Film critics often get it in the neck for overanalysing or expecting… MoreFilm critics often get it in the neck for overanalysing or expecting too much from films which, for some people, are designed only to entertain. While expecting nothing other than fun from the movies will prevent one from properly exploring all that the medium has to offer, it is also true that reviewers have to keep their feet on the ground. Every so often we have to defend a film mainly because we enjoyed ourselves - and, ironically, the simplest pleasures are often the hardest to explain.
The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! is a good example of this phenomenon. On the surface there is nothing especially remarkable about it, either in the quality of the animation we have come to expect from Aardman, or in the conventional nature of its story. If one was in a bad mood, it would not take too long to dismantle the film, with withering comments about it not being first-rate Aardman. But the fact is that, after seeing this film, you're very unlikely to be in a bad mood.
The Pirates! (as it will hereafter be called) marks an interesting turning point in Aardman's history, at least from a technical viewpoint. Along with their previous digimation, Arthur Christmas, it marks the beginning of a partnership with Sony Pictures Animation, who three years ago produced the hilariously surreal Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. This is significant due to the combination of traditional stop-motion and CG effects needed to bring the film to life.
When Aardman was creating Flushed Away, working in partnership with Dreamworks, a decision was taken early on to do the entire film in digimation, on account of how difficult water is to film and the damage it can do to plasticene. But for all its moments of charm, Flushed Away felt like Dreamworks had run roughshod over Aardman's creativity, reducing true genius into something a lot more ordinary.
Being set primarily at sea, The Pirates! involves a large amount of visual effects to create the water and the skyline around the stop-motion figures. But while Aardman and Dreamworks were constantly at loggerheads, on this occasion the effects blend beautifully, with the hand-crafted characters taking centre stage even in the most elaborate set-pieces. Aardman's strength has always been in stop-motion, and here they are allowed to work to their strengths.
As always with Aardman, the devil is in the detail. Their films are made by people who love cinema, pouring in references to films from their formative years to enrich the finished product. You won't spot all the sight gags, quirks and puns the first time round, but more importantly the story and characters are enjoyable enough to make you want to revisit them. The hearty laughs that do stick in one's mind, whether it's the fish-in-a-hat gag or the ship leaving red markers on the map, are almost like teasers in themselves, part of a gift that just keeps on giving.
The film has great set-pieces which rival anything in either Chicken Run (Peter Lord's previous film) or Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The rooftop chase, in which Charles Darwin attempts to steal the last living dodo, builds like an old-fashioned 1980s action set-piece, using the full spread of the house to maximum effect. The sequence of the bath careering down the stairs is like an extended version of the boulder chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and there is a brief nod to Jurassic Park as the bath leaps majestically through an enormous skeleton.
While Curse of the Were-Rabbit was rooted in horror movies, paying homage to Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Hammer movies and An American Werewolf in London, The Pirates! is grounded in the old-fashioned adventure of Errol Flynn and Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers. The action sequences feel like they have been choreographed to allow for the fewest number of edits, with Lord and his animators understanding that audiences are often more impressed by the scale of a battle than the pace as which it appears to unfold.
The release of The Pirates! internationally has not been without mishap. Aardman received a complaint from Lepra Health in Action, requesting that a scene of a leper's arm falling off be removed for misrepresenting victims of leprosy. More worryingly, in America the title was changed to The Pirates! Band of Misfits!. While film titles are commonly changed, this is symptomatic of marketers having low opinions of a film's potential audience. It is ludicrous to believe that the world 'scientist' would put Americans off seeing the film. It certainly doesn't change the relatively heroic role accorded to Charles Darwin.
The characters in The Pirates! continue the Aardman tradition created by Nick Park of the inept but extremely confident protagonist. The Pirate Captain is fully aware of the motley nature of his crew, observing in one of the film's best sight gags that some of his crew are just "fish that I've dressed up in a hat." But he is as confident in his ability to plunder as Wallace is in his inventions. Martin Freeman's first mate acts as a Gromit-like foil, trying to do the right thing while harbouring a sense of duty towards his oldest friend.
The biggest criticism of The Pirates! has been its storyline. Because it combines two of Gideon Dafoe's children's books, there is a lot of plot to get through in 90-odd minutes. And because the film is not a direct pastiche like Curse of the Were-Rabbit, it doesn't have quite as rigid a structure as one might like. But some critics would go further and claim that its emotional arc is too predictable, with our heroes jumping through narrative hoops without offering anything new.
