Tag Archives: Callum Petch

Chicken Run

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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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.


04] Chicken Run (23rd June 2000)

Budget: $45 million

Gross: $224,834,564

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%

Say what you want about DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, the man had vision at the start of the company’s lifespan.  Let’s not forget, the company’s (planned) first film was a biblical epic the likes of which had never been attempted in animation, let alone in Hollywood at all for a good 30/40 years prior.  He jumped feet first into the wholly-CG realm well before any other Pixar imitators.  He got the company to throw money behind a buddy-comedy adventure that time has been much kinder to than contemporary critics and filmgoers were.  He had a real vision for his animated company; he wanted to rival Disney but, quite clearly, wanted to do it on his own terms with films that weren’t just pale imitations of what Disney were churning out.  He wanted an animation company that could hop from genre to genre, animation style to animation style, all aimed at a slightly older filmgoer instead of merely pacifying the youngest, but brought together under one roof with a company name that people could look at as a sign of quality, build trust in the consumer that their time and money weren’t going to be wasted.

So of course one of the first things that Katzenberg would do upon co-founding the company would be to hunt down, sign to a contract, and inject a rather large cash flow into cult British stop-motion animation company Aardman Animations.  Why wouldn’t he?  Prior to Katzenberg knocking on their front door, Aardman had built up quite the reputation in their near-three decade existence as Britain’s premiere animation studio with such creations as Rex The Runt, Morph and the Oscar-winning short (that would later be expanded into an ad campaign and later still full-on television series) Creature Comforts (1989).  They also made the iconic music video for Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” (1986) and, weeks before the DreamWorks deal was officially announced, they also released Steve Box’s stunning animated short Stage Fright (1997).  But, of course, they didn’t truly start making giant waves with the public until A Grand Day Out (1989) introduced them to Nick Park’s Wallace & Gromit, their household name status becoming truly assured with their follow-up shorts The Wrong Trousers (1993) and A Close Shave (1995), which both also won Academy Awards.  The company was on the brink of superstardom, all it needed was a film that could announce its presence to the world.

Again, enter DreamWorks.  By the time the deal had been signed in December of 1997, Chicken Run had been in pre-production for a good year and already had the financial backing of Pathé, and the critical prestige of Aardman (and particularly Chicken Run’s three-time Oscar-winning co-director Nick Park) meant that practically every American studio with money to throw around was desperate for a piece of the pie (the box office success of Don Bluth and Gary Goldman’s Anastasia a few weeks earlier, at a time when it seemed like any non-Disney animated release was a license to throw millions of dollars into a big ol’ fiery pit, may have also helped somewhat).  In the end, though, Katzenberg won out through sheer, bloody-minded persistence; he’d been courting the company since he first saw Creature Comforts.  It seemed like a perfect marriage, both companies even extended their deal, as Chicken Run was wrapping up production, for another four feature films.  Later history would show this to be far from the case (there’s a very good reason why their new films are being released primarily by Sony Pictures Animation), although a squabble over the film’s score would offer a brief glimpse at the creative differences that both studios would dissolve into, but at the time this was basically all leading up to a fairy-tale kind of ending.

And it did.  It really did.  Chicken Run opened at the beginning of the Summer, with its only competition being the disastrously performing Titan A.E., entering the charts at number 2 (behind Me, Myself & Irene).  The film proceeded to ride that complete lack of competition to a six week run in the Top 10, where the most it dropped between weeks was 40% in Week 5 when Pokèmon: The Movie 2000 replaced it briefly as the big new animated movie on the block, a domestic total in excess of $100 million and slightly-larger than that foreign total as well.  It even out-grossed Disney’s official entry into their animated classics canon for the year, The Emperor’s New Groove, and was only kept from being the highest grossing animated film of the year by Disney’s other animated film for the year (retroactively added to their animated classics canon later on), Dinosaur.  Critically, it was universally applauded, so much so that DreamWorks actually launched a campaign to get the film nominated for Best Picture.  It failed, sadly (Chocolat got in over it, if you’d like a reason to get really angry today), but it has been said that the film was popular enough with Academy voters for it to lead to the creation of the Best Animated Feature award for the next ceremony.  The film also failed to pick up the Annie Award for Best Animated Film because, well, it came out in the same twelve month window as Toy Story 2.

But other than the unfortunate shut-outs with regards to awards (seriously?  F*cking Chocolat but not Chicken Run?), this was basically the outcome that multiple hokey underdog stories use for their feel-good endings, only in reality and fully-deserved.  I was six upon the VHS release of Chicken Run and even I felt a tiny little something upon seeing the Aardman logo preluding a feature-length (not that I would have understood the full significance, obviously, I was still only six).  Growing up, my parents were very generous to stock the “please, for the love of God, pacify the bugger the five minutes” VHS collection with an armada of cartoons.  Disney films, BBC cartoons, Toy Story, Tom & Jerry collections, Looney Tunes collections, all that stuff, so I had a pretty early introduction to Wallace & Gromit.  The beauty about them, as is the beauty with most of Aardman’s best work, is that they work on multiple levels.  They’re not aimed specifically at families or children or anything like that.  Like damn great movies, they just aim to tell good stories with the knowledge that everybody, regardless of age, gets something out the best stories.  So, as should surprise no-one, Chicken Run ended up on regular rotation when it hit VHS.  It was funny, fast, linked in terms of tone and style to Wallace & Gromit, and I always had an affinity for stop-motion animation.  The fact that the DVD we eventually traded up to contained extensive clips of practically every Aardman short ever made beforehand admittedly helped matters.

The thing that I was dreading, though, upon sitting down to watch Chicken Run for this feature, the first time I have watched the film in at least 4 years, was that my earlier obsession with the film during my youth would dilute much of its impact.  For the longest time I couldn’t watch any classic episode of The Simpsons because my near cult-like devotion to a Season 4 boxset that I got one Christmas, and any of the numerous showings of any episode on Sky1 and Channel 4, had stripped most of those episodes of their humour and entertainment value.  There was a part of me that was worried I’d be left sitting on the outside of this film, mechanically looking at its deeper meanings and such rather than being drawn in and becoming invested in proceedings.  As mentioned just a few moments ago, though, the best Aardman works work on multiple levels with the same level of enjoyment being gained no matter which level you end up looking at it at.  And that ended up being true of Chicken Run, many of its jokes may have diminished from over-consumption as a child, but I was still able to be entertained because, thanks to my older age, I could truly grasp the multitude of ways the film ends up working in.

For example, the mood, structure and feel of the film are very classic.  Despite being a millennial release that was in production for the entire back-half of the 90s, Chicken Run feels even older than that.  The obvious comparison, primarily because it’s an affectionate parody of it, is the 1963 classic The Great Escape but it goes further than that.  The whole film has the feel of classic Hollywood and, more specifically, the kind of films that crop up on Channel 4 when they need to fill a couple of hours of television time during an early weekday afternoon.  I realise that that could read as an insult, but it’s really not.  There’s a warm, inclusive feeling to the film that lacks from most animated films these days.  Unlike, say, The House Of Magic or Planes or anything like that, Chicken Run aims at a general audience instead of just the youngest of children, and whereas that could lead to a bland or just plain lack-of-an identity it ends up working excellently.  It feels classic, a film out-of-time, like if The Great Escape was made by British filmmakers and filtered through that off-beat mind-set we used to be so good at.  It’s why none of the jokes feel out-of-place or tonally misjudged, whether they be a practical hurricane of poultry-based puns delivered by rats Nick and Fetcher, some well-timed physical comedy during the montage of escape attempts near the beginning of the film, or a bit where the chickens realise that they’re all for the chop and Babs knits herself a woollen noose.  It all fits the all-ages mood and the British touch keeps any of them from coming off as obnoxious or ill-fitting, most of the gags being rather underplayed, really.

Speaking of that mood, of a film that feels (again, very much in a good way) older than it is, the animation, much like most of Aardman’s stop-motion creations, feels very stuck in the late 80s and early 90s.  The way that the film’s imagery and colour-scheme seems rather washed-out, the low-key lighting of most scenes, I might have even seen some film grain, at points.  I’d like to use the phrase “charmingly rustic”, because that’s the one that keeps sticking out in my mind right now, but I’m not sure it fully fits.  It conveys the positive opinion I have, though.  Many animated films, particularly in this age of CG, are often on a mission to have “the most graphics” or to just blindly copy the style of whatever the latest hot animated film was; unsurprisingly, it dates those films pretty quickly (for example, this clip from TMNT was from a film that released in 2007).  Yet the Aardman style still looks pretty darn good.  The decision to shoot at 20-frames-a-second instead of 24-frames-a-second in order to save money does cause a bit of a stiffness here and there, but it adds to the charm, more than anything.  The works of Laika may have surpassed Aardman’s stuff technically in the years since, but there’s a cosy feel to Aardman’s productions that I like.  It may have something to do with my having grown up a devoted Aardman fan (you are looking at one of, like, ten children who actually stuck with Chop Socky Chooks for more than 45 seconds), it may not, but it’s there and it’s very much a plus.

As for things that I didn’t notice until this go-around?  The way the film handles scale and stakes.  Chicken Run is actually really clever in this regard.  The film is very small-scale, although there’s the really large cast of extras, there are only nine prominent characters and even less than that that the film expects you to full invest in.  You become worried for the nameless extras because Ginger is worried for the nameless extras and because Mrs. Tweedy is an unrepentantly evil person.  It gets that not every character needs a name, arc and recognisable character trait for you to be worried about their outcome; if it’s shown to be important to the main character, like how the continued survival of the chicken community in a freer land is to Ginger, and the film makes an effort to demonstrate why that’s the case, then it is expected that the audience will swiftly follow.  Also helping matters is just how quickly the film sets up the price that failure to escape will have on these characters; literally the first scene after the credits montage involves the death of Edwina, played dead straight at that, showcasing just how real the stakes are to our cast.  It’s splendidly well-done story work.

But that scale also manifests itself in more visual ways.  What struck me first, above all else, was the shot of the camera pulling back to show the entirety of the chicken farm in one image as the title fades into view.  I realised how small the map of the world’s film actually looked, how there’s very little space, how all of the huts barely looked like they could fit one chicken let alone twelve, how each of its landmarks look barely a stone’s throw away from one another.  But then we switch to the viewpoint of the chickens and there seems to be real distance between huts, how the courtyard (for lack of a better term) suddenly does seem like it could support an entire herd of chickens, and how every hut actually ends up more like a TARDIS than the thing we just clapped eyes on.  It should seem inconsistent, especially whenever Mr. Tweedy opens one of their roofs to inspect what’s going on, a mess of scene geography, yet strangely it isn’t.  I think of the little one-take scene where Ginger is walking through the hut the other chickens are turning into a makeshift plane and my first thought doesn’t go straight to “how on earth could all of this be happening in that tiny hut?”  Because the film does such an excellent job at communicating just how big the scenery and sets are and seem to the chicken cast, it makes it much easier to go along with because the film never truly breaks that scene geography, instead flitting between different viewpoints simply due to the angles and placements of camera shots.  Now, in fairness, this works better in certain scenes than in others, specifically the height of the chickens compared to the Tweedys never truly feels consistent or convincing, but it’s still much less of an issue than it could have been because, again, the world is so brilliantly constructed.

I guess I should also admit that it wasn’t until this viewing that I grasped the not-exactly-subtle debts that World War II paid to its production design.  Before you start laughing, I would like to remind you that it had been a very long time since I’d seen Chicken Run and that, for some utterly bewildering reason, I was never properly taught about World War II until I hit secondary school.  Are you all finished judging me?  Good.  So the production design borrows very heavily from World War II POW camps, with some Concentration Camp elements thrown in for good measure.  Now, yes, this is because the film is an affectionate parody/homage (take your pick) to The Great Escape, but it also helps bleed into the scale and stakes stuff I’d just mentioned.  Although the place is never exactly an oasis, it ends up becoming rather multi-purpose, perfectly fitting the mood of whatever tone the film wants to go with.  And, in practically every shot outdoors, the fact that the fence is nearly always in view creates a constant reminder of just how close freedom truly is for the cast.  The fence uncomplicated but very effective in its required in-universe design, much like many POW camps.  Plus, you know, there’s the fact that Mrs. Tweedy’s chicken pie machine and plan to turn all of the “vile, loathsome little” chickens into pies calls to mind The Final Solution somewhat and basically makes her Hitler.  It all adds into the stakes without overriding the film too much, there’s just enough of a gap between the subtext of the WWII design and the overriding prison break narrative that one can enjoy the film without appreciating, or getting uncomfortable at, the parallels.  Again: the benefits of aiming at a general audience instead of one specific group.

Of course, Chicken Run isn’t perfect.  In fact, having watched it so much as a child and this being my first viewing in years actually seems to have made it easier for me to identify the flaws in the film.  The plotting, specifically, is very generic and thuddingly obvious.  It’s paced fantastically, something that’s not exactly a given when directors jump from shorter-form productions to feature-length (as just one example, both Inbetweeners films suffer from pacing issues), and it’s all executed with a tonne of heart and love but it still feels perfunctory at times.  “And now here’s the scene where the seeming answer to everyone’s prayers appears… and now here’s the action scene where we demonstrate how much of a threat the pie machine is… and now it’s the All Is Lost Moment, complete with dramatic thunder and rain because of course.”  One can call the beats to the second.  It’s not much of a problem, primarily because the film instead packs a lot of fun beats into its characters to make up for the lack of originality in the plotting, but it still feels too generic; like Peter Lord & Nick Park and the film’s screenwriter, Karey Kirkpatrick (who pops up frequently throughout DreamWorks’ history; we’ll come back to him), were operating out of some kind of “My First Feature-Length Screenplay” guidebook to be safe.

Also, and maybe I’ve just been spoilt by my years of ingesting as much of the animation as I can have time for, but I think the voice acting is very hit-and-miss.  On the hit side, especially on the hit side, there’s Miranda Richardson as Mrs. Tweedy (who I am just going to assume was cast purely on the back of Blackadder II because, c’mon, you know it makes sense) who plays every line damn near perfectly and her refusal to ham it up all of the time actually helps sell the character as even more threatening than she could have been.  Tony Haygarth as Mr. Tweedy bumbles with half-clueless ineffectualness brilliantly, Benjamin Withrow as Fowler does a dead-on “Back in my day…” ranting old veteran voice but also manages to get that same voice to deliver sincere emotional heft when he congratulates Rocky for helping sabotage the pie machine, whilst Timothy Spall and Phil Daniels (yes, really, I was surprised too) easily slide into the snarking comic relief roles whilst still, with a little help from the script, managing to imbue the characters with actual character instead of just pun-delivery.

Where things fall down is with regards to the leads.  Mel Gibson, who plays Rocky the Rooster, isn’t bad, he’s certainly far better than a man having to deliver the majority of his lines over the phone sounds like he’d be, but he does really undersell a lot of the material.  His character demands for him to be more boisterous, more showy, more American than Gibson and/or the people directing his performance seem willing to go.  It works for when his character development changes him to be more humble, when he develops a conscience, but less so for the time he spends otherwise.  The real issue comes from Julia Sawalha, who plays Ginger.  She’s really flat most of the time, there’s a lack of energy and of real emotional connection.  A lot of her lines, whether they’re an upset cry to the heavens, an excited reveal of a plan, or a tender opening up to Rocky, are delivered in the same very underplayed and often-lifeless fashion and it really took me out of the experience.  The same relatively-detached underplaying that worked for Mrs. Tweedy doesn’t work for Ginger; Ginger needs some heart and passion invested in her line readings which either Sawalha didn’t want to do, couldn’t achieve, or had directors who weren’t looking for them in the first place which is the wrong way to go as it turns out.

Finally, and this is the case for a lot of films in general but I still feel the need to bring it up, I don’t buy the romance between Rocky and Ginger, nor do I think it really needed to happen.  I understand why everyone involved felt like it did, Rocky needs to have his shameful exit at the two-thirds mark and then needs a reason to make a big heroic return in the finale and what quicker way than to have him and Ginger become attracted to one another, but it still feels wholly unnecessary.  Hell, I basically just explained the fact that it was basically done for obvious plot’s sake rather than any natural reason.  Them hooking up just feels like something that everyone felt just had to occur because “that’s how these things go, I guess,” but it’s still not really an excuse.  The film could have just had them turn into becoming close friends instead of lovers, the romance starts at the halfway point with a dance and then Rocky getting over his sexist tendencies and referring to Ginger by name, and it still would have worked in both a narrative and character sense.  Instead, they get together because that’s how these things go and deviation from “My First Feature-Length Screenplay” was expressly forbidden in its foreword.  It’s not a deal-breaker, it’s just a personal pet peeve of mine, not helped by how we’re over a decade on and this kind of thing still hasn’t really changed in the film industry.

I realise that I sound a bit down on Chicken Run, but I’m not.  Really, I’m not.  It’s a damn great, often brilliant film and one that certainly justifies the love, acclaim and fairy-tale ending to the pre-2000s Aardman Animation story.  The effects still hold up especially so since they’ve been bettered, the jokes still pack some laughs that a childhood of running the VHS on loop couldn’t suck the entertainment from, the setpieces are entertaining and exciting, and the film’s mood is endlessly relaxing and charming, the kind that is often lacking from most animated films nowadays.  Again, I was worried that revisiting this film would only result in a souring of the memories, but the refusal to just stick to one specific age-group (and the fantastic work that’s put into making that not create a tone that wildly slides all over the place) ends up showcasing even more aspects of its brilliance and discovering other, newfound reasons as to why it works.  It turns out that it’s not an outstandingly amazing film (unless the re-watch significantly lowers its quality, I have a feeling that Curse Of The Were-Rabbit will be closer to that), but it still succeeds at more than enough things, and its whole is great enough, for me to feel comfortable in the legacy that it’s established.


Chicken Run proved to be the breakthrough smash-hit that Aardman Animations deserved, a runaway critical and financial smash that forcibly announced their presence to the world outside of the UK.  For DreamWorks Animation, it was just the success they needed to counter-act the undeserving failure of The Road To El Dorado.  Of course, it wasn’t primarily produced by them and many may have wondered if DreamWorks were actually capable of long-term staying power on their own terms.  Their next animated feature would silence those critics immediately, firmly put the company on the animated map, and completely re-invent and re-shape the animated landscape for almost the entire decade afterward, for better and worse.

But before we get to that, we have to take a quick detour into direct-to-video land for a prequel to The Prince Of Egypt.  Next week, we shall take a look at Joseph: King Of Dreams, the sole direct-to-video entry in the DreamWorks Animation canon.

A brand new instalment in DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST.

Callum Petch guesses it’s seen the sparks a-flowin’.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

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The Inbetweeners 2: A Review

The Inbetweeners 2 is a send-off that encompasses the best and worst and the franchise.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

inbetweeners 2 4If ever there was an utterly unnecessary comedy sequel, The Inbetweeners 2 is most certainly it.  Fact of the matter is that this series was done.  Twice, first in that wonderfully melancholy and ambiguous TV ending and then in a giant blow-out film ending that gave the cast the send-offs that, in the moment considering the attachment many people would have had to them, it felt like they deserved.  The book was closed, it was done, they made three fantastic series of television and a surprisingly great film, they all got out before they had a chance of hitting a bum note, and everyone involved was free to pursue careers of having to have “with [x] from The Inbetweeners” forcibly suffixed to everything they do.  As per usual, though, money meant that the tale wasn’t quite over just yet and so everybody has been drawn back in for one last go-around even though there really doesn’t need to be one.

