Tag Archives: Steve Carell

The Big Short

The Big Short

“You want to bet against the housing market, and you’re afraid we won’t pay YOU?”

I’m not a smart guy. I have absolutely no idea what happened in the housing market crash of 2008 and the economic balls-up that followed. I know my hard-earned money suddenly became less valuable and that it was gonna be a few more years before I got to own my house; but outside of that, I am a blinkered, clueless idiot as far as the last few years on Wall Street are concerned.

So what I needed was someone to explain to me what the holy crap happened back then, without talking to me like a complete muppet.

The Big Short was just what I was looking for. The intertwining tale of a handful of financial experts who, through one means or another, figure out that the housing market and the credit bubble associated with it are in the verge of collapse and work on making themselves rich in the process. Based on a true story (again), Christian Bale is the real-life Michael Burry; a brilliant but eccentric hedge fund manager who has a penchant for predicting insane financial changes that no-one else can see. When he discovers that a lot of money can be made when this collapse, that no-one sees coming or believes will happen, he sets about betting against the housing market and making him, and his clients, a fortune.

Obviously, making waves this big attracts attention and Burry’s actions eventually get him noticed by a few others that look to cash in on the banker’s foresight and savvy. Catching the eye of Jared Vennet (Ryan Gosling – who also serves as a narrator of sorts), a trader smart enough to see that Burry is right and poised to make a fortune; he in turn mistakenly lets slip to a couple of traders who work for another hedge fund manager, Steve Carell’s Mark Baum, who also jumps in on the action. As the money hungry bankers are ridiculed for their predictions, more dodgy practices and money magic is discovered that takes the men’s predictions quickly from probable to inevitable and the men go all in; betting their reputations and other people’s fortunes against the incoming crash.

Do you want to know the thing about The Big Short that makes me love it so much? It isn’t the amazing cast. A cast that includes Brad Pitt, Melissa Leo and Marissa Tomei on top of those I’ve already mentioned that all chew the scenery up at any point they are on the screen; and it isn’t the direction from comedy veteran Adam McKay, a guy that can drag a laugh from almost anyone with his films – even if most of them do star Will Ferrell, I won’t hold that against him.

What this film has, much like Wall Street did but, say, The Wolf of Wall Street didn’t, was the ability to explain to me what was going on on-screen as it was happening. I learned a little bit and understood what was happening as it happened because the film let me understand it. More importantly, the book this film was based on was written by Michael Lewis; the same author that wrote the books that would later become Moneyball and The Blind Side. Much like the baseball drama and football biopic did before our film today, they explained what was going on without patronising me or making me feel like a complete imbecile; and that’s a miracle all on its own, especially since when it comes to finance, I am borderline retarded.

The Big Short is a surprisingly funny film that has a very serious message running through it. It’s a scathing look at the financial situation we all found ourselves in in the mid-2000’s and the people that put us there while simultaneously giving us that knew bugger all about what happened a lesson or two in the economics of stealing from the world. The film wonderfully balances the poking fun at the slew of true stories put to film recently with the stark warning that we will face another collapse if we don’t pay attention to the slick bastards in slicker suits.

This amazing film should be required viewing for anyone with a need to be able to spend the money in their wallets; it’s a harsh reminder of things of the past and a warning for our future. But just as important, at least as far as these last few paragraphs are concerned, is that it’s a brilliantly made film that kept me glued to the screen the entire time.

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What I won’t be voting for in 2015

As today is the last opportunity for people to submit votes in our Failed Critics Awards 2015, I thought I might share a few of the movies that I won’t be voting for before midnight tonight.

Specifically, rather than just make a list of terrible releases from across the year (such as The Ridiculous 6, Transporter Refueled, Lost River etc), I’m going to pick those films that flattered to deceive. If you’d have asked me in January, I probably would have sworn blind that the following were guaranteed to make my final top 10 list. Unfortunately, as it happens, none of the following will be included because in their own different ways, they were either not actually that good, disappointingly average, or regrettably just plain bad.


Foxcatcher

steve_carell_foxcatcher1Going into Foxcatcher, it was hard not to be caught up in the Oscar-buzz for Steve Carell’s performance. In fact, on last year’s Awards podcast, James asked us all which films we were most looking forward to in 2015 and I actually picked Bennett Miller’s movie based on a true story about wealthy wrestling coach John E. du Pont (Carell) and his Olympic competitor Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum). Now, I haven’t chosen it for this list because I didn’t enjoy the film. I did! It’s just that the momentum it had built up for the performances was perhaps a little bit unrealistic. If anything, Mark Ruffalo – who I hadn’t heard anything about before going to see Foxcatcher in January – was the standout actor of the three. Mainly because he was so good, as I’ve come to expect from Ruffalo, but the other two just weren’t all they were hyped up to be. Similarly, although I did find the story interesting, it was rather disappointingly told in a somewhat sluggish manner. Lingering on scenes for longer than is necessary far too often slowed the pace down to a crawl and meant that overall, even away from the performances, it just wasn’t quite good enough to break my top 10. Probably not even my top 15 of the year, either.


