seen in 2014, had been able to do. It sent me into floods of tears and re-invigorated my passion for movies. Yet, when it came time to set in stone my official list for 2014, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t put it at the top. As it turns out, there is one other film that has stuck with me more and affected me more and that I just plain loved more than Life Itself.
That, however, is not to discredit Life Itself. Life Itself is a genuinely uplifting, interesting, and frequently heart-breaking mediation on movies, friendships, rivalries, the progress of society in the last 50 years, the power of criticism, death, and life. It’s a documentary that uses its supposedly restrictive set-up – a biopic about film critic Roger Ebert – to explore so many themes and ideas, without ever losing sight of its original subject, that even people who have no interest in Roger Ebert can watch the film and get something out of it. It is a vital documentary and the truest possible definition of a “feel-good movie”.
I will not, however, be writing any more about it. Not because there’s not enough happening in the film to be able to do so, lord no, but because I can’t. Fact is, I said everything I can say about Life Itself in my review from back in November. In it, I laid bare my feelings on Ebert, the ways in which the film touched me, and why it got me so and that took so much painstaking effort to do that I can’t go through it again. I can’t try and improve or re-state my thoughts on Life Itself because I said damn near everything I had to or could say about it back there, and I don’t want to have to repeat that or condense it to fit in the five allotted paragraphs that each entry in this list gets. So, if you want further explanations and reasoning as to why Life Itself is this high up on my list, go and (re-)read my review. But know that Life Itself deserves to be this high on my personal Top 10.
The only reason why it is not number one, is because of the following film…
Dir: David Fincher
Star: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon
NO, SERIOUSLY, MEGA SPOILERS, DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN GONE GIRL.
I sympathise with and root for Amy Elliott-Dunne.
The more that Gone Girl has been rattling around in my brain, the more that that realisation has stuck out in my brain. Amy Elliott-Dunne is a psychopath, somebody who uses and discards people as she sees fit, somebody who goes the extra morality-crossing mile to get what she wants, a woman who refuses to compromise, and who is willing to commit a man to death and outright murder another in order to get out on top. She forcibly inseminates herself with a kid she doesn’t really want to keep a loose end under her thumb, she fakes being a rape victim, she is a walking embodiment of everything that MRAs fear women to be.
And I sympathise and root for her.
Not completely, of course, there are lines that I won’t follow her across, but enough that I get why she does the things she does and quietly hope that she successfully pulls one over on everybody. Gone Girl is very much presented as a “He Said/She Said” narrative and I am very much more inclined to believe the “She Said” side, even after the reveal that the diary was faked and everything that Amy has ever revealed about her relationship with Nick is thrown into question. Nick, as presented in both Amy’s version of events and his own segments of the film, is a whiny, selfish, complacent ass who never fully appreciates what he has after he gets it, forces his life on others, bleeds his supportive wife dry, and doesn’t even have the spine to end things with her before moving on to somebody else. He does have redeeming qualities, and he is forced into situations and events where it is hard to not feel sorry for him, but when Amy states out loud, point blank, that Nick Dunne “took and took from me until I no longer existed. That’s murder,” I honestly find it hard to disagree with her.
Does this mean that Nick deserves the death sentence that Amy hands down to him? Honestly, the fact that I don’t immediately go “no” scares me a little bit.
The cold-blooded murder of Desi is seemingly more black and white: she murders him in order to return to Nick and complete the fabricated cover story that paints her as a victim who managed to escape from a crazed ex-boyfriend. She lies, and therefore she is not to be trusted – incidentally, brief side bar, I absolutely agree with those who interpret Gone Girl to be misogynistic as pretty much every female character in the film is a walking embodiment of a negative male viewpoint of a woman, but I find the dualities between that misogyny and its frequently blistering feminist heart (both embodied by Amy Elliott-Dunne) to be so loaded and so complex that the film cannot be dismissed so easily without a hugely detailed and in-depth analysis from people far more qualified than myself (although I could also be talking out of my arse and apologising for loving something so problematic, that’s the beauty of critical analysis).
