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2015 in review – You had us worried there for a bit

2015 best of

There was a moment when it looked like 2015 would be a pretty miserable year for cinema. A good few moments, to be honest. Battling through my final semester of college, my film viewing was restricted, and it wasn’t until May that I saw the first of the films to make my Top 20 of the year (Mad Max: Fury Road, if you’re asking).

Highly rated horrors It Follows and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night proved to be effective diversions that thoroughly failed to live up to the hyperbolic heights of the Film Twitter opinion machine. Furious 7 was a delightful (and dumb, but delightful) way to spend my birthday and a night away from my thesis, but that franchise continues to move away from the success of Fast Five. After Mad Max summer descended into a farce of blockbusters: the paint-by-nostalgia monstrosity that was Jurassic World, the lopsidedly bloated Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Roland Emmerich-lite San Andreas.

It was well into autumn before things picked up for me. Some early triumphs from the year made their ways to Netflix, and by then I was working on a project at the Museum of Modern Art, where keeping up to date with the better film releases became little more than a matter of staying late after work. In so many ways 2015 ended a lot better than it began.

It was Star Wars that sealed the deal. Not my favourite film of the year (in fact you’ll see it absent from the list below – but it was a close cut), The Force Awakens proved to have that little bit of magic that has been missing for all too long, a film the world can absorb the hype of that then manages to live up to expectations and be a genuinely terrific film. I saw a late screening opening night, and regardless of reservations, I left the cinema more charged than I can remember being in years.

There were, as always, dabbles in film history to charge me also. Painfully overdue, I finally viewed Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy, which lived up to the expectations of that teenager who caught three minutes of White on the TV so many years ago. At the cinema, I caught some real masterpieces for the first time: The Naked Spur, A Star Is Born (1954), The Masque of the Red Death, Fires on the Plain, the five-hour cut of Until the End of the World, Touki Bouki, Lonesome, and a 3D screening of the delirious Kiss Me Kate. Nothing compared to Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which stole my heart and exhausted my mind at MoMA in November, and instantly catapulted itself into the list of very greatest films I have ever seen.

Knowing 2015 would be a busy year, my annual movie challenge was intentionally a light one. Spying an obvious blind spot in my film knowledge – Bollywood – I took to forcing myself to watch one (long) feature a month. I only scraped the surface of course, but I’ve developed an understanding of and passion for this major branch of Indian cinema, its flamboyance, its love of twists and hatred of subtext. I watched essential classics including Zanjeer, Mother India, and Mughal-e-Azam, as well as recent hits like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and 3 Idiots, and even contemporary madness like Dhoom, Dhoom 2, and Enthiran. I’ll be watching more in future, and I can’t recommend enough that film fans who have yet to dip their toes in Bollywood streams take care of that, and see what a sixth of people on earth considers mainstream cinema.

So on to the films of the year. As always I missed a few things. Beasts of No Nation, despite being right there on Netflix, never got seen. Clouds of Sils Maria, Bridge of Spides, Magic Mike XXL, and Creed similarly got missed. Some lauded films were appreciated, but fell short for me, like Straight Outta Compton, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, The Hateful Eight, and The Revenant. Films that narrowly didn’t make my Top 20 include Mistress America, Tangerine, Taxi, James White, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Song of the Sea, and The Big Short. The terrific farce 7 Days of Hell was considered, but rejected for the same reason A Very Murray Christmas, the worst thing I saw all year, doesn’t feature in my worst-of list – they’re both productions designed for home viewing and barely of a length to qualify as features.

 

Now, who enjoys a good list?

 

20. Queen of Earth

Alex Ross Perry’s psychological drama about the breakdown of friendship between two millenial yuppies is peppered with nightmarish oddities that keep the viewer on their toes. It’s violently negative in its lack of faith in people supporting one another in need, but not unjustifiably so. Shot in bright airy spaces, but the focus is on intense close-ups that further alienate the characters from each other. Elisabeth Moss gave one of the year’s most committed performances.

 

19. Youth

Still struggling to recreate his earlier successes in The Consequences of Love and (the near-perfect) Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino has made his best film in seven years. It focuses on two elderly artist friends hiding from the world in a Swiss spa. Michael Caine is the retired classical composer who peaked too soon, Harvey Keitel is the Scorsese-like filmmaker who keeps pumping out films that cannot compare to the works of his youth. Finely acted and sublimely scored, and featuring a deluge of Sorrentino’s delicious, unexplained eccentricities, it is hampered only by its dialogue, which feels all too scabrously translated from Italian.

 

18. Ex Machina

As sci-fi continues to recapture the public imagination (2015 was quite a good year for it overall), this unexpected gem, a sexy Asimovian tale of A.I. versus real en-souled intelligence, became a surprise favourite for many. Written and directed by Alex Garland, known best for writing Danny Boyle’s sci-fi ventures, this was a slickly produced psychological thriller that brought together demi-perspex android Alicia Vikander and 2015 MVP Domhnall Gleeson’s computer expert for the ultimate Voight-Kampff test. Oscar Isaac’s untrustworthy tech billionaire, all creatine and superego, stole the show, along with the lush visuals. A mishandled finale was the only sour note.

 

17. Phoenix

Christian Petzold, the emerging master of German historical melodrama, weaves a strangely original yarn in Phoenix, in which a Holocaust survivor attempts to uncover if her husband served her up to the Nazis. Unrecognisable after reconsructive surgery, she is hired by her husband to impersonate his supposedly dead wife to claim an inheritance. The greater mystery is therefore known to us, creating a scintilating game of cat and mouse. Impressive period detail, Nina Hoss’s restrained performance and a jawdropping conclusion make it one to remember.

 

16. Sicario

What should feel overly familiar, another tale of cynical cops and murderous cartels, is given new life and energy in Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario. The descent of Emily Blunt’s FBI agent from go-getting SWAT member, to toughened special forces volunteer, to exhausted, disillusioned survivor, stands as a superb metaphor for the bewildering War on Drugs. Smart dialogue and incredible cinematography by Roger Deakins (the night vision sequence was one of the year’s finest) saw it through clunkier moments; it leaves a lasting impression.

 

15. Goodnight Mommy

The old dark house of classic horror is here replaced with a soulless, polished modernist monolith, a bright white country house full of dark terrors. A pair of twins – spritely, Aryan-looking – begin to suspect that their mother is no longer who she claims to be. A nasty game of powerplay ensues, with the story cleverly shifting the viewer’s allegience. Keenly cut and often blackly comic, it’s a skin-crawling horror that reinvents torture porn as Oedipal nightmare.

 

14. The Assassin

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s stunning wuxia fable was one of 2015’s most beautiful and most frustrating films. With an intentionally obtuse storyline and an editing style that cuts away from the main action on a whim, it is not a film that satisfies a hunger for solid storytelling. What it does have however are exquisitely lush production values and, in its star Shu Qi, a remarkable feminine intensity. Many of the year’s most arresting images were imbedded in this work, in particular a dramatic cliffside confrontation slowly enwrapped in mist.

 

13. Inside Out

Pixar rarely let us down, but lately their hits have numbered their misses. But their hits remain some of the smartest, most charming and most universally appealing films to come out of Hollywood today. Pete Docter, responsible for Monsters, Inc. and Up, here takes us inside the mind of a young preteen, demonstrating her emotional turmoil through anthropomorphised emotions that dwell in a sci-fi wonderland; part playground, part bureaucratic stampede. The characters both inside and out carry the film’s hefty emotional punch, and the designs are handsome and witty. Only its repetitive, stop-and-start adventure narrative prevents it from being listed with the very top of the Pixar pantheon.

