God, what did we do to deserve Guillermo del Toro? I mean it, what did we as a collective humanity do to deserve a filmmaker like Guillermo del Toro? del Toro is one of the most technically gifted directors working today, I don’t think anyone can dispute that, but it goes further than that. It’s the way that he marries that technical ability to his absolute passion and earnest love for the worlds, characters, stories, and genres he chooses to tell that makes watching his films so wonderful. It’s there in his early horror classics, Chronos and The Devil’s Backbone, it’s there in his off-kilter approach to comic book movies with Blade II and the perennially-underrated Hellboy movies (the latter of which were my first introductions to the world of comic book movies), and it’s absolutely there in his gothic genre homages Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak. Hell, even though Pacific Rim was only “good” instead of “great,” you couldn’t blame that on a lack of tangible passion, and the shared glee in watching del Toro cash in every last scrap of industry cred he’d accrued up to that point to make the progressive, multi-cultural ode to the pleasures of the Anime and giant monster movies that he is infatuated with!
“It is a monstrous love. And it makes monsters of us all.”
“Crimson Peak is not a horror. It’s a gothic romance. Creepy, tense, but full of emotion”. So promised Guillermo Del Toro before his latest film was released. Still, I’ve seen the trailers and they suitably creeped the shit out of me and I was more than ready to call bullshit and say that Crimson Peak is in fact a horror flick. After a conversation with my local Cineworld where, for reasons I simply can’t explain, they refused to do a showing of one of the few horror films I was looking forward to with the lights on, I jeered myself up and headed to sit in pitch black with a film from a guy who’s horrors – or whatever he wants to call them – scare the living crap out of me.
Mia Wasikowska is Edith Cushing; a woman who, as a child, discovers she has the ability to see ghosts when her mother’s death leaves her haunted by terrifying spirits. Now a grown woman, she dreams of being a writer and is stifled by the sexism of the late 19th century and is left a little deflated by the situation she’s found herself in. Enter Sir Thomas Sharpe, a very cool and suave looking Tom Hiddleston, an English baronet and an inventor who’s desperately chasing finances to build a machine to mine the invaluable red clay that his estate is built on. Falling for Sharpe’s charm and sophistication, the pair are quickly married and heading across the Atlantic from New York to Cumberland where they will live together in the gentleman’s run down estate with his sister, Lady Lucille Sharpe; an ever so slightly creepy turn by Jessica Chastain.
Having been ghost free for a decade and a half, Edith’s arrival at the Sharpe’s Allerdale Hall estate brings with it ghosts both new and old that haunt the new bride’s nights warning her of the evils that lie within the house she now calls home. As Edith digs into the pasts of the house and the brother and sister that live there, she begins to uncover a generations old secret that threatens to swallow her up and leave the creepy siblings successful in their diabolical plans that will make their run down estate shine once again.
Guillermo Del Toro’s films have always amazed me, but I’ve always been of the opinion that we, as an audience, get two different Del Toro’s. The first is the man we all got to know years ago, the man who writes, directs and produces creepy Spanish language films whose imagery is as disturbing as the stories he tells. His direction is simple and elegant and horrifyingly beautiful. Then we get the man who found commercial success with his English language movies like Blade 2 and Hellboy; films that are, in their way, just as good as his Spanish language movies but are missing something. They are amazing, and again his direction and imagery are superb but they feel like they are missing the soul that Del Toro puts into his ghost films. This is where Crimson Peak really shines. We are treated to the kind of world that, until now, has been reserved for the man’s sublime back catalogue. Films like The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth and the Del Toro produced The Orphanage are where I believe we get to see the best in the director’s work and finally we get an English language film that takes us back to his roots.
As is always the case with Guillermo Del Toro’s films, the acting is amazing, but the direction is what shines brightest from the screen. The Sharpe’s Allerdale Hall is the true star of the film; the haunted house looks like a gothic cathedral standing tall in the rolling hills of North England. Inside, every turn takes you in to a perfectly crafted corridor that is as eerie and it is gorgeous; every creaky staircase and every flickering lantern is moulded perfectly into a house who’s walls literally bleed red from the wet clay surrounding it and as the snow falls and the house is surrounded with white, the mansion looks even more beautiful and even more eerie.
I genuinely can’t recommend Crimson Peak enough. I’ve loved Guillermo Del Toro’s films since I first saw Mimic almost two decades ago and to see him going back to what made me fall in love with his flicks is definitely something special. It’s got some horrific moments and some terrifying imagery, but I can’t argue with the director when he promises a creepy gothic romance, that’s exactly what we got. It’s emotional and powerful and everything a fan of Del Toro’s ghost stories could want.
The penultimate entry in our Decade In Film spin-off mini-series sees Andrew, Liam, Mike, Owen and Paul turn their attentions to the year 2013.
It was a year in which the world of film criticism as a whole took a moment to collectively thank the late great Roger Ebert, who sadly passed away in early April. 2013 also gave rise to the term “McConaissance”, as James so astutely spotted before anybody else did back in 2012, with Matthew McConaughey knocking those crappy rom-coms on the head and thus being treated as a serious, proper actor.
