Tag Archives: animation

A note on a BBC iPlayer double bill: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace and Wall-E


 I can’t work out whether or not I’m a massive fan of All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace yet. It’s been recommended to me by several people and I finally watched episode 2, about the illusion of self-regulating ecosystems, and a lot more. On the one hand it’s clearly very different, ambitious and bold, and should be applauded for a rare example of demanding and ideas driven television. But then it also seems simplistic and forced at times, especially when trying to bring the focus of its enormous scope back to its core theme of the influence of machines.

There’s definitely a strong chance that I simply did not fully understand the programme. I am still digesting the theories in my head and the central thrust of its weaving argument. I think my only reservations about it stem from the fact that All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace relies on being an impartial, enlightening and myth busting statement. Clearly though it has its own agenda and world view.

Whilst most of the analysis and arguments are sound, indeed I agree with most of it, I was slightly annoyed at times that a programme attacking deceit was playing its own tricks on the audience. Now and then the tone veered across a line from informative and intelligent to preachy and patronising.

However I will be watching more of the series. Undoubtedly I enjoyed it. Indeed whilst I moan about the programme’s own agenda, it was refreshing that this was something with a worthwhile point to get across. Somehow it encompassed vital but mostly overlooked elements of formative 20th century history, scientific theory, cultural shifts, communes and topical stories like the Arab Spring and even the Big Society.

I’m not going to delve into the depths of the arguments here because even though I have my opinions they will be convoluted and poorly expressed. For the most part though, rest assured, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace talks valuable sense. It is clever. But don’t be intimidated as it’s no bad thing to question the weaknesses of its points either, as there are clearly holes in such an admirably ambitious undertaking.

Aside from the substance, the style is a delight. Weird and wonderful archive footage is mashed together to give a vivid sense of the times, as well as the spooling complexities of some of the theories. The narration is mostly engaging but sometimes repetitive and, as I’ve said, patronisingly simplistic. However one of the good points to take from All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is that in the past solutions have tended to be unnecessarily complex in pursuit of unrealistic ideals.

Enough vague waffling about something that, basically, you should watch to judge for yourself. And onto Wall-E, one of just a handful of Pixar pictures I hadn’t seen. Last night, at a silly early morning hour, I decided to finally meet the lovable waste management unit on iPlayer.

Wall-E has everything you expect from Pixar, and more. Not only is it touching, funny and heart warming, with a particularly poignant and understated love story, but it makes political points too. This certainly isn’t the complex, deep level of commentary on offer in All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, but rather symbols highlighting contemporary and sometimes controversial problems.

Some themes certainly do overlap with All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, mainly to do with mankind’s dependency on technology. In Wall-E the point is predictable and hardly subtle, with robots scurrying round to cater to our every need and humans literally not having to leave their hover chairs. But for children’s animation this is still a film with some brains as well as that required Pixar heart.

The key point Wall-E has to make is about over consumption, with Earth so littered with waste that humans have had to take an extended space cruise. But this 90 minute romp also touches on the power of corporations, advertising, global warming and junk food. We get so fat we can’t stand and so pampered and manipulated that we can’t think.  

The real magic is that all of this is seamlessly stitched into a charming and compelling story though. Wall-E stands out from other Pixar creations because it’s given space and all its sci-fi trappings with which to visually dazzle, and also because the protagonist barely speaks. Much of Wall-E is without dialogue and the wonder of silent movies is recaptured, especially when he’s making use of his extensive collection of human memorabilia and music. Stripping away everything else allows the best of Pixar to shine.

So if you’ve got time on your hands head over to BBC iPlayer for a thrilling and touching journey with Wall-E through outer space, and an intelligent and inspiring tour of our recent past with All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

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Tangled


Fairytales: they’re all sickly sweetness and light right? You know beautiful princesses, magical kingdoms, swashbuckling heroes, kindly companions etc. Well no. Think of any classic fairytale and chances are there’ll be generous portions of nasty evil deeds hand in hand with the overwhelming prettiness and niceness. This is certainly the case with Tangled, a Disney anniversary special retelling of the story of Rapunzel.