There's an old adage that the difference between a convention and a cliché is the emotional response that surrounds it: if we are enjoying ourselves, it's a convention, and if not, it's a cliché. The fact is, even if The Pirates! is in familiar waters, it is funnier and more lovingly crafted than any of the similar stories which clog up our multiplexes in the summer season. We should not take Aardman's craftsmanship for granted, and must be willing to promote this genuine passion for craft almost in spite of its familiar elements.
The film passes the acid test of any comedy, never letting up in its ability to make you laugh. The running gags surrounding the Pirate Captain's boarding parties are very well thought-out, as are the crew's disguises and the numerous map scenes. The more whimsical jokes, involving baby clothes, baboon's kidneys and ham night, are all first-rate Aardman, and Peter Lord's comic timing is on a par with Nick Park's in judging where and when to play every single gag..
The cast of The Pirates! is also of a high standard. Hugh Grant, in his first animated role, handles the Pirate Campaign with such aplomb that afterwards you won't be able to imagine him without that beard. Imelda Staunton is terrific as Queen Victoria, with a performance that makes her character in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix look tame by comparison. David Tennant and Martin Freeman provide great support in their respective roles, with the former's geeky excitability offsetting the latter's world-weariness. And as for Brian Blessed's cameo... suffice to say, no-one else could have played that part.
The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! is a really great family film which will hold up to repeat viewing every bit as well as Aardman's previous offerings. Peter Lord directs superbly, handling a talented cast with near-perfect measure and blending the stop-motion and CGI very well. While it's not quite perfect, it bodes well for the future of Aardman, with or without Wallace and Gromit. Thoroughly recommended.
In my original review of the first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey,… MoreIn my original review of the first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey, I concluded by saying that we couldn't entirely judge it without the context of its subsequent sequels. I spent a lot of my review (both versions of it) addressing audience expectations of the film rather than reviewing the film itself, at least not as directly as perhaps I would normally. As I explained, this was necessary in dealing with a lot of the baggage that
comes with comparisons with The Lord of the Rings, which the film inevitably invites.
With The Desolation of Smaug (Desolation hereafter), we are now able to get a more accurate picture of the artistic and narrative intentions of the trilogy. The sequel to An Unexpected Journey does bring a number of improvements to the table, teasing out a little more subtext from the novel and solving some of the tonal problems. But it's still encumbered by the same narrative flaws of the first film, which the higher stakes unfortunately amplify.
On the good side, the film seems tonally a lot more sure of itself. One of the big problems with An Unexpected Journey was its flipping back and forth between the light-hearted frolics of The Hobbit itself and the darker, more serious matter gleaned from the Lord of the Rings appendices. Here, there is the underlying feeling of a gathering darkness, reflected in both the journey of the dwarfs and Gandalf's investigations of the Necromancer. The success of this latter section could also be used to justify Jackson's decision to draw on the appendices - but we shall come to that a little later.
Through the darkening tone, the film illuminates the underlying theme of greed, which all the major characters come to embody. Bilbo's growing greed towards possession of the ring is matched by the Master's corrupt political hold on Laketown, Thorin's obsession with reclaiming Erebor, Smaug's proud hold over the dwarves' riches, and the Necromancer's business in Dol Goldur. The Middle Earth in Desolation is being gradually destroyed by self-interest in increasingly ruthless forms: its stories are driven and dominated by people who will do whatever they have to, by whatever means necessary, to obtain, increase or avoid losing what they covet.
There is a political point in all of this too, illustrated by the position of the Mirkwood elves. The aloof isolationism practised by their leader Thranduil is contrasted by Tauriel's compulsion to intervene in other peoples' wars. The community is faced with a stark political choice: either they shut themselves in from the growing evil and hope to withstand it, or they actively fight against it to safeguard an unknown future.
The Lord of the Rings is often cited or described as an allegory for World War II, something which I explored in my reviews. While Tolkien did not intend for such conclusions to be drawn, there are parallels and through-lines throughout the work - for instance, regarding the two towers of Orthanc and Barad-Dûr as the twin mights of Germany and Russia, waging war on peaceful people from two sides. If we accept this logic, it is possible to view Desolation as a partial allegory for World War I; the events take place many years before Lord of the Rings, and the Mirkwood elves' isolationism and detachment from the world around them is akin to similar practices by the USA.
In addition to there being more subext, Desolation also benefits from better pacing. The first film badly dragged in a way that The Fellowship of the Ring didn't, possibly because it took a long time to adjust to Jackson's approach with weaving in the extra material. This film, by contrast, starts off very briskly and keeps the pace up all the way through. Even though it's still much too long, we aren't quite so conscious of it this time around.
