Tag Archives: Guillermo del Toro

2017 in review – Faces, Places, and Much Needed Changes

best of 2017

I found 2017 taxing. It was a taxing year. I think it was for most people. Of course this isn’t a politics blog, so let’s not even go there, but even at the movies I did not find my usual escape. As often happens, it was late in the year before I found anything close to a list of favourites. But beyond that, just shutting out the stresses of the world has been harder, making sinking into a movie more mentally trying. It doesn’t help that I am noticing myself getting older, and staying awake through film after film is no longer a case of sheer willpower and enthusiasm. Oh for the days when two cups of well-timed coffee could get me through six features between bedtimes.

But at the same time, 2017 was actually somewhat of a landmark for cinema. After 2016’s #OscarsSoWhite scandal, who could have foreseen Moonlight take Best Picture over the charming but inferior La La Land, and in the way it did? Watching a livestream that was about a minute behind “live”, I could see panic and shock breaking out on my phone before anything had signalled La La Land was not the winner on TV. My Twitter feed was freaking out, and for a few moments I had to wonder what was about to unfold (a fainting filmmaker, a fight on stage?) – who’d have believed it? The shock has died down, but the Best Picture debacle of 2017 will go down as one of the greatest single moments in both film history and live television. What a time to be alive.

If 2016 had been a major year for Black cinema, 2017 shifted the focus to women. While it’s not a film I am especially in awe of, Wonder Woman hit with an undeniable impact, and moments like Gal Gadot strutting into No Man’s Land, or Chris Pine electing to be a handsome honeytrap to woo information from a female villain, completely rewrote the book on how Hollywood must view gender roles. (The huge success of the hilarious Girls Trip proved these changes were not solely going to benefit white women.) There’s more good work to do, but it feels exciting to be standing here while the sands are beginning to shift. And where representation behind and in front of the camera – and at the box office – showed extraordinary progress, an even bigger shift came as the rotten husk of Harvey Weinstein dominoed into his fellow abusers throughout Hollywood. Enough has been written by many greater talents about the #MeToo movement, but suffice to say the horror of hearing these stories come to light is regularly overcome by the swift victory of victims newly heard and perpetrators’ careers tumbling.

Before we get to the movies, let’s talk a little about what a year it was for TV. Since the dawn of True Detective and Black Mirror, TV has moved into EVENT territory, with individual seasons or episodes of far greater social (and artistic?) importance than tracking the fate of characters over too many years of one show. New shows like Legion, The Good Place, The Handmaid’s Tale, and American Gods stood out, but it was limited revivals that showed what TV could really do when focused artists expressed themselves through serialised storytelling – Twin Peaks: The Return and the belated final season of Samurai Jack (which oddly paralleled Peaks) truly stood out. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, an astonishing metaphysical exploration of identity in 21st Century America through avant-fantasy and soap-operatic extremities, was such a remarkable achievement it triggered much fevered and pointless debate as to whether or not it was a “film”. The discussion is irrelevant, what matters is that it is. Purely to keep in check with previous years’ best-ofs, I have not included it on my list here, although with some reflection I wonder if it would have come out on top. I have subsequently seen the entire series on the big screen, and I can assure you, whether it’s a movie or not, it works as one.

Laura Dern in a still from Twin Peaks. Photo: Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

Not a movie

Professionally 2017 was a good one – I began as Festival Manager of Doc Fortnight at MoMA, which had a tremendously successful year, and wrapped as a film consultant at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. I continued to write and edit at Cineaste (especially pleased with my broad review of Rebecca), while picking off some smaller projects. In my spare time, I continued a quest to watch every Palme d’Or movie, begun in 2016, and got up to the 2000s, so will finish that off this year. I also dedicated myself to watching one movie exceeding a four-hour runtime per month, which allowed me to pick off some exhausting cinematic must-sees, including Shoah, Out 1, Sátántangó, and Histoire(s) du cinéma. If I’m not going to make myself watch these things, no one else is going to!

On the big screen I saw some terrific rep screenings, from Don’t Look Now and Tokyo Drifter at Metrograph, Monterey Pop and Stalker at IFC Center, The Fireman’s Ball and Pelle the Conqueror at Film Forum, The Old Dark House, Hello, Dolly!, and Funeral Parade of Roses at Quad Cinema, and Strange Days, Husbands, and, err, Manos: The Hands of Fate at MoMA. Elsewhere, my home viewing ranged wildly from The Colour of Pomegranates to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s remake of Christmas in Connecticut. I have a range. Too much so.

As for the new releases of 2017, well there were many highlights and lowlights. I was left cold by Haneke’s Happy End, and thought the much-lauded A Ghost Story collapsed in the second act. The always-reliable Hirokazu Koreeda’s After the Storm hit me in the gut, but lacked the simple visual ambition of his better works. Okja did much the same for Bong Joon-ho, another favourite. The summer was riddled with flopbusters, but a few almost made my best of the year list, including Thor: Ragnarok, War for the Planet of the Apes, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Other close calls included Risk, The Big Sick, Personal Shopper, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Columbus, Dawson City: Frozen Time, and, until Phantom Thread dislodged it from the list-in-progress, Lady Macbeth. I’d have included the spectacular World of Tomorrow – Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts, except it’s a short, and then I’d have to defend putting a short on my best films list, and, well, you know.

WOT2-0

Not a movie

Major releases I missed that might have featured include Coco, Song to Song, T2 Trainspotting, Raw, and I, Tonya, among many others. But as of early 2018, these are the 2017 films that have not left my mind…

20. Mudbound

There’s a well-trodden feel to Dee Rees’s racial melodrama, a sense that the toxic poverty and discrimination of the American South have been told before, and so well as to reduce further efforts to redundancy. And yet, here, through guiding a great ensemble, and with an exceptional rising cinematographer in Rachel Morrison at her side, Rees finds a balance between two complex family dramas, rebirthing the Mississippi landscape (Louisiana standing in) in remarkable, rich brown tones.

19. Molly’s Game

First-time director Aaron Sorkin brings his distinct writing style and energy to a one-of-a-kind story of a go-getting secretary-turned-underground-gambling-house-diva. Jessica Chastain brings her A-game, blasting out Sorkin’s buzzy dialogue, with plenty of fun sparring partners (Idris Elba is terrific as her attorney, following her bust by the Feds). It keeps character the focus, without letting the poker overcomplicate the drama. The final act devolves briefly into nonsense, but it’s not enough to slow it down. The screenwriter-auteur seems to understand the collaboration great cinema requires, and smart editing and handsome cinematography make this a memorable debut.

18. A Quiet Passion

The inimitable Terence Davies made his first (and only?) misstep with 1995’s The Neon Bible, a Georgia-set period piece that felt outside the range of his very British working class viewpoint. Having honed himself as a master of period tone in the decades since, Davies’s second American tale reveals the depth of his maturity as an artist. With beautiful imagery matched by splendid pacing and often caustic wit, the lives of poet Emily Dickinson and her family are realised thoroughly. If it at times ventures away from the historical truth, it does so only to keep things lively, and Cynthia Nixon is the cornerstone of a terrific cast.

17. Nocturama

One of 2017’s boldest pictures, French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello’s anarcho-thriller Nocturama is a Parisian-set genre smorgasbord. Beginning as a heist movie, in which a gaggle of misaffiliated teens sets off a series of bombs in order to topple the economic status quo, it shifts to satire, bordering on farce, as the young antiheroes hide out in an abandoned ultra-bougie department store. It ends in horror. The first act shows the deftest filmmaking, as Bonello intercuts between his characters at various points in the timeline, but the lengthy central act unveils a bolus of social commentary as the youths interact, often joyfully, with the elaborate trinkets of a society they profess to despise.

