TBT – The Borrowers (1997)

anniversary, British, film, films, fucking creepy, Jim Broadbent, John Goodman, review

There is something so wonderfully British about The Borrowers by Mary Norton. A small family who survive by, let’s be honest, stealing bits and bobs from the humans whose house they inhabit. Norton wrote a beloved series of books about thieves and managed to make it seem perfectly reasonable. It might have something to do with the fact that she finally answers the question regarding all of those random objects that go missing without a trace in your house. Ever put down a paperclip or something and gone back to find it not there anymore? It’s alright, a Borrower probably just used it to make some sort of climbing device. I don’t remember reading the books as a child but I do remember the BBC television series starring Ian Holm and Penelope Wilton. That was definitely a British classic and something I was reminded of in my third year of university whilst studying a children’s literature course. That series was the second of two television adaptions of Mary Norton’s works but it wasn’t until 1997 that these tiny people made their way onto the big screen. Whilst writing my review of The Sense of an Ending I was trying to think back to the first time I would probably have seen Jim Broadbent acting in anything. I can’t remember for sure but I’d bet The Borrowers would definitely be one of them.

In December this year, The Borrowers will celebrate it’s 20th anniversary. This makes me feel old. I’m not sure that I remember going to the cinema to see it but I do know that I watched it when I was young. It’s also the kind of film that is shown regularly during holidays on the BBC so children would have something to distract themselves with. I tend to look back on it with the same fondness that I nostalgically have for anything from my youth but, really, I don’t know how much I really liked this film. I mean, there was never anything wrong with it but it was certainly a stark contrast to the calm and gentle television series I remembered from 1992. The Borrowers took the characters from Mary Norton’s popular series of books and gave them the Hollywood treatment. Well, kind of. We don’t actually have to sit through a film where the Clock family speak with American accents and everything has been transported to an apartment in New York or anything. But, this is a big, brash and action-packed adventure.

It follows a similar enough structure to the novel but places the Clock family in far more perilous situations. In Mr and Mrs Lenders’ minds, things going missing is an everyday occurrence but their son, Peter, believes there is something in their house taking their stuff. We know he’s right, of course, because there is a family of Borrowers living under his floorboards. Head of the family, Pod (Jim Broadbent) is keen to teach his young children Arriety (Flora Newbigin) and Peagreen (Tom Felton) about the ways of borrowing and how to avoid being seen by humans; the dreaded Borrower squishing Beans. Their mother, Homily (Celia Imrie) has doubts about whether they are ready, which seem to be well-founded after Arriety manages to get herself locked in a freezer. Unwilling to live a life hiding under the floorboard, Arriety yearns for adventure and, on a nighttime stroll, manages to be spotted by Peter. Instead of squishing the tiny being, Peter befriends Arriety against her father’s wishes. When an evil lawyer (John Goodman) attempts to steal their home, Peter and the Clock family must work together to see the rightful owners get their property back.

The Borrowers is your basic good vs evil plot where both sides are trying to get their hands on something: in this case a will. There isn’t a great deal going on in terms of narrative but there is certainly enough action squeezed in to make it feel worthwhile. Whilst searching for the document, evil lawyer, Ocious Potter, discovers Arriety and Peagreen and swiftly calls in an exterminator. This leads to a frantic cat and mouse chase where the two humans seek to destroy the tiny children. There’s a lot of children’s movie violence on display here where nobody really gets hurt but the threat is clear. There’s potential gassing, electrocution, drowning, burning, falling and much more besides. Watching it now, it seems quite vicious for a kid’s movie but, I guess, 90s children like myself must have been made of sturdier stuff. The film keeps quite a good pace and is always moving from one big set piece to another. It is constantly entertaining.

I can’t necessarily say the film has aged well over 20 years but, for the most part, the special effects hold up. It’s one of those films that has a lot in there but it never really dominates. It is the overly CGI’d stuff that ages the worst and, thankfully, most of this is worked around using camera trickery. What is really wonderful about this film, though, is how charming it is. It may have been amped up for cinema but there is still a great sense of Britishness here. The films location is, when you really look into it, kind of confusing but, thanks to the set design, it doesn’t matter. This all just exists in a weird reality where Americans and English people live without any question as to where or when they are. This is just a storybook town where logic doesn’t matter at all. It also boasts an incredible, if truly 90s, cast. Broadbent and Imrie are wonderful as the Clock parents and, I must say, it never gets old seeing a very young Draco Malfoy get trapped in a milk bottle. Then you have cameos from the likes of Mark Williams, Hugh Laurie and Ruby Wax. There’s just something so lovely about this film that stays true to the original source whilst also giving a new generation of children the loud noises and danger they expected.

