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An interesting failure

Posted : 3 years, 7 months ago on 7 January 2014 02:25 (A review of Ender's Game)

"Knocking him down won the first fight. I wanted to win all the next ones, too. So they'd leave me alone."

Although the 1985 novel Ender's Game is a highly celebrated work of science fiction literature, its author Orson Scott Card is a genuinely awful person, with his controversial opinions leading many to detest the man, regardless of his achievements. Hence, the long-awaited Ender's Game motion picture arrives after decades of development with a tremendous pall of negativity hanging over it, with talks of a boycott in the fear that box office dollars will wind up in Card's back pocket. It's a legitimate concern, and it's understandable that some might baulk from giving money to Card due to his personal life, but Ender's Game is an exceedingly average picture even without this burden on its shoulders, and it's not worth seeing anyway. It's a handsomely-designed and ambitious film, but it's also dramatically flaccid in the hands of director Gavin Hood, whose storytelling is utterly uninvolving and cold to the touch. It wants to be a Spielbergian sci-fi extravaganza, but lacks the spirit and chutzpah to achieve lift-off.

In the future, Earth is invaded by a fleet of otherworldly creatures, resulting in millions of human casualties and leaving the planet shaken. Decades on, all signs point to another invasion, leading to the formation of Battle School, where promising young children are sent to sharpen their skills in the hope of becoming mankind's saviour. Overseeing the school is Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), who sees tremendous potential in young Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), an outcast with a special tactical gift that puts him ahead of his competitive fellow students. Graff is convinced that Ender is the proverbial chosen one, but Ender has trouble fitting in, only eventually finding a kindred spirit in the cunning Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfeld).

Hood might have helmed the acclaimed foreign film Tsotsi, but his American track record is truly shocking, with the drab Rendition and the unredeemable X-Men Origins: Wolverine under his belt. Ender's Game again shows that Hood has a lot to learn. While the picture features all the requisite eye candy, it's a leaden experience on the whole. It takes a true visionary director to adapt a visionary novel to its full potential, like Stanley Kubrick's cinematic treatment of Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Hood's Ender's Game plays out like a flashy sci-fi film for young adults, rather than an adaptation of a groundbreaking novel. It feels too mainstream, and the screenplay even attempts to make connections to today's youth culture, with Ender playing games on a tablet computer and emailing his family (why not just call the emails "messages"?).

Ender's Game eventually takes a whole other direction once the climactic "twist" is introduced, but this segment of the picture doesn't entirely work. There are major logistical issues facing this conclusion, and the twist doesn't feel as weighty as it should. It should be a significant, mind-blowing moment that brings you to the edge of your seat, but instead it's a resoundingly flaccid reveal. Moreover, the story loses all sense of momentum and purpose from this point onward, and it feels like the writers don't quite know where to take things next. It's a fault inherent in the source material, granted, but it doesn't make this glaring issue anymore forgivable. Fans of the book may also dislike some aspects of the book-to-screen translation, most significantly in the fact that Ender is a tween here as opposed to the six-year-old from the novel. Furthermore, the film seems to take place over a few weeks or months, whereas Card's novel took place over a number of years. Perhaps most bothersome, though, is that Ender's family are given a reduced place in the narrative. Indeed, while his sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) has a few scenes to shine, Ender's other family members are only given a couple lines of dialogue each.

Credit where credit is due, however, Ender's Game does spring to life in isolated moments. Hood gets particularly good mileage out of the training sequences, which are wholly engaging. A zero gravity battle room hosts many of the picture's standout set-pieces, especially a magnificent scene in which Ender is given the chance to test his leadership skills and smarts. The special effects are note-worthy across the board, with lavish production design helping to sell the expanse and luxury of this futuristic story. The acting is also predominantly solid across the board. Asa Butterfield is a good actor, and for the most part he acquits himself well as Ender. However, while he's an amiable presence, he unfortunately falls short with the finish line in sight. At the end, he's asked to achieve the type of acting that even Oscar winners would baulk at... And, suffice it to say, Butterfield may be good, but nobody is that good, which is likely one of the main reasons why the ending doesn't carry the significance or weight that it should. Meanwhile, Harrison Ford is reliably solid, with his usual gruffness serving him well as Colonel Graff. The remainder of the cast is decent, too, with Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis and Abigail Breslin all making their mark.

Ender's Game is an interesting failed experiment, but it's still a failure nevertheless, a real letdown considering how long the project has been gestating. The movie hedges its bets on sequels, but its woeful box office performance and lack of public interest has essentially spelt death to that plan, rendering this an unsatisfying standalone effort which needed a defter touch. Hood's film is not a visionary masterpiece, but instead a run-of-the-mill sci-fi blockbuster that tries to keep itself palatable enough to attract interest from broad audiences. Hood tries to grapple with all of the fascinating themes of the book, but it ultimately feels like a rote piece of work that does lip service to Card's intents.


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Hugely satisfying revisit to Middle-earth

Posted : 3 years, 7 months ago on 31 December 2013 03:25 (A review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug)

"The tales and songs fall utterly short of your enormity, oh Smaug...the stupendous..."

For some, 2012's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was a tough sell. Even though this reviewer loved it, some folks did not care for its prolonged runtime or lighter disposition, as they had hoped for something more in the vein of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. However, it did have a few flaws, most of which are thankfully corrected for 2013's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. This is a marvellous action-adventure epic, a crowd-pleasing continuation of Jackson's second Middle-earth trilogy that's smoother than its forerunner. It might still be bloated, and the jury is still out on whether or not The Hobbit needed to be a trilogy, but The Desolation of Smaug is a satisfying sit nevertheless.

