Tag Archives: 15/20

Edward Scissorhands

WFTB 15/20

The plot: Brought down from his gothic retreat by well-meaning Avon lady Peg, a young man with scissors for hands causes a rumpus in Peg’s insular, gossipy community. Some of the locals eye Edward with suspicion, others with lust, while others still just make use of his incredible creativity. Edward himself only has eyes for Peg’s beautiful daughter Kim, but she is wary of his soft personality and sharp accessories.

A career as an Avon lady may not be everyone’s dream, but good-hearted Peg Boggs (Dianne Wiest) gives it everything she’s got, even if her friends and neighbours aren’t always delighted to receive her calls. After a particularly frustrating day, she notices the enormous, brooding castle at the end of the close and pays it a visit. Within, she finds Edward (Johnny Depp), a strange, pale young man in appearance but the creation of inventor Vincent Price, who died before he finished the job, leaving Edward with razor-sharp scissors where his hands should be.

Edward is welcomed with equanimity by Peg’s husband Bill (Alan Arkin) and enthusiasm by young son Kevin (Robert Oliveri), but when teenage daughter Kim (Winona Ryder) comes back unexpectedly from an outing with oikish jock boyfriend Jim (Anthony Michael Hall), she’s unsurprisingly terrified to see the freakish-looking Edward in her waterbed. Edward, meanwhile, is smitten by Kim, and despite the keen attentions of the amazed townsfolk, not least Kathy Baker’s voracious Joyce, he only cares about her as he becomes the centre of attention for the town’s topiary, dog grooming and hairdressing needs. Driven by jealousy, Jim frames Edward for a burglary at his house; and as he loses his innocence, his passion for Kim escalates with tragic consequences – and all around Christmastime, too.

It may now seem hard to believe, but once upon a time a Tim Burton gothic fantasy starring Johnny Depp as an unworldly hero, complete with idiosyncratic Danny Elfman score, was a cause for keen anticipation rather than weary eye-rolling; and if you’re not pre-disposed to enjoy fantasy movies, you will find plenty to pick at in the pair’s first collaboration. The plot is a pretty thin affair, the characters moving around in not always convincing ways to advance the tale. It’s particularly dismissive of Jim – bad lad or not, presumably someone loves him – and nice though it is to see Vincent Price (for the last time), Edward’s backstory doesn’t entirely hang together; the evolution of the inventor’s machines, from vaguely humanoid food preparation tools (and for whom exactly is the food being made?) to a speaking, thinking being with the sharp blades still attached, requires the viewer to suspend all their reasoning faculties.

On the other hand…the Princess Bride-like framing device, which sees an aged Kim retelling the tale to her sleepy granddaughter as the reason it snows every Christmas, firmly roots Edward Scissorhands in the realm of fairytale, a modern one in which Pinocchio meets Frankenstein via Nightmare on Elm Street. The idea of a pure ‘love above all’ may seem soppy, but the theme is appropriate and Ryder is perfectly lovely as Kim, even if she’s barely stretched as an actress.

However, the real emotional pull of the film comes from Edward’s infinite sadness at being denied physical contact with his creator, his beloved, or anyone else, conveyed effectively in Burton and Caroline Thompson’s script (consider the exchange during Edward’s appearance on TV: ‘If you had regular hands you wouldn’t be special’ – ‘I know’; or the heartbreaking, immortal lines ‘Hold me’ – ‘I can’t.’) Depp disappears into the role and winkles every ounce of anger, longing and comedy from a nearly mute role in wonderfully Chaplinesque fashion, even if that description also embodies the great man’s occasionally saccharine pathos. To offset its sweetness, the film keeps the viewer on edge, repeatedly reminding them of the sharpness of Edward’s blades and keeping them in constant suspense that he’s going to harm someone or, more probably, himself.

As well as its love story, Edward Scissorhands revels in the idea of the outsider and the mainstream, the majority’s mistrust of non-conformity, religious conservatism’s sanctimonious hatred of difference and the way a crowd’s fascination can turn, through spite and misinformation, into a baying mob. It also represents the artist’s struggle to be different in a world where the masses accept what they’re sold (and thereby, if you subscribe to the theory that Depp is essentially playing Burton, the director’s struggle for acceptance of his quirky vision).

