Sunday, 23 April 2017

Going In Style

(M) ★★

Director: Zach Braff.

Cast: Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin, Ann-Margret, John Ortiz, Matt Dillon, Peter Serafinowicz, Joey King, Christopher Lloyd.

The Dark Knight reunion was going well, but Christian Bale had aged poorly.

FEW crimes are romanticised like bank robbery. It's because we all hate banks, so it's the perfect "victimless" crime (if you ignore the horrible trauma and psychological damage done to the staff by these robberies).

This film, however, is not a victimless crime. The victims are the cast, who do their best but are weighed down by bad direction and a bloated script, which makes director Braff and screenwriter Theodore Melfi the villains.

It's not that Going In Style - a remake of an old 1979 comedy that starred George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg - is a terrible film, it's just that it's unfortunately boring and toothless. But it's worst crime of all is wasting a brilliant cast, who are valiant in defeat.

Caine, Freeman and Arkin star as Joe, Willie and Albert, three out-of-luck pensioners headed for Skid Row after a corporate takeover leaves them without a pension. Joe, who witnesses a bank robbery in the opening scene, decides he's had enough of getting screwed over by society and decides to hit back by robbing a bank, and ropes in Willie and Albert to help.

The leading trio are great and definitely elevate this film. Caine, Freeman and Arkin have an effortless chemistry and wring the most out of every line. But there should have been more drama and more comedy for them to draw from this dramedy, which is sadly lacking in both departments.

The idea of old people being shafted by society and forced into crime is a powerful one and the idea of three geriatrics robbing a bank is a goofy one, but Going In Style is neither powerful nor goofy enough. We never get a true sense of how dire or cruel or heartbreaking their situation is - we know Caine is destined to lose his house, but the worst we really see of it all is they can't afford to order pie to go with their coffees.

This lack of drama is perhaps best displayed during the pivotal robbery sequence and will-they-won't-they moment of the subsequent police investigation. Because a key part of the robbery where it all nearly goes awry lacks the necessary punch, the follow-up "hallelujah" moment falls flat. This is emblematic of pretty much the whole movie.

As for the comedic possibilities, Going In Style has a couple of good guffaws but nowhere near enough. A warm-up robbery of a supermarket is a highlight, as is Lloyd's bit role, but either side of that the laughs dry up. There's a scene where the lead trio watch The Bachelorette and it's supposed to be funny, but it isn't. It's almost as if the scene is a placeholder while everyone tried to think of something actually funny.

Braff, whose previous films have been indie-style dramedies, seems out of his league on this. The key scenes fall flat with depressing regularity, there is a lack of tension and gravitas, and it's only the presence of Caine, Freeman and Arkin that make this watchable. You could watch a whole TV series of those guys just sittin' 'round, talkin' shit. Everyone would watch that. Those are the best bits in this film.

It's all the bits around that, when we're supposed to buy into how shitty their situation is and how they're pulling off a very flawed "perfect crime" to hit back at society, that the film falls short. Some blame must be leveled at Melfi's script, which features an utterly unnecessary and distracting romance involving Ann-Margret's supermarket employee Annie and Arkin's Albert. This romance should make Albert less likely to participate in the robbery, not the opposite, which is what happens in the film.

But the majority of blame must fall with Braff. There is probably a decent film in here somewhere, but he can't find it. The laughs don't flow and the necessary tension and heft are missing. Watch it for the joy of seeing Caine, Freeman and Arkin share the screen, but even then your patience will be tested.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Fate Of The Furious

(M) ★★★½

Director: F. Gary Gray.

Cast: Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges, Scott Eastwood, Nathalie Emmanuel, Kurt Russell, Charlize Theron, Kristofer Hivju.

Their mums are gonna be so mad.

It's been said before but it bares repeating - no one, not nobody, not no-how, could ever have predicted that The Fast & The Furious would spawn seven sequels.

Watch The Fast & The Furious back-to-back with The Fate Of The Furious and it is a baffling experience. To think the innocuous 2001 Point Break retread based on a magazine article would result in this OTT mega-explosive hurricane of muscle-car madness is unfathomable and implausible. But here we are, roughly $4.5 billion later, talking about Fast 8.