Legendmaxresdefault-2

Andrew Brooker and I had talked to each other quite extensively about what we were hoping for from the latest glorified re-telling of the lives of notorious London gangsters the Kray twins. Perhaps it’s fair to say that even though I do like Tom Hardy, Brooker is an even bigger fan. Getting to see two Hardy’s for the price of one seemed like reason enough to cross my fingers in hope that this British crime drama would deliver a high quality, gritty, colourful story. Alas, it transpires that no amount of Hardy’s can make a tepid script with woeful narration into a good film.


Avengers: Age of Ultron

Age-of-Ultron-0003Such was the disturbingly low amount of hype for Joss Whedon’s follow up to the spectacular Avengers Assemble that we decided to spin some of our own by creating 10 Avengers Minisode podcasts earlier this year, reevaluating all of the MCU movies to date. Despite some nervous anticipation, I still expected big things from Age of Ultron but it failed to deliver on virtually every level. Firstly, it was far too long and bloated. The cast for the previous outing of our Marvel superheroes was already pretty large, but they balanced enough screen time and dialogue for each to have an integral part to play in developing the story. In this follow up, there are far too many characters who do absolutely nothing except bash each other about the head occasionally. Hardly any two characters have a conversation in this movie without eventually a bout of fisticuffs, or reminiscing about that time they had a fight. I hated the Hulk & Black Widow storyline. The apologetic attempt to give Hawkeye more screen time by shoe-horning in a half-arsed story about his secret family-man life was underwhelming and shallow – and to top it all off, the villain was barely used except for a three-hour long explosion and fight sequence in the final act. Maybe I’ll re-watch it in a year or two and find that it’s decent really and I had just been expecting too much? But right now, it comes across as a badly written set up film for the rest of the MCU yet to come and is one of the biggest let downs of the whole year.


Southpaw

SOUTHPAW

I’ve already summed up my opinion back in August on Antoine Fuqua’s drama starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a boxer who has a spectacular fall from grace. From the trailer alone, I thought Southpaw would be one of the standout films for 2015, with Jake Gyllenhaal still riding high on the crest of his incredible performance in Nightcrawler last year. And just like I mentioned when discussing Foxcatcher further up the page, it was a film that in the end was just “all right”. It was a good performance, it had a good story, it was well directed and well paced, but it lacked a certain element to propel it into greatness. Rather than feeling happy to have seen a good film, instead I left the cinema not ruing the fact I’d spent over two hours watching it, which itself is an indicator that something wasn’t quite right. A big part of the problem is that it doesn’t do anything particularly new or exciting. It felt like I’d seen it all done perfectly well before. Gyllenhaal put on a lot of muscle, his character has a fall and then a rise, there’s a strained home life, he’s a father and a champion etc. Regardless of how well structured it is, it’s hardly groundbreaking material. In the end, it was just another mildly entertaining sports drama.


SPECTRE

spectre-daniel-craigThis might be considered something of a spoiler for the results of the Failed Critics Awards that will be announced early this week (or maybe we should think of it as an exclusive instead) but only one person has voted SPECTRE into their top 10 of the year. One person. To you and I, who have seen 007’s latest outing, it probably isn’t a surprise, given how by-the-numbers it was. However, compared to Skyfall (Eon’s 23rd Bond film that celebrated 50 years of Britain’s worst-kept secret spy) which only narrowly missed out on winning top spot in our awards back in 2012, that’s pretty shocking. Admittedly, I’ve never been that big a fan of the Bond movies, as I discussed with Steve Norman, Tony Black and Brian Plank on our podcast back in October, but even I loved Skyfall. Sam Mendes was the perfect director to blend his visual flair with some good old-fashioned and exciting story-telling. It was for that reason alone that I was really looking forward to SPECTRE, despite being put off by the fact that it was to be the longest Bond film ever at 2 hours 28 minutes. “Starring Christoph Waltz” is as good a reason as any to get me interested in any movie. With the Day of the Dead opening scene in Mexico, the film started off already in about third gear and just plateaued from there. I don’t remember it really ramping up tension or suspense, or taking its foot off the peddle at any point. It just drifted along at an even and enjoyable pace, never feeling like it was dragging at all, but without building to something bigger. It tootled along from point A to point B, to point C, to point D and so on until reaching its destination calmly … and then blowing up £20m worth of Aston Martin. A bit like Age of Ultron, it does suffer from the hangover of its predecessor and will no doubt improve on a rewatch, but to be quite honest about it, I just can’t be bothered with it. I can see why for that one person it might have been in their top 10, but it definitely won’t be in mine.

Foxcatcher

Career defining performances from its three leads leaves you astounded as this bizarre true story unfolds in front of your eyes.

by Andrew Brooker (@Brooker411)

foxcatcher 2It’s no secret amongst filmmakers that some of the best ways to get the Oscar committee’s collective genitals tingling is to give them a true story or a good sports film (note: GOOD sports film. Adam Sandler’s crap “The Longest Yard” remake doesn’t count). So every couple of years a great sports film comes along that’s based on a true story and you just know that it’s destined for one of those DVD covers with its nominations and wins proudly displayed all over the front.