Tuesday’s Reviews – Christmas with the Coopers (2015)

Christmas, diane keaton, films, fucking awful, fucking weird, John Goodman, June Squibb, meh, review

I think I’ve proved enough times that. in my opinion, Christmas films are serious business. I know you can only really watch them for 1 month of the year (with a few major exceptions) but when they’re good then they’re just incredible. Add a bunch of Christmas spirit to the normal Hollywood sentimentality and you have a blend of heartwarming entertainment for all the family. Of course, with every passing year, new Christmas releases have become something to be feared instead of celebrated. This year sees the arrival of Office Christmas Party which looks dreadful. Despite that I still kind of want to see it because my love of Kate McKinnon knows no bounds. But you can’t help but get the feeling that Christmas films are just becoming super fucking lazy. However, there’s something about them that means great actors are willing to sign up for them. Which is the only reason I can really give for wanting to watch Christmas with the Coopers when I came across it on Netflix.

Christmas with the Coopers tells the story of an extended family on a stressful Christmas Eve. Charlotte (Diane Keaton) and Sam (John Goodman) are trying to prepare a huge meal for their children and their families, Charlotte’s sister and father, and Sam’s aunt. Each member of the Cooper clan is suffering from some sort of crisis that they are keeping from their family. The couple themselves are planning on separating after Christmas but they have neglected to inform their family of their problems. Their son Hank (Ed Helms) is going through a divorce, is looking for a new job, and is struggling to be a good dad. Their daughter Eleanor (Olivia Wilde) is failing to make good romantic choices so persuades a random soldier she meets at the airport to be pretend to be her boyfriend, Then there’s Charlotte’s sister Emma (Marisa Tomei) who has spent her life jealous of her sister and manages to get herself arrested for shoplifting. Finally, Charlotte’s father (Alan Arkin) is weirdly attached to the waitress (Amanda Seyfried) at his favourite diner and randomly invites her to Christmas Dinner.

And, really, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s stuff about a young boy and his first crush being unable to kiss. There’s a gay cop. A dog. It’s jam packed full of everything except the one thing it really needs: Christmas spirit. This tries so hard to create an uplifting ending but it does so by creating countless problems that it needs to solve. Most of the movie involves a large family of white people complaining about things that aren’t really problems in the first place. To say that the Cooper family are self-indulgent is a fucking huge understatement. The Coopers are the least dysfunctional dysfunctional family in the history of Hollywood.

There are some fun and cute moments littered throughout, though. Moments when the characters manage to do something that doesn’t make you cringe but, more often than not, these moments are imagined or distant memories, There is very little in the way of development for the majority of the characters. Things just happen without any details about how or why. Basically the characters start of one way and then end up as the opposite. It’s stupid. There’s so little thought put into who these people really are aside from a few lines of basic psychological guff that really doesn’t give you much to go on.

Christmas with the Coopers does what many modern Christmas films do: it underestimates what it takes to make a good Christmas film. It assumes that all you need is some trouble that eventually works itself out so people can come together and be happy. It take that to extremes and ensures that all drama ends with a super weird dance number at the end. Everything is supposed to be tied up in a neat little bow but it’s absurd how well everything turns out. It’s like a fucking Shakespearean comedy. Christmas with the Coopers boasts a fantastic cast but it lacks any kind of story, the script is mostly dreadful, the jokes are few, and the charm is mostly absent. This is a film that sacrifices any potential success for a sickly sweet ending that just doesn’t work. It’s not the worst Christmas film of all time but it’s in no way memorable.

TBT – Barton Fink (1991)

Coen Brothers, films, John Goodman, TBT

When it came to Hail, Caesar! you couldn’t really get away from Barton Fink. Both films involve the same fictitious film studio, Capitol studios and portray a man clouded in darkness because of his connection to the industry. That’s pretty much where the connections end though. Barton Fink was the dark comedy that the Coen brothers wrote when they hit a snag writing Miller’s Crossing. Experiencing a form of writer’s block, the pair cleared their minds by writing a new film for actors John Turturro and John Goodman. Once the script was finished the brothers put it to one side so they could finish Miller’s Crossing. As soon as production stopped on that movie they began working on Barton Fink. It was a massive hit with critics and won multiple awards at Cannes but failed to make back its budget at the box office. Despite its meagre earnings, Barton Fink is an amazing film and I couldn’t waste the opportunity to watch it again for this post. Even it did mean I was enforcing dodgy connections with the Coens’ current film.

