Tag Archives: Ralph Fiennes

SPECTRE

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Sam Mendes is back in the hand-stitched, luxurious leather driving seat of the 007 series as the next instalment of British espionage kills and thrills reaches the US shores this weekend.

by Owen Hughes @ohughes86

Celebrating fifty years of James Bond, Eon’s twenty third film in the series, Skyfall, was released back in October 2012 and became an enormous runaway success. Accolade after accolade was poured over it – and rightly so, as it was a thoroughly entertaining action film. Our readers and listeners certainly thought very highly of it, voting it above the likes of Amour, The Intouchables, Argo and The Dark Knight Rises back in 2012’s Failed Critics Awards.

It might be fair to say then that the weight of expectation on SPECTRE couldn’t have been higher. Skyfall ably dealt with the notion that James Bond, the suave British super spy, just wasn’t suited to the modern world. That he was too old. Too outdated. Much like Casino Royale did in 2006, it found a way to make him relevant again.

Surely then, SPECTRE wasn’t going to go over the same old ground, right?

Well, not exactly.

Facing a new Orwellian threat that takes Bond across Europe to track down a secret organisation, whilst also under pressure back home with MI6 under scrutiny for its actions, it crosses almost every box on the 007 checklist. Trains, snow, Bond-girls and Aston Martins; if you’re planning on playing a drinking game with SPECTRE, you will be inebriated within half an hour, having your stomach pumped before you’re even half way through the enormous 148 minute run time, and dead before the film has finished.

But it’s not just regular tropes of the series that make a re-appearance. Again, the idea that the secret agent is an outdated practice is continued from the previous movie. Whilst Skyfall focussed primarily on James Bond being too old, this time around it’s expanded to examine the methods employed by MI6 as a whole.

Although SPECTRE is mostly entertaining, one of its biggest problems is that by asking you to consider a world where we have surveillance drones, billions of mobile devices and CCTV cameras on every corner, why do we persist with a man in a tuxedo sneaking into a party to seduce the crime-bosses wife for tidbits of information. The ultimate conclusion is of course a combination of “the old ways are the best” and “nobody does it better”, but unless the audience are well read on their 1984’s and Brave New World’s, what exactly is the problem with information gathering in the way that’s proposed? Why is it so menacing? Is your freedom more valuable than your safety? Whatever your opinion, SPECTRE never fully addresses the issues with this “newer” method beyond showing you that the guy collecting the information is evil.

Speaking of the bad-guy, Christoph Waltz plays the latest Bond villain with relish. His softly spoken, quietly sinister performance is easily the best in this modern era against Daniel Craig’s all action hero. I’m a big fan of Mads Mikkelsen and Javier Bardem (let’s just pretend Quantum of Solace doesn’t exist, as SPECTRE seems to do as well) and they both bring something different to the series, but Oberhauser is perhaps the most nuanced opposite to James Bond thus far. It’s the age-old battle of brains and exploding-gadget-and-fast-cars-braun.

Craig may be getting sick of playing the role, with this possibly being his last appearance as Bond, but he once again seems entirely comfortable at being the rugged interpretation of Ian Flemming’s character. One who doesn’t mind getting his shoes scuffed and suit ruffled in the pursuit of his nemesis. Just watch him during the absolutely incredible opening scene set in Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival. He has the swagger, the charisma and perfect timing to please fans of the series, no matter who your favourite version of the character is. Prefer the goofy Roger Moore take? Craig is more then able to match the comic timing Moore offers. Enjoyed Pierce Brosnan’s confidence and cheekyness? Bingo. It’s all there in that opening 15 minutes.

The support cast are all decent enough too. Léa Seydoux as Madeleine – the closest the film gets to having the staple Bond-girl – does a good job at modernising the role. She’s not a floozie there only to fall under the charms of 007 and provide the audience with a bit of eye candy. One scene in particular on a train journey draws us back into the narrative of old-versus-new as she shows she doesn’t need Bond to show her how to use a gun. It’s a subtle development of a role that in the past has been reduced to little more than a damsel in distress that needs the big rugged man to come and save her.

Ralph Fiennes adds his own take on M, whose relationship to Bond has a lot more animosity and begrudging respect than when Judi Dench was in the role previously. Q (Ben Wishaw) is also given a lot more exposure this time around. His quirkiness will either annoy you or feel like a welcome break in the pace of relentless, non-stop action scenes and (£24m worth of) exploding vehicles. Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), C (Andrew Scott), Hinx (Dave Bautista) and Lucia (Monica Belluci) are reduced to minor supporting roles which seems a shame, but they all do well with what they’re given.

Overall, for such a long film, it doesn’t ever feel boring or stretched. It suffers from a Skyfall hangover as it will constantly be compared to its predecessor, and in that regard, it is the lesser film. The way it retrofits itself onto the rest of the rebooted franchise is contrived at best and just nonsensical at worst, but it doesn’t detract too much from its own plot. Effectively, it hinges on the relationship between Craig, Seydoux and Waltz (whose appearance really could have come sooner on in the movie) which is well developed across the course of the film, but is not quite enough to elevate it to the delirious heights of Mendes’ last feature.

So no, I don’t expect the Bond revival to die with SPECTRE. Bond (James Bond) is bigger than one film, but as to where I see the film heading next? I honestly have no idea – but I am excited to find out.

You can listen to Owen, Steve Norman, Tony Black and Brian Plank review SPECTRE as well as induct James Bond into our Corridor of Praise on the podcast released back in October.

Callum Petch’s Top 10 of 2014: #10 – #6

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

141.  That’s the number of films released in 2014 that I have seen. That is a lot of films.  To put that into perspective, I have been attempting to critique films on the Internet for five years now and that number is more than the combined total of films I had seen in all four of those prior years when it came time to do some list making.  Of those 141, 131 were eligible for appearances on my lists.  That is insane.  To tell you the truth, I have no idea how on earth I’ve managed it, especially since I spent much of this past year despairing at movies in various forms.

Except that, as the year has come closer to its end and I’ve reflected more and more upon what I have seen, the problem is not that films were worse in 2014 (although there have been some atrocious pieces of tripe, as we shall see in a few days’ time).  The problem is that I have seen more films in 2014.  Whereas in prior years I would have to pick and choose what films I could and could not see, therefore sticking with safer bets and actively avoiding crap, this past year I have been able to see damn near everything that came my way, which has meant flinging quality control out of the window and exposing myself to films I wouldn’t normally touch with a ten-foot pole.

In some cases, this has meant extended bouts of self-flagellation.  In others, this has allowed for major surprises that I would not have typically tried to burst through to the forefront.  In some cases, this has meant that the frequency of films that I was looking forward to disappointing me in some way this year would get me down somewhat.  In other cases, this has meant that I can see the films I love multiple times and allowed them to really stick out in my brain for days, weeks, even months on end.  It’s a double-edged sword is throwing out the personal quality control barrier and seeing whatever comes your way, but I honestly can’t think of my cinema-going lifestyle now in ways that don’t involve voluntarily seeing everything that I can.

It also means that constructing my Top 10 list this year was both incredibly easy and unbearably difficult.  I’ve had to do this three separate times over the past month for various different things and each time it’s gotten progressively easier and harder, as certain films remained steadfast in their appearance and placements whilst others jumped around and dropped out.  Seeing so many films has made the absolutely cream more apparent but has also made filling the bottom end of the list that much harder, as certain entries are way too close in quality to others.  The list is actually a Top 20, but it’s been abbreviated to Top 10 as I am pretty sure that Owen would like back his website at some point this week.  I am, however, incredibly satisfied with it, the most satisfied with any Top 10 Movies of [x] list I’ve so far had to make, so take that for what it’s worth.