16. The Shape of Water

There are few visualisers of the fantastic working in Hollywood today with the skills of Guillermo del Toro, but his screenplays (especially the English ones) rarely match his remarkable imagery, with strained dialogue and comically heavy-handed metaphors. But here, working with Vanessa Taylor (whose major credits include a handful of Game of Thrones episodes and a Meryl Streep romcom), he has produced his best work since Pan’s Labyrinth. A complex character study, loaded with wit, and a truly out-there love story borrowing from 1950s B-movies and Beauty and the Beast, The Shape of Water shows tireless craft (amazing, rust-encrusted sets, plays with light, splendid music), and is held aloft by the quality of its performances, particularly Sally Hawkins as a mute janitor at a government research lab who rescues, and falls for, a South American fish-man creature. Michael Shannon’s villain is as under-baked as all of del Toro’s villains (although the actor, as always, acquits himself admirably), but otherwise the writing is stellar, and builds to a beautifully realised finale.

15. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Martin McDonagh has always revelled in being an outsider – his most famous works, plays set in the West of Ireland, derived from his visiting his extended family as a youth, observing the peculiar and exciting linguistic flourishes that he magnificently retooled into hilarious, mean-spirited tales like The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Here he has bitten off more than he can fully masticate, with a Midwestern setting that he is perhaps too much removed from to fully capture. But what he’s done remains an exceptional entertainment, darkly imagining the war of printed words between a bereaved mother and a well-intentioned sheriff, who she holds responsible for the failure to capture the brutal killers of her daughter. The characters and situations are larger-than-life, with performances (Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell especially) to match. Its contemplation of redemption for racist, Red State caricatures feels ill-timed in an angry, polarised America, but the strength of the dialogue and the crisp texture of Ben Davis’s cinematography make it a film difficult to deny in its quality.

14. Marjorie Prime

Yes, yes, yes, it’s just a play I hear you say, but when a play is this good, when it’s this well-written, this cogent and timely in the issues it addresses, the medium feels irrelevant. Adapted from Jordan Harrison’s stage drama with minimal flourish by Michael Almereyda, Marjorie Prime looks at a near-future where the grieving process is aided by memory uploads of the departed, appearing as interactive holograms of them at whatever age the customer chooses. Too introspective and quietly sad to be a Black Mirror instalment, it’s a heart-rending look at memory and regret, acted superbly by its four stars, Lois Smith, Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, and Tim Robbins.

13. Your Name

A record-smashing success both at home in Japan and around the world, writer/director Makota Shinkai’s Your Name is a romantic fantasy comedy that pushes in every direction – a huge emotional impact; shocking supernatural twists; big, silly laughs – while even challenging the likes of Studio Ghibli in the quality and richness of its animation and colours. Billed as a teen body swap tale, initial gender gags give way to a deeply satisfying romance and ethereal revelations. If the many subplots seem tired or convoluted, they all wash away in the image of two star-crossed lovers meeting for the first time across the flare of a setting sun.

12. Dunkirk

The sort of cinematic grandeur that Hollywood has forgotten in the wake of CGI city explosions, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is simultaneously experimental and defiantly old-school. Recreating the famous naval escape of WWII in breath-taking 65mm IMAX, Nolan’s film is a triptych edited out of sync, revealing days on the beach, an afternoon on the sea, and one terrifying hour in the air. Hans Zimmer’s thrilling score ticks with intensity as time runs out for the soldiers. The pressure builds in all three stories as they meet at the day’s end, culminating in a cathartic welcome home, accompanied by Churchill’s most famous address. This is the war movie at its most ambitious, even if the characters’ screentime is too diluted to ever truly feel in the thick of it with any of them.

11. The Florida Project

Following his impressive Tangerine, a film famously shot entirely on an iPhone, Sean Baker’s Florida Project is mostly crisp, bumblegummy 35mm. An affecting look at childhood in poverty, and a savage critique of the selfie generation’s self-absorption being anathema to parenthood, this is a minor triumph of humanism, with Brooklynn Prince and Willem Dafoe as neighbours, decades apart in age, neither of whom allow the minor tragedies of daily living scuttle their enthusiasm or hopefulness. A finale that dips into magical realism both looks and feels out of place, but it barely leaves a dent in this dramatic and regularly hilarious work.

10. Blade Runner 2049

Few were more sceptical than me at the idea of a new Blade Runner sequel/reboot/anything. But on the heels of the splendid Arrival, Denis Villeneuve had more than proven his sci-fi chops. What we got was a shocking success, building on the mythology of the Philip K. Dick universe, while somehow reinforcing the mystery around Rick Deckard’s humanity, questioned at the close of Ridley Scott’s original, leaving it satisfyingly unanswered. The exquisite production design and imagining of future technology that both aids and alienates made it a new dystopia, not a rehash. The cast, from Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling, to exceptional supporters Robin Wright, Ana de Armas, and Sylvia Hoeks, brought more than could be expected to a thought-provoking, largely action-free sci-fi gem.

9. Get Out

If any film could vie with Wonder Woman for the title of “most important film” of 2017, it was Get Out. The icing on the cake is what an incredible achievement Get Out is, even before its socio-political satire and revelations are taken into account. The tale of a young African-American man lured into the welcoming abode of an over-eager white family who, secretly, don’t so much want to kill him as be him, latches on to numerous under-spoken-of issues bubbling beneath the surface of post-Obama culture. First-time director Jordan Peele impresses hugely from the get-go, but its his script that dominates, fluctuating with ease between social commentary, brilliant black comedy, and nightmarish horror; apparent throwaway lines of dialogue early on whip back as ingenious foreshadowing of gags and grotesqueries. Star Daniel Kaluuya offers a performance that horror cinema hasn’t seen the likes of in a generation.

8. The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Yorgos Lanthimos continues to revel in his highly personalised brand of faithlessness in humanity, and the results remain inspired. Here suburban inanity is punctured by Barry Keoghan’s intrusive oddball Martin, who forces himself into a pretentiously happy family’s home life, blaming the patriarch, a doctor, for the death of his own father. Lanthimosian performances are emotionally wooden as always, played with bitter somnambulism by Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman. The moral dilemma at its core is played as a cunning, tormented thought experiment, shifting the movie suddenly from darkly comic to spine-cringingly horrific.

7. Lady Bird

On the surface a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama from first-time director Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird is encased in a study of daughters and mothers, and the generational misunderstandings that can blind loved ones to others’ needs. Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf merge with their characters – the shared frustration with one another is written in every movement of their faces. Unshowy production design keeps the story grounded, while Gerwig’s script and the exceptional editing of Nick Houy make the film as unforgettable as the drama.

6. BPM (Beats Per Minute)

As the AIDS crisis has diminished in the West, it can be hard for some to remember the terror it incited in the early ’90s. In my youth it seemed the greatest threat to humanity in a pre-9/11 world. But for those who feared it, nothing could compare to the experiences of those who lived with it, unsupported, unheard, uncared for. Robin Campillo’s award-winning BPM is a sensational dive into the world of French AIDS activists 25 years ago, gently and caringly listening to their stories and hopes and fears in intimate love scenes, while also making clear the incredible work and organisation done by ACT UP in fighting for the rights and humanity of those living with HIV/AIDS. The acting and writing capture a unique energy with exceptional passion, while the film features perhaps the most outstanding scene transition of the year, as specks of dust caught in the wavering lights of a nightclub morph into human cells, under attack from within.

5. The Teacher

One of the most overlooked films of 2017, Jan Hřebejk’s The Teacher is one of the finest works studying abuses of power in recent memory. Borrowing a concept from 12 Angry Men, it is set at a PTA meeting called to question the future of school teacher Mária Drazdechová, in the closing decade of communist Czechoslovakia. Drazdechová is accused of using her position of authority within the Party to manipulate parents into doing copious favours for her, and bullying her students so severely that one even attempts suicide. Using flashbacks to show their interactions with Drazdechová, while intercutting children and parents to reveal generational (dis)similarities, one by one the parents are convinced to come forward. It’s an astonishing piece of storytelling, and in the title role Zuzana Mauréry dominates the screen, making her one of the most memorable villains of the 21st Century so far.

