My Favourite Films #46: The Return of the Jedi

In Clerks, Dante Hicks dismisses the third film in the Star Wars trilogy saying “All Jedi had was a bunch of muppets”. It’s a harsh assessment of the movie, but highlights a problem that some viewers have with the movie. The Ewoks.

ewok-wicket

This alien race, who look like teddy bears, are the kind of thing that little kids love, but for older audiences appear rather cutesy and twee. Personally, I quite like the Ewoks, because their guerrilla tactics against a superior foe are surprisingly brutal and they are kinda cute. Also, they don’t look so bad after some later additions to the universe.

jar jar

While it’s not as good as Empire, I still love this movie, which continues the trilogy’s crowd pleasing, entertaining action. It brings the Darth Vader (the body of David Prowse voiced by James Earl Jones) story to an end, with him earning redemption thanks to the faith and goodness of his son Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Their final showdown where the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) attempts to get Luke to give in to the Dark Side is well done, with Luke finally realising what’s going on and stopping himself.

Vader, witnessing this mercy and then the Emperor’s attack on Luke finally rediscovers his good nature, lost years earlier. He sacrifices himself to kill the Emperor and Luke escapes before the Rebels manage to destroy the second Death Star, which they had been tricked into believing was yet to be operational.

trap

The Death Star, half built and hanging in space is visually striking and the revelation that the Emperor has set a trap for the good guys raises the stakes greatly and sets up the largest space battle of the series.

Meanwhile, on the planet there’s a different battle going on as Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) lead a small rebel force, and the Ewoks against the Empire’s forces to try and disable the force field that protects the Death Star. The fight, which sees the primitive Ewoks triumph through ingenuity and surprising viciousness (their cuteness distracts from the fact they are straight up murdering Stormtroopers).

Han Solo’s rescue from Jabba’s clutches is a cracker, providing some old school heroics from Luke Skywalker, and shows Leia is a badass herself, having posed as a bounty hunter she thaws out the frozen smuggler only to be kidnapped, but she gets free and kills Jabba. It’s a shame all these heroic moments have been overshadowed in the public consciousness by her golden bikini.

princess-leia-luke-skywalker

Of course, the movie also includes the big reveal that Luke and Leia are twin siblings, which Luke discovers from the dying Yoda (Frank Oz). It changes the dynamic between the two, and works rather well. It also clears the way for Han and Leia’s relationship to blossom fully, and this is the heart for much of the movie, with the two’s bickering softening and Han confessing his feelings this time around.

What makes this movie work is the ending, where good triumphs and Luke makes peace with his father, and the galaxy celebrates. It’s an entirely satisfying ending to the series and while it’s since been added to, it still serves as a solid ending.

There’s heroism, resolution and some cracking intergalactic action, and just like the other two movies it continues to entertain years and many rewatches later.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #45: The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars was a game changer in many ways, in terms of blockbusters and memorabilia but it’s the second movie in the original trilogy that’s impact is still felt. Countless film series made since has attempted to follow the Empire model with the second movie having a darker, more downbeat ending that leaves the heroes in poor shape before they rally in the third part.

But although often imitated, The Empire Strikes Back has never been matched and is still the stand out movie in the four part Star Wars saga. I fell in love with the first movie, but it paled when I saw this one, and this is where I became a lifelong fan of the series.

tumblr_inline_onhkk9aje71uvnusf_540

Unlike a lot of movies which include a massive twist, this movie is more than just that big reveal. The moment where the villainous Darth Vader (body by David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones) reveals that Obi Wan was telling porkies and that he is actually Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) father is one that has slightly lost it’s impact thanks to countless rip offs and gags, but for audiences in 1980 it must have been an absolute stunner.

If I have kids I’m going to show them the Star Wars trilogy at a young age and hopefully ensure that this twist is fresh for them, as it’ll probably make more of an impact.

The reveal sets up the finale brilliantly, but it also contributes to the downbeat ending which made Empire so special. The end of the movie finds our heroes in a bad way, Luke is reeling from the news his enemy is his papa and has lost a hand, Leia (Carrie Fisher) has finally admitted that she loves Han Solo (Harrison Ford), only to see him frozen and taken prisoner.

But the ending doesn’t depress you. Luke has a robot hand and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) sets off to find Han. It leaves the audience hooked- will they be able to rescue their old friend? How will Luke and Vader’s next meeting go? And will the war with the Empire ever be over?

The defeat they suffer works because it delivers on it’s title. If a villain is always vanquished they begin to lose their edge for audiences (see the Daleks), what they got right in this series was that while the Empire had lost the first movie they win this one, and the good guys barely escape. It makes the villains all the more evil, and more of a threat, it’s a smart move.

18

Of course, a solid ending isn’t enough and what makes this such a cracker is everything that builds up to it. We find the Rebels on a snowy planet and Han debating leaving as he needs to sort out the bounty hunters on his trail. His decision to leave causes an argument between him and Leia, and suggests that there is a growing attraction there.

Ford and Fisher, who we recently found out were getting it on behind the scenes, have phenomenal chemistry on screen and their bickering, flirty scenes together are among the best in film. The story splits up our group, leaving Leia, Han, Chewie and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) on the run and trying to find a safe place to hole up, while Luke travels to continue his Jedi training.

This is another aspect that would work for first time viewers, the reveal of Yoda (Frank Oz). When Luke seeks out the Jedi Master who taught Obi Wan the audience expects a great warrior and intergalactic badass, the revelation that the little green man is actually the master is a nice subversion of expectations.

cysdqnhw8aeug4t

Yoda’s wisdom and training sees Luke develop his skills, and this is an interesting storyline as we see Luke get stronger and discover more about the Force.

