The exclusivity wars : Whoever wins, we lose

Posted in Soapbox with tags , , , , , on October 13, 2014 by Ben Browne

Netflix and other on demand services of its ilk have had such a huge impact on viewing habits in such a short amount of time. Don’t know about you but I’m getting a bit sick of service exclusive content and I can see some unpleasant things on the horizon. Speaking of which, I assume you’ve heard about Adam Sandler’s four-film deal with Netflix? Basically, the theoretical comedian has made a deal to produce and star in four films for the company. Also, the sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will premiere exclusively on the service. That’s great an’ all but what if you don’t have a Netflix account? What if you’ve signed up to Amazon Instant Video instead and can only justify one VOD subscription? Well, the answer seems to be “fuck you”. No terrible Sandler film or potentially great martial arts action for you. If these experiments are successful, you can bet that this’ll only be the start of it. Expect to see more exclusive studio deals with all new and back catalogue titles only appearing on one service. Fancy watching an X-Men film? Fuck you NowTV subscriber, Netflix has a deal with 20th Century Fox and all future, past and Days of Future Past X-Flicks will only be available there, so choke on it. Or, even better, each studio will create its own streaming service. Hooray for Paramount on Demand! Watch Transformers: Age of Extinction and Top Gun for only £7.99 a month! Not available on any other service!

This may seem like a bit of a leap and yes, this is all massively speculative, but I’ve just got a bad feeling about this. That’s not to say I’m completely blinkered. I can definitely see the potential. It means there’s another option for films to reach the masses. We could get showcases for directors the mainstream won’t take a chance on. It could be massive for the indie movie scene. We could get sequels to things that should rightfully have them but are deemed “too risky”, like Dredd. If they’re smart about this, it could be awesome. However, we all know how Hollywood can be, chasing the short-term gain over any kind of rational plan. This is an industry where you’ve got big cheeses like Jeffrey Katzenberg thinking along the lines of a pay by screen size system where cinemas only have films for 3 weeks and then it’s up for download. Of course, what ol’ Katzy hasn’t taken into account is how unenforceable the system would be and the fact that it would make cinemas pretty much pointless and ensure that they make even less on ticket sales than they do now. But that’s just it. They don’t think. With that in mind, why wouldn’t they go for something like this?  They’re already terrified of Video on Demand as a competitor for eyeballs and wallets. So why wouldn’t they ally themselves with the enemy and get a fat payday now so their executives can afford to go diamond parasailing or whatever the hell rich people do for the next few years?

Physical media is already dying so this digital only future may come sooner than you think. Sony posted record losses this year and most of the blame is at Blu-ray’s door. It sucks because I’m a fan of physical media. I like having a collection. I like the convenience of watching what I want, when I want. You don’t have that with VOD services. You’re at their mercy. Films and shows are taken down on a whim and with very little warning. I know some people selling their film collections because they have Netflix. Seems short-sighted to me. At least when you have a Blu-ray or DVD, you actually own the thing and its availability isn’t down to the outcome of various meetings with studios.

All of this stuff diminishes the advantages that streaming has over piracy. People won’t care about all the new exclusive films, because they’ll be ripped and reuploaded on torrenting sites mere hours after they’re made available in a bog-standard file that doesn’t do anything stupid like limit viewing options. If this continues, the only advantage that streaming will have is the fact it’s legal – and we all know how many fucks the general public give about that. Why bother paying per month for a limited library that may or may not have the things you like when you can get an unlimited HD file of something you actually want for free?

Let’s not forget what “exclusive” means: not shared with others; belonging or catering to a minority. It’s a rather worrying trend. So unless you want to spend a ridiculous amount per month, you might be seeing fewer films in the future and that’s pretty saddening.

Gone Girl

Posted in Review with tags , , , on October 11, 2014 by Ben Browne


Trouble and strife

Gone Girl (2014)


It’s not often that I recommend that you don’t read my reviews, but I kinda have to in this case. So, if you’re planning to see it and haven’t yet, I suggest you do just that, close this review and go in blind. A lot of the film’s entertainment value is from the twisty-turny plot and various revelations and it’s unfair to the film to discuss in any great detail. I’m going to endeavour to be as vague as I can, but it’s tough to review a film where the meaty stuff is on the spoilery side of the tracks. So, if you’re mental enough to be waiting on my dumb opinion before you go and see stuff, take my hearty recommendation of the film and piss off to the mulitplex. For the rest of you, here’s what I done thought about David Fincher’s latest:

“You ever hear the expression the simplest answer is often the correct one?”

