Site Update

Howdy! Howdy? Blimey, I’m never saying that again. Hello readers, old and new, I hope you’re all well and keeping safe in the current strange times.

You might have noticed in the past week or so that my output has somewhat decreased. This has been for a reason, I haven’t been to the cinema in a while as I’m in the middle of a move, not only to a new flat, but to a whole new city.

I wasn’t expecting to be moving so soon, hence why my output here has been up-in-the-air, I’ve been organising multiple things to be moved, buying new things and just generally sorting out.

Luckily, where I’m moving to has multiple cinemas within an easily-reachable radius, meaning that I should (in theory) see a wider selection than usual, when I get back into the swing of things.

I am still writing and working on things for the site, and I want normal service to resume soon, but real life is keeping me busy, still, I thought it best to keep those who read my postings regularly updated as to why I aren’t being as prolific as usual.

I did post a new installment of my ‘Evolution of Animation’ series last week, covering the early years of feature-length releases in the genre, so please have a read if you haven’t already, there is more to come; and I’m also recording a new podcast this week, so I’m still keeping the wheels turning.

Thanks as always for reading, I hope I have a new review for you all soon.

Nathan x

Evolution of Animation: Part Three – Emergence of Features

Contrary to popular belief, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is not the first feature-length animated film. That honour goes to an Argentinian film from 1917 called El Apostol (The Apostle). In fact, Argentina is somewhat of a ‘ground zero’ for feature-length animation, as the first four such films were produced in the country. Sadly, all four of these early examples of the genre are now lost, meaning we may never see these historically significant films ever again.

Snow White can’t lay claim to being the oldest surviving feature either, not by a long shot actually, as said film pre-dates Disney’s feature debut by over a decade, the film being a German production called The Adventures of Prince Achmed which utilised a silhouette style of animation, achieved by manipulating cutouts and thin sheets of lead under a camera.

There would be several more features before we end up with the film many falsely claim as being the oldest feature, but there is one claim that can be accurately made about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and that is that it was the first feature-length animation to be presented in Technicolor (it’s also the first feature film animated on ‘cels’ what is now considered the traditional way of animation) but no amount of bells and whistles was going to convince Walt Disney’s critics that Snow White would be anything more than an embarrassing flop.

In the defence of said critics; their arguments weren’t without merit. With a budget of $250,000, the film was already ten times more expensive than an average Silly Symphonies short, and that was before the cost of the film started spiralling out of control. In the end, the film wound up costing $1,488,422.74 an almost unheard amount in 1937, a budget inflation that required Walt to mortgage his house to pay for.

So, with Walt’s studio, reputation, and home, on the line, there was some trepidation around the film, to put it lightly, and looking back in hindsight, it’s the kind of thing that was going to make or break the industry as a whole. If the film was a success, then other studios would go down the feature route, and create a fertile breeding ground for animation as a whole; whereas, if the film were to flop, not only would Disney go down with the ship, but so to could the entire sector. Disney was even then the biggest animation studio in the Western world, its influence still massively far-reaching, had Snow White not been a success, the domino effect would have been catastrophic.

Luckily for animation and the world at large, Snow White was a success and a massive one at that. It premiered to an audience consisting of many people who were quick to dismiss it a few months prior, this very same audience would give the film a standing ovation. Mass press coverage would follow this, including an appearance by Walt and the titular Dwarfs on the cover of Time magazine, buoyed by glowing critical reviews, the film was riding a wave of positivity that would see it become a cultural phenomenon.

It wasn’t just the critics who fell in love with Snow White and her charms; the film was a hit with audiences too. After its wide release in January of 1938, the film would go on to earn four times more money than any film released that year, and its success was not exclusive to the United States either, playing for unprecedented periods of time in overseas (overseas for the film, that is) markets such as Australia and the UK, during its run in London, for instance, the film grossed more than it did during its exclusive opening engagement at Radio City Music Hall in New York, with box office receipts exceeding $500,000 in London.

After all was said and done during its initial theatrical release, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had earned over well over $10 million, and became the most successful sound film released up to that point (it would soon lose this honour to 1940’s Gone With the Wind) after facing criticism and mockery in the run-up to release, Walt Disney well and truly had the last laugh.

With future re-releases and restorations, Snow White’s lifetime gross now stands at a staggering $418 million, a number which Walt could not have possibly imagined in his wildest fantasies, one which would have been unthinkable in 1937, when many were writing the film off as an ego-driven pet project.

The film was significant in several other major ways too, all of which have remained a cornerstone of Disney’s business ever since, that of merchandising. Snow White was the first feature film whose merchandise was released prior to the movie, meaning we have this film to thank for the now common practice of the heavily-hyped merchandise launch that we see for big franchises such as the MCU or Star Wars. Given how much money Disney rakes in for merchandise alone, I’d say the studio has a lot to thank its first feature for.

