Tag Archives: John Lithgow

The Accountant

accountant_09413

“You have to choose. Are you going to be a victim?”

So it seems my hopeful search for a great thriller in 2016 is over. The last of the high profile cinematic rollercoasters has hit the screens and now we must prepare ourselves of the onslaught of Christmas ensemble movies that are incoming.

Luckily, whilst most of this year’s thrillers have barely been able to hit average in my books – only really thrilling in the same way that paying £15 for a ticket to the latest churned out Halloween nonsense can be called horrifying – The Accountant at least has a decent stab at dragging us to the edges of our seats. And while it isn’t always successful in its endeavours, it’s a damn sight better than a lot of its recent competition.

Ben Affleck is Christian Wolff, a man who has grown up with a few factors that decided his fate early on. First, he suffers from what appears to be Asperger’s Syndrome; an inability to communicate with the majority of the world, as well as a few other telling issues that we get to see as the film goes on. Christian has a difficult life ahead of him. A life made worse by point number two: Left with his tough-as-nails military father after his mother decides she can’t cope and leaves, Wolff’s traumatic childhood is made harder when his old man tries to teach him about the world his own way.

Fast forward a few decades and Wolff has made the very best of his situation. He’s become an accountant with the uncanny ability to unravel even the most complicated books around. This makes him an invaluable asset to everyone from the locals doing their returns, to crime bosses looking for skimmed cash. When a run-of-the-mill job for a corporation uncovers more than it should have, Wolff and the company accountant Dana (Anna Kendrick) find themselves on the receiving end of an awful lot of guns-for-hire looking to take them out. All the while, he’s being investigated by a treasury agent (the always splendid JK Simmons) with a bit of a thing against our main character.

The Accountant is another one of these films that no one seems to know how to market. Delayed to let the market react to Batfleck earlier this year, it’s advertised as this strange action thriller hybrid and doesn’t really fully check either of those boxes. But whilst most of what I want to say about the film is complimentary, it doesn’t feel like it when I say that it’s played out better than most of its ilk this year.

But I do want to be positive and complimentary. There’s plenty of good stuff to say about The Accountant. For starters, Affleck’s portrayal of Wolff and his issues is nothing short of brilliant. The film goes to some considerable length to not name our main character’s affliction, yet Affleck does a wonderful job of convincing us that, even as an adult, he has issues leaving work unfinished or maintaining eye contact; all tell tale signs of his lifelong struggle with his condition.

Likewise, the way the film makes you feel hatred for Wolff’s father for the way he treats his son is beautifully offset when you realise that the accountant has essentially used his upbringing to turn what would possibly cripple some into something close to a superpower. When you see that Christian is really an accountant/lethal killing machine, you are almost impressed by what his old man did, whether or not it was cruel at the time.

With a superb cast supporting him, Affleck really does shine in his role, as do Simmons and Kendrick, with John Lithgow and John Bernthal doing a decent job bringing up the rear. Although, with such a cast, you may end up (as I did) wanting just a little more from the guys we got on screen.

And that’s something that can be said about a lot of the film. You’re left wanting just a bit more, and a bit more, and a bit more. Director Gavin O’Connor – the man behind films like Pride and Glory and Warrior, (favourites of mine) – seems to lose his way in the middle of his two hour math-a-thon. Our introduction to Christian Wolff goes very well, and the flashbacks to his childhood are interesting. I’m enthralled once the final act begins and we get to see Wolff the super killing machine, but the middle, say, thirty minutes, seem to sag. Not knowing how to push the story forward and get us to the reveal we all knew was coming, it just seems to stutter a bit trying to get to its last section. A real shame for a film with so much going for it.

But don’t be disheartened. I thoroughly enjoyed The Accountant. I just wanted it to be ever so slightly tighter than it turned out to be.

Half A Decade In Film – 2011

2011 seems so long ago now. It’s hard to imagine films even existing back then. The fields were all green, the sky unpolluted and movies were just a figment of the imagination.

That’s clearly not true. But certainly Failed Critics didn’t exist until the following year, so anything that went before it was obviously just practice until our arrival. Film criticism in particular wouldn’t reach its zenith until 2012 with the inception of this website (……)!

OK, so that might not be true either! Nevertheless, Liam, Paul, Mike, Andrew and Owen all return for another entry to our Half A Decade In Film series as they cast their minds back all those years and each take a look at their favourite film of 2011 as we continue with our Decade In Film spin-off series.


Source Code

© 2010 Vendome PicturesAny soldier I’ve ever served with would say that one death is service enough.

It seems insane to say it now, but I wasn’t always a Jake Gyllenhaal fan. Not least of all because just typing his name for this article brings up that obnoxious squiggly red line that tries to convince me that I can’t bloody spell!
I liked his earlier films. Brokeback Mountain and Jarhead are great. But for the most part they are great in spite of Mr Gyllenhaal’s inclusion. I tended to judge him more on rubbish films like The Day After Tomorrow and stuff I just didn’t like, like Donnie Darko and with those in mind I just never saw the appeal of Jake and his performances. Until I saw Source Code that is.

The weird thing is that Gyllenhaal’s performance wasn’t anything special! It wasn’t crap, but it was one of those times when you could name any number of half decent actors that do the role just as well. But the direction, was absolutely superb and anyone in the role of Gyllenhaal’s Army Pilot would have been great as Duncan Jones (the guy that made the excellent Moon) dragged the best out of everyone involved.

Gyllenhaal is Colter Stevens, an Army Pilot who’s last memory is of being on mission in Afghanistan. Suddenly waking up on a train opposite Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan) he takes a few minutes to figure out what is going on and where he is. In those minutes, his train explodes and kills everyone on board.

Waking from the explosion like a bad dream, Stevens is told he is part of an experiment called “Source Code” and he is being used to stop a terrorist attack that is due to happen in the next few hours having already blown up a commuter train. He is being sent back to relive the last few minutes on that train and find the bomber.