It’s also a story of the corruption of [childhood] innocence, through alcohol, sex, violence, capitalism and what have you. However, the film somehow avoids feeling overloaded, due to the apparent ease with which Burton creates images that are both striking and meaningful. There are too many examples to list here, but Winona dancing in the snowflakes of the ice sculpture and the gothic castle perched at the end of the wonderfully-designed housing estate are amongst the more obvious.

Of course, the questioning viewer has every right to ask why the inventor’s dilapidated pile has been left undisturbed for so long, but the absurd, brilliant juxtaposition of the idealised, pastel-coloured houses and forbidding, monstrous castle is surely all the answer you need. Anyway, there is a psychological answer, namely that Peg, bored out of her mind, is prepared to visit the dark places that the town’s other residents shun in favour of the familiar and quotidian. Wiest is excellent, while Arkin plays Bill with a hilarious disregard of Edward’s uniqueness.

Edward Scissorhands is almost certainly a case of the whole being greater than its already commendable parts, a mixture of mood, setting, subject and theme which comes together to incredibly impressive effect, helping to obscure the fact that the story itself is ultimately a corny mash-up of B-Movie material, I was a Teenage Frankenstein’s Monster’s Lover if you will. It’s lazy to trot out the line that Burton and Depp make the same film over and over again, since Sweeney Todd and Sleepy Hollow are different beasts to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Ed Wood. Nonetheless, they have rarely bettered their first collaboration, so who could blame them for – just now and then – revisiting the old stomping ground for a smidgen of inspiration?

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Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: When cartoon prop-provider Marvin Acme is murdered, suspicion falls upon Roger Rabbit, clumsy Toon and jealous husband of voluptuous chanteuse Jessica. Brought in to take incriminating photos of Marvin and Jessica, private dick Eddie Valiant has personal reasons for ignoring Roger’s desperate pleas for help; however, something about the case – most importantly Acme’s missing will – lures Valiant away from the bottle and into the path of the terrifying Judge Doom.

It’s 1947, Tinseltown’s Golden Age of animation; cartoon stars like Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse and Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) work cheek by jowl with the humans and live a short ride away in nearby Toontown. Once upon a time, private detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) was a reliable pal of the Toons, but since one of their number dropped a piano on his brother Teddy’s head, he’s steered clear of them to concentrate on boozing his life away, much to the dismay of sometime ladyfriend Dolores (Joanna Cassidy).

So it’s with little enthusiasm that Eddie accepts a job from studio boss R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern) to tail Roger’s comely wife Jessica (Betsy Brantley’s movements, Kathleen Turner when speaking and Amy Irving when singing Why Don’t You Do Right?) to see if she’s playing around with Toontown’s owner Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye); and even though he’s knocked out by Jessica’s seductive allure, Eddie takes little pleasure in passing on photos of the pair playing pattycake.

The next day, Acme turns up dead and the finger points at Roger, making him a target for Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), an intimidating lawmaker with a gang of vicious weasels and barrels full of Toon-erasing ‘dip’ that he’s itching to use. Initially, Roger’s pleas to Eddie to help fall on deaf ears; but Roger’s such an unlikely murderer that the detective starts asking questions, especially about Jessica’s part in the crime. He needs answers fast, because by midnight Toontown will belong to the shadowy Cloverleaf Industries – unless Acme’s missing will turns up and reveals the rightful inheritors.

Let’s get the easy bits out of the way first. Firstly, whether you’re nostalgic about the cartoons or not, it’s such a joy to see so many famous characters sharing the same screen that the odd omission – no Popeye? – hardly matters. From Fleischer studios we have Betty Boop; from Tex Avery, Droopy; from Walter Lantz, Woody Woodpecker; from Warner Bros’ Looney Tunes there’s a host: Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and cameos from the likes of Tweety Pie and Yosemite Sam; and there’s naturally a generous complement of Disney’s finest, including Mickey Mouse, Dumbo, several Dwarves and most of the cast of Fantasia. Although (as I’ve said elsewhere) I have no particular affection for Mickey or his friends, it would be foolish to ignore their vital place in animation history; furthermore, the sequence between Donald and Daffy Duck is a brilliant reminder of what cartoons can do at their best.

Secondly, the film is assembled with great skill. Films combining animation and live action are far from new, of course – Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks come to mind – but Roger Rabbit takes the concept to new levels of interaction, using puppetry to move solid objects around in a pleasingly three dimensional way (though some computer wizardry is no doubt used here, another year or two and the whole thing would’ve been done with soulless CGI). There’s also a lovely contrast when Valiant visits Toontown and becomes the sole ‘real’ character in a crazy cartoon world.

