Disney’s Zootopia is the kind of animated film that passes with flying colors in just about every damn category it needs to, making it a thoroughly endearing classic that will stand the test of time and delight countless new fans as time goes on. It’s the best of its kind since last year’s Inside Out, and one that will be hard to top this time around. It’s got the most treasurable kind of story, one that has all the fun, flash and zip that the kids will take a shine to, some hilariously subversive and cheeky humour for the the adults to chuckle at, and some vital, important messages within its themes that adults will knowingly relate to, and the kids will subconsciously perceive. Never preachy nor pandering, all of its ingredients are mixed harmoniously. And let’s talk about that animation, good lord. Every year these films get more cutting edge and eye boggling, and this one busts the blueprints in its attempts to dazzle, with every kind of texture, glint and rendered gold on display. Animals of all shapes and sizes run, scamper, dart and dive throughout the film, to the point where I felt that only with multiple viewings could I appreciate every loving detail and subtle joke. Ginnifer Goodwin gives perky vocals to Judy Hops, a small town bunny who dreams of being a big city cop. Just leagues away from the tiny carrot farm she was raised on lies Zootopia, a sprawling metropolis where the denizens of the animal kingdom live in civilization, or rather, their brilliantly realized version of it. She is told time and time again that she’ll never become a cop, but pays no heed. And whadd’ya know, she becomes a cop. Left to rot on parking duty by stern bison Sergeant Bogo (growly Idris Elba) she fumes and longs for real action. Soon she meets wily fox and street hustler Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman in possibly the best vocal performance in years), and both are whisked away on an adventure through Zootopia to find some bad cats (and every other creature imaginable) who are up to no good. The city itself is a marvel in every sense of the word. Divided into detailed, vast and climatized zones including Tundra Town, Little Rodentia (laughed hardest at this sequence, purely inspired) and a subtropical tree house lined Rainforest area. The cast has buckets of fun, including JK Simmons as Mayor Lionheart, Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake as Judy’s endearing parents, Tommy Chong as a yak hippie, Peter Mansbridge as Peter ‘Moosebridge’, and more. Shakira shows up essentially as herself in animal form, with an original composition called ‘Try Everything’ which gives the film a lot of its charm and heart. Bateman just has to be commended for a performance so full of real conflict and shades of grey its hard to belive hes playing a fox in a Disney flick. Despite being in the most hyper real of all genres, hes walked right out of real life amd nails every note. There’s so many highlights I could write for pages, but I won’t spoil the fun, of which there’s no end. There’s also a very grounded head on the film’s shoulders, saying some important things about not giving up on your dreams (sounds clichéd, I know, but not the way the writing addresses it here), and never assuming one thing about a specific group of animals just because of the way a few of them behave. Subversive stuff for a kids movie, and I’d have it no other way, as the undercurrents of film forge minds and opinions for the young ones. Simply put, it’s destined to be a classic, and comes up a winner no matter how you look at it. Oh, and try not to bust a gut laughing at the sloth sequence, I dare you.