4. Faces Places

As she approaches 90, but appears to come nowhere near to slowing down, Agnès Varda once again hits the road to traverse France and find the most interesting people she can interview and shoot. Her companion/co-director/partner in crime is 30-something graffiti artist JR, whose portrait photography is blown up to enormous sizes and plastered in the most aesthetically pleasing and surprising places. As Varda’s eyesight fades, the trip and film become a metaphor for what might be her last chance to truly see the world and its people. What begins as a sweet, charming journey, documenting the towns and faces Varda and JR come across, expands into something far greater, about lives lived and not lived, as the duo attempt to confront Varda’s past with two towering male legends of French cinema, her late husband Jacques Demy, and long-time friend turned hermitic curmudgeon Jean-Luc Godard. At her impressive age, Varda continues to push the boundaries of the documentary arts, never losing hope or faith in the real, human magic of the world around her.

3. Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson has never made a bad film, but his best work always comes with narrow focus; direct character studies rather than sprawling, Altmanesque ensembles. Phantom Thread is his smallest film since Punch-Drunk Love, and features barely more than three characters: fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, his young muse Alma, and his commanding sister Cyril. What begins as a straightforward melodrama about a woman unable to crack the eccentric brilliance of her much older lover – echoes of Rebecca abound – morphs into a stranger, sexlessly kinkier story about emotional domination. It looks luscious, while Jonny Greenwood’s score is as seductively brilliant as Daniel Day-Lewis’s Woodcock. Vicky Krieps is strong as Alma, but much of the film is stolen by Lesley Manville’s divinely snarky Cyril.

2. Call Me By Your Name

Luca Guadagnino undoubtedly had a masterpiece in him, but it wasn’t clear it would come so soon. His fifth fiction feature, adapted from André Aciman’s novel by the iconic James Ivory, is a quiet and powerful love story set in Northern Italy. Elio, aged 17, meets Oliver, 10 years his senior, his father’s assistant in excavating artefacts from Roman antiquity. What begins as a resistant friendship between two men whose only common trait is a shared Jewish ancestry, erupts into romance through a succession of spoken and unspoken moments – glances of the eyes and the hand against skin. Superbly paced to create the feel of a summer spent falling in love, the story beats with the pain and beauty of first love. Shot in extraordinary sunswept frames by Uncle Boonmee’s Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and accompanied by the delicate bombast of Sufjan Stevens’s music, it is never less than gorgeous. Lead actors Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer offer up their impressive bests, but it is Michael Stuhlbarg as Elio’s calmly caring father who leaves the most powerful mark, connecting one boy’s heartbreak to a legacy of unexpressed emotion.

1. The Square

No movie in 2017 dared to tackle as many issues as Ruben Östlund’s The Square, and few movies have ever aimed for so many targets without spreading themselves thin. Whereas his breakout 2014 darling Force Majeure focused squarely on fragile masculinity, The Square encircles that issue in addition to commentaries on homelessness, the immigrant crisis, the incompatibility of art and commerce, the Americanisation of Europe, and casual sex. It is a ruthless satire on the art world that sees Claes Bang’s curator Christian struggling with the titular artwork, which professes to be a sanctuary in which all are equal. But none are truly equal within or without, as power shifts from person to person, from Christian to the thief of his smartphone to the vengeful child inadvertently accused of the crime. A self-revolved artist is overcome by a peer who has turned to animalistic performance, and bourgeois society is at first delighted and almost instantaneously outraged. Christian, perceiving himself a demi-celebrity, argues with a woman he has slept with who won’t let him dispose of the condom they have used himself, convinced she is out to steal his sperm, in surely the year’s most hysterical scene of awkward comedy. The film has so much to say about 21st Century living, and our inability to comprehend much or all of it. It is ruthless and hilarious, ceaselessly entertaining, and a consistently startling work of cinema, pristinely shot, tremendously executed.

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An artist’s interpretation of me telling you how good The Square is

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Oh, and of course, there’s the worst movies. These were works from 2017 that either bored me beyond redemption, entertained me in ways they were never meant to, or left me simply stupefied by their outrageous, unearned out-there-ness. I didn’t see The Emoji Movie, while Justice League was too run-of-the-mill to even bother feeling negative towards, and Transformers: The Last Knight gave us the gift of Cogman, without whom it would surely have made this list.

5. Ghost in the Shell

Narrowly beating Death Note for the misguided anime remake of 2017, Ghost in the Shell brought nothing new to the table, and in keeping a Japanese setting placed a target on its chest for accusations of white-washing. Audiences and critics justifiably struck. Borrowing all its finest images from the source material, its mot inventive creation was to have the Caucasian hero and villain be secret Asian people. In what feels like a lazy Saturday Night Live sketch, characters repeatedly pause to use the terms “ghost” and “shell”, which mean, in this context, as they make very, very clear, “soul”… and “body”. It is agony.

4. Lemon

Another study of an anxious intellectual struggling with the emotional and career success of those around him, Lemon is a mean-spirited, aimless film, relying too much on the muted charisma of its stars. The story reaches no conclusions (nor a reason for there to be no conclusion), while the blown-out yellowed palette exhausts after the first few minutes. There’s much talent here, but all of it is misdirected.

3. The Book of Henry

Behold a child smarter than his mother! Cringe when you should be weeping as he dies suddenly of a brain tumour! Thrill as his mother follows his instructions from beyond the grave to murder their neighbour who is abusing his daughter! Gasp as that abuse is made clear through interpretive dance! That rare example of a movie that simply should not exist.

2. The Mummy

Universal’s self-immolating attempt to create a shared “Dark Universe” of their famous monster characters began (and ended?) with this dour-looking action film which follows Tom Cruise’s uncomfortably quippy hero from the Middle East to London, pursued by a sexy zombie and her army of unspectacular CGI. Tonally scattershot, impossibly dull, mercilessly sequel-thirsty.

1. Baywatch

The lowest point of ironic media repurposing, this painfully unfunny comedy has the audacity to tease a television show that showed more impressive cinematic craft in its opening credits montage than this can in two hours. Smothering the natural charisma of stars Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron, this bounces from comic set piece to comic set piece with awkward scene transitions and a threadbare drug-smuggler plot failing to hold it together. An extended scene in which Efron’s character must fondle the genitals of a corpse feels like the perfect metaphor for this film: ugly, gross, determined to insult, but just cold and flaccid.

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Crimson Peak – I’m not that Innocents

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Goth chic: Mia Wasikowska and her poofy nightdress in Crimson Peak

I have this thesis on Guillermo del Toro. It stems from enjoying most of his films, but rarely loving any of them. There’s Pan’s Labyrinth, a film I flat-out adore, and there’s Pacific Rim, a big dumb movie that shamelessly tickles all the happiest childish parts of me. Otherwise, I can take or leave his work. Parts of the Hellboys delight, and The Devil’s Backbone is a beautifully put together if frustratingly simplistic fable. His TV series The Strain, adapted from his trilogy of airplane novels, is the sort of trash I greedily ingest between episodes of HBO-or-similar shows, but still find myself half-watching my phone the whole time. Because let’s face it, Guillermo del Toro is a great designer, but he’s rarely a great storyteller. Scratch that. He might be the best designer.

If Guillermo del Toro wanted to be a production designer full-time, he could be the Edith Head of production designers. He could be the Paddy Chayefsky of production designers. He could be the Sven Nykvist of production designers. Look at the elven guards of Hellboy 2, or the faun of Pan’s Labyrinth. Hell, one of the few things that kept Peter Jackson’s regrettable Hobbit trilogy watchable was the unexpected moments of bizarre design that clearly stemmed from del Toro’s latent role in their production.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that, expectedly, del Toro’s latest, Crimson Peak, is a gloriously designed spectacle, but it is also in so many other ways a farce. Its DNA spliced from the core strands of gothic romance, the film begs to be given the dues of a Rebecca or The Innocents, but is really just a subpar Dragonwyck rolled in a tasty supernatural burrito.

