Downhill 2020 ***

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Swimming against the tide is one thing, but I’ve not found many takers for my opinion of Force Majeure, critical darling and Golden Globe nominee; I hated it. A humourless, one-note, sneering portrait of an unsympathetic couple of a skiing holiday, Ruben Osland’s film struck me as a load of pretentious, self-satisfied twaddle with only cinematography to commend it.

So it’s fair to say that I wasn’t champing at the bit for an American remake, but here is comes, directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, and starring two comedy greats in Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Ferrell’s cinematic work is a mixed bag, for every Anchorman, there’s a Get Hard, but he’s shown signs of the dramatic chops required to make a restrained comedy drama like this work; Louis-Dreyfus is a US national treasure on the back of Seinfeld, but while her filmography is far more selective, her excellent performance in Enough Said demonstrated that she could create a complex and empathetic character on the big screen. The downside of casting these two beloved performers as unsympathetic twonks is something of a dissonance that led Downhill to slide off the piste at the box office, but it’s far from the catastrophe that many critics suggested.

Billie and Peter arrive in Austria with their two kids, and immediately get into a drama when an unexpected wave of snow engulfs the open-air seating area at their resort. Sitting on one side of the table, Billie hugs the kids until the dangers has passed, but Peter disgraces himself by grabbing his phone and stepping away; because he drops behind the camera position, we’re left to imagine how far this might be. This was something of a flaw in the original film, and isn’t resolved here; it’s not physically possible for Peter to protect his children, and the consequent judgemental ramifications feel schematic and contrived in both versions. Billie is disillusioned in her husband, humiliates him in front of their kids and his friends, and has an illicit trust with a hunky ski-instructor. Meanwhile Peter nurses his damaged self-image with some abortive flirting, a drunken scuffle with an alpha male, and some self-pitying monologues. Neither of their plotlines could be described as feel-good, and the chipper finale doesn’t quite alleviate the sour, cynical feel of the original film.

But as an upgrade on American abroad comedy, Downhill offers some laughs that the original doesn’t, a National Lampoon’s Skiing Vacation with trash-talking sexed-up locals, toilet mishaps, and enough low-shots to offer some entertainment value. These antics punctuate the pretentions of Force Majeure, and render the story watchable; if anything, it’s an improvement that offers a little more humanity and self-deprecating soul that the self-regarding film it imitates.

 

Lady and the Tramp 2019 ***

lady-and-the-tramp-224a4ccAndrew Bujalski is something of a mercurial figure in American cinema; his Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation created a new genre ( mumblecore) and launched him towards such surprising indie fare as the alarming Computer Chess, a seemingly genial look at retro-computing style the concludes with a final scene which is genuine nightmare fodder. 2018’s Support The Girls was his best to date, a humanist account of women fighting a hard-scrabble existence in a Hooters-style eatery, leading critical figures such as myself to sign up for daily updates as to what Bujalski was up to.

Somehow, that next project is the live action version of Lady and the Tramp that appeared with a remarkable lack of fanfare on Disney+. There is form for this kind of decision; Noah Baumbach brought considerable wit to Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, and Bujalski’s aspirational, working class heroes are a good fit for the original 1955 animation. Some have suggested that Disney have dumped this $60 million project on their streaming service like a tv movie, but that’s no more accurate that saying that Netflix ‘dumped’ The Irishman; these are loss leaders. On watching Lady and the Tramp, it’s hard to imagine it doing the business of Lion King, Aladdin or other 2019 hits, but it’s still a prestige project with points to commend it.

Thomas Mann and Kiersey Clemons play Jim and Darling; he gifts her a dog, Lady, voiced by Tessa Thompson, who falls for Tramp, a diamond in the rough voiced by Justin Theroux. Tramp’s back-story, as to how he was abandoned by his owners, is genuinely heart-breaking, and chimes with Lady’s understanding that when the baby comes, the dog goes. This is a bitter-sweet thematic for a children’s film, and Lady and the Tramp balances both worlds, with angry dog-catchers, nasty-minded dogs (Clancy Brown) and restrictive mussels like the one Tramp sorts out for Lady. Other retro-items like the Siamese cats which stitch up poor Lady have been altered to avoid accusations of racism, but the less said about Ashley Jensen’s stereotyped Scottish terrier the better; some forms of racism die harder than others.