Consequently, The Inbetweeners 2 feels like a gratuitous victory lap more than anything else, something that’s especially pointless seeing as The Inbetweeners Movie was basically a victory lap as well, and a timelier one at that.  It doesn’t really need to exist, even as it tries desperately hard to adequately justify reasons for doing so (which it only just sort of does, but we’ll get to that).  It brings back pretty much all of the staples of the franchise (extended cringe humour, gross-out moments, cruelty, line-crossing, a not-100%-great attitude towards women) and ratchets everything up to 11, as if everyone involved knows that the money is all-but assured so why not go for broke?  The result ends up encompassing the best and worst of the series in one neat little package that is vastly inferior to the original yet is not without merit or enjoyment.

We are six months on from the ending of the first film and the post-Malia lives of our cast haven’t exactly been brimming with good times.  Will (Simon Bird) has transferred his complete lack of social skills in sixth-form to university, Simon (Joe Thomas) is similarly friendless at uni and Lucy (Tamala Kari), the holiday girlfriend he transferred universities to be closer to, has turned out to be a bit emotionally unstable, Jay (James Buckley) is taking a gap year in Australia and is bullshitting severely to the rest of the group to hide the fact that his life has been a mess ever since Jane dumped him, and Neal (Blake Harrison) is… actually, I have no idea what’s happening with Neal but he hasn’t progressed mentally, if nothing else.  Over Easter break, Will, Simon and Neal decide to surprise Jay by heading over to Australia to see him, where Will bumps into an old junior school friend who may or may not be into him (Emily Berrington), Simon accidentally ends up deeply committed to Lucy, and Jay decides to finally hunt down Jane and try and get her to take him back.

I’m going to get this out of the way first, because it makes a pretty good segway from the prior synopsis, The Inbetweeners 2 isn’t wholly brilliant towards women.  See, in the show, the women that the boys try going after are often depicted as above them for the most part.  Like, yeah, sometimes there are some who just lead the guys on or who aren’t the nicest of people but those are the minority.  The series, for the most part, made the boys the butts of the jokes as their being terrible people screwed up their chances with otherwise good women.  This is why a fair few people were, to put it lightly, mildly disappointed with the characterisation 180 that the first movie did to Carli.  2 continues that trend and ploughs full steam-ahead on it; all of the boys, barring Simon, got dumped between films, Will’s old friend Katie is shown at nearly all-times to be a tease who is leading him on, and Lucy has suddenly turned into an extremely clingy jealous girlfriend who nags at Simon like an old fishwife, obsessively stalks his Facebook, and frequently takes a pair of scissors to his hoodies.

Jane only appears at the very end for about five seconds and is then duly removed from the picture, so that makes the only women featured in the film negative stereotypes that are bad for the boys.  It’s a little bit uncomfortable, especially because the film can’t fully decide if it sympathises with the boys or if it wants to see them suffer because they’re not exactly great people.  The show always seemed to have a lock on how it wanted to treat the boys (realising that they’re terrible people, but still having some compassion for the bond that they share), but this film doesn’t seem completely sure and that makes the treatment of the female characters seem more than a bit accidentally uncomfortable, again especially since the search for Jane drives the entire second half of the movie and her summary dismissal after she has been found reduces her character to simply a MacGuffin for Jay.  I realise that the film’s viewpoint is that of four teenage boys, but, again, the film still can’t quite decide whether it sympathises with them or wants to ride and flog them for all it’s worth.

But, eh, that’s a personal hang-up that most people probably won’t notice or care about.  There are other, more general hang-ups that I imagine other people will share, like how the film quite often over-steps the line of various kinds.  It’s never enough to just have Neil have an upset stomach when at the top of a water slide, he also has to have the shits too, and have the scene end with Will vomiting profusely everywhere (I shan’t divulge how we get there because, right up until the vomiting, it’s actually one of the film’s bigger laughs).  It’s never enough to just have Will awkwardly embarrass himself in front of Katie by trying way too hard, he has to also sing a slow song on guitar in ill-fitting falsetto, with that song running for a whole two minutes and it turning from “cringeworthily funny” to “just plain cringeworthy” after the first minute.  It’s not enough to have Jay’s bullshitting email visualised on-screen in a manner that calls to mind The Wolf Of Wall Street, it has to be done in full, long after the joke stops being funny, and to have the characters lampshade how unnecessarily long it is after the fact.  It’s a problem the first film ran into at points, going too far across lines of grossness, cringe or joke length, and it’s only exacerbated here, likely because it’s a film and, therefore, there was no reason for anyone to drag writer-directors Damon Beesley and Iain Morris away from the type-writers and scold them with a firm “NO!” before they could script a scene in which Jay masturbates in the bed next to Will’s over something I don’t plan on spoiling here because, in an inverse to the water slide bit, the pay-off is absolutely worth the awkward construction.

On that note, the film’s also a bit too long.  I know, I know, it’s only 98 minutes, but the film is still structured like an episode of the show and what’s excellently paced over 22 minutes can drag and feel a bit aimless when stretched out.  The jokes-per-minute ratio is consistent, but it still drags in spots and, at about the 70-odd minute mark, when the film starts getting really good, I was ready for it to be over.  Also, it still can’t quite shake off the feeling that everyone’s only back here for the money.  Very rarely did the film offer up a scene or comedic setpiece that I felt truly justified everybody returning for one last hurrah.  At its best, The Inbetweeners filters its laughs and heart through painful, painful reality and those kinds do appear (in particular, Will’s attempts to appear cool to Katie’s douchebag friends and the brief glimpse we get at his sad, lonely university life hit rather close-to-home for me) but they’re much rarer this time, the film being more content to just showcase Neal’s genitalia (which a dog then licks because, again, nobody seemed to ever say no to anything in this script) than coming up with more of those.

So, having spent all of this time criticising the film, there still remains one set of questions unanswered.  The big ones.  The only ones that most of you care about.  Is The Inbetweeners 2 funny?  Did I laugh?  After all, I have mentioned multiple times before that I am willing to overlook more problematic undertones if the actual comedy on display is funny, to the point where I really should just put my money where my mouth is already.  Well, I’ve made you wait this long, so I’m just going to give it to you straight…

Yes, I laughed a lot at The Inbetweeners 2.

As much as in the first film?  No.  As much as in the show’s best episodes?  Probably, yes, but only because this runs for just over the length of four straight episodes of the show.  I should stress right now that it is not as funny as either the last film or the TV show… but I did laugh, a heck of a lot, more so than at any non-22 Jump Street comedy released so far this year.  Appropriate lip service is paid to the usual Inbetweeners running gags like Neal’s dad possibly being gay, Jay’s seemingly endless euphemisms for sex (played this time as him becoming very insecure after Jane dumped him), seemingly everybody having a crush on Will’s mum (which gets an incredible payoff in the finale that I will not spoil no matter how much you beg) and Neal’s complete and total inability to function in society.  The new stuff, meanwhile, when not overstepping the line, is often excellent and, as previously mentioned, gags come at a very consistently quick pace, for the most part.  The one time that the film slows down is during a scene just before the finale that, to put it bluntly, is like the end of the bit on the pier in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa but without the gags and lampshade hanging.  And, yes, the reason why I am being very vague regarding the jokes, and why it took me so long to getting around to talking about them, is because I don’t fancy spoiling them.  What else can I say?  If I found a film really funny, I’m not about to go about telling you about the funny jokes when I can just leave you to see the film for yourself to find out, am I?

One other thing the film has going for it is its ending, in that it’s sudden, kind of open, a little bit unsatisfying, leaves none of our characters much better off than when they started, and, quite honestly, is the absolute most perfect send-off for this franchise possible.  Look, not to disparage The Inbetweeners Movie, but its ending basically gave its characters everything they wanted; relative social popularity, happy memories, and girlfriends.  Except that it’s not really what they deserve.  Let’s not forget, these four are all, in their own ways, terrible, selfish people and giving them what they wanted, whilst satisfying for those of us who saw some of ourselves in each of the characters, isn’t really what they deserve and rather contrary to the down-to-earth relatively-realist nature of the show.  Conversely, The Inbetweeners 2 gives the cast what they deserve without coming off as overly-cruel in doing so, it being a nice mixture of disappointment, failure, underwhelming but the realisation that they still have each other over everything else.  Like, hey, the holiday may have been a complete failure, but at least we’re still friends, followed by one last cuing up of the instrumental version of “Gone Up In Flames” by Morning Runner.  That, I feel anyway, is the ending that the series deserves, the one that, in hindsight, it should have delivered the first time, and it nearly manages to justify this last venture.  Not quite, but almost.

So, it’s a bit too long, poorly serves its female cast members, goes too far a bit too often, and can’t quite shake the feeling that this didn’t really need to exist.  It’s not as good as any of the show’s three seasons, and it’s not as good as the first film.  But The Inbetweeners 2 is funny, it’s very funny, its cast is still of a ridiculously high-calibre (not that you needed me to tell you that, they can pretty much play their roles in their sleep by this point) and it provides the perfect send-off to the series as a whole.  For a lot of people, that will be enough.  In a way, it is.  It’s undoubtedly the weakest thing that the UK Inbetweeners have ever put out, but I came away feeling pretty damn satisfied.  It’s good enough.

Just, please, stop now.  Reject any extra money that is dangled in front of your faces and stop now.  While you’re still ahead.

Callum Petch knows that the emperor wears no clothes.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

What If

What If this was a good movie?  Ha.  Ha ha.  No, but seriously, this is insufferable tripe.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

what if 1It took roughly 20 minutes for me to consider whether walking out of the cinema would be preferable to sitting through the remaining 82 of What If, a “romantic” “comedy” from Michael Dowse, the director of 2012’s exceptional Goon.  It was during yet another conversation about shit, at least the fifth in that very short time-span, that I genuinely started wondering if I should just get up and leave.  Oh, I should mention, that is not me comically oversimplifying the various “witty” conversations that our two leads, Wallace and Chantry (and, no, I’m not making that up, either, that is her actual name), engage in.  There are multiple lengthy, graphic, in-depth and overall disgusting conversations about shit and, specifically, the way that you deal with a dead person’s shit.  This film has a weird obsession with shit which is apt, quite frankly, seeing as the film itself is total, irredeemable shit.

Folks, this one made me angry.  It made me really angry.  I saw it for free at an early screening and I wondered if I could go up to staff after the film had finished and try to swing getting a refund.  What If (previously titled “The F Word”) is a thoroughly misguided film predicated on two of the most vehemently unlikeable rom-com leads I have had the displeasure of being forced to be in the company of in I don’t even know how long.  Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore in Blended were more likeable than these two turd-buckets!  At least their romance wasn’t based around them both being the most terrible people and having to screw over a perfectly decent guy in the process.  And this would be fine if that was the point or if the film at least had the tiniest bit of self-awareness of just how terrible these characters are and how their prospective romance makes them despicable people, but it’s there egging them on at every opportunity and openly inviting you, the viewer, to beg them to just cheat on the third wheel with one another so that true love can conquer all and other such shite.  Funnily enough, I did not; in fact, I found it quite reprehensible and only wanted them both to get together because they, being utter shitstains of human beings, truly deserved each other.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  Daniel Radcliffe plays Wallace, a British med-student drop out living in Toronto with his sister and her son and nursing a broken heart after his girlfriend, a fellow med-student, cheated on him over a year ago with their professor (and, yes, he did drop out as a result of this because he is a child).  At a party, his friend Allan (the normally dependable Adam Driver) introduces him to his animator cousin Chantry (Zoe Kasan) and the two hit it off until she offhandedly reveals that she has a boyfriend of five years, Ben (Rafe Spall, goddammit).  Wallace seems ready to just forget they ever met (because he is a child), but circumstances conspire to have them keep meeting up and they resolve to remain friends.  Except that both Chantry and Wallace seem to be really attracted to one-another, and when Ben’s job forces him to leave the country for six months, Chantry ends up spending more and more time with Wallace and you receive absolutely no prizes for guessing what eventually happens between the pair.

Here’s the thing, Ben absolutely does not deserve the treatment he gets put through by both Wallace and Chantry (hang on, allow me a second to restrain my laughter rage at that ridiculous name; apologies to any actual Chantrys out there, but when your name is used for a character in a rom-com as try-too-hard quirky as this one, I’m going to find it stupid).  You know how in rom-coms where one of the two leads are already in a relationship with somebody they make that other person a giant dick or show the lead to be unhappy in that current relationship, in order to make it less of a moral quandary that you’re basically wanting them to cheat or dump their partner to get with the other lead?  Yeah, that doesn’t happen here.  Ben is a stand-up guy, Chantry is happy being in a relationship with him, and they both try really hard to make the long-distance thing work.  The only crimes that Ben is shown to be guilty of are being correctly suspicious that Wallace just wants to get into Chantry’s pants, and not daring to ask her if she wanted to move with him to Dublin which he didn’t do because he didn’t want her to choose between her job and him.  That’s it.

Yet the film wants you to shout “YEAH!  F*CK THAT GUY!  You go for Wallace, Chantry!  You two are clearly meant to be together!”  And I know that that is the film’s intention because it keeps constructing these scenes where the pair share longing glances at one another, where the soft focus is deployed, the reverb drenched guitar strings ring, and one or the other spends a long time uncomfortably close to each other looking like they’re strongly considering making out.  Maker, there’s even a bit where the two go skinny dipping and Chantry actually says to Wallace as they both keep their gazes at eye level and cover up their private parts, “I’ll look if you look.”  So, what exactly is Ben guilty of?  Why should I root for Chantry to cheat on this perfectly nice man?  Because he may possibly have cheated on her with a member of the Argentinian delegation?  OK, why would I believe that, seeing as it’s Chantry’s suspicious accusatory remarks over a Ben and film who have given me absolutely no reason to disbelieve his insistence that they’re just friends?  Because he didn’t ask her to move to Dublin?  That would be a bit more understandable if, I dunno, his swell and non-dickish behaviour had given me any reason to distrust his pleas that he understands how much Chantry loves her job and doesn’t want her to have to sacrifice her career for their relationship.  Because he strongly distrusts Wallace’s intentions to just be friends with Chantry?  Err, yeah, sorry to burst your bubble, What If, but he’s completely right.

Why am I supposed to root for these two to screw over this guy?  He even asks for Chantry’s approval before taking the job overseas, and it’s not like those times where characters like her reluctantly say yes.  She jumps into his arms and embraces him over the idea!  He tries really hard to make the long-distance thing work, as does she.  He even takes her out with him on work-related commitments when she visits unannounced in order to spend time with her.  Why should I have to root for misery and unhappiness to befall him?  Because she can come up with more alternative names for Cool Whip with Wallace than she can with Ben?  F*ck off.  And this is especially bad with Wallace as, lest we forget, his last relationship ended when he was cheated on and we’re supposed to view that as completely unforgivable.  Yet we are supposed to root for Chantry to cheat on Ben with Wallace as it’s for true love, and Allan’s girlfriend (Mackenzie Davis) met Allen by cheating on her boyfriend too but that’s OK because true love!  So, according to What If, cheating is perfectly fine and dandy as long as the person you’re doing it with is your true love, otherwise it is an unforgivable sin and you are perfectly within your rights to act like a petulant child over it.

Again, this would all be fine if the film was about the fact that these are terrible people or if it had any modicum of self-awareness about proceedings or if the film really was just a mature look at how you handle being friends with someone you have a giant crush on but is off-limits (which is something I have been through multiple times, let me tell you).  But it isn’t, it doesn’t, and it doesn’t want to be.  It wants to be a straight rom-com where you are supposed to root for these two to get together no matter the cost.  There is one scene near the end where it seems like the film has been building all along to the “surprise, they’re terrible people!” reveal, but then it just turns out to be the late-game falling-out scene that staves off the inevitable for another ten minutes, like in pretty much every rom-com ever.  In a world where Gravity Falls, a Disney Channel cartoon for children between the ages of 8 and 11, is able to offer up a mature, heartfelt and sensible take on this kind of scenario, there is no excuse for something like What If (although that sounds like a dig at Gravity Falls, one of the best shows on television, which it is not, but I’m getting off-topic).

And maybe I could forgive this if the rest of the film wasn’t so insufferable.  But the presentation is so half-assedly try-too-hard quirky (the first half of the film has frequent overlays of stuff like how Fool’s Gold is made, or faces of people that our leads were previously in long-term relationships with when they’re discussed, or has Chantry’s animations very occasionally be displayed in the real world to create a false sense that they mean anything; before dropping all such “quirky” stylistic cues in the entire second half), and the leads are so checked out (Harry Potter proved that Daniel Radcliffe could be rather proficient at deadpan snarking but he clearly does not give a crap here) and have so little chemistry with one another, and the supporting cast are all so inept or so totally wasted (Adam Driver turns up to alternately say dickish-yet-ultimately-right things or yell randomly because people who yell are funny), and the script is completely devoid of wit (once again: shit) or jokes or actual romance, that I can’t.  I just can’t.  There is nothing decent about this film and all that ends up doing is exposing its more systemic flaws.

What If’s premise, a look at how hard it can be to remain friends with someone you have a giant crush on, is one that deserves far better than it is served here: as a straight rom-com that asks the audience to root for the petulant guy who doesn’t seem to understand boundaries and a girl who permanently seems five seconds away from cheating on her boyfriend to get together and screw over this perfectly nice third wheel.  If the film was more mature or showed reasons for the audience to get behind this central will-they/won’t-they (like maybe Ben really is a dick, or actually showing Ben and Chantry growing apart from one another), it could still be salvaged.  But the script is tone-deaf and has no setting beyond “but TRUE LOVE!!”  Mind, in the end, I was rooting for Wallace and Chantry to get together because, as it turns out, they really do deserve each other as they are both utter shitdicks.  Still didn’t stop me greeting the ending with a resounding “Oh, f*ck off,” of course.

Call me old-fashioned, but I like my romantic-comedies to contain at least a trace amount of romance and/or comedy.  As you may be able to gather, I don’t find possible infidelity to be particularly romantic, and as for the comedy I would like to once again remind you that there are multiple conversations about faecal matter and shit in dead people.  I despise this movie, despise it with every fibre of my being, and I will give both of my hands, Only God Forgives style, before I let this film go down as anything other than a putrid stain on the rom-com genre.  Do not let Daniel Radcliffe’s face fool you, this is tripe.  Avoid at all costs.

What If is released in cinemas nationwide from Wednesday 20 August 2014.