Now, before we begin, a brief set of pointers.  This list is strictly limited to films that have seen a UK release in 2014, so the awards season films that have yet to cross the pond (Foxcatcher, Wild, Inherent Vice, Whiplash, Birdman) or just films that don’t have the common courtesy to turn up on time (Big Hero 6, Top Five) aren’t eligible.  I am also limiting the list to 2014 films, awards season films that saw an American release in 2013 (The Wolf Of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis, 12 Years A Slave, The Wind Rises) aren’t eligible.  Finally, even though I have seen a ridiculous amount of films in 2014, I haven’t seen them all and, naturally, this list can only include films that I have seen.  Blue Ruin, Belle, Only Lovers Left Alive and Nymphomaniac may be outstanding, and I tried so hard to get around to seeing them, but I unfortunately ran out of time and so they can’t be featured.

Lastly, I mentioned that I did arrange a Top 20 so I might as well share 20 to 11 with you before we get started on part one.  In reverse order (starting at 20, ending at 11): St. Vincent, Locke, Pride (which was my favourite surprise of 2014 and would have taken the #10 slot by default if this were any other year), Mistaken For Strangers, Lucy, 22 Jump Street, My Little Pony: Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks, The Lego Movie, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier/Guardians Of The Galaxy which was pushed out of the Top 10 at the very last minute.  It’s a testament to the Top 10 that these films, all of which I love, are the ones that just missed out.

So, no more pre-amble faffing.  Today, we go through entries 10 to 6.  Are we all ready?  In that case, TITANS, GO!

There may be spoilers.  Proceed with caution.


edge of tomorrow10] Edge Of Tomorrow

Dir: Doug Liman

Star: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton

Edge Of Tomorrow is something that 2014 surprisingly lacked: a damn fun, pure blockbuster.  Much of this past Summer consisted of films that either took themselves way too seriously, were majorly flawed in some way, or severely underwhelmed and disappointed.  That’s not including those films that were desperately trying to force a franchise out of thin air, or were so busy trying to set-up pays-offs in practically guaranteed later films that they did nothing and told no stories in their current films.  Blockbuster filmmaking nowadays frequently consists of nothing but po-faced seriousness, loud noises and delayed gratification.

Then in swaggers Edge Of Tomorrow, wide-eyed with optimism, confident in what it wants to do, aviator sunglasses proclaiming it to be the coolest motherf*cker in the room at that moment in time, and looking for some fun.  It takes one look at the dreary and dull way that everybody else is doing things, sees how the general public is lapping up that crap, then swiftly turns around and marches back out that door.  Edge Of Tomorrow wants nothing to do with the modern blockbuster.  It wants to be fun, it wants to smarter than just loud noises, it wants to tell a full and complete story, the kind that only a $178 million budget can provide, and it does not give one f*ck if anybody else cares or not.

By the time that Edge Of Tomorrow had arrived in cinemas, I was in rather low spirits for 2014 film.  I had come off a string of disappointments and was all prepared for this film that I had heard good things about and seen advertised majorly to similarly underwhelm me.  Instead, over the course of 113 brilliant minutes, I was rejuvenated and reminded of why I love the movies.  Sometimes you want to sit down and be challenged, be pushed, be confronted and to experience something very serious.  But sometimes you just want to sit down and watch something fun, and Edge Of Tomorrow delivers that in spades.  It takes its central premise – the day resetting every time that Tom Cruise’s Major William Cage dies – and goes for broke, exploiting it for drama, comedy, black comedy, character work, and a tonne of incredibly awesome action moments.

But it’s also smart, it has a brain going on up in its head.  Edge Of Tomorrow is fun and spectacle, but grounds that fun and spectacle in excellent character work and committed performances.  Tom Cruise sheds his usual charm and movie star charisma to play a slimy cowardly ass and he is equally as strong at that as he is when Cage slowly becomes braver, more in control, more heroic; his excellent performance adding onto the extremely well written character.  Emily Blunt, meanwhile, is a goddamn revelation as Sgt. Rita Vrataski, absolutely commanding the screen in a performance of such intensity and skill and quiet emotion that, in a decent and deserving world, would catapult her to A-list superstardom.  Vrataski, too, is one hell of a character, a strong capable woman who has been hardened by trauma but is not emotionless or humourless or relegated and degraded by the film.  In other words, the kind of female character that blockbusters almost never bother to create.

It’s not perfect, it’s not thematically heavy, and I do wish that it ended about two minutes earlier, before the bittersweet ending is turned into a completely happy ending, but those flaws only serve to raise Edge Of Tomorrow as a whole.  They are the flaws and rough edges of a scrappy individualistic film, a film that does its own thing and remains steadfast against studio interference and focus grouping as much as possible.  They throw what Edge Of Tomorrow does right into sharper relief and Edge Of Tomorrow gets so much right.  It’s a reminder of what blockbuster filmmaking is capable of if it would get its head out from its ass, stop purely focussing on profit margins, quit focus-testing everything, and stopped sucking the teat of serialisation and franchising.

In a decade or so’s time, we as a film-going audience, along with a generation of filmmakers with studio budgets, are going to look back at Edge Of Tomorrow and go, “Yep, we should have done more of that.  We should be doing more of that.”


09] Starred Upstarred up

Dir: David Mackenzie

Star: Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend

Forget the trailer.  Ignore the trailer.  That is not Starred UpStarred Up is not a dark, gritty, lads’ “C’MON, YOU SLAAAAAGS!!” prison flick with nothing going on aimed solely at the lowest common male denominator.  Starred Up is actually a bleak, unflinching, realist melodrama about masculinity, fathers, and the self-perpetuation of the modern prison system.  It is not a film that asks you to like any of its characters, it is not a film that revels in its bursts of violence or nastiness, it is not a film that is interested in fulfilling anybody’s fantasies of how cool prison is.  Starred Up is an angry film and you are damn well going to pay attention to what it wants to say.

Much of the plaudits thrown Starred Up’s way are for Jack O’Connell’s central performance as Eric Love, and it’s hard to argue against that.  O’Connell – in the first of what turned out to be three outstanding performances from this past year, I really hope that this momentum keeps up because he deserves to be a star – plays Love with such barely restrained intensity that perfectly fits his livewire tendencies without going overboard into ham and cheese.  He’s also able to reach down and find the sadness, the wounded nature at the heart of Eric that powers his angry violent lashings out at the world and which makes them hurt that much more.  Eric Love could have been a cartoon character in the wrong hands, but O’Connell mixes that intensity, that vulnerability, an air of mystery and his own natural likeability as an actor to create a profoundly complex lead.  It really is a powerhouse performance.

But to focus solely on O’Connell would be to do the rest of Starred Up a disservice.  The script, for example, by newcomer Jonathan Asser, grounds its more melodramatic tendencies in a low-key rather realist way.  The tropes that you expect to show up in a prison drama – corrupt officers, shankings, prisoners running the show, lots of swearing – turn up here, but they’re executed in a low-key way.  Big deals aren’t made of them, they’re just everyday facts of prison life and their appearances tie back into character work, with Eric’s crazed alpha-male desire to make a name for himself both disrupting the delicate nature of this broken system and re-enforcing his worst impulses, and the film’s bleak overall message of the self-perpetuating cycle of prison.