Personally, I never quite know how “famous” a story is. I’ve always loved American sports, combat sports especially and I love to know as much as I can about the sports I watch. It’s how I can spew random American Football facts few in the UK will know or even understand. But it’s also how I went into Foxcatcher already knowing the story of the Schultz brothers Dave and Mark and their time spent with John DuPont and team Foxcatcher. As such, I’m not entirely sure how well known the story is in the UK so for the sake of keeping this review spoiler free, I will keep to the basics and not reveal the end to this tragic true story.

Shortly after winning Olympic gold with his brother, wrestler Mark Shultz (Channing Tatum) is invited to meet with eccentric multi-millionaire John DuPont (Steve Carell) who proposes Mark’s relocation to Pennsylvania to train for the upcoming wrestling World Championships at the newly formed Team Foxcatcher. Encouraged to bring his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) along with him to the team, Mark jumps at the opportunity. His sibling opts to stay where he is and not move his family, leaving Mark alone with DuPont.

A man used to getting everything he wants, John DuPont’s pursuit of wrestling success from his team is as unrelenting as his pursuit of Dave Shultz. What he can’t win honestly, he’ll buy. And what he can’t get dishonestly, just isn’t worth his time. Seeing success with Foxcatcher in the championships and beyond, DuPont starts to build his own little empire with him, and his ability to talk Mark Shultz into anything, at the centre of it.

It’s a bizarre true story to tell. John DuPont is a petulant child in a grown man’s body. Literally stomping his feet when things don’t go his way. But as an insanely wealthy grown up, he gets to throw money at the problem and get exactly what he wants one way or another. Combine this with him forcing himself into Mark Shultz’s life as a much needed father figure and using it to control him, there isn’t much that the weird philanthropist can’t do or get where his wrestling aspirations are concerned. As the story progresses and we see things come apart at the seams for all involved, it’s DuPont’s instability and it’s affects on all those he surrounds himself with that takes centre stage.

Director Bennett Miller is beginning to make a habit of bringing us outstanding, Oscar worthy pictures. Previously directing the late, great, Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote and Brad Pitt in Moneyball, his latest addition to his filmography easily compares to either of his earlier offerings. I think it’s important to mention 2011’s Moneyball because I believe it holds more significance than being just another great, Oscar nominated sports film. Miller gave the world an opportunity to see Jonah Hill as more than a doofus comedy actor. He worked so hard and left such an impression on the audience that it earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination and I think this may be where Miller’s directorial genius will be recognised in the future.

Steve Carell surprised me with his performance. Besides his strange posture throughout the film that makes it look like he’s scared of his makeup slipping off. He looks like a dog trying to balance an invisible biscuit on his snout and a glass of water on his head. The entire top half of his body barely moves! That said, his portrayal of John DuPont was simply out of this world and he deserves all the fanfare that he’s currently receiving for the role. DuPont is obsessed with his power. The power he buys and the power he forces upon others. His obsession with wrestling and his need to turn himself into Team Foxcatcher’s mentor and an all-American hero consumes him and there is an air about the man that it will eventually be his downfall. Carell is almost unrecognisable as the teams self-made patriarch and if there aren’t awards in his future, I would be very surprised.

Equally deserving of praise are Carell’s co-stars. Of course, we’ve all seen Mark Ruffalo in dramatic roles before and as the older Shultz brother, he’s as impressive here as he has been in any other role. His commitment to the part shows in his build and his demeanour. Telling as much of his story with his body as the rest of the film does with dialogue. The man that’s equally as committed to his family as he is his sport shows a weariness in his movement telling of a man working hard for his team.

Channing Tatum though. I was genuinely in awe of his performance here. His portrayal of Mark Shultz opposite Carell’s DuPont is absolutely outstanding. The mental and physical abuse he allows DuPont to subject him to is played just right by an actor that constantly surprises me. What differentiates him from his Jump Street co-star’s turn in Moneyball is subtle hints of being weak willed and simple minded. Hill went from comedy actor to drama actor with a great turn. Tatum has gone from comedy actor and beefcake to a dramatic actor who stops quite a bit short of his Jump Street “my name is Jeff” performance and shows how easily the world class wrestler is influenced through his body language and his interactions with Steve Carell. We’re not talking Forrest Gump or Rain Man here. But we are talking just enough for the audience to look at Shultz and say “Man, is that dude ok?”, a turn like that from an actor mainly regarded for his abs, is just as worthy of recognition as any other actor in this piece.

Foxcatcher is a consistently brilliant drama. Stunning performances from its stars that deliver every line, every look and every grapple convincingly. All set to a perpetually gloomy atmosphere with an underlying air of menace making for an amazingly directed and brilliantly acted dramatic masterpiece.

Over The Hedge

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.


over the hedge12] Over The Hedge (19th May 2006)

Budget: $80 million

Gross: $336,002,996

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 75%

For a lot of movie folk, that is to say folk that work in movies, there is a saying that I imagine follows them around everywhere like a really annoying ghost that just won’t quite get the hint and leave already: “you’re only as good as your last film”.  It’s definitely applicable to prominent animation companies whose filmic output has a kind of studio auteurship attached to whatever they do put out.  Like, nobody looks at Shrek and goes, “Oh, that’s an Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson joint!” just like how nobody looks at Madagascar and goes “That is an Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath production!” (although they should, we’ll come back to them later in the series).

