Monday, 27 April 2009

Monsters vs Aliens

Monsters vs Aliens Robot Probe

Animation where Susan Murphy (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) grows into a giant on her wedding day, and then joins a team of other classic sci-fi monsters in combating an alien attack.


I was raised on 50s sci-fi, ever since my Dad started videoing a late night programme in the 80s - The Worst of Hollywood. It introduced, then showed, a dire B movie each week (a gorilla in a diving helmet using a deadly bubble machine, a hub cap on a string, and, most vivid in my mind, the Smog Monster charging its batteries from chimneys) and entered my psyche indelibly. So there was little doubt I would watch this film from the moment I saw the title, especially when my niece and nephew asked to be taken - I wouldn't be a good uncle if I didn't say yes..?

DreamWorks cannot help but be compared to Pixar, and have certainly raised the game since the beautifully animated Kung Fu Panda, but this picture has a very different aesthetic to both. It manages to evoke those classic, Cold War influenced movies from the past, cathedral like alien constructions from such films as the Forbidden Planet, and the spectacle of big budget action like Independence Day.

There is something very pleasing about the style of art as it successfully brings essential Japanese elements to the mix. Among the well crafted characters (The Missing Link's tail flopping like a thrown fish is perfect), the robot probe that assaulted San Francisco is masterfully created.

Japanese Style Art
This giant alien machine manages to look cute and hapless while inflicting deadly damage to the city, and in one scene blends into the architecture ominously. The fight between it and Insectosaurus (voiced by co-director Conrad Vernon) at the Golden Gate Bridge works extremely well due to the careful mimicry of Japanese creature features.

Golden Gate Bridge Attack
This sequence is the first time we see the monsters in action, and is truly impressive - carrying a level of threat without scaring the little ones. The scenes within a deserted San Francisco are excellent, and need to be seen on the big screen. But the sheer success of this captivating set piece is also a flaw in the film. Like some great films before it, Monsters vs Aliens peaks too soon.

The Host and Superman Returns both had outstanding moments of special effects, extremely well used, and then were unable to create an equally satisfying finale. That is not to say these were bad films, The Host for instance chose to use dramatic character development to add weight to the final moments, and due to the time spent on building an interest in those individuals - despite the spectacle having been upstaged - we cared.

We sadly do not care quite as much about the peril attempting to be averted during the climax of Monsters vs Aliens. It chooses to place the heroes in well realised monumental alien construction, and while pleasing on the eye, we are detached from the world we recognise and therefore - despite the well scripted and choreographed humour - do not care as much as we should.

Ginormica Captured
The film boils down to a series of interesting events, pasted loosely together by mediocre character interplay. It still manages to maintain attention through the well played protagonists, keeping up a steady flow of enjoyable lines and antics.

Seth Rogen as B.O.B. (based on The Blob) is consistently funny, as is Rainn Wilson, who plays the alien Gallaxhar. Stephen Colbert (President Hathaway) does not disappoint, apart from one very weak Close Encounters of the Third Kind parody. It is also good to see a strong female lead in a film that could easily have been very masculine, without being overly clich├ęd. The supporting cast are given far more to do here than in Kung Fu Panda, and although they are the familiar Frat Pack, do not go for the out of place humour that Shrek 3 allowed to dominate.

The kids I took were both were far more involved in this film than WALL-E, and I enjoyed the many references, such as Dr. Strangelove's War Room, and the line "destroy all monsters". Thankfully though, it did not feel as if there were two scripts being played at the same time, one for the children, the other for bored adults.

It is good to see DreamWorks continuing to try new genres and learning from previous mistakes, instead of trying to ape Pizar's style. But they still have some way to go before they have their own Toy Story.

Read full post...

Thursday, 9 April 2009

A Night at the Opera


In Italy, Otis B. Driftwood's (Groucho Marx) position as wealthy Mrs. Claypool's (Margaret Dumont) business manager is threatened when Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman) promises to get her into society through becoming a patron of the Opera. In his attempts to regain his position, he comes into contact with Fiorello (Chico Marx) and Tomasso (Harpo Marx), friends of an unpopular opera singer in love with the female lead. They stow away to follow the production to New York and try to reinstate their positions.


So, is it the best Marx Brothers picture? We are going to have to say the word "purist", (a word that crops into practically every review of this film), they would argue that once the brothers moved to MGM they lost the anarchic edge of earlier films - Animal Crackers, Monkey Business - and there was a change from humiliating the love interests, to assisting them.

Both of these points are true, implying that they had lost creative control of their movies, especially when you hear quotes such as that from producer Irving G. Thalberg, who called their previous film, Duck Soup, a "stinker". But it was also his suggestion that put the trio in an extraordinarily powerful position. He encouraged them to take the film out on the road, performing it before live audiences, therefore returning them to their vaudeville beginnings. They were able to fine tune the material in a way that few other actors are able.

This approach gives us the equivalent of the drastic cuts Airplane received, to ensure that no moment was wasted on self indulgent routines. There is a careful balance between the superb visual gags, and lightning fast patter from Groucho.

Of the two love interests, Ricardo Baroni (Allan Jones) and Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle), Kitty shines with a coolness and exceptional voice. Although you often find yourself wishing they were off screen, they do not detract as much from the laughs as they could, and they give a central premise for the plot to revolve around. The film flows effectively in a way that their previous films were unable to.

We are also blessed with some of the finest comic scenes in cinema: the dispute over the contract for Ricardo Baroni between Groucho and Chico - Fiorello: Can he live in New York on $3.00? Driftwood: Like a prince. Of course he won't be able to eat, but he can live like a prince.

Switching the beds in Driftwood's apartment to confuse a detective, and of course the crowed cabin scene:

Cabin Scene Marx Borthers

These very visual scenes show clearly the influence of the stage, especially when rearranging the furniture in the apartment. Two rooms are seen simultaneously, and you can imagine the audience's response as they see the policeman stumble from room to room trying to find the fugitive brothers.

A Night at the Opera is polished from start to finish, packed with quotable dialogue, and building to a satisfying crescendo. It also benefits from losing the fourth brother, Zeppo, sadly a dead weight to be carried in the previous pictures. It remains my favourite of their films, showing that their unique style could not be homogenised. It is also the perfect starting point for any who have not seen their films before, paving the way into the surreal insanity of the Paramount pictures.

Read full post...