So here’s the story. Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, the bookish daughter of a successful self-made Albany businessman and widower in the waning days of the Victorian era. Edith has aspirations of becoming a romance writer and a curious and unexplained tap into the netherworld that allows for occasional ghostly visitations. Tom Hiddleston is Sir Thomas Sharpe, a visiting English aristocrat whose vast family riches have been depleted, with a stately manor that has fallen into Money Pit levels of disrepair. With his caustic and pernicious sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) by his side, he’s in town desperately seeking capital to help mine the valuable supplies of blood-red clay that sit beneath their hilltop home. A few swoons and a murder later, Edith is off to England to see her new husband’s home.

If that bloody goo oozing up through the ground and the mother-shaped wraith warning her to keep away from some place called “Crimson Peak” weren’t enough to make Edith run for it, the house’s state of decay should have. Cartoonishly gothic, with a hole in the roof that Disney’s Haunted Mansion would blush at, the Sharpe Family home is as unwelcoming as its owner is dashingly handsome. Soon enough, del Toroan leaking ghosts are clambering through the walls, and someone is definitely trying to poison poor Edith.

On paper it’s the perfect project for the Mexican minstrel of the macabre. He has wildly elaborate sets to play with, drenched in saturated colours of dark hues, CGI-makeup-hybrid ghouls, poofy turn-of-the-century costumes, and even complex steampunk mining equipment to indulge his concerning clockwork fetish. As so often with his films, it’s a flimsy screenplay, co-written with Matthew Robbins, that leaves the film struggling at the best of times, and fails to attach any emotional or conceptual resonance to some finely realised imagery.

What the film does have, however, and all too rare in the del Toro canon, is a sense of camp. The film regularly simmers with it, and Jessica Chastain’s frantic performance spits it out in clots thicker than that visceral clay. If anything keeps the film aloft, it is the camp value (see the portrait of the late Mother Sharpe), but even this is abused by del Toro. Upon first arriving at Crimson Peak, Thomas advises Edith to take a bath, but warns (in the film’s most humourous moment) that the tap will briefly run red. It’s a wonderful play on an old horror cliché, but it’s undone moments later when, as Edith turns on the tap, del Toro plays its spluttering of bloody water for a scare, complete with Wasikowska gasp and musical sting. The director wants to have his cake and eat it too, and to watch the jam inside ooze everywhere as well.

On top of this, there’s surprisingly little tension to be had, nor mystery. The clumsily handled murder scene early on leaves no question as to whether the siblings can be trusted, and the underlying eroticism of Thomas and Edith’s romance flounders under his blatant Monsieur Verdouxism. Two achingly predictable last act twists are handled completely upside down – Edith takes the revelation that she is to be murdered with preposterous calm, and flees for her life upon learning a secret that should only add up to a serious breach of trust and an uncomfortable fireside chat. Any chance of going full Turn of the Screw and letting us wonder if our heroine is imagining things is mangled by the opening lines of the film; narrating from a position of post-film survival, Edith assures us “ghosts are real”. Well then, that’s that then. (The line seems all the more grating and unnecessary given how attractively inessential the ghosts actually are to the story).

The dialogue goes little better, often feeling jarringly twentieth century. Speeches about carnivorous moths and ghosts stories (or, stories with ghosts in them, hint hint) are the wrong kind of unsubtle. ADR (post-production over-dubbing) is evident throughout, especially whenever characters talk about Victorian-era technology, planting thoughts that the script as written was even more troubled than what has ended up in the finished film.

Despite itself, Crimson Peak is never quite boring (despite tertiary love interest Charlie Hunnam’s most valiant efforts to bland it into submission). Wasikowska is misguidedly directed, but she throws a good deal of energy at it, and Hiddleston is always modestly electrifying. Chastain, hamming it up to the nines, casts away her full house of Oscar-worthy performances and just goes for it with all the gusto she can manage.

An English-language triumph still evades del Toro, but he has once again produced a hauntingly beautiful, if painfully unsatisfying film. Too shallow to be high art, too confused to play as shocker, it will simply act as a stand-in film in his career while he searches for a truly personal project worthy of his talents. Perhaps, if we’re truly lucky, he might turn to design full-time and help make another director’s work look the very best it could.

2/5

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Pacific Rim – Monsters Brawl

Battletech: Raleigh's Jaeger 'Gipsy Danger'

Battletech: Raleigh’s Jaeger ‘Gipsy Danger’

With the major exception of Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro has always excelled at style over substance, producing gorgeously imagined films with tiresome scripts, clichéd stories and cardboard cut-out villains. This time, for once, this is the kind of film del Toro is actually trying to make! The bottom of the ocean aside, there is no depth to Pacific Rim, and no one making it seems to care about that. Why should they? Pacific Rim has monsters! Giant monsters! And robots! Giant robots! And the giant monsters, and the giant robots? They fight!

Opening with a barrage of exposition that could’ve fleshed out a whole trilogy, Pacific Rim rapidly tells us how alien mega-beasties, named ‘Kaiju’ for the Japanese subgenre that gave us Godzilla and Mothra, emerged from a dimensional portal at the bottom of the Pacific and began destroying major seaboard cities. Quickly responding to the attacks by increasingly larger creatures, mankind rallied and built giant robots, ‘Jaegers’, to do combat with them. As the film begins the war is being won, but as the Kaiju evolve to tackle everything the Jaegers can throw at them, things soon turn nasty, and the Earth’s last line of defence begins to run out of pilots and steel.

PTSD-riddled Jaeger pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) gets re-drafted as desperate times call for desperate soldiers. Under the command of no-nonsense boss Marshal Stacker (Idris Elba), he joins a tiny team of remaining Jaeger operators to launch a final assault on the rising Kaiju threat. In a subplot, goofy biologist Newton (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day) and flamboyant boffin Gottlieb (Burn Gorman, doing a bizarre impression of Lee Evans from There’s Something About Mary) try to discover the truth behind the Kaiju, with the help of black marketeer Hannibal Chou (a scene-chewing, golden-shoed turn by del Toro stalwart Ron Perlman).

Devoid of pretension but equally lacking in good dialogue and characters, Pacific Rim is a big movie for big kids. The characters are all action movie clichés, from the shoulder-raising Ruskies to the young Australian pilot who thinks Raleigh is a renegade and endangering the mission but eventually comes to the understanding that he is, in fact, top robot gun. A romance bubbles between Raleigh and his co-pilot Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), but whether for sloppy writing or conservative inter-racial reasons it never properly catches fire. Idris Elba shouts lines whenever required to by the drama.

“But what about the robot/monster fights?” you asked a few paragraphs back. Well, for the most part they’re kind of awesome. Kind of really awesome. Keenly choreographed and using all kinds of props (cranes, bridges, ships) to great effect, the punching and clawing and hurling never stops being fun, or very very loud. The Jaegers repeatedly surprise, with all kinds of weaponry emerging from their chassis like an enormous Swiss Army Bot. The “rocket elbow”, which ignites to throw an even more face-crushing punch, is a particular favourite, but only one of many. Sadly we get to see very little of the three-armed Chinese Jaeger Crimson Typhoon. Did somebody say “prequel”?

Massive attack: A Kaiju shows its disdain for opera while attacking Sydney

Massive attack: A Kaiju shows its disdain for opera while attacking Sydney

The problem with the fights is that, for the most part, they are held at night, making some of the visuals difficult to make out in the hurly-burly of metal fists and whipping tails. The endless rain doesn’t help much, nor does the fact a pivotal action sequence takes place underwater. We rarely get a proper look at the constantly moving Kaiju, which is a shame given how remarkably well designed they are. Many of the Kaiju battles shown briefly in flashback occur during the day, and it’s hard not to feel like the best stuff was never actually filmed.

But what you can see of the film looks amazing, and del Toro uses plenty of finely designed sets to accompany the digital effects work. Hannibal Chou’s domain in particular, full of jars of Kaiju organs and assorted body parts, feels truly del Toro, recalling both The Devil’s Backbone and Hellboy II’s Troll Market. He may not be much of a writer, but del Toro has an eye as crafty as his imagination, and where the drama dips from time to time, the visuals are never dull.

