Monthly Archives: October 2004

Shark Tale

As Dreamworks’ Antz was to Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, so is their Shark Tale to Finding Nemo. In the Pixar movies, the characters and stories are drawn from the animal kingdom. In Finding Nemo, for example, the plot revolves around Nemo being taken from his home on the coral reef and plopped into a dentist’s aquarium. By contrast, the Dreamworks characters are more anthropomorphic in terms of their behaviour and outlook on life. The stories and the humour flow from the incongruity of human traits mapped onto other creatures. This is emphasized even more by the use of recognizable big name actors in the lead roles, which forces the animators to act more like costume designers than graphic artists.

Shark Tale takes this approach to extremes. Oscar, played by Will Smith, is the streetwise a small fish with big dreams. He’s in hock to blowfish Sykes (Martin Scorcese), who in turn is beholden to the shark mafia (with Robert De Niro as the capo). By accident, Oscar gets a reputation as a sharkslayer, and he plays this up for all it’s worth so he can live out his bling-bling dream. But how long will it be before the lies catch up with him?

The plot is weak, the mafia sterotypes are tired (even in a fishy guise), and the animation doesn’t elevate it in any way. The visuals are lovely, but no-one goes to the movies any more just to admire the pretty computer graphics. In 1995 when Toy Story came out, yes; in 2004, no. Pixar hasn’t so much raised the bar as removed it. Beautiful CGI is now a given, and in order to distinguish themselves, animated features now have to fall back on the time-honoured technique of being good films. Unfortunately, Shark Tale isn’t.

Good Bye Lenin!

Alex is an ordinary teenager in East Berlin. In the turmoil leading up to the collapse of the Wall in 1989, his mother has a heart attack and falls into a coma. She remains unconscious for the next eight months while the world she has known undergoes massive social and economic change. When she awakens, her doctor fears than another heart attack would kill her. He recommends that she stay calm, and not be exposed to any kind of excitement. Alex’s mother was an active and dedicated Socialist, and Alex decides to take her home and build an elaborate fantasy bubble around her in which the Wall never fell, and where the DDR is as strong as ever.

Good Bye Lenin! is a witty and touching family drama. It has strong comedic elements, but even though the main story revolves around an elaborate deception, in never descends into simple farce. It much prefers to to explore the limits of white lies: where does kindness end and cruetly begin? This theme is present throughout the plot in several other guises, and it comes full circle in the end, with moving results.

School of Rock

Jack Black plays Dewey Finn, a layabout musician with dreams of being a rock star. When he gets kicked out of his band, and his flatmate starts pushing him to pay his share of the rent, he fakes his way into a job as a teacher at a prestigious primary school. At first he tries to get by with a minimum of effort, but when he realises that some of the kids in has class are decent musicians, he starts secretly training them to enter a rock band competition.

Just as the character of Dewey Finn is too much in love with his guitar solos, so the film is a little too preoccupied with Jack Black solos. I know it’s a star vehicle for him, but it still felt like too much of him, especially when the film didn’t need an excess. The script is good, the situation is funny, and the supporting cast–especially the kids–are strong enough that they could have carried more weight. For all the manic rocking energy on display, the production itself felt very tight and controlled.

That’s not to say it isn’t any good–it is. For a film that has school kids so much at the heart of it, it’s not just for children. There are plenty of jokes that require some knowledge of Rock history to appreciate, so all of us thirty-something parents will appreciate it, too. It comes together as a strong all-round family-friendly comedy. Not an all-time great, but very entertaining nonetheless.

Touching The Void

This is the story of two mountain climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, who attempted an ascent of the West face of Siula Grande in Peru in 1985. It was a difficult climb, but they made it. It was on the way back down that their troubles really started.

Touching the Void is the documentary reconstruction of their climb and descent, based on Joe Simpson’s book. It uses actors in the reconstruction, but the narration is provided by Simpson and Yates themselves. Occasionally the film cuts to head shots of them talking, to emphasize the strength of their emotions as they remember the events.

It’s a stunning story, and an extraordinary film. The beautiful cinematography and constrasts starkly with the loneliness, terror, and pain they faced on the mountain. Simpson’s emotional journey to the brink of madness and despair–and beyond–is stripped of heroism and the sentimentality it can inspire, and instead portrayed with naked honesty. It’s intense, harrowing, touched with humour, and gives whole new meaning to the word “gripping”. A must-see.

Out Of Time

Matt Whitlock (Denzel Washington) is the chief of police of a small town in the Florida Keys. He is having an affair with his old school sweetheart, who is now married to another man. When she and her husband are murdered, Whitlock finds himself having to cover his tracks to avoid becoming the main suspect, at the same time as trying to figure out what happened to them. Of course, things are not as they seem.

It’s a one-trick plot, but it’s very well executed. The script is tight, and the pace is fast. Denzel Washington gives a terrific performance as a man under unbearable pressure, and the supporting cast breath enough quirky life into their characters to give the film interest beyond the main storyline, and to add a touch of humour to the situation. (John Billingsley, probably best known as Dr. Phlox from Star Trek: Enterprise, is particularly amusing as the laid-back, slightly shifty medical examiner.) It’s a well-balanced and very entertaining movie.

2 Fast 2 Furious

I’ve been playing a lot of Burnout 3 recently, and this film is the game’s perfect companion. There’s a wafer-thin plot involving ex-cop Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) going undercover to bust gangster Carter Verone’s money-laundering operation, but that’s just padding. The real point of the film is to show fast cars driving fast. With pretty blurring effects from all the fastness.

Unfortunately, the driving sequences show little originality, and they are only rarely good enough to make up for the lack of, well, anything interesting. So for all its swagger, sultry pouting, and brash attitude, the movie ends up just being rather dull.