This movie improves on the first by adding to the characters and by having a superior script, shown not only in Han and Leia’s flirtations, but throughout. And there are memorable moments throughout- the AT-ATs advancing through the snow, the trippy sequence where Luke faces his fears, the climactic fight.

empire-strikes-back-at-at-585-x-405

I love this movie because it’s great fun, and shows us more of the universe. It also introduces Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams, who is pretty damn suave.

star-wars-e-11

It’s a perfect middle movie for a trilogy, which doesn’t just act as a bridge but serves to up the stakes, grow the story and ensure the audience is even more invested in the characters.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Disney Classics #10: Melody Time

Another compilation movie, which like Make Mine Music uses popular music as the driving force behind many of the sections. And again, the results are a mixed bag.

melodytime

These package movies were later cut up and distributed in different ways and the opener “Once Upon a Wintertime” must have appeared on a Christmas video because I’d seen it before. The short is rather quaint, dealing with a young couple who go skating on a frozen pond and there’s a nice touch in having the young lovers followed and copied by a pair of lovestruck bunnies.

wintertime-cel

Quaint and sweet

It’s all cutesy stuff, but not without its charms and there’s a little bit of action as tragedy almost befalls them thanks to some thin ice and a waterfall. It’s decent enough, and in the context of this movie one of the high points.

The low comes courtesy of a section called “Trees” which is instantly forgettable. Another duff entry is the story of Johnny Appleseed, who is apparently an American folk hero. Why is hard to see from this offering as the story seems to be that this fella went and grew apples in the West. That’s it. I’m sure the real story has more to it, but here it’s all rather dull.

0cb64095e90cd924bc427a02f7779010

Johnny Appleseed, one boring, boring folk tale

Johnny goes West, befriends the critters, plants the trees and these help the westward expansion of America. I don’t want to get too political here, but even for a kids’ movie this dumbs down the pioneer years and we see Native Americans briefly at a festival where they celebrate apples, everyone is happy with the new status quo. Most worryingly is a kind of manifest destiny vibe where Johnny’s guardian angel tells him to go West to help the frontiersmen, as if the whole thing is divinely mandated.

The musical accompaniment is alright, but the story is rather uninvolving. Slightly more entertaining is “Blame it on the Samba” which reunites Donald Duck and Jose Carioca for the third time. This upbeat number is quite fun and the visuals, featuring the cartoon characters interacting with live action organ player Ethel Smith. The problem is there doesn’t seem to be a story or much of a point, and it’s just a nice upbeat part.

Similarly “Bumble Boogie”, which presents a jazzy update of “Flight of the Bumblebee” is quite fun. It’s got a surreal vibe and the marriage of music and visuals is well done, with the musical instruments morphing into flowers and other things which the bee hero navigates his way through.

The remaining two sections have clearer stories and the first of these, “Little Toot” sung by the Andrews Sisters is quite good fun, dealing with a young tugboat who wants to be like his dad but only succeeds in causing trouble before coming good.

The last section, and the one which closes the film, is the story of Western folk legend Pecos Bill and is narrated by Roy Rogers. It’s got some nice moments, mainly from the hyperbolic exploits of the hero, who lassos a tornado and uses lightning to light a cigarette. There’s a goofy spirit to the proceedings and it’s probably the most fun of the sections, and the story is well done. The visuals are reminiscent of the madcap Looney Tunes style and it has an energy which is lacking elsewhere.

7

Pecos Bill in action

Again the wilderness period throws up another package film, and this one has more misses than hits. While the art is solid throughout, and the marriage of live action and animation is slicker here, it still feels lacklustre and too much seems to be included to bump up the running time.

I can’t wait to get back to proper feature length stories, oh well, at least the end of the wilderness period is in sight now.

Disney Score: 3/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Disclaimer: I have tried but there are a few spoilers ahead, so be warned.

The first Guardians of the Galaxy movie was a surprising gem of a movie, with James Gunn bringing a smaller, more obscure Marvel team to the big screen and expanding the Marvel Cinematic Universe into the cosmos. It’s among my favourites of the Marvel movies and so this follow up arrives with additional pressure the first didn’t.

Luckily it never allows this pressure to effect it’s performance and while a couple of gags are revisited, this strikes out into fresh territory.

les-gardiens-de-la-galaxie-vol-2

Having saved the universe Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) discovered his father was not of Earth. This mystery continues to bug him, but he pushes it awau as he leads the Guardians. We find them defeating a gigantic space beast to the backing of ELO’s “Mr Blue Sky”, the action largely in the background as Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), the child reincarnation of the team’s living tree, dances about happily.

The team has been hired to stop the monster by the Sovereign, led by High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki). The Sovereign, a gold skinned race have bred their people to be the best they can be, and so view their citizens as too precious to risk. Their fee is the handover of Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) villainous adopted sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) who they plan to hand over to the Nova Corps.

All goes well and they leave. Aboard the ship Peter apologises to Gamora for having flirted with Ayesha, but she brushes this off. Drax (Dave Bautista) advises Peter that he has no chance with Gamora and should instead find someone “pathetic” like he is. Shortly after the Sovereign chase them as on their way out the gruff, gun toting raccoon Rocket  (voiced by Bradley Cooper) stole valuable and powerful batteries from them.

Rocket and Peter argue about who is the better pilot and their struggle for control damages the ship. Luckily, the remote controlled pursuers are destroyed by a mysterious figure who arrives astride his own ship. The Guardians escape but crash land, their ship severely damaged.

Ayesha’s next move is to recruit Yondu (Michael Rooker), the alien who abducted Peter as a child to capture the Guardians. We learn that some of the crew think Yondu is going soft and that his team of Ravagers are outsiders to the other clans, with his old friend Stakar (Sylvester Stallone) who says he is an exile because he broke the code, and traded in children.