While the crashing of metal and Kaiju skull is often deafening, one of the big highlights of Pacific Rim is its score, composed by Ramin Djawadi, best known for the booming flurry that opens each episode of Game of Thrones. This score is equally bombastic, as grand and overpowering as the Jaegers themselves, with audible echoes of that manliest of songs, ‘Sledgehammer’ by Peter Gabriel. In its electric and orchestral forms, the main theme with drill itself into your ear and have you humming its main refrain for hours afterwards.

Doing exactly what it says on its hulking robot tin, Pacific Rim is a mindless blockbuster par excellence. Which is not to say it’s a particularly good movie, but it’s sure as hell a great entertainment. I won’t even say “switch your brain off on the way in”; with its blistering visuals and ear-pumping sounds, Pacific Rim wil very much take care of your brain for you.

3/5

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

 

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, an expected prequel

Return to Middle Earth (again)

It seemed for a time there like we might never return to Middle Earth, that incredible world which provided us with one of the finest cinematic triumphs of the last dozen years. But like the Pevensie children wondering if and when they might return to Narnia, fate (and finances) would deem it was always to be.

And yes, I am aware of how confusing an analogy that is.

So after nine years, some rights squabbles and a directorial switcheroo (or rather switch back), The Hobbit is finally on the big screen.

Peter Jackson, who brought us The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and more recently the pointless Lovely Bones and, in producer mode, surprise hits like District 9 and the disenchanting The Adventures of Tintin, is back in control of his fantasy sandpit, and has taken some strange, and some arguably unethical, decisions with it.

Dialling back the whimsy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s childish adventure book (though not entirely, with a hit-and-miss effect), Jackson has expanded the world of The Hobbit using extracts from Tolkien’s extended writings about the greater events that preceded and surrounded the story, to give a more epic, Rings-like flavour. The most controversial result of this has led to the relatively short book being broken up into not two but three films – the second and third instalments will follow in 2013 and 2014.

It’s okay Bilbo, you have three films to learn how to ride a pony

An apparent cash-grab on Jackson’s behalf, it is still only fair to judge The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as a stand-alone film. Successful feature-length adaptations have been made of short stories only a fraction the size of The Hobbit (The Dead, Brokeback Mountain, Total Recall), so the question is not the morality of Jackson’s decision, but whether or not it works.

And the answer is: eh… sort of?

Using the same technical team that helped create his opus, Jackson has indeed rebuilt and expanded Middle Earth, and much of the magic still exists in the sets, CGI, costumes, armoury and the impossibly enchanting landscapes of New Zealand. “Well,” said Sam Gamgee, “I’m back.” – and it’s hard not to feel that same sense of homecoming when we first see the hobbits’ homeland of the Shire and hear Howard Shore’s indomitable music.

Launching into proceedings with a preface set during the opening act of The Fellowship of the Ring (officially making The Hobbit a film prequel as opposed to The Lord of the Rings being a premature sequel), An Unexpected Journey takes its good time setting up the history of the dwarves and their conflict with the dragon Smaug that sets the story’s events in motion. An explosive siege against the dwarven stronghold Erebor by the beast, kept largely unseen through clever cutting to withhold some surprise for film two, puts us firmly back in the epic setting of The Return of the King before we launch into pastoral antics akin to the early half of Fellowship. A clever smoke-ring cut transforms our narrator, Ian Holm’s Bilbo Baggins, into his younger self, played by Martin Freeman. Greeted by the grumpy but truly good wizard Gandalf (the ever-perfect Ian McKellan), the anally retentive hobbit soon finds himself playing host to a bevy of brutish, slovenly dwarves, 13 in total, with whom he is caroused into embarking on an adventure to retake the distant fortress of Erebor.

More Gandalf! This guy never gets old!

Even more the fish-out-of-water than the hobbits in the Rings films, Bilbo’s discomfort agitates some of the dwarves, particularly band leader and would-be king Thorin Oakenshield, while endearing him, cautiously, to others. But his surprising courage, hobbity ability to be easily ignored by the worst of creatures and occasional moments of ingenuity eventually make him an accepted part of the team.

On their journey across New Zealand, the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf encounter some strange and terrifying creatures, before a late encounter with the Great Goblin (voiced by a brilliantly camp Barry Humphries) and his slithering hordes deep inside the Misty Mountains, where Bilbo has his fateful meeting with Gollum and the Ring.

Bouncing from one encounter to the next, Jackson attempts to keep the pace going by inserting action scenes where they are uncalled for. Between Bilbo’s famous encounter with the trolls and the band’s arrival at the sanctuary of Rivendell, Jackson inserts a wholly unwelcome chase sequence, in which orcs riding wargs (giant wolves, thankfully less hyena-ish than in Rings) pursue the dwarves across an ill-defined landscape. The dwarves are rescued thanks to the help of elves, who dispose of the orcs off-camera, causing the excitement levels to plummet. Unfortunate comparisons are easy to draw. A similar sequence at a similar point in Fellowship, after Gandalf confronts the Balrog, where the heroes were to be chased by orcs to the safety of Lothlorien, was cut in the editing room, because a chase sequence was deemed uncalled for at that stage. Ten years later, it seems Jackson has not only failed to learn from his mistakes, but is now making them where he evaded them before.

But it’s not the newly invented or the sourced-from-other-texts scenes that really throw this film off, rather it is an inability to pace scenes within themselves. The dinner party introducing the dwarves goes on that little too long. The troll encounter runs a beat too long. A council between Gandalf and the most powerful beings in Middle Earth contains just a pinch too much information.

And it’s this overflow from scene into following scene that causes An Unexpected Journey to feel so much longer than it actually is, so much more crammed and cramped; and given it is the first part of an easily argued needless trilogy it’s hard to not come away from the whole experience feeling something went very wrong in the editing room.

But so much has gone right elsewhere. The production values remain at the pinnacle of the game, with individual costumes and weapons having more skill and design in them than any landscape from Avatar. Makeup, from bulky, bearded dwarves to the blight-riddled faces of orcs, could hardly be bettered. The CGI is mostly excellent, with wargs and trolls looking weighted and textured. The Great Goblin has a suitably cartoonish but still real presence. Gollum, whose very follicles are now plainly visible, makes the award-winning Gollum of The Two Towers look like Jar Jar Binks.

Ugh, not you agai- no wait! You’re the best part!

While the design fits in perfectly with the Rings films, there are some additional touches brought in by co-writer and one-time-attached director Guillermo Del Toro which spice up the visual palette. A cackling gremlin of a goblin, who appears to be the Great Goblin’s P.A. and runs errands on a zipline about his caverns, feels like he just zipped in from Hellboy 2’s Troll Market. Another sequence in the Misty Moutains, where Bilbo and the dwarves encounter giants made of stone, also feel like they leaked from the brain of cinema’s most inventive fantasist. Of course, the stone giants throw up more problems in this adaptation – referring to a single sentence from The Hobbit about giants hurling rocks (that can easily be interpreted as a metaphor for a thunder storm), Jackson has once again shown his inability to resist turning such an event into a scene of peril, as the band are nearly crushed in the fray. One is left thinking of the Fellowship sailing past the Argonath, the two mighty stone statues; sometimes it’s good just to show wonder, not everything needs to be life or death. Jurassic Park would not be the film it is if, upon first seeing a brachiosaur, Sam Neill suddenly found himself in the midst of a stampede (à la, yes I’ll go there, Jackson’s King Kong).

And the action sequences are a tale of two halves, with the skirmishes between the dwarves and their enemies exquisitely choreographed, each dwarf revealing variations on a fighting style based on their weapon of choice, while the escape from the goblin caverns and the stone giants sequence reveal an over-reliance on video game imagery. There is a subconscious urge to press the A button every time the right-scrolling dwarves have to leap a chasm, and as they wait for a swinging platform to swing back their way, visions of Sonic the Hedgehog impatiently tapping his foot come to mind. Gandalf splinters a boulder from a wall and rolls it down a hill, crushing several goblins, in a feat Donkey Kong would be proud of.