Yet, Amy is very much trapped with Desi. She’s stuck in a figurative prison, partially of her own making and partially of Desi’s making. She’s made commitments she doesn’t want to follow through on, Desi always carries this creepy possessive air around with him, and the slow realisation seeps in for Amy that Desi is the worst traits of Nick only with genuine devotion replacing quietly-resentful hatred. She’s traded one loveless, inescapable relationship for another and, in both instances, she no longer exists. Her only out is through force, to turn the tables and take their agency away from them. Amy has spent much of her life being driven about by men. In a way, she still is, but now she’s getting a say in the matter.
Does this mean that Desi deserves to get his throat slit? I will answer “no” far quicker than I would the question earlier, but that itself raises further questions. Is the fact that Nick isn’t being directly murdered by Amy making it easier for me to not immediately turn on her? Am I projecting with Desi? After all, he doesn’t openly act possessive and the film purposefully spends little time with him to properly deepen his character. Am I just assuming and judging someone without truly knowing them? Is this all being fuelled by a misunderstanding and misappropriation of feminism on my part?
These are the sorts of thoughts and moral quandaries and conundrums that have been rolling around in my head for the last 3 months, more so the further we got to the end of the year. More so than even Under The Skin, Gone Girl is a film that has clung to my brain since I first saw it in the cinemas and it has not let go since. What began as a love for a smart, stylish, complex, and slightly trashy thriller with a phenomenal performance by Rosamund Pike – in other words, a film I loved as a film – has evolved into a constant moral discussion and self-examination that refuses to let me get up and walk away. Gone Girl commands my thoughts, Gone Girl asks tough questions of myself, Gone Girl is seared into my brain like no other film that I can recall.
And that is why Gone Girl is my Film of 2014. Not only is it the best made film of the entire year – absolutely nothing else is operating on the same continent as the ball park that Gone Girl resides in – it is the most thought-provoking and personally challenging film I have bared witness to in a long, long time. I cannot wait to watch it again.
And there you have it. My Top 10 Films of 2014. Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below and tell me your favourite films of 2014! Tomorrow, I will return with the first half of My Bottom 10 Films of 2014. Prepare the pitchforks and torches.
Welcome all to this week’s podcast! As mentioned on the last episode, Carole is taking a break this week so we turned to trusty stalwart James to fill in. He can’t do anything to prevent quiz controversy with Owen’s inept hosting. But then, neither could Carole. Nor Steve, now that we mention it.
Despite James’ temporary return, it’s actually Steve who somehow ends up being the most sophisticated and intellectual of the bunch. No, really. At least, that’s what the guys at EM Foundation thought prior to the podcast as they sent him a copy of the fully restored and fantastic 1930’s French poetic realism movie Le Jour se lève for review. And raise the tone of the pod to BBC4 standards he did, along with help from James sharing his opinion on the award winning documentary Print The Legend… before Owen brings us crashing back down to our usual BBC2 level with a review of the Roger Corman film A Bucket of Blood.
The main review this week is David Fincher’s highly anticipated Gone Girl, replete with a return for the spoiler alert section at the end – so stay tuned for that if you’ve seen the movie (Matt)!
Gone Girl is a master-class in filmmaking.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
It’s the pause that got me. The scene is serene; a single held shot, from the perspective of Nick (Ben Affleck), of Amy (Rosamund Pike) as he strokes her hair in a loving fashion before she lifts her head to stare back at him, whilst Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score calmly yet slightly uneasily backs this scene of apparent domestic bliss. Then Nick narrates that line and the mood flips, the dynamic changes. It could be a perfectly innocent line – who doesn’t want to know what their significant other is thinking? – but it’s the pause that hits most, because it raises so many questions. Why the violent imagery? Has planned on doing this? Can we trust the serenity of the visuals considering what we just learnt about the man who we are seeing them from?