As a baby, Rapunzel is the girl with the golden touch, or to be precise, hair. After her mother, the queen of a kingdom that rather fittingly resembles the Disney logo with its picturesque towers and steeples, falls ill during childbirth, it turns out the only way to cure her is with a magical golden flower (formed from a drop that fell from the sun – bear with me). The royal guard promptly retrieves said flower just in time and mother and baby make it through fine, with the unexpected complication that baby Rapunzel adopts the plant’s amazing abilities. Prior to the soldiers snatching the flower for the good of the kingdom however, a miserly old crone had been using it to stay forever young. Bitter and after revenge, she steals the wondrous baby with the golden, glowing locks in the dead of night. Then, tucked away in a lush green wilderness, she raises the child in a tower as her own, and sings to it instead of the flower she replaced for eternal youth. Meanwhile a kingdom mourns and the endlessly saddened royal couple release thousands of lanterns each year on their child’s birthday, in the hope that she will return home to them one day.

So far, so Disney. This is the back story to Tangled. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll have been concerned about accidentally vomiting in such a family orientated environment. Much like Marmite, you either love this sort of sentimental tale, or you hate it (although I mildly like Marmite, so does this ruin the rule?). However this background to the story is dealt with swiftly in Tangled’s opening. And it gets away with its sickly sweet, emotional mush, to such an extent that it wins you over.

If you’re a Disney sceptic, you’ll be dubiously asking how. The key to Tangled’s immense appeal is that it recognises fairytales are too sweet and sugary for some, so it gently sends up the whole tradition at times. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy the fundamental fairytale aspects, as I say the relief is only gentle, but it’s crucial and enough to make Tangled an extremely accessible movie. It’s refreshing because it doesn’t take itself too seriously, despite being a significant anniversary picture. It can entertain kids and adults alike with its broad range of humour and sentimental punches.

The key to the appeal for adults lies with the self-depreciating performance of male lead, Zachary Levi. His loveable rouge character, Flynn Rider, crashes into Rapunzel’s life after stealing the kingdom’s crown. Incidentally he grabs the crown in an amusing homage to Mission Impossible, lowered from the palace ceiling and later on he snatches a frying pan (used throughout as an effective weapon, with decent comic effect) as Indiana Jones would snatch his hat from beneath a closing booby trapped door. Touches of adult humour like this, alongside Levi’s well judged, constantly witty tone, provide more than enough sly, self-mocking moments to stop normal human being’s brains turning into vegetables.

This is no mean feat, given that Tangled is not just a typical Disney tale but one with random bursts of song. This sort of spontaneous, inexplicable, irrational singing is usually enough to tip most men over the edge. Whilst none of the songs from Tangled are particularly memorable, they are poignant at the right moments (and had kids dancing in the aisles occasionally). Donna Murphy, as evil Mother Gothel, delivers a charming diva like performance whenever she gets the chance to belt out a musical number. “I’ve got a dream” an ensemble piece in a seedy tavern, is heart warming and funny and stands out from the crowd, along with “I see the light”, a romantic duet between leads Levi and Mandy Moore at the emotional peak of the story, as Rapunzel’s dream of watching the floating lanterns seems to be realised. This scene is one of the best examples of the film’s startlingly vivid animation, with glowing candles fantastically rendered in the early night sky. With my secret soft spot for sentimental songs, I nearly shed a tear at the beautifully animated visuals coupled with the emotional duet.

Indeed Tangled as a whole is touching and visually captivating. There are lovely strokes of animation on the expressions of the characters, amusingly so on horse Maximus, but what strikes you most of all is the colour of the scenery. Vibrant and vivid greens and blues contrast with bright pastel colours in the city, set against a varied, but always stunning sky. The animation also allows for some distinctive action set pieces, most notably when a chase climaxes at a dam. There are gobsmacking leaps, acrobatics with endless reams of magic hair and exciting sword fights, with a frying pan, guards and a horse. But most impressive for me was the glistening water, which eventually erupts outwards in a great, mesmerising wave, chasing our hero and princess into claustrophobic confinement.

I saw Tangled in 2D and there is really no need to seek out the 3D version. It’s refreshing to see an animation go back to basics at a time of endless technological advance and reinvention. Here we just get funny, moving storytelling, that’s generally inclusive and pretty for all. From a hilarious opening montage of Rapunzel simultaneously rejoicing and hating herself for escaping her “mother’s” prison, to a heart wrenching emotional finale, Tangled has ingredients to delight everyone. It’s a pretty near perfect family movie, with bags of not only laughs but tender moments for adults too, which rest on the scripting and performance of Levi’s character Flynn Rider. My friend and I really enjoyed it, despite a disappointingly small portion of popcorn and initial doubts. Tangled will reel you in and surprise you, too, whatever your preconceptions.

How To Train Your Dragon


There are instructional guides for everything nowadays. Bright sparks and academics compile recipes for far more than just food. Type the word “instruction” into Amazon and you get back motivational guides, martial arts handbooks, “Traditional Patchwork Quilt Patterns” and even “The Baby Owner’s Manual”.

