Welcome to another episode of the Failed Critics Podcast. This one is actually being published within a reasonable amount of time since the recording. Aren’t we spoiling you, eh!
“If a fire causes a stampede to the unmarked exits, it’ll have been well worth it for those who survive.”
How do you tell the story of one of the most famous tech minds in living memory without making it a complete bore? This was pretty much the question that pushed me to watch Steve Jobs. I mean, he was an interesting guy, with an interesting story, if you’re into that kind of thing; but to spend two hours watching a film about the man that made Apple the brand so many of us rely on today doesn’t sound like an interesting prospect to me.
As it turns out, there are a few ways that you make the film interesting. First and most importantly, you give Aaron Sorkin a copy of Jobs’ biography and let one of the greatest screenwriters working today have a go at bringing one of the greatest salesmen to ever live to the big screen. Secondly, and this one both surprised and impressed me, make the conscious decision to not make a biopic and instead focus on making a drama that just happens to be about the Apple co-founder. Finally, do something original, something a little different to make people stop and take notice and think “OK, that could be… worth a look”, and I admit I fell for this one hook, line and sinker as the film takes the thing we all knew Jobs from, his marketing presentations, and makes them the focus of our time with the man.
Made into three very distinct acts, Steve Jobs is set in the moments before three of these presentations. While not necessarily the most famous of his endeavours, we spend time with Jobs before the announcements of some of Apple’s most important, and the tech genius’ most significant, product launches. Beginning in 1984 with the introduction of the first Macintosh computer, the machine that was to usher in a new era for the company and refresh the look of the already dated Apple 2. We meet Michael Fassbender’s titular Jobs as he is fighting to make his demonstration model do what he promised it would do mere minutes before he is due to show it off. The pressure mounts as Steve is forced to deal with confrontations with his friend and company co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), his boss John Sculley (Sorkin veteran Jeff Daniels) and former girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterstone).
The confrontations are still going strong into 1988’s NeXT education focussed computer announcement and continue on for more than a decade to the groundbreaking iMac announcement in 1998 as the visionary’s personal and private lives both reach critical mass at the end of the 90’s. Between the daughter he refuses to acknowledge as his own to the friend he refuses to cut loose, Steve’s personal life can’t help but get in the way and force his focus elsewhere whilst he’s trying to prepare for these life changing events. Knowing an appearance from management can only spell bad things, the arrival of Sculley to play the part of Jobs’ boss can only make matters worse. With each presentation the personal stakes are increased and the business pressure is ramped up for the salesman who can’t seem to get five minutes to catch his breath and take stock of what’s going on around him.
The thing about Steve Jobs: The Movie is that even after several attempts, I can’t write a synopsis that sounds interesting. It’s next to impossible to make a film about a guy who sold computers sound like it’s going to be worth your time. But, as it would turn out, it’s very, very good. It’s a great tag-team of spectacular direction from Danny Boyle – those that know me know how much it hurts me to say that – and first rate writing from Aaron Sorkin.
Honestly, I think the boldest move that Trainspotting director Boyle made was to cast a film full of real life people, most of them still alive, with a cast of actors that look nothing like the people they are portraying and then NOT put a few inches of makeup on to make them look like the famous people they are acting like. Boyle took top notch actors, for the most part, and instead of making the film about how much someone looks like someone else, he let the script do the talking and let the stories be told to the audience by the world class group of guys on the screen.
And “world class” is right. Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of the much loved tech salesman is pure genius, making the role his own as he angrily storms around in the back halls of his audience filled battlegrounds. So convincing is his depiction of the Apple innovator that by the time we get to see him in his now iconic jeans and black turtleneck, we no longer care that he looks nothing like his inspiration; he is Steve Jobs. His now legendary presentations are marred by his inability to cultivate a friendly personal relationship; opting instead for jumping straight to hostility and while that may not have been the ideal way to go about conversations with co-workers, managers and a young girl whom you refuse to admit is yours, it certainly makes for compelling viewing. At Jobs’ side through this entire endeavour is Joanna Hoffman, Steve’s confidant and closest friend and she is the only person that Steve trusts when everything else seem to be falling apart around him. With Kate Winslet in the role that is so important to the subject and the film, an awful lot rests on her shoulders with the fine line between very close friend and something more than that being danced along gracefully by a woman that deserves a supporting actress nod for her efforts here.
With Jeff Daniels and Seth Rogen rounding off the cast, with both seamlessly falling into their respective roles, I honestly couldn’t think of a negative thing to say about the choices made in casting if I tried. Daniels’ portrayal of John Sculley, the CEO of Apple and the man responsible for most of the second half of the film, is flawless, seemingly having been in training for Sorkin’s script for three years with his work in the writer’s most recent TV escapade, Newsroom. Similarly, Rogen’s role of Apple co-founder and less famous version of Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, was an interesting choice for both director and actor but it definitely paid off. Having taken a few ideas, and maybe some tips, from buddy Jonah Hill – a guy who cut his teeth with serious films recently with an Oscar nominated real life person role in Moneyball – Rogan’s “Woz” is a splendid one. A man whose bond with Jobs let him get away with so much, but having been scorned one too many times by the marketer that he simply loses his cool is played effortlessly and convincingly by a man most famous for making silly stoner type comedies.
