Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The June 100: Films 1-5


Ginger & Rosa
Sally Potter // 2012 // 90 mins

Set against a 1960's London in the build up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Ginger & Rosa centres itself around the turbulent relationship between two inseparable teenage girls. Disappointingly, the focal story of Ginger and Rosa's friendship is relatively mundane and familiar, treading the well-worn territory these coming-of-age narratives always do, while the shameless melodrama that surrounds and threatens their friendship fails to inspire and grows predictable very quickly. A politically charged backdrop to this story does succeed in setting the film apart from the countless others like it and adds a solid layer of interest to a what is otherwise not all that original. Seeing the psychological effects that the threat of a nuclear attack have on Ginger's impressionable teenage mind is a refreshing approach to the subject matter and Elle Fanning is at her best when she is able to depict the extreme fear and paranoia that afflicts Ginger as a result of the panic and uncertainty that surrounds her. Unfortunately for the rest of the film Fanning's performance is hindered by her characters distant, introverted nature, which prevents any real connection with the viewer despite her being the central figure, and a jarring attempt at a British accent.

Also struggling to act through a dodgy accent is Christina Hendricks as Ginger's unfulfilled mother, and symbol of the submissive, domestic lifestyle that Ginger so desperately wants to distance herself from. The well-rounded supporting cast also contains the familiar faces of Annette BeningTimothy Spall and Oliver Platt who are all fine in slight but enjoyable roles. Despite laying claim to half of the films title, Alice Englert's Rosa surprisingly takes a back seat to Fanning as her character receives less and less development through the course of the narrative and is ultimately relegated to the role of 'the bitch' come the stories climax; a huge disservice to both the character and the actress. Sally Potters direction is good enough, despite some pacing issues, but the films real achievement is in the cinematography of Robbie Ryan, who ensures the film is always beautifully shot and seamlessly alternates between rose-tinted nostalgia and bleak drama. With a cast and synopsis that held so much potential it's a shame that Ginger & Rosa never elevates to anything more than teenage melodrama with a historical twist, the talent involved certainly deserved and are capable of so much more.

The Queen of Versailles 
Lauren Greenfield // 2012 // 100 mins

When Lauren Greenfield began her documentary The Queen of Versailles it was intended to document the construction of American entrepreneur David Siegel's Versailles House, which would have been the largest single-family home in the United States had it ever been completed. Instead, something much more interesting happened along the way; the economy collapsed and Siegel's family found themselves in the same situation as millions of others who had borrowed too much from the banks and spent their money carelessly. By following the lives of the Siegel family in the aftermath of this economic crisis we are witness to the most extreme example of how many American's lives had to alter as a result of being screwed over by their banks and their own lack of financial awareness.

Rather than take the easy route and paint this family as the pantomime villains they could so easily be seen as, Greenfield attempts to explore a more human side to a family that has become completely warped by their extreme wealth. We are given an insight into David and trophy wife Jackie's humble beginnings and shown in a very intimate way how the reality of their financial problems puts a strain on their marriage. The problem is that at no point do these people display and signs of growth or learning in the wake of their troubles. Jackie talks openly about having to make cutbacks on her impulsive spending, yet these cutbacks are shown to mean only buying three shopping trollies full of toys and games for her children, as opposed to six. David remains constant in his abstaining from any responsibility for his situation and places blame firmly on the banks, though Greenfield ensures that it is made clear he is just as guilty of carrying out the same practices in his business as those that were committed by the banks and which had a hand in causing these economic problems. The only development that Mr Siegel displays is transforming from a man who smugly declares he wants to build such an expensive house simply because he can, to one who spends all of his time alone, passive-aggressively taking out his frustration on his wife and children.

There are a number of brilliant moments in The Queen of Versailles where Greenfield displays how, despite being as far removed from the average person as possible, the Siegel's are undergoing the same troubles as so many other Americans, just on a much grander scale. Unfortunately these moments are few and what fills out the remainder of the runtime is a thorough, but often dull account of the downfall of Siegel's empire. This would be fine if we were able to fully invest in or empathise with their plight, but this proves difficult when they show no indication of truly learning from their experiences.

Shane Acker // 2009 // 79 mins

I can vaguely remember the time during 2009 when trailers and posters for 9 began appearing. They proudly boasted 'From Producer Tim Burton', and though by this time I was over the whole Burton craze I was certainly intrigued by this new animation that he had helped bring to the big screen. 9 is set in a post-apocalyptic world where machines have wiped out the human race. The scientist who was unwittingly responsible for the creation of these machines used alchemy to create nine burlap rag-dolls, each of whom where infused with a portion of the scientists soul, who he hoped could stop the machines for good. After the scientists death, his last doll '9', voiced by Elijah Wood, awakens and sets about exploring the destroyed world where he encounters the scientists other dolls; '1' through '8'. Despite conflict between the passionate '9' and arrogant '1' (Christopher Plummer), the group have to work together to destroy the countless monstrous machines that still roam the earth and save their fallen comrades. It is quite a dark narrative for a children's animation, but this dark tone is wasted on a relatively uninteresting, overlong story filled with characters that are about as original as their names would suggest.