It was also a year where, for the briefest of times, it looked like the Oscar for best picture would finally go to a science fiction film as Gravity‘s box office takings and critical acclaim garnered huge momentum heading into the Academy Awards. But… it didn’t win. Never mind. Who cares what the Academy think is a great film, right? What you’re really interested in is what we think were the best films of 2013, right? Right. Let’s start with…
Towards the end of summer in 2013, a trailer hit for Ron Howard’s new film, Rush. Not being a fan of Formula One racing I could have easily avoided this film, to be honest I couldn’t really recall the outcome of that momentous season and really only just remember the crash. Yet I really couldn’t get enough of this trailer, it was wonderfully edited, filled with passion, intensity and with some superb looking cinematography; I was hooked and suddenly I had high expectations for this film.
Usually high expectations for a film doesn’t end well for me. However, for once, my expectations were met – actually even bettered. Rush is a film about the passion of racing, the will to never give up and the drive to be the best of the best. The story of the infamous rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda through the early seventies and that fateful season in 1976 was riveting stuff. More of an intense drama set in the world of racing about two men with different outlooks on life. Hunt, the thrill of living on the edge, pushing himself to be the best by sheer determination and at times pure recklessness. Yet Lauda, with a talent to drive, doing a job because he was excellent at it, but also a desire to not risk everything, not to lay his life on the line for his job and this dangerous sport. A desire he lost in his attempt to better Hunt, during the race at the Nurburgring track in Germany. Lauda’s return to the track is an emotional fuelled occasion, and one which touches me every time I watch the film. The final race is a heart pounding experience as Hunt attempts to win the prize which has eluded for so many years.
There isn’t much I can fault this film for; its casting is excellent, Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt swaggers around the screen with an air of arrogance and bountiful charm. Though it is Daniel Bruhl’s wonderful portrayal of Niki Lauda which just wins the race to best actor in this film – only just, though. There is a great chemistry between the two actors as they vie to become the world champion. Both are backed up by an able supporting cast including the beautiful Olivia Wilde as Hunt’s wife and Alexandra Maria Lara who plays Lauda’s wife and delivers a stunning emotionally filled performance.
The direction is superb. While I have enjoyed many of Ron Howard’s films, this is by far my favourite of his. The cinematography is exceptional from Anthony Dod Mantle, the race sequences are breath-taking and they never over stay their welcome. Howard prefers to centre on the drama of the racers rather than the actual races. Of course I couldn’t not mention Han’s Zimmer as he delivers one of the best scores I heard in 2013.
Even if you don’t like F1 racing do give this film a chance. I don’t like it, but I do like this film. Let it start and I guarantee you will cross the finish line!
by Mike Shawcross (@Shawky1969)
Written and directed by Alejandro Hidalgo, The House of the End Times is billed as Venezuela’s first attempt at a Horror Movie.
I don’t really think the label of Horror fits this film. It’s more along the lines of a Psychological/Paranormal Thriller, with a Sci-Fi element. There’s not much in the way of blood and gore, nor is it overtly violent, but the levels of menace and threat are chokingly intense.
A basic synopsis of the plot also gives the wrong impression. A family with young children move into a long abandoned, dilapidated house and weird things happening.
Another “Haunted House” reliving its gory past or trying to hoof new owners out? We’ve been here before, haven’t we? Well, no actually, we haven’t. This is no Poltergeist or Amityville clone, it’s an extremely cleverly constructed, complex plot that unfolds slowly and manages to keep you completely in the dark right up to the end.
The film, rather strangely, begins at the mid-point of the story. It opens with Dolce, the mother, regaining consciousness in a hallway, and slowly walking round the house surveying the devastation. She calls the police for help, but ends up being arrested for three murders she has no recollection of, and is carted off to jail.
We then jump forward thirty years, to the “Present Day”, and an elderly Dulce is released from prison to serve the remainder of her sentence under house arrest. It’s at this point that the film really takes off. The action switches quickly back and forth between three distinctly different parts of the same story; we see how things started to go wrong for the family in their new home, the build up to the night of Dulce’s arrest, and we follow Present Day Dulce as she tries to make sense of the chaos happening around her and, with the help of a very persistent priest, how it all relates back to one hidden fact.
It is figuratively (and literally in one particular aspect) a Three Card Monte scam in film form.
The use of sound throughout the film is a real highlight, a decent set of speakers make a massive difference to the chill factor here. The superb writing and direction keep you on your toes at all times. Ruddy Rodriguez is brilliant as Dulce, she plays each aspect of the part wonderfully. I’m not the biggest fan of Modern Horror films, and Sci-Fi is my least favourite genre by quite some distance and yet I’m willing to say that this film is a must see. It has so many “Jump Moments” it leaves you exhausted.
If I had to pick out something to moan about, the only real problem is the make up used on the elderly version of Dulce. It’s strange that they allowed it to look so much like make up, every other facet of this gem has been polished to perfection but this one important little touch seems oddly slapdash.