It also pioneered the concept of having a hit song as part of the film. When you think of Disney, its soundtracks are one of the first things that come to mind. Indeed, this is another aspect in which this film broke the mould, as prior to its release, a soundtrack was deemed to be of little value to move studios; it was only after the success of such songs as ‘Whistle While You Work’ and ‘Heigh-Ho’ that studios began to realise the potential of music in film, in much the same way this film proved the worth of feature-length animation, it also proved the worth of a films soundtrack.

Given the financial and critical success of Snow White, it seemed inevitable that more studios would follow suit with feature-length production, and that was proven to be the case with the 1939 release of the Fleischer Studios adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels.

To say that Fleischer Studios were merely copying Disney’s approach would be unfair to studio namesake Max Fleischer, who had wanted to make an animated feature since 1934, with his distributor Paramount baulking at the idea due to financial concerns (the studio had already needed a bankruptcy reorganisation) but it was Paramount who, after seeing the phenomenal success of Disney’s masterpiece, ordered a film for the Christmas 1939 release period.

This created problems for the Fleischer Studios, it is fair to say. Not only did this only give them 18 months to develop and produce the film, but the studio was in the midst of moving its operations from New York to Miami, Florida. In contrast, Snow White had taken three years to go from idea to fully-fledged film.

As a result of this very narrow production window, time took precedence over quality, and deadlines were pushed to the limit, to the extent of Paramount almost pulling the plug on the project altogether.

Nonetheless, despite overworked staff and overstretched deadlines, Fleischer delivered Gulliver’s Travels on time for Paramount’s projected Christmas release window, and although it lacked the brand recognition that Disney had built for his feature debut, it was still a success, despite it attracting inevitable comparisons with Snow White.

Despite the success of the film (it earned $3.27 million in its initial US theatrical run) it was the start of a downward financial spiral for Fleischer. The studio that had brought us such characters as Popeye and Betty Boop were already stretched following the ruthless production of Travels, and despite the film making profits worldwide, Paramount still levied a $350,000 penalty to the studio for going over budget, this would hasten the financial difficulties that would see Fleischer Studios sold to Paramount in their entirety after a second feature Mr Bug Goes to Town failed to recoup its losses in 1941.

After these early successes laid the groundwork for what could be achieved with feature-length animated movies, Disney and many other studios were poised to take this new direction and run with it; but a dark spectre laid on the horizon, one which would change the face of the world, and bring with it new hardships. The world was poised on the brink of war, and animation was going to be on the front line.

Coming up in Part Four: The Second World War and Propaganda. Disney takes aim, Private Snafu enlists, and the world finds out just how important animation can be as a tool of war.

Bowling For Columbine Review

I genuinely can’t remember the last time I reviewed a documentary. I remember covering Being Frank last year, but I’m sure I’ve done more since then; and it’s strange really, considering that I watch so many documentaries in my spare time. The thing about that though is that most of the docs I watch are TV series as opposed to films (my most recent watch was Outcry, highly-recommended viewing, by the way), and I don’t cover TV all that often.

So I thought I’d review an all-time classic documentary today to fill that gap somewhat, and one of my personal favourites, Michael Moore’s chilling, and darkly funny Bowling For Columbine.

Gun violence is never out of the sphere of consciousness, especially in the States, and the biggest takeaway from the film is that nothing has really changed in the 20 years since the Columbine massacre, school shootings are still far too often an occurrence, and the current state of America (best equated to a dumpster that is on fire, with an Orange man in an ill-fitting suit consistently pouring petrol on that fire) being as it is, this film is still somehow depressingly relevant.

For those unaware, here is a brief rundown of the event that inspired this film, rest assured, there are no laughs to be had in the next paragraph, only horror and sadness.

On April 20th, 1999, two high school students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into their high-school in Columbine, Colorado armed with several high-powered firearms and homemade explosives. During that day, they would kill 13 people and injure many more before taking their own lives when their explosives failed to detonate in the way in which they planned.

In the aftermath, many people came forward to offer their reasoning’s behind the actions of these two killers, from sensible arguments such as undiagnosed mental illness (journals and home videos released in the aftermath of the event don’t particularly paint a positive mental picture) and reports of the two being bullying victims to the depressingly predictable response of blaming films or video games (the first Doom was acknowledged as the duos favourite game).

Then, of course, after the theories of motives came the opportunity for political angling, the NRA (National Rifle Association) being as tactful as ever, held a rally in nearby Denver just two weeks after the attacks, despite numerous opportunities to reschedule, and Charlton Heston (more on him later) gave a speech pointing the finger of blame at the media (sound familiar?) just to add insult to injury, all the while, grieving families were outside, protesting the rally.

All of this and more is covered in the film, which takes a comprehensive look at the USA’s relationship the guns in general, as well as addressing the event and its aftermath.

The man behind the film, Michael Moore, is probably just as divisive as the topic of gun control itself. A long-time critic of conservative politics, and in particular George Bush (although Agent Orange himself hasn’t escaped his wrath), Moore’s outspoken style of documentary-making have made him few friends among America’s right-wing.