“Actually, I have never found that to be true.”

Gone Girl tells the story of Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) who returns home to find his furniture askew and, more importantly, his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), missing. Amy is semi-famous thanks to a well-known children’s book series, written by her parents, being based on her. The missing persons case soon turns into a murder enquiry. Thanks to the media’s vulture-like obsession with real life drama which is in turn exacerbated by Amy’s claim to fame, Nick’s life turns into a media circus with public opinion soon turning against him and considering him guilty despite his protests of innocence.

And that right there is about as much as I can tell you and we’re not even a third of a way through the film. Having not read Gillian Flynn’s book, I can certainly see why so many people have had their noses buried in it since it came out a few years ago. With the constant rug pulls and blindsides, I can appreciate that it must be a proper page-turner. The cast are excellent. Ben Affleck gives an understated but effective performance as Nick. He seems like the perfect person to play this part and at times it felt the film was playing on the actor’s own (pre- recent Oscar winning Benaissance) portrayal in the media. Many of the complaints I heard about him signing on to play Batman was the fact that he seemed like a smug, pretty boy arsehole (Jesus, those last three words are going to get me a lot of disappointed hits). Well, that’s the public’s opinion of Nick. He’s raked across the coals by the media and vicious current affairs commentary by the detestable, but all-too-real Fox News host-a-like Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle) and presented with this new narrative, the public sour on the initial empathy they felt for him.  It’s some smart stuntcasting and a part that Da Fleck could bring a wealth of personal experience to. Rosamund Pike. Well. This may be a career-shaping performance for her. Up until this point, I’ve only seen her as a plummy-voiced, eye-rolling foil to action dudes, be it in the rubbish Bond flick Die Another Day or more recently in Jack Reacher. This shows a whole new side (several sides, actually) to her and by Christ, is she good. Worth recommending the film for her alone. The rest of the cast are also top notch. Carrie Coon, playing Nick’s sister Margo is brilliant, giving us a very real-feeling supportive sibling. Neil Patrick Harris shows up as an ex of Amy’s and does a lot with what he’s given. Kim Dickens plays a no-nonsense Detective and knocks it out of the park. Even Tyler Perry, who normally dons a grey wig and a fat suit to play grandmother with attitude Madea, puts in an impressive turn as the media savvy defence lawyer Tanner Bolt.

Gone Girl is meant to be enjoyed like a rollercoaster ride. The ups, downs and sharp turns are all part of it and so I’m steering well clear of those. Unfortunately, that doesn’t leave me much left to focus on since I’m a story guy and I usually work the narrative ribs. What I can say is that the screenplay (also written by Gillian Flynn) is sharp and full of black comedy. This may be one of the most darkly comic films I’ve seen. David Fincher’s direction is masterful, although intentionally muted compared to his more show-offy films like The Social Network or Panic Room. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are pretty much my favourite composers now. Their subtle but unsettling electronic score is perfect for this film.

“What are you thinking? What are you feeling? What have we done to each other? What will we do?”

So yeah, hope you’ve enjoyed this non-review. I intend to do a full-on redux review around the time it comes to DVD. Go and see it.

Brobusters: Why the upcoming female-led Ghostbusters is the best outcome

Posted in Soapbox with tags , , on October 9, 2014 by Ben Browne

After years and years in development hell, it seems that a new Ghostbusters is a go, with director Paul Feig hiring writer Katie Dippold to craft a script for a “female focused” reboot. Predictably, knees were jerked and the responses I’ve read are hugely negative, like this one from the comments bit of one of the many, many sites reporting the story (edited to protect the dumb):

So, apart from societal failings and general misogyny why are people reacting like this?

Sure, a new Ghostbusters isn’t warranted at all, but as I said in my review of 300: Rise of an Empire, Robocop 2K14 and countless others, if it has a recognisable name, chances are there are people working on a reboot or sequel as we speak. I hate the fact that studios can’t seem to leave things alone, but that’s the unimaginative business side of filmmaking rearing its ugly head. You can hate the motion of the ocean, but you can’t turn back the tide.

Could it be negative reactions to Feig’s previous stuff like Bridesmaids and The Heat? Well, I wasn’t the biggest fan of either, but they were hardly terrible films nor were they particularly badly reviewed. How about Katie Dippold’s stuff like The Heat and Parks and Recreation? Well, Parks and Rec is fucking funny and generally well regarded. So, what’s the beef, chiefs?

