Sunday 31 July 2011

100 days, 100 films; Day 45 - The Hunchback of Notre Dame

#56 - The Hunchback of Notre Dame:

At this stage in the Disney Renaissance, people really knew what to expect – feisty heroines, dashing heroes, cute animal sidekicks, jolly musical numbers and camp villains. So imagine the absolute shock that this film caused to older viewers. Pocahontas touched on racism before this but here you have a film that deals with prejudice, religious bigotry, lust, murder and even friggin genocide. Need I remind you that this is a Disney film, marketed with plush toys and other such child-directed gimmicks? Yep, the parents were shocked and the kids were frightened half to death, me included. But now I’m older I can appreciate that this truly is one of the best Disney films ever made.

It’s Paris in the 15th Century and the city is run under the icy grip of Judge Claude Frollo, a religious bigot who seeks to rid the city of the gypsies for whom he has an intense hatred. Frollo has a secret though – he once killed a gypsy woman on the steps of Notre Dame Cathedral and also nearly drowned her physically deformed baby son. Frollo was persuaded to let the baby live and raised him inside the cathedral as the bell ringer. The boy, named Quasimodo (which means “half-formed”) has stayed in the bell tower his whole life and watches the streets of Paris from above, longing to join them. He decides to sneak out the one day he won’t be recognised – the Festival of Fools where the townspeople will be wearing masks. Quasimodo ends up being crowned the King of Fools as the ugliest person in Paris. This soon turns into a public humiliation until a gypsy girl Esmerelda publicly stands up for him and becomes a fugitive in the process. She takes refuge in the cathedral and strikes up a friendship with Quasimodo, while Frollo lusts after her.

For those who don’t know, Disney’s artists spent months in Paris making sketches of the statues and designs of Notre Dame Cathedral in order to get it just right on film. And believe me, it definitely shows. This is one of Disney’s most artistic films, probably only rivalled by Sleeping Beauty in that department. The amount of effort put into the animation is amazing with all the statues, stained glass windows and architectural detail standing out beautifully. The opening shot of the cathedral zooming in from the clouds is perfectly done as well as another shot where Quasimodo shows Esmerelda the sunset from the roof of the cathedral. This was also another of the Disney films to have prominent use of CGI notably in the crowd scenes. If I’m being honest, it’s not that impressive and it does look very basic. 

And let’s talk about our heroine; she is most notably not hourglass thin, drawn a little more voluptuously than the likes of Belle and Ariel and more in line with Pocahontas. And that makes her pole dancing scene all the nicer – yes she does pole dance. While not as hot as Ariel, Esmerelda is indeed one of the sexier Disney heroines. And so I won’t piss off the feminists, I feel that Esmerelda is definitely one of the most kickass Disney feminists. She publicly defies Frollo and outwits his entire squad of guards with her gypsy tricks. She’s a pretty fun action girl and nicely voiced by Demi Moore. Our villain Frollo is definitely one of the most menacing villains in the Disney Animated Canon and he’s a bit of a throwback to the traditional villains from the old films. There’s nothing camp or witty about him – he’s genuinely creepy and unnerving. There’s one scene where rape is actually referenced – subtly but it’s there. What makes Frollo so scary is that he’s a real person. He’s not a witch or an evil sorcerer, he’s a human being who is genuinely prejudiced against the gypsies and hides behind his morals and religion. The late Tony Jay does a marvellous job voicing him. Phoebus is our love interest for Esmerelda. People do tend to hate on him because he gets the girl instead of Quasimodo but you have to admit he does get some of the best lines in the movie.

This being a Disney movie, there are songs of course. These ones however are a lot different from the previous Renaissance films in that they’re not too showy and a lot more mature. Frollo’s song “Hellfire” is one of the most powerful and disturbing songs Disney have ever created; he’s basically singing a song about how he’s lusting after Esmerelda but he hates himself for that because she’s a gypsy. He pretty much says he will make her his or else execute her. The song “God Help The Outcasts” is one of the most beautifully written songs I’ve ever heard. Esmerelda is in the cathedral and she says that she doesn’t want God to help her but others who are in bigger need of his help. The way it’s animated and written just makes it stunning to watch and listen to. Quasimodo’s two songs “Out There” and “Heaven’s Light” are also nice to listen to, as well as the sad reprise of the latter when he realises Esmerelda is in love with Phoebus. 

Now there is a big thing to criticise about this film – the gargoyles. To me it just seemed like the producers chickened out and felt they had to add them in to make the film more appealing to kids. Sadly it doesn’t really work and it’s a big case of mood whiplash whenever the gargoyles are on screen. Such as Hugo making a joke about Paris burning to the ground and some bad attempts at comedy ruining some good dramatic scenes. I absolutely despise the song “A Guy Like You” that they sing and it just really brings the film down. There is a fan-edited version out there that removes the gargoyles so I’m guessing the film would be a lot darker without them. I would say I’m in the group of people that believe the gargoyles are actually figments of Quasimodo’s imagination, since it’s only him that sees them and talks to them. It’s natural considering he’s been up in the bell tower his whole life so he creates imaginary friends for himself. Though that does make the gargoyles actually participating in the final battle a bit curious.

