Tag Archives: No Country For Old Men

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, an expected prequel

Return to Middle Earth (again)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the answer is: eh… sort of?

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

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

More Gandalf! This guy never gets old!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thorin – handsome dwarven badass

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

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

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

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

3/5

Leave a comment

Filed under Film

Killer Joe – A Southern-Fried Thriller

A deal with the devil

Man those Texans have it hard. If they’re not being chased by maniacs wielding chainsaws or cattle guns, they’re being sent to Scotland to buy small towns for oil tycoons. What’s clear from the movies is that Texas takes many different forms; from the barren deserts of Paris, Texas to the grassy keg parties of Dazed & Confused. Only Texans themselves will ever understand the real Texas, so if you’re going to set your movie there, don’t opt for reality – just tell a yarn as big as the state itself.

And this here Killer Joe is one hell of a yarn. Director William Friedkin’s career dipped on and off the radar after massive success in the early ‘70s with The French Connection and The Exorcist, but this is by far his greatest success since those lofty days four decades ago. Friedkin made a hardly noticed return to high-quality drama back in 2007 with the film Bug, which critics championed but audiences eschewed viewing, unimpressed with this demonless psychological horror “from the director of The Exorcist”. But considering that film an artistic success, Friedkin has wisely chosen to work once more with its crafty writer, the playwright Tracy Letts, and the results are a fiendish delight.

The film opens in a rain-sodden trailer park, as trailer trash Chris Smith looks to his trailer trash dad for some money. Soon he lets his dad, Ansel, in on a plan for the whole family to make some quick easy cash; they kill his mother, Ansel’s ex-wife, and give everyone a share of the insurance payout. Ansel’s current wife bullies her way in for a cut. Chris’s sister Dottie, who is meek, disturbed and perhaps simple-minded, is surprisingly eager for the plan to go ahead.

The family was falling apart like a cheap suit

Enter Killer Joe, an assassin for hire with a gift for making deaths look like accidents, who, as a detective in local law enforcement, has a knack for sidetracking investigations into his own handiwork – investigations he is often in charge of. Unable to pay the man upfront, the Smiths have no choice but to offer Joe a retainer before he can get the job done, in this case exclusive access to the beautiful, fragile Dottie. But pimping out his sister doesn’t sit well with Chris, and delays in the plan don’t sit well with his creditors. Soon there’s enough double crossing going on to fill a bucket of fried chicken.

Adapted from Letts’s play, Killer Joe never feels confined or stagey. It uses superbly framed shots of urban landscapes and clever close-ups to create a whole world for its characters, moving scenes that could have been performed on a bare stage to dirty pool halls and abandoned amusement parks. And while almost no character outside of the Smiths and Joe gets much in the way of any lines, this helps add to the film’s sub-realism, enclosing these characters within the seedy world they have created (even the mother, around whose life much of the film pivots, never gets a word in – it’s not her life we care need to care about).

The theatrical dialogue, bursting with Southern slang, is delivered with relish by the ensemble cast. As Chris, Emile Hirsch puts up a strong backbone for the film, playing the feckless dreamer out of depth and out of ideas. Thomas Haden Church gives his best performance since Sideways as his cuckolded father, an emasculated antithesis of the traditional Texan male. Gina Gershon plies her dime store sex appeal in the role of the manipulatrix second wife Sharla. And as Dottie, Juno Temple brings an easily shed innocence and curiosity while also successfully switching her sweet London lilt into a suitable Southern drawl.

He’s so dreamy…

But it is Matthew McConaughey who steals the show as the indecipherable Killer Joe. Part charmer, part animal, McConaughey channels all his romcom handsome into this wolf in poster-boy’s clothing. The result is a career-defining (and likely -mutating) performance, which brings this unscrupulous, despicable but fascinating and somehow extremely likeable character to life.

Fully of clever quirks and details (entering a restaurant Ansel is swift to pick up a half-drunk beer and start swigging), Killer Joe zips along at a strange speed for a film in which altogether little happens. The diabolically black humour that underpins the film will not be to everyone’s taste, culminating as it does in one of the most appalling scenes in recent – and yet it dares you to laugh at the horror. It’s hard to resist. Much like the charms of Killer Joe himself.

4/5

1 Comment

Filed under Film

I think I read about this in a book somewhere…

Are you sure it was a book? Are you sure it wasn't nothing?

