Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One (2010)

Written by: Steve Kloves (screenplay)
Directed by: David Yates
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
Running time: 146 minutes

It’s a bad sign when your mind wanders during a film. It happened a couple of times during this one, which is not to say I didn’t like it. Overall, I liked it quite a lot — in part because after six of these films they finally figured out how to make Harry Potter movies, and in part because J.K. Rowling has nicked so many “bits” from other books and movies and just twisted them a little, and there’s nothing wrong with that generally speaking.

The first thing that broke my suspension of disbelief was a moment early on in the film when Harry meets Elphias Dodge, an old friend of Dumbledore’s. Nothing against David Ryall, who’s been in everything British TV can offer at one time or another, but I would have loved to have seen Tom Baker in that part — he’s much more the kind of mad character Dumbledore would hang out with.

Later, during the sequence in the Ministry of Magic, I remember thinking “ooh they should have let Terry Gilliam direct this one.” There were several moments like that.

But what really broke my concentration was the laid-on-thick parallels to The Lord of the Rings. Now, the whole series has at this point become a “Quest” tale so bits of other quest classics are of course going to show up, from Greek mythology to Doctor Who’s The Key to Time, but Rowling really doesn’t try to terribly hard to hide it.

I come at these movies not having read the books (yes, I’m the one guy who hasn’t read any of these books bar the first one!), so I judge them as movies. From that perspective, the series has been pretty uneven; after the first delightful one, they quickly got jumbled, hurried and senseless (particularly The Prisoner of Azkaban, which was a disgraceful mess). After a slight respite in the much-better Goblet of Fire, things returned to silly, overwrought and confusing in Order of the Phoenix, which I found totally forgettable and impossible to follow.

Much of the damage finally started being repaired in 2009’s The Half-Blood Prince, helmed by David Yates who took what Mike Newell started and ran with it, focusing like a laser on the actual story buried in the details and extracting it, much to the delight of anyone who hadn’t re-read the book the week before. HBP was clear, set up new events nicely, really let the young actors shine instead of being just an endless walk-through of notable old British veterans like the first five movies were, and as a result solved the pacing issue that had really hobbled all the films from #3 onwards.

Yates returned for this one, and the two-part nature of it might have been a crass marketing ploy but I for one am grateful; the slower pace makes this the first Harry Potter movie to have any appreciable amounts of silence in it. I found myself really enjoying the slower-paced scenes, such as Harry’s kiss with Ginny to remind you that they’re still a couple, and some of the later picture-postcard scenes do allow for some genuine thoughtful acting (rather than, say, re-acting to one of the many effects shots).

There is still a certain amount of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them with the by-now enormous guest cast (and remember, half of those characters have died in the films by this point!) and there are still some introductions of people who, as in so much of Rowling’s work, walk on and then are quickly killed or thrown out never to be seen again. I was disappointed we didn’t get more of the Dursleys, but at least this time they didn’t forget about having a few lighter scenes; the Seven Harrys will get a giggle out of many.

There’s a fair amount of sexual tension in the film, though for the life of me I can’t really see how the Ron-Hermione romance actually works so their on-screen actions feel kind of forced (and the “triangle” with Harry even more so), but the kids do pretty well with the material; this movie is much less a spotlight on Radcliffe as it is on Watson and Grint, the former proving herself what I have always suspected — a reincarnated Audrey Hepburn — while Grint struggles to look like he even belongs in this movie.

I don’t fault Grint so much as Rowling — Ron is just a blah character meant to balance the other two, and in the films he’s been a total third wheel since the first one and he knows it. Of the original young cast, I think Watson and Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy) have a real shot at having genuine long film careers if they care to. Felton isn’t given that much to do in this one but he’s quite obviously going to have a bigger role in the next one, and I found the whole dynamic of the Malfoy household much more interesting in DH1 than ever before, as the family — particularly Lucius, Draco’s father — was painted in such cartoonish strokes up until the last film (and speaking of him, what the holy hell happened to Jason Isaacs? He looks terrible in this movie, like he’s aged 10 years to everyone else’s two!).

There were still sequences that didn’t make much sense, or seem to add much to the plot, but it is the scenes of the heroic trio on the run that make up the entire second half of the film, and while a nice change from the Hogwarts-bound nature of the previous movies, went too far over the LOTR-homage cliff and felt circular in nature — apart from destroying the Horcrux, they don’t actually accomplish much, and what few clues they turn up felt very Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew-ish in nature. Finally, they end up in right where they didn’t want to be — and despite their escape, they lose Dobby (I was not sorry to see him go, I considered him the Jar-Jar of this series, but at least they gave him a very good send-off) and the villain seems to have won the day.

Despite not having read the books, I have a pretty fair idea of where this is going for the wrap-up, which characters will return and which ones will redeem themselves. Why? Because while Harry Potter’s saga is imaginative — and enjoyable for that — it is not terribly original. Anyone well-versed in the Hero’s Myth, Freytag’s model and the best adventure stories that have come before it can see the general path ahead. But have we enjoyed the journey?

Though it remains entirely too dependent on the source books to make much sense without them, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, like The Half-Blood Prince, at least tries to give us a coherent enough main plot to follow that we aren’t bothered too much about the details, and on that level it succeeds.

For once, I understood perfectly what the subject of the title of the film was all about, thanks mainly to a really standout bit of shadow-play homage animation to illustrate the tale of the Three Brothers, and even the racism/eugenics allegory was further explored without beating me over the head with it. It even tied back to the first movie, well there’s a nice reward for those who have grown confounded by Rowling’s tendency to throw tonnes of interesting stuff at us and then refer back to precious little of it ever again.

I have hope that the finale really will tie up at least some of the bigger loose ends and give us a satisfying conclusion. I have no doubt that Voldemort has fallen for the last of Dumbledore’s traps, that just as the brass ring is in his grasp his “family” will begin to defect, and that characters not seen in this movie (or for a while, if you get my drift) will return. Hell, I’m half-expecting Ghostly Alec Guinness — sorry, Ghostly Albus Dumbledore — to turn up at a crucial moment and tell Harry to use the Force.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Written by: Norman R. Raine & Seton I. Miller
Directed by: Michael Curtiz & William Keighley
Starring: Errol Flynn, Olivia De Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains
Running time: 102 minutes

The short version: this is an absolute classic of a movie, so good that I don’t even mind that a number of the cast are obvious Americans.

This is a beautifully-executed amalgamation of various legends of Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men in Sherwood Forest, a story that has evolved greatly over time (and deviated from what scant details are verifiable) but has its roots in genuine tales of a legendary archer who addressed injustices via vigilante violence from at least the 14th century.

This version presents the now-standard portrait of Robin of Loxley as a dispossessed Saxon knight forced to become an outlaw when the Normal Prince John, conniving brother of King Richard I, attempts to seize the monarchy and subjugate the Saxons while King Richard is away at the Crusades.