Neil Jordan’s film version of Interview With The Vampire is simultaneously one of the most sumptuous and tedious visions of the affliction to ever hit cinema. On the one hand, it’s an absolutely gorgeous, atmospheric and old worlde glance at two damned souls who carry out their macabre destiny with flair and vicious grace. I say tedious as some kind of bitter compliment, because no other film has quite captured the internal torture of eternity or the nocturnal gloom that must prevail over such an existence quite as well as this film has. It barely runs over two hours and we feel like we’ve been planted in front of the screen for years. Such is the dedication of director Jordan, a sneakily versatile gent who augments his stylistic and tonal approach to whatever material he is working with. The film is exciting and raises a pulse, but only on its terms, and for long periods of time we sit through languishing despair that no doubt adds to the mood, but exists to serve the psyches of our two leads, and dares the viewer to suffer alongside them. I have somewhat of a bone to pick with certain producers behind the scenes who no doubt had a forceful hand in the casting of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. You see, author Ann Rice had her heart set on a filmic version starring Rutger Hauer as Lestat, and Lance Henriksen as Louie. Now, Cruise and Pitt are at the utter opposite end of casting types in Hollywood, and while Jordan is never a guy to compromise or chase stars right off that bat, I am still sour when I think of the film we’ll never see, starring two actors infinitely more fascinating and vampiric that Brad and Tom. Nevertheless, I have som much appreciation for the film that I can’t take it too hard, and remain a steadfast fan. Pitt plays Louie, a depressed Louisiana plantation owner with nothing left, especially to lose. He meets roaming vampire Lestat (Cruise), who promptly turns him, and the two embark on a century spanning odyssey of nighttime escapades, thoroughly fraught with homoeroticism. It’s isn’t so much an organized narrative as it is a lengthy look at these two, trapped by their condition and making the bitter best of it. They meet others along the way, including Armand (a slinky Antonio Banderas), Santiago (Jordan regular Stephen Rhea, lively evil incarnate) and Claudia, a child who Louie turns. She’s played by Kirsten Dunst in the best performance of the film. A young girl with the vampire curse thrust upon her at such an age, who mentally matures into a steely, furious woman trapped in the body of a ten year old. Not many actresses could succeed at that, but she is a spitfire little shryke who dominates every scene. All this is being retold by Louie to a 1990’s journalist (Christian Slater) who morphs from bemused disbelief to cold terror, and eventual morbid fascination. It’s a slog to get through, but an ornately beautiful one with some really bloody effects and the always terrific stewardship of Neil Jordan, whose films are never short of mesmerizing, whichever genre they fall into. A dark, dingy horror with lacy elegance at its core.
I feel like part of the reason why DreamWorks’s Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron works so well (Ebert noted this in his excellent review) is the fact that none of the animals talk. Although the titular horse is given internal narration by Matt Damon (of all people), not once does Spirit, or any other creature ever speak themselves. This allows for more time spent on music, visuals and storytelling free from banter or exposition. When you have a movie with such sweeping scope and majestic beauty, it’s nice to just relax and let it wash over you, almost like a music video. I’ll always love 2D animation, and here its done exquisitely, the wild frontier rendered in richly colored strokes, the horses vividly brought to life through the illustrations. It’s one of the last classic 2D outings, before the eventual switch to computer generated stuff. Don’t get me wrong I’m just as in love with 3D animation, but I will always have deep nostalgic pangs for this style as well. Someone once told me that cinema is the only art form in which every single artistic medium you can think of can all inhabit the same space, interacting and complimenting each other to create a symphony for all the senses and perceptions. Spirit is a shining example: exceptional drawing and animation, terrific voice acting, and the music, which is a standout. Both the stirring score by Hans Zimmer and the original songs by Bryan Adams are heartfelt compositions which soar along with the visuals in perfect harmony. Spirit is a wild young mustang, who is captured by a vicious Colonel, gruffy baritoned by James Cromwell. He tries to train the horse and break him, but Spirit has that wild spark of vitality that any protagonist of the animal kingdom must posess. He refuses to give in, never losing hope of one day returning to his herd. He is befriended by young native man Little Creek (Daniel Studi) who is also searching for home. The two form an adventurous bond, putting them against man and nature to return to their origins. Mountains, valleys, corals, trees and the untamed northwest wilderness are all presented in a fashion so gorgeous that the colors nearly pop off the screen. It’s just terrific entertainment through and through, never too silly, sappy or frightening, hitting all the right notes along the whole breadth of its breezy 80 minute runtime. DreamWorks doesn’t often give Disney a run for its money, but consider this a glowing exception.