 

12. Brooklyn

Old-fashioned in the best possible way, director John Crowley’s take on Colm Tóibín’s novel, adapted by Nick Hornby, puts its money where its heart is. Saoirse Ronan beams as Eilis, a shy parochial Irish girl who moves to New York to better herself, and soon emerges from her shell, only to be torn between her new home and the one she left behind. Plus there’s an ideal romantic match on both sides of the Atlantic. Excellent period detail and finely paced, simple human drama create something traditional yet timely. Earnest, genuine, and unironic storytelling.

 

11. Spotlight 

Telling the story of how The Boston Globe broke the news of massive cover-ups of paedophilia within the Catholic Church, Spotlight repeatedly evokes the champion of the investigative news genre, All the President’s Men. While never quite reaching its forebear’s heights, it recaptures much of its energy, making the gathering of information or the biting of a new lead as thrilling as a gun battle or foot chase. It is functionally, unshowily shot, with some choice montage work, but it’s the slowly building story and the great performances, most notably Mark Ruffalo, that made this one of the year’s most surprisingly powerful dramas.

 

10. Anomalisa

Resurrecting a 10-year-old stage play, the unique surrealist Charlie Kaufman chose to visualise this tale of depression and isolation in stop-motion animation form. The antihero of the film, Michael, is so cut-off, introspective and self-obsessive, that he perceives every stranger as sharing the same, expressionless face, each bearing actor Tom Noonan’s barely shifting tones. A chance encounter with Lisa, wearing her own 3D-printed face and wielding Jennifer Jason Leigh’s sweet voice, evolves into a simple love affair with complex repercussions. At times hilarious, tragic, or nightmarish, it sculpts two incredible character studies as rich as the miniature universe built to house them. The shower scene alone guarantees this one immortality.

9. The Duke of Burgundy

Peter Strickland has emerged as a late British Lynch, an artist who understands the film camera as a literal dream machine, producing deep truth from the illogical. In this, his third dramatic feature, he explores female sexuality through a series of twisting sexual games of cat-and-mouse, as a lesbian couple indulge in sado-masochistic role-play in opulent fashion. The lavish English country estate décor, sensuous lingerie and extensive all-female cast create a gratifying otherworldliness, while the rich cinematography, sharp cutting and unexpected insect imagery add to Strickland’s ethereal scenario an extra sexy pinch.

 

8. The Look of Silence

The companion piece to 2012’s untouchable The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence sees Joshua Oppenheimer turn away from the perpetrators of Indonesia’s anti-communist genocide to look at its victims, and the survivors. In a metaphor too perfect for fiction, clear sight is given to us through an optician (or supposed optician), a man whose brother was savagely slain by government-backed gangsters. He visits these older gangsters, now local big wigs, and while performing eye exams, has them probe their despicable pasts for reasonings and methods. Mixing gut-wrenching old video testament with brightly shot contemporary footage, Oppenheimer hints that an emotional cleansing is possible, but all too late for our protagonist and his withering parents.

 

7. Mad Max: Fury Road 

Just when reboots and remakes and all-too-late sequels were becoming old-hat, George Miller undid more than a decade’s worth of talking animal abuse to bring back Max Rockatansky from his shallow, sandy, post-apocalyptic grave. An adrenaline-pumping extended chase sequence of a movie, Fury Road has all the thump and energy of the finest post-’90s action cinema with the dedicated, unpatronising world-building of ’80s fantasy. Tom Hardy grunts as Max, while Charlize Theron stands a one-armed feminist archangel as Imperator Furiosa, a second-tier thug in a cultish tribe who decides enough is enough in the face of crippling misogyny and rape. With exquisite stunts and mind-boggling costume and vehicle design, Fury Road is that rare art film in blockbuster’s clothing. Indulgences in the thrill of the chase undermine the broader themes at times, but this is still exceptional filmmaking from start to finish.

 

6. The Tribe

Part gangster movie, part coming-of-age tale, part pitch-black parody of high school dramas, The Tribe is a monstrous and brilliant work. Set at a Ukrainian school for the deaf, the dialogue is entirely in sign language, without accompanying translation of any kind. The audience is thus forced to engage doubly with the material, to absorb what story it can while the thunderous, angered performances confront them head on. Extended shots without cuts for interruption draw you further in, only to be assaulted by a McDonagh-ian propensity for sudden, horrifying violence. Other sequences our ears pick up the important sounds that could mean life-or-death for the characters on screen. It is a hopeless look at an isolated, noiseless world, that milks the potential of cinema to both reveal and conceal for everything it’s got.

 

5. The Martian

Another story of survival in space – so what makes this one different? Well for starters, Matt Damon gives his finest performance in a decade in one of his greatest roles, as astronaut Mark Watney, a cocksure scientist whose wit and ego are enough to just about sustain him after he is abandoned on Mars in a dust storm. His quest to stay alive with limited resources is created with real (or at least believable) science and exceptional wit, through Drew Goddard’s bouncy screenplay and Damon’s sardonic delivery. The momentum jumps along at a solid pace, while sequences on Mars, Earth, and in space sustain the drama without an ounce of fat. Ridley Scott, working as a director for hire, commits to a great project, tying together excellent location shooting (in Jordan) and expertly deployed special effects. A testament to human perseverance, a uniquely smart blockbuster, and just a really good time at the movies.

 

4. Son of Saul

Shot on 35mm with needle-point-shallow focus, Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes’s debut feature redefines ‘harrowing’, by bringing you into the whirling hell of a Nazi death camp and refusing to let you out. The sensational Géza Röhrig is Saul, a Jewish prisoner fit enough to be part of the team who assist in the mass murder of their own people, and thus an enforced collaborator. His impossible last chance for redemption is to save the corpse of a young man (his son, perhaps?) from the furnace, but escalating events in the camp block his way at every hurdle. An exhausting, frustrating and beautiful work, that dares to reveal the darkest, unwhispered barbarities of the Holocaust.

 

3. 45 Years

The year’s simplest, meatiest tragedy, Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years feels like the untold not-so-happy ending to many of the greatest love stories. An older couple is about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary when he receives a letter regarding a lost love from his past. The nostalgia and sadness bred in him stirs regret and paranoia in his wife, threatening not just the occasion, but the legacy of their relationship. Capturing beautiful moments of human interaction and shot from a permanently respectful distance, 45 Years is a remarkable story that triumphs through its two stars, the resurrected ’60s heartthrob Tom Courtenay, and the irrepressible Charlotte Rampling, at her very finest.

 

2. Carol

Todd Haynes’s sumptuous, delicious film of forbidden love in 1950s New York hits with an emotional wallop, as wide-eyed salesgirl Therese (Rooney Mara) meets older divorcee-to-be Carol (Cate Blanchett), and embarks upon a seemingly doomed lesbian romance. Made up of perfectly framed glances and erotically charged conversations, Carol highlights the cruelty of the attitudes of the time without preaching or descending into melodrama. The period detail and lighting astonish, while the score by Carter Burwell captures and holds the energy of the drama. But it’s the performances by the film’s two female leads that make this one for the ages. Heartfelt and empathetic, they carry their flawed characters with immense pride right through to the heart-stopping finale.