Very little of this squares in any way with the actual legend (itself full of disputed details) — it’s off by a mere couple of centuries, a different king and lack of nobility for a start — but who the hell cares. The setting gives us a genuine historical backdrop (Prince John really did overthrow Richard’s regent William Longchamp in an attempt to seize the throne while Richard was held prisoner), a rich and clearly-drawn cast of characters, an injustice for Robin to fight and plenty of pageantry. The 12th century never looked as good as this, and despite all the detail inaccuracy, most people consider this the definitive version of the story which, despite many subsequent attempts, hasn’t been topped (or even equalled).

The key to this movie’s enduring success — it’s still very watchable and enjoyable some 72 years after it’s release — has a lot to do with the screenplay, which is beautifully peppered with comedy and drama in perfect proportion to the action, and structured very much along the patterns of Shakespeare’s plots.

The casting must also be mentioned, as time has proven most of the choices very wise. Errol Flynn (who was actually born in Australia) gives us a passable attempt at an aristocratic English accent, convincing us he’s a Saxon lord being discriminated against by the treacherous Prince John (just this side of camp portrayal by Claude Rains), the evil Sir Guy of Gisbourne (the flawless Basil Rathbone), and the rather ineffectual and oafish Sherrif of Nottingham (a refreshingly different, Cowardly Lion-esque approach by Melville Cooper).

Strangely, however, the Merry Men are appear to mostly be made up of Americans. Excluding Robin and Will Scarlett, the main speaking roles amongst the outlaws are the frog-voiced Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette, a former silent-movie star who’s distinctive voice made him a comic actor in the talkies) and Little John (father of “Gilligan’s Island” skipper Alan Hale Jr.), the former of which is especially jarring in 12th-century Yorkshire.

Still, all is forgiven once the characters are introduced and the action begins, including a number of breath-taking stunts (remembering that there was no technology or safety standards in those days) set against a (California!) backdrop of perfectly gorgeous technicolour, still quite the novelty in 1938 but which has definitely helped preserve interest in this film.

Flynn comes off as the perfect heroic archetype; charming, sassy, bold, witty and noble. From his first encounter with Sir Guy and particularly in his latter bold appearance in the court of Prince John, his portrayal seems natural and self-assured, like he was born to play it — the fact that his interpretation stands as definitive to this day speaks loudly of how well the script was tailored to Flynn’s personality.

Poor Olivia De Havilland has to do all her acting using almost exclusively her eyes for most of the film, only ridding herself of her maiden headdress towards the end, but she proves up to the challenge and gives a surprisingly rich and nuanced performance, even when overshadowed by the much more (shall we say) theatrical stylings of messrs. Rains, Rathbone and Cooper.

Sharp-eyed or repeat viewings of the film can yield forth all manner of continuity goofs, embarrassingly rubber clubs and swords, strange plot points (Richard and his men just “show up” in Sherwood with no explanation of how they escaped or got there, right on cue) and so forth, but these sorts of things — which would be excoriated as sloppy in most films — are swept under the rug by the an audience swept away by the pageantry and action. Directors Curtiz and Keighley boldly stage complicated fight scenes and other set pieces with huge numbers of extras and rather complicated shots and by and large it all works stunningly well.

Like Captain Blood and other high-adventure films of the period, the filmmakers have no trouble balancing slower, character-rich moments with the fast-paced action, because at all times they remember to be servants to the overall story. The comedy is always delightfully light-hearted, the dramatic moments are credible (particularly thanks to De Havilland, such as the scene in the forest where she begins to be won over to Robin’s cause), and nothing feels out of place — even the entirely-invented romance between the hunter Much and Marion’s nurse Bess. Even the small moments and throwaway lines give the story more variety and depth — careful not to make Robin less than perfectly noble, giving the Merry Men sufficient backstory, avoiding painting the Normans as all-bad or the Saxons as all-good and so on.

The Axis of Evil, circa 1166.

If you only ever see one Robin Hood film in its entirety, this is the one to see (well, actually, you should watch Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights right after it). If you only watch one Errol Flynn movie in your life, this is the one to see. If you only watch one colour film from the late 1930s … okay yeah, that would be dumb because there were a number of fabulous colour movies from the late 30s, but this is definitely right up there with Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz.

Historical accuracy be damned, this is Hollywood legend-making at its finest and the source of so much influence over not just later Robin Hood movies, but adventure movies in general, that it should be a staple of film schools and periodic revivals, particularly at outdoor film fests. This is genuinely among my all-time favourite films — great historical fun that holds up so well it may well last another century as a beloved fable.

The Runaways (2010)

Written and directed by: Floria Sigismondi
Starring: Dakota Fanning, Kristen Stewart, Michael Shannon
Running time: 109 minutes

The Runaways is a decidedly lopsided film about the hugely influential all-girl rock band who roared into life just on the crest of punk and combusted, as all legendary bands tend to do, before they ever reached their full potential.

The background of the film is that its screenplay is derived from (lead singer) Cherie Currie’s tell-all biography Neon Angel, but also has as one of its executive producers one Joan Jett, the leader of the band, and so we can presume that from the point of view of these two, at least, the real story of The Runaways is being told.

Fanning and Stewart are, frankly, miracle pieces of casting giving their best performances ever (Fanning we already knew was an adept actor, but who could have guess that Kristen Stewart had more to offer the world than Bella Swan?), totally submersing themselves in their roles and even actually singing most of the numbers performed. Apart from scene-stealing Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley, the two girls dominate not only the band but the entire movie.

Thus, it’s a pity that the movie focuses on only these two members of the band (and Fowley) so heavily. Drummer Sandie West (Stella Maeve) at least gets some decent screen time and a few lines, but Lita Ford (played by Scout Taylor-Compton) just comes off as a permanently disgruntled bitch with the very few lines she’s given throughout the film, and the bassist (a made-up character called Robin, since actual bassist Jackie Fox chose not to be represented in the film, played by Alia Shawkat) doesn’t get so much as a single word of dialogue! Ford and “Robin” just disappear into the background for 99% of the film, and West only fares slightly better. It’s like trying to tell the story of the Beatles while ignoring George and Ringo and instead only focusing on John, Paul and Brian Epstein.

That said, seeing the formation of the band makes for an interesting first half, showing not just Currie’s upbringing but Jett’s as well (though the film’s version of the band forming and their early practicing is an out-of-sequence and fictionalized version of what actually occurred). Frankly, Fowley still has enough life story left over to make several more films just about him.

