Tag Archives: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

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)

Advertisement

Leave a comment

Filed under Film

The coffee’s on, the beer is chilling, popcorn’s popping… it’s nearly time for the 85th Academy Awards

The Oscars Liveblog hosted by David Neary

The Oscars Liveblog hosted by David Neary

Last year life got a little in the way of some good old-fashioned live-blogging, so this year there’s simply no excuse. It’s gonna be a long night… good thing I stocked up on supplies. For those of you joining me from East of USA, start the coffee now (and have a reserve Red Bull tucked away at the back of the fridge). For those of you in the US and Canada, welcome, be grateful for your timezone and be understanding of the several typos that follow – things won’t kick off ’til after 1am and I won’t be watching what the keyboard.

If you missed my predictions, check them out here, but in short Argo for Best Picture, Spielberg for Best Director and a cleanish sweep of the technicals for Life of Pi.

Be sure to check back here as events on the red carpet, and later and more importantly the Awards themselves, kick off. As always I will be simultaneously live-tweeting on @DeusExCinema.

See you back here in a little bit…

[all times are in Pacific Time. Add eight hours to comprehend how tired I am]

3:20pm – OK, here we go.

3:22pm – Jessica Chastain looks sensational. If her dress was a little more gold she’d be an award statuette herself.

3.27pm – Amy Adams does not like Ryan Seacrest much. Also, her dress looks it would be good for dusting.

3.28pm – Samantha Barks’s dress! Give it the Oscars! All the Oscars!

3.30pm – Reese Witherspoon looks better than many of the nominees. Good dress, great hair. Now all she needs is a good movie.

3.32pm – Channing Tatum. So hot right now. Never gonna win an Oscar though.

3.34pm – Quvenzhané Wallis’s little princess outfit is perfect. She looks like Tiana in The Princess and the Frog. Ryan Seacrest is the frog.

3.37pm – Taking Octavia Spencer after her recent cameo in 30 Rock is not very easy.

3.43pm – Kerry Washington has just been talking to Ryan Seacrest longer than she was in Django Unchained.

3.46pm – In my head I imagine Jacki Weaver is married to Cloud Atlas star Hugo Weaver.

3.49pm – Kelly Osbourne’s hair is a colour I describe as dead pink.

3.51pm – Love Amanda Seyfried’s dress. She looks superb, but did she drive to the Oscars with the top down?

3.52pm – THAT’S what every Oscars has been missing up to now – Bryan Cranston!

3.54pm – Jennifer Lawrence; looking perfect, if a little minimalist. Dress isn’t exactly… accentuating anything…

3.59pm – Not liking Sally Field’s dress. Also, why is Joseph Gordon-Levitt talking in that deeper-than-usual voice?

4.03pm – Jennifer Hudson looks better and better every year. Does she still do movies though?

4.05pm – Is it just me, or is the red carpet actually kind of mauve?

4.07pm – Anyone else want Channing Tatum’s baby to be born during the show?

4.12pm – Catherine Zeta-Jones looking like a Valkyrie. Michael Douglas looking healthy. Things we like to see.

4.14pm – Helen Hunt looks like she just showed up for the 1998 Oscars. Still as good as it gets, apparently.

4.17pm – I can’t make fun of Christoph Waltz’s hispter glasses because my new glasses are sadly very similar.

4.18pm – Argo or Lincoln… who cares? Anne Hathaway’s dress is clearly going to be the most divisive issue of the night.

4.20pm – Naomi Watts came to the Oscars wearing Nicole Kidman’s skin.

4.22pm – Charlize Theron is still the best-looking woman in Hollywood. Unless, as her last film suggests, you count Kirsten Stewart.

4.27pm – Bradley Cooper’s hair is more handsome than my face.

4.45pm – Adele looks totally ready for the 1965 Oscars.

4.47pm – Nicole Kidman is dressed like an evil female Oscar. I kind of love it.

4.51pm – I wish Hugh Jackman wasn’t so charming, I’ll feel bad now when he loses to Day-Lewis.

5.01pm – Somehow Jennifer Aniston’s red dress clashes with the red carpet. Someone did their job wrong.