Hoskins is perfectly cast as Valiant, heavyweight enough to convince as a world-weary private eye (a beautifully economical sweep of the office fills us in on his past), yet nimble enough to play the clown when necessary, while Lloyd makes for a terrifying Judge Doom and Cassidy provides a robust love interest. Mel Blanc is thankfully on hand to provide Bugs and co. with their voices, while Kathleen Turner oozes danger and passion as Jessica, not least in the immortal line “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way”. Charles Fleischer makes Roger an endearingly screwy optimist, though you might argue that he’s close to being sidelined in his own movie.

So what’s not to like? Well, there’s the tricky issue of the film’s tone. Who Framed Roger Rabbit leans heavily on corruption movies such as Gilda and Chinatown, and while this movie isn’t as brutal as the latter, it’s certainly not without violence – and I don’t just mean the cartoon violence dished out to Roger by Baby Herman. Maroon gets shot in the back – twice – while Doom’s execution of a cute cartoon shoe, leaving the Judge with a blood-red glove, is so disturbing that it’s always cut from television broadcasts.

More troubling, perhaps, is Jessica’s irrepressible sensuality; it’s natural for a cartoon to emphasise prominent features, but Jessica’s body shape and sultry manner are not exactly kiddie-friendly (Baby Herman, not a character I particularly like, also makes a tasteless sexual joke). She was certainly too hot for Disney, who shifted the film to its Touchstone division because of its risqué content.

On the whole, though, the movie gets it right: better to anticipate a discerning audience (and let TV cut bits out if they wish) than play safe and have the film turn out twee and saccharine; who says cartoons have to be for kids anyway? However, parents of younger children charmed by Roger’s inoffensiveness should be aware that the film has a few distinctly adult moments, Lloyd’s intense performance in particular containing plenty of nightmare fuel.

Much more than just a work of technical prowess, Who Framed Roger Rabbit stands as a loving tribute to Hollywood animation, with a decent film noir story and some surprisingly adult elements. Time only adds to its reputation: subsequent failures Space Jam and Looney Tunes: Back in Action have proven how tricky it can be to get live-action/animation movies right. Personally, I think it’s a shame that Robert Zemeckis has moved on to working with motion-capture; Roger Rabbit may be overly scary and overtly sexy at times, but most of Polar Express is a lot more disturbing than this funny and exciting offering.

Field of Dreams

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: Iowan farmer Ray Kinsella does the bidding of a mysterious voice he hears in his fields and builds a baseball diamond, which is soon inhabited by ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson and other ghosts of players past. However, building the park is just the start of a voyage which introduces Ray to intriguing characters, both living and dead – to the potential detriment of his family’s financial prospects.

‘If you build it, he will come.’ So says a persistent voice in the head of Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), who is also troubled by visions of a baseball field taking the place of much of the corn on his farm. Ray’s wife Annie (Amy Madigan) and daughter Karin (Gaby Hoffmann) are surprisingly supportive when Ray tells them what he has been tasked to do, and they create the pitch, complete with bleachers* and floodlights, even though the project wipes out their savings and reduces the yield of their land.

Before long, Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) turns up, bringing along the rest of the infamous, disgraced Chicago White Sox team of 1919; yet the voice is not finished with Ray, and following an ambiguous command to ‘ease his pain’, he sets off for Boston to meet retired writer Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones), a leading light of the 60s who has become embittered and reclusive. Luckily, the pair bond over baseball and they both witness the lowly statistics for Archibald ‘Moonlight’ Graham flashing up at Fenway Park.

Ray meets ‘Doc’ Graham (Burt Lancaster) despite the fact that he’s been dead for some time, but fails to tempt him back to Iowa to play with legends; however, on the road Ray and Terry meet up with a young Archie (Frank Whaley) who joins the ever-growing roster of players on the farm. The only problem is, as Annie’s brother Mark (Timothy Busfield) is at pains to point out, a field full of ghosts hardly anyone can see doesn’t exactly rake in the cash.

A sentimental, fantastical tale of characters searching for redemption, filmed in the golden, glowing light of countless Iowan sunsets, was always destined to be cornier than the fields in which Ray unquestioningly builds his diamond – and that’s without the father-son issues running riot through the movie or the climactic drama which unfolds around long-haired moppet Karin. However, Field of Dreams miraculously spins its magical yarn without drowning in treacle or feeling overly glib (Tom Hanks, originally offered the part of Ray Kinsella, would surely have given the film an inappropriately comic sensibility).