Lady and the Tramp’s reputation hinges largely on the animation, and the designs for the dogs here are the problem; neither Lady or the Tramp look quite as good as their animated selves, and the musical elements are inconsistent compared to Lion King or Aladdin’s full scores. But there are points to relish, like Ken Jeong, Adrian Martinez and Arturo Castro, all of who project exactly the right larger than life quality for live-action Disney. And the classic restaurant scene still works, with Lady and the Tramp sharing a spaghetti dinner under the auspices of master-chef and Oscar-winner F Murray Abraham. For Bujalski, co-writing with Kari Granlund, it’s a time-passer, hopefully on the way to more personal projects, but there’s enough elements consistent with his other works to make this worth a look for fans of his downtrodden style.

https://www.disneyplus.com

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea 1954 *****

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A good few decades have passed since I first saw this at my local flea-pit, and now the Disney+ catalogue provides a chance to look again at Richard Fleischer’s robust adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic story. I saw this on a revival at my local fleapit at the age of six, and was impressed by the Gothic design of the Nautilus ship, by the dynamic lead performances, and the impressive physical effects, not least the giant boggle-eyed squid that was worth the price of admission if paying to see fighting squids is your thing.

Disney’s adventures in live-action haven’t always been successful, but with an expensive, state-of-the-art Technicolor/Cinemascope pedigree, this is one old movie that comes up looking pretty spruce. Sure, there’s a few dated process shots, but there’s also some stunning glass paintings, notably Captain Nemo’s volcanic base, and lots of well–integrated hydraulics and clever model-work. When I was a kid, this movie was all about the monster, but the plot and character development still made an impression, and while the submarine effects are still cool, it’s the acting that really seals the deal on classic status here.

Was there ever a better leading man that Kirk Douglas? Often shirtless, resplendent in his earring, never short of a sea-shanty (A Whale of a Tale!) or a cheeky rabbit-punch in the melt for those who annoyed him, his Ned Land is a rambunctious creation, and the fore-runner of many inferior action heroes to come. He’s perfectly matched in James Mason’s Captain Nemo, who comes on all saturnine charm, but the veneer soon gives way to intense philosophical wrestling about the current state and vexed future of mankind. Nemo is an ambiguous character, the very opposite of Ned’s two-fisted, straight-up heroism, and yet the two men play off each other perfectly.

Ned eats with his hands; he’s ‘indifferent to utensils’ and unimpressed by Nemo’s sophisticated, evolved diet, which serves up ‘milk of a sperm whale’ and ‘sauté of unborn octopus’. Their struggle, narrated by the wonderfully bug-eyed Peter Lorre, is that of the heart and the brain, yet both men have each quality in abundance and this isn’t a shallow story of good and bad but does justice to Verne’s loftier ideas. Ultimately, 20,000 Leagues is the yardstick by which Disney/family films should be judged; yes, there are attractive carnival elements like Douglas serenading a seal or fighting off cannibals, but 20,000 League Under the Sea delivers when it comes to story, dialogue, acting and overall bonhomie; it’s a cinematic game-changer of its day that still comes up fresh as paint today.

Basil the Great Mouse Detective 1986 ****

basilPerhaps it’s due to the deep dive into the Finnish suicide/BDSM scene that my reviewing duties led me to yesterday, but this seemed like a good time to enter a more familiar world and that world, dear reader, is the world of mice detectives. Sure, Stuart Little always had some problems to solve, and I was impressed by meeting of minds featured in Tom and Jerry meet Sherlock Holmes, but ultimately the greatest mouse detective is Basil, and a opening trial offer on Disney + provided this critic with a welcome opportunity to examine this seminal story in the annals of the shrew shamus.

Disney’s financial and creative issues are well documented in the 1980’s, and the failure of The Black Cauldron to revive the studio’s animation fortunes is often seen as the end of a chapter that re-opens with The Little Mermaid. But Basil The Great Mouse Detective was something of a hit, not enough to revitalise the studio, but certainly identifiable as a turning point in retrospect. The John Musker and Ron Clements team that worked on Mermaid and Aladdin found their feet here, and the lively style that suffused these films starts here.