The Guardians meet Ego (Kurt Russell), who is Peter’s father and a Celestial, beings with great power who live for millions of years. Ego takes Peter, Gamora and the musclebound Drax to teach Peter more of his past.

Rocket and Baby Groot remain to fix the ship and keep an eye on Nebula. Unfortunately, the Ravagers arrive. Yondu announces he has no intention of handing over the Guardians, as there is more money to be made from taking the batteries and selling them on. The crew view this as proof he is too soft on Peter, and they mutiny. Nebula, released by Baby Groot, intervenes and Yondu and Rocket are imprisoned.

Nebula heads after Gamora for revenge, and Yondu and Rocket learn they will be sold to former enemies. Yondu is also not happy to learn that Peter has gone to Ego’s home world.

Ego’s planet is an idyll where he lives almost alone aside from Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an empath who he treats almost as a pet and who has no social skills due to being alone for so long. Ego reveals he is the planet and that Peter shares his ability to create things, and Ego wants to teach him about his powers and his purpose.

Gamora, however, is suspicious which causes friction between her and Peter. After an argument she storms off alone where Nebula attacks, they fight and then discover something Ego has hidden from them.

Can they trust Ego? Can Yondu and Rocket escape? Will the Sovereign ever stop hunting them?

I loved this movie, which captures the same vibe of the original, with solid action sequences, likeable characters and a funny, clever script. The plot hooks you in because early on the characters win you over, particularly Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord, who’s cocky swagger is still in place but mention of his father in an early scene obviously hits close to home. It’s a great performance with Pratt managing to make the character cool despite his buffoonery and the fact that he often trips himself up.

The rest of the Guardians are solid throughout, and it’s a nice touch bringing Nebula back as her relationship with Gamora is fleshed out slightly. Also, the “unspoken thing” between Star-Lord and Gamora develops nicely, and a lot is gained by underplaying it.

A lot of the publicity for the movie has focused on Baby Groot, and it’s easy to see why as he is straight up adorable and centre stage for some of the funniest moments of the film.

groot-890x429

For me, however, the film’s strongest asset is Michael Rooker as Yondu. Rooker is consistently dependable on screen (Cliffhanger, Mallrats, The Replacement Killers, The Walking Dead, Tombstone), and has far more to do this time round, which is good as he impressed me in the original. Here we learn more of Yondu’s past and it adds to the character, as does the development of his relationship with Star-Lord and Ego. The plot that sees him in exile from the other Ravagers gives him a certain vulnerability, and he’s brought low early on.

His comeback is impressive and one of the strongest parts of the film, and the sequence where he and Rocket escape, and he gets revenge on the crew who mutinied is a masterpiece, one of the most visually impressive, inventive and darkly funny action sequences I’ve seen in years, and worth the ticket price alone. And his “magic arrow” weapon is just badass.

yondu-baby-groot-and-rocket-escape-credit-marvel-studios

Rooker’s softening of the character doesn’t mean that Yondu loses anything, and in fact, the character’s slow acceptance of his softer side coincides with the film’s major theme, which is about creating our own families. Yondu and Star-Lord’s father and son vibe, is well handled and Yondu is thereby placed opposite Ego, who slowly reveals a more sinister, cynical nature.

Ego is brilliantly played by the legendary Kurt Russell, who brings an easy charm to his early scenes. His laidback, jokey manner is similar to Star-Lord’s character and their bonding over the music Peter’s late mother loved is gentle and sweet.

big_13028673940541

Kurt Russell, legend

Of course, all is not as it seems. Having won over Peter, his facade slips and the invented history he has created is shown to have been romanticised, but the film holds back one more revelation which delivers a gut punch to Peter and the audience, and serves as the turning point for the film.

The action, set on strange new worlds is glorious, the fights have energy and verve, with moments of humour dotted between the blows. The visuals are striking, and there are some nice nods to other Marvel worlds throughout.

But more than just looking great and keeping the laughs flowing, this movie has a strong emotional core. Ego’s shocking statement leaves the audience reeling, but come the end of the movie the other characters and how they work together has you emotionally invested, and breaks your heart. I’m not ashamed to say that during a sequence soundtracked by Cat Stevens I found myself welling up.

Thanos, the villain Marvel have been hyping since the first Avengers movie still lurks in the background, but this serves less as a movie to move the MCU forward, and more a film to move the characters forward. The films pulls the team closer together and the promise at the end that “The Guardians of the Galaxy Will Return” is one I’m very happy about.

A strong contender for the best Marvel film yet, and current frontrunner for film of the year.

Verdict: Builds well on the first movie, adding more to the characters and their relationships. It’s entertaining from start to finish, with superb action, humour and a decent plot. An utter gem. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #44: Star Wars

Disclaimer: Before any fans get narked, I know that’s not the full title, but putting it all in would be awfully long and you all know which movie I mean.

I must have seen the Star Wars films as a little kid, but I can’t really remember much from those childhood viewings apart from the chase sequence in Jedi. What I do remember is the 20th anniversary special editions. I was almost twelve and they came out just as I was on the brink of geekdom, it was the perfect time for me to see them again.

1479841656841178253

I can remember the music starting, and the opening scrawl and then that amazing opening shot with Leia’s ship emerging on the screen followed by the imposing Star Destroyer, chasing it across the stars. Even years later the sheer scale of that shot works well and on a big screen it was phenomenal.

The whole opening is done supremely well, especially the entrance of Darth Vader (David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones).


A million lunchboxes and three dodgy prequels later, Vader has lost his edge somewhat, but on that first watch he’s a menacing presence. Striding imperiously over the bodies of the enemy, his raspy breath and dark, cloaked figure is memorable and has become understandably iconic.
The plot is known to many and quite simple, but a simple story executed well is far better than a complicated one that is bungled. Farm boy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) dreams of adventure and the wider galaxy when he gets a hold of Princess Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) message for help.