 

1. Hard to Be a God

One of the defining qualities of a great movie is that it either shows you something that has never been seen before, or tells a story that is unlike any you have ever seen. It has been too long since a film did both. Aleksei German’s final film (it was completed in post after his death), shot over six years, originates in a novel by Russian authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who wrote the work on which Tarkovsky’s Stalker was based. It is about a group of human scientists observing a world almost identical to Earth, but still in, and seemingly stuck in, the Middle Ages. In an explosive performance, Leonid Yarmolnik plays Don Rumata, a human observer succumbed to extraordinary hubris, encouraging the peasants of this backwards planet to treat him as a god. The themes of madness and decline are handled with the gravitas they deserve, but the film retains a casual cheekiness throughout, defiantly grotesque and dirty. The lengthy takes with roving handheld cameras get you right up in the thick of it; you can almost smell the sweat and mud. German has done the near impossible, rigidly blocking his scenes despite the wild camera movements, so that his frame is perpetually full, busy, and yet with no action obscured. It is monumental filmmaking, beautiful and hideous and deep.

hardtobeagod

Good god, man!

 

—————————————————————–

So as for the worst films of 2015, well, for a year that never seemed like it was going to be a good year for cinema until the last minute, it never looked much like a bad year either. I never saw Mortdecai or Rock the Kasbah or Pan or Terminator: Typo. End-of-the-world examples of cynical capitalist cinema in the guise of Jurassic World or Minions were so blandly efficient as to escape this list. Here’s what utterly disappointed or downright infuriated this past year.

 

5. The Good Dinosaur

One step forward and one step back is Pixar’s game right now. This mindlessly banal tripe is only a patch above Cars 2 in that studio’s canon. It’s utterly unbelievable, uncrafted world, with barely a dozen dinosaur inhabitants implying rampant inbreeding, its rehashed boy-and-his-dog plot that goes nowhere new, its lazy voicework and godawful twangy score, all add up to bad family entertainment. The backgrounds are, admittedly, extraordinarily illustrated, but that’s no use when the characters in front of them look like Aardman characters crafted from nasal drippings. The magic mushrooms scene was the most socially and ethically misjudged moment in an American movie all year, and I’m including Entourage in that.

 

4. Taken 3

Climbing its way up from the very bottom a few years back, the Taken franchise now no longer feels like an advertising campaign for ISIS, at least. But this remains truly exhausted action garbage, with growling and exhausted Liam Neeson killing all the Russians in America after his ex-wife is murdered in a desperate attempt to raise the stakes. The action sequences barely thrill (as they barely thrilled when seen in the trailers), and Forest Whitaker only serves to depress with his role-slumming. The dramatic ending is gloriously, unintentionally laughable.

 

3. The Editor 

Genre spoofs are not easy, and this attempt to lampoon giallo and B-movie horror manages to bungle everything from the get-go. The look, the rhythms, the acting styles are all wrong, as if no one involved actually bothered to watch a giallo beforehand, or thought a movie all about analogue film editing might wanna look like it’s being shown on old film. The murder mystery isn’t intriguing, the horror isn’t frightening and the gags just aren’t funny – desperate as it is to find comedy in old-timey Italian misogyny, it comes off as disinterested in appearing at all respectful to women. At least it tried, but it failed utterly.

 

2. Fantastic Four

The superhero reboot no one asked for became the film no one wanted, including, it would seem, the actors or filmmakers involved. Every step is so blatantly miscalculated, from the casting (Jamie Bell as tough guy Ben, Michael B. Jordan as lovable fop Johnny, Toby Kebbell as someone with an accent) to the overly realistic look, to the epic score played over characters crossing the street or typing things into computers. Supposedly plagued by production issues, its bipolar switch in the second act reveals that no one could quite agree what kind of movie they were making. For once with a messy major Marvel-based project, the box office reflected this.

1. The Loft

Erik Van Looy’s remake of his own modestly successful Belgian thriller Loft, this is an uncompromising study in bad filmmaking. An unengaging murder mystery, that doubles as a deeply unsexy erotic thriller, The Loft starts off on the most wrong foot by having its five male stars buy an apartment together in which to cheat on their wives. By the time a dead body turns up, we already want all these men locked away for it regardless of their role in the murder. Painful miscasting and excruciating dialogue build up to a pathetic series of convoluted twists. Men’s rights activist cinema, with all the talent you imagine goes with that.

 

 

And with that, onward into 2016…

 

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Pacific Rim – Monsters Brawl

Battletech: Raleigh's Jaeger 'Gipsy Danger'

Battletech: Raleigh’s Jaeger ‘Gipsy Danger’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3/5

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

 

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After Earth – Where there’s a Will, there’s a Jaden

Smith hits the fan: Jaden takes a knee before facing the Volcano Zone level of After Earth

Smith hits the fan: Jaden takes a knee before facing the Volcano Zone level of After Earth

The original teaser trailer for After Earth felt like an M. Night Shyamalan movie. In deep space, in the future, super-soldier Will Smith and his would-be hero son Jaden crash land on an unpopulated, savage world. But twist! It’s Earth!

But much like Shyamalan’s last disastrous venture, The Last Airbender, After Earth isn’t one of the director’s traditional twist-based thrillers, rather a sci-fi action adventure film. And once more the director is considerably out of his element.

Based on a story idea by Smith the elder, and written by Shyamalan and Book of Eli writer Gary Whitta, After Earth is a father/son bonding tale set within a clumsily considered (and more clumsily realised) science fiction universe. The whole venture feels like an excuse for Will to show off his son; Shyamalan certainly has no chance to show off anything here.

Set some 1,000 years after Earth is abandoned for environmental reasons, mankind has settled on a sunny, Grand Canyon-esque planet called Nova Prime (‘new one’ – not even the most embarrassing use of Latin this film demonstrates). Ranger Corps general Cypher Raige (Will Smith, overcompensating for how ordinary his real name is) has become the hero of humanity after defeating an alien invasion; in what would probably have been a much more entertaining movie to watch. He has perfected the art of “ghosting”, suppressing all fear so that the alien beasties can’t see him. But the death of his daughter at the claws of one of the creatures has scarred his relationship with his son Kitai (Jaden Smith), who has sort of been blamed for her demise despite being only about six at the time it happened.

Attempting to reconnect, Cypher takes Kitai on a mission with him, but soon enough an asteroid collision leaves them the only survivors of the starship once it crashes down to Earth. With Cypher’s leg broken, and the only working distress beacon in the tail section of the starship some miles away (alternative title: ‘Lost in space’), Kitai must venture into the sort-of-unknown to save the day and earn top-billing on the movie posters.

Daddy's issues: Will Smith begins to regret relinquishing top billing to his son

Daddy’s issues: Will Smith begins to regret relinquishing top-billing to his son

The lush landscape of Earth is now dotted with plenty of predators and poisonous nasties, mostly mild evolutions of creatures we already have – slightly bigger eagles, slightly bigger cougars, slightly bigger monkeys, slightly bigger leeches, ordinary-sized boars. But, due to science and why-the-hell-not-ery, the temperature plummets to below freezing after nightfall, meaning Kitai must race to reach a series of hot spots – thermal safe zones, assumedly where he can save his game and regenerate in case he is killed in his mission.

In a plot mechanic worryingly borrowed from space Viking movie Outlander, an alien monster being transported by the ship has also survived, and is after Kitai, who must prove himself a fearless hero like his father. The alien, a feral xenomorph thing that shoots needles, is called an ‘ursa’, from the Latin for ‘bear’, because screw education that’s why. There is nothing remotely bear-ish about these things.