Callum Petch hopes it doesn’t seem like he’s young, foolish and green.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

The Nut Job

No.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

the nut job 2I have been given crap for my review of Tinker Bell & The Pirate Fairy because I dared to compare it to other, far superior animated movies on the market; your Lego Movies, your Mr. Peabody & Shermans, your Frozens, even your How To Train Your Dragons.  I got stick for commenting in detail on the animation quality.  I got stick for attempting to evaluate the film despite not being part of the target audience.  (I also got stick for not having familiarised myself with the series beforehand which is a fair complaint that I will admit is unprofessional of me.)  I have even been accused of being the kind of guy who nitpicks at supposedly perfectly good films for no other reason than I like to and that I am the kind of guy who has forgotten why I go to the cinema: to have fun.

I don’t feel shamed by any of this.  Really, I don’t.  I don’t feel any remorse whatsoever for that review and I don’t feel any remorse for my continuing love and harsh criticism of animated films.  Do you want to know why?  It is not because I am a fun-hating killjoy with a giant stick shoved right up where the sun don’t shine.  No, it is because I love animation.  I adore animation.  I always have and, goddammit, I always will.  The medium is one filled with boundless, near-limitless storytelling potential.  A chance to create and display images of astounding beauty that would be impossible or near-impossible to replicate in live-action.  The possibility to take the viewer on a trip to brand-new worlds, the likes of which one has never seen before.  A chance to make the kind of films and tell the kind of stories that would never get funded in live-action, wouldn’t have the same experience as in live-action, and to create a timelessness that telling the story in live-action might lack.  Pixar (circa 1995 – 2010, minus 2006) were kings at crafting lived-in worlds, Disney can pump out strong, memorable characters in their sleep, DreamWorks at their best know perfectly how to balance comedy and strong character work, Persepolis (although not a kids’ film) is one of the most beautiful and emotionally affecting films that I have ever seen and could only be told in the way that it was via animation.

So, no.  I will not apologise for the way I review animated films.  I will not be forced to apologise for holding animated features a higher standard.  Because I know that this medium can do better.  I know for a fact that it is better and deserves better than the crap that is constantly pumped out cynically for a quick buck.  I know that shovelware is going to crop up for all mediums and that live-action cinema, in all of its forms, has just as much, if not more, crap than the animated landscape ever will have.  And guess what?  I’ll call those out for being terrible, too.  But animation means a whole lot to me and to be accused of being a fun-killer for not giving a pass to every cheap mediocre-or-worse slop that is plopped down in cinemas for the sole purpose of sucking parents’ wallets clean because, “Hey, the cinema’s cheaper than a babysitter,” infuriates me.  I hate because I love, I hold animation to a higher standard because it can do better and I don’t just give slop aimed at the youngest and stupidest of children a pass because, guess what, they deserve better.  And they can get better; turn on the TV to quite literally any cartoon channel nowadays and they will get better for free!  There is no excuse and I will never apologise for the way I go about reviewing these films.

I bring this up because The Nut Job is literally a walking example of everything that is wrong with animated kids’ films.  This is a film designed by a committee for the sole purpose of making money.  There is no heart, there are no characters, there are fart noises and Gangam Style music cues in lieu of jokes, the animation is mediocre at best and terrible at worst, the voice acting is boring and uncommitted, the art design and layout and storyboarding is all lifeless and uninteresting.  No effort has been put in, not in conception, not in execution.  The one interesting thing it has is the fact that it kind of wants to be a heist movie, but it bungles proceedings so thoroughly, and seems so uninterested in actually being a heist movie, that all it does is leave me wishing that somebody would make an actually good animated heist movie.

Think of something that happens in a bad kids’ movie and it turns up here.  A cast of characters who have one single trait, go through pretty much no arcs, and who exist almost solely for jokes yet the film still wants you to care about anyway?  Lame puns based on a word that is supposedly inherently funny but really isn’t yet the film stops to call attention to it before moving on?  Sequences set to chart-ready pop songs, including one where the film stops dead for a good minute because it was popular when the film went into production?  Disconnected story threads where the human villains get nearly as much screen-time as the animals that we’re supposed to care about, and who keep getting shoved back into the main plot despite their overall irrelevance to it?  A section near the end where it looks like our hero has died, and the film acts like he has, but then it turns out he’s actually OK and you were crying for no reason (which is a trope/beat I am officially banning all movies of all kinds from using in the future)?  A lead female protagonist who is supposedly tough and capable on her own yet whose only function is to be constantly rescued by our lead male protagonist?  An “Obligatory Dance Party Ending Over The Credits”?  Yes, they are all present and correct and done with so little effort or interest it’s insulting.

The jokes, meanwhile… oh, lord, the jokes.  The Nut Job has all kinds of bad jokes.  We got fart jokes, jokes based on characters very noticeably and clumsily dropping the word “nut” into a sentence, jokes based around characters dancing to Gangam Style, obvious blind jokes, jokes that just involve characters shouting lines of dialogue at one another, jokes that just involve characters screaming lines of dialogue at one another, jokes designed around the fact that one of the characters has a bird who looks exactly like one of the Angry Birds birds, and jokes based around how irritatingly stupid the whole cast is (a stupid cast is fine in a comedy, obviously, but you need actual jokes because otherwise you’ve just got annoyingly stupid characters).  Each joke is pulled off with a total lack of skill, effort, construction and timing (said fart jokes genuinely just involves fart sound effects playing on a near-constant loop on the soundtrack at one point as everyone takes turns to say how disgusting farting is).  There is one, precisely one, that got a positive reaction out of me and that involved two speeding vans passing a donut shop, upon which point every cop inside collectively have their heads rise up like an old broken-down animatronic on a fairground ride.  Everything else landed with a thud at best, or a sigh of derision at worst.

Animation is all over the shop.  At the best of times, it’s half as good as Monsters Inc. from 2001.  Character models lack detail but they are passable enough, scampering is clearly hiding a limited budget but at least fits considering the fact that we’re talking about squirrels and rats and the like, and there’s a bit in the finale involving water that doesn’t look horrible.  Otherwise, this is hideous.  Lighting is dreadful, sequences set at night barely look any different from sequences set in the day except that the sky is now purple.  Everything lacks detail, something that’s especially prominent whenever the famed and desired nuts get a close-up and just end up looking plastic.  Character movements that don’t involve scampering are too restrained and unconvincing, especially whenever cartoon physics take over (there are multiple jokes that should end with one or more characters dead which, incidentally, saps any tension the later sequences should have).  Facial expressions frequently border on completely lifeless and mostly just settle for plain boredom, the lone female human genuinely looks like a Barbie doll and it is creepy as all hell.  And character designs are uninspired with some characters (namely that bird and any and all humans) looking like they don’t even belong in the same film as the rest.

Also, during the aforementioned end credits dance party, an animated version of Psy comes out to dance to Gangam Style and I am not kidding or exaggerating or anything of the sort when I tell you that it is genuinely the cheapest and lowest resolution animation that I have seen in a feature-length animated film released in cinemas in…  in…  You know, I honestly can’t recall ever seeing an uglier and lower-quality piece of a theatrically-released animated feature-film.  It is quite literally unbelievable just how horrible the end credits look.

Also of note is just how despicably unlikable the lead character is.  Surly (voiced by a Will Arnett who clearly does not care enough to keep up the Russian accent I think his character is supposed to have) is a thoroughly unpleasant lead who is mean to everybody, selfish, and isn’t even witty or entertaining to make up for that fact.  He’s just a jerk, a complete and total jerk.  And he remains that way for a good 80% of the film’s runtime despite needing to become a more selfless and heroic guy at the end.  So, at the 80% mark, around about the time the film’s big lifeless final chase scene starts, he suddenly becomes a paragon of virtue.  As expected, it didn’t take to me, and it especially didn’t take seeing as every other character in the film is a complete tool that nobody in their right mind would step up and defend or a really annoying one-joke blank slate (step right up, the groundhogs) that is impossible to care about.

Look, folks, I am tired.  I am tired of animated films that are not trying harder.  Before The Nut Job, a trailer for Jorge R Guitérrez’s upcoming debut feature-length animated film The Book Of Life was shown.  In that one two minute trailer, I saw more imagination, invention, heart, character, love, visual splendour and overall effort than the entirety of The Nut Job.  There was also a trailer for Laika’s third animated feature The Boxtrolls and that too displayed more imagination, invention, heart, character, love, visual splendour and overall effort in two minutes than all 86 of The Nut Job.  I am tired of people not aiming for those levels, I am tired of people not trying.  They don’t even have to be that good, just as long as everyone involved is clearly trying.  So I am done giving crappy animated films a pass.  In a year that has seen The Lego Movie, in a year that has seen Mr. Peabody & Sherman and in a year that has seen How To Train Your Dragon 2, there is no excuse for Escape From Planet Earth, there is no excuse for Tarzan, there is no excuse for The House Of Magic and there is no excuse for the cynical, soulless pile of complete tripe known as The Nut Job.

You want to distract your kids with cartoons for two hours?  Turn on Cartoon Network, turn on Nicktoons, turn on Disney; turn on any TV channel that shows cartoons because there are brand new kids’ shows on the air right now who are of far higher quality than this crap and which will cost you pretty much nothing.  Just do not take them to this because not only is there better, and not only do your kids deserve better, animation as a whole deserves better.  Do not reward them for churning sh*t like this out.

Callum Petch wants to run til we meet in the night.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Step Up 5: All In

Although not quite at the level of Step Up 3, Step Up 5: All In is a tonne of fun and a much needed course-correction for the series.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

step up 5It seems that you can measure the quality of a Step Up movie by two factors.  The first is how seriously it takes itself, the second is how much Adam Sevani’s character Moose is in the thing.  The factors even seem to be linked to one another: the less serious a film is, the more that Moose is going to be in it and the better the film itself will be.  Step Up was an overly serious romance drama, clearly written by white people (clears throat), that was dreadfully dull, abysmally paced and had very little actual dancing and what dancing it did have being uninspired and flatly filmed.  It also had no Moose, but it did have 2006-era Channing Tatum who, even when blank-faced and not particularly good, could still radiate charm and goofy likability from his wonderfully toned abdominals.  Step Up 2 The Streets jettisoned most of the self-seriousness, introduced Moose and brought director Jon M. Chu to the franchise; the result had some pacing issues but was a fair bit of fun.  Step Up 3 vented whatever seriousness the franchise had left out of an airlock, promoted Moose to second lead, added 3D, threw pretty much everything it had at the dance sequences, fixed the pacing issues and was a genuinely great and fun time at the movies.  Step Up Revolution decided it wanted to be “about something” and did so at the cost of fun, Moose and pretty much everything that makes a great Step Up movie.

So you could say that I was sceptical when wandering into Step Up 5: All In (credited as just Step Up: All In in the film itself).  Fact of the matter is that this series had so far had two great instalments and two terrible instalments with the two great instalments being directed by the same guy.  I was worried that this would turn out to be a franchise that only one director truly “got” and with everyone else trying to make it something that it’s not.  This is the thing with movies that are made to be lightweight and fun: the second you start taking the enterprise too seriously and try and turn it into something it’s not, you expose the whole thing as shallow and create a joyless atmosphere that makes proceedings drag.  Both non-Jon M. Chu directors so far seem to have been embarrassed by the fact that they’re making silly dance movies and whereas he embraced that silliness, they moved as far away from it as possible and ended up making bad films as a result.

Very fortunately, All In’s director, Trish Sie (best known for choreographing pretty much every OK Go video that ever went viral), and its scriptwriter, John Swetnam, know for a fact that they are making a silly dance movie and they make no bones about that fact.  They don’t embrace it quite as totally as Jon M. Chu did (let us not forget that this was a real thing that happened in Step Up 3), but they seem more than comfortable about it.  The result is that, after being conspicuously absent from Revolution, the fun has been brought back to Step Up.  This is a silly, lightweight, fun-as-hell film that sticks to its strengths, doesn’t try to re-invent the wheel but manages to bring the series to a very satisfying possible close.  Oh, and it does this by predominately aiming to be a comedy.

No, really.  I mean, Step Up films have always been comedies, just not completely open or self-aware ones.  The bad Step Up films are unintentional comedies, whilst the good ones get their humour from playing the absurdity of their material as straight as they possibly get whilst still having fun with it (or, to put it another way, this happens in Step Up 3 and no-one, not even the film, lampshades its existence).  All In still plays its more absurd moments as straight as fun can get away with, but it also attempts to craft actual jokes and legitimate laughs on a frequent basis.  Surprisingly, this actually works!  It’s not so much down to the material (sample scene: there’s a bit where Moose’s parents cook goat balls for our two leads and the joke is that the concept of goat balls is gross) and more the actors and actresses who, holy hell, are insanely committed to their roles, this time.  David Shreibman plays a new character named Chad who is a pimping, preening, try-too-hard salsa teacher whose every move is excessively flamboyant (he is not gay before anybody starts getting worried) and whose lines of dialogue are wonderfully hammy and well-delivered.  Adam Sevani gets to play both audience surrogate and relative straight man and he says more with a grinning background headshake or a lampshading “Does everything have to end in a dance battle?” than most actors in proper comedy films I’ve seen this year.  And then there is the character of Alexxa Brava.

In fact, brief stop here for the requisite premise dump.  We’re six months on from Revolution and The Mob are failing to make it in LA after their big Nike ad.  At a club one night, Sean (a much, much improved Ryan Guzman) gets into an altercation with new kid on the block Jasper (Steven Jones) and their respective crews have a dance-off… which results in The Mob getting thoroughly served.  Fed up with LA and Sean’s leadership, the rest of The Mob split back to Miami whilst Sean stays behind to try one last time to make it.  Opportunity arises when he stumbles across an ad for a new televised dance show called The Vortex, whose prize is a guaranteed three year booking at Las Vegas.  Sean is determined to win, so he ropes in Moose (Adam Sevani who is still effortlessly charming and likeable and WHY HAS HE NOT BEEN GIVEN THE LEAD LEAD ROLE IN ONE OF THESE FILMS YET?!) to help establish a crew to take the top prize, comprising pretty much every single good guy character from Step Ups 2 and 3 including Andie (a much, much, much, much improved Briana Evigan).  Will they end up running into The Mob whilst going through the tournament?  You bet!  Will Jasper and his crew seem to effortlessly breeze through the tournament despite never giving a performance as good as that one at the club?  Uh-huh!  Does the tournament end up less savoury and fair than it first appears?  Don’t ya just know it!

Original plotting is not, never has been, and never will be Step Up’s strong suit.  And that is always fine as long as it delivers that formulaic plotting in fun and visually splendid ways, and All In pretty much strikes gold with the dual benefits of Vegas and overblown reality TV talent shows.  The first round involves the crew having to make a demo tape proving their worthiness to the judges and it’s self-consciously overblown and silly in a way that Revolution’s concept dances never quite reached.  As for when they get to Vegas, the dance battles are held on clearly expensive stages designed to fuel the ridiculous TV narrative (one takes place in a boxing ring and has song changes punctuated by a ring girl strutting across the ring with a round number card, for the love of God) and are drenched in showmanship.  It is into this that we are presented with Alexxa Brava, played pitch perfectly by Izabella Miko.  She is the show’s host and, I swear this is true, every single thing she said sent me into giggle fits.  She’s permanently dressed like she just wandered out of Lady Gaga’s rejected wardrobe, speaks with the kind of über phony breathy voice used in pretentious perfume ads the world over, over-eggs every single line she is given to read, and dramatically pauses over the slightest thing like a constantly distracted Davina McCall.  It is an incredibly broad caricature of talent show hosts, and especially overly serious talent shows, a one-joke pony and goddammit I could not stop laughing whenever she opened her mouth.  It’s like if Mad Moxxi from Borderlands didn’t speak exclusively in double entendres and left pretty much every sentence hanging for a good five seconds before finishing it.

Alexxa is the perfect example of when the film’s more overly comical side works.  I mean, it does sometimes falls flat (once again, goat balls), but when it works, which is often when it does the stuff that it would usually do deadpan but with a bit more of a self-aware tinge to help things along, it works gangbusters.  I laughed more at this than I have done for most actual comedies so far this year.  Also surprisingly working gangbusters?  The romance stuff.  Sean and Andie are the main couple the film attempts to ship together and whilst it’s still a little forced and a little token, I mostly don’t have a problem with it because Guzman and Evigan are both much better and much more committed to their roles this time, and have very good chemistry together.  Moose and Camille’s relationship is limited to a few scenes, ends up roughly how you’d expect but still works because Moose & Camille OTP forever!  And there’s even a briefly glimpsed romance for the team’s “human robot” and the scant few moments that he and she (who is basically a gender-flipped version of him) have, wordless and solely communicated by them playing up their robot dance moves, I found sweeter and more romantic than the token romances in most action films.  Not kidding.

But how about those dance sequences, otherwise known as the main reason most of you are paying to see this thing?  Well, though they still don’t pop quite like Jon M. Chu could make ‘em, they’re all very well done.  The opening dance battle at the club pulls out a very impressive dance sequence for The Mob set to some Method Man and then immediately and noticeably tops it with Jasper’s crew (I usually find that these sequences involve the two teams being just as good as one another with the victory being arbitrary, so it’s nice to see the series can pull it off without having to make the losing side just plain suck).  All of the dances do great work with perspectives that would clearly do wonders if seen in 3D (which I did not) and often without resorting to throwing things at the screen.  Most notably, the dances have been tightened up, this time.  Revolution’s dances were often too wide-reaching, too many things going on in too many places with too many people, and that made it hard to know what I was supposed to be focussing on, leading to a constant feeling that I was missing something.  All In reigns in that scale and, whilst some may see that as a step back, I am all for that as the film always makes it clear as to who you should be focussing on when and keeping everyone in focus meant I never felt like I was missing anything due to a misplaced camera or the like.

If this review seems a little simplistic, a little childish and casual in its usage of language and descriptors and the like, it’s because All In kind of deserves that kind of analysis.  It’s not deep and it’s not revelatory but it knows that, it owns that.  This is a film with low stakes that are artificially heightened at certain points for quick, easy, predictable drama.  Character arcs are black and white simple and accomplished in precisely the amount of time you’re thinking they take (Sean is the only one in it to win, so much so that he may have lost sight of the true joy of dancing).  The final dance of the film is preluded by having a character stand on stage with a microphone and monologue the film’s moral almost directly to camera.  And all of this is OK because the film is in on it!  It knows what it is, it’s not ashamed of what it is, and it’s decided that it’s going to have some goddamn fun whilst it does what it does best!  Who cares that you’ve seen this film before, multiple times, done best the third time, when the film itself is a lot of highly entertaining fun?

I am friends with the kind of people that like to class this series as “The Fast & Furious of dance movies”.  That kind of sentiment sounds weird when first said, but going through this series, and especially during All In, I’ve discovered that they are actually bang on.  Both series had inauspicious starts that took their concepts a bit too seriously, loosened up as they went along and got better as a result, built up an armoury of strong diverse characters who, on first impression, seem rather disposable but whose every appearance as time goes on becomes a grin-inducing and (for lack of a better phrase) heart-warming occurrence, and have slowly become the major player in their respective genres.  Step Up even has its own version of Han, in the form of Moose!  I honestly can’t think of higher praise for a silly popcorn movie about dancing than that.