The Desolation of Smaug picks up right where its predecessor ended, finding hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and the Company of Dwarves on their way to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the city of Erebor from vicious dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). Battling orcs and giant spiders, the group also encounter a congregation of lukewarm Wood Elves, with warriors Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) reluctant to trust the dwarves. In their time of need, the heroes are also assisted by Laketown boatman Bard (Luke Evans) as they push ahead to the Lonely Mountain. The success of their quest ultimately depends on Bilbo, though, who's given the intimidating task of sneaking into Smaug's lair to steal the precious Arkenstone.

If there's anything about The Desolation of Smaug that doesn't entirely work, it's the love triangle between Legolas, Tauriel and dwarf Kili (Aiden Turner), which was reportedly added at the behest of the studio once the decision was made to split The Hobbit into three parts. It's not a deal-breaker, but it fails to justify its existence in the grand scheme of things, stifling the pace in an already fairly lengthy adventure. However, thankfully, the rest of the narrative does not seem as extraneous, with character development and side plots that feel essential, making for a cohesive story and developing narrative threads that will no doubt pay off in the third instalment. Most significantly, the film allows Gandalf to further explore the murmurs that Sauron is returning. In the book, Tolkien sent Gandalf out of the picture to do undisclosed wizard stuff whenever he wanted the dwarves to encounter a dangerous situation that would be much less intense with Gandalf to help, hence him exploring the origins of Sauron's re-emergence makes sense and ties into the Lord of the Rings movies without feeling forced.

The Desolation of Smaug is a darker movie than its bright, colourful predecessor, with Jackson and co. achieving a grimmer aesthetic more in line with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The light-hearted tone of An Unexpected Journey is gone, and there are no songs, not to mention the amusing dwarf antics are dialled down as the story shifts into weightier territory. The Desolation of Smaug is peppered with set-pieces, moving from location to location to take advantage of the many sights of Middle-earth. Suffice it to say, production values continue to impress, with gorgeous technical specs across the board which are somewhat improved since the last outing. (Although there are a few low quality Go-Pro shots during a river scene, which stick out like a sore thumb and take you out of the movie.) It's unclear whether the digital effects have improved a hundredfold or Jackson used make-up this time, but the orcs look better here, and the battle sequences in general carry a more grounded disposition compared to the over-the-top opulence of the first flick. One of the standout set-pieces is the much-publicised barrel-riding sequence; it's fantastic, with a perfect sense of fluidity and exhilaration.

Without a doubt, though, Jackson saved the best till last - the climactic showdown with Smaug is something else entirely. Similar to the spellbinding game of riddles with Gollum in An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo's encounter with the fearsome dragon is the best scene of this new trilogy so far. Smaug is a terrifying creation, superbly-designed and executed with miraculous CGI. Voiced and performed by Cumberbatch, his dialogue is colourful and witty, and he owns the screen for every frame in which he appears. It's enthralling to watch his back-and-forth with Bilbo, and the action-heavy conclusion wows with its splendid visual intricacy and wonderful sense of tension. Indeed, after sufficient build-up in which Jackson establishes what's at stake and lets us get to know the ensemble of characters, the climax is a true showstopper.

As with its immediate predecessor, The Desolation of Smaug is presented in 3-D at 48 frames per second. Like An Unexpected Journey, the 3-D is nice but inessential, and the high frame rate presentation is more of a curiosity than a requirement. The smoothest way to view the movie is in 2-D and regular old 24 frames per second, especially since The Lord of the Rings did perfectly fine without the extra gimmicks.

Although this trilogy is called The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins becomes more of a supporting player for the proceedings here, allowing Thorin to do most of the dramatic heavy lifting. Nevertheless, Freeman's performance as Bilbo remains hugely endearing, and you feel his fear and apprehension when he encounters Smaug. Cumberbatch and Freeman also co-star together on the TV series Sherlock, thus it's a unique novelty to see the actors bantering in this context. The Desolation of Smaug brings back a familiar face as well, with Orlando Bloom returning as the arrow-zipping Legolas. The character was not in the book, but his presence feels organic to this adaptation of the story, amplifying the sense of continuity between the trilogies. Meanwhile, Evangeline Lilly is a solid newcomer to the cast, and her character of Tauriel - who is a completely original creation - is a nice inclusion. Other newcomers include Luke Evans and Stephen Fry, while the returning actors make a positive impression, too. Indeed, Richard Armitage remains a passionate Thorin, and the irreplaceable McKellen is a wonderfully warm Gandalf.

Admittedly, by the end of The Desolation of Smaug, not a great deal of narrative material has been covered, but Middle-earth is such a rich backdrop for an action-adventure, and Jackson colours in the broad strokes with lively set-pieces and some welcome character moments (the film opens with an interesting flashback, and at various points we get the sense that the One Ring is beginning to take its toll on Bilbo). For a flick running almost three hours, it really hauls ass, and the pace rarely slows down, not to mention the showdown with Smaug is one of the best things you will see all year. The Desolation of Smaug is primo entertainment, and it concludes with a breathtaking cliffhanger for the next chapter.


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Had the potential to be great

Posted : 3 years, 7 months ago on 25 December 2013 05:34 (A review of American Hustle)

"Did you ever have to find a way to survive and you knew your choices were bad, but you had to survive?"