5.03pm – And Jennifer Garner’s (stunning) mauve dress matches the red carpet! What is going on?!?

5.05pm – Halle Berry: “I’ve never been more proud to be part of a franchise as that one (Bond).” Sucks to be the X-Men franchise right now.

5.15pm – Jamie Foxx’s grey tux has more personality than Jamie Foxx.

5.19pm – No, seriously, is it the Oscars yet?

5.24pm – Renée Zellweger is ready for the Space Oscars!

5.30pm – Here we go! Seth MacFarlane, you are very welcome.

5.31pm – Making Tommy Lee Jones laugh on the first beat. Terrific comedy.

5.32pm – And a direct swipe at the Oscars for snubbing Ben Affleck. Wow, amazing start.

5.34pm – “If you bumped into Don Cheadle on the studio set, did you try and free him?” Seth to DDL on his method.

5.36pm – William Shatner cameo! This is pure Family Guy.

5.38pm – A jaunty musical number about boobs. Shame it’s pre-recorded.

5.40pm – Channing Tatum dancing with Charlize Theron. The world cannot handle this much sex appeal.

5.42pm – Flight done with sock-puppets. I now never need to see that film.

5.43pm – And now MacFarlane is singing with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Daniel Radcliffe this is properly entertaining stuff.

5.45pm – Gidget jokes! I get these now!

5.47pm – And a parody of Be Our Guest. This is far more Beauty than Beast.

5.49pm – Octavia Spencer presenting Best Supporting Actor. All of the nominees have an Oscar already. Huh. Hoping for Jones, but we’ll see.

5.50pm – Christoph Waltz wins! For basically an identical role to the won he already won for! Hooray!

5.52pm – Waltz quotes Tarantino at Tarantino. Surely Tarantino quotes Tarantino at himself often enough.

5.57pm – Paul Rudd and Melissa McCarthy here to be loud and silly. I have no problem with this as long as it’s short.

5.58pm – Yes, that went on too long. Now, Best Animated Short.

5.59pm – Paperman wins. Very deserving. Gorgeous film. Plus I called it. So yeah. I win!

6.00pm – Best Animated Feature goes to Brave. Controversial stuff. Gutted for The Pirates! and Wreck-It Ralph.

6.02pm – Reese Witherspoon is here to look amazing. Also to talk about Life of Les Beasts of the Misérable Pi.

6.04pm – Quevenzhané Wallis looks delighted to be mentioned by the voice of Stewie Griffin.

6.06pm – The cast of The Avengers are here to make sure that people care about cinematography. This is good for everyone.

6.07pm – Claudio Miranda wins for Life of Pi. Superbly deserving.

6.09pm – Claudio Miranda should also win for Best Hair.

6.10pm – Best Visual Effects goes to…

6.11pm – Life of Pi! I called a clean sweep of technicals. Think I may have been right…

6.13pm – Oh wow, that may have been the most embarrassing musical ushering off stage I have ever seen.

6.17pm – Channing Tatum and Jennifer Aniston make an odd couple. Here they are to prepare us for the “less interesting” styley awards.

6.18pm – Anna Karenina gets the costume nod. Hugely deservingly. I think I called that. Did I call that?

6.20pm – And now Best Makeup goes to Les Misérables. Didn’t see that one coming at all.

6.21pm – Halle Berry is here to launch the Bond love-in. Even though she may be the worst Bond girl ever. I think we’ll all die another day.

6.24pm – Well now I just want to watch Bond films…

6.26pm – Shirley Bassey. Goodness!

6.28pm – Auric Goldfinger would be pissed to realise Oscars are only covered in a very thin layer of gold.

6.32pm – *snooze* Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington out on stage to some very dull applause.

6.34pm – Best Short Film goes to Curfew. I did not see it, so have no comment to make. I’ll be over here when you need me.

6.36pm – Oh, Washington and Foxx are still there. Best Documentary Short goes to Inocente.

6.38pm – Liam Neeson is here to be badass.

6.39pm – Oooh, here come some clips from Argo Dark Lincoln.

6.42pm – “150 years and it’s still too soon.” MacFarlane got gasps there with a Lincoln assassination joke.