So, no, it’s not going to change any lives and, yes, Step Up 3 is still the pinnacle of the series, but Step Up 5: All In is a huge surprise in a Summer lacking in both surprises and genuinely great films.  It’s a film that takes proceedings in this super naively optimistic dance movie as seriously as they deserve and embraces fun with both arms wide outstretched.  Its cast is assured, comfortable and convincing in their roles and having the time of their lives, its script is the definition of formulaic but is extremely well-paced and surprisingly legitimately funny, and, though it lacks anything on the level of the “I Won’t Dance” bit from the third film (what can I say, I’m a sucker for one-take sequences and homages to classic Hollywood), the dance sequences are of the usual high standard you’ve come to expect from the series.  Step Up honestly looked unstable after the total failure of Revolution, which risked torpedoing the series by falling back on bad habits of the overly serious nature, but Trish Sie, John Swetnam and pretty much everybody involved in this series have pulled off a major course correct and created a film that I’m genuinely enjoying more the more I think about it.  I’m not sure where the series is going to go from here, the last dance actually carries a sense of finality to proceedings even though the series could keep running if it wanted to, but I know that I want in if they’re going to remain near the level of, and maybe even one day surpassing, Step Up 3!

But, hey, don’t just take my word for it.  I’m pretty sure that, during my teenager filled screening, I heard more excitable members of the audience audibly clapping at certain points.  That’s a first in my cinema-going experiences, let me tell you.

Callum Petch is just straight ill riding his motorcycle down the street.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

The House Of Magic

For children aged between 5 and 8 only, The House Of Magic will be a decent enough way to pass the time.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

????????????I’ll say this for The House Of Magic, if nothing else, it’s not bad in any respect.  You know that I have seen a lot of animated kids’ films so far this year and you are likely well aware that I found many of them to be of middling quality at best and straight up “OH GOD, MY EYES” at worst.  The House Of Magic slips firmly into the first of those two categories, much like Rio 2 with the exception that it has very few genuine high points like Rio 2 did.  It does have charm, though, and I can definitely see a version of myself from just over a decade ago that would have been either enraptured or, at least, more than engaged with the material on display.  It’s not a bad film, it’s just a wholly unremarkable one that does nothing new and nothing particularly interesting with its set-up and existence.

Said set-up involves a cat abandoned by his family when they move house.  After stumbling around the neighbourhood for a while, he finds himself drawn to an old broken down house, home to aging magician Lawrence and his enchanted contraptions.  Lawrence turns out to be a bit of a softy for cute little cats such as our hero, so he takes the poor thing in and dubs him Thunder.  And though Thunder makes fast friends with Lawrence and his various enchanted contraptions, he draws the hatred of Dylan the rabbit and Maggie the mouse who are worried that Thunder will end up usurping their master’s love and kicking them to the curb.  One of their attempts to remove Thunder from the equation ends up putting Lawrence in the hospital, which Lawrence’s manipulative and conniving real-estate agent cousin Daniel uses to trick him into selling the house so that Daniel can make a tidy profit out of it.  Forced to keep Thunder around in order to use Daniel’s cat allergies to their advantage, all of the house’s inhabitants have to team up with one another in order to drive out Daniel and any potential buyers in order to keep their home.

That summary is basically my opinion on The House Of Magic.  It is what it is and nothing more.  It hits the beats you’re expecting, makes the jokes that you’re expecting, makes a play for the heart it would probably have if it weren’t so lazy and thuddingly predictable in its design and execution.  None of it’s bad, it’s just passable.  The film rises above passable once, in a scene where Thunder and the house’s residents decide to use the haunted tag that the place has been saddled with as license to utterly terrify a pair of repo men who Daniel has hired.  It’s genuinely a fair bit of fun and shows an interest and effort that the film lacks for the remaining 80 of its 85 minutes.  Voice acting is alright, the guy who plays Daniel is able to get a lot of mileage out of the allergy trait and everyone’s at least putting in some effort, but it’s nothing to write home about.  Animation is stiff, for the most part, which works as long as nothing human-like goes on at which point the low corner-cutting budget is put on display for all to see.  The art style is very bright and colourful but lacking in detail and, again, noticeably low-budget.  The 3D attempts to be justified by having multiple moments where the focus on everything except the centre of the screen drops and something pops out in a way that makes it very clear that this wasn’t exactly designed to be watched in 2D (like I did do because 3D and my seeing glasses don’t go together), and some extended POV shots which should suitably thrill kids who still somehow find 3D fascinating.

I know you’re used to me writing reviews long enough for the seasons to change by the time you’ve finished reading them when it comes to animation, but, again, I got nothing for this one, folks.  It’s OK.  It is an animated film aimed at kids between the ages of 5 and 8.  If there were kids in my screening, I’d instead be reporting on how they found the film, but there weren’t any and I was basically the only one in there.  So I can only speculate as to whether they’d like it, and my guess is “yeah, I can see it.”  Again, it’s not bad in any way shape or form (well, maybe with the egregious 3D) and there’s still a bit of charm poking through the otherwise lazy construction.  If I was a decade or so younger, I could see myself liking it.  Not loving it, but liking it.

As it stands, I was fully engaged twice.  The first was during the aforementioned haunted house bit.  The second was when I was tapping my toes, and bobbing my head from side-to-side, at “The Love Cats” by The Cure as it played over Thunder’s attempts to get into the titular house.  So, if you want to get your kids into The Cure at an early age (and, really, more kids could use an introduction to The Cure), I guess The House Of Magic is your one-stop shop.  Otherwise, there are better animated kids’ films out there.

Callum Petch slips through the streets while everyone sleeps.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

The Prince Of Egypt

prince_of_egypt_ver3by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation turns 20.  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.

02] The Prince Of Egypt (18th December 1998)

Budget: $70 million

Gross: $218,613,188

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 79%

1998 was a damn good year for animation.  Pixar finally completed work on and released their follow-up to Toy Story in the form of A Bug’s Life, Disney turned in the best of their direct-to-video sequels in the shape of The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, DreamWorks’ debut animated feature Antz was a successful and unique opening statement, whilst Paramount and Nickelodeon finally brought Rugrats to the big screen to enormous success, and, of course, let us not forget that 1998 was the year that Disney gave us Mulan.  1999 would end up topping it (to a degree and with worrying signs that we will touch on next week), but there is no denying the excellency of 1998’s line-up.  For the most part (shuffles Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer The Movie off-stage).  And then, just as the year was wrapping up, DreamWorks dropped one last entry into the absurdly strong animated canon of 1998: The Prince Of Egypt.

You’ll recall from last week that this was supposed to be DreamWorks’ grand entrance into the animation landscape but was ultimately supplanted by Antz thanks to the competitive desires of DreamWorks’ CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg.  You may also recall that A Bug’s Life ended up opening on November the 25th of 1998, which is what Katzenberg was so terrified of, the possibility that A Bug’s Life may end up crushing The Prince Of Egypt at the box office.  Except that it didn’t work out like that.  Opening three weeks after A Bug’s Life, The Prince Of Egypt took a lucrative pre-Christmas release slot and still opened late enough for A Bug’s Life to have sufficiently worn out its box office welcome (it, after all, is very rare for animated film to continue to be very strong performers a month after release and with other options available).  The film opened at number 2, behind You’ve Got Mail (in case you wanted a reminder of just how close to the Millennium we are), but had staying power, actually making more money over the notoriously slow Christmas weekend, dropping rather steadily week-to-week and earning plenty of money during the week, too.  (Check the facts for yourself, here.)

The film was also a strong performer overseas, doubling its domestic American gross, and eventually closed as the highest grossing non-Disney animated film of all-time (until Chicken Run two years later, but we’ll get to that) and the highest grossing traditionally-animated non-Disney film of all-time (until The Simpsons Movie in 2007, which makes this the far more impressive of the two statistics).  But it didn’t stop there, as The Prince Of Egypt wound up scoring something that A Bug’s Life did not, an Academy Award.  Yes, of the studio’s fifteen nominations and three wins, The Prince Of Egypt was responsible for two, Best Original Score Musical Or Comedy (which it lost to Shakespeare In Love because the 1991 Academy Awards, everybody) and Best Original Song (which it won, and was a category that is conspicuously lacking in Mulan, but I digress).  So, yeah, I think it is fair to say that The Prince Of Egypt more than held its own against the raring up of the Pixar juggernaut (although, fun little fact, both would fail to take the 1999 Annie Award for Best Film; that went to The Iron Giant).

Besides, this continual competition that Katzenberg feared that A Bug’s Life would bring was rather moot from the very beginning because, much like with Antz, both films were both doing different things.  Only this time, the similarities only came down to the fact that they were both animated movies coming out around the holidays.  That’s the sole thing both films have in common, but that’s apparently all they needed to become fierce rivals battling for the public’s attention.  Such fears are especially baffling because The Prince Of Egypt is a biblical epic told via the medium of an animated musical.  And it’s not like the public could be in any way confused by the targeted audience of either film; compare the trailer for A Bug’s Life with the trailer for The Prince Of Egypt.

Of course, the true test facing The Prince Of Egypt was the fact that it was a traditionally animated film by a company that was not Disney.  Once upon a time, such a market thrived (hello, Don Bluth) but a whole bunch of middling, at best, animated films (Cats Don’t Dance, The Swan Princess, Once Upon A Forest, Quest For Camelot among many, many others) spoilt such a thing, making Disney pretty much the only consistently strong performer of animated goods, and therefore the only one worth putting down money for.  The fact that most films were trying to emulate the Disney style of storytelling, and ended up doing so really rather poorly, didn’t help things.  Misconceptions nearly always have some basis in truth, after all, it’s rarely just people being ignorant for the hell of it.  For The Prince Of Egypt to stride in, as the new feature film from an animation company that had only just released their debut feature (which was so wildly different in tone, style and animation technique that one could be forgiven for thinking that they weren’t even by the same studio), looking remarkably similar to many sub-par Disney knock-offs on paper and with a budget three times that of most non-Disney failures, was practically inviting premature commercial suicide.

But, as we all know, the film ended up a rousing success.  So, how come?  Well, one could throw some of the credit to the Christmas release window.  A biblical epic released one week away from that most religious of holidays?  That’s practically ordering devoutly religious families to clear a spot on their calendar for a seasonal visit or seven to the cinema!  Plus, it’s based on an Old Testament tale, Moses and his freeing of the slaves of Egypt to be exact, and one that has basis in plenty of other faiths (the film even has a short little bit post-credits where it quotes passages in the Quran, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament that praise Moses and the influence his story has on their faith) to make it very approachable for foreign audiences of different religious persuasion.  It’s also really accurate; though the film takes some liberties with the Exodus text (and admits so before you even see a single frame of film), the production crew called in Bible scholars, theologians of various faiths and Arab American leaders to keep the film as authentic as possible.  It sounds unnecessary, but let’s not forget the recent furores that sparked up over Noah’s deviations from the original tale.  You could also give credit to the title, which is vague enough to draw in the more secular for whom the descriptor “bible story” would send them running for the hills (you may laugh, but Disney named Tangled and Frozen the way they did because they believe that one of the main reasons for the failure of The Princess & The Frog was the fact that “Princess” was in the title), and the trailer promised an action-packed romp that could bring in excited young boys.

You could say all of those things.  I instead choose to believe a simpler, much more naive reason: The Prince Of Egypt succeeded at the box office because The Prince Of Egypt is f*cking brilliant.

As the opening statement for DreamWorks Animation it was clearly intended to be before the whole Antz business happened, The Prince Of Egypt is as bombastic as they come.  Everything carries a grandness to it, the kind that only a large risk-taking budget can provide.  It’s there in the look of the film; environments are large and wide open let crawling in detail, character animations look and feel extremely natural and fluid, conspicuous CG is used to enhance certain scenes and achieve its more audacious effects (like the parting of The Red Sea).  It’s there in the storytelling; which is melodramatic in the best kind of way, where everything is epic in scope and every action is a giant event of great significance, yet it is all rooted in a strong central relationship.  It’s there in the songs (hell, the score in general); which is the definition of grandiose and bombast, with booming choirs harmonising foreboding chants, an orchestra that sounds populated enough to fill an aircraft hangar and whose every note sounds like it’s heralding the incoming apocalypse.  You could not get closer to the kind of overblown historical epics that classic Hollywood used to pump out if you spliced in scenes from The Ten Commandments at random intervals (fitting, considering that the project allegedly came about when Steven Spielberg directly told Katzenberg that he should make The Ten Commandments).

In fact, why am I even describing what the film is like when all I need to do, literally all I need to do, to get you to understand the feel of this film is to just show you the plagues montage?

That is the whole movie.  It remains at that kind of grand sweeping level for the majority of its run time, and that makes the film unique.  Not just for animated films but for films in general, let us not forget that that kind of overblown historical/biblical epic was nearly killed off nearly half a century ago after the production disaster known as Cleopatra (when your film is the highest grossing of the year yet still lost money overall due to the exorbitant budget, history is going to write you off as a failure).  To put it simply, they didn’t make films like this in 1998.  They still don’t, in fact.  There’s genuine spectacle, here, especially helped by the fact that this is one utterly gorgeous film.  This film is 15 years old, I saw it in rather crappy standard definition, possibly poorly upscaled to HD, and it is still one of the best looking animated films I have ever seen.  There’s the detail that accompanies every scene, no matter how small, the smoothness and fluidity of the character animations, the opulence that drips from the Egyptian palace and the meagreness of the residencies of the peasants and the slaves.  And then there are the individual shots, many of which you could divorce from the context of the film and hang up in art galleries and nobody in their right mind would go, “Hang on, why on earth is that here?”

 

Artist Unknown, 1998
Artist Unknown, 1998

But opulence and spectacle unchecked just leads to the realisation that all you’re watching is empty flash, all the pretty visuals in the world can’t save a film without some kind of emotional grounding.  Fortunately, The Prince Of Egypt realises this also and so the dramatic centre of the film comes from the relationship between Moses and Rameses.  In this telling, Moses’ basket is found by the wife of Pharaoh Seti’s consort wife and he is brought up as Rameses’ adopted brother leading to the central dramatic conceit being whether Moses can convince his brother to do the right thing before he has to take everything from him.  The opening third of the film actually does a good job at establishing their relationship, they’re dearly loving brothers with Moses as the troublesome younger sibling and Ramses as the one who is being groomed for leadership and is eager for some kind of acceptance from his father.  The whole film runs on this relationship they both have and its eventual disintegration, and it’s why we take somewhere in the region of at least 50 to 60 minutes before the plagues actually come about.  The film wants to establish its characters before it rains down God’s fury and it works brilliantly; there’s a scene just before the final plague where Moses confronts Rameses one last time and the two recall a memory of a prank that Moses played and it’s genuinely saddening.  It never forgets this central dynamic, even during what should be a thoroughly uplifting climax when it takes the time to show Rameses stuck on a rock in the middle of the sea, futilely shouting Moses’ name to the heavens whilst Moses stands miles away, clearly still full of regret for the loss of that relationship.

Also helping that emotional grounding is some excellent low-key voice work.  The only one who ever lets loose with theatricality is Ralph Fiennes as Rameses, which is rather fitting, actually.  Everyone else plays things very reserved which leads to performances that feel genuine.  Patrick Stewart shows up as Pharaoh Seti and his calm, soothing voice is what really sells the scene where he informs Moses about the slaughtering of the peasants’ first born, as if he thinks it will actually cheer up the horrified Moses.  Val Kilmer plays Moses and his voice work is excellent here, most specifically in showcasing his character’s evolution.  He starts off like Fiennes, very theatrical and jovial and pompous and all that, but he actually changes up his voice as Moses goes through the film, toning down any and all theatricality in favour of a subdued and clearly weary voice, as if he can barely shoulder the weight of his task and the emotional toil and guilt it’s saddling him with.  He also, uncredited, voices God and his performance is so soft and paternal that, quite honestly, it amazes me that this isn’t one of the standards for God portrayals; it fits so damn perfectly.

And speaking of God, I’m pretty sure the thing that pushed The Prince Of Egypt over the top for me, the scene where it clicked that I was watching an incredible movie, was the way it treated The Angel Of Death.  Now, let’s face facts, this scene in concept is utterly horrifying.  I realise that God slaughtering all of the first-born sons of Egypt really is the only way to move Pharaoh and that it’s all for the greater good and how God only did it because he was forced to this extreme, but it is a truly horrifying thing to have happen.  Wisely, The Prince Of Egypt does not attempt to sugarcoat it and depicts the scene exactly as it sounds on paper.  And yet the scene is actually rather beautiful with the way that it’s constructed, the muted and slightly washed-out colour scheme and the impeccable sound design coming together to create a scene that I genuinely feel comfortable calling art.  It doesn’t pull its punches, not one of them, and the result is a wondrous scene of horrifying beauty.  And the film actually lets the scene breathe, it lets the distressing nature of the action linger and settle instead of immediately cutting to happy smiley fun times (the song that follows on actually starts downbeat and despondent and waits a while until it becomes triumphant).  In fact, just watch it, words can’t do it justice.

If there is one thing about The Prince Of Egypt that I don’t like (and it is just the one thing, as I otherwise love this movie), it’s the songs.  They’re not bad; not by any means, they’re all very grand and bombastic and overwrought and that kind of earnest go-for-broke-ness is extremely rare, so they have a charm of their own if nothing else.  It’s just that they’re all kind of… forgettable.  Interchangeable.  Eh.  Other than their overblown nature, they haven’t really got anything going for them.  They lack a tune, they lack something that makes them stand-out.  To compare it to something else that came out in 1998, remember how Mulan had “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You”?  Course you do, pretty much everybody who has seen Mulan can at least hum the basic tune of that at the drop of a hat.  Well, The Prince Of Egypt doesn’t have anything close to that, they all just wander in and out of the film when necessary and lack long term impact or memory.  I also really don’t like “Playing With The Big Boys Now” which is lyrically lazy instead of catchy, does little to advance proceedings and goes on for what feels like twice its actual length.  Oh, and the end credits feature a song by Boyz II Men, in case you wanted a reminder that this was a film made in 1998.

I’m going to admit that I was rather apprehensive going into The Prince Of Egypt.  Growing up, I attended a Junior School that basically forced you to be a Christian and to be knowledgeable about religion, we had mandatory daily prayers and mandatory weekly hymn assemblies with some scripture thrown in for good measure.  So my distancing from religion comes just as much from it being a forced part of my daily life growing up as it did my general lack of faith.  And I do not like being preached to about the wonders of religion; unlike most notable atheists, I’m not opposed to religion as a whole (I actually have a great deal of admiration for people whose faith is strong enough to believe in a divine power that looks down on us all), but I am opposed to people trying to force their way of life upon others.  Therefore, I tend to be apprehensive whenever biblical tales are presented for my filmic enjoyment.  This is a dumb subconscious feeling to have, I am well aware, especially since the Bible is comprised of some of the most classic and compelling narrative conflicts available, but it’s a feeling that continues to sit with me to this day (you’d think that Darren Aronofsky’s superb Noah would have beaten that prejudice into the dirt, you’d sadly be mistaken).

