Tag Archives: Nicholas Cage

London Film Festival 2016: Day 11

LION

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

So, now that the structure of having daily press screenings in a morning and afternoon has been taken away from me, allow me to tear down the glamourous artifice of the London Film Festival and explain to you how Rush Tickets work.  Now, at a film festival, there are a lot of films being shown throughout the 12 day period, 245 to be precise, both big and small.  Many of them play opposite one another at different venues, and the smaller films can often be dwarfed by the bigger ones.  This means that there can be a surplus of films with unsold tickets that aren’t being snapped up at the usual festival prices – which range from a standard film ticket in London, read: a lot, to the price of a 3 course meal back home, read: a hell of a lot.  As a result, these tickets will be re-sold as Rush Tickets where, 45 minutes before a film, audiences can queue up to buy these tickets at a significantly reduced price, letting them take a chance on films they may otherwise have avoided.

How does this affect film critics?  Well, as critics, we get special press and industry screenings separate from public screenings, so we can see many of these films before everyone else.  If we want to get into public screenings for whatever reason, mainly due to scheduling ensuring that we missed the press screening, we can do so through one of two methods.  The first involves putting in for a set-aside press ticket two days beforehand, guaranteeing you a screening if it’s approved, but these come with the risk of having your requests and choices approved or denied seemingly at random with no explanation, so you may only get your 3rd or 4th choice if you even get one at all.  The second is to head to the Press & Delegate booth at the cinema screening the film about 15 minutes beforehand and trying to blag a spare ticket that way, but these come with the caveat of the cinema only handing these out if the film isn’t busy, as they understandably prioritise paying customers over your vulture-like self, and you may turn up too late to just buy a ticket like everyone else.

Dev Patel and Rooney Mara star in LIONPhoto: Mark Rogers

There’s a lack of permanence or certainty to getting into public screenings, basically, which is why I’ve been quietly dreading this final weekend as somebody who likes having guaranteed structure.  It’s also why I didn’t trust my nerves and instincts enough to hold out for a leftover free ticket for Lion (Grade: C- (barely)), and instead plonked down £16 cash money for the privilege of watching a textbook example of Weinstein Oscar Bait.  Unlike with, as previously mentioned for example, costume dramas, my cynicism alarms do go a-blaring whenever a film that I’m about to watch, especially one released around this time of the year, has The Weinstein Company in its studio credits, home of the most blatant and cynically-calculated Oscar Bait around.

Take a drink whenever you spot an awards-movie cliché in this synopsis: based on a true story, Lion follows Saroo (“and introducing” Sunny Pawar), a young Indian boy in a tiny village separated from his older brother and mother when he insists on tagging along for night work to help support his family.  Trapped on a discontinued train, he is spirited away to Kolkata and spends the following 2 months as a street orphan, constantly avoiding child traffickers and child molesters, before ending up in a nightmarish government centre for forgotten children and, soon after that, being adopted by a nice White Australian family (David Wenham and a spectacularly miscast Nicole Kidman).  They become his new family, along with a difficult fellow adopted brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa) who is implied to have been sexually abused prior to living with their new family – and the way the film treats and characterises him is so dreadful and offensive that I’m not going to touch it with a 10-foot pole.  20 years later, once Saroo (now Dev Patel) goes to university, he finally decides to try tracking down his former home via this new-fangled contraption known as “Google Earth.”

Bladdered yet?  Look, my problem with Lion is not that it’s clichéd, real life can oftentimes be a cliché if you’ve experienced enough stories.  No, my problem with Lion is that it is completely soulless filmmaking that has been precision-calibrated to at least rack up awards nominations, if not awards statues themselves.  Every beat and “tear-jerking” scene can be predicted right down to the second, half the movie in advance because it is far too cynically designed to distract the viewer from the artifice of it all.  There are no characters here, none whatsoever.  Saroo meets and falls in love with an American exchange student whilst at university (Rooney Mara) and she does absolutely nothing in this film beyond trying to encourage and support Saroo; we never once get a look at her wants or desires or personality or really any indicator at all that she’s not just some animatronic on a particularly weepy fairground ride.

In fact, on that subject, we never really come to learn much about Saroo, either.  What is he like outside of that desire to rediscover his home?  Why has he gone to university to study hotel management?  Hell, what was he really like as a child before he got lost, outside of the very minor glimpses in weirdly-placed flashbacks late on in the film?  Lion has no idea.  “Look at Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel!” it instead yells fruitlessly, “Aren’t they adorable and so you immediately sympathise with them and stop asking so many questions!”  Whilst, yes, Patel and Pawar both carry genuine amounts of screen charisma and expressive youthful eyes that makes you instantly sympathetic to their plight – Pawar is a genuine find, and Patel really deserves to be a Movie Star already – they are not Gods.  They can’t paper over massive holes in their characterisations, like “there not being any.”  They’re also not helped by a narrative that tries to cover every last second of Saroo’s life, consequently creating a film that undermines its own dramatic pacing every time it finally starts picking up steam with a random time-jump – the massive “20 Years Later” one at the hour mark particularly drew judgemental intakes of breath from my fellow audience members.

Yes, the ending is powerful stuff, but of course it was going to be.  You’d have to be a completely incompetent imbecile to muck up this story’s ending, and lord knows that Lion really tries to.  It just doesn’t work in the slightest, not in the first half when Saroo is wandering around India lost and alone – and manages the uncomfortable unintentional insinuation that India is a savage and unsafe place for a child in any capacity and that they all need saving by nice White families from more developed nations – and definitely not in the second half where it completely fails to make Google Earth browsing a dramatic and emotional act.  One could argue that maybe this story just isn’t suited for Film, but I’d disagree.  It’s just not suitable for this film.  If it were more focussed, crafted actual characters whose personal dramas and conflicts were treated with respect, came up with a decent structure, and was made with soul and a desire to do more than win awards and self-consciously bring attention to how much of A Good Thing everyone involved was doing by tangentially addressing A Serious Issue – never mind that Saroo never once feels like he’s in actual danger once he gets lost, thanks to some terrible directing – Lion could have been worth something.  Or it could have at least dropped the jarring Best Original Song submission by Sia from the end credits.