With both The Fighter and 2012's Silver Linings Playbook having attained tremendous critical and commercial success, 2013's American Hustle finds director David O. Russell throwing his hat into the Oscar arena yet again. A 1970s period piece populated with Oscar-calibre actors released in December, it's an awards picture through-and-through, which is perhaps why the end result is slightly unsatisfying. To be sure, this is a smart, stylish piece of work, but it's also overly indulgent, coming across as an opportunity for Russell to just let his regular actors be themselves without any discipline. American Hustle is full of fascinating vignettes spotlighting great acting and great filmmaking, but it lacks a consistent through-line, with slipshod plotting making the proceedings difficult to follow.

An out-of-shape middle-aged businessman, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) owns a chain of dry cleaning stores in New Jersey, while also dabbling in criminal activities from time to time. Despite his estranged marriage to the unhinged, manipulative Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), Irving meets and woos the mysterious Sydney (Amy Adams), teaming up with her to con people for thousands of dollars. When federal agent Richie (Bradley Cooper) busts the pair, he forces Irving and Sydney to perform jobs for the FBI in order to stay out of prison. Agreeing to bust the bigger, badder fish, Irving and Sydney set their sights on a New Jersey mayor, Carmine (Jeremy Renner), who's in the middle of a scam to rebuild Atlantic City's casino-resort landscape. But working to bring down Carmine opens doors to other powerful politicians and dangerous criminals, putting Irving and Sydney in much deeper than they ever anticipated.

American Hustle is based on the true story of the ABSCAM scandal from the 1970s, which was a complex deal. Producing a motion picture based on the incident is a tough proposition, as it would require tight plotting and an effective analysis of the factors surrounding it. Unfortunately, Russell is more interested in his quirky characters, not paying the subject enough attention to properly cover the intricacies at hand. According to Bale, the majority of the dialogue was improvised, and the star actually told Russell that the finished product might not make a lot of sense since various ad-libbed moments might change the plot down the track. Russell reportedly replied that he hates plots and is all about characters. And therein lies the problem: there are a lot of puzzle pieces to assemble here, and it's unclear if they all fit together by the end, with various scenes going by with vague stakes and an even vaguer purpose. It's not a deal-breaker per se, but it only occasionally translates to a gripping viewing experience.

American Hustle is likely Russell's most visually accomplished motion picture to date, evincing an impressive sense of mood and aesthetic sophistication, oozing a '70s atmosphere from start to end. The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook were more vérité productions, with raw cinematography establishing a documentary-esque vibe, but American Hustle is old-fashioned, playing out like a political thriller from the 1970s. In fact, its closest aesthetic cousin would be last year's Argo, right down to a deliberately grainy cinematic look and an excellent attention to period-specific costumes and hairstyles. The technical achievements are quite remarkable considering the modest budget, and Russell exhibits genuine mastery in his song choices. Various songs like Live and Let Die, A Horse with No Name and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road are incorporated to spectacular effect, enhancing the enterprise's sense of flavour. There are also a few fun moments of comedy, though in some scenes it's unclear exactly what tone Russell was aiming for.

Christian Bale yet again proves himself to be a chameleonic performer, changing his physique for the umpteenth time to portray the rotund Irving. Bale packed on a considerable amount of weight and disappeared into the role, changing his vocal mannerisms and body language, making this one of the actor's finest performances to date. It's the type of work that earns Oscars, but Bale does not shamelessly mug for Academy Award glory, as he's muted and talented enough to let his nuanced acting speak for itself. As Sydney, Amy Adams is predictably good, showing yet again that she's a fierce, confident performer with plenty of beauty and charisma to spare. Meanwhile, Bradley Cooper revisits the incredible acting chops he displayed in Silver Linings Playbook, delivering a truly marvellous performance for which he consistently looks focused. But the most mesmerising actor is Jennifer Lawrence, who commands the screen with such passion that one almost wishes the whole movie was about her. Adding further flavour to the cast are Jeremy Renner and Louis C.K., both of whom hit their respective marks, while Robert De Niro also pops in for a short but memorable appearance.

It's unsurprising that American Hustle has drawn unbelievably positive reviews from the press, as it's the type of blatant Oscar contender designed specifically to impress critics and awards voters. But it's too all over the shop to be a genuinely memorable or enjoyable, with its messy narrative and gargantuan runtime bringing the production down a couple of notches. It's not that the material needed to be dumbed down to Twitter speak, but more disciplined plotting and further clarification about the specifics of various narrative machinations would've catapulted the film to greatness. As it is, this is merely a decent effort from Russell which had the potential to be great.


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Insanely underrated

Posted : 3 years, 8 months ago on 25 December 2013 03:55 (A review of Prancer)

"He's magical, Carol!"

In the grand pantheon of American Christmas movies, Prancer is one of the most undeservedly overlooked and underrated, with its sweetness and realism placing it above the unspectacular norm for these types of endeavours. Released in 1989, it's a mild Christmas classic which deserves more attention than it receives, and it's unfortunate that the picture failed to find an audience during its initial theatrical run. Far better than the dreck we're given so much of in this day and age, Prancer gets credit for its smart scripting and clever premise, not to mention it's also driven by an array of exceptional performances. Even though it's imbued with some heavy themes, it's perfectly suitable for family consumption around the festive season.

