Friday, 19 October 2012

'Hotel Transylvania', 'Liberal Arts' and 'About Elly': review round-up

'Hotel Transylvania' - Dir. Genndy Tartakovsky (U)
Of the current glut of monster-themed animations released in time for Halloween, 'Hotel Transylvania' probably looks the least appealing at a first glance - with neither the Disney/Tim Burton polish and ready-made fanbase of 'Frankenweenie' or the Laika Studios, stop-motion kudos of the amazing 'ParaNorman'. By contrast this is a flat and bog-standard looking CGI animation from Sony, boasting the voice talents of Adam Sandler - as Dracula: proprietor of a hotel for monsters where the misunderstood creatures can be safe from human intolerance. However, closer inspection reveals there is far more of interest here than first meets the eye, even if the film itself can't rise far about meagre expectations.

For starters, the screenplay is co-written by Peter Baynham, whose work with Chris Morris, Armando Iannuccci, Steve Coogan and Lee and Herring made his a key voice in British alternative comedy and whose most notable job as a screenwriter to-date was last year's extremely funny Aardman animation 'Arthur Christmas'. Then there's the director - Genndy Tartakovsky - whose name may not be immediately familiar to all, but whose work in animation will be well-known to most of a certain generation. Tartakovsky was one of the key figures behind all the great Cartoon Network shows of the 90s, working on such favourites as 'Dexter's Laboratory' and 'The Powerpuff Girls', as well as creating the celebrated 'Samurai Jack' and the original 'Star Wars: Clone Wars' cartoon - which is the single best thing to have any connection with Lucas' prequels.

Sadly Tartakovsky's distinctive visual style can only be seen in glimpses here, notably in some of the character designs, but it's still nice to see him move to the big screen and one can only hope that the commercial success of this one could lead him to better things. Yet 'Hotel Transylvania' itself isn't an amazing film - either as a showcase of animation or storytelling. It certainly isn't in the same league as Sony's own 'Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs' and doesn't hold a candle to Tartakovsky's more auteurist TV work. But it is, thanks largely to Baynham, occasionally very funny and what it lacks in polish it makes up for in charm.

'Liberal Arts' - Dir. Josh Radnor (12A)
Interminable tosh of the highest order, 'Liberal Arts' - starring, directed by and written by Josh Radnor - is an extremely smug rom-com about a man in his mid-30s who returns to his old college campus and falls in love with a student called Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen). Yes, it's the sort of American Indie movie where manic pixie dream girls called Zibby run around falling in love with punchable, naval-gazing author insert fantasy characters. But worse is the fact that Radnor wastes an excellent supporting cast that includes Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney.

For something that so self-consciously longs to be seen as intellectual - with Woody Allen style credits, frequent references to classical music and literature - the film is incredibly dumb. Everything about how Radnor writes relationships feels trite ("sex is complicated!"), based on watching a marathon of 'Dawson's Creek' rather than born of actual experience. Metaphors are heavy-handed and over-extended throughout, while the film frequently gets very cheesy indeed, with one scene in particular playing like a parody of a parody of the 'Dead Poet's Society' episode of 'Community', but without any trace of irony. It's all extremely false and forced and hard to stomach. The college experience, as seen here, is not populated by characters but broad stereotypes that might as well have been stolen from one thousand other lazy American college comedies. Case in point: Zac Efron as the stoner.

There is one good scene with Allison Janney, but otherwise it would be charitable to describe 'Liberal Arts' as a train-wreck. The spoiler-adverse might want to stop reading, but I'd like to give a specific example that sums up how badly written this movie is. During the final stages Radnor realises that Olsen is too young for him (yes, the film is also judgemental and conservative about its central premise) and begins seeing a lady his own age from the local bookshop. As they sit on the floor of the bookstore, during some sort of bizarre after-hours lock-in, with piles of open books all around them, the lady says something like "I love to read" and Radnor responds that he does too. No? Really? The woman in the bookshop likes to read? And the man who spent the entire film talking about books and being obnoxious about Twilight (though without ever saying its name, like a coward) also likes to read?! There is no bit of information - however obvious or small - Radnor feels comfortable to leave unsaid, such is his respect for the audience.

'About Elly' - Dir. Asghar Farhadi (12A)
Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi's recent international acclaim, with last year's Golden Bear and Oscar winning 'A Separation', has ensured his previous feature - 2009's 'About Elly' - a limited UK release. Which is a good thing, because it's every bit as good as the director's follow-up: naturalistic acting from a terrific ensemble cast, rich, three dimensional characters who behave consistently and whose differing moral positions are portrayed with empathy, and a tight story which wrings the most moral head-scratching and human drama from a simple set-up.

Here we follow a group of middle-class friends from Tehran as they go on a weekend getaway to the seaside, bringing along a relative stranger - Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) - in order to introduce her to their recently divorced friend. However, when Elly goes missing (presumed drowned), the group is forced to confront how little they really knew about their guest. There are moral dilemmas and grave twists that will be familiar to those who saw 'A Separation' (in a good way) and, like much contemporary Iranian cinema, the film is rich with social critique for those willing to look below the surface.

On the most recent Splendor Cinema podcast (#109) I likened this craftily hidden critique in Farhadi's films to Spielberg's 'Jaws' in that what makes both so compelling is found in what they are not allowed/able to show the audience. In 'Jaws' Spielberg can not show you the shark. CGI was not available then and a rubber monster would have looked stupid, so John Williams' score and clever camerawork fill in for the beast. And it's probably his best movie, even though he has since been able to do whatever he wants and with all the money and technology in the world. In short: artists seem to work better with strict limitations than with complete freedom. That's why some of the best Hollywood films were made during the Hays Code years or at the height of the HUAC. Likewise, Farhadi and his peers can not openly discuss gender inequality, for instance, so they tell us stories that stand on their own merits but which are incredibly detailed and textured when studied up close. Farhadi can't show you the shark, but he sure knows how to imply the shit out of one. One of the best films I've seen this year, without doubt.

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