Annoying and silly tacked-on “Hollywood” ending aside, what should be a so-so plot to an average screenplay (written by the guy that wrote Species 3 and 4, for Christ’s sake) is brought to brilliant life with Duncan Jones’ direction as Gyllenhaal thrillingly races against the clock time and time again in a sci-fi Groundhog Day with a shorter memory span, for a generation that’s grown up with The Matrix!

by Andrew Brooker (@Brooker411)


Super 8

super 8“According to my Uncle Seth, an accident like this is exceptionally rare.”

After the success of  JJ Abram’s Star Trek, there was a buzz about Super 8, a creature-feature which many now consider to be Abrams homage to the Spielberg films of the 80’s. There are some similarities that’s for sure; it uses the same heartbeat, the same suspense and creates a great character dynamic that some of Spielberg’s films have used. Yet it never really reaches the dizzy heights or emotions that those kinds of films hit. E.T broke your heart, The Goonies made you really care about a bunch of misfit kids, and Close Encounters left you in awe. Super 8 never gets there for me, yet that said it is still a great film and one which really does entertain me.

Abrams doesn’t just follow one Spielberg film, he amalgamates a collection of them. A group of friends: not as misfit as the Goonies but pretty close. The broken home: here the family is ripped apart by tragedy and the husband left to bring up his son in a haze of grief and loneliness. Friendships torn apart and rebuilt, romance and of course let’s not forget about the alien. The alien is along ET’s path, while it’s a bit more ferocious then ET, Abram’s alien is just as lost and alone has the little planet loving alien we all cried over (well some of us) back in the 80’s. Being held in captivity and under constant scrutiny and testing, all the alien wants to do is go home.

Once the alien escapes after the rather over-the-top yet quite spectacular train crash, the hunt is on, a town in fear, the military spinning the truth and we are back to Close Encounters. Objects going missing, strange sounds in the distance and of course we need one of the kids to go missing as well. Abram builds the tension from the train crash slowly and surely to he finally reveals his alien in all its glory. While I do like the final third of the film, the ending seems a little flat after everything which has come before it. I was just lacking a real connection to the alien, the kids or even the grieving father and son, and it just feels a nice and satisfactory end to the film, but it doesn’t really spoil it for me.

There isn’t really that much I dislike about Super 8 (except the end). It has a superb score from Michael Giacchino, some wonderful cinematography from Larry Fong and a really solid cast of kids and adults. Kyle Chandler is superb as the father, along with the gang of kids led by Joel Courtney and the wonderful Elle Fanning, they all give solid performances from a decent script. Visually the look of the film is stunning, the train crash without doubt one of my favourite scenes of the whole film. As I said Abram’s is channelling Speilberg but never really pulls it off completely but even so it’s a rather brave attempt and one of my favourite films of 2011.

by Mike Shawcross (@Shawky1969)


Rise of the Planet of the Apes

rise of the apesPlease, Mr. Jacobs! Lives are at stake! These are animals with personalities, with attachments!

I’ve written and talked extensively about my fondness for the Planet of the Apes films, book, comics, TV show and remakes. Most recently in my review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I explain a little about the time I first saw Rise of… in the cinema upon its release (coincidentally on my birthday!)

At the time, I absolutely adored it. After the terrible trailer showing apes leaping off bridges onto helicopters, I half expected a dreadful, CGI filled blockbuster with less redeeming qualities than Tim Burton’s attempt to tell Pierre Boulle’s Monkey Planet tale. However, I was pleasantly surprised as this clever little sci-fi began to carefully tell a story of an old man with dementia, a potential cure being tested on an ape (Caesar) that begins to grow in intelligence, learns to communicate and, er, leads an uprising.

I’ve since watched it a couple of more times and although that surprise is obviously no longer present, it’s still no less entertaining. It’s everything that’s required of a sci-fi blockbuster. It’s got heart, a great story, decent performances (brilliant performances in the case of Andy Serkis and John Lithgow), an epic climax and it looks utterly breathtaking.

The fact that director Rupert Wyatt and his writers got the tone so absolutely spot on that it completely fits in with the Planet of the Apes franchise, yet felt fresh and modern in a way that some of the dated original sequels don’t any more, is testament to not only their ability, but also to the source material. Quite simply, as much as I loved Conquest of and Escape from, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the best film in the series since 1968. And probably the best science fiction blockbuster released between District 9 and a certain Marvel movie a year later.

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)


The Yellow Sea

the yellow seaDon’t forget it. If you forget it, your family’s all dead.

One of my favourite Korean films is The Chaser (2008), the tale of a cop/pimp and a serial killer, which as the title suggests, has an awful lot of chasing. The team behind it, director (Na Hong-jin) and stars (Kim Yun-seok & Ha Jung-woo) team up again for The Yellow Sea. That the phenomenal The Chaser was a debut effort put The Yellow Sea top of my ‘to see list’ for 2011.

It’s a simple set up, gambling debt ridden cab driver is offered a way out of his problems……..go to Korea and kill someone. It takes a while to get going, and I can’t deny the simplistic plot is then burdened with a sub-plot about his wife and a small army of characters that you don’t care about or are just not fleshed out that well. So why do I love this film so much…?

…A good Korean gangster caper needs the following ingredients. A completely inept Police force, people being hit around the head repeatedly, ridiculous melodrama, no guns, the main protagonist being outnumbered to a ridiculous degree in fights and chase scenes and of course, close combat involving knives.

The Yellow Sea does all of this. It’s very, very stabby…..and axey….and er…large unidentified animal boney…if it can be used to beat, stab and kill people, it will be. Rivers of blood, things being chopped off, lots of screaming and of course….lots of chasing. This is to The Chaser, what The Raid 2 was to The Raid. All the fun of the first film is there, but they’ve shoe-horned in a proper film too.