Still dealing with the death of her mother, Jessica Riggs (Rebecca Harrell) is struggling to connect with her stern father John (Sam Elliott), who's buckling under the pressure of financial stress. The eternally optimistic Jessica is 8 years old, and still believes in Santa and his reindeer even though her peers have outgrown such fantasies. One night, Jessica encounters a reindeer that she believes to be Prancer, as he carries a distinct marking that corresponds with pictures of Prancer that Jessica has seen. Finding the deer wounded, Jessica becomes determined to keep Prancer alive, hiding him in a tool shed and nursing him back to health, all the while hoping that her father doesn't find out. She writes a letter to Santa to inform him that Prancer is in good hands, but the letter is picked up by the local newspaper, turning Prancer into a local celebrity.

Although the premise is creative, it admittedly does sound silly, and could've been the set-up for a cloying fantasy movie soaked in Disney-esque saccharine. But in the hands of director John D. Hancock and writer Greg Taylor, Prancer is far more proficient than expected, as it possesses a realistic edge akin to Miracle on 34th Street. The story for the most part takes place in a grounded reality, and the film follows Jessica doing ordinary things on a day-to-day basis. John is a hard father figure too, and he's seen scolding Jessica and dealing with depressing real-world issues. This content has attracted some criticisms, but the lack of sugar-coating is appreciated, and the big payoff feels earned when it arrives at the end. Indeed, the final scene is cheesy, but it works more than it probably should. Prancer also packs some honest-to-goodness emotion, with some tear-wringing that, again, feels wholly earned.

Great child actors are a rare commodity indeed, but Rebecca Harrell is really something here, giving the role a tremendous amount of heart and gumption. She looks the part as well, with a cute, round pixie face and plenty of palpable childhood innocence. Harrell is adorable, and she sells the character's emotional moments extraordinarily well, tearing up when necessary, putting most of her contemporaries to shame. Sam Elliott is just as good, showing yet again why he's a talent to be reckoned with. Elliott is a tough-as-nails father, but while he at times acts unreasonable, you feel warmth beneath his tough exterior, and you do get the sense that he loves Jessica even if he cannot figure out how to handle her. There are several other strong performances here, including Cloris Leachman as a town recluse whose cynical ways are melted away by Jessica's kind heart. In more minor roles are Ariana Richards (of Jurassic Park fame), and Big Bang Theory veteran Johnny Galecki as Jessica's classmates.

If there's anything to really criticise about Prancer, it's that it feels a bit long in the tooth at about 100 minutes, and it noticeably drags from time to time. Nevertheless, once the picture gets into its groove, it's difficult to resist the sense of charm and magic, not to mention its old-fashioned vibe. Even though it dabbles in the blatantly fantastical as it approaches the finish line, this is not a Christmas movie which outright insults anyone's intelligence. Smaller kids will find the sweetness hugely appealing and will identify with Jessica's mission to get Prancer back into action, while the older demographic will appreciate that the story appears to take place in the real world.


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It delivers!

Posted : 3 years, 8 months ago on 23 December 2013 07:58 (A review of Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues)

"We're starting a 24-hour news channel!"

2004's Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy might not have set the box office on fire, but the ensuing years have been kind to the film, as it generated a post-theatrical cult following and made a killing in home video sales. It's a pop culture staple, and nine years later it's still quoted by its doting fans on a continual basis. It took almost a decade, but Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues has finally come together after years of false starts, with the now all-star cast reuniting to reprise the roles that have become ingrained in popular culture. It's not as snappy as the previous film, and it's missing the unique spark of pure insanity, but Anchorman 2 is by no means a disappointment, as it's loaded with belly-laughs and effective satire. It's incredibly stupid, of course, but it's sure to deliver if you're a fan of this type of humour.

Now married, Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) and Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) are successful in the television industry, holding steady jobs and living affluently in NYC. But Ron is fired by boss Mack (Harrison Ford) while Veronica is offered a promotion, breaking the pair apart. Some months later, Ron has self-destructed, but is soon offered a gig with up-and-coming cable news channel GNN that plans to run 24 hours a day. It's the perfect opportunity to reunite the old Channel 4 news team, with Ron recruiting hotshot reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), screwball weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell), and overzealous sportscaster Champ Kind (David Koechner). Immediately locking horns with arrogant go-getter Jack Lime (James Marsden), Ron and his team look to up their game in order to bring in the ratings and prove themselves to network head Linda Jackson (Meagan Good).

With Ferrell and director Adam McKay having also teamed up for Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Step Brothers, this second Anchorman very much foregrounds the type of daft guy humour that these boys are known for. There's nothing cerebral here, as the movie shifts from set-piece to set-piece connected by a thin narrative, allowing the talented performers to strut their improvisation stuff and spout outrageous zingers at every opportunity. It's clear most of the jokes were improvised, but the sense of spontaneity is what keeps Anchorman 2 so alive, and McKay had the good sense to not dwell on jokes for too long. (Enough footage was actually filmed to facilitate an alternate edit with new jokes replacing the dialogue in the theatrical cut.) Considering all of the ad-libbing on display, it's hard to fathom exactly what the script (credited to McKay and Ferrell) actually consisted of. Admittedly, none of the Anchorman movies are overly proficient from a technical perspective, with very basic cinematography and some shoddy editing, but these shortcomings hardly matter in the grand scheme of things.

Unfortunately, after two acts of borderline perfection, Anchorman 2 eventually begins to wear out its welcome, hitting a spotty third act that's in need of more energy and snappier pacing. McKay attempts to do something sweet and heartfelt to give Ron a suitable character arc, but it's just too drawn-out, and the picture did not need to run for almost two hours. There are also a few subplots that feel superfluous, including a corporate synergy scheme that would have been better kept on the cutting room floor. Nevertheless, there's still lots to appreciate about Anchorman 2, which especially springs to life for its knockout climax. But what's most notable about the film is its biting satire, delving into the absence of journalistic integrity on broadcast television in favour of sensationalism for the sake of ratings. McKay does have a bit to say on the subject, taking none-too-subtle jabs against Fox News and CNN. Ron also falls victim to his own hubris, which makes for an interesting angle.