The above-mentioned final battle is one of the most epic film scenes ever and it’s Disney too. The sequence of Quasimodo swinging down from the bell tower, grabbing Esmerelda off the burning pyre, holding her body up high and shouting “sanctuary!” is just one big epic win. The following battle is pretty cool as well, even if the gargoyles do participate in it. And Frollo’s death scene – let me just say wow. I thought Ursula’s death was family unfriendly but Frollo’s just takes the cake.
The opening number “The Bells Of Notre Dame” is hands down the best opening to a Disney film ever. It’s so eerie and powerful with the gypsy woman running through the city to Notre Dame and pleading for sanctuary. She does this while holding a baby and outrunning Frollo on his horse. These days I still get chills when I see the statues all turned to face Frollo accusingly.

So entry number 34 in the Disney Animated Canon of course wasn’t really that well received when it was released. It was nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Film if you believe that. Just goes to show how ridiculous and pointless those “awards” are. I was scared of this movie when I was a kid but I love it now and hold it up as one of Disney’s masterpieces. I think along with The Black Cauldron, Sleeping Beauty and Pocahontas it’s one of the darkest Disney films ever. So take care and I hope none of you have trouble with your fireplaces. Follow me on Twitter.

Saturday 30 July 2011

100 days, 100 films; Day 44 - The Matrix

#57 - The Matrix

Sometimes, you’re looking for an answer. But it’s always the question that drives us. You know the question...
Why the hell do I keep opening with quotes?
Okay so back in the 90s, two brothers (though one of them is now a sister) had this idea for a film. Now this film would have a huge budget, extensive special effects and could either be a big hit or a box office bomb. In order to make sure the two brothers could pull it off the studio had them direct Bound first, just to prove they could make a film. And thus one of the most influential and innovative films emerged at the end of the 90s, creating a whole new trend in filmmaking. Of course sadly by the time the sequel came along four years later, the techniques had been copied and parodied to death but let’s just ignore that for the time being.

Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a mild-mannered citizen who goes about his business and leads a respectable life to the outside world. But behind closed doors he is a notorious computer hacker going by the alias Neo and he is eventually approached by a group of strange people, led by a creepy guy called Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) who says they want to free him from the “dream world” and bring him into the “real world”. It turns out the real world is a post-apocalyptic future where mankind is at war with the machines and nearly all of the planet has been destroyed. The world Neo thought he lived in was actually a computer simulated program called The Matrix that the majority of human beings are hooked up to, harvested for energy to fuel the machines. Naturally Neo has a hard time believing this and Morpheus assures him that the reason he was freed from The Matrix was because he believes that Neo is “the One” who is destined to lead them in the war against the machines and win. As if Neo doesn’t have enough problems already, there are also Agents in The Matrix who are powerful sentient computer programs who can possess anyone still connected to The Matrix. And yes, they do kill people.

I remember seeing this film when I was about eleven years old and thinking it was the coolest thing ever. I was disappointed with the second movie and I thought the third was passable but this has thankfully held up over time. I actually had to watch a two-hour documentary on the making of this for one of my film classes (it was our lecturer’s way of getting out of actually teaching us something that day). It draws a lot of influences from Anime, Hong Kong action films, spaghetti westerns, dystopian fiction as well as having references to the hacker and cyberpunk subcultures and a couple of nods to Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland (the white rabbit, the rabbit hole, the looking glass etc). It also itself influenced the infamous bullet-time sequences and mid-air fighting scenes, using fancy camera tricks and on-set special effects instead of just resorting to CGI (which the sequel did and that’s probably why it didn’t work as well as the first movie). Though be warned, the infamous bullet dodge sequence has been copied and parodied so many times, it can look a little ridiculous watching it now and people do tend to forget that it was cool for its time.

Let’s talk about our actors and get the negativity out of the way. Once again I find myself having to talk about Keanu Reeves and his inability to convey any emotion at all in front of the camera. I used to be a fan of his because I saw this film as a kid and of course kids don’t notice bad acting that much, so it was quite a shock when I watched this back and saw how wooden his performance was. The lines such as “I’m going to learn jiu-jitsu?” and “I know kung-fu” really stick out. And there’s the scene where they can’t decide whether or not to pull the plug on Morpheus and Neo says “this isn’t happening” and goes into a big speech about what they should do next. He sounds completely bored as though he’s reading the evening news. I’m not a big fan of Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith. I find his performance a bit too forced and robotic though that could have been intentional. His American accent is quite similar to Clive Owen’s in Sin City – it hides his natural accent but it’s not really that accurate. Thankfully the other two leads Laurence Fishburne and Carrie Ann Moss (Trinity) do much better and promptly steal the show with Morpheus’s idealism and Trinity’s no-nonsense attitude. Trinity’s “dodge this” line definitely stands out in a good way. As someone who despised Link in the sequels I enjoyed Marcus Chong as Tank who seems just that little bit nerdy. The rest of the supporting actors were all fine though it’s too bad their characters didn’t get much screen time or development except maybe Mouse and Cypher.