Still, it’s hard to argue that his films aren’t effective, and they certainly don’t shy away from showing harrowing images just to make their point, the best examples of this being a pair of montages. The first is a series of film excerpts showing instances of extreme gun violence and how normalised it seems set to The Beatles’ ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’. The use of actual footage of gun violence is an extreme choice for a filmmaker to make, but a bold one, and one which swings audience sympathies towards his argument.

Later in the film comes a second montage, one designed to show how America has often been the aggressor in world affairs (this is another point Moore is trying to make throughout the film) including footage of bombings, violent coups, and even, shockingly, first-hand footage of the September 11th attacks, all of this is chillingly juxtaposed with it playing out to the tunes of ‘What a Wonderful World’ in a moment that will send shivers down your spine.

As chilling and effective as this film is, a lot of what you’ll take from the film will depend on your taste, and more importantly, how much of Michael Moore you can stomach.

Personally, although a lot of our opinions align, I do find his general demeanour and presentation to be irritating, and often preachy, sometimes in the ways he accuses his opponents of being; aside from that, his films have a habit of containing wild tangents, and often veer off-course from their message, such as his trip to Lockheed Martin in this film, they represent his desire to be incendiary, yes, but it seems he’s doing it for the sake of it rather than to enhance the message of his film.

As I said in the earlier paragraphs though, this is one of my favourite documentaries, so Moore must be doing something right, even if he does rub me up the wrong way at times. The focus on the massacre, and the ‘culture of fear’ is genuinely some of the most engrossing viewing you’re likely to have, and Moore leaves very few stones unturned in trying to discover why the Columbine massacre happened, and why gun culture is so extreme in the USA.

There are multiple examples of this, and when he hits the target, he hits in a big way. His trip up to Canada to compare the two countries relationships with guns is intriguing, as is his conversation with the surprisingly-eloquent Marilyn Manson, who was another person certain people tried to blame for the event itself. These are the parts of the film in which the message is at its strongest when these key themes are explored, the film is explosive and extraordinary.

But then there are misses in the film too. Early in the film Moore is seen receiving a gun just for opening a bank account, something that later interviews with those present showed to be misleading, which doesn’t particularly paint Moore in a good light when he is trying to make a point about the media misleading the public; and then there’s the infamously uncomfortable interview with Charlton Heston, in which Moore does everything in his power to antagonise a clearly-confused Heston. The former actor was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease at the time, the knowledge of this makes the segment all the more unnerving.

Like all of Moore’s films, Bowling For Columbine is an acquired taste, on one hand, it’s a harrowing, incredibly effective parable of gun violence, but on the other, it’s an over-bearing example of Moore’s style, bordering on propaganda at times, but it is redeemed by the moments in which it focuses on its message, delivering an intriguing insight into what lead to disaster striking a quiet Colorado town, as well as being an incredibly interesting deconstruction of America in general.

A Look Back at August

Business really started to pick up this month in terms of new films released, and in terms of posts on my site.

I finished my Top 10 retrospective on animated films, which turned out to be well worth the work, judging by reactions; and I even covered a few more Disney offerings at home, while regularly seeing new releases at the cinema.

August has seen the release of the new Christopher Nolan film Tenet (review available here) and I even managed to squeeze The New Mutants in before the end of the month, so I hope this upturn in release trends continues into September and beyond.

On top of all that, I released a new episode of my podcast that was very fun to record (I hope it was fun to listen to as well!) which is now available on the sidebar of this very site.

Film of the Month: Inception (2010) – Directed by Christopher Nolan

This might have been a re-release (and not the most anticipated Nolan release this month) but I saw it on the big screen for the first time this month, an it really stands the test of time, and it is far and away the best film I saw in August.

As always, I’ll have another podcast out in the first few weeks of September, where me and Angel will waffle on about a new set of topics, as well as keeping up with new releases, and looking at some older releases to fill the gaps (I still need to get around to T2: Trainspotting!) so if you’ve liked what you’ve read so far, stay tuned!

While I have you here, you may have noticed that my creative writing posts have disappeared from this site, and there is a good reason for that; I’ve re-located them to a separate site for my writing outside of film which is: so if you’ve enjoyed that stuff before, that’s where it is now for you to enjoy, thanks for reading!

The New Mutants Review

For a while, it seemed like this film was never going to come out. After being filmed back in 2017, it has subsequently had FIVE different release dates, facing several different setbacks along the way, including, but not limited to, a studio takeover, and a global pandemic.

Considering that this was filmed at the same time as Deadpool 2 and Dark Phoenix, it has taken a lifetime in Hollywood time to finally see the light of day, you’d be forgiven for forgetting this film even existed, and it had ‘Disney+ release’ written all over it following its several delays, general apathy towards the release, and the impending introduction of the X-Men to the MCU.

But, having said that, this film does present a chance to wash away some of the bad taste left from the appalling Dark Phoenix last year, and perhaps give the FOX X-Men series a much better send-off. In theory, anyway.

The New Mutants follows a group of young mutants being held in a hospital to learn to ‘control’ their abilities. It soon transpires, however, that there may be more to their situation than first thought.

To be honest, I feel a bit sorry for The New Mutants. None of it is the fault of the film, it’s just a case of some truly terrible timing.