Part of the reason is the film’s unfussy acceptance of the supernatural, which helps us to absorb the fantastical element of the story and understand why Ray’s wife goes along with his plans, rather than packing him straight off to the doctor – there’s a clever reference to Harvey too. Another part is the sturdy acting of all concerned: Costner is very good as the ordinary man driven to do extraordinary things by forces he doesn’t understand, while Madigan is almost his equal as Annie, her acquiescence driven by a free-spirited belief in following her instinct, rather than a simpering determination to stand by her man.

‘Okay…’, I hear you say, ‘but a two-hour movie about dead baseball players? Really?’ Were Field of Dreams adequately summarised this way, I would agree; however, Robinson’s film (really, W.P. Kinsella’s story) cannily escapes the confines of the sport during Ray’s journey to find Terrence Mann, and James Earl Jones plays the part with gravity, aggression, humour and intelligence, offsetting Costner’s earnest pursuits.

Together with the touching story of ‘Moonlight’ Graham’s frustratingly abridged career, the film builds up to an emotional climax which works well, even if you don’t buy Mann’s emotive description of baseball as a metaphor for the American nation. Field of Dreams transcends its subject and reveals itself as a moving meditation on choices, loss and regret; subjects that will inevitably have some reaching for sick bags, but for many a slice of satisfyingly tear-jerking wish-fulfilment – and that’s without the final reveal which sends the whole thing over the top.

The story, the golden light and James Horner’s pretty score are all plentiful compensation for elements that don’t hang together so well, such as the cheap presence of Busfield as Annie’s money-minded brother representing ‘The Man’, all the baby boomer stuff about the 60s, or the jarring time-travel mechanics when Ray meets Doc Graham in 1972.

I’m completely lukewarm about baseball and the American Midwest, but I really liked Field of Dreams. It is by definition unrealistic, and in the end exists only to tug at the heartstrings as hard as it can. On the other hand, there are a host of warm performances from the likes of Liotta, Lancaster, Whaley, Madigan, Hoffmann and especially Costner, before he became the all-conquering hero of Dances with Wolves and the egomaniacal spender of other people’s money on guff like Waterworld and The Postman. He’s no Jimmy Stewart, and Field of Dreams is no It’s a Wonderful Life, but as fantasies go this is one of the finest to emanate from Hollywood in many years.

NOTES: Seats, for non-American audiences. I know, I thought ‘seats’ was a perfectly good word too.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: Snow White is tolerated as a maid by her stepmother, the wicked Queen, until the day the young woman’s beauty exceeds her own. Lucky to be alive but cast out into the woods, Snow White falls upon a house owned by seven dwarfs who succumb to her charms and take her in. Hearing of her survival, the Queen disguises herself as an old crone and sets off for the woods with a poisoned apple in her basket.

A long time ago in a land far away, cartoon maker Walt Disney had a dream: to make a feature-length animated movie, in colour, with sound. ‘It can’t be done!’ those around him said, but Walt pressed on with his ‘folly’ and after three years’ work Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and a new type of cinema, were born.

‘Lovely little princess’ Snow White lives as a scullery maid in the employ of her stepmother, charming the birds from the trees and attracting the attention of a handsome prince, much to the displeasure of the Queen. Wildly jealous that (in the opinion of her magic mirror) Snow White has become the fairest in the land, the Queen commands a huntsman to kill the princess and bring back evidence. The huntsman cannot bring himself to do the deed, however, and tells the princess to run to the woods, where she is beset by perils but brought back to her senses by the woodland creatures who take her to an empty, cosy cottage.

Believing it to be inhabited by children, Snow White and the animals clean the house and everything in it before she is overtaken by fatigue; the actual owners, seven diamond-mining dwarfs, return and are originally spooked by the invader before she reveals herself to be benevolent and also a cook and dancing partner.

The dwarfs – even irascible Grumpy – fall in love with the princess, but their warnings for her to be careful cannot save her from a trick played by the Queen, who magically disguises herself as an old crone and persuades Snow White to bite a poisoned apple. The dwarfs race back to deal with the Queen, but are they too late to save their new friend from the ‘sleeping death’?