I’ve seen this 3 times, this was my first look at the slimmed down directors cut for US audiences. I still don’t understand a lot of it, but you can’t help but enjoy spending time with the main characters, and that alone made this my favourite film of 2011.

by Paul Field (@pafster)


Le Havre

le havreYou don’t deserve such a good wife. You’re not worth her.” “No-one is, so I’ll do.

Written and directed by Aki Kaurismaki, Le Havre is a wonderfully karmic comedy drama set in the titular French port.

Marcel Marx is a financially struggling shoeshine who comes across a young Gabonese boy desperately trying to hide. The shipping container he and his compatriots stowed away had been delayed & diverted from its intended destination of London and opened by heavily armed immigration authorities. The boy, Idrissa, is the only member of the party to make a bolt for the door and get away.

The film follows Marcel’s struggles to help the boy evade capture and make his escape across the Channel to join his mother in London.

They face numerous obstacles; Marcel’s wife’s seemingly terminal illness, the media frenzy about immigration issues, the government authorities’ high profile crack down and the local police have Marcel marked down as chief suspect.

Those familiar with Kaurismaki’s work will recognise many of his signature touches. It’s a simple story about the basic, human decency of ordinary people. All his usual trademarks are present, the constant cigarette smoking, the dog, the importance of music and the wonderfully wry, deadpan humour.

One of the most interesting characters is Monet, the local Inspector. His morals and motives are far from obvious, you are kept guessing right to the end of the film. His encounters with Marcel are so uncomfortable. Is he speaking “Off Duty”, as he claims? Is he genuinely warning Marcel that the net is closing in out of compassion? Or is he slyly trying to wheedle out information by putting Marcel at ease? He brings to mind a slower moving, morose version of Columbo. Hardly surprising, as both are clearly inspired by Dostoevsky’s Porfiry Petrovich.

A highlight, maybe not entirely for the right reasons, is the Charity Concert performance of French recording artist Little Bob, making a cameo appearance. Imagine an elderly Ewok dressed in 1980’s biker leathers and you’re on the right lines.

The only slight disappointment in the whole film is the performance of Kati Outinen as Marcel’s wife Arletty. A truly superb actress, she is somewhat restricted by her character’s illness, but this is still far from the level of performance she’s given in any of Kaurismaki’s other films.

A hugely enjoyable film, with compassion and decency as its main themes.

by Liam (@ElmoreLTM)


Five films there that span a few different genres and continents but are all equally as excellent as each other, I’m sure you’ll agree. Or, maybe you don’t agree and think we’ve erroneously overlooked an obvious choice? Let us know in the comments section below. Otherwise, you’ll have to stew in your own angry juices until we return next week with five of our favourite films released in 2012.

London Film Festival Part II: Revenge Of The Festival

It’s not often I turn to a complete stranger (I am a Londoner, after all) and whisper, “I’ve only eaten free Green & Black’s chocolate and baked goods from Costa all week.  I think I’m dying”.  It’s even rarer for this opening gambit to elicit a sympathetic smile and a “I know what you mean” in response.  Such is the emotional state we are to be reduced to in the home stretch of the 58th London Film Festival, the busiest I have ever seen.  After all, I am seeing a mere 13 films (not including shorts) in 6 days; other, hardier souls have been trapped in Leicester Square for the full twelve.

15-6-4930.JPGSo, my long weekend begins with Love is Strange – a feature which came to my attention when the MPAA rated it R for no fucking reason whatsoever apart from the fact that it’s about a gay couple.  I like John Lithgow, I love Alfred Molina, so this was a no-brainer to catch.  And it doesn’t disappoint – the sweet tale of a couple who have been together for nearly forty years – but are only now finally able to formalise their union – at times threatens to tip into sentimentality, but manages to teeter away at the right times.  It’s a simple tale of what happens when a couple are forced to live apart through no fault of their own, and the pressures this puts on their family ties.  It’s light on story but makes up for it with excellent performances; Molina and Lithgow you would expect, but also from Marisa Tomei, who shines as the slightly spoilt writer who eventually finds a sudden intrusion into her family life too much to bear.

On to the next film, a Norwegian comedy (!) 1001 Grams.  This was a complete wildcard as I just liked the description in the brochure and it is also Norway’s official submission to the Best Foreign Film category at next year’s Oscars.  It starts off brightly enough – a young scientist attends a Parisian conference on the actual weight of a kilo, which apparently depends on many factors, such as whether the weight in question has been touched or not.  But that one slight joke tries to sustain a whole film, and when it realises that it won’t stretch far enough, it throws in a tragedy and a forced love interest to try and shore things up.  The problem was, I ended up not caring for these shoehorned plot points, and just a few days later I can barely remember anything about the film.  Definitely one of the more forgettable experiences of the festival.

On then, to The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.  Or, to give the film its full title, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, for this is an edited version of two full length sides of a marriage in crisis, Him and Her.  Thus, in his debut feature-length film, director Ned Benson does what Quentin Tarantino has never been able to – swallow his pride and edit together two films to form a perfectly coherent and satisfying single feature.  And it is wholly satisfying; a surprisingly stellar cast including James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, William Hurt, Ciarán Hinds and an excellent Bill Hader elevate what could have been a sappy mess into a parable about what happens when you don’t communicate in a long-term relationship (this and Gone Girl would make an excellent first date double-bill for sadists, I feel).  Well-plotted and with some surprises along the way, I left feeling like I actually wanted to watch the Him and Her versions as well, and I will seek them out when they arrive on Netflix.  Side notes: I met James McAvoy here and he was lovely.  I can be cool around famous people for about 5 seconds.