Easily one of my favourite films of the decade so far, it made me say very rude words very loudly on numerous occasions and has more jumpy moments than a crack addled kangaroo in a roomful of trampolines.
by Liam (@ElmoreLTM)
Being simultaneously released in cinemas, on DVD and Blu-Ray, as well as screened in Film4 all on the same day, it’s fair to say that there was a lot of hype for Ben Wheatley’s psychedelic, experimental, black and white English Civil War era comedy-drama. Already a pretty divisive film maker with plenty of people who either absolutely adored Kill List, or unapologetically hated it, it was understandable that some of us were perhaps approaching A Field In England with a certain degree of trepidation.
Certainly that’s how it was treated on the Failed Critics Podcast, where Steve and Gerry both despised as much of it as they could stand to watch. “Pretentious”, “a shit idea”, “fucking terrible”, “hard work”, “indulgent”, “nonsense”, “arty wankery hipster shit”; these aren’t unpopular opinions held on Wheatley’s fourth theatrically released feature film. However, I personally loved it. I love the experimental nature of it, the trippy way it’s edited together and just how beautifully shot it is. Not to mention Amy Jump’s poetic writing, Jim Williams’ folky soundtrack and the darkly comic, almost horror film-levels of atmosphere.
I can’t claim to have understood it all, or that it made sense to me after the first time through. I’ve since seen the film a few more times and with each viewing it just gets better and better, picking up on something I missed on previous occasions… although I doubt I actually understand it any more or less!
Both Michael Smiley and Reece Shearsmith put in fantastic performances as the mysterious Irish alchemist O’Neill hunting for his treasure and the cowardly neurotic deserter Whitehead, respectively. Menacing, creepy, disturbing and both of them equally hilarious in that typically dark Ben Wheatley sort-of-way; they’re magnificent. As if we didn’t know already, Shearsmith proves that he’s one of Britain’s best character actors around today.
The rest of the cast were decent too. Peter Ferdinando was in one of the more straight-forward roles as the troubled soldier, but he did very well and his performance also improves every time I watch this film. Having been a fan of the BBC TV series Ideal, it was nice to see Ryan Pope in something else that wasn’t a McDonalds commercial too! Richard Glover was also excellent and his Ballou My Boy song was just one of the few highlights in what is one of my favourite ever British movies.
by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)
Admit it! Come on! We all did it! Didn’t we all go into Pacific Rim expecting garbage? Sure, it was a Guillermo del Toro film, but it just looked like Transformers Vs. Godzillas didn’t it? And we all saw how awful those films ended up didn’t we?
So why were we watching this again?
I was expecting it to be visually great, but we’ve had our fair share of gorgeous looking rubbish haven’t we? What I wasn’t expecting was a film that was that beautiful, that fun, but still smarter than most of the films I saw in 2013. It was refreshing to have a film that looked like it was going to be a flashy, bombastic popcorn movie not treat me like an imbecile.
You get 10 minutes. That’s it. 10 minutes where the important parts of the story are explained to you. In that ten minutes you’re shown the fight between the monstrous alien Kaijus and the human piloted robot “Jaegers” and given all the character development you need for veteran robo-pilot Charlie Hunnam. After those few minutes, it’s assumed you will keep up with the pace of the film and the pace that information is given to you. It’s a breath of fresh air for a film, and a film maker, to just crack on, get the story told and not pander to the lowest common denominator in the theatre.
So, Pacific Rim. The film about mankind’s last ditch attempt to defeat an alien invader coming from the depths of the Pacific Ocean. An ever-evolving invader looking to wipe us from our planet and harvest whatever we leave behind. It’s up to Hunnam, Idris Elba and a host of supporting characters to “Cancel the apocalypse”. So it’s The Abyss meets Independence Day with a little Transformers and Godzilla for good measure. The film’s synopsis is a simple one. Painfully simple. But Del Toro’s direction speaks volumes when the plot doesn’t. And what more is there to say when a giant robot hits a Godzilla wannabe with a CARGO SHIP!
Oh, yeah. One thing is left to be said.
If, like me, you’ve spent a large amount of your life in front of screens for more than just films. If you’ve lost months of your life to video games, then the casting of Ellen McLain as the Jaeger Program’s AI is a stroke of genius, guaranteed to get a knowing smile with each viewing.
by Andrew Brooker (@Brooker411)
This was a year end watch after seeing it appear on a couple of best of lists in December 2013. Wasn’t really expecting much – I mean, Dutch absurdist comedy? That’s a niche genre and then some. But this gentle Sunday afternoon film turned out to be the best thing I saw all year. Diederik Ebbinge served up an unexpected gem, that left me both in fits of laughter… and floods of tears.
Ton Kas who plays Fred, a man living alone in a devout Calvinist community, finds everything changes when René van ‘t Hof as the mentally impaired Theo enters his life. Kas conveys the mundane existence of Fred brilliantly. Whilst van ‘t Hof’s performance as Theo is utterly remarkable and one that will stay with me forever, Ebbinge helps things along by delivering visuals to match, drab and muted to the max.
We’re not told much if anything about them to begin with, bar little clues and inferences along the way. It’s brilliantly done. We have their story and history slowly unfold, we get to see intolerance and mistrust, friendship and love… don’t worry, you get to see a man making goat noises and wearing a dress too. From the laugh out loud comedy to the heartbreaking tears, I absolutely loved spending time with Fred & Theo. So much so that I sought out another film the actors appear in together, Plan C (where they play entirely different characters, but are just as much fun to spend time with).