Nobody in Starred Up is clean or fully good.  There are only shades of grey and even darker shades of grey.  Even the closest thing the film gets to a fully sympathetic character, in Rupert Friend’s tired and ceaselessly loyal prison therapist, is still strongly hinted to have some kind of superiority complex powering his actions – his adamant claim of “I need to be here” can be taken so many ways.  Eric’s been raised with the belief that self-destructiveness and violence is the only acceptable form of masculinity, and he can’t realise that all it has done is destroy his life.  It’s also so deep-seated that all of that hard therapy work can be instantly discarded the second his dad turns up and tries to make up for lost time by steering him the wrong way and completely misreading his son.  Not to mention the fact that the actual prison staff view the people they are assigned to look after with nothing but contempt; deep-seated beliefs that all of their charges are irredeemable and not worth even trying to reform.

The film’s more melodramatic moments – shower attacks, the final 10 to 15 minutes – benefit from that realist nihilism and strong character work.  Such effort has gone into fashioning a portrait of our broken prison system that the moments where more blatantly fictional touches break through still fit within the previously established world and nature of the film, acting like cappers to its overall point.  Couple that foundation with extremely well-handled themes, great supporting performances (Friend’s increasing desperation in protecting his little group is especially well-conveyed), an excellent script, and a thunderous central Jack O’Connell performance and you get a film as commanding and fiercely memorable as Starred Up.  It is bleak viewing, but it is vital viewing and it is so much better than the trailer suggests.


grand budapest hotel08] The Grand Budapest Hotel

Dir: Wes Anderson

Star: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, a lot of others

My first viewing of The Grand Budapest Hotel underwhelmed me somewhat and I am willing to chalk that up to two things.  The first was trailer overexposure – this thing was relentlessly trailed before films for months on end, a lot of its best laughs were featured in it, and most everything stops being funny when you’ve seen it for the 20th time – the second was personal overhyping – I really liked that trailer when it dropped and was really bloody excited for the finished film.  I still thought it was a very good movie, but overexposure (the catalyst in getting me to just walk out during trailers now) and my weird belief that I was going to get a more monumental film than what I ended up getting lead to my questioning of whether this was it, as it were.

A second viewing later in the year proved me to be majorly and totally wrong on every negative account.  See, Grand Budapest is my first proper Wes Anderson film – I had seen Fantastic Mr. Fox in late 2012, but that was it – and so I wasn’t properly prepared for what was in store, expecting something different than what I got (I don’t know what it was I was expecting, but there you go).  I think the rather low-key nature of Grand Budapest caught me off guard.  It’s a film whose scale is large – encompassing tonnes of characters in a wide range of locations across multiple time periods and several different aspect ratios – yet whose stakes are rather small and its central character relationships tight knit.

And it’s that closeness that actually makes The Grand Budapest Hotel resonate and stick.  This is a very funny film – good lord, is it ever a very funny film, especially pretty much anything that comes out the mouth of an absolutely dynamite Ralph Fiennes – but what sticks with me after watching this film, both in the immediate aftermath and in the days and weeks after, is the sadness that runs throughout the entire film due to that closeness.  This is a sad film, a melancholy film, a film that never lets that sadness get buried under too many layers of whimsy or raucous jokes.  It is a film that is sad for days long since passed, both in terms of humanity – with barbarism and self-interest corroding decency and respectability – and filmmaking – there’s genuine love coming from Anderson’s insistence on using virtually every aspect ratio ever used in a commercial cinema release.

Yet the irony is that none of its characters are from the time it’s so wistfully nostalgic for.  Gustave H. is a man of some level of respectability and civility stuck in a time that slides further into greed and fascism the longer he sticks around.  Zero is a man who is clearly wounded and saddened by a world that would reject the actions and principles of a man like Gustave, and whose life is marked by constant loss and the encroachment of old age.  The Author is fascinated by the stories of Zero and Gustave H. but remains removed and emotionally distant due to both his profession and the fact that he doesn’t get the true feeling of that time due to having experienced nothing close to it.  The Young Girl who reads the book that starts off our film similarly can only paint a picture in her head of those times, to escape the miserable looking world that she is currently a part of, and it’s unlikely to resemble anything close to reality.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is very much about people trapped out of time, even Inspector Henckles who tries to deal with proceedings in a civil manner despite the force that he is a part of being of the barbaric type.  That wistful nostalgia does not really exist for many of its characters, as the time they are nostalgic for frequently ended long before they were born.  Yet, it’s what bonds them, it’s what brings Zero and Agatha together, it’s what makes Gustav and Zero such fire-forged friends, and it’s what ultimately proves their downfalls; their inability to let go.  Yet, they are respected and admired by the film and by Anderson for that commitment to their nostalgia – why should holding onto a time when people weren’t being violent fascist pigs be considered a bad thing? – and that’s why the film’s gradual reveal of its incredibly bittersweet ending feels so poignant.

It’s a film that is sold on its laughs and its quirkiness, but stays with me thanks to its deep-rooted sadness and melancholy heart.  It’s an incredibly clever and impeccably well-balanced film and pulls off that tightrope walk – sentimental without being sappy, riotously funny without drowning out the melancholy or becoming too bawdy – with aplomb.  I should really make the time to watch more Wes Anderson films, already.


07] NightcrawlerNIGHTCRAWLER

Dir: Dan Gilroy

Star: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed

First things first, Nightcrawler contains my single favourite film scene in all of 2014.  I am referring to “Horror House”.  Not the bit where Lou Bloom is filming the sequence, nor the bit where he utterly unnervingly shreds Morning News Director Nina over negotiations for the tape (although that is close), the bit where it goes to air and the film makes you sit through every last agonising second as a whole studio full of ratings hungry opportunists exploit the misery and suffering of others for profit.  It’s the way that it twists the knife and turns the screws and keeps going, and going, and going, forcing you to sit through the whole segment, making you complicit in their work, and being written and presented in such a way that the scene stopped being a sequence from a movie for me and became something uncomfortably close to our reality.

It’s a magnificent scene and it also hides the true target of Nightcrawler’s venomous anger in plain sight.  Nightcrawler is a takedown of sensationalist 24-hour cable news networks, but it’s also a blisteringly angry screed against Capitalism, encapsulated in “Horror House” by having the news crew exploit the suffering of others to further their own hunt for money and success, especially hammering home the idea that a wealthy white suburban family was murdered by lower-class possibly Hispanic (at the time it’s unclear, not that that stops any of the anchors from pushing down hard on this button) gang members.  After all, nothing’s more likely to keep the broken system of Capitalism in place than by terrifying those with the power and success that the unworthy lower classes are coming to take everything away from them, whilst simultaneously profiting off of that fear.

The film’s thoughts and views on Capitalism can be best summed up by the character of Lou Bloom himself, a walking encapsulation of everything that is wrong with the system.  Lou is a complete sociopath purely interested in his own self-gain.  He is somebody who has been told time and time again that he deserves success and that he can win at The American Dream if he just works hard enough, and when that doesn’t happen he resorts to crime and petty theft to claw his way up.  He speaks near-exclusively in sound-bites ripped from corporate handbooks, justifies everything he ever does in cold, calculated business terms and is incapable of treating people like humans – later revealed to be down to his contempt for them.

