Film #119: The Lego Movie (2014)

film 119 the lego movie

Rating: 4/5

“Everything is awesome!!!!”

Despite the fact that this film is the most blatant and shameless example of product placement, it’s a lot of fun. It’s also probably the only time we’ll ever get an ensemble cast quite as epic: Gandalf, Batman, Abraham Lincoln, Wonderwoman, Han Solo, and half of the LA Lakers together? When Wreck-It Ralph promised to feature all the classic video game characters in one movie, the results were crushingly inadequate. Here, The Lego Movie delivers, and the interactions between the various cameos – no matter how brief – are very entertaining. It’s the cameo characters that have some of the best running jokes in the movie – poor loser Green Lantern, for example, or 1950’s Space Man Benny desperately trying to build a spaceship. The voice cast is excellent too – kudos to Liam Neeson in particular, sending himself up as split personality Good Cop/ Bad Cop, one of the best characters in the movie.

As well as a seemingly endless number of super-awesome cameos to keep an eye out for, the movie itself is jam-packed. Visually it’s a treat – not quite as puntastic as Aardman’s stop-motion, but just as eye-catching. It’s like a regular movie that’s eaten six bags of sugar in under thirty seconds, washed down with five energy drinks: it’s chaotic, manic, delirious. The pace is non-stop and, quite brilliantly, acknowledged as being such – it’s revealed that the action is apparently playing out in real time. Jack Bauer would be proud (or green with envy at these characters’ productivity). It’s also truly vast in scope, with the action racing from a perfectly ordered city, to the wild west (complete with beautiful panoramic views), to the high seas and beyond. I wonder if the writers had watched A Town Called Panic for inspiration – the films share more than a passing resemblance. Both feature crazy stop motion, non-stop action, hugely ambitious landscapes, and a barely contained insanity. I have to admit, however, A Town Called Panic is the better film. I don’t mind the product placement in The Lego Movie (although it becomes a bit too explicit towards the end) – the biggest issue I have is its confused message about the product placement. Poor Lego seems very muddled about what its purpose and appeal is, and the attempts to unite the sentiment of the product with the most effective marketing ploys don’t really work.

The film itself focuses on Emmet, a generic construction worker who has boundless energy and optimism, but no friends. He likes to conform, to fit in – everything has its place and thinking outside the box is definitely a bad thing. Yet Emmet’s structured life leaves him feeling isolated and unfulfilled until one day, when everything changes. Accidentally becoming the fabled “Special” – the only person who can stop evil Lord Business’ dastardly plans for Taco Tuesday, whatever that is, Emmet finds himself working with a band of “master builders” – an assortment of characters, including Batman, love interest Wyld Style, and Morgan Freeman (sorry, Vitruvius, played by Morgan Freeman), who can create anything in seconds using the Lego pieces around them. The message is clear: conformity bad, creativity good. The structured world preferred by Lord Business is perfect, perfectly ordered, and perfectly boring. In contrast, Cloud Cuckoo Land, a place where imagination runs wild, is a veritable utopia. Meanwhile, Emmet has to unlock his imagination to become the “Special” and save the world. The potential for invention is endless, and the movie makes it very clear that this is the “right” way of thinking about Lego. This is great, and seems to really embody the original concept of Lego, which came in buckets or could be bought like bags of pick ‘n’ mix. It’s a wonderful idea: let your imagination run wild, using simple blocks of plastic that can become whatever you want – cities, animals, whole worlds, anything. Problem is, however, that Lego now comes in pre-packaged assembly kits. Do you want a pirate boat? Buy the pirate boat kit. Want a race-car, a farm, a house, a spaceship? Buy the kit. Most depressing about this whole situation is that now you can even buy kits for the creatures and objects made by the master builders in the movie – the things that work precisely because they don’t conform. Hell, you can buy a Cloud Cuckoo landscape and a Unikitty.

It’s this kind of basic inner conflict that makes The Lego Movie such a problematic product and, no matter how fun and entertaining it is – and it is, absolutely – I can’t help but feel that the creators have really proved how troubled the whole Lego world really is now. There’s another movie planned, of course, but it’s unclear what direction a sequel can really go in. This film loses momentum as it reaches its conclusion: there are hints throughout as to how it’s going to end, but the sudden shift from hyped-up craziness to solemn sentimentality is underwhelming. Yet until this point, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It’s just a shame that the product itself seems to be having a complete identity crisis.