The next day – Saturday – brought a few surprises.  Going in, I was not sure what to expect from any of the three films I was watching that day.  And given that they included the new film from Michael Winterbottom and an Aussie action-comedy starring Simon Pegg, I did not expect the film that I would still be thinking about even now to be a drama about gangland Brixton.

honeytrap-002Honeytrap is loosely based on true events; centred on Layla, a recent immigrant from Tobago who comes to live with her mother on a council estate in south London.  Immediately she feels out of place – her mother (who seems to have got thoroughly used to not being a parent in Layla’s absence) can’t or won’t buy her any new clothes to replace the ones she has grown out of, so she steals outfits to fit in with the other girls.  This desperation to be accepted seems to pay off when she is eyed up by a hot local rapper, but the attention soon turns into something much darker.  Director Rebecca Johnson has spent 10 years working with youngsters in Brixton, making films with them, and it shows – there is an easy naturalism to every performance (she told me that only the main players actually went through a casting process – many were picked from the estates she has been working on for a long time) which makes the inevitable denouement much worse.  Only when it’s far too late does Layla realise the consequences of her action; she (and we) can only watch in horror as the inevitable denouement plays out before our eyes and the situation spirals away from her, out of her control.  It’s a horrifying, powerful film that I can imagine being shown as a vital part of the schools curriculum, and one that I would urge everyone to watch if possible – this is British talent at its best, in front of and behind the camera.

So perhaps a little unfairly, I went into The Face of an Angel expecting great things.  Directed by Michael Winterbottom and “loosely” based around the murder of British student Meredith Kercher, the film does not directly address the murder but rather the media reaction to it.  This is done by using the rather clever framing device of focusing on a filmmaker, Thomas (Daniel Brühl, watchable as ever) as he researches the murder in order to, well, make a film about it.  The problem with using Thomas as a framing device is, he should never really be the focus of the story; he should be presenting another way of thinking about it.  And although the films starts this way – Thomas hammers home the point that everyone is obsessed with the alleged murderers but they forget someone actually died – by the time a Return of the King-esque stream of apparent endings comes along, he does become the focus, and the film loses its way.  This is more of a lament of the media, complete with the obligatory caricatures – the slimy Daily Mail journo who embellishes his stories, the American who holds court in the cafe waiting for the actual courts to make up their mind, the local expert.  Winterbottom’s goal here is clearly to hold up a mirror to these people, and to let us all know that they should be under scrutiny as well as the accused.  But the sad truth is, they wouldn’t exist if we did not want to know every seedy detail in cases such as these.  Inevitably, no-one ends up very likeable in the film – except for Cara Delevingne’s character Melanie, who is a bouncy, cheerful English student.  But ultimately you don’t feel like she is relevant to the story in any way.

simon_pegg_kriv_stenders_kill_me_three_timesFinally on Friday night, an Aussie comedy (!) about a hitman, Kill Me Three Times.  Except it’s not really about the hitman (played by Simon Pegg), although I don’t blame the distributors at all for selling the film that way in the UK. Rather it’s about an elaborate revenge plot/insurance plot spun three different ways, which ends up going awry, as all the best plots do.  It’s pretty smart for an action comedy and did conjure up memories of Grosse Point Blank at times (Pegg did say in the Q&A afterwards that Martin Blank is his favourite on-screen assassin), albeit played out against stunning Australian scenery.  You won’t remember much about it when it’s over, but it’s an entertaining ride for an hour and a half, and the action is enjoyably messy.

Sunday, the final day, brings a certain melancholy and simultaneous relief over everyone – the poor girl introducing Carol Morley at the screening of The Killing in Hackney looks like she is about to keel over.  Which is appropriate, seeing as a main theme in The Falling is exactly that – Abbie, a promiscuous young student at a girl’s school in the 1960s, falls pregnant and starts to suffer from fainting and fits.  Soon enough her group of friends all come down with this mysterious affliction, with less reason.  I was a big fan of Morley’s previous feature, Dreams of a Life – an excellent documentary about a woman who lay dead in her flat for three years – but this failed to ignite any interest in me whatsoever.  The highlight is an excellent performance by Maxine Peake as the agoraphobic mother of one of the girls (played by Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones – sometimes decent, but sometimes quite wooden).  The film does pick up towards the end, but unfortunately the denouement needs more development beforehand to sustain it, and it never quite gets there.

And finally, the last film of the festival altogether, Fury.  I have a feeling that we will go into this more in this week’s podcast, but as a personal note I thought the performances were excellent, even though the film as a whole doesn’t quite reach the heights of great war films.  The revelation for me was Shia LaBeouf, playing a meaty role thoughtfully (although to be perfectly honest, I have never seen him in anything outside Transformers and Indiana Jones, and I’d prefer to forget both of them).  If this is where being a bit “kooky” gets him, then more power to his elbow.

Thanks for reading, and see you next year.

*faints*

BFI London Film Festival 2014 Preview

It’s that time of year again – the bathroom light has to go on in the morning, loads of good American TV shows start again, and Christmas tat is starting to appear in the shops. Yes, autumn is on the way, and with it comes the 58th London Film Festival.

by Carole Petts (@DeathByJigsaws)

lff14My initial reaction to this year’s line-up – once I had grumbled about the member’s launch being a day later than the press launch, rendering it invalid for the most part – was how many big names are missing. No room for The Theory of Everything, St Vincent (the film, not the singer), or The Equalizer; all making their Toronto debuts this week. But scratching beneath the surface yields some treasure.

