Welcome to latest chapter in our series, as The Snooty Ushers trawl through the vast expanse of Netflix. Braving the unknown… discovering the hidden gems… risking the dire and the dreadful… all so you don’t have to.
Last time on Negotiating Netflix: I had a selection of all new films. Most of them were decent, only The Cobbler was a disappointment. This time I’ve chosen three films I’ve not seen and re-watched two animations that came to mind in recent weeks.
So, once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.
Maleficent (Robert Stromberg, 2014)
Whether by luck or design, a few years ago Disney found the perfect release schedule: live action family drama (Saving Mr Banks, Million Dollar Arm, Tomorrowland), original animation (Zootopia, Big Hero 6, Frozen) and the live action re-imagining of classic animation (Into The Woods, Cinderella, The Jungle Book). Balancing this with the Marvel, Pixar, and now Star Wars output definitely keeps the Disney marketing team busy. Not all of the above films have been financially successful (nor have they all worked artistically) but all of these films are equally important to stop the audience from burning out. Maleficient was vital to setting one of these strands, and the success opened up the possibility of pretty much every classic Disney character receiving the same treatment.
Maleficient stars Angelina Jolie as the “evil fairy” of Sleeping Beauty, but focuses on what led to her putting the curse on Aurora. She is a powerful fairy who has grown to become the protector of the Moors, a magical realm that neighbours the human kingdom. As a youngster she loves Stefan, but his desire to become king leads to them growing apart. When Maleficient leads a successful defense of the Moors from the humans, King Henry says whoever can kill her will be named the next King. Stefan (Shilto Copley) sees his opportunity, and although he can’t bring himself to murder her, he does drug and cut off Maleficient’s wings. This has a terrible effect on Maleficient (and the audience, it is a truly horrible scene), and she calls herself the Queen of The Moors, which becomes a dark kingdom under her power. When King Stefan and Queen Leila have a daughter Aurora, Maleficient sees her chance of revenge, and… well we all know this bit of the story. But in this new version, can Maleficient really punish Aurora? And will there still be a prince to save the day?
I think I like this film a lot more than anyone else I know, but for me Maleficient is up there with The Jungle Book as one of the best live action Disney films. In fact, I think it is one of the best live action fairy tales – maybe only Pan’s Labyrinth, The Princess Bride, and Stardust can better it off the top of my head, although there aren’t many great live action fairy tales. There’s plenty of darkness (that scene with Maleficient realises she has lost her wings especially) and light (the three hapless fairies). Maybe I had low expectation and subsequent rewatches won’t hold up, but there’s a sequel in the works and I’d probably watch that in the cinema – which is quite the achievement for this jaded Usher.
Bee Movie (Simon J. Smith and Steve Hickner, 2007)
Funny story, when it came out, a friend and me bought tickets to see this and were the only people in the entire auditorium. I enjoyed it at the time, but we only watched the film because it was the only film starting when we got to the cinema. Is it worth actually planning to watch?
Bee Movie is Jerry Seinfeld’s first movie script, and he takes the lead role as Barry B. Benson, who has just graduated from college alongside his best friend Adam Flayman (Matthew Broderick). Barry is a dreamer, and doesn’t want to get a dead end job in the hive. He becomes a Pollen Jock (as a joke), one of the bees who goes outside the hive to collect pollen. On his first day on the job, Benson gets lost after getting trapped in the rain, and he meets Renee Zellweger’s Vanessa and her boyfriend Ken (a great exasperated performance from Patrick Warburton). Benson becomes enamored with Vanessa, but when he goes to a supermarket and discovers how human use honey, Benson takes all of humanity to court. Will he win his big case? Will he be accepted back into the hive? And what exactly is the relationship between Barry and Vanessa?
Bee Movie is a a really good little film – but with the pressure of a $150 million budget it’s a but of a strange monster. This has the feeling of being a coll little idea that Jerry Seinfeld had, but then to compete visually with other Dreamworks and Pixar animations it became a much bigger project than it should have been. Still, that means we get to see New York looking beautiful (watching Secret Life Of Pets I could only think of this film that was also set in the Big Apple) and the court room scenes are fantastic.
Why it has become such an internet phenomena, I’m not sure:
Antz (Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson, 1998)
Famously, Dreamworks were working on this the same time as Pixar were working on A Bug’s Life, and there were rumours that there had been some… borrowing of ideas. Even when it became clear that the two films were heading toward similar release dates, promises were made and then not fulfilled, which resulted in Antz being released slightly earlier. Having rewatched A Bug’s Life in the run-up to Finding Dory I gave this another chance, and to be honest was surprised at how different it actually was, despite its obvious similarity.
Antz is basically a Woody Allen action film, as he is Z, a neurotic ant, who joins the army and uncovers a plan to overthrow the Queen of the colony. Z and Princess Bala (Sharon Stone) escape and go in search of “Insectopia”. When Bala is captured by the treacherous army general (Gene Hackman), Z must return to the colony and save all of his fellow ants, with the help of best friend Weaver (Sylvester Stallone).