As with the first film, the set-pieces in Desolation are generally very good. They do have more of a video game sensibility than their Lord of the Rings counterparts, being shot more from a first-person stance and with more unusual camera angles. But Jackson still has a knack for creating interesting character pains and deaths, something in which he has excelled since the days of Bad Taste and Brain Dead. The barrel sequence is especially fun, particularly Bombur's antics of rolling between the banks of the river while taking out a multitude of orcs.
One of the big tests of Desolation was going to be the introduction of its title character. This could have been very disappointing: notwithstanding the silliness of the Rankin Bass version, the darkness of the Lonely Mountain could have deprived us of his beauty, just as many (wrongly) held that Baz Luhrmann's editing in Moulin Rouge! deprived us of seeing the spectacular sets. But Jackson does a very good job, aided by Benedict Cumberbatch's sinister performance and wonderful delivery.
While Smaug himself may be stupendous, many of the other effects are not. Too many of the wide shots and battle sequences are obviously green-screen, in that they consist of actors running around somewhat aimlessly, looking for their marks. It's hard to say whether the increased use of green-screen was a creative decision on Jackson's part or a studio mandate to keep down the already huge budget. Either way, these scenes lack the physicality of the battles in Lord of the Rings, and the molten gold is so fake-looking that you wonder whether George Lucas has snuck onto the set.
Another big problem with Desolation is that the romance elements don't work. Tolkien reportedly tried towards the end of his life to rewrite key parts of his books to make the female characters more active. While the filmmakers can therefore claim to be enacting his wishes, Tauriel as a character is poorly written. Notwithstanding her political symbolism, she comes across as a Mary Sue whose dialogue often resembles fan fiction. Her relationship with Kili doesn't go anywhere, nor does it successfully convey the message about the need for closer ties between the races.
Criticisms like this all point to an underlying question: would it have been better to just give us The Hobbit, on its own with none of the appendices, and let it be a lesser film? The Hobbit is by its very nature a weaker story than Lord of the Rings, and trying to make it closer to the latter by filling in gaps is good for fans but not so good for storytelling. Perhaps it would have been better to do as was originally envisioned by Jackson and Guillermo del Toro, namely to create a very different universe in one film and then bridge that universe with that of Lord of the Rings in another.
This point is further illustrated by the ending, which is very unsatisfying. The final climax itself is a little too long, but the film fails where The Two Towers succeeded in having an end-point of tension and catharsis. Frodo and Sam's journey had reached a point where the trials they had survived were balanced by the scale of what was still facing them, enabling the film to stand on its own. Here, the ending feels altogether arbitrary, as though Jackson had cut where Del Toro would have cut but hadn't rewritten the script around it.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a heavily flawed second instalment of a trilogy which is a shadow of its predecessor. There's still a great deal of fun to be had watching it, and it contains many improvements which should be celebrated. But all these improvements are ultimately balanced out or overshadowed by equally big flaws. One only hopes that The Battle of the Five Armes will give us the kind of ending that we deserve.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy is such a milestone in fantasy… MoreThe Lord of the Rings trilogy is such a milestone in fantasy filmmaking that any attempt to re-approach the Tolkien universe was bound to generate anxiety. As more stories about The Hobbit's production came to light, it seemed increasingly unlikely that the end result could ever come close to matching Peter Jackson's original trilogy. An Unexpected Journey is very much a flawed first part, but it is still enjoyable and balances out its flaws with enough nice touches to justify some of its running time.
In returning to Middle Earth, we have to deal with two diametrically opposed feelings. The first is nostalgia for The Lord of the Rings, films which shaped many of our childhoods and which still hold up as a near-perfect trilogy. The danger here is that we could overpraise The Hobbit simply because it feels so good to be back in this beautiful cinematic world; we feel so warmly towards Jackson that almost anything could be offered up and we wouldn't care how good it was in its own right.
The second danger, which flows from the film's production history, is cynicism. We resigned ourselves to Guillermo del Toro's departure on the grounds that Jackson was taking over and we were therefore in safe hands. We raised eyebrows at the 3D and 48 frames per second, doubting their necessity but giving Jackson the benefit of the doubt (neither turned out to be necessary). But extending the fims into a trilogy has been the straw that broke many a camel's back, and it is now very easy to regard Jackson as a mercenary who has completely lost his storytelling marbles. We might even conclude in light of this that we were all wrong about The Lord of the Rings too.
Both of these viewpoints are absurd when taken to their respective extremes. On the one hand, the filmmaking culture which produced An Unexpected Journey is very different to the one which took a chance on a seemingly un-filmable trilogy back in the late-1990s. If New Line Cinema was to go for The Hobbit at all, they would look to milk it as much as possible regardless of what Jackson or del Toro wanted. On the other hand, the source material is very different to Tolkien's later work, and so merely expecting more of the same is to deceive oneself.