After rebirthing with the fourth film (which is confusingly the third chronologically, and equally confusingly titled Fast & Furious), the series found a new gear with Fast Five. Still the best film of the franchise, Fast Five jettisoned much of the car fetishism and replaced it with shoot-outs, fist fights, and insane heists. The series was all the better for it.

Now we have a Fast & Furious Formula that is more like a '90s Bond film than the cops-and-hoons starting point. Bigger explosions, crazier stunts, CG aplenty, overuse of the word "family", and physics be damned - that's the Fast & Furious way since Fast Five.

As such, The Fate Of The Furious does exactly what its three predecessors have done, albeit with one new neat conceit. Dominic Toretto (Diesel), honeymooning with his wife Letty (Rodriguez) in Havana, is made an offer he can't refuse by Cipher (Theron), the cyber-terrorist to end all cyber-terrorists. Forced into her servitude, Toretto is made to work against his old team, who are understandably perplexed by his apparent change of stripes.

Enter Mr Nobody (Russell), the ambiguous government spook from Fast 7, who employs Toretto's old team to bring Cipher down and save the world, and hopefully save Toretto in the process.

Turning Toretto against his team adds some spark to a potentially dying engine, helping elevate The Fate Of The Furious, even if the mechanics of the plot are somewhat holey (for example, Toretto can orchestrate an amazing secret plan to save his hide yet can't let his old team know what's going on? Give me a break).

It's facile to say "leave your logic at the door" with these films - all movies should adhere to some kind of internal logic lest they devolve into incomprehensible insanity - but the Fast series has an uncanny knack of papering over its cracks with a rollicking good time. Thankfully the cracks are fairly minor and don't detract too much but once again, the action sequences, both human-driven and car-based, are deliciously and distractingly bonkers, including the batshit-crazy finale which involves a bunch of supercars, a mini-tank, a small army, a nuclear submarine and a frozen lake.

Beyond the action set pieces, the rogue-ish cast has been the other driving factor in the series' success, and Fast 8 is no exception. With no Brian (RIP Paul Walker) and with Dominic turned to the dark side, it's actually surprising how well the central line-up holds its own. Gibson and Bridges handle the humour, Johnson is a proven force who readily slots into Diesel's usual figurehead role, while Statham (whose character is a little-too-easily flipped) returns to give Johnson someone to butt heads with. Rodriguez adds heart, Russell's interludes add spice, leaving only Emmanuel to wander aimlessly, and Eastwood to awkwardly sit on the edge, just far enough back so as not to be labelled The New Brian.

As for Theron, she's easily the nastiest and most memorable Big Bad the series has had. Cipher as a character is nothing special, but Theron makes her something special. She's a very welcome addition.

The Fate Of The Furious is still packed with all the inane dialogue and idiotic exposition you would expect, but it knows where it's going and it knows how to get there in style. There's a scene in here where it rains cars - I'm not even kidding - and you kinda wanna stand up and applaud the sheer audacity of the franchise. Scriptwriter Chris Morgan, who's written the last six films, understands what makes the series work and a string of solid directors have managed to bring that ludicrous spectacle to life, with F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job, Straight Outta Compton) the latest.

If you hate what the Fast movies represent, this one is not going to win you over (try #5 or #7 for that). If you love the Fast movies, this one won't disappoint.

PS. Fast 9 and Fast 10 are due out in 2019 and 2021.

Monday, 17 April 2017

The Boss Baby

(G) ★★

Director: Tom McGrath.

Cast: (voices of) Tobey Maguire, Alec Baldwin, Miles Christopher Bakshi, Steve Buscemi, Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow, Conrad Vernon, James McGrath.

Timmy gives Boss Baby the old two-eyeball stare.

Here's a little test for you.

Step one: find a baby (keep it legal - I suggest borrowing one if you don't have one of your own).

Step two: dress the baby up as a business executive. You know, suit, tie, little black business shoes. The works.

Step three: sit back and laugh at how hilarious the business baby looks.

Now comes the question - how long does a baby dressed up as a business executive remain funny? Two minutes? Ten minutes? Twenty minutes?

If this little baby experiment keeps you in chuckles for longer than 30 minutes, you'll probably be able to sit through The Boss Baby without wondering where the laughs are or why you're watching this film. If the answer to the latter question is because you're taking your kids to see it, then I'm sorry to say you'll probably find yourself experiencing few guffaws and feeling vaguely bored for 90-or-so minutes.