I don’t know anybody who hasn’t enjoyed this, but equally I only know a few people who’ve seen it and it absolutely deserves an audience, but until the DVD price drops or it becomes available to stream in the UK, it just wont find one.
by Paul Field (@pafster)
And that’s it! Join us again next week for the final instalment of our Half A Decade In Film series as we reconvene to each pick our favourite movie of 2014. Until then, feel free to comment below and tell us where we’ve gone wrong or right!
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Last year, DreamWorks Animation celebrated its 20th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Callum Petch has been going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment. Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.
Before we get started this week, and I have to get all mildly irritated at wasted potential, let’s briefly address this week’s news. As I have touched on multiple times throughout this series, most specifically in the Joseph: King Of Dreams and Bee Movie pieces, DreamWorks Animation today is not in a good spot, like, at all. Their films have been significantly underperforming, the studio has been losing money, and certain films – most specifically B.O.O.: Bureau of Otherworldly Operations – have been in development hell for years. Their attempts to find a buyer have failed, primarily because Jeffrey Katzenberg is trying to play what everyone knows is a crap hand like it’s a royal flush, and things look really grim.
Compounding that misery was this week’s onslaught of news. Following on from a recent string of major misfires, and in an attempt to stop haemorrhaging money, the company is cutting approximately 500 jobs, top execs have left the company, the number of feature films being released each year will now count two maximum with one always being a sequel of some kind, and they are closing PDI – the animation studio that has been with them since Day 1, that they acquired totally in 2000, and which just released major bomb Penguins of Madagascar – totally with most of its staff being laid off instead of reassigned. That loss of 500 jobs equates to almost 20% of the company’s current workforce.
Look, Katzenberg, if for some utterly ridiculous reason you are reading this, you need to change tactics and you need to step back. As we have seen (sort of) throughout this series, the Western feature-length animation landscape is not what it was back in 2005. It has new faces, new voices, resurgent faces, and a whole bunch of filmmakers who can deliver top-quality animation for well below $100 million – Despicable Me 2 cost $78 million, whilst The Lego Movie only cost $60 million – and who don’t ram multiple films down the audience’s throat every single year – even when they’re good, like they were for 2014, they still just burn out the general public.
You’re trying to run the company like it’s still 2005 when it really isn’t, and your studio and films are suffering for that. Katzenberg, you need to find a buyer, first of all. You need to get off of Wall Street, so that DreamWorks have that safety net of a major company again if everything does go wrong. Illumination are owned by Universal, Blue Sky by 20th Century Fox, Pixar by Disney; you need to join that group. Secondly… you need to step down. I’m sorry, but you do or, at least, step back. Don’t try and make a power play whilst selling the company, don’t stick around and continue to micromanage, just stop. You are the company’s own worst enemy at this moment in time, and it needs a new voice leading proceedings.
I know that it’s hard to let go of something you’ve helped build, but there is a point where you just have to admit that you are not the right man for the job anymore. This is one of those times. So sell the company, step back, and let somebody else take the reins for once. Otherwise I am terrified that we won’t be seeing DreamWorks Animation, at least in this recognisable sort of form, for much longer. OK, on with this week’s entry.
Budget: $130 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 84%
So, let’s talk about that incest subtext, shall we!
Question: are Jack and Jill brother and sister, or just two non-blood related people of opposing genders? Not in Puss In Boots, we’ll get to that, I mean in the nursery rhyme. The rhyme itself has changed over the centuries, but at no point in any of its incarnations does it specify exactly whether the pair are siblings, married or just two people. A third verse makes reference to Jill having a mother, who whips her for laughing at Jack’s misfortune, but that’s as far as the specificity goes. As a child, I always saw them as brother and sister. I mean, the rhyme is so innocent and the nature of their relationship, to me, always seemed like that of siblings rather than friends or lovers or what have you.
Therefore, I grew up holding that belief, as I imagine a good majority of other people did. Hence why seventeen year-old me ended up sat in the cinema in abject horror as the Jack of Puss In Boots started talking in earnest to the film’s version of Jill about impregnating her with a baby. Because “our biological clocks are ticking.” Now, again, the nursery rhyme doesn’t specify, so you get that wiggle room, but neither does the film. They are mentioned as husband and wife, but they are never openly denied as brother and sister, and this is a problem.
See, the Shrek series up to this point has been pretty darn faithful when it comes to presenting fairy tale and nursery rhyme characters in their universe. They may gain sassy personalities or have that thing they’re known for doing twisted around for comedy – The Wolf, for example, is a crossdresser who just wishes to lay in other people’s beds and it’s funny because it’s a man dressed as a woman – but they are portrayed with the backstory (or unspoken backstory) that viewers know and accept, unless specifically stated otherwise. That’s why, even though it is never specifically stated so in the nursery rhyme so they do have that leeway, a good subset of the film’s older audience may be grossed out by the implication. Especially since DreamWorks still have that poor double-coding stigma attached to them; if they did intentionally start making incest references, would anybody here be surprised?