Being that as it may, one of the big problems with An Unexpected Journey is its tonal uncertainty. Its attempts to recapture the epic scale and spirit of The Lord of the Rings are frequently at odds with the lighter, simpler story of The Hobbit. While Tolkien conceived of The Lord of the Rings as a mythical pre-history, with meaty subtexts about industry and warfare, The Hobbit is a children's adventure story, a trial run for something bigger and more ambitious.
Jackson's strategy of dealing with this is to consciously integrate the story of The Hobbit into the wider Tolkien continuity. The script adds in elements from The Lord of the Rings Appendices, directly hinting at or passing parallel to scenes that we recognise. We begin with Bilbo as an old man on the day of his birthday party - a scene which ends with Frodo walking down the hill, off to his first meeting with Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring. This isn't so much part one of The Hobbit as 'the first volume of the rest of the history of Middle Earth'.
Having familiar characters turning up is a double-edged sword. It gives an impression of the story being part of a seamless whole, something that a del Toro adaptation might not have achieved. And there is something charming about Sir Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett returning as the characters only they could play.
But there are two problems with this. The smaller problem is that we have older actors playing younger characters; while Galadriel looks the same, neither Elrond nor Saruman are entirely convincing, both looking older and/ or heavier than their later incarnations. The bigger problem is that the more these scenes and characters turn up, the more we respond in a manner which takes us out of the main narrative. We are either irritated by them as a distraction from the actual story of The Hobbit, or are left nostalgically longing for the relative meatiness of The Lord of the Rings in the face of something more childlike and playful.
Whichever way you look at it, An Unexpected Journey is too long and very baggy. Even without its status as the first part of a trilogy, there are whole sections in the first hour-and-a-half that could have been sped up, shortened or cut. There are several moments in which the film mirrors Fellowship, with the goblin fight being akin to the orc battle in Moria, the scaling of the mountain similar to the journey over Caradhras, and of course the similar scenes in Rivendell. But while Fellowship took a little while to reach Rivendell, everything that happened up to then felt weighty and significant, and you couldn't say the same for everything that happens in The Hobbit.
That being said, there is still much about An Unexpected Journey which needs to be celebrated. First and foremost, it is every bit as beautiful and spectacular as The Lord of the Rings, with the only real differences in quality lying in marginal improvements in visual effects. Jackson's eye for composition and the superb attention to detail puts paid to any arguments about the film being entirely an exercise in cashing in. Put bluntly, no cash-grab has ever looked this good.
On a performance level, the film also comes up trumps. Whatever the wavering fortunes of his counterparts, Ian McKellen does convince us that the Gandalf we are seeing is somewhat younger. Sylvester McCoy is typically eccentric as Radagast, and is so enjoyable that it almost doesn't matter that his scenes are largely irrelevant.
Most of all, Martin Freeman excels as Bilbo Baggins, even if the film doesn't centre around him as much as it could or should. In his first few scenes, it can feel like we have wandered back into his take on Arthur Dent, complete with stuttering British politeness and a dressing gown. But once the quest begins he starts to fire, taking the best from Ian Holm's performance and making the character his own.
The best scene in The Hobbit by a country mile is the confrontation between Bilbo and Gollum in the cave. This scene encapsulates the tone that Jackson was aiming for, the subtle improvements in effects and the on-going brilliance of Andy Serkis. It also demonstrates the terrifying tragedy of Gollum as a character, showing him to be capable of great violence but also utterly broken. Serkis described Gollum as an addict in interviews, and as the tense scene wears on we understand clearly what he meant. The way that Gollum changes from fearful to angry, and pathetic to vengeful so quickly breaks our hearts even as we are compelled to run away.
After this scene, The Hobbit plays its final trump card, namely its spectacularly entertaining battle sequences. Having gone through a slow and plodding 90-odd minutes we are treated to battles with the same energy and invention that Jackson displayed throughout The Lord of the Rings. The monsters are more overtly cartoonish in their grotesque natures, with the goblin king (Barry Humphries) being both gruesome and ridiculous. But whatever else has changed about him, Jackson still know how to construct a battle sequence, using sets and props wisely to create fights that both thrill you and make you laugh.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a film which leaves you wanting more even though all its flaws are in plain sight. While it is too long and tonally unsure of itself, it contains many of the aspects that made The Lord of the Rings so special, particularly in the visuals and performances. However good the subsequent instalments or the trilogy as a whole turn out, this is a good beginning, with much room for improvement and just as much to keep us entertained.
