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Evil Dead – Gore, blimey!

If you go down to the woods today... Jane Levy in Evil Dead

If you go down to the woods today… Jane Levy in Evil Dead

The lights go dark. Menace settles on the audience. Evil Dead has begun. What heralds this new devilry? Not a demon spawned from hell itself, but a beast from the past, from your past! A winged horse, charging from the depths of the fog right at you. Yes, that’s right – when was the last time you saw the TriStar logo?!

The very appearance of that once seemingly omnipresent pegasus gives a retro feel to proceedings before the film itself has even begun. A rebootmake of cult classic The Evil Dead with heavy sprinklings of its culter classicker sequel Evil Dead II, Evil Dead (no “the” makes it more recent) follows the familiar path of those two films; young adults in an isolated cabin unleash chaos through a cursed book.

How exactly a new take on The Evil Dead can exist in this post-Cabin in the Woods world is at first baffling, but Evil Dead manages to support its existence through some clever plotting, a few unexpected twists, fine effects and a sheer commitment to be as outrageously grotesque as any film can be and any stomach can handle.

Beginning with a Hills Have Eyes­-style hunt through the woods for a runaway girl, followed by a violent, terrifying human sacrifice, Evil Dead introduces us to our utterly disposable youths in traditional fashion. Mia (Jane Levy) is going through a difficult time and her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) has rented a cabin in the woods where they can get away from the world for a while. Their friends, self-important geek Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and grumpy Olivia (Jessica Lucas) are along for the ride, as is David’s transparent girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore).

The simple twist on the usual secluded party is that the gang have assembled to help Mia kick her mild addiction to heroin. “Let’s play cold turkey” she says as she dumps the last of her stash down a well that is almost certainly a portal to hell. This is of course no ordinary cabin; its previous occupants collected skinned cats the way a family in 1995 collected Beanie Babies, and the basement contains a book bound in human flesh and tied shut with barbed wire. Bookish Eric investigates.

Fright reading: The  Naturom Demonto was sealed for a reason

Fright reading: The Naturom Demonto was sealed for a reason

Throwing an opium-free tantrum (or perhaps possessed by the cabin’s evil), Mia storms off into the woods, where she is promptly raped by a gargantuan thorn bush in a scene marrying the most grotesque moments of The Evil Dead and REC 2. Soon the inhabitants of the cabin are turning into Deadites, flesh is getting pierced in unimaginable (until now) ways and survival seems more or less impossible. If only a preposterous plot twist could save the day…

The feature debut of Uruguayan filmmaker Federico Alvarez, whose robopocalyptic short film Panic Attack! broke the internet back in 2009, Evil Dead has the backing of the original film’s three champions; director Sam Raimi, producer Robert Tapert and iconic star Bruce Campbell. Despite this, it has a far less tongue-in-cheek feel than the original trilogy, and the lack of a lead as memorably charismatic as Campbell and his cult alter-ego Ash Williams does leave the film a little wanting. But Alvarez has in many ways improved on the originals, most notably in the inventiveness and sheer gruesomeness of the kills. Better still, Alvarez has elected to use almost exclusively on-camera effects – there is no evident CGI to instil that additional protective layer of fantasy between you and the movie. When a tongue gets slit open with a box-cutter, you’re seeing a physical object getting sliced in two. The superb makeup effects add to the sophisticated, ambitious look of what might otherwise have been a basic splatter picture.

There’s humour when there needs to be, with a half-severed arm providing the film’s most spine-shakingly awkward laugh and a few witty references to the original trilogy, as well as a nod to Bruce Willis’s weapon selection scene in Pulp Fiction.

The cast (with one exception) are all adequate, with Levy deserving extra credit for fully committing to some excruciatingly nasty scenes. Her performance as both recovering addict and possessed hellspawn make for an interesting and original juxtaposition, with both sides of the character requiring exhausting levels of thrashing and swearing. What if Regan McNeil wasn’t in need of an exorcism at all, but just desperate for a methadone fix?

If anything, Evil Dead lacks jump scares, but it is more effective in creating an aura of dread than any horror film since The Blair Witch Project. The sheer quality of the gore effects on display will make this a Halloween staple for generations to come, even if it never quite escapes the cult shadow thrown by its predecessors.