Getting to take a look at how Steve Jobs was in the earlier years of Apple is a real treat and Danny Boyle has done a splendid job of giving us a glimpse of the man’s life through the eyes of those that simultaneously loved and despised him and while the performances are all amazing and each of those representing the real life people responsible for some of the greatest technological advances in recent memory are putting in an amazing amount of work.
The real standout of this show is, as I expected it to be, the writing. I’ve been a fan of Aaron Sorkin’s work for as long as I can remember and I don’t think he’s ever written a dud paragraph in his life. In his second movie where he gets to spend some time with the tech sector, Sorkin proves that he is still best-in-breed with his Steve Jobs script. And whilst the film may be a two hour lesson in Sorkin’s walk-and-talk theatre, it’s a damn good one, and one I can wholeheartedly recommend.
A step-up from Divergent, if nothing else, Insurgent still isn’t compelling or really any good.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
I can remember nothing about Divergent. I remember that it was terrible and boring, and that a character in it voluntarily calls himself “Four” which makes any scene in which somebody calls out to him resemble that of an overly emotional balloted deli counter, but I don’t remember any specifics about the film. I couldn’t tell you any character names besides Tris and Four – and, look, I’m sorry, I really did try taking his name seriously this time, but I just can’t, I can’t – I couldn’t tell you any plot points, I couldn’t tell you any personality traits of any of the characters, I couldn’t tell you anything that happened in the finale that, direct quote from my review, “is practically the film ticking off the last free spots on its [genre] bingo card in quick succession”. Nothing.
That, I think, might be the biggest problem with Divergent. It’s a bad boring movie, but it is so utterly blandly forgettable that I cannot remember a single damn thing about it besides its bizarrely strong cast and the feeling of having had my time wasted. It didn’t even have the decency to be interestingly or entertainingly bad, with the exception of the ridiculous and mostly inexplicable nature of the Faction system that its world is based around, because it was too busy blandly cribbing from every single successful, and even some of the non-successful, Young Adult franchise ever in the hopes that money will magically fall from the sky and into the studio and filmmakers’ laps. Unfortunately for all, it did (sorta) and so now here’s Insurgent, soon to be followed by Allegiant, Parts 1 & 2 because, hey, why not also steal the “unnecessarily split your last book into two separate films for twice the cash money” part too, eh?
Actually, I’m being unnecessarily mean. If nothing else, Insurgent is a far better movie than Divergent ever was. Where that movie plodded and dragged onwards with no end in sight, Insurgent moves with some semblance of a pace and clearly builds to a logical end game that doesn’t feel like it takes multiple goddamn days to reach. The scope expands – which stretches the already thin narrative credibility to beyond breaking point – which managed to keep me somewhat engaged, even whilst the film mostly just loops back on itself constantly, and with the exceptions of Kate Winslet – who was already checked out in the first film and who is acted off the screen by Ansel Elgort in a sentence I never thought I would ever type – and Shailene Woodley – whose patience for this series visibly drains the further into the film we get – the cast is still trying their damndest to make the crap they’re given work.
I mean, it’s still not a good film, I cannot make that more abundantly clear, but it’s not offensively boring, this time. You know when you’re watching something on TV and you’re not bored but you’re also not completely engaged? Like, you don’t connect emotionally in the slightest with what’s going on and you’re really not bothered about what happens, but you also have absolutely no urge to change the channel or check your phone excessively or what have you? That’s the level that Insurgent is operating on, which is at least a step up from Divergent’s mind-numbing boringness, even though it’s got so little going on and is spread so narratively thin that it’s basically the final third of Divergent that was withheld because DOLLA DOLLA BILLS, Y’ALL!!
The big problem, the thing that continues to kill this series the further along it goes because it becomes more and more apparent, with its refusal to even attempt fixing it feeling even more like a deliberate act of pure laziness, is that Insurgent still has no characters. None of its cast have any definable personalities, nobody goes on any real arc, and most beings (which is the best way that I can describe these lumps of mould) have no consistency at all. Characters hot-foot between allegiances as the plot demands with no adequate explanation, many characters are excessively angsty for no particular reason, and the finale of the film occurs as if Tris is being told off-camera in-universe that she needs to do something real stupid because otherwise the film won’t have an ending.