Film #116: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

film 116 the nightmare before christmas
Rating: 5/5

“Yet year after year,
It’s the same routine
And I grow so weary
Of the sound of screams
And I Jack, the pumpkin king,
Have grown so tired of the same old thing.”

Although it’s probably been about ten years since I last watched this, as soon as the opening credits began, I was immediately transported back, and everything felt so completely familiar. Watching the film on a surprisingly undamaged VHS (quite possibly the tape I’ve had longest in my collection – this is one of the few films I’ve owned since my childhood), I couldn’t help but be impressed at just how good The Nightmare Before Christmas is. I liked it as a kid, but as an adult I really appreciate the nuance of it, notice the little details that fill every scene (this time around, I noticed that the Christmas Land folk have pet penguins).

Of course, this is the most quintessentially Tim Burton picture around. His name is synonymous with the film, and its glorious gothic expressionism and unconventional protagonists are so completely and utterly Burtonesque that it seems to exemplify the contemporary auteur’s style even more than Edward Scissorhands. Yet, of course, this is not a Tim Burton picture – not really. In fact, he didn’t even write the screenplay, though the story and characters are based on his concepts. Yes, this is Henry Selick’s picture, and the director has created a vast, rich world, one that he came very close to matching in Coraline some fifteen years later. Tim Burton finally created his own feature-length stop-motion world in 2005 with one of his many collaborations with Johnny Depp, Corpse Bride, and ironically that film never comes close to reaching the same levels of immersive gothic fantasy that Selick’s creations inspire.

The story is probably well known to most people. Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king, has led the inhabitants of Halloween Town in another successful, scare-filled holiday, but is having a mid-life crisis. Knowing that he’s great at his job, nevertheless he craves something new, and finds inspiration when he accidentally stumbles into Christmas Land. Overwhelmed by the concept of laughter, joy, and happiness, he returns to his home and announces his plans to do Christmas this year. Yet despite their enthusiasm, the townspeople are incapable of looking beyond their own nature, and their attempts to recreate Christmas with the inevitable Halloween influence are wonderfully misguided, transforming the happiest time of the year into something horribly disturbing. People expect to be scared on Halloween, but no one expects their holiday wreath to kill their granny. (On a side note, they should be praised for managing to organise any kind of Yuletide celebrations in such a short time frame – they start after Halloween, and most shops now begin in September at the latest.)

Jack is understandably the most iconic character in the film, and props to Selick and his animators for bringing such a warmth and emotion to what is essentially a skeleton. When he first lands in Christmas Land – the warm colours, cosy homes and twinkling lights in stark contrast to the grey, almost-monochrome world of Halloween Town – his amazement and sense of wonder is instantly conveyed. With only the slightest change in eye-socket-size, Jack Skellington is vulnerable, terrifying, childishly enthusiastic, and world-weary. The rest of the characters are afforded just as much care and attention. Halloween Town is filled with all the creatures and grotesquerie that your nightmares can conceive – all the Universal monsters are present in some guise, and there’s a wonderful array of new characters too. Among my favourites, it’s hard not to love the Mayor, with his alternating faces, and Oogie Boogie, the only real villain in the film, and one of my favourite villains in general. His jazz-inspired number, gambling with the captured Santa Claus’s life, is wonderfully catchy, and genuinely intimidating.

This brings me onto the final point – the music in The Nightmare Before Christmas. While there has(understandably, I would say) been a critical backlash towards Tim Burton in recent years, and also with his continuing collaborations with people who once seemed inspired and now appear unoriginal and lazy, composer Danny Elfman is a perfect match for the unconventional filmmaker. A household name – a rarity for screen composers – Elfman’s soundtrack is perfect here, bringing real emotion to the little stop motion characters on screen. And it’s perhaps surprising to realise just how much of a musical this is – in fact, almost the entire story is relayed in song, and Elfman’s score permeates every scene regardless, bringing life and atmosphere to both Christmas Land and Halloween Town alike.

Although today The Nightmare Before Christmas has become slightly tainted by the over-saturation of film-related products – it’s become one of the ultimate “alternative” films for angsty youngsters, and for a while it seemed like every emo or goth came complete with a Jack Skellington backpack – ignoring all the merchandising and paraphernalia, the film itself remains a triumph. It’s a small world, filled with big characters with even bigger plans, yet at its core, it’s a tender romance, and a film about accepting who you are, about learning to embrace your own natural weirdness. As morals go, it’s a pretty good one.