In the years since Anchorman, Ferrell has emerged as a prominent comedic performer, but he was born to play Ron Burgundy. All of the actors here have gone onto bigger things since the first movie, but they slip back into these iconic roles as if no time has passed. Ferrell is ideal here, embracing his man-child persona yet again and basking in the freedom to go as over-the-top as he wants. Carell, meanwhile, unsurprisingly steals the show, dispersing an endless array of hilariously idiotic dialogue and committing to the character 110%. The decision to insert Kristen Wiig into the picture was an excellent one; she's perfectly matched playing Brick's love interest, Chani. Her role is every bit as nutty and quirky as Brick, and the pairing of Carell and Wiig lights up the screen, providing pure comedy dynamite. Rudd and Koechner are perfectly good as well, not to mention veteran Harrison Ford demonstrates that he has excellent comedic instincts. Other notable newcomers include Aussie funny-man Josh Lawson who's highly amusing as a media tycoon, and Marsden who has a few moments to shine as Burgundy's rival.

Anchorman 2 features a huge array of surprise celebrity cameos, as well, which absolutely cannot be spoiled here. Suffice it to say, there's a magnificent comedic set-piece within the picture that's packed with cameos, and had this reviewer roaring in fits of laughter. It's perfectly-played, and the cameos are so completely random and satisfying, hence one can easily imagine this sequence being quoted and discussed ad nauseum for many years to come.

All things considered, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is not quite the knockout sequel that we all hoped for, but it's a perfectly entertaining, often hilarious follow-up which retains the spirit of the first film and doesn't tarnish its legacy. It's somewhat uneven and scattershot, but it manages to stay classy, and it still satisfies both as a funny comedy and as a reunion with cherished old pals. And the fact that it's worthwhile at all is frankly miraculous in the world of cinematic comedy. If you're looking for a fun time at the cinema these Christmas holidays, Anchorman 2 is definitely the way to go. Be sure to sit through the end credits for an additional gag.


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Imperfect, though perfectly charming

Posted : 3 years, 8 months ago on 18 December 2013 12:58 (A review of Mickey's Christmas Carol)

"Listen, Scrooge, if men were measured by kindness, you'd be no bigger than a speck of dust."

On top of rote adaptations of Charles Dickens' iconic novella A Christmas Carol, the tale has also been adapted using recognisable characters from certain franchises. Thus, we've seen the likes of Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol and The Muppet Christmas Carol, as well as Mickey's Christmas Carol, a 1983 Disney-produced short which was attached to the theatrical re-release of The Rescuers. There is a certain fatigue to the story due to the surplus of other adaptations, but this retelling does have its merits, and was actually nominated for an Academy Award. Being a Disney production, Mickey's Christmas Carol is bright and energetic, making it a suitably entertaining festive watch for kids and adults alike.

The story here remains unchanged, so only a short synopsis is necessary. Set in Victorian England, greedy businessman Ebenezer Scrooge (Scrooge McDuck, voiced by Alan Young) is one of the most reviled men in London, charging outrageous interest rates and mistreating his sole employee, Bob Cratchit (Mickey Mouse, voiced by Wayne Allwine). Scrooge also hates Christmas, even refusing to join his nephew Fred (Donald Duck, voiced by Clarence Nash) for his annual yuletide dinner. On Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley (Goofy, voiced by Hal Smith), who warns Scrooge that he must change his ways or suffer for eternity in the afterlife. Following Marley's visit, Scrooge is visited by three more spirits, who aim to show him the error of his ways and compel him to repent in order to save his soul.

The big drawback of Mickey's Christmas Carol is that it's simply too short at 26 minutes, with its scant timeframe facilitating only a cliff-notes retelling of the source material. Although this allows for a fast-paced short, it needed more breathing room, as the meagre length means that a lot of the details of the story had to be cast aside. It would be foolhardy to expect genuine story depth in a Mickey Mouse movie, granted, but this feels like a bit of a missed opportunity, making Scrooge's arc feel a bit unearned. Admittedly, Dickens' tale is fairly short, but the finished product here feels too short. Admittedly, too, Richard Williams' 1971 animated retelling is one of the best adaptations to date in spite of its 25-minute length, but Williams' storytelling was smarter and stronger, making more of an impact. Mickey's Christmas Carol should have been expanded into a full-blown feature. It's an especially glaring flaw since The Muppet Christmas Carol took a similar approach to Dickens' story, but was much more successful, as it was a faithful and powerful retelling which had the freedom to tell a more complete story.

Despite its detrimentally truncated nature, Mickey's Christmas Carol excels in other aspects. The animators at Disney have done a marvellous job, delivering vibrant, colourful visuals and superbly fluid animation. It definitely has the look of a theatrical Disney feature film with its magnificent technical specs. And though this should've been a longer movie, Mickey's Christmas Carol in its current form is adequate enough, with plenty of charm and some standout sequences. Animation buffs will also enjoy seeing recognisable animated characters inhabiting Dickens' story. On top of appearances from Goofy, Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse, folks like the Big Bad Wolf, the Three Little Pigs and Chip & Dale get cameos, not to mention minor characters from Robin Hood as well. However, it does seem a bit strange that this short is titled Mickey's Christmas Carol, since Mickey's Bob Cratchit is a supporting character with limited screen-time.