With animation, unless the director has already been established (Genndy Tartakovsky, Lauren Faust when Medusa eventually graces us with its presence) and even then they often have to switch to other medium to make their names very recognisable (Phil Lord and Chris Miller), we typically don’t care about who’s making it.  It’s the studio we focus on, and frequently just the studio.  This is why that standing of Pixar has taken a major hit in the past few years, because their last three films (Cars 2, Brave, Monsters University) ranged from “good” to “shockingly poor” and we expect better of the studio.  This is why Disney are advertising Big Hero 6 as “From The Creators of Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen”, because those were the studio’s last big hits and they indicate that Disney aren’t coasting on their reputation from several decades ago.  Hence the application of the phrase, “You’re only as good as your last film.”

DreamWorks Animation’s last film in April of 2006 was the universally lauded Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit.  Except that everyone, arguably quite rightly, attributed that film’s success to its main production company, Aardman Animations.  Therefore, DreamWorks Animation’s real last film in April of 2006 was Madagascar.  Critics didn’t really like Madagascar.  Oh, sure, the public liked Madagascar, but the public also liked Shark Tale.  I sort of like Madagascar, but hopefully you get what I mean.  It had been about 2 years since Shrek 2 and their one knock-out since then came from a different company that they were affiliated with rather than themselves.  DreamWorks films at that time seemed to be a lot like Adam Sandler comedies, devoid of quality and critical approval yet inexplicably popular with the public.

Therefore, the critical success of Over The Hedge probably came as a surprise to a lot of people, especially since their next few films would firmly restate that, no, DreamWorks had not gotten their mojo back yet.  The film ended up Certified Fresh, no less, and many critics awarded it praise for being cleverer, funnier, and just plain better than the other animal related animated movies coming out around that time (2006 was the point in which that particular sub-genre hit over-saturation as the destination of this link will demonstrate).  It even beat out Cars, overall, a feat that I’m pretty sure most caused most people to perform spit-takes the length of whatever room they were in when they got the news.

Financially, the film was a decent success, although, much like with last week’s Wallace & Gromit, not to the degree that DreamWorks would have liked.  Over The Hedge debuted in second place with a very respectable $38.4 million.  It’s just that, y’know, The Da Vinci Code opened to double that.  In any case, the film held strong over the following two weekends against X-Men: The Last Stand and The Break-Up.  Then Cars happenedOver The Hedge would close with $155 million domestic and $180 million from international markets, marking a $336 million gross against an $80 million budget, but it only lasted five weeks in the Top 10 domestically and not once did it sit atop the chart.  The film was a success, but it arguably wasn’t a big enough success, it wasn’t a Shark Tale level success, which is probably why the planned sequel never happened.

In fact, one could see this “mediocre” box office performance against a critical success as a precursor to the studio’s current problem, especially if one wants to take the Adam Sandler comparison further.  Both got their starts on the motion picture stage with pretty darn good films that attained critical respect of some degree and a healthy financial following from the public.  Both proceeded to coast once their big financial breakthrough occurred with critically-trashed films that kept making a tonne of money despite their often audience-insulting content.  Both occasionally break out of their rut to show off their skills in critically acclaimed films that either underwhelm or out-right bomb financially, sending them scurrying right back to what pays.  DreamWorks, obviously, have kicked their arses into gear these past few years, unlike Adam Sandler, and we’ll get to that, so the metaphor falls apart here but hopefully you see what I’m getting at.

It’s weird how the mass public at large keeps rejecting those DreamWorks films that are actually really good.  Remember, Mr. Peabody & Sherman from this year is a financial failure and it took multiple weeks for people to change their opinions on whether or not How To Train Your Dragon 2 was actually a financial success.  Unlike a lot of critics, I tend to give kids the benefit of the doubt when it comes to films aimed at them.  I don’t settle for “good enough” and I don’t let people get away with slinging unwatchable crap their way because kids deserve better and, frequently, do actually know better.  Yet, more recent non-franchise DreamWorks films keep underwhelming.  Do you think it could be burnout?  Poor advertising; after all, I thought Mr. Peabody & Sherman looked like garbage until I actually watched the finished film…

Sorry, I’m just spitballing ideas of various kinds in public.  Back to Over The Hedge.

Like a lot of other DreamWorks movies (see also: Sinbad, Shrek, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, How To Train Your Dragon), Over The Hedge is only very loosely related to its source material, a long-running newspaper comic of the same name.  In fact, it’s still going strong today, as evidenced by the fact that its website is still posting strips and that the guy who does the drawings – Michael Fry – keeps following, and promptly unfollowing me immediately after, on Twitter whenever I mention this film or sometimes just DreamWorks in general.  Now, if, for some reason, Mr. Fry is reading this article, perhaps with a Monday morning cup of coffee in hand and his feet on some kind of footrest, I would like to humbly admit that I am not familiar with the comic strip.  In my defence, I’m British.  The closest we get to proper newspaper comics in this country is Andy Capp, and nobody should ever have to read Andy Capp.