This also ends up being emblematic of the problems that face Puss In Boots. The first is how the baby desires are brought up, made a huge deal out of, and then promptly tossed off-screen and out of the film after its interest is lost – which is what ends up happening to Jack and Jill and, to somewhat of an extent, Kitty Softpaws. The second is because it’s a film that wants to find its own voice and do its own thing, hinting at true greatness constantly, but keeps being dragged down by the worst impulses and traits of the series that it’s spun-off from – having villains who are happily married and have humanising conversations about their domestic life is a great idea. Marrying it to nursery rhyme characters for no reason, ones with misconceptions surrounding them: not so much.
But let’s hold up for a minute. You may notice that I mentioned offhandedly a few paragraphs back about how I saw Puss In Boots in the cinema. That is information that runs contradictory to my constant notes that Kung Fu Panda was the moment that I decided to stop seeing DreamWorks films in the cinema. Well, Puss In Boots very much turned out to be the exception, brought on by a friend of mine at Sixth Form at the time having gotten free movie tickets she needed to burn and there being nothing else on that week. I ended up finding it incredibly boring, a nice distillation of all of the things I disliked about DreamWorks in one forgettable, only occasionally enraging package reminder to stop subjecting myself to their output already.
Of course, I was a different critic back then, one who wouldn’t fall headfirst back down the rabbit hole of animation until a good year later and one who, quite honestly, was probably wanting to dislike it. A second watch has made the stuff that doesn’t work stick out even sharper, but has also revealed the nugget of a genuinely great film fighting against everything that stands in its way to burst out and reveal itself – the film that the critics saw and showered with praise. Puss In Boots is a potentially brilliant film that just can’t stop lapsing into bad habits, like an addict on the road to recovery and with that same kind of “dammit, no! You can be better than this!” feeling attached to it. Fitting, really, since those are actually the arc words of the film itself.
For example, and as I’ve previously discussed in their respective articles, the Shrek sequels run on pop culture references and a sprinkling of mean-spiritedness. The characters go through the motions, but their bonds never feel sincere, instead being obviously controlled by the almighty screenwriter from upon high. In short, there’s no heart. Puss In Boots, by contrast, is very character-driven. In addition to those little exchanges between Jack and Jill, the film’s central emotional core pivots on Puss and Humpty Alexander Dumpty. There’s even an 11 minute stretch of the film dedicated to the flashback that sets up and explains the duo’s dynamic, recognising that hard work like that will pay off down the line.
And, for a good half an hour, it does. Puss and Humpty swap banter, re-affirm their bond, de-frost in the former’s case, and generally just strike up a good rapport with one another, which is good since most of the movie consists of those two and Kitty Softpaws. Speaking of, although she really doesn’t get much to do – no surprise for a DreamWorks Animation joint by this point, I know – she still brings a fun dynamic to the cast. She brings out the really entertaining Casanova side of Puss, and I really like the fact that she’s actually rather soft personality-wise naturally, with her harder and more anger-filled moments coming from genuine reasons to be so rather than just being pissed all the time until the film decides it’s time for her to fall head over heels for Puss.
So the central trio are extremely well-drawn and likeable with good chemistry and a nice sense of heart. Shame it’s all pissed away when Humpty is revealed to be the villain who had been the mastermind behind everything from the start in an overly-elaborate revenge scheme on both Puss and the town of San Ricardo. It’s one of those special kind of twists where it’s blindingly obvious and yet incredibly stupid and nonsensical at the same time. The film telegraphs the twist way too early and obviously – really exaggerated shifty eyes, silent mouthing, clearly fake smiles – in a way that contradicts Zach Galifianakis’ sincere vocal performance, it screws up the character arc majorly – especially since it promptly forgets about it barely 10 minutes later in order to do the redemption finale – and it reduces the reveal flashbacks themselves to a lame gag, undercutting whatever power the twist should have.
It was apparently executive producer Guillermo del Toro – in his first major work on a DreamWorks film since coming aboard as a Creative Consultant for the company in 2010 – who decided that Humpty should redeem himself at the end with the self-sacrifice, which is a smart move, the film has put way too much time and effort into the relationship between Humpty and Puss to just throw it away for third act explosions. But it also throws into sharp relief just how pointless the betrayal itself is, especially since the film could still have this exact same finale without it!
Look, I’ll fix it for you right now. Instead of the betrayal, have the trio arrive at San Ricardo looking to give back to the town, only to have them reject and shun Humpty due to the whole “once a bad egg, always a bad egg” type of stigma. Let that throw Humpty into a fit of jealous rage and cause a falling out between Puss and himself, with Humpty planning on skipping town with the Golden Goose when no-one’s looking. When its mother shows up, then have Humpty decide to leave San Ricardo to burn, only to experience a moral panic just as he’s about to flee. Puss then turns up, they talk, he convinces Humpty to help save the town as just because he was bad before, and the town still thinks he is, doesn’t mean he needs to still be, and then the finale progresses as before. You then get to hit the same beats and tackle the same themes without having that stupid pace-ruining, near-character-derailing betrayal! It was so easy to avoid!