The production design for this film is extraordinary. My favourite touch is the green palette which is done over the scenes in The Matrix, giving it an alien other-wordly vibe and this of course goes hand in hand with the green codes we see making up The Matrix. Now these scenes are contrasted with the scenes in the real world which have a predominantly blue colour palette to give that a washed out look. A couple of neat production tricks show up in the scene where they drive the car to the Oracle. It is actually a filmed shot of the street passing by placed on a backdrop and played while they’re in the car. This was to give the city an artificial feel. Another big touch is in the scene with the woman in the red dress. The directors cast several twins and triplets as extras and put them in the same costumes to give the sense of a lazily-built computer program. And now we get to the big stuff with one of my favourite shots in the film – where the helicopter crashes into the side of a skyscraper. You see the helicopter hit the building, the whole glass surface ripples and then implodes before giving off all the fire and smoke as Trinity swings from the rope. 

In addition to the above mentioned scenes of pure awesomeness, I found one scene where the team are hiding from the agents and they have to literally hide in the hotel walls. It’s pretty tense and of course Morpheus’s big primal scream followed by jumping through the walls onto the SWAT team is just another awesome moment in this movie. The entire Morpheus rescue scene with the helicopter is so cool to watch and of course that goes hand in hand with the above mentioned skyscraper bit. Really the whole sequence of events when Neo and Trinity go back in to rescue Morpheus counts as a favourite scene. And yes the climactic Neo/Smith fight scene is really cool (which an episode of Charmed completely ripped off to give Mary Sue Prue yet another You Go Girl moment).
While I am talking about favourite scenes, I do have to point out some really lazy writing. This happens in the subway just after they’ve rescued Morpheus. The phone is ringing but Trinity chooses that time to tell Neo something personal. Neither of them answer the phone and it conveniently gives them enough time to wait there while Smith catches up with them. Call it “Plot Induced Stupidity”.

So what else is there to say about The Matrix? Is there a person alive who doesn’t like something about the film or has at least felt its influence on other films? True Keanu Reeves is a big letdown in this but I really don’t think anyone else could be Neo. He may have been wooden and monotonous but he made that role his own, so that’s something. If you really feel like you must continue the story then feel free to watch the sequels but they do pale in comparison to this, as is nearly always the case. And raise your hand if after you first watched this, you started to wonder whether this world is truly real. I guess we’ll never know...
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Friday 29 July 2011

Wrestlers Who Should Never Turn Heel

Ah, the age old face vs heel debate; it’s gone on for so long and of course it’s been ever so prominent since the Attitude Era where WWE realised they didn’t really need faces and there was really just heels who got cheered and heels who got booed. After the Ruthless Aggression Era this was toned down a bit and some more traditional faces came back onto the scene. But these days people do like their faces to have a bit of attitude and not be the clean-cut Hulk Hogan type characters of the 80s. However against the smarks on the internet the faces are fighting an uphill battle. According to them, all faces are bland and generic and heels are so much better. You will always hear people calling for wrestlers to turn heel as though all their problems will be solved. Sadly, a little news flash in order: not everyone can play a heel and a heel turn will not save a wrestler magically. In fact the majority of heel turns have been the final nail in the coffin for many wrestlers. When you’re on the lower end of the totem pole, the faces are usually better off since they’re less likely to get buried. While I do agree there are some wrestlers who could benefit from a heel turn, there are a lot of them who should never even go near that line. Here’s my list:

Rey Mysterio:
Poor Rey Rey has really committed the biggest crime in the eyes of the hardcore smarks – he has a strong kid fanbase. For some reason the smarks really seem to hate faces who are over with the crowd – R-Truth got the same amount of hate and thankfully he’s one of the rare examples where a heel run has been just as successful as a face run. Rey Mysterio on the other hand, he’d be a crappy heel. I know he was one in WCW back when he lost his mask but seriously why would he be a good heel? His mic skills are piss poor and heels do need to talk, unless they have the silent but violent edge to them, which Rey obviously doesn’t have. His strength is his wrestling and even at his age, he’s moving slower than he used to but he can still pull off great moves and inject life into matches. For those wanting to turn Rey heel, how the hell would you book him? The only way he can actually be booked is as an underdog. Anyway rest assured, he has way too many kids as fans for WWE to even think about turning him heel.

Beth Phoenix:
Sorry, diva fans but Beth was an awful heel. Yeah she could wrestle but in WWE that means doodly squat unless you have the charisma to back it up. Beth had none of that as a heel and she failed to be intimidating at all when all she was doing was smiling like she had lock jaw. Only Santino was able to give her a personality and only Melina was able to make her look good in a feud. But when she was moved to Smackdown and they started teasing that tension between her and Michelle, my reaction was “what’s this? Is Beth finally interesting?” and I was actually curious as to what they would do with Beth next. Her face turn was a saving grace for her and now she is very much in the same mould as Chyna – a woman breaking ground in a man’s world. Why should someone boo her for that? Beth needs to stay face so we can finally get that feud with Kharma when she comes back. In that infamous segment, it was Beth who led the divas against her and it’s Beth who needs to be that leader in the future. She just needs to be kept relevant until Kharma comes back.

Evan Bourne:
I always felt that this was a no-brainer but a while back I actually saw some suggestions to turn Evan heel over the internet. If any WWE creative team member suggested that then they’d need to be smashed over the head with one of Jeff Jarrett’s guitars to knock some sense into them. Evan Bourne is one of the most talented guys on the roster right now so why would I want to boo him? He’s able to pull off even better moves than Rey Mysterio and so far he doesn’t have a high army of smark haters behind him. Believe it or not, the crowd were behind him in that match with Sin Cara. He is alright on the mic but not good enough to make it as a heel. He can cut an alright babyface promo and then back it up with a great competitive match but him being face is literally the only thing that’s saving him from the brink of obscurity. If he was a heel he’d just get buried and probably become the new Chavo.