Being moved so many times might give the impression that the studio might not have had much faith in the property, it was originally moved to not compete with Deadpool 2 or Dark Phoenix, and if your studio doesn’t think you can compete with Dark Phoenix, then you probably have a problem.

If that weren’t enough, it was entering post-production just as the Disney-Fox sale was being finalised, leaving the production in limbo between both studios; reshoots were ordered, then they were cancelled, then the pandemic came and the final cut was deemed satisfactory.

‘Satisfactory’ is probably the right word for it too, while the film is fairly inoffensive, it doesn’t push any boundaries or make any steps forward either, it’s a fairly drab production, with even the horror aspects feeling nothing more than dressing on a thoroughly uninteresting meal.

It’s better than Dark Phoenix, that’s for certain, but then again, so is unanaesthetised dental surgery, it doesn’t mean it qualifies as a ‘good’ film, everything about it is very bland, the characters are picked from the stock character handbook, the story is pieced together from bits of other films, there are bits of Logan in here in the ‘hospitalised young mutants’ aspect harking back to X-23, and all of the horror set-pieces are pretty much copy and pasted from a thousand other horror films. There isn’t many jump scares though which is a plus.

It’s also a very predictable film, every twist and turn should be seen coming from a mile away, there is an attempt to make some of the mutants’ abilities a mystery, which is interesting, but once again, the payoffs are bland and predictable, with the mutant powers being nothing more than we’ve seen before with other characters, apart from the main protagonist Dany’s (Blu Hunt) power, which is very vague and unexplored, to say the least.

Speaking of Dany’s power; this is the part of the film that uses the most visual effects in the film, the quality of which fluctuates wildly throughout. I wouldn’t like to assume that this is a by-product of the studio change, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. The nadir of this comes, disappointingly, with what must be seen as the final ‘baddie’ of the plot, something very difficult to talk about without massive spoilers, but suffice to say that it looks instantly outdated, and is a massive disappointment of a final confrontation.

That being said, there are attempts to break new ground with the horror aspects, we haven’t really seen a horror superhero film before, so this is new ground, it’s just a shame that the set pieces are familiar re-treads of well-worn horror tropes, the kind of which the general horror audience have become desensitised to. It feels like this is where the most innovation was used, but it just didn’t go far enough to differentiate itself from similar films.

That isn’t to say they’re all bad; no matter how much we’re used to set pieces, there are still effective ways to use them, and there are a few such instances in this film in which they are used well, but it isn’t often enough to set the production apart, it feels like a comic book film with a few horror elements, rather than a true superhero horror film.

As I said before, the characters are all fairly generic too, all scarred and traumatised by various events that tend to affect most troubled youths in films. There’s a fairly dark shift in tone when it comes to these backstories too, which would have felt more jarring if it hadn’t been for the darker tone overall, but it is still noticeable when you go from teen mutants making jokes to abusive childhoods from one scene to the next.

The actors involved do their best with the material though. I’m quite fond of Maisie Williams as an actor, although I haven’t seen much of her in films, sadly, and she’s good here; her chemistry with Blu Hunt’s Dany is the beating heart that carries the film and makes it worth carrying on watching until the end. Similarly, Anna Taylor-Joy and Henry Zaga give good accounts of themselves as Illyana Rasputin and Roberto de Costa, respectively.

Overall, then, this isn’t the swansong of the X-Men series that we wanted; it feels more like the start of a new story. One which might not get a follow-up due to the properties change of ownership, which is a shame, as the film leaves itself wide open to further instalments that might have expanded the good ideas from this starting point. Not the worst X-Men film by any means, but one that won’t be very memorable, either.

Obituary: Chadwick Boseman

I’ll be honest, this isn’t a post I ever thought I’d have to write. Not only about such a prominent actor cut down in his prime, but also at such a young age.

Of course, we have all now heard the terrible news that Chadwick Boseman, Marvel’s own Black Panther, has passed away from colon cancer at the age of just 43.

To say this loss has come as a shock would be a huge understatement, with many of his co-stars sharing their surprise and grief with the world over social media, while his fans around the world remember the hero they knew on-screen, not only as Black Panther, but as various real-life figures such as Jackie Robinson in 42, and James Brown in Get On Up.

It is his influence as Black Panther, however, that will remain his long-lasting legacy; the superhero blockbuster that proved minority-led films were not only capable of making money, but could surpass all expectations and make over a billion dollars, while presenting a hero that POCs around the world could relate to in a way they hadn’t been able to do previously.

It is thanks to his on-screen presence and skill that Black Panther became such a phenomenon around the world, but is also an example of his immeasurable strength in the face of adversity.

It was revealed by his family that Chadwick was diagnosed with Stage III cancer in 2016, meaning that he not only completed, but excelled in such high-octane productions as Avengers: Infinity War, Endgame, and 21 Bridges. The pain and struggle he must have faced on a daily basis is unimaginable, and speaks volumes to his determination and strength, even in the face of his own mortality.