As, in fact, are a lot of the film’s problems. As mentioned earlier, this is a film that very much is striving to find its own voice, to set itself apart from its parent series as something different and new. So the tone is that of a swashbuckling adventure movie with a distinctly Spanish feel and location. Again, there are times when it works very well, the trip and heist from the giant’s castle is a particular highlight, and the emphasis on drama, and often melodrama, works to the film’s advantage, preventing itself from undercutting everything like Shrek ended up doing – although it still chooses to do so enough times to get annoying; the exit from Puss’ flashback finds Kitty having been sent to sleep by it.
The problem is that it doesn’t manage to commit to that voice for the entire film. Just when it settles into its groove, engages the more sceptical viewer and threatens to push through into greatness, it falls back on old, bad DreamWorks and Shrek habits. There’s the aforementioned accidental incest stuff, but then the gross and utterly inexcusable prison rape gag rears its head to piss away any and all good will the film had accumulated thus far. Later on, in the space of two minutes of one another, we get jokes about Puss being a drug addict – because no action-comedy tells the audience that we’re supposed to believe the character’s protestations that film’s equivalent of marijuana is for “medicinal purposes” – and masturbation. There’s a Fight Club reference that’s only a decade late to the “That Joke Is No Longer Funny” party.
Puss In Boots is a film that wants to be its own thing, but either can’t break free of or keeps retreating into, for safety, the Shrek formula and the Shrek voice, like it’s worried that the audience won’t turn up unless it hits all of those necessary beats when required – hence why Humpty Dumpty and Jack & Jill are, well, Humpty Dumpty and Jack & Jill. It’s a film with a Shrek cast member, if nursery rhyme or fairy tale characters don’t show up, people might not turn up! Despite the fact that the film is set in Spain, and so the world of the film gets all muddied with the world of Shrek. Yes, the film isn’t supposed to overlap with Shrek, but that leads to the question of why this needs to be Puss In Boots. Why not just come up with some totally original characters and worlds? Job’s already half-done.
In fact, flow-breaking side-bar real quick: this is definitely the ugliest-looking of the Shrek-related films that I have seen, almost by design. It’s a film that has the majority of its side cast as humans and, as we have already discovered in three prior Shrek sequels, humans do not look good or appealing when put through the Shrek art-style, which is what Puss In Boots subscribes to albeit with more dirt and grime. Therefore, the film attempts to steer into the skid, purposefully adding excess facial hair with large amounts of detail, extending proportions, bending things out of shape and such. I get what it’s going for, but I really don’t think it works, frequently and accidentally crossing the line from “creepily off-putting” to “just plain ugly to look at”, especially with Jack and Jill. Animation itself is fine, although boarding is a major step down from prior DreamWorks films, but the design is what lets it down.
Anyways, I get the feeling that the reason why DreamWorks didn’t go the whole hog and come up with original casts and worlds and such is because everybody at the company was still worried and hurting over the failure of The Road To El Dorado from 2000. Puss In Boots actually, in its best moments, strongly recalls that much better movie. See for all its faults, The Road To El Dorado never doubted what it wanted to be. Never tried to awkwardly take turns appeasing kids and adults separately with easy cat jokes for the kids and one night stand gags for the adults. Never panicked and zigged instead of zagging because it felt its plot was being too predictable.
Puss In Boots, however, is a film caught between two worlds and not confident enough in its own abilities to just leap off into the good one. And since The Road To El Dorado exists, it ends up coming off as a poorer attempt to turn that into box office gold, this time. El Dorado just does everything better: the central dynamic is more convincing, the dialogue is better, it doesn’t sacrifice its emotional heft at the altar of “argh, the kids might be bored by this seriousness”, it looks nicer, it’s more fun, and its ultimately tertiary female lead is better – both Kitty and Chel serve the purpose of “headstrong love interests who wander in and out of the film as required” but Chel ends up having the bigger impact on the film’s plot and makes a bigger mark for me.
But, hey, the film continued DreamWorks’ hot streak with the critics and won back a significant portion of the disillusioned Shrek fan-base. Not so much at the domestic box office, mind. Continuing a downward spiral that, quite honestly, throws the current box office woes into sharper relief, Puss In Boots’ no. 1 debut was the lowest for a DreamWorks Animation film since Flushed Away – $34 million dead. It would repeat at the top the next week, holding extremely strongly in all fairness, before falling off in the weeks following as Happy Feet Too, The Muppets, and Twilight 4 Part 1 leeched away its screens. Puss would close at just under $150 million domestic. That’s not half bad, honestly, but it’s also the lowest for any Shrek-related film yet released, and you just know that DreamWorks, Katzenberg, and shareholders will have wanted and expected more. Least it still earned a good $400 mil overseas, putting the thing nicely over the profit line, unlike two films that we will come to in due time.