All things considered, this version of A Christmas Carol definitely has its charms and will always hold a certain nostalgic appeal for certain folks, but it's very lightweight and doesn't do much with this story that's new or exciting. Indeed, it's just an enjoyable 26 minutes of recognisable Disney characters going through the time-honoured motions. Still, it gets credit for being what it is - you can happily put it on with the family around Christmastime, and it's not surprising that so many people watch it on an annual basis.


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Superbly creative Rankin-Bass classic

Posted : 3 years, 8 months ago on 10 December 2013 04:03 (A review of Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town)

"Toys are hereby declared illegal, immoral, unlawful AND anyone found with a toy in his possession will be placed under arrest and thrown in the dungeon. No kidding!'"

In their prime, filmmakers Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr. produced numerous television specials based on popular Christmas songs, including Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and many others. 1970's Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town is another charming holiday special by Rankin-Bass, which was adapted from the popular yuletide song of the same name. It's not quite as captivating as Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town is an endearing little festive gem nevertheless, notable for its playful tone, creative deconstruction of the Claus mythos, and clever approach to long-established Christmas folklore.

Before jolly old Santa Claus (Mickey Rooney) delivered presents to all the girls and boys around the world, he was an orphaned baby adopted by the Kringle family. A family of elves, the Kringles are skilled at making toys, but there are no children to enjoy their creations. Once Kris matures, he volunteers to deliver the countless toys to Sombertown, hoping to brighten the spirits of the kids who live there. Unfortunately, town mayor Burgermeister Meisterburger (Paul Frees) has outlawed all toys and immediately reprimands jolly old Kris. But Kris refuses to let Burgermeister have his way, continuing to distribute playthings around the town, making the Kringle family public enemy number one. Kris' heroism attracts the attention of local teacher Jessica (Robie Lester), who fully supports his acts of defiance against the wicked Burgermeister.

Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town was written by Rankin-Bass' go-to writer, Romeo Muller, who explores all aspects of Santa Claus' origins. Narrated by a mailman named Kluger (Fred Astaire), this hour-long special dissects the development of Kris' selflessness, and covers the origins of his beard, hearty laugh, crew of helpers, need to go down the chimney, North Pole residency (he needs to hide from Burgermeister, after all), and pretty much everything in between, providing a hugely creative look at how Santa came to be. On top of being edifying, it's wonderfully entertaining too, full of delightful set-pieces and tender moments of humour.

Whereas today's moviemakers use 3-D computer animation, Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town was executed with stop-motion technology, using models and sets to painstakingly create each frame. It does look dated and rough at times, not to mention the pacing does occasionally drag, but there's something charming about this primitive technique, especially when you consider just how much work went into every second of screen-time. Rankin-Bass movies often featured impressive casts, with the pair securing at least one or two major names for each production. Santa Claus is Comin' to Town has two big names, with Mickey Rooney and Fred Astaire both lending their vocal talents to the film. Astaire is a huge asset, guiding us through the story with energy and charm. He has a great singing voice, too, which enlivens the numerous musical set-pieces. Rooney, meanwhile, submits well-judged work with plenty of heart.

For over four decades now, Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town has been part of annual Christmastime traditions in many households, and deservingly so. Muller's screenplay covers the origins of many holiday traditions - including hiding gifts in stockings and how reindeer fly - while also delivering an uplifting reminder about the real meaning of the season of giving.


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Utter twaddle

Posted : 3 years, 8 months ago on 9 December 2013 10:00 (A review of Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger!)

"Do we believe we can win Song For Christmas?!"

2009's Nativity! was such a breath of fresh air because it was clearly not a Hollywood production. Less about cartoonish theatrics and more about warm characters and low-key humour, it's a hugely disarming movie that's far too overlooked. But apparently writer-director Debbie Isitt did not actually watch her own movie, as Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger! lacks all that's great about its predecessor. The understated charm of Nativity! is gone here, resulting in a film that feels corrupted by Hollywood studio executives. Indeed, whereas the original picture worked because it felt so British and real, Nativity 2 feels manufactured and Americanised from the very first frame.

It's Christmastime again at St Bernadette's Primary School, and Mr. Poppy (Marc Wootton) is left to take care of a class of children until a permanent teacher steps into the role. After several would-be teachers are scared off by Mr. Poppy and the kids, Mr. Peterson (David Tennant) steps up to the plate, promised by head teacher Mrs. Bevan (Pam Ferris) that he'll be promoted if we can whip the unruly class into shape. When Mr. Poppy learns of a Song For Christmas competition in Wales, he jumps at the chance to compete, roping in Mr. Peterson despite his objections. Unfortunately, Gordon Shakespeare (Jason Watkins) also wants to enter the competition, and works to sabotage Mr. Poppy and Mr. Peterson, sending them off-course during their travels. Worse, Mr. Peterson's brother Roderick (Tennant again) is an acclaimed musician, and has entered a team in the contest as well.