However, not knowing the source material can oftentimes set one at an advantage when looking at a film.  After all, then you’re not spending forever watching a film and mercilessly comparing it to its source material; looking for changes, big or small, good or bad, nitpicking at every little thing and such.  Instead, you get to look at it on its own merits, judge it on its own merits.  I, for example, recognise that both live-action/CG Garfield films are terrible in their own right, but I will never not be able to separate them from my childhood love of the Garfield & Friends TV series, trade paperbacks of the comics and the subsequent horror I experienced when I saw Garfield dancing to Black Eyed Peas.

Oh, look at me dancing around the issue!  Dance-y, dance, dance!  “Callum, just tell us if Over The Hedge is any good, already!  Stop time-wasting!”  Fine!  OK!  I’ll admit it!  I really liked Over The Hedge!  You happy now?

I’ll admit that the real reason why I spent so long dancing around the issue of whether Over The Hedge is good or not came down to the fact that I did not like Over The Hedge when I was 11.  I was one of those kids that I spent a few paragraphs back being bemused over.  I’m rather ashamed of this fact, to be frank, as two years earlier I had really enjoyed Shark Tale and I can’t get away with the “I was a stupid goddamn teenager” excuse because I was 11 and still watched Cartoon Network religiously; it wouldn’t be for another two years until my stupid goddamn teenager habits kicked in.  And the reason why I tried to avoid admitting that is because it undermines one of my key arguments as to why Over The Hedge holds up better than anything DreamWorks Animation solely produced between 2003 and 2006.

It really is just as good for adults as it is for kids.  See why I didn’t want to divulge disliking that movie when I was a kid?  Fact of the matter is, watching this back for the series, I don’t even get why I disliked it, but I did and that very fact undermines this very argument.  Nonetheless, despite 11 year-old me being a total nitwit, Over The Hedge really does work about equally for kids and adults.  The issue, the one that I imagine was the thing that made me dislike the film when I was its target market, is that it often doesn’t achieve this by double-coding.  For example, go back to the first Shrek and its “Do you think he’s compensating for something?” line regarding Farquard’s castle.  For kids, it’s a joke about his short height.  For adults, it’s a joke about his tiny penis.  Hell, Lord Farquad’s name in general!  For kids, it’s a silly name.  For adults, it sounds like one of your friends saying “f*ckwad” with a bad Mark Wahlberg impression.  There are some jokes just for kids and some just for adults, but mostly they cross over with one another.

By contrast, Over The Hedge tends to segregate its jokes with only the occasional cross-over in intended audience.  Kids get fart jokes, a wacky comic relief character burping his ABCs, and the sight of a nearly-bald woman being elbow-dropped by police officers.  Adults get casting in-jokes, Ben Folds songs, and a lot of not-particularly-subtle satire against white middle-class suburban life.  Can you see why kids – and it is kids that drive the success of lower-than-PG-13-animated films due to that continued mainstream stigma that this kind of animation is only enjoyable to children and nobody else, make no mistake – mostly rejected Over The Hedge, especially when the much broader and more-focussed-at-them Cars came along?  Unlike that film, which double-coded properly, Over The Hedge has long stretches where kids don’t really have anything to command their attention (besides some character designs and animation that… honestly kept looking rather off-putting to me).

Maybe that’s why I really like Over The Hedge now.  The purely kid-focussed gags are rather minimal; most of the laughs created for them that aren’t fart jokes etc. come from bits of physical humour which, assuming it’s good enough, crosses between both demographics.  Therefore, the really bum jokes don’t drag down the pace of the film for long stretches at a time, as it skips the easy jokes in favour of genuine satire and jokes coming from the characters.  And, yes, the satire may not be, say, Network or Great Dictator or In The Loop levels of razor-sharp, but watch RJ’s monologue about food and see how many aspects of human nature you can apply it to when you strip out the specific ties to food and overconsumption.

Throughout, the film takes swipes at that lifestyle, of the clueless people who inhabit it, of the inconsiderate way we tend to view wildlife that encroaches upon our picture-perfect surroundings, and the cost our desire for more puts upon nature and the environment… all things that more than likely flew right over the heads of kids.  After all, how are they going to relate to jokes about how suburbia and its white middle class inhabitants, as well as those who often engage in that selfish excess behaviour, are gigantic assholes?  Note that I’m not knocking the film for this.  After all, remember, I don’t rate animated films based on how much kids will like them, I’m just noting why it didn’t catch on the same way that, say, Madagascar did.  The humour is primarily just a little too intelligent, a little too subtle, for kids to completely appreciate, and there’s too much of a gap between the broader jokes for most kids to remain entranced by, especially when Cars would appeal to them more.  Again, I’m basing this off of personal experience, so I could be wrong, but at least you’ve got an idea where I’m coming from.

And on the note of “too subtle for kids to appreciate”, the fact that these Ben Folds songs didn’t become massive and nominated for several Academy Awards is one of the great crimes of this modern age.  OK, obviously not that bad, but you get the idea.  The thing about the Ben Folds songs, and the reason why I love them way more than any other song utilised in a DreamWorks film so far, besides the fact that it’s Ben Folds, is that they work even if you remove the context of the film.  A lot of the original songs in films like Spirit, The Road To El Dorado and Joseph are too on-the-nose, too desperate to link into the film they feature in, and their frantic attempts to tie in end up causing songs to lack hooks or memorable lyrics or something that sticks with you after the film has finished.