There is almost a decent story in the pre-Earth sequences of this film, although Will Smith’s robotic delivery and 14-year-old Jaden’s slightly awkward performance don’t capture the militant father/struggling son dynamic as well as maybe it appeared behind the scenes. Smith Sr., reduced to Morgan Freeman impressions in Jaden’s ear for much of the film, gives his son as much room as he can to act the star, but the young performer is just not up to carrying a movie – especially with only CGI animals to perform against for much of the time.

The locations are lush but the CGI is poor, and when swarms of computerised monkeys rumble through the ferns it looks almost laughable. The action scenes in general are disastrous, with all but one of them cut short after only a minute – an aerial showdown with an eagle ends almost as soon as it begins.

While the architecture of Nova Prime is briefly interesting, the story leaves it so quickly that we never have a chance to be wowed by the $130m production values. The inside of Cypher’s ship looks like something out of Blake’s 7, all cardboard walls and hangar netting. They were going for a look, clearly, but they forgot to finish it. The one piece of design truly worth commending is in the Ranger Corps’ weaponry – they wield ‘cutlasses’, blade handles with control panels on them allowing the wielder to select the blade of their choosing to shoot out from it. It’s a nice idea, and gets a few brief clever uses; but if you’ll remember the last time a sword was the best thing about a film you were watching The Phantom Menace.

It’s impossible to know what anyone saw in this project. What is the moral? Certainly not environmentalism – mankind has only been gone a millennium and Earth looks gorgeous again! The father/son bond is central but never really pushed, and climaxes on a remarkably awkward joke that suggests not so much an understanding has been reached but that neither man is up to their line of work. Wedged in the middle is the most preposterous re-enactment of Androcles and the Lion you could ever hope to witness. The running theme of overcoming fear allows for a lot of The Secret-meets-FDR nonsense talk from Smith, suggesting fear is something we choose to have, even when watching our sisters get impaled by colossal lizard bug monsters, called bears.

Ursa, minor: Kitai (Jaden Smith) faces off against whatever the hell that thing is supposed to be

Ursa, minor: Kitai (Jaden Smith) faces off against whatever the hell that thing is supposed to be

Shyamalan’s failure is most of all not knowing how to control an action sequence, and he seems to have no sense of what audiences want from their thrill rides. Lacking pacing, drama, emotion, action and even a truly unique vision, After Earth is about as big a dud as Hollywood can hope to churn out these days. Not even the combined starpower of Mr. and Mr. Smith can save this one.

1/5

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

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Oblivion – Ob-li-vi, Ob-li-va, Earth goes on, bra!

Last Man Standing: Tom Cruise in Oblivion

Last Man Standing: Tom Cruise in Oblivion

Torturing us all for the shock success of Battle: Los Angeles back in early 2011, Hollywood has begun its own alien onslaught, flinging some half dozen end-of-the-world science fiction films at us this year.

The first up is Oblivion, Joseph Kosinski’s follow-up to the flashy and distracting, if slightly moronic and empty, Tron: Legacy. An eye-wateringly glossy post-apocalyptic mystery adventure, it is a finely assembled work, that has been finely assembled from other, better films.

Seventy years after a war with alien scavengers, the Scavs, Earth has seen better days. The destruction of the Moon has caused geographical discombobulation on an Emmerichian scale, and the plundering of the resources of what used to be the blue planet has meant that mankind has had to relocate to one of the moons of Saturn. The Scavs, defeated, have scurried in fragmented numbers underground.

Tom Cruise plays Jack Harper, one of the last humans remaining on Earth, as part of a clean-up detail. A high-tech mechanic, he repairs the drones and devices that keep the Scavs at bay and recoup the last of Earth’s energy for the new human homeworld. His only contact is with his communications officer Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who keeps him advised on every move he makes. They live together in a Big Brother house in the sky, and, at the slightly creepy encouragement of their mission commander, Sally (Melissa Leo), who directs them in fractured messages from beyond the stratosphere, to engage in carnal discourse, because that’s what makes “an effective team”.

But not everything is as it seems. Jack has incomprehensible flashbacks to a time before the war, despite his memory having been wiped for mission security reasons. He collects trinkets from the once great civilisation of New York, now flooded in silt and rubble: toys, records, books, a Yankees cap. Soon the Scavs begin to take a personal interest in Jack’s movement, and then the woman of his dreams literally comes crashing back into his life. What, exactly, is Jack and Victoria’s mission?

Date with destiny: Olga Kurylenko and Tom Cruise recall better times

Date with destiny: Olga Kurylenko and Tom Cruise recall better times

If any of this sounds familiar, you shouldn’t be surprised; it should. “Derivative” is a word that gets thrown around a lot, and in relation to science fiction it’s as commonly used as “darker” is in superhero movie reviews. But Oblivion might just be the most derivative film ever made. Like, class action lawsuit derivative. Its central ideas and themes are fused from a number of recent and classic science fiction films. Visually, its space pods and structures hearken back to countless other sci-fi designs. Even its action scenes seem overly familiar in pace and choreography.

Take the drones – almost identical to the pods from 2001: A Space Odyssey, they are similarly controlled by a red electric eye. Instead of claw arms, they have cannons which fold out from their sides like EVE from WALL•E (and they share her iPod veneer). But reacting to Cruise’s raising of his weapon, and failing to react to his lowering of it, the drones show an identical programming to ED209 from RoboCop. When a drone is summoned for termination purposes, a drone without a minty white coating appears, revealing a black skeletal series of patterns across it in the vein of a T-800. At a moment of supposed high tension the Terminator allusion is simply guffawable. That’s four films unmistakably sampled in one brilliantly realised prop.

Other films blatantly referenced or “borrowed from” in Oblivion include (in alphabetical order to avoid spoilers): Aliens, I Am Legend, Independence Day, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Matrix Revolutions, Moon, Planet of the Apes, Predator, The Road Warrior, Silent Running, Solaris, Star Wars, Stargate, Total Recall, Transformers: The Movie, War of the Worlds. It’s actually a fun game to count them, although repeatedly it forces you out of the film, as Oblivion makes you think of beloved classics instead of, well, the story in progress. Kosinski, directing from a script polished by Toy Story 3’s Michael Arndt and The Departed’s William Monahan but based on an unpublished graphic novel he had written himself some years back, is all too unsubtle in his inspirations, and they cloud the fact that at many levels Oblivion is quite a strong film.

Cruise takes a role that only a select few actors could have made work and, despite limited characterisation, holds the movie together when it is at its weakest, most ramshackle points. Riseborough plays the increasingly Pod Peopled Victoria with some admirable restraint. Olga Kurylenko does her best in a role the film’s four writers all managed to overlook, while Morgan Freeman shows up to take the most relish he has in any role since Wanted.

On a technical side, the movie looks sublime, and not much of that can be handed to its… influences. Kosinski has a great feel for the visual, and refusing to shoot in 3D to keep the whites dazzling and the blacks standing out  was a great decision that shows a huge amount of confidence in the director on behalf of production studio Universal. Life of Pi’s D.P. Claudio Miranda brings every image sharply to life, while the soundtrack by French electronic outfit M83 pulses with an energy that drives much of the film forward and escalates some of the weaker drama.

In the end, Oblivion falls on its own laser sword*. It looks and sounds great throughout, but assembled like a Frankenstein’s monster from so many superior films not only dilutes the enjoyment but dilutes its own sincerity. “Earth is a memory worth fighting for” runs the tagline, but the memories on display here are all film memories, scavenged from the sci-fi greats of the ’50s to the present. They are worth fighting for, and remembering their origins and not the film that dared to harvest them all is what matters.