Nativity 2 continually shoots itself in the foot in its early stages, establishing that the story takes place in a fantastical universe rather than the grounded reality of the original picture. Mr. Poppy should have been sacked a long time ago, as he scares off teachers and encourages the kids to be disobedient. Apparently his familial connections allow him to keep the job, but to this extent is unbelievable. Nativity 2 did not need the added pressure of Mr. Poppy's undisciplined behaviour. After all, it's established that Martin Freeman's character from the first film moved to America, so why couldn't Mr. Peterson have simply come in as his first replacement? Things only get worse as the competition is introduced - Mrs. Bevan's dismissive behaviour is inappropriate, and Mr. Poppy does all kinds of illegal things to get his way. In fact, the whole adventure on the road is ten different kinds of illegal, and it's a wonder why the police aren't called. As stated before, Nativity 2 shows no interest in replicating the charming realness of its genial predecessor, opting for an overblown Hollywood approach closer to Deck the Halls. Sure, the original movie had Freeman taking two kids overseas, but he assumed that he had parental consent. Here, Poppy is literally kidnapping the children.

By the end of the first picture, Shakespeare repented for his selfish behaviour, eating humble pie as he stepped on-stage during the nativity show to join in the joyful dancing. Nativity 2 returns Gordon to his former self, setting him up as a selfish cartoon villain who'll do anything to win. Shakespeare's antagonistic behaviour is completely unnecessary in a movie like this, and he feels like an American creation. Worse, Mr. Peterson's twin emerges as a cartoonish villain as well, breaking rules and doing illegal things in order to get his team over the line. The first Nativity! had Shakespeare being competitive and the critic as its 'villain', but neither character was overly mean-spirited. Here, the villains are far too mean-spirited and overblown, making this feel closer to a Hollywood holiday movie.

The Hollywood sensibility carries over to the picture's finale, in which Mr. Peterson's class is finally given the chance to shine with their singing. Despite the fact that the kids are seen doing very little in the way of rehearsals or honing their talent, they manage to wow everyone in the crowd, transforming from regular kids into a superlative singing group. It's a completely forced transformation, and it's not executed in a way that renders it believable or earned. Worse, the overeager crowd reactions are ripped straight from the Hollywood handbook, devoid of the sincerity and earnestness which characterised the first movie. And just when you believe that things cannot get any worse, the final scene arrives, involving a baby being born in a stable. How's that for subtle?

Wootton's character of Mr. Poppy was surprisingly tolerable in the first picture, but here the role is reduced to a one-dimensional caricature who spends the whole movie being a thick-headed moron. There's no depth or honesty to Mr. Poppy for this go-round; he's a run-of-the-mill clown. Tennant fares a lot better, however, emerging as the only thing worth a damn in this movie. But Tennant's talents are utterly squandered here, and it's tragic to see the charismatic performer wasting his time and efforts on material that's clearly below him. Also in the cast is Jessica Hynes (Spaced), who only shows up in the final third of the movie. What a waste.

For fans of 2009's Nativity!, this follow-up is the equivalent of a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking. Admittedly, Nativity 2 is probably geared more towards young children, but the original movie appeals to folks of all ages, be it young or old, hence this type of sequel is just not good enough. It's not funny or heartfelt; all it offers is scenes of witless idiocy, with Tennant looking exasperated as he attempts to reason with Mr. Poppy and understand why his agent got him this role.


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Not good enough

Posted : 3 years, 8 months ago on 8 December 2013 03:36 (A review of Saving Santa)

"The time globe... Wouldn't be able to keep up with my deliveries if it weren't for this!"

It's difficult to muster up much enthusiasm about 2013's Saving Santa, a completely forgettable Christmas-themed animation which lacks the resources and ingenuity to become an instant classic. Written by stand-up comedian Ricky Roxburgh, it's essentially a hodgepodge of ideas from other well-known holiday movies such as Elf, The Santa Clause and Arthur Christmas, with some Back to the Future thrown in for good measure. It flaunts an impressive voice cast, to be sure, but this is a low-budget feature which went straight-to-video in most major territories, although it received a minor theatrical release in the UK. It's perhaps colourful and brisk enough to hold the attention spans of young kids, but that's simply not good enough, especially with movies like Rise of the Guardians already available in the overcrowded marketplace.

A lowly stable elf, Bernard (Martin Freeman) aspires to someday join the elf elite and become one of Santa's inventors. Attending a meeting with the board hoping to impress them with his newest gadget, Bernard's invention malfunctions, leading to a power blackout across the North Pole. On top of being a mortally embarrassing moment, Bernard's muck-up unexpectedly exposes Santa's secret location to the world. Unfortunately, the wicked Neville Baddington (Tim Curry) has been on the prowl for such an opportunity for years, and grasps the chance to invade the North Pole. Baddington is head of the Quickest Delivery Service, and hopes to steal the secrets of Santa's sleigh in order to render his empire unstoppable. As Baddington descends upon the North Pole with his soldiers, Bernard takes it upon himself to save the day, using Santa's time-travel globe in a bid to prevent catastrophe.

The premise for Saving Santa would be better suited for an hour-long television special, especially since the picture was produced on a low-budget and went straight to disc in most countries anyway. As an 80-minute motion picture, it does not quite work, as Roxburgh's screenplay lacks the wit to justify its length. The zero-to-hero narrative is much too overused by now, and there's not enough creativity to overcome the story's blatant familiarity and predictability. Worse, the movie does not take enough time to flesh out the lead protagonist, rendering him one-dimensional and generic. But perhaps the biggest issue with Saving Santa is that it becomes too convoluted for its own good. Any story involving time-travel is going to be convoluted to some extent, but it's really leaden here, and the myriad of plot complications fail to add up to an engaging experience.