It’s all best encompassed by Tris herself, our nominal protagonist, who is less a character and more a blank slate who has a whole bunch of emotional problems that the story’s target audience might have thrown onto her. Unlike, say, Katniss Everdeen, Tris’ near-total lack of agency, with the exception of maybe two instances late on in the film, has no narrative or thematic reason other than lazy-ass storytelling, that only serves to call attention to the fact that I have no idea what she wants or who she is as a person outside of the plot pushing her forward. I have spent two films and nearly 4 and a half hours in her company and I still have absolutely no idea what makes her tick or what makes her so special – the film’s constant repetition of “She is the one! The special one!” feels more and more like attempted indoctrination the further and further on it goes.
She is a cipher, nothing more. This is especially problematic as the final third of the film, which is where Insurgent’s big and incredibly cheap-looking CG action sequences reside, is all about her working through her emotional baggage, her insecurities and fears. Not one moment of it resonates, though, because it’s all artificial, conflict thrown onto a character without any true grounding through prior character work or actions. Tris has survivor’s guilt from the last film but it only manifests when the specific sequence of film calls for it, compared to Katniss’ survivor’s guilt which informs her entire character, ditto her desire to not be Divergent and “special” which literally only comes up in one extremely ham-fisted sequence during the film’s first climax before being unceremoniously punted off-screen.
When a character does manage to make an impression, it’s either down to themselves being the equivalent of Saturday morning cartoon villains – Miles Teller, who is better than Hollywood, has a noticeable blast indulging his inner-Draco Malfoy, whilst Sam Worthington Jai Courtney is well-cast as an entertainingly smug prick that the film shuffles off Stage Left way too early – or the actors and actresses just happening to be actors and actresses who have inexplicably decided that this is where they want to pick up their paycheques for a year or two – notable newcomers this time are Daniel Dae Kim as the leader of Candour, Naomi Watts as the leader of the Factionless and also Four’s long-thought dead mother (because OF COURSE), and Octavia Spencer who is the leader of Amity and is third-billed despite being on-screen for about 428 seconds max. Otherwise, it’s just people-shaped husks doing stuff that’s apparently important but that I never once truly cared about.
Incidentally, if you’re coming to Insurgent in search of more of that sweet insipid stupidity that powered Divergent, then you will get more than your money’s worth by the finale. It’s the kind of finale that purports to explain things, specifically why The City is ran in the idiotic faction system and why the Divergents are such a big deal, but doesn’t actually explain anything, instead offering the illusion that answers and explanations are being given whilst actually skirting around everything in favour of a separate reveal that is unbelievably stupid.
It also poses the exact opposite problem of Divergent’s ending: where that left more loose ends than a police corruption investigation headed by a corrupt cop, this one leaves no loose ends. This is An Ending, in the most definite sense one can manage, where everything is tied up and there is really nothing else to do. The final shot of the film even does what should have been done in the finale of the first film, for crying out loud! Like, I do not know where Allegiant could go for barely 2 minutes, let alone two 2 hour films! I also can’t really say I’m excited by this prospect either cos, well, I really don’t care about any of these non-entities masquerading as characters that I’m supposedly supposed to give a crap about. So, all we’re really going to be doing is coming back to line Summit Entertainment’s pockets with even more cashola.
Again, I don’t strongly dislike Insurgent. It’s OK. In its best moments, I could sit and pretend like I was watching a better Young Adult adaptation or sci-fi film – Teller’s Malfoy impression calling to mind Harry Potter, Tris’ occasional extremely unconvincing (can we launch a Kickstarter to rescue a genuinely miserable-looking Shailene Woodley from this franchise, please) rage against the machine reminding me that Mockingjay, Part 2 is out in just 8 too-long months, the simulations being a bargain-basement Matrix – than this Frankenstein’s Monster of a series, and shaving off 20 minutes and having a clear end goal does wonders for the film’s pacing. However, the plotting is still a mess, the world is still stupid, and there are still no characters, which makes being emotionally invested in anything that goes on a completely fruitless endeavour.
It’s a baby step forward and nothing more, is what I’m getting at. Making the presentation less drearily dull without actually fixing the underlying problems that caused that symptom. The equivalent of putting a child’s Band-Aid over a gaping shotgun wound. The Divergent Series still has given no adequate reason as to why it should exist, other than to give some studio execs, a seemingly creatively-bankrupt novelist, and otherwise talented actors a nice large steady paycheque for four-or-so years, and Insurgent gives no evidence of that changing any time soon.
But, hey, I wasn’t bored stiff this time. That’s progress, I guess?
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
This 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.
Budget: $149 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 75%
I hated Flushed Away.
As a 12 year-old kid in 2006, I hated Flushed Away. I was there opening weekend, with my dad and brother in tow, sold on the fact that it was Aardman and that Aardman had never done me wrong before. I was hyped, I was ready, and I was left feeling dissatisfied and confused. I did not like Flushed Away and I had no idea why. The whole film felt off, it felt wrong, it didn’t feel like Aardman. Let’s not forget, I was going off of DreamWorks films at the time and, though I was about to enter my stupid teenager phase where one rejects everything they loved as a child out of hand (because they are stupid teenagers), their joints with Aardman were the only confident signs I had of them putting out quality during this winding down period in our relationship.