Personally, I’ve never owned a pet. As a child I would recoil at bounding dogs, repulsed by their drooling eagerness. I’d love a canine companion now, my very own incarnation of man’s best friend to walk and pamper and pat, but I wouldn’t know the first thing about caring for an animal. Well I’d like to think I wouldn’t kill it too swiftly, but it would be handy to avoid charges of animal cruelty or worse, incur the brutal intimidation and mudslinging of animal rights activists. So another scan of Amazon and perhaps “The Dog Owner’s Maintenance Log” is for me or “Dog Grooming for Dummies”.

I can’t help but think that, given my inept fondness for dogs, I’d be even more out of my depth with a creature that’s much harder to love. A tarantula or iguana for example. I know for a fact that should I bump into a dragon in a dark alley or atop a windswept cliff, a pocket sized book entitled “How To Train Your Dragon” would be of considerable use.

There are countless books and “must have” guides to the film industry as well, with everything from screenwriting to lighting covered somewhere in print. I’m willing to bet that somewhere there’s a section on the importance of a title for your Hollywood Blockbuster. Get that name wrong and nothing else will matter. The title of your story should be an instant hook, with an air of mystery and definitely not so dull as to repulse potential viewers before they’ve so much as glanced at the rest of your poster. At first How To Train Your Dragon seemed a poor idea for a film title to me, despite the inevitable quirky interest around that last word. It’s a name for a user’s guide not an all conquering family movie phenomenon.

 How To Train Your Dragon became something of a surprise hit though last Easter, and had not only sizeable audiences but unanimous critical praise. Rotten Tomatoes carries a 98% critic rating and 90% audience satisfaction for the film. For me this was initially surprising, given that How To Train Your Dragon contains hearty helpings of a foul smelling ingredient most recipes for good films would advise strongly against.

How To Train Your Dragon is completely predictable. And predictability, it’s easy to learn watching, writing and reading about films, is often just another word for bad. Samey storylines you’ve seen before, nine times out of ten stir up nothing but annoyance in the mind of an audience, and if not audiences then almost certainly reviewers. If the trajectory of a film is obvious and its ending plain from the opening scene, it doesn’t usually make for engaging entertainment.

But How To Train Your Dragon has flagged up an important truth for me. Some films thrive on the predictable, namely family films. There has to be a certain satisfactory happy ending, a particular sense of bonding and struggle, a recognisable group of relationships between characters. And I was wrong to say that How To Train Your Dragon is completely predictable. It’s got a refreshingly non-American setting for a start and a reasonably original twist on a familiar premise.

There’s something of a 3D trend in films at the moment, specifically in animation. I get the feeling that a handful of moments in this film, spectacular flying sequences and fluid fire, would be as good as anything yet seen in 3D. But as it was I made do with the small screen, DVD experience. And How To Train Your Dragon is still a pretty little film.

It kicks off with a funny and adrenalin pumping action sequence, with a Viking village under attack from marauding dragons swooping from above. Buildings explode and burn vividly in the night, illuminating the dark coastal scenery. We’re swiftly and efficiently introduced to all the main players with considerable humour and the set-up of age old conflict between two races is established. For an animated film it’s a surprisingly impressive start. And best of all the ending trumps this memorable beginning.

We meet Hiccup, voiced by Jay Baruchel, working out of the way in a Blacksmiths. He’s the weak son of Viking leader Stoick the Vast, voiced by Gerard Butler as an essentially family friendly version of his Spartan king in 300. Hiccup’s a disappointment and an outsider. But as the film progresses he finds he has a strange affinity with the dragons and begins to uncover the reality of their nature. He’s guided along the way by sympathetic  Gobber (Craig Ferguson), a Viking trainer, and finds a love interest in Astrid, voiced by America Ferrera. Astrid is cleverly and amusingly introduced in the opening action scene, walking away from an explosion in a satire of typical action films, to the sarcastic, smitten voiceover of Jay Baruchel.

In my opinion How To Train Your Dragon, a Dreamworks production, lacks the heart wrenching sentimentality and visual wow factor and beauty of a Pixar film. But as other films like the Shrek franchise show, Dreamworks do funny, tongue in cheek, successful animation, with good characters, really well.

Two interesting DVD extras delve into the casting process behind the film and its technical processes respectively. I find the process of characterisation and casting when there’s only a voice to work with extremely interesting and it’s intriguing to hear the filmmakers’ thoughts on how they got that right. In the visual production segment of the extras there’s a wonderful explanation of the various types of dazzling fire used to help distinguish between the wide varieties of dragons on show.