Female characters in sports films are often dealt a very poor hand. At… MoreFemale characters in sports films are often dealt a very poor hand. At best their narrative journey is frequently depicted as ancillary and largely complimentary to those of the male participants, and at worst they are reduced either to eye candy or to bitchily carping from the sidelines. Sports films which focus primarily on women are rare and often tackle a particular sport or discipline in a much more patronising way than if the same sport were being practiced by men.
All of this makes Stick It such a refreshing piece of filmmaking. Jessica Bendinger, the writer of the cult classic Bring It On, steps behind the camera to deliver a film which rises above its more conventional aspects to give a valuable, impressive insight into a sport often reduced to empty stereotypes. It remains a hugely underrated teen comedy-drama with a young lead who deserves much greater recognition.
In my review of Gregory's Girl, I spoke about how coming-of-age films are "better remembered for the careers they launched rather than their artistic merits." Because the structure of coming-of-age stories is so predictable, we often find ourselves relying on the performers to help us through a story we could tell in our sleep. It's a blessing and a curse for the performers in question, who achieve immortality through a given role but at the cost that they can never escape being associated with it.
Like Phil Davis from Quadrophenia before her, it's fair to say that Missy Peregrym has yet to shake off the mantle associated with Stick It. Part of this could be attributed to her superficial resemblance to other actresses: from a distance you could easily mistake her for Kristen Stewart, and her toothy smile is very similar to that of Hillary Swank. In any case, Peregrym's lack of subsequent success is wholly unfair; she is a highly charismatic performer, with attitude, mischief and believability to spare.
Peregrym is helped in this regard by the writing, which is an improvement on Bendinger's previous work. In Bring It On, all of the female characters had a bitchy quality, and it was sometimes difficult to know whether said bitchiness was a satire of cheerleading or a lazy representation of it. While Stick It has its fair share of cattiness and name-calling, the women are much more varied in their make-up and motivations.
Writing convincing, three-dimensional female characters is one of the hardest things to do in fiction. Because men (or more specifically white, straight, English-speaking men) have long been the standard foundation for any given character, the obvious pitfall is to write women as 'not men', defining them entirely in terms of their relationship to men rather than treating them as people in their own right. This is a trap that male writers often fall into, but women can often be just as guilty.
This trap can partially be avoided by writing women as 'people who just happen to be female' - in other words, to ignore or dilute any aspects of their character which involve their gender or sexuality. But while this is preferable to writing women as 'not men', ultimately it is not enough to make them completely believable. Women, like men, are constantly interacting with the culture around them, and their identity is partially defined by a reaction to gender and social expectations of their culture. In other words, you have to reference their womanhood even if only to challenge the expectations of how a woman should behave or be written.
What is so refeshing about Stick It is that is a film driven primarily by women which deals with their relationships to social standards without preaching or whinging. Even though its main character has a tendency to mope or run from her problems, it treats her like a complex, difficult human being rather than a trope for men to shape at will. Jeff Bridges may be the main big-name star but he's on screen for a relatively short amount of time, and even then he doesn't play as active a role as you might expect.
People often talk about women in film in terms of empowerment - the writers or directors getting women to do things that are either not normally associated with women or which they have been traditionally denied by men. A lot of the time this is presented in a clunky or confused way, such as the Bride in Kill Bill: it may be a woman doing all the fighting, but she's still fulfilling male fantasies about powerful women as much as being a strong, independent lady.
Stick It succeeds because it doesn't try to shove any message about women down our throats. It gets across a message about the absurdity and hypocrisy of professional gymnastics just as effectively as Smile did for the world of beauty pageants. But throughout its running time it is more interested in allowing women to speak for themselves and demonstrate their talents than it is about using them to make a point. In short, it's empowering because it doesn't constantly shout about empowerment.
Purely as a piece of physical spectacle, Stick It is pretty remarkable. Most of the main cast had little or no experience of professional gymastics, and yet they vault, pirouette and twist like they had been rehearsing for the Olympics all their lives. Bendinger's visual style is less conventional than Bring It On's, relying much less on slow-motion or montage than most sports films. Even when it comes close to anything resembling a training montage, the film confounds our expectations by focussing on the painful failures of the characters rather than building up to any one success.
Stick It has a welcomely rough and funky edge to it, which at least makes it appear less conventional than similar coming-of-age stories. The film is shot by Daryn Okada, whose work is generally more plastic and mainstream: in amongst the very fine Mean Girls, he also lensed Lake Placid and American Reunion. The soundtrack compliments this vibe, ditching classical accompaniments usually associated with floor routines in favour of Missy Elliott, Green Day and Blink-182.
For the most part, Stick It is a film that refuses to play by the rules and more often than not pleasantly surprises us. But it does have some sequences where it comes up short, settling for convention when just a small step further would have made it truly great. While most of the character development is well-played, the film loses its step when one of the gymnasts gets a boyfriend; while it makes sense in terms of her character arc, the relationship isn't written as well as the rest of her character.