So, we mourn another loss to the film world, amidst an ever-divisive world, Boseman’s work should stand as a beacon of hope, what can be achieved when minority stories are given the stage they so deserve. He is, and will always be a hero in millions of peoples eyes, and his legacy will be that of a trailblazer, laying a path that should be followed for generations to come.

Wakanda Forever, and Rest in Peace.

PS – After posting this, I came across a thread of cancer charities, specifically colon cancer charities, on Twitter, I retweeted it on there and I’m now adding the link to this, should anyone wish to donate:

Howard Review

Amidst all this talk of the ‘Disney Renaissance,’ I find myself thinking back through everything that makes that particular string of films memorable. Truth be told, there are many aspects, but one that still endures in the memories of everyone who grew up watching these films is the music.

Ever since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs music has been a big part of Disney’s animated output, who can forget the titular Dwarfs tottering off to work to the tune of ‘Heigh-Ho’? Or Jiminy Cricket telling us what happens ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ in Pinocchio? Disney has always liked to have marketable songs in their big features, but the Renaissance is the era most associated with its music because of its string of masterful soundtracks.

Right from the start, the era had memorable earworms, The Little Mermaid is chock full of them. Whether you prefer ‘Part of Your World’, ‘Kiss the Girl’ or ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’ there’s a song in there that you’ll walk away humming for the next few days.

These early soundtracks were the works of two men who had cut their teeth in Off-Broadway theatre, previously writing cult hit Little Shop of Horrors together. One of which was Alan Menken, whose name is forever entwined with the House of Mouse, having written many soundtracks for their films, and being rewarded with eight Academy Awards for his work, and the other is a much more tragic tale, and the focus of this documentary, Howard Ashman.

Ashman worked as a lyricist with Menken for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin all three of which would bring him an Oscar nomination (with two wins for Mermaid, and Beauty, respectively) but sadly, he wouldn’t live to see most of the acclaim his work would earn, as he passed away in March of 1991 of AIDS-related complications.

The documentary then is both a look at the sheer brilliance of his work, and at the struggle towards the end of his life to carry on his work, while trying to hide his illness from his employers and most of his friends.

It’s an incredibly poignant film about the life of a man whose potential was as endless as his life was cruelly short; the story of a man cut down when he was just really hitting his stride.

Hearing his colleagues and friends describe his work and energy you get the feeling that Disney, musical theatre, and the world as a whole really lost a special talent when Howard Ashman died, and that his impact is still felt to this day, especially as the films he once helped score are now being re-imagined, introducing a whole new generation to his work.

There is a line in the film about how enduring his legacy through music will be, and thanks to services like Disney+ this is true now more than ever. Menken and Ashman’s words and music were the soundtracks to many a childhood, and the saddest fact of that is that Howard himself didn’t get to see that.

Rather than utilising the ‘talking heads’ format of documentary, this film instead opts for voices over archive footage, showing some of Howard’s work, even integrating his own voice to fully contextualise what is going on. It also makes the film so much more poignant when you see him at work, directing the actors singing his wonderful words, knowing how close he was to death, it shows more of his passion and determination than any second-person account could.

It, of course, has the advantage of having a plethora of behind-the-scenes footage to help tell its story, being made for Disney’s streaming service, it makes use of the footage filmed at various recording and storyboarding sessions, helping us to understand the influence Howard had on the productions he worked on, even outside of the recording studio, his suggestions helped make these films so memorable.

The most touching moments of the film for me were the testimonies from his songwriting partner Alan Menken, there are more personal accounts from people closer to the man in his private life, but you feel just how important they were to each other work in how Alan explains their dynamic, and hearing his voice start to break when talking about his friend has a deep emotional impact on the audience.

I only had very vague knowledge of Howard Ashman before watching this film, but have always had an affinity for his words, and now, after seeing the film, I think I can start to understand him, and how his work continues to affect people to this day.

There’s an interesting angle to this in how he had to keep his sexuality and illness secret from Disney for fears he may lose his job, a reality that many people faced in the late 80s-early 90s, and its not a point that Disney shies away from in its presentation. It’s very sad that a man facing his mortality also had to contend with these thoughts, and it’s handled very maturely.

I’ve always said that the best documentaries can take the story of a person who you may not be familiar with, and make it feel like you know them afterwards. They take you on a journey through their life, not just focusing on their work, but how their work affected them and those closest to them, and Howard does this extremely well.

It manages to be both heartbreaking and joyful, it’s a celebration of his life while mourning his death. We mourn what might have been, but we celebrate what we have, and that’s the key story behind Howard. How one man can manage to shape an entire generations childhood through songs alone and meet a tragic and untimely death before he could achieve even a quarter of what he was capable of. This is a must-watch for any Disney+ subscriber.

Hercules Review

Well, this will teach me to open my big mouth.

After the release of my Top 10 Animated Films list (available here) last week, a few conversations emerged on my personal Facebook page, all of which were quite nice and opened up positive discourse (something I’m always aiming for) but a few films came up in the discussions that I missed off the list.