Film #103: Flesh Gordon 2 (1990)

film 103 flesh gordon 2

Rating: 1.5/5

“You thought you’d killed me Gordon, but my drive for lust and power is relentless! Your penis – and MY brain – will be a marriage, made in Hell!”

This is definitely one of the stranger charity shop purchases – bought for about 20p on old VHS years ago, Flesh Gordon 2 (also known by the much niftier title, Flesh Gordon Meets the Cosmic Cheerleaders) is, as you might have guessed, a sex comedy rip-off of Flash Gordon. It’s also my first and only experience of either Flesh or Flash, and perhaps seeing the first one – this was made a whopping sixteen years after the first instalment – would have been useful. That being said, plot is generally irrelevant here, but I got the distinct feeling that the final reveal of the true identity of the Evil Presence would have made more sense had I some knowledge of the previous film’s characters.

The film opens with a strangely meta film-within-a-film – Flesh (Vince Murdocco) is travelling in his penis-shaped stop-motion spaceship (yes, it’s a subtle movie, this) with some thong-clad hotties, shooting re-enactments of his (s)exploits for his devoted Earth following. Soon, however, it goes horribly wrong, and poor Flesh is kidnapped by some other thong-clad alien hotties, the cosmic cheerleaders of the title, who intend to copulate with him because an impotence ray has rendered all the boys on their planet (particularly the Cod-Ball team – think a cross between basketball and baseball, but dirty) useless. Naturally, it’s up to Flesh’s Earthling girlfriend Dale (Robyn Kelly) and sex-scientist Dr Flexi Jerkoff (Tony Travis) to save Flesh and, by default, help restore erections to whatever planet the cheerleaders come from.

If the premise and the characters names haven’t already made it obvious, Flesh Gordon 2‘s humour is particularly juvenile, despite the 18-rating. I have no idea who its intended audience is – fourteen year old boys, perhaps? It’s crude and stupid – but largely inoffensive. It’s so tacky that it’s difficult to be insulted by the chicken-sex jokes, for instance. Were it not for the blatant sex themes (in an effort to hide from a gruesomely rampant penis-with-a-face, Flesh and Jerkoff hide in a “cave”, enter the womb and find the whole Cod-Ball team dressed as adult-babies) this would appeal to no one over the age of ten. Oddly, the sex-gags are interspersed with literal toilet humour – following the pair’s journey to the centre of the womb, they end up accidentally saving two trapped turds. The female turd has breasts. That being said, although it’s crude and insidiously stupid, it’s quite entertaining (I say this as a bad movie fan, it should be said) – it plays out like an X-rated Masters of the Universe, complete with doofus leading man.

Flesh himself, rather like He-Man, is utterly bland – reasonably good looking, in a 90s kind of way, he appears to have no personality whatsoever. Despite his name, he seems to be quite prudish (in his defence, he only had sex with that chicken to get the spaceship moving again). Like He-Man, he has about five lines of dialogue and none of them are particularly memorable, but the role is hardly a taxing one. (On a sidenote, since this glittering debut, Murdocco has gone on to become a reasonably successful stuntman, appearing in a number of Marvel films).The rest of the acting is equally nondescript, with the exception of Bruce Scott as the Evil Presence’s mad scientist Master Bator (Scott is also responsible for the film’s soundtrack) – wide-eyed and manic, he’s like a low-rent Christopher Lloyd on Viagra.

In a way, the film’s message is actually quite encouraging – as well as stealing everyone’s mojo, the Evil Presence is evil because he wants to dominate women (he’s just interested in his own pleasure) and, in the… climactic… final fight between him and Flesh, our hero chastises him for this mentality. Yet the progressive message is somewhat lost in the mass of thongs (not just on the females, it should be said – this is an equal-opportunities buttock-flashing movie) and the fact that the good guys routinely grope whatever female is nearby. There’s also something uncomfortable about the fact that the cosmic cheerleaders appear to be schoolkids – they go to classes, have lockers lined along the corridors, and generally act like teenagers, not adults. While this mirrors the general tone of the film, the constant vulgarities and fetish jokes seem more than a little out of place in this context. At the risk of sounding flippant, however, this seems like the wrong kind of film to be reading sex- or gender- politics through – it’s obviously not meant to be taken seriously. The acting is wooden, the sets are reminiscent of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 or Red Dwarf – deliberately tacky, but also just plain shoddy, and the story is merely a guise to allow the characters to move from one juvenile sex joke to the next. This is not the movie for anyone who gets easily offended, or, to be honest, anyone old enough to actually watch it. Put it this way: if your first instinct when confronted with a calculator is to write 8008 and then giggle, you’ll probably enjoy this movie. (Heh heh, boob.)