And I didn’t like Flushed Away. But it was Aardman! Aardman aren’t supposed to make bad stuff, with the exception of Angry Kid! That confusion and disappointment stuck with me. It stuck with me for a real long time. It festered and festered, until it manifested itself as full-blown hate. There may have been good elements to Flushed Away, but the sheer level of disappointment that the film had visited upon me had completely crushed those elements. Therefore, I was absolutely dreading this part of the retrospective, exactly as much as I was Shark Tale (OK, maybe not, but close). Expectations were low, I had never really gotten over the film the first time, and this series is only 1 month removed from the commonly accepted nadir period of DreamWorks Animation.
So… I strongly dislike Flushed Away. I don’t hate it anymore, the pain has finally subsided, I’ve come to terms with my grief, and I managed to have some fun with it because it’s not a bad film or anything, but I still very much dislike it. The reason why is basically the same as the reason why I hated it when I was young and impressionable. Flushed Away feels like DreamWorks trying to make an Aardman film, or Aardman trying to make a DreamWorks film, take your pick. Considering how much the two companies allegedly butted heads with one another during production, which represented the final straw in relations between the pair, I’m not surprised that the film feels that way. For example, this was supposed to be a pirate-based film, but DreamWorks nixed the idea believing back in 2001 that pirate movies didn’t sell (although Aardman would get to make their pirate movie after all, but we’ll get to that shortly).
Yet, at the time, not a single credited writer on the film is actually affiliated with DreamWorks. Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, for example, were responsible for The Likely Lads franchise, many episodes of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and the entirety of Porridge. Simon Nye, the film’s other credited writer, was responsible for Men Behaving Badly. Yet the whole film feels so… American, like 27 DreamWorks execs were all crowding around each writer’s shoulder micro-managing every line for maximum commercial appeal. As such, there’s this awkward compromise between the cheap, easy, toilet and pop-culture obsessed humour of DreamWorks films and the witty, clever, pun-focussed, heart-felt and quintessentially British humour of Aardman productions, where the latter is done as cynically as one can manage and where the former vastly overshadows the latter to such a lowbrow degree.
The film making said incredibly American view of England, by having the villain be heavily obsessed with tacky British predominately royal memorabilia, really doesn’t help proceedings. It instead marks them out with a giant arrow of “Look! British things! Y’know? Fish and chips, World Cup, broad working-class accents, ‘ello ‘ello, Benny Hill and all that!” It feels insulting, references that broad, that obvious, the equivalent of a Yank thinking that all of England is exactly like the London they read about in a particularly useless encyclopaedia from the mid-1970s. Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run were similarly classically British, but they felt more genuine because the films weren’t stopping every five seconds to show off their British credentials.
Case in point, the moment where Roddy realises that Sid will ruin his solitary bachelor lifestyle if he hangs around is backed by, of all sodding things, “Yakety Sax”. Why? Who knows; the incredibly short daydream sequence doesn’t seem to reference any part of any Benny Hill sketch, the show that basically appropriated that track for its own ends. It’s just there because a funny music cue was required, for some reason, and since this is supposed to be a British film we should pick the most British song available! To be honest, I’m pretty sure the only reason why there isn’t a bonding sequence between Roddy and Rita set to “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” is because rights to songs by The Beatles are really bloody expensive. It’s all so cringeworthy.
Speaking of, music cues in Flushed Away are primarily of the licensed variety, another creative choice that reeks of studio interference from upon high (note how nearly every important scene in both Shrek movies covered so far has been backed by licensed music). Roddy’s trip down the loo to the sewer is backed by “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” by JET because the song sounds cool to soundtrack scenes to, although anybody who actually knows the song and tries to get caught up in it will be driven mad by the awkward editing to keep it at some instrumental part. There’s a chase set to “Bohemian Like You”, again seemingly because it’s a cool song to soundtrack scenes to. They are, I’m not disputing that, but the score is perfectly serviceable in and of itself and, again, their inclusion doesn’t have any reason beyond being cool songs to back things with (there’s none of the irony or joke-enhancing choices present in Pirates!’ usage of punk, ska and Flight Of The Conchords).
Well, unless they’re sung by the film’s most obvious comic relief, The Slugs. See, unlike with Wallace & Gromit, which kept the appearance and usage of the bunnies to a minimum lest they run the risk of becoming this, Flushed Away keeps forcing in a group of slugs purely for the kids to laugh at. They always just happen to be hanging around somewhere for a quick gag involving their high-pitch screams or Alvin & The Chipmunks singing of pop songs. Also unlike the bunnies, they feel really shoehorned in, like one of said 27 execs noticed that the script didn’t have enough pop culture references or kid-exclusive gags and that must be rectified ASAP! They only do the pop song thing twice, the other two times they do original compositions (which are eeeeehhh… “Ice Cold Rita” has Hugh Jackman singing going for it, but that’s about it), but they both feel incredibly unnecessary and a scene in which a group of slugs sing “Mr. Lonely” is going to feel like it’s going out of my way to annoy me, regardless of whether it runs for 30 seconds or 10 minutes.