Barton Fink is the kind of film that intelligent people have and will continue to discuss for years. The Coens created such an ambiguous and symbolically significant film that there are countless interpretations out there. The ending alone has cause ridiculous amounts of outrage and analysis since its release. All the while you get the idea that the Coen brothers have just been sitting back and pissing themselves as people tear their hair out trying to make it all make sense. There is every sense that the story of a writer desperate to change the world but finding himself floundering in 1940s Hollywood has some autobiographical leanings but the brothers keep their audience on their toes once the writer discovers his own story is going in a different direction.

Loosely based on Clifford Odets, Barton Fink (John Turturro) is a left-wing writer who found overnight success as a playwright in New York. He was quickly snapped up a Capitol film studios as their new hit writer but Barton struggles to turn his own brand of social realism to wrestling movies. The studio boss, Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), has utter faith in Fink and offers him an insane amount of money to produce their next hit. Hoping to find inspiration from other writers, Barton seeks out the help of established talent W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), a figure modelled on William Faulkner. Unfortunately for Barton, Mayhew is a drunk who has his “personal assistant” (Judy Davis) to thank for much of his latest work.

Whilst he slowly tumbles into the depths of writer’s block, Fink meets his next door neighbour, Charlie (John Goodman), a hapless insurance salesman who could easily offer Barton the real-world stories that he so craves to write. Unable to see the source material in front of his face, Barton indulges his need to create and spends his time hopelessly sitting at his desk without inspiration. So he takes part in a strange relationship with Charlie who, aside from a creepy bellhop, is seemingly the only other resident in the rundown hotel. When events in Barton’s life take a dramatic turn, it is to Charlie he must turn but the man remains almost as much of a mystery as the strange box he has Barton take care of.

Barton Fink was the Coens’ first collaboration with cinematographer Roger Deakins and is a visually stunning treat. On the one hand, the film embraces the Hollywood of the 1930s and 40s and exists in a world of Art Deco excess but, on the other, it shows the darker side of the period. To stay nearer the common man, Barton places himself in the dingy Hotel Earle and the hotel becomes a character in it’s own right. With its long hallways, peeling wallpaper, creaking elevators and rattling pipes, the Earle is the perfect setting for Barton’s breakdown whilst offering hope in the shape of a picture of a young woman at the beach. It is the kind of setting that could easily turn anyone insane and it becomes difficult to work out what is real and what isn’t when Barton can no longer make that distinction,

After all, his ideologies tell him that the little guy is worth fighting for but fails to realise that the one living next door to him is full of darkness. Whilst trying to succeed as a writer, Barton is unable to see the unrest hiding under the surface of the so-called “common man” despite believing he can speak for them. It is something that so easily becomes a metaphor for the rise of Nazism and shows Barton’s blindness. He fails as a left-wing intellectual and proves to be ineffectual in changing the world. When he sells out to Hollywood he fails as a creative too. Turturro plays him perfectly, making him an ineffectual, introspective writer who can never quite live up to his creative desires. Barton Fink is an assured piece of dark comedy that, after you take away the various interpretations you could have, presents a blinded individual being crushed under the weight of his intellectual and creative hype.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Carey Mulligan, Coen Brothers, folk, fucking beautiful, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Oscar Isaac, review

A few years ago I got into a fairly heated Twitter argument with my old flatmate about Todd Hayne’s unconventional Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There. I wanted so much to love it but, aside from Cate Blanchett, found very little to get too excited about. It was an interesting concept but I couldn’t help feeling it was all style and no substance. He, as someone who is a hell of a lot more Indie than I am, was outraged at my criticisms. I always intended to go back and rewatch it but my first viewing has filled me with an unending wariness of films loosely based on the lives of famous folk singers. So it filled me with dread and some sadness to discover that for their latest film the Coen brothers took inspiration from the memoir of the late Dave Van Ronk, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, to tell the tale of Llewyn Davis. Whilst not an out and out biography there was some concern about how it would end up. Plus the Welsh link isn’t exactly subtle and it is hard not to add your own level of subtext. However, the trailer is just magnificent and the Coens so rarely steer me wrong. If anyone could rectify Hayne’s mistakes it would be Joel and Ethan, right?

Inside Llewyn Davis takes the audience right into the heart of New York’s folk scene in the early 1960s to follow a turbulent week in the life of success-hungry musician Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). Llewyn is haunted by the past and constantly struggling to get past the obstacles that so often grace his path to making it. Our protagonist is in mourning for his former singing partner, Mike, who committed suicide and left the hapless Llewyn to flounder in the world of solo artists. His debut LP, whose title is stolen by the film, is not finding the success that he was hoping for: leaving him with no other options but to couch-surf and compete against lesser (or so Llewyn believes) acts for gigs in dark, dank venues around the Village.
It is often remarked upon that the Coens take a certain delight in putting their lead characters completely through the ringer for the pleasure of their audience. You need only remember their 2009 film A Serious Man to see just how sadistic they can be towards their own creations. Inside Llewyn Davis has no let up in terms of relentless struggles but the effect of this is less cut and dry considering that its leading man is, in no uncertain terms, a dick. He’s the kind of man who, after being told by his friend’s girlfriend (Carey Mulligan)

that he may have impregnated her, asks the friend he cuckolded (Justin Timberlake) for money to pay for an abortion. In his head, Llewyn is a suffering artist who isn’t being given the break that he deserves and he is ready to take his frustration out on those closest to him. But, as we have seen so many times before, great genius is often associated with poor social skills.