Then, he stumbles into a field where his sociopathy, lack of morals and complete disregard for social decency and the law are rewarded.  His desire to stay one step ahead, by any means necessary, in the Nightcrawling business gets him the money, the car, the recognition and the in to start climbing up the corporate ladder.  And when he doesn’t get what he wants, he manipulates, blackmails, threatens, sexually exploits, and even near-outright murders to get his way.  But not once is Lou punished.  Not once does he truly hit a setback, because Capitalism is broken and those who are willing to cross the moral line are the ones who will successfully make it, whilst the rest will be left in the dust to be exploited by those who go too far.  [BRIEF SPOILER BIT, SKIP TO NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU’VE YET TO SEE THE FILM] That’s why Lou gets off scott-free in the end.  Sure, the police technically have enough evidence to put him away, but to do that would be to undermine the message: Lou has won Capitalism because of his complete sociopathy and lack of a moral code.  Even his new company logo is ripped straight from that of the rival he killed earlier!

Jake Gyllenhaal puts in the performance of his career as Lou Bloom, always keeping the viewer at a distance yet forcefully commanding their attention at all times.  He’s clearly relishing the opportunity to sink his teeth into such a detestable yet complex role, and his total commitment to making Lou this utterly abhorrent and frightening monster is a major reason of why the film works.  Rene Russo also puts in her best performance in years as a similarly repulsive but slightly more socially acceptable female counterpart to Lou, Dan Gilroy’s direction for his debut feature is confident and assured, I have already talked about James Newton Howard’s quietly genius score, and the film is also tightly paced and expertly structured.  Nightcrawler is an outstandingly relevant and captivating film that features a villain protagonist for the ages, and satire and venom that deserves way more analysis and conversation than it has sparked.  A film for 2014 if there ever was one.


the guest06] The Guest

Dir: Adam Wingard

Star: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Lance Reddick

Holy hell, is this one ever fun!  Dumped into the beginning of September with precious little fanfare and left to fend for itself, The Guest is one of the biggest gems I have stumbled across all year.  Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett’s, previous of You’re Next, demented genre hybrid thriller is just pure good old fashioned fun.  That’s it.  There is nothing deeper to The Guest, no giant thematic core or major emotional centre, and no huge twist to it.  The Guest is just pure, undiluted fun and, as mentioned back in my entry on Edge Of Tomorrow, fun is something that I put a very big price on due to its growing rarity in the modern filmmaking landscape.

So, what is The Guest?  After all, I spent pretty much all of September doing nothing but praise the ever-loving crap out of it and despairing when, unsurprisingly, nobody saw it.  Well, The Guest is hard to categorise for people who haven’t seen it, partially because it hops around between genres like an indecisive driver coming up on a line of toll booths, but mainly because the fun of The Guest is watching it slowly reveal its true colours.  In the most general terms, it’s a throwback to trashy 80s B-Movies, mashing together elements of psychological thrillers, gory low-budget action films, the works of John Carpenter, and a nice sprinkling of camp.  It sounds like a mess, but Barrett’s script is airtight, Wingard’s direction is so confident, and the pair are so learned in what they are trying to emulate that it works perfectly.

It also helps that they have an outstanding central performance to hang proceedings onto.  I’ve raved about Dan Stevens in my review of the film, so I’ll let you go back and re-read that to save me from repeating myself, but I cannot stress how absolutely note perfect he is here – switching between charming, terrifying, and utterly hilarious (in a deadpan way) effortlessly whilst keeping David a consistent character throughout.  He’s also matched beat for beat by Maika Monroe who expertly embodies the determined Final Girl archetype whilst making it her own.  The film visually is wonderfully stylish, the soundtrack is one of the very best of the entire year, and it is by far the coolest film of the year thanks to the way it completely owns and openly embraces its campy tendencies – the finale is absolutely hilarious and unbearably tense without one ever undermining the other.

Look, I want to write a giant (attempted) intellectual deep analysis of this film like I have everything else so far on this list, one that gets to the root of why this film works and why I love it so, but I just can’t because The Guest is not that kind of film.  The Guest actively resists that kind of analysis because, quite frankly, its start and its end can be summed up with “it is a hell of a lot of fun” which it very much is.  It is also damn near flawless at what it aims to do, it’s an immaculately constructed film that I can’t find a single wasted second, dropped pacing or glaring flaw in.  Sometimes, a film sticks out as excellent purely because of how much fun it is and The Guest is the single most amount of fun I have had in a cinema all year.

Or, to put it another way, I saw it opening day and went back for a second go-around seven days later.  I would likely have kept going every Friday if the film hadn’t been pulled from cinemas in near-record time.  Whilst you are reading this, I will be watching it again on the Blu-Ray that I picked up on the first day it was available, and my writing for this is being fuelled by the film’s soundtrack.  This is just a straight shot of pure smile-inducing fun, for me, and you are officially out of excuses to not give it a shot.


That’s the first half of the countdown done.  Tomorrow, we’ll tackle numbers 5 to 1.  In the meantime, let me know in the comments on whether you agree with my picks or not and what some of your favourite films of 2014 are!

Callum Petch’s letters are returned to sender.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit

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.


wallace gromit11] Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit (7th October 2005)

Budget: $30 million

Gross: $192,610,372

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%

I should not need to introduce you to Wallace & Gromit.  If you are British, you should know who Wallace & Gromit are, they’re a national goddamn institution.  Their influence is so great that they pretty much single-handedly saved the production of Wensleydale cheese.  They are so beloved that their fourth proper short film, A Matter Of Loaf And Death, the first in thirteen years, was the single most-watched programme on Christmas Day 2008, beating out both the soaps and Doctor Who.  They’re so re-watchable that the BBC has been re-running every single one of their shorts at every holiday opportunity for what feels like the last decade and a half and nobody ever complains.  You can probably quote half of A Grand Day Out right now if you tried hard enough, and everybody remembers the toy train chase from The Wrong Trousers.

Therefore, a movie really was the next logical step for the world-famous duo.  They’d already had three acclaimed short films, a collection of short shorts for the BBC’s Christmas 2002 line-up and now-defunct website Atom Films, a movie compilation released in American theatres that still managed to gross one million 1996 dollars, and they had raised the profile of Aardman animations so substantially that their breakthrough into worldwide stardom, Chicken Run, was able to be sold to audiences as “From The Creators Of Wallace & Gromit.  There wasn’t even a worry that it was too late for a Wallace & Gromit film, the characters were that beloved and the films are that timeless that Aardman could drop something Wallace & Gromit related tomorrow and the Internet, but especially me, would just meltdown in tearful anticipation or joy.

The movie in question, The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, emerged in October 2005 to universal critical adoration with only 9 reviews that can be considered negative being published from professional sources.  Several critics included it in their best films of 2005 lists in some way, shape or form (and, lest we forget, 2005 was a pretty competitive year in regards to great movies).  It won Best British Film at the year’s BAFTAs, swept the year’s Annie Awards taking home the prize in every single category it could have entered (and shutting out everybody else in the Voice Acting In A Feature Production category), and scored DreamWorks Animation their second (and currently last) Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

Financially, the film did decent business domestically, considering the weird ghetto that stop-motion animation falls into at the box office – it opened in first place, before dropping quickly, most likely being dispatched by the end of October and the release of, urgh, Chicken Little; closing at about $56 million.  Overseas… let’s just say that it was an enormous success (especially in its native United Kingdom where it ended up having the third biggest opening weekend of the year, behind Goblet Of Fire and Revenge Of The Sith in that order, and managed to three-peat during an insanely competitive October) and leave it at that.