Where the film excels is in the character and creature design. Though it is hugely indebted to the now tired steampunk style, the design work of 9 is incredibly successful and different from anything seen in other mainstream animations. What the characters lack in personality they more than make up for in appearance, and the animators clearly had a lot of fun bringing this world to life. The creatures that the dolls have to face throughout the narrative are just as effectively realised and heavily contribute to the darker tone of the film, they just feel more like boss-battles from a video game rather than an integral part of the plots progression. The film is an extended update of director Shane Acker's previous short film based around the same concept, and this certainly feels like a needlessly dragged out concept that would work much better in a shorter form, with many of the films set pieces feeling like filler scenes to connect the few moments of actual plot. It's hard to say whether 9 would have been improved or hindered by a more dominant presence from producer Tim Burton, but as it is the film feels like a great creative achievement that is let down by an extremely lacklustre narrative.

Toby Wilkins // 2008 // 82 mins

Attempting to recapture the success of old school body horror//creature-features, Splinter see's two very different couples forced together when they have to fend off attacks from an infection that causes it's host to turn rabid and sprout long splinters all over their body. The film takes a pretty formulaic approach to the narrative as a couple on a romantic getaway find themselves held hostage by a criminal couple trying to get out of the country. When the unlikely group stop for gas they find the place abandoned, apart from the distorted body of an attendant covered in spikes, a body that soon becomes animated and after attacking them leaves the group stranded in the station with no clear means of escaping. The characters are all staple archetypes of the genre; a junkie, a complex rogue, a feisty 'final girl' type and a nerd, and the writes nor the actors do little to make them more than their respective labels.

The creature design itself is extremely impressive and enjoys great execution and decent scares in each of it's numerous forms. The film also indulges it's old school feel by primarily using practical effects, which only heighten the success of the creature for the most part. The erratic camerawork and editing occasionally diminishes this success but the creature design is strong enough to overcome most of these questionable decisions made by the filmmakers. Another minor success comes from the fact that rather than lacing the film with mass amounts of blood and guts, as has become the norm, Splinter uses its gore sparingly and in doing so allows these moments to achieve their full impact. There are some questionable choices made on how to progress the plot once the group becomes trapped, and often the characters make stupid decisions in order to elicit drama; all of which could have been overcome by slightly stronger writing. Most importantly though, even when it's at it's weakest, Splinter is a lot more fun than it maybe should have been and enjoys an impressive atmosphere from the get-go. With so much originality and care going into the creature design it's a shame that the same level of attention wasn't given to the rest of the screenplay as with a bit of reworking on the script this could have been a modern masterpiece of the genre.

The Emperor's New Groove
Mark Dindal // 2000 // 78 mins

Disney's 40th Animated Classic, The Emperor's New Groove, followed the hugely successful Disney Renaissance and after suffering an extremely troubled production marked a very different direction from a formula that had proven successful over the previous ten years. Loosely inspired by the Danish fairytale The Emperor's New Clothes, this is the story of Kuzco (David Spade) and arrogant young Emperor who's selfish personality see's him planning to evict an entire village in order to build his own summer resort on top of a mountain. Prior to building the resort Kuzco is accidentally turned into a llama during an assassination attempt by his former advisor Yzma (Eartha Kitt) and her dim-witted companion Kronk (Patrick Warburton). When Kronk is unable to finish the job he releases Kuzco, who seeks help from Pacha (John Goodman), one of the peasant's he intended to make homeless.

What makes this different from the series of films that preceded it is the distinct lack of musical numbers driving the narrative and a greater emphasis on the comedy aspects of the plot. This is Disney at it's most slapstick, and for the most part it hits the mark every time. The loss of musical numbers is certainly felt though, particularly as this film comes in the wake of films that produced some of Disney's most iconic soundtracks. The implementation of songs, if done to the same standard as Disney's others, could have really brought the film together in a perfect package and prevented it from feeling like a series of loosely tied together sketches, which it sometimes does.

The strongest element at play here by far is Eartha Kitt's villainous Yzma, who despite less recognition fully earns her spot amongst Disney's greatest villains. The dynamic between her and Kronk is brilliant and the countless jokes about how old and ugly she is had me creasing with laughter every time. It's such a shame that Kitt wasn't given a sassy musical number to cement her iconic status in this role, as everything else about her vocal work here is perfection. In fact the entire voice cast is on top form with Warburton particularly excelling. It's great to see Disney really pushing their comedic talents to the forefront and the slick animation brings this vibrant Aztec world to life. Although it isn't held in as high regard as Disneys previous work, The Emperor's New Groove more than holds it's own amongst the companies extensive catalogue.


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