Gone Girl does this a lot: presenting you with scenes but then altering their appearance and expectations through a well-timed piece of information, before distorting it again with the heavy implication that the person whose eyes we are seeing events through may be hiding something too. It is a twisty, jittery film that changes its character dynamics every few scenes and plays on viewer expectations to knock them for six when the time is right. But where other films would simply use this kind of structure for a pulpy thriller with little thematic depth, Gone Girl uses those twists to explore the ramifications of the revealed information, and to address the media, gender politics, sociopathy, psychopathy, parenting, the way we vilify anybody who seems close to being guilty of anything, marriage and relationships.
It is also f*cking brilliant.
After that opening scene, the film picks up on the day of Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. He’s a failed writer who spends his days primarily running a bar with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), whilst she… Actually, it’s never made quite clear what she does during her days, which is the point. Nick returns home from The Bar (one character notes how the name is “very meta”) to find her missing and a house that makes it look like she was attacked in some way. Nick immediately contacts the police and starts to co-operate fully with the investigation except that his behaviour, he forgets or just plain doesn’t know many facts about his wife and her life, his attempts at being pleasant to those who help him come off as creepy and he doesn’t seem to be grieving for his wife’s disappearance as much as some consider right, marks him out as the number one suspect. Meanwhile, the film flashes back to glimpses of their relationship prior to the disappearance, told through extracts from Amy’s diary, only they seem to be slightly off and overly romanticised too.
To say anything else, almost quite literally anything else, would be to wander into spoiler territory and you deserve to see Gone Girl without arseholes like me spoiling large facets of it. That’s not to say that twisty turny plot points are the primary reason why Gone Girl works, but its willingness to play the viewer and upend their expectations every time they think they’ve gotten a handle on things is a reason. This is a twist film in the best and truest sense of the word, doling out multiple twists over the entire length of the film, rather than just at the end or in the middle, although there is one absolute humdinger in the middle of the film that changes everything.
But that twisty nature is not just for show, it’s in service of the films many themes, primarily relationships; specifically marriage and the he-said-she-said nature of hearing about arguments. Like a master storyteller, Gillian Flynn’s script (adapted from her own novel) dolls out these twists at the exact right moment required to confirm suspicions and blind-side the viewer with info they couldn’t have foreseen. It shifts the viewer’s sympathies constantly, even full-on flipping protagonists at one point to fill in the blanks, but it is always in service of the characters and its overall themes. The twists are built into the character motivations so that, whilst one may not sympathise with what they do, one always understands why they do what they do.
And what they do is built into the theme of relationships and, especially, marriage. No matter what happens, it all comes back down to the relationship and marriage of Nick and Amy and how they both perceive it. Nick, as it turns out, is not a good husband, not in the slightest, but he also seems more realistic about the history of their relationship. Amy seems more loving and devoted to Nick than he says she is (in private, to his twin sister, yes this is an important little detail) but her diary entries seem a little too well-written, a little too romantic, a little too cliché. Then the twists come up and one has to start questioning just how much either side is telling the truth or, more accurately, how much of their preconceived notions and what they believe to be true are actually true. I wish I could say more than that, I really do, but I am committed to spoiling as little as is humanly possible so now I have to keep schtum.
Throughout it all is David Fincher’s impeccable direction. Not only does he keep proceedings fast, fluid and stylish (chronology and perspective hopping between Amy and Nick is frequently achieved via fades to black, which is a technique I really like), he keeps things distant. Fincher is often accused of being cold and mechanical, a filmmaker who never likes to let the audience emotionally into his works that are frequently about terrible people, which is a sentiment I disagree with to an extent, but is true here and it is the film’s masterstroke. Despite the depths that a lot of its cast plumb, the film doesn’t judge or, at least, it doesn’t judge openly loudly. Fincher instead presents proceedings and leaves you to shift your sympathies and allegiances from there. He maintains a clean and steady environment to make sure that you can’t invest too much emotionally, and he always keeps the viewer at an arm’s length because… urgh, spoilers! But seriously, his distancing directorial style, along with his generally stylish direction anyway, is the perfect fit for this material. In quite literally anybody else’s hands, this would devolve into a trashy mess. In his, it remains an intelligent and consistent thriller with a lot to say and a slightly trashy edge. It works.
