A happy new year to all of our listeners! Welcome to the first Failed Critics podcast of 2015 with a bumper-crop of brand new releases.
As announced earlier in the week, the podcast has undergone a bit of structural reform. The first guests to join Owen and Steve in the new series should be familiar to listeners old and new! Returning after more than a year since his last appearance, Gerry McAuley returns to review new(ish) release Enemy and newer release The Theory of Everything. Not only that, making a third consecutive appearance on the podcast for the first time ever is Matt Lambourne to expand on hisExodus: Gods and Kingsreview. We just can’t get rid enough of the guy!
New Hammer Horror prequel The Woman In Black 2: Angel of Death, Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut Unbroken and the eagerly anticipated Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) all feature on this week’s episode as well as a thoroughly good mulling over of the Golden Globes nominations.
Join us next week when we’ll have more guests, less inappropriately judged film quotes (you’ll see) and lots of new reviews for Tak3n, Wild and awards hoover Foxcatcher.
The people were rather unmoved by Exodus: Gods And Kings, Top Five thankfully makes the top five, Inherent Vice has the worst opening of anything ever, Wild runs wild on you, brother, and Other Box Office News.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
For those of you keeping track at home, 2014 has only had one faith-based drama that was worth anybody’s time released in its twelve months, despite this sub-genre being strangely thriving this past year. I am of course referring to Darren Aronofsky’s sublime and surprisingly moving and beautiful Noah, and most certainly not Ridley Scott’s, by all accounts, insipid Exodus: Gods And Kings. Fortunately, in this instance, it seems that most of the public agreed and, although Exodus is still our new box office #1 by dint of being the first new wide release in two weeks, it reached that summit with only $24.5 million in ticket sales. Noah, meanwhile and having to follow surprise hit Divergent, opened to $43 million. VICTORY!!
In more good news, Chris Rock’s Top Five, which by most accounts I’ve heard is something really special, was an out-of-the-box success! Playing at 979 theatres, with a full-on nationwide release coming soon, the film broke into the top five with wondrous ease, finishing in fourth with $7.2 million in ticket sales and a $7,000 per-screen average. That’s $1.6 million more than Chris Rock’s last directing gig, 2007’s I Think I Love My Wife, opened with and that film had the luxury of almost double the number of screens that Top Five did! So, not only did Top Five manage to send Chris Rock back on the interview circuit – seriously, I want him to keep making movies purely so he can keep going around giving interviews like this one and this one – it’s also apparently a really damn great movie and managed to make a fair bit of money! DOUBLE VICTORY!!
Unfortunately, it’s not all good news, folks. Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice was released in those five New York and Los Angeles art-house cinemas that all major awards season wannabes have to start off their life in if they want to taken seriously, apparently. It managed $330,000, which sounds really great, and a per-screen average of $66,000, which is probably more than anybody working for this site or reading this article makes in a year. But that’s also less than There Will Be Bloodand The Mastermade opening weekends (per-screen in Blood’s case, overall and per-screen in Master’s case), so therefore Inherent Vice is a colossal failure of epic proportions that has ruined the careers of everyone involved. Sorry Inherent Vice, thanks for trying!
In further limited release news, the Weinstein-backed The Imitation Game – so look for Benedict Cumberbatch to steal the Best Actor awards of whoever we’ve arbitrarily decided as a collective hive mind deserves it this year – continues to rake in the cash like Scrooge McDuck on a hot streak at the casino Blackjack table. Expanding to 25 screens, the film took $875,000 this weekend for a per-screen average of $35,000, so look for it to crack the full list some point soon. And finally, before we get down to business, we have Wild, which added 95 more screens this past weekend, cracked the Top 10 and allowed me to make a dreadful Hulk Hogan reference in the headline. Yay films!
This Full List used to be a visionary, but has spent the past decade phoning it in with boring sh*tty spectacle pieces instead of anything decent.
Box Office Results: Friday 12th December 2014 – Sunday 14th December 2014
1] Exodus: Gods And Kings
$24,500,000 / NEW
Nope, can’t do it. I can’t get over the fact that they cast white actors to play the roles of Middle East natives. Especially since the good leads are lightly tanned, whilst the bad leads are made much darker in skin, and that the slaves are still people of colour. I mean, sweet lord, how f*cking tone deaf do you have to be to not get that?! We were raking The Last Airbender over the coals for trying to pull this sh*t back in 2010, and you thought that you were honestly going to get away with it now?! Ridley Scott’s explanation doesn’t help matters, either, as all it does is remind us all of just how broken the Hollywood system is and… well, it’s not like casting recognisable names has helped much at the box office, has it?
2] The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1
$13,200,000 / $277,398,000
This is going to close around $750 million, I’d say. It’s already at $611 million, it’ll pass The Hunger Games some point in the next week or two, and it shows no real signs of slowing down. It’ll wrap up lower than Catching Fire’s $865 million worldwide, but it’s definitely going to be, in be within spitting distance of being, the biggest grossing film domestically of 2014 when all is wrapped up. Does this mean we’re now done calling this a box office disappointment, even though it never was one to begin with?
3] Penguins Of Madagascar
$7,300,000 / $58,839,000
Well, sh*t. At least I’ll be at the forefront of the “This movie was criminally overlooked at the box office!” brigade in a few years’ time! Or more likely, considering how quickly we are to label things as underrated and “cult classics” and the like nowadays, two months’ time.
4] Top Five
$7,210,000 / NEW
March 20th. March 20th. What did I do to deserve withholding of this level, American film industry? Huh? Got a halfway acceptable answer you’d like to share with me or are you withholding that, too? Look at you, getting off!
5] Big Hero 6
$6,145,000 / $185,325,000
You should see how quickly I sprint out of whatever screen I’m seeing new release movies in when the trailer for this comes on. I refuse, I completely refuse, to have even one second of this film spoiled for me. It’s a new Disney film, I am there. You don’t need to throw jaw-dropping setpieces, trailer-ready quips, Fall Out Boy songs or anything else at me to get me in. Just, “YO! DISNEY PUTTING OUT NEW FILM! IT’S CALLED [X], IT’S OUT [Y]!” and you have my attention.
$5,500,000 / $166,800,000
Next week is The Hobbit, so expect this to sink like a stone as Peter Jackson confiscates all of its IMAX screens. Still, pretty good run, all things considered. In fact, I find it strange that people keep insisting that the box office has been in a horrendous state of affairs this past year when, week in week out, I keep typing out Total Grosses that stretch into 9 figures for many films featured in this list…
This isn’t tracking particularly well overseas. Still, I do find it rather comforting that the only people who were crying out for a Dumb And Dumber sequel 20 years later are apparently all contained on one mass of land. Good to know the crazy is bottled up, kept from being spread, and not in control of anything particularly important.
9] The Theory Of Everything
$2,525,000 / $17,148,000
Adds 394 screens, to cross the 1,000 screen mark, makes less money than the week before. Maybe this signals the upcoming slide out of my goddamn chart! It’s all going to be OK, folks! It’s all going to be OK.
$1,550,000 / $2,423,000
The Dissolve’s Tasha Robinson, following on from her piece this past Summer about The Trinity Effect (which I referenced in this week’s DreamWorks Retrospective entry, *plugplug*), wrote an excellent piece last Monday about how the new breed of genuinely strong female characters are those that are relatively weak. You should go and read it. Like, right now. Don’t worry about missing anything, we’re done here for the week.
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
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.
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?”
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.