The backstory on Currie’s disintegrating family is interesting, but by the middle of the film we see where that’s all going and would rather stick to the band members (who’ve had a very illuminating introduction into the realities of first-tour experiences), but since half of the band are little more than window dressing we get more about Marie Currie, Cherie’s long-suffering sister, left behind to take care of their alcoholic dad. After the band experience great success in Japan, things begin to fall apart with Currie taking on too many drugs (etc) to really function, even as she and Jett begin a relationship.

Before you know it, the band are in the recording studio, Currie is having a breakdown, Lita Ford gets her big bitch scene and voila, the whole thing flies apart. In reality, this process took four years and three albums (with Currie) plus a final record with Jett on lead vocals before it came crashing down. The film leaves us with Jett ruminating on a solo career, and an awkward coda years later as Jett is being interviewed by Rodney Bingenheimer on KROQ (played over-the-top, if that’s actually possible with Bingenheimer, by Keir O’Donnell); Currie, who hasn’t spoken to Jett in years, phones in and stammers through some on-air awkwardness, then goes back to her job folding napkins.

Viewers who are not familiar with the background of the band and its actual breakdown are likely to be a bit confused by the abridgement and time compression of the film, which actually helps the film feel rather short at 109 minutes, but rock n roll is as much a feeling as it is a series of actions, so this film is probably as much of the real story as you’re ever likely to get, and the soundtrack (mostly reperformed Runaways songs, but there’s also some delicious Bowie, Stooges, Gary Glitter, MC5 and even a little Suzi Quatro in there as well) is pure gold.

The film itself is efficient and well-shot, covering a lot of ground pretty smoothly overall. Although there’s more dysfunctional family life in this one than you get in most rock band biopics, it still feels at times fairly mechanical in its run-through from origins to breakup, complete with “updates” on most of the characters at the end.

Despite having little to no “message” apart from “the rock lifestyle is fun, but don’t overdo the drugs, mmmkay?”, it’s good to see big-name stars actually put some acting blood on the line and do justice to the (limited scope of) the story for a change, and the music is killer, so ultimately I recommend you see the film. I somehow just don’t see Ford, West and Fox (et al) ever getting it together to tell you their side of the story, so eat what you’re given and enjoy The Runaways.

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Director: Guy Ritchie
Stars: Robert Downie Jr., Jude Law
Running Time: 129 minutes

When I was a boy, I devoured the Sherlock Holmes stories — and still credit my reasonable powers of observation and fair ability to “read” people to my studied enthusiasm for those imaginative tales.

Every few years, I get the itch to re-immerse myself in that wonderful world of Victorian crime and intrigue, intense problem-solving matched with equally intense pleasure-seeking, and the power of pure friendship and pure intellectualism. Most recently I’ve finally (after 20 years!) gotten a chance to watch Tom Baker play the world’s foremost detective from a 1982 BBC production. Baker, who’s best-known role (The Doctor of Doctor Who) is more than a little inspired by Doyle’s detective, was actually bloody marvellous in the traditional theatrical interpretation of the part, rather talky and stagey and with an emphasis on the character’s regal bearing contrasted with his inability to cope with anything beyond crime-solving. It’s available for rental and Holmes purists will probably find themselves generally delighted at this unfairly-overlooked production.

When this new Sherlock Holmes film first came around last Christmas, I had mixed feelings that ultimately kept me from seeing it in a cinema until now. I had great confidence that Robert Downey Jr would be fine in the lead, despite the alarming 80s hair he boasts in the promotional poster (thankfully not replicated in the film), but I frankly don’t care much for Guy Ritchie’s output; neither his choice of usual subjects (British gangland) or his particular directorial style (no more than 10 minutes till the next implausible action sequence) have ever sat well with me, though I’d be the first to admit the two generally go together successfully.

The trailer didn’t inspire me much, except to dare to hope that Jude Law (who plays Watson) would actually be good, something I’ve never managed to see happen before (including, most recently, in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). Holmes as a boxer? A dashing ladies man with all the right words? A Victorian London that appears to have a lot of explosions??

But one should never trust trailers. The actual film itself is, in my view, Ritchie’s most successful effort at being light-hearted, and while great liberties have been taken with the source, it is still identifiably Holmes and Watson, and makes for a solidly entertaining film that deservedly did well at the box office.

While the film is carried by the strong performance of Downey as Holmes, this is actually more Watson’s movie, a very wise move on the part of the screenwriters and director. Watson is often played (ever since Nigel Bruce ruined the part) as a bumbling fool whose only job is to provide narration and makes Holmes look good, but in this version we get something much closer to the Dr. Watson we met in the books and stories; a colleague who, after several years with Holmes, has picked up much of his power of observation, a foil who Holmes himself sees as the man he might have been, a faithful chronicler but not always so loyal a friend, often getting tricked or challenged into participating further.

Jude Law has, to my eyes, never ever been better than he is here. I have never much cared for him and find most of his performances wooden, underplayed and dull, but he clearly had a strong regard for Watson and a good chemistry with Downey, and hits exactly the right note.

As for Downey, his accent is (as Ritchie called it) “flawless” and his interpretation of the part is entirely suitable. If Doctor Who ever got made into a another big-screen movie and the current incumbent was unsuitable, Downey would be my second choice — his entire performance here might as well be one long audition piece for The Doctor. Though he lost some weight for the role to get into fighting trim, I still don’t see him as quite physically right for the role — Holmes was a wastrel in many ways, and the usual consequence of such addictions is a gauntness Downey just doesn’t possess. But he’s more than adequate in the part and apart from some occasional mumbled lines (usually spoken too quickly to be heard clearly), he provides the necessary mix of gentlemanly bearing with mischievous misanthropy, adding style and wit, particularly to his relationship with Inspector LeStrade (Eddie Marsan).

The plot is scarcely worth mentioning, in part because its not based on anything in the Conan Doyle canon and in part because apart from its overall raison d’etre — purporting to show the first meeting of Holmes with his later arch-enemy Professor Moriarty — it doesn’t matter really. The mystery is lovely and atmospheric and, as we know full well going into this, fully solved by the end. The supporting players are equally trivial to the point of the film, which is to showcase the complex relationship of Holmes and Watson. The whole film is actually structured more a Dan Brown runaround (such as The DaVinci Code) than a proper Holmes tale, for example eschewing the traditional “told after the fact” narrative angle and omitting the also-traditional part where a visitor to Baker Street sets up the entire background, one of Doyle’s most common literary devices. But it’s all been cast aside so that we may spend more time in the present moment with Holmes and Watson and watch their bromance take its roller-coaster ride through some very scenic set pieces.

Instead of all that drawing-room chat, we are dropped right into the thick of things, with Holmes and Watson stopping the ritual murder of a young girl by occult leader Lord Blackwood (bit of an in-joke, that name), played by Mark Strong. Blackwood tries his best to convince Holmes of the existence of the supernatural, even returning from the dead after three days (it’s been done), but Holmes is having none of it. Methodically and (as usual) against time and obstacles both external and internal, he unfolds the mystery and (along with the help of Rachel McAdams as an American former lover and jewel thief) saves the day.