First up, let’s deal with the obvious contenders. I am looking forward to Foxcatcher very much – directed by Bennett Miller of Capote and Moneyball, the film stars Steve Carrell in a rare serious role alongside Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo. Loosely based on a true story, the film follows the struggle between two wrestling champion brothers (Tatum and Ruffalo) which takes a sinister turn with the arrival of a mysterious benefactor (Carrell). Foxcatcher received stellar notices when it premiered in Cannes earlier this year and has also been prominently mentioned in early Oscar buzz. Other big hitters include The Imitation Game, the long-awaited Alan Turing biopic which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the tortured mathematical genius, and Fury, a World War 2 film from David Ayer (End of Watch) starring Brad Pitt. These open and close the festival respectively, and will be shown at cinemas across the country in tandem with their gala screenings. Mr Turner features an already award-winning performance by Timothy Spall as the titular JMW Turner, and LFF also hosts the directorial debut of Jon Stewart – Rosewater is the story of an Iranian journalist covering the country’s political unrest in 2009 who gets on the wrong side of the establishment.

Gala screenings I am looking forward to include The Salvation, a Danish western (!) starring Mads Mikkelsen and, bizarrely, Eric Cantona; Whiplash, a story about the relationship between a musical prodigy and his virtuoso teacher which is audaciously structured like a thriller; and The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom, a wuxia starring Fan Bingbing as a witch fighting to free people from tyranny during the end of the Ming Dynasty.

the immitation game

In the official competition, the film that stands out is Dearest – the story of a couple whose lives are turned upside down when their son goes missing. One of the most eagerly anticipated films in the first feature competition is ’71, set in the streets of Belfast during the titular year and starring Jack O’Connell (Starred Up) as a wet behind the ears squaddie dispatched to keep the peace.

The documentary strand has yielded some interesting prospects. There are familiar subjects in Hockey: A Life in Pictures, National Gallery, and The Possibilities Are Endless (the story of Edwyn Collins after his stroke), and a step into the unknown with In The Basement – a film about what Austrians do – yes! – in their basements. The love strand has one particular film of interest to me – Love is Strange, starring John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a couple forced to leave their apartment separately. This film has gathered some notoriety in the States for being rated R for no apparent reason, apart from its central relationship being a homosexual one.night bus

1001 Grams is an intriguing-looking slice of dark humour, and Night Bus explores the sometimes intimate, sometimes scary, but always intriguing world of the London night bus (shout out to route N1). A Hard Day is described as a neo-noir slice of Korean cinema, following a policeman who is having a really bad day. The follow-up to Monsters, Monsters: Dark Continent, had more creatures in the trailer than in the whole of the previous film put together, so that bodes well. There are also restored classic films scattered throughout the programme, from Orwell’s Animal Farm to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Guys and Dolls. And of course, the legendary shorts programmes are back, spanning all strands and giving you plenty of bang for your buck.

So although at first glance the line-up looks a bit light, a proper dissection of the schedule reveals that there is something for everyone here. The beauty of LFF has always lain in taking a chance and seeing something you would never normally buy a ticket for. I think this year will see a return to that essence for many people.

We will of course be bringing you reviews and diary entries during the festival itself, so don’t forget to check back between 8-19 October 2014 for more articles! You can find a full line up of what’s showing at the LFF 2014 on the BFI website.

Shrek

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

shrek 2This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary.  To mark the occasion, 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.


05] Shrek (18th May 2001)

Budget: $60 million

Gross: $484,409,218

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 88%

What can I say about Shrek that hasn’t already been said and that won’t just dissolve into hyperbole?  See, everybody knows Shrek.  Everybody knows the impact that it had on Western Feature-Length Animation for almost a full decade, everybody knows just how much to the forefront it brought stunt casting to the medium, everybody knows how it signalled the switch to an all CG format for these films, everybody knows the lyrics to “All Star” by Smash Mouth.  Shrek is one of those films that everybody knows, and that makes it rather difficult for me to talk about.  I don’t want to just sit here and regurgitate facts at you, but I don’t want to resort to hyperbole and overstate the film’s importance like, let’s face it, it is very easy to do.  So, instead, I am going to have to go the dull route this time and explain the joke, explain why Shrek works and why it was seen as a major breath of fresh air at the time.  I know, that means I have to turn into That Guy, but a nice bit of perspective is good every once in a while.  Plus, it may be able to help contextualise why the next two DreamWorks films didn’t do so well and why everybody, including the company itself, would spend the following decade making shallow rip-offs of the winning formula.

First, however, a clarification, Shrek is not the saviour of Western Feature-Length Animation.  1999 may have been a dreadful year for animation, as we already discussed, and 2000 honestly wasn’t much better, but 2001 was not too bad, most likely down to the relative lack of releases.  Yes, there were bombs, most notoriously the live-action/animation hybrid Osmosis Jones and the photo-realistic CG spectacle known as Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, but there were several unqualified successes.  Recess: School’s Out quadrupled its budget thanks to the large popularity of the show at the time, Atlantis: The Lost Empire significantly underperformed but still managed to turn an OK profit, Richard Linklater’s experimental Waking Life somehow managed to take $2.5 million, Monsters, Inc. became one of the year’s highest grossing films, and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius was so successful that Nickelodeon were able to spin a full-fledged franchise out of the thing.  Shrek was not an anomaly, is what I’m getting at.

It was, however, and this cannot be overstated, a full-on box-office phenomenon.  It opened to $42 million, a ridiculous opening for an animated film that didn’t have a company with the kind of marketable goodwill that Pixar had with Toy Story.  It did not stay at the top for Week 2, due to Pearl Harbor, but it did something far better than Pearl Harbor: it gained money.  Not a lot over the three day weekend, 0.3%, but the full-on four day Memorial Day weekend saw a 30% increase over the opening weekend takings.  No, this simply does not happen to films that open that big; that’s the power that Shrek held at the time.  It only started making serious slides down the chart when Atlantis showed up and, even then, it gave as good as it got, actually beating Atlantis on the pair’s last appearance in the top 10.  Domestically, it actually beat Monsters, Inc. overall for the year.  You can overstate its importance in the animated landscape, you cannot overstate its box office dominance.

So, why?  Why was Shrek such a major success?  Why did it connect with audiences in a way that most non-Pixar films weren’t?  Well, honestly, it’s due to a multitude of factors but only one of them was taken away by people, both viewers and executives who noted the film’s success, who saw the film, the most tangible element: its edge.