6.43pm – Ben Affleck is here to talk about documentaries. And to talk a swipe at Seth. Ouch.

6.44pm – Searching For Sugarman takes Best Documentary! I didn’t see it, but I sure as hell called it!

6.46pm – MacFarlane makes a quick stab at Prometheus. I’ll allow it.

6.50pm – Jennifer Garner and Jessica Chastain come on stage to the Cinema Paradiso theme. Now I’m just thinking of kissing in the rain…

6.51pm – If Amour doesn’t take Best Foreign Language Film this’ll be a big upset… and it does!

6.52pm – Michael Haneke seems a surprisingly chirpy fellow.

6.54pm – John Travolta looking suspiciously young is here present a celebration of recent movie musicals. Some of them are going to be awful.

6.56pm – I really dislike Chicago. The movie. The music. This is not pleasant.

6.57pm – That said, I probably hated Dreamgirls even more. Just get to Les Mis already!

6.59pm – But yeah, Jennifer Hudson can seriously damn well sing!

7.01pm – Excellent, sounds like the Les Mis crowd are doing ‘One Day More’. Epic tune.

7.02pm – This is a superb medley. And everyone looks fantastic.

7.05pm – OK, so the set-up is stolen from the 25th Anniversary Les Mis concert. But they’ve kind of killed it. Better than in the movie!

7.07pm – The upcoming films advertised in the ad breaks look almost universally terrible.

7.09pm – Here’s Chris Pine, our second Captain Kirk of the night, to regale us with a “previously on the Oscars” about the tech awards with Zoe Saldana.

7.12pm – Oh, OK, Ted and Mark Wahlberg are here. What are the audience seeing right now?

7.13pm – Best Sound Mixing goes Les Misérables. Deserved I guess.

7.15pm – Slightly dodgy Jewish jokes from Ted there. Sure they went down a treat with the audience.

7.16pm – Best Sound Editing is a tie! This very rarely happens. Zero Dark Thirty takes the first…

7.17pm – Skyfall takes the second! A huge surprise, but a great win!

7.19pm – Christopher Plummer welcomed onstage with a MacFarlane-esque movie reference. Clever stuff.

7.20pm – This is a rather lovely intro from Plummer to the Best Supporting Actress nominees.

7.22pm – If Anne Hathaway doesn’t win the world may vomit. Just a universal vomit.

7.23pm – Thank god. I wanted to keep down all this beer and popcorn.

7.24pm – It’s not an Oscars ’til there’s a hint of tears. Nice job Anne Hathaway!

7.30pm – Brief discussion about the upcoming Academy Museum. I like to work in film museums. Can I work there please?

7.32pm – Sandra Bullock is here to give out the editing award. One of the most important of all – let it never be forgotten. I called Argo.

7.34pm – And how right I was! Argo takes Best Editing. William Goldenberg did a terrific job, especially in the opening scenes.

7.35pm – Jennifer Lawrence and her Metroid dress introduce Adele to sing ‘Skyfall’. Wonder if it’ll win Best Song later…

7.38pm – Great performance of a great song. Worried Shirley Bassey is gonna kick Adele’s ass backstage after for stealing her thunder.

7.44pm – Nicole Kidman is here to tell us a little about Silver Django’s Amour.

7.48pm – Daniel Radcliffe and an amusingly hobbling Kristen Stewart, who keeps grunting in pain, announcing nominees for Production Design.

7.49pm – Lincoln takes it! I think I actually called that one! Hooray for Lincoln! Hooray for me!

7.52pm – Salma Hayek, looking like an exotic princess from a Pink Panther movie, tells us about some people who won some nice awards for niceness.

7.57pm – George Clooney, proving with his grey beard that time rolls forever onward, reminds us of those we’ve lost. Tears time!

8.01pm – A lot of sad losses this year, from Borgnine to Tony Scott. But the big surprise is Barbra Streisand coming out to sing ‘The Way We Were’. Fitting.

8.09pm – Chicago being honoured for no great reason. Oh wait, it’s to announce the Best Score award. That… sort of makes sense.

