Mid-Term Animated Double Bill

Mid-term is of course a time for parents and children to enjoy quality time together without school or homework in the background. But after, oh, five minutes or so, enjoyment turns to all-out warfare leaving a full week to negotiate without bloodshed. Thank God then for the cinema, which gives a precious respite for an hour or two when parents and children don't have to speak to each other. Hence the full crowds at the following screenings.

The Lego Batman Movie (Chris McKay, 2017) is great fun, happily poking fun at all the previous Batman incarnations, primarily by portraying Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) as a narcissistic man-child with commitment issues. He can't even commit to The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) as his primary nemesis, prompting the villain to embark on a typically chaotic plan to make Batman care. All of which is an excuse to barrel from colourful set-piece to colourful set-piece, scattering jokes in all directions like Batarangs, most of which hit their target. Along for the ride are Lego versions of various DC characters, including Robin, Batgirl and my favourite Lego Bane - give him his own film now! However, it's actually all a bit too frenetic for its own good with nearly too much going on to keep track of. Plus it's content to be simply a Batman parody, rather than revel in the Lego-inspired existentialism of the first film, so it doesn't quite land a knockout KAPOW! blow, even if it gets good mileage out of the Batman riff. Is it as awesome as The Lego Movie? No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no no, BATMAN!!

Surely the person who deserves most credit for Sing (Garth Jennings, 2017) is whoever secured the rights to the 65+ songs which feature in full or in part throughout the movie. Many of which actually benefit immensely from being sung by animated animals; dirge like Sam Smith's Stay With Me becomes much more palatable when being sung by an anthropomorphized gorilla. All the animals are singing because ambitious koala Buster Moone (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) has launched an X-Factor-style singing competition in an effort to restore his crumbling old theatre to past glories. A contest which could give Johnny the sensitive gorilla (Taron Egerton), Rosalita the housewife pig (Reese Witherspoon), Mike the arrogant mouse (Seth McFarlane), Ash the moody porcupine (Scarlett Johansson) and Meena the shy elephant (Tori Kelly) among others the chance to show their talent. Things naturally don't go to plan, but the lead characters all get satisfying story-arcs and the animation is great. And, unlike the X-Factor, it doesn't outstay its welcome on its way to a rousing finale. It's all good fun, even if The Muppets did exactly the same thing to more anarchic effect back in 2011. Undemanding stuff, but it'll be a curmudgeonly Simon Cowell-type indeed who isn't humming happily as they leave the cinema.

So there we go, a couple of worthwhile films to keep the peace at mid-term. Unless of course you don't ration out the cinema treats properly, in which case even the most high-tech Dolby surround sound system won't drown out the plaintive cries of 'It's not fair....he got more than me!'
God give me strength.

Disney Remake Double Bill

Remakes, eh? A genuine attempt to improve what has gone before? Or a cynical cash-in on existing stories by film-makers without an original thought in their heads? Let's look at some recent evidence from the House of Mouse....

Pete's Dragon (David Lowery, 2016) was a reasonably safe bet as a remake. The 1977 original ranks fairly low in the Disney back catalogue, so it was unlikely anyone was going to get too hot under the collar about a revamp. This new version is a solid job all round, with Robert Redford and Bruce Dallas Howard adding a bit of star power to proceedings. But the central story is all about Pete (Oakes Fegley) and his dragon, here reimagined as a large, furry puppy-dragon-chameleon creature who befriends the young boy when he gets lost in the forest. Can their friendship endure when pesky adults come nosing around? Well, this is Disney, don't forget. It's a sweet, if somewhat formulaic tale, but it certainly improves on the original.

Much more controversial was the decision to remake The Jungle Book (Jon Favreau, 2016), this time as a live-action version of Kipling's classic tale. "Is nothing sacred?" cried aghast fans of the 1967 classic animated original. "They better not fuck around with the songs!" So it comes as a pleasant surprise to find that the new version is really very good indeed. State of the art CGI has created a lush jungle environment and animals so realistic, the interaction of Neel Sethi (wonderful casting as Mowgli) with his virtual environment is never less than believable. On voice duties, Bill Murray (as laid-back bear Baloo) provides the laughs and a tidy rendition of The Bare Necessities, Ben Kingsley (as responsible panther Bagheera) the gravitas and Idris Elba (as the villainous tiger Shere Khan) the menace. And then there's Christopher Walken as King Louis, here presented as an immense Gigantopithecus instead of an orangutan, and modeled on Brando's Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. It's an inspired sequence, even more so when Walken lends his distinctive vocals to a brilliant version of I Wanna Be Like You. Yes, they did fuck around with the songs, as it turns out, but to very good effect indeed. In fact, with a stronger story, featuring a better balance of action, fun and suspense, this latest version may actually (whisper it) be better than the original. Who'd have thunk it?

Well ,well, seems remakes can actually be a good thing after all.  Now, let's hope they don't undo it all with the upcoming Beauty and The Beast. Watch this space...

A Monster Calls (JA Bayona, 2016)

What's it about? 12-year-old Conor O'Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is in a tough place. His mother (Felicity Jones) has a terminal illness. His unsympathetic grandma (Sigourney Weaver) and estranged father (Toby Kebball) aren't really helping and he is being bullied at school. But one night a tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) appears at his window and promises to tell him 3 stories in return for one from Conor...

Is it any good? Don't look at me! I'm not crying - you are! I've just got something in my eye!