While it has its plusses, The Boss Baby's humour is monotone. So many of its attempts at getting a laugh depend on the incongruity of a baby being a boss, and once you get past the initial giggle of seeing an infant looking like a corporate arse-kicker (ie. the first couple of times you see the poster) the film has little else to back it up. This means it's unfunny for long stretches, which is not good in a CG family film that is meant to be funny.

This whole besuited baby image seems to have come first, with the plot being crafted around this short-lived sight gag. As such, it's about The Boss Baby (voiced by Baldwin) who turns up at the home of seven-year-old Timmy (Bakshi) and proceeds to unravel Timmy's perfect existence as the shining light of his family.

Timmy can see something's not right about the baby - he carries around a tiny briefcase for one - but his parents are besotted blind. So it's up to Timmy to get to the bottom of The Boss Baby's secret mission.

Maybe I just wanted this to be a lot funnier than it was, possibly because I swear The Boss Baby looks like my own 14-month-old son and I reckon if I dressed him up as a little businessman I'd probably laugh for at least 20 minutes. But the film's one-note gag gets old really fast, leaving in its wake an annoying tale of an only child having to learn to share his parents' affections. While it's well-intentioned and somewhat universal, it's unfortunately not terribly interesting. Or funny.

The film finally picks up momentum when Timmy and The Boss Baby are forced to work together to achieve a shared goal (even if the plotting of that goal makes no sense - they achieve the goal at the end of the second act, then for some reason go to Las Vegas for the finale ... I'm not even making that up. I mean, their own unnecessary action of going to Las Vegas partly creates the problem in the third act and spurs a rescue mission they've created, so if they'd just completed their mission as agreed and not gone to Vegas that could have both gone their separate ways, which is exactly what they both wanted. Ugh.). All of a sudden the two characters are more effective - it turns out having them playing as a team is funnier and more enjoyable to watch than their animosity. It's at this point you finally realise, hey, these characters are okay and you finally start to care about them and like their company and repartee.

But it's too little, too late. There's a crazy chase, then a bizarre trip to Vegas and then a typically ridiculous finale and we're done, with little to take away from it other than the fact Alec Baldwin does a great job voicing the baby.

The awkward plotting, so obviously built around it's baby-in-a-suit gag, struggles to hold itself together. As a result there are a couple of massive exposition sequences - one where The Boss Baby explains his existence and mission to Timmy, and another where the villain monologues - that are stuck into the script to try to make sense of things but ultimately grind the film to a halt.

The few choice gags are too few, and beyond Baldwin's performance and a surprisingly touching ending (with a clever reveal that explains the film's incongruities), there is not a lot to recommend The Boss Baby over, say, last year's baby-related comedy Storks.

Unless you find the idea of a baby dressed as a business executive continuously hilarious for an hour and a half. In that case, knock yourself out.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

The Lego Batman Movie

(PG) ★★★½

Director: Chris McKay.

Cast: (voices of) Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes.

Is that Christian Bale or Ben Affleck? I can't keep up.

How much Batman is too much Batman?

The correct answer is "there is no such thing as too much Batman". But you could be forgiven for thinking we could be close to Peak Bat.

Including his role in The Lego Movie (and definitely counting The Lego Batman Movie), by the end of this year there will have been eight movies featuring Batman released in the past 12 years. That's with three different actors bringing three different versions of the Bat to the big screen. That's even more than Spider-man who, by the end of 2017, will have had three actors play him in seven movies over 15 years.

But as previously stated, there is no such thing as too much Batman (or Spider-man for that matter). So it seems fair that if the grown-ups can have their Batman, tearing his way through the dark and moody DC Extended Universe, then surely the kids can have their own Batman too, poking fun at his own winged existence in the hyperactive Lego Movie universe.

The Lego Batman (voiced in comedically gravelly fashion by Arnett) explores the loneliness and awesomeness of being the Bat. After yet another bout of smashing the baddies and saving Gotham, he returns to sit alone in (spoiler alert) Wayne Manor, raising questions about whether such an existence is healthy.

Fortunately The Joker (a surprisingly but pleasantly subdued Galifianakis) is on hand to force Batman to emote and stop pushing people away. Driven by an urge to have Batman admit The Joker is his #1 nemesis, The Joker hatches a plan to pit every villain Warner Bros can get their hands on to get Batman to grow as a human.

