Tag Archives: Lawrence of Arabia

2012 in review – The year of archery and French wheelchairs

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

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

Archery!

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

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

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

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

French wheelchairs!

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

20. The Grey

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

19. What Richard Did

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

18. Anna Karenina

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

Full review

17. Argo

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

Full review

16. Looper

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

Full review

15. The Hunt

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

14. Lincoln

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

13. The Raid

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

Full review

12. The Intouchables (Untouchable)

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

11. Skyfall

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

Full review

10. Life of Pi

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

9. Holy Motors

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

8. The Avengers (Avengers Assemble)

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

Full review

7. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

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

6. The Master

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

Full review

5. The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists!

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

Full review

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

The Pirate Ship

4. Amour

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

Full review

3. Beasts of the Southern Wild

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

Full review

2. Rust and Bone

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

Full review

1. The Turin Horse

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

A Turin-out for the books

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

5. Snow White & the Huntsman

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

4. Haywire

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

3. Taken 2

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

Full review

2. Charlie Casanova

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

1. The Campaign

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

Here’s hoping for 2012!

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Prometheus – Game over, man. Game over.

It’s behind you…

Thirty-three years ago we were told that in space no one could hear you scream. But with massive financial and critical success and an enormous fanbase that extends beyond the remits of traditional science fiction, millions heard Alien’s call.

Ridley Scott’s “serial killer loose in a haunted house… in space” movie managed to do two things that have made it one of American cinema’s most iconic films: it utilised the ideal horror movie pacing perfected during the 1970s; and it gave audiences more iconic visuals than most directors can create in a career – including three creatures (or rather stages of a single creature) that are burned into the public consciousness forever more.

Yeah, that’s the one

Where the franchise went next is well known; a hugely successful (and worthy) action movie sequel followed before diminishing returns struck with a vengeance, resulting in cash-in crossovers with the Predator movies. Now Scott has returned to the franchise and the genre that made his name, setting a sci-fi epic in the universe that he, writer Dan O’Bannon, Walter Hill, James Cameron, H. R. Giger and others have built over the years.

So you’ll forgive me if I’m going to compare Prometheus to Alien. Because the comparison is drawn in the material, it is drawn in the film’s advertising and it is drawn by their shared director. I will, however, also critique this film with my Alien cap off (if I had an Alien cap, it would look like a facehugger for the top of my head), lest anyone accuse me of being a fanboy disappointed that Prometheus did not live up to expectations.

Because expectations aside, in front, wherever; Prometheus is a troubled beast.

The film is set mostly in 2093, aboard the exploratory spaceship Prometheus. The crew have come to a newly discovered planet, deep in space, following archaeological evidence that points to early human contact with alien life forms. These creatures may or may not be the creators of all life on Earth, and are therefore our gods. Either way, they left us a way of finding them.

Now that’s a spaceship!

We are first introduced to David, an android, played with perfect disconnect and scene-stealing dryness by Michael Fassbender. His mechanical motives are for the most part unclear, but he is a welcome reintroduction to the Alien universe. He bears a somewhat unhealthy fascination for the archaeologist couple at the film’s centre, Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green). The pair argue about her faith even as their exploration clearly shows her faith to be erroneous. Sure, why not? Aren’t these the kind of questions sci-fi should be dealing with in absolutes?

It is not long after exploring one of the structures they find on this alien world that things begin to look a little suspicious. What are these ominous holograms and murals? Why does that giant statue look human? And why is very little still alive? Also, since this is an Alien movie, what secrets are the corporate types back on the ship hiding from the team?

The story soon transitions smoothly into a tense horror/thriller as the mission goes suitably haywire and things that should never have been uncovered are unleashed. But much like the mysterious black goo that the crew of Prometheus find on the planet, the plot and its themes soon morph into something far more nasty, indescribable and, well, terrible.