It would be a miracle for any seventy year-old film not to have a few issues, let alone one that was the first of its kind; and there are issues, though by and large these come down to personal taste. Firstly, the backgrounds, whilst charming, are largely static (except for the waterfall and the imaginative use of a reflective surface for a river).

Secondly, some of the facial characteristics are odd, by which I mean that Snow White and the prince are too realistic (their lips, noses and eyes don’t look quite right), and the contrasting long, oval eyes of the dwarfs are also strange, as they are always looking straight up or straight down. Of course, large eyes give the dwarfs a certain expressiveness whenever they’re looking coy or ashamed, but they also make them look twee – for my taste, anyway.

In terms of the story, a great deal of time is spent showing the dwarfs at work, being afraid of whatever’s invaded (and tidied) their house, then being introduced to Snow White, washed for supper and so on; and though this offers much in the way of comedy, it does slow down the pacing of the film and the telling of the tale. I would happily have sacrificed five minutes of the dwarfs’ antics to give more depth to the prince and a fuller explanation of his efforts to locate the sleeping princess in her glass coffin. As it is, a caption does this job, so the time that elapses between Snow White’s ‘death’ and her revival is very brief: you hardly have time to mourn with the dwarfs before they have cause to celebrate again, and the film ends very suddenly.

But these are nitpicks compared with what Walt Disney’s team have done brilliantly. Snow White is appealingly positive, and even if her facial movements don’t always convince (especially when she speaks) she is otherwise animated beautifully, the fluidity of her movement still impressing today (she was closely modelled on dancer Marge Champion).

The delineation of the seven similar-looking dwarfs is also impressive, with Grumpy bagging the best lines. I don’t like Dopey very much, his mute nature, sagging clothes and big ears occasionally making him look more the dwarfs’ pet than one of their number, but he has the lion’s share of the physical comedy.

Best of all, though, is the characterisation of the Queen, a malevolent, frightening presence in both her forms whose threat is real and dark, reflecting more of Grimm’s fairy tales than modern sensibilities might be comfortable with: not only does the Queen order Snow White’s death, she demands her heart in a box as proof.

Perhaps the best compliment to Snow White is that it feels like a normal animation even to modern audiences. However basic some of its attributes may be, the heroes and villains are established, as are the comic/action sequences and musical interludes. The style of the singing may be dated but the songs themselves – I’m Wishing, Whistle While You Work, One Day My Prince Will Come and of course, Heigh-Ho – have stood the test of time extremely well.

I am not enamoured of everything Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has to offer, and because it’s a little sugary and old-fashioned for my senses I would prefer to watch Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, given a free hand. But when I say Snow White is a significant achievement, it’s in no respect meant to patronise Disney’s work; for not only is it a pioneering film which established the formula for feature-length animations for decades to come, it is also very good on its own terms.

Toy Story 2

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: When Andy’s favourite toy Woody is spotted by portly and unscrupulous shop owner Al, he is toynapped because he is the valuable final piece in a collection of ‘Woody’s Roundup’ figures. Destined to spend his days in a Japanese museum, Woody likes both his new-found celebrity and new friends Jessie and Bullseye; but his old friends – Andy’s other toys – are determined to see him restored to his rightful place.

Disney have exploited their ideas as thoroughly as any studio over the years, as indeed any sensible and profit-seeking business should; but while they have turned out some undistinguished sequels to great films, the vast majority have been released directly to video and DVD as an acknowledgement of their lesser status. Toy Story 2 was initially destined for the same fate, so its promotion to theatrical release is an indication that Disney were very impressed with what the clever folks at Pixar delivered.

As the film begins, all is well in the world of Andy’s toys. Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen), the hero/troublemaker of Toy Story, is now just one of the guys, a plaything loved just as much as dependable old sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks). But an accident damages Woody’s arm, meaning he’s left behind when Andy goes to Cowboy camp; and worse, he’s put on the shelf where non-squeaking penguin Wheezy (Joe Ranft) has lain for ages, gathering dust. Wheezy is subsequently put into a yard sale, forcing Woody into a heroic rescue with the help of the family puppy Buster.

Wheezy is saved, but in exposing himself to the outside world Woody brings himself to the attention of Al (Wayne Knight), the greasy, greedy proprietor of Al’s Toy Barn. Naturally, Andy’s mother refuses to sell Woody; but Al creates a diversion and steals him, the reason why soon becoming apparent: Woody is in fact an extremely rare toy, a piece of merchandising from an old puppet show called ‘Woody’s Roundup’, and Woody completes the set of characters which includes enthusiastic yodelling cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), grizzled prospector Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammer) and faithful horse Bullseye.