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Having tried twice prior to today, the third time turned out to be the charm for getting into a Women Who Kill (Grade: B+) screening, and thank heavens my luck came good this time because Women Who Kill is brilliant.  The feature directorial debut of writer Ingrid Jungermann, the film follows two women, the lesbian Morgan (Jungermann) and the bisexual Jean (Ann Carr), who used to be lovers and co-host the titular podcast together, a true crime podcast where the pair interview famous female serial killers and debate which female serial killer is the hottest.  Despite having broken up a while back, the two still do basically everything together, which is making some of their fellow lesbian friends like Alex (Shannon Patricia O’Neal) openly question if the two are finally sleeping with each other again.  But then, one day, Simone (Sheila Vand) walks into the Co-Op that Morgan works at, and Simone’s mysterious allure irresistibly draws Morgan towards her.  Everyone else, however, has their doubts about Simone, like how Simone doesn’t appear to be her actual name, how she’s very evasive about her life before moving back to New York, and how she’s bordering on the verge of psychopathic behaviour.

In essence, it’s an “is my partner a murderous psycho?” movie, albeit one executed in the drollest and most New York way possible.  There’s an undercurrent of genuine menace that Women Who Kill is able to tap into when it wants to, but it mostly doesn’t want to.  Instead, the film acts as a very dry and satirical commentary on self-involved New Yorkers.  “Yawn,” I can already hear you vocally expressing, “we already have a hundred thousand of those.”  But the film situates itself in the Now thanks to both its send-up of the recent podcast boom – Women Who Kill manages to walk the line of being just stupid enough to register as fake, but is also niche enough and self-involved enough to be somewhat believable as a potential real podcast made by 2 New York women – and by being hella gay.  Almost every character in this film is a lesbian, and that simple fact leads to a genuinely diverse cast of characters that avoid falling into the realm of reductive stereotypes thanks to that diversity of personality.

That gender and sexuality flip to a concept as well-worn as “is my partner a murderous psycho?” provides a spark of life to the film that makes it feel new and unique, a breath of fresh air in a played-out genre despite the beats being mostly what you’d expect.  The podcast part even ends up being more than just New York quirk, allowing the film to explore the idea of what we consider socially acceptable psychopathy and paranoia, and feeding that back into examining Morgan especially.  Women Who Kill is also bolstered by great performances across the board, particularly from Jungermann and especially from Vand, who some of you might remember from A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and is able to be almost equally unsettling here in an entirely different way.  It carries the same issue as the similarly delightfully-offbeat dark comedy Prevenge from earlier in the festival in that it kind of abruptly sputters out with its ending rather than climaxing spectacularly, but Women Who Kill is otherwise a really entertaining and fresh take on a worn-out premise.  A modest little treasure.

dog_eat_dog_01

The exact opposite of a modest little treasure, and a film I didn’t think I’d even be able to get into, was my final film for the day, Dog Eat Dog (Grade: D+), an incredibly loose adaptation of an Edward Bunker novel by Paul Schrader.  Once the writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and the director of American Gigolo and the 1982 version of Cat People, Schrader has been on a decades-long cold streak for a good while and Dog Eat Dog does not represent some kind of miraculous turn-around in that form.  A very nasty, disposable film about absolutely nothing at all, we follow ex-cons Troy (Nicholas Cage), Mad Dog (Willem Defoe), and Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook) as they work their way through the criminal underworld taking on low-paying jobs in the hopes of eventually making enough to escape Cleveland and fly to Hawaii or some place.  That dream may have a strong chance of turning into reality when they get one last big job to kidnap the one year-old child of a deadbeat who owes their client a hefty sum of cash, but there’s just the slight problem of all 3 of our protagonists being absolute idiots with hair-trigger tempers.

The film, meanwhile, has the slight problem of just being absolutely no fun to watch whatsoever.  There’s style coming out the wazoo – as Schrader and his filmmaking team go through every last possible transition effect, shoot a strip club sequence in black-and-white for (as Schrader himself admitted in a remarkably candid post-film Q&A) no reason whatsoever, and go overboard on the drug-trip-representation effects – but it’s all in service of a trio of incredibly unlikeable and unentertaining protagonists.  Unlikeable protagonists aren’t an inherent problem, we’re going to talk about a certain film tomorrow that I absolutely have not already seen that has nothing but unlikeable protagonists, as long as they’re interesting or entertaining enough to watch, and Dog Eat Dog’s idea of entertaining dialogue is for the f-word to be sputtered out like a machine gun throughout the whole length of the movie.  It’s all really forced and strained offensiveness – Mad Dog throwing around the n-word like it’s going out of style, sudden extreme violence and gross misogyny, the constant drug sequences – that’s both played-out and never feels genuine, which is why the film never crosses over into being a guilty pleasure in any way.

It’s what American readers might refer to as A Redbox Movie: a nasty low-budget masculine crime movie that’s too shambolically made and instantly forgettable to go to cinemas, despite having once-name actors, and so is sent straight-to-DVD to live out its days as a $5 impulse purchase or a rented movie that entertains a certain audience for as long as it lasts before being instantly discarded.  Dog Eat Dog could have used its premise to examine the criminal cycle, where ex-cons simply re-enter a life of crime once they get out because they have no other options open to them, that Bunker writes about in his novels, but instead Schrader has just created a nasty and instantly forgettable crime movie that’s just unpleasant to watch, albeit one that features Nicholas Cage busting out his best Humphrey Bogart impression for reasons that have already escaped me.  If you’re particular to seeing Cage and Defoe ham it up in bad crime movies, though, you may want to bump that score up a point or two.

Day 12: The festival draws to a close as Ben Wheatley brings Free Fire, a film I most definitely have not already watched.