8.11pm – Another envelope struggle and… Life of Pi wins it! That puts it well in the lead tonight!

8.13pm – Best Song goes to ‘Skyfall’ or I know nothing of the Oscars.

8.15pm – Norah Jones performs ‘Everybody Needs a Best Friend’ from Ted, co-written by host Seth MacFarlane. A nice touch.

8.17pm – But still Adele takes it, and she weeps. Thank goodness, we’re overdue some proper tears!

8.19pm – Yet another ad break. And still six awards to go. Getting sleepy…

8.23pm – Dustin Hoffman propping up Charlize Theron. The unoriginal odd couple. Now some writing awards.

8.24pm – Best Adapted Screenplay. This could go almost anywhere…

8.25pm – Chris Terrio wins for Argo! Pretty much seals the deal for Best Picture later…

8.26pm – A great, rapidfire speech about the good of solving troubles non-violently there.

8.27pm – Somewhat disgracefully, Quentin Tarantino takes Best Original Screenplay for Django Unchained.

8.28pm – Tarantino takes a moment to thank people other than himself. Good for him.

8.33pm – Some good gags from MacFarlane there to bring out Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas, children of Hollywood legends.

8.34pm – Though my goodness Jane Fonda’s dress is loud! Best Director is on the way…

8.35pm – Shock and terror! Ang Lee takes it for Life of Pi! This could mean a lot of things. Terrible for Spielberg, but a deserved win all the same.

8.35pm – “Thank you movie god.” – Ang Lee

8.40pm – And Jean Dujardin is here to present Best Actress. There may some swooning.

8.43pm – I know I’ve called this for Lawrence already, but now I just don’t know…

8.44pm – But I was right! And then she fell on the steps going up. At least she made a gag about it!

8.45pm – A good quick speech by Jennifer Lawrence there. Now Meryl Streep is here to give Daniel Day-Lewis something.

8.48pm – Three for you Day-Lewis. You go Day-Lewis.

8.50pm – Standing ovation for a charmingly beffudled Day-Lewis. Who makes a great joke to Streep about swapping Lincoln for Thatcher.

8.52pm – A brilliantly worded and emotive speech there. Day-Lewis did the tall man proud.

8.52pm – Jack Nicholson to give out Best Picture. Surely it’s Argo

8.53pm – Nicholson joined via videolink by Michelle Obama from the White House. What a brilliant, if strange, surprise!

8.56pm – Michelle Obama announces it for Argo! No big surprise, other than in the way it was read out.

8.58pm – Did George Clooney really need another Oscar? Stupid perfect Clooney.

8.59pm – Ben Affleck given the nod to discuss the film as its director. The whole team seem a little upset at him not getting that nomination.

9.00pm – Ah, but can Ben Affleck win an Oscar for acting?

9.01pm – Kristen Chenoweth joins Seth MacFarlane on stage to sing a song for the losers. The credits roll, no one really cares any more.

9.05pm – And that’s the end. A decent show. With the exception of the gongs for Django and Brave‘s win, I am very happy with the night.

9.08pm – OK, that’s me wrapped for another year. Now to look forward to tomorrow when the average person once again no longer cares very much about the movies. Oh well, it’s always good while it lasts. Hope you enjoyed following. Good night to all!

2 Comments

Filed under Film

Lincoln – freedom at any cost

Clothed in immense power - Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln surveying the horrors of war

Clothed in immense power: Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln surveying the horrors of war

There is a spirit that runs through much of American history, often buried these days in the politics of our age, of never giving up the fight. Though the USA has often taken far too long to join the fight (world wars, civil rights issues), once it starts, change, and victory, follow rapidly. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the director’s latest historical “epic” and his finest since Schindler’s List, is a study of a man who has already fought enough, yet still fights on.

Opening in the closing days of the Civil War, Lincoln finds the South in retreat and the stately president, played with near-divine presence by Daniel Day-Lewis, doubting he has done enough to secure the Union for after the war. The Emancipation Proclamation, perhaps Abraham Lincoln’s most famous decree, was not law but presidential order, telling the armies of the Union to free any slaves rescued from the Confederacy. Believing enormous change can come sooner rather than later, Lincoln sees the president attempt, against the recommendation of his advisors and his wife, to push through a legally binding end to slavery.