Fortunately, The Prince Of Egypt blows away past that cynical barrier by being like pretty much no other animated film out there.  Its strong emotional centre, its gorgeous animation, its great voice work and its infusion of classic Hollywood excess combine together to create a film that had my full attention from practically frame one and my emotional investment well and truly secured by the 15 minute mark at the latest.  It’s also a film that commits fully to its material; if this were a Disney film, they would have diluted the impact by adding a wacky talking animal sidekick to provide the kids with some mood-lightening laughs (I love Mulan with all of my heart, I would love it ten times more if Mushu were nowhere in sight).  Instead, The Prince Of Egypt is 100% committed to telling its story in the manner and tone that it deserves, and it’s all to its total benefit.  This is one of those films that has slipped into cult classic status almost accidentally, the result of a film that was a smash upon release but just kinda got overshadowed by, and for being so unlike, a studio’s later output, but absolutely deserves its status.  This is a f*cking fantastic film!


With two financial and critical successes under its belt, plus an Academy Award in only its second feature release, it would seem like a safe bet to say that DreamWorks Animation had arrived.  It would, however, be 15 months before they released their next film, one that would underwhelm critically and fall victim to a distressing trend at the box office.  The Road To El Dorado is the film in question and, next week, we’ll see if it truly deserved its fate or not.

A brand new instalment in “DreamWorks! A Retrospective” will be posted every Monday at 1PM here on Failed Critics!  I am also taking suggestions for a much better name for this feature.

Callum Petch went to descend to amend for a friend.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

The Purge: Anarchy

An immense step-up from the original, if nothing else, The Purge: Anarchy is a trashy, violent and disposable B-movie.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Film Review The Purge Anarchy2013’s The Purge was one of the most frustratingly terrible movies to come along in damn good long while.  The golden premise: it’s the near-future and the United States government has been overtaken by a party dubbed The New Founding Fathers.  Under their stead, crime is down to an all-time low, poverty is near non-existent and the country is in an economic boom.  Their secret?  The Purge: an annual event where, for one twelve hour period, all crime is legal.  The idea being that the citizens of America can let out all of their frustrations without fear of reprisal, getting it all out of their system, but in reality it seems a lot like the rich get to use the night to switch their figurative preying on the lower-classes into literal preying on the lower-classes.  You could have touched on so much with this excellent premise and The Purge used it for… a home invasion horror movie.

That is not just blowing a fantastic premise; that is actively wasting my time.  And it wasn’t even a good home invasion horror movie!  It had no characters, nothing new or interesting to add to the home invasion sub-genre, nothing to say despite having a premise ripe for social commentary and satire and, most damningly, it wasn’t even the least bit scary.  Fortunately, the goldmine premise got out unscathed and I was willing to give this second go-around the benefit of the doubt before seeing it.  So, the good news: The Purge: Anarchy is an immense step-up from the first film.  It has “character arcs” and something to say and actually decides to explore its premise in an attempt to get its message across.  The bad news: the film’s writing still isn’t particularly good and, at the times when this pulpy and trashy action flick decides it wants to pay lip service to its horror roots for a brief moment, it’s still pathetically non-terrifying.

Taking place on The Sixth Annual Purge, we take to the streets of Los Angeles to follow a group of five people.  There’s a husband and wife (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) who, on their way to her sister’s house to wait out the purge and announce their separation, get stranded outside when a roving gang of masked psychos tamper with their car, having designated them as their prey for the evening.  There’s a nameless man (Frank Grillo) who has chosen to take part in The Purge in order to take revenge on the man who killed his son.  And then there’s a woman and her younger sister (Carmen Ejogo and Zoë Saul) who were safely locked inside their home until what looks a lot like a government death squad shows up to cart them away, most likely for a spot of murdering.  Circumstances bring the five folks together and the nameless man (who, let’s not mince words here, is basically The Punisher) takes pity on the civilians enough to try and get them to safety, whilst still hoping for enough time in the night to be able to get his revenge.

Right, first things first, this is not The Purge Again.  Whilst the first film was a horror, this one is a schlocky action flick with the occasional jump scare (I counted five total and they all prove, beyond all reasonable doubt, that writer/director James DeMonaco is utterly abysmal at crafting scares).  That means that you can expect lots of blood, a tight and fast pace, competent but not mind-blowing or original action scenes, and a conspicuously constrained budget (seriously, for a film with Anarchy right in the damn title, there seems to be very little anarchy on the streets of Los Angeles).  It is what it is, a pulpy b-movie.  It’s not going to set any worlds on fire and it’s not an especially high quality b-movie, either, but it is good at what it does.

For one, there are actual characters and character arcs, this time.  Whereas The Purge had static one-dimensional characters at best, Anarchy has clear definitions in its cast, individual characteristics if you will, and, and you may want to hold onto your head for this bit because I may just blow your mind here, actual character arcs!  Characters start the movie in one place and then come out of the end of the night as legitimately changed people for whom their experiences have had a positive or negative effect upon!  I know that this comes across as damning with faint praise, and that’s because it is, but the total lack of this stuff in the first film makes its appearance here all the more noticeable.  Helping matters is that Frank Grillo is actually really good in the lead role.  He has a very expressive face that also permanently looks weary, as if he is just completely tired of this sh*t at every opportunity.  He imbues his character with charisma and he puts effort into his performance, when it comes time for his pivotal scene I was genuinely surprised by how interested I was in proceedings purely down to his full interest.  The rest of the main cast get the job done, acting scared and out-of-their-depth most all the time, and the side cast get to indulge in their hammiest impulses, but Grillo is the draw, here.

As for the action, it is pretty good.  Again, it is noticeably constrained by the miniscule (by Hollywood standards) $9 million budget, but DeMonaco does have a very good grasp of how to stage and shoot an action sequence.  Remember that bit in the first film where Ethan Hawke fought off three of the masked intruders in a scene that was absolutely ridiculous given the context of the film it occurred in and the characters it happened to, but was at least admittedly decently shot and well-staged?  Add a bit, but not an incomprehensible amount, of shaky-cam to that and you have Anarchy’s action scenes.  Grillo’s (I’m just going to keep calling him by his actor’s name because he goes nameless for the whole film bar one little reveal) initial takedown of the death squad van is pretty cool and there’s a pretty good scene where the group are heading down a subway tunnel whilst pursued by crazed maniacs riding ATVs wielding flamethrowers, but proceedings don’t start approaching tense and great until the final sequence, in which the group is thrown into a hunting ground and forced to survive.  If DeMonaco was willing to be a bit more original in the execution of said scenario, it could have been a very memorable and original scene.  Instead, it’s basically what you’re expecting, but it’s a pretty damn good one, if nothing else.

You could throw the originality argument at the rest of the film, too, if you wanted, but at least DeMonaco really does actually do stuff with his million dollar idea, this time.  Anarchy takes on a kind of episodic structure, where its cast wander into and out of various different scenarios that showcase various different aspects of The Purge and life on Purge night.  You can probably figure out most of the scenarios without even seeing a second of the film and, yes, they all do still involve murder in some way (annoyingly), but the film gains something by not fixating for too long on any one bit.  It gains pace, for one, direction, for another, and it all ends up building into the film’s overall message.  A much better film would probably have found scenarios that don’t always end in blood and guts, but the film still does enough to make it not feel like my time is actively being wasted.  People selling their lives to the wealthy during The Purge, psychopaths justifying their actions with scripture and how The Purge is their God-given right, non-Purge households, the possibility that maybe people aren’t actually as into The Purge as the government likes to claim they are… stuff like that and it’s all executed strongly if a bit uninspiring.

And it all feeds into the film’s overall message.  Yes, Anarchy is an angry film and wants to say something with that something being this: “F*ck capitalism.”  And, by Jove, is it not in the slightest bit subtle about it.  Remember that bit in the first film where the preppy kid in the blazer stood in front of the camera and literally went on about how The Purge is his right because he is rich and the lower-class are scum and all that for a good two and a bit minutes?  No?  Well, here’s a brief reminder link for you.  Seen it?  OK, now, take that one scene, stretch it out for 103 minutes, and you have Anarchy’s message, with a bit of general anti-gun stuff for good measure.  This is a film that quite literally has a sequence in which a woman with a redneck accent stands on top of a building, firing her assault rifle in the air and screaming through a megaphone about how she is “the left hand of God” and how purging is “her god given, constitutional right”.  This is a film that quite literally has Michael Kenneth Williams burst in at one point and scream “F*CK THE NEW FOUNDING FATHERS, F*CK YOUR MONEY, AND MOTHERF*CK THE PURGE!!”  This is a film in which every single member of the oppressed lower class is represented by a person of colour and every single member of the entitled and predatory upper class is represented by a white person, most often old.

Subtle is not Anarchy’s way of doing things, and I applaud it wanting to, and being so eager to, say something, if nothing else.  There are only two problems.  1] I don’t think you’re going to find any member of your target audience who doesn’t already subscribe to your “f*ck capitalism” newsletter, movie.  Sorry to disappoint.  2] The writing of this stuff is bad.  Instead of having these ideas predominately come up through detail and world-building and such (you know, organically), Anarchy brings them up near-exclusively by having characters outright state the themes of the movie and how bad everything is.  At one point, an evil character rationalises their life choices by outright stating multiple times that they’re doing it for the money.  The upper class quote scripture before commencing killing.  Michael Kenneth Williams, incidentally, plays the leader of the resistance who plan to use The Purge against the New Founding Fathers and he gets a lot of screen time.  Screen time used to A) speechify about just how evil the NFF are and how abhorrent the idea of The Purge is and B) to walk around with a giant neon sign that reads “WE WILL PAY THIS OFF IN THE SEQUEL”.  Look, I understand that some anvils need to be dropped and all that, but it takes strong writing to not make it feel like I’ve spent the last 100 minutes being lectured about the obvious (see Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes for what happens when you pair that path with strong writing) and the writing here is, well, barely B-movie quality, to be honest.  Yes, movie, I know that capitalism sucks and that the wealthy prey on the poor to make themselves richer.  I’ve known that for a while, actually.  Have you got anything else you’d like to talk about?  Or at least find a more nuanced way to get your message across?

But, eh, I can’t complain too much.  The Purge: Anarchy is a trashy B-movie and it’s good at what it does.  I still don’t think that The Purge concept is being used to its fullest potential, but if pulpy violence is the way we’re going to go down then Anarchy does a damn fine job at making the most of it given the restrictions.  If nothing else, it’s a monumental step-up from the terrible first film because this one is at least good at what it does and the resistance idea seems like something that genuinely will be properly paid off in the sequel.  There is a great movie in The Purge somewhere and this one gives me hope that we may reach it a lot sooner than expected.  As it stands currently, Anarchy is a good trashy B-movie.  I can think of a lot worse ways to pass the time.

Callum Petch needs someone to love when the chips are down.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Earth To Echo

Your enjoyment of Earth To Echo will depend on how much you want to see a classic Spielberg family film recreated beat-for-beat.  I personally dug the hell out of it.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

earth to echoThat headline is not a misnomer or over-simplification, just so you’re aware.  Earth To Echo is a beat-for-beat recreation of one of those “young kids band together and go off on an adventure” family movies that used to be so prominent in the 80s and early 90s.  Think of a feature or plot beat from any of them and I can practically guarantee you that it showed up here at some point or another.  A close group of young boys consisting of their leader (who thinks he’s a bit of a charmer and has a personal crusade), the cool one (who is deeply insecure about people moving away) and the slightly eccentric one (who is prone to panicking under pressure)?  Check.  The group is about to be broken up due to outside circumstances dictating that they all move away from one another?  Check.  Strange goings on are happening in the area and, on their last night together, the trio decide to investigate behind their parents’ backs?  Check.  They discover a ridiculously cute alien who crash-landed on Earth and just wants to get home?  Big check.  The group ends up being joined by a girl who happens to enjoy unusual things, has to basically force her way into the group and may end up hitting it off with one of them?  Check-ity- check check.  Everyone involved discovers that the people forcing them to move away may actually be connected to and hunting for the ridiculously cute alien?  Mr Check, of Checkingsville, Illinois, you’d better chiggidy-check yourself before you wriggidy-wreck yourself!

In blunt terms, if Amblin Entertainment was in any way responsible for it, Earth To Echo blatantly steals from it at some point or another during its run time.  I can practically guarantee that you will have seen this movie multiple times before and, inarguably, done better.  It brings one thing to the table, the found-footage framework, that, to my knowledge, has not been done by any one of these films beforehand.  Otherwise, it’s the kind of homage where the only aim was to recreate one of the films it wants to homage.  This should be a huge knock against the film and, in a way, it still is.  And yet, Earth To Echo worked for me.  It worked near-totally.

Now, again, don’t get me wrong, I know for a fact that this film does nothing new and has little depth or anything to say besides “Hey!  Remember those family movies from the 80s?  Weren’t they awesome?  Gee, I wish they’d make ‘em like that nowadays.”  But the film is so good at that homage and its filmmakers are so good at what they do and they clearly have so much genuine love for the genre they wish to be, that my cynicism was overwhelmed and the film just swept me away.  A much less talented filmmaker would have coldly replicated the style of classics like E.T. and The Goonies for cheap sympathy pops, but director Dave Green and the screenplay (provided by Henry Gayden) invest their hearts into the thing.  They have real love for this style and it washes through every facet of the film’s production, especially its tone which is dead on.  This is a light, heart-filled, optimistic and just plain feel-good film; there is not one bad bone in its entire being which made it much easier for me to lose myself in proceedings.

And that heart manifests itself everywhere.  In the trio of leads (Teo Halm plays the cool kid, Brian “Astro” Bradley plays the group leader, Reese C. Hartwig plays the eccentric one) who are all excellent, striking up lightning chemistry with one another and are so believable in their respective roles that one could be forgiven for thinking that they all were close friends way before filming even began.  In the titular alien, Echo, who is utterly adorable and whose fate I cared rigidly about, even though his personality is just that he’s utterly adorable and that the adults hunting him are clearly bad news.  In the tinge of melancholy that hangs over proceedings, playing on the loss of friendships and abandonment issues theme enough to create the illusion of full-on depth but not enough to make it feel like I was being bashed over the head with it.  In the score by Joseph Trapanese, which is ripped straight from that kind of era but overlaid with minor key reverb guitars for that 2010s version of wistful forgotten youth-invoking.  It all feels sincere and that makes the entire film feel like a genuine throwback to that bygone era, and a very nice change of pace from most family films currently on the market, instead of a cynical invocation for the end purpose of nostalgia dollars.

As for the one thing that it does that isn’t rip off from the 80s, the found-footage, Earth To Echo plays very fast-and-loose with the concept.  And I mean very fast and loose.  Even though everyone knows that found-footage found its logical end point with that bit in Chronicle where Andrew uses his mind to levitate the camera and keep it steady, Earth To Echo tries its own stab at spicing up proceedings by throwing everything and the kitchen sink at it.  The film is presented like it’s a film that Tuck, the group’s leader, has pieced together from footage on various cameras a year after proceedings, although that doesn’t really explain the frequent usage of footage taken from the viewpoint of Echo itself.  In any case, in addition to your standard camera holding, there are cameras mounted on bikes, spy glasses, shots from the viewpoint of Echo itself, webcam conversations, screen-recordings of computers, YouTube progress bars, Google Maps indicators of where the cast are headed, overlays on the environment provided by Echo’s analysis, and the occasional visual distortion because everyone knows that the audience won’t know that situation has gotten serious until the camera gets hurt.

Assuming one doesn’t think about it too much, it actually kinda works.  It creates a nice fast-paced editing style that keeps things moving at a good clip.  Plus, some moments are rather inspired.  The aforementioned screen-recording of a three-way webcam conversation has a bit where Tuck, in trying to rally Alex and Munch into joining him on the adventure, cues up the Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves overture and we actually see him opening it up in iTunes.  There’s also a bit where Emma, the girl who tags along, keeps hogging Echo and getting obsessive in finding out his history and Tuck, bored of the section, takes the clip and actually trashes it before we cut back to the film.  Again, assuming that one doesn’t think about how it all actually pieces together into this coherent film made by one of its protagonists that we are supposedly watching, it all actually works and they offer up quick little gags at the medium’s expense.  I will admit that there were many times where my brain was questioning how it all fit together, though, so how much it bugs you will depend on your tolerance for this stuff.

Although I’m not docking the film points for its relentless “homaging” to E.T. and The Goonies, I do still have one problem with it that prevents it from being one of my favourite films of the year so far and that problem is Emma, the lone girl.  She joins in on proceedings about halfway through but, in notable contrast to the three boys, she doesn’t really have a character.  There’s a brief scene that goes on in the background at one point of her complaining how she’s not going to be some “prom princess” or something, and during the rest of the film she gets very occasional scenes where it seems like her and Alex are hitting it off, but that’s about it.  Her character trait is just The Girl and, again in contrast to our three boy leads, I don’t feel like I’ve learned anything about her or what makes her tick.  There’s also that aforementioned clip trashing scene and some occasional bits where some of the boys rag on her seemingly just for being a girl which creates a Boy’s Club feel to proceedings that’s a little jarring, considering how nice the rest of the film is to everyone.  Her actress, Ella Wahlestedt (who I mistook for Molly Quinn for at least a good 10 minutes), tries forcing in some raw blunt charisma to try and make up for it, but it can only go so far when you’re up against the challenge of having no character to play.  It’s a shame because the other three leads are so strongly written and it makes her come off like an afterthought.

So, once again, your enjoyment of Earth To Echo is going to be dictated primarily by how much you fancy watching “Not Goonies”.  As you may be able to gather, I wasn’t much bothered by the fact that it has nothing new to bring to that table.  Sure, it’s not as good as E.T. or The Goonies or the like, but it has something that is strangely lacking from a lot of movies nowadays, not just family ones: heart.  This is a film with love pouring out of every seam, with a trio of well-drawn lead characters excellently performed, with a melancholy yet kind-hearted mood dictating the show, and with an adorable little alien.  It’s a throwback of the best kind, the one that makes you walk out of the cinema and wistfully sigh “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”  And maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for that kind of emotion-filled cinema, or maybe it’s because this Summer season has been near-relentlessly miserable and I’ll take anything that is in the slightest bit different from the current norm of film releases, but that is exactly what I did upon exiting the screen.  I dug the hell out of it and, depending on if you can get past your possible hang-ups, you may too.

Callum Petch won’t hear you from the stratosphere.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Pudsey The Dog: The Movie

Pudsey-the-MovieFilmmaking so inept that it’s almost funny, Pudsey The Dog: The Movie is like a barely tolerable feature-length episode of a terrible CBBC sitcom.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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Oh, sorry, that was just me repeatedly slamming my head on the keyboard.  Ahem…

If Pudsey The Dog: The Movie managed to accomplish anything (besides stringing together a bunch of pictures and sounds in a manner that, when presented to other people, technically constitutes labelling the product a “movie”) it’s that, for a few short minutes, it made me hate Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright.  As I saw poor old Jessica Hynes miserably (visibly miserably, I might add) attempt to inject some semblance of life into this thing, all I could do was curse Pegg & Wright.  “Why?!” I mentally cried to the heavens.  “Why did you both drop her after Spaced and that brief funny in-joke cameo in Shaun Of The Dead?  Why couldn’t you both have taken her with you?!  Why did you leave her to have to cash paycheques by appearing in crap like this?!  You monsters!  You heartless b*stards!”  I may have fixated on this little detail a bit too much.  Besides, despite being second billed, she’s barely in the thing which is both to the film’s benefit (because then I don’t have to get sad watching her failing to make anything here close to decent) and its immense misfortune.