A sequel to this film is supposed to be still coming at some point. They’ve been promising it for years, but it’s never really gotten further than those promises that it’s coming eventually. With that creative re-shuffling and the scaling back of their feature film output going on at DreamWorks, it seems less and less likely that it’s ever going to happen, and I honestly find that a shame. We already know that the Shrek series and I don’t get along and Puss In Boots’ worst moments are when it relapses into that voice. It’s a film that is always seemingly on the verge of becoming its own thing and being hugely entertaining whilst doing so, but keeps falling back into those old habits. A sequel could be the confidence boost it needs to push forward on that original voice, but I guess, at this rate, we’ll never find out.
Still, least it’s a better final note for the Shrek series than Shrek Forever After or, god forbid, Shrek The Third! That’s always a plus!
After putting out their masterpiece in the shape of Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss In Boots marked a return to the kind of fun, lightweight animated movies that, nonetheless, attempt to have their own voice that DreamWorks were known for. The box office repaid them in kind and the critics seemed to be more accepting of this kind of film than before. Things were looking a little shaky at the box office, but everything was mostly continuing to be smooth sailing. Not to mention how having a growing collection of beloved live-action auteurs in their pocket – Roger Deakins and now del Toro – was doing wonders for their storytelling.
Next week, we look at a film that is unexpectedly co-scripted by one such auteur. The result finally pushed its once-maligned series into critical acceptance and was rewarded with major box office returns. The auteur is Noah Baumbach, and the film is Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted. Da-da-dada-da-da-AFRO CIRCUS.
A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!
It’s a first for the podcast this week and we have a double main review. First we discuss Pixar’s latest sequel/first prequel Monsters University, and try to figure out if Pixar are getting lazy, or if everyone else has simply upped their game. After that we talk gigantic bad-ass robots and aliens in our review of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim.
Also this week, we discuss Sam Mendes’ return to the Bond franchise (Yay!) and Johnny Depp’s return to the Alice in Wonderland franchise (why?!), James has a rant about films from The Asylum, particularly the so-bad-that-it’s-fucking-terrible Sharknado, and the other lads watched some films as well. Guess which forgetful old bastard wrote this.
Join us next week as we review the final film in the Wright/Pegg/Frost Cornetto Trilogy, The World’s End.
This week on the Failed Critics Review we look at the cop film that French Connection director William Friedken described as the “best movie about cops ever made”. Can James get over the found footage angle? Can Steve suggest a way he would have done it better? Can Gerry get around to seeing it? (No).
Also on this week’s podcast we look at James’ future wife Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone, and discuss films as varied as Network, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, and The Devil’s Backbone.
Next week’s episode is the launch of the Failed Critics Hall of Fame, where we award some poor Oscar-less schmuck with some award I’ll try and rustle up on Photoshop.
A continuing series where Failed Critics contributors look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema, choose their favourite films from each year of that decade, and discuss the legacy those years have left us.
As this is podcaster Gerry’s own idea, he’s nabbed the noughties. In this article, he talks about his favourite films from the year we were supposed to have a Space Odyssey, 2001.
5. Donnie Darko
I’m going to make an admission before we get started. This one made the list to annoy James, because he hates it and was disgusted that I didn’t like Amelie enough to include it on here (spoiler alert). On this last point by the way, I intend to watch it again as it’s a number of years since I watched it as a teenager and I suspect I might think differently on it now.
Anyhoo, the film that launched Jake Gylenhaal’s career is a moody 80s teenage tale about a young lad who imagines (or does he?) a 6 foot bunny rabbit called Frank, which adds to his already complicated life. Donnie, you see, is already seeing a psychiatrist and struggles to get on with his family, as well as struggling (like we all did) to get things moving with fellow oddball Gretchen who he has somehow managed to date. Richard Kelly explores time travel and mental illness with this cult classic debut, whose success he has never managed to match since either as a writer or director. This is the part where James rants about how deliberately indie this film is but it’s a bit more thoughtful than most teen films and, as a young teen, really hit a chord with me. It straddles genres and tones but somehow makes it work in my eyes – plus it has a deliciously creepy turn from Patrick Swayze. Captures the 80s vibe brilliantly as well as the stifling nature of suburban life which makes it a winner already but the outstanding soundtrack rounds things off nicely.
4. The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo)
Guillermo Del Toro’s chilling ghost story is apparently inspired by his own experiences of his uncle’s reincarnation as a ghost. How true this is remains to be proven, but it is certainly filled with a sense of history and realism that adds to the thrills. A dream combination for me in terms of cast (Marisa Paredes, one of Spain’s finest actresses of all time) and crew (Del Toro directing, the Almodóvar brothers producing), this film has all the makings of a classic on paper. It duly delivers. Spine-chillingly brilliant, it tells the story of 12 year old Carlos as he settles into a remote orphanage in the closing stages of the Spanish Civil War. The Nationalist forces are closing in on them although the only signs of this are an undetonated bomb sticking out of the ground and Carlos’ being there at all – his father died in the conflict – as the film eschews portrayal of the conflict itself, instead using it as a backdrop, a pervasive feeling of dread and impending doom that permeates every scene.