Compare that with “Heist”.  There’s the ultra-catchy horn riff, the vocal harmonies in the background, a super simple yet fun to sing chorus, and the lyrics relate to the film whilst still being open and non-specific enough to apply to similar situations that aren’t the film.  Also, despite the toe-tapping and upbeat nature of the song, there’s this tinge of melancholy throughout, as if the narrator knows that the train he’s talking about will eventually stop and maybe even sooner than anticipated, that makes the track stick with me.  The “da-da-da”s that initially sounded carefree and triumphant now sound slightly unsure, even mocking.  There’s a sense of regret, of fear of some kind of inevitability, and it is so f*cking clever that I have literally no clue as to why it didn’t become some kind of breakout cross-over hit.

(I’ve had it on constant loop on my iPod for the last week.)

But look, great goddamn Ben Folds songs (even the family friendly re-write of “Rockin’ The Suburbs”, although not as venomous and hysterical as the original version, is insightful and entertaining) and smart, funny satire are all well and good.  Without some kind of emotional base underpinning the film, though, Over The Hedge would just be a more intelligent Madagascar; entertaining, yes, but lacking in substance and memorability.  Fortunately, and more so than any other DreamWorks film covered in this series so far post-Sinbad, Over The Hedge feels like a film whose production was started because somebody wanted to tell a story with characters, rather than a business executive going “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny is Will Smith voiced a fish?” and greenlighting said film with nothing more to it than the dollar signs that lit up his eyes.

Though it is a bit over-stuffed when it comes to characters, to the degree that a lot of them can be boiled down to one specific trait without too much work, the majority do get character arcs of some kind and are not just here to act as designated comic relief.  They’re characters, characters of their own kind and any influence their voice actors may have on them is purely down to their having been cast and the voice they bring to the table.  Or, to put it another way: Ozzie is a possum and his technique for playing dead is to be as hammy and overly dramatic as is humanly possible.  William Shatner plays Ozzie so, obviously, he Shatner’s the scene in which Ozzie has to play dead as a distraction.  But rather than feel like a “Hey!  We got William Shatner to do that thing William Shatner does!” moment, one that pulls somebody out of the experience by feeling more like a casting gag than something that comes from the character, it still feels in character for Ozzie to over-act that much.  It’s his trait, his choice – Shatner just adds to the performance.

And besides, one can’t really remain that cynical about what may or may not have been done for snarky in-jokes and pop culture references.  Not when everything in Over The Hedge is brimming with heart.  In the characters who constantly re-enforce the bond they share with one another instead of just being needlessly cruel to each other for 80-odd minutes, in the script which has clearly been honed and refined as much as possible so that there’s a genuine reason for every joke (this is why the THX gag got a full-on laugh out of me instead of a sigh of derision), for the characters so that they don’t end up interchangeable or painfully one-dimensional, in the character development that ensures that the attempts at emotion actually mean something…  Dammit, somebody wanted to tell a story!  Somebody came to this project with the intention of telling a story and saying something!  That desire infects nearly every part of the film and bleeds out into the viewer, which helps elevate the parts that work and make the whole damn great.

It’s not perfect, though.  Besides the aforementioned younger end of the audience likely being lost – after all, they’re probably expecting something as broad as Shrek 2, it’s by the same people, so a more intelligent comedy based more around an emotional centre may end up turning them off – and skipping the animation and character designs (as my opinion on them keeps shifting every few minutes), the big issue for me that keeps Over The Hedge from that upper echelon is the two leads.  Not the characters of RJ and Verne, the voice actors that portray them, Bruce Willis and Gary Shandling.  Now, the rest of the cast are mostly great and give off the impression of being cast due to their being the best people for the job (the aforementioned Shatner, Steve Carell, who would later go on to prove his VA talent with the Despicable Me series, and Allison Janney being the standouts) rather than for stunt casting.  OK, maybe not so much Avril Lavigne but she’s also decent enough to make that not an issue.

Willis and Shandling… really aren’t.  Willis’ problem is that he’s inconsistent, both in terms of quality and in terms of tone.  Some of his lines and some of his entire scenes are near spot-on, especially when he plays the too-cool guide to the suburbs for the forest residents.  Other times, he’s, well, post-2000s Bruce Willis, lazy, bored, more than a little flat.  Then there are multiple times where it’s clear that scenes are being stitched together from individual line takes, like the previously-embedded rabid squirrel scene.  Shandling is more consistent, which is his problem.  Instead of being a warm, comforting leader/father-figure presence, his lines are almost universally flat and lacking in emotion.  It’s especially bad whenever Verne has to display emotion because Shandling, well, doesn’t and that robs many scenes, especially the ones where Verne is supposed to be scared, of a fair chunk of their power.  Much of the film hangs on these two leads, and Shandling is never good whilst Willis is really inconsistent; both of which end up distracting.