When I keep mentioning “broad” in service of describing the humour, I mean that it’s lowest common denominator stuff. Extended fart and burp jokes – which Wallace & Gromit also indulged in once or twice, admittedly – toilet humour in the literal and figurative sense, pop culture references where a thing is presented to you and you are expected to laugh due to recognising it – like a moment where the character voiced by Hugh Jackman tries to decide between wearing an Elvis Presley suit or a Wolverine suit – even extending to frequent, frequent cameos and references to past Aardman productions, to the point where it starts to feel less like little Easter eggs for more attentive and knowledgeable viewers and more like blatantly calling out their much better works to excuse what we’re watching. “Look! We made Wallace & Gromit! DreamWorks made all these films! We’re not normally this sub-par, honest!”
The puns, meanwhile, the bread and butter of many an Aardman production, feel really cynically calculated rather than genuine. A groaner of a bad pun can still elicit laughs if the person who is writing or delivering the pun is completely sincere in their telling of it; this is why Curse Of The Were-Rabbit is a near-non-stop gag-fest. Flushed Away’s puns, by contrast, feel… forced. Again, the majority of the film feels like DreamWorks trying to make an Aardman film but not getting why Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit worked. So you get threatening mob bosses telling their goons to put people “on ice” and then we find out that he means literally freezing them in an ice machine, followed by the even worse “prepare to meet your maker, your ice maker!” But they just end up landing with loud notable thuds instead of laughter-in-spite-of-oneself.
At least they’re not lazy, though. A surprising number of the gags here are extremely easy and very lazily delivered. Le Frog and his ninja frog henchmen are all walking French stereotypes and whilst you can make those jokes funny, as Muppets Most Wanted proved this year and which this film manages to do once, here they just feel like yet another “Oh, look! We’re British! We get British customs! Look at how British we are!” Roddy’s fall from Toad’s lair involves not one unfortunate crotch shot, not two unfortunate crotch shots, but four unfortunate crotch shots, one straight after the other for about 20 seconds of film time; a gag the film does again later on but with slightly different parameters. There’s a brief bit of random uncomfortable racism where Roddy accidentally dials a Chinese takeout and his attempts at communicating his situation are, thanks to the operator’s accent, hi-lariously misinterpreted as ordering Chinese food. It’s all just so cheap.
And yet this film cost $149 million to make! Not that all of that made it into the finished film, you understand. The constant re-writes and do-overs ended up inflating the budget to nearly twice the combined budgets of Chicken Run and Curse Of The Were-Rabbit. There was an initial trailer that predominately showed Roddy having hamster man-servants named Gilbert and Sullivan, only for them to be dropped totally in the final film. Of course, this isn’t a problem in and of itself, I almost guarantee you that every animated film undergoes some giant fundamental change at some point during its production, but the film does such a poor job at hiding that. The central story dynamic remains about the same throughout, think a gender-swapped version of “Common People” by Pulp played straight, but everything else is a giant mess.
For example, Toad honestly feels kinda pointless to overall proceedings or, at least, as the big overall villain. As somebody who needs to pair Rita and Roddy together and drive the opening segment of the film, he makes sense. As somebody who becomes a big overall villain who wishes to wipe out the entirety of the sewer so that we can have our big action finale? No, he doesn’t, especially since said finale feels entirely rudimentary instead of earned and its existence requires the heroes to be unbelievably wilfully stupid. The main emotional centre of the film, the burgeoning respect and all-but-explicitly-stated romance of Roddy and Rita, also feels false. I never really bought it, that derogatory “Common People” comparison sticking with me a lot, and I never really found Roddy or Rita to be particularly interesting or consistent characters – Roddy flits back and forth schizophrenically between out-of-his-depth and try-too-hard-suave, whilst Rita spends all of her time talking tough but needing immediate rescue and help whenever action kicks off like a female Scrappy Doo.
As for the animation, which one would think I was OK with seeing as I’ve spent forever tearing into the script and neglecting it, it hasn’t aged well. I appreciate the attempt to recreate the Aardman claymation style in CGI, to try and keep the house style, but a hell of a lot of the enterprise, Up-Top especially, now looks like an even lower-quality version of the graphics used to power Telltale Games’ Wallace & Gromit series. Character models clearly try and recall the handmade plasticine models that became the Aardman calling card, but the bodies move too fluidly for the purposefully cut-and-replace mouth movements to gel with. Rita, Roddy and Sid also look way too human. In fact, let’s not beat around the bush, all of the cast look way too human, to such an extent that the good rats may as well just be human. This technique would work if it were primarily limited to Roddy – him being an upper class pet, it would make sense for him to have humanlike movements – but everybody does it, to such an extent that they may as well just be human.
