Shrek Forever After – Review

Yeah I'm not sure why the posters called it Shrek: The Final Chapter either. Maybe it's a promise?

Things the writers of Shrek are adamant are funny:

Eddie Murphy singing modern songs in an anachronistic setting

Things that have been run into the ground and are no longer funny and on retrospect were only a little funny to begin with and it all depends on context anyway you can’t just have him burst into song in any scene:

Eddie Murphy singing modern songs in an anachronistic setting

The Shrek series began as just a surprisingly smart and funny animated satire of fairy tale clichés. But now over four films DreamWorks have managed to evolve the series into a redundant, mediocre cliché of itself. Yes it’s all the way up there now with other such mediocre delights like Shark Tale, Over the Hedge and Madagascar. Whilst Pixar wallowed in telling new and innovative stories, DreamWorks saw that true talent is taking a successful film, reducing it to its base elements, sapping the life out of any unique aspects by just repeating them, and then slapping that together around a semi-coherent story.

Shrek Forever After is the fourth and hopefully final film about a Scottish ogre living near Disney World. Our title character begins the film in the “happily ever after” part of fairy tales; he’s got the wife, the kids, the friend, the swamp. What more could an ogre want? But as the early montage shows us blissful happiness gets pretty repetitive and sometimes the crappier moments outshine the good parts. Shrek starts to pine for his younger years, when life was easier; when children were scared of him and farmers chased him with pitchforks; when he was a real ogre.

I kinda like this angle, I know it’s far from original and the idea of “the American dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be” is just as cliché as the “they get together, get married and everything from then on is blissful!” but it’s just weird to see it in an animated kids film that amuses me.

Although why is it the woman that’s always happy in the married life and the man who has the mid- life crisis? I can’t decide if that is positively painting the woman as more mature; or negatively saying they’re naturally meant to be in the mother role so happy with her lot in life. I mean Fiona spent a lot of her life locked up, maybe she’d enjoy going out adventuring? Alternate dimension Fiona seems to enjoy the adventuring and fighting. Oh, though it does then present her as secretly wanting to find her true love. So I guess that’s the important moral message of this Shrek film: even powerful and strong women just want their true love to come save them. Wait, did I say moral? I meant perpetuating an old and misogynistic image of women in a film series that tried to combat those old ideas often presented in fairy tales by satirising them. Ho hum.

Oh yeah the alternate dimension thing. So it turns out that off screen during Shrek 1 (or 2? Not that it matters) Fiona’s parents went to Rumpelstiltskin to make a deal; their kingdom for Fiona to be saved from the tower. But as we know from the first film, Shrek saved her, and so they don’t bother to sign the deal, and Stiltskin feels like Shrek took away his chance to be ruler. This is presented in a fairy tale book at the beginning of the film that Stiltskin is reading venomously, again I like this stuff. I’m a sucker for film sequels that spiral out from events in the first film, that events in it were more important than we thought, another character was doing something we didn’t know about etc. When Rumple finds Shrek unhappy with his current situation he convinces him to sign a contract that, unbeknownst to Shrek, signs away the day he was born, and creating an “It’s a Wonderful Life” alternative reality where Rumple rules the kingdom and ogres are freedom fighters. It’s no Back to the Future II, but the plotting of the film is definitely a lot tighter than Shrek the Third and even Shrek 2. There’s a clear mission, no meandering around like the third film – it suffers from some solution stalling (just show alt-Fiona the contract and explain what happened from the beginning ffs) but other than that it’s competently structured.

The real killer is that Shrek Forever After feels like someone made bullet points on ‘things people remember about the first film’ then just filmed that. There’s action beats at the same moments, wistful pop tunes play in the background to many of these, Donkey sings, Shrek has a melodramatic touchy feely moment where he realises his mistake, characters return and have variations on jokes they were in from the first two films etc. Shrek has an emotional realisation scene about 8 times during the film, and that’s no exaggeration. And it’s the same thing each time “yeah I didn’t realise what I’d got till it’s gone”, just done over and over in different ways. It’s boring and reduces Shrek’s character to being kind of whiney and it really unbalances the film. Where there should be jokes we have more lame attempts at cheap emotion. Where there should be a more serious moment we have lame jokes.