Naturally, I couldn’t list all the animated films I liked, the post itself is already fairly long without adding any more titles to it, but one film, in particular, was mentioned that I thought deserved further evaluation and that film was 1997’s Hercules, so here I am, no-one can say that I am not a man of the people.

‘Underrated’ is a word banded about a fair bit these days, I even used it myself to describe The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and it is a term that I think is sometimes misused. How you rate a film is entirely personal to you, after all, but I generally accept that when people say ‘underrated’ they mean compared to similar works, which is why I believe I was justified in using it to describe Hunchback, and why I also think it’s equally acceptable to use the term to describe this film.

I talked a lot about the so-called ‘Disney Renaissance’ (which is a bugger to spell over and over again, I’ll tell you) in my Top 10 run-down, and I anticipate that I will talk more about it when I get up to it during my ‘Evolution of Animation’ series (which I’m still working on, despite the lay-off) but for those unaware, here’s a brief primer on what people mean when they talk about the ‘Disney Renaissance’:

In the late 1980s following a string of critical and commercial disappointments that had severely wounded the studios reputation as the kings of animated features; Disney began work on The Little Mermaid, taking the studio back to its roots of developing fairy tales, the film was their biggest hit in decades, and breathed new life into the ailing studio.

Over the next decade, Disney would follow up its successes with a string of instant classics like Beauty and the Beast in 1991, Aladdin in 1992, and The Lion King in 1994, it seemed the studio was untouchable, it was producing the best content it had arguably ever produced, and making a bigger splash at the box office than ever.

Naturally, this hot streak had to end and end it did around the turn of the Millenium, many accept Tarzan as the last Renaissance film, but I would argue that Hercules is the right final curtain for the era, but despite its many successes around the world, there are a few films released in this era that slip through the cracks when discussing Disney’s best-ever films.

It is natural that when you have monster hits like Beauty or Aladdin that other films will simply exist in their shadow, but it seems to be the case that some of Disney’s best work during the Renaissance is marginalised while the same suspects are celebrated; there may be an argument that this might be to do with some of the films like Mulan and Pocahontas revolve around minority leads, but that’s a hornet’s nest I’m going to avoid.

In truth, I don’t know why Hercules isn’t more fondly remembered. Maybe it’s because it was the point where the Renaissance formula was becoming more visible, and audiences were already wanting to move on, but it’s as good an example of how the formula can work like any other film of the time.

It’s a very vibrant film, with many different uses of colour palettes to create a well-rounded balance to the world it is representing, for a good example of this, look at the differences between how Olympus and the Underworld are drawn. Olympus is lively and colourful, whereas the Underworld is fittingly cold and lifeless. It means that the designs never get repetitive and boring.

The character designs are also strong, and very memorable too if you have seen the film, I’d wager you could recall at least some of the designs. Because they all differ so much from each other, it means that there’s no potential for characters to blend together in your mind, there is a distinction in each character, not only in how they look, but how they sound.

Which brings me nicely to the voice performances in the film, which are perhaps some of the strongest of the entire era. I mentioned before how Robin Williams performance as the Genie laid the groundwork for the casting choices in the Renaissance era, it led to the casting of recognisable comedy voices, who came along to put their spin on the material.

Hercules boasts two particularly strong voice performances from such people, Danny DeVito as Philoctetes (or Phil to his friends) and James Woods as Hades, both of whom bring their frenetic energies to their performances, and both add colour to the films cheeks character-wise.

Rather than being the typical sneering Disney villain, Hades is made into a cynical, wise-cracking nihilist in Woods’ hands, turning a typically villainous character into a lively interesting one who is simultaneously easy and impossible to dislike.

DeVito brings his usual charms to proceedings as a pint-sized mentor to the stars Phil, a centaur with small-man syndrome, it’s a role that is perfect for DeVito’s unique personality, his distinctive tones bring a new dimension to his character, and elevate him above side-character status, just like Williams did for the Genie.

The whole cast is strong, to be honest, Tate Donavan plays the accident-prone hero to a tee, and Susan Egan helps Meg transcend the usual trappings of ‘Disney love-interest’ to make her a well-rounded character in her own right.

Finally, what would a Renaissance-era Disney film be without a score by Alan Menken? Probably a lot less interesting, let’s be honest, and Menken duly delivers once again here. Even though the songs don’t reach the heights set years previous by his work on Little Mermaid or Aladdin, but the songs are still memorable and have that quality of most great Menken songs of being stuck in your head for days. He is the man who scored a generations childhood, and he’s always a gem no matter the film he’s involved in.

In conclusion then, although it is lost beneath the sea of Disney classics, Hercules is still a worthy addition to the Renaissance canon, and signifies what I think is the last hurrah of that generation; everything that came after it would play around with the formula more by introducing more computer-generated animation (although that is used here for the hydra) and this is the last film that feels like it belongs in the same boat as Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin. It’s not as well-remembered, but it is well worth your time, especially if you’re in the market for Renaissance-era Disney, but have tired of the usual suspects.