To elect to watch Pudsey The Dog: The Movie is to elect to watch a train wreck.  I’d like for you to imagine, if you can, the giant pile-up from The Blues Brothers only in reality so that there are actually good men and women involved in this total ridiculous, absurd and utterly incompetent car crash.  Add “of a film” onto the end of that previous sentence and you have Pudsey The Dog: The Movie, because that’s what this is.  Folks, I have not seen a film that is this pathetically constructed since… well, arguably since A New York Winter’s Tale.  Nothing works.  The pacing is non-existent, the staging, of both normal scenes and any time it chooses to indulge in physical comedy (which film seems to be on a mission, this year, to utterly cock up at every opportunity), is hopeless, the acting from the adults is strained and from the kids is like we’ve wandered into the world’s worst panto, the voice acting is atrocious, the script is lazy, the plot is non-existent, the music headache-inducing…  If you were to super-impose silhouettes of Joel/Mike and the bots along the bottom of the screen, I’d think I were watching a lost Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode where everyone is too dumbstruck at the film they’re watching to crack jokes.

And yet the whole time I was exposed to it, the enterprise carried an air of familiarity.  A throwback feel, if you will, to something that I used to watch a lot when I was child.  And I mean “child”, the kind of thing I happily watched from age 5 – 8 until my household got a Sky box and I discovered that there were TV channels devoted to nothing but cartoons.  Then it hit me: I was watching a feature-length episode of a CBBC sitcom.  You know the ones.  Where every actor and actress permanently seems five seconds away from physically walking over to a piece of the set, picking up a knife and fork and going to town on it.  Where the plots are nonsensical when they’re not contrived or generic.  Where the jokes come from physical humour, funny voices or sound effects on the soundtrack.  Where the staging is purposefully limited to take advantage of the lower production values of television (or, back in my day *shakes walking stick*, the multi-cam format).

Here’s the thing, though, not all CBBC sitcoms were that bad.  Say what you want about them, they were often good at what they were aiming to do.  Plus, sometimes you get something like The Story Of Tracy Beaker which, admittedly, hewed closer to a drama than a sitcom but could still bring the funny along with its relative emotional heft.  The best ones, if nothing else, had effort.  They had heart.  They were clearly trying and they clearly wanted to be good.  Pudsey, in the continuing failure conga known as its existence, can’t even get that right.  It fails spectacularly at everything, but very little effort seems to have been put in in the first place.  You want examples?  I’ll give you examples. Pudsey is a dog, dog stereotypes dictate that dogs love sausages, so Pudsey will frequently mention his desire to be fed some sausages and you will laugh because he is a dog that said he likes sausages and that is exactly what you expected!  Ha!  Ha!  HAHAHAHA!!  The three kids in Jessica Hynes’ care are a teenage daughter who is desperate to impress cute boys and is otherwise “a weirdo” by virtue of the fact that some bullies say so at the beginning, a younger son who plays PlayStation All Stars: Battle Royale at every opportunity and who just can’t live without videogames, and an even younger son who has chosen to become a mute ever since his dad left but is probably more because GOOD LORD this kid cannot deliver any lines to save his life.  These are the entire extent of their characters, by the way.

Sometimes, there will be some physical comedy wherein a character will be punted large distances by a bucking horse, or Pudsey will cause a large comical series of pratfalls as one person falls into two people who knock over a piece of the set which sends someone flying etc.  Once again, I love physical comedy.  Pulled off right, with good staging and timing and effects-work, little else slays me quicker.  Pudsey’s pratfalls are staged weirdly, awkwardly timed and cut between shots and stunts in such a way that you can clearly see how disjointed each of the segments of them are (there’s a bit where a well that one of the characters is leaning on collapses and they fall in, and the lean, the well collapsing, the actor getting ready to fall and the fall itself are given individual shots that clearly show that each little section has been filmed separately; they all start about half a second too early).  Nothing’s convincing.  The plot, meanwhile, is practically non-existent but its beats are lifted wholesale from “Every Light Family-Focussed Family-Targeted Film Plot Ever” (including an ineffectual villain, played by John Sessions of all sodding people, who irrationally hates dogs and wants to destroy the family farm to build a supermarket and OH GOD this script really was just stolen from the 90s, wasn’t it?) and the film does nothing to improve or vary them in any way shape or form.  The only way you could make a more generic script would be to cobble one together after years of scientific research and analysis.

But the laziness continues!  David Walliams voices Pudsey (who, incidentally, I have talked very little about so far in this review and, yes, that is to get across just how relevant he is in his own damn movie) and he is atrocious.  You could come up with a whole load of possible voices to give a dog, professional VAs do in various cartoons every week in America.  What does David Walliams go for?  Ever have your mother pretend to voice a dog’s thoughts and forever talk to the dog in that same “Oh, who’s a good boy?  You’s a good boy!  Yes, you are!  You love sausages, don’t you?” tone?  It’s that.  It’s not even a good one, either, Walliams often slips back into his normal voice for a few seconds by accident (I realise that this is hard to convey in text form, you’re just going to have to go with it, I’m afraid).  The kids, meanwhile, are all equally atrocious, mugging for every camera in sight when “comedy” is supposed to be happening and offering up line deliveries flatter than a dead skunk that’s been sat on a motorway for two weeks when “drama” is supposed to be happening.

Also lazy?  Animal lip movements are performed by horrifying CGI instead of the practical effects that abound in, say, Babe.  Not even slightly convincing CG, by the way.  It’s of a noticeably lower quality than the rest of the animals it ends up attached to, which creates a terrifying uncanny valley effect, and they just flap about, barely in-sync with the words the animals are supposed to be saying.  Fortunately, it’s an effect that’s rarely used, because most of the animal dialogue consists of Pudsey’s thoughts (or maybe he is actually talking aloud, the film is really unclear on this point) or more distant shots of the animals that are in conversation, presumably to save money in animation.  Speaking of Pudsey… he’s a dog.  Sometimes he stands up on his hind legs and spins a bit.  If the film were to actually back these moments with music, one could conceivably claim that he was dancing.  That’s about it, really.  He gains points for being a cute dog, and, as a dog owner and a human being, I am a sucker for cute dogs, but that’s about it.  This should be where the film jumps in to give him a personality but, aside from his fondness for sausages and the continual weird insinuation that he didn’t have a family at all prior to the events of this film (despite starting off as a fully-grown dog who works in movies), that’s a lost cause.

There are times where the film almost managed to make me laugh, albeit for entirely the wrong reasons.  There’s a bit where the family are bonding after the youngest son started speaking again and everyone’s utterly pathetic “emotional” reactions are almost bad enough to consider it being a parody.  The aforementioned well-collapse is meant to be played for drama but the sheer incompetence of the scene almost caused me to burst out laughing.  Several scenes loop footage in order to extend it for long enough to let the animals finish speaking.  With a group of friends, that are either really drunk or just plain really funny, this film would be prime “So Bad, It’s Good” riffing material.  You know, those bad movie nights where everyone just insults the film they’re watching?  One of those.  Under the right circumstances, it’s recommendable in a “No, you have to see this!  It’s so bad!” way.  Under circumstances that dictate that you have to pay money and/or sit in a cinema for several hours?  God, no!  This is rotten, stay away.

On its own terms as a movie, divorced from the possible riff sessions that it’s pretty much destined to become a part of in the future, the film actually offers up an image that best sums up its quality.  It’s of a pig, that thinks it’s a chicken, taking a dump on-screen, believing it to be an egg, and then sitting on said dump.  Pudsey The Dog: The Movie is that pig.  Except that it doesn’t think it’s a chicken, or that it thinks it’s laying eggs because that would insinuate that anybody involved tried here, and, in fact, this metaphor has kind of fallen apart.  I guess I just wanted to highlight the fact that there is a scene in this film in which a pig takes a crap on-camera and then sits in that crap on-camera, in close-up.  I think that says all you need to know, really.

Callum Petch must be a hundred and nine.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Antz

dreamworks-animation-filmsby Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

On October 12th, DreamWorks Animation SKG turns 20.  Long known as the number two CG animation company in terms of both quality and gross per film, the company has been responsible for, along with Pixar, revolutionising and revitalising American feature-length animated cinema.  And they turn 20 having finally earned sustained critical praise in addition to the usual millions upon millions from franchising and the box office (*quietly shuffles Turbo and Mr. Peabody & Sherman out of view*).  The company, in many respects, is stronger than it has ever looked.

I was a child once and, being a child, I used to be a fan of DreamWorks Animation.  I mean, like everybody, I was enamoured by Shrek and, being young and therefore incapable of good taste, I ate up their continual, lesser re-treads of the Shrek formula.  However, even children eventually develop taste and my patience with their products was waning by Flushed Away (yes, I know Flushed Away is an Aardman film, we’ll get to why I didn’t make that distinction later) and had evaporated entirely by Bee Movie.  I found their films to be stale, formulaic, uninspired, lacking in heart, and vastly inferior to what Pixar were putting out.  So, after Kung Fu Panda (which did not work for me, we’ll see if anything’s changed later on), I made the decision to stop going to see DreamWorks films.  After all, why should I keep going to those when Pixar were still riding high?

I held firm to that decision for close to six years (with one lapse for Puss In Boots because a friend and I had free cinema tickets that were about to run out and nothing else was on), finally breaking it this year due to my desire to see all the animation and because proper film critics can’t pick and choose the films they review.  Consequently, Mr. Peabody & Sherman was a big surprise for me, being a legitimately great and heartfelt film.  Was this seriously the company that, exactly one decade earlier, believed that Shark Tale was quality work it was willing to stand behind and release to the general public?  And whilst I may not have loved How To Train Your Dragon or its sequel, I can still see them as very good movies and a major step-up from, say, Madagascar.

So this journey back through their back catalogue has been rather a long time coming and the 20th anniversary of the company (which I didn’t know was a thing until the card popped up before How To Train Your Dragon 2) seemed like as good a time as any to start it.  So, every Monday for the next 30 weeks, I will be going through every single one of DreamWorks Animation’s films (up to 2013) and giving them a thorough re-evaluation.  How they were responded to at the time, what the animation landscape at the time was like to foster their success or failure, how they’ve aged and if they were good films to begin with.  We’re going to go through them all, from their debutback in 1998, all the way up to Turbo in late 2013 with a week’s break for their one excursion into direct-to-video land, in the shape of Joseph: King Of Dreams, and two weeks at some point or another to look at their television output, seeing as franchising is a major part of the DreamWorks business.  There will be some highs, some astounding lows, maybe even some surprises and, hopefully, we’ll all come out of this a little more knowledgeable about one of the biggest names in Western Animation.

But we start our adventure on October 2nd 1998 with the company’s first animated feature-length film, Antz.  Yes, with a “z”.


Antz Poster01] Antz (2nd October 1998)

Budget: $105 million

Worldwide Gross: $171,757,863

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95% from 89 reviews

I am not going to spend the majority of this instalment focussing on the feud between DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg and Pixar’s Steve Jobs & John Lasseter over whether or not the former stole the premise for A Bug’s Life from the latter and used it as the basis for Antz.  Why?  Multiple reasons.  1) The situation is actually rather complex and neither side, to this day even, seems willing to let it slide or come out and admit they were wrong.  You could write a book around the thing (or, at the very least, a novella) and I don’t have the time to go in-depth about the issue.  2) To spend 75% of the article’s length on circumstances surrounding its creation is to do a disservice to Antz itself as 3] With the exception of their general premises (lowly worker ants who have crushes on their colony’s princess and have fears of being insignificant in their daily lives and roles in society), Antz and A Bug’s Life actually have very little in common.

In any case, it is important information, so here is the condensed, likely-heavily-simplified version.  DreamWorks Animation CEO and co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg helped form the company after leaving Disney’s film division disillusioned by its direction and embroiled in a bitter feud with the company’s CEO Michael Eisner (and, really, who wasn’t angry with Eisner at some point in time?).  Katzenberg had stayed in touch with Lasseter after leaving and, when asked by Katzenberg during one of these meet-ups, Lasseter had described in detail their post-Toy Story project, A Bug’s Life.  Soon after, and soon after DreamWorks had acquired Pacific Data Images (PDI, the company responsible for the 3D sections of the Homer³ segment of The Simpsons’ “Treehouse Of Horror VI”), trade publications announced that DreamWorks’ first animated film was going to be Antz.  Lasseter, naturally, assumed that Katzenberg had ripped him off.  Katzenberg insisted that it was based on a 1991 story pitch by Tim Johnson that was related to him in 1994.  The situation was not helped by DreamWorks rushing production on the film and aiming for a release date two months before A Bug’s Life.  There’s also the fact that Katzenberg made an offer to an infuriated Steve Jobs that he would halt production on Antz if Pixar moved the release date for A Bug’s Life away from DreamWorks’ planned debut animated feature, The Prince Of Egypt (more on that next week); yes, that does sound an awful lot like a shake-down.

Lasseter still believes that Katzenberg ripped him off.  Katzenberg still insists that they were merely similar ideas.  (For the record, I would have been more inclined to believe Lasseter if you’d asked me about this before I saw the film and before this got out.)  In any case, Antz did end up launching nearly two months before A Bug’s Life to great critical and relatively good financial success.  A Bug’s Life, however, would debut on November 25th to near equal critical acclaim and runaway financial success ($363 million).  Not to mention the fact that that’s still held up as a very strong entry into Pixar’s canon, despite the strength of what’s come after, whilst Antz has pretty much faded into obscurity.  And then, to add insult to injury, The Prince Of Egypt was released a few weeks later, December 18th, and even with the competition from A Bug’s Life it managed to find great success, becoming only the second animated film not released by Disney to make $100 million domestic (after Paramount and Nickelodeon’s The Rugrats Movie) and the highest grossing traditionally animated non-Disney film ever until The Simpsons Movie came along.  Business may have gotten Antz out of the door first, but all it ended up doing was destroying long-held friendships and saddling the film with baggage, that may or may not be true, for the rest of its life when it’s brought up in conversation.

And that’s really a damn shame as, as previously mentioned, Antz and A Bug’s Life share an overall premise and precious little else.  Not to mention the fact that Antz has enough going on in its own terms that you can be able to discuss the film without having to make reference to the troubles surrounding its production.  So, if you want to know more about that side of proceedings, you can find an overall summary and several jumping-off points here and here.  The rest of this little piece is going to look at Antz primarily on its own terms.

Whereas A Bug’s Life was clearly aimed at the whole family and especially the younger end, Antz was aimed more at teenagers and adults.  Not that you’d know that from the trailer, of course (in fact, compare that trailer with the one for A Bug’s Life).  A Bug’s Life is focussed more on sight gags, slapstick humour and a light inclusive tone; Antz derives what little humour it has from the ramblings and snarkings of its neurotic protagonist, Z (voiced by Woody Allen, who also did some uncredited re-writes), and has a tone more befitting a high PG, low PG-13 family film (more specifically, my mind keeps cycling back to Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers, which was released two months earlier).  A Bug’s Life is a tale of slaves rising up and overthrowing their oppressors but the subtext is kept as subtext and the tone is light and inclusive, whilst Antz is a darker film that tackles the topics of individualism, rigid class structures, Communism (briefly) and blindly following orders, all with the subtlety of baseball bat.  To the face.  Of your grandmother.  At one point, the villain (voiced by Gene Hackman) almost quite literally sneers about how individualism is a disease held only by the weak.  Both films are clearly aiming at different audiences and are using their similar premises to do different things and tackle different aspects of them, they just had the misfortune of coming out two months apart from one another; not the last time that DreamWorks would fall victim to this (Megamind/Despicable Me, but we shall get to that).

A phrase that commonly gets tossed around in regards to Antz is “edge”.  That it has “edge,” “it’s edgier than A Bug’s Life.”  I get the feeling that that particular phrase is only used because everybody came to the film expecting a safe, kid-friendly romp.  Like it or not, animation has an image problem with people mistakenly believing that all animation is aimed only at kids because that’s the primary market that Disney were aiming at.  So with a film like Antz, which carries itself more like a live-action comedy adventure than a Disney film, people are going to label it edgy.  In reality, Antz plays with themes and topics that aren’t that alien from Disney films (Z’s narrative arc, which ends with him pretty much back where he started but happy about accepting it because he got to choose, is rather close to one that Ralph goes through in 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph) but just flowers it up.  Characters infrequently swear, for example.  Not majorly so, but hearing “bitching” and “crap” and “hell” is still jarring from a Western medium that goes to great pains to keep people from uttering a single bad word.  Z himself is basically a Woody Allen character dropped into an adventure movie; the guy is literally introduced ranting to his therapist about his insecurities and neuroses!  One of his lines later on in the film is a slightly altered line from Allen’s own Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid To Ask).  There’s also a genuinely frightening and disturbing war scene which is followed by a haunting aftermath and a prolonged sequence in which Z has to help comfort his dying and bodiless friend.  You know, just in case you believed that Mulan wasn’t at all held back by its G-rating and all-ages focus.  It could come off as a company desperately trying to break away from that image problem, and seem cringeworthy and forced with conflicting tones, but it’s a testament to the film’s quality that it all feels natural.  There are very few first film jitters, here, it’s a film that knows what it wants to be and rarely second-guesses itself.

Those first film jitters manifest themselves elsewhere, instead.  Subtlety is not Antz’s strong suit.  Everybody constantly re-iterates how their decisions and lifestyles are for the good of the colony, at such a frequent rate that it starts to cross over into Hot Fuzz-style parody.  The eeeeevil General Mandible goes on at length about his dissatisfaction with worker ants, stating them to be inferior to the physically superior soldier ants and how “only the strong survive” and build a purer ant colony and such.  Z’s love interest, Princess Bala (voiced stiffly by Sharon Stone), wishes to see how the common folk live but is ill-prepared once she is thrown out into the real world and resorts to complaining incessantly until she sees the true beauty of a lower-class life.  A subplot involving a budding romance between Z’s soldier ant friend, Corporal Weaver (Sylvester Stallone), and worker workmate, Azteca (Jennifer Lopez, yes, really), is exploited during a short torture sequence by the villains who look down on it as an abomination in a way that recalls to mind bigots’ reactions to mixed-race couples.  That last one is the most subtly handled of the film’s various themes.  I understand the need to ensure that you get your message across on certain touchier topics, and that subtext can often fly over the heads of children (that slavery/A Bug’s Life comparison is one that came to mind pretty much as I was typing it), but it feels overly-preachy at times, here, and amateurishly-handled; the result of first-time writers and directors not quite getting there, yet, in regards to handling weightier material (which was the case for first-time feature-length directors Tim Johnson and Eric Darnell who we will be frequently coming back to throughout this series).