Film #80: Team America: World Police (2004)

film 80 team america world police

Rating: 4/5

“Remember, there is no “I” in Team America.”

How timely that, just as Alec Baldwin announces his decision to leave the public eye, we watch a film that completely, utterly, and entirely rips him – and a substantial number of other actors, it must be said – to shreds. Of course, it’s not just actors that come under the firing line here; almost everyone is insulted at some point. That’s the beauty of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who manage to make fun of everyone in crude, juvenile, immature ways – yet somehow the result is not only inoffensive, but quite astute. Team America: World Police, a sometime musical and love letter to the Thunderbirds style of puppetry, is typical Parker-Stone fare, political yet stupid, crude and clever, and best known for two things: Kim Jong Il singing “I’m so Ronery” in his vast mansion; and the puppet sex scene. Having seen the film multiple times, the novelty has worn off but my appreciation still remains. And, honestly, the puppet sex is still rather funny.

Despite the opening sequence featuring a clever puppet show within a puppet movie, there is little acknowledgement of the film’s distinctive creative choice, to its benefit. Its visual absurdity is made all the more ridiculous because of this, and there’s such pleasure to be had from the simplest of actions – the puppets bouncing off screen instead of walking, the secret signal (frantic arm waving) to get actor extraordinaire Gary out of the clutches of the middle eastern terrorists. There are sight gags a-plenty, perfectly matched with a script that is equally as funny, and just as daft. Despite the literal small scale of the film’s production, Team America is also easily one of the largest, most destructive disaster movies around – Michael Bay must be so jealous. Just consider how much destruction occurs thanks to the incompetence and sheer arrogance of the team – how many landmarks get obliterated. Of course, it’s hardly a unique gag, making the “heroes” more dangerous to humanity than the bad guys they’re trying to stop, but undoubtedly it works.

Team America‘s plot blends political satire with general crudeness – the team exist to stop terrorism and, armed with a vast arsenal and a general conviction of their authority and greatness, aim to rid the world of a random assortment of foreign enemies. Needing someone to infiltrate one of the terrorist cells, they enlist the help of Broadway actor Gary, who begrudgingly dons some brown face paint, a smattering of facial hair and, with an actual towel on his head, convinces the terrorists he’s one of them. Their conversation – a wonderfully offensive interpretation of random Middle Eastern dialects – is one of the most quotable moments in the film. Of course, soon it transpires that these baddies are merely… puppets… (haha!) and the true villain of the piece is none other than Kim Jong Il, then leader of North Korea. It’s a perfect choice of enemy; Jong Il remains, even in death, an enigma. In fact, the film is perhaps even more interesting when viewed today – I wonder when Parker and Stone will turn their sights onto the dictator/ great leader’s son, who is just begging to be parodied by the irreverent pair.

It’s not just foreign powers that get ripped – Parker and Stone never forget about their home country. Given their penchant for attacking Hollywood, it’s unsurprising that actors bear the brunt of the pair’s comedic wrath; Jong Il at least gets a sympathetic musical number to justify his desire for global domination, but Alec Baldwin gets no such excuse. The Film Actors Guild (most frequently referred to as FAG, conveniently) features a great array of actors convinced of their own self-worth beyond the big screen – Sean Penn, Michael Moore, Susan Sarandon, and a mentally challenged Matt Damon (among others). It all culminates in an epic showdown that, while impressive, doesn’t quite match the carnage of the film’s opening scenes.

