Film in Detail
A deeper look at the films that matter - and more fantastic movies you might enjoy too.
Imagine a speck of dust floating in the air. Now imagine that speck is actually a microscopic world full of tiny people who only you can hear, and they want you to help them save their home city from destruction.
You might pinch yourself to see if you were dreaming but in Horton Hears A Who! (new to FILMCLUB this week), an imaginative and big-hearted elephant named Horton takes it all in his stride and sets out to help the miniscule Whos, despite the disbelief and downright meanness of his fellow dwellers in the jungle of Nool. In this great animated adaptation of the much-loved children's book, Jim Carrey is the voice of the loyal and optimistic elephant to who "a person is a person, no matter how small" perfectly cast to capture the gently anarchic tone of Theodor "Dr Seuss" Geisel's story.
Horton. is actually Carrey's second crack at Seuss. Back in 2000 he played The Grinch in the live action/GGI tale of a hairy green grouch who decides to spoil Christmas for the citizens of Whoville by stealing all their presents and decorations. The gruesome grump does eventually find he has a heart (shades of Scrooge and countless Christmas films) but his journey to redemption is enjoyably scary in parts.
The earlier, animated version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, co-directed by "Looney Tunes" legend Chuck Jones and more faithful to the book, even has horror legend Boris Karloff sweetly sending up his creepy image in the lead role.
But Dr Seuss is probably best known for The Cat in the Hat, a book he famously wrote deliberately with a vocabulary of less than 250 words so it could be read and enjoyed by even the youngest readers. This was more than enough, though, to create the manic action and crazy rhymes that occur when a mischievous, magical feline appears one rainy afternoon to turn a home-alone brother and sister's world upside down and the 1971 animated version packs in even more colour, songs and slapstick than the book.
There's more animated action in The Best of Dr Seuss, a compilation of three of Geisel's lesser known stories. Horton Hatches the Egg, made in the 1940s, captures the first appearance of loyal elephant Horton and the adventures he has while babysitting for a bird friend. The Butter Battle Book and Daisy Head Mayzie, produced in the 1980s and 90s respectively, contain plenty of wacky slapstick - but also make some sharp satirical points about warfare and celebrity culture.
As ever Dr Seuss' brilliantly offbeat stories might have been written for children - but they're never condescending kids' stuff.
When English author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson adopted the pseudonym of Lewis Carroll and wrote Alice's Adventure in Wonderland in 1865, he could never have imagined that his story of a young girl tumbling into a world populated by a Mad Hatter, a White Rabbit and a Red Queen would still be delighting children and young people almost 150 years later.
While both Carroll's original story and its successor, 1871's Alice Through the Looking-Glass , have been called "literary nonsense", the characters remain potent symbols of childhood. So maybe it's not surprising that they have inspired several generations of film-makers to interpret Alice's weird and wonderful experiences. Most recently, Tim Burton has boldly admitted he set out to make the definitive film of Alice in Wonderland in 3D - using state-of-the-art technology to complement his usual Gothic take on the world.
Burton's Alice, starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Matt Lucas, strays from the original story this time, the heroine is 19 and is visiting Wonderland for the second time. Yet the iconic creatures, from the Cheshire Cat to the March Hare, are all present and correct and the movie is linked in other ways to older versions of the story. Burton's film is financed by Disney, and Walt Disney himself started thinking about making his own animated version of Alice in 1933, but was stalled by World War II. His much-loved animation finally came out in 1951 and is now one of around 30 adaptations to have appeared in the cinema and on television.
British director Jonathan Miller's 1966 film cast all the creatures as humans, with Peter Sellers as the King of Hearts, Peter Cook as the Mad Hatter and Michael Redgrave as the Caterpillar. Miller was inspired by Victorian photography and pre-Raphaelite paintings and his Alice is very much about the upper class society in which Alice lived. Sellers also appeared in a 1972 version called Alice's Adventures in Wonderland , this time as the March Hare (Michael Crawford was the White Rabbit, Dudley Moore the Dormouse and Spike Milligan the eagle/lion hybrid Gryphon). With a score by John Barry and cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth (who also shot 2001: A Space Odyssey ), this adaptation stayed faithful to Carroll's original vision.
The endless variations on Alice in Wonderland often attract all-star casts. A 1999 British version boasted the talents of Robbie Coltraine, Whoopi Goldberg, Ben Kingsley and Peter Ustinov. Yet the more interesting takes on Alice tend to be the more outlandish. Terry Gilliam's 1977 film Jabberwocky is a comic medieval take on the nonsense verse featured in Through the Looking-Glass. Given that the famous opening lines of the verse - "Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/Did gyre and gimble in the wabe" - make little sense, Gilliam added his own oddball humour.
Burton's Alice is equally oddball, but it's also visually seductive, funny and provocative - and a great starting point for its predecessors.
Many family films set out to entertain both children and adults. At times, however, jokes aimed at adults only serve to alienate the children. Few family films are as inclusive, entertaining or enchanting as Up. Directed by Pete Docter and made by the Disney/Pixar studio in hi-tech digital 3D, it is an animation that is taken seriously as a film in its own right - last year, for example, it became the first animation ever to open Cannes.