It's all very meta and self-aware, which is the film's greatest strength. In their quest to find a new way to look at Bruce Wayne's alter-ego, the writers (led by Pride & Prejudice & Zombies author Seth Grahame-Smith) have focused on the isolation the Batsuit creates, bashing that notion up against adopted sidekick Robin (Cera), butler Alfred (Fiennes) and new police chief Barbara Gordon (Dawson), who each want to make life easier and better for the lone wolf Wayne. Oddly for a film that is so unrealistic looking, it nails a certain weird realism in regards to Batman - that he lives a lonely, rage-fuelled existence driven by unresolved issues surrounding his parents' death. The Lego Batman Movie nails this idea better than pretty much every Batfilm except for The Dark Knight and Batman Begins.

There are in-jokes aplenty for hardcore DC fans, including a run-through of some of Batman's more obscure foes (Condiment King, Polka-Dot Man and Orca all get a mention). That, and an understanding of what makes the characters work and their relationships to each other, help keep the movie from tipping into parody. An affection for the source material is evident.

With that in mind, The Lego Batman Movie makes sure to reference what has come before (even going so far as to get Billy Dee Williams to voice Two-Face). There are visual flashes of Lego renditions of all the movies going back to Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, and even a screen grab of Adam West doing the Batusi. As much as this is a kids movie, it's definitely one for the Bat-spotters, which all goes toward helping make this good for all ages. After all, few other characters have been as all-pervasive in pop culture as Batman.

The jokes come thick and fast, and the voice cast is excellent. Arnett, who has been more enjoyable as a voice actor of late, wrings every bit of humour out of his performance, while Cera is a great foil as Dick Grayson AKA Robin. The talent comes thick and fast in this huge ensemble - as well as an all-star villain line-up that includes Lord Voldemort, King Kong, Sauron, the Wicked Witch of the West, the Daleks, and the Gremlins, there is also the DC who's who of Superman, Flash, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern and dozens more Justice Leaguers, so keep your eyes on the credits to see who did what.

As with The Lego Movie, there is a clever finale that reminds you that, hey, this is all Lego (CG Lego, yes, but you get the picture). But similarly to its predecessor, the animation style is a love-it-or-hate-it venture. In its battle sequences, which are many, The Lego Batman Movie is a blizzard of movement where it can be hard to discern what is happening. Director Chris McKay throws everything at the screen and often it is too much, especially in a medium (ie. Lego) where there are no flat surfaces. 

This busyness on the screen is so full on that in the slower, quieter moments the film struggles to keep momentum. This is no in-between - it's either everything moving all the time or nothing. You get used to the animation style eventually, but you sometimes wish they would just chill out and stop going so overboard. 

These gripes aside, The Lego Batman Movie is the best combination of Batfun and Batseriousness since Tim Burton was in charge. And as good as Affleck is, this leaves Batman Vs Superman for dead, although that is damning the film with faint praise.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Beauty & The Beast: 1991 vs 2017

1991 version

(G) ★★★★★

Director: Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise.

Cast: (voices of) Paige O'Hara, Robby Benson, Richard White, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, Angela Lansbury, Bradley Michael Pierce, Rex Everhart, Jesse Corti, Hal Smith, Jo Anne Worley.

The age old story of one woman's love for a buffalo.

Upon its release in 1991, Beauty & The Beast marked a turning point for Disney.

Buoyed by the success of The Little Mermaid two years earlier - the House of Mouse's best film since The Jungle Book in '67 and the start of the so-called Disney Renaissance - the animation company had some wind in its sails once again. That renewed confidence is evident in Beauty & The Beast. While remaining true to what had come before, it is also a signpost pointing toward the future.

On the one hand, it's very much cut from the fairytale cloth of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, while retaining the goofiness of, well, Goofy and his style of talking-animal Disney comedy. The humourous sidekick Le Fou, the horse Phillippe, and the talking household paraphernalia all speak to the Walt era of Disney.

The classic Disney look is there too, although there is an extra level of depth and detail to the artwork. Note the slow zoom into the castle in the opening shot, with layers of foliage moving in and out of focus - this is just the first hint of what's to come. This newfound capability is courtesy of a fledgling company called Pixar, who introduced a new computer animation production system (CAPS) which Disney effectively road-tested on previous film The Rescuers Down Under. Pixar were also responsible for the CG backgrounds in the ballroom scene - a masterfully animated combination of the old and the new which showed the producers could see what was coming and weren't afraid of it.