Likewise, the relationship between the lead character and her mother is underdeveloped. Many of the parents in this film are pushy stereotypes, reduced to unintentionally belittling their children and providing some rather forced comic relief. Ultimately it is not their story, and including them mainly for comic purposes is rather an underwhelming or cheap trick. This doesn't detail the drama, but it is a distraction.
Stick It is a hugely underrated slice of comedy-drama with some of the best-written female characters that the sports genre has to offer. Missy Peregrym shines in the lead role, with Jessica Bendinger maturing as a writer and proving that she has quite a bit to offer as a director too. While not quite groundbreaking enough to be considered great, it is a great deal more inspiring and surprising than many sports films you'll find, and comes with a very hearty recommendation.
Picking Stanley Kubrick's greatest film is like trying to choose… MorePicking Stanley Kubrick's greatest film is like trying to choose between a series of perfectly formed diamonds. Every time you revisit one of his films, in whatever order or context, you gravitate towards that offering as his masterpiece - only to swiftly change your mind having seen the next one. Such is the master's skill in almost every genre that it is hard to pick one which either epitomises said skill or accurately represents his oeuvre.
But when push comes to shove for this reviewer, it isn't such a tough decision. For all the undeniable brilliance of Dr. Strangelove or Full Metal Jacket, the out-and-out winner is A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick's adaptation of Anthony Burgess' novel is unparalleled in its time and ours, as a literary adaptation and in science fiction. It's been called everything from the first punk movie (Steven Spielberg) to right-wing propaganda (Roger Ebert), and it's still as shocking, disturbing and satirically sharp as it was more than 40 years ago. Above all, it's a masterpiece of storytelling, substance and pure filmmaking, with Kubrick at the very peak of his powers.
If asked to sum up A Clockwork Orange in one word, the only one that would suffice is mesmerising. Watching Kubrick's film is a truly hypnotic experience: from the first haunting chord in the opening titles, we are pulled into the film as if in a trance, forgetting about any world that may exist outside of it. The iconic first shot of Malcolm McDowell, staring at us with his head slightly down, is akin to that of a hypnotist as he sends his patient into a state of complete submission. Once under Kubrick's spell, it is physically impossible to look away.
The first key ingredient to this mesmerism is the soundtrack. Written by Walter (later Wendy) Carlos, who worked with Kubrick again on The Shining, it blends classical and electronic music to stunning effect. The dark, haunting synthesisers at the beginning serve as a murky counterpoint to the jolly and uplifting renditions of Beethoven, both in traditional orchestral recordings and the jazzy re-workings on harpsichord. The score riffs ironically on various military themes, which works particularly well during the Ludovico sequences.
Much like Blade Runner more than a decade later, the visual world of A Clockwork Orange is conceived as the future that might result if certain aspects of our present are extrapolated. With Ridley Scott's film, it is the threat of overpopulation, the environmental problems that would result, the intensification of social hierarchies, and the loss of humanity in a world dominated by machines. With Kubrick, it is the alienation of youth, the dehumanisation of mankind, and most chillingly the acceptance of the latter as a form of punishment or control.
Like all great dystopian science fiction, what matters is not the surface resemblance, but the reflection of underlying moral and social problems. It doesn't matter that young thugs now wear tracksuits and Burberry rather than jockstraps and bowler hats, just as Blade Runner isn't suddenly rendered irrelevant by the current absence of flying cars. The moral questions raised in this film are still controversial, and our society is no more enlightened or mature in its conceptions of justice, freedom or possible punishments.
While Kubrick's films have always been open to multiple interpretations, there are three general perspectives on A Clockwork Orange. The first sees it as a conservative work about youth, rebellion and the counter-culture. The film is either a reaction to the empowerment of young people, depicting them in entirely negative ways, or a call to arms of said young people which is darker, edgier and nastier than its hippie predecessors. Both views accuse the film of glorifying violence, with Roger Ebert calling it "a paranoid right-wing fantasy masquerading as an Orwellian warning". Whatever the knee-jerk appeal of this view, it is, like Ebert, well wide of the mark.
The second interpretation, which carries more weight, sees the film is a warning against state power, and how the use of reconditioning can undermine individual freedom to such a point that the whole notion becomes irrelevant. The prominence of socialist architecture in the film, such as concrete tunnels and high-rise flats, indicate a society emerging from failed social engineering, with a rise in "the old ultra-violence" being part of the fallout. This theory is consolidated in the use of nadsat, the slang language invented by Burgess which is a mixture of English and Russian, which in turn gives the film an even more unique and timeless feel.