Jammed full of scenes, Jackson’s film is oddly low on character. Most of the 13 dwarves might as well have personalities based on their names like in Snow White; Prissy, Fatty, Yokelly, Deafy, Mentally Disabled (the dwarf with a small piece of axe permanently buried in his skull seems to stutter out his sole line of dialogue, in what could be the most offensive moment in one of Jackson’s films since Meet the Feebles). Thorin (Richard Armitage) is given backstory and a bit of fleshy dialogue to work with, but he is little more than stoic and, towards Bilbo, disbelieving. Bilbo at least gets real fun to work with, and Freeman has a blast with his awkward mannerisms (some impressively based on Ian Holm’s), discomforts and terrors. Freeman carries the film on his back from start to finish, a tremendous achievement for a one-time typecast TV actor. The film’s highlight comes when he is thrust into the dark with Andy Serkis’s Gollum, taking what might have been a dull recitation of assorted riddles from the book, and turning it into a menacing match of wills. The writers and Serkis have taken the schizophrenic Gollum of Rings and imbued him with the creepish, toying playfulness of the famous film psychopaths who followed in his wake; Hans Landa, Anton Chigurgh, the Joker. The scene, while not shot with any of the ingenuity of the Gollum scenes from Rings, is still a standout one of writing, acting and CGI, and shows that Jackson still has what it takes to deliver the goods.

Thorin – handsome dwarven badass

It would be wrong to not take a paragraph to address the most significant contribution this film has made to film history; the introduction of HFR (higher frame rate) technology, shot at a smoother 48 frames per second instead of the usual 24. This addition, a pet project of James ‘have I left my mark on cinema yet?’ Cameron, does indeed make 3D look more natural, and in certain sequences the visuals flow beautifully, but the negatives outweigh the positives. As the eye takes its time to adjust to the new film speed, everything appears unpleasantly sped-up. Who wants to see Bilbo, the world’s fastest geriatric, hobbling like lightning around his hobbit hole? While the eye does eventually become accustomed to the HFR, every now and then the effect slips, and everything appears like those sped-up scenes in Tom Jones, except without the intentional comedy. The detail is immaculately crisp, but almost too much so. Real life doesn’t look this real. Audiences (and Hollywood) may decide it is here to stay, but it seems unlikely, and less likely for the best.

But the visual (and audio) tableau that makes up Middle Earth is the real reason this film remains an essential recommendation, despite its flaws. The world looks better than ever, from its green hills to its torch-lit caves. The soundscape is second to none, and Howard Shore’s score, borrowing a little too much from themes originated in The Lord of the Rings, is never short of epic. His major new creation, a theme for the dwarves, is first hummed in burly baritone and bass, before erupting in a maelstrom of brass and woodwind – it’s as grandiose a piece as anything composed for Rings.

While Jackson may have irritated some viewers with the length and pacing of his film, he has still achieved a great feat with An Unexpected Journey, getting this wonderful tale underway. What comes next may prove an even greater challenge. There’s little denying that were The Hobbit two films as previously planned, the end point of that film is exactly where this part ends. It remains to be seen how he can draw the rest of the book out over two filmic volumes. But since they will continue to look this good, it shouldn’t really matter in the long run.

There’s no denying, it’s good to be back in mythical, mystical Middle Earth.

3/5

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2008 in Review – The Year the Audience Sat Still

Best of 2008

There seems to be plenty of division over whether 2008 was a successful year at the cinema. Certainly, as the world collapsed around us in all other respects (or so it seemed), the movie world kept up a steady output and, at least in Hollywood terms, continued to turn a profit.

There were enough films to both keep minds racing and allow them to shut down, and films from either side of this divide fared as well as one another.

There was plenty more comic book nonsense in cinemas, but also some of the best films of that newfangled sub-genre thus far came out in 2008.

At the Oscars and the various other award shows, there were few surprises, but also few cries of films being undeserving of their awards as in other recent years.

Even here in Ireland the Irish film industry reacted to one musical award success by producing some of the best Irish films in over a decade, slowly beginning the long crawl out of the gutter of inadequacy.

There were losses of course; Heath Ledger died early in the year and left expectant fans gobsmacked, while Paul Newman and Sydney Pollack – to name but two – passed after tremendous careers in cinema.

There were films I was sorry to miss; I was too cowardly to see 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days alone, and couldn’t find anyone who dared accompany me. Waltz with Bashir came out when there was simply no time available to see it. Man on Wire also passed me by. These and many more will be caught up with in the coming months.

There were disappointments as well, mostly in films by reliable filmmakers, and indeed in reliable franchises. Hellboy 2 smacked of fanboyism instead of relishing in the same beautiful darkness of del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Indiana Jones returned; needlessly. And James Bond’s 22nd outing was so sloppy it sadly undid much of the greatness of Casino Royale.

As for me, I personally had a great year, cinematically speaking. The highlights are numerous; watching Lawrence of Arabia in 70mm as the centenary of David Lean’s life passed by (I also saw Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and Brief Encounter for the first time over the year); stumbling upon Wings of Desire, Amores Perros, The Leopard and many others for the first time; watching Crank with a selection of my closest, and most sugared-up, friends at an absurd hour of the night. Laughing til I could no longer breathe at Robo Vampire. These are the sort of films you never forget not just because of how great (or terrible) they are but because of where and how and who you were at the time you saw them.

Similarly there were other special, more personal moments. I had the privilege of interviewing both Will Ferrell and Michael Palin in the space of just a few months. At the Irish premier of There Will Be Blood I had a remarkable – if utterly terrifying – encounter with Daniel Day-Lewis. Jeremy Irons invited me to dinner, though never followed through.

As well as all that, this blog was begun.

Thus far in 2009 the crop of films looks tantalising, and one can easily look forward to Milk or Revolutionary Road as much as one can to Watchmen or even the sequel to Transformers. Here’s hoping for as memorable a 2009.

And now, what you’ve been waiting for, here’s my personal selection of the best films I saw in 2008.

(Note: this list is made up entirely of new films released in Ireland in 2008, that I saw. Thus, certain films released internationally in 2007, such as Juno, are present here. In turn, late 2008 international releases, such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, will not appear until next year.)

20. Lust, Caution
Ang Lee’s follow-up to Brokeback Mountain was somewhat of a letdown, and was undoubtedly overlong, but the photography, taking in countless greys and greens, was beautiful, and the central performance by Tang Wei was superb. A shot late in the film, of a diamond-laden ring representing betrayal finding its equilibrium on a hard wooden table, was one of the year’s most impressing images.

19. Things We Lost in the Fire

The American debut of Susanne Bier was disappointing for reasons somewhat out of her control. The script’s abandoning of its fractured storyline after the first act was unsettling, and the casting of Benicio del Toro in a film so similar in feel to 21 Grams was a mistake. But it was shot in a very personal style that felt distinctly un-American, and for which it went largely unrecognised by critics and cinemagoers. The performance by Micah Berry (no relation to Halle) as the young son was notable, while David Duchovny gave what may stand to be the performance of his career.

18. Kung Fu Panda
Dreamworks may not have broken the mould with this latest animal caper, but it certainly moved into a more mature, less spoofing area of family comedy with some clever gags and superbly arranged action. Sweet in nature and low on character development, it took delight in its own silliness and provided some splendid animation, particularly in its opening sequence.

17. Lars and the Real Girl
Sweet may not be the word, in fact, Lars and the Real Girl was at times undeniably creepy, but it had buckets of wit to support itself on. The story of a man so awkward and retreated that he can only express himself through the love he shares (romantically, only) for a life-size sex doll is so inventive that it could hardly be anything less than charming.

16. Juno

Perhaps lacking the ambition of Thank You For Smoking, Juno certainly had heart, a solid script by Diablo Cody and an adorable cast. Ellen Page got the majority of the credit, but really it was Michael Cera as the stupefyingly realistic teen dad-to-be and JK Simmons and Allison Janney as Juno’s reluctantly supportive parents who deserve the most credit. The quirky soundtrack and dialogue added to the fun of the proceedings and let the film skirt around its unwillingness to genuinely tackle the issue of teen pregnancy.