Kofi Kingston:
Sadly Kofi is a guy who WWE really don’t know what to do with but thankfully turning him heel has never crossed their minds. Kofi does go hand in hand with Rey and Evan in that he’s very athletic and pulls off some great moves, as well as taking some great bumps in his matches. It’s always Kofi who’s impressing every time there’s a ladder match isn’t it. We saw some shades of fire and aggression in him in his feuds with Randy Orton and Drew McIntyre, and that’s all he needs to cut it among the main eventers. Give him a proper storyline to show off and he’ll do fine. If he isn’t allowed to wow the crowd then there’s really nothing else he can do, so don’t try turning him heel.

Eve Torres:
This one has been popping up quite recently given Eve has been acting as Kelly’s current gal-pal and saving her from the Bellas. I’m really shocked people actually want to see a heel Eve. Let me ask you one question – when was the last time you saw a heel do a moonsault? The reason fans can get behind Eve is that she has a fairly unique moveset from the rest of the divas. She always mixes up her moves to make her matches seem new and exciting as well as incorporating jiu-jitsu into her moves. True she can talk as shown when she cut that promo on The Miz and she can get feisty when she wants to but she is just too inconsistent. If she went heel then she would just become way too bland. Look how awful Brie was after she turned (her sister is another matter). I don’t see how heel Eve could be any different from the Bellas, Kristal, Stacy, Torrie, Candice or any of the other interchangeable female heels in the past. Her moves are what make her stand out and she can only do that as a face.

Gail Kim:
This has of course been popping up even more than Eve since Gail has yet to actually be pushed properly in storylines and it does come up even more now that the heel side of the women’s division has only one who is a consistent worker. But what people don’t realise is that in the divas’ division, if you’re not the top heel then you’re getting buried. Look what happened to Maryse, Melina, Alicia, Jillian and all the other heel divas who were shunted aside after their push was over. What would make Gail any different? She would actually be over if they pushed her because the crowd finds her exciting. She gets good reactions on Superstars and she can always be counted upon to wow the crowd whenever possible. The crowd were behind her in her match with Beth a few weeks ago. Her heel run in 2003/2004 was completely forgettable and the crowd literally didn’t care even though she was actually booked halfway decently.

Daniel Bryan:
I was reluctant to put this one here as, if I’m being honest, I could see Daniel Bryan maybe working as a heel if creative ran out of ideas for him. But for now, he’s over and you do not mess with the type of reactions he gets. He has the type of back story that anyone can relate to – a small time guy who’s made it big and is fighting against the machine to prove himself. He is reminiscent of Chris Benoit though he manages to be exciting and interesting in the ring, which is something Benoit lacked. There are way too many heels who wrestle a submission based style and Daniel Bryan stands out with this kind of moveset among the faces. Now that he’s a MITB winner he could indeed go onto superstardom. 

So there’s my list. Out of a few of those on the list, several have been heels before and they’ve all bombed in my opinion. Daniel Bryan was heel for that one Nexus segment and even if he hadn’t been fired, I don’t think I could see him staying part of Nexus and turning face anyway. It takes a lot of charisma and mic skills in order to cut it as a heel and sadly charisma is something they can’t teach. If that doesn’t work then some heels can still get by on the freak factor such as Mark Henry and the Great Khali. If I’m being honest, if any of the people on my list were turned heel I’d see them getting the Tyson Kidd treatment – a few weeks in the spotlight then getting buried into obscurity.

100 days, 100 films; Day 43 - Wolf Creek

#58 - Wolf Creek

30,000 people are reported missing in Australia every year. 90% are found within a month. The rest are never seen again...
I don’t know how true the above statement is but I do know that 73% of statistics are made up on the spot, and that this film is very loosely based on true events. The characters and the murders themselves are completely made up but the plot borrows from two different real life encounters. This was originally written as a standard slasher film but then the two cases came to director Greg McLean’s attention and the film we have today was formed. This slasher film takes us away from totally radical American small towns and takes place in the wide and vast Australian outback.

We have two British girls Liz and Kristy on holiday in Australia. For some unexplained reason they are travelling with an Aussie friend Ben and they have just finished up two weeks in a nice beach town. They rent a car, stock up on food and provisions, and head into the outback in the direction of the landmark Wolf Creek crater (it’s actually Wolfe Creek in real life though) which is literally in the middle of nowhere. They have the worst luck there as the car they rented won’t start, leaving them stranded alone in the outback. But help comes in the form of a kindly looking hermit called Mick Taylor who offers to fix the car for them. They settle down for the night, glad that they’ll be able to get back on the road in the morning. Except next morning both Liz and Kristy are tied up, Ben is nowhere to be found, the parts have all been taken out of their car and Mick is actually a deranged psycho who’s got a corpse hanging in his shed.