Oblivion is a superbly crafted film, but its memory will not be long for this world.

3/5

 

 

*Laser swords are one of the only clichés of the genre Oblivion skipped, thankfully.

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Total Recall – An unmemorable remake

Colin Farrell as Doug ‘Dougie’ Quaid, aka Carl Hauser (aka Dougie Hauser?)

It’s hard to stifle a giggle as the lights go down for Total Recall when the name of the film’s production studio, Original Film, comes up on screen. Coming 22 years after the Paul Verhoeven-directed version, it’s hard to find much “original” about this Len Wiseman production, at least on the surface. It doesn’t help the filmmakers’ arguments that they insist the film is more closely based on the source material, Philip K. Dick’s short story ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’; but really swathes of Total Recall 2012’s content comes from the 1990 film.

Wiseman, that packer of action who brought us the highly entertaining Live Free Or Die Hard (aka Die Hard 4.0) and the remarkably successful Underworld series, has here steered into cinemas an action movie that builds on its predecessor only in terms of gloss, not in terms of depth or content.

Colin Farrell, on autopilot, stars as Doug Quaid, a worker at a robot factory in a futuristic Britain, which has become the world’s sole superpower after a chemical holocaust made most of the planet uninhabitable. This ever-so-slightly despotic Britain rules over a colony, called the Colony, in what was once Australia, and its supposedly oppressed workforce are imported every day via a colossal elevator, the Fall, which connects the territories via the Earth’s core.

But Quaid is not who he thinks he is. Bored with his dull life and his outrageously beautiful wife (how?!), he attempts to have false memories of a more exciting reality inserted in his brain through a system called Rekall, only to cause a major system crash when it turns out he already has those memories, for real, and everything else has been inserted. Learning he is actually Carl Hauser, a military big wig turned pro-Colony freedom fighter, he goes on the run from the cops (both human and robot) and his wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale), who is also an imposter and the top agent assigned to keep him under lock and key.

Soon Quaid/Hauser teams up with his real love interest Melina (Jessica Biel), and following clues left by himself before the memory implant embarks on a quest to save the Colony from all-out enslavement by the Big Brotherish Britain.

No-road rage: Kate Beckinsale in her magnetic hover car

Production-wise Total Recall has more money than it knows what to do with. Inspired by, amongst others, Blade Runner and Minority Report, it adequately shows a fusion of cultures (Asian and South American) in the Colony, and the soaring metropolis that has built up around London in the United Federation of Britain. And yet, there’s nothing particularly dystopic about this world. Its class system seems unfair, but not much worse than what we have at present, and the horror that the villains wish to unleash is never actually seen. Unlike the drab and lifeless world of Verhoeven’s Total Recall, this doesn’t look at all like the worst of possible futures.

Yet there are plenty of fine touches in the production; the gravity reversing elevator of the Fall feels fresh to sci-fi, while electric web guns, magnetic hover cars and a device that shoots hundreds of tiny cameras show signs of creativity and inspiration lacking in much of the script. Quaid finds himself tracked not by a bug in his brain as in the original film, but by a mobile phone built into his hand – a technology that feels not impossibly far off now.

Where Wiseman excels is in the lengthy action scenes, which include some barnstorming set pieces, all of which slightly overstay their welcome but never exhaust. Upon being surrounded by elite cops, Quaid proceeds to take them out in a frenetic, sweeping digitally altered single take, shortly before being confronted by his vicious, flexible fake wife, who proceeds to teach him a move or two. Beckinsale is given the majority of the best stunts to do, and performs them with plenty of panache – her knees-first slides are some of the most memorable moments in the film. A major central action piece, involving a series of elevators that can travel sideways as well as upwards, feels a little too much like a Mario Bros. game, with the characters leaping from platform to platform and avoiding getting crushed in corridors. Indeed, the entire film has quite a computer gamey feel to it. The epilepsy-inducing scrolling lens flares don’t help.

Jessica Biel and Colin Farrell in some sort of threatening situation or other

The screenplay by Kurt Wimmer (Equilibrium, Salt) and Mark Bomback (Die Hard 4) is as lacking in urgency as it is in one liners (comparatively, the 1990 film was written by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, who wrote Alien). Worse still it fails to build in any way on the original story, which given 22 years has passed is almost inexcusable. In the interim audiences have been exposed to The Matrix, eXistenZ and Inception, so questions of reality and identity are no longer new, or even pressing. The one scene in the original Total Recall that truly questioned Quaid’s reality (he is confronted by a scientist who claims he is dreaming) is reproduced here in an exhaustingly extended form, where Quaid is confronted by a close friend rather than an expert. The conclusion to the scene is slightly different, but not enough to justify a Total Recall post-Matrix.

Even the always brilliant Bryan Cranston as the villain Cohaagen can’t elevate this film beyond a passing entertainment. Bill Nighy and John Cho show up in brief cameos, but they could be anyone. While Beckinsale looks as though she is always having plenty of fun (her husband directing may have given her free rein), Farrell only really pushes his limits during the action sequences, and slumps when he’s not on the run. A highlight of the film sees him come face to face with an interactive recording of his former self – the two Farrells are played by his very different guises, the clean-shaven, slick-haired, baby-faced Farrell of In Bruges and Phone Booth, and the goateed, dangerous Farrell of Daredevil and Intermission. It’s a cute touch. Meanwhile, Jessica Biel, usually a limited actress, is deadwood in a criminally underwritten role.

For all its gloss and bang, this is a fun but forgettable sci-fi action movie, that crucially fails to justify itself as a remake at this time. There’s plenty of talent evident, let’s just hope it can be used more substantially in future.

2/5

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An interview with Len Wiseman

Len Wiseman on set

I recently interviewed Hollywood action movie director Len Wiseman for Film Ireland magazine while he was in town to promote Total Recall (2012). We discussed his new film, how to structure an action sequence, the unfortunate censorship of Live Free or Die Hard/Die Hard 4.0 and the big question of the day: which was the better action movie, The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises?

It took making a movie with Colin Farrell to get Len Wiseman to Ireland. The Californian director of Total Recall was on his star’s home turf for the European premiere of the movie, when I spoke with him at Dublin’s Merrion Hotel. Busy with press and the premiere that day, he assured me that Farrell had promised to show him the town before he left.

Wiseman, a director of high-octane video game-influenced action blockbusters was a strong choice to put in charge of this sci-fi remake, originally made by the Dutch master Paul Verhoeven in 1990. That film starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doug Quaid, a blue collar worker who discovers all his memories have been implanted, and he is actually a spy. Big shoes had to be filled, especially when remaking a film that was so commercially successful while also wooing critics. Wiseman launched his name through the Underworld movies, vampires versus werewolves romps, which he created and now produces – the series has now taken nearly $500,000,000 worldwide. His Total Recall, following The Dark Knight Rises into cinemas, has not had as warm a reception thus far. So what drew him to the project?

“It kind of came to me out of left field,” he admitted. “I’d been focused on prepping a different movie at the time that didn’t go through. They sent me a script, I actually read it with quite a bit of scepticism about what it would be. I’m a fan of the original, so I was more reading it trying to convince myself why not to do it. I was just hooked by the direction that it went in, it was a very different take, and it felt like such a different experience than the Verhoeven film.”

