Sunday, 31 May 2015

Donnie Brasco - Mike Newell - 1997

A gangster movie from the director of Four Weddings and a Funeral frankly sounds like a laughable prospect, but if given the time and patience it deserves, Donnie Brasco proves to be an entertaining and surprisingly thoughtful entry into the genre. Based on the book by ex-FBI agent Joseph Pistone about his undercover work infiltrating the mob, Donnie Brasco eschews most of the melodramatics that usually come with the territory to focus instead on the friendship that develops between Pistone and Lefty Ruggiero, the gangster who unwittingly brings him into the mob. Johnny Depp is at the top of his game playing Pistone (the title comes from his mob alter ego), communicating more with his cold eyes than most actors can manage with their whole bodies; his scenes with Anne Heche as the wife he is forced to neglect as the job takes him further and further away from his real life are tragically tense but it is the relationship he builds with Al Pacino playing Lefty that is the most intriguing. Indelibly associated with the gangster genre after The Godfather and Scarface, Pacino lays aside his trademark histrionics to subtly hint at the pain of an aging gangster who has been passed over too many times for promotion and finds solace with a new protégée only to see it unravel before him. On the page Lefty is an obvious part for Pacino and so both actor and director enjoy picking apart the expectations that audiences bring to an Al Pacino gangster film; watching Pacino left outside as Donnie works his way into the mob over his head is to see Michael Corleone reduced to being kid brother once more. The pathetic sight of Lefty slumming it in a tracksuit watching animal programs has an additional layer of sadness that an actor without Pacino’s CV could never bring. Together Depp and Pacino have a surprisingly good chemistry and under Newell’s careful direction their relationship has a lot to say about the unspoken bonds of male friendship, a depth that a lot of gangster films would not bother with. With the focus on character there are only sporadic moments of action (although the violence is brutally sharp when it comes) but as Pistone gets further into the mob, the film naturally rises to an unbearably tense climax that Newell expertly pays off with an ambiguous ending that has far more emotional impact by leaving the inevitable outcome to play out in the audience’s imagination. Donnie Brasco may not have the epic scope of some gangster classics but it is not a story about epic characters. Examining the little lives of the small guys who never make it anywhere special however is an equally interesting experience. 

Monday, 25 May 2015

Rio - Carlos Saldanha - 2011

The latest animated extravaganza from the creative team behind the absurdly popular Ice Age series, Rio trades in cold but exotic pre-history for hot and even more exotic Rio de Janeiro and a madcap adventure filled with tropical birds, evil birds and lots of silly dancing. The story, which follows coddled macaw Blu (Jesse Eisenberg rehashing his usual awkward shtick) as he is forced to grow up and (literally) spread his wings when thrown into a strange and dangerous environment, is predictably clichéd right down to the blossoming romance and comedy sidekicks but is delivered with enough exuberance and flair to make it entertaining nevertheless. The script is rarely laugh-out-loud funny but where they could resort to just ticking off the tourist brochure sites of Rio, director Carlos Saldanha and team really go to town, creating some astonishingly beautiful views of the city by both day and night from a uniquely avian perspective that lift the film above any weaknesses in the story. A similarly impressive level of detail is accorded to both the rainforest scenes which are filled with a glorious abundance of colourful birds of all shapes and sizes and the action sequences in the favelas, which inevitably gloss over the grimy reality of life in the slums but capture the intricate higgedly-piggedly maze of construction in exhilarating detail when the camera goes zooming through far faster than would be possible in live action. Musically Saldanha opts for only one traditional musical number from Jermaine Clement's hilariously menacing cockatoo Nigel but compensates with a soundtrack fully of exuberant Brazilian samba music and some funky riffing from Jamie Foxx and who prove surprisingly effective as a pair of streetwise Carnival loving birds. The climactic chase through the Carnival procession is impressive as much for the dazzling spectacle as the gripping action and predictable last minute reversals of fortune but with so much impressively detailed and colourful animation on show throughout, Rio has enough exotic spectacle to at least make it stand out amongst the many films that have recycled this story before.