London is of course a great place to shoot a Victorian mystery as its quite easy to use current locations with a minimum of dressing. The problem with Ritchie is that he has no concept of the word “minimum” — sets are usually over-dressed and dwelled on more than the actors. Some scenes appear to be chosen purely for their visual value rather than any practical meaning; a prolonged fight scene with Holmes bare-knuckle boxing a larger fellow exists ostensibly to show his ability to calculate his victory over an opponent, but this exact same ability was showcased in the first scene of the film — so this repeated scene is merely an excuse to show the same thing, only this time with Downey’s shirt off.

In another example, being chased by a giant French henchman (Fre-henchman?), the action allows for a large vessel to be loosed from its moorings and fall into the Thames, where it sinks entirely out of sight. The Thames, at its absolute deepest point and highest tide, wouldn’t be quite 20 metres (the spirit of Conan Doyle was notably absent during the “logical sequence of events” part of writing this screenplay). Not only that, the boat slipping from its drydock is entirely unnecessary and adds neither atmosphere nor content to the story.

The big climatic fight on the top of the still-being-built Tower Bridge was probably enjoyable to mainstream moviegoers but struck me as very unrealistic, breaking my suspension of disbelief by being so obviously green-screened. It’s no accident that it’s the only really “talky” part of the movie, the part where Holmes explains to the villain (as though he didn’t know) — and the audience — all the ways in which he’d rigged his “supernatural” tricks. I guess Richie can’t abide the idea of people just explaining things without visual drama all around them. At least he confined himself to only one huge explosion this time.

For a “Hollywood” movie (albeit shot in England), Sherlock Holmes is generally very successful at making the character more appealing to modern (read: less entertained by displays of cleverness) audiences; as a movie its good fun and I’m not surprised that the estate of Sir Conan Doyle gave its blessing, despite it being an original story. The choice of a “supernatural” villain was both genre-appropriate and created a nice contrast of styles. Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack makes use of authentic sounds and even a few period songs alongside the usual “action” soundtrack requirements, so I’d rate it above average. The editing was, as is typical of a Guy Ritchie production, rather slapshot and trendy. Like the sets, it felt overworked at times. One fears for Mr Ritchie’s ability to stay focused for any lengthy periods of time.

This interpretation of Holmes may not go down as a classic, but its well worth your ticket or rental money, features a surprisingly strong pair of leads, and preserves the colour, charm and brains of the enigmatic Sherlock Holmes. Despite the sometimes ill-fitting choice of director, I’d say this is about as good a Sherlock Holmes movie as you could possibly hope for out of a mainstream US studio.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Director: Wes Anderson
Stars: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray
Running Time: 87 minutes

Wes Anderson’s films are very hit-and-miss with me, in part because he tries very hard not to make the same movie over and over, for which I thank him. I’m always a little amazed at how generally well his films do considering they have a distinctly “indie/art house” air to them; he’s the kid who somehow gets to make largely uncompromised movies on the studio’s dime, never having a megahit but always paying off the investors sufficiently that he gets to make another one. In some ways, he’s this generation’s Woody Allen.

So I have my reasons for wanting to like what I see from him, and by and large I have — although he’s very rarely moved me to be terribly enthusiastic. Such is also the case with his latest movie, Fantastic Mr. Fox — or as I call it, Not At All Bad Mr. Fox. I enjoyed it, not least because it certainly doesn’t look like any other movie on the screen this year — but it didn’t thrill me all that much, and I was a little disappointed to find the well-remembered Roald Dahl book quite tinkered with.

Still, it’s important to remember that I’m not the target audience for this — it’s a kid’s movie based on a kid’s book, and on that level I think the film works pretty well. I hope it inspires kids to read more Roald Dahl. The all-hand-done, stop-motion animation is a really nice change from the surplus of 3-D computer animation we’ve gotten, and although it uses the same technique as the Wallace & Gromit series it does have a distinct look and “feel” (what Ebert would call “texture”). The story works out pretty well despite Anderson’s (unnecessary) addition of a sub-plot and character that don’t end up making a big impression. As a children’s movie, I can recommend it at least as much as the book.

I can’t help but be disappointed by two key decisions, the first of which I’ve already alluded to: Anderson’s decision to (literally) wedge in a “young men who are rivals then bond” subplot that doesn’t actually go anywhere unexpected and seems to exist solely to “mark his territory” in the movie. The second mistake (in my opinion) was casting George Clooney as the lead. Certainly Mr. Fox is a smug sonofabitch and Clooney is terribly good at playing that sort of character, but there’s a reason why Mr. Clooney isn’t constantly swamped with voice work: it’s because he’s not a voice actor. A voice actor is someone who has great range in his voice and can hide, exaggerate his audible personality and usual range with aplomb. Clooney either can’t do this or was directed not to, which means you spend the entire movie looking at Mr. Fox but hearing (very obviously) George Clooney, which hurts the suspension of disbelief.

By contrast, Meryl Streep (who plays Mrs. Fox) is unrecognisable till the end credits (in part because the role is rather beneath her, quite frankly), as is Willem Dafoe. Even Owen Wilson, who sports a pretty recognisable voice and is of course to be expected to appear in every Wes Anderson film any more, manages to inject some actual character into his role. Not George — he just puts on that smug tone he employs in every Oceans movie and phones it in from there.

The aforementioned subplot is Anderson’s weakness — he just has to find a way to stick in some non-conformist dork character who refuses to stop being a odd little twerp, but at the exact same time longs to be accepted by the mainstream. To give Mr. Fox’s son Ash that title, it was necessary to invent a foil who starts off as a rival but then ends up as a friend, thus the invention of Ash’s “cousin” Kristofferson (what an original name!). Kristofferson is “acceptably odd” with his meditation and his quiet nature, versus Ash’s “unacceptable” lack of physicality and grace (bad qualities for a fox, I’m sure you’ll agree). Everyone else in the film is endearingly (but acceptably!) odd as well, except strangely enough for Mrs. Fox, an artist who just comes off stupid and rather gullible in the film.

The film diverges from the book in an number of important ways, some sensible and some insensible. In the movie, Mr. Fox is an expert thief who steals (primarily) chickens and such from the three local farmers just for the fun of it. In the book, he does this to feed his family (as every fox does). In the book, Mr. Fox has four children; in the movie, his “reformation” from a chicken thief to a newspaper columnist (who presumably now pays for food? It’s never explained) is brought on by a close escape and the revelation that his wife is pregnant (with their one son Ash).