I get why Aardman chose to go CG. The story takes place in a sewer, that requires a lot of water, you do not expose clay figurines to water, that is a stupid idea. But considering the film we have, one that feels less like Aardman and more like a very sub-standard DreamWorks film, I can’t help but feel like it was yet another demand from upon high by the overlords at DreamWorks. A desire to standardise even further, homogenise a unique voice in search of the more lucrative general audiences, and seeing as the script has received the sufficient amount of corporate retooling why not extend it to the whole style of animation too? I know that that didn’t happen, but it still makes a tonne of sense considering the film Flushed Away ended up as.
To its credit, Flushed Away is still Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, comfortably at that. Many reviewers threw around lines like “Best Animated Film Of The Year”, although 2006 wasn’t really a good year for animated film in Empire’s defence. Many reviews were still relatively soft in the praise department, though; one even noting that “the Aardman magic is missing.” And then there were the negative reviews, more than Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit combined; many lamenting the loud broad nature of the film, the generic nature of the film itself, the extreme anthropomorphism of its cast, and the fact that it was set in a sewer because The Guardian can be really unprofessional with its reviews a lot of the time (a little something to remember next time you want to take me to task for my review of Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’Movie). For the first time, Aardman looked human to a lot of critics.
Financially… well, the film was doomed to failure as soon as its budget swelled to $100 million, the highest grossing Aardman film is still Chicken Run ($224 million) and a film isn’t considered a success until it has doubled its budget. Nevertheless, Flushed Away marched ahead to a noble failure anyway. The film debuted in third in America, behind a limited release Borat and a wide-release The Santa Clause 3 (side note: Santa Clause 3 happened, folks). Paramount execs (DreamWorks’ new distribution partners, let’s not forget) tried to spin that as a surpassing of the expectations and therefore a good thing, but the arrival of Happy Feet in Week 3 and Flushed Away’s resultant descent into oblivion more than likely put pay to that. Overseas, the film performed strongly, particularly in France and Aardman’s native Britain, enough to get the film technically in the black, but the film still caused DreamWorks to ultimately take a $109 million write-down due to its near-total failure domestically.
So, the film was a failure, it didn’t knock every critic for six, and it took a giant bath at the box office. Combine these factors with the termination of their contract with DreamWorks, and the very public television failures of Creature Comforts USA and Chop Socky Chooks, and one could be forgiven for thinking at the time that Flushed Away was like some kind of Grim Reaper herald for Aardman. That’s a pretty big tailspin to pull out of, after all. Fortunately, as evidenced by the fact that we have a Shaun The Sheep movie due from them in a few months’ time, things managed to turn around for the company after making that breakaway.
For starters, in 2007, they found a new partner for feature-filmmaking, in the shape of Sony Pictures Animation (who, if Hotel Transylvania 2 and Genndy Tartakovsky’s Popeye end up as successful as I think they will be, are about to become a major known player in this field). They even renewed their contract with them in 2010 – although they seem to be on their own again for Shaun The Sheep after production on Pirates! ended up more than a little troubled. In 2011, they returned to the all-CG way of doing things with Arthur Christmas and, this time, managed to earn critical acclaim and a relatively decent profit. Then, in 2012, Aardman finally got to make their pirate movie, in the shape of The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! That too received critical acclaim, although an apparently bowlderised US edit and a release date quite literally the week before The Avengers meant that its box office gross was underwhelming.
So though they may struggle to reap giant financial rewards, Aardman have clearly gotten their mojo back since their “amicable” split from DreamWorks. More importantly, you watch either Arthur Christmas or The Pirates! and one can clearly get the sense that Aardman are getting to make the films that they want to make again. Those films are quintessentially British in a way that doesn’t involve them having to loudly announce and restate that fact every five minutes in the broadest and most obvious way possible, like we’ll run it out of town if it doesn’t have sufficient British credentials. Those films have a heart and soul that makes their puns and ridiculously silly humour charming and endearing instead of boring and annoying. Those films are clearly made for the filmmaker’s artistic benefit instead of aiming for the widest possible audience.
In other words, they’re everything that Flushed Away is not. Again, I don’t hate Flushed Away, I found enough funny sequences (especially the “he’s gonna steal your boat” exchange and the frog mime) to feel like I wasn’t wasting my time, but it is an awkward attempt to marry two distinct styles and identities that don’t gel well with one another. It doesn’t feel like an Aardman film, and it’s not a very good DreamWorks film, so the result is just the worst of both worlds, coupled with the disappointment of it being a sub-par Aardman film.