Also working… actually, no, not “working”. “Working” gives off the impression that she’s merely competent and good lord she is so much better than that! In any case, the absolute standout in the film’s cast, and this is a cast where every single performer is fantastic no matter the role they’re given (in particular, Neil Patrick Harris takes a purposefully underwritten role and embodies it so totally as to make the finale hit that much harder), is Rosamund Pike as Amy. Now, I can’t explain why due to my self-enforced “no spoilers” handicap, but I can tell you that Amy is far more layered and has far more to do than she sounds like she does on paper and Pike is absolutely phenomenal with what she gets; a tour-de-force who absolutely gets the character she’s playing and is capable of making every single one of her actions justified and consistent. If she doesn’t get award nods and a breakthrough into stardom for her work in this then I quite frankly give up.
Aaaaand, that’s your lot. Reviewing Gone Girl in any deep and meaningful capacity without spoiling is a damn difficult, near-impossible feat. I’ve managed to touch on most of what I wanted to talk about, but there are still a tonne of things going on in Gone Girl that I would like to even vaguely allude to but can’t because I don’t want to risk spoiling anything from it. Hopefully I’ve done a good job at convincing you to see it despite that handicap because Gone Girl is absolutely seeing, if nothing else so that you get why other people will not stop bleating about it for the rest of the year either. If you’re still unconvinced, though, I leave you with this one fact…
I have seen 87 films released in the last 286 days and Gone Girl quite possibly tops them all. Go immediately.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary. In celebration, Callum Petch is 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.
Bonus Entry #1] Joseph: King Of Dreams (7th November 2000)
Direct-to-video rarely signals quality. This, I think we can all agree on. Sure, sometimes a just-plain bungled or vindictive release plan can cause something great to slip through the cracks (Man Of Tai Chi for the UK, and apparently this fate is going to befall Snowpiercer for most countries for some utterly bewildering reason), but most aren’t worth the time of day. They have budgets that resemble a Lifetime Original Movie at best, dreadful acting, poorly constructed stories, and oftentimes exist solely to cash on in whatever or whoever is currently popular at the time of its release or to ring some extra cash out of an audience with goodwill towards a great movie from a few years back.
It’s particularly bad in animation. Everyone’s realised so at one point or another. You wander into the DVD aisle at your local supermarket, and you see it flooded with knock-offs or cheap sequels. Late in 2011, as DreamWorks’ Puss In Boots was entering theatres, for example, I saw a DVD entitled Puss N Boots that even apes the DreamWorks’ art style to a degree that could genuinely confuse the less-attentive doing browsing. I’m pretty sure that I saw several parents during that time period actually do a double-take on it, having to give it a closer inspection before realising and moving on. Hell, that one got so bad that its Amazon listing actually has to have “(Not DreamWorks)” in the title! As for sequels… I really don’t think I need to clarify that I’m referring to Disney in that regard, right? You all know that there are only two great ones (The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride and Pooh’s Grand Adventure) and that the rest are mediocre at best (the Aladdin sequels) and wretched at worst (Mulan II and Cinderella II). And I’m pretty sure that you already know about the twelve Land Before Time sequels.