3/5

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G.I. Joe: Retaliation – Caught between The Rock and a hard place

“Ugh, ninjas”: Elodie Yung as Jinx, about to kill all the ninjas

A sequel that surely not too many people asked for, G.I. Joe: Retaliation belatedly follows 2009’s summer blip G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, arriving in cinemas almost nine months after it was originally due. The party line is that this delay was entirely to convert the film to 3D, although rumours circled on the internet of rewrites and reshoots. But there’s no evidence of any post-shoot tightening in this sluggish, unambitious schlockbuster. And the 3D’s not even that great either.

Following the events of Rise of Cobra, the evil Cobra Commander remains imprisoned in an impenetrable high-tech facility and the Joes are still the world’s No.1 defence force. Channing Tatum’s Duke now runs the show, backed up by Dwayne Johnson’s human sandbag Roadblock. But, as none of you will remember from the first film, the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce) remains a hostage of Cobra, and their evil stand-in Zartan has his finger on all the triggers. Soon Cobra Commander is unleashed and the Joes are being wiped out in an impossibly well-planned attack that kills off (off-screen) all the characters whose actors refused to return to the franchise. Only a handful of the elite soldiers remain to try and defeat the plans of Cobra Commander and his evil POTUS. You can imagine how it goes.

G.I. Joe 2 corrects many of the mistakes of the first film, reducing the degree of sci-fi chicanery in favour of fists-and-bullets action. However, where the first film had some very basically sketched characters (backstories, flashbacks and everything!) and an infantile but to-the-point narrative momentum, Retaliation has almost no character development and its second act is a disaster of storytelling. As Roadblock and his team try to build a guerrilla unit in the US with retired general Bruce Willis and his band of G.I. Joeriatrics, martial arts expert Snake Eyes (the boundlessly athletic Ray Park, still silent and fully masked) must journey to somewhere in Asia to fight all the ninjas that ever were. Remember that bit in Iron Man 2 where Agent Coulson leaves to go to New Mexico and deal with the events of Thor? Now imagine if those two films were intercut with one another. That’s how jarring the mismatch of quests in this film is.

G.I. Bros: Channing Tatum and Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson

G.I. Bros: Channing Tatum and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson

Character-wise this film is bankrupt. A bit of bromantic banter between Tatum and The Rock in the first act adds up to nothing. Willis manages to be just slightly less spaced out than he was in A Good Day to Die Hard. The female Joe (Adrianne Palicki) has daddy issues and looks good in tight clothes. The white male Joe (D.J. Cotrona) may actually not have any lines for all you can tell. Snake Eyes can’t even speak, let alone demonstrate facial expressions, yet he still out-acts his sidekick girl ninja (Elodie Yung). In some bizarre casting, RZA shows up as blind martial arts master Blind Master (the G.I. Joe series was never very subtle with its character names), bringing the rapper’s charisma-less movie career to a new low by drudgingly rattling off exposition like a screen between video game levels.

The villains have far more fun. While Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been replaced as Cobra Commander by It Doesn’t Matter You Can’t See His Face, Lee Byung-hun and Ray Stevenson have plenty of fun as evil ninja Storm Shadow and Southern-fried pyromaniac Firefly, respectively. But when it comes to delivering Cobra’s (actually inspired) end game, it is Jonathan Pryce who delivers, hamming it up beautifully as President Zartan in an epic game of nuclear chicken. Twice as over-the-top as he was in Tomorrow Never Dies, Pryce is undoubtedly the film’s highlight.

But with the exception of the big bad plan, the story is a mess, and much of the dialogue is cringe-worthy to the point of spasm-inducing. The Joes have gone from an international fighting team to a deadly serious Team America, while no one seems to bat an eyelid when the President hires Cobra as his elite bodyguard unit, despite the world’s most dangerous terrorist being called “Cobra Commander”.

The Pryce is right: President Zartan reveals his evil scheme to steal the whole movie right from under Cobra Commander's nose

The Pryce is right: President Zartan reveals his evil scheme to steal the whole movie right from under Cobra Commander’s nose

Not even The Rock, who is finally being taken seriously as a charismatic action lead thanks to Fast Five, cannot save this film from floundering. Somehow, in spite of its near-$200m budget, director Jon M. Chu (most known for some of the Step Up dance movies and a Justin Bieber concert film) has managed to make a cheap-looking action movie. The effects look flimsy. The rapid cutting and dim lighting seem to be hiding uncompleted sets, while also causing the 3D to blur frantically. The final skirmish is not on a scale anywhere near as huge as the first film’s climax, while the images of Roland Emmerich-scale city destruction are so brief there’s hardly a frame of it in the film not featured in the trailer. Compare to the ridiculous but amusing Eiffel Tower sequence from Rise of Cobra and you realise big money clearly does not go as far as it used to.