Of course, the film was not as successful as DreamWorks Animation wanted it to be.  After all, Chicken Run made $30 million more worldwide than Curse Of The Were-Rabbit did, was a genuine full-on bona-fide hit domestically, and Chicken Run wasn’t the big screen debut of a widely beloved pair of characters.  Never mind that Chicken Run cost $15 million more than Curse Of The Were-Rabbit and that $192 million against a $30 million budget isn’t exactly chump change, Wallace & Gromit underwhelmed for the parent company.

This split viewpoint on the film’s box office fate strained relations between Aardman and DreamWorks, which were the absolute last thing both parties needed.  See, production on The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit was more than a little troubled.  Contrary to the prior times he’d worked on Wallace & Gromit shorts, the film’s co-writer and co-director Nick Park was practically swimming in notes from higher-ups demanding changes.  They wanted the design of Wallace’s car to look cooler, they insisted that the British-ness of the accents be toned down to make them more understandable, every instance of the word “marrow” had to be re-dubbed as “melon” for the US release as DreamWorks thought that Americans would have no idea what the characters were on about otherwise (and, yes, that means that characters start referring to “your prize melon”), and there are rumours (that I can’t substantiate) that DreamWorks even tried replacing Peter Sallis as the voice of Wallace; well-known actors like Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter were cast in support roles as a compromise.

Unsurprisingly, Aardman would unofficially split from DreamWorks barely 11 months later (officially in January of 2007), on the eve of their latest release, Flushed Away (which we’ll get to in a fortnight), and with two films of their five film contract unfulfilled.  Flushed Away is more than likely the source of a lot of these grievances, a lot of the company even moved to America to work on that film’s CGI-only existence, but it’s clear that DreamWorks, a company that had previously chased Aardman for years in order to get a co-production deal with them, were negatively influencing the company in many of its facets.  Not maliciously, Nick Park admits that it was more about them trying to make sure their films played well at the box office, but still enough to potentially cause problems with the end product.

Not that you would know the film had a strained production if you watch the thing.  For The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit is as near-perfect a film as one could ask for.  Seriously, this film is 84 minutes long and there is pretty much nothing wrong with it; it’s airtight, almost non-stop in the gag department, gorgeously animated and shot, bursting with a tonne of heart, and I can find little wrong with it.  It is as close to perfection as something can get.  This also leads me to the annoying issue that I don’t really want to talk about it.  Not just because my motivation to write has vacated the premises since I returned to university, but mainly because the film is so great that just watching it is a far better usage of one’s time than me sitting here slowly picking it apart and boringly explaining why it works so totally.

Therefore, we’re gonna do something a little different for this week’s instalment.  Instead of going through a straight list of reasons why the film works, backed up by clips that may or may not be relevant to that particular paragraph, I am going to embed the film from YouTube below this paragraph and you are going to take 84 minutes out of your day to watch it; that will basically do my job for me.  Or, if you’ve already watched the film and know it in and out, you can instead use the below embed to follow my time stamps.  I’m going to pick out certain scenes that best epitomise why this film works and briefly look at them in a case study format.  And, yes, time stamps because finding individual YouTube clips is getting considerably harder the longer this series goes on for.

Right, either watch this incredibly low-quality stream or start following the time stamps!

0:00:29 – 0:01:37 Immediately, as in it’s the very first thing we see after the requisite studio logos, we are treated to a photo montage of the relationship between Wallace and Gromit.  It’s a short sequence, wordless, and often silly, but it very quickly establishes their characters, their little idiosyncrasies and the strength of their bond.  It’s also a reference to how all three of their shorts began – a shot of the wall in all three and a pan across a photograph of the pair in the latter two – but, crucially, the call-back isn’t the whole point of the scene.  It’s not just a do-over of a classic scene for you to point at and recognise, it serves its own purpose and tells its own story.  Most importantly, it’s earnest.  Yeah, the set-up gets stretched to create some funny laughs out of it, but there’s so much genuine heart in it that you immediately buy the relationship before you’ve even seen the pair physically.

Obviously their bond and relationship is shown and re-stated frequently throughout, via actions as well as being told (something that, say, Madagascar didn’t really achieve because it spent the majority of its runtime having its cast snipe at one another for laughs), but the way in which the film just speeds through this initial set-up for new viewers without it feeling like a backstory dump or like we’re skipping out on details is just masterful.  And for long-time viewers of the duo, it’s the kind of heart-warming fan-service reveal that could leave the more emotional in tears of joy.  That may or may not have happened to me when I saw it at the cinema on my 11th birthday in 2005.

By the way; yes, the wall-of-text-breaking embeds are now different Wallace & Gromit shorts instead of anything from the film.  I wasn’t kidding when I said that finding clips from it on YouTube is really bloody hard.  Do you want to see the first Were-Rabbit transformation scene backed by Kid Cudi, of all goddamn things?  Thought not.  Accept this and move on.

0:11:14 – 0:17:12 There is a lot that one could talk about here, but I’m going to zero in on two things specifically in the interests of time and because I’ll come to another one later on.  First, again note how quickly the film establishes the characters of Victor Quartermaine, his dog Phillip, and Lady Tottingham.  How the parallels between Victor & Phillip and Wallace & Gromit are clear but not beaten over the head; how much of pompous, self-entitled jerk Victor is whilst being a laugh riot instead of just being irritating; the connection that Wallace and Lady Tottingham have, and how the film is able to play it as something to put stakse in (vital for later on in the film) but not so much as to think that it’s true love between the pair; the way that it gives a lot of the bunnies individual characteristics so that they’re not just a nebulous “cute bunny” force…

I could go on, but you get my point.  Curse Of The Were-Rabbit is ridiculously good at establishing characters and setting up dynamics as quickly as possible.  Most of the time it takes just the character design, the attached voice, one action and one line of dialogue to convey that information; Totty has ridiculous hair and a haughty (and broad) upper-class accent but is also one-hundred percent genuine with her pleasantries and manner-of-speaking which indicates her upstanding citizenry, whilst Victor’s portly belly and crooked nose betray his slimy, uncaring and villainous nature well before his pompous choice of greeting and overly-theatrical-yet-contemptuous courtship of Totty make it more abundantly clear.  The speed of these set-ups gives the film more time to wring every last possible piece of material from them.

Which brings us to, second: do you notice how British the film’s humour is?  I’ve been sat here for a while trying to figure out the best term to describe it and British is the one that I keep coming back to.  Now, obviously, we’re not the first or only ones to pioneer jokes based around puns, word play and misunderstandings and then to juxtapose them with silly and slightly broad pieces of physical humour; but I feel we’re the only ones who do so with this, well, feel.  Like, everything feels restrained, but not overly so.  The “…in an hour?” and toupee jokes are funny, but the film doesn’t attempt to make them supremely obvious gut-busters or anything; the toupee one, especially, goes the obvious route and then has a more subtle second punchline that catches viewers off-guard with just how funny and rather clever it is.  Whilst the physical gags, like the bunny on Victor’s head, benefit from crackerjack timing and just the right compromise between broadness and subtlety.

It’s really hard to explain in words why the feel of the film, humour and not, is so uniquely British.  It’s just one of those intangible qualities that you just get when watching the film.  Can you imagine what this would have been like if it were made by Americans?  Like, no offense, Americans, I love the non-insane parts of you, but do you really think you’d be able to make a film like this if you tried?