Carl Fredricksen is a lonely, grumpy widower and retired balloon salesman who lives alone in his dilapidated old house. Greedy land developers want to buy the house, knock it down and replace it with a soulless development. Carl resists for as long as he can; he is unwilling to leave the house in which he grew old with his childhood sweetheart Ellie, who recently passed away.
As realtors and lawyers beat a path to his door, Carl hatches an ingenious plan: he ties thousands of multicoloured helium balloons to his roof and even manages a smile as his house floats up and away. He finds a stowaway on board - an eight-year-old Scout called Russell - who slowly warms the old man's frozen heart.
The two new friends - Russell is enthusiastic, like an overexcited labrador, Carl remains reluctant, like a sulky tortoise - fly towards the lost world of Paradise Falls, deep in the South American jungle. Carl and Ellie always dreamt of travelling to Paradise Falls, but never made it. Carl and Russell's adventure is thwarted, naturally: mostly by Charles Muntz, the adventurer who inspired both Carl and Ellie when they were young lovers and who turns out to be a self-serving schmuck.
Cannes made a smart decision in choosing Up. Of course it looks fantastic - Pixar aren't capable of making dull-looking films - but there's also strong characterisation, a gripping story and one of the best action scenes in any recent film (involving an airship and lots of anthropomorphic dogs).
Up has stolen the hearts of children and adults across the world and is now proving just how exceptional it really is: it has been nominated for both best animated feature film (as expected) and best picture. It's only the second animated feature ever to feature in the best picture category - Disney's 1991 Beauty and the Beast was the first. It's unlikely anything can touch James Cameron's Avatar, but Up proves stories can be told well in animated films. As Docter himself has said: 'We just happen to use computers to tell the story.'
A regular on the Suffolk mudflats, Roy is a middle-aged birdwatcher who regularly holes up in a dilapidated wooden "hide" to carry out his hobby. He is not an adventurous man. One day, Dave turns up at the hide. He has a crew cut, a tattoo on his neck, a gun and a Merseyside accent. Roy is slow to clock Dave's game he wants to use Roy's hut as a hide-out. So begins the tense and thrilling British drama The Hide.
As a police helicopter buzzes overhead, Roy and Dave become increasingly used to one another and discover that, unexpectedly, they have things in common. Roy's unabashed passion for birds forces Dave to recall a child spent birdwatching and the two become friends - well, sort of.
The Hide was made on an ultra-low budget but director Marek Losey - grandson of the hugely respected American director Joseph Losey - has a talent for creating tension and, equally importantly, a credible relationship between the two men. Losey spent 14 years making TV ads and the leap to making his first feature terrified him, if only because of the inevitable comparisons to his grandfather: "It it doesn't stand up, I'll get torn apart."
David Rocksavage had no ancestral pressure to succeed with Shadows in the Sun, his second feature film and another movie set in East Anglia, but he did have to deal with a proper star. Jean Simmons - the veteran actress who starred as Ophelia in Laurence Olivier's Hamlet and alongside Burt Lancaster in the classic Spartacus - returns to the screen for the first time in a decade in this low-key film.
Simmons plays Hannah, a poetry-loving widow living alone in a large house on the isolated North Norfolk coast in the 1960s. She becomes friends with a young loner who has a way of easing the physical pain she's in and they become friends. But when her troubled son turns up with his two kids, the calm is disrupted...
In both films, the East Anglian countryside is a star in its own right. Even Simmons, who has worked with an exhaustive list of Hollywood greats, enthused about the location of Shadows in the Sun: "It's the most beautiful place and so healthy, with the country air and the sea air. I haven't worked for such a long time. It brought a joy back to my life that I thought I had lost."
Solo is a Senegalese taxi driver married to a Mexican woman and living in the US city of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is a warm, cheerful chap who still believes that America can bring dreams to life something that is put to the test when he befriends William, a lonely, desperate man who has given up on that same American dream and is now focussed only on hurtling towards the end of his life. Solo devotes himself to saving William and, over the course of several days, we see their unusual and strained relationship evolve.
Solo is a born optimist, his glass always half-full, his lust for life apparently unstoppable. He refers to male customers as "big dog" and an unseen, impatient woman as "pork chop." Solo drives around the small city at night and, inevitably, there's a hint of menace and fear to his job - such as when he picks up drug dealers and does his best not to be judgemental. When William, who is a good three decades older than Solo, asks him to drive a long way into the mountains, to a place called Blowing Rock, he offers a lot of money - but won't respond when Solo jokingly asks if he's going to jump off the rock.
Director Ramin Bahrani's film is a delight not only because it refuses to be sentimental or patronising, but also because he creates a real world using real people. Neither Souleymane Sy Savane, who plays Solo, nor Red West, who plays William, have any professional acting experience - although, interestingly, West is a former stuntman who was once bodyguard to Elvis Presley.
Very little is revealed of William - why is he so unhappy? why does he say so little? - but the relationship between him and Solo is nonetheless riveting. Solo's mission to "save" William doesn't always go down well, but he doesn't give up. The fact that Solo is trying to fit into American society while William is running away is dealt with in the most subtle, graceful way - which makes Goodbye Solo a seductive, challenging and provocative film.
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