Woody loses an arm in a foiled escape attempt but is pieced together again and buffed up to be sold to a museum in Japan. Convinced by Pete and Jessie that Andy will move on and forget him, Woody resigns himself to his new life; but no sooner does he do so than the daring rescue committee of Buzz, Hamm the piggy bank (John Ratzenberger), Rex the dinosaur (Wallace Shawn), Slinky the dog (Jim Varney) and Mr Potato Head (Don Rickles) come to rescue him. With the added complications of an undisabused Buzz Lightyear toy and his mortal enemy Zurg to cope with, Woody has to decide where he belongs and what to do with his new, Tokyo-bound acquaintances.

The trouble with sequels is that they are often little more than retreads of their predecessors, and the rescue plot of Toy Story 2 does feel very familiar, though this time the boot is on the other foot with Buzz rescuing Woody, along the way reminding him about his status as a toy. Despite some refinement to the graphics – the humans look a bit more human, the dog moves much more realistically, and there are some excellent particle and reflection effects – the film inevitably fails to amaze the way Toy Story did; and though they have fun on their mission, the toys causing chaos on the roads and in the Toy Barn (the Barbies are fun and there’s a great Jurassic Park gag), Buzz’s rescue team does feel like more of the same.

The same cannot be said of the other story strand, however, and Toy Story 2 demonstrates huge amounts of invention and love for the subject when it recreates the world of ‘Woody’s Roundup’. The TV puppet show and its quirky merchandise are immaculately rendered, and the three new characters each have their own intrigue: Bullseye is cute as a button, Stinky Pete has an old, tired dignity but eventually lives up to his name, and Jessie’s overbearing cheerfulness hides the sorrow of being given away by her beloved owner Emily, who – unlike Jessie – grew up. The sentiment of Jessie’s story is brought out in a wonderful sequence accompanied by the lovely Randy Newman song When She Loved Me, made all the better by the fact that it is not sung by Newman but with infinite tenderness by Sarah McLachlan. This moment is the undisputed star of the show, but on the back of it the film trumps the excitement of the first Toy Story as Woody, Buzz and Bullseye rescue Jessie from a speeding plane in scenes as breathlessly exciting as any action adventure.

Toy Story 2 is good, very good in fact, but it’s not the equal of its ground-breaking predecessor. Though it’s marvellously inventive, some of the invention stretches the concept of toys coming to life, without anyone noticing, to its absolute limit (they can drive!); and there’s a niggling sense that Pixar are becoming rather pleased with themselves – there’s the in-joke about Buzz Lightyear toys, for example, or the faux outtakes that I don’t get at all (since these scenes go through the same painstaking animation process as the rest of the film, they neither are, nor feel, spontaneous). Despite these minor reservations, there’s more than enough to justify Toy Story 2’s appearance in cinemas, and one can only hope that when Toy Story 3 makes its appearance in 2010* it still displays as much love and affection for its characters.

*NOTE: While I could have rewritten this bit, I thought I’d leave it to reflect the perspective of the review, i.e. from a world in which the third instalment (and news of the fourth) did not yet exist.

Henry V (1989)

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: Henry Hotspur, King of England, must leave behind the alliances of his bawdier days when a war against France becomes an inevitability, the situation little helped by the arrogance of the French royal family. Harry’s men are (by and large) loyal and motivated, but as a decisive battle at Agincourt looms it appears they are hopelessly outnumbered, in need of a miracle to carry the day.

Between Baz Luhrmann’s highly-charged Romeo + Juliet and tweaked-for-teens efforts such as 10 Things I Hate about You and Get Over It, a ‘straight’ Shakespearean adaptation is nowadays something of a rare beast. However, acclaimed British thespian Ken Branagh has kept the flag flying with versions of (amongst others) Much Ado about Nothing, a comprehensive (ie. 4 hour!) Hamlet and, first of all, Henry V. Branagh’s efforts to keep Shakespeare alive in film are laudable, but do the films – or rather, does this film – achieve much beyond immortalising the director’s own performance and helping out hard-pressed students of English?