Callum Petch spent a life-span with no cellmate.  You can usually find him at callumpetch.com!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

The Croods

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Last year, DreamWorks Animation celebrated its 20th anniversary.  To mark the occasion, Callum Petch has been going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment.  Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.


croods26] The Croods (22nd March 2013)

Budget: $135 million

Gross: $587,204,668

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 70%

Lilo & Stitch takes its time before revealing its heart.  Oh, sure, its appearance is obvious from pretty much the start of the film, but the true extent of its heart isn’t revealed until later into the movie, firstly disarming and softening up the audience with extremely funny comedy and then, when their guards are down, putting them through the emotional ringer.  It swings for the fences – of course it does, it’s a Disney movie, that’s what they do – but waits until such a time that the act is earned.  It’s also a flawlessly constructed film that never puts a foot wrong, contradicts itself or bends the world to the will of its protagonists, but the tone and heart reveal is still mighty important.

By contrast, How To Train Your Dragon, after its purposefully slightly chaotic opening scene, wastes no time revealing its heart.  If Lilo & Stitch hides the extent of its heart and then gradually rolls up its sleeve, How To Train Your Dragon rips off its sleeve at the outset and spends its runtime shoving it in your face screaming, “LOOK AT IT! LOOK AT MY HEART AND EMOTIONS!”  It swings for the fences from the outset over everything which makes certain scenes and gestures feel unearned because its prior swinging for the fences ends up accidentally robbing certain scenes of their impact – or, in other words, the Stoick and Hiccup stuff doesn’t work because Stoick is mostly just a one-dimensional disapproving jackass until he isn’t, which makes him insufferable until the switch and makes the switch itself ring hollow.  It’s also a problematic film that doesn’t quite work, due to it contradicting itself, bending the world to the will of its protagonist, and that certain other thing that I still can’t explain, but I know I’m in the minority on all of this.

Of these two approaches, The Croods opts for the first, which itself is a smart idea – and before I go on, I must stress that I say this because I prefer films with pacing, not because I think that all animation should be like Disney; I don’t think that.  But it also tries something different than the prior two, it rarely swings for the fences with its heart.  Oh, it still swings for the fences with its comedy, which is broad and loud and very physical in nature, but when it does reveal its giant beating heart, it’s decidedly more reserved, more understated.  There are still grand emotional gestures and BIG scenes, but in a way that doesn’t feel as pervasive as in those other two movies.

Now, of course, this might also be down to my own personal baggage.  Lilo & Stitch’s heart trades on the bond between a “pet” and their owner, and the general bond of a family regardless of how non-traditional they may be – which both worked, and still do work, gangbusters for me – whilst How To Train Your Dragon’s heart trades on the bond between a “pet” and their owner, and the approval of and bonding between a father and son – the second of which, as previously discussed in detail and thanks to personal stuff, does not work for me.  The Croods’ heart, by contrast, focusses solely on dad Grug’s attempts to protect and earn love from his family.  It doesn’t have a secondary outlet for its heart, like those other films do, especially since Eep is way less important to the film than she first appears – more on that shortly – and my general disinterest with tales about fathers and father figures in media may explain why I found the heart of this film less in-my-face than in Lilo & Stitch.

Not to say that it doesn’t work, mind.  The Croods pulls it off spectacularly well, which is why I rate the film so highly – more on that in a moment – but that’s probably why I find it more quietly moving instead of openly moving.  Looking at family through the perspective of women, and especially sisters and mother figures, touches and interests me based on my own experiences, so Lilo & Stitch’s heart piledrives me into the middle of next week.  I am a dog owner back home, so that part of How To Train Your Dragon’s heart shivs me in the gut.  But father figures have never held as much of an impact for me as I was primarily raised by my mother, so The Croods’ heart makes me warm and fuzzy but not as majorly as in those prior films.

Those of you who do not obsessively follow along to director’s credits in animated movies may be wondering why I have spent so long comparing The Croods to How To Train Your Dragon and Lilo & Stitch.  Well, each of those films share a co-writer/co-director in the shape of one Chris Sanders.  Sanders began his career as a character designer for criminally forgotten 1980s kids TV series Muppet Babies, before making the transition to Walt Disney Feature Animation during their Renaissance in the 90s, working predominately on story for The Rescuers Down Under, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast, along with helping script Mulan.  In the late-90s, Sanders was approached by then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner to direct his own film, under the provision that its budget would be lower than typical Disney fare ($80 mil for Stitch vs. $130 mil for Tarzan, for example).  Dean DeBlois would eventually be brought on to co-write and co-direct, and the results would come forth in 2002’s very successful Lilo & Stitch.

Then, however, something happened.  Sanders had started significant work on American Dog, a film about a Hollywood star dog who gets lost in the desert.  By the time that it came to screen the film to higher-up executives, control of Disney’s feature animation division had switched from Michael Eisner to Bob Iger, and ex-Pixar head John Lasseter – who, according to rumours that I can’t substantiate, was allegedly not a fan of Lilo & Stitch – was brought on as Chief Creative Officer of the studio.  These test screenings did not go well and Sanders was inundated with notes and suggestions.  According to Lasseter, Lee Unkrich, and several other animators, but not Sanders himself – he has stayed quiet on the issue – Sanders actively resisted these changes and was removed from the film.  Soon after, Sanders negotiated his release from Disney and signed onto DreamWorks.

(Because I know you’re curious: American Dog was handed over to Chris Williams of The Emperor’s New Groove and Byron Howard of Tangled, re-tooled significantly in the space of just 18 months, and released as the mild 2008 hit Bolt.)