Throughout his career Kubrick was fascinated by the social and political mechanisms which conspired to dehumanise and imprison individuals. Dr. Strangelove explored the absurdity of Mutually Assured Destruction, in which nuclear deterrents put at greater risk the very people they were designed to protect. In Full Metal Jacket he explored the techniques by which humans are turned into killing machines, and how said machines can so often turn on their masters. A Clockwork Orange is the most subversive of these examinations, using a guilty, twisted and depraved protagonist to reinforce the importance of choice and free will.
Having undergone the Ludovico Technique, Alex becomes the clockwork orange of Burgess' title: fleshy on the outside, but fatally mechanical on the inside. He is incapable of crime, but also incapable of other human actions such as self-defence and the appreciation of music. In order to prevent him from threatening society, the state have destroyed Alex's very self. He contemplates suicide for the simple reason that he cannot choose whether to be good or bad.
This brings us on the third and most radical interpretation. Where both the previous views argue over which party is the moral one, this school holds that morality has nothing to do with it. In this relativistic, almost Foucauldian interpretation, all of the relationships within the film are expressions of power, in which notions of right and wrong are invoked only to show who holds power over whom. The prison service, the Catholic priests, the doctors and Alex's droogs are all sources of discourse, wrestling endlessly for the right to set the rules.
The force which Alex exerts (beating up gangs and beggars) is counterpointed by the mental and psychological forces exerted on him, from being spat on in custody to near-drowning by his former droogs. Kubrick went on record as saying that the Minister and the radical writer differ "only in their dogma", with both wanting to exert power over Alex and through him control the opinions and actions of the public. The film explores how certain human acts, such as sex, have incurred double standards in favour of the rich and intellectual. Where Alex's conception of sex as "a bit of the old in-out" is criminalised, the powers-that-be have no problem with doctors having it off in hospital, or the cat-lady's phallic sculptures.
Whichever interpretation one leans towards, there is no denying A Clockwork Orange's power as a black comedy. The 'Singing In The Rain' sequence is perfectly executed, so that it shocks the first time round but then draws you in on the joke. Whether it's Alex's deranged social worker, the fraught dinner table talk with Patrick Magee, or Alex's ramblings in the hospital, it is damned impossible not to erupt into laughter. But like Dr. Strangelove, it is laughter laced with fear and deep discomfort, lest any part of what we see become reality.
It is equally impossible to talk about A Clockwork Orange without mentioning Malcolm McDowell. Having excelled in Lindsay Anderson's If...., he was the natural choice for the part, and even without his immense reputation he is simply perfect for every second he is on screen. His snarling, boyish looks, precocious posture and fabulous voice are all immaculate, and once you have seen him in that iconic costume, no-one else can ever carry it off.
Kubrick's direction in A Clockwork Orange is superb, both in its technical invention and its brilliant storytelling. He was often accused of being cold and clinical, being more interested in ideas than the human beings who embodied them. But so many of the film's high points are moments where the technical skill combines with deep connections to humanity. A good example comes in the lakeside scene, where Alex beats up his droogs in slow motion. This, coupled with dolly shots and close-ups, exaggerates the expressions of the characters and pulls you right into their pain, anguish and triumph.
A Clockwork Orange is the greatest film of the 1970s and the high point of Kubrick's illustrious career. It mesmerises from start to finish, flooding us with style and substance, and reinventing science fiction as it goes along. Malcolm McDowell is nothing short of stunning in the lead role, and the film is a good example of star and director working in harmony at the top of their respective games. In the end it is impossible to summarise all its glories in such a short space. Suffice to say, it ranks behind only Blade Runner as the greatest film of all time.
Most film franchises don't make it past their third instalment. The… MoreMost film franchises don't make it past their third instalment. The fourth film in a given series - a "four-quel", to quote Mark Kermode - is often the point where all remaining principles and good intentions go out of the window. The franchise has innovated itself as far as it possibly can, the quality has already started to decline (good three-quels are very rare) and everyone has decided to just give up and enjoy what's left of the box office.
Considering the declining fortunes of the Step Up series, you could be forgiven for not holding out much hope for Miami Heat (also known as Step Up Revolution). It comes from a first-time director, features little or no continuity with the previous offering, and is in some respects just as thin and episodic as we've come to expect. But whether through sheer good will or a somewhat tighter second half, it does eventually improve upon its predecessor and ends up as something perfectly passable.
It would be quite a stretch to describe any of the Step Up series as auteurist works. The later instalments in particular are so homogenously mainstream and narratively generic that it's hard to see any positive directorial stamp. But it is worth noting that the series has been at its best when Jon M. Chu has not been behind the camera, vacating on this occasion for Scott Speer.