A brainless popcorn movie for a cold night in with a DVD if ever there was one, G.I. Joe: Retaliation cannot live up to its promise of mayhem and The Rock and ninjas. And surely that was an easy one to get right.

2/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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Parker – Revenge is a dish best served short

Stath of the union - Jason Statham and Jennifer Lopez in Parker

Stath of the union – Jason Statham and Jennifer Lopez in Parker

With all the (negative) press being dumped on the recent returns of ’80s action heroes Arnie, Stallone and Bruce Willis, spare a little thought for poor Jason Statham. Only 12 years Bruce’s junior, The Stath became the go-to action hero just as Millennials began to tire of macho heroics in favour of CGI nonsense. With the notable exception of his Transporter series, almost all of the films Statham has headed have struggled to recoup their cost in cinemas, despite regularly becoming staples of man-sized DVD collections afterwards.

Parker is likely to do the same. A basic revenge/heist caper in the vein of Point Blank – its tagline, “Payback has a new name”, seems to draw on the disastrous Point Blank remake PaybackParker finds The Stath left for dead by some co-conspirators, and vowing to take them down on their next job. The film is based on the book Flashfire, the nineteenth (!) book in the Parker series by American crime fiction author Donald Westlake, who wrote under the nom de plume Richard Stark. Unsurprisingly, that series also bears the inspiration for Point Blank, although it’s troubling to note that John Boorman’s film was based on a different Parker novel. Do they all begin with Parker being betrayed? Probably.

Dodging mob hitmen, Parker tracks his prey to Palm Beach, Florida, where his former colleagues plan to rip-off some very wealthy retirees. He finds a sidekick in mousy real-estate agent Leslie (Jennifer Lopez), struggling with banking debts (ooh, how contemporary!), and sets about sabotaging the heist.

There is very little more to Parker than this, and yet the film is padded out to a scandalous two-hour run-time. Featuring only three proper action scenes and a confused romantic subplot, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint exactly where the editors should have made cuts, without reducing the film to 70 minutes. While the central fight scene between Parker and a hitman in a plush hotel room is about as visceral a donnybrook as The Stath has ever performed, the good it does is largely undone by the final showdown, wherein the odds have been so teetered in Parker’s favour that tension is nowhere to be found.

Still, despite all its problems, Parker is hardly a disaster. Directed by Taylor Hackford (Ray), it’s never short of competently made. Statham brings his earnest A-game, as always, and fires off one or two chuckle-worthy one-liners. Lopez gets mileage out of recycling her Wedding Planner character, although Patti LuPone steals many of her scenes as her overbearing mother. Michael Chiklis is sufficiently tough and gruff as the villain.

But really it all comes down to its length. Twenty minutes shorter and Parker could have been an easily recommended diversion. As it is, it is just a bit exhausting. It’s not that there are particularly bad scenes in it, but rather far too many unnecessary ones. Wannabe script editors could learn a lot by counting them. That’ll help you make it through the movie.

Don’t expect any of the remaining 23 Parker novels to be made into films any time soon.

2/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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2012 in review – The year of archery and French wheelchairs

As the credits begin to roll on another year of film (don’t bother sticking around to the end, the bonus scene after the credits is just a hangover), it’s time to look back on what the world of film offered up in 2012. There were highs and lows, unexpected joys and underwhelming potential wonders. Hollywood provided its most entertaining popcorn blockbuster in a generation. French cinema shattered our hearts over and over and over.

Early on The Artist won out at the Oscars, but rather than reignite interest in silent cinema, it became a Netflix-condemned anomaly unto itself. Thanks to 3D, The Avengers won out over The Dark Knight Rises and its IMAX presentation, but the launch of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit series caused the real fuss with its introduction of HFR (higher frame rate, 48 frames per second), which has caused more division amongst audiences than Prometheus. Films such as Berberian Sound Studio and Cloud Atlas aspired to greatness, but fell at the all-important last hurdle, having an ending. Michael Haneke returned to Cannes, made everyone and their mothers cry, then went home victorious to launch a parody Twitter account.

Archery!