Upon joining DreamWorks, Sanders got to work on Crood Awakenings, which itself has had a tumultuous road to being a finished product.  First announced in 2005, the film was to be another entry into DreamWorks’ five-picture deal with Aardman Animations, with a script by Racing Stripes and Quest For Camelot writer Kirk DeMicco and John Cleese.  Yes, that John Cleese.  The pair had been trying to get a film version of Roald Dhal’s The Twits made, which lead to DreamWorks getting a hold of their script and inviting the pair to work on an idea of the company’s, them both settling on the germ of an idea that would grow into The Croods.  Of course, the Aardman angle didn’t pan out – more on that in the Flushed Away entry – and the rights reverted back to DreamWorks.

Enter Chris Sanders in March of 2007.  DreamWorks’ newest signee was barely in the door and already chomping at the bit to get to work on a new film, even planning on significantly re-writing the film in question.  This was to be Sanders’ big new pet project… and then How To Train Your Dragon happened.  Prior to Sanders and DeBlois coming aboard, the project was allegedly a mess and needed a total overhaul, with Co-President for Production Bill Damaschke believing Sanders to be the best man for the job.  Sanders called in DeBlois, the duo remade and re-tooled How To Train Your Dragon in the space of a year, it received critical acclaim and financial success, and then, with DeBlois staying on Dragon duty, Sanders moved back to The Croods, with DeMicco returning to the project in a co-writer/co-director capacity.

The resulting film… is nowhere near as monumental or interesting as its journey into existence, hence the last page of content.  Isn’t it interesting to see how chaotic the world of animation can get, though?  Look, I like The Croods – I think that it’s a very funny, very well-animated, and surprisingly moving film – but there’s not really much to say about it because it doesn’t swing for the fences.  It tries to be lower-key in nearly every facet, a film that works as entertaining entertainment and not much more.  It succeeds, and I must respect a film that knows its limits and doesn’t try to be something that it’s not, but that automatically makes it the least interesting of Chris Sanders’ projects to talk about – Lilo & Stitch is an amazing movie that I could talk for hours about, How To Train Your Dragon has its conflicted push-pull nature and problematic issues that keep it from greatness which makes it interesting to talk about, The Croods… has clever character animation? Where the titular family only occasionally walk like recognisable humans, instead remaining in their less-developed Neanderthal states.

The one really interesting thing about the film that I can go into detail about is with regards to the film’s main character.  Now, going into this film, I had been led to believe that Eep, the daughter of the clan voiced by Emma Stone, was the lead character of the film.  The marketing had said so, the entire premise of the film hinged on her, and Sanders had worked with female protagonists before with Lilo & Stitch – Lilo’s arc in that film being just as vital and central to the film as Stitch’s.  I even noted The Croods down in my Monsters vs. Aliens piece as one of 11 animated films in the last decade to feature lead female protagonists that aren’t princesses (because this medium does have a gender problem).

Turns out that a severe hoodwinking has been ongoing as Eep is not the protagonist of The Croods.  Instead, she’s the perspective of The Croods, she’s how we see the family and how we’re supposed to feel about them changes as her thoughts on them change.  She provides the bookending narration speeches that animated films are overly fond of nowadays, but her arc is relatively minor – learning to not resent her father so much – and she’s shuffled back into the deck once the real narrative momentum kicks in.  She is not our protagonist.  Our protagonist is actually Grug, the Nicholas Cage voiced patriarch of the family, and his arc – where he learns that change and new are not necessarily bad things and that being overly protective is going to drive his family away from him – is the one that gets the lion’s share of the screen time.

Now, yes, I was and still am disappointed by this reveal.  Animation has a major gender problem – there’s nothing wrong with princesses as a concept, but there is something wrong when they are the only option available – and there should be more female-led and female-focussed and female-created animation out there.  Going to all of the effort of making out an animated film to be about the lead female character only to have the actual film side-line her in favour of focussing near-exclusively on the father – and the boy that she’s fascinated by and sweet on, Guy – feels like, for lack of a better phrase, a real dick move.

That being said, the stuff with Grug is really well-done, enlivened by the fact that we are encouraged to look at him primarily through Eep’s eyes.  Grug starts the film as a real irritant, a drag whose desire to protect his family crosses the line from nobly intentioned to selfishly suffocating, but he’s not solely that.  He’s capable of being funny, his tight-knit plans do help the family to survive in certain cases, and he does truly care.  But because we see him through Eep’s eyes, we also see how his intentions can be perceived by people who aren’t as fanatically devoted to him.  It keeps the viewer at that distance since, otherwise, the film runs the risk of becoming a “Father Knows Best, You Silly Women” story instead of a tale about a father learning to loosen his control on the world, accept change and tell his family every once in a while that he does truly love them.

The film commits to this too.  Grug comes further and further to the forefront as the film progresses, first becoming petty, out-of-his-element, and spiteful over the world telling him that his daughter and the new man taking charge of his family’s life are both right, before eventually softening, working through his issues, and becoming a more noble and tolerant member of the family.  Each stage corresponds to Eep’s relationship with Grug, with the tonal handling of the whole affair – first wacky comedy, then pathetic bitter alienator, awkward cringe comedy, and finally genuine heartfelt sincerity – providing a strong marker for how far along his road he is.

It all leads up to the sequence in which Grug selflessly throws the clan and Guy across the chasm, recognising that he can’t adapt and that the best thing that could happen for the family that he cares for is to sacrifice himself to save them.  That’s the moment in which The Croods reveals that it’s been buttering up the audience for a genuine emotional payoff, and it’s a legitimately moving sequence.  I was even genuinely fooled into thinking that this was the film’s endgame.  The film is building, from pretty much the outset, to some kind of grand gesture that puts Grug back into the genuine best interests of the family without suffocating them, and this seemed to be it.  I genuinely thought that we would end with Grug dead and the family making a new life for themselves in the new world, especially since there is no full-on antagonist for the film; wise move.