Hang on, I’m starting to sound like I’m down on Over The Hedge.  Let me change tack real quick…  Over The Hedge, then, is a damn great film and a definite bright spot in the non-Aardman mid-2000s DreamWorks’ catalogue.  It achieves this primarily by being a film, with characters and substance and heart, instead of a formula pitch that was rushed into production half-finished before it had the chance to lose any potential cash.  That sounds like damning with faint praise, but it really isn’t meant to be.  It’s a highly entertaining film with stuff to say, likeable characters whose arcs feel genuine instead of forced, legitimately funny jokes and, yes, great Ben Folds songs.  It may not break any ground, it may not crack anybody’s Favourite Animated Films Ever lists, and it most likely sails right over the heads of children, but it is a damn great film at what it does, balancing cynical satire with heart-on-sleeve character work better than I’ve seen a lot of vastly inferior animated films try this year.

So, hey!  Turns out that Younger Me was wrong again, only this time in a good way!  How’s about that?


As their first film distributed by Paramount Pictures, Over The Hedge was a qualifiable success, winning back some critics that their past few films had lost but coming up short financially compared to everything else they’d produced.  Understandably, many could have been wary about the film for their own reasons; DreamWorks with the possibility that their box office days may have begun a steady decline, and critics who may have been wary that one good film doesn’t mark a total turn around for the company as a whole.  Their next film would reset to the status quo, somewhat saddeningly.

However, before that, we have to take one last trip over to Aardman Animations for their second film in two years, the first that was made all in CGI, the last one they would make with DreamWorks, their first release to not receive universal acclaim, and a film sold as “From the creators of Shrek and Madagascar.”  Next week, we look at Flushed Away and see whether 2006 Me was right to be immensely disappointed by it.

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

Callum Petch will tell y’all what it’s like being male, middle-class and white.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

The Way, Way Back

THE WAY, WAY BACKThe success of winning an Oscar for their screenwriting work on Alexander Payne’s The Descendants opened some doors for Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who have spent most of their careers acting in minor roles in US sitcoms and comedy films. The Way, Way Back is their directorial debut, and is a sweet and very funny coming-of-age story with a whiff of autobiography.

Duncan (Liam James with the adolescent awkwardness of a young Michael Cera, but countered by a beautiful melancholy) is a 14-year-old spending the summer with his mother (Toni Collette) and her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell in brilliantly dickish mode) and his daughter at Trent’s beach house. Duncan and Trent’s relationship is strained, and it only gets worse when Trent attempts to give the young man a pep talk and ends up writing him off as a “3-out-of-10”. Duncan spends the summer trying to avoid the embarrassingly debauched antics of Trent and his friends, and is befriended, and then employed by Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manger of a local water park.

As soon as Rockwell hits his stride the film takes off in a wonderful fashion. Owen is the perfect Peter Pan-esque blurring of surrogate father and elder brother that both Duncan, and the film, needs. Too often I’ve seen promising US indie films stare at their navel and forget to make the audience smile (Adventureland, I’m looking at you), but Rockwell delivers a performance of such charm, energy, and out-right hilarity that the audience never gets a chance to think about the possibility of getting bored.

Yet despite Rockwell doing his best to hog the limelight, this is one of the finest ensemble cast performances I’ve seen all year. As well as Carell and Collette, the roll call of supporting actors is pretty much a who’s who of US indie comedies, with great performances from Alison Peet, Rob Corddry, and Maya Rudolph; meanwhile Nat Faxon and Jim Rash also get a chance to show off their comic skills as employees at the water park, And almost stealing the show from Rockwell is the incredible Allison Janney as Trent’s flirtatious, drunken neighbour, and it’s a good job she doesn’t share any screen time with Rockwell as I’m not sure the fabric of the universe could cope with the awesomeness that would entail.

Although the film briefly wallows in sentimentality and hackneyed nostalgia, it’s such a warm and funny film that I am more than prepared to forgive its minor flaws. In a decent year for comedy, this stands out as one of the best yet.

The Way, Way Back is released in cinemas today.

Failed Critics Podcast: Elysium, Batfleck, and sweaty nerds

Elysium Matt DamonWelcome to this week’s slightly less shambolic Failed Critics podcast. We’ve tinkered with the format, and are hopefully this close to solving our audio problems. For the time being though, sit back, relax, and let us talk you through the week in cinema.

We’ve got reviews of new releases Elysium, The Heat, and The Way, Way Back; plus Beware of Mr Baker, Wadjda, and the Coen Brother’s True Grit in What We’ve Been Watching. We’ve also got recommendations for the next week on television, Lovefilm, and new on DVD, and we discuss the online flap over the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman.

Join us next week for the fully transformed podcast, featuring interviews and a report from the premiere of UK film Jadoo, plus reviews of Pain & Gain and You’re Next.

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Despicable Me 2

despicable-me-2-gru-edith-agnes-margoThere’s something you should know before we get started. I liked the original Despicable Me quite a lot, but nowhere near as much as my girlfriend does. The fact that she is currently on her second Despicable Me message tone should tell you all you need to know about that. Accordingly, while it is held in high esteem in my household and was one of the more unexpected successes in recent animation, I don’t even consider it the best animation of 2010 (Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon are superior).

Enter the sequel. Gru is (spoiler alert) now on the straight and narrow and turning his talents (and minions) to the manufacture of jams and jellies. Meanwhile, his ‘girls’ and his neighbours are encouraging him to go dating. Gru seems more concerned with grappling with parenthood and fruit than with women, but his life gets disrupted when, without spoiling too much, he ends up on the other side of the super-villain/forces of good battle.