Rio 2 - Carlos Saldanha - 2014

A sequel to Rio, 2011’s most extravagantly colourful film, Rio 2 ticks the animated sequel boxes with the more-of-the-same approach that has come to define the studio’s Ice Age franchise and turns out a film that is even more colourful, even more exuberantly musical but otherwise as equally forgettable as its predecessor. Pampered blue macaw Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) has settled down to a comfortable existence in a Brazilian bird sanctuary to raise a family but when his partner Jewel (Anne Hathaway) hears the call of the wild, he is reluctantly dragged off for some jungle hi-jinks and a run-in with his old nemesis, Nigel the cockatoo. The narrative beats as Blu struggles to fit into his new environment are predictably familiar, but Saldanha invests enough time overflowing every frame of jungle with dazzling colour and orchestrating elaborate avian dance numbers every few minutes that the film never gets dull. Nigel, as voiced again by Jermaine Clement, is hilariously arrogant as ever – his Shakespearean misquotes are a delight – but his new sidekick, a poisonous tree frog called Gabi (Kristin Chenoweth) rapidly becomes tiresome. Far more entertaining is his new steed, an anteater in a bowler hat called Charlie who in a seeming homage to the great Charlie Chaplin steals every scene with some delightfully mournful slapstick routines. A subplot about villainous loggers destroying the jungle comes with an unsurprisingly heavy-handed environmental message but it is at least one that needs spreading and when the men risk getting too scary there is a lollipop-loving monkey on hand to brighten the mood. Like the first film Rio 2 works hard to fill the soundtrack with a glorious blend of Brazilian samba and more organic folk sounds alongside more modern riffs and although there maybe less memorable tunes this time round, the music still brings enough boisterous energy to leave the audience coming away with the buoyantly upbeat feeling Saldanha created last time round. The Rio films will never become animation classics but the explosion of uniquely Brazilian energy they bring to the big screen will always make them an entertaining watch. 

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Enchanted - Kevin Lima - 2007

A pitch-perfect skewering of Disney fantasies from the mouse house itself, Enchanted spins a concept so lined with potential that it’s a wonder nobody thought of it before. Opening like a clichéd rerun of all the Disney princess films everyone remembers from childhood, complete with singing princess, cute talking animals and a dashing prince, director Kevin Lima only lingers on the cutesy stereotypes long enough to set up the characters before ditching the animation altogether and dropping Princess Giselle into the terrifying alien world of New York… Blessed with rising star Amy Adams in the lead, Lima plays the fish-out-of-water-comedy for all its worth, mining laughs big and small from Giselle’s naïve and innocent reactions to the cynical world she finds herself in. In what could be (and often was in the Disney princess heyday) a two-dimensional role, Adams brings enormous charm and sincerity to the film that sells the concept far more than the clever script could by itself. Whether she is begging a smile from a tramp, singing cleaning songs to the local rats or ruining a divorce case by reuniting the warring couple, Giselle’s single-minded happiness in the face off all obstacles New York throws up is delightful to watch. There is heart here too though, not just easy laughs. Giselle is taken in by cynical single parent Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey) and of course the pair clash with hilarious results (Dempsey’s deadpan despair is a perfect foil for Adams’ bouncy happiness) but eventually Giselle is forced to take on board some of Robert’s more realistic views on love with surprisingly moving consequences. Of course once the portal has opened the possibilities are endless and so whenever the plot runs the risk of getting dull Lima brings another animated archetype to life. Susan Sarandon’s Wicked Queen fries Times Square seven years before Electro pulled off the same trick, Chip the chipmunk is horrified to discover that animals can’t talk in this strange new world and James Marsden has great fun hamming it up to the nines as the gloriously buffonish Prince Edward. None of them come close to stealing the film away from Adams though who by the end has made Giselle the most well-rounded Disney Princess in years and successfully secured her own career as a Hollywood star into the bargain. Ultimately whatever myths have been skewed this is still a Disney film and so unsurprisingly it twists back on itself for the requisite happy ending, but any movie that can both celebrate and poke fun at its predecessors in one witty script can never really fall short and Enchanted, largely thanks to Adams, manages to do both in spades. 