Although, is Llewyn actually the undiscovered musical savant he believes himself to be? The Coens never definitively answer that question. After a fraught journey to Chicago, Llewyn performs an audition for Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), owner of the Gate of Horn, only to be told that there’s probably no money in it. Llewyn, according to Grossman, just doesn’t quite fit as a front man. Just as he needs additional harmony for his singing, Llewyn finds himself being unable to cope by himself. (An idea that many people will probably want to relate to the brothers’ fears regarding their professional reliance upon each other.) Throughout the narrative Llewyn is constantly acting as his own worst enemy and making decision that will clearly come back to haunt him. It’s not exactly the making of a leading man but, let’s face it, in the world of the Coen brothers there are no real front men: just sidekicks or hopeless wannabes who struggle to make their way in the world.
A fact that could very easily destroy the film but, thankfully, the combined talent of the Coens and Isaac ensures that Llewyn remains engaging. Despite all of the mistakes and terrible behaviour the character somehow remains personable enough to ensure you’re still with him every step of the way. You aren’t sure that you want him to succeed but you can’t help but follow his journey. Of course, this may also have something to do with the fact that you are, literally, with him every step of the way. From the very minute Llewyn finds himself out on the wintery New York streets trudging through the snow you are right beside him. You are also experiencing that harsh 1960s winter that has been so beautifully realised by Bruno Delbonnel with his desaturated colours.
Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the most perfectly crafted films I’ve seen in a long time. The script is incredibly smart and perfectly balanced: between the profound melancholy that clouds the narrative there are wonderful moments of utter hilarity and warmth. With no real plot to speak of it would be easy to dismiss this as pointless but the scenes that unfold before your eyes are utterly engrossing that you won’t miss the lack of direction. Alongside some superb supporting turns from John Goodman, as the straight-talking and world-weary Jazz musician that joins Llewyn on his trip to Chicago, and Carey Mulligan, playing the gloriously angry young woman Llewyn may have planted his seed inside, there is little chance that the ambling nature of the plot will even show through.

Of course the one thing that holds this film together more than anything is the same thing that is at the core of Llewyn’s entire existence. The music that litters the narrative is performed adeptly by the entire cast and adds greater depth to the emotional struggle on screen. It is the kind of soundtrack that demanded to be purchased as soon as the credits began to roll and I haven’t stopped listening to it yet. T-Bone Burnett, the Coens’ long-time collaborator, has expertly matched the overall tone of the film. The chosen songs are played out in full, a potentially risky decision which actually pays off gloriously. Like all good folk songs, the soundtrack is beautiful, emotive and soul-cleansing. 

It would have been easy for the brothers to dismiss Llewyn as another deluded and talentless performer scrabbling for notoriety but instead they gave him a certain amount of credibility and a genuine chance. Isaac’s voice is the one pure and beautiful thing in Llewyn’s depressing world and it is the very thing that gives him a humane side. Using his struggles to his advantage Llewyn is able to perform some genuinely touching music even if nobody seems to appreciate it. The film offers a selection of music that is permeated with the sadness and frustration of one who is unable to realise his dream and who must know, deep down, that it will remain unrealised. This film is quite simply a pleasure to experience and is certainly one of the brothers’ finest. 

Flight (2013)

Bruce Greenwood, Denzel Washington, drama, drugs, John Goodman, review, Robert Zemeckis

In my opinion, Flighthad a pretty terrible marketing campaign that presented it as something much worse than it actually is. The first time I saw the trailer I was completely put off. It looked silly and badly written and, let’s be honest, any trailer that places John Goodman in a prominent role is realistically likely to be disappointing.  The best way I could describe the idea I had about this Robert Zemeckis film was as something written by the two lazy film writers from That Mitchell and Webb Look. (“We wanted to write a film about a pilot that survives a crash but we don’t know anything about aeroplanes. We were super busy so we just thought sod it.”) Then it went and got great feedback, Oscar nominations and glowing recommendations from friends. It seemed only fair to ignore my first impression and give it a go. Denzel Washington deserves that much at least.