I mean, it obviously wasn’t going to, this is a family film after all and family animation rarely seems to want to push itself to as dark places as the medium and genre used to, but I believed it might, which is a credit to the film’s writing, pacing, and individual scene direction.  Therefore, as legitimately sweet as the final 15 minutes are, they still feel a little extraneous; the film rewarding Grug’s redemption and selfless act of kindness by reuniting him with those he values most.  Not helped, mind you, by the fact that his story offers three separate endings of varying quality for Grug before it settles on the Second Chance ending.  Again, it’s my fault for thinking that this light-hearted family comedy would end in a way that could even be remotely construed as bittersweet, but it still feels like punch-pulling.

Then again, if it had, audiences probably wouldn’t have kept coming back.  Yes, at the time when DreamWorks needed it most – mainly because of what’s to come, which we mostly won’t be covering here – The Croods was an out-of-the-box hit.  It opened to a great $43 million, comfortably beating the rest of the chart, and the typical strong DreamWorks hold – even major underperformers like Mr. Peabody & Sherman (32%), Rise of the Guardians (43.7%), and next week’s Turbo (35.5%) rarely drop more than 50% between opening and second weekends – was bolstered by a near-total lack of competition and strong audience reception, helping it to a very strong 10-week run on the Top 10.  It would close a hair’s breadth away from $190 million domestic.  Overseas, the film also did excellently, securing another $400 million, and making The Croods the ninth highest-grossing DreamWorks film worldwide.

So, why?  Why The Croods?  This is the through-line for the final leg of this series, after all; why The Croods was majorly successful and yet Turbo and Rise of the Guardians were not?  Well, much like with the film itself, the answers are pretty obvious and unspectacular, but you can’t exactly dispute what you’re seeing because, hey, they work, don’t they?  First off, the release date: end of March.  Same release date as the first How To Train Your Dragon, which worked gangbusters before and why not stake out a little patch of Chris Sanders’ own?  Plus, it was also the first proper animated film of 2013, Escape From Planet Earth came and went with almost literally no fuss a month earlier, and the next film for release, Epic by Blue Sky Pictures, wasn’t due for two full months which, in box office land, is practically an automatic monopoly for whatever did take its slot.

(Side Bar Notice, real quick: after Rise of the Guardians, DreamWorks Animation had fulfilled their contract with Paramount and, thanks to Paramount offering them a poor deal and wishing to make their own in-house animation studio, the company switched distributors to 20th Century Fox, where The Croods was distributed.  20th Century Fox also own Blue Sky, makers of Epic, so this release date will have been strategically determined and deliberated on majorly for a long, long time.  In fact, with the exception of next week’s Turbo, one can’t really foot the blame on DreamWorks’ underperformance with release dates, Fox have been really good to them with that.  Anyways…)

Second off, marketing.  If you haven’t yet, scroll back up and watch the first trailer for this film.  Yes, it recalls the tone of How To Train Your Dragon, but the tone of How To Train Your Dragon is also markedly different to anything DreamWorks have cooked up, especially in regards to the marketing.  The comedy isn’t excessively broad, that wondrous sense of discovery that the film has is on display, it doesn’t give away every beat and every gag but the audience knows what they’re in for, which is what Rise of the Guardians didn’t do and consequently paid a heavy price for it.  It’s a good trailer, it’s a strong trailer, and other types of marketing were bloody everywhere come release time, you couldn’t move for advertising material of some kind for The Croods.  Fox put their all into the marketing for this one and did so in a way that differentiated the film from the accepted tired DreamWorks formula without confusing or leaving the audience in the dark.

And third off, it’s a funny heart-warming film about family by a really talented storyteller.  Of course it was going to do well!  Good films about families will always, always bond with the movie-going public.  They’re sweet and sincere in a way that resonates harder with audiences because the typical audience for animated features nowadays are families.  It allows the heart to cross age levels, tap into insecurities in all generations, go broad but not gross with the humour because most audience members need to get every joke, and just generally be true family viewing.  Why do you think Paddington is still raking in all of the money ever?

The Croods is small and intimate and character-focussed, which is something that family filmmaking has mostly forgotten nowadays in search of spectacle, but the ones that do remember are the ones that end up making the most cash.  There is spectacle in The Croods, that $135 million budget is not just from it being 8 bloody years in the making, but it never drowns out that character-focussed centre, and those are the films that stick with people and the families that the film is aimed at.  I don’t think The Croods is brilliant, not by any stretch of the term, but it is very good for thuddingly obvious reasons that become clear when watched, and the reason why The Croods was a major success is not because of any fancy formula.  It’s just a very good film, marketed brilliantly with a clear target audience that it speaks directly to, released at a perfect time.


Next week, we close out the film side of this series by looking at a film with poor marketing, a target audience that no longer exists, that was released at the single worst possible time.  Did Turbo deserve the death march that it was forced down, and could anything have been done to stop it?  Those are the questions that we shall be addressing next time.

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

Callum Petch lost someone he could have saved.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

US Box Office Report: 3/10/14 – 5/10/14

Gone Girl disappears with a lot of cash, Annabelle scares up big bucks, Nas: Box Office Gross Is Illmatic, you already know the obvious pun for Left Behind, and Other Box Office News.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Defying typical David Fincher luck, Gone Girl obliterated the weekend and took first place with $38 million in ticket sales.  Why do I say “defying typical David Fincher luck”?  Well, because David Fincher films do not open past the $20 million mark, the only exceptions being The Social Network (and even then just barely), The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (which had Brad Pitt and enough crowd-pleasing Oscar bait schmaltz to drown kittens in) and the prior biggest opener Panic Room (which… OK, I’ve got nuthin’).  Plus, you know, the fact that the film is bleak and nihilistic and preposterous and nasty as all hell.  But, hey, it’s the date movie of the year!  I mean, I don’t know about you folks, but I find that films about psychopaths and sociopaths are just the most hopelessly romantic!