It was once again a mediocre year for animation. Pixar clawed their way out of the wreckage of Cars 2 with the unfairly disliked Brave, though it remained a step down from their sensational output in the last decade. Frankenweenie and Rise of the Guardians charmed but did not wow. ParaNorman sadly escaped my gaze.

It would be unfair to say it was a poor year for documentary, but I was left disappointed by many of the most praised docs this year; Samsara, The Imposter and Bill Cunningham – New York were all strong works that did not fully succeed in their ambitions. Disappointingly, Waiting for Sugarman, 5 Broken Cameras and Tabu were all missed by me – I suspect my top 20 might have looked very different had I caught them.

On a personal note 2012 was not the year career-wise I had hoped it to be, but my writing, both here and for Film Ireland Magazine continued and I like to think improved – this blog expanded two-fold over the last 12 months, something to be proud of. I continued to trawl through the greatest of film cinema, most notably binging on the Rocky movies, The Bourne Trilogy, The Apu Trilogy and The Godfather Trilogy – each of those in single, incredible sittings. On the big screen I revisited classics such as The Apartment, A Night to Remember, RoboCop, Baraka, Bambi, The Shining, Fantastic Planet, Haxan and the 4K restoration of Lawrence of Arabia. My major goal for the year was to finally delve into horror cinema, a genre I had avoided for much of my life, with first-time viewings of Carrie, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Omen, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and George Romero’s original Living Dead Trilogy. More specifically, I delved into Italian horror, seeing some of the best films of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, as well as Lamberto Bava’s Demons films, and also gave myself a light education in the rockumentary, finally watching The Last Waltz, Stop Making Sense, Buena Vista Social Club and the director’s cut of Woodstock. Elsewhere, I finally completed the IMDB Top 250 list, an achievement that would be so much greater if not for the fact that, due to its constant shifting, I now find myself back at 249 (and not caring).

There were a handful of films I was eager to see this year but missed; Sightseers, Monsieur Lazhar, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Seven Psychopaths and Silver Linings Playbook. Due to my continued transatlantic travelling, my list is assembled of films released in Ireland or the US anywhere from 2011-2013, and films such as Django Unchained, Les Misérables and Wreck-It Ralph remain viewing for next year’s list.

French wheelchairs!

Films that nearly made the grade this year include Le Havre, Coriolanus, The Dark Knight Rises, Ted, Moonrise Kingdom, Killer Joe, The Kid With a Bike and Laurence Anyways. These and many others remain worthy viewing. But the following should all be seen and appreciated; they are my top 20 of 2012.

20. The Grey

Featuring an immensely committed, world-weary performance by Liam Neeson, what should have been a standard action/horror about plane crash survivors fending off a wolf pack turned out to be a treatise on the nature of faith and the human will to survive. With characterisation of a quality far beyond what this story called and some truly tense adventuring, The Grey hit harder than Liam Neeson punching a wolf in the face.

19. What Richard Did

It’s easy to forget some times that I am actually Irish; I know I often do. And despite my role in promoting film culture in Ireland, few Irish critics are harsher to Irish filmmakers when they drop the ball than I am. But when they get it right, they can get it so very right. Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did, based on a true story about an accidental killing by privileged schoolboys of one of their own, delved deep into the issues of when uncontrollable testosterone and youthful arrogance collide. Beautifully capturing the light grey tones of Dublin city, What Richard Did is at its best tracking the distress of Richard (notable newcomer Jack Reynor) through intense, unrelenting camera movements.

18. Anna Karenina

As much an exercise in cinematic stagecraft as an adaptation of Tolstoy’s romantic novel, Joe Wright brought out all the visual big guns to set his film apart from its forebears. Theatres become palaces and diamonds become more emotive than the faces of the actors wearing them in this ultra-stylised drama. Keira Knightley gives it her best in the lead role, but it is the supporting players, most notably Jude Law and Domhnall Gleeson, who really steal the show, along with Tom Stoppard’s oft-inventive screenplay. Nothing else this year looked quite like it.

Full review

17. Argo

After years of lamentable acting and increasingly promising directing, Ben Affleck has finally won the love of all Hollywood with this tense, witty espionage drama. A spy thriller in which not a gun is fired or a woman seduced, Affleck recreates, with some liberties, the exodus of American civilians trapped in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution, while also poking fun at the Hollywood studio system, which was manipulated to help win the day. Superb attention to historical detail is what really sets this film apart. The tension is carried through to the very end, at the unfortunate expense of believability, but it remains a thrilling ride, with several exceptional supporting performances.