Flight is Zemeckis’ first foray into the world of live-action film-making after a decade spent playing with motion-capture. Whilst it advertises itself as a lazy and mindless drama revolving around air-travel, it actually turns out to be a sombre look into the tortured life of pilot Whip Whitaker (Washington). It has been described my many as an intensely adult film to help the director move away from the family friendly material he’s been distributing recently. To make this point even clearer, Zemeckis starts his film with boobs.
Those boobs belong to sexy flight attendant Katerina (Nadine Velazquez) who has accompanied Whip on a wild night indulging in a combination of drink, drugs and sex. The pilot wakes feeling slightly worse for wear but easily jolts himself back into action with a swig of stale beer and two lines of cocaine. After an argument with his ex-wife (his marriage being a victim of his addictive lifestyle), Whip leaves his hotel room so he can take his seat in the cockpit of a flight departing for Atlanta. Whip further prepares himself by taking a hit of oxygen. Whip has clearly become adept at hiding his problem and, despite his co-pilot’s (Brian Geraghty) suspicions, manages to get himself together enough to project an air of professionalism and authority from behind his aviators.

The first half hour or so is put together by Zemeckis to continually mess with the audience by building and lowering the tension until the inevitable happens. Not only must we live with the knowledge that our trusted pilot was snorting the white stuff only moments before stepping on board but he is then forced to take evasive action on take-off to avoid turbulent weather conditions. When the plane finally starts to fail your emotional will already have been put through the ringer in a way that Alfred Hitchcock would have surely been proud. Zemeckis, as we know, has experience with grounding planes but this certainly outweighs anything we saw in Cast Away. The crash itself is an amazing example of dramatic cinema; a tense nose dive, during which Zemeckis barely moves out of the cockpit.
Thanks to some quick-thinking and a rather swish idea to invert the plane (plus an extra large dose of Dutch courage thanks to some stolen bottles of vodka), Whip manages to land after a mechanical failure sends it into plummeting to the ground. It was Whip’s ability to keep calm in the face of certain death that allowed him to save all but six of the souls on board his craft. A feat that we are later told no other pilot succeeded during a simulation of the crash conditions. We are forced to face the terrifying reality that the results were as happy as they were not despite of Whip’s intoxicated state but, rather, thanks to it.
This is the ethical conundrum that runs throughout Flight. After all, if he managed to land an unlandable plane, how much of a problem does he really have? Certainly, in his own view, Whip is in fine with his lifestyle and the aftermath of the crash only pushes him closer to self-destruction. In order to avoid life in the limelight Whitaker takes up residence at his grandfather’s farm where he takes part in some soul-searching and trips down memory lane; in between binges, of course.
Flight can basically be described as the study of a broken man living in denial; Whip’s constant flight from the truth of his sorry personal situation. The film has an unending focus on Washington who remains on screen for almost the entire run time. He, of course, was Oscar nominated for his performance and it is easy to see why. He’s on fine form and plays the role with a subtlety that would be lost had a lesser actor taken the role. He is thoughtful and emotive rather than in-your-face and angry. Washington lets his eyes take the focus in a way that none of Zemeckis’ recent motion-capture monstrosities could ever hope to replicate. Despite your frustration towards his actions and attitude, Washington plays it in such a way that you’re always willing Whip to change. It’s a performance that shows us the pilot’s weaknesses, denial and meanness (alcohol induced) whilst containing more than a glimmer of the actor’s own charisma. You know you shouldn’t like Whip but there is something about him that stops you from walking away.
Unfortunately, you can’t get away from the sense that Whip is being allowed a little too much time to wallow and, at 2 hours 20 minutes, it does feel rather bloated and self-indulgent. There can be no getting away from the feeling that large sections of Flight are both dull and completely redundant. Most notably being the heroin addict with a heart of gold (played by the hugely talented Kelly Reilly) who Whip philosophises with in a hospital stairwell before rescuing her from her squalid life. For her part Reilly plays the cliché with a gritty determination but she is both horribly underused and completely unnecessary to the plot. 
The same can be said of the rest of the supporting cast who, aside from John Goodman who has a couple of scenes to let loose, are left floundering  in the background as Washington naturally demands all of your attention. Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle both offer fine performances as Whip’s friend and a ruthless lawyer respectively but their potential is limited because the focus is solely on the main man.

Despite being somewhat hampered own its own alcohol-induced bloat, Zemeckis’s film does provide an interesting moral argument and contains moments of cinematic genius. It is a film made by its main star and, thankfully, Washington is more than up to the task. Managing to keep the film moving despite a lengthy running time, a flabby plot and a script littered with off-putting religious symbolism. Flight is by no means a terrible film but there were certain aspect that could have been sharper or better thought-out to make it a film worthy of its lead performance and instead of its misleading trailer.