Continuing the trend of re-interpretations of fairy tale characters we’re introduced to The Pied Piper half way into the film. In the Shrek universe he’s a bounty hunter who can use his pipe to control nearly any creature. It’s a cool concept and I really like the character’s design but he’s really underused. Being able to completely control someone’s body movements is a scary power, but it’s only ever presented for laughs as he makes ogres dance to flute-y versions of pop songs. (What is the Shrek films obsession with characters signing or dancing to modern songs? 90% of Donkey’s dialogue consists of that, it’s not funny anymore, you’ve run that joke into the ground around the time Shrek 3 began) The film isn’t exactly brimmed full of jokes so maybe I shouldn’t be dismissing them for actually trying to include some but when there’s meant to be so much at stake (Shrek’s very existence ffs!) the films feels way too safe and threat-less. They could have made something of the Piper, had him as the physical threat, but instead he disappears towards the end of the film (and his actions earlier in the film are undone within minutes so entirely pointless) which again seems to miss a really obvious chance to use him as a more threatening villain. I kept expecting some dramatic scene of Shrek having to break free of the Piper’s power but it never came and the ending they did provide just kind of splutters as it clumsily arrives at its conclusion.

There’s no real charm to it, no craft, it’s just repetition of the surface stuff. People want the same thing right? Shrek 2 got away with repeating ideas and humour from the first film because it still felt like they were trying to make a proper film. The story was involving, the set pieces exciting, the expanded cast were hilarious and the finale was epic. In Shrek Forever After there’s far more at stake plot-wise than in previous Shrek films, but it’s never presented like that on film, it’s just going through the motions.

It’s not abysmal, I laughed a few times and the story idea is interesting. But if there’s one word to describe the film it’s lazy. Everything about the film feels lazily executed, the plot might be trying something different but everything else in it is just a lazy retread of jokes, characters, situations of the previous Shrek films, but lacking any of the excitement, inventiveness, talent or humour of Shrek 1 and 2. It’s still better than Shrek the Third, but that ain’t saying much.

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Luther: episode one – TV Review

DCI John Luther

Luther opens with a hooded figure chasing a scared be-suited man through a…well I’m not actually sure what it is, it’s an industrial complex of some kind, one of those ones that looks like it was purely designed for chase sequences in thrillers. He eventually reaches a dead end on a metal bridge/gantry over a deep hole (seriously was this place designed by the same guys who built the Death Star?); the hooded figure reaches him and reveals himself to be… Stringer Bell from The Wire? In this though he has a London accent and doesn’t seem as composed. He also seems to be a policeman not a drug dealer, weird. Yeah ok it’s actually the actor Idris Elba, who’s American accent was so flawless in The Wire it’s actually weirder to hear him with his natural accent.

Anyway, Elba plays John Luther; loose-canon-cop-on-the-edge-who-doesn’t-play-by-the-rules-but-gets-the-job-done-with-nothing-to-lose-except-a-long-suffering-wife-who-can’t-deal-with-the-fact-he’s-married-to-the-job-more-than-her. So we’re dealing with the height of original characterisation here. Turns out the man now hanging from the gantry is a serial paedophile/murderer/rapist; they’re vague on the details but we get the idea. He’s hidden his latest victim somewhere and Luther wants to know where. He shouts and repeats things a lot (“You’ve lied, LIED and LIED!”) and the editor enjoys cutting to a different close-up every time he makes the repetition. From the adverts I thought they would have played him cooler but he seems more like a Daily Mail reader; just shouting a lot and shaking and naming other girls (always beginning their names with “little”) the evil dude killed or whatever; then eventually letting him fall because he believes in swift justice and letting him fall is the swiftest thing he could think to do.