Full review

16. Looper

The first truly entertaining time-travel adventure since Marty McFly settled down for good in Hill Valley, Rian Johnson’s Looper looked at the consequences of actions through two versions of the same character, played by Bruce Willis and a Bruce Willised-up Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Exciting and playful with its impossible premise, Looper stood out for its wit and audacity. It faltered hugely in its third act, but it was too late to do the film any real damage – and the final 20 minutes proved an unexpected rollercoaster. As clever as popcorn cinema can get.

Full review

15. The Hunt

More than a decade after his magnificent Festen, Thomas Vinterberg returns to form with the dramatic thriller. A magnificently pained and frustrated Mads Mikkelsen stars as a kindergarten teacher falsely accused of child abuse. Rather than create a mystery around the events, Vinterberg and co-writer Tobias Lindholm allow the audience to be the only ones aware of how this dreadful confusion arose. This omniscience on the viewer’s behalf becomes tormenting as the town turns against the teacher. Superbly acted, it is given extra power by the brown and grey autumnal look of the Danish landscape, full of a slowly fading beauty.

14. Lincoln

Showing uncharacteristic restraint, Steven Spielberg directed a Civil War “epic” with almost no war. Playing like an extended season finale of The West Wing, Spielberg’s beautifully detailed period drama is entirely focused on scrambling for votes in the U.S. Congress. Milking the political clash over the abolition of slavery for all the drama and excitement it’s worth, Tony Kushner’s screenplay made the esteemed president a Machiavellian political mastermind, while Janusz Kamiński’s camera shot him like a former superhero returning for one last heroic act. Daniel Day-Lewis captured the president’s spirit, but it was Tommy Lee Jones who stole the film as the devoutly anti-slavery congressman Thaddeus Stevens.

13. The Raid

A bolt out of the blue that hit so hard the audience’s collective heads shattered several wall tiles, Gareth Evans’s Indonesian cop thriller/martial arts extravaganza was one of the year’s most unexpected critical darlings. Lethal human whirligig Iko Uwais played the cop trapped in a tower full of machete-wielding drug dealers, forced to fight his way out using every weapon and muscle at his disposal. The results were electrifying and often hilarious. Editing troubles aside, The Raid was one of the tightest action movies released all year.

Full review

12. The Intouchables (Untouchable)

The first of three French films on this list to feature the tragedy of a person confined to a wheelchair, and the film in which the wheelchair is most at the fore, this undeniably charming dramedy, based loosely on a true story, tells of a wealthy quadriplegic and his unlikely friendship with a street-smart layabout turned caregiver. Predictable and light, it is also superbly acted and told with boundless heart and (often dark) humour. Shamelessly uplifting without being slight, it is adeptly shot and edited.

11. Skyfall

Choking on the poison that was Quantum of Nonsense, James Bond brought himself back to life with a defibrillator shock once more, and this time that shock was Skyfall. Exceptionally written and paced, Skyfall had the audacity to focus more on the character of Bond than any other film in the series to date, while giving ample room to develop his relationship with the ever-excellent Judi Dench as M. Javier Bardem’s villain was left with a poor evil scheme, but was himself memorable as a vengeful ex-agent with mincing homoerotic undertones. Light on action, when it hit it came with a wallop. Sam Mendes’s direction was solid but came second always to Roger Deakins exceptional camerawork.

Full review

10. Life of Pi

Adapting a spiritual novel into a personal epic with countless remarkable special effects shots, Ang Lee continues his quest to be the most diverse filmmaker in the business. Weaving the wonderful tall tale of Piscine ‘Pi’ Patel into a visually astounding oceanic adventure took remarkable skill, which bursts forth from the screen in every shot – literally in the case of the impressive 3D presentation. Suraj Sharma plays the devout theist castaway on a lifeboat with a vicious tiger. The metaphor at the film’s centre lands powerfully, but it is the clever dialogue and mesmerising visuals that make this film stand out.

9. Holy Motors

Leos Carax’s veritable clusterfuck of madness is at some level a statement about the falsehood of (digital) cinema. At another level it is just plain bonkers. Chameleonic Denis Lavant plays everyone you could think of, as a performer doomed (it would seem) to forever play the strangest of roles; from romantic lead to frustrated father, beggar woman to subterranean troll, his own killer to husband to a chimpanzee. It lapses in many of its instalments (installations?), but as a whole it is an astoundingly odd and wonderful piece of filmmaking.