Recently, it seems no franchise is safe from the dreaded reboot. I’m terrified that a new Back to the Future will happen sooner rather than later, for instance. However, this new take on Ghostbusters, at least to me, seems like the best way to go about it. So, here’s why a ‘Busters reboot starring women is a good thing (in list form, so you minutes-long attention spanners and Buzzfeed lovers can appreciate it.)

1) Finally, women get a big franchise of their own

Apart from the aforementioned Bridesmaids and The Heat name another successful recent female-led comedy. Tough one, isn’t it? You may be able to name one or two more, but I’m sure you can agree it’s a short goddamn list. Now name a female-led franchise that isn’t The Hunger Games or Twilight. Yeah, good luck with that one.

Hollywood seems to think that funny women just aren’t bankable. Trouble is, if they listened to the comments above and similar ones I’ve read elsewhere, they might believe that to be right and that’s pretty damn depressing. Funny women rarely get a showcase for their talents. The Ghostbusters name is evergreen. It’s as recognisable now as it was back in the ’80s. To hand those reins over to some comediennes is a great thing. Cards on the table, this new Ghostbusters is probably going to make mad bank based on the brand recognition alone and they almost certainly are already planning sequels. I’ve talked before about Hollywood learning the wrong lessons and taking superficial elements from big hits, recycling them and expecting the same result. Here’s the thing, if GB 3 brings in the dolla dolla bills, yo, they may end up learning the right lesson for the wrong reasons and start greenlighting all sorts of women driven stuff. All speculative of course, but not unlikely.

Plus, you know what you get when you type in “female ghostbuster” into Google Images? This:


That needs to change.

2) It’s so much better than the alternatives

It’d be really depressing to see a knackered team going through the motions, with Dan Aykroyd being the only one who wanted to be there. I don’t want to see another film about an old Venkman, Ray and Winston, especially as poor old Egon is no longer with us. I would welcome a cameo or two to pass the torch to the new team (I’m almost certain this’ll end up happening and my money’s on Aykroyd). Even 1989’s Ghostbusters II showed us that the “franchise” was already starting to run out of steam, sanding off the edges of our heroes and making massive concessions to being more kid-friendly than the grottier, more mature first film. Whilst I had fun with 2009’s Ghostbusters: The Video Game (considered to be “the third film” by Aykroyd in enthusiastic promo materials) it was mostly cobbled together from rejected ideas for the threequel (the ‘Busters go to a hellish alternate dimension) and fan service (more Slimer shenanigans at The Sedgewick Hotel and another scrap with Mr. Stay-Puft). It was enjoyable, but the fatigue hanging over it all was palpable. A team of women changes that dynamic and shakes up the formula and I welcome that with open arms. Also, I’m not sure where all this talk of it being a “gimmick” is coming from. The first Ghostbusters had the gimmick of successful Saturday Night Live cast members doing a film where the exciting world of supernatural extermination is treated like any other public service. Yes, there is a danger that this new film will just rely on the fact that they’re women as its sole source of comedy, but shit, the script hasn’t even been written yet. Plus, having the old cast return would be just as “gimmicky” as replacing the cast with women is accused of being.

As far as a younger, recast version, they almost certainly wouldn’t cast unknowns and I really didn’t want to see a Ghostbusters film starring any of the This is the End lot (Sony’s stable of popular comedians). I like Seth Rogen et al. but the more I think about it, the more I’m super-relieved that Ghostbusters isn’t going to become a douchey fratboy-esque property with endless unfunny improv:

JAMES FRANCO: Hey Seth, can you stop fucking lighting your joints with the proton packs? It’s leaving scorch marks on the fucking ceiling!

SETH ROGEN: Sorry dude, HUEHEHEHEHEH, I just need some fucking way to relax after that fucking ghost shot up my ass.

CRAIG ROBINSON: Man, that shit was fucked up.

JAY BARUCHEL: *Something whiny, possibly referencing Canada*

It makes my brain hurt.

Yeah, that lot have mass appeal and stuff, but they’re their own brand. I’ve seen people fantasy cast the above actors in a Ghostbusters film but Ghostbusters isn’t and shouldn’t be about that sort of humour.

