Category Archives: Film Reviews

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.

4 Comments

Filed under Animated, Fantasy, Film Reviews

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fantasy, Film Reviews, Summer Blockbuster