Now, to say that Disney films are toothless and aimed at the youngest is a major misnomer.  You want an animated film that’s toothless and aimed at only the youngest, go and watch The Quest For Camelot.  However, Disney films are sentimental, very much so, and are prone to trying to water down the darker or more adult elements of their stories with comic relief sidekicks for the kids, primarily of the talking animal variety.  Mushu, Terk, Timon & Pumbaa, all the way back to the seven dwarves.  Regardless of whether you like them or not (and they are often some of the best parts of their movies in the best instances), their mere existence can scream to most people, “Look!  Funny cartoon for kids!”  And Disney films are romantic to a fault, especially their early work, with tales as old as time of brave, dashing princes saving fair, kind-hearted young maidens from whatever evil befalls them, of true love at first sight, magic and all that fancy, wonderful stuff.  They were on their way of at least toning down the overtness of this formula, and this obviously wasn’t the formula for everything they did, but it still wasn’t really enough.  Their films were still a bit too sentimental, too younger-skewing, too “safe”.  The fact that most other competitors were more focussed on attempting to emulate Disney’s style than come up with a voice of their own probably didn’t help matters.  Times had changed and the public needed something different.  Something with edge.

Cue the opening of Shrek.

I mean, sure, it looks tame and childish and petulant and toilet-humour and, well, that’s because it is, but for the time this was quite revelatory.  This was DreamWorks Animation throwing down the gauntlet.  “This is our film!  We’re not like those Disney films!  We’re not going to romanticise anything!  Here’s a real protagonist, he’s ugly and he farts and he’s as far removed from your typical clean-cut hero as we can get!”  Again, edge.  Sledgehammer-subtle satire and open digs at Jeffrey Katzenberg’s old company.  The film is littered with these: the Duloc welcome machine, the design of Duloc looking like it was rejected from Disneyland, Princess Fiona’s continued assertions that her rescue is all wrong, the Robin Hood song being rather disturbing in content and quickly cut off because we are a film in the 21st century and musicals are sooo last century man, waterboarding the Gingerbread Man, there’s an extended Matrix reference because this was 2001 and we were just close enough to the end of Spaced’s second series (the cut-off point for this stuff) to not be completely sick of Matrix references yet…   Most of these achieve the desired effect of “parody” and “satire” barely, the best instances coming up with actual jokes or character work (you get no surprises for guessing what one element of Fiona’s character arc is) instead of just pointing at them and going “That’s a dumb thing for poo-poo heads!”  There are a lot more of the former than I was expecting, it’s just that a lot of it has aged really poorly; satire that curiously and possibly ironically carries the same toothless easy safeness that its target applies to telling actual stories.

Yet, at the time, it worked, possibly due to that broadness and occasional childishness, because that allowed everybody to get it and have everyone feel like they were part of this big taboo thing.  Although the film wasn’t really doing anything particularly edgy and risky, toilet humour and digs at Disney aren’t exactly hard to come by nowadays and I suspect they weren’t back then either, people lapped it up because it looked risky, it looked edgy.  They were insulting Disney and making a whole bunch of fart, burp and poop gags!  You simply didn’t openly insult that sacred cow on film or show that stuff in feature-length animation because, well, nobody else has done those things before to our knowledge so it must not be OK!  It’s like when you first watch an escapologist on a stage show in a locked water tank.  He’s not really in any danger cos he’s done this trick a million times before and there’s a highly trained rescue crew all set in case anything does go wrong, but you’ve never seen the trick before and the sheer audacity has you on the edge of your seat wondering if they can get away with it.

Plus, the constant piss-taking of the nature of fairy tales and especially their sappiness seems rather hypocritical when the film, in its final third, turns into a straight fairy tale, just with non-conventionally attractive characters.  I mean, it was obviously coming from frame one, but it’s the way that it mocks certain tropes (ones that it’s not using for character development, like Shrek’s belief that fairy tales are a bunch of bullcrap) but then goes ahead and plays them straight in the finale anyway.  A lot is made out of Fiona’s agency in the first two-thirds, how she may be overly attached to the romantic storybook nature of fairy tales but is still strong, capable, more of a tomboy than she first appears and frequently acts like a woman willing to take charge and drive proceedings, but then the plot entirely hangs around whether she’ll be saved from the evil man by her true love, Shrek.  She even spends the finale being easily restrained by the villains despite having previously had an entire sequence that showed her effortlessly wiping the floor with a group of the exact same size.

So, edge is predominately seen as the reason why Shrek was a runaway mega-success.  You may claim different, but it’s what countless lesser imitations took from it and it’s why Donkey became the thing that practically every kid was quoting on every playground for a good while after.  Like it or not, toilet humour connects with kids and jokes aimed squarely at parents, often around mocking how terrible the kind of dreck they’re often forced to sit through is, connects with them too.  It was the tangible “something different” that audiences could latch onto, the edge.  So, naturally, that’s what everybody ran with, the fact that it had an attitude.  Except that, well, that’s not the reason why Shrek works or, in fact, the reason why it was so successful.  See, edge on its own, with nothing to back it up or off-set it, is just off-putting; an entire film of just Shrek pointing at fairy tale tropes and sugarcoating and the like and smugly going “Heh!  Look at those squares with their baby stories!  We’re too cool and grown-up for that sh*t!  Now here’s a fart joke!  *fart*!” would be insufferable and likely have turned away the mass public it ended up courting.  In that case, what’s the real reason why Shrek succeeded to the extent that it did?