Podcast regulars will know of my passion for this period in history (the subject of my Masters), this director and particularly his film Pan’s Labyrinth, which Del Toro describes as the ‘sister’ to this film, the ‘brother’ in the sibling relationship. Indeed, this is an exploration of a young boy’s grappling with how horrendous the real world is in much the same way as Pan’s explores a young girl’s struggles in this regard. To the filmmakers’ credit, the ghost story is often rather secondary to the very human drama and this is most certainly a far cry from the average Hollywood horror. Utterly tremendous. So tremendous in fact that just writing this article has made me decide to watch it again tonight.
Russell Crowe was number one in my last list and he is outstanding again here as John Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician whose brilliant intellect is unfortunately coupled with rather fragile mental health. Beginning with Nash enrolling at Princeton as an implausibly old-looking student and following his life and career, this is more than a simple biopic. Ron Howard manages to craft an engaging and exciting drama to go alongside excellent examinations of the characters and mental illness in general, as John’s grip on reality becomes less and less firm. There is a sense of genuine care and affection for the material throughout and the cast, including excellent performances from Ed Harris and Paul Bettany, keep the film grounded and engaging. Crowe is absolutely outstanding though and his keenly observed depiction of John Nash, who he met during filming, is consistently wonderful. This is no doubt in part due to the fact that the film was shot sequentially, so Crowe could maintain a sense of steady decline and progress further and further into Nash’s mental illness.
This film speaks to something in me that I can’t quite put my finger on, with Crowe’s emotional turmoil and despair often really affecting me (something films don’t do all that much to me to be honest – I’m half dead inside when it comes to celluloid). The recurring theme of love is dealt with in an even-handed way, building to a deeply emotional ending. A thoughtful exploration of mental illness from a big Hollywood director with a big Hollywood star (who the year before was iconic as Gladiator Maximus, let’s not forget) – who’dathunkit? Yes I know that lots of unsavoury elements of Nash’s life were left out (including homosexual affairs, which were left out to avoid mistaken connections between homosexuality and schizophrenia) but this remains an outstanding film. Even Roger Ebert says so.
I didn’t get round to watching Monsters Inc until a few years ago, largely because I was at that stage where you feel too old to watch kids films and can’t appreciate them in the same way you do as an adult. What an error. The story of Mike and Sully, two monsters whose job is to scare children to generate power, and Boo – a child who wanders back into Monstropolis, where the monsters are in fact terrified of her thanks to their fear of being contaminated by a child. Pete Docter, the bizarre-looking genius who would later direct Up and write Wall-E, stepped up to directing this having written the first two Toy Story films. He got it bang on.
Visually stunning and setting new standards in animation (frames with Sulley in took around 12 hours to render due to his 2.3 million individually animated strands of hair), Monsters Inc is also brilliantly written. The most outstanding feature however is the voice talent. Unusually, John Goodman and Billy Crystal recorded together, as did Steve Buscemi and Frank Oz – see what I mean about voice talent? Crystal, as an aside, lobbied for this part after turning down a part in Toy Story, calling it the biggest regret of his career. Equally fascinating and reflective of the dedication to innovation at Pixar, the actress who played Boo was so authentically young that she would wander around rather than stand at a mic and perform her lines. Pixar simply followed her around with a microphone as she played, giving her speech a joyfully authentic feeling.
That joy and enthusiasm for childhood, evident in all Pixar’s films, saturates every frame of this. We’ve come to expect the attention to detail and cool trivia (numerous Toy Story references feature, as does Nemo two years before that film was finished. Oh and the pizza planet truck is in the shot of the trailer at the end, the same trailer from A Bug’s Life. METAOVERLOAD) but this really confirmed that outside of Toy Story, Pixar still had a genuine talent for identifying what it feels like to be a kid and to depict that in such a way that the viewer can’t help but be drawn into a world of nostalgia and happiness. I am massively excited about the sequel currently in development and yet simultaneously terrified it will be shit.
You knew this was coming. Don’t act like you didn’t. Peter Jackson’s epic saga kicked off with this and it was so outstanding, so visually lush, so joyously nerdish and cherishing of the source material, and so dramatically powerful that it seemed a certainty to clean up at the Oscars. As it was, despite thirteen nominations, LOTR won only (ONLY) four in technical categories, losing out to A Beautiful Mind for Best Picture and Best Director. That said, I prefer this film because despite its length, I feel it offers the most immersive cinematic experience since Star Wars. Viggo Mortensen and Elijah Wood weren’t big names beforehand but they certainly were after this, along with most of the cast. Ian McKellen is positively iconic as Gandalf and even Orlando Bloom manages to not be annoying for one of only two times in his film career (the other being Kingdom of Heaven). I’m reviewing this as if it’s the entire series because it is the basis for the two even better films that come after it and, despite being the ‘worst’ of the trilogy, was still the best film of the year.
I know a lot of people find it too long or boring or nerdy or whatever but frankly, I don’t care. This is an epic journey in the same tradition that stretches back through human history, a thoroughly British tale about fantastical worlds that is still universal (and helped boost New Zealand’s profile and economy considerably) thanks to its deeply human core. I have my reservations about The Hobbit but there is no doubting that this film is the beginning of a trilogy which sets the benchmark for epic drama. Plus, had this not been made in this way, would we have Game of Thrones on TV in a grand scale? I think not. And Game of Thrones is fucking awesome. So there.