Anyways, the success of Gone Girl means that, for once, justice prevails at the box office!  My favourite film of the year so far managed to hold off blatant coat-tails riding cash-grab Annabelle, which entered in second with $37 million!  Admittedly, that is still extremely close and could lead to a switch in positions when the actuals come in, but I am going to pre-emptively do my happy dance jig right now, if you all don’t mind.  The fact that its opening is still massive and that it’s guaranteed to make crap tonnes due to it being the only horror movie out for the majority of October (Dracula Untold will bomb, just you watch) are both irrelevant.  Gone Girl came out on top!  Everything’s going to be OK, folks!  Everything is going to be OK.

Other films came out this past weekend, though, so we have to talk about them.  Left Behind, an adaptation of a faith-based book series starring noted religious man Nicholas Cage and directed by former stuntman Vic Armstrong, was resoundingly… you know what?  I am above the obvious joke that everyone else has already made, I draw the line at jokes this easy.  All I’ll say is that Left Behind took almost $7 million for sixth place.  Faring infinitely worse was the “mother of God, this trailer is so offensive and offensively treacly that a crazed homeless man could jump out of nowhere and scoop my eyeballs out of their sockets right now, and it would honestly be preferable to having to see the rest of this trailer or the film that it’s promoting” The Good Lie, which could only manage $935,000 from 461 screens despite Reese Witherspoon being somebody whose name we should all know.

Doing much better than both of those was the Bollywood epic (and I do mean “epic”) Bang Bang!, a remake of that world-famous and widely-revered Tom Cruise/Cameron Diaz vehicle Knight & Day that you all totally didn’t forget about 5 minutes after watching.  In any case, its 271 screens, as part of one of the biggest release roll-outs for a Bollywood movie ever, convinced $1.2 million worth of people to finally try this Bollywood thing they keep hearing so much about, the highest opening of the year for a Bollywood film in the US.  Faring much, much, much worse was the latest film from once bright directorial star Jason Reitman: Men, Women & Children, which has been absolutely savaged by critics, only managed to take $48,000 from 17 screens for a per-screen average of $2,824 which is horrible.  The film might do better when it expands nationwide in a few weeks, but that’s still two straight critical drubbings in the space of 10 months for Reitman.  Dude, what the f*ck has happened to you?

Finally before we get into the full list, Nas: Time Is Illmatic, a documentary about the creation of one of the greatest, if not the greatest, rap albums of all-time and the people behind it, managed to open to $23,200 from 2 screens.  I mention this purely for the reasons of I think that’s genuinely awesome and to tell you to listen to Illmatic right now if you haven’t yet.  In fact, listen to it even if you already know it front-to-back, it’s never not a good time to listen to that album!


XXX GONE-GIRL-MOV-JY-2007-.JPG A ENT

This Full List sneaks a uzi on the island in its army jacket lining.

Box Office Results: Friday 3rd October 2014 – Sunday 5th October 2014

1] Gone Girl

$38,000,000 / NEW

My review, in which I battled against an unrelenting cold and a desire to avoid spoiling anything to tell you why I think Gone Girl is the best film I have seen all year and likely will see all year.  Before anybody shouts “BUT INHERENT VICE HASN’T COME OUT AND CHANGED ANYONE’S LIVES YET” or some such like, UK release dates mean that films like Inherent Vice don’t make it over here until January because Americans just can’t get over that one time we forcibly colonised them.  In any case, no film has made me as excited about films and cinema and going to the cinema this year as Gone Girl did.  It’s going to be divisive, but I f*cking adore it and, for me, it’s the bar to clear for everything else this year.

2] Annabelle

$37,200,000 / NEW

I am so glad this comes out next week here.  Then I can finally stop hanging around outside cinema screens for films I want to see waiting for the trailers to finish in case this one starts up and gives my easily-scared self a heart-attack.  Instead, I’ll be hanging around outside cinema screens for films I want to see waiting for the trailers to finish so that other films I want to see aren’t spoilt for me; a totally legitimate reason for doing so.

3] The Equalizer

$19,000,000 / $64,500,000

Fine, I guess I’ll see this tomorrow or whatever.  I’m probably going to hate it, but at least then we’ll all know together!

4] The Boxtrolls

$12,425,000 / $32,539,000

A 28.1% drop between weekends, which is excellent.  Now, yes, considering the soft opening, that’s still a bit too much of a drop for my liking, but it’s actually really excellent.  Why?  Well, again, stop-motion animated films open soft anyway and a near 30% drop is rather expected between weekends for them, it’s better than ParaNorman’s near 40% plummet two years back and is equal to the fall that Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit took between weekends.  Boxtrolls will pass Frankenweenie by Friday in terms of total domestic grosses, it’s doing well overseas, and it may close closer to Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride than initially thought.  Overall, things are going to turn out alright for Laika.  I’ve got a good feeling about this!

5] The Maze Runner

$12,000,000 / $73,921,000

OK, then, Friday, bring on The Maze Runner.  I’m ready to give it a fair shot.  My expectations are low but my mind is willing to give the film a chance to win me over.  This is your shot, Maze Runner.  Impress me.

6] Left Behind

$6,850,000 / NEW

Yeah, I’ll just stick to watching The Leftovers, is that’s alright with everyone.

7] This Is Where I Leave You

$4,000,000 / $29,003,000

So… have we all come around to Arrested Development Season 4 yet?  Granted, I haven’t watched it since it came out (I have been busy, but I’d like to have a run back through all of Arrested Development yet again some point soon), but it fulfilled pretty much all of my expectations when I saw it; I spent pretty much three straight days in varying levels of hysterics with it.  That made my going online and seeing the bile-filed reception the season got from most people rather perplexing.  I mean, sure, it’s not as good as Season 2, but I ask you what else is?

Can you tell that I’m really reaching for stuff to talk about with regards to this film, cos I want to hold off on making any judgements until I’ve seen the thing for myself?

8] Dolphin Tale 2

$3,530,000 / $37,940,000

So, in preparation for finally seeing this in the very near-future, I watched the original over the weekend.  It’s an OK film, does exactly what it promises to do and not much more but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it did work for small stretches at a time.  It felt very much like a film that’s been pulled out of time and released in the early 2010s, specifically a time between 1993 and 1996.  Still have no idea what they can do for a sequel, mind, besides hit the exact same beats this one did but with diminishing returns.  I guess I’ll find out soon.