In the past few weeks something strange has happened, not just once, but twice, that has only happened maybe a dozen times before – I have watched a film of which I have previously read the book.

Now let’s get this straight, I don’t dislike reading. In fact, I enjoy it a lot. The problem is simply that I am not very fast at it. In fact, I am an exceedingly slow reader. From newspapers to novels and (most problematically) subtitles, I read at an embarrassingly lethargic speed. So when, in my mid-teens, I decided to become a film devotee, books fell somewhat by the wayside, and since then I have read only a handful of books each year, and mostly academic books at that.

So watching a film of which I have read the novel is, to some extent, a novel act for me (I make no excuses for excellent punage). I have friends who do their darnedest not to see a film until they have read the book upon which it is based, which is a truly alien concept to me. Often I enjoy finding out after watching a film how it differed from the source material from a friend who has read it (or Wikipedia) – it’s not as if I’ll ever find the time to read the book once I’ve seen the film.

Indeed, because of this, I rarely get that same twang of rage when a film is “unfaithful” to the novel as others do, largely because I am unaware of the supposedly blatant act of fictional infidelity.

Of course, when you bear in mind that, of the twelve or so films I had been literarily familiar with before seeing, eight of them were in the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings camp, you truly see what a pathetic spectacle I am, in book terms. So this double blue mooning was particularly unheard of for me. What is particularly of note however is the very different forms of adaptation the two films were.

The Road was a book I read in two sittings, one of ten pages, the second of two-hundred and fifty. I was only familiar with Cormac McCarthy’s work through the adaptation of his No Country for Old Men, a film I have previously lambasted with praise both here and elsewhere. The Road was a haunting, puzzling and obsessive read for me, and as such I was extremely excited about the recently released film.

A huge fan of John Hillcoat’s breakthrough film The Proposition, I was equally impressed by his handling of this story. What The Road manages to do more so than most adaptations I have come across is maintain the tone of the book sharply at all times. The film is as bleak and uncompromising as the novel. Its post-apocalyptic world may not be as dull and ashen as that described in the novel, but it is equally lifeless and empty. While some of the novel’s most grotesque moments are left out, the film maintains the same sense of dread and horror, and hints repeatedly at the inhuman.

Most importantly, the film is not excessively reliant on narration, a burden that so many adaptations suffer. In the novel, the man repeatedly questions whether he can kill his own son to save him from a more gruesome fate should the need arise. This is handled with considerable skill in the film – an “action scene” is inserted whereby the man and boy are trapped in a house inhabited by cannibals; hearing footsteps coming towards them the father cocks his pistol and presses it to his son’s head, before an opportunity for escape soon arises. In Viggo Mortensen’s performance as the man, his hesitation in taking his son’s life is so clear that whole pages of narration are wrapped up in mere seconds. This is expert adaptation.

The Lovely Bones however, does not share this success. Alice Sebold’s novel is often described as a tale of the afterlife of a murdered teenager, but that is just the framework for its story – albeit an original one. The book is about loss, family, innocence and sexual awakening.

Peter Jackson proved with The Lord of the Rings that he is a master of summary, able to take the bare bones (admittedly no pun there, don’t look for it) of a story and tell it with charm and intelligence, even if he did stumble at the odd hurdle. But The Lovely Bones reeks of a complete misunderstanding of the epicentre of its source. No doubt a project he had longed to make for some years, Jackson shows his typical obsession with production design and special effects to recreate an impressive 1970s America and a bizarrely glossy afterlife. But he fails to find the heart of the story, and focuses on two essentially minor elements: the turmoil of the murdered youth looking down on earth and the “mystery” surrounding her killer.

But Sebold’s book is about the Salmon family, not Susie Salmon or her rapist/murderer George Harvey. In the book the family’s grief pours off the page, here it is edited off the screen. A criminally underused Rachel Weisz as Susie’s mother weeps before declaring she can’t take it any more and flees the story. Susie’s sister decides to play detective. Susie’s grandmother gets a comedic montage. Only Mark Wahlberg as Susie’s father succeeds in hitting any of the right notes, showing both a realistic grief, obsession, and a desire to possess the strength to move on. But the script fails to realise that the heart of this is his relationship with his estranged wife – in the film he hardly notices she has gone!