By the end the joke does, perhaps, wear a bit thin, but for fans of Parker and Stone’s cleverly crude humour, it’s a blast. Their ability to reduce even the most complex of ideas to toilet humour and cock jokes is to be commended – and I mean that completely sincerely. Team America: World Police marked a significant transition in the pair’s careers, hinting at their future desire for Broadway success (which they achieved when they brought The Book of Mormon to the stage – if you’ve not seen it, it’s superb) and demonstrating their sometimes uneasy relationship with the rest of the film industry (it’s perhaps telling that Gary’s acting does actually save the day in the end) and their home country (despite their arrogance and obliviousness, Team America are the film’s heroes). Like the later series of South Park – particularly those around Obama’s election – Team America proves that Parker and Stone have their finger firmly on the pulse of current affairs, and in the decade since this film was released, it remains just as relevant, just as crude, and just as funny.

Film #69: Mary and Max (2009)

film 69 mary and max

Rating: 5/5

“When I was young, I invented an invisible friend called Mr Ravioli. My psychiatrist says I don’t need him anymore, so he just sits in the corner and reads.”

I remember Mary and Max showing at Edinburgh International Film Festival a few years ago, where it received very positive reviews. Unfortunately, trying to market a stop motion, mostly narrated film about two pen-pals is not necessarily the easiest thing to do, yet despite its limited cinematic release it’s still managed to enter into IMDB’s top 250 films – quite an achievement, all things considered, and a testament to writer-director Adam Elliot, who has created a movie that is both heart-warming and utterly devastating, desperately sad yet very funny.

Mary and Max is almost entirely narrated by Barry Humphries, whose matter-of-fact, warm tone is perfect to tell the two characters’ stories. He tells the tale much as one would read a children’s book, but the contents are far darker and more adult than any kid’s story; the bleak upbringing that Mary endures and the isolation surrounding Max are somewhat tempered by the calm, straight-forward language and Humphries’ voice. The two lonely souls meet by chance, when eight year old Mary, living in the Melbourne suburbs with a rarely-seen father and an alcoholic mother, picks a name out of an American phone book at random so she can write and ask where American babies come from (her mother has told her that Australian babies are found in the bottom of pints of beer). The name she selects turns out to be that of Max (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman), a morbidly obese, awkward man living in New York. The two bond through their correspondence – two kindred spirits, living on opposite sides of the world.

Central to the film is the ways in which Mary and Max help each other – she views the world as a child does, and he responds to that in much the same way. While Max’s awkwardness is obvious from the outset, the extent of his problems are far more subtly introduced. It’s not until perhaps half way through the movie that mental illness is specifically mentioned, and his eventual diagnosis will come as no surprise. Yet it’s beautifully handled; the filmmakers’ never ask their viewers to take pity on the characters and, instead, it’s the friendship, and the ways in which that friendship both helps and challenges each character, that is most important.

Visually, Mary and Max is a treat – a wonderfully realised stop motion world with oddly maudlin-looking people. Mary’s world, the Australian suburbs, comprises of various warm brown tones; Max, living in an old tenement flat in New York, is surrounded by a monochrome city – the only splashes of colour in the film, and in their lives, are sporadic dots of red (the flirtatious lips of a woman at Max’s “over-eaters anonymous” group; a pompom Mary sends Max). The colour scheme perfectly reflects the tone of the film and the emotions of its central characters, who are further complemented by the beautiful animation, which is easily as distinctive and polished as Tim Burton and Henry Selick’s stop-motion, and as humorous as Aardman’s (Selick’s Coraline, a nightmarish, wonderful film released in the same year as this, garnered an Oscar nomination; despite Elliot’s previous Academy success for short film Harvie Krumpet in 2003, Mary and Max enjoyed no such recognition).

While it is Humphries’ voice that carries us through the years, as Mary grows older and Max grows wider, both Toni Collette (as the older Mary) and Hoffman should be commended – Hoffman in particular brings Max to life. The voice-over narration, initially disconcerting, adds to the lyrical, story-book style of the film, carefully commenting on the visuals at times, bringing a certain degree of tongue-in-cheek irony to the story. It is, by the way, inspired by Elliot’s own pen-pal correspondence; he has invented Mary (who shares more than a little with the title character in Muriel’s Wedding, also starring Toni Collette) but the friendship at the centre of the film is genuine. Like Mary, Elliot has yet to meet his pen-pal. It is perhaps this real-life inspiration that has ensured such humanity and warmth to the film, despite its rather bleak subject matter. Elliot’s script, with its moments of black humour and its often childlike response to events and situations, delicately ensures that the depressing elements of the story are lightened by some much needed comedy that never threatens to compromise the overall tone of the film. I laughed and giggled, then spent a substantial amount of time crying. Yet although it’s heartbreaking, Mary and Max is, in the end, full of hope – it’s a cliché to say “life-affirming,” but despite my tears, I found my faith in humanity restored.