So it’s definitely strange that DreamWorks Animation have so far only had one direct-to-video film. No, really, just the one. Those Madagascar and Shrek holiday specials? They were TV specials that got a home video release for the extra money (in the case of the How To Train Your Dragon and Valentine’s Day Madagascar ones, those are shorts and aren’t really the same things as a full-on direct-to-video feature), although we may touch on those at some point in this series if there’s time. The only direct-to-video feature that DreamWorks Animation have produced is this one, Joseph: King Of Dreams. It’s especially weird as, let’s not forget, we’re talking about a company that ruthlessly franchises everything (even Turbo, which actually caused the company an overall loss, has gotten its own Netflix Original Series) and that it’s actually rather safe to assume that any film that doesn’t get a continuation of any kind is a stillborn franchise. Even weirder is that this was the company’s fifth release, overall, and was in production during The Prince Of Egypt, a time when the company half-assed absolutely nothing. Going direct-to-video could be seen as Jeffrey Katzenberg and co. wanting to expand their all-conquering reach to every facet of the animation industry, again that theory of having an all-encompassing range of animated fare brought under a company umbrella that signals quality, but it still feels weird to see just the one, and this early in its lifespan.
Mind, even if it weren’t direct-to-video, Joseph: King Of Dreams would still be facing an uphill battle by merely existing for it is a prequel (kinda, sorta, spiritually at least, depends on how you view a studio making two Bible adaptations in similar styles to one another) to The Prince Of Egypt. As you may recall from three weeks back, The Prince Of Egypt is f*cking amazing. It is so amazing that, nearly fifteen years on from its release, it still holds up and may even be one of the best animated films I have ever seen (one of these days I will actually sit down and try to figure out which actually are sat behind Persepolis). If you want to come along and call yourself a prequel, spiritual or literal, to that film, you are going to be mercilessly scrutinised, my good fellow, and if you even come up even a little bit short then your privates are going to be nailed to the damn wall. There are high standards, is what I’m getting at, and falling even a little bit short is going to be seen as a failure at some level.
Of course, if you watch Joseph with the sound off, maybe instead replacing the songs and dialogue with a fitting soundtrack of your choice, you’d be hard pressed to call it a failure of all but the most minor of kinds. It’s not as pretty as The Prince Of Egypt, of course not (reduced budgets will do that), but is has aged just as well. Movements are wonderfully fluid, shot composition is fantastic, CGI is kept to the bare minimum or is so well integrated that I didn’t notice it, there’s good usage of lighting and shadows, animals are theatrical-release quality… It looks a lot like Egypt except that there’s a bit less detail and a slightly smaller scale (wide shots of expansive sets and landscapes don’t feel wide, for example) which betray the lower budget. The dream sequences, though, look astounding. It’s the way that they blend and utilise several different art styles yet never have the end result look a mess. Joseph’s early dreams employ a swirling background that gives off the style of a living painting, all of them accurately capture the symbolic yet ultimately shifting nature of dreams without becoming disorientating, some employ the camera-swivel effect that Beauty & The Beast’s ballroom dance made famous and it creates this very dream-like off-ness to the scene, whilst the visualisation of Pharaoh’s dream takes full advantage of the fact that CGI doesn’t age well to purposefully create this otherworldly and foreboding imagery.
I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised that it looks this good. Reminder, this was a film made at a time when DreamWorks were young and hungry, with something to prove, and didn’t half-ass anything. They even went into the production knowing from the outset that this was destined for a direct-to-video release and yet refused to let the animation quality suffer. There’s heart and soul being put in, here, the result of a team refusing to settle for good enough. Compared to most animated films that go direct-to-video nowadays (or, in some cases, get called up for the cinema), it’s a visual tour-de-force. The reflective gold decorations on Joseph’s coat look better and more convincing than the gold featured in The Road To El Dorado and, lest we forget, they had to write an entire program from scratch to render gold in that theatrically-released film! If the sound was off, if they only paid attention to the visuals, and they hadn’t seen The Prince Of Egypt (the slight lack of detail and scale is missed but not as badly as one might think), I imagine that several people would actually fail to believe that this is a direct-to-video film even if they were told it was.