Wiseman is a fan of the original film, but confessed when he saw it first, aged 17, he was “just going to see the next Arnold action movie!” Years later, in college, he read the short story it was based on, ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’, by sci-fi soothsayer Philip K. Dick, unaware of the connection. “I remember reading and thinking: ‘Hey this is that movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger!’ When I read the story it did have a very different kind of Quaid to me, and it was a different experience. So that’s what made me feel both more comfortable and [with the script]; it reminded me more of the short story.”

Total Recall (1990) and Total Recall (2012): How times have (sort of) changed

Verhoeven’s Total Recall can still surprise now, given that it touches on concepts such as “what is reality?” nearly 10 years before The Matrix and eXistenZ. So what message can Total Recall carry now, another 12 years later? Wiseman said the idea of implanting happier memories than the ones we have, through the sci-fi product ‘Rekall’, is more pertinent now than ever. “If the technology actually gets to the point where we can experience something like Rekall, is it the right thing to do?” he suggested. “Is it safe? To me it’s amazing that Philip K. Dick’s work, not just in this story, is so relevant. Some people just have a window into our future and where we’re going. I mean even Facebook, look at what we have today, we’re ordering up, putting up the pictures that we want, saying this is who I am, how I’m describing myself. I’ll leave out all the bad stuff. This is my alter ego of me, who I want to be. Rekall is an extension of that science. An extension of our technology of being actually able to say ‘this is who I want to be’.”

This Total Recall has a particularly glossy look, with its story shifting between a futuristic London and its enslaved colony in Australia. Influenced by the likes of Blade Runner and Minority Report and Wiseman’s ever-growing collection of sci-fi artwork (he refers to his home as a “big geek fest”), the director explained that his team also borrowed the look of Rio de Janeiro’s slums and Asian fishing villages to create a “hodge podge” of interlocking cultures. The decision to bathe the film in light was taken on his own distaste for underlit action movies. “I love to see what is going on,” he said, “both in my camera movements, in the way that things are choreographed. [Cinematographer] Paul Cameron did an amazing job. We talked about it a lot; that’s why there’s so much practical light within those sets, so we can have a reason to splash light all over the place. I think you can have a very dark image – Total Recall is very dark – but you can still see everything because the contrast level is able to be really dark when it’s black, but as long as you’re putting spots on everything that you need to see it works.”

And what about those extended, frenetic action scenes? “I think it’s very important for an action sequence to be its own story, and have a first act, second act, third act within the action. Otherwise it’s just relentless action – it doesn’t make any sense. There is a difference between just an action scene and an action sequence, and what it means to me is that in an action sequence you can remember the sequence, it should tell some story and ratch it up and tell its conclusion rather than just be noise and shaky cameras.”

Wiseman directs Jessica Biel

Perhaps the film’s finest moment is a sequence where Farrell’s Quaid rediscovers his talents as a spy and surprises himself by taking out a dozen SWAT team members in what appears to be a single, swooping take. “It appears to be!” Wiseman laughed, like a magician who delights in revealing his tricks. “That was something that was very difficult. It’s funny because when there’s something that people don’t quite grasp they go *snap fingers* “CG”, because we’re in a day and age where that’s commonplace. But it was 100% practical – it was put together with what are called super slider rigs, that they shoot football games with. They’re these remote cameras that move at about 35mph so you can’t man them. It was a lot of R&D on our end, but we put seven of those tracks together and what would happen is one of these cameras would go along at 35mph and when it crossed another one the computer would pick up and this one would take off from where the other left off. And we stitched all of those together. It took two days to shoot. Colin and the guys had to do the fight 22 times!”

Wiseman was clearly impressed with his leading man. “I had the funnest time with Colin. He’s a complete pleasure, and such a professional as well. And immensely funny, that’s one thing really struck me. He’s very talented, he has a hold body of work that’s wildly intelligent, but I was not aware of just how quick witted and funny he is. It really makes a difference on set to have somebody who’s devoted but also keeps it fun.”

Colin Farrell and Kate Beckinsale: Not-so-happily married

It’s less easy to ask Wiseman about working with his leading lady, Kate Beckinsale, without feeling as though your probing like a tabloid mag; the pair are married, having met on the set of the first Underworld film. She plays Lori, a spy pretending to be Quaid’s wife, keeping him under her thumb before having to hunt him down when he discovers who he is. I asked Wiseman if it’s coincidence he gave her character all the best lines. “A lot of those lines are her!” he replied. “Part of what I wanted from Kate and why I thought she’d be great for this movie is that people don’t realise through the Underworld movies or through the serious dramas and indies that she’s done is that she has such a sharp and fun and cunning sense of humour. And I knew that she would be able to bring a lot of that to the film. I wanted Laurie to have a taunting quality to Colin, and I knew that she would know how to bring that. So a lot of the one-liners are hers.”

Very much in demand these days, Bryan Cranston was cast as the totalitarian Chancellor Cohaagen, his first villainous role in a movie since his character Walter White shifted from hero to villain in his TV series Breaking Bad. The choice was an obvious one for Wiseman. “He was my first choice. I was watching Breaking Bad at the time and I was like ‘I’ve gotta work with this guy’. The thing that surprised me about him is that I had no idea about his other show (the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, which ran for six years in the early ‘00s), so I didn’t see that side of him. I only know him as Walter White. So he shows up and I thought ‘You know what, this guy has such a menacing quality about him that he may be difficult to work with’. I was setting myself up for who knows. He could not be a sweeter guy! And I kept waiting for that [mean] side of him to come out … because he’s so great in that role as Walter White. He’s a dear guy but just has a great presence in the film.”

Colin Farrell regrets trying to steal meth from Bryan Cranston

Wiseman went on to tell me about his pre-Underworld days, when he worked as a props master on Independence Day director Roland Emmerich’s biggest films of the 1990s. He described the experience as “a bit of film school for me in terms of problem solving, technique and using a budget”, before sharing an anecdote in which Emmerich, despite having a $75,000,000 for Independence Day, was ordering sets to be built at the last minute from leftover pieces of other film’s sets. “We literally built this little set in an hour of a hallway that was needed, just on the fly, and then walk them through and done. That was really helpful.”

With a fifth film in the Die Hard series due next year, was Wiseman ever in the run for to direct it, following his successful fourth instalment Live Free Or Die Hard (aka Die Hard 4.0) back in 2007? “It was, it was. Bruce [Willis] kind of went out there publicly and said so, but I was already working. I would love to jump in the ring again, but I was already well into the mix.”

Bruce Willis in Live Free or Die Hard (4.0)

The director also admitted his disappointment at how the studio censored that film. “I shot a rated R movie,” he insisted, and referenced the ‘Harder’ cut available on DVD. “I had no idea it was going to be PG-13; that came in halfway through the process. And I gotta tell you as a fan I felt like “I’m gonna walk.” If they it PG-13! You know Bruce was really up in arms about it and everything. But in the end it was the most expensive Die Hard. It was also my first studio film, so I lost that battle over the rating. I’m not big on doing the cartoon gore. But McClane is McClane, so that’s really why I was glad to get that (the extended cut) out.”

The question all action movie fans need to be asked this summer is The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises? Wiseman seemed very torn up about having to choose. “I actually thought beforehand ‘Dark Knight Rises is gonna hit it out of the park, but Avengers, that’s gonna be interesting, how are you gonna pull that one off?’ And I mean I was just watching [Avengers] thinking ‘I’m really liking this. It’s servicing the characters very well, it’s tying in very well, it’s really fun’, and I completely got into. I gotta say, the end of Dark Knight, how it all wrapped up and tied up I really liked. But Avengers was just… you walk out of that movie saying ‘That was so much fun.’ The difference is: Avengers I’ve seen twice.”