The film barely works as an adaptation because of its emphasis on the book’s less important aspects, but it would be unfair to say it does not treat those elements well (although misguidedly). Stanley Tucci makes a suitably creepy Harvey, and his scenes are perhaps the film’s best, although they are too bogged down in the thriller genre. Susie’s trippy experiences in the “in-between” try their best to capture an element of heavenly joy and human regret, and Saoirse Ronan is mostly able to pull this off, but only with an over-reliance on excessively mystical voice-over. The very concept of the “in-between”, briefly mentioned once in the book but here the film’s focus (Susie is definitively in heaven throughout the novel), shows a lack of faith by Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens in the source material. The nineteenth century French writer François-René de Chateaubriand wrote: “Purgatory surpasses heaven and hell in poetry, because it represents a future and the others do not.” Jackson et al have followed that rule too closely here, forcing Susie into a dramatic limbo that seems desperate to appease and patronise its audience.

The adaptation’s one true success is ironically its greatest straying from the novel. The finalé of Sebold’s novel features a brief “return” to earth for Susie, which is both unexpectedly sudden while also featuring a sequence that, if included in its original form in the adaptation, would have made this unsuccessful film utterly untenable for audiences. Here, the excesses of that chapter (defendable in the book only because of its focus on the blossoming of female sexuality) are toned down, while Susie’s “return” is cleverly triggered by the delayed disposal of her body, a sequence briefly detailed early in the book.

What both The Road and The Lovely Bones reveal is that faithfulness to events, characters or style do not make for a good adaptation; it is all about tone. Good storytelling is all about setting a mood, what happens next is up to the storyteller. Nothing is going to stop Hollywood from turning every airport bookshop bestseller into the next hit movie, but in the end what is important is not cramming every last detail into two hours (I’m looking at you Ron Howard!) and adhering to every development and twist as if they were holy scripture, but in getting to the meat of the novel, and expressing what it’s really about.

Leave a comment

Filed under Film

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.

——————————————————————————————————

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Film

The Dark Knight – Review

“Do you know what I am?” asks the Joker in a pink dress. “I’m like a dog chasing cars; I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it.” The demented nature of Heath Ledger’s Joker, violently obsessive in his nihilism, is the greatest indicator of how The Dark Knight is not traditional comic book fare.

Even 2005’s Batman Begins, also directed by Christopher Nolan, seems very by-the-books when compared to this dark character drama in a comic book setting. While Begins should be and has been lauded for its style and character development, it still obeys all the comic book movie rules. Just like this summer’s Iron Man, the lead hero has an enlightening experience in the Far East, realises he can do more with his life and starts to save the day before correcting an evil that he is partially responsible for.

The Dark Knight shares very little in common with similar comic book sequels. In fact, characters and actors aside, it feels like an entirely different film to Begins; a development, an improvement. The huge hype that precedes the film (attributable to its admirable predecessor and the passing of Heath Ledger, who it should be remembered was being much talked about for his performance even before his unexpected death) will not have escaped many, and given the sheer intensity of the storyline and the film’s surprising length (2 and a half hours), the film may alienate the fun-seeking public in what has been quite a crowd-pleasing summer so far.

But it is because of this maturity and ambition that it will be the most memorable film of summer 2008, and its potential failure to find a sustained audience (it will no doubt burst the banks on its opening) would suggest only that audiences are so used to being spoon-fed their entertainment that they can no longer accept anything with sophistication and class. But its success is almost assured – this is superb filmmaking.

The film begins a short time after Batman Begins. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale once more) is still balancing businessman, playboy and midnight avenger roles, focusing largely on the latter as he cleans up the various factions of the Gotham City mob. “Batman has no limits” he insists, but as he learned Batman’s power for good in the first film, here the limitations of his secret identity are laid out for him all too clearly.

The Joker is the one who teaches him this lesson. No longer the giggling crook of previous incarnations, Ledger’s Joker is as insane as he is genius. Like a young Hannibal Lecter with Asperger’s he robs and kills not for profit or power, nor really for fun, but because there is sport in it; because someone else must lose for him to succeed, and even if he fails he might just bring the opponent down with him. Although as cold, calculating and unpredictable as Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men (not the last reference I will be making to that film in this review), it is not that which makes him terrifying, but rather the realisation that because Batman cannot kill him he simply cannot be stopped from killing.