Usually when watching a teen slasher film, no matter how well it is made, you always have that little feeling of safety that obviously this couldn’t happen in real life. There’s always that illusion that it’s only a film and it’s just there to scare you and be entertaining. With this film however, and not just because it presents itself as something that actually happened, that illusion is gone. Watch everything that happens in this film and you will come to the realisation that yes it could actually happen. There are no stereotypical horror movie clichés as none of the characters are cookie cutter slasher film stock characters. The three of them are all believable as real people and of course what happens to them is believable. And therein lies what makes this movie work. The killer himself is not some escaped lunatic in a mask or some nightmare creature with knives for fingernails, he is a real person that exists normally. I do draw a few comparisons with Stanley Tucci in The Lovely Bones and Ellen Page in Hard Candy as a person who appears kindly and jovial, someone who attracts you in and fools you into trusting them. Then once you’re sucked in, they change and they’ve caught you. A human predator, if you will.

The film was originally going to be shot in Mini DV but eventually got shot in HD and was done almost entirely handheld. I always enjoy it whenever you see handheld camera work because it does allow for more freedom of movement and a different kind of picture quality than shooting from a tripod or crane. The film has plenty of great wide shots of the Australian landscape, really capturing how isolated and alone the tourists are. Although there are plenty of nice shots of the landscape and scenery, for some reason the film doesn’t look too pretty or artistic, maybe because the colours aren’t really that saturated or just because of the way they were lit. Believe it or not, part of the funding from the film came from the idea that it would have so much showing off of the Australian scenery that it would make people want to see the film. Um, right...

The performances really keep this film looking and feeling strong. John Jarratt, who plays Mick is a big time method actor who actually lived like a hermit for months in preparation for this film. Believe it or not, he was best known as a smiley bubbly host of an Aussie gardening show at the time. I do mention his similarities to Ellen Page as Hayley and Stanley Tucci as Mr Harvey in that the character is likeable almost instantly and that makes the eventual change all the more startling. Mick immediately seeming like a wrong one or someone to watch out for wouldn’t be as effective if you ask me. The scene where he has Kristy tied up is probably the strongest scene performance-wise in the film. Apparently when the director was shooting the scene from Liz’s perspective as she looks in from the window, he became convinced that Kestie Morassi’s screaming was real and that John Jarratt had gone too far so he burst into the shed and surprised the actors. That’s how convincing the performance was. Cassandra McGrath who plays Liz does seem like a typical slasher film Final Girl and she’s shown to be quite smart and resourceful with how she distracts Mick so she can sneak in and help Kristy, but as you’ll see she makes way too many mistakes in the film. Nathan Phillips, whom a lot of people might recognise as a surfer dude who rode a plane with snakes on it, is also a nice likeable guy and his torture scene is probably almost as freaky and gruesome as poor Kristy’s.

I have to say that the scene I enjoyed the most was Kristy’s chase. She and Liz have been separated and so Kristy runs away from Mick’s camp and eventually gets to the road. I just think that scene is brilliantly shot and very suspenseful. It’s definitely different than the standard slasher movie chase and it really emphasises how completely isolated they are. I may be clutching at straws here but I think the car chase scene in Death Proof may have borrowed a bit from this film, as the film is referenced (Stuntman Mike’s car crashes through a sign for a drive-in movie theatre with this film as one of the attractions). Equally striking and well shot is the montage of Ben aimlessly wandering the outback, hinting that if Mick doesn’t get him then the harsh weather will. I also enjoy the whole travel montage done with the opening credits over it. It’s a nice fun scene to watch and it was also the first scene shot for the film so it kind of acted as a team building exercise for the three young actors.

So I took a bit of a journey over to Australia to get a look at their indie scene. I’ll admit, apart from Blue Water High and H2O: Just Add Water, I haven’t seen that much of the Aussie film and TV scene but I do like what I have seen. I have actually been to Australia though I wasn’t in any of the places shown in this film (and perhaps that was for the best). Here we have a film that pushed the boundaries of the horror genre and broke out of the stereotypical movie clichés to give us a horror film that was genuinely disturbing and prevents people from finding this too entertaining or enjoyable. Opinions on this film are pretty mixed but you can obviously tell what my view of it is. Take care, follows me on Twitter and maybe take a trip down under too.

Thursday 28 July 2011

100 days, 100 films; Day 42 - The Little Mermaid

#59 - The Little Mermaid:

Picture this scenario – it’s 1989 and you’ve heard of something called the Disney studio that was big way back in the Golden Age of Hollywood but now they mostly make OK cartoons. But all of a sudden there’s this big new film. It’s a proper fairytale complete with musical numbers, a starring princess and a charismatic villain. It’s almost like the old Disney films like Snow White, Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. Congratulations, you’ve just witnessed the start of the Disney Renaissance. You see, way back in the 1980s, Disney was struggling and often being outdone by its competition Don Bluth. But The Little Mermaid was a throwback to the old classic Disney films and that kickstarted a whole new trend and put Disney back on the map, as any kid who wasn’t living under a rock in the 90s would know.

Young Ariel is a sixteen-year-old mermaid princess who is, shall we say, a fish out of water. She is fascinated by the world of humans and has a whole cavern full of human junk, making regular visits to sunken ships to gather more stuff for her collection. Now this is a problem because her father King Triton hates humans and forbids Ariel from even going above the surface. Naturally being sixteen and in possession of a mermaid tail, Ariel ignores him and witnesses a storm that falls on a small ship. She saves a young prince Eric from drowning and sings to him on the beach, falling in love with him. Of course there’s a bit of a problem since she’s a mermaid and he’s a human. Lucky for her (or so she thinks) the sea witch Ursula has a potion that will make Ariel human for three days. If she can get Eric to fall in love with her and kiss her within that time, she stays human but if not...well take a look at what Ursula has in her garden.