Monday, 11 May 2015

Little Shop of Horrors - Frank Oz - 1986

It takes a splendidly inventive mind to see an ultra-low budget B-movie horror film about a killer plant and reimagine it as a musical but somehow that is what song writing duo Alan Menken and Howard Ashman managed and The Little Shop of Horrors – originally shot in seven days by B-movie king Roger Corman – was reborn as an Off-Broadway smash followed by this eccentric movie adaptation. A bizarre mix of horror and comedy wrapped up in a musical bow, the Little Shop of Horrors musical film is filled with cheesy yet catchy tunes sung by hilariously demented characters and walks a bold tightrope between the unabashedly OTT sci-fi storyline and unexpectedly dark underlying themes of poverty, murder and domestic violence, yet director Frank Oz impressively meshes the two into a weirdly kitsch whole that is surprisingly entertaining. Rick Moranis of Ghostbusters fame plays awkward hero Seymour Krelborn with his usual nebbish charm and proves to have a powerful pair of lungs for belting out classics like Grow for Me and Suddenly Seymour. Seymour’s love interest Audrey is a bubble-headed blonde who speaks like Marilyn Monroe on Helium but in the hands of stage star Ellen Greene she stays on the right side of annoying and her big number Somewhere That’s Green becomes a hilarious pastiche of tacky fifties fashions (plastic wrapped furniture!). The biggest scene-stealer though is Steve Martin as brilliantly insane dentist Orin Scrivello whose outrageously sadistic delight in tormenting his patients will terrify anyone with a dentist phobia but leave everyone else in stitches (the good kind); Martin’s confrontation with an unexpected Bill Murray cameo is a comedy short in itself. The infamous man-eating plant Audrey II effectively utilises Oz’s long career in Jim Henson’s puppet workshop, with everything from the cute baby plant snapping for blood to the climatic monster with giant singing tentacles all created within camera far more effectively than anything Roger Corman could dream of. The giant plant head complete with tentacle chorus singing Mean Green Mother from Outer Space whilst destroying the set with maniacal delight has to be seen to be believed! Admittedly audiences who like their musicals fresh and cheerful maybe taken aback by the violence whilst the big-hearted songs will probably put off horror fans, but for those who happily buy into this proudly cheesy genre mash-up, Little Shop of Horrors is a zany delight. 

Monday, 4 May 2015

Valiant - Gary Chapman - 2005

Proudly announced as one of the first computer animated movie to be made in Britain, Valiant brings together a great voice cast to tell the little known story of World War Two carrier pigeons. This little known side to the conflict is certainly worth the telling – 33 pigeons were awarded medals for bravery in the field of combat – but sadly Valiant does not the visual or narrative hooks to appeal to anyone other than the very young. The animation is nice enough and the avian stars are humanised enough to create recognisable characters whilst remaining resolutely pigeons, but the visuals are otherwise largely unmemorable. Aside from one shot of a burning plane seen from an abandoned churchyard the film lacks the painterly depth and beauty that makes the greatest films from Disney or Studio Ghibli so delightful to watch. The story bounces along quickly enough, following the adventures of eager young recruit Valiant pigeon (voiced by an excitable Ewan McGregor) but neither he nor any of the supporting characters have anything to offer beyond British stereotypes and so once the excitement of spotting the famous voice is over (Jim Broadbent, John Cleese and Hugh Laurie all show up in avian form), the characters rapidly loose interest. Meanwhile Ricky Gervais’ comedy sidekick is simply a misfire, failing to catch more than the occasional chuckle with a tiresome geezer pigeon routine. There are some gentle jokes and puns finding bird equivalents for the RAF and anything else stereotypically British but they are all far too cheap and obvious to successfully land and audiences are quickly left hankering after some Aardman humour, jokes that are resolutely British but witty and grounded enough to hit home. The film’s message about being able to achieve anything if you have a big enough heart is sweet and delivered with great earnestness by McGregor but it feels no less derivative coming from the mouth of a pigeon as it did from the long line of Disney Princesses who have spouted similar maxims before. For those who enjoy cheap talking animals and fart jokes Valiant maybe amusing. For everyone else it is instantly forgettable.