*Deep breaths. Blows nose. Composes himself.*

People told me this was sad. "Pah!", says I. "It'll take more than Liam Neeson as an Ent to make me blub!" Or so I thought. From inauspicious beginnings this crept up and punched me in the emotions so hard I was nearly asphyxiated by the lump in my throat. It caught me by surprise because it's a film with fantastical elements and SFX that initially seem to play too young for the seriousness of the topic, but on the other hand it is too dark and intense to be a film for kids. It also lacks the layers and nuances of, say, Pan's Labyrinth, with which it shares certain similarities, and relies on some straightforward coming-of-age tropes. So for over an hour I was relatively unmoved, even though I enjoyed the little animated vignettes which illustrate the Monster's stories and I liked Neeson's voicework, which is reassuringly frightening and comforting by turns. But turns out the key to the film's impact lies in the central performance from MacDougall, who is simply outstanding in quietly portraying Conor's inner resentment, fear, frustration and guilt. Thus, by the time he must tell his own story and reveal his most private 'truth' to the Monster, it was truly, deeply, devastatingly moving. Seriously, it was like Niagara Falls time. So definitely watch it. Just not with kids. Or your mates. You have been warned.

Anything else I should know? Based on the award-winning book by Patrick Ness, which in turn was based on an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, who poignantly came up with the story when she herself was dying of cancer. Here's an interview with Ness on how he grappled with both the novel and adaptation for the screen.

What does the Fonz think? A Monster Bawls

Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2017)

What's it about? In a rough Miami neighbourhood, a coming-of-age drama follows young, black, gay Chiron as he grows from shy child to bullied teenager to guarded adult.

Is it any good? I was all set to use my pre-prepared, flippant summary 'Gayz n the Hood' for this film. But that seems a bit mean now, as this is a heartfelt and timely film about race, sexuality and contemporary American society. So it doesn't need me making weak jokes about it. Although I suppose I just have..... Anyway, this is primarily a superbly acted affair. Naomie Harris, as Chiron's drug-addict mother, and Mahershala Ali, a drug dealer who becomes a surrogate father figure to the boy, are the front runners in the Best Supporting Oscar stakes and both are excellent. However, its the trio of performances from  Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes which really engages, all three utterly believable as the same character at different stages of his life. Through them the troubled Chiron becomes a character in who we can really invest and his struggles with his homosexuality in such a macho environment are movingly and sensitively handled. That said, I think it's been a bit over-praised by others, perhaps because it is so 'brave' in dealing with these thorny issues of our time- anyone daring to criticize it is obviously a racist homophobe. As a character piece, the measured pace allows development. but as a drama, it lacks a little forward momentum. By its very structure it's episodic and the personal aspects of screenplay (written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, also Oscar-nominated) verges on self-indulgence at times. Still, it's a beautifully composed film and worth its current spot in the moonlight.

Anything else I should know? Based on the  play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by McCraney. Both he and director Jenkins have brought their own Miami childhood experiences to bear on the film, adding to its authenticity. Read an interview with them here. Come Oscar night, expect it to pick up a couple awards from its 8 nominations, as the Academy voters make amends for the 'whitewash' last year.

What does the Fonz think? Miami blues is the warmest colour

La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2017)

What's it about? Aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and struggling jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) find the path of true love doesn't run smooth when they meet, dance and sing through their relationship together. It's a musical in case you hadn't heard.

Is it any good? It would take a hard heart not to fall for the charms of La La Land. Alas, it seems I have just such a heart. I found it good, but not great. Being a homage to classic musicals from Hollywood's past, as well as a general love letter to the movies in general, it's obviously gone down well in Hollywood and looks likely to walk off with Best Picture at this year's Oscars. It's clearly an accomplished film, so why didn't I like it more? Let's start with the good stuff. It's book-ended by two excellent musical sequences, kicking off in ambitious fashion with a colourful song-and-dance number filmed in one take during a rush-hour traffic jam, and finishing with a wonderful epilogue, a bittersweet swirl of imagery and music which encapsulates the whole film. The problem lies in the rather baggy middle section, during which nothing much happens to make us really invest in the two lead characters. Mia is tolerable, but despite the undoubted charm of Gosling, Sebastian in particular comes across as a bit of a, well, dickhead. And who could warm to someone who doesn't like A-ha's Take on Me? Perhaps I'm being a bit harsh. After all, in a movie-world filled with sequels and CGI, it is encouraging to see someone like Chazelle trying to recapture the timeless appeal of those old movies, when talented performers could sing, dance and act with consummate ease. But therein lies part of the problem. I've seen the musicals which inspired this, and this doesn't really have songs, dancing or singing as memorable as those (although main theme City of Stars has grown on me after a few listens). Stone and Gosling make an appealing couple, dance well and can hold a note, but Fred and Ginger they ain't. That may make me sound ancient, but I'm justified in not being all bound for La La Land.

Anything else I should know? Well, I guess you may want to know about those old movies which inspired this? Indeed, if La La Land makes people check them out, it will have done its job well. Stuff like Singin' in the Rain, Top Hat, An American in Paris are clear influences on the early parts of the film, whilst Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg inspires the more melancholy moments. Elsewhere, non-musical movies like Casablanca and Rebel Without a Cause are name-checked, whilst there's a few blink-and-you'll-miss-them moments which nod to other classics, like The Red Balloon and The Big Heat. Articles here and here can fill you in more on these. Or you can read exactly why Sebastian is not such a catch in a funny article here.

What does the Fonz think? Still worth a jazz hand.