Safety Last!

16 05 2010

Harold Lloyd is a somewhat forgotten star of comedies from the silent era. While Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are still namechecked regularly, Lloyd is passed over more often than not.

Yet one of the most enduring images from the first few decades of cinema is undoubtedly the shot of Lloyd hanging from a large clock-face as he dangles several stories above street-level. Taken from his 1923 comedy Safety Last!, this scene is familiar to almost everyone, no matter their familiarity with Lloyd or the film itself.

The bulk of the film is entertaining though hardly noteworthy: the story of the boy trying to impress his girl by pretending to be higher up in the business world food-chain isn’t exactly revolutionary, even for 1923. But it’s all just a set-up for the climax, where Lloyd scales a building with no visible safety precautions.
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A Trip to the Moon

15 05 2010

Georges Méliès’ Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) is undoubtedly the progenitor of so much cinematic science fiction that it’s impossible to overstate its influence: from the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials to Star Wars and beyond, the ripples can be felt even today with James Cameron’s Avatar. But more importantly, A Trip to the Moon is also arguably the first film in the modern sense, employing narrative, epic scope and dazzling special effects in a manner that is still with us today.

Made in 1902, this classic piece of early cinema is important for so many reasons, not the least of which is that, even today, it stands as a fine piece of entertainment in its own right, beyond any historical curiosity. The imagery is rich and startling: besides the famous image of the rocket lodged in the eye of the moon, the landscape of the moon itself is wonderfully realised with spires, craters and giant mushrooms, while faces appear in stars and moon inhabitants disappear in puffs of smoke. The whimsy alone carries the audience into a magical world of wonder and awe.
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Time Bandits

14 05 2010

Terry Gilliam’s career has come a long way since he animated the foot of Bronzino’s Cupid in Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-74). After the frustrations involved in bringing Brazil (1985) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989) to the screen, he found larger success in the ’90s with The Fisher King (1991) and 12 Monkeys (1995). And now, despite another troubled production, we have a return to classic Gilliam with The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009).

But in terms of being a pure crowd-pleaser, Gilliam’s biggest triumph is undoubtedly Time Bandits (1981). While not as visually dense or bizarre as Brazil, nor as (relatively) sober as 12 Monkeys, Time Bandits possesses an innocent charm that his more cynical works lack. If nothing else, it was the first film to help establish Gilliam as a true auteur and cinematic visionary.

All of the director’s trademarks are here, such aa the use of giants and dwarves (allowing for many low-angle shots), the recurring motif of placing characters in cages (inspired by Walt Disney’s Pinocchio (1940)) and the blurring of the line between fantasy and reality. The production design veers between the stark and the lavish (this dichotomy being another trademark of Gilliam’s) and the humour is, as usual, dark-edged but playful.
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Monsters vs Aliens

13 05 2010

Do you like a good story? Then Monsters vs Aliens (2009) is not for you.

If, on the other hand, you prefer rapid-fire gags and references mixed with some very nice animation but without any concern for heart or intellect, then this may be your film.

Monsters vs Aliens, coming between Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008) and How to Train Your Dragon (2010), is DreamWorks Animation’s 11th 3D computer-animated film, and it shows. The formula—support a barrage of one-liners and throwaway references with imaginative design and a paper-thin plot—has been fine-tuned by this point, and its calculating cynicism and constant winks to the audience are now more mechanical than ever.

The plot has the necessary moral included, of course, taking Shrek‘s “Accept who you are” fortune-cookie wisdom and giving it a feminist twist. Susan Murphy (Reese Witherspoon) is all set to marry self-absorbed local weatherman Derek Dietl (Paul Rudd) when she is suddenly hit by a meteorite, causing her to grow to a height of 49 feet 11.5 inches. Captured by the military, she is then sent to a kind of “monster prison” where she meets fellow inmates B.O.B. (Seth Rogen, a parody of the Blob), Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie, a parody of the Fly), the Missing Link (Will Arnett, a parody of the Creature from the Black Lagoon) and Insectosaurus (a parody of Godzilla). In charge of the facility is General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland), a no-nonsense military man who is tough but fair.
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Up

12 05 2010

Pixar stand as the spiritual torchbearers of the Walt Disney’s philosophy: just as Disney pushed the limits of traditional 2D hand-drawn animation in the 1930s and 1940s, Pixar has done the same for 3D computer animation in the 1990s and early 2000s. But both Disney and Pixar were also determined to demonstrate that animation could be used to tell dramatic stories with genuine pathos and emotions. In this way, Pixar are the polar opposite of the 3D animation wing of Dreamworks, who seem more interested in letting story serve the gags than having it be the other way around.

2008’s WALL-E was an artistic triumph, playing more as a return to silent-era comedy-drama than as a tentpole family film, and while its follow-up, 2009’s Up, doesn’t attempt anything so daring stylistically, it does test the limits of what sort of stories are commercially viable in the modern family film market.

The premise of the story concerns Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), an elderly widower determined to fulfil his late wife’s childhood dream of having a house on Paradise Falls, an exotic locale in South America. His solution? Fly the house there using helium-filled balloons.
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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

30 01 2008

The Demon Barber of Fleet StreetI was probably about four years old when my grandfather first told me the legend of Sweeney Todd, the crazed barber who slit his patrons’ throats before having their flesh baked into delicious meat pies. The tale, while more than likely apocryphal, touches on several fears close to most people’s hearts, not the least of which is unwittingly eating a fellow human being (and worse still, actually enjoying it).

Todd’s story was adapted countless times over the last couple of centuries, but the most notable in recent times was the 1979 Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, itself based on a 1973 play by Christopher Bond. The play and musical added greater depth to the story by transforming it into a macabre tale of tragedy and revenge, and now director Tim Burton has adapted the musical into a Hollywood film.

Sweeney Todd (Burton-favourite Johnny Depp) was once Benjamin Barker, a meek and mild barber living in London with a beautiful wife and child. But when the slimy Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) coverts Barker’s wife, he frames the barber and has him transported to Australia; now, 15 years later, Barker returns to London as Todd, a man devoured by thoughts of revenge.
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Raiders of the Lost Ark

17 01 2008

Raiders of the Lost ArkIn 1981, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were two of the hottest names in town: Lucas had made American Graffiti, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back; Spielberg, meanwhile, had directed the blockbusters Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A film produced by Lucas and directed by Spielberg would almost certainly be money in the bank.

Enter Harrison Ford as the globetrotting archaeologist Indiana Jones in the Lucas/Spielberg collaboration Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Set in 1936, Raiders follows Jones as he attempts to retrieve the lost Ark of the Covenant (on behalf of the U.S. government) before the Nazis get a hold of it — it seems the Ark may contain the power to make any army who possesses it invincible. Along the way, he teams up with former love interest Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), who owns a medallion which could uncover the location of the Ark, and Egyptian digger and friend Sallah (John Rhys-Davies).

The plot, however, serves more as a framework for a series of cliffhangers in the style of Saturday matinee adventure serials, and in that sense it’s cut from the same cloth as Lucas’ own Star Wars. For example, the film opens in the jungles of South America, and by the end of the sequence, Jones has faced tarantulas, snakes, dart-blowing natives, rivals, traitors and cunningly constructed booby traps (including the famous rolling boulder — an iconic image that encapsulates the film in only a handful of shots). As he continues to face increasing dangers in Nepal and later Cairo, each sequence seems deliberately designed to end with the audience wondering, “How will he get out of this one?!”
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