Unfortunately, that’s about where the good comparisons end to The Prince Of Egypt. See, whilst that film invested its narrative with good pacing, emotional stakes, and a willingness to not sugar-coat its darker sections and themes, Joseph: King Of Dreams is a bit of a mess, one that attempts to do too much in too short of a timeframe without much of an emotional connection. In fact, I was genuinely not in the slightest bit surprised to have found out during my research of the film that it had a very troubled production. The film’s co-director wrote an entire article on the eve of its release about the disastrous first act story-reel screening he had in early 1998 and the major reworking that had to occur for it to be usable. Apparently, proceedings at that stage made no sense and lacked characters, instead just being a series of disconnected events that happened with little rhyme or reason. This is a fundamental issue, as you may be able to gather, and it’s a hard one to correct in an animated production where a whole bunch of work has already been done and the release date is two years away.
Credit where it’s due, they did fix the issue. Proceedings do make sense and there are characters with motivations and the like. The problem is that everything feels rushed and completely lacking in depth. To compare it to The Prince Of Egypt (which is something I’m going to keep doing even though, in all honesty, it’s kind of an unfair comparison), that film’s emotional centre works because it takes half of the film before we actually hit the liberation of the slaves conflict. Prior to that, we get the character work, we learn about Moses, about Rameses, about Egypt, the stakes involved, why we the viewers should care. There’s an expert usage of pacing going on in Egypt and it’s that pacing and that character work that imbues proceedings with emotional heft. It takes its time, doesn’t rush (presumably because the actual meat of the story is rather short and simple by comparison), lets us get a sense of who these characters are and what they’re like so that the emotional moments matter.
In that respect, Joseph was probably doomed from the start. To try and invest this story with the kind of emotional heft that Egypt had, like it very much wants to, it needs a runtime longer than 70 minutes (75 with credits). The story of Joseph is too large and expansive to be able to adequately do justice in just over an hour, at least from what I can gather here. And unlike with Egypt, Joseph can’t get away with focussing on one specific part of his story because it all feeds into the conclusion of him forgiving his brothers; without that, you have no emotional climax. So, really, this is a story that needs a feature-length runtime, otherwise you just get a rather dry retelling of the tale like the one we’ve ended up with here.
For example, the central relationship that propels the film’s opening and close is Joseph’s relationship with his brothers. The basic strokes of the relationship are presented, they’re jealous of him because his father favours him over them, but it doesn’t really go further than that. We don’t even really see their side of the equation, they’re only shown to be wanting to be kind to him once and that’s during the opening song before they’re shut out by the over-coddling Jacob. I understand the concept of narrative economy, but this is a bit too economical. None of his brothers really feel like people, they certainly don’t feel like individuals, and the fact that most of the opening of the film is sped through in a musical montage where they’re basically background filler doesn’t do them many favours. Maybe it was a deliberate choice, to keep them one-dimensional and unempathetic so that we don’t end up siding with their idea to sell Joseph into slavery, but it’s the wrong one. Not only does it make the conflict at the end, will Joseph forgive his brothers when they unwittingly re-enter his life in desperation, lack stakes or investment (why should Joseph forgive those who were only ever utterly terrible to him; also, weirdly and despite that, the sequence unwittingly makes him come off as a bit of an arsehole, I feel), it also feels like a cop-out when Egypt was willing to humanise Rameses and give him depth even though he was a full-on abusive slave-dictator come story’s end.
Meanwhile, the relationship in the middle part of the story, concerning Joseph and his slaver Potiphar, similarly feels rushed. Hell, it barely feels like Joseph has kicked off his shoes before he gets falsely imprisoned for two years. So the scene where he forgives Potiphar, supposedly the rebuilding of this strange kind of friendship the two had fostered before the falsified attempted rape, either rings hollow or kinda is just a thing that happens despite the film trying to make a big deal out of it. The passage of time is especially weird, two years supposedly pass between Joseph being sold off and him being thrown in prison but on-screen depictions make it seem like it’s only been a few months, at best, or a few days, at worst. It gets better later on, the length of his stay in prison is well-communicated and the time span afterwards becomes very clear due to the laid out milestones, but it just adds to the overall lack of real involvement. So much of this film takes place in montage, backed by what feels like an endless number of songs, that it only compounds the one-dimensional nature and lack of emotional involvement.