Kate Wiseman in Underworld: Evolution

So when the media circuit, or “circus” as Wiseman corrected me, for Total Recall is done, what will he do next? More Underworld? “I actually don’t know about Underworld!” he admitted, somewhat sheepishly. “I should be the right guy to ask, but I actually said there wasn’t going to be a fourth one! So I’m not sure about that. I’m producing a movie called Darkness, which is based off the Top Cow comic books. Then I’ve got two scripts that I’m working on – I’d love to get back to my own creations again.

“That’s how I started my career. Sequels and remakes are a thing of the past for me, I’d love to go back to getting my scripts off the ground.”

Total Recall is out in cinemas in Ireland and the UK now.

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

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2011 in review – Style, meet Substance. Substance, Style.

Now, perhaps I’m just misjudging the subtext of what I’ve read in the blogo/Twitter-sphere, but I get the impression that there is consensus that 2011 was a particularly fine year for cinema. There were definitely a lot of great films released, and compiling the list below was not easy, but was it a particularly great year?

It was certainly a standout year for American (and English-language) cinema. With some exceptions, blockbusters were smarter and tighter, and even where they failed (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) they still had ambition. Source Code led the charge for a new wave of intelligent sci-fi thrillers. Bridesmaids and 50/50 showed that American comedies could have as much heart as they had bodily fluids. Drive proved enough flair on a filmmaker’s behalf could erase any need for strong dialogue or acting – yet that film brought some great lines and fine performances nonetheless. At Cannes, The Tree of Life conquered, and around the world audiences were left mesmerised and/or walked out of the cinema.

The build-up to 2012’s The Avengers continued with two enjoyable tongue-in-cheek superhero adventures, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger; the success of both suggested the heroic team’s first outing will be one of the biggest films of this year. If rivals DC and Warner Bros wish to meet the Avengers threat head-on with a Justice League film, the critically mauled Green Lantern and a trailer for 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises should ensure that no one wants to see a JL film without Christopher Nolan at the helm any time soon.

After a terrific year in 2010, children’s films hit a hurdle – only one children’s film cracked my top 20, and it was released in the US in 2010. Martin Scorsese’s beautiful but shamefully overlong Hugo deserves applause however, even if it did prove once and for all (to me at least) that 3D cannot be mastered even by the most talented of filmmakers. Nostalgic methadone The Muppets and the enjoyable Kung Fu Panda 2 (which featured superb sequences of traditional hand-drawn animation) also narrowly missed my list.

As for documentaries… well, for work-related reasons I saw more docs last year than any year previous. Unfortunately many of them are so obscure that there is no point in listing them here. But suffice to say it was a strong year for documentary from around the world, even if the interesting but unambitious Inside Job won most of the acclaim this year. Docs like Senna and Page One: Inside the New York Times told their stories with far more flair.

A few notes on the list. Traditionally I have stuck with what was released in Ireland during each individual year, meaning that some of the previous year’s late releases (especially the Oscar push) end up on the subsequent year’s list – there’s never been a way of avoiding that. To add to the confusion now, I spent almost half of 2011 living in the United States, so this list may see some films released in late 2010 in the US but early 2011 in Ireland, while others will have yet to arrive in Irish cinemas yet.

It’s fair to say I didn’t see as many new films in 2011 as I might have liked (so few bad ones indeed, that I do not have enough to fill a “worst of 2011” list), but I did see a huge number of films this year. On the big screen, just some of the classics I saw include: Walkabout, The Driver, Paisan, Pickpocket, Network, The Wages of Fear, Quai des Brumes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (a restoration presented in person by Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker), Bridge on the River Kwai, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Orpheus, The Warriors and The Big Lebowski. Most of these were made available to me during a three-month internship I undertook at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a position I could talk endlessly about, but will not concern you with here.

That didn’t leave much room for new films, and amongst those I missed that I suspect may have challenged the films on this list are: Paul, The Beaver, Warrior, Moneyball, Take Shelter, My Week With Marilyn, Tyrannosaur, Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Skin I Live In, War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin.

Honourable mentions for films that I saw but barely missed out on the list are: Hugo, The Guard, The Muppets, Attack the Block, Senna, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, Bridesmaids, The Inbetweeners Movie, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Super 8.

Now, enough stalling… shall we?

20. The King’s Speech

The eventual reigning champion at last year’s Oscars, this was a beautifully produced and (for the most part) strongly acted account of the troubles faced by the young King George VI. A powerful and memorable ending casts a positive light on an otherwise largely forgettable flm; but damn, what an ending it is.

19. Troll Hunter

One of 2011’s most unexpected delights, this “found-footage” comedy/horror used the bizarre natural landscape of Norway as the perfect paradise for surprisingly realistic CGI trolls on a budget. An outrageously straight performance by Norwegian comic Otto Jespersen as the government-sponsored hunter of the title and surprisingly effective pseudo-science about troll biology made this film a sometimes scary but consistently hilarious outing – Man Bites Dog meets Rare Exports. “TROOOOOOOOOLL!” may have been the funniest delivery of a single word last year.

18. Tangled

Disney finally put a CG challenge to their successful underlings Pixar with this gorgeous retelling of the Rapunzel tale. Colourful, enchanting, witty and light, the film was only let down by standard music numbers and a fairytale parody feel all-too familiar from the Shrek films. A superb villain, a playful chameleon and an indestructible horse were all highlights, but the film’s greatest feat is the animation in Rapunzel’s seemingly endless waves of golden hair.

 17. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

M:I4 came out at the end of a year which had featured some strong blockbusters but had been for the most part low on action (Transformers: Dark of the Moon notwithstanding). But Ghost Protocol made up for that. Beginning with a simple prison breakout, Ethan Hunt and his team go on to infiltrate the Kremlim, abseil the world’s tallest building and embark on a chase through a sandstorm where every grain can be heard whistling violently by the camera. The story was light spy fare, but the commitment by actors and filmmakers on show were as awe-inspiring as the stunts they pulled off for the camera.

16. The Descendants

Alexander Payne’s latest is a powerful family drama. George Clooney is impressive as a lawyer nigh-widowed when his wife is left in a vegetative state after a boating accident. Trying to hold his family together, he must also deal with a sale of his family’s massive estate on which many relatives are relying. Hawaii has never looked so naturally beautiful and also hideously metropolitan as it does here. The music is wonderfully chosen from local sources, and Shailene Woodley gives one of the year’s best performances as the distraught and destructive older daughter. However, the film’s tiresome insistence on ending every dramatic scene with a punchline keeps it from being one of the greatest of recent American dramas.

15. True Grit

The Coens went west again with this adaptation of Charles Portis’s book, while still undeniably owing credit to the John Wayne-starring original. With two terrific performances at its centre by Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld and stunning golden-brown cinematography, this was a notable entry in the Coens’ canon. Expectedly wacky minor characters and some thrilling and tense shoot-outs added to the fun.

14. Pina

An incredible documentary and the finest live-action 3D film yet produced (although still far from faultless in terms of that technology), Pina is a work of love in memory of the late choreographer Pina Bausch. Wim Wenders controls the cameras but he allows Pina’s choreography to direct the film, as her company, each member an instrument of their master, performs sensational modern dance pieces. The energy and beauty of the dances are on full display, as four massive ensemble pieces are intercut with brief personal performances by each of the dancers. For the most part the 3D recreates the depth of viewing dance in theatre while allowing the viewer to feel the power and intensity of each performance more intimately. The film has emerged from a tragedy (Pina’s sudden death just before filming began) to become a testament to one woman’s remarkable legacy.