Twelve years later (in fox years, a delightful invention that pops up periodically), Ash is feeling his oats again and conspires with the super of his tree-home, the opossum Kylie to start pulling heists of chicken, ducks, geese, turkeys and alcoholic cider. Mrs. Fox is extremely slow to notice. Mr. Fox’s thefts lead to a war of attrition with the mean old farmers, who use increasingly strong methods to try and flush Mr. Fox out, displacing all the other animals in the nearby land. Eventually, the Fox family as well as the the Badgers, rats and other animals are forced very far underground and are in danger of starving. Amazingly, the animals (including most incredibly Mrs. Fox) get only mildly annoyed with Mr. Fox for getting them all into this mess when everything was perfectly fine before by nothing more than his sheer avarice and lack of willpower. He is quickly forgiven, however, when he comes up with a plan to dig into the farmers’ storehouses while they are distracted by trying to flush him out.

From here, the rest of the film is largely a Roadrunner cartoon in stop-motion; the farmers try something, Fox miraculously figures out a way to outsmart them. Repeat. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. In the book, Mr. Fox takes some responsibility for his actions, and his plans are borne of a sense of guilt about what has happened to the other animals while he was just trying to feed his own family. In the film, you never get that; you get instead an arrogant prick with no real willpower who takes more than he needs, gets into entirely predictable trouble, but manages to weasel (heh) his way out of one self-created jam after another, aided by enabling co-dependents. I was almost rooting for the farmers by the end of it …

I read somewhere that during pre-production, Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach, Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline) was going to be involved, and you have to wonder how that would have turned out, but in some way the art direction on this (done without him) is one of the things that really shines; a few scenes don’t quite “look right,” but that’s part of the charm of hand-made stop-motion.

In 10 or 20 years when nobody remembers George Clooney, this film will be seen for what it actually is; a charming, perhaps a little sloppy, but ultimately human adaptation of Dahl’s story of “wild animals” in a refreshing style that’s enjoyed by children (there were a fair number of laughs at the screening I went to, which had a healthy kid contingent).

At the moment, however, (particularly with Clooney being in every third film out in 2009), the film seems more like an animated version of that funny Captain Kirk “motivational poster” going around the net that says “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you over the sound of how awesome I am.” I can’t help but think that sticking a little closer to the book and using a better vocal actor for Mr. Fox would have made the film a classic.

Romeo & Juliet (1936)

Director: George Cukor
Starring: Leslie Howard, Norma Shearer, John Barrymore
Running time: 126 minutes

One of my favourite movies of all time is the 1968 Franco Zefferelli version of Romeo & Juliet.

Today on TCM (February is always a great month to watch, it’s all Oscar winners all month long), they ran the 1936 version of the classic story. Having not seen it, and being interested in some of the cast — Basil Rathbone as Tybalt, John Barrymore as Mercutio (a role I have played myself), Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer in the title roles etc. — I gave it a whirl.

Not as good. Appalling by today’s standards, in fact.

In large part this is due to how old the leads were at the time — in 1936 it was probably considered immodest to actually cast young adults in teenage roles — but Leslie Howard was 43 YEARS OLD playing Romeo (Shearer was 34!). Most of the rest of the company were equally far too old to be in their parts, with the curious exception of the actors playing actual old people (!).

Throw in some truly diabolical overacting by 54 YEAR OLD John Barrymore as Mercutio (admittedly I’m biased), Edna May Oliver as Juliet’s nurse and a completely unwatchable “performance” by Andy Devine as the lummox Peter (idiot servant of Capulet), and even the rest of the production (some parts of which are actually quite excellent) becomes quite unbelievable. Did I mention the awkward male leotards with their Scottish-esque sporrans, by the way?

The American accents in most of the cast don’t help much either … I think we all know that if Shakespeare set the play in Verona Italy, he meant it to be performed in the the King’s English! Hmph and all that! 🙂

The movie isn’t worthless by any means — obviously we’re still talking the beautiful rhyming language of Shakespeare here (except when Andy Devine is speaking), and director Cukor (who went on to do many outstanding films) does good work overall, particularly in the larger scenes (the street fight between the families, the soirée where Romeo first lays eyes on Juliet and so on), and despite their great age Howard and Shearer do the roles justice, but still — a Romeo with a receding hairline is pretty hard to get past.

Some have said that Barrymore was deliberately playing Mercutio as an older guy who just won’t grow up (or, more cynically, likes to hang out with young men), but I’m not buying it. He’s a comic character, yes — but comparing Barrymore’s campiness to Reginald Denny’s much more finely-judged Benvolio shows off which of the two is the better actor, at least in this movie.

The sets, costumes and score are all excellent, but I have to admit that even as big a fan of B&W movies as I am, the story of Romeo and Juliet demands so much passion and exuberance to pull off all that flowery language that the movie not being in colour hurts it (in my eyes, particularly since I’m so enamoured of the 1968 version). Not only that, but the film is very “stagey” rather than naturalistic, which in 1936 might have been perfectly acceptable but looks terribly stiff today.

If you can get past The World’s Oldest Teenagers as the leads, there is obviously more than enough here to commend a viewing of the film if for no other reason than to compare it to the many other versions out there. Basil Rathbone as Tybalt in particular is easily the best version of the character of any film version in my opinion — he’s just flatly terrific in the role of an eager young buck spoiling for a fight, and completely dominates every scene he’s in. But Shearer, despite a fine performance, didn’t get the role based solely on her talents — she was the wife of producer Irving Thalberg, and it was perhaps her casting that made it necessary to make Romeo so old (etc).

Fundamentally flawed in a modern context but still based on what is arguably one of Shakespeare’s most universally-appealing stories (since he nicked it from Tristan & Isolde), this version is lavish and beautiful to watch — but it’s fairly bit hard to listen to.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Director: John Huston
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet
Written By: Dashiell Hammett and John Huston

I recently got to see this film again for the first time in many years at the CineCenta theatre with a near-capacity crowd. Watching old movies — particularly familiar classics — takes on a lot of new meaning when you have a crowd, a fine print, excellent sound and such a big screen. Changes the whole dynamic.

When people refer to “film noir,” this is one of the archetypes of that whole genre. Many people today believe it refers to crime films taking place largely at night, but it actually has less to do with the stylised B&W look and a lot more to do with characters who have ambiguous motivations, secrets, and sexual agendas (well downplayed thanks to the Hays Office, but represented in other ways).

Bogart’s character Sam Spade is the perfect example: he’s in business with his partner Miles Archer but doesn’t like him, and at some point in the past was seeing Archer’s wife (though he has since lost interest). He doesn’t mourn Archer’s death when it happens, but he gives up a promising love affair to see his murderer brought to justice. He plays both sides of the law like a hopscotch court, alternately cooperating with then abusing the local police; and he admits that money sways him, although he (barely) ends up the hero. “Hard-boiled” is too weak a description for this guy: he drinks and smokes like a fiend, is blatantly greedy, is abusive to the people who are the most help to him, and his moral compass swings around like its at the North Pole.