Tenet Review

Last week, in my Inception review, I extolled the virtues of Christopher Nolan, and how he makes complex, yet accessible blockbusters that both challenge and enthral an audience; in many ways, that review was the primer for this one, helping to give context to this new work by the acclaimed director.

Tenet is in a tough spot, it’s fair to say. It’s the biggest owed to re-open, and in that way, the pressure is on to make sure it puts asses on seats to help the industry get back on its feet. The film’s release has been a topic of anxiety for a few months for many commentators, and no doubt the talent behind the film, and up until last month, I genuinely didn’t think we’d get to see it until next year, but here it is to prove us all wrong, and hopefully to be the success needed for cinema releases to gain momentum again.

I’m going to put my cards down early on here and say that I don’t think I understood everything that happened in Tenet. Nolan is a fan of complexity, we know that much for certain, and this is no different, and there are times here where I think he asks too much of the audience, but I shall do my best to assess the film by its merits, and what I actually managed to decipher. I’m also going against my usual practice by just copy-and-pasting the plot synopsis, as to not give away too much plot information.

‘Armed with only one word, Tenet, and fighting for the survival of the entire world, a Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real-time.’ (Synopsis from IMDb)

As vague as that description is, I can’t guarantee that you’ll know much more after watching the film either, if you’re like me, first of all, see a doctor, because you’re not normal, but mainly you’d have been impressed by the film and its mind-bending feats of filmmaking genius, but you won’t be engrossed by it. Rather than inviting you in to tell you a story, the film leaves you on the doorstep in the rain while it shouts time-travel conspiracies in another room.

I know it may damage my critical integrity somewhat by admitting that I just didn’t get what was going on (and this might be remedied with subsequent watches) but it says something for engaging an audience that if I – someone who watches films a lot and tends to be able to follow them – can’t follow the story, what chance do the casual cinema-going audience have?

Now, I admire Nolan for not dumbing-down his approach and making genuinely interesting high-concept films for the masses, but I think this is the film where he lost me the most. There are attempts (I think) to explain what’s going on, but it’s all breezed past so fast and is covered by pseudo-scientific waffle that it makes it near-impossible to penetrate. The characters are there explaining why things are happening and understanding each other, but that doesn’t mean the audience has too.

Despite its shortcomings in this area though, I don’t feel like Tenet is pretentious. It’s time-bending may fly over many people’s heads, but it feels more like an earnest attempt at presentation, exploring a difficult concept that somehow runs away from him, instead of Nolan making this to inflate his sense of intelligence, it’s made in such a way that it can still be enjoyed, even if you do get a little bit lost.

It’s a remarkable film with an incredibly interesting concept, and what it lacks in narrative connection, it makes up with some truly original action set-pieces that make the best use of the time-flow concept. The only downside to this is, it’s very difficult to talk about such virtues without giving away some of the secrets of the film, and given how closely-guarded this film was before release, I worry that Nolan would put a bounty on my head if I said too much.

You do get your money’s worth in the action set pieces alone, with the first and last sequences being perfect bookends to a perplexing journey that manages to connect the dots that some of the audience may have forgotten about in the intervening two-and-a-half hours.

I feel like special credit must be given to Nolan, and his cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, for devising and filming some of the most complex and ingenious sequences ever put on film, all captured practically no less, how you even conceive some of these happenings, let alone film them is beyond me, and is a testament to Nolan’s incredible mind for cinema.

The film is also very impressively acted, with John David Washington playing the enigmatic lead character, a role that must have been incredibly physically and mentally demanding. There are also great performances from future Batman, Robert Pattinson, and perhaps the most emotionally disturbing, yet compelling performer in the film, Sir Kenneth Branagh.

I don’t think this is Nolan’s masterpiece, or even anywhere near his best work, but it is a film that I will look forward to revisiting to try and comb through its complexity, and maybe figure it out, and the fact that I actually want to try should tell you a lot about the film. Normally if a film loses me like that, I have little interest in knowing more, but Nolan has made such an impressive world with such finesse that I feel like getting to the bottom of its mysteries will make subsequent rewatches all the more rewarding.

In conclusion, Tenet is a reminder (if we ever needed one) that Christopher Nolan is a master of cinema. Even when his stories don’t fully engage an audience, the sense of spectacle and meticulous craftsmanship in the action should be enough to engage you, meaning that the film can entertain even if you don’t fully understand its complexity; and that just goes to show that even on his off days, Nolan has more ability as a filmmaker in one finger than most do in their whole bodies.

Flash Gordon Review

Amazingly, this is the movie George Lucas wanted to make before he made Star Wars, I like to think that an alternate universe exists where George Lucas made Flash Gordon, and the production crew behind this film made Star Wars. What an image it might give you to imagine Star Wars made with this films budget and VFX, I’m specifically thinking of the climactic trench run with the Hawkmen flying effects, what a thought.

Anyway, I think we’ve all heard of this film, most might have seen it, and the rest would know it by reputation. It’s what is classified as a ‘cult film’ and in my experience, this means one of two things: A. The film reviewed well but was seen by no-one or B. The film is terrible, but in a way that depraved audiences find funny (i.e. The Room or Troll 2). For those of you who don’t know, Flash Gordon exists in the second category.