The old and the new can also be found in Belle, a heroine who is brave, intelligent and independent, but still a romantic whose favourite book tells of a Prince Charming. Disney was moving forward but ensuring one foot remained in the past, something it continues to do with great success to this day - just look at how Frozen and Moana hark back to the "princess musicals" such as Beauty & The Beast while being thoroughly modern, especially with their heroines.

One of the unsung heroes of Beauty & The Beast is screenwriter Linda Woolverton. Of all the major film awards it was nominated for, only one was for Woolverton's script. The screenplay is so lean, tight, pacy and punchy, that even the special edition (which adds the song Human Again) is only 90 minutes long. There is barely a wasted second or piece of surplus plotting, and the whole thing crackles with energy. The entire set-up for the film, narrated by Ogden Stiers (who pulls double duties as Cogsworth), is wrapped up in a couple of minutes and its a good indication that there will be no stops on this service.

The only toilet breaks here are in the songs, but you'd be missing out. While the title track (which has the absolute shit oversung out of it by CĂ©line Dion and Peabo Bryson in the credits) is probably the best known, the opening Belle and the humourous Be Our Guest are the standouts. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, who also penned songs for The Little Mermaid and Aladdin until Ashman's death in 1991, were a match made in heaven (Beauty & The Beast is dedicated to Ashman).

It's often mentioned Beauty & The Beast was the first animation to be nominated for the best film Oscar, but what's not noted is that 1991 was a comparatively weak year. That's not to take anything away from Beauty & The Beast - it's a worthy nominee - but in a stronger year it's doubtful it would have made the top five. Silence Of The Lambs was a worthy winner, The Fisher King, Barton Fink and Thelma & Louise were notable omissions, and of the other nominees for best film only JFK is spoken of with any reverence (when was the last time you heard anyone rave about Bugsy or The Prince Of Tides?).

Still, Beauty & The Beast broke new ground while recapturing the spirit of Disney traditionalism. A more modern heroine, the incorporation of CG elements, and some Academy respect, combined with figuring out the essential qualities that made their past classics so classic helped pave the way for the House of Mouse's future, and indeed, the next few decades of animation.


2017 version

(PG) ★★★½

Director: Bill Condon

Cast: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson.

One woman's love for a buffalo ... now in hi-res.

Which brings us to the 2017 version of the western world's most beloved tale of Stockholm Syndrome.

(I'm fairly sure this wasn't mentioned back in 1991, but I've heard the Stockholm Syndrome thing mentioned recently because this is the time we live in. I don't say this by way of criticism or dismissal, I'm just saying. What does it mean? I don't know. But the fact is that's what the fairytale features, and so that's what the film features. There's also a little bit of the Florence Nightingale Effect going the other way too. What does that mean? I don't know. I'm not judging. I'm just saying. But will kids walk away from this thinking "ooh, if I kidnap someone they'll fall in love with me"? Doubtful, unless you're teaching your kids wrong to start with. Will your kids walk away thinking "there's more to people than just looks"? Probably, because that's the real message here.)

(Also, while I'm at, there are a couple of allusions to homosexuality in this and OH MY GOD IT WILL TURN YOU KIDS GAY IF THEY WATCH IT! Ha. Of course it won't, you fuckwit. It's 2017, for fuck's sake. Grow up, you ignorant douchebag.)

Anyway, here we have the latest live action remake of Disney's back catalogue of classics. Unlike Alice In Wonderland or Pete's Dragon, this sticks very close - beat for beat to be honest - to the 1991 version. This is a good thing. Those doing the remaking are obviously aware of what worked last time around and are sticking with that.

That includes the songs as well as the story. The first and biggest criticism to be levelled at the 2017 take is that it's added more songs and more story, the lean 90 minutes blown out to 129 minutes. Some of the extra minutes are necessary. The breathless pace of the animated world doesn't translate directly to live action, and characters such as Le Fou (Gad) and Belle's father Maurice (Kline) grow into more than the goofy cliches of '91.