Based on Evie Tutus and Paul Galcone’s book Basil of Baker Street, this is the story of Basil (Barrie Ingham), a mouse detective who lives in 221b Baker Street, and emulates the more famous denizen of the property; he has his own Watson, freshly returned from a mouse war in Afghanistan, and his own mystery to solve, a kidnapped mouse who may have fallen foul of Professor Ratigan (Vincent Price). Those wags who like to question the details of fictional world will have a ball with Basil’s London; there are mouse speak-easys, mouse prostitutes, a sexy mouse song sung by Melissa Manchester (Let Me Be Good to You) and mouse drugs; Watson is knocked for six by a solution put in his beer while he and Holmes are tracking down Rattigan. Their investigation leads them to their foe, and there’s an elaborate and highly impressive climax involving airships and a fight in and around the face of Big Ben. But the scenes before, with Basil taking control of an android mouse Queen of England to give Ratigan a public spanking, are as funny as the climax is thrilling.

Basil is never less than enjoyable, but there’s a few narrative flourishes, like the wonderfully elaborate manner of execution prepared for Holmes, that look forwards to the best comic exaggerations of the later Disney style. And in Ratigan’s batty assistant Fidget, there’s a truly iconic foe; wonderfully characterised, Fidget feels like the fore-runner of Iago and Abu in Aladdin, a side-kick whose expressiveness doubles-down on the main emotion of the scene, and he also feels like an ancestor of Bartok the bat in Don Bluth’s Anastasia.

This is arguably the most underrated Disney film, a secret success, sewing the seeds for a revitalisation of a creative identity that leads directly to the Disney+ brand. And no film that features Vincent Price as an evil villain can be dismissed; his saturnine voice works wonders here, and the scene in which he announces his tax plans for the country’s future at the expense of the weak and elderly is a neat indication of the moral folly of rampant capitalism, exactly the kind of trenchant political satire the kids today need to hear.

Parasite 2019 *****

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The aging, white, male makeup of the Hollywood power elite is ably reflected in the lack of diversity in awards voting members; Bong Joon-Ho’s blackly comic Parasite seems to have mopped up most of the diversity vote in the 2019/20 race, but that’s no reason to hate it. While it’s unusual for subtitled films to get a Best Picture nomination, only a sainted few (Life Is Beautiful, Il Postino) actually get the honour, and they tend to be awash with sentiment.

That’s certainly not true of Parasite, which, despite all kinds of bores coming out of the woodwork to acclaim its virtues, is a pretty good film when the dust settles. Bong Joon-Ho’s ventures into international film-making have, in my unfashionable opinion, been overblown duds (The Host, Snowpiercer), but he’s on home ground here and it shows. The premise is simple; a young man wins a position as a tutor to an affluent household, and seeks to get his sister employed there as well. Before long, his whole family have formed a parasitical relationship with his employers, but there are still a good few reversals to come.

The final burst into OTT violence feels like a lurch, but otherwise this is an immaculately conceived and crafted drama, with secrets well worth keeping. Parasite is a reminder of the pleasures of real cinema, not franchises, not world-building, not trying to do anything but engage, intrigue and then wrong-foot the audience with a great narrative. Wider meanings, political and social, are possible, and there’s an Upstairs Downstairs/Downtown Abbey comparison that’s there for the making. Ultimately, it subscribes to the Orwellian notion that class conflict is largely the working and middle class swapping places, and that the power elite continue unscathed, but even that notion may be giving too much away.

A key part of what makes Parasite interesting is the take on poverty, physical, financial and emotional; the protagonists subscribe to the fake-it-till-you-make-it mentality so beloved in 2020, but the perfect picture they subscribe to turns into a nightmare. The way the family view wi-fi as their daily bread, and look to the father to provide, feels modern and genuine. It’s a great film for Korean cinema, for subtitled and arthouse film, and for film-making generally; don’t read another review until you can see it, and enjoy the twists and turns before they become pop-culture 101.