Showing remarkable restraint by a director who has never before known the meaning of the word, Spielberg ignores the battles and sieges of an undoubtedly cinematic war in favour of telling a story of political machinations and social justice. He and screenwriter Tony Kushner, the playwright behind the magnificent Angels in America who also co-authored Spielberg’s troubled Munich, are far more concerned with the man beneath the stovepipe hat and his surely impossible mission than with the conflict between brothers that tore America apart. This is character drama of the highest order, which also finds plenty of room for grandstanding speeches and backdoor political shenanigans.

With outstanding attention to period detail, Lincoln slowly but rhythmically clicks along, building towards the Congressional vote that will decide the future of a nation and allow Lincoln to end his war. The film feels like a three-episode arc of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, with fluctuations between strong drama and jaunty, exciting meetings between his political moles and less staunch Democrats who may be swayed to vote for the abolition of slavery.

Linc'dIn: David Strathairn and Daniel Day-Lewis discuss political strategy

Linc’dIn: David Strathairn and Daniel Day-Lewis discuss political strategy

The sets are fantastic, with the floor of Congress superbly lit by cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, while the interior of the White House is swamped in dark colours, as if in mourning for a country at war, a people enslaved and the president’s recently deceased son William.

Day-Lewis gives a towering performance in the lead role, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders while still being given over to telling amusing anecdotes and showing moments of human weakness. He eschews the traditional Gregory Peck-style deep-voiced impersonation in favour of a historically accurate, higher-pitched and somewhat raspy voice that carries Lincoln’s pain and exhaustion perfectly, while also showing that voice as a hurdle the president can overcome when passion and fury require it of him.

Giving Day-Lewis a run for his money is Tommy Lee Jones, as Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a bullish radical more devoutly anti-slavery than the president himself. His cutthroat performance, overlaying a powerfully but subtly humanist character, carries a huge amount of the film’s emotional punch. As Mary Todd Lincoln, Sally Field is strong, though prone to melancholic melodrama that feels out of place in her scenes with Day-Lewis’s restrained performance.

Several of the supporting players convince, with David Strathairn, Michael Stuhlbarg, Stephen Henderson and particularly James Spader – as moustachioed political lobbyist/shyster William Bilbo – proving themselves ideal casting. Jared Harris is sadly underused as his historical doppelganger Ulysses S. Grant, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt sleepwalks his way through the underwritten role of the Lincolns’ eldest son, Robert.

Punctuated with fine moments of humour, and unimposingly accompanied by John Williams’s suitably swelling score, Lincoln is never less than a brilliant period political drama. Through its balanced script, restrained direction and its superb central performance, it lets the all-too-often overshadowed goodness of the American dream shine earnestly forth.

4/5

4 Comments

Filed under Film

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

————————————————————————————————–

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!

2 Comments

Filed under Film

Ruby Sparks – Manic Pixie Nightmare Girl

Makes the central romance in the Twilight books look “healthy”

Your enjoyment of Ruby Sparks will come down entirely to whether you are someone who can switch their brain off, or someone who tends to over-think complicated ideas. Certainly no one involved in this bright romantic fantasy had their brains turned on, as if they had they might have realised the morally rotten core at the heart of an apparently charming little movie. The subtext of this film is frightening, but what’s truly terrifying is that it seems like no one who worked on the film is aware of it in the slightest.

Paul Dano plays Calvin, a young writer suffering a creative block, who a decade earlier had his only hit while still a teenager, with one of those books that “speaks” to people. Burdened with all of the emotional issues (a dead father, a remarried mother, a slowly becoming successful ex), Calvin can’t get started on his new book. He’s the kooky kind you find in movies – he uses a typewriter like an obnoxious hipster, lives off his one successful book and has a dog with gender identity problems. The dog is named Scotty, after F. Scott Fitzgerald; at one point in the film it shreds a copy of Catcher in the Rye. You get the idea.