But the new songs - particularly How Does A Moment Last Forever and Evermore - add nothing (it would have been preferable to see some variation of Human Again in the mix than those). As for the added story elements, did we really need to know what happened to Belle's mother? Or the Beast's mother for that matter?

What the live action version nails is its real life realisations of the characters. Watson makes Belle Hermoine 2.0 but it works. Evans is perfectly cast as the increasingly devious Gaston, Kline is great as Maurice, while the voice cast of the household objects is excellent (McGregor's dodgy French accent notwithstanding).

The look of the film is good too. It has the same magical realism of the live action Cinderella, but with a darker edge to match the story. The Beast occasionally looks a bit CG (mostly when he walks), but mostly he is a convincing creation.

If there's one thing the 2017 version does better, its humanise the Beast. The '91 version leans on the goofiness too often, while in this take he feels like a real character, which seems to be thanks to the script.

In general, B&TB2017 hits the marks it needs to but can never beat the '91 version. It does some things well, but ultimately this beast is more bloated than it needs to be.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Manchester By The Sea

(M) ★★★★

Director: Kenneth Lonergan.

Cast: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, C.J. Wilson, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams, Gretchen Mol.

Definitely not a film about a coastal shop selling bed linen.

When films claim big awards for their actors as opposed to the film itself, the film tends to live on in the shadow of the actor.

As great as you might think The Revenant is (personally I thought it was overblown and pretentious), it will forever be the film Leonardo DiCaprio finally (and deservedly) won the best actor Oscar for. As good as The Theory Of Everything and Lincoln are, they revolve in the memory around their shining stars Eddie Redmayne and Daniel Day Lewis. Ditto for Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side and Charlize Theron in Monster (in fact, do you hear these last two films talked about at all these days except in reference to their Oscar-winning actresses?).

Manchester By The Sea is likely to suffer the same fate. It is a solid, beautiful and poignant film, but it lives and dies on the strength of Casey Affleck's restrained Oscar-winning role. Affleck's turn alone is the thing that elevates it to greatness, despite it having so many great elements, and as such, it will be remembered for his performance.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a socially awkward recluse who is drawn back to his hometown (the titular Massachusetts seaport) following the death of his brother Joe Chandler (played by Kyle Chandler - I had to spell that one out so it didn't seem like a mistake).

The return not only finds Lee grappling with being named as guardian for his teenage nephew Patrick (Hedges), but also struggling with issues from his past that have left him an unwieldy, pent-up, shell of a man.

Lonergan's film is an exploration of grief that offers no pithy solutions or platitudes, instead portraying it as a never-ending, never-mending faultline that runs through your life from the fateful moment onwards. It's a gut-punching, heartbreaking movie, with Affleck's Lee in the epicentre. He has serious loss in his life he has never properly dealt with and it festers in him like a cancer, bursting out at inappropriate moments and in inappropriate ways. He has been running from it and his return to Manchester-by-the-Sea means it is going to hit him head on.

Affleck's performance captures these ideas perfectly. It's not showy or actorly but rather naturalistic, understated and subdued, drawing you into Lee's world completely. The film's narrative is similarly underplayed. It poses a mystery early on, and after it exposes it, the hook is in seeing how the characters, particularly Lee, deal with it now he's back in town.

Hedges is good in support, and combined with the strong script makes Patrick a real teen, determined to continue with his day-to-day life but still deeply unsettled by the loss of his father. The rest of the supporting cast is also powerful - the under-rated Kyle Chandler is excellent in his role, which is limited to flashbacks, Williams is fantastic as Lee's ex-wife, and Mol is great in her handful of scenes, one of which includes a neat cameo from Matthew Broderick.

The slow-burn pace and quiet tone of the film will annoy some, but more off-putting are some overly dramatic musical choices and the occasional weird patch of dialogue. For the most part, the script is spot-on, but every so often a line sticks out. Similarly the soundtrack choices sometimes make themselves too pronounced. As for the pacing, it must be argued it is perfect for the subject matter, and the film unravels at exactly the tempo it should.

Minor gripes aside, Lonergan has tackled his subject with sensitivity and beauty (the backdrop of a north-eastern US winter is stark but pretty), and with Affleck in the driver's seat he has found a perfect role for the under-appreciated actor.

Friday, 17 March 2017

REWIND REVIEW: Footrot Flats - The Dog's Tale (RIP Murray Ball)

(PG) ★★★★

Director: Murray Ball.