Barry Levinson’s Sleepers is a deliberately paced, downbeat look at revenge, and is one of the most brilliant yet seemingly overlooked dramas of the 90’s. Part of it could have been marketing; The cover suggests blistering violence, confrontation and courtroom intrigue. While there are such moments within the narrative, they live to serve the story, which Levinson and his dream cast are doggedly intent on telling. It’s a sombre affair to be sure, slow and methodical as well, but never to be confused with boring. It’s just such a great story, one that unfolds exactly as it needs to. It starts in the 1950’s, where four young rapscallions run wild on the streets of Manhatten. It kicks the story off with a sort of urban Stand By Me vibe, and if you thought that film went to some heavy placed, stick around through Sleepers. When an innocent prank ends in tragedy, the four are sent to an austere children’s correctional facility, where they run afoul of some sadistic and abusive guards, led by Kevin Bacon, who is scummier than scum itself. They endure months of ritual abuse at the hands of these sickos, until their eventual release. Life goes on, as it must, the four boys grow up and follow very different paths from one another. Michael (Brad Pitt) becomes an esteemed lawyer. Shakes (Jason Patric) lives a quiet life, while Tommy (Billy Crudup, wonderfully cast against type) and John (Ron Eldard) take a darker road to drugs and crime. Eventually their past rears it’s head, and they are presented with an opportunity for much delayed revenge. It doesn’t all play out the way you may think though, and half the fun of this one is being surprised by geniunly lifelike plot turns and characters who behave as real humans would. Pitt is the highlight in a performance of quiet torment. Dustin Hoffman is fun as a washed up lawyer who gets involved, Minnie Driver shows up as a tough NYC gal who gets involved with Patric, Robert De Niro has a nice bit as a kindly priest who counsels the boys even until adulthood, and there’s further supporting work from Jonathan Tucker, Bruno Kirby, Frank Medrano, Brad Renfro, Terry Kinney and more. Levinson usually takes on bright, chipper comedies and razor sharp political satire. With Sleepers he deviates into tragic dramatic material, and shows his versitility excellently. This one gets grim, no doubt about it. However, it’s a story not only worth the telling, but worth the watching for us.
Tony Scott’s Spy Game is a kinetic yet heartfelt espionage thriller that sees the director maintain considerable shards of his assaulting sensory overdrive of style, whilst pausing along the way for a story that is really rooted in the personal story of the bond and friendship between two men. A lot of his films are predominantly visual and auditory, a bullet train of sound and fury, with plot and characterization as passengers onboard. Here those elements are cogs in the machine, resulting in a very touching, extremely exciting outing and perhaps the director’s most overlooked piece. Robert Redford used to be the younger, more naive faction in a lot of cinematic pairings, especially with Paul Newman. Here he flips the coin, taking on the grizzled mantle of both father figure and mentor to Brad Pitt. Pitt is Tom Bishop, an operative taken under the wing of veteran agent Nathan D. Muir (Redford). Nathan no doubt sees some of himself in the lad, and takes a shine to him, grooming him with all the skills and cunning that a lifetime in the business has given him. Life throws curveballs though, and more often than not they involve love. Bishop has gone rogue in an attempt to rescue relief worker Elizabeth Hadley (the brilliant Catherine McCormack, who needs to be in more movies) from a Chinese prison. In his eagerness he is captured, leaving Muir to make some tough decisions, pull some hidden cards and use all of his talent and resources to extract them. Now in many films like this there would be several blistering action set pieces to show how it’s done. Scott instead chooses to give Redford the intellectual grit and subversive genius to pull hidden strings and come up with a wicked fun solution that is endlessly more satisfying than an explosion ridden shock and awe campaign. His struggle to get his friend back is laced with flashbacks of his training, with a 70’s flavour that feels authentic and writing that lovingly builds the blocks of their dynamic. Stephen Dillane provides wonderfully understated work as a quietly smarmy CIA prick, and watch for a quick appearance from the great Charlotte Rampling. To see Scott’s frenetic aesthetic hired for a script that takes its time and plays out less like a conventional thriller and more like the paced, elliptical spy thrillers of years past (vaguely reminiscent of aspects of Le Carré) is a somewhat rare treat. Terrific thriller with Redford at his best, highly, highly recommended.