Looking at the vocal talents involved, and the sheer determination the studio showed to release it as soon as possible, you can see that this was big investment as Dreamsworks’ first animated film. It also makes it slightly strange that they chose Woody Allen as the lead here – as this plays as an animated Woody Allen film, rather than a family film. Dreamworks got the mix right a few years later with Shrek, but a film that opens in a therapist’s office with an ant having an existential crisis isn’t going to play big with the kiddie audience.
Of course, maybe because of that, I loved this. The animation looks basic, and compared to A Bug’s Life it looks cheap, both in design and execution. But a Woody Allen animation is just too good to pass up, and he is great as the Z character. The big name supporting cast really add to the film, and I suppose since this would be the first animation most of them would have done, there wasn’t any phoning in. There are similarities with A Bug’s Life beyond the species of the characters (Gene Hackman’s and Kenin Spacey’s characters are similar, and the idea of individuality v collectivism plays heavily in both), but these are two different, enjoyable films. Also, it is technically another animated film set in New York.
Ride Along (Tim Story, 2014)
Kevin Hart is one of the hardest working men in show business. Along a busy film career he still maintains a full stand-up touring schedule. He hasn’t quite migrated to top line headline star just yet, but although this year’s Central Intelligence was probably the best his talents have been used on screen, it definitely used the template Hart first used here in Ride Along.
Hart is Ben, a security guard who want to get engaged to Angela (Tika Sumpter). The only problem – her brother Detective James Payton (Ice Cube), doesn’t think Ben is good enough for her. To prove himself, Ben has applied to the Police Academy (unfortunately not the Police Academy) and annoys James into allowing him to go on a ride along. James is involved in a long running case involving fake passports and weapon smuggling, but agrees to give Ben a chance. How will the two get along?
Ice Cube was involved with this film from the very beginning as star and producer, the film going through multiple re-writes (including one by The League’s Jason Mantzoukas) from 2009 to late 2012 when Kevin Hart was cast, but to be honest, Ice Cube is probably the weak link of the film. Ben and Angela are couple obviously very much in love, and Jame’s attitude to them feels forced, and his antagonism to Ben not really based on anything substantial. Ben is steadily employed, helps children at school, and is trying to improve his lot by attempting to join the Police Force. He makes his sister happy, and is clearly devoted to her… but James just doesn’t like him, which wears thin through the film.
Still, Ride Along is pretty enjoyable. Sometimes these buddy cop films actually have better crime stories than straight police dramas (like The Other Guys, which dropped some serious financial fraud into a silly movie), and this is another comedy with a satisfyingly twisty investigation. John Leguiziamo is his usual reliable self, and the faux reveal of Omar (and then the actual reveal) is a very cool scene. Not quite Central Intelligence or The Other Guys, but still decent.
Welcome To The Punch (Eran Creevy, 2013)
Now, nothing normally turns me off from a film quicker than the words “British crime Film”. This however is a sleek looking thriller starring a host of British talent. So why not give it a go?
James McAvoy is Max Lewinsky, a young cop sent to stop master thief Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong). He gets close, but Sternwood shoots Lewinsky and gets away. Years later, Lewinsky is teamed up with DS Sarah Hawks (Angela Risenborough), but is now a grizzled pain pills addict, who has to drain his injured knee every day. When Sternwood’s son gets in trouble, he comes out of hiding, and Lewinsky and Hawks have the chance to try and finally catch him. The new DCI (Daniel Mays) doesn’t trust them, thinking they are too personally involved, but Commander Geiger (David Morrissey) gives them the go-ahead. Can Lewinsky get the closure he needs?
British films rarely look as slick of this. The very opening scene shows Mark Strong and his crew dressed immaculately in fitted suits, being chased on shiny motorbikes through a beautifully lit London by James McAvoy in a top of the range BMW. I don’t think Michael Mann could shoot a more stylish chase. The rest of the film doesn’t really live up to this start though. The film could probably work as a straight revenge film with Lewinsky going after Sternwood, or have the two as enemies who find themselves on the same side due to circumstances beyond their control. To set up one story and switch to the other made the film a bit cluttered. There’s also an overlong scene involving a villain’s mother that veers from sinister to silly.
Still… James McAvoy, Mark Strong, Andrea Risenborough, David Morrissey, Daniel Mays, Peter Mullan, Daniel Kaluuya… that is one heck of a cast, and the film is watching just for that. It’s not a great film, but it’s definitely an above average film.
So, a decent selection this time out. Two animations that aren’t particularly aimed at families, and three films that were pretty decent, all with slight issues but still enjoyable. Next time out, I’m going to take a look at some of the wave of new releases that have hit Netflix in August. I hope to be Negotiating Netflix again soon.
Until next time, stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold. See you soonish.
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