The colourful supporting characters, and Bogart’s interaction with them, is what really holds the film together and why this version (and not the two previous film versions) is so well-remembered. Although each character (but one) is a delight, it’s Bogart deftly adapting to each one that is the real magic: Sam Spade is a consummate judge of character, knowing exactly how far he can push each person till they give.

Of course, this is the long-gone world of the early 1940s, and the interaction of characters as seen now gave for many moments of laughter as Spade steamrollers his devoted Miss Moneypenny secretary, smacks Peter Lorre around and tells him he’ll like it, intimidates the hapless police and brushes off Archer’s now-available widow in favour of the more dangerous Brigid O’Shaughnessy, among others. The laughter came naturally from a combination of awareness at how social morés had changed, along with the sharply written and rapid-fire banter. There’s a lot of really good lines in this film.

It doesn’t hurt that the movie is well-stocked with a diverse range of well-drawn characters, from the relentlessly civilised crime boss Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet) to the rage-filled gunsel (that term used quite deliberately it would seem) Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr) to Peter Lorre’s unforgettable clever weasel, Joel Cairo. Even Spade’s office moll Effie (Lee Patrick), forever to become a caricatured stereotype in later films, projects a lot of heart into what we would today call a hopeless enabler. The only person really miscast in my view was Mary Astor, trying too hard to match Bogey’s machine-gun delivery until in some scenes it resembles an episode of Dragnet, and carrying off an Irish immigrant grifter about as well as Queen Elizabeth would have. She’s too stiff and too upper-class to really pull off the constant turns of softness and hardness the character needs, alternating from victim to gangster in a flash. Astor is just naturally glamourous and while some of that is called for, it never cracks enough for us to see if there’s anything underneath.

First-time (at the time) director Huston makes up for his inexperience by cleverly planning out every sequence and shooting almost totally in chronological order, making it easy for the actors to keep their performances consistent and keeping the crew on high efficiency (almost no dialogue was cut from the raw footage to the final edit). There are still short bits where the story gets into a bit of a muddle, but overall this is a very sharply-directed film.

There are several long sequences that appear to have been shot in a single take, including the finale which is over seven minutes of uninterrupted single camera angle, but my own favourite scene in the protracted struggle between Spade and Cairo in Spade’s office; motivations and fortunes change several times in the course of a five minute scene, with brilliant dialogue as punchy as the violence. Indeed, The Maltese Falcon is a far less violent film than you would expect; ultimately only two people actually die, and one of those is off a character who never actually appears in the film.

The elaborate plot unfolds rather deliciously, with the viewer led on a number of false starts; this is still a refreshing change from the hamfisted spell-it-all-out-complete-with-flashbacks approach too many modern mysteries indulge in. With almost all of the characters, there’s so much we’ve clearly not been told that could flesh them out, but instead Hammett and Huston leave them as they are, and we accept them as they are — even though we’d love to know more. We get enough of their essential personas to let our imaginations fill in the gaps, and the sexual innuendo and tension laid on thick thanks to the censorship of the times actually helps give these characters more mystery than they would have had otherwise.

I was particularly re-impressed (as I always am) with the various scenes of Spade’s love/hate relationship with the police; there were gasps from the audience during moments where Spade takes command and browbeats the fuzz into submission, not once but several times.

Music, sound effects, incidental characters and establishing shots are similarly concise and economical, letting the characters and dialogue have the day over much action or violence — all in service to the story, which is how it ought to be for a movie like this.

Despite some now-unintentional comedy due to the customs of the day, the tale and particularly its players bring a still-modern sense of complexity and ambiguity to their parts that still works to keep our interest; its only in the climax of the film that we finally find out of Bogart is going to sacrifice all for love, fall in with the villains or — as it turns out — find a nifty third way out of the whole mess.

Well-cast, well-played, shot in a workmanlike style and directed with great economy of tone, memorable characters and a multi-level story make The Maltese Falcon not just the first, but one of the best, of a just-minted genre. Guys should take their dolls out to this one; it’s not only a classic, it’s a San Francisco Treat.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

Director: Terry Gilliam
Stars: Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits, Lily Cole
Written By: Terry Gilliam & Charles McKeown

Despite the rich visual imagination of Terry Gilliam and an all-star cast that mostly turns in good work, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus collapses a lot like the rag-tag stage show the doctor puts on, mainly due to some pretty woeful character development — or more accurately, none at all. If a good movie is a satisfying meal, then this film is a box of chocolates — decadent and delicious, certainly, but fulfilling? Not so much.

As I sat watching this, I kept thinking “gad, what I’d give to have Gilliam handle a Harry Potter movie!” Without doubt it would be the one that audiences hated and critics treasured forever, that would smash and burn the franchise in the most luxurious manner possible. Ah well.

Among the many things to like in this movie are the visuals (even the CGI), the humour (which is curiously thin), the casting (most everyone brings their best, or in Colin Farrell’s case, the best he can do) and the moral dimensions to the story. Christopher Plummer as a drunken Dumbledore, Heath Ledger doing his best Johnny Depp impersonation (which Depp later has to recreate!), Tom Waits as a surprisingly believable and effective Old Scratch, Lily Cole as a ravishing bit of jailbait, and (to my great surprise) the best non-silent performance from Verne Troyer on record.

The plot opens up brilliantly; a bunch of drunken louts in London tease and torture the travelling gypsy show Doctor Parnassus puts on. One of them falls inside his magical mirror and is transported to (singing) “A World of Pure Imagination.” Not the last Willie Wonka reference you’ll get in this review, I should hasten to add. He is presented with a moral dilemma, chooses unwisely and pays the price. A fantastic setup.

Following this is about 90 minutes of patchy mish-mash that is at least very easy on the eye. As a tale about the choices we make and their consequences, Parnassus succeeds. As a film in which Heath Ledger turns in his final performance, I think he largely succeeds (which is to say he does a good job with the character, no career-changing high like Dark Knight and his accents is shall we say a bit dodgy in places but he holds the audience). But despite having the same team that gave us the brilliant morality of Brazil, and the same visual feast (better, in some ways) that made Munchausen so extraordinary (and to which this film is a definite kin), this one has a fatal weakness; key characters that are poorly-drawn and fail to bring the audience along with them.