Monsters University (2013)

comedy, family, fucking beautiful, Helen Mirren, John Goodman, Monsters Inc, Monsters University, review, sequel

With every new Pixar releases we find an influx of reviewers and random people on the internet (*ahem*) getting angry about the recent abundance of sequels and the company’s supposed focus on merchandise. I have, in the past (as you can see in this very blog), argued that the once outstanding animators are running out of fresh ideas but I must get angry at the suggestion that this prequel to the super popular Monsters Inc. was created solely because of the merchandise potential. Just take a handful of the many reviews out there and you’ll no doubt get bored of the phrase ‘golden age of Pixar’ and the lamentation that we are witnessing yet another nail in the studio’s coffin. Saying that Pixar have lost their way since Disney got involved is as much of a reviewing cliché as saying that every Woody Allen film of the last 20 years isn’t Annie Hallor Manhattan. Quite frankly guys, I’m getting a bit bored of it. Monsters University isn’t a terrible film and certainly doesn’t bring shame on it’s predecessor. Also, in my opinion this film had way more going for it than last year’s Oscar winning Brave (but you can read about that for yourself when you’re done here).

One of the greatest things about Monsters Inc. was how wonderfully it turned the idea of the bogeyman on its head by creating a familiar society that was inhabited by ghoulish creatures. Monsters Universitydelves further into this other world and shows us what life was like when the characters we met previously were entering University. This perhaps removesthe child audience slightly further but, if we’re being honest, this isn’t Pixar’s usual children’s film. The primary target audience are the now grown-up fans of the original who are at an age where they either are in or about to enter the world of higher education. This isn’t another Toy Storystyle franchise where a whole new audience was introduced to the magical toys with the release of every new adventure (which always looked a little too much like their previous adventure if we’re brutally honest). This is an animated Animal House that young children will no doubt enjoy even if they can’t completely appreciate the more specific references to college life.
The major problem with making a prequel is that you are working towards a known time and place. Going in the audience know how the story ends so everything is simply taking place to get us there. That means that the journey we go on must be engaging and entertaining enough to keep the audience on board with the concept. Although the plot is hardly breaking new ground and anyone who has ever seen a film before will know exactly which roads we are being walked down. This prequel borrows the typical buddy flick structure where these future friends start off hating each other. Of course they quickly discover that, in order to get what they want, they will have to work together. So yeah just like every 70s buddy cop film, 80s teen movie and 90s caper then. Although, this one does have added cartoon monsters which is pretty cool.
Lets say that Monsters Inc. is, at its heart, a film about Sulley coming to terms with who he is and who he could be. Monsters University throws the spotlight onto his small cyclops friend Mike Wazowski. The story begins with a young Mike deciding his future after getting a ring-side seat to a successful scare (pulled off by an octo-monster played by the vocally exciting John Krasinski no less). Mike knows what he wants to be and he has no doubt that his never-ending determination will get him there. Move on a few years and Mike is starting his first day at MU where he is ready to impress his tutors in its famous Scare Programme. Not beng the most obvious candidate to strike fear into the hearts of young children, he does this in the same way that any self-respecting nerd would do: by avoiding parties and other distractions and hitting the books. The polar opposite, as it turns out, to James P. Sullivan who has found a place in the programme thanks to his well-known family name and natural scariness. Sulley isn’t the man we knew: he’s the stereotypical jock who came to college for fun and only turns to books when his table legs are wonky.
So who will succeed in this monster-eat-monster world of terror training? Well, neither if the terrifying Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) has anything to say about it. Thrown out of their programme the duo are forced to team up with the outcast fraternity Oozma Kappa (who encourage team spirit by chanting “we’re OK”) and win the University’s annual Scare Games. So it hardly takes a rocket scientist to figure out how this is going to turn out but there is enough interest in the bunch of monster misfits battling superior scarers that it doesn’t feel like a drag getting to the inevitable ending. And, it turns out that there are still a few surprises in store to keep even the most cynical audience member on his toes.