He meets old warrior Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) who explains that he was a friend of Luke’s father before Darth Vader killed him. He begins to train Luke in the use of the Force, a cosmic energy force that flows through all things.

They recruit roguish smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his copilot Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). They head for Alderaan, Leia’s home planet but arrive after it is destroyed by the Empire’s latest weapon the Death Star.

What follows is a story of adventure and heroism as our heroes rescue Leia and deliver the plans for the base. It has a single weak spot and Luke joins the pilots in the attack as the lethal space station closes in on the Rebel base.
It’s hard to look at Star Wars without the cultural baggage that it carries now, without nostalgia and as a movie on its own merits. But this isn’t a review, its a love letter.

I love the world of the movie, I love the bustling energy of the cantina, the scruffiness of Han Solo and his ship the Millennium Falcon. It has a lived in feel that the sterile ships of other sci-fi often lack. They want everything to look cool and shiny, forgetting that people are meant to live there.

I love the characters, from Hamill’s likeable goofiness as the space bumpkin Luke to the bickering droids. I love that Princess Leia takes charge of the guys who are trying, ineptly, to rescue her.

The late, great Carrie Fisher is superb. She makes Leia a strong, confident character who rolls with the bunches and who stands defiant against the forces of the Empire. She runs rings around the swaggering Solo and is an utter delight.

But let’s face it, Han Solo is still the coolest guy in the movie. Harrison Ford brings his easy charm to the role, with a laid back swagger and sarcastic, cynical outlook. But he’s winging it the whole time, surviving on a mix of luck, skill and his comrades.


He’s the old gunslinger who tries to play like he doesn’t care about anything other than money and his own life, but when the chips are down he roars back to make the save.

The action is well done, and while the Vader vs Kenobi fight is hardly a masterpiece of fight choreography it is well performed. Guinness delivers his lines brilliantly, giving depth and power beyond the cliches. He goes into the fight seeming to know that this is the end, but goes to it with dignity, knowing that this isn’t really the end.

The effects have aged in places, but the special edition make over makes up for it, and some of the sequences still hold up. In fact the models and costumes hold up better than most CG will in years to come.

I love the rousing ending, the glorious John Williams score and the ingredients mix to make a film that still fills me with the geeky excitement and love that washed over my twelve year old self.

I love the fun vibe, the dialogue which at times is a little clunky, I love it all.

A pure, simple treat of a movie. It holds up because of the great characters, the simple story of good vs evil and the bags of charm it has. It’s a movie I return to when I want that blast of childish joy, to lose myself in a simpler world with familiar faces.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Disney Classics #9: Fun and Fancy Free

This movie is essentially a double feature of shorter stories, and both parts are pretty decent, if flawed.

bongo-e-i-tre-avventurieri-poster-inglese-03

The linking device is Jiminy Cricket (Cliff Edwards), who sets up both stories. Firstly he arrives in a playroom where he plays a record which plays music by Dinah Shore that serves as narration for the first part.

This deals with the story of Bongo, a circus bear who fed up of his “gilded cage” escapes and winds up living in the woods. He struggles to adapt at first but soon finds his feet and falls for Lulubelle.

997a44e6983d4f03fac702c68d77be3c

Unfortunately, having been raised in the circus he has no idea of bear courtship rituals which apparently involve slapping each other, and he is hurt when Lulubelle strikes him. Lulubelle then gets grabbed by the hulking, bullying Lumpjaw. When Bongo realises his mistake he runs back to Lulubelle and fights off his rival.

I kinda dug this part because the story is quite well done and the action is madcap and fun. There’s also a marvellously surreal sequence as Bongo and Lulubelle fall in love, which is rather trippy. I also like that as with Dumbo the film is pretty hard on how circuses treat animals, which is quite ahead of it’s time. There are a few parts when it drags a little and the song isn’t particularly catchy, but it still mostly works.

Jiminy then finds a invitation to a party and goes to it. Here he arrives at the weirdest party ever. I get that this film comes from a more innocent era, but for a modern viewer it’s kinda weird that a grown man throws a party for a little girl which is only attended by her and his two ventriloquist dummies. I guess that in the context of the film the ventriloquist dummies are meant to be real characters, but it still feels odd. Why not throw in another couple of kids?

Also, ventriloquist dummies are creepy as hell anyway, but one of them in particular, Mortimer, will haunt my dreams.

84c07e1a2949f074523cb5ae22e6c063

What nightmares are made of

The ventriloquist, Edgar Bergen, then narrates the story of “Mickey and the Beanstalk”, with the dummies throwing in gags along the way. Some of these gags actually work, and the dummy Charlie offers sarky commentary and postmodern nods to the story. The story is of course Jack and the Beanstalk but with Mickey in the role, accompanied by Goofy and Donald.

It’s worth mentioning that this movie would be the last feature length outing for Mickey where Walt himself provided the voice.

The story is familiar and told with a few changes, Happy Valley is suffering because the Golden Harp has been stolen, and when they grow the beanstalk they find it in the possession of the giant. It’s an okay story, but it goes on a bit long and sags in the middle.

There are a few moments where it works, such as when Donald, mad with hunger, tries to kill the farm’s cow, which the little girl is appalled by. And Donald is the most entertaining as the barely controlled ball of rage.

b46f7db5f217badd334a14f5ed2cad1c

Mickey and Goofy are their usual selves and the story is told well enough. The ending where Willie the Giant is shown to have survived is a cop out and a daft flourish the movie doesn’t need.

The two part structure actually works, with both stories having enough room unlike in the previous episodic movies. But it doesn’t feel like a complete film and the presence of the creepy dummies hurt it a lot in my view.