Let’s just say this now and be done with it, Ridley Scott is a superb filmmaker who has been on the front line of the craft technically, ever since he got into the game. Even the biggest detractors of films from Legend to Kingdom of Heaven cannot fault his technical skills. Prometheus is not only no exception, but it is arguably his greatest-made film – his camera marries ultra-detailed sets with crisp, realistic CGI (let down by some very bland, darkening 3D), while his editor keeps the story flowing and the tension, for the most part, bubbling. This is a well made movie. But it is also a badly misjudged one.

At the core of Prometheus’ troubles is a schizophrenic script that suffers as much from meddling and rewrites as it does from a blatant case of just-not-ready-to-shoot-yet. This falls under three categories: dialogue, character and story.

The dialogue is the most noticeably embarrassing. When the crew begin to awaken from their sleep aboard the ship, we are subjected to the sort of chat that we might expect of a mismatched band in space, but eschewing the charm of the crew of Alien’s Nostromo (and other movie vessels, it’s just fun to reference Alien) in favour of ad-libbed banter. This adds realism, one supposes, but it lacks purpose or entertainment. Later, a geologist character says the word “rocks” as much as possible – we have to conclude the script had no written dialogue for his character; he was just given flashcards that said “rocks” on them. The ship’s two co-pilots engage in a bet about what they will find on the alien world, assumedly as stand-ins for the audience. But it’s all so forced; the audience isn’t stupid, it can question these things itself. Sadly, patronising the audience is one of the Prometheus script’s nastiest habits – towards the end Charlize Theron’s character reveals a minor (utterly unnecessary) plot twist throwing EMPHASIS on one word (accompanied by a spike in the music) as if to ensure that everyone down the back of the class understood and processed this already very clear twist (that remains utterly unnecessary to the story).

And then there are the characters; flimsy at best. Rapace’s Elizabeth gets the best of it, as a proto-Ripley with genuine aims within the film. These are undermined however by the character’s religious faith, apparently deriving from severe daddy issues, that like the pastor in M. Night Shyamalan’s preposterous Signs remains steadfastly Christian in spite of insurmountable evidence contradicting such traditions. She is also unable to have children, which without a Newt (the girl in Aliens) or a Jones (the cat in Alien) for her to redirect her affections to, says nothing about her character other than forcing an underwhelming dramatic scene with her lover. Charlie, played by the hopelessly uninspired Marshall-Green, is another anomaly of the script – it is unclear if we are meant to be on his side at all, agree with his opinions in any way, even care about him. Through clumsy writing and a humdrum performance, most of Prometheus is spent hoping he will be killed off sooner rather than later.

He was better in the ads.

David at least has some characterisation, but alas too much. An unsuccessful fusion of Alien’s psychotic robot Ash (Ian Holm) and Aliens’ heroic robot Bishop (Lance Henriksen), the character is the result of clear indecision on behalf of the writers, who also throw clumsy references to his passion for Peter O’Toole’s T. E. Lawrence into the mix. While drawing allusions to Ash (and by extension, it must be added, 2001’s HAL) in his uncertain directive, his dangerousness is undermined by a rewrite blatantly designed to make Fassbender’s character more heroic (he is so hot right now, in fairness). But the constant backpedalling between hero and could-be villain offers us nothing other than a few fun lines delivered by a truly talented actor. If only it worked with the story.

Charlize Theron is farcically misused as the film’s token corporate henchwoman; playing the Paul Reiser role from Aliens if he were lobotomised. Idris Elba at least gets to have some fun with his role as the ship’s captain, but his best lines all sound ad-libbed, and his character cannot be described using any more complex words than “cool and good”. Other than that there is the angry one and the nervous one (are these dwarves or intergalactic scientists?) and a dozen or so redshirts who no one even tried to give lines to. Ellen Ripley is a more complex character than the whole cast of Prometheus thrown in together.

Characters, apparently

Finally, there’s the themes. And what big themes they are. Creation, death, the afterlife, rebirth. Prometheus should be admired for aiming so high. But it should be condemned for not knowing what it is even talking about. Aside from the universe-contradicting religious issues discussed earlier (somehow faith sort of wins in the end), there is the schizophrenic role (and yes, I’ve used that word again) of the alien “Engineers” – known in traditional Alien lore as “Space Jockeys”.