Animation-wise, the film has aged better than one might think.  In terms of raw power and art design, it’s about on a par with the CG used to power the opening to Tekken Tag Tournament for the PS2, but that actually winds up being an advantage.  Early on, the film needs to get across to the viewer how Z sees his colony, a strict, regimented and personality-free hive-mind where everyone does the same thing in the same way at the same time.  The animation responds to this challenge by being mechanical, limited and relatively lifeless.  Every character moves about like they’re strapped onto a conveyer belt waiting for the next stop to be fussed with, which is almost exactly what happens in one scene where the ant queen is being presented with new-borns by a quite literally endless procession of ants.  A dance sequence mines a good laugh out of the mundane half-assery by everyone involved and has a spark of life injected when, in the centre of the image, Z and Bala decide to go against the grain.  It all works and, consequently, appears much less dated than practically all of the films that came out during the great CG boom of the early 2000s; except when the action really ratchets up, whereupon the stiff animation couples with a noticeable drop in quality to reveal that the film is nearly old enough to buy a lottery ticket.

One other thing about Antz that I found notable comes not 20 seconds in.  The first thing you see, before the main character, before an establishing shot, before even the title card, is a list of practically every single cast member in the movie, in alphabetical order by their surname.  Now, of course, casting famous actors in voice roles instead of professional voice actors was nothing new by this point, and neither was marketing an animated film based on having a big star voicing one of your characters (Aladdin was only 1992, after all).  However, animated films still resisted boasting their all-star casts up front; Toy Story opened with its playtime prologue before rolling the opening credits whilst Disney would credit the character’s primary animator before listing its voice actor.  The choice feels conscious, a way to try and draw legitimacy to the project as if, even though it’s an animated film and therefore inherently inferior, Antz is still as respectable as a live-action film.  That’s how it reads to me, anyhow, regardless of how much I may disagree with the sentiments, and it’s an interesting creative choice that foreshadows just how far down the big name stunt casting rabbit hole DreamWorks would later fall.

You know, I’m actually rather disappointed that Antz seems to have slid into relative obscurity.  Sure, it’s nothing outstanding or great or anything, but it’s definitely unique.  It’s one of those rare animated films that’s primarily made for a specific audience, with said specific audience being older than 11, and that wants to try explicitly tackling weightier topics.  It doesn’t fully work, its handling of its messaging and themes is not exactly deft and its central romance is the definition of undercooked, but it tries.  It’s a trier and it’s also good enough at the fundamentals to be an entertaining and good quality film divorced from that potential.  I feel that it deserves a better reputation than it has, a film that’s only trotted out as a historical landmark (it’s the third computer-animated feature-length film released, in addition to being DreamWorks’ debut animated film) or for its tumultuous production history and little more, although I suspect I may be frequently referring to this film in regards to various DreamWorks tropes later on in this series.  The company would be wise to re-issue it on Blu-Ray or, at the very least, refer to it in public every now and again.  I get why they wouldn’t, but it would certainly help with regards to giving it a fairer re-evaluation by the animation community and the general public at large, because it’s much better than I’ve seen people give it credit for.


A financial success upon release, Antz has fallen off of most people’s maps since then, much like most other CG-animated films that emerged once Toy Story changed the game forever (hey, who remembers Disney’s 39th animated classic, Dinosaur?  …anybody?  …is it seriously just me?) and it immediately set Pixar and DreamWorks up as bitter rivals at the cost of personal friendships.  On the plus side, it still turned a profit, was slightly more of a critical success than A Bug’s Life and has aged far better than one might have expected.  Overall, it was a fine debut for DreamWorks Animation.  It wouldn’t be until their next film, though, that the company would taste real success.  That film was 1998’s The Prince Of Egypt and we shall talk about that next week.

A brand new “DreamWorks! A Retrospective” will be posted every Monday at 1PM BST here on Failed Critics.

Callum Petch considers fun – natural fun!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Man Of Tai Chi

Although it’s nothing groundbreaking, Man Of Tai Chi is really good at what it does and is a very strong directorial debut by Keanu Reeves.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Man-of-Tai-Chi-FightI like Keanu Reeves.  I know he always seems to get a bad rep by film lovers and movie-goers for frequently giving stiff and emotionally-restrained performances, but I really like him.  There’s just something about him that makes me happy or comforted when he pops up in movies (that same “thing” I recently discovered, round the time of Chef in fact, is also possessed by one Scarlett Johannson, so it’s good company to be in).  Plus, regardless of his performance, he frequently picks interesting films that end up far better than they should have been.  Bill & Ted, Point Break, Speed, The Matrix, Side By Side, (for me, anyway) 47 Ronin.  Say what you like, the guy’s interesting and, for me, his appearance in a film is cause for me to sit up and pay attention.

So when news breaks that Reeves has decided to make a martial arts film, his first directorial effort and partly financed out of his own back pocket, loosely based on his Matrix stunt team best friend Tiger Chen and starring Chen as himself and Reeves as the villain of the piece… yeah, you can consider all of my attention appropriately raised.  My interest has been caught; and if the film itself is actually any good, that’s kind of a bonus, really.  And the film itself is good, it’s really good.  Although there’s little you won’t have seen in numerous other martial arts films, Man Of Tai Chi is a damn great one with good performances, strong fight scenes and confident direction.

Tiger Chen plays, well, Tiger Chen, a delivery courier and one of the last practitioners of Ling Kong Tai Chi.  Tiger wants to demonstrate to the world its effectiveness as a combat martial art, instead of just as an exercise or a meditation technique, much to the disapproval of his master (Yu Hai).  Opportunity comes in the form of the total sociopath known as Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves) who offers Tiger the chance to come and fight for him in an illegal underground fight club whose matches are (what else) streamed to a secret uber-rich clientele.  Tiger refuses, noting that using Tai Chi to fight for money is dishonourable, but his hand is forced when his master’s temple is branded a safety hazard and the repairs required are ludicrously expensive.  Time passes and Chen starts to realise that he really likes fighting, and the freedom that fighting for Donaka gives him, ends up in the crosshairs of Hong Kong Detective Sun Jing Shi (Karen Wok) who has been relentlessly pursuing Donaka for years, and you can probably guess where things are going to go from here.

Yes, Man Of Tai Chi is rather predictable.  If you have ever seen a martial arts picture involving an underground fighting tournament or any film about the corrupting influence of power, you will likely be able to call the film’s story beats down to the second.  There is a very clever twist about exactly what Donaka is offering to his clients but you’ll probably still figure that out about 40-or-so minutes into the movie (I know I did, at any rate).  That predictability isn’t particularly an issue, mind.  In fact, it ends up making the film feel more like a loving homage than anything else.  Tiger takes rather a bit too long to figure out that something’s up with the organisation he’s fighting in and that maybe there’s some semblance of a connection between the timing of the planning submission and the entrance of Donaka into his life, but it’s fine.  It works for the genre and the reveal late in the game probably wouldn’t work as well if Tiger were less naive.

Besides, you’re not watching a film entitled Man Of Tai Chi for groundbreaking and original plotting.  You’re most likely here for the fight scenes and, in that case, you’re going to get more than your money’s worth.  The choreography is handled by Yeun Woo-Ping and he’s clearly not content to just coast on past successes, here.  Every fight, no matter how short, tells a good story and they get a lot of mileage out of pitting Tai Chi up against various different styles of martial arts and showing how Tiger is able to best them.  Choreography is kept predominately realistic with wire-work being a rare but noticeable (but not unwelcome) occurrence which keeps proceedings grounded and full of impact.  Standout fights include Tiger’s “interview” for Donaka which gets a lot of mileage out of Tiger turning up in a suit and tie, a fantastic sequence in which Tiger has to fight two guys at once and is notable just as much for its lighting and set design as it is for the story told by the fight itself, a sequence where Tiger duels with his master, and the final fight between Donaka and Tiger which is protracted but very well-paced.

Reeves’ direction of the fights is extremely assured, obviously indebted to the Wachowskis and martial arts cinema at large.  Takes are longer than average, shots are steady and clear at all-times but still dynamic when they need to be.  There’s a very well-crafted sense of space and his camera constantly darts around in order to find the best possible viewpoint of the action.  Close-ups and medium close-ups are deployed when necessary but aren’t limited to showing fighter reactions or individual strikes before cutting back to master shots, thanks predominately to the longer takes.  Fight pacing is also well-done, longer ones definitely feel longer but they don’t drag, they’re always clearly building to either the next character beat or the fight’s climax.  Reeves has learned well and the quality of the fight scenes really do disguise the fact that this is being made by a first-timer.  The one exception is in regards to the usage of slo-mo which is mainly withheld until the final fight but is egregiously and distractingly deployed.  Oh, and there’s one instance of super-slo-mo, during the otherwise excellent duel between Tiger and his master, and it in actuality just looks like normal-speed footage where everybody moved reeeeeeaallly slllooooooowwwwwllly; it’s campy in a bad way.

Outside of the fight scenes, things are still good but sometimes noticeable as the work of a first-timer.  Reeves does have a decent grasp of pacing, but he’s not quite there yet.  This is a film that runs 105 minutes but feels like one that stretches just over two hours; there are sequences where the film sags a bit, it’s pretty much all necessary but it still drags at points.  The script is really on-the-nose which is fine, again let me refer you to Tiger’s duel with his master, so long as dialogue isn’t involved which is, at times, clunky and unnatural.  Editing is mostly fine, with the stand-out being a montage where Tiger’s experience fighting in Donaka’s league ends up bleeding over into his fights in a professional martial arts tournament, but he occasionally makes some strange decisions (unnecessary shots, random jump cuts, momentary lapses in scene geography, the aforementioned super-slo-mo) that are more distracting than stylistic.  Cinematography and music, however, are great and Reeves’ direction is never anything less than competent.  It’s all very confident, very learned, if I hadn’t known that this was his first time behind the camera, I wouldn’t have believed it.

Oh, and whilst I’m nitpicking, there’s a car-crash late on in the film that is done with the cheapest CG money can buy.  Considering how the rest of the film is so slick and sleek, in a way that’s more befitting a $30 million budget than the $15 million the film sports, it’s rather jarring and reduces the scene to something that’s, in all honesty, pretty laughable.

Finally, there are our two lead performances.  Tiger Chen turns out to be a very capable leading man.  A lot of the film’s narrative and character arc depends upon Tiger’s (the character) facial expressions and he’s very adept at them; going from kind-natured earnestness to hardened anger-fuelled rage and back again in a way that’s much subtler than that sounds (and should be) and relatively nuanced.  Plus, you know, he’s got a very commanding screen presence during fight scenes.  Keanu Reeves, meanwhile, is once again very stoic and reserved but, this time, it immeasurably helps his character, painting Donaka as a complete and total sociopath.  His presence is creepy and exudes authority and Reeves seems to be having the time of his life sneering his way through such a thoroughly detestable character; it’s a really strong performance.

Man Of Tai Chi has been sent straight-to-DVD here in the UK, which commonly leads to the perception that the film in question is poor-quality tripe looking to rip you off of your hard-earned cash.  And it’s a shame that people may end up thinking that because Man Of Tai Chi is better than at least 80% of the films I have seen in cinemas so far this year and deserves open minds and willing chances.  It’s a very confidently directed, if a little formulaic, martial arts flick with great fight sequences and strong lead performances.  I really enjoyed this one, folks, and highly recommend you seek it out.  Don’t let the botched release put you off, this is absolutely worth your time.

Man Of Tai Chi is available now to buy on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Callum Petch buried our heart in the attic of your daddy’s house.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Begin Again

Begin Again104 minutes of moving pictures and sound, Begin Again is a movie.  It’s fine, I guess.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Begin Again is the movie you accidentally catch on some ITV channel or whatever on a Tuesday night and you sit through because there’s nothing else on.  You know the one; it’s all pleasant, its cast is all fine and have decent chemistry, it ambles along sufficiently for its hour and forty run-time engaging you just enough to keep you from flipping the channel but not enough to keep your mind from wandering to other more important matters.  Matters such as “I wonder if Sharon really will be able to make it work with Chris” or “God, I really don’t want to go to Dave’s party this weekend” or “I should be doing something with my life.”  It’s not a film for cinemas, one you rush out to opening day and honestly not even one you go to at reduced prices time because there’s nothing else on (both at the cinema and in your life) and you have a burning need to get rid of the cash in your pocket.  It’s the film you catch on TV for free with ads by accident one random night of the week when you’re half-drunk/totally-bladdered and need something to take your mind off stuff.

That sounds harsher than I intended.  The film is fine.  Begin Again is fine.  It’s fine.  There’s just nothing going on and nothing of substance worth talking about anywhere.  Mark Ruffalo plays a once-hot-now-not A&R guy who gets fired from the label he co-founded and, in another one of his drunken stupors, stumbles across songwriter Keira Knightley when she’s forced by her friend (James Corden) at an Open Mic night to perform one of her songs.  He thinks she’s got what it takes to make it on her own, she’s coming off a bad break-up with her songwriter boyfriend of five years who’s just broken through as a performer (Adam Levine).  Together, after Mark’s old label rejects her because the head of the label (the artist formerly known as Mos Def) doesn’t get what’s so special about her, they cook up a plan to record an album in various places around New York City.  Feel free to question the soundness of that idea, considering the noises provided by any city space let alone New York, cos I certainly did.  Frequently, even.

But, eh, the film’s fine.  It moves along at a good enough pace, only really stopping every so often to demonstrate one of its numerous songs.  Things pretty much go how you’d expect, example: Hailee Steinfeld (oh, hey!  Nice to see her again) is in this as Mark’s estranged daughter who lives with her divorced mother (Catherine Keener) and plays guitar, Keira suggests getting her involved with a track on the record but Mark quietly isn’t sure if she’s good enough and you can guess how everything with everyone turns out.  The most engaged I was with proceedings came very late on when I was terrified that they were going to turn Keira and Mark’s platonic friendship into a romantic relationship; you may laugh, but I have been burnt too many times before on this kind of thing.  It has one relatively original idea of its own, looping back to the Open Mic night and focussing on a different character and their feelings towards the performance each time (Mark’s version has him visualising how Keira’s song could sound with swelling studio backing and it’s the one genuinely interesting part of the film), but it ditches the idea at about the halfway part and moves onto a series of song recording episodes with perfunctory drama/relationship interludes.

Songs are predominately written by (and credited to) late 90s/early 00s pop songwriter and ex-New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander and they’re fine.  Nothing world-shattering but they’re all good slices of soft pop, more specifically the kind that people like David Gray and Damien Rice and the like peddled at the turn of the century.  They’re a bit samey and the lyrics alternate between being really clunky and a game of “Guess What Thuddingly Predictable Line Is Coming Next,” but they have hooks, are all quite soothing and Keira Knightley’s voice fits in very well with that kind of genre.  They’re all weirdly over-produced, though, which makes a late-film scene where she’s listening to Adam Levine’s album and claims that it’s over-produced rather hypocritically funny seeing as she’s just produced an album slathered in unnecessary strings, a one-off and tonally out-of-place guitar solo and a backing choir of street kids.  “Lost Stars”, though, which appears in something like three different arrangements and is clearly supposed to be the film’s breakout hit, is a genuinely great ballad (in the stripped down Keira Knightley case) and a genuinely great pop song (in the Adam Levine case), even if the latter version leans a bit too close to “Drops Of Jupiter” by Train, for my liking.

Other than that, the film’s as Ann as the nose on plain’s face.  Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley are enjoyable enough screen presences to keep the whole film feeling pleasant (even if Ruffalo seems forever half-engaged and half-rabbit-in-the-headlights), proceedings never drag and are never truly dull, the songs are fine, the cinematography and John Carney’s direction are competent if uninspired… it’s all fine.  Nothing’s bad, nothing’s offensive, everything’s pretty much just OK.  I mean, if you just have to see a brand new film this week and Boyhood isn’t being shown, I guess you could go with this one.  It’s fine.  The film is fine.  Begin Again is fine.  Nothing more, nothing less, it’s fine.

Callum Petch is just a speck of dust within the galaxy.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Tammy

TammyGenuinely sweet and often funny, Tammy’s problem lies not in its lack of big laughs, but in its title character.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

I’ll say this for Tammy, I really liked going to see a comedy whose primary humour is, for once, not derived from characters being cruel to one another or just plain grossness as the main source of comedy.  There’s nothing wrong with either of those things in concept, so long as the jokes are actually funny, it’s just nice to get some variety in comedies.  When one of the characters snaps and refers to Tammy (Melissa McCarthy) as “cheeseburger,” it’s played for drama instead of laughs.  There’s a legitimate sweetness running through the film, though it may poke fun at its character, it feels more like good-natured ribbing than mean-spiritedness and that makes a nice change of pace.  Know what’s also a nice change of pace?  Homosexuals being treated as people in 15-rated comedies instead of punchlines.  There’s a sequence where Tammy and her grandmother, Pearl, (Susan Sarandon) end up at Pearl’s cousin’s (Kathy Bates) house for a lesbian 4th of July party and at no point does the film make a joke about two straight women being at a party for lesbians (OK, it does so once, but it’s invoked by the characters themselves as a sweet way to establish how close they are).

I take time to bring those things up because they’re the best things Tammy has going for it.  Look, I know that this Summer, hell, this year in general, has had us drowning in comedies.  You’re probably learning to be tighter with your money (Guardians Of The Galaxy isn’t going to see itself three times, after all) and you need reasons beyond “that trailer made me chuckle at points” to turn up to a comedy nowadays.  After all, after a certain point, they do start blending into one another.  Well, Tammy’s selling point is that it’s a comedy with a legitimate heart and a sweet nature about it.  The trade-off for this USP is that giant laughs are practically non-existent.  Trust me, you will not leave Tammy clutching your sides from laughing too hard, cos I certainly didn’t, so if that is a pre-requisite for you going to see a comedy, you’re better off holding off for something else or seeing 22 Jump Street again.

That being said, Tammy is not bad and nor is it dull.  See, although that sweetness seems to have robbed the film of giant laughs (although I’m not willing to pin that wholly on the sweetness, seeing as I am pretty sure you can actually have it both ways), it trades that for consistency.  The sweet tone allows for a nice laidback feel where the actors and actresses can strike up a smooth, easy-going chemistry that enables things to be funny, even when they’re not so much.  If the actors are clearly enjoying themselves, and that enjoyment is believable without being smug, then it’s going to end up leaking out of the frame and reaching the audience, making them have a good time, too.  So when Tammy and Pearl end up discussing the time that Pearl had sex with an Allman brother (not Gregg, the “Brother” part of the band name) and then end up verbally jamming along to one of their songs together, I actually found myself chuckling along despite that on paper sounding just plain terrible.

And so it goes.  Scenes come and go where likeable actors and actresses like Allison Janney, Mark Duplass, Gary Cole and Sarah Baker appear on screen and interact with either McCarthy or Sarandon and a steady stream of chuckles keep appearing.  It all flows well, there’s good pacing, even if the actual plot itself is rather non-existent (although I’d argue that adds to the charm).  McCarthy and Sarandon are the primary reasons why this film ends up working as well as it does.  Their chemistry together is palpable, believable and almost capable enough to draw attention away from the script’s uncertainty as to who Tammy and Pearl actually are (more on that in a sec).  McCarthy, who co-wrote the script, seems desperate to prove that there’s more to her than you might have gathered from Bridesmaids, Identity Thief and The Heat and she’s very good here.  Although she seems as lost as the script as to who Tammy is, she plays the various different versions of her very well, resisting the urge to get boorish, excepting one sequence set to “Thrift Shop” that feels airlifted from a separate film, and nearly always managing to stay attached to the big heart that exists at the character’s centre.  It’s a good performance and a better script would make this the role to break her out of the type-casting she seems to have fallen into.