Cue a really classy opening title sequence that seems kind of incongruous with the rest of the show’s tone.  I guess that was his James Bond pre-credits sequence.

We fast forward to 7 months later and John has been in a psych ward and the dude he let fall is in a coma.  It’s not explicitly stated but it’s implied it was the previous paedophile case that lead to Luther’s mental break, but he’s all better now and is put back on the ‘team’ (it’s a special unit that as far as I can tell is just a typical homicide unit but it’s got to be special because that’s how these shows work). Luther is teamed up with a fresh faced new detective to the team who declares “I put in the request months ago to work with you. I chased it up 3 times a week; in writing”. Rather than finding this obsessive and creepy he takes it in his stride, now out of the psyche word Luther seems to be slightly more laid back and cool again, or just really into this guy.

It’s a show that consciously wants to be more American, more Hollywood. We get a new murder for Luther to investigate that at first isn’t exactly a massive step away from the likes of’ Midsomer Murders’ but everything feels exaggerated; quick cutting between shots and the murder looks to be by someone “professional”, no meagre murders of passion for Luther, that’s too run of the mill. We even get a silly scene played completely straight of Luther’s boss and her boss talking about Luther:

“You’re playing a dangerous game betting on him”

“It’s not a bet, it’s an investment”

“He’s nitro-glycerine!”

Aha, nitro-glycerine? I’m not sure if the writer’s are aware how cliché of cop films/TV shows this kind of discussion is, but their bizarre choice of adjective to describe Luther does make me think they were going through a list of words already over-used to describe how dangerous a loose-canon cop is and that’s what they settled on as underused. (Though nitro-glycerine is one of the ingredients of TNT AKA dynamite, so technically he’s saying Luther is “dynamite” but I guess that’s not really the idea he’s trying to get across…)

Anyway, the investigation goes on as usual for these shows and Luther interviews the daughter of the murdered husband/wife/dog. She’s got kind of crazy eyebrows and something seems a little off about her. Luther yawns and stares at her expectantly, she doesn’t react and he leaves the room proclaiming to the rest of his team “it’s her, she did it!” Yes you’re reading that right Luther just sussed out the murderer based on whether she yawned when he yawned.

“When you yawn other people yawn it’s the same part of the brain that deals with empathy, she doesn’t have any she murdered them”

Now I enjoyed this moment for its complete silliness and how serious they seem to play it, but it does signal the sudden shift 20 minutes into the episode of actually becoming a really good show. The daughter, Alice, is some child prodigy genius sociopath, Luther knows she murdered her parents and she seems pleased he knows, but he can’t prove it. So begins a really fun, tense and well performed series of cat and mouse interactions between Luther and Alice. For all the cliché and silliness it began with (ok so it still continues cliché but it is good cliché) the show steps up a notch and turns into a serial killer/cop plot.  It builds up well, Luther’s estranged wife gets threatened, Alice gets more and more interested in Luther and wants to break him; prove that in trying to protect his wife and do the right thing he’ll break the law he’s trying to uphold. Like I said, not massively unique (it’s almost a bit Batman/Joker), but the interactions between the two of them is great and I’m a sucker for that kind of serial killer/cop back and forth.

It seems the show wants to be more American not just in presentation but in structure as well. There will be an overarching storyline throughout the series as well as standalone plots for each episode; each episode plot seems to be clichés stolen from American cop films, episode two involves cops being killed that Luther has to stop, another episode will see a satanic cult killer etc All condensed into the 60 minute format. The bizarre turnaround of the first episode definitely has me intrigued and I’ll be checking out the rest of the series.