9] Guardians Of The Galaxy

$3,034,000 / $323,360,000

Well, it’s been an incredible 10 week run, but it’s time to say goodbye to the Guardians Of The Galaxy.  Next week sees the release of a sh*tty looking Dracula movie, an abysmal looking live-action Disney family film, and a mediocre looking Robert Downey Jr. starring piece of award bait.  But it’s not the quality that’s the point here, it’s the fact that they’ll be new films and that Guardians will be an 11 week old film that will hit home media in exactly two months from now.  Ah, well, it’s been fun!  Let’s play it out, shall we?

10] No Good Deed

$2,500,000 / $50,157,000

America, you could have seen anything else.  Almost quite literally anything else.  Just remember that fact.

Dropped Out: A Walk Among The Tombstones, Let’s Be Cops, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Callum Petch never sleeps cos sleep is the cousin of death.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

A Decade In Film: The Eighties – 1984

A continuing series where Failed Critics contributors look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema and choose their favourite films from each year of that decade. Matt Lambourne has lucked out with arguably the most entertaining, balls-to-the-wall decade of all. This week he takes us through his choices for 1984, a year that had lots of good films but only a select few great films..

By Matt Lambourne (@Matt_Lambourne)

5. Nineteen Eighty-Four

6R4GXbD“If you want a vision of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever”

Based on the George Orwell classic of the same name and directed by Michael Radford, Nineteen Eighty-Four is the story of a dystopian alternative reality whereby the populous are enslaved by a totalitarian government under the watchful eye of the supreme leader known only as Big Brother.

Nineteen Eighty-Four paints a painful and all too realistic view of what big-government without restraint could be like. I happened to watch this for the first time after Netflix launched in the UK just a couple of years ago and I was taken aback by how relevant this is as a pre-cursor to a society that has been conditioned to accept mass-CCTV and government intrusion of their privacy almost as a given.

John Hurt is excellent in the lead role as Winston, a man who longs to love and lust and think for himself, all emotions that are outlawed by the state. The mighty Richard Burton makes his final silver-screen appearance as the state’s brutal iron-hand O’Brien and plays the role with just enough restraint to make him even more sadistically sinister. The film makes great use of colour to remove any touch of individualism from society, everything is steel, grey and cold which further establishes the mindset of a society bred to work for the exclusive benefit of the state.

Without going into spoilers, this isn’t a film to watch if you are looking for a happy-ending. Everything plays out with a ruthless and calculating efficiency of a state built as a machine. As I understand, the film may not quite live up to the splendour of the novel; however, when watched with a clear mind it is astonishingly profound as modern society continues to live under the influence of the metaphorical Big Brother.

4. Birdy

dwsedeg“You ever wondered what our lives down here must look like to a bird?”

Let’s get one thing straight from the get go. This is not a Vietnam movie, but I was somewhat drawn to it initially due to my interest in Vietnam movies. The 80s has a boatload of them, however Birdy is more of a psychological examination that just happens to feature a voyage into Vietnam for the two main protagonists, Birdy (Matthew Modine) and Al (Nic Cage).

The film follows 2 high school friends who are eventually separated and are sent to Vietnam. Birdy is already dealing with mental issues of feeling outcasted from his peers and has an unusually intense fascination with birds and flight. It later becomes apparent this is a metaphor for wanting to flee from the burdens of his life, however the trauma and mental fatigue of the war causes this rather innocent fascination to become an all-consuming fixation as his mental state deteriorates and he eventually winds-up in asylum.

Thankfully, the War element does not get in the way of a complex tale of friendship and adversity but merely acts as a vehicle to deliver to the mental breaking point for the Birdy character. Nic Cage, in an early and refreshing role, performs admirably as the linchpin buddy that keeps Birdy mentally balanced in the real-world. Given that he must act with his face behind bandages for the large parts of the film shows great acting dexterity that is lacking from some of his later performances.

Modine is more Private Pyle than Private Joker as a good all-american kid who finds solace through delusion and again has to dig deep into the actor’s toolbox to perform a role with no human persona during the most intense parts of the movie.

Director Alan Parker does a magnificent job in making a movie that is hard to remove from the psyche – again, for not especially positive reasoning. The story is far from triumphant and is quite depressing in places and is hardly box-office material. However, that is not meant to dissuade you from seeing this film. It is one that lingers in the memory and you’ll find few characters as interesting or as touching as Birdy.

3. The Terminator

terminator 2“Come with me if you want to live..”

If there are movies that can pretty much stereotype a decade, then The Terminator surely has to be on the shortlist. Made with little expectation for box-office success, the pressure was off to deliver a fully adult orientated science-fiction romp for a then little known director, James Cameron.

The film throws you into the deep-end right from the opening sequence, whereby Arnold Schwarzenegger is sent back in time to modern day Los Angeles and turns up butt-naked and looking to acquire his target, Sarah Connor who would eventually give birth to the leader of mankind’s last line of rebellion against the enslaving machines.

At the same time, the rebels from the future send back one soldier to protect her, thus beginning a deadly cat and mouse pursuit between the 2 human targets and an unstoppable force brought menacingly to the screen by Schwarzenegger.

Where The Terminator succeeds is in convincing the viewer that this complex sci-fi story could indeed be a far-out possibility. The mythology is established very quickly in the film through the flashbacks of Kyle Reece (Michael Biehn) that portrays the bleak future that mankind has created in its pursuit of technological advancement.

That said, it’s popcorn friendly at the core. Arnie puts in a fantastic stone-cold performance as the villain of the film and given his enormous physique is entirely convincing as a killing-machine. Linda Hamilton shows great versatility initially as the 80s damsel in distress to slowly maturing into a heroine as she comes to terms with her role in mankind’s future.