3) If you don’t like it, it doesn’t take anything away from you

I know this is tough because I’m still personally struggling with this one. Doesn’t make it any less true though. As you probably know, the recent Amazing Spider-Man films have pissed me off more than I thought possible. Thing is, I still have the Spider-Man trilogy and the two good films contained within. Marc Webb hasn’t broken into my house and stolen my boxset, nor has he bashed me over the head with a wrench so I forget all of Raimi’s work, although sitting through The Amazing Spider-Man 2 felt like it at times. Same thing with Ghostbusters. The existence of a new film won’t erase the deep well of nostalgia that people have for the two existing films. As I said a mere few paragraphs ago, I’m scared that they’ll redo Back to the Future, but if it happens, it happens. If it turned out good, bonus. If not, well, it’d suck that there would be a new series of BTTF films I didn’t enjoy, but oh well. This is all really basic stuff, but comments like the ones I saw on Facebook make me think I need to reiterate these things on the off chance one of those losers happens by this site.

Don’t get me wrong. Just because I’ve written all this, it doesn’t mean I’m predisposed to like it. If the film turns out to be reheated shit, I’m going to tear it a new arsehole just like any other film. I’m just floating some positives out there in an attempt to neutralise some of the festering poison out there. Let’s actually wait until it comes out, shall we? I’m cautiously optimistic about the new Ghostbusters. Hopefully the new cast will be shown how they do things downtown, lest they run into some kind of prehistoric bitch.

300: Rise of an Empire

Posted in Review with tags , , , , on October 8, 2014 by Ben Browne
I’m back after a bit of a hiatus. I haven’t been to the cinema in ages because this time of year seems to be a dumping ground for shit no-one wants to see. So anyway, I decided to review Rise of an Empire to get me back into the swing of things before tackling things like Gone Girl and whatever treats the final few months of 2014 throws up.

 300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

Did 300 need a sequel? No, but in this world of brand recognition if something makes money, chances are they’ll wangle some way to make a follow-up regardless of whether or not there is any story juice left in the carton. Case in point, Rise of an Empire. Based on Frank Miller’s as yet unreleased comic Xerxes, this film acts as a prequel, a sidequel and a sequel to the original film. Pointless? Ultimately yes, but that’s not to say it is completely without merit.

“Today we will dance across the backs of dead Greeks!”

Rise of an Empire tells the story of Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) an Athenian General who, 10 years prior to Leonidas’ heroic defeat, killed the then-king Darius with a single arrow to the heart. Darius’ final words to his son, Xerxes, is that “only the gods could defeat the Greeks”. Xerxes is then manipulated by Artemesia (Eva Green), who twists the king’s last words from a message about the futility of war to a laying down of a guantlet, leading Xerxes to become a “God King” via supernatural means.  10 years later, Artemesia and Xerxes are still hellbent on crushing the Greek rebellion and so Themistocles must lead a hastily assembled army to try and face off against overwhelming odds. The main thrust of the plot is solid enough, concentrating on the historic battles of Marathon and Salamis, although the constant flashbacks and flashforwards muddy up what should be a simple tale. Sullivan Stapleton is fine as Themistocles, although the film has a big Gerard Butler shaped hole that Sullivan struggles to fill. It’s not his fault, however, as the writing is slapdash and not particularly interested in giving him any real depth. Eva Green is the film’s saving grace. Artemesia is fascinating. She’s a proper ladybastard who connives, manipulates and schemes her way into commanding the Persian forces. Green manages to rise above the terrible dialogue and walks away with the film tucked under one arm.

I think my main problem with Rise of an Empire is how desperate it seems to tie itself to the original film rather than concentrating on telling its own story. Yes, Leonidas and the 300’s defeat was meant to inspire and prove that you could make a God bleed, but the film can’t stop itself from trying to legitimise itself as a sequel. Themistocles visits Sparta before, during and after Leonidas’ demise and no real plot relevant stuff happens. Both Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) and Dilios (David Wenham) return, but it all feels concessionary. There’s one visit to Sparta where Themistocles happens to pop by when Leonidas and his men have just nipped out to see the Oracle which ends up being unintentionally funny. Plus, there’s one awful callback line to the infamous “this is Sparta” messenger kicking that made me physically cringe so hard I swear I heard a couple of my ribs crack.

Not being directed by Zack Snyder, the film’s visuals struggle too. 10 minutes into the film, something felt off. Turns out Snyder’s way with the camera is a tough style to imitate. On the surface it’s all there- slow motion shots of blood being spilled, endless “cool” and dynamic shots of stuff, but director Noam Murro doesn’t have the natural flair for it that Snyder does. Some sequences, like a massive battle at sea, look quite pedestrian and normal despite all the slow motion and dynamic camera movements. Don’t get me wrong, the film looks fine and there are some cool moments but on the whole it’s missing a certain something. I’ve always said that Snyder has a great eye for visuals and Rise of an Empire proves this. The film feels like a 300 imitator. It reminded me of the Spartacus TV series, albeit with a much bigger budget.