I wasn’t actually born yet when this film first came out in cinemas though I did actually go and see it when it was rereleased back in 1997 which I thought was weird at the time because one of my friends had it on video. And I was little weirded out at myself and at how excited I was to see this film again even when I’ve seen it loads of times though I don’t have a video or DVD sadly. Anyway it’s safe to say that this film was literally the codifier for all the other Disney films released in the 90s, with the feisty rebellious heroine, talking animal sidekicks (aside from the mice in Cinderella, this was the first Disney fairytale to have the animal sidekicks all talk), show stopping musical numbers and a different type of villain. If you look at the likes of Maleficent, Lady Tremaine and the Queen, they’re all pretty intimidating and serious. Ursula on the other hand, while a little unnerving, is a bit more comedic and hams it up on a few counts which is seen in the likes of Hades, Scar, Jafar and Radcliffe. This film showed that villains could be entertaining too, and I think Ursula was the first Disney villain to get a song. Ariel is also quite different from the likes of Aurora, Snow White and Cinderella. You could call her the first Disney feminist since she’s a bit of an action girl and she saves the hero a couple of times. I had the biggest crush on Ariel when I was a kid and I still think she’s one of the hottest animated characters ever (and no I did not need American Pie to tell me that).

The animation for this film is beautiful to look at. As someone who loves the water and everything about it (except maybe the rain) I just enjoy how much detail has gone into the lighting and the movements underwater. Things such as bubbles appearing and the movements of hair and leaves are taken for granted yet they are brilliantly rendered. I’m almost annoyed that half the film took place on land so we couldn’t have seen more done with the underwater world, but I guess this was the 1980s. I liked the design of King Triton’s palace and Ursula’s lair, two contrasting places that have a really nice design. I also like the lighting effects done in Ariel’s grotto, particularly during the Part of Your World number. Special mention should go to Ariel’s hair – how 80s can you get? Even when she’s above the water it’s still perfectly in place. Not even the forces of the ocean can defeat that kind of volume.

Speaking of volume, I guess we should talk about the songs. Under The Sea is of course the film’s signature song and it is pretty catchy, managing to stay in your head for years at a time until you forget the lyrics then listen to it again and so the cycle continues. I even enjoyed playing it again in Kingdom Hearts II. Part of Your World is sung pretty well by Jodi Benson who is one of the rare people who does both the acting and the singing for her Disney Princess. Kiss The Girl I enjoyed as well though of course the backup singing was a little off-putting and I’m not even sure which animals were meant to be singing in that part. I also found Ursula’s song Poor Unfortunate Souls well written as well since it helps get across Ursula’s motivation. I know I don’t talk about score that much but I really do love the music of this film, especially the opening theme and the one that plays during the storm scene.

Speaking of the storm scene, that is definitely one of my favourite parts of the movie. Watching it as a child I was really excited and I did try to recreate that whenever I was in the pool. The above mentioned score really adds to it as well, and just the shot of Ariel being blown off the ship’s ropes always stuck out to me for some reason. Then there’s the climactic battle between Giant Ursula and everyone else, which is significantly epic and terrifying. I can see somewhere Pirates of the Caribbean got their influence for the storm in the third film (they were made by the same studio after all). And big props to Ursula for getting one of the most family unfriendly deaths in movie history. Then there’s the scene where Triton destroys all of Ariel’s human collection – for years I couldn’t watch that scene and indeed watching it back was really hard. As said above, the music is really helpful.

So there you have it; the film that started it all. We all owe the fact that Disney is once again a big household name to this film. We pretty much owe Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan and Tarzan to this film as well. And with Disney seemingly entering a third wave of animation with Tangled and The Princess and the Frog, maybe we’ll see something else too. Oh and a little fun fact, Ariel was modelled after Alyssa Milano who also played a mermaid in an episode of Charmed. So follow me on Twitter and I’ll see you Under the Sea.

Wednesday 27 July 2011

100 days, 100 films; Day 41 - From Dusk Till Dawn

#60 - From Dusk Till Dawn:

Yep, I’m swinging by the Tarantino zone once again though this time I’m finally picking up Robert Rodriguez along the way. I’ll admit, Rodriguez’s films have never really impressed me that much as Planet Terror was only alright, I didn’t like Desperado and there’s no way I’m even watching a minute of Machete. But, as far as I’m aware, this would be the first time Tarantino and Rodriguez teamed up together properly. You would guess this is a Rodriguez film almost straight away since the protagonists can’t wait to get to Mexico and that is indeed where the infamous last half hour of the film takes place.

