Wednesday, 28 July 2010

FILM: Gainsbourg

As far as musical biopic subjects go, Serge Gainsbourg seemingly had it all, but considering director Joann Sfar (adapted from his own graphic novel) has stated that the film is based solely on what Gainsbourg himself had discussed in interviews, this being the 'untold story of a musical icon' as the UK posters proudly suggest is not strictly true. Yet, Gainsbourg (Vie Héroïque) is no traditional warts-and-all rise-and-fall story, nor is it a misty-eyed suck-up love-in. Instead, it's a rather scattershot and surreal look at the life and loves of one of the most influential and brilliant musicians and poets in modern times, from his days as a tiddly kiddly in Nazi-occupied Paris, to his bedraggled twilight years.

Rather than offering anything particularly revelatory or meaningful, it settles on offering us a series of snapshots and tales from the whole span of his life, leaving more of a greatest hits package than a typical narrative thread. There's the bit when he writes this famous song, and here's the bit he walks headfirst into this scandal, and then there's when he performed this classic number. It pretty much lets the man himself do the talking, through his words, his music and his actions, rather than viewing his life with any objectivity or context.

If it all sounds rather oversimplistic, it isn't strictly so, because of the various fantastical elements and flights of fancy peppered throughout. Most notably, Gainsbarre, an imaginary caricature that haunts Gainsbourg, is a latex 'inner demon' of sorts that's perhaps more prominent than it ought to have been, played by the go-to guy for becostumed prancers Doug Jones. Visualising doubts and feelings in biopics is nothing new, and while there are some nice moments where it all comes together quite beautifully, for the most part, it all feels like unnecessary.

But despite all efforts to distract, it's still a colourful and enjoyable couple of hours, even if it's a surprisingly lightweight and unsubstantial film, and a little too often preoccupied with ideas that don't quite work. Hard to know who'd be ultimately satisfied - newcomers will get a flavour of the man and his music but not much substance, while fans will appreciate the nods and references but twiddle their thumbs plodding through the well-documented episodes in his career and life. Still, it's worth a watch if only for what is a superb central performance from the uncanny Eric Elmosino. And the soundtrack, of course.


Friday, 16 July 2010

FILM: Toy Story 3

Toy Story is the film that made Pixar, the film that brought computer animation to the forefront of family entertainment and, eventually, temporarily, killed Disney's hand-drawn craft (until John Lasseter revived it himself). So to make a sequel to such a milestone in cinema history conjures an ambivalent mix of inevitability, expectation and foolhardiness. But they did anyway. And that it superceded the original was seen by many as not just lightning striking twice in the same place but that Pixar had harnessed, captured and bottled it and could now wield it to produce critical and commerical hit after hit. At least, that's the popular view. From a more personal standpoint, while Pixar have certainly produced some of the finest films of the past decade, animated or not, with Ratatouille and Wall-E particular favourites, other efforts, such as The Incredibles, Up, and Finding Nemo, have not quite matched the sum of their parts.

To then return to the holy well of Toy Story, 15 years after the original, is a startlingly bold but perhaps obvious decision, much as the decision to make the second installment was. But attitudes to these films have changed. The animation has reached a point where we no longer focus on its quality, be it hair complexity, lighting and shading or pixel counts, which is testament to just how far we have come since Woody and Buzz's debut. Now, 3D has become the issue with these films, though here it's second nature - immersive rather than intrusive, but without the show and spectacle, it all seems somewhat redundant.

Yet Pixar has always been about story, but whereas Toy Story 2 was an expansion and improvement in every possible sense, Toy Story 3 is more content to act as a retread than assert its own identity beyond signalling the sense that this is the closing chapter. The themes of growing up, moving on, abandonment and friendship all return, but with little more than a sly twist in each case to differentiate between the same themes and questions the characters long debated and seemingly resolved in Part Deux. Instead, we have to play the whole "the toys don't believe Woody", "this utopia ain't so great after all" ring-around narrative hoop-jumping we've seen all before, with some segments seemingly lifted entirely from other non-Toy Story Pixar works.

More successfully fleshed out here is Pixar's other focus of storytelling and that's character. The relationships between Woody and Buzz, between all the toys, between the toys and Andy, are all key to what make the Toy Story films a success. In Toy Story 3, it's undoubtedly impressive bringing back the characters after so long and for it to feel like a genuine continuation , as if it was always the makers' intention for the story to evolve so naturally. Not only that, but there's genuine emotion and heart throughout, with poignant asides, and subtle looks and actions, speaking volumes. If there's a more gut-wrenching climax, coupled with one of several truly exciting action sequences, in a film this year, I will be mightily impressed. Shame that the laugh rate isn't quite so high - there's a particularly hilarious call-back to part 2, but some of the running gags (Ken's "Ascot", Buzz in Spanish mode) fall at the first hurdle.

Ultimately, it's a very good, entertaining episode that's absolutely worth watching and does justice to the previous two movies, reaching a satisfying conclusion. But to replicate the great step-up from 1 to 2 here was perhaps too tall an order.


PS The short beforehand, Night & Day, is naff.