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Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time – Review

Film’s opening VO: “And he became a Prince…of Persia”

Yes of course I am Persian, how dare you imply otherwise

*Cue Title card*

Don’t you miss the days they’d force the film’s title into the dialogue no matter how awkward it sounded? No me neither really. So begins the journey of Dastan, street orphan turned Prince (of Persia). It has all the hallmarks of a potentially rubbish film. Adapted from a video game; purposefully set up as a franchise starter; co-scripted by the writer of ‘Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights’ and directed by Mike Newell – a man with little experience directing blockbusters or action; other than ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’. How did it end up? Well, it’s not rubbish. Not much else either.

I’d started to write a brief synopsis of the plot but there’s actually more of it than I can be bothered. Conceptually it’s a fairly simplistic plot and there’s not any depth to it, but lots of ‘things’ happen, ‘things’ that would take up too many paragraphs to explain, ‘things’ that just kind of come out of nowhere. So either watch the trailer or read a synopsis online, the basics are: Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) is accused of murdering his adopted father (a ridiculously quick accusation) and goes on the run with a Princess (Gemma Arterton) who protects a dagger that can reverse the flow of time. Dastan wants to discover who really killed his father; Princess wants to return dagger to ancient place because if they don’t something bad will happen; the evil bad guy wants the dagger. And the whole film plays out exactly as you’d imagine, I’m not asking for twists and turns every 5 minutes, but if you’ve seen the trailer you’ve seen the film.

Whilst it’s adapted from a video game the story is mostly the creation of the scriptwriter, it’s taken the prince and the reversing time dagger and Persia, and then built its own story around it. So knowing that why on earth does the film plot play out like a video game? It’s a very noticeable action sequence/exposition/action sequence/exposition etc structure, with bits of information that could have been revealed earlier held back till whenever the writer deems it ‘dramatic’. It could be argued that makes up most blockbuster plot structures, but in Prince of Persia it’s distractingly noticeable and It makes the characters look stupid. The Princess withholds information from Dastan for no reason other than so the dramatic reveal can be half way through the film. And do we really need to sit through another film where the bad guy has been established in the advertisement, trailers and the films shoddy telegraphing of it – but then treats it like a twist to the audience? Just have Kingsley being evil from the start, it can be a surprise for the characters, but it feels so pointless and plodding to pretend to hide it from the audience.

Some of this could be forgiven if the action sequences were up to much, but they’re typical of post-Bourne action; overly edited, shakey cam, far too close shots that only helps to hide the action choreography. There’s often a poor sense of geography to the sequences, bafflingly so at the start of the film when it actually gives a little fly through shot of the area he’s about to do some parkour though, yet when it comes to it I got confused where he was heading towards, what direction and who he was fighting due to the camera work. Ah yes the parkour, the games were renowned for allowing the player to run along walls, swing on beams and jump over large gaps. Nearly a decade later and parkour has seeped into public conscience and cinema, most noticeably in ‘Casino Royale’ and ‘District B13’. So it’s kind of depressing to see it so often ‘faked’ in Prince of Persia. For all the claims that Gyllenhaal had been trained in it, nearly every shot of him doing any is over edited to obscure his face, lots of shots of stunt doubles feet running along poles. Each sequence of jumps or athleticism has clearly been performed a bit at a time and then edited together. When we’ve seen films with single camera shots of parkour and other amazing feats done for real it’s boring and unimpressive to see it faked or obscured in Prince of Persia.

About half way through the film the Hassansin’s turn up, these are assassins hired by the villain to kill the Prince. They’re introduced in training grounds, each of them swathed in black robes and practicing with their unique (and possibly not historically accurate, did they have weapons made of CGI back then?) fantasy weapon. I’ve gotta be honest, I really like these guys. The leader of them is pretty cheesy in his attempts to act eeevil and mysterious, but I love that it feels like an old kung fu film concept. A team of warriors training in a temple each with a unique weapon that they’ll then use to attack the hero; it’s silly but really fun. And it pays off towards the end of the film as the best directed action sequences (throwing knives!) involves one of the Hassansin’s versus one of the good guy side characters. Yeah, the best action sequences; the most interesting; the one that involves the best build up of tension; the best sense of geography and a clear “this is what I need and this is why it’s important” – is between a side hero and side villain.