Unable to meet a girl, Calvin’s psychiatrist recommends he try writing about his dream girl. He invents a girl with the sort of idiosyncrasies he finds attractive, imagines her being pretty but not overwhelmingly so, and then gives her the name of a bad drag queen act. Soon, thanks to his magic typewriter (probably?), Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan) is made flesh. While Calvin assumes he has gone insane, Ruby believes they’ve been in a relationship for some time and acts as if she’s always existed, unaware she is his creation. Soon Calvin and Ruby are happy together – she’s the sort of girl who likes zombie movies and jumps into pools unexpectedly; who could resist? But it’s not long before her underwritten life (she has no job or friends) and Calvin’s jealousy and fear of abandonment kick in, and he’s back at his typewriter literally changing her.

Oh for the days of Little Miss Sunshine when he’d keep his damn mouth shut

On the surface, Kazan, who also wrote the film, has scripted a somewhat clever takedown of the “manic pixie dream girl” phenomenon, highlighting the implausibility of male expectations in a similar manner to how Weird Science looked at the fantasy of the buxom bombshell back in the ’80s. But scratch away that surface and a far nastier film is revealed. After running out of ideas halfway through her script, Kazan has opted for a conclusion that is unsuitably creepy. And I don’t mean ‘threatening text message from your ex’ creepy, I mean ‘walking in on your mother in bed with a stranger and it turns out it’s you from the future’ creepy.

At first Calvin’s rewrites do little more than lobotomise Ruby, leaving her a quivering, weeping mess or a braindead giggling simpleton, but later things turn even more disturbing for the writer and his intolerable mind puppet. He becomes so possessive that his writing of Ruby begins to physically abuse her, before ultimately forcing her to perform (mild) sexual acts against her will. Worse still, the film rewards him for “learning” from his spate of domestic abuse with a happy ending. It is tonally completely unsuitable, and it reeks of desperation in storytelling and/or the writer being too clueless to understand her own work. Kazan’s only writing project prior to this was her dire, drab play We Live Here, an under-edited vanity project also about rich people’s problems that ran off-Broadway last year, so perhaps it was premature to expect her to write a feature film that didn’t raise this many eyebrows. But the very fact that Kazan’s real-life boyfriend Dano plays her inventor/tormentor adds an additional layer of ick to the proceedings, upgrading Hurricane Ruby from unsettling shit-storm to grotesque rape fantasy.

Kazan, while not much the writer, proves herself once again a strong screen presence, and captures Ruby’s various mood shifts well enough. Dano on the other hand weasels his way through the despicable role as best he can, but it’s not enough to rescue the character – where’s Daniel Plainview with a bowling pin when you need him? Annette Bening grates as Calvin’s hippie mum, while Antonio Banderas almost charms as her eccentric artist husband. Elliott Gould and Steve Coogan pop up briefly in roles they could do in their sleep, while Chris Messina steals what little of the film he can as Calvin’s jock-with-a-heart brother Harry, who also gets the best of Kazan’s few good lines.

Zoe Kazan act, but Zoe Kazan’t write

Returning to filmmaking for their first time since their 2006 Oscar-winning breakthrough Little Miss Sunshine, director duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris make their talents known here – Ruby Sparks is finely, brightly shot throughout and tidily cut with passable montages. People run excitedly to stirring music. It would all be quite lovely if it weren’t for that damn script.

And it all comes down to the script in the end. Telling us repeatedly that Calvin is a genius of a writer when all evidence points to the contrary (just as his faults are written into Ruby, Kazan’s are written into him), Kazan has unintentionally drawn a metaphor for her own script – just because she is famous does not make her a storyteller. Attempting to address similar issues to (500) Days of Summer, she has written a similarly faulted protagonist, but with none of the same charm (and indeed Paul Dano is no Joseph Gordon-Levitt). While those who can mentally gloss over its sordid subtext may enjoy a romcom with a twist, Ruby Sparks will remain a difficult film about an unlikeable, self-absorbed cur who gets to imagine his cake and eat it too.