The writing is another problem. The dialogue is so clunky and unmemorable that I would struggle to recall any actual spoken lines, apart from the awful callback mentioned above. The original 300 is rather misunderstood as the film contains a lot of laconic phrases (well, the Spartans invented them after all) and actual quotations from history. Exchanges like the one where the Spartans are told that the Persian arrows will “blot out the sun” and Stelios replies that they “will fight in the shade” are paraphrased, but true to what actually happened. Rise of an Empire has none of that and the spoken dialogue is just bad, through and through. As far as the script, it pulls the same shit as Rob Zombie did with his Halloween remake. It humanises the monsters. Both Xerxes and Artemesia have tragic backstories and it gets tough to really hate them as proper baddies. I’m all for complex villains, but in a film like this, tragic backstories should be kept to a minimum. Also, I got sick to the back teeth of hearing the Greeks talk about “freedom”. I know it’s a magical American buzzword to get the audience to root for #TeamGreece but still.

“Better we show them we chose to die on our feet, rather than live on our knees!”

Despite all this complaining, I actually ended up enjoying Rise of an Empire. Partly due to Eva Green’s performance and partly because at my core, I’m still a dumb meathead action guy. The battles are exciting and huge in scale and it kept me entertained. I think it speaks rather highly of the film that in spite of the glaring flaws, it still manages to be decent. When stacked up next to the original, it pales in comparison, but as its own thing, it just about works.

Rebrand, Bomb, Repeat: Why titles matter

Posted in Soapbox with tags , , , on August 19, 2014 by Ben Browne

If you haven’t heard- the film released earlier this year called Edge of Tomorrow (quick plug, finger guns, cheeky wink ;) ) will be renamed Live, Die, Repeat for its home media release. Logic being that since the film performed way below expected numbers, a rebranding is in order, presumably to start anew and give it a massive push for DVD/Blu-ray. They even went as far as changing the title on IMDB (UPDATE: it has now reverted back to “Edge of Tomorrow” but here’s a screenshot so I don’t look like a lying jerkbag). I have a problem with this. Now, I get the complete apathy you may have to this topic, but bear with me, ‘cos I think it speaks of bigger things than just a dumb name change.

…And it is a dumb name.  A lot of films don’t bother with taglines now for fear of not being taken super fucking seriously, but I’ve always liked them.”Live, Die, Repeat” is a great tagline. It’s to the point and snappy. What it isn’t is a good film name. Whilst the title “Edge of Tomorrow” does sound pretty generic, at least it rolls off the tongue better than “Live, Die, Repeat”, which forces you into a Shatnerian way…of… talking. Considering the film’s concept being a single repeating day, “Edge of Tomorrow” actually fits nicely and makes sense in the context of the film. Granted, the film should be called “All You Need is Kill” as that is the name of the source material, but I can see why they changed that one. It sounds like a parody of sorts.

The film underperformed but it got crazy good reviews. Several film sites I go to have had people excitedly talking about how much they enjoyed the film for months. I enjoyed it immensely. I suspect Edge of Tomorrow is a future cult classic. I’ve already seen far more people talking about over the past few months than I ever remember seeing when it came out in cinemas. It’s got word of mouth on its side here. It’s a legitimately decent film. Quality will out if you give it time. I just don’t see how a title change benefits anyone outside of the Warner Bros. execs and the marketing team. Let’s just count off the ways this may hurt the film.

1) Confusing: Yeah, the film didn’t rake in the cash they wanted, but a bunch of people saw this film. They saw a film called Edge of Tomorrow. It’s alienating those people who aren’t as fucking sad as I am and who don’t read film sites all the time and so may not know of the title change. What happens to the people who enjoyed the film and want to purchase it, unaware of the name switch? In general, consumers are like meerkats- one sense of something being off and they dash underground.

2) Negates some word of mouth: People have been reading about the “best film of the summer that they didn’t see”. Plenty of sites (including this one) sang its praises and urged people to watch it. I’m always trying to get people to watch stuff and it can be challenging. The name change alone invites this kind of possible scenario:

Gumbus: Hey, have you seen Edge of Tomorrow yet?

Merle: Nah, I looked for it on Amazon. It kept taking me to another Tom Cruise film called “Live, Die…something”.

Gumbus: Yeah, that’s the one. They just renamed it.