Speaking of, the songs are decent. There’s a bit more variety to them than in The Prince Of Egypt (contrast the prior embedded “Miracle Child” with “More Than You Take” which is embedded below this paragraph), “You Know Better Than I” is lyrically well-done and captures the intended “God has a plan for all of us” vibe and mood much better than “When You Believe” did in Egypt, and there are several instances of Jodi Benson singing and that is never not a wonderful thing to hear. The problem is that there are too many of them. Way too many of them in too short of a time-frame and they crop up so often that I found myself wishing that they’d just stop for ten minutes and let the characters lead the story instead of yet another damn song and montage. Their frequency also means that, despite the variety, they eventually just blend into one another. There’s also an issue where song lyrics end up being played over dialogue and sounds that are going on on-screen; the non-song sounds and words being too quiet to overtake the mix but too loud to block out and dismiss, so many lines in the songs get muddled in the rest of the mix. It’s not a frequent occurrence, but it happens often enough to be really distracting and feels rather amateurish every time it does happen.
So, as it turns out, there is a reason why Joseph: King Of Dreams has languished in obscurity for the 14 years since its release (I mean, be honest, did you really remember this film before opening this entry?). It’s a very pretty film that has significant narrative and emotional shortcomings, one severely hampered by its direct-to-video nature and shortened runtime. Nothing really to write home about. Let’s bring this entry home, then, by attempting to answer the big question that appeared near the start: why is Joseph the only direct-to-video feature-length that DreamWorks Animation have ever made and released? Well, me being me, I have a couple of theories if you’ll indulge me for a paragraph or five.
Theory #1: It has been said that there were plans for more direct-to-video Bible story adaptations if Joseph was a success. I imagine that DreamWorks were banking on this being a rather successful little supplement to their cinematic films; maybe pump a new one out every year around about Christmas and reap a nice consistent cash flow from the more religious or simply parents who want to get a stocking stuffer for their kids and, hey, cartoons always keep them quiet. The fact that it’s 2014 and that the only DreamWorks Bible films we have are still The Prince Of Egypt and Joseph: King Of Dreams should give an indication as to how well it ended up doing (even though, as much as I’ve tried, there seems to be no sales data of any kind for it out there).
Theory #2: Direct-to-video really isn’t all that profitable. Or, at least, not to the degree that DreamWorks would have liked for it to be. I mean, it’s still a profitable market (let’s not forget that there exist twelve goddamn Land Before Time sequels), but it’s not really profitable enough to consider diving into on a frequent basis unless you have giant safety nets behind you. I mean, how many films that go direct-to-video do you think generate decent returns, especially the kind of returns that are able fund feature-length animated films with the visual fidelity DreamWorks aspire to? Disney could get away with doing this in the early to late 2000s (when even their theatrical films were tanking hard, but we will come back to that) because they often made enough money to be worth the cost of making them and they still had the safety net of their merchandising arm. DreamWorks… don’t, and especially not at the time that Joseph was released into the wild (more on that in two and three weeks from now), so it’s too much of a risk for what has proven to be too little reward.
Theory #3: Direct-to-video is basically dead in the animated realm. They wouldn’t have tried again in the early 2000s as they didn’t have the financial safety blanket if everything went balls up, they wouldn’t try it in the mid-2000s as they basically released everything they made in cinemas (they average 2 films a year back then, 3 nowadays), and they wouldn’t try it today because pretty much nobody does it anymore. There’s a reason why The Land Before Time series finally went extinct a few years back, whilst Disney just send anything that was planned to go direct-to-video (I’m specifically referring to the Planes and Tinker Bell franchises) to cinemas now. Why shouldn’t they? They make actual money in cinemas, practically every goddamn animated film makes money in cinemas now. Why not shake down gullible and/or desperate parents for extra money by making them pay twice for a film that they would otherwise only have to have paid once for in the hopes of keeping their kids quiet? It’s proven to work.