Deceiver is classic 90’s noir, with a dash of trashiness and a unique cast all suited to the bottom feeding material. It trips along in the same gutter as stuff like Basic Instinct, another film that is simultaneously aware and smugly indifferent to the fact that it’s scummy stuff. Almost every character is a reprehensible, unlikable twat, save for one surprise cameo. I may have just put you off the film, and to many who don’t see this type of thing as your cup of tea, please avoid it. But to those like me who appreciate a nice bit of grimy fun, well this is your ticket. Tim Roth plays Wailand , a wealthy and arrogent young heir to a textile mill. He is under suspicion for the brutal murder of a prostitute (Renee Zellweger) who was found in a park, cut in half. The two detectives who are tasked with hassling him seem almost as dodgy as he is, and when you look at the edgy character actors who play them it’s easy to see why. Detective Braxton (Chris Penn) is buried in gambling debt, owing a tidy sum to nasty loan shark Mook (Ellen Burstyn). Detective Kennesaw (Ann explosive Michael Rooker) is a rage fuelled whacko who is furious at his wife (Rosanna Arquette) for having affairs on him. Wailand has both the cunning nature to see this weaknesses in both of them, and the money to do something about it. This makes the detective’s job very hard, being stymied by their quarry every step of the way. Wailand also has mental issues including blackouts and strange episodes of personality alteration that Roth takes full advantage of in the scenery chewing department. It’s pseudo psychological mumbo jumbo that the actors play straight faced for a thriller that’s quite the endearing little flick. Rooker stands out with his trademark volatility that will put anyone’s nerves up to defcon 4. Roth has a ratty, evil looking face. Nothing against the dude, he just looks like he’d slit your throat in your sleep for a dollar. He’s great as suspicious characters, and has fun here being the wild card. Penn is his usual huff and puff self. Character actor Michael Parks has an awesome cameo as a psychiatrist with a monologue that almost lets the film wade out of cheese territory. Great cast, great flick.
Dominic Sena’s Kalifornia is a brilliantly vicious dark fable, a moody cautionary tale regarding the dangers of trust, the true nature of the sociopath and the ironic way in which demons sneak up on us while we are to busy looking for them with our backs turned. It’s also damn fine thriller filmmaking and fits nicely into a subgenre which I happen to be an avid fan of: the American road movie. The highways, byways and back roads of desolate rural USA have a bitter menace that clouds the air like the desert dust kicked up by many a vehicle on their way through. There’s endless possibility out there, for great and terrible evil, in a place where help is always a county away and opportunity looms on the horizon like the bloated California sun. From The Hitcher, to U Turn, to Thelma & Louise, to Duel and everything in between, it’s a setting that hums with cinematic potential. David Duchovney and Michelle Forbes play a yuppie couple who unwittingly wander into the path of extreme danger. Duchovney is a writer who is working on a book about American serial killers. Their journey takes them to many bloodstained locales where incidents took place. Eventually they decide to carpool with rugged redneck Earley Grayce (Brad Pitt), and his bimbo girlfriend Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis) whose IQ appears to be lower than the cut of her blouse. The two couples couldn’t be more different, yet get on well enough. Slowly it becomes clear that there’s something very off about Earley though, noticed keenly by Forbes’s intuition. Duchovney is enamored by the tumbleweed hick, and thinks he’s made a friend. He’s half right, and not even in the way he thinks. The film takes its time letting Earley’s true nature emerge, Pitt slowly detaches and unravels until the tarp is fully torn off and we see the sociopathic monster within. All set in abandoned clusters of former Americana and given slick, almost action movie direction from Sena, it’s not one to miss for any fan of a crackling psychological thriller.