The script itself is, again, nothing surprising. It connects the dots and talks of “destiny” whilst throwing out the odd “I need to return the dagger to the sacred stone” plot crap that comes out of nowhere and is the fantasy genres equivalent of Star Trek’s techno babble. (Is it just me or does it kind of take away from the hero’s decision to save the world when films are always harping on about it being their destiny? I’d kinda respect one who decided he couldn’t give a fuck and let the world blow up) Dastan and the Princess have the usual screwball inspired “ooh we hate each other and exchange witty barbs but love each other by the end” relationship and Gyllenhaal and Arterton just about make it work. In fact Gyllenhaal is one of the films saving graces, he plays the dashing rogue well and a lot of the time when the film works it’s because of him. Arterton is ok, she doesn’t have much to work with other than giving plot exposition. I think she’s meant to be a “strong” female character because she keeps nagging the prince (of Persia) and trading, sometimes funny, repartee with him. I’m not asking for every female character to be just as physically capable as the male, but she’s also meant to be the Guardian of the sand/dagger/time, yet seems to have no knowledge of fighting or self defence and has spent her life living in a castle with little knowledge of the outside world. Dropped the ball on that one sand gods to be honest, no wonder it was stolen. No matter how much they try to present her as on level with the Prince (by of course using feminine skills like lying and telling him she knows she’s pretty) she’s still a princess who needs saving, and in the story they’ve created it makes no sense. Alfred Molina provides comic support as a dodgy dealing “small business owner”. His work is good and he’s often funny (and his inclusion brings with it ostrich racing, more films need ostrich racing) yet at the same time his constant talk of taxes and being a small business owner can be distractingly modern; like a used car salesman somehow ended up in the wrong century.

Oh yeah, Jake Gyllenhaal’s English accent is a lot better than Russell Crowe’s in ‘Robin Hood’. Still not entirely sure why he has an English accent, I guess English accents sound more olde tyme? (Though seriously, I guess it was because the rest of the main cast were English so it made more sense for Gyllenhaal to match their accents, perhaps)

The dagger being able to reverse time is an interesting concept with an obvious flaw, how do you maintain any tension if any action can be reversed? They try to avoid this by setting some rules, that it can only reverse one minute, and that it needs to be replenished with sands of time after use. Sadly they don’t seem to stick to these rules but instead use it whenever it’s narratively convenient. In the last twenty minutes it seems they even forgot that problem and the story loses any semblance of caring about what’s going on in the film. I’ll avoid spoilers but suffice to say the filmmakers seem to be saying the films events really don’t matter, it’s a huge misstep and I’m surprised they went through with it. Arterton’s Princess in particular gets the short straw and is reduced to even less of a character.

Everything in the film has been done better (and in the case of the parkour, done for real) in other films. The action is poorly shot, the plot shoddy and awkwardly structured, the ending stupid, character’s two dimensional. There are some fun parts to it, Gyllenhaal sells me on the character and I wouldn’t be against seeing Prince of Persia 2: Havana Nights in a couple of years time. But I don’t think I’d ever choose to sit through the first one again. The film desperately wants to be the start of another ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ style franchise; family friendly action adventure with humour. The problem is that film did it better. I know that not all summer blockbusters can be ‘The Dark Knight’, but now they can’t even be ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’? Prince of Persia provides some entertainment, but you’ll have forgotten about it within an hour.

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Shakespeare + Twitter = ?

http://suchtweetsorrow.com/

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8615432.stm

Last week the RSC began a new arts project, the idea is they’re going to play out Romeo and Juliet (set in the modern day & no Shakespearean dialogue) over the next several weeks; via Twitter.