Aladdin 2019 (no award)

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Disney no longer seem to be able to put their mitts on the £200 cash required to put on press shows in the country I live in; either that, or they have developed a fresh political desire to stifle any public interface outside of London other than the collection of cash from the rubes. From The Lion King to Star Wars, if it’s a Disney film, Scotland is no longer allowed to write or talk about their product; now that Aladdin has cleaned up at the worldwide box-office, the dust has settled enough to have a backward look at exactly what that product was.

Putting fond memories of the original films aside, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is over-long, poorly conceived and something of a strain to watch. Two colorless leads play the street-rat and his princess, while Will Smith takes on the iconic role of the blue-skinned genie. The plot follows the classic beats, with the resourceful Aladdin pressed into service to steal a magical lamp, but using the genies’ powers to restyle himself as a prince and win the heart of his true love.

Like a themed costume party, Ritchie’s Aladdin echoes the look of the original film without capturing any of the charm; Iago the parrot, the monkey Abu, even the tasselled carpet are side-lined, and when they do briefly get centre stage, disappoint with their dead-eyed appearance. The makers of the original animated version didn’t imagine they were creating a story-board for live action, so their hand-drawn conceits don’t work in live action; there’s no creativity here other than a wrong-headed desire to replicate the original, with a few groan-worthy additions, including a framing story and a general push for Will Smith.

Smith actually does well with the scenes in which he’s not painted blue; the actor has a bubbly irreverence that works well when plugged into a staid scene at the Sultan’s court. Robin Williams’ routines have been revised to fit Smith’s voice, but his genie seems snug rather than mapcap. Similarly the production numbers are big without being well-sung or choreographed; they boggle the eye without impressing, and have a tin-ear for melody, aside from a loose but jolly closing number set to Friend Like Me that bursts into life and makes you wish the whole film was made like this.

There are points of interest (and entertainment) in the 2020 Aladdin, but they’re few and far between. It’s easy to see why, with great songs and a beloved story, Disney might feel the property was worth a do-over, although every element here is a downgrade. Despite Aladdin being a well-loved tale for centuries, this 2020 version seems to limit imagination or fresh interpretations by mimicking the 1994 version so slavishly. It’s a financially lucrative but artistically bankrupt move that seems to go against the style and ethos of Walt Disney himself; an elitist power-play by a company seeking access to our homes as children’s entertainers while politically active to ignore local traditions and values.

Scattered Night 2019 ****

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The current internet debate about Scorsese and Coppola vs Marvel present the opposite of Sophie’s Choice; surely there have to be more alternatives? Film festivals provide something fresh and new if you don’t fancy well-worn paths, and the London Korean Film festival, which tours the UK through November, provides exactly that, with Scattered Night a good example of the kind of fare that’s worth making the effort to see.

Directed by Lee Jihyoung and Kim Sol, Scattered Night is a delicate and thoughtful examination of a family on the edge of breaking apart, seen through the eyes of precocious ten year old Su-min (Moon Seunga). Together with her brother Jin-ho (Choi Joonwoo), Su-min is asked to chose whether to live with her mother or her father, a genuine dilemma for a young girl. Of course, Su-min would rather that the family stayed together, but there’s little sign of reconciliation between her well-meaning parents.

Sensation-seekers need not apply to a film like Scattered Night, which finds nuggets of truth in such uncontrived scenes as a birthday party, or Su-min diligently doing her English homework while her mother does her nails. The final act raises the stakes, but without contrivance; Scattered Night doesn’t attempt to manipulate the audience, but invites them to see things through Su-min’s naïve and yet worldly eyes.

Despite a decent festival run, Scattered Night is a hard sell in that divorce is a subject that doesn’t promise much cinematic pleasure. But there is considerable reward in a subtle film like this, which appeals to the heart but without attempting to force any issues, a la Eighth Grade. The sun-drenched South Korean locations add to a sense of richly evoked yet simple childhood, and Moon Seunga’s performance has been elicited with care. For anyone whose ideas about cinema don’t hark back to male-marketed IP from forty years ago, selecting and locating a showing of Scattered Night is an informed choice worth making, and should find a few admirers outside of urban areas when it eventually debuts on streaming services.

