October 24, 2014

Maleficent (2014)

Walt Disney Pictures is one of those companies that knows when it's onto a good thing. When the Marvel movies hit big they swamped the market with two of them a year - soon, according to rumour, to become three. When Pixar's films became the most acclaimed animated films out there, they not only bought the company they styled their own feature films to emulate the Pixar storytelling style. When Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland became a monster hit a few years ago it obviously hit a similar nerve, since Disney have a live-action Cinderella out early next year, a live-action Beauty and the Beast in development and before both of them a live-action Sleeping Beauty - or, in this case, Maleficent. It just came out on home video worldwide, so I took the opportunity to catch up with it.

This film is basically the live-action adaptation of Disney's iconic 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty. They've re-jigged the plot considerably, adding an entirely new first act, and they've based it around the original film's villain - the evil fairy Maleficent. This was a good move, pretty much for two reasons: firstly, fairy tales are generally quite simplistic when it comes to characters and the easiest way to find one with a hint of depth is to zero in on the villain. Secondly, there's the design.

October 18, 2014

Symbol (2009)

A middle-aged Mexican wrestler prepares for his most challenging match ever. Meanwhile a Japanese man in polka dot pyjamas wakes up in a room with no doors. The next 90 minutes either make no sense, or a lot of sense, depending on how you want to view the film. Either way this is one of the strangest films I have seen this year. I'd claim it was the strangest, but I'm not quite sure it surpasses the supreme oddness of Sergio Caballero's The Distance (reviewed here). It's a great match for it though, and they would make one hell of a double bill.

Symbol is the work of writer/director Hitoshi Matsumoto, who also plays the unnamed man in the white room. He is a comedian turned filmmaker, whose comedies have slowly been developing a strong cult following in the English-speaking world. His 2007 film Big Man Japan got a pretty widespread release on DVD, while his most recent film R100 was a well-regarded hit at this year's Melbourne International Film Festival. In between sits Symbol, which wasn't nearly as well received and to my knowledge still hasn't received a commercial release outside of Japan.

A lot of viewers will hate this film. I suspect a small niche audience will adore it. I certainly do.

Freddy vs Jason (2004)

Two lumbering, past their prime hangovers from the 1980s make a final heaving stagger into cinemas for one last cynical attempt to squeeze money from the hands of nostalgic twentysomethings around the world. Or so it would seem.

In truth, Freddy vs Jason hits the perfect note: it's a nostalgia trip to be sure, but one produced with a love and care that not only effectively reminds us of why we watched these characters in the first place. It makes us keen to see them return as well. In the red corner stands Freddy Kruger, seven-times star of the Nightmare On Elm Street saga. Played with delicious malice and deliberately tacky humour by Robert Englund, he's a perpetual guilty pleasure to behold. In the blue corner stands Jason Voorhees, ten-times star of the progressively silly Friday the 13th franchise. (How silly? His last installment was set in space.) Previously played by Kane Hodder, tonight he's being played by stuntman Ken Kirzinger. Not that this matters: as a character whose appeal lies in his personality, Freddy Kruger needs Englund to work. Jason is a silent, lumbering psychopath in a mask. Arnold Schwarzenegger could be under there and you wouldn't know the difference.

October 17, 2014

Doctor Who: "Assassin at Peking"

It's 4 April 1964, and time for more Doctor Who.

Kublai Khan has relocated to his palace in Peking. Ian and Ping Cho uncover Tegana's treachery, but still no one will believe them. The Doctor almost wins back the TARDIS and backgammon - only to lose it all in the final game. With he and his companions trapped in China, seemingly for good, and with Tegana's allies massing on Peking, things certainly look grim.

"Assassin at Peking" is, broadly speaking, a bit of a disappointment. It does what it needs to do in order to wrap up this epic seven-part serial, but for the most part it does it in a perfunctory and unsatisfying manner. With a few exceptions it's all rather forgettable. This is a shame, because much of the serial leading up to this climax has been great television drama, and it feels as if Lucarotti's script slips just at the moment when it should all pull together.

Brother Bear (2004)

Brother Bear, from directors Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker, is the tale of a native American hunter who is magically transformed into a Walt Disney cartoon.

Okay, so he's actually transformed into a bear, but the transformation in both look and direction for the film when does become the animal is both unexpected and highly inventive. The film begins with a distinctive, oddly non-Disney visual look. The colour palette is muted and dark, and the character designs - particularly the first bear we encounter - are quite realistic compared to traditionally animated American films. For the first fifteen minutes of the film there is an adult tone that seems quite out of place for an already declared "Walt Disney Classic". I would certainly think twice before introducing younger children to this movie.

Then our protagonist turns into a bear, knocked unconscious and when he wakes, a quite startling change has taken place. All of the animals, previously naturalistic in design, are suddenly classic Disney caricatures. The colour palette, previously dark and muted, is suddenly very colourful and vibrant. Most unexpectedly of all, the aspect ratio of the film itself has changed from Disney's usual 1.85:1 to an immense 2.35:1. It gives the remainder of the film a vast, glorious appeal that is very easy on the eye - not to mention reflective of the story's broad, rugged landscape.

October 16, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Tin Man"

A unique biological starship has been detected in orbit around a dying star. With the mysterious ship - dubbed "Tin Man" by Starfleet analysts - in contested territory, it's up to the Enterprise to beat the Romulans to the system and make first contact. To assist in the mission Starfleet dispatches Tam Elbrun, an immensely powerful Betazoid telepath wracked by mental illness.

I was pretty disparaging in my opinion of The Next Generation's first two seasons. It turns out I was not alone. Dismayed by the poor quality of the episodes, three authors - Dennis Russell Bailey, David Bischoff, and Lisa Putman White - pooled their talents, adapted an old short story of Bischoff's, and submitted it to the Next Generation production office. It obviously impressed the producers, because here it is onscreen. It's clearly a vast improvement over Season 2's average episodes, but is still somewhat uneven. Interesting what frustrated me was not what was in the episode, but rather what seemed to be left out. It's a slightly maddening thing: good enough to show potential but not good enough to fulfil it.

Othello (1995)

I remember Oliver Parker's Othello being a slightly controversial film when it was originally released. It was an adaptation of William Shakespeare's The Tragedy Of Othello, The Moor Of Venice that dared to gut roughly two-thirds of Shakespeare's dialogue from the text. Such radicalism isn't easily tolerated by the Shakespearean elite, and Parker's film stumbled beneath an earthshaking wave of criticism. Film critics, rather than literary critics, were a little more forgiving, but this movie still got pretty harshly condemned as a dumbed-down, populist re-telling of the classic tragedy.

They were wrong. Othello succeeds where many other Shakespearean adaptations fail by realising that what works in the theatre in the 16th century does not necessarily work in the cinema 400 years later. It uses Shakespeare's text economically, ensuring that while being a faithful version of the play it is also a thrilling motion picture in its own right.

October 15, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Captain's Holiday"

The great Next Generation quality yo-yo continues to bounce. At Dr Crusher’s insistence, a begrudging Picard travels to the holiday planet Risa for a week’s vacation. His holiday does not last long, however, as he gets tied up into an adventure involving a rogue archaeologist, a Ferengi with a gun, and a pair of mysterious aliens from the far future.

“Captain’s Holiday” has the sort of premise with ‘train wreck’ written all over it, and yet through a combination of canny writing and spirited performances it somehow manages to be one of the funniest episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation so far. There’s a lightness of touch and a willingness to engage in archetype that simply makes it a lot of fun. It’s not going to go down as a series classic, but it does make for an entertaining 42 minutes.