Merle: Oh, ok. I’ll get it later. *forgets*

3) Established name already: The film I and many other people saw in the cinema was called Edge of Tomorrow. There’s no way I can think of this film as anything else but that. Just can’t.

4) It’s a fucking shit name: It’s a fucking shit name

It doesn’t make sense. Surely they should be pushing it super-hard for the home release, with posters plastered with all the 4/5 star ratings it garnered. Box office bombs become famous for being just that. They appear on all sorts of end of year lists detailing the biggest box-office losers. The Lone Ranger suddenly became talked about because of how much it was costing Disney. Plus, here’s the thing- EoT didn’t do well, but isn’t a colossal financial failure. I could have possibly seen the logic if it had done so badly they wanted to distance themselves from the name, but even then I would have disagreed. Plus, box-office talk is mostly bollocks anyway. Eventually, most films make their money back via home sales, rentals, TV rights etc.

Ultimately, it shows a complete lack of confidence in the product. It’s like when Disney dropped the “…of Mars” off the end of John Carter because the film Mars Needs Moms had bombed the year before and their beep-boop logic told them that the “Mars” part of “Mars Needs Moms” was somehow something to do with the failure of Robert Zemeckis’ shitty-looking CGI nonsense that no-one wanted to see . I hate to bring up the phrase “artistic integrity” in a discussion about Hollywood, but it shows a lack of that too.

Titles matter. When I was in school, the practice of coming up with the title for your story before starting the actual writing was drilled into me. I get why now. It forces you to start shaping an idea. Titles are important and can change the meaning of a film entirely. Take Raiders of the Lost Ark. Since it hit DVD, the film officially became known as “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark”. You see how that’s not quite the same and not quite as good? Indy is one of the titular raiders of the ark, he just happens to want it for a good purpose. Having the film’s title be Indiana Jones and the…blah blah blah is not as concise. I know it’s to bring it in line with the rest of the series, but I see it as a Rambo situation. First one establishes a famous character (Raiders/First Blood), then it becomes about chronicling the adventures of that character (...and the Temple of Doom/ Rambo III). Plus, the film’s title card just says “Raiders of the Lost Ark” whereas the others have the “Indy” prefix.

I know all of this isn’t the worst thing ever and it doesn’t even come close to some of the completely dumb shit studios pull on a regular basis, but it is irritating. I can only see it being a needless complication to the marketing of a film that didn’t get its due, especially when it had the potential to enjoy the success that Dredd did when it came to DVD. I liked Edge of Tomorrow and want it to do well. Not only because I believe in quality being rewarded, but because Hollywood needs to pay attention to films like Edge of Tomorrow/Live, Die, Repeat/Whatever the Fuck and the only way they do that is if a film makes mad bank. If you can’t tell my position on it already, if you haven’t seen Edge of Tomorrow yet, you should get on that.

The Aristocats

Posted in Review with tags , , , , on August 18, 2014 by Ben Browne
Crazy Old Cat Lady: The Movie

The Aristocats (1970)

It’s strange how the majority of Disney’s ’70s and ’80s output falls by the wayside when brought up in discussion. With a company like Disney, there are very few truly forgotten films, but the 18 year run of animated theatrical releases between The Jungle Book and The Little Mermaid struggle for a place amongst the “proper” classics. To be honest, it’s a quality issue. After Uncle Walt cursed the Jewish faith one last time and turned up his toes, the company staggered about trying to recreate the original Disney magic. The films from this time aren’t bad per se, but they are shallower in terms of heart and ambition. As there seems to be no proper term for this time, I shall refer to it as “The Hollow Era” as I’m sure I’m going to have to refer back to it. Hate to say it, but The Aristocats seems to have kickstarted the tailspin.

“Ladies don’t start fights, but they can finish them!