The answer, in my view, is a solid ‘yes.’ Beginning with a fabulously overwrought piece of music over blood-red titles (both remind me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, except without the llamas/moose), the film throws us (via Derek Jacobi’s wandering chorus) into the king’s war chamber, where Henry (Branagh) is counselled that he has a legitimate claim over the throne of France. Although the idea of war hangs heavily on the young king’s shoulders, a derisory, ‘pleasant’ gift of tennis balls from the French dauphin determines his resolve to assert the claim. Meanwhile, Henry’s old carousing partner Sir John Falstaff (Robbie Coltrane) lies dying in Mistress Quickly’s ale house, Nell (Judi Dench) and the squabbling trio of Pistol, Bardolph and Nym (Robert Stephens, Richard Briers and Geoffrey Hutchings) lamenting the man’s passing and the fact that Henry has cut him off completely since assuming the throne. This scene not only shows the lowly position of the people who will go off and fight in the king’s name (including Christian Bale as a boy); it also uses flashbacks intelligently to contrast Harry’s raw youth (as portrayed in Henry IV) with the status required of a king.

Branagh’s performance is, of course, central to the success of the film, and he is excellent, proving contemplative and quietly-spoken but with a clinical, steely edge when he needs to act. In this he is helped by Shakespeare’s words and also by a magnificent supporting cast: Brian Blessed provides the muscle as Exeter, foiling the conspiracy of Cambridge, Scroop and Grey and delivering Henry’s acid reply back to the ‘dolphin.’ And when Henry’s small army land in France and lay siege to Harfleur, Ian Holm does a great job as the educated but long-winded Welshman Fluellen. Stephens is brilliant as Pistol and Briers poignant as the wretched Bardolph, appealing for the king’s mercy and finding none.

The obvious point of contrast for Branagh’s performance is with Laurence Olivier’s in his Henry V of 1944, but the films are obviously made in different ages and show up changes in technology as much as style and emphasis. Whereas Olivier’s Harry was a wartime rabble-rouser for the whole of Britain, Branagh’s king is much more intimate, appealing to his men almost individually as he gives the ‘Once more unto the breach’ and ‘St Crispin’s Day’ speeches – Ken knows how to build a speech to its climax and does so brilliantly, also knowing when to rage internally and let the camera do the work.

Quite apart from his acting, Branagh shows a talent for directing, the close-ups effectively guiding the viewer’s eye and the sets coming across as realistic, lit as if only by candles and daylight. It is only in the climactic Battle of Agincourt that this realism fails to convince on film, the fighting appearing muddy, static and confused: this approach may well accurately reflect what the field of battle looked like in 1415, but it lacks the energy that (for example) Kurosawa brought to his battles in the King Lear-inspired Ran.

The enemy are also portrayed in fine fashion. Michael Maloney is supremely contemptuous as the dauphin, much to the dismay of his father, the weary king (Paul Scofield); and it is little wonder that those Frenchmen who meet with Harry find him the more noble character. Emma Thompson plays Katherine, the king’s daughter and ultimately Henry’s prize, tutored in broken English by Alice (Geraldine McEwan). I have never found the scenes with Katherine, presumably designed as light relief, particularly satisfying, and Henry’s clumsy wooing of Katherine after he has enforced her father’s surrender seems out of character with the rest of the play, though it has amusing moments. Branagh can hardly be blamed for this, however, and Thompson and McEwan make the best of their screen time.

Likewise, the miraculous disparity in the death tolls between the French and English – no doubt a piece of ingratiating propaganda on Shakespeare’s part – seems ridiculous to a modern audience, but Branagh wisely plays up the arrogance of the French and makes it clear whose side God would take, especially after the dastardly slaughter of the English boys.

To come back to the original question, it could undoubtedly be said that those studying Shakespeare’s play will get most out of Branagh’s Henry V: but this is also true of any novel, or even any comic book, adaptation. What is important is that the characters and their four hundred year-old words are brought to life with a skill that makes them compelling to all but the most committed of Bard-haters. Remarkable for any director: but for a first-timer, something very special.

Best in Show

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: Five dog owners and their supporters, from diverse backgrounds, travel to Philadelphia for the prestigious Mayflower dog show, each with their eyes on the main prize. But there can only be one winner, and four out of the five will leave empty-handed and very upset.

When Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy assembled their cast for Waiting for Guffman the story would have been familiar territory, as the actors must have worked in some pretty low-budget local productions in their time. For Best in Show, however, writers Guest and Levy delve into the esoteric world of pure-breed dog shows, a much tougher ask (you would think) for the performers to riff around.