It’s a surreal fever dream of a movie that could only have possibly been made thanks to a culture of heavy-duty drug use I imagine it would be even more fun watched while high (not that I recommend drug use) because I can’t imagine any sober-minded filmmaker re-watching the rushes of this film and thinking that anything about it was good.

For those few who might be unaware, Flash Gordon is an adaptation of the classic comic strip and sees famous American Football player Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones) transported to the planet Mongol along with travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) and disgraced former NASA scientist Hans Zarkov (Topol) where the encounter, and eventually plot to overthrow the ‘Ruler of the Universe’ Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow).

Make no mistake, Flash Gordon is a terrible, terrible film; but its charm lies in a particular brand of awful, the kind that requires nothing less than utter incompetence on the filmmaker’s part, to such an extent that the audience becomes acutely aware of the failings of the film and reside to laugh AT the film, rather than WITH it.

To be fair, I don’t think the blame for Flash Gordon lies on the doorstep of its director. Mike Hodges was, by all accounts, a pretty competent director (his biggest previous success was Get Carter in 1969) but the fact that he was no less than the EIGHTH director hired for this project should throw up more than a few red flags about the production.

The directors previously attached were hardly slouches either, big names like Federico Fellini, Sergio Leone, and Nicolas Roeg were either hired at one stage or approached about directing the film. The real architect of the films’ downfall was (it seems) the producer of the film, Dino De Laurentiis.

An Italian national, De Laurentiis had made quality movies before and would go on to be involved with more after Gordon, but his involvement with this film is legendary and for all the wrong reasons.

Firstly, the film was made with a mix of Italian and English-speaking crew, making communication between them virtually impossible, the script was supposedly translated from Italian by someone who barely spoke English, and as a result, most of the film was improvised* add to this the fact that the producer and leading man butted heads so much that said the leading man refused to do overdubs on the movie meant that this was the perfect storm of bad decisions made at the wrong time.

It is an intriguing thing though, how such a competent cast and crew could turn out a product of such monumentally low standards that it’s now fated to be shown at midnight showings alongside The Room and its contemporaries. At least The Room had the excuse of being written by an extra-terrestrial who had only heard spoken English in dubbed soap operas (it seems that way, anyway) this is more like a crew that forgot all of its years of training and experience.

I’m not absolving the cast of all blame here either, I’ll get to them later, but there’s such a feeling of low-quality about Flash Gordon that I was expecting to see the sets wobbling I’m surprised they didn’t, as they all looked like they were made from cardboard anyway.

The exact opposite can be said of the costumes, that look so elaborate and absurd that you start to wonder if the budget of the film ran out in the costume department. I feel sorry for whatever poor buggers had to lug around those Hawkmen costumes all day, waddling around with heavy wings on their back all day probably didn’t do wonders for their posture.

The ridiculousness of the costume and sets don’t come near to this films special effects, however, and I know it’s the usual protocol to cut an old film some slack, but I remind you that this film was released in 1980. Nearly a decade and a half after 2001: A Space Odyssey and three years after the first Star Wars, and Star Wars had less than half this films budget!

I haven’t even mentioned the actors yet, I’ve been so busy victimising the crew, but some of them deserve special mention for their terribleness as well. Sam J. Jones has all the charisma and acting ability of a stale loaf of bread, and Melody Anderson isn’t much better but at least she wasn’t expected to be the magnetic leading character like Jones was.

The worst thing about the cast though is how it misuses such a talented cast with such a terrible script. Max Von Sydow is probably the best thing about the film, trying all he can to extract some entertainment value out of Ming, who is at best a sneering panto villain, he tries to make him menacing but he’s brought down by, once again, the script, but also how ridiculous his character looks.

Thank God for Brian Blessed though, at least he seemed to know that what he was working with was complete dross and proceeds to have as much fun chewing scenery as he possibly can, virtually forcing this film to have at least one highlight. Future James Bond Timothy Dalton is also here, and ‘just there’ is probably the best way to describe his character, used for token character conflict but being of little overall significance.

Not even Queen can improve this film, and Queen can improve pretty much anything, their score is either hardly noticeable or incredibly intrusive, with little room for middle ground. The title track is great though, and impossible to get out of your head, coincidentally.

I know it’s been said before that life is too short for bad movies, but there is far too much catharsis to be found in experiencing a truly bad film; something which is multiplied when you add an audience who are all in on the joke. These are the types of films that are so bad that they can never be boring, and that’s why they endure. We don’t appreciate the really good films if we don’t have the bad to counterbalance the argument.

In conclusion then, yes, the movie is awful, but no, I don’t hate it. It’s far too much campy fun to hate, and would probably go down well with a crowd, the drunker the better. The best I can say for it is at least it’s not boring.

*I couldn’t find verification of this apart from bits of trivia, and the credited screenwriter was American, but director Mike Hodges has since quipped that the film was: ‘the only improvised $27 million movie ever made.’ So, there you go.