Disney Score: 5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Disney Classics #8: Make Mine Music

We’re still deep in the wilderness years for this one, which is kinda like a pop music version of Fantasia, with this being a series of animated pieces to music. The problem is that in terms of art and music it can’t match the earlier effort. This is understandable as this was made during the Second World War and many of Walt’s men were overseas or making propaganda. Feature length animation had stopped being a priority and like Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, this is a package affair.

make_mine1

While those were linked by themes of location, here it’s a much more muddled effort and as such the segments are rather hit and miss. As a kid I must have seen some of this as I remember the “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met”, the final part and this is one of the stronger, telling a complete story which uses music well and is quite funny.

willie3

Aside from this it all felt new to me. Some pieces like “After You’ve Gone”, “Two Silhouettes” and “Blue Bayou” are incredibly forgettable, and I’d struggle to give many details on any of them, despite having watched it a few hours before writing this.

These are the more serious parts and they all fall flat, with the comedic entries having to carry the film and even here they drop the ball. “Casey at the Bat” a reading of a poem about a cocky baseball player coming a cropper is quite fun, but goes on a bit.

“Peter and the Wolf” is the closest this gets to classical and it’s a well done piece, with the different instruments working well and the cartoon style in bringing the characters alive is charming, even if the ending is a cop out.

peter2

The hillbilly star crossed lovers who turn up in “The Martins and the Coys” are quite good fun too, even though it is a bit weird to see a bloody turf war turned into comedy. Nonetheless, it’s got some nice touches and the ending where the loving couple fall out after marriage is a neat kicker to the story.

mmm-martins-and-coys-3

“Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet” is sweet enough but rather dull, but the jazzy “All the Cats Join In” is a treat. Capturing the fun, fast paced life of a group of teenagers it’s cleverly animated with the artist’s pencil adding details as the story progresses. The dance scene is quite good fun, and the energy of the piece lifts the film, although any momentum is utterly lost in “Without You”, a mournful ballad of lost love.

february2013dancemagicdance12

All in all this is a frustrating watch with the changes in tone jarring and the lack of a through line to connect the pieces means it never feels like a movie and rather just a collection of shorts. And you wonder why they’ve been put together in this order.

Disappointing.

Disney Score: 4/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #43: The Princess and the Frog

Long time readers will know that I’ve been doing the Disney Classics films in order, but I’m going to jump ahead to include this on my list of favourite movies.

This movie was Disney returning to their roots with a fairy tale inspired story rendered in traditional animation and introducing the latest Disney Princess. And it ticks a lot of boxes, boasting a quality soundtrack, a funny script, a great villain and an involving central story. On it’s own merits it would rank high on my Disney list but what makes it a personal favourite is a sentimental attachment.

This is the first movie that MWF and I watched together, before we were a couple and just friends. We’d hung out for the day chatting and then put this on as MWF insisted I had to see it. It would be a while after this that we got together, but the movie and the day we spent together when we watched it were when I started to genuinely fancy her.

wp-1485127036515.jpg

The movie riffs on the traditional Frog Prince story, but gives it a clever twist. The old tale is retold in New Orleans, at the start by Eudora (voiced by Oprah Winfrey), a black seamstress to the daughter of her white boss and her own daughter, and the boss’ daughter dreams of meeting her prince. The seamstress’ daughter wants to run a restaurant with her father, but he reminds her that it takes hard work as well as wishing to get things done.

We then jump forward to the 1920s, and the seamstress’ daughter Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is now a young woman, still chasing her dream of the restaurant by working two jobs and saving every penny she can. Her social life suffers and her mother worries that she is failing to enjoy her life and is working too hard. An opportunity to get the money needed for the building she wants for the restaurant arises when her old friend Charlotte (Jennifer Cody) offers her a catering job as her wealthy father is hosting a big party.

Charlotte, still obsessed with landing her prince is excited as the party is hosting Prince Naveen, a handsome, suave young man.

Naveen (Bruno Campos) is a bit of a playboy and used to having money, although his parents have now cut him off. Arriving in New Orleans with his valet Lawrence (Peter Bartlett) he wants to live the high life but Lawrence reminds him he needs to settle down and get married if he wants to get back on the gravy train.

Naveen and Lawrence meet Doctor Facilier (Keith David), a voodoo witch doctor who reads their fortune and then tricks them into a bargain. His magic transforms Lawrence into Naveen, while Naveen becomes a frog who they lock away. Facilier plans for Lawrence to marry Charlotte, after which he will kill her father Big Daddy (John Goodman) and get his fortune and influence.

Naveen escapes and at the party meets Tiana, who has just been told her bid for the building has been rejected. Inspired by the story he tells Tiana she needs to kiss him, thinking she is a princess. She is reluctant to do until he promises to give her the money for her restaurant. When they kiss, however, it is Tiana who is transformed, becoming a frog as well.

frog

Naveen turns on the charm

Naveen realises that Tiana, despite her costume, is not a princess and that’s why it didn’t work. She in turn learns that he is broke. Both then get lost in the swamps and must try to find their way back in order to stop Facilier’s plan and return to their human form. Along the way they are assisted by Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) a trumpet playing alligator who dreams of playing Jazz and Ray (Jim Cummings), a cajun firefly. They are led to meet voodoo queen Mama Odie (Jennifer Lewis) who they hope can help them.

The movie works because it’s got bucketloads of charm and a host of cool characters. And unlike a lot of Disney movies the leads are among the best characters on show here, with both Tiana and Naveen being very likeable. Their dynamic works brilliantly with the strait laced Tiana clashing with the laidback, pampered Naveen. Naveen oozes suave charm throughout and his carefree approach to life is fun, although he comes to learn that some things require work and that sometimes sacrifice is needed. In the same way he helps Tiana loosen up and realise that there are more important things than work and success.

