Tag Archives: 2013

Frozen – 2013

Frozen-image-frozen-36270007-1920-800You may remember that some time ago I was definitively outraged at the announcement of Frozen. I won’t go into detail here but if you want to know my reasons they can be found HERE.

However, given the Frozen frenzy that has taken over the world recently and the announcement that Frozen is now the highest grossing animated film of all time I figured I should give it a watch.

I was actually pleasantly surprised by Frozen. I remember watching Princess and the Frog and Tangled through half covered eyes at the cringingly awful, dumbed-down dialogue and animation. They were both so inherently unenjoyable and disappointing. Frozen, on the other hand was genuinely fun to watch. The story is interesting and the songs really carry it, the film even have the old-style musical motif that accompanies each character and here it’s used to great effect. The duets where Elsa and Anna’s melodies merge are truly beautiful moments with great writing. What’s more, the opening seems to be returning to the format of the Disney Renaissance films (Everything between The Little Mermaid in 1989 and Tarzan in 1999) which included a musical prologue of sorts, outlining the themes of the film. It’s a hopeful direction and I’m glad to see a little of the old Disney sparkle.

However, Frozen is narratively weak. Anna is our main character, she’s mildly clumsy and giggles a lot but is otherwise a totally bland female whose goal in life is to find a man. Literally. Disney tried to poke fun at the whole Disney Princess trope but absolutely, utterly failed. The assumption is that us, the audience, will cry out with joy every time someone repeats, “You can’t marry someone you just met.”, which they do repeat, many times. No one told the writers that self-referential humour doesn’t work when it’s delivered with a sledgehammer. In Addition, Anna is significantly more weak and anti-feminist than any of the princesses who “married a man they just met”. Even Snow White and Cinderella had to endure parental abuse before breaking away, defying standards, so they could live their life and eventually getting a Prince Charming as well. Anna wakes up one day and decides she wants a man, sings about it and gets one. That is the conclusion of Frozen and I fail to see how that is progressive in any way. Besides, the two men that she ends up falling for both bring along a debatably credible side plot. The merchant rivalry and magical trolls don’t really add much to the story and serve to confuse the message and narrative more than anything else. Kristoff, particularly seems to have been shoved in because they wanted Anna to get a guy, rather than actually learn that maybe there is something more valuable than marriage. She could have trekked off alone into the wilderness to fix her relationship with her sister and save Arandelle but instead she runs crying to the nearest burly male to help her. No hope of a positive message there.

The story structure of Frozen just doesn’t work. The driving force of the plot is Elsa, not Anna. Elsa is making changes and dealing with a personal struggle, Anna is just reacting to these things as she bobs along. There’s really no journey for her. At the beginning of the film she loves her sister, despite Elsa’s behaviour, and she wants a husband. By the end of the film she has not changed either of these views or learnt anything new. The character who grows in the film is Elsa. She discovers how to deal with her problems, how to let love rule her life, instead of fear, and becomes the ruler she was born to be. I think the fact that Elsa’s song ‘Let it Go’ is considered the definitive song of the film is proof that something is wrong. If the audience is in complete agreement that the best moment of the film is the song that doesn’t even include the main character there is a problem.  Elsa is strong, independent and feminist. She is a queen, a fighter but still a young girl dealing with growing up through the metaphor of her powers. Surely that is the story young girls want to hear? Not the story of being ditsy and idiotic until eventually someone much stronger and more interesting than you gets to take over?

I stand by many of the things I said in my original post. Idina Menzel does play basically the exact same character as she did in Wicked. Yet, unlike Wicked, Frozen refuses to actually focus on this clearly interesting and relatable character: The type of character that made a Broadway musical a cool thing for teenage girls to watch. It’s not an adaptation of The Snow Queen, it’s a vague allusion with some bastardisation thrown in. This is epitomised in the fact that the character they named after Hans Christian Anderson actually turns out to be pure evil. Way to respect the original work, Disney. The animation is better than I expected but there are moments where it is impossible to tell which female character is which when you can’t see their costumes. The character design is deeply flawed. The comedy aspects take the form of not one, but two anthropomorphic sidekicks, both of which are relatively unnecessary alone but certainly don’t need to both be around.