Film #56: A Town Called Panic (2009)

film 56 a town called panic
Rating: 5/5

“Oh no! C’est ton anniversaire?! OH NO!!!”

If ever there was a film liable to make your head explode, this is it. A Town Called Panic, one of the most inventive, utterly bonkers movies of the last decade (and one of my favourites of 2009) is a brief seventy five minutes of sheer lunacy from the Belgian animation duo Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar. The names might seem unfamiliar but a surprisingly large amount of (UK) readers will probably have seen several of their shorts: these are also the people behind those bizarre, manic Cravendale milk adverts. If you remember them, with the footballer (?) and friends whose fridge takes them back in time to provide Cleopatra with the appropriate kind of milk for her baths, or the angry bull who gets de-spotted on a milk-flume, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from A Town Called Panic.

Aubier and Patar’s film follows the exploits of three housemates – Cowboy (played by Cowboy), Indian (played by Indian) and Horse (played by Horse). Really, the chaos ensues when Cowboy and Indian realise it’s Horse’s birthday, but they’ve neglected to buy him a present. Their master plan? Build him a barbecue, of course. So they go online and buy some bricks, but accidentally purchase 50 million of them, instead of 50. Inevitably, everything goes a little bit pear-shaped: their house collapses under the weight of the stashed bricks; someone (or something) keeps stealing their walls; their neighbour is wrongfully imprisoned; our intrepid heroes end up travelling to the centre of the Earth (and also underwater); a giant penguin robot throws huge snowballs at unsuspecting deer; and poor Horse just wants to get to his music lesson. If you think it sounds incoherent, it’s actually not. It is, of course, insanity, but the really fun, surreal kind of insanity, and just short enough to allow viewers to remain largely unscathed by the whole experience.

It’s not just the narrative that is manic: in truth, it’s Aubier and Patar’s animation style that really threatens to fry the brain. They offer audiences the antithesis to the crisp, polished stop motion animation of the likes of Aardman (Wallace and Gromit), Tim Burton (The Corpse Bride), and Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) – while Aardman’s creations occasionally reveal their hand-crafted nature through the faint indentations of a finger print, Aubier and Patar have apparently barely even bothered to make their own models. Cowboy and Indian stand on little green platforms, instantly reminiscent of cheap childhood toys (although, it should be pointed out that at one point Indian gets such a shock that he falls off his); Horse may as well be bought out of a poundshop. The same goes for the rest of the “cast” – the assortment of farm animals and some equally crudely realised people living in the village appear, at first glance, to be bought from a local toy shop for less than a tenner. One almost expects to see the “Made in China” stamp on the bellies of the pigs.

Yet, using this rudimentary style, something quite wonderful is created. The stop motion appears crass, almost, but the artistry and sheer style of the finished product is something truly unique and, in an unconventional way, often rather beautiful. The characters move in unnatural, disconcertingly jerky motions – their constant physicality making up for their unchanging appearance (their expressions, for example). Yet they are utterly expressive at all times despite this facial inertia, although the voice artists should be equally included in this success, due to their quick-fire, frequently hysterical (in both senses of the word) interpretation of the script. Meanwhile, the backdrops and settings are inspired and powerfully cinematic; simple painted skies and basic model landscapes instantly capture the deceptively amateurish aesthetic. And, despite the literal size of the characters, Aubier and Patar never scrimp on their ambitious creativity – this is a film on a vast scale, both narratively and visually. As Cowboy, Indian, and Horse travel around the world – far from the comforts of their little village – the places they travel to are impossibly grand. Just consider the extreme long shots underwater, for example, or their exit from the tiny igloo into the snowy wasteland.

To be honest, I’ve barely scratched the surface of this piece of madness. A Town Called Panic is a very tangible film; relying heavily on slapstick and physical humour, its visual appeal is difficult to really do justice, its dialogue might appear stupid or repetitive when written down. It is a little masterpiece, however, and a surreal, head-shakingly hilarious one at that. Truly, I cannot imagine how anyone who has watched this film could possibly forget it – and if you haven’t seen it, well, trust me when I say, watch it (here’s the trailer to whet your appetite): your understanding of, and appreciation for, stop motion will never be the same again.