8. The Avengers (Avengers Assemble)

Against all the odds and an army of alien beasties, this superhero mash-up succeeded on almost every level. Four years of films leading up to this one, introducing some of the leading players and the universe’s themes, paid off as the egos of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and Bruce ‘The Hulk’ Banner collided. The result was unexpectedly tremendous, with Joss Whedon’s wildly entertaining script bouncing the characters’ personalities off one another beautifully, and with plenty of laughs. Everyone played to their strengths, the minor characters were given moments to shine and the action redefined explosive. Here’s to Phase 2, eh?

Full review

7. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

This pastoral police procedural drama, set over a night and the day that followed, gave a haunting insight into modern Turkey. Exceptionally well acted and with more than its fair share of beautiful, memorable shots (the mini adventure of a tumbling apple cannot be forgotten), Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s wonderful film was let down by a tragically sluggish third act that clashed with the astounding first two thirds of the film. Still, as a whole Once Upon a Time in Anatolia remains far more impressive than any American crime drama of the same year.

6. The Master

Barely passing under the bar set by There Will Be Blood, P.T. Anderson’s The Master cannot be underestimated. The incomparable story of two men who need each other for contradicting reasons, The Master would still be a great film without the powerhouse performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. With them, and with remarkable assistance from Amy Adams, this is a drama that must be experienced before you can believe it. Occasional lapses in pacing and a visual aesthetic that rarely lives up to the power of the drama do it a disservice, but the mastery of filmmaking on display here cannot be denied.

Full review

5. The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists!

The finest animated feature released this year, this daft comic gem from Aardman Animations brought more laughs than any other two films released this year could muster between them. Rattling out sight gags and wordplay like the spiritual successor to Airplane!, The Pirates! also featured some superb voicework (especially from animation virgin Hugh Grant as the pirate captain, named the Pirate Captain) and took Aardman’s animation style to new limits. The incredibly detailed stop-motion sets (photographed in 3D) boggle the eyes as you try to take in everything you can see – there are more sight gags per image than the human brain can process. It may not have the same heart as some of Aardman’s earlier offerings, but there is a sweetness to be found here. It doesn’t matter though, the outstanding quality of the Gatling-gun comedy and the craft on display are what make this the work of brilliance it is.

Full review

As a bonus, here’s a picture of me with the model Pirate Ship from The Pirates! taken during a studio tour of Aardman Animations back in 2011.

The Pirate Ship

4. Amour

Michael Haneke’s heartbreaking tale of an elderly husband caring for his stroke-addled wife could not be more perfectly handled or acted. The camera is confined to the apartment like Anne herself, but gently roams its rooms and corridors capturing flashes of the dying days of this unspectacular couple. Punctuated with comedy (a rogue pigeon invades the house) and horror (a nightmare of floodwater and disembodied, strangling hands), Amour’s power is inescapable. ’60s romantic movie stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva excel, the former capturing a pained patience, the latter the agony of natural imprisonment; within a wheelchair, within a bed, within her own body.

Full review

3. Beasts of the Southern Wild

This majestic imagining of a Louisiana community struggling against the elements, told through the eyes of a wondrous, haunted young girl, is the breakthrough movie of 2012. First-time director Benh Zeitlin crafts a world drifting on the border of reality. Shot on 16mm, Beasts succeeds in finding a unique beauty in the overgrown damp of the bayou. The narration by six-year-old Hushpuppy (the revelation that is Quvenzhané Wallis) is perhaps overwrought, but it is delivered with astounding honesty and passion. As the world around her is literally and metaphorically washed away, her imagination of the end times allows for a powerful reclamation of human spirit and dignity. The score alone, all plucky Southern instruments, is enough to make this film a triumph. Thanks to its other successes, it is a minor masterpiece.

Full review

2. Rust and Bone

The follow-up to his phenomenal A Prophet, Jacques Audiard turns to a more humanistic tale in adapting Craig Davidson’s short story collection from an assemblage of broken lives into a remarkable drama of shattered dreams and people repairing one another. Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard each give career-defining performances as, respectively, a bare-knuckle boxer-cum-struggling father and a sexually defined whale trainer left powerless and paralysed in a gruesome accident. The tenderness and frustration of this odd couple’s relationship rings amazingly true, while Stéphane Fontaine’s near-divine handheld camerawork circles them effortlessly, stopping from time to time to capture remarkable stand-alone images. Over-powering stuff, altogether.