0:26:00 – 0:30:09 OK, I picked this scene because it best exemplifies the way that Curse Of The Were-Rabbit truly makes the most of every last shot.  Note how the majority of shots in this church sequence carry some kind of visual joke, from the obvious – Totty’s background angel wings and stream of light which is openly called out – to the more subtle – the shot straight afterwards where the camera positions a gardening tool directly behind Victor’s head to make it look like he has devil horns.  The cross-fades/match-cuts in and out of the scene and how near-seamless they are, a technique I always appreciate whenever it crops up.  The fact that all of the background extras blink at some point during the scene, even if they’re not doing anything else.  It’s all of these little things that make the world of the film feel more alive, and demonstrate the love and effort poured into every single frame – not just from the thumbprints that you can occasionally see on some of the character’s models.

0:31:23 – 0:32:42 Following on from that, we get a scene that takes those techniques and skills that were applied for comedy not two minutes earlier and applies them to a straight horror scene.  The Were-Rabbit shadow created by Gromit’s ears, the ominous fog, the deathly silence, the clear setting-up of the environment to worry the viewer when stuff changes, the final release with a monster jump scare…  It’s a great example of how the techniques cross over if well used and how a legitimately scary sequence can come straight after one of the film’s funniest gags and not have the result feel tonally jarring.

Also, yes, I picked this so that I can have it on record that 11 year-old me jumped out of his skin at the carrot scare when he saw it in the cinema and that nearly 20 year-old me has still not gotten over that fact.

0:43:04 – 0:47:18 Or, y’know, I could’ve just chosen this scene and shown how the switch between horror and comedy works so fantastically in a scene where such a switch occurs pretty much every other second.  Ah, well.  That lets me briefly touch on the character expressions.  Note the last 20 or so seconds of the sequence where Victor’s absolute shock-filled terror turns to a confident evil-scheming smile as Gromit slowly sinks back in his chair.  See how smooth that change is?  Instead of quickly switching from pose-to-pose, that extra attention to detail goes into both actions to make the whole thing that much more menacing.  It encapsulates the best moments of the film’s animation, for me, where they put in the extra detail and work to make certain expressions and actions carry more weight.  It’s why I can’t not find the times where Gromit walks like a dog adorably funny, because of the specific way his legs are animated.

Are you aware that there are 700 different shots in Curse Of The Were-Rabbit that involve CGI in some way?  No?  Well, that’s exactly my point.  The integration of CGI and stop-motion in this film is so near-seamless that I mentally kicked myself when I found out that sequences like the floating bunnies in the Bun-Vac and the rolling fog were accomplished with CG instead of stop-motion.  Like, duh, of course I should have figured that out but it was so convincing!  Likewise, one would be forgiven for thinking that the Were-Rabbit transformation was achieved with CG instead of stop-motion.  You’d be wrong.  There aren’t even any CG augmentations made to the bit, it’s all done in stop-motion, as demonstrated by this featurette embedded before the next time stamp.  That shot of the foot transformation?  That took a year.  A year.

Two things to take away from this.  One: in case it weren’t abundantly clear already, Aardman did not cut corners anywhere on this thing.  Two: if it’s good enough and it fits the art-style of the rest of the film as closely as possible, you can add little CG augmentations to a stop-motion animated film and nobody will be the wiser.  Laika would recognise this and put it to good work in 2012’s stunning ParaNorman (which, yes, is a thing I did have to bring up because ParaNorman deserves bringing up at every opportunity).

0:54:12 – 0:55:43 First of all, that cross-fade/match-cut between Totty and the cloud is something I have just now noticed and subsequently fallen in love with.  Now, very quickly (because my word limit is coming up fast, here), let’s talk Hutch.  Hutch, upon first impression and especially if you were to know about his existence without having seen a frame of the film, seems like a giant walking alarm bell of studio interference.  A late-film comic relief character who only speaks in repurposed Wallace lines, whose appearance is hilariously cute, will likely be adored by kids and who turns up just as the film seems like it’s going to barrel down Serious Drama Street?  You can probably understand scepticism to him on paper and if said paper was the first time someone had heard of him.

All one needs to immediately discredit such notions is to watch this little scene.  See, rather than painfully contrasting Wallace’s heartbreaking breakdown over the possibility that he may remain a Were-Rabbit for good and sucking the drama out of the scene, Hutch instead compliments the scene.  The delivery and the line itself (taken from A Close Shave, unless I’m mistaken) may be excessively cheery, but that’s the point.  Hutch clearly sympathises with Wallace and Gromit in this situation but, because of the way the mind alteration has worked, that’s all he can say, it’s the only way he can say it and, as demonstrated a few seconds later, he can be a bit slow on the uptake with things.  It’s a very, very clever design choice that makes Hutch a full-on character, no matter how subtly, rather than just a hilarious joke machine – as, yes, it’s also a perfectly timed line with a perfectly timed delivery so one can’t be annoyed it.

And I’ve sailed past the word count limit.  Well, I would love to sit here and talk more about The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, about the other things it does right and favourite scenes and there was going to be a full-on paragraph where I just rattle off my favourite quotes from it, but you are busy people with places to be.  Specifically places that involve watching this near-perfect movie on DVD.  I mean, what kind of horrible person doesn’t own all Wallace & Gromit releases on DVD?  Not the kind of horrible people I want to know, at any rate!

In all seriousness, though, this film really is Aardman’s feature-length masterpiece and as near-perfect a film as one will find.  Due to the ailing health of Peter Sallis, this will most likely be the duo’s only trip to the big screen, but I am OK with that because it is one hell of a trip and to try again would be to risk that reputation.  I say retire Wallace & Gromit and leave the legacy to grow.  The series as a whole is near-perfect and it deserves to go out on the high that it has (or slightly diminished high if you want to count A Matter Of Loaf Or Death) rather than taking any further risks.


Although it wasn’t quite the financial smash they were hoping it to be, DreamWorks Animation still continued their absurdly financially successful streak of films with Wallace & Gromit, along with the prestige of the company’s third Academy Award – although that one belonged to Aardman more than it did DreamWorks.  They were riding a four-film and two-year streak that could seriously have made other studios wonder if there was any foot the company could put wrong financially.  Their next film would only add more strength to such a viewpoint and even win back some critical respect, too.  Next week, we enter 2006 and take a look at Over The Hedge.

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

Callum Petch is using his power, he sells it by the hour.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

The Prince Of Egypt

prince_of_egypt_ver3by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation turns 20.  In celebration, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full on retrospective treatment.

02] The Prince Of Egypt (18th December 1998)

Budget: $70 million

Gross: $218,613,188

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 79%

1998 was a damn good year for animation.  Pixar finally completed work on and released their follow-up to Toy Story in the form of A Bug’s Life, Disney turned in the best of their direct-to-video sequels in the shape of The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, DreamWorks’ debut animated feature Antz was a successful and unique opening statement, whilst Paramount and Nickelodeon finally brought Rugrats to the big screen to enormous success, and, of course, let us not forget that 1998 was the year that Disney gave us Mulan.  1999 would end up topping it (to a degree and with worrying signs that we will touch on next week), but there is no denying the excellency of 1998’s line-up.  For the most part (shuffles Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer The Movie off-stage).  And then, just as the year was wrapping up, DreamWorks dropped one last entry into the absurdly strong animated canon of 1998: The Prince Of Egypt.