15. Iron Man

Comic book mayhem got a whole bag of cool dropped on it this year. Robert Downey Jr played Tony Stark/Iron Man like a father hastily unwrapping his son’s new train set on Christmas morning. Gwyneth Paltrow emerged from who-knows-where to play his long-suffering and ignored love interest with more class than the film deserved. Yes, it was all a little rushed, the villain was terrible and the final action sequence was a mess, but – hey look! Another explosion! Fun!

14. Cloverfield
Seriously, who needs well-developed characters when you have nauseating camerawork and a giant alien crab-lizard tearing up Manhattan?! The night vision subway sequence was superbly built-up and executed, while the whole film gave off a 9/11 but with popcorn feel.

13. Caramel

As sweet as its delicious title, this Lebanese delight from all-round talent Nadine Labaki was the film most deserving of out-the-door queues of chick flick-eager women. Beautifully acted and shot, Labaki chose to ignore the politics and strife of her country and focus on the simple pleasures and sadness of everyday life.

12. Mamma Mia!

Not what one would consider a true piece of art, Mamma Mia! burst at the sides with so much energy and fun that even the dire karaoke singing of most of its leads couldn’t hold it down. Much prettier to look at than it ever needed to be, few were able to resist its cheeky charm.

11. Wanted

For years we’ve waited for a film in which two bullets, shot by two characters at one another, would collide in slow motion and fall to the ground. But who knew we were waiting for a keyboard, shattered across a man’s face, to spell out “Fuck you”? It turns out we were! Hectic, noisy and decidedly over-the-top, Wanted showed enough ‘mad as hell’ attitude to make it more memorable than your average blockbusting tripe. A cautiously curious squeak from a doomed rodent may have been the year’s funniest sound.

10. In Bruges

Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s feature-length debut was as dark as dark can be. Obvious targets for humour, such as overweight American tourists, were made funnier by Colin Farrell’s violently disrespectful delivery of lines we’ve all thought and bottled up inside. Brendan Gleeson also brought a feckload of fun to the proceedings as a simple hitman with a fondness for historical architecture. The duo were unfortunately outgunned and outclassed by the scenery-devouring Ralph Fiennes. The profanity was wonderful, though the ending attempted a philosophical sentiment that the film couldn’t really support.

9. Gomorrah

Violent and gritty, the underbelly of the criminal world has never been portrayed quite like this. There were times when it felt like the cameras were intruding on real events where it was dangerous to be filming. Amazingly, if simply, realised.

8. Persepolis

From Marjane Satrapi’s bittersweet graphic novel came a film that dared to change little from its source material. The growth of little Marji’s confidence in the film’s first act was reflected by her subsequent disillusionment with life in Iran and the world as a whole. Iraqi gasmasks became alien faces and burka-clad fundamentalists became snake-like nightmares through the simple but mesmerising animation. Honest and full of wit.

7. The Orphanage

At the same time clichéd and yet utterly original, The Orphanage was that rare joy – a horror film where nothing really happens. Using the simplest tricks of the trade – a motionless child, creaking floorboards, never-resting cameras – Juan Antonio Bayona created a house of largely unseen horrors, where everything you feared was only what you assumed you should fear. Likely to become a classic of the genre.

6. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

A late release in Ireland allowed this gem to make the cut for 2008. Harrowing and beautiful, the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s stroke-imprisoned body allowed for a rich story of hope and sentimentalism while allowing director Julian Schnabel to experiment with camera trickery, light and inventive editing. Mathieu Amalric gave one of the year’s best performances as Bauby, so full of life at one moment, the next, frozen.

5. The Dark Knight

Building on the back of Batman Begins, already a pinnacle of comic book movies, Christopher Nolan drew back on Bale’s Batman and allowed other characters to move to the fore, particularly Gary Oldman as Lieutenant Jim Gordon and Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent. Though hindered by a necrophiliac curiosity, Heath Ledger’s Joker was certainly one of the most impressive performances of the year. Broken up by clumsy plot holes and an at times overly complex narrative, The Dark Knight thrilled and impressed on several levels, and deserves much of the acclaim it has received.

4. There Will Be Blood

As grandiose in its scale as is the figure at its centre, this beast of a film could not be ignored in 2008. Violent in tone, like many of the best films this year it sought to look at what makes a man, and what a man can be at his worst. Succeeding through Daniel Day-Lewis’s authoritative and terrifying performance (one should not overlook the quality of the writing however), the finale answered that question of what happens when an unstoppable force hits a formerly immovable object. Paul Dano can easily be overlooked due to the towering Day-Lewis, but gave a truly impressive performance as Eli Sunday, a young man twelve fathoms out of his league. The music kept the viewer on edge, while the shocking photography echoed the greatest films of American cinema, from Greed to Gone with the Wind.

3. Hunger

More of an experiment with the possibilities of the camera than a political eulogy, Steve McQueen’s biopic-of-sorts of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands is slow, contemplative and utterly intense. From the beautiful yet ghastly art of a faeces-smeared prison wall and the wasting away of Sands’s body (Michael Fassbender is a revelation in the lead role), to the lighting of a cigarette by bloodied hands and the slow and haunting washing a prison floor, Hunger is nothing less than a work of art. It may become more famous for its exhausting single take sequence in which Sands debates his fate with Liam Cunningham’s priest, but the shot that sticks with you is a blinding beam of sunlight blasting through a bus window.

2. No Country For Old Men
The Coen brothers’ returned to their best this year, again taking a dark and twisted look at humanity, but this time with less wit, and a greater awareness of the potential of the story they were telling. Using Texas in 1980 as a wilderness representative of man’s emptiness, the story injected a pulse-pounding thriller into this void that never stopped pumping til the last minute. Eschewing a musical soundtrack in favour of fear-drenching silence, No Country took several thrilling set-pieces – a river escape from a vicious dog, a darkened stand-off at a hotel door – and divided them with moments of simple reflection that asked no deep questions but invited you to contemplate the answers. The decision to remove some of the most important sequences from the film adds to its sense of chaos and disorder. The stellar cast acted it with such honesty you might believe they were in fear of the script itself.

1. Wall·E

Arguably Pixar’s greatest achievement to date, Wall·E demands to be taken seriously. Almost utterly-dialogue free for the duration of its first act, the film builds a romance between two robots in a future where mankind has lost all sense of humanity. Building on the great debates of science fiction; what does it mean to be human?; what are the effects of our unending obsession with commercialism?; how will our relationship with nature affect the future?; Wall·E repackages them in a new form that is a glory to behold. Spellbindingly beautiful and sickeningly sweet, this animated marvel can appeal to anyone of any age, and will forever have something to say to those who watch it. That there is even a supply of heart-warming gags to boot only seals this as one of the most wonderful products of American cinema in a generation.

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And now, as an extra treat, here are the five worst films of 2008, in my embittered opinion.

5. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Great talent wasted on a cacophony of wretched melodies, the clever production design couldn’t hide the hideous CGI nor excuse such a great collection of actors (Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall and Helena Bonham Carter) reduced to their very worst. The one amusing joke – an unexpected light-hearted slicing of the throat – is a gag, if you’ll forgive the pun, that gets utterly done to death.

4. Be Kind Rewind

An unpleasant and confused little oddity that sees two capable actors (Jack Black and Mos Def) compete for the title of most irritating. It not only never quite gets its tone right, it also came out about 10 years too late to be of any real relevance. The adoration it attempts to show for the cinema really comes off as a pornographic irreverence.

3. Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem

Two once-dominant franchises reduced to teen horror nonsense. One earnestly suspects that no-one involved knows what the word ‘requiem’ means.

2. The Other Boleyn Girl

As ugly as it is dull, this film forced two hours of the most horrid characters upon its unsuspecting victims. Eric Bana appears utterly bemused by where he is and what he is supposed to be doing, while Johansson and Portman repeatedly do their bests to out-bitch one another. The ending hilariously draws you away from the story to focus on the future Queen Elizabeth, as if to try and make you leave the cinema thinking fondly of a far superior film.