Just as it was with Monsters Inc., it is the more intimate and emotional moments that resonate most with the audience. The other members of OK take the place of Boo from the first film and Mike and Sulley are once more placed into the roles of parents to bring these underwhelming individuals up to scratch. Watching the pair come together to help someone who is dependent on their superior skills is as wonderful as it was in the first film. This is a heart-warming film and even the lack of a human presence can’t remove the humanity from this beastly world. Though by far the most affective aspect of the plot is its stark reminder that, no matter how much you want it, your dreams might not always come true. We are used to Disney films telling us that if we work hard we can achieve anything. However, we live in a world where that simply isn’t the case. Mike obviously gets his happy ending but it is not the one he always dreamed of. It is something that will resonate with the audience and provides some of the sweeter moments.
For all of this intimacy and heart, Monsters University is a big film. The supporting cast is simply massive and you can tell how much of an effort it was to bring it all together. Whatever their issues may be with original storylines and concepts, Pixar thankfully still know how to write quirky and engaging characters and fill their empty screen with more than enough visual comedy. There are some delightful new additions to the cast including Mike and Sulley’s lovable team-mates and the delightfully icy Dean.
Of course, at its heart this is a college movie in the same vain as university based teen comedy we have seen before. All of the familiar faces are here but with a slightly monstrous visage. For that is one of the greatest things about Monsters University, seeing typical college situations played out by monsters and given a fresh new spin and even go against their stereotype. The frat parties, college rivalries, and the various cliques are given a new lease of life simply by placing it within this vast new world.
A world that has been created with the same love and attention to detail that Pixar is still praised for. In animation terms, the company has never been better. With the use of new Global Illumination technology the animated world has been given an even greater depth and provided a much more immersive setting. Pixar are constantly updating their software between films and it certainly pays off. After all, their overhaul of the rendering software pre-Brave created a beautiful if slightly damp squib of an Oscar winner. Although, in the run up to Monsters University the changes went a little deeper and Jean-Claude Kalache (director of photography) started a crusade to change Pixar’s relationship with lighting. (It’s a fascinating subject and, if you like that sort of thing, I recommend reading up on the subject after you’re through here. But then I’ve always been a bit too geeky about this kind of thing.) Global Illumination represented a complete overhaul of the lighting system and made a massive impact on the way their artists worked. However, the results speak for themselves and the lighting ends up feeling much more realistic than we have ever seen before. Some of the scenes are truly breathtaking. Particularly those taking place at night or in darkened spaces. It’s worth the admission price alone I’d say.
(As you’d expect given the new possibilities, lighting plays a very important part of the story-telling. You will often see shadow being used to denote fear and hardship and even light is seen to show moments of intimidation and exposure.)
That and the immense details of the monster world. Just look a little closer at the architecture of the Monster university and you’ll see that everything has been thought through with an obscene amount of care. We have doors within doors to cater for the wide variety of student sizes and additional entrances for aquatic and flying creatures. The monstrous aspects of the buildings themselves with horns, spikes, fangs and tentacles feature on the outside of the campus buildings creates a sense of Gothic history that is in stark contrast to the modernised Monsters Inc. buildings. The landscape is lush and expansive and shows that, despite a possible lack of fresh film ideas, visually they are still at the top of their game. Its just a shame that their writing department are trailing so far behind.
But who really cares? Yes, Monsters University may not be a critically acclaimed and an example of perfect film-making but it is something that will speak to its intended audience. It has taken two characters who a great number of us fell for 12 years ago and shows us more of their history. We see a heart-breaking new side to the lovable fool that we saw pratfalling to keep young Boo entertained. Yes it feels confused in places and the plot is a bit of a lame duck but it does what it wanted to. It entertained me. Pixar are doing what they know best here. Making fun and entertaining films with well-loved characters. So does it really matter that this isn’t exactly thought-provoking and academic film-making? Monsters University is like your favourite jumper. It’s a little worn out and raggedy but its comfortable and familiar. You like wearing it even though you know there are better jumpers out there. You may not wear it out of the house but, ultimately, you’ll always love it.