On the plus side, the trailers that have been infiltrating my cinematic experience for what seems like aeons haven’t told us all this already, being instead dominated by the unlikely stars of the original, Gru’s minions (a standalone Minions film is in the works). Disappointingly though, the trailers turned out to be entire scenes from the film, leaving regular cinema-goers like myself unexpectedly disengaged at a couple of points simply because you have already seen what’s unfolding at least 25 times before.

That’s one of my only criticisms though and, fortunately, the trailer scenes were far from the ‘best bits’. Unlike many sequels, the charm of the original is ever-present here and the quality is consistently high. Agnes is one of the most impossibly cute characters in cinematic history and melted even my usually cold, dark heart. Her siblings, likewise, provide their own attributes to give some variety to the child characters. This is in fact one of the more refreshing aspects of Despicable Me 2: there is more development of the contrasts between Fairy Princess party-loving Agnes and teenager Margo, experiencing the flourishing sentiment and excitement of adolescence. And we have Edith, an all-action tomboy who rejects the classic ‘girly’ stereotype, criminally underused because Kristen Wiig’s secret agent Lucy is covering the action girl side nicely.

For all the plaudits of Brave’s ‘alternative’ princess, this shows a more rounded view of the different identities modern girls can take. Lucy neatly combines the three siblings’ features: at times innocent, at times arse-kicking, at times emotionally vulnerable. It’s nice to see a female lead who isn’t simply a masculine action hero or just a vulnerable, soft-centred romantic, but both. Beyond the females, there is an excellent supporting cast and enough variety to give everyone in the audience something to relate to.

As good as the characters are though, it’s the humour that sets the film apart. Despicable Me 2 is not only funnier than its predecessor, it’s funnier than most of the comedies I’ve watched recently (yes, The Campaign, you especially). It doesn’t have the originality of the first film of course, so there is less reliance on gags around Gru’s villainy. Thankfully, the creators have chosen to find comedy from a wider range of sources rather than mining the same resource to the point of overuse.

There are jokes for all ages too, with knowing nods to parents and a plethora of references alongside more slapstick and child-centric gags. Universal Pictures/Illumination Entertainment seem to be forging a path here amongst titans like Pixar and Dreamworks, thanks largely to their ability to do what those two do so well: create films that are funny enough to make the entire audience laugh and touch us emotionally too.

A quick note on the visuals. I watched the 2D version (obviously) so I have no idea if the 3D is any good, but there is a definite step up in quality from the first. Some of the final scenes in particular are absolutely gorgeous and there is an attention to detail reminiscent of Pixar, particularly in terms of the nods to other films. That said, there is nothing quite at the level of the first’s Lehman Brothers gag or the priceless masterpieces hidden away in the girls’ bedrooms and I want to manage expectations: this isn’t as good as Pixar at their best. Having had the trailer for Planes before watching this though, I think it’s safe to say hopes are pinned on Monster’s University providing a return to previous standards (and, dare I say it, artistic integrity over merchandising sales).

More than anything, going to the cinema to watch this film was an enjoyable experience. Sometimes you are reminded why we go to the cinema in the first place. Whether it’s an all-out action film like The Raid or a film that genuinely caters to the entire family like this, we pay to go to the cinema to be entertained and have a good time. Yes, the prices are steep. Yes, other people are really annoying. Yes, Odeon Premiere seats are an appalling example of capitalist greed. But when a film is this good, all that gets forgotten. I recommend catching this on the big screen as watching it with a backdrop of little kids’ laughter enhances the experience (kudos to the little girl behind me who kept shouting ‘NEE-NAW-NEE-NAW’ at inappropriate points for making us chuckle too).

Charming, funny and pretty nice to look at, I walked out of Despicable Me 2 with a big smile on my face that stayed there for a long time. Frankly, if you go to watch this film at the cinema and don’t walk out smiling, I’d get to the nearest hospital and ask them to check your vital signs. You might be dead. Even a super-villain like Gru was charmed by it all, for God’s sake.

Failed Critics Podcast: World War Z

world-war-z-headerWelcome to this week’s Failed Critics Podcast, featuring some lifeless, shuffling, mindless abominations…TALKING ABOUT ZOMBIES! Pretty sure we’ve used that joke before as well. Sorry.

As well as reviewing World War Z (starring Brad Pitt), we also discuss new releases in the shape of This Is The End and Now You See Me, and pay tribute to James Gandolfini and Ray Matheson who sadly passed away in the last seven days.

Join us next week for a Triple Bill of the Worst Movie Jobs (in ‘honour’ of The Internship), and maybe even a new release or two.

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Failed Critics Review: End of Watch

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña in End of WatchThis week on the Failed Critics Review we look at the cop film that French Connection director William Friedken described as the “best movie about cops ever made”. Can James get over the found footage angle? Can Steve suggest a way he would have done it better? Can Gerry get around to seeing it? (No).

Also on this week’s podcast we look at James’ future wife Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone, and discuss films as varied as Network, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, and The Devil’s Backbone.

Next week’s episode is the launch of the Failed Critics Hall of Fame, where we award some poor Oscar-less schmuck with some award I’ll try and rustle up on Photoshop.

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