Tiana is one of the better Princess heroines, as she’s shown to be smart, tough and hard working throughout. While she may need her priorities sorting out she is still a great heroine, being very proactive and swinging into action when needs be. She’s a very modern princess and works well, telling the audience that it isn’t enough to wait for good things to happen, you have to go out and make them happen.

The supporting cast are great, particularly Ray and Louis their guides in the swamp. Louis’ stupidity is endearing and his bizarre dream works well, and Ray is just flat out brilliant. With his bayou accent and spirit he is more than just comic relief and serves to educate the leads as to what love is about.

56ba680d82f6b903925f96ac89663eaf

And Tiana’s loud, brassy friend Charlotte is a great character, full of life and chattering constantly she could easily be a simply ridiculous character, but the script gives her a chance to show greater depths of friendship, decency and kindness. All of this without diluting her over the top character.

sub-buzz-7684-1464642177-2

Charlotte- Ditzy but sweet

Of course, all the best Disney movies have a great villain and here the film scores a big win with the sneaky, smooth talking Doctor Facilier, wonderfully voiced by Keith David. During his songs and speeches he delivers funny asides and is shown to be a smart, scheming foe. Distinctly creepy at times, it also works because Facilier doesn’t have power in a real sense, having received his gifts as part of a deal with his “friends on the other side”. It means that he too is under the cosh and the dark forces are kept at the fringes although they do make menacing appearances, and his main skill is reading and exploiting people’s weaknesses.

the-cards-will-tell

The plot flows well and the development works, with the relationship feeling real and the turns making sense. There’s also a gut punch in the final act which continues a Disney trend of actually sneaking in some dark moments into what people dismiss as cheesy and cheery kids films. Even as a grown man it left me with a lump in the throat.

Of course, it all ends well, and the ending is satisfying. It’s a very rewatchable flick and the music, influenced by the New Orleans setting is filled with some crackers, especially the villain song and Ray’s ode to his distant love Evangeline.

Fun, charming and well done this is one of my favourite movies and high on the list of my favourite Disney movies too.

Disney Score: 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: Beauty and the Beast

I have mixed feelings about the current trend Disney have for live action remakes of their animated movies. While The Jungle Book worked for me, I was less fussed on Cinderella and Maleficent, and the fact that a live action Dumbo is on the way fills me with dread, although as I am soon to marry a Disney addict I have resigned myself to my fate. Taking on one of the studios best efforts was a big gamble, but thankfully this one pays off.

beauty-and-the-beast-poster

The story is simple enough, a vain and selfish Prince (Dan Stevens) refuses to help an old woman shelter from the rain but it turns out she is actually a powerful enchantress. She curses him by turning him into a beast, and he will remain a monster until he learns to love and wins the love of another. The enchantress also curses all the residents of the castle turning them into objects related to their jobs, which seems a bit harsh and if the Beast doesn’t succeed in finding a love before the last petal falls from a magic rose they will become inanimate objects for good and he will remain a beast for ever.

Years later we meet Belle (Emma Watson), an intelligent and free spirited young woman who lives in the nearest town. The locals aren’t too sure about her, regarding her love of reading and individuality as peculiar, nonetheless her beauty has caught the attention of Gaston (Luke Evans), the local hero who is a vain, self centred braggart. She spurns his advances and dreams of there being more to life. Her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), is a maker of clockwork machines and leaves to sell them at market, however, on the road back he is waylaid and finds a mysterious, crumbling castle. He attempts to take a rose for his daughter but is imprisoned.

Belle sets off to find him, and arrives at the castle, where concerned for her father’s health she volunteers to take his place. Maurice’s claims are dismissed in town, although Gaston sees an opportunity to exploit the situation.

Meanwhile, at the castle Belle befriends the Beast’s cursed servants and slowly begins to discover there is more to the Beast. Similarly, her presence serves to quell his anger and he begins to care for his hostage. Their relationship, encouraged by the servants strengthens but Belle misses her father and when she becomes aware of his troubles is upset. The Beast allows her to leave.

Will Belle be able to save her father? Will she return to the castle? What will Gaston do when he discovers the existence of the beast? And will the curse ever be broken?

This remake works for same reasons that the updated version of The Jungle Book did, by honouring the original through the use of certain aspects, but by giving characters a different spin and adding new touches. Characters like Maurice, Gaston and his sidekick La Fou (Josh Gad) are given more background and are slightly more complex.

Maurice is the best example, with Kevin Kline moving away from the clownish, mad-inventor of the animated version to create a sadder figure. Belle’s mother is long deceased at the start and his grief is evident throughout, and the backstory adds more emotion to the tale. Also, his character here rings truer with the clever, independent young woman he has raised.

But despite this the main strength is the magical, charming romance at the centre and here credit goes to the leads. Emma Watson is perfectly cast as Belle, and does a great job of making her a likeable, strong character. Belle is a great heroine, free thinking and brave, she nobly sacrifices herself for her father and faces the Beast fearlessly. Throughout she shows strength, intelligence and kindness.

screen2520shot25202017-01-082520at25209-53-202520pm

Belle: A great heroine

She handles the singing wonderfully, and is utterly charming throughout. Similarly Dan Stevens’ vocal work as the beautifully realised Beast is expressive enough for it to work, conveying the feelings that develop between them.

The central romance unfolds at a decent pace, and the film benefits from giving the Beast more backstory beyond that he was just a bit of a wanker. It also explains why the rest of the castle don’t hate him, feeling partly responsible for failing in to raise him to be a good man.