2/5

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

 

4 Comments

Filed under Film

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)

Leave a comment

Filed under Film

The Dark Knight Rises – The long goodbye

The Dark Knight returns

Has it really been only four years? The Dark Knight was such an enormous success on its release in 2008, both critically and popularly, that it upended the common perception of the summer blockbuster as infantile or mindless. Already a regular on many film fans’ favourite movies lists, it has even repeatedly permeated somewhat hyperbolic lists of the “best films ever”. Regardless of negative opinions some might have, there is no denying it was a step above the Hollywood machine’s average output, and, to borrow from the Joker, it changed things.

So expectations were high, probably too high, for The Dark Knight Rises, the “final act” in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Following on from the remarkable success of The Dark Knight (and the director’s popular, inspired, flawed Inception), the loss of that film’s breakout star (Heath Ledger’s Joker is perhaps the most iconic villain of the past decade) and the need to conclude a saga that, in many ways, had only just begun, have proved to be too much for Christopher Nolan and his brother and writing partner Jonathan Nolan to live up to. But while The Dark Knight Rises is the weakest film in the trilogy that started with the brilliant but overshadowed Batman Begins, it does not let the side down and brings the story to an acceptable, if premature, close.

We pick up eight years after the events of The Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne is still physically and emotionally damaged from his encounter with Harvey Two-Face and the death of his beloved Rachel. He has not put on the cowl in that time, but the myth of Harvey Dent as a hero has allowed for the streets of Gotham to be kept free of scum by strictly legal means. Wayne, now a Howard Hughesian shut-in, is led back down the path of the Batman after an encounter with a cat burglar, Selina Kyle (the traditional Catwoman, though never named as such in the film), who is discovered to have links to a conspiracy within his own company and, worse still, connections to a vicious, hulking terrorist known as Bane.

World-weary Bruce and Alfred

The film opens with an impressive if over-elaborate Mission: Impossible­-style airborne action sequence, but slows down rapidly after that, taking its time to reintroduce to us to a very different Gotham, as well as a few new characters. It’s not until the 45min mark that Wayne is back in the Batsuit, chasing Bane and evading the police. The film becomes quite gripping from here on, as Batman tackles Bane and his henchmen, with a little help from the slippery Selina, before the revelation of Bane’s masterplan brings the film to a screeching halt. Dragging out the penultimate half hour with a bloated, convoluted and frustratingly unauthentic city-under-siege scenario, it is only in its final action sequence – a massive street brawl and a pulse-pounding chase sequence – that the film fully recaptures the viewer’s attention and excitement. One can’t help but feel there was just too much story for one movie here, and the scale was simply too big for the subject.

Despite a handful of surprisingly predictable plot twists in the final act – hardly believable from the men behind Memento and The Prestige – the story is strong and the dialogue is tight. The Nolans have done a good job returning to the themes of the previous movies – identity, justice, chaos – and extending them through this film, although they touch upon little new. The simplicity of the Joker’s master stroke in The Dark Knight – bombs on two boats with the triggers in the hands of the passengers of the alternate boat – is here echoed and extended to ludicrous proportions, dragging out the sense of terror and chaos. An earlier scene where Bane detonates a bomb at a sports stadium and threatens the spectators with more to come creates far more panic and horror than what actually follows.

Linking Bane to the League of Shadows, the terrorist guild from Batman Begins, helps to bring the story full circle, and Wayne’s character arc comes to a well-executed conclusion. Perhaps The Dark Knight’s greatest flaw was taking the focus away from Wayne and Batman, but here his struggle is once again at the forefront of the drama. Christian Bale continues his restrained performance as Wayne/Batman, though has little new to show off that he didn’t in the first film. His only real challenge is in the romantic subplots, balancing attractions to femme fatale Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and charitable billionaire Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). These subplots don’t run smoothly, but Bale captures something of a man who desperately needs to be loved but cannot admit it.

Disappointingly, the refocus of attention on Wayne comes at the expense of the minor characters, Alfred (Michael Caine), Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). All three were given brilliant, short, simple character arcs in The Dark Knight, but here are reduced to their basics. With the exception of one emotional scene with Bale, Caine’s Alfred is little more than a butler. Gordon, now one of the few devotees of the cult of the Dark Knight, offers unconditional, undramatic support – although Oldman gets a chance to have some fun during the final action sequence. Fox is once again just black Q.