We are introduced to the owners with little snippets into their private lives, followed by interviews, giving us a clear idea about who they are. Hamilton and Meg Swan (Michael Hitchcock and Parker Posey) are neurotic, competitive lawyers with matching braces, a shared interest in coffee and a depressed Weimeraner called Beatrice; Gerry Fleck (Levy) has two left feet and wife Cookie (Catherine O’Hara) an easy reputation going back a long way – they also have a cute Norwich Terrier called Winky; Harlan Pepper (Guest) is drawling bait shop worker with a Bloodhound called Hubert and a secret passion for ventriloquism; Scott and Stefan (John Michael Higgins and Michael McKean) are a gay New York couple who love to spoil each other and their Shihtzus, especially contender Agnes (though they phone home to make sure the other one’s okay); and Sherri-Ann Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge) is the dim wife of a very old and very wealthy man, who can therefore afford to employ personal handler Christy (Jane Lynch) to look after Poodle Butch, aka Rhapsody in White, two-time (and reigning) Best in Show at the Mayflower.

While the Flecks make their way to Philly, popping in on lecherous old flame Max (Larry Miller) on the way before humiliatingly finding they can only afford a closet at the hotel, the Cabots have no such problem and throw a swanky party, confidently inviting the chief judge (Bob Balaban) along to prematurely celebrate what they assume will be another victory.

Show dogs may seem like an unlikely choice for comedy, and anyone seeking the brilliant punch-lines to jokes that This is Spinal Tap set up (alongside much more) is likely to be disappointed. Yet, in its way, Best in Show is almost the equal of Tap: firstly, it matches the choice of dogs to the characters perfectly, the relationship between animal and actors coming across as completely convincing; secondly, each of the characters is chock-full of personality, from the highly-strung Swans to the ultra-waspish Scott, from the insanely-focused Christy to the phlegmatic Harlan. The actors – even those with fleeting roles like Larry Miller’s insatiable Max – inhabit their parts to such a degree that all Guest has to do is pick the best bits, the understanding in the group so strong that the ‘bigger’ stars like O’Hara, McKean, and even Guest himself can sit back and take quieter roles whilst the likes of Lynch, Higgins and Posey storm their way through scenes.

Parker Posey is especially good in an angrier than usual role, berating Ed Begley Jr’s “stupid” hotel manager when Beatrice’s toy is lost (he informs her there’s a pet shop in the hotel. ‘What are you,’ she says. ‘A wizard?’). Having recently watched British improvisational comedy Confetti, Best in Show provides an object lesson in giving your character a full, round life to start with and letting the comedy flow from that.

Thirdly, just when you fear Best in Show will become dry, at the start of the competition proper, Fred Willard pops up as commentator Buck Laughlin alongside knowledgeable colleague Trevor Beckwith (Jim Piddock). Although Buck knows nothing about dogs, he is an unstoppable dynamo of commentary, throwing in an array of redundant sports comparisons, or complete non sequiturs when nothing else comes to mind. Trevor is very much the straight man of the duo and has to come back to the dogs to name breeds and explain procedure, but the pair are very funny and make the show itself great fun (accompanying the physical comedy of Cookie injuring herself, causing her to walk in a most ungainly fashion). Importantly, though, the film never makes fun of the institution of dog shows or their owners, always showing the dogs themselves to good advantage.

One thing Guest has never quite attained is the illusion of realism that had many people believing Spinal Tap were a genuine touring band, partly due to a weakness for the absurd (heavy metal was already ridiculous, which helped); in this case, Harlan’s ventriloquism is out of place (thankfully, Guest cut a scene where Harlan displays his prized beach ball collection), and Gerry’s two left feet is about as funny a joke in execution as it is in theory – not very.

Also, Best in Show occasionally drops the pretence of being a documentary, which unsettles the viewer slightly (why would the cameras be with Scott and Stefan just before they go to bed?). Still, these over the top moments are few and far between, and – Harlan apart – the tricky ‘what happened next’ ending is pretty satisfying, the film ending where it began with Sherri-Ann ditching her husband for an alternative lifestyle and the Swans ditching miserable old Beatrice for a spunky young Bulldog named Kipper. As I have said, if you go into Best in Show expecting a riot, you will probably feel short-changed; but if you pay attention, and listen closely, there is every bit as much to enjoy here as in Guest’s other classic works.