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Entries in Family Film (3)

Thursday
Jun072018

SGT. STUBBY: AN AMERICAN HERO

Featuring the voices of: Logan Lerman, Helena Bonham Carter, Gerard Depardieu, Nick Rulon, Jordan Beck, Brian Cook, Jim Pharr and Jason Ezzell.
Writers: Richard Lanni and Mike Stokey.
Director: Richard Lanni

Rating: 3.5/5

He was one of the finest American heroes of The War to End all Wars; a unwaveringly stoic soldier who served beside his countrymen, the troops of the 102nd Infantry Regiment, in the trenches of France against a determined German army. He saw 17 close-quarters combat situations, usually by the side of his best friend, Private Robert Conroy. Upon his return to the U.S., he was lauded as a national hero, met with The Commander in Chief and was rewarded for his bravery by being bestowed the rank of Sargeant, the first four-legged officer in American military history.

Yes, four-legged. This soldier was a Boston terrier, with a short stubby tail, an appendage that earned him the name ‘Stubby’. To coincide with the 100th anniversary of his nation’s entry into the European theatre of WWI, the spirited all-American mutt has been reborn as a bigscreen hero in director Richard Lanni’s computer-animated version of his dog’s life.

It is fair to say that Lanni’s film is one of the more unusual cartoon features in recent years. A co-production between Ireland, The U.K., France, Canada and The U.S.A., it lovingly renders the period, capturing with an artist’s eye Stubby’s early life in the picturesque Connecticut countryside, his voyage to Europe and, with a particularly evocative sense of location, the trenches of the Western Front. A more stark design palette, recalling classic war film imagery, is employed to convey troop movements and geographical data; in one instance, the menacing shadow of a German ‘bird of war’ descends upon the European front. (Ed: This is a kids film, right?)  

The director is an accomplished war documentarian and for his first animated feature he has drawn as much upon the realism of his factual films as he does the Disney/Pixar model. Parents won’t be expecting to field questions like, “What’s mustard gas, mommy?”, but Lanni’s storytelling doesn’t skimp on the realities of Stubby’s frontline tour. Like all good, similarly straightforward war yarns, there are rifles firing, grenades hitting their marks and shadowy figures lurking in smoky killing fields.

Yet in scene after scene is this buoyant, lovable lead character straight out of a Dreamworks-style romp. Stubby’s considerable screen presence and emotional centre comes entirely from his physicality; Lanni foregoes any vocal anthropomorphising, instead providing for his star the best animation his computer artists can offer to create dimensionality. Stubby is every bit the great animated hero, utterly lovable in the eyes of the tykes while also legitimately heroic for the war movie fans. And like many American G.I.’s on duty in Europe, he enjoys some R&R in Paris, a sequence that is as lovely as it sounds.

The human characters are not afforded the same level of artistry; Conroy is blandly drawn, Logan Lerman’s voicing thankfully providing character nuance. Gerard Depardieu does good work as burly French fighter Gaston Baptiste, staying on the right side of stereotype; in voice over, Helena Bonham Carter plays Conroy’s sister, whose recounting of her brother’s friendship with Stubby the basis for the film.

Sgt Stubby’s life was well documented (upon his passing, the New York Times ran a half-page obituary), so there is very little leeway for embellishment in telling his story. Which makes Richard Lanni’s family-themed wartime shaggy dog adventure all the more remarkable, both as a rousing account of one of the most unlikely heroes in combat history and, frankly, as a film that exists at all.

  

Saturday
Apr022016

FATHERS AND DAUGHTERS

Stars: Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Kylie Rogers, Aaron Paul, Diane Kruger, Bruce Greenwood, Jane Fonda, Quvenzhane Wallis, Octavia Spencer and Janet McTeer.
Writer: Brad Desch.
Director: Gabriele Muccino

Screening at the 2016 Young at Heart Film Festival.

Rating: 3/5

Despite a title that implies a broad ‘everyman’ perspective, Fathers and Daughters offers little resembling the ‘real world’. From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author prone to public seizures to the social worker sex addict reconnecting to the world through the mute orphan, Gabrielle Muccino’s overripe melodrama positively overflows with a giddy commitment to its own ‘only in the movies’ excess. Audiences who well-up at the first sound of a single violin note will find enough to moisten a hankie or two in this lushly packaged, star-heavy soap opera; cynics, stop reading now.

Thematically tackling in sweeping brushstrokes the connect between childhood trauma and adult dysfunction, Muccino ultimately relies very heavily on editor Alex Rodriguez (Y Tu Mamá También, 2001; Children of Men, 2006), whose skill is tested to the limit in his handling of first time scribe Brad Desch’s back-and-forth narrative timeline. In 1989, a car crash leaves upwardly mobile writer Jake Davis (Russell Crowe) a widow and his cutie-pie daughter Katie (Kylie Rogers) without a mom; when mental health issues dictate Jake needs time in a sanitarium, Katie is put in the care of Aunt Elizabeth (Diane Kruger, gnawing on the set mercilessly) and Uncle William (Bruce Greenwood). When Jake’s latest book bombs despite the best efforts of lit-agent friend Teddy (Jane Fonda), Bill and Liz make their move on the tyke, seeking full time custody.

As all this high drama unfolds in the distant past, we become entangled in the present-day life of adult Katie (Amanda Seyfried), now a caseworker at an inner-city clinic. One minute, a hollow commitment-phobe who partakes in binge-boozing and public bathroom sex to feel any kind of connection, the next an empathetic human connection for recently orphaned Lucy (Quvenzhane Wallis), Seyfried’s doe-eyed performance runs the gamut from passion-free blankness to public histrionics. By her side in her exploration of daddy issues is writer Cameron (Aaron Paul), who brings his own obsession with Jake’s writing.