Like many modern film directors, Speer comes out of music videos, having cut his teeth shooting promos for Ashley Tisdale, Jordin Sparks and Jason Derulo among others. This will produce a groan among many who despise anyone who comes out of either Disney or reality TV shows like American Idol - and I would often count myself in the latter camp at least. But however mainstream and often sanitised his work may be, Speer knows how to shoot good dancing and how to keep his performers focussed on the task at hand.
The first half of Step Up 4: Miami Heat (Miami Heat hereafter) is as boringly predictable as ever. It begins with a pretty decent set-piece and the setting-up of our main characters, who like seemingly every dancer in the history of cinema are waiting for their first big break. From there the plot incorporates incredibly familiar elements such as forbidden love, corporations not having a heart and the underdogs coming together to take a stand. If you've seen any of the first three films, you could watch this with your eyes closed and know exactly where it's going.
Each of the Step Up films have been populated by characters who are painted in very broad strokes. In Step Up itself this was acceptable, because director Anne Fletcher used their melodramatic nature as a springboard into something that was appealing and interesting. But since that point the series has become less and less about character and plot, to the point where if you took out all the talking, it would just be a series of music videos.
Miami Heat doesn't continue this decline, as if things could get any more inane after Step Up 3. But it is still an immensely episodic venture whose moments of dialogue are often just book-ends to the set-pieces. The characters are so clearly defined in their narrative roles that some of them don't need to open their mouth before we know exactly what they will do by the end. If you were immensely generous, you could point to the tradition of silent cinema and deriving character from gesture, but such traditions seem far from the creators' minds.
In terms of the performers, we are again confronted by a number of fine dancers whose acting talents are far outstripped by their ability to bust a move. Like Rick Malambri in the third film, Ryan Guzman is essentially a pretty boy: he doesn't have a great deal of presence, and smiles like he's modelling Levi's jeans. Kathryn McCormick as a dancer is every bit as good as Jenna Dewan in the first film, but she's a little one-dimensional in delivering her lines.
Misha Gabriel gets very little to work with as Eddie, having to play the 'attitude' or suspicious role in almost every scene with little variety. And Peter Gallagher mainly lets his greasy hair and suit do the acting for him; there's no evidence of the charisma that he had in, say, sex, lies and videotape. What's arguably worse, however, are the blink-and-you'll-miss-them appearances by returning cast members who can act. Adam Sevani returns as Moose for all of two minutes, lifting the final set-piece and then swiftly disappearing.
So far, Miami Heat is on a par with Step Up 2, being far too loose and lazy with its characters but not as offensively aimless as Step Up 3. And then, around halfway through, the film shifts very slightly and starts to actually carry a little more weight around. The series returns to its roots, trying to use dancing to communicate an idea or contrast with another section of society, rather than just try to impress us with heavily-edited physical exertion.
Once the mob turns its focus to Emily's father and his plans for the development, the film stops being just another story about young people being cool and misunderstood, and becomes a story about how gentrification threatens culture. This is a theme that has been explored in musical cinema and theatre before, most notably in Rent.
The difference is that Rent is annoying and massively pretentious, claiming to say a lot more than it actually is (and exploiting the AIDS pandemic along the way). Miami Heat is completely no-nonsense: it's proud of what it is, but it doesn't feel the need to shout about it or claim that it's saying anything new or ground-breaking. Its point is simple - that building swanky, modern buildings in places of richly-rooted culture ultimately harms people without big disposable incomes. Once it's made the point, it leaves it where it lies and moves on.
From a visual point of view, the film is a little more rough around the edges than Step Up 3 - which is a good thing. At times its colour scheme is oversaturated, so that some of the set-pieces look like either music videos or adverts for skateboarding. But Karsten Gopinath does bring a more kinetic feel in his choice of angles, and the film is edited slickly without drawing too much attention to itself.
Ultimately, what redeems Miami Heat is a sheer acknowledgement of the talent of these people. The set-pieces are among the most inventive and spectacular in the series, with exciting uses of lighting and set design which genuinely surprise us. The art gallery sequence and the grand finale are particularly impressive, but each of the set-pieces progress to a well-paced, well-planned conclusion. The choreography is irresistable, so that you find yourself going with it even against your better judgement.
Step Up 4: Miami Heat is the best instalment in the franchise since the original, marking a partial return to form after the disappointment of Step Up 3. While the series remains insultingly predictable, and the characters are as broad as ever, it has enough to say and enough evidence of the actors' talent to ultimately make you go along with it. It's hardly the best place to start in exploring the series, but of all the sequels it is the most appealing.