Saving Santa was reportedly produced for about $7.5 million, a scant sum for this type of picture, and the tiny budget is obvious in the visuals. Compared to the lush extravagance of DreamWorks and Pixar productions, the animation here is basic at best, without the polish, dynamicity or fine detail that we would expect from a 2013 release. Admittedly, it is colourful, and there are some nice musical numbers scattered throughout the narrative of varying quality, but the screenplay isn't strong enough to compensate for the mediocre visual presentation. It would seem that a great deal of the budget was blown on the cast, who are surprisingly high calibre for a movie like this. Martin Freeman is amiable enough as the well-meaning Bernard, but the most memorable performer is Tim Curry, who's delightfully over-the-top and hammy as the film's villain. Also present is Joan Collins, who's unfortunately given practically nothing to do, while Noel Clarke and Ashley Tisdale are wasted on bland, single-note roles. But perhaps the most disappointing missed opportunity is Chris Barrie as Blitzen. One of Bernard's inventions allows Blitzen to speak, but not in English, leaving Barrie to say a handful of lines in a foreign language. It's a terrible idea in execution, as it forbids potentially amusing back-and-forth between Freeman and Barrie. If you're going to use Barrie, use him properly!

Although Bernard dreams of big things and is ultimately able to achieve his dreams, Saving Santa wants to be a holiday mainstay but is destined to be forgotten. The broad strokes are okay, but the execution is slipshod, with leaden storytelling and witless scripting exacerbating the unremarkable visuals. Much like a Christmas present that you quickly get bored with and never touch again, Saving Santa will quickly fade from your memory.


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A lovely little movie

Posted : 3 years, 8 months ago on 4 December 2013 12:12 (A review of Nativity!)

"Jennifer is coming. And she's bringing everyone from her agency."

Hollywood enjoys using the festive season as an excuse to fill multiplexes with Christmas-themed garbage, leading to dreck like Four Christmases, Surviving Christmas, Christmas with the Kranks, and too many more to list. It's rather pleasant, then, to witness a film like 2009's Nativity!, a low-budget British export which surpasses Hollywood's typical output by a considerable margin. To be sure, Nativity! is corny and predictable, but it's pitched at the right tone, with enough sincerity and sweetness to prevent it from feeling forced or manufactured. This is a lovely movie for the whole family - it's both funny and moving, and it stands up to repeat viewings. It's not exactly a classic, but it's enjoyable and it makes you feel good inside, which is far more than what can be said for most American holiday movies.

A primary school teacher, Paul Maddens (Martin Freeman) detests the holiday season, assuming a "bah, humbug" attitude after his long-time girlfriend Jennifer (Ashley Jensen) dumped him under the mistletoe. With Jennifer now working in Hollywood, Paul is stuck in his unfulfilling job, but things only get worse when he's forced to direct his school's Christmas pageant. Paul's last attempt at a Christmas show only led to humiliation, which was made all the more painful by the fact that his former pal Gordon Shakespeare (Jason Watkins) directed an acclaimed show at a local private school in the same year. Added to this, Paul is given a new teaching aid in the form of Mr. Poppy (Marc Wootton), an overgrown man-child who only got the job due to family connections. Determined to beat Gordon this year, Paul grasps the opportunity to direct the show, doing his best to whip the kids into shape. However, in a moment of poor judgement, Paul tells Gordon that Jennifer will be attending the show and bringing Hollywood with her, a lie that's accepted as truth by Mr. Poppy...who makes sure that the news spreads all over town.

The story eventually climaxes with Paul's colourful nativity play, which is full of singing and dancing. The real brilliance of this sequence is that the show is genuinely entertaining and well-staged, yet it doesn't feel beyond the talents of the characters involved. It will leave you smiling with plenty of joy in your heart, which is exactly what you want from a contemporary Christmas movie.

To be sure, the story of Nativity! is nothing original - in fact there are similarities to School of Rock - but it's writer-director Debbie Isitt's execution which allows the enterprise to soar. Reportedly, a great deal of the movie was improvised by Isitt and the cast, which is probably why it feels so real. There's even a montage of kids auditioning for the play that's actually very funny, and one gets the sense that Isitt is not simply on the prowl for laughs or manipulative emotion. Indeed, Nativity! is funny without resorting to cheap laughs, and it's geared towards families but it never insults one's intelligence. It also delivers joyful, heartfelt and positive messages without ever becoming preachy or over-the-top. In other words, it's clearly not Hollywood.

Isitt nails the small-town English sensibility, and you really feel that you're being given an inside look at a real-life primary school class. The set dressing is particularly convincing, while Isitt also incorporates other distinct details of primary school, including lackadaisical morning greetings. There's no trace of artificiality in the acting, not even in the little kids, which is extraordinary. Perhaps the improvisational approach is to thank for this, as the children are so delightfully charming and natural that you perpetually look forward to their next appearance. Also remarkable is Wootton, whose character of Mr. Poppy should be an irritating caricature, but turns out to be a truly likeable presence. But the star of the show is Freeman, whose sheer warmth and earnestness is a huge asset. Freeman wholly commits to the role and you believe that he cares about the kids, not to mention he gives convincing emotional depth to Paul.

Whereas most holiday-themed films arrive with aggressive marketing campaigns, Nativity! is more modest, with its humble origins and understated reputation making it all the more appealing. While it does end in a very predictable fashion, it shouldn't have concluded any other way. It's formula through-and-through, but it works against all odds. Compared to the contrived, schmalzy, hokey Christmas films that we see too much of, Nativity! feels more real and warm, recognising that honest-to-goodness sincerity is far more effective than manufactured emotion. It's delightful family-friendly viewing, and it's absolutely worth watching around the festive season unless you're a total Scrooge.


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