The biggest failure in Parnassus is the character of Anton, a fellow player who seems utterly incapable of holding on to the same emotion for more than 10 seconds. I’ve seen the actor (Andrew Garfield) in other things and know this isn’t on his shoulders; the blame falls squarely on the screenplay. Garfield flails around as an indecisive pussy most of the time, first rescuing Ledger’s character (Tony) from certain death, then torturing him as a romantic rival, then befriending him, then hating him out of jealousy, then exposing his true character, but then … quite ridiculously … failing to be any sort of hero, and yet he gets the girl for completely unexplained reasons. You just never do understand why he reacts the way he does, where he’s “coming from,” or the motivation behind his countless mood shifts. He’s just fabulously wishy-washy and indecisive, but not played for laughs as he should be, making him unloveable to the viewer.

Tony himself is not a very clear-cut character, but at least it feels like that aspect is more deliberate with him. Did Tony ever have amnesia? Why is he so accepting of the bizarre (real) world he finds himself in with this odd company of players? Is he his own man or an agent of the devil? As they might say on Coronation Street, “what’s his game?” Even his backstory unravels in uneven layers, leaving the final revelations about his past as something of a damp squid that fails to be meaningful as it could easily have been. Tony also fails at being the hero, even when he tries, leaving the plot with a resolution, but not really an ending.

Plummer, Waits, Troyer and (surprisingly) Cole all just waltz right through it beautifully; if the film had really focussed on Parnassus — this dusty, broken shadow of Prospero — and relegated Tony to the obligatory “rogue who redeems himself as a hero in the end,” this movie would have worked. Instead, nobody really wins at all. The movie is ostensibly about Plummer’s interaction with Waits’ Satan, with Troyer’s Percy acting as a (conscience? An angel?) foil to Parnassus, and his daughter Valentina being literally made love to by the camera. These four were actually enough to make the movie work, in the same way that Lord of the Rings is richer for the hobbits and Gollum, but really its about Gandalf versus Sauron (via Saruman). Another failure of the film: if Tony and Anton would have formed a genuine triangle for the love of Valentina, we’d again have had ourselves a movie. No such luck. No wonder she wants to run away.

The effects, particularly early on, are pure Gilliam, inching ever closer to achieving digitally what his drawings have always reached for, a bright surrealism that blends Dali with Hello, Dolly!. The pinnacle of the “mirror world” is actually a nearly effects-less surprise music number that serves no purpose but is nevertheless purely joyful. Still, it only rarely rises above Tim Burton’s remarkably similar-looking work in his recent Willy Wonka (and forthcoming Alice in Wonderland). Gilliam’s films are famous for showing every dollar on screen, but this one also shows the pain of a sharply reduced $45M budget, which is just plain inadequate for a film of this scope — but these days its the best he can get. It may be (literally) a million times more money than he had to work with at the BBC, but he has simply lost the ability to care about anything smaller-scale than “beyond epic.”

Most other reviews will fixate on the swapping out of Tony with other actors for the “inside the mirror” scenes. Given that Tony ultimately makes little contribution to the story, it hardly matters — but for the record, Depp was quite good (given that Ledger was basically imitating him in the first place), Jude Law nearly pulls it off, and Colin Farrell is, as always, completely unwatchably awful. I would dearly love to shoot him in the face and have done with him, and he only reinforces that malice here by never making the slightest attempt to pretend he is playing a role also played by Heath Ledger (who I’m not a big fan of either, for the record) and thus trying to make his performance compatible with his. Seriously, I would love to shoot him in the face.

Perhaps the real problem is the meta-story most people seem to miss, that Parnassus is a thinly-veiled Gilliam doppelganger, a man with fantastic stories of rich imagination to tell who has tremendous difficulty finding an audience (handled so much less obviously in Munchausen), a relic of the old ways who refuses to change his beliefs in light of obvious evidence who revels in arcane minutia while the rest of us are busy shopping and texting. On this level, Parnassus comes off bitter, and Gilliam’s deliberate refusal to make the supporting characters support anything or adhere to the basic lines of archetypes all of human storytelling is built on can be seen as a kind of sad, ineffectual rage against both the corporate film-making profession and the rut of a “normal” life that everybody but him, he seems to think, crave to distraction. This film certainly brings into sharper focus why Gilliam is obsessed with colourful eccentrics like Don Quixote.

Ah, but I’ve made it sound like you shouldn’t see this film. On the contrary, it’s one of the best films of the entire year (honest!). Even unsatisfying, deeply bitter, under-budgeted Gilliam is better than most movies, and apart from Up this probably ranks as the most visually delightful film of 2009. There are many other films that have one element that utterly fails like this one does — it’s just that, because it’s Gilliam, we expect more. This one promises much but fails to fully deliver, which is almost worst than no film at all from a talent like Terry. And he’s made worse than this — much worse, if you believe the critics — but like an alcoholic’s empowering wife, we keep excusing his failures by pointing to his (artistic) successes, we keep overlooking his lesser efforts because his best ones are in point of fact cinematic masterpieces. Parnassus, though, finally rips away some of the facade; some of Terry Gilliam’s misfires are genuinely due to external factors, but most of them are actually flaws of the man himself.

Because this is Ledger’s last bow, a lot of people who wouldn’t normally ever see a Gilliam film are going to take a chance on this. Most of them will walk away shrugging, convinced that he is on drugs as least as strong as whatever actually killed Ledger. Ironically, nothing could be further from the truth.

In a just world, the money we throw away on a piece of shit star vehicle based on some 80s toy should be given to Gilliam, for only thus can his avaricious muse be properly fed and nourished. Sadly, I think the reality that he’ll always lose out to the crap peddlers when it comes to money, to freedom, to resources has driven him mad — doomed to keep tilting at Hollywood windmills, even after everyone points out to him that Hollywood doesn’t have any windmills.

Monty Python: Almost the Truth(The Lawyer’s Theatrical Cut-Down Version) (2009)

Running Time: 107 min.
Directors: Bill Jones, Ben Timlett, Alan Parker
Stars: Cleese, Idle, Palin, Gilliam, Jones and Chapman (in absentia)

Most people will see this ambitious documentary in its DVD or television formats, but in addition to that it was also offered as a two-hour “special event” beamed into cinemas around the world shortly after the New York premiere. I watched this version, then the six-hour (with commercials) television version as it aired on Bravo a week later.

The “theatrical” version, even as cut-down as it was and preceded by mostly-useless additional footage of the surviving Pythons (and friends etc) being interviewed on their way into the NYC premiere, was well worth the money. Most of the Pythons were good sports about being asked really quite insipid questions in the hubbub outside the NYC theatre (where they were also to receive a BAFTA award for their contribution to comedy), but occasionally the weariness of the promotional “circus” (sorry) they’d been on in the weeks leading up to the NYC event was discernible in their answers. As a comic person myself, it’s quite difficult to be funny “on demand,” which is of course what interviewers always want. Nobody ever asks a ballerina being interviewed to answer the questions while doing a perfect pas de deux, do they? No, they do not.