You’ll recall from last week that this was supposed to be DreamWorks’ grand entrance into the animation landscape but was ultimately supplanted by Antz thanks to the competitive desires of DreamWorks’ CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg.  You may also recall that A Bug’s Life ended up opening on November the 25th of 1998, which is what Katzenberg was so terrified of, the possibility that A Bug’s Life may end up crushing The Prince Of Egypt at the box office.  Except that it didn’t work out like that.  Opening three weeks after A Bug’s Life, The Prince Of Egypt took a lucrative pre-Christmas release slot and still opened late enough for A Bug’s Life to have sufficiently worn out its box office welcome (it, after all, is very rare for animated film to continue to be very strong performers a month after release and with other options available).  The film opened at number 2, behind You’ve Got Mail (in case you wanted a reminder of just how close to the Millennium we are), but had staying power, actually making more money over the notoriously slow Christmas weekend, dropping rather steadily week-to-week and earning plenty of money during the week, too.  (Check the facts for yourself, here.)

The film was also a strong performer overseas, doubling its domestic American gross, and eventually closed as the highest grossing non-Disney animated film of all-time (until Chicken Run two years later, but we’ll get to that) and the highest grossing traditionally-animated non-Disney film of all-time (until The Simpsons Movie in 2007, which makes this the far more impressive of the two statistics).  But it didn’t stop there, as The Prince Of Egypt wound up scoring something that A Bug’s Life did not, an Academy Award.  Yes, of the studio’s fifteen nominations and three wins, The Prince Of Egypt was responsible for two, Best Original Score Musical Or Comedy (which it lost to Shakespeare In Love because the 1991 Academy Awards, everybody) and Best Original Song (which it won, and was a category that is conspicuously lacking in Mulan, but I digress).  So, yeah, I think it is fair to say that The Prince Of Egypt more than held its own against the raring up of the Pixar juggernaut (although, fun little fact, both would fail to take the 1999 Annie Award for Best Film; that went to The Iron Giant).

Besides, this continual competition that Katzenberg feared that A Bug’s Life would bring was rather moot from the very beginning because, much like with Antz, both films were both doing different things.  Only this time, the similarities only came down to the fact that they were both animated movies coming out around the holidays.  That’s the sole thing both films have in common, but that’s apparently all they needed to become fierce rivals battling for the public’s attention.  Such fears are especially baffling because The Prince Of Egypt is a biblical epic told via the medium of an animated musical.  And it’s not like the public could be in any way confused by the targeted audience of either film; compare the trailer for A Bug’s Life with the trailer for The Prince Of Egypt.

Of course, the true test facing The Prince Of Egypt was the fact that it was a traditionally animated film by a company that was not Disney.  Once upon a time, such a market thrived (hello, Don Bluth) but a whole bunch of middling, at best, animated films (Cats Don’t Dance, The Swan Princess, Once Upon A Forest, Quest For Camelot among many, many others) spoilt such a thing, making Disney pretty much the only consistently strong performer of animated goods, and therefore the only one worth putting down money for.  The fact that most films were trying to emulate the Disney style of storytelling, and ended up doing so really rather poorly, didn’t help things.  Misconceptions nearly always have some basis in truth, after all, it’s rarely just people being ignorant for the hell of it.  For The Prince Of Egypt to stride in, as the new feature film from an animation company that had only just released their debut feature (which was so wildly different in tone, style and animation technique that one could be forgiven for thinking that they weren’t even by the same studio), looking remarkably similar to many sub-par Disney knock-offs on paper and with a budget three times that of most non-Disney failures, was practically inviting premature commercial suicide.

But, as we all know, the film ended up a rousing success.  So, how come?  Well, one could throw some of the credit to the Christmas release window.  A biblical epic released one week away from that most religious of holidays?  That’s practically ordering devoutly religious families to clear a spot on their calendar for a seasonal visit or seven to the cinema!  Plus, it’s based on an Old Testament tale, Moses and his freeing of the slaves of Egypt to be exact, and one that has basis in plenty of other faiths (the film even has a short little bit post-credits where it quotes passages in the Quran, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament that praise Moses and the influence his story has on their faith) to make it very approachable for foreign audiences of different religious persuasion.  It’s also really accurate; though the film takes some liberties with the Exodus text (and admits so before you even see a single frame of film), the production crew called in Bible scholars, theologians of various faiths and Arab American leaders to keep the film as authentic as possible.  It sounds unnecessary, but let’s not forget the recent furores that sparked up over Noah’s deviations from the original tale.  You could also give credit to the title, which is vague enough to draw in the more secular for whom the descriptor “bible story” would send them running for the hills (you may laugh, but Disney named Tangled and Frozen the way they did because they believe that one of the main reasons for the failure of The Princess & The Frog was the fact that “Princess” was in the title), and the trailer promised an action-packed romp that could bring in excited young boys.

You could say all of those things.  I instead choose to believe a simpler, much more naive reason: The Prince Of Egypt succeeded at the box office because The Prince Of Egypt is f*cking brilliant.

As the opening statement for DreamWorks Animation it was clearly intended to be before the whole Antz business happened, The Prince Of Egypt is as bombastic as they come.  Everything carries a grandness to it, the kind that only a large risk-taking budget can provide.  It’s there in the look of the film; environments are large and wide open let crawling in detail, character animations look and feel extremely natural and fluid, conspicuous CG is used to enhance certain scenes and achieve its more audacious effects (like the parting of The Red Sea).  It’s there in the storytelling; which is melodramatic in the best kind of way, where everything is epic in scope and every action is a giant event of great significance, yet it is all rooted in a strong central relationship.  It’s there in the songs (hell, the score in general); which is the definition of grandiose and bombast, with booming choirs harmonising foreboding chants, an orchestra that sounds populated enough to fill an aircraft hangar and whose every note sounds like it’s heralding the incoming apocalypse.  You could not get closer to the kind of overblown historical epics that classic Hollywood used to pump out if you spliced in scenes from The Ten Commandments at random intervals (fitting, considering that the project allegedly came about when Steven Spielberg directly told Katzenberg that he should make The Ten Commandments).

In fact, why am I even describing what the film is like when all I need to do, literally all I need to do, to get you to understand the feel of this film is to just show you the plagues montage?

That is the whole movie.  It remains at that kind of grand sweeping level for the majority of its run time, and that makes the film unique.  Not just for animated films but for films in general, let us not forget that that kind of overblown historical/biblical epic was nearly killed off nearly half a century ago after the production disaster known as Cleopatra (when your film is the highest grossing of the year yet still lost money overall due to the exorbitant budget, history is going to write you off as a failure).  To put it simply, they didn’t make films like this in 1998.  They still don’t, in fact.  There’s genuine spectacle, here, especially helped by the fact that this is one utterly gorgeous film.  This film is 15 years old, I saw it in rather crappy standard definition, possibly poorly upscaled to HD, and it is still one of the best looking animated films I have ever seen.  There’s the detail that accompanies every scene, no matter how small, the smoothness and fluidity of the character animations, the opulence that drips from the Egyptian palace and the meagreness of the residencies of the peasants and the slaves.  And then there are the individual shots, many of which you could divorce from the context of the film and hang up in art galleries and nobody in their right mind would go, “Hang on, why on earth is that here?”