Well, let’s look at a few more surface-level and tangible things before we ensnare the real reason in our grasp.  For one, you cannot fault the marketing.  You’ve seen the trailer that was embedded earlier in this piece.  Hell, you’ve seen the trailers for the films in every one of these articles so far.  Regardless of what you think of the film it’s advertising, you have to admit, from an objective standpoint, it’s a fantastic trailer.  It’s got laughs, it sells the premise easily, the cast is clearly marketed because apparently such a thing really does drag people who wouldn’t normally see this stuff into the cinema, and it has a clear target audience in mind.  Allow me to put it to you this way: compare that with the trailer for Titan A.E., or the trailer for Atlantis: The Lost Empire, or hell even the trailer for The Emperor’s New Groove.  Again, we’re not rating the films, we’re rating the effectiveness of their marketing campaigns.  Also, and yes it really must be said, the fact that Shrek was CG probably helped get a lot of initial butts in seats.  You may scoff, but do you think anybody would have seen Dinosaur or Jimmy Neutron without that New Technological Advancement Smell (see also: films that inexplicably made a bucketful more of money post-Avatar than they would have because they too came with alternative 3D viewing modes) coming off of them?  Plus, Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz were at the top of their box office games when this was released, for whatever that’s all worth.

But this is all getting away from the real reason why Shrek was such a runaway success and why it still, to a degree, works today.  Of course, the film itself wouldn’t admit to it if you showed it to it, it’d probably derisively laugh and snidely quip about how that’s so yesterday daddy-o or something.  And, perhaps surprising no-one, it’s the element that all of the desperate imitators that cropped up in Shrek’s aftermath (you have no idea how much my soul cried upon seeing Disney’s Chicken Little when I was younger, you really don’t) chose to ignore.  Nonetheless, it’s the reason why the film works and it’s really quite a basic one.  See, strip away the CGI, the well-done marketing campaign, the stunt casting, the toilet humour, the Dance Party Ending and the “satirical” and “edgy” humour, and you find filmmaking basics: great character work and a tonne of heart.  That’s it.  That’s the secret ingredient.

I’m not kidding.  This film is at its best when it wears its heart on its sleeve and feeds its humour through character work or genuine heart instead of just “for-the-hell-of-it”.  For all of the opening’s pomp and circumstance, the edgy-but-not-too-edgy Smash Mouth soundtrack and the extensive sequence of Shrek showering himself in muck, the little character beat that best sells the character of Shrek is a blink-and-you’ll-miss it little cue near the end when he spots the villagers coming to hunt him and he just sighs and shakes his head before heading off to do his ogre thing.  In that one little action, likely missed by most people, the personal conflict that appears in Shrek’s arc, his preference for being alone but in actuality craving some kind of acceptance, is conveyed.  It’s why the onion thing works, too.  It’s not just an easily quotable scene that’s rendered funny by the rapport and delivery of Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers, it gets across Shrek’s desire to be looked upon as more than just an ogre in his jerkier form; note how the stargazing scene that he and Donkey share later on basically touches upon the same things but in a softer way, more reflective of how he’s warmed to Donkey even if he won’t admit to it.

The character work is why the fact that our four lead characters are played by major and recognisable Hollywood actors isn’t an issue.  See, unlike, say, Shark Tale (we will get to that thing, believe me), everyone in Shrek is playing a character instead of themselves.  Donkey may be a very Eddie Murphy character, but he has his own identifiable character, arc and traits that are obviously distinguishable from Murphy.  He delivers his lines in a way that is unmistakably Eddie Murphy, but he’s still playing Donkey, if that makes sense.  The same is true of Mike Myers, the same is true of Cameron Diaz, the same is true of John Lithgow.  It’s not just stunt casting because they’re big name stars (although, considering the fact that she is by far the weakest of the bunch, one could still level that complaint at Cameron Diaz), it feels like they were picked because they honestly were the best for the job.  Mike Myers, especially, commits 100% to making Shrek a character instead of a thinly-disguised Mike Myers self-insert or something; the decision to have the character speak in a Scottish accent came from him and, according to Kaztenberg, caused $4 million worth of animation to be thrown away in order to fix the lip-syncing caused by the change.  Of course, seeing as that Scottish accent so perfectly embodies the character of Shrek in this film, I have a feeling that few people minded in the end.

Shrek, though, is always at its best when it wears its heart on its sleeve.  Because it does have a heart, a great big mushy one not unlike the fairy tales it spends a lot of its runtime openly flipping metaphorical birds at.  See, when you get right down to it, this is a film about sad lonely characters outcast by society for their various physical deformities and eccentricities forming friendships and relationships with one another based on that shared lack of acceptance.  It’s why the film’s turn in the last third into a straight fairy tale, whilst admittedly a bit hypocritical seeing as it spent the prior 60 minutes snobbily scoffing at their continued existence, works, because it believes in the characters.  It loves the characters, it wants to give them that fairy tale ending because it truly cares for them, and we sit there and go, “Yep, story checks out,” because it let that heart break through early on and its total taking over of the picture doesn’t feel false.  That middle 30 minute stretch with Fiona, and most specifically the montage set to an admittedly on-the-nose choice of Eels song (in fact, let’s not beat around the bush, all of the film’s song choices, whilst mostly great, are so on-the-nose it makes The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty’s sound cues look subtle by comparison), is what makes the curse twist and what makes an otherwise super on-the-nose “Hallelujah”-backed montage carry genuine emotional resonance instead of ringing false.