  • Entertainment: 3/5
  • Artistic:              2/5
  • Intellectual:       0/5
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Now You See Me – 2013

NOW YOU SEE MEEvery so often you have to sit back, relax and watch some high-glamour escapism. Louis Leterrier’s Now You See Me fits the bill to a tee.

It’s a genuinely rare phenomenon to find a film that carries the audience so well in its spell. For nearly two hours Now You See Me draws you in and doesn’t let go. When the credits roll you barely feel like any time has passed and it leaves you wanting more. It’s not like the explosion-filled bonanza’s that require a cheering crowd to rile you up, nor is it a superhero film that requires admission to a fandom before you can be allowed to ‘enjoy it properly’. Now You See Me is a standalone, franchise-less and source-less. It entrances with snappy dialogue and an intriguing plot. It reminds me of what I hoped The Adjustment Bureau would turn out before it got weirdly preachy.

The four actors at the heart of the film play a group of magicians performing the biggest trick of all time. Jesse Eisenberg plays a smarmy, entitled know-it-all as he does so well, Isla Fisher is added in to give the men a love interest to play off and Morgan Freeman is calmly superior. It’s not exactly a stretch to watch and the performances are entirely comfortable, a group of tropes and stereotypes gathered together for our amusement.

Of course, the magic in the film is done with CGI, you don’t need to question the tricks too closely to realise this, but that doesn’t reduce the mystery of the denouement. In a way it’s similar to Inception – you never know quite how far down the trick goes. You can try to figure it out, or blithely ignore it and wait for the conclusion to surprise and delight you. Both are equally enjoyable.

It won’t win many Oscars, it certainly won’t make Cannes but in the tradition of Busby Berkeley’s flapper girls, Now You See Me is an escapist fantasy, and when it’s done so well there is never a problem with that.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:              3/5
  • Intellectual:       1/5

Gravity – 2013

­­GRAVITYAlfonso Cuarὸn’s new film is strange as a concept. It doesn’t seem like an hour and a half of watching only two actors in space would be engaging cinema. If you think this when reading the premise of Gravity you are in for one huge surprise.

Gravity is a unique cinematic experience. The hypothetical camera switches between flying freely through the action and focusing directly on a character. This is used to striking effect when movement is involved. One second you can be looking at a stationary world with an astronaut spinning wildly until suddenly the camera zooms in on a face and the world moves behind them. It perfectly brings to life the disorientating nature of space and weightlessness for people who can never experience it. Moments in the film are purely beautiful, with some scenes looking like what Stanley Kubrick was dreaming of while making 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In a way it seems as if this film is nothing we’ve not seen before. We’ve had films in the beauty of space, we’ve even had Apollo 13, which is not only a space disaster film, but one based on a true story. It seems to almost cheapen the real drama and risk of space exploration to make up a story about the danger of space. But on the other hand, Apollo 13 was a long time ago. The Apollo program hasn’t been operational for forty years. It seems about time that we had a space film for our generation, complete with the ISS and the real risk of space debris. Not to say that the film is scientifically accurate, many people have dedicated time pointing out that it isn’t. However, it seems that those people have rather missed the point. What is important is that it’s scientifically believable enough to not break the suspension of disbelief.

If Sandra Bullock wanted another Oscar she couldn’t do better than Gravity. Bullock explores the nature of stress, trauma and fear incredibly skilfully. The brief moments of respite for her character are some of the most memorable parts of the film. The character’s journey from the womb of space to an earthly rebirth is powerfully shot and portrayed. It’s a true harmony of performance and direction, allowing for a much greater breadth of symbolism and communication. Every accolade needs to be thrown at her performance, all the more so given the difficulty of shooting scenes where she appears weightless, or even scenes where only her face is visible through a helmet and her voice alone carries the film. George Clooney somewhat fades behind Bullock’s performance but is sensitive and cheerful in his portrayal. His optimism is the perfect foil to Bullock’s misery and introversion and they play off each other to great effect regardless of the situation.

Cuaròn’s film is daring and beautiful, yet you have to wonder how enduring this beauty is. Shiny CGI of orbit is not enough, no matter how innovative the style and cinematography. I even wonder if this sense of scale and grandeur will make this film suffer in the future on DVD and television. Gravity seems like a plea to movie-goers to abandon the 5 inch smartphone screens and appreciate the wonder of being surrounded and overwhelmed by a movie.