The action satisfies, plenty of gun-battles and well choreographed car-pursuits ensure the momentum of the film is heightened throughout as the Terminator is in constant pursuit of the vulnerable human heroes.

Curiously, The Terminator doesn’t even make the top 10 highest grossing movies of the year. This goes to prove what an incredible following the film drew from the home video market and a master-stroke (deliberately or otherwise) in Cameron waiting a further 8 years to give a baiting fan-base the sequel they so longed for.

The Terminator leaves a fantastic legacy in establishing James Cameron as one of the hottest directors in the business setting him up wonderfully for his like Sci-Fi extravaganza in Aliens whilst taking Biehn along for the ride as well as bit-parters Bill Paxton and Lance Henriksen, whilst firmly establishing Schwarzenegger as one of Hollywood’s hottest action stars.

2. Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters-PS_612x380“We came, we saw, we kicked its ass!”

Ghostbusters is a long standing love for many movie-goers, myself included. It’s probably the oldest memory I have of watching movies; those classic old RCA red-spine VHS tapes were pretty unique and haven’t left my memory in all this time. I could ramble on about why Ghostbusters is great and it only narrowly missed out on the #1 spot for 1984 in my assessment. However, Failed Critics has its very own Ghostbusters superman. So to tell you why Ghostbusters is so good and still so revered to this day, I hand over to Failed Critics own, Carole Petts.

On the occasion of Ghostbusters 30th anniversary, I wrote for the Guardian about why this silly science-fiction comedy has ensured in the public consciousness for so long. I’ve tried many times to pinpoint why this is my favourite film of all time, and honestly, it always comes back to the fact that it makes me laugh without fail; that every joke is as fresh now as it was when it was filmed. I’m clearly not alone in this – some of my favourite viewings have been with an audience, who clearly adore the film as much as I do (validating my devotion somewhat, it has to be said) and will quote and laugh along with me all the way through. You simply can’t ask for anything more from a comedy film.

The plot is actually an archetypal product of the early 80s age of Reaganomics. Three Columbia University parapsychologists – Ray Stantz (Dan Ackroyd), Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) and Peter Venkman (Bill Murray, at the top of his 80s comedy game) are stripped of their public sector funding and forced to start their own business hunting and trapping spooks. Coincidentally, a massive paranormal event is brewing which will bring about ‘a disaster of Biblical proportions’, so that’s handy. The aforementioned calamity is personified by two Central Park West neighbours – Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver, showcasing hitherto unknown comedic muscle) and Louis Tully (Rick Moranis, underrated here but who then received many deserved leading roles as a direct result). The whole shebang is brought to a show stopping finale when the destroyer of worlds is summoned in the form of a giant marshmallow man trademark beloved of Boy Scout camps across America. Stupid? Of course it is. But it’s endearing, and funny, and touching at times as well.

I wasn’t old enough to see Ghostbusters when it was released at the cinema – indeed I had a VHS taped from a TV screening, and only saw the full, uncut version for the first time when I was 18 and received the DVD for Christmas (it still appals me that Egon swears and Ray appears to receive a blowjob from a ghost). I was the perfect age to be scared by the library ghost and the Class 5, full-roaming vapour in the hotel, named in the cartoon as Slimer. I wasn’t old enough to have seen Alien, and to know that Sigourney Weaver was the world’s number one female kick-ass action hero at the time this film was made. But I knew this film was going to stay with me for the rest of my life. As I’ve gotten older, it’s taken on many different meanings to me – I’ve known what it’s like to be part of a public sector organisation that suddenly no longer needs you, and to be thrown into the real world (although I hasten to add my departure was not precipitated by making up test results in order to impress pretty ladies). But if this film has taught me anything, it’s to have faith in my own abilities. And that everyone has three mortgages nowadays.

1. Once Upon a Time in America

ouatia“I like the stink of the streets. It makes me feel good. And I like the smell of it, it opens up my lungs. And it gives me a hard-on”

Once upon a time in America is a Sergio Leone film. No, it’s THE Sergio Leone film! Set in prohibition era New York, the film transcends almost 4 decades following a gang of young hoodlums who engage in petty crime and rise to eventual bosses of the local bootlegging industry. The film is told from the viewpoint of Noodles (Roberto De Niro) who after 30 years of exile returns to New York after a member of his former gang makes contact him with, simultaneously blowing his new identity.

The film segregates beautifully across a complicated time-line and fills the viewer in via well executed flashbacks on the gang’s struggles in a Jewish ghetto in the 1920’s as children and their progression to adults consumed by the greed, lust and power that eventually destroys the gang and their friendships. De Niro is slick and at the top of his game, whilst James Woods puts together what I think is his strongest performance as the overly ambitious and ruthless Max.

The placing of the film amongst the all-time greats is hotly contested, partially due to the varying number of cuts available for the film. On its original release, a heavily edited version was compiled at the request of Warner Bros. At only 139 minutes in length it was a commercial and critical disaster and was put together against the wishes of Leone to attempt to squeeze more screenings per day of the movie and remove concerns over the graphic content.

However, many a critic would praise alternative cuts that remained more faithful to the original Leone edit, with Sight & Sound polling the movie in their top 25 films of all (at #10) and director Brian De Palma (Scarface, The Untouchables, etc) ranking it as the best movie depicting the prohibition era. Given that Leone turned down the opportunity to direct The Godfather to work on this project, he had immense belief in the story and his ability to deliver a crime epic that would become his legacy.

I am often surprised at how few people I speak to that enjoy crime movies that have not seen Once Upon a Time in America. That said, to be enjoyed at its best requires a good 3 hours or so dedication making it a tough watch, but boy is it worthwhile. If you’re a fan of The Godfather or Goodfellas or other films of that variety, this is a must watch. Sergio Leone signs off with what is his final and greatest masterpiece, and without question is the best film of 1984.

You can find more of our revitalised Decade In Film articles so far here, from 1963-2004.