 13. Poetry

South Korean star Yoon Jeong-hee emerged from retirement to star in this superb, harrowing drama about an ailing grandmother forced to raise money for a legal settlement after her grandson is implicated in the suicide of a teenaged girl. Unexpectedly powerful and heartfelt, Poetry is carried by Jeong-hee’s sensational performance as she tries to find the will, energy and love to do whatever it takes to save her grandson from prison.

12. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

This superbly shot, atmospheric spy thriller was one of the year’s most audience-dividing films, but few could doubt its style and the acting strength of its terrific ensemble cast. Despite some pacing troubles caused by adapting an extremely meaty book, Tomas Alfredson latest film maintained tension and intrigue from start to finish, while injecting some superb character drama into proceedings. Old-school storytelling meets modern filmmaking precision.

11. Kill List

The only film on this list that I can openly say I do not know if I wish to see it ever again. This genre-shifting oddity – part thriller, part horror, part kitchen sink drama – came out of nowhere this year; a low-budget Yorkshire production. With frenzied performances and horrific but effective storytelling, editing and imagery, this unforgettable beast manages to terrorise its audience but unlike most modern horrors actually has a genuine story. Family, friendship and the damage rage can do to them are the subjects at this film’s core. Unmissable – if your stomach can handle that sort of thing.

10. We Need to Talk About Kevin

It may have suffered from budgeting problems but this drama, about a mother who cannot love her son, is crafted by truly expert hands. Lynne Ramsay directs the irreproachable Tilda Swinton as the troubled mother – uncertain if her child is evil or, worse, if her fearing that is making him so. A wonderful mesh of flashbacks weave together a devastating story, told with wonderful plays of lighting and editing. Swinton gives perhaps the greatest performance of her career to date, while co-stars John C. Reilly and Ezra Miller offer strong support.

 9. Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen’s latest comeback is his best film in decades. Owen Wilson fills Allen’s acting shoes with aplomb as a writer nostalgic for an era he has never known – Paris in the ’20s. When, escaping his passionless fiancée, he inadvertently finds himself time-travelling to that age, he finds inspiration from his idols and, unexpectedly, a truer love in the form of Pablo Picasso’s mistress (Marion Cotillard). Beautifully shot, cunningly scripted and with a soundtrack to warm the heart, the film is elevated further by a series of charming cameos; most notably Adrien Brody, hamming it up magnificently as Salvador Dalí.

8. Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky’s film about obsession on the ballet stage combines the wildness of Powell and Pressburger with the psychological and body horror of David Cronenberg. Anchored by an incredible performance from Natalie Portman, this is a stylish, sexualised psychological thriller about a mental breakdown spurred on by determination to be the best. Ominous production design and chaotic editing kept the audience as confused and terrified as its lead character.

 7. Shame

Following his sensational breakthrough Hunger, director Steve McQueen’s second film is a tragic and overwhelmingly honest portrayal of a sex addict. The year’s biggest surprise star, Michael Fassbender, gives a disturbing but spellbinding performance in the lead role as a man obsessed with his own need. Carrie Mulligan gives a fine performance as his sister, the only person who stands a hope of getting through to him in his self-destructive cocoon, but who has her own problems to deal with. Shot with the director’s now signature style of long takes and anchored cameras, Shame gets you inside the head of a man you were happier only knowing the exterior of. A gripping, sorrowful, shameless movie.

 6. A Separation

As human as any drama could hope to be, this Iranian feature tells the story of a couple as they prepare to divorce, and the effect it has on their teenaged daughter. When an accident implicates the husband in a terrible crime, the familial bonds are tested to their limit. A Separation is an incredible, original-feeling story, in which every shot is sensitively composed, and the actors play out the drama with more conviction than most filmmakers could dream of finding. An unexpected gem of Iranian cinema.

5. Drive

Taking its cue from Walter Hill’s existential car chase classic The Driver, untameable Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn made his American debut with more class and style than most of Hollywood’s heavy-hitters could hope to conjure in an entire career. Shot so slickly the screen appears to ooze light and colour (and later, blood), and with a soundtrack that can only be described as “awesome”, Drive took the whole world by storm and topped countless best of lists in 2011. Ryan Gosling plays the largely silent lead role calm and cool, but the film is stolen by the enigmatic Albert Brooks as a business-savvy mafia boss who takes no prisoners.

4. Melancholia

Perhaps Lars von Trier’s finest film to date, this drama of personal agony/apocalyptic sci-fi nightmare was one of the most hotly debated films last year. It tells the story of a young woman’s lapse into a destructive depression as the very literal metaphor of the planet Melancholia begins a collision course with Earth. As our heroine, Kirsten Dunst reveals herself a remarkable actress of hitherto unexplored talents. However, several of the film’s other performances – especially those of Charlotte Gainsbourg, Charlotte Rampling and Kiefer Sutherland – deserve outstanding praise also. The film’s overture, a stunning sequence of painterly foreshadowings, and its conclusion in an orgy of emotion, light and music, make it a truly remarkable piece of filmmaking from an endlessly challenging filmmaker.

3. 13 Assassins

One of the year’s most over-looked films, 13 Assassins echoes the greatness of Seven Samurai while creating a grittier, more violent and altogether more carefree film. Takashi Miike builds the drama over the course of an hour, setting his band of samurai against an army of warriors and their utterly despicable master. When the tension finally gives way, one of the most remarkably orchestrated battle scenes in recent memory erupts in a flurry of swords, severed limbs and flaming cattle. The film’s realistic look and soundscape allow for a perverse weirdness to seep through, which provides a truly breathtaking entertainment.

2. The Tree of Life

A surprise victor at Cannes in 2011, Terrence Malick’s latest is a glorious thing to behold. The story of a Texas family is told in flashes of light and memory, accompanied by angelic music and bolstered by outstanding acting by Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Hunter McCracken. Through imagery of the dawn of time and the rise and demise of the dinosaurs Malick demonstrates the true reality of life; the lord giveth and the lord taketh away. Composed of one eye-shatteringly gorgeous image after the other, The Tree of Life simply has no equal in terms of skill in filmmaking. Only a misused Sean Penn and a clichéd (though beautiful) coda could be said to make this film anything less than a masterpiece.

1. The Artist

The filmmaker/actor partnership behind a pair of slight but playful French spy spoofs unexpectedly burst onto the global stage in a flurry of unbridled joy in 2011. The Artist, a silent tale of silent movies and the silent men and women behind them, is not just a throwback to the classics of old Hollywood, but is a touching, timely drama about obsoleteness and getting back on your feet. More importantly, it is a delightful, playful and utterly charming comedy that takes the visual medium to a place it hasn’t gone with such panache in over 80 years. Michel Hazanavicius directs like a silent-era pro, as if he were one of the European émigrés who built early Hollywood arriving a little too late to the party. In the lead role of former silent star George Valentin, Jean Dujardin is electric; every muscle in his body goes into his dazzling performance, his face does more work than most actors do with their entire beings. As his young muse, Bérénice Bejo provides a perfect mirror of physical support, while Valentin’s remarkable pet dog (also his co-star) steals many scenes without bending a whisker. As much homage as it is a work of sheer class in and of itself, The Artist is a joy-filled crowd-pleaser which also toys with the medium with some remarkable, truly satisfying results.

That's all folks!

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