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:              4/5
  • Intellectual:       3/5

Casse-tête Chinois – 2013

Casse-tête-chinoisThe ultimate conclusion of Cédric Klapisch’s story, nine years after Les Poupées Russes, life is once again complex and irritating for Xavier (Romain Duris). Xavier acts as narrator as he tells the plot of his life (and his book) to a publisher on Skype. He’s told in no unclear terms, that happiness is boring – you can’t have a story where everyone is fulfilled. In the Q&A following the film Klapisch said that his first attempts for the script of Casse-tête Chinois everything had been left as optimistic as it was at the end of Les Poupées Russes, and the script was dull as can be.

Once more the characters from the previous films are pared down to leave only four. These performances are now totally comfortable and confident. When Xavier (Romain Duris) flies to New York following Wendy (Kelly Reilly) it seems only natural that he would end up on the sofa of eternally free-spirited Isabelle (Cécile de France). With the cast happily relocated to a new city the film makes full use of the environment. Early on in the film Xavier’s property hunt is rendered as a hilarious sequence with prices popping up on buildings and Google maps tours of the area, as well as a clearly doomed encounter with a landlord who is much less open to the modern family.

If L’auberge Espagnole and Les Poupées Russes were concerned with the emerging European identity, Casse-tête Chinois confronts globalisation. A French man follows an English woman to New York where his Belgian friend sets him up with a place in Chinatown. On a human level it’s the simplest thing imaginable, friends help one another regardless of international borders. Symbolically it represents the blurring of differences between nationalities and whether their identities will slowly disappear in the times to come. Thankfully Klapisch doesn’t dwell on these, he merely presents them as an oddity to be reckoned with and moves on to the comedy. Casse-tête Chinois is spectacularly funny. It makes the previous films look like that re-run of Friends that you laugh at out of habit. The comic culmination puts every single character into the smallest space imaginable. If circumstances had played out differently it could all have ended in heartbreak, but instead this awkward tension drives the laughter as Xavier and his friends continue to get away with their lies and muddles.

In the end it’s all fabulously uplifting. It seems that these characters won’t be seen on screen again, after all, they’re happy. As Xavier’s eternally glum publisher says, you can’t write about them when they’re happy. Regardless of whether you’ve seen the first two films, Casse-tête Chinois will leave a smile on your face.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:              4/5
  • Intellectual:       3/5

The Invisible Woman – 2013

invisible womanRalph Fiennes’ second turn as director is just as unapologetically English as the first. It seems that his goal truly is to secure himself as a national treasure taking on Shakespeare first and now Dickens. Another film destined to join the supply cupboards for English teachers with no lesson plan, The Invisible Woman is strikingly dull from start to finish.

The film’s topic is the hidden love affair between Charles Dickens and Nelly Turner, a young actress. In the plain light of day there is very little drama or intrigue to this story. There are rumours and the fear of discovery, but really nothing much more interesting than the usual “man in loveless marriage seeks attractive young woman”. By attempting to inject high level drama into this situation, mainly through a clumsy manipulation of flashbacks which serve to distract rather than enlighten, Fiennes’ film begins to feel like a two hour Downton Abbey special rather than a piece of cinema. Neither the direction nor the script has an ounce of subtlety or nuance and, as the music swells and we cut to Felicity Jones walking tearfully across a windswept beach, you have to wonder ‘oh what now’.

This is not helped by the entire lack of onscreen chemistry between Fiennes as Dickens and Jones as his lover. Fiennes is more predatory than romantic and Jones’ performance consists almost entirely of looking confused. An awful lot of the main characters seem to confuse stoicism for blankness and give stiff, uninteresting performances from behind their period trappings.

What cannot be faulted is the production design, every book, hair and speck of dust is painstakingly recreated to throw us into the Victorian age. Unfortunately, Fiennes doesn’t take advantage of the beautiful sets thrown up around him, instead relying on the production design to distract from the uninspired cinematography. In the end the film just feels weighed down by accuracy, as if the whole budget was spent on props and left no coin for a script supervisor.

The film will undoubtedly put bums on seats and sell a lot of DVDs. There will never be a shortage of people who watch quintessentially English films about quintessentially English things. Yet it truly saddens me that somewhere there is someone whose only understanding of what British culture and cinema is about comes from films like this one.