Meet the Gecko brothers, Seth (George Clooney) and Richie (Quentin Tarantino) – yes, the two of them are playing brothers. This film is made of win already. They are two notorious criminals who are on the run from the law (as only the best criminals are) and looking to cross the border into Mexico so they can deliver some money and get some sanctuary or something. I wasn’t really paying attention for that line. They luckily stumble across a family of three staying at a motel, retired minister Jacob (Harvey Keitel) and his two children Kate (Juliette Lewis) and the Asian-for-some-reason Scott (Ernest Liu) and kidnap the family, needing them to drive their motor home across the border for them. Once they’re in Mexico, the film’s real plot kicks in: The five of them stop at a bar called the Titty Twister full of bikers, truckers, liquor and topless dancers. Only problem with the last one is that they’re actually vampires there to eat them.
I guess watching the first hour or so of the film you might be a little confused considering it seems a little too sophisticated for Rodriguez. The two halves of the film are really different genres with the first half being a cool suspenseful crime thriller with a bit of witty dialogue thrown in, but otherwise completely serious – almost like True Romance. Then the last half of the film is over the top campy and pretty much exploitation in the style of Evil Dead and films like that, which is definitely recognisable as Rodriguez’s style. The acting is hammy, the lines are corny, the effects are a bit hokey...but it is still friggin awesome. I’m trying to imagine exactly how this film was marketed as the vampires don’t show up until about an hour in so it was probably a twist back in the day and I’m sure people in the cinema were probably wondering what the hell was going on. These days we’re used to what Rodriguez and Tarantino put in front of us but it was probably a big case of mood whiplash for a 90s audience.

I’ve never seen George Clooney play a villain (though I was personally rooting against him and his nipple suit in Batman & Robin) or even a nasty guy so imagine my shock at finding him playing someone cool:

-“I’ve got six friends in this gun and they can all run faster than you”

He does overdo it at times but it works in the context of the film, and apparently he just threw the “no thanks, I already had a wife” line in himself so go figure. Now to talk about the awesomeness that is the sheer fact that he has Mr Tarantino playing his brother. Richie is a bit...odd let’s just say that. Tarantino should indeed have more leading roles since I enjoyed him in this, though I admire his selflessness in that he gave most of the best lines to Seth. But then again he also wrote himself getting a bikini dance from Salma Hayek. Speaking of Miss Hayek, she is so incredibly sexy in this film it’s almost a crime that I watched her in Frida first. Now I would normally talk about her performance but in this film it amounts to the dance and a few awkwardly delivered lines before morphing into vamp face. The other girl in the film is much more entertaining with her great comic timing and sexy Southern accent. For some reason she reminds me a little of Alyson Hannigan as Willow. Harvey Keitel is also pretty good as her father and makes the role his own. I didn’t care much for Scott and even Tarantino himself said he doesn’t like the character much. On the other hand I did enjoy the cameos of Tom Savini and Danny Trejo who made pretty memorable characters.

If we’re talking about favourite scenes, I enjoyed the whole final half hour of the film with the over the top vampire battle that was obviously inspired by George Romero’s zombie films, except of course it’s vampires instead of zombies. I do see a bit of Evil Dead influence in there though for those who are squeamish, the vampires’ blood is made green (a clever trick to get the film past the censors). Tom Savini morphing into a giant mutant rat thing is one of the most random and freakish things I’ve ever seen (and awesome of course) and the little scuffle with the creature is pretty entertaining. The whole final act plays out almost like a shoot-em-up video game, like Left 4 Dead or something (Left 4 Dead was no doubt inspired by this).

Moving away from the vampire scenes, Salma Hayek’s table dance is one of the sexiest movie moments ever, going hand in hand with Butterfly’s lap dance from Death Proof and Cherry’s go-go routine from Planet Terror. A fun fact says that Salma is afraid of snakes and Rodriguez conned her into thinking Madonna was after the role, so she spent four months in therapy to overcome her fear and do the part. And Quentin Tarantino is one lucky bastard (then he gets real unlucky – you’ll have to watch the film to get the details). Then there’s another fun scene where the group are at the border and the brothers are hiding in the motor home’s bathroom and Seth and Richie are bickering like a pair of old ladies. Oh and this was the debut film for Sheriff Earl McGraw but there comes a slight surprise in his appearance which kind of puts this film last in the Tarantino chronology.

So I’m getting even closer to the halfway point with my challenge and I’ve covered a lot of different genres so far. And believe me, there are a few that will be covered that I haven’t quite gotten to yet (no John Wayne though, sorry folks). And yes there will be more from Tarantino and indeed Rodriguez as well. Sadly I will bid adieu to most of the cast in this film apart from Salma Hayek and Harvey Keitel (three guesses which other film he’ll be making an appearance in) but I suppose we’ll always have the memories. Take care and steer clear of the Titty Twister, follow me on Twitter instead.

Tuesday 26 July 2011

100 days, 100 films; Day 40 - Troy

#61 - Troy:

And there you have it. Forty days and counting. And what better way to commemorate clocking two fifths of my challenge than revisiting my love for Greek mythology? Despite my childhood love of Greek mythology there is a surprising absence of films about it on my list. I wouldn’t exactly call Percy Jackson or Clash of the Titans worthy of any 100 greatest films list either, and Jason and the Argonauts doesn’t really count since it’s a miniseries. However I was lucky to catch this in the cinema when it came out (unluckily enough I saw it with my family; you think they’d read the Parental Guides before taking their kids to films). I was always familiar with the story of the Trojans but I was never clear on the specifics so let’s get going.