Film #42: Waking Life (2001)

film 42 waking life

Rating: 2/5

“They say that dreams are only real as long as they last. Couldn’t you say the same thing about life?”

Ten years after his feature debut Slacker, indie favourite Richard Linklater returns to the meandering, narrativeless form he started with. Waking Life, however, has a more recognisable purpose, despite its lack of plot (in the traditional sense): its protagonist wanders through dreams, meeting a number of pretentious intellectuals who discuss the meaning of life and dreams. Yet “discuss” is really the wrong word, suggesting some kind of interaction or debate – for the majority of the film, the nameless main character (Wiley Wiggins) is a passive observer and listener and, as a result, much of the movie seems like a series of lectures. Whether this appeals or not will most likely be determined by individual taste; personally, I was frequently bored, and found their lengthy philosophical monologues more tiresome and condescending than insightful or deep.

What makes these lectures marginally more interesting is the visual form of the film. After the unconventional animated form of the previous Movie Lottery pick, Waltz With Bashir, Waking Life also eschews live action for animation. Here, however, it is even more hallucinatory in style, taking on the qualities of a delirious trip rather than a dream. Initially shot on hand-held video cameras, the live action of Waking Life has been rotoscope-animated in post-production, and the result is a curious, not always pleasant, experience. While early scenes are fully capable of inducing motion-sickness, with buildings and backgrounds warping and wobbling constantly, thankfully this calms down somewhat as the film progresses, though it never really stops. It’s highly stylised and abstract, reminiscent of cubism and surrealism; faces are unfinished, scenery is roughly implied, and the characters’ dialogue is reflected back in the animated form of the sequences. Yet while I was undoubtedly impressed by the film’s visual flair, it was less enjoyable than disorienting – although, considering the subject matter, perhaps this is the point.

And what about the subject matter? Waking Life‘s intellectualism is at the fore throughout, and Linklater name-drops all the right people (Bazin, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Truffaut) and all the right -isms (existentialism, humanism, nihilism, and so on) to delight the pretentious college student. Its intellectual capital is front and centre at all times, and the way in which it is presented could alternately be viewed as smart, or annoying. There were times I struggled to not roll my eyes at the clichés – a free-thinking quirky twenty-something claiming “I want real human moments. I want to see you. I want you to see me. I don’t want to give that up. I don’t want to be ant, you know?” before proceeding to talk about her plans for a self-aware, ironic, meta soap opera, for instance. These comments, and the many others, are all delivered with an overt sense of sincerity, seriousness and, dare I say, smugness, and perhaps were the film to have adopted a slightly more tongue-in-cheek approach, it may have held my attention for longer. It’s only in the final few minutes that the main character becomes anything more than a blank canvass; his frustration at the never-ending nature of his dream is something that I could relate to.

If I seem especially derisory towards Waking Life, perhaps I can temper that by saying this is not really my kind of movie. Bought on a whim because it looked intriguing, it quickly became clear that I would struggle to stay interested. Fans of Linklater will no doubt get more from it than I did. For example, having not seen Before Sunrise or its two sequels, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s appearance meant nothing to me, although their bedroom scene, jarring in that our dreamer-protagonist is entirely absent, makes more sense now that I have discovered they were reprising their previous roles. Similarly, certain scenes are reminiscent of Slacker, and a number of familiar faces re-emerge (in a fashion). Yet I found my mind constantly wandering away from the film; I zoned in an out, found myself staring blankly at the screen without hearing anything. Perhaps this is a good way to watch a movie that it in essence about the nature of dreaming, and of mindlessly walking through life, but none of the messages, delivered in their incessantly intellectual manner, actually made any impression on me. By writing a screenplay as a series of monologues, Linklater offers no counter-argument to balance what is being claimed and, without debate, my attention rapidly waned. There is no opportunity for self-discovery, no chance to formulate your own opinions, no need to reach your own conclusions. While I can appreciate Waking Life for its visuals, and can understand how certain audiences could praise both its animated style and intellectual content, neither of these aspects were enough; as an experiment, the film is an interesting curio, but I remain underwhelmed.