  • Entertainment: 2/5
  • Artistic:              4/5
  • Intellectual:       2/5

12 Years A Slave – 2013

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVESteve McQueen’s newest film is nowhere near as cutting edge as his earlier works. It feels a little bit like an easy way into the mainstream eye, helped along by timing a film about slavery to coincide with an anniversary of its abolition. This doesn’t make the film any less enjoyable though.

McQueen sticks with his tried and tested formula of really delving into the mind of one character. It takes about half an hour of McQueen’s script and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance combined to make the audience completely engaged with Solomon’s character. By focusing so closely on one man his plight becomes the most important, his suffering the most bitter. His actions border on the egotistical, but it is understood as survival instinct and so Solomon never loses the audience’s sympathy.

This is not to say that there are not other great performances or characters. Lupita Nyong’o gives a harrowing performance as Patsey, the unfortunate favourite of the plantation owner. Paul Dano, while his role is barely more than a cameo, is electrifying for every second that he is on screen. His interpretation of a slave-driver is deliciously evil and amoral. It is a testament to McQueen that, although these characters are clearly the villains, there is never any demonization in his presentation. It’s all very matter of fact. I remember watching Spielberg’s Amistad and being irritated by the many details which existed only to firmly delineate right from wrong. It felt like a filmmaker uncertain about his material, resorting to a sledgehammer to crack a nut. McQueen doesn’t fall into this trap, right and wrong are self-evident in 12 Years A Slave and so it can be presented dispassionately.

The film could have been excessively harrowing if it were not so beautiful to watch. McQueen teams up again with Sean Bobbitt (Shame, The Place Beyond the Pines) to deliver breathtaking visuals throughout. The most unpleasant and brutal situations are portrayed without gore or ugliness yet they lose none of their impact. The audience reaction is intellectual and emotional, rather than visceral. It prompts the viewer to really think, rather than react with simple anger or disgust.

It’s a beautiful film, and it certainly leaves an impression on the viewer. If nothing else, it may at least stop schoolchildren from having to watch Amistad. It may even get Steve McQueen that elusive Oscar nomination. It just isn’t what I expected or hoped for from a Steve McQueen film, not after the daring and captivating back-catalogue.

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:              5/5
  • Intellectual:       3/5

As I Lay Dying – 2013

as i lay dyingI have to admit, when I first walked out of James Franco’s As I Lay Dying I was not at all convinced. As time has gone one, however, I have found myself reflecting more and more on this strange film.

Franco’s choices of narrative style are bold and uncompromising. From the very first moments the whopping 2.35 : 1 widescreen blankets your entire vision creating a sense of momentousness and huge-scale importance. When this screen divides to show two images at once you literally have to turn your head to take in both halves of the story. This splitscreen technique is Franco’s interpretation of the multiple narrators in Faulkner’s novel. After the first few scenes, which are incredibly jarring and difficult to watch, this technique settles down and is not only comprehensible but highly enjoyable. Gone is the shot, reverse shot formula that has plagued cinema, instead replaced with seeing everything relevant all at the same time. The film is undoubtedly beautiful to watch, and the cinematography captures the beauty of country. Franco also neatly sidesteps the problem of the film seeming too historical. The script and style are so achingly modern that there is no sense of distance or irrelevance as can sometimes happen in period films.

Most of the lead actors have to, at some point or another, deliver a stream of consciousness monologue directly to camera which is then intercut with action. Not a single one of these occasions feels contrived or forced. These monologues are the main thing which drives the emotional subtext within the story. Without these interludes the film would be a very dry, dull road movie. So much of the substance of this film is in this subtext, the stolen glances and silent secrets between the characters. The nuance involved in capturing this is truly an artistic accomplishment. The cast is one of the strongest in recent memory since every one of them has their moment in the sun. The narrative style means that there are no minor characters, and it is extraordinary to see each cast member add to this complex painting of the emotional ties and conflicts within a family.

There is not any aspect of this film which falls down. Franco’s script even shows us the gut-wrenching futility of everything we have seen. The final punch is delivered so casually that there’s nothing left for the audience except to be stunned. It leaves a bitter taste, but over time it becomes apparent that this is the great strength of As I Lay Dying. It takes a series of appalling circumstances and somehow wrings beauty out of them.

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:              5/5
  • Intellectual:       3/5