Monday, 18 March 2013

Sunday Movie-Day

I live right next to the Orion Cinema, a run-down old building with tiny screens, unreliable heating and damp that isn't so much rising as galloping uphill. I like an independent cinema, and I want to support the Orion, although I do know one of the electricians who has looked at the place and he warned me against using the place, since he expects it to go up any minute. However, I want the old wreck to stay, and the council is now  assisting with the funding to get the place up to scratch (although knocking it down and starting again might be more cost-effective). It means the Orion have put their prices up, to help pay for this on their end, but they're still significantly cheaper than any of the big cinemas, and the staff are friendlier.

Yesterday was a quiet day, everyone having spent their St. Patrick's Day money on Saturday while I was at work. So my flatmate and I decided we'd take in a couple of films, both of which happened to be Disney extravaganzas. We'd missed Wreck-It Ralph during its main run, so we caught the midday children's matinee while we could, and later on followed it up with Oz, the Great and Powerful.

Wreck-It Ralph was brilliant. I was expecting to enjoy, if only for the nostalgia, it being filled with recognisable video game characters from my youth (it's a shame Bowser didn't get a line, but Zangief stole the scene at the Bad-Anon support group). It was far better than a simple nostalgia exercise though, a really sweet story of outsiders finding their place among their peers and coming to terms with who they are. Proper, feel-good Disney stuff, really. Ralph is the villain of the Fix-It Felix game, a kind of parody of Donkey Kong and similar old arcade titles. He's basically a big fella with a bad past who wants to make something of himself. So he goes off, through the cables into the wonderfully realised arcade world, where all the game sprites intermingle. The animation is a gorgeous mix of cutting-edge CGI and old 8-bit graphical styling.

Other than the Felix game, we explore two other games in depth, the first-person shoot-em-up Hero's Duty, and the sweetie-themed go-kart racer Sugar Rush. Both are rendered in spectacular depth and detail. The Cy-Bugs from the shooter invade the racer, absorbing code as they go, turning into fantastic confectionary monsters. In Sugar Rush, Ralph meets Vannelope, an ostracised glitch with 'pixlexia.' It's all very, very sweet, and leads to a great race/monster attack/baddy-showdown climax, followed by the obligatory but welcome happily-ever-after montage. The voice work is great too, particularly John Reilly as Ralph, Sarah Silverman as Vannelope, Jane Lynch as Sgt. Tamora, the head of the Hero's Duty army, and Alan Tudyk as the nut-job King Candy. Plus we get Maurice 'Egon' LaMarche as a barman and Martin Jarvis as the Devil, so what's not to love?

OZ wasn't so great. There's a lot to love, of course. The opening in monochrome that moves into full colour as the protagonist, James Franco's Oscar 'Oz' Diggs is swept away in his balloon to the land of Oz is a wonderful touch, harking back to the classic 1930s Wizard of Oz. The little china girl is adorable, there are flying monkeys, both good and evil - still not as scary as the Wheelers from Return to Oz, but pretty fraky nonetheless - and the CGI landscape of Oz is extremely beautiful. However, the pace is very slack to begin with, the film dragging terribly for the first half. While a prequel to the Baum's novel series is a great idea, focusing on the origin of the Wizard means that everything in the film will succeed or fail based on this central performance, and James Franco just isn't good enough an actor. Sure, he's handsome as hell, and I could watch him smile all night, but he hasn't got the charisma to pull this off. It's telling that the producers wanted Robert Downey Jr. for the role, and an older actor with some real charisma would have saved the film. If anything, this feels like a modern Tim Burton film, but with Johnny Depp taken ill so that his understudy has to fill in.

The three witches are similarly cast for their looks, with Rachel Wiesz, Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis all looking stunning. However, Weisz is on half-power as wicked witch Evanora, while Kunis sleepwalks the part of naive 'not-too-bad' witch Theodora. She steps up once she transforms into the Wicked Witch of the West (still kind of hot, despite the hook-nose, but then I've been brought up to fancy green women), and as a cackling villain looks like she's having a whale of a time. Still, it's only Williams as good witch Glenda who really gives a decent performance, convincing as a woman who is far cleverer and more powerful than her cherry-pie exterior would suggest.

I cant' help but think something more interesting could have been done with this. Wicked took the idea of following the supposedly wicked witch much further and more successfully, but we can't really care about Theodora enough in the first half of the movie to really care about her transformation. A lot of commentators have noted how Baum's original books have strong female characters, both heroic and villainous, but in this film the three witches are dependent on Oz to move on their stories, waiting for their prophecised wizard to come down from the sky, sweep them off their feet and save the kingdom. It wasn't bad - the second half pulled up the pace, it had an inventive finale and there were some great nods to the other stories (more than I noticed, I'm sure, as I'm no expert). Still, I expect more from Sam Raimi than a pretty film with an obligatory Bruce Campbell cameo. And there's something quite dissatisfying about a film that is supposedly about celebrating ingenuity and sleight-of-hand, but that actually relies on computer animation to achieve all this. At least Wreck-It Ralph was about computers.

All of that said, however, my favourite film of the weekend was the short cartoon before Ralph. It's called Paperman, and it was the most beautiful thing I've seen in a long time. I confess, I had a little tear in my eye.

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