Gabrielle Muccino’s embrace of shamelessly saccharine sentimentality has found favour with international audiences previously. After scoring big beyond his homeland with the arthouse hit Remember Me, My Love (2003), Hollywood beckoned; he obliged, delivering the Will Smith double The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) and Seven Pounds (2008). Returning to grand family drama after the dire rom-com Playing For Keeps (2012), the Italian stages Jake and Katie’s journey with an unyielding commitment to gorgeousness; in line with the florid dramatics on show are DOP Shane Hurlbut’s rich visuals, production designer Daniel Clancy’s lavish sets and composer Paolo Buonvino orchestral score. When the time-hopping plot starts to strain, there is always something cinematically compelling in Fathers and Daughters.

However, Muccino’s greatest assets prove to be more personal, in the form of leading man Russell Crowe and co-star, Kylie Rogers (a seasoned pro despite her tender years after roles in Space Station 76 and the current release, Miracles From Heaven). The pair’s genuine warmth and chemistry is energising, even when the film is running off the rails in every other regard. In addition to conveying the horrible physical stresses of a grand-mal seizure on several occasions, Crowe gives a performance that invests Jake with a grounded dignity; the effortless nature of his scenes with a quivery-lipped Rogers recall the father/child dynamic between Dustin Hoffman and Justin Henry in Kramer vs Kramer (yet, in all fairness, comparisons with that or any Best Picture winner must end there).

Wednesday
Jan072015

PAPER PLANES

Stars: Ed Oxenbould, Sam Worthington, Deborah Mailman, Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke, Ena Imai, Terry Norris, Peter Rowsthorn, Julian Dennison and David Wenham.
Writer: Steve Worland and Robert Connolly.
Director: Robert Connolly.

Rating: 2/5

Although it is tempting to be swayed by the ‘…but the kids’ll love it’ point of view, highly respected director Robert Connolly’s change-of-pace family pic Paper Planes is folksy, heavy-handed whimsy that barely finds its wings before crashlanding.

Writing with Steve Worland, whose last feature screenplay was the stomping dance pic Bootmen in 2000, Connolly foregoes the smarts of his more mature work (The Bank, 2001; Three Dollars, 2005; Balibo, 2009) to win over his target demographic with trite dialogue and plotting that grinds through the feel-good tropes. There is exuberance in the staging but not an ounce of real-world emotion in the narrative, which manufactures cute contrivances in place of genuine heart and accomplished storytelling (such as that found in the Oscar-winning animated short Paperman, also featuring the folded flying phenomenon).

The key protagonist is poor country kid, Dylan (Ed Oxenbould), a self-sufficient tween-ager who lives with his emotionally distant father Jack (Sam Worthington) on the dusty outskirts of Walerup in the Western Australian hinterland. The setting represents a return to the troubled dad/spirited son outback milieu that Connolly handled with far greater skill as producer on the Eric Bana 2007 vehicle, Romulus My Father (Bana returns the favour with an executive producer’s credit here).

The pair are doing it tough, with Jack struggling to deal with the grief of having lost his wife, Cindy (supermodel Nicole Trunfio, in flashback) only five months before. That said, Dylan seems to have bounced back pretty well from the loss; Oxenbould’s one-note performance conveys none of the shattering sense of loss a boy his age must be experiencing. The actor’s greatest struggle is more often with breathing any life into his strained, cumbersome lines.

Bouncing between Dylan’s home life and time spent in the company of cool maths teacher Mr Hickenlooper (a fun Peter Rowsthorne), these early scenes rarely ring true, mired in a struggle to establish a believable tonality. Dylan suffers at the hands of funny fat-kid bully Kevin (Julian Dennison), whose actions seem particularly callous given the recent tragic past; Grandpa (Terry Norris) is a randy old codger (wink-wink scenes with Dylan as he skips between bedrooms at the local nursing home are off-putting), who encourages his grandkid’s imagination but seems ignorant of the financial strife his grief-stricken family is in.

A chance school visit by a paper plane whiz kid leads Dylan to discover that he may have otherworldly skill in the art of A4 aeronautics, when his first attempt soars through doorways, down corridors and, ultimately, beyond the horizon. This early scene establishes that the ‘paper planes’ of the title won’t be paper at all but CGI renditions, capable of extraordinarily dexterous mid-air manoeuvrability. It’s a ‘go with it or be left behind’ challenge by Connolly, whose film soars or sinks on how willing its audience is to suspend disbelief in several key moments while also demanding a very real emotional involvement it never earns.

Dylan’s new skill takes him to Sydney, where he meets ambitious competitor Jason (Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke, playing villainy so broadly he might twist his moustache if he were old enough to have one), lovely Japanese entrant Kimi (Ena Imai) and ex-champ-turned-administrator, Maureen (Deborah Mailman, laying on the ‘comedic support’ schtick). Also on hand is David Wenham as Jason’s dad Patrick, a wizened ex-pro golfer who flits in and out of a handful of scenes as if he was above the whole endeavour.

The plot beats a very familiar path from here on in, with competition heats determining who goes to Tokyo for the Paper Plane World Championships conjuring some undeserved moments of faux excitement. The only left-field surprise in the third act is one character’s skill at securing cash for a plane ticket and getting from rural WA to the Japanese capital in less than a day.

Full disclosure: your reviewer’s 9 year-old daughter had a remarkably better time watching Paper Planes than her dad did. Granted, given all the shortcomings with which reviewers are likely to take issue, there is something to be said for the film’s efforts at a certain joie de vivre, especially at a time when children’s films exist mostly to spruik a toy tie-in.