In short How To Train Your Dragon is a perfectly cooked family meal. It’s hardly dining at the Ritz but no one likes a snob and sometimes there’s nothing more fun than well executed comfort.

Up/The Other Guys


I saw both Disney Pixar’s Up and the latest comic offering from Will Ferrell, The Other Guys this week. Needless to say these two films are poles apart in many ways, but they are also both funny, entertaining and worth a look.

Up first is Up, then. I was keen to see this simply for the renowned beauty of Pixar’s animation. I had absolutely loved the look and style of The Incredibles, a Pixar picture based upon ordinary humans as opposed to toys, or fish, or cars. I liked seeing ordinary suburban objects vividly rendered in marvellous colour, as well as the wonderful expressions upon a human, animated face. Up follows elderly widower Carl Fredricksen from the very ordinary start point of his home on a varied, beautiful, unpredictable adventure to South America. At first Up really does dwell on the perfection of its visuals, with a dialogue-less montage depicting Carl’s entire married life feeling like a work of art; a mini-film in itself showing off the talents of the team at Pixar. However as always with these films there are dollops of sentiment that wedge lumps firmly in the throat and bring tears to the eyes. As with The Incredibles the action sequences are also genuinely gripping and jolting as well as visually stunning. Perhaps most impressively these action set pieces fit into a unique and original story and don’t feel out of place. Carl steers his house, elevated by numerous multi-coloured helium balloons, all the way to Paradise Falls, the destination of his and his wife’s childhood dreams, negotiating bruising storms and encounters with strange creatures along the way.

For a children’s film, Up is incredibly touching and engaging. It is not surprising that the film is often funny given its intended tone and audience, but it is impressive that the gags roll alongside a heart-warming story of an elderly man looking for purpose in life and not expecting to find it. The whole thing uses the nostalgia of its central character and the soundtrack often sounds like the sort of thing you’d hear on a ride at a classic, retro fun fair, with clever variations on a repeated main theme for sad or happy, wondrous moods. The film rarely drags, despite there being few actually hilarious moments and this may be due to the overall gloss of the visuals, as well as some excellent voice acting. There is a point where you fear the narrative may fizzle out, but some superb climatic action sequences resurrect things. Overall Up is a tender tale, with some occasionally insightful dialogue and a healthy sprinkling of originally executed ideas, such as the stream of consciousness talking dogs. And of course it looks marvellous.

The Other Guys is not heart-warming and indeed relies more upon cringe inducing humour at times, but it shares with Up a feeling of originality in its storytelling, along with some riveting action scenes. For me the strongest point of The Other Guys was its ability not to take itself too seriously. It was simultaneously a cop movie, an action movie and a comedy movie, as well as aiming piss taking swipes at all these genres and more with some brilliant gags. I cannot usually tolerate the onscreen presence of Will Ferrell and I do my best to avoid his films like the plague. But alongside tough guy Mark Wahlberg, brilliantly embracing a comic role, and outside of a sports setting, I bought into the guy as a comic genius at times. I cannot remember all the successful jokes in the movie but amongst the best was a silent fight at a funeral, a hilarious, not at all subtle exchange about a mug with the label; “FBI-Female Body Inspector” and a “bad cop-bad cop” routine. All of these moments and more had me and others in the cinema laughing loudly.

Unusually for such a film the plot to The Other Guys doesn’t feel completely redundant either, which is an added bonus for a film brimming with hilarious moments and ensures it is something more than a collection of comedy sketches. Admittedly lingering flashbacks on both Wahlberg’s character mistakenly shooting a star baseball player and Ferrell’s college career as a pimp do feel a little like detached sketches, but all in all they just about masquerade as relevant back-story, especially when funny. The action sequences are either big, brash and completely ridiculous, as with the car chase at the beginning featuring “the guys”, Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson. Or they are big, brash and slightly less ridiculous, vaguely fitting into the plot and wowing the audience, for example a climatic, clichéd gun fight is followed by a “grand theft auto” inspired car chase with an impressive, destructive collision. A somewhat baffling credit sequences detailing the excess and waste of the world’s bankers belatedly aims to give The Other Guys a moral compass. Steve Coogan’s amusing financial swindler was certainly not treated as some evil tycoon within the film, but simply as an idiot. In many ways The Other Guys is an idiotic film, which idiots and those who enjoy the mishaps of fools alike will be able to enjoy and find hilarious. However I think it’s a cleverly composed piece of stupidity.