But the heart isn’t just limited to the obvious moments and arcs, it informs some of the film’s best gags and scenes.  For every Matrix reference just because, for every open mockery of Disney (which, again, really has not aged well at all), there are gags and scenes that have had heart and effort put into them.  Think of the Magic Mirror The Dating Game riff.  On the one hand, yeah, it comes out of nowhere and is a clear reference to dating game shows.  But, on the other hand, it’s a different spin on the exposition dump that princess back-stories in these types of films are usually saddled with.  It dresses up the trope in fancy new clothing, making what once was rote, boring and obvious now fast, funny and interesting.  There’s a genuine reason for it being here and, barring one awfully-misguided gag about Snow White (and, no, this is not the last time that I will call out a Shrek film for going too far joke-wise), it retains a respect for the characters it ensnares.  The fight scene in Duloc’s palace is funny for its wrestling references and there is something basely funny about an old woman screaming for someone to “Give him the chair!” but, again, it works on character and heart-based levels.  It’s not just a wrestling scene just because, like Fiona’s Matrix sequence ends up, it helps foster Shrek and Donkey’s relationship and gives Shrek his first taste of public acceptance, igniting the need he didn’t think he had.  Likewise, the plight of the fairy tale creatures, their persecution and occasional torture, is nearly always portrayed sympathetically.  Yes, there is something inherently funny on seeing a legless Gingerbread Man begging to keep his gumdrop buttons, but the film is always on his side and isn’t just doing it for the laughs and cruelty.

That is why Shrek works.  Strip away the still pretty-decent CG (the strong character designs are what carry it through comparatively stiff animation), the all-star cast, the pop song soundtrack, the double-coding of gags (incidentally, the recurring “Do you think he’s compensating for something?” line in relation for Farquad’s castle is an example of double-coding done right), the “satire” and the “edge”, and what you have left are strong characters and a tonne of heart, the cornerstone of most great films worth their salt and what Disney were still putting out at the time of Shrek’s release.  But, of course, most people take those things for granted and look for the more obvious and tangible elements to praise instead.  Admittedly, they’re not totally wrong, the attitude, “edginess” and CGI are what made Shrek unique and are likely a large reason for its success, we do like to have our classic stories and tropes dressed-up in newer clothing after all.  But they’re not the reason why the film works, they’re not the reason why people kept coming back to the cinema for eight full weeks, they’re not the reason why the film won the 2001 Annie Award for Best Film and the first ever Best Animated Feature Oscar, and they’re not the reason why the film still works 13 years on and well after viewing #30 (yes, I was a kid and mainlined the VHS and DVD at the time).  Shrek works because it remembered that edge does not equal a substitute for strong characters and a giant beating heart at its centre.

Unfortunately for most of the 2000s, it’s a shame that nobody else really seemed to figure that out.


Shrek changed pretty much everything, but it would take a while for its effects to be fully felt and for anyone to be able to capitalise on the major impression that Shrek made on the pop culture and Western Feature-Length Animation landscapes (animation lead times, and all).  In the meanwhile, DreamWorks Animation still had two traditionally-animated films to burn through… unfortunately, they ended up being released in the worst possible time for that form of the medium.  Over the next two weeks, we’ll chart the fall of traditional animation in Western Feature-Length Animation, beginning with 2002’s Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron.

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

Callum Petch ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Santa Claus: The Movie (based on a true story)

santa claus the movie mcdonaldsThis month is the last December we’ll get with our daughter before we have to introduce her to the web of lies that is Father Christmas. This troubles me.

I don’t remember learning about his existence, nor do I recall the big discovery that he was fake. I know that I used to leave him a mince pie and a beer (my dad’s idea) before I went to bed on the 24th. But, as far back as I remember, I also know I spent the preceding week searching the house for presents (my mum’s wardrobe, far left corner). I think, for me, it was always just a nice idea. I wasn’t particularly intent on grilling my parents for details. I gathered the particulars from a pop-up book version of The Night Before Christmas and my annual viewing of this film. A very specific trio of Christmas Eve traditions was watching this, followed by a trip into town to see the lights, and eating the best part of a box of Neapolitans chocolates. Long before I ever had to worry about maintaining any kind of elaborate ruse to my kids, while drunk on brandy. They were undoubtedly simpler times.

Santa Claus: The Movie provides a potted history of the red robed gift giver, from the initial recruitment process through to the perils of modern day consumerism. Santa was hired in the 14th century by Gandalf, to distribute toys to the world’s children. It was his wife (who eventually retires to become Onslow’s missus) and not the Coca-Cola Company who decided his suit should be red. And he communicates by letter so effectively he puts the Royal Mail to shame.

We join the Claus family in the 1980s, when they are plagued by improved childhood literacy rates and the subsequent increase in demand. It is decreed that Santa should get an assistant, some 600 years after he started the job. Two elves, Patch and Puffy, compete in an Apprentice style production challenge in order to win the coveted sidekick role. Dudley Moore‘s Patch is an ambitious entrepreneur, who has big plans to revolutionise the North Pole set up. With sweatshops, mainly. His overzealous output of shoddy goods sees him summarily fired, and exiled to New York.

New York, which is mainly represented by an enormous McDonalds, is also home to ruthless toy tycoon B.Z. (John Lithgow), whose hatred of kids is such that he stuffs his teddy bears full of sand and chunks of glass just because he can. A disgruntled Patch and B.Z. launch a hostile takeover bid on Christmas, and are somehow thwarted by an incessantly hungry homeless kid called Joe, a dozen pretty wussy reindeer, and the brilliantly named Cornelia, who is unashamedly eighties and has the pink sweatshirt with red diamond elbow patches to prove it.

Santa Claus The Movie is a pretty bold title, for a film which puts a disgraced elf and an unsavoury businessman in top billing. Though the big beardy does feature heavily and, if you’re looking to educate your offspring on this vicious and all-encompassing deception, then you could do a lot worse. Among other things you will learn that the word ‘yo’ makes reindeer fly, that a little snitch named Sarah Foster and her precious cat instigated the whole naughty and nice thing. Oh, and that Santa has been known to let random kids move into the North Pole for eleven months of the year, with little in the way of parent/guardian knowledge or consent. But that’s ok, because they have a school teacher.

Don’t have nightmares.

Watch Santa Claus The Movie on Friday 21 December (3:10pm ITV3) and Christmas Eve (6:55am ITV3). Or read the 12 Days of Christmas Films so far.