Because, yeah, the real problem with Tammy, the one that keeps me from making a proper recommendation to you to go and see it, is the fact that I have no idea who Tammy is supposed to be.  The script jumps about the place, making her sweet and awkward in one scene, and short-tempered and childish the next.  A bit pathetic and needy one minute, just plain dumb the next.  I feel like the film wants to make her realistic, a sweet person who takes bad news and setbacks poorly but just spends forever whining about it instead of actually trying to enact change and bettering herself, but it doesn’t pull it off.  Instead of a singular and multi-layered three-dimensional person, Tammy feels more like a series of rejected clones from Orphan Black.  One scene she’s awkwardly trying to flirt with Mark Duplass, the next she’s pathetically sleeping outside her own motel room because her grandmother was using it for sex, the next she’s childishly knocking over gas station stands because the cashier shouted at her.  Several of the various sides attempt to come together during the fast food robbery scene that’s been played in all the trailers and, whilst the scene is funny, it just serves to make Tammy feel more like somebody suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder than the ordinary girl the film wants us to see her as.  One can also apply this to Pearl, the grandmother, too and be justified in feeling that way, seeing as she feels like a conflict inciter more than a character.

That being said, I did enjoy Tammy a fair bit and I’d even go so far as to say I actually liked it.  Maybe it’s just the change of pace in seeing a comedy designed around being nice and sweet with nary a bad bone in its body for once (I did give a positive review to the similarly nice and sweet The Love Punch, after all), but I genuinely liked what this film was selling.  I may not have laughed with every fibre of my being at any point, but there was a constant stream of chuckles and smirks and snickers and maybe even a full on laugh at one or two points (not a giant laugh, just for clarification, there is a difference).  Everybody involved has great chemistry and is clearly enjoying themselves even if they aren’t saying anything funny (in less polite terms, there is a criminal wasting of Allison Janney and Sandra Oh going on here) and the whole experience is so kind-hearted and sweet that it severely dampens down the impact of the otherwise glaring problems of character inconsistency and general aimlessness.

If you’re wanting a comedy that operates at a different speed than the other ones drowning the cinema this Summer, Tammy may be your bag or what have you.  It’s not essential viewing or anything, and I practically guarantee that you won’t come away feeling like your world has been revolutionised, but catching it at a matinee or cheap somewhere would honestly not be a bad use of your time.  If nothing else, I’m hoping that Melissa McCarthy is willing to try coming back to these kinder types of roles in future.  A better script than the one featured here and I feel like she could seriously surprise the living hell out of people by proving that she’s got more depth as an actress than people may think.

Callum Petch can ring anybody’s bell and get what he wants.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Transformers: Age Of Extinction

Transformers4Dark Of The Moon hinted at a bright future; Transformers: Age Of Extinction just delivers the same toxic tripe the franchise hinted at jettisoning.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Transformers and Revenge Of The Fallen are abysmal pieces of trash.  Utterly insufferable pieces of bro-y shite with no redeeming qualities at all.  No potential is displayed in them, no competency in their construction is ever so much as hinted at, not a single moment is funny or entertaining in either film, and they both peddle the most toxic sexism and racism all in the supposedly safe environment of good, clean family fun.  I despise them and everything they stand for.  Dark Of The Moon was similarly bad, but it was both a huge leap up in quality at what it does and started demonstrating actual potential for what the series could become.  It’s still not a good film, let me make that abundantly clear, but somewhere between the constant appearances of actors and actresses that I liked and who had no right to be there, the very-well staged battle of Chicago and the general fact that Revenge Of The Fallen had pretty much broken me, I saw the potential for a genuinely good blockbuster.  Not one for the ages, or anything, but the potential for a fun diversion that could even use its space to tackle weighty themes if it wanted to.

Therefore, I went into Age Of Extinction with a tiny part of me genuinely hoping for the best.  I don’t even know why, this film series has always proven to be bad regardless of any potential in the franchise outside and inside these films, but a part of me was still hopeful.  This time was going to be different!  I emerged three hours later infuriated, realising that I had just been through Dark Of The Moon again but on a louder scale.  This is a bad film.  This is a demonstrably bad film, but it’s also a slight (slight) improvement from most of what’s come before.  Unfortunately, with the exception of the genuinely insufferable original, a Transformers film has yet to make me this upset.  Whereas Dark Of The Moon’s teases of a better film on the horizon were few and far between, Age Of Extinction’s are frequent and loud, hinting at the film it could have been if everybody involved cared enough or were brave enough to actually pull the trigger.  But they don’t and so what we’re left with is a slightly better version of the same bad film we’ve been force-fed the first two times.

Specifically, for the second time in the entire film series so far, Transformers threatens to touch upon actual themes that are intellectually deeper than “explosions and the military are KEWL!”  Its mess of a plot certainly gives it more than enough possible material.  There’s the concept of a public that both resents the Transformers for the events in the last film and is opportunistic for the money of turning them over to any government that will listen.  There are hints towards something having originally created the Transformers with that thing being very pissed and very much wanting their play-things back.  Militarisation and merchandising of the Transformers, the ability for humans to make their own Transformers, the breaking of Optimus Prime’s faith in the human race, the frequent hints that the Autobots really are just squabbling and barely united individuals without Optimus around to keep them in line, very unsubtle aliens-immigrants metaphors…  There’s a lot that any filmmaker who gives half a damn can work with, but Bay and, more importantly, the script that he’s working with, by Dark Of The Moon’s Ehren Kruger, don’t care about any of it.  Once the explosions start, it’s all disposed of, the noise almost literally drowning out any potential nuance or reason for caring.

And that mindlessness is fine in concept, sometimes you just need a dumb action film that’s not aiming for anything more than to entertain you (see: Crank 2: High Voltage).  The problem is that “loud noises” is the only setting Age Of Extinction has.  There’s no pacing, little variation, so it just draws attention to the fact that the film is a hollow spectacle actively wasting any and all potential depth it exhibits.  Dumbness is fine, but it needs proper pacing and/or characters to care about in order to not feel like time is being wasted.  For example, the Fast & Furious films are dumb.  They are really dumb, but they’re paced well, they have characters that are likeable and that we the audience care for, and they don’t keep threatening to be smarter than what they’re currently turning out.  And I think that’s what annoys me so much about Age Of Extinction.  It keeps hinting that it can be about more, it keeps hinting that it can use its premise and world to explore legitimate themes, it keeps hinting that it can be about something other than “shooty boom bang bang,” but it never goes there.  It just keeps reverting to loud, numbing noises with no depth whatsoever.

Again, the Fast & Furious movies have built their reputation on (at least appearing to) having no brains and no pretentions to being something they’re not, ditto Crank 2 and that’s my favourite action film of all-time.  But a major reason why they get away with it, and no Transformers movie has yet, is because Fast & Furious still invests its time in characters and character work.  Violence and action can be cool on its own, yes, but create a cast of characters you care about or, at the very least, like and you’ve got the audience’s attention for however long you want to go loud for.  The Witwickys are nowhere in sight this time (which means no Ma & Pa Witwicky, break out the party-poppers), but the Yeagers that replace them honestly aren’t much better.  Despite Mark Wahlberg’s natural screen charisma and likeability desperately attempting to work up a charm offensive like few I’ve ever seen, Cade is a boring man with little going on when he’s not outright being a terrible person (there’s an early scene where he, on the property he hasn’t paid rent on in six months, chases off, with a baseball bat, a realtor who is trying to do her job; yes, it is played for laughs).  There’s also an insufferable comic relief character played by a tone-deaf T.J. Miller whose exit from my film I would have cheered had that not been entirely inappropriate cinema etiquette, a daughter (Nicola Peltz, because some genius decided that Katara from The Last Airbender should get another starring role in a major-release film) who we shall come back to (believe me, we will be talking about her) and her boyfriend (Jack Reynor) who is about as consistent a character as the level of Irishness in his accent.  None of them have any real arc and none of them are in any way compelling or interesting enough to make up for the very clearly static proceedings.

The antagonists fair little better.  Although he’s personified by the always-nice-to-see Kelsey Grammer, the head of the evil black-ops task force that’s murdering Transformers, Agent Attinger, is nothing more than a one-dimensional villain; the government agent who misguidedly thinks he’s protecting his country, and Grammer plays the role too straight to make up for the fact that he’s just an archetype that’s been done better elsewhere.  Stanley Tucci, meanwhile, portrays James Joyce, the head of a revolutionary tech company that primarily researches Transformer remains for practical applications, and the character is a missed opportunity.  As played by Tucci, which is to say like a cross between Steve Jobs and Jason Schwartzman, Joyce is an egocentric blowhard with little in the way of ethics or compassion towards anything but his tech… until he suddenly grows a conscience for reasons that I think just boil down to the filmmakers wanting him to share screen-time with Wahlberg.  He is undoubtedly the best part of the film, but he’s still not someone I particularly cared about because his arc didn’t feel genuine, not to mention how his mere presence kept constantly reminding me of themes about technology and the advancement thereof that were going wasted simply by not being utilised.

Transformer-wise, this is probably the film with the most amount of Transformers in them, so far.  Many of them even get a fair bit of screen-time, and all of the main ones have designs that make each of them distinctive and less hideous, too!  Unfortunately, none of them have any depth.  Optimus Prime should have a character arc, one where he wrestles with the fact that the humans have betrayed his entire kind and may not be worth saving after all, but it’s completely bungled by the film.  His desire for vengeance, brought upon by a “shocking” discovery, is dropped almost literally as soon as it’s brought up and the attempts to get resonance out of the closure to his “we don’t kill humans” moral code fail miserably because… well… you have seen the other films, right?  The rest of them get one defining trait and that’s about it.  Bumblebee is still the same character as he was at the beginning of the first Transformers, one of them has a British voice (delivered by John DiMaggio) and a burning desire to tell the humans to get stuffed, one is an Asian stereotype (voiced by Ken Watanabe) and one has the voice of John Goodman.  There’s little reason to get attached to them because the film focusses far more on Cade and Optimus than the other Autobots.  Meanwhile, the Transformer villain, Lockdown, is here to tease future sequel revelations and little more, although his face can transform into a gun which my inner 10 year-old admitted was pretty cool.  Oh, and there’s a third villain (no prizes for guessing who it is, but it constitutes a spoiler so I’ll keep schtum) whose existence is almost literally just so they don’t have to set-up his origin in the sequel.

So, as you may have gathered, there are no characters to latch onto or find particularly interesting which means that the action scenes can only stand as endeavours of spectacle.  Except here’s the thing about spectacle, prolonged exposure to it dulls its impact.  After a certain point, loud noises and big booms are just going to be migraine-inducers instead of shock and awe-inducers and that’s more than the case from here.  Some action scenes are relatively interesting or cool: the British Autobot has a moment where he leaps off of a ship and, guns akimbo and trenchcoat flapping in the breeze, guns down a pair of alien ships in slo-mo and my inner 10 year-old self was very much impressed, there’s a section during the (endless) finale where everybody has to try and avoid the Hong Kong cityscape being flung about by what amounts to a giant magnet, and the entrance of the Dinobots is a genuinely awesome moment.  Unfortunately, the over-long run-time and one-note nature of the film dulls down any potential impact those scenes may have had.  And those are pretty much the only good scenes, by the way.  Bay is not a hack action movie director (anybody who says so clearly has not acquainted themselves with The Rock or either Bad Boys film) but he keeps directing these films like one.

Scene geography is a friggin’ mess, perhaps best exemplified by an early car chase from the Yeagers’ farm into and through a sleepy Texas town where I have absolutely no clue how everyone involved got from Point A to Point B to Point C.  Even with their more individual designs, it’s still hard to properly tell which Transformer is shooting at what and which side they’re supposed to be on.  Most frames are filled to the brim with explosions, debris and smoke with the camera almost never staying still, like it’s being controlled by a drunk epileptic having a fit.  Editing in general is too quick which makes proceedings too disorientating, plus the aforementioned failure in scene geography.  Pacing is one-note and that note simply reads “BRICK-WALL THIS MOTHER!”  If an action scene needs to happen, it’s straight to explosions and large-scale destruction; no variation and no attempts to create tension (with the one exception being so inept at its job, it’s quite frankly embarrassing).

I could keep listing problems and complaints I have with Age Of Extinction, so I will.  Product placement is shockingly prevalent here.  I’m more accepting of product placement than most people are (as long as attention isn’t drawn too much to it, I accept it as a way of making the film world closer to our own) but even I’ll admit that this film is taking the piss.  A Transformer whose pre-robot form is that of an Oreo vending machine?  A human technological invention whose first form change (the very first form change, the one that demonstrates its power) is a Beats-branded speaker system, and later on a ludicrously fake Rainbow Dash from My Little Pony toy?  A Victoria’s Secret truck destroyed in super slow-motion whilst the brand name is front and centre?  Several billboards for products like Nike and Phillips that go completely untarnished?  A Bud Light truck that gets destroyed and very soon after has Cade open one of the bottles it was carrying to take a nice, cool, refreshing sip?  A Transformer who has the Lamborghini badge displayed front and center on his non-disguise form?  Did I pay to watch a film that wants to tell me a story or a prolonged ad-break for capitalism and consumerism?

But I haven’t even mentioned the most egregious and tone-deaf piece of in-movie advertising.  That would be when Hong Kong is being destroyed in the final battle and the film cuts to China to have a Chinese government bureaucrat all but talk directly to the camera and state that “China will always help protect our Hong Kong brothers in their time of need!”  I am not making this up!  Nothing even comes of this, the battle continues as it did before that cutaway.  This would be hilariously egregious if it weren’t for the recent protests and agitation in Hong Kong over the extent of China’s control over the region.  To anyone with a stake or vested interest in the future and protection of Hong Kong, it’s downright offensive, being so tone-deaf to the situations ongoing in the real world in search for those sweet, sweet tax breaks.  To quote a friend of mine who also saw the film, this would be like if a battle sequence took place in Ukraine and everyone involved called Russia for reinforcements.  How did this get through an entire film crew with not one person raising their hand and saying “Erm, do you all realise how this looks?”

And speaking of total bewilderment at terrible things that somehow managed to get through an entire film production uncalled out by anybody at all, let’s talk about the giant sexist elephant in the room, shall we?  One of the first scenes involving Tessa, Cade’s daughter, has Cade shame her for being 17 years-old and wearing short shorts.  You have three guesses as to what the camera is focussing on when he does so and the first two don’t count.  Meanwhile, she has a boyfriend who is three years her senior and is out of high school, whilst she is under the age of consent in America and still in high school.  Cade immediately calls the pair of them out on this, only for the boyfriend to produce a text copy of the Romeo & Juliet law from his pocket to absolve them of any wrongdoing.  This is played for laughs.  I am not even going to dignify either of these things with righteous fury or a snarky toss-off, I’ll let you figure out how I feel about the way in which the film treats both of these scenes.

Those two are the most blindingly obvious examples of sexism towards Tessa, but it runs deep throughout her entire character and throughout the entire film.  Her character, her entire character, is that she keeps getting in danger and needing to be rescued.  Seriously, whenever the film needs to ratchet up the stakes for Cade, it puts Tessa in danger.  It puts her on the wrong end of a gun, it has her shot at, it kidnaps her several times, it traps her in rooms where she is being hunted.  There is one scene where she is hiding from a humanoid robot and a monster in a pod with a long and flexible tongue (kind of like a Licker from Resident Evil) wraps its tongue around her leg in a manner that rather calls to mind sexual assault.  This monster never appears again after this point, it’s solely for this one really creepy and rather disgusting moment.  It ends up going past lazy and cliché story-telling and ends up sailing dangerously close to outright misogyny seeing as she’s the only female who ends up in prolonged action in the entire movie (there are three named female characters, overall, and the only other one who gets into an action scene near-immediately gets her ass kicked and needs rescuing by a random man).  I’d give everyone the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s just shitty writing, but this is the fourth instalment in a franchise that has casual sexism running through its lifeblood.  Plus, as other critics have pointed out but was missed by me (I am willing to admit that), this is a film that has a scene where a vagina monster is blown apart by a Transformer whilst it remarks that it’s “too ugly to live”.

This is a film based on a children’s’ toy line.

Two other brief things I want on record before we wrap.  1] Yes, during the action scene in Hong Kong, there is a bit in which two characters of Asian descent bust out super martial-arts powers.  It is a Transformers film, one that has a sassy angry black woman near the beginning (she’s the realtor the baseball bat-wielding Cade chases off) and an Autobot whose entire character is an honourable Shogun stereotype, you knew this was going to happen.  2] The Imagine Dragons song is fucking awful.  It is fucking awful and it gets played during the action packed finale, in addition to the credits, so you have a song with lyrics that are being sung whilst important dialogue is supposed to be exchanged.  I’m sorry, I thought big budget movies were supposed to hire professionals?  This is a Junior School mistake.  Literally, I learned this problem with overlaying music on pre-existing film and sound in Junior School, there is no excuse.

Also, again, the Imagine Dragons song is fucking awful.

There’s an old saying, folks, I’m sure you’re familiar with it.  “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”  I had been fooled by Transformers: Dark Of The Moon that this franchise under the control of these people had some actual potential in it, whether that potential lay in being a big, dumb action movie or an action movie that actually did want to try tackling subjects beyond loud noises and bright lights.  That was still a bad film, but it started giving me ideas.  If everyone involved could kick their bad habits (the lame gags, the abysmal way that action scenes are shot, staged and edited, the racist stereotypes, the casual sexism and the burning desire to skip all semblances of story, character arcs and just plain character work in general in favour of just getting to the explosions) then Transformers had the potential to turn out a genuinely good film.  Whether that good film fell under “big dumb fun” or “action film with brains” didn’t matter.  Pain & Gain had even convinced me that Michael Bay hadn’t forgotten how to make movies, so maybe he’d finally show up for work this time.

Never have I felt so idiotic for believing a franchise’s promises to change.  Never have I felt so idiotic for believing in a film’s potential.  Transformers: Age Of Extinction is a step back from Dark Of The Moon and a slight (slight) improvement on the excretable first two films.  But I’m not angry.  I can’t get mad because to get mad would be admitting that I still hold out hope for this franchise, that I still hold a strong and lasting emotional response to this franchise.  I have been failed by a series that has never demonstrated that it could achieve anything more than “non-irritating badness” and it stings because this time a part of me really thought that things were going to be different.  But they aren’t.  It’s the same horrible toxic shit that has been peddled beforehand and I feel like a total dumbass for letting even just that tiny little part of me think that this was going to be in any way different.

I am not angry at Transformers: Age Of Extinction.  I am just disappointed.  I have no right to be, but I am, in both it and myself.  Spare yourself the indignity and just stay away.

Callum Petch, close you send.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!