Stepping back from the camp and outlandish interpretations of the Joker in the past, Ledger spends the first half of the film relaxing us into the role, making us comfortable with how incredibly unsettled he makes us. As his schemes become wilder so does his performance, he begins to laugh his horrible laugh more. Jack Nicholson’s Joker created panic through poisoning the masses. Ledger’s Joker creates panic by declaring that a single innocent civilian must be killed to save hundreds, making everyone a violent vigilante. His sadism is almost cartoonish in its villainy, if it weren’t so utterly gruesome in its body count.

Between Batman and the Joker is Harvey Dent (the regularly excellent Aaron Eckhart), the District Attorney and boyfriend to Wayne’s ex, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal acceptably replaces Katie Holmes’s acceptable performance in Begins). Dent is idealistic like Wayne, but works within the system. His rise, rise and crashing fall is actually the main focus of the film, as by trying to be more of a hero like Batman he ultimately becomes a monster like the Joker, highlighting the difference between the two “freaks” in his huge character arc.

While Ledger’s name has been repeatedly (and prematurely) touted for Oscar glory, and he is admittedly excellent, Eckhart really is the soul of this film, though understandably not the main attraction. His performance is simply excellent, and often difficult to watch knowing where it will lead to. For the second time this year a man has decided life or death with the flip of a coin (Chigurh in No Country being the first, of course) and the tension it creates is not traditional summer blockbuster stuff. As opposed to the raving lunatic Tommy Lee Jones portrayed in Batman Forever (1995), where he appeared to be channelling Cesar Romero as the Joker, this Two-Face is a ghastly spectre of vengeance and chaos – the effects used to create his scarring are indescribably unpleasant, though brilliant.

Of the returning cast members all are notable improvements on already great performances, though much of this has to do with the tightness of the script. Gary Oldman is far more comfortable in the Jim Gordon role, while Michael Caine continues to excel in a role that sometimes feels as if it might have been created for him. Morgan Freeman, little more than a likeable black Q in Begins, here has enough screen time to develop the limited character of Lucius Fox into something much more than a few one-liners.

So unlike such comic tripe such as last month’s The Incredible Hulk, story and character are the main foci here. But what about the explosions and punches that many come to see this sort of film (or rather the sort of film that this is being advertised as) for? There are some superb set pieces; a scene-setting bank heist, a Mission Impossible-style infiltration, an explosive road battle and a climactic sonar-vision brawl (you think I made that up, but I didn’t). Batman equips a new suit that unfortunately appears indistinguishable from the previous one (err, it’s also black), but his new gadget of choice is the fantastic Batpod (the lovechild of a ménage à trois between a tank, a motorcycle and a massage table), which makes a jaw-droppingly awesome first appearance.

The film has decidedly less humour in it than the first film, not including the not-sure-if-you-should-be-laughing-or-squirming contributions of the Joker. The romantic subplot is inoffensive. What this film really has going for it is just how smartly it has been developed. The Nolan brothers’ script is loaded with Memento-ish detail. What would be a minor subplot in other superhero movies – a Wayne employee stumbles upon his dual life – becomes, like a beer mat in a dead man’s jacket, a pivotal cog in the story’s development. Every iota of information is relevant and connected. There is no apologising here for the story originating in an “inferior medium” – this is complex, intelligent and stylish storytelling, as mature and dark as its title implies.

Certainly it does run a touch long (the major action sequence seen in trailers ends with an hour to spare), though one would be hard pressed to find what to cut without raising the Spiderman 3 “who needs another villain” argument. The score by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer is still lacking as it was in the first one, always building to a crescendo it never quite reaches. Bale’s Batman voice does become grating, and Cillian Murphy’s appearance as Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow is pointlessly brief. But beyond those there can be few complaints that aren’t simply a matter of taste, bar perhaps the potential for young viewers to be upset or disturbed by what is really quite heavy entertainment.

The hugely affecting ending will no doubt have audiences and studio execs begging for a second sequel, making ever-more tragic the loss of Ledger, but we should hope that they are not disappointed. The Dark Knight (alternative title: No Country for Bat Men ?) is the best and most memorable film to be released this summer thus far. Do not miss it.

5/5

1 Comment

Filed under Film