 

Artist Unknown, 1998
Artist Unknown, 1998

But opulence and spectacle unchecked just leads to the realisation that all you’re watching is empty flash, all the pretty visuals in the world can’t save a film without some kind of emotional grounding.  Fortunately, The Prince Of Egypt realises this also and so the dramatic centre of the film comes from the relationship between Moses and Rameses.  In this telling, Moses’ basket is found by the wife of Pharaoh Seti’s consort wife and he is brought up as Rameses’ adopted brother leading to the central dramatic conceit being whether Moses can convince his brother to do the right thing before he has to take everything from him.  The opening third of the film actually does a good job at establishing their relationship, they’re dearly loving brothers with Moses as the troublesome younger sibling and Ramses as the one who is being groomed for leadership and is eager for some kind of acceptance from his father.  The whole film runs on this relationship they both have and its eventual disintegration, and it’s why we take somewhere in the region of at least 50 to 60 minutes before the plagues actually come about.  The film wants to establish its characters before it rains down God’s fury and it works brilliantly; there’s a scene just before the final plague where Moses confronts Rameses one last time and the two recall a memory of a prank that Moses played and it’s genuinely saddening.  It never forgets this central dynamic, even during what should be a thoroughly uplifting climax when it takes the time to show Rameses stuck on a rock in the middle of the sea, futilely shouting Moses’ name to the heavens whilst Moses stands miles away, clearly still full of regret for the loss of that relationship.

Also helping that emotional grounding is some excellent low-key voice work.  The only one who ever lets loose with theatricality is Ralph Fiennes as Rameses, which is rather fitting, actually.  Everyone else plays things very reserved which leads to performances that feel genuine.  Patrick Stewart shows up as Pharaoh Seti and his calm, soothing voice is what really sells the scene where he informs Moses about the slaughtering of the peasants’ first born, as if he thinks it will actually cheer up the horrified Moses.  Val Kilmer plays Moses and his voice work is excellent here, most specifically in showcasing his character’s evolution.  He starts off like Fiennes, very theatrical and jovial and pompous and all that, but he actually changes up his voice as Moses goes through the film, toning down any and all theatricality in favour of a subdued and clearly weary voice, as if he can barely shoulder the weight of his task and the emotional toil and guilt it’s saddling him with.  He also, uncredited, voices God and his performance is so soft and paternal that, quite honestly, it amazes me that this isn’t one of the standards for God portrayals; it fits so damn perfectly.

And speaking of God, I’m pretty sure the thing that pushed The Prince Of Egypt over the top for me, the scene where it clicked that I was watching an incredible movie, was the way it treated The Angel Of Death.  Now, let’s face facts, this scene in concept is utterly horrifying.  I realise that God slaughtering all of the first-born sons of Egypt really is the only way to move Pharaoh and that it’s all for the greater good and how God only did it because he was forced to this extreme, but it is a truly horrifying thing to have happen.  Wisely, The Prince Of Egypt does not attempt to sugarcoat it and depicts the scene exactly as it sounds on paper.  And yet the scene is actually rather beautiful with the way that it’s constructed, the muted and slightly washed-out colour scheme and the impeccable sound design coming together to create a scene that I genuinely feel comfortable calling art.  It doesn’t pull its punches, not one of them, and the result is a wondrous scene of horrifying beauty.  And the film actually lets the scene breathe, it lets the distressing nature of the action linger and settle instead of immediately cutting to happy smiley fun times (the song that follows on actually starts downbeat and despondent and waits a while until it becomes triumphant).  In fact, just watch it, words can’t do it justice.

If there is one thing about The Prince Of Egypt that I don’t like (and it is just the one thing, as I otherwise love this movie), it’s the songs.  They’re not bad; not by any means, they’re all very grand and bombastic and overwrought and that kind of earnest go-for-broke-ness is extremely rare, so they have a charm of their own if nothing else.  It’s just that they’re all kind of… forgettable.  Interchangeable.  Eh.  Other than their overblown nature, they haven’t really got anything going for them.  They lack a tune, they lack something that makes them stand-out.  To compare it to something else that came out in 1998, remember how Mulan had “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You”?  Course you do, pretty much everybody who has seen Mulan can at least hum the basic tune of that at the drop of a hat.  Well, The Prince Of Egypt doesn’t have anything close to that, they all just wander in and out of the film when necessary and lack long term impact or memory.  I also really don’t like “Playing With The Big Boys Now” which is lyrically lazy instead of catchy, does little to advance proceedings and goes on for what feels like twice its actual length.  Oh, and the end credits feature a song by Boyz II Men, in case you wanted a reminder that this was a film made in 1998.

I’m going to admit that I was rather apprehensive going into The Prince Of Egypt.  Growing up, I attended a Junior School that basically forced you to be a Christian and to be knowledgeable about religion, we had mandatory daily prayers and mandatory weekly hymn assemblies with some scripture thrown in for good measure.  So my distancing from religion comes just as much from it being a forced part of my daily life growing up as it did my general lack of faith.  And I do not like being preached to about the wonders of religion; unlike most notable atheists, I’m not opposed to religion as a whole (I actually have a great deal of admiration for people whose faith is strong enough to believe in a divine power that looks down on us all), but I am opposed to people trying to force their way of life upon others.  Therefore, I tend to be apprehensive whenever biblical tales are presented for my filmic enjoyment.  This is a dumb subconscious feeling to have, I am well aware, especially since the Bible is comprised of some of the most classic and compelling narrative conflicts available, but it’s a feeling that continues to sit with me to this day (you’d think that Darren Aronofsky’s superb Noah would have beaten that prejudice into the dirt, you’d sadly be mistaken).

Fortunately, The Prince Of Egypt blows away past that cynical barrier by being like pretty much no other animated film out there.  Its strong emotional centre, its gorgeous animation, its great voice work and its infusion of classic Hollywood excess combine together to create a film that had my full attention from practically frame one and my emotional investment well and truly secured by the 15 minute mark at the latest.  It’s also a film that commits fully to its material; if this were a Disney film, they would have diluted the impact by adding a wacky talking animal sidekick to provide the kids with some mood-lightening laughs (I love Mulan with all of my heart, I would love it ten times more if Mushu were nowhere in sight).  Instead, The Prince Of Egypt is 100% committed to telling its story in the manner and tone that it deserves, and it’s all to its total benefit.  This is one of those films that has slipped into cult classic status almost accidentally, the result of a film that was a smash upon release but just kinda got overshadowed by, and for being so unlike, a studio’s later output, but absolutely deserves its status.  This is a f*cking fantastic film!


With two financial and critical successes under its belt, plus an Academy Award in only its second feature release, it would seem like a safe bet to say that DreamWorks Animation had arrived.  It would, however, be 15 months before they released their next film, one that would underwhelm critically and fall victim to a distressing trend at the box office.  The Road To El Dorado is the film in question and, next week, we’ll see if it truly deserved its fate or not.

A brand new instalment in “DreamWorks! A Retrospective” will be posted every Monday at 1PM here on Failed Critics!  I am also taking suggestions for a much better name for this feature.

Callum Petch went to descend to amend for a friend.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Failed Critics Podcast: 300 Rise of a Critic

Grand Budapest HotelThis week’s podcast introduces a young, fresh-faced critic to the mix in Callum Petch. Much like the plot of Wes Anderson’s new film The Grand Budapest Hotel, this episode sees a classy yet older gentleman (James) taking a young and enthusiastic outsider under his tutelage. At least that’s how James sees it.

We also have reviews of 300: Rise of an Empire and Escape from Planet Earth, as well as our plans for how to save the Die Hard franchise, and some bitter accusations of cheating in the quiz.

Join us next week for reviews of Need For Speed and The Zero Theorem.

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