Pampered cat Duchess (Eva Gabor) and her three kittens live the life of luxury with an old rich Madame (Hermione Baddeley) in 20th century France. Madame Bonfamille draws up her will and having no family, she intends to leave everything to the cats, with the loyal house butler Edgar (Roddy Maude-Roxby) to inherit after the cats die. Edgar overhears this and kidnaps the kitties, dumping them in the wilderness to cut out the middlecats and become the sole benefactor to her estate. Duchess and the kittens meet Thomas O’Malley (Phil Harris), a streetwise alley cat who endeavours to return the family home. Here’s the thing with The Aristocats- apart from it being a pale facsimile of Lady and the Tramp, none of evolves past Duchess’ desire to get home. Homeward Bound had this too, but the characters learned something about themselves and each other. The Aristocats is a series of disconnected sketches featuring new characters and the occasional musical number. Most of it is just scenes that happen sequentially rather than having a reason why scenes are happening. The voice cast are great. Eva Gabor is cool, the richly-voiced Phil Harris does his Baloo schtick again, but it works. Fellow Jungle Book star Sterling Holloway also lends his unique voice to Roquefort, a plucky mouse who is determined to rescue Duchess and co. Scatman Crothers pops up as the jazz-loving Scat Cat, confusingly doing a Louis Armstrong impression to match the character design. Whatever the reason, it’s a whole lot of fun. Let’s not talk about the buck-toothed “me rikey” Siamese cat.

The Aristocats is charming, don’t get me wrong. The animation and art are beautiful. I’ve seen a lot of detractors calling the film rough-looking, but I think it suits. It’s not as clean as previous films, but I like it. Plus, the animation on the animals is fantastic and realistic. The songs are high points too, especially the catchy “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat”. To me, the film seems like a series of vignettes. We have the two dogs Napoleon and Lafayette who don’t impact on the story at all, apart from making it more difficult for Edgar to cover his tracks. The cats then meet two geese Abigail and Amelia, who don’t do much. It goes on like this. The story is dictating what the characters should do, instead of the characters’ decisions driving the story. It’s practically a recipe for ensuring your film has a limit on how much it can appeal and entertain. Plus, when it doubt, the film puts Marie in danger. It’s lazy, basically. That’s not to say these scenes are bad. Whilst I’m not a huge fan of the two dogs (despite Napoleon being voiced by the awesome Pat Buttram), I have a soft spot for the ditzy English maid geese and especially their Uncle Waldo. The Waldo sequence is genuinely funny and features some of the best drunk voice acting you’ve ever heard: 

My main problem with the film is that there’s no real heart to it or lesson to be imparted. Duchess and the kittens don’t learn anything from their big adventure, aside from maybe having their world view broadened. Madame doesn’t learn anything. O’Malley doesn’t learn anything. Nobody does. There’s an undercurrent about the difference between Duchess and O’Malley’s attitudes towards humans, but it’s mostly forgotten about. A lot of ideas in the film are like this. The sheltered kittens have a very specific idea of what an alley cat is, but aren’t surprised by O’Malley and like him from the get-go. They float an idea and then just drop it. It’s frustrating because there’s evidently some top quality work gone into making it, it’s just disappointingly hollow. A lot of decisions seem arbitrary. For example, why is the film set in Paris? Apart from making sense of Maurice Chevalier’s opening number, there’s nothing about the story that specifically requires a Parisian backdrop.

“Aloha, auf Wiedersehen, bonsoir, sayonara and all those good bye things, baby.”

Despite all this, I still like The Aristocats. As I said, it’s charming and that takes it a long way. Whilst it doesn’t hit the highs of other Disney films, it still has enough energy and playfulness to make it worth a watch.


Posted in Review with tags , , , , , on August 14, 2014 by Ben Browne

After noticing that I’d bought rather a lot of Disney films lately, I decided to write about a few of them to plug the gaps between new releases. After the genuinely shocking news of Robin Williams’ untimely death, there seemed to be only one place to start, really.

Robin Williams was, and will remain, a hero of mine, having grown up seeing and enjoying a whole bunch of his films like this one, Jumanji and Mrs. Doubtfire. As I “matured”, I found new admiration for him in classics like Good Morning, Vietnam, The Fisher King and Good Will Hunting as well as some of his more offbeat films like World’s Greatest Dad and Death to Smoochy. He was one of only a rare few who I found just as funny and entertaining as an adult as I did as a stupid kid. I think one of the main reasons for this was the fact that as a performer, the guy was fearless. Whilst most of us lose it when we hit our teens, he maintained a childlike manic energy and an absolute confidence in what he was doing throughout his career, making him engaging no matter what age you were. It seemed fitting to me to rewatch not only a real childhood favourite of mine, but reacquaint myself with what is sure to be one of the longest lasting components of the legacy of a uniquely funny and talented showman.

Aladdin (1992)

After the runaway successes of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, which both marked much needed changes in direction for the company, Disney relaxed and settled on adapting Arabian Nights for their next project, comforted that it didn’t have to bring in Mermaid numbers. What went on behind the scenes of Aladdin is interesting as they had basically completed the script and storyboards before being forced to chuck everything out and start over from scratch when then boss Jeffrey Katzenberg reportedly “hated” what he was shown. With cancellation looming, the team hired Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio to punch up the script and trim the fat.