Full review

1. The Turin Horse

Far from the most entertaining film of 2012, no film released this year deserves immortality quite like Béla Tarr’s intended swan song. Imagining the daily life of a beleaguered workhorse, whose plight is fabled to have caused the mental breakdown of Friedrich Nietzsche, The Turin Horse is shot in hypnotic, terrifying black and white. Capturing the monstrous monotony of rural life at the turn of the last century, Tarr takes us through several interchangeable days as a brutish farmer and his weary daughter go about their chores. The repeated imagery as man and woman eat their daily potato, each time shot from a different, intense angle, each time robbed of civility by the farmer’s slurpy gorging, makes for painful, powerful viewing/listening. The outstanding black and white cinematography, the phenomenal use of music and the set design and wind-battered landscapes create a cinematic experience unlike any other. It is difficult viewing, but the craft involved in it cannot be rivalled.

A Turin-out for the books

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And now, my top 5 worst films of the year. I managed to miss a few apparent clunkers; Project XThe WatchBattleship or Piranha 3DD. But I still managed to catch some pretty awful stuff. Some lamented films, such as John Carter and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, were actually pretty harmless. Films that nearly made the list include The Bourne LegacyGhost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and This Means War. Despite hating more than almost any film I can think, there was no denying that Ruby Sparks is too adequately made to reduce it to this waste bin of cinema. Instead I’ll condemn it to the waste bin of human decency.

5. Snow White & the Huntsman

This uninspired, or rather thievishly over-inspired, adolescent fantasy threw everything it had at the screen and none of it stuck. An evil queen far more radiant than the Snow White. Kristen Stewart wearing armour. And leading an army after giving a dramatic speech. A love triangle in which none of the corners seemed particularly interested in one another. Actually, this film did feature one pretty awesome feat of archery (theme!), but it was of course pilfered from the infinitely superior Princess Mononoke. Thank goodness for the amazing sequence with giant deer god in the forest that was oh no wait stolen from Princess Mononoke. I love Princess Mononoke. I hated this.

4. Haywire

Despite the lamentable acting of MMA fighter Gina Carano, your film is in trouble when she’s the best thing in it. Several fine actors (most notably Michael Douglas) phone in their performances so hard they even reversed the charges. Michael Fassbender forgets his accent in the last scene again. The decent fight choreography and the surprisingly good sense of Dublin geography could not prevent this formulaic purported pastiche from being one of the most excruciating viewing experiences of the year. Steven Soderbergh has directed a movie so badly edited The Asylum would look down on it. Oh, and the jazz score? No.

3. Taken 2

Liam Neeson beats up anyone with darker skin than him, this time without any of the urgency or fun of the original. Grenades get thrown recklessly at civilians. Mosques are shown with deafening boom sounds on the soundtrack, just to remind you that foreign things are evil. They’re not really, but pumping this much cash into a movie and ending up with this surely is.

Full review

2. Charlie Casanova

What was that I was saying about Irish movies? This hardly seen Irish indie does its best to deconstruct the worst excesses of the Celtic Tiger generation, but creates a character so ludicrously cartoonish in his villainy that he fails to represent anything at all. Shot on grim low-grade digital in not one but two of the ugliest hotels in the world, this was an almighty mess of editing and dialogue. Lead actor Emmett Scanlan gives it so much socks that he and his improbable moustache swallow the movie whole.

1. The Campaign

But at least the makers of Charlie Casanova tried! In a year when political satire was a much needed relief, this Congressional comedy ran for the safety of the silly hills. No attempt was made to properly address the preposterous (and potentially hilarious) contradictions of the American two-party system. Instead The Campaign opted to have Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis do their best to out-swear and out-stupid one another. The results were hardly funny. It was the film audiences deserved, but not the one they got. An utter waste of several talents.

Here’s hoping for 2012!

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Looper – Past and Future Intense

Joseph Gordon-Love-It

We are long overdue a great time travel adventure. Sure, we’ve had dramas such as Midnight in Paris and mind-bending thrillers such as Primer, but there hasn’t been a proper edge-of-your-seat time travel movie since 12 Monkeys, nor a fun one since the Back to the Future trilogy.