Argo (2012)

Ben Affleck, drama, John Goodman, review

I’ve never really seen the point of Ben Affleck as an actor. For a considerable amount of time he was nothing more than the friend of the much more talented Matt Damon. Whilst he is not always awful but he was, more often than not, forgettable. However, like Clint Eastwood and George Clooney, Affleck has made a much more noticeable step into the world of directing. Gaining critical acclaim for his previous efforts Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Affleck now tackles Chris Terrio’s script based on a strange but true part of American and Canadian history. For his third time in the director’s chair, Ben Affleck moves away from the familiarity of his much loved Boston to tackle the wider world and bigger issues.

Declaring itself to be ‘based on real events’, Argo is set during the Iran hostage crisis that took place from 1979 to 1981. It opens with a brief but vital introduction to the history of the West’s involvement in Iran presented rather sleekly in the style of a graphic novel. Yes, this segment may be criticised for being simplistic and reductive but sets about to remind the audience that Western powers helped to establish the monarchy in Iran. An issue that led to the Islamic revolution that gave vent to anti-American feeling within the population. When Iranian militants stormed the U.S Embassy in November 1979 and took 52 American citizens hostage, six workers managed to escape undetected. Taking refuge at the home of the Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) they were forced to lay low for two months for fear of being captured.

With both the American and Canadian governments under pressure to keep all those involved safe, there followed a frantic race to think up a plan that would safely lead the diplomats out of Tehran and back home. Considered to be the best option available, CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez, along with some key players, turns to Hollywood to provide an alibi for the group’s presence. They are to be provided with Canadian passports and passed off as part of a film crew scouting for locations to shoot their Star Wars-esque sci-fi movie. It’s an absurd plan but it’s just crazy enough to work.

Affleck has a knack for telling a story. He ensures that the action is always moving forwards but never fails to keep everything feeling realistic enough. Aided by some beautiful work by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and some propulsive editing, the plot advances relentlessly without any evidence of unnecessary material. Argo is a mature, intelligent and efficient film. It does what it needs to do in as simple a manner as it is able. Affleck is not just looking back to the 1970s but emulating them. From his use of the old Warner Brothers logo to the grainy look of the entire thing, the director is creating his own brand of 70s suspense film.

With an appropriately beardy look, Affleck places himself in the role of sober 70s action hero and does so remarkably well. I’ve seen a fair amount of criticism about Affleck’s portrayal of Mendez but I have to disagree. His performance is very thoughtful and professional but there is a certain amount of likeability beneath all that stocism. Detached though it may seem I have to argue that Affleck’s portrayal of the ‘exfil expert’ is perfectly in keeping with the plot. The nature of the story being told means that Mendez shouldn’t be in your face and overly dramatic. He is a CIA agent given the huge task of sneaking six people out of a very volatile setting. This isn’t Mendez’s story but the story that comes out of his idea.

He surrounds himself with a cast of great performers, not all of whom are big Hollywood names, and ensures that their performances are reined in enough to let the narrative speak for itself. Non of the characters are given a great amount of depth but they are all believable thanks to some fantastic performances. Everyone is perfectly cast and offer some amazing performances: Bryan Cranston as Mendez’s boss; Victor Garber as the Canadian ambassador; and Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham and Kerry Bishe as the six hostages. They’re all absolutely on point.

Of course, the stand-out comic performances come from John Goodman as Oscar winning make-up artist John Chambers and Alan Arkin as composite character Lester Siegel. Both actors give great performances with Arkin, in particular, providing the brunt of the humour. It is during the Hollywood scenes that Affleck introduces his audience to his sub-theme, a droll inside look at Hollywood. The pair repeatedly take shots at the inherent egomania and self-denial of the movie business. However, it is all done with an obvious amount of affection and the importance of Hollywood in the rescue of innocent lives can hardly be forgotten.
As a director, Affleck does a brilliant job of combining the comedic and dramatic elements of the narrative. Thanks also to the superb editing, courtesy of William Goldenberg, the film moves majestically between moments of drama and humour in this horrendously far-fetched yet true story. There are some fantastic moments where the action cuts back and forth between the staged reading of the fake film, the Iranians in control of the embassy, and the tense atmosphere within the Canadian ambassador’s household. These potentially jarring elements come together harmoniously. The narrative glides smoothly towards the inevitably tense climax.

It’s safe to assume that nearly all of the audience know the outcome of the story before the opening credits but Affleck still manages to bring a certain amount of tension to the plot. Though we must not forget that this is still Hollywood so the houseguests find themselves in more moments of heart-stopping drama than was actually the case. The final stage of the escape plan is wrought with all kinds of danger with several near misses and the obligatory chase scenes. However, that does not mean that Argo is not an intelligent film. Yes, the plot is sensationalised and there has been a fair amount of artistic license taken but, more importantly, the true bravery and drama remains.

There has also been a great deal of criticism regarding the historical accuracy of Affleck’s film. There has been much said about the increased importance of the American government in the plan and the consequent lessening of the Canadian role. Terrio’s script attempts to simplify the matters and does so by removing evidence of the aid given to the six by the English and Australian ambassadors. To many, Argo has been viewed as nationalist propganda intended to inflate America’s already large ego. Although, that is ignoring the fact that, whilst Ken Taylor’s role has been minimised here, Affleck has the greatest respect for the amount of work the Candian government did in helping get the six Americans out of danger. I also don’t think the ending is that full of pro-America feeling and Affleck is always keen to remind us of America’s role in starting the revolution. The ending has a great sense of general joyous celebration that goes hand-in-hand with a successful operation rather than drowning the audience in an atmosphere of “America, FUCK YEAH!” I could understand people getting angry if Affleck and Terrio had set out to create a documentary about that period but this is a film. Argo does wish to inform, that cannot be denied, but it is also intended to entertain. If there’s one thing we can learn from Quentin Tarantino, it’s that anyone who uses Hollywood films as historical sources probably doesn’t deserve to know the truth.