Plus, DreamWorks Animation nowadays simply can’t afford to take the risk. There’s a reason why the Madagascar and Shrek franchises just plain refuse to die, and that’s because they’re pretty much the only ones that actually still bring in money for the studio. Most of their original films, their risk-takers, their attempts at trying to mature? They’re failing. They have been for a while, now. Sure, they appear to turn a profit, but they keep causing the company to have to make write-downs. Rise Of The Guardians? $300 million against a $145 million budget sounds like nothing to sniff at, but they still had to list a write-down of $83 million and lay off 350 employees. Turbo? $282 million against a $127 million production budget plus a maximum $175 million marketing budget; write-down of $13.5 million. Mr. Peabody & Sherman? $268 million against a $145 million budget and still they had to take a write-down of $57 million. This is why, despite having taken $535 million so far and having exceeded the gross of the original, some people are claiming that How To Train Your Dragon 2 has been a financial failure and they honestly might not be wrong.
So of course they’re not going to touch the direct-to-video market with a bargepole. Of course the movie of The Penguins Of Madagascar is going to be a full-fledged cinema release. Of course they keep bringing back Madagascar and Puss In Boots for cinema sequels. They can’t afford otherwise. It’s a problem that’s been affecting most of their non-franchise films for a long time now (as we’ll discover as the series progresses), and it’s why their schedule has at least one sequel every year. Simply put, if their films underperform, the company stands a good chance of collapsing. There is no safety net, especially seeing as even apparent sure bets like How To Train Your Dragon 2, now the highest grossing animated film of the year, aren’t even completely safe bets any more. They don’t have the time, they don’t have the money and they can’t take the risk to go direct-to-video, especially since their television arm is infinitely more lucrative than any potential direct-to-video venture would be.
Those are my guesses, anyway. Whatever the reason, it leaves Joseph: King Of Dreams as the black sheep of the DreamWorks Animation canon. A one-off experiment that failed miserably and has since faded into near-obscurity. Does it deserve such a fate? Eh, kinda, quite frankly. It’s very pretty and I appreciate the effort to try and bring theatrical production values to the world of direct-to-video, but the film beneath the visuals is wholly unremarkable, emotionally unaffecting and insanely rushed. It’s diversionary enough, but in comparison to the film it spawned from it is simply not good enough.
Next week, we get back on track and look at the film that changed everything. The film that announced DreamWorks Animation to the world. The film that would shape feature-length animation for the decade to come, for good and for ill. Shrek.
A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!
We review the outrageous new Irvine Welsh adaptation Filth, the outrageously boring Runner Runner, and outrageously only spend a few moments on Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. James also talks about his love of the ‘body-swap comedy’ genre. Owen and Steve try to argue that no such genre exists.
Don’t get used to this breakneck pace though, as we’ll be back to our chin-strokingly epic lengths next week with our reviews of The Fifth Estate and Machete Kills.
Welcome to this week’s slightly less shambolic Failed Critics podcast. We’ve tinkered with the format, and are hopefully this close to solving our audio problems. For the time being though, sit back, relax, and let us talk you through the week in cinema.
We’ve got reviews of new releases Elysium, The Heat, and The Way, Way Back; plus Beware of Mr Baker, Wadjda, and the Coen Brother’s True Grit in What We’ve Been Watching. We’ve also got recommendations for the next week on television, Lovefilm, and new on DVD, and we discuss the online flap over the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman.
Join us next week for the fully transformed podcast, featuring interviews and a report from the premiere of UK film Jadoo, plus reviews of Pain & Gain and You’re Next.