Thank goodness for Looper. Clever without being baffling, fun without being silly, Rian Johnson’s film balances its own mythology with a pulp thriller story that feels simultaneously classical and entirely new. Johnson, the writer/director of cult high school noir Brick and the seen-by-few (and liked by fewer) The Brothers Bloom, is a film fan’s filmmaker, a man who has imbibed the Hollywood genre greats, and who now pours those ideas through the blender of his brain and creates some fascinating, if hitherto not entirely successful chimaeras. Looper’s influences are evident and many, and surprisingly none of them are films about time travel.

Starting off 30 years from now in Kansas City, Looper is set in an America wracked with colossal rates of unemployment and homelessness, but where the well-to-do dress like guest stars on Mad Men. A comment on the trajectory of modern America, sure, but that’s where the social commentary ends. Another 30 years down the road, in 2072, time travel technology has been developed, but only for use by the wealthiest and most duplicitous of people. Rather than risk a Back to the Future-style paradox, the global mob of 2072 uses time travel for the sole purpose of disposing of corpses – easily tracked in the future, easily gotten rid of in the past.

In 2042, mob goons called loopers are assigned the task of gunning down newly materialised mob targets the moment they appear from 2072. It’s good work if you can get it, but it comes at a high price. Looper Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is happy with his lot; splashing his cash on cars, drugs and a prostitute with a heart of gold. But things get thrown for a loop for him (sorry) when his latest target is revealed to be himself, 30-years-older, and now looking like Bruce Willis. Willis knocks his young self out and goes on the run, set on a mission to alter the future, while Gordon-Levitt must track down his older, wilier self while evading his own bosses at looper HQ, who can instantly take out the elusive Willis by killing Gordon-Levitt, thereby erasing Willis from the timeline.

Stop the clock

Ostensibly a chase movie through a neo noir future, Looper keeps its story energised by keeping the time travel repercussions as simple as possible. As long as Willis is still there, he knows Gordon-Levitt will grow up to be him. As Gordon-Levitt acquires fresh cuts and injuries, Willis develops brand new, decades-old scars.

Looper is as smart in its dialogue as it is in its ideas. Gordon-Levitt and Willis spar over their shared memories in the film’s most cleverly crafted scene. Looper boss Abe (a delightfully sneering Jeff Daniels) chastises his young employees for dressing in suits and ties, an out-dated fashion now brought back by the Mod-like gangsters – fashion has a cyclical nature, underscoring the film’s central theme. Language, too, has come full circle; the word “blunderbuss” has been uprooted from the history books to refer to the loopers’ heavy-duty shotguns.

Johnson’s team have crafted a terrific thriller here, with crisp, bright imagery and coherent editing. The score hums and clicks with electronic, industrial sounds overlaying traditional instruments. Gordon-Levitt, belatedly (by a decade) the in-demand actor of the hour, is tough yet endearing in the lead role, and the fine makeup that makes him a believable antecedent to Bruce Willis (most notably wearing Willis’s curling nose) never distracts from his performance. Willis plays the weary, broken-hearted avenger he’s based the last decade of his career on with expected fluency. Only Johnson regular Noah Segan disappoints, in the underdeveloped role of token villain Kid Blue.

The film’s seemingly boundless energy comes to a crashing halt in the third act as Willis heads off on his mission and Gordon-Levitt hides out at the rural home of Emily Blunt’s suspicious Sara. The rhythm of the film goes all to hell for nearly 20 minutes, and the temptation to, like the characters in the movie, repeatedly glimpse at your watch is hard to resist. But this is all forgiven in a shocking, brilliantly conceived final quarter hour, that is as exciting as it is philosophical.

Face-Off: Willis and Gordon-Levitt feel the Heat

Aside from that late lull, the film’s most troubling aspect is its narration, lazily used to explain its mythology and technology, and it’s left unclear from where or when (or on what timeline) Gordon-Levitt is narrating. But Looper succeeds in making its world easily accessible, and more impressively manages to make its two anti-heroes – one a junkie out to kill his future self, the other so hell-bent on vengeance he will stop at nothing to do what he insists is right – likeable and worthy of our attention.

With echoes to films as eclectic as Witness and Akira and with a finale drawing on the magnificent climax of the supposedly inimitable Russian classic Come and See, Looper is a minor triumph of genre-bending entertainment.

4/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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