Africa United


Africa United has been dubbed this year’s Slumdog Millionaire and the hype around this feel-good movie set amongst third world scenery was certainly sufficient to cause me some logistical problems at my first ever press screening. A last minute venue change meant that for a while my attendance was touch and go, but given the plot of the movie this was perhaps appropriate.

Essentially a road movie, Africa United follows three Rwandan children, talented footballer Fabrice from a privileged world of exams and plasma screens, his “manager” Dudu and his sister Beatrice, who dreams of becoming a doctor and finding the cure to HIV. So far so generic. The three plucky adventurers gradually acquire friends, forming the “team for the dream” that aims to accompany Fabrice all the way to Soccer City in Johannesburg in time for the World Cup’s opening ceremony, where he was promised a place by a scout back in his village. Inevitably the journey does not run smoothly and the young friends must overcome many hurdles, some specific to the troubled continent of the title and others typical to the human condition. Despite this predictable format Africa United is far from being an ordinary film. Like Slumdog Millionaire it is distributed by Pathe and deserves recognition and success, but for different and in my view more persuasive reasons.

Unlike Slumdog Millionaire, which was based upon a successful novel, Africa United was built upon far slimmer foundations; a chance remark in January 2009. Unlike Slumdog Millionaire, which was helmed by the respected Danny Boyle and marked the culmination of that respect with global recognition, Africa United was the directorial debut of Debs Gardner- Patterson, who explained the origins of the story and the difficulties of casting with a few words before my screening of the movie began. I watched a nervous unknown make an uncertain speech but knew 90 minutes or so later that I had been in the presence of at the least an accomplished filmmaker, and at best this country’s next big thing. She has crafted, created and steered a project from the inspiration of just a few words into a must-see movie experience, talked of in the same breath as an Oscar winner. It lacks the epic scope and romantic intrigue of Slumdog and is at its heart a simple tale of friendship, but feels better formed and is much, much funnier throughout than 2008’s Indian set smash-hit.

The key to this humour and indeed the crucial factor elevating Africa United from the good to the excellent is the performance of young Eriya Ndayambaje as lead character Dudu. To use one of the many football metaphors ever present in the film, director Gardner-Patterson is an excellent manager, for acknowledging the importance of playing her star player from the start. The film opens with Dudu charmingly explaining, in almost Blue Peter style, how to construct the perfect football from condoms. It took just seconds for his infectious smile to have the audience giggling and cooing at his cuteness and in the rare moments that his sheer charm wears off, the script by Silent Witness writer Rhidian Brook provides him with killer lines. Often the gags are football based, such as when Dudu and Fabrice discuss which animals their heroes would be, with Dudu correcting Fabrice that Ronaldo is not a lively baboon but an arrogant peacock. But there are also laughs galore for the whole family, football fans or not, certainly too many for me to remember here. Although one of the more obvious, simple messages of the film is that “impossible is nothing” when people come together in teams, it is an inescapable fact that Africa United would lose much of its power without Dudu; he is the authentic magnet at the core of the story, the star striker, or perhaps kingpin playmaker pulling the strings.

That is not to say there are not other important elements to the story and the film’s authenticity. It was shot in real locations in Burundi, Rwanda and South Africa and the scenery is suitably stunning and colourful. There are actions sequences with rolling cars and firing guns as well as gags, innocence and friendship. The entertainment covers a broad range from childish humour to grand themes of dreams and emotion, often all skilfully related linked back the central idea of the power of sport. For example the scene where Dudu chooses to leave his sister at a school so she can get the education she craves is not only incredibly emotional but again links back to the idea of management, as the others praise Dudu’s skills. Africa United also perhaps understandably owes a lot to the continent of the title and paints a refreshingly honest portrait of modern African life; one in which some, like Fabrice’s family, are well off and football shirts, cars and mobile phones are the norm, as much as HIV, AIDS and child soldiers are. By showing African life realistically and making it accessible it is impossible not to root for the likeable main characters and thus Africa United becomes the perfect advert for the continent, far more effective than appeals for aid crammed with images of drought and famine. Who would not want to support this ambitious team for the dream, with ambitions not so unlike yours or mine, but smiles and charm that are a whole lot cuter?

Africa United then will find it hard to escape the same old labels of “feel-good” and “family friendly” in the coming weeks before its release, but through the hype remember that this film has far more to offer beneath the surface and do your best to support it. It has been lovingly nurtured by  British debutants in the film world, shot and edited with a distinctive, fun style, suitably scored and dotted with original, heart warming and amusing African animations that add another notch to its originality. Most of all watch out for Dudu, and Eriya Ndayambaje who plays him, as his performance alone makes Africa United unmissable.