Anne Hathaway shows off her safe-cracking figure

Thankfully the Nolan brothers have found something special in their interpretation of Selina Kyle. Treating her as a Robin Hood-esque thief who believes the rich should sacrifice all their belongings, but still wants to keep the good stuff for herself, the pair have written a strong, feisty female role that it is both witty and sexy, and Anne Hathaway pulls it off with ample aplomb. Christopher Nolan has often (and justifiably) been criticised for the weak female characters in his films, so his Selina is a welcome addition, and the strongest woman to feature in a Nolan film since Memento. The fact that Hathaway kicks plenty of ass in a skin-tight catsuit with serrated stilettos makes her fanboy gold.

More problematic is new character John Blake, a rookie cop whose smarts soon raise him to the rank of detective, and who becomes a close ally of Gordon and Batman. It’s not that he is a weak or thinly drawn character, but that the story forces him upon the viewer. Before we’ve had a chance to get a sense of the character he rattles off a story about his childhood that screams “Like me! Like me! I’m an important character!” You can feel the hand of the writers at work, and it’s disconcerting. In the hands of a lesser actor it would have been a disaster, but, portrayed by the immensely charismatic Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Blake is elevated and carried through the story. It was a close call, though.

Featuring the top half of Tom Hardy’s head as Bane

And then there’s Bane. Played by a beefed-up Tom Hardy, the massive enemy has impressive screen presence, but not much more. With his face half-covered by a breathing device, and his voice echoing like a less-sleepy Orson Welles from Transformers: The Movie, Hardy’s performance can barely be seen. His mouth is completely cloaked, so it is his eyes and hands and body that do the acting. He is never quite dull, but he is truly limited, and many of his lines, laced with Nolanesque menace, are inaudible in the troubled sound mix. In many ways this Bane is little more than the previous cinematic incarnation of the character, as a grunting henchman in the lambasted camp farce Batman & Robin.

“BAAAAAAAAANE!!!”

Production values are as high as one has come to expect, and Nolan’s camera never misses a chance to show off the glossy grit on display. The choice to film an undisguised Manhattan as Gotham is an odd one, however. Several famous landmarks can be seen in wide shots as bombs go off, including the half-constructed new World Trade Center. The illusion is briefly shattered. But the action scenes are gloriously paced and captured, particularly the high-speed chases. The fight scene choreography is a bit lax, and one punch-up between Batman and Bane is out of focus for a disappointing amount of the time. CGI is well used to show the scale of Bane’s warpath, but one longs for an on-set demolition, like the hospital in The Dark Knight.

Editing is quick and clean, although Nolan relies too heavily on flashbacks, particularly to the less-seen Batman Begins, to make sure that everyone is up to speed. Further patronising can be witnessed when a minor character is killed and the camera whips in to a close-up on their body and lingers there until people who aren’t even watching the movie have all understood that yes, this relatively unimportant character is now dead. “Have you got it yet? They’re dead. Right? Yes? Let’s move on.”

What the film lacks in balance it makes up for in style and scale, and there is so much to enjoy here, despite its exhausting length. Much of the wit of Batman Begins lost in The Dark Knight is back this time round. There are more one-liners, with two of the film’s finest lines delivered by an unexpected but well-chosen character. Wittier than The Dark Knight though it is, it takes itself even more seriously, if that can be believed. Hinting at issues such as class struggle and the Occupy movement is all well and good, but you need to back them up with conclusions that are absent here.

Still, while Nolan has delivered the weakest film in his trilogy, he has still delivered a fine third instalment, and this trilogy will be immortalised for his incredible efforts. Rises is a better film because of the films that have preceded it; the characters already developed, the music carried over, its brilliant look and dramatic style. It brings little new to the table, but it repackages the old things with a sizeable punch. While its climax is overly predictable and oddly familiar, it is a suitable denouement.

Batman’s new Batwing the Bat

Nolan’s Batman may have finished his work, but the inspiration this series of films has provided audiences with will linger, and we will no doubt see the character again soon, in this guise or in another. The bar has been set for all future Batmans, and thanks to The Dark Knight Rises it is still an imposing height to reach.

3/5

1 Comment

Filed under Film