“Welcome to Agrabah. City of mystery, of enchantment…and the finest merchandise this side of the River Jordan! On sale today! Come on down!”

Aladdin tells the story of a young, kind-hearted street urchin (Scott Weinberg) who dreams of more than his life of crime and poverty allows. After he’s used and betrayed by the scheming advisor to the Sultan, Jafar (Jonathan Freeman), Aladdin stumbles across an old lamp and frees a magical genie (Robin Williams) who has the ability to grant him three wishes and the opportunity to improve both his stock in life and get closer to the Sultan’s daughter, Princess Jasmine (Linda Larkin). The plot is an amalgamation of all sorts of Arabian legends and fables. For the most part, it works. The screenplay is pretty smart in places. It was certainly a lot funnier than previous Disney efforts and I suspect Elliot, Rossio and Williams are the culprits. There’s more of an anarchic feeling to the humour, with several instances of fourth-wall breaking and the Genie’s impressions of people like Jack Nicholson and Rodney Dangerfield. I would argue that in this respect, Aladdin was kind of a trailblazer. A big celebrity voice actor, computer animation (for some background shots and for the intricate design on Carpet) and the generation-spanning humour appealing to both kids and adults etc. It’s the Dreamworks template, basically. Visually, the film’s a stunner. I love the art style. It’s bright and colourful with character designs taking inspiration from American caricaturist Al Hirschfield and his elegant, simple linework. All of these elements add up to something that’s loud, colourful and a lot of fun. I can see why my VHS tape stayed put in the VCR for so long when I was an ankle-biter.

Story wise, it’s pretty solid. A lot of it is about people being true to themselves and various characters’ yearnings to be free of some kind of imprisonment- which is fair enough. The obligatory romance aspect is a bit thin, going through the standard Disney motions until the blah blah…”happily ever after” stuff. It has the same beats you’d expect, right down to a shared song implying mutual love. Having said that, it’s nice that Jasmine isn’t just the unattainable dream girl for our hero to work towards. She wants to be free from her father’s protection and from Draconian laws forcing her to marry within a certain immediate timeframe. Whilst they could have been a bit bolder with Princess Jasmine, it’s cool that she’s the one busting out of the palace, instead of staying put and waiting to be rescued like so many of her royal predecessors in the Disney stable. Linda Larkin does a good job of selling a tough character.  Jonathan Freeman is deliciously evil as Jafar, making for one of the best Disney villains ever. His double act with the raucous parrot Iago (Gilbert Gottfried) is also massively entertaining. Aladdin himself is a bit of a square and looks like a mawkish ’80s sitcom character in fancy dress. He’s fine, I guess, but he’s hardly the most compelling hero we’ve had.

It’s no secret that the film belongs to Robin Williams’ Genie.  I mean, wow. I love the fact that they kept Williams’ improvisational nature when bringing the character to life, especially the opening with the (also Williams voiced) merchant. It’s impossible not to like Genie. The combination of the madcap, unhinged animation and Williams’ constant riffing and changing of voices works incredibly well. Genie’s “Friend Like Me” number encapsulates all of this perfectly and is easily one of my favourite Disney songs.  In fact, all of the music is top quality. Aladdin continued the tradition of having big Broadway-style numbers (arguably) kicked off by The Little Mermaid. Alan Menken takes Howard Ashman and Tim Rice’s clever lyrics and puts them to catchy Arabian flavoured jazzy music and it works beautifully. Whilst it has the modern rep of being saccharine as anything and of being played at thick peoples’ weddings, “A Whole New World” is a great song in the context of the film. It’s lovely. There- I said it.

“Oh, Al. I’m getting kinda fond of you, kid. Not that I wanna pick out curtains or anything.”

So, I can’t really mark Aladdin down on too much. Aladdin is one of the first films I remember seeing at the cinema (the other coincidentally being Ferngully ) and I have watched it countless times since over the years. It’s a cherished early memory of the cinema coupled with a deep childhood affection. I am qualifying my bias here- I couldn’t be further from being objective if I tried. There is no way I can view it as an outsider looking in. Luckily, when rewatching it, I found that I had to forgive very little (some of the character designs are questionable, especially as Aladdin looks nigh-on Caucasian) and was swept along for the ride all over again. I hate to end on a rubbish pun, but I thought of the word and now I can’t get it out of my head- it’s magical.


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