Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!

21 05 2010

Ted Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) was not afraid of including social commentary in his children’s books. Besides being a children’s author, he was also a political cartoonist and writer for the military during World War II, with his Private Snafu shorts being particularly illuminating.

So it’s refreshing to (finally) see a modern Seuss adaptation that at least tries to adhere to the spirit of his work. Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! (2008) is the fourth feature from Blue Sky Studios, who also produced Robots (2005) and the three Ice Age movies (2002, 2006 and 2009). Blue Sky are like the Chuck Jones to Pixar’s Walt Disney, and so while they don’t produce serious, studied entertainment in the Pixar vein, they also don’t resort to the mindless hipster grab-bag approach of DreamWorks Animation; instead, Blue Sky offer a manic charm all their own.

It’s only fitting, then, that Blue Sky Studios adapt one of Seuss’ more memorable children’s books, following in the footsteps of Chuck Jones’ own successful adaptations. This is not a nightmare-fuelled acid trip a la Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000) (and the less said about Mike Myers as The Cat in the Hat (2003) the better); rather, Blue Sky’s Horton is colourful and whimsical, giving spectators an amazing 3D realisation of Seuss’ illustrations that is as faithful as can be. And while pop-culture elements are a little overdone at times, this is still miles ahead of the horrors that DreamWorks might have visited upon the source.
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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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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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27 Dresses

11 01 2008

27 DressesAt their worst, romantic comedies display an utter contempt for their target demographic, assuming that any woman seeking out a rom-com isn’t particularly interested in genuine wit or insight — it’s essentially porn for the girly set. (A similar argument can be made for the action genre, mind you, with the genders switched.) 27 Dresses, while still following the conventions of genre, nonetheless never feels like it’s pandering or condescending to its audience.

Katherine Heigl plays Jane, a woman obsessed with the idea of marriage despite living out the cliché of “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” — she’s got all 27 bridesmaid dresses to prove it. She is, of course, secretly in love with her boss, the cool-but-bland George (Edward Burns), but when her superficial younger sister Tess (Malin Akerman) arrives and cluelessly snaps him up in a whirlwind romance, Jane is inevitably called upon to plan their wedding.

Meanwhile, James Marsden is Kevin, a cynical journalist stuck writing for the sappy “Commitments” column in the New York Journal, and he sees writing a biting piece on Jane (the archetypal “lonely bridesmaid”) as being his ticket to gaining legitimacy. Ostensibly following Tess and George’s wedding, Kevin gradually gains Jane’s trust despite them both being philosophically at odds when it comes to the ethics of the so-called “wedding industry”.
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Hope Springs

2 12 2007

Hope SpringsMike Nichols’ The Graduate was a great film — a classic, even — that was based on a novel by author Charles Webb. Hope Springs is also based on a novel by Webb, but don’t let that fool you into thinking this movie might be anything other than barely passable.

Colin Firth plays Colin, a British artist who arrives in the small town of Hope, Vermont after being unceremoniously dumped (or so it seems) by his fiancée, Vera (Minnie Driver). There he meets “free spirit” and part-time alcoholic Mandy (Heather Graham). Mandy’s unstable, erratic personality leads, of course, to Colin quickly falling in love with her.

But wait! Here comes Vera to confuse and tempt Colin away from the borderline-psychotic Mandy. What’s a guy to do?! Luckily, Vera is so shallow and one-dimensional that Colin’s decision is essentially made for him by the brain-dead screenplay.
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