1. Ghost Town

A wretchedly nasty little film, an attempt at a comedic The Sixth Sense, sees the talents of Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear and Téa Leoni squandered in what just might be the most blatant victim of the writers’ strike. One moment of genuine sweetness is so heavy in saccharine after an hour of hell that it feels violating and manipulative. The open-ended finale may have seemed original and smart, but makes it feel as if those involved had no real idea of where they wanted this aimless mess to go.

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Hellboy II: The Golden Army – Review

In 2004 Hellboy made a ripple on the ever-growing superhero movie scene that was swallowed up in the wave of larger fare such as Spiderman 2. It was somewhat of a shame, as Hellboy featured one of the comic world’s more interesting and most entertaining of protagonists; one third repentant demon, one third Dirty Harry, one third moany teenager.

What Guillermo del Toro did with Hellboy should be admired, particularly in light of the fact that the film is essentially a big amusing failure. Part of the agreement in casting the ideal Ron Perlman in the lead role was that the budget ended up slashed. As a result, demon-hunter Hellboy ends up fighting the same monster over and over and over. And over. It wasn’t even that interesting a monster (on a barely related note, Sammael in fact looked far more like the hybrid of a Predator and a xenomorph than that monstrosity that turned up in AVP2 did). Also, the introduction of the character of John Myers, who was meant to be the awestruck human who eased us into this not particularly alien world of demons and whatnots, managed to weigh the film down more than any number of budget constraints could.

But due to an abundance of style and wit the film was crowd-pleasing enough to take a decent handful of cash and run for the hills. Combining that with the numerous Oscar wins and noms for del Toro’s stunning Pan’s Labyrinth, and a sequel to Hellboy was almost guaranteed.

So comes Hellboy II: The Golden Army, an embarrassingly colour-by-numbers sequel. Oh sure, they’re pretty spectacular colours (gone is the obnoxious dark blue tone of Hellboy that made the film too dark at times to even see – yes, it was nearly as obnoxious as that nauseating green hue from the Matrix sequels). But as I will continuously point out here again and again, production values cannot excuse a bad film’s badness.

Hellboy II has much of what you could ask from a sequel (and what many sequels nowadays fail to cash in on): the best of the cast return, the worst character has been written out and the action and spectacle have ante-upped considerably. Ron Perlman is so perfectly comfortable as Hellboy we could imagine he never took the make-up off in the last four years. Selma Blair sexes up her goth image from the first film to a far more pleasing degree. And while Doug Jones’s Abe Sapien still fails to crossover from comedic support to central character, his own voice is actually far more suited to the character than David Hyde Pierce’s over-stuffy re-dubbing for the first film. Best of all, Agent Myers is gone, although the fact that the film should even take a second to explain where he has gone (Antarctica) shows a level of compassion for the terrible character that he does not even deserve – no doubt audiences would have been happier to be left imagining all the terrible things that might have happened to him since the last film and be done with it.

What’s missing is the sense of doom from the first film. Here an embittered elf is determined to reap his revenge on mankind. Hellboy has to stop him. But the first film (and the comics as well, I understand) spent so much time highlighting how Hellboy himself was the doom of the world, that this plot seems bizarrely secondary, like an episode of a Hellboy TV show, or one of the admirable but similarly ignorable animated Hellboy movies, Sword of Storms and Blood and Iron. There are a few references to Hellboy’s greater (evil) purpose, but by in large the plot of this film seems to wish to overshadow it, which it simply cannot.

So yes, there’s evil elf (Luke Goss), and he has a trollish henchman, and they try to control a giant mechanical army. And Hellboy tries to stop him, by going largely against the book, and against his new father figure, ghost-in-a-suit Johann Krauss (whose very existence raises far too many questions). And all the way along it’s very very pretty. And Abe falls in love with evil elf’s twin sister. And it’s utterly unbelievable.

The fairest way to continue this review is to completely tear the film apart and then talk for a time about how pretty it is. Cause then we’ll all feel much better.

Hellboy was a funny film. There was wit, and an underlying sense of fun and joy in the subject, but that is largely gone here. Hellboy’s quips have become so stock that the film asks us to laugh purely based on the delivery. “And stay down” shouts Hellboy as he slams his bulky opponent to the floor. Ok, why not? Maybe there is no more suitable line available, but I’m certain anything would have been funnier. Even the cleverest line of the film, delivered by a disturbing infant growing out of some monster, is delivered with clumsy gurgling. It’s quite a shame really.

There are numerous other things to nitpick at, such as the sequence battling the tooth fairies in which the “red shirt” agents are boringly picked off one by one, or the Men in Black-stolen scene at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense where Jeffrey Tambor’s FBI chief stumbles through his lines so awkwardly it seems he never saw the script (oh yes, it’s clearly meant to look like he’s flustered, but it makes for terrible cinema).

But Hellboy II’s biggest failing is it is patronising – oh so patronising. Perhaps more so than recent Spiderman or Superman films. And it’s a tragedy coming from the same filmmaker who broke so many rules with Pan’s Labyrinth. Even Agent Myers looks like a helpful narrative construct compared to some of the scenes in this film. For example, the emphasis on the connection between the two elf twins could not be any more heavy-handed. By the time we reach the film’s climax only two people in the audience don’t know what’s going to happen to the villain and neither of them are expected for another five or six months. Speaking of babies, the baby plot adds almost nothing to the film bar a bone of contention between Hellboy and Liz. So Hellboy has to grow up now; well he always did – that was the point of the first film, why does he need a baby (babies) to change that?

Countless parodies have been done in the last few years of how to make a sequel to a superhero film, and disturbingly it is Hellboy II, a film that could have been groundbreakingly (or at least tremoringly) different, that hits almost every single clichéd note. The superhero is unveiled to the public (in a slow-motion musical explosion sequence that is simply terribly executed), the villain implies that the hero is more like the villain than those he protects (queue Willem Dafoe-style cackling), the people he protects turn against him, he is left mortally wounded but saved by love, etc. It’s so by-the-books it could bring you to tears. It even concludes with Hellboy triumphantly “quitting the force”, only to leave himself and his team stranded in Northern Ireland (they strut triumphantly in the opposite direction of their plane). There are no excuses, not from a director who has become such an icon filming a source material that has been considered so out of the ordinary. He co-wrote the script with Mike Mignola himself!

All that considered, it is very pretty, and in the end this was always going to be a test run for del Toro’s shot at The Hobbit. And the clockwork-fetishist has undoubtedly impressed, with his team creating some remarkable visualisations. The Troll Market, although perhaps not as grand in scale as it might have been, is so brilliantly laid out, and populated by such bizarre and interesting beasties that one doesn’t know what to admire most. Make-up, puppetry and animatronics create creatures that are as much Uruk-hai as they are Skeksis, a wonderful combination of available technologies – further hinting at what joys The Hobbit might bring.

Most enjoyable of all is the film’s opening, in which the story’s prologue is narrated in a marionette-style fashion that recalls Anders Rønnow Klarlund’s 2004 film Strings. Charming, if far too early a peak for the film.

The sequence in which the elemental god covers the city in glowing grass could not have been done better without flying Miyazaki in to show them how it should be done. Character designs, such as the legless goblin (with a surprisingly authentic Northern Irish accent), the elf king and Death (truly noteworthy) are all the signs of a master filmmaker, who is simply slumming it with an incomplete script. The final battle against the clockwork army in the clockwork palace atop a clockwork floor is notable not just for the impressive choreography but also for being a CG action sequence which never really feels confusing. It’s a sign of just how far the technology has come and the good it can do in the right hands.

Alas these were the right hands at the wrong time. A beautiful experience does not a good film make. While del Toro is clearly still learning – he has admittedly created here a villain who is not just evil for the sake of it as in his previous films – we certainly should have expected more from this, and it goes to show that in terms of storytelling he is still far behind his compatriots Cuarón and Iñárritu. It had been such a strong summer in terms of blockbusters, it’s somewhat of a tragedy that a director so reliable should let himself down so greatly.

2/5

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