Cast: (voices of) John Clarke, Peter Rowley, Rawiri Paratene, Fiona Samuel, Peter Hayden, Dorothy McKegg, Billy T. James, Brian Sergent, Marshall Napier, Michael Haigh.

Pets should rarely be kept in the fridge.

America had Charles M Schulz and Peanuts, France had Goscinny & Uderzo and Asterix, and New Zealand had Murray Ball and Footrot Flats.

As representations of their respective nations, each is telling. Peanuts was a good cross-section of American post-war society when it began in the 1950s, ranging from the ultimate example of "nice guys finish last" in its downtrodden hero Charlie Brown through to the dumb bully Lucy, who is constantly keeping the everyman down.

Meanwhile Asterix emerged less than 15 years after WWII, as France was continuing to reclaim its identity and rebuild, having suffered the indignity of the invading Nazis. Hence it throws back to a time when a group of "indomitable Gauls" hold out against the all-conquering Romans.

And New Zealand had Wal Footrot and Dog. In the wit of Ball and his characters lay a prime example of rural Kiwi (and Aussie for that matter) humour. New Zealand farming was predominantly more modern than Ball depicted it to be circa 1980, but it spoke to a certain romanticism for the land, and in a country with a population the size of NZ's, it seemed just about everyone had relatives who lived on a farm, so almost everyone had an understanding of what Ball was banging on about. Like Australia, New Zealand rode on the sheep's back, and Footrot Flats was a proud portrayal of the strugglers who shore that back in between weekends of playing rugby (or footy or cricket) and heading into town for fish and chips.

When Ball's comic strip hit the silver screen, every man and his dog (ahem) turned out to see it in New Zealand (it was a box office hit in Australia too). Footrot Flats - The Dog's Tale was the first Kiwi feature-length animated film and held the record for being the most successful local movie at the NZ box office from 1986 through to 1994's Once Were Warriors.

Some of this success is down to its all-ages appeal - families drove long distances to see this film, making rare trips to town for it. Much of its humour is of the slapstick variety, whether it be a goose's attempts to bite Wal "on the prickle" (actually his butt, despite what you might be thinking) or Dog's attempts at heroism. It's all very Looney Tunes in places, right down to the unnecessary "comedy" sound effects.

As well as being kid-friendly (although there are plenty of terrifying things about the Murphy farm, notably the crocopigs and the rat leader Vernon), it had a fair bit for the grown-ups. Wal's dream sequence about becoming an All Black features some choice moments, while his ill-fated date with Cheeky Hobson is great and includes a weird moment where Wal pries baked beans from out of Cheeky's bosom. In spite of (or because of) its weird moments, it's funny for all ages. It should also be noted that John Clarke was an inspired choice to voice Wal Footrot, who wasn't a million miles away from his iconic NZ cross-media character Fred Dagg. Clarke joked at the time that the casting call was out of himself, John Gielgud and Meryl Streep, but he got the role because he had a shorter commute.

As director, Ball was reportedly meticulous, ensuring the animators got his style just right. His perfectionist streak paid off because the film looks like his comic strips come to life, with the added bonus of Richard Zaloudek's sublime backdrops, which give the film a surrealist edge due to their impressionistic qualities.

Equally surreal is Dave Dobbyn's score. Dobbyn, who took on the gig after Tim Finn turned it down, excels as much as he stumbles. Parts of the score haven't aged well, worst of all being a couple of songs that turn the cartoon into a musical (the tracks Let's Get Canine and Vernon The Vermin). But beyond those are the absolute gold of You Oughta Be In Love and, of course, this:

This was my little brother's favourite movie growing up and rewatching it 30 years on, it's not hard to see why. As farmer's sons, it spoke to our sense of reality - there's nothing Disneyfied or sanitised here. Dog eats dags, is nearly shat on by a sheep, and almost drowns in the sheep dip, all within the first few minutes. This was real farming, but it was a cartoon.

It has aged badly in places, but Footrot Flats - The Dog's Tale is a wonderful snapshot of what the comics captured and why Murray Ball was not only a national hero in NZ, but also an icon to farming communities all around Australia. For all it's slapstick silliness, it's a fantastically pacy and enjoyable piece of rural '80s nostalgia.