But on to the documentary itself: as a lifelong student of the Pythons, I found the most interesting parts were the bits I was less familiar with — their lives growing up and their work prior to joining together to form the Circus. The use of clips to illustrate their stories was handled with more aplomb than we have seen in the previous documentaries, and you got more info about their interpersonal relationships. I was particularly pleased to see more footage of their Canadian tour featured, as that was quite a pivotal event in the group’s history on a variety of levels but has until now been little more than a footnote.

But, even after watching the “almost full Monty” as it were (the six-hour version shown on Bravo here), I’m left quite dissatisfied. With all that time, you’d think we’d get a bit more insight into each members’ own creative process, ie exactly where many of their brilliant inventions came from, or how things went from basic idea to polished script. I was surprised that other successful troupe comedians clearly influenced by Python, such as the SCTV crew or the Kids in the Hall, were not involved in this, instead featuring a run of current-crop British comedians (not nearly enough Eddie Izzard, a spiritual Python if ever there was one, and way too much drugged-up Russell Brand, sounding more than a little like the UK’s Sarah Palin).

I was also annoyed that only very selective attention was paid to the post-Python careers of the members, given that having been in Python played a huge role in much of what they did after that. No mention at all of “Out of the Trees” (with Douglas Adams, no less!), “Rutland Weekend Television,” “Ripping Yarns,” Dr. Fegg’s Nasty Book for Boys and Girls, The Odd Job Man, Video Arts, A Liar’s Autobiography, Starship Titanic, Labyrinth, Erik the Viking and a dozen other pre-and-post-Python ventures that played a role in making these men who they are today.

Even more surprising was that there was barely any mention of “Fawlty Towers,” Michael’s travel programmes, or the many films released under the Handmade Films banner, most of which featured at least two Pythons if not more (I still can’t believe there was no mention of Jabberwocky, the film that launched Gilliam as a serious film director!). Nothing about Yellowbeard either, which is a shame since Graham is (naturally) underrepresented. They didn’t even use that famous “final shot” of him in the closet with the rest of the Pythons at the end of the Showtime documentary Parrot Sketch Not Included, though I must give the makers (and broadcasters) credit for including the full-frontal nude shot he did for Life of Brian.

Overall, this is an excellent addition to the considerable amount of documentary work done on Python, but still unsatisfyingly short on minutia and cannot be considered the definitive Python documentary — a real shame, since this is likely to be the last one they ever do. Perhaps “the full Monty” (ie the DVD release) will cover these topics in further detail, but I don’t hold much hope on that score.

Still, as Monty Python are considerably full of awesome, there is plenty to enjoy here, both the classic clips as well as the interviews, which are naturally charming and funny as well. The clips actually work even better viewed in isolation sometimes, especially for younger people who grew up in a post-surrealist society and don’t fully understand the cultural impact Python made on nearly every aspect of the world they now live in. In the theatre I still found myself laughing, even at stuff I’ve seen a thousand times (literally) — there’s not a lot of things in the world you can say that about. Monty Python changed the world far more than I think even they know, and I’m so glad to have been around for the original impact they made on life, the universe, and everything.

Toy Story (1995) and Toy Story 2 (1999)

Running Time: 180 min. (approx)
Director: John Lasseter (TS), John Lasseter and Lee Unkrich (TS2)
Stars: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen

Roger Ebert has been leading an online discussion among film buffs about the recent spate of 3-D movies. Is it just a gimmick to get people into the cinemas, or are films actually benefiting from the process?

Ebert’s position, which I broadly agreed with, was that it’s still fairly pointless and prone to being (mis)used as a gimmick. I didn’t mind watching Bolt and Up in 3-D — computer animated films do seem to benefit the most from the treatment, as they are modelled in 3D in the first place — but both were just as enjoyable to me in 2-D. And you still have to wear those stupid glasses.

That said, I think retrofitting 3-D onto Toy Story 2 actually made it a better picture. We may have found the first exception to Ebert’s Rule.

As you probably know, TS and TS2 are back in theatres in a new 3-D edition as a family double-feature (a great idea, with a wonderful little “intermission” in-between, including some new voicework, fun quizzes and so forth) to refresh people’s memories prior to the release of Toy Story 3 later this year.

Most people have seen TS and TS2 either “back in the day” or a hundred times on DVD since then, so I won’t go over the story so much as my impressions of getting re-acquainted with the films. Though I remembered the overall plot and themes (particularly of TS2, which as a collector myself resonated with me a bit more), the specifics of the tales had slipped my mind and it was a delight to find that neither film has become too dated. The jokes still work, the overarching theme of the eventual fate of childhood toys (and the power of friendship) are still moving, the performances shine and the “nods” to adults are perhaps even a bit more shocking since they’re the least-remembered aspect, at least for me.

Even better, since the film was created on 3D software in the first place, both benefit greatly from the 3D process, with TS2 coming off better mainly because of the improvement in the quality of the animation (and the greater range of locations).

The best part of both movies is that the details hold up very well. TS’s animation is definitely flatter, but no less lacking in facial expressions and strong vocal performances. There were a few moments in the 1995 original that reminded me how far computer animation has come — a few moments where you see a shot executed poorly and think “ooh, that’s a bit videogamey,” but a number of sequences actually improve with the addition of perspective, particularly any flying Buzz Lightyear does. Re-living all the specifics again, from the decor and manner of Andy’s house to the contrast of Sid’s, from the nightmarish mutant toys (which you’d never see a Pixar film do now!) to the extended “chase” seen of the moving truck (reprised in essence in TS2) is a lot of fun, particularly when you can compare how much more advanced Pixar’s skills were just four years later when TS2 came out. Compare Scud (Sid’s dog in TS) to Buster in TS2 (a character I’d completely forgotten about) and you’ll see the great strides in technology and art the company managed in that short span of time.

TS2’s wider scope really allows the 3D to shine. Emperor Zurg, the elevator shaft and Al’s Toy Barn literally never looked better, and the action sequences are just so much more “immersive” than before. Joan Cusack as Jessie really makes the second half work, though I wasn’t as fond of Kelsey Grammer’s over-erudite Stinky Pete the Prospector (not really in line with the look and nature of the character, and too recognisable IMHO). The other guest voices were great, including  Jodi Benson as the Barbies (again, another detail I’d totally forgotten about!) and the “regulars” like Don Rickles as Mr. Potato Head and Wallace Shawn as Rex. Hopefully as many of these as possible can be in TS3. I know I’ll be keenly watching for a rematch between the Red and Blue Rock Em Sock Em Robots …

There’s not a lot more to say. What Apple is to computers, Pixar is to computer animation — a clearly superior, reliably excellent product that may not always be the most popular or the most talked-about brand, but consistently sets the bar for story, detail, elegance and emotion. Go see it if you can, and if you miss it in theatres, let’s hope the Blu-Ray release comes with a few sets of special glasses.

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