What was I thinking?

These creatures play the dual, oxymoronic role of creator and destroyer, but their methods are perverse and inexplicable. The film’s title alludes to the Olympians of Greek mythology, destroying earlier races of man due to their wickedness and keeping fire from later men as punishment. But in mythology the Olympians created law, and were thus able to judge mankind. But the Engineers do no such thing. They plant and leave, and while they might predict the creatures that arise they cannot judge them when they develop thought and morality within their civilisations. A gardener who returns to a garden to find it overgrown with weeds does some pruning, they don’t light the place up with napalm.

Are these godlike Space Jockeys good or bad, wise or insane? Well, we learn nothing, and depending on the likelihood of sequels and what they contain we may never. One of the film’s two writers, Damon Lindelof, was the primary writer on the TV series Lost; but while that show often meandered between questions without answering them, it never completely doubled back on a question without answering it either way – why did they make us? Why did they destroy us?

By the film’s conclusion we know so little we are left uncaring. The film turns the Space Jockeys into villains because it is easier than actually dealing with the fascinating questions it raised. A good mystery is a good thing, but a mystery for the sake of it is not. By the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the audience is left free to interpret what happened. In Prometheus we are not, we are simply not told, left in the dark, unentertained.

It is just sad that Prometheus was made when it was not ready. The production values are superb, but based so strongly on imagery from Alien, the template was already there to work with. The film’s one standout scene, an intense, nightmarish surgery, remains an homage to that most famous scene from Alien. The rush job isn’t just noticeable in the script, it can be heard in the music. While the film’s action scenes have a suitable pulse-pounding musical accompaniment, many of its slower, tenser scenes are backed by an utterly inappropriate piece of triumphant bombast that sounds a little like someone strangling the Star Wars overture. Miscommunication is the only thing that can explain such a disconnect between sound and image.

Another of the film’s most troubling decisions is to cast Guy Pearce as the nonagenarian Peter Weyland, the financier of the expedition. The 44-year-old is covered in barely successful old man makeup for the role. Two better courses of action might have worked here. One would be to take the smarter Alien Vs Predator approach (yes, I just used those words), where Lance Henriksen was cast as a member of the Weyland family, named Bishop, suggesting the robot in Aliens was built in his image – thus casting Fassbender in old man makeup as David’s maker would have been at least witty, if odd-looking. Alternatively, they might have CAST SOMEBODY THE CHARACTER’S AGE! There are certainly enough actors available over 70. If you wanted to be very smart with your references, cast Peter O’Toole! Pearce’s casting comes down to the fact that Pearce, sans makeup, played a younger Weyland in promotional material for the film. But what was Scott thinking? How could the master filmmaker be foolish enough to sacrifice our suspension of disbelief for the sake of an ad campaign?

Note: not a scene in this movie

As a slow-building horror film Prometheus works reasonably well, but with this budget and skill behind and in front of the camera it is ludicrous that you don’t care for the main characters any more than you might the errant teenagers in a bad slasher movie. The preposterous, unanswerable grand questions the film raises only serve to distract from the jump scares and body horror.

Prometheus is so well made, but so poorly handled. Perhaps it would have worked well outside of the Alien universe, with less to live up to and no need to attempt a (failed) tie-in at its climax. But that would have robbed the film of its gorgeous design, which, in the end, is the sole superb feature to recommend it on. Alien aside, it does the film no service that the two films it references most often are 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia, which are, simply put, the two best-made films I have ever seen. It raises the bar far too high for even a spaceship to soar over.

In the end, this all comes down to Scott’s hubris. Knowing full well he has helped create one of the most iconic creatures and indeed images in the history of cinema, he has foolishly decided that somehow this creature is linked to the very meaning of existence. The result is confused and clumsy, with its ambitions reduced to pretensions of genius.

It’s a mess. A beautiful, terrifying mess.

Oh, and don’t get me started on that “the secret is in the music” nonsense…

2/5

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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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