One thing the film does well is quickly cover up some of the plot holes from the original, like the fact that the town seem oblivious to the giant castle mere miles away, with the enchantress having cast a spell for them to forget all about it and the people are there. This also means there is a nice touch of when the mob storms the castle some feel deja vu and one of the villagers always has a sense of having lost something, it being revealed it is the loved ones he had at the castle…

These changes are well done and mostly serve to make the film play better as a live action piece as a straight adaptation might have suffered in translation. But there are plenty of moments that are retained, notably in costume and music. The ballroom scene in the original is an iconic scene and was groundbreaking for the time, and it helps that the castle is just as beautiful here and that the dance scene is one of the most moving moments in the film. The song remains an absolute wonder, and the scene is magical, prompting one small child in the cinema to actually cheer and applaud at the end.

ad_231763865-e1488542220575

Other scenes are translated to varying degrees of success, the swagger of “Gaston” is a standout here, especially as fresh jokes are added and Josh Gad is brilliant as Le Fou. Luke Evans as well impresses, capturing the strutting, arrogant character wonderfully even though he isn’t roughly the size of a barge. While Evans is reliable as ever, I left the film suspecting that Dwayne Johnson would have been brilliant for the part, especially if he channeled the charismatic arrogance of his wrestling days.

However, for me “Be Our Guest” didn’t match the original, and Ewan McGregor’s Lumiere wasn’t half as charming as Jerry Orbach’s and the character design for him and Ian McKellen’s Cogsworth were made a bit too “realistic” and a lot less endearing or friendly looking than their animated counterparts.

new-beauty-and-the-beast-cast-compared-to-the-original-animated-thisisinsider-com_1208315

The old ones were a lot friendlier looking, I’m just saying

Similarly Mrs Potts isn’t quite as cute as her old self, but is voiced by the ever excellent Emma Thompson, who takes over from Angela Lansbury and does a stellar job.

But these are minor quibbles and the movie does well in bringing new things to the table. There is a new musical number, performed by the Beast that is genuinely moving and as I mentioned earlier the characters and some story aspects are changed. The fact that the servants are becoming increasingly inanimate is a heartbreaking touch, with them all moving towards losing their humanity. In fact a sequence where they are transformed is an emotional gut punch that had my eyes a little watery.

Before it’s release a lot was made of the fact that Le Fou was being turned into a gay character. The fact is that Josh Gad’s character is far more complicated than the original and his sexuality is only a part of that. Le Fou is loyal and clearly in love with Gaston, but it is suggested that the two have been together a long time, having served together in an unspecified war. Le Fou’s admiration for his friend is clear, but what is a nice addition is the fact that he is not just a dimwit who goes along with everything. His conscience starts to peak through, and there are moments when he acts as a calming, soothing presence for Gaston, staying his hand.

josh-gad-1024x461

Le Fou tries to calm Gaston

As Gaston’s obsession with Belle grows and he reveals his true, selfish nature Le Fou realises he has made a mistake and tries to make it right. It’s nice that a secondary character, largely a buffoon is given a bit more depth and Gad is consistently amusing.

All in all this is a very successful film which tells a familiar story in an utterly charming way, beautiful to look at and entirely engaging. I was sucked in early on and utterly captivated, in much the way that six year old Chris was back in 1992. In fact, I’d say this packs more of an emotional punch than the original.

It’s a delight from start to finish, with the familiar and the new combining to make a film which is great in it’s own right. MWF loved it as well, so hardcore Disney fans can rest assured that it doesn’t let the house of mouse down.

Verdict: A wonderful, magical experience which uses the animated version as a jumping off point to go in new directions and add greater depth. Moving, amusing and utterly, marvelously charming. 8.5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: Kong: Skull Island

I love the original King Kong, ever since I picked up a cheap VHS copy. While dated, it told a simple story  very effectively and movingly. I’ve always been a sucker for stop-motion effects. I’ve never seen the ’70s remake but I remember being psyched when Peter Jackson released his, although this was ollowed by crushing disappointment as a wealth of CGI and Jack Black couldn’t cover the fact that it was bloated and boring.

One of the things that I always loved was the mysterious Skull Island that Kong calls home until he’s stolen away to New York. The island is home to other monsters, and you always wonder where Kong came from. Was he part of a giant ape race? Or a singular freak of nature?

This movie focuses on the island and gives Kong a fresh backstory. It’s not a retread of the original, and a new approach to the character, which I think is the way to go.

kong-skull-island-poster-2

The movie kicks off in 1944 when two pilots crash on the same beach, one Japanese and one American. They try to kill each other and chase each other through the jungle, until their fight is interrupted by the arrival of a massive ape.

We then jump almost thirty years forward to 1973, and two representatives of an organisation called Monarch are trying to get support for a mission to an uncharted island. The senior official, Randa (John Goodman) is fearful for the organisation’s future and wants to get the mission set up before the Vietnam War ends. However, the senator dismisses his theories of “monsters” and only agrees when Randa’s assistant Brooks (Corey Hawkins) points out that as they know little of the island there is no telling what is there and that if they hesitate the Russians might beat them to it.

Randa requests a military escort and is provided with the Sky Devils, a helicopter squadron about to ship back from the war. Headed by Colonel Packard (Samuel L Jackson) they will fly the scientists to the island which is surrounded by a perpetual storm. Also recruited is James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) a former SAS Captain noted for his skill in jungle survival and expertise in uncharted territory.

Rounding off the group is photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) a photojournalist who clashes with Packard who blames the media for negatively effecting support for the war back home.

They arrive at the island where the scientists plan to use explosions to map the geologic nature of the island, which turns out to be hollow beneath the bedrock. Unfortunately the explosions anger Kong, a giant ape who attacks the choppers and brings all of them down, scattering the survivors across the island.

Conrad leads Weaver, Brooks and a handful of others through the jungle seeking the rendezvous point. Meanwhile, Packard leads the majority of his men and Randa towards one of the isolated pilots, Chapman (Toby Kebbell). Packard gets the full story from Randa, who holds to the “hollow earth” theory that there are pockets beneath the earth’s surface where monsters dwell.

kong-skull-island-screen1

Packard wants some answers

Intent on revenge Packard aims to reach Chapman’s chopper and use the weapons and explosives to kill Kong.