It is Ancient Greece and King Agamemnon of Mycenae has conquered all of the country, unifying it under his own rule. Meanwhile his brother Menelaus is King of Sparta and is welcoming a visit from the Princes Hector and Paris of Troy. Little does Menelaus know that Paris has been bedding his wife Helen every night that week. Helen decides to elope with Paris to Troy, and Menelaus is none too happy about it. Delighted with the excuse to wage war on Troy, Agamemnon rallies armies from all over Greece to lay siege to the city. Among these warriors is the legendary Achilles, with whom Agamemnon has a stormy relationship. And yes, the wooden horse does make an appearance.

Just by looking at the poster you can see the cast is pretty big. Brad Pitt is playing Achilles and, despite a completely bizarre accent, is pretty memorable. Achilles stands out among the other soldiers in that he’s there to be remembered. He’s a little bit Genre Savvy as well, stating that there’s no point in killing Hector since there’s nobody watching and that killing princes doesn’t happen until much later. And aside from his “you sack of wine” line, he is pretty well written. Eric Bana does an alright job as Hector though some of his lines sound forced. Now we have Orlando Bloom as Paris, in a role that probably contributed to the massive hatedom for him. Paris is just a dirty coward who never gets his comeuppance. He challenges Menelaus to a fight and then runs away as soon as he gets socked in the mouth, and kills a major character from a distance. Yeah, and the whole robbing another man’s wife and starting a war thing. It doesn’t help that he’s a major pretty boy. Brian Cox plays Agamemnon and for those familiar with the expression “chewing the scenery”, Cox gobbles the scenery whole, gargles it for a bit and then spits in right back out. He is truly awesomeness personified. Brendan Gleeson, who appears to be in every film ever made, plays Menelaus and gets a surprisingly short amount of screentime but I guess someone had to die early on to affect the plot. My old favourite Sean Bean is playing a good guy this time. He’s actually playing Odysseus, the master mind behind the Trojan Horse with the clever line “I don’t care about the man’s allegiance, I care about his ability to win battles”. And finally rounding up our starring men, Sir Peter O’Toole nearly steals the show as King Priam.

On the female side of the spectrum, we have German cutie Diane Kruger as the lovely Helen. Believe me she is more than worthy of being the face that launched a thousand ships, and she plays a much more sympathetic character than Paris since after the first day of battle, she offers to give herself up. Familiar face Rose Byrne is playing Briseis, a combination of Cassandra and others from the original myth. For those used to Rose doing an American accent, she uses a nice English accent here and sounds as nice on the ears as she does with her American one. She gives a pretty strong performance as well as the woman who “vexes” Achilles and provides some reason to the proceedings. Saffron Burrows plays Hector’s wife Andromache and, despite getting little screen time, gives a solid performance and is especially impressive during the final siege of the city. Veteran actress Julie Christie has a cameo as Thetis, Achilles’s mother, in a scene that takes place entirely in a pool of water. This scene neither confirms nor denies that Thetis is a goddess.

Fans of the original myth might be a little annoyed that some of the bigger fantasy elements are left out of this adaptation, such as the Greek Gods and Cassandra’s prophecies. This adaptation focuses more on a “historical event that inspired the legend” type of story even if it is debatable whether or not the city of Troy actually existed. It doesn’t outright make it a realistic story as Achilles does state he’s seen the Gods and the scene with Thetis doesn’t say whether or not she’s human. It’s more of offering you an implication that yes the fantastic elements are real while sceptics who don’t like that kind of stuff can just take it as a nice bit of storytelling.

The battle scenes are nothing short of impressive, even for a standard Hollywood epic. The first scene of Achilles and his army taking the beach of Troy is especially fun to watch, as is the cool midnight battle on the beach. The Trojans shoot flaming arrows and then roll bales of hay down to catch fire and scare the Greeks. The gripping one-on-one battle between Hector and Achilles was a nice scene as well though I was expecting to see some drunken rednecks in the crowd cheering them on. It was over almost a little too soon, which is a bit shocking. And as for the final siege of Troy, let me just say wow. It is indeed one of the most powerfully done scenes I’ve ever seen done in a film. It was pretty exciting to watch the whole thing unfold.

As any good Hollywood epic will show, strong action scenes aren’t worth much unless you have some quality drama scenes to back them up. My favourite scenes are the ones between Briseis and Achilles particularly the one where Achilles tells her about the Gods and the eventual love scene (whoops was that a spoiler?). Even though I hate Paris’s guts, the scene after the battle between him and Helen is so well written and Diane Kruger is such a sweetheart in it. She acts her ass off in the scene where Helen offers herself back to the Greeks too. But the best dramatic scene would have to be where Priam sneaks into Achilles’s tent. Peter O’Toole does indeed steal the show as I mentioned above. It’s a shame he didn’t enjoy making this film.

For an interesting bit of trivia, co-stars Rose Byrne and Diane Kruger would later be reunited to star in Wicker Park where they were both playing Americans. Anyway moving on, that’s yet another day down and I can’t believe it’s been forty days already. I can’t believe I actually kept to the schedule and posted an entry on time every day. As I’ve said before, it’s great knowing what film I’m watching every night. I guess I’ll be a nervous wreck by the time the challenge is over. Maybe I can extend it to a thousand films? Hmmm. Okay, don’t forget to follow me on Twitter and all that.