The London Korean Film Festival runs from 1st-14th November in London before embarking on the annual UK tour 18th-24th November. The festival tours to: Edinburgh Film House, Watershed Cinema Bristol, Belfast Queen’s Film Theatre, Glasgow Film Theatre, Manchester HOME, Nottingham Broadway Cinema, until 24th November 2019. Further details at http://koreanfilm.co.uk/

Horrible Histories:The Movie- Rotten Romans 2019 ****

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There’s a tradition of making fun of history for kids in a way that gets them interested in the subject; 1066 and All That to Monty Python and so on. Horrible Histories manages to skip past most of the established clichés of kids movies and offer something fun; a ruthless Roman warrior named Paulinus (Rupert Graves) swings into a rap battle with Boudiccia paraphrasing Jay-Z with the line ‘I got 99 problems but the Brits ain’t one’. It’s one of a number of sweet jokes here; like the Banksy-inspired vandalism in Rome. Rotten Romans also has great young leads in Orla (Emilia Jones) and Atti (Sebastian Croft). He’s exiled from Rome for selling horse urine under the guise of Gladiator sweat to the British ambassador; Nero is displeased when he accidentally washes his face with it. Atti’s exile is mitigated with his romance with Orla, a tough Celt following in the footsteps of Boudiccia (singer Kate Nash). This is not only a comedy but a musical, with funny, tuneful songs and there’s game cameos from everyone from Derek Jacobi to Kim Cattrall. There’s so few British films made, and even fewer comedies, that Horrible Histories is a breath of fresh air, a Carry On film with with non-sexual gags, and plenty of energy in the telling. School holidays should be the ideal time for this kind of romp; admirers of 2016’s Bill will find the same welcome gusto in the historical antics portrayed.

Instant Family 2018 ****

Instant-Family-1000x562A strikingly confident, likable film from writer/director Sean Anders, Instant Family is a story about adoption that doesn’t sugar-coat the potential problems, even if the climax is as warm and fuzzy as you could ask for. High-flying house-flippers Ellie and Pete (Rose Byrne and Mark Wahlberg) decide to adopt, but end up getting three kids instead of one. The also go against the advice of experts (Tig Notaro and Olivia Spencer) by adopting a teen, but since the kids come as a set, what chance do they have? Anders has adopted himself, and it shows; the anecdotal evidence offered up here depicts child-rearing in messy glory, from domestic feuds and accidents, to instances where Pete and Ellie clearly overstep the mark (their pursuit of a potential sex-pest is particularly amusing). Isabella Moner makes a big impact as Lizzie, the oldest girl, and Byrne and Wahlberg manage to centre the story on their own relationship, and how a circle of trust and understanding was expanded from two to five. Instant Family has cause and purpose as a film; it’s a straight-up advert for adoption, and will likely touch heartstrings for some time to come.

 

Pokemon; Detective Pikachu 2018 ****

Pokemon movies are 40 miles of bad road for the unwary; unimpressive animation, convoluted stories, and a sense that all the information required for a basic comprehension is not on-screen; the Pokemon animations feel like an accessory to the game, rather than the other way round. But those who deny the power of Mewtwo will have to adjust their thinking after Rob Letterman’s film, a far more imaginative and involving effort than anyone might have expected. Justice Smith plays Pokemon trainer Tim, who teams up with the deer-stalker sporting bundle of fur named Pikachu to solve a case; voiced by Ryan Reynolds, Pikachu offers a PG version of Deadpool’s trademark snark, which works well here to deflate any potential cuteness. Kathryn Newton also makes an impression as cub-reporter Lucy Stevens, but it’s the Pokemon themselves which are the real stars. While the plot takes a few steers from Zootopia and Happytime Murders in terms of a detective investigating a world balanced between furry creature and humans, it also provides plenty of opportunity for huge fantasy set-pieces, with the effects team on point to create an inflatable-strewn city parade and a massive chase through the Scottish countryside that literally makes the earth move. Franchise starters are many and standard; Pokemon; Detective Pikachu is one of the few which leave audiences keen to catch a few more. And goodness knows what Bill Nighy thinks he’s doing here, but he rips through his dailogue in the best traditions of a pantomime baddie.