Now firstly let me say, I’m not beholden to Shakespeare’s texts, I know they’ve been/are constantly chopped and changed, moved around and edited, time and locations changed; all for different interpretations of the play and in some cases there not even being a definitive “proper” version of the play, due to Shakespeare himself making changes, and different versions published.

I’m also fond of post-modernism and deconstruction, so reinterpreting Shakespeare’s works; divorcing his language from the stories; treating the characters as “real” people and imagining what they would do outside of what we know from the play and presenting it through a system far far away from the stage, isn’t something I’m automatically against, in fact I’m incredibly open to it.  And to an extent it’s already been done in the excellent play/film “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” presenting the story of Hamlet from the point of view of his two friends.

However, Shakespeare’s plays were entirely about the language.  The plots were often a hodgepodge of borrowed ideas or straight up copies of others, it was his gift for language that we remember him; that cements him as the world’s greatest playwright.  To remove that is to remove what makes Shakespeare’s plays…well, Shakespearian.

Of course who knows, maybe it’ll be startlingly original and inventive and intelligent…oh wait,  Juliet (or Julietcap16 as she is known on twitter) recently tweeted at her nurse:

“Could you just pick me up this weeks heat? Think there’s an article on R-Pattz!”

“OMGosh i am so minging! I have a new spot on my forehead and blisters all over my feet from yesterday!”

Whilst ‘Romeo_mo’ tweeted:

“anybody know where a good place for Modern Warfare 2 cheats, hints etc is? and thaks for all your support everyone,really appriciate it.”

I mean come on this comes across as such a lazy, boring and simplistic attempt to present Romeo and Juliet as ‘normal’ teenagers in modern times, but it gives us nothing.  It’s no deeper understanding of the character, it doesn’t give us anything to the thematic elements of doomed fate.  That might sound like I’m asking too much for what are no more than 140 word tweets, but if I can’t ask that of it, then why bother?  It’s just repetition of pop culture for the sake of it.  And yes I know that post-modernism can be about those ideas, about the surface, about reflecting it’s meaninglessness or seeing the art in it. But in this case it’s just…boring.

It could be argued it’s to help cement the idea that Romeo and Juliet were normal “teenagers”, which is kind of inaccurate, as the very concept of teenagers didn’t exist in Shakespearian times, but I take their point that it could help to present them as normal people that can sometimes be lost to modern audiences due to Shakespeare’s language not being immediately relatable/understandable.  But then it’s not like young love is this archaic notion that we can’t relate to.  Or to present us with a “what if” scenario of how Romeo and Juliet would play out in the modern day – but to really play it out in the modern day, with modern situations and modern mindset etc. You would need to dramatically change plot/character elements to the point of it being as far away from the original work as you can get.  Baz Lurhman’s Romeo and Juliet put it in a modern setting, but kept the language, and really that’s the furthest away you can get and still have it recognisably Shakespeare (rather than just using the same character names).

I’m not suggesting it’s a complete waste of time (well maybe a little) but for the RSC to be committing time and money to it seems excessive, when it’s something a group of people with a bit of planning could have done in their spare time for lulz. I don’t you really need much acting experience or a “prepared story grid” (BBC article) to tweet that Juliet has a crush on R-Patz.

But then really I think I’m over-analysing it, not to be cynical but you can’t help but feel it’s a slightly lame attempt to be ‘down with the kidz’, hoping that perhaps if all those young girls who love Twilight hear that Juliet gets upset about spots “zomg just lyk me!!1!” they’ll suddenly find it relatable and start turning up at the Globe theatre with t-shirts that say “Bite Me Romeo”; a new film adaptation of Hamlet will have him as the lead singer of an emo band (My Oedipal Romance); whilst Lady Macbeth will move to a new castle and find herself in a heart-warming fish out of water story where she finds out the true meaning of love and friendship.  “Is this a dagger I see before me, or are you just happy to see me?” in theatres June 2012 (“5 stars!” Daily Mail)

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