Conrad’s group run into the local tribespeople and are introduced to Hank Marlow (John C Reilly), the American pilot who crashed there at the beginning. He has been taken in by the locals and explains that he befriended the Japanese pilot who was killed by another monster years earlier. Marlow explains that the native population worship Kong as a king or god, as he protects them from what he dubs Skull Crawlers, vicious beasts that try to eat them. Kong’s race have long held this role, but as the last of his kind the locals are fearful that when Kong dies the Skull Crawlers (henceforth known as SCs) will run wild, having nothing to fear. The explosives dropped by the group will have roused some of the beasts, although they suspect that “the big one” will remain underground.

Marlow shows the group his boat, made from debris of the fighter planes and other vehicles that have crashed at the island. They head for the rendezvous but find Packard, who insists they head on for Chapman. The group are attacked by a SC, and after suffering heavy losses manage to kill it. When Packard’s plan is revealed Marlow objects, supported by Weaver, who Packard draws his gun on. Conrad cools the situation and leads the civilians to the boat, however, he decides he needs to stop Packard and with Weaver and Marlow returns.

Packard’s men attack Kong and while many of the men are killed, Kong is injured. Then the Big SC arrives. Kong battles it, but is weakened and the nasty chases the humans. Conrad, Weaver, Marlow and the surviving members of the Sky Devils make for the boat but following Conrad’s instructions Brooks has left at dawn. Attempting to escape on foot they use their meagre weapons on the BSC but their weapons don’t seem up to the task.

Does the battered Kong have the strength to bring it down? If he can’t what happens to the survivors and the monsters?

Okay, here’s the thing I really loved this movie which delivers pretty much from the jump. The 1944 prologue was a nice touch and the character of Marlow provides a neat way to provide exposition and Reilly’s performance as the slightly unhinged survivor is charming and entertaining, stealing most scenes he’s in. Reilly should be praised for balancing humour with genuine emotion, with the frazzled, lonely man talking about what might await for him at home being quite touching and tying into the film’s theme of whether soldiers can ever truly come back from war.

08-john-c-reilly-kong-skull-island-w600-h315-2x

Reilly in scene stealing form

This is touched on in Conrad, Hiddleston’s calm and collected action hero, who is recruited by Randa who observes that men go to war in search of something, and Conrad’s continuing presence in Vietnam suggests he is yet to find whatever that is.

It’s most evident in Jackson’s powerful performance as the vengeance seeking Packard. During his first meeting with Weaver where he blames the media for effecting support and moral for the war in Vietnam, she asks him incredulously if he is blaming them for losing the war. His response that the war wasn’t lost, instead “abandoned” shows an insight into his psyche and his dogged pursuit of a fight with Kong shows that he is not ready to come home yet.

Jackson is always watchable and here he is on fine form as the tightly wound soldier who slowly unravels and becomes obsessed. He’s mesmerising on screen.

Tom Hiddleston is pretty good as an action hero, even if he does look a little clean cut and smooth for an SAS officer who spends time alone in the jungle saving POWs. That being said, his quiet performance is well done and he has moments where he charms. He also handles the action sequences like a boss.

kong-header

Hiddleston and Larson in action

But it’s hard not to feel bad for Brie Larson who while capable enough has an underwritten role as the photojournalist accompanying the mission.

The period setting works wonders for me as it handily explains how Skull Island has remained undiscovered until the movie and means the humans have older, less sophisticated weapons for their fights. It also means that the movie has a belting soundtrack of ‘Nam era songs (Bowie, Black Sabbath and Creedence Clearwater Revival), and borrows heavily from the imagery of that war- fires engulfing jungle, helicopters flying low and the look of the soldiers. The film looks fantastic and the mash up of Nam movie iconography and giant monsters works for me, unsurprisingly.

The monsters here are fantastic, as is all of the island. The native tribe and their walled village is well done as is their temple to Kong, replacing the African style tribe of the original with a more Asian vibe fitting the Pacific setting. The island location is beautiful, with mountains, dense jungle and panoramic views of the landscape being worth the extra IMAX charge alone.

This is only the second movie I’ve seen in IMAX (the other being Doctor Strange) and it is proving to be worth the money, and vastly superior to normal 3D. This is the kind of epic movie that warrants the big screen and enhanced visuals, and it delivers throughout, both in the titanic smackdowns and in the scenes on the groud amongst the trees.

The movie succeeds where the Jackson movie stumbled by putting Skull Island front and centre and we get to see plenty of the island’s nature. Alongside Kong and the SCs we also get supersized versions of spiders and water buffalo, a reference to giant ants and some seriously vicious pterodactyl style critters. The island is set up as a dangerous place to be and the action sequence are uniformly well executed throughout.

It’s a relentless thrill ride and has some solid performances, and a sense of fun to proceedings, making it considerably more enjoyable than the most recent Godzilla movie, which this will apparently cross over with. Hopefully the monster mash will lean more towards this, which is more fun and has better human characters. The romance between Hiddleston and Larson’s characters might be underdeveloped, but aside from this the major players hold the attention and the director knows that this is secondary to letting Kong do his thing.

I’ve always preferred Kong to Godzilla because his ape features are more expressive and that in every incarnation he has moments of gentleness. The backstory here of him as the island’s top dog and protector is a nice touch and I felt it delivered.

c5q8bmwu0aex3iz

Hail to the king

A big, action packed blockbuster, this is gorgeous to look at, filled with nice moments and just plain fun. It might lack the emotional punch of the original, but it’s still kept me involved throughout.

Verdict: The ’70s setting is a nice touch, the cast do well with what they get and the movie knows that it’s main strength is Kong and lets him cut loose. Hugely entertaining. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.