Investors in DreamWorks Animation were likely spending a lot of 2006 scratching their heads. Not only had the company’s two films for the year underperformed, they had managed to drive away the part of their company that was capable of bringing in critical acclaim. Many investors, more than likely, were getting nervous. Had DreamWorks already lost it? Was their investment for nothing? Then Shrek The Third happened and, like all sequels to still-lucrative properties, set everyone who was focussed on the bottom-line’s minds at ease. Next week, in our final instalment before a week’s hiatus, we take a look at the moment where I all but cut the cord with the company.
A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!
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Labor Day is a saccharinely sweet, obnoxiously earnest piece of unromantic romantic tripe from a filmmaker who both can do better and is good enough to keep this from being truly awful.
by Callum Petch
Jason Reitman had an unblemished track record. He burst onto the feature film scene with 2005’s darkly hilarious Thank You For Smoking, followed it up with the moving and saddening (and also, for pretty much everyone except me, funny) Juno, succeeded that with the damn near masterpiece Up In The Air and then re-teamed with Diablo Cody for the subversive and real Young Adult. His films near-expertly juggled comedy and drama, presented lovable or relatable or, at the very least, entertaining and interesting characters and, and this is something that a lot of filmmakers seem to have forgotten how to do these days so it’s worth pointing out, he knew how to craft excellent endings. That unblemished track record was no joke, you could pretty much guarantee quality if you turned up to a Jason Reitman film.
The usage of the past tense in that previous paragraph is not an oversight on my part. See, Jason Reitman had that unblemished track record. Unfortunately, that unblemished track record had to grow its first zit some time, show me a filmmaker who has never made a below-par film and I’ll show you a way inside Fort Knox, and that time has finally arrived for Mr. Reitman. For Labor Day, based on a bestselling and critically acclaimed 2003 romance novel of the same name (in what must have been a really slow year for decent novels, if the evidence displayed here is anything to go by), is garbage. And yet, maybe it’s a testament to the skill of Reitman as a filmmaker that my predominate thought when leaving the cinema was not “that was dreadful and offensive sh*te” but instead “well, that could have been a lot worse”.
So our story is set in 1987 and we follow mother and son Adele (Kate Winslet who, if Divergent does end up as bad as it looks, is not having a great start to 2014) and Henry (Gattlin Griffith and, yes, that is his actual name, I checked). Adele has been suffering from depression, seemingly because her husband (Clark Gregg) left her but actually because of really stupid and misguided reasons, and this renders her practically incapable of leaving the house. Henry tries as best he can to make her happier, but it’s not working and he’s at a loss as to how to make things better.
Enter Frank (Josh Brolin, who I think has officially used up all of the goodwill he earned in 2007 & 2008 by this point), an escaped convict who was thrown in jail for murder that he insists is way more complicated than it sounds except that, no, it really is not. He forces Adele and Henry to shelter him at their place from the cops whilst his wounds heal over Labor Day weekend. Except that, whilst he’s recuperating, it turns out that good old Frank is actually a perfectly swell guy who fixes things up, talks politely, turns into the father figure that Henry never got, and Adele also ends up falling for him because, oh, have you seen his arms! And the way he broods! And he is just such an excellent baker! I want him inside of me, right now!
I apologise for not falling head over heels for the charms of Frank, the convicted and unrepentant murderer, but this is f*cking awful. No film relationship, no convincing and heartfelt film relationship, can or should ever begin with an escaped ex-con threatening to murder the female protagonist’s son. If you’re doing it as a complex drama, that asks you to sit and psychologically analyse the two people involved and how they would reach such a situation, a character study that never explicitly asks you to empathise with or root for those involved, go right ahead. That actually sounds really interesting; get on it, Hollywood! If you’re going to ask me to sit down and root for these two lovebirds for the course of two hours, to share in their intimacy and heartbreak and to be begging for them to somehow make it work for these crazy cats even whilst this cruel and heartless universe strives to keep them apart, I am going to snort derisively and consider you a little screwed up.
What part of this is romantic? Explain to me how any part of this scenario is supposed to get my heartstrings all tangled and tugged at. I am dying to know, here. Please, regale me with a thousand word essay on how this is comparable to Romeo And Juliet. They’re both doomed romances, because SOCIETY JUST DOESN’T UNDERSTAND THEIR LOVE, but one begins with a chance meeting at a masquerade ball and involves two people falling for each other in a love at first sight type deal, whilst the other comes into being through the combined efforts of Josh Brolin’s smoulder and Stockholm Syndrome. It’s romance written by and for people who either have had no actual experience with romance and love or have unrealistically high and stupid expectations for romance and love. None of this is the fault of Winslet or Brolin and probably not so much Reitman too, this sounds like an abysmal launch point of material and they’re all trying really hard to make it work, but they’re putting in doomed efforts. The material isn’t romantic and, quite honestly, it’s kinda repulsive.
Not once did I buy into the affection that the pair shared for one another. Frank never seems to have a reason for why he’s so taken to Adele and Adele’s entire reasoning as to why she’s fallen for Frank can basically be boiled down to “she’s damaged goods” thanks to a horrifically misguided and melodramatic late-game reveal as to why she’s so depressed. I’m not saying that the plot point itself is the thing that should be off-limits, I am saying that it needs to be handled way better than it was here and, preferably, not used as provocative fuel for a romance weepy. And as for Frank, the convicted and unrepentant murderer? The film teases what he did by randomly strewing short, near-wordless flashbacks to his past throughout the film even though anybody who is aware that this is a romance film will have gathered what it is in about five seconds. Then the reveal comes and the film practically bends over backwards to make Frank seem totally justified, all but openly inviting viewers to join in in shouting “YEAH, TAKE THAT, B*TCH! YOU GOT WHAT WAS COMING TO YOU!” Funnily enough, I did not take this bait.
And yet, I can’t muster up the energy or the passion to maul Labor Day to pieces. Maker knows I have tried, repugnant stuff is being peddled here under the pretence of “Aw! Look at the couple in all the love! All the love! So much love!” But I can’t and that’s because the film is too competently made and too earnest for me to get angry at. It’s not like 300: Rise of an Empire where it’s sneaking by a lot of problematic subtext without even realising it because it’s competently made, and it’s not like A New York Winter’s Tale where it totally fails as a film on every basic level. No, this is a film that knows exactly what it’s doing and is completely sincere in what it is peddling in that decently-constructed product. And it’s that sincerity that makes it hard for me to get angry at this film.
Even when Henry stupidly engages the shifty-looking stranger with the bleeding wound in the store instead of running away (seriously, it’s not like Frank has him cornered, Henry all but walks up to and talks to the guy); even when Frank ties up Adele and feeds her tinned tomatoes, both in a manner that, yes, is supposed to represent sexual feelings being exchanged; even when Frank leads the pair through the steps of how to bake a nice pear pie in a sequence that would be more fitting a Saturday morning cooking show; even when the film trots out a mentally disabled and physically crippled child whose mother beats him when he gets on her nerves; even when the film juxtaposes Frank and Adele’s romance with Henry’s own sexual awakening and his growing closeness to The Most Annoying And Precocious Fictional Girl of 2014 So Far; and even when the film’s romance fully kicks in and asks us to root for their planned run for the border, I couldn’t get mad. I couldn’t elicit any strong emotions either way.
It’s all so… nice and pleasant. The film equivalent of wallpaper. I would have said the film equivalent of a nice warm hug except that a] I reserve that phrase for usage in reference to Studio Ghibli productions only and b] that would insinuate that I was touched by this film at some point. I wasn’t. I was mostly bored but I could at least appreciate the well-done technical side of the proceedings. The end sequence before the extended denouement is genuinely tense for a while (well, until stupid stuff resolve or complicate things), Rolfe Kent scores most of the film like a suspense drama instead of a romance flick which, if nothing else, adds a different spin to this kind of film than I’m used to, it’s very lovingly shot, Reitman keeps the pace from feeling languid, even if it never fully managed to excite or engage me and all of the cast are alright if not particularly great (the exception being Gattlin Griffith, who is just plain atrocious and could give Twilight-era Kristen Stewart a run for her money in the Dull Surprise stakes). If the romance at its centre was not predicated on f*cking Stockholm Syndrome, and instead on something, you know, romantic, I would give this a mild pass as a decent timewaster, even if it is rather dull.
But I keep coming back to that premise and I just can’t get over it. It’s not romantic and the film can’t compensate for the lack of romance in that premise by injecting some believability into proceedings, instead resorting to tired and manipulative melodrama. Here are three people who fall in love because the woman likes the way he smoulders, the man likes the way she loves him for his smoulder and the son loves him for being a man and stuff… despite the fact that the man coerced them into hiding his murdering arse from the police and repeatedly threatens to kill them if he is exposed. I’ve been racking my brains trying to figure out exactly why 300: Rise of an Empire’s misogyny and racism irked me into a ball of white hot rage despite it being well-made disposable nonsense and yet this, with its toxic romanticising of murderers and escaped convicts and damaged women who need a good smouldering man to repair them, can barely get me to shrug my shoulders in disgust, but I’ve still yet to figure it out.
The best reason I’ve got right now is simply the fact that Labor Day is so well made that I can’t really feel the need to get exasperated about it or anything. It’s so well made, that if the romance at its centre were predicated on almost literally anything else, and even if the execution of that new romance was still as unconvincing and mediocrely done as it is right now, I’d probably be giving it a mild recommendation. But it’s not, and that’s what sinks the film. It’s not enough to get mad and angry and hollering and hooting in rage, but it’s not decent enough to be worth your time despite the